Each month we offer you a chance to read mindfully, using literature to consider your reactions to and assumptions about the world in which we live and work. Through these short texts and accompanying questions, we hope to give you a small taste of Books@Work. Grab a friend, family member or colleague to read, share and discuss together.
An English-speaking native of predominantly French-speaking Limbe, Cameroon, acclaimed author Imbolo Mbue arrived in the United States at age 17. Her first novel Behold the Dreamers was published in 2016 and tells the story of a young Cameroonian couple making a new life in New York City just as the Great Recession hits. Earning wide critical praise, the novel won the PEN/Faulkner Award and was selected for Oprah Winfrey’s book club. O, the Oprah Magazine wrote that the book “challenges us all to consider what it takes to make us genuinely content, and how long is too long to live with our dreams deferred.” As you read Mbue’s short story “A Reversal,” consider how we determine where we belong.
This week, we are thrilled to share insights and reflections from Erin Ulrich, a senior English major at Oberlin College who recently completed a month-long internship with Books@Work.
My internship with Books@Work has focused primarily on data-analysis and listening to interview responses from program participants. While the nature of this work may seem mundane at first, it has offered me a first-hand glimpse into how exactly Books@Work works. While the impact of the program improving colleague relationships and promoting a fruitful, healthy and productive work environment are obvious from the company interviews, I have been particularly moved by the community interviews.
One needn’t look too hard to find evidence that diverse workplaces are more innovative and tend attract a broader pool of new potential hires. And recent McKinsey research demonstrates that companies with diverse workforces perform better financially as well.
But, in a recent Books@Work session, a participant’s comment left me thinking about the inadequacies of diversity by itself. “Proximity is not inclusion” he said, referring to a story by Chinua Achebe, “Dead Men’s Path.” Reflecting on the story’s depiction of a spectacular failure of communication, he challenged the assembled group: If we can’t find ways to share our discomfort, challenge our assumptions, and open our apertures to the ideas and experiences of others, can we truly capitalize on diversity and move forward together?
Happy February! We’ve compiled our favorite articles and essays from the last month for you to browse and enjoy this weekend.
In Pacific Standard, Michele Weldon examines why “as humans, we are helpless story junkies.” Take the latest winners and finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in Journalism, Weldon writes: “The best reporting in all of the categories is tied to the personal stories of the individuals impacted.” Journalists, novelists, advertisers, politicians and CEOs seem to understand and capitalize on the power of story. But why does a well-told story resonate so profoundly with the average person?
The sudden flash of insight that comes in an aha moment brings a sense of satisfaction that humans have valued since mythic times, when Archimedes shouted “Eureka!” after discovering a solution to a real-world problem. Such moments change individual lives and also provide breakthroughs in the world of work. St. Paul reinvented his life when he was knocked off his horse. Sir Isaac Newton theorized gravity when he saw an apple fall. Tchaikovsky said, “Generally, the germ of a future composition comes suddenly and unexpectedly. . . It takes root with extraordinary force and rapidity, shoots up through the earth, puts forth branches and leaves, and finally blossoms.”
So how do we create the perfect conditions for these flashes of creativity in the workplace?
In December 2017, the Jo Cox Commission released a report calling for the appointment of a minister to combat social isolation and loneliness in the United Kingdom. Loneliness, the report declared, is harmful to human health, particularly among the country’s nine million elderly who say that they are “often or always lonely.”
Over the last few years, the Commission has invested in a national strategy to address what they see as an epidemic – and thus Homeshare UK was born, an organization that pairs an isolated elderly person looking for companionship with a younger person in need of low-cost housing. 95-year-old Florence and her 27-year-old student housemate are two participants – but can two people with a near 70-year age difference find commonality?
The writer John Updike praised the poems of Billy Collins as “limpid, gently startling. . . they describe all the worlds that are and were and some others besides.” Arguably the most popular American poet of the modern era, Collins served two terms as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2001 to 2003 and one term as New York State Poet Laureate from 2004 to 2006. Despite his many accolades and awards, he did not begin his career as a poet until the age of forty. His work is widely known for its humor, which Collins refers to as “a door into the serious.”
As you read Billy Collins’ poem “Genius,” consider these questions if genius is something we have or we create.
“In your career, you’ve worked with numerous companies on cultural transformation. Is there anything about Books@Work that is new for you? Is there anything different in how the program nurtures individuals and the community?”
There are several dimensions that are different. In my McKinsey days, the cultural transformation was always embedded in a business transformation and a performance imperative. We would ask what role culture played in achieving tangible business goals, whether that is sales growth, cost reduction, responsiveness, whatever it is.
I was initially skeptical about Books@Work because it did not tie directly to a business outcome. How would I know that I was actually making progress?
In 2013, Google conducted a study called Project Oxygen to determine its top employees’ most important qualities. The idea was to test its hiring algorithms, which were set at the time to sort for elite computer science students from top universities. The study concluded that STEM expertise – widely revered at Google – was the least important quality of the eight discovered. Founding director of the Futures Initiative Cathy N. Davidson elaborates in The Washington Post:
“The seven top characteristics of success at Google are all soft skills: being a good coach; communicating and listening well; possessing insights into others (including others different values and points of view); having empathy toward and being supportive of one’s colleagues; being a good critical thinker and problem solver; and being able to make connections across complex ideas.
Those traits sound more like what one gains as an English or theater major than as a programmer. Could it be that top Google employees were succeeding despite their technical training, not because of it?”