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I’ve been neglecting this blog, and haven’t posted anything here for a long time – despite this it gets a regular 30 or so visits a day, up to 50 some days. I recently started a new blog, Charlton Fun City, writing about music and posting videos and clips, and have been trying to write something for that every day. As is probably inevitable with a man of my age, not much of it is about new artists; so far it seems to mainly be about  the new material of old artists.

A few days ago I started to think: I’ve got a load of emails waiting for responses – mostly they’re the ones that need a bit of time and thought to complete – so shouldn’t I be doing that rather than writing posts about Wilko Johnson’s farewell gig? Come to that, shouldn’t I be writing more on this blog? After all, I’m a self-employed person working in a fairly small niche, and always battling to pay my bills and stay on the right side of the Mr Micawber’s famous happiness calculation.

Chip and Dan Heath

Chip and Dan Heath

My favourite sibling author duo, Chip and Dan Heath are bringing out a new book shortly, and have been sending out emails trying to drum up trade and build a buzz. I first encountered them through their second book Switch, which is an overview of research into how to get change to work well. As you might expect from the authors of Made to Stick, (which is about getting people to hear and remember what you’re trying to communicate), it is well and engagingly written, in an easy-to-read style familiar from the works of Malcolm Gladwell, who they credit a couple of times.
book-switch-300x391
Even though it doesn’t give as much emphasis to Solutions Focus approaches as my SF chums would like, I think Switch is great, and I consistently recommend it  – in fact if you’re reading this blog then I definitely recommend it to you, you can read/download the first chapter here  –  and I’m looking forward to Decisive, which is subtitled “How to make better choices in life and work”.

One of the points they’ve been making in their prepublication publicity emails, is that we have a strong tendency when faced with a decision to see it in starkly binary terms: should I do A or not? or at best, should I do A or B? Of course the range of possibilities is much more open than that, and the Heath brothers talk about ‘widening the frame’ to look for other possibilities.

So when I was meditating this morning, one of my distractions was the realisation that I don’t have to choose between having a music blog, or a blog about change and growth, or answering my emails – I just have to choose which to do each day. So now, instead of aiming to write a music blog each day, my aim is to write something each day – some days it will be a music blog, some days it will be a response to one of those back-up emails, and some days it will be a blog here.

Now, you may have noticed that the tile of this blog sets up an either/or choice: Either/Or Vs Both/And. The truth is that sometimes we can only have one thing or another – we can have our cake or eat it; I probably only have the time to write one thing each day; you can either use a semi-colon or a comma. So there’s a time for everything – and that reminded me of a song, so why not go for a both/and with this blog post, and make that point with some footage of an old band?

So where could you ‘open up the frame’ to consider both/and options – or even a whole host of different possibilities?

 

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Poster for David Lynch's movie of Dune

When I first attended a Buddhist weekend retreat I was asked to bring with me something which was significant or held meaning for me. It took me a long time to think of anything that fitted this description, but after some reflection I remembered the ‘Litany against Fear’ from Frank Herbert’s novel ‘Dune’, a book that had been very important to me in my teenage years:

Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will allow it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing.
Only I will remain.

The night before I left for the dry Spanish valley where I was to spend four months on my ordination retreat I felt compelled to watch David Lynch’s (notoriously poor) movie of the book (this was before the Sci-Fi Channel’s diligent, but uninspiring mini-series). Then, a few years later, I led a weekend retreat exploring the novel, as a way of looking at the myths and symbols of science fiction and the extent to which they might be useful in terms of spiritual practice.

I have come to deeply value the role of myth and the imagination within my own spiritual practice, but had noticed that a number of my friends found the whole area completely mystifying. It seemed more than a coincidence that many of these people seemed to be fans of science fiction. My aim for the weekend was to help people to make the connection between the myths that they were responding to in sci-fi, and the mythical aspects of life and spiritual practice. It seems that for many people living in a world marked by scientific reductionism and utilitarian literalism, the world of the imagination can appear to be in the future, or ‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.’

Traditionally science fiction has not been a particularly refined genre – in the sci-fi books I read in my teens and twenties, the qualities of writing and of character development were often poor, and violence and cruelty were common themes. It has also been a particularly obvious outlet for wish fulfilment, or for the articulation of contemporary views – the Cold War led to a huge number of ‘alien threat’ novels and movies during the fifties and sixties, and more recently political correctness has brought us the elected Queen Amidala of Star Wars: Episode 1.

At its best, however, the freedom to define new social and political systems, and even change the laws of physics (Captain!), can allow science fiction writers to introduce archetypal figures and explore the nature of the human condition in a way which is not possible in more socially realistic fiction. In this way I believe it is possible for sci-fi to provide a launching pad into the imaginal realm. Thankfully, contemporary writers have begun to marry high standards of writing with this complexity of concepts – although I don’t read much fiction these days I’d particularly recommend Neal Stephenson‘s genre-busting books.

Those who are chronically averse to science fiction are unlikely to become converts, but if you have nurtured a secret affection for sci-fi then perhaps you can begin to have the courage to come out of the galactic closet. Ultimately it may be that science fiction can even be useful in helping us to see how those that we perceive as ‘alien’ are in fact no different from ourselves.

Dune

Frank Herbert, 1965 (published by New English Library)

Set in a feudal society of the far distant future the novel charts its protagonist’s maturation and fourfold initiation: firstly to Duke, then to manhood and leadership, to prescient super-being and ultimately to Emperor. Herbert interweaves his twin interests in psychology and ecology through the symbolic aspects of the story, such as the desert planet Arrakis (the ‘Dune’ of the title) and its giant sandworms, as well as through the themes and characters. These themes include the integration of masculine and feminine, and the principles of prescience and memory. The hero’s teachers are classic Jungian archetypes, and the desert planet is peopled by the wild and fierce Fremen, who live in rock warrens, and hoard water which will one day allow them to catalyse an ecological transformation of the planet. There is also the secretive Bene Gesserit sisterhood who manipulate religions and genetic lines through the use of their greatly heightened powers of awareness.

As a teenager it was this combination of the psychological and ecological which appealed to me, and I was particularly struck by the incredible acuity of perception of the Bene Gesserit – a faculty I now know as mindfulness. In ‘Dune’ Herbert achieved a level of symbolic truth which surpasses anything else he ever wrote, and it is this symbolic content more than the subtlety of his concepts which makes it a great novel.

I was doing some house-keeping on my computer this morning and came across this piece, which I wrote for the Buddhist Arts magazine Urthona about a decade ago – I’ve tweaked it slightly to bring it up to date a bit. I’d love to hear your recommendations for good sci-fi – ancient or modern.

Another great book summary from my friends at Coaching on Call which explains the consequences of a lack of mindfulness.

Leadership Insights from Coaching on Call

The phenomenon of multitasking has been defined by psychiatrist Dr Edward Halliwell as “mythical activity in which people believe they can perform two or more tasks simultaneously!”You Can’t Multitask (so stop trying!)- by Paul Atchley
Atchley reports that neuroscientists at the University of California monitored interruptions among office workers and found that it took an average of fifteen minutes to recover from interruptions such as phone calls or answering e-mail and return to their original task.
It was also found that multitasking contributes to the release of stress hormones and adrenaline, which can cause long-term health problems if not controlled, and contributes to the loss of short-term memory.
Multitasking adversely affects how we learn
Research by Professor Russell Poldrack shows that people use different areas of the brain for learning and storing new information when they are distracted: brain scans of people who are distracted or multitasking show activity in the striatum, a region of the brain involved in learning new skills; brain scans of people who are not distracted show activity in the hippocampus, a region involved in storing and recalling information. So even if you do learn while multitasking, that learning is less flexible and less accessible afterwards.
So why do we try?
There are various reasons why multitasking is more and more widely assumed to be desirable. These include:
  • Increase in technology – remote distractions and modes of communication (email, texts, messaging, internet searches,  etc.)
  • We’re hard wired to respond to social messaging and expanding our awareness of the group(s) we relate to – so we unconsciously scan for information all the time
  • We crave information because it makes us feel more comfortable – multiple sources of confirmation increases our confidence in our choices
  • The illusion of achievement – the buzz of activity makes us feel productive and needed
What can you do to avoid overload?
  1. Consciously approach one task at a time and stick with it. If the task is too large, chunk it down into sub-tasks and aim to complete these one at a time
  2. Take regular short breaks – preferably in the outdoors as frequent exposure to nature is shown to enhance receptivity and even increase IQ
  3. Know when to close your door to avoid interruption and use this time to focus intently on the task in hand
  4. Be clear about what information is useful and be on guard against just seeking more and more confirmation of what you have already decided in order to make you feel good – rather, seek out information that challenges you and therefore helps you make better decisions
  5. Check email / voice messages at pre-determined times rather than being constantly interrupted by them throughout the day
There is time enough for everything in the course of the day, if you do but one thing at once, but there is not time enough in the year, if you will do two things at a time
Lord Chesterfield – advice to his son in 1740

 

This is another book summary from my friends at Coaching On Call

Start with Why – by Simon Sinek
All organisations and the individuals who work there function on three levels: What you do, How you do it and Why you do it. Everybody knows What they do. Many know How they do what they do – this may be their USP or value proposition. But, Sinek says, very few can articulate WHY they do what they do, or indeed even realise that ‘why’ exists.
Sinek argues that the superficial answer to ‘why’ – money – is not really a WHY: money is a result. By WHY, he means why does your organization exist? Why do you get out of bed every morning? And why should anyone care?

What’s different about how inspiring leaders and organisations communicate?
Sinek argues that there’s a naturally occurring pattern shared by the people and organizations that achieve the greatest consistent success – they all think and act and communicate in the same way; and it’s the complete opposite of what everyone else does.
Great leaders inspire people to take action. Those who inspire are not driven by WHAT they do or HOW they do it; they are driven by WHY they do it. They communicate from the inside out, starting with why (then how and what), rather than from the outside in, starting with what (then how), as most people and organisations do.

Great leaders inspire people to action
Great leaders never try to rationalise why you should or shouldn’t do something. They don’t start by telling you what to do. Great leaders all start with Why. They tell you what they believe, their purpose or their cause and then invite you to join them. We follow leaders and buy from companies that inspire us, not because we have to or because we are manipulated to do so, but because we choose to.

We follow those who inspire us— not for them, but for ourselves. And what great leaders do to inspire us is tell us why they do what they do— they always start with Why.

 

So how can you bring your Why to life?
Sinek identifies some key practical ways in which anybody can learn to start with Why:
  • Understand that there is a biological reason for the Why being so powerful -committed decision-making and inspiration to action is governed by the limbic brain, which controls emotion. In contrast, our response to the What is a function of the neo-cortex, or rational brain which is less potent in motivating us to action
  • Articulate your Why in terms of verbs rather than nouns – for example, when articulating values, instead of ‘integrity’ say ‘always doing the right thing’; instead of ‘innovation’ say ‘looking at the problem from a different angle’. As Sinek says, it’s hard to hold people accountable to abstract nouns!
  • Start with Why, but then be clear about the How and the What – no matter how visionary or brilliant, a great idea or product isn’t worth anything if nobody buys it. Inspire others to action by telling them why you do what you do, then align the Why with the How and the What, because, as Thomas Edison said, ‘Vision without execution is hallucination.’
  •  

“If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more or become more, then you are a leader.”
John Quincy Adams

My friends at Coaching on Call email out regular book summaries. They don’t have their own blog yet, so I thought I’d post a few on here.

Linchpin – Are You Indispensible? by Seth Godin
In this book Godin argues that now it’s more important than ever to become indispensible – to become a linchpin in your organisation. Linchpins are the essential building blocks that make an organisation successful. They are the ones who create the real difference, lead change and generally make things happen.
And it’s not about your job title – linchpins can show up anywhere within an organisation.

Linchpin versus cog
Godin’s premise is that today’s organisational structure is a throwback to the days of factories, with interchangeable parts and interchangeable workers. In this model, if you just do what you’re told then you’re effectively just another cog, indistinguishable from others. What Godin encourages you to ‘become indispensible’ instead, not through what you do so much as through the difference you make.
But how?

Elements of being a linchpin
  1. Make a choice – wake up and stop being a sheep!
  2. Do your work as a gift – not to please your boss but because it makes you happier. Godin calls this ‘art’, which in this context is an act of personal courage, something that one human does that creates change in another.
  3. You need to overcome the resistance of your reptilian brain – the part of you that wants to stay safe by conforming and avoiding anything that might make you stand out. The paradox is that the more you hide, the riskier it actually is.
  4. Complete tasks – a real linchpin doesn’t just have ideas or start projects, they also see them right through to the end and deliver on the details.
Wisdom and passion
Godin identifies two axes that show where the realm of the linchpin lies. The X axis goes from passive to passionate. The Y axis goes from attachment (being inflexibly dedicated to your own world view) to discernment or wisdom. The linchpin inhabits the top right segment of this model – where high passion is matched with high levels of wisdom.

Emotional labour

Seth Godin

Godin powerfully argues that the future of an organisation depends on motivated human beings selflessly contributing unasked-for gifts of emotional labour. By this he means doing the difficult work of bringing your best self to any interaction, even when it would be much easier just to avoid or placate or dissemble. Having the courage to decide to show up and make a difference is a massive differentiator between those who are cogs and those who are linchpins in any organisation.

“We all have ability. The difference is how we use it.
Stevie Wonder

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