Why Read Fiction?

If you want to become successful in business, you must understand people.
If you want to understand people, you must read fiction.

Do you believe these two statements are true? I certainly do. Fiction allows us to experience things we otherwise couldn’t – indeed, it allows us to experience things we may not even want to actually experience first hand, but want to know about. It opens the goodie bag for us, breaking down boundaries, opening new perspectives and creating fresh passageways. My friend Professor Phil Rogers has a similar take, and puts it this way:

One way in which I think we benefit from reading fiction is that it serves to expand our experience. We can’t possibly have all the experiences or know all the kinds of people we read about, but all of those vicarious experiences, or even just exposure to imagined experiences, broaden our understandings of what is possible or introduce us to possible responses to imagined experiences or people. And to the extent that greater understandings and greater understanding empower, then the reading of fiction must necessarily empower.

Here’s what That Software Guy is reading. So what are you reading?

Be Like Dale

How to Win Friends and Influence People

Have you read this book yet? It’s really a classic – and for a reason, because it dispenses timeless advice that’s right on the money, yet is not obvious to most people. If I was to distill the message down to a single point that’s relevant to e-business, it would be this:

Other people don’t care about your problems, they care about their own. Start there.

Easy to state, yet so hard to do. Why? Because we’re all worried about our own problems, not the other person’s!

Specific example: every time I have to go through a pile of resumes, they’re inevitably attached to cover letters describing what the applicant wants. “I would like to work for a leading firm like yours, bla bla bla.” Well, actually, I don’t care what you want! I don’t even know you! And I have a zillion things to do, but my boss has asked me to go through these resumes and see which of these people we should bring on site. The last thing I want to read about is what some dorky job applicant wants.

Carnegie’s model of the successful cover letter takes the perspective of the addressee: “I’m sure my 200 years of experience in splorch protection and gizmodo processing would be of interest to a firm like yours. I’d like us to meet and discuss how I can help you increase your ROI by more effective flubber management.” Instead of groaning, the recipient is thinking, “Wow! This guy has actually taken the time to understand what’s important to us.”

Modify as required for your situation. Whether you’re hawking widgets or websites, starting from the perspective of the problem the other guy is trying to solve is more effective than starting from the perspective of what you’re trying to sell. Suppressing the impulse to gratify your own ego and instead gratify the other guy’s instead is unnatural, awkward and highly profitable. Do it.

Latest Dilbert Book

Stick to drawing comics, monkey brains!

Scott Adams is a genius. Just ask him. If you haven’t read his latest book yet, you need to read it immediately; any delay will markedly reduce your quality of life.

Seriously, this semi-autobiographical work by Adams about creating Dilbert, marriage, work and life was good fun and worth the time.

In other Dilbert news, I was disappointed to read that Scott will be reducing his blogging frequency. Hopefully he’ll get bored and change his mind.

Miami Herald columnist Richard Pachter provides an interesting review of the book, along with comments from other readers.

Success comes through hard work and persistence

My little book club was lucky enough to talk with Kristy Kiernan, author of the recent book group favorite, Catching Genius. I’ve always wondered about overnight sensation stories like hers, so we talked about her path to success. Turns out Catching Genius is not a first novel… or a second novel… or a third novel. She had to work hard and stay at it through repeated rejections. We’re glad she did. Here’s Kristy herself, talking about the journey:

I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was five, but I didn’t get down to seriously pursuing it until I was thirty. I was thirty-seven before I got my first novel, Catching Genius, published. Over those seven years I had several opportunities to go back to work full-time, but I turned them down, certain that success was just around the corner. After every rejection I would look around our finances to see what else could be cut, and I was slowly running out of possibilities, unless we wanted to stop showering altogether. When, just before I started writing Catching Genius (the fourth manuscript I wrote), we sold my car, I knew I was at the end of my chances and I made plans to re-enter the workplace full-time as soon as I completed it. But fate was with me, and the book sold within two weeks of going on submission. I don’t regret any of the sacrifices. Even if I never wind up taking the New York Times bestseller list by storm, I still know that I did everything I could do to achieve my dreams.

We’re excited to see Kristy’s book do well, and we look forward to the next one!

PS> An aspiring cartoonist was sending work samples to prospective buyers. He was turned down a number of times. One company’s rejection letter even advised him to “find an actual artist to do the drawing.” He shrugged it off and kept going until he got a yes. His name is Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, and he’s now one of the top selling cartoonists of all time. In business, “no” means “keep trying.”

Sticky Services

I really enjoyed reading Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath. I actually believe the term stickiness predates Malcolm Gladwell, but he certainly popularized it as a way to describe things people become attached to after trying. For instance,

  • digital video recorders
  • checking accounts with electronic bill pay
  • loyalty rewards credit cards

Where’s the tie-in to e-commerce?

One of the challenges of etailing is that the Internet has created a transactional mindset. People want to buy and then move on. But what you want as a vendor is a relationship, not a transaction. And the way to create the relationship is to make your site more sticky.

The Heaths address stickiness from the perspective of ideas (rather than products or services), but the concepts they teach can be applied to a variety of things, including your marketing campaign.

They created the acronym ‘SUCCES’ to represent the steps you must take to make an idea sticky:

  • Simplicity – eliminate the excess; focus on the core of the message.
  • Unexpectedness – surprise them to gain focus
  • Concreteness – nothing ambiguous, jargony, or abstract
  • Credibility – use an expert, compelling details or a statistic
  • Emotions – make them feel something when they hear your message.
  • Stories – telling a story instead of a series of facts gives your message resonance.

My only criticism of this mnemonic is that it doesn’t include the last S which I thought was quite obvious:

  • Specificity – in the Information Age, people armed with data gleaned from the Internet and other sources are acting as their own physician, general contractor and psychiatrist. They’re no longer impressed by vague claims (“breakfast of champions”); they want to understand the specific benefits of the product to their own situation (“contains vitamin Z9 for healthier skin and nails”).

Arguably this is a rehash of Concrete, but it rounds out the acronym so I’m sticking with it. 🙂

Veteran’s Day, 2007 – listening to Gilgamesh

is the oldest story in the world – older than the Bible or the Odyssey. It’s a heroic saga about a King who lives in Iraq. His own press said, “He endured all and accomplished all,” but the truth is more complicated. Hubris drove him to seek everlasting fame by killing an ambiguously evil monster. This had unforeseen consequences; it caused him to lose his best friend and live out the rest of his life in grief. In the end, Gilgamesh is a morality play which teaches us these simple truths:

Only the gods live forever; death is the fate of all mankind. So enjoy your life: let your belly be full. Make every day a day of rejoicing. Dance and play every night. Let your raiment be clean. Let your wife rejoice in your breast, and cherish the little one holding your hand.

Here’s an interview with Stephen Mitchell about the process of creating this new edition of a timeless story.

Covey: Four Disciplines

Four Disciplines
Just listened to Stephen Covey’s Four Disciplines of Execution. Classic Covey, no big surprises. The four disciplines are:

  1. Focus on your Wildly Important Goals
  2. Create a compelling scoreboard
  3. Translate lofty goals into specific actions
  4. Hold each other accountable all the time

What differentiates a Covey book from the typical “execution” or “decision-making” tome written by some ego-driven CEO is Covey’s distinctively avuncular manner. Somehow it makes it easier to take the hard messages.

The timing of this was serendipitous, because I just had a chance to listen to an HBR Ideacast in which the authors of Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls were interviewed. They discussed how the decision making cannot adequately be evaluated in isolation.  Instead, they argued that including quality of execution and follow-through would yield a more holistic measure of decision making effectiveness.

Jim Rohn – Stephen Covey at the lectern

Rohn, The Art of Exceptional Living

I’ve been listening to The Art of Exceptional Living
by Jim Rohn on CD during my commute. His message is very much like Covey’s – particularly in his emphasis on the seventh habit (self-improvement). The audio suggests it might have been recorded in a church, which is apropos because his speaking style has the staccato rhythm and emphatic re-enforcement of a Baptist preacher. He illustrates his philosophy of success with references to his own biography, which he breaks down into the first six years of his working life (“pennies in my pocket, no money in the bank, late on my bills, creditors are calling, behind on my promises to my family”) and the second, in which he became a millionaire, thanks to the instructive example of a successful boss. Takeaways:

  • Reading is foundational. Get a library card and use it. Build a personal library. Spend time every day reading difficult material to expand your intellect. The best money you can spend is on your own self-education.
  • Keeping a journal will help you capture what you’re learning. Use other forms of capture such as photography.
  • Be prepared to work hard – not just at your job but on yourself. “If you work hard at your job, you can make a living. If you work hard on yourself, you can make a fortune.”
  • You cannot change the world, the economy, the political situation, your negative relatives, etc. – you can only change yourself. This is the starting point. If you will change, your situation will change for you.
  • Life is seasonal, so you must:
    • Learn to deal with winter. Difficult times will come, and they won’t change, but you can: you can become stronger, wiser, better.
    • Learn to take advantage of the spring. You must be prepared for opportunity, for it always follows adversity.
    • Learn to care for the crop in the summer. Weeds and pests will always try to take it from you.
    • Learn to reap in the fall without apology if you have succeeded or complaint if you have not.
  • Personal development is critical to success. You must master five abilities:
    • the ability to absorb
    • the ability to respond
    • the ability to reflect
    • the ability to act
    • the ability to share
  • Do what you can, the best you can and rest very little.

Internet Retailer’s Guide to E-Commerce Technology

Guide to E-Commerce TechnologyInternet Retailer’s Guide to E-Commerce Technology is a who’s who of firms working in the e-commerce space, from affiliate marketing to web monitoring. The format is quite interesting – it’s laid out as a directory, but each page is bisected and each firm gets only half a page (so the entry for IBM is the same size as the entry for Zoovy). Many firms provide pricing numbers, and SMBs need not be intimidated since a variety of price points are represented.

Jeffrey J. Fox – Tasty Morsels of Motivation

I am a huge fan of Jeffrey J. Fox‘s books on business. Why?

  • They’re written in single-serving chapters, which are easy to read, but offer tremendous opportunity for reflection.
  • They’re made up of lists. I’m crazy about lists. (Aside: Scott Ginsburg discusses the importance of lists on his blog.)
  • They are both positive and motivational without falling into mindless boosterism.
  • His focus on “dollarization” – doing the hard work to determine net present value – forces salespeople to get the slop out of their presentations and express things quantitatively and with rigor.