Speaking in Public

Speaking in Public
by Reid Buckley
2/7 stars

I will not pretend that I enjoied this volume. Buckley does have some decent points about preparation and presence, but it is couched in such vitriolic language as to make the advice unpalatable at best and hypocritical at worst.

The most valuable advice I found in this book is never underestimate your opponent, either in argument or intelligence. Having a respect for the person you are debating is definitely important and will aid you in strengthening your own case.

There was a strong recommendation (or rather, imperative statement) that speakers should be well-read. I have no problem with this. In fact, I agree that it is valuable to read and have a background in literature. But Buckley questions the intelligence of  those who have not reached his prefered level of proficiency.

This is a consistent pattern in this book. Buckley makes an assertion and then throws aspersions on those who don’t conform to it. He uses phrases like “their sad, pathetic lives” in reference to factory workers for no other reason than, as far as I could tell, they work with their hands. He called a woman “as plain as dishwater” in the middle of an example of how confidence is a positive trait. In short, Buckley is mean and exhibits more than a little pettiness.

The parts of his advice that are not horrendously dated are useful (the book is nearly 30 years old).  His vocabulary is excellent and I read words that I haven’t seen in print in quite some time. However, this book is of limited use, so I will not recommend that you read it.

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The Power of Habit

The Power of Habit
By Charles Duhigg
6/7 stars

I found this book fascinating. Duhigg examines not only the psychology of habits, but also the neurology. The basic idea is that a habit involves four components: craving, cue, routine, and reward. If you can consistently change one of these components, you can change your habits. This applies to both good and bad habits.

Please note that “habit” is used in this book as a consistent pattern of behavior. This could mean what we think of as a habit (nail biting), a discipline (exercise), or something more serious (alcohol addiction). Habits in the large part control the majority of our behaviors, according to Duhigg, so it is not only valuable but imperative that we learn how to harness them.

The Power of Habit was well-constructed, well-researched, and engaging. It felt like the examples were what caused the conclusions Duhigg drew rather than the other way around. He discusses multiple facets of habit formation and retention, as well as factors that go into both.

I would recommend that anyone read this book. It is well worth your time.

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The Improvisation Edge

The Improvisation Edge

Karen Hough

3/7 Stars

This book examines how skills in improv can improve your ability to build trust and collaborate in creative ways. The main tenants are: accept other’s suggestions, explore and build on those suggestions, everyone contributes, and use mistakes as a platform. She also emphasizes how play is crucial to creativity.

All of these ideas are good, and all are very basic to stage improvisation. “Yes, and” is the first thing you learn in improv classes, and that is the first half of the book. The first half. Unfortunately, even with that amount of space, the author does not really go into the challenges to “Yes, and”. Her focus is on the argument that improv works, rather than improv works, and here is what you have to go through to achieve it.

Part of this is the examples she chose to include. Honestly, I could have used less “my company has big name clients and here are CEOs that go through our workshops”. That was a lot of the book. Unfortunately, these examples are almost exclusively about how enthusiastically said CEOs embrace the concepts in the book. What about when people are resistant to the idea of play in the workplace? If you don’t have active participation in this type of interaction, it just doesn’t work well. Attitude is very important when working with other people, and I felt like that could have been examined more closely.

I am not talking about outside challenges, by the way. That was covered beautifully and was probably the best part of the book. Improvisation is really a very good way to tackle unexpected circumstances and the latter third of the book looks at how to do so.

All in all, this is a decent book and would be worth reading for those of you who have no background in improv at all. If you have some experience, though, you will already be familiar with the ideas and implementations described here.

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Armada

Armada
by Ernest Cline
3/7 stars
[mild spoilers]

On the whole, I found this book under-whelming. I will fully admit that I had high expectations of Cline after Ready Player One. Cline’s first novel was well thought out, written, and executed. I would highly recommend that any nerd read it. Armada, however, I could take or leave.

In Ready Player One, the 80’s nostalgia had a point. It was central to the plot that people could out nerd each other. In Armada, it was not only not relevant, it was highly distracting. The 80’s references were there, but they made little sense. Sure, my friends and I try to out reference each other, but a major part of that is not telling the others what the reference is; they should just know. Sure, you can ask, but that means that you lose.

But in Armada, every single reference is explained. It felt like not only the characters but the audience was assumed to have no nerd cred whatsoever. Unfortunately, a good deal of the book was comprised of references, so this was not a minor nitpick to me.

As to the writing, I was a little disappointed. When I read a book, I try to predict what’s going to happen. I generally don’t expect to be right. Plot should not, in my opinion, be easy to determine. I like to be surprised. None of the plot twists were actually surprising. In fact, I was accurate in pre-determining every single major plot point. While it’s good for my ego to be as smart as the author, it doesn’t make for good reading.

Now for the mildly spoiler-y part. The aliens that are in the book are meant to be hyper intelligent. Why, then, are their methods incomprehensibly and transparently stupid? The interactions with the human race did not make any rational sense and they were supposed to be the most rational of beings.

All in all, I don’t think I’d recommend this book. If you want a book about aliens or first contact, I can suggest several other volumes to you.

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In The Plex

In the Plex
By Steven Levy
3/7 stars

I expected In the Plex to be an objective history of Google and its various endeavors. As it turns out, I was only half right. It is, indeed, a history of Google.

This is not to say that Levy did a poor job researching the book. As far as I can tell he did a fairly in depth job. But when you describe saying to a developer, “I’d rather be doused with gasoline and set on fire than use your product” as “tough love” (171), I’m going to say you are a teensy-weensy biased.

Not only was this work less critical than I would expect of a journalist, I found that there were many times Levy seemed to actively avoid looking at things objectively. At the risk of crit-fic, I’ll say that Levy is fairly obviously enamored of his subject. He almost never said anything negative about the founders. Only positive things were allowed, apparently.

To that effect, he spends a disproportionate amount of time on Google’s successes and barely mentions its failures. I have no problem with the author examining Google’s success. But seriously, not everything it touches turns to gold. Looking at what didn’t work and why really would have been helpful. But no. No, that would make sense. Instead, let’s just gloss over all that.

The writing itself was fine but repetitive. I lost track of the number of times I read “they quickly set up a war room”. I get it. War rooms happen. On the plus side, Kilroy was mentioned, so that happened.

If given the choice between this book and being stranded on a desert island, I’d pick the book. But I wouldn’t take it to the desert island.

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What the Dog Saw

What the Dog Saw
By Malcom Gladwell
7/7 stars

The best part about Malcolm Gladwell is the fact that he thinks up questions no one else does. Questions like: why is there only one kind of ketchup when there are dozens of kinds of mustard? What is the difference between a puzzle and a mystery? What if Enron’s trouble wasn’t a lack of disclosure so much as too much information? What actually goes into profiling a criminal? All these questions are examined, if not necessarily answered, in What the Dog Saw.

This volume is a collection of essays Gladwell wrote for The New Yorker over the years. As such, there is only a loose cohesion between the chapters. The main problem with this is Gladwell could not go as deep into any given subject as I would have liked. He clearly goes to the trouble of researching his subjects very thoroughly, and it would have been cool to read more of his findings.

In publishing a collection of shorter works, Gladwell highlights his writing capabilities. I love Gladwell’s turn of phrase. He has a prodigious vocabulary and makes excellent use of it. In reading his work, it feels like his entire goal is to get you to question the things around you. Often in these essays, he doesn’t give you a solution or answer to the problems that he poses. I find that highly useful, as it encourages me to think more for myself.

I would recommend anyone read this book. It’s fun, entertaining and thought provoking.

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The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People
By Stephen R. Covey
6/7 stars

7 Habits is one of those books that now has its own mythology. Even if you’ve never read it, you have probably heard (or made fun of) “synergizing”, “sharpening your saw”, and “thinking win-win”. It’s become so much a part of the culture that there are parodies of it everywhere. If you’ve never read it, you may think you already know what’s in the book. If so, you, like me, are most likely wrong.

Covey starts out by saying that self-help, communication, and managerial advice is of little use. The reason is that they deal with superficial and outward behaviors without examining your underlying character, motives, and values. First one must focus on these factors before even considering their relation to other people.

With that in mind, the first three habits fall under the heading of “Private Victory”. Habit 1 is to be proactive. Recognize that you are responsible for your response to any given stimulus in your life and adjust those responses to fall in line with your principles. Additionally, learn to discern what you can actually change or influence and focus on that rather than what you can’t. This is good advice, but it doesn’t take in to account things like trauma, abuse, and circumstances beyond your control. Proactivity is certainly good, don’t get me wrong. It does have to be developed of time, though.

The second habit is to begin with the end in mind. This means to consider how you want your legacy to last beyond you. Consider your underlying principles and how those affect your daily life and views. Then take those principles and values to create a personal mission statement for yourself. This can help you focus your attention on the things that you truly value as well as help you recognize places that you want to improve upon.

The final habit on private improvement is to put first things first. Prioritization and time management both get addressed in this section. The idea is to focus your time on things that are important, but not urgent. Urgency can’t always be ignored, but more often than not it results in a lot of busy work that doesn’t really accomplish anything. Instead, one should focus on that which will minimize urgent things in the future by doing that which is important now.

Now Covey moves into the section he calls a “Public Victory”. This is in regard to your relations to other people, allowing the habits you’ve instilled in your inner life to have an impact on your day-to-day life. Habit 4 is to think win-win. In other words, shift your personal view of interactions to where your main goal is for everyone to benefit. This doesn’t have to mean that everyone gets everything they want. It does mean that your goal is focused on the people around you as well as yourself. The relationships you have with other people are more important than the problem or conflict you are presented with.

Paired with Habit 4 is Habit 5: seek first to understand, then to be understood. Truly empathetic listening is very, very hard. This is a habit I’ve tried to instill in my life for many years, and it is highly frustrating to me. I want people to get to whatever point they want to convey quickly. But if you are seeking to understand someone else’s perspective without probing or projecting, it takes what feels like forever. However, empathetic listening is one of the best ways to deeply connect with another human being. It takes patience, but it is certainly worth it in the long run.

Now, synergize! Seriously, that’s Habit 6. When you have achieved high levels of both trust and communication, your interactions can become synergistic, meaning that the whole is greater than the sums of its parts. The problem with this section that I found was while there were a number of examples given of synergy, there was little in the way of practical advice to achieving it.

Finally, the last habit is to commit to personal renewal on a daily basis. This includes physical, mental, spiritual and social areas of life. The idea is to maintain a mentality and practice of continual improvement. You are never complete as a person and should therefore never stop working on yourself as a person.

I would highly recommend this book. It has solid advice and is useful to people in nearly any stage of life.

 

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