Friday Five: 5 things I learned from books I read in 2014

pile-o-books2014 was not a banner book year for me. I read, or partially read, no more than a dozen books all year. All but one of them were non-fiction.

That averages out to a book a month, which is nothing to brag about. Still, some reading is better than no reading at all, right? And from those books I absorbed a few ideas that I hope will help me approach 2015 with a perspective that is healthier, more informed and more understanding of human dynamics than the perspective I brought with me into 2014.

Here are five lessons from five of the books that I read in 2014.

1. Sometimes, less is better

In Scaling Up Excellence: Getting to More Without Settling for Less, Stanford B-school professors Bob Sutton and Huggy Rao touched briefly on the dangers of “cognitive load.” Cognitive overload would be a more apt description of the problem.

Cognitive overload happens when our brains reach capacity. It refers to our inability as humans to hold more than a certain number of ideas, names, phone numbers, etc., in our minds at one time, or to manage more than a certain number of projects.

But cognitive overload doesn’t just affect people. As Sutton and Rao point out, it also affects organizations.

As organizations grow, they tend to become less efficient, as well as more complex and more bureaucratic. When that happens, a disconnect occurs between leaders and their teams. In describing cognitive load, Sutton and Rao introduce readers to psychologist George Miller’s Magical Number of seven (plus or minus two), which refers to the capacity of human’s to effectively process information. But Miller’s magic number applies to other aspects of life, such as span of control (managers with more than seven or so direct reports may find it challenging to effectively lead, communicate and delegate), project management and layers of sign-off for projects.

So, instead of always thinking about how we need to scale up to accomplish projects or take on new initiatives, sometimes we should consider the benefits of scaling down.

Making “subtraction” a way of doing business will help ideas and projects scale. Breaking projects and teams into smaller chunks, and giving people the opportunity to focus on fewer tasks, could yield greater results. (The idea of “subtraction” is also brought up in another book I started, but didn’t finish, in 2014: Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder. I plan to wrap up that book in 2015. Stay tuned.)

(Here’s my February 2014 review of Scaling Up Excellence.)

2. Sometimes, the medium is the environment

By now, all of us in the communications business are familiar with Marshall McLuhan’s famous statement that the medium is the message. But thanks to John Naughton’s book From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: Disruptive Innovation in the Age of the Internet, I now think much differently about the medium — especially the medium of social media.

“The conventional — journalistic — interpretation holds that a medium is a carrier of something,” writes Naughton. And that’s how I typically think of social media: as a carrier of information.

But Naughton reminds readers that the world of biology has a different way of thinking about a medium. “In biology,” he writes, “media are used to grow tissue cultures — living organisms. … It seems to me that this is a useful metaphor for thinking about human society; it portrays our social system as a living organism that depends on a media environment for the nutrients it needs to survive and develop.”

So now I no longer think of social media as simply a conduit of information. I think of it as the environment that sustains our vital human need to commune with other humans. In this sense, social media is also not isolated from other media. They interconnect and interplay, weaving a mediasphere.

I dug a bit more deeply into this concept last March.

3. Sometimes, no is better than yes

The book that caused the most cognitive dissonance in my life in 2014 was Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, by Greg McKeown. Essentialism examines our culture of over-complexity and glut — and of feeling obligated to say “yes” to too much, too often — and implores readers to examine the things we say yes to and consider culling those back to a manageable, spare number. Intellectually, I have no qualms at all with McKeown’s assertion, and I a big fan of his “90 percent rule” of judging priorities. (I wrote more about this in yet another blog post. I may not have read many books, but I wrote about much of what I read.) But in practice, it’s very difficult to implement in the work place. Hence the cognitive dissonance. Still, Essentialism was a worthwhile — nay, essential — read for me in 2014. I would put it at the top of my “best-of” list for the year.

4. To be more influential, be more likable

This should be a no-brainer, right? If you’re likable, you should have more influence over others. But I need a reminder from time to time. In 2014, I finally got around to reading Bob Cialdini’s Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. The book has been around for a few years, and has been referenced in a number of more recent business and marketing books, so I have no excuse, other than procrastination, for waiting so long to read it. I would put this on my must-read list for anyone in the marketing, branding or public relations business.

In Influence, Cialdini discusses the six principles of influence. Each of which have great merit and can be used (like jujitsu, as Cialdini describes it) to get others to say yes. (Note to readers of Essentialism: You may want to be aware of these tricks, too.) But of the six principles, I like the fourth one — the principle of “liking” — best.

The principle of liking boils down to this: We are more likely to be influenced by people we like, know and respect. Pretty simple, right?

(Guess what? I actually have not written a blog post about Cialdini’s book. But back in June 2012 I wrote a review about a book called Likeonomics, which got into much more depth about liking and likability.)

If you don’t have time to read Cialdini’s book but have 12 minutes, this video (also embedded below) will give you a good overview of the six principles.

Bob Cialdini’s science of persuasion

5. Ken Follett’s novels are long and predictable, but I still enjoy reading them

I’m not quite finished with Edge of Eternity, the third and final tome in Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy. So, technically, I didn’t finish this book in 2014. (Judge me if you must, either for slipping this one into a list of “finished” books or for my taste in fiction.) But I include it here for two reasons: 1.) I needed a fifth “takeaway” to round out my first Friday Five of the new year, and 2.) sometimes it’s OK to read for fun rather than to learn something. You just might learn something anyway.

Photo: Pile of Books in Prague Library, by Callum Scott on Flickr. 

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Author: andrewcareaga

Higher ed PR and marketing guy. Communications director for Missouri University of Science and Technology (Missouri S&T) in Rolla, Missouri, USA. Slow runner, mediocre guitarist, lover of music and puns, and an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan. I blog and Tweet about #highered, #music, #gocards and #random stuff.

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