“It has many faulty places,” answered Xu, followed by his criticism of several places of the book. After he finished, he complacently waited for the master’s praises of his intellectual sharpness.
But what he got from the master was severe admonishment, “You don’t know how to read books! Every book has good places as well as bad places. You should look at its good places first. Otherwise, what can you learn from reading?”
“This is a life-changing admonishment,” Xu recalled decades later in 1980, “And it could be a life-changing admonishment for all the other people who are too proud to learn.”
Taking the Admonishment to Heart
This surely includes me. Sometimes when I read books, I simply surf through the chapters, sniff when there’s anything suspicious, and feel “I already knew that” when things are correct. And just like Xiong warned, I learned little from these books.
This happens frequently when I move out of my reading comfort zone. For example, most positive psychology books I read are written by prominent researchers, such as Barbara Fredrickson’s Positivity and Jon Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis. Last month I was reading The Happiness Advantage written by Shawn Achor, who worked with Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar to teach the famous Positive Psychology course at Harvard. This book doesn’t cite as much research as those I am more accustomed to. Instead it uses a lot of the author’s personal stories. I often found myself reading it in Xu Fuguan’s fashion, dismissing Achor’s stories as self-help-book-style anecdotal evidence and shrugging over the data when he did present research thinking, “I already knew that!”
It was in the middle of reading this book when I heard the admonishment of Xiong about focusing on the negative points of books. I immediately recognized my problem and shifted my focus when I resumed reading Achor’s book. Now I appreciate his stories as good illustrations of the positive psychology principles and appreciate the research he presents as solid foundations of his stories. I learned more from his book after this shift of focus.
And I am not the only person who benefited from Xiong’s admonishment. This story is well known in China. I searched for it online and found many people expressed the same feeling that it helped them to learn more from reading.
I call it Appreciative Reading. The Appreciative Inquiry proposed by David Cooperrider and Suresh Srivastva was meant for organization management and achieved considerable success in business applications. But it can also be used in other fields such as education, sports, and the military. And when you use it in reading, that’s Appreciative Reading, which means you approach the contents of the books in an appreciative manner, rather than looking for their weaknesses.
Of course, just like the application of Appreciative Inquiry in any other fields, Appreciative Reading doesn’t mean ignoring the weak and bad points of the books. The key thing is, as Roy Baumeister and others have so clearly pointed out, that people naturally have a negativity bias: we tend to give more attention to negative information compared to positive information. This makes evolutionary sense because humans needed to prioritize processing of bad information in order to survive. For example, if you ignore the signs of kindness of your neighbor, you lose a friend, but if you ignore the signs of an ambushing tiger — or an oncoming car, you may lose your life. Therefore, we have a tendency to be more vigilant to negative information, which means we may systematically evaluate things worse than they really are. Appreciative Inquiry is an effective mental discipline to battle this bias.
Appreciative Film Viewing
We can easily expand Appreciative Reading to other realms of life, like watching movies and shows. There is no perfect movie. Every movie has its strengths and weaknesses. It depends on how you watch it. I still remember how surprised I was when I browsed the list of the hundreds of positive psychology movies in Positive Psychology At The Movies and found it included many movies in my rotten tomato category. However, after reading the way the authors described these movies as illustrations of human strengths, I found that I dismissed these movies recklessly just because of their partial faults.
Another example is what you notice first and most when you visit a foreign country, or a new place in general. I often ask friends and search online before I travel to a place for the first time. It’s not uncommon that sometimes you get comments so different that you wondered whether they visited the same place. Apparently they focused on different sides of the same coin. I didn’t find any research about this, but I think it makes sense to argue that those who appreciatively “read” the new places – let’s call them appreciative tourists – would enjoy their trips more and build more mental capital from the visits than the negative tourists.
My favorite application of Appreciative Reading is, of course, reading people. But I will save that for my next post – and don’t complain. Appreciate what you’ve already read. 8)
Achor, S. (2010). The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work. Crown Business.
Baumeister, R. F., Bratslavsky, E., Finkenauer, C., & Vohs, K. D. (2001). Bad is stronger than good. Review of General Psychology, 5, 323–370.
Cooperrider, D., Whitney, D. and Stavros,J. (2008). Appreciative Inquiry Handbook, 2nd Edition (Book & CD) . Brunswick, OH: Crown Publishing, Inc.
Niemiec, R. M., & Wedding, D. (2008). Positive psychology at the movies: Using films to build virtues and character strengths. Gottingen, Germany: Hogrefe.
Niemiec, R. M., & Wedding, D. (2013). Positive Psychology at the Movies: Using Films to Build Character Strengths and Well-Being Gottingen, Germany: Hogrefe.
Xu, F., (1980). Selected Articles of Fuguan Xu. Taiwan: Student’s Publisher.
Surhone, L. M. Tennoe, M. T. & Henssonow, S. F. (Eds.) (2010). Xu Fuguan. Betascript Publishing.