Entrepreneurs Should Read Literature (Not Just Business Books)

I get it. Entrepreneurs read business books because they get something directly practical out of these.*

Some of the best books I’ve read are business books. At the top of my head I can think of books like “Purple Cow” by Seth Godin, “The Lean Startup” by Eric Ries, “Business Model Canvas” by Alexander Osterwalder, and, as much as I’d hate to admit it, “The 4-Hour Workweek” by Tim Ferriss. (This is not my comprehensive list, mind you!)

I understand why entrepreneurs read so many of them. These books offer nuggets of wisdom, $0.02, points-of-view from some of the best thinkers (and doers) in the field. They give both big ideas and tactical advice that can more often than not be translated into tangible action. They widen the view and enrich the philosophy of people into business and entrepreneurship.

However, I argue that entrepreneurs should invest as much time to reading the great works of literature as they do to business books (yes, even if you’re a computer engineer)!

And it’s not just so that you become a better person, though that’s a big part of it too. Reading literature makes a better entrepreneur as well.

Empathy, or EQ — perhaps more important than IQ

A study from the New School in New York City published results showing that literature expands a reader’s capacity to understand the thoughts and feelings of others.

Emotional quotient (EQ), or the level of someone’s empathy, is essential in entrepreneurship.

It allows the entrepreneur to put himself in the shoes of his customer. It allows him to understand the interests of his teammates in the organization, the business partners he has to negotiate with, and the investors he has to sell his idea to. Lastly, it allows him to effectively convey his vision to all these people involved.

I remember one of my heroes, Gary Vaynerchuk, summing up the most important rule in doing business with one word: “Care”. Meaning, care for your customers. Care for the relationships you create. And you realize that this rule rings true: the lasting brands — the ones that leave a legacy — are not the ones that just provide a “quantitative” value. More importantly, their customers develop an emotional attachment — I would even call it a “friendship” — with these brands.

In other words, these brands, these businesses, have empathy.

Humanities and the “human touch”

I think that the greatest entrepreneurs of our time — Steve Jobs and Elon Musk come to mind most readily — got to where they are not just because they were competent in the technical sense (I mean a good operator, a good coder, a good engineer). A big factor was that, like the great Leonardo da Vinci, they also had a deep appreciation of the humanities — they grasped the human spirit and developed the capacity to enrich their own. This reflected in the products they made and the businesses they developed.

What does this mean, exactly? It’s hard to quantify. Perhaps that’s precisely why humanities people call their field “liberal arts” — “liberal” coming from the Latin “liber” or “free”, that is, free or “un-quantifiable” goods.

I’d like to think that this sense of “human-ness”, this “human touch”, becomes embedded onto the product, or channeled into the service the business provides. It’s not going to translate onto any “technical specs” rubric or empirical comparison. But you’ll just feel it in the details and the design.

(A thought: this is perhaps the reason people prefer the Apple to Samsung phones, despite the fact that the latter arguably have as good or even better “specs”.)

How do you develop this feel for the “human touch”? A helpful means is reading the great works of literature: the insight of Dostoevsky into human psychology, for example, or Tolkien’s imagination for the grandiose and the heroic, or Dickens’ sensitivity to the comic in even the tiniest details. I argue that literature allows the entrepreneur to develop this sensitivity for the humanities and translate it in his own business.

The importance of artistry and craftsmanship

Seth Godin writes about how the businesses that make an impact are the ones that make the effort to stand out and be different. They escape the Industrial Age mentality of “cheaper”, “more efficient”, and “optimal”. They take the risk to make a human act, a generous contribution open to the possibility that “it might not work” — but meant to change the recipient for the better if it does.

In other words, the businesses that leave a legacy are the ones that make art.

The iPod: a work of art as much as it is a gadget

On the other hand, the businesses and organizations that barely make a whimper (the majority, I’m afraid) are the ones who choose to play it “safe”. They stick to the status quo, the average. They do what everyone else is doing. They try to seek out industrialization, mass production, low-cost. They try to track the ROI of everything they do, always thinking “what’s in this for me and my business?”.

It’s a cold, “engineering” approach. It’s the opposite of art.

Reading literature helps the entrepreneur develop an appreciation for what art is. It acquaints him and exposes him to some of the greatest artists and works of art, helping him develop his own artistic voice and translate them into his business and his products.

Business books are great (ok, maybe not all of them). Don’t stop investing time to read them. But also allot some time for reading the great works of literature. They just might make you a better entrepreneur.

Wondering where to start reading? My personal favorite is “Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoevsky. A beautiful insight into human nature. Also, here’s a pretty good list. Get started and read!

The Brothers Karamazov

*I’m aware that some would argue on this point , e.g. “Someone reading about swimming realizes it’s completely different the moment he actually steps into the pool the first time”. This is a subject for another post.

Interested to know your literature recommendations for me and everybody reading this article! Just leave a comment.