Thursday, June 20, 2013

Most Influential Books in my Life

These books have changed the trajectory of my life. I've read many other good ones and have a 2 foot stack next to the bed of "to-read", but these are the books I think back on, re-read, reflect on and have changed the way I live my life.  Yes, I mean that. Changed my life.

Influence: Science and Practice

This is a short book that's just jam backed with information.  This is a science based approach to understanding how to influence others and, most importantly, to realize when you're being influenced!  Robert Cialdini covers everything from salting tip jars to how a car dealer pushes you into a car sale.

I learned simple things to getting people to do what you ask: get them to verbally commit - or even better, in email/writing. People love to be seen as "consistent", so even if they get more information later they will stick with their original statement and even create reasons why it's the correct one.  It is great when I can catch myself doing this - but is also handy when you want people who, let's say, join a group to commit to performing a certain task.

[Aside: This is what gets politicians in trouble, in my book. They don't want to be seen as "flip-floppers" so even when they are presented with new information, they refuse to change their opinion. That's absolutely horrifying to those of us with background in science and those that know the value of data driven decision making.]

For example, this is why it is important for theater producers to make sure they get all actors to sign a form committing to the performance. Each actor has just now promised they will do the show, so it will take something extreme for most to back out of the show.  I know I've stayed in shows that I was not happy with for that very reason - well, and not wanting to get blacklisted from a theater group as well!

Having this knowledge also helps you to influence your peer group and others at work, and to protect your self from compliance professionals. This should be mandatory reading in all high schools and colleges.

This book is powerful, and when you read it, you MUST promise me you won't use it for evil.

Women Don't Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide

This book was recommended by the incomparable Valerie Aurora, who even set up a scholarship for this book, so that more women could read it and get access to it.  Before I read Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever's book on Gender and the Negotiation Divide, I had no idea of what I was missing out on by just not asking for what I wanted!

As a good student, I was used to being recognized for my efforts - I'd get an A on a test for studying hard. Very simple effort/reward dynamic.  It's different in the real world.  If you work really hard on a project, but don't tell others why you are doing it (for a raise, promotion, comp time off, recognition, etc) - you may be lucky if you get a pat on the back in the end. You've got to say, "I'm working my tail off on this project, which is not what I'm really interested in, so you can see how dedicated I am and make me the lead of the next, more interesting project."  Or, "I really want to take a few extra days off for my honeymoon. I'm willing to work a few weekends to make sure the project is done before I leave, if I could then have a few more paid days off. Does that work for you?"

I was also blissfully unaware that most men do ask for what they want and need.  This isn't small potatoes, this stuff adds up.  A small salary negotiation before you start your job can make a big difference in your salary and retirement savings just 10 years down the road.

Most surprisingly?  Most people don't say "no" when you ask for something reasonable.  Since reading this book and "Influence: Science and Practice" , I've gotten discounts on furniture, appliances, clothing, shoes and services.

I'm by no means an expert negotiator, nor am I one of those annoying pushy people we've all met. Neither Women Don't Ask nor Influence are asking you to become pushy.

I just simply ask.

People do not read your mind. You must ask. You'll be surprised what happens.


Leadership Presence

My old mentor recommended this book to me - bringing two of my favorite things together: theater and corporate leadership. Belle Linda Halpern and Kathy Lubar use years of their own personal research and their study of theater actors into what makes a good leader.

Empathy and mindfulness are two big take aways from this book. How can you lead a team if you don't have any empathy with them? If you are not self-aware, you won't see the mistakes you're making or how you are making people uncomfortable - that's where mindfulness comes into play.

The anecdotes resonated with me, and I find myself reflecting back to them often.  How can I play a character that I can't relate to?  On stage, now, I always have a back story for my character. I always find some part of me in them and vice versa. For the first time, I've been able to cry real tears on stage.   Not stage tears. Not fake tears. Real tears.

I recall rehearsing for Best Little W*****house in Texas. I was playing a character named "Shy". She had run away from home because her father molested her.  I do not share that experience, so I read about the real women who worked at the famous Chicken Ranch. I read about how molestation breaks a young child. I listened to stories on Love Line. I found the pain, the heartbreak.

Running that scene where Shy tells the madam about her father over and over again in rehearsal physically and mentally exhausted me. Even now, I am tearing up writing about this.

Shy was not a real person, but her story was based on many real women who had lived this. I put myself in her shoes and I felt it.  [Aside: I'm in no way saying I truly understand what someone in that situation feels or went through, but merely just a slice of that. A moment.]

I do this as well in the corporate world now: I listen to my team members, hear what is going on with them, I listen for vocal variations and physical cues that tell me when someone might be uncomfortable. I take all of this in before I speak, and I'm finding it's easier to find out what works and what doesn't.

Additionally, when I do presentations now at work, I am actually acting. I think about people who I like seeing their presentations, and I simply take on that role when I get up in front of people. It's amazingly effective.

Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High

I once got in trouble at work for saying "no" too often as the technical lead of Solaris 10 Update 1.  For those of you who have been a technical lead of a large project, you know it's your job to say no - when appropriate. You need to maintain high quality, meet the customers needs and stay on schedule.

This was very frustrating when my upper management didn't "get it" and told me that I had an attitude problem.  I was irritated and hurt.

One week, the program manager for one of the projects trying to integrate into my gate complained to my upper management about how unhelpful I was and how I didn't have good reasons for my "no".  That same week, the engineers and managers on that same team brought me a literal mountain of chocolate to thank me for my patience and helping them to understand why they weren't ready and helping them get to the place they needed to be. A little behind schedule, but with the necessary quality we demand. Of course, they didn't go and compliment to my upper management.

So, I had to take this class. Being the good student I referenced earlier, I bought the book in advance and started reading it.

Wow.

Okay, so I had every right to say "no" to some projects, but how I said it and how I listened - boy, that makes a big difference.

The biggest takeaway from this book, that I still use every day, is that humans use shortcuts. We have to. We're too busy. Part of that shortcutting is to tell stories to fill in the gaps of something you hear from someone or something you see.

For example, I might see a man hold a woman's arm and my brain fills it in with the story that they are dating, but really she may have just slipped and he was helping to stabilize her or she is blind. My story is wrong, but quick.

When someone comes to me with a demand at work, I could say that they are doing it because they are an asshole who doesn't understand the process and is trying to get someone else to do their job.  Or I could tell the story that they are overworked because their boss is out on emergency medical leave and they are suddenly on multiple projects, so they are seeking help.
Neither of those might be true, but being aware that each person has a motivation for their actions, and it's rarely "because I want to be an asshole" has again helped me to live for a moment in someone else's shoes.

Another great thing I learned was how to know when my brain was taking other shortcuts that weren't going to be good.  That is, when is the lizard brain kicking in?  For me, I get tense and get butterflies in my stomach.  Now when I feel this, I realize my "fight or flight" instinct is kicking in and that I need to be careful not to raise my voice, take a deep breath, and tell alternate stories for the others - or, heck, just ask them, "what are you trying to accomplish?"

Atlas Shrugged

Whether you love or hate Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy or the woman herself, you have to admit she had a novel way of presenting philosophical ideas to the masses.  An ex of mine told me he thought I'd like the book. I couldn't put it down (okay, I always skip most of John Galt's ridiculous 60 page speech), but this book changed the way I read fiction, opened my eyes to a philosophy that seemed to have great promise in impacting the way we all lived.  I joined the Objectivist club on campus at Purdue, met many intelligent people and had great in depth discussions on Ayn Rand's philosophy.  I never agreed with everything she said, and I must say I am greatly disappointed at people who have taken this philosophy to the extreme to the detriment of others.  I am disgusted by what has happened when classically public run things like prisons are privatized (for example, in AZ the private companies running the prisons lobbied for MORE laws so that they could get more prisoners and make more money).

But, beyond all of that, this book opened my eyes to a  new way of thinking. A place where rational thought and logic were supreme and had merit. Showed me that I could apply logic to making decisions about my life. I did not merely need to let things happen to me, but could control what was around me.  I didn't need to stay friends with someone, if the friendship was toxic, just because it was the "nice thing to do". I didn't need to work myself to the bone for someone else for no reward.

Yes, Rand's characters are very black and white, and the movie was just awful, but as a young college woman, these new ideas changed my life.


What books have changed your life? Thoughts about any of mine?