Abraham Lincoln once said, “The things I want to know are in books; my best friend is the man who’ll get me a book I ain’t read.”
I’ve been a member of a monthly book club for eleven years. I am one of over five million women and men that are book club members. My book club is called “Men’s Night Out.” There are about sixteen of us and the average attendance is about ten. The member who hosts the monthly meeting gets to pick the book.
My group’s membership is quite eclectic. It includes an investor banker, three shrinks, two professors, two lawyers, a doctor, a book editor, an engineer, a high school teacher, a botanical consultant, a hospital executive…well, you get the idea. I am the only entrepreneur. On the surface we don’t have a damn thing in common. Yet it is nevertheless an enriching, growth-inducing communal experience.
The books we read are all over the map–classics, best sellers, memoirs, travel books, poetry, philosophy, history, short stories, even a graphic novel. There’s no rhyme or reason to our choices. They are seldom anything I would read on my own. Some I hate, some I love. (My least favorite are depressing books about the developing world.)
As counter-intuitive as it may seem to traditional business process my general reading group has helped me enormously to refresh my enterprise thinking and openness to the new. Here are some compelling reasons that I find for my monthly reading excursion out of my knowledge base and comfort zone.
- For me the leading value of a reading group is not to learn particular knowledge, though I do do that. The greatest purpose of a reading group is simply to open up new channels and alternate ways of thinking. It is an enhancer of creativity and often gives me “a-has” that are applicable to my family life, my business life, and my social life. Ann Lukits from The Wall Street Journal (March 7, 2016) cites a new study published online in Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience that finds reading fictional excerpts about different individuals and groups of people “heightened activity in a brain system known as “the default network.” Such reading actually improves social skills (social cognition) according to Ms. Lukits. “Stories containing compelling emotional, social and psychological content may trigger real neural changes in the default network.”
- Structured reading improves my general focus and productivity and helps me conquer my daily struggle with technology abetted ADHD. Note the sentiments of Alexandra Cavoulacos, co-founder of The Muse, who said this in last month’s Fast Company: “Reading books has definitely boosted my productivity. I’ve also found that reading is one of the rare times my mind is focused 100 percent on one thing, a hard thing to find in a world of distraction and secondary screens.” Serious reading strengthens her “focusing muscle” which, in turn, improves her leadership and creativity.
- A book club allays loneliness. It creates a community of seeking souls away from business. Most of us entrepreneurs find it very hard to have relaxed intimate personal communication within our firm and our business community. A serious book club is a partial palliative to that.
- A book club is a structured way to think new thoughts. It demands that you consider and discuss new topics, new tropes. It opens new neural pathways and breaks habitual thinking.
- In a business world increasingly turning away from traditional command-and-control business leadership models, book clubs offer a real tool to develop empathy leadership. They open us to looking deeply and intimately at alien and/or startling points of view beyond our current ken. When traditional company leaders ask how to learn a new way of being as a corporate mentor and cultural change agent, the book club helps loosen up our mental garden soil for new planting. Plus it just makes you a more interesting person and business colleague altogether.
Business owners are enormously busy people. Throughout the day we have to constantly choose which urgency to deal with first, which fire poses the greatest existential threat. In such a practical everyday reality it’s hard to even consider adding to our daily load. Yet I would argue there is a real, if non-quantifiable, ROI for the book club to the business owner. It’s a refresher and a mediator for creativity and change. It is an enricher of business, as well as human, being.
Socrates said, “Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writings so that you shall come easily to what others have labored hard for.”