Observations, Analyses and Experiments on Reading and Growth

Day: April 28, 2020 (page 1 of 1)

Read for empathy

It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me most were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive or who had ever been alive.

James Baldwin

A good reason to read, if ever you need one

Have you ever wondered why we send criminals to prison? What is that we expect out of it? It is a deterrent and a punishment. But ideally, it should also decrease the likelihood of a criminal repeating the offence when they are out back in the real world – the technical term for repeat offending being recidivism.  A program called “Changing Lives through Literature” that started in 1991 has had one of the highest impacts in reducing repeat offences – by ~60%. The philosophy behind the program explains the humanizing effect of literature thus:

With literature, the imagination comes alive through an engagement with language…we experience a paradox: we begin to see other perspectives than our own and, at the same time, realize that we are not alone. A good story not only calls on us to exercise our minds, it asks us to reach deep into our hearts and evoke compassion for the characters, for each other, and for ourselves.

In other words, it helps us be more empathetic. But it is not just any words, there is a reason we seek out well-written books, beautiful literature, moving poetry. In a study published in Brain & Language, scientists show the transformative effect of metaphorical and evocative language (“shoulder responsibility” and “foot the bill” instead of “take responsibility” or “pay the bill”) on our brains.

When the world wakes up after this crisis, wouldn’t it be nice if we could all find it in ourselves to be a little bit more empathetic? To see the world through another’s eyes, to feel their pain and joy as much as we feel our own. No better way to start practicing this than reading good literature.

You are what you read, choose wisely

A book that helps us empathize with the world around us – something that touches our heart, stirs our mind and fires our spirit. I didn’t have to think too long to pick a recommendation for this Issue – “Essential Poems from The Staying Alive” is a compilation of 100 poems from the “Staying Alive Trilogy” that  consists of “Staying Alive,” “Being Alive” and “Being Human.” It is a wonderful collection that explores the human condition with gentle honesty and leaves the reader feeling less alone and more alive.

Choosing a book of poetry, I realize, has the potential to alienate those who may prefer prose over verse. But in a time where we tend to feel alone yet strapped for time (Yehuda Amichai’s words in this book: ‘A man doesn’t have time in his life / to have time for everything.’), I could not think of a better format to convey emotion, connection and truth in a concise and compelling form.

If you are new to poetry, this is a good introduction to contemporary poets around the world. If you are already a poetry aficionado, I bet this will bring you to unexplored terrains. For all of us, this is a poetry for our times.

You can find more of our poetry recommendations here.

Some tips and some tricks

Today I would like to suggest trying out the concept of mindful reading. Before you reject anything with the label of ‘mindful’ as just a fad, hear me out. At the heart of it, it is about suspending judgement, opening your curiosity, listening to your inner self, being present and aware and sharing with generosity. How do you apply that to reading? Here are my three tips and tricks:

  1. Make the book your own – I make copious notes and highlights when I read. If I read on a paper book, it will have sticky notes sticking out all over. Recently I have moved over to e-reading, where it is easier to highlight and comment. I love the process, where I slow down, I select passages or sentences, or sometimes just an interesting phrase and I mark it up to savour later. Often I leave a little remark on the thoughts those words inspired in me, sometimes I write out long passages then and there, which have made their way into my own writing later. It feels like a conversation, a rendezvous with the author, a shared moment of intimacy, and suddenly the book is not something a million people have read, but uniquely mine. My personal experience of reading mingled with the author’s work, to create something entirely new and my own.
  2. Share your thoughts – Our dinner conversations often revolve around books. With four voracious readers under one roof, someone always has something to share about what they are reading. These are the favourite moments of my day, where we get to share not just about books, but what it means for us. It doesn’t have to be just with your family, books can be a great way to get to know your friends and colleagues more deeply. In this age of social distancing, I would say go virtual – find your favourite digital hangouts and social forums – and share your thoughts generously.
  3. Match the book to your context – Mindfulness starts with self-awareness. Take the time to ask yourself, “what is it that my soul needs at the moment?” There is that one book that would give you solace, nourishment, joy. Don’t find the book, let the book find you. Serendipity does require some nudging sometimes. The way I nudge it along is by hoarding books, my bookshelves burst at the brim with unread books (and that is a good thing, I will write more about it later). In any case, I love the simple pleasure of browsing my (digital and physical) bookshelves, letting intuition take over and picking a book that feels just right, no judgement allowed.

We hope this helps you discover the joys of mindful reading, to open your hearts and minds to others through the window of words.


If you would like to get more tips to be a better reader, download our practical guide – Read It Right. Free for all subscribers!

Read with purpose

One trouble with developing speed-reading skills is that by the time you realize a book is boring, you’ve already finished it.

Franklin P. Jones

A good reason to read, if ever you need one

Anything done with clarity of purpose has a better chance of succeeding. That said, there is no reason any activity can’t serve more than one purpose. Reading can be your way to relax in stressful times, but it can also simultaneously move you towards your goals. That is easier if you know what those goals are.

Here’s an exercise for you. Below are ten reasons why people read. Prioritize your top 3:

  1. I read for fun
  2. I read to relax
  3. I read to deepen my knowledge about a specific topic (topic:…)
  4. I read to be a better person
  5. I read to develop breadth of understanding
  6. I read to understand different perspectives
  7. I read to fill my boredom
  8. I read to train my brain
  9. I read because I am on a reading retreat
  10. I read because….(fill in your own reason, if it is not above)

Remember the choices you made above – when you pick books to read, when you decide to skim a book or invest in slow reading, it always helps to check if your reading is serving your chosen purpose. Indulging in the guilty pleasure of reading outside your choices is human, so don’t be too hard on yourself.

You are what you read, choose wisely

Product design has always fascinated me. How did the iPhone become so ubiquitous? How did Apple amass a devoted following that few other companies can dream of? Many factors come into play, but their single-minded focus on design is one of them. Now imagine if you could design your own life using the same approach and principles of designing a beautiful product.

Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, professors at Stanford, teach a course called “Designing Your Life.” Stanford has taken an approach of human-centered design since 1950s, and the professors used the same methodology to help students lead a purposeful, well-lived and joyful life. Now that is available to a broader audience though this book.

I read this book at a time when I was trying to figure out the next “S-curve” of my life. A feeling of plateau and achievement had been seeping in, and it was time for the next challenge. Methodically working through this book helped me immensely to take stock of life, prioritize what is important and to methodically go about prototyping the changes I wanted to make, without plunging headlong into possibly disastrous decisions. Since then I have also used the techniques ad-hoc as needed, whenever I have had to make choices. As a bonus, you also get a view into the high-level process of how great products are designed, right from the professors who brought this to Silicon Valley.

Self-help books are dime a dozen, but quality self-help books are not. I loathe to use the word self-help mostly because of the poor quality you often find in this genre. That said, good books that help us thoughtfully nudge ourselves forward in our journey of self-awareness and development are immensely valuable. We have chosen a few which we have found useful through various periods of our lives, you can find out more about them here.

Some tips and some tricks

  1. Try out different reading styles – It is useful to be aware of different reading styles, and try some of them out. I personally use a mix of:
    • skimming (when I am not sure whether I should read something. I especially do this when I am trying out Kindle samples)
    • slow reading (when I am reading beautiful literature or poetry, where I savour each word like a sip from a warm cup of tea)
    • associative reading (when I seek out references mentioned, research on concepts referred and often other books by the same author)
    • deep research (when I start with a reading list and work methodically down the list of books and articles, often with notes accompanying)If I catch myself skimming a beautiful book, I try to slow down. If I find myself reading what should be skimmed, or browsing random news articles when I could use the time to do more purposeful reading, I time-box myself to ensure a limit to the less productive activity. Habits take time to change, but it is worth it, over the years I have noticed the effectiveness and efficiency of my reading improve.
  2. Abandon good books for great books – This is a contentious topic in my family. My father believes that leaving a book half-read is an act of offense towards the author. I sit on the opposite end of this spectrum. I found the best argument for my view in this article, where I particularly liked the quote from Patrick Collison, founder of Stripe:

    “At every moment, you should be reading the best book you know of in the world [for you]. But as soon as you discover something that seems more interesting or more important, you should absolutely discard your current book … because any other algorithm necessarily results in your reading ‘worse’ stuff over time.”

    Form your view on this, but I would say that there are gazillions of books out there – tell me, which ones do you plan to read in your one wild and precious life?
  3. Sandwich your reading – In his book “The Power of Habit”, Charles Duhigg reminds us that habits are not destiny. He has many suggestions for forming habits that we would like to have. One of my favourites is the sandwich approach, where you fit the habit you want to develop between two other activities that you do without fail. If you are like many people out there, who want to read but just can’t seem to find the time, I would suggest trying this out.

We hope this helps you step onto a path of purposeful reading. Try it out, you might like it more than you think.


If you would like to get more tips to be a better reader, download our practical guide – Read It Right. Free for all subscribers!

Read your worries away

Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines. What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination.

Jeanette Winterson

A good reason to read, if ever you need one

One of the oldest reasons for the popularity of reading is the escape from reality that a good book offers. Faced with an uncertain or turbulent world, many have sought refuge in the allure of linguistic teleportation.

According to a study by University Sussex, reading is the best way to relax, and even six minutes can be enough to reduce stress levels by more than two-thirds. The research shows that reading works even better than listening to music or going for a walk (even as much as 300 percent), because the distraction of concentrating on reading does more to ease the tension in the muscles and the heart.

A New Yorker article that starts with a visit to a bibliotherapist (did you know such a vocation existed?!) goes on say this:

Reading has been shown to put our brains into a pleasurable trance-like state, similar to meditation, and it brings the same health benefits of deep relaxation and inner calm. Regular readers sleep better, have lower stress levels, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of depression than non-readers.

Several other studies have corroborated this, and by now there is well-documented evidence that reading can reduce stress and boost your mood. You are at a lower risk of depression and more likely to sleep better if you read. If these are not good reasons to read during these tumultuous times, what is?

But it’s not any sort of reading – just as food is important to our health and well-being, but junk food is harmful, it is important to differentiate and choose the right kind of reading. Being addicted to the 24-hour news cycle that feeds itself on our need for drama and creates an illusion of immediacy does not help to reduce stress. On the contrary, it aggravates the problem. So, if we may suggest – reduce the amount of time spent on devouring the news – and allocate more time to a relaxing read. Sit back and enjoy a lovely book.

You are what you read, choose wisely

Look down at your feet. There is a good chance that you are wearing footwear and that it is Nike – after all they have the highest market share globally. How did Nike come to be? Phil Knight borrowed fifty dollars in 1963 to buy shoes that he could then sell from the boot of his car. He went on to build Nike into the global business and brand it is today. How did he do that? What are the choices and sacrifices along the way? Are they worth it?

Now imagine Phil sitting in an armchair in your living room and reliving his experiences – his ambitions, his fears, his relationship with employees, suppliers and his family. An honest CEO who takes the time to tell us about his journey, without the BS of corporate PR. A man telling his story.

That’s what we get in the Shoe Dog, a candid memoir that is as much a riveting read as it is an illuminating education on what it takes to succeed when starting out on your own. Thinking of which book to start your reading retreat with? Why not Shoe Dog by Phil Knight. Just do it!

Memoirs offer a unique connection like very few other genres can. An honest memoir is an invitation to intimacy, an open door to participate in another person’s lived experience, a chance to connect. In times like this, when we yearn for connection, we couldn’t think of a better way to kick off our reading retreat. You can find a few more recommendations for our favorite memoirs here.

Some tips and some tricks

  1. Read what you like – There are plenty of books out there, and I am convinced you will find the right one. It takes some effort, and it takes some deliberate searching and some trials and errors. But this is not an exam, you won’t be judged…the important thing is to pick something that feels right for you, that is good for you, and helps you relax and rejuvenate.
  2. Fill the empty spaces in your day – Have your ever tried accounting for the hours in your day? Most of us know the big blocks we spend time on – work, food, commute, TV, sports and so on. But there are many unfilled moments in a day – the times when we typically reach for our phone to do a quick browse of the news or social media feeds that turns into more time than we intended. Next time you feel the urge for mindless surfing, turn towards your chosen book instead.
  3. Find a nice cozy spot in your house and claim it as your reading nook – There is no better way to get started on your reading than to have a warm beckoning place to plonk yourself in, nurse a refreshing cup of tea (or a beverage of your choice) and let yourself get pulled into another world. Go on, it is the start of a reading retreat, so scout around your home and find an ideal spot.

If you would like to get more tips to be a better reader, download our practical guide – Read It Right. Free for all subscribers!