I thought I’d attempt to release a monthly book review – a review of all the books I read in any given month, this post’s being April. It was a beast to write, so let’s see how long I can keep this up. While I often journal about the books I’m reading, and my thoughts in relation to them, I don’t tend to compose a coherent retrospective review. But I’m evangelical about books and am often suggesting (dictating) that people discover certain reads for themselves. This way, my dictatorship can be passive – you can choose or dismiss the titles at will, and I promise I won’t take offence.
Bad Blood by John Carreyrou (Picador, 2019)
When I first heard about Elizabeth Holmes’ fall from grace, and the accusations levied against her start-up, Theranos, I thought it was just another example of widespread sexism whereby people just couldn’t accept the fact that there may be a clever, young woman who was successful. That was, until, I’d read Carreyrou’s investigative journalism encapsulated within Bad Blood. Carreyrou delivers an engaging account of Holmes’ rise to stardom, the every-day practices and deception of Theranos, and her ultimate demise. Each page I turned became more and more unbelievable; if someone had written a work of fiction which told the same story, I’d probably have dismissed it in disbelief.
Carreyrou effectively portrays the sheer audacity of a narcissistic leader whose power leads her to believe that she is invincible, and above the rules which govern society. The lightest consequence is possibly that some very rich people lost lots of money as a result of not doing due diligence on the organisation and its product offering, including Betsy DeVos and Walgreens (this hardly keeps me up at night). Most critically, however, Holmes was playing with people’s lives through processing blood-tests unreliably and issuing incorrect results which subsequently shaped their decision as to whether they sought further medical attention.
Admittedly the Theranos story is rather extreme (although probably ever more likely with the rise of unregulated technology unicorns), but what is immediately relatable to readers is the consequences of toxic work-place cultures that are fostered by an elite few dominating power and enforcing that things are done their way, despite it conflicting with ethics and regulations or what’s in the best interest of the end client. It reflects the shame culture that permeates many workplaces – so concisely researched by Brene Brown. The Theranos story shows the perils of bringing incredible talent together only to beat down their innovation, specialism and humanity.
How We Desire by Carolin Emcke (Text Publishing, 2018)
Emcke’s book-length essay about desire discusses the topic in an accessible way that is relatable for most. Too often the concept of desire and sexuality is limited to academic circles and confined within parameters of queer theory. Instead, Emcke uses the suicide of a school friend, Daniel, to show what a lack of understanding regarding desire can do. Emcke herself did not fall in love with a woman or have a same-sex relationship until she was in her twenties, until she met someone who triggered this desire. As a result, she missed out on the confusion and angst of childhood years but can now recognise it in Daniel retrospectively. She highlights how 1970s society did not contain representations of female initiative in sexual experiences, and socially conditioned people towards hetero-normativity. The sheer lack of visbility of LGBTQ community suggested that there was no alternative. That was, until, the AIDS crisis, when suddenly this community were made exceptionally visible, if only to ostracise them for fear of contamination.
I would argue that we still live in a society where the default is heterosexuality and bizarrely non-heteronormative people are expected to ‘come out’ or categorize themselves in a way that is not expected of ‘straight’ people. No-one hits the age of 16 and tentatively approaches their parents to confess nervously that they may, infact, be heterosexual *gasp*. Emcke highlights that this requirement to classify oneself runs in contradiction with the nature of desire, which is fluid and changeable: ‘it’s as if questions about our desire were easy to answer, as if it were unequivocal, settled, incontrovertible, as if desire weren’t constantly changing and expanding, as if it were something you could control, trim to size, force in one direction or another, as if it weren’t justified to ask why we love one way or another, what difference it makes, how long we’ve known, whether we’re sure’. Indeed, any change in one’s expressions of desire and sexuality doesn’t demean or fully reject those who came before, only that one experience can reach you in a way that it hasn’t before. Her ‘wanderings’ through her early days of experiencing women are beautifully constructed within the text.
Most poignantly, she describes an experience of attending a wedding where all the queer people were allocated to one table, with the naïve assumption that they must have something in common – perhaps discussing their queerness? As she rightly says, there would be outrage should you allocate all the black guests to one table, but it’s almost like people still haven’t quite got their head round the fact that for those who are part of the LGBTQ community, their sole identity is not as an LGBTQ person. It may not even be the strongest part of their identity. They may identify more with being a woman, or an academic, or an athlete. I don’t go around declaring my desire and sexuality in the workplace, because I feel that it’s just one contributory part of my identity, and definitely not the most prominent one whilst I’m working. This is not to say that doing so would be wrong, just that we need acceptance (from within the LGBTQ community and outside) that everyone should be free to identify with and express their desire as much or as little as they choose (without harming others).
Her accounts of navigating conversations and cultural norms whilst working in the Middle East are also fascinating – a masculine-looking, lesbian female is always going to be subject to more scepticism and interrogation by locals. Most heart-warmingly, her presence in these territories opens the minds of those she meets and provides an alternative discourse of gender and sexuality than they had previously been exposed to, much like she herself craved whilst growing-up.
Beautiful Shadow: A life of Patricia Highsmith by Andrew Wilson (Bloomsbury, 2010)
I must confess, I’m a Highsmith amateur; the only work of hers that I’ve read is Carol. But it was enough to make me want to find out more about this enigma. Her name also came to me as a possible research topic for PhD, so I purchased Wilson’s biography as a starting-point to obtain the background knowledge and got way more than I bargained for!
Wilson provides an effective historical account that flows – he takes the reader on a journey from her childhood through to the end of her life. While she did become increasingly eccentric as she got older, Wilson presents a fundamental constancy to her behaviours. Due to the rejection she experienced as a child, her inability to embrace vulnerability pervaded the rest of her life, ultimately she decided to love people from afar as opposed to engaging upon relationships. Her writing was her first love, and her way of working things out in her head. She had a doggedness and self-discipline about writing that ultimately kept her alive, despite her penchant for drinking and her crippling mental health.
Fortunately for Wilson, Highsmith left plenty of journals from which he could mine content. Perhaps her journaling also sustained her through what was a very private, lonely existence. Alas, her self-examination and insight into sexuality, gender, creativity, and mental health is astounding – especially at a time when there was very little language available to use to describe such feelings. Much like Carolin Emcke’s perspective, Highsmith had a relatively fluid experience of sexuality during her teens and twenties, and ultimately rejected heterosexuality. Despite living openly as a gay woman, it was not the main feature of her identity – she saw herself as a writer first and foremost. It was not something she felt that should be anybody’s business but her own.
Her journals document her life-long battle with depression, which was no doubt compounded by the alcohol consumption. Once more, it’s incredible to comprehend that a woman of her generation had the language with which to describe such affliction, rather than labelling it as ‘hysteria’. Wilson successfully communicates the extent to which she suffered viscerally from mental illness, and how debilitating and paralysing it was for her to sustain. Yet Highsmith was adamant that this was the sacrifice she made in order to be a writer – after the down spells there would be the delicious highs where she would write manically and produce seminal works. This yo-yo-ing is painful to read about as it appears as a continuous pattern throughout her life, and a repeating feature of Wilson’s biography. By the end, I had nothing but compassion and respect for a woman who fought social norms on so many levels – she resisted and persisted.
Girl Meets Boy by Ali Smith (Canongate, 2007)
This novella by Smith is a modern take on the popular myth of girl meets boy. It’s a tale of two sisters in their early twenties who are forging their way in the world post-university. Anthea experiences a ‘metamorphosis’ of sexuality, upon meeting a striking girl-boy, or boy-girl called Robin. It is, quite possibly, one of the most beautifully depicted love stories between two women, with gender-neutral language anchored in nature. Smith’s prose creates the feeling of fluidity, much like their sexuality – very much in contrast to the techniques deployed in the passages concerning Anthea’s sister, Midge.
Midge is depicted as the more rigid, emotionally closed of the two sisters. She’s making bounds in her career whilst struggling in the social arenas of friendships, relationships and communication with her sister – possibly due to her crippling lack of self-confidence and self-assurance. Her discovery of Anthea’s transforming sexuality only serves to increase the erratic nature of her obsessive thought patterns as she struggles to understand her more free-spirited sister. The story follows Midge as she discovers her own self-worth and becomes more forthright in pursuing a life which aligns with her values.
While a novella can be somewhat limiting in its ability to provide depth, Smith’s reconceptualization of a myth manages to offer a poignant, feminist, political, coming-of-age story about transformation.
High Performance Habits by Brendon Burchard (Hay House, 2017).
I decided to invest in Burchard’s tomb, High Performance Habits, after listening to him on the SUCCESS Talks podcast. This book is also somewhat interactive; before you start reading you can go on to his website and take the High Performance Indicator test which gives you a scoring as to how high performing you really are. It also tells you in which areas you could improve – and then obviously you take note of his guidance/tools in the book in order to deliver on this. For any self-development junkie, this book would appeal but I do feel that it’s a slightly more user-friendly version of the findings presented within Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, and Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People. So if you’ve read these two seminal works, it’s likely that the six habits Burchard identifies are not completely new to you.
Burchard divides the six habits into the Personal (being ‘Seek Clarity, Generate Energy, Raise Necessity) and the Social (Increase Productivity, Develop Influence, Demonstrate Courage). However, *spoiler alert* the number one factor which contributes to high performance in all these arenas is confidence, as a result of competence, congruence and connection. Perhaps most useful, and yet slightly shoved to the end of the book, was a chapter on high performers’ pit-falls: superiority, dissatisfaction and neglect. Seeing how these behaviours can play out was a sobering warning to anyone who is constantly demanding of themselves, particular in one area of their lives.
While I wouldn’t class this read as ground-breaking, there were four concepts which provided food for thought and have reconceptualised how I would approach things in the future:
Prolific Quality Output – high performers consistently deliver prolific quality output due to their attention and consistent efforts, which involves minimizing distractions and alternative opportunities which would deviate them from their mission. In order to deliver PQO, people have to understand their values, mission, and have clarity on their goal. From here, it is then easier to establish what the main output would be. For instance, if you are an author, your main PQO should be writing books – not posting on social media. Somehow assigning a label of PQO enables you to sort the wheat from the chaff of demands on your time. Might be worth putting opportunities into this context when they next land on your desk.
Up Your Squad: Burchard’s research suggests that if you surround yourself with positive and successful people in your peer group – even if they’re one step removed – it can have a correlating impact on your performance. Recently I’ve realised how much of an impact it makes in just asking for people’s advice if they’ve travelled the same path before me, discussing my dreams with others, and even listening to podcasts or reading books by those who inspire. Create your own ‘board of directors’ – people to have in your corner and to challenge you.
Five Major Moves: Burchard suggests that high performing individuals break down their goals into five major moves, and within these major moves are a ‘bucket’ of activities. Not only does this provide momentum and drive, but it also enables you to plan your resources accordingly. 60% of your time should be focussed on this work.
Share Your Truth: This one falls into the courage bucket, and I’m sure is one of the most cringing, skin-crawling concepts for those of us who aren’t narcissists. But Brendon advocates that by sharing your true thoughts, feelings, needs, dreams, it leads to big things – ‘do not play small to placate others’. Indeed, this concept is shared in Mike Lewis’s When To Jump; once you express your goals out loud and communicate them with people, it creates momentum. It also increases the likelihood of finding people who will be in your ‘squad’. I think it’s one of the most difficult to do, and relies on sh*t loads of confidence, but it’s so incredibly freeing that it becomes slightly addictive. Give it a try!
Even if Burchard’s work isn’t 100% new to you, there’s always the opportunity to learn something and work on yourself – the growth mindset is obviously another trait of high performers!
Let me know if any of these books make it on to your May reading list!