Want To Do Meaningful Work? Keep Reading. Literally.

How Reading Promotes Empathy and Drives Innovation

  • Justin Zoradi
Want To Do Meaningful Work? Keep Reading. Literally.

A survey by The Jenkins Group, an independent publishing services firm, has shown that millions of Americans never read another book after leaving school.

Check out the stats:

33% of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.

42% of college graduates never read another book after college.

80% of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.

70% of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.

57% of new books are not read to completion.

While these statistics are obviously troubling, I don’t think any of us can honestly say we’re that surprised.

But what I’m intrigued by is not the people who neglect to read books, but rather, the ones who continue to do so.

I’ve noticed a unique trend among my friends who’ve thrived in their 20’s and 30’s. These special people have continued to seek out challenging books and ideas, allowing their beliefs and opinions to grow and evolve. They’ve stretched their worldviews by traveling beyond the borders of their hometowns, many of them abroad for substantial periods of time. They took risks, flourished in foreign places, taken jobs outside of their original field of study, and shared late night meals with people different than them.

For the most part, these people can be described in four unique ways: They are Readers, Travelers, Empathizers, and Innovators.

Raymond Mar, a professor at York University, noticed a link between reading and empathy. In a study of children, Mar found that the more a child reads, the likelier he or she is to be able to understand the emotions of others.

There is a stereotype in this country that the smarter you are, the more narcissistic you become. Maybe I choose great friends, but from my experience, I don’t find that to be entirely true. Do I know people who are insanely intelligent and whose egotism borders on megalomania? Of course. But for the most part, my peers who are readers, travelers, empathizers, and innovators have taken a fierce, others-centered stance. They want to make a difference, create change, and develop new ideas and products that contribute to society rather than just taking.

On the contrary, the people I know who haven’t picked up a book since high school or college do their professional work just as passionately, but with “me”-centered blinders, unable to see the possibilities outside of themselves.

Egotism is the enemy of empathy. You can track back an inflated view of self to nearly all of the most insidious events in human history. Yes, the success of American culture has bold foundations in individualism and personal responsibility. But it's been skillfully matched by a deep sense of charity, innovation, and wonder, much of which comes from the exploration of new ideas and beliefs.

I’m not too worried about the lack of reading for the sake of the book industry or ensuring profit for publishing houses.

I’m worried that the lack of reading is a canary in the mineshaft, warning us of a stifling narcissism in our midst.

If you are a reader, keep going and ensure the power of new ideas moves you to empathize and innovate. If you aren’t a reader, couple an interesting non-fiction piece with some young adult fiction and start plugging away. The world will thank you for it. And you'll probably become obsessed with Harry Potter.

- JZ

Sign Up Today and Let's Journey Together

Get ideas, tips, and updates on doing work that matters with lasting impact

Fill out my online form.


The Jenkins Group

Good Magazine

The Guardian

Comments (15)

  • Stanton ??????? Martin

    Stanton ??????? Martin

    22 March 2012 at 02:38 |
    Great to read this after hearing some of these thoughts from you last Friday. Keep it up!
  • Justin Zoradi

    Justin Zoradi

    22 March 2012 at 03:29 |
    For sure Stanton. Appreciate it man. I forgot what I said last Friday. Haha. Remind me?
  • Sheryl Hjellming

    Sheryl Hjellming

    26 March 2012 at 02:44 |
    Hey Justin,

    Great article! FYI - I have to avoid bookstores - because the budget would NEVER allow all the books I want to buy. Sigh......
    • Justin Zoradi

      Justin Zoradi

      27 March 2012 at 07:38 |
      Thanks Sheryl!
    • Arlen Miller

      Arlen Miller

      02 September 2013 at 18:47 |
      It's called the gift of public libraries! :)
  • carl


    27 March 2012 at 02:02 |
    Hey dude. Sweet article. Here I am in my intermediate class at Alunasa in Esparza Costa Rica analyzing the cross-cultural dimensions of it. You probably would've loved to be here. Sorry to be talking behind your back.

    Anywho, in the paragraph you spoke about your friends taking on jobs outside of their fields of study, we were thinking many of them (us) have probably STUDIED outside of our fields as well. TRIGGERING EMPATHY. Thoughts?
    • Justin Zoradi

      Justin Zoradi

      27 March 2012 at 07:39 |

      Definitely man. In the rough draft I actually had a bit about doing work outside our original fields of study. So I totally agree. and yes, it triggers empathy. Most experiences outside of our comfort zones tend to do so. Thanks for reading & sharing.
  • carl


    29 March 2012 at 00:00 |
    Here I am again, now with my advanced crew. Statistics can definitely be used to prove a point...however it´s important to be fair. In terms of the 4th one about people physically going to bookstores we are thinking this probably has a lot to do with online book purchasing such as Right? Kindling? Illegal downloading? Cool stuff like that.
    • Justin Zoradi

      Justin Zoradi

      02 April 2012 at 21:38 |
      You're probably right man. Someone else brought that up as well. No doubt that sites like Amazon play a huge role here.
  • Amy Fox

    Amy Fox

    02 April 2012 at 20:00 |
    Justin Hjelm mentioned this article and I just got to it. Just beautiful, especially for an English teacher! The NYT talked about Mar's studies a few weeks ago.
  • Justin Zoradi

    Justin Zoradi

    02 April 2012 at 21:38 |
    Thank you Amy!!!! Appreciate it very much. Means quite a lot coming from you.
  • Rayna


    04 April 2012 at 13:06 |
    Great article; very insightful and thought-provoking. I found it via

    I find those statistics absolutely shocking, and wanted to read the original study or press release, but can't seem to find it anywhere on the Jenkins Group's website. Can you link me to the source? Thank you!
  • Justin Zoradi

    Justin Zoradi

    04 April 2012 at 20:57 |
    Hi Rayna,

    Really happy to see you found the blog via bookriot. I saw those stats originally in a magazine article and copied them down, they listed Jenkins as the source. I've had trouble finding them on the Jenkins site as well. What I do know is that founder of The Jenkins Group once gave a presentation at an event in which he cited these reading statistics in his speech. The statistics were, as far as The Jenkins Group can recall, from a variety of legitimate sources, including the Book Industry Study Group and U.S. News & World Reports.

    Thanks for reading!
  • louis vuitton handbags

    louis vuitton handbags

    13 December 2012 at 04:47 |
    Hi, just wanted to tell you, I loved this article. It was practical. Keep on posting!
  • Andrea Reiter

    Andrea Reiter

    27 July 2013 at 00:05 |
    The photo and title both drew me to your article. I tend to be compulsive about looking at others' bookshelves, and here is one for which I don't have to ask permission! The titles aren't all clear though; can you provide a list? A year ago or so, when I saw this, I started with Tim Keller's "A Reason for God," and it was instrumental to a profound change in me (as well as his other books and sermons.) Don Miller too. I have read so many truly great books in 20 years since college, but I have not found deeply meaningful work. I will stay tuned to your website/blog.

Leave a comment

You are commenting as guest. Optional login below.

About Justin

I believe ordinary people have great power to impact others. I want to help you do work that matters. Learn More

Get My New Book

Download Doing Work That Matters for FREE! PICK IT UP HERE