I’m an English major. I studied literature and creative writing. I tell you this because you may interpret what I say next as biased.
Read more fiction.
As it turns out, I’m not biased. Well, maybe a little. In the November issue of “Scientific American,” author and researcher Keith Oatley describes what reading fiction does for our minds and souls:
- Reading stories can fine tune your social skills and help you better understand other human beings.
- You can build empathy and improve your ability to take on another person’s point of view when you enter imagined worlds.
- A love affair with narrative may gradually alter your personality—in some cases, make you more open to new experiences and more socially aware.
You can’t read Oatley’s entire article unless you subscribe, but that’s the gist of what he says.
I run a PR firm, so it makes sense for to require my team to read everything from news and blogs to fiction and poetry. During interviews, we ask job applicants what they read.
We learn a lot about people when we find out what kinds of books they read (Steven King or Ayn Rand?). We learn a lot about what kind of person they are, and even better, what kind of writing they’ll do for us.
You don’t have to work in a creative field for reading fiction to make business sense.
During the past decade or so, Oatley and other academic researchers showed how reading fiction helps a person better understand human emotion, which improves social skills.
In one of Oatley’s studies, 94 respondents had to guess the emotion of a person from a photograph of their eyes. Oatley discovered that the more fiction people read, the better they could perceive emotion in the eyes and correctly interpret social cues.
Oatley also tested 252 people on whether reading novels could affect the big five personality traits—extroversion, emotional stability, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Oatley and his team discovered a significant relation between the amount of fiction people read and their empathic and theory-of-mind abilities.
Fiction doesn’t just affect the social skills of your team. It also affects the bottom line. “The Business Case for Emotional Intelligence“ shows that if you teach employees to focus on their work and not just getting the job done, you will cut down on grievances, mistakes and safety issues.
We can forge emotional intelligence in many ways, and that includes reading fiction. Just like anything else, we have to work our minds to better our leadership skills, manage profits, and work better with human capital.
The next time you pick up a business publication or haggle through your email at the end of a long day, think about reading some fiction instead. Not only will it give you some time away from work, but it will help you at work.