What my favorite childhood books taught me

I was recently invited to a baby gender revealing party where the guests were asked to bring a childhood book with a handwritten message in lieu of a traditional Hallmark card and gift.

It’s been awhile since I last bought a children’s book so I was a bit at loss of what book to get.  As a lifelong reader, I thought back on what books were my favorite to brainstorm for the expecting couple’s gift.  What came to mind were two books that I still love to this day.

Something From Nothing by Phoebe Gilman was first read to me in Kindergarten.  The story is about a baby boy who receives a blanket at birth.  As the boy grows up, he brings his blanket with him everywhere, eventually turning the beloved blanket into a raggedy fabric.  Unable to part with the blanket, the boy’s grandpa turns the blanket into a jacket which the boy lovingly wears until the jacket also becomes teared.  The boy’s grandpa turns the jacket into the vest, and the same activity occurs, and so the vest becomes a handkerchief, and eventually into a button, and over time the boy looses the button, leaving the book with a sad, unresolved ending.

As a child, the story resonated with me.  It taught me that just because something has been loved, used, and tired, it doesn’t mean that it automatically gets thrown out and forgotten.  With a different eye and a fresh perspective, a beloved but destroyed blanket can be reused and turned into many, many different items.  It’s like one of those Ikea hacks that we often see on Pinterest.  Missing a few bolts?  Turn that Ikea Malm desk into a bed frame!

The second book that came to mind was The Balloon Tree by Phoebe Gilman(1).  The Balloon Tree is about a young princess whose father, the King, leaves the kingdom for a few days.  The king leaves the princess’ uncle in charge and tells the princess that if she gets into any trouble to release a balloon and he will see it and rush home.  As soon as the king leaves, the uncle locks up the princess and orders for all the balloons in the kingdom to be destroyed.

Unknown to the uncle was that the princess knew a secret passage to get out of her imprisoned room.  The princess goes on a long search throughout the kingdom for one balloon to release and call for her father.  Unfortunately, all balloons seem to have been destroyed.  Through ongoing persistence and resilience, the princess eventually finds a balloon from a wizard and plants the balloon under a magical tree that grows multiple balloons.

I adored this book as a child because of the pictures, the idea of balloons everywhere, and because the princess’ name was so similar to mine.  I eventually chose The Balloon Tree as my gift over Something From Nothing because I loved the can-do, positive attitude of the princess and the resemblance of the story to Hamlet.  Princess stories often involve the princess being helpless and needing saving but The Balloon Tree princess took control of her own situation and came out the winner.

It was a pleasure to be able to provide a gift to the expecting couple during this exciting time in their lives but I think I got a bigger gift from this activity than they did.  Thinking about what book to get provided me with the opportunity to return to a time where reading was simply for enjoyment and entertainment and also allowed me to reflect back on what made my favorite childhood books so special and how they made me feel.  It reminds me of that Maya Angelou quote,

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

I couldn’t remember much of the story of Something From Nothing and The Balloon Tree at first until I did a bit of googling but I did recall how they made me feel and how much I loved them.  What are some of your favorite childhood books?

(1) As I write this, I just realized my two favorite books as a child were from the same author! 

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The Book Club: Lean In.

I finished Sheryl Sandberg’s much buzzed about book, Lean In, last night.  As I sit here reflecting on the book, Sandberg’s message, and my thoughts, I’m trying to see what value I can add to a whirlwind of conversation that has transpired from her novel.

Before the launch of her book and since the days the book launched, praise, criticism, positivity, scoffs have been shared.  Some have argued why women should read the book and others have rolled their eyes at it.  My favorite criticism was from Simona Covel at Inc.com, “Stop Selling Me Porn” who while I agree that work-life balance books have become the “new porn” for women, I think she missed the message of Sandberg’s book.

lean in

As a young, ambitious, twenty-something, I’ve struggled with being heard and at times I have been overshadowed by my male peers at the same level.  I drew parallels to many of her stories and cringed reading Sandberg’s lesson on hand raising and being acknowledged in meetings (or Sandberg likes to refer to as “leaning in”).  I personally dealt with hesitation and pulled back when I should have been leaning in.  I was lucky to be able to overcome or in my case, forced to overcome it.  Early on I had a great male sponsor who openly asked for my opinion and having provided a dumb response my first time, I made sure not to let that happen again.  I also gained tenure at the start up I’m with and colleagues – both senior and junior staff – started to turn to me for questions and advice and I had no choice but to start contributing to meetings or watch the team backtrack.  Sandberg’s book would have came in handy before I entered the working world.

Depending on where you are at your career and personal life, this book will speak differently to you.  As a twenty-something in the early stages of my career, Lean In offers great, actionable advice I can put in practice to help me steer the next 5, 10, 15 years of my career.  There were many messages, stories, facts that made me reflect, cringe, fume, and nodded in agreement.  Here are the five key aha! moments of Lean In:

1) “A 2011 McKinsey report noted that men are promoted based on potential while women are promoted based on past accomplishments“.  This struck a chord.  I first saw and recognize this in high school and have seen it multiple times since.

2) The most important decision you will make in life will be the partner you choose.  Find someone that will put in 50/50 and be there along the ride.

3) Be your own advocate.  When hard work and results aren’t being recognized, it’s up to you to promote yourself, make the ask, and challenge yourself.  Change the results of the McKinsey report and focus on both your accomplishments and potential.

4) The movement goes both ways.  We need to promote, encourage, and be inclusive to men who choose to stay at home.  Same with women feeling shut out in the office, stay at home dads also face the same barriers.  Openness and inclusiveness need to go both ways.

5) Be authentic.  Be human.  Sheryl Sandberg has been able to capture a following because not only is she willing to raise subjects that are uncomfortable but she’s authentic.  Her experiences, her ambition, her outlook clearly has resonated with millions of women from all ages.

Sheryl Sandberg has been a trailblazer for women in tech.  She’s bringing to center stage a topic that has been shied away from and has been hushed for too long.  As the topic continues its momentum, I’ll be leaning in with a close ear.

A book recap: Basic Black

“It’s not about whether you can do it all, it’s about whether you can be happy whatever you’re doing”

– Cathie Black, former President of Hearst Magazines

Off of a book list recommended by Levo League, one of my favorite career development sites, I read Basic Black by Cathie Black, former President of Hearst Magazines.  If you ever read any Cosmo, Marie Claire, O: Oprah Magazine, or Seventeen between 1996 to 2010, then you in one way or another have been touched indirectly by Cathie Black.  My saving grace during high school was the now defunct CosmoGirl magazines. #rip

Black’s book was interesting.  For the past two years, I’ve had a growing interest in the career paths and struggles of success women and hers was one that I was only vaguely familiar with.6a0133ed1b1479970b0133ed6a4295970b

Black’s book touches on creating a 360 degree life which she defines as achieving balance in life and creating a life where you get deep satisfaction from all angles – personal life, work, and family.  Throughout the book, she goes through her experiences, her temperament during her early working days, and her strive for success, perfection, and achievement.  As someone equally as ambitious and as passionate about making an impact, I related to her drive and dedication.  When you’re in the middle of the action and all you can see is that ladder and each step you need to take, it’s hard to sometimes step back and look at the situation and appreciate what has been given to you and what you have earned.

I remember when I was in high school, I baby-sat these adorable kids whose parents shuffled them from one activity to the next.  Dance class, track, soccer, tennis lessons, music… it never stopped.  I would listen to the kids go on about their activities in exhaustion.  I barely had time to work part-time and study for chem class, let alone do all those activities on top of that.  Looking back now, it makes me wonder what we, as a society, gain from pushing kids into so many different activities.  While it is so important to let kids explore new and different interests to help them develop into interesting adults, I wonder if we’re raising a generation of overachieving, over-competitive individuals that will view adult life as a rat race.  My generation already feels the pains of constant competition.  We’re one of the first generations where discussions on can women have it all, work-life balance is ongoing.  At the pace we’re going. will the next generation need to have an actual class on this?  Is this the future society we want to create?

Cathie Black’s book dedicates a section on achieving balance.  She asks her readers to reflect on what’s important to them and what they are looking to achieve.  Her advice:  Have your all – not anyone else’s.  What worked for one person doesn’t necessarily work for someone else.

Overall, her book was a great read.  Easy layout so you can flip through to sections that appeals to you the most and it incorporates real examples of her time at Hearst and other publications she worked at.  A must read for anyone in the media industry.

Other interesting read on this topics:

Pursue a Lifestyle Not a Job – Lost Gen Y Girl

Why a Lifestyle Business Could Be a Better Fit For You Than a Startup – Sean Ogle

Shall we voice Exit, Voice, or be Loyal?

My most valuable university courses wasn’t a finance, accounting, or marketing strategy course although all three has helped in being able to understand contracts and budget better.  My most valuable course – the one that has integrated into me and has become part of my makeup – was a small seminar course that I initially signed up for because it was rumored to be a bird course and the professor leading it had this old-school, intimating style to him –  the kind of professor you would see in movie. You know the ones I’m talking about.  They are hard-skinned on the surface and all the students fear them but if you go a little beneath the surface, they are really a soft soul who becomes your life guide.  Think Sean Connery in Finding Forrester.

This course was an Organizational Behavior course – one where I expected to fully learn about different personas of workers and different political interactions in organizations.  Instead, the entire course became dedicated to the study of Albert O. Hirschman’s influential but rather dry book, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.

The book focuses on Hirschman’s concept that there are three decisions that organizations and individuals in an organization face:

Exit – When to leave an organization, when to exit out of a market, etc.

Voice – When to voice dissent, communicate an opinion, etc.

Loyalty – When to stick with the status quo

We took the concepts in his book and read several articles ranging from Nazi Germany, IBM in the 1940s, small town community and applied his concepts to each scenario.

The teachings from the class and the discussions that we had stayed with me past university.  Reflecting back now, I can’t tell you what Black-Scholes does without googling it or spew off the 4Ps and 3Cs of marketing without guesstimating.  I do however remember Porter’s five forces… gotta love that model coming up year after year.  Rather Exit, Voice, and Loyalty has intrinsically became a part of me and a part of how I make decisions.  When I’m faced with a dilemma – professionally and personally – that I’m not sure what to do about, I immediately think “is it worth the fuss”, “should I just wait to blow it over”, “maybe they’ll be open to my idea”.  Ultimately, in any dilemma we are faced with three paths.  The path to leave the situation, express an opinion and hope for change, or stay quietly accept the situation as it is.  The actions aren’t siloed from one another.  Majority of the time, it begins with voice and leads to either exit or loyalty depending on the reaction and response of the other party.  Rarely do we see one action become the be all, end all.  You be surprised how useful Hirschman’s concept is within your own personal life as well.  Think of it in a crumbling relationship.  Should I stay with my SO?  Is it even worth talking about our problems anymore?  Urgh, I’m done and I’m out.  

The book is short and a quick read if you can get over the dryness of it.  Are there any courses, books, readings that you’ve done or read over the years that has impacted your daily life?

Want to learn more about Hirshman’s book?  Check out this great article from HBR.