Book Reviews

Travel Reading Diary

After a long business trip, a few reading suggestions.

New Yorkers get a bad rap. They aren't jerks, they just want things to keep moving—quickly. They mind their own business, and when/if you need something or get in their way, they don't mind telling you about it. Otherwise, they're as courteous (often more so) as anyone. But in their own way. They're the most self-interested folks on the earth, but they respect that the many millions around them are self-interested too, all going about their day. So let's keep it moving; we've got things to do, and so do you—NOW. There's no better place for the epicenter of capitalism.

Anyway, I had the privilege of spending a week recently in Manhattan meeting with clients, and, between two long flights and a little downtime, got some reading done.

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work—Alain de Botton

I assumed I'd hate this book, but didn't. It's a philosophical discourse on work. But it's not overly abstract or conceptual—Mr. de Botton scrutinizes the workplace via real offices, warehouses, and people. Thus, it's often more like journalism—and about half of the story is told through pictures.

De Botton doesn't just deride modern work, as many in his position (intellectual outsider) might. He spends quite a lot of time on the aesthetics of business—the sheer grandeur of a giant warehouse, the elegant complexity of a logistical center, the creative genius behind today's robotics, the grit and stamina of those who do repetitive tasks all day yet with high quality results. He could tell us what to think of these things but doesn't, preferring to appreciate and analyze—a clever move because didactics here would only produce disdain from working readers. But he does also take time, in quite lively and well crafted prose, to highlight work's inherent absurdities. (Just what, exactly, does an accountant actually do in that tiny cubicle all day? Moving numbers from one side of the ledger to the other? Has anything, you know, existentially, really changed?) He's still a philosopher, after all.

Ultimately, the effect is to raise the idea of work and industry in our consciousness; to really see these mundane things (the biggest and often most transparent parts of our lives) in a new way. The effect is well worth the while. A favorite passage on the problems of socialism upon the author touring a cookie factory:

Their self-indulgence has consistently appalled a share of their most high-minded and morally ambitious members, who have railed against consumerism and instead honored beauty and nature, art and fellowship. But the premises of a biscuit company are a fruitful place to recall that there has always been an insurmountable problem facing those countries that ignore the efficient production of chocolate biscuits and sternly dissuade their ablest citizens from spending their lives on the development of innovative marketing promotions: they have been poor, so poor as to be unable to guarantee political stability or take care of their most vulnerable citizens, whom they have lost to famines and epidemics. It is the high-minded countries that have let their members starve, whereas the self-centered and the childish ones have, off the back of the doughnuts and six thousand varieties of ice cream, had the resources to invest in maternity wards and cranial scanning machines.

So, this guy is pro-capitalist, right?

Good to Great and Why the Mighty Fall: And Why Some Companies Never Give In—Jim Collins

I often get asked for good books by which to judge great companies to invest in. There are none, really. Great companies are, of course, the foundation to great stock investments, but there is so much more than just that for investors to contend with. Markets and company performance often enough are different things in the short and medium term. Great investors must understand capital markets as much as they do the companies.

That said, if you want to witness the ethos of what great companies do, there are few better studies than Jim Collins' Good to Great. This is a book about how disciplined, usually humble, determined companies focus on their core competencies and become the best in their fields. Collins at times comes off a bit like a bombastic business book guru, but the substance is there. His more recent, How the Mighty Fall—about how companies fail and how some regain greatness—is a lesser achievement but still along the same lines as Good to Great.

Theatre—David Mamet

Most will know Mamet from his screenwriting for movies like Glengarry Glen Ross. Oh, there is so much more. This is Mamet's book on the actual craft of theatre—acting, directing, and so on. But it carries lessons every business manager should heed.

Mamet, to my view, ranks among the best living playwrights. This is, principally, because he's been among the few who do not condescend to audiences with petty political rhetoric or piteous social messaging. He is a meticulous student of human motivation, its frailties, and the masks we wear to cover them (which is opposite of, say, the constant social/moral haranguing that is a Jonathan Franzen novel). Mamet is free of moralizing—here is human interaction, as it is, writ large, starkly. And often with a dose of comedy to boot.

Thus, he is one of the few fiction writers today that has much to teach us about human behavior in a non-didactic, non-tedious way. As Mamet says, art is, at core, entertainment. A few favorite quotes:

Drama is about lies. Drama is about repression. And that which is repressed is liberated—at the conclusion of the play—the power of repression is vanquished, and the hero (the audience's surrogate) is made more whole. Drama is about finding previously unsuspected meaning in chaos, about discovering the truth that had previously been obscured by lies, and about our persistence in accepting lies.

The theater is, essentially, a deconstruction of the repressive mechanism, which is to say, of the intellect and its pretensions…Those who can accomplish this trick are known as artists; those who cannot may find for themselves another name, and indeed, they do, presenting themselves as professors and critics…

Both, in their own way, seem germane to stock investing.

Clutch—Paul Sullivan; Choke—Sian Beilock

I recently choked. Public speaking's been a part of my job for years now, and I always wondered (and dreaded) when the day would come that I just sort of…forgot what I was saying mid-sentence. It finally happened a few weeks ago—I was talking, talking, talking…and then…nothing. In front of the whole audience. A trifle embarrassing.

I lived to tell the tale, but I figured now was the time to do some reading on current studies in the field of performance under pressure. After all, an investor is, in some sense, always under such pressure to perform, to make the right decisions. And the stakes are usually high.

Both of these are fine enough books—Clutch deals with the principles of performance under pressure via anecdote and qualitative study, mostly. Choke is a hardcore synthesis of modern, science-based psychology. On both counts, though, it's striking how little there really is to say about this topic. Neither book does much better than tell us to do things like "focus," prepare/practice adequately and try to replicate pressure-filled situations, and don't over-think things. One hopes most regular performers already intuitively knew most of these things.

In the end, this just isn't the territory for science or logic, and no empiricist is going to explain the fortitude of Michael Jordan down to some root principles. But it's surprising how much reticence there is to speak of determination, courage, and their role in performance. As if those aren't topics fit for serious intellectual discourse any longer, and thus not applicable for study of grace under pressure.

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*The content contained in this article represents only the opinions and viewpoints of the Fisher Investments editorial staff.