Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

We all need willpower to succeed in school, business, our relationships, our careers, life. I’ve written a lot over the years about the need for resilience and robustness. Willpower is also fundamental to these, so you don’t give up at the first signs of trouble.

There are two very recent books on willpower that are definitely worth reading and that should be in your library if you’re serious about self-development. The first isWillpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. It’s written by the researcher who was instrumental in putting the science of willpower on a sound footing through experimentation, Roy F. Baumeister, and science journalist John Tierney. The book reads well and is in the style of many of the new popular science books, with a combination of hard scientific fact, anecdote, and the occasional first-person account.

The main thing I learned is that willpower is something we can control, but not by exercising more willpower. Instead, the authors focus on different areas of endeavour to show that willpower is largely a function of circumstances, physiological functioning, habits, and skills. In other words, there really IS a science of willpower, and it offers insights to improve how we function in all aspects of our lives. I was particularly interested in the authors’ discussion of ways to get more organized. They show how David Allen’s Getting Things Done approach to time and work management is so successful because he has apparently stumbled on to a series of skills that work with our human nature, rather than trying to go against it.

It is also an approach that eschews senseless moralizing, and that is a fundamental theme in the other book on willpower, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, And What You Can Do to Get More of It, by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. McGonigal teaches a continuing education course on self-control and willpower at Stanford University, and it is apparently one of their most successful courses open to the public.

There is a considerable overlap in the scientific information presented in this book as compared to the first one I’ve mentioned. However, this book is much more practical, and I would think also more interesting to the average reader. The author has structured the book to follow her course. She has included exercises to develop self-control and willpower and that have proven effective for most of her students in her course. She has also been able to include a large number of relevant examples from some of her students. This makes the information that much more interesting and shows that the reader’s self-control goals are quite attainable.

As mentioned above, the author states that willpower is definitely NOT about morality. In fact, McGonigal has a whole chapter devoted to that fact. She shows that couching things in terms of good and bad are not useful to developing self-control. In fact, they can be counter-productive as they can produce perverse results and unintended consequences. I also learned that willpower is like a muscle. It can be developed and honed over time, but you need to have the right tools to do so. This book gives much of the same information as Willpower, but the exercises are focused on skill building, not just generalities about gaining willpower or applying the scientific findings of the research. An interesting point about those exercises is that most focus on developing self-awareness. If you know the science and can then watch yourself in action, you will be able to apply the self-control techniques to achieve your willpower goals.

Overall I foundThe Willpower Instinct a better and more useful book. However,Willpower rounds out some of the scientific information and provides insight into the historical development of the field, as one of its authors was one of its founders.

Here’s some willpower advice. Exercise self-control; get both, and you won’t have any regrets.

© 2012 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with full and proper attribution.

It is with great pleasure that I announce a publishing deal for my first book. It is tentatively titled Brilliant Manoeuvres: How to Use Military Wisdom to Win Business Battles. It is scheduled to be published in the early fall of 2012 by Global Professional Publishing in England, although it will be available worldwide.

As you can see from the title, my aim is to show how the principles and practices of military strategy, tactics, planning, and leadership can be applied in any organizational setting, especially to achieve outstanding success in business.

It has not been easy securing this publishing deal, but it has been an education on the changes afoot in the book industry and how various publishing houses and retailers are dealing with the transformation. In a nutshell, publishers and brick-and-mortar book retailers are reeling from the impact of online bookstores such as Amazon and low-cost department stores like Wal-Mart.

The problem is this. Someone goes to a bookstore to browse. They see a title they like, so they look it up on Amazon, see it’s available at about 40% of the in-store price, then order it on their smart phone so they can get it delivered the next day. If they have a Kindle, they can even get it downloaded immediately at an even lower price. As we can see, bookstores have become the showroom for online retailers. They bear the costs of distribution and display, while the online sellers get the sales, with much lower costs, which they then pass on to consumers. It’s a sweet deal for the Amazons of the world, but the physical retailers are, like Charlie Brown at Halloween, stuck with the rock in their candy bag.

Borders, one of the leading book retailers in the U.S., went bankrupt last year, and Barnes and Noble, the largest bookseller in the world, has been trying to sell itself to a foreign buyer. Canadian bookstore chain Chapters-Indigo is changing into a ‘lifestyle’ retailer, selling scented candles, throw pillows, and picture frames, with books increasingly sent to the back of the store. In the meantime, the terms publishers are getting from retailers are growing progressively worse, to the point where they are assuming most of the distribution risk.

Commercial publishing is vital in an open society, as it allows people to express themselves and reach a much wider audience than would be normally be available to someone of little renown. Even with blogs and Twitter, there will still always be a place for a well-written and well-argued book, whether it is presented in a physical format or not.

Publishers must find a way to stay relevant while being profitable for everyone involved. There is no doubt that people will continue reading, but as we saw with Apple’s recent introduction of textbooks for iPad, technology and media will continue to evolve, sometimes at a breakneck pace. Electronic devices and online connectivity will make at least some books into interactive platforms for authors and readers to exchange and connect, in a way that traditional paper books can’t.

By the same token, the book still must be written and read. The discipline of writing a book and getting it published are essential to weeding out the wheat from the chaff. And there is plenty of chaff on the Internet. Anybody and everybody can propound whatever they want through blogs and social media. There is a wealth of valuable and well thought out information and knowledge online, but it is inundated by self-aggrandizing and navel-gazing inanity.

The need to be profitable will continue to guide the ultimate decision on whether to publish a work. Commercial publishers are still the only entities that can ensure a level of editorial integrity and quality. The real question is what format the work will take. Will it be in physical format, or purely electronic? Will it be a one-way exposition by the author, or an interactive conversation between author(s), reader(s), and observer(s)? It needn’t be always the case, but the book can become a miniature forum for people to exchange ideas, information, knowledge and wisdom. Within that framework, the physical book may only be part of a wider network of knowledge and learning, an artifact, calling card, or memento, the front end of a community of practice or the tip of the iceberg for a person to engage in the acquisition and refinement of knowledge and skills.

But to do all of this, the publishers need authors and their works. Without them, there is no publishing industry. On the other hand, authors need publishers to provide editorial support and expertise, commercial reach, promotional advice, and, increasingly, technical know-how to transform the book from a one-dimensional reading experience into a multi-dimensional learning and interaction experience.

© 2012 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with full and proper attribution.

Books like Good to Great are based on survivor bias. Study a bunch of companies that have had an unbroken run of success (By whatever arbitrary criterion you choose. Why 20 years? Why not 21.5 years?) In the universe of all companies, there are bound to be a few that meet your criteria, even though 99 % of companies eventually fail, go out of business, or get bought out. It’s like taking a group of 10000 people and asking them to flip a coin. Every time they flip, you only keep those people that guess right on the coin toss. After a certain number of iterations, there is one person who “successfully” predicted 18 coin tosses in a row (or whatever the number would be). Does that indicate the winner is psychic? After that, you find some arbritrary features that you decide must explain the “success.” Write a book about it, with many compelling – yet just so – stories.

The problem with stories is that they make a great read, convey a point or illustrate with an example. None of these have anything to do with whether there is actually something to be explained in repeated cause and effect terms. The other problem with these books is that they isolate causes of success after the success has occurred, and despite the fact that there is a fair dosage of luck involved (though not always). The resulting advice often appears to be useful on the surface, but there are no real guideposts indicating how to apply it. We’re told that it’s essential to concentrate and adopt the hedgehog approach. What about all the cases where it would have been better to be a generalist? Zen like Level 5 Leadership is the way to go, except that most of the truly exceptional business innovators and leaders are petty tyrants (Jobs, young Gates, etc.). Innovate and be out front, except when you shouldn’t. In fact, for the latter, you could argue that it is the foolhardy thing to do. It’s probably much better to see which way the wind is blowing, and then to bet on a small number of the most likely winners, accepting that you could be totally wrong.

© 2010 Richard Martin

Note – While the following content is mine, I got the term “cultural intelligence” from a book by Thomson and Inkson called, you guessed it, Cultural Intelligence.

  1. Be naturally curious. Don’t shut yourself off from dialogue or interaction with people of other cultures. This includes other professions, occupations, or organizations – yes, it is possible to understand engineers…
  2. When you encounter someone with an accent you can’t identify, ask them politely and with curiosity what it is. I have done this quite often and people respond well to the inquiry because they love to talk about their home country and culture.
  3. Be open minded and receptive to other people and other ways of doing things. There is seldom one perfect way of doing things. Even more, there is never one single way of seeing the world.
  4. Ask questions and listen to the answers. If you don’t know how to act in a certain situation, then ask a trusted advisor about the custom and expected behaviour. I have often asked this of my interlocutor in an exchange. Sometimes I get a laugh, but it breaks the ice and creates a dynamic of open communication.
  5. Use humour. I’m always astounded that people from around the world find essentially the same things funny.
  6. Be aware of your own implicit theories. We all carry around our own cultural baggage, whether that be professional, organizational, ethnic, linguistic, gender based, or whatever else. Try to see your behaviour from others’ points of view and continually question your assumptions and perceptions.
  7. When you travel, go off the beaten track. That doesn’t mean you should walk around a dark souk alone at two in the morning, but you can certainly get out of the stultifying, yet comfortable, business/tourist travel circuit.
  8. You don’t have to “go native” to understand another national culture. I have worked in many different countries without adopting their traits and behaviours. The important thing is to respect others, and to get respected. The key way of doing this is by reading beforehand, asking candid questions, listening and observing. If you don’t want to do something, then don’t do it. You may have to explain your reasoning, but people are more sophisticated than we give them credit for.

Recommended Reading

As a new feature, I’ve decided to occasionally offer free reading advice. This month I would like to recommend – at great risk to my own life and limb – Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1,500 Years, by S. Fred Singer and Dennis T. Avery (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007). I make this recommendation because global warming is about to cost us billions, so it will have an organizational and business impact for decades to come, whether it is real or not.

The book, while quite polemical, offers an interesting, and refreshing, counterpoint to all the claims about an overwhelming “scientific consensus” on man-made global warming in the popular press. The authors’ favourite target is of course the UN funded International Panel on Climate Change, but that doesn’t stop the book from being an eye opening read which could lead you to challenge some of the alarmist pabulum we are being fed on a constant basis these days.

Singer and Avery are favourite targets of the environmental movement in the U.S. because they are highly sceptical of man made global warming and the dire predictions of Al Bore and acolytes. Here is the interesting thing. Singer is actually a professional meteorologist and climate scientist. The main thesis is this: the earth warms and cools over an approximate 1,500 year cycle. This is primarily caused by fluctuations in solar radiation and its interplay with cosmic rays and the earth’s own variations in orbit, inclination, etc. If your head still doesn’t hurt, you can examine the many graphs of ice-core samples from Greenland and upper atmosphere temperature readings by satellites. You could also read the dozens of pages of references to articles by reputable climate scientists in refereed academic journals.

In the final analysis, you can agree or disagree with the thesis of man-made global warming. Unstoppable Global Warming at least provides an alternative viewpoint to the so-called scientific consensus. It also provides another perspective on the world of academic publishing and paradigm building, but that’s just a bonus in my mind.

© 2010 Richard Martin. Reproduction and quotes permitted with proper attribution.