Sunday, March 08, 2015

My Business Book Fatigue

I love reading books. My idea of a perfect day would be one spent reading a good book. And, if I must try to imagine what kind of book that would be, I can answer it in two ways.

First, I can attempt to answer this by recounting a recent experience of one such day, one of those Saturdays inbetween two long overseas trips when I was at home, and I frittered away all those precious time reading Irving Yarlom's 'When Nietzche Wept'. I hardly read any Fiction recently, and I must admit that I did not realise that I was reading a book of pure fiction till I reached the afterword of this beautifully written, almost believable, book. At the end of it, while I noticed the day has almost ended and I did not do anything that I planned to do using the rare weekend at home, still I felt good, satisfied - fulfilled!

The other way of answering this is to say what I do no want to read, which is indeed a more common experience. I hardly get perfect experience with books - some I can not finish, some I finish over a number of days, with some effort - and hence, any exceptions stand out. In my effort to figure out what I do not enjoy, and to focus my book-reading efforts only on pleasurable ones, I have discovered a curious fact - that I am repulsed by Business Books!

This is curious for two reasons. One, I have discovered the feeling of repulsion only fairly recently. I can pinpoint the moment when it became significant - someone talked about it which made me think about the feeling - and now I genuinely can have repulsion. And, two, because I used to read Business books, and often liked some of them. I would indeed be inspired by books such as The HP Way or, as far as more serious stuff goes, books like Competing On The Internet Time, or, to give a more recent example, Creativity Inc. And, I had to earn and keep my Chartered Marketer credentials by doing a Professional Qualification and then scoring the necessary CPD points every year (which I still continue to do). The circles I belong to are more business than education, and therefore, Michael Porter is a far more welcome discussion than Paulo Friere. Reading business books for me is a professional, rather than leisurely, pursuit.

But, as it stands now, I can not not only finish business books, I am having difficulty starting them. There are some on my urgent reading list. I wanted to complete the work I started on designing the Global Business Professional qualification, and there are a bunch of books, including Professor Nirmalya Kumar's Brand Breakout, that I need to read and draw materials from. My employers, a US based start-up, follow a certain system of management, which is based on Gino Wickman's Get A Grip - and I wanted to read it to understand and engage better. Also, on my list is Value Proposition Design, which I have bought, which complements Alexander Osterwalder's Business Model Generation, a method I have used in the past and still continue to talk about. However, I can not even motivate myself to attempt reading them.

To start with, I find most business books incredibly shallow. They often present a point of view, with claims of research (but this claim is so freely made that it is not believable anymore), and often do not consider any possibility of an alternative. In that sense, many of these books are like religious tracts, pretending to reveal God's truth on earth, but mostly applicable to a far corner (or a specific industry) of some English speaking country, usually America. And, with my increasingly skeptical bent, I find it difficult to accept one truth or other as pedaled by them.

The second problem I have with these books is that they expropriate words of common use and vest in it a certain specific meaning - and then claim that no other meaning is possible. Thus, talent becomes a person who could do specific work without thinking much about it (and not an ability) and values become whatever is written on the corporate wall (and independent of society and culture). One of the people I frequently interact with would often complain about the academic habit of disputing the meaning of the words. It is, however, the pretension of the Business Books of vesting indisputable meaning and turning words of common usage into jargon which I find most offputting.

I can go on, but indeed, this perhaps tells more about me than about the books, because they have not changed - sadly - and I have started thinking differently. My life is changing in three distinct ways. I am losing my faith. I am discovering my politics. And, finally, I am having an intellectual mid-life crisis. 

I have never been religious, so the first statement may surprise some who knew me. However, my stance previously was not to subscribe to public religion, but have a private faith. I grew up in a very religious home, but also in secular India, and have had a multi-religious upbringing, with friends and teachers from different communities. However, I have only really discovered Darwin and Freud very recently, and started seeing the irreversible disasters that any blind faith, such as those of ISIS, brings. I lost my private faith - irreversibly - and believe that our failure to evolve a secular ethic has been the biggest failure of modern times. This affects my Business Book reading, because those belong to a religious category too - an unquestioning, single faith one!

I am also discovering my politics all over again. I have always had a view, but usually stayed out labels and categorisation. My socialist friends were too particular about ideological purity, and I came to believe that politics means giving up my ability to think. However, recent events have confirmed that every thinking individual must have his/her politics, even if it is a private one, to avoid sinking in the morass of unthinking consumerism. So, I did discover mine - one that resents power and seek a more democratic future, and believe that any form of categorisation, including those of the left, is an attempt to impose and perpetuate a certain form of power, which should be resisted. This is an utopian idea of individual moral engagement, and I am not looking to fit it into any category. The issue with business books is that they are also often like political parties, demanding ideological conformance and dividing the world in neat categories - I can visualise a bullet point list for everything - and indeed democratic and inclusive business is something that does not exist.

This, obviously, is my mid-life crisis . However, there is a personal angle to it. My boyhood creative ideal of Parisian Bohemianism, tied to the curious combination of my ability to believe and my difficulty with authority, which always had a repressed presence within my boringly middle class existence, had to be tested against the usual things that come up in mid-life, including where should I live. And, this more or less points to an urgent need to re-frame my identity, away from the things I did but did not really believe in to things that are more meaningful. This is also the point of a creative impulse, and reviving the ideas how I thought my life should be (and left them cold in suspended animation). The strict framing of business books, its pointless conformity and dull formulas, is particularly uninspiring just as I go through this search. 




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