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Short Book Review: Scott Adams’ Success Secrets

Dilbert visits the park. Photo by Ol.v!er [H2vPk].
Dilbert visits the park. Photo by Ol.v!er [H2vPk].
Scott Adams, the cartoonist who created Dilbert, is a weird dude. No surprise to anyone familiar with the comic strip. I just finished reading Adams’ autobiographical self-help book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. I don’t agree with all of his advice — do I really need to state that caveat? — but some of Adams’ concepts are interesting and even spot-on.

How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert

For instance, Adams asserts that systems are superior to goals. What he means is that it’s smarter, for example, to always be looking for a better job instead of following a five-year plan to attain a certain position. He lays out a bunch of principles along these lines that in his view should lead to success. His through-line is the idea that you should optimize yourself to take advantage of luck when it strikes.

The book is certainly interesting, and I think particularly useful to people starting their professional lives. Here are the two quotes I liked enough to write down:

“Good ideas have no value because the world already has too many of them. The market rewards execution, not ideas. [After realizing that] I concentrated on ideas I could execute.”

“Reality is overrated and impossible to understand with any degree of certainty. What you do know for sure is that some ways of looking at the world work better than others. Pick the way that works, even if you don’t know why.”

I particularly agree with the second suggestion, that you should shape your paradigm to be productive rather than accurate. (This is basically what my therapist wants me to do.) If I dwell on the rottenness and chaos of the world, my realistic perception harms me; I become miserable and can’t get anything done. Far more effective to be an optimist without justification than a pessimist with plenty of proof.

(I like to call myself a cynical optimist. Is that annoying? It’s such a good phrase, and a decent representation of my personality.)

Dilbert visits the beach. Photo by Ol.v!er [H2vPk].
Dilbert visits the beach. Photo by Ol.v!er [H2vPk].

Book Review: Managing to Save the World

In my experience as a reader, there are two main types of book. These types span all genres and topics. The first is steady going. I read a few pages every night, maybe a chapter — I plod through. The second type is gripping. I tear through the book. I pick it up (or open the Kindle file) and can’t put it down.

The quality of the book isn’t the distinguishing factor. For instance, I’m working on The Design of Everything Things at the moment. It’s an excellent read in terms of intellectual content, and the writing is accessible. But it’s not a rip-roarer. Who knows why? Probably my reaction is determined by something very idiosyncratic about my personal tastes. And yet, when reviewing a book, I must hope that others share my proclivities, at least a little.

pens and pencils in a messy bun
Photo, work hair, by Emergency Brake.

As an opposite example, Boss Life pulled me through quickly. So did Managing to Change the World. The latter is a primer on how to be an effective manager at a nonprofit company, written by Alison Green of the invaluable Ask a Manager blog and Jerry Hauser, who used to be second-in-command at Teach For America. Together they work at The Management Center.

Managing to Save the World, by Alison Green and Jerry Hauser

“Fundamentally, a great manager is someone who cares passionately about getting results. And that can’t be faked. If you are truly determined to get results, it becomes the fire that fuels everything you do[.]”

I’m such a fan of Green that I felt confident enough about the book’s probable quality to write this post’s intro before I finished reading it. I was right — Managing to Save the World is very good, and the advice is applicable to professionals outside of the nonprofit world.

In essence, Green and Hauser organize common sense into principles and processes. They are straightforward, presenting various concrete examples and tools. Managing to Save the World is a textbook for professional adults, complete with a summary of key concepts at the end of every chapter.

Here are some of Green and Hauser’s suggestions for managers:

  • Use time efficiently and effectively to get results. How? Well…
  • Guide rather than do. Your time should be devoted to tasks that only you can complete.
  • Learn to delegate and create a culture of accountability…
  • By supervising and following up throughout every project.

An acronym mentioned in one of the chapters represents the book’s overarching ethos quite well: “SMART goals are strategic, measurable, ambitious, realistic, and time-bound. Goals should measure outcomes rather than activities whenever possible.” Managing to Save the World is definitely a recommended read!

Boss Life: Surviving My Own Small Business (Book Review)

Paul Downs, author of Boss Life and owner of Paul Downs Cabinetmakers
Paul Downs, author of Boss Life and owner of Paul Downs Cabinetmakers.

Running a small business can be brutal. With the publication of a new book, Boss Life, you don’t have to learn all the hard lessons on your own. Instead, read about the mistakes and occasional hard-won triumphs of Paul Downs, an old-school entrepreneur who describes himself thus: “I am a survivor, but not a financial success.”

This first-time author founded and manages the furniture company Paul Downs Cabinetmakers, which has been in business for twenty-nine years, since 1986. He also formerly wrote for The New York Times and happens to be my uncle.

Yes, I’m related to Paul Downs, but allow me to insist that I won’t be the only one who thinks Boss Life is great. Downs uses real numbers and anecdotes, some of which do not flatter his personal judgment, to illustrate the larger principles. His candor makes the book fascinating.

Boss Life: Surviving My Own Small Business
Boss Life: Surviving My Own Small Business by Paul Downs, published by Penguin’s Blue Rider Press.

Luckily Boss Life has almost nothing to do with woodworking, though that is nominally the content of Downs’ company. The book is really about sales. It’s about marketing and customer acquisition. It’s about cash flow, accounting, and management — basically, Boss Life is about economics and human nature.

Downs brings the reader through a year in the life of his company (specifically 2012), beginning each chapter by stating his bank account balance, the value of sales to date, and whether he’s lost money overall. Then he explains the month’s events and why they had the financial repercussions they did.

Part case study and part memoir, Downs’ book is worth reading if you employ people, are employed, or work in any capacity, no matter the size of your operation. That’s my review as a reader, not a niece.

A rosewood-and-ebony conference table designed and built by Paul Downs Cabinetmakers.
A rosewood-and-ebony conference table designed and built by Paul Downs Cabinetmakers.

Book(s) Review: Five Novels I Read On Vacation

Shakespeare and Company bookshop
Photo by Alexandre Duret-Lutz.

Last week my family vacationed near Fallen Leaf Lake. During that time, I astounded myself by plowing through five novels. Here are quick ‘n’ dirty reviews of the five books, in chronological order…

Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov

Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov

Nabokov wrote my favorite book — yes, the one he’s famous for — but until last week I had never read any of his other works. My boyfriend bought three of them for my birthday in June, which I saved to read on this vacation. Incidentally, I only packed Laughter in the Dark, because I severely underestimated how quickly I would read it. Lolita took me ages to finish — it’s such a beautifully dense and detailed book — so I expected this one to be the same. Happily, Laughter in the Dark is much breezier.

The focus on an age-gap relationship makes the story evoke Lolita, but the resemblance is curiously inverted. First the male protagonist treats his paramour manipulatively, but quickly his disingenuous-ingénue mistress overtakes his abilities with the help of a former lover, flipping the power imbalance. Laughter in the Dark is rollicking good fun, assuming you’re tolerant of sordid shenanigans.

The Orphan Master’s Son by Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master's Son, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for fiction

Adam Johnson recounts brutality and corruption in North Korea — who woulda thunk, right? — with an odd, generous spoonful of magical realism. The book is reminiscent of absurd action-movie capers, especially the second half, which comprises events after the main character ends up in a prison camp. (It was inevitable — goddam North Korea.) Surprisingly, Johnson’s eccentric treatment works.

The New York Times has a good plot preview, though I disagree with Christopher Beha’s charge that Johnson addresses his subject matter too lightly. Alas, someone always insists on taking excellent satire at face value. Wyatt Mason’s New Yorker review seemed more astute when I skimmed it.

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Sea Dreams
Sea Dreams by Renee.

What can I say about The Old Man and the Sea that hasn’t already been noted? I’ll refrain from trying. Suffice it to say that Hemingway deserves his reputation.

“Fish […] I love you and respect you very much. But I will kill you dead before this day ends.”

Sharpe’s Escape by Bernard Cornwell

Bernard Cornwell’s series of novels about English soldier extraordinaire Richard Sharpe is set during the Napoleonic Wars. Sharpe’s Escape is just as excellent as the rest of them — well-researched, exciting, even thrilling! My only complaint is the lack of multifaceted female characters, but I’ve learned to put up with that. Any lady reader who likes books by male authors must resign herself to this deficit. Anyway, I stayed up until 4am finishing Sharpe’s Escape, which is a certain type of recommendation.

Bernard Cornwell (back) acting in And Then They Were None
Bernard Cornwell (center) acting in a theatrical production of Agatha Christie’s And Then They Were None, bizarrely. Photo by SarahSierszyn [sic].

Gallows Thief by Bernard Cornwell

We had no internet at the house by the lake, but Gallows Thief was already downloaded on my phone, so after finishing Sharpe’s Escape I jumped right into Cornwell’s story of a Regency-era investigator who strives to save a man from being hanged. See also: my comments regarding the enjoyability of Sharpe’s Escape.

That’s it! I hope your summer reading is going well too.

Young girl reading a book, Central Circulating Library at College and St. George Streets, Toronto, Ontario / Une jeune fille lit un livre. Bibliothèque centrale de prêt à l'intersection des rues College et Saint-George, Toronto (Ontario)
Photo via Library and Archives Canada.

Review: HP Lovecraft Tropes

I rewrote an HP Lovecraft quote to be simpler to read:

“It’s easy to imagine an occult force that sustains itself by sucking the life out of normal living beings — a parasite, possibly one without physical presence. This parasite may even commandeer the host’s body. It might be malevolent or it might be more like the tick I found on my dog yesterday: just hungry. Regardless, any entity of this kind is unnatural. We all have a responsibility to get rid of it.”

HP Lovecraft: Fear of the Unkown
Lovecraft: very suspicious of the unknown. Shirt for $19.99 on Sigh Co.

The original:

“One might easily imagine an alien nucleus of substance or energy, formless or otherwise, kept alive by imperceptible or immaterial subtractions from the life-force or bodily tissue and fluids of other and more palpably living things into which it penetrates and with whose fabric it sometimes completely merges itself. It might be actively hostile, or it might be dictated merely by blind motives of self-preservation. In any case such a monster must of necessity be in our scheme of things an anomaly and an intruder, whose extirpation forms a primary duty with every man not an enemy to the world’s life, health, and sanity.” — “The Shunned House” by HP Lovecraft

creepy old abandoned house
Photo by Diego Torres Silvestre.

Lovecraft’s style is exhaustingly baroque — to be honest, I’m mainly reading his short stories because my boyfriend likes them — but his ideas are fun. They complement The X-Files well. Like Agent Fox Mulder’s investigations, Lovecraft’s plots end in sinister mysteries unsolved — sometimes even unseen.

The Road to Madness by HP Lovecraft
The Road to Madness, a compilation of Lovecraft stories. Cover illustration by John Jude Palencar.

It’s ironic that the paperback I’m reading has Dali-esque tortures on the front cover, because Lovecraft’s specialty is obliquely describing horrors that his characters claim are beyond comprehension. The author is happy to depict the action, but only up to a point. There are certainly never spikes in anyone’s eye sockets.

For example, in a story that he ghostwrote for Harry Houdini, Lovecraft’s protagonist encounters reanimated mummies with animal heads spliced on top of their bodies. Relatively tame stuff, right? It probably felt scarier to his contemporary readers in the 1920s and 1930s. Anyway, later the poor fellow sees a creature whose attributes he feels completely unable to verbalize.

Many Lovecraft heros can’t communicate what they’ve endured, only the events that preceded the tautologically unspeakable occurrence. Or they go mad after witnessing it. The protagonist is rarely physically injured, although side characters die sometimes, as in “The Shunned House” (which I quoted at the beginning).

floating HP Lovecraft with tentacles
Illustration by Christine E, via Redbubble and DeviantArt.

The word “abyss” is the sort of vocabulary that characterizes Lovecraft’s prose. Deep dark eldritch depths, etc. To his credit, Lovecraft established some of the cliches — he was hugely influential; watch Buffy the Vampire Slayer and it’s obvious. I object to his roundabout wordiness but I like his obsessions. The aesthetic is enjoyable, and although Lovecraft usually can’t frighten me, he scratches a particular creepy itch. All the best horror writers know, what is not revealed is much more interesting than what’s laid out in clear photographic detail.

So, how does rehashing well-known Lovecraft themes relate to the quote at the beginning? His moral assumptions are so… antiquated. (Let’s not even talk about the racism. Zoe Quinn and The Awl can handle that.) In “The Shunned House”, he — well, his character, but every Lovecraft protagonist is a front for the author — asserts that the occult parasite is evil, acting contrary to the rules of the regular world.

But predation is the most normal of all normalcies. Organisms devour other organisms. Noxious spirits leach energy away from nearby humans. Whatever.

creepy hyenas surrounding a kitty
Get ’em, kitty! Photo by Alan.

Life varies. But nature is nasty, brutish, and perpetual in its cycles. Lovecraft clutches an idea of biological order not based in history or simple reality. I suspect that Lovecraft is worried by what he can’t control… which is relatable. He doesn’t tap into my specific id when extolling his fears, but he must be sourcing from someone’s. I do wonder if Lovecraft genuinely feared the phenomena he wrote about, or if he was conjuring plotlines based on subconscious impulses.

That’s it. I don’t have a grand conclusion.

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