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Copyright © Erik Pennebaker, All rights reserved

(photo by rachel)

I've been reading a few books lately. It started when some of my previous time management skills (writing primitive symbols on flat surfaces and the occasional post-it) began to lag behind my increasing workloads. I listened to some of Getting Things Done." I'd recommend this to read rather than listen too - it would just be clearer.

Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Rework, and The 4-hour Workweek

I like to get down to the nuts and bolts of things. Why do we want to do things in the first place?

We are a bit confused, as a species or as a culture. Motivations that were needed in the past now are less reliable. An appetite for protein and fat got us to chase down prey when maybe it would have been easier to pick berries, but now with such ample supply of it we eat to the point of unhealthiness (or way beyond). Also, studies show that more options can make people less happy - we end up questioning or obsessing if maybe the other choice was better. Often we are wired to want certain things, but not wired to know when it's "enough" - so I guess happiness can be unintuitive.

"Drive" is a sort of casual science look at what people want, and one of the great things he talks about is that rewards can actually detract from motivation, that beyond feeling that your wage is fair and adequate, more money is not often what works. The author goes into how we are raised, how we structure offices and work, and examines what aspects might be misguided or counter-productive. He talks about many studies, although his application of their results, while reasonable, is not strictly scientific.

A definite thumbs up.

Rework

This is from the guys at 37 Signals, a very successful small software company. The main thrust is keeping your business simple, removing blocks, rethinking the notion that every business should be grown as large as possible.

I won't try to rehash it. If you are a software developer, or starting your own small business, just read it. It's short and very much worth your time. If you are an employee at a job you don't like, a cog in the grand machine, it may not be of help - although it might inspire you to move on by describing a healthy workspace.

Linchpin: Are You Indispensable?

This is a favorite of people right now. I got through about half on audio and stopped. It just didn't connect with me.

I've been doing contract/hourly computer work for about twelve years now, and for the last six I've juggled multiple clients. I don't think I've revolutionized anyone's world, but I guess the notion that I'm doing something really critical for my clients isn't new to me. They need me, I need them. The book spends a lot of time explaining how the typical company is structured to not depend or even foster individual talent and independent thinking, and why the reader should be pursuing a role where they are independent, valued, and critically needed. The author also puts a lot of effort into exhortation and encouragement for the reader to sort of rise up and be brave and make this happen.

I would have loved if this book went in some slightly different directions (for instance, a more in-depth historical perspective on how we became an assembly line world), but it's not the point of it. I'm not the target audience. Running my own business doing computer work, I end up usually being a linchpin for my clients. Often I'd rather not be, but it pays the bills!

If you are feeling like a cog in the machine, and don't have a visualization of alternatives, this book may be for you. It seems like many people have gotten a lot out of it.

The 4-Hour Workweek

The premise is that you can utilize a lot of off-the-shelf tools on the internet to have a small business that sells something, and make a lot of money with very small amounts of ongoing work. For instance maybe you know a lot about how to tune-up vintage motorcycles. Spend 30 hours of work putting together a video that details it. Sell it as an $80 DVD and booklet combo via a yahoo store. Eventually find a warehouse to fulfill the orders, and have the printer and DVD manufacturer ship directly to the warehouse. Advertise via google to hit relevant web searches. The magic here is - if you sell only 20 per week, that is $6400 per month. You're costs may be $20 per item or less, leaving you $4800 per month. The work involved? Once or twice a week check your email, make sure all the gears are turning.

The above massively understates a lot of what the author talks about. His main motivation is to travel a lot and have free time to pursue things that interest him for fun. He details ways to cut down on distraction, how to be more efficient and make your business less dependent on your own constant input. He at length discusses the importance of transitioning your job so that you can work remotely, from anywhere, and that this is really the first step. The scope of the book ultimately is quite broad, and maybe not every aspect is of use to every person, but it was well done.

As I was listening to the audiobook, I could sense two reasons that it would have detractors (Nick @ GSG touched on this too)

First, the author isn't describing being a Craftsman. The main thrust is: if you are unhappy with your life and work, then find a way to make some money with minimal effort, and then do things you DO like. Which could involve hobbies, or could involve learning a new trade. Superficially this runs counter to books like Rework, but I think it's just for people in a different place.

Second, the author has a background in athletics and martial arts, and his product, the one that really taught him what he is writing about, is a sort of food supplement. It ends up at times feeling very $19.95 via an infomercial when he talks about it. Many of his real life examples from other people are less like this, but his personal example is less appealing. But maybe that is the point - if you aren't happy, than disconnect the notion that your work has to be this craft you love. It would be great if we could all have that, but for some people (or all people, sometimes), the two are just different things.

Of all the books I mentioned, this one was my favorite. I think the author really gets into a lot of the nooks and crannies of how our brains work and what holds us back. Also, where Linchpin and at times Rework have a kind of soft-hands feel-goodness to them, this is all business. The author doesn't want to muse about things, he wants to live in Thailand and study martial arts while working four hours a week. Maybe this is more where I'm at; I don't need soft hands, I needed some contagious determination.

Another nice thing about this book is that the author is not trying to build some new way of looking at things - he doesn't separate workers into linchpins and non-linchpins and then build layers on that, for instance. He talks about many related things, but they can be absorbed individually. Its not a new outlook that might be replaced in a few years by a new way of looking at things. I think the things he talks about have actually been making business owners money for thousands of years - the yahoo storefront might be new though.

I would recommend this to anyone who is really at a place to make things happen in their lives.

This might work as an audiobook but might be better in print form.

Overall

Some common threads and main points I got out of these books:
  • Making more money for it's own sake probably won't make you happy
  • What people want is to have the freedom of being rich, which is more about free time and reasonable resources
  • Crazy amounts of work, all-nighters, and other stress producers are not helpful and aren't a good means to an end
  • Being independent and free thinking, and having the right amount of challenge in your work is critical
  • Distractions kill efficiency. This includes e-mail, web browsing, IMs, phones, co-workers. Everytime you are interrupted, you lose that time, and also lose time trying to get back into the mindset of where you were.
  • This usually-distracted mindset may itself be a huge source of stress
  • Being able to work efficiently and solve problems is probably a natural source of happiness - i.e. being in "the zone"
  • Even 4-hour, with it's make some easy money goal, favors producing a quality product that is useful to people. Returns and unhappy customers are a support headache and don't help you sell more products. Giving easy refunds costs less than arguing.
  • Simplify down to things you know, things you are good at, and things most people will want.
  • If you try to please everyone, you will dilute your product or service. Be like Apple - concentrate on how few buttons you can have to get the job done.

One of the things I'm still chewing on is why we need to be told not to be distracted, inefficient, and/or lethargic. How many people would say they feel trapped in their job, but a the same time do nothing on a day by day basis to change it? This seems to be a common state for people, but although these books touched on it I'm not sure the completely answered it.

I'm working on some of my own ideas....stay tuned.

[ tags: 37signals 4-hour books drive linchpin programming rework software week work writing ]

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