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Deep Work Is Deep Reading

We need a more literate business world.

Key points

  • Business leaders must be deep readers, not just skimmers.
  • Deep reading rewires our brain and fosters empathy.
  • Literacy is a human right.
  • We must teach algorithms to read deeply so they can develop empathy.
Photo by Victoria Heath on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Victoria Heath on Unsplash

In the business world, the idea of “literacy” is often taken for granted. We like to think we know what we’re looking at, that we’re in touch with our customers, and up-to-date on trends. But we often judge a book by its cover, and that is often not good enough.

Business can be illiterate when it’s all-too-literal. It spawns an incredible number of ideas only to quash most of them in the grinds of a binary bureaucracy that has no tolerance for fiction, even though one could argue that companies (and markets) are essentially stories that come (or at least ring) true. “Real artists ship,” Steve Jobs famously remarked. As BCG’s Martin Reeves, aiming to deliver on Jobs’s demand, explores how to turn your company into an “imagination machine,”reading seems fundamental. Imaginative business leaders read.

Reading is not about learning but forgetting what we know.

In business, however, reading is often reduced to absorbing information. Services such as Blinkist and GetAbstract have fueled an optimized, hyper-efficient reading culture that is rewarded for reducing books to mere “key takeaways,” avoiding cognitive dissonance and more complex truths. When Elon Musk or Mark Zuckerberg boast how many books they can read in one week, they and other “professional readers” ignore the most important benefit of reading: it is not learning, but rather forgetting what we know.

Last week I had the great pleasure of interviewing MIT professor and bestselling author Sherry Turkle, and we spoke about the correlation between empathy and ethics, her recent memoir The Empathy Diaries, and the need to “reclaim conversation in a digital age,” to cite one of her previous books. Turkle bemoaned the loss we face when we rely increasingly on digital technology to replace our social interactions. She told me she was unimpressed by the “fake empathy” of chatbots like Woebot (an AI-based therapist) or other examples of social robotics and so-called Emotion AI. “True empathy requires vulnerability, and vulnerability is inherently human,” she insisted.

We don’t all need to read the same book, but it is critical we all read.

This is what books help us do. Reading rewires our brain, a product of a phenomenon called neuroplasticity that describes our brain as malleable and ever-evolving in response to our experiences. Neuroplasticity is the foundation for a change of perspective, for true empathy. It is what makes us human, one could argue. But it does require deep reading, not just skimming.

The whole point of reading is thus reading, and how we read. There is a direct line from deep reading to empathy to embracing views, values, and ideologies that are different from our own. To overcome polarization and heal divides, we don’t all need to read the same book, but it is critical we all read.

This is the argument that Maryanne Wolf, one of the world’s leading scholars on literacy and the director of the Center for Dyslexia, Diverse Learners, and Social Justice at UCLA, so passionately presents. In a conversation I had with her last week, she made the case for “literacy as a human right.”

How do we teach machines to develop empathy?

And while that is compelling and profound, literacy is now also a feature — and soon a right? — of AI. There is dispute over how well AI can actually read, but the fact of the matter is that automated or augmented reading by machines will increasingly replace human reading. And AI is not just the new reader, but also the new writer on the block. Microsoft’s Xiaoice chatbot, for example, has learned to write poetry and short stories, and for its more than 660 million users, these texts are often the literature most integral to their daily lives. And then there are the algorithms that infiltrate our lives through social media platforms like TikTok. They require a new form of literacy while also presenting a chance to become more literate on issues of identity, race, and gender.

“External technologies transform us. They transform us at a physiological level, at a psychological level, and at a social-emotional level,” Wolf observed. How can we teach algorithms to develop empathy? Should we? Maryanne Wolf said she is hopeful that “if we manage to “combine the imagination of the artist with the beautiful intelligence in our technologies, we will never lose what makes us uniquely human, whatever we create.”

Citing the moral philosopher Martha Nussbaum, she laid out the consequences of failure: “It would be catastrophic to become a nation of technically competent people who have lost the ability to think critically, to examine themselves, and to respect the humanity and diversity of others.”

Deep reading is beautiful business. Take time for it; the whole world depends on it.

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