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BBC - Capital - How to cultivate a daily reading habit

How to cultivate a daily reading
In February 2018, when Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy rocket left Earth in a
hurricane of smoke, it was carrying an unlikely payload. Instead of
equipment or astronauts, the Space X entrepreneur famously loaded it
with his car – a cherry-red Tesla Roadster. A mannequin dressed in a
spacesuit occupied the driver’s seat.
But the real surprise was in the glovebox. There, immortalised in etched
glass, was a copy of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series of books. Set in a
crumbling galactic empire some 50,000 years in the future, the science
fiction saga ignited Musk’s interest in space travel when he was a teenager.
Now it is set to float around our solar system for the next 10 million years
or so.
Such is the power of books. From the fictional “Earth” software developed
in the novel Snow Crash that foreshadowed Google Earth to a short story
about sentient telephones that might’ve led to the creation of the internet,
reading has planted seeds in the heads of countless innovators. Former US
President Barack Obama has said that reading taught him who he is and
what he believes in.
Former US president Barack Obama has stated a love of reading, among other high-power
figures throughout history (Credit: Getty Images)
Even if you don’t have such grand ambitions, reading books might well
give your career a boost; the habit has been shown to reduce
stress, boost brain functioning and even improve empathy. That’s not to
mention the obvious benefits of all the information trapped in their pages.
So here’s your guide to the proven upsides of reading books – and how to
join the exclusive club of people who do it for at least an hour every single
Read your way to empathy
Take empathy. Though the business world has traditionally side-lined
emotional intelligence in favour of factors like confidence and the ability to
make important decisions, in recent years it has been more widely
regarded as an important skill. According to a 2016 study by the human
resources consulting firm Development Dimensions International, leaders
who master empathy tend to outperform others by 40%.
Back in 2013, social psychologist David Kidd was thinking about which
activities might lead to greater empathy. “And as a lifelong reader, it
occurred to me that fiction is a place where we regularly get a lot of support
in engaging with the unique experiences of other people,” he says.
Together with a colleague from The
New School for Social Research in
New York, Kidd decided to
investigate whether reading can improve our so-called theory of mind –
broadly the ability to understand that other people have thoughts and
desires, and that these might be different from one’s own. It’s not the same
as empathy, but the two skills are thought to be closely linked.
The habit has been shown to reduce stress,
boost brain functioning and even improve
To find out, they asked study participants to read excerpts of either awardwinning, so-called “literary fiction” – such as Charles Dickens’ Great
Expectations – or popular “genre fiction”, such as crime thrillers and
romance novels. Others were asked to read a nonfiction book or nothing at
all. Then they were tested to see if their theory of mind had improved.
The idea was that really “good” writing, the kind shortlisted for prizes,
tends to present a world of more realistic characters into whose heads the
reader can clamber – like a training ground for honing your understanding
of other people. On the other hand, the genre fiction was taken from an
anthology, so it didn’t have the same endorsement from critics. The
researchers reasoned that this writing would probably be of a lower
quality, and perhaps include more one-dimensional characters who act in a
predictable way.
The results were striking: the readers of critic-endorsed literary fiction
scored the highest scores on every single test, compared with those who
read genre fiction, nonfiction or nothing And though the researchers didn’t
directly measure how this improved theory of mind might play out in the
real world, Kidd says it’s a fairly safe bet that regular readers will
experience an empathy boost. “Most people, if they know how people are
feeling, will use that information in prosocial ways.”
Oprah Winfrey is another successful person with a love of reading: on her talk show, she
regularly included segments for her famous book club (Credit: Getty Images)
In addition to improving your ability to relate to colleagues and employees,
empathy could lead to more productive meetings and collaborations.
“There’s research showing that people tend to be more productive in
groups where they feel free to express disagreement – especially when it
comes to creative tasks,” says Kidd. “I think that’s an example where an
increased sensitivity and interest in other people’s experiences could be
helpful in the workplace.”
Tips from avid readers
So now that you’re convinced of the benefits of reading, consider this:
according to a 2017 survey of 1,875 people by the UK media regulator
Ofcom, the average British adult spends around two hours and 49 minutes
on their phone each day. To hit the daily target of an hour with books, most
people would just have to reduce their screen time by a third.
To help you along the way, whether you’re a natural hoarder – the kind of
person who likes to amass knowledge on their bookshelf in the hope that it
will magically percolate into their brain one day – or a smug exaggerator,
the type of reader who likes to evangelise about their favourite books for
hours, having only finished the first page – here are some tips from people
who can proudly call themselves “avid readers” without crossing their
fingers behind their back.
1) Read because you want to
Cristina Chipurici taught herself to read when she was four years old. As
her newfound passion took hold, she devoured every single book in her
parents’ house. But then something happened. “Once I started primary
school and reading became mandatory, I developed a repulsion towards
the activity, caused by the language teacher we had, and it made me not
want to read a book ever again,” she says.
This aversion to books lasted until
her 20s, when Chipurici slowly
began to realise what she had been
missing – how far ahead people who
did read had got, and the important information books contain which
could have made a difference to her career.
In addition to improving your ability to relate
to colleagues and employees, empathy
could lead to more productive meetings and
She learned to love reading again and eventually set up The CEO Library, a
website about the books which have shaped the careers of the world’s most
successful people, from authors to politicians to investment magnates.
“There were many factors that caused this shift, from mentors, to making
the decision to invest in an online course where I discovered a different
educational system, to reading Ryan Holiday’s blog articles [he has
authored several books on marketing culture and was formerly the director
of marketing for the fashion brand American Apparel], where he always
talks about how books have helped him, and probably many others I’m not
even aware of.” If there’s a moral to this story, it’s to read because you want
to – and never allow it to become a chore.
2) Find a reading format that works for you
Though the clichéd bibliophile is someone who walks around clutching
armfuls of physical books and tends to their first-edition copies as though
they are precious ancient artefacts, it doesn’t have to be this way. “I have a
two-hour commute, each way,” says Kidd. “It’s not ideal but it does give a
lot of time for reading.” When he’s travelling to and from work – not
driving! – he’s found that it’s much more convenient to read on a screen,
such as his phone, rather than lugging a book around all the time. When
he’s reading nonfiction, which many people struggle to get into, he turns to
*shocked gasp* audiobooks.
Elon Musk etched Isaac Asimov sci-fi novels in glass in the glove compartment of the Tesla car
launched with the Space X Falcon Heavy rocket (Credit: Getty Images)
3) Don’t set intimidating goals
Keeping up with the habits of CEOs can be an intimidating task. Two
prominent high-achievers who have been interviewed for The CEO Library
are Fabrice Grinda, a leading tech entrepreneur who started out with
$100,000 (£77,000) of credit card debt and has now raked in over $300
million by selling his stakes in successful investments, and Naveen Jain, an
entrepreneur and philanthropist who founded Moon Express – a Silicon
Valley start-up that ultimately hopes to mine the moon for natural
resources. The former reads 100 books each year; the latter likes to wake
up at 04:00 to read books for three hours.
But it needn’t be that way. Andra Zaharia is a freelance content marketer,
podcast host and passionate reader. Her top tip is to avoid unrealistic
expectations and intimidating goals. “Incorporating daily reading, I think,
is a matter of starting small,” she says. Zaharia suggests starting by asking
friends for book recommendations and reading just one or two pages. “You
don’t have to go on Goodreads and set a goal of 60 books per year. Kindle
books can actually be easier, because you can’t easily see the number of
pages that are remaining”.
4) If you’re really struggling, try the “Rule of 50”
This rule of thumb will help you to decide when to give up on a book. If
you’re either prone to ruthlessly abandoning a read at page four or slogging
it out with giant tomes that you’ve grown to hate, the idea is to read 50
pages and then decide if the book – in the words of Marie Kondo – “sparks
joy”. If it doesn’t, give it up.
The strategy was invented by the author, librarian and literary critic Nancy
Pearl and explained in her book, Book Lust. It includes a thoughtful caveat
for people who are over 50 years old, who she suggests should subtract
their age from 100 instead – the resulting number is how many pages they
should read. Because as you age, life really does become too short to read
bad books.
So there you have it. Prising your phone out of your hand for just an hour a
day, and placing a book in your texting claw instead, could boost your
empathy levels and make you more productive. If the world’s most busy
and successful people can manage it, you can too.
Who knows what you’ll do with all that extra knowledge and inspiration.
You might even end up with your own space venture.
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