I love to buy books and read books. I don’t often use the library. I don’t own a Kindle. I buy books. But I’ve noticed that I end up reading only about two thirds of the books I buy. Not a good percentage. Each of those I don’t read wastes stuff: paper, ink, money, time, and space. I’d like to raise the percentage.
My family and I (wife, kids and grandkids) visited my parents in Palo Alto, California over New Year’s. We stayed at the Stanford Faculty Club in the middle of the very quiet – on recess – Stanford campus. The Stanford Bookstore – one of my favorite bookstores anywhere, and I rate bookstores like food critics rate dinner – is a three minute walk away.
So I decided to spend time in the bookstore every day, and carefully evaluate books for reading. I looked at a lot of books. I was trying to look at each one carefully enough, and read enough of it, to determine whether once I got it out of the store, it would grab my attention deeply enough – and for long enough – that I would actually read it. The goal is to get my percentage up, way up.
Among the books I spent time with were:
• Tracy Kidder’s most recent book, Strength in What Remains, an against-all-odds story about a kid fleeing to New York to get away from the genocidal war in his native Burundi;
• Kurt Vonnegut’s new collection of previously unpublished stories, Look at the Birdie – I don’t read much fiction these days, but I love Kurt Vonnegut;
• Journalist Amanda Little’s book Power Trip, an account of a cross-country road trip to discover the impact of fossil fuels (and the need for alternatives).
• Commonwealth, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s latest intellectual tour-de-force full of radical solutions to our current economic predicaments;
• Glimmer, written by Warren Berger and subtitled How Design Can Transform Your Life (and Maybe the World), in which he collaborates with celebrated Canadian designer Bruce Mau to explore the power of design to solve business and social problems.
• The Department of Mad Scientists: How DARPA Is Remaking Our World, from the Internet to Artificial Limbs, Michael Belfiore, a look under the hood of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—the maverick and controversial group whose work has had amazing civilian influence in addition to its impact on the military.
There were many others, too, and I would like to read every one of those books listed above, but in the end I only bought one, and it was an odd choice. It was written by Tina Seelig, a professor of entrepreneurship at Stanford, and called What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20. The book was written in response to the coming-of-age of her son Josh. Wondering about how he would make his way in this world, she looked back at her life, and her teaching methods, and produced a provocative manifesto for the young.
The reason I chose it is because my daughter is grappling with the same issues – where does her true passion lie and what kind of career and life will she develop? I thought it might be a good read for both of us. She hasn’t read it yet – she left two days ago for a winter of wildlife research in Costa Rica with Global Vision International, which will surely be more life-changing than any book her father could toss her way – but I have, and it was worth it.
What sold me – as I sat at the bookstore with a pile of books stacked on the broad arm of a comfortable chair – was a story at the very beginning about an assignment she used with her students. She gave them an envelope with five dollars of “seed funding”, granted plenty of planning time, and then allowed them two hours, once they open the envelope, to generate as much money as possible. She says, “Most of my students eventually found a way to move far beyond the standard responses. They took seriously the challenge to question traditional assumptions – exposing a wealth of possibilities – in order to create as much value as possible.”
The teams that did best didn’t use the five dollars at all. They realized that the money framed the problem way too tightly, and that five dollars is essentially nothing, and that the assignment is really to figure out how to make money when you start with nothing. . They identified problems they experienced or noticed others experiencing – problems they might have seen before but had never thought to solve and became very inventive.
One group set up a stand in front of the student union and offered to measure bicycle tire pressure for free. If the tires needed filling, they added air for a dollar. They had the uneasy feeling that they were taking advantage of their fellow students, who could go to a nearby gas station to have their tires filled for free. It turns out their first few customers were grateful and that they were providing a convenient and valuable service. Nonetheless, after the first hour, they stopped asking for a dollar and requested donations instead. Their income soared. Experimenting along the way paid off. The iterative process, where small changes are made in response to customer feedback, allowed them to optimize their strategy on the fly. Afterward the students agreed that they would never need to be broke, since there is always a problem at hand waiting to be solved.
What a lesson.
“Being in business,” says Seelig, “should be like traveling in a foreign country. Even if you prepare carefully, have an itinerary and a place to stay at night, the most interesting experiences usually aren’t planned.” You meet someone who leads you to an extraordinary place, you have unexpected encounters, and the most memorable parts of the trip are the surprising parts that happened into your path.
Come to think of it, I think I knew all that when I was 20, and the reason I read the book is that I’m now re-learning it. It’s about resilience, which may be the successor to the idea of sustainability. Since change is inevitable the impacts may be dependent on our ability to harness the unexpected.