Why do you read books? (or blogs, or magazines, or anything else?)
We live in an ever-more utilitarian age. We read in order to do something. We read in order to implement. To put it in business terms, we read in order to “execute.” In fact, we read the book Execution in order to execute.
There is an irony here. Most people read, and then fail to execute. But that is another discussion.
I’m writing about something deeper. Has our execution-centered age lost something profound about the love of learning? Last Sunday night on 60 Minutes, Andy Rooney hinted at this. It was prompted by the problems of unemployment. He argued that we need more people “doing things.” But, if they do, what about their college educations? He ended his piece with these words:
Would it be a waste of education for someone who graduates from Yale for example, to become a plumber, an electrician or a bricklayer? We need people who can actually do things. We have too many bosses and too few workers.
More college graduates ought to become plumbers or electricians, then, go home at night and read Shakespeare.
I thought of all this as I read an excerpt of The Idea of a University by John Henry Newman, the Oxford-educated Rector of the Catholic University of Ireland from 1854 to 1858. (I read the excerpt in the volume The English Reader, selected by Michael Ravitch and Diane Ravitch). One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from Newman: “To grow is to change, and to have changed often is to have grown much.”
In The Idea of a University, Newman wrote:
I am asked what is the end of University Education, and of the Liberal or Philosophical Knowledge which I conceive it to impart: I answer, that what I have already said has been sufficient to show that it has a very tangible, real, and sufficient end. Though the end cannot be divided from that knowledge itself. Knowledge is capable of being its own end. Such is the constitution of the human mind, that any kind of knowledge, if it be really such, is its own reward…
Now, when I say that Knowledge is, not merely a means to something beyond it, or the preliminary of certain arts into which it naturally resolves, but an end sufficient to rest in and to pursue for its own sake, surely I am uttering no paradox, for I am stating what is both intelligible in itself, and has ever been the common judgment of philosophers and the ordinary feeling of mankind.
…it is more correct to speak of a University as a place of education, than of instruction…
I think about our monthly event, the First Friday Book Synopsis. It is a wonderful collection of people who come for many reasons — great food, great networking. But I think that some (maybe most) of the folks who show up come for this simple reason – they want to learn. They enjoy learning. Not learn in order to do. Just learn for the sheer joy of learning. And, as I have often said, the more you know, the more you know.
Yes, it is true that learning might produce ripple effects that help in the utilitarian/execution arena. But learning, just learning, learning for the sake of learning, is a noble pursuit – one that should be admired and cultivated.
If you found this post worth pondering, you might want to also read this post: Dehumanized — A Cause for Alarm in Education, and in the World of Business Books.
Why read a business book? Or any non-fiction book? My phrasing might be different, but Seth Godin lauds the scientific method, and he writes:
Ask yourself, “what do I believe that’s wrong? How can I change the way I do things? What works? What doesn’t?”
Some people read business books looking for confirmation. I read them in search of disquiet. Confirmation is cheap, easy and ineffective. Restlessness and the scientific method, on the other hand, create a culture of testing and inquiry that can’t help but push you forward.
“I read them in search of disquiet.”
Going back to a theme I have written on before, persuasion requires “stasis,” a moment of standstill, a moment of dissonance, when one realizes that “I-could-be-wrong.” Only when that is acknowledged can change and progress become possible.
We read to experience disquiet — to be stopped in our tracks, to find what we need to jettison and abandon, what we need to change, what we need to add. We read to grow and to change. “To grow is to change, and to have changed often is to have grown much.” (John Henry Newman).
“Seldom do we completely overcome even a single fault, nor do we aim at daily improvement.” (Thomas A’ Kempis).
I’ve been doing some thinking lately. What drives people to write so many books? And, more perplexing, what drives people to read so many? Here’s my theory: we all know that we have to do better. I mean that quite literally. We have to do better. We have to do life better, marriage better, and in this arena, we have to do business better.
It’s been years since I read The Road Less Traveled by M. Scott Peck. But I believed then, and I believe now, that his key point is true: we are all lazy. No, we do not lay around on the couch all day. We put in the hours. We (try to) get our work done. But we are almost intentionally obstinate, refusing to work on the parts of our (business) life that need to be improved. We do the same things in the same way, hoping that we won’t have to grow or change. It is simply easier to avoid the “I’ve got to do better” tasks.
But we do know better. We admire those who aim at constant improvement. One of my favorite books (a small, powerful, quick read) is by one of the best in history at aiming for better: I Can’t Accept Not Trying by Michael Jordan. He knew that he could always get better, and do better. And he did. We know we should aim for this same lofty ambition.
Or, consider the NFL players (any sport will do). At the elite level, the push for constant improvement is relentless. Drills, hours staring at game films, scouting the opponents, more drills, over and over again, making each week’s efforts a little tougher, a little more challenging, all in the hopes of getting better.
We’ve provided a lot of synopses over the last ten years. Many of the titles themselves reveal the call to better: Results that Last (because we can all point to results that don’t last), or, consider this quote from Gary Hamel’s The Future of Management: “Even the world’s “most admired” companies aren’t as adaptable as they need to be, as innovative as they need to be, or as much fun to work in as they should be.” In other words, even the best companies aren’t always doing better at getting better.
Warning: here is a subtle danger. Reading about getting and doing better is not the same as actually getting and doing better. Attending the First Friday Book Synopsis, or reading good business books, may expose you to all sorts of steps you can take toward better. But it is still up to you (yes, and up to me) — we have to actually do better. Reading about it can provide an illusion, a substitute. But there is no substitute. There is only stark reality: What about you? (What about me?) Are you better than you were a year ago? Five years ago?
“To grow is to change, and to have changed often is to have grown much.” (John Henry Newman).