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The Care and Feeding of World-Changers

pile of books for world-changers
Image by Paul Watson
I spent the evening at Barnes & Noble last night, and did a lot of reading in the café area. I spent most of the time reading the first part of Haruki Murakami’s new book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. It’s part running log, part self-help guide, and part writing memoir. I love it.

I read a few other things too – the BBC Focus on Africa magazine, a travel guide for Sri Lanka, and a quick look at a memoir of someone who spent two years at Harvard Business School.

I tend to spend a lot of time reading like that, although recently I’ve cut back. That’s not a good sign – I believe reading is one of the most important things we can do every day – so I’m working on fixing it.

The regular intake of valuable resources, especially books, is crucial to the development of any committed world-changer.

In this post I’ll share more about why reading is so important, and let you know about a few other materials I’ve been checking out recently.

First, let’s say you’ve got your two answers to the most important questions in the universe, you’re building a small army, and preparing to launch a plan of attack (or scale up your current plan). How do you keep the momentum going?

Without regular doses of the right resources, your world-changing will be limited, and that momentum will shift downwards. Since we live in an age where access to information has been democratized (at least for everyone able to read this essay), there’s no real excuse for not taking the time out to learn.

Good resources can inform, inspire, or entertain. These goals are not mutually exclusive; some resources can accomplish more than one at the same time.

Fiction

I try to read at least one work of literary fiction a month. I recently read Never Let Me Go and Baudolino, both of which I’d wholeheartedly recommend. Earlier this year I read The Rector of Justin and re-read A Wild Sheep Chase, another Murakami book. I picked up Harbor for the last trip, but it didn’t arrive on time, so I’ll have it for the next one. For less intellectual entertainment resources, I check out the Fail Blog, GraphJam, and a few online comics.

Non-Fiction

Some of my all-time favorites are linked on my Inspiration page. In addition to those, recently I’ve discovered The Power of Full Engagement and have been slowly reading that.

Earlier this year I also read The 7 Habits for the first time ever. For some reason I missed it in its original shining hour, but reading it felt very familiar. I realized that I lot of the principles and examples in the book have been adapted (and sometimes stolen without credit) by many other writers and teachers in the personal development field.

I have to admit that I thought a bit less of the people I’ve learned from who used Stephen Covey’s stories without any attribution. Maybe I should read The 8th Habit next and see what else has been stolen.

(Note to Prospective Gurus: if you want to become a self-help teacher, by all means, use the best stuff that’s out there. But you should also create your own material, and credit what you do end up borrowing or adapting.)

Alternative Learning Styles

I’m an old-school fan of traditional books, and probably always will be. For me, there's something about holding the paper and ink in my hands that isn't easily replicable with other mediums. But it’s true that not everyone has the same learning style, and it’s always good to mix it up a bit. When I’m running I usually listen to a 20-minute language learning podcast before switching over to high-energy music for the rest of the run. I’m not an inherently good language learner and don’t always enjoy the process, but once I start the podcast I can usually stick with it until the end.

In addition to language learning, the iTunes directory has an increasingly large selection of free educational resources. There are also video podcasts, which don’t work well while running (I’ve tried and it isn’t pretty; trust me) but can be fun to check out on the bus or airplane.

For paid products, the Teaching Company has some fun courses which I’m sure you can learn a lot from. If I don’t sound too certain, it’s because this is definitely not my learning style. I have a hard time listening to lectures.

(One tip: these DVD and CD products are pretty expensive. You can get a better deal by shopping on eBay for used copies.)

Eliminating Distractions

While I advocate taking in many diverse sources of information, I also agree that you should eliminate as many unimportant distractions as possible. For me, the biggest distraction is internet surfing. I have an incredible ability to spend hours in front of the computer doing nothing of value. An hour will pass and I don’t even remember what web sites I’ve been reading. Yikes—that’s not good.

To end, or at least cut back on this bad habit, I’ve had to set rules for myself. The current ones are:

  • Gmail three times a day (no more)

  • News-reading twice a day (no more)

  • Try to initiate at least one minor-to-moderate project a day (instead of continually responding to other things)

  • Complete at least one task towards each major project

  • Spend time writing first thing in the morning

  • Never feel bad about stopping work to exercise
Speaking of the Murakami book, one passage I read last night was especially relevant.

I’m struck by how, except when you’re young, you really need to prioritize in life, figuring out in what order you should divide up your time and energy. If you don’t get that sort of system set by a certain age, you’ll lack focus and your life will be out of balance. I placed the highest priority on the sort of life that lets me focus on writing… I felt that the indispensible relationship I should build in my life was not with a specific person, but with an unspecified number of readers. As long as I got my day-to-day life set so that each work was an improvement over the last, then many of my readers would welcome whatever life I chose for myself. Shouldn’t this be my duty as a novelist, and my top priority? My opinion hasn’t changed over the years.

Except for being a novelist, that’s pretty much exactly how I feel about what I want to do. But I know I have a lot to learn, so that’s why I keep reading.

What Resources Do You Rely On?

I included some of what I’m reading these days in case you’re looking for referrals, but it’s important to read according to your own preferences.

What’s on your bookshelf – or your iPod, your Kindle, or whatever – these days?

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