A book is proof that humans are capable of working magic.Carl Sagan*
It’s hard to make the case that studying someone who mastered a craft by reading their biography would be a waste of time. Likewise, reading popular non-fiction that aims to explain how some part of the world works can hardly be spun as a waste of time. But it’s a hell of a lot less clear how fiction fits into the picture of self-directed professional growth. After all, how could something made up be related to a career? But isn’t that exactly what a career is—something made up?
Careers and companies are made up of and made up by people every day—both start as ideas in someone’s head, and through sweat and collaboration and a lot of luck the idea just might manifest. Fiction can be like a magic school bus we can hop on to explore endless possible worlds, which isn’t so different from how a founder thinks about their company’s mission. The folks behind fiction open up windows to the lives and minds of those quite unlike us, who are somehow also us. By showing us what we could be, they reveal what we are.
Fiction can motivate us and steady us, inspire us and humble us. Every time I find myself frustrated with someone in a professional context, I remember a line from John Steinbeck’s East of Eden: “I am certain that underneath their topmost layers of frailty men want to be good and want to be loved. Indeed, most of their vices are attempted short cuts to love.” And every time I find myself in a fit of excitement over a new idea, I think of Frank Herbert’s words in Dune: “Hope clouds observation.”
If you want to better understand your customers, coworkers, and investors, turn to fiction to help you gain some empathy and perspective and see into the minds of others. And don’t forget that the best fiction is created to help you understand something about yourself that you didn’t before; any founder or investor will tell you that the most important quality of a good leader is self-awareness.Consider fiction a master course in psychology, and a mirror to who we really are. You won’t get lost here. It’s a place you go to be found.
I encourage anyone interested in how automation, augmented reality, artificial intelligence, and other hot potato topics loved by pundits to read books like Player Piano by Kurt Vonnegut, Daemon, by Daniel Suarez, Accelerando, by Charles Stross, and The Quantum Thief, by Hannu Rajaniemi. Doing so is like putting on scuba gear and exploring the depths of possibility in an ocean of ideas, whereas listening to talking heads parrot talking points is more akin to strapping yourself with floaties and going for a swim in the kiddie pool of ideas.
Check out the “awesome lists” for science fiction and fantasy. Each list is collaborative (you can open a pull request and add to it) and includes hundreds of titles with short (no spoilers) reviews and ratings. I recommend browsing the descriptions until you find something that piques your interest.
“The Symbolism Survey” is one of my favorite fiction-related articles. I always hated how English teachers had a habit of turning the magic of a book into a torturous analysis. The Symbolism Survey shows responses from famous authors who responded to a 1963 high school student’s letters asking whether authors purposefully put symbolism in their writing.