Saturday, July 10, 2010

Book Review: ReWork

Opinions are like a Box of Chocolates

Life is full of opinions, advice and people of the opinion that they are giving good advice. Many veterans from the world of Big Business feel the need to share their knowledge, to help others and – of course – to sell books and cash in on them with speaking engagements. The biggest obstacle they run into: the ambitious professionals they are trying to inform, are too busy working late and climbing ever upwards on the career ladder to make time for someone telling them how to do things differently.

The best way to tackle this problem: deliver the information bite-sized, be to the point and make it look like something someone could enjoyably inhale within one or two lunch breaks. It famously worked for Spencer Johnson’s bestseller Who Moved My Cheese?. Marketing guru Seth Godin also has a couple of very successful books in print, using the same principle: Free Prize Inside being his first and The Dip being a recent New York Times bestseller. Godin’s books are indeed fun to read, but then you would expect so from a writer whose whole career has been built around connecting with an audience.

New kids on the business book block are Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson, with their title ReWork. They are no strangers to writing, contributing to Signal vs. Noise, one of the web’s ‘most popular’ blogs, and they follow the nugget approach, with success. On top of their writing accomplishments, Fried and Hansson are the founders of 37signals, a ‘trailblazing’ software company with an unusual structure: there are a relatively small amount of employees, spread out over different countries, working across time zones. Every once in a long while, everybody meets up in person to touch base. The 37signals work ethic is interesting: overwork is frowned upon, Facebook and YouTube distractions are okay and the time spent in meetings is kept to a bare minimum.

Their book is a rapid-fire of ideas. Some examples: don’t always try to grow bigger on principle, as it might be bad for your company, don’t always do what the customer wants and don’t stress yourself out about skipping ‘good’ to get to ‘great’ straight away.

You might want to reread ReWork after the first time you finish it, as you are likely to zip past the various concepts só fast that a lot of them won’t stick with you. Beware that some of the ideas likely won’t be applicable to you: the book flap makes it seem like the book will be highly useful to everybody. However, it’s mostly geared to people who are (thinking of) running a business, and a few points are specific to the software industry. For instance, 37signals institutes long periods of ‘alone’ time, so people can work on projects efficiently, without distractions from colleagues. There are plenty of jobs however, where communicating with colleagues and customers makes up a large part of the actual work.

While the writing is nice and lean, the book – in its hardcover edition – has been injected with some steroids it seems: large margins and space-wasting but not terribly useful illustrations make the book unnecessarily bulky. It was clearly done to make the book look more appealing, but feels like overkill. Rest assured however, that it’s not overcompensation for something lacking in the content department. Fried and Hansson themselves appreciate a good writer: ‘Writing is today’s currency for good ideas’. They advise to always hire the better writer, in case of doubt, the thought being that someone who can express his ideas clearly is a precious commodity, as it also indicates a clear mind. They would definitely hire themselves on the basis of this book.

Book Review: Sh*t My Dad Says

From Wit to Twit - Dads Say the Darnest Things

Twitter is becoming more and more entangled in popular culture. Not only are Classics like Romeo & Juliet and Ferris Bueller’s Day Off being relived there, there are now also phenomena that originate on Twitter, but make their way off there, into other media.

Case in point: Sh*t My Dad Says. From Twitter to book to television series; it’s a strange route to take, but none the less, that’s the route the Sh*t My Dad Says phenomenon will end up taking if the series gets off the ground. William Shatner would end up playing Sam Halpern, author Justin’s dad, a smart-yet-crude curmudgeon with a nifty turn of phrase.

How did it all get to this? When Justin had to move back in with his parents because of an unfortunate break-up, he decided to start Twittering things his dad said. Surprisingly quickly, his account went viral and spread all over Twitter. Inspired by this, HarperCollins decided to publish an accompanying book by Justin. It is a character study of his father, from Justin’s perspective, as he grows up. Each chapter describes an interesting ‘father event’ and is followed by a selection of his quotes. The short stories call to mind David Sedaris, but often lack the finesse and a twist. It’s a bit sad to say, but the most entertaining bits are still the quotes. Such as: ‘The dog is not bored. It’s not like he’s waiting for me to give him a f*cking Rubik’s Cube. He’s a goddamned dog.’ Or: ‘I’d say I was gonna miss you, but you’re moving ten minutes away, so instead I’ll just say don’t come over and do your f*cking laundry here.’

Still, if you are a fan of the Twitters and want to know more about the man behind the mouth, you should definitely check out Sh*t My Dad Says.

Sam’s response to all the hype around him is typically blunt and practical: ‘What do I give a f*ck? I don’t care what people think of me. Publish whatever you want.’