It has been a while since a book has sparked such interest, such controversy, such applause and disdain, and almost furor, as Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Yale Professor, and mother, Amy Chua (currently #5 on the overall list of bestsellers on Amazon). If you haven’t heard about it, you really must be living in a cave… Here’s a paragraph from the review by Janet Maslin from the New York Times:
Ms. Chua was not about to raise prizeless slackers. She wanted prodigies, even if it meant nonstop, punishing labor. So “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother” chronicles its author’s constant demanding, wheedling, scolding and screaming. It describes seemingly endless piano and violin sessions that Ms. Chua supervised. (Her own schedule of teaching, traveling, writing and dealing with her students goes mostly unmentioned — and would require her to put in a 50-hour workday.) And it enforces a single guiding principle that is more reasonable than all the yelling suggests: “What Chinese parents understand is that nothing is fun until you’re good at it.”
Amy Chua, and discussions of her book, have been everywhere – I’ve heard her on NPR, read about her in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, yesterday in Points in the Dallas Morning News.
I’ve got three observations/reflections about this whole discussion.
#1 – I think I probably (ok, make that definitely) could have been more disciplined – make that, demanded more discipline – in raising our two sons.
#2 – After all the angst and disagreement and argument over her specific approach, I think she is simply saying this – it takes time, lots and lots of time, to get good at anything, and to get children to put in that kind of time, the parent has to put in that kind of time. I think she is saying that to learn to master anything can develop the ability to master other things in life.
I thought of a woman I know. She heard me present my synopsis of Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, and she was intrigued by the 10,000 hour rule — the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to get really, world-class good at anything (Gladwell did not “develop/discover” it – he is always the great popularizer. Dr. Anders Ericsson of Florida State University is apparently the one who came up with the concept, after his extensive study of expertise). This woman earned her Ph.D. in some field of Business, and teaches at the graduate level. But in her “first life,” she was an accomplished pianist, playing at the top level. She told me that she did a quick back-of-the-napkin calculation after my presentation, and figured out that she put in well over 10,000 hours on the piano, and now puts in the same kind of time in her business research and writing.
In other words, the discipline of discipline, once learned and mastered, carries over into additional endeavors.
#3 – I remembered a story from a book by David Halberstam. The book, The Reckoning, tells of the rise and fall of Ford, and the rise of Nissan (up to the point the book was written – it came out in 1986). It is a terrific read. In the book (my apology, my copy is in storage – so this is from memory), he described a conversation he had with a man in Japan who worked at Nissan. He described how in America, life had gotten “easy,” and the people had lost the hunger that drives the discipline needed to be the best. He observed that this hunger (almost a sense of desperation) led to Nissan’s ascendancy. But, then a warning – he had already seen this hunger begin to lessen in Japan, and he saw it “transferring” over to Korea. The formula – hunger leads to discipline leads to success – is one that I remember vividly. I think this Tiger Mother may have captured a piece of that.
I have not yet read the book. But I think that it points us to a fear – a fear that we simply lack the discipline needed to get good at anything, and then later to get good at other things. And I suspect that a whole lot of people are reading this book feeling just a little bit scared.
Yes, I did read David Brooks column, Amy Chua is a Wimp. I think it’s cute. I really like Brooks, but in this case, I think he may be off-target. There are a whole lot of people who excel at sleepovers who never excelled, and may never excel, at much of anything else…
So, here’s the request that came in an e-mail:
We are going on a cruise in September and I want to load my Kindle with three books. What are the three best books you would recommend for my reading? The request came from a very sharp, keen-minded, successful, independent business consultant. He attends one of our book synopsis events. This is my attempt to answer his question.
I am tempted to simply list some of my all time favorite reads (not necessarily the best books I’ve ever read, although they are close — but definitely books that I am very glad I have read), like: The Doorbell Rang, one of my favorite Nero Wolfe mysteries, by Rex Stout; and The Powers That Be and The Reckoning by the truly great David Halberstam; and Defining a Nation, edited by the same Halberstam.
And then there is this: what are the business books from the last few years (and even a little longer ago) that should be on your “I’ve definitely read that book” list? I would certainly include Good to Great by Jim Collins; something Gladwell (it’s tough to choose — probably Outliers); Servant Leadership by Robert Greenleaf and The Leadership Engine by Noel Tichy; almost anything, but definitely at least one thing, by Peter Drucker. Add to this The Art of Innovation by Tom Kelley, and a major personal favorite, The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp.
But – I still have not answered the question. If I had but three books to load on my Kindle for a September cruise, what titles would I choose? Here’s a list of five; you will have to narrow it down to the three that most interest you.
Choice #1: Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond. Diamond, a Pulitzer Prize winner with his earlier book Guns, Germs, and Steel, has written a tour de force in Collapse, sweeping us through the societies that collapsed, and providing warnings regarding the decisions societies make. An important book!
Choice #2: Inside the Kingdom: My Life in Saudi Arabia by Carmen Bin Laden, or, The Looming Tower: Al-Queda and the Road to 9/11 by Lawrence Wright. Of course, the Wright book is the heftier of the two; it won the Pulitzer, and provides an amazing education about the rise of Al-Queda, what went into their thinking, and especially their animosity toward the West. But there is a personal tone and a very personal take on life in the strict Muslim world of Saudi Arabia in Carmen Bin Laden’s book — the former wife of Yeslam, one of the brothers of Osama Bin Laden. It is a captivating read, and noticeably shorter than The Looming Tower. (You can tell, from this response, that I think we ought to seek to understand this “other” culture that is so foreign to our own).
Choice #3: OK, which two business books to put on the list? Not necessarily which books to read for enjoyment, but which books provide the most important and useful information? I list two choices. I would put The Other 90%: How to Unlock Your Vast Untapped Potential for Leadership and Life by Robert Cooper, because everyone would benefit from reading an occasional “let’s aim high, and take things higher” book. Unfortunately,this book is not available for the Kindle. (Yes, I checked on all the others). So, for this category of business book, I recommend The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz. (I haven’t yet read the new Schwartz book, The Way We’re Working Isn’t Working: The Four Forgotten Needs That Energize Great Performance, which could be a better choice). And, for the other business book, I would have to go with The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right by Atul Gawande, just because I think it deals with the complexity of this age and provides really valuable suggestions. (And, it gives every patient going in to surgery an important question to ask his or her surgeon: “do you use a checklist?”).
And you will notice that there are no novels on my list. I read about a novel a decade (except for my relatively frequent re-reading of the Nero Wolfe mysteries). But I have actually bought a novel – in the past week. It is: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson. I might actually read it – one of these days soon.
Two personal footnotes:
#1 – thanks, Tom, for providing a great idea for a blog post. I apologize for answering you in this fashion.
#2 — And, it would be interesting to have Bob Morris give his list of “only three” in response to this request? I’m pretty sure he would have different titles – all absolutely worth the investment of a Kindle purchase and a few hours of reading. So many books… so little time!
update: I definitely should have put The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis into the mix — as the book I would recommend to help you understand the financial meltdown of the last couple of years. So now I am up to six to choose from, to then narrow down to three. Sorry about that.
• The new “zippies” — “a young city or suburban resident, with a zip in his stride. Generation Z. Oozes attitude, ambition, and aspiration. Cool, confident, and creative. Seeks challenges, loves risks, and shuns fear.”
(Describing younger adults in India — Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat)
Last night, I spent a really wonderful evening with a group of very sharp women. We discussed the book Womenomics by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman. There were many parts of the book that were met with approval and agreement. But they weren’t so sure about this: in the book, the authors state that “The millennials are influencing expectations for the entire workforce…the next generation has no interest at all in the sixty-hour work week.”
I remember reading David Halberstam’s great book The Reckoning. In the book, he described some bad years for Ford and the ascendancy of Nissan. The book is in storage, so I can’t give you an exact quote, but I clearly remember this: younger Americans had become complacent, not driven, not hungry – and a little lazy and apathetic. At the same time, the younger adults in Japan were working really, really hard because they were so hungry. He clearly implied that hunger trumps apathy.
I thought of that when I read Thomas Friedman’s column this morning: The New Untouchables. Here are some excerpts:
A year ago, it all exploded. Now that we are picking up the pieces, we need to understand that it is not only our financial system that needs a reboot and an upgrade, but also our public school system. Otherwise, the jobless recovery won’t be just a passing phase, but our future.
A Washington lawyer friend recently told me about layoffs at his firm. I asked him who was getting axed. He said it was interesting: lawyers who were used to just showing up and having work handed to them were the first to go because with the bursting of the credit bubble, that flow of work just isn’t there. But those who have the ability to imagine new services, new opportunities and new ways to recruit work were being retained. They are the new untouchables.
Bottom line: We’re not going back to the good old days without fixing our schools as well as our banks.
I agree that we need to retool our education, or we will be in genuine trouble. We are definitely growing an alarming education deficit.
But I would suggest that Friedman is hinting at another bottom line. I would word it this way: we’re not going back to the good old days unless we get a little more hungry, and develop a new generation of zippies right here in our country.
I don’t think that Kay and Shipman are calling for a lesser work ethic. They are, in fact, arguing for hard work – when you are at work. But, this desire of a younger generation to “work less” may translate into a lesser work ethic at the very time that we are in competition with people all over the world who may be ready to work harder than we do. And if there is anything I have learned in business books lately, work ethic really matters. From the 10,000 hour rule popularized by Gladwell’s Outliers, to the call for deliberate practice in Colvin’s Talent is Overrated, it takes hard work over a long period to get really good at anything. And that hard work has to start with working hard to learn what is available to learn in school — and then adding skill after skill after skill after school.
In Freidman’s article, he describes that a person can be a very competent lawyer with just the skills learned in school. But then, the lawyers that survive and thrive in tough times have to develop other skills – skills not taught in school, like client cultivation, networking, the skill to imagine new ways to work…the list grows and grows. As for the people who learned what they learned in school, and expect that that will be “enough” – well, it isn’t enough. Not anymore.
So – here is your simple question for the day. Do you “ooze attitude, ambition, and aspiration?” When a person watches you walk down the sidewalk, would they describe you as a “zippie?” If not, you’d better look over your shoulder, because someone is about to pass you.
You can purchase my synopsis of The World is Flat, with audio + handout, at our companion site, 15minutebusinessbooks.com. The Womenomics synopsis is coming soon.