Friday, September 19, 2014

The Business Books That Have Most Influenced Me

Over the years, I probably have read most of the self-help books that have taken the business world by storm. Speechwriters were almost required to do this, if for nothing else than finding a topical quote to use in an executive’s speech. In Search of Excellence. Who Moved My Cheese? The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. The One Minute Manager. Reengineering the Corporation. Crucial Conversations. The Tipping Point. On Management. First, Break All the Rules. Made to Stick.

Many of these books had interesting ideas. However, the impact on me was nil, or close to nil.

But I did read books that changed my day-to-day work, transformed my work life, and made me think about work in a completely different way.

Most of them weren’t actually business books, however, or what we think of as business books. Many were about communication, which is no surprise because that’s the field I’ve worked in for my entire career. Some were academic works. Others weren’t.

Marshall McLuhan’s Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (first published in 1964) is the source of the famous, almost clich├ęd statement “the medium is the message.” What that means is that the medium is as important as the message; some media are better for some kinds of communications than others. In this contemporary culture of the mania for “message points,” no one remembers what McLuhan said about the media themselves.

Eloquence in the Electronic Age: The Transformation of Political Speechmaking by Kathleen Hall Jamieson (1988) came at the mid-point of my speechwriting career. Jamieson’s focus was politics, and how the television sound bite had transformed political speech (and by extension, corporate speech). She did not see this as a good thing. She was right. Look at Washignton, D.C., where discourse has become all but impossible.

Poet David Whyte published two books that approximate “business books” – The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Corporate Soul in America (1994) and Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity (2001) that had an enormous impact on how I thought about work, and what I understood work to be. (I also like his poetry.)

Walter Ong was a Jesuit priest who taught at St. Louis University. In 1982, he published Orality and Literacy, which in a sense continued the discussion started by McLuhan but broadened it to what was happening in human communication generally. I didn’t read the book until the mid-1990s, in the throes of just having started a (revolutionary-at-the-time) email newsletter and the company’s first web site. Ong helped me understand why I seemed to intuitively grasp electronic communication – it’s closer to an oral culture than a print culture (words encouraging to a speechwriter).

The late Neil Postman wrote two books that served as serious warnings in the rush to all things electronic: Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (1987) and Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology (1993). He wrote a number of other works as well (all of which I read) but these two provided the watch outs for embracing the internet and (later) social media.

More recently, and one closer to a traditional business book, Chris Brogan and Julien Smith published Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation and Earn Trust (2009). It shaped my entire approach at work to using social media. It still does.

Other books had an influence, but none like these eight. I still go back and read highlighted sections. And I remain surprised at how up-to-date they’ve remained.

Over at The High Calling, Jennifer Dukes-Lee is asking for what business books have influenced you the most. Check The High Calling to see what others are saying.

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Jill Paton Walsh’s “The Late Scholar”

From 1923 to 1937, Dorothy Sayers wrote a series of mystery novels featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, son of the Duke and Duchess of Denver. Lord Peter always seemed something of the quintessential English aristocrat, except one with a penchant for getting himself involved in murders and other nefarious situations.

Dorothy Sayers
Sayers was more than a mystery writer; she wrote plays, essays, literary criticism and poetry. She translated Dante’s Divine Comedy. And her writings on faith and Christianity so reflected Anglican  teaching that the Archbishop of Canterbury offered her a Lambeth doctorate in divinity (which she declined).

But it is for Lord Peter Wimsey that she’s best known today. The Lord Peter mysteries are still read, helped along over the years by television series. And there was one Lord Peter manuscript left unfinished by Sayers. In 1999, mystery and fiction writer Jill Paton Walsh stepped in and completed it, the title publishing as Thrones, Dominations in1999.

Walsh wrote two more Lord Peter stories (giving Lord Peter’s love interest and eventual wife Harriet Vane close to equal billing). A Presumption of Death was published in 2002, and The Attenbury Emeralds in 2011.

Now we have The Late Scholar. It is 1953, and Lord Peter discovers that he is the official “Visitor” at St. Severin’s College at Oxford, thanks to a generous donation made by an ancestor in the 1700s. And the Visitor is being asked to come to Oxford to break a college deadlock that has everything to do with tradition versus academic survival. The issue at hand is whether to sell an Anglo-Saxon copy of The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius, possibly annotated by King Alfred, so the college can buy a piece of land ripe for development, or hold on to what is the most prized possession of its library.

The vote by St. Severin’s fellows is split 50-50. The warden (head of college) who is supposed to break ties, had sided with keeping the manuscript, that is, until he disappeared. And then fellows start dying, in ways strongly suggestive of the plots of Harriet Vane’s murder mysteries. Threads are discovered leading to a savage five-year-old literary review in the Times Literary Supplement, a researcher’s suicide years before, and a beautiful and frightened woman living in an isolated house.

Jill Paton Walsh
Lord Peter (followed by Harriet) is on the scene, and the murders continue.

The Late Scholar is grand fun (fun in the sense of engaging murder mysteries). Walsh is faithful to the spirit of Sayers and her detective. No, it’s not exactly as Sayers might have written the story, but it’s close enough to be recognizable as a Lord Peter Wimsey story. And with deaths in organ lofts, attacks with ceremonial swords, and a murder via skylight, Walsh continues the Lord Peter Wimsey rather swashbuckling tradition of private detection.

Oh, and there’s Bunter, too, Lord Peter’s chauffeur, butler, cook and general factotum.

Yes, it’s great fun.

Photograph: A 1931 Daimler 4-seater; Lord Peter Wimsey owned a 1927 model (among others).

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Day I Forgot to Wear My Mask

I was walking down the hall at the office. A person new to the department was walking toward me. As I passed her, I nodded and smiled and uttered the usual throwaway line. “How are you doing?” (The variation is, “How’s it going?”)

You don’t expect an answer. You’re being polite. But you’re not committing yourself to anything more than hearing a “Fine” in return. You have work to do, meetings to attend, people to talk to, all of the general busy-ness of contemporary work life.

“Do you really want to know?” she replied in an almost anguished voice.

She knew the politeness-in-the-hallway code. And something had prompted her to step out of it.

I stopped, and said what I didn’t really mean. “Yes. Are you okay?”

For the next 30 minutes (we moved to her office), a story poured out that seemed more like fiction than reality.

She came from a well-known and socially prominent local family. Her parents were always somewhere else, traveling. Her brother was in parts unknown. She was caring for an elderly aunt who alternated between lucidity and dementia, often in seconds. The aunt was terrified that someone would get control of her estate and have her committed to an institution, and for a very good reason: she herself had made a career out of doing exactly that – getting control of elderly people’s estates and then having them committed. To add to the mix, my new work colleague was being stalked by a distant relative, who himself was trying to get control of her aunt’s estate.

And all I had asked was how she was doing.

We became friends, and she became friends with my wife as well. We talked. We shared outside-of-work writing projects. We’d have dinner. It was only after we moved to a new town that our friendship gradually lessened. But our lives, and my life, was immeasurably enriched by that simple exchange in a workplace hallway.

None of us wore masks. My friend was feeling desperate. I decided to listen.

In The Cure: What if God Isn’t Who You Think He Is and Neither Are You, authors John Lynch, Bruce McNichol and Bill Thrall cite three categories mask-wearers fall into.

Those who try to convince others they’re doing “just fine.”

Those who are still searching for the next new technique to solve their issues and problems (and are the target audience of the self-help book publishing industry).

And those who wear the “pedigreed” masks – the postcard-perfect people who have everything together, no problems, no messy stuff in their lives.

The normal answer my work colleague should have made was “I’m fine, thank you” and walked on. But she didn’t. Her response caught me off-guard. I could have immediately donned a mask, probably the pedigreed mask. I could have listened politely and moved on.

But I didn’t. I could hear the desperation and even fear in her voice. So I listened.

And it changed my life.

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading The Cure. To see more posts on this chapter, “Two Faces,” please visit Jason at Connecting to Impact.

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

September Beats: Allen Ginsberg

They say all publicity is good. For poet Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997), the publicity he received for the publication of Howl and Other Poems permanently defined his career.

It is 1955. Ginsberg has written a long poem he’s entitles “Howl” that is about capitalism and “the system.” In fact, the poem is a long “howl” about the system. It’s filled with vivid imagery, including sexual imagery, quite graphic sexual imagery.

Poet Louis Ferlinghetti, who owns the City Light Books bookstore in San Francisco, publishes the poem in a relatively small collection. William Carlos Williams writes the introduction. Ginsberg reads the poem publicly in late 1955. City Lights Books arranges the printing in London. The printed volumes arrive, and are promptly seized by customs officials.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Evaluation: Five Kinds of Supervisor Performance Reviews

I have just walked out of my annual performance review. And this one is noteworthy. It’s my last one; this time next year, I’ll be retired. While I believe that supervisors and bosses are important and indispensable, I will not miss those annual evaluations.

After 35 years of both receiving and giving performance reviews in corporate America, I’ve learned that evaluators are as varied as general humanity, but they do tend to fall into one of roughly five categories.

To continue reading, please see my post today at The High Calling.

Illustration by Karen Arnold via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Work is a Curse, Right?

It’s easy, perhaps too easy, to think of work as a curse. We all have days (weeks / months) when our work seems like a curse. When I’m in the middle of yet another online crisis at work, the internet seems to be blowing up on and it seems to be all aimed at my organization, and my boss sends an email questioning why I used a particular word in a Facebook comment, yes, work can seem like a curse.

What came first, work or the curse?

The image that immediately comes to mind: Adam and Eve have been caught eating of the tree of knowledge. God is not pleased. Adam is told that he will now work by the sweat of his brow. Eve is told about the pain of childbirth (another kind of work).

Work is a curse, right?

Actually, the answer is no. In the Bible, work came before the curse. The first work recorded in the Bible was the work of creation, God’s work of creation. “God saw all he had made, and it was very good.” Adam and Eve lived in the garden and their work was to take care of it.

Work was a good thing.

Work is still a good thing.

But it’s humanity – we humans – who continually screw it up. In Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, Christopher Smith, John Pattison, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove speak to the productive and protective elements of work, and they speak to where we usually get it wrong.

They point to Adam Smith (1723-1790), the “patron saint of capitalism.” Smith didn’t look at work for its inherent dignity, they say, but only for its usefulness. “The purpose of work is production, and the sole purpose of all production, said Smith, is consumption…Thus, work is a means to an end.”

The dignity of work disappears. The inherent value of work itself disappears. Work is only important for providing us money to buy stuff and pay for services.

It’s Smith and the Industrial Revolution that gives us what we know today as the pervasive division of labor. We do different things to enhance production. This is so common to us today that we don’t realize how radical it was in the 18th century.

Increased production and improved manufacturing comes at a price, and the price includes alienation.

Smith wasn’t alone. Later, Frederick Taylor (1856-1915) came along to subdivide work into minute components, with even more alienation and fragmentation. The authors of Slow Church point out that Taylor’s The Principles of Scientific Management (1911) was the first business bestseller. It especially found a welcoming audience with – surprise! – Vladimir Lenin in Russia.

Today, Slow Church argues, we have McDonaldization, how we are to act and move in every situation. This has extended beyond the workplace to the home and to the church. (I can personally attest to the impact that business and business executive thinking has had on two different churches we attended in St. Louis.) (It was not a good thing.)

Should there be an alternative? And is the church the institution to point the way to an alternative?

We’ll consider those questions next week.

I’ve been discussing Slow Church for the past several Mondays. Today’s discussion is the first of two parts on the chapter entitled “Work.” I’ll conclude the discussion of the chapter next Monday.

Related: Jim Wood at The High Calling’s Mission / Work channel at Patheos has a similar discussion, Is Work a Curse or Inherently Good?

Photograph by Ian L via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission. 

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The five hundred saw him

The five hundred saw him
after, whether all at once
or singly or in groups
does not concern us here,
only that five hundred
in a span of time, a span
of forty days, translated
from bystanders to witnesses

He spoke, they listened
he preached, they heeded
he talked, they received
he spoke, they stood
they took their stand
they believed
they held firm
they were taught
they spoke

others listened

Photograph by Lilla Frerichs via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.