9 Ways Reading Fiction Can Jump Start Your Career

By Adam Hughes

August 27, 2015   •   Fact checked by Dumb Little Man

Do you remember how excited you were when you landed your first job, or your dream job? It may seem like a work of fiction now, a story about someone else, but those were probably among the most giddy and dream-filled days of your life.

You were going to storm into your new company and make an impact they could not ignore. You would work nights and weekends on major, inspirational projects, and you would blast your way out of that entry-level job within just a few months. Promotions, raises, and the esteem of your colleagues loomed just ahead.

You were going to be a freaking rock star!

If you’re like most of the workforce, though, it didn’t play out quite how you envisioned.

Sure, you worked hard and caught on quickly, but your assignments were not the game-changers you had hoped they would be. Your enthusiasm began to wane, and soon you noticed that NO ONE was moving up. What was worse was that no one seemed to care.

They were complacent, and before long, you were, too.

And so it is that after couple of years in your “ideal” job, you find yourself dragging through the grind of another week without much verve, and you hardly ever think about that next (first?) promotion any more.

You’re in a professional rut, and it’s killing your career and draining your soul. If you ever want to build the life you deserve, you need to find a way to break free of the mundane and to differentiate yourself from the pack. You MUST start dreaming again.

While there are countless theories on self-fulfillment and career satisfaction, you have at your fingertips one very powerful but simple method to begin improving nearly aspect of your life right now: read more literature.

And, though it may sound counterintuitive for those who consider reading “made-up” stories to be a waste of time, literature can be a real boon to your professional aspirations.

In particular, here are 9 ways that reading fiction can jump start your career.

1. Bigger Vocabulary

During your working lifetime, you will come into contact with people from all over the world and with varied educational and socioeconomic backgrounds. Because of this diversity, you are bound to encounter new words and phrases in your conversations on a regular basis, which can leave you in a precarious position.

What did that new vice president mean when he said your manager is as much use as a chocolate fire-guard? How should you respond to that?

Reading fiction exposes you to a much broader vocabulary than you would encounter during normal day-to-day communications and gives you the opportunity to expand your own personal lexicon. If you do encounter an unfamiliar word or phrase, set aside your novel for a few minutes and go figure out what the author means.

2. Shared Cultural References

A common workplace experience for Americans is morning-after chatter about a funny or controversial episode of a television show that most everyone watches. The dialog from these programs is so memorable that it becomes a vital part of our shared cultural references and a point of common understanding for years to come.

A large percentage of American adults, for instance, understand immediately what “close talker” means, even though Seinfeld has been off the air for more than 15 years.

As you advance in your career and begin to interact with upper management, or maybe to entertain high-powered clients, you will find that many of them share a different type of cultural reference. Because the most successful people in all walks of life are often also the most well-read, it is not unusual to hear jokes or comparisons centered around the great works of literature.

If you want to play in their world, you will need to speak their language, which means you must have a strong literary background.

3. Higher Creative Thought

Depending on your chosen field, you may think that creativity is a luxury and not a necessity. What does imagination have to do with success in the business world, anyway?

The truth is that nearly all super successful people, in every field of endeavor, are among the most creative individuals in their industries. You cannot separate yourself or your company from a crowded marketplace if you’re doing the same thing, the same way, that everyone else is.

You must innovate.

There is a certain amount of natural talent involved in genuine innovation, but it is a skill that you can cultivate. One of the best ways to do so is to expose yourself to a wide range of ideas, and nothing gives you a broader base of fresh thought than the world of fiction. From mystery to horror to corporate espionage, a world of new concepts is waiting to stoke your imagination.

4. Stress Relief

Even if you are engaged in your dream career and your co-workers are a joy to be around, every job is stressful at least part of the time. While some stress is good for you and required for success, too much stress can leave your mind and body worn out and ineffective.

You must find ways to relax and recharge if you want to remain as potent as possible.

Just as sleep will refresh your body, diving into a compelling novel that transports you to new worlds will rejuvenate your mind. A good story is a welcome reprieve from your daily mental grind, and it activates new (or dormant) thought processes.

5. Knowledge

The stories told through works of fiction may be made up, but that doesn’t mean they won’t teach you about real and useful concepts you never considered before. Many authors spend months or years researching the themes of their books before ever beginning to write, and you can take advantage of this byproduct of their creativity to do some heavy-duty learning. This is especially true for genres where getting the facts right is important for the story line, like historical fiction or some science fiction, but you can find nuggets in most books you pick up.

If nothing else, a reference that an author makes to some new idea may spur you to seek out more information on that topic, outside of his book.

6. Better Writing

Success in your career and other areas of life requires strong communication, and stellar writing skills are more important than ever before thanks to our ever-growing reliance on email and other electronic media. Yet many professionals continue to demonstrate a poor grasp of grammar and spelling, and their messages often get lost in a wilderness of errors and awkward phrasing.

For those who are paying attention, like you, this deficiency opens a grand opportunity to differentiate yourself from your peers.

By reading fiction, you consume a constant stream of solid examples that show you what what effective writing is all about. Publishers demand that their books be as close to perfect as possible from a grammatical standpoint, and readers won’t stick with a book that doesn’t convey its message in an effective manner.

Take note of how your favorite authors structure their paragraphs and sentences, and to their word choices, then begin to incorporate those devices into your business writing. Your email messages don’t need to be works of art, but they must be effective in communicating your ideas if you want to succeed.

7. More Empathy

No matter what form of communication you’re using at any particular moment, you must form a connection with your “audience” if you hope for your message make an impact. The best way to do that is to really understand the other person’s point of view and then speak in terms that demonstrate that understanding.

That ability to comprehend and feel the concerns of others is empathy, and it’s one of the key characteristics of mature, successful adults.

Empathy is not easy to develop across a wide swath of experiences, but fiction can help speed along the process. Each novel you read opens up a new perspective — or many new perspectives — to you in a personal way. Good fiction invites you to step into the lives of the characters within, and you can’t help but gain a new appreciation for the different life views they offer.

Reading fiction broadens your library of perspectives and strengthens your ability to empathize with your co-workers and other business contacts. To paraphrase an American Indian proverb, you may not be able to walk a mile in a man’s moccasins, but you can read his story and empathize with his position.

8. Stronger Analytical Skills and Better Problem Solving

As soon as you start to read a compelling novel or short story, your mind begins thinking about ways to resolve the conflict that’s building with each paragraph. You may not consciously try to unravel the plot before you reach the denouement, but your subconscious still will pick away at the details as you read them.

Why was John wearing blue jeans in the first chapter but tan slacks in the second? Did he get blood on the first pair because HE’S the one who killed Martha?

If you read enough books, you WILL notice this phenomenon over time because you’ll flash forward in the story line even though you haven’t read ahead. You might dismiss it as a fluke or credit some sort of intuition, but it’s more likely that your analytical skills are improving because of all the reading you’ve done. As your mind becomes better at solving problems without your volitional effort, don’t be surprised to find that you are able to resolve work issues with more ease, and that you are more eager to take on complicated tasks.

9. Enhanced Focus

The Internet has opened avenues for communication that we never would have imagined 25 years ago, and for that alone it must be considered one of mankind’s greatest achievements. The dark side of that hyper-connectivity, though, is that we are never “allowed” to be offline for any extended period of time AND that we expect to be entertained at every moment.

If an article doesn’t grab your attention, the next website is just a click away. If your 500 cable channels don’t offer up the brand of diversion you crave, head over to Netflix. It’s all out there, and all you have to do is surf from place to place.

This focus on trying to see everything — and see it NOW, darn it! — has left many of us frazzled and out of breath. It’s a behavior that bleeds into the workplace, too, as so many of us have been slathered with heavier and heavier demands to the extent that we end up flitting from priority to priority throughout the day, unable to stick with just one for any appreciable length of time.

We’ve lost our ability to focus, which smashes our productivity over time.

One “easy” way to start rebuilding that lost focus is to pick up a LONG book that you’ve been putting off reading and commit to finishing it in a month. Because you’re choosing a book in which you already have an interest, getting “into” the story won’t be a problem. Setting a deadline will force you to schedule your reading and concentrate hard during your allotted time.

Not only will knocking that novel off your “to-read” list be a sizable accomplishment, the improved focus you cultivate during the month-long sojourn will carry over to your work activities.

Reading fiction won’t take you from scrub to CEO overnight, but it is a vital step toward keeping your professional goals on track. If you’re looking to jump start your career, your best move just may be to pick up that novel that’s been gathering dust on your nightstand or lurking beneath the business books on your e-reader.

Isn’t it time YOU give fiction another shot?

Adam Hughes

Adam Hughes is an author and tech professional focused on helping writers squeeze the most out of their creative time. Download his FREE ebook on writing a fast first draft: The 30-Day Novel.

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