Book Notes

Here’s a collection of notes from some of my favourite books. How it works:

  • I read the book, highlighting passages or sentences that grab me
  • I re-type those passages or sentences here

I don’t cover everything, or do a summary. My idea is to share the thoughts that get me thinking or inspire me, in the hope that they will perhaps do the same for you. I encourage you to buy the book to get the full experience!

Thanks to Derek Sivers for the inspiration for this approach to sharing.


Second Curve

The Second Curve – Thoughts on Reinventing Society, by Charles Handy

Written by one of my favourite authors, The Second Curve is a collection of short essays on the current state and possible futures for wide range of topics from capitalism to work to education and beyond. The essays are woven together with the idea that life unfolds in a series of ‘sigmoid curves’, and the trick is to invent and to jump onto the next curve at the right time. This idea applies to individuals, organisations and societies. I’ve written about how this idea applies to your career in a couple of previous posts.

Words in italics are chapter titles. I’ve taken quotes from most of the chapters, but not all – just the ones I found most intriguing.

Chapters: The Second Curve, The DIY Society, The New Disruption, The Workplace, The Dilemmas of Growth, The Glass Towers of Capitalism, The Citizen Organisation, The New Management, The Golden Seeds, The Schools of the Future, The Necessity of Others, The Contract With Ourselves


The Second Curve

One very clear new curve emerged as I wrote, namely the need for an increasing emphasis on self-responsibility…we can no longer rely on the institutions of education and the workplace to prepare us for life and look after us during it. It was too easy in the past to let others direct our life. I passed from school to university to business or profession. In each I was told what to do and how to do it. That will no longer happen and if it does the directions may well be wrong.Brevity focuses the mind, of both the listener and the author.

That stories help was something else I learned…stories that illustrate the message, modern parables.

The last and often fatal snag is that the Second Curve has to start before the first curve peaks. Only then are there enough resources – of money, time and energy, to cover that first initial dip, the investment period.

Second Curve thinking does not come easily. It requires imagination, intuition and instinct more than rational analysis. Then, to act on it demands the courage to step into the unknown, when all the signals, and all those around you, tell you that you don’t need to

A moderately successful life followed by a long slow decline into eventual oblivion. Nothing wrong with that, I mused, except for what might have been.

Andre Previn, the classical musician….explained that he woke up one morning with no pain in his stomach at the thought of what he had to do that day. At that point, he knew it was time to leave.

Jim Collins has usefully listed the five stages of institutional decline down that slippery slope of the first curve.


The DIY Society

Researchers in Oxford University suggest that 47 per cent of today’s jobs will be replaced by computers within the next two decades – 250 million in just the next one, says the McKinsey Global Institute. By the time you read this those numbers will well look dated.We are exploited by our suppliers and we actually enjoy it because it gives us back control.

Self-responsibility will be a feature of the emerging society. That will be uncomfortable for many who have grown up in a society that has assumed ever more responsibility for our personal safety and well-being, to the extent that we are tempted to assume that anything that goes wrong must be the fault of someone or something else.


The New Disruption

…Frey’s future jobs can be done by individuals on their own. They do not need large corporations to deliver their services, although they may work for them or alongside them.…it now seems that 30 companies control over half of all internet traffic in the USA, getting fewer all the time.


The Workplace

Where contracts are key the spirit is lost.In the growing world of talent businesses employees will be increasingly unwilling to sell the fruits of their intellectual assets for an annual salary, even a big one.

Our son is an actor….work is sporadic and unpredictable. He only does it because it is what he loves to do More and more I think that we will all live the equivalent of actors’ lives at some point in our life’s journey.

93 per cent of all the businesses in Britain are microbusinesses, employing less than five people. In total they only produce 3 per cent of the national GDP but in aggregate they employ more people than the whole of the public sector. Socially, and therefore politically, they matter, yet most of the structures and systems of society are built on the assumption that almost everyone works in an organisation of some sort.

The strange truth is that if you have a so-called ‘proper’ full time job today you are in a minority.

The world has changed and few have noticed.

Work is what we do, not where we go.


The Dilemmas of Growth

Robert Kennedy: “GDP measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country: it measures everything in short except that which makes our life worthwhile”.GDP is the best we have. Unfortunately it is used in public debate as the only measure in common use to assess our progress as a society. This is something it was never intended to do.

If you reduce complexity to simplicity you risk losing the message, tempting though the simplicity is.

Growth, however, is not just economic. I was once asked by a leading orchestra to help them with their plans for growth. I was puzzled. They seemed to me already to have a full complement of instrumentalists. Why would they want more violinists or trombone players? “No, no,” they explained, “we don’t want to be any bigger. We want to be better”. Better not bigger.

The market leaders in many niche products, their aim is to do one thing really well.

If we cannot say to ourselves “enough is enough”, we will never be free to explore other possibilities.

If we set a limit to our needs and wants, or to our hopes of success, we will have more time at our disposal.

In the endless pursuit of more, what ever more is, we make ourselves slaves to our ambitions, to where there is, in theory, no end.

It can be more satisfying, and often more profitable, to grow different rather than bigger.

The lower we set our personal income targets the more free we are to take up Keynes’ challenge of how best to use the time we have released.


The Glass Towers of Capitalism

What is a business for, or perhaps even, who is it for? More concretely, how should a business define success, and how measure it?It was a widespread misinterpretation of company law that gave rise to the elevation of shareholder value as the prime purpose of the company, to short-term thinking and the splurge of bonuses tied to share performance.

We have moved from value creation to value extraction.

We have got the idea of a company the wrong way round. It is not a creation of shareholders, creditors and directors but an association of all those working in and with it. It is a community, a collection of people working together for a common purpose.

If we are not all going to be forced to be mercenaries, on sale to the highest bidder, hired for projects, unwanted when not needed, loyal first to ourselves, then to our project, then only last and least to the hiring organisation, then we shall have to cultivate the culture of citizenship and all that it involves.

Words matter, they are the clues to meaning. Change the words and you begin to change the way you think. That in turn changes the way you behave.


The Citizen Organisation

We need to rethink they way we design our organisations, if only to give the people in them more involvement in their work. An active citizenship, working within a democratic structure, is the sort of new curve that is needed.Transparency is seen as a way of building confidence and trust.

[Michael Maccoby]…the modern dual-career or single parent families, with children in day care from their early years, have created young adults with a more interactive social character and disposition. They have learned to depend more on their peer group than their parents, while their confident access to every kind of information makes them more ready to challenge authority, to be free agents in charge of their own lives.

The past is once again the obstacle to a new vision of the corporation. The change will come, if it does, from new organisations led by individuals of the sort that Maccoby envisages, who will want to create the kind of company that they themselves would be comfortable working for.

A Second Curve in organisations or society is seldom led by those who were in charge of the first curve.


The New Management

[Peter Drucker] “Why does so much of management consist of making it difficult for people to work”?[Simon Caulkin] “Why are managers still building mass production organisations fir for the early 20th century, based on hierarchy, standardisation and compliance, rather than flexible, human-centred outfits in which technology is not a threat but a partner of both employees and customers”?

That old idea of what management is and how it works has reached the end of the road.

Once again, the works we use shape the way we think. Management language is that of engineering.

The systems on which the organisation runs need to be well designed and managed. To work effectively those well designed management systems need leadership within them, to provide the heart and the energy.

Communities need leaders, supported by management.

Know yourself, know where you want to go, know your people, be humble and listen. Everything else then falls into place.

If you are about what they care about, they’ll care about what you care about.

Trust is cheaper, but control is safer, or so we think.

If you get the right people to start with and they know what to do then they get on with it by themselves.

Successful companies pay scant attention to managing change, motivating people or creating alignment because their people know what they are doing and want to do it well. You could call it managing without managers.

Message to every employee: do whatever you think is right.

Doughnut management requires a major investment in the development of the staff. That may be expensive in the short term but, ultimately, trust is always cheaper than control.

Good management is only common sense at heart, just not in common use. Add in an interest in those you work with, some decent humility, a will to listen and a desire to see a job well done, and you have leadership theory in a nutshell.


The Golden Seeds

We should spend less time ranking children and more time helping them identify their natural competencies and gifts, and cultivate those.There are hundreds and hundreds of ways to succeed, and many, many abilities that will help you get there.

Ideally we should aim for an individual curriculum, one tailored to the needs of each child.

Golden seeds do not disappear – they just lie hidden, awaiting discovery.

The truth is that they nurturing of the golden seeds is best done by a mentor.


The Schools of the Future

I learned that I the world ahead of me all problems had already been solved. The answers, I gathered, were known to my teachers or were in the back of their textbooks.The problems I studied at school were all closed problems with proven answers.

I am only interested in what you think, and why.

Eventually I realised I was not being taught philosophy or history but more fundamentally how to think and how to learn.

True learning…starts with curiosity, with a problem or a challenge, a question that you need to answer.

It is not enough to be able to learn and to think, you must also work out how to do and how to be.

I am now sure of the following:

  • That learning to is as important as learning facts
  • That learning is mostly experience understood on reflection
  • That teachers usually learn more than their pupils
  • That the curiosity or the need to learn is crucial
  • That learning that is unused soon disappears
  • That no one is stupid, just not interested or curious

I know some other things from my later work experience:

  • That three or four heads are better than one in most situations
  • That not all learning, or even most, happens in a classroom
  • That mixed ability should mean a mix of different abilities, not different levels of the same abilities
  • That we all have a bit of teacher in us

Turning students into teachers of other is the best way for them to learn.


The Necessity of Others

Being connected does not necessarily mean being close. Having 20000 followers on Twitter does not equal having 20000 contacts, let alone 20000 friends.There is growing evidence, too, that too much communication can be bad for you.

Loneliness, of one sort or another, has become the new poverty in modern society.

Loneliness…is the feeling of not mattering much to anyone, of going unnoticed in the world.

Unfortunately you won’t matter to anyone else if they do not matter to you.

New friends, when they happen, are exciting, but until one has shared some deep experience together they are unlikely to be part of that small group of trusties.


The Contract With Ourselves

What are we prepared to contribute in order to get where? In short, what is our contract with ourselves?If you don’t know your destination life can be just random travelling, the direction chosen by your travelling companions or by temporary impulse.

I spent the first five decades of my life trying to be someone that I thought I should be but wasn’t. It wasn’t until my fifties that I became comfortable in my own skin. I don’t, however, regret those lost decades because I probably needed to try out other identities before I found the right one. I only wish the decades had been shorter. We should, I conclude, never be afraid of trying on a new identity.

[Aristotle] decided, in the end, that the ultimate purpose of human life was to achieve excellent in accord with virtue through eudemonia. This he called the good life. Eudemonia is a complex Greek word. I translate it as ‘doing your best at what you are best at, for the benefit of others’.

‘Proper selfishness’ – that to feel successful you have to first invest in yourself but must turn that investment to be of benefit beyond yourself in some way.

A good society should aim to provide [the] conditions so that every citizen has the opportunity to achieve a good life and personal eudemonia.