Sanity in the Workplace

It Doesn't Have to Be Crazy at Work book cover

A lot has changed about our work spaces since the COVID-19 pandemic started in 2020. Before this, very few companies considered allowing any portion of their employees to work from home. Then we were all forced to figure out how to do so if it was at all possible. Now, as the pandemic starts to wane, businesses are trying to figure out how to manage with the new expectation of working from home.

Just as the pandemic has challenged employers to revisit their attitudes toward their employees working from home, so have the authors of It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work challenged traditional views of how companies should be run. Their company (Basecamp) is 100% remote and has been since it started. And in this book the authors outline many other aspects of how they run their successful company (it has been profitable from day one).

In short essays, they talk about how they run their business. Here is a sample of some of the subjects covered.

  • Paying for their employees’ vacations
  • Limiting work to only 40 hours a week (32 hours in the summer months)
  • Paying everyone in the same job the same salary
  • Doing less but doing it better

The writing in the book is straightforward, funny, and approachable. But perhaps my favorite aspect of the book is that they state right up front that they developed these ideas as they went. That some things that worked when they were a small company of only three people didn’t work when they were a company of fifty people. I find it refreshing—that kind of perspective and willingness to change policy and procedure.

So while not all of the ideas in this book may appeal to you or your company, the thinking behind these ideas is worth you time to contemplate and consider.

A Guide for Going Agile

Doing Agile Right book cover

My company is in the midst of an agile transformation. We’ve pretty much got it working at the tactical level, but we are struggling a bit at the strategic level. We are getting there, but progress is slow. So I went looking for a book to educate myself with the goal of being more of an asset during this transition. What I found was Doing Agile Right: Transformation Without Chaos by Darrell Rigby, Sarah Elk, and Steve Berez—and it was a good find.

I love that it starts out by showing how agile really works and how agile is scaled across a large enterprise before moving on to the details of agile transformations. Along the way the authors ask questions, never making any assumptions. For instance, they ask, “How agile do you want to be?”, pointing out that agile is definitely not the solution to every business problem.

My favorite chapters were chapters four and five about leadership and planning respectively. Leadership must buy in and, more importantly, model agile principles. Furthermore, they must be practiced in the finance process – planning and budgeting. Every chapter ends with a summary of five key takeaways.

Perhaps most importantly, the foundation for the book is the case studies throughout it that are the basis for the thoughts and conclusions expressed. I took a lot of notes reading this book, and I am looking forward to putting the principles I learned into practice.

Modern Short Stories

Tenth of December book cover

I’ve had Tenth of December by George Saunders on my “to be read” pile for a while now. I am also a free subscriber to Story Club with George Saunders. But when I learned that one of the stories from Tenth of December would be the basis for a new Netflix movie (Spiderhead), I finally picked up the book and read it.

The book is a collection of ten short stories of various lengths. The writing is crisp. The stories are engaging. This is not unexpected since Saunders teaches in the MFA program at Syracuse University. Not all of the stories were to my liking, though I had three favorites. These were “Escape from Spiderhead”, “Exhortation”, and “Tenth of December”.

The first of these is the basis for the Netflix movie. The story is about a prison where psychological experiments are performed on “volunteers” using drugs. The main theme is self-determination. The second is in the form of a corporate memo. It is both disturbing and humorous while also feeling uncofortably on the nose. And my final favorite was the story of how two lives cross — a young, socially awkward boy with a vivid imagination and a terminal old man determined not to be a burden on his family. Whether you are a fan of short stories or are new to the art form, this is an excellent book to pick up and read.

Just Read It!

The Anomaly book cover

I subscribe to the blog posts of the author Ozan Varol. He is the author of Think Like a Rocket Scientist: Simple Strategies You Can Use to Make Giant Leaps in Work and Life. But this post is not about that book. Each month, Ozan shares with his readers what he has read, watched, and explored that month. One catch. He doesn’t share much about the plots of the movies and books he recommends. He doesn’t like to know much of anything before watching or reading.

In May, he recommended a book that I finished reading recently. It’s called The Anomaly by Hervé Le Tellier. Here is how he described it on his blog post. “Unputdownable thriller that I finished in 3 days. The less you know about it, the better. If you’re in the mood for a good summer page-turner, do yourself a favor and grab a copy.” That’s it. It was enough to make me borrow it from my library and read it.

And I thoroughly enjoyed it. And I think I enjoyed it better for not knowing much about it before reading it. So I am not going to say much more than that. The characters are three-dimensional and feel like real people. I think that is what keeps the reader turning pages. So if you feel drawn to this book even a little, don’t seek out any more information on it. Just get a copy and start reading!

A Road Trip Audiobook

The Cousins book cover

My partner and I recently took a vacation. We drove from our home in western North Carolina to the Florida panhandle for a week on the beach relaxing. We are both big readers, so on long car trips we borrow audiobooks from the library to listen to while we drive. On this last trip, we listened to The Cousins by Karen M. McManus.

This book is in the young adult (YA) genre. My partner and I both enjoy these books. Many popular and best-selling books are also YA, such as the Harry Potter series and the Hunger Games trilogy. This is a stand alone book about three cousins who are invited to work at their grandmother’s resort. Doesn’t sound like much of a story. The twist is that the grandmother disowned the cousins’ parents twenty years ago via a mysterious letter from her lawyer. None of the kids is much interested in going, but their parents make them hoping to get back in the good graces (and the will) of the grandmother.

As you would expect, there are many interesting turns in the story. The characters are well-developed and likeable. There is growth and change for the adults as well as the kids. Each of the cousins was read by a different actor in the audiobook, and the reading/acting was very well done. We really enjoyed listening to this book, and whether you read or listen I encourage you to give it a try.

Overrated Bestseller

Gone Girl book cover

Gone Girl was a publishing success when it came out in 2012. A decade later, I finally got around to reading it. I’m not sure what all the fuss was about. The writing is excellent and the plot twists are many. But I simply cannot get around how completely and utterly unlikable the main characters are.

The plot centers around a missing wife and the question of whether or not her husband is responsible. He is less than an ideal spouse. He is a little pathetic but, for the first half of the book, fairly relatable. As the novel continues more and more of his character is revealed until I no longer liked him.

The wife is almost irredeemable from the beginning. She also seems a little relatable at the start, but even then I found her needy and unlikable. In the second half of the book, I found her completely off the deep end, but I expect that is part of the point.

In the end, I didn’t like either character very much. If this book had not been so well-liked, I may not have even finished it. However, I did want to see what all the fuss was about. Despite the excellent writing and plot twists, I can only rate it a three out of five due to the completely unlikable characters.

Facts and Compassion

The End of Gender book cover

There is a lot of heat and emotion around the subjects of sex and gender. This is most visible in the national debates around the rights of the LGBTQIA+ community, but particularly around those concerning transgender individuals. While my own thoughts about such issues have centered on compassion for others, I have been confused about what is really going on for these individuals. Not being a member of this community, I must admit that I do not understand all of the issues. But I long ago concluded that I don’t need to. It isn’t about what I think or understand but about accommodating and caring for people wherever they are and however they see themselves.

Hoping to better educate myself, I recently read the book The End of Gender by Debra Soh, a former sexology researcher who left academia to pursue a career in journalism. The book is a straightforward look at what the science of sexology says about sex and gender and many of the public issues surrounding them. It is an eye-opening book that is likely to both challenge and confirm your views on these subjects, no matter how you feel about identity politics.

This is not a political book, or at least it is not meant to be. It is grounded in published sexology research and takes the position that we ought to be open and clear about the science even if it goes against what we believe or is popular. Some may think this is a license to abuse minorities. The author disagrees. It isn’t the science we should take issue with but how some people use it as a weapon of hate.

The book is organized around nine myths about sex and gender. Two of these myths are “There are more than two genders” and “Sexual orientation and gender identity are unrelated”. Due to the sensitive nature of these topics, you likely reacted strongly to one or both of those statements. I highly encourage you to read this book from a well-educated scientist who uses research to inform her compassion. One of the major concerns she raises is the number of transgender individuals who transition and later change their mind and detransition. Perhaps a better understanding of the science behind sex and gender can lead to better outcomes for those struggling with identity issues.

Emotional Education

Atlas of the Heart book cover

We spend a lot of time as a culture debating what and how we should teach our children. This includes math, science, history, sex education (sometimes). But a tremendous oversight in our pedagogy is emotions. Perhaps because everyone has them, we simply think that everyone knows what they are and what they are for. Studies show that most people only identify regularly with three – happy, sad, and angry. But there are many, many more. In fact, in her book Atlas of the Heart, Brené Brown identifies eighty-eight emotions and emotional experiences. The premise of the book is that if we want to have a more nuanced understanding of ourselves and others beyond the three basic emotions, then we need to have a better understanding of the language and nuance of emotions.

The majority of the book is definitions and research of emotions.These are grouped in chapters like “Places we go when we’re hurting” and “Places we go when life is good.” While this may sound dull on the surface, Brown’s language is vernacular rather than academic and she shows her usual vulnerability in sharing her own experiences. The is largely what the title says it is – a map of human emotions.

In the final chapter, she it all together when she shares her research backed method for cultivating meaningful connection. She summarizes why this is important to us as a social species when she writes, “Our connection with others can only be as deep as our connection with ourselves.” And since we lack any formal education for dealing with our emotions and connecting with one another, this book is a fantastic place to start in educating oneself. I know that I will be referring to this book and learning from it for years.

Living in Time

How to Stop Time book cover

I decided to read How to Stop Time by Matt Haig for two main reasons. First, I had read his previous novels Humans and The Midnight Library and had really enjoyed them both. I loved his humor, his writing style, and his exploration of the deeper ideas and challenges of the human condition. And then I read a review of How to Stop Time that described it in those terms. While it does live up to that billing, at the end I found myself less satisfied with this novel than the previous ones I had read.

The time travel in this book is not the traditional kind. Rather than there being a time machine, the main character has some sort of condition that causes him to age much more slowly. While not exactly immortal, he is four hundred years old in our time but looks only in his forties. The author uses this longevity to explore what it means to live as well as how such a long life might change the perspective of those living it.

Perhaps I am spoiled by the plethora of movies and books that explore the idea of time travel. As a result, I was too primed for that kind of book rather than what this book is. So while I didn’t enjoy it as much as his others, I think this book is right up there with them. In the future, I will try to temper my expectations and simply enjoy what I am reading without so much baggage.

Conscious Culture

The Culture Code book cover

The Culture Code by Danile Coyle uses practical examples and research to show how culture can be consciously developed. This comes from the cultivation of three skills in particular: building safety, sharing vulnerability, and establishing purpose.

Building Safety

The buzzword often heard around this concept is psychological safety. This is the simple but profound idea that we are safe and connected. This builds a strong sense of belonging and needs continual, purposeful cultivation. This skill is the foundation of building successful culture.

Sharing Vulnerability

This skill is perhaps best summarized by the phrase, “Tell me what you want, and I’ll help you.” It doesn’t presume to know what is best and puts itself out there in service to the team. And by doing this, it invites others to do the same. So while vulnerability can feel scary and perhaps weak, it is in reality a strength that invites others into the process of solving the problems of the team.

Establishing Purpose

Every team has to have a shared list of priorities. And these need to be share over and over, *ad nauseam*. Many organizations have a credo or mission statement that is delivered from on high. Instead, the team needs to be involved in creating such statements or at least revisiting them and consciously buying into them. Then everyone has to be invested in sharing them regularly and living according to them. Interestingly, there is a difference in how to lead teams for proficiency (when the tasks are well-known and repetitive and how to lead teams for creativity (when the tasks are creative and determined by those doing them).

Ideas for Action

At the end of each section covering these skills are robust action lists derived from the activities of successful cultures. These can be used as take away crib notes to remind the reader of how to continually work at building results in your organization or team.