Friday, May 30, 2008

Tolstoy and Ivan

I have been reading Tolstoy. His book, The Death of Ivan Ilych, is serving as my introduction to his work. To say that I love it would be an understatement, his writing is so pure, so true to human emotion, that putting myself in the protagonist's shoes is accomplished without me so much as trying. The story follows Ivan Ilych, a man who has lived a successful life as a prominent judge in a small town in Russia. He has a family, friends, a good reputation and money. In short, he is happy. In fact, the first few chapters end with various statements emphasizing his comfort, such as: "and everything went on in this way without change, and everything was very nice." Obviously, Ilych's story eventually takes a turn for the worse, as he becomes terminally ill and begins the brutal process of dying slowly, painfully. The book chronicles his thoughts and emotions as he confronts the inevitable prospect of death; a death he deems to be unjust, unprecedented and ultimately unbelievable. The revelation that proves perhaps the most telling is, just before Ilych dies, he comes to the understanding that he has, contrary to what his peers believe, wasted his life on trivial pursuits. In one telling instance, Ilych begins to see life, “As though I had been going steadily downhill, imagining that I was going uphill. So it was in fact. In public opinion I was going uphill, and steadily as I got up it life was ebbing away from me...And now the work’s done, there’s only to die.” Throughout the story Ilych wrestles fiercely with a dichotomy, one side of which says that he has lived his life well, respectably, comfortably, without major error; and the other is a nagging sense that, somehow despite this success he hasn’t lived his life as he should. To peer into Ilych’s mind as he wrestles with these ideas is intense, and at the same time it feels like a privilege and a warning that must be heeded at the risk of grave consequence. Tolstoy is eloquent, formal, and at the same time remarkably informal in his description of a simple man meeting his reluctant end. This book was a great read.

Digg this

Friday, March 21, 2008

Inspired... to start a business?

I've recently been gorging myself with some business books, including The Art of Possibility (Zander and Zander), Rules for Revolutionaries and The Art of the Start (both by Kawasaki).  I also finished reading Blue Like Jazz but I'll leave that one for another post.

The Art of Possibility was probably my favorite book of the three, perhaps because it was written by a husband and wife duo, or perhaps because Ben Zander is the conductor of the Boston Philharmonic?  Whatever the reason, I found several bit of inspiration throughout the book.  Initially the book comes across as another "power of positive thought" book and I already consider myself the optimist's optimist so my first inclination was the lay the book down.  However it was recommended by Mark Batterson (another great author whose new book comes out shortly) so I figured I would fire through it pretty quickly.  

The first part of the book that really jumped out at me was the section titled "Stepping into a Universe of Possibility."  Zander mentions that so much of our thoughts are based upon or founded upon the idea of scarcity.  And argues that such an "attitude prompts us to seek to acquire more for ourselves no matter how much we have and to treat others as competitors no matter how little they have" (22).  I'm a pretty competitive fellow so I have to admit this struck a chord with me.  I was forced to reflect how many times I was walking by someone who had less than me, perhaps was a bit less articulate, had a little less "game" and unconsciously made a comparison in order to shore up my value, as if I didn't hoard greatness upon myself, there wouldn't be enough after this guy got his?

A few sections later in a chapter titled, "Leading From Any Chair," Zander asks the question, "How much greatness are we willing to grant to people?" (73).  Zander goes on to mention that for leaders this is extremely important because the measure of people we (leaders) believe we are leading will directly impact what kind of leader we are and will become.  Example: If I feel that I'm leading a bunch of misfits that by some crude joke from the "man upstairs" were forced upon me, I will have a much different outlook and behavior toward those I'm leading than say, if I looked that those I was leading as the world's best, most elite thinkers, producers and movers.  

Next, in a section titled, "Rule Number 6" the Zanders tell of the following inscription on one of the pillars in the Holocaust Museum at Quincy Market, Boston: 
The sixth pillar presents a tale of a different sort, about a little girl named Ilse, a childhood friend of Guerda Weissman Kline, in Auschwitz. Guerda remembers that Ilse, who was about six years old at the time, found one morning a single raspberry somewhere in camp. Ilse carried it all day long in a protected place in her pocket, and in the evening, her eyes shining with happiness, she presented it to her friend Guerda on a leaf. "Imagine a world," writes Guerda, "in which your entire possession is one raspberry, and you give it to your friend."
Finally, in one of the closing chapters, the Zanders state:
"The foremost challenge for leaders today... is to maintain the clarity to stand confidently in the abundant universe of possibility, no matter how fierce the competition, no matter how stark the necessity to go for the short-term goal, no matter how fearful people are, and not matter how urgently the wolf may appear to howl at the door.  It is to have the courage and persistence to distinguish the downward spiral from the radiant realm of possibility in the face of any challenge." 
I'll be coming back to the books by Guy Kawasaki, but I felt I should throw this book up, if you should read it and have any thoughts, they're always appreciated. 

Digg this

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Cohelo and Camus

I have recently finished two books, (something I am not accustomed to doing,) and, though I enjoyed them both, they could not have been more different. The first, and my favorite, I might add, was The Alchemist, by Paulo Cohelo. The book follows the adventures of Santiago the shepherd boy as he goes on a quest across Egypt to find his “personal legend” and along the way he runs into an Alchemist who helps him. The boy discovers alchemy to be the unique process of turning lead into gold, something that can only be done by master alchemists; but the idea of alchemy is something he finds applicable to everyday life, that is, the process of turning something ordinary, dull, or worthless into something full of value, dynamic, and worthwhile. That is the spirit of alchemy, he concludes. This idea of a practical alchemy that we can perform in any situation struck me as quite a beautiful concept, the weight of which I am still trying to realize.

The second book was The Stranger, by Camus. This book stands as a monument to existentialism, and an in-depth look at what Camus sees as the reality of absurdism. The book is simple and short, telling the story of Meursault, a man living in France who kills a man simply because the sun was shining too brightly in his eyes, and goes on to live, and eventually die, a completely unreflective and unsympathetic individual who is completely content with letting life run its unaltered course. Halfway through this book I realized that I simply could not relate in any way to the protagonist. Throughout the book things happen to him, such as his mother dying, and he doesn’t bat an eye or feel anything. He doesn’t even try. As his trial proceeds he doesn’t care about his possible fate, and even as he is sentenced to death by the guillotine he seems unfazed. Not to spoil it, but the book ends with this haunting line, "As if that blind rage had washed me clean, rid me of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, I opened myself to the gentle indifference of the world. Finding it so much like myself — so like a brother, really — I felt that I had been happy and that I was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for me to feel less alone, I had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of my execution and that they greet me with cries of hate.” Yikes. It amazes and frightens me that this book is widely considered one of the best of the twentieth century. I believe its very essence to be endemic of our current social climate, with its heavy message of relativism, existentialism, and absurdism. It’s quite sad really. So, what did I learn from these books? 1) Existentialism and any belief that involves me creating life’s meaning is frightening and hopeless 2) The concept of Alchemy is something that is quite beautiful, really, and can and must be applied to life everyday 3) It is healthy for me to read and try to understand things I don’t agree with 4) There is something fundamentally different between myself and Camus, and that difference for me is everything that matters.

Digg this

Friday, February 1, 2008


I have been assigned a book to read that I have to force myself to put down so that I don’t get too far ahead of assignments. The book is called, “The Sunflower” by Simon Weisenthal. When I picked up the book and noticed it's huge sunflower on the front if it I thought, "lame" and tossed it aside. Now I know you really can't judge a book by it's cover. Weisenthal bases his book off of something that happened to him in real life when he was a prisoner in a Nazi concentration camp. One day while working he is called to the bedside of a dying Nazi Soldier. The soldier tells him of all the atrocities he has done to Jewish people and asks his forgiveness. Weisenthal tells of his process of dealing with the decision he made in response to this man. He asks, “What would you do?” to some very distinguished men and women and writes their responses down for all of us to read. Some of the responses come from The Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Dennis Prager, and fifty other people. The responses and his story are fascinating and have taken me through a process of understanding forgiveness and it’s layers that I didn’t know existed. So good!

Digg this

© blogger templates 3 column | Webtalks