My reading journey this year


I’ve enjoyed a particularly rich crop of books this year and given how much I enjoy reading other”Best of 2017″ lists, I will share a version of my own.  My full list is available on goodreads.

At the end of last year, I began getting deep enjoyment from audiobooks either purchased from Audible or borrowed from the library.  Audio books (which can be put on sleep timers) are a source of great solace to me during chronic periods of insomnia.  Audible often has generous offers for new members and I have signed up for the “Audible daily deal” which has delivered me some inexpensive gems this year.

I read very little fiction but a book that will now live near the top of my favourites list for the incredible writing is Bel Canto by Ann Patchett.  The story’s focus on a hostage-taking was likely the main turn-off after years of persistent recommendations from friends but I am glad that I finally got around to it. This was an Audible purchase and well worth it for the first rate narration.  I also enjoyed Manhattan Beach on audiobook.  Set during WWII, I liked the strong female lead – a woman who becomes a diver while exploring the mystery of her father’s disappearance.

In the continuing work to improve my own writing and help others write well,  I get deep enjoyment from reading about writing.  The top of the list for this year was Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.  I also found a documentary on Lamott at my library by the same title.   Even this clip from the documentary gave me a belly laugh – “I used to be unable to write with dirty dishes in the sink. I have now had a child.  I could now write with a cadaver in the sink”.   Another book which touches on the writing process is Ann Patchett’s collection of non-fiction writing covering the span of her career called This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.  Patchett’s book includes her beloved dog and training for a the LAPD.  The latter experience involved learning to go over a six foot wall.  She describes that as with most things you are trying to learn, she would have preferred to learn this in private.  Unfortunately there are no six foot brick walls in wide open fields.  I also stepped into reading about how specialized writers have mastered their craft.  Digging into Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy writers was an unexpected delight.

I love memoirs and personal essays and had a banner year in this area. I listened to The Argonauts, read by the author Maggie Nelson.  This is an unconventional memoir which dances with philosophy.  It is principally about the author’s partner transitioning to a man.  Another unconventional but highly enjoyable read was The Art of Travel a book of essays on travel drawn from both the author’s own travel experiences and those of notable writers.  I listened to Roxane Gay read her memoir Hunger.  It was a moving but brutal read but a good empathy jolt for me.  I channelled my early life as a biology student by reading Lab Girl – a great memoir of a female scientist and some lovely meditations on the natural world.  Also in the science realm, I listened to  The Gene, a comprehensive history of a new science.  The Gene is not for the faint of heart  – it is a long haul at over 600 pages but it is a fascinating work.  In a slightly different vein, I adored reading an anthology of performance pieces by “The Moth” – a group in New York City where people perform monologues of stories of their lives.  The Moth presents All These Wonders: True Stories about Facing the Unknown.  There is a great variety of material, all well-drawn and very satisfying.  This anthology tuned me into the related podcast and it has become one of my favourites.  I also really enjoyed listening to Born a Crime on audio-book – brilliantly read by the author Trevor Noah.  It chronicles his childhood growing up on South Africa as a bi-racial person.  I found When Breath Becomes Air very thoughtful and moving book about a neurosurgeon facing his own imminent death.

I fulfilled a personal commitment by reading the summary report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  Reading the work had the desired effect of deepening my understanding of issues touching indigenous peoples. It also gave me nightmares.  It also spurred me on to make greater efforts to appreciate indigenous artists.  A concert highlight of the year was being introduced to William Prince.  William is getting some well deserved awards as an emerging artist.  As well, I went to hear an interview at the National Arts Centre with the new Director of Indigenous Theatre.  Though we are several months out from hearing the line-up, this new stream will be funded at the same level as the English and French streams.  We have lots to look forward to both in Ottawa and in the rest of Canada as there will be community based shows funded via the NAC as well.

I still read a lot of business books out of personal interest and I really enjoyed Radical Candor about being firm and compassionate at the same time.  The same authors present a podcast as well.  I was fascinated by the concepts introduced in Collaborating with the Enemy. This book challenges the idea that you need shared outcomes to advance a collaborative process.

I continued to wade into graphic novels though there were no huge standouts.  I did enjoy Smile, a memoir aimed and younger readers about a girl going through a series of dental surgeries. I also found the memoir of the father’s loss of a child, Roasalie Lightening very moving but wasn’t drawn to the artwork.

To close, books that I enjoyed that don’t fit as cleanly into the categories above but would fall into the general self-help genre: I enjoyed Rising Strong by Brene Brown about resetting after adversity and Happiness by Design which introduces various elements of design thinking to help you adopt good habits.


Getting comfortable with uncertainty

I’ve read two pieces recently on the need the need to manage discomfort with uncertainty.  Though there is a a good evolutionary reason for discomfort with things that don’t fit regular patterns, many types of work require a certain comfort with uncertainty. They’ve suggested that the MCAT add questions on dealing with ambiguity.

Seth Godin argues that you have to keep “levelling up” and not assume you are ever fully baked and that your knowledge stash would be complete.

And, in this interview in The Atlantic on the “Benefits of Comfort with Uncertainty”  the normal human desire for closure and certainty is discussed.

Using some extreme examples such as the Waco hostage taking and the rise of the Nazis. author Jamie Holmes talks about the benefits of holding space for grey areas to advance thinking. What I appreciated most was the need to keep alternative perspectives on the table as long as possible because they might present solutions.  I also appreciated the reminder that divergent approaches may be seeking the same end game – I tend to crave closure on big ideas and fact checking whereas others crave more perfectly presented documents – same craving with different stripes – closure and certainty.

People grow if you believe they can change

I’ve enjoyed reading through a book of commencement speeches this week called “Way More Than Luck”.  Most moving to me was the one given by Madeleine L’Engle to Wellesley College in 1991.

She recounted how she was placed in a school which valued sport participation and she wasn’t able to contribute due to having been born with legs of two different lengths.  For some reason, her home room teacher equated this with a lack of intellect and completely gave up on her.  Madeleine withdrew from her schoolwork and began to dedicate herself to her own writing in Grade three.  She eventually switched schools and ended up with a first-year teacher who considered it part of her role find and affirm in each person, that which is intrinsically valuable.  The teacher tasked her with writing a sequel to the Odyssey.

I liked this reminder that people can rise to challenges but that your attitude about whether you think they can is crucial.

A recent article from the Harvard Business Review, People won’t grow if you think they can’t change, elaborates the point drawing on the fixed mindset versus growth mindset work of Carol Dweck.   Not only is a growth mindset important to see the potential for people to grow, a fixed mindset may prevent you from seeing the progress an employee has made (and may also well prevent an employee from seeing the progress you are making) thus calcifying a difficult relationship.

What was also poignant about reading L’Engle’s commencement speech was that L’Engle’s teacher acted as a force multiplier for her by taking a task that she was willing to do on her own and asking her to stretch and build on it.  I dipped into a book called Multipliers earlier this year on this theme.  While “diminishers” are apt to believe that work can’t get done without the help of a manager are more likely to shut people down with sharp remarks, “multiplier” managers can get two times more work from their people if they can build on their employee’s existing talents – things they can do with minimal effort, things they do without being asked and things that they’d do readily without being paid.  What is perhaps most liberating about multipliers is that they generate pressure to create the best work (and create the space that this could occur) without creating stress.  They rather generate the belief that the impossible is possible.

L’Engle admits that her sequel to the Odyssey likely wasn’t that great but the suggestion to attempt it seemed to help plant the seed for her momentous career in writing.


Effective People Think Simply

I’ve recently signed up to receive management material from the Stanford Business School and thought that this video on the value of having a simple set of rules to guide you was quite valuable.  This is not a new idea: Obama only wears grey or blue suits because he has so many other decisions to make and Alton Brown has a few simple rules to guide what he eats and drinks to manage his weight such as limiting to once a week alcohol and dessert consumption and never consuming “diet” foods.  That said, this piece elaborates how you might create some rules in a business setting,

Why a simple set of rules?

  • We get faster decisions
  • We get better decisions (if we overfit for the past, this is a poor predictor of the future)
  • People can actually follow a small number of rules even under great stress.

The gist of the research:

Researchers examined product development teams to see who got the most done and overly rule driven and complicated processes resulted in the wrong products being produced very efficiently while teams with no rules had a great time getting nothing done.

Teams benefited from having a few rules that would guide work but leave flexibility for innovation.

The steps recommended to develop your rules:

  1. Set your objective
  2. Find the bottleneck (it may not be where you think it is – in the example given it was during the hiring process.)
  3. Develop your rules by looking at your own data of when you have been successful and by talking to outside experts.

The hardest rules to follow are the ones telling you when to stop doing something – we are all great at starting something and very poor at stopping.

Getting to ground with uncertainty, ambiguity and just plain vagueness or “you know everything I do”

Version 2

On some of my “I feel  like a bad manager” days, I’ve struggled mightily with needing to give vague instructions to advance a product and feeling discomfort if not resistance, resentment, anger and panic as employees work through the process.

With experience, I am now much more careful to share that I am not withholding information (“I know everything you know”) and I take care to erase the concern that I am delegating so quickly that I have skimmed over details that could support the iteration process.

I also now understand some of the reasons behind the negative emotions I see in these situations and it is helpful: I don’t want to waste time, I don’t want to look stupid, and I think this is pointless because your instructions are so vague that it is impossible for me to hit the mark.

And in fairness, as this recent piece from Fast Company outlines well, our formal training may well not prepare us to deal with ambiguity which is basically an opportunity to be creative or innovative and think about solutions that we may only discover through the process itself.

In bureaucratic settings we are not necessary advancing our skills to cope with ambiguity and uncertainty.  We are usually bounded by time, templates, page limits etc.

So how do we pull through when we know so little? The main thing is to advance something somehow so here are my tips:

  • I appreciate that the Fast Company piece focuses on the need to trust the effectiveness of your regular processes including your standard ways of researching problems and mining your existing networks for information.
  • Instead of focusing on the fact that limited boundaries could give rise to an infinite scope of products, focus on the fact that a good product can take many different forms.  If someone comes back with “I was thinking of a chart not a narrative actually” you can add that to your stash of useful information.
  • I’d suspect that vague iterations may especially painful for perfectionists.  This is a great moment to leave these tendencies at the door as best you can.  My best response to vague instructions is usually to jump in with a couple of iterations much earlier in the game than I would normally to figure out if I am even in the ballpark.  
  • I’d recommend to calibrate your normal reactions to feedback so that you are even less sensitive to anything negative or critical that comes your way in reaction to your iterations because you know that the instructions were vague.

Beyond measure – The secret sauce that makes excellent teams


(c) Wayne S. Grazio

(c) Wayne S. Grazio


I’m enjoying the new series of short books (long essays really) put out by the TED group. These are single topic books that you can buy for your kindle for approx $10-$15 Canadian. I’ve enjoyed all that I’ve read including this first one called “Beyond Measure.” The book is a good and easy read but I’d welcome a longer treatment of the topic – it’s an important one.

The thesis on this one is that great teams are made by something difficult to measure and this is a strong work culture. The author calls it the secret sauce of organizational life.  Culture is comprised of small actions and though often beyond our control as managers, it is happily non-linear in its spread.

You can create a strong work culture by building trust in an environment that generates the best ideas.

Unhelpfully. our brains like efficiency and search for matches including in hiring when we tend to hire mirrors of our selves not people who will help us be windows to the outside world. This means we don’t get the best ideas.

To generate a stronger team culture where new ideas are introduced including ones that will run against the grain, we need courageous leadership.  This is a culture that will see people calmly raise issues and concerns. Unanimity is a sign that participation isn’t really whole-hearted. (She uses harrowing examples of plane crashes caused by bad work cultures and lack of communication, to illustrate this point).

She makes a good point there is often more give in most systems than we’d expect for raising new ideas.  The challenge is to solicit discomforting data which will help us elaborate what we’d see if we were wrong.  She uses a great example of US intelligence sniffing out the end of the cold war in her text.  Basically, the top gun had been told that the cold war was in full force but when he stated probing if contrary data was available he found it. (meat being stolen from trains with no state recourse).

Hearteningly, she tells us what it takes to get collective intelligence in a team:  ensuring each person speaks an equal amount of time, getting a group that is socially sensitive (to needs of others, group dynamics) and groups that include more women (this is thought to be linked to the second element).

The higher the social capital of a group, the better it can deal with conflict. The capital is created through a culture of trust and the ability to build on good ideas to make them even better.

Finally she cites “Project Oxygen” the study Google did on what makes a good manager. Subject matter expertise was found at the bottom of the list which was a surprise to many. At the top, good managers were ones who believe in and care about their staff and take an interest in their lives and allow employees to sort things out by asking them questions instead of giving direction.

Why you need to stop bragging about how busy you are

Why you need to stop bragging about how busy you are

Some good reminders here about how longer hours doesn’t produce the best work or the best workers.

Those who produce brilliant work work hard for short stretches (90 minutes is the rule cited in The Talent Code and Be Excellent at Anything) and take breaks or even naps to restore.  With this approach, thinking becomes sharper and innovation is supported.

And I wholeheartedly agree that the boss has to leave first to set the tone for the culture of balance.

Seven classic start-up founder mistakes

(c)jakeandlindsey sherbert


Seven classic startup founder mistakes and how to avoid them

I thought this talk had fantastic cross learning embedded in it for how to build teams and how to advance ideas.

This is a talk by Kathryn Minshew who founded a company called “The Muse” to help people find their passions and help companies market their businesses more effectively.  I found her incredibly articulate and persuasive about her business failures and subsequent learnings.

Her seven:

1)  Product/market fit:  “Your college roommate’s approval does not mean that you have a market for this product.”  Bottom line, get in front of people who don’t know you or like you to see if your idea will fly.

2) Believing that any founder will do:  Think carefully about who you partner with.  Think about how comfortable everyone is with the best and worst case scenarios of the future of your business and most importantly, do you agree on what to do in these scenarios (you run out of money etc.).

3) Perfect versus done – do you know when to stop polishing in the corner?: Think about simplifying and putting a product out there that shows the essence of what you what to do, to see the feedback.  “An ugly baby is better than no baby at all.”

4) Productive versus impactful: Everyone feels good about clearing their inbox or having meetings but this isn’t necessarily impactful behaviour.  Would be better to ask, is this the problem we should be solving today?

5) How to create velocity:  Forget the mantra, “if you build it they will come” – actually they won’t.  It is hard to start the engine of customer acquisition but here are some suggestions beyond the obvious:  have contests to jumpstart social media, blogging including giving the content away for free (she gave hers to Forbes).  Doesn’t recommend advertising because may mask the problem that there isn’t a huge user base.  Write op eds.  Ask for permission to write a guest post.  Tie what you are doing to macro trends.  Think about speaking about yourself and the process of starting the company – it may be more interesting than the product at the start.

6) How to find good people (and convince them to take much less money than they would otherwise): beyond mining your own own networks, think about lurking on twitter and other sites to find people whose work you admire reach out to them.  Hiring is no longer what you are offering money-wise.  More and more people are driven by the work you are doing, atmosphere, who you are working with.  Interview carefully:  Specifically, test fit by asking what are you excited about and what do you sees yourself doing a day-to-day basis?

7) Don’t believe the hype: Continue to reality test ideas even after early successes.


The three business books that I’d ask you to read

(c) abee5

Seth Godin recently posed a suggested challenge: pick three books that changed your thinking and then buy them for three admired people and ask them to read them over the holidays to advance a conversation.

Though I won’t honour the challenge to the letter, I think that doing some reflection on books that changed my thinking is a great way to end the year on the blog. Here are three books that made a difference to my thinking as a manager for the better:

1) Difficult Conversations by Douglas Stone, Bruce Patton, Sheila Heen

I own multiple copies if this one and use it to prepare for most difficult conversations. Of the three books I am recommending it’s the only one that I think has genuine utility in everyday life.

The book makes the point that each conversation is really three different conversations: the “what happened” conversation (where we tend to spend all of our time to our detriment), the “identity” conversation – what is the effect of the problem on each person’s identity? and the feelings conversation. The book also has a number of tools to support difficult conversations including to enter conversations as “learning” conversations.

The support the spirit of Seth Godin’s challenge, I will give a copy of this book to the first three people who email me saying that they’d like it.

2) Primal Leadership by Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee

This is a book about the power of emotional intelligence its links to leadership. The emotions of leaders are greatly magnified for better and for worse and they change the dynamic of teams quite powerfully. This book in combination with some of the more recent writing make the link between how your brain shuts down under stress – you go into fight flight mode and can actually go deaf – it is nearly impossible to work well under such conditions.  At the other end of the scale, positive emotions, generate powerful creativity.

As well, this was also the first book to convince me to abandon the idea that leadership is innate. Most powerfully, the belief that leadership can be learned, will set someone up to be empowered for success in truly difficult situations.

3) Drive: Daniel Pink’s bestseller on motivation – it comes down to three things: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

One the main findings – when you link monetary rewards to performance it only works well with rudimentary tasks.  Performance actually gets worse with pay incentives with tasks involving analytical skills.

Here are two videos which explain his main ideas for those of you not inclined to read the book:

Animated one:

TED talk:

13 Item Hit List That Will Make A Successful Artist | Chase Jarvis Blog



The Hit List: 13 Things Crucial For Your Success [In Any Field]

A lovely list – I’ve excerpted the list and left the language “as is” but it’s not for the faint of heart.

Get shit done.  Yep I have written about this before.

“Over-thinking, pontificating, and wondering are tools for the slacker. People don’t care what almost happened, or what your problems are or why something wasn’t. “

Educate yourself.

“Think someone else is responsible for your education? Think again.”


“Nothing–and I’ll say it again, but louder–NOTHING will spring from your creative self fully formed. […] The summary of those iterations will aggregate into something special.”


Take a deep breath.

“Life, work, art can be hard. Anxiety – not to be confused with the positive stress of deadlines and forced production schedules – is counter productive. So when shit is getting hairy, take a breath. Everything is going to be okay.

Take delight.

“Your work should be fun. […] If you don’t take delight, your career will be short, either by choice or by fate.”

Find some quiet.

“Synthesis–the gluing together of your ideas–requires some sort of quiet, be it just a moment or bunch of moments. So carve out this time.”

via 13 Item Hit List That Will Make A Successful Artist | Chase Jarvis Blog.