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InReview – Issue 59

Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School by John Medina. Seattle: Pear Press, 2008. 300 pp.

John Medina is a molecular biologist with appointments at the University of Washington (School of Medicine, Department of Bioengineering) and Seattle Pacific University (Brain Center for Applied Learning Research). He is the author of such diverse titles as Genetic Inferno, Clock of Ages, Depression, What You Need to Know About Alzheimer’s, The Outer Limits of Life, and others.

This book is rooted in credible, tested, verified scientific research. From this foundation, Medina has identified 12 principles that characterize how the brain works. Then he sketches a path between the scientific results and the ways we use our brains at work, at home, and in school. He observes that many of our environments do not take advantage of the way the brain works, but he is realistic about change. He suggests that business and education should do scientific experiments to demonstrate that these principles can create better working and learning environments.

For example, Rule #2 shows that exercise boosts brain power. Yet our schools are eliminating the few exercise programs they once had, and businesses confine their knowledge workers to cubicles for hours on end. “What if during board meetings everybody mounted a treadmill and walked two miles per hour while the meetings were in session? Would that improve problem solving?” he asks.

Rule #4 states that we do not pay attention to boring things. One surprising area covered in this chapter is that the brain is not good at multitasking when trying to pay attention. Yet we talk on the cell phone while we drive or text while we are discussing the next strategy in business, and think we can do this very well. We can’t.

Rule #8 states that stressed brains don’t learn the same way as non-stressed brains. Yet in this highly competitive business world, stress is cranked high as people push to keep up in a 24/7 world. Would reducing this stress lead to more creative thought, better ideas, and a thriving workplace and business?

Other rules show the importance of sleep, why we are primarily visual learners, what we need to do to encode information into our memories, and why men and women process information differently. All 12 are clearly stated, supported by research, and illustrated in a way that is accessible to anyone.

The book is delightfully written and supported by wonderful illustrations. As a bonus, there is a CD and a website (www.brainrulesbook.com) to supplement the book, offering a visual tour of the work and a glimpse into John Medina, one of the most fascinating people I know. This is a terrific addition to any library.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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Damage Control: Why Everything You Know About Crisis Management Is Wrong by Eric Dezenhall and John Weber. New York: Penguin Group, 2007. 212 pp.

Eric Denzenhall is CEO of Denzenhall Resources in Washington, D.C., and the author of two other books. John Weber is the president of the company and its second partner. On their website they state, “Our mission is more often to protect reputations and assets in the face of allegation or peril, than to disseminate ‘good news.’”

The authors’ premise is that when a company is in crisis, the usual advice is wrong. Too many executives are reminded of the Tylenol case, where Johnson & Johnson pulled product from the shelf at great cost, and later came back to a successful reentry into the marketplace.

“Everybody likes the Tylenol case because…it’s teachable and validates the ethic of social responsibility that ‘acting responsibly’ is always rewarded by the marketplace.” Later they write, “This always-recall aphorism may seem like a tidy policy … but if it were followed, big companies would be doing nothing but recalling their products.” And “If there was any group of companies that needed to go on the offensive against its detractors, it was the biotechnology and pharmaceutical companies.”

The authors applaud the PR practices that allowed Richard Scrushy (HealthSouth) to be acquitted, and contrast this to Bernie Ebbers (WorldCom) who ended in prison. The focus of their work is to defend clients, both executives and companies, from attack.

The authors rightly point to social advocates and news groups that sometimes are out to get companies with false claims, including a case of the runaway Audi where “60 Minutes” rigged a test to demonstrate the outcome producers wanted to see.

They advocate going on the offensive against such charges. “Offense nearly always trumps defense for several reasons. First, the news media is allegation driven,” so you should get your allegation out there first. “Second, we are conditioned to believe innocent people don’t run or hide.” This comes about because of our blame society, they argue. Anyone who gets hurt wants to be able to point the finger at someone, and often the corporation is the convenient target.

While this is sometimes the case, I didn’t gain any sense that this was the central issue. Rather, the goal is to mount a campaign to free the accused company (paying their consulting fee) with no concern for truth. They are the defense attorneys in the court of public opinion.

I admit I bought the book under the assumption that it would deal with root causes when things had gone bad. Root causes are not a part of their analysis or the solution. Rather it is about making the charges go away. The occasional insight from the book couldn’t change my general reaction, which varied from mild concern to being appalled!

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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Milton Friedman: A Biography by Lanny Ebenstein. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007. xi, 286 pp.

Lanny Ebenstein has a doctorate from the London School of Economics and Political Science and has authored eight other books.

To state that Milton Friedman was an influential economist is like saying Michelangelo was a good painter. Alan Greenspan, chairman of the Federal Reserve Board until 2005, said of Friedman, “There are few people over the generations who have ideas that are sufficiently original to materially alter the direction of civilization. Milton is one of these very few people.”

The book starts with his growing-up years in an immigrant family in Brooklyn, New York, his time in college at Rutgers, where he started at age 16, and his graduate work at University of Chicago and Columbia University. He met his wife, Rose, a fellow economist and a frequent collaborator, at University of Chicago. They ultimately married in 1938, and remained constant companions until his death in 2006. During his many years at University of Chicago, his libertarian-style economics became synonymous with “The Chicago School of Economics,” though there were many in the department there who looked

After receiving the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1977, he moved to California, retired from teaching, and broadened his political and economic influence as a senior researcher at the Hoover Institute. He was an advisor to presidents, and was cited by free-market leaders such as Richard Nixon, Margaret Thatcher, and Ronald Reagan. Even recently, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said, “Two people who most profoundly impacted my thinking on economics are Milton Friedman and Adam Smith.”

The book contains detailed footnotes and supplemental material.

I enjoyed Ebenstein’s portrayal of Friedman. It felt like getting to know both the person and his work through academic discussion, technical conferences, and his writings, with the author staying out of the way. Friedman is pictured as a man who was logical to a fault, following the consequences of this theories wherever they would go. In the preface, when confronted with the question of taping interviews, Friedman said, “I have a single rule. What I say to one person I say to everyone. I never say anything off the record.” This carried to his views of individual freedom and the need for small government. So in branching from economics, he advocated legalizing drugs, and having the government get out of any role in education. He was truly a free-market thinker.

I also acknowledge I have some strong disagreement with Milton Friedman in his strict capital-market views. He doesn’t seem to acknowledge the need for caring for the poor and disadvantaged. It’s a sink-or-swim world of economics. I question his position that the only purpose of business is to maximize shareholder value subject to the constraints of the law and ethical norms. I believe this position has been in part responsible for the ethical failures in business as, in the name of market forces, leaders push to the edge of the law and of ethics.

Also, the book also has some weaknesses. Sometimes in explaining Friedman’s complex theories, the author resorted to stating something again, rather than clarifying the issue. For readers without a background in economics, there are a few places where simplified arguments would help.

Nevertheless, I found this book to be a fascinating look inside the life of a very influential person and highly recommend it.

Reviewed by Gerard Beenan

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