Some books I read this year

I worked remotely this year. It’s interesting. The flexible schedule and workspace is great, but the lack of interaction with your co-workers leaves you questioning yourself and your sanity.

Communication has to be very proactive – you can’t wait for someone to check if you’re having trouble or need something to do, you have to go ask for it. I think this skill is some kind of dark art, and I haven’t gotten it yet.

Most of my non-fiction reading was about “soft skills”. The little things that ease friction between humans and help us enjoy each other more. I always feel that I’m deficient in those skills, so I look for books that might have answers. These are books that had answers – maybe not complete answers, but they brought me a little closer to being human.

Negotiating the Non-Negotiable, Dan Shapiro

Dan Shapiro gets world leaders and diplomats into a room together and makes them play games about peacemaking. You’d think those people would already be good at negotiating as it’s the centre of their jobs, but he still catches them off guard fairly often. He helped peace talks in Ireland and Bosnia in the 90’s, among other things.

His idea is that intractable disagreements come up when people’s identity feels attacked. Swallowing your pride, shaking hands and signing an agreement may be the logical thing to do, but logic isn’t the only master that humans answer to. If you read my previous posts, you’ll see one about identity that I did as an exercise after reading this book.

If you have to give up part of your identity to make peace, you may decide that peace isn’t worth it. By extension, if you can figure out how you’re threatening someone’s values with your seemingly reasonable proposition, you can better understand why they won’t accept it, and maybe find a compromise.

Works Well With Others, Ross McCammon

Ross McCammon is a senior editor at Esquire magazine. His job, aside from editing, is to schmooze and make the right moves in high-stakes social situations.

This book is about all the ways he’s failed to do that in the last ten years. It starts out as practical advice for when you’ve gotten a job you’re not qualified for and have to fit in with people who seem very, very cool, when you are very, very uncool.

Have you ever felt crippled by self-consciousness when deciding what to order during a business lunch? You shouldn’t, because the lunch is for focussing on the person that you’re with. But here’s some guidelines for getting past the mechanical aspects of picking your food, talking to the waiter and reaching for the bill as smoothly as possible so that you can pay attention to what matters. Also, what should you say when you interview Rihanna? Also a good question. In this case, asking about the house she grew up in as a child got her talking.

The advice gets less practical and more funny as the book goes on. I loved the part where Ross talks about a bench in Central Park where he used to hide after turning in an assignment. He had a thought in the back of his mind, “They can’t fire me for it if they can’t find me.”

After ten years, he doesn’t need the bench as much, but still goes back sometimes to remember what it was like.

The Art of Asking, Amanda Palmer

Amanda Palmer reminds me of the reason I haven’t written as much this year. Art only works when you’re being really, really honest. As soon as you try to hide yourself, creativity dries up.

Amanda stands on a box wearing a baroque wedding gown and holds a flower out to passersby, and only moves if someone puts money in her hat. It’s the most vulnerable thing she can do – stand in public and beg, with her whole being, “please notice me”.

Rocketships.ca is my email address and goes on every resume I send out. I don’t know how many employers get around to reading my blog. It’s gotten me a couple of interviews, but how many have I scared off? I want to write the really raw, horrifyingly funny stuff, but not end up unemployed because of it. But I know if this blog is ever going to be anything but a minor hobby that a few friends read, I’m going to have to go deep like Amanda does.

The Five Love Languages, Gary Chapman

My mom read this book when I was a small kid and has been telling me to check it out ever since. I finally felt the need for it after tearfully explaining to my therapist that I couldn’t figure out how to tell my partner how much I loved him, or get him to believe me when I tried. It’s a book that found me when I was ready to listen.

My love language is Quality Time. The others are Words of Affirmation, Physical Touch, Receiving Gifts, and Acts of Service. I have a feeling that the guy is right, and if you can figure out what your partner’s language is, you’ll have a better time.

Boss Life: Surviving My Own Small Business, Paul Downs

Paul Downs makes custom, specialized conference tables in Pennsylvania. Most of his customers find him on Google, and everything they sell is produced in a huge warehouse by a dozen or so woodworkers.

They do beautiful work and fully occupy their market niche. There’s plenty of demand for what they make – so why do they lose money? In 2011, Downs kept a month by month account of what happened.

He fixed their sales process so they’d stop leaking customers. He demoted a shop foreman who had served, resentfully, for over 20 years, and promoted a less experienced guy who wanted the job and cared enough to do it well. He went to the Middle East to look for customers, but found that there were plenty of customers right at home – after he caught and fixed a Google adwords bug that was putting his ads in front of the wrong eyeballs. At the end of the year, he finished with just enough cash to stay in business – he didn’t get to collect a salary, he only paid himself back for loans he’d put into the business.

It’s a story that will put you off the idea of starting your own business, for sure, unless you happen to have the kind of mind that hears about these problems and thinks, “oh, that sounds fun!” I took lots of notes.

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Shannon Graham

Shannon has been writing brief essays and occasional how-to articles at Rocketships, Unaffiliated (.ca) whenever inspiration strikes, since 2012.

She is interested in your opinion.

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