Last week The New York Times featured a story on a study from the journal Science that matters if you are trying to build workplace skills. Researchers conducted five experiments demonstrating that reading literary fiction, as opposed to popular fiction or serious nonfiction, results in better understanding of mental states. This helps readers develop higher levels of empathy, social perception, and emotional intelligence — skills that lead to career success.
Unfortunately, high school English literature class hardened me against the classics, and I developed Literature Class Anxiety Disorder (LCAD). The books were undoubtedly good, but when a teacher said, "read to page 85 and be ready for a pop quiz," it prompted oppositional behavior in me. If someone demanded that I watch three episodes of Breaking Bad by next week (and note the themes) I would react the same way. I don't like to have art or entertainment dictated to me.
My aversion towards reading got stronger when I resorted to the Monarch notes that further reduced a great work of art to a list of incomprehensible bullet points. As Simon and Garfunkel once sang, "When I think back / On all the crap I learned in high school / It's a wonder / I can think at all."
Maybe this happened to you too? If so, it's time to start reading, even if chick lit or a murder mystery is your first step. Go to the library or your e-reader, and expand your horizons. My recovery began early in adulthood, first with pop fiction and then with Jane Austen. Now my view is that literature can be absorbing and entertaining. Also, to my great surprise (given my history of LCAD), I have developed a desire to write!
Since evidence shows that reading literary fiction grows important business skills, why not add the classics to your business education?
Pop literature, like pop culture generally, shows mostly what we already know and often features stereotypical characters. Good or great literature is sometimes harder to read. It demands deeper thinking, and often involves periods of history or worlds we don't know much about. But it gets you ready for that next rung on the career ladder by expanding your imagination and developing deeper perspective.
But it still has to be fun. In my next post I'll make some suggestions for a balanced diet of reading. Let's not go overboard with literary fiction either! Like a hamburger with all the toppings, the occasional page-turning beach read makes life worth living.