My #reading: August 2016

The Stupidity Paradox: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work by Mats Alvesson, André Spicer

“Our thesis in this book is that many organisations are caught in the stupidity paradox: they employ smart people who end up doing stupid things. This can produce good results in the short term, but can pave the way to disaster in the longer term.”

A friend and teacher-colleague sent me a link to an episode of “Best Practice” on Radio National – a program that “brings you the big ideas in workplace culture, leadership, innovation and trends” – featuring an interview with one of the authors of The Stupidity Paradox: The Power and Pitfalls of Functional Stupidity at Work. The guest, with a few pithy comments, illuminated what many of us have known through long-experience in our workplaces – that we are badly in need of some honest, critical thinking. André Spicer, Professor of Organisational Behaviour at Cass Business School, City University London, really nailed this in the interview and would have undoubtedly improved sales of his book, written with co-author Mats Alvesson, Professor of Business Administration at Lund University.

The following quotes will give you good insight into the content and focus of the book:

“There are many whose sole job it is to create plans, rules and procedures, and even more who spend their working life ensuring that these are followed. Other employees find that ever-larger chunks of their days are taken up with following rules and procedures.”

“Many bureaucracies are characterised by obsessive and often irrational rule-following. In these kinds of cultures, openness, freedom or creativity is viewed as a sign of disorder.”

“Those supposed to benefit from all this box-ticking often end up suffering, but this happens below the radar: superficial scrutiny focuses on structures, routines and procedures. Are they there? Are they followed? Yes, fine. Do they lead to something good or bad or nothing at all? Well, it is hard to say. So who cares?”

stupidity

The authors mostly focus on private companies but do have good insight into government bureaucracy and the challenges facing schools. They suggest that the “McDonaldisation” of Western society is complete and there’s not much room for critical thinking in an unhealthy paradigm resulting in conformist, organisational thinking by politicians and bureaucrats who parrot the importance of data-driven decisions without actually making them. The authors suggest that “less time and resources” are allocated to teaching and learning and “more to image-polishing exercises” as “schools become machines for persuading others that children are getting a good education, rather than institutions for educating children.”

The most damning commentary of the entire book suggests that “Instead of focusing on the actual work process, schools spend most of their time on ceremonial activities. They develop plans, set up meetings, write reports, develop policy statements, prepare presentations and all the other things a ‘proper’ school is supposed to do.” The years roll by without any logical reconsideration of how all this actually helps educate children or improve the society it serves.

Most readers will alternate between despair and mild amusement while reading The Stupidity Paradox. The authors, with tongues firmly in cheeks, can see that functional stupidity has some handy advantages: “it helps individuals to manage their own doubts, be happy, feel comfortable with ambiguity, get along with their colleagues and superiors, present themselves as positive and upbeat, be more productive and ultimately make a fairly steady climb up the corporate hierarchy”. What else could one want from a day at work?

One of the recurring themes in the book is that the successful managers who rose through the ranks were those who avoided the big questions. They were “smart” enough to know that those questions came with the “risk of career suicide”. This is one of the major challenges for any organisation – especially those doing more than selling fizzy drink or fatty foods – if they wish to thrive.

Luckily enough the third and final part to the book offers guidance on how to “manage stupidity”. The ideas are very traditional suggesting that organisations should actually engage in reflection, encourage and respond to critical thinking rather than sidelining those who point out that what is on the PowerPoint slide or listed in the bullet-point framework is not the main game or likely to make any difference to the organisation’s stated goals. The concept of a pre-mortem, to discuss what may go pear-shaped, is a good one. The authors even suggest wide-reading and discussion rather than narrowly focused managerialism would help an organisation to flourish. That alone is worth the price of admission.

Educational leaders will find this new exploration of the practices and pitfalls of management in large organisations a rewarding and insightful read. Highly recommended.

release

“I believe in the artist’s licence to be weird, solitary, outrageous, be whoever it takes to make the work happen. You can walk the street in pyjamas if you’re an artist, have a pet hyena, sleep under a bridge. All provided you’re in the process of outputting art. It’s not the cappuccino licence, where you just go without shaving, wear stupid glasses or throw tantrums – I mean really doing it, for better or worse.”

DBC Pierre’s book about writing, Release the Bats, is an irreverent and intelligent look at the inside of the art and craft of spinning a story. I suspect that DBC (Dirty But Clean) has lived the life he recommends for artists in the quote above and you will find the autobiographical elements in this book memorable. It surprised me to discover that Pierre was “Bluey” in the 1980s mini-series, ANZACs.

The insights into the writer’s craft are quite unique (with some standard stuff included to make it a proper book about writing). I love the way he is able to describe life and the challenge of writing so evocatively.

“It made me see that we live in two worlds. All the time. One where shit happens and one where we decide what it was…The more I examined the space between the real and what we construe as real, the more it felt like a backstage pass to the human condition, a key to our central dilemma.”

He also quotes brilliantly well from other writers, revealing what he sees via their words:

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.   W. Somerset Maugham

There is only one plot – things are not what they seem.   Jim Thompson

I am not sure that I would recommend this book in the classroom with students – excerpts perhaps – but anyone who like reading should find it and if you want to be a writer, add it to the must-read soon list.

But to think of the United States as a place, or even as a state, is probably the first mistake. While their political leaders will forever say there is more to unite than divide them, in fact the citizenry is divided by cultural, historical, racial, ethnic and ideological differences that every day – every minute in the media – make the platitudes laughable. Democrats say there is more to unite them – as they divide them with identity politics. Republicans chide the Democrats for their identity politics while they dog-whistle to bigotry and preach nostrums they learned at the feet of Ayn Rand.

Enemy Within: American Politics in the Time of Trump by Don Watson is a great essay from a masterful essayist and very painful to read with the outcome of the 2016 election unknown. Watson, Paul Keating’s speechwriter and biographer, has always written more intelligently than most of his generation of Australian non fiction writers. His analysis of Hilary Clinton is at its most interesting when he is reflecting about speechmaking and intellectual tradition:

It was a gem of a speech, and Clinton herself was compelling. One watched thinking she should never leave the conversational lower register in which her intelligence and knowledge are palpable. She’s at her best when she speaks as if at Bible study or a Methodist camp meeting.

Watson realises that the Democrats are in truth two parties – “one subscribes to neoliberalism and the other foreshadows its demise” – and the neoliberal hawk Clinton has “to represent both of them”. He correctly describes Bernie Sanders: “the son of Jewish immigrants seemed to be not only the most genuine of the candidates, but also the one most genuinely descended from the nation’s moral and intellectual ancestors”. In one paragraph Watson appropriates a recent, successful Hollywood to sum up much of the current situation in the USA:

Far from going backwards, much of the US is doing very well. Consider The Martian, a western for the globalised American elites. In keeping with the old western genre, it is an artistic expression of the Monroe Doctrine. The exceptional American in this case is played by Matt Damon, but it could have been James Stewart. Left alone on the frontier of space, our hero, having no instinct for philosophy, survives by combining traditional American can-do and the boundless possibility of American diversity. In the end he is saved not by his own dauntless courage and the help of, say, Walter Brennan or a big-hearted Lutheran dirt farmer, but by dauntless courage and a Silicon Valley hipster nerd, a number of scientists from the Indian subcontinent, a charitable act by the Chinese government, and a valiant, self-sacrificing female mission leader. And there was Trump saying he could not trust a judge because his father was born in Mexico.

In many ways there is less insight into Trump than one would expect. Perhaps this is because so much has been written about the unexpected Republican candidate that it is hard to say much more than what has already been posited. Who outside of the USA (and hopefully a majority within) would not see that:

The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics. It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition. When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.

It still disturbs me that a nurse at the medical centre without hesitation said to me that “Trump only says what everyone else is thinking”. She retreated from the position when I listed some of the things he says – and there were multitudes – that I do not think. She seemed embarrassed – more at having being called than the the actual political position – probably because I was very polite and obvioulsy very saddened about Trump’s feigned ignorance (he knows exactly what he is doing more often than it seems). I guess this is why “dog-whistling” has proven such a popular political strategy post-Pauline Hanson (1996) in this country too. The nurse just assumed I’d be as casually racist and xenophobic as the next patient.

Watson has some great one-liners in the essay with my favourite being the perversely disturbing quip that Americans are “now buying Kalashnikovs in numbers sufficient to help subsidise Russian rearmament”. He is often at his best exploring the darker realms of ennui:

I would have to walk back across those absurdly wide roads, past those miserable chain “accommodations,” to my own dark dogbox in the bar-less, café-less Holiday Inn. There to surf the never-ending news. “Shall I kill myself, or have a cup of coffee?” was how Camus put it. But the only coffee in the Holiday Inn was what you could get from a slot machine.

Highly recommended for those who can stand to think about the possibility of a Trump administration and hope fervently for “the second worst thing that could happen to America”!

“We have failed to recognise our great asset: time. A conscientious use of it could make us into something quite amazing.”  Friedrich Schiller

Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey 

This is an absolutely delightful read (I listened to the audiobook) about many major European and American writers, artists and composers managed to get their vision out into the world. Currey provides a brief biographical sketch and reveals the routine, often with profoundly interesting anecdotes from the subject. There is quote after quote to amuse, inspire and motivate the budding creative.

It is interesting to see how many writers wrote in the morning before their other obligations took precedence. Many abused alcohol, amphetamines and coffee to fuel the creative muse and get the work done. Most seemed to find some kind of consistent routine to be essential. It is reasonably common for writers to have a word count for the day before they can rest. Stephen King must write 2000 but Hemingway was happy with 500. Many, I note, liked long walks to get away from their desk, easel or studio.

A few amusing quotes include:

“I spent two or three hours a night on it for eight years,” he said. “I gave up once and started watching television with my wife. Television drove me back to Catch-22. I couldn’t imagine what Americans did at night when they weren’t writing novels.”   Joseph Heller

“Miró hated for this routine to be interrupted by social or cultural events. As he told an American journalist, “Merde! I absolutely detest all openings and parties! They’re commercial, political, and everybody talks too much. They get on my tits!”

“After all…work is still the best way of escaping from life!”

“Inspiration is for amateurs…the rest of us just show up and get to work.”

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman just makes me love this guy more. This is a great collection of speeches, interviews, articles and lectures. His iconoclasm, mordant wit, sense of humour and restless, inquisitive mind is as original as any in history. I loved the documentary too.

“Historical amnesia is a dangerous phenomenon not only because it undermines moral and intellectual integrity but also because it lays the groundwork for crimes that still lie ahead.”

Who Rules the World? by Noam Chomsky is not a fun read but as always, Chomsky uses detailed analysis to position the reader to see the world clearly. He makes the same point that Watson does re: American politics: “Both parties have moved to the right during the neoliberal period of the past generation. Mainstream Democrats are now pretty much what used to be called “moderate Republicans.” Meanwhile, the Republican Party has largely drifted off the spectrum, becoming what respected conservative political analyst Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein call a “radical insurgency” that has virtually abandoned normal parliamentary politics.” Although schmaltzy this rant in an episode of The Newsroom is Sorkin channelling Chomsky (although neither of them would like that description).

If you do not have the time to read this latest, this interview with Chomsky on Channel Four, is some kind of substitute.

Ever since reading Michel Houellebecq’s latest novel, where the protagonist studied JK Huysman, I have been keen to read more of the 19th century French novelist’s books. Many of you will know his quite infamous, Against Nature, which was popularised for English-speaking readers by Oscar Wilde but other novels are not that easy to find or readily available as ebooks. A Dilemma (Un Dilemme) is a novella, first published in1887, found at Strand Books in NYC. It is an easy, quick read that explores, class, greed, nastiness and fin-de-siècle France. Madame Champagne and Le Ponsart are memorable characters. If you can find a copy and like this sort of thing it is worth an hour of your time.

“I am sitting here in my house like a bird trapped by the piercing gaze of the snake–already being killed in advance…”

The Assistant is the first fiction of Robert Walser’s that I have read and it would be true to say that I enjoyed his non fiction more. Joseph Marti is the assistant to the debt-ridden inventor Carl Tobler. His insights into Tobler, his wife and family are gentle and wise. Failure and the fear of it haunt the book. Money is both ever-present and not important. The lake is still, the house empty. 

It is hard to read without thinking of Walser’s own life and mind. He is the perpetual bystander and observer. Life just happens to him and he observes it unfolding with little sense of control or direction.  The novel is very without action and will not be for everyone. If you like Kafka, give this a go.

sebald-rings-of-saturn-british-edition

“Unfortunately I am a completely impractical person, caught up in endless trains of thought.”

Fifteen or so years ago I read was reading WG (Max) Sebald with great enthusiasm and felt greatly saddened when he died in a car. The time has come to re-read some of his works. I started with The Rings of Saturn not for the simple reason it was the first of his books originally read but because I wanted to watch the documentary film Patience (After Sebald) and felt re-reading necessary prior to viewing.

“At the time I could no more believe my eyes than I can now trust my memory.”

I read Rings again very slowly; often re-reading passages and looking for a ridiculously long time at the grainy photos placed cleverly throughout. If you like walking and often wonder about the veracity of memories, or rather, how things thought are as real as what happens read Sebald and watch the documentary reverie that explores his life, literature and thought. It is a film one can leave on a loop and go wandering within, like a maze.

Here’s a taste to show you the path:

Featured image: Screenshot of book covers

 

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