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Favorite Books for 2016


If you believe the early research showing the most empathetic, thoughtful people are also readers, at least of fiction, then reading for recreation must therefore be germaine to being a successful person. With that mental stretch to this blog, here’s my book list of personal favorites for 2016. Of course, I have my biases in what I choose to read and I can’t get through everything I buy, much less everything I think looks good. And this year I had more of a tendency than usual to backtrack and read things written years earlier, so these are not exclusively 2016 releases. (Insatiable readers know that books are the ultimate internet-like rathole—one book leads you to another by that author, or in that period, or loved by that character—and no one knows where you’ll end up hours, days, months later.)

For those who want an objective, broad-ranging 2016 list, here’s the New York Times list of Notable Books. NPR has an excellent app they release in January (2015 is here) and The Guardian also does a terrific end of year list (part one 2016 is here).

Books that Stayed with Me
Hillbilly Elegy, J.D. Vance
The Nix, Nathan Hill
Commonwealth, Ann Patchett
City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg
Some Luck, Early Warning, and Golden Age (Last Hundred Years trilogy), Jane Smiley

Books that are Obviously Going to be Movies Someday
Before the Fall, Noah Hawley
Underground Airlines, Ben Winters

Books that Compel You to Consider How You Live
My Name is Lucy Barton, Elizabeth Strout
When Breath Becomes Air, Paul Kalanithi
Being Mortal, Atul Gawande
The Last Policeman, Ben Winters

Books that Made Me Laugh
You’ll Grow Out of It, Jessi Klein
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson
The Portable Veblen, Elizabeth McKenzie
The Sellout, Paul Beatty
Eligible, Curtis Sittenfeld

Launch Like A Rocket: The Book

Yep, I wrote a book! (You can see inside and everything, on Amazon.) I figured if I was going to hector college students about getting involved, taking on more, being adventurous, and making things happen, then I should hold myself to the same standard. If students’ academic load wasn’t a good excuse for their being too busy, I didn’t think my work life should be either. I told lots of people I was writing a book, so I’d be irrevocably committed. And with many thanks to the dozen or so who swore they’d read it, or make their high school or college student read it, I knew I had to actually get it done in a reasonable amount of time. I sat down every Sunday afternoon from Memorial Day to Labor Day, taking over Nick’s abandoned desk for the writing, and eventually moving up to Jake’s for the layout and rounds of editing.

For the first time in my life since college, I put on headphones and wrote for two to four hours at a time, week after week. I hired an art director friend, Jessica Gheen, to come up with some cover ideas (she’d already gifted me the Launch logo), my husband, Mark, built me an InDesign template for the inside, had my mom, my father-in-law, and another friend, Amy Cahill, do a read of the draft, and I hired another friend, Eileen Haley, to do the final proofing. I implemented all their feedback and changes as I saw fit (any typos or errors are entirely my fault).

And, as expected, it was a little uncomfortable. I wasn’t totally sure I could do it and I was a little in over my head at times. But when I give advice to students now I can really say from personal experience that moving outside your comfort zone to accomplish new and different things is incredibly worthwhile, if only in the change in creates within yourself.

Reading: Aspiring Adults Adrift

Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s earlier book, Academically Adrift, keeps coming up in my reading, but this follow-up, Aspiring Adults Adrift, speaks more to Launch Like A Rocket’s mission. Subtitled “Tentative Transitions of College Graduates,” in this book they “illuminate other aspects of collegiate experience that students themselves value, and also examine the relationship between collegiate experience and transitions to adulthood after college.” They note that often the experience students are getting in “getting along with others” actually involves getting along with similar people—not something the modern workplace team is going to value or reward. Their surveys show that students value the extracurricular experience and that, in fact, their references in surveys and interviews to academic performance is mostly focused on meeting the minimum requirements for graduation, clearly not demonstrating a huge value on the learning itself.  They note that “Given students’ focus on social and extracurricular activities during college, we may have expected most respondents to emphasize soft-skill development above all else when discussing how college helped them perform their jobs.” And yet they find these skills are no more valued that any others by the students. They also quote more research showing 90% of employers highly value these skills and find “more than 90 percent of employers rating written communication, critical thinking, and problem solving as ‘very important‘ for the job success of new labor market entrants.”

I previously hadn’t considered civic engagement, nor seen statistics on that issue, but would have guessed young people today were far more engaged than in the past. Continue Reading

Reading: In Defense of a Liberal Education

I knew going in I was going to like this book. As disclosed elsewhere, I’m not a believer in college prices for a vocational education. When it was clear our younger son’s freshman year that his Philosophy class had him all fired up, I remember saying, “Aren’t you lucky? You have the last set of parents in America who want their student to major in Philosophy.” (He is a Philosophy and Economics major while our older son, a Bio major, is a Humanities minor with a concentration in Bioethics. Our dinner conversations will always be interesting!) Even when pre-professional education works, it’s potentially a series of early career successes with a surprising dead-end down the road, when you’re going to have a hard time going back and getting the missing soft skills.

Fareed Zakaria’s book is engaging and passionate. Sadly, when he breaks out the numbers “only about 1.8 percent of all undergraduates attend classic liberal arts colleges like Amherst, Swarthmore, and Pomona.” (Good news if you are one of them and can make the pitch to hiring managers.) He gives a clear, concise overview of the history and purpose of liberal education in America, “The essence of liberal education was ‘not to teach that which is particular to any one of the professions; but to lay the foundation which is common to them all.’” Given how much the world is changing and how little we can predict about the future jobs needed, that seems like the safest plan to me. (Yes, you’ll forgo the six-figure Google CompSci gig right out of college, but life and careers are long, plan accordingly.)

Mr. Zakaria quotes many influential and successful professional reflecting back on their liberal educations, including Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin, who says “I have concluded that one of the stronger correlations with advancement through the management ranks was the ability of an individual to express clearly his or her thoughts in writing.” As to the author’s own education and the emphasis on articulate communication, he concludes “In order to be successful in life, you often have to gain your peers’s attention and convince them of your cause, sometimes in a five-minute elevator pitch.” (The book jacket notes “Fareed Zakaria has been called ‘the most influential foreign policy advisor of his generation’” by Esquire Magazine, so I’m feeling confident he’s an ace at convincing people of his cause.) And, just so you don’t think we’re ganging up on you in pursuit of a different kind of “liberal agenda:”

“In 2013, the American Association of Colleges and Universities published a survey showing that 74 percent of employers would recommend a good liberal arts education to students as the best way to prepare for today’s global economy.”

Recommendation? Essential if you or your student is still in the process of choosing a college. If in college, I still recommend as I think you can supplement a pre-professional set of academic requirements with electives to round out some of the missing pieces. If you’ve already graduated, it will make you aware of some weaknesses you may have. That’s not a bad thing to know with all the great online and local extension classes available at a free or inexpensive price point to get you to fill the holes before you start to wonder why your fast-moving career has stalled out.

Reading: How College Works

Dan Chambliss and Christopher Takacs followed over 100 students over eight years at Hamilton College to see what works and what doesn’t. They show the reader how college works and see beyond the four years, with frequent commentary from alumni looking back at their college years and with insight into what choices paid off and what opportunities they missed. While they are researchers writing for an academic audience, and the book is a little dry, with more information about background methods than the lay reader wants, the core is a very reliable, persuasive guide to what needs to happen for a successful college experience (and if college isn’t successful, you’re unlikely to have a successful post-college launch, right?)

Interestingly, students don’t need to find a large group of great people—they need just a few—and those can come from nearly anywhere on campus. But those friends are crucial to success on all levels. And, although probably true all through life, it’s interesting to consider that friendships within one group may preclude  friendships with other groups—whether due to time constraints or clannishness.

Continue Reading

Reading: The Secret History

One of my all-time favorite books, Donna Tartt’s first novel, The Secret History, was first published in 1992. When I read the book I was just about the same age as the narrator, Richard Papen, and the same number of years out of college. Written before the tech boom of the 1990s, the book captures the last years where to be a “Californian by birth, and also, I have recently discovered, by nature” meant something like the version of Fitzgerald’s Hollywood Richard gives to his professor, Julian, “Orange groves, failed movie stars, lamplit cocktail hours by the swimming pool, cigarettes, ennui.” (The brief references at the start to the casual process of college admissions will seem incomprehensible to today’s students, but recognizable to parents.)

In re-reading it now, it’s easy to be struck by the absence of mobile phones, laptops, blogs, tweets, and posts. The key characters, college students immersed in studying the classics at a small Vermont college, would eschew all that anyway, so even the pay phone references still work. Even now, people are sometimes hard to reach. We did have movies and TV then and there’s no reference to that either.

The story’s narrator reminds me of Nick Carraway from The Great Gatsby: He is both a witness and a participant and suffers from Nick’s socioeconomic insecurities and has perhaps fallen in with a bad crowd, at the very least, like Tom & Daisy, they are “careless people.”

Turns out I still love this book for college students and new grads. It’s a great depiction of the way I think everyone feels when they first start college. (500-student Hamden College is a ringer for Bennington, where Donna Tartt went to college.) You’re not quite sure of the rules, the groups, the alliances, and while you’re trying to sort that out, everyone is passing judgement on you as they assess their options. (A lot like a new job, too.) There’s a chance to figure out who you want to be, and a chance to pretend to be whatever it is you want to be. This is probably less true for students who stay close to home for college. (How different can UC Irvine’s culture be for a San Diego native?) But for students who go farther afield, the sense of culture shock is all the more shocking today, when the internet has done so much to publicize all the little nuances of subcultures. As Richard’s relationship with his fellow Classics students warms up he notes, “Months after I got to know the five of them, I found to my surprise that at the start they’d been nearly as bewildered by me as I by them.”

The book riffs on so many things you will encounter in college (or already have in AP English), that it’s pretty irresistible. Greek myths and culture, American regional differences, the outsider narrator, the concept of fate, and a dozen different classic novels and writers (starting with Gatsby, for me).

Reading it as the parent of college students, this time I was stunned to realize that there was a whole theme I’d missed the first time out reading it as a young adult. Not even one single character has a good parent. As in so much fiction, there are an inordinate amount of dead parents, but those who remain are universally incompetent, drunk, or cruel. And Julian, their charismatic professor and father-figure, is not at all impressive to adult eyes. He’s ultimately as shallow and absentee as the rest of the living parents.

Recommendation? I still love this book. With both sons’ campuses tree-heavy (one with its own forest), small liberal arts schools, one a Humanities minor and the other a Philosophy major (including a class this semester with just three students), and with a number of professor-mentors with whom they are on a first-name basis, I can see pieces of so many real students and the truth of the college experience in this book. It’s a great story, a mystery in reverse—we know who has been murdered and pretty much by whom, but the novel spins out to tell us why. And with the classics theme, the answer may well be that it was always fated to end as it did. I highly recommend to anyone reading Launch Like A Rocket, something none of Tartt’s students are ever going to do, but something her narrator very much wants as he jumps from the frying pan into the fire.


Reading: Where You Go Is Not Who You’ll Be

It seems every book in this college and career genre has a subtitle. Frank Bruni’s excellent book is subtitled: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania. (I’m not sure it’s as prescriptive as all that.) As is probably clear by now, I’m not a big believer in name brands. Naturally, I’m going to have come to the college admissions process as a skeptic after years in advertising. So I agreed with Mr. Bruni’s message, although perhaps for different reasons. Much of the research he quotes were things I’d encountered elsewhere before my sons were looking at colleges and it had influenced their decisions. The book is full of examples of amazingly successful people who went to schools you’ve never heard of because those schools were near home, offered scholarships, or had unique programs that would let them develop as human beings.

In discussing Google, quoting an article by fellow New York Times writer Tom Friedman, Bruni writes “…in an age when innovation is increasingly a group endeavor, it (Google) also cares a lot about soft skills—leadership, humility, collaboration, adaptability and loving to learn and re-learn.” Continue Reading

Reading: The Start-up of You

Reid Hoffman (cofounder of LinkedIn) cowrote this book with Ben Casnocha. I take that to mean he had a lot of good ideas, little free time, and that Mr. Casnocha wrote the book. In any event, while it’s focused on career advice post-college, there are some ideas I think are valuable for college students. The authors are focused on you treating your career like an entrepreneurial business: finding opportunities, positioning yourself for the market, continually evolving, building alliances/networks, and proactively managing your professional life. I’ll build on their idea for current college students. You haven’t taken your product to market, but it’s in development. You’re far enough along to know you have a product and it will be going to market very quickly. Now is the time to make design changes, evaluate strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT analysis). The authors write:

“Because soft assets may be abstract, there’s a tendency for people to underestimate them when pondering career strategy.
People list impressive-sounding-yet-vague statements like ‘I have two years of experience working at a marketing firm…’
instead of specifying, explicitly and clearly, what they are able to do because of those two years of experience.”

Let’s look at a current college student in that context. You can interview for an internship saying you’re an English major or you’re a new graduate with a double major in Philosophy and Math. The problem is so can a lot of other people. Continue Reading

Reading: The Defining Decade

Subtitled “Why Your Twenties Matter and How to Make the Most of Them Now,” by Meg Jay, I loved this book. I first heard Meg Jay on NPR’s TED Radio Hour podcast, and loved her message. She’s a clinical psychologist working both as a college professor and in private practice. Her introduction notes, “Eighty percent of life’s most definitive moments take place by age thirty-five. Two-thirds of lifetime wage growth happens in the first ten years of a career.” I found that pretty hard to resist.

Dr. Jay introduced me to the phrase identity capital–a collection of our personal assets. As you go through life, you accumulate experiences as well as skills. Her issue with underemployment after college is that it doesn’t give you any identity capital (and barely gives you relevant skills). You’re better off with jobs that help you continue to develop conversations that lead to lucky breaks. So nannying might be great for paying the bills, but work that on the side if you must while temping in a field you might be interested in so you begin to have experiences and conversations that move you forward.

Scary as it is to contemplate, time isn’t endless, so you can’t afford to mess around. I’m even more insistent on this point. I don’t think you can afford to write off the four (maybe five) years of college as a complete time out from the real world. As I read comments from clients like, “…you can’t pull some great career out of your hat in your thirties. You’ve got to start in your twenties.” I want to amend it to say: You can’t expect to pull some great career skills out of your hat upon graduation. You’ve got to start building them now.

Dr. Jay goes on to note that After serving on several admissions and hiring committees,…a good story goes further in the twentysomething years than perhaps at any other time in life. To go into internship interviews with a memorable story, you need to be doing things before you get the glorious internship that leads to the amazing first job. Spend your summers and your extracurricular time wisely!

The book goes on to a great second half on relationships, in much the same theme. (If you’re dating badly now, you’re missing out on building the relationship skills you’ll need when the right one comes along.)

Recommendation? The book is a fast read, full of stories about clients that really help drive the points home painlessly, but I recognize you might have to pick and choose so if you are really strapped for time, spend 15 minutes listening to her TED Talk. (Got an hour, check out the TED Radio Hour podcast on The Next Greatest Generation.)

Reading: How to Raise an Adult

With a subtitle of Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success, Julie Lythcott-Haims is focused on a parent audience, but she covers some ground that’s worthy of discussion in the Launch context. As a former Stanford University dean of freshmen she’s reporting from the front lines after a decade of watching very bright, academically successful students flail at life away from home.

In a chapter entitled We’re Hurting Their Job Prospects, she talks about how this mollycoddling plays out after graduation, quoting Teach for America’s general counsel:

“If you tell them to do A, B, C, and D, they are excellent at doing it, and they’re hardworking and dedicated as they do it. But if you say ‘Look,
we’re trying to get to D. We’re going to show you A and give you half of C. Go Innovate, solve it for yourself, ’ they really struggle. Their mind-set
is, ‘Tell me what the path is and I’ll follow it, even if it’s really hard. But strike out on my own and figure it out? That I can’t do.’”

I can second that experience. We’re a small studio and there just wasn’t time to provide the hands-on attention aspiring graphic designers and film editors needed to be productive. Internships would devolve into the use of a workstation and access to our subscription. So we stopped having interns. Continue Reading