Brain… come ALIVE, brain!

Time for a little heave of self-indulgence and jabbering on about what’s on my mind.

Well, I’m reading again, for the first time since earlier this year. My day job keeps me fantastically busy most of the time. Daxter is shaping up faster than I can even imagine and we’re looking good for the spring release we’ve been planning. Things will be very crunchy for me until then. Crunch usually beats the thoughts out of my head but I’m getting better every day at dealing with that.

So, as I said, I’ve been reading again. The inimitable 800 CEO READ keeps sending me free books which I’ve been greedily devouring.

The first of these is Rules of the Red Rubber Ball : Find and Sustain Your Life’s Work.

It’s a small, hardcover, beautifully put together book of inspiration, passion and encouragement to follow your dreams and never stop chasing them. The book is full of pages that fold out, words that stream across and all over the page, and all sorts of other interesting effects and styles of type that make every page unique and exciting. Every page is as visually invigorating as the words printed on them. This would be a fantastic book to send to a high school or college graduate.

The next is Then We Set His Hair on Fire: Insights and Accidents from a Hall of Fame Career in Advertising.

This is a fantastic book written by the former chairman of BBDO North America, reputedly one of the largest and most famous advertising agencies in the world, servicing clients such as GE, Pepsi, FedEx and Pizza Hut. Straight away he defines the difference between an idea and an insight, which I found particularly interesting. I’ll excerpt his brief explanation, since he’s written copy his entire life and can sum it up better than I can:

This is a book about insights in business–how we get them, how we recognize them, how we keep them coming.

Insights as opposed to ideas. There’s a difference. Ideas, valuable as though they may be, are a dime-a-dozen in business. That’s certainly the case at ad agencies where ideas (not all of them good, mind you) are the currency of the realm and even the mailroom people spit out ideas as if they were candy from a PEZ dispenser.

Insight is much rarer–and therefore more precious. In the advertising business, a good idea can inspire a great commercial. But a good insight can fuel a thousand ideas, a thousand commercials. More than anything else, an insight states a truth that alters how you see the world.

And he goes on to explain, as he says, how you get insights, how to recognize them, and how to keep them coming. He regales us with tales of meeting with Jack Welch, then-CEO of General Electric, and the frantic rush to win their advertising account with their famous “We bring good things to life” slogan, to his direct involvement in Ronald Reagan’s 1984 reelection campaign, to how he nearly botched a multi-million dollar account with Pizza Hut.

The author tells the kind of stories that people gather together in groups to talk about, and then extracts important lessons from them. It’s so engaging that I breezed through over 150 pages seemingly in an instant. Even if you’re not terribly interested in advertising, the stories he tells are fun and interesting as a simple memoir. The high-profile nature of his work makes it even more interesting as you flip through and think “I remember that ad! So that’s how it happened? Unbelievable!”

Fantastic read so far, can’t wait to finish it. Couldn’t recommend it more. Moving onto other books!

Today I started listening to an audio book called Good to Great. This book is the result of a five-year-long study of a sample group of companies that started out as merely good companies and then skyrocketed into fifteen-plus years of sustained success. His explanation of the research process is absolutely staggering.

The author and a research team of over 20 people spent years of painstaking research finding out what it was about these companies that made them so great and collecting reams of data on these companies, their biggest competitors, and other companies in a similar category at a similar time, and attempts to derive a series of common principles between these great companies that we can learn from. There’s much more to it than that, but frankly, I can’t fit all that into my head at once. 🙂

I’ve barely scratched the surface of the book, but the first observation he made was that all the chief executives of all the companies that made this mysterious transition from a good company to a great one were modest, unassuming, even moderately self-effacing people. That’s not to say that they didn’t burn with passion, but they’re quite the opposite of the maverick, self-aggrandizing egocentric warrior CEOs brought in to effect change that make headlines.

In fact, the author’s research indicates that CEOs like that can often be a death knell for a company, which I found fairly amusing.

My point in bringing this up is that it’s starting to give a little credence to something I’ve long suspected but never been able to prove: Modest but driven people win.

I’ve thought about this a lot. This is a bit of a continuation of my thoughts in my Smart People are Dumb, Failure is Awesome post.

You can come into a company or a country as a ruler and violently coerce people to follow you, through physical violence or sheer force of will. Anyone with the right amount of moxy can pull it off, and many do. Were I a thornier sort, I’m sure I could pull off the same maneuver somewhere or another, and more quickly achieve the success I strive for.

But the problem I have with that is that it seems to take so much moment-to-moment effort to shove people around to achieve the results that you want, that you can’t let your guard down for a moment lest you be betrayed. Witness the fall of infamous rulers of all sorts throughout history. They put themselves in a position where they can’t trust anyone around them. What kind of life is that?

I’ve come to feel that the real trick is to act in such a way that you inspire trust and confidence and self-esteem in those around you, and they follow you out of respect and allegiance rather than through fear. Create a system, a machine, that can run itself by harnessing the power and passion of the best that exists inside people.

It seems like that’d be almost more work than pointing a gun at someone and demanding what you want. And, initially, it sure is. But think of the future. Think of sustainability. In the long term, wouldn’t you want to be able to lie back and relax and let the machine run itself because you’ve been good to it and respect it? Rather than because you’re pointing a gun at it?

I’ve always believed that it’s an entirely achievable goal. But I’ll be damned if I know where to start doing it. 🙂 The only core belief I have in that vein is that the key to being a good person is to make other people feel better about themselves. As I see it, the more I learn and live, the closer I’ll come to figuring out how to achieve something like that.

But back to the book… seeing the author discover that scientifically, without a single deviation, all the managers of all these fantastic companies have this in common is tremendously encouraging to me. It shows that I may really be on the right track in thinking of these things. Like driving blind in one direction so long you think you’re lost, but then you see a sign on the side of the road showing you that your destination is just a few miles further down the road.

Good stuff.

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