Want To Do Meaningful Work? Keep Reading. Literally.

Donald Miller

How Reading Promotes Empathy and Drives Innovation

Today’s guest post is by one of my favorite Portlandites (and people in general) Justin Zoradi. Justin runs a global education organization empowering young people to become leaders and fight poverty. He’s guest posted before and I hope he offers more to this blog in the future. You can read more of Justin’s musings over at www.justinzoradi.com

Want To Do Meaningful Work? Keep Reading. Literally.


A survey by The Jenkins Group, an independent publishing services firm, has shown that millions of Americans never read another book after leaving school.

Check out the stats:

33% of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.

42% of college graduates never read another book after college.

80% of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.

70% of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.

57% of new books are not read to completion.

While these statistics are obviously troubling, I don’t think any of us can honestly say we’re that surprised.

But what I’m intrigued by is not the people who neglect to read books, but rather, theones who continue to do so.

I’ve noticed a unique trend among my friends who’ve thrived in their 20’s and 30’s. These special people have continued to seek out challenging books and ideas, allowing their beliefs and opinions to grow and evolve. They’ve stretched their worldviews by traveling beyond the borders of their hometowns, many of them abroad for substantial periods of time. They took risks, flourished in foreign places, taken jobs outside of their original field of study, and shared late night meals with people different than them.

For the most part, these people can be described in four unique ways: They are ReadersTravelersEmpathizers, and Innovators.

Raymond Mar, a professor at York University, noticed a link between reading and empathy. In a study of children, Mar found that the more a child reads, the likelier he or she is to be able to understand the emotions of others.

There is a stereotype in this country that the smarter you are, the more narcissistic you become. Maybe I choose great friends, but from my experience, I don’t find that to be entirely true. Do I know people who are insanely intelligent and whose egotism borders on megalomania? Of course. But for the most part, my peers who are readers, travelers, empathizers, and innovators have taken a fierce, others-centered stance. They want to make a difference, create change, and develop new ideas and products that contribute to society rather than just taking.

On the contrary, the people I know who haven’t picked up a book since high school or college do their professional work just as passionately, but with “me”-centered blinders, unable to see the possibilities outside of themselves.

Egotism is the enemy of empathy. You can track back an inflated view of self to nearly all of the most insidious events in human history. Yes, the success of American culture has bold foundations in individualism and personal responsibility. But it’s been skillfully matched by a deep sense of charity, innovation, and wonder, much of which comes from the exploration of new ideas and beliefs.

I’m not too worried about the lack of reading for the sake of the book industry or ensuring profit for publishing houses.

I’m worried that the lack of reading is a canary in the mineshaft, warning us of a stifling narcissism in our midst.

If you are a reader, keep going and ensure the power of new ideas moves you to empathize and innovate. If you aren’t a reader, couple an interesting non-fiction piece with some young adult fiction and start plugging away. The world will thank you for it. And you’ll probably become obsessed with Harry Potter.

– jz

Donald Miller

Donald Miller

Donald Miller has been telling his story for more than a decade, now he wants to help you tell yours. He’s helped over 1,000 companies clarify their message through the StoryBrand Workshops. For an introduction to what he’s doing now, check out the 5 Minute Marketing Makeover.

  • There is a risk there. If you start reading, you will start asking the right questions….

  • My suggestion for non-readers is to try a book on audio.
    Several of my friends who didn’t read, tried and found that they loved the stories and it got them started at the library.

  • Ret. Educator

    What is this compulsion to redefine empathy [having the same actual feeling] when in actuality sympathy [ feeling like the same or similar emotion] is a much more accurate descriptor????
    The case of the Corsican Brothers is the only true description of empathy that I know of. If you hit one brother, the other brother would have the identical sensation, even to the extent of developing a bruise or swelling.

    • Haley

      There is emotional empathy, which is what he’s talking about, being able to actually share in the emotional feelings of someone else. I think in the way he is using it, empathy is a much better word than sympathy simply because sympathy means that one understands the pain of another, but it doesn’t mean that the other person is affected by it.

    • Billikin

      Empathy is not having the same emotion as someone else. It is understanding the emotions of others. The phrase, “walk a mile in my shoes” is about empathy. The term comes from the art world, and meant (in the original German) entering into the emotion of a work of art. You can see how that might apply to reading fiction, as it engages the imagination.

  • Joann

    I do find the statistics shocking simply because I can’t imagine life without reading. My ten year old, twelve year old, and I have each enjoyed about fifteen new books since the beginning of the year. Our goal is 52 books in 52 weeks. Since we are reading many of the same books (mostly YA dystopian novels), we’ve had some great discussions. We need a pick up a book and read campaign!

  • Joel

    A very nice article with a very good point! Exercising the mind (and especially the imagination, something that is not exercised when we watch movies/tv/etc) is just as important as exercising the body, at all stages of life.

    One bone to pick, though: if I may break out the “grammar police” routine, the expression “literally” is appropriate only when a situation’s actuality needs to be differentiated from a well-known metaphorical expression. For example, “I literally walked a mile in his shoes” would be appropriate if a person had actually walked a mile in the other person’s shoes, and needed to distinguish between the actual event and the well-known metaphorical expression. “I literally kept reading” would not be appropriate, even if the person actually kept reading, as there is no corresponding, well-known metaphorical expression.

    • Michael Hardy

      Love the article, literally! My heart was moved and it felt like ‘love’, so it was literally love.

      Now Joel, I think that the ‘heading creator’ was using creative plays on words: Read on/keep reading, literally/literary.

      Maybe a better grammar police ‘action’ would be to remove the terrible Americanism ‘done’ (meaning ‘I have finished’) from the world of English :~)

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  • Those are daunting statistics! Now with all of the social media, finding the time for reading books requires even more discipline. The rewards are well worth the purposefulness.

    These statistics prove that the ‘education’ system of the State is for indoctrination and propagandizing not for inspiring people to be aspiring.

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  • I enjoyed this. Reading is so important to being successful in every career and calling. We shared the link on our Saturday Sampling at stonewritten.com. I hope more people read it. http://www.stonewritten.com/?p=3766

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  • Marilyn

    I’m sympathetic to your point about the importance of reading and being a life-long learner. However, it’s worth pointing out that empathy is not all it’s cracked up to be. A commitment to follow a moral code consistently trumps empathy as a predictor of moral behavior. See, e.g. empirical philosopher Jesse Prinz’ article, Is Empathy Necessary for Morality?, or David Brooks’ summary in his 9/29/2011 NYT column, The Limits of Empathy.)

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  • I just wanted to say I found you through the blog Enjoying the Small Things by Kelle Hampton. She read A Million Miles in a Thousand Years about three weeks before her 2nd daughter was born. She was overcome when her expected healthy baby girl was born with Down syndrome. She decided to write a better story for her and her family. She has done so much with her blog. She just wrote a memoir, Bloom: Finding Beauty in the Unexpected, it has been out a week and is #11 on the NYTimes Best Seller list today. She mentions your book in her memoir and I thought you should know about her, if you hadn’t already. She is living the Storyline and changing the world. Raising over $100K on her daughters 1st birthday and then another on her 2nd. I have been blessed for finding both of you and wanted to say “Thank you”. Keep up the AMAZING work!!! You can also find her on http://www.kellehampton.com
    So excited for Blue Like Jazz opening on Friday.

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  • Mok

    There’s a fundamental flaw in this analysis – it equates “reading books” with “reading”.

    Personally, I’ve only read a handful of actual books in the past several years, but I’m constantly reading: blogs, magazines, websites, and tons upon tons of scientific articles.

    Again speaking only for myself, I actually find many books frustratingly long-winded and vague when they’re trying to communicate an idea or message. If Gould can communicate a critique so powerful it altered the entire field of evolutionary biology for decades in less than 20 pages, how can it take 1000+ pages to express the alienation of modern city life?

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