What’s the Point of All This Reading Anyway?

By: Josh

What are you gaining from your reading efforts?

What about the audiobooks you listen to?

Or podcasts? The magazines, online articles, and blogs?

How are all these nurturing your continued development as a leader?

A young leader that I mentor recently reached out expressing concerns about his self-development efforts, particularly his reading habits. Only two years into his career, he is already demonstrating a mature dedication to reading and an ownership of his own development as a leader, which is fantastic to see. It’s a level that took me many more years to achieve. But unexpectedly, he shared a new dilemma he’s experiencing – he’s worried that he is over-consuming developmental content.  

He regularly reads, follows online journals and blogs, and listens to several great podcasts. He’s consistent with his self-development habits. He’s doing all the “right” things. But now, he feels that he is consuming too much content and failing to retain, internalize, and apply much of what he is learning. He feels overwhelmed and like he can’t keep up with what he’s learning, unable to put much of it into action to improve his leader impact (which really is the ultimate goal of all this).

So, is he reading too much? Should he slow down and maybe do a little less over a year? I feel this is a more universal problem than we think. He is not alone in this issue. This is something I struggle with myself and believe many others do as well. We over-consume – sometimes maybe aimlessly consume – and don’t know what to do with what we’ve read. We want to keep learning and growing through a sustained self-development habit, but what are we supposed to do with everything we read? What if we too feel like we are reading too much and are failing to put it all into action?

After years of struggling with this dilemma, I’ve come to rationalize that my self-development efforts cannot all directly translate to action. There are ideas and strategies I can periodically pick up from what I read that I desire to integrate into my habits as a leader, of course. For those, I translate the new idea to a developmental goal and build a strategy around it. But that takes a lot of work and a lot of time. I can’t realistically do that for everything I read. So, what do I do with the rest of my learning gained through my self-development habits? Why do I keep aiming to read more, listen more, and learn more? I believe there are three additional benefits to a sustained learning habit to help us realize that it is beneficial, even if we feel as my mentee does – like we are over-consuming or not able to put it all into practice.

Note: We discuss reading as the dominant learning habit in this article. However, we simplify the habits of reading books, listening to audiobooks, reading online articles and blogs, and listening to podcasts all as learning habits. So, as we talk about reading more in this article, we mean it to be any of the activities identified above that you enjoy in order to keep learning as a leader.

3 Additional Benefits of Self-Developmental Reading

Not every book, every article, and every podcast episode we listen to will directly translate to new and improved leader behaviors. However, we can enjoy three additional benefits through our routine learning efforts even if they don’t change how we act as a leader immediately after.

A full cup. Continuing to read and learn keeps us inspired. We may not extrapolate a ton of ideas from every book, article, or podcast episode. However, every one does offer us something important – encouragement. A guiding philosophy in my life is, “you can’t pour from an empty cup.” Even if we don’t immediately change our behaviors from what we read, the act of reading is a great way to keep our cups full as leaders. It’s a self-driven habit that does not rely on external conditions or requirements (like a boss choosing to take the time to develop us); we own this source to fill our cups, no one else. Fresh ideas keep us curious. They continue to give us hope for what can be.

Perspective. I remember once taking a work trip to the DC area amidst a tumultuous season at work. Going into this trip, I was feeling frustrated, stressed, and a bit hopeless about work. My challenges felt like insurmountable mountains. As the flight landed, though, I was able to enjoy a fantastic and unobstructed view of the Pentagon. In that moment looking out at the building that represents the entirety of our US Department of Defense, all I could think was, “wow, we really do have a big Army.” Just like that, my mountainous challenges turned into molehills. My work situations that felt so dire before were not as bad as I had made them out to be. Everything reframed for me; I got a little dose of needed perspective.

I believe books and whatever we choose to consume for our learning do the same for us. They elevate us above and beyond our current circumstances to help us see a broader context, consider possibility, and give us a better frame of reference. A continued learning effort grants us perspective as leaders.

A broader base to make connections to. We should not limit ourselves to learning only from our personal experiences. We would be fools to not learn lessons from others’ experiences as well – past and present. Reading is a way to glean insight from others’ experiences and lessons learned. When we do, we are able to connect them to our own ideas or our own experiences, further enriching our learning.

This applies to everything I write on this platform just as much as it does to our leadership. For example, my approach to things like mentorship, a coaching approach to leading, and feedback are all created from a variety of sources. Some come from personal experience, sure. But much of it comes from what I read, listen to, and learn from others. I piece together ideas from various sources to create my own approach. Our continued reading and learning habits expand our pool of ideas from which we can pull and ultimately connect to.

Now What? A Few Parting Recommendations.

So, hopefully we now see that we can approach our reading with a new lens. Yes, our self-development is meant to improve our behaviors and impacts as a leader. But it is also meant to provide us encouragement, perspective, and an ever-larger pool of ideas to connect with.

But now what? If we’re still seeking some recommendations to put into action, consider these four simple ideas.

  • Read for developmental needs. Have we identified a gap or deficiency in how we lead, maybe through some feedback or a recent experience? Books, articles, and podcasts are all great sources to start with. In these deficiencies, we need to gain new knowledge and new ways of thinking. We need insight from others. So, turn to books to start learning more.
  • Read for our identities. What roles define us most in life? It could be things like faith, family, a particular role or industry we work in, our communities, or other demographics. But whatever is most important to us in life, continue to read according to those topics to remain informed about them, but also to keep us humble and still curious about them. We can always get better at the things that matter most to us.
  • Quality, not quantity. Don’t read for volume or some arbitrary quantity goal. Don’t let the too-lofty Good Reads reading challenge goal that you set for yourself (how many books you intend to read this year) dictate your reading habits. It’s ok to slow down, to skip a day, and to even quit a book if it’s not resonating when you are only partially through it. We live according to seasons in life; know if we are in a season of rich learning or not.
  • System, not a surge. Finally, work to establish a system of learning and reading to live by, not a mere temporary surge where we cram a ton of books in a short window. We are aiming to build life-long habits, which require discipline, consistency, and long-term dedication. Build a sustainable system of habits.

Not every book, article, or podcast will offer a robust set of ideas to put into immediate action. We won’t necessarily change or be changed from every book. Sometimes we may walk away from one with nothing to put into action. That’s ok. Conversely, we may even feel overwhelmed by the volume ideas we are learning from our reading, unsure of what exactly to do with them.

No matter the challenge, remember that a commitment to continued self-development reading can offer us encouragement, perspective, and a broader pool of ideas to make connections with over time. These are just as powerful as any actionable idea we may find and will keep us leading thoughtfully and with intention every day.

What was the last thing you read that left you feeling encouraged? Or with perspective?

What can you do to help reframe your intentions and goals for your next book?

What learning activity should you continue to invest in to help keep your cup full as a leader?

What’s the Point of All This Reading Anyway?

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