Friday, July 24, 2020

Review: Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World

Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World by Olga Khazan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When this book showed up in the Next Big Idea Club box I thought that I’d relate to this book, and I did. While I may not be “weird” in any obvious sense, but I’ve definitely experienced the not fitting in feeling for a variety of reasons. And as a book, Weird is a bit meta. It’s a weird book about the challenges and benefits of not fitting in. But it’s weird in all the wonderful, positive ways that the Khazan describes. It might not have imagined a book about the challenges of being different having laugh out loud passages, but this one does, and they pull you into the story. It’s not an autobiography, but it weaves autobiographical moments to help set the frame for the facts, history, and other people’s stories that are the core of the book. 

Khazan explains Weirdness isn’t a bad thing, in some ways it can be a superpower, as diversity of thought and approach can lead to better ideas in groups (the challenge is figuring out how to communicate them and being in a group that accepts a degree of “different” thinking. But not everyone assumes that, and as a rule, we like to fit in, and be around people who fit in -- though she also points out that humans gravitate to groups that are somewhat unique; it’s being the singleton that can make one lonely, awkward, and on edge. 

While race isn’t the main theme of the book, it runs throughout, in that the biases that people express towards people of different races and ethnic groups are in some ways just magnified versions of other forms of outsiderness. And this connection can be a way to find a deeper understanding of the challenges of racism. As Khazan states at the start of the book, the challenges of, say, a White immigrant are not equivalent to those faced as a BIPOC person or someone with a rare medical condition, but being aware of the extent to which social exclusion affects such a “broad swath of humanity” is useful for building empathy. 

In learning about weirdness, you have a chance to reflect on your differences and your biases, and perhaps considering these can help you find an empathy anchor when you see someone who is isn’t part of the group being challenged or feeling frustrated. And you may even learn to embrace the differences you and others bring to groups., and understand your reactions to being someone who brings a difference to a group. 


With a writing style that is engaging, and at times laugh at loud humorous, Weird will help you understand how you react to differences, how you are different, and perhaps guide you towards coping with the challenges and benefits of not quite fitting in, and also being more aware of your reaction to outsiders. 

Review: Neighborhood Defenders: Participatory Politics and America's Housing Crisis

Neighborhood Defenders: Participatory Politics and America's Housing Crisis Neighborhood Defenders: Participatory Politics and America's Housing Crisis by Katherine Levine Einstein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Neighborhood Defenders is an academic, yet approachable, book that discusses the dynamics around how people stop housing development that can increase affordability in the name of defending the neighborhoods. The book is and exploration of how current zoning (and review) processes , which were set up to give everyone a voice, have served to give certain advantaged groups an outsize say in what can be built. The result is often that larger housing projects which might include a range of market rate affordable, as well as subsidized affordable units often end up getting scaled back or stopped.


“Neighborhood Defenders” refers to the groups of residents that often rally around stopping projects by expressing opposition in terms of rationales along the lines of “this will change the character of the neighborhood.” In the book we learn that even while some of the  Defenders may be well intentioned (but perhaps not all) the end result is that housing that has the potential to diversify make a community more diverse and affordable is less likely to be built.


The theme that most caught my attention is the role of the public meeting process that many cities and towns follow around zoning has in this. The public meeting process has its roots in giving people voice, but in some contexts the voices that participate are limited to certain groups, and often not the ones who might benefit from certain housing projects. It’s easy enough to introduce delays -- which add costs to projects. -- either projects don’t happen, or developers abandon the idea of larger projects with Affordable housing and build smaller market rate housing. For example commenters at meetings often raise issues that are tangential to the original project, leading to the need for new studies and delays.  


While there are many books that opine about housing this one is different in that it is backed by data. The authors have read meeting transcripts and reviewed zoning regulations in cities and towns and used that data to support their conclusions. As such, the book is detailed and not a very  light read, but it is very approachable, and worth a read if you are interested in understanding the dynamics of housing and zoning meetings.  


Anyone who is a resident of a community that has a zoning board -- whether you are an activist or not -- could find this a useful and enlightening read, that will help you understand the obstacles involved in community development and paths around them




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Sunday, July 5, 2020

Review: Startup, Scaleup, Screwup: 42 Tools to Accelerate Lean & Agile Business Growth

Startup, Scaleup, Screwup: 42 Tools to Accelerate Lean & Agile Business Growth Startup, Scaleup, Screwup: 42 Tools to Accelerate Lean & Agile Business Growth by Jurgen Appelo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars



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Though I’ve never been a founder, I’ve been an early member of startup companies and internal ventures (such as  being a founding member of the, at the time new,  Boston office for Fitbit )  so I was curious to read Jurgen Appelo’s book Startup, Scaleup, Screwup: 42 Tools to Accelerate Lean and Agile Business Growth, and see how relevant it was for me. It turned out to be very much so.  Appelo combines lean and agile principles with a model for business development that is relevant for both an entrepreneur starting a company, and an intrapreneur, leading a product initiative or a team.   

Since the book weaves many agile concepts and processes, such as backlogs, burn down charts, and retrospectives, into the process,  I was tempted to title my review something like “Agile for Startups” or “A Startups with Agile values.” But those names would misstate two key take-aways from the book. First, agile themes like “Inspect and Adapt” are just a really good way to start a venture, as new ideas require that you get constant feedback and adapt to it. If this weren’t the case and you knew what would work and how to do it, it would not be a venture. Second, this isn’t just about startups companies. Appelo addresses these idea in the context of an entrepreneurial startup or any intrepreneruial internal venture. In either case, you need to demonstrate value to secure a continuing funding source, or fail. And the feedback loops agile approaches like experiments and retrospective are essential to building that value.

Reading through the book I was struck by how often Appelo makes points that are both obvious and iconoclastic.  At one point he asserts that “growth” should never be a goal in itself,  but way to achieve  success, such as delivering value to more customers, which seems counter to common business thinking,  but which makes perfect sense. Similarly he describes how teams often frame cultural fit as being “similar” rather than “complementary” -- which is to say that a new person fills a gap on the team.

The book covers everything from funding, and planning to hiring. The hiring ideas are reminiscent of the ones I learned from Johanna Rothman in Hiring Geeks that Fit, albeit with slightly different terms, which are in essence, figure out how to what qualities you need in an employee, decide how you measure them

Appello’s Witty, irreverent  and humorous style make this one of the more entertaining business books to read, and the style reflects a perspective on business that might make you want to reconsider things you took from granted.  At the very least you’ll be tempted to explore the supporting materials that are linked at the end of every chapter

Whether you are in a startup, involved in building a new product for an established company,  of just curious about how businesses succeed, Startup, Scale Up Screw Up is an enjoyable, informative, and actionable read that will likely generate many ideas of things to do or learn more about.

Thursday, June 25, 2020

Review: Together The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World

Together The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World Together The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World by Vivek H. Murthy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars



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 Whether you are an extravert or introvert, connection is an important part of being human, and while we each differ in the kind of ways we connect, we need certain kinds of connections in our lives to be happy and healthy.   “Together”  is an engaging guide to what connection means,  how it benefits us, and how to built it.


While we sometimes need solitude , the absence of the appropriate connections in our lives can lead to loneliness, which has a larger impact on the quality of our lives than we expect.

Murthy describes the 3 kinds of connections, all of which are necessary: 

• Emotional (close confidant or partner)

• Relational or Social (quality friendships, social companionship and support)

• Collective (hunger for a network of community of people who share your sense of purpose and interest)


According to Murthy, the presence of one of these kinds of connections, o matter how strong, is unlikely to compensate for missing the others. Even with the strongest marriage, we can still find our selves feeling lonely  without close friends, or a community we belong to. Aside from the practical value of a community network to help us through challenging times, loneliness can be a significant health problem.  Murthy makes the biological connection between loneliness and depression and anxiety. Loneliness can also trigger some of the same fear instincts that cause us to be suspicious of others who are not ‘in our tribe.’  It thus makes it hard to forge connections to bootstrap away from loneliness. This connection to anxiety can be the source of acting on our biases and resisting connections with those different than ourselves. 


Having explained the risks of loneliness, Murthy discusses ways to get out of the rut that loneliness leaves us in, including service to others. Being in a place where we stay open to connections can help us help people step away from dysfunctional situations and mindsets.


Since connection and community is such a universal part of human existence, while reading, I found myself thinking of other books that touched on the topic, including Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language, Adam Grant’s Give and Take,  Kate Murphy’s You’re Not Listening, Malcom Gladwell’s  Talking to Strangers, and even Dan Levitin’s  Successful Aging. Together has a different focus than all of those books, namely physical and mental health,  but as I read, I realized that the value of community to our physical and mental health means that by building community we can benefit ourselves in unexpected ways.


Personal stories  make this a relatable read. When combined with  pointers to more information and discussions of organizations that build community which you might be interested in connecting with, it’s also a very actionable one.


The book ends with a story that conveys the importance and power of  what Murthy calls “not the family chosen for you, but  the family you choose.”  As someone who grew up without a lot of extended family near, I’ve grown to understand the value of the friends and neighbors who’ve become part of what I consider to be my family. Reading Together helped me to  truly understand just how valuable those connections are. It also gave me insight into how to do a better job of building them at home, work, and in the communities I’m a part of.


Together is an important guide for our times about why connection matters  and how to built it at various scales: for yourself, for your family, and for your larger communities such as your workplace and town or city. 

Monday, April 27, 2020

Review: You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters

You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters You're Not Listening: What You're Missing and Why It Matters by Kate Murphy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Listening is hard, and in my quest to be a better listener I’m always looking for information to both understand how I can do better, and to understand dynamics between me and other other people. Kate Murphy’s book is a great resource both for the advice it provides and the insights it leads you too.

One of the reasons listening is hard is that much of what we learn as a culture about “good conversation” and engagement emphasizes witty responses, self promotion and superficial gestures. She cites the Algonquin Round Table as an early example of a model of conversation dynamics that are entirely based on putting people down -- albeit humorously -- rather than building people up and connecting. Many of the “active listening” techniques that are popular are focused on reactions and gestures rather than the mindset of connecting with people. While techniques can encourage us to reframe how we think, they are not enough, and while superficial gestures can give the initial appearance of connection, people generally figure it out later on.

Murphy has some recurring themes in the book, including that how well you listen is, at least in part, tied to how comfortable and secure you are in a situation; it takes confidence to pause to respond and build on what others say, rather than pushing your own agenda, and that listening requires self awareness -- of how present you are, of the kinds of interactions that you tend to tune out on, and of whether you have followed up enough to have a chance at understanding what someone is saying.

Good listening isn’t just about politeness. It forms the basis of good personal, business, and community, relationships. These in turn can help you be successful whether you are a spouse, friend, manager, sales person, or advocate in your community. Murphy closes with a discussion of when to stop listening. Since listening well takes a lot of energy, we can’t always listen, and that’s OK as long as you are intentional and transparent. And there are some circumstances where it’s clear that a dialog won’t happen, even after you’ve given it a reasonable chance. But listening is key to understanding each other and building relationships, so it is important to not always give up simply out of impatience. Listening is hard, and we can all do better, and the effort can be worth it.

You’re Not Listening is a an actionable guide to the various aspects of why listening is valuable, what makes for better listening, and for understanding how you interactions with others can be better, both through self-understanding and empathy. The insights from the book can help you be a better spouse, friend, and neighbor, and perhaps even improve the quality of interactions on social media.

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Monday, April 20, 2020

Review: What's Your Pronoun?: Beyond He and She

What's Your Pronoun?: Beyond He and She What's Your Pronoun?: Beyond He and She by Dennis Baron
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What’s Your Pronoun is the story of the role of pronouns own grammar and society. Using the right pronoun can be challenging and is important. At the very least using the wrong pronoun can mislead or or offend. But simply if all you see to do is to apply rules to avoid offense, you’ll likely fail more often than you’d like. Baron’s book gives you the tools to go deeper and understand the evolution or pronoun usage in the English Language, so that you can better understand why pronouns are important, and also that the debate has been long running,.

As an occasional writer, who is also a bit of a grammar geek, I’ve often lamented that there is not good neutral third person singular pronoun; I’d like to have a third person form that is well understood, not awkward to read, which doesn’t imply the gender of a person. From Baron’s book I learned that this has been an issue since at least the 1780s (according to the written record he found -- perhaps longer). The grammar geek in me also appreciated Baron explaining concepts in the context of language ( “gender” means “kind,” having nothing direct to do with gender identification) and the differences in how grammarians and linguists view issues like these.

The implications of pronouns extend beyond being imprecise or offensive to interpretation of laws. “He” was sometimes taken to be generic, but also used to say “just men” -- for example: “a law saying that he shall be punished who...”, the same logic, when applied to voting rights for women, didn’t stick. and other, larger, social issues, (for example, the difference between “gender neutral” and “non-binary” usage). Placing the discussion in the context of history and the present day, Baron explores the approaches people have tried in order to achieve some sort of “third person singular” without assuming a gender.

In the end, it seems that “they” has a long track record of being the neutral pronoun of choice for English speakers, much as “you” migrated from being plural to plural and singular. I hope that my saying that doesn't lead you to believe that you don’t need to read the book. The journey the book takes you on is educational and also entertaining. I recommend it to anyone who is curious about how language evolves and relates to society, or just if you are curious about how pronouns are, and could be used.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2020

Review: Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet

Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet Underground: A Human History of the Worlds Beneath Our Feet by Will Hunt
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

As someone who was fascinated by, NYC subway tunnels while I was a subway commuter in high school, I appreciated the theme of the book, and that it had much of a chapter balanced around the story of a famous NYC Subway graffiti artist. The challenge I had with this book is that I wasn’t sure what to expect. Based on the cover text, I was expecting a discussion of the history with humans’ relationship to the dark unground spaces, with tendrils to mythology, history and science. In the end, there was that, albeit woven into a travel journal, where the mix of journal and background that varies throughout. I found the first chapter a bit slow going, but the book seemed to flow better for me as I progressed.


The book starts off as more travel log than history. The first chapter, being more travel memoir than history almost has me putting the book down. But in chapter 2 the book became what the title promised: history of human obsession with dark, foreboding places, even in the face of our desire to seek light safety.

The history, science and mythology are woven into stories of the authors travels to obscure and not so obscure places, and the personal touch emphasized the connection that these places have to humans, so in the end the person story made for a more engaging read for me when it was in the right balance.

The book has un-captioned photos scattered through out it, which added to a sense of discovery, but at times I wished they were captioned so that I could quickly find out what they were. I was a bit more frustrated that the end notes only sometimes explained the photo rather than simply being a photo credit.

The issues I had with the book are mostly matters of personal preference though. Overall, this is an interesting read; you do need to start it with the right expectations (or even none) for the best experience. While the book was not as compelling as I had hoped, but was a great way to contemplate what the underground means to us, and to the extent it got me thinking philosophically about the contradictions inherent in our obsession with the underground, it was worth the effort for me.

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Monday, April 13, 2020

Review: Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives

Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives Successful Aging: A Neuroscientist Explores the Power and Potential of Our Lives by Daniel J. Levitin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

You will get old, and you will (eventually )die. While some things are beyond our ability to control, there are things  we can influence so that the amount of time  (or at least the proportion of time) you live with a good quality of life (a concept captured by The World Health Organization HALE (Healthy Life Expectancy measure) is greater. Successful Aging is a guide to how to change our personalities and response to our environments to make this happen.

The key idea in the book is that your life can be thought of as having a “health span” at the start, and a “disease span” at the end, and successful aging is when the ratio of health span to disease span is highest. Levitin uses the acronym COACH --  Curiosity, Openness, Associations, Conscientiousness, and Healthy practices -- to describe the principles that can help you to achieve this: .

The book is divided into 3 parts. The first is a tour through the science of how we learn, feel, and interact, with a focus on how these change over time. I found this section to have a lot of information that helped me to understand day-to-day dynamics with people, independent of concerns of aging.

The second part of the book is about the science behind, and the choices we make with respect to diet, exercise, and sleep. These are the things we most can control, or at least influence, and this section will give you some context for evaluating whether something you hear about has any basis in science or is simply hype. In many cases, simple changes can have a great impact.

The third section of the book tackles the science behind longevity, discussing research into the limits of human life, and how cognitive function can change as we age, and how to keep your brain active. Levitin makes the case that continuing to  learn new skills that you enjoy, keeping active, and maintaining social connections will do far more for youy cognitive health than simply doing “brain training” puzzles (though if you like doing puzzles, go for it). The section and the book end with a chapter that ties the ideas in the book together, and provides some practical advice for the inevitable end of life issues we will all have to address as our abilities change.

Successful Aging is an engaging, easy to read, book that is rooted in science but weaves in stories about people who have led active productive lives in their 70’s, 80’s, 90’s a beyond, and also includes the occasional -- well placed -- witty aside from the author.

This is a book that will be useful to most everyone, whether you are thinking of your own life, of the life of a loved one, and want to understand how to help the latter portions of life better.



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Review: Kill Reply All: A Modern Guide to Online Etiquette, from Social Media to Work to Love

Kill Reply All: A Modern Guide to Online Etiquette, from Social Media to Work to Love Kill Reply All: A Modern Guide to Online Etiquette, from Social Media to Work to Love by Victoria Turk
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As someone who has been a user of the internet for a long time I was curious about what Kill Reply All would say, but skeptical that I’d learn a lot. I was wrong. Kill Reply All is a laugh-out-loud-entertaining review of how to communicate which covers many of the styles of interaction we use (phone, text, email, chat, social media) . You’ll learn to think about when certain media are appropriate (or not), and how best to use a medium that is new to you. For example, Slack might be great, but there are times when email is better. And a phone call really only works when you plan it (with a text, say). Even if you don’t agree with the recipes Turk proposes, you’ll have a chance to think about the question.

Context is important: you’ll want to make different choices when interacting with colleagues, partners, friends, and the community on a social network and the chapters are structured along those lines.

Part of the fun of the book is how Turk illustrates the things not to do with examples that you may recognize -- either as things you have seen from others -- and sometimes yourself. (Note: Even if you think it’s only something others do, some self reflection is often the best approach to developing a good etiquette, as you may well fall into some bad habits.)

Though humor pervades the book, there is some really solid, sober advice here. A section at the end about call out culture is particularly worth consideration, and in fact, the last chapter on the “art of community” has concise advice about topics like how to identify Fake News and trolls, and how to distinguish bad behavior from honest interaction errors, and when it’s best to let things slide or simply walk away.

While not a perfect book (some of the suggestions didn't take some situations and professions into account, for example), it was a short fun read. You may get this book for the humor, and/or perhaps to get acquainted with how to use tools your kids, or parents use. But it you are also likely to end up thinking about how you interact with people via your devices, and whether you agree with all of Victoria Turks’ rules of etiquette or not, thinking about it is the first step to better interactions.

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Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Review: You Look Like a Thing and I Love You: How Artificial Intelligence Works and Why It's Making the World a Weirder Place

You Look Like a Thing and I Love You: How Artificial Intelligence Works and Why It's Making the World a Weirder Place You Look Like a Thing and I Love You: How Artificial Intelligence Works and Why It's Making the World a Weirder Place by Janelle Shane
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

With You Look Like a Thing and I Love You, Janelle Shane has given us an amusing, engaging, in depth, and surprisingly approachable explanation of how AI works, what it’s good for (and not good for) and why. This is one of those unique books about technology that’s written for non-technologists, yet manages to be in-depth enough to be a resource for those whose knowledge ranges from “I heard about AI once” to “the concepts are familiar, but coding AI is not my day job.” While I build software systems, and have worked around AI and Machine Learning systems, I’ve not built or worked on their internals. This book inspired me to want to learn more.

As AI (and Machine Learning) in its various forms touches many aspects of our lives, this book is a must read for anyone who wants to know more what AI does well, what it does poorly, and why . You’ll learn about the difference between narrow and general AI, basic concepts like Neural Nets and Markov chains, and how AI’s learn, including the impact of training data on how well they do.

You’ll also learn about how AI systems can go astray, either through incidental issues (poor training data, for example) or malicious actions. While the concepts sound technical. Shane makes them very approachable though clear language, and memorable through humor. Since it’s not a text book on the subject, there may be a few places where more technical minded readers may see a few conceptual details skipped over, but between the notes and references, and the context the book gives you to do a good web search, this is not a major problem.

The style of this book reminds me of some of Mary Roach’s books on science, such as Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, in how it easily mixes humor in with important factual information. At various times in the book Shane provides examples of some AI-Generated “recipes” to show how the wrong training data can lead to bizarre results. My family read some of these aloud and could we on the floor laughing.

In addition to being an excellent primer on AI concepts, I also started thinking about how many of things that set AIs astray are also things that lead humans to the wrong solutions too, even as we are better equipped to compensate. Some recurring themes are being given the wrong definition of the problem (consider incentives at work and how they often lead to the wrong global results) and introducing biases through the examples we learn from, which lead to the wrong solutions. While Shane doesn’t seem to set out to make people understand how to learn better, I can’t help but think that there are lessons in the book for how we can be better at problem solving.

This amusing, thought provoking and educational book got be excited to learn more about the subject. As I read the book, I wanted to slot time into my schedule to experiment with some machine learning code to better understand the ideas. But even if that isn’t something you are likely to do, the book can inspire you to think more critically about your experiences with Chatbots, recommendation engines, and other places where AI and ML technologies touch your life.

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Friday, January 3, 2020

Review: The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation

The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety: Defining the Path to Inclusion and Innovation by Timothy R. Clark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The concept of “Psychological Safety” is both often misunderstood, and essential to effective (and even innovative) groups. “Psychological Safety” is about how comfortable people are sharing and challenging ideas. Psychological Safety is a very practical matter. It can be related to physical safety as well (for example, a factory when team members are reluctant to point out safety issues), and business success and innovation. Timothy Clark’s new book (which I got an advance copy of) explains the concept in a clear way and defines a framework you can use to understand where your group -- be it a work group or a social group -- stands, and how it can get better.

After an overview, the book goes through the 4 stages: Inclusion Safety, Learner Safety, and Contributor safety, and Innovator safety, defines each and explains impact on the team dynamic, and what is necessary for each to exist. The book helped me to better understand why some groups I’ve worked with felt pleasant and productive, and why others felt less so. The framework makes reference to other concepts you may have heard, such as Grit, Teaming and safety culture.

At the core, the book is about business, but the author used examples and analyses from a range of domains, which is both good and bad. The good is that it makes it clear how universal these ideas are, in school, work, and interpersonal life. The bad is that the book lacks a bit or coherence that could have made it a great book. As the book progresses from discussing inclusion safety to challenger safety, the focus shift more toward business teams, but maintains connections toward more global society issues.

Personal, and third party stories from the business and non-business contexts as well as ideas from the literature on safety and related fields. Chapters end with summaries of key points and actions to take, and end notes and references can point you in the right direction if you wish to go deeper.

This book is a quick, actionable read. You’ll learn things you can (and should) to do move your group to the higher levels in the framework, and understand the situations that might be less salvageable. Those in a leadership role, such as managers will find it useful to understand . And those not in that explicit role will benefit both from the context it provides to help you to understand why you might be feeling some discomfort in your work place, and also the small things you can do on your own to make it better.

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Review: Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World

Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World by Olga Khazan My rating: 4 of 5 stars When ...