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Babel, or The Necessity of Violence

For book club in April we read Babel, or the Necessity of Violence by R.F. Kuang. This is a historical fantasy novel that explores how the power of language can be used to uphold an empire, or be responsible for its violent and deserved demise. It is opinionated and does not shy away from making its pitch against colonialism and racism.

So first, what I appreciated most about the novel: the research on etymology, and the intricacies of translation is thorough. There are insights across pictoral alphabets, and the poetry implicit in such languages, which I truly felt expanded my appreciation for Chinese characters in particular. Also, having gone to Oxford for a high school summer program, I LOVED the scenes through the city, set in such a different time from when I was there, but which still resonated. It is an institution that has and always will be iconic, and brought up wonderful memories for me.

I also just loved frame of this novel that translation can be harnessed as a tool for empire building, which is of course true of history, but something that was not fundamental in my American education (neither directly nor as a part of my history lessons: this seems like a terrible oversight since there is so much culture in language, and understanding those differences is a fundamental way for us to understand motivation throughout history). Therefore delving into a novel about one of the most transformational phases of our world (global trade and its associated social dynamics), was really interesting. I have read many Western novels focused on this time of exploration and discovery where the life’s blood of news, novels, and fantasy were the mysteries of new empires and nations, but also where rigid hierarchies of humanity were constantly being enforced. I embraced the notion of a book told from the lens of children exploited as goods themselves as a challenge to the supposed glory of those who in so many other novels are painted as heroes.

The challenge of this novel is not in the premise, nor the research, it is in the fundamentals of the narrative arc. What draws me to a novel is the development of the characters, and the insight into the world and maybe myself that a novel can elicit. The stitching of true historical events into a new narrative should be wonderful, but while the author uses many true events, she assumes a rather myopic motivation for them, I believe to turn up her commentary on racism and colonialism as truly evil. While I agree there were evil outcomes of this time, as a novel the singular lens ends up bypassing real conflict and turmoil of character development and therefore generates a far less interesting story. I don’t advocate for this time in history AT ALL, AND I think there was nuance in the choices and motivations, which ultimately is what made it both a fascinating and horrific time in our history. I personally find novels that delve into that ambiguity much more interesting than one which tries to lay it out in such “good” and “evil” camps.

So the backdrop and history paint demonic imperialists empowered and insistent on exploiting everyone based on their priviledged perspective that they have a right to such dominance, but that doesn’t mean the main characters (who are the victims of this world view) could not be interesting. Sadly they too are not as fully fleshed out as I would have hoped. The main character, Robin, grows up with an abusive guardian and yet he somehow emerges grateful and determined. Maybe such grit could survive his mistreatment (epic memoires have been written on this basis), but even as he enters college there is not significant social and emotional growth–he remains a child-like character insistent on impressing his abusive guardian.

He does build one beautiful and enduring friendship that borders on obsession, but all his other interactions (with the two other women in his cohort and even his half brother) are stilted. He constantly seems like a scared child afraid to engage in any meaningful way with no real motivation except to learn and connect with Rami, his best friend. Then suddently there is an abrupt break in his behavior: he fights back, which somewhat hard to believe given his previous mild-mannered behaviors, and grotesquely dispatches of another human with very little thought. That someone could break I believe, but then I would assume self-protection would generate some semblance of justification. Instead he becomes crippled once again and let’s others take control of his life somehow returning to a mild-mannered (now wracked with guilt) version of himself.

I genuinely wanted to see more development of these characters: they SHOULD have been the heart of this tale, and I really loved the brief back story we got on Victoire at the end, but these were the exceptions and not the general rule of the novel. My favorite part of Robin’s story was his friendship with Rami, but the inconsistency of development of the characters limited their relatability and is the shortcoming of the tale.

In some ways, I think the author did this to try to make her very specific point: that in the face of real racism and colonialism even the most mild mannered and “favored” in the system can turn to violence. While I think this is an interesting perspective, I don’t believe it is an inevitable one, and maybe that is where I struggled the most. Mahatma Gandhi proved rather poetically how untrue this premise could be, and ultimately I would argue his approach led to far more lasting change.

I loved that this book brought me back to history, rereading the events that led to the Opium Wars, and the social and policital forces at play. My favorite part of reading is the inspiration to learn and grow. Upon that research, I sadly found myself less excited about the novel than I was while reading it mostly because there was so much that led to the Opium Wars, and she glosses over all of that with the introduction of magic silver bars. I think by focusing on the need for violence she lost the complexity and nuance of a world where everyone thought they were doing what was right for their people. To me the important lesson is not that violence could be necessary, but rather that through tribalism and dehumanization even the most seemingly noble of people can engage in subjugation and deplorable acts. The lesson for us as society is to appreciate one another for our differences, connect with one another, learn and expand our world view; ultimately then we can avoid the shame and horror of these kinds of events.

Again, I enjoyed the book and have no regrets that I read it. The quotations, historical context, etymology, nuance in translation, depictions of Oxford–I was fully engaged from the first chapter. I just think this could have been SO much better with a bit more nuance and character development. Sociopathy is not common, but in the name of protecting our people, humanity can justify depravity, and that lesson is something that we can never afford to forget. 

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Wandering Earth

For March, we read The Wandering Earth by Cixin Liu in book club. Little did I know The Three Body problem would take Netflix by storm and make this seem like a populist act…I have not seen the Netflix show (full disclosure) and this decision was definitely made before I knew about it. That being said I LOVED The Three Body Problem and whole dark forest trilogy, NOT because the science was correct (spoiler alert–it isn’t), but because it proposed such a novel solution to the Fermi Paradox: if there is such a large probability of extraterrestrial life, why can we not find it.

Novel thought experiments that make you look at the world differently is the heart of Liu’s writing, and why I generally liked The Wandering Earth. The Wandering Earth had 10 short stories (of which the first is a story by the titular name). Each story had a lesson or kernel of something brilliant in it, but I will say that there was a level of cruelty and disregard toward life, ecology, etc. in some of the stories that I found very troubling. Cixin Liu comes from a non-Western culture, and so his science fiction captures different commentary–what is considered dystopic, noble, and even typical gender norms vary greatly from what you might see in a Bradbury, Asimov, or Verne novel.

Since there were 10 stories, I won’t try to summarize them all–just share some of the high and low lights. The Wandering Earth was from a scientific perspective the most interesting to me (e.g. move the earth as a spaceship, instead of abandoning it in favor of building big enough spaceships/rockets).  To the comment on culture above, there is a degree of stoicism (the husband has an affair and the wife and child don’t even seem to notice his absence or ultimate return) and utter chaos from an environmental perspective that I cannot imagine seeing in a Western short story. There also are stories of resilience for the good of all, and ultimately resistance that does seem universal (conspiracy theories upsetting rational thought in the public dialogue–felt like a social media commentary was embedded even without any such technology referred to in the story). In general I found the story a bit cold, but also interesting.

The next story I liked was Sun of China. It was absolutely a hero’s quest (leaving home to work in the coal mines, then migrating continually for work becoming a “spiderman”–skyscraper window cleaner, and eventually a space explorer). It had the elements of manifest destiny that I have seen in 1900s literature from Western writers, but with a very different technological backdrop (again the concept of using technology to change weather patterns despite significant implications to world-wide ecology, and then the lack of any call to be home or with family other than to know they are proud of him). His motivation didn’t resonate with me from a values point of view, but it was a beautiful story all the same. 

Another one I really enjoyed (and found mind-bending in the best of ways) was Micro-era. A navigator returns to Earth from a deep space mission seeking the next habitable planet for humans to migrate to, fails to find such a planet, learns all of the other navigators also failed and died, returns home to earth, only to discover that the great cataclysmic event from which he was trying to find an escape for humanity has occurred and all life appears to be dead. THEN he realizes there is life, and the form factor is unexpected. It is a fun concept that enables a difficult reality to be faced, and new hope to be found. I thought it was…fascinating (and one of the few stories with an ecological angle that wasn’t catastrophic at least from the lens of human impact on the Earth.)

With Her Eyes was again an interesting thought experiment, and one of the most relatable stories in the novel (as it came down to gratitude, empathy, and the value of human connection). It is really a simple story with the lesson of cherishing the moment because we never know when we might lose it. 

Cannonball was very true-to-form Liu in my eyes: hard science where the joy of discovery is juxtaposed against the impact on society: “yes we can do amazing things…should we?”  I didn’t love the characters (this is fairly consistent feedback for me: outside of the characters in With Her Eyes, and the Captain in The Devourer, I didn’t find the character development to be fantastic), but I did find it to be an awesome thought experiment.

In Book Club we had a fabulous discussion led by two members who have background in Chinese history and culture about some of the nuance and commentary within the stories of the novel. With that lens, I found a deeper appreciation for the subtlety and elegance of Liu’s writing than I had previously had. In general I would recommend the novel (although For the Benefit of All Mankind was a brutal read for me personally). I would definitely recommend the collection, but maybe skip that one. 😉

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Book Club

Cassandra Speaks

For February, our book club read Cassandra Speaks by Elizabeth Lesser. In general everyone in book club enjoyed this book–new perspective on old tales, well-written, and inviting self-inquiry, which generally resonates with the folks who attend. I always write out my thoughts before book club, which I find allows me to avoid some of the group-think nature discussions can take, and in this case I was really glad that I did since I also enjoyed the book, but felt it was three books in one, and would really have preferred an entire book dedicated to the themes of the first section.

In Cassandra Speaks, Lesser starts by retelling stories from Western literature as if they were told from the woman’s perspective. This, along with her thoughtful commentary, pulling out quotations from the original texts is incredibly impactful. She walks through the stories of Eve, Pandora, Cassandra and others, urging us to look at these as tales of curiousity, inquiry, self-actualization–effectively hero’s journies rather than tales of women luring men into sin. She consistently speculates on why these stories are told/retold and the impact that have on people in Western society, and then she encourages us to be willing to see the stories differently. In all ways I found this to be the most thought-provoking and interesting section of the book.

In the second section of the book she transitions into a discussion of power, and how many women reject power, while admitting that powerlessness is dangerous. She endeavors to reframe power from the historical notion of “power over others” to the ability to change and improve the lives of ourselves and others. While I resonate with this definition, I found it a bit idealistic: of course I attempt to empower others through connection, love, engagement, etc., but that doesn’t change certain structural elements of society, nor maybe do I feel I personally need to change society, if I can approach my life with the lens of empowering others instead of asserting my power over them.

In this section she also talks about the importance of activism and innervism. Innervism is a term I believe Lesser has coined (certainly I hadn’t heard it before), which she defines as self-work feeding “the part of me that seeks inner change, inner healing.” She says activism and innervism are not things we practice either or, but rather these are mutual pursuits that are a check and balance upon one another. The importance of this mutual work, fighting for change in the world, while acknowledging that sometimes the change that needs to be seen is actually work within yourself, resonated. So often do I see people who fight so hard for their truth that they miss the opportunity to hear the truths of others, and ultimately become myopic and misguided. She walks through concepts here from Jung and others about shadow work, which for those who have never read about it is a form of psychotherapy that involves exploring the aspects of the self that a person hides, ignores, or dislikes. The basis is effectively that we learn to withold certain elements of ourselves in childhood because they are not received well by others (our parents, siblings, friends, teachers, etc.) and in that process we can feel shame, etc. about these sometimes very normal feelings or desires. Understanding the parts of yourself you have learned to withhold, and reclaiming the parts you want or need is important. Of this section, the importance of continuing self-actualization in any pursuit was my favorite part.

In the final section of the book she lays out some tools and techniques to aid in being a force for good in the fight for equality. While I still found her insights here powerful (e.g. the concept of “do no hard, and take no sh*t”), I really didn’t love this part because I found it held moments of dissonance with me. For example, she talks about the need for new voices in literature, but then gives her list of best literature, which only includes female voices. I am sure she was trying to turn up the contrast, but for a book whose general theme is to increase equality it rubbed me a bit.

At its best, this book encourages you to think about the influences behind your own thoughts, whether literary, societal, or familial. Questioning the parts that don’t resonate with your life and reclaiming surpressed aspects of yourself that you want to embrace is a beautiful call to action. Our past is and always will be pertinent to our reality, but every day is a new chance to choose who we want to be and how we want to show up. There is something deeply beautiful in that call to action, so less for activism and more for the insights on innervism, I really enjoyed the book.

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The Age of AI: And Our Human Future

For book club in January we read The Age of AI: And Our Human Future by Eric Schmidt, Henry Kissinger, and Daniel Huttenkolcher. This book while recent (published at the end of ’21) is actually already a bit out-of-date given the rate of innovation in the domain of Artificial Intelligence, but still a good read. Everyone at Book Club enjoyed the book (actually more than I did I think!)

Pros: the book provides an excellent recap of AI’s progression through to generative artificial intelligence (including ChatGPT) in ways that feel prescient given where we are two years after its publication. The authors delve into the implications for society and governments, and make recommendations (not on specific policy, but on previous methodologies used to craft such doctrine) with the goal of ensuring that AI can continue to be a force for good, and not a case of further enmity and inequity between societies that can and cannot embrace the technology.

Cons: there was far more attention given to war-time implications of AI, and the risks of this technology without specific solution-oriented recommendations. There are many things being done in academia and at public companies to reduce bias and also to increase participation across the world of the use of AI for solving important problems from healthcare to environmental protection; this was barely glossed over in initial chapters, and that felt like a miss. Ethical AI, and its distribution is a matter of major research and industry engagement right now. The main focus of the book was more on the implications for nation states and how critical it was to begin bringing companies and countries together to align on an appropriate iteration of a deterrence doctrine. While I don’t disagree that policy makers need to include technologists and companies advancing the state of the art here, I felt that was a narrow and defensive focus for a book whose title at least has far greater implications.

My other critique of the book (shared by more folks than my feeling that it was too focused on national defense implications) was that this book is VERY Eurocentric. All of the examples from the Renaissance to the research are centered in Europe and America. While there is discussion about China and its specific national investments, no other nation outside of America and Europe is specifically mentioned (except Iran as a historical example of how nuclear policies unfolded). If one truly wants to give a call to action about the role of AI in international policy, it would have been better to be more inclusive in one’s world view.

In general I liked the book, but I have found classes and books on LLMs, and the advancements in gene therapy, protein folding, etc. so much more interesting than the national security and defense implications. I was in the minority of our book club with that perspective, which is more likely a testament to my pacifism than a real critique of the book. It is exactly what I would have pictured coming from a Kissinger book. Definitely worth a read for the historical recap if nothing else.

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Book Club: Measure What Matters

We have ended year one of our little book club! 12 different books around leadership, management, goal setting, organizational behavior, and systems thinking. I hope it was an opportunity for folks to think through their leadership styles and reflect a bit on how they want to show up in the world whether they are a people manager or a technical leader, at a small or large corporation, or within an open source consortium–we have such a range of folks and styles I know I have learned from so many folks. In the new year, our book club will take an alternative shape focusing less on leadership, and more on the trends happening in technology and their ethical implications. Please sign up here and recommend a book in theme if you want to participate.

Our last book of the year was Measure What Matters, which is definitely a canonical piece. Most folks enjoyed the book, although it definitely hasn’t aged all that well (looking at the outcomes of so many of the companies he highlighted as poster children of OKRs). I loved it because goal setting and accountability are core to execution and I like to be the kind of person who accomplishes things. It is definitely a US-centric book, and we discussed as a group what that “means” in other contexts, since so many of us manage global teams or at least work closely with teams all over the world. It also is light on implementation details (more on impact of where it was rolled out successfully, but not necessarily HOW to roll it our successfully, particularly now when so many of us are in a remote-first work environment and with globally-distributed teams). There was also some commentary about the fact that the book really speaks to a time with few female leaders. Sadly I think this is just the reality of the time frame and not really a critique of the book (e.g. Andy Grove’s Intel was not all that diverse–no company was 40 years ago, and that was the birthplace of OKRs).

In general though we had a great discussion on the value of these efforts: the checkpoints and discussions. Whatever systems you use for goal setting (V2MOM , OKRs, etc.) the magic is in the discussion with your teams and employees. It is in the bottoms up strategic alignment WITH upper management (it cannot just cascade down, it has to go in both directions) and it is in the discussions when you grade them with your team. I have learned so much with my team members: the folks who CANNOT handle seeing anything less than a 1, but who also didn’t quite feel like it was a WIN; those who grade themselves at .95, when they clearly didn’t do the work they said they would do; and the folks who have nailed all but one of their key results, but still feel horrible that they left anything undone. There is no right way to do this, but an engaged manager learns so much from discussing output in a framework with their employees. Too few do this, but there is no better recipe for helping someone be successful in their career than setting clear goals and helping them make progress against them to drive the objectives of the company.

Corporate-wide OKRs also help everyone see that the enemy is outside the walls, and not within. So often in my career I have seen different teams fighting over headcount or budget, but when leadership is clear about the priorities and goals, and there is transparency and visibility in who is doing what and the dependencies on each other, THAT is when I’ve seen leaders say “don’t fund me until you fund that team; I won’t have anything to do/scale/sell/etc.” Ultimately leadership is not just about vision, it is about execution, and ensuring folks execute collectively means aligning on what success looks like, and then enabling each other to get there. This book is a great reminder (even if a little light on the how-tos). Definitely read all the way to the resource section at the end with the how-tos from Google. That is the most concrete “how to do it”, and know you will have to iterate. No one company does OKRs in the same way.

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Book Club: Leadership and the New Science

For October’s Book Club session we read Leadership and the New Science by Margaret Wheatley. This book felt more like a metaphor than a guide. Dr. Wheatley pokes at what is wrong with the traditional 19th century leadership mindset (hierarchical in nature, where the organization runs best in an autocratic fashion–think Henry Ford and factories where every person performed a specific physical function in the line). She uses Newtonian dynamics to describe both why we are inclined to believe this is “the way”, but also what we have learned about how the world functions at the subatomic level invalidating this approach. The heart of her argument is that as descriptive and measurable as these kinds of cause and effect relationships are for describing the dynamics of large objects, it isn’t actually how humans, relationships, or organizations function.

Dr. Wheatley draws analogies between “new science” (chaos theory, quantum physics, and deeper understanding of biology) and organizational dynamics. In many ways we are chaotic, but our chaos is actually a path to self-organization, and her postulate is chaos is actually how we maximize creativity, learning, and fundamentally innovation. Chaos Theory is derived from the discoveries of “strange attractors” and fractals. “Strange attractors” prove that amidst seeming chaos and randomness, patterns evolve revealing an order that is at work in the universe. This evolution is non-linear which means that the slightest variation in the inputs can result in vastly different outputs. Applying this to organizations implies organizational behavior can be unpredictable (which anyone who has lived through change management knows).

On the other hand, fractals prove that the same simple pattern can be found repeated at many levels of observation forming an intricate object when viewed as a whole. Wheatley draws the analogy between an organization’s culture and fractals implying that “simply expressed expectations of purpose, intent, and values, and the freedom for responsible individuals to make sense of these in their own way” will enable individuals to self-organize without strict enforcement, and in fact that will be more predictable than a “structured” approach, since it is fundamentally how we all work. My engineering mind has a hard time believing values alone will enable self-organization, but I have definitely seen how clear goals with transparency around the measured results can rally people to a cause more effectively than tops-down micromanagement. Align with the team on what success looks like, and how we will measure; then see them execute.

One of my favorite sections was on Quantum Physics and its applicability to organizational dynamics. The analogy here is between humans and subatomic interactions “…no particle can be drawn independent from others (p. 34)” and “what is critical is the relationship created between two or more elements. Systems influence individuals, and individuals call forth systems (p.36).” This feels incredibly true in my observations. How someone shows up in a meeting depends on who else is present, and how that individual relates to those others. We are points on a wave, not individuals fixed in time and space. I have seen how teams can overdeliver (or under) relative to their intellectual capacity based entirely on the relationships between the individuals and their partners and customers. Our relative position is what matters most.

This book is an alternate paradigm to describe work and human relationships, and it is in no way a guidebook for managers. As such, I found myself seeing these analogies across work and life at every turn, but in no way felt clearer on how to execute effectively in that world. Sometimes uncertainty is the kind of discomfort that drives insight and breakthroughs. Nearly everyone in the book club enjoyed this book, and felt similarly around its lack of direct applicability, but beauty in terms of insight. I definitely recommend this book philosophically to question your assumptions about life and work. It reminds me of one of my favorite quotations from one of my favorite books of all time “Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer,” – Rainer Maria Rilke

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Book Club: Quiet

For book club in September we read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. I found that I got a lot out of this book. I self-identify as “extroverted for a purpose”: being around people doesn’t exhaust me, except if I’m around people without purpose or authenticity; when I have to assume a role rather than be myself, I find that exhausting. I also absolutely recharge through running, reading a book, and quality time with one person or small familiar groups (which is more synonymous with introversion according to Cain’s definition). I enjoy people, and I can be energized by being around them with the right motivation and purpose (a work event with meaningful connection time, working through major challenges in a group, discussing a book with others to see multiple perspectives, etc.), but walking into a party without a purpose (just a casual thing or networking event just to “meet people”) feels…awkward to me.

The book talks about many aspects of introversion and extroversion. The key domains the books delves into are: how introverts and extroverts tend to differ around motivation and sensitivity, the impact of nature vs. nurture with respect to introversion and extroversion, Western vs. Eastern cultural norms on extroversion and introversion, the history of extroversion, how introverts may enact purposeful behavior changes to simulate extroversion, advice for corporations on how to grow and nurture introverts as well as extroverts, how leaders can embrace the diverse perspectives that groups with introverts and extroverts provide, and that introverts and extroverts benefit most when they cooperate. Fundamentally the book encourages understanding differences of human reactions to particular stimulus, and encourages empathy for those which may not reflect your cultural norm, but are still quite normal.

In terms of feedback, most of the book club enjoyed this book. We self-identified as half introverts and half extroverts in the group. Unilaterally the extroverts said they felt that their empathy and understanding for introverts expanded through the book. There was feedback on whether the inverse was true given the pathologically extroverted examples that were referenced in the book (e.g. Tony Robbins, Winston Churchill, etc.). The feeling was that the intention was to shun extroverts into “checking themselves” vs. helping people gain a better understanding of alternate mental states.

Ultimately I would have loved to see the conclusion own the oversimplification in the title and reiterate the nuance in the research cited throughout the book. There is a spectrum between introversion, ambiversion, and extroversion; stimulus, purpose, and environment alter how people manifest, and your upbringing and culture have a significant implication to how you will represent yourself. We are individuals, and we get to choose how we show up. I really enjoyed the messages around empathy and inclusion in this book, and wished there had been more moderate examples of extroverts to highlight that not all the good ones are introverts masquerading as extroverts because of Western society’s expectations and cultural norms, but even with that caveat I really did appreciate the book.

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Book Club: Technopoly

For book club this month we read Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, which I have to admit was hard at times to read as a technophile. Still, sometimes the best books are the ones that force you to question your assumptions (and our book club selects books by popular vote), so I dug in.

First off I will say most of the folks in our club did not like the book: struggled with determining what the thesis was, and even if they resonated with a point here or there, it didn’t feel actionable. I will attempt to summarize the thesis I took away: part of what makes us human is lost as we become a more processed, controlled, technology-driven culture. The tradeoff is real, and he illustrates many things that change with new technology (religion, family, culture, politics, medicine, etc.) but he juxtaposes this as always negative, rather than just different, and that is where most of us, as a book club full of technologists, struggled. Just because new technology is invented doesn’t necessarily imply that society is net better or worse. Yes, it changes how society approaches something: if you always had to visit your family to connect with them and now you can do it on the phone or via text, is that really worse? Yes, the quality of the connection may not be as strong, but the frequency even as people have had to move farther from one another feels like a reasonable tradeoff to stay connected than just growing apart. Infant mortality being reduced through vaccination…these are just a few examples where it is clear that technology is net beneficial. Fundamentally change shouldn’t be seen as a zero sum game.

Still, I actually really enjoyed the book, not for the anti-technology bent, but because I resonated with one key premise: bias towards belief without knowledge and context leads to chaos, and we have to build educational systems, and norms that ensure we don’t fall into that trap. This line of thought is prescient in my mind given what we are seeing with ChatGPT and LLMs. Fundamentally these tools give definitive, and sometimes very wrong answers, and people believe them because of the form they take. In the book Postman talks about Eliza, an AI project that responded in the forms humans expected (as a teacher, therapist, etc.) and how in a study the humans reacted as if Eliza were in fact a real person when in reality it was just AI. This was done as an experiment, but fundamentally we are living this daily with our LLMs. If we don’t teach the humans interpreting the output a framework for critical thinking, then we will double down on the kind of bias/echo chamber that social media helped sew.

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Book Club: Give and Take

For Book Club this month we read Give and Take: A Revolutionary Approach to Success. In this book, Adam Grant categorizes people into three types: givers, matchers, and takers. Givers proactively help others, matchers try to give exactly as much as they get, and takers attempt to get more than they give, believing that this is required to be successful. Grant writes about the advantages and disadvantages of adopting a giving “reciprocity style” in the workplace, and highlights that givers can be both the most and least successful with data; the primary difference between successful and unsuccessful givers is knowing how to establish boundaries.

It was an interesting discussion at book club. Everyone enjoyed the book, either as a reflection to understand one’s personal style and whether or not we consistently show up that way in all contexts, or as a way to think through strategies when you are confronted with a person who isn’t matching your reciprocity style. The examples are clear in the book: people who accomplish great things can be all styles across any profession (Frank Lloyd Wright and Jonas Salk are examples of takers who met with great success in architecture and science respectively, and Adam Rifkin and Abraham Lincoln are given as examples of givers who met with great success in fields of entrepreneurship and politics), but he makes the case that givers are the MOST successful based on several studies in the long run. Fundamentally, we all appreciated a world view in which the “good guy” wins in the end.

If there is any critique I would personally give this book it is two-fold:

1. The classifications of styles are singular and ascribed to the individual vs. the context, and that has not been my personal experience. I have met many people who are givers at home, but not in the workplace, and arguably it is the culture of the workplace that leads to their choices in this matter. A company who celebrates giving back (in the form of mentorship, sponsorship, industry contributions, etc.) nurtures a culture of “give as much as we can give without hurting the business” vs. a “take more than you give” approach. That percolates into every decision one’s employees take, and how they interact with one another–the best in people will come out if you reward it. If you work at a company with a “winner takes all” business mindset, I have seen that trickle into who gets promoted/recognized/etc. and in those companies a giver will struggle to succeed.

I honestly believe most people want to give to others (and Grant also calls this out in the book), but they have to feel that they can, and companies/leaders/managers can do a lot to foster that kind of community and trust. Grant focuses on the individual as if this is entirely their choice and control, and doesn’t tackle the systems which contribute. That notion clashes with my world view that people are usually good, and systems create the majority of the bad behavior. I appreciate the individualism in his approach, but I think we as leaders need to tackle our systems for rewards in order to ensure that we are cultivating environments to enable people to work best together.

2. All of the givers, takers, and matchers given as examples in the book are men of European descent. I can see two reasons for this: one, Grant is trying to normalize the data and therefore stick with one “type”; two, there is bias in the historical record making it harder to discern a consistent signal on female and minority figures of the past.

In book club I brought up the observation that there were no female examples in the book. It was a difficult conversation: bias is a touchy subject, and I almost felt bad mentioning it, yet it stood out to me that there wasn’t an account of a woman in the entire book who was noted as a giver, taker, or matcher. Research done by women and underrepresented minorities was cited, so I don’t believe this speaks to Grant’s bias against people, but rather the possibilities above: this was a conscious decision to normalize, or he felt there wasn’t enough historical information to make a strong conclusion.

It was interesting to me that no one else noticed this (indicates that I might be over-sensitive), and that the response to me bringing it up led to a discussion about safety to have difficult conversations, and even the concept of meta conversation (discussions about discussions rather than the actual topic) in order to align upon how we would approach this observation. (Aside: I love that this little community we have built will delve into the concept of meta communications to frame a discussion and then dive in!)

We did have a short conversation about the observation (our time was running out), and the conclusion was that there are gendered norms around reciprocity, and there are gendered expectations around communication styles, but delving into those would be a different book. Examples of books which attempt to tackle the research include Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead, You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation, and I’m sure more, so maybe this was indeed a conscious choice by Grant to stick to examples in one gender and race profile, which maybe could be applied to others, but he didn’t attempt to do so.

Within our book club we represent a wide array of races and genders and we all could think of examples of givers, takers, and matchers across all of these lines, so I believe Grant’s observations of types hold. What was less clear to us was whether or not his conclusion about givers being the most successful over time would hold. It is truly hard to say, and maybe should delve into a discussion about what success is (which often changes throughout one’s life)…that too is a different book (The Second Mountain, and Designing Your Life come to mind as books I really enjoyed tackling that realm).

Ultimately I like the notion of living in a world with Karma, and trying to give more than we get. Most situations are not “fixed pie” scenarios, and finding ways to reframe decisions into win-win situations has been one of the most important insights in my professional life. I really enjoyed the book and recommend it highly.

Happy Reading!

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Book Club

Book Club: Dare to Lead

For June book club we read Brené Brown’s book Dare to Lead. Full disclosure: I had already read this book and really enjoyed it personally. I felt SEEN and really had to dig deep on two concepts:

1. Speaking about others when they are not in the room. There is a section where she mentions that in order to build trust, you should always bring issues TO someone and never speak about someone else without them in the room. I have always found this to be daunting. I like to believe I don’t gossip, but as a manager, often people bring personnel issues to me, and it is hard to discuss that without in some sense discussing the other person. I always seek to encourage direct dialogue with the party in question, but in order to coach I find myself sharing insights about my interactions with that person (trying to help them understand if that individual is biased to action and maybe that is why they came across as gruff, or more shy and reserved and so maybe they are not engaging yet, but will utilizing alternate media such as a blog or chat, etc.) I find this specific feedback hard to execute in practice, although I agree that the underlying concept (talking behind people’s backs) is unhelpful. I would just caveat that intention matters, and I hope if I share the intention behind the discussion then it will be ok to have these kinds of discussions, but I am far more deliberate about that framing than I used to be.

2. Showing sympathy vs. empathy. When I was going through the hardest part of last year (watching my nephew and my family suffer and not being able to do anything) I really got to see this in action. People, quite accidentally, often say “I’m sorry for your family” or “I’m sorry that your nephew has to go through this.” Fundamentally this is sympathy, and it is distancing–it separates you from the subject. Then there would be folks who said something more along the lines of, “Please take care of yourself. I remember when I was going through my father’s illness–it is a marathon and not a sprint. If there is anything I can do to help you or your family, please let me know.” Here that person was relating to my experience, and showing me they were there, holding my hand, willing to support me if they could. I had never learned these concepts in school (not really an engineering subject) or felt I necessarily needed them before last year, but after going through such an experience, I now know: be WITH people in their pain. There is no “right” thing to say, just show you are there to hold their hand, share a book on grief (that was incredibly thoughtful gift from a friend of mine), or just send a text checking in. I hope I will always show up for others this way after having been on the receiving end, and I’m sorry to all the friends/colleagues I may have accidentally isolated or made worse before I knew better.

Our book club session was lightly attended given the holiday in the US, but I was glad to have had the discussion with other folks in different phases of their careers and leadership journeys because I always learn something. Some of the feedback shared was that Dr. Brown’s colloquialisms were too outdated and/or “Southern” and were triggering/hard to relate to for that person since he came from the South himself. Many of us felt that she uses the term “rumble” a lot, and honestly outside a 1950s reference to car racing, it really isn’t a term I know or relate to very well. However, I can see where it could get triggering based on background, or just be difficult to relate to for someone earlier in their career journey or not from the US. I personally found her style charming and relatable, but not everyone has the same reaction to these sorts of things.

The other feedback was that she had a strong underlying principle for the book, but it was potentially redundant. Fundamentally the book’s premise is that being a good leader requires you to lean into your discomfort, have hard conversations, be vulnerable, authentic, and brave. There is a fair amount of repetitiveness of this theme throughout the book. I read that as reinforcement of the key concept through different stories/lenses, but if you prefer books with more brevity, I could see where that style might not appeal. There was actually the observation from one of our attendees that this almost felt like a set of essays rather than a book. Again, that was not how I read it, but I can see the perspective.

Something everyone really loved was distilling and sharing one’s core values. What are the one to two things that are core to who you are, and how can you ensure that the work in your life relates to those values? If you are clear about those values, can you share them with the folks you care about? If someone you work with has shared their values, do you find that making sense of their behavior and interactions is clearer? If we are honest about our core motivations and willing to share, then working together can become significantly easier. I personally value learning and people above everything. Note I use the word “people,” not community, purposefully. I value you, the individual, and I want to know you. I never want to know people solely through context (we work at the same company, our kids attend the same school, etc.) because then our brains use archetypes to generalize about the other person rather than really understanding who people are and what motivates them.

This set of values means I tend toward smaller groups: I like one-on-one discussions, and team-building is particularly important to me (grabbing a meal, taking a walk, going on a hike together, etc.) to establish trust with people. Anyone who knows me or has worked with me probably knows the learning piece–I love learning, and whenever I have successfully figured out how to frame an experience as a learning one, I have nearly infinite motivation to grind through it. Similarly, if the work is for a person I care about (be it a customer, partner, etc.), I can almost always make it happen, and if I cannot it is particularly hard for me. The heart of this exercise from Dr. Brown is to reflect on this about yourself, and share it with your team/teammates., so you find ways to work best together.

In general I’m a large fan of Dr. Brown and her books, and I personally enjoyed and recommend this book, but obviously the opinion is not universal.