William Zinsser’s On Writing Well isn’t a business book per se, but reading and following his advice is one of the highest leverage things you can do for your career, especially if you are (or aspire to be) a leader. Why? Well, you won’t land big deals every day. You won’t fire people every day (I hope!). You won’t pitch investors every day. You won’t launch or kill product lines every day. And you won’t give grand speeches every day. But you will communicate in writing, every single day. All day.
And because clear and effective writing comes from clear and effective thinking, not only will you get more effective at communicating with those around you, you’ll get better at thinking. How cool is that? And as Zinsser points out, if you don’t work to improve the clarity and simplicity of your writing, there are consequences:
Managers at every level are prisoners of the notion that a simple style reflects a simple mind. Actually a simple style is the result of hard work and hard thinking; a muddled style reflects a muddled thinker or a person too arrogant, or too dumb, or too lazy to organize his thoughts. Remember that what you write is often the only chance you’ll get to present yourself to someone whose business or money or good will you need. If what you write is ornate, or pompous, or fuzzy, that’s how you’ll be perceived. The reader has no other choice.
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Great companies don’t hire skilled people and motivate them, they hire already motivated people and inspire them.
— Simon Sinek
I spent much of my career at O’Reilly Media, where, as happens at many companies, there are quarterly “all-hands” meetings. My favorite thing about those—especially early on when I was still pretty low on the proverbial totem pole—was hearing Tim O’Reilly talk about what the plans were for the months and years ahead. There aren’t many people out there who get more excited talking about the future than Tim O’Reilly, and I usually left those meetings incredibly inspired and feeling like I was part of something that really was helping to change the world.
At one of those meetings, Tim shared a story that I remembered quite vividly, so much so that I smiled when I saw it show up in Simon Sinek’s book “Start with Why”:
Consider the story of two stonemasons. You walk up to the first stonemason and ask, “Do you like your job?” He looks up at you and replies, “I’ve been building this wall for as long as I can remember. The work is monotonous. I work in the scorching hot sun all day. The stones are heavy and lifting them day after day can be backbreaking. I’m not even sure if this project will be completed in my lifetime. But it’s a job. It pays the bills.” You thank him for his time and walk on. About thirty feet away, you walk up to a second stonemason. You ask him the same question, “Do you like your job?” He looks up and replies, “I love my job. I’m building a cathedral. Sure, I’ve been working on this wall for as long as I can remember, and yes, the work is sometimes monotonous. I work in the scorching hot sun all day. The stones are heavy and lifting them day after day can be backbreaking. I’m not even sure if this project will be completed in my lifetime. But I’m building a cathedral.”
While I’m sure some of it was natural talent, Tim has become a master at showing people those cathedrals, and convincing them to bring their tools and get to work. But for the rest of us who could use some help in the Inspiration department, Sinek’s book is a must-read.
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