Are you indispensable?
by Seth Godin
ISBN: 9781591843160

Is this a business book? Marketing? Should it be in the (cringe) self help section? It’s tempting to say all of the above. I wrote a blog post about this book last week, describing the main ideas with this venn diagram:

So the book is about asking yourself tough questions: What the fuck am I doing? Why? What am I not doing? Why not? It’s entertaining, if unsettling reading:

The freedom of the new kind of work (which most of us do, most of the time) is that the tasks are vague and difficult to measure. We can waste an hour surfing the ‘Net because no one knows if surfing the ‘Net is going to help us make progress or connections.

This freedom is great, because it means no one is looking over your shoulder; no one is using a stopwatch on you.

This freedom is a pox, because it’s an opening for the resistance. Freedom like this makes it easy to hide, easy to find excuses, easy to do very little.

I read that and… ouch.

Godin is on a mission to get each reader to believe it’s up to you — your work is up to you, not your employer, not anyone else. An important part of the message is that security isn’t what you think, not any more. Keeping your head down, following the rules, putting in your time; today that behaviour doesn’t come with guarantees. Being emotionally invested in what you are doing, working for a mission not a job description, and shipping — that’s what counts now. That’s your work; that’s art.

Some of these ideas may sound familiar to readers of Dan Pink’s A Whole New Mind — and certainly if you liked that book, you’ll probably find this more pointed take on work today worth your time. Speaking of other books, if Godin’s criticisms of education resonate, I’d recommend Walking on Water by Derrick Jensen. And it seems all thought-provoking nonfiction I read I can connect to Thomas King’s The Truth About Stories, so I’m going to suggest you read that, too.

The stories we tell ourselves, the education we get or fight to get or fight to undo, the willingness to stop drawing a bright line between personal and professional — they are all part of becoming a linchin.

Trust Agents

Using the web to build influence, improve reputation, and earn trust
by Chris Brogan and Julien Smith
ISBN: 9780470743089

The authors have turned the notion of “this is going on your permanent record” on its head: what’s on your record is something to embrace, not fear. You should seek to embrace and expose — help write your own record. Comments are open.

Given how long we’ve used the metaphor of paper for the web (it’s all pages, right?) it’s not that surprising. Chris and Julien (their tone is so conversational and approachable, referring to them by last name seems wrong and oddly distancing) make sense. They offer encouragement and practical advice about using social tools, but they don’t walk you through every step, just the key points.

That’s what I want to focus on, the (for me) key points in the book:

“Writing everything online, where it is eternally visible to everyone, forever, has value.” It’s an opportunity — even if only a few people see it, to “build up influence”. And it scales: you write once, post it online, and it becomes discoverable and infinitely shareable.

It’s not about being perfect, it’s about being human. “Since most of the Web isn’t trying to complete a transaction (things like spam not withstanding), people have the tendency to feel closer to each other there. People speak like humans on their blogs … Though it’s a part of trust many don’t take into consideration, intimacy is one of trust’s most powerful elements.”

The importance of being a real person online shouldn’t be obscured by the network: “Social networking is not about getting attention for attention’s sake, but rather about being a part of the network, making other people aware that you are there — and that you’ll be there in the future, too.” This reminds me of my favorite definition of community — you are part of community if they’ll go looking for you if you are missing.

So, it’s a philosophy of altruism. Self-interested altruism? “… helping others is probably one of the most effective ways of helping yourself. By spreading ideas that help others, you get credit and people get the help they need. It’s win-win. What a change from the scarcity mentality most people live with everyday, isn’t it? And that’s one of the best things about the social web; people are deeply interested in sharing with each other.”

All this new stuff — twitter, facebook, LinkedIn, blogging, etc. — is disruptive. What it is disrupting is an artificial way of doing things. We have the ability to move away from the old permanent records you feared because you couldn’t see or control them, and transparently write our own. As Chris and Julien put it, “Why we trust people is the same; it’s only the ways we come to be trusted that have been changing. And that’s because communication has been changing.”

That’s the philosophy. The book offers a framework for action based on it. There’s six pieces to it:

  • Make Your Own Game Decide which rules are relevant, and which ones you need to create for yourself.
  • One of Us Act like you belong, and you will. You do.
  • Archimedes Effect Leverage. Understand it, how to use it.
  • Agent Zero Have a wide network, by connecting with several smaller groups.
  • Human Artist Treat people right, always.
  • Build Armies Think you don’t scale? You do if you can train, inspire, and lead others.

I think the framework is solid because it isn’t based on the latest and greatest tech, but on behavior. By being mindful, paying attention to the right things, taking small actions that matter, staying in learning mode — that’s how to understand and take advantage of new tools, instead of being put off or baffled by them. They are preaching to the choir with a reader like me, though.

Their ideas may not appeal to everyone, but for folks trying to get their heads around how the current crop of web-based communication tools can help them, or working through what web 2.0 stuff means from a practical or business (vs technical) perspective, I highly recommend it. Anyone looking to be persuasive and use new/emerging tools should pick up Trust Agents. It has the virtue of seeming like common sense when you read it.

Happiness is an Inside Job

by Sylvia Boorstein
ISBN: 9780345481313

I am not a reader of self-helpy type books. I’m not trying to cast aspersions on folks who are, though it is true my desire to make it clear I’m not generally a fan of the genre does probably have something to do with the idea that anonymous people on the internet who stumble over this review thinking I might be that kind of reader makes me cringe. [Insert obvious joke about perhaps needing self-helpy books here.]

The other reason to make it clear is that this is not a self help book. Sylvia Boorstein is a Buddhist teacher, a psychotherapist, and Jewish grandmother. While she does seem more patient and calm than the average bear, she’s no saint. This makes me trust her. She says, in her introduction:

I also thought about how easily my mind forgets what it knows, how easily it falls into confusion and out of caring connection. So I decided to write this book–not about avoiding confusion, because we can’t–but about becoming unconfused and restoring connection because it really is the best way to live.

I believe her. Meaning, I recognize that sort of confusion in my own life, it seems common sense that you can’t avoid it, and I think she has more practice than I do “becoming unconfused”.

What she does in this book is share the lessons learned from her practice. In a relatable, non-preachy way, she uses the Buddhist teachings of Wise Effort, Wise Mindfulness, and Wise Concentration (the middle steps of the Eightfold Path–and no, it doesn’t matter if you know what that is or not) as her framework. She tells stories about her friends, her husband, how she goes off track and gets back on again. I imagine she’d be a wonderful person to sit and share a cup of tea with on a rainy afternoon; her writing style makes her books feel like conversations.

If you are looking for an in-depth introduction to Buddhist principles and thought, this isn’t the right book. If, on the other hand, you are curious about Buddhist principles or what contemporary practice might look like, you’ll probably enjoy this. I don’t think you need to have an interest in Buddhism to get a lot out of this book, however. All you really need is an open mind, a willingness to listen, and perhaps a belief in the possibility of adjusting your attitude, because it is an inside job. Highly recommended.

Everything That Rises

by Lawrence Weschler
ISBN: 9781932416862

I wrote a blog post not too long after I finished reading this book pulling together examples of connections I had noticed as a result of reading it. That’s probably the best evidence I can offer that the book is worth reading: it will lodge itself in your brain and affect how you see and think long after you’ve put it down.

I’m a fan of Weschler’s work, so I knew I’d love this book. Take the appreciation of the unexpectedly marvelous from Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, add in the odd connections made in Vermeer in Bosnia and mix with liberally with images and you have Everything That Rises. The book might not be as portable as those two (with its pleasing square, nearly coffee table book proportions) but that just means the images are reproduced at a size you don’t need to squint at.

In “The Graphics of Solidarity” a key point of Weschler’s most clearly emerges: people are prepared for images. This is not a revolutionary insight, but it is an important one — we are prepared for images by other images. In his discussion of a famous photograph that depicts something contrary to what most people remember (most people remember the woman in the image carrying a flag, but it was carried by a man behind her), he compares the photo to Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People. It is that painting, he explains, that sets the stage for the misremembering:

I am convinced this particular photograph, rather than any of the innumerable others taken that day, was the image Poles came to remember because, in a strange sort of way, they already knew it by heart.

I’ve recommended Weschler’s work before. Having read this book, I’ll recommend it even more highly. His thinking takes unpredictable turns and reveals things you won’t have quite thought of in that way before, but make perfect sense now.

The Object Stares Back

On the Nature of Seeing
by James Elkins
ISBN: 0156004976

There is no such thing as “just looking”; Elkins argues persuasively that seeing is more complicated than that. As an art historian with a willingness to explore not only the metaphorical but biological underpinnings of vision, he’s in a position to know.

He considers extreme images (death, illness, nakedness), bodies, faces, and blindness in his meditation on the meaning of seeing. Elkins is an academic, but you don’t need to be a specialist (in his discipline or otherwise) to follow or appreciate his arguments. Yes, he covers his french theorist bases here (Bataille, Lacan) but he doesn’t dwell on them; he remains more interested in communicating his ideas than exploring arcane theory. He can even be pretty funny, in his own way: “Consider the blue peacock, a bird nearly ruined by centuries of bad poems (figure 62).”

We can all be expected to know what a peacock looks like, and he did just tell is it is blue, so figure 62 is not so bad. The rest of the visual reproductions are not nearly as well-known or recognizable, so why they aren’t of higher quality is a mystery to me. The images are reprinted entirely in black and white, and frequently too muddy to convey the power he assures us they have. That is probably the most serious flaw in the book.

If you are interested in vision — in just about any sense of the word — you’ll probably find something of value in this book. I liked his Visual Studies: A Skeptical Introduction better, probably because it’s framework was in comparison more aligned with my interests. This is a more specialized interrogation of seeing — which is what it set out to be — than an exploration of an emerging field of study. Elkins is interesting and fairly prolific, so I’m sure I’ll be reading him again.


A Guide to a New Way of Working
by Anne Truitt Zelenka with Judi Sohn
ISBN: 9780470223987

I tend to be suspicious of books on web topics. The internet moves much faster than book publishing, so I worry that web books will seem stale when I read them. I think Zelenka’s book will have staying power beyond the current incarnations of facebook or twitter though, because she gets deeper and presents ideas that reach beyond any individual link or resource that might rot or transform or disappear.

Three themes in the book really resonated with me:

  • Bursty vs busy working styles: It’s still about getting things done, but not adhering to 9 to 5 thinking to make it happen
  • Focus on authenticity: Are you what you do? Do you want to be?
  • Work-life blend instead of balance: Mix (remixing?) your “yes it’s work” and your “of course it’s personal” stuff goes with the web work territory

Zelenka and Sohn acknowledge risks inherent in new ways of working:

“There are no guarantees that your bursty experiments will always or ever succeed and you may lose credibility if you become known for one crazy scheme after another”

“You need to take care not to use too much of your attention on ideas and information that don’t pay off in increased satisfaction, knowledge, and insight”

These are risks that can be present in non-web work, but I think the low barrier to entry, infinitely connected nature of the web encourages experimentation and invites idea surfing. It’s also creates fertile ground for innovation:

“innovation comes from making connections across different ideas and fields of thought, not necessarily from coming up with ideas from scratch”

I should note that you are getting all this from my perspective as web worker who has embraced the work/life blend, and can be found on twitter, and facebook and as well as my personal blogs. This doesn’t mean I agree with everything they say. For example, my “sarcastic blog posts” aren’t getting deleted any time soon. (Probably never: I prefer to think of them as my archives.)

I do agree there is power in letting people get to know you via “multiple channels and multiple interactions” because it’s my experience that it enriches professional relationships. Yes, it can also make for a fuzzy line between professional and personal, and not everyone will be comfortable with that. I think that is okay, but Zelenka and Sohn are clearly writing for folks who are at least open to finding out how comfortable with fuzziness they really are.

If you’ve been in the web working camp for awhile this book probably isn’t going to provide you with anything earth-shatteringly new. You’ll probably harvest some worthwhile tips (online sharing of goals will help keep you motivated to actually get things done, orienteering is a more productive way to approach search when you need to learn as well as find), but many of the pointers go to familiar URLs, such as the obvious Web Worker Daily. If nothing else, it’s worth reading for the reinforcing, manifesto-like bits such as, “today’s web is about individual possibility, not standard operating procedures.”

If you are not yet but aspire to be a web worker (freelance or as employee), I highly recommend this book. Managers of remote workers and distributed teams will also probably get a lot out of it. (I slapped a post-it note on the cover and gave it to my manager when I was done reading it.)

Update: I posted a lightly edited version of this over on the work blog.

Walking on Water

Reading, Writing, and Revolution
by Derrick Jensen
ISBN: 1931498784

I’d like to think this was the kind of book that would have given me hope had I read it when I was in high school (a crappy, rundown, stagnant place) afraid I’d be unable to get out and off to college. I’m not sure it would have made me feel better, or honestly that I’d have been able to appreciate Jensen’s work, but I like to think I would have. Seeing an adult — someone who had published books, no less! — advocating thinking for myself and giving encouragement to create my own path would have been so important.

It’s not, as Jensen clearly and convincingly argues, what most kids experience when they are sent off to school every morning. It wouldn’t, after all, prepare us to be pliable wage slaves, now would it? No. This is the end result most education is aiming for:

“Far better for them to believe they’re free, because if then they are unhappy the fault lies not with you but with themselves.”

Jensen believes that “the only real job of any teacher, especially a writing teacher, is to help students find themselves.” He believes this is his purpose in the classroom, whether that room is on a college campus or in a prison. Walking on Water can be read as a manifesto, but it can also be read as a collection of real stories, a testament to the power of stories. So a manifesto, but fun as well as inspiring.

If you write or wish you were writing, you’ll probably appreciate Jensen’s book. If you teach, I bet you’ll find something valuable in Walking on Water. If you never write anything, or never teach anyone anything… why not?

Jensen asks great questions, tells good stories, and pushes folks outside their comfort zones:

Who are you? Who are you, really? Beneath the trappings and traumas that clutter and characterize our lives, who are you, and what do you want to do with the so-short life you’ve been given? We could not live the the way we do unless we avoided that question, trained ourselves and others to avoid that question, forced others to avoid placing that question in front of us, and in fact attempted to destroy those who do.

Highly recommended.

Everything is Miscellaneous

by David Weinberger

Weinberger is known for his ability to write about what’s happening on the web for an intelligent but not necessarily technical audience — first with others in The Cluetrain Manifesto, and then on his own with Small Pieces Loosely Joined. He’s got a knack for figuring out what’s important about how things on the web are moving and articulating why those things matter. He might be (judging from his conference speaking gigs, at any rate) a geek’s favorite web theorist/philosopher. See, we could give his books to our smart non-geek friends and then maybe they’d know why get so excited over what sounds, to them, like confusing jargon or Charlie Brown grownup-speak.

While not as passionate as Cluetrain, Miscellaneous still delivers a key message: the need to rethink atom-based assumptions about information, now that we’re living in the bit-based digital age. Michael Wesch, a digital ethnography professor, does a great job of explaining the book in his Information R/evolution video.

If you’ve been immersed in this world for awhile now (hint: you have a point of view on using folksonomies, you’ve had more than one fiery discussion on the merits of tagging) there won’t be much new here, but you’ll probably nod your head in agreement with Weinberger most, if not all, of the time. Recommended for info geeks (if for no reason other than everyone will expect you to have read it) and folks who are interested in the theory side of how/why tagging works and the challenges of information management in the the digital age.

The Cluetrain Manifesto

by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke, Doc Searls, and David Weinberger
ISBN: 0738204315

I first read Cluetrain when the paperback came out in 2000. I was eager to read it because it was something different, something alive, and I believed what the authors said about the internet being “inherently seditious”.

The book is widely known now by its mantra, markets are conversations. We’re living in a world where it is harder and harder not to recognize that fact: web 2.0 put the tools in more hands and upped the expectations of the people formerly known as the audience.

I’m struck by how relevant the book still is, given that in internet time at seven plus years of age, it’s at least a generation old. I think more and more people would now nod their heads at the way the authors describe the internet:

From the beginning, something very different has been brewing online. It has to do with living, with livelihood, with craft, connection, and community. This isn’t some form of smarmy New Age mysticism, either. It’s tough and gritty and it’s just beginning to find its voice, its own direction.

But the part of the book that really stuck with me from years ago wasn’t about the sedition or the outrage, it was the story about permission. Chris Locke talks about being in Japan, researching computer science topics, and having a researcher ask him, “Who gives you permission to read those books?” He goes on to talk about the belief that “only power is sanctioned to speak” being behind the question, and how it put him on the “long road from permission to practice” to be curious, to speak, and to write.

Which isn’t to say I don’t still enjoy the ranting about so-called professionalism and how it’s a trap we lead ourselves into, because I do. I still nodded my head along with the argument that voice is a human thing, it’s “how we can tell the difference between people, committees, and bots.” The book’s definition of community still holds up (“a group of people who care about each other more than they have to.”) I more fervently believe that “Stories are how we make sense of things” than when I read it before. [Thank you, Thomas King.] The idea that questions aren’t used to predict the future, but they do create it makes even more sense now.

I mean, how can you not like a book that tells you, “next time you wonder what you’re allowed to say at work, online, downtown at the public library, just say whatever the hell you feel like saying.” The advice it gives still resonates, and the world it asks us to imagine is the one I want to work and play in:

Imagine a world where everyone was constantly learning, a world where what you wondered was more interesting that what you knew, and curiosity counted for more than certain knowledge. Imagine a world where what you gave away was more valuable than what you held back, where joy was not a dirty word, where play was not forbidden after your eleventh birthday.

Read this book and dislodge that axe wedged in your head. It should be required reading for anyone anywhere near marketing, and just about everyone working in a big company. Still worth reading, a net generation later. Highly recommended.

The Geography of Thought

How Asians and Westerners Think Differently… and Why
by Richard E. Nisbett
ISBN: 0743216466

I was very interested in what I thought was the idea of behind book, but it took me a bit to warm up to it once I started reading. I’m glad I stuck with it. Though Nisbett can come across as a wee bit impressed with himself for thinking beyond the apparently typical and academically reinforced boundaries, this is some interesting stuff. Two key ideas:

  • People generally believe (because we have been taught to) that everyone thinks alike — that we have “the same basic cognitive processes”. This isn’t true.
  • Formal logic isn’t the be-all end-all. Dialectics or the “Middle Way” is a valuable method of reasoning.

How these ideas play out and the examples Nisbett uses were sometimes surprising to me. Nisbett tells us that Western kids learn nouns faster than verbs and East Asian kids learn verbs faster — a concrete example of how thinking (intimately related to language acquisition) is different. I’m not sure why that surprised me, but it did, and it also made sense and helped his central argument click with me. Other examples taken from things researchers have used in the field surprised me because, well, apparently I’m pretty Eastern in my thinking for a Westerner. Here’s a quick test/example: Imagine a picture of a cow, imagine a picture of a chicken, and imagine a picture of some grass. Which would you group with the cow, the chicken or the grass? Or, of these three words — panda, monkey, banana — which two are most closely related? Apparently, Americans tend to answer one way, and Chinese participants answer another way when asked these questions.

Now, I’m the product of the Western educational system, I’ve never lived in an Asian country, and I have no reason to suspect my answers should trend differently than would be expected from my demographic group. Which brings me to what I suspect is a flaw in these studies and in thinking about thought in Eastern vs Western terms: they don’t sufficiently account for gender differences. Nisbett says, reflecting on one of the “rare” studies indicating that Western men and women differ from each other more than Eastern men and women do, that researchers have “been unable to characterize the difference between tasks for which we find gender differences and those for which we don’t”. I suspect they need to do more research, because I’d be surprised if either there isn’t a pattern there, or if there isn’t in fact a larger difference between Western men and women than previously indicated.

Overall, I found this book valuable because it challenges what I think of as the assumption of “default personhood”. Nisbett veers toward kumbaya territory when he talks about how the two styles of thinking may meet as each moves toward the others. I believe the real value is in recognizing different thought processes, and being able to develop the ability to focus with and use patterns of thinking to expand our problem-solving capabilities.

[I’d love to hear how you answered the questions — if you’re so inclined, share in the comments. I answered the more typically Eastern way: cow goes with grass, monkey and banana are most closely related.]