Books and Me: The War of Art

Book Title: The War of Art – Break Through the Block and Win Your Inner Creative Battles

Author: Steven PressfieldThe War of Art Book Cover

Steven Pressfield and his work, the War of Art has been a recurring reference across many of my readings in recent times. I gave myself enough reasons to delay its purchase. Something in me kept resisting to pick this book up. So here I am eventually writing a note of me overcoming the resistance to read this book which incidentally is on resistance.

Every individual who engages in any form of art recognizes the importance of acknowledging and overcoming resistance. Many times we don’t even recognize that the force which is not allowing us to create is sitting right within us. Pressfield’s book aptly titled the War of Art bears it all. Inside every artist (veterans included) this battle ensues daily. This battle is actually between the life we are living and the unlived life within us. The first part of the book clearly defines this enemy called resistance in every form possible.  As we go through the various definitions of resistance and its manifestations, one is bound to acknowledge experiencing its presence. If we have any doubts after this, a section titled symptoms of resistance quickly makes us sure of it presence.

Resistance is universal. It cannot be done away with. But it can be beaten. It requires a conscious move from being an amateur to becoming a professional. The way Pressfield defines who a professional is seems interesting and demanding. As we move through the book beyond this point, the text slowly but surely leads to some fundamental truths about life and giving. These pages are an extract of the wisdom of the world’s greatest teachers. There are references to Indian scriptures as well as western ones. The importance of owning the right to action and not the results thereof is beautifully captured from a variety of perspectives. There are references to scriptures of the east and west as well as poems and movies that showcase these truths. The author also attempts to differentiate between the ego (philosophically, the little self) and the self. These require not just plain reading but extensive reflection. The author’s detailing of the importance for an artist to find their territory and his description of what a territory means is simply fascinating. Some of the questions in this section are simple and straight, difficult to handle for people without courage. One of the last sentences I made note of before completing the book was this, “Don’t cheat us of your contribution, give us what you’ve got”. Isn’t that a clarion call to live the life we are meant to live?

I read the e-book version and kept wondering how such an interesting book albeit a small one would have been made in print. Sometime in the future when I decide to reread this book, I may prefer to pick a hard copy. While it should be compulsory reading for all who consider themselves artists, it definitely makes good reading for everyone.

NOTE: 14th to 20th November is celebrated annually in India as the ‘National Book Week’. As part of the celebration I am posting ‘book reviews’ daily. Happy Reading!

Books and Me: My Journey

Book Title: My Journey – Transforming Dreams into ActionsMy Journey

Author: A P J Abdul Kalam

Most of the books written by our former President, Dr. A P J Abdul Kalam are inspiring. They are simple, easy to read and give us a feeling of listening to the author directly. Though many of the books have repetitions of his experiences, one never feels tired or bored of any of his books

I picked this book up as soon as it made its appearance in my local bookstore. I devoured it the same day. The book speaks a lot from the childhood days of the author. It is widely accepted that every person is shaped and influenced during their formative years; the wonderful and at times challenging experiences of Dr. Kalam seems to be no exception. Be it the inter-faith harmony in his home town or the sacrifices made by his mother and sister or the uncontrollable reality of nature’s fury or the positive friendships of his school days, they all seem to have shaped his beliefs and personality.  Three specific things stand out as learning for me personally:

  1. Mentors: Finding, having and allowing mentors to shape us is an important aspect for every one of us. Dr. Kalam’s reflection on his mentors, be it Ahmed Jalalludin or Dr. Vikram Sarabhai, highlights this important role. Their importance in his making is strongly emphasized. It is in our own interest that we constantly seek, find and allow mentors to shape us.
  2. Spirituality: Dr. Kalam’s life is filled with experiences and interactions from multiple faiths. Irrespective of the religion, his interest to seek true knowledge and advice has helped him overcome early setbacks. They have strengthened him and enabled him to achieve the much needed balance in life. It is also a reason for his sustained contribution till date.
  3. Reading: As Dr. Kalam rightly states, the importance of reading and books can never be emphasized enough. Right from his early years, Dr. Kalam has been a voracious reader and this love for reading and books seems to continue to this very day. Now that he is also writing many of them, they can be added to our reading list. Dr. Kalam also provides a list of books that influenced him the most.

I must confess that after reading the pre-release excerpt from this book in the Outlook magazine, I was eager to buy a copy specifically to know about Dr. Kalam’s interest in books and reading. As a voracious reader, a bibliophile and a writer, my love for the written word knows no bounds. Since Dr. Kalam has been an inspiring personality that I keep looking up to, I really wanted to know which books he loved the most. That one chapter provided me more value than the price I paid for the entire book. Thanks Dr. Kalam for providing one more inspiring read for the youth of this country.

NOTE: 14th to 20th November is celebrated annually in India as the ‘National Book Week’. As part of the celebration I am posting ‘book reviews’ daily. Happy Reading!

Books and Me: Bookless in Baghdad

Book Title: Bookless in Baghdad – And other Writings about Reading

Author: Shashi TharoorBookless in Baghdad Book Cover

I picked the book up simply because it said it contained essays by a writer on ‘reading’. I love to read and I was quite inquisitive to know what the author meant by calling the book – ‘Bookless in Baghdad’. I must say I enjoyed the book thoroughly for number of reasons. While the essays are all standalone pieces, curated from the author’s earlier writings for various periodicals / newspapers and edited for the volume. This facet of the collection is visible from the number of repetitions of references / experiences across essays. But repetition is a useful aspect of writing, especially when conveying some firmly held beliefs and important points that a reader must definitely receive. I did not find the repetitions too distracting; in fact I read them all happily!

The book is divided into five parts, each containing a selected number of essays. I found the author’s reading of literature quite interesting. Developing reading habits early seems to be a good indicator of potential writing later in life. Shashi Tharoor is not the first writer speaking about voracious reading early in life. The author’s interest in books, reading and writing from early years shows up early in the book. The part titled ‘inspirations’ truly is inspiring. It is inspiring to see what reading can do to a person. It is inspiring to see how we select and fall in love with certain writers, eventually becoming fans and evangelists for their works. The joy of reading, especially the works of authors we love, brings fascination, excitement and imagination. The author’s excessive indulgence and love for Woodehouse and the activities he engages in to spread the love are both interesting and engaging.

Many essays are on books, authors and poets – some popular and some we may not have heard, but whose works have left an indelible impression in the world of literature. The section titled ‘Literary Life’ shares numerous situations that create authors, brings forth their love for writing, and how they sustain their craft. Insights into handling critics and criticisms, what writing can do to you, and how to handle repercussions of writing the truth are beautifully weaved into the writing in a subtle manner. The section titled ‘Appropriations’ was humorous and entertaining. The essay that gave the book its title is another interesting read. The description and detailing creates a sad visual of the people who have always been great readers, now denied access to the world of literature. The street of Al Mutanabi, the books being sold there, the bargains that only a foreigner acknowledges, and the limited availability of textbooks for students (due to lack of major trade) in Baghdad, are both sad and disheartening. ‘Teaching fishing’ instead of ‘providing fish’ has to happen, and for this – books are a great medium. Some of the quotations of the poet whose name adorns the street where the booksellers line up are amazing and give a glimpse of reality. The author’s love for literature, his exposure to international developmental organizations, and his experiences from being in the UN provide a distinct style to the essays. Through his eyes we get to see some places, events, people, authors and books.

Overall it provides an insight into the world of books, literary festivals, book clubs, reading and writing. The book is well made and for light consumption. Anyone, who enjoys the company of books, will come away with numerous insights, discover authors, books and thought triggers.

NOTE: 14th to 20th November is celebrated annually in India as the ‘National Book Week’. As part of the celebration I am posting ‘book reviews’ daily. Happy Reading!

Celebrating National Book Week 2013

Today is Children’s Day! Happy Children’s Day! Not only to the children of today, but also to all the children inside every grown up! If you had spent some time near a school today, you would have realized what joy means. It would have brought back memorable times of simple joys (of your school days) that don’t seem to exist today – at least there doesn’t seem to be time for most of us to think about them. Innocent happiness for no reason but happiness itself! I spent some time listening to the teachers making announcements of events, preachy talks by elders, loud cheering from thousands of students, happy faces in colorful clothes, celebrating together every performance by every student. Oh, what joy?

Today is Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s birthday! It is this occasion that is being celebrated as ‘Children’s Day’ across the whole country. The reason why his birthday was chosen as ‘Children’s Day’ is probably because of his great love for children. He always looked up to children as the future of a nation and spent a lot of effort to encourage them, inspire them and motivate them.

Today is also the start of the National Book Week! Happy National Book Week to all who love books! Interesting that today is such an eventful day. On this happy occasion, let’s spend some time with the books and authors we love. Let us spend some time reading a few of the authors or books we cherish. Let us spend some time finding a new book and author to spread the wings of our world of imagination.

India is known for her intellectual curiosity both of the outside world (Tans migratory) and the inner world (Transcendental). Our forefathers have left us with treasure troves of knowledge that can enable us become learned, peaceful and happy people. It is our legacy and we have to safeguard it for our own sake and for the sake of our future generations. Let us make an effort to pick up books of wisdom that connect to us and help spread it to whoever we can. Knowledge has to be shared for it to develop even within us. Go ahead, share and begin it with a small book. I am happy that I still get a chance once in a while to buy books for others. It makes me feel nice sharing them, many times more than even when I get to read them.

As a simple way to celebrate this week of books, I have decided to post one book review every day for the next six days. Normally I post book reviews only every week on Saturday, but this week it will be every day for six days in a row! I hope you will like the reviews and enjoy the books as well. If they are books that you have read and liked, please do share your thoughts and inspirations derived from them as well.

As a voracious reader, a bibliophile and a writer now, books have been my companion for years now. This ‘Book Week’ makes me feel like a Dussehra or Durga Pooja for all of us, book-lovers, who love books and celebrate them. Let share and celebrate the joy of books!

Look forward to a lot of discussions and conversations around books and reading this whole week!

Books and Me: Poke the Box

Book Title: Poke the box

Author: Seth GodinPoke the Box

It is now an open secret that I am a fan of Seth Godin. I read his works for more than the subject under consideration. They provide thought triggers, provocative ideas, inspiring questions and beyond all, provoke me to start doing what I ought to do, but distract myself from. So when I heard about a full book by Seth on provoking one to act, I picked it up instantaneously and devoured it in one sitting.

The book is really short but packed with questions, quotations, imperatives and ‘pokes’. The book makes a clear case to drop all excuses (including reading this book) and get started on our dream project. In typical Seth fashion he raises tough questions which make us stare at the truth head-on. Our responsibility is to give life to our dreams, imaginations and aspirations. The only way we can do justice to them, is to engage in action without falling prey to the inner resistance that distracts us and limits us from even starting.

If you act, results are inevitable. Irrespective of the nature of the results, it is in the spirit and attitude of initiating and sustaining action that makes a life fully lived. What can be more successful than a fully lived life? As it is neatly summarized in a quote from Siddhartha, “There are only two mistakes one can make along the road to truth: (a) not going all the way or (b) not starting.”

Read the book! Poke yourself! Kick-start your project! Overcome resistance! Enjoy and ship your creation!

Books and Me: Stephen Hawking: My Brief History, A Memoir

Book Title: Stephen Hawking: My Brief History, A Memoir

Author: Stephen HawkingHawking_My_Brief_History Book Cover

A short but scintillating memoir! I must confess that a lot of the book is written for a physicist by a celebrated one from their fraternity. He has made the book pretty much a quick two hour run through for even a moderately paced reader. If you are the quick reading type, you will finish it in less time than that.

Highly recommended for a person who is involved in Physics, Cosmology, Astronomy, etc and for all others read the book more for the story. You can easily skip / scan large portions of the book even if you don’t understand them and may be finish faster too. But here are few things that I took away even though I didn’t understand much of the physics related portions:

  • The book is brutally honest
  • Prioritization: Facing the possibility of an early Death and that too when you are 21 years old is not something that many want to even hear about. But the author’s life changed on this discovery. It is yet another inspiring tale of one who faced death in the face and lived a full life. Should we not learn from others experiences? A lesson that the author clearly wants the reader to take away.
  • Meaningful Life: The thirst to do something meaningful with life, especially knowing that you are going to live for a limited time is an important learning. A meaningful life is not created if we don’t figure out what will give us meaning in our lives – a very personal thing. The author’s story tells us how he wanted to take on the big questions that would contribute something to the field, a clear lesson to figure the big challenge that you want to handle in life, which will eventually give life some meaning.
  • Focus: The author’s ability to focus on theoretical physics and make an effort to remain in the area even when lots of options were available for experimental physics is, one huge learning for all of us. In the author’s case he also made the choice considering his inherent strengths and weakness. This awareness of your SWOT makes gaining focus; easier said than done!
  • Narrowing the opportunity window: This is something that I have been talking about to almost everyone I meet, especially in entrepreneurship and small business. The author’s identification of the area of work, by identifying the space of physics that was available to make a significant contribution; which did not have too much work done, provided him the chance to meet fresh findings and contribute to the development of the subject. Finding your area of work is an important task which one must not cut short to start the journey.

While everyone is bound to find inspiring lessons from the little book, two groups are sure to find great value:

(a)    The Physicists – The memoir of one of the most celebrated scientists in their field sharing how he went about finding his area of work, how he connected with the right people and how he kept his focus on his goal, is truly inspirational material.

(b)   The Differently-abled – While the author does make a case for everyone with a limitation to overcome it, I believe no one must think they have less or more abilities. Everyone is born with some clear strength. Why see them through a lens of the societal-average / others? This story is a clear example that if a human being intentions, he / she can achieve any goal and overcome any handicap, irrespective of depth of the challenge.

Overall a short but truly inspiring, highly recommended book for all who feel they are not adequately endowed for a meaningful life.

Books and Me: The One Thing

Book Title: The One Thing

Author: Gary Keller and Jay Papasan The One Thing Book Cover

Building focus is a theme that has always attracted my attention. In recent times, I have been working hard on the power of narrowing down initiatives as an approach to enhancing focus. So, when I found this little book during one of my weekly trips to the local book store, I naturally picked it up and was excited at the subject under consideration. The moment I open the book to scan a few pages, I promptly put the book back on the shelf to pick a second copy. To my surprise, there were pencil marks under sentences across pages. I was surprised! Why would multiple copies of a new book have pencil marks in them? On closer examination, I found that it was a new feature used by the authors and the publisher to highlight what they consider important. I must congratulate wholeheartedly the publishers John Murray for the lovely production of the book. A well made book adds tremendous incremental joy to the reading. With a well made book in my hand on a topic that was close to my heart I read it while making loads of notes.

The book dives right into the subject with a quote that captures the essence of the subject: “If you chase two rabbits you will not catch either one” – Russian Proverb

There are innumerable quotations as powerful as the above and more, sprinkled all across the book. The book builds a strong case to narrowing down our focus to one thing and using it as the path to achieve extraordinary success.  This goes right against the popular philosophy of “doing more to achieve more”. The authors use Part I of the book to showcase how the widely held belief is a myth. They shatter what are used as reasons supporting the “doing more achieve more” philosophy with both research back references as well as practice oriented experiences.

The poet J. B. Rittenhouse’s poem, “My wage” was a brilliant way to set the context for Part II of the book which houses the proposed simple path to productivity. While my thoughts at the philosophical level about balancing different facets of life by choosing one thing across each of them are still under reflection, I do not subscribe to the authors views, though a large part of the approach seems practical. The “productivity-priority- purpose” pyramid provides an interesting basis for discussions around unblocking the possibilities within an individual. Time blocking is a powerful concept that goes hand in hand with the approach of choosing one big thing in life. It seems to have worked for a lot of successful people from Stephen King to Peter Drucker. Protecting the time block should be done at any cost to achieve extraordinary results.

The three suggested commitments that one who wants to achieve success in life using the one thing approach should attempt are: adopting the mindset of seeking mastery, constantly finding the best ways of doing things and holding oneself accountable to doing everything to achieve the one thing.

This handy, well made volume is an interesting read that provides big questions while also suggesting quick tips for anyone seeking to live a successful life. You can also read and listen to more about the book and the authors at: www.the1thing.com

Books and Me: Playing to Win – How Strategy Really Works

Book Title: Playing to Win – How Strategy Really Works

Author: A. G. Lafley and Roger L. MartinPlaying-to-win book cover

While there are number of books that proclaim to be on strategy, they are not! So when I came across one more title that spoke of the subject close to my heart, I decided to try it (eternal optimist). But to my surprise and happiness, the book was one interesting read on the practice of strategy. There are many aspects about the book that make it an exciting read:

  • A book by an advisor-practitioner duo (both individually celebrated in their own realm)
  • Great Packaging (Lovely title, cool cover, beautifully bound)
  • An easy over arching framework to keep at the back of the mind
  • Their common inspiration to the late Peter Drucker (who is also my inspiration)
  • Personal anecdotes sprinkled all over the book
  • Short personal experiences and suggestions from both a professor-advisor and a successful practitioner
  • A short but well written piece on the micro economic foundations of strategy
  • Written by professional friends after a long association

I am sure every reader will have his / her own list of unique points that make the book interesting, but for me the above are what come to mind. The one limitation (not really if you have experience to relate to) is that most of the primary references are from the authors work together at P&G.

The book rests on the premise – ‘Strategy is choice’, one that I firmly believe in; which is also the title of the first chapter. Can you imagine the pleasure, a strategy professional would experience even on reading that title? I did and it led me to spend an inordinate amount of time reading the book, making extensive notes. The only question on my mind as I went through the five choices cascade of the authors was if it would be applicable to early stage enterprises and small businesses. Since my work tends to be a lot with the above two groups I am always looking for ways in which this group can benefit from strategy. Both these groups (early stage enterprises & small businesses) almost never use strategy as a tool for growth at all. But the integrated cascade of choices, a set of five choices that organizations have to make for building a good strategy seem to be a useful and easy tool to apply. Here are the five choices to be made as part of strategy making:

  • What is our winning aspiration?
  • Where will we play?
  • How will we win?
  • What capabilities must we have in place?
  • What management systems are required to support our choices?

While the questions themselves seem too simple, they are deep and require a detailed, honest and bold set of answers with extreme commitment.  Without these, what seems easy could become excuses to skip developing strategy. There are beautiful reasons that you may give or hear within your firm that either results in no strategy or a worrisome strategy – but the authors have captured it succinctly as six strategy traps; just check to see if you are not caught by one of them!

While the five choices form the crux of strategy, the big question of how to go about creating strategy in an organized manner is addressed using the four dimensions (industry analysis, customer value analysis, relative position, competition) spread across a simple strategy logic flow which comprises of seven questions. By using this strategy logic flow as the basis and re-iterating through it a few times, one is bound to gain clarity on the big choices that organizations wanting to win, have to make. If you are playing to win then this is your cookbook for success in creating winning choices. If you make winning choices, you have created winning strategies!

Overall a great book on strategy that I have read in recent times and one with great practitioner insights, which many strategy books lack.

Books and Me: The Dance of Shiva

Book Title:  The Dance of Shiva The dance of shiva

Author:  Ananda Coomaraswamy

I didn’t know what this book was really about when I bought it. I picked it up at the airport bookshop for multiple reasons. I like the way Rupa and Company had made the book.  I liked the title “The Dance of Shiva”.  I liked the fact that it belongs to a series called “Rupa Antiquities Series’. I was curious to know  what a person who lived till India’s independence thought about art, culture and his times.  But in reality,  I was extremely surprised and delighted by what I read, as I started my journey with the book.

The book is actually a collection of 14 essays, of which one essay bears the title of the book.  That particular essay tries to look at the meta physical meaning of the cosmic dance of reality. It no doubt is a brilliant exposition on the dance form.  Every one of the other thirteen essays looks at the Hindu view to art, duty, culture and society. The one aspect that runs through all these essays is the deep intellectual analysis into what art actually means and how it differs from modern day reproduction of art. While every essay is independent and can be read without the other, each goes to great depth bearing art, culture and philosophy as the basis.  There are references to trends being viewed in the early part of the 20th century, how India was losing her greatest asset, which is spiritual integrity and what could this degeneration actually mean for India’s future.

While I did enjoy all the essays, my favorite was the one titled “That beauty is a state”. The extent to which beauty as a subject can be thought of and how it differs from the view point of the creator, the enjoyer and the art itself was mind boggling. Throughout the book there are triggers to kick start the philosophical thinking of the meta-physical in life and there is enough to encourage the reader to consider art both as creator and enjoyer. There are numerous references to ancient texts which makes me wonder why the education system fails to capitalize the enormous and in-depth store house of wisdom created by our fore fathers.  More than learning about the dance form of Shiva, popularly called as Nataraja, I received fresh perspective to the way I will view art and beauty.  I received a very different approach of using art as a way to understand philosophy. In my journey of trying to be an artiste, this understanding will enable me to practice art more fully.

Though it is not an easy read, I would urge every person interested in art and life in general to read these essays closely.

Books and Me: Accidental India

Books Title: Accidental IndiaAccidental India

Author:  Shankkar Aiyar

For some time I have been wanting to read an economist take on India’s development, especially around liberalization.  Though macro economics is not my primary subject of study I have been intrigued, by the number of times liberalization has been mentioned during conferences and during my interactions with successful entrepreneurs. The references by these practitioners on the macro economics of India’s development did not make me too comfortable and hence I decided to pick a book.  Among the many I browsed, I picked Shankkar Aiyar’s ‘Accidental India’ – primarily because of its structure and hypothesis.

The book is structured around seven major events that have been seen as forward looking  and have also triggered changes in society. Was all this sheer accident? Or was it as per well laid plans? The seven events around which stories have been beautifully weaved are:

  • The liberalization of the economy, 1991
  • The Green Revolution , 1964
  • The Nationalization of Banks, 1969
  • The Operation flood, 1970
  • The mid-day meals scheme, 1982
  • The software revolution, 1990
  • The right to information, 2005

Each of the above mentioned are spoken of as major revolutions that have solved India’s challenges and also paved the way for development. While there is no doubt about the success and benefits of the various events,  I was rather surprised and amused on how each of them came to be. While the author’s deep research and incisive analysis builds the rational to show how each of these revolution were the result of a crisis and were not a result of any plan makes the already precarious development story appear scarier,  the fact that in most of these stories the protagonist was someone much lower than the leadership layer working slowly and steadily against all odds and obstacles to solve problems definitely leaves a positive feel.  A little more awareness and sensitivity by the leadership would have leveraged these actions, multiplied the benefits many times over. Reading the book also provides a detailed understanding on number of events that led to these successful revolutions.  The stories are filled with data, real life characters, people whom we may have known, heard of and also some unsung heroes . The stories have been weaved like a fast pace bollywood flick  with enough action, emotions and romance.

While it is a book on economics and development, the author ensures that you will keep reading till the end through his excellent story telling ability. If you are not from the area of economics as your daily job, you will benefit in knowing more about India, its actions, its policies, leadership, politics and execution machinery, which infact is eye opening.  After reading the book and being convinced by the author that every revolution in India has been caused by crisis – the epilogue raises questions on today’s challenges of the country, including power, agriculture, water and education.

Governing a country like India is not easy. But at the same time with the amount of intellectual ability and strength that we possess we definitely need better ways to foresee the challenges and opportunities that are in front of us as a nation. This understanding definitely adds one more lens or perspective to viewing our own actions before acting on them. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, learnt a lot from it and am motivated to read further on how strategy can help in public policy.