Here are this year’s highlights from my reading on the kindle. I find it interesting that I barely highlit anything in my favorite books (Being Mortal, Moonwalking with Einstein) but I do usually only highlight from things I plan to use when teaching (such as Storycraft.) Hope it’s interesting!
Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and) by Jack Hart
Last annotated on December 30, 2014
as the Charles Dickens formula for success has it: “Make them laugh. Make them cry. But, most of all, make them wait.”
Philip Gerard, who writes both novels and book-length narrative nonfiction, says a story follows when “a character we care about acts to fulfill his desires with important consequences.”
“Perhaps because polish is so visible,” Jon Franklin says, “many people erroneously believe it to be the most important part of writing.” But polish, Franklin adds, is merely “the plaster on the walls of structure.” The proof is in the window of the bookstore down the block. The display of current best sellers no doubt contains several titles by tin-eared pop novelists who wouldn’t recognize a graceful sentence if it asked them to dance. The likes of Jean Auel and Tom Clancy sell books by the millions because they understand story structure, a point that’s lost on the critics who savage their syntax.
…exposition is the enemy of narrative. Good exposition provides just enough backstory to explain how the protagonist happens to be in a particular place, at a particular time, with the wants that will lead to the next phase of the story. Thorough reporting produces overwhelming detail. Good storytellers cut through it to create a clear path leading forward.
Even the little bit that must be known will block easy entry to the story if it delays the action line. The secret, Hunter Thompson said, is to “blend, blend, blend.” You launch action immediately and then blend the exposition into it, submerging it in modifiers, subordinate clauses, appositives, and the like.
“A narrative is when things go wrong.”
I was inspired by an anecdote about Hemingway and Fitzgerald careering through the Spanish countryside in an open car, playing a metaphor game. One would point to a roadside object, and the other had to coin a simile instantly. The penalty for failure was a long pull on a bottle of Spanish red. Developing a sense of metaphor, apparently, could be fun.
Great narrative rests on the three legs of character, action, and scene, and character comes first because it drives the other two. The personality, values, and desires of a protagonist produce action. And the POV character’s wants put her in a particular place, creating scene. “There must be a force which will unify all parts,” Lajos Egri said, “a force out of which they will grow as naturally as limbs grow from the body. We think we know what that force is: human character, in all its infinite ramifications and dialectical contradictions.”
The bigger the want, the bigger the story. Charlotte’s lust for freebies is about right for a newspaper series. Eric Knaus’s addiction fits a major magazine piece. Someone who sees himself as humanity’s savior deserves a book.
Elmore Leonard revealed one of the secrets of his success when he said, “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”
“And how do you slow down?” Tom asks. “You allow more space on the page. You allow more sentences. You literally write in shorter sentences. You get more paragraph breaks. You use space. You find pauses inside the scene that occur naturally that you would normally skip over.”
As Ted Cheney argued in Writing Creative Nonfiction, this kind of narrative “doesn’t just report the facts—it delivers the facts in ways that move people toward a deeper understanding of the topic.”
Nora Ephron put it, “All storytelling is a Rorschach.”
Willa Cather, a real reductionist when it came to these things, is famous for having said, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before.”
…a kit bag of immersion reporting techniques. Gorney, who now teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, journalism school, says she approaches her reporting by asking questions such as what it’s like to actually be her subjects and looking for the most interesting or surprising aspects of their worlds. She says she answers those questions by:
1. “Breathing their air.”
2. “Quietly observing, hanging around.”
3. “Understanding the rhythm of their typical work.”
4. “Learning their vocabulary.”
5. “Reading their literature”—texts, guidebooks, professional publications.
6. “Finding their gurus.”
10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story by Dan Harris
Last annotated on December 26, 2014
I initially wanted to call this book The Voice in My Head Is an Asshole
CBT assumes that maladaptive interpretations—negative thought patterns—are responsible for many mental health problems, and that the best way to treat those problems is to make people aware of their thought patterns and learn how to change them.
Susan Sontag said in her journal, “I write to define myself—an act of self-creation—part of [the] process of becoming.”
“Do I want them to HEAR it, or do I want them to LEARN it?”
THE ONLY REASON TO GIVE A SPEECH IS to change the world. An old friend of mine, a speechwriter, used to say that to me. He meant it as a challenge. It was his way of saying that, if you’re going to take all the trouble to prepare and deliver a speech, make it worthwhile. Change the world.
Public speaking must be more than merely conversation on your hind legs.
That’s the real beginning of charisma: caring. The word itself comes from the Greek (naturally), meaning favor or grace, as in someone divinely infused with passion. And how do we detect passion? When it can’t stay contained within one individual. When it overflows and threatens to engulf us, too. When it causes someone to grab us and not let go.
STANDARD MODEL OF COMMUNICATION has the following parts: sender, medium, message, receiver, feedback, and noise.
Aristotle got it wrong. He said there were three kinds of speeches: informative, persuasive, and “decorative”—speeches of praise and the like. But there really is only one kind: the persuasive. When the secretary of defense gives a briefing to the press on the war effort, is that an informative speech? Not really. What’s actually going on is that the secretary of defense is persuading the press that he’s in control, in command of the situation, and that the war is going well.
…research the group or the audience in all the ways you can imagine—the Internet, periodicals, books, whatever seems likely to be useful. Then gather the rest of the information: What is the age range of the audience? What is its socioeconomic makeup? Are you speaking in your first language? Theirs? How different are you from them? What do you have in common? What is their status compared to yours—higher, lower, the same? Have they had any bad news recently? Any good news? Do you know anyone in the audience? Would it be appropriate to address them directly? Each of these questions has implications for how you will shape your comments.
What are the elements of the elevator speech?
First of all, it must contain a benefit for the potential member of the audience.
Second, it must contain the word you, meaning the audience.
Third, it must contain some reference to emotion.
Far more speeches fail from a surfeit of information than a deficit.
People make meaning through the cultural stories we have all learned. Frame your presentation in terms of one of these powerful cultural stories. The Quest, Stranger in a Strange Land, Rags to Riches, Revenge, Boy Meets Girl—these are the most basic ones you can use in your presentations.
It’s a matter of showing them the respect due real people whom you genuinely want to move, to persuade to action. You don’t do that by dazzling them, or by podium antics, or by flashy PowerPoint slides (least of all those!). You do it by taking them with you on a journey that honors their thought processes and their need to have both intellect and emotion fed in the work that they do.
In Patagonia (Penguin Classics) by Bruce Chatwin
Last annotated on November 28, 2014
In Patagonia, the isolation makes it easy to exaggerate the person you are: the drinker drinks; the devout prays; the lonely grows lonelier, sometimes fatally.
‘I haven’t got any special religion this morning. My God is the God of Walkers. If you walk hard enough, you probably don’t need any other God.’
“What to ask when you have zero seconds to prepare”: What is new about this? What is not new? What is the significance of this, and why? Who will disagree with this? What is the evidence this is based on? Who funded this research? What will be done next? Who else should I talk to? What is your connection to this, and why did you get interested? How can I reach you later, including in the evening?
I like to think of structuring a news story like hosting a party. When your guests arrive at the door, welcome them and tell them what is going on, but don’t overload them with information. As they settle in, make sure that they get around to talk to the people they should meet. Look like you are having fun, even if you are stressed out. When it’s time for guests to leave, say goodbye and maybe even give them a parting gift to remember the occasion by. Who knows, they might just want to come to your next party.
Note: design writers could learn from science writers
The dangers of salt had become the conventional wisdom through force of repetition, not on the strength of the science. In the words of one researcher quoted in the article, the government’s anti-salt campaign went “way beyond the scientific facts.”
While theories should be based on data, in practice science can be heavily influenced by factors ranging from money to researchers’ egos. In the case of salt, Gary argued the problem was the pressure to turn complex and conflicting scientific data into simple public health sound bites.
“So when you go to write your story, you are not going to write for the whole world. You are going to choose your target audience and define it as tightly as you know how. You are going to write your story to delight your target audience. You will not care about anybody else.”
Note: writing advice looks a lot like startup advice
YOUR ONE-PARAGRAPH SUMMARY Give yourself one hour for this task. Write one paragraph with five sentences as follows: Explain the setting and introduce the lead characters. Explain the first quarter of the book, up to the first disaster, where the hero commits to the story. Explain the second quarter of the book, up to the second disaster, where the hero changes his mode of operations. Explain the third quarter of the book, up to the third disaster, which forces the hero to commit to the ending. Explain the fourth quarter of the book, where the hero has the final confrontation and either wins or loses or both. Focus on the disasters and the decisions that follow. Don’t try to figure out how you’ll solve all the problems. Leave that for later. You only care about the big picture in this step.
The Winter Long: October Daye #8 by Seanan McGuire
Last annotated on September 4, 2014
I don’t like parties. Someone always tries to assassinate someone I actually like, and there are never enough of those little stuffed mushroom caps.
I hate the idea that inspiration is something that comes to you rather than something you reach for, and I really hate the notion that you have to be some kind of born genius to write good book. I also abhor the belief that you have to be unhappy or emotionally compromised to make art. I am much more productive when I’m happy, sober, and stable.
Personally, I use the listening-agreement-continue technique. If someone tries to “drop a guilt bomb” about my writing time, I listen to their complaint, then mirror it back, showing that I did, indeed, hear them. Then I say no, as politely and warmly as possible.
If you’re wondering if something is a shadow comfort, observe how you feel when you’re doing it, and how you feel when you stop doing it. For example: when I go to a writer’s chapter meeting, I often feel drained — either because of the sheer number of people, or the stress of different agendas, or whatever. When I meet with my writergirls (monthly “critique”-food-and-wine-with-friends gathering, just five people) I come home feeling energized and look forward to writing. Both meetings appear to be the same (meeting with writers), but on closer inspection, they have different dynamics — and consequently, they have different results. Replenishment is always conscious.
Leading Change, With a New Preface by the Author by John P. Kotter
Last annotated on August 28, 2014
One great Japanese entrepreneur regularly stopped his management from becoming complacent despite record earnings by setting outrageous five-year goals. Just when people would start to become smug over their many achievements, he’d say something like: “We should set a target of doubling our revenues within four years.” Because of his credibility, his employees couldn’t ignore these pronouncements. Because he never pulled the goals out of thin air, but instead put careful thought into what stretch objectives would be feasible given inspired effort, his ideas were always defendable. And in defending them, he tied the objectives back to basic values with which his management identified. The net result: His five-year goals became little bombs that periodically blew up pockets of complacency.
elegance is the art of exerting the minimum amount of effort for the maximum effect, the maximum amount of power and achievement in our life.
Raymond Chandler: Writing the Big Sleep by Tom Williams
Last annotated on August 23, 2014
Rhythm was important to Ray and he took an unusual approach to ensure his novels had it. He would take a sheet of yellow letter paper, eight and a half inches by eleven inches, cut it in half, and roll it into a typewriter ‘turned up long ways’.8 Then, triple spacing as he went, he would write around 125 to 150 words on each piece of paper. He believed that this method of writing, in short sharp bursts, kept his prose lean and punchy: ‘If there isn’t a little meat on each , something is wrong.’9 Looking carefully at The Big Sleep, it is sometimes possible to see quite clearly each 150-word chunk of text.
Note: Raymond Chandler practically tweeted his novels. (140 char vs 150 words) Keep it punchy!
Tinkering: Kids Learn by Making Stuff by Curt Gabrielson
Last annotated on August 15, 2014
Wolfe wonders why a generation of great engineers and scientists came from such unexpected places. “Just why was it that small-town boys from the Middle West dominated the engineering frontiers? Noyce concluded it was because in a small town you became a technician, a tinker, an engineer, and an inventor, by necessity. “In a small town,” Noyce liked to say, “when something breaks down, you don’t wait around for a new part, because it’s not coming. You make it yourself.”
Top 10 Seoul (EYEWITNESS TOP 10 TRAVEL GUIDE) by DK Publishing
Last annotated on June 29, 2014
Yetchatjip This tearoom’s appeal lies in the small group of birds who use it as a kind of giant cage, zooming from perch to perch, bathing in the water fountains, or even fluttering onto your table for a closer look as you drink your tea. 2–2 Gwanhundong 722 5019 Open 10am–10pm
Goyangi Darakbang You can pet a cat here, while drinking your macchiato. 51–14 Myeongdong 318 3123
The Humor Code: A Global Search for What Makes Things Funny by Peter McGraw, Joel Warner
Last annotated on June 9, 2014
…when two planes of reasoning intersect, “the result is either a collision resulting in laughter, or their fusion in a new intellectual synthesis, or their confrontation in an aesthetic experience.”
In another experiment, people listened to a speech that had been intentionally disorganized, with nearly a third of all sentences rearranged randomly. Those who heard a version that included jokes throughout the discourse rated it more organized than its equally muddled counterpart.
It turned out many of the jokes used were downright sexist, such as this one: “Why did the woman cross the road? Never mind that—what was she doing out of the kitchen?!” So it wasn’t necessarily that the female participants didn’t enjoy jokes. They just didn’t enjoy jokes at their own expense.
Note: Do men or women have a better sense of humor? Always check the study protocol!
Don’t get stuck in the “if we build it, they will come” mentality. Just because you can develop a product doesn’t mean you should introduce it. With the cost of launching a new product going up each year, the cost of failure also goes up dramatically.
Gamestorming: A Playbook for Innovators, Rulebreakers, and Changemakers by Dave Gray, Sunni Brown, James Macanufo
Last annotated on June 2, 2014
three heuristics—or rules of thumb—of idea generation: A new idea can be generated from remixing the attributes of an existing idea. A new idea is best understood by describing its two essential attributes. The more different or surprising the combination of the two attributes, the more compelling the idea.
Unfolding the Napkin: The Hands-On Method for Solving Complex Problems with Simple Pictures by Dan Roam
Last annotated on May 22, 2014
Managing The Professional Service Firm by David H. Maister
Last annotated on May 11, 2014
The required shape of the organization (the relative mix of juniors, managers, and seniors) is primarily determined by (or rather, as we shall see, should be determined by) the skill requirements of its work: the mix of senior-level, middle-level, and junior-level tasks involved in the projects that the firm undertakes. Consider three kinds of client work: Brains, Grey Hair, and Procedure projects.
In the first type (Brains), the client’s problem is at the forefront of professional or technical knowledge, or at least is of extreme complexity. The key elements of this type of professional service are creativity, innovation, and the pioneering of new approaches, concepts or techniques: in effect, new solutions to new problems. The firm that targets this market will be attempting to sell its services on the basis of the high professional craft of its staff. In essence, their appeal to their market is, “Hire us because we’re smart.” Brains projects usually involve highly skilled and highly paid professionals. Few procedures are routinizable: Each project is “one-off.” Accordingly, the opportunities for leveraging the top professionals with juniors are relatively limited.
Grey Hair projects, while they may require a highly customized “output” in meeting the clients’ needs, involve a lesser degree of innovation and creativity in the actual performance of the work than would a Brains project. The general nature of the problem to be addressed is not unfamiliar, and the activities necessary to complete the project may be similar to those performed on other projects. Clients with Grey Hair problems seek out firms with experience in their particular type of problem. In turn, the firm sells its knowledge, its experience, and its judgment. In effect, they are saying, “Hire us because we have been through this before; we have practice at solving this type of problem.
The third type of project, the Procedure project, usually involves a well-recognized and familiar type of problem. While there is still a need to customize to some degree, the steps necessary to accomplish this are somewhat programmatic. The client may have the ability and resources to perform the work itself, but turns to the professional firm because the firm can perform the service more efficiently, because the firm is an outsider, or because the client’s own staff capabilities to perform the activity are somewhat constrained and are better used elsewhere. In essence, the professional firm is selling its procedures, its efficiency, its availability: “Hire us because we know how to do this and can deliver it effectively.
Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen
Last annotated on May 3, 2014
Our implicit rules often take the form of things people “should” or “shouldn’t” do: “You should spend money on education, but not on clothes.” “You should never criticize a colleague in front of others.” “You should never leave the toilet seat up, squeeze the toothpaste in the middle, or let the kids watch more than two hours of TV.” The list is endless. There’s nothing wrong with having these rules. In fact, we need them to order our lives. But when you find yourself in conflict, it helps to make your rules explicit and to encourage the other person to do the same. This greatly reduces the chance that you will be caught in an accidental duel of conflicting rules.
There’s only one way to come to understand the other person’s story, and that’s by being curious. Instead of asking yourself, “How can they think that?!” ask yourself, “I wonder what information they have that I don’t?” Instead of asking, “How can they be so irrational?” ask, “How might they see the world such that their view makes sense?” Certainty locks us out of their story; curiosity lets us in.
While we care deeply about other people’s intentions toward us, we don’t actually know what their intentions are. We can’t. Other people’s intentions exist only in their hearts and minds. They are invisible to us. However real and right our assumptions about other people’s intentions may seem to us, they are often incomplete or just plain wrong.
We feel hurt; therefore they intended to hurt us. We feel slighted; therefore they intended to slight us.
And then consider whether any of these responses implicate identity issues for you. If so, imagine they respond in the most difficult manner possible, and ask yourself, “What do I think this says about me?” Work through the identity issues in advance: “Is it okay for me to make someone cry? How will I respond? What if they attack my character or motivations? Then how would I respond?” The more prepared you are for how the other person might react, the less surprised you’ll be. If you’ve already considered the identity implications of how they might react, you are far less likely to be knocked off balance in the moment.
We sometimes ascribe valor to those who suffer in silence. But when suffering is prolonged or interferes with accomplishing what we want with our lives, then such suffering may be more reckless than brave.
“My discovery provides a recipe for both memory and wisdom.” But Thamus was reluctant to accept the gift. “If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls,” he told the god. “They will cease to exercise their memory and become forgetful; they will rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks. What you have discovered is a recipe not for memory, but for reminding. And it is no true wisdom that you offer your disciples, but only its semblance, for by telling them of many things without teaching them anything, you will make them seem to know much, while for the most part they will know nothing. And as men filled not with wisdom but with the conceit of wisdom, they will be a burden to their fellow-men.”
We’ve been successful; why change? Money (or some other problem a proposal does not address) is the only real issue. You exaggerate the problem. You’re implying that we’ve been failing! What’s the hidden agenda here? What about this, and that, and this, and that . . .? Your proposal goes too far/doesn’t go far enough. You have a chicken-and-egg problem. Sounds like [something most people dislike] to me! You’re abandoning our core values. It’s too simplistic to work. No one else does this. You can’t have it both ways. Aha! You can’t deny this! (“This” being a worrisome thing that the proposers know nothing about and the attackers keep secret until just the right moment.)
To generate this many questions and concerns, the idea has to be flawed. We tried that before—didn’t work. It’s too difficult to understand. Good idea, but this is not the right time. It’s just too much work to do this. It won’t work here; we’re different! It puts us on a slippery slope. We can’t afford this. You’ll never convince enough people. We’re simply not equipped to do this.
The lusory attitude of the players is the “curious state of affairs wherein one adopts rules which require one to employ worse rather than better means for reaching an end.”
Chris distinguishes four types of play activities, ranging from most to least interactive:
• Games are rule-based systems in which the goal is for one player to win. They involve “opposing players who acknowledge and respond to one another’s actions. The difference between games and puzzles has little to do with mechanics; we can easily turn many puzzles and athletic challenges into games and vice versa.”
• Puzzles are rule-based systems, like games, but the goal is to find a solution, not to beat an opponent. Unlike games, puzzles have little replay value.
• Toys are manipulable, like puzzles, but there is no fixed goal.
• Stories involve fantasy play, like toys, but they cannot be changed or manipulated by the player.
many games are not zero-sum games; a non-zero-sum game is one in which the overall gains and losses for the players can be more than or less than zero.
The Promise of Play, a documentary film investigating the subject, queried a number of people about the nature of play. Here are some of their responses: “Play is boisterous.” “It’s non-directed.” “It’s spontaneous.” “It’s not scripted.” “Play is loud.” “Not work.” “It’s physical.” “It’s fun.” “An emotional state when you’re having a good time.” “Play actually is meaningless behavior. You do it for its intrinsic value to you, but play can have utility. That is, you end up developing skills, and those skills can then be used in other arenas.” “I think play is one of the ways that we get a feel for the shape of the world.” “Play is the central item in children’s lives. It’s like work is to grown-ups. They play to learn.” “Play is child’s work. It’s all that young children do to learn about the world that they’re in.”
Sometimes participants experience transformational play: This is a deep level of play that actually shapes and alters the player’s life. Children experience this level when they learn life lessons through play; in fact, it is one of the reasons they engage in play naturally.
Even worse than failing to make an OKR was exceeding the standard by a large measure; it implied that an employee had sandbagged it, played it safe, thought small. Google had no place for an audacity-challenged person whose grasp exceeded his reach.
Note: Googles doesn’t approve of hitting all your okrs, or worse, exceeding them.
What’s more, OKRs were not private benchmarks shared only with managers. They were public knowledge, as much a part of an employee’s Google identity as the job description. The OKRs appeared on every employee’s biographical information on MOMA, Google’s internal website.
Note: Google makes all okrs public to everyone
The Startup Owner’s Manual Strategy Guide (Book 1) by Steve Blank, Bob Dorf
Last annotated on January 14, 2014
But what exactly is a startup? A startup is not a smaller version of a large company. A startup is a temporary organization in search of a scalable, repeatable, profitable business model. At the outset, the startup business model
The customer discovery process searches for problem/solution fit: “have we found a problem lots of people want us to solve (or a need they want us to fill)” and “does our solution (a product, a website, or an app) solve the problem in a compelling way?” At its core, the essence of customer discovery is to determine whether your startup’s value proposition matches the customer segment it plans to target.