Archives for category: personal development

Being, effectively, a self-taught manager, there are things you come across that drive you crazy. One of those things is the insistence, from people with MBAs, to only look at data when it comes to decision making. While I am a great proponent of education; I have my career in spite of a lack of further education – not because of it, I find the constant insistence on relying on data to be frustratingly narrow minded and lacking in imagination.

Restoring the Soul of Business, Staying Human in the Age of Data by Rishad Tobaccowala is one of the few business books that actually supports the downplaying of data, and by god is it refreshing to hear.

I should make clear; this is not a “touchy feely” plea for businesses to be based on being nice to people; but the business case for giving equal weight to both “stories” and “spreadsheets.” That the best business decisions are often not data driven, but driven by the experiences and ideas of individuals.

There are points in the book, like with many books that argue for seemingly “too good be to true” ideas and concepts, that the reader can become frustrated and want to yell “Yes, but..” Mr. Tobaccowala; however, deftly sprinkles in touches of reality which gives context, and caveats, to benefits that seem to have no place in the business world of real people.

Restoring the Soul of Business is a plea for the middle ground. That data has its place, and is not an omnipotent modern god as pointed out by Cathy O’Neil in her excellent Weapons of Math Destruction that I reviewed here, and that people with ideas and intuition, stories in other words, can balance each other in the workplace. Over reliance on either the “story or the spreadsheet,” a phrase that does begin to grate after a while, is a trap to which we can all fall into; and many businesses already have.

It is the realism of Restoring the Soul of Business that makes it a book worth listening to. That data driven companies tend to have cold cultures and little innovation which in turn leads to poor customer service. The examples litter the headlines; Southwest Airlines vs. United Airlines for just one example.

While there are lots of books that ask us to take a better look at our data, I have reviewed a number of them, this is one of the few books making the case for balance.

And that makes it a fresh, and interesting read, and a book to take to heart.

There are books that influence other books, and ideas that multiple authors undertake sometimes with wildly different results.

Better is a book that is accompanied with a healthy dose of Deju Vu. I have previously read Dr. Gawande’s “Being Mortal”, written years after Better – which was published in 2007, which had rocked my world and changed my perceptions on life, death, and above all quality of life. Better, therefore was a bit of a letdown. A lot of the stories, Better is essentially a collection of anecdotes, were familiar and there was no real great insight or overarching theme other than just to be “better.”

Perhaps because I am not a doctor, and yet know enough about how medicine and hospitals work from the fringes where veterinary medicine resides, that Better did not bowl me over as I was expecting. It is in fact telling, that Veterinary Medicine is not mentioned once in Dr. Gawande’s Better given that a lot of the issues he seeks to shed light on; medical costs, liability, and vaccinations are handled wildly differently by veterinarians than human doctors. There is a feeling that even though this is a book about looking at problems differently, the research has been performed on an ad hoc basis rather than in any systematic fashion.  

This is a book about out of the box thinking and overcoming inertia. Human medicine has become so specialized and therefore a victim of institutional dogma that change can easily been seen as heresy. Better suggests that it is often not the ideas that matter, particularly when those ideas fail create passion in others, so much as the people who champion those ideas.

It is not a book full of great revelations, it is a book that shows excellence and failure, and what those stories look like. The hope, upon reading such a work, is that others are inspired to replicate some of the ideas, or at least try not to stand in the way of those ideas when they are presented by others. And it is hard to argue the point that we can all do better, by being passionate and by not settling for the status quo.

All of this is not to say that Better is not enjoyable. These are interesting, and at times inspiring, tales that are worth reading. This is not a book to change your view of the world, I suspect not even in human medicine, but it is possible at this is too high a standard to hold any book to.

Dr. Gawande’s other books do have the reputation for this incredible high standard, but is it ok the settle for just being entertained and to find something interesting.

Chip Heath & Dan Heath write books that I have loved and have bought for others.

Switch, Made to Stick, and to a lesser extent, The Power of Moments; have become bibles of management theory to myself, those that I work with, consult for, and mentor. (Click on the links above to read my reviews of those books.)

So why, oh why, did I have no interest in Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work, when it came out. I have come to believe, now having finally read it, that it comes down to the title. Being decisive is never something that I feel I have struggled with. I’ve made bold choices in both my work and personal life; and they have never been things that I have agonized over or second guessed myself after the fact. What did I need with a book about how to make decisions, even if it was from the brothers Heath?

And that’s a shame.

Decisive is a great, and very useful book just like all the other books by Chip Heath & Dan Heath. This is a book about choice. Yes, it also covers decision making, but really it is about how to expand one’s choices and evaluate them better. Like all books by Chip Heath & Dan Heath, it is impeccably researched; and it is that research that drives their advice and conclusions – even when it come comes inconvenient.

A central tenant put forth in Decisive is that when faced with binary decision (do A or do B), it actually helps the process to actively seek out more choices. This would seem to fly in the face of advice from the Heath Brother’s previous book Switch about choice overload. To their credit, the authors freely admit the seeming contradiction with regards to choice overload, and then explain elegantly how to increase your choices and not get overloaded.

Another surprisingly easy tool to implement from Decisive is that when we are faced with a personal decision, that we should ask ourselves what we would advise our best friend to do if they were in our shoes. It does sound odd, but the exercise does actually work and give you a differ perspective. To attain distance.  

These tools are all, if you’ll forgive the pun, wrapped up in an acronym; W.R.A.P.

  • Widen Your Options
  • Reality Test Your Assumptions
  • Attain Distance Before Deciding
  • Prepare to Be Wrong

That humans are not good at making decisions, and often hobble themselves, should not come a news. What makes decisive interested to me; however, is that it is possible to improve the quality of those decisions. Which leads me to wonder if not reading this book when it first came out was not a bad decision of my own.

That’s something I can admit to, as long the Chip Heath & Dan Heath could rethink their decision on the book title.  

Whether in personal life or professional life, when toxicity rears it’s head, how we react defines toxicity’s power over us.

The revenge of “why should I bother when nobody else does,”  or “if they are going to speak to me that way then I’m going to speak to them that way,” becomes a race to to the bottom where everyone loses. A race where the most awful person wins a price nobody wants. It defines an toxic environment. To state that this is a vicious circle is to state the obvious. However, to do the opposite does not automatically create a virtuous circle. 

Being positive is never the easy choice. Toxicity is always easier. As Yoda would say of the dark side; “…easier, more seductive.” Revenge feels good. But that feeling is fleeting. Like in math, a positive number and a negative number added together can give a positive or a negative result. But two negative numbers always results in a negative result.

2 + -1 = 1

-2 + 1 = -1

-2 + -1 = -3

2 + 1 = 3

We all have a responsibility for not contributing to a toxic environment. We won’t always succeed, but if our positives outweigh our negatives, the chances are that we will have positive results. If we engage in negative behavior, particularly in an already toxic environment or as a response to toxic or negative behavior, we are guaranteed to have negative results. 

Real life is not simple math, but it is an example of how relationships between people, particularly groups of people, actually work.

Nobody said it would be easy. It might not even be fair. Or enjoyable. But rejecting toxicity, and not allowing it to contaminate you and therefore others, is the only way to behave that makes any sense. 

Not words to deliver enlightenment, but hopefully words to reassure that there really only is one path.

Scott Stratten, and latterly with his wife Alison, have written five other books on the intersection of customer service, social media, and marketing. I have reviewed most of them, which you can find here, routinely listen to their podcast, The Unpodcast, and I have a framed and signed “Don’t try to win over the haters. You are not the Jackass Whisperer” poster in my office. I am an unashamed fan boy.

Their books have swung from deep dives into marketing theory, to jokey and fairly superficial explorations of the absurdities that the marketing, and wider business world, is full of  – always with humor sprinkled throughout.  Although by no means an expert, I am certainly familiar with their work and their thinking on a variety of subjects.

Their latest book, would seem to an addition to their collection of books with a “gimmick.” A 125 question and answer book to see whether when presented with an example of “jackassery” one responds with a “Jackass Reaction” or a “Whisperer Reaction.”

But…

That is not what if going on here at all.

By coming at the subject from an indirect angle, the Stratten’s have laid bare our worst instinctual reactions to other people’s worst behavior. It shows that, in many instances we are just as much the problem rather than the innocent victim that we too often paint ourselves as. The implicit message is that the only way to deal with bad behavior is not to react to it out of outrage, but out of understanding and an attempt to solve the real underlying issue. To be the better person.

Of course, the book, and by assumption the authors, are not suggesting that all behavior is acceptable, but that “pick you battles” is really mantra we should all live by. That we have a responsibility to make the world a better place, and that starts with our interactions with each other. I find this particularly interesting as there was an element of “shame culture” in the earlier Unpodcast episodes. Jon Roson’s excellent “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” which I reviewed here, goes much deeper into the culture of naming and shaming online; and the Jackass Whisperer seems to be a repudiation of that shame culture.

The Jackass Whisper is over the top, although most of the inciting incidents seem to be based on real occurrences (we really are doomed as a species), the reactions, both as a Jackass or as a Whisperer, are so over the top that it becomes useful to use them as a gauge for how you, the reader, would deal with such a thing. If one is being honest it is easy to see where your reaction is really not helpful, although perhaps satisfying at the time in terms of revenge.

It is, or course, easy to read this book superficially – as I did initially if I’m honest. But it subtly asks questions of us that are not easily answered. Is this the person I want to be? Do I really have to react like this to perceived provocations?

I’ll leave you to guess in the comments on my Jackass scale, but really that is not what is important about the Jackass Whisperer. It is the thought, and potential internal discussion, on the nature of reaction that a thoughtful reading of the book provokes, that makes it well worth your time and the purchase price.

courage
Farnziska Iseli’s book “The Courage Map: 13 Principles to Living Boldly” is a short book that makes the case for adding more courage into our lives to make them more interesting, more enjoyable, and more successful.

Ms. Iseli then further breaks down courage, as the title suggests into 13 key principles. These 13 principles are obviously important to Ms. Iseli, and have informed her business, personal, and travel life. It is also obvious, that some of these principles have been thought about extensively over a number of years give the book a sense of intellectual rigor that is sometimes not found in other books of its type.

The Courage Map can be a little schizophrenic; however, as personal development books go. On the one hand, it dips in and out of travel book territory to underline and exemplify the 13 principles at the core of the book and one finds oneself wanting to either hear more about a particular principle or about the anecdote about Iranian border guards.

This is a little frustrating, because it lends the book the air of a spoiled adventurer, which Ms. Iseli patently is not. For those who do not know, Ms. Iseli is a highly successful serial entrepreneur and speaker. I found myself throughout wanting to find out more about Ms. Iseli’s travels and gain a deeper grasp over what her trips meant to her and he philosophy of courageous living. Almost as if there were two books fighting each other.
This is a shame, because there is some really good thinking in “The Courage Map.” There are short throw away phrases that resonate long after they have passed in the book. Who doesn’t understand what a “poop shower” is? I for one am glad to add it to my vocabulary. Likewise, the insight that “kindness is like snow – it beautifies everything it covers,” a quote from Kahlil Gibran, is an immediate and pivotal idea to glean from any book.

Which chapters resonate with the reader, I suspect, will be wildly different with each  individual reader. I found the chapter on non-attachment particularly illuminating and gave a serious reason for thought and pause – really the purpose for any book of this type. While I found the chapters on “flow” and “love” a little too in the realm of new age mysticism.

There is a lot to take from Ms. Iseli’s book, and it is a book I expect to dip back into. Not all of it is for everyone I suspect. But its central theme, that we should all learn to live a little more boldly if we want to be happy, is an admirable quality and certainly one that is helped with a thoughtful reading of “The Courage Map.” While perhaps a little frustrating for some readers, there is some great stuff here in “The Courage Map,” which makes it worth your time to read and keep on your shelf.

design your future

When you review books, and particularly when you are behind in reviewing the stack of books at your bedside like I currently am, you form opinions of them as they wait to be read.

This is, of course, complete nonsense, the very definition of judging a book by its cover. But it happens.

For some reason when “Design Your Future: 3 simple steps to stop drifting and take command of your life” was sent to me, I took an instant dislike to it. I don’t know if it was the cover, or the tag line, or just more likely the subject matter. I rarely find that books meant to inspire me to change my life ever actually do. But I read it more out of a need to get it off my nightstand than anything else.

So by way of contrition let me be the first to say, I was wrong about this book.

I absolutely loved it.

Mr. Quartuccio has managed to mix basic cognitive behavioral therapy tools with basic goal setting and created a rather elegant way of looking at one’s life and life goals, without the pitfalls and baggage that makes people like me hate books of this type. “Design your Future” is an easy read with an elegant layout that does not feel simplistic.
The main idea of “Design Your Life” is that awakening, disrupting, and designing your life is a constant process that puts you in command (not control) of your life and helps you identify what is actually important to you. That most of us drift through life, afraid to make changes, but unhappy with our lives and with vague life goals that show a constant lack of progress, is probably not news to many people. That the stories we tell ourselves reinforce the status quo, and therefore continue to make us miserable, however, may be. What is really unusual is to finish a book with a real sense that these issues are solvable with a little work on your part.

One of the most intriguing tools in the book is the suggestion to write your own eulogy. Not as macabre as you might thing, writing your own eulogy actually gives a destination to your life. How long do you want to live? What are the things that you want to achieve before you die? What is actually important to you? By creating these fundamental goals for one’s life, one can then work backwards to see what the lessor goals need to be while also providing motivation. “I want to lose 20lbs” because I need to lose weight is a little adrift as a life goal, while “I want to lose 20lbs because my doctor says that will help me in my goal to make it to 80 years old” is more anchored into a general scheme to take control of one’s life.

I also really like the book’s emphasis on completing things rather than trying to make them perfect. “Ultimately, perfectionism is a guise for fear. Fear of being judged or being attacked or having your flaws exposed or whatever other weird hang-up you’re carrying. The book you’re reading is littered with so much imperfection it makes me cringe. But guess what? I’ve got a book.”

The nitpicker in me finds the over emphasis on meditation in “Design Your Future” a bit much, however, in fairness to Mr. Quartuccio he does acknowledge that all he wants to do is “ignite a personal curiosity” which he did in me.

Design Your Future is a surprising and useful book that talked directly to me. Perhaps it was just the right book at the right time; however, who cares. It’s a great read and made me think.

I’m off to write my eulogy.

 

The Culture Code

It is easy to dismiss “The Culture Code, The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups” by Daniel Coyle within the first few pages as I very nearly did.

This, however, would be a mistake.

There are two initial problems. The first is in the choice of companies, or organizations, that are used as case studies. In the time since the book was written, and even since its publication in January of 2018, two of these heavily featured companies have undergone significant cultural upheaval and it is hard not to see those case studies through the prism of hindsight. Pixar lost John Lasseter due to revelations in the wake of the #meetoo scandal. And Zappos, to add to the woes mentioned in the book regarding the Downtown Project, lost 18% of its workforce, including a significant proportion of management, due to its all or nothing adoption of Holacracy. To be fair to both companies, they both seem to have survived these events and continue to grow; but it does make the reader question the book from the start.

In addition, it is hard to shake the impression from the initial introduction and chapters, that The Culture Code and its talk of “belonging cues” is more about hacking interpersonal relationships and the manipulation of people through our actions and specific phraseology. Which just feels wrong.

This, however, is not the case.

What the Culture Code has unpicked is the remarkable reasons why teams of people work well together, and why they don’t work. We presume teams of skilled individuals will produce skilled results. And we are wrong as Mr. Coyle points out. Belonging cues, which can take the form of active listening, light touching, showing people where they fit into an organization, the closeness of employees’ desks, and the language we use, creates a continuous sense of safety. Even just simple “thank yous” from managers, and them picking up trash, can signal that “we are all in this together” and that they serve the group.

As with most culture research, The Culture Code repeatedly emphasizes that great cultures start at the top. One of the ways to create a safe space for the group is for leaders to be vulnerable. Being vulnerable is a significant belonging cue. Vulnerability sparks cooperation and trust, and asking for help as a manager, or leader, sends a clear signal that you have vulnerabilities. Interestingly, vulnerability can be contagious with the obvious benefits to the group. Difficult and painful interactions can actually help create a more bonded team through shared vulnerability.

While creating a sense of safety and vulnerability in the group makes for a better team, Mr. Coyle turns to storytelling to give that team focus. Groups that have successful cultures repeatedly and consistently, often to the point of redundancy, tell their story. Simple beacons, such as slogans, phrases, or imagery, focus attention to the shared goal. “High purpose environments are filled with vivid signals” the Culture Code reveals referring to Pixar having images of Woody and Buzz Lightyear in their buildings or the Seals having a piece of the World Trade Center in their lobby.

“Build a language to build behavior.”

Do we really need to tell nurses and other staff that a particular surgery is better for the patent, and that they should speak up if they see a mistake, even by a doctor, being made? The answer the Culture Code gives us is a resounding yes.

“The value of signals is not in the information but that they orientate the team to the task and to one another. What seems like repetition is in fact navigation.”
The Culture is that most unique of books. A book arranged and filled with great ideas and real-world examples of those ideas in action. Impeccably researched, the march of time notwithstanding, and well written, The Culture Code is a leadership book about daily interactions and grand visions. It is a management book showing the pitfalls and routes to success.

I’m better for having read it, and I have no doubt that it will be a book I return to and recommend to other managers.

codelling
The best book I read last year, and I’ve read it three times now, was The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt.

All two of my repeat visitors may be wondering as why they have not seen a review of this book. The simple answer is that the themes and messages were so fundamental and altering of one’s world view that I’m still trying to get it straight in my head and I worry that by writing a half-hearted review I will not do the book justice.

The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt is similarly dense; however, this is a book with a belief and a wrong that it feels needs to be righted. A mission if you will. The subject is a contentious one; that making academic spaces places of intellectual and emotional safety does a disservice to the purpose of a university, to the students themselves, and to society as a whole. However, this is not a rightwing attack on the “snowflakes” of the left and the colleges of the liberal elites. The Coddling of the American Mind is a well thought out analysis on what is going wrong in our academic institutions, and therefore with our students, and how both sides of the political spectrum need to understand their part in how we ended up here. The book is also a plea for why seats of learning must change. As perhaps the most vivid analogy in the book states:

“Students are treated like candles, which can be extinguished by a puff of wind. The goal of a Socratic education should be to turn them into fires, which thrive on the wind.”

This is a book written by liberal academics who care about the academic world and the students who undertake a college education. While the authors lay blame at a number of doors, including the left AND the right, it also offers up potential solutions and gives credit where credit is due to universities who are resisting slide towards “safety-ism.”
An area where the book really breaks new ground, in my opinion, is its definition of Generation Z or as it likes to call them iGen (short for Internet Generation). This is not the first generation to have internet access; however, it was the generation that always experienced having the internet in the palm of their hand, and always has had Facebook.

“This is not a book about Millennials; indeed, Millennials are getting a bad rap these days, as many people erroneously attribute recent campus trends to them. This is a book about the very different attitudes toward speech and safety that spread across universities as the Millennials were leaving.”

I’m not a fan of the handwringing that seems to take place over millennials these days, but the tangible differences in information flow, and how iGen is exposed to the world and therefore responds to it, makes a lot on sense and of course is a significant cause for concern. The book also uses the tools of cognitive behavioral therapy to show just how out of tune the thinking of some students has become.

The Coddling of the American Mind treads some of the same ground as Anti-Social Media by Siva Vaidhyanathan (which I reviewed here) however its argument goes much further than Facebook and Social Media alone. With Universities bending to the will of students and parents, because they consider them clients, what is getting lost is critical thinking.

This is an important book for society as whole, but particularly for anyone in the academic world or who deals with the students it produces.

Which is probably everyone.

joyful

Ingrid Fetell Lee is a great writer.

And that’s a good thing. Because in less capable hands; “Joyful: The surprising power of ordinary things to create extraordinary happiness,” could be a ridiculous book that could be dismissed as new age trash. However, Ms. Fetell Lee skillfully navigates these potentially treacherous waters to give us a surprisingly joyful book.

Part memoir, part travel guide, part scientific dissertation, and yes, part new age exploration of what brings joy into our lives and why; Joyful is all this and more. The book leaves the reader with and actual understanding of why some things in the world are more joyful than others and how to differentiate between them. This is not a book that is going to change your life; however, it may change how you approach certain aspects of your life and give you the skills to add joy into the most unlikely of places.

Most the areas that Ms. Fetell Lee addresses are easy to dismiss: the differences in the shape of things, the color of things and the joy in abundance; however, she skillfully addresses her own doubts and takes the reader on a journey of discovery. Laugh out loud funny in places, Joyful is packed with real useable takeaways.

It is fair to say that Joyful was not what I was expecting. However, if a book well worth reading for anyone who works with people (that is probably all of us) or who has to make decisions about the layout and creation of spaces.

Joyful will make you question whether utility is really the goal we should be reaching for when joy is so easy to find, or to add, to the world we inhabit.

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