Synthesize, don’t harmonize.

It goes by many names–the false dichotomy, the either/or when you should be thinking both/and, first things and second things. We have a mental weakness–we’re fine with exposure to various ideas, but we want them to combine into perfectly harmonized chords.

Perhaps we should be trying to synthesize ideas rather than to harmonize them. To synthesize literally means to put together; we’ve added a connotation of putting things together in a way that makes sense. To harmonize ideas is to make them fit together. The problem is, ideas aren’t always mutually consistent in themselves; they may each be true within specific contexts or in specific ways. Sometimes, we simply need to hold several mutually inconsistent ideas. Don’t force them to premature consistency; don’t stop asking why they seem both true and inconsistent, or on what underlying framework they both might fit.

When two ideas are in conflict, consider that the “opponents” may actually be on the same team, but playing by rules you don’t yet know. You have a deep framework, a network of ideas that makes up who you are. Some ideas are easily wired into the structure; others require a lot of reorganization. As your framework gets more complex, you gain in ability to process ideas. Apparent conflicts are a gift, forcing you to increase your mental abilities in order to handle them. Embrace this chance to grow.

One Big Thing

Part of the reason that I am/will be blogging about books I read is to force myself to process them more deeply than I often do. Today, I thought of another tool that might be helpful: the “One Big Thing”.

“One Big Thing” is a phrase stolen from Immunity to Change. That book tells the story of a group of people who knew that they needed to change, but who didn’t each know exactly what needed to change. Rather than trying to change many things at once, they found it most helpful if each person decided, with others’ input, what was the One Big Thing he or she needed to focus on.

Pulling the “One Big Thing” into a different context, I hope to ask that question of each book I read: what is the “One Big Thing”, the unifying idea or the typical gem that defines this book? Why is the book worth reading (if indeed it is)?

Digital Reading

I’m a convert. I’m an evangelist. And…I’m a skeptic. I’m rapidly going digital in practice and preference, and yet I’m wistful about the things my Kindling leaves behind.

Several years ago, I was working overseas for a number of months. It was then that I realized how much I missed my reading materials. Sure, I could still order books from Amazon, at $10 shipping per book. But, delivery time was measured in weeks rather than days–a trial for someone who likes to have his resources now. My magazines…well, they were still faithfully delivered to my address in the States. My 18 pounds of CFA curriculum? Ditto.

It was during this time that I learned of an amazing new product. Amazon had released the Kindle, a device with an e-ink screen and a battery that lasted for weeks–a device that would let you buy and read books anywhere in the world, almost instantly! Moreover, I wouldn’t have to use precious luggage space for the books I “might want”–I could have access to my entire digital library, from anywhere!

It was a while before I was completely hooked. After returning to the States, the Kindle’s $400 price tag was a luxury I wasn’t sure I could afford. And, as convenient as it is to “own” digital books in the cloud, I didn’t like the idea that Amazon controlled all of my access to books I’d bought and paid for–and that my library could, in theory, vanish into thin air if Amazon ceased to exist, if they erred or my account’s security were breached, or if I simply lost access to Amazon’s Kindle-reading devices and programs. I even thought about the evanescence of digital data: it’s not efficient to inscribe knowledge on clay tablets and fire them, but they’ll last for millennia! The same isn’t true of a Kindle, though the underlying data might last (see the Library of Congress for more information).

Despite a slow start, I’ve now sold out to Amazon–surprising myself at the speed of my dive into digital, for good or for ill. I still have reservations, but the benefits of digital reading hold sway:

  • Portability. I’m contemplating quite a bit of overseas travel and living in the next while. The thought of being able to take almost all of my library with me in a few ounces, rather than trying to figure out which books should take their part of a 50-lb weight allowance, is a strong selling point.
  • Accessibility. This is partly a consequence of portability. Beyond that, though, the ability to pull out my phone in a bit of “dead” time and read real books, thoughtful analyses, novels, or even “mind candy” is huge.
  • Searchability. It’s easy to pull up that quote I know I saw somewhere in the book. Moreover, it’s a lot easier to search my archives for a book than to search my shelves for the “dead trees” version.
  • Instant gratification. A number of times recently, I’ve needed information in the near term, and have either known what book contained it or found a promising book by searching. Moments later (and a few dollars later), I was reading the book. The Web is great, but book-length treatments are still often the most valuable.
  • Integrated dictionary. My vocabulary is relatively large, but I still find it useful to read with an integrated dictionary. Recently, reading William Styron on Kindle, I found myself luxuriating in his use of language–but frequently looking up the words he used. Had I needed to a separate dictionary (whether digital or paper), I’d have been much less likely to look them up and expand my vocabulary.
  • Sales and freebies. Amazon occasionally runs sales on their Kindle books. Many of them are books in which I have no interest; others are opportunities to acquire interesting books at a fraction of the normal price. There’s a lot of flexibility in pricing a product with a unit price that approaches zero, vs. the costs of physical production and distribution. Many classics are available for free in digital form, and promotional “freebies” of other books often are available (and, admittedly, worth that price a good portion of the time). Though it takes sorting through some dross, discounted or free Kindle books do add to the value proposition.
Though I love digital reading, I’m still wistful about some of the costs of giving up paper–and suggest you “count the cost” of doing so.
  • Thanks to DRM (digital rights management), you’re locked into a single company or set of companies. You can’t read Nook books on your Kindle, or Kindle books on your Nook. You can, though, read Google Books on your Nook, and any of these formats on a smartphone, tablet, or computer. That “lock-in” also means that if the company with the key goes away, your books are vulnerable. Fortunately, many out-of-copyright and other books are not “protected” (as in, protected from the purchaser!) by DRM.
  • For similar reasons, the selling company and the publishers decide whether and how you can “lend” e-books. For the Kindle, some books allow a single loan per book.
  • I’ll sometimes leaf through a paper book to get an idea of its contents. Though the ability to preview Kindle books is nice, “leafing through” an e-book, even one I own, doesn’t seem to work very well. The same is true for a “skim reading” of a book.
  • While in college, I realized that part of my mental “indexing system” is spatial: though I may not be able to pull up a fact or exact quote I vaguely recall, I may remember that it’s about 2/3 of the way through the book, at the top of a right-hand page. This is one small part of richly encoding information in my memory, but it’s unavailable with an e-book. I’d love if an e-book vendor could re-create such mental cues.
…and now, though this post may not yet be perfect, I’ll listen to Godin again…and SHIP.

Immunity to Change

…fully titled Immunity to Change: How to Overcome It and Unlock the Potential in Yourself and Your Organization, by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey.

Immunity to Change is like many of the “personal growth” books I’ve read: the big ideas of the book make it worth sorting through the fluff. Like a number of books of this kind, it spends a lot of time telling you about why the ideas are worthwhile. But, the many stories and examples do help to bridge from “head” to “heart”.

The big ideas of Immunity to Change are:

  • We have the ability to grow, increasing our ability to process complex situations, throughout our lives.
  • Our environment brings an increasing need to deal with complexity. The book looks at three levels of complexity, and intends to move its users to higher levels on the spectrum. The first is the socialized mind, who relies on others for direction. Next is the self-authoring mind, an independent person who  has a vision in mind, holds himself accountable to it, and recruits others to it. Finally comes the self-transforming mind, who uses the tools of the self-authoring mind but seeks to continually learn. He can hold competing ideas in his mind, and is aware that efficiently achieving the wrong vision is of no value. He learns from others, and is interdependent with them. He is able to look at some of the mindsets that he could previously only look through.
  • Some problems can’t be solved by technical learning, but must be approached adaptively. Most of us know how to lose weight (the technical solution): eat fewer calories and burn more of them. Many of us, though, need to adapt–to change who we are and how we think–in order to actually lose weight. We need different tools for adaptive solutions than for technical ones.
  • Most problems requiring adaptive solutions come from a mental “immune system”, which is protecting hidden goals. For example, you might sincerely want to lose weight, but your eating habits reflect that you just as sincerely want not to be perceived–by others or yourself–as “a health nut”.  Those commitments in turn are driven by assumptions, which you can test–and in so doing, possibly change the way you look at the world.
  • Part of the book’s value is in the processes it lays out–processes for engaging in adaptive change. It’s easy to say “yeah, I need to change the way I think about this”, but it’s hard to actually make such a change. Immunity to Change lays out a process for figuring out what your “competing commitments” and the assumptions beneath them are, and then for figuring out whether they’re valid.
  • Both individuals and groups can have “immunities to change”. The processes for figuring out immunities are similar, but looking at group immunities and assumptions does need its own process–which the authors describe separately.
Overall, I do recommend this book. It feels like it could be trimmed down quite a bit, but its core ideas of “immunity to change” and of developing mental complexity make it worth reading. The concrete steps for figuring out your own or your organization’s immunities to change, how they may be harming you, and how to change them if they are are invaluable. The book’s premises echo the ideas in Carol Dweck’s Mindset, and you’d likely find synergy in reading the two together. I also found A Sense of Urgency, by John Kotter, to be a synergistic read with this book (with a similar blend of “fluff” and substance). I hope to write about both books in the next while.
This post exceeds Godin’s minimal “paragraph a day” for the last few days. I really do want to write sustainably, so I’ll try to pace myself–i.e., it may be a few days before the next post.

What’s To Come

My recent reading has included a lot of books about growth, both of individuals and of organizations.

I’m interested in learning about myself and the way I (and humans in general) think, both because I enjoy learning and because that’s the first step in being able to change myself.

I’m interested in learning about organizations because, well…we live in organizations. Whether it’s a nation, a church, an association, or just a few close friends, each of us is part of a lot of groups–each with its own “syntality” (cool word meaning “group personality”, its own goals and assumptions, and its own efficiency in achieving those goals. I want to live in a world where most groups have good goals and are good at pursuing those goals. Since I can’t magically transform the world, I at least want to help my groups to pursue the right goals well.

A lot of the posts in the next while will result from re-visiting (usually “skimming”) books I’ve read recently, often related either to self-awareness/self-transformation or to awareness of group dynamics and how to re-engineer them.

If you have recommendations of books I should read, please let me know.


Seth Godin recently gave some sage advice for improving your writing: “Just write poorly. Continue to write poorly, in public, until you can write better….Do it every day.” I may not reach that standard, but I do want to write well. For a time, that may mean writing poorly. It will mean exposing my pet ideas and their presentation to your criticism, which I welcome. If you can help me improve–either in my writing style, or in writing about things you find (and think I’d find) interesting, let me know.

I expect to have a number of book reviews or brief summaries on the blog–books that I’m reading and find interesting. I’m not sure what else will make it onto the Web with my name attached.