If You Don’t Read You Don’t Succeed

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I had a conversation recently with a forty-something who was complaining about the lack of direction within his organization. It was one of those, “If I was in charge . .” kind of rants. Three different times during our discussion, I mentioned something I had read about his industry. Each time, he seemed genuinely interested by the information. As it became obvious that I seemed to know more about his field than he did, he said, “I really should read more. I just don’t have the time.”

Without really thinking, I blurted out, “If you don’t read, you don’t succeed.” I didn’t mean to lecture him. I was just surprised that he would limit his scope of knowledge to only the specific work assigned. In his defense, I understand the pressures most managers face to simply accomplish the tasks at hand. It’s so easy to get buried.

Then there’s influence of the internet. It’s no secret that many people struggle to read more than 500 words at a time, let alone interpret the key points. This number drops to 300 for high school students. According to some experts, a sizable percentage of new college graduates are unable to compare and contrast the points of view between two newspaper articles. At the same time, influencers such as Google, Facebook, YouTube and others argue that if you want to capture attention, the only way to do it is through three-minute video clips.

Some would say that I have the luxury of reading because I work for myself. The truth is I spent a good deal of time reading even when I was employed by someone else. Over the years, this has served me well. It has opened my eyes to the nuances of the industries with which I am working. It has allowed me to converse intelligently with corporate leaders. It has enabled me to anticipate the challenges that arise in my business due to downturns and product cycles.

I’m not attempting to lecture anyone by writing all this. I am simply testifying to the fact that reading has been an essential element in my success. Even 30 minutes a day with The Wall Street Journal or some industry publication will broaden your business perspective. During your commute, over a meal, on the toilet, take the time to read.

Are We Becoming a Society of Failure Phobes?

I was struck recently by the comments of a teacher I’ve known for a long time. We were discussing her students’ reactions to bad grades and criticism. She related the shock and protest they express when receiving less-than-stellar evaluations. “It’s almost like they’re phobic about failure.” Yet, while K-12 educators deal with this displeasure, so do college faculty, managers, volunteer leaders, and anyone else expected to evaluate another’s work.

Are we becoming a society of failure phobes? In a word – YES! As a host of philosophers have observed, life is a journey. So is the quest for success. These days, however, we tend to lionize the few who experienced some extraordinary good fortune and extrapolate that if it happened to them, we have a right to it as well. When it doesn’t happen, many of us conclude that we are failures or that society has failed us.

The problem is a lack of perspective. Most of the people I know in business, for instance, have joked that they are fifteen- or twenty-year overnight successes. In other words, it took a long time and countless little setbacks for others to recognize that their overall efforts have resulted in considerable success. These individuals have not counted their setbacks as failures, but as obstacles in a long-time journey. Yet society implies these days that if your efforts are not immediately rewarded with recognition and praise, you have failed.

Why? Because we are products of the messages foisted upon us by others. Too many parents delude their children into thinking that they are entitled to success. Too many policy makers pass legislation mandating fairness (ie. a right to success) for everyone in every situation when this is impossible to achieve, let alone enforce. Too many in the media publicize the unrealistic success of anomalies like Mark Zuckerberg, without placing these people and situations in perspective.

Can we be smart decision makers without failure? Of course not! Ironically, many of those considered most successful at any point in history have been those who have experienced devastating failures and bounced back. The next time you hear of some overnight sensation, dig deeper. Chances are you’ll discover a string of setbacks overcome in the process of getting there.

The sooner one discovers and accepts that success in any realm is the result of calculated risk mixed with a generous dose of mistakes and setbacks, the sooner that person discovers the nature of success. Decide to succeed, but accept that failure is part of the formula.

Basic Skills and Learned Helplessness

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Apple updated my iPhone the other day, whether I wanted it to or not. For the most part, I enjoy learning new technology, especially when I can find an immediate benefit. That said, I cringe at the time spent waiting for updates to download and install. And this is nothing compared to the necessary re-learning to use what I already know because the engineers improved it. (Been there? Done that?)

Digital technology, regardless of its origin, has always been a mixed blessing. On one hand, it offers efficiency and, in most cases, convenience. On the other, it confines our options and can be maddeningly frustrating when what we want to do is forbidden or made close to impossible. Spell-check, auto-correct and the templates in Word, Excel and PowerPoint come to mind.

But there is something more insidious at work as well. It is the learned helplessness that ensnares us all. We might trace it back to the calculators of 1970s. They helped us add, subtract, multiply and divide, along with extinguishing our ability to perform these functions on our own. (Please don’t argue that we shouldn’t need to.)

Then there’s Spell-check. Teachers used to complain that students could not write with proper grammar, punctuation and spelling. (“I ran it through Spell-Check and corrected all the errors.”) Now it’s the next generation of teachers who seem to suffer from this malady. (Please don’t send angry e-mails.) I talk to employers who live in fear that the proposal for that half-million dollar contract will be rejected because the bright young college graduate who drafted it relied on digital applications to make sure it was letter perfect.

Here’s the bottom line, the people who thrive in any environment practice and demonstrate these basic skills in all situations. They re-read. They re-calculate. They put their work down and review it the next day with fresh eyes. They also recognize that the people making the important decisions, leading organizations, and exerting influence do the same and will accept no less from those around them. So it comes down to a choice: a) Do you accept the digital conveniences thrust upon you and trust that the developers know best? b) Do you take five minutes here and ten minutes there to review your work, brush up on basic skills and pay attention to the details which can doom your work and plateau your progress? Your choice.

Critical Thinking and a Troubling Insight

This past week, the Council for Aid to Education published results of its testing 32,000 students on 169 university campuses across the US. They found that four in ten students graduate without the complex reasoning skills to manage white-collar work. The skills tested included the ability to read a scatter plot, construct a cohesive argument or identify a logical fallacy. Most troubling was that even if there is notable growth in these skills over four years, many students are starting at such a low point, they may still not be proficient at graduation.

Is it any wonder that employers continually complain about new graduates who lack the basic attributes to thrive on the job? But there is no purpose in casting blame here. Millennials, who represent the majority of those tested, are products of the influences around them. Policymakers’ endless debates about assessment, testing, dollars for education and so on are missing the point. It takes a community to help young people learn these skills. That’s you, me, parents, individual teachers, the supervisors on the job, the leaders in the community and everyone else who touches these lives. For most, its not human nature to seek out the experiences that teach life’s critical thinking skills. They must be compelled to do so.

Consider the young people around you everyday. The next time one of them comes to you for the answer, don’t give it to him. Tell him to “figure it out.” The outcome will be discovery, knowledge and confidence.