Sometimes complex human questions become clearer when we go back to our roots – even our childhood roots. University of Chicago Laboratory School teacher and MacArthur Genius Vivian Paley addressed the universal human experience of feeling excluded after forty years of observing children in nursery school and kindergarten. Despite its unlikely source, Paley’s inclusion rule (and the title of her most popular book), “You can’t say you can’t play,” may be an important reflection for organizational leaders who have learned that hiring a more diverse workforce is only a baby step toward creating a culture of inclusion in which all individuals can flourish.
We aren’t advocating a return to preschool, or even the legislation of human interaction with a set of childhood “rules.” But there are important things to learn from the evolution of human nature – ideas and behaviors that have been hardwired into us since before our earliest sentient moments.
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.
A prolific author of novels, nonfiction books, short stories, screenplays and more, Dave Eggers was raised in Lake Forest, Illinois. At age 21, he withdrew from college to care for his 8-year-old brother after losing both parents to cancer, events that are chronicled in his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His narrative essay “The Man at the River” appeared in Granta Magazine and tells the story of an American tourist in Sudan who is faced with a choice when he’s asked to wade across a river.
As you read “The Man at the River,” consider the many ways we navigate cultural difference and barriers to understanding.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement, a flood of women have come forward to shed light on another serious challenge they face at work: the “boys’ club” culture that exists across many industries. It permeates traders in the stock market, chefs in the restaurant industry and programmers in Silicon Valley. It’s in the advertising industry, where 180 female executives have launched a new initiative to bridge a glaring gender gap. And it’s in the music industry, where one female songwriter says that opportunities for women to develop are few and far between.
Recently at the 90th Academy Awards, Best Actress winner Frances McDormand concluded her acceptance speech with a directive for Hollywood executives: “I have two words to leave with you tonight, ladies and gentlemen: inclusion rider.” Hiring more women is a crucial first step. But the authentic inclusion of women necessitates taking a hard look at a general corporate culture that makes 81% of women feel some form of exclusion at work.
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?
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?
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?”
Happy Friday! We’ve compiled our favorite articles and essays from the last month and beyond for you to browse and enjoy over the weekend.
“It takes more than a discounted health club membership to move the needle on employee well-being,” begins McKinsey Quarterly’s recent reflection on wellness in the workplace. Compiling emerging trends and thoughts on well-being from researchers, corporate leaders and McKinsey experts, McKinsey’s insights suggest a rising “willingness of leaders to invest in their people” and to see wellness in a broader light than just physical health. Director of the NeuroLeadership Institute David Rock shares that “connecting people socially gets a much bigger bang for the company buck than trying to help people eat better.” But is there science to back that up?
In his famous essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell explores why finding the right words to convey an idea is so difficult. Language, he writes, is “full of bad habits.” Looking at five examples of writing from various pamphlets and newspapers, Orwell finds that all five passages share two common mistakes:
“The first is staleness of imagery; the other is lack of precision. The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not.”
How often do we lack precision in our spoken and written words – at home, at school, or at work?