It takes a movement

In my previous posts I have thanked Toronto Public Library for introducing me to books through their Discover shelf and then sending me down a rabbit hole of more books that were referred in those books. This post is a nod of thanks to my local Milton Public Library where on the Discover shelf I found “Chasing New Horizons: Inside the First Mission to Pluto” by Alan Stern and David Grinspoon.

The book is about a group of scientists and engineers at NASA who spent “decades of their lives, dreaming, scheming, planning, building and flying the one and only spacecraft to Pluto“.  It can be classified  as a popular science book yet the book contains many a lessons for people working in corporate world. It may never make the “best business books” long list much less a short list as it is not about running a profit making enterprising led by a mercurial CEO. However, the book is chock full of case studies in career management.

This post will be the first of a new series of posts that I intend to write on lessons (mainly as applicable to corporate world) that I derive from books. Initially I intended to write a post similar to found on the blog but then I realized if I waited to collect my thoughts about all the lessons I learnt from the book, it will take me forever to write one post. As such, I decided to make it a series with each post dedicated to one or two lessons. This will also make me a prolific blogger 🙂 .

Alan saw Pluto as the obvious next place to explore, and he sensed that it was a good time to see if he could drum up support for that exploration among planetary scientists.

He wasn’t quite sure how to do it, but Alan thought that a good first step would be to gather Pluto scientists together in a highly visible scientific forum. At the time, there were only about one thousand active planetary scientists, and most attended the annual spring and winter meetings of the American Geophysical Union (AGU), where scientists congregate for a week to attend “sessions” of talks organized around different topics. Alan and a few colleagues decided that they would organize a technical session about new discoveries and insights into Pluto, and would propose this to the committee arranging the upcoming spring AGU meeting, in Baltimore in May of 1989.

Then they put the word out to the community of scientists doing research on Pluto to “vote with their feet” by submitting research talks and attending the session to show interest in a possible mission to explore Pluto.

It is all good and well to come up with a new idea but as in new ideas in national politics, you cannot do it all alone in a large bureaucratic corporate organization. You have to drum up support not only from your colleagues but also have to get other stake holders excited about the new initiative. You need to start a movement by getting action oriented individuals across the organizations to buy in to your idea. Once you have gathered sufficient people who have bought in the idea, use every platform available within and outside the organization to take it to stake holders and decision makers.

How could they rally the planetary scientific community to show NASA that a Pluto mission had broad support? They brainstormed ideas and formed a plan to build cred and buy-in. They scribbled action items on napkins. One was to publish a special issue of the Journal of Geophysical Research showcasing the research results from that day’s AGU Pluto session. Another was to work to excite the people they knew at NASA Headquarters, to follow up on the idea of sponsoring a mission study. They would also start to recommend Pluto mission supporters for the various committees that advise NASA about planetary mission priorities. And they would organize a letter-writing campaign to cajole colleagues to contact NASA and express support for a mission.

Nowadays companies are very conscious of their public image and follow closely trends social media. One can also push the organization to accept new ideas (well they arent exactly new but if the organization isn’t implementing them they are new of the organization) such as sustainability, diveristy, social responsibility etc by raising the issue on Twitter or Facebook pages. Needless to mention, as in NASA, one should work within the rules and parameters of working in the organization and should not run afoul of corporate policies or employment contract.

As the aforementioned quotes show, the plutophiles used every forum, platform and resource available to them and bring about a change in the bureaucratic giant that is NASA. Based on the success of the campaign,  NASA gave a go ahead for carrying out a study for Pluto exploration.

Books I have read in January 2017

Thanks to the first book I read in January

  1. Deep Work

This book had the most profound impact on me. Author’s thesis is that today’s world is pretty distracting with WhatsApp messages, Facebook notifications, tweets, breaking news, office emails vying for attention with the result that we do not have a stretch of time where we can contemplate about our work or our problems distraction free. We may be able to do it once a month or once a year but setting aside a distraction period every day or periodically is something we find very hard to do. If we get into this habit, we will see our productivity and creativity shoot through the roof.

Talks about “Deliberate Practice” which has become a buzzword in last couple of years. He wants us to sign off or close our social media account. If we can’t do that, then set aside one time say between 8pm to 830pm everyday where we may check our social media accounts and stay in touch. I do not like the “Self Help” genre but I found this book pretty refreshing mainly because taking the author’s advice (which he backed with research and anecdotes) I stopped checking (wasn’t courageous enough to delete the accounts) my social media accounts during my daily office commute from Milton GO to Toronto Union Station and as a result was able to finish this many books in one month.

2. Second Machine Age

In the last couple of years there have been a flurry of books that about how automation is coming for jobs. This is by far the best book on the topic. Using historical and economic data authors show that we are on cusp of exponential growth in computing capacity. However, unlike other authors, they didn’t forecast a utopia and did admit that there are “things we don’t know we don’t know” and to “never say never”. There will be increased overall prosperity but the fruits of increasing productivity may not be distributed evenly. Well researched but can be dry at times.

3. Originals: How Non-Conformists Move The World

Mind expanding book with a quite a few ideas backed by research and arguments that go against conventional wisdom. Like all business books, the anecdotes/success stories are cherry picked.

One example that stood out for me was how the author showed that despite conventional wisdom that entrepreneurs are risk takers and bet the house on their idea, in reality most of them are risk averse and continue with their day while they refine their idea during the night and it is only when idea has gain certain traction, then they leave their day jobs. He gives example of Wozniak, Bill Gates, Larry Page and Sergei Brin who followed this path. Filled with similar other ideas.

Also gives the example of Meredith Perry, founder of uBeam as someone who founded her company going through the unconventional route. The book came out before uBeam was exposed as the next Theranos. Jury is still out in uBeam.

But the author writes very will. Keeps you hooked.

4. When Breath Becomes Air

It came with rave reviews with men writing about they couldn’t stop crying when they were reading or finished this book. It is memoir of the late author as he talks about how he became a neurosurgeon and then later was diagnosed with illness, how he faced the treatment and eventually death. But like Atul Gawande, author writes very well and I was able to finish the book in three days. I found the book overhyped or may be I am just a cold blooded person.

4. The Quiet

This is actually a good book. Its thesis being that one third to one half of the population is introvert. However our education system and society is now pushing/training everyone from kindergarten to professional life to become an extrovert.

Also I liked this anecdote about Tony Robbins. No doubt like Dale Carnegie, Tony Robbins helped a lot of people improve their personality and move forward in this world, but he is also a salesman.

Good tips in the book for introverts on how to pretend to be an extrovert for sometime to make it through.

5. Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t: Why That Is And What You Can Do About It

You think you know what makes a good fiction, movie or non fiction but can’t really put a finger on it. This short book tells you what devices good authors and screenwriters use to hook the reader / audience in the story/movie/book.

But the real pay off is the section about “How to write a self help book” where author highlights the tricks all the self help writers and gurus and frauds use to sell their stuff. Best part of all, this book is also written in the same format. It is a short book written in mini chapters.

6. Designing Your Life

Authors are professors at Stanford University’s School of Design and one of the authors is the founder and head of the Life Design department there. 
Based on a course authors teach at Stanford School of Design. It becomes nauseating with every situation being analysed as “what would designers do?” or “how design thinking will solve this” totally oblivious to the fact that most of the problems being solved everyday are being solved without using the design approach whatever that is.

There was one really practical advice in the book considering that it was coming from Stanford professors so it should be heeded. To rephrase it “if you are applying for an online job posting, don’t lie, but do copy paste the job description exactly as listed in the advertisement in to your CV”.

7. Creativity Inc.

I would have given it 6 stars out of 5. Unlike other business and leadership books written by Ivy League profs or superstar CEOs which are prescriptive in a shot gun way and have advice that becomes dated, this is an ever green book about leading a creative organisation that was Pixar. Unlike egotistical superstar CEOs, Catmull is humble enough to admit that a there was a lot of serendipity, luck and other people that resulted in success at Pixar. Also he was clear that what worked when Pixar was 100 people wouldn’t as easily work when Pixar became 1200 people. If I ever recommend a business or leadership book to anyone, this will be it. This is not a book about how to become creative, rather how the author ran an creative organization, what worked for him and what didn’t and why.

8. Show and Tell

Someone else reviewed it much better than me so I will just paste his review:

Imagine a book without much text that is like a 260 page PowerPoint presentation and you’ll instantly understand what I am talking about here. Yes, it is good to reach your audience with stories/anecdotes and with visuals when doing a presentation and having a PowerPoint visual available as you speak to your audience can be helpful but frankly, having a book that is nothing but a 260-page PowerPoint is more annoying than anything. It is like trying to communicate with a non-verbal child who can only reach out to you through childish stick figures. There were some downright bizarre “PowerPoint slides” here too. The book is almost insulting in the sense that it presumes the audience is too stupid to read and comprehend and thus speaks to us in sign language all the way through. He includes lessons in how to draw blob figures/stick figures (no, I am not kidding ) and some “signs” he thinks you need to use in your presentations. He is communicating with readers as if we are rather stupid slow-witted kids and there is nothing here that you don’t already know. It is lightweight on information. This all might be fun if you are 5 but if you can read, be aware this is not for literate people but just those who like to pretend to do sign language. He talks about bringing back elementary school show and tell but I didn’t think he meant for adults making adult presentations to pretend they are in kindergarten and show childish presentations.

9. Misquoting Muhammad

It’s a good book though gets philosophical and dense at times as author tries to cover the rich history of development of Shariah legal code as derived from Quran and Hadees and as interpreted / implemented by Muslim jurists, Sufis and philosophers. The thesis of the book is how certain aspects of scripture are at odds with “modern” sensibilities and how Islamic scholars are navigating this or rather trying to navigate this treacherous path.


All these books came with rave reviews so people did find useful stuff in them. Despite the bad reviews I gave to certain books, I would have picked some good things here and there and when the time comes, may be able to refer back to these books to dig out the lesson. I would have read a few more books but then an infamous social media star became President south of the border and I logged into my social media account and my book reading productivity tanked. Three days ago, I realized again that I wasn’t getting any benefit from getting up to the minute updates of POTUS tweets, tantrums and media reactions and following the advice from the first book I read in January, disabled my social media presence once again. Here is to hoping that I stick by it and finish many more books in February.

The books I recommend from the above list.

  1. Creativity Inc. (Must read)
  2. The Quiet
  3. Deep Work
  4. The Originals