The Blog

Slacking is Hard Work

Certified smart person Anne Kreamer argues in favor of improving your management skills by reading fiction:

Over the past decade, academic researchers such as (Keith) Oatley and Raymond Mar from York University have gathered data indicating that fiction-reading activates neuronal pathways in the brain that measurably help the reader better understand real human emotion — improving his or her overall social skillfulness…It turns out that when Henry James, more than a century ago, defended the value of fiction by saying that “a novel is a direct impression of life,” he was more right than he knew.

Oatley and Mar asked test subjects to identify the emotional state of people in photographs — correctly assessing the emotional state of people being a key management skill — and discovered that the subjects who read the most fiction were also the most likely to read correctly the emotions in the photos.

Correlation is not, of course, causation. Perhaps more socially adept people are drawn to fiction. But, Kreamer notes, there are other types of data that are more objective and less subject to interpretation than mere statistics. Neuroscience notes that reading fiction stimulates the part of the brain involved with setting goals — an exercise that makes goal-setting easier and more likely.

Together with the other studies backing the value of getting your brain out of scientific-management-mode and into something more emotionally invigorating, it’s pretty clear that fiction might be worth a manager’s while. Kreamer’s conclusion:

From now on, I’m going to feel less like an escapist slacker when I’m engrossed in a new novel.

I’ve long believed creative experience helps even people who don’t think of what they’re doing as creative. I’ve taken staff to movies, art exhibits, even walking tours of architecturally interesting neighborhoods. Perhaps its the opening of neuronal pathways, perhaps it’s just the obvious fact that people can’t think out of the box when the inside of the box is the only thing they’ve ever experienced.