Books I’ve Read: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

I feel like I’m going through a quarter-life crisis at the moment. Confused about my goals and purpose in life, flying by the seat of my pants into most things, juggling work and relationships and school and hoping to somehow throw gym time and cooking time and the ever elusive good night’s sleep into the mix. It’s fun.

I’m thinking more and more that this is why I’ve suddenly changed direction with my reading habits. Where I used to get lost in Harry Potter and Game of Thrones, I’m not getting lost in The New York Times nonfiction bestseller list. I’m looking for something, and I’m not quite sure what.

The Power of HabitMost recently, I picked up The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, and found that to be rather intriguing. I found it fascinating how well it meshed with my last read, Uncommon Service by Frances Frei and Anne Morriss, with a number of similar themes though they were often applied to different spheres. However, the concepts in each could certainly be used to better oneself, career, or business. The Power of Habit is especially well suited to this, going a little deeper into why strategies that were also presented in Uncommon Service can be so effective.

I liked the anecdotal quality of Habit, with plenty of real-world examples of how cues, routines, and rewards drive anything and everything, from personal bad habits up to toxic corporate culture. I like that it demonstrates how those habits can be changed. It definitely helped that there’s was a decent amount of scientific research to support these ideas as well. The development of Febreze, the renewed success of two football teams under Tony Dungee, and a complete overhaul of an international company’s culture all came down to small habits, minute changes in routines and rewards that are triggered by a cue. These are just a few of the more impressive and recognizable stories about the power that habit has over our lives.

Would I recommend it? I think this is a great read, especially if you’re looking to change something in your life– getting healthy, eliminating vices, improving productivity, etc. It’s easy to get through and has some neat tips on identifying and adjusting habits. Definitely a good read.




Books I’ve Read: Uncommon Service by Frances Frei and Anne Morriss

Ever since I started working, I’ve been in customer service. Every position has focused on the thankless task of answering people’s questions, catering to their wants and needs, and cleaning up after their indulgences. And I absolutely love it

Not all of it, of course. It’s hard getting yelled at about things you have no control over (the weather, for example). It’s hard when you want to but can’t solve a problem due to lack of autonomy or lack of resources. It’s hard to put energy into tedious tasks that have been outsourced from the customer to you, and with little thanks from those who no longer have to bear that burden. There is no glory in customer service, it seems.

But Uncommon Service by Frances Frei and Anne Morriss, which was not what I expected in terms of focus, seems to give hope that the trenches of customer service have more potential for greatness than it appears.

Uncommon Service

My favorite part is that it somewhat confirms what so many front-end employees often learn quickly but back-end management tends to be ignorant of: bad service is not necessarily the fault of the employees. Negative feedback only occasionally centers on the attitude of a specific employee. More often than not, people are complaining about service or product offerings, production time, quality, and price– all things that base level employees can’t change.

I was surprised by this book because I was expecting ways to be a better customer service representative. Instead, it told me that I’m likely already doing the best I can and that the system I’m working in probably needs some help. It’s a nice confidence boost.

Uncommon Service goes way deeper though. It isn’t just about treating employees better to get better interactions out of them, and it certainly isn’t about catering to every customer’s whims. Instead, it’s about creating a system of excellence, within which employees can only provide excellence. It’s beautiful because it takes the impetus off of each individual and puts it on the whole.

There are many ideas that might seem counter-intuitive, like striving to be bad at parts of your business, but it makes a lot of sense when they explain why– and provide compelling examples. Huge names like JetBlue and Zappos regularly make appearances as poster children for some massive changes and heavy-lifting strategies that really make it easier to be great at service.

Overall, it gives some great insights into the pitfalls of customer service-oriented businesses and how to avoid them with grace and even panache. Whether you’re just starting a small business or transforming a flailing massive corporation, the strategies and arguments in this book are exciting and compelling.

Would I recommend this book? Most definitely! Especially if you’re involved in business, customer to CEO.

Books I’ve Read: How Starbucks Saved My Life

I worked at a Starget ( a Starbucks inside a Target) for a little under a year. It was stressful. We ran out of coffee, and quite frequently. Our espresso machine was down for a whole week once. And there was often only one person scheduled for Saturdays from open until early afternoon– the time frame when EVERYONE decides to do their shopping. This was all after changing management and definitely influenced my decision to go back to Cedar Point for my second year. But it wasn’t all bad. A lot of the people, especially those early in my employment, were really wonderful. And this was what I thought about while reading How Starbucks Saved My Life by Michael Gates Gill.

This is the story of a very well-to-do older gentleman who falls from the graces of high society. Mr. Gill was a big shot in advertising until he had too many years on him, and was fired from a high-ranking, high-paying advertising job which he got right after graduating from an ivy league school that he didn’t have to worry about paying for because his father was a big time newspaper executive. He was part of the 1%, and suddenly he wasn’t. As you can imagine, he lost everything: his job, then his money, then his family. And then he found true happiness when he was offered a job at Starbucks by complete chance– by a person he would never have thought would be his savior, namely a young black woman (the narrator is an old white man). And he gained friends and experiences that made him happier at 64 than he had ever been in his previous lifestyle.

How Starbucks Saved My Life is kind of sappy, though I appreciate the coming-up story. I enjoyed following the thoughts and actions of a son of privilege as he navigates life outside of his bubble, from his spiral into poverty to his extramarital affair and child, from his failed attempts at holding on to his spot in the upper echelon to his embarrassment at his family and former friends seeing him struggling. It may seem like I was laughing at him, but I was fascinated by his observations and the connections he made from is old life into his new. The fears he experienced were relatable for those who grew up with struggle, too. Fear of not being good enough, people not liking him, important peers and relatives being disappointed, being too old to do a job, and so on and so forth. His insecurities were universal, which made this easier to read.

My biggest complaint about this book is that the lows weren’t low enough– rather, they weren’t portrayed that way. This man, Michael Gates Gills, is almost too positive throughout his whole self-redefinition. He almost brushes over the whole divorce with his wife, he focuses on how bad his previous employment at a ginormous advertising firm is rather that how perfect it was which makes his firing less heartbreaking, and he uses such weak words to describe the discomfort of his children seeing him at Starbucks or his former friends watching him take trash out in his apron and hat. He’s so positive that it’s hard to feel bad for him. It just keeps going up.

It’s not a bad book overall. I think it’s interesting, and a good look into privilege and how it can frame the world, and also the hardships that come along with it (of course it’s not all rainbows and butterflies). I also find Starbucks to be a wonderful company, even if they are kind of expensive and there are ways they could do better, especially about their waste *cough cough*.

Would I recommend this book? For a light read, it is a good one to pick up.

Books I’ve Read: Brave New World Revisited

I first read Brave New World by Aldous Huxley as a junior in high school. I was the only person in my class who absolutely loved it. I thought everything about it was fascinating. This was a world where everything we had ever learned to be taboo was completely acceptable and even encouraged– sex, drugs, designer babies, and mass discrimination, all under governmental control. I was floored. And I was extremely disappointed when we had to write a paper on Lord of the Flies instead. Yes, yes, the conch is a symbol of innocence and when it breaks, it signifies that their innocence has been lost. Groundbreaking.

I did enjoy reading the latter novel, but something about Huxley’s dystopia has stuck with me all these years. Occasionally, I’ll read an article about a scientific breakthrough or global leadership and see a scene from Brave New World in my mind. Talk about doing your job well.

But this isn’t about the original story, it’s about the author’s reflections decades later on if and how any parts of his creation are coming true. I saw it in a bookstore, Brave New World Revisited, and just had to buy it. After sitting on my shelf for a couple years, I’ve finally gotten through it. And once again, I am floored.

In Revisited, Huxley talks a great deal about dictatorships, propaganda, and controlling the population, themes that were laid on heavy in his novel. With these reflections, he has now seen the Great Depression, the rise and fall of Hitler and Mussolini as well as other dictators, and two World Wars; a second “police action” in full swing and civil unrest over Vietnam; and culture changing drastically with the Civil Rights Movement, the rise of “hippie culture” (in this case meaning drugs), and tremendous technological and medical advances– including birth control. Many parts of this landscape are the same factors that lead to the disturbing society of Brave New World.

This short but very heavy read is frighteningly relevant even today. More than anything, his analysis of how dictators (though really anyone in power or who would like to be) utilize media and language to gain, inspire, and mobilize followers against a perceived enemy makes me look at the current socio-political climate of the United States and shudder. Something written five decades ago with Adolf Hitler as the poster child for population manipulation should not be a reflection of current events, but as it stands in my eyes, this is the case.

I enjoyed reading how the author perceived his vision to be right or wrong, and the ways he worked in various philosophical and scientific ideas to support his analyses. More than anything, I was intrigued and a little scared at how science fiction of the past is slowly morphing into our present and future. There are definitely times where I wish we would consider the fiction of yesterday a warning against tomorrow. But alas, we do not seem to make the connection.

Would I recommend this book? On its own, likely not. But if you start with the novel, the essay is brilliant.


Books I’ve Read: 13 Reasons Why

I have a habit of adding books to my reading list and only getting around to them when someone decides to turn them into movies and tv shows. This is no exception. I heard about 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher months ago on another WordPress blog (I would link, but I can’t for the life of me remember what blog it was!) and immediately added it to my growing list, then never picked up a copy. Fast forward to the future, and I finally got my hands on the book now that Netflix has made an original series out of it.

I have not watched the series. I wasn’t going to start until I finished the book. But I don’t know if I want to watch it now. I don’t think the series will be able to compete with the power of this book.

Synopsis: High school student Hannah Baker committed suicide. Before she did, she recorded 13 stories on tape and sent them posthumously to 13 people explaining how their words and/or actions contributed to her decision. Clay Jensen is on those tapes, but he has no idea why. And so he spends the night listening to this story to which he only knows the end, following the path that leads to it.

This story is dark. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. If you’ve ever been bullied, heard rumors, or really even gone to high school, this story might sound familiar. And that’s why it’s so powerful. Everything in it is real, plausible, believable, because these things have happened to us, or to someone we know, or we’ve read a news story or heard someone speak on the issues in this book. And while this story is set in high school, it could have happened in college, or at work, or across several settings. It’s relatable. And it hurts.

I will provide a trigger warning. If you have been bullied, or sexually assaulted or harassed, or are suicidal or know someone who is or has killed themselves, this book might not be for you. But it could be a good tool for reaching out to people, for helping them understand your struggle or the struggle of others, and just how impactful words and actions can be, long after the fleeting moments in which they occur.

Would I recommend this book? I cried and wanted to stop reading because it broke my heart, but I had to find out what was on those tapes. So yes, I think you should read it.

There’s No Such Thing As BookWorms Anonymous

The Carl Spitzweg image strongly associated wi...

The Carl Spitzweg image strongly associated with Leary’s Book Store. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Books and I get along well. A little too well. So well, in fact, that I have a hard time leaving them all alone, unwanted and unloved, on the shelf of a bookstore. I feel better knowing that, even though I may not be able to give it all my love for quite some time, it has still found a better home on my bookshelf, and that one day, I will be able to devote to it as much time as I want.

But alas! This is not an ideal situation. It is an addiction, a terribly beautiful addiction. I say terrible because it drains addicts of finances, shelf space, and the will to do anything other than pick up a novel and rifle through the papery angel wings that are its pages, becoming intoxicated by the smell of the ink that forms the divine words within. And even more terribly, yet also an element of its beauty, society encourages this addiction. Bibliophiles are commendable for this habit. They’re thought to be intelligent and educated human beings because of their literary consumption. If only those unperturbed by the throes of bibliophilia knew what it was really like…

I am a self-proclaimed book addict. It started when I was little, when my parents and grandparents started reading stories to me. Then I wandered into the wrong part of the house one day, that dark little alley known as the library. It only took one book. I was hooked. From that moment on, I read whenever I could, whatever I could. I was constantly looking for the next dose of literature, and even was caught catering to my addiction in class, when I was supposed to be doing math.

But it was worse than that. While reading made it very difficult for my parents to punish me (no good parent can take books away from their child!), it also deprived me of things essential to human existence, particularly food and sleep. The power that books had over me was so great that I would simply forego eating in order to finish a section, or ignore the fact that I hadn’t slept in over 36 hours because I had to find out how a story ended. I would push myself to the limits of existence just to continue feeding my lust for literature.

Now, I’m suffering from withdrawal. English major though I may be, the writing I consume for classes is not enough to fulfill my cravings. It is the wrong type of drug for this addict, and I am suffering from withdrawal. Required reading simply adds insult to injury. I have not read a book (or at least finished one) out of sheer pleasure since the middle of the summer, a whopping 8 months ago, and my inner bookworm is crying out for attention. It leads me to the campus bookstore, a place almost regrettably not devoted exclusively to text books. Popular fiction and classics not required for class take up a quarter of the shelves, and it is to this quarter that I am so often drawn. My wallet is endangered every time I step foot into that sanctuary of paperbacks, for though I know I cannot read them right away, I still feel compelled to make a purchase, simply to salve my withdrawal ever so slightly. It is despicable, and yet oh so sweet when I carry a new addition back to my dorm and cradle it lovingly for a few moments before tucking it in with my other drugs. “Someday,” I say longingly, “I will pick you up and let my eyes caress your pages, the sweet type imprinted on them flowing in and coursing through my mind as blood through my veins.”

But until that day arrives, I must wallow in the depths of requisite reading, of knowing that recreational reading is only a few feet away and still so far out of my reach. The only thing that keeps me from relapsing into sleep-deprivation and unintentional anorexia is that I only have to hold out for a little over a month. On May 4, 2012, I will finally be able to become a bookworm once more.

The Dictionary Is My Friend. And So Is His Cousin the Thesaurus.

As an English major, a writer, and a reader, one would think that my vocabulary would be astonishingly diversified and completely grandiloquent. It isn’t. That’s not to say that I don’t know a plenitude of words and their meanings. But the usage of my vast lexicon is essentially nonexistent in the course of my writing and conversation. I use the same words over and over and over and over… Well, I think you get the point.

Shortly before winter break, I was overcome with a sudden urge while on (more accurately, I was distracted in the course of looking up a word from some reading homework) to play a word game. I noticed quite early on that most of the words they were giving me in this game were familiar and not challenging at all. I also realized that I never really utilized any of them in everyday writing or conversation, and I became a bit depressed. So I went on a word-seeking rampage. I copied down several of the vocabulary lists from the game onto note cards, which are now plastered all over my desk. And in some fortuitous twist of fate, I received a dandy little calendar that gives me a new word for each day of the year. Granted, I’m eleven days in and have known about half the words already, but the important part is that there will be words I won’t know.

I am aware that most of these words are far from everyday use in everyday situations. I also know that should I decide to use them, I risk sounding pretentious. I would like to avoid this at all costs. But at the same time, I’d also like to be able to use words that are more interesting than, well, “interesting”.

So in my word-search craze, Here are some of the words I found, which I was told by a very respected person in  my life were “good words.” Thank you for doubting my English major-ness…

  • Bombast: n., speech too pompous for an occasion
  • Vitriolic: adj., very caustic; scathing
  • Quixotic: adj., impulsive and often rashly unpredictable
  • Lachrymose: adj., suggestive of or tending to cause tears
  • Ebullient: adj., overflowing with fervor, enthusiasm, or excitement; high-spirited
  • Didactic: adj., 1. designed or intended to teach; 2. making observations
  • Vinaceous: adj., of the color of red wine

These are only a few of the forty-five words I have taped to my desk and pinned to my message board. They’re all fantastically enjoyable to say, and I can’t wait until I’m able to put them to use. In fact, I might try to slip a few into my posts.

Words could almost be described as Elysian for me. The dictionary is a necessary tool for me, as is the thesaurus. And I’ve come to be very good friends with both.