July 2010: Books Read

Note: all the books I read this month (except for the discourse grammar) were for the Read for Cash program at work. For a limited time, Logos employees get to read pre-approved books and get paid for it if they write a book review and e-mail it to everyone in the office. Pretty cool, huh? These are the books I picked out:

1. Fire Someone Today by Bob Pritchett. When I began reading Fire Someone Today, I had two questions:

If I don’t like this book, do I have the guts to be honest about it?
Would it be wise to write a negative review when the author is my boss and the title is Fire Someone Today?

Thankfully, I didn’t have to answer either of those questions because I liked the book. Bob’s target audience is entrepreneurs; every time he says “you” throughout the book, he is talking to small business owners. Despite not being a small business owner, I enjoyed the book for the following reasons:

I am a relatively new employee at Logos, and I learned from the book about the history of the company and why it is the way it is today.

It is well-written. The chapters are short and to-the-point, Bob uses humor effectively, and there are few extraneous words. In the genre of business writing, this is never a given. Business writers didn’t spend their formative years sitting in a lonely garret, chewing on pens and crumpling up pieces of paper; they were out learning how to build a successful business. This means that finding a well-written business book is like finding a four-leaf clover (or, to use Bob’s analogy, like panning for gold).

It is an atypical business book in that Bob doesn’t try to tell his readers that he has something new to say. Ironically, this is an original tack. He just gives advice from what he has learned as an entrepreneur, and he does it in an interesting way. Although some of the chapter titles can seem vaguely Machiavellian (“Fire Someone Today,” “There Can Be Only One – Plan for Your Partner’s Departure,” “In the Ladder of Life, You’ve Got to Step on Some Fingers” – OK, I made that last one up), he is really just giving good advice.

I’d recommend it for entrepreneurs, as well as all Logos employees and anyone wanting to learn more about the life of an entrepreneur from someone with experience.

2. Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky. Organizing large numbers of people has always been hard work, as anyone trying to find a place for a group to eat can attest (“I hate Italian.” “I’m allergic to anything on a stick.” “I only eat fish on alternate Thursdays during months ending in -y.”). Fortunately, says Clay Shirky, new social tools are enabling people to cooperate in ways (and on scales) that were impossible even 15 years ago. Today, large groups can assemble more easily than ever before. This gives rise to new possibilities in what groups can accomplish – a phenomenon that Shirky refers to using the phrase “More is different.”

Not all of this new group activity is equal. There are three levels, in ascending order of difficulty: sharing (Flickr is one example), collaborative production (Wikipedia, Linux) and collective action. It is this last level that most interests Shirky. He begins the book by telling the story of a woman who loses her cell phone in a taxi, finds out who has it, and begins to exert enormous social pressure on that person to give it back by gathering people on a Web site and message board. Later, he tells the stories of several other groups who have organized and taken action using new social tools: “flash mobs” in Belarus, disgruntled airline passengers who came up with the Passengers’ Bill of Rights, Catholics unhappy with the Boston pedophilia scandal who started Voice of the Faithful, etc.

This book has a lot of interesting stories of how social tools have enabled people to organize like never before, but by the epilogue I found that Shirky’s vision had become too utopian for me to buy into it completely. While I think that new social tools have made a huge difference in the ease with which people relate and form groups, I don’t think that we’re going to see a “revolution in collective action” (313) as a result. Call me a pessimist (though I prefer “realist”), but I think that social tools of the kind Shirky describes are just amplifiers. They don’t improve people’s behavior. They magnify what is already going on in people’s hearts and minds. For example, that lost phone would never have been returned if there had not been a huge number of people who felt that it was unjust for someone to find a phone and refuse to give it back to its rightful owner.

At the end of this book, I wasn’t left with an exclamation (“Here comes the revolution!”). I was asking a question: “How can we use communication tools to amplify what is good?”

3. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Don’t by Chip and Dan Heath. In this book, the Heaths set out to describe why it is that certain things (whether they are ad campaigns, urban legends or things we learn in school) stick in our heads or get us to change our behavior, and others don’t. Ideas that stick have the following things in common: they are

Simple – like proverbs, they are boiled down to the core, with no extraneous information to distract from the main point.

Unexpected – they break patterns in a compelling way. They highlight gaps in people’s knowledge in order to make them curious.

Concrete – they take abstract concepts and apply them to real situations.

Credible – they convince. They are testable. They use statistics accessibly.

Emotional – they make people care. They appeal not just to self-interest, but to people’s idealized version of themselves.

Stories – they are narratives that help people know how to act and give people the courage, creativity or energy to act.

The great enemy of a sticky idea, according to the Heaths, is the Curse of Knowledge: once you know something, it is hard to remember what it is like to not know it. This, in turn, makes it hard to present to someone else in a way that grabs their attention.

The Heaths spend 300 pages fleshing out the six qualities above, but the book never drags. They provide interesting examples of each quality, and they also include sidebars where they edit sample messages in order to make them better exemplify the six qualities of a sticky idea.

In short, they have taken their own advice and written a compelling book. Marketers who read it might have the most immediate payoff, but I would recommend it to all people who have an idea, specialty, or area of interest that they would like to present in a captivating way.

4. Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everyone Else by Geoff Colvin. This book’s central premise is that what separates world-class performers from everyone else is not innate talent, as so many of us believe. Rather, what makes people great at what they do is practice – but not just any practice. Deliberate practice. It isn’t just repeating something over and over; it is “activity designed specifically to improve performance, often with a teacher’s help; it can be repeated a lot; feedback on results is continually available; it’s highly demanding mentally, whether the activity is purely intellectual, such as chess or business-related activities, or heavily physical, such as sports; and it isn’t much fun” (66). Colvin fleshes out his argument throughout the book with a lot of data and anecdotes.

The idea that deliberate practice is what makes a world-class performer is encouraging and discouraging at the same time. It is encouraging in that anyone can be a world-class performer at anything if they have enough deliberate practice. It is discouraging in that it really does take a lot of work over a long time before a person is capable of world-class performance or innovation – about 10 years in most of the fields Colvin looked at, and longer in some. Persevering at deliberate practice over that amount of time requires passion, and Colvin is honest that he isn’t quite sure why some people have that drive and others don’t (204).

This is a fascinating book, and the only reason I didn’t give it 5 stars is that I don’t think it is a book-length idea. It could have been stated in a much shorter format – say, an article in Fortune magazine. I’d recommend it to anyone, but especially to young people. Since deliberate practice takes so much time and effort, the younger you start, the better.

5. Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament: A Practical Introduction for Teaching and Exegesis by Steve Runge. This book was written by someone I work with, and it has the honor of being the first book I read completely on my computer using Logos Bible Software. I was able to highlight and write notes, the same as I would have been able to if I were reading a hard copy.

He uses linguistic analysis to shed light on biblical Greek. That is, he looks at how languages operate in general, and applies it to the New Testament. This means that it is accessible to a wide variety of people, from New Testament scholars to people who have very little language training. The only prerequisite for reading this book is an interest in its subject. I found a lot of interesting information in the book, but it is a grammar, so it can be dry at times.