Saturday, April 28, 2012

The No Asshole Rule

The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't is a book based on author Robert Sutton's article in the Harvard Business Review - one of the anual "Breakthrough Ideas" of 2003 (the book was published in 2007).  

Sutton spends a lot of time setting up the premise - there are a lot of assholes out there, and they make workplaces miserable - from decreased moral, high use of sick time, decreased productivity to mental collapse.  It's bad.  Why're are there so many assholes?  I don't know.  His premise is simple: try not to hire assholes.  

His use of the word "asshole" is partly strategic, part cop-out.  He uses the term humorously, and, it IS fairly amusing to the see this mostly harmless curse word in every other sentence.  An asshole, by Sutton's definition, is someone who consistently acts like a jerk, "who belittles and demeans others in the workplace independently of gender, race or religious beliefs."  That's important - treating someone differently based on gender, race or religious beliefs (as well as sexual orientation) is illegal.  Being as asshole isn't.  So, when Sutton talks about managers removing "assholes" (by his definition), it's not entirely clear what he means.  As far as I know, you can't fire someone for being a jerk.  

As a hiring manager myself, I think I do a good job of finding people I want to work with (ie, NOT assholes), but, I must admit, I was more interested in this part of the title: Surviving One That Isn't.  I wasn't at all surprised to see that Sutton works in academia (also where I am).  I think most people would agree there are a disproportionate number of unpleasant folks in academia.  Just about daily I think about this old adage - Academic politics are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.  Sutton returns again and again to the "simple" solution if you're in an office populated by a-holes: just leave.  Well, sure, easy for him to say - but, that's pretty terrible advice in a bad economy (and not so great in a good one.)  His more "practical" advice is not much more helpful: Lower your expectations, "learn to feel and practice indifference and emotional detachment", "look for small wins" and "limit your exposure."  I frankly, do not want to to treat my work with indifference and emotional detachment - it's a part of my life - half of my waking day.  There's gotta be another answer, but it isn't in this book.*

I wouldn't really recommend this book to anyone, unless you enjoy reading shocking statistics and horrifying stories that may or may not be worse than your own.  He calls out a lot of people by name - some are well known, like Bobby Knight, other's less well - but I think all a matter of public record.  I'm thinking about passive-aggressively leaving the book laying around on my desk at work, but, if there's one thing I've learned, it's that Clueless People Are Clueless (it's true, there's a study and everything.)  One time at work this brochure went to everyone in the office that said to be aware if your behavior caused other people to, for example, back away, or avoid eye contact, or to cross their arms, etc, and I had a laugh with a friend about how many people it defined to a T, and then we got really sad because we realized it would take nothing less than a lightening bolt from the sky for someone to read that paper and say, "My God!  This is ME!  I need to change my evil ways immediately!"  

*Actually, there was one small bit of advice that I did like.  Sutton quotes a woman who uses advice from a white-water rafting instructor - if you fall out the boat, rely on your life vest - lay back with your feet in front of you and use your legs to bounce off the rocks.  In nasty meetings, the woman would literally stick her feet out under the table and imagine she was gently pushing off the offensive actions around the table. That's a nice visual I can work with!  

Monday, April 23, 2012

Monday, April 16, 2012

No fiction winner for Pulitzer this year!

Wow, the Pulitzer prizes were announced today and there was no fiction award!  Shocking, huh?  Swamplandia, by Karen Russell (I've really got to read that soon!), something I've never heard of called Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, and The Pale King (by Foster Wallace, which I have no intention of reading)  were short-listed.  I wonder what gives?  Apparently this hasn't happened since nineteen-seventy-something.

Sunday, April 08, 2012


There's a great article in the Awl that interviews a bunch of folks in the book-industry: 
What Books Make You Cringe To Remember?  As you might expect, there's a lot of Ayn Rand on the list.  I have to say, that's what I would put on my list too - I LOVED The Fountainhead when I was a teenager.  I might also put Flowers in the Attic on the list...  

Quite a few people mentioned On the Road by Kerouac - that was a bit surprising to me.  However ridiculous and misogynist the Beats might have been, they exemplify this pretty interesting part of American history.   Someone mentioned Sweet Valley High!  Now, how could you regret Jessica and Elizabeth?

But, even though they make me cringe a little, I don't regret reading them.  I think the books we read help us become who we are.  

Maureen Corrigan from NPR says it well:

I've been wracking my brain, but honestly it's hard to suggest any without feeling disloyal. In fact, at the risk of sounding sentimental—oh, what the hell, I'll be sentimental—to dis those embarrassing young adult faves now feels like snickering at the friends I had in high school and college whom I've "outgrown." I loved them and needed them at the time and, for that, I'll always be grateful to them.
Anybody have some cringe-worthy books they'd like to share?  

Sunday, April 01, 2012


I hadn't planned to read Charles Frazier's Nightwoods (2011), but it called my name as I was browsing the "New Books" alcove at the library where I work.  I'd read his Cold Mountain many years ago and wondered how things had progressed for him.  I thought Cold Mountain was beautiful but dull. 

Nightwoods was absolutely captivating.  I could literally barely put it down - I like to read at bedtime and I would try to read well after I should have gone to sleep, trying to keep my drooping eyes open. 

His prose is so beautiful.  I had just read this novel with kind of forced, over-the-top prose (The Book of Madness and Cures) and reading Frazier's effortless, lovely language kind of washed that previous book out of my brain.  I wish I could examine the structure and tell you how he did it, but, to my great shame, I've never taken so much as one literature class, so, I have no idea.  It's magical.  Like Marilynne Robinson only more plot-driven (thank God!)  
Done carefully and with luck, maybe a flame no bigger than the tip of a finger lives for a few seconds.  Then, when the tinder begins to catch, an old man with his long hair on fire, crumple a few more whole leaves and place twigs above the flame. Nervous as pick-up sticks in reverse. Judge wrong, the sticks collapse and snuff the flame. Do it right, and the flame grows, but still fragile. More twigs and then small broken branches. And when that layer starts to catch, that's when you purse and blow. Do it on and on until, when you look up to the sky, everything is dark and grainy as soot with little silver sparkles dancing in your vision. For there, it's easy. nothing but the architecture of broken wood. 
A woman, Luce, lives alone as a caretaker for an old, closed, resort lodge.  She makes little money and supports herself with a garden and listens to the radio.  She likes being alone.  But, her sister is killed by her husband and her sister's children are sent to her.  The children have been damaged by what they saw and what was done to them, they are like skittish animals, which Luce carefully tries to coax back into the world.  They don't even speak.  The story is alternately told from the perspective of the murderous husband, who is trying to find the children.  His pathology and justifications are really chilling.  He lives with violence, but is a charming schemer.  

You might be able to think of half-a-dozen Lifetime movies that have that same plot, and, as I was reading, something in the back of mind kept telling me how annoying  it would be if it wrapped up the way those movies end - surprise, unknown strength, unexpected gratitude, mute children suddenly talking, what a relief, etc.  Thankfully, he's a much more skilled writer than the folks who are throwing those movies together!  

Here's one of those stupid book trailers, slightly more stupid that usual.  I include it only because I think they're bizarre and publishers still seem to be working out the kinks. Also this one in particular  kind of sets it up like a Lifetime special, with an odd focus on FIRE! (the children, like most kids, like catching things on fire.)