Summer Reading 101: The Power You Didn't Know That Fiction Can Have on Your Business
He didn't notice me among the throngs of passengers pushing down the airplane aisles: In fact, I only recognized my colleague when I glanced up, searching for my row number and saw him already squeezed into the window seat. After heaving my carry-on bag into the storage bin overhead, I slid into the aisle seat and issued a cheery, "Good morning!"
He responded with his own greeting and spoke about the traffic, but then shifted uneasily in his seat. He looked down, almost sheepishly, at his novel, then back at me, and offered an unasked-for explanation about the novel he was reading. It struck me: He was embarrassed about his book, as if I would judge him for not reading the latest business theories from some esteemed academic.
Of course, I read, love and enjoy plenty of leadership and business books myself, but, that day, tucked into my own bag for the flight were two novels: one I had somehow missed, by the master of crime fiction, Karin Slaughter, and the other by thriller-writer extraordinaire Brad Meltzer.
Both books were thrillers guaranteed to take me into another world. And I wasn't embarassed one bit to show them to the world. Yet, that's not the typical attitude among my business colleagues: Despite numerous research studies touting the value of fiction for those outside the literary world, it seems that fiction remains the unwelcome cousin, for purists who believe anything short of non-fiction is a frivolous waste of time.
If that's true, then issue a "guilty!" verdict in my direction and please fill my "sentence" with opportunities to read still more fiction. If you too love the genre and are looking for arguments on why reading it is beneficial, I have a few to offer our critics. Because, the fact is that fiction:
- Entertains so thoroughly it can provide an immediate relief from stress.
- Opens up worlds you would likely never experience, widening your perspective.
- Increases your empathy for others as you experience other dilemmas, challenges, struggles.
- Provides role models for dealing with various situations you may encounter.
- Improves your creativity and imagination.
- Increases your learning and your retention.
As a CEO, and leadership blogger, of course I read business books. I enjoy them. I learn from them. But, I can confidently say that the benefits of a great novel are equally important to my personal development. My analytical problem-solving skills come to life when I delve into how Detective Harry Bosch navigates disparate clues in a race to solve a murder in Michael Connelly's The Wrong Side of Goodbye.
And, I pick up subtle clues about an author's creative processes that improve my own communications skills, like when I read Little Dorrit. I recently picked up this classic and was swept into Charles Dickens' world of the 1850s, and the life lessons it contained widened my perspective.
In today's selfie-world, fiction increases empathy and forces you to think about -- from multiple perspectives -- challenges you yourself may encounter. Without fiction, I would not have the opportunity to immerse myself in a character so different from me, with a different upbringing and challenges I couldn't imagine. With fiction, I am better able to pivot to another point of view. Furthermore, I can honestly say that my journey to becoming a better listener is an ongoing one and that fiction improves my ability to take things in with a wider lens.
Indeed, reading this genre has benefits that go far beyond improving interpersonal relationships. My theory is that those who immerse themselves in great stories become better storytellers. And that skill translates into business success. If you've ever watched Shark Tank, the show where would-be entrepreneurs convince a bunch of multimillionaire leaders to invest in fledgling companies, you may have come to the same conclusion I did.
Specifically, I've noticed something about those who walk down the hall with a "yes" versus those who leave with no investment: The winners are seemingly the best storytellers. It doesn't matter whether you're in sales or finance, whether you're in manufacturing or consulting: The ability to communicate will always improve your odds for promotion and for success.
My own book, The Book of Mistakes: 9 Secrets to Creating a Successful Future, is one that stymied the industry classifications. It's classified as non-fiction, but it's really fiction. It's listed as "self-help" and "business" at the same time. Because of my CEO experience, most publishers wanted me to write a serious non-fiction book on leadership.
Instead, I chose to tell a fictional story in a way that teaches non-fiction lessons. It's a natural extension of my love for both fiction and non-fiction, for storytelling and for sharing all I have learned about success and leadership. My hope is that writing a book that appears in the business section will open the world of fiction to those who would normally pass it up.
So, the next time you find yourself on a flight with a business leader, don't slink down in your seat or hide the cover of that thriller. Proudly share what you're reading. Not only will this start a great conversation, but you may be giving a permission slip to allow your companion to pull out the novel he or she really wants to read, as well.