The Need to Read
While the previous installation of this seven-part series was something of a love-letter to language, words and writing, it was ultimately making a simple, powerful point: everyone reads. Not only in the literal sense of reading books, newspapers and exquisitely crafted blog posts but, equally importantly, in the figurative sense. This dimension of reading is often overlooked as it’s more lateral than literal. Yet, whether consciously or unconsciously, it’s the universal kind of reading almost every life form on this planet relies upon in the most visceral fashion.
You’ve undoubtedly heard of people who have an unerring ability to ‘read the room’. Perhaps you know people like that; perhaps it’s a knack you yourself have been lauded for. Certain individuals have a gift for ‘reading’ other people: we’re all familiar with the expression ‘I can read you like a book.’ When we say ‘read between the lines’ we don’t mean it literally: what we mean is ‘you’re missing the real point’. Similarly, the ability to ‘read the signs’ is an unwritten KPA of just about any important position in business, politics and economics, if not a universal requirement for any life-form even remotely interested in not becoming extinct anytime soon.
Read the Signs
The takeaway is that ‘reading’, in its most fundamental sense, is a universal attribute hardwired into our DNA. Imagine it’s around 2 million years in the past. You’re a caveman, enjoying a good ol’ mammoth braai with your buddies. Suddenly the crickets stop chirping. An owl abruptly ends its serenade mid-hoot. Clearly something is amiss. Without knowing why, you get the hell out of there while your besties are devoured by the sabre-toothed tiger that was creeping up on you. Because you were able to read the signs, you survived.
This means that those incapable of reading the signs were effectively ‘de-selected’ by evolution. Natural selection, noting the effectiveness of this instinctive survival strategy, ensured that the ‘read-the-signs’ gene continued to be passed through the generations. Fast-forward to a world more familiar to us and it’s easy to see how this capability is as alive and well as ever. If Warren Buffett is a smarter investor than anyone else it’s because he knows how to read the signs. If Putin’s invasion of Ukraine isn’t going quite according to plan, it’s because his ability to read the signs has clearly become functionally impaired.
The Write Stuff
However, at this point in my journey toward conquering Mt. Content, I’m talking exclusively about the reading of written content. There’s a reason for that: the written word is one of the most fundamental, visceral and immediate connections between thought and its expression. It’s where everything starts. As American corporate titan Lee Iacocca once said: ‘The discipline of writing something down is the first step toward making it happen.’
Furthermore, written content has a wonderful knack for levelling the playing field. After all, no matter how much money someone has, there is no way they can have a better dictionary than you or afford to buy better words. It’s akin to what Andy Warhol said when he expressed his admiration for Coca Cola. ‘A Coke is a Coke,’ said the artist who transformed consumerism into fine art. ‘No amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking.’
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