Sunday, July 31, 2011

Mini-Review of "My Dear I Wanted to Tell You" by Louisa Young

The feel of this novel made me think of the Ingrid Bergman classic film "Intermezzo." Set in the midst of the turmoil of World War I, "My Dear I Wanted to Tell You." is a moving and evocative story of two couples whose lives intertwine in stunning ways. The working class lad, Riley Purfroy, meets and falls in love with Nadine Waveney, the aristocratic daughter of a world-class orchestra conductor. The obstacles that they must overcome to explore their unlikely love for one another frames a tale that moves the reader at many levels. Louisa Young writes knowingly of class struggle in early 20th Century Great Britain. This novel is not only a sensitively told love story, it is also a deep exploration of the manifold costs of war.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Mini-Review of "Jamrach's Menagerie" - A Novel of Survivor's Guilt and PTSD

What a wonderfully inventive story. "Jamrach's Menagerie" struck me as containing elements that reminded me of the "Story of Pi," "Moby Dick" and "The "Odyssey." Carol Birch has concocted a mini-epic that follows the street urchin, Jaffy, from his chance encounter with a tiger on the teeming streets of London, to a search for a komodo dragon in the Indonesian archipelego. Shipwrecked, he and his companions confront the primal challenges of survival, sacrifice, and the true meaning of friendship and loyalty. This is a whale of a good story. I loved it.

The author raises some deep philosophical questions about survivor's guilt and post-traumatic stress that are very relevant to many of our warriors returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. After Jaffy has been rescued following several months adrift at sea, he confronts people wanting to know what it was like. The following encounter reminds me of tales I have heard from returning soldiers who have to face the thoughtless questions from those who wonder "Have you killed anyone?"

In order to survive, Jaffy and his fellow survivors were forced to eat the flesh of their boat mates who had succumbed. Those ashore had heard rumors of the cannibalism.

"'Mister, what was it like?'

I took my time, leaning back and blowing out a thin stream of smoke. . .

He wanted a story. a thing of horror. I have a story, a terrible one. But I'll tell no tales. He doesn't understand at all: it's not that kind of a story, not horror but grief I have to deal with. Too much to tell. What shall I do with it?

Live with it." (Page 276)

Friday, July 29, 2011

Mini-Review of "Sailors to the End" by Gregory A. Freeman

I first learned of the tragic fire aboard the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal from my friend, Mark Dahl. Mark was a Top Gun instructor pilot, and he now uses the lessons learned from the Forrestal disaster to teach many leadership principles. One point that he makes very poignantly is that through the mechanism of thorough training, the U.S. Navy is able to take a group of raw recruits - teenagers who might otherwise struggle to get our "Super Size it" order correct at McDonald's - and turn them into a team of young men who would risk their lives to fight a fire that threatened to sink America's most powerful warship.

In his classic 2002 book about the deadly fire, Gregory a. Freeman does an excellent job of telling the story of the Forrestal, its crew and the events that led up to and followed the fire that was triggered by the accidental firing of a missile that created a fireball in the aircraft being piloted by future U.S. Senator John McCain.

"Sailors to the End" is an important addition to our understanding of what life aboard an aircraft carrier is like - in calm seas or in the midst of a general quarters emergency.

Mini-Review of "Anything You Want" by Derek Sivers

CD Baby gained my undying loyalty when I received my first shipment from them - a Jake Armerding album. It contained the now iconic message from CEO Derek Sivers:

"Your CD has been gently taken from our CD Baby shelves with sterilized contamination-free gloves and placed onto a satin pillow. A team of 50 employees inspected your CD and polished it to make sure it was in the best possible condition before mailing. Our packing specialist from Japan lit a candle and a hush fell over the crowd as he put your CD into the finest gold-lined box that money can buy. We all had a wonderful celebration afterwards and the whole party marched down the street to the post office where the entire town of Portland waved 'Bon Voyage!' to your package, on its way to you, in our private CD Baby jet on this day, Sunday, March 30th. I hope you had a wonderful time shopping at CD Baby. We sure did. Your picture is on our wall as 'Customer of the Year.' We're all exhausted but can't wait for you to come back to CDBABY.COM!! Thank you, thank you, thank you! Sigh..."

In this tiny gem of a book, "Anything You Want," Sivers outlines how he became a reluctant entrepreneur, turning CD Baby into a force that changed the independent music industry. He is transparent in telling tales on himself and his staff - what they did right and wrong. The book is a refreshing and inspiring tale.



Sunday, July 03, 2011

Reducing the Complex to the Comprehensible When Addressing Leadership and Management: Review of "The One Thing you Need to Know" by Marcus Buckingham

Marcus Buckingham is a National Treasure! His writing is clear, concise and laser focused. In a way that differentiates him from the than many writers who pontificate about leadership, he presents a clear picture of the differences between effective management and excellent leadership. In a nutshell, he sees management as inwardly focused on getting the best performance in the present from the current team; he sees leadership as outwardly focused on the future of the entire enterprise.

In his book, "The One Thing You Need to Know - About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success," he offers the most compelling description I ave yet seen of what makes an outstanding coach or manager - teasing maximum performance out of those he or she is charged to motivate:

"In short, the state of mind you should try to create is one where he has a fully realistic assessment of the difficulty of the challenge ahead of him, and at the same time, an unrealistically optimistic belief in his ability to overcome it. The more skilled you are at creating this state of mind in each of your people, the more effective a manager you will be." (Pages 106-7)

I have heard my friend, Dr. Scott Snook of Harvard Business School, use this quotation to great effect in explaining the remarkable success of Coach K in the twin case studies that Snook teaches about the contrasting coaching styles of Coach K and Bobby Knight. IT seems counter-intuitive that a great coach or manager combines hyper-realism with hyper-optimism, but Buckingham and Snook both make an ironclad case that this is, in fact, true in the realms of business, athletics and warfare.

As he wraps up his argument in this powerful book, Buckingham offers a pithy summary of the contrast between managers and leaders:

"To excel as a manager you must never forget that each of your direct reports is unique and that your chief responsibility is not to eradicate this uniqueness, but rather to arrange roles, responsibilities, and expectations so that you can capitalize upon it. The more you perfect this skill, the more effectively you will turn talents into performance.

To excel as a leader requires the opposite skill. You must become adept at calling upon those needs we all share. Our common needs include the need for security, for community, for authority, and for respect, but for you, the leader, the most powerful universal need is our need for clarity. To transform our fear of the unknown into confidence in the future, you must discipline yourself to describe our joint future vividly and precisely. As your skill at this grows, so will our confidence in you." (Page 284)

These examples of Buckingham's insights offer the tip of the iceberg in terms of the wisdom and common sense that he proffers in this book. It provides practical guidance to anyone who aspires to manage well, to lead with integrity or to perform with consistent and sustainable individual excellence.


Saturday, July 02, 2011

Healing Through the Pages of Literature: Review of "Tolstoy and the Purple Chair - My Year of Magical Reading" by Nina Sankovitch

Nina Sankovitch was almost paralyzed with grief after losing her 43-year old sister to cancer. Having tried to solider on with her "normal life" for several years without experiencing much relief from the wound in her soul, she determined to deal creatively with her besetting grief by devoting a year of her life to reading books. Not just any books, but works that she felt that she and her sister would have enjoyed sharing together had not death snatched her companion away. She determined, with the support of her family, to read a book a day for 365 days. She would not only devour all of these books, but would reflect upon what she had read and how the words were speaking to her. She has graciously chosen to share these insights with readers in the form of her book, "Tolstoy and the Purple Chair - My Year of Magical Thinking." Sankovitch was clearly inspired in her subtitle by the title of the book that Joan Didion penned in the wake of her husband's death.

My love for reading and my awe at the prospect of reading a book a day for a year is what initially drew me to this memoir. What kept me turning the pages was the author's transparency and vulnerability in opening up her heart and her thought processes as she dove into the sea of words from hundreds of authors. The final product of her year are reflections that are insightful, moving and mesmerizing.

"I was ready - ready to sit down in my purple chair and read. For years, books had offered me a window into how other people deal with life, its sorrows and joys and monotonies and frustrations. I would look there again for empathy, guidance, fellowship, and experience. Books would give me all that, and more. After three years of carrying the truth of my sister's death around with me, I knew I would never be relieved of my sorrow. I was not hoping for relief. I was hoping for answers. I was trusting in books to answer the relentless question of why I deserved to live. And of how I should live. My year of reading would be my escape back into life." (Page 31)

During her year of reading, Sankovitch found familiar themes returning - literary and emotional themes. She was also finding literary soul mates.

"Reading my book a day this year was clearing my brain the way my hard work had cleared the mess in my backyard. I had been caught in a bramble patch of sorrow and fear. My reading, sometimes painful and often exhausting, was pulling me out of the shadows and into the light. And I am not the only one clearing out weeds and poison ivy, or planting beauty, perennial flowers of hope. The world is full of us, digging and scraping, working for the day when the flowers come back like they are supposed to, blooming year after year." (Page 147)

In reflecting upon her reading of "The Laws of Evening" by Mary Yukari Waters, the author makes the following pithy observation:

"One of Waters's characters quotes a haiku by Mizuta Masahide, a seventeenth-century samurai and renowned writer of haikus. I seriously considered having the verse painted over our kitchen doorway:

'Since my house burned down/ I now own a better view/ of the rising moon.'

A better view: that is what I wanted my kids to have. Not to see the worst of what circumstances rendered for them in their lives, but the best. Resilience in the face of disappointment." (Page 172.)

That statement sums is up beautifully. All my reading and experience tell me that those who manage to succeed - and to soar - do so because of abiding and indefatigable resilience in the face of challenges and failures and disappointments. This gem of a book fuels that kind of resilience, and for that we owe the author a hearty word of thanks.

Enjoy - and reflect.


Miracles and Mysteries in MIT's Media Lab - Review of "The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices" by Frank Moss

My office is located a few short blocks from MIT's iconic Media Lab, so I have been vaguely aware of some of the magic that is conjured up there. Frank Moss, until recently Director of the Lab, has written a book that opens the portals of the lab and simultaneously opens up the worlds that are being explored and created there by its brilliant sorcerers and their apprentices.

In the opening pages, the reader learns about the prosthetic foot being developed by the Biomechatronics group. In describing the make-up of the members of this team, Moss also raises the curtain on the "secret sauce" that can be found in most of those who find their way to the Media Lab:

"We have yet to build a prosthetic foot that allows the wearer to feel the blades of grass beneath is or her feet or the grains of sand on a beach. However, the Biomechatronics group - which, in addition to Marecki and Elliott, consists of two mechanical engineers, two physicists, two machine learning experts, a material science expert, and an electrical engineer - is inching closer toward that goal every day.The team works at a dizzying pace, and although each member is assigned a different task, the reality is that everyone ends up doing everything. As Elliott, who has both a bachelor's degree in physics and a master's degree in electrical engineering, notes: 'To work in this group, you have to be a bit of a Renaissance person.'" (Pages 4-5)

There you have it. Leonardo da Vinci reaches across the centuries to imprint his spirit and ethos onto the fabric and DNA of the anti-disciplinary and intersectional culture that explains the Media Lab's remarkable success.

Moss expands upon this theme in explicating his own philosophy of innovation and discovery:

"Since joining the Media Lab, I've come to believe strongly that the key to coming up with game changing innovations lies not in finding novel solutions to known questions, but rather in posing novel questions. Only by breaking down the existing artificially imposed barriers between the disciplines can we 'completely change the frame' of the discussion and pose questions that no one has ever thought to ask before, including - maybe even especially - the so-called experts in that field." (page 42)

Reading this book made me want to run across the street, tour the lab and begin to ask questions - like a kid in an intellectual candy store. If you are curious about innovation and the future, this book is a "must read."