Essential Reading for Business

Back when I worked in banking, there was a CEO we knew whose airbrushed photo in the annual report made him look younger and younger each year. We had just returned from the AGM where the CEO had been speaking and, noting the contrast between the man and the photo,  I made a quip about The Picture of Dorian Gray. The guy next to me asked if Dorian worked in M&A.


In business these days, knowledge of literature is seen as about as important as knowledge of horse and buggy repair techniques. We noticed that there was not a lot of fiction on Jamie Dimon’s summer reading list posted at Farnam Street. But, save for granting one the chance to feel superior to one’s colleagues — a benefit that is not to be undervalued, of course — is reading fiction irrelevant these days?

Last year, I attended a lecture given by Keith Oatley, the director of the Cognitive Science Program at the University of Toronto.  He maintains that reading fiction is good for us and has many practical applications. Reading fiction, he posits, helps us understand how people tick. And whether one is selling shoes online, negotiating a merger, or expanding a manufacturing company overseas, successful business leaders are those who understand how people think and can anticipate how they are going to react in situations.

Much of our understanding about how people react to events is gained through experience: something happens and we see how others behave. We fire the dead wood in marketing and the sales department becomes more risk-averse. We increase prices and sales in certain categories go up. We try to figure out why people behaved the way they did (the sales people thought the marketers were fired because of a risky strategy that went bad; some customers believed that a more expensive product meant a higher quality offering.) This information helps us to make a similar decision more effectively the next time around. But what if we are facing a situation we’ve never seen before? Is there any way to figure out how people might react?

In How We Decide, author Jonah Lehrer discusses the value of simulation in learning how to make better decisions. He describes how one of the leading factors in reducing pilot errors was the introduction of realistic flight simulators in the mid-1980s. A simulator is designed to make a pilot feel like she is going through a real-life situation. The feelings are engaged — pulses race, breathing quickens — which allows the pilot to “train the emotional brain, preparing the parts of the cortex that will actually make the decision when up in the air.” A pilot is able to encounter many more situations in a simulator than she could in real life and can build up an experience base that will be helpful if an emergency situation occurs at some point in the future.

In his article, Changing our Minds, published in Berkley’s Greater Good, Oatley suggests that “fiction is a kind of simulation of our emotional and social worlds.” He argues that when we read, we are given insight into how the characters think, feel, and “react to a combination of social forces.” Just as a pilot can experience what an engine failure might feel like in a simulator, a reader can experience whatever the author creates. We can feel chills of fear when the protagonist’s car breaks down in the middle of nowhere, or relief when the mother in a war-torn nation is able to find food to feed her children. We can learn how we might react — and how others might react — in any number of situations. In a 2006 study that Oatley co-authored, the researchers discovered that “reading fiction is associated with increased social ability.” In other words, all of these practiced reactions help us navigate the real world.

Non-fiction does not have the same helpful effect. Some of this relates to the subject matter: whereas non-fiction tends to be about certain topics (food, war, collecting comics), fiction is primarily about “the difficulties of selves navigating the social world.” One might think that reading true accounts of a variety of situations might similarly prepare our brains, but the researchers discovered that reading fiction gives us more success in social situations than reading true accounts of past social situations found in history or business books.

A good fiction writer understands human psychology and is able to translate it into a language the emotional brain understands. If we read a historical account of a battle, our thinking tends to be arm’s length and theoretical. If we read a fictional account of that same battle from the perspective of a general or a foot soldier or a local bystander, we engage the emotional brain and start to think how we would react in a similar situation. As we learned though Lehrer, it’s the emotional brain that helps us in most decision-making situations.

The genre seems unimportant so long as the fiction moves us emotionally and pushes us intellectually (speed reading the entire Sweet Valley High series in a weekend will not likely prepare you for the C-Suite.) Although a number of successful business people have extensive personal libraries, they tend to hold their favourite fiction selections rather close to the vest. An article in the New York Times revealed that Steve Jobs has a fondness for the works of William Blake. Dee Hock, founder of Visa, favoured Omar Khayyam’s “Rubáiyát.” Sidney Harman of Harman Industries read E.L. Doctorow’s City of God, Shakespeare, Tennyson, Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” and Camus’s “Stranger.” Fortunes’s 2010 summer reading list had a few fiction choices: Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, Bite Me: A Love Story by Christopher Moore, The Brothers Karamazov, Robert Ludlum’s The Sigma Protocol,  Steig Larson’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, Norman Maclean’s A River Runs Through , Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full, and Lee Childs’s 61 Hours.

Personally, we recommend any aspiring tycoon to read the following: Othello, because it highlights why it is important to true your own instincts and ignore the Iagos of the world; Great Expectations, because it’s about the ties to the past and the dangers of not changing (stale wedding cake, anyone?); Harry Potter (the entire series) because it shows how good will triumph over evil and proves that everyone needs allies; Tom Wolfe’s The Bonfire of the Vanities, because hubris is never pretty; David Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, because business can be brutal; Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, because ethical shortcuts can be costly; Lionel Shriver’s The Post-Birthday World because it illustrates the road not taken; The Age of Innocence because it explains how social structures work (think Facebook, 1870s style); Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49, because a little paranoia never hurt anyone; anything by Ayn Rand, because your boss loves her (and you should too); and The Portable Dorothy Parker, because you know that you are smarter than your boss.


FarnamStreet January 25, 2011 at 7:22 pm


We’ve actually switched domains. The link to the Jamie Dimon Summer reading list is now here.

engagethefox January 25, 2011 at 8:51 pm


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