Book review: Wild by Cheryl Strayed

After hearing Cheryl Strayed speak last fall, I knew I wanted to read more of her work, and especially her memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Strayed was one of those speakers who, through her own depth of vulnerable sharing, quickly makes you reflect on how you might live a more authentic version of your own life. I knew that the journey recounted in Wild wasn't the only foundation for her insights and wisdom, but it seemed like a big piece of it, and I was intrigued.

I hesitated back then because the book spends not just a little time talking about how Strayed experienced and processed her mother's death from cancer; I was in the midst of my mom's final months of life and then processing her death from cancer, and I couldn't really handle reading about those things too. Recently I felt more ready for it, and though it was still hard at times, I'm glad I dove in.

Wild is a pure and beautiful telling of a rough and uncertain journey.

I say pure because Strayed has no agenda to pursue, no world view to push, no unifying message to hammer us with; it's just her story in all of its ups and downs, joy and fear, resistance and risk-taking. In some ways, it's just her taking a long walk. On the reason that humans create such experiences for themselves, she writes:

It had only to do with how it felt to be in the wild. With what it was like to walk for miles for no reason other than to witness the accumulation of trees and meadows, mountains and deserts, streams and rocks, rivers and grasses, sunrises and sunsets. The experience was powerful and fundamental. It seemed to me that it had always felt like this to be a human in the wild, and as long as the wild existed it would always feel this way.

I say beautiful because the language and narrative tone are so good at bringing us into the moment and letting us feel along with the author each surprise, disappointment and victory along the way. There is poetry in her descriptions of the landscape, and she makes the sights and sounds of the places she visited and the people she encountered come alive. In her toughest moments we can feel the anxiety, worry or frustration, and when her body is worn down by her gear or her pace, we can feel our own heavy loads just as acutely.

I say rough and uncertain not only because that's Strayed's experience of the Pacific Crest Trail as she hiked it, but because of all the rough edges in her story that are woven in to the larger fabric of this trip. Relationships, friendships, family dynamics, poverty, drug addiction, sexuality, body image, self care, excessive consumerism, rape culture, our experience of the natural world, finding comfort in silence -- these topics and more are all along for the ride and explored well. In the same way that Strayed never quite knew where her campsite would be along the trail each night, we never quite know what such an intense journey of exploration will bring out on a given day, and this brought its own kind of suspense to the story.

But over the miles the roughness is smoothed out and clarity, strength and resolve seep in. We find ourselves rooting for Strayed not only to hit her progress goals on the trail, but also to find what she is looking for inside, and in her life. When we worry about her, it's not just that her hiking boots are wearing out or that a bear might ruin her day, but that she might step away from being true to herself in all the ways she has discovered how to be.

The end result is so satisfying, and it's not hard to see why Wild became a bestselling memoir and then a major motion picture. The feeling of reading it is still with me days after finishing, and I'm grateful to Cheryl Strayed for bringing us along on such a intimately transformative adventure.

Book review: Delta-v by Daniel Suarez

Ever since I picked up Daniel Suarez's Daemon in 2011 (mini-review here), I've eagerly awaited each and every work from him since, and I haven't been disappointed. He has continued to generate fascinating explorations of technology, culture and social trends in his fictional but very realistic novels that always feel like they can see about a decade or two ahead into the future. Our future.

Suarez's latest work, Delta-v, is no exception.

It's a sweeping, fast-paced book that dives into the economic and physical realities of commercial space exploration, experienced through the adventures of a crew of astronauts and the super-rich business mogul funding their journey. The stakes are high -- imminent collapse of the global economy, catastrophic climate change effects, war and famine are all just around the corner -- and the potential rewards are great, but this isn't just another "put up a colony on Mars and save humanity" space adventure.

As is his reputation, Suarez has done in-depth research into the problems and even fundamentally flawed thinking behind most mainstream approaches to getting humanity into space and on to other planets. The infeasibility of deep space travel, the carcinogens in Martian soil, the problem of settling other planets, the menacing details of legal contracts that a space explorer might sign before launch...it's all there like a slow-motion massacre of more standard sci-fi novel plots. The version of human success in space that Delta-v teases out over the chapters looks very different than what you might expect, and it makes some sense.

"If you solve the problems of living on Mars, then you've only solved the Mars problem, but if we learn to build habitats in open space, then we have solved the entire future of the human race." This from the billionaire character who is a darkly-rendered combination of Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk, talking to the other space race players in a panel conversation that feels like it could happen on a SXSW stage any moment now. (There's an argument to be made that humans have no business taking our reckless imperialism over the natural world into space given how badly we've messed up the first planet we were given, but that's for another time.)

Unlike some of Suarez's other books that have looked at the challenges and dangers of AI, nanotech, government overreach in tech, genetic engineering and more, the space focus of this book might initially feel a little less accessible or relevant to everyday life. But as the novel unfolds and it begins to ring more and more true that so much time and money is already being invested in a similar kind of space race in real life, you can't help but feel like it's a story we're destined to be a part of sooner rather than later.

Delta-v is a lovely mix of science, adventure, mystery, social commentary and celebration of the best and worst of what humans can do for (or to) each other. There are a few times where the book seems confused about being character-driven or plot-driven or both, and some of the time invested in a particular character's backstory or a particular plot point's intricate geeky details didn't always pay off. But I still really enjoyed the universe Suarez crafted and the story that unfolded, if only because it feels so familiar to the one we live in now.

If you've enjoyed Suarez's other works, or novels from Andy Weir, Neal Stephenson or similar authors, I highly recommend checking out Delta-v.

 

Note: I was provided an advance copy of Delta-v by the publisher, but was not otherwise compensated or influenced in my writing of this review. Some links may be to affiliate websites so that I receive a very small percentage of the sale if you choose to buy from them.

Remembering Daniel Quinn

Daniel Quinn died over a year ago, but it doesn't feel too late to offer up some remembrances and tributes to the many ways he made a difference in my life, and the lives of so many others.

Quinn's novel Ishmael, and the lifetime of study, contemplation, research and thinking that led up to it, is at the center of his impact, at least for me. In critically examining the most fundamental stories our culture tells itself about our origins, our purpose and our place in the world, Ishmael and subsequent books from Quinn provided a new framework of understanding and exploration about how human society works, and could work.

It would be over-simplifying to say that it is a novel about environmentalism and sustainability, or uncovering cultural biases, or problematic religious traditions, or human potential and selfishness, although it is deeply about all of those things.  For me personally, reading it was a ground-shaking event in my college years, both because it named feelings, experiences, certainties and doubts I already had inside me, and then introduced a slew of new ones that I had to work through. That I am probably still working through. Whereas some novels have to invent a plot device that provides a dramatic twist at the end -- the ancient secret society DOES exist and the magical stone was hidden behind the painting all along! -- in Ishmael all of the secrets that are uncovered are real, buried in our cultural history and traditions, and the implications for revealing them are far reaching in how we live our lives.

As a person, Quinn was not a pushy evangelist for his ideas, nor did have a neatly packaged solution to offer up for the many challenges his books highlighted. Yes, he spent a lifetime trying (along with his wife Rennie) to make his ideas more clear, more accessible, more actionable through giving lectures, engaging with his readers and their questions, traveling to events and facilitating connections between those who were inspired by his work. But he wasn't selling, he wasn't anybody's savior, and his emphasis was always on improving our thinking and what might come from that.

I do not claim to have known Dan very well, but every time I talked with him or saw him in person, I experienced him as a grounded, authentic, kind, and intensely intelligent person. He had a contemplative nature, and I always appreciated that when asked a question about his work or his ideas, he would listen carefully and then pause for as long as he needed to provide a thoughtful, intentional answer. If he didn't know or couldn't form a useful response, he just said so. He was keenly aware of the power of words to persuade, convince, change minds and alter the course of history, and so he also seemed wary of uttering something that could be misinterpreted, re-appropriated or used to stuff his very not-mainstream ways of thinking into a comfortable mainstream box. He didn't have much patience for people who weren't trying to think for themselves or learn from past mistakes.

Because of the power of his books, many people wanted Dan to be their leader: the leader of their movement or their project or their personal journey through the world, or all of the above. I was always careful about not worshipping Dan himself or of not elevating his writing as sacred texts. But I guess I did help to start a group of people and a series of events centered around his work that jokingly referred to ourselves as a "cult of Ishmael" -- sorry, Dan. 🙂

Continue reading "Remembering Daniel Quinn"

When I grow up, I want to be a generalist

Like many other kids, early in life I was confronted with questions about what I would be when I grew up. What one single area of study, profession and career would I build my life around? I gave the question all the weight it seemed to deserve because I didn't really know another option.

When it was time to pick a focus in college, I considered a lot of different paths; minister, writer, diplomat, teacher, political activist and computer scientist were among them. But I thought I needed to pick one. Technology was the area where I had most consistently thrived in what I did, so I made my choice.

For the almost twenty years that followed I thought I had my thing I would be when I grew up.  I was a tech guy running a tech business. I did a lot of different things as a part of that role, but there was a strong overarching theme I could easily explain in answer to, "what do you do?"

When I started working for someone else, I was sheepish about it at times. I liked the work itself but I was slow to adjust to the public identity of "tech employee," worrying that it was a step backward from "tech entrepreneur." And because employees are ultimately carrying out someone else's vision (no matter how much they share in it), I wondered if I had lost access to my own driving, anchoring passion for what I was doing with my life.

It didn't help that the popular narrative about how to be GREAT is to pick one thing and devote your life to it. One day when I was feeling particularly disoriented about what I wanted to be when I grew up, I encountered something along the lines of this tweet, presumably written in response to the question "how can I be amazing?"

You pick something you want to get good at and you devote every day of your life to it. That’s it. No secrets.

Oh dear. I had many things in life to be thankful for and happy about, but did I have the one thing I wanted to devote every day of my life to, professionally speaking?

It was neat that I'd run for political office, performed as a magician, taught college classes, organized conferences, hosted a podcast, learned to fly an airplane and run a company, but was enough enough?  Was it time to stop messing around with side projects, passing interests and skill-building that was tangential to my "one thing," whatever it was?

Was it time to really grow up?

Then I encountered Emilie Wapnick's book, How to Be Everything: A Guide for Those Who (Still) Don't Know What They Want to Be When They Grow Up (affiliate link).

And thank goodness I did! As I read Emilie's words, I came to identify strongly as the type of person she calls a "multipotentialite," sometimes also referred to as a polymath, renaissance person, jack-of-all-trades, generalist, scanner, or a puttylike person.

I highlighted so many passages while reading How to Be Everything, but here are a few worth excerpting (page numbers from the HarperCollins Kindle Edition):

that the key to thriving in an uncertain economy is having “a mind-set that embraces instability, that tolerates—and even enjoys—recalibrating careers, business models and assumptions.” In the postrecession era, adaptability is not merely an asset; it’s a necessity. (pp. 26-27)

[On studying the components of a happy multipotentialite:] They had all designed lives that provided them with three common elements: money, meaning, and variety—in the amounts that were right for them. (pp. 34-35)

For multipotentialites, productivity is about more than just getting things done. We need to make sure that we’re working on the right things, that our schedule is conducive to getting things done, and that we understand when it is time to abandon a project and move on to the next. (p. 147).

The principle goes like this: the majority of our activities can be divided into three categories: creating, connecting, and consuming. Creating involves bringing something new into existence. Connecting involves reaching out to others and can include activities such as responding to e-mails or posting on social media. Consuming is any activity that involves research or learning. It can consist of reading books or articles, watching movies, listening to podcasts, and so on. All three categories of activities are important. But to get the most out of them, you should respect the combining rule: Connecting and Consuming activities can be combined, but should never be combined with Creating. (pp. 171-172).

One of the most common concerns for multipotentialites is that we won’t measure up to specialists who have been working in a field for decades...Being effective matters more than being the best...Your work should be about delivering, not about reaching the top of your field. (pp. 185-186).

What does it mean to lead with your multipotentiality? It isn’t just about accepting and embracing your inner wiring. That’s only the beginning. To lead with your multipotentiality is to build a sustainable life around your plurality. It means figuring out, in practical terms, how to get the money, meaning, and variety you require so that you can flourish. (pp. 201-202).

These were just some of the passages that had me nodding along vigorously, feeling understood and spoken to in ways that rarely happen when reading a "professional development" book. I am a multipotentialite! And I'm really happy about it.

In the struggles I mentioned above, I had been trying to find my new "one thing."  The book helped me see both that my past approach to life and work was not as single-minded and focused as I thought it was, and that what I actually want professionally and personally is the freedom to explore a wide variety of interests, practices and experiences.

When I was running my website development business, I wasn't just a tech guy running a tech business. I was a software developer, graphic designer, project manager, accountant, lawyer, sales person, marketing person, manager, personal coach, and so much more. I also managed to find time to be a community volunteer, non-profit board member, and even candidate for elected office.

As Wapnick says, "The easiest way to work for a boss who lets you wear many hats at work is to be your own boss. There are few careers more multifaceted than entrepreneurship." This was so true for me; co-founding and running my own business was one of the best things I could have done for embracing my multipotentialite nature.

Fortunately, my current job also allows me a lot of potential to live out my best multipotentialite self. Working for a distributed company that values "what you deliver" over many other things, and in a field that's at an intersection of so many of my current interests (software engineering, journalism, writing, the open web, democratizing publishing) is amazing. I don't have to hide my long lists of things I'd like to try. I can pursue my passions so much more easily than if I were commuting every day to a single location with a narrowly defined role whose success was measured by how many hours I appeared to spend on it at my desk.

Wapnick calls this the Einstein approach, "having one full-time job or business that fully supports you, while leaving you with enough time and energy to pursue your other passions on the side." It's one of four different models for living a multipotentialite life that she describes, the others being Group Hug ("having one multifaceted job or business that allows you to wear many hats and shift between several domains at work."), Slash ("having two or more part-time jobs and/or businesses that you flit between on a regular basis."), and Phoenix ("working in a single industry for several months or years and then shifting gears and starting a new career in a new industry").

The book did a great job of laying out some strategies and tactics for thriving within each of these models. I am always in danger of distraction, feeling bad that I don't have enough time for all my interests, or wrestling with what to say when people ask what I'm up to these days. Having advice on how to manage all of that while making sure I give the things that are important to me my best energy was really great. (The related article on 9 Ways to Explain Your Multipotentiality to Non-Mulitpotentialites was also really helpful - it's what resulted in the "Deep Generalist" label I'm now using for myself on social media and elsewhere.)

If any of what I've said about being a multipotentialite resonates with you, even a little bit, I can't recommend How To Be Everything enough. I'm planning on reading it again soon, if only to work through some of the exercises and questions that accompany each chapter in a little more depth. And if you're REALLY interested, Wapnick also started The Puttytribe, a community of multipotentialites looking for conversation and support.

I'm grateful to have found a framework that gives new meaning and structure to my past and present pursuits, and that makes me even more excited to think about the future.

Andy Weir's Artemis

I recently finished reading Andy Weir's new novel, Artemis, and really enjoyed it. I've been immersing myself in political non-fiction lately (reviews coming soon) so I really needed a fun, smart page-turner to balance things out, and Artemis fit the bill perfectly.

If you're not already familiar with Weir, he wrote the bestselling book The Martian (mentioned here) which then became a surprisingly great 2015 theatrical version starring Matt Damon. It was so well-written, engaging and scientifically grounded that high school physics teachers convinced him to release a profanity-free version that they could teach their courses from.

Similar to The Martian, the book centers on a smart, extraordinarily resourceful main character who seems to be in an uphill battle against life-or-death surrounding circumstances from start to finish. Unlike The Martian, for this new main character the circumstances are much more derived from her life choices and penchant for non-traditional ways of generating income, and the experiences that unfold are much more intertwined with the choices and personalities of other people.

Continue reading "Andy Weir's Artemis"

Mini book reviews

It's been a good year of reading so far. Here are some mini-reviews of what I've been taking in. As always I’ve linked to an online purchase option (with a small referral fee coming to me if you actually buy), but please consider buying from your locally-owned bookseller or visiting your local library first.

Purity: A Novel by Jonathan Franzen

I hadn't read any of Franzen's work before picking this up, but I'm planning to now. Purity's storyline takes on several generations of culture, world events and political-technological evolution while remaining a very personal and rich study of a few particular relationships. I enjoyed the way journalism, social media and other tools of the digital age were woven into the plot without becoming perfunctory. Some parts of the book felt a bit rambling or under-developed, but overall I found the writing to be really compelling and the book as a whole a moving and rewarding read.

Disrupted: My Misadventures in the Startup Bubble by Dan Lyons

I have to pace myself when it comes to reading "insider looks at life in Silicon Valley" books. Partly because I spend my professional life working in tech and I don't always want to read about the tech industry for fun, and partly because it seems like too many of those books are thrown together to create a quick payday and/or ego boost for the author, without a lot of substance to make them worthwhile.

When I saw Dan Lyons` book I thought the concept sounded interesting and fun: "old media" journalist tries to join in the "new media" tech world, hilarity ensues. I also thought it would be interesting to learn more about HubSpot; I've been hearing about the company years now but I could never quite understand why what they did was of any value. So I dived in.

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Books: Seveneves, What If?, Steve Jobs

Notes on three books I've had a chance to read recently:

Sevenevesby Neal Stephenson

I've noted here before how much I enjoy Neal Stephenson's writing and storytelling, and Seveneves did not depart from that trend. It mixes together a few of my favorite things: science fiction with attention to realism, thought-provoking end-of-the-world scenarios, and a witty narrative that makes the reader work a bit to put all the pieces together. And while mostly plot-driven, Seveneves manages to do quite a bit of philosophizing about the nature of humanity and what we hold dear, not to mention the lengths we'll go to to preserve that. I will say that I enjoyed reading the first part of the book more than the second, but several days after finishing when the whole story had had a chance to marinate a bit, I was grateful for the completeness of two together, different as they were. Seveneves imagines a universe worth spending some time in. Continue reading "Books: Seveneves, What If?, Steve Jobs"

The End of College?

I found this interview with author Kevin Carey about "The End of College" to be very much worthwhile. He talks about shifting understandings of the value of higher education, the ways in which college replicates privilege, why college is so expensive, and what college might look like in a few decades.

Carey's main prediction is that a handful of very expensive and elite schools will survive in the traditional model while the rest of higher education shifts to online tools and offline experiences that aren't concentrated in a specific location.

Some sort of major shift seems inevitable. As I watch my own alma mater Earlham College wrestle with increasing costs against the backdrop of a highly competitive admissions landscape, I have to wonder if I would spend the money to send my own children to a place like it.

Continue reading "The End of College?"

Zero to One

I thoroughly enjoyed Peter Thiel's Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future.

It's one of the few "business books" I've read recently that incorporates anything resembling a coherent global ethic into thinking about what it means to create and grow a business. Beyond that, he gets into some great reflections on human creativity, optimism and pessimism about the future, and investing.

I didn't always agree with Thiel's views or counsel, but I found his thinking to be clear and his insights helpful, especially on what it takes to build something that makes a substantial and/or lasting difference in the world. Read through the lens of my past experience creating a startup tech business and my current thinking about what I can do for the world in the future, there were some lovely and/or cringe-worthy "ah-ha" moments.

I highlighted many passages as I read, here are a few that stand out:

Continue reading "Zero to One"

The Martian by Andy Weir

I recently finished reading The Martian by Andy Weir. It was one of the most enjoyable works of fiction I've read recently, and so I can't help but recommend it here.

The story is a kind of Robinson Crusoe/Cast Away extreme survival adventure that happens in space, and will especially appeal to fans of MacGyver-style resourcefulness with some realistic science and geeky tech explanations thrown in. It's also pretty funny at times, and strangely moving at others. Check it out.