What I’m Reading or Referencing
Recent Good Books:
1. The provocative book Deep Work by Cal Newport challenges today’s multi-tasking, open work space, social media approach to work. He effectively cites research that suggests the most successful people are able to cut out typical distractions to really focus. My favorite excerpts are:
Skills, be they intellectual or physical, eventually reduce down to brain circuits. This new science of performance argues that you get better at a skill as you develop more myelin around the relevant neurons, allowing the corresponding circuit to fire more effortlessly and effectively. To be great at something is to be well myelinated.
This understanding is important because it provides a neurological foundation for why deliberate practice works. By focusing intensely on a specific skill, you’re forcing the specific relevant circuit to fire, again and again, in isolation. This repetitive use of a specific circuit triggers cells called oligodendrocytes to begin wrapping layers of myelin around the neurons in the circuits – effectively cementing the skill. The reason, therefore, why it’s important to focus intensely on the task at hand while avoiding distraction is because this is the only way to isolate the relevant neural circuit enough to trigger useful myelination.
There are at least two big reasons why this (a culture of connectivity that makes work too easy) is true. The first concerns responsiveness to your needs. If you work in an environment where you can get an answer to a question or a specific piece of information immediately when the need arises, this makes your life easier – at least, in the moment. If you couldn’t count on this quick response time you’d instead have to do more advance planning for your work, be more organized, and be prepared to put things aside for a while and turn your attention elsewhere while waiting for what you requested. All of this would make the day to day of your working life harder (even if it produced more satisfaction and a better outcome in the long term).
The second reason that a culture of connectivity makes life easier is that it creates an environment where it becomes acceptable to run your day out of your inbox – responding to the latest missive with alacrity while other pile up behind it, all the while feeling satisfyingly productive. If e-mail were to move to the periphery of your workday, you’d be required to deploy a more thoughtful approach to figuring out what you should be working on and for how long. This type of planning is hard.
2. Peter Block offers thought provoking insights on the trend toward being a human “doing” in his book The Answer to How Is Yes. Here were some of my favorite quotes:
Therapist Pittman McGee states that the opposite of love is not hate, but efficiency. While being practical is modern culture’s child, it carries a price and we are paying it. The price of practicality is its way of deflecting us from our deeper values.
I would suggest that it is the tension between “What maters?” and “What works?” that is out of balance. If this is true, then working at home or even spending more time with our families will not resolve the issue of work/life balance. Resolution lies in becoming more balanced between engaging in what has meaning for us and doing things that are useful and practical, or in a sense, instrumental. Being fully alive is to be in balance wherever we are.
The task of the social architect is to design and bring into being organizations that serve both the marketplace and the soul of the people who work within them. Where the architect designs physical space, the social architect designs social space.
Matching the role to the conditions for acting on what matters, the social architect has three design criteria: 1. Is idealism encouraged? 2. Is intimacy made possible? 3. Is there the space and demand for depth?
The fact that we are living in an engineer-economist dominated world creates a bias toward more control than freedom, more practicality than idealism, barter rather than intimacy, and greater speed more than depth. The choice to think of ourselves as social architects is an activist stance- radical in thinking, conservative and caring in action.
3. The book Integrity by Dr. Henry Cloud has much less to do with ethics and mostly to do with being a fully integrated leader. While the book is dense with psychological detail, it’s a readable overview of how great leaders think and behave (and how they avoid derailing). Some of the best excerpts are:
The most important tool ultimately is the person and his or her makeup, and yet it seems to get the least amount of attention and work.
People who try to help others by talking them out of what they feel are usually no help at all. It is also the reason why research has for decades proven that you can help desperate people immensely by giving them no answers at all, and only giving them empathy.
That is the supreme essence of trust, not being “guarded.”
In successful people’s lives, there is no time when they “have time” to do things that are future-oriented. The present is always too busy. Therefore, they do not wait until they have the time. They make the time, first. Then they do what the present calls for.
4. Anyone wanting more creativity, authentic communication and self-expression should read If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland. She provides a refreshing and inspiring guide to writing in any creative capacity. Here are some of my favorite quotes:
I hate traditional criticism. I don’t mean great criticism… but the usual picky, fussy-mussy criticism, which thinks it can improve people by telling them where they are wrong, yet results only in putting them in straitjackets of hesitancy and self-consciousness, extinguishing vision and bravery.
Through writing you will gradually learn to become more and more free and to say all you think; at the same time you will learn never to lie to yourself, never to pretend and attitudinize. But only by writing and by long, patient, serious work will you find your true self.
Art, music, literature is a sharing; that a live, alternating current is passing swiftly between teller and listener; that a listener (even though imaginary or transcendent) is absolutely essential in the process.
5. Tim Keller & Katherine Leary Alsdorf have authored a compelling perspective on living your faith in the context of work, from the perspective of being Christian, in Every Good Endeavor. They immediately acknowledge that living out your faith at work unfortunately “seems relegated to small symbolic gestures, to self-righteous abstinence from certain behaviors, and to political alignments on the top cultural and legal issues of the day.” My favorite excerpts were:
Every Christian should be able to identify, with conviction and satisfaction, the ways in which his or her work participates with God in his creativity and cultivation. Whenever we bring order out of chaos, whenever we draw out creative potential, whenever we elaborate and “unfold” creation beyond where it was when we found it, we are following God’s pattern of creative cultural development.
One of the reasons work is both fruitless and pointless is the powerful inclination of the human heart to make work, and its attendant benefits, the main basis of one’s meaning and identity. When this happens, work is no longer a way to create and bring out the wonders of the created order, as Calvin would say, or to be an instrument of God’s providence, serving the basic needs of our neighbor, as Luther would say. Instead it becomes a way to distinguish myself from my neighbor, to show the world and prove to myself that I’m special.
We either get our name – our defining essence, security, worth, and uniqueness – from what God has done for us and in us, or we make a name through what we can do for ourselves. When you see how much you are loved (by God), your work will become far less selfish. Suddenly all the other things in your work life – your influence, your resume, and the benefits they bring you – become just things. You can risk them, spend them, and even lose them. You are free.
6. The successful entrepreneur Gary Keller recalls the advice of Jack Palance in City Slickers that the secret of success is pursuing “one thing”. The book The One Thing is a quick and entertaining read with practical advice for focusing on our top priority in life and work. My favorite excerpts were:
When you see people who look like “disciplined” people, what you’re really seeing is people who’ve trained a handful of habits into their lives.
Habits take an average of 66 days to acquire… and those with the right habits seem to do better than others. They’re doing the most important thing regularly and, as a result, everything else is easier.
People who visualize the process perform better than those who visualize the outcome.
The single most important difference between amateurs and elite performers is that the future elite performers seek out teachers and coaches and engage in supervised training, whereas the amateurs rarely engage in similar types of practice.
When the things that matter most get done, you’ll still be left with a sense of things being undone – a sense of imbalance. Leaving some things undone is a necessary tradeoff for extraordinary results.
Productive people get more done, achieve better results, and earn far more in their hours than the rest. They do so because they devote maximum time to being productive on their top priority, their ONE Thing. They time block their ONE Thing and then protect their time blocks with a vengeance.
7. Brene Brown’s ability to make topics like “shame” and “vulnerability” relevant to the workplace have opened new conversations about being human in a professional context. Her Ted talk is excellent as is her book Daring Greatly, which discusses to how be more Wholehearted in a culture that rewards performance, productivity and perfection. Here is my favorite excerpt:
Daring greatly is not about winning or losing. It’s about courage. In a world where scarcity and shame dominate and feeling afraid has become second nature, vulnerability is subversive. Uncomfortable. It’s even a little dangerous at times. And, without question, putting ourselves out there means there’s a far greater risk of feeling hurt. But as I look back on my own life and what Daring Greatly has meant to me, I can honestly say that nothing is as uncomfortable, dangerous and hurtful as believing that I’m standing on the outside of my life looking in and wondering what it would be like if I had the courage to show up and let myself be seen.
Thought Leaders I’m Following
1. Andre Lavoie and his company Clear Company are at the forefront of the intersection between corporate strategy and talent management. They are re-defining what it means to have a transparent, aligned and engaged organization.
2. The Good Leadership Breakfast is a monthly breakfast hosted by Paul Batz that creates an environment of authenticity and learning. I always leave the breakfast feeling more grounded and connected.