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How Reading Can Make a Difference

Imagine your organisation turns insane. Culture deteriorates. Courageous and competent voices of reason are thin on the ground. Perhaps your boss has fallen victim to the Peter Principle. Meanwhile, you get a sense of stagnation about your job in general. You came to research, develop, teach, study, build, sell or produce great stuff. But you’re no longer in the place you signed up for. A bit less insanity and more productive work would go a long way. What does reading have to do with all that?

If that sounds like your reality, you may want to do something about it. You’re reading this, so you haven’t given up hope that your actions can make a difference. In fact, we may be able to solve your problems by giving you an information advantage. They say reading can make all the difference. Here’s how.

A man who does not read has no appreciable advantage over the man who cannot read.

Mark Twain (allegedly)

1. Consider Yourself on Your Own

I don’t mean to be cynical. I’m thinking in practical terms. Who would we want to help us in our endeavour to fight insanity and be more productive? Our average co-worker might be as clueless as we are; no offence. So, we’d probably turn to people we look up to. The ones most successful in doing sane and productive work.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m sure they’d love to help out. But there’s a decent chance they’re extremely busy being sane and productive. If they find the time to give us a bit of encouragement or a push in the right direction, brilliant! Though, we’re better off assuming that nobody else is coming to do the work for us.

Let’s not take the easy route by attempting to tell everyone else they should act differently.

There’s another lesson in resisting the temptation to outsource our own fate to others: Let’s not take the easy route by attempting to tell everyone else they should act differently. Instead, let’s change ourselves. We need to take responsibility and put in the work. There’s no way around it. We got what it takes. Consider yourself encouraged to proceed to step number two.

2. Do the Reading

I get it. There’s plenty of reasons why we might think reading doesn’t make much of a difference. The people we’re contending with may not appear well-read. So, that doesn’t seem to be an important factor. Or they do and we think we won’t be able to keep up anyway. But perhaps those people are only relatively more knowledgeable than everyone else. Or they’re just good at pretending to be well-informed.

Immersing ourselves in reading material is one way to find out. It’s like having a conversation with someone. It gives us insight into what and how they think. However, when I say reading, I don’t mean Twitter feeds, the odd opinion piece or an abstract or two. I mean reading broadly and deeply in whatever field we want to be knowledgeable in. Whether it’s the project we’re working on or the new staff initiative at our university or company.

Have you ever been to a national park and it was packed with people? Pretty disappointing. But then you went beyond the main tourist spots where all the busses park. The farther you walked, the more untouched and lonelier the place suddenly became.

Same thing with reading. It takes time and it’s harder than just looking at the stuff everyone else reads; especially if we only have a minor personal interest in the topic. But the more we read, the more difficult the papers, books, studies, essays or other material we digest are, the more we’ll get ahead of the curve. Only a few people dig that deep. If you want some inspiration, here’s my regularly updated Reading List.

You might not even have to invest much either. Look around. How many of the reports, or papers that affect your project or corporate culture have you really read cover to cover? By all means, read opinion pieces and other secondary sources. But also consider those primary sources: studies, statistics, or policies. Read thoroughly, don’t just skim. Read the contentious stuff as well. The more we disagree with a viewpoint or conclusion expressed in an essay or paper, the more we’re inclined to give it a pass, the more we should soak it up. Let’s assume that the person who wrote it knows something we don’t know.

So, get familiar with the literature and out-read your peers. There’s no alternative. If there was an easy way, everyone would be informed about pretty much anything. On the bright side, you’ll be surprised how little of the literature many people are familiar with. You might even notice it after having read a single paper in full.

But we don’t stop here.

3. Reading and Writing

Writing is a phenomenal critical thinking exercise. Think of it as intellectual sparring with yourself. It helps us reflect on, re-structure and integrate what we’ve read into our existing knowledge and belief system. As we write down summaries of a paper, notes on a meeting, or essays we recognise gaps in our knowledge. That’s a great opportunity for further reading and more writing.

Writing is a phenomenal critical thinking exercise. Think of it as intellectual sparring with yourself.

Writing gets us engaged with the content. Not to read and write is like thinking we can win a street fight because we watched a lot of martial arts. Though, it’s important to distinguish between writing and publishing. Not everything has to be perfect, let alone read by others. On the contrary. Consider it practice. The same way most martial arts sessions aren’t championship fights. If you’re now suffering from information overload, consider using a mental model such as the intelligence cycle to structure your thought process.

In other words, scribble away, start essays and feel free to discard them again if they lead nowhere, or merely take notes. You may need them again later. By all means, do publish what you’ve written if you get the chance. However, any piece that helps us incorporate what we’ve read into a bigger picture will improve our judgment. This is how we get closer to making a difference.

We’ll soon realise that writing also gets us into acting out our ideas. Apart from the writing itself, our conversations with others become richer and more nuanced. We get out of our own heads, have our ideas challenged and start to realise how much more we now know and understand. Fuelled by reading material, we no longer run on common knowledge and idealism alone. We’ll inevitably be drawn to other people who have an equally firm grasp on the topic. We’ll inevitably get better at our work since our actions are informed by our thoughts and ideas.

In my experience, we can easily get swamped in an endless cycle of administering the status quo. So, a little bit of innovative critical thinking can go a long way. Suddenly, we find ourselves providing more value to others.

Careful, though, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

4. Reading and Patience

Sounds all very promising. We took responsibility, we put in the work, we practised, we know what we’re talking about and we’re better at our jobs. Unfortunately, that doesn’t entitle us to be heard.

It could take a long time until somebody cares and takes us seriously. People may be suspicious where our expertise and courage to share it suddenly comes from. Be patient and persistent. Play the long game. Give them time to realise that your newfound wisdom is not going anywhere and can be used for everyone’s benefit. Still, it may take months until we notice any changes.

When changes happen, they’re subtle. It could start with someone asking our opinion. Someone who had previously mostly ignored us. Something’s not quite right with that new company wellbeing policy. But nobody can put their finger on the why. You can, because you read about this stuff. Not just the latest New York Times article. You read the studies and wrote about them. Meanwhile, we may have been trusted with new tasks on a project because we showed a remarkable grasp of a subject few genuinely understood.

If that sounds too good to be true, it may be. There will be pushback. Even though knowing it all helps, I’m not asking you to become a know-it-all. Beware of being seen as a threat. Your novel competence may dash someone else’s hopes. Somebody who doesn’t want to or can’t keep up. Others may feel exposed and fear for their job.

A good way to think about it is that you’re becoming intellectually dangerous; someone to contend with. We don’t want to give colleagues the impression we know their work better than they do. Let’s not be a jerk about it. Instead, we could look for opportunities to help others succeed in making the organisation a saner and more productive place. It’s all a negotiation.

At any rate, we’re making small progress and at some point, people might start calling us experts. It’s a strange feeling. We haven’t really changed. All we did was read a bit more broadly and deeply and write down a few imperfect thoughts. Anyone could do it.

5. Being Swamped

So, people have started calling us experts. What does this new role mean for us?

In our organisation, we may become the go-to person for whatever topic we buried ourselves in. We’re asked to lead work, sit on committees, go to conferences, possibly even speak ourselves. Whenever there’s a new strange company policy, colleagues come over and urge us – in whispers – to speak up. Maybe our changed situation means that we no longer want to work at that place. Perhaps we don’t have to. Now we have options. New opportunities are on the table.

Maybe our changed situation means that we no longer want to work at that place. Perhaps we don’t have to.

If we’re in a more public role, expect our inboxes to be flooded with emails. People invite us to talks, ask for our opinions, or request our help. Don’t get me wrong. Those emails are fantastic. They tell us that we’re on the right track. They’re our feedback. We appreciate every one of them, especially the critical ones. After all, we need to know if we’re wrong about something.

Though, strangely enough, a lot of the people who get in touch seem to look up to us. They don’t think they can accomplish their own version of what we did. We should consider carefully how we handle those messages. Now that we’re so busy doing sane and productive things, how much time can we spare to help and encourage others without compromising what we’ve built?

Closing Thoughts

Before we ponder this question, let’s look back at where we started. You’ve gained a considerable information advantage. Congratulations, you’re now a voice of reason that’s being heard. What you say and do influences and inspires other people’s actions. You’re making a difference. In a sense, all it took was to be slightly more courageous than everyone else.