I wrote this great book review and published on Critical Flame.
I am not sure how large is the readership on this book review. It won’t make much sense if you have not read the original novel, White Deer Plain. Since there is no English version of the novel, only those who can read in Chinese can possibly read this, which makes readership even smaller.
Another discouraging fact is in this age of mobile technology, people don’t have time for long novel like this. They don’t have time for even short essays like what I posted on LinkedIn. The age of no deep reading. It is what it is.
Some questions from Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates (designed for 文化村英文读书会 by 吕行)
1. Why do you think Coates decided to format the book as a letter to his son? Why is it effective? (Fun fact: the book wasn’t formatted this way until the book’s fourth draft!)
2. Coates praises Malcolm X for being “the first pragmatist I knew” (p. 36) and speaking like “a man who was free” (p. 36). Do you think Coates would describe his own writing in this book as such?
3. How does he differentiate between the racist individual and racism as an institution? Does he believe there is a difference? How does the moment in the movie theater with his son speak to both?
4. Who are the Dreamers? What does he mean when he says “The Dream is the enemy of all art?” (p. 50)
5. Coates claims that he has not spent his life studying the “problem of race” (p. 115) and yet many would argue that the problem of race is this book’s very focal point. Why is this an important contradiction?
6. What is “the black body?” (p. 35) Who are those who “believe they are white?” (p. 42)
7. What did Coates gain at Howard University that he feels other universities in America could not offer?
8. Describe why Coates felt more freedom as a foreigner in France than as an American. Why did he feel it was important to take his son to Paris?
9. How does he differentiate between the violence at home (in the form of corporal punishment) and the violence experienced by the black body outside of home?
I remember a colleague of mine told me she couldn’t remember what was about in a book that she has read. Now that I have read novels and non-fictions one after another, I want to make sure that I will take home at least one thing from each of the books that I have read. I just finished reading A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.
The story is pretty straightforward. As the title indicates, A Little Life, it is about one person’s little life — Jude, though the novel starts with the lives of four college kids.
JB — artist, gay man
Willem — actor, gay man
Jude St. Francis — lawyer, gay man
Malcolm — architect, non-gay, got married
In the end, only JB survives. Willem and Malcolm died in a car accident. The four men were friends and roommates in college and continued being friends throughout their lives.
More than anything else, the novel is about the long-time impact of the traumatic experience that Jude had during his childhood. He was a foundling in a bag by a dumpster, picked up, raised and abused by monks in a monastery. One man (Brother Luke, a pimp) took him out of the monastery when he was 8 years old and turned him into a male prostitute. He prostituted till he was 15 years old. He developed the habit of cutting himself during that period and continued throughout his life.
Jude wasn’t able to recover psychologically and emotionally from his childhood trauma throughout his life, even though he was smart, very handsome, worked very hard, became successful lawyer, loved by everybody who knew him. He committed suicide at age 53.
I think the author’s message is one’s children’s trauma is like a lifelong psychological wound that is hard to erase, that is continuing cutting a person, that it is crucial that parents provide children with a happy childhood so that they can grow into healthy adults.
Some people might think there are plenty of people who haven’t had healthy childhoods and not all end up killing themselves. I agree with this view. There are always something that we cannot control in our lives, especially in our childhood, but once we are strong enough to protect ourselves and wise enough to make sound decision, we can be and should be masters of our lives.
Then again, I think people are different. In some rare cases, some people simply can’t rise above life’s traumas and adversities. Since I don’t have that kind of extremely traumatic childhood, thank goodness, so I don’t know what I would do if I were in Jude’s shoes. That’s why I try not to judge too harshly.
Preconception can channel one’s expectations. It can also narrow one’s vision. This is how I experienced when I was reading Pat Conroy’s 2009 novel South of Broad.
Before opening South of Broad, I knew that Pat Conroy writes in the tradition of southern literature. Hence, I expected the Faulkner ingredients in Conroy’s book, unearthly death, suicide of the best and the smartest one, promiscuity, incest, mental illness, unspeakable deviance, and the hollow aristocratic pride and prejudice of a dying world with undying people. It turns out Conroy’s book has all of them and much more. Wasn’t I right!
“… a priest appears in the room with his arm around the throat of a struggling, naked boy. The boy is beautiful and blond; the priest is handsome, virile, and strong. The boy tries to scream, but the priest stops him with a hand around his mouth. The boy struggles, but he is overpowered and raped by the priest, and raped brutally,…”
That rape leads to Steve’s suicide. Leo King, the protagonist and Steve’s younger brother, and his family “suffered a collective nervous breakdown” after they buried the boy. Another person, Leo’s father, dearest to Leo, died when Leo was 18 years old.
The twin, Sheba and Trevor Poe, were sexually abused as children by their father who, “started out as a run-of-the-mill pedophile; …had a bad habit of eating his own feces.” In the end, this is what the father did to Sheba, “…unrecognizable if you didn’t know her, lies the hideous, mangled corpse of the radiantly beautiful American actress Sheba Poe. She has stab wounds all over, even to her face and both eyes…”
Leo married Starla Whitehead, who suffers “borderline personality disorder” and also commits suicide. At the end of the book, events happened to Leo and to his loved ones turn into a “galvanic nightmare,” so much as that Leo’s life falls apart. He caves in to the black hole of depression, becoming suicidal himself. He has to check into a psychiatric ward to regain his sanity.
This is how my preconception of southern literature leads me to read out of Conroy’s South of Broad novel and how I remember the book.
For the record, I picked up this book because a colleague of mine recommended the author. Of course, after my reading, I went back to my colleague with this question, “What is it that you like this author so much?” She mentioned the heart-warming friendship of the group of middle aged folks when they flew out to San Francisco to look for one of their high school buddies–Trevor.
This is how the story goes. About 20 years after their high school graduation, Sheba, now a famous movie actress came back to Charleston, asking her high school friends to help find her twin brother, Trevor, whom she believes is dying of AIDS. Leo, Frazer, Molly, Niles, Ike, Betty, together with Sheba all went with her to San Francisco. They were there for about two weeks before they located and brought back their friend.
I was not impressed by this part at first. I tried to disqualify this as being too far-fetched. Partly because I was expecting deviant elements to live up to my self-fulfilling prophecy in south literature; partly because I was truly not familiar with the close-knit, inter-related small town life like Charleston.
I was reminded that such friendship was possible in small towns where people grow up together, play in the same high school football team; go to the same local college, and back to work in the same town. In this book, they become further inter-related through marriage, Niles marries Frazer, Chad’s sister; Leo marries Starla, Niles’ sister. Molly becomes part of the clan through marriage with Chad. Sheba and Trevor are friends to all of them.
No doubt that I was initially restricted by my own preconceptions and experience. That is, I didn’t grow up in a small community like this. Still, I cannot tell if the novel is a fictional rendition of the author’s overall cheerful sentiment about human society or realistic depiction of a small southern town life.
It’s been a few weeks since I returned the book to our local library. The characters and the tragic events are still vivid in my mind. The paradox that challenged me has remained unresolved. I cannot shake off the irony posed in the book about traditional society. That is, a close-knit community that has retained many traditional values and features is supposed to reach out to everyone and provide more channels of social, emotional and psychological support than modern society does, be it in the form of church or family or friends, so that people would not resort to suicide.
The irony in the book is, in the end, none of them works for Leo King, just as none of them ever works for his brother Steve who succeeds in taking his own life. When all else fails and when Leo became “the most suicidal client who has ever walked into her (Dr.) office,” he has to be saved by modern medicine and was signed into the psychiatric ward of the Medical University Hospital of South Carolina, a modern and rather dehumanized institution to a traditional society.
When I discussed this paradox with my colleague, I was reminded of the fact that in many small communities like the one in the book, people are trapped in this façade of their moralistic upbringing. They are nice and polite to each other, but they choose not to share with each other their dirty linen. They are more concerned with preserving the surface of their little perfect life than being psychologically healthy. I must admit that I have tread into an area that I am not familiar with.
No doubt this is another thought-provoking novel that I have read this year.
“… as far as I [Theo] knew, the thought of selling the changelings [“cannibalized and heavily altered pieces”] for originals or indeed of selling them at all had never crossed Hobie’s mind; and his complete lack of interest in goings-on in the store gave me considerable freedom to set about the business of raising cash and taking care of bills. … I did not for one instant doubt Hobie’s astonishment if he learned I was selling his changelings for real.” p. 453, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.
You can’t help feel sympathetic toward Theo Decker, the protagonist of The Goldfinch. Death of his mother at age of 13, left with a father who is better dead than alive, becoming an orphan at age of 15, how unfortunate can one become?
You would expect Theo to be grateful when he appeared at Hobie’s door like a homeless boy and was accepted totally unconditionally by such a kind fatherly figure. You would expect him to be totally honest to such a man, at least not to cheat him by selling changelings for originals. Theo does it even though he knows it is wrong.
Why does he do it? I have tried to find excuses for his actions. None holds water, except the fact that he inherits this trait from his father who tries to swindle money from his own son.
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Isn’t this what the author implies?
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doer was the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. The 544 page story is set against World War II, from 1934 to the end of the war. It tells the tale of a 6-year-old blind French girl named Marie-Laure LeBlanc and an exceptionally smart 8-year-old German orphan called Werner Pfennig.
This book immediately brought to mind The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah, due to their similar historical backgrounds. Both are war memoirs. Both books end with the deaths of good people–Isabelle and her father in The Nightingale, Werner and Marie-Laure’s father in this book.
Between the two, I would have to say Kristin Hannah is the more skilled storyteller. All the Light We Cannot See is most markedly different from The Nightingale in its inclusion of the Sea of Flames, an intriguing myth.
Doer’s novel shifts back and forth from Marie-Laure to Werner, which disrupts the continuity in the separate story arcs.
There are many deeply touching events throughout the book. The one of the most unforgettable characters is Marie-Laure’s father.
Marie-Laure’s mother died at the childbirth. She lost her eyesight at age of 6. To make up for her loss of vision and help her gain independence, her father builds a model of the town, a miniature of the city, with properly scaled replicas of the hundreds of houses, shops and hotels, etc. He also builds a model of Saint-Malo after they moved there, with “the irregular polygon of the island framed by ramparts, each of its eight hundred and sixty-five buildings in place.” The tremendous amount of love and labor poured into this model is unbelievable.
The father took the 6-year-old Marie-Laure to his office everyday. One day, he said,
“Here, ma chérie, is the path we take every morning. Through the cedars up ahead is the Grand Gallery.”
“I know, Papa.”
He picks her up and spins her around three times. “Now,” he says, “you’re going to take us home.”
Her mouth drops open.
“I want you to think of the model [of the town], Marie.”
“But I can’t possibly!”
“I’m one step behind you. I won’t let anything happen. You have your cane. You know where you are.”
“I do not!”
Marie-Laure drops her cane; she begins to cry. Her father lifts her, holds her to his narrow chest.
“It’s so big,” she whispers.
“You can do this, Marie.”
But the father never gives up, insisting that she learn to navigate the town by touch and by memory. “…in the winter of her eighth year, to Marie-Laure’s surprise, she begins to get it right.” By studying the model of the city, she has found that everything “in the model has its counterpart in the real world.”
With the ceaseless support from her father, Marie-Laure, despite her disability, grows up to be an independent and highly accomplished scientist, with great courage and intelligence. I thought of many contemporary parents who spoil their healthy children by being lax in dispensing discipline, and realized what a gift her father gave her.
Another heartwarming passage is when Marie-Laure’s father departs for Paris, leaving her alone for the first time in her life. He promises to come back in 10 days, and “On the twentieth morning without any word from her father, Marie-Laure does not get out of bed… She becomes unreachable, sullen. She does not bathe, does not warm herself by the kitchen fire, ceases to ask if she can go outdoors. She hardly eats.” I found it difficult to hold back tears, understanding how bleak yet wanly hopeful she must have felt during those days without substantive news.
He says she is his “émerveillement”, and that he will never leave her, “not in a million years.” His father’s words come back to her. Yet, he does not come back from that separation, and has most probably died at a German concentration camp.
I would have expected Marie-Laure’s father to survive the war, but it would not be quite realistic because war means death, and death is indifferent to good and bad souls and the wishes of a little blind girl.
“The absurd does not liberate; it binds.” –Albert Camus. Indeed, it binds humans like fate dictates the trajectory of Theo Decker’s life. This is how Donna Tartt starts her novel The Goldfinch.
“…the line of beauty is the line of beauty. It doesn’t matter if it’s been through the Xerox machine a hundred times.” — Hobie
“…dreams and signs, past and future, luck and fate. There wasn’t a single meaning. There were many meanings. It was a riddle expanding out and out and out.”
“Bad artists copy, good artists steal.” – Hobie quotes Picasso’s word.
“I suppose it’s ignoble to spend your life caring so much for objects—. Caring too much for objects can destroy you… isn’t the whole point of things—beautiful things–that they connect you to some larger beauty?” — Hobie
I was tempted to call the novel a memoir of a mother or how a teenage boy grows up without his mother or “the nail where your fate is liable to catch and snag.” Isn’t it true that his mother, dead 14 years ago, comes alive through his memory? On the other hand, with plenty of serious talks from Boris and Hobie on art and life, doesn’t the author try to tell us that it is much more than a memoir or a coming-of-age story, a Bildungsroman?
The novel starts with Theo Decker, protagonist, trapped in an Amsterdam hotel, after killing two persons. It then quickly flashed back to the death of his mother 14 years ago, the milestone in his life. The Goldfinch, the 1654 Carel Fabritius’ masterpiece, is his possession now after he took it from the museum. For 14 years, he was burdened with the fear over The Goldfinch, fearing that he might get caught and be punished for keeping it.
Just as Theo was settling down at his friend Andy Barbour’s house and trying to recover from the trauma of losing his mother, his father suddenly shows up and takes him away from New York City to Las Vegas, with the intention of swindling him of the money his mother left for him. This triggers a real downward spiral in his life.
With the death of his father in two years, the 15-year-old Theo left Boris, his Vegas friend, went back to New York City, and started a new chapter in his life. At some point, while he is in the antique business with Hobie, Theo’s smartness got Hobie, a father-like figure in his life, “in a jam” when he sells sham antiques as real ones.
When Boris showed up in his life again 12 years later, Theo learned that the painting he has been keeping all these year is a mere copy.
Looking at the events that occurs to him and the people in his life, I am wondering about fate and random chance, wondering how Theo’s life would be if his mother had not died when he was 13 or if his alcoholic father had not snatched him away from Andy Barbour’s house or if his father had not died in two years or if he had not met Boris in Vegas or met Welty or Hobie in New York or if he had known the fact about The Goldfinch.
I can’t help marvel at the interplay of fate, chance, nature and nurture in a person’s life. His mother, Hobie, Boris, his father, Mrs. Barbour, Welty, The Goldfinch, each one of them has played an indispensable role in his life, making him what he is now.
Indeed, there is always something in life that we cannot choose, like our parents and people who cross our path. But there is something within our control, like taking drugs or becoming alcoholic or sell sham antiques, etc.
Goldfinch is a good book in the sense it lingers on in readers’ minds, posing questions, and making them think and wonder, like how much autonomy can we claim in becoming who we are, independent of influences from our parents, events happened to us and people in our lives, etc.?
On the other hand, it is better not to focus on the uncontrollable factors, critical though they are, in order to prevent oneself from falling into a mire of fatalistic thinking.
Main characters in the novel:
Theodore “Theo” Decker, 13-year-old
Welton “Welty” Blackwell, who gave Theo a ring at the museum
Andy Barbour, his school friend, Platt, Kitsey, and Toddy Barbour
James “Hobie” Hobart, Welty’s partner, Theo became Hobie’s antiques store partner
Pippa, a girl Theo is in love with
Larry Decker, Theo’s father
Xandra, Larry Decker’s girl friend
Boris, a cosmopolitan son of a Ukrainian émigré
Popper, Xandra’s neglected Maltese puppy
Lucius Reeve, one of the buyers at Hobie’s store
Tom Cable, Kitsey’s boy friend
“In love we find out who we want to be.
In war we find out who we are.” –The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah.
Although days have passed since I closed this book, I still can’t stop thinking about it.
It is a war time memoir of two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, about the events, love, hate, life and death, from 1939 to the end of World War II. The story is told through flashback in 1995, with Vianne reflecting upon those harrowing years living under Nazi occupation.
“In war we find out who we are.” Indeed, some French people became “collaborators”, helping Nazi to round up and deport Jewish people.
Both sisters had stood the ordeal of the war. They are vastly different in personality, yet both are brave in their own way and both have suffered excruciatingly gut-wrenching experiences at the hands of their Nazi occupants.
Isabelle, code named the Nightingale, chose the dangerous task of shepherding crashed Allied airmen across the Pyrenees Mountains to Spain, saving over 117 men. The seemingly weak Vianne risks her life to protect her own children and those of her Jewish neighbors.
The climax of Vianne’s greatest sacrifice comes when she allows herself to be raped by the hated German soldier who billets at her house in exchange for the promise that he would not harm her children.
On this, Isabelle said, “What I learned in the camps, …They couldn’t touch my heart. They couldn’t change who I was inside. My body, they broke that in the first days, but not my heart… Whatever he did, it was to your body, but your body will heal…”
The next great sacrifice comes when Julien, their father, learns that Isabelle was captured and tortured. The Nazis tried to make her reveal the identity of Nightingale. Julien turned himself in as Nightingale so that his daughter could be released. For this, he was summarily executed.
Many words rush to mind when I try to grasp the theme of this book — courage, strength, sacrifice, bravery, endurance, motherly love. But none of these words are powerful enough to describe these extraordinary, unforgettable people.
The novel “debuted at number one on the The New York Times Fiction Best Sellers of 2015 list (combined print and e-book) dated February 1, 2015, and remained in the top position for 13 consecutive weeks.”
The plot is rather straightforward, centered around three women and one man.
Tom, a charming liar;
Rachel, Tom’s ex-wife;
Anna, Tom’s ex-mistress and current wife;
Megan, Tom’s current mistress;
All three are Tom’s victims. Tom cheated on Rachel when he started having an affair with Anna. Tom cheated on Anna with Megan. Tom then murders Megan, who is pregnant with his baby. Rachel finds out and confronts Tom who attempts to also kill Rachel. The story ends with Rachel killing Tom in self-defense.
Rachel, the protagonist, seems the most unlikely heroine. When you first read the book, you can’t help lamenting the wretched life that she is leading–an alcoholic, unable to tell what’s real because of frequent blackouts, fat, lying, frazzled, unemployed. And because of these qualities, she is devoid of self-respect and self-value.
The cathartic part is in the end she finally sees through Tom’s manipulation and finds the strength at a critical moment to save herself. She also wins over and discovers a most unlikely ally in Anna. I think she turns out to be a true heroine when she brings justice for all three of them.
Gone Girl written by Gillian Flynn. I have finished reading this novel today. I must say it is a good book. It makes readers utterly sick while going through the story that is fully packed with lies and dishonesty, but the readers feel happy and satisfied in the end.
The husband cheats the wife when he has an affair with a 23-year-old girl. The wife feels the need to revenge by disappearing from her home and framing the husband as the murderer. In the end, the husband has his due share of punishment, the wife returns home triumphantly by killing another man and goes scot free.
The novel ends with a final unexpected stroke when the wife saves herself and secures the marriage by getting herself pregnant with the much wanted son through fertility clinic.
While the readers might not like either the husband or the wife, they cannot help admiring the wife for her ingenuity and resourcefulness in plotting out her revenge. And it does make readers feel great when the cheating husband suffers in the process.
The parts I don’t like in the wife is she doesn’t seem to have a life of her own. Her husband seems to be the center of her life, which makes her so vulnerable. It is like gambling, when she places her happiness and her life in one basket, her husband in her case, and when her husband cheats her, her whole life collaps. This should be a lesson for all women. Another thing about her is she is not nice to others sometimes, especially to her parents.
Another one, of course, for men is NEVER underestimate the brain power of women.
PS. Actually, the thing that was rather annoying at first is the language that is full of F word, too many of them at first. But the strange thing is by the end of the novel I kind of got used to seeing them, as if it were no big deal. I wish they were not that many in the book.
Where Good Ideas Come From, by Steven Johnson. I started reading this book on 12/15/2014, Monday morning.
“The argument of this book is that a series of shared properties and patterns recur again and again in unusually fertile environments. I have distilled them down into seven patterns, each one occupying a separate chapter. The more we embrace these patterns–in our private work habits and hobbies, ino ur office environments, in the design of new software tools–the better we will be at tapping our extraordinary capacity for innovative thinking”
“In the language of complexity theory, these patterns of innovation and creativity are fractal: they reappear in recognizable form as you zoom in and out, from molecule to neuron to pixel to sidewalk. Whether you are looking at the original innovations if carbib0based life, or the explosion of new software tools on the Web, the same shapes keep turning up. When life gets creative, it has a tendency to gravitate toward certain recurring patterns, whether those patterns are emergent and self-organizing, or whether they are deliberately crafted by human agents.”
The only reason to learn trigonometry is because it is a momentarily interesting question, one worth sorting out. But then we should move on, relentlessly seeking out new problems, one even more interesting thatn that one.
Leading is a skill, not a gift. You are not born with it, you learn how… leadership is now worth far more than compliance is.
The law of linchpin leverage:
The more value you create in your job, the fewer clock minutes of labor you actually spend creating that value. In other words, most of the time, you are not being brilliant. Most of the time, you do stuff that ordinary people could do.
A brilliant one is brilliant only in tiny bursts.
The art is created in a moment, not in tiny increments.
The craft of the painting, the craft of writing that email, the craft of building that PowerPoint presentation–those are the easy parts. It is the art and the insight and the bravery of value creation that are rewarded.
The Tedium, Pain, and Insecurity of Being Mediocre
It’s impossible to do the work at the same time you are in pain. The moment-to-moment insecurity of so many jobs robs you of the confidence you need to actually do the great work.
On top of this, if you do great work you gain the reward of knowing you are doing great work. Your day snaps into alignments with your dreams, and you no longer have to pretend you are mediocre. You are free to contribute.
Hire cheap labor drones that you can scale, replace, and disrespect.
Depth of Knowledge Alone is not Enough
Today, if all you have to offer is that you know a lot of reference book information, you lose, because the Internet knows more than you do.
Depth of knowledgment combined with good judgment is worth a lot. Depth of knowledgment combined with diagnostic skills or nuanced insight is worth a lot, too.
Emotional labor and making maps
Emotinal labor is work you do with your feelings, not your body.
Your job is a Platform
You get paid to go to work and do something of value. But your job is also a platform for generosity, for expression, for art.
Every interaction you have with a cowork or customer is an opportunity to practice the art of interaction. Every product you make represents an opportunity to design something that has never been designed, to create an interaction unlike any other.
Does school work?
Here’s what we are teaching kids to do:
User #2 pencils;
Take good notes;
Show up every day;
Cram for tests and don’t miss deadlines;
Have good handwriting;
Buy the things the other kids are buying;
Don’t ask questions;
Don’t challenge authority;
Do the minimum amount required so you will have time to work on another subject;
Get into college;
Have a good resume;
Don’t say anything that might embarrass you;
Be passably good at sports, or perhaps extremely good at being a quarterback;
Participate in a large number of extracurricular activities;
Be a generalist;
Try not to have the other kids talk about you;
Once you learn a topic, move on…
Now, the key questions:
(1) Which of these attributes are the keys to being indispensable?
(2) Are we building the sort of people our society needs?
The problem lies with the system that punishes artists and rewards bureaucrats instead.
“I am good at school” This is a fundamentally different statement from “I did well in school and therefore I will do a great job working for you.”
Being good at school is a fine skill if you intend to do school forever.
For the rest of us, being good at school is a little like being good at Frisbee. It’s n ice, but it’s not relevant unless your career involves homework assignment, looking through textbooks for answers that are already known to your supervisors,…
What they should teach in school
Only two things
(1) solve interesting problems
You Get What You Focus On
Keeping up with the Joneses is not a genetic predisposition. It is an invented need, and a recent one.
The school sign should say “We teach peole to take initiative and become remarkable artists, to question the status quo, and to interact with transparency. And our graduates understand that consumption is not the answer to social problems.”
The typical indoctrinated response is that great work and great art and remarkable output are the domain of someone else. You think that your job is to do the work that needs doing, anonymously.
It appears to me that the only way they differ from a mediocre rule-follower is that they never bought into thir self-limiting line of thought. That’s it.
Regardless, the distinction between cogs and linchpins is largely one of attitude, not learning.
Creativity is not choosing to wear a pink shirt to an office where only blue and white are standard. That’s merely window dressing.
Studies show us that things learned in frightening circumstances are sticky. We remember what we learn on the battlefield, or when we burn a finger on a hot tea kettle.
Teaching people to produce innovative work, off-the-chart insights, and yes, art is time-consuming and unpredictable.
The new American dream should be,
Make judgment calls
Connect people and ideas
“Not My Job”
Three words can kill an entire organization. As the world moves faster and engagements become more fluid, the category of “not my job” keeps getting bigger and bigger.
If you can be human at work (not a machine), you will discover a passion for work you didn’t know you had. When work becomes personal, your customers and coworkers are more connected and happier. And that creates even more value.
When you are not a cog in a machine, an easily replaceable commodity, you will get paid what you are worth. Which is more.
We have been trained to believe that mediocre is a genetic factor for most of the population, but it’s interesting to note that this trait doesn’t show up until a few years if schooling.
I define a factory as an organization that has figured out, a place where people go to do what they are told and earn a paycheck. Factories have been the backbone of our economy for more than a century, … That doesn’t mean you want to work in one.
You don’t become indispensable merely because you are different. But the only way to be indispensable is to be different. That’s becaue if you ae the same, so are plenty of other people.
The only way to get what you are worth is to stand out, to exert emotional labor, to be seen as indispensable, and to produce interactions that organizations and people care about.
We need you to stand up and be remarkable. Be human. Contribute. Interact. Take the risk that you might make someone upset with your initiative, innovation, and insight…
Will You Still Be Loved?
Who care. Either those people will come around or they never loved you in the first place, did they?
You can’t or you don’t want to? Very often, it is not that you cannot do, but you just don’t want to. That defines who you are.
It is possible that making this commitment is too scary or too much work. It’s possible that it appears too risky to put yourself on the line and make a commitment to becoming
indispensable. A commitment like this raises the bar, and for some people, that might be too high.
Today, the means of production = a laptop computer with Internet connectivity ….
This change is a fundamental shift in power and control. When you can master the communication, conceptual, and connectivity elements of the new work, then you have more power than management does. And if management attracts, motivates, and retains great talent, then it has more leverage than the competition.
It starts wtih bloggers, musicians, writers and others who don’t need anyone’s support or permission to do their thing.
Mediocrity and the Web
Hugh MacLeod: “The web has made kicking ass easier to achieve, and mediocrity harder to sustain. Mediocrity now howls in protest.”
Mediocre is merely a failed attempt to be really good.
The Hierarchy of Value
Lift ->Hunt ->Grow ->Produce ->Sell ->Connect ->Create/invent
Lots of people can lift. That’s not paying off anything.
There are always more people at the bottom of the stairs, doing hard work that is easy to learn. As you travel up the hierarchy, the work gets easier, the pay gets better, and the
number of people available to do the work gets smaller… Almost no one puts in the work to
create or invent.
The End of ABC and the Search for the Difference Maker
Thorton May correctly points out that we have reached the end of what he calls attendance-based compensation (ABC). There are fewer and fewer good jobs where you can get paid merely for showing up. Instead, successful organizations are paying for people who make a difference and are shedding everyone else.
Some jobs are likely to remain poorly paid, low in respect, and high in turnover. These are jobs where attendance (showing up) is all that really matters. Other jobs, the really good jobs, are going to be filled with indispensable people, people who make a difference by doing work that is really hard to find from anyone else.
Owning the Means of Production
When labor is dependent on management for the factory and the machines and the systems they use to do their work, the relationship is fraught with issues over power and control.
The factor needs labor, sure, but labor really needs the factory. It is always easier for management to replace labor than it was for labor to find a new factory.
[NOTE: this is so true. It seems labor needs factory much more than vice versa.]
The system we grew up with is based on a simple formula: Do your job. Show up. Work hard. Listen to the boss. Stick it out. Be part of the system. You will be rewarded.
That’s the scam. Strong words, but true. You have been scammed. You traded years of your life to be part of a giant con in which you are most definitely not the winner.
Having a factory job is not a natural state. It wasn’t at the heart of being a human until recently. We have been culturally brainwashed to believe that accepting the hierarchy and lack of responsibility that come with a factory job is the one way, and the best way.
Art and Initiative and Who’s an Artist Now?
Now, success means being an artist.
In fact, history is now being written by the artists while the factory workers struggle.
It’s factory work because it’s planned, controlled, and measured.
(You Are What You Do)
For our entire lives, the push has been to produce, to confirm, and to consume.
If the factories are our minds–if the thing the market values is insight or creativity or
engagement–then capital isn’t nearly the factor it used to be. There is a third layer to the
economy now–call them the linchpins.
(Karl Marx and Adam Smith Agreed)
The PERL (Percentage of Easily Replaced Laborers)
The Rule of Ordinary People
A popular book by Michael Gerber The E-Myth Revisited says the perfect business model:
“The Model Will Be Operated by People with the Lowest Possible Levels of Skill. Yes, I said lowest possible level of skill. Because if your model depends on highly skilled people, it is going to be impossible to replicate. Such people are at a premium in the marketplace. They are also expensive, thus raising the price you will have to charge for your product.
The business model should be such that the employees needed possess the lowest possible level of skill necessary to fulfill the functions for which each is intended.”
His point was that you want a cookie-cutter business that you can scale fast, without regard for finding, nurturing, and retaining linchpin talent.
We continue to operate as if that system is still here, but every day we do that is a day wasted, dollars lost, an opportunity squandered.
What factory owners want is complaint, low-paid, replaceable cogs to run their efficient machine.
We need original thinkers, provocateurs, and people who care.
Artists are people with a genius for finding a new answer, a new connection, a new way of getting things done.
Outsourcing and automation and the new marketing punish anyone who is merely good, merely obedient, and merely reliable.
The cause of the suffering is the desire of organizations to turn employees into replaceable cogs in a vast machine. The easier people are to replace, the less they need to be paid.
“Thank you for protecting us from our fear”
But I don’t believe that this was enough to explain the massive embrace of a different way of life. The key piece of leverage was this promise: follow these instructions and you don’t have to think. Do your job and you don’t have to be responsible for decisions.
In every corporation in every country in the world, people are waiting to be told what to do.
Like scared civilians eager to do whatever a despot tells them, we give up our freedom and responsibilities in exchange for the certainty that comes from being told what to do.
A genius looks at something that others are stuck on and gets the world unstuck.
This choice doesn’t require you to quit your job, though it challenges you to rethink how to do your job.
It’s time to stop complying with the system and draw your own map.
Stop settling for what’s good enough and start creating art that matters. Stop asking what is in it for you and start giving gifts that change people.
Not by doing something that is easy or that you have been trained to do, but by understanding how the rules of our world have fundamentally changed and by taking advantage of this moment to become someone the world believes is indispensable.
The take-care-of-you bargain — not working now
An opportunity to actually enjoy what you do, to make a difference to your colleagues and your customers, and to unlock the genius you have been hiding all these years.
It is futile to work hard at restoring the take-care-of-yourself bargain. the bargain is gone, and it’s not worth whining about and it’s not effective to complain.
The average comes from a little voice inside of their head that is angry and afraid. That voice is the resistance–your lizard brain–and it wants you to be average (and safe).
Every day, if you focus on the gifits, art, and connections that characterize the linchpin, you will become a little more indispensable.
The problem is that the bureaucrats, note takes, literalists, manual readers, TGIF laborers, map followers, and fearful employees are in pain. They are in pain because they are overlooked, underpaid, laid off, and stressed out.
“Making the choice
If value is created by what you choose to do (as opposed to what you were born with), then the essence of becoming a linchpin is s choice. Deciding to overcome the anxiety (false fear) associated with leading and connecting is the choice that few are willing to make.
The culture of connection
Linchpins don’t work in a vacuum. Your personality and attitude are more important than the actual work product you create, because indispensable work is work that is connected to others.
The seven abilities of the linchpin
What does it take to be indispensable, the person they can’t live without?
When it doesn’t work
There are no guarantee that the marketplace (commerce) will embrace your ideas (art). And when the connection isn’t made, blind persistence isn’t always the best approach.
Today is a turning point, a once-in-lifetime moment in time when you get to make a choice.
Every day, people like you are choosing to go down a less well-defined path, one in which they make choices and make a difference. It turns out that not only does this fulfill our potential as workers and citizens, it is also precisely what the marketplace demands. Instead of focusing on complying with management as a long-term strategy for getting mroe stuff and being more secure, we have a chance to describe a powerful vision for our future and to actually make it happen. This new dream isn’t about obedience, it’s about vision and engagement.”
Continue from Godin’s book
“Is it possible to do hard work in a cubicle?
To become indispensable involves doing difficult work. Labor in the best of the word. The act of bringing your whole self to work, of engaging in tasks that require maturity and soul and personal strength, and givers of gifts. They bring humanity to the work, they don’t leave it at home. The hard work isn’t lifting or shoving or sharpening. The hard work is being brave enough to make a difference.
So, why is this so hard? It turns out that it’s biological. It turns out that it is biological. Deep within your brain lies the amygdala, the lizard brain. It sets out to sabotage anything that feels threatening, risky, or geneous. Until you name, recognize, and deal with the resistance, you will stay frustrated.
The powerful culture of gifts
Art is a gift. A real gift, not part of a deal, not a transaction entered into with reciprocity in mind. The culture of gifts has a long history on this planet, and understanding how it brings people together is a critical step in becoming indispensable.
There is no map
Indispensable linchpins are not waiting for instructions, but instead, figuring out what to do next. If you have a job where someone tells you what to do next, you have just given up the chance to create value.”
Seth Godin is my favorite author. I read a couple of his books. I read this one last year — Linchin: Are you indispensable? I took some notes while reading it. Below are the reading notes.
“Thinking about your choice
And it is a choice. A choice to buy into the fear and the system or to chart your own path and create value as you do. It is your job to figure out how to chart the path, because charting the path is the point.
Indoctrination: How we got here
The scam is that just about everything you were taught in school and by the media was an invented myth, a fable designed to prep you to be a compliant worker in the local factory.
School exists for a reason, but that reason might not be what you think it is.
Become the Linchpin
The linchpin is an individual who can walk into chaos and create order, some who can invent, connect, create, and make things happens. Every worthwhile institution has indispensable people who make differences like these.”
Here are the four energy needs that we all need to meet in order to perform at our best: physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual. The important point to remember about the need and productivity is “only when employers encourage and support us in meeting these needs that we can cultivate the energy, engagement, focus, creativity, and passion that fuel great performance.” p. 9.
Nice thought, though I believe the author has moved into an ideal world or thinks in a too simplistic manner. I cannot see how an employer encourages and supports the employees in meeting their needs. Very often employers have their own agenda, and encouraging and supporting employees are seldom part of their agenda.
Continued from previous posting.
Another interesting point about the three violinists is, on the average, those in the top two groups slept 8.6 hours a day, while the bottom group slept an average of 7.8 hours.
Anders Ericsson’s study suggests that higher performers work more intensely and recover more deeply than low performers. The high performers generate the highest value by working intensely, without interruption, for no more than 90 minutes at a time and no more than 4 hours a day.
Ericsson believes 4 hours a day might represent “a more general limit on the maximal amount of deliberate practice that can be sustained over extended time without exhaustion.”
That is to say, we actually only need to work for 4 hours a day instead of 8 as we do today. Beyond 4 hours, we are only dragging our feet around waiting for the time to go home, without being productive at all.
I must say there is something true in this statement.
Continued from previous posting.
The high performers not only work with high concentration and take intermittent break, they also do the hard thing first. No procratination.
The author cites the 1993 study done by Anders Ericsson. The study involves 30 violinists around the age of 8. They were divided into three groups based on ratings from their professors. The study required them to keep a diary of all their activities. All of them agreed that “practice alone” had the biggest impact on improving their performance.
Here’s the interesting part: nearly all of them agreed that practice was the most difficult activity in their lives and least enjoyable. But what made the top two groups different from the bottom one was the top ones “practiced an average of 3.5 hours a day, typically did so in three separate sessions of no more than 90 minutes each, mostly in the mornings, when they were presumably most rested and least distracted. They took renewal breaks between each session.”
The bottom group practiced an average of 1.4 hours a day, with no fixed schedule, but often in the afternoon, which suggested that they were procrastinating and avoid doing the “least enjoyable.”
It seems low performers not only work less but also are likely to be procrastinators.
Continued from previous posting.
We don’t actually produce more values by working longer hours. In other word, the best way of being productive and getting more done is not to work longer and more continuously.
Here’s what the author explains, “the more hours we work and the longer we go without real renewal, the more we begin to default, reflexively, into behavior that reduce our own effectiveness–impatience, frustration, distraction, and disengagement–and take a pernicious toll…”
Because, as many studies suggest, “we’re most productive when we move between periods of high focus and intermittent rest.” Without this intermittent break, we “live in a gray zone, constantly juggling activities but rarely fully engaged in any of them–or fully disengaged from any of them.”
Continued from previous posting.
Here’s the paradox of this confusing culture of demanding more and more and resulting in less and less. According to the author, “The ethic of more, bigger, faster generates value that is narrow, shallow, and short term. More and more, paradoxically, leads to less and less.” p. 4
As we try to meet the outside demand for more and more, we exert ourselves to the maximum, give away our time and life to the fullest, run fastest, thus leaving ourselves less and less time to breath, to reflect the meaning of our experience, to feel and think like human beings.
In our attempt to make ourselves richer externally and materially, we empty ourselves spiritually and become shallow living organisms.
Indeed, it is time to slow down, pause, think, reflect and live like a human.
On 4/27, the day my daughter came back from Minneapolis with her school, I started reading this book by Tony Schwartz: The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working: The Four Forgotten Needs That Energize Great Performance, published in 2010.
The book touches many problems that we are so familiar with today, like workplace growing bigger and faster, like people putting in more and more time into their work but feeling like getting less and less done, like transaction speed increasing exponentially, like rappers bubbling faster and faster, like more emails to answer, like more customers to serve, like more places to go, more meetings to attend, more tasks crying for your attention, yet less time for any of them…
The consequences of this “furious activity” is it exacts a series of silent costs: less capacity for focused attention, less time for any given task, and less opportunity to think reflectively and long term.”
Sounds like we become more like machines and less human in the way we live.
Which is better, positive or negative?
I have tried to find out how the authors determine positive and negative. Or what do they mean by positive and negative? Which one is better? No, the authors do not answer these question directly. They make no value judgment as to which is better.
But, from the way they are presented here, all positive instincts — Action, Fight, Acquisition, Association, Mating, Parental care are better than negative ones — Flight, Avoidance, Privacy, Refusal, Filial dependence, if you look at the pairs in terms of survival of the fittest.
Furthermore, all habits associated with positive instincts seem better than those associated with negative one.
My understanding is, those who possess predominantly positive instincts are in better position to compete and survive in the world.
What about the ordinary people? If the heroes are innovative as it is shown in the table, its opposite is imitation.
That is, according to the authors, “As submissive natures unite with masterful individuals (heroes) to make the order and operation of a society, so the imitative majority (the ordinary folks) follows the innovating minority, and this follows the originative individual.”
I would say the minority people who can truly change the course of history are not necessarily innovating. Sometimes, it is simply because they are powerful or they have money power.
What is history in a large picture? It is “the conflict of minorities; the majority applauds the victor and supplies material of social experiment.”
Wow! It is so true when we look at the wars today. The minority like Bush and his gangs wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein, whatever excuses they gathered. Who supplied human materials? The vast majority of ordinary people!
Don’t societies and civilizations make progress throughout history? What about social evolution? It is, according to the author, “an interplay of custom with origination” of extraordinary persons.
The authors call these persons “initiative individual –the ‘great man,’ the ‘hero,’ the ‘genius’ –regains his place as a formative force in history. He is not quite the god …; he grows out of his time and land, and is the product and symbol of events as well as agent and voice; without some situation requiring a new response his new idas would be untimely and impractical.”
Next, the authors give examples like Churchill, Napoleon, Marx, Lenin and Mao Tsedong.
The situation demands someone to jump out and lead. The higher the crisis, the higher is the hero’s place. The hero might remain normal and unknown if not for the special occasion or events.
“Events take place through him as well as around him; his ideas and decisions enter vitally into the course of history.”
So wonderfully said!
On instincts, habits, feelings and human nature: different habits and feelings grow out of different instinct. “Their totality is the nature of man.”
According to the authors, “known history shows little alteration in the conduct of mankind.” That is, we behave pretty much the same as our ancestors four thousand years ago. Even though the means and instruments have changed, the motives and ends remain the same throughout human history.
There are always these six pair of instincts: to act or rest; to acquire or give; to fight or flight; to associate or privacy; to mate or reject; to offer or resent parental care. You find these instincts among human beings, regardless of culture and social class. As long as you are human beings, you exhibit these instincts.
Evolution in man has been social rather than biological. “It has proceeded not by heritable variations in the species, but mostly by economic, political, intellectual, and moral innovation transmitted to individuals and generations by imitation, custom, or education.”
In case you want to keep a copy of the Table of Character Elements, so nicely arranged by the author, I have the screenshot of that below. You can see clearly the six pairs of instincts with their associated habits and feelings.
Table of Character Elements
For each of the positive instincts, there is a negative one. Associated with the positive and negative instincts are positive and negative habits and feelings.
6. Parental care
6. Filial dependence
Habits associated with positive instincts:
On Action: Play, Work, Curiosity, Manipulation, Thought, Innovation, Art
On Fight: Approach, Competition, Pugnacity, Mastery,
On Acquisition: Eating, Hoarding, Property
On Association: Communication, Seeking approval, Generosity
On Mating: Sexual activity, Courtship
On Parental Care: Homemaking
Habits associated with negative instincts:
On Sleep: Rest, Sloth, Indifference, Hesitation, Dreaming, Imitation, Disorder
On Flight: Retreat, Cooperation, Timidity, Submission
On Avoidance: Rejection, Spending, Poverty,
On Privacy: Solitude, Fearing disapproval, Selfishness
On Refusal: Sexual perversion, blushing
On Filial dependence: Filial rebellion
Feelings associated with positive instincts
On Action: Buoyancy, Energy, Eagerness, Wonder, Absorption, Resolution, Aesthetic feeling
On Fight: Courage, Rivalry, Anger, Pride
On Acquisition: Hunger, Greed, Possessiveness
On Association: sociability, vanity, kindliness
On Mating: Sexual imagination, sexual love
On Parental Care: parental love
Feelings associated with negative instincts
On Sleep: fatigue, inertia, boredom, doubt, vacuity, acceptance, confusion
On Flight: anxiety, friendliness, fear, humility
On Avoidance: disgust, prodigality, insecurity
On Privacy: secretiveness, shyness, hostility
On Refusal: Sexual neurosis, modesty
On Filial dependence: filial resentment
One of my favorite books is The Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant. I have read it more than once. Not because I have a bad memory, like I’ll forget it all once I close the book, but because good books always worth re-reading. I will post my notes from the book here.
On Chapter V, Character and History, the authors start “Society is founded not on the ideals but on the nature of man, and the constitution of man rewrites the constitutions of states.” Talk about biological basis of society! Very interesting!
The authors define human nature as “the fundamental tendencies and feelings of mankind.” They call instincts “most basic tendencies.” They believe “human beings are normally equipped by ‘nature’ (here meaning heredity) with six positive and six negative instincts, whose function it is to preserve the individual, the family, the group, or the species” In other words, people are born with these instincts.
The interesting part is the author’s description of human nature through their “Table of Character Elements” with 6 positive and 6 negative instincts.
To be continued tomorrow…