Two weeks out of London for the first time since about 2009, when I spent a summer in Berlin. It’s a treat to have the brain space to sit and read for a few hours; I started writing this on day 3 when I was averaging at a book a day. When I packed I tried to pick books I’d been meaning to read for a while, or that I’d just got and was excited about.
Because reading so much in a short period will, I know, lead to me forgetting what I’ve read or why I’ve read it, I thought I’d document my two weeks of reading here. Wouldn’t it be nice if newspapers did follow ups on their summer reading previews with notable types - “did you read it, and did you like it?”.
I’m now in the rather unique position of pretty much having finished all of the books I’ve had on the go for the past few months; no longer is there a guilty stack sitting next to my bed! So any recommendations are welcome.
NB links go to Foyles, one of my favourite bookshops, rather than Amazon. Their online service is very good.
Management in Ten Words - Terry Leahy
A slow burner. Thanks Kilburn Library for allowing me my renewal habit (side note: I would love to rebrand the library service. What a task - and what a worthwhile one). I read this on the plane and piano piano (slowly does it) over the first week. Chockfull of good stuff though none I’ve not read or experienced elsewhere - in fact, actually very similar to Conscious Capitalism by John Mackey, co-founder of Whole Foods. I find myself doubting the credibility of Leahy after the recent debates over his legacy.
Brother of the More Famous Jack - Barbara Trapido
Probably my favourite book, actually. Were my motto not ‘honest, brave & true’ (thanks, Muppet Treasure Island), it would probably be ‘If in danger or in doubt, read Brother of the More Famous Jack.’ It makes me laugh and cry in about equal measure, and while it’s not particularly high-falutin’ there is something so entirely wonderful about the relationship between Katherine and the Goldmans that I will go back to it time and time again.
So Long, See You Tomorrow - William Maxwell
The week before going on holiday, I had an unexpectedly lovely meeting with Vintage Books about a work project we are planning for next year. They plied me with books beforehand and then after the meeting sent me another stack, including a couple by William Maxwell after we discussed Richard Yates, Raymond Carver and their summer smash of Stoner by John Williams (it’s very good. You should read it). Maxwell is another of the American mid-late 20th century school - he edited both John Cheever and John Updike whilst at the New Yorker, which probably says it all - and while I wouldn’t say this book blew me away, I’m looking forward to reading his short stories when I’m home. The plot hook felt a bit thin to sustain over 150 odd pages, but it would’ve worked very well in a shorter format. So here’s hoping that’s Maxwell’s forté.
Lean In - Sheryl Sandberg
Another Kilburn Library job. My boss recommended I read this a few weeks ago, and I duly polished it off this evening. Though I thought it could’ve done a bit deeper, actually I rather liked it for its brevity and accessibility. Cliché perhaps - and it feels like the world and his wife have talked this book to death already - but I found it a pretty inspiring read. Big takeaways: Ambition is OK. Know that sometimes the way you act is related to your gender. Know your biases and work through them. I swallowed my frustration around the repeated mentions of supportive husbands, but you can’t please all the people all of the time. I’m sure that non-white readers would think to themselves, hey, there’s more discrimination around than just gender based - but Sandberg writes what she knows, and it was definitely a worthwhile way to spend a couple of hours. That concept of women not “sitting at the table” is entirely true and while I am lucky enough not to have been brought up in that way of thinking (both my parents and my school were very much of the “of course you can do it” school of thought), socialisation elsewhere means that I recognise it in both myself and in others. It’s good to know your limits…so you can work around them.
Quiet - Susan Cain
A book about introversion. Only since starting to live on my own have I begun noticing my patterns of behaviour, and how after periods of social activity I find time alone the only real way of resetting my balance. This book really resonated with me. The broad premise being that everyone is introverted/extroverted to some degree (as with sexuality, you are rarely all or nothing of one), and that within both of those, there are limits to sociability. Nice to read and work out that there is something more to it than just “I don’t like other people.”
Lions and Shadows - Christopher Isherwood
Oh Isherwood. Resolutely one of my favourite authors. What a treat not to have gone through them all yet!
Bicycle Diaries - David Byrne
My god this man is smart. An absolute pleasure to read, and I can’t believe I’d had a bookmark sitting at the beginning of it for quite so long. Byrne goes city by city, takes his folding bike, and tells us about it. Thoughts on the dot com bubble, and the way cities and cultures are built. Lovely.
The Age of Innocence - Edith Wharton
Another one I’d been in the middle of for a long while. Nearly had a bit of a cry at the end. Society vs love vs duty vs what a terribly sad state of affairs.
The Stranger’s Child - Alan Hollinghurst
An emergency purchase in an English language bookshop in Florence, when I realised I’d run out of fiction and had an evening to kill by myself. For the first hundred pages I thought “hang on, this is just like Atonement” - with a plot hanging on something the little sister isn’t meant to notice - but turns out that, well, it isn’t. Serves me right for trying to second guess. I read the lot in one night but despite that wouldn’t say I loved it - enjoyed, certainly - and had far less of the feeling of having my eyes opened wide that happened when I read The Swimming Pool Library. Both Wharton and Hollinghurst’s big takeaways: families are really complicated (conversely, Isherwood hardly mentions his in Lions & Shadows, despite its semi-autobiographical nature - and the fact that he lives with them until halfway through the book).
“We quickly abandoned ideas that looked great but ultimately didn’t serve our users’ needs.”
I’m no designer. I’m no developer, either. But I’m getting slowly obsessed with the idea of design as function rather than form; that is, the design is there to serve a purpose. Just yesterday I killed off a pointless vignette in a book layout; it serves no purpose, so I don’t want to see it.
I guess the trick here is: work out what your purpose is. Then work backwards.
Slowly but surely it dawns on me: it’s probably time to read The Lean Start Up.
Think of your core values as those that, when the chips are down, you believe in so much that if you took them away your company would cease to exist.
Starbucks continue to attempt to present themselves as a friendly coffee company rather than a multi-national cafe chain.
Late last year, two buds and I sat down to discuss our plans for the next few months - or quarter, if you will. Most of the time I think pretty actively about what’s next, how can I learn more, how do I do more - and occasionally, all of that collapses in on itself and I’d rather just stay in bed. Turns out that partaking in what is essentially a SWOT analysis of your life with two good friends means that everyone gets some perspective and focus, as well as a few truthbombs that it might not be fun to receive from your boss.
I wrote this post back in January, but KPI Day is becoming an ongoing - we held a Q2 session, and will be arranging Q3 very soon. The Do Lectures felt like the bigger, more ambitious, business focused KPI Day - which makes me love the both of them even more.
My favourite personal truthbomb, dropped by Sam: Manage up, don’t manage down - that is, make the people you’re managing feel good about their task - teach them how to do something and let them own it, rather than control freaking your way through it and wishing you were just doing it yourself. As truthbombs go it’s pretty close to the bone and also one of the most valuable things I’ve been told about my working style - and one that I’ve got a lot better at since hearing it.
Other key stuff in the HOW TO IMPROVE section of my notes:
Of course none of the above includes half marathons, ambitions of hill climb times, smashing the Dunwich Dynamo, learning to code…but as Sam says, you can’t put everything in life through the SWOT. Sometimes you just need to have fun.
I started putting my speaker notes in a Powerpoint in case I lost the notebook, then realised that half the stuff I came back with wasn’t from making notes during the talks or the workshops. So I tumbled it all out into two pages and hoped it made sense by the end of it. Some of it was unpublishable (also known, frankly, as unkind), and I have taken it out. Some of it is nonsense. Unlike Glastonbury, Latitude, a Walt Disney training day (yes, I know) or any other festival, experience, coming together of people that I have experienced, going to Do and coming back from Do feels as though I have been through something that…well:
● I hesitate in uncertain situations - I knew this already. So even to go to west Wales on my own to spend a few days with a bunch of strangers was out of my ordinary, though somehow I’d made it feel like the most logical thing in the world. Quiet your inhibitions.
● When thrown together with a bunch of people with similar interests, you will be ok.
● Each day there were morning workshops: yoga, running, or bread making. Sign up required the day before on a bit of paper. On Friday I woke at 6.30am with a hangover and the knowledge I’d signed up for a 6.45am run. “What kind of person will you be if you don’t go for a run?”. I went and I felt better. Take the short term pain and JFDI.
● Everyone has a different bit of life exposure to you. That’s cool. Learn from what you don’t know and what they don’t know, too.
● Strategy is the big stuff. Tactics is the small stuff. Make sure your strategy guides your tactics. It’s a stupid fucking buzz word, but remember your value proposition.
● Some people have concepts first, other people have products. Each of them is trying to find ‘the greatest source of pain’. A lot of strategy is about working out how to describe the pain and what the business is doing to stop the consumer hurting.
● Another buzz word: fail fast. I never really understood fail fast. There’s a juggling book that says, “A drop is a sign of progress.” There’s another juggling book that says, “There’s a juggling book that calls a drop a sign of progress. It isn’t. It’s a mistake.” That’s what failing fast says to me. But it can also say something else: work fast, and change it when you realise it isn’t working.
● Related to fail fast: get your ideas done quickly, and tweak them as you go. Don’t let your feedback loop break. Talk to your customers and find out what you’re doing right and what you’re doing wrong.
● Build design into every bit of thinking. What are we doing and why are we doing it this way? Think about user journeys and experience. When you build a website, that journey should be intuitive. When you build a shop, people shouldn’t be confused about where to go & what to do: signposting isn’t the answer, better design is.
● Know when enough is enough - revenue, staff, outlets, product line, everything. Nature optimises, not maximises - so why do we always try to build bigger & bigger?
● Being outdoors is brilliant.
● 93% of word of mouth marketing happens online, so why the fuck do you spend more than 7% of your time on Twitter? 7% is three hours, 9 minutes per week. Budget your time.
● A lot of people went to the Do Lectures because they were on some kind of precipice: of doing their own thing, or of trying to work out what their own thing might be. I was there because I wanted to be around some smart people for a few days. Maybe the people looking for something more than that got more out of it than me. I’m ok with that.
● Some people want to build ‘personal brand’ into everything. It’s depressing as hell. Don’t fall for it.
● It’s easier to save money than make more money.
● One I’ve been pondering for a little while, and I’m not sure why the Do Lectures made me think of it more: you have one body. Use it. Run, walk, ride, whatever - if you don’t use your body to be the best it can be, you’re wasting something pretty valuable. (I am going for a run this evening.)
● It’s ok if your motivations for work are different to other people’s. A lot of people at Do wanted to build social enterprises with a value proposition of making the world better. For me, that’s a side benefit, not the core offering. Being a responsible capitalist is as cool as running a non-profit.
● Think about the kind of company you want to be. Build the company you wouldn’t sell (Zach Klein - DIY.org).
● Damon Collins, Joint: When you eat, eat. When you walk, walk. Do one thing well.
● Everyone says it’s all about people. It probably is.
● Sucking the marrow out of life is the Thoreau one. As the groups began to dissipate after day 1, I nearly zoned out, too. Then I thought: you’re here. Do it properly. I’m still not sure I ‘did it properly’ after Thursday, but at least I’ve learnt: while you’re there, be there. You’ll get more out of it the more you invest in it.
● There’s a lot to read in the world. Don’t let reading get in the way of doing. But keep learning.
Do Lectures 2013 buzzwords
I had an amazing time at the Do Lectures last weekend, and I’m very glad to have gone.
Here are all the words people kept on saying all weekend.
My five favourites are:
minimum viable product
I’m not sure if they’re my favourites because they’re useful and interesting, or because they’re stupid.
Guardian piece on self tracking - which they’re calling ‘quantified self’. Nice nickname for it.