Conscious Culture

The Culture Code book cover

The Culture Code by Danile Coyle uses practical examples and research to show how culture can be consciously developed. This comes from the cultivation of three skills in particular: building safety, sharing vulnerability, and establishing purpose.

Building Safety

The buzzword often heard around this concept is psychological safety. This is the simple but profound idea that we are safe and connected. This builds a strong sense of belonging and needs continual, purposeful cultivation. This skill is the foundation of building successful culture.

Sharing Vulnerability

This skill is perhaps best summarized by the phrase, “Tell me what you want, and I’ll help you.” It doesn’t presume to know what is best and puts itself out there in service to the team. And by doing this, it invites others to do the same. So while vulnerability can feel scary and perhaps weak, it is in reality a strength that invites others into the process of solving the problems of the team.

Establishing Purpose

Every team has to have a shared list of priorities. And these need to be share over and over, *ad nauseam*. Many organizations have a credo or mission statement that is delivered from on high. Instead, the team needs to be involved in creating such statements or at least revisiting them and consciously buying into them. Then everyone has to be invested in sharing them regularly and living according to them. Interestingly, there is a difference in how to lead teams for proficiency (when the tasks are well-known and repetitive and how to lead teams for creativity (when the tasks are creative and determined by those doing them).

Ideas for Action

At the end of each section covering these skills are robust action lists derived from the activities of successful cultures. These can be used as take away crib notes to remind the reader of how to continually work at building results in your organization or team.

Awe and Wonder

Everything is Spiritual book cover

While I would not exactly call myself a spiritual person today, I have been one most of my life. As a teenager in high school I was an altar boy in my local Catholic parish. As an adult I was an active practicing Christian Scientist, even working for the world headquarters in Boston for six years. Today, I am neither a Catholic nor a Christian Scientist. While I do not consider myself an atheist, I do not believe in a supernatural, personal god.

Recently, my sister started reading Everything is Spiritual by Rob Bell. She texted me to say that it reminded her a lot of me. Because I respect my sister deeply, I decided to read this book. And I must say that Rob Bell in this book really resonates with me. I had already read Love Wins while still an active church member. I loved its message that love trumps judgement. In fact, the certainty that pervades so much of religion is why I ultimately left it. In Everything is Spiritual, Bell gives his own history as a pastor and the evolution of his own thoughts on religion and God.

I think that most Christians would not consider the author one of them. In fact, he only refers to himself as a member of the Jesus movement, never as a Christian. He finds wonder and awe in science and evolution. He is more interested in questions than answers. And he looks for connection, finding inspiration in the natural, physical world. In all these ways, I am on board with Bell. But he ultimately relates them to God. And there we may part ways.

I say “may” because it is never clear from this text whether he believes in a personal, supernatural god. He may not. If so, we may share more than I think. I have always felt that people use the word “God” as a placeholder for the awe and majesty of life and relationships and that when religion codifies this, it ruins the whole process.

In this book Bell shares his own journey of spirit. To me he feels like someone I might have shared at least some of the same road with. And if you feel the awe and majesty of life, yet feel like religion tends to mess this up, this book might resonate with you too.

Surviving Love

The Mountain Between Us book cover

On top of being a contemporary romance, The Mountain Between Us by Charles Martin is a survival tale. Two strangers end up on single engine airplane attempting to go from Salt Lake City to Denver at night in a snow storm. Bad idea. Their pilot has a heart attack and dies but not before making a crash landing on a mountain top that leaves his passengers injured but alive… in the middle of nowhere.

My girlfriend and life partner recommended this book to me. She said it was her favorite by Charles Martin. I had read one of his other books (Water from My Heart) at her recommendation. It was extremely good, so I had high hopes for this one. It totally delivered.

My biggest complaint about romance books in general is that the characters are flat and unrelatable. I want stories where realistic people struggle with real-life problems in love and relationships. And they don’t make simple, one-dimensional, thoughtless choices. I just find that lazy writing and thinking. This book has none of that. The characters are real and genuinely care about each other. And like all humans, they have their struggles and issues.

The man in this book is married but separated from his wife. The woman is engaged and on the way home to her wedding when the plane crashes. Do they fall in love in the snow-capped mountains and make mad passionate love to each other? SPOILER ALERT! No, thank goodness, they do not. Instead they talk about their situation and about their partners while doing their best to get out of their desperate situation alive.

I won’t say much more for fear of ruining the book, but this is a superb story of survival and love — both romantic love and love in the sense of friendship and caring for your fellow human beings. I promise that it will both move and entertain you.

Goals vs. Strategy

Good Strategy Bad Strategy book cover

Good Strategy Bad Strategy by Richard P. Rumelt is a primer on corporate strategy, why good strategy is so hard and why we have so much bad strategy. Here are some highlights.

Bad strategy has many causes. One of the most common is confusing goals for strategy. And one reason we have so much bad strategy is an inability or refusal to choose. When given a choice, leadership says “I want it all”. That isn’t strategy.

Good strategy requires making hard choices and comes in three parts — the diagnosis, the guiding policy, and coherent action. These are all covered in depth.

The book is filled with illustrating examples of both good and bad strategy. These go beyond the standard “case study” and include the thinking processes of the executives and/or the instructor. I found that small addition increased their value immeasurably.

In addition to outlining what good strategy is and isn’t, the second part of the book outlines methods for how to build a good strategy. I expect to be using the ideas, principles, and illustrations in my career for years to come.

Unusual Writing Style Choices

Matrix book cover

I can’t remember how I first learned about Lauren Groff’s novel MatrixWhat I do remember is being attracted to the subject matter. A story about a reluctant nun who uses her newfound role as abbess to build her abbey and protect the women in it. It deals with feminist themes during a time (England in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries) when women’s roles were limited, to say the least. After reading the novel, I can’t say that I’d recommend it to everyone.

On the positive side, it is extraordinarily well-written. The reader is absolutely immersed in the convent and the life of the sisters there — the cycle of church services, the prayer, the work. And you are immersed in the emotions of the characters as well. And while the novel is very feminist in its philosophy, it emerges gently from the experience of the main character Marie. I never felt like I was hit over the head with it. On the contrary, I often found myself trying to navigate what exactly the main character was aiming at ultimately.

Unfortunately, while the writing is excellent, it is also very laden with terms of the world in which it takes place. Many of these are understandable from the context, but many are left unclear. This pulled me from the story to try to figure out what was being said. And there were absolutely no quotation marks in the whole book. Dialog takes place in this odd sort of reported way without the use of direct quotation. And the text almost reads like it was written in first person, though it is not. I found this combination of style choices jarring, repeatedly taking me out of the story.

In the end, I have to say that I am happy to have read the book and I enjoyed it somewhat while reading it. However, I would not recommend it to the casual reader. This feels like a book that is best read in a college English class exploring feminist themes and/or medieval monasticism. So if those themes are your happy place and you enjoy exploring an unusual writing style, this book may be for you. Everyone else, I suggest giving it a pass.

What to Expect at the End

Beginner's Guide to the End book cover

Being solidly middle-aged, I have started to experience the fact that I can no longer do many of the things I used to do in my twenties and thirties. And those that I can do, I can’t do to the same extent. I am slower, less nimble, and get tired faster. Naturally, this has led me to think more of my own mortality, both how I can live longer and what will happen when I die. For this last of life’s events I highly recommend The Beginner’s Guide to the End by B. J. Miller and Shoshana Berger.

The book is aimed at the patient but also covers the perspective of caregivers before, during, and after the death process, whether that involves a terminal illness or simple gradual decline. It is very thorough starting with all the things that you can and should do to prepare for this inevitability, such as wills and health care proxies. There is a whole section on illnesses, what to expect at the end, and how to treat symptoms of those who are dying. Perhaps most importantly, it covers how to ask for help as well as where to find it. It is a very thorough and helpful guide for anyone who is close to death or those caring for them.

Given its topic you would be forgiven for thinking that the book is dark and depressing. I did not find it so. Death is an unavoidable part of living, and this book takes a gentle caring approach to this journey. The authors are informative and sympathetic, taking the stigma, ignorance, and fear out of dying.

Science Fiction in Translation

The Three-Body Problem book cover

I wasn’t sure at first what to make of The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, translated from Chinese by Ken Liu. I still struggle with how I feel about it. There is much that I enjoyed and appreciated. It is based on hard science and isn’t a space opera. But about a third of the way through it just sort of bogged down for me. Fortunately it picked up again and I ended up liking the book overall. I can certainly see why it won the Hugo Award for best novel in 2015.

Part of what I struggled with was that the translation felt like a translation. The occasional foreignness of the prose was challenging for me. Upon reading the translator’s postscript, I learned that this was on purpose. He wanted the text to reflect as much as possible the original. That means it won’t feel like native English. Perhaps that is what led to the feeling of being immersed in the “Chineseness” of the story, which I liked very much.

The story starts during the Cultural Revolution in China and ends in modern times. It deals with difficult people and difficult times, politics and science, as well as relationships of all sorts. I am grateful that such a unique novel was translated into English so that I could experience something outside of my culture in my favorite genre.

Exploring the Human Condition

Station Eleven book cover

It took me a while to pick a copy of Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven. It is about a flu outbreak that is so virulent and deadly that civilization collapses. Not exactly cheery reading in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Originally published in 2014, I expect that the concept at the center of the book felt extreme at its release. No more. Reading it left me grateful that humanity has thus far avoided being completely brought to its knees by a microbe.

The story is told primarily through the lives of The Traveling Symphony composed of actors and musicians who travel around Lakes Michigan and Huron performing Shakespeare and classical music. The reader gets a glimpse of how the plague started through the stories of those who later became part of The Traveling Symphony or encountered it. The writing is engaging, drawing you into the experiences and inner lives of the characters.

Slowly, bit by bit, you begin to learn about how some of the characters are connected. The hints at what might come later are part of what drew me to keep reading, as well as characters whose flaws felt real and relatable. In a world where civilization has collapsed, there are no angels. And yet there are a remarkable number of people who seek to make the world a better place. Through her characters the author show the absolute humanity of the people who inhabit this book, filled with both hope and deep disappointment.

If you are looking for an uplifting, feel good read, this book isn’t for you. But if you like stories of authentic people and a somewhat optimistic yet realistic look at the human condition, this book is a winner.

Adam Smith’s Other Book

How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life book cover

Most people are familiar with Adam Smith’s book An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, more commonly referred to as simply The Wealth of Nations. But seventeen years earlier he published his first and less famous book The Theory of Moral Sentiments. This is the book that Russ Roberts sets out to summarize and modernize in his book How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life.

One of Smith’s key ideas that Roberts emphasizes is the idea of the “impartial spectator”, what we might today call a conscience. The concept is that we all operate with this spectator in our heads, judging us, telling us what to do. It is this “impartial spectator” that keeps us on the straight and narrow even when no one is looking. Ultimately, we all want to be seen as good and this is the tool by which we do so.

The book applies this thinking to other concepts like knowing yourself, how to be happy, and how to not fool yourself. I found that all the concepts really struck home for me. They rang true. And I found myself feeling like Adam Smith’s first book is the missing companion to his second.

There is much criticism in the world today for capitalism and markets. They are cold and have led to tremendous inequality. We lament that this system only sees people for their utility. Where is the humanity? It is in the first Adam Smith book! And in the last chapter, Roberts even touches on this.

At the end of the book Roberts points out that Smith’s first book is about the people close to us while Smith’s second book is about strangers. We need to learn to live with both, but in order to get much past subsistence living, we need a way to reliably work with strangers. Markets are how we rely on self-interest to direct public good among strangers. But for those we are close to it isn’t markets or money but culture and the “impartial spectator” that comes from shared culture that directs us. Perhaps the solution here is to combine what we learn from Smith’s two great works about how to deal with both strangers and our loved ones.

Getting Stronger

Heartbreak for Hire book cover

My latest romance read was Heartbreak for Hire by Sonia Hartl. I found this short novel much more enjoyable than my previous read. This was in many ways its opposite. That one was sex with a bit of story to hold it together. The sex scenes in this novel can be counted on one hand, but the story is pretty good. Don’t get too excited, though. It is a take on the enemies become lovers trope. Nonetheless it is fairly well done and enjoyable.

I prefer romances with strong female leads. The main character in this one wants to be strong, but she isn’t quite there. She is coming out of a bad breakup with an emotionally abusive boyfriend that she let control her. Now her employer is controlling her through that broken relationship. What makes the story mostly work for me is that the narrative is about the main character’s learning to take control of her life and what she wants to do with it.

As with all my experience with romance novels so far, this is not great literature. But it isn’t bad. I enjoyed it. But I am not sure how many more of these I will read. There are so many more books on my to read pile that are potentially much better than anything I expect to find in the romance genre.