3 Books to Reset

Piazza Cordusio Milano[Piazza Cordusio, Milano]


Kevin Kelly has a short 3 books recommendation worth expanding upon. I haven't read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. But lately, most of my writing for this site and the letter feels like a form of meditation. So that goes on the list.

“The book is a form of meditation, written with headlong urgency, about seeing. . . . There is an ambition about her book that I like. . . . It is the ambition to feel.” Eudora Welty, New York Times Book Review. This Eudora Welty.

We've gotten used to creating compartments for things. Here I put work. Here I put family. Here I put love… It's a very masculine way of operating. Note I didn't say male. Shiva is 'shakti' or power, masculine energy.

A feminine way of observing is connected, nurturing, protecting, and encouraging. Ironically, the feminine is also oriented to growth and development. It works toward the better, what heroes return to. 


3 books to reset

Spring is my favorite season. It's a time when all your work in the fall and winter to prepare the garden pays off. It's a good metaphor for clearing the cobwebs. Empty compartments and make some new connections.

I'd like to expand and add to Kelly's list.


Finite and Infinite Games by James Carse, religion scholar

Thesis: finite games played to win, and infinite games played to keep the game going.

I returned to this book at the beginning of last year. Mike Wagner recommended the book to me about 14 years ago. I've used the powerful framework to view the world. From my personal sphere, I started using it also in my work.

As transactions started becoming more disposable, people interchangeable, I went in the opposite direction. It's one of the books I reference most often. Play or game symbolizes how we show up in life. Of particular interest is the part on storytelling.

He says:

“Storytellers do not convert their listeners; they do not move them into the territory of a superior truth. Ignoring the issue of truth and falsehood altogether, they offer only vision. Storytelling is therefore not combative; it does not succeed or fail.

A story cannot be obeyed. Instead of placing one body of knowledge against another, storytellers invite us to return from knowledge to thinking, from a bounding way of looking to an horizontal way of seeing.

About preparing for the future:

“Because infinite players prepare themselves to be surprised by the future, they play in complete openness as in vulnerability. It is not a matter of exposing one's unchanging identity, the true self that has always been, but a way of exposing one's ceaseless growth, the dynamic self that has yet to be.”

That ties back to that idea of nurturing growth. As opposed to destructive. A rhyme with disruptive.

On education, which in my mind is not the same as instruction.

“Education leads toward a continuing self-discovery; training leads toward a final self-definition.”

Carse has a useful insight on naming and titles. Naming is part of my work.

“Titles are given at the end of a play, names at the beginning. […] Titles are abstractions; names are always concrete.”

And a note about power. Because it relates to reality and the available energy before and after a given change.

“Power is concerned with what has already happened; strength with what has yet to happen. […] Power is finite in amount. Strength cannot be measured.”

Insights are the beginning. They take tremendous work and craftsmanship to put into practice. But all the best things in life are infinite games. And if you seek them out, you'll start seeing them. Because that's where the energy is. Culture is an infinite game.


How Buildings Learn by Stewart Brand, co-founder and President of the Long Foundation

Thesis: the most loved buildings, those that survive longest are those which can be adapted to learn over time.

If you aren't familiar with Brand's work, here's a starting point. With a further reading list. His most shared thinking is also a framework. He collaborated with Brian Eno and studied the work of British architect Frank Duffy.

Duffy wrote, “A building properly conceived is several layers of longevity of built components.”  He identified four layers in commercial buildings—Shell (lasts maybe 50 years), Services (swapped out every 15 years or so), Scenery (interior walls, etc. move every 5 to 7 years), and Set (furniture, moving sometimes monthly.)

Brand expanded Duffy’s four layers to six: Site, Structure, Skin, Services, Space Plan, and Stuff. More than any other human artifacts, buildings improve with time—if they're allowed to.

This resonates with me. I grew up surrounded by old buildings. Some restored and repurposed with elegance. I had mixed feelings when I saw a Starbucks coffee shop inside the gorgeous old postal services building in central Milano. My first reaction was a cringe. Italian coffee is among the best in the world!

New use of the poste italiane building[this building is on the right corner of the same piazza above]

But, as Kelly says, this book is not just about architecture. These same principles can be applied to any complex thing made, including software. Wisdom from the book:

“Buildings keep being pushed around by three irresistible forces—technology, money, and fashion.”

“We are convinced by things that show internal complexity, that show the traces of an interesting evolution. Those signs tell us that we might be rewarded if we accord it our trust. An important aspect of design is the degree to which the object involves you in its own completion. Some work invites you into itself by not offering a finished, glossy, one-reading-only surface. This is what makes old buildings interesting to me. I think that humans have a taste for things that not only show that they have been through a process of evolution, but which also show they are still a part of one. They are not dead yet.”

“A library doesn't need windows. A library is a window.”

“Favor moves that increase options; shy from moves that end well but require cutting off choices; work from strong positions”

“Art flouts convention. Convention became convention because it works.”

“To change is to lose identity; yet to change is to be alive.”

Brand also makes a connection between bureaucracy and resistance to change. Institutional buildings act as if they were designed for the specific purpose of preventing change inside. Maybe it was a way to convey timeless reliability. But does it still work today?

This is an opportunity. What will office buildings look like in the years ahead? Design to work well vs. look good.


Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, professor of neurology and psychiatry at the University of Vienna Medical School until his death in 1997

Thesis: an insightful exploration of the human will to find meaning in spite of the worst adversity.

At the heart of Frankl’s theory of logotherapy (from the Greek word for “meaning”) is a conviction that the primary human drive is not pleasure, as Freud maintained, but rather the discovery and pursuit of what the individual finds meaningful.

Life is meaningful, yet the meaning is different for each person and it changes more often than one might think. Recognizing that life is meaningful is important for a successful navigation on the road to happiness.

People's ultimate quest is to the fulfillment of their personal version of what success looks like. Part of that conversation revolves around where people spend their time — that's why culture is such an important part of work.

I wrote those two paragraphs 13 years ago. They still apply today. And a little bit later, I wrote more about Frankl, meaning, and culture. Because it's worth repeating and expanding on the things that build longevity in our thinking and doing.

My favorite concepts that apply to doing the work:

“When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.”

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

And another way to talk about responsibility, being accountable.

“It did not really matter what we expected from life, but rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life — daily and hourly.

Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

This week I'm sending out a letter than touches close to home. In a spiritual sense, we do share a common humanity. I wanted to include timeless readings with it.