When I moved to Boston to attend graduate school, my uncle living there worked in the book publishing business. He saw infinite beauty in books, not just the information contained between the covers but the covers themselves and how they were bound. He was appalled by the stack of newspapers and magazines I was always carrying around and the considerable time I spent reading them.
“You should be reading books,” he said.
My uncle turned me on to Mortimer Adler’s 1940 classic, “How to Read a Book.” Adler argued that books are key to understanding life, and he had a term for people like me who derived much of their knowledge from reading newspapers and magazines: “Learned fools.” Newspaper and magazines just provide a jumble of facts, he said. Books are key to making sense of them. (I can only imagine what Adler would have thought about people whose world views are derived from Facebook and Twitter).
Reading newspapers once gave me pleasure, but no more. With the exception of the Wall Street Journal and to a lesser degree the Washington Post, I don’t trust or respect the dozen or so publications I read regularly. Their bias and dishonesty is disconcerting and frequently angers me. I don’t want to know what’s trending on Twitter, the source of much news these days.
I’ve heeded my uncle’s counsel to focus on reading books, albeit some forty years too late. It has lifted my spirits and boosted my confidence. Turns out I was right about some things that younger colleagues advised me I was “too old” to understand.
Allow me to share some insights from four great books I’ve recently read and the impact they’ve had on me.
How to Win Friends & Influence People in The Digital Age
By Dale Carnegie & Associates
I first read Dale Carnegie’s classic self-help book about 12 years ago and quickly discovered the magic of his advice. A woman I dated a few times who didn’t take kindly to my not wanting to pursue a relationship sent me a blistering email offering me a litany of insights about my shortcomings and a recollection of events that contained numerous falsehoods. My impulse was to promptly respond with guns blazing attacking the woman’s memory and pointedly noting some shortcomings of her own.
Instead, I heeded Carnegie’s counsel to affirm what’s good, demonstrate concern, and act with kindness. My reply email acknowledged some positive traits the woman had, I apologized for my failure to meet her expectations, and despite her wishing me a tragic fate, I wished her well. To my surprise, the woman promptly responded with a sincere apology.
After recently posting some items on my LinkedIn page that I later regretted, I realized it was time to re-read Carnegie’s classic. My posts contained a liberal dose of vitriol and snark I thought quite clever when I wrote them, but I was embarrassed reading them a day or two later.
I still had the original version of Carnegie’s book, but 20 pages or so into it I wondered if the book was still relevant in the age of the Donald Trump presidency. Trump mercilessly defies all of Carnegie’s guiding principles, and he became president. Fortunately, Carnegie’s book was updated for the digital age in 2011. It’s more relevant than ever.
The updated book addresses a popular but misguided measurement of influence: Number of Twitter followers. “When are we going to learn that millions of followers does not always equal influence,” the revised book cites Canadian social media consultant Mitch Joel as saying. “Smaller, stronger groups are where influence lies.”
For example (and this one is mine), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has more than five million Twitter followers. However, it would be a mistake to assume that all of AOC’s followers do so because they value or respect her wisdom and insights. AOC attracts attention because she delights in making controversial and confrontational comments.
AOC and her three “Squad” colleagues were the only ones to vote against a recent House emergency border funding bill. Nancy Pelosi got it right: “All these people have their public whatever and their Twitter world,” she said. “But they didn’t have any following. They’re four people and that’s how many votes they got.” AOC hasn’t been responsible for the passage of any bills. Most of the candidates she’s endorsed have been defeated.
By comparison, Rep. Katie Porter, who has made a name for herself taking on powerful CEOs like Chase’s Jamie Dimon, has only 212,000 Twitter followers. But Porter is the one feared by prominent lawyers and financial services executives. Yet the media promotes the Squad even when reporting on Porter.
Carnegie’s timeless wisdom includes admitting mistakes “quickly and emphatically,” initiating engagement “in a friendly way,” and to avoid arguments. I imagine most people on Twitter would dismiss Carnegie as a nut. But while reading the revised edition I was inspired to tone down some of my LinkedIn comments and make them less judgmental. I felt they had lost their punch, but to my surprise my post views increased.
This paragraph in the revised edition particularly resonated with me:
It is easy to allow a certain tone to creep into our online communications, a tone that tells another person that we believe he or she is wrong. Sometimes we don’t even realize the tone is there until we read what we’ve written sometime later. We believe we are being diplomatic, but each word, presented in absence of expression or a soft tone of voice, is usually a condemnation. This is one of the reasons settling disputes is best accomplished in person.
The New York Times slammed the revised Carnegie book because of its sometimes stilted language and frequent use of corporate speak. The criticism is fair, but few people are blessed with Carnegie’s flair for gentle and warm engagement. The author(s) have done an admirable job keeping his wisdom relevant in the digital age.
As for Trump, admittedly he’s president but it’s debatable whether he’s influential beyond the power that comes with his office. America was polarized when Trump was elected, and his leadership has failed to unite the country. He can’t instill loyalty in his own people. The only real influence Trump has exhibited is an ability to bring out the worst traits in people.
I’m striving to adhere to Carnegie’s principles in building an audience for this blog, but it’s an uphill battle. Expressing negativity comes much more naturally to me. I still haven’t figured out how to articulate my disappointment with the media and other things I’m passionate about in a positive way. I’m mindful of the advice a reporter I admire gave me: No one wants to read a film critic who hates films.
I’ll keep trying. And if you can’t see that, well, then – screw you!
Just kidding. Carnegie’s imparted wisdom includes having a sense of humor and not taking yourself too seriously.
By Cal Newport
by Cal Newport
Millennial and tenured Georgetown University computer Cal Newport warns that technological advancements ultimately are ultimately going to divide the U.S. workforce into two camps: The increasingly rare individuals capable of focusing intensely on demanding cognitive tasks and those responsible for the care and feeding of robots. If you’re on Facebook or Twitter, best to start burnishing your robotic handmaiden skills.
While you may think that Facebook and Twitter are harmless distractions, Newport explains how toxic and brain-limiting these sites are. A person only has so much “Deep Work” bandwidth and most social media sites burn considerable battery power while providing little or no benefit. Researchers in Italy have validated that Twitter erodes your intelligence.
Newport knows and dispels all the common arguments justifying time spent on Facebook, including the fallacy the site keeps you connected to friends and family. He also debunks the myth that Twitter is a critical tool for promoting your “brand” and building an audience, particularly for authors and journalists.
Some writers who I consider especially thoughtful aren’t on Twitter, including Michael Lewis, among the best business authors of modern times, and Malcolm Gladwell, who also has written multiple bestselling books. Newport says his ability to publish sufficient scholarly works to attain a tenured position at a major university while in his early thirties is because he isn’t on Facebook or Twitter.
For those addicted to Facebook and Twitter, Newport will guide you on how to break free. “Deep Work” is the more compelling of his two books, but “Digital Minimalism” provides some valuable add-on insights.
Validating Newport’s prediction, the Wall Street Journal recently published an article about Amazon’s plans to retrain one-third of its workforce. The article contained this line:
“Hourly workers in fulfillment centers can retrain for IT support roles, such as managing the machines that operate throughout the facilities.
Out of The Blue
By Jan Wong
Jan Wong was one of Canada’s most high-profile and tenacious journalists whose career was derailed by a two-paragraph analytical insight requested and approved by the top editors of the national Globe and Mail newspaper. Wong’s passing comment about Quebec’s historical francophone culture caused a national furor, but Wong’s editors let her take the fall and deal alone with the ensuing mob backlash and death threats. Wong sank into a clinical depression, could no longer write, and was fired.
“Out of the Blue” is a heart wrenching book about depression and how the disease unexpectedly claimed a Type A person whose drive and ambition once knew no bounds. It’s also an insightful book about journalism and how newspapers, like other businesses, are rife with CYA people who when the going gets tough, they get going. Although the Globe and Mail is a Canadian newspaper, it is typical of how major American newspapers function (Wong previously worked at the Wall Street Journal and Boston Globe).
From the get-go you will quickly understand why Wong achieved great prominence. She describes events in such detail that I felt a knot in my stomach when an HR letter that was intended to torment and intimidate her arrives by courier. I felt I was actually in the room during her therapy sessions. And Wong has the inimitable Canadian dry wit that she inserts in unexpected places, so I suddenly found myself laughing during some very intense moments. (Example: A policeman named White arrives to investigate a death threat. Wong muses to herself: He’s White. I’m Wong).
Wong is far from perfect and she candidly discloses her history of self-absorption, particularly with her sister who stood by her throughout the ordeal, despite it destroying the family’s famous Montreal restaurant. The book is part Rocky, as Wong took on the Globe and Mail and won, with a tinge of Thelma and Louise. I quite enjoyed how Wong and her sister finessed their way past security on the weekend to get her belongings because she didn’t want anyone handling them. Wong never wavered in standing up to the Globe, which is why I admire her so much.
I strongly recommend this book for anyone struggling with depression, particularly when life throws an unfair curve ball. It has a happy ending because Wong beat her wicked disease. She is now a journalism professor at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick. Wong’s students are learning from the best, and the Globe and Mail, with its continuous downsizing of experienced reporters, most likely will never again be blessed with a reporter of Wong’s talent and dedication.