Be excellent to each other (thoughts on Ubuntu!)

I had been reading up on Ubuntu (the operating system) when I came across ubuntu!: An Inspiring Story About an African Tradition of Teamwork and Collaboration (the book) at the library. It was obvious from the subtitle that this was not a book about the OS, but the title pulled me in to at least take a look.

At first I thought it was a true story, perhaps an extended case study, since it was in the new non-fiction section. It turns out, though, that it is actually a work of didactic fiction, a story created by the authors to make a point. That point being that at work we all seem to forget that our co-workers are human, that they aren’t just there as “cogs in the machine”, and that we all need to start respecting our fellow workers as people, even if the work they perform isn’t (yet) worthy of our respect.

Or as those two great philosophers Bill Preston and Ted Logan once said, “Be excellent to each other.”

This point is made through the application of the African tradition known as ubuntu, brought to (stereo)typical big box corporate America by a young South African man working at the company while an MBA student at a local university. The short definition of ubuntu is

a philosophy that considers the success of the group above that of the individual

Here is a more detailed description, as given by Simon (the young South African student) early on to John, his overly stressed and on the verge of failing manager:

Ubuntu…is about teamwork and brotherhood. It is finding that part of you that connects with other people and bringing it to life…. When you struggle, the Ubuntu in me reaches out to give you a hand. If you wander into my village with nothing to eat, our villagers will provide you with food. Why? Because at the deepest level we are all brothers and sisters…. If one of us hurts, we all hurt.

The rest of the story revolves around John’s learning journey, his epiphany, and the sharing of this new knowledge with the rest of the company.

If you are looking for engaging characters, a suspenseful plot, and a twist at the end, this is not the book for you. As William Gibson said recently, didactic fiction rarely results in deep characters or plot. And that’s fine, because the point of this story is to make a point.

For someone open to the idea of an engaging workplace, where each person is respected as a human first, and only then viewed as an employee, the story told in Ubuntu! will provide some insight into the possibilities. Ironically, these are the people who least need to read this book, because they probably already feel this way.

On the other hand, the people who could most benefit from this book – the managers who treat their employees like, well, employees – will most likely read this book and dismiss it as “touchy feely crap”.

The power of Ubuntu is, I’m afraid, one of those things that you have to experience to truly appreciate.

Ignore everybody (but don’t ignore this book)

Like Rework (which I reviewed last week), Ignore Everybody is my kind of book. Written by Hugh MacLeod of gapingvoid.com, it is made up of 40 short essays that each dive into a very specific idea or question. And pictures, lots of pictures from the cube-grenade gallery at gapingvoid.com.

Based on many years of experience, the advice that MacLeod dispenses is almost brutal in its description of what aspiring artists (used in the loosest, Seth Godin-esque way) have to look forward to, and what they have to do to get there. Just reading the essay titles gives you an idea of what to expect:

  • Put the hours in
  • If your business plan depends on suddenly being “discovered” by some bit shot, your plan will probably fail
  • Keep your day job
  • Selling out is harder than it looks

If you are looking for an “easy ticket” to success, this isn’t the book that will get you there. (Hint: such a book doesn’t exist.)

None of this is new, of course, to those who are interested in pursuing mastery and are willing to put in the effort it takes to achieve that mastery. Who aren’t focused on a specific outcome but are interested in the journey on which they find themselves. There is plenty in the book to reinforce the importance of that attitude:

  • Don’t try to stand out from the crowd; avoid crowds altogether
  • Sing in your own voice
  • Worrying about “Commercial vs. Artistic” is a complete waste of time
  • Write from the heart
  • The best way to get approval is not to need it

In some ways, this book simply tells us what most of already know. Maybe we know it subconsciously, just under the radar of what we are willing to acknowledge. Maybe we know that it is true but just can’t bring ourselves to do anything about it. But as MacLeod lays out in the opening essay:

GOOD IDEAS ALTER THE POWER BALANCE IN RELATIONSHIPS. THAT IS WHY GOOD IDEAS ARE ALWAYS INITIALLY RESISTED.

Good ideas come with a heavy burden, which why so few people execute them. So few people can handle it.

Ignore Everybody simply lays it out on the table to where you can’t ignore it, where you have to decide for yourself, “Can I handle it?”

One of my favorites...

Live your life, don’t let it pass you by

Of all of the daily meditations in 365 Tao, yesterday’s meditation on Engagement is the one that most deeply resonates for me:

Prey passes the tiger who
Sometimes merely looks,
Sometimes pounces without  hesitation,
But never fails to act.

Don’t just let life pass you by. Engage with it, be aware of all of the opportunities (and traps) that come your way, and actively choose your response.

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.

Being ready to die, he was more likely to live

Last night I attended my first kendo class. As a beginner, I felt clumsy and awkward as I tried to coordinate my footwork, proper holding of the shinai, and basic overhead strikes. And awed as I watched the senior members of the club do some free sparring toward the end of class. I am looking forward to continued training and learning this very cool art.

Kendo – the way of the sword – is a martial art based on kenjutsu, the traditional Japanese swordmanship practiced by the samurai.  As a sport, kendo obviously has taken away the lethal aspects of the art, but the spirit of the art remains. Success in kendo competition requires much the same commitment as that required by the samurai. George Leonard describes this commitment in his book Way of Aikido, The: Life Lessons from an American Sensei:

Long and arduous training contributed to the samurai’s presence and clarity in combat, but there was also another key factor: The samurai had to be totally free of considerations. If, for example, he was to think, “Why didn’t I have my sword sharpened?” or “I should have settled my debt with Takeda-san,” the break in ki would be fatal. The ultimate consideration is one’s own death. For the thought “I might die” to creep into his consciousness would mean sure death. That’s why the samurai was trained from earliest childhood to go into battle with no thought of either life or death. Being ready to die, he was more likely to live.

Having just read Seth Godin’s Linchpin, I can’t help seeing many parallels between the training of the samurai and what Seth is urging us to do in our own lives. For example, to be “free of considerations” is to keep the “lizard brain” at bay. Focusing on doing our work, on sharing our art, without regards to any rewards – though far from “being ready to die” – allows us to perform at out best. As Seth says in Linchpin:

The reason you might choose to embrace the artist within you now is that this is the path to (cue the ironic music) security. When it is time for layoffs, the safest job belongs to the artist, the linchpin, the one who can’t be easily outsourced or replaced.

Are you “ready to die” as you set out to change the world?

The end of my beginning

Today is an interesting day for me. It is the first day that I am living beyond the age that my dad was when he died. Although I don’t feel old – and my kids would tell you I don’t act old, or at least not my age – knowing that I have now outlived my dad brings things into a different kind of focus.

I’m happy with my life, my work, my family. I’m not going to go out and make any drastic changes. But I will look at each day just a little bit differently, knowing that each day is a gift for me to enjoy, and make the most of  it.

I hope you’ll do the same.

Seth Godin wants you to become indispensable

When I was young, I went to see Raiders of the Lost Ark with my mom. At the conclusion of the opening sequence, as Indy’s escape plane flies away, my mom leaned over and said, “Oh my God. Is the whole movie going to be like this?” I had a very similar feeling when – on page 20 of his new book Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?Seth Godin asks the reader for “one last favor before you start…”

“Before I start? Is the rest of the book going to be like this?!?”

Divided into 13 chapters, each chapter is made up of a large number of small sections, very few of which are longer than a page; one section clocked in at just one word (even though the section title is 52 words long). Though related to the chapters that hold them, these little sections seem almost like a stream of consciousness of questions and answers, insights and mandates. To risk another pop-culture metaphor, I felt at times like I was inside a Robin Williams improv routine; as soon as one idea comes out, another is liberated and thrown out into the mix.

I like this book. Or, more accurately, I like the ideas in this book. On my first read through the book I chose to dog-ear pages instead of my usual of writing in the margins. This picture shows the results of my dog-ears.

In just over 200+ pages, Seth Godin asks, explores, and answers many of the ideas questions that have been on my mind lately, especially as it relates to work and the possibility of work as art. I’ve been considering this not just for myself but for my sons, one a junior and the other a senior in high school. This book is a must read for anyone considering their own future, or what to tell their kids about how they can live their own lives.

There are many themes and ideas within this book that different people will lock onto. I have the feeling that I will be exploring the ideas in the book for many weeks to come. For me, though, the two that jumped out were the discussions of “Indoctrination: How we got here” and “The Resistance”.

The former explains how we have all – or nearly all – become “factory workers” and compares this with what we are capable of – art. The latter exposes the “scaredy cat” (my term, not his) inside our brains – our lizard brains. This part of our brain was very effective – and very essential – in our survival and evolution, but now is getting in our way. The key to overcoming any adversary is a knowledge of that adversary, and he gives us an excellent understanding of this particular one.

Earlier I mentioned an especially short section with an unusually long section title. As it turns out, that section – title and all – really sums up the entire book for me:

“Wait! Are You Saying That I Have to Stop Following Instructions and Start Being an Artist? Someone Who Dreams Up New Ideas and Makes Them Real? Someone Who Finds New Ways to Interact, New Pathways to Deliver Emotion, New Ways to Connect? Someone Who Acts Like a Human, Not a Cog? Me?”

Yes.

By the time you finish reading Linchpin, you will believe that you can do all of this. All you have to do, as Seth reminds us again and again, is to make the choice.