A Reading List for the Culturally Curious

Culturally curious

“Looking at life from a different perspective makes you realize that it's not the deer that is crossing the road, rather it's the road that is crossing the forest.” Born Cassius Marcellus Clay Jr., Muhammad Ali was an activist and philanthropist who became known in America and the world as one of the greatest professional boxers of all time.

His convictions cost him at least four years of peak performance. Sports Illustrated declared the heavyweight “Sportsman of the Century” in 1999. Ali won numerous awards throughout his career. But it was his appeal that won him a large following. As Rolling Stone put it, Ali spoke with his body, mind, and soul:

“The only things quicker than his fists and feet were his mind and mouth: Speaking truth to power, the loquacious Ali said things in a confrontational, even 'arrogant' manner that mainstream America was not yet prepared to hear, especially coming out of the mouth of a young black man.”

In 1999, David Bowie talked about how the Internet would become an instrument of conversation, changing the relationship between artists and audiences. That same year, Pulitzer Prize winner Anna Quindlen talked about the artist's struggle in a Commencement Speech at Mount Holyoke:

every story has already been told. Once you've read Anna Karenina, Bleak House, The Sound and the Fury, To Kill a Mockingbird and A Wrinkle in Time, you understand that there is really no reason to ever write another novel.

Except that each writer brings to the table, if she will let herself, something that no one else in the history of time has ever had. And that is herself, her own personality, her own voice. If she is doing Faulkner imitations, she can stay home.

If she is giving readers what she thinks they want instead of what she is, she should stop typing. But if her books reflect her character, who she really is, than she is giving them a new and wonderful gift. Giving it to herself, too. And that is true of music and art and teaching and medicine.

You probably forgot many of the remarkable things that happened in 1999. We were all focused on Y2K: the round number that promised to bring havoc, if not properly managed. Hindsight being 2020, from this vantage point we're thinking little of all the things that happened in 2019.


The power of culture

But here's where culture has power. You, we, still did many things in the years that we have a hard time remembering and may consider trivial. Culture is messy that way. It's a rich store of rituals and tradition that keeps building in communities, countries, and companies.

Unlike money or product, things you constantly have to replace because they lose value quickly, culture doesn't lose value through use. You can turn your time into something that can live forever with culture. Muhammad Ali, David Bowie, Anna Quindlen were and are culture makers: spiritual fathers and mothers of nascent phenomena by recognizing and putting them on record.

What strikes me when I listen to conversations with people like them is that

they can use reason to account for facts and lies.

Ali writes poems to describe experience. The way he talks is itself poetic, “very often, a wise doctor can cure you through word of mouth alone because they realize the power of man is needed.” When Ali talks, he has rhythm: listen for yourself in this conversation with Irish broadcaster Cathal O'Sannon. “Very few boxers can come on a show and match a wise man like yourself,” you need personality to do that, to know how to talk to people. Plus Ali can energize the causes and groups he stands for and all of a sudden, “you have a very large crowd.”

Bowie observes the development of a new cultural phenomenon. His quiet and steady cadence asserts without contradicting, “I embrace the idea that there's a new demystification process between the artist and the audience.” To a skeptical Jeremy Paxman of the BBC, he notes how the Internet has taken over as the conveyor of rebellion, how there isn't “one truth, but always 2, 3, 4, 5 sides to each question.” His insight is that Internet shows us how “we're living in total fragmentation.” And foresaw what it was going to do to society, both good and bad.

Anna Quindlen talks about how fashion shifts reference points in culture. Trying to be perfect may be sort of inevitable for people like us, who are smart and ambitious and interested in the world and in its good opinion. But at one level it's too hard, and at another, it's too cheap and easy.” 

Because it really requires you mainly to read the zeitgeist of wherever and whenever you happen to be, and to assume the masks necessary to be the best of whatever the zeitgeist dictates, or requires. Those requirements shape shift, sure, but when you're clever you can read them, and do the imitation required. But nothing important, or meaningful, or beautiful, or interesting, or great ever came out of imitations.

Imitation doesn't produce ideas.


What energizes creates value

The process of producing an idea and creating from it energizes you. When an experience has value—something you listen to like music or read like the conversations I shared here—you know it because it fills you with energy. The same happens when you receive great service: your heart rate goes up.

That feeling is there to tell you, to acknowledge the creation of value. This is how you can put money into things that have more value, like culture, to encourage good decisions.

A sense of disgust for an experience or situation is literally the feeling of energy exploding in you. Energy that could have gone back to the company or a person, instead dissipates. When something lets your down, it collapses. It takes the energy that was available and shatters it.

There's a cultural undertone in the conversations of Ali, Bowie, and Quindlen that hints at working on the idea, doing the work as yourself, rather than trying to please an audience.

Trying to please an audience takes the power away from the idea, it dilutes it.

When you seek acknowledgement, it may not come, especially if your idea is new. Stay with the idea. It is the power of the idea that will energize the people ready for it.


Readings for the culturally curious

Fast gets all the attention, slow has all the power. Slow is continuous over time, it remembers, and disposes. Curiosity helps dig further and seek depth. It's the act of talking with customers to learn about how they see the world. That is slow. Michael Dariano says deep curiosity is good digging.

Reading books, rather than quick takes is how you build the muscle for extracting ideas, seeing things in new ways, and spotting places that might be interesting to dig.

Ease and convenience hamper curiosity. Enthusiasm ignites your desire to be curious. Our culture is filled with opportunities to care for the body. Books are an opportunity to nourish the mind. Here are a few books where I found new ideas:


Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality by Anthony de Mello

Thesis: You can handle the truth. Most people don't want to know.

de Mello was a Jesuit priest and psychotherapist who became widely known for his books on spirituality. A few quotes that made an impression from this loose collection of thoughts:

“We were brought up to need people. For what? For acceptance, approval, appreciation, applause – for what they call success. Those are words that do not correspond to reality. They are conventions, things that are invented, but we don't realize that they don't correspond to reality. What is success? It is what one group decided is a good thing. Another group will decide the same thing is bad.”

“What you are aware of you are in control of; what you are not aware of is in control of you. You are always a slave to what you’re not aware of. When you’re aware of it, you’re free from it. It’s there, but you’re not affected by it. You’re not controlled by it; you’re not enslaved by it. That’s the difference.”

“Because agreement and disagreement have to do with words and concepts and theories. They don’t have anything to do with truth. Truth is never expressed in words. Truth is sighted suddenly, as a result of a certain attitude.”

You cure loneliness by contact with reality. I appreciate how he talks about not identifying with a feeling (or a belief?), instead watching and observing it with curiosity.


Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World by Tim Marshall

Thesis: How the physical characteristics of countries affect their strengths and vulnerabilities and the decisions made by their leaders.

Marshall was Diplomatic Editor and foreign correspondent for Sky News. Originally from Leeds, he arrived at broadcasting after a wholly unsuccessful career as a painter and decorator. Choice quotes:

“Why do you think your values would work in a culture you don’t understand?”

“Analysts often write about the need for certain cultures not to lose face, or ever be seen to back down, but this is not just a problem in the Arab or East Asian cultures—it is a human problem expressed in different ways.”

“Technology may seem to overcome the distances between us in both mental and physical space, but it is easy to forget that the land where we live, work and raise our children is hugely important, and that the choices of those who lead the seven billion inhabitants of this planet will to some degree always be shaped by the rivers, mountains, deserts, lakes and seas that constrain us all – as they always have.”

Geography was a seemingly easy course in University. But it's a complex topic, especially if you bring in politics, as this book does. It's imperfect, missing Australia, New Zealand and Indonesia, speaking little and incompletely about Europe and Africa. Also, get yourself better maps than what included. The idea is quite interesting. Imagination and curiosity can help you fill the void with additional research.


What You Do Is Who You Are: How to Create Your Business Culture by Ben Horowitz

Thesis: Culture is how a company makes decisions.

Horowitz is the co-founder and general partner of Andreessen Horowitz, a Silicon Valley-based venture capital firm that invests in entrepreneurs building the next generation of leading technology companies. A few bits to give you a taste:

“Because your culture is how your company makes decisions when you’re not there. It’s the set of assumptions your employees use to resolve the problems they face every day. It’s how they behave when no one is looking. If you don’t methodically set your culture, then two-thirds of it will end up being accidental, and the rest will be a mistake.”

“Culture can feel abstract and secondary when you pit it against a concrete result that’s right in front of you. Culture is a strategic investment in the company doing things the right way when you are not looking.”

“That’s the nature of culture. It’s not a single decision—it’s a code that manifests itself as a vast set of actions taken over time. No one person makes or takes all these actions. Cultural design is a way to program the actions of an organization, but, like computer programs, every culture has bugs. And cultures are significantly more difficult to debug than programs.”

Strategy and context always play a role in determining why make some decisions rather than others. But we often just look at the official leaders, rather than looking at how tribal epochs and communities make unwritten rules work. That's because in our desire to bring order and provide formulas, we notice superficial elements.


DNA of culture

We connect on similarities—like language and body of knowledge. Yet benefit from differences—such as cultural context and specific experience.

With remarkable sense of humor, Ali is as light with his words as he was on his feet in the ring when he describes society in 1972.# There are several layers of culture in his stories and examples. Ali is a generous and articulate conversation partner. He talks about how he's entertaining for the Irish audience, because he's from somewhere else.

For David Bowie in 1999, “the gray space in the middle is what the 21st century is going to be about.” In 1979#, a suave Bowie talked about isolation, how he loved rather quickly from afar, his art, and putting himself in situations he detested to see what it did to his writing.

For example, as a Brit in Los Angeles, Bowie felt people were putting on a show in real life. As a producer, writer, and performer, Bowie experimented with separating his stage characters from his backstage self. He could tell the difference. After he left America, he sought another kind of friction in Berlin.

There was a sense of impending collapse in Berlin, that the wall was closing you in, he says. From German expressionism, Bowie then went to explore Kabuki theater as a way to bring pantomime in his work. He noted how in Japan they balance heritage and the modern world. More friction.

Each of you are as different as your fingerprints. Why in the world should you march to any lock step? The lockstep is easier, but here is why you cannot march to it. Because nothing great or even good ever came of it,” says Anna Quindlen. Before she was a successful novelist, Quindlen wrote a New York Times column, Public and Private, that won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1992. 15 years after her first column.

These are just three examples I grabbed from the year 1999. Then I looked at what happened before that led there. What were the ideas, life situations, and encounters that led there? I could keep going. Lives are not linear, but there are themes. Early discoveries become tools for the next project.

In companies and communities, when you step into real culture, the environment is supporting you. There's accountability in reason for facts as for lies. No BS. There's acknowledgement of your work. On the other hand, you know a low energy environment right away: you have to fight for everything. Often this translates to looking out for number one.

Where are you drawing the lines?


If you're still curious, here are ten books to gain perspective.

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