Learning Practice # 3: Read Broadly; Apply Specifically

If you were to ask great leaders, what has inspired them recently, you may be surprised that often their inspiration comes from something not directly related to their leadership context. This is because great leaders apply our third learning practice: Read Broadly, but Apply Specifically.

What Is The Opposite Of Fragile?

How effective would a gym be without weights? It would be useless because you removed the primary tool that builds strength. Or consider your immune system. If you already had chicken pox once, why will you most likely not have it again? Because you know your immune system has grown immune to the infection. Both your muscles and your immune system strengthen through applied pressure. The more that you shock the system, the stronger it becomes. 

In his book, The Black Swan, Nassim Talib coins the term, antifragile. If something fragile breaks under pressure, antifragile is something that strengthens under pressure. Like our muscular and immune system, our mind has an antifragile nature to it. Whether you are reading a book that is at a level higher than normal or if you are memorizing large chunks of material, as you push your mind to think critically, it strengthens.

The Rise Of Safetyism

In their book, Coddling Of The American Mind, Greg Lukainoff and Jonathan Haidt identify the common belief in society called “safetyism.” They describe the culture as one “that allows the concept of “safety” to creep so far that it equates emotional discomfort with physical danger. [It] is a culture that encourages people to systematically protect one another from the very experiences embedded in daily life that they need in order to become strong and healthy (p.29).” Safetyism avoids anything that may cause discomfort emotionally, or ideologically because it believes whatever doesn’t kill you makes you weaker. Those that accept this belief block out all other opinions that differ from their own. In doing this, they don’t know the merits of other people’s beliefs nor understand the valid concerns surrounding their belief. 

The rising view of “safetyism” disables the antifragile nature of our mind. We find strength and health, not when we protect ourselves from different perspectives, but when we expose ourselves to them. This is why the third discipline of reading broadly and applying specifically is so important. Learning outside our discipline and comfort does not create weak stances, but strong ones. To not read broadly, is the equivalent of removing the weights out of the gym. You remove the pressure that pushes your brain to actively engage with new ideas and solidify personal stances. 

4 Ways To Read Broadly

  • Read outside your discipline: Much inspiration and insight can be gleaned outside your leadership context. A fresh perspective and a different approach allow you to stay innovative in your own field. 
  • Read outside your comfort:  Embrace a +1 mentality when choosing your reading level. By stretching yourself as a learner, you will grow as a critical thinker. 
  • Read outside your preference: Diversify how you learn. As a reader, don’t just read leadership books, but also biographies and novels. Not only will this stretch you, but it will give you insight and inspiration in unique ways. 
  • Read outside your tribe: It is important to listen to the viewpoints of those with different perspectives. Identify experts in their fields and read their best works. This continues to raise your awareness and minimize your confirmation bias.

4 Tips For Specific Application

  • Remember your purpose: If you haven’t read about creating a purpose statement, take a quick look here. Your purpose becomes the filter for the information you hear and read. It keeps you true to who you are. Personally, as a believer and a pastor, I always filter what I read through my faith and my workplace. There are many leadership books that communicate self-promotion and self-interest, but my faith calls me to a higher purpose of serving God and making his name known. When these come in conflict, I must work through the three tips below. 
  • Eat the meat; spit out the bones: Whenever you read broadly, you will find several things that you disagree with. It’s important not to “throw the baby out with the bath water.” Learners know how to mine for great insights even when they disagree with the greater idea. 
  • Principle, Philosophy, or Practice: A great question to ask is “To what extent do I agree with this?”  A simple framework to think through is principle, philosophy, and practice. Answering which of these you agree with will allow you to determine the extent of your agreement and application. Within your tribe, you will often agree with all three, but outside your tribe, you may only agree with the principle of an idea. 
  • Adapt, don’t adopt: Rarely do you find an idea that you can “copy and paste.” Even when we agree from principle to practice, we usually have to customize the idea to fit our context. It is important to evaluate your leadership and your context and figure out how to adapt the idea to have its maximum impact. 

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