Two underwhelming books: “Success Built to Last” by Jerry Porras + others, and “How” by Dov Seidman

I’ve stated before that I am a massive consumer of books about what to do with one’s potential for leadership and fulfillment; this summer, I read two more. I was, however, disappointed by both.

Success Built To Last“, by Jerry Porras, Stewart Emery and Mark Thompson, builds on hundreds of interviews with highly successful people to discern patterns in their motivation, their thought processes and their action styles. When I say “successful”, the bar is quite high: we’re talking about Sir Richard Branson, Nelson Mandela, Michael Dell, Maya Angelou and even the Dalai Lama. That’s the kind of crowd you meet in Davos, if you’re invited.

Yet, as much as I love all Stanford authors, this time I have to say that Professor Porras hasn’t convinced me. Although supported by rigorous analysis and an ambitious survey, at the end this boils down to biography as an attempt at inspiration. We already know that truly successful people are the ones who love what they do, who find deep meaning in the mission they have discovered for their lives, and who would do the same things they do today even if they didn’t make any money doing them. We also know that they are relentlessly optimistic and resilient in the face of failure. We know they are like that. We can try to model our thought processes and action styles on theirs. But will you learn anything new about success from reading this book? No matter how well thought out and documented, the actionable advice in here boils down to following your passion, and adopting certain habits of thought and action while you pursue it. The fact that this book comes with a full range of five-star reviews and was in the top 3 editors’ picks in the business category of Amazon’s Best Books of 2006, in my opinion, only reflects rather poorly on the 2006 crop of such books – or on the standards of the Amazon editorial staff and the community of reviewers.

How” by Dov Seidman, a book about how ethics is changing the rules of business for the better, was another disappointment. More personal, more based on “war stories” from the author’s career, which makes it somewhat interesting at times; yet, full of extremely superficial summaries of the way the world has changed from the Industrial Revolution up to today (if you want to read “The World Is Flat“, I suggest you read “The World Is Flat”, and not Seidman’s reductionist synopsis); of pseudo-evolutionary biology talk about why trust develops in human societies (again, much better: read “The Origins of Virtue” by Matt Ridley); and of rants about the lack of such values as transparency and trust in today’s business world.

Maybe I’ve been lucky, but that’s not my experience: the world is not all Enrons, WorldComs, or Parmalats. On the contrary, I’ve always been able to work in organizations that were guided by sound values and constantly reinforced them (my previous employer even used to hold an annual worldwide “Values Day”), and where people mostly trusted each other – not trusting each other was simply not feasible (you would die under avalanches of work, among other effects). Even today, I am regularly evaluated on both results and behaviors, and I evaluate my team on their results and their behaviors. And, we do not backdate stock options – that is simply not done around here. So, that “how” we do things (meaning, our behaviors) might be a source of key advantage in today’s business world strikes me as a somewhat naive proposition.

Perhaps this can be a useful book if you’re either very young, or very cynical about the value of personal and institutional integrity. If you’re neither, this is a book you can skip without regrets.

“For many teenagers, Facebook = life”: on a column by Sabena Suri

If you’re my age, you already know that you have no business inviting 17-year-olds to be your friends on Facebook. (You may make exceptions for family members such as young cousins, assuming that they’ll deign to accept your invitation.) Sabena Suri, an intern at CNET News.com, makes this point in a rather humorous way (I think) in this column: Ick, old married guys on Facebook. Yet, commenters seem to disagree – she’s been called imbecile, prejudiced, snotty, silly, narcissistic and a variety of other epithets. (You need a thick skin to write a column for that audience, I assume).

What’s the biggest age difference you’ve got with your online friends? With any of your friends in real life, for that matter?

Seven books about the end of civilization

Why am I fascinated by books trying to describe what happens to survivors after the end of civilization? And am I the only one to be spellbound with such a rich topic for writerly invention?

Here, in no particular order, are seven books working on the premise that civilization as we know it is either about to collapse or has been wiped off the map.

  1. In the Country of Last Things by Paul Auster. Once, as a final essay for a voice training program I took at an acting school, I chose to read from this book.
  2. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. Beautifully written.
  3. The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood. Yes, with Atwood you get two books, not just one. The Handmaid’s Tale is the more haunting of the two.
  4. The Children of Men by P.D. James. I haven’t read her crime novels, but I found this one riveting.
  5. The Road by Cormac McCarthy. Perhaps the bleakest read in this list. Nevertheless, an Oprah’s Book Club selection.
  6. The Possibility of an Island by Michel Houellebecq. This book takes to the extreme the apocalyptic streak already evident in Houellebecq’s other fiction, with, however, less success.
  7. We Can Remember It For You Wholesale by Philip K. Dick. Not all the stories in this collection happen after life on Earth has been eradicated, but some do. Others have humans colonizing other planets, at great cost and risk, because Earth has become impossibly overpopulated. Funny how stories, forty years ago, showed the era’s Malthusian preoccupation. Even slightly more recent ones (The Children of Men, The Handmaid’s Tale) start from the opposite scenario: that there won’t be enough people to keep up the civilization we have built.

I have found that I am the only LibraryThing user to have tagged her books with “end of civilization“, with the exception of one more reader, who used it for the German translation of Paul Auster’s book. Other interesting tags used for these books are: “speculative fiction“, “dystopia“, “future“, “futurology“,”totalitarianism“, “apocalypse“, “apocalyptic“, and “post-apocalyptic“, which thread through writers from George Orwell to Aldous Huxley to Stephen King to Neil Gaiman. And, of course, “science fiction” in its numerous variations (“sf“, “sci-fi” among the most common), which opens up a whole different journey.

And you? What are your favorite end-of-civilization stories?

John Fante, or spending decades on one’s autobiographical obsession

This is a post where I talk about John Fante, writing, getting older and getting better.

Let me explain. Thanks to my friend Diana, I read “The Brotherhood of the Grape“. It is a perfect short novel – punchy, memorable and humorous even in the face of death, with no trace of the slobbery sentimentalism that always lurks whenever one tries to write a father-and-son story (and many do, with great success – it seems like lately one is hardly reading anything else, with “The Kite Runner” on top of the charts and so on). To me, it carried echoes of Philip Roth’s carnality and decay, and the surreal business of building something with rocks in a remote mountain place to pay off one’s gambling debt called to mind one of Paul Auster’s best novels, “The Music of Chance“.

I also read a few more Fante novels and I can’t say I’m a fan: his 1930s novels, featuring alter ego Arturo Bandini, quickly wear thin when the protagonist’s borderline bipolar antics cease to be interesting. “Ask the Dust” I found overrated and irritating; “The Road to Los Angeles“, which the editorial note points out remained unpublished during the author’s lifetime, apparently stayed in a drawer for good reasons; “Wait Until Spring, Bandini“, which Fante, in a new preface written a few weeks before dying in 1983, said contained the seeds of all his future work, is rather overexcited and repetitive.

Fante’s whole fictional work revolves around not-even-disguised autobiography. For decades, the author made a living as a screenwriter. Apparently he did not hold the craft in high regard, but I would submit that it did his writing a whole lot of good. “The Brotherhood of the Grape”, published in 1977, distils the family saga and the young writer’s beginnings in a masterfully deadpan language, and in doing so ends up being (to me, at least) much more moving than his overwrought ramblings of four decades before. If decades from now I am able to write about my own youthful stupidity the way that Fante – in his old age – wrote about his younger self, then I will be grateful for the passing of time.

The Myspaceification of Facebook

Facebook is a phenomenally successful platform, way superior to MySpace, with much greater potential and (may I say it?) with an unprecedented degree of visual elegance (kudos to the user interface designers who struggle, against all odds, to keep it clean). Yet, even if you’re a cautious user (as I am) adding and removing apps at a glacial pace and joining groups in an extremely selective manner, you may have noticed that some folks you know spend an inordinate amount on it. You don’t need to go lurk at their desk: it’s all in your feed. Have these poor souls nothing else to do than playing with apps? Some commentators are starting to see the first signs of backlash. While I think that Facebook has way too much momentum to call it a backlash, I do have a few rules for myself. And the purpose of the rules is to prevent Facebook from turning into Twitter – i.e., from filling my life with irrelevant noise I don’t need (which is why I don’t use Twitter at all).

  1. I accept invitations from people I know, and ignore those from people I don’t know. It kind of defeats the purpose to do otherwise, in my humble opinion (in spite of the preferences of “open networkers”).
  2. In the absence of invitations, I check my Facebook newsfeed no more than once a day, and preferably less.
  3. And I try a maximum of one new application per week. Yes, per week – not per hour. It’s as simple as that.

What are your rules? How do you use Facebook – if at all? oh, and by the way, how much will they sell it for, and to whom?

Delmore Schwartz on writing letters

Today I ran into a paragraph written by Delmore Schwartz in a 1951 letter to his friend and publisher James Laughlin, and quoted by his biographer James Atlas in the preface to Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet. Over half a century later, it seems that the pleasures and dangers of writing letters, that lovely and forgotten art, have merely transmutated into the plasures and dangers of blogging:

It was pleasant to learn that you expect our correspondence to be read in the international salons and boudoirs of the future. Do you think they will be able to distinguish between the obfuscations, mystifications, efforts at humor, and plain statements of fact? Will they recognize my primary feelings as a correspondent — the catacomb from which I write to you, seeking to secure some compassion? Or will they think that I am nasty, an over-eager clown, gauche, awkward, and bookish? Will they understand that I am always direct, open, friendly, simple and candid to the point of naivete until the ways of the fiendish world infuriate me and I am forced to be devious, suspicious, calculating, not that it does me any good anyway?

What a masterstroke at the end: “not that it does me any good anyway”.