The importance of being earnest… at reading

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I love to read. It’s a total escape for me. Reading for pleasure, professional development, catching up on sports, whatever the subject, reading is a habit I’m happy I adopted.

To quote Thomas Jefferson, “I cannot live without books.”

When I was preparing for my deployment to Africa back in 2016, I set a goal to finally read the military leadership classic “Once an Eagle” by Anton Myrer, an epic novel and tale of two leaders’ lives through several wars. I had always wanted to read it but was intimidated by the massive, 1300-page behemoth. I brought the beast with me (thankful for the 70-pound limit per bag) and in my spare time, I read. It took the entire 6-month deployment, but was an awesome novel and time well spent.

Besides being fun, inexpensive and super convenient nowadays, reading has many benefits. Stress reduction, memory and vocabulary improvement, critical thinking, self-development and, perhaps most importantly, reading can provide you with different perspectives.

Life can be a grind. Stressors are everywhere … trying to balance our day-to-day responsibilities, answering endless e-mails and attending countless meetings to name a few. However, there are many things we can do to reduce stress. I like to travel and spend time with my wife, workout and, of course, read. Reading has been proven to reduce stress and provides an escape by allowing you a pleasant distraction from day-to-day pressures. According to a 2009 University of Sussex study conducted by neuropsychologist Dr. David Lewis, reading a mere six minutes lowers stress by a reported 68%. Escaping to a good book lowers your stress level by relaxing the tension in your muscles and heart… since your brain is being stimulated while focused on reading. When you are immersed in a subject or story, you are temporarily removed from the day-to-day stressors and are instead in a place of your choosing. So, the next time you are stressed, relax with your favorite book or magazine.

Just like working out at the gym keeps your muscles active and healthy, stimulating your brain with exercises, like reading, helps keep it active and healthy. A 2013 American Academy of Neurology study of 294 people concluded that more frequent cognitive activity across a person’s lifespan had a definite association with slower late-life cognitive decline. A book with a difficult plot and complex characters requires your brain to use its memory muscle to keep track of everything. Especially if it’s a good book, your focus will naturally increase to ensure you get the full effect and enjoyment. This will happen even if it’s an easy read, but not to the same extent. Getting out of your comfort zone, what I’ll discuss next, is even better for your brain, because you are working harder than you would if you were reading something easy or a subject you were already familiar.

Reading outside your comfort zone and critical reading are two important concepts to maximize your reading program and improve your critical thinking. There’s a whole world of subjects out there, from simple to complex, from known to unknown. You have to deliberately change what you read to get out of your comfort zone. If you always read true crime, mix it up with a science fiction or classic literature. If you usually read fiction, pick up a biography on someone you’re not familiar with or don’t really like. This will naturally teach you something new. One of the toughest books I ever read was “Undaunted Courage” by Stephen Ambrose. In my judgment, it’s the gold standard on the historic Lewis and Clark expedition that opened up our American West, something I knew very little about. Although it was a tough read and took a long time, mainly because of its complexity, it was well worth it. The book taught me about the different American Indian tribes, wildlife and even flora and fauna discovered during the monumental and historical expedition. It improved my knowledge, vocabulary and was very interesting.

Critical reading is very important. Textbooks on the subject generally list the following critical reading goals: recognize an author’s purpose, understand tone and persuasive elements, and recognize bias. Here, you are not just reading to understand the words on the page, you are assigning meaning, analyzing and looking at how everything fits in to the overall story or article. You may read an overgeneralized statement and then actively look for evidence to back up the author’s statement versus just accepting it and moving on through the piece. This is critical reading. When you’re reading critically, consider taking notes, highlighting and discussing with friends or colleagues. Critical reading is something everyone should think about adding to their overall program, it’ll absolutely make one a better critical thinker.

Professional reading can take your program to another level. While leisure reading is fun and enjoyable, professional reading is different. Don’t get me wrong, it can also be fun and enjoyable, but mainly, in my view, it can provide expert advice and other perspectives for potential issues you’re facing or something you’re trying to improve. There are so many experts out there, past and present, who can directly advise you through their words, ideas and stories. Reading topnotch leadership books is like spending personal time with world-class experts and leaders. Think about it. Can you call up best-selling author Jim Collins and ask for teambuilding advice? Probably not. But you can have lunch with him by sitting down to eat your sandwich while reading his world-renowned book, Good to Great. Can you knock on Simon Sinek’s door and ask him to explain the Golden Circle concept? Unless you are friends with him, the answer is likely no. You can, however, spend 15 minutes with him by sitting down with your favorite beverage and actually reading his best-seller, Start with Why. In today’s high-tech age, we have access to thousands of experts in countess fields, all we have to do is pick up their book and learn from them. The late Jim Rohn, entrepreneur, author and motivational speaker said, “The book you don’t read, won’t help.” Read a book and become a better you.

It’s so easy, cheap and convenient to read. Tons of great books are available at public libraries. E-books are available online for free (google “Project Gutenberg” for one option). You can literally carry thousands of e-books around on your phone to read and learn when killing time. Instead of mindlessly scrolling through social media viewing useless memes, videos or pictures of your friends in Jamaica, why not read about how a Senegalese sculptor is turning thousands of discarded bicycles into works of art? Instead of playing Candy Crush, go back in time to 1803 and read about how President Jefferson convinced France to sell 828,000 square miles of land to the U.S., the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of our young republic and enabled the development of 15 of our United States. The options for interesting subjects are endless.

With a robust reading program, I’m betting over time you will notice the positive benefits of your knowledge, vocabulary and memory getting better, your stress going down, and your perspective growing. If you made it this far, congratulations and great job on getting in a quick brain workout. Happy reading!