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Bill Burnett And Dave Evans – Designing Your Life

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Getting the most out of it.

Publisher: Chatto & Windus (Random House)
Pages: 254
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-784-74024-5
First Published: 15th September 2016
Date Reviewed: 2nd October 2016
Rating: 4/5

Bill Burnett and Dave Evans created a course for students at Stanford University to help them ready their futures. Drawing from the methods designers use to create and prototype, the authors constructed a course with a difference, one that went against the grain to be of particular lifelong value. After much success, they’ve decided to turn the course into a book in order to help a greater number of people.

Designing Your Life is the kind of book that sports lots of common sense of the sort we tend to forget. It sports a lot of things that lead to ‘ah ha!’ moments. And it’s the literary version of those times when someone says ‘now bear with me…’ and you think ‘oh god, here it goes’ and then after a while of talking that you still think suspect, ends with a lot of very good ideas and value.

To be sure it reads as very American but the suggestions and topics in focus should, this reviewer believes (as a Brit), be relevant to most people. Burnett and Evans – who address themselves in the third person, which makes you wonder who was writing when and becomes something to really appreciate because of the complete collaborative atmosphere it projects – write in simple, easy to understand terms, giving full credit to other ideas which they detail for you in case you haven’t come across them previously. The authors seem to favour the idea of ‘done rather than perfect’ – the writing is plain but it does the job and the book’s complete lack of any filler content (student stories are detailed in order to provide context and examples) just goes to further the overall feeling that the authors know what they are doing. This is to say the book has been designed as much as the lives have been designed.

It turns out that the part of the brain that is working to help us make our best choices is in the basal ganglia. It’s part of the ancient base brain, and as such does not have connections to our verbal centers, so it does not communicate in words. It communicates in feelings and via connections to the intestines – those good old gut feelings. The memories that inform this choice-guiding function in our brains Goleman refers to as the “wisdom of the emotions”; by this he means the collected experiences of what has and hasn’t worked for us in life, and what we draw upon in evaluating a decision. Our own wisdom is then made available to us emotionally (as feelings) and intestinally (as a bodily, gut response). Therefore, in order to make a good decision, we need access to our feelings and gut reactions to the alternatives.

It’s a book to read quickly – we are talking lives after all and one of the authors’ thoughts, so often running in the background, is that we spend a lot of time thinking about and considering the present, agonising over the past and our choices, time that can be put to better use working on propelling ourselves towards our futures. Among the topics and concepts are jobs (don’t waste time on applications that get put into a keyword database, rather try and set up interviews with people who are doing what you want to do – do not think of these as interviews), ‘failure immunity’ (accepting that failure happens but not letting it get to you; categorising failures so you can dismiss minor one-offs and focus only on strengthening your weaknesses), and a ‘life dashboard’ that may seem a bit gimmicky but has a great idea behind it, that of working out your health/work/play/love balance and adjusting accordingly. The chapters on getting a job are particularly good and, like all the other topics included, sport both things you’ll inevitably already know and lots of things you kind of know but not in the way the authors are talking about them.

On that note, a key concept of the book is ‘reframing’ – dotted throughout are sentences that we’ve been taught to believe, accompanied by Burnett and Evans’ suggestions for different angles to view them through. The authors ask: when you try to solve a problem, are you solving the right one?

An example: dysfunctional thought – ‘I should know where I’m going’; reframed – ‘I can’t know where I’m going until I know where I am now’.

The only caveat with this book is that it’s not going to help everyone. This is something the authors address when they say that sometimes you might have to take the job to pay the bills or feed the family and do that until you’re in a place where you’ve space to look at your life in the way this book explains, but it’s not quite as simple as that. You’ll notice that by and large the stories in this book are of people who are relatively privileged in life when compared to others and have had the opportunity to learn skills that they can go back to and think about. Whilst the book may indeed work for a broader section of society than that looked at, it does come from a certain situation and place in life, and the angle the subjects are viewed from may suggest to some readers that this isn’t a book for them. It also isn’t a cure all; while the ideas in general are great, some are likely not to work, for example the idea of having a life design team to support what you’re trying to do – such a thing, as outlined in the book, would take a lot of time and while that suggested 3-6 people are spending time working on your future with you, they’re using time they could be working on themselves. You would need a number of extremely supportive and dedicated people in order to make such a thing work unless, perhaps, you happen to still be in education where everyone is doing the same thing. The firm suggestion that everyone involved get a copy of the book is a little too obvious in its hopes.

Designing Your Life is a very good book with some excellent ideas that do work – there are examples in day-to-day life aplenty, never mind in this book. The reframing idea is important because it gets you to think outside of the box and outside of the normal social thinking that whilst well-intended (or sometimes not!) can indeed hamper a person’s progress. But it’s best to keep yourself objective when reading it, and some may find it better placed as a guide rather than a project.

I received this book for review from FMCM Associates.

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Greg McKeown – Essentialism

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Less is more.

Publisher: Crown Business (Random House)
Pages: 246
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-804-13738-6
First Published: 15th April 2014
Date Reviewed: 16th April 2014
Rating: 4/5

McKeown discusses the essentialist way of being (choosing only those options in life and work that will get you closer to your goal and forgetting those that distract you and use up time).

Essentialism is a relatively short and informative book, which whilst a little repetitive and high in case studies, succeeds in suggesting why McKeown’s thoughts are of use.

The author urges us to do the opposite of common working practises. He says to take on only a few tasks and excel in them, rather than to try and do everything. He notes a good night’s sleep as essential, in happy contradiction to the idea that a sleepless worker is a hero. And he recommends actively saying ‘no’ when we want, instead of saying ‘yes’ to what we actually don’t want – those things that will ultimately waste our time. He includes tales from his own life in a way that simply teaches, never preaches.

(It is an interesting concept when you think about how bloggers initially feel they should say ‘yes’ to every request, and how they can become better bloggers by being more in control of what they want to read and discuss, when they are more selective.)

McKeown recounts a conversation he had with a person who remarked that we are no longer bored. We have phones that text and can access the Internet whilst we’re in a queue, for example. No longer being bored is of course good, but McKeown notes the fact that it means we have less, even no, time for thinking.

It is interesting to consider McKeown’s values, what he hopes we’ll adopt. To view it as a list it reads as a holiday plan – time to think; less to do; more sleep; not being so busy; time for play and leisure; done is better than perfect. McKeown’s focus on quality is key to his argument. Discuss with your boss if a task given to you won’t get done, make time for your family. It’s intriguing to note that the author’s method of working means spending more time thinking about options than you would, but he discusses how planning saves time in the long run.

Overall the book is a good read and full of value, but there does come a point where you feel he could have applied ‘less is more’ to his content. He starts to repeat information, which may fit his thoughts on routines helping memory but isn’t necessary in a short book. There are a few too many stories where it would’ve been better to simply carry on discussing strategies. The book isn’t particularly well-written but that’s not important in regards to its purpose. This said, fewer instances of non-classic media being called classic, fewer uses of the word ‘classic’ in general, would have rid the book of its slight ‘name-drop’ atmosphere.

Essentialism provides a thorough grounding in a better way to live and work. It will best suit those who already have thoughts in mind to change, though almost everyone will find it of use in some way.

I received this book for review from the publisher.

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Sheryl Sandberg – Lean In

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Sit at the table. Don’t wait to be asked. Your parents might moan but your career will flourish.

Publisher: WH Allen (Random House)
Pages: 171
Type: Non-Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-0-75354-162-3
First Published: 11th March 2013
Date Reviewed: 9th July 2013
Rating: 3.5/5

A mixture of memoir, research, and experience, Sandberg, Facebook’s COO, discusses what holds women back from having successful careers. Looking at how social expectations create barriers, she details what we can do to change the workplace to further equality. Drawing on her time as an intern, at Google, and, of course, at Facebook, Sandberg’s book is as much about personal experience as the experiences of others.

Lean In is a comparatively short book that, although it could have been longer as well as better edited, presents good evidence and is a fair motivator. Sandberg is honest from the beginning – this book isn’t of a particular genre and she is very aware that she is not perfect with gender herself. This contributes to the success of the book, even if it doesn’t quite heal the inconsistencies.

Sandberg makes it clear from the word ‘go’ that her word isn’t the be all and end all, that equality means having a choice (for example between being a stay-at-home mum and a working parent), and that whilst the book will likely resonate most with women, there is something for men, too.

These are promises she keeps. Partly due to her own status as a mother, she constantly considers points about child well-being, contact time, and the reasoning against leaving children to go on trips. This is a good aspect of the book and yet as it is obvious and understandable that she defends her own choices, inevitably Sandberg ends up unconsciously reinforcing why there is the social expectation to stay at home in the first place. This isn’t to say you’ll necessarily end the book thinking she’s a bad mother, but she does unfortunately bring into focus the very thing she didn’t want to. This sort of thing also happens with other unrelated accounts, such as when she says crying is good between employees but makes herself sound weak.

On the promise of choice, Sandberg never waivers. Her opinion is that if women want to work they should, if they want to look after their children they should, if they want to combine both they should. She also highlights the need for men to have a choice as well – in that a stay-at-home father is seen as a bad life style when it shouldn’t be. And she reminds you how people will ask a woman how she intends to change her life to accommodate her child, but a man is never asked.

As suggested above, the promise of making the book interesting for men is kept. This reviewer, as a woman, may be saying this from an ‘outsider’ perspective, but Sandberg spends much time speaking about the lack of paternity leave and about how men who wish for equality are not given support or credit.

What of the major aspects, then? Beyond choices and parenting, Sandberg discusses the fact (backed up by evidence) that the sole difference of gender on an otherwise identical profile will illicit different responses from study groups. She explains how we don’t even notice our own biases, how she doesn’t notice hers, and how research suggests that it’s people who say they are not biased who are actually the most subjective. She talks of how women are often the issue, not supporting each other, and how it’s unfortunate, even if understandable, that a woman’s view of another woman is considered most important – unfortunate because a woman will often be more negative of another woman than a man will be.

Sandberg looks at the differences in our perceptions of successful people. A strong successful man is liked, a strong successful woman is considered bossy. Likeability doesn’t match success. She discusses catch-22’s – a woman who helps a colleague is less likely to have the favour returned due to the stereotype of caring, a woman who doesn’t help will be penalised more than a man would be. And she debunks the old saying that people are different as they get older – “nothing has changed since high school; intelligence and success are not clear paths to popularity at any age”.

Perhaps surprisingly, whilst Sandberg hopes for change she says that sometimes stereotypes and little ideas must be bought into to gain success. She speaks of women assuming dominate poses, such as physically taking up more space, to aid the mentality of strength. The focus on faking it until you make it is, in the context of Sandberg’s main ‘lesson’, both understandable and a contradiction.

Unfortunately there are more of these contradictions in the book. One is the focus on women with children. Up until half-way through Sandberg’s advice and opinion is generalised and useful. This then stops suddenly. The initial reason is that there is a chapter that isn’t nearly as worthwhile as the rest and the book becomes very repetitive. But the second and more obvious reason is the exclusive focus on motherhood. There is very little in this book written specifically for women who have no desire to parent. This may fit Sandberg’s own position as a mother, but it renders the book inaccessible, creating a bit of a ‘them and us’ situation. There is a lot about women who are thinking of having children and women who want them someday, contrasted with one single story of a woman (who nevertheless wants children one day) speaking up for those burdened with extra hours so their colleagues can spend more time with their own families. Women with or who want children may indeed have a tougher time succeeding in their careers, but the premise of this book did not suggest such a level of positive discrimination. And to go back to Sandberg’s accidental reinforcement of the mother stereotype, much of what she says in the latter chapters only reminds the reader of why ‘we’ have discrimination.

Taking the positive discrimination further, the book is, perhaps obviously, inaccessible and irrelevant to those on lower incomes. Indeed Sandberg talks of wage gaps, single parent families, and how she happens to be lucky, but this doesn’t make the situation any better. If this was to be about helping women to succeed she needed to cover those not fortunate enough to have the money to afford university, to not have the wealthy and supportive parents, partners, social contacts, those who are stuck in dead-end jobs. As other reviewers have pointed out, Sandberg acknowledges the help of many many women in the creation of the book, but nowhere is there a mention of the women she employs to look after her house or children, excepting a single reference to a faceless woman she was jealous of for owning her, Sandberg’s, son’s affection.

This lack of accessibility is cemented by the name-dropping. Sandberg has worked at Google, Facebook, in countless privileged positions – and that is the point, the continual reminders of luck, money, and a nice but rare modern office culture will likely divide many readers from the text. If the target audience was high-income women then the book wasn’t particularly necessary in the first place, or at the very least Sandberg should not have brought in mentions of lower-income families.

And it’s a pity because as the book moves into its second half there is enough repetition that could have been replaced with a whole new chapter about how to get that first good job, and the book wouldn’t have had to have been any longer. Sandberg is in a position to have written this book, in so much as people will give her book deals without persuasion, but she displays a distinct lack of knowledge or at the very least has left such knowledge out, out of convenience.

But then given the contents of the acknowledgements, how much of this book did she actually write and how much is simply paraphrasing?

Sandberg’s book provides a lot to think about, and her honesty is refreshing. But it’s not perfect by any means and is full of contradictions and missing information. Read it, it’s worth it on the whole, but don’t expect many answers.

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