Personal and professional development requires continual and active learning. I encourage my team members to learn and grow by exploring new ideas from some of the world’s greatest leaders and thinkers. Specifically, this means reading, reading, and more reading. In addition to reading books specifically about business, and the useful insights this provides, I encourage my members to read broadly as well. Indeed, reading itself has been shown to have plenty of tangible benefits in the personal and professional lives of readers.
Reading makes you more empathetic – better at understanding and emotionally engaging with others.
An important skill employed by successful leaders is the ability to understand and empathize with their team members. While there are tools that can help you with this in a business setting (for instance, assessment tools like the Herrmann Brain Dominance Instrument), the best way to develop this skill is simply to become a more empathetic person. There’s nothing better for working on this skill then picking up a good book.
When you read a good story, you are transported into the mind of another person on two levels. First, you get to enter the authors mind. You think his or her thoughts directly by reading what they have written. Second, you become invested in the lives and thought patterns of the characters in the book. You become emotionally engaged with their lives, and cognitively curious about their reasons behind the actions they perform. In this way, reading a good novel helps you get outside your own mind and see how other minds might work. When you do this, you actually exercise the parts of the brain involved with empathy in the real world.
Don’t just take my word for it, science says so also!
A recent study out of VU University Amsterdam confirms this with some hard evidence. After answering some basic psychological questionnaires in order to establish a baseline empathy level, 66 Dutch students were divided into two groups. The first read fiction, the second non-fiction. The study found among those students who read fiction and reported feeling “transported” into the story, a much higher empathy level was measurable than those students who exclusively read non-fiction.
This study shows us two things, both of which are good news for people who want to become more empathetic. First, reading boosts empathy – Great! Second, reading doesn’t have to be a chore in order to do this. Note that the study found an increase in empathy only among those who felt “transported” – in other words, only those who enjoyed what they were reading! Thus, the desired effect of reading fiction doesn’t have to come from reading great big classic novels for our own self-edification. You don’t have to be reading Tolstoy if you don’t enjoy it! (if you do though, by all means!) Rather, any fiction that you genuinely enjoy, will boost your ability to empathize with those around you.
But this isn’t the only reason that reading helps you grow in your personal and professional life…
Reading is like a workout for your memory – it strengthens it just like going to the gym strengthens your muscles.
Just like your muscles, your memory gets better when you exercise it. Reading absolutely anything at all exercises your memory in a number of ways simultaneously. So why read instructions instead of watching a YouTube tutorial, or read a book instead of watching a movie? Its simple. Reading is simply more demanding for the parts of your brain associated with visual, analytical, and associative memory. A specific circuit has evolved in the human brain that activates when you read, and studies show activating this circuit results in the creation of new and unique neural pathways. In other words, reading creates more new memories than any other form of information processing. So if you read a lot, you exercise your memory a lot. And just like those bicep curls you do at the gym, your memory will get bigger and better as a result.
But there are even more reasons to read if you want to actively improve your work and home life. For instance…
Reading grows your vocabulary and sharpens your analytic reasoning skills.
Have you ever read a mystery novel and figured out who the killer was before the protagonist? If so, you were putting your analytic thinking skills to work. And just like with memory, exercising these skills is the best way to improve them and keep them sharp. In your business, these are the same skills that will help you assess a problem quickly and arrive effectively at a solution. So why not work them out in your spare time?
While you’re at it, you’ll also be growing your vocabulary. Study guides for high level standardized tests like the GRE, MCAT, LSAT or GMAT often suggest reading something as simple as the newspaper as an effective way for building vocabulary. As we’ve discussed, reading works out your memory by creating new neural pathways – especially when we encounter something new or interesting. Coming across new words in context in this way, attached to something we are already interested in, helps us commit them to memory more effectively than simply studying new words and definitions. Having a bigger vocabulary helps you feel more self-confident, and to articulate yourself and your ideas more effectively. These are both good things.
Finally, smart people write books. So why not find out what they have to say?
This is maybe the most obvious benefit of reading. Books are full of ideas – often good ones. When I work with CEOs and executives, one of the things I do is put books in their hands I know are good ones.
My methodology is simple: draw on the insights of the brightest business minds, and combine them to enact a valuable experience for group members. I offer members the opportunity to engage in fresh, enlightening concepts on a deep, interactive level, and find comparisons to the various issues on the discussion table.
Here is a list of some of the most influential books in my library:
- Growing Pains: Transitioning From an Entrepreneurship to a Professionally Managed Firm by Gary Flamholtz
- The Advantage by Patrick Lencioni
- Leadership: Thinking, Being, Doing by Lee Thayer
- The Requisite Organization by Elliott Jacques
- Getting Naked: A Business Fable About Shedding The Three Fears That Sabotage Client Loyalty by Patrick Lencioni
- The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable by Patrick Lencioni
- What Got You Here Won’t Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful by Marshall Goldsmith and Mark Reiter
- Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Daniel H. Pink
- Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek
- His Needs, Her Needs by Willard F. Harley Jr
- How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie
- Fundamentally Different by David Friedman
These titles have been carefully selected with professional and personal success in mind. Be prepared to add many of them to your own library as you come to fully engage in the learning process. There is no shortage of content, or of learning opportunities. Dive into these books and discover some inspiration of your own.