The Career Development Magic of Reading Books

Many Interests, Little Time

If you have a wide range of interests, odds are your career won’t touch on most of them. The more diverse your intellectual pursuits, the greater the likelihood that your career will leave certain itches unscratched. That doesn’t you won’t enjoy your job, but it does mean that you likely won’t be able to pursue as many interests with the devotion or intensity you’d prefer – especially as you get older. It’s yet another reason why it’s so important to make deliberate choices about your career path to discover what you like doing.

One of the things I really enjoy is reading about a topic that is totally new to me. That initial phase where your understanding is growing by leaps and bounds is both fun and offers some instant gratification. Unfortunately, going inch-deep on a million different subjects is not a very marketable skill, so like everyone else I’ve had to specialize in something. As a software product manager, I devote most of my waking hours to designing and commercializing the products I work on. I’m fortunate in that I happen to really like what I do. Still, it is inherently limiting. Sometimes I just need a break from the same old domain – there’s too much other interesting stuff out there that’s fun to learn about. Books are the best way to flex new mental muscles, but I feel kind of antsy about spending so much mental energy digesting a book that is completely unrelated to my job. For example, I recently read Simon Winchester’s Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded. I now know much more about volcanoes than I did before. If I see a geology category on “Jeopardy!” you can bet I’ll be ready. Other than that though, little to none of my new volcano knowledge is likely to make me more successful at building software products.

More often than not, I don’t end up reading the volcano book. There are only so many free hours in a month, so I read things that are more germane to what I do for a living. As a result, I have shelves full of unread or unfinished books on all sorts of interesting topics collecting dust in my house. Some still have their receipts being used as bookmarks from the day when I read the first fifty or so pages and then never came back. If you’ve ever looked at a gym membership card on your keychain and been unable to remember the last time you worked out, you know the feeling I get when see these books in my house. So rather than keep torturing myself, I decided to compromise and find ways to satisfy my need to escape the here-and-now with the practical need to keep advancing in my chosen field.

Time is Something You Invest

Being an avid reader benefits you professionally. First, reading stimulates your mind and makes you a better thinker, as incredibly obvious studies such as this one have shown. Less obvious but arguably as valuable is how books serve as a bridge to connecting with people. Engaging someone about a book that they loved is a great way to build rapport quickly. People who read usually like to talk about the ideas they’ve read, which makes books a great way to speed up the process of getting to know someone. When you’ve read many of the same things as your manager or recommend great books to them, it helps show that you “get it.” I’ve known salespeople who send books to prospects at the holidays rather than wine or the other usual goodie baskets, which is a far more personal way to connect with someone (don’t forget to inscribe the inside cover). For years I gave books to each of my direct reports at Christmas that I picked specifically for each of them. It is the sincerest way I know of to say to someone, “I think you’re smart and would appreciate this.”

The only downside, as I mentioned, is the time it takes to really digest a book that makes you think. Since you pretty much always need to be learning things related to your profession, it can be challenging to find time for anything else when you’re young and trying to speed up your own learning curve. When you’re older, and especially if you’ve got a family, there are plenty of other things to distract you. I’ve struggled for years to find the right balance in my life, but I still more firmly than ever believe that reading is among the most under-appreciated aspects of career advancement. The key is being a shrewd investor when it comes to your time, and knowing what it takes to keep yourself interested no matter your energy level.

If you’re resourceful about how you manage your time, you can probably find thirty minutes a day for reading without breaking a sweat. For many people, freeing up time can be as simple as turning off the TV and reaching for a book instead, but others may need to get more creative. If you can read on the train or bus to work or listen to audiobooks in the car, that’s often the best idle time you can convert into more productive learning time. If you can read while you eat lunch, you’ll be much better off if you can spend thirty minutes reading a book rather than checking twitter or e-mail. (The kindle desktop apps are ideal for reading at work if the optics of pulling out a paperback won’t fly in your office.)

Basically, the more you think about your time as something you can invest, the better off you’ll be. If you’ve ever thought it was unfair that student loan debt is one of the few types that can’t be discharged through bankruptcy, part of the reason is that the bank can’t repossess the knowledge you obtained. Lenders see knowledge as unique assets that deserve special consideration, and so should you. Look for ways you can reallocate some of the unproductive minutes from your day back to reading.

Of course, you still need to find things to read that are worth your time. Time to go on the hunt…

Find Ways to Merge Reading for Work with Reading for Pleasure

If you were considering going for a master’s degree, you’d probably ask yourself whether it would be a wise investment in addition to whether you’d find it interesting. Because time is my scarce resource, I try to do the same with books I might read. For instance, The Elegant Universe by the physicist Brian Greene is a (relatively) popular book on string theory that has been collecting dust on my shelf, unread. I attended a lecture he gave while I was in college and I’ve wanted to read his book for years, but I haven’t and probably won’t in the near future. Why? I’m guessing it would normally take me around fifteen hours to read a four-hundred page book (I take my time, as I’ve mentioned). Since the subject matter is really dense, I’ll add an extra ten hours, so let’s say twenty-five total hours. It would take me a few weeks to find that much free time for reading. Plus it’s probably not something I could easily read when I’m tired before I fall asleep. My guess is I’d need to be pretty alert to understand it at all.

On a scale from 1 to 10 where “1” is not at all relevant and “10” is totally relevant to my job, I’d say this book is probably a “3” for me. I’m sure there is some useful knowledge and it will open to my eyes to of new ideas, which is cool. But mostly, the content of the book is far afield from where I need to build expertise. When I look at it that way, twenty-five hours is awfully expensive for a book that’s only a 3. In that time, I could probably read two or three books that are still interesting to me but give me a little more bang for my buck professionally.

Late in the day when my son is asleep and I’m finished working, I often don’t have the energy to pick up a really demanding book no matter how interested I am in it. This is when I used to just turn on the TV, and it didn’t sit well with me how often I did this. I needed to work within my energy levels better. Long story short, I realized that reading a story with a narrative is much easier for me when I’m tired than reading some dry, non-fiction book. So I started gravitating toward biographies of interesting people and other narrative accounts. To highlight just a few examples, Roger Lowenstein’s When Genius Failed is a gripping story with important lessons about hubris in business. Titan, about John D. Rockefeller and Conspiracy of Fools about the Enron saga actually taught me a lot about business in addition to being really entertaining reads. Charles Fishman’s The Wal-Mart Effect vividly explains the retail giant’s impact all over the world through the stories of its customers, employees and suppliers (those looking for an anti-Wal-Mart polemic will be disappointed though).

The key for me was recognizing that reading anything was better than nothing. I still get the benefits of acquiring knowledge I can use, but getting lost in a narrative provides me the mental escape I need from time to time. Moreover, I think anyone can do the same. If you like to read about history, read the history of something that is relevant to your field. If you like reading about science and technology, try to read about it in a slightly broader context than you might otherwise. And if you only like reading fiction, at least read the best writers. Any reading is better than none at all, but with a little bit of effort picking what you read you can nourish the soul and gain useful knowledge at the same time.

Happy hunting!

Have you found other ways to read more? I’d love to hear about them. Drop me a line at