Delivering Happiness

Link: This review also appears on Amazon-UK here.

Most non-fiction books I have read recently appear, absent the author’s need to write a full-length book, fit to be or have remained a long-form essay. Not this one, although Tony Hsieh’s hard-to-classify book, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion and Purpose, too could have benefited from some editing. However once one makes peace with the colloquial tone – which is a refreshing change from many “business books”, but then again this isn’t exactly one – the book is a page-turner. At just over 250 pages – not including the appendices – for the paperback edition I read, it took me just under 5 hours to finish.

The book is above all a story: of the making of Tony Hsieh (now the CEO of Zappos.com), of his entrepreneurial journey starting in his childhood through college and later, of how he came to be involved in Zappos.com first as an investor and then as the CEO, and finally of what made Zappos.com the unique e-commerce success story it is. Organised in three parts, titled “Profits”, “Profits and Passion”, and “Profits, Passion and Purpose”, it appears to map Mr Hsieh’s journey of personal and professional growth.

Mr Hsieh is a child of Taiwanese immigrants. The parents feature in the book, but refreshingly not in the holier-than-thou tone, which is the staple of much immigré writing. They have made seminal contribution to his entrepreneurial spirit, mainly by not strangulating it with the burden of parental expectation, although Mr Hsieh himself, as a young person, wasn’t above some mischief to get his own way. In many ways, it made me wonder if Mr Hsieh’s story could pan out the same way anywhere but in America.

The story slowly morphs from being about Mr Hsieh’s entrepreneurial adventures and misadventures – including the lessons he learnt at Link Exchange and the Venture Frogs fund he ran jointly – to being about Zappos.com. It is in the description of the the mechanics at Zappos.com that the tone changes to more business-like, especially the emails he has included. In illustrating what the famous Zappos.com values mean, he has included write-ups from his colleagues and Zappos.com employees. That is a nice touch. The story culminates with the share deal Zappos.com made with Amazon, after which Amazon let Zappos.com continue to operate independently.

The recurrent themes in this story are loyalty, relationships and risk-taking, besides the obvious ones in the title of the book, namely, profits, passion and purpose.

There is intended and perhaps, unintended, humour in the book. For instance, Mr Hsieh writes about how his parents appear to have found “all ten” Asian families in Marin county for regular get-togethers. Michael Moritz of Sequoia doing the Macarena is not an image easily banished from the mind! There are also some notable gaps. Not all key characters in his story are featured, a sometimes deliberate exclusion which Mr Hsieh explains in the foreword. But while Fred Mossler appears prominently, rightly so, Nick Swinmurn, the founder of Zappos.com appears to have been glossed over and his departure doesn’t figure in the book. This seems a bit strange seeing as the Zappos.com story is about motivating the team, and engaging and leading them to a higher purpose. Towards the end, the book become a tiny bit tedious and “corporate”. Especially in the chapters titled “Taking it to the next level” and “End game”.

But if one can get over those quibbles, it is an engaging, hilarious, often moving, thought-provoking and inspiring read about creating a business that many now look to as the exemplar in customer service.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: While reading it, I thought of mentors, friends and young entrepreneurs I know and admire. Many of them appear to have read the book already; others will certainly benefit from reading it.

Only As Good As Your Word

Links:  A link to this review can be found on the author’s blog here. The Amazon Review is here.

My reading backlog is being dented rapidly even as I keep adding books to the pile called to-read. As far as I can, I intend reviewing those books here, or on Amazon-UK, or both.

This post’s title refers to Susan Shapiro’s eponymous book.

At 400 pages, this book demands a lot of time and attention from the reader. Amazingly enough, it took me just 1 day – albeit the whole of that day of my weekend – to finish it. This is down to Susan Shapiro’s writing style which is simple, conversational, light and fast-paced. At times, the breathlessness, with which she might regale a story in person, comes through quite amusingly.

The book is the story – or more accurately, the stories – of Susan Shapiro’s relationships with her writing mentors, interwoven with her running of a very popular writing group in her apartment for many years, her professional progress as a writer all set against a rather rich tapestry of New York’s Jewish society and New York’s publishing world’s glitterati. When the said writing group is dismantled, a student says “I am going to need therapy”. That therapeutic element, in essence, is the sublimation of Shapiro’s relationships with her mentors. She refers to more than one mentor as being like ‘her father’ with whom she appears to have a rather emotionally distant relationship, and then a protégé as ‘her kid sister’.

One has to ask whether for her, every relationship is one prolonged therapy session and exactly when is it that an issue can be deemed “resolved”. Other readers may feel differently about this common thread running through the book, but to me, it was a bit ennui-inducing after some time.

But it is a credit to the book that I still read on.

The most valuable bits are the last 2 chapters: How To Have A Protégé, and How To Get Great Gurus Of Your Own. To budding or growing writers, the tips are brutal but spot-on.

No matter how keen you are to find your own voice, the author’s note before the table of contents is instructive: “Some names and identifying characteristics of people portrayed in this book have been obscured so they won’t divorce, disown, hate, kill, or sue me.”

Rightly so, it is there at the beginning. A rule all writers ignore at their peril.

After all, “a true friend walks in when everybody walks out” , but as Shapiro asked herself (page 262), “who’d be there for you when you were up”. Worth pondering. No matter how tempting it is for a writer to find – and write and publish – juicy stories about one’s family, friends and community, it is always worth having someone who loves the writer and will be happy for her success when it comes, admittedly at its own pace.

I recommend the book highly, but not as the only book to have in the arsenal of a budding writer.

On Amazon, I gave it 4 stars. I recognise it is autobiographical but some of the book is too self-obsessed and too neurotic for my liking; some details of internecine feuds were also avoidable. There are a few, not many but a few, distracting spelling and grammar bloopers in the book, which could have been edited e.g. “none of them ARE”.

Star rating: The book deserves all its 4 stars for the many gems for writers and freelancers, scattered generously through the book.

Usefulness note: The book will interest both budding and established young writers.

The Mighty And The Almighty

Link: My Amazon Review is here, should you wish to vote on its usefulness.

I read The Mighty And The Almighty in Washington DC, not far from where Madeleine Albright teaches and works. The timing was opportune too, with the backdrop of the N Korean missile tests on July the 4th 2006; George Bush’s unexpectedly articulate interview on CNN on his 60th birthday on July the 6th 2006 stressing diplomacy and not war; the sad anniversary of London bombings on July the 7th; and fresh news about foiled plots to blow up tunnels in New York. It is difficult not to acknowledge such mindfulness and the bias it creates in reviewing a book. But here it is anyway.

Madeleine Albright is an embodiment of the American dream. She came to America from the communist regime of the Czech Republic and rose through sheer hard work, intelligence and being at the right place at the right time to the top of American politics. Her personal history also explains her strong belief that communism had to go. Arguably her background was privileged, her dad being a diplomat, but her solid grounding and rich Weltanschauung is further clarified to us with this small piece of information.

In the foreword to this book, Bill Clinton says this book was written against the best advice of friends. Reading it makes it clear why the advice might have been to refrain but over all, the author treads a dangerous terrain yet comes out rather unscathed.

The book presents a combination of personal and professional experience, academic perspective, moral principles and religious themes, all of which are evident from her background and the title of the book.

Organised into 3 sections, ‘God, Liberty, Country’, ‘Cross, Crescent, Star’ and ‘Final Reflections’, the book is mainly a reflection on the historical role and political influence of the three Abrahamic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. It is a walk through the history of America (including the wars in Vietnam and Iraq in ‘Good Intentions Gone Astray’) and the involvement of America in world polity (including Clinton’s Camp David mediation sessions between Israel and Palestine).

The overarching good quality of the book’s message is in Mrs Albright’s ability to weave in and out of the narrative with historical and religious background that shows a strong handle on complex differences and similarities amongst the three religions, and how these have been exploited by various factions and schools of thought to advance their own objectives. My particular favourite was the chapter titled ‘Learning about Islam’ which in a nutshell summarises key principles for the religion.

The book is littered with references to inspiring quotations e.g. from Martin Luther King and O W Holmes, which are cross-referenced several times later, as well as bitter and frank self-assessment e.g. when she says the trouble with us Americans is that we rate ourselves more highly than the world rates us (I paraphrase, of course).

The introspection and reflection grounded in pragmatism is the best quality of this 300-odd page book. The most frustrating part is what I consider poor editing. Sentence constructions in many places are extra-ordinary. Some appear to be sotto voce and they seem the editor left them alone. Often I had to re-read entire paragraphs to make sense of the point being made. It distracts from immersion reading, the kind I prefer.

I have given it 4 stars – perhaps largely because I did not know what to expect from the book, so I came away not jubilant, but not disappointed. Some sections such as ‘The Devil and Madeleine Albright’ were rambling to read and could not hold my attention.

All in all, a multifaceted treatise for those keen on history, politics, religion and how they enmesh with one another in international diplomacy.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: Recommended for those, who are curious about and interested in finding out what goes on behind the scenes in the State Department or in international diplomacy. If political personalities and how they are made as persons and politicians are topics of interest to you, this will make a fascinating read.