The Saturday Read ‘LIT UP: One Reporter, Three Schools. Twenty-Four Books That Can Change Lives.’ by David Denby

If you believe that the humanities are as critical as STEM skills in the 21st century workplace, take a trip back to high school with David Denby and this week’s Saturday Read, ‘LIT UP’: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-Four Books That Can Change Lives.

We have this basic disconnect in our workplace today that is pitting generalists against specialists. The consequences are trickling down into our public education system.

If you’re a parent considering where to invest in your child’s college education, you’re probably looking at ‘vocational’ programs that ‘guarantee’ a job at graduation. If you’re that same parent, but now in the role of organization executive, you realize your recruiting efforts must consider ‘cultural contribution’; potential in addition to skill set. If you’re a student, you hear ‘STEM good, humanities bad; or worse, a waste of time’.

Writing in The New Yorker in February, Mr. Denby addressed the challenge in advocating for the humanities in today’s skill driven education/employer complex. He cited recent state government efforts to offer ‘bonus premiums’ in financial aid to students enrolled in STEM degree programs by cutting funding to students in the humanities.

“Lifetime readers know that reading literature can be transformative, but they can’t prove it. If they tried, they would have to buck the metric prejudice, the American notion that assertions unsupported with statistics are virtually meaningless. What they know about literature and its effects is literally and spiritually immeasurable. They would have to buck common marketplace wisdom, too: in an economy demanding “skill sets”—defined narrowly as technical and business skills—that deep-reading stuff won’t get you anywhere.” 

In ‘LIT UP’ David Denby is searching for the magic that transforms a young reader into a lifetime reader. “How do you establish reading pleasure in busy screen-loving teenagers – and in particular, pleasure in reading serious work? Is it still possible to raise teenagers who can’t live without reading something good? Or is that idea absurd? And could the struggle to create such hunger have any effect on the character of boys and girls?”

He chooses to go back to school for the 2011-12 academic year at Beacon, a New York City magnet high school, at the time located on West 61st St, observing teacher Sean Leon‘s tenth grade English class.

“School was the place to find out. And students in the tenth grade, I thought, were the right kids to look at. Recent work by neuroscientists has established that adolescence, as well as early childhood, is a period of tremendous “neuroplasticity”. At that age, the brain still has a genuine capacity to change.”

The book is structured by months, and reading selections. Mr. Leon introduces each book with inventive assignments, questions and at one point, a ‘digital fast’. Mr. Denby provides thumbnail plot sketches to shake the cobwebs from our ‘required reading’ memories. And we meet the students, by pseudonym, in their reactions to the literature.

At one point, the author gives the students a questionnaire to find out what books they read on their own, and their favorite authors. He finds three ‘real readers’ in a class of 32. “…unfairly or not, I was sorry that among Mr. Leon’s students there were no mad enthusiasms, no crazy loves, no compulsive reading of every book by a single author…”

In writing the book, he was encouraged by colleagues to create a scalable review, contrary to his initial approach, resisting quantification, and observing “a single place where literary education seemed to be working.” 

He realized that you can’t clone Beacon’s Sean Leon. He wanted other teachers to learn from Leon’s methods, but realized additional perspectives would add to his narrative.

“Typicality and comprehensiveness remained impossible to achieve, but variety was not. I delayed finishing the book, and, in the academic year 2013-14, I visited tenth-grade English classes in two other public schools – shuttling up many times during the year to James Hillhouse High School, an inner-city school in New Haven with a largely poor African American population; and five times in the spring to a school in a wealthy New York suburb, Mamaroneck, a “bedroom town” in the language of the fifties, where people sent their kids to good schools.”

Mr. Denby’s appendix includes the reading lists for each of the schools he visited and a ‘where are they now?’ college destination roster of the Beacon English Class of 2014. “There is, of course, no ideal reading list, no perfect syllabus, no perfect classroom manner, but only strategies that work or don’t work. In a reading crisis, we are pragmatists as well as idealists.”

“Teenagers, distracted, busy, self-obsessed, are not easy to engage – not by their teachers or by their parents. To keep them in the game, the teachers I watched experimented, altered the routine, changing the physical dimensions of the class. They kept the kids off balance in order to put them back in balance. They demanded more of students than the students expected to give.”

This is a book for parents, parents who are business leaders; teachers and the politicians who minimize their value; and students. We’re in a reading crisis and we need folks who have emotional intelligence, who can think, judge, make decisions and create a vision for an enterprise within a global world view.

“Teachers are the most maligned and ignored professionals in American life. In the humanities, the good ones are as central to our emotional and moral life as priests, ministers, rabbis, and imams. The good ones are not sheepish or silent in defense of literature and history and the rest. They can’t be; the children’s lives are right before them. In high-school English, if the teachers are shrewd and willing to take a few risks, they will try to reach the students where they live emotionally. They will engage, for instance, with “naïve” existential questions (what do I live for?) and also adolescent fascination with “dark” moods and the fear of being engulfed by adult society. Shakespeare, Mary Shelley, Poe, Hawthorne, Twain, Stevenson, Orwell, Vonnegut, and many others wrote about such things. And if teachers can make books important to kids—and forge the necessary link to pleasure and need—those kids may turn off the screens. At least for a few vital hours.”

‘Today’ a poem by Billy Collins

 

The signs of spring are around us. On Sunday we move the clocks ahead an hour and begin to fill in our NCAA tournament brackets. In the world beyond our workplace windows, nature quietly launches her ‘trickster season’.

“Spring has never been a reliable season. Some years it includes too much summer, some years too much winter, and some years too much of both.”

The Friday Poem this week comes from two time U.S. Poet Laureate, Billy Collins, who invites us to “throw open all the windows in the house” and enjoy the perfect spring day.

Today

If ever there were a spring day so perfect,
so uplifted by a warm intermittent breeze

that it made you want to throw
open all the windows in the house

and unlatch the door to the canary’s cage,
indeed, rip the little door from its jamb,

a day when the cool brick paths
and the garden bursting with peonies

seemed so etched in sunlight
that you felt like taking

a hammer to the glass paperweight
on the living room end table,

releasing the inhabitants
from their snow-covered cottage

so they could walk out,
holding hands and squinting

into this larger dome of blue and white,
well, today is just that kind of day.

Billy Collins   Poetry Magazine,  April 2000

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“Accessibility is not a word often associated with great poetry. Yet Billy Collins has managed to create a legacy from what he calls being poetically “hospitable.” Preferring lyrical simplicity to abstruse intellectualism, Collins combines humility and depth of perception, undercutting light and digestible topics with dark and at times biting humor.”  (TED 2012)

 

 

We all need a ‘spring break’

We all need a ‘spring break’. And it’s not just for the vitamin D sunshine boost. A temporary change in location can stimulate a permanent change in perspective.

Nature reminds us to pause, celebrate, and welcome spring. As temperatures moderate and daylight hours lengthen we find ways to escape to the outdoors, contemplating great decisions on walks around the block or conferring with colleagues at courtyard conference tables.

But these are only ‘teaser’ experiences. If you have been running a marathon @work since the beginning of the new year, it’s time to break away from work and experience something new.

In the U.S. the concept of spring break is often synonymous with beach bacchanals and mindless cavorting. While that may be the choice for a minority, the perception masks the reality of those who take a week to travel outside their comfort zone to assist non-profits and NGOs in their work to improve the lives of others.

Spring break has many definitions, incorporating a variety of experience. Most describe renewal, not exhaustion; fun, not excess.

The ‘muscle memory’ of the academic calendar that guided our days beginning in pre-school, stimulates our recollection of past spring adventures, and the little earthquakes in our perceptions of the world.

What adventure will be your catalyst to discovery?

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I took this photo on a Saturday morning at the corner of Pico and Exposition in Los Angeles. The traffic stop sign, with the bicycle attached offered passersby an invitation to stop and consider an adventure accessible with a key.

You don’t need book a flight to Mexico or the Caribbean. Just stop. Your bike is outside, waiting for you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

  

The week@work – leadership, lawyers, student loans & the economy

What makes a great leader or a great lawyer? What’s the best strategy to retire student debt? This week@work surveys articles that provide some answers, and as the economy continues to strengthen, offers some practical advice on career advancement.

Joshua Rothman wrote ‘Shut Up and Sit Down: Why the leadership industry rules’ for The New Yorker. He gives us a quick tutorial on the history of leadership, why we value the concept, but are so often disappointed in the people. He alludes to the current presidential contest, and then focuses on change in both our expectations of leaders, and the roles they play in contemporary organizations.Print

“In recent years, technological and economic changes like social media and globalization have made leaders less powerful.

Leaders used to be titanic and individual; now they’re faceless guiders of processes. Once, only the people in charge could lead; now anyone can lead “emergently.” The focus has shifted from the small number of people who have been designated as leaders to the background systems that produce and select leaders in the first place.

Leaders, moreover, used to command; now they suggest. Conceptually, at least, leadership and power have been decoupled.

To some extent, leaders are storytellers; really, though, they are characters in stories. They play leading roles, but in dramas they can’t predict and don’t always understand. Because the serialized drama of history is bigger than any one character’s arc, leaders can’t guarantee our ultimate narrative satisfaction. Because events, on the whole, are more protean than people, leaders grow less satisfying with time, as the stories they’re ready to tell diverge from the stories we want to hear. And, because our desire for a coherent vision of the world is bottomless, our hunger for leadership is insatiable, too. Leaders make the world more sensible, but never sensible enough.”

The New York Times profiled two women who chose law as their profession and took divergent, pioneering paths to achieve success. What makes a good lawyer? Meet Kimberley Chongyong Motley and Damaris Hernandez.

David Jolly profiled Ms. Motley, who has been practicing her profession in Afghanistan for close to eight years and was recently the subject of an award winning documentary, ‘Motley’s Law’.

image.adapt.990.high.kimberley_motley_05feb2016_portrait.1454770287607“Ms. Motley, 40, a Marquette University Law School graduate, had never before traveled overseas when she enrolled in a Justice Department program to train Afghan lawyers and flew to one of the world’s more dangerous places.

After her nine-month assignment, she did not return home to Milwaukee, instead hanging out her own shingle in Kabul. She studied Shariah, the Islamic code that lies beneath the fragile new Afghan Constitution, and she established herself as the only foreign litigator in one of the world’s most conservative and male-dominated cultures.

Ms. Motley says she makes a point of closely studying the cultures of both Afghanistan and the courtroom. “I’m a sort of legal archaeologist,” she said. “I try to uncover laws that have not been used, and then use them for the benefit of my clients.”

Damaris Hernandez was recently promoted to partner at the firm Cravath, Swaine & Moore, becoming the first Latina to reach that position. Elizabeth Olson tells her story as a first generation college student, who advanced in her career with the support of a unique scholarship at NYU.

Hernandez web.jpg

That achievement is an acknowledgment of her talent and hard work. But the story of her route to the top also reveals how much more complex the journey is for minorities and women than for the white men who overwhelmingly dominate the firms. Skill is only one of the keys. Being able to navigate unspoken rules is at least as important.

“When I was the only one of color or the only woman in the room, I had the confidence to believe in my ability,” said Ms. Hernández, 36, describing the advantages of the program to her. “When you are the first, you need someone to have your back.”

Over the last decade and a half, she and 100 others who attended the New York University School of Law received that support from a scholarship program that paid their full tuition and also gave them access to a network of luminaries including federal judges, law firm partners and even Supreme Court justices.”

If you are seeking ways to reduce your student loan obligation, NPR’s Yuki Noguchi offers ‘Strategies For When You’re Starting Out Saddled With Student Debt’. It’s not just about individual liability, but also the long term impact on career choice and economic growth.

“Experts say studies show rising student debt is limiting peoples’ career options. They decide against graduate school. Or feel they can’t afford lower-paying public service jobs or the risk of starting a new business. That’s a problem, because new companies create new jobs.”

University Park campus of the University of Southern California

This past week the University of  Southern California announced a tuition increase that will bring the annual bill to over $51,000. Financing college involves loans as part of the  package. Having a repayment strategy is critical to long term career success.

“Chris Costello, CEO of Blooom, a personal finance advice firm targeting lower-net-worth people, advises his firm’s clients to tackle student debt with this strategy.

First, if your employer matches contributions to a retirement plan, such as a 401(k) or 403(b), max out on the matching contributions.

After maxing out on the matching contributions, pay off the debt with the lowest balance.

Check to see if you can qualify for loan forgiveness, refinancing or debt consolidation.

Do not incur new debts: in other words, live below your means.”

Chico Harlan of The Washington Post reported on the latest figures released by the U.S. Labor Department on Friday.

“U.S. employers continued their rapid hiring in February, new government data showed Friday, a sign of the nation’s economic durability during a tumultuous global slowdown.

The U.S. added 242,000 jobs as the unemployment rate held at 4.9 percent, the lowest mark during the seven-year recovery from the Great Recession.

That pace, consistent with gains over the last year, indicates Americans are returning rapidly to the labor force, helped by steady consumer spending that is bolstering demand and prompting employers to expand their workforces. In data released Friday by the Department of Labor, sluggish wages provided the only disappointing note — a signal that labor market still has room to improve.”

Two other articles of interest this week:

’15 things successful 20-somethings do in their spare time’ by Jacquelyn Smith and Rachel Gillett for Business Insider

‘How to Advance In Your Career Without Becoming A Workaholic’ by Lisa Evans for Fast Company

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Saturday Read ‘Worklife: Rethinking the office for an always-on economy’

The Saturday Read this week is a compilation of articles that appeared in the February 28, 2016 ‘work issue’ of The New York Times Magazine.

A group of journalists and writers contributed coverage on a variety of work/life topics, adding new perspectives from groundbreaking research, demonstrating that, regardless of profession, it’s all about the culture. And the culture is in need of change.

Organization culture determines who succeeds, fails, and communicates ‘hints’ through recruiting practices, and the daily process of getting things done; meetings, teamwork and office space.

“We do often work at home. But we also work at work, before going home to work more. The office has persisted, becoming even bigger, weirder, stranger: a symbol of its outsize presence in our lives.”

The ‘work issue’ is an interesting survey of some of the most pressing issues @work today. The sampling of the content below is meant to serve as an introduction, with a recommendation to take the time to read the edition in its entirety.

NYT staff writer, Susan Dominus challenges us to think about balance beyond policies by ‘Rethinking the Work-Life Equation’, reporting on the research of Phyllis Moen of the University of Minnesota and Erin Kelly of M.I.T.

“Workers in the experimental group were told they could work wherever, and whenever, they chose so long as projects were completed on time and goals were met; the new emphasis would be on results rather than on the number of hours spent in the office. Managers were trained to be supportive of their employees’ personal issues and were formally encouraged to open up about their own priorities outside work — an ill parent, or a child wanting her mom to watch her soccer games. Managers were given iPods that buzzed twice a day to remind them to think about the various ways they could support their employees as they managed their jobs and home lives.

The research found that employees in the experimental group met their goals as reliably as those in the control group, and they were, in short, much happier: They were sleeping better, were healthier and experienced less stress. Other studies examining the same workplace found that the effects even cascaded down to employees’ children, who reported less volatility around their own daily stresses; adolescents saw the quality of their sleep improve. A year out, and then three years out, employees in the experimental group reported less interest in leaving the organization than those in the control group.

…sometimes there is little more than tradition holding organizations back from making meaningful changes that bring tremendous peace of mind to their employees.”

Five years ago, Google decided to determine what makes a ‘perfect team’. Pulitzer prize winning New York Times reporter Charles Duhigg reports on the results in an excerpt from his new book, ‘Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business’.

“For Project Aristotle, research on psychological safety pointed to particular norms that are vital to success. There were other behaviors that seemed important as well — like making sure teams had clear goals and creating a culture of dependability. But Google’s data indicated that psychological safety, more than anything else, was critical to making a team work.

However, establishing psychological safety is, by its very nature, somewhat messy and difficult to implement. You can tell people to take turns during a conversation and to listen to one another more. You can instruct employees to be sensitive to how their colleagues feel and to notice when someone seems upset. But the kinds of people who work at Google are often the ones who became software engineers because they wanted to avoid talking about feelings in the first place.

What Project Aristotle has taught people within Google is that no one wants to put on a ‘‘work face’’ when they get to the office. No one wants to leave part of their personality and inner life at home. But to be fully present at work, to feel ‘‘psychologically safe,’’ we must know that we can be free enough, sometimes, to share the things that scare us without fear of recriminations. We must be able to talk about what is messy or sad, to have hard conversations with colleagues who are driving us crazy. We can’t be focused just on efficiency. Rather, when we start the morning by collaborating with a team of engineers and then send emails to our marketing colleagues and then jump on a conference call, we want to know that those people really hear us. We want to know that work is more than just labor.”

Nikil Saval, who wrote about the evolution of the office in ‘Cubed: The Secret History of the Workplace’, writes about new experiments with office space, ‘Labor/atories’

“The sudden efflorescence of the tech industry in the late ’90s took us from the desert of cubicles to the milk-and-honey offices of today. Many of the dot-commers had graduated from (or, very often, dropped out of) cozy university campuses to toil in big corporations. Starting their own companies, they recreated the effortless drift between work and play that characterized their college lives. The cubicle walls came down, and in the wide, open warehouse and loft spaces they occupied, exceptionally long workdays would be punctuated by frenzied Mario Kart races or fierce Ping-Pong battles. Creating a playful office became one of the standard ways of attracting skilled employees in a competitive environment: The hope was that a talented engineer wouldn’t leave a tech behemoth for the dinky start-up next door that didn’t have a gym and a resistance pool. Thus has the ‘‘fun office’’ spread throughout the world.”

Each of the articles provides a ‘take away’ to apply @work. If you’re a leader, you’ll rethink your approach as you begin to understand what your competitors are doing to recruit and retain employees. As a manager, you’ll learn ways to improve the daily routine of meetings, but more important, reinforce behavior that will encourage employees to be productive. For the rest of us, a window has been opened to view alternative approaches to work and workplace. What will you do on Monday to turn policy into practice?

 

The Friday Poem ‘The Persistence of Song’ by Howard Moss

The Friday Poem this week is ‘The Persistence of Song’ by Howard Moss, the poetry editor of The New Yorker for almost forty years.

“In that influential capacity, this quiet, unassuming man was one of the key figures in American letters in the late twentieth century, boosting the careers of many young poets by publishing their work in one of the few mass circulation magazines which bought poetry and paid well for it.”

This one is for the mentors who open doors, make connections and by their presence create a model to be imitated.

The poem appeared in The New Yorker in the fall of 1966 and takes us to a time in the city, when life after work was anticipated ..” When the secretaries have changed their frocks, And though it is not yet evening, There is a persistence of song.”

The Persistence of Song

Although it is not yet evening,
The secretaries have changed their frocks
As if it were time for dancing,
And locked up in the scholars’ books
There is a kind of rejoicing,
There is a kind of singing
That even the dark stone canyon makes
As though all fountains were going
At once, and the color flowed from bricks
In one wild, lit upsurging.

What is the weather doing?
And who arrived on a scallop shell
With the smell of the sea this morning?
-Creating a small upheaval
High above the scaffolding
By saying, “All will be well.
There is a kind of rejoicing.”

Is there a kind of rejoicing
In saying, “All will be well?”
High above the scaffolding,
Creating a small upheaval,
The smell of the sea this morning
Arrived on a scallop shell.
What was the weather doing
In one wild, lit upsurging?
At once, the color flowed from bricks
As though all fountains were going,
And even the dark stone canyon makes
Here a kind of singing,
And there a kind of rejoicing,
And locked up in the scholars’ books
There is a time for dancing
When the secretaries have changed their frocks,
And though it is not yet evening,

There is the persistence of song.

Howard Moss  The New Yorker, November 19, 1966

 

 

 

 

 

 

Imagining the Monday morning conversation at PwC

I have two questions. What happened to the PricewaterhouseCoopers lead partner for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and his colleague, and Oscar balloting co-leader, Sunday night? How did they face their colleagues on Monday morning after the Oscar host turned their most visible annual ‘guest spot’ into the saddest stereotype ‘joke’?

Melena Ryzik described what happened at the point in the award ceremony when the team from the PwC was brought on stage.

“Introducing the accountants from PricewaterhouseCoopers, which tabulates the vote results, Mr. Rock instead brought onstage two boys and a girl of Asian heritage, whom he named Ming Zu, Bao Ling and David Moskowitz. As they clutched briefcases, they visually illustrated the stereotype that Asians are diligent workers who excel at math.

“If anybody’s upset about that joke, just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids,” Mr. Rock added, a punch line interpreted as a reference to child labor in Asia.”

What happened to Matt Damon ‘look alike’ and managing partner for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Brian Cullinan and his colleague, Martha Ruiz ?

The conversation on social media since the Oscar broadcast has centered on the ‘joke’, and the fine line between satire and slur. But what happened as hundreds of PwC’s employees arrived at work on Monday morning? What was the conversation between corporate recruiters and expectant applicants on college campuses? How did the meeting start between engagement managers and clients? Why did a company that values diversity allow it’s moment in the spotlight to turn into an epic fail?

PwC’s corporate website and recruiting site advertise the diversity of the firm as a core value.

“Role models inspire others by bringing possibilities to life. And I believe we all have the power to shape the course of other people’s careers. Active sponsorship makes all the difference when it comes to advancing diverse professionals.”

Maria Castañón Moats
Chief Diversity Officer

“At PwC, we foster an inclusive culture by acknowledging the unique experiences and perspectives all of our people bring to work. Our goal is to be known as the place to build a career, regardless of one’s background, beliefs, gender or sexual orientation. Diversity, in all its dimensions, is a key element of our people and our client strategy, and we continue to invest in the area diversity and inclusion knowing we will ultimately be measured on the progress we make.”

Bob Moritz
US Chairman and Senior Partner

Who makes the decision to violate corporate values for a moment of ill timed humor? On Sunday, a company with a publicized core value of diversity allowed itself to be manipulated in the midst of a nationwide controversy about the lack of inclusion.

In February, journalist Iris Quo wrote an article for the Washington Post, posing the question,  ‘Why do my co-workers keep confusing me with other people? Because I’m Asian.’

“All my life I’ve been mistaken for other people of my race. It’s a degrading and thoughtless error that boils away my identity and simplifies me as one thing: “that Asian.” One reason is that our society has so few Asians and people of color in positions of prominence that some people have little exposure to them. Diversity is so lacking in film and television that a director thinks it’s okay to cast a white person as Chinese, as Cameron Crowe did with Emma Stone in “Aloha,” and the Hollywood Reporter mistakes “Master of None” actor Kelvin Yu for show co-creator Alan Yang, who tweeted in response, “Same race, different dude.”

On Sunday night, I was thinking about Iris Quo, ‘degrading and thoughtless errors’, PwC employees and all the college students who are considering offers from PwC. An aberration, or a catalyst to revise the resume?