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To become better at business, read more…novels

Jan 23, 2012 Business Daily, Success

“1. Reading stories can fine-tune your social skills by helping you better understand other human beings.
2. Entering imagined worlds builds empathy and improves your ability to take another person’s point of view.
3. A love affair with narrative may gradually alter your personality—in some cases, making you more open to new experiences and more socially aware.”

KEVIN OATLEY, Scientific American Mind (November 20, 2011)

I have often advocated the reading of novels not just as a pastime, but as a method of making you better at running your business. This was mostly just gut-instinct, as I have always been an avid lover of great fiction.

But now I have proof.

Studies done by psychology Kevin Oatley and his associates (a recent one is quoted in the excerpt) reveal great practical benefits to be derived from reading fictional works. The reason is simple: good fiction gives you an invaluable tool – a better understanding of human beings, their emotions and motivations.

Think about it: creating a great business these days is less about great technology, structures or processes. Those are not the problem, nor are they scarce. The thing that sets great organizations apart from merely good ones is the ability to engage people – staff and customers – thoroughly and wholeheartedly. It’s about inspiring others to give their best, and to feel included and integral to the work. And that’s where fiction comes in.

A lifelong habit of reading great novels exposes the mind to many more human dramas than are available in person. It enables a deeper understanding of the human animal and its subtle psychological nuances. That understanding will help you deal with people much, much better – and in business these days, it’s the people, stupid.

Oatley’s studies suggest that people who read more fiction are, amongst other things, better at perceiving emotion and reading social cues. How does this happen? Prolonged exposure to fiction, MRI scans reveal, open up neuronal pathways in the brain that assist in the understanding of human emotion.

Anne Kreamer, reviewing this work in the Harvard Business Review recently, put it nicely: “It’s when we read fiction that we have the time and opportunity to think deeply about the feelings of others, really imagining the shape and flavour of alternate worlds of experience.”

Truly great novelists have a very sharp eye when it comes to watching the way people live, relate and interact. They are able to weave this understanding into their characters and plot and dramatic structure, to create a product leaves the brain stimulated in a way few other experiences can deliver.

As I have written on this page in the past: “Business is about life, and so is fiction. The great businessperson must understand people, their driving emotions, their ambitions and their fears, and what causes their rise or fall. A great novelist delivers precisely that understanding. If you want to know your employees and their motivations better; if you want to comprehend the lives of your customers better; if indeed you want to do the Socratic thing and know yourself better; you could do worse than crack open a great novel by a great writer.”

So what are you going to do, folks? Let’s be realistic: those who hate fiction aren’t suddenly going to run out to buy Dickens and Tolstoy. Love of novels is generally created and sealed in childhood. But those who do read novels need no longer regard it as a guilty pleasure: it’s probably a vital tool in helping you run things better. For those who don’t read “made-up” stories, you’re going to have to find other ways of being exposed to the swirl of human emotion all around you, and figuring it out.

Fiction may be a lie, but as Stephen King pointed out, good fiction is the truth within the lie.

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