Five Books to Re-read This Year

Day 5 of the Daily Stoic’s 14 Day Stoic Challenge is to pick 5 books that were impactful in your life and re-read them, with a focus on studying them more deeply than when you last read them. The idea of course being that with each re-read you will get more and different lessons out of them.

I want to elaborate the why behind my selections, and neither the challenge’s Slack channel, nor my remaining social social media channels seem appropriate, so I am putting these here, mainly for myself to be able to come back to after I’ve read each.

Anabasis by Xenophon

Written by the Athenian Xenophon, it details the return trip of a group of 10,000 Greek mercenaries after the defeat of their patron, Cyrus the Younger, in the battle of Cunaxa in 401 BCE, outside Babylon. I originally read this when I was an NCO in the US Army National Guard between deployments to Bosnia and Iraq. I remember being struck by how little has changed in terms of leading people, and human dynamics. Certainly technology has changed, our view of the world has changed, and religious views are quite different, but I remember that the leadership challenges he faced were all too familiar.

I have therefore long considered this to be one of the greatest books on leadership (that you’ve probably never heard of). So I am eager to see how that holds up, and as I served right at the site of Babylon for most of my deployment to Iraq, I am curious to see if re-reading this brings out any other connections.

Tao Te Ching by Lao-tzu

I am using the Stephen Mitchell translation. The Tao Te Ching was the first book I read from a school of belief that was not the Catholic Bible, and it was the start of a reading exploration that ultimately led to me to Stoicism. I remember that I felt like I had found a whole new way to look at the world, and I remember being a little surprised at how much the Tao seemed to have in common with Lucas’s Force. I feel like there is a lot of shared wisdom between Stoicism and the Tao, including the notion that there is no good or bad beyond the value we choose to assign to things. So we will see how that holds up.

The Problems of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell

I remember this book from my first philosophy class in college at the University of Connecticut, and I remember that class being the first time I realized that philosophy was not a stuffy subject for insufferable snobs. That it could both be interesting and a tool for thinking deeply about things we assume, and a way to work on oneself and our beliefs.

Your Money or Your Life by Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin

I am re-reading my original 1993 version, though I may eventually read the revision that several FIRE thinkers have written about including Mr. Money Mustache, who I read regularly. Reading this set me on the path of my own financial education and led me to take control of all of my own finances, and to buck conventional wisdom on money and investing. I never fully embraced the almost hippy approach of having minimal attachments, no home, travel often, extremely minimalist possession, but it did teach me to value my time carefully and not trade it for things I didn’t need. And I never again took on debt other than a mortgage. I do remember Joe advocating buying 30 years bonds as the means of financial independence, so that part won’t hold up, but I do want to see how much of their thinking remains relevant and how broadly it is reflected in the FIRE community.

*A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is simply one of the greatest writers of our time, and I have read nearly everything he has written, but this and A Walk in the Woods are my favorites. This one for the simple fact that it really makes you realize just how much of a miracle just existing really is, for me it was a tonic for being too wrapped up in work and myself. And the stories about the rivalry between scientists and how human they all actually are is just fascinating. (And you have to have some sympathy for someone who has spent their entire professional life invested in something that has turned out to be wrong – you might resist that too.)

I will post back to this as I complete each book and any new observations I have to share.

What will you read?

On leaving Sapient and 3 lessons learnt

A few months ago I left Sapient, the company where I had worked for 15 years.

Whaaaaat? You left Sapient!?!?

A career of business cards
A career of business cards

That has been the most common response I’ve gotten, and it’s understandable as 15 years is a long time, and being a “Sape” had in many ways become part of my identity. As I wrote my farewell email, it struck me how many people I wanted to thank for the help and support in my career who are no longer at Sapient. So thank you to the innumerable people I have worked with over the years for your advice, support, encouragement and laughs – in ways big and small you made an impact on my career and my life.

As I move on to a new chapter in my career, I took some time to reflect on what I learned, and want to share the 3 I feel are most impactful. These are by no means unique observations about Sapient, nor unique to Sapient. However, in my 20 years of professional experience, including other consultancies, two startups, and dozens of clients, finding a organization with these attributes is rare.

 

Culture

You cannot talk about Sapient, especially in the early years, without talking about culture. We were obsessed with building a culture that would build a great company. How we chose to define our culture is interesting in itself, and is the subject of an HBS case study. What your culture is should be unique to each company and relate to your business context and purpose. However how you craft, promote, and use your culture is what I want to highlight here. My observation is that corporate culture is either what you get or what you do. Meaning, if your culture is a set of values that hang on the wall, rather than a shared set of expectations and values that you use every day to make decisions and shape behaviour, then you aren’t crafting a culture, and you will simply get the culture that your employees bring in with them. To make a culture a cohesive force I believe you have to use it daily, you have to talk about it with your teams, you have to visibly use it in your decision making. And most difficult of all, you have to, as we used to say, reject non-fits like a virus. Sounds harsh, but time and again I have seen people of great skill and experience who were culturally poisonous retained in organizations well past the point where the damage they were doing was greater than the benefits they brought to company. No doubt this is a hard decision to make, but forcing the conversation is the difference between believing in your culture as an asset versus a slogan.

Openness

Openness means different things to different people, but in the context of Sapient it meant being direct and generous with your feedback to others, and more difficult, open to hearing the generous amount of feedback you were going to get. Every day. I believe this was essential to developing a learning organization, where at our best we were in a state of continuous improvement for years. We would debrief as a team not just at the end of an iteration, but after every client presentation, meeting, or checkpoint. During our intense workshop sessions we would debrief at lunch and the end of day. By debrief, I mean we went around the room and critiqued ourselves not just as a team but each other. Now, some feedback and coaching experts will tell you that constructive feedback should be given one on one, not publicly. And that works for individual coaching, but we were trying to raise the game of the whole team, and it worked. If everyone heard everyone else’s feedback they could learn from each other. It requires a culture of trust at the team level for sure, and it wasn’t for everyone, but if you had “purple in your blood” as we used to say, it was what you expected.

People

Growth Model
Growth Model

Like many companies Sapient certainly focused on hiring bright, talented, ambitious people. And being in Cambridge, MA certainly gave us access to lots of that kind of talent. But it was a focus on people, and in particular people growth, as we used to call it, that I feel accelerated  the growth of the company. Almost all companies today say people are there most important asset. But executives and managers at many companies don’t behave that way. At the time, Sapient made a decision to aggressively manage the growth of the entire company.  So what does that mean? It meant in our case not just the feedback intensive culture and openness discussed above. It also meant constantly looking at our team, whether it was a project team, an account team, the office or region’s leadership, and actively looking for, or creating, opportunities to push people out of their comfort zones. Because we believed (and we experienced) that is where people grew the most. It was our own take on that old adage that sometimes the role makes the person. And that is so unlike most of corporate America in my experience, where if we need a new leadership role the most likely place to look for it is outside.

What was also really different is we used to talk about it as a whole office, and I remember we’d draw the simple diagram to the right on the board to explain, we are choosing to live right on the edge of growth and failure, because that is how we are all going to grow the most. And just as importantly, when people struggled or failed, that had to okay. It meant we knew where they needed coaching and support, and at that moment, it’s critical to dial it back a little and give them the support to work on those growth areas. Was that perfectly executed? I am sure not, and I may have been lucky in the people who I reported to, but nonetheless, that was definitely my experience for the bulk of my tenure.

So that’s my two cents. Disagree or have something to add, leave a comment.