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Why Books are the Greatest Mentors

Our perspectives and learning are limited by the amount we read

“Employ your time in improving yourself by other men’s writings so that you shall come easily by what others have labored hard for.” — Socrates

Reading is the single most valuable endeavor one can embark on seeking personal development. There is no substitute for reading. Mentorship, experience and formal lectures all possess immense value, but they pale in comparison to reading. Why is that? One word: perspective.

“In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time — none, zero.” — Charlie Munger

Reading Provides Perspective

“A great book should leave you with many experiences, and slightly exhausted at the end. You live several lives while reading. “ — William Styron

If we rely solely on our experiences and interactions to develop personally and professionally, we will be limited to our perspective and the number of interactions we can cram into a day.

Reading provides us the opportunity to gain external perspectives and insights. We are able to draw on the experience of others to expand our viewpoint and influence our mindset.

Some of the best “mentoring” I have ever received is through books. The most prominent mentors in my life include Daniel Kahneman, Jordan Ellenburg, Marcus Aurelius, Viktor Frankl, and Stephen King. Even fictional characters, whose minds we enter and feel a part of, can influence our future thinking.

Books allow us to slow down, receive information through the lens of the author, and immediately compare that mindset to other authors and our personal experiences. Reading expands our viewpoints, our beliefs, and our knowledge. It allows us to sample a variety of topics and tailor learning to our unique circumstances and style.

“A parent or a teacher has only his lifetime; a good book can teach forever.” — Louis L’Amour

Books Change the Way You Think and Act

“Develop into a lifelong self-learner through voracious reading; cultivate curiosity and strive to become a little wiser every day.” — Charlie Munger

Reading expands our horizons and teaches us lessons we didn’t seek. The most influential book I have ever read is Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It opens my eyes to cognitive-behavioral psychology and decision making. I didn’t know what heuristics meant until I read that book. Now I write that word on a near-daily basis. As a physical therapist and researcher, metacognition and critical thinking — including the awareness of biases and cognitive fallacies — have become foundations of my teaching and treatment of patients.

Books can truly be life-altering. They allow us to slow down and learn at our own pace. We can curate our education rather than adhering to a strict timeline and list of materials. Reading does not replace life experience, but we cannot experience all that reading has to offer.

“A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read.” — Mark Twain

Read Outside Your Field

“I work at it, I always advise my people to read outside your field, everyday something. And most people say, ‘well I don’t have time to read outside my field.’ I say, ‘no, you do have time, it’s far more important.’ Your world becomes a bigger world, and maybe there’s a moment in which you make connections.” — Arturo Casadevall

Unless you are in the film or TV industries — in which you need to study your craft, like any profession — reading should be valued over binge-watching Netflix and Redbox movies. Reading is not limited to books. Industry magazines, blog posts, and research papers all expand our understanding. But we should not pigeonhole our learning.

There is great value in reading outside your field. This expands your perspective even further. As author David Epstein noted in his book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, “Highly credentialed experts can become so narrow-minded that they actually get worse with experience, even while becoming more confident — a dangerous combination.” Some of the most valuable lessons you learn are from experts in fields that greatly differ from your own.

“No matter how busy you may think you are, you must find time for reading, or surrender yourself to self-chosen ignorance.” — Confucius

Read What You Want to Read, Not What You Are Supposed to Read

“Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers. “ — Charles W. Eliot

You don’t have to limit yourself to literary classics, autobiographies, or the business books your “supposed” to read. Choose the books you enjoy. If you choose the book, you will find the influence far greater. This means you shouldn’t be afraid to quit a book either. If you are slogging through and finding no value, discard it. Don’t allow the sunk-cost fallacy to waste precious hours reading a book you neither enjoy or will remember.

The first leadership book I “read” was an audiobook version of Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable by Patrick Lencioni. It was recommended to me by my first manager after graduating from physical therapy school. I then realized the power of books and the insight gained from them. They are an accelerator for personal and professional development.

When I first started reading/listening to books, they were all geared towards leadership. This is common for many new graduates. We want to climb the ladder or develop a business that takes off immediately. Leadership books are a great start but by no means the gold standard for professional development. You must learn how to develop yourself before you can develop others.

There is power in reading fiction as well. If you aspire to be a fiction author — or any author for that matter — you must read. As William Zissner wrote in his book On Writing Well, you “learn to write by reading the men and women who are doing the kind of writing you want to do and figure out how they did it.”

Even if you have no interest in publishing, reading fiction can still provide immense value. We still learn life lessons — Harry Potter is certainly full of lessons on friendship and courage — and we obtain fulfillment. Reading doesn’t have to be boring or serious to be educational.

“It is what you read when you don’t have to that determines what you will be when you can’t help it.” — Oscar Wilde

Do You Remember What You Read?

“We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application–not far far-fetched or archaic expressions or extravagant metaphors and figures of speech–and learn them so well that words become works.” — Seneca

Mind you, reading effectively is a skill and it takes effort to retain and apply the information. It is for this reason that I use commonplace books.

If you rifle through my books, you will find a plethora of notes and underlined text. I study my books. Yes, I still enjoy reading them. I choose books I want to read. If I don’t like it, I stop reading. Simple as that. But like any information you attempted to recall in school, it takes the application of the information.

After completing a book, I transcribe the notes and underlined text to a small notebook. I then have a small collection of the information I found most valuable to quickly reference at any time. Some people, such as Tim Ferris, prefer digital versions, like Evernote, but I like the act of writing longhand. As a side bonus, I improved my ability to write cursive through writing in my commonplace books. Cursive adds a nice flair and personal touch to my thank you notes. Regardless of the method you choose, reflecting on books you read will heighten their influence on your personal and professional growth.

Audiobooks fall within this category of “reading” as they provide the same benefits of expanding our perspectives, but I would challenge you to read hardcopies more often. We are able to slow down and reflect with a book in hand. We also aren’t distracted by the multi-tasking we often conduct while listening to an audiobook. Regardless of the method you choose, reading should be a staple in your life. There is no substitute for reading.

“If we encounter a man of rare intellect, we should ask him what books he reads.” — Ralph Waldo Emerson


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