Saturday, September 17, 2016

Tribe: A Multi Level Discussion of Community

Sebastian Junger’s book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging is a book about the seemingly unlikely combination of community and war. It covered a lot of ground, and as such left me with a bit unsure of what Junger wanted his readers to take from it. But perhaps that’s his point: community and interdependence is a complex issue that works on many levels. You may not agree with all of Junger’s conclusions, or simply have a lot of questions, but since he has a number of references in the back, you have to tools to explore his sources more deeply.

Because of diversity of the topics in the book, Tribe got me thinking about quite a few things in ways that I hadn’t expected. The book opens with a discussion the realization that modern society seems to be at odds with the intrinsic values that “self-determination theory” describes, and how the values of tribal societies support mental (and physical) health in both direct in direct ways. With a mix of history, quotes, stories from his experience, and analysis, Junger makes a compelling argument for why we need to think about why we lost some of these values from early societies and how to get them back.

This book could simply be a discussion of how our society lacks the values and social interactions of traditional tribal societies, and how we reintegrate that sense of community into our modern lives. But the book goes into the interesting direction of describing how we often do create these kinds of “tribes” when faced with adversity. He draws examples from times of disaster and war, and the bulk of the book discusses how how the disconnect between the majority of society behaves and how groups work together in combat situations can get in the way of veterans reintegrating into society.

The book alternates between the macro problem of how to help veterans (and others who do difficult, traumatic work on our behalf) feel part of our society, and the micro problem of how we, as individuals, can maintain connections and responsibility. While a bit disorienting at first, the combination makes sense in the end, as developing a community is something that works at all levels of scale.

A recurring, underlying, question, throughout the book is “why is it that we work together best, when things are at their worst, but abandon good principles and practices when things get better?” Junger explores this in great detail in the context of war and disaster. On a seemingly more trivial level it also happens in the context of projects; I’ve often seen the best collaboration happen when a team is faced with a project in crisis. The irony is that, if they’d had the same kind of collaboration — at a less intense level — earlier in the process there would be no crisis. We’d all benefit from thinking about why we don’t realize the values of community, collaboration, and interdependence until we are at a crisis.

Tribe is a book about many things that will likely get you thinking about society, how you fit into it, and how you’d like to fit into it, and is worth the short investment of reading time, though be forewarned that it may lead to a greater investment in thought.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Ted Talks (Book Review)

TED talks often get me intrigued and inspired about topics that I sometimes hadn’t thought about before. As someone who speaks to various audiences at work and at professional events, I’m always looking for ideas about how to be a better speaker, and TED Talks, The official TED Guide to Public Speaking sounded like a promising resource, and I wasn’t disappointed. The book provides some good guidance about everything from developing an idea to actually speaking on stage. Even if you never expect to speak on the TED Stage or any other, the book still has value. Anderson points out early and repeatedly that “presentation literacy” is an important skill for everyone. Even if you never present to a formal audience, learning how to organize and distill what you want to say is a valuable skill, and many of the concepts are relevant to writing as well. Keeping “presentation presence” in mind can be useful even if you are sharing an idea with a colleague. If you want to be a better presenter (in any context) this is a worthwhile book to read.

A key premise of the advice here is that an effective talk isn’t meant to convince or lobby, but to share your passion for an idea, and perhaps spread it to others. While this may sound like this book is not useful to those who are interested in selling ideas or convincing others, it may actually be. My first post-college job involved doing a bit of pre-sales technical support and the sales manager I worked with told me that “people told like to be sold to, they like to buy.” This resonates with my experience. If you can share well an idea that you are passionate about, you’ll find the people who are interested, and you avoid the discomfort that people often feel when they are receiving a sales pitch.

While reading I was both excited and saddened as Anderson explained why some conventions that you may have learned about presenting are a best not valuable, and at worst a distraction. I was excited because books such as Presentation Zen and Back of the Napkin helped me to understand that slides and other visuals are there to support your ideas, not be the medium for presenting them. But even with the popularity of TED and other approaches that get us away from the text heavy, read your bullet point slides approach Powerpoint presentations with dense bullet points seem to be an organizational standard that is hard to change. Even in elementary school, where powerpoint is a presentation option I cringe when I see the patterns that my son follows when doing a presentation for an elementary school class.

Anderson includes examples from a variety of good (and not so good) TED talks, which makes some of the abstract ideas more concrete. In some cases, he over does it, which makes the book longer than it could have been, but that is not a fatal flaw. When combined with the pointers to TED talks in the back, the examples make this book a bit of a “best of TED,” and a great way to learn more about the scope of TED topics if you have only seen a few.

Overall, this is a useful book that can inspire and guide you being a better presenter of ideas. Even if you don’t intend to present the first section will help you organize your ideas better. And the need to present may happen when you don’t expect it. The book ends with a survey of techniques to try and venues to practice. Even if you don’t expect to be a future TED presenter, this book can help you be a better presenter in any venue.