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.

Permission and forgiveness

“Do you really think George bothered to ask for f***ing permission?”

This was Kevin Spacey’s response to a question from the audience during the Q&A following the St. Louis premiere of George Hickenlooper’s movie “Casino Jack” at the St. Louis Film Festival. This specific question was related to getting legal clearance for the music used in the film, but it reflected a general theme of the evening as friends and family honored George – a high school classmate of mine – following his sudden death only two weeks before this hometown premiere.

In addition to numerous stories of guerilla filmmaking on the set of Casino Jack (like the scene filmed at the Capitol), friends old and new described George’s lack of concern for obtaining permission to do things. My favorite was a story told by Mike Beugg about the making of George’s first, sadly long lost, feature length movie. As the roller coaster (Screaming Eagle) pulled into the station, and passengers were screaming because of the knife and the blood, George was calmly reassuring everyone that “it’s OK, we’re making a movie.”

When asked, “Why didn’t you tell anyone?”, he responded, “I wanted to get real reactions.”

Not only had George not asked permission to do this, he wasn’t even asking forgiveness.

A few days later I came across Chris Guillebeau’s book The Art of Non-Conformity. With the above thoughts about George still fresh in my mind, I picked up the book and read it (devoured it?) in a couple of hours. What Chris had to say made sense to me on an intellectual level, but it was my recent evening with the legacy of George Hickenlooper that really brought it home, really made an impact.

As Chris tells us, and George showed us, it may be better to ask forgiveness than permission, but most of the time you don’t need either.

Something to think about as we head into the new year.

On the path of knowledge creation

ThiagiIn his foreword to Marc Prensky‘s book Digital Game-Based Learning, Sivasailam “Thiagi” Thiagarajan (@thiagi) recounts the following (emphasis is mine):

Early in my life, my mentor explained to me the three paths that lead to the creation of knowledge. The analytical path, where philosophers reflect, meditate, and make sense of objects and events; the empirical path, where scientists manipulate variables and conduct controlled experiments to validate reliable principles; and the pragmatic path where practitioners struggle with real-world challenges and come up with strategies for effective and efficient performance.

Each of these paths can be taken in isolation from the others, we see that every day. It is also common to see these paths taken one after the other: analyze -> experiment -> implement.

More challenging, and much more powerful, is to integrate these three trails into a single path that allows you to go from trail to trail as needed to get you where you want to go.

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.

15 Authors (in 15 minutes)

This meme crossed my desk on Facebook last weekend, and I thought my response was worth sharing here as well.
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Don’t take too long to think about it. Fifteen authors (poets included) who’ve influenced you and that will always stick with you. List the first fifteen you can recall in no more than fifteen minutes.

Where to start…? Let’s start with fiction.

When I was in the Army, Tom Clancy‘s books were a big influence. I enjoyed all of his books up to Executive Orders, which is where I think he should have stopped.

I love Stephen King‘s work, though I haven’t read much recently. (As you’ll see, I read more non-fiction these days.)

I’ve come to appreciate the work of William Gibson (@GreatDismal), and would have to say that my favorite fiction author these days is Neal Stephenson. (I re-read either Cryptonomicon or Anathem every year.)

On the non-fiction side, in no particular order (except the order in which they came to mind):

Douglas Hofstadter
From his first book, the masterpiece Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid to his latest, I Am a Strange Loop, he is the instigator of much of my interest in how our minds work.

Steven Pinker
Speaking of How the Mind Works, Pinker’s books have also influenced how I think about and understand why we do the things we do, and how we learn.

Daniel Pink (@danielpink)
His latest Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, and his earlier A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future are outstanding. And every parent should give their high school senior The Adventures of Johnny Bunko: The Last Career Guide You’ll Ever Need.

Seth Godin
Linchpin

Steven Johnson (@stevenbjohnson)
His latest, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, is the book I wish I had written. Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software and Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter are required reading if you want to understand how our culture ended up the way it is (and why that isn’t really so bad.)

E.O. Wilson
Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, and everything else.

Richard Feynman
Not so much an author as a story teller, but oh what stories he had to tell.

Atul Gawande (#atulgawande)
I’m not a doctor, and after reading his books I don’t understand why anyone would ever want to be. But he has some great insights on what it means to walk the master’s path.

George Leonard
Speaking of the master’s path, Mastery: The Keys to Success and Long-Term Fulfillment has a permanent place on the shelf on my desk.

Don Tapscott(@dtapscott)
Growing Up Digital: The Rise of the Net Generation gave me my first real understanding of the potential of the digital age, everything else is just gravy.

Temple Grandin
She has helped me understand autism better, and what it must be like for autistics to make their way in this society of ours. If you are the parent of an autistic child, run (don’t walk) out and pick up Emergence: Labeled Autistic and/or Thinking in Pictures.

Stuart Kauffman
Investigations just blew me away. I still only understand about 1/2 of it, but I keep going back to it to learn more and more.

OK, OK, that’s 16. So, I got a little carried away….

Most managers don’t want creative employees

A couple of summers ago I read Management of the Absurd by Richard Farson. The book lives up to its title and one that I heartily recommend. It contains a wealth of ideas and views on management that you don’t often come across.

For example, this on the management of creativity:

Real creativity, the kind that is responsible for breakthrough changes in our society, always violates the rules. That is why it is so unmanageable and that is why, in most organizations, when we say we desire creativity we really mean manageable creativity. We don’t mean raw, dramatic, radical creativity that requires us to change.

As much as managers and organizations say they want to be innovative and groundbreaking, they usually don’t mean they want each of their individual employees to be innovative and groundbreaking. They want the rules to be followed, because that’s how things are supposed to work. They don’t believe that rules are meant to be broken.

The real message, though, is this: break the rules and be successful and we’ll back you all the way, but break the rules and fail and you are on your own.

This is something that Seth Godin talks about quite a bit. Don’t expect any cover from your boss when you try something new, he tells us, because that’s not your boss’s job. If your creativity, your art, is important to you, the best thing you can do is to simply do it. Or, as he 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.

Update: This post is an updated version of something I first wrote in June 2008. I was inspired to update it by a common search term in my referral logs (rules are meant to be broken), my earlier post (Some) Rules are meant to be broken, and the recent series of Hey Leaders, Wake Up! posts at hackingwork.com.

Chance favors the connected mind (Where Good Ideas Come From)

I’ve read the reviews, I’ve seen the video (also embedded below), and I’ve listened in on the webinar. And now that the UPS guy has made his afternoon delivery, I can finally read Steven Johnson‘s (@stevenbjohnson) latest book Where Good Ideas Come From – The Natural History of Innovation. (Though it is going to have to wait a day or two until I finish The Mesh: Why the Future of Business Is Sharing.)

Having read many of Johnson’s previous books, I know that I like his writing style and approach and fully expect to enjoy reading this book. More than anything, though, I’m looking forward to his ideas on ideas, especially the idea that chance favors the connected mind. If this isn’t enough to convince you that you should probably go out and get the book, please read on.

A couple of tidbits from reviews:

  • In “Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation,” Steven Johnson, an author and Internet entrepreneur, draws on natural science, intellectual history and 21st-century technology to identify the environments that are conductive to innovation. Johnson doesn’t define “good ideas” — or indicate whether their pathways to implementation differ from those of “bad ideas.”  – The Oregonian
  • Where do good ideas come from? That is the question posed by Steven Johnson, a writer known for the agility with which he makes interdisciplinary analogies, in his latest book. His “natural history of innovation” provides a taxonomy of seven ways in which new ideas can sprout from old ones. But this is no management text: for each of his seven patterns of innovation, Mr Johnson provides wide-ranging examples from technology, the natural world and culture. – The Economist

Luis Suarez (@elsua) has some excellent thoughts on Johnson’s TED talk on the subject, along with this ringing endorsement:

Do you happen to have about 18 minutes of your precious busy time … to spare to go ahead and watch one of those TED Talks that will surely keep you thinking for a while on what true innovation is all about? You do? Then you have got to go and watch Steven Johnson‘s Talk on Where Good Ideas Come From. It’s worth the 18 minutes and so much more!

Johnson is currently touring for the book, and will be in St. Louis on 14 October. (I must now make a choice: stick around at the Strange Loop Conference for theStrange Passions party or duck out to see Johnson. Decisions, decisions.)