50 books in 52 weeks – not this year

I enjoy reading, so like many people I have set a goal for myself to read at least 50 books a year for the last couple of years. I read 45 last year, you can see my list on GoodReads.  As I was getting ready to publicly commit to another year of 50-in-52, though, I realized that I’m not really ready to move on from the books I read in 2011 2010.

It’s not that I don’t want to read anything new, I do. I’ve got several new books on my list, including David Siteman Garland’s Smarter, Faster, Cheaper, Neal Bascomb’s story of FIRST Robotics, The New Cool, and Hal Needham’s Stuntman! I’m also looking at some older books that I’ve never read.

But well over half of the books I read last year are still bouncing around inside my head.

In a blog post last October, Harold Jarche  expressed a similar sentiment in the context of conferences that he attends:

One thing missing in these discrete time-based events is that there is little time for reflection. … This presentation is followed by some immediate questions & discussions and a coffee break. Then it’s off to see the next presentation. Reflection, if it occurs, comes much later, and usually after the participants have gone home.

Replace “presentation” with “book”, and that his how I am feeling about the books I read last year.

During a pre-launch webinar for his new book Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson also talked about the state of reading.

Bill Gates takes a “reading vacation” to read. Ray Ozzie does the same thing. A very interesting strategy; usually when we read it is at night, when we are tired and have 20-30 minutes before we go to bed. Takes a couple of weeks to read, you lose the possible connections between the books you read.

All of this is my overly long way of saying that I’m not committing to 50-in-52 this year. Instead of moving on to the next conference, in my case a new year of reading only new books, I’m also going to spend some time quality time reflecting on the books I read last year.

What are your reading plans for 2011?

Update: Check out my  2010 Reading List lens on Squidoo.

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Ignore everybody (but don’t ignore this book)

Like Rework (which I reviewed last week), Ignore Everybody is my kind of book. Written by Hugh MacLeod of gapingvoid.com, it is made up of 40 short essays that each dive into a very specific idea or question. And pictures, lots of pictures from the cube-grenade gallery at gapingvoid.com.

Based on many years of experience, the advice that MacLeod dispenses is almost brutal in its description of what aspiring artists (used in the loosest, Seth Godin-esque way) have to look forward to, and what they have to do to get there. Just reading the essay titles gives you an idea of what to expect:

  • Put the hours in
  • If your business plan depends on suddenly being “discovered” by some bit shot, your plan will probably fail
  • Keep your day job
  • Selling out is harder than it looks

If you are looking for an “easy ticket” to success, this isn’t the book that will get you there. (Hint: such a book doesn’t exist.)

None of this is new, of course, to those who are interested in pursuing mastery and are willing to put in the effort it takes to achieve that mastery. Who aren’t focused on a specific outcome but are interested in the journey on which they find themselves. There is plenty in the book to reinforce the importance of that attitude:

  • Don’t try to stand out from the crowd; avoid crowds altogether
  • Sing in your own voice
  • Worrying about “Commercial vs. Artistic” is a complete waste of time
  • Write from the heart
  • The best way to get approval is not to need it

In some ways, this book simply tells us what most of already know. Maybe we know it subconsciously, just under the radar of what we are willing to acknowledge. Maybe we know that it is true but just can’t bring ourselves to do anything about it. But as MacLeod lays out in the opening essay:

GOOD IDEAS ALTER THE POWER BALANCE IN RELATIONSHIPS. THAT IS WHY GOOD IDEAS ARE ALWAYS INITIALLY RESISTED.

Good ideas come with a heavy burden, which why so few people execute them. So few people can handle it.

Ignore Everybody simply lays it out on the table to where you can’t ignore it, where you have to decide for yourself, “Can I handle it?”

One of my favorites...

Kids, sacrifice, and the master’s journey

I don’t remember exactly where I read this, and I’m paraphrasing a bit, but this little anecdote captures the essence of mastery, and the sacrifice that often goes with it:

A world class, and world famous, dancer was approached by an excited fan following a performance.

“You were fantastic!” the fan said. “I’d give half my life to be able to dance like that.”

“That’s exactly what I did,” responded the dancer.

Ian competing on TrampIf you are the parent of a child involved in athletics at the elite level, or an adult who was one of those kids, you know exactly what this dancer is talking about. My own personal experience as a parent is with gymnastics.

My son was (is) very talented on the trampoline (he was a national champion at his age / level), but when it came time to make the move into “elite”, he recognized that he wasn’t willing to make the sacrifice demanded of that level. We know plenty of others who chose to make that sacrifice.

(As an aside, there is quite the business in “online education” for those young athletes who are unable to attend school – middle, high – because of their intense training schedule.)

The hardest part of embarking on the master’s journey is the knowledge of the sacrifices you must make, the things that you must give up or resign yourself to never experience. That is why I think it is so much easier for kids – or younger people – to commit themselves to that journey.

As parents, we have a responsibility to make sure that our kids have a “childhood”. Many times this takes the form of making sure they are “well rounded”, and don’t spend too much time on any one thing. In other words, setting up roadblocks on the master’s path.

How much of this is because we really think this is best for our kids, and how much of it is an expression of our own fear of the tough journey?

There’s always something to learn

On the TV show NCIS the main character, Special Agent Gibbs, has two primary passions: catching bad guys and building boats. Not just any kind of boat, but hand made wooden sailboats. Which he builds in his basement. (A running gag on the show is the question of how he gets the boats out of the basement.)

In one episode, an old friend and mentor visits Gibbs for the first time in several years and sees a boat in progress in the basement:

“What’s this, number 3?”

“Four.”

“I thought you’d have enough practice by now.”

There’s always something to learn.

Truly words to live by, even if they do come from a fictional character.

A tale of two trainers (in which one is a factory worker and the other an artist)

The following descriptions are of two personal trainers who provide training to their clients using equipment and methods based on the work of Joseph Pilates.

Trainer 1:

Received training from one school. Her approach to training:

This is the way I learned it, this is the way I’m teaching it to you. Don’t question me, don’t ask for anything. Just sit down, shut up, and do what I tell you. If you don’t get anything out of this training session, it’s not my fault; I’m following the training guide.

Trainer 2:

Actively sought training from several schools. The guidance from these different schools are often contradictory, sometimes explicitly contradictory: “That school does x, and we never ever do x.” She ignores these warnings, seeing how x from one school and y from another school can work together to provide something even better. Her approach to training:

What are you trying to achieve with this training? Is there anything you really want to do? Is their anything that you can’t do or don’t want to do? Let me know if something doesn’t feel right or is too easy/hard. How was that workout? Next week we’ll try this and see if it works better for you.

Which trainer would you rather have? Which would you go back to?

Some initial thoughts on Dan Pink’s “Drive”

I read 39 books in 2009, just “a few” shy of my goal of 50. Thanks to a little nudge from Art Johnson (@artjohnson) and some tips from Julien Smith, I’ve set my 2010 sights just a little bit higher: a book a week, for a total of 52.

I got the list off to a good start this evening when I finished Dan Pink’s latest, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Interestingly, one of the first books I read in 2009 was also one of his, A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future.

In that previous book, as the title suggests, Pink describes the type of workers that will emerge – actually are emerging – to solve the complex business and social problems now facing us. Taking that as a starting point in Drive, Pink provides some guidance on what will be necessary to “manage” these new types of worker by exploring the what motivates these workers to perform. Or, as the title put its, what drives them.

It comes down to three basic things that people want and need for fulfillment and satisfaction: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Longtime readers of my blogs know that mastery is a concept I’ve long thought and written about. Pink’s chapter on mastery in the context of work pulls together many ideas that I’ve struggled with over the years.

This chapter alone was worth the price of the book. All the rest is an excellent bonus.

You don’t get better at writing essays by writing more essays

Though perhaps a bit more rigorous in his approach, what Geoff Colvin has to say about deliberate practice in Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else is not unlike what George Leonard says about “practice” in Mastery or how Josh Waitzkin describes his process of mastering chess and T’ai Ch’i in his recent book The Art of Learning: An Inner Journey to Optimal Performance.  What caught my eye about Colvin’s book, and the main reason I read it, is its relating of this idea of deliberate practice and high performance to the world of business.

Early on in Chapter 7, Colvin highlights an issue that I’ve wrestled with in my mind for many years:

We saw earlier how hostile to the principles of well-structured deliberate practice most companies seem.  That’s all the more puzzling when you consider how many high-profile organizations apart from businesses embrace these principles.  We’re awed by the performance of champion sports team or great orchestras and theater companies, but when we get to the office, it occurs to practically no one that we might  have something to learn by studying how some people became so accomplished.  The U.S. military has made itself far more effective by studying and adopting these principles….  But at most companies – as well as most educational institutions and many nonprofit organizations – the fundamentals of great performance are mainly unrecognized or ignored.

The reference to the military really struck home with me, since over half of my professional life (so far) was spent as an officer in the Army.  To simply say that the Army engages in “deliberate practice” – at both the individual and organizational levels – would be a gross understatement.  In fact, in a peacetime Army the primary activity of soldiers and units is deliberate practice, with the explicit goal of continually improved performance.  (More on a wartime military in a bit.)

When I left the military and joined the corporate world, what struck me most was how little practicing – and how little learning and improving – anyone did.  For anything.  The general impression was that if you needed to “practice”, then you obviously were the wrong person for the job.  (This is the “hostility” to the principles of deliberate practice that Colvin refers to in the quote above.)  Needless to say, in the areas where I had influence I did my best to change that perception.

The problem is, as the title of this post hints at, that you can’t get better at something by just doing that something.  The early part of Talent is Overrated is full of examples:  Jerry Rice didn’t become the greatest football player ever by playing football games; Tiger Woods didn’t become the greatest golfer by simply playing endless rounds of golf; and Benjamin Franklin didn’t become the incredible writer that he was by writing essays.  All of these people, and many more, became incredibly good at what they do (did) through deliberate practice.

One of the biggest challenges for a wartime military is how to balance the need and desire for deliberate practice and continued improvement with the day-to-day operational requirements of carrying out its missions.  Having spent a few years now in the civilian world of business, I’ve come to realize that the “operational environment” of most organizations is much like that of a wartime military – there is such a strong focus on meeting day to day mission requirements that it is a challenge to find the time for individuals and teams to engage in deliberate practice to improve their ability to perform.

Colvin finishes with some thoughts on how organizations can apply the principles he addresses in the book for both individuals and teams.  And he believes, and I think shows throughout the book, that any organization, any individual, has the ability to become great at what they do if they are willing to put in the work.