“In the case of good books, the point is not to see how many of them you can get through, but rather how many can get through to you.”— Mortimer J. Adler
Learning and continuous development are part of Pex’s fabric. Not surprisingly, a common way to achieve this is by reading books. I’m pretty sure that I don’t have to convince you of the benefits of reading books. However, I’d like to talk about our book clubs, and potentially convince you to give it a try at work. Because reading is good, but reading in order to discuss is even better.
“Book clubs? Really?”
OK! Here’s the thing: If you’ve never been part of one, book clubs may sound nerdy or even intimidating. You might think that a bunch of people get together to discuss a book that they didn’t even necessarily want to read in the first place. But, hear me out! A company book club may be more fun (well… “fun” with a lowercase “f”) than you think, and it may be beneficial to many aspects of your professional life and to your company.
“Hmm… what do you think you’re getting out of it?”
One of the great benefits of reading a common book with a group is getting together to discuss it. It is an opportunity to learn from the others’ point of views. People pay attention to different things. They relate to various aspects of a book in diverse ways, because our individual experiences create unique perspectives.
“Makes sense, but I never thought a reading group could influence the reading experience.”
I think reading a book in order to discuss it is a different style of reading. When you know that you’re going to discuss the book, it changes your focus, and your reading becomes more flavorful and more satisfying.
I first noticed the change in my reading experience when I started to review books online, and book clubs are similar in this regard; they make your reading more purposeful, and make you appreciate nuances that you might not otherwise have noticed. It’s not necessarily about using a formula or employing a scientific analysis method. It’s more like stopping and asking “why?” or “what if?” when you notice a small thread attached to the main line. It tickles your curiosity to pull on this thin thread that you might not even have noticed otherwise.
Depending on what you’re reading, these curiosities have different shapes. When you’re reading fiction, you pay attention to things like character development or plot lines. In non-fiction books, like the ones we’re reading in our management and leadership book club, you pay attention to other aspects, like applicability of the ideas, drawing parallels with your experiences, etc. All in all, it is a much more satisfying reading experience.
“I like that. Is there anything that you do differently when you read a book-club book?”
You develop your own techniques by trial and error. Actually it’s more like “trial followed by 👍 or 👎. For example, I take notes when I read. If I read electronically, I highlight. When I read paper books, I take notes on a notepad. (Yes, I know! I’m old school.) Notes allow me to go back to them to gather my thoughts for a review or for the upcoming discussion. Having notes also encourages the repetition that you need to learn and remember better.
In general, it’s important to know how to read a book. As a starter, I would recommend reading Adler and Van Doren’s “How To Read A Book.” The ideas presented in it may change your reading style.
“Sounds good. It must be interesting to hear others talk about the same book.”
Exactly! A book club is also an opportunity to get to know your colleagues better. You take a few hours to discuss things that run deeper than casual topics such as the weather or the local sports teams. We are all shaped by our previous experiences, so our takeaways from a book are almost never the same. And because a book club is more about listening and appreciating the various points of view than telling about your experience, you become a better listener and a better communicator.
Once a month, you get an opportunity to analyze the content of a book, form your thoughts, and present them in public. Those points of view constitute small windows through which you can catch a glimpse of your colleagues’ personalities and thought processes. And as managers, it is very important to know the people with whom you work.
Hold on! There’s more: In professional day-to-day, common books create common reference points. When you use an analogy or a story drawn from a book-club book, everyone in the group can understand the meaning behind it. This happened to me recently in a meeting with HR where we mentioned active listening techniques that we read about in a book.
Book Club lets you get together and think as a group. You analyze together, build ideas on top of each others’, and discuss their applicability in mini problem solving sessions. Once you have a few common books under your belt, you also start to cross reference certain ideas and discuss parts that are overlapping or contradicting.
As a group, we don’t apply strict facilitation and set rigid boundaries around our discussions; we let them jump around and include other related topics. We are regularly reminded that we work in a safe environment where sharing ideas and opinions are encouraged even when they lead to disagreements.
“Do you always finish the books on time?”
Most of the time. Reading with a group makes you feel accountable to finish it on time. It creates a cadence. It creates the right type of pressure to prevent procrastination. But my first rule is always: life is too short, and there are too many good books to be read. Therefore, if for some reason I don’t enjoy the book that I’m reading, I will drop it after giving it a fair chance. This has yet to happen in our book clubs, though.
“You may also end up reading a book that you would not have otherwise picked.”
True. But even that has its own benefits. It takes you out of your comfort zone and can put a surprisingly good book in your hands. There is an excellent quote in the book we’re currently reading, which made me think of this point:
“You have to carry a big basket to bring something home.”
We need to keep an open mind to be able to learn and appreciate. So, open-mindedness is important when you join a book club.
“What kind of books do you read?”
We read a wide variety of books. Let me tell you briefly about the last few books that we’ve read.
Our last book was “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain. We are currently reading “Range” by David Epstein. They are both very influential books. They make you a better leader and manager by making you understand your people and the world that we live in.
“Quiet” teaches us that introverts have significant strengths compared to extroverts in certain situations, but that Western culture idealizes extrovert traits, therefore we are losing a lot by undervaluing introverts.
“Range” is another thought-provoking book. It teaches us that the world we live in is full of wickedly unanticipated events, and that starting and specializing early doesn’t give us the necessary breadth of knowledge to be creative and innovative in such a world. This is another book that shows us that our instincts in performance, success, and education can mislead us immensely.
Before “Quiet,” we read Thomas Gordon’s “Parental Effectiveness Training (P. E. T.).” As its title indicates, the main audience is parents. However, when you read the book, you understand that the ideas and approaches presented in the book are applicable to many aspects of life, including professional life. Things like active listening, dealing with resistance, handling conflict, and resolving value collisions are invaluable skills to have.
“I’m sold! But how easy is it to run a book club?”
Book clubs are not always easy to run smoothly and successfully. People love the idea and get excited about it — they are ready to jump onboard and select the first book to read. But sometimes the reality doesn’t match the expectations. People procrastinate. They think there are better books winking at them from the bedside. They feel like they are reading a book that they wouldn’t necessarily have picked on their own. More and more excuses pile up. The group dwindles and the book club dies silently.
“What are you saying? Don’t start it?”
Not at all. But, it’s good to know that book clubs require open-mindedness and care. And just like in most undertakings in life, it’s good to know why you’re doing it and what you want to get out of it.
Additionally, book clubs organized in a professional setting are slightly different. It is true that, by its nature, there could be more pressure to join such a club or to keep it alive. However, if your company culture gives your people the freedom to opt out of such activities, then there shouldn’t be a problem. Participation should be optional at any stage.
“I understand. Lastly, do you have many book clubs?”
Currently we have four book clubs at Pex: management and leadership, product, business, and engineering. In the management and leadership book club, we read one book every month and then meet to discuss the highlights.
We have an online channel where we recommend and discuss books to read. The shortlisted books end up in a list from which we choose our next book. Our book list grows slowly, and we refresh our votes every 2–3 months to keep the top of the list relevant. We decide on the next book to read as a group, and use our monthly allowance to buy our individual copy (at Pex, every employee has a monthly allowance to buy books — among other things like covering the cost of commuting into work).
In short, reading books has many benefits, and a well-run book club can have many more, like simply better appreciating a book, or becoming a better communicator. And if you start a book club at work, some of these benefits can even have a direct, positive impact on your professional life and company.