Monday, May 4, 2009

Moving ahead by looking back

Three writers reflect on what they've learned in life and work.


Hindsight isn't really 20-20. It's selective and often squints through rose-colored glasses.

When we consider things we experienced, people we knew and what we learned, it's a neat fillet, with skin, guts, bones and gristle removed — or the reverse, with the good parts excised, especially if it was a painful experience.
Though we may wish that we knew then what we know now, would we listen? (I wouldn't.)

Here are three excellent attempts to glean wisdom from the past and distill it into lessons for the present and future.

Rules of Thumb: 32 Principles for Winning at Business without Losing Your Self. Alan M. Webber. HarperBusiness. 288 pages.

Alan Webber is a popular and well-traveled business writer with a light touch and a whip-smart intellect. He has a playful sense of humor and asks very good questions. Despite its title, this book is less a collection of ''rules of thumb'' (i.e. common wisdom) than a series of anecdotes, reflections and lessons. Each is summed up with a statement that Webber recorded on a 3x5 card, embodying the essence of the experience. For example, when he left his editorial position at the Harvard Business Review to co-found Fast Company, his daughter asked if the family was ''going poor.'' Webber talks about the thinking that preceded his move, attaching the rule, ''Failure isn't failing. Failure is failing to try.'' Who would argue with that?

What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20: A Crash Course on Finding Your Place in the World. Tina Seelig. HarperOne. 208 pages.

Seelig's book is a birthday present to her 20-year-old son, hence the title, another exercise in anecdotes and reflection. She is a sharp observer and a gentle and thoughtful writer. Must be a hell of a classroom teacher, too, based on some of the assignments she recounts herein. Recollections of her own circuitous career path, along with observations of behavior of friends, family, students and colleagues are fertile ground for her. I especially liked the short but poignant tale of the person who everyone knew was leaving but quit her job at a critical juncture and threw her team into disarray. It's a great illustration of the importance of timing and how ''when'' is often more important than ''what'' and "how.'"

Ignore Everybody: And 39 Other Keys to Creativity. Hugh MacLeod. Portfolio. 176 pages.

MacLeod is an advertising copywriter and blogger ( whose claim to fame and fortune involves crude but hilariously brilliant cartoons drawn on the back of business cards. I admit that the title of his book drew me in, as it's a sentiment I heartily embrace but rarely follow.

The illustrated and illuminated musings herein are wise, rude and useful. It's also pretty current. For example, he writes: "Your job is probably worth 50 percent what it was in real terms 10 years ago. And who knows? It may very well not exist in five to 10 years. We all saw the traditional biz model in my industry, advertising, start going down the tubes 10 years or so ago. Our first reaction was 'work harder.' It didn't work. People got shafted in the thousands. ... In order to navigate The New Realities you have to be creative -- not just within your particular profession, but in everything. Your way of looking at the world will need to become ever more fertile and original. And this isn't just true for artists, writers, techies, Creative Directors and CEOs; this is true for everybody. Janitors, receptionists and bus drivers, too. The game has just been ratcheted up a notch.''

published 4/27/09 in The Miami Herald

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