Review: Grit

Grit is considered a “must-read” by many in my professional circle. For good reason – it’s an engaging, thought-provoking book. It’s useful and satisfying for its clear explanation of the core concept of grit (which is essentially: passionate perseverance) and its many inspirational stories. It’s also frustrating as hell for the nuance it lacks.

On the surface, this book is about the power of effort, and how deeply, mistakenly, undervalued the power of personal will is in our society. Modern people tend to romanticize and over-value “natural talent” and under-value sustained effort – to the great disadvantage of many. It’s a wonderfully empowering idea, and one that Duckworth meticulously supports with research. Much of this book consists of stories supporting the simple truth that talent is an inferior predictor of success in one’s career, to the ability to continually try hard. Those of us who aren’t born with genius level IQs should take heart – the brain is plastic, we all have the power to increase our mental abilities, and the work of exercising our minds to achieve excellence is something anyone can do.

The problem with this line of thinking is that is quietly ignores everyone who has tried very hard – has demonstrated lots of “grit” – but has still not succeeded. There are millions like that on Earth, yet only tangential mention of their predicament in this book. I believe Duckworth is an extremely smart and savvy psychologist and researcher, and I believe in her seductively simple explanation of the power of consistent effort to transform lives – to a point. Her obvious intelligence is a source of frustration for me, however, because I don’t understand why someone so smart and so dedicated to their craft would choose to “sell out” and write a relatively shallow popular self-help-style business book full of rah-rah feel-good stories, instead of aiming higher and discussing the nuances of the topic of human effort and its relation to professional success.

I’m interested in the topic of how we can apply effort and intrinsic motivation to improve our lives and careers. But I’m even more interested in how we can better arrange and nurture a society that rewards effort most reliably and fairly. It seems to me that psychologists are uniquely positioned to opine on this, so I turned the last page with a wistful sense of wasted opportunity.

To get the gist quickly, her TED talk is good.


 

3/5 stars

Review: Political Fictions

I experienced a large range of low emotions in the wake of the 2016 presidential election: disbelief, shock, anger, indignation, confusion, revulsion, despair, depression, anxiety. This book was a necessary choice for this moment at the end of this particular year, in part, because I wanted to settle back in to Didion’s exacting language after enjoying two of her books so much, and because I was seeking some political and historical perspective.

The connecting theme of this collection is the creation of narrative – the media appearances, showmanship and public relations efforts that create the image and stories we the people then digest about the politicians for whom we vote and in whom we place our trust, such as it is. There are two essays that qualify as brilliant and one real dud (about Newt Gingrich). The best essays in this collection come first, and my favorite, “Insider Baseball” (about the 1988 Bush-Dukakis campaign; linked below), provided some of the historical perspective I’d been seeking. (The comparisons between Dukakis and Jackson are especially interesting when viewed through the 2016 lens of Clinton and Sanders.)

The key idea I took from this book is simple, but I hadn’t fully articulated it for myself before. It is this: Not only is the increasing disenfranchisement of the American citizen – the shrinking electorate (only an estimated 57.9% of eligible voters voted in 2016) – is not actually a “problem” for those in power, that small insider political class. It is, in fact, the desired outcome. It is to the advantage of this political class, and this disenfranchisement has been going on for many years worth of news cycles, the political system operating almost completely outside of the experience and concerns of so-called regular people.

Of this political class, Didion writes: “These are people who speak of the process as an end in itself, connected only nominally, and vestigially, to the electorate and its possible concerns.”

Of the Dukakis campaign, Didion writes: “What strikes one most vividly about such a campaign is precisely its remoteness from the actual life of the country.”

It is at once comforting and cruelly disheartening to reflect on the notion that “things” (the political process, the media, the machinery of American government) are not really getting “worse” – they may have always been a tangled web of lies. Media cycles move faster now, and I grow older and, I hope, less naive, but even the most cynical and analytical of us may still “buy in” to “the story” sometimes, to our peril.

politics

Here is “Insider Baseball” in the NY Review of Books, available to read for free.

Book review: Political Fictions, by Joan Didion
4/5 stars

Review: Essentialism – The Disciplined Pursuit of Less

While repetitive, marred by some silly examples and about 100 pages too long, “Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less” could be a valuable book for people searching for ways to be more effective and at peace with their choices. “Essentialism” as advocated by McKeown is a personal philosophy of making deliberate decisions about where to spend one’s limited and precious time. It’s a mission statement aimed at reducing psychic clutter, regrettable personal commitments and extra “stuff” that ultimately does not matter in the greater scheme of one’s life.

“Essentialism” has two parts. First, learn how to set boundaries and stick to them. Second, define and pursue your highest purpose in life. The first is easy for me, but hard for many others. The second is arguably more important and much harder for me, and the opportunity to consider it deeply was the value I received from my reading of this book.

If you are struggling with the exhaustion that comes from chronic overwork and over-commitment, you could probably benefit from McKeown’s simple prescription: Take the time to assess what you most want to achieve with your short life, remove obstacles and extraneous activities, and get more sleep. Next, get better at saying no to stuff you don’t really want to do and get in the habit of doing fewer things really well. This requires a mature ability to delay gratification, ignore the whispers of FOMO that plague us all whenever we think about turning down any opportunity, and focus on the things that give us a sense of meaning and purpose.

All of that is easier said than done, but McKeown does include some strategies for how to discover our purpose, how to graciously say no to people (even if they are your boss or loved ones) and how to take better care of ourselves so we feel more physically able to tackle what we must each day. For many, this advice will seem obvious, as it does to me, but it’s not wrong.

Useful takeaways

One of the best examples of concrete strategies I encountered here has worked well for me for a long time: When accepting a new to-do item or priority, always clarify, What does saying yes to this thing require me to de-prioritize? This simple activity of questioning and framing things to be done as distinct priorities recognizes the impossibility of doing everything, of giving equal weight to un-equal things, and can significantly boost productivity and clarity.

I didn’t get a lot of similarly useful widely-applicable advice here because it is heavily focused on boundary-setting (something that I don’t really need help doing) and rehashing of other better books (such as Duhigg’s “The Power of Habit” and Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow”) but I did enjoy the process of reading the book as an exercise in reflection. Perhaps it will inspire others to survey the less-essential activities to which they are currently sort-of-committed, and evaluate them anew. In the process, you may get closer to finding your core purpose and the lasting happiness that attends it.

Book review: Essentialism – The disciplined pursuit of less, by Greg McKeown.
3/5 stars.

Review: When Breath Becomes Air

Paul Kalanithi put much of the “real living” of his life on hold for many years as he studied literature, medicine, surgery and the mind. Nearing the top of his ascent of an enviable professional mountaintop, he was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer and given only a little while longer to live. I happened to read this book while in a state of shock and mourning, following the devastating, upsetting American election, right around the time of a beloved deceased relative’s birthday, so you could say it was both the worst and best time to read this book. It’s a moving, thoughtful personal memoir that poses important questions about the meaning of life – how to find it, appreciate it, and create meaning for ourselves.

As he nears the end, Kalanithi explains plainly the folly of pretending there will always be a future, that more planning could possibly help. He describes living in the present, without ego, without plans and ambitions, thus:

Everyone succumbs to finitude. I suspect I am not the only one who reaches this pluperfect state. Most ambitions are either achieved or abandoned; either way, they belong to the past. The future, instead of the ladder toward the goals of life, flattens out into a perpetual present. Money, status, all the vanities the preacher of Ecclesiastes described hold so little interest: a chasing after wind, indeed.

A thoughtful, poetic book. A hard, beautiful book.

Book review: When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi
5/5 stars.

Review: Disrupted

Dan Lyons, ego bruised and career sidelined by an unexpected layoff from his job as a technology journalist for Newsweek, makes a pivot that seems like a sensible idea at the time: he joins the startup world and becomes a marketer for hot young marketing automation firm, HubSpot. This book is a memoir of that startup adventure. It stirred a ton of thoughts and conflicting reactions for me, began many conversations and taught me a bit of new stuff about startups and venture capital. It also made me cringe and grin with schadenfreude. Issues aside, though, it’s a worthwhile read with a lot to say.

Brisk, cynical and often bitingly funny – just as you might expect from the author behind FakeSteveJobs – the book starts as a bitterly comic fish out of water story about a fifty-something man trying to fit in at a company he doesn’t understand: He seems constantly gobsmacked by the wacky energy of his Millennial coworkers, the lack of organization and structure to his days, the insistence of young people on using technology like smartphones and Google calendars to schedule even a five-minute chat, and of course things like beer at work, arts and crafts breaks on “Fearless Friday,” the nap room and the foosball tables.

Every startup workplace cliche is addressed in a half-silly, half-wondering tone, and many observations come dripping with fuddy-duddy condescension. Not so funny is the authors apparent expectation that, even though he knows nothing about tech, sales or marketing, he should be treated like a visiting dignitary because of his experience and age. For example, he expresses shock and horror upon discovering that a much younger person will be his superior, even though he just met the guy and knows nothing about how capable he might be. For a book that aims to champion on oft-mistreated group – older workers – it seems ironic that its methods include baselessly insulting young people just for being young.

Hypocrisies like that add up fast. There’s also a pervasive dismissive sexist undertone to nearly every description of interactions with female employees (every female seems to be chirpy, peppy, cheerleader-like, and of course, incompetent). This distractingly takes away from the social justice angle this book is going for on behalf of modern workers. Is Lyons oblivious to this? I’d like to think he is too smart for that, but I think he might just be that clueless, as a white dude who never faced any discrimination before his stint as the “old guy” in a young office.

About halfway through, Lyons cuts through the banter to drop some old school knowledge, and this is where things get really good. Making use of his considerable background as a serious journalist, he sketches a recap of the last tech bubble, and discusses something that’s new this time around – the ways in which the VC-fueled startup climate allows and encourages founders and investors to extract billions of dollars from the market while never actually creating profitable businesses. He’s right to point out the incentives for startup founders and successful investors to make maximum returns on their money by creating massive hype machines for products that barely even exist while investing little in their employees and using cult-like internal branding to manipulate young and inexperienced people hungry for meaningful work into working twice as hard for half as much. It’s pretty scary when you think about it.

As a career marketer currently working at a technology startup, I’m intimately familiar with Hubspot, digital marketing, inbound marketing methods and how software sales sausage is made. This book definitely resonates. (Also as a current resident of San Francisco, the description of Dreamforce almost made me pee my pants with laughter.) Frankly, it resonates for me both in the ways that Lyons clearly wants it to, and in other ways I’m sure he did not intend. I’m well-acquainted, for example, with the casual condescending dismissal that young female executives receive from older white dudes like him. I’m also familiar with the way us young female marketing and PR people get treated: like we are stupid and like our jobs are fluff. If we are enthusiastic and passionate, we’re “peppy cheerleaders” and guess what happens if we are less enthusiastic? Gosh, then we’re on the receiving end of men telling us to smile. Could it be that Lyons thinks ageism is the biggest workplace issue in tech simply because it’s the only kind of discrimination he has ever personally faced. Sounds like the writers rooms in Hollywood (notoriously hostile places for female writers) are super comfortable for him.

Interestingly, Lyons seems insistent on shooting down anyone’s enthusiasm for their work, which seemed strange to me. Could be because I’m a brainwashed Millennial, but I just don’t believe that every young marketer, salesperson or startup employee is a deluded bozo who doesn’t know what they’re doing, nor are all mentions of meaning or passion at work simply bullshit. Look at the data: Survey after survey identifies meaning, connection and mission as critical components to a satisfying job and career. Modern workers really do want to love their jobs, and want to engage passionately in goals larger than just making TPS reports.

 

If the current startup “revolution” (with all its silly foosball tables and happy hour beer pong and branded company t-shirts etc.) opens up authentic conversation about how to engage employees and create happier workplaces, I think that’s a wonderful thing. The onus is on every employee to educate themselves, learn their legal rights, and direct their own career. I don’t see how that’s bad, or even very new and different. If we are to shed the bad parts of the old, paternalistic model of work (and let’s face it, we already have, as Reid Hoffman discusses in detail in his own book about work, The Alliance), we need to take responsibility for our own careers. Lyons both celebrates and bemoans this. I can see how it might suck to suddenly need to change careers and make a surprise pivot at age 51 with a family to feed. But the honest truth is that many people have had to do that for a long time; the workplace wasn’t some kind of Disneyland of job security 50 years ago, either. One premise of Disrupted is that tech companies today treat their employees in ways that would be “unthinkably” cruel and callous as recently as the 1990s, the last bubble. I’m just not convinced that’s the case. Microsoft may have given generous medical benefits to workers and created thousands of millionaires. But weren’t they the exception, not the rule? Is Lyons yearning for a past that really only applied to a few?

The difference today, at least in the tech industry, is an increased level of transparency around the mechanics of work, and an elevated level of respect for an individual employees’ ability to act as a free agent. Given the research I’ve seen in the last few years about the current hiring crisis – skilled workers are in incredibly high demand and large organizations are most worried about how to attract and retain top talent, not how best to fire them – it’s clear that free agency does benefit the most skilled workers. Unfortunately for many of us, it also benefits those who have lucked in to privileges like being young, male and white.

So how do we fix this? What do we do with the rest of them, those workers who aren’t the youngest, the luckiest, the top of their class at Harvard? Lyons’ point is that there are a lot of them, those regular people, and that they are the poor saps blindly drinking the Koolaid, pulling ridiculous hours for unnecessary “hackathons”…and they are the ones left holding the bag of empty stock options after investors cash out, leaving them with nothing.

Book review: Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble, by Dan Lyons
4/5 stars and a side of frustration and muttering to myself.

Review: The Alliance

This NY Times bestselling book about managing employees in the modern workplace offers one big idea. It’s not hard to understand and the book is filled with examples that are helpful and illuminating in varying degrees. Like most popular business and management books I’ve read, the “big idea” is driven home again and again, the content is a bit repetitive, the language is very easy to skim, and the book itself could have been one really great Harvard Business Review or Atlantic article, but was stretched to create a book instead. Fine, it is what it is.

I’m giving this book 4 stars despite all that because the big idea here is a good one and one I hadn’t really put into words before. Here it is in summary: Modern employers do not offer workers loyalty anymore (did they ever, really?), workers don’t believe in loyalty for its own sake to an employer anymore (why should they?), jobs don’t last for decades anymore, careers change really fast now. It is therefore in everyone’s best interest to think of employment like “tours of duty.” Each project, position and working relationship can be considered in terms of a “tour of duty” rather than a lifelong commitment. We all know that jobs will end sometimes, yet most managers and employees have a weird reticence when it comes to discussing this fact frankly. (I cannot help but mentally apply this to dating.) Employers hate to openly acknowledge that their workers don’t belong to them – all employees are free agents. In turn, employees shy away from discussing this openly because it’s one of those things we don’t talk about, for fear of insulting someone or facing retaliation.

It would be wonderful if more managers thought this way and treated their employees like smart, independent free agents. The only problem is that not all employees are actually smart, pro-active, entrepreneurial and driven. If you make the mistake of hiring lazy people, or people who simply don’t think this way and instead WANT security, you will scare the pants off of them with this management style. Maybe this is good, if you really want to only hire and retain very creative and driven people. If you need some dependable people for long term less exciting roles, however, much of the advice in this book may not apply. Let’s be honest: Many jobs out there are necessary but don’t particularly light anyone’s entrepreneurial fire.

My caveat with this book: Consider the source – the founder of LinkedIn. If you work at a startup or some kind of creative fast-paced company where you manage mostly highly educated knowledge workers or sales people, great! If you ARE a driven knowledge-worker type, then I also recommend the book because it might help you better understand what you want out of your next work environment, and strategize around how to get it.

Book review: The Alliance, by Reid Hoffman
4/5 stars

Review: The Goldfinch

A young boy named Theo with a troubled family life survives a horrifying terrorist act in New York City that kills his beloved mother and changes the course of his entire life. So much happens in the lives of Theo, his family and friends over the course of nearly 800 pages that I won’t try to summarize the plot – besides, the twists and turns are best discovered in their own time, and whether or not you predict them, they are delightful.

At its heart, this is a novel about memory and loss, and about art, and the value of things. What could possibly be more important that the concept of value? Love, family, antique objects, singular works of art, the minutes of our lives – what is any of it worth, and how can we know?

Not all of my reactions are favorable, though. I quickly realized that the characters had a “stock” quality to them, no matter how many hundreds of descriptive words were employed to flesh them out. There is the pale, precocious, ill-fated nerd Andy and his rich, New York high society family; there is the beautiful, delicate-looking yet spunky love interest, Pippa; there is the swaggering ex-actor alcoholic father. The obsessive amount of detail in this book is at once satisfying and frustrating depending on how it’s enlisted, because no matter how clearly I feel I see these characters, I can’t escape the sense that I’ve met them before. Tartt also resorts to actual cliches a few times and they made me flinch on more than one occasion early on.

The London Review of Books sniffed that this is a “children’s book” for adults and I can’t say they are wrong about the actual writing level. It ain’t Henry James. But I read and enjoy a lot of books that are also not Henry James. Thus: While totally understanding why someone might not like this modern fairy tale, I thoroughly, completely and shamelessly enjoyed it.

Book review: The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt
4/5 stars

Review: Spark

An incredibly important, exhaustively researched book that will fascinate anyone who is even remotely interested in how our brains work. Now quite famous and highly regarded, psychiatrist John Ratey presents study after study in service to his thesis: that vigorous physical exercise is not only good for our bodies, it also has the power to improve mood, treat mental illnesses like anxiety and depression, prevent memory loss, improve conditions like ADD, and generally “remodel” our brains for all around better performance. The first book of its kind (that I know of, anyhow), it leaves no assertion hanging, but presents reams of compelling evidence to support every claim. The insights in this book have changed many lives, including mine. It should be taught in every middle school physical education or biology class.

Book review: Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, by John J. Ratey, Eric Hagerman
5/5 stars

Review: Brand Seduction

An entertaining, well researched and highly readable spin through how our brains work, how we process messages and how we project our thoughts and aspirations into brands. To create a brand people will identify with and truly love, companies must strive for utter consistency of message and, these days, marketers must also understand some neuroscience. Consider this a vital crash course. As a marketing and branding pro I’ve read stacks of books on the subject; this one is worth keeping around.

Book review: Brand Seduction: How Neuroscience Can Help Marketers Build Memorable Brands, by Daryl Weber
4/5 stars

Review: Lean Out

Lean Out is a diverse collection of 19 essays of uneven quality but consistent passion. Each piece of writing shares a personal story, experience or perspective of a woman or transperson either in the trenches of Silicon Valley’s entrepreneurial dream machine, or looking back on it after leaving. Whatever benefits Sheryl Sandberg extolls in “Lean In” (the clear reference point to which this collection is a response) these essays point out that outsiders are expected to conform in order to succeed…and “outsiders” are anyone who is not a white cis male. This isn’t so much a whiny collection of hand-wringing identity politics as a thoughtful report of real experiences – the reader is invited to draw a lot of their own conclusions.

My star rating isn’t for the quality of writing (which is sort of all over the place) but for the topic and diversity of perspectives and ideas. I read it because I currently live, work and hire for a startup in SF, and I want to be thoughtful about it. Worthwhile.

Favorite essays: “Fictive Ethnicity and Nerds” by K. Cross; “The Pipeline Isn’t the Problem” by the editor.

Book review: Lean Out: The Struggle for Gender Equality in Tech and Start-Up Culture, edited by Elissa Shevinsky
4/5 stars