I recently finished Adam Savage’s maker’s memoir, Every Tool’s a Hammer. I always enjoyed watching MythBusters back in the day, though I wouldn’t say I was a diehard fan – I caught episodes as they aired, but didn’t follow the show. As an adult, I wish I had followed more closely, because I’m finding that I’m drifting towards the maker ethos, and it would have been good to have been mentored in real-time to the show’s airing. I guess that’s why we have reruns and syndication.
Anyway, the book has many great insights, one of which is concerned with giving praise and making sure the recipient of the praise is acknowledged.
Adam reflects that all of his growth came from feedback from his mentors. In the role of a boss, he questions why would he shy away from feedback if he wasn’t happy with something (e.g. someone’s performance or the product of their build). This moment of empathy is a valuable insight to me, because as a leader I often hedge my feedback, wanting to avoid hurt feelings or awkward interactions. But there is a difference between providing feedback for growth, and being cruel. I’ve had many great bosses that helped me grow through their feedback, even if that feedback made me feel less than great. But their feedback was never cruel or meant to belittle me – it held me accountable and showed me what to do for next time.
He also mentions praise – people want to be acknowledged and recognized by the ones signing the cheque. Even if it sounds corny, he says, it goes a long way towards building up your team both in terms of morale and skills.
Sorry if you hit a paywall on this article (I managed to read it fine from Pocket). I’ve lamented elsewhere that I genuinely miss Jon Stewart, not just from his tenure on the Daily Show, but also from other initiatives he’s thrown his weight behind (remember his masterclass in oration?). While this interview is part of Stewart’s media blitz for his upcoming movie release, it is also chocked-full of wonderful insights and observations about the world we find ourselves in. He’s ever poignant in his wit, but also speaks from a cautious place. The interview is so good, I quickly reached the limit of my free highlights in Pocket.
💭 Reflection Mega-Thread – How We Process Information
I want to turn this into a more formal blog post in the near future, but for now I’d like to lay out a few strands that have come together over the last two weeks about how we process, curate, and digest information.
First, a short listen from the Daily Stoic reflecting on how our minds are not reliable when it comes to processing truth. Instead, we are bound up in our own biases that we seek to confirm. If we want to be functioning, contributing members of society, we must actively exercise our critical faculties, including seeking out when we are wrong. Or as the closing lines state: “It’s the snowflakes who fly into a rage when someone challenges their views. It’s the snowflakes who can never admit they’re wrong or address deserved criticism or feedback.”
Next, a thought-provoking podcast episode from the CBC that tackles expertise in a seeming post-truth world. There is a lot of good information floating around in the ether, waiting for us to latch on to its wisdom. And yet, despite good information there for us to seize, we see many people in our peer groups turn away and distrust the experts. Shunning the norms of knowledge communities, they instead embrace their own norms of knowledge and assertion.
Speaking of experts, one of the voices I’ve turned to on Twitter to help me filter the signal from the noise is Mr. Bergstrom. He has provided both some levity :
As well as valuable information to help stop me from embracing each news article that flies out with clickbait titles:
I have a blog post percolating in my mind about curating news feeds, but I’ll leave that breadcrumb here for now.
🏳🌈🎧 Listen – I Don’t Want To Get Over You (Season 3 Mission 9) | Zombies, Run!🏳🌈
Finally, I want to give a huge shout-out to the writers and folks behind Zombies, Run! for this episode I listened to last week. The episode really stuck out for me. A large portion of the dialogue involves two lesbian characters discussing a mutual love interest (the love interest is the current partner of one of the characters, and a former lover of the other character in the conversation). The conversation between the characters touches on topics like “gold stars” and the fears that bisexual partners may have, even in committed relationships. I’ve heard my own queer friends discuss these topics, and while it felt noteworthy that the development team included “voices” from a wide range of folks, it was awesome to hear conversations that weren’t centered on the heterosexual experience that’s often given as the default in media. It gives the game a sense of realness and depth, despite it being about living in a post-apocalyptic zombie wasteland. It’s also important, as we reflect on this Pride month, to think about the kinds of voices we engage with that represents life, and whether we are seeking out sources that look to bring more diversity to the table. I’m happy to be supporting the app and the team.
As with many other people right now, I have chosen to go back and re-watch favourite television shows. I decided that with Star Trek: Picard’s recent release, it would be a great time to go back to the beginning (of the modern era, anyway) and revisit Star Trek: The Next Generation. I had probably watched every episode in my teen years, but I had always watched it in syndication, so this is my first time going through the show in order.
Approaching the series in my 30’s has been a real treat. I have more life and cultural experience to draw upon as I watch these incredibly written episodes play out. I knew the show was amazing, but I never appreciated how well it engages with moral issues.
I want to highlight one excellent episode from the third season – episode 7, “The Enemy.” The characters provide us with a moral issue about autonomy, and a good lesson in leadership.
The story centres on the conflict that arises when the protagonists rescue an enemy officer from an out of bounds planet. The officer, from a race of people called Romulans, is gravely wounded and requires a blood transfusion. There is only one member of the crew whose blood could be usable, but that crew member, Worf, has a history with the enemy’s peoples – Worf’s parents had been killed during a Romulan attack when he was a child. Worf, still carrying his anger for their death all these years, refuses to give his blood.
Meanwhile, a Romulan ship is en route to recover the officer. There is a tenuous peace treaty that prevents an all out war, but the Romulans have a history of subterfuge and deceit. It is believed they will cross the border and assume an antagonistic stance to provoke a war. Worf’s Captain, Jean Luc Picard, is seeking any means that would avoid an armed encounter, and decides to plead with Worf to reconsider his decision.
In this moment, it would be expedient to Picard and his crew to order Worf to donate his blood. He is about to contend with an adversary whom has no issue with breaking a peace treaty by provoking an attack (whether or not his side is initially in the wrong). Picard is seeking to recover a still-stranded crew member on the planet below, keep his ship safe, maintain the territorial sovereignty of the Federation, and maintain tenuous diplomatic relations with a rival group. This is all threatened because the one solution to his problem, keeping the enemy officer alive, is being blocked by a crew member whose personal history and honour motivate him to not help the enemy.
There is a beautiful scene where Picard appeals to Worf for him to reconsider:
Picard: So, there is no question that the Romulan officer is more valuable to us alive than dead. Worf: I understand. Picard: Lieutenant, sometimes the moral obligations of command are less than clear. I have to weigh the good of the many against the needs of the individual and try to balance them as realistically as possible. God knows, I don’t always succeed. Worf: I have not had cause to complain, Captain. Picard: Oh, Lieutenant, you wouldn’t complain even if you had cause. Worf: If you order me to agree to the transfusion, I will obey of course. Picard: I don’t want to order you. But I ask you, I beg you, to volunteer. Worf: I cannot.
In silence, Picard slowly walks back around his desk and sits in his chair.
Picard: Lieutenant. Worf: Sir? Picard: That will be all.
We then learn from the ship’s Chief Medical Officer that the Romulan has died. Picard has lost the only bargaining chip he had to keep things peaceful with the approaching enemy ship.
Picard could have chosen to order Worf to allow the blood transfusion. Instead, he chooses to respect his crew member’s personal wish, and as a leader deal with the hand he’s given. He also knows that making an order against the personal rights of a crew member under his command sets a dangerous precedence – that anyone is disposable if the captain judges it. Instead, he accepts that this closes off options. He knows that this places him not just on the back-foot, but also with his arms tied behind his back as he prepares for the possibility that his ship will be destroyed. However, the burden of command requires him to take these realities as they come and make the best decisions that he can. Events are being shaped around him that are beyond his control, but he strives to make the best decision that he can. He’s not perfect, but he becomes a role model in striving to do the right thing.
Even if the right thing might mean the death of he and his crew.
It’s a wonder piece of science fiction that I’m glad to be discovering anew.
This past weekend, I had the privilege of seeing Hamilton the musical on stage. As I noted in my Instagram post, I was blown away by the experience, and was moved to tears by the performance. My emotional reaction was due, in part, to my having completed the audiobook a few weeks back. Had I not already been familiar with the story of Alexander Hamilton, I think I would have struggled a bit with the fast paced delivery of the lyrics.
In my mind, the musical is perfect – it is a shining example of why art exists and what it is capable of. Hamilton the musical takes a 35-hour book, of which spans the nearly 50-year life of Hamilton, and distills it down into a powerful 2-hour performance.
There are so many fantastic elements of the play. I don’t want to spoil the experience, but I can’t not list some of my favourite parts.
For instance, in the second song, a throughline is set-up that spans Hamilton’s life where he ambitiously declares that he won’t throw his shot (waste an opportunity to advance himself). But, at the end of his life, when he is dueling Aaron Burr over a matter of honour, he chooses to “throw his shot” (raise one’s weapon in the air to waste your shot, signalling that you are not participating in the duel) as he becomes morally opposed to dueling. It was haunting to hear this theme get set up so early.
I loved the use of space on stage. The floor was set up with two circular discs that could rotate in different directions, which meant that the actors could allow the stage to carry them around the space to give the illusion of traversing great distances.
Speaking of those discs, there were a few moments in the play where things could freeze in time or rewind. The actors could halt in tableau, but the discs would rotate them around, giving the appearance that they were reversing in time. This was so cool to see – we were able to watch a scene play out twice: once from Hamilton’s perspective, and one from the narration of a side character who was singing her motivations while guiding the scene along.
I’m not normally a great fan of dancing, but even the bodily movements of the performers had me transfixed. The ways they moved around to evoke things like battlefield war, or Hamilton feeling at the centre of a hurricane made me forget I was watching a play on stage.
So many other elements came together in amazing ways – how they used space on the stage to signal travelling over vast distances, how costumes took on symbolic meanings, the politics of ceding from England through the Kings’ songs, and the incredible attention to detail of every word spoken, rapped, and sung by the cast. The last straw was Eliza getting the final word. So. Good!
The experience was so wonderful and memorable, I can’t put into words what it meant for me to see it. I simply don’t have the vocabulary developed to articulate how smart and charming the musical was. It was a pure masterclass of how to put together a modern piece of art to tell the story of one of the United State’s founding fathers – a man whose impact lasts through to today, but whose legacy is unknown to most everyday persons.
I’ll end with one final note. In the premiere week of the show in Toronto, the CBC news company ran a short piece about the show. Within the segment, they showed a clip of an interview with the musical’s writer and original-run star, Lin Manuel Miranda, where he gives advice to up and coming playwrites. Now, granted, his words are meant to speak to marginalized voices who fall outside of what is deemed normal or popular art. However, his words, more generally applied, can speak to the creative urge in all of us.
“Well, I’ll tell you the only advice I can give is: write what’s missing. Write what you don’t see on stage. I started writing in the Heights because I really wanted a life in musical theatre and so I wanted to write the kind of show I wasn’t seeing. So, don’t write the next Hamilton. Write what isn’t Hamilton. Write the story that only you can write.”
In the waning days of 2018, I gave a preview of the books I read for the year by listing my top five books. I doubt my current list of books will grow before the new year chimes in tomorrow night, but I will save the 2019 list for next week, and instead present you with my top books I read this year.
My overall volume of reading this year was less than half of what I read last year. Since 2016, I’ve intentionally set about to increase my reading and I was able to keep the pace for three years. However, for some reason my reading slowed down a bit. I’ll reflect on this over the coming week and share some thoughts with my 2019 reading list post. Given the relatively short list this year, I will instead highlight all of my favourite books since it seems that these were the books that stuck with me.
In chronological order of when I finished them, here are my top books I read in 2019.
The Graveyard Book – Neil Gaiman
A delightful fictional story about a boy who grows up in a graveyard among ghosts and other creatures of the night. Rather than a horror story as you might expect from the premise, instead this is a charming and whimsical coming of age story that gripped me from start to finish. Like all good stories, I was sad when the book was over and missed the characters dearly.
The story of the rise and fall of Elizabeth Holmes and the Theranos company. Not only is this book a journalistic account of the deceptive “science” and events surrounding the failed tech venture, but it also explores the toxic achievement culture at the company’s top and the lengths the journalists and ex-employees had to go to in order to bring the company down. It’s a riveting story to experience, and I was happy to hear of the Ethics in Entrepreneurship initiative founded by two of the whistle blowers.
This memoir took me to the highest highs and the lowest lows. While Straczynski is known for his ability to craft human stories in the most magical and alien of settings, none of his work of fiction can come close to matching his own personal story of growing up in an abusive home and how that shadow followed him throughout his life. Running in parallel with his own story, he also tells a mystery story about his family’s origins that spans three generations. I mostly started this book to learn about his craft and the origins of some of my favourite projects he’s worked on, but in the end I witnessed a masterclass in writing and reflection.
With the end of the show this year, I felt like it was time for me to crack into the books that kicked-off the phenomenon. I am grateful that I watched the series first as it really helped me keep track of all of the characters in this massive tale. Also, reading a large fictional story was a welcomed relief. Over the last three years, my primary genre to read is at the intersections of business, productivity, and personal development. I think one thing that has lead to me reading less is feeling burnt out of that kind of content, so it was great to read something for pleasure. I am still proud of going through 500-pages while up at the cottage; there is nothing quite like reading by the lake.
Thanks to the Libby app and the library, I was able to check out books I otherwise wouldn’t have encountered if I had to purchase them. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but this memoir was fascinating. I’m drawn to books where people look over their life and career to draw lessons when connecting their experiences. Whatever the political climate we find ourselves in, I find it somewhat reassuring to know there are people in the deep state who work to put the mission above party, though as more evidence comes to light, that faith is beginning to crumble.
Despite the subject matter, there is no other word I can think of to describe this book than “awesome.” And I mean “awesome” in both senses of the word. The book inspires “awe” at the sheer scope of things, but also a riveting tale of Snowden’s life to date, full of creativity, ingenuity, and technological espionage. I marveled at the fact that he is only a few years older than me, but what he has gone through is likely to dwarf any contributions I’ll ever make. I hope he can come home one day, but for the present I hope he remains safe while the effects of his actions continue to simmer in the current political climate.
In looking over my top books for the year, we see three genres stand out – fantasy, current events journalism, and memoirs. I would have also included biography in this list, however one book is missing that I unfortunately couldn’t finish before it was checked back in to the library: Hamilton by Ron Chernow. It’ll get added to my 2020 list when the library finally releases it back to me.
As I said above, I think I’m starting to burn out of the business and productivity genres of books. When I reviewed the list for the year, I had almost no recollection of the content for nearly all of the books. It would seem I’ve hit a bit of a block, where I’ve consumed so much content in a short amount of time that I’m failing to hold on to it (or, as a corollary, the content is so superficial that it doesn’t stick…).
I still have a number of books on the go that I hope to finish early next year (such as the first Witcher book that the game and Netflix series was based on, Robert Greene’s Laws of Human Nature, and Working by Robert A. Caro, to name a few). Once I clear some of the current backlog, I plan to start selecting my reading a bit more intentionally so that I can reflect on the lessons the books have to offer. Overall, the main themes that stick out in the books that speak to me personally are good moral stories, cautionary tales, and the reflections of/about people over a long period of time to draw connections and lessons from their life and work.
At writing, I’m about 5-hours away from finishing J. Michael Straczynski’s memoir Becoming Superman: My Journey From Poverty to Hollywood. His many professional credits include writing episodes for The Real Ghostbusters and He-Man, writing the screenplay for Marvel’s Thor, a hugely successful run in comics, and creating Babylon 5. It’s an incredible story of crime, poverty, all forms of abuse, as well as triumph and perseverance. The narrative is gripping and it’s difficult to put down. I’ve only been listening for a few days now and I’ve ripped through 11-hours. Even if he did embellish on the details to make his story more sympathetic (which I sincerely doubt he did), it’s a masterclass in storytelling.
I enjoy reading memoirs and biographies because it gives me a chance to glean insights from their stories. It may be a bit premature to write this since I haven’t finished the book, but there is so much to get from his story that I felt compelled to dash this off.
In no particular order:
JMS came from a broken home, where abuse, neglect, and punishment was the norm. He recognized early that he had two options – become like his abusers, or break the cycle by becoming the opposite of what his abusers embodied. In that way, he gravitated towards positive role models both fantastical, like Superman, and real life, like his surrogate father-figure Vincent. JMS refused to allow his past to dictate his future, and he believed he should own his circumstances, rather than use it as an excuse.
Once he realized he was meant to be a writer, JMS devoted himself to his craft. He found every excuse and opportunity to write. He learned to fill voids at the newspaper, where other journalists let deadlines slip them by. No area was beneath him to write, and no domain was too foreign for him to jump in and attempt. He cobbled together an eclectic background that spanned multiple genres and styles, all in an attempt to hone his craft. The best advice he attributes is when a famous author told him on a cold call to “stop writing shit. If it wasn’t shit, people would buy it.” JMS saw writing through college as his way of purging the shit writing from his system so that he could let his stories flow from him, and he wouldn’t let anyone stop him from telling his stories.
JMS quit a lot of shows based on principles. When network executives and censors wanted to change the essence of his stories, he walked away. When friends and mentors, whom took chances on him early in his career, were fired from projects, he quit in solidarity. When he stumbled into work that he initially dismissed as beneath him, he swallowed his pride and took jobs he knew he could learn from. He often sacrificed his career and work to stand up for what he believed in, and didn’t complain about the consequences.
On children’s taste
While JMS fought against problematic characterizations on The Real Ghostbusters (he said”motherizing” Janine was regressive and sexist, and making Winston the driver was racist) one interesting insight he provided was how children viewed the show. A change recommended by consultants and the network was to create a group of junior Ghostbusters for child viewers to identify with. JMS pushed back, saying that no child wants to be Robin, but instead wanted to grow up to be Batman. The Ghostbusters provided children with something to aspire towards; a sense of direction. To see children on the screen acting like Ghostbusters, child viewers wouldn’t identify with them because they represented something they wanted but were not and couldn’t be. In this, he’s making a connection that representation and aspiration are important to viewers. He similarly walked away from She-Ra for the network refusing to allow She-Ra to be a warrior. To him, it was important to give children something they could see themselves becoming one day.
There are many things JMS wrote on that he did that was unethical and illegal. When he couldn’t afford to buy books as a child, he stole them, carefully read them without damaging the spine, then would sneak the books back to return them. When he wanted to take classes that weren’t open to him but he desperately wanted to further his abilities as a writer, he broke into the faculty office, stole permission slips and altered the roster to put him into the courses. When he needed to move on from grad school, he knew another year would sacrifice a lot of ground in his career, but he needed to appease his abusive father, so he broke into the Registrar’s office to make it appear he was graduating. (As of reading in the book, he has yet to try and leverage the fake degree in his career, but merely needed to exit from the program without provoking his father or endangering his siblings). Because of his upbringing, he learned how to see opportunities to open doors. This, combined with his work ethic, means that he worked hard to leverage past experiences to create future value. While this is hardly good career advice, it’s worth staying mindful of – that not all career advances come by entering through the front door.
Throughout the book, JMS is careful to note that he’s been more lucky than good. He recognizes that while hard work is vital to his story, there are many times where he was lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time. His ability to leverage his experience allowed him to go from writing one-act plays, to short stories, to journalism, to television screen-writing, to eventually movies and comics. He notes many times in his story that he was mere steps away from making bad decisions, or letting his faults get the best of him. In many precarious places, he could have gone down the wrong path, any he nearly died several times. Rather than letting luck go to his head, he refused to become complacent and always did the work. Above all else, his work ethic is probably the most important lesson I drew from his story.
I finished reading Complications by Atul Gawande last week and really enjoyed it. It was his first book and covered stories from his apprenticeship phase of becoming a surgeon. I thought back to the first book I read from him, The Checklist Manifesto, and realized that while I enjoyed the topic Manifesto covered, I found it lacking a certain charm that Complications had.
Manifesto felt like a good idea that was stretched a bit too thin to fit the book format, and was heavily supplemented with references to studies done by other researchers. This isn’t meant as a criticism – it was a good book! But what I felt Complications (and his other book Better) had is the first hand reflection on one’s professional development. It’s not just a memoir of one’s life, nor is it a tell-all, but instead it’s a focused meditation on the training, learning, failures, achievement, and lessons one gains from devoting themselves to their vocation.
Over the last three and a half years of reading, I’ve found I really enjoyed these kinds of books. I looked over my reading list and pulled a bunch of examples randomly below. Some of them are about medicine, others are of actors, and a few books from the business world. The common thread is that it’s less about the personal biography of the person and more about the development of the professional (for this reason, I didn’t include Elon Musk’s and Enrico Fermi’s biographies, or career retrospectives like the books from James Comey and Hillary Rodham Clinton).
It describes a world bigger than the person telling the story, and their attempt to grapple with the epistemological, ethical, and professional obligations that comes from entering a profession, and where their limits lie. These are not stories about heroes – the stories are about human error and fallibility, and learning to deal with that revelation. It also keeps its eye towards what it means to serve others, and where the profession should go in the future.
Ultimately, these books differ from the animated bibliography in one crucial area. The animated bibliography is often a book that results from a person researching and stitching together the ideas of others. In some cases, these books will require the author to attempt to put the ideas into practice, but in my opinion this is in service of selling the credibility of the book. However, the books I’m discussing here and listing below are different because they are an account of people who are learning by doing. They are applying what they previously learned during formal education, and reflecting on the outcomes to see what lessons can be derived. In some sense, the books are an autopsy that try to tease out causes, or at least serve as a cautionary tales for those who come later.
There are some people that when they speak, I will stop to listen. We have many examples of people who are gifted public speakers, but to me few are more powerful than Jon Stewart, former host of the Daily Show. He spoke at a House sub-committee hearing last week and so thoroughly presented his case, the bill passed unanimously. I hope the initiative continues as smoothly through the House proper and the Senate, and is eventually passed into law, because the hypocrisy and virtue-signalling is appalling. At the centre of Stewart’s argument is the notion that the sacrifice and bravery of the responders during 9/11 should be honoured by taking care of those who are suffering because of their service that day.
Public speaking as a skill is hard, but there is more than just vocalizing the words. Stewart’s presentation, his ethos (he has earned the right to speak through his work), his pathos (the passion he speaks from on behalf of those he’s fighting for) and the pure logos (no one can form a devastating argument from observations the way a comedian can) all come together to give us a masterclass in political oration.