I once found myself spending a long, slow, lazy afternoon eating tortilla chips and salsa and talking with Cormac McCarthy. If you are a movie watcher or reader, you may know the name; Cormac is the man behind movie classics such as “No Country for Old Men,” and he is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Road.” McCarthy is regarded by many as the greatest living writer in English or perhaps any language. (Full disclosure: He’s my favorite author.)
What did Cormac and I talk about for half a day, and what does it have to do with corporate training?
A little background: Cormac, like many top executives and major movers-and-shakers, has a broad, polymath’s approach to his life and his work. His intellect, astonishing memory and wide-ranging reading habits combine to give his writing extraordinary depth. He is the “real deal” of meaty intellect, fully capable of holding his own whether he’s talking about lofty insights from string theory to the evolution of language or he’s having a down-to-earth discussion about how your refrigerator works.
So, how do you spend an afternoon with a man like that? Especially if you, like me, are a person of much more ordinary intellect. A person who, even on her best days, possesses only a modest memory?
Thank goodness I make a habit of reading. Cormac and I had a lot to talk about, from 14th-century Arab historiographer Ibn Khaldūn’s thoughts on societal cohesiveness to Norbert Wiener’s thoughts as the former child prodigy who founded the field of cybernetics to, well, you name it. The afternoon flew by.
To be truthful, one of my biggest fears is often simply looking stupid in front of people I respect. It’s been a surprise to me to find that, over the years, reading widely has been my saving grace. I’ll be meeting a business person over drinks and can bring up some funny insights about how to remember the smell of wine from the great book “Cork Dork.” Or I’ll be speaking with a distinguished professor who might point out, “No one’s telling of the dangers of artificial intelligence.” I can respond, “Have you read Todd Rose’s ‘The End of Average’? The real challenge of artificial intelligence is the loss of the middle class.” And off we go to the conversational races.
I should point out that it’s not necessarily like books are magnets for me. I read in the evenings after I have finished my workday and had dinner. Sometimes I am too tired to read at all; other times I can only read for two minutes before I fall into exhausted slumber. But I try to read at least twenty minutes a day – perhaps an hour or two if the literary gods unite to give me time without interruption. I put my cell phone in another room to help resist the urge to check messages. I often have several books going at once, so that the more tired I am, the easier my book-reading becomes. After a few heavy pages of neuroscience, for example, I might reach for a biography or even a light work of fiction. With little tricks like these, it’s amazing how many books I can get through in a year.
Do I remember everything I read? Of course not! But the main ideas tend to stick with me, springing to mind during conversations or simply by their juxtaposition with another thought while I’m at work.
Reading is a source of endless creativity in my life. It exposes me to a lot of different ideas, multitudes of perspectives and great new insights that I can combine in interesting ways with whatever I’m working on. It’s also an oasis of intellectual calm in the sea of modern disruptive lifestyles. Research has even shown that book readers (as opposed to, say, newspaper readers or non-book-readers) live longer. Three hours or so of book reading a week appears to help boost your life by several years.
So, do yourself a favor. If you want to look smart to people who matter, to be creative in your day job and to live a longer life, make a habit of book reading.
Your career will thank you.