Sunday, January 31, 2010

Book Thirty-Seven: Start with Why by Simon Sinek (and I read Zorba the Greek again)

The plethora of business and leadership books indicate a desire by many to improve either themselves or their business. While this is a worthwhile goal, a great many of the books published fail to address the fundamental issues which are behind successful people. Equally alarming is the number of them that not only miss the fundamental issues, but do it with deplorable writing in the process.

As a result, Simon Sinek's book, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, should be a welcome addition to those few books which leaders return to and pass on to others. Sinek's thinking may have been heard in different formats in different times, but his simple and concise explanation of how to improve as a leader is something that can have an immediate impact on the reader.

Sinek begins by saying what he has to offer does not attempt to supplant others, nor will he fix all the things that do not work. Instead, he notes "I wrote this book as a guide to focus on and amplify the things that do work." Therein lies one of the many strengths of this book, namely that it is a positive book. While he does point to some failures to show how situations could have been different, his focus is on what has worked and why.

"Why" is the essential question. Sinek describes how leaders and companies should work as a series of circles, which he describes as "The Golden Circle" playing off the mathematical relationship of the "golden ratio" The first and central circle is "why," surrounded by "how," and the final encompassing circle is "what." The "what" describes the products or services of a company; in other words, it is what they do. "How" explains how companies get to what they do. "Why" is the purpose or belief which underlies the how and what.

Given the title of the book we can see where Sinek is heading. His premise is that companies which do well focus on their "why," while many companies which fail have lost that focus. Sinek believes that if customers understand the why of a company, and they believe in the why, they will naturally end up buying the "what." In other words, people like companies with a vision which matches their own. One element of this thought which gives more credibility to Sinek's thesis is that not everyone will like the vision of a company. Sinek is not offering the golden egg which will bring you fortune by attracting everyone. He says be true to your own vision and the rest will follow if they like what they hear.

His primary example is Apple, Inc. and their leader, Steve Jobs. Sinek points out that Apple computers are more expensive than PCs, have less software available to use on them, and at times are even slower than the competition. So why do people buy them? Because they buy into Apple's "why." Apple has from the beginning marketed itself as the rebel, the individual, the unique voice. They market themselves that way because that is how they envision themselves. People who buy into that vision will pay more for a computer that reflects their values. By focusing on their why, Apple has also been able to easily branch out from computers and and develop the iPod and iPhones. Those products fit their image as the rebel. Sinek says their products may not even be the best or first on the market, but they quickly emerge as the leader.

When a company forgets their why to focus on the what, they often fail. Volkswagon has been the automotive equivalent of peace and love since the VW van ruled the 1960s. They put a vase for flowers on their Beetle's dashboard! So when they introduced the Phaeton, a high-end luxury car, it failed. Volkswagon's engineering is legendary and the critics loved the Phaeton, but it did not represent the "why" of Volkswagon which has attracted so many people.

Sinek is quick to show that a clear "why" not only helps sales, it helps employees. If leaders want to inspire others than they need to show a vision for what they are doing. Here he moves out of business to show how this translates into social issues as well. He says if Martin Luther King, Jr. gave an "I Have a Plan" speech instead of "I Have a Dream," we may have received more details on how to accomplish something, but without the why the civil rights movement could not succeed. Leaders need to inspire followers with their "why," and if they succeed they'll find that vision being translated into success.

The book offers a number of examples to support Sinek's ideas as well as providing ideas for how to check on if an action is following the "why." Sinek himself is a business consultant, but he avoids putting together a compilation of his favorite exercises (and of course, how they lead to success); instead, he focuses on his "why" and creates a book which is not about him. Apple is successful, but they did it without Sinek. What Sinek does is look at those who have succeeded, figures out why, and then passes those ideas on to us.

This is a must read for leaders of any type, but also for anyone wanting to get back to basics. While he resists the temptation to create a self-help book, it is not  a stretch to see how making sure our personal actions reflect on our "why" will only lead to a fuller life. Sinek is new in the business publishing world, but with this start his future books will be eagerly awaited.

Sinek's website focuses on the concepts and offers some video links as well. His talk at Tedx is a great summary of the book -- but still read the book to get the full picture. 

Up Next
My oldest gave me my next two reads. First, Jorge Luis Borges' "Ficciones," and then a book of poetry by (for me) a local writer, Greg Rappleye's "A Path Between Houses." I'm not sure I'll get them both done next week and I'm starting with Borges, but I'll try.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Book Thirty-Six: Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid

I'm easing myself into the social networking world and this is one of the early successes. I post many of my reviews on Amazon and one reviewer commented on my review of Susan Choi's A Person of Interest. The discussion centered around truth and storytelling and I was intrigued enough to look up this reviewer's recommendations. I had not heard of Mohsin Hamid before, but Moth Smoke shows a promising beginning for a writer. This was written in 2001 and his more recent novel, The Reluctant Fundamentalist seems to be getting more press.

Hamid was born in Pakistan, went to college and law school in the U.S., and is now living in Lahore, Pakistan, where the novel takes place. As you can see from the photos below, this a beautiful city. Take a good look before reading this novel, because Hamid's Lahore hints at the wealth, but the focus is on those trying to get in rather than those how already have it.

The novel centers around Daru Shezad, a bright young man who lacked the means of his friends to travel to the U.S. to study. He ditches his dissertation in Economics and takes a mid-level banking job to make money. When his best friend, Ozi, returns home from the U.S. with a law degree and his father's money and connections, the two are reacquainted, but the relationship is no longer the same.

Although class issues were present before, the two overcame them as youths. Now the class differences are clear and Ozi throws parties for his new social setting, which does not include Daru. Ozi has also brought back a beautiful wife, Mumtaz, and their first child. But Mumtaz is not content with a "wifely" life and puts her journalistic background to use as an underground journalist writing under a pseudonym.

When Daru loses his job as a banker because of his unwillingness to grovel enough, he finds himself unable to find other work than dealing the hash he has occasionally used. As his life begins to spiral downward, Ozi pushes him aside more. But Mumtaz is increasingly frustrated with Ozi's privileged approach to life and turns to Daru. As their affair intensifies so does Daru's financial and drug addicted requirements and in the end we find Daru on trial for a crime he may or may not have committed.

Although it sounds like I just gave you the whole plot, this is really the setting. Hamid starts the book with Daru in jail so that surprise is gone. While a linear narrative certainly drives the plot, Hamid is clearly interested more in the characters and issues of his novel. He excels in this aspect as his main characters are richly drawn.

Hamid shows courage, especially for a first novel, of building his story around a man others may objectively call, well, a loser. But Hamid shows that even those losing control of their lives are sometimes the victims of the culture. Daru applies for nearly a 100 jobs, but in country that works on connections his bright mind is going to waste because he does not run in those circles. But his friendship with Ozi , in the past the opportunity to go to a private high school (thanks to an anonymous donor), only shows him what he is not allowed to have.

Mumtaz is a part of that privileged world he can have, but even her patience for him is tested despite her obvious love. She is the bridge between these two Pakistani worlds. U.S. educated and living the privileged life, her work as a journalist throws herself into the other world, including the web of prostitution which pulls young girls into the machine. As a journalist she is threatened because of her work, but her anonymity keeps her safe. Reconciling her two lives becomes increasingly difficult.

While I recommend this book, it is not a light read in terms of issues to be dealt with. Hamid's writing style is smooth and unpretentious, but his subject matter is gritty and harsh. As the U.S. turns more of its attention to Pakistan a book like this reminds of the humanity there as well. Politics do play a role as part of the book deals with Pakistan's successful test of a nuclear bomb and the excitement that creates in the city.

Hamid presents a Lahore where wealth and glitz exists alongside the crime and poverty. In a strange way the worlds depend on one another, but mainly at the expense of those in the depressed areas. This book will not only introduce many to the Pakistani culture, it forces everyone to address the more fundamental issues of morality, friendship, and justice.

Moshin Hamid's Website

Up Next
Complete change in direction here as I move to a leadership/business book which was highly recommended on another blog. Start With Why by Simon Sinek will be the upcoming focus. Plus, I'm rereading Zorba the Greek since I'm teaching it again in class -- I'll finish that this week as well.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Book Thirty-Five: Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen

Complete disclaimer here. Rhoda Janzen works at the same school I work at and since I teach one English class, we are even in the same department. Despite that, I've never actually met Rhoda (one class does not require me to attend department meetings). In fact, seeing her picture, I don't think I've ever seen Rhoda. What happened to my small school! I do know of her reputation as a good teacher with a passion for saving the English language from the grammatically illiterate, so I'm hoping she never reads my blog (although I can claim "blog grammar," whatever that is). So I am free to tear into this book and say all the nasty things I want with no fear of retribution. That said, this is a great book!

I approach memoirs with a great deal of trepidation. I'm not that social of a person and (this is a horrible thing to admit) not really interested in how some event has impacted people's lives. Sitting in a restaurant I would be open to hearing the story, but committing myself to reading a book about their rather normal lives does not appeal to me. To be fair, if I were to write a memoir and make some past issue my turning point in life, I would be loathe to read it as well.

Janzen has a book in which all the elements of woe are present for some serious whining. And she deserves to whine! She suffers and then beats cancer only to have her husband leave her for another man which is followed (by a mere few days) of being hit head on in her car by a young driver. But don't worry, this is no plot giveaway. Janzen tells you all this by page 14 -- now the memoir can get going. Janzen is going home to the Mennonites for a little rest and recovery. We watch as Janzen reacquaints herself with parents, siblings, friends, and even meets (and dates) some new people along the way. Much of this is humor waiting to happen, but Janzen's take makes it hilarious.

The valuable blurb on the cover from Elizabeth Gilbert (of Eat, Pray, Love fame) claims she rarely laughs aloud, but Janzen's voice "slays" her. Gilbert gets my backing on this one. Rare is the book which is laugh out loud funny, but Janzen has that gift. Her humor is dry, self-deprecating, and honest. Her scene of mom's dating advice in the Christmas checkout lane at Best Buy raises the bar in humor.

Janzen's mom is the real hero of the book as she goes through life with a faith which makes her see the positive in all situations, finds discussing "poop" while eating normal, and by the end of the book is farting loudly in Kohl's due to some medical issues. Farting is okay, figures mom, since that is what the body is supposed to do. This woman is real!

Janzen is aiming for "realness" herself. She is critically honest about her shortcomings and has no hesitation holding herself up as exhibit one in how to mess up your life. Perhaps she has inherited her mother's positive outlook, but so far she is using it to put a gloss on the past instead of the future.

She knows she has the sympathy angle sewn up with the cancer, the husband leaving her for "Bob on" (which becomes Bob's name throughout the book), and the car accident. Plus, just for kicks, her husband's leaving places her in a financially tenuous position because of an expensive house he wanted to buy and she now owns, but can no longer afford alone. But she does not want your sympathy and seems to avoid people who would give it. The cancer causes her to wear a "pee bag" which provides Janzen with no end of amusement, and she passes on a support group because she is not really all that upset about having her uterus removed. Heck, she is not planning on kids anyway!

Her trip home reacquaints with her Mennonite upbringing (Janzen provide a helpful and humorous Mennonite primer at the end of the book). Her father was once the head of the North American Mennonite Conference for Canada and the United States...the Mennonite equivalent of the pope, but in plaid shorts and black dress socks." Her mother "does enjoy good health...Nothing gets this woman down." Janzen's brothers and sister have all headed in different directions. Her brothers are still involved in the Mennonite community and at one point she has a theological run in with one of them, while her sister lives outside of the community, but is still the sensible one. Her sister provides Janzen with much of the reflection we expect in a memoir, but coming in a dialogue it feels less self-indulgent than many memoir writers. Her brothers are not close to her, and it would be interesting to see that relationship develop. Janzen returns but manages to avoid much of the substance of the Mennonite community, which she refers to often but is usually engaged elsewhere. It is the one aspect of the book which could use more emphasis on. We get many traits of the Mennonites through her family, but her reflections on the larger community are usually based in childhood memories.

Of course, the childhood memories are no less humorous. Being one of two Mennonites in her class left her with plenty of unwelcome opportunities to stand out. While wishing for a Josie and the Pussycats lunchbox, Janzen brought to school a vinyl bag which on reflection she wonders if it was really a diaper bag. No expensive plastic sandwich bags in her lunch, instead she enjoyed stylistic used wax paper. But inside the lunches lay the greatest treasures, and Janzen ranks the top five embarrassing lunches, including the top-ranked Borscht. "The soup also has a distinctive smell, a noxious blast of savage fart." Needless to say, no one traded food with the Janzen family.

Food is an important part of the Mennonite community and Janzen carries the joy of food to present day. She still enjoys the hearty Mennonite staples, although her sister exposes her to the expanding cooking options now found on television. But Janzen does not shy away from what she once tired of, even describing the joy of sharing her childhood friends with friends and students.

Toward the end of the book Janzen begins to take stock of her current dilemma as she prepares to return home. Her ex-husband reenters the scene briefly and dramatically, but much of Janzen's drive is her own realization of why she is in the situation she finds herself. Yes, her Mennonite upbringing made her subservient to authority, especially men. Yes, a short time of her life could rival the Egyptian plagues.  Yes, she has made her fair share of lousy decisions. But she is not going to dwell in everything that has gone wrong. Instead, she recognizes what she already knew -- the importance of community, of support, of singing in harmony as part of a large group. In other words, Janzen's reflections lead not to an obsession with herself, but a return to all of us.

Reading Challenges
This will now become an optional section because the challenges are fewer every week. Yes, I'm starting teaching again and have more night commitments, but the reading has become so second nature that I'm finishing books well ahead of my weekly schedule. I hope a good habit is hard to break.

Next Up
Moth Smoke by Mohsin Hamid. I've been circling some Middle Eastern literature lately and this one is recommended by many. It was published in 2000 to quite a bit of critical acclaim and the author has written more since then.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Book Thirty-Four: The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta

My oldest son recently noted that I like most of the books I read. I would like to think this is because I'm open to all kinds of books and revel in my diverse mind. Of course, the reality is that I self select. I know what types of books I will like and I'm willing to read a few pages online before investing my time. True, there is the occasional one that slips in (see last week's blog), but this week brought home the reality of my "limited" tastes.

This week I read the "New York Times Bestseller," The Abstinence Teacher, by Tom Perrotta. While not liking the book is one thing, hating it is another. I hated this book! I'm actually angry about it and it has been nearly a week since I pushed myself through it in two days. Two days is plenty of time since it would appear it took that long to write (although Perrotta claims two years). What surprises me is my anger. I think, through no fault of his own, it's because this IS a New York Times bestseller. Can we do no better than this? This book is so bad it makes me want to write because I KNOW I can do better -- but I would still be embarrassed to see my name on a novel only "better" than this one.

So why do I hate it? Let me count the ways.

1) Ruth Ramsey. Ruth is the main the character and the teacher named in the title. I really do not like this person. In fact, she is much of what I do not like about people. Now let me state up front that I do not need to like the character to like the book (see Updike's Rabbit), but I'm not sure why we are subjected to this person. She simply does not grow throughout the book and I doubt her future life will turn out any better. Once the renegade, super-cool sex ed teacher, she is now forced to teach a boring and unrealistic abstinence course after some right-wing Christians (and yes, there are left-wing Christians) sue the school. So she shows up the first day in a slinky outfit to quietly protest this change. This would be humorous if she was 16 years old, but when you hit your 40s, well, grow up! She is a lousy mother more interested in her own life than that of her children, a whiny school teacher and person, and a fierce hater of Christianity possibly due to the right-wing opposition to her sex ed, but that is never clear. Seriously, her children going to church terrifies her and they know it -- she does not support anything they do which she does not also like.

2) Poor writing. I should have quit reading at Ruth Ramsey's reflection that in college "she majored in Psychology and minored in Doritos." Are you kidding me? Are there no editors left in the world. Who lets such a stupid line through! Apparently everyone since this book is full of such phrases.

3) It's called a plot line -- follow it. Perrotta fills space with plots which begin and are either never resolved or leave us wondering why it was there. So she has a bad sexual encounter with her high school fling 30 years later. Why did we need to know this? What purpose does it serve? Perrotta had already reached the pulp factor in number of pages, so why torment us some more? Ruth Ramsey's daughters are interesting, but we'll never know how much because he primarily uses them as foils for Ruth; he starts a story line with them and just drops them off at the end. On a side note, I'm really wondering how they will handle the mother's final love interest. She is working hard to mess these kids up.

4) This will add insight into the culture wars. Maybe this is where my anger really lies. In an interview with Perrotta at the back of my edition he is asked if this book will be a "grenade tossed into the culture wars?" He response includes "That's the part where you just cross your fingers and hope it's gonna happen." (He apparently speaks as well as he writes). I approached the book thinking this would be interesting. Teaching abstinence fails and all the research shows this. Perrotta has grabbed an issue which could make a phenomenal book and completely missed the chance. This book is not about culture wars, it is about some annoying people who have messed up their lives and will likely continue to mess up their lives. The battle over the sex ed is past history in this novel and we just get a quick summary. The woman running the new abstinence push is interesting, but there is no show down except for when Ramsey fails so often she is reassigned (she should be fired -- people like this [stupid] are dangerous to children and that has nothing to do with her attitudes toward sex). The closest we get to a showdown is when the coaches pray at the end of a soccer game a couple of times. Perrotta even tries to build up the climax (finally, I thought), but then the final praying scene does not even occur in the book. This is about culture wars? Sorry, wrong war.

I'll stop here at number four, but I could go on (e.g. stereotypes, excess verbiage) -- I just need to keep this book from wasting more time in my life.

So is there anything good about the book? Hmm...Tim Mason is an interesting character and (gasp!) he actually evolves in the book. He is supposed to be other half of the culture war, representing the right wing Christian angle. A recovering addict to several addictions his new found faith offers him some support, but even more guilt. But he is humble in his own way and in the end he is actually honest with himself. It is his humility and honesty which allow him to move forward while all the characters remain in one place.

Now I may be alone on this one. The New York Times  blurb says "Perrotta is a truth-telling, unshowy chronicler of modern-day America."  Time calls him the "Steinbeck of suburbia" (that one really hurts) and nothing less than Entertainment Weekly chimes in by saying this is Perrotta "at his rock star best." I'm willing to go down alone if need be.

And by the way, my oldest two are not off the hook for this. My oldest son gave it to my daughter for Christmas (mistake one) and my daughter thought I would like it (mistake two). My son is claiming the whole "I'm just the messenger" line, but anyone promoting this type of literature will need to spend extra time in purgatory. As for my daughter, lover of great classics including Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, and so many other great works -- what were you thinking! I'm so disappointed. Fortunately, I'm a forgiving person.

Reading Challenges
See above. This book is a two-night read (and 358 pages) but I was pushing to get through it because I wanted to be done with it. After that it was smooth sailing and I'm already half way through...

Next Up
...Mennonite in a Little Black Dress by Rhoda Janzen. Not a big memoir fan, but the reviews were good and she actually teaches at the school where I work. The first couple of chapters were laugh-out-loud funny and after the last two weeks I was so happy to spend time with the well written sentence.

Happy reading!

Friday, January 1, 2010

Book Thirty-Three: Rooftops of Tehran by Mahbod Seraji

Okay, I moved out of my comfort zone this week in my desire to read works from other cultures as well. Still interested in expanding my horizons, but I could have done so without this book. While there are many things to interest one in this book, it is not one which gains my oh-so-sought-after recommendation (like anyone cares).

Rooftops of Tehran offers us an important glimpse into Iran which most of us are not aware of in any real sense. Even now we are reading about the protests and killings happening because of many people's dissatisfaction with the ruling party. Rooftops also takes place during a time of frustration with the government, but this time it is with the Shah (which the U.S. put in power) and the outcome not seen in the book is the eventual overthrow of the government.

Here the time is 1973-74 and we follow the life of four high school students, two boys and two girls, working on the transition to adulthood. Yes, a coming of age story, but when the secret police taking people with reason and erasing their existence, the decisions are a bit more important.

The best part of this book for many non-Iranian readers will be the glimpse into the everday world of Iran. Many of us think of the Iranian woman in a burka as the common standard. But here the burka is worn only by one extremely religious relative, the Masked Angel, in another city. Arranged marriages do exist, but the main one in this novel is broken in the face of true love (Ahmed and Faheemeh) and the love of Zari and Pasha (the two main characters) is welcomed by both sets of parents.

The drama moves forward when Zari's "arranged boyfriend," Doctor, disappears after working as an activist against the government. SAVAK is the name of the secret police force which becomes a character in itself, always watching and controlling people even when they are not sure of when and how. We watch as Zari and the others deal with Doctor's disappearance, while Pasha deals with guilt of loving Zari despite her engagement and also because he is unintentionally responsible for SAVAK catching Doctor.

SPOILER ALERT: Usually I avoid spoilers, but since my biggest frustration with the story comes in the plot direction, allow me to spoil! Doctor is killed in prison and the families are told to not mourn him. Zari is, of course, distraught over his death. However, it is clear throughout the book that she does not love him (she likes him) and that she loves Pasha. So it is surprising and hard to believe when she sets herself on fire on the 40th day of his death (a special time of mourning) while running into the Shah's birthday parade. Not only does she do this surprising act (she is hardly a radical), but she brings Pasha and their friends along to watch -- much to their horror. Pasha ends up in a mental institution (which we knew he would end up in since some chapters take place there, although until this incident we never know why he is there). Zari dies in her protest and Pasha returns home to find that the Masked Angel has moved into Zari's home (they are neighbors) to care for her parents. It takes one meeting with the Masked Angel and her whisper of a voice to figure out that Zari is alive and living in disguise. Why? Well, reasons are given, but none are easy to buy. SAVAK knows she is alive, so why hide it from anyone else? It takes Pasha a while to come to this realization and we wait not so patiently for this to develop. When it does she sends him off to the U.S. to study so he can return to her.

This twist in the plot is unnecessary and way too "cute" to read without frustration. But the anti-climax of the revelation and the reunion of the "lovers" is also not worth the wait. This book makes a good story for the sappy romantics of the world, but they can find better stories than this to entertain them. I could be accused of a romantic leaning (I do love Jane Austen!), but this is too thick for me.

What the book did encourage me to do is learn more about this country I still remember best for holding U.S. embassy employees hostage. I'm getting a non-fiction book on modern-day Iran so I can learn more of its recent history and current state. If Seraji's intent was to interest us in Iran, he is successful. It his intent was to write a great story, maybe the sequel will be better

Reading Challenges
Happy New Year! I'm home with no night work, so finding time was not so hard. This is not a short book (345 pages), but the prose is light and easy to read. The plot drags at time so I was challenged to continue, but I managed to move along. Actually finished it in a few nights and ended my calendar year with 47 books read -- nearly three times what I've "officially" read the last few years (I know I missed a few books each year).

Up Next
The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta. My oldest son gave this to his sister for Christmas and being the reader she is she read it in a few days. She strongly recommended it to me so if I don't like it she will have to start renting our car every time she wants to use it.