Monday, March 7, 2011

Get Up, Do Something, Do It Now!

Through 1940, “inventor” was a legitimate occupation category on U.S. Census forms; by 1950 it was gone.  Why?  When did we lose respect for people who create something new?  What threatens us about novelty, risk, and change?  How much do we lose when we only follow others’ blueprints?

Business guru Seth Godin wonders the same.  His pocket-sized “manifesto,” Poke the Box, demands that readers stop rehashing certainties.  Once, Godin says, humans thrived by keeping quiet and fitting into our landscape, but that time has passed.  We flourish today be stepping up, standing out, and doing something no one has ever done before.

In a market jammed with identical MBA handbooks, Godin doesn’t burden us with more of the same.  Weighing in under ninety pages, Poke the Box doesn’t bandy numbers, print road maps, or explicate how to repeat others’ success.  Indeed, he names that as one reason our economy has softened—and not just since 2008, either; mediocrity kills innovation and strangles economy.

Instead, Godin’s near-Buddhist approach demands we ruminate on nugget-sized essays, with titles like “Brainwashed by the Pit Boss” or “The Person Who Fails the Most Usually Wins.”  His short gut punches contain tightly packed energy, ready to burst.  He talks of “opportunity,” “innovation,” and “situation” in refreshing ways when we’ve burned out buzzwords like “access” and “leverage.”

Godin’s quick-draw insights don’t pretend to teach you skills.  He’d rather see you do something new, revolutionary, and radical, and skills only permit what someone has done before.  But to break new ground and uphold Godin’s aspirations, you need skills on the road.  That’s where Piers Steel and Bart R. Wendell come in.

Steel’s The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done braves the topic you meant to research earlier, but never did.  Procrastination is perhaps humanity’s most common behavior, and our most decried; yet we squander more energy rationalizing this vice than we would spend just doing the work.

Steel admits researching procrastination for years before specializing in the field (hah!).  His hands-on experience, combined with wry humor and a talent for germane observation, turn this from a dry psychological treatise to a go-get-’em dynamo.  He tells bare truths in ways that sell us his topic without alienating us.

Turns out, people procrastinate for three core reasons.  Either we don’t value the work, we don’t value our time, or we don’t check our impulses.  We all do each from time to time, sometimes all at once.  Each motivation gestates in a different brain region, and each requires unique responses if we want to quit dithering and finish the job.

For instance, when Godin says to start something new, why do you hesitate?  Does abandoning your map scare you?  Steel would tell you to start something new and small, like pushing old hobbies to new levels, or perhaps going someplace you’ve never been, so you literally leave the map.  Fear can be tamed, Steel says, and you deserve to try.

Or what if you can’t answer Godin’s call because work has become a drudge?  Steel would say to make it a game, by racing your colleagues, or creating small goals and rewards.  If you can infuse work with meaning, you wrest control from the forces that suck the joy from your job.

Once you find motivation to plant that field, you can’t plow the row alone.  You need people, so you need Wendell’s Hot Leaders Cool Facilitators: Learning to Lead One Meeting at a Time.  This book purposes to teach you how to run meetings, but Wendell actually reaches deeper: you can’t lead people, start anything, or stop obstructing yourself until you first understand who you are.

Like Steel, Wendell imbues humor and voice into a usually dry topic, but he goes beyond that.  He dismantles psychological barriers to apply the Enneagram, a personality system, to how we relate in purpose-guided groups.  Because we can’t guide others unless we first guide ourselves.

Wendell’s elaborate but comprehensible system doesn’t condense into a prĂ©cis.  And though most of the book has great candor, Wendell sometimes wanders into analytical jargon that jeopardizes clarity.  But his systematic approach directs readers not only to understand our own personalities, but the parts of ourselves we don’t admit—our “shadow,” which we must harness to make any progress.

If we know ourselves, and don’t impede our own path, we can answer Godin’s call.  We can do something new.  And when we do, the world is ours to nurture and lead.

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