A planner’s guide to reading

12__Reading_young_man

“You adapt yourself to the contents of the paintbox.”

Paul Klee

“What should I read to inform and inspire myself?” I was asked by a planner recently. It’s proven a perennial question, and one I have dodged more often than answered. But I’ve finally given some thought to the kinds of reading we should be doing. For it struck me that if what we read has the capacity to expand our emotional and intellectual resources, then this is a good, necessary, and important question.

The great American writer Annie Dillard was good on the subject of our internal resources. Citing the painter Klee when he said You adapt yourself to the contents of the paintbox” Dillard observes that:

The painter, in other words, does not fit the paints to the world. He most certainly does not fit the world to himself. He fits himself to the paint. The self is the servant who bears the paintbox and its inherited contents.

We can choose how varied our literal or metaphorical paintbox is. The more we invest in it, the more possibilities we have at our disposal. Mastering the technique and craft of our chosen domain is an important first step in developing our paintbox, as is embracing, understanding and appreciating its achievements. But of course we can and must go further. The more we cultivate an interest in what lies outside our domain, the more we open ourselves us to new possibilities, to new and exciting combinations. As the choreographer Twyla Tharp has put it: “Everything is raw material. Everything is valuable.”

So with that in mind, I’d want to suggest that there are seven kinds of reading we (planners) benefit from:

1. That which expands our capacity for empathy

2. That which grounds us in the basics of strategy

3. That which grounds us in the basics of how brands are built

4. That which illuminates the present state of things

5. That which lets us peer into the near-future

6. That which deepens our appreciation for creative instinct and craft

7. That which expands our capacity for persuasive expression

I’ve provided below some humble, and largely subjective serving suggestions, based on reading that’s stayed with me, reading I keep returning to, and more recent reading.

Some observations and caveats:

My point is to provide a point of view on the kinds of reading we benefit from, NOT, heaven forbid, to provide a comprehensive reading list.

Non-fiction does not hold the monopoly on truth and wisdom. The absence of fiction (which arguably contains more truth than any non-fiction) from recommended reading lists for planners is utterly baffling.

The fiction titles included are necessarily very personal and subjective choices – we must each work out our own tastes and preferences.

For the most part I have eschewed those breezily written books usually located in the psychology, business, or marketing sections of bookshops. More often than not they are of dubious methodological integrity. And everybody else has read them.

***

1. That which expands our capacity for empathy

Because without that we fail.

Ali Smith, How to be Both

Kate Atkinson, A God in Ruins

Graham Swift, Mothering Sunday

James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life: A Tale of the Lake District

Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk

Fiction teaches us empathy like no other art form.

(These are just some personal and recent favourites).

***

2. That which grounds us in the basics of strategy

Because there are basics to be learnt.

Stephen Bungay, The Art of Action: How Leaders Close the Gaps between Plans, Actions and Results

Lawrence Friedman, Strategy: A History

Judie Lannon and Merry Baskin’s (ed.) A Master Class In Brand Planning: The Timeless Works Of Stephen King.

Richard Rumelt, Good Strategy/Bad Strategy: The Difference And Why It Matters

***

3. That which grounds us in the basics of how brands are built

Because there are basics to be learnt.

ed., Advertising Works: Cases from the Advertising Effectiveness Awards

Les Binet & Peter Field, The Long and The Short of it: Balancing Short- and Long-Term Marketing Strategies

Paul Feldwick, The Anatomy of Humbug: How to Think Differently About Advertising

Byron Sharp, How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know

Judith Williamson, Decoding Advertisements: Ideology and Meaning in Advertising

This is the canon. There’s little else to bother with. The rest is just noise.

***

4. That which shines a light on the present state of things

Because insight.

Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology

John Brockman, ed., What Should We Be Worried About? Real Scenarios That Keep Scientists Up At Night

Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Terminal Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep

Anthony Giddens, The Consequences of Modernity

Mohsin Hamid, How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

Atticus Lish, Preparation For The Next Life

Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here: Technology, Solutionism, and the Urge to Fix Problems that Don’t Exist

Zia Haider Rahman, In The Light Of What We Know

Laurence Scott, The Four Dimensional Human: Ways Of Being In The Digital World

Duncan Watts, Six Degrees: The Science of a Connected Age

etc.

***

5. That which lets us peer into the near-future

Because our task is creating new futures for our clients’ businesses.

David Brin, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Privacy and Freedom?

Don DeLillo, Zero K

David Eggers, The Circle

William Gibson, Pattern Recognition

Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story

Jaron Lanier, Who Owns The Future?

John Markoff, Machines of Loving Grace: The Quest for Common Ground

John Tomlinson, The Culture Of Speed: The Coming Of Immediacy

***

6. That which deepens our appreciation for creative instinct and craft

Obviously.

Annie Dillard, The Writing Life

Harold McGee, McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History, and Culture

Gerhard Richter, The Daily Practice of Painting: Writings 1962-1993

Twyla Tharp, The Creative Habit

Amy Wallace and Edwin Catmull, Creativity Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

James Webb Young, A Technique for Producing Ideas

Sophie Lovell, Dieter Rams: As Little Design As Possible

***

7. That which expands our capacity for persuasive expression

Because forward progress depends on convincing others.

All great writing.

***

As I said, my point is to provide a point of view on the kinds of reading we can benefit from, NOT to provide a comprehensive reading list. And when it comes to kinds of reading, I suggest we that range across seven kinds:

1. That which expands our capacity for empathy

2. That which grounds us in the basics of strategy

3. That which grounds us in the basics of how brands are built

4. That which illuminates the present state of things

5. That which lets us peer into into the near-future

6. That which deepens our appreciation for creative instinct and craft

7. That which expands our capacity for persuasive expression

In 2006 the chefs Ferran Adria , Heston Blumenthal, Thomas Keller, and the writer Harold McGee put forward what they termed ‘the international agenda for great cooking’, and while its focus was food, it could well serve as the agenda and manifesto for anyone in the business of ideas and creativity who wishes to nurture and expand their intellectual resources:

We believe that today and in the future, a commitment to excellence requires openness to all resources that can help us give pleasure and meaning to people through the medium of food. In the past, cooks and their dishes were constrained by many factors: the limited availability of ingredients and ways of transforming them, limited understanding of cooking processes, and the necessarily narrow definitions and expectations embodied in local tradition. Today there are many fewer constraints, and tremendous potential for the progress of our craft. We can choose from the entire planet’s ingredients, cooking methods, and traditions, and draw on all of human knowledge, to explore what it is possible to do with food and the experience of eating.”

Happy reading.

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17 comments

  1. Kate

    Great suggestions. Under ‘Strategy’ I would add ‘Good Strategy, Bad Strategy’ by Richard Rumelt. Also, I would add ‘Molecules of emotion’ by Candace Pert (maybe as part of a mind/body or neuroscience section?). Thanks Martin.

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  3. Andy Brander

    Thought provoking thank you. Personally I think I’d add reading a variety of newspapers (on whatever device you choose though I cant help thinking print still best to ensure you remain exposed linearly to the full range of content as opposed to what you are already interested in). Apart from keeping informed, it provides a window on the way millions of people see the issues of the day through the often skewed filters of their proprietors’s leanings.

    • Martin Weigel

      That’s a great point, Andy. Even through a distorted lends, reading about current affairs is better than only seeing the world through the lens of marketing and/or technology.

  4. tomfgoodwin79

    A wonderful list. Truly spectacular and deeply helpful writing and thinking from you. I did wonder why they were all books. Increasingly blogs or articles can get comments from others, link to other sources and are likely to be updated. Wondered why they’re not included as “reading”

    • Martin Weigel

      Glad you liked it, Tom, thank you. I was more interested in the themes than a comprehensive list of reading suggestions. And interested in writing that went deep into its subject. But I’d definitely agree that there are some great online resources to fulfil them. Love to hear what would be on your list!

      • tomfgoodwin

        The way your arranged it via themes and the themes themselves were brilliant. I think my comment comes from a general bugbear of books. I lazily and incorrectly ( due to my awful attention span) think books are often padded out in the extreme. In many ( not all) cases a 250 page book could frequently be a 2,000 word post or 20 min presentation, but that’s harder to monetize.
        In a world of limited attention and time, I prefer formats with information density, or that people can challenge via comments, the one way notion of books I find antithetical to today. In particular the main reason I write is to test theories and get feedback, so any printed form I find a bit arrogant because you can’t listen.
        To your question, I tend to enjoy particular people’s way of looking at things, so my reading would be the work of Rory Sutherland, Yourself, Alan de Botton, Benedict Evans, Faris Yakob, James Martin, Jared Lanier etc. But my main diet is more random, it’s just things across all topics that pop into my Twitter feed. In particular I like learning from the edges of advertising, areas like Architecture or Design that are adjacent but different. Sites like the Edge.org I love but I find it hard going often.

      • Martin Weigel

        I’m with you. That’s largely while I omitted all that “breezily written” stuff. It’s not just guilty of padding, but of of horrifically bad writing, dubious sources, dodgy methodology… all in the name of self-promotion. I’ve always maintained that if anything popular is filed under business, brand, business or psychology, one is better off just reading the dustcover, rather than parting with hard-earned cash. It’ll cover pretty much all you need to know.

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  6. Claire

    This is a great list. Broad, wide-ranging… exactly what we need. Especially for the argument in favour of fiction. Just out of curiosity, this is a little light on psychology and history, and many of the choices on the state of things and the near future are quite institutional-focused (or the ones that I’m familiar with, at any rate). Is it just a personal preference when choosing what to read?

    Not an addition per se, but one you may be interested in: “In A Different Voice” by Carol Gilligan. Gilligan worked under Lawrence Kohlberg on his theory of moral development in the 1970s, but split with him when he asserted women were ‘incapable’ of higher moral development. It’s an illuminating read that examines how people develop their sense of empathy, and how this in turn guides moral decision-making. Written over 30 years ago, it still feels fresh and relevant today, helped by her highly engaging style (a rarity in academia). She even uses scenes from drama and literature to illustrate her argument.

    Another for craft: “The Sense of Style” by Steven Pinker. It may as well be subtitled, “Anyone Can Write Well if They Just Think a Little and Try A Lot (Harder)”. But that would be over-long and utterly defeat his point.

    • Martin Weigel

      Hi Claire, I was careful to note that the titles are merely illustrative of kinds of reading. Any omissions are merely because I wasn’t aiming to be anywhere near comprehensive. Which would have been an exercise in both arrogance and futility. But Yes to the inclusion of history and psychology!

  7. jeremy tw

    Martin, you old pro… a brilliant list and a fantastic set of themes. I have to confess I’ve read but a few, but I’d add two (may two and a half) which talk to the psychology of decision making and human behaviour (we are after all in the business of influencing decisions): Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman and The Emotional Brain by Joe LeDoux (the faint hearted can get the gist from the first two chapters). The half would be ‘The Tipping Point’.

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