Reading Notes July 2015

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I really enjoyed the variety of books I read in July. I’m naturally drawn to books that I can directly apply to my work (typically leadership/management/business books), but I know that I have much to gain by exposing myself to ideas and topics beyond what feels professionally relevant.

Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s Kings of Beer by William Knoedelseder
You don’t have to care much about beer to enjoy this story. It’s about fathers and sons, entrepreneurship, and the rapid rise of a small family business into a global brand. The Busch family is portrayed as colorful, sometimes crazy, and, like many clans that experience mega-success, ultimately very tragic.

Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang
I’ve never been a big science fiction reader, but Chiang’s collection of short stories got me hooked. There is something very efficient and precise about Chiang’s writing, which comes in handy when he describes scientific or mathematic concepts that are central to the plot. My favorites were:

  • Tower of Babylon, about a civilization’s efforts to build a tower tall enough to reach heaven, told from the perspective of a young miner who is brought to break through the vault into heaven
  • Understand, about a man who, by taking an experimental drug to treat his brain damage, finds himself with super-intelligent powers; this story is much better than Lucy, the Scarlett Johansson movie with a similar premise
  • Story of Your Life, about a linguist who is brought in by the military to communicate with an alien species and to learn their language; very excited to know that this will come out as a movie next year
  • Liking What You See: A Documentary, about a technology that disables the part of the brain that senses beauty and the debate this stirs when a college considers providing the technology to its students (you can read this online right here)

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
A Black Swan is an unpredictable event that has huge impact, which we then, in hindsight, try to rationalize and make seem less random. Taleb points to examples such as 9/11, Black Monday (the stock market crash that happened in 1987), the Internet, various revolutions, and the fall of the Soviet Union. I didn’t especially find the concept of Black Swans to be groundbreaking, but I did find it helpful to think about confirmation bias and narrative fallacy, two human habits that Taleb blames for limiting our ability to appreciate and embrace the randomness of events. I listened to this in audiobook format, and it made for a very entertaining and quick listen. Some may be turned off by the smug and often arrogant tone of the book (I think the narrator does a good job of conveying this), but I found it quite entertaining.

A Fighter’s Heart: One Man’s Journey Through the World of Fighting by Sam Sheridan
A Harvard graduate with a burning desire to learn all there is to learn about fighting and why we fight, Sam Sheridan chronicles his travels (Southeast Asia, Brazil, Iowa, Northern California, etc.), the various forms of fighting he picks up (Muay Thai, MMA, boxing, jujitsu, etc.), and the characters who inhabit these fighting worlds. It took me a while to finish this book, but I read it whenever I needed some motivation to exercise. Sheridan goes into detail about the grueling workouts that fighters go through to get into fighting form. I especially remember a line about how MMA fighters avoided drinking because a single beer could set their training back by as much as a week. Sheridan talks about the thrill of being pitted one-on-one against another person, but what I kept thinking about throughout the book was the mental toughness and discipline that these fighters have to develop in order to keep going.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami
This memoir centers around Murakami’s experience as a runner and how running and writing have been parallel activities for much of his adult life. Murakami goes into detail about his training regimen and how running has taught him much about writing—both require focus, endurance, and talent to do well. My weekly routine is nowhere near Murakami’s marathon-level mileage, but the 2-3 times that I do run each week have been incredibly rewarding and great for building my patience when it comes to work. I would be very happy if, twenty or twenty-five years from now, I’m still able to lace up like Murakami and log six or seven miles outside. His account of participating in a triathlon was also very relevant for me. I still haven’t been able to enter one due to my fear of swimming, and it was nice to read about how Murakami overcame his own struggles with swimming and finally found a quality coach who helped him with his technique and made him a much better swimmer.

Managing (Right) for the First Time by David C. Baker
I subscribe to David C. Baker’s newsletter which always has smart, insightful advice for marketing agency owners like myself. My business partner Sei-Wook even attended a conference put on by Baker down in Nashville earlier this year. I decided to buy a copy of his book Managing (Right) for the First Time after reading a newsletter in June titled “Why Your Agency is Still Stuck.” This led me to his blog post called “Managing People is Counter-Intuitive.” The post has a lot of the lessons contained in the book. I wish I had read the book five years ago, when I was first starting to manage people. Reading this book was a painful reminder that I learned things very slowly, and I kept telling myself that I needed to be much better.

For me, the biggest takeaway from this book was on structuring roles and the need to proactively define and make decisions on company structure. I’ve seen firsthand how the lack of structure or the absence of any planning done around the growth and career development of employees can lead to the departure of talented people or to reactive, crisis-mode situations where new positions are haphazardly created in order to retain people (and usually don’t work out). I’ve spent a good chunk of the past six weeks thinking through our company structure as well as the various roles. This is an area in which I absolutely don’t want to be caught flat-footed.

The book goes into detail around some other important management activities like employee on-boarding, making the transition into a management role, effective hiring practices, and becoming a good leader. But I believe the book is most valuable for its overall sentiment on managing people, and how it can be an enriching and rewarding experience for those who want to do it right. These lines from the introduction rang very true, and it’s something I think about every now and then:

Twenty years from now, let me sit down with one of your current clients and ask them about you, your impact, and what they learned. Chances are they won’t be able to dredge a name out of their murky memories. The same is true of your vendors.

But let me do that with one of your current employees in twenty years and they’ll remember you for sure. Hopefully it’ll be for the right reasons, and that’s the opportunity that is in front of you.

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