Friday, April 05, 2019

The Elephant in the Room by Tommy Tomlinson

The Elephant in the Room by Tommy Tomlinson was a an excellent memoir subtitled One Fat Man's Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America. Tomlinson is someone whose writing I first posted on back in 2011 and in this book he gives a profound look at his life.

It's an entertaining read about struggling with his weight, but also much more than that, with the lyrical writing and content about his life and career reminiscent of one of my favorite books, The Tender Bar by J.R. Moehringer. Tomlinson covers well so much ground: the love provided by his parents, the South he grew up working poor in, the food of the region and what it meant to him, the pain of losing his sister Brenda, his wife Alix and the dog Fred they loved, as well as doing work for a living that thrills him, and with people he built powerful bonds with.

Specifically about his writing, Tomlinson covers time spent working on a newspaper and with writing friends Kevin Van Valkenburg, Chris Jones, Joe Posnanski, and Michael Schur, spending a year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, and as he notes, trying to write big stories about little moments.

The stories told are rich and profound, including getting throat cancer at 29 years-old and how Tomlinson would save his last fast food receipt, just in case that would wind up being his last and he would stay forevermore away from the temptation. Additionally, the book struck me as very much having a sort of duality to it (which I love coming across in writing), with it an elegy of things lost and that he wasn't able to do and also a celebration of what he has and aspires to in what seems a great life, with the writing on it inspiring emotions ranging from entertained to sympathetic to jealous and to inspired.

Thursday, April 04, 2019

The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle

The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle was a really good book with the subtitle The Secret of Highly Successful Groups and in it, Coyle provides examples of successful organizations including: the San Antonio Spurs, Pixar, IDEO, Upright Citizens Brigade, Zappos, Johnson & Johnson, KIPP schools, and SEAL Team Six.

Three different skills essential to the cohesion and cooperation necessary for successful groups are highlighted in the book:

1. Build safety - how signals of connection generate bonds of belonging and identity.

Coyle writes of this as the glue area for successful groups, with having people feel safe within a group by: asking questions of them (preferably in close proximity), actively listening to the answers, showing small courtesies, and thanking people. Related to these activities are the signaling of strong belonging cues in the areas of (A) energy - investing in the exchange, (B) individualization - treating someone as unique and valued, and (C) being future oriented - letting them know the relationship will continue and move forward.

2. Share vulnerability - how habits of mutual risk drive trusting cooperation.

This skill is noted as the muscle area and all about togetherness and working as a group. The important thing isn't what roles people hold as everyone in it together, and the leader in particular needs to be vulnerable first and open... with a focus on listening, caring, and being open along with direct.

3. Establish purpose - how narratives create shared goals and values.

The third skill is described as being a focus on what it's all working towards, with plenty around mission statements and also noted towards the end of the book are the importance of both rehearsals prior to something and active group reflection after. Also covered are the ideas of naming and ranking priorities, employing catchphrases for things of import, and overall working to set teams up for success.

Saturday, March 23, 2019

The Last Wild Men of Borneo - Carl Hoffman

The Last Wild Men of Borneo by Carl Hoffman was a good book about travel, adventure, and two people whose lives were wildly different than most.

Hoffman recounts tales from the lives of Swiss vagabond Bruno Manser, who spent years living with members of the Penan tribe in the jungles of Borneo, and American Michael Palmieri, who relocated to Bali and became a prolific trader in Indonesian art and antiquities, with many of the pieces acquired by him during long stretches of time spent in Borneo. It's noted in the book that the two men only met once, but their stories definitely shared the common thread of swashbuckling men craving original experiences and connecting greatly with the culture of the region and it's people.

Manser first went into the rain forest in Borneo in 1984 at the age of 30, leaving behind his life as a shepherd in the Alps to go make contact with the isolated Penan tribe that he had read about. When he went in, there were around 7,000 Penan, with many of them nomadic and peaceful hunter-gatherers who lived in groups of 20-40, and Manser was fascinated by how they lived in harmony with nature. While he was with the Penan, their lands became more and more encroached upon by logging, and Manser tried to publicize their plight and help maintain their way of life, with this effort becoming a huge part of his identity.

The other story told was that of American Michael Palmieri, someone who left his country to avoid the Vietnam War and lived a globe-trotting, wheeling and dealing life until finding a home in Bali in the 1970s. From this home base, he purchased sculptures and other artwork he sold into private collections or museums worldwide, with the art symbolic of a way of life, a connection with the wild and untouched as well as mystical and spiritual.

The book is an interesting read that tells the story of both these two men and of the region and it's people through Manser and Palmieri and concludes with Hoffman writing of spending time with one of the rapidly diminishing number of Penan families living freely in the jungle and off the land with their loved ones.

Sunday, March 03, 2019

American Kingpin by Nick Bilton

American Kingpin by Nick Bilton was an entertaining book about Ross Ulbricht, who went by the name the Dread Pirate Roberts on The Silk Road, a website he founded and ran to sell almost any illegal item, in particular any illegal drug.

There were remarkable characters painted richly in the book, from Ulbricht to his mentor in growing the site, a man who went by the name Variety Jones, to the law enforcement agents after him, including Jared Der-Yeghiayan from Customs and Border Protection, Chris Tarbell from the FBI, and Gary Alford from the IRS.

Ulbricht as a college student became a Libertarian, someone who believes the government should stay out of people's personal lives, and if they want to put something into their bodies, that's up to them. He was then living in Texas and started working on building The Silk Road in 2010, launching it in January 2011, first selling on it his homegrown magic mushrooms, and very shortly after, drugs sold by others.

The site used a combination of the Tor web browser, on which someone's online activity couldn't be tracked, and people paying with untraceable Bitcoin, and after a June 2011 article written about the site by Adrian Chen for Gawker, things picked up dramatically, both in terms of activity on the site and law enforcement interest in stopping it. The opening of the book featured Customs Agent Der-Yeghiayan in October 2011 being alerted to a single ecstasy pill being mailed from the Netherlands to someone in the US. and by the beginning of 2012, Ulbricht was making some $10K a day in commissions from the site, with it eventually becoming a $1.2B business. Ulbricht as the Dread Pirate Roberts both frequently payed extortion demands from people hacking into the site and contracted for murders, which may or may not have ever been done, against people threatening his business.

Ulbricht moved to San Francisco in summer 2012 and in May 2013, IRS Agent Alford found an old drug forum post mentioning The Silk Road the week it opened, and then from the forum learned that the post had been written by someone whose account registration noted a RossUlbricht@gmail address. Then in July 2013 there was a group of fake IDs that Ross had ordered and were intercepted at SFO, with Alford learning of this flag on Ulbricht's name and this along with the forum post and a couple of additional pieces of digital footprint evidence convinced authorities they had found the Dread Pirate Roberts. Ulbricht was arrested in San Francisco in October 2013, found guilty of all charges brought against him and in May 2015 sentenced to life in prison with no possibility of parole.

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Give and Take by Adam Grant

Give and Take by Adam Grant was an excellent book subtitled Why Helping Others Drives Our Success, with the following what stood out from each chapter...

Chapter One: Good Returns - People act as either takers, givers, or matchers (or somewhere in between) in terms of reciprocity styles with others.

Chapter Two: The Peacock and the Panda - People who are givers are consummate networkers, with that focused on doing things to help people, being in touch, strengthening weak, and reactivating dormant ties. Told by Grant is the story of Adam Rifkin, the person with more LinkedIn connections than anyone, and his maxim that you should be willing to spend five minutes doing anything if it helps someone.

Chapter Three: The Ripple Effect - It's not about getting credit, show up, work hard, be kind, take the high road. Also covered is how success often due to the work of a team, when a team star goes elsewhere, often the level of success doesn't follow.

Chapter Four: Finding the Diamond in the Rough - People will often achieve in part because of someone (whether a parent, teacher, coach, or manager) telling them they expect achievement. It's best for a leader of any type to not spend resources and energy trying to find those with potential, but rather to see potential in everyone, and run the risk of those people perhaps proving otherwise.

Chapter Five: The Power of Powerless Communication - Truly effective communication can often come from admitting weaknesses and being real, not trying to have "powerful communication." Part of being real is asking questions and listening to the answers, expressing vulnerability and seeking advice.

Chapter Six: The Art of Motivational Maintenance - Successful givers are just as ambitious as takers and matchers, just successful givers who don't burn out are ones who are giving for a cause they care about. Studies have shown that the sweet spot of volunteering is 100 hours a year, or two hours a week, as this amount of giving is enough to feel like a difference being made.

Chapter Seven: Chump Change - A way to avoid being a giver that's taken advantage of is is the approach of generous tit for tat, basically forgiving 1/3 of bad behavior by people. Also, regularly scheduled times with people, will help avoid it becoming a one-way conversation, and a potential approach in negotiation to help avoid getting pushed around is to think of oneself as an agent, someone who is doing things of behalf of others, like one's family. Additionally from this chapter was a quote from Randy Pausch in The Last Lecture, "wait long enough, and people will surprise and impress you."

Chapter Eight: The Scrooge Shift - People do things for others often when they feel it makes them part of a team, or they're doing something for someone they feel an affiliation with or connection to, with this chapter noting and describing the benefit of joining a reciprocity rings.

Chapter Nine: Out of the Shadows - Successful givers get to the top without cutting other people down.

Dare to Lead by Brené Brown

Dare to Lead by Brené Brown was solid book that followed her Braving the Wilderness from 2017.

The subtitle of her prior effort was The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone so focused on the individual, and her latest, subtitled Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts, notes in the book jacket that it an attempt to answer how organizations cultivate braver, more daring leaders, and how the value of courage gets embedded in the culture of an organization.

A few different things stood out from the book and are noted below...

- People, people, people... those you work for and with are all people.

- Vulnerability at work is vital... and trust comes before vulnerability.

- A leader is someone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes, and who has the courage to develop that potential.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Grit by Angela Duckworth

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth was a really good book, with some of the key ideas from the various sections and chapters noted below...

Part One - What Grit is and why it matters

Showing up: Grit is caring about something, and sticking with it.

Distracted by talent: People become enamored with talent, but it's grit that matters more.

Effort counts twice: Duckworth's theory of achievement is that (A) talent x effort = skill and (B) skill x effort = achievement. The treadmill test, how long people stay on one when it cranked up, is an important measure of future success, and the more refined measure of grit would be who came back the next day to try a treadmill test again.

How gritty are you? Grit has two components, passion and perseverance... so consistency over time is very important. Goals can be structured into low-level, mid-level, and top-level... with effort towards the achievement of one level of goal feeding to the next level. If a goal not in the hierarchy, then it likely can be discarded as not important as too many unrelated goals can be a bad thing.

Grit grows: Grit develops through: (A) interest - enjoyment in something, (B) practice - trying to improve at it,, (C) purpose - believing that it matters, and (D) hope - believing you can go on.

Part Two - Growing grit from the inside out

Interest: People perform better at something when it interests them, and the goal isn't to simply look for a passion, but to foster one. Someone should try out different things and develop the one that seems most promising... like pulling on a string. Passion for work is: (A) a little bit of discovery, (B) a lot of development, and (C) a lifetime of deepening.

Practice: The 10,000 hour rule as written of by Gladwell is very relevant towards developing mastery, but it's also important that time in practice be executed deliberately, with specific goals around improving, including focusing on sub-skills, asking for feedback, and pushing through pain. Deliberate practice is for preparation, leading to flow for performance. Deliberate practice should be made a habit.

Purpose: True purpose is often doing something that pays dividends for other people, with the intention to contribute to the well being of others and this desire to do for others is often going to be correlated with grit. Callings aren't simply found, they have to be developed and deepened.

Hope: Grit rests on the expectation that our efforts will improve the future in some way. It isn't suffering that leads to hopelessness, it's suffering that someone thinks they can't control and optimists assume that problems and bad situations are temporary, pessimists assume they're permanent. A growth mindset leads to optimistic self-talk, which leads to perseverance over adversity.

Part Three - Growing grit from the outside in

Parenting for grit: What's signed up for has to be seen through. Also, it's important to model that things should be seen through as kids may not listen, but they will imitate. Supportive and demanding is the way to go and many gritty people have talked about how their parents are gritty role models.

The playing fields of grit: Kids who do extracurricular activities fare better on almost all metrics,  continuously being involved with something and improving at it... signing up, signing up again, making progress over multiple years. Following through on something both requires grit and builds it as especially in youth, industriousness can be learned. Duckworth's family has a hard thing rule: first is everyone has to have a hard thing they do (whether sports, music, arts, writing, or something else), second is they get to pick it, third is they have to follow it to it's completion and not quit.

A culture of grit: If someone wants to be grittier, they should find a gritty culture and join in as the way to be great at something is to be part of a great team. If someone a leader and wants people in their organization to be grittier, they should create a gritty culture, one that fosters development rather than attrition. Also, the language used by a leader is important, as they should say exactly what they want to communicate.

Conclusion: Genius is working towards excellence, ceaselessly, with every element of your being.

It was an excellent book, right up there with some of the best of this type that I've read.

Tuesday, January 01, 2019

Disrupted by Dan Lyons

Disrupted by Dan Lyons was centered around his time at HubSpot, a venture capital-backed marketing startup in Boston and the book both entertaining in the depiction of the company and Lyons trying to assimilate to it and sobering with how he describes startups as a whole and his view of how the industry works.

Lyons was previously the Technology Editor for Newsweek and hired in April 2014 at HubSpot, with the company making software used primarily by small businesses in their marketing efforts, either through outbound marketing via an automated email program, or inbound marketing with customers publishing blogs, websites, and videos so people come to them. Lyons was hired with the somewhat nebulous title of Marketing Fellow and from his conversations with the two company leaders at HubSpot, he felt he would be working on fairly high-level marketing. What he wound up being tasked with by his immediate management was writing blog posts, with the intent of getting people to express interest in learning more and generating a lead. The book covers how it's possible that Lyons was hired as a sort of PR move with them bringing in an established journalist, but also possible that the founders who hired him genuinely liked his skills, but then were distracted by other things.

Regardless of what led to his role at HubSpot, Lyons writes a rollicking story of what the company like. When he was hired, HubSpot had around 500 employees, the majority of them young, and marketed itself as a fun and exciting environment that was all about culture, teamwork, and making a difference. What Lyons described finding, however, was a strange and hard-partying environment primarily for those right out of college, and one that many people would with little warning get thrown out of, or as the company said "graduated" from. In a way, the stories from Lyons bring to mind the idea that if something seems too good to be true, it probably is.

There's definitely funny tales in the book about HubSpot, but on a broader scale, Lyons also writes of how a startup doesn’t need to have great technology or even turn a profit, it just needs venture capital to fund it and investors to want to buy shares in it, with the founders and venture capital firms the ones who reap the majority of the wealth. Lyons describes how HubSpot fit perfectly with the model of what investors wanted, a focus on revenue growth predominately via the engine of fairly low-paid employees providing sales and marketing staffing, with one phrase of his from the book about the company as "a financial instrument, a vehicle by which money can be moved from one set of hands to another." Additionally, Lyons wrote about companies continuing this same model after going public and the book concludes with Lyons leaving in December 2014 and then his manager as well as the CMO being forced out of the company due to their "attempts to procure the manuscript to a book about HubSpot," with one fired and one resigning. The company at the time the book came out in 2016 was a public one with a market value of nearly $2B and had never turned a profit, losing over $100M.

Monday, December 31, 2018

Rising Out of Hatred by Eli Saslow

Rising Out of Hatred by Eli Saslow was a good book about Derek Black, godson of David Duke and son of Don Black, founder of the site Stormfront, the largest racist community on the Internet and one that Derek contributed to starting when he a youth and was expected to one day take the leadership of.

The book is subtitled The Awakening of a Former White Nationalist and details the gradual transformation of Derek that began in his first year as a student at New College of Florida, a liberal four-year university. Derek arrived on campus with his views about and against blacks, Jews, and other minorities unknown to to his classmates and for a time, lived a sort of double life, spewing racism online and via a radio show while also befriending a diverse group of people. After having his beliefs and activities outed on campus while studying in Europe for a semester, Derek returned and was largely ostracized at New College, but then reached out to by some, invited by an Orthodox Jew classmate to attend his weekly Shabbat dinner, and developing a close friendship with a woman who helped change his views, through both her challenging his beliefs and he seeing how they made her feel.

Derek prior to and when he first arrived at New College talked and wrote a great deal about the the concept of anti-privilege for whites, how they under attack and fighting for basic rights as a minority group. He gradually went from being a White Supremacist, who felt whites better than others, to a White Nationalist, who felt races should be kept separate and whites needed protection, to someone who both abandoned his prior notion of whites under attack and saw the damage forcing people apart would cause. Derek after graduation from New College and prior to starting graduate school in Michigan wrote a letter to the Southern Poverty Law Center repudiating his prior views, leading to his family basically disowning him. Additionally, he wrote several opinion pieces for the New York Times, warning about the dangers Trump bringing in and the story that Saslow tells of Black is a really profound one well told.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Thirst by Scott Harrison

Thirst by Scott Harrison was from the founder of charity: water and the book jacket notes that the nonprofit over the past eleven years has funded some 28,000 water projects via contributions from over a million donors.

The book notes how when Harrison four years-old, his mother was exposed to carbon monoxide poisoning from their house, impacting greatly her immune system for decades to follow. It was fascinating reading on how debilitating her illness was, how easily it would get triggered, and the lengths people would have to go to in order to spend time with her as she had to be kept away from toxins. Also compelling was reading on the effort Harrison's father put in to try to help his wife improve.

Harrison details how he in his early 20's worked as a New York City nightclub promoter, living a fairly wild lifestyle, and then reached a point of reconnecting with the religious faith his parents tried to instill in him and wanting to start anew. He landed a year-long volunteer gig as a photographer with Mercy Ships, an organization that that worked in Africa providing free health care, particularly in the area of dental work and surgeries on the eyes or to repair facial abnormalities like clefts or disfiguring palates. During Harrison's time there, he was exposed to the problem that is a lack to clean water, with people he met educating him about how many of the problems faced by people in Africa can be traced back to this shortage. After his time on the Mercy Ships boat ended, he returned to New York and starting hosting fundraisers for the organization and then started a new charity focused on clean water.

The portion of the book about charity: water covers things like the three pillars of the group... the 100% donation model, with organizational overhead paid by a fairly small group of donors known as The Well so that every dollar from other charitable contributions goes directly to water projects, how donations made are tied to specific projects and people told what they're giving to, and that the branding around donations is designed to inspire people rather than try to make them feel guilty. Also detailed is the story of Rachel Beckwith, someone who for her ninth birthday asked her friends to donate to clean water rather than getting her presents and shortly after died in a car accident. Her pastor in Seattle asked Harrison to reopen her giving campaign, with it first getting donations through the church congregation, and then complete strangers as the story went national, leading to the campaign raising in Rachel's name over $1.2M from some 31,000 donations.

It's a good and inspiring book and noted at the end, along with information about The Spring, charity: water's monthly giving program, is mention of using the code 'together' from the website to learn more.

Friday, December 07, 2018

The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton

The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton was a great book subtitled How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row, with Hinton released after spending nearly thirty years in prison for a crime he didn't commit.

Hinton in 1985 was clocked in at work while a robbery committed elsewhere, and arrested after someone who had an ax to grind implicated him in that crime. Prosecutors then decided that the robbery similar to two unsolved murders and charged him with those crimes as well, with his state-appointed attorney providing scant defense, after complaining to Hinton about how little money he received from the state of Alabama for that representation. What comes through from the the story of Hinton's time on Death Row was how there's humanity possible in anything, how you respond to people is a choice. Fifty-four people were executed in his jail while he there and Hinton very much helped his fellow inmates, through the book club he formed as well as the simple act of acknowledging them, either during dark nights or by banging on the bars during executions, so someone would know they not alone, regardless of guilt or innocence.

The forward of the book was written by Bryan Stevenson, a lawyer who represents Death Row inmates and fights to abolish the death penalty, with it noted in the book both that we don't have the right to decide who should die, and people can be wrongly convicted, often due to poor representation as a result of not having money available for their defense, just like in Hinton's case. Hinton cites at the end that one out of every ten on Death Row are innocent, and Stevenson noted in a 2005 newspaper editorial that since 1975, there have been thirty-four executions and seven exonerations of Death Row prisoners, close to a one in five rate. Stevenson and Hinton met in 1999, with the state courts agreeing with the arguments of prosecutors and continually denying all appeals made on Hinton's behalf. Stevenson and Hinton then petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court and asked them to review whether adequate defense representation had been provided. The Court unanimously ruled in 2014 that that it had not been adequate and sent the case back to lower courts for review, with those courts agreeing with the Supreme Court and saying the case would have to be retried in Alabama. After first accusing Stevenson of stealing evidence that couldn't be found, the state declined to prosecute and dropping all charges, leading to Hinton's April 2015 release from prison.

The book is about a lot things, the horrible justice system in Alabama, the work of Bryan Stevenson, Hinton's attitude towards life and helping others, the support he received from Stevenson and his childhood friend who came to see him at virtually every visiting day over the thirty years, and the notion that people "shouldn't get used to injustice." Just as much as these other things, though, the book about this idea of whether the courts should be able to sentence people to death, with the closing of the book that "the death penalty is broken, and you are either part of the death squad or banging on the bars. Choose."