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2019 Reading Challenge: My 5 Star Reviews, Part 1

I read 319 books in 2019 and quite a few turned out to be gems! Here are some of my favorites.

The Boy With Wings by Berta Ruck

Written in 1915, this novel contains multiple levels. At its most basic, it is the romance of a Welsh girl and her aviator boyfriend. At another level, it is the story of how war came to England from a woman’s perspective. And finally, at an even deeper level, it is a work that provided social identity to women in a rapidly changing era. I honestly think it should rank as a classic and I cannot believe there are only two reviews of it on Goodreads (and one is mine!) I did not necessarily like the story, but I am amazed by how it captures emotions I still feel–and don’t always know how to express–over a hundred years later. The writing’s very timelessness makes it beloved.

Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians by Martin Luther

Martin Luther writes about Paul as one writes about a mutual friend. It brought passages I thought I was pretty well familiar with to light in new ways. I found it a wonderful reminder of the power of justification by faith alone and the work overall uplifting, thought-provoking, and encouraging.

EntreLeadership: 20 Years of Practical Business Wisdom from the Trenches by Dave Ramsey

Dave Ramsey is obviously a very familiar name in financial circles and in EntreLeadership he talks about what it takes to to succeed as a leader, manager, and entrepreneur. This is a pretty foundational read and full of relevant advice and experience. He comes across curmudgeonly at times and I personally would never want to work for him, but I sure enjoyed learning about how he structures incentive and such. This was particularly good as an audio book. 

Daring to Hope: Finding God’s Goodness in the Broken and the Beautiful by Katie Davis Majors

I really love Katie’s first book Kisses from Kate and her second memoir did not disappoint. For those not familiar with her story, Katie did a ‘gap year’ in Uganda…and  ended up staying and adopting 13 orphan girls. Katie experiences more pain and suffering daily than I think most of us ever will fully know. But the point isn’t the magnitude of pain, but the commonality of wondering where God is amidst the pain. Katie opens up about her heartbreak. She writes of losing children and watching friends die, of unanswered prayers and unexpressed doubts. She writes of the gospel and the prophets and patriarchs and in doing so reveals the many cries of God’s people within the Bible. Although different in scope and nature, it reminded me of C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. Powerful, strengthening, and inspiring.

On Fairy-Stories by J.R.R. Tolkien

“Very little about trees as trees can be got into a play.” A lovely essay about truth and fairy tales and creation and…oh, everything worth thinking about. I want to memorize every word. (Though admittedly, this is an area I’m interested in so I was predisposed to love it.) An excellent read following Letters to a Diminished Church by Dorothy L Sayers. The two works touch on the Christian’s role as creator, but in very different ways.

In Plain Sight: Impunity and Human Rights in Thailand by Tyrell Haberkorn

I recommend this book to anyone seriously interested in human rights violations and the way a nation can zealously uphold human rights in name while simultaneously violating them in reality. While this book centers on Thailand specifically, the author does an incredible job describing a universal reality. He describes the class attitudes that uphold the rights of some but not others. Interspersed with theory and facts, he tells compelling stories of human rights violations in Thailand. Throughout he holds that human rights violations did not appear and disappear with each coup d’etat, but rather existed consistently throughout them all. Besides containing a great combination of stories, data, and theory, In Plain Sight was very well written. I read it in one sitting. Great topic sentences! Engaging and well worth the time. 


2018 Reading Challenge: My 5 Star Reviews, Part 4

Radical Candor: Be a Kick-Ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity by Kim Malone Scott

Giving and receiving criticism are two of the most difficult parts of being a boss. This book takes that reality and addresses it head on. I really, really enjoyed and appreciated it. It is somewhat niche as the author’s main case studies come from Google, Apple, and Twitter. However, a lot of the principles she mentions carry over into everyday life. Even as someone not currently managing people, I found a lot of her principles just good advice for every day relationships.

Don’t Cosplay with My Heart by Cecil Castellucci

This Young Adult novel tells the story of a high school girl who copes with her messed up life by cosplaying as her favorite comic book character. I unexpectedly loved the book. It tugged on my heartstrings and wrapped me up in a world of fandoms and cosplay. It wasn’t perfect – a little on the nose with its “all fans are equal” message and I’m never a fan of teenage romance – but it successfully walked the line of emotional and angsty. While it could have been more fleshed out, I liked it because it wasn’t. Short, fun, appealing. It captures what brings people to fandoms and cosplay and how one girl channels her anxiety about life into her costumes. If I have one complaint, it is with the title. It does not do the book justice.

2 Fuzzy, 2 Furious by Shannon Hale

I am officially obsessed with Shannon Hale’s Squirrel Girl. And this is solidly Juvenile fiction. Not aimed at adults at all. Doreen is a Marvel superhero – Squirrel Girl. She doesn’t get to hang out with the Avengers much, but she does text with them! (The Winter Solider is scary…) Her powers include a giant tail that she hides in her pants and the ability to communicate with squirrels. It sounds weird, it is weird, but it works so well. I giggled my way throughout. Also, I am pretty sure I am Squirrel Girl. I need more books in this series PRONTO.

The Way You Make Me Feel by Maurene Goo

Sometimes, Young Adult novels are really terrible, and sometimes they are written by Maurene Goo and are amazing. This book hit me right in the feels. Clara Shin doesn’t take life too seriously. She loves pulling pranks, though, and finally her pranking goes too far and her Dad forces her to work at his Korean-Brazilian food truck over the summer with her arch-nemesis. I loved Clara from the start. I loved the diversity in this book. The character growth. The food truck. I d that even though it is packaged as a sort of Sarah Dessen teeny romance, the real focus is on female friendships and learning to care. The romance hits the right note of important, but not all consuming for the plot. Just good.

My Plain Jane by by Cynthia Hand, Jodi Meadows, Brodi Ashton

This is the second book in the The Lady Janies series. The first one told the story of Jane Gray – the fated 9-day, English Queen – and the third one will tell the story of Calamity Jane (I wanttttt). My Plain Jane, however, tells the story of Jane Eyre. But not the story you know. As always, the Lady Janies mess with history (or in this case, literature) to include a host of fantastical characters and hilarious, witty plot points. It is so fun and creative. You can read it with without reading the first one (only the names connect them.)

The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom by Jonathan Haidt

Using psychology, philosophy, theology (ish), and some biology, Jonathan Haidt digs into what brings true happiness and how we define it. I like how intellectually engaging the book was. Most of the studies, philosophies, and ideas he presented were familiar. However, I’ve never seen them combined like this. It really is about “modern truth” born from “ancient wisdom.” I might disagree with how he reaches his conclusions, but overall I liked chewing it over.


2018 Reading Challenge: My 5 Star Reviews, Part 3

Free to Serve: Protecting the Religious Freedom of Faith-Based Organizations by Stephen V. Monsma

A solid, introductory look at religious organizations (both for- and non-profit) within the United States and the increasing legal challenges they face. I spent the summer obsessively reading religious freedom cases, so I was looking for something a little more specific and technical. However, this was a good overview of the arguments for religious liberty and how recent rulings have hampered that liberty. Four stars but I bumped it up to five for the “interludes.” These essays, particularly the first one, were my favorite part of the book. Solid read – and recommendation! No legal background needed to appreciate.

All Rise for the Honorable Perry T. Cook by Leslie Connor

A really heartwarming, well-developed story about a boy raised in prison with his Mom. Very cute and yet it never downplays real emotions. It embraces moral dilemmas but also never gets too intense for middle school readers which I liked. (It very easily might have.) A really solid read!

Do Over: Rescue Monday, Reinvent Your Work, and Never Get Stuck by Jon Acuff             

While the book reads like many of your standard self-help, follow-your-passions, cheerleading business books, it brings something slightly more to the table. I read and enjoy those books, but they do not mirror my personal experiences. Accordingly, books about Reinventing Monday or Finding The Work You Love never quite apply to me. This book targets that audience but also offers practical, useful advice I found good for right now.  I’d give this one 3.5-4 stars as a business book, add .5 for humor, and then another .5 because I found it so relatable. In particular, when he was describing how much he hates e-mails and details, I was shouting, “YES! THAT IS ME.” I also feel like he offers good advice about managing mentors, cheerleaders, and casual relationships. This book offers very sound advice about what networking really looks like. Definitely worthy of the Seth Godin/Dave Ramsey crowd it aims to run with.

The Serpent’s Secret by Sayantani DasGupta

THIS BOOK WAS SO FUN! An original fairy tale that emerges from Indian folklore, it walks the line of creative and classic – familiar fairy-tale allusions blend with new ideas. I really loved all the strong characters, the crazy adventure, and the way everything wraps up without a cliff hanger. Great for middle school readers (and older, of course.)

Everyday Law in Russia by Kathryn Hendley

A direct but informative look at Russian law. My professor actually wrote this book and used it as a textbook, but I often found myself reading ahead and losing track of time. It helps that Professor Hendley presents a clear thesis and sticks to it throughout without rambling side tangents. I found her persuasive and educational. Easy for non-lawyers, too!

Speak Easy, Speak Love by McKelle George

A 1920’s retelling of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing! I found it so fun I couldn’t put it down. It was not that the writing was that enjoyable (okay, but sometimes a little cluttered) or that I needed to know what happened to the characters (honestly, Beatrice was kind of annoying?) but somehow all together the good and bad came together to create something really delightful. It is a character driven story and not super action packed, but they are very well developed characters. It is easy to like and sympathize with them and want to read on. Side tangents and romances and plots flit here and there but it stays true to its core.


Fashion Advice from the Homeschooler In My Head

It took me twice as long to get dressed this morning because the homeschooler in my head felt particularly opinionated today. To give her credit, she really had three main goals and all were perfectly unobjectionable: (1) feel pretty, (2) be comfy, (3) keep warm.  

The law student in my head only emphasized one main goal: look professional. 

You’d think the two generally compliment each other, but you’d be wrong. I started by choosing a very fun, full skirt and leggings. So far, so good.

The law student then started considering light sweaters, lacy tank tops, and high heels to compliment it. The homeschooler protested. I’d freeze to death dressed like that. Better put on a hoodie with the skirt. And maybe a t-shirt. Plus, while I’m at it, why high heels? Tennis shoes are much more practical and comfortable.  

I mostly ended up listening to the law student today, but I won’t lie. A hoodie and tennis shoes sound amazing right now. 


Favorite Business Books

In my last post, I mentioned a book that stresses the importance of good culture for a business. Here are a list of my favorite books that talk about that, either directly or indirectly: 

Good Profit by Charles Koch
Good to Great by James C. Collins
Every Town Is A Sports Town by Don Phillips
Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull
And now of course…Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek

Any other recommendations? 


Chemical Imbalance and the Law

I recently finished Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek. In the book, Sinek demonstrates how work environments impact five different chemicals in the human body: Endorphins, Dopamine, Serotonin, Oxytocin, and Cortisol. Endorphins mask physical pain with pleasure in times of stress or fear (the “runner’s high”). Dopamine rewards goal oriented behavior with a rush of pleasure when we complete something we set out to do. Serotonin releases feelings of pride and pleasure when we feel like people like or respect us. Oxytocin generates a sense of love, friendship, or deep contentment when we see people we like and trust. Cortisol triggers flight or fight instincts in times of high stress or danger.

Since these chemicals impact the way humans survive and interact with one another, they play an important role in work environments. High stress, competitive environments where employees feel powerless and pressured to produce big or risk losing their jobs produce unhealthy, chemically imbalanced workers. This imbalance applies to CEOs and janitors alike, regardless of perceived job pressure. (In fact, the imbalance likely impacts the janitor more if he feels powerless to change the situation.)

In jobs that emphasize short-term results over long-term relationships, workers depend on their survival chemicals: Endorphins, Dopamine, and Cortisol. This creates an environment where people live in a “flight or fight” mentality and are constantly stressed about meeting high goals and expectations. When Cortisol is released, the body shuts down “unnecessary” systems, including the immune system. This impacts a person’s physical and mental well-being. However, because of Endorphins and Dopamine, it doesn’t feel like a constant barrage. It can feel good and even addicting. These chemicals, however, only mask the damage caused by stress, they don’t fix it.

Further, with work environments that foster uncertainty and anxiety come lowered levels of Serotonin and Oxytocin – meaning people feel less appreciated, content, and socially engaged at work. Where jobs are highly competitive, employees view each other as competitors instead of allies. People feel less comfortable sharing ideas, making mistakes, or collaborating on projects. This impacts not only a company’s ability to thrive, but the individual’s.

A prime example of an unhealthy business environment would be General Electric at the end of the 1980s. At the end of each year, the bottom 10% of GE managers whose divisions contributed least to the company’s share price were fired. If the bottom 10% automatically get fired and you see someone struggling, would you help them out? Probably not. You would be putting your own job at risk.

However, more than isolating employees, such environments also foster unethical behavior. When short-term goals matter above all else, things like honesty, integrity, and compliance fall to the wayside. People focus on survival, and when that behavior gets rewarded, they get a Dopamine hit and continue to behave that way. Spread out over time, this behavior leads to corruption and the eventual downfall of a company.

As an avid reader of business books that emphasize the importance of culture, Sinek’s analysis did not surprise me. It shouldn’t surprise you either. People want fulfilling jobs. Humans weren’t designed for constant, high-level stress. It is easy to recognize bad practices in a business.

Yet this stressful, high-pressure, chemically imbalanced environment reflects the very culture that is expected, even rewarded, in the legal profession.

Want to go “big law”? Think long hours and high stress loads. Want to work in criminal law? Prosecutor or defense attorney, someone’s freedom now depends on you. Want to work at a boutique firm, or even start your own law firm? Gotta make sure you make enough to pay off those heavy student loans. How do you pay those off? You take on more jobs, create a higher stress load, and keep going, going, going. For each client, you must strive for justice. Money is at stake. Freedom is at stake. Your ability, or lack of ability, impacts countless lives.

Is it any wonder the legal profession is rife with alcoholism and ranks third in suicides behind doctors and dentists?

The pressure doesn’t begin once you land your first job: it starts pre-law school. Where you work often depends on where you go to law school. The best jobs go to the best schools. Early on driven, goal-oriented people with a natural affinity for Dopamine stand out and get into the schools. Once in the school, the best employers take only the best students. This is the way of the world. You are now competing against your classmates, and because law school grades on a curve, this isn’t a place where everyone can do well. You either receive one of the scarce As, or you don’t. If there are limited As, are you going to help your classmate get one? Not if it hurts your chances. Goodbye Serotonin and Oxytocin, this is not the place for you.

Law school is 3 years. For 3 years, you can survive anything, right? You can survive finals worth 100% of your grade (STRESSSSS!) You can survive competitive classmates and high interest rates on your loans. You can survive…sure, your Cortisol is firing but your Endorphins and Dopamine tell you it is okay. And maybe it would be okay if it actually ended in 3 years, but that isn’t the way the legal profession works. In the real world, law school is child’s play. But this too will be okay, you’ve learned to cope. Probably through alcohol. Definitely through something addictive. Want to make partner in a firm? Want to save the world? Of course you do. Time to get to work. Hit me with the Dopamine.

What happens in the business world when the wrong things get incentivized? Companies become corrupt and self-destruct. Now imagine what happens when you wrongly incentive a whole profession.

Is it any wonder lawyers get a bad rap? Lawyers are stigmatized as ethic-less and money-hungry. Yet the law is designed as an adversarial system where every case comes with high stakes and in law school we are taught to deal with that pressure through isolation and alcoholism. Culturally, we’ve created a chemically imbalanced environment for the very people we entrust with justice. I am sure there are lawyers and law firms that overcome this. There might even be law schools out there seeking balance. It is still a huge problem, however, and not one that only affects those who “have a personality for the law.” Just take a look at our justice system.

I don’t know what the solution is, or if there even is one. I do know that change needs to happen and it needs to start in our law schools. 


2015 Reading Challenge – The Mind Blowing Ones

It is the most wonderful time of the year! No, not because the kids are jingle belling (is that even a thing?) or because everyone is telling me “be of good cheer!” (definitely not a thing) but because….drum roll please!

I have once again completed my reading challenge and now can sit back, dust off the blog, and write about my favorite things…namely, good books. And bad books. And maybe, depending how into things I get, all the books in-between. This year I read 162 books. That number does not include re-reads or manga or the loads of kdramas I watch (I really should get credit for those. Subtitles are an undervalued form of reading!)

No, I mean, 162 genuine, brand new, never-before-read-by-Amy books! That totals roughly 49,580 new pages. As usual, it is a mixed grouping of fiction and non-fiction, spanning many genres. Unusual, however, is that I had more 5 star than 1 star reads. Of those 5 star reads, several far exceeded my usual 5 star rating. All 5 stars are good, but these were particularly challenging and/or view shaping for me. Originally I was just going to highlight them in the greater 5 star blog post, but I read so many good books this year that the post became ridiculously long! To balance that I have split “the exceptional few” from the other amazing ones. So keep an eye out for my next blog post with the other 5 star reads!

Mind Blowing and View Shaping 5 Star Reads from 2015:

Good Profit: How Creating Value for Others Built One of the World’s Most Successful Companies by Charles Koch

Coupled with my own experience with Market Based Management, Good Profit easily stands out as one of the most impactful books I read in 2015. What drove Koch Industries’ expansion from a $21 million company in 1967 to the $115 billion one it is today? Charles Koch writes about forming an MBM culture and creating long term value for society. This book is immensely readable and practical. Good Profit is more than one man’s business reflections. It is an analysis of what success means and how companies can work for the betterment of their “customers, employees, shareholders, and society.”

I love a lot of quotes in this book, but none more than Charles Koch’s conclusion:

“The greatest gift we can receive or pass on is the opportunity to find and pursue our passion, and in doing so, to make a difference by helping others improve their lives. To be truly rich is to live a life of meaning.”

 

Why Not Women? A Fresh Look at Scripture on Women in Missions, Ministry, and Leadership by Loren Cunningham and David Joel Hamilton

A very powerful book about the role of women leaders in ministry. While I am not sure I agree with everything in it, Why Not Women? shook up a lot of things I took at face value and really encouraged me to study the subject deeper. I love how footnoted this book is. Entirely readable but still academic. The authors analyze the Greek passages where Paul talks about women and provide some fascinating analysis into what he actually meant. What I especially appreciate about Why Not Women?, however, is how much the authors focus on Jesus’ radical, culture-breaking treatment of women. They go into the history of women’s roles in Greek, Roman, and Jewish culture and illustrate how different the Christian church was. Whether you agree with its conclusions or not, Why Not Women? is worth reading because it is a book full of grace that goes a long way in restoring the identity and value of women, in the church and out.

(Thank you, Anna, for this fantastic Christmas present!)

 

Surprised By Oxford by Carolyn Weber

To extremely simplify, this is the coming-to-faith memoir of a woman at Oxford University. However, it is so much more than that. Surprised by Oxford is a book that breathes. It questions and answers and leaves unanswered, offering many ideas for the reader to wrestle with in its wake. I love this book for its references to Oxford, places I know and love like St. Ebbes Church and New College. I love it for all the quotes from Wordsworth and Lewis and many other authors. I love it for Carolyn Weber’s conversion experience and her willingness to be honest, vulnerable, and unafraid to express her love for God. Most of all, I love this book because it reminds me of why I love learning. It reawakens joy in me. This is a thick book, 400 some pages, and not one you consume in a sitting! But it is so worth it as a book to sit and chew over and highlight and re-read and learn from.

 

Entrepreneurship For Human Flourishing by Peter Greer

Balancing Surprised by Oxford’s 400+ pages, Entrepreneurship For Human Flourishing comes in at just over a 100 pages. It is a tiny book, easy to read, but very powerful. Peter Greer challenges the distinction between “non-profit” and “for-profit” work in helping third world countries.  He share stories of individuals who used their “for profit” companies to provide jobs, expand education, and bring life to communities. Though this book was good, I don’t feel the need to re-read it like I do the others on this list. I felt it deserved a place among the “exceptional” books, however, because of the overall influence of Peter Greer as a speaker on me. Though I’m blessed to work for an amazing non-profit, I have really changed my views on how I perceive for-profit v. non-profit organizations. One is not “holier” than the other, and as this book points out, for-profit businesses can make an incredible difference fighting hunger, poverty, etc. in ways beyond the scope of a traditional non-profit. This is a great read for students.

 

The Moral Case For Fossil Fuel by Alex Epstein

It is generally agreed that fossil fuels are a “necessary evil.” We’re dependent on them for now, but they aren’t that great and we should find an alternative. However, is this necessarily the case? The Moral Case For Fossil Fuel argues that far from being a danger, fossil fuels make our lives better and are improving the planet overall by making it safer and richer. Alex Epstein uses his background in philosophy to explore the moral case for using fossil fuel. He weighs the advantages, including the environmental ones, of using fossil fuel and contrasts it with the asserted detriments. He concludes that in order to improve lives we are morally responsible to use fossil fuels, and lots of them! Frankly, I love this book. I think everyone should read it. It is fun, easy to understand, and an extremely important voice in our current “war on fossil fuel.”