A little time for self-improvement…

4secondsFour Seconds:  All the Time You Need to Stop Counter-Productive Habits and Get the Results You Want.

Peter Bregman

2015.  HarperOne.  258 pgs with acknowledgements, notes and index.  More resources to accompany the book can be found at:  http://www.peterbregman.com/four-seconds.

Other books I’ve read by Bregman:  18 Minutes:  Find Your Focus, Master Distraction and Get the Right Things Done.  Bregman is also the author of a popular blog on the Harvard Business Review website.

I’ve been a fan of Bregman’s thoughtful, emotionally honest writing about improvement in business for some time.  When his new book, Four Seconds came out, I knew I had to get it and read it.  Who knows, maybe his advice will help me carve out more time for reading Guardian 1,000 titles!

One of Bregman’s constant themes is trying to answer the question of how can we be effective as leaders when we are crushed by mounting deadlines, avalanches of information and constant distraction?  The answer in his latest book is to pause for as few as four seconds and replace negative reactions with positive and productive actions.  This simple premise is the heart of the whole book — and while it sounds too basic to be helpful — Bregman fleshes it out with a multitude of rich, specific advice and examples.  The book is organized into three broad areas of focus:

  • changing your mental defaults,
  • strengthening relationships, and
  • optimizing work habits.

Each of the three sections is chunked into further small sections which explore a specific sub-theme.  Further, each sub-section is summarized in a box at the end of the sub-section, delivering that idea in a summary of about three-four sentences.  Talk about efficiency in writing!  I know I’m going to be browsing through these summaries on a regular basis.  Some of the advice is as specific as:  check your email only three times a day, or stop venting to co-workers, while other is broad-based:

Setting goals isn’t always a beneficial habit.  Identify and spend your time on areas of focus instead and you’ll get where you want to go more effectively.

By the way, if you are interested in more books about productivity, check out Productivity Porn! a list I curate over on GoodReads.

Strumpet City

strumpetStrumpet City

James Plunkett

Gill & Macmillan.  1969.   549 pgs with introduction by Fintan O’Toole.

Other books I’ve ready by Plunkett:  none.  Plunkett was a native Dubliner who worked as a producer for RTE, the Irish national radio broadcaster.  He was also active in the Workers Union of Ireland, where he operated as a staff secretary under the famous Irish labor organizer, Jim Larkin.  Plunkett wrote other books and plays; Strumpet City is considered his masterpiece.

And masterpiece it is.  Strumpet City follows  a handful of representative Dubliners — upper class, clergy, lower class — for seven critical years in the city’s history, concluding with the Dublin Lockout of 1913.

The Lockout was a brutal struggle between employers and workers in Dublin culminating with the eventual starving out and defeat of the workers.  The conflict revolved around the worker’s right to unionize, which at that time was a novel concept.  While the workers’ demands seemed relatively mild, including the right to be paid for overtime, the employers’ response was savage.  A federation of 300 employers, led by the owner of the city’s tramway company, forced workers to renounce their union memberships — or be “locked out” of their respective factories, shops or places of employment.  At the time of the Lockout, Dublin industry was service-based, and fueled by low-skilled, low-wage workers.  Living conditions were abysmalStatue of Jim Larkin.  Dublin had one of the highest infant mortality rates in Europe and tuberculosis was common.  As a result of the Lockout, 20,000 workers, representing about another 80,000 dependents, were thrown out of work.  Employers, in their turn, either shut down their workplaces or employed scab labor who toiled under police protection.  Accordingly, the Lockout resulted in many Dublin businesses declaring bankruptcy.  Many of the clergy, instead of protecting the helpless, connived with the employers by withholding charity from striking families.  To the clergy, the unions represented Socialism, one step away from atheism.  In one memorable scene, Dublin priests prevent a convoy of hungry children from leaving the city for refuge with Protestant trade unionist families.  Starvation, you see, would be preferable to the loss of the Catholic influence.

One of the novel’s strengths is it tapestry of characters — each drawn so skillfully that even the minor players haunt you once the book is over.   Plunkett divides his characters into upper class, clergy and lower class — but of course, nothing about the book is that simplistic.  There are heroes and devils sprinkled liberally throughout all three domains and perhaps even more terrifyingly — the horror of the banality of evil, poverty, disease and disparity between the haves and havenots.  In one of my favorite scenes, the alcoholic priest Father Giffley visits Jim Larkin, Dublin’s union leader and a real life character:

There is something I need advice about,’ Father Giffley said.  “Today, in one of the houses in my parish I found a body of police who were acting like blackguards.  They had beaten a man and terrified his wife and children….”

“Didn’t you know that it happens all the time?”

“Perhaps I did.  But I had never witnessed it before.  I intend to lodge a complaint and if necessary, give evidence.  I want advice on how best to go about it.”

“It would do no good.”

“It can be tried.”

“It has been tried countless times already,” Larkin said.  “by eminent men who have courage and sympathy.  And by a few men of your own calling, too, Father….”

Larkin rejects Father Giffley’s help because later in the interview he recognizes that the priest’s alcoholism disqualifies him as an ally and effective witness.  However, the rest of us are not so easily excused.  The lessons of Strumpet City are that the same disparities of class, education, opportunity and even health keep people as helpless today as the tenement dwellers of 1913 — and these problems still lock all of us out of our true human potential.


Nice Work by David Lodge

Nice Work

David Lodge

Penguin Books.  1988.  277 pgs.

Man Booker Prize Shortlist, 1988.

Other books I’ve read by Lodge:  the wonderful Deaf Sentence and Changing Places.  Nice Work is the third Lodge book  about fictional Rummidge University — a stand-in for the University of Birmingham, UK.  If I give myself a break from the Challenge soon, I’d like to slip in another Lodge — possibly Small World, which is another Rummidge book.

Guardian 1,000 Challenge:  Comedy titles

Vic Wilcox, an industrialist and Robyn Penrose, a university professor have been coerced into participating in a feel-good university-community project that has Robyn spending each Wednesday shadowing Vic at his gritty factory-foundry.  Vic and Robyn are as about unlikely a couple as can be:  Vic is a non-nonsense “buy British” sort of guy with a Polytech background; Robyn drives a Renault and is an untidy intellectual who teaches Womens’ Studies and specializes in Victorian Industrial novels.   Robyn hates Vic’s factory and her visits turn everything in his world upside down.  She nearly incites a strike among the workers and wages a campaign against the girly calendars that are posted throughout the plant.  As you might suspect, the sparks flying between these two characters eventually ignite something else and Vic and Robyn’s overnight trip to an industrial trade show in Frankfort, Germany turns out to be one of the high-lights of the book.

This is one of the most entertaining novels I think I have ever read.  I had the added delight of tracking Lodge’s clever parody of Gaskell’s North and South — with Robyn as Margaret Hale to Vic’s John Thorton.  Thanks to my Challenge reading I actually appreciated all of Lodge’s allusions.  Another pleasure was the cast of  great secondary characters:  I particularly enjoyed Vic’s valium-popping wife, Marge, and even his spoiled and bratty kids.  Robyn’s crowd over at Rummidge U included  a doddery and eccentric Philip Swallow, who we met in Changing Places, and a crew of other roundly-satirized academics.  Add in Robyn’s refined and genteel parents (aka Mr. and Mrs Hale) from the South of England, a Victorian ex deus machina twist that pulls the plot together and a surprise visit from the famous Prof. Maurice Zapp from Changing Places to help Robyn make up her mind on an important matter — and you have the perfect ending.  Although the writing is so good and Vic and Robyn’s characters so memorable you just don’t want this one to end.

A Burning Shame: David von Drehle’s Triangle

Triangle:  The Fire that Changed America

David von Drehle

Grove Press.  2004.  352 pgs.  I read a Kindle version of Triangle and was missing pages of photographs.  I’m now considering purchasing a hard copy version due to the book’s excellence but having the photos will also be a plus.

ALA Notable Book for Adults, 2004.

New York City Book Award, Book of the Year, 2003.

Other books by David von Drehle:  Among the Lowest of the Dead and Deadlock:  the Inside Story of America’s Closest Election.  Von Drehle was a reporter with the Washington  Post when he wrote Triangle; he is currently an editor at large for Time Magazine.  The C-Span Book Notes website (unfortunately no longer being kept up) has a wonderful interview with him about Triangle:  http://www.booknotes.org/Watch/177888-1/David+Von+Drehle.aspx.  It’s an hour long but well worth it if you are interested in the story.

Von Drehle’s balances in-depth journalistic research with fluid prose that both captured my attention and left me wanting to know even more about the political and social history of early 20th century New York City.  The book is much more than the history of a workplace tragedy (the worst in New York City until Sept. 11, 2001) — it also depicts a time and place so vividly that I felt as though I was walking the streets of Greenwich Village and the Lower East side.

Von Drehle starts with the story of the Garment Workers’ strike of 1909 in order to explain the conditions the employees of the Triangle Shirtwaist faced.  Along the way, the stories of the workers themselves and the great waves of immigration from Eastern Europe and Italy are effectively described.  Von Drehle completes the picture by explaining the forces and figures behind Tammany Hall, New York’s powerful political machine.

The horror of the fire itself:  the locked door which killed many (locked at closing time to prevent theft of materials), the rickety collapsing fire escape and the individual stories of tragedy and courage are handled with empathy and journalistic clarity.  The manslaughter trial that followed (it was illegal at the time to lock your workers in) revealed more interesting data about the company’s two owners, the lives of the workers, the details of the fire and police department inner workings of 1911.

What really fascinated me was the story of the workplace safety reforms enacted in the years following Triangle.  The lives and careers of Al Smith, the future candidate for President, and Frances Perkins (FDR’s Secretary of Labor and first woman cabinet secretary) converge in an effort to ensure workers’ safety.  What was even more interesting was the political subtext:  Tammany Hall knew they needed a new political model to stay relevant.  They could no longer survive with simple graft and corruption:  they needed the huge block of votes that the immigrants represented.  Allowing the workplace reforms to pass ensured that vote.  Ultimately, this reform became the Progressive Movement that had its fulfillment in Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal.

I loved how von Drehle balanced big picture themes with the little details that capture your heart and imagination.  For example, Frances Perkins was having lunch with a friend a block away from the Triangle Factory on the morning of the fire.  She literally ran to the scene as people jumped to their deaths to escape the flames.  Another chilling detail — the owners of the factory had had similar fires before — all when the factory was unoccupied — and garnered hefty insurance payments.  The judge in the subsequent manslaughter trail had been New York City’s building inspector when a horrible tenement fire claimed the lives of children trapped behind locked doors.  His career had been ruined by allegations about his neglect for proper inspections.  Could he have felt a secret sympathy with the Triangle owners?  These are just a few of the kind of details von Drehle weaves into Triangle.  This was a great book that is going to have me looking for even more reads:  biographies of Al Smith and Frances Perkins to start!  But first…..back to the Guardian list.

Indispensable You: Seth Godin’s Linchpin

Linchpin by Seth Godin

Linchpin:  Are You Indispensable?

Seth Godin

Penguin.  2010.  244 pgs.

I follow and enjoy Seth Godin’s blog, so I thought it was time to check out one of his books.   In Linchpin, Godin  throws down some really interesting ideas.  I’ve tried to capture a few:

  • Workers used to be classified as two types:  management and labor, but Godin talks about a new type:  the linchpin.  These are the people who make a difference, stand out from the pack, and take responsibility for their own (and their organization’s) success.
  • The death of the industrial age means that the entire system we are all familiar with — bosses and workers, teachers and students, the factory and cogs/widgets,  — are gone forever.  This is scary but it also creates huge opportunities.
  • Charting a path is a choice, and what everything is about.
  • The linchpin is the person who can invent, create, connect, and see farther than today.  This is the person who is totally present and also has their fingertip on the future.  This could be you!
  • Becoming a linchpin is about recognizing your gift, and seeing yourself as an artist.
  • Art is anything that changes someone for the better.  It could be an interaction with someone.  It is focused on gift giving.
  • Linchpins must be brave and must stand up and stand for something.   They must give their gift.  They are the individuals who can point the organization toward the future.  Linchpins do not wait for instructions.
  • It’s hard to be a linchpin because it’s scary.  We all have a “lizard brain” that tell us to keep our head down, go with the flow, wait for instructions, and stay the course.  Part of this tendency hearkens back to patterns found in the educational system where it is a whole lot easier dealing with 30 kids filling out worksheet than it is with 30 kids with lots of ideas and questions.  As products of that system, many of us are afraid to discern our true gifts and become linchpins.
  • Linchpins have the following super powers:  leading customers, inspiring staff, providing deep domain knowledge, possessing a unique talent, delivering unique creativity, managing situations of great complexity, and providing unique interface between members of the organization.

This was a fun, thought-inspiring read.  At first I was a bit annoyed by Godin’s tendency to repeat himself — I chafed a bit thinking, this could all just be a shorter blog piece, not a full-length book.  But when I analyzed it, Godin doesn’t repeat himself as much as he weaves back and forth, connecting and re-connecting his ideas.  Godin provides lots of great examples of linchpins and this helps a great deal to enliven his concepts.

My main takeaway was, how can I be a linchpin?  How can I be the one who sees the future, connects others generously, and gives my gift without fear?  I work in a fairly traditional, hierarchical organization; Godin’s advice will be a challenge — but not an impossible one.