I’ve noticed a trend amongst business owners I find personally – and psychologically – disturbing: Reading ONLY non-fiction.
The logic is simple. In a world where there’s so much to learn, ain’t nobody got time to lose themselves in imaginary narrative and prose!
It’s understandable to feel this way.
I personally have the expensive habit of 1-click purchasing almost any non-fiction book my friends recommend. In fact, they only have to mention a book in passing. Such is my fear-of-missing-out on the next great book!
Naturally, I have an entire bookshelf devoted to un-read non-fiction. It’s steadily grown for years.
Nevertheless, in this post I’m going to explain why skipping fiction isn’t just a tragedy, it’s actually handicapping your success as an entrepreneur.
I get all the counter-arguments too: Even if you’ve evolved beyond reading the latest New York Times pop-psychology or management advice bestseller, there’s a treasure-trove of amazing biographies to draw deeper inspiration from. Then you can go digging into history. Or philosophy.
Whatever direction for reading you choose, you will never have enough time to read it all. A great friend of mine (who also happens to be a bestselling author) recently confessed he has fantasies of “… quitting all-things-business and just reading for a year”.
No matter how similarly you feel, it’s critical that you put down that game-changing biography, or mind blowing how-to-guide… and pick up something entirely made up.
I’m not even advocating that you improve your mind by reading War and Peace or Ulysses or something. I’m telling you that reading goddamn Harry Potter will significantly improve your chances of hitting an entrepreneurial home run.
There are three reasons why reading fiction is CRUCIAL for entrepreneurial success:
1. Over-optimization is the mind-killer
The mentality of optimizing every facet of your life – treating every minute of the day as an opportunity to self improve, learn, upgrade etc – is a disaster of anti-mindfulness that leads to entrepreneurs burning themselves out.
I’ve written about this before if you want to go deeper.
I call it “Over-optimization Syndrome” and you can observe it in the kind of business owner who fills every spare minute with “improving content”.
It’s optimizing every commute by turning it into non-fiction podcast time.
Every hobby (if any are even allowed!) is about optimization and growth, never just fun or joy. At it’s worst, even the entrepreneur’s romantic relationship is continually evaluated for “growth’ and “value”.
These entrepreneurs push themselves too much. They treat every second as a opportunity to improve and optimize.
They burn themselves out.
Whether they make millions through all this or not – and it’s usually not – they hit a wall where their unconscious mind says “too much”.
A big part of our non-conscious mind is organized around moving us toward pleasure and away from pain – it’s the same part that psychoanalysts metaphorically labeled “the inner child” back in the day – and it gets pissed off when life is all work and no play.
Burnout results in your motivation and energy slipping away like sand through your fingers.
The entrepreneur unconsciously senses that all that optimization hasn’t made them any happier. They feel exhausted, ridden with self doubt and paralyzed by the anxiety that they’ve been focusing their time on the wrong things.
One of the best ways to prevent this burnout (or recover from it) is to just get out of your own head. The root of Over Optimization Syndrome is the paralytic, narcissistic navel-gazing of self obsession.
It’s a way to take a mental vacation on your self obsession and problems – to get some distance and perspective – and more than anything it just chills you the hell out.
The key is to acknowledge that life isn’t just about optimization and improvement. Sometimes you just have to live. Not even be “mindful” like it’s some exercise, but just be. Enjoy yourself. Engage with the world at large. Connect with “the other”, the world beyond yourself.
For the busy ever-optimizing entrepreneur, it’s hard to know where to even begin keeping-it-real like that.
Luckily for you, fiction authors for centuries have packaged up the world – the beauty, majesty, complexity and drama of it – in tiny little convenient hand-held packages that you can dive into at a moment’s notice.
They’re called novels. Read one!
You’ll also benefit from…
2. The best Sleep Hack ever invented
I’m not even the first person to figure this out: Tim Ferriss is a huge fan of consuming escapist non-fiction immediately before bed. Sci-fi or fantasy works best.
Why? Because fiction takes your mind away from the self.
Most entrepreneurs have trouble sleeping because of the lists upon lists of things to do, problems to solve, ideas to execute and worries to ruminate upon.
The pages of a good novel transport the consciousness elsewhere. They take you to a place where your worries don’t exist. They allow your conscious mind to temporarily forget about your problems, by focusing on a fictional protagonist’s problems.
That temporary respite from agonizing all about you is your conscious mind sending your concerns to the realm of your unconscious mind. Drowsiness ensues. And deep sleep follows.
The unconscious mind then gets to do what it does best: Slay the dragons in your mind as you dream the night away. You’ll awake refreshed and might even surprise yourself with new perspectives and solutions that appear to have come from no where.
By now you should be noticing the deeper point of this article: That non-fiction is a gateway to non-self. Specifically, to stepping temporarily outside of your ego-self and accessing the incredible benefits of cognitively engaging in the wider world outside your own head.
The final reason you should read fiction – voraciously and passionately – has everything to do with the incredible bottom-line – as in, actual financial – benefit of getting beyond the self:
3. The Game-Changing Business Tool that is Empathy
Empathy is the ultimate edge in business.
Nothing will supercharge your marketing campaigns more. Nothing will arrive at a better, faster and strong product-market-fit. Nothing will help you sell directly, more effortlessly.
Empathy is the entrepreneurial superpower. The catch?
Nothing will be more difficult to consistently, reliably and genuinely access. Empathy is hard. It’s work. It requires intense concentration and self awareness. It requires you to step outside yourself. You must put aside your ego. You must suspend your fervent desire that the world be the way you wish it to be.
Developing the entrepreneurial superpower of empathy requires a determined dedication to discovering the subjective truths and experience of others.
When you pick up a well written novel, you hand yourself a key to that.
The master novelist is a master precisely in decoding the subjective experience of others. A novel succeeds – when it succeeds – by allowing us to know as fully as possible what it’s like to be another person.
Great entrepreneurs learn that this empathetic appreciation of other people’s experience is the key to building incredible, wildly successful products and services.
The significance of fiction and it’s positive effect on our mind – as entrepreneurs and even just as human beings – cannot be stated enough. I want to quote an unknown user on Reddit, who said it better than I ever could:
“The universe is huge. Time is impossibly vast. Trillions of creatures crawl and swim and fly through our planet. Billions of people live, billions came before us, and billions will come after. We cannot count, cannot even properly imagine, the number of perspectives and variety of experiences offered by existence.
We sip all of this richness through the very narrowest of straws: One lifetime, one consciousness, one perspective, one set of experiences. Of all the universe has, has had, and will have to offer, we can know only the tiniest fraction. We are alone and minuscule and our lives are over in a blink.
All of this strikes me as terribly sad, and if I believed Someone were in charge, I could muster an argument that our awareness of vastness makes our tininess unfair.
But here’s the thing.
Literature lets us experience life through a second consciousness. For a time we share the perspective and experience of the author and his imagination. Our experience of the universe is broadened, multiplied.
Without literature, we are all limited to our own lives. With it, we can know something of what it is to be other people, to walk in their shoes, to see the world their way.
Literature needs no further defense than this, I would say.
It is our species’s most advanced and successful technology for cheating dismal fate out of the abstract aloneness it would otherwise impose on us.”