Personal Development: The ROI of Reading

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“I don’t read books. I don’t get the ROI.”

When George said that, conversation stopped.

We’d been discussing different books that we liked when George made his statement. When you’re in a group of people who love to read and discuss books, that kind of a statement is a real conversation-stopper. And, it wasn’t long until everyone at the table was trying to convince George that there was an ROI for reading books.

ROI Is Accounting, Books Are Something Else

Sociologist William Bruce Cameron wrote, in 1963 that, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.” That’s not a bad way to divide things in the world. There are things that can be counted or reduced to numbers. They include the dollars in your bank account, last year’s sales figures, or the price of your house.

And there are other things that count, but steadfastly resist quantification. These include love, sunsets, good friends, and faith. You can count the number of books you’ve read, of course, I did it for years, but basically, reading books is among the things that count but can’t be counted. There are benefits, but you can’t put a number on them. Here are four kinds of benefits.


There are some books that shape who you are and how you live. The Bible is the most important of those, for me. I read the Bible every day, but it’s not the only book that’s shaped my life.

I read Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations and Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography for the first time when I was 19. They shaped my habits and beliefs at a time when I was trying to figure out what kind of an adult man I wanted to be. I still dip into them regularly.

When I left the Marines and started in business, one of the first books that I discovered was Peter Drucker’s Effective Executive. It still gets my vote for the best business book ever, and I still dip into it for Drucker’s wisdom.

Books Can Teach You Specific Things

Some books don’t shape the overall contours of your life, but they teach you specific things that help you do what you want to do better. Here are a few that have done that for me.

Stephen Lynch’s Business Execution for RESULTS introduced me to an effective way to do one-on-one meetings and closed a gap in my thinking about supervision.

Scrum by Jeff Sutherland gave me a way of planning work that made me more effective.

Mark Deterding’s book Leading Jesus’ Way had some stellar advice on easy ways to start conversations.

Heidi Grant-Halverson’s book Succeed gave me some techniques to sharpen my goal-setting and The 4 Disciplines of Execution gave me techniques for tracking important work and progress.

Reading Books can Expand Your Mind

Some books aren’t about specific techniques or about overall ways to live life. Instead, they introduce you to new worlds, challenge your thinking, and enrich your mind. Books have done that for my entire life. Here are three recent examples.

The Boys in The Boat introduced me to the world of competitive rowing, the history of the 1920s and 30s, and teamwork.

One of the best books I’ve read recently about contemporary society is Hillbilly Elegy. And Atul Gawande’s book, Being Mortal helped me understand mortality in present-day America.

Fiction Is Mostly for Enjoyment

I understand that reading fiction can help you develop emotional intelligence and all that, but that’s not why I read it. I read it because it’s fun. Once I’ve discovered a book I really like, I usually read it several times. That’s true for my all-time favorite novel, Death Comes for The Archbishop by Willa Cather. It’s true for Ernest Hemingway’s short stories. It’s also true for Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides.

Bottom Line

George may not agree with this, but you don’t have to have a reason, ROI or anything, to read. You can read because you enjoy it. But if you want to think of the ways that reading makes a difference for you, think about the ways the books you’ve read have shaped your life, taught you specific things, helped you learn about different worlds, and just absorbed you for hours.

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