Recent reads (Feb 2024)

Here are the three books I have read recently. Argh, I wish I took some notes while going through these books. It feels hard to write these reviews in retrospect.

The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups (2018)

"What do Pixar, Google and the San Antonio Spurs basketball team have in common?" That was the pitch for the culture code book, which came out. That didn't age well, for Google's case at least. Well, the Google example was not about team work, but rather Jeff Dean fixing search for adwords over a weekend, so this is neither here or there. We can forgive the book for trying to choose sensational examples.

I did like the book overall. It identifies three things to get the culture right: 1) creating belonging, 2) sharing vulnerability, and 3) establishing purpose.

Creating belonging is about safety/security. Maslow's hierarchy emphasizes safety and security as fundamental human needs. In a work environment where we feel judged or constantly need to prove ourselves, we struggle to be our authentic selves and contribute at a high level.  Without a sense of belonging, even the constructive feedback becomes difficult to receive. We need to feel supported and valued, not judged, to truly benefit from feedback. So creating belonging is the foundation of it all.

Sharing vulnerability goes hand-in-hand with creating safety and trust. It is important to establish this to prevent fail-silent failures in teams/companies. As I previously discussed in a blog post: "The worse thing that can happen is a fail-silent fault: masking problems/issues and pretending everything is fine, and then failing the other party in the project/effort with little heads up." Sharing vulnerability also helps for establishing intellectual honesty, which is important for any knowledge work.

Finally, establishing purpose is important for aligning everyone and giving them a greater meaning for their work. The prototypical example is that of the cleaning staff in the hospital viewing their job as being associates in  helping nurse patients back to health. It is important to overcommunicate purpose and mission, if possible using slogans and catchy phrases/posters.  A study by Once Inc. magazine asked executives at 600 companies to roughly estimate the percentage of their employees who could name the company’s top 3 priorities. Their answer was 64 percent. The truth was 2 percent.

Skunk Works: A Personal Memoir of My Years at Lockheed (1994)

This book was such a hard contrast to the Culture Code book. This book talks about extreme team productivity between 1940-1990, when Skunk Works engineers developed the U-2, SR-71 Blackbird, F-117 Nighthawk, F-22 Raptor, and F-35 Lightning II. The book comes from trenches, it doesn't try to codify productivity advice, rather shows how Skunk Work people worked hard, took ownership, and showed pride in their craftsmanship. Kelly Johnson and Ben Rich were quite the characters. They led by example, and the book also establishes principles of extreme-productivity team work by showing not telling. Believe me, I have seen creating belonging, sharing vulnerability, and establishing purpose throughout the Skunk Work story narrations.

There is basic science in the book as well. In 1962, Petr Ufimtsev, published a theoretical math physics paper titled "The method of edge waves in the physical theory of diffraction." Around 1972, Dennis Overholzer in Skunk Works stumbled on Petr's paper translated from Russian, and they started putting this theory in to practice, which resulted in F-117 stealth fighter. F-117 was so ahead of its time in terms of stealth technology that, equivalent of that nowadays would probably be producing UFOs that zip around with antigravity engines. 

I loved this book. It was extremely engaging and inspiring. I highly recommend it!

How to Know a Person: The Art of Seeing Others Deeply and Being Deeply Seen (2023)

I also highly recommend this book. So called "soft-skills" and "people skills" are very important in living a successful, fulfilling, and meaningful life. It is a pity these are not taught in school. We expect people to know them or intuit them but most people get these wrong most of the time. Only select few master them, and only at an advanced age. 

It is best to learn these skills not from an emotionally-gifted feeler but from a nerd, who had to master them painfully over time. This reasoning is somewhat captured by the Haruki Murakami quote.

Gifted writers write without effort; everywhere they touch in the ground the water pours. Other writers have to strive (he gives himself as an example); they have to learn to dig wells to get to the water. But when the water dries (inspiration leaves) for the gifted writer (which happens sooner or later), he becomes stuck and clueless because he has not trained for this. On the other hand, under the same situation, the other type of writer knows how to keep going and succeed.

And for this purpose, David Brooks fits the bill. This is a great book, which I hope you would make time to read. You, your family, and your friends will thank me later. If you need more convincing, and want to sample some lessons from the book, do watch this one hour talk from David Brooks. 

A couple nights ago I watched "Everything Everywhere All At Once". It is a great movie. I would put it up there with Matrix. At its core this 2 hour 20 minutes crazy movie is about how to know/see a person. "Of all the places I could be, I just want to be here with you."


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