InReview – Issue 78

The Social Animal: The Hidden Sources of Love, Character, and Achievement By David Brooks, New York: Random House, 2011. xviii, 424 pp.

David Brooks is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, and is the author of two other books.

Amidst a growing volume of books on the brain, based on research both in psychology and brain science, David Brooks has taken a different approach. He builds the story of two people, one (Harold) from an upwardly mobile family, and one (Erica) from a single parent home in an impoverished part of town, and follows their paths from birth through meeting, marriage, careers, and ultimately death. He creates a “high level” story of their lives, and supplements this story with research from psychology and brain science to explain their actions and reactions as they confront issues throughout their lives. Business, career, and personal decisions all get “explained” through how the mind has taken in and responded to the situations it confronts.

A major theme of the book is that most of us think of ourselves as rational people. We wonder about others who don’t see things the way we do. This was the theme of the French Enlightenment. But as Brooks points out, “The British Enlightenment stressed that people are born with a social sense, which plays out beneath the level of awareness,” p. 234. The mind seems to interact with that social sense in a way that looks different from our notion or rationality, and in this sense we are seen as social animals. It is the British Enlightenment that better aligns with modern research on the mind.

There are many gems in the book, and here are two: He explains the short-term focus of our world through research that shows, “… people discount the future as we allow present satisfaction to blot out future prosperity,” p. 178. I loved the subtle self-reference on p. 335. At this point Harold was a policy writer for a think tank in Washington. D.C. “[Harold] spent those years writing his essays, peppering the world with his policy proposals. Not many people seemed to agree with him. There was a New York Times columnist whose views were remarkably similar to his own …”

There is a great deal to like about this book. Anyone familiar with David Brooks, a conservative columnist from an otherwise more liberal newspaper, knows that he is a talented and often witty writer, and this book shows off these capabilities.

When the story, or the explanations, get a bit tedious (and they do in a few places), it is easy to simply skim ahead and pick up the account. I found the storyline on Harold and Erica a bit weak; it was obviously a simple frame through which the author could discuss the research results from psychology and brain science. I also wondered in several places whether Brooks had the qualifications to apply the research in the ways that he did. I feel more comfortable and confident learning about such things from an expert, such as John Medina in Brain Rules.

These reservations aside, this is a delightful read, with a great deal of insight. Business leaders, after reading this book, will never see their staff or their customers the same way again. I recommend it.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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Idea Man: A Memoir by the Cofounder of Microsoft By Paul Allen, New York: The Penguin Group, 2011.viii, 337 pp.

Paul Allen was the cofounder of Microsoft, a high school friend and colleague of the other cofounder, Bill Gates. He is founder of Vulcan Inc. and the owner of several professional sports teams.

The first 190 pages of this book chronicle the early days when Bill Gates and Paul Allen began to work together while in high school at Lakeside in Seattle, through the ideas for Microsoft and its eventual founding, leading to the time when Paul Allen eventually left Microsoft. This is a remarkable story from Allen’s perspective, identifying key choices that were made in the growth and development of one of the world’s most recognized brands.

This part of the book is insightful on many levels. For those of us who have been in computing since the 1970s, it is a fun trip down memory lane, featuring early computers, timesharing, the emergence of the PC, and the high risk adventure of a startup. Coding all night is a part of the adventure, and if you have done it, you know the exhilaration that comes from getting it done in spite of the odds.

At another level, it is very interesting to see how the story plays out from Allen’s point of view compared with Bill Gates’ version of this story. Allen saw himself as the “idea man” in the partnership. “I was the idea man, the one who’d conceive of things out of whole cloth. Bill listened and challenged me, and then homed in on my best ideas to help make them a reality,” p. 4. Later, he says, “I missed Bill’s laser focus on competition in the marketplace and his ability to execute my ideas and keep me from getting too far ahead of what was doable … I discovered how challenging it was to operate without a pragmatic partner and business maven,” p. 190.

Bill Gates, in The Road Ahead (1995), said, “Paul had lots of answers to things I was curious about … I was more of a math person than Paul, and I understood software better than anyone he knew. We were interactive resources for each other. We asked or answered questions, drew diagrams, or brought each other’s attention to related information. We liked to challenge and test each other,” p. 192.

My reading of the two is that Gates saw the relationship as an exchange between equals, and Allen saw that he was the idea person and Bill carried out his vision in a support role. It’s no wonder the two had a falling out.

Allen made numerous critical comments about Microsoft including its size, slowness, and lack of vision. He concludes that it might have been different if the “idea man” had remained a part of the company, saying “Neither of us have been quite as good alone as we were together,” p. 190. Apparently unknowingly, he has made the case for the disappointing performance of his later businesses that never seemed to make it in the marketplace.

The latter part of the book takes a very different flavor, looking chapter by chapter at his various ventures. Much of it seems hobby oriented, including his adventure travels, his rock music museum, his yacht Octopus (414 feet long with a crew of 50), and a failed cable company Charter. He describes a life of self-absorption apparently still trying to prove he is as good as Bill Gates. He made no comment on the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and its outward focus for the benefit of others. I found the second part of the book to be far less interesting than the first.

Paul Allen is an icon in the computing world. His work has made a huge impact, but his story has sad overtones. I felt it was worth the read, but I would not say it is for everyone.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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555 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W. • Washington, D.C.

Image Credit: Polshek Partnership

I’ve been told that there are 75 museums in Washington D.C., alone. If you have ever traveled to the District of Columba, you know firsthand the dilemma of trying to decide what to see among so many wonderful possibilities. This past summer, Al Erisman and I had the opportunity to visit the Newseum, a fascinating museum covering the world of news and media.

The Newseum is a beautiful 250,000-square-foot museum that covers five centuries of news history through state-of-the-art technology and hands-on exhibits. It opened in its present location in 2008, moving from its previous location in Arlington, Virginia.

Al and I spent about 90 minutes in the Newseum, though you could easily spend an entire afternoon. The Newseum consists of a concourse level and six floors of exhibits. We started our journey on the lower levels and worked our way up. Many of the exhibits change, so be sure to visit the Newseum’s virtual tour for current information. Here are a few highlights from our visit:

Concourse level: Here you encounter eight complete sections of the Berlin Wall, as well as an East German guard tower. Also, on the concourse level is an FBI exhibit that features the Unabomber’s actual backwoods cabin.

Level 1: This is where you eat, check your coat, and visit the Newseum store. The Annenberg Theater is located on this floor, and features a wonderful 3-D film covering the history of news and media. The film is arresting, as is the exhibit next door that showcases a wide array of Pulitzer award-winning photos.

Level 2: Here you will find an interactive newsroom that is fun for kids. I had to pull Al away from playing anchorman. On this level, we also visited the interactive Ethics Center. Based on your answers to news-oriented ethics questions, the exhibit’s kiosks adjust their responses by playing archived video interviews of leading journalists in the field who offer commentary on your particular viewpoint. We found this to be a great way to wrestle with tough questions that don’t always have clear right and wrong answers.

Level 3: This floor covers the history of Internet, TV, and radio news, and tells the story of American journalist, Edward R. Murrow. There is also a poignant memorial honoring the lives of journalists who have died while covering their stories.

Level 4: Here you can step inside Tim Russert’s NBC bureau office, tour a First Amendment exhibit, or visit the 9/11 gallery. You can also watch a film called The President’s Photographer, which offers behind-the-scenes images of what it is like to live and work as the president of the United States.

Level 5: On this floor, there are galleries that cover 500 years of news history, as well as some of the greatest books ever written on political thought and action. The Magna Carta is featured, as are The Federalist Papers. Some of our most iconic newspaper headlines and front pages are also displayed on this floor.

Technology is King at D.C.'s Newseum

Level 6: With a panoramic view of the U.S. Capitol, the National Gallery of Art, the National Archives, and the Washington Monument, this floor plays host to current news and headlines. More than 80 newspapers worldwide are displayed daily, offering a real-time glimpse into our interconnected, yet culturally diverse, world.

If you are in the Metro D.C. area, be sure to pay the Newseum a visit. There is more than enough to interest the entire family. Walking through the exhibits will demonstrate in striking fashion how quickly the world of news media is changing. The experience will also pull on your heart strings as you relive significant days of your own past in which tragedies and triumphs that shaped our world were experienced though the news.

Review by John Terrill
Director, Center for Integrity in Business
Seattle Pacific University