Business Books: The cover vs. the core

7 12 2009

For a person who deeply loves Biology and keeps blogging about Darwin, I have to confess: I never read The Origin of Species, only parts of it. There, I said it. I actually tried to go through it a few times, the last attempt being via Stanza on my iPhone:

Stanza for the iPhone: Origin of Species

Heck, I haven’t even skimmed Origin‘s Cliff’s Notes (that’s just a figure of speech: there’s none, actually) so you can say that my knowledge of what Darwin said or thought is like second-hand smoking or back-seat driving: mostly hear-say. Some saving grace are those 5 years spent at University studying Biology. Furthermore, I would guess that most Biology students (at least in Brazil) have never seen a copy of Origin either.

On a smaller scale, many of us have a similar approach with business books. We have not read most of them – well except maybe Sacha did :-) , but we often have an opinion about them, typically based on indirect evidence.

I usually don’t go through the same book twice – life is short and time is at a premium, but I recently made an exception with The Wisdom of Crowds (2004) and The Long Tail (2006), two books that have been much maligned by supposedly championing the advent of new business models that never materialized or that failed to deliver at the promise.

The Long Tail and The Wisdom of Crowds

The Long Tail and The Wisdom of Crowds

Their respective authors even had faceoffs of sorts with the excellent Malcolm Gladwell of The Tipping Point and Blink fame, one friendly, the other not so much. By the way, if you are unfamiliar with Slate’s Book Club feature, you are in for a treat. It’s kind of The Next Supermodel for the written world. I know that doesn’t sound very enticing, but the series is really good.

The major problem I see with both books is not their content: it’s their covers. Both books are fairly balanced in their core and depict scenarios showing both supporting evidence and possible shortcomings for their arguments. But their covers are not as nuanced. Why the future of business is selling less of more and Why the many are smarter than the few, besides sounding like catch phrases written by the same marketing wiz, are hardly shy in the over-promising department.

My learning going through the re-reading process is that I have a much better appreciation for the content of these books now that they don’t have all the buzz around them. It’s like listening to popular songs from the past years after they fell in oblivion. You can more clearly see their actual merits and limitations, without being so influenced by the media. So, if you haven’t yet, give them a try, you may still learn a thing or two, no matter if you believe in their premises or not.

I can’t help but think that, if The Origin of Species was published today, instead of the dull sub-title The preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life, it would bring something like: Why everything you knew about life will change forever.

The Origin of Species, original cover

The Origin of Species, original cover (Darwin Online)

Five things I didn’t know about Darwin

28 02 2009

You should probably know by now that in 2009 we celebrate 200 years of Charles Darwin’s birth and 150 years since “The Origin of Species” was first published. I’ve been feasting on all the information flooding in the media about him, and I learned quite a bit about the man and the book in the last few months. Here’s my top 5 list, in no particular order.

1. A dinasty of sorts
The last publication by Darwin, written just 2 weeks before he died, was about a tiny clam found on a beetle leg. Nothing particularly interesting there. The person sending Charles the specimen was Walter Drawbridge Crick, a shoemaker and amateur naturalist. Even less remarkable, one could say, until you learn that Walter would eventually have a grandson named Francis, of Watson & Crick’s double helix fame, arguably the second most important insight in Biology, and perhaps in all sciences (Source: National Geographic Magazine).

2. Evolution
The word “Evolution”, so associated with Darwin in our collective mind, never appears in “The Origin of Species”. The closest you get is the last word in the last sentence of the book, a poetic gem of scientific literature: “There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.” You can check that yourself by downloading a PDF version of the book here (Source: Quirks and Quarks podcast, CBC).

3. Survival of the fittest
Even more puzzling is the fact that the term “survival of the fittest” was first coined by Herbert Spencer in the book “The principles of biology” (1864), and only shows up in late editions of Origin, duly acknowledging Spencer’s authorship: “I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term natural selection, in order to mark its relation to man’s power of selection.  But the expression often used by Mr. Herbert Spencer, of the Survival of the Fittest, is more accurate, and is sometimes equally convenient.”. (Sources: The Phrase Finder and Gutemberg project).

4. The destiny of species
Long before coming up with his theory about where the species came from, many of Charles’ objects of study ended up in his stomach. Darwin used to eat several of the animals he helped describing, including, but not limited to, water-hogs (capivaras for Brazilians, a REALLY big rat, in fact the largest rodent in the world), birds of prey like the caracara, and armadillos. I guess that to provide a comprehensive description of a species, behaviour and looks were not enough: the more information the better :-) . I learned about this bizarre piece of trivia while watching the excellent “Darwin’s Legacy” course by Stanford University, available in iTunes U., but you can find a very good description of Darwin’s culinary adventures here.

5. Brazil according to Darwin
Charles, to put it mildly, didn’t enjoy much his time in Brazil, affirming at the end of his “Voyage of the Beagle” travelog: “On the 19th of August we finally left the shores of Brazil. I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country.” I’m not sure if slavery in Brazil was worse than in other parts of the world, but being the last country in the Western hemisphere to abolish slavery suggests that the Brazilian society of the 18th century relied heavily on it, to the point that even today Brazil still has the second largest population of black origin in the world (after Nigeria). On the other side, Darwin was awed by the forests in Brazil: “Among the scenes which are deeply impressed on my mind, none exceed in sublimity the primeval forests undefaced by the hand of man; whether those of Brazil, where the powers of Life are predominant, or those of Tierra del Fuego, where Death and decay prevail.  Both are temples filled with the varied productions of the God of Nature: — no one can stand in these solitudes unmoved, and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body.” Both quotes are a bit surprising given their quasi-spiritual tone. Finally, to conclude on a lighter note, this is Darwin’s account of Carnival folies in Salvador, Bahia, written on March 4th, 1832:

This day is the first of the Carnival, but Wickham, Sullivan & myself nothing undaunted were determined to face its dangers. — These dangers consist in being unmercifully pelted by wax balls full of water & being wet through by large tin squirts. — We found it very difficult to maintain our dignity whilst walking through the streets. — Charles the V has said that he was a brave man who could snuff a candle with his fingers without flinching; I say it is he who can walk at a steady pace, when buckets of water on each side are ready to be dashed over him. After an hours walking the gauntlet, we at length reached the country & there we were well determined to remain till it was dark. — We did so, & had some difficulty in finding the road back again, as we took care to coast along the outside of the town. — To complete our ludicrous miseries a heavy shower wet us to the skins, & at last gladly we reached the Beagle. — It was the first time Wickham had been on shore, & he vowed if he was here for six months it should be only one.

Watching Darwin braving the festive Carnival crowds in Salvador would have been priceless. If only we had Flickr and YouTube back then!

Darwin: blogging and twittering in the 19th century?

26 01 2009

The Evolution RevolutionYou will be hearing about Darwin a lot this year, as 2009 marks 200 years of his birth and 150 years of “The Origin of Species”. Regardless of what you think about Darwin the scientist, there are lots to learn from Darwin the man.

Last summer, I visited “Darwin: The Evolution Revolution” at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. It was the first time I saw him not as a naturalist, but as a person. You still can catch the exhibition till April 19 in the Natural History Museum in London, renamed “Darwin – Big Idea” (see the slideshow for a taste of what you’ll find there).

The handwritten notes and letters caught my attention immediately, as they ranged from the deeply scientific (the famous “I think” sketch with the evolutionary tree) to the trivial and mundane (Fanny Owen, Darwin’s first girlfriend, asking “Why did you not come home this Christmas? I suppose some dear little Beetles kept you away!”).

Almost 3 years ago, I wrote a blog post wondering what it would be like if folks like Darwin, Shakespeare and Martin Luther King had blogs. I didn’t imagine back then that Darwin actually had the next best thing available to him: a notebook, a pen, and the discipline to write almost daily about whatever crossed his mind.

Darwin left a huge written record in books, articles, notebooks and more than 14,000 letters. Looking at them, I can’t help but see the similarities with the Social Media tools we use today. See for example one of his notes aboard the Beagle:

Darwin Manuscripts

I can almost see a “Powered by” at the bottom of his entries :-) .

If you keep digging, you’ll find also his journal:

Darwin Manuscripts

If only he had Twitter and GPS, eh? I would follow him for sure.

Bad jokes aside, I find fascinating that you can know so much about a person who was born 200 years ago. It’s been said that “thanks to MySpace and Facebook, autobiography can happen in real time”. Darwin was doing that back in 1822 at age 12!

So, if you think you know Charles, take a look at the “10 Fun Facts About Darwin” at You’ll find that not only he described plenty of new species, he ate several of them too, including armadillos, iguanas and tortoises. And that he once wrote that a wife was “better than a dog” for companion. Not exactly the most romantic thing to say about your significant other, but geeks will always be geeks, I guess.

If you want to learn more about the man, I highly recommend BBC’s “In Our Time” Darwin series, and also Darwin’s Legacy, a lecture series from Stanford University at iTunes U. You won’t be disappointed.

Enterprise Blogging Inhibitors: writer’s block, making a fool of oneself and lack of feedback

26 01 2009

This is an updated version of a blog post I wrote for my internal IBM blog back in April 2006. It shows its age, but it may still be relevant for folks starting to blog inside the corporation.

When I ask colleagues at IBM why they don’t blog, or why they don’t blog more often, the most common answers are “I don’t have  time”, “I don’t know what to blog about” and “no one cares about my thoughts”. In a survey I ran 3 years ago, not even a single respondent mentioned writer’s block or fear of making a fool of oneself as blogging inhibitors.

Many of my fellow IBMers are quick-witted, bright and have plenty of good ideas. They are typically well-read, inquisitive and very open to hear other people’s opinions. Most of them are good writers too, and they would probably be good bloggers. However, many of them don’t blog. There’s this somehow unfounded idea that blogging is going to take a lot of time and effort. Some of them even started a blog, but stopped after a while. They got discouraged by the number of daily hits in their blogs or by the low number of comments their early posts generated or by the time they spent just to write a few paragraphs. Or they just don’t know what to write about on a frequent basis.

If any of the readers of this blog is wondering whether or not to start blogging or resume blogging inside the enterprise, here’s my take on it. Don’t forget that we are all learning, so take it with a grain of salt (as you should do with anything you read). Also, you’ll find lots of – sometimes conflicting – advice out there on how to blog effectively. Be confident that you’ll eventually find what works better for you.

  • Don’t liken enterprise blogging to writing an article for a magazine. In blogs, you can afford to disclose unpolished thoughts out there. Writing them actually may help you to structure your ideas, and sharing with others may enrich a reflection you had only as a raw piece of clay inside your brain, as others may have a common interest on the topic. So, while your post may not be getting you a Pulitzer Award any time soon, it may actually trigger a good discussion with others in your company. I see blogging more like chatting in a bar after hours (minus the drinks and the hangover) than giving a lecture to a demanding audience.
  • Approach blogging like reading and writing e-mails, with the advantage that there’s no serious harm if you skip reading some posts from time to time, and that nobody ever expects you to reply to blog entries. It’s something you do at a best effort basis. Time-box the time you spent reading and writing blogs to, say, 15 minutes a day, or 30 minutes a week. Or just harness your interstitial time, blogging whenever you have a few minutes to spare. As you get used to doing it, you’ll become more efficient. Remember, don’t approach it as one more task to squeeze into your already busy schedule. It’s a learning and networking venue where you get a lot accomplished just by dedicating 15 minutes a day to it.
  • Be aware that many in your company will consume your internal blog via an RSS reader. This means that even though people are reading your blog, the hit counter may not show that. Also, as it’s the case with most blogs, expect a very low comment-to-post ratio at least at the beginning. Some of your interesting posts will not necessarily generate any comment, even though people are paying attention. I found over the years that some of my “comment-less” posts were actually “dogeared” by some colleagues, proving that the number of comments is not necessarily an indication of whether or not readers found it relevant. Most days, like many others blog addicts, I skim through all posts in my feed reader. Whatever you write about, you’ll have the attention of a fair number of readers for at least a few moments. Therefore, make sure the title of your blog entry and its first few lines give a good idea about what you are writing about.
  • Blogging is a 2-way street. If you blog but you don’t read other people’s blogs, you may not “get” it. Reading internal and external blogs actually is crucial for you to REALLY understand why blogs are not the same as newsgroups, instant messaging or social networking web sites. As you start commenting on other people’s blogs and observing how some topics generate more interest or discussions, you’ll probably have a better understanding of the dynamics of this media. You’ll also establish your own network of bloggers who are more attuned to your own interests and area of expertise. Make sure that you reply to comments when appropriate, showing your appreciation for other people’s time and effort. It’s pretty much like going from high-school to University: it takes time to adapt to this new environment.
  • At first, you may not want to limit yourself to a single theme. Some of my favourite blogs talk about a wide variety of subjects: technology, working environment experiences, “fluffy” stuff, latest news, photography, parenthood, jokes. The proverbial writer’s block only happens if you see yourself as a writer with a theme or a deadline to meet. If the whole world is “in scope” for your blog, and you are just “chatting”, not “authoring”, you’ll probably start having a backlog of things you may want to blog about. I’m not suggesting that you blog about things that are too personal all the time, but variety is a good thing. Keep in mind the “virtual watercooler” analogy: in real offices, you do talk about things that are not strictly work-related sometimes, and that helps building rapport with your colleagues.

In my first Social Media presentation ever, back in 2006, I mentioned that Charles Darwin wondered many times if it was worth it to publish his ideas (note that some scholars dispute this as a myth):

Darwin feared putting the theory out in an incomplete form, as his ideas about evolution would be highly controversial if any attention was paid to them at all.

I keep imagining how many good ideas are left private just because people feel afraid of making a fool of themselves. As I said before, everybody has something to say, and nobody says brilliant things all the time. What if Shakespeare, Einstein, Martin Luther King, Gandhi all had blogs where they could share their reflections with others? It takes ideas to generate ideas, so just let you ideas out: many of them will probably be soon forgotten, but a few good ones may florish and persist (if you are not familiar with the concept, you may want to read about memes). Innovation is most often just a way of aggregating independent ideas into a new cohesive structure.


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