Y’know, I gotta say, I’m pretty proud of my ability to speak with nearly anyone about nearly anything. Now, I’m not saying I’m an expert on most subjects, not at all, but I have basic knowledge about enough topics to get through a conversation and—more importantly, I think—know which questions to ask.
Honestly, this has helped me in too many ways to count, but here’re a few examples: making and developing friendships, dating, work, family, meeting a girlfriend’s parents or friends, and even connecting with strangers while traveling. Sure, part of it’s my absolutely devastating natural charm [insert the sound of my friends and family laughing uproariously], but I largely credit my reading habits.
I’ve always read a lot, but in the past fifteen years or so, I’ve also made a concerted effort to read widely, to read up on subjects that are less familiar to me or that don’t necessarily target me specifically as a reader. It’s one of the best ways to understand other people and their communities.
That’s absolutely key: read a lot but also read widely.
Look, no matter what, we are unavoidably limited in our daily lives when it comes to exposure to topics, cultures and points of view. We can’t all hang out with biochemists or art historians or mathematicians or foreign policy experts, or even with members of the LGBT community or racialized communities (and if we do, talking about what it’s like to be part of such communities may not be what they had in mind when you all sat down for a drink).
But, though we may not get to interact with all these fascinating people with valuable experiences to share and knowledge to impart, we can read the books they write.
We tend to stick to our comfort zones, to decide that certain topics simply aren’t for us, and so give up on exploring them. It makes us feel safe to do so, to simply convince ourselves that we don’t really need to understand that stuff. We’ve got our tribe, with its own knowledge base and needs, and that’s fine by you. But what are you missing out on?
See it as a challenge. Don’t accept that there are certain things or people you don’t understand.
I guarantee reading a lot and reading widely will improve your life in immeasurable ways. You’re a guy who can’t seem to understand or connect with women? Try reading a book about women written by a woman. Challenge yourself and your preconceptions. Get out of your comfort zone.
The next time you find yourself in a conversation and feel baffled or lost when a particular topic or point of view comes up, take note of that topic and, the moment you can, plug it into Google along with the words “best books on”. Happens a lot? Make a list.
It’s not about becoming an expert, it’s about having a wide and varied knowledge base. It’s about embracing dilettantism, about knowing a tiny bit about a hell of a lot.
Now, a word of caution: just because you’ve read a book by a woman on being a woman does not mean you can now speak about the female experience with any sort of authority. It simply allows you to approach discussions on the topic with some context and understanding and, as mentioned, allows you to ask the right questions.
And, reading these books should lead you to ask those questions, to seek out those experts who can answer them. Reading a lot and reading widely shouldn’t replace conversations and open discussion with a variety of people who know more and better than you, reading should facilitate and engender such interactions.
Anyway, at some point, I plan to write a post with a few reading recommendations, sources of information that I’ve found particular useful and enlightening. Until then, though, just read.
Read a lot.