There's more to life than texting, September 2011
I was walking down Lexington Avenue in Manhattan the other day when I noticed this young woman who was staring at her upheld hands and about to crash into me. I altered my course a few inches and she raced by. She was texting.
That got me noticing the other people around me. I’d say three-quarters of them were either talking on their phones or typing on their phones. This is the new normal. We want to talk with, or text with, anyone we’re not currently with, and at the expense of whomever we are with, but that’s okay because he or she is doing the same.
I remember walking down Fifth Avenue in the late-‘80s when I first saw someone on a cell phone. It was as large as a shoe and attached by a cord to a battery bag that was as big as a lunchbox. People stopped and stared at the guy. We had never seen anything like it and strangers were talking to each other about how magical it was. It’s no big deal these days, of course. We just text and walk into traffic – and manholes.
I was also on the phone while walking down Lexington Avenue, but I watched where I was going and I wasn’t talking; I was listening to a book.
I’m a writer. Reading is a huge part of my job, and I’m not suggesting that you do what I do, but you might want to give it a try because the people in those books have much to say, and they don’t make your thumbs tired.
On each January 1, I set out to read 100 books before the year ends. I don’t always make it, but I usually get very close. I’m not a speed reader; I just take advantage of the technology. I use a Kindle, an iPhone (which syncs to the Kindle), and Audible.com. I listen while I’m walking, exercising, and driving. I read while I’m on line at the store. I read at least three books at the same time. I know I’m ridiculous when it comes to this, but it’s how I get to learn from so many people.
I just finished these, and they’ve helped me with these times. I offer them to you because I think they will help you as well. It’s up to you, of course.
Innovation and Entrepreneurship, by Peter F. Drucker. Mr. Drucker was a management consultant and this book came out in the mid-‘80s, around the same time I saw the guy with the big phone in the lunchbox on Fifth Avenue. Think back to the big corporate names of that time. Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook, and Amazon were still all in the future. This book is a time machine because many of the companies that Mr. Drucker praised then floundered afterward. The value of the book is that it gives us the opportunity to think about why they floundered, and then to hold up the same light to your businesses, large or small. Imagine your company five years from now. Will it still be relevant? If not, why? And what are you doing about it right now?
The Big Roads, by Earl Swift. The subtitle of this book is, The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways. But that’s only part of it. This book busted a lot of the myths I once held to be true. It goes back to the beginning, long before the Lincoln Highway, and tells the story of population movement, politics, government, power brokers and construction as the world had never seen before. It’s thoroughly enjoyable, and it will help you to better understand where we live, and why we live there.
Powering the Dream, by Alexis Madrigal. If you’re in the business of keeping babies warm, this is required reading. If you think any of this “green” technology is new, you’re about to get a big wake-up call. Mr. Madrigal covers the history of “green” technology in the same way that Mr. Swift tells the story of highways. Want to know why there’s little or no insulation in the walls of most tract housing. Read this book. Looking for new opportunities? Read this book.
The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield. Good title, eh? Mr. Pressfield is a novelist, but this nonfiction book is about the process of fighting what he calls the Resistance. That’s the force that has you doing other things when you should be getting your job done. Like texting. Or maybe I’ll check my e-mail again. I haven’t checked it in five minutes. Or let’s knock off for today and get the rest of this job done tomorrow. Or next week. The War of Art is a book about getting things done. You start, and then you ship. And always on time.
The Creative Habit, by Twyla Tharp. Twyla Tharp is a famous dancer and choreographer, and she once picked up the phone and called Billy Joel, whom she didn’t know, and within a few minutes, talked him into giving permission for the very-successful Broadway show, Movin’ Out. This book is the perfect partner to The War of Art because it’s about taking on the hard work, sticking with it, and getting things done. In times like these, you need to read books such as these.
The Greater Journey – American in Paris, by David McCullough. This big book looks at how many American writers, artists, doctors, and scientists traveled to Paris in the early days of the 19th Century and then returned to America to change it forever, and all through hard work. Mr. McCullough weaves their lives together in a gorgeous tapestry. The other day, I spent an hour in NYC’s Madison Square Park, staring at the bronze statue of Admiral Farragut (“Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead!”) because Mr. McCullough had spent dozens of pages describing the years that Augustus Saint-Gaudens put into getting that statue just right as he worked on it in Paris. During the time I spent staring at the Admiral, hundreds of texting people passed by, never giving the statue a glance. The new normal.
Justice – What’s the Right Thing to Do?, by Michael J. Sandel. All the big questions that we face today, all the stuff that’s in the news, all the political battling – that’s what Mr. Sandel takes on in this brilliant book, but he does it though a philosopher’s eye, and through the lens of thousands of years of human history. There’s perspective and peace in this book, and I think we could use a bit of both of those things right now.
Islands in the Steam, by Ernest Hemingway. I spent last spring rereading all of Hemingway. When I was done I wanted to kill myself (just kidding). No one, before or since, has written as this man wrote. This heartbreaking book is my favorite of his. The title says it all: Islands in the stream. That is what we are.
Shop Class as Soul Craft, by Matthew B. Crawford. Required reading for anyone who works with the tools. Mr. Crawford has a PhD and worked for a think tank, but left all that to open a one-man business restoring old motorcycles. This book is a pure, thoughtful celebration of the trades, and it’s more important than ever right now, considering how many people we’ll need in the coming years, and how few young people are considering the trades as a profession. There’s a power and nobility to this book. Read it and then give it to your kids to read.
Country Driving, by Peter Hessler. This one begins as a travel book, as Mr. Hessler sets out to drive all around China in a rental car. The people he meets along the way, and the stories he tells, will delight you, but toward the middle of the book, he takes a sharp turn as he gets into the way the Chinese work, think, and live, and how they’ve done what they’ve done to us so quickly. If you want to understand your true coming competitor, read this book.
Factory Girls, by Leslie Chang. And when you’re done with Country Driving, follow up with this book, written by Mr. Hessler’s wife, Leslie Chang. It’s about the Chinese factories. Read this book and then spend some time thinking about where the stuff you buy comes from, and then think about where it once came from. This is very sobering read.
The Vintage House – A Guide to Successful Renovations and Additions, by Mark Alan Hewitt and Gordon Bock. I’ve known Gordon Bock for years. He once edited the Old-House Journal magazine. He and Mark Hewitt have put together a book that’s both smart and gorgeous. When it comes to the ins and outs of old houses these guys know it all. Read this one, learn from it, and then put it on your coffee table for others to enjoy. It’s simply beautiful.