Hodge Podge: Life, Work, and Getting Your Point Across

In the mix this week: some thoughts on how we work (not just in jobs), form habits, and communicate.

Deep Work – In this fantastic book, Cal Newport describes how our culture is shifting toward shallow thinking, and the opportunities this opens for people who cultivate the ability to do deep work–that is, who know how to work with innovation, depth, and concentration. Newport discusses how to work deeply and develop focus and also exposes fallacies about what does and does not foster this ability. For example, he describes the idea that kids using iPads in school to prepare them for the high-tech economy is like giving them matchbox cars so they can learn to service a Porsche. Of particular strength are insightful sections on how to reframe the way we think about tasks and how we could approach tools and platforms with a craftsman approach (“Does this help me meet my core priorities?”) versus an any-benefit approach (“Shiny! New! I’ll take it!”). I took six dense pages of notes and was challenged in my thinking on many points, putting several of my take-aways into practice, such as the Roosevelt Dash. “A deep life is a good life.” Read this book. You will not regret it.

When Breath Becomes Air – This startling book is an end-of-life memoir written by a neurosurgeon struck in his mid-30s with terminal cancer. It sounds grim, but instead is hopeful and incredibly thought-provoking. One thing that stuck with me in particular was how Kalanithi’s pre-med background in literature and the humanities made him a better surgeon and more able to deal with the complexities and tragedies of own his life and those of his patients. Highly, highly recommended (both the book and the study of humanities!).

Reclaiming Conversation – This high impact book discusses how modern life is eroding our ability to communicate and relate to others, and offers suggestions for how to repair the walls. I’ve made a note to require my kids to read this book in high school, and would highly recommend it to anyone. Many things in our current culture are stacked against community and relationships, and it behooves us to pay attention and make stronger decisions about connection, empathy, attention, and imagination. This is not an anti-technology book, but rather a framework for how to prevent it from narrowing your world. An excellent read.

The Sweet Spot – In the habits and happiness genre, this book stands out for concrete, workable, high impact suggestions written in a personable, inspiring tone. I put a lot of things from this book into practice, including this year’s motto (Love is the horse) and defining the MDR (minimum daily requirement) for things like exercise to help me break the “well I don’t have two hours so I guess it’s nothing” mindset. Another strength of the book is the emphasis on how to build or repair relationships in small, manageable ways. I really liked this book, and would recommend it.

Smartcuts – The fact is, most of us have to work and get stuff done in life in one or more arenas. So, the author of Smartcuts posits, we should do these things in a smart way. Whether you have a traditional 9-5 or not, many of the tips in this highly readable and entertaining book will help you. Smartcuts demonstrates how the maxims many of us take for granted, like “put in your time” or “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” or “10,000 hours of practice makes you good at something” just aren’t true, and replaces those ideas with research-based alternatives.

Average is Over – There are a couple of fascinating points made in Average is Over, although I think they would have been made stronger in an article rather than a book. To sum up, the author argues that in recent decades a lot of people have been “overemployed relative to their skills” (that is, the cost of providing insurance and benefits is more than the value they provide) and that in the near future loads of people are going to fall out of the middle class. Some of the conclusions are fairly obvious but others are interestingly unique, such as the assertion that a key determinant in future success will be self-control. It’s not a bad book, but now you know the gist and you could probably skip it unless you’re just really interested in this sort of forecasting.

What have you been reading this week?

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3 thoughts on “Hodge Podge: Life, Work, and Getting Your Point Across

  1. I’m in the middle of Reclaiming Conversation, but my Kindle died. Ironic.
    I also put this one on my list of books my kids will read before a certain age. Thanks for the reviews. I’m feeling like it’s time for spring break so I can plow through some books!

  2. And how does the author of Average is Over decide who works hard enough, who is worthy?
    This idea has really hit hard as I have personally learned just how hard some “menial” jobs are. Jobs that provide behind the scene goods and services that most of our population take for granted. Should those roles be undone, it would be shocking. But unthinkingly, many flippantly believe….

    1. Thia, that’s a good question. The author says that’s just it–in the past, working hard could guarantee a middle class lifestyle, whereas in the current-to-future economy, that’s not going to be enough. Given the regulatory requirements, cost of health care, cost of retirement, cost of other benefits, etc, it costs more for a company to retain the worker than the worker brings to the company (I’ve read that even today the cost to a company is twice any worker’s take-home pay). The company does need the worker, but can’t afford to pay a middle class wage, so instead will move to outsource it to free-lancers. You read about this happening already. In fact, my own work is contract-based, and the companies that hire me are often global, but it makes more sense for them to pay my rates than to hire a person to work full-time.

      So it’s not about the menial job not being worthy of respect, but about the costs of employment precluding formerly middle class lifestyles. The author of the book suggests that people are going to fall out of the middle class in droves, and that the only people who will be unaffected will be those who can innovate and add tremendous value.

      Interestingly, the author doesn’t necessarily think that the collapsing middle class will be all bad. He points out that it’s a historical anomaly anyway, and if everyone around you is working the gig economy and living on a smaller scale, it won’t be much different in terms of comparison with neighbors. The point about self-control was linking that habit to an ability to take personal responsibility for healthcare (if your employer isn’t supplying it) and livelihood, versus assuming that you’ll always have a job whether or not you invest much in it.

      Again, it’s not that those jobs will somehow go away. As you point out, if the background work wasn’t happening, things would fall apart. It’s just that the work won’t be hired out the same way, and people won’t be able to rely on benefits and salaries the same way, at least according to this author’s analysis.

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