Spaceman by Mike Massimino

“Every generation of astronauts need a storyteller — a person with wit, humor and passion, who has lived our collective dreams of space exploration and returned to tell us all about it. Mike Massimino is that person. He’s that astronaut. And this is his story.”

— Neil DeGrasse Tyson

Why do we send people to space? We do it to further the scientific mission of space exploration — right? But that’s only part of the story. It’s often cheaper to send unmanned probes. The other reason we send people into space is because we can. Massimino says, “The Russians got to the moon before we did. But no one cared because they didn’t put people up there.”  In fact, the budget for NASA didn’t really take off until Kennedy made it a race to put a man on the moon. Then the Apollo program became HUGE (peaking at over 4% of the federal budget). The book Spaceman by Mike Massimino (read by the author) does an excellent job of telling that story of exploration.

But in order for people to really care about space flight, astronauts need to tell their stories. Massimino does just that. Here are my big 3 takeaways from the book:

  1. It’s hard to become an astronaut. As with any expedition, the journey to become an astronaut is an extremely difficult one. Massimino wanted to be an astronaut since he was a six-year-old growing up on Long Island and dedicated his life to the goal. Focused on this, he got a graduate degree at MIT and worked at the Johnson Space Center with the hope that he could increase his chances. While doing this, he was rejected four times. The most serious issue was his unaided eyesight which was 20/350 vs. a required 20/200. He eventually overcame this hurdle as well, spending years going to vision therapy to improve his eyesight within the acceptable range.
  2. Astronauts are heroes. Heroes are people who take a huge personal risk in the pursuit of something greater. When astronauts go up into space, they know they might not make it back. He tells the story of how he dealt with the death of his friend Elon Ramon and the other shuttle astronauts that died in the Columbia disaster. I remember being shocked when the Columbia blew up, thinking “How could this happen?!” But the astronauts knew that they’ve got about a one in a hundred chance of exploding up in space. Their families know that this might be the last time they see them. Massimino talks about the process that NASA has for this. NASA makes sure that each family as an astronaut “family escort” when they go up in space. This is the person who ensures that if things do go wrong, there’s an astronaut taking care of the family and ushering them away. The most telling anecdote is that the family must pack all of their bags before a space flight — even though they’re coming back to the same hotel that night if all goes well.
  3. But that doesn’t mean that the expedition it can’t be fun. It’s fun for the reader when Massimino shares his stories about the Mets or John Glenn. But he also makes the astronaut training fun. For example, one of the big requirements of spaceflight is to spend 25 hours a month flying in a T-38 trainer. That’s the equivalent of 2 round trips from New York to LA each month. But Massimino shows how awesome that can be. You can go up and do acrobatic maneuvers and pretend that you’re in the movie Top Gun. Or you can just head to any airport in the US to grab some lunch. And you’re MANDATED to do it.

Overall it’s a really amazing book. It’s a compelling read/listen and I learned a whole lot. What else could you want in a book?

 

Being OK With Uncertainty OR the Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace

The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace (audible) is the amazing story of Robert Peace, a prodigy who grew up in inner city Newark, got into Yale, excelled there and ended up dead as a drug dealer back in Newark.

Robert Peace

It’s a journey into a world that I’ve never really known, except for the Yale section which seems pretty accurate. The author, Jeff Hobbs, Rob’s Yale roommate wrote this story mainly to understand what happened to Rob and to share it with others. After Rob’s funeral, many people saw this amazing man as just another drug dealer but Jeff started getting so many stories that he decided to write a book. Jeff does the most amazing job digging through the story. He interviews Rob’s drug dealer friends who were forbidden from attending the wedding. He interviewed Rob’s boss when he was a drug dealer. He interviewed Yale masters and deans. And he got a whole lot of material from Rob’s secret society friends who he’d told his life story.

What’s amazing is that as much as you’d like the author to give an answer, he doesn’t. It’s frustrating but makes it that much more worthwhile. It’s a book about listening, not talking. Jeff talks about not giving answers here:

Maria Popova talks about how rare it is to not give answers and live with uncertainty in the first of her 10 Learnings from 10 Years of Brain Pickings. She says that we live in a culture where people are pressured to have an opinion, even when they have no basis for that opinion. Because they’re uncomfortable saying “I don’t know,” they fake it and just regurgitate something they read or saw on TV. They don’t invest the time to truly have their own opinion because they don’t feel comfortable staying in that nebulous zone of uncertainty. But, she says, “It’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.” For a great little blog post on the value of uncertainty, read Maria’s musing on John Keats and “Negative Capability.”

If you want to see the opposite, take a look at this guy who thinks he has the answer. In one of the most jarring questions I’ve seen in a long time, he wants Jeff to comment on his theory that Rob Peace had a death wish. It’s clear that the questioner is not comfortable living with uncertainty.

Read the book and wallow in this unfamiliar space with wonderful characters, no answers and no heroes.

 

The Halo Effect by Phil Rosenzweig

Have you ever had a thought that the whole world was crazy? That there was something so painfully obvious that you couldn’t believe everyone was missing? For me, it was the idea that all business books had the same plot:

  1. Let me tell you about this new business theory I have!
  2. I will prove this new theory about business by showing that it applies to great companies like Wal*Mart, Apple, etc.!

I kept wondering why it was only me. Then I came across the book The Halo Effect (with great summary here) by Phil Rosenzweig.

Rosensweig’s key point is that companies only have one independent variable that can be measured — how good it’s doing financially. Companies that are doing well have all these awesome attributes: great leadership, great culture, etc. And companies that are doing poorly have all these horrible features: poor leadership, poor strategy, etc. He uses the example of Cisco:

As an example, when Cisco Systems was growing rapidly, in the late 1990s, it was widely praised by journalists and researchers for its brilliant strategy, masterful management of acquisitions, and superb customer focus. When the tech bubble burst, many of the same observers were quick to make the opposite attributions. Cisco, the journalists and researchers claimed, now had a flawed strategy, haphazard acquisition management, and poor customer relations. On closer examination, Cisco really had not changed much—a decline in its performance led people to see the company differently. Indeed, Cisco staged a remarkable turnaround and today is still one of the leading tech companies.

This isn’t an exercise in analysis or science — it’s an exercise in storytelling. People look at how well the company did and create a story retrospectively to explain it. Rosenzweig quotes Eliot Aronson who says “people are rationalizing beings rather than rational beings.”

But how can these books be so off when they do so much analysis? They talk about going through tens of thousands of pages of financial reports and business press. But maybe this is just theater to make the findings seem more valid than they really are. The less we know about a topic the more we need to dress it up. I remember when I asked a math professor “Why don’t you see very many well-dressed mathematicians?

Math is different from other fields in that you don’t have to prove you’re an authority in math. Your math does it for you. You can solve the problems, they can’t. In English and the Humanities, it’s much more subjective, and so you need some extra way of establishing yourself as an authority figure.

The core problem in analyzing great companies is that there isn’t any good data. Criteria like leadership, customer orientation and culture are subjective. And the financial success of the business leads directly to the contagion of the other metrics.  Rosenzweig says:

The halo effect is especially damaging because it often compromises the quality of data used in research. Indeed, many studies of business performance—as well as some articles that have appeared in journals such as Harvard Business Review and McKinsey Quarterly and in academic business journals—rely on data contaminated by the halo effect. These studies praise themselves for the vast amount of data they have accrued but overlook the fact that if the data aren’t valid, it really doesn’t matter how much was gathered or how sophisticated the analysis appears to be.

The upshot is that business books are telling you stories about great companies and rationalizing the greatness of those companies.  For managers who are looking to improve their companies, these books won’t be helpful. The books are peddling quick fixes and “one size fits all” strategies. But these strategies certainly won’t work for all companies. Managers and leaders need to understand that their role is to be agile and do what’s best in their specific role. They need to look at their company and their environment and determine what strategies will have the best chance of success.

Dr. Seuss Books Read by Celebrities

Audible has a large number of Dr. Seuss Books read by Celebrities. Here’s a sampling.

Green Eggs and Ham and Other Servings of Dr. Seuss which includes my favorite — One Fish Two Fish read by David Hyde Pierce

  • “Green Eggs and Ham” read by Jason Alexander
  • “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” read by David Hyde Pierce
  • “Oh the Thinks You Can Think!” read by Michael McKean
  • “I’m Not Going to Get Up Today” read by Jason Alexander
  • “Oh Say Can You Say?” read by Michael McKean
  • “Fox in Socks” read by David Hyde Pierce
  • “I Can Read With My Eyes Shut” read by Michael McKean
  • “Hop on Pop” read by David Hyde Pierce
  • “Dr. Seuss’s ABC” read by Jason Alexander

The Cat in the Hat and Other Dr. Seuss Favorites

  • The Cat in the Hat read by Kelsey Grammer
  • Horton Hears a Who read by Dustin Hoffman
  • How the Grinch Stole Christmas read by Walter Matthau
  • Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are? read by John Cleese
  • The Lorax read by Ted Danson
  • Yertle the Turtle, Gertrude McFuzz, and The Big Brag read by John Lithgow
  • Thidwick, the Big-Hearted Moose read by Mercedes McCambridge
  • Horton Hatches the Egg read by Billy Crystal
  • The Cat in the Hat Comes Back read by Kelsey Grammer

The Goal by Elihu Goldratt

The book The Goal by Elihu Goldratt is one of the best business books I’ve read. I was assigned the book in business school but it holds up even better in the real world. The key idea is that in a factory, the entire production of any part is limited by the machine with the least capacity. And similarly, the entire production of the factory is limited by the capacity bottlenecks. So you can have a whole factory at work, all the machines are working as fast as they can but they’re just piling up inventory in front of that key machine that has limited capacity. In a software development shop, it’s the IT operations group might be the bottleneck like in the book The Phoenix Project. In a strategy shop it’s the amount of time people want to devote to reading and implementing these projects. When looking at any knowledge business you see lots of people doing work but most of these people are creating work that prevents the constrained resource from getting its critical work done. Once you look for the constraints, you start to see the world in a very different way.

The other thing about The Goal is the way the book is produced:

  1. Goldratt hired a co-writer Jeff Cox, a novelist, who brings out the lessons of the book in a very easy to digest format. He even ties in some personal problems and office politics to make the book more engaging.
  2. The audio version of the book is dramatized as a play. There are a host of actors playing the different parts. When Alex is on the machine floor, you can even hear the machines at work. This is certainly the best produced business audiobook I’ve ever listened to.
  3. Apparently there’s also a movie that can be used for training purposes. It’s the most expensive DVD I’ve ever seen at $895 a copy! However, for those of you who are fans of the book, you can see an excerpt of the famous Herbie scene online for free!

A Man for All Markets by Edward Thorpe

I finished listening to A Man for All Markets. It’s an amazing book on a number of fronts.  Here’s a few of the impressive bits:

  1. There’s a lot of people who write memoirs like this that seem a bit over the top. But Thorpe is a bit of an over the top genius generally credited with the creation of card counting in blackjack, risk arbitrage and hedge funds and wearable computers.
  2. He might have won the Nobel prize but decided on a different path. Thorpe had to decide whether to be a businessman or a professor first. When he published his book Beat the Market he showed how to correctly price options. Instead of pushing this further, Thorpe decided to trade on his findings. Eventually others published what became known as the Black Scholes model for option pricing which eventually won the Nobel Prize..
  3. Thorpe seems to have known everyone in finance, from Warren Buffett to Bernie Madoff (who he knew was a fraud decades ago). He even talks about how Buffett used to challenge people to a game of dice with non-transitive dice.

Overall I really loved the audiobook. Thorpe narrates the book himself and does a pretty darn good job. This is from an 85 year old man worth about $800 million.

 

Inertia or “How Did I Get Here?”

This is one of my favorite quotes from Nick Hornby’s book High Fidelity:

You see those pictures of people in Pompeii and you think, how weird: one quick game of dice after your tea and you’re frozen, and that’s how people remember you for the next few thousand years. Suppose it was the first game of dice you’ve ever played? Suppose you were only doing it to keep your friend Augustus company? Suppose you’d just at that moment finished a brilliant poem or something? Wouldn’t it be annoying to be commemorated as a dice player? Sometimes I look at my shop (because I haven’t let the grass grow under my feet the last fourteen years! About ten years ago I borrowed the money to start my own!), and at my regular Saturday punters, and I know exactly how those inhabitants of Pompeii must feel, if they could feel anything (although the fact that they can’t is kind of the point of them). I’m stuck in this pose, this shop-managing pose, forever, because of a few short weeks in 1979 when I went a bit potty for a while. It could be worse, I guess; I could have walked into an army recruiting office, or the nearest abattoir.

In the past I totally know what he meant. These days, I’m feeling pretty good!

Audible Daily Deal

I love Audible’s Daily Deal. For between $0.99 and $4.99 Audible has one deeply discounted book available per day. I get an email from Audible every day to stay on top of this. It’s a fun little thing for me to buy a few times a month that gets me really excited. I’ve found a number of fun things to read like As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride written and read by Cary Elwes (Wesley), The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings of Authenticity, Connection, and Courage by Brene Brown, Cabin Pressure (a British Radio Comedy starring Benedict Cumberbatch and a Dramatized version of Star Wars. All of these were great listens and things that I wouldn’t have listened to otherwise. I like the immediacy of a Daily Deal in a lot of ways, especially ones that cost about as much as a cup of coffee. Instead of choosing the best possible book to buy, I just have to decide “Do I buy this one or not?” Also, I get great pleasure in being able to purchase a book that I really want at a serious discount!

Tips Not Answers

From Lewis Menand’s review of Smart, Faster, Better, I learned that all self help books have the same goal — to get us to be the people we know we should be. These books don’t have have any new solutions — they just reiterate common sense through the current cultural or businesses lenses. Menand points out that Dale Carnegie’s famous book How to Win Friends and Influence People (which I love) could be summed up in the sentence “If you are nice to people, they will like you.” But, he continues, the purpose of these books is not “What would Jesus do? but How, exactly, would He do it?” Carnegie’s book has some great tips on how to be nice to people like, “Be a good listener and focus on what the other person is interested in.” To me, it’s a fundamental point that none of these books, as much as they try, have the answer — we already know the answer. But they do have some good tips and tricks on how help us anyway.

Trigger Yourself to Stay on Track

Marshall Goldsmith wrote a great book called Triggers: Creating Behavior That Lasts — Becoming the Person You Want to Be. He talks about how we react to our environment more frequently and powerfully than we’d like to admit. So Goldsmith places triggers in the environment each day to help drive progress on key goals. I’ve been doing this for about a year and it’s really life changing. If you’d like to try it yourself you can take his basic survey at Ask Me Every.