Matchless, the stars took fire

When I was a kid, on the Sunday before a Monday holiday, my dad would wake us kids up just before midnight. He’d settle us on the couch with popcorn and pizza rolls. And then we’d all watch one of the old movie adventure serials on the local UHF channel that they would play at midnight. I remember Superman and the Mole Men (with a sneak preview of the “new” Superman movie). But most of all, I remember Flash Gordon.

I love Flash Gordon. Even the terrible 1980s movie (which came out when I was too young to appreciate the camp, so all I saw was high adventure). I have an edition of the original newspaper serials printed in full newspaper size–too big to fit on any shelf and big enough to really show off Alex Raymond’s gorgeous art. I know that any self-respecting reader would criticize the colonialism, the racism, and the sexism that thread through the story and can tear the story to shreds.

I don’t care.

To me, Flash Gordon will always stand for the facing the unknown with courage, prowess, loyalty, and the willingness to find allies and even friends in people who seem to be your enemies. It will also remind me of family, warmth, and comfort.

But if you want to read the same sort of concept re-done with a deep awareness of the massive social changes between then and now, I highly recommend Max Gladstone’s The Empress of Forever. It is one of the best over-the-top science fiction adventures I’ve read in years. Imagine Flash Gordon as an Asian, lesbian Elon Musk-like entrepreneur who recruits the Guardians of the Galaxy to stop an evil empress who threatens to crush all life on earth in the service of preventing what she believes to be a greater evil.

And if that doesn’t grab you, it has outrageously well-written descriptions like:

So, matchless, the stars took fire: a galaxy more like a disc than a hoarfrost road. Those brilliant golden and rainbow rings gave depth and dimension to the warm, full black.

And a main character, Viv, who makes internal asides about agile sprints and figures out how to lead her team of misfits in terms of real-world management advice:

She didn’t know this place, but she knew how to manage a team. You could not keep your colleagues in the dark and expect them to help to the best of their ability. Especially when you lacked relevant technical expertise.

And tells the story of her growth and transformation through emotionally-evocative phrases like:

She’d once seen a huge ice shelf calve from a glacier, then turn over in the water, at first a slight slope in the glacier’s plane, then steeper, steeper, then with a rush of frozen spray that made rainbows in the knife-dry air, with a surge of mighty shoulders, the complications underwater revealed themselves, and what had been visible faded below the waves. This felt like that.

In the end, it is a story about friendship, the self, and our relationship to the world that very deliberately echoes a lot of the Zen Buddhist sentiments I’ve shared in other posts. But throughout, it’s a rousing space adventure with a new surprise, a new twist, and a spectacular new image around every corner.

The quality of everything that follows

As a long-time manager, I still feel like there’s so much I can learn and, more importantly, share with the new managers that I work with. In my reading journey, I’ve settled on a current trifecta of management books that I share based on the experience of the manager that I’m working with:

Making of a Manager by Julie Zhuo

Best bet for new managers. While there are definitely a few good tips for more experienced managers, Zhuo does the best job I’ve seen in a while of walking through what it’s like to be a new manager. She acknowledges the challenges without talking down to her readers and provides a steady stream of pragmatic suggestions. She’s also got a section on what to do when your team grows and you suddenly find yourself a manager of managers–something that happens frequently to people where I currently work but that few places address. You can get some of that advice in this article she published in Harvard Business Review.

Radical Candor by Kim Scott

Well known and with a new edition coming soon, Radical Candor is what I share with people who have managed a little and are looking to raise their game. I appreciate Scott’s focus on the human side of management (the tag-line is “Being a kick-ass boss without losing your humanity”). Some of the structure she puts in place for providing radically candid feedback can feel a bit forced, but the core message is important

Your ability to build trusting, human connections with the people who report directly to you will determine the quality of everything that follows.

Another principle that resonated me is making sure to stay connected with what your team is doing on a very practical level.

The responsibilities you have as a boss take up a tremendous amount of time. One of the hardest things about being a boss is balancing these responsibilities with the work you need to do personally in your area of expertise … Keep the “dirt under your fingernails” … If you get too far away from the work your team is doing, you won’t understand their ideas well enough to help them clarify, to participate in debates, to know which decisions to push them to make, to teach them to be more persuasive

I’ve found that team members appreciate that I try to stay current on the work they do. And for the more technical folks who work for me, I ask plenty of questions to understand what they’re doing, but I’m also very honest when the conversation has moved beyond my ability to actively contribute. I don’t want them wasting time teaching me details I don’t need to know, when I can help them through framing the larger conversation and issues and let them–the experts–work out the details.

Multipliers by Liz Wiseman

One of my all-time favorites. Multipliers is the one I share with my more senior managers, the ones who are managing managers or teams of experienced professionals. It’s thoroughly researched and eminently practical. Wiseman focuses on taking your management game–and your team–to the next level. Every time I pick it up, I’m reminded of concrete actions I can take to build a better team.

Between the three of these, I have something for every type of manager. And paging through them, I can usually find something I need to remember for myself.

Just enough clouds to be slightly disappointed

I’d like to talk more about Mark Manson’s Everything is F*cked (there’s a lot in here, so I’ll probably come back again). The penultimate chapters of the book finally cover the subject of the title–with so much going for us, why are we unhappy?

Manson talks about several experiments (one with colored dots, one with faces) where people’s perceptions shift to ensure that they see an expected ratio of items. For example, if you are shown 70% blue dots and 30% purple dots for a while and then they switch to 60% blue/40% purple, your brain tricks you into thinking some of the purple dots are blue to get you closer to 70/30.

Similarly, a study was done where people rated their happiness** that showed that we pretty consistently rate our happiness level as 7 out of 10. Something good will push us up, something bad push us down, but generally we level back out at 7 out of 10. Manson suggests that

…this constant “seven” that we’re always coming back to plays a little trick on us, a trick that we fall for over and over again. The trick is that our brain tells us, “You know, if I could just have a little bit more, I’d finally get to ten and stay there.” Most of us live much of our lives this way, constantly chasing our imagined ten.

This is the #firstworldproblems problem at it’s finest (and the mid-life crisis as well to some degree, but more about that in another post). We can have all the good things in life–success at work, family, leisure, shows to binge, but we’re always going to feel dissatisfied. Or as Manson puts it:

Pain is the universal constant of life. And human perception and expectations warp themselves to fit a predetermined amount of pain. In other words, no matter how sunny our skies get, our mind will always imagine just enough clouds to be slightly disappointed.

Manson argues further that:

The pursuit of happiness is a toxic value that has long defined our culture. It is self-defeating and misleading. Living well does not mean avoiding suffering; it means suffering for the right reasons. Because if we’re going to be forced to suffer by simply existing, we might as well learn how to suffer well.

I’m not sure if I buy this extreme (toxic is a strong word, but then Manson’s writing style leans toward hyperbole). I think we should work to alleviate suffering. But what I do take away from this is that our own minds are responsible for a certain amount of suffering, and that there is value to figuring out how to (1) manage our minds and (2) determine if what we are suffering is above or below the metaphorical 3 points. If it’s above, then it’s time to make a change. If it’s below, we should think carefully before changing our circumstances and maybe consider changing our approach.

I’ve read some recent critics of the culture of meditation that say it encourages people to put up with situations they could otherwise change, that it is basically another opiate for the masses. While there may be some truth to that, I would argue that meditation techniques can help us manage our happiness by quieting the jabbering monkey brain and helping us discern if our discontent is within the 30%, where we should manage our interior lives, or the 40% plus that says it’s time to make a change

** Manson cites Brickman and Campbell in their 1971 essay “Hedonic Relativism and Planning the Good Society.”

Happy Birthday, Batman!

I have been a Batman fan for as long as I can remember. There’s a picture of me at about 2 years old, in bed, asleep, with a Batman alphabet book covering my face.

So when we recently turned part of the unfinished basement into a small office for me, my wife surprised me with the Lego 1960s Batman set as a “bat cave for my man cave.”

The kids and I worked together to built it and I set it up on the bookshelves along the back wall of the office.

As campy and silly as the old show was, for 6-year-old Bill, it was the real deal, and I still have a tremendous fondness for Adam West and for the fabulous 1960s art design of the show.

So in honor of Batman’s 80th birthday, here are some pics from my basement office. Enjoy!

Whom you know and how you work with them

I recently started working my way through a list of top titles on networking that included Superconnector by Scott Gerber and Ryan Paugh and Never Eat Alone by Keith Ferrazzi (with Tahl Raz).

I read them in the wrong order.

Never Eat Alone, which I read second, is the earlier work. Ferrazzi’s core tenet (that he backs up with some research) is that

…success is not contingent on cool technology or venture capital; it’s dependent on whom you know and how you work with them.

Based on that premise, he fills the book with useful guidance on building that network, ranging from the philosophical to the practical.

Ferrazzi’s preaches that relationships should be based on generosity, without thought for reward or tit-for-tat logic (echoing Mark Manson’s discussion of adult values in Everything is F*cked). He provides practical guidance on the best way to follow-up after meeting someone knew (quickly, referencing a shared insight or joke, with a plan to meet again).

Perhaps the most practical idea Ferrazzi shares is the idea of creating a three year plan for your goals that includes not just the actions you’ll take, but the people you know or want or need to meet (whether by name or role) who can help you achieve that goal. For someone like me, to whom networking doesn’t come naturally but hard work does, it’s a good reminder to include people and connections in your plans.

Later in the book, Ferrazzi gets deeper into the connector “lifestyle”, a sort of always on, always engaged way of operating that blends your work and personal life into an endless stream meeting people, making connections, and putting people together that he clearly finds very satisfying but as a sociable introvert sounds like way too much work (and way to few boundaries) for me. But I’m glad he enjoys it.

Which leads me to Superconnectors. Building on Ferrazzi’s work, Gerber and Paugh talk about how to become a Superconnector, someone who knows everyone and lives that life of constant interconnectedness that Ferrazzi describes. It’s a decent follow-up, embroidering on and expanding on ideas Ferrazzi moves quickly through, although the life it describes is definitely not for me.

But if Never Eat Alone gets you energized, then it’s probably worth a read.

Never merely as a means

I’ve seen but haven’t read Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck mostly because I’ve read enough self-help that I figured I didn’t need another. His recent book, Everything is F*cked, sounded more interesting because it claimed to look at the larger situation and how we can have everything we have and still be unhappy.

While Manson comes across as a sort of foul-mouthed stand-up act, the footnotes and general coherence suggests that the f*cked part of the book’s tone is all a bit of a nudge-and-wink joke. There’s actually quite a bit going on here, and so I’ll probably make several posts on this book.

Manson loves Immanuel Kant, which was a nice trip down memory lane for me. My freshman college philosophy professor taught a survey of philosophy course that was basically one long argument that Kant was the end-all, be-all of philosophy, and Manson takes the same position. At the core of Kant’s philosophy is his Formula of Humanity:

The Formula of Humanity states, “Act that you use humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, always at the same time as an end, never merely as a means.”

I remember being very impressed with this in college and am even more impressed with it now. As I think about what this means at work, it refocuses me on how I should be managing my team. I should not focus as a manager on what my team can do for me or even for our mutual employer, but on what I can do for them, how I can help them be successful in their work, coach them in their careers, support them in their personal lives and goals.

Equally, when I interact with our clients (external or internal), my goal should be to help them succeed. This formula works for my internal clients (the parts of the business I support). In all honesty, it generates some tension with external clients or customers. Yes the best companies treat their customers as ends, knowing that doing so will lead to a successful business model. But if we’re all honest with ourselves, that’s a bit of a whitewash (especially in publicly-traded companies). The goal is still to make money off the customer, and preferably more money than in the past or more money than the other team does. Still, I would suggest that a company can measure it’s level of ethics by the degree to which it can maintain the fiction that it is first helping its customers and the only second profiting from them.

The other thing I like about Manson’s interpretation of Kant, is that he tells you how to apply it to yourself:

When we pursue a life full of pleasure and simple satisfaction, we are treating ourselves as a means to our pleasurable ends. Therefore, self-improvement is not the cultivation of greater happiness but, rather, a cultivation of greater self-respect. Telling ourselves that we are worthless and shitty is just as wrong as telling others that they are worthless and shitty. Lying to ourselves is just as unethical as lying to others. Harming ourselves is just as repugnant as harming others. Self-love and self-care are therefore not something you learn about or practice. They are something you are ethically called to cultivate within yourself, even if they are all that you have left.

This is a powerful reminder that self-improvement and, even more importantly, self-awareness are ethical imperatives. Not just nice to haves, but necessities to be a fully-functioning, ethical human being.

And who wouldn’t want to be one of those.

But I keep trying…

In The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins, one of the characters becomes aware of Buddhist philosophy during the course of the novel. At one point, he has the following exchange:

“The Buddha teaches respect for all life.”

“Oh.” She considered this. “Are you a Buddhist?”

“No. I’m an asshole. But I keep trying.”

His response resonated deeply with me. I work hard to be a good manager, a good parent, and a good person. Rarely do I live up to my own expectations. But then, why would I? I’m just another chemically-deterministic meat puppet with so much of my neurological wiring set in place before I was even aware of myself. Or put more philosophically, I’m just another fragile human overwhelmed by the world and my own desires. Or psychologically, I’m just another ego driven by an id that I can’t see or control. Whatever lens you take, anything I do to better myself is pushing a giant boulder up a hill and even the smallest change is worthy of applause.

However, that knowledge doesn’t stop me from want to change. My plan for my reboot of this blog is to be a place for me to record my thoughts about books and articles that I read and how they can help me keep trying. If by chance, those thoughts or links help anyone else, then all the better.

Because the best thing we can do is to help each other to keep trying.

What seems insane to one generation

That Aziz Ansari wrote a book is no surprise.  The comedian is at that stage of his career where a book is almost required. That he wrote about contemporary romance is also no great shock as his current series is about life and relationships. What is unique is how he went about doing it.

Instead of simply sharing his own romantic misadventures as most comedians would have, he partnered with a sociologist to conduct a thoughtful, in-depth study of the evolution of romance and relationships in the 20th century and the changes and challenges unique to the current age. The result, Modern Romance, is a fascinating blend of humor and science, with Ansari’s wit serving as a vehicle to deliver factual information.

Admittedly, dating and relationships aren’t front-and-center in my life–having been blissfully married for some time now–but I did, in fact, meet my wife via an online dating site, a fact made more interesting because…

between 2005 and 2012 more than one third of couples who got married in the United States met through an online dating site.

We fall neatly into that bucket, so the validation that we are painfully normal in that respect was nice to hear. Less nice to hear were Ansari’s comments directed at people like me:

Okay, why are you even reading this book about relationships? So you can see what mistakes sad, lonely people are making to cause them to have so much shittier lives than you?

Point taken, but I have a number of friends on the dating scene now, and I found this window into their challenges fascinating.

Ansari provides a cogent analysis of how expectations have changed from generation to generation, driven largely by the shift of women into the workforce, but especially eye-opening are the sections on how recent technology shapes relationships–things like texting, Tinder, and sexting that didn’t exist in any meaningful way even ten years ago (when I started my own journey into online dating) and are now seen as integral components of romantic life.

He made me realize that my attitude towards these things have been shaped more by ignorance and prejudice than a realistic assessment of how they can (and arguably should) fit into a relationship.

For example, at the end of the section on sexting, Ansari shares one woman’s explanation about how she feels about sexting (and the attendant risks) that concludes:

“So when I sext with my boyfriend…. it’s also my little way of reassuring myself that I decide what to do with my body, and I get to decide which risky behaviors are worth taking.”

Ansari follows that by suggesting that…

For the generation that grew up in a smartphone culture, sexting has become a common step in the journey toward becoming sexually active. Along with a first kiss, now, at some point, there is often a first sext…. And, as we’ve seen with other aspects of modern romance, what seems insane to one generation often ends up being the norm of the next.

Where initially, I would have said he and the woman he quoted were being foolish or, to use his own words, insane, by the end of Modern Romance, I had to grudgingly concede the point.

Seeing how profoundly dating and relationships have changed in the last twenty years (let alone fifty years) forces me to face the fact that my children’s romantic lives will likely be far outside my own experience (How soon is too soon to jack your brain directly into your significant other’s to share your senses? Is virtual reality sex with someone else cheating?).  So while Modern Romance is a little late to help me with my own romantic life–and it turned out just fine, thank you very much–it gave me some much needed perspective for when my children turn thirty and I give them permission to date.

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Burning holes in the pockets they wished they had

Sometimes, you can, in fact, judge a book by its cover.  I offer up Day Keene’s Home is the Sailor as today’s exhibit:

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See that gorgeous cover by R. B. Farrell and Gregory Manchess? That’s what you get. The book delivers exactly what that image and those words promise.  If that sort of hard-boiled, film noir, pulp goodness doesn’t appeal, just walk on by.

Fortunately, this gift from a good friend was right on the money. I couldn’t eat this meal every day, but it was a tasty snack filled with lines like…

Her eyes were gray and smoky, like ashes over a wood fire. They made me feel like a fool.

and…

I found one [a turnoff] a quarter mile down the road and followed it to the crest of a high bluff overlooking the sea, with a silver moon laying a course along the thirty-fourth parallel for China.

Or this description of a street scene in Mexico…

Most of the kids were a little high, their money burning holes in the pockets they wished they had, buying junk in the cheap stores, having their pictures taken on burros. Mixed in with the crowd were a few uniformed cops and a scattering of Mexican streetwalkers. With something else to sell. The cops kept their eyes on the streetwalkers. The streetwalkers kept their eyes on the sailors. The sailors kept their eyes on the streetwalkers. Everybody happy.

So if you’re interested in seeing a retired Swedish sailor blow his chance to go home to Hibbing, find a nice girl, and settle down, instead becoming a murderer and outlaw  because of a woman who is as much trouble as she is beautiful, pick up Home is the Sailor.

And next time I’m in this mood, I’ll check out some more of the fine catalog of Hard Case Crime.

It ruthlessly steals your essential things

I’m not sure where I first heard of Jonathan Carroll, but I’d guess that he was mentioned by some other author I respected (probably Neil Gaiman). I picked up The Land of Laughs and was thrilled by my first encounter with his unique brand of magical realism (or is it magical surrealism?) and his deeply engaging characters. Each of his works touched me in different ways: The Land of Laughs enthralled and infuriated me (I threw it across the room at one point); Bones of the Moon delivered a fantastical world rich in whimsy and sorrow; A Child Across the Sky was creepy and dark and began my lifelong interest in the poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.

I developed a ritual for each new book. I would set it on a shelf and hold off reading it until I had a full day or more to myself. Then I would make coffee, put on the Inspector Morse soundtrack (a mix of classical, opera, and incidental music that set a quiet, haunting mood), and read until I finished the novel–usually late that night with the coffee replaced with a beer.

The last of his books I read was Glass Soup in 2005.  I missed 2008’s The Ghost in Love, and then there was a long dry spell until his most recent, Bathing the Lion (2014) that I recently finished.

I found myself once again enthralled with his vividly drawn characters and the almost mystical way Carroll describes the ordinary magic of love beginning…

In the beginning of their relationship, both women proceeded as if they had entered a very dark room and were sliding their hands hesitantly up and down all the walls, feeling for a light switch while at the same time afraid they might touch something sharp or dangerous.

…ending…

…her life had capsized and suddenly she was hanging on to a piece of shipwreck in the middle of a vast and dangerous morning.

…and left behind…

…those nice trips, nice meals, and nice years when they had been genuinely happy together were like Confederate Army money now: they looked pretty but were worthless.

But as I read on, the joy wore off. Perhaps it’s because I read the novel in a more ordinary fashion. The first half, I devoured in large chunks as I traveled, but the last half came in small bites before going to sleep at night–pretty much how I do most of my reading these days. Perhaps, Carroll is not as strong a writer as he used to be, although my reaction to the first half suggests that’s not true.  More likely, I’m at a different point in my life and his writing doesn’t speak to me the way it used to.

Carroll writes mostly of relationships and couples, love passionate, romantic, and companionate. He writes of experiencing life in a world of rich senses, exotic travel, fine foods, and finer moments. He blends it all with quirky metaphysics and surreal action that takes his characters to emotional extremes. They are haunting and beautiful tales that spoke to me when I was younger, when I traveled, and when I wrestled with relationships.

Now I am older, married, and have two young children. Travel, exotic locations, free time to pursue fine cuisine or leisure activities are not parts of my life. The world that Carroll describes doesn’t resonate the same way. Magic in my life comes in the form of my children, who bring wonder, imagination, and their own unique brand of surrealism to every day. I hadn’t realized until now, but children feature in only limited ways in Carroll’s books–frequently as McGuffins or pawns or angels and demons in disguise, rarely as real characters.

So while I enjoyed Bathing the Lion, there was a melancholy aspect to that enjoyment, a nostalgia for the way he used to sweep me away, that left me feeling slightly dissatisfied at the end. Ironically, there’s a lovely line in the novel about time that speaks to this feeling:

Time doesn’t fly, it steals. Like some skilled pickpocket or magician, it gets you to look the other way and when you do, it ruthlessly steals your essential things—memories, great moments that end much too soon, the lives of those you love.

It seems time may have stolen my deeper connection to Carroll’s work, leaving only ordinary enjoyment in its place.

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