My son, a business major, is on course to graduate from a university in Minnesota next spring. As someone who majored in journalism with a clear vision of a newspaper career that I wanted to pursue, I have struggled with the ambiguity of a child who is studying business. What does that mean, exactly? Is there an obvious career path or even a discernable entry point to a career?
He says his emphasis in his studies is marketing, yet his summer internship at a commercial insurance company seems mostly to be spent shadowing sales representatives. From my vantage point, he has one foot in the world of sales, one foot in the marketing arena, and a head full of questions about what he wants to do with his life. Welcome to being 21, eh?
Lately, I have been thinking about his last year of classes and whatever comes next. Whether he lands in sales, marketing or something totally different, there is one thing he should be doing more of and continue to do for the rest of his life that would benefit his career immensely: read.
Charlie Munger, vice chairman at Berkshire Hathaway and Warren Buffett’s right-hand man, said, “In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time – none, zero.”
Bill Gates says reading 50 books a year is “how I learn new things and test my understanding.” Much has been written about the annual “think weeks” Gates took while leading Microsoft and still does. He secludes himself in his Northwest “cabin” with stacks of reading material – newspapers, magazines, books and company reports – and spends 15 hours a day reading. Gates found it so valuable, he directed his top 50 supervisors at Microsoft to do likewise.
While Gates reads mostly nonfiction, it is certainly not all business oriented. He is so emphatic about the value of reading that he makes his reading list public on his personal blog, GatesNotes. Books by Jimmy Carter, “The Daily Show” host Trevor Noah and David Foster Wallace on tennis made his list of 2017 recommendations.
Writing in Harvard Business Review, John Coleman, author of “Passion and Purpose: Stories from the Best and Brightest Young Business Leaders,” says the leadership benefits of reading are wide-ranging (and, I might add, particularly helpful with the skills that produce results in sales and marketing). Reading increases vocabulary and abstract reasoning skills, improves empathy and enhances understanding of social cues. “Many businesspeople claim that reading across fields is good for creativity,” Coleman states. “And leaders who can sample insights in other fields, such as sociology, the physical sciences, economics, or psychology, and apply them to their organizations are more likely to innovate and prosper.”
New York Times columnist David Brooks lamented in a recent piece how universities do a poor job of preparing twentysomethings for the rest of their lives. “I’d say colleges have to do much more to put certain questions on the table, to help students grapple with the coming decade of uncertainty,” Brooks states. “Before, there were social structures that could guide young adults as they gradually figured out the big questions of life. Now, those structures are gone. Young people are confronted by the existential questions right away. They’re going to feel lost if they have no sense of what they’re pointing toward, if they have no vision of the holy grails on the distant shore.”
I agree with Brooks in many respects. But if a large percentage of college graduates today are entering the next phase of life ill-prepared, the blame can begin by looking within. They need to start reading… and never stop.
Paul Nolan is editor of Sales and Marketing Magazine.