The Myth Gap

A few years ago, while teaching undergraduates in India, I noticed that I had to temper my inclination to use Hindoo mythology to make certain points. The need to temper arose from discovering that almost nobody in the classroom was familiar with those myths. Not that I fared better with using contemporary cinema references! It turned out my students did not often see the films as they came out, and if they did watch a film — usually assigned as course material — they seemed to have watched an entirely different film from the one I saw. That was my experience of “the myth gap”.

I bought Alex Evans’s The Myth Gap when it came out in early 2017, and read it in short snatches of time while waiting or on the tube in one day. This weekend of August 12-13, 2017, with the backdrop of white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville VA, which, at the time of writing, had already claimed the lives of a young woman and two cops, I re-read this book in one sitting. Even including 11 pages of references, the book comes in at under 150 pages and is a three hour read.

The book is divided into four sections and the fourth section starts with this quote from Karen Armstrong:

“A myth does not impart factual information, but is primarily a guide to behaviour. Its truth will only be revealed if it is put into practice – ritually or ethically. If it is perused as though it were a purely intellectual hypothesis, it becomes remote and incredible.”

These myths are what this book is about — shared stories about people, their trials and tribulations, change and transitions in history, things being broken and mended. While the author focuses on climate change as a narrative hook, the framework could apply to almost anything – repairing post-Brexit schisms in the UK, returning India to a place of precarious but reliable communal harmony, making America a welcoming place for all again.

In the first section “The front line”, the author makes the case for myths; in the second “Myths for a new century” he talks about the characteristics of the stories we need; in the third section “The everlasting covenant” he uses Biblical stories to illustrate the idea of a covenant and consequences of breaking it; and in the final section “And we all lived happily ever after”, he outlines the praxis of using stories to build an alternative future.

Through the story of how climate change activism on the verge of winning some essential victories was hamstrung by the emergence of the Tea Party movement in 2009, Evans shows how for a political idea to gain steam, it is important to build a movement, build it around small groups and have a terrific story to tell. He also shines a light on the problem with “enemy narratives”, which divide us instead of uniting for personal transformation as well as demanding more of our political leaders. Stories, not policy statements and evidence based arguments, provide what we need except we don’t have any — the myth gap of the title. Consumer brand marketing has stepped into this gap — the myth being “we are what we buy” — but that has been destructive especially in the context of climate change, driving collective over-consumption, waste, and environmental degradation. Timothy Snyder, whose book “On Tyranny” I have read and reviewed, and recommend highly, has written about how history teachers us the fear of resource scarcity. This is the danger — collapsitarianism — which has been successfully used to incite panic and exploited by many through history. This collapsitarian thinking has its ritual too, he writes — “prepping” — evident in Silicon Valley billionaires seeking other citizenships or buying bunkers.

Utter collapse however is also a chance for renewal and innovation, Evans argues, and I was reminded of the exact sentiment found in Bhagwadgita, a Hindoo religious tome, or a myth you could say I am familiar with.

यदा यदा हि धर्मस्य ग्लानिर्भवति भारत ।

अभ्युत्थानमधर्मस्य तदात्मानं सृजाम्यहम् ॥४-७॥

परित्राणाय साधूनां विनाशाय च दुष्कृताम् ।

धर्मसंस्थापनार्थाय सम्भवामि युगे युगे ॥४-८॥

This is Krishna speaking to Arjun who is expressing his doubt about the war against his elders and his cousins and clan: “O Bharat, whenever Dharma (a complex construct implying righteousness, duty, religiosity) declines, I manifest myself. To protect the sages, to destroy the evildoers, and to re-establish Dharma, I return again and again through the ages.”

The myths we need require a collectivist view, a longer view of the future, and a better purposeful vision of our future together. Citing Michael Ventura’s The Age of Endarkenment, about adolescence and need for purpose, the author says that to create a sustainable future, we need to grow up, become adults as a species. In the interim there is the existential grief, that James Hillman has written about, arising from what we are doing to our planet. This grief may be repressed, as we often do, which causes more harm. Or it may be projected, say through enemy narratives. There is a need to acknowledge this cycle and to “atone”, Evans writes, which would encompass not just repentance but also reparation and restorative justice.

Oddly for a book about stories, I found the third section, where Evans actually uses biblical stories to make his point, too long drawn, although Margaret Baker’s turning upside down of the Ark of the Covenant story is fascinating. My reaction however illustrates his argument for the need to find myths that resonate with us personally and then for all of us to find agreement and put together “a quilt of compatible myths”.

The message is clear. Even though what we see as evil is as much personal as it is structural, what we say and do in our daily lives can have global implications. To that extent, dialogue is essential and Evans writes that dialogue with active listening on both sides is often better conducted in relatively small groups. Even as many of us reject religion and politics as bases for joining collectives, our need for belonging remains, and the emerging collectives, with their shared identity, interests and projects, can drive meaningful change.

While all too brief, the chapter titled “Technology and the future of myth” interested me greatly as it discussed how the advent of AR/ VR/ MR technologies can change how we tell and participate in the myths in the future. The book finishes on an idealistic, optimistic note on the Eden 2.0 we can yet choose to create.

On re-reading, I found the book much more dense and richer than I recall from the first reading. It is an exhortation to change, to drive that change meaningfully, to build a sustainable future together. It is a book written with expertise, empathy, exploration at its core as well as optimism for the future. It is thought provoking and could serve as a great personal manifesto for driving meaningful change.

Star rating: 4.5 out of 5 

Usefulness note: While fires burn around us, we have to make two simultaneous choices — to douse the fire, and to plan to rebuild a structure that is fire-proof to the best of our abilities. This weekend was tough for optimism but it also is the reason why all of us, who want a different future from the one unfolding in front of us, should read it.

Jo Malone: My Story

At 402 pages, not including acknowledgements and the index, My Story by Jo Malone is not a weekend read. But it has the ability to keep a grip on one’s attention till the end. The book has the support of a ghostwriter, whom she thanks in acknowledgements. Ms Malone is dyslexic and makes the point that her sense of smell, which is almost synaesthetic, may have been a sensory compensation for her dyslexia. As a hyperosmic synaesthete, I found that fascinating and relatable. She talks frequently about her eidetic memory for smells which has played a vital role in her creativity.

One of the first, unmissable attention-grabbers in this book is the scented glossy page. It is scented with Pomelo, the pomelo, grapefruit and vetiver based first fragrance she launched with Jo Loves. It is an overpowering smell, that competes with and easily beats the new book smell. If you are hyperosmic like me, be alert to the the possibility of a headache! The smell is strong and did not fade away during the 3-4 days over which I read the book.

There are two distinctive stories being told in the book — one, the autobiographical detail, the other, the business creation stories which essentially drew me to the book. They are neatly intertwined of course, though often nostalgia wins out over the business building story.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part “Roots” is the story of her childhood which alternates between idyllic and quite disturbing, while it clearly is where her creative and entrepreneurial character was fostered.

The second, and the longest, part “Wings” is both a love story, with her husband and co-founder Gary Willcox, and the story of the creation of Jo Malone. Their partnership — through the growth of her facials business, the creation and building of Jo Malone, the sale to Estee Lauder, the birth of the son Josh, Ms Malone’s breast cancer and treatment in New York, and her making slow steps back into fragrance creation once the non-compete with Estee Lauder ended — is the rare, non-replicable, not-so-secret sauce of her success. She mentions almost no major arguments or disagreements, which is something other co-founding teams rarely experience. They also have complementary skills in the building of the business and complete trust between them. She is the creative power, and he is definitely the more commercially savvy partner in the duo. He is also the man with the retail real-estate savvy, crucial in building both Jo Malone, and now, Jo Loves. But there are useful lessons in here about building a client list before launching a major brand, being very good at one’s craft but also learning constantly instead of lazily hiring help in (in business, you cannot manage what you don’t understand and measure), delivering the best customer experience from the get-go and recognising and drawing upon all the social capital you have built. What is missing is any major discussion of the financial aspects of building Jo Malone, especially since she mentions she learnt early never to take on debt in the business. A business growing gangbusters, especially where one must manufacture and stock the product before it can be sold, needs robust finances and that part is disappointingly sparse in this section of the book. There is also little about the backend of the business such as what was learnt from the mail order business, and how the relationships with the best customers were managed.

The third part “Reinvention” is about how she returned to making fragrances with Jo Loves, which being an ongoing story is the shortest segment in the book. She discusses how hard it may be to come back and compete in the same category not because of legal restrictions but because of the old memories that surface and because it may be hard to let go. Mr Willcox’s wisdom about letting go before you move on is spot on here. The creation of the brand Jo Malone is a BSM — Before Social Media — business creation story. Her new brand, Jo Loves, is smack bang in the social media era as seen right away from the story of the pop-up launch  at Selfridges. She even tweeted from her handle, @JoMaloneMBE, on the very first day the Jo Loves shop opened at 42 Elizabeth Street, the shop where she had worked as a teenager with florist Justin de Blank. This part of her story also has a huge international aspect to it. I found the rebranding challenges quite interesting too but as with any story told after the fact, the struggle seems more compressed than it actually may have been. This is the ‘to be continued” part of Ms Malone’s story, of course, though the book ends with her induction into the Retail Hall of Fame. As she says in the book about her first tweet: “Once a shopkeeper, always a shopkeeper”.

As with all autobiographies, the author has been generous to herself. I can’t find it in me to turn up my nose at what could be seen as “poor me”. I did feel sad for her that her family is not with her celebrating her success, as they all passed away within a short period of one another. There is not inconsiderable name-dropping in the book. Seeing as this is a BSM book, and many of these people were her clients and her champions in the very early days of her business, even before Jo Malone was launched, it is like a roll call of 1990s London. Some of these names are seminal to her story e.g. Sarah Ferguson, who was her client from before she married Prince Andrew and who introduced new clients to her facial business when Malone separated from her mother’s business, Leonard Lauder, who was at the helm of Estee Lauder when they bought Jo Malone, and Jeremy King of Corbin and King. Other names, such as the mention of David Linley queuing up, feel gratuitous.

Star rating: 3.5 out of 5 

Usefulness note: The middle section “Wings” would be useful for people looking to create startups in the lifestyle space. But the usefulness would be limited, because of the BSM nature of the brand Jo Malone and because discussion of money and other seminal details of business building are not discussed enough or at all. The Jo Loves story is WIP.

On Tyranny

Timothy Snyder, the author of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons From The Twentieth Century, is  Housum Professor of History at Yale University. At the simplest, this timely book draws parallels between the Trump administration and the Third Reich.

In the prologue, Snyder reminds us that history does not repeat but that it does instruct, that it can familiarise and it can warn. He mentions that the western tradition considers history when the political order seems in peril, and that European history shows that democracies can fall and ethics can collapse. He reminds us how fascism and communism both were responses to globalisation, and why recent developments are a good reminder for us that we are not any wiser now than people were back then.

Eschewing moral panic, Snyder has managed to write a book that is deceptively simple in stating the profound lessons from twentieth century history, which are as follows:

  1. Do not obey in advance.
  2. Defend institutions.
  3. Beware the one party state.
  4. Take responsibility for the face of the world.
  5. Remember professional ethics.
  6. Be wary of paramilitaries.
  7. Be reflective if you must be armed.
  8. Stand out.
  9. Be kind to our language.
  10. Believe in truth.
  11. Investigate.
  12. Make eye contact and small talk.
  13. Practice corporeal politics.
  14. Establish a private life.
  15. Contribute to good causes.
  16. Learn from peers in other countries.
  17. Listen for dangerous words.
  18. Be calm when the unthinkable arrives.
  19. Be a patriot.
  20. Be as courageous as you can.

As I read through the book, its broader applicability to some other well-known democracies, not just the USA, became clearer. As a person of Indian origin, I have watched the current administration campaign its way to power, where with a weak opposition, the world’s largest democracy is, at the moment, a de facto single party state. Language has been corrupted with terms such as anti-national, “libtard”, “sickular” (“sick” and “secular” twisted together) are bandied about with ease to attack those, who raise legitimate concerns about the changing face of India. These mass attacks are often technology-enabled and bot-led, so difficult to counter. Further, I live in the UK and had watched with increasing concern the Brexit campaign infested with lies. The legacy of that campaign persisted after the win, labelling upset remain-voters “remoaners”, attacked with glib comments such as “your side lost, get over it!”. Having become PM as a side outcome of the Brexit vote, Mrs May also eagerly abused language, labelling globalists “citizens of nowhere” and mouthing meaningless tautologies, such as “Brexit is Brexit”. As I write this review on the weekend of 17/18 June 2017, she is seeing plenty of corporeal politics in the form of protests at Downing Street asking her to resign.

Point no 14 — establish a private life — made me a tad uncomfortable. The way I read it, I interpret Snyder’s point to mean “don’t have anything over which you can be held to ransom”. This is a tricky endeavour. After all nearly all of us have near and dear ones, and can be forced into uncomfortable situations because of them. I was also reminded of the time when I was a graduate student of management. We had a guest speaker, TN Seshan, who is known to have been one of the most incorruptible and straight shooting Election Commissioners India has had. After nearly 25 years, one of his remarks sticks in my memory. He said not having children liberated him to live fully and fearlessly to his ideals. It is hard to have a life without a chink in the armour that a tyrannical despot and his or her minions would not be able to exploit.

One point that Snyder does not make — and perhaps it is not important enough — is that “leaders” emerging through such shenanigans remain insecure and sore winners, with easily hurt and fragile egos. This means that these leaders rarely submit themselves to public engagement or criticism, preferring either to become sound byte dispensing bots such as Mrs May or to continue attacks real or imagined adversaries as Mr Trump does on Twitter. May be that was not a lesson in history. But it is a pertinent characteristic that can be useful.

I feel the list of lessons in the book also provides an interesting framework with which to examine technological monopolies such as Facebook and Google, and the influence they may have on shaping the political discourse, about which plenty has been written since the last Presidential elections in the USA.

In the epilogue to this excellent book, titled “History And Liberty”, Snyder warns us to watch for the politics of inevitability i.e. the idea that history could only move in one direction — towards liberal democracies, and the politics of eternity, which glorifies the past with scant regard for facts. Recent developments in the USA — and I add India and the UK — give weight to his argument that this belief in the politics of inevitability is a self-induced form of intellectual coma, which stifles debate and discussion. On the other hand, the politics of eternity has fostered nationalist politicians who sell the seductive vision of a past that never existed and prevent us from thinking about possible futures and ways to self-correct.

I read the book in one sitting, with a single cafetière of coffee by my side. It is a riveting read, which is not something one could normally say about books on history and politics.

In a subsequent conversation with a journalist friend, we agreed that these points ought to be on a poster of some kind, and everyone needs to have it up where it can be seen daily.

Star rating: 5 out of 5 

Usefulness note: This book ought to be read in full. By everyone. Especially in the current political climate. Why? Because, to quote Marshall Berman, American Marxist humanist philosopher, “Whoever you are, or want to be, you may not be interested in politics, but politics is interested in you.” 

How Women Decide

How Women Decide, by Therese Huston, is provocatively titled and an easy read, backed by substantial research, listed in the 53 page of references.

The book has six chapters each dealing with themes that surface when women’s decision-making is discussed, namely women’s intuition, decisiveness, attitudes to risk, confidence, decisions under stress, and unusually, watching others make poor decisions. Each chapter has a summary of take-aways at the end which is handy. Huston tells stories often from the public domain to make her points. She also patiently untangles science from socialisation while making her argument.

If I had to recommend one chapter, I would be hard-pressed to pick between “Hello, risk taker” and “Stress makes her focused, not fragile”. Biases regarding their risk taking behaviour and their ability to cope under stress follow women around. Yet as Huston demonstrates in the chapter on the former, risk-taking is not a personality trait, but a skill which can be learnt although men take more risks during the process of learning than women do. The differences in risk taking disappear later with experience. She also shows that women actually takes more risks e.g. speaking up in hostile environments where they are in the minority than men do. She specifically points out the challenges of precarious manhood and the “white male effect” on how something may appear risk free to a white male but not to many others. In the chapter on stress, she demonstrates how women and men behave differently under stress vis-a-vis the risks they take, and their approaches i.e. fight-or-flight in men and tend-and-befriend in women. She also highlights how social judgment is harsher on women than on men in stressed situations and how the genders express emotion in socially sanctioned ways.

The chapter on watching others make poor decisions had personal appeal for me. I am simply unable to watch a poor decision being made, and it can often cause friction with friends and family.

If I could make it compulsory for senior executives, board directors and people managers to read this book, I would. Of course, the most open-minded would benefit the most and in turn their organisations would too.

Like many non-fiction books, this book too could be shorter by a quarter without losing substance. But it is an easy read so the length does not weigh down on the reader.

Extra kudos to the author, for acknowledging that her husband’s willingness to cover the family’s financial needs for several years gave her the chance to try her luck as a full-time writer! As Ann Bauer wrote a few years ago, this is the sponsorship that doesn’t get discussed honestly or openly, as much as it should be. Not all writers have wealthy philanthropist patrons. Sometimes the truth for creative people is that their own family is giving up a lot to support their dreams and for being honest about that Ms Huston deserves a gold star.

Star rating: 5 out of 5 (could have been a shorter book!)

Usefulness note: I would nudge those, who manage people or otherwise work with people to read this book. It is not a dry read and gently challenges unconscious biases held against one half of humanity.

Small Data

Small Data: The Tiny Clues That Uncover Huge Trends attracted my attention for several reasons. One, I am interested in understanding the world better, so other people’s ways of seeing, ways of making sense of things interest me. Two, I read anything that can be vaguely filed under “decision making”. Three, that the title appears to rail provocatively against the tide of “big data” drowning us these days.

Martin Lindstrom, the author, is a Danish consultant to brands. As a 12-year old he was once confined to hospital where, to entertain himself, he started keenly observing others in his ward and the various nurses and doctors who came to visit, and making hypotheses and testing them. As a keen Lego maker as a child, he notes in passing an encounter with Lego’s lawyers and then how later he was able to help the brand remain on course even as the company feared it was losing its market as kids became more engrossed in online games and communities.

The book is full of stories from Lindstrom’s assignments for various brands in many different countries. His insight often benefits from his outsider status in the cultures he studies whether as a middle-aged man observing teenage girls’ fashion behaviours, or as a Danish man trying to disentangle the Indian Mother-in-law-daughter-in-law dynamic in joint families. He also shares a story of when he had to go off Pepsi in his personal life to become a more-or-less dispassionate observer in order to help the brand.

In telling his stories, Lindstrom goes off on tangents sometimes, but also links back to experiences described in other chapters. This quirk has personal appeal for me because in conversations, I am quite prone to telling side stories and going off on tangents to enrich a thread but unlike many others, I also have the ability to always come back to the main narrative.

In the last chapter, Lindstrom shares his 7Cs framework of observing and making sense of small data. That framework, alas, is the weakest link in this book. I can see why it might have been compelling to abstract his “magic” into a framework others could use. But when I put my business person and sometime teacher and trainer hat on, I know that people missing the obvious and not being keen observers is quite common. That ability to observe aside, being able to link things, and to reject or persist with various hypotheses is Lindstrom’s real USP. The framework would go nowhere with those whose ability to see is not as keen as the author’s.

The references and the index are helpful but if you seek academic research type references, this is not a book for you. Read it definitely but read a lot more besides.

The stories are good and amusingly regaled, even if sometimes correlation-causation-explanation-inquiry get muddled, and some hypotheses or conclusions seem a bit too far fetched. As a way of seeing and explaining the world, the book would easily nudge “big data” obsessed business decision makers into questioning and reflecting.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: A good light read, which I would heartily recommend, but not for those seeking robust academic style frameworks and concepts.

Tales from The Quran and Hadith

When my best friend from school came a-visiting recently, she asked me what I wanted from India. I resisted asking for mangoes, choosing instead a copy of Rana Safvi’s Tales from The Quran and Hadith. I am both an atheist-agnostic and a reluctant reader of fiction or stories, but I am curious about the nature of faith and about religions, especially to understand human beings and their motivations better. Further, Rana Safvi is blessed with an amazing ability both to regale stories and to make them accessible through her prolific writing, as evidenced by a recent award bestowed on her.

To invoke a cliche, the book is a breezy read. The stories are narrated quite simply and the prose is evocative. I am aware of several Islamic — Shia, Sunni, Sufi — traditions and artifacts such as the Sword of Ali. The stories in the book put flesh on the bones of my knowledge of some of those.

Mohammad’s marital life was one of the most fascinating threads for me. His first wife, Khadija, was a successful business woman, his employer, a widow, and an older woman. This, by any modern standards, is a pretty remarkable woman, not least because she chose him as her husband. Further, in contrast with the practice of the time, he did not take another wife while Khadija was alive. He did subsequently take eleven wives, according to the book, most of whom were widows or slaves or women captured as prisoners-of-war, and some of whom proposed to him. I know this book did not promise that it would dwell on why these narratives of open-minded and forward thinking have gotten lost but I would have liked to read more stories of the social transitions. Perhaps Rana Safvi will write another book.

The book has several stories of women with self-determination and independent thinking such as Asma bint Abu Bakr. I was quite taken aback by the story of Zulaikha, where the protagonist’s passion for a younger, handsome servant is the theme. I was reminded of Irawati Karve’s Yugant, where she writes about Mahabharata from the women characters’ point of view, and Chitra Divakaruni’s The Palace of Illusions, that is told in Draupadi’s voice. It is hard to read Tales From.. without often thinking about why it is crucial that we have more female narrators, modern day trobairitzes.

The book brought several personal delights for me, which I concede may be minor or unimportant for others. One of these was that I learnt how names of prophets and angels travel across various Abhrahamic religions. Another was to learn the etymological roots of certain words e.g. muhajir, meaning migrant, hijrat, meaning migration, and Hajj, the pilgrimage, all of which are related to the story of Hajira and her sacrifice.

One of the things that made the book easier to read is that the author chose not to write PBUH each time Prophet Mohammad’s name was invoked. I feel however the book would have been improved with the inclusion of an appendix with some kind of timeline to explain some of the key events in Islamic history, as well as an index with the names of the key characters in the stories so that the stories could be re-read, for instance, to create a fuller narrative of a specific character’s life.

Some sloppy editing, both grammatical and usage related, lets the book down. This was avoidable.

Star rating: 5 out of 5

Usefulness note: I would delight in gifting copies of the book to my curious atheist friends as well as to any others, who love reading stories culled and curated from books they may otherwise not stretch to reading.

Life Moves Pretty Fast

Just over 300 pages, including several Top-n lists, notes and an index, Hadley Freeman’s Life Moves Pretty Fast is a breeze to read.

Written in the chatty style of friends nattering over a coffee or a beer in a British pub — although Freeman was born in New York, she seems to have grown up in the UK and now lives in London — the book is almost deceptive in the seriousness of its thesis. The book explores the complex dynamics of race, gender, class, relationships, and identity, without being dry or boring.

Freeman builds the case — although you wouldn’t know it from the ease of her storytelling — that 80s Hollywood films discussed important social themes, and did so in a manner essential to the story, that is no longer seen in films. This is, to a great extent, owed to the fact that the earlier studio driven system of film-making has now morphed into a handful of corporate owners focused less on story telling, and more on profitability of specific market segments, such as China, for whom Transformers 4 was made. This push for profitability in non-English speaking markets may also be why subtlety, complexity and nuance are being lost in favour of violence and cartoonish characters. After all, there is no need to translate violence, she argues. As readers, we find ourselves agreeing with her, as we do with many of the other key points she makes.

That these studios are owned and controlled by men means that it is increasingly tough for women to get films made, which explains a lot of things about modern day Hollywood fare but I digress.

The chapters are organised by film and a dominant social theme, although as we dive into each chapter it becomes clear that social themes come in clusters. Freeman discusses abortion (Dirty Dancing), the multi-facetedness of love (The Princess Bride), the interestingness of women (Steel Magnolias, whose back-story is as moving as the film was impactful), the importance of parents (Back To The Future), social class (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off).

Using Ghostbusters and Top Gun, she writes about the idea of masculinity and male friendship. The chapter fascinated me no end not least because well I don’t have to worry about being masculine but as women, we deal with men who have to. I read twice the chapter discussing When Harry Met Sally. Freeman writes an ode to romantic comedies, and gender, love, and how the depiction of women in films is cliched and stereotypical and reductive.

Freeman however saves the best for the last. In a chapter titled “Eddie Murphy’s Eighties Movies: Race can be transcended”. That chapter made me wish the book went on a bit longer.

Ironically the only chapter I did find a drag was titled “Batman: Superheroes don’t have to be such a drag”.

The book could have been edited a bit tighter. I struggled to resist reading it without a highlighter or pencil in hand. There were several occasions where I felt that some of the most crucial, impactful points Freeman makes may be at risk of being missed altogether. The voice can sound a bit teenager-y at times but I wouldn’t dwell on it as a shortcoming of the book.

There is a skill in discussing uncomfortable themes, themes we can relate to so obviously we don’t think they merit a discussion at all, without getting all het-up, moralistic and preachy. Freeman demonstrates the skill in spades. There is mention of the Bechdel test, for instance, but it doesn’t make it to the index, that remains steadfastly focused on the names of films, actresses and actors that appear in the book.

This review gets out on the Saturday of the second May bank holiday in the UK. You have time. Read the book, watch the films, but this time you may well do it with a different angle on them.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: A book about Hollywood films of the 1980s will likely best appeal to those who were growing up in that time. But it should be read by all those interested in cinema and its power to reflect and shape social discourse, indeed document it in a story telling format.

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.

The Art Of Choosing

Link: This review appears on Amazon-UK here. And on Amazon-US here.

With a researcher’s and practitioner’s interest in decision-making, I did not have to ponder over the choice to buy this book. Nor did I struggle with reading its 268 pages (not including acknowledgment and references) in just over 4 hours. Professor Sheena Iyengar has written an engaging treatise on what choice means to human beings, how we make choices in the face of sometimes confounding contradictions and uncertainties, and how the sheer option and the act of choosing can affect our well-being. The illustrative examples and stories cover a wide range – from the trivial, such as picking between two colours of nail polish, to the serious life-and-death choice of whether to keep a sick neo-nate on life support or to turn it off.

Using many such stories from research, Professor Iyengar shows how the desire for choice, as a way to exercise control, is universal. She demonstrates how our “framing” of choices depends upon the stories we have been told, and our beliefs that may arise from our culture, religion, ethnicity etc. A freedom to choose may be a “freedom to” or “freedom from”, as Erich Fromm has written so how in an increasingly globalised world do we reconcile all these differences in perspective? Professor Iyengar proposes a sort of “metaphorical multilingualism”, using the example of how she herself uses the language of sighted people although she is functionally blind.

Professor Iyengar takes us on a fascinating exploration of American history to show how choice relates to identity, and then shows yet how many more people are alike than not although they prefer to think otherwise. Such contradictions contained within us in Walt Whitmanesque multitudes, she argues that we constantly rearrange our identities to appear independent-thinking, identity being a dynamic process not a static object. We adjust our behaviours and lives to reinforce that identity seeking, she writes, common ground without being copycats. If you pick only one chapter to read from this book, I would recommend Chapter 3.

Further we learn how choices are not just about possibility, but also responsibility and consequences, foreseeable or otherwise. Professor Iyengar discusses our automatic (subconscious) and our reflective (conscious) brain, and how trouble arises when the two are in disagreement. What follows is a thought-provoking discourse on how we use heuristics and employ our preferences and biases, sometimes using them to colour our search for information, which ends with a soft suggestion that sometimes it may be better to throw in our lot with others or their experience.

Is there such a thing as too much choice? Research suggests that to be the case. Choice, as we see, is not an unconditional good. There are limits to human cognition and we may need to cultivate expertise to deal with the surfeit on offer. And then there are complex choices, such as in medically serious situations, which require us to put a “value” on things which have “worth” for us, exacting a mental cost which we are unable to assess fully at the time of making the choice. Choice, Professor Iyengar concludes, is an art with its uncertainties and contradictions, and in its mystery lies its puissance: a conclusion most readers of this book may choose to agree with.

It was difficult for me to give the book 4 stars instead of 5. Here is why I struggled. While the stories are fascinating, some sections meander and one can lose the thread pretty quickly. Having read the book, I can empathise with how difficult the editorial choices might have been: which of the research references to keep, and which to edit away. It was a choice and the editor chose to keep them all in. A research described in Chapter 3 discusses using a scale where research subjects had to determine if something was “moderately unique” or “very unique”. This was mildly irritating. These phrases may be colloquial usage but that does not make them correct.

Star rating: 4 out of 5

Usefulness note: A thought-provoking book which most will benefit from reading. However as Professor Iyengar warns, introspection or self-examination is not everyone’s cup of tea, so it is unlikely to be a comforting read for all. It does however offer several points of departure for thinking about things around us. From brand marketing to politics, to how various nations are dealing with the recession.

Do More Faster

Link: This review now appears on Amazon-UK here where, if you like, you can vote for it. Thanks.

The “entrepreneur” is, to many, a mysterious beast surrounded by myths and legends. This book, edited by Techstars founders David Cohen and Brad Feld, seeks to share some of the secret juice that makes for a successful entrepreneur. If, like me, you expect this book to be like Founders At Work (FAW), edited by Y-Combinator’s Jessica Livinsgton, it would be only partially true. FAW contains interviews with the creators of some of the hottest tech products such as Gmail and Hotmail. Do More Faster on the other hand is a collection of short essays of 1-2 pages, where successful tech entrepreneurs distill the most important lesson in taking their idea to execution often with mentoring from Techstars. These essays are organised along seven themes: Idea & Vision, People, Execution, Product, Fund-raising, Legal & Structure, Work-life Balance. The titles are a testament to good editing. The book can almost become a reference point for those scratching their heads about something specific, because they can locate the specific essay by its title in the list of contents.

Strong points are made here, including that if you have an idea, you can be sure half a dozen people around the world are already working on it, and that most start-ups started out doing something totally different from what they do now. Myths are busted including the belief some entrepreneurs have that they need to raise external cash to find validation. Remarkable honesty is on offer such as in Issac Saldana’s essay on how he much preferred writing code over talking to people, but how the latter helped him create a valuable and valued product. The value of pragmatic over perfect is demonstrated such as by Matt Mullenweg in how 2006 became WordPress’s lost year, not in a bad way but in a way that brought a valuable lesson regarding product releases and discipline to Automattic. And good advice too such as the essay titled “stay healthy”, which I have often said to young entrepreneurs I know, including one, who had to be hospitalised for a few days to accept the value of good health above all else. Brad Feld’s punchy essay “The plural of anecdote is not data” but establishes a home-truth about the need to question and validate any data, especially anecdotes often peddled as truths. I marked out several essays as my favourite by folding pages. No points for guessing more than three-quarters of the book was folded over by the time I finished reading it.

I must add that the definition of “tech” used here is relatively narrow. If you somehow miss paying attention to iRobot (Why would you do that anyway? They make Roomba!) you might think “tech” is all about the web and services. But on some reflection, it is easy to see the broader applicability of the lessons to successful commercialisation of innovation in other sectors too.

Star rating: 5 out of 5

Usefulness note: The saying goes: “Ordinary people learn from their mistakes; smart ones learn from others’ mistakes”. If you think you have a world-changing idea (or if you know someone who thinks so), you – or that person – may want to learn from some of the most successful entrepreneurs featured in the book. If you don’t think you can learn anything from this book, then you perhaps need to make your own mistakes in executing that idea, in which case, refer to the saying above. If you are a mentor or an advisor to start-ups, you will equally enjoy this book and the thoughts it provokes. The process of innovation and creativity is kaleidoscopic, and I am pleased I didn’t miss the chance – all 3 hours of it – to look through so many of those kaleidoscopes.