30 April 2012

Hero in a Half-Shell

Yesterday I met this guy.  I named him Titian, so that when we find some radioactive ooze he can join his radical crime-fighting, pizza-loving cousins. His weapon of choice would be throwing stars, and his clever disguise/identifier would be a yellow mask.  Also, he would be Master Splinter's favorite.

Teenage...Mutant...Ninja...Turtles--does it get any better?  Adult Alien Ninja Turtles is just plain ridiculous. (My favorite quote from the linked article: "Truth, we might sound a wee bit ridiculous when we cry out, 'I can't believe Bay says they're aliens when they're obviously derived from radioactive slime!' But Bay is essentially erasing almost 30 years of love for transmogrified adolescent reptile ninjas by claiming each turtle is less of a fearsome, fighting toxic anomaly and more of a forest green E.T. with nunchucks. What would Shredder think!?")      

29 April 2012

Higher Up and Farther In

A quick follow-up to yesterday's post:

In The Great Divorce--a fantastic read by the way--C.S. Lewis describes a group of souls' field trip from hell to heaven. They board a bus (the first Magic School Bus?) in a "bleak, dreary gray town, vast and lonely, hovering in a perpetual rainy twilight."  Upon arrival, "Heaven is revealed to be an idyllic wilderness paradise, an Eden-like garden country of rivers and trees. Its sense of scale is enormous, and in a distance unimaginably far away, the narrator catches sight of indistinct cities built on the summits of gigantic mountains. The strangest thing the passengers discover, however, is that the place is suffused with a supernatural reality, in a sense more solid, more real, than anything else."*

I'm fairly certain that C.S. Lewis was on my flight from L.A. to Kauai.

*Thanks to blogger Ebon Musings for writing this summary, and Google search for finding it.

28 April 2012

Sun Salutation

A few weeks ago, I attended RadioLab's live audience show "In the Dark."  In one segment, they shared an astronaut's account of a low-orbit spacewalk during which time he was on the opposite side of the earth from the sun.  He described what he saw (or didn't see, really) as absolute black--with no dust particles or atmosphere or anything for ambient light to attach to, space is entirely black, particularly when a planet is between you and the distant stars.  In this shadow, everything dissolved into Nothingness--if his headlamp wasn't shining directly on it, it wasn't there.

The astronaut described feeling like he was floating, as we might expect from someone doing a zero-gravity spacewalk.  But then the sun came up.  As it rounded the earth, it illuminated everything, and where there was a vast Nothing before, the astronaut could now see oceans and mountains and clouds.  He described the sensation as completely disorienting and a little terrifying, like waking up to find yourself atop a 30,000 foot ladder.

Last night I flew into Kauai in the dark.  Although it wasn't absolute black, there was no moon and relatively few street lights.  I made my way to the condo where I am staying and promptly went to bed.  Still on mainland time--and assisted by one of the island's ubiquitous roosters--I woke up before dawn and decided to drive down to the beach to see the sun rise (as a West-coast boy, I have been trained to believe that the sun always sinks into the ocean, not rises from it).  It was still dark when I reached the shoreline.

As the sun rose, I was greeted with a view not unlike the picture above.  In the abstract, I knew a place like this existed, but I was kind of unprepared for how supremely gorgeous it is.  I thought first of our astronaut friend's experience, and then about Tolkien's description of heaven:

"White shores, and beyond, a far green country under a swift sunrise."


27 April 2012

The first day of the rest of my life (or at least of my summer vacation)

After packing up the entirety of my earthly possessions (which I am somewhat ashamed and somewhat proud to admit can fit into my Mazda Protégé), and stowing them in the zombie-shelter, I boarded a flight to LA to visit some friends for a little pre-vacation vacation.  A few highlights from Day One:       
  • Learning to drive a Prius:  When my friend, host, and car-provider Lonestar asked me if I knew how to operate (operate?!) a Prius, I scoffed and sarcastically responded: “Step 1: Care about ‘nature.’ Step 2: Start a socialist book club.  Step 3: Blog on my Ipad/pod/mac while drinking a mocha-venti-frappe-latte.  Step 4: Drive.”  Twenty minutes and one bruised ego later, I managed to operate my way out of the park-n-fly lot.  Lesson learned.
  • Picnic on Manhattan Beach: It was a perfect day to read/sleep (for me, these two things are practically synonymous) on the beach, neither too warm nor too cool nor too anything.  It was like a beachside homeostasis chamber—perfect temperature, sound of the waves, and not a soul around.  (I imagine that this will be the vision fed to us by our Matrix robot overlords after their hostile takeover.  Or a Corona commercial.  Either way.)  For lunch was the chingones sandwich supplied by a hole-in-the-wall sub shop—a mash-up of grilled onions, french fries (in the sandwich), provolone, grilled chicken, jalapenos, and aioli (my word—they called it mayonnaise).  It was that delicious combo of flavor and spiciness where you need a napkin more for your nose than your mouth. 
  • Wild in the Streets Film Screening: If there is anything more quintessentially LA than going to see a private screening of a documentary, I’d like to challenge it to a mass football game (which is coincidentally the subject of this excellent film).  My synopsis: every year the quaint English town of Ashbourne becomes a seething mass of humanity as cross-town rivals vie for eternal glory in an ancient 3,000 player game of no-holds-barred capture-the-flag.  Except in this case, the flag is a 4-pound painted leather ball which endows the goal-scorer with all the adulation and prestige a quaint English town can muster.  Absolutely brilliant.  If you can see it, y’oughtta.

24 April 2012

Kearl-ing: The End(s) of An Education

The last part of Professor Kearl’s final lecture focused on the ultimate purposes or ends of a college education.  In the language of economics, Kearl said, a university has competitive advantages in only three areas: developing analytical, writing, and quantitative skills (and to a degree, “aesthetic sensibilities” if you’re lucky).  That’s it.  Sure, universities do a lot of other things—athletics, and clubs, and social functions—but there are other organizations better suited to those ends.  At its heart a college education is the training of one’s brain to analyze, compute, and communicate, to develop one into a quickly trainable and retrainable fungible asset in an ever-changing world.

And so, Kearl continued, the quality of your education depends on you, and not on BYU.  At any number of universities you can get either a Mickey Mouse diploma or an Ivy League education, depending on the classes you take and the effort you put in.  It is your job to take on the disciplined training of your brain through consistent hard effort.  (This may have been the part of the lecture that stuck with me most over these past 8 years.  I felt compelled to take a full 18 credits each semester because it.)  

Finally, Kearl said that you will have cheated yourself if you leave school with a vocation, but not an avocation—with job skills but not leisure skills.  The work week is at 40 hours and dropping steadily; the vast majority of our lives will be spent in non-work settings.  What then, Kearl asked, will you do with the lion’s share of your life?  Because you are capable of far more than spending it in front of the TV.

He continued: You should come out of school with two great loves, and only one of those can be a spouse.  Your second love can be any number of things—literature, or music, or calculus, or science.  For Dr. Kearl, it was Gothic architecture.  As he described his personal “pilgrimage” to the Cathedral of Chartres, it was clear that it was a—if not the—highlight of his life. (For me, this was fitting because when I was in the throes of his extremely difficult Econ 110 class, I had a nightmare in which Kearl was Archdeacon Frollo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Apropos, non?)  We should all be so fortunate to find something for which we are equally passionate.

The other day, my buddy Tigg was quoting a comedian who said: “I wish I loved anything as much as my kids love bubbles.”  I have some vague notions about my “bubbles”—my Chartres— but I feel like I have a ways to go on that particular pilgrimage.  And so as I leave college for the second time, secure in my employment, I find myself echoing Kearl’s question: To what will I dedicate the vast majority of my life? 

20 April 2012

Kearl-ing Part 3: The Moral Imperative

This is the third in a four-part series of posts about the best lecture of my collegiate experience.  You can also find Part 1 and Part 2 here.

Professor Kearl began the third part of his final lecture with the surprising statement: “My greatest fear is that after I have spent the semester teaching you these things, that you’ll actually believe them.”  He went on to explain that while economics’ invisible hand relies on self-interest—and theoretically the pursuit of self-interest should result in the greatest economic gains—that we should never mistake self-interest as an ethical tenet.

Rather, as people in general and Christians in specific it is our “moral imperative”—I love this term—is to put others’ interests above our own.  That is what the Savior taught is the parable of the sheep and the goats:  (As a side note, these words have a carry significant meaning for me and the purpose behind my pursuing an MBA.)

Matthew 25:31 When the Son of man shall come in his glory, and all the holy angels with him, then shall he sit upon the throne of his glory:
 32 And before him shall be gathered all nations: and he shall separate them one from another, as a shepherd divideth his sheep from the goats:
 33 And he shall set the sheep on his right hand, but the goats on the left.
 34 Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world:
 35 For I was an hungred, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in:
 36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me.
 37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungred, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink?
 38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee?
 39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee?
 40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

And as for the goats, those people who neglected to feed to hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, or comfort the lonely? 

41 Then shall he say also unto them on the left hand, Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels:

Dr. Kearl pointed out that the Lord did not provide a middle road—we don’t simply forgo heavenly rewards if we neglect our duties.  We must engage in charitable activities or we are damned.  That is the imperative.

Mosiah 4:19 For behold, are we not all beggars? Do we not all depend upon the same Being, even God, for all the substance which we have, for both food and raiment, and for gold, and for silver, and for all the riches which we have of every kind?
21 And now, if God, who has created you, on whom you are dependent for your lives and for all that ye have and are, doth grant unto you whatsoever ye ask that is right, in faith, believing that ye shall receive, O then, how ye ought to impart of the substance that ye have one to another.

Giving, Kearl concluded is a matter of the heart, and not a matter of income.  “There are lots of people who are wealthy/poor who have good/awful hearts.”  Citing Robert Bellah’s famous work on religion’s role in civic virtue, Kearl said that we must make giving a “Habit of the Heart.”  There are so many places where all that is needed is our time.

I, for one, needed to hear this lecture.  As I was recently reminded, it is far too easy to get lost in selfish pursuits, or to become desensitized to all the good that we can do for those around us.  We, as a people, are capable of so much good, and of so much more. 

13 April 2012

Kearl-ing, Part Deux

This is the second in a four-part series of posts about the best lecture of my collegiate experience.  You can find Part 1 here.

Mini-Sermon #2

The second segment of Professor Kearl’s final lecture was a perfect example of what Harry Truman must have felt like when he pined for a one-handed economist; after spending the entire semester extolling the virtues of free markets, and advocating for government intervention in cases where markets break down—monopolies, externalities, public goods, and so forth—Kearl pulled a mental 180 on us.  The decision, he explained, is not between imperfect markets and perfect governments, but between imperfect markets and imperfect governments.  As much as we’d like to look to government to help fix broken systems, often the cure is worse than the disease.

An example of this breakdown in policy is suggested by the proponents of Public Choice Theory, which states that a very positive result for a few individuals will usually win out over a minor negative result for many individuals, even if the cumulative costs far outweigh the benefits.  For example, Americans pay about three times as much for sugar as our friends abroad (24¢/lb versus 8¢/lb), owing to a sugar subsidy which goes to 1,000 sugar farmers with an average income of over a million dollars!  This tax costs us sugar lovers relatively little individually, but impose a HUGE inefficiency on Americans cumulatively. 

This imbalance between dispersed costs and direct benefits has pretty strong implications for our system of government. The few sugar farmers have a LOT to gain, while the rest of us have relatively little to lose; hence there is no lobby for Sugar Consumers, but you can bet there is one for Sugar Producers.  The policy makers will have a comparatively loud voice urging intervention in the sugar market, and will act accordingly.   

Of the four mini-sermons, this was by far the most focused on traditional economics; but its power for me really came from the dexterity with which Kearl could move between advocating for and against government involvement in the market.  It reminded me of a F. Scott Fitzgerald quote I read this past week: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”  I think most of us could use a little more of that ability.

12 April 2012

Kearl-ing: Part 1

The very best lecture of the very best class I have ever taken (how’s that for some superlatives!) was Dr. Kearl’s Econ 110 course finale.  His class was (and remains) infamously difficult, but truly fits the cliché in that it changed the way I see the world—or at least provided me with a new lens.  Nearly a decade ago, I sat spell-bound as Professor Kearl wrapped up the semester with four “mini-sermons,” as he sardonically refers to his final lecture.  Although the details became hazy as time has passed, I have never been able to shake the impact of that class.

Flash forward to my waning days as an MBA student at BYU—preparing to take the world by storm (my new-found euphemism for moving to perpetually-rainy Seattle).  I convinced a handful of classmates to come with me to sit in on Kearl’s semester wrap-up, skipping a test review because frankly, this was more important.  This time I took notes.  Here’s my summary:

Mini-Sermon #1

If I were to give you ten dollars and ask you to divide it up with a stranger in any manner of your choosing, how would you do it?  The catch: the other person has to accept your distribution in order for either of you to get anything.

Self interest would dictate that you would split the money with you walking away with the lion’s share: after all, the other person is better off no matter what you choose to give them, even if it’s just 50 cents.  But that’s not how we act, either as givers or recipients.  Think about it— if you were on the other side of things, at what point would you say no just to spite a greedy offer?  One dollar?  Two?  Four?

Another quick, but compelling, hypothetical situation was proposed by the philosopher John Rawls.  Known as the Original Position thought experiment, Rawls proposes a condition in which everyone starts behind a “veil of ignorance” (could you imagine?!), entering life by drawing a card with one of several values which indicate the portion of the world’s cumulative wealth they would receive.  Under such a set of circumstances, not knowing which card you would be dealt, what ratio between the highest and lowest cards would be acceptable to you?  10:1?  4:1?  2:1?

When Kearl polled the class, there were a few 1:1s (Commies!), but more than 90% of the class had an answer 5:1 or less, myself included.  In America, looking at the median net worth of the top and bottom quintiles, the ratio is 9:1, far above what most of us in the room would be comfortable with... if we didn’t know what end of the scale we would end up on.

Not only that, but most of us really have no idea where we actually fall on that distribution.  A lot of fuss has been made lately about the 1%, but what about the rest of us?  Kearl asked the class to estimate our parents’ net income (remember this is primarily for undergrads)  and then asked us how we would label ourselves: rich, poor, middle class.  Then came the stats:
  • If your household income is greater than $50,000, that puts you in the upper half of Americans—let alone the rest of the world (as an undergrad, I vaguely remember him talking about if the oft-quoted “If the world were a village of 100 people”).
  • A household income of $120,000 puts you in the top 10%.
  • A household income of $150,000 puts you in the top 3%.
The upshot, according to Kearl: we (speaking of students at BYU collectively) are not middle class; we are wealthy.  There are certainly exceptions, but by and large we are the children of the rich, and have been afforded certain advantages which we should acknowledge and be grateful for.  This was not meant to inspire guilt, but rather self-awareness, appreciation, and action...which brings us to Mini-Sermon #2.  Tune in tomorrow.

06 April 2012

An MBA Book Club, Part 6

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Stephen R. Covey


There is a set of behaviors which, if practiced, allow us to achieve both private and public victory.  These habits (Be Proactive, Begin with the End in Mind, Put First Things First, Think Win/Win, Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood, Synergize, and Sharpen the Saw), help us to progress gradually from independence to interdependence in our quest for personal effectiveness.

Favorite Quotes

  • Production and Production Capability: The Golden Goose
  • On Primary and Secondary traits: “In reaping for so long where we have not sown, perhaps we have forgotten the need to sow.”
  •  “We see the world, not as it is, but as we are.”
  •  “For every thousand hacking away at the leaves of evil, there is one striking at the root.” Thoreau
  • “It is impossible for us to break the law.  We can only break ourselves against the law.”
  •  “How can we remember our ignorance, which our growth requires, when we are using our knowledge all the time?”
  •  “The way we see the problem IS the problem.”
  •  “Private victories precede public victories.”
  •  “We must not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time.” –T.S. Eliot
  • “That which we achieve too easily, we esteem too lightly. It is dearness only which gives everything its value.  Heaven knows how to put a proper price on its goods.” –Paine
  • “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.”
  • “Between stimulus and response, man has the freedom to choose.”
  • “Reactive people build their emotional lives around the behavior of others, empowering the weaknesses of other people to control them.”
  • “Success is on the far side of failure.” –T.J. Watson
  • “Don’t get caught up in the thick of thin things.”
  • “Things which matter most must never be at the mercy of things which matter least.” Goethe
  • “Keep in mind that you are always saying ‘no’ to something.  If it isn’t to the apparent, urgent things in your life, it is probably to the more fundamental, highly important things.
  • Delegation: Desired Results, Guidelines, Resources, Accountability, Consequences
  • “Honesty is conforming our words to reality.  Integrity is conforming reality to our words.”
  • The Abundance Mentality versus the Scarcity Mentality- recognition, profits, decisions
  • “Satisfied needs do not motivate.  It’s only the unsatisfied need that motivates.” (Air)
  • “We seek not to imitate the masters, rather we seek what they sought.”
  • “The greatest battles of life are fought out daily in the silent chambers of the soul.” –David O. McKay
  • “That which we persist in doing becomes easier—not that the nature of the task has changed, but our ability to do has increased.” -Emerson


What more can be written about this book than has already been written?  I’d never read Covey’s seminal work before, and felt it was a glaring hole in my reading.  That being said, the lexicon developed in it—Sharpening the Saw, Putting First Things First, etc.—was already fairly familiar to me due to the prevalent and influential nature of this work.

Covey is clearly a genius, and his work reads like one part management primer, one part LDS general conference.  In many ways, then, I drew my inspiration from a quotation early in the book, by T.S. Eliot: “We must not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we began and to know the place for the first time.”  (This idea made such an impact on me that it has kind of become my motto for the year, especially with my scripture study.)  This is the sort of book that begs to be read repeatedly, as a sort of Saw-Sharpener in its own right.

An MBA Book Club, Part 5

Liz Wiseman and Greg Mckeown


Effective leaders—“Mulitpliers”—can double the output of underutilized and uninspired employees through a set of practices designed to recognize, liberate, and challenge them.  “Diminishers,” on the other hand, reduce otherwise successful and talented people into fractions of their potential selves.  The difference, then, becomes the difference between excellent and mediocre companies.

Favorite Quotes

·         “It has been said that after meeting with the great British Prime Minister William Ewert Gladstone, you left feeling he was the smartest person in the world, but after meeting with his rival Benjamin Disraeli, you left thinking you were the smartest person.” Bono
·         The Five Disciplines of the Multipliers (and their opposites):
1.      The Talent Magnet (Empire Builder)
2.      The Liberator (Tyrant)
3.      The Challenger (Know-It-All)
4.      The Debate Maker (Decision Maker)
5.      The Investor (Micro Manager)
·         “Look for talent everywhere, find people’s native genius, utilize people to their fullest, and remove the blockers” (p 64).
·         Using five meeting poker chips—for 120, 90, and 30 second comments (p 91).
·         “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders.  Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.” - St. Exupery
·         Why this matters:
1.      People will give you more (and be more fulfilled)
2.      Organizations cannot rely on additive resources—they need multiplicative ones
3.      What if we could access twice as much of the world’s available intelligence and channel it to the perennial problems we face? (p 219)
·         “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” –Albert Einstein


I struggled a little bit with this read—it seemed that the points that the author was making were self-evident and redundant, but without the added benefit of being pithy or memorable.  This certainly comes across harsher than I intend to be, but for me this book fits squarely between a better-than-average article in a management magazine and an inferior version of First, Break All the Rules.

Part of the problem may lie in the fundamental comparison between Multipliers and Diminishers—although the author notes up front that there is a continuum between the two, the contrast were drawn so starkly that it is hard to read the book and identify oneself as anything approaching the Tyrant, Know-It-All, or Micro Manager described in the pages.  Without a nuanced perspective on where we might be failing, I fear that most readers will never see themselves as needing reform (but the Boss sure could use this book!).  In this, the book fails to live up to its admonition to “spot yourself at times in the anatomy of a Diminisher.”

An MBA Book Club, Part 3

Great by Choice
Jim Collins and Morten T. Hansen


In an age of increasing instability and turbulent industries, the world’s most effective businesses —the 10Xers, so named for their superior financial performance—demonstrate a set of common traits: fanatic discipline, empirical creativity, and productive paranoia.  These traits, manifest in practices such as the 20 Mile March, Firing Bullets, then Cannonballs, and avoiding Death Line risk, allow companies to thrive in uncertainty. 

Favorite Quotes

·         Amundsen v. Shackleton: a South Pole contrast in styles
·         “Innovation by itself turns out to not be the trump card we expected; more important is the ability to scale innovation, to blend creativity with discipline” (p 10)
·         “On the one hand, 10Xers understand that they… cannot control, and cannot accurately predict, significant aspects of the world around them.  On the other hand, 10Xers reject the idea that forces outside their control or chance events will determine their results; they accept full responsibility for their own fate” (p 19).
·         “Fanatic discipline keeps 10X enterprises on track, empirical creativity keeps them vibrant, productive paranoia keeps them alive” (p 20).
·         Fanatic Discipline: “Discipline, in essence, is consistency in action—consistency with values, consistency with long-term goals, consistency with performance standards, consistency of method, consistency over time” (p 21).
·         Empirical Creativity: “Social psychology research indicates that at times of uncertainty, most people look to other people—authority figures, peers, group norms—for their primary cues about how to proceed.  10Xers look to empirical evidence” (p 25).
·         Productive Paranoia: “10Xers believe that conditions will—absolutely, with 100 percent certainty—turn against them without warning” (p 29).
·         Level 5 Ambition: “They are passionately driven for a cause beyond themselves” (p 33).
·         “What is your 20 Mile March?” (p 68)
·         “Firing an uncalibrated cannonball that succeeds can be even more dangerous than a failed cannonball.  Keep in mind the danger of achieving good outcomes from bad process” (p 85).
·         4 Types of risk: Death Line, Asymmetric, Uncontrollable, Time-based (p 103).
·         “How much time before our risk profile changes?” (p 111).
·         “Most men die of their remedies, and not of their illnesses.” –Moliere
·         “The signature of mediocrity is not an unwillingness to change; the signature of mediocrity is chronic inconsistency” (p 138).


I’ll admit it: I’m a sucker for Jim Collins’ work.  I’m not overly impressed by the apparently rigorous process through which he and his team identify great companies and their comparisons.; the numbers aren’t what get me.  But as Rozenweig states in The Halo Effect, “The test of a good story is not whether it is entirely, fully, scientifically accurate—by definition it won’t be.  Rather, the test of a good story is whether it leads us toward valuable insights, if it inspires us toward helpful action.”  And that is what Jim Collins does for me. 

I love the way he conveys concepts in concrete, memorable stories or analogies—he is the poster child for Made to Stick strategies.  The use of the Amundsen and Shackleford expeditions as polar opposites (pun intended!) was a perfect way of capturing the difference between companies that thrive in chaos and those who falter.  Similarly, the models of the 20 Mile March and Bullets and Cannonballs—like the Hedgehog Concept before them—have a way of firmly implanting themselves in my brain.  That is Collins’ wheelhouse.  (He begins to lose me when he becomes more abstract—zooming in and out or SMaC as a noun, verb, and adjective.)

I read this book through two lenses, evaluating both my own personality and that of Amazon in our ability to survive these uncertain times.  I found that of the four traits­—fanatic discipline, empirical creativity, productive paranoia, and Level 5 ambition—I exhibit two, empirical creativity and Level 5 ambition, while falling short in the other two.  As a company, Amazon seems to possess the same two traits.  In one sense, this makes me a great match for the company culture—I’m good at what they like (and visa-versa)—but it may also mean that I need to seek ways to shore up those deficits, both personally and professionally.

An MBA Book Club, Part 4

First, Break All the Rules
Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman


The world’s best managers defy conventional wisdom—the rules—by individualizing their approach to each employee depending on that employee’s unique and innate strengths.  This strengths-based method allows employees to focus on those tasks at which they are best and from which they derive the most satisfaction.  By gearing the selection, evaluation, and placement processes toward cultivating these inherent talents, and by getting out of the way by defining desired outcomes (but not tactics), average manages become great managers.

Favorite Quotes

·         Advice for new managers: “Pick the right people.  Once you’ve picked them, trust them.  Don’t overpromote people. Never pass the buck. Make very few promises to your people and keep them all” (p 16).
·         ‘“The most valuable aspects of jobs now are the most essentially human tasks: sensing judging, creating, and building relationships.’  This means that a great deal of a company’s value ‘lies between the ears of its employees’ and when someone leave the company, he takes his value with him—more often than not straight to the competition” (p 23).
·         Isaac Newton splitting light with a prism in order to see its composite parts (p 27)
·         The twelve questions most indicative of a superior manager:
1.      Do I know what is expected of me at work?
2.      Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
3.      At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
4.      In the last seven days, have I received recognition of praise for doing good work?
5.      Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?
6.      Is there someone at work who encourages my development?
7.      At work, do my opinions seem to count?
8.      Does the mission/purpose of my company make me feel my job is important?
9.      Are my coworkers committed to doing quality work?
10.  Do I have a best friend at work?
11.  In the last six months, has someone at work talked to me about my progress?
12.  This last year, have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow?
·         “People leave managers, not companies” (p 33).
·         The frog and the scorpion (p 56)
·         “Everyone can probably do something better than ten thousand other people” (p 148).
·         “Self-discovery is the driving, guiding force for a healthy career” (p 194).
·         “Consistent poor performance is not primarily a matter of weakness, stupidity, disobedience, or disrespect.  It is a matter of mis-casting” (p 209).
·         Effective performance management routines: simple, frequent, focused on the future, employees keep track of their own performance (p 223).


Reading this book after Buckingham’s newer effort was actually more helpful, I think, than if I had read them the other way around.  For me, the order “First, Discover Your Strengths” and “Now, Figure Out How to Help Others to Do So” makes way more sense.

Although I will not initially be cast in a managerial role at Amazon, this book provided me some tools to proactively self-manage.  I found Gallup’s twelve indicator questions to be particularly helpful in evaluating my job satisfaction and engagement, not only in my past and future employment, but also in my present schooling and Church membership.

As an aspiring economist, I firmly believe in the doctrine of specialization, and in that regard this book preaches to the choir.  In my personal life, however, I have a hard time just giving up on areas in which I struggle (unless you count singing, of course).  I think that it will become increasingly important for me to find talents to emphasize, even at the expense of my self-view as a “jack-of-all-trades.”

An MBA Book Club, Part 2

The Halo Effect
Philip M. Rozenweig
           «« (but growing)


Many of the leading business management books are based on bad science and flawed logic.  Chief among these sins against reason is the Halo Effect, the implied causality between high marks on subjective data and company performance.  Successful companies (and their leaders) will consistently be rated as top-tier in all areas, due to the difficulty in separating ends from the means.  This casts serious doubt on works and authors not giving enough credence to the halo.

Notable Quotes

·         The Eight Other Delusions
1.      The Delusion of Correlation and Causality
2.      The Delusion of Simple Explanations
3.      The Delusion of Connecting the Dots
4.      The Delusion of Rigorous Research
5.      The Delusion of Lasting Success
6.      The Delusion of Absolute Performance
7.      The Delusion of The Wrong End of the Stick
8.      The Delusion of Organizational Physics
·         “Collins urges his readers to ‘confront the brutal facts.’ Well here’s a brutal fact you may wish to consider: If you start by selecting companies based on outcome, and then gather data by conducting retrospective interviews and collecting articles from the business press, you’re not likely to discover what led some companies to become Great.  You’ll mainly catch the glow from the Halo Effect” (p 120).
·         “Studies in organizational performance stand in two very different worlds.  The first world speaks to practicing managers and rewards speculations about how to improve performance.  The second world demands and rewards adherence to rigorous standards of scholarship.  These two worlds operate on different logics, follow different sets of rules, and speak to audiences with different needs, but they rarely intersect” (p 135).
·         “The test of a good story is not whether it is entirely, fully, scientifically accurate—by definition it won’t be.  Rather, the test of a good story is whether it leads us toward valuable insights, if it inspires us toward helpful action” (p 137).
·         “Anyone who claims to have found the laws of business physics either understands little about business, or little about physics, or both” (p 173).


While reading this book, I was extremely disgruntled.  I made notes such as “If you ask this guy what time it is, he’ll tell you how a watch works.  Or even better, if you asked someone else what time it was, he’d interrupt the person and tell you why he’s wrong.”  I could easily imagine the genesis of this book occurring when the author, having just polished off Jim Collins’ latest book, threw it against the wall amid a stream of epithets.  It seemed to be an irritated book critique elevated to its own book.

And yet…I can’t help thinking about Rozenweig’s conclusions.  As we’ve read several other books (including Collins’ most recent addition to his line of bestsellers), I have an insidious little voice whispering, “Halo Effect.  They’re assuming causation. These performance scores are due to company performance, and not the other way around.”

Sure, Rozenweig breaks each of his own three rules in prescribing how best to measure superior performance.  In sharing his own examples of successful leaders, he interviews them posthoc, quotes articles from the business press, and offers platitudes with no data, let alone suspect data.  But participating in the delusions doesn’t make them any less delusional.  In fact, my bridling at the author’s hypocrisy is more a confirmation of his main points, rather than a refutation of them (in fact, as I was reading through the book for the first time, I thought he was intentionally contradicting himself to make a point).

And so, while I may feel like this book was a bit of parade-raining, the management publishing industry may have been due for a storm.

An MBA Book Club, Part 1

Now, Discover Your Strengths
Marcus Buckingham and Donald O. Clifton


We are well-versed in weakness, both our own individual shortcomings and the common failings and flaws around us.  In stark contrast, then, is the limited focus on and vocabulary of strength.  In childhood we develop and discard a superhighway of neural pathways; as a result, we are each physiologically built with certain strengths.  Discovering and cultivating these talents is critical in creating a career at which one can excel.   

Favorite Quotes

·         Two assumptions behind great management:
1.      Each person’s talents are enduring and unique.
2.      Each person’s greatest room for growth is in the areas of his or her greatest strength (p 8).
·         Strength: consistent near perfect performance in an activity (p 25).
·         When people change, “they do not change their basic nature, or talents.  They simply redirect their talents toward very different and more positive ends” (p 44).
·         Three ways to continue learning as an adult:
1.      Continue to strengthen your existing synaptic connections (perfect talents)
2.      Keep losing more of your extraneous connections (focusing on strengths)
3.      Develop a few more synaptic connections (the least efficient method)
·         My Strengths (Top 5): Futuristic, Inclusiveness, Learner, Positivity, Strategic
(Additional): Adaptability, Ideation, Self-Assurance
·         “Irrelevant nontalents can mutate into real weaknesses under one condition: as soon as you find yourself in a role that requires you to play to one of your nontalents—or area of low skills or knowledge—a weakness is born” (p 149).


One of my best friends and I have been have an ongoing debate about the nature of perfection: me espousing the Platonic belief of the one true form, her taking the Aristotelian view of the plurality of perfection.  After reading Malcolm Gladwell’s discussion on pasta sauces (of all things!) my perspective had begun to change, but this book sealed the matter once and for all.  I really identify with the concept that we each have inherent talents or strengths that we need to develop; that perfection is not uniformity; and that a full synthesis of perfections is to be achieved in the aggregate.

I also really appreciated the authors’ discussion on the need for a vocabulary of strength—and how well they executed on that need with their specific, detailed 34 strengths.  The Strengths Finder test was able to give voice to things that I recognized in myself, but had never been able to describe.  It also helped me to draw a strong connection between what I enjoyed in my previous employment as a high school administrator and my future job as a product manager at Amazon—the Futuristic aspect of both roles.

If what Buckingham states in First, Break All the Rules, that “self-discovery is the driving, guiding force for a healthy career” is true, then I certainly advanced my career in reading this book.