As I began working from home in sweats and maintaining most of my daily activities within walkable distances, I’ve suddenly found myself with an influx of free time that I turned my attention to a tall stack of long ago purchased, unopened books on my shelf. Turns out that I was keen enough to pick out a varied list of fun and inspirational books but never ended up reading them, for problems with motivation and procrastination that may be. Reading has proven to be a wonderful way to steer through this difficult time as most of us are stuck at home, feeling powerless in the face of a depressing news cycle. Here, I am writing this post to share some insightful ideas and notes that I have picked up from my quarantine reading times.
1. Personal History by Katharine Graham
Personal History is an autobiography by former Washington Post president and publisher Katharine Graham. Once titled one of the most powerful women in the United States, she took over the newspaper after the death of her husband, Phil Graham, and presided during some of the company’s most controversial times, including publishing of the Pentagon Papers and later the Watergate Scandal. In her book, Katharine Graham recalled the struggles of transitioning from the role of a housewife to the CEO of a mid-sized newspaper company at the time. She later described the experience as “…put one foot in front of the other, shut my eyes, and step off the edge. The surprise was that I landed on my feet.” Here, I will outline a few simple yet important lessons that I have picked up from Ms. Graham and are applicable to myself as well as many other young professionals in the business world.
✨ Know your weaknesses ✨
Remember that classic “what is your greatest weakness” question in an interview? You take a momentary pause as you struggle to tell your recruiter something that you are bad at, or you may already have a list of weakness-that-is-secretly-a-strength answers ready, as advised by your head hunter. We tend to shy away from what we’re not good at, and forget that we are capable of mistakes. As the old saying reminds us, “it’s not what happens to us, but how we react to it”. Ms. Graham’s memoir recounts her growth from fear and intimidation to building one of America’s leading newspapers. She has stumbled and was under great stress because of her lack of knowledge in the business world, but how she managed to turn her insecurities into motivation has served a great lesson for me. We all have experienced moments of vulnerability when we failed to live up to expectation. What people want to see is that you own up to your weaknesses, and use that as an opportunity to learn. In the end, we will never transform into perfection, but we can certainly learn to navigate through the world with the grace and poise of knowledge.
✨ Build your network ✨
Partly excused by the new millenial “be yourself” type slogan, I generally regarded the term “desire to please” in a negative fashion and had refused to admit that about myself for a long time. Now, learning to be yourself is a beautiful thing, but my resolve to approach it by placing blame on my innate quality is not. I was essentially ashamed of my own tendency of wanting to please and need for connection. In her memoir, Ms. Graham had set a prime example of embracing that insecurity as part of one’s character and skillfully put that to use in social circumstances. She said, “it was better to be talking to people who hated us or disapproved of us than not - and that good old-fashioned encumbrance of mine, the desire to please.” Here, she was referring to maintaining good relations with people who had openly bashed her or the company during the Watergate scandal. Instead of blaming myself for being a lame people-pleaser, why not see it as a skill to build good relationships with others? That desire to please may be the secret weapon to trick your enemies into becoming your allies, or it may lead you to connect with others and give them a chance to know you. As I later learned in Ms. Graham’s memoir, the many relationships she had formed later became an essential part of asset in her life.
✨ Recognize your strengths ✨
Knowing your weaknesses is not to say we should dwell on them, because part of knowing ourselves includes knowing what you are good at. This is the “what are you greatest strengths” part of interview questions. Some of us may cheer at it, while some of us, burdened by humility, may find it uncomfortable to answer. Recognizing what we are good at is an important part of self awareness that makes us succeed in what we do. It also boosts our self confidence and gives us the motivation to be better. As evident throughout her book, Ms. Graham possessed the great quality of empathy and excelled in writing. From early on, she had formed a habit of answering letters from readers which helped in shaping the reputation of her company, for she believed that, “we in the media are all ombudsmen, trying to lessen the feeling some people have that they are helpless and without hope of a hearing.” Ms. Graham also had a keen eye in recognizing talents and, while still in the early stages of running her company, recruited for several important leadership positions which later played an important role in the Watergate Scandal.
✨ Know your core values and what you want ✨
Katharine Graham had always taken great pride in the reputation of Washington Post as an impartial paper, a value that has been established since her husband’s time. She believed that the essence of journalism was to inform the public what’s true and had worked to maintain that value throughout the years, while withstanding great pressure from the Nixon administration. We may sometimes be intimidated by the not-so-great things accompanying adulthood, our senses numbed by mundane works, and our judgment altered by the blow of reality that crushed our dreams. The question to ask is: how do we persevere in maintaining things that we truly value. It’s an ongoing practice for all of us to get to know ourselves first so that we can focus on the things we truly want and eliminate distractions that are keeping us from attaining them.
2. To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
A story that tells of the many morals that we may have been repetitively told in our lifetimes: integrity, equality, genuinity, courage etc. More often than not, we may not even realize that our reasonings and true values are hindered by prejudice, both from other people as well as ourselves. How to make discreet judgement as an independent thinker when living in a society that rejects unpredictability and scorns at differences? This is a question answered by Atticus Finch, a father and a lawyer in the book who defends an unjustly accused black man in a small town of 1937 Alabama. Many themes were discussed in this book: equality, freedom of speech, self, class, courage, and prejudice etc. I’m sure you can learn something new when revisiting this classic at different stages of your life. I chose to note independent thinking as a reminder to myself to not lose sight of genuinity. We live in a time blessed with a multitude of information sources, but at the same time that leads us more exposed to misleading content in publicity. We can benefit from the rich resources of information around us by first training ourselves to be more rational thinkers. As the kids in the book were taught to do, we should constantly remind ourselves to “climb into others’ skin and walk around in it”. By developing the awareness to think from other people’s perspectives, we free ourselves of restricted views and expand our scope of learning.
3. Youth by J.M. Coetzee
“Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.” – T.S. Eliot
This is the story of a provincial youth who left his hometown of Cape Town and came to 1960s London to be a poet, but instead found himself settling for a programming job and sinking into a cycle of disappointment, confusion, and self-searching. An idealist by nature, the narrator was deeply aggrieved by his mundane and sluggish life and sought cure in love and literary ambitions. He did not care to know his own mind because “to know one’s own mind too well spells the death of creative spark”. He believed that “the beloved, the destined one, will see at once through the odd and even dull exterior he presents to the fire that burns within him”. He sought examples in writers before him who succeeded in finding their places in the metropolis, but was only disappointed by the reality he faced as he was overwhelmed by his own listlessness.
The book ended without clear implications of the narrator’s fulfillment, just like we never have a concrete solution in our exploration of human nature. Sometimes, what we are looking for may be embedded in the process of searching. Fortunately for the narrator, towards the end we can catch a glimpse of his realization resulting from self introspection and growth, that “the most brutal way is to say that he’s afraid: afraid of writing and afraid of women”, and that part of growing up entails honesty to oneself.
4. Just Kids by Patti Smith
There are people who spend their lifetimes trying to communicate with themselves to figure out what they want. There are also people who, from an early age, know precisely what they want and just follow their hearts’ content. Patti Smith, the famous 70s punk icon, belongs to the latter category. Just Kids is her memoir written to recount not only her personal success story, but also the relationship between her and long-time friend Robert Mapplethorpe. Through her story, I could picture a brave young girl, thriving with energy and passion, who is carefree yet self driven to pursue her dream, the type of role model that young independent girls aspire to be. To get a sense of her poetic writing, here are some of my favorite quotes highlighted in the book:
✨ “In the war of magic and religion, is magic ultimately the victor? Perhaps priest and magician were once one, but the priest, learning humility in the face of God, discarded the spell for prayer.”
✨ “I craved honesty, yet found dishonesty in myself. Why commit to art? For self-realization, or for itself? It seemed indulgent to add to the glut unless one offered illumination.”
✨ “…by his example, I understood that what matters is the work: the string of words propelled by God becoming a poem, the weave of color and graphite scrawled upon the sheet that magnifies His motion. To achieve within the work a perfect balance of faith and execution. From this state of mind comes a light, life-charged.”
✨ “Where does it all lead? What will become of us? These were our young questions, and young answers were revealed. It leads to each other. We become ourselves.”
✨ “The goodwill that surrounded us was proof that Fate was conspiring to help their enthusiastic children.”
✨ “It is said that children do not distinguish between living and inanimate objects; I believe they do. A child imparts a doll or tin soldiers with magical life-breath. The artist animates his work as the child his toys.”
✨ “I learned from him that often contradiction is the clearest way to truth.”
✨ “‘Jesus died for somebody’s sins but not mine.’ I had written the line some years before as a declaration of existence, as a vow to take responsibility for my own actions. Christ was a man worth to rebel against, for he was rebellion himself.”