Pick of the Week: "On Writing Well" and Polish Poets

I have two recommendations this week.

First, I recommend anyone who hasn't read it to pick up a copy of William Zinsser's "On Writing Well." When I work with leaders, we almost always end up talking about their ability to communicate. Leaders need to communicate clearly so people understand what is expected of them and how to deliver on those expectations. Nothing is more dispiriting to an organization than having people waste time going the wrong direction because the leader was not clear. In fact, clear communication affects every part of our lives and all of our relationships. Effective communication is direct, concise-but-sufficient (it says enough without droning on), coherent, and consistent. Zinsser's book teaches writers (anyone who writes) how to do this better than any book I've ever read (I'll take it over Strunk and White any day.) Good writing requires good thinking--coherence, logic, accuracy, etc.--so writing well will make you a better thinker. Writing also carries over into good speaking because it forces one to become disciplined in crafting and delivering a message. One's sentences follow in a logical order that keeps the listener engaged rather than inviting them to tune out. Good communication skills are the secret weapon of effective leaders in all areas of life. Arm yourself well; read this book and learn its lessons.

My second pick is more broad: "Polish poets." Perhaps it's mid-life re-appreciation of my Polish heritage, but I've been immersed in modern Polish poets lately. I've always tried to stay away from sentimentality and exuberance in poetry, and there is no fear of stumbling across them with these writers. Rather, these poets tend to exemplify the Poles' ability to wistfully endure hardship and oppression, to stare life in the face without blinking or backing down, and to be dignified without taking themselves or anyone else too seriously.

Milosz would be a little too obvious I think, so his volumes sit largely as-yet-unexplored on the shelves. It started by chance with Zbigniew Herbert (I was captivated by the photo on the cover of his "Collected Works"), and quickly spread to Adam Zagajewski and Janusz Szuber. Reading Tadeusz Rozewicz, my newest discovery, is like receiving a light slap in the face by a slightly stern uncle urging you to wake up and see--really see--the world around you. (His picture reminds me of my grandfather, a quietly urgent man who took a bullet trying to stop Hitler.) But most of all, I've fallen in love with Nobel-laureate Wislawa Szymborska, the kindly, gentle, and ferociously intelligent aunt to Rozewicz's intimidating uncle. If you like poetry, or simply appreciate good writing that captures the essence of people with hard-won soul, give them a try.

Look Outside Before You Look Inside

"One of the basic assumptions of the field [of social psychology] is that it's not the objective environment that influences people, but their constructs of the world. You have to get inside people's heads and see the world the way they do. You have to look at the kinds of narratives and stories people tell themselves as to why they're doing what they're doing. What can get people into trouble sometimes in their personal lives, or for more societal problems, is that these stories go wrong. People end up with narratives that are dysfunctional in some way." Timothy Wilson (http://edge.org/conversation/social_psychological_narrative)

I'm a big fan of Wilson and his book "Strangers to Ourselves." Wilson makes a compelling case that there is a downside to too much self-reflection because it is literally impossible for us to see all of the workings of our own mind. We think we know ourselves but we don't, and the best way to learn about ourselves is not necessarily to go inside but to go outside and get feedback from objective parties. Going inside to explore our narratives often just makes our existing narratives stronger and more difficult to change.

One of the beauties of the Enneagram is that it provides an objective listing of our tendencies. Whenever I am accused of "Eight-ish" behaviors, my first reaction is to rationalize and justify my behavior. In time, however, I often see how I behaved in one of the habitual Eight-ish patterns that I wrote about in my own book. It is this combination of feedback and objective perspective that get me past the land mines of looking inside for the explanations of my behavior.

At the same time, the Enneagram can point us to the central theme of many of the narratives that Wilson talks about in the quote above. At the heart of our stories is, often, our preferred strategy, and learning to rewrite the definition of our preferred strategy can help us to change our story and, ultimately, our behaviors. For me, the preferred strategy is "striving to be powerful," and I get into trouble most often because my narratives are rooted in an immature or outdated of what it means to be powerful; I may, for example, be acting on the assumption that being powerful means being forceful rather than being kind. I can't change the behavior if any new behaviors run counter to my non-conscious narratives.

So the pattern for creating change is to go outside first and then go inside:

  • Seek feedback on what needs to change (and to be open to ongoing feedback) either from others or from tools such as the Enneagram;
  • Decide what changes need to be made;
  • Reflect on your existing narratives and how they make you resist the changes you need to make;
  • Explore how your definition of your preferred strategy holds that narrative in place;
  • Redefine your existing strategy so you can change your narrative;
  • Practice the new behaviors until they become the norm.

(For more on rewriting the story, see the book "Awareness to Action" or these videos on youtube.