Archive for the book review/summary Category

Run and write with Haruki Murakami

Posted in book review/summary, health and fitness, writing on February 20, 2012 by gohelpyourself

Novelist Haruki Murakami writes three to four hours a day. (Photo by Gal Oren.)

By Anthony O. Alcantara

I wish I could do that. But if I did, I would easily be left behind, and as for writing, I wouldn’t even know where to begin a novel.

I’ve never read any of Haruki Murakami’s novels. His popularity in bookstores, however, intrigued me, and I made a mental note to read some of his works this year. When I came upon his book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, I said, “Hey, I used to run, too.”

I learned that he runs every day. Before I got married, I was doing exactly that — run every day, for about two months. And before that, I was running three times a week. I felt a connection. So I guess his book about running — a memoir, actually — would be a good place to start to experience his work. He talks about how he writes, too. Vicariously, then, I could run and write with Mr. Murakami by reading his short book.

It’s inspiring to read how Murakami nurtured and allowed running and writing to feed on each other, to provide the physical, mental, emotional, and creative fuel to keep the two things going.

Murakami has been running every day for more than 20 years. Is it because of his strong willpower? Natural runner’s physique? Superhuman leg muscles? Perhaps a childhood trauma that left ominous voices in his head shouting, “Run, Mr. Murakami! Run!”?

Nope. His reason? “It suits me.” That’s what he said in the book. I wish it were that simple for everybody. For him, no amount of persuasion will convince anyone to take up running if it doesn’t suit that person.

The problem is, getting up from the sofa to the fridge to get food suits many people. And they prefer doing that instead of running. We can’t do much about that. But if you find any suitable physical activity that suits you, then that would be a good start.

As for being a novelist, he said there should be three ingredients: talent, focus, and endurance. Talent, of course, can be developed, but there must be a modicum of talent to begin with. I like his take on focus. Indeed, without focus, your talent will go to waste. Murakami concentrates on writing three to four hours a day. Not many can do that.

And as for endurance, he says you need energy to keep your focus on writing. If you feel drained and exhausted after hours of writing instead of energized and motivated, then, obviously, you won’t last long in the craft.

What is interesting to me is that talent, focus, and endurance are the basic ingredients of being excellent at anything. It can be cooking, singing, or weight lifting, or whatever “suits you”, as Murakami would probably say.

He seems to be deliberately thoughtful, quietly passionate, and compassionately wise. You may want to read his short memoir. Who knows, it may suit you, too.

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How now, Purple Cow?

Posted in book review/summary on February 24, 2011 by gohelpyourself

A purple cow is better than a brown cow. (Purple Cow by Seth Godin, Portfolio 2002; photo courtesy of http://www.sxc.hu)

by Anthony O. Alcantara

A purple cow refers to something remarkable. It’s something that stands out in an excellent and extraordinary way.

Seth Godin, author of Purple Cow, wrote the book to document, well, purple cows. These can be companies or people or concepts that are essentially remarkable.

With the popularity of his books and blog, Godin may well be the new patron saint of marketing. It’s easy to understand why. He’s a purple cow himself.

He claims the five Ps of marketing are not enough. These Ps — product, price, promotion, physical distribution and people — need another P to make it all work better.

Many know the five Ps already, but they don’t know how to be remarkable. Godin shows how in his book. Purple Cow contains many case studies of purple cows. And readers can dip into it for inspiration. Godin sprinkles his prose with key takeaways in bold text preceeded by an octagonal symbol.

If you don’t have much time to read the book, you can just read the introduction and the key takeaways. Just dip into the interesting parts where the key takeaways seem brilliant to you.

For example, one of his takeaways is, “Instead of trying to use your technology and expertise to make a better product for your users’ standard behavior, experiment with inviting the users to change their behavior to make the product work dramatically better.”

He explains how Otis, a manufacturer of elevators, exemplifies this. In order to make elevators work better and reduce waiting time, Otis came up with a system where people just key in their floor using a control panel. The control panel then flashes the specific elevator they have to take.

With some smart software, the elevator essentially becomes an express elevator. The results? Shorter waiting times and fewer fraught nerves.

Godin combines remarkable with being different most of the time.

He says, “What tactics does your firm use that involve following the leader? What if you abandoned them and did something very different instead? If you acknowledge that you’ll never catch up by being the same, make a list of ways you can catch up by being different.”

No copycats for Godin, except if it’s done in a creative and remarkable way.

Purple Cow is indeed a treasure trove of ideas. It cites many remarkable companies that have found their purple cows.

Another takeaway: “Ask ‘Why not?’ Almost everything you don’t do has a no good reason for it. Almost everything you don’t do is the result of fear or inertia or a historical lack of someone asking, ‘Why not?’”

So why not read this book? Well, if you’ve already found your purple cow, don’t bother.

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(This book review also appeared in PLDT’s ACC:ESS magazine.)

Book Reviews for Fully Booked Zine: Building Social Business and Gunn’s Golden Rules

Posted in book review/summary, entrepreneurship on October 27, 2010 by gohelpyourself

By Anthony O. Alcantara

I’m so glad my book reviews for the Fully Booked zine were published. And I’m ecstatic that the bespectacled likeness of my image, courtesy of photographer Wig Tysmans, was included on the contributors’ page. You can get a copy of the zine at Fully Booked stores. No, you don’t have to read my reviews, or even look at my picture. There’s a lot of other good stuff in the zine.

Special thanks to editor-in-chief Gabriella de la Rama-Talan, who gave me permission to post my reviews here.

Building Social Business: The New Kind of Capitalism that Serves Humanity’s Most Pressing Needs by Muhammad Yunus

Muhammad Yunus’s mission is to end poverty. Is he insane?

I’m not sure. But he’s succeeding so far. In his book, Building Social Business, he outlines his successes in Bangladesh and a few poverty spots in the United States. He has even enlisted the help of some big companies and universities in Germany, France, Japan, Singapore and the United States, among others.

Yunus, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006 for developing the concept of microcredit and microfinance to help impoverished people, believes that his concept of a social business will someday put poverty in a museum, just like a relic of a dinosaur.

Yunus defines a social business as a business that seeks to solve a social problem–poverty, hunger, infant mortality, illiteracy, etc.–by using traditional concepts of business but with one crucial difference: no personal financial gain for its investors.

The social business has to be sustainable. Investors can only get back the amount they invested.

But why would anyone invest in a social business?

Well, Yunus says there’s a big flaw in capitalism as we know it today because of a “misrepresentation of human nature.” Humans, he argues, are not only born to engage in businesses to make money. They are also born to pursue noble and selfless interests.

Ending poverty may be a tad quixotic, but Yunus’s social business is such a powerful and compelling idea that some influential companies, universities and even governments have already embraced. Yunus may be on to something here.

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Gunn’s Golden Rules: Life’s Little Lessons for Making it Work by Tim Gunn

Impeccably dressed, well-mannered and punctilious about etiquette and decency. That’s how many people would describe Tim Gunn of Project Runway fame. And that’s the image he projects in his book, Gunn’s Golden Rules.

He intended his book to be like a lecture to students in a classroom. Indeed he dishes out some sensible advice to would-be fashion designers.

For instance, Rule 1: Make It Work! That’s the advice he often gives to contestants at Project Runway. It’s a call to be creative and flexible.

Some rules appear to be a rehash of advice from other motivational speakers and popular management gurus, like Rule 16: Take Risks! Playing It Safe Is Never Really Safe. Others appear mysterious until you see that it’s just a practical tenet of life, such as Rule 12: Don’t Lose Your Sense of Smell. It simply means “Never lose your sense of good taste or good judgment.”

One thing I admire about Tim is his keen sense of decency and proper behavior. He’d open doors for anyone. He epitomizes the true gentleman, even though he is gay. With diplomatic grace, he exposes the rottenness of some of the rich and famous who have this bloated sense of entitlement. Indeed the stories that accompany his rules reflect the richness and insanity of people in the fashion industry.

His writing though is a bit too breezy and at times unintentionally condescending, which is understandable since he writes as if he’s teaching a class. But then if I meet Tim, I’d definitely open the door wide for him.

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How people underestimate the improbable

Posted in book review/summary, philosophy on August 27, 2010 by gohelpyourself

I've never seen a black swan, but this one looks beautiful. (Photo courtesy of http://www.sxc.hu)

“The Black Swan” by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, 366 pages, Random House, 2007

by Anthony O. Alcantara

Imagine that you are a chicken. Since you were born, you had all the comforts you could ask for—warm cage, cool companions, flavored water and, of course, overflowing food.

Everyday life was like heaven. And since it was like heaven day after day, there was no reason at all for you to think that tomorrow wouldn’t be as great as today. One day, the cage opened, and you, along with some of your feathery friends, were taken out for a trip. Little did you know that you’ll end up in the dinner table of some “cruel” human beings.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his book “The Black Swan,” used the turkey to illustrate the problem of how we think about risk in our lives. I just used the chicken because that’s more familiar to us Filipinos.

Absence of proof is not proof of absence. That’s the message. Too many times, we fool ourselves into thinking we know more than we actually do, according to Taleb.

He argues that most of us are not prepared for the black swan. The black swan has three distinct characteristics: it is very rare, it has a huge impact on society, and it is subject to retrospective predictability, which is reflected in our tendency to explain why events occurred as if they were all too obvious and predictable.

Remember 9/11? How about the current global financial crisis? Many pundits seem to have very intelligent explanations for these events.

Aside from what Taleb deems as the mathematical folly of the bell curve, other psychological and philosophical biases and falsehoods such as the error of confirmation, Ludic fallacy and the dangers of Plato’s pure “forms” were discussed.

It’s not an easy book to read. But it will leave you thinking about how poor we are in assessing risk and opportunities, how we foolishly simplify and categorize events in our lives. It will leave you thinking that you’ve also succumbed to some of these biases and falsehoods in the past.

Because our world is dominated by extreme and unexpected events, Taleb says we should use these black swans as the starting point in our thinking and not just sweep them under the rug of oblivion. It could save us from a lot of pain in the future.

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Pareto’s Disciple

Posted in book review/summary on August 20, 2010 by gohelpyourself

The 80/20 Principle by Richard Koch, 2008 Doubleday

    
By Anthony O. Alcantara

If it weren’t for economist Vilfredo Pareto, Richard Koch would likely not be as popular as he is today.    

In his book The 80/20 Principle, Koch says St. Paul was a great marketing genius who helped spread Jesus’s ideas, and thereby turned Christianity into a behemoth of more than 2 billion souls today. In the same way, Koch is a great marketing genius for Pareto’s ideas.    

Pareto, an Italian economist who made a hobby out of asking how much people earn, discovered in 1897 some intriguing patterns in wealth and income in England. He discovered a consistent mathematical relationship where a certain proportion of people earned a certain percentage of income and wealth.    

For example, 20 percent of the population earned 80 percent of the wealth, and 10 percent of the population had 65 percent of the wealth, and so on. Pareto discovered that the same pattern holds true in different time periods and countries.    

That’s the germ of the idea in The 80/20 Principle. Koch defines it as a pattern where “a minority of causes, inputs or effort usually lead to a majority of the results, outputs, or rewards.”    

Imbalance    

It is based on an assumption that “there is an inbuilt imbalance between causes and results, inputs and outputs, and effort and reward.”    

The idea is simple enough. But the applications in most areas in life and business have interesting and useful ramifications.    

For instance, reading books. You can get 80 percent of the value of the book from only 20 percent of the pages or words. Of course, you only read everything for pleasure. But for most books, it may be a good idea to look for the 20 percent that gives 80 percent of the value.    

In work, you produce 80 percent of your output from only 20 percent of the hours worked. In selling products, you get 80 percent of your revenues from only 20 percent of your customers. In investments, you get 80 percent of your wealth from only 20 percent of your portfolio. In your relationships with people, you get 80 percent of your enjoyment from 20 percent of your friends.    

Think 80/20    

The proportion may not always be 80/20 but the imbalance is there. That’s the reality for most people. Koch tells us about 80/20 Analysis and 80/20 Thinking, two ways of coping with this imbalance.    

He also has a few chapters on the application of his 80/20 principle in business that may be useful to the corporate types. But you can actually skip this part and still get 80 percent of the value of the book.    

From investments, relationships, career success and even happiness, Koch applies the 80/20 principle with gusto. His idea is to even out this built-in imbalance in our lives and in society.    

I believe the idea of relentless focus is relevant here, too. So it’s a skewed world we live in. We see this in our superstars in business, sports, arts, sciences, etc. Ever wonder why a singer who is only marginally better than another diva counts four more place numerical values in her paycheck?    

I’m reminded of one of my favorite Bible passages, Ecclesiastes 9:11: “the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favor to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.”    

Koch’s book may help us adapt to this reality better.    

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Carrots, sticks and motivation

Posted in book review/summary, psychology on June 29, 2010 by gohelpyourself

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us By Daniel H. Pink, 2009 Riverhead Books

 

By Anthony O. Alcantara

When we were kids, our parents would offer rewards if we got good grades. Say a shiny new red bicycle or a Mickey Mouse watch. When that didn’t work, they offered less palatable alternatives. They included a good whack in the behind or a one-week house arrest.

It’s pretty much the same with kids these days. And adults have graduated from shiny red bicycles to cars and big fat bonuses. A good whack in the behind has turned into a suspension or a demotion.

But do carrots and sticks work? Most of the time, they don’t, according to author Daniel H. Pink.

In his book Drive, he shows how rewards and punishments are the most outdated and misused tools in motivation on the planet. And we’ve all been misled.

Pink uses a software metaphor to describe the evolution of motivation. Motivation 1.0 was about survival. Food, shelter and sex were the only buttons to push. When the industrial revolution came, we discovered Motivation 2.0, which basically involves carrots and sticks, or rewards and punishments.

This version of motivation was quite effective then. But now that we’re in the 21st century, they don’t work most of the time. If we offer rewards to our kids when they do well in school, or punish them if their grades plummet like politicians’ approval ratings, we don’t inspire them to do things for their own good. They’ll respond only to rewards and threats of punishment.

Pink says these traditional “if-then” rewards have other undesirable and unintended drawbacks.

They can stifle creativity, lead to poor performance, and encourage bad behavior and short-term thinking. This applies to adults as much as to children. That’s why we have this mess with greedy and unscrupulous companies. While “if-then” rewards still work for rule-based routine tasks where intrinsic motivation and creativity don’t matter much, there’s a better alternative.

Pink calls them occasional “now that” rewards. You don’t announce them beforehand, of course.

There’s proof that “if-then” thinking costs a lot of money, both for individuals and companies. That’s because we have become a society where work is more creative and less routine compared to repetitive and back-breaking work during the industrial revolution.

Aside from that, the scientific discovery of intrinsic motivation compelled a few experts to tweak their concept of motivation. Extrinsic motivation involves aspirations for fame or wealth. But intrinsic motivation involves helping other people improve their lives or to realize one’s full potential. It involves a higher purpose in life.

It’s a little bit philosophical, and it reminds me of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which I think is a misnomer since we can simultaneously pursue each one.

So what’s Daniel H. Pink’s solution? Motivation 3.0.

Pink says this will turn us from Type X (extrinsic) individuals to Type I (intrinsic) individuals. Motivation 3.0 involves three things: autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Autonomy caters to our desire to direct our own lives. Mastery involves our urge to be better and better in things that matter. Purpose satisfies that need to be part of something larger than ourselves.

For autonomy, we need some leeway in doing things on our own, discovering things for ourselves, learning from our mistakes. As for mastery, we like to be able to assess ourselves and make measurements to see if we are doing better in what we do. Small steps and improvements matter.

And as for purpose, organizations are beginning to use language that emphasizes profit maximization with purpose maximization. These are organizations that build schools, create environment-friendly products, and offer education for the poor. Many individuals do the same.

To remember what Pink said in the book, I made an acronym: A.M.P. it up! That way I’ll remember autonomy, mastery and purpose so I can motivate and inspire myself and other people better.

I hope you’ll remember them, too. And please, don’t tell kids that you’ll give them a Sony Play Station if they get good grades.

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Rules to live by

Posted in book review/summary on June 22, 2010 by gohelpyourself

Thumbs up for "Rules of Thumb." (Photo courtesy of http://www.sxc.hu.)

Rules of Thumb: 52 Truths for Winning at Business Without Losing Your Self by Alan M. Webber
270 pages, Harper Business 2009

By Anthony O. Alcantara

If experience is the best teacher, then rules of thumb are the gurus.

They’ve distilled the lessons for you so you don’t have to experience failure or repeat the same mistakes.

In his book Rules of Thumb, Alan M. Webber has collected 52 valuable truths that people don’t have to rediscover. Some of them you may have discovered on your own, some you may not agree with, but some would be gems you would like to keep.

But what makes Webber an authority? He is the cofounding editor of Fast Company magazine and the editorial director and managing editor of the Harvard Business Review. Those are the salient credentials.

The relevant ones are his talks with some of the world’s leading businessmen, politicians, philosophers, professors, Nobel Prize winners and other super achievers. That’s where he got his rules of thumb.

He has developed a long-time habit of collecting them. Armed with 3 by 5 cards wherever he goes, he jots down lessons he has learned from his interactions with many people.

Weber describes the story behind each rule.

For exmaple, Rule #10: A Good Question Beats a Good Answer.

It simply means that good questions are better than good or even great answers. Weber says “questions are how we learn.”

He learned about this rule from Jim Collins, the author of Good To Great. Because Good To Great achieved great success, Webber asked Collins what he was working on as a follow-up to a great book.

“I’m looking for a good question,” Collins told Webber. Good answer.

Webber said: “If you don’t ask the right question, it doesn’t matter what your answer is. And if you ask the right question, no matter what your answer, you will learn something of value.”

Here are some of my favorites:

Rule #16: Facts are Facts; Stories Are How We Learn. This rule simply means that telling people astounding facts is not a guarantee that they will remember them. Using stories will more likely do the job.

Rule #31: Everything communicates. The way you talk, the way you write, the way you dress… they all tell something about you.

Rule #33: Everything is a performance. This one’s a corollary to Rule #31. It is probably the author’s version of Shakespeare’s “All the world’s a stage.”

Rule #39: “Serious Fun” Isn’t An Oxymoron; It’s How You Win. If we have fun at home or at malls, why can’t we have fun in the serious world of work? Google and a lot of other companies have done it.

Rule #45: Failure Isn’t Failing. Failure Is Failing To Try. This is another perspective on failure that I like. If this is true, then I believe trying in itself is success.

Rule #51: Take Your Work Seriously. Yourself, Not So. Sometimes we’re just too harsh on ourselves.

I’ve come up with my own rule of thumb as well: The best teachers are not experiences; they’re called rules of thumb.

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