2019 in books

Building off of 2018’s more organized list of books, I logged each book I read over the course of 2019. It was a more reading-filled year in which I finished 72 books. A big part of that came from making more time for reading in my vacations; the early morning hours are just the perfect time for a cup of coffee and a book.

Most of that reading happened over a digital format. The new(er) Kindle Oasis from Amazon is a near-perfect device, at least for my habits, and its adjustable warm light is one of those instantaneous difference makers I can’t imagine going without. While I still prefer hard copy books the convenience, portability, and single-purpose nature of the Kindle win out for day-to-day reading.

My favorites on the nonfiction side were Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety and The Goodness Paradox by Richard Wrangham. They’re very different reads as one is more philosophical and the other more popular science. Status Anxiety considers why, both historically and ideologically, we feel such a need to gain and compete for status (and all the anxiety that comes along with that). The Goodness Paradox is a fascinating look how humans exhibit extremely peaceful day-to-day relations alongside vicious forms of planned violence. The discussion of bonobo and chimpanzee behavior and habitat was one I found particularly worthwhile.

On the fiction side, my standout favorites were three Classics-related books: The Song of Achilles and Circe by Madeline Miller, and The Odyssey by Emily Wilson. Miller’s books are retellings of myths from Ancient Greece. She really masters the storyline in a way that makes them accessible even if you’re unfamiliar with the history. Wilson’s book is a new translation of the Homeric poem. While it’s all written in iambic pentameter she relies on a voice that makes Odysseus’ journey engaging and easy to follow.

There’s a lot from 2019’s reading that has stuck with me and, I hope, will continue to filter into my thinking. A 2020 personal goal is to get more of my reading notes into a public, online format. Over the course of a typical nonfiction book I’ll take a few thousand words of notes, but they sit in raw, local text files. There’s some sort of editorial process those need to go through, though, to be intelligible outside of my own brain.

My 2020 reading list is up and running. And as I figure out how to best share reading notes I’ll link to them from that page.

Kauai

Along the Maha'ulepu Heritage Trail.

We just got back from a week in Kauai, which is turning into an annual tradition for us. It’s such a relaxing place to be and with much of the island geared toward tourism it certainly makes vacations easy to plan.

The focus for this trip was getting open water certified for SCUBA diving, which I can now say I am. We went through the folks at Fathom Five, who I’d highly recommend if you’re looking to dive in Kauai. This was by far the most enjoyable training and certification I’ve ever done!

Other than the SCUBA course we didn’t get up to too much. A big part of each day was spent reading, more on that in a bit, and the main other activity was an afternoon hike along the Maha’ulepu Heritage Trail (pictured above). It’s an easy 4-mile roundtrip hike with just perfect scenery. Plus there’s a small farm at the end with giant land tortoises.

I also took an afternoon and put together a small WordPress plugin for keeping track of links and bookmarks. I’ve long-used Pinboard for this and used to share links directly here, too. But both solutions felt imperfect. The plugin is just a custom post type with a meta field that pipes into a separate feed. So far, so good.

On the reading front I worked my way through five books. I first wrapped up two that I’d had in-progress from before vacation: The Attention Merchants by Tim Wu and The Overstory by Richard Powers. The Overstory is one of the more thoughtful pieces of fiction I’ve read in recent memory. I then read Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia which is excellent, though difficult to describe. I wrapped up the week by tapping into my inner hermit and read two books on solitude: Hermits: The Insights of Solitude by Peter France and Solitude: A Return to the Self by Anthony Storr.

How to lose a customer, forever

Typically ease of use is something we think about when it comes to signing up for and beginning to use a service. I increasingly believe it’s the ease of use in leaving a service that has an equal impact on customer loyalty. The worse the experience of leaving is, the more your former customers will tell their friends not to even start.

Ultimately the cancellation experience should surpass, or at the very least meet, the signup experience in ease of use. Invert that relationship at your own risk because the harder it is to leave, the easier it is to decide to leave forever.

To illustrate this, let me recount my experience renting a small private office a few blocks from home. I toured the space on a weekday afternoon in February and decided to rent it on a month-to-month basis. 45 minutes after emailing the office manager I had everything signed and paid for.

On March 7th I was incorrectly billed an extra $15. On April 8th I was billed an extra $30. And again on May 8th I was billed an extra $30. On May 18th I got a refund for $45. But the remaining $30 was never refunded, despite multiple emails and in-person reminders.

Earlier this month I decided to switch back to working from home full-time. I emailed the office manager in the early afternoon on August 3rd, a Saturday. It will be 59 days later, on September 30th, that I will no longer be paying for an office I’ve not used since July.

There’s an asymmetry to the timeline of these transactions. I paid them thousands of dollars. They can’t be bothered to refund me $30. Signing up to pay them took an afternoon. Closing the account will take longer than it took to buy our apartment. And getting a refund is simply a lost cause (as is any inclination I have to ever use their services again).

There are parallels here to some of the more notorious customer experience complaints. I’m thinking of those companies with retention specialists, those that require you to pick up the phone to cancel a service you paid for online, that sort of thing.

We all know these companies. And when we do use them it’s more often due to the sheer lack of alternatives than it is out of loyalty. If you’re in a market where there are alternatives then you better pay attention to the ease with which customers can leave your service. If it’s an order of magnitude easier to signup than it is to leave then it’s only a matter of time before your customers have left for good.

Hypernatural Monitoring

Hypernatural Monitoring: A Social Rehearsal Account of Smartphone Addiction is a research paper from two researchers at McGill University in Montreal. The authors outline how our social tendencies combine with smartphone technology to lead to excessive status monitoring.

The full paper is worth reading and is written in pretty clear language. What I find worthwhile is how, rather than place the blame solely on technology, the authors dig into how conditioned behavior and devices interrelate. The core of the authors’ argument boils down to this:

We suggest, rather, that it is the social expectations and rewards of connecting with other people and seeking to learn from others that induce and sustain addictive relationships with smartphones…We add that comparing ourselves to others and against cultural norms also enables us to derive meaning, motivation, purpose, and a sense of identity. With socially connected smartphones, this evolutionary process simply runs on overdrive.

Tokyo

Hamarikyu Gardens.

We spent 10 days on vacation last month in Tokyo and rather than try to sprint around Japan we decided to settle down in the center of the city and just relax for all 10 days. Turned out that was a great decision as we loved the slow pace staying in one place allowed for.

The highlight was really the sheer abundance of green spaces within the city. For such a densely packed metropolis it was refreshing to be able to also wander through so many gardens and parks. We also spent a good bit of time in various art museums. The very approachable Nezu was great, and includes an incredible garden down the hillside in back.

And as usual I brought half a suitcase of books with me. The list for this trip was Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning, Thomas Merton’s Thoughts in Solitude, William Irvine’s On Desire, Jenny Odell’s How to Do Nothing, and Justin Vaïsse’s biography of Zbigniew Brzezinski.

Constant Adjustment

Living is the constant adjustment of thought to life and life to thought in such a way that we are always growing, always experiencing new things in the old and old things in the new.

Thomas Merton: Thoughts in Solitude.

Barcelona

View from La Pedrera.

Last month we took a break from the dreary, January weather in Portland and spent 9 days in Barcelona. While it was my second trip to the city, the first one was for work and I had a cold for much of the week. The weather turned out to be exactly what we’d hoped for: 50+ and mostly sunny.

One of the nice parts about visiting in mid-January is that it’s way off-season. A lot of places were empty and even crowded places were manageable. We had no problem just deciding day-of what we wanted to do most days.

One of the highlights was going hot air ballooning north of the city in Vic. It was a lot colder than we anticipated but the views and experience were fantastic. You can see the Pyrenees peaking out from just under the cloud line.

We also spent time in La Sagrada Família. The light was as amazing as I remember and we were fortunate that for much of the first hour there weren’t more than a few dozen people around.

Toward the end of the week we took the train out to the abbey at Montserrat. The abbey itself is interesting but what really makes the experience are the rock formations around. The path down to the hillside cave was deserted and we had the space to ourselves.

We took it at a pretty relaxed pace over the 9 days so we left ourselves with plenty to do on a return trip. Already looking forward to it!

2018 in books

Last year was the first year in which I kept a more organized list of what I read. I had a loose goal to read a book a week and ended the year having read 48 books. Given that a few of the books were significantly denser academic ones I consider that close enough.

The two best work books I read were Management Lessons from Mayo Clinic and Freedom from Command and Control.

Management Lessons from Mayo Clinic is an in-depth look at how Mayo Clinic works and the service mentality that’s embedded within their operations. I posted some high-level notes over here. If you work in any kind of service team it’s a worthwhile read. It captures in a more structured and easy-to-name way some aspects of effective service that you likely already intuit.

Freedom from Command and Control covers how to apply ideas from Toyota’s production system to service teams of all types. John Seddon is a consultant and covers a bunch of case studies and models for how to evaluate service team performance. Reading it got my mind working more than any service industry book in recent memory. As an aside, it’s $50 on Amazon so I’d generally recommend reading it only if you can find it at a local library. The first two-thirds of the book are fantastic. The last third is more of a rant by Seddon against certain standards bodies.

On the fiction side of things my favorite reads were when I branched out from the science fiction I typically read. Pachinko, Into the Distance, and The Sympathizer were three great ones.

I also refreshed my main reading list to start logging things as I go through 2019. I have a vacation coming up over the next week and a half so that list will grow quite a bit by the end of the month.

Thinking in bets

As a kid I’d occasionally watch World Series of Poker events on ESPN. During the broadcast they’d show the percentage likelihood each player had for winning the hand. I remember thinking, “How in the world do players remember all of this information…”

It certainly didn’t occur to me that some of the betting strategies players applied would also be effective in the business world. That’s part of why I found Annie Duke’s Thinking in Bets a worthwhile read. Duke is a professional poker player and her book is a guide to making decisions within uncertain environments.

She views a bet as, essentially, a decision about an uncertain future. To make effective bets we have to learn how to separate outcome quality from decision quality. The quality of our decisions is all we’re able to control. Yet we tend to evaluate our decisions by their outcomes; if the outcome is good then we made a good decision. The problem is it doesn’t work that way. A bad outcome can stem from a logically sound and effective decision.

Duke doesn’t advocate that we try to change this cognitive tendency through willpower alone. She holds that our capacity for deliberative decision-making is already maxed out. Instead she frames it this way:

The challenge is not to change the way our brains operate but to figure out how to work within the limitations of the brains we already have. 1

A path toward better decisions is to leverage our competitive drive to change our routines. We can change the features by which we compare ourselves (e.g. work to be the best credit giver rather than work to receive the most credit).

If we approach the decisions we make as bets then we can explore alternative reasons for why a given outcome came to pass. If we dismiss another’s good outcome as simply luck then we close down opportunities to learn from their expertise and skill. And it’s those lessons that we can apply to our own decisions.

A big part of what helped Duke in her career was having a decision group to deconstruct and debug situations with. It’s the Mertonian values of such a group that matter most. As she writes:

As a rule of thumb, if we have an urge to leave out a detail because it makes us uncomfortable or requires even more clarification to explain away, those are exactly the details we must share. The mere fact of our hesitation and discomfort is a signal that such information may be critical to providing a complete and balanced account.2

  1. Thinking in Bets, pg. 14.
  2. Ibid, pg. 154.

Support Operations Webinar

At Automattic we recently started building a support operations team. We’re wrapping up hiring for a Director-level position and will add a handful of roles within the team after that. Formalizing this work will help us strengthen many of the behind-the-scenes processes that power our support. It’s been a great learning process to go through as well.

Later this week I’m joining the fine folks at Help Scout along with pros from SmugMug and FreshBooks to chat about how we’ve built our various operations teams. We’ll cover how we structure our teams, why we started building them, and more. It should be a great conversation!

You can find all the details for the webinar on Help Scout’s site. It’ll also be recorded, so if you can’t make it live they’ll send you the recording if you sign up.