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Wednesday, October 28th, 2009

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2:40a
Well ...
As anyone who regularly follows this space will tell you, I don't have exactly "popular" reading habits, and somewhere around half the time over on LibraryThing, I'll be the only person reviewing a particular book, and one of only a handful having a copy. Needless to say, in the case of Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner's Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything, this is not the case (with over 12,000 copies logged in there, it's the 70th "most popular book", and it's been reviewed nearly 250 times). While this doesn't "cross the line" over into Fiction (for the past several years I have read only non-fiction), it has that "well, what do you say about a book that so many people have already read?" vibe about it, which I find oddly unsettling when looking at doing a review. On top of that, a follow-up edition ("Superfreakonomics" ... insert your own Rick James reference here) just came out, so there's buzz about on the subject, making my adding to the verbiage seem somewhat superfluous.

I ended up reading Freakonomics by a bit more direct route than is typical of my recent acquisitions ... at the open session of this summer's Ad:Tech conference here in Chicago, the noted "chief innovation officer" for the Publicis Group, Rishad Tobaccowala, strongly recommended that if one hadn't read the book, one should make a point of doing so. In my recent job search, I have become quite "coachable" when it comes to suggestions from the leading lights in the fields where I'd like to be working, so I promptly put in an order with Amazon for a copy.

For those of you not familiar with the book, it is a collaboration of a noted economist, Levitt, and a former NY Times editor, Dubner. The book arose from Levitt's application of economic theory to various societal issues, with frequently unsettling results (the "central idea" of the book is rendered: "if morality represents how people would like to world to work, then economics shows how it actually does work"). This starts out fairly straight-forwardly, with an analysis that helped filter out "cheating" teachers in the Chicago Public School system, and then mirroring this with a look at how Japanese Sumo wrestling appears to be "fixed". The book would have been a much dryer read, however, if it had stayed in a strictly numerical zone like that, but it soon shifts into a more general range, looking at how the Ku Klux Klan was battled by opponents who focused on airing its secrets, and how, without the aura of those secrets, the organization lost much of its appeal, and comparing this with the reality of real estate agents using their "secrets" to frequently make deals that are not in the full interest of their clients.

The middle sections of the book are the most controversial, first looking at inner-city drug dealing as a business, which the authors end up considering not much different, structurally, than a fast-food chain, or other highly stratified corporate entity, as a way of answering the question "why do drug dealers still live with their moms?" (short answer: the average gang member typically clears less than minimum wage while the "obscene profits" concentrate at the top of the organization). Most notable, of course, is the section on why, contrary to all forecasts in the 80's and 90's, did crime suddenly drop. The analysis here points not to "new policing strategies", not to the economic boom of the era, but to the effects of Roe vs. Wade ... that substantial chunks of what would have been a whole generation of criminals were aborted in the inner cities, and rather than "coming of age" as a predicted wave of street thugs, appeared as a major gap in the numbers. Needless to say, this was a horrific concept to both the Religious Right and the Lenient Left, and gave the authors their biggest notoriety.

The last sections deal primarily with parenting, with many "counter-intuitive" revelations about what is and what isn't important in raising kids, at least as the numbers indicate. I must admit that I had some firmly-held opinions challenged here regarding the value of certain things we worked hard to put in place for our kids. This then moves back into controversial areas with a look at naming patterns, and how black kids end up with names which are likely to stigmatize them (in terms of moving into mainstream society), as well as to long-term patterns of name use.

What I believe that Mr. Tobaccowala was getting at in so strongly recommending this book is to be in a place where one questions "the conventional wisdom" and looks beyond the surface appearances of societal features. Certainly (despite "the numbers" presented here), much in Freakonomics can be taken with a grain of salt, but it is something of a light being shone into areas not specifically considered previously.

As one might expect, this is widely available, and would no doubt be in stock at your local brick-and-mortar book vendor; however, Amazon has it at almost half (42% discount) off of cover, which is quite a deal (and on a par with the available used copies), so that's likely your best bet, if this is something that you've "been meaning to get around to reading".


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2:46p
Quite a good read ...
This is another "dollar store find" that falls into the "how did that get there?" category ... it's scarcely three years old, and is quite an engaging read, yet it's already "remaindered". My best guess is that Timothy Dobbins' Stepping Up: Make Decisions that Matter "fell between the cracks", category-wise, as it was published by the "business" side of Harper-Collins, but it reads much more like a "self-development" book. If this was being marketed to the "business management" sector, I can see why it might have failed to the extent that they'd drop it, which is unfortunate, as this is quite a perceptive and useful book ... too bad they didn't "change gears" and point it at the "newage" market!

The author is an interesting figure in that he started out as an Episcopalian priest (which he still is, on the side) who evolved into a business coach/consultant. These roots are notable throughout, as much of his approach has the "pastoral counseling" vibe, although generally dealing with business-centered situations. He begins the book with a look at how people search for meaning in the face of emptiness, which is a very worthwhile essay in its own right. I especially appreciated how he clarified the roles of spirituality and religion:

Spirituality is about the human spirit and soul; how each of us individually and collectively become conscious of ourselves and our unique roles in the universe. It's an expression of our values and beliefs. Religion, on the other hand, is a particular system of faith and belief with its own set of rules and practices.
... this in a discussion of how spirituality "belongs not only in places of worship, but in the workplace ... (being) central to our full humanity". This is a well focused point, and one that is egregiously lacking in our culture as a whole (although there are far too many people desiring to bring their religious biases into the workplace). His concept of "stepping up" is doing the "right thing" as far as our personal (spiritual) authenticity is concerned, and the book is an examination of why, most of the time, people opt for other strategies.

Dobbins defines these other strategies as: "Standing Still", "Stepping Aside", "Stepping Back", and "Stepping on Someone Else", each getting its own chapter filled with stories of people he's encountered and how they manifested these, contrasted with those who actually "stepped up". Here are the "thumbnail" definitions for these:

Standing Still: Standing still is the default option for almost all of us. To stand still is to let something happen without taking any action. Things might work out, or they might not, but in either case your action is inaction.

Stepping Aside: If standing still is ignoring your responsibility, stepping aside can be an abdication. It's taking yourself out of the game, giving up, waving a white flag, and telling someone else to take your place.

Stepping Back: We step back to block others from moving forward. Often workplace stepping back takes place in team or group projects. Consciously or unconsciously you block the team or group from moving in a direction that may not meet your own needs.

Stepping on Someone Else: Business is almost always portrayed as a zero-sum game ... (but) I don't believe it's true of most of the interactions between individuals ... just because your company's goal is to take market share away from your competitors, that doesn't mean your personal goal needs to be to take responsibilities and power away from your coworkers.

And, finally, Stepping Up: ... (W)e almost always know what the right thing to do is in any given situation ... the answer is almost always there, somewhere inside ... in most situations we have a general sense of what should be done, or what needs to be done ... if you give yourself a chance, you'll know what you need to do to step up.
The author takes on each of these, with examples both from his own immediate surroundings (and actions), and those more "generally" presented (although he does indicate that the stories all represent actual situations). While nothing here is particularly "earth shattering", it does give plenty of places to consider one's own behavior, and how to manage these various "strategies" when they are manifesting around one in the work environment (and, of course, elsewhere).

Again, I was happy to have encountered Stepping Up, and would recommend it to anybody. The tone, for me, was "just right" between not being "preachy" and not being "consultant-y", and the structure of the information made for very effective delivery. As noted, this seems to be only available in the "aftermarket", so if you can't find it at your local dollar store, you can snag copies from the Amazon new/used vendors of "like new" books for as little as 1¢ (plus, of course, the $3.99 shipping). It's a very useful little volume, and I do hope the author manages to find a new publisher for it, as it really doesn't deserve its present fate!


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