50 books in 52 weeks – not this year

I enjoy reading, so like many people I have set a goal for myself to read at least 50 books a year for the last couple of years. I read 45 last year, you can see my list on GoodReads.  As I was getting ready to publicly commit to another year of 50-in-52, though, I realized that I’m not really ready to move on from the books I read in 2011 2010.

It’s not that I don’t want to read anything new, I do. I’ve got several new books on my list, including David Siteman Garland’s Smarter, Faster, Cheaper, Neal Bascomb’s story of FIRST Robotics, The New Cool, and Hal Needham’s Stuntman! I’m also looking at some older books that I’ve never read.

But well over half of the books I read last year are still bouncing around inside my head.

In a blog post last October, Harold Jarche  expressed a similar sentiment in the context of conferences that he attends:

One thing missing in these discrete time-based events is that there is little time for reflection. … This presentation is followed by some immediate questions & discussions and a coffee break. Then it’s off to see the next presentation. Reflection, if it occurs, comes much later, and usually after the participants have gone home.

Replace “presentation” with “book”, and that his how I am feeling about the books I read last year.

During a pre-launch webinar for his new book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson also talked about the state of reading.

Bill Gates takes a “reading vacation” to read. Ray Ozzie does the same thing. A very interesting strategy; usually when we read it is at night, when we are tired and have 20-30 minutes before we go to bed. Takes a couple of weeks to read, you lose the possible connections between the books you read.

All of this is my overly long way of saying that I’m not committing to 50-in-52 this year. Instead of moving on to the next conference, in my case a new year of reading only new books, I’m also going to spend some time quality time reflecting on the books I read last year.

What are your reading plans for 2011?

Update: Check out my  2010 Reading List lens on Squidoo.

William Gibson on…

This past weekend I had the pleasure of meeting author William Gibson when he came through St. Louis promoting his latest book, Zero History. He started off  by reading a bit from the book and then opened it up for questions from the standing room only crowd.

Here are some notes from the conversations that ensued:

…dystopia

When asked if he saw the world as bleak as the dystopias he depicts in his books, Gibson made the comment to the effect, “Dystopia is in the eye of the beholder”. From the perspective of the affluent, who have a strong interest in maintaining the status quo, his worlds may be dystopic, but there are plenty of people in the world who would see those worlds as a big step up.

…brands and marketing in his writing

Gibson references many real brands as part of his stories, and when asked said that you can’t really write a book about current times, especially in a big city like London, without branding and marketing being brightly on display. That is the world we live in, to not include it would make the whole story feel a bit false. This ties into his overall philosophy of naturalism in his writing.

…his career

When asked if his career turned out how expected, or hoped, it would, Gibson glibly commented that he never thought he’d have a writing career at all. His first novel, the best-selling Neuromancer, was written on commission and he fully expected that the first small printing would also be the last. All in all, I think he’s very happy with how it turned out.

…didactism

Asked about whether his writing reflects his own ideas that he is trying to spread, Gibson quickly said no. Didactism is a legitimate approach to writing, but he’s found that if you do that it is at the expense of the story and the characters. On the subject of characters and character development, he went on to say that if you – as an author – know what your characters are going to do before they do it, then you are also shortchanging the story. “I never know what my characters are going to do, and sometimes they do things that I wish they hadn’t.”

…freelancers vs. salaried workers

Gibson noted that his stories tend to have freelancers as the good guys and “salaried workers” as the bad guys, and said that this wasn’t really intentional (see comments on didactism above). He did note that not everyone that “works for the man” is bad, and in fact one of the key good guys of the current book is one of those salaried workers.

…twitter

When I asked him how he came up with his own Twitter handle, Gibson explained that a friend had told him about it so he figured he’d check it out, fully expecting to think it stupid and not worth keeping up with. When prompted for a user name, he looked up on his shelf and saw a book about The Great Dismal Swamp; hence, @GreatDismal. After about 5 minutes with Twitter, he found that he loved it. For the first time, he said, authors could get the same direct feedback – good and bad – from their fans that those in sports, film, etc did.

Gibson also made some comments about cultural history and cultural memory, noting that today’s generation of young adults have no idea what it was like to live in constant  fear of nuclear annihilation.  Whether this is a good thing or not remains to be seen. I  have a few other notes, but unfortunately even I am unable to read the scribble that I hurriedly wrote down.

(Just one more reason, as if I need one, that I want an iPad.)

A special thanks to Left Bank Books and the Schlafly Branch of St. Louis Public library for hosting this stop on Gibson’s book tour, and to Dennis Kennedy for making me aware of it. And, of course, to William Gibson for coming to town.

Goodbye to the weekend?

I saw a quote on a discussion board recently in a conversation about telecommuting and taking care of personal business during work time: If they want me to answer my email at night and on the weekends, they shouldn’t have a problem with me making personal calls or email during the day.

One of the recurring themes in Seth Godin’s latest book, Linchpin, is the idea that the way to succeed in the future is to move away from factory work – of all kinds, either physical or intellectual. In the blog post Goodbye to the Office, he makes explicit his point that the modern office is just a different type of factory. And that if you are doing your work outside the office even a little, why do even need the office in the first place?

Which got me thinking: Is there a future for the weekend? If not, is that a bad thing? A good thing? Just “a thing”?

The modern weekend, of course, is as it is based on a century of factory work, office work, and public education. The same can be said for winter break, spring break, and summer vacation. People want (need? demand?) time to get away from the grind, and expect their work life and their life work be kept separate.

But if you no longer need the factory, if you no longer need the office, do you really need the weekend (or spring break or summer vacation) to get away from it all?

So you want to be a doctor? Really?

Standardization of medicine as a result of the desire for predictable outcomes. Unbelievable differences between US practice of medicine and doctors in other parts of the world.

Doctors as cogs in the machine as the “art” of medicine is systematically removed from the practice of medicine, despite the fact that those in the need of the most critical medical care require a doctor who grasps the art, not just the science. (Think “House, MD”).

What does it mean to be a “good” doctor? Who are you trying to please, who are you really serving? Should doctors be embarrassed about how much money they make? should they not make so much money? How much is too much?

Why would anyone want to be a doctor under these conditions?

These were all thoughts left rattling around in my mind after reading Atul Gawande’s book “Better”. I’m still not sure what to think.

Busy people

“If you really need something to get done, find someone who is already busy.”

I’ve heard this advice many times over the years, and even given it as advice a few times. I have accepted it as true, but haven’t given much thought to why it is true.

Reading Seth Godin’s latest, Linchpin, the answer occurred to me: busy people are the artists, the linchpins of an organization. The ones who actually get things done and make things happen.

On the other hand you have what I would call the “occupied” people, those who perform a specific task that was given them and then wait for someone to tell them their next task. These are the factory workers, the interchangeable pieces of the infrastructure of the company. The people who simply do things.
When I look at it this way, it’s obvious why the busy person is who you turn to when you need someone.

Chasing mastery is worth the trouble

In his book Outliers: The Story of Success (which I will be reviewing soon), Malcolm Gladwell discusses the 10,000 hour rule, which states that to achieve mastery – of anything – requires 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. (Readers of Geoff Colvin’s Talent is Overrated will recognize this idea, as well.) This is, to put it mildly, a lot of hours.

Last week a couple of bloggers I follow asked themselves if they thought all this effort was worth it.  From Did I Say That Out Loud?

So then the next question is do I even want to be an expert at anything? Is it worth 10,000 hours to master something so completely? Or is my time better spent doing the daily tasks in front of me the best that I can? Or is there some organic blend of the two?

And from Penelope Trunk’s Brazen Careerist:

There are a few things about the article [The Making of an Expert by Anders EricssonMichael Prietula and Edward Cokely in the July/August HBR] that really make me nervous. The first is that you need to work every single day at being great at that one thing if you want to be great. This is true of pitching, painting, parenting, everything. And if you think management in corporate life is an exception, you’re wrong. I mean, the article is in the Harvard Business Review for a reason.

I was trying to come up with responses to these to let them know that it is worth the effort if you’ve found something you love. I was having a hard time coming up with the right words, so took a break to watch tennis. To watch Roger Federer win the Australian Open, his record 16th major tournament win.

And it all became clear. Not a whole lot of words needed (though I ended up typing a lot anyway).

Is chasing mastery worth the trouble? Your damn right it is.

Uncertainty is far more challenging

In How Life Imitates Chess: Making the Right Moves, from the Board to the Boardroom, former world chess champion Gary Kasparov discusses the challenges of solving “puzzles”:

Knowing a solution is at hand is a huge advantage; it’s like not having a “none of the above” option. Anyone with reasonable competence and adequate resources can solve a puzzle when it is presented as something to be solved. We can skip the subtle evaluations and move directly to plugging in possible solutions until we hit upon a promising one. Uncertainty is far more challenging. Instead of immediately looking for solutions to the crisis, we have to maintain a constant state of asking, “Is there a crisis forming?”

This is the future work. As Harold Jarche mentions in his recent post A Linchpin Culture (in which he discusses Seth Godin‘s latest book):

The work that we will be paid for is the difficult, innovative, one of a kind, creative stuff…. We will be facing more complexity and chaos in our work. There are fewer easy answers, easy jobs with good pay, or simple ways to keep a job for life.

Solving a puzzle that you know has a solution may require knowledge, but it is knowledge that already exists. Figuring out if there is a solution to a problem, or even if there is a problem at all, requires the manipulation of existing knowledge, the gathering of new knowledge / information, and the creation of something new.

In other words, it requires art.