Linchpin by Seth Godin, and 8 Other Short Book Reviews

There are two kinds of books that I find valuable, but don’t review. Books about which I have too little to say and books about which I have too much to say. One reason I don’t review them is that with with the first kind of book, I often extract value and dump the book halfway. With the second kind, I read each book so closely and carefully, and over such a long period of time, that by the time I am done, it is too entangled with my own thinking to write about objectively. Still, I thought it would be interesting to attempt a round-up of recent reading in these two categories. These won’t be getting full-length reviews.

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Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich

Temptation is a dangerous thing. Bright-Sided by Barbara Ehrenreich could have been the thoughtful and definitive polemic against runaway optimism and positive thinking that America sorely needs today. Yet, by succumbing to the temptation to politicize a malaise that affects both the Left and the Right, Ehrenreich has managed to reduce a potential trigger for a “Realism Revolution” into what too many will dismiss as yet another shrill, leftist screed. It isn’t that. Okay, it is a bit. But it is well worth reading, even if you have to summon up all your patience and reading skill to tease apart the valuable, ideology-neutral thread in the narrative from the noise.

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Impro by Keith Johnstone

Once every four or five years, I find a book that is a genuine life-changer. Impro by Keith Johnstone joins my extremely short list of such books. The book crossed my radar after two readers mentioned it, in reactions to the Gervais Principle series Impro is ostensibly a book about improvisation and the theater. Depending on where you are coming from, it might be no more than that, or it might be a near-religious experience.

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Drive by Dan Pink

At the heart of Dan Pink’s new book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us is an insight that makes you want to yell in frustration at perversely obtuse academic worlds that marginalize seminal clarifications of the blindingly obvious: trying to motivate creative work with carrots and sticks backfires. As the book notes, this truth has been known to folk wisdom at least since Mark Twain wrote the famous fence-whitewashing episode in The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876). Apparently — and I did not know this — this folk insight has been repeatedly validated by the discipline of psychology since 1949, when the first clear evidence appeared in a serendipitous accidental experiment by Harry Harlow. Yet, mainstream psychology has systematically ignored and marginalized this line of research, even going to the dystopian extreme of firing those intellectually honest enough to pursue the work anyway.

The major contribution of Drive is in elevating what ought to be a basic axiom of business from the level of Twain-ian (and Drucker-ian) opinion, to the level of scientific, not-optional, fact. The “Aha!” element of the book isn’t this bald fact (which isn’t surprising in isolation), but in pointing out the gap between “what science knows and what business does.”  The marginal status of the body of research in psychology is no excuse: major business thinkers from Drucker onwards have been saying the same thing for decades. Yet, nearly all businesses run on carrot-and-stick motivational architectures.

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The Right and Left Brains of Enterprise 2.0

As some of you know, I occasionally (very occasionally in recent times) guest post over at the Enterprise 2.0 blog. I just posted a combo-pack review of two recent books there: Andrew McAfee’s Enterprise 2.0 and Fraser/Dutta’s Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom.

Click on over and read. There are also a few links scattered in the piece, to my older E 2.0 theme articles. At some point I’ll make an E2.0 trail, but for now, you might also enjoy this trail on the “Enterprise 2.0: What A Crock” debate that has recently been brewing (start reading or go to the Trail Map)

I’ll be out on vacation for the next couple of weeks, so I won’t be posting new material till January. If I have time, I might set up a couple of “rerun” posts on older popular pieces before I leave.

Happy Holidays!

Your Evil Twins and How to Find Them

Recently a reader emailed me a note: “I just wanted to bring to your radar ‘the pleasures and sorrows of work’ by Alain de Botton, and what you thought of its theses.” Now de Botton (The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work, The Consolations of Philosophy, How Proust Can Change Your Life) has been on my radar for a while. I had browsed his books at Barnes and Noble a few times, but always put them down due to strange, sick feelings in my stomach. Thanks to this reader’s gentle nudge, I finally caved and read the first of the three, and managed to figure out why de Botton’s books had made me viscerally uncomfortable at first glance: he is my evil twin. An evil twin is defined as somebody who thinks exactly like you in most ways, but differs in just a few critical ways that end up making all the difference. Think the Batman and the Joker. Here’s why evil twins matter, and how to discover yours.

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How to Think Like Hercule Poirot

Last fall, I spent a long weekend in the Outer Banks region, a few hours south of Washington, DC, reading a collection of Agatha Christie pastiches called Malice Domestic, Volume 1 (now the title of an annual mystery  conference). The summer tourist season was over, and the hordes had moved on to Maine and Vermont to chase the Fall colors. The days were gray, windy, rainy and chilly.  The beach front properties had mostly emptied out, and most of the summer attractions were closed. We had a large three-level beach front house to ourselves, with a porch facing the troubled, ominous sea.


The ocean view from our hotel at Cape Hatteras, Outer Banks

Perfect conditions for bundling up in a blanket with a cup of hot cocoa and a mystery. Reading Malice Domestic was a revelation. None of the included writers even came close to creating Christie-like magic. Which led me to wonder: does Poirot endure because he represents certain truths about how to think effectively, which lesser fictional detectives lack? I think so.

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The Outlaw Sea by William Langewiesche

To most of us, the oceans are about romance, not shipping logistics. Violent thirty-foot waves and gripping piracy tales are conspicuously missing from The Box, the first shipping-themed book I reviewed. While that story (see my post the epic story of container shipping) had all the passion and high drama of a business thriller, it was essentially a human and technology story. The Outlaw Sea: A World of Freedom, Chaos, and Crime tells a parallel tale, one focusing on the realities of the oceans themselves . There are plenty of waves and pirates here, and this is easily the most absorbing maritime-themed book I’ve read since Treasure Island, which is saying a lot, since it is non-fiction.


The "Alondra Rainbow", pirated and renamed "Mega Rama" (picture from Indian Coast Guard site)

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The Crucible Effect and the Scarcity of Collective Attention

This article is about a number I call the optimal crucible size. I’ll define this number — call it C — in a bit, but I believe its value to be around 12. This article is also about an argument that I’ve been unconsciously circling for a long time. Chris Anderson’s Free provided me with the insight that helped me put the whole package together: economics is fundamentally a process driven by abundance and creative-destruction rather than scarcity. The reason we focus on scarcity is that at any given time, the economy is constrained by a single important “bottleneck scarcity.” Land, labor, factories, information and most recently, individual attention, have all played the bottleneck role in the past. I believe we are experiencing the first major bottleneck-shift in a decade. “Attention,” as an unqualified commodity is no longer the critical scarcity. Collective attention is: the coordinated, creative attention of more than 1 person. It is scarce and it is horrendously badly allocated in the economy today. The free-agent planet under-organizes it, and the industrial economy over-organizes it.  That’s the story of C, the optimal size of a creative group. There are seven other significant numbers in this tale: 0, 1, 7, 150, 8, 1000 and 10,000. The big story is how the economy is moving closer to C-driven allocation of creative capital. But the little story starts with my table tennis clique in high school.

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The Epic Story of Container Shipping

If you read only one book about globalization, make it The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, by Marc Levinson (2006). If your expectations in this space have been set to “low” by the mostly obvious, lightweight and mildly entertaining stuff from the likes of Tom Friedman, be prepared to be blown away.  Levinson is a heavyweight (former finance and economics editor at the Economist), and the book has won a bagful of prizes. And with good reason: the story of an unsung star of globalization, the shipping container, is an extraordinarily gripping one, and it is practically a crime that it wasn’t properly told till 2006.

(From Wikimedia Commons, GFDL license)

40 foot container (from Wikimedia Commons, GFDL license)

There are no strained metaphors (like Friedman’s “Flat”) or attempts to dazzle with overworked, right-brained high concepts (Gladwell’s books come to mind). This is an  important story of the modern world, painstakingly researched, and masterfully narrated with the sort of balanced and detached passion one would expect from an Economist writer.  It isn’t a narrow tale though. Even though the Internet revolution, spaceflight, GPS and biotechnology don’t feature in this book, the story teases out the DNA of globalization in a way grand sweeping syntheses never could. Think of the container story as the radioactive tracer in the body politic of globalization.

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