8 Life-Changing Reasons to Start Reading

Now before you say “I’m not much of a reader” and keep scrolling down your feed, hear me out! I want to share a few reasons why I think you SHOULD* give it a shot.

*Okay, I’m stretching the word “should” a little bit–I really can’t tell you I absolutely know that becoming a reader will make you a better person, and I certainly won’t suggest I think you have any duty to read. But what if, by not reading, you really are missing out on something big–something that could transform your life, make your personal relationships much more satisfying, and help you grow professionally by leaps and bounds? What if?

Here are 8 big things reading has done for me–and maybe could do for you, too: Reading has…

1. Opened my mind. All day long we tell ourselves stories about the world around us–what’s going on, why this is happening, who they are, what we should do. And a lot of pain and suffering (from fights with your significant other to bloody world wars) comes from hearing only our own stories, and not understanding someone else’s. What better way to open your mind to other possibilities and to your own growth and real education than taking a little time out of your day to listen to someone else’s story? “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” – Dalai Lama

2. Given me a more humble perspective. You can’t read very many books before it becomes pretty obvious to you that there’s a heck of a lot you never really understood, a heck of a lot you still don’t, and a heck of a lot you never will. We are not know-it-alls, and genuinely considering one different perspective after another, from hundreds of well-educated individuals who all disagree on one thing or another–that may be the best possible cure for arrogance.

3. Made me confident. There are a lot of reasons I’ve come up with to not believe in myself, to feel inferior and insecure around others. No college degree, a sheltered childhood, you name it. I bet you’ve come up with similar reasons for yourself. Not only, though, does each book increase your expertise on its subject, but the very practice of reading is real-time proof that you can be just as “smart” as the next person. Start reading seriously today, and I’ll bet you anything a year from now you’ll feel more confident.

4. Trained my brain to be smarter. Okay, the bad news–reading can actually be really hard. Especially these days, where the likelihood that you’ve made it this far into my blog post is little to none (it’s much easier to glance at the headline, think “I agree,” feel inspired by your opinion, and keep scrolling through your newsfeed). We tend to have a very hard time following deep, complicated, or drawn-out theories and arguments. 5 minutes of a typical managers-meeting is sufficient proof of our inability to think beyond the quick-and-simple. Doing the hard work of reading for comprehension exercises your “smart” muscle you may have forgotten you have, and learning to think critically and understand big ideas yields countless benefits in every area of life for years to come.

5. Made me a communicator. One fun side effect of reading a lot, especially a variety of authors and styles of writing–all the words and phrases and ideas and organization and persuasiveness–it rubs off on you and you suddenly find yourself communicating more clearly and effectively with others.

6. Taught me a million life lessons–the easy(er) way. There are a lot of lessons we’re going to learn in life, work, and relationships–a lot of things we need to pay more attention to, a lot of bad ideas we shouldn’t try, habits to break, and skills to develop. We can learn those lessons the hard way by experiencing each pitfall for ourselves, or learn the easy way by listening to others who have already learned. In reality, my experience as an avid reader has often been a mix of both: I learn from a book, kind of forget or brush it off, experience it the hard way for myself, but much more quickly and easily adjust, rebound, or grow, because what I learned in the book comes back to mind and I can make sense of what is happening and remember the author’s advice. Sometimes reading means I learn the easy way–sometimes just the easiER way. Either way, it’s better than going it alone.

7. Helped me step back and see the bigger picture. Life is intense. There are lots of feelings and conflicts and emotions and unknowns. We get so wrapped up in our immediate circumstances that we often can’t think clearly. We obssess over little pieces of our lives, and as our brains flood with adrenaline, we forget everything we knew about how to be a wise adult. I’ve found that immersing yourself in a book gives you a safe place to learn and practice the big picture skills you need later when you’re stuck in a little scenario. Reading helps me see things for what they really are. When I read, I find myself looking back and understanding things that happened in the past, and looking forward, considering how I can make healthy decisions in the future. It helps remind me that all the little adrenaline- and nerve-packed moments in life are just that: little moments.

8. Motivated and energized me. Last but definitely not least–reading inspires me. It’s one of the biggest reasons people read, in fact a whole genre of writing is based on this. “Self-help” authors tend to get a bad rap, but let’s be real: There are a lot of truly good ideas out there in print (motivational AND plenty of other topics), and while we like to think we already know all the good ideas–even the ones we do know–do we really put them into practice? Be honest: How many things are you doing (or NOT doing) when you really know better? Sometimes you just need a kick in the pants. Sometimes you have to encourage a friend: “You know better,” you say. Or, “you can do it!” See, communication isn’t just about giving people new ideas. Sometimes, we need affirming, reminding, and encouraging communication–or, again, just a good old fashioned kick in the pants. “Everything has been said before, but since nobody listens we have to keep going back and beginning all over again.” – Andre Gide

What do you think? Maybe reading is worth giving a shot? If you’re ready to try, here are a few books that are ideal for starting with:

Ralph Waldo Emerson - Books I've ReadImage from quotefancy.com

Urgent vs important

Henry David Thoreau - Not enough to be busy

Can you imagine the feeling, finishing up a task, sitting back, and thinking to yourself, “Hmm… I literally have nothing left to do today!” That would be really weird, right???

Life just needs to slow down. Right? But I have a hundred things to do today. So much to catch up on. So much to organize, fix, clean, or find. So many people to get back to. Those things I’ve been wanting to try, and stuff I’ve been invited to.

I happen to think it’s a particularly American tradition to live every day at a breakneck speed. We never, ever, ever run out of things to do right away. When my wife and I got married and honeymooned in Italy we learned that the entire country traditionally closes its shops and sends its people home from work for a few hours over lunch. I often reminisce about my days in Ethiopia and Uganda, where even hard-working people walk slowly wherever they go and spend hours in peace and quiet with family or friends.

Unfortunately, we don’t have that luxury in the States. We have stuff to do. Always. We wear our over-flowing inboxes and day-planners like a badge, like there’s something special about our ability to cram a thousand little things into every single day.

But what are we even busy doing?

 

When are we going to do those deeper, bigger, more meaningful life things? The things we keep putting off “until we have more time.”

I think the big things that we want to do–that we want to look back and be happy about at the end of our lives–we want to do just right, and we want to do with unlimited time and attention. So we keep putting our real life off while we try to catch up with our bottomless stack of to-dos.

 

What would happen if you set aside the urgent stuff today? Let them just not happen? Would you finally start writing that book? Take your kid out to do something fun together? Make a plan to eat healthier and exercise?

And what if you kept ignoring so many of those “urgent” things–would you keep writing, stay more connected to your loved ones, and discover you actually have time to get to the gym most days?

 

Urgent vs Important–we constantly face a choice between the two. Urgent is the squeaky wheel whining for your attention. But at the end of your life, which will you wish you had chosen more often? Urgent or important?

What big life thing have you been putting off for years because you’re always too busy? What if you decided this weekend you were just going to start it–no matter what notifications pop up?

Are you really seeing them?

“Look at other people and ask yourself if you are really seeing them or just your thoughts about them.” – Jon Kabat-Zinn

Have you ever found yourself looking back at old memories–photos, messages, etc–and realizing that your opinion now of an old friend is entirely different than it used to be? For example, I used to have very conservative (and vocal) opinions about how people should look and talk. I always judged the “rebellious” kids I knew, felt disappointed and hopeless for them. Looking back now at the those same kids, I see who they were as very normal and healthy and in fact think I should have been a little more like them.

Our minds change from time to time. Enough that we should be able to remember that the way we see someone right now may not be accurate.

 

It can be helpful to spend some time thinking about what determines how we see people. There are a lot of things that silently, sneakily influence our interpretations of others:

  • What we expect to see. As John Lubbock said, “What we see depends mainly on what we look for.” When you start with assumptions about someone, you tend to see what confirms your assumptions. It’s called “confirmation bias.”
  • What we’re already focused on. Always focus on the bad in someone, and that starts to be all you see. Always see the good only, and you can be blind to problems. Have you ever bought a car and then immediately started seeing way more of those models than you used to?
  • What we’re afraid of. How have you been burned in the past? How have people hurt you or let you down? Did you get cheated on? Then you see that in others. Did someone stab you in the back when they should have been supporting you? Than you stay on the lookout for the first signs of that in others.
  • What we are hoping for. Do you ever see people through the lenses of what you’re hoping for? What you need? Looking for friends who will accept you? Looking for a special someone to selflessly love you? You can want something bad enough that you might see it when it’s not really there.
  • What we plan to do about it. One of the biggest and most powerful influences on how we see others is our own intention to react and deal with things. Stephen Covey said it best: “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” Who might that other person be separated from how we think we should relate to them?

 

Have you ever realized somebody is not who you thought they were? Maybe someone you always thought was mean, or someone you thought was nice. Have you ever been on the opposite side? Feeling like someone is assigning an identity or motives to you that just aren’t you?

Assuming and prejudging leaves both sides hurting and confused.

On the other hand, opening your mind and seeing someone for who they really are and what they really say–not what you expect or judge about them–can open your eyes and heart to another amazing human. And honoring someone for who they really are can make you an empowering part of their life, too.

Jon-Kabat Zinn - Really seeing people

If another human can…

I’d like to be a professional writer and public speaker who helps make the world a better place. BUT. I’m SCARED.

I’m scared that I don’t have what it takes. So I often find myself giving up. I hold myself back. Out of fear.

Do you ever find you’re not trying because you don’t want to fail? Turning your back on your dreams because you probably couldn’t bring them to life?

 

I often find myself wondering in amazement about grand things that other people have done: How the hell did they get somebody all the way up to the moon??? How does one person handle as much responsibility and stress as a country’s leader or a giant company’s CEO? How did my friend ever get so successful at sales? And what the hell even is the internet and how can it possibly work?!?

Sometimes other people seem superhuman. Sometimes the advancements and accomplishments that make up the world I live in seem like magic.

Who are these god-like people who shake the world? The inventors, the leaders, the athletes, and the entrepreneurs? What other-worldly stuff are they made of?

 

Turns out they’re just humans.

Like you and me. Made of the same stuff. They were born with the same senses and tools and brains as I was.

Sometimes I have to slap myself awake as I watch successful business-people who make hundreds of thousands a year. I so often find myself feeling small and weak and full of doubt. If only–if only I had what they had.

The other day I was having a heart to heart with someone way higher up than me on the ladder. She was describing to me how she sometimes struggles with communicating freely because she’s been burned so many times. Then it hit me–here’s this person in a position I tell myself I couldn’t handle yet or don’t deserve. And she has the exact same insecurities as me. But she’s made it that far and is doing great at it. Humanness and all.

Turns out I can do those things, too.

It stands to reason. We’re all humans. I’m fully capable of making the same decisions and speaking the same words as any CEO or world leader. We’re all human, with the same voices to persuade with and the same minds to decide with. I could be that executive that executive I hopelessly compare myself to when he walks by my desk. I have to stop telling myself that I can’t.

 

Yes, some start with an advantage. Some are born into healthy homes with supportive parents. Some get good educations and college degrees. Some are born into wealth. Some grow up surrounded by safety nets others don’t have, safety nets that help them take those big leaps.

But there are a lot of people who have started with huge disadvantages and still achieved their dreams against all odds.

One of my heroes as a baseball fan, Mariano Rivera, grew up in a poor Panama town using a cardboard milk carton as baseball glove and a tree branch as a bat. He accepted early on that he was born to catch sardines on a commercial fishing boat. Despite a deck stacked against him–poverty, discouragements, injuries, and broken dreams, he ended up achieving such wild success in baseball that he is now widely considered the greatest closing pitcher of all time.

And it’s never too late to start! Ray Kroc was a milkshake device salesman until he bought McDonald’s as a 52-year-old. Vera Wang didn’t start her designing career until she was 40. Colonel Sanders bounced from job to job until he finally founded KFC at age 62. And Harrison Ford was so disappointed in his weak attempts at becoming a Hollywood star that he became a carpenter instead to support his family–until he became Han Solo.

 

Point is–you’re no different. You’re a human. In general, you have the same abilities as the next person. The same potential. None of those massively successful people are super-human. You don’t have to be super-human. I don’t have to be super-human.

You can do it–just the way you are! You’re a person. If someone else can do person things, so can you.

 

I’ve experienced this time and time again in my own life. It’s encouraging to look back…

a1 - runningI took my little brother running one night that I’ll always remember. “I promise,” I told him, “if you just don’t stop, no matter how tired you feel, once we’ve made it about 2 miles you’ll feel so much better!” And it was true. A block in, he could hardly put one foot in front of the other. But he kept going and finally hit his stride. I have found that almost anyone can be a runner. And most of the people who “can’t” really can. They’ve just already given up.

a2 - guacamoleWhen I started my first job as a 19-year-old, I was absolutely terrified and clueless. I crawled into bed in tears night after night feeling like I was weird and awkward and would never fit in, never make it. But then I did. Before long I was getting promotion after promotion and found myself running my own store. And fixing up a mean batch of guacamole.

When we got engaged, Lyssi and I had this crazy dream–what if we went and got married in Italy? But we put the thought away. We’re not THOSE people! We can’t do that! Then one day we started trying–just for kicks. A few months later we were exchanging vows together at the Villa del Balbianello, living our dream. Turns out, we ARE those people!

a3 - wedding

Another big one that I think about a lot is the lifestyle my wife and I have embraced–full of exploring and adventuring, taking planes, trains, and automobiles everywhere we can to experience a world full of beauty together. I always hear people envying those people that have the time and the money to explore and travel all the time. Well I’ll let you in on a little secret. We don’t have more time and money to travel with than the next person. In fact, for a long, long time we dreamed and dreamed that one day we’d be able to go on those adventures–like “those” people. And then finally we decided to stop waiting and figure out how to make it work. Only then did we discover just how much we really could do. (If you want any adventuring tips, let me know. It’s something we’re passionate about!)

a4

(Fyi, each of the above pictures came from trips there were good adulty reasons not to take.)

 

So please–please, please, please–don’t tell yourself you can’t. Don’t tell yourself you’re “not that person.” Don’t give up before you’ve started.

 

Lately I find myself daydreaming about the next big thing I’m going to discover I can do. Maybe perform piano. Maybe take writing to the next level. I could go back and finish my degree. Pursue another big promotion. Or what the heck, maybe I’ll go back and try baseball again.

If there’s something you want, don’t be afraid. Go for it. Embrace it. Know that it could be you. Know that the people already doing it are just like you.

What’s next for you?

 

a5

When you’re absolutely sure, remember you’ve been sure before

Marcus Aurelius - I will happily change

I couldn’t stand Professor Bauman. I took a philosophy class from him where he constantly picked holes in his students deepest convictions and forced them to ask really difficult questions. I got his point–he wanted us to think carefully with open minds–but whenever one of us would ask him, “What do YOU believe?” he would refuse to tell. I couldn’t have been more sure that he was a bad person for teaching that way: Nobody should lead people to question themselves and then refuse to help them reaffirm their beliefs in the truth–or at least what I saw as the truth.

Now my mind has changed completely. I think Professor Bauman and another similar professor I also disliked for the same reason were two of the most valuable teachers I ever had. I got out into the real world where I was confronted every day by fiercely differing viewpoints, all with their own strengths and weaknesses. I realized then that the unquestioning certainty and the relative lack of questioning that kids like me grew up with, was the worst possible preparation for dealing with life as an adult. Now I’m embarrassed that I was so vocally opposed to his teaching.

Who knows? Someday I could change my mind about this again.

The other day my brother-in-law sent me something I wrote as an over-confident teenager vehemently arguing for a viewpoint I no longer hold–he texted: “9 years is a long time.” It was equally hilarious and cringeworthy.

 

I’m not the only one who has done a complete 180 on big life things. In fact, a lot of people change their minds again and again and again.

Antony Flew was a champion of atheism who drastically changed his mind at the end of his life and wrote a book arguing for the existence of a god. Dan Barker was a Christian preacher for a long time but is now an atheist activist.

Almost 200 years ago, John Stuart Mill, one of the most influential philosophers and political economist in the 1800s, changed his mind completely about his core economic beliefs. According to his autobiography, his reading of romantic poets caused him to question the commitment to classical economics he had held since childhood, eventually leading him to a much more liberal viewpoint.

 

Here’s the thing. I was ABSOLUTELY SURE. So were Flew and Barker and John Stuart Mill.

What’s something that you used to be absolutely sure of that you no longer believe? I know there’s something.

 

I think it can do wonders for your life and relationships to remind yourself regularly that you used to be absolutely certain of things you no longer believe. That you’ve completely changed your mind about something you never used to question. That you now believe or do something you used to call “crazy” when you saw it in others.

When we forget that we have so drastically changed our minds before, we don’t consider that we might drastically change them again.

And when we are so certain there’s not a chance we’re wrong, we don’t easily learn, we frustrate people we talk to, and we miss out on the wisdom we could find in others whose different experiences have led them to see things we don’t see.

If I always talk to you as if I absolutely know that I am right and you are dead wrong, someday I’m going to have to eat my own words.

The more sure I am that I’m right about something, the more carefully I need to remember that I may someday realize I am wrong.

William Shakespeare - Fool thinks he is wise


P.S. If you’re nerdy like me and like reading, check out this little gem from John Locke, an influential thinker from the 17th century–talking about being respectful in argument, honestly admitting uncertainty and allowing for uncertainty in others:

[After pointing out that we must often act upon probabilities that fall short of certainty, he says that the right use of this consideration] “is mutual charity and forbearance. Since therefore it is unavoidable to the greatest part of men, if not all, to have several opinions without certain and indubitable proofs of their truth, and it carries too great an imputation of ignorance, lightness, or folly, for men to quit and renounce their former tenants presently upon the offer of an argument which they cannot immediately answer and show the insufficiency of. It would, methinks, become all men to maintain peace and the common offices of humanity and friendship in the diversity of opinions, since we cannot reasonably expect that anyone should readily and obsequiously quit their own opinion and embrace ours with a blind resignation to an authority which the understanding of man acknowledges not. For, however it may often mistake, it can own no other guide but reason, nor blindly submit to the will and dictates of another. If he you would bring over to your sentiments be one that examines before he assents, you must give him leave at his leisure to go over the account again and, recalling what is out of his mind, examine the particulars to see on which side the advantage lies. And if he will not think over arguments of weight enough to engage him anew in so much pains, it is but what we do often ourselves in the like case, and we should take it amiss if others should prescribe to us what points we should study. And if he be one who wishes to take his opinions upon trust, how can we imagine that he should renounce those tenants which time and custom have so settled in his mind that he thinks them self-evident and of an unquestionable certainty, or which he takes to be impressions he has received from God himself, or from men sent by him. How can we expect, I say, that opinions thus settled should be given up to the arguments or authority of a stranger or adversary, especially if there be any suspicion of interest or design, as there never fails to be where men find themselves ill-treated? We should do well to commiserate our mutual ignorance and endeavor to remove it in all the gentle and fair ways of information, and not instantly treat others ill as obstinate and perverse, because they will not renounce their own and receive our opinions, or at least those we would force upon them, when it is more than probable that we are no less obstinate in not embracing some of theirs. For where is the man that has incontestable evidence of the truth of all that he holds? Or of the falsehood of all he condemns? Or can say that he has examined to the bottom all his own or other men’s opinions? The necessity of believing without knowledge, nay, often upon very slight grounds in this fleeting stage of action and blindness we are in, should make us more busy and careful to inform ourselves than to restrain others. There is reason to think that if men were better instructed themselves, they would be less imposing on others.” (Quote taken from Bertrand Russell’s A History of Western Philosophy)