"CEOs can't wait to read Sunny Bindra's articles every week."

To become better at business, read more…novels

Jan 23, 2012 Business Daily, Success

“1. Reading stories can fine-tune your social skills by helping you better understand other human beings.
2. Entering imagined worlds builds empathy and improves your ability to take another person’s point of view.
3. A love affair with narrative may gradually alter your personality—in some cases, making you more open to new experiences and more socially aware.”

KEVIN OATLEY, Scientific American Mind (November 20, 2011)

I have often advocated the reading of novels not just as a pastime, but as a method of making you better at running your business. This was mostly just gut-instinct, as I have always been an avid lover of great fiction.

But now I have proof.

Studies done by psychology Kevin Oatley and his associates (a recent one is quoted in the excerpt) reveal great practical benefits to be derived from reading fictional works. The reason is simple: good fiction gives you an invaluable tool – a better understanding of human beings, their emotions and motivations.

Think about it: creating a great business these days is less about great technology, structures or processes. Those are not the problem, nor are they scarce. The thing that sets great organizations apart from merely good ones is the ability to engage people – staff and customers – thoroughly and wholeheartedly. It’s about inspiring others to give their best, and to feel included and integral to the work. And that’s where fiction comes in.

A lifelong habit of reading great novels exposes the mind to many more human dramas than are available in person. It enables a deeper understanding of the human animal and its subtle psychological nuances. That understanding will help you deal with people much, much better – and in business these days, it’s the people, stupid.

Oatley’s studies suggest that people who read more fiction are, amongst other things, better at perceiving emotion and reading social cues. How does this happen? Prolonged exposure to fiction, MRI scans reveal, open up neuronal pathways in the brain that assist in the understanding of human emotion.

Anne Kreamer, reviewing this work in the Harvard Business Review recently, put it nicely: “It’s when we read fiction that we have the time and opportunity to think deeply about the feelings of others, really imagining the shape and flavour of alternate worlds of experience.”

Truly great novelists have a very sharp eye when it comes to watching the way people live, relate and interact. They are able to weave this understanding into their characters and plot and dramatic structure, to create a product leaves the brain stimulated in a way few other experiences can deliver.

As I have written on this page in the past: “Business is about life, and so is fiction. The great businessperson must understand people, their driving emotions, their ambitions and their fears, and what causes their rise or fall. A great novelist delivers precisely that understanding. If you want to know your employees and their motivations better; if you want to comprehend the lives of your customers better; if indeed you want to do the Socratic thing and know yourself better; you could do worse than crack open a great novel by a great writer.”

So what are you going to do, folks? Let’s be realistic: those who hate fiction aren’t suddenly going to run out to buy Dickens and Tolstoy. Love of novels is generally created and sealed in childhood. But those who do read novels need no longer regard it as a guilty pleasure: it’s probably a vital tool in helping you run things better. For those who don’t read “made-up” stories, you’re going to have to find other ways of being exposed to the swirl of human emotion all around you, and figuring it out.

Fiction may be a lie, but as Stephen King pointed out, good fiction is the truth within the lie.

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  • Phillip Karugaba

    is Harry Potter a great novel?

    how about watching soaps on tv? now that should be a guide on understanding human relationships

    • Phillip:

      I haven’t read any Harry Potters, so shouldn’t really comment. But they are probably a good introduction to fiction for young readers.

      TV soaps? No! Is real life like that? Over-dramatized, exaggerated and trivialized. Will give you exactly the wrong picture…

  • Nikhil Hira

    TV soaps are as Sunny says removed from the reality of life. Reading on the other hand, whether fiction or non, does help kids to broaden their thinking.

  • Paulo

    Dear Sunny,

    Thank you for vindicating me as I am one of those whose constant indulgence in this ‘guilty pleasure’ of reading has led to it becoming a second nature. I am an avid reader who peruses anything that is written! I do concur with your assessment that reading is indeed liberating and it divulges a panoply of human emotions that most people who are unaccustomed to reading fiction find it very difficult to discern. Indeed this second nature has contributed greatly in my work place to my perception of people and their intentions be they benign or nefarious.

    • Paulo:

      Panoply…nefarious…we can tell you read!

  • A novel I can recommend that explores a wide range of issues affecting the human condition is The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas. Although abridgements exist, and I’ve read a couple of them, the full, unabridged version is nothing short of spectacular. More on it here,

  • Caxton

    I agree with you that reading helps in business and indeed in many aspects of life.An author takes many years writing about experiences and successes .The reader takes a few hours to read the whole book and comes out of it having acquired some knowledge .The challenge of using the acquired knowledge practically remains with the reader.

  • Joseph

    Spot on Sunny

    a very good way to open your thinking. A novel shows characters/people in a much more realistic way than self-help books. A good novel is infinitely more entertaining and enlightening than the over-glorified self help books.

  • Farai

    @ Chandesh: I watched the movie. Thought it was fantastic. More often than not movies don’t do justice to the novels so i am certainly looking forward to reading it. Thanks

    • @Farai, yes certainly recommend reading it – I faintly recall the movie and I’m quite sure that it didn’t have the depth of the book; there is so much to the story that the movie would have required a couple of sequels.
      Also, the writing itself is beautiful (or the English translation is at any rate).

  • Aleya Jamel

    Sunny, great article! Thank you for shining light on the fact that reading fiction can be pleasurable AND incredibly valuable. As an avid reader, I have to say that my perspective on humanity has been greatly shaped by what I read, especially when it comes to the nuances of human behaviour.

    Might I add also that an OECD study recently found that reading for pleasure was found to be one of the most critical determinants for the future success of a child – even more so than the child’s socio-economic background – that is simply mindblowing in it’s implications, especially for a country with such economic disparity as Kenya.

  • Stuart

    Reading is surely one way of opening our mind. But that is not the end–we get caught caught up in the western-centric thinking where the written word take precedence over everything.

    For an African, our world is oral. Our history is oral, literature is predominantly oral. My first creative readings were through James-Hadley Chase novels. I have since read countless novels but as a result, I have realized that I failed to keep a strong ear to my family’s history which I am not finding more super exciting. My father told lots of stories, but I missed most. Now he is gone!

    Having read enough books and having become tired of predictable themes is more creative works, I now admire reflecting on my childhood and countless lessons more– though I still read. I look at birds I new in my childhood–the different nests they make, their different demeanor, what they eat. I go back to the days I used to take care of my fathers animals- that cow that always run to the garden, that one that walked slowly and we couldn’t wait. So many lessons.

    I now listen to people more. I listen to peoples family stories. Behind the happiest looking mind, I have realized, is always a burden that we are dealing with. These, so me, speak more than a book.

    So, as you pick the next book, think about the wealth of knowledge that is around you…. a lot that you might be able to identify with that the Harry Potters.

    • Stuart:

      Great, you are getting first-hand, self-initiated exposure to the intricacies of the human psyche – nothing beats that.

      Still, for some great literature (not James Hadley Chase!) can also provide an immersion into the ebbs and flows of human emotion and its impact on behavior – which is invaluable to a businessperson.

  • Kevin

    Awesome article. One I agree with fully. I’m a big fan of yours too.