INSIGHT INTO WAR

 

I have never been to war but have always been fascinated by history, specifically our world’s long track record of epic conflict. While on holiday over the Christmas break I had the opportunity to read What It Is Like To Go To War by Karl Marlantes.

It is VERY different than anything I have ever read before with the author opening up in a way that few do, uncovering every deep and ugly thought and emotion of the impact that war had on him as a young man (specifically – Vietnam). He also make far reaching observations on the state of society that I found captivating, and disturbing. This one in particular, on evil:

Evil is very ordinary. We don’t have to look far to see its causes. It’s the little things, such as being as tired and not inspecting the mortar tripod closely enough, or not recycling the plastic or letting kids eat junk food that abuses their health because parents’ working or social life is more important that preparing a decent meal at home…. Cruelty is as mundane and common as cruelty in child rearing.

Many will find this a very uncomfortable read (I did). There is nothing glorious about war or the savagery of humanity and Marlantes does not shirk from the dark, even his own dark side. In the end, I would agree with this recommendation that all young people who sign up for a warrior’s job should read this book (or one’s like it). It makes one think broadly, well beyond the bravado and glory stories of a hill taken.

A book that makes me think, well past the day that the last page was read.

LIVE LONG

 

I finally got around to reading a book that I have had on my ‘to-read’ list for quite a while, Catch 22. I particularly enjoyed this quote – the set up being that a character is trying to live the longest life possible by being bored, as boredom and painful situations make time go by slowly …..

“Well, maybe it is true,” Clevinger conceded unwillingly in a subdued tone. “Maybe a long life does have to be filled with many unpleasant conditions if it’s to seem long. But in that event, who wants one?”

What I didn’t realize was that the term “Catch 22” is actually derived from the book – something the author made up, and now a popular part of culture (and the dictionary). According to Wikipedia:

Among other things, Catch-22 is a general critique of bureaucratic operation and reasoning. Resulting from its specific use in the book, the phrase “Catch-22″ is common idiomatic usage meaning “a no-win situation” or “a double bind” of any type. Within the book, “Catch-22″ is a military rule, the self-contradictory circular logic that, for example, prevents anyone from avoiding combat missions. In Heller’s own words:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he were sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle. (p. 46, ch. 5)

Interesting book.

THANK A VET

 

The other book I read on holiday was Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by the author of Seabiscuit, Laura Hillenbrand. I cannot do the story justice, so I point to the summary:

The inspiring true story of a man who lived through a series of catastrophes almost too incredible to be believed. In evocative, immediate descriptions, Hillenbrand unfurls the story of Louie Zamperini–a juvenile delinquent-turned-Olympic runner-turned-Army hero. During a routine search mission over the Pacific, Louie’s plane crashed into the ocean, and what happened to him over the next three years of his life is a story that will keep you glued to the pages, eagerly awaiting the next turn in the story and fearing it at the same time. You’ll cheer for the man who somehow maintained his selfhood and humanity despite the monumental degradations he suffered, and you’ll want to share this book with everyone you know.

If you go to Louie Zamperini’s website you can watch the CBS video on his life – from the Nagano Olympics. We watched it as a family, it is very inspiring. Unfortunately, a lot of the book reminded me of the book Their Darkest Hour, and the stories inside the Japanese prison camps are heart breaking.

Reading this, I simply felt fortunate for the country I live in, a time of peace and for those who sacrificed so much. I also felt sad, because unfortunately theses stories of evil continue on every day in places like the Congo, so far away.

ON THE PASSIVE AGGRESSIVE

 

While on holiday last week I read the book Sh*t my Dad Said by Justin Halpern. As you will expect, it was filled with more than a few crude statements, but also filled with a few touching moments between father and son and a few that had me laughing so hard I was in tears. One quote stuck out from the beginning of the book:

For as long as I’ve known him, my father has been a blunt individual. When I was little, I mostly felt terrified of him, so I couldn’t appreciate that I was dealing with the least passive-aggressive human being on the planet. Now, as an adult, all day long I dealt with people—friends, coworkers, relatives—who never really said what they were thinking. The more time I spent with my dad in those first couple months back home, the more grateful I started to feel for the mixture of honesty and insanity that characterized his comments and personality.

Amen to that.

LINCHPIN

 

On holiday I read a book that was given to me as a gift – Linchpin by Seth Godin. I like his books, with their ‘manifesto’ like writing style. Linchpin is written as a challenge to people with one central theme: “Be different”. I saw the teachings of a few of my best mentors in his writing. My favourite quotes:

  • On busy work – the notion that being busy does not mean success:

“It’s easy to find a way to spend your entire day doing busywork. Trivial work doesn’t require leaning. The challenge is to replace those tasks with rule-breaking activities instead”

  • On investing in yourself, reading self-help books, focusing on your development and really trying to improve day in, day out:

“Getting Things Done could actually help you get things done. A Whack on the Side of the Head could help you be creative. Sales training could in fact help you make more sales. There are books and classes that can teach you how to do most of the things discussed in this book. And while many copies are sold and many classes attended, the failure rate is astonishingly high.
It’s not because the books and classes aren’t good. It’s because the resistance is stronger. Few people have the guts to point this out. Instead, we turn up our noses at the entire genre of self-help. We cynically ridicule the brownnosers who set out to better themselves. We marginalize the teachers who are unaccredited or not affiliated with Harvard, et al. It’s a brilliant plan by the resistance, and it usually works. Don’t listen to the cynics. They’re cynics for a reason. For them, the resistance won a long time ago. When the resistance tells you not to listen to something, read something, or attend something, go. Do it. It’s not an accident that successful people read more book”

  • On expending energy in non-productive ways, reacting to that person who cut you off in traffic:

“Shenpa is a Tibetan word that roughly means “scratching the itch.” I think of it as a spiral of pain, something that is triggered by a small event and immediately takes you totally off the ranch. A small itch gets scratched, which makes it itch more, so you scratch more and more until you’re literally in pain.

You’re on a sales call and it seems to be going well. This is your particular trigger. It might lead to a sale and that would expose you to all sorts of danger, says the lizard. So you say something stupid as a defense mechanism, which leads to a stumble in the rhythm of the meeting. You say something else stupid and suddenly, as you expected, it all begins to unravel. This is your shenpa, the one you invented for yourself.”

  • On the curse of reciprocity .. this one really made me think. It is sad, but when someone gives me something – I often fall into this trap:

“It’s human nature. If someone gives you a gift, you need to reciprocate. If someone invites you over for dinner, you bring cookies. If people give you a Christmas gift, you can’t rest until you give them one back. It’s reciprocity that turned the gift system into the gift economy. Suddenly, giving a gift becomes an obligation, one demanding payment, not a gift at all. So marketers use the reciprocity impulse against us, using gifts as a come-on.”

  • On our perceptions as our reality:

“No one has a transparent view of the world. In fact, we all carry around a personal worldview—the biases and experiences and expectations that color the way we perceive the world”

  • On how to manage your stakeholders:

“The cornerstone of your job is selling your boss on your plans, behaving in a way that gives her cover with her boss, being unpredictable in predictable ways. You can’t go from being a junior account exec to flying the company’s biggest client to Cannes in a private jet and expensing it a month later. You don’t start with the confidence of the company; you earn it”

  • On change:

“1. Understand that there’s a difference between the right answer and the answer you can sell. Too often, heretical ideas in organizations are shot down. They’re not refused because they’re wrong; they’re refused because the person doing the selling doesn’t have the stature or track record to sell it. Your boss has a worldview, too. When you propose something that triggers his resistance, what do you expect will happen?

2. Focus on making changes that work down, not up. Interacting with customers and employees is often easier than influencing bosses and investors. Over time, as you create an environment where your insight and generosity pay off, the people above you will notice, and you’ll get more freedom and authority”

Throughout the book he centers on being different. If you really want to be successful it is no longer enough to work hard, do a good job, fit in. Break-out performance comes from different thinking, from standing out in the crowd, taking risks and pushing into a whole new realm. A few notable quotes:

“Lots of people can lift. That’s not paying off anymore. A few people can sell. Almost no one puts in the work to create or invent. Up to you. Great bosses and world-class organizations hire motivated people, set high expectations, and give their people room to become remarkable. There are countless people waiting to tell you how to fit in, waiting to correct you, advise you, show you what you are doing wrong. And no one pushing you to stand out.”

That last point says it all, being different is not always appreciated.

I remember having a active discussion with someone on the topic of being different over a coffee last summer. The topic was rather inconsequential, but it makes the point well enough. While members at a tennis club in England, we came to notice a dual standard. The club made it clear that they supported the Wimbledon standard of attire on the court. This was translated into women wearing all manner of attire and men being held to the standard of collared shirts. Contrary to popular belief, it can get quite hot in the greater London area.We would watch the women enjoy the sun in tank shirts while our boys ran the courts in full, heavy shirts. So we inquired about the process to change the rules, which involved requests being approved by a council of members. We then assembled photos of the top 10 male tennis players at Wimbledon in attire other than collared shirts (Most never wear a collared shirt) and submitted the request with a recommendation of change.

It was rejected by the member council, who we learned were long standing members (decades) and not interested in change. We also found out that one of the most prominent and talented male members had been waging this battle for a couple of years. Over that coffee, I made the point that progress is hard and people do not like change. The counterpoint was made “why rock the boat?”, in terms of ‘Why must you press it. Rules are rules”. Right there it struck me .. so many people just want to fit in, as Seth points out.

The only problem is, progress is only made with change. Progress is often painful, many will push against it and mistakes will be made, but in the end if it is worthwhile, someone has to have the courage to do it. The road less travelled …..

Good book.

GOING ELECTRONIC

 

As mentioned in a previous post, I have been uncharacteristically slow to adopt eBooks. Uncharacteristic in that I love to be on the bleeding edge of technology, always on the new OS beta’s, running different devices, trying out a new piece of technology. But for some reason I did not jump on the eBook bandwagon.

This holiday that changed. After reading a friend’s post on reading, I realized that I have a few additional options that I had not considered. Therefore, under the balmy Belizean sun, cold Coke in hand and hammock swaying in the gentle breeze, I embarked on the journey of learning how to read electronically.

As previously mentioned, one of my biggest hurdles for transitioning to an eBook is that when I read business literature, I like to read it like I did in University (or perhaps better than I did in University), making notes, highlighting quotes. I often find myself going back to old business books and re-reading parts, or grabbing quotes to share in presentations. What I found surprised me. Below are my highlights and how I have implemented eReading.

Document choice

The amount of choice is truly dizzying. All of the different document and book formats (PDF, .LIT, ePub …) can be overwhelming. After reading widely, I settled on two formats for all documents:

  • PDF:  Inevitable. Analyst reports, Harvard Business Review articles, reports that I read daily, are all published in PDF.
  • ePUB:  It would seem that ePub is the most universally supported. There are several other proprietary options out there, but I am going to do everything I can to avoid them.

Hardware choice

On the reader front, the decision is really between a dedicated reader and a tablet. I am running on an Android Tablet (Galaxy) as it has a wide range of software choices. I was worried that it would not perform as well in the daylight as a Kindle, but the ability to shift viewing modes makes it almost as effective. As a Kindle aside, it was amazing to see how many people had a Kindle at the pool. At one point, I counted 4 Kindles, my tablet, an iPad, 1 person reading a paper book and a guy with a bright pink 17” laptop resting on his stomach (smile).

image

All about the software

Rooting through which software to use is the real chore. In the end I settled on the following:

  • Adobe Reader X:  Reading and highlighting PDFs remains an issue. I cannot find a good PDF reader for Android but there is hope. Adobe just released their ‘X’ version which includes commenting and highlighting for the desktop. A huge step forward. I will be forced to read PDFs on the laptop for a while longer. Hopefully the Android version with highlighting and comments is not far behind. I left a note on their forum!
  • Moon Reader:   Tried a host of readers and liked this one the best. Great annotation, highlight and bookmarking software. The best feature is the ability to export through a range of vehicles, email, Evernote and others. Very flexible choice.
  • Kindle and Kobo:   I have accounts with both, although I like the Kindle Android application better. The only downside is that it isn’t as flexible with sharing highlights and notes as Moon Reader. As an aside, Kobo has 1.8 million books available for free.
  • Calibre:  And last but not least, I installed Calibre on my media server to manage the eBook library that is simply bound to grow.
  • Evernote:  I have always been a big Microsoft OneNote fan. But as my OS and device patterns fragment, I have found the Microsoft only – desktop centric product less and less usable. I have started the migration to Evernote (again thanks to the previously mentioned note) and could not be happier. All of my notes sync’d across each of my devices. The only feature missing is the ability to skip specific notebooks on a desktop instance (i.e. Leave personal notebooks off of my work computer).
  • Dropbox:  Makes it simple to share PDFs and other documents across all platforms – Windows, Apple, Android. You name it, they support it.

Not quite perfect, but almost. Only one piece left, magazines.

eBOOKS

 

I enjoy technology. I enjoy reading about it. I enjoy the frustrating process of participating in a beta. I enjoy watching trends and working out how they will have a benefit in business and/or personal life.

But one piece of technology I have really struggled with is the eBook. I have not jumped on the bandwagon. I was given one as a gift. I have the Amazon Kindle Android app on my Samsung Tablet. But I don’t use them. I have only bought a single eBook. I have been wondering if I am missing out, am I falling behind?

Now, I do read on my tablet. I subscribe to a plethora of blogs via Google Reader, my favourite being HBR. I subscribe to a host of podcasts including the BBC World News, BBC Business News, Wallstreet Journal and others. But I just don’t buy eBooks – and I finally figured out why.

It hit me while on the plane reading the paper version of How The Mighty Fall.  When I read a business book, I read it like I am back in University. I bend pages, I underline, I write in the margin and I even highlight on occasions (if I have a highlighter handy which is almost never). I look at that book as a reference tool, a lesson to be leveraged when I face a future decision or question. I cannot count the number of times I have dug through The First 90 days to refer to a lesson. I realized that an eBook cannot provide that same experience (even if it is searchable).

Which led me to a simple conclusion. For me, business books require paper. Personal interest books can be an eBook. Problem solved.

STEIG & THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO

 

I have really worked hard to avoid the whole Steig Larsson thing that is going on.

Sure, it is an interesting story. Minor writer, activist, living in Sweden, who is described as ‘a leading expert on antidemocratic right wing extremists and Nazi organizations’ turns in the Millennium trilogy, but passes away shortly after. The book makes it big in Sweden, they are translated and 40 million+ of copies are sold around the world. It was made into a movie in Sweden and an English version with Daniel Craig is out at Christmas. An international sensation in the making. In fact, he has now become a cultural icon, with a sense of ‘conspiracy’ surrounding his death and life as an activist:

To be exact, Stieg Larsson died on November 9, 2004, which I can’t help noticing was the anniversary of Kristallnacht. Is it plausible that Sweden’s most public anti-Nazi just chanced to expire from natural causes on such a date? Larsson’s magazine, Expo, which has a fairly clear fictional cousinhood with “Millennium,” was an unceasing annoyance to the extreme right. He himself was the public figure most identified with the unmasking of white-supremacist and neo-Nazi organizations, many of them with a hard-earned reputation for homicidal violence. The Swedes are not the pacific herbivores that many people imagine: in the footnotes to his second novel Larsson reminds us that Prime Minister Olof Palme was gunned down in the street in 1986 and that the foreign minister Anna Lindh was stabbed to death (in a Stockholm department store) in 2003. The first crime is still unsolved, and the verdict in the second case has by no means satisfied everybody.

A report in the mainstream newspaper Aftonbladet describes the findings of another anti-Nazi researcher, named Bosse Schön, who unraveled a plot to murder Stieg Larsson that included a Swedish SS veteran. Another scheme misfired because on the night in question, 20 years ago, he saw skinheads with bats waiting outside his office and left by the rear exit.

Having read about him online, it seems that his pre-book life was filled with noble efforts. One has to wonder, what would he have done with his vast wealth had he lived? (I am sure the extreme right wouldn’t have liked it). Which is why I pondered reading the book, even though it contained sentences like the following;

‘After discussions with her mother they had agreed to give Pernilla an Ipod, an MP3 player hardly bigger than a matchbox which could store her huge CD collection’

Perhaps iPods haven’t made it to Sweden? Or maybe Steig needed to get to a Best Buy more often. And as an aside, I doubt that she had a CD collection … And really, Pernilla?

But thanks to the brightly colored cover, I was reminded constantly of the books popularity (seems like it is everywhere) . I even held out in Costco, which was as tough as passing by the Halloween candy in August when they first put it out, right beside the Christmas decorations.

I finally caved in and this weekend I started reading it. An interesting read, with a complex plot and a list of characters as long as the queue to get a copy of Halo Reach last week. About half way through the 500 page tome, I started to realize that the book was sending me a message. And that message is that I really don’t like reading crime fiction. I find it tedious and irritating (unless it has something like a cool supernatural twist) so I stopped. Rented the movie and started reading Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island.

ENDER’S GAME

Ender's game cover ISBN 0312932081.jpg

 

I just finished re-reading my favourite book, Ender’s Game on a whim. If you have not heard of the book, it is one of the top selling (and celebrated) sci-fi books of all time. Call it a classic.

Intense is the word for Ender’s Game. Aliens have attacked Earth twice and almost destroyed the human species. To make sure humans win the next encounter, the world government has taken to breeding military geniuses — and then training them in the arts of war… The early training, not surprisingly, takes the form of ‘games’… Ender Wiggin is a genius among geniuses; he wins all the games… He is smart enough to know that time is running out. But is he smart enough to save the planet?

Why read it again? I went through my old boxes of books to pull out a few books that the boys might like, this one ranked high on the list. I opened it .. started reading a few pages … and couldn’t put it down.

A good read, and there are a few interesting leadership lessons in there too.

BLUETOOTH

 

I started reading John O’Farrell’s bestseller ‘An Utterly Impartial History of Britain or 2000 Years of Upper Class Idiots in Charge‘. I am up to 900AD when I came across this fascinating piece of trivia about a Viking invader who laid waste to Britain, Harald Bluetooth (Harald I of Denmark):

"Bluetooth" now more commonly refers to the Bluetooth wireless specification designed to enable cable-free connections between computers, mobile phones, PDAs, printers, etc. Bluetooth in these devices is named after this king. The Bluetooth logo consists of the Nordic runes for its initials, H and B (Long-branch runes version). Harald is regarded as having united (if temporarily) Denmark, Norway, and Sweden under a single king.

Interesting piece of trivia and fantastic book. I love this passage talking about the conversion of pagans in Britain to Christianity (563AD):

‘Although word of the gospel spread rapidly, the Anglo-Saxons took a few decades to get it. They believed in the one and only God as set out in the first commandment, while still worshipping all the other Norse gods just to be on the safe side. One pagan king said that if he had been at the crucifixion of Christ he would have avenged it and slain all responsible. At which there was an embarrassed pause and the Christian missionary sighed and said ‘Right, let’s start again …..”

‘Of course, early Saxon Christian converts understood that the word of the gospel was not to be taken literally. Where it says ‘Thou shall not kill’, they were sophisticated enough to appreciate that this was a metaphorical commandment, and one interpretation might be: ‘Kill everyone who stands between you and seizing power”

TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE AND TED

 

I blogged about reading Tuesdays with Morrie. In the book, the author talks about Morrie’s interviews with Ted Koppel and how Ted started out uptight and aloof but slowly let his collar down.

You can watch the videos here. Very interesting, brings life to the book.

TUESDAYS WITH MORRIE

 

Normally when I go on vacation I read a lot. This vacation, after a torrid 6 month pace (the move, new job, tons of travel), I did not. I brought a bunch of books (I did not know what I would feel like reading) but just wanted to relax.

I only read one book, Tuesdays with Morrie, one that has been on my ‘to read’ list for a while and I have to say, I understand why it sold 11 million copies:

Tuesdays with Morrie is a bestselling non-fiction book by American writer Mitch Albom, published in 1997 (ISBN 0-385-48451-8). The story was later adapted by Thomas Rickman into a television movie (directed by Mick Jackson), which aired on 5 December 1999 and starred Hank Azaria as Mitch and Jack Lemmon (in his final role) as Morrie.

It is the true story of Morrie Schwartz and his relationship with student Mitch Albom. Both the film and the book chronicle the lessons about life that Mitch learns from his professor, who is dying from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig‘s Disease.

After five years in hardcover, it was released as a trade paperback in October 2002. It was re-released as a mass-market paperback by Anchor Books in January 2006. According to this edition, 11 million copies of Tuesdays with Morrie are in print worldwide.

. A few quotes that stuck with me:

  • ‘So many people walk around with a meaningless life. They seem half-asleep, even when they’re busy doing things they think are important. That is because they are chasing the wrong things. The way you get meaning in your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you meaning and purpose’
  • ‘We’re so wrapped up in the egotistical things, career, family, having enough money, meeting the mortgage, getting a new care  .. we’re involved in a trillions of little acts just to keep going. So we don’t get into the habit of standing back and looking at our lives and saying, Is this all? Is this all I want? Is something missing?’
  • ‘Do what the Buddhists do. Every day, have a little bird on your shoulder that asks ‘Is today the day? Am I ready? Am I doing the all I need to do? Am I being the person I want to be?’
  • ‘Love each other or perish’ 
    • This was stated in the context of family. So true. If there is not love and family, what is there?
  • On the topic of getting old and whether or not Morrie is jealous of youth: ‘It’s very simple. As you grow, you learn more. If you stayed at twenty two, you’d always be as ignorant as you were at twenty two. Aging is not decay, you know. It’s growth. It’s more than the negative that you’re going to die, it’s also the positive that you understand you’re going to die, and that you live a better life because of it’ 
    • This one really struck me. If I think of times where I have daydreamed of youth, I have never taken a Bruce Springsteen ‘Glory Days’ view where I look on those times as the best of times. If I were to ever travel back, I would only want to do it with what I have learned …. not to go back and relive it again. Been there, done that and man .. did I make a lot of mistakes.
  • On buying more things …. ‘You know how I always interpreted that? These were people so hungry for love that they were accepting substitutes. They were embracing material things and expecting a sort of hug back. But it never works. You cant substitute material things for love or for gentleness or for tenderness or comradeship’
  • On moving up the ladder …. ‘Mitch, if you’re trying to show off for people at the top, forget it. They will look down at you anyhow. And if you’re trying to show off for people at the bottom, forget it. They will envy you. Status will get you nowhere.Only an open heart will allow you to float equally between everyone’
  • On love an marriage and love …. ‘If you don’t respect the other person, you’re gonna have a lot of trouble. If you don’t know how to compromise, you’re gonna have a lot of trouble. If you can’t talk openly about what goes on between you, you’re gonna have a lot of trouble. And if you don’t have a common set of values in life, you’re gonna have a lot of trouble’ …. ‘In business, people negotiate to win. They negotiate to get what they want. Maybe you’re too used to that. Love is different. Love is when you are as concerned about someone else’s situation as you are about your own’
  • On forgiveness … ‘Forgive yourself before you die. Then forgive others’
    • Tougher, but on my mind a lot.

Thanks for the lessons Morrie.

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