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Obliquity: Why Our Goals Are Best Achieved Indirectly by John Kay, Penguin Press, 240 pages, $25.95, Hardcover, April 2011, ISBN 9781594202780
Obliquity. It’s a peculiar name for a book, and the title may in fact drive a number of potential readers (like me) to their dictionaries. To get my head around the concept as I read, I imagined one of those boxes used to view an eclipse indirectly so as not to burn the viewer’s retina. John Kay’s Obliquity contains a plentitude of stories addressing the irony that, like viewing the natural phenomenon of an eclipse, the path to happiness is indirect. On one hand, setting lofty goals (staring into the sun) usually results in grandiose failure (getting burned). However, Kay contends that while points of struggle are often seen as anti-goal, success actually comes about because of those failure situations.
Mountaineering is one of the examples Kay uses to illustrate his thesis:
Mountaineers … do not say that being cold, starved of oxygen and at frequent risk of injury or death makes them happy. They confirm the commonplace assumption that such experiences are unpleasant. But the experience of having accomplished a difficult climb makes them immensely happy. They are not contradicting themselves, because happiness is not simply the aggregate of happy moments.
Parenthood is another example that perhaps more of us can sympathize with:
Anyone who has ever changed a diaper, or failed to quiet a childish tantrum, will recognize that looking after children is an oblique route to happiness.
This same deduction can be made through various business scenarios. Leaders want more market share; managers want more profits; employees want ideal work environments and top-notch pay. Yet to ask for those things is similar to the desire for “pain-free living on a tropical island”—unlikely to happen. Instead, according to Kay, we may achieve many of our loftier goals only by focusing on smaller specifics that indirectly lead us to the big prize.
In essence, Obliquity is a book of hope, a way of understanding our dips when they occur, and a reminder that keeping our eyes on what’s important should involve being open to the myriad ways we might arrive there.
Decade of Change: Managing in Times of Uncertainty, edited by Geoffrey Brewer and Barb Sanford, Gallup Press, 240 pages, $24.95, Hardcover, May 2011, ISBN 9781595620538
We’ve come to expect good things from Gallup Press, and their latest release, Decade of Change, doesn’t disappoint. Unlike their past releases, books like Strengths Finder 2.0 and 12: The Elements of Great Managing that have very specific focus and takeaways, this book is an anthology of material from “Gallup’s most visionary people, as well as the great minds with whom Gallup regularly associates.” So, there is no one great takeaway from the book that I can give you here. Instead, you’ll find many different ideas, lessons, scenarios to consider, and actions to take in many different arenas. The one common focus throughout the book is on management.
The material ranges from interviews of “the father of the Internet” Vinton Cerf and Hurricane Katrina hero Lieutenant General Russel Honoré to an essay about “Global Migration and Job Creation” by Jim Clifton, Chairman and CEO of Gallup. And each piece has a focus on a particular way the changes of the last decade have brought change into our own lives and businesses—from the housing bubble to the shifting demographics of labor unions and how managers can engage them in today’s economy.
But why pay attention to all of these disparate issues? What does it mean for your business or career?
[W]hile 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, turmoil in the Middle East and Asia, the warmest decade on record, and the collapse of global financial markets tend to be discussed as political and economic issues, they’re also management and leadership issues. For as any forward-thinking senior executive and organizational leader knows, the world’s problems very quickly become business problems.
And while Decade of Change delves into very large issues, such as if money does indeed make us happier and how that affects developing countries, the book also discusses very specific management issues you may be facing right now—how you engage and compensate employees, manage a retail store, lead change in your organization, and even how to improve your wellbeing at work.
This is a fascinating, entertaining and informative read, grounded in the research and statistics you’d expect from an organization like Gallup. Most importantly, Decade of Change is more than a rehashing of past events; it is a discussion about how we can move forward.
Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar: Stories of Work, edited by Richard Ford, Harper Perennial, 607 pages, $16.99, Paperback, May 2011, ISBN 9780062020413
John Cheever, Andre Dubus, Donald Barthelme, Jhumpa Lahiri, Joyce Carol Oates, Eudora Welty, Tobias Wolff. These are names you expect to see on college literature course syllabi and New York Times Best Seller Lists. These are not names you expect to see writing about work. But when the best fiction writers craft tales that are rooted in reality, made real by including close and clever details of everyday life, those stories act as a record of humanity. And Blue Collar, White Collar, No Collar, edited by the estimable Richard Ford, is exactly that: a record of humanity through stories of work.
Junot Diaz, Pulitzer Prize winner for his first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, contributes a story, “Edison, New Jersey,” about two dishonest pool table deliverymen who know and notice too much about their customers, all the while they have their minds on the ladies they’ve loved and lost. (Note to self: don’t let deliverymen use the bathroom unless you’ve already tipped them well.) Andre Dubus’s story is also about “Delivering,” beautifully yet tragically describing two young brothers on their paper delivery route the morning after their mother leaves:
[T]he sack bumping his right thigh and sliding forward … he kept shoving it back, keeping the rhythm of his pedaling and his throws: the easy ones to the left, a smooth motion across his chest like second to first, snapping the paper hard and watching it drop on the lawn; except for the people who didn’t always pay on time … and he hit their porches or front doors, a good hard sound in the morning quiet.
Elizabeth Strout’s entry comes from her fabulous story collection Olive Kitteridge, and details the reawakening of a pharmacist when he hires a young and simple woman, the opposite of his wife, to help him around the store. Annie Proulx, with her trademark gruff practicality, follows Leeland’s “Job History” quite literally as he moves from one job to another:
One intensely cold winter when everything freezes from God to gizzard, Leeland and his father lose 112 hogs. They sell out. Eighteen months later the ranch supply business goes under. The new color television set goes back to the store.
So why recommend this short fiction collection to business readers? Mr. Ford himself explains it best.
[W]e soon realized that it was a book for anyone who feels the urge to apply the consolations of literature to the complex, often perplexing matters of earning a paycheck, showing up on time, getting the job done, taking the job home, getting hired, laid off, promoted, demoted, reclassified, sent home, or of just plain being fed up and ready to take a hike. […] The idea here is that within the wide array of everything work may be said to encompass, one finds a vital connective tissue to be the thriving human spirit.
Plus, it’s just really fun to read.