On Reading, Creativity, and Self-Reflection

This week I had an interesting discussion with a close friend. We have known each other for more than twenty years and whenever we see each other we ask each other what we have learned since we last met. This one question leads to many other questions and we spend many hours discussing different aspects of life and work. 

While sharing the lessons I learned I referenced books I read and how those books helped me identify the problems and find the answer or at least guided me in the right direction. A few books that I referenced during our discussion were How to Win Friends and Influence People, Drive, Deep Work, Thinking Fast and Slow.

After listening to me for some time he made an interesting observation “Don’t you think you are limiting your creativity by reading books? If you had spent 30 mins with yourself self-reflecting your day don’t you think you could have figured out the answers yourself. If you haven’t read these books you might have come up with a different and original answer.”

This observation was both shocking and surprising to me. I asked him to repeat it a couple of times just to be sure I have not misunderstood him.

This questioned my fundamental premise that you read books to broaden your mind and become prepared for the future. (Not all books fall under this category)

After pondering for a couple of minutes I explained to him why I don’t think books limit originality/creativity and why self-reflection can’t help you find all the answers.

I read books for four main reasons (apart from the reason I enjoy them):

  • I want to learn a better way to solve the problem. I might not always have the skills or know a good solution. A Good book teaches us about the many possible ways to think/approach a problem.It is always a good idea to read multiple books on the same topic.
  • A good book puts useful ideas in your subconscious mind. You don’t try to memorize them or write them in your notebook for reference. These ideas just click and make a place in your subconscious. They seem obvious but you never thought about them in this way previously.
  • If you are honest with yourself while reading a good book can help you discover your blind spots. This sometimes acts as a slap on the wrist. 
  • If you are lucky, books can help you avoid costly mistakes or it can help you learn/recover quickly from your mistakes. It is called learning from other people’s mistakes.

When you apply ideas from books you are applying them in your context and environment. This will always be different from the author’s context and environment. Sometimes you combine multiple ideas to form a more powerful idea, sometimes you improvise an idea, sometimes you learn when not to apply the idea. In my experience it is not a recipe where you follow a series of steps and voila things happen magically. At least it never happens to me like this.  So, in my view books don’t limit creativity, they enable you to become more creative. 

Nothing of me is original. I am the combined effort of everyone I’ve ever known. – Chuck Palahniuk

Now coming to the second point on self-reflection. It is possible that I could have figured out answers to some of the problems myself. There are some problems for which you can figure out the answer either by making the mistake a couple of times or being lucky. But, for many other problems you have to prepare yourself before you can even realize that they are a problem. In my view self-reflection requires a well-read and prepared mind. 

I consider reading, creativity, and self-reflection interlinked. They complete each other and make you a better human being. There are multiple ways people think so there could be other ways as well.

2 thoughts on “On Reading, Creativity, and Self-Reflection”

  1. I found this post very appealing to me because I also had the same view – I can solve any problem as it comes and instead of reading I would prefer Udemy. But sometime back I had also realised that we don’t have enough time in life to solve every problem – why do you want to reinvent the wheel? And as you rightfully said “for many other problems you have to prepare yourself before you can even realise that they are a problem”.

  2. books hold the condensed wisdom of humanity … the great thinkers of the past ( and today ) all stand on the shoulders of giants. Without Schopenhauer and Wagner, we’d not have Nietzsche. Aristotle built on Plato who was in turn inspired by Socrates. The Greek stoics inspired Marcus Aurelius. The list goes on… a dialog spanning aeons. Yes, we should make time to reflect, to write, and to develop our own thoughts — but books give us the context.

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