Book review: Prune failed projects from your life

Advice on pruning the failed projects from your work and personal life.

There is something my boss doesn’t know about me, and I’d be grateful if you wouldn’t tell him: I’m not actually a magazine writer. I’m a baseball player.

I don’t play much baseball anymore, of course — and truthfully, I never really did. But in my head, I can turn a double play that puts Robbie Alomar to shame, and I’m just waiting to be discovered. Maybe this summer, at the Rogers company picnic, Blue Jays boss Alex Anthopoulos will stroll past the softball diamond and finally spot me. “Kid,” he’ll say, waving a big-league contract at me, “you’re going to be a star.”

What a stupid dream for a 31-year-old man to be harbouring — especially one who’s a lousy ball player. But at least it’s harmless. I knew early on it was hopeless.

Some people, though, are in a more difficult spot. “I live in L.A. and know many people who are trying to make it in the entertainment or music industry,” writes leadership coach and clinical psychologist Dr. Henry Cloud. “Some of them have been trying for a while. When to quit?”

Cloud’s new book isn’t designed to crush their dreams, or yours. What Necessary Endings: The Employees, Businesses, and Relationships That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Move Forward (Harper Business) aims to do is help us let go of the unfruitful things in our personal and professional lives.

“Endings are a natural part of the universe, and your life and business must face them, stagnate, or die,” Cloud writes. “Growth itself demands that we move on.” But whether quitting a job, firing an employee, or killing a product line, we avoid endings, either convincing ourselves that something is fixable or seeking to elude the uncertainty and sadness associated with a full stop.

To argue his point, Cloud uses the analogy of a gardener pruning a rosebush, identifying healthy buds, ailing branches that may still recover, and dead stems taking up space needed by the healthy ones. He cites Jack Welch as an exemplary pruner who mandated that any GE business that couldn’t lead its market would be “fixed, closed, or sold,” and who pushed out the bottom 10% of the workforce each year. Under Welch, endings became a normal occurrence rather than an exceptional problem.

But even when endings are normalized, it isn’t always clear to us which situations and relationships need them. Cloud says that’s to be expected. We tend to instinctively consider the cessation of a pursuit — be it a goal, project or relationship — as a failure. “Neuroscience research shows that your mind actually develops something akin to hardwiring so that you think and behave automatically,” he writes, allowing us to adapt to the status quo, even an unhealthy one. (Cloud calls such states “stuck realities.”) And some of us have high pain thresholds — we tolerate difficult situations long past the point where we should do something about them.

What’s required, says Cloud, is an appreciation for “the life-saving virtue of hopelessness.” That may sound counterintuitive, but we’re often spurred to break out of these stuck realities only by a water-in-the-face moment. “Whether it is finally getting an addict to hit bottom and end a destructive pattern, or getting a CEO in front of a bankruptcy judge to force the restructuring that he has been avoiding, only reality gets us to do difficult things.”

Hope is a vastly powerful force. It keeps us going long past the point when we should accept an ending. Cloud’s prescription is to embrace hopelessness through a reflective “internal mapping” process intended to help us face reality. “One of the first big steps to rewriting your brain’s software is awareness,” he says, offering a handful of internal map templates — the person who misunderstands loyalty, the one who believes that any end means failure — against which to compare yourself. Having diagnosed your tendencies, you’re better prepared to assess whether there is any rational reason to hope for improvement in, say, an employee’s performance.

Of course, you can do all the internal mapping you want and still have trouble actually instigating an ending. That’s where many of us get bogged down, especially when there’s another person involved — a mentor, an employee, a loved one. Even when we’re sure that we know it’s the right thing to do, we dread the conversation and the aftermath.

The best preparation for such an exchange, says Cloud, is “training” yourself for what’s ahead. Always enter an ending moment with clear goals in mind: “I want to leave the conversation letting the person know that although this is over, I want to keep in touch in case another opportunity opens up” is one example Cloud offers. Having concrete objectives will prevent the discussion from devolving into a verbal joust, and keep you from fruitlessly “re-feeling” your love for the person or project and suddenly casting about for a way to make things work.

Additionally, Cloud suggests that you “get integrated” before the conversation — reconcile how you feel about the person or project with the reality of what you need to do. It will help you employ the old pulling-a-tooth approach. “Don’t drag it out through a labyrinth of explanations, excuses, and???patronization. Plan to just be nice and tell it the way it is, with a lot of compassion.” Although he admits it seems cheesy, Cloud suggests you practise the conversation with someone you trust. Write out a loose script for yourself beforehand and role-play. It may keep you from getting flustered when it’s showtime.

As hard as it can be to bring about endings — or accept them — doing so is an essential part of leadership. Peter Drucker called them “abandonments,” a crucial part of the “life and death decisions” leaders make. It’s equally important in your personal life. Says Cloud, “Part of maturity is getting to the place where we can let go of one wish in order to have another.”

I’m happy I ended up writing for a magazine. But I still keep a baseball on my desk.

Executive summaries

The Futures: The Rise of the Speculator and the Origins of the World’s Biggest Markets (Basic)
Emily Lambert

On March 13, 1851, two men in Chicago signed the first modern, timed contract on record, an agreement to deliver corn the following June for a penny less per bushel than the current market price. Within 15 years, the Chicago Board of Trade was using a standard futures contract, and futures trading was attracting not just those employed in the agriculture industries but a secondary market of speculators and thrill-seekers chasing a quick buck.

The art deco skyscraper at 141 West Jackson Blvd. still houses the exchange, now part of CME Group. Lambert, a senior writer for Forbes, traces the emergence of futures markets by relating the history of the building and its inhabitants, from the pork belly traders of earlier generations to those laying the foundations for a carbon cap-and-trade market. The book bustles with big characters like Vince (the Prince) Schreiber and Harry (the Hat) Lowrance, but Lambert isn’t merely sentimental about the exchange’s colourful past. Before the advent of electronic trading, she writes, “futures looked at times like capitalism unleashed [but] in reality the business balanced individual freedoms with an unlikely social responsibility.” The death of the trading floor broke a culture that “ran real free markets.”

In Too Deep: BP and the Drilling Race That Took It Down (Bloomberg)
Stanley Reed and Alison Fitzgerald

British Petroleum’s recent deal with Russian energy giant Rosneft is just its latest play in a country that’s hosted some of BP’s most lucrative gambles. According to Bloomberg journalists Reed and Fitzgerald, the company’s profitable (but fraught) 2003 joint venture with oligarch-controlled TNK was perfectly characteristic of the style of former CEO John Browne — a “landmark deal with enormous risks.”

As this corporate biography explains, it was thanks in large part to Browne that BP vaulted ahead of rivals through gambles on emerging drilling regions in Azerbaijan, Angola, and the deep waters of the Gulf of Mexico. BP insiders point to his non-traditional background — he got much of his business experience in Silicon Valley — as key to the extraordinarily speedy growth agenda he set for the company. Browne’s been gone since 2007, but the risk-taking culture he established is part of the company’s genetic code. Although Tony Hayward was in the big chair during last year’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, he seems to have been running BP in his predecessor’s image. “The question being asked now,” write the authors, is whether Browne sowed “the seeds of BP’s near self-immolation by building too fast and paying too little attention to operational details.”

How To Write a Sentence: And How to Read One (Harper)
Stanley Fish

“Some appreciate fine art; others appreciate fine wines. I appreciate fine sentences,” declares New York Times columnist and law professor Stanley Fish. Whether you think of yourself as a writer or not, you likely spend much of your workday bringing sentences into the world. Doing it well is a crucial part of communicating effectively. Now, in this book, the professor offers an approach to thinking about this fundamental unit of written and spoken language.

Fish has a literary bent, but his goal isn’t to turn you into the next Hemingway or Joyce. The point of this little volume is to impart what he calls the ” Karate Kid method of learning how to write.” In the 1984 film of the same name, the unconventional sensei Miyagi trains a young fighter for a match by having him polish cars — “wax on, wax off.” In a similar way, Fish hopes to teach the fundamental motions of sentence structure that enable “thought and meaning.” Both of those things are in short supply amid the white noise of the current communications environment, so the ability to effortlessly write a good sentence is an invaluable skill — as is the ability to recognize before pressing Send that something you’ve written is unclear or misleading.