Reading for pleasure rarely yields insights into how to tackle the issues that occupy our professional lives. Knowing that the devil wears Prada is great, but some beleaguered assistant whining about her boss is hardly edifying. It doesn't have to be that way. We've assembled six books — one older one paired off with a modern cousin — that you won't be ashamed to read at the beach and that will make you think about issues of job happiness, leadership, and how a journey can transform your perspective.
Seeking Meaning in Your Work
The Books: The Hucksters (1946) and Slick (2004)
"A man has to feel like somebody," says Vic Norman in Frederic Wakeman's ad-world satire The Hucksters. "He has to be functional and get a kick out of his work, or it won't mean a damn thing to him." Ironically, Norman is a star advertising account executive who reviles his trade — the dirty world of soap advertising. Scott Singer, the spin master at the center of Daniel Price's Slick, faces the same dilemma. Singer's a freelance PR agent and unscrupulous mercenary, handling guns, liquor, tobacco, and naked coeds with aplomb. Both men use their stunning successes to rationalize unfulfilling lives of fabrication and artifice.
Sure, they'd change jobs — if they weren't so damn good at what they do. Norman's cool exterior, impeccable ear for talent, and knack for turning competitors into co-conspirators make him a walking instruction manual for managing customers. Saddled with an obtuse and micromanaging soap magnate for a client, he deftly redirects the man's attention from perceived failures to new opportunities by getting inside his client's head and anticipating his tastes, saving his hide and winning accolades from his boss in the process. Slick's Singer is every bit as crafty, though his story is faster, funnier, eminently more readable, and bristling with barbed allusions to today's pop culture. Approached to promote the grand opening of a Hawaiian resort, Singer goes straight to the opposition, signing up 120 undergrad environmentalists to protest the resort — in the buff — on behalf of an endangered seal.
Granted, the seal hadn't lived there in years; and, yeah, the naive girls, from Maine, were just looking for a free trip to Hawaii; and sure, the ensuing publicity worked in the resort's favor . . . but everyone left the table smiling.
Everyone except for the protagonists. Guilt-ridden and unsatisfied, Norman's and Singer's ingenuity for inauthenticity is ultimately no match for their disingenuousness. Both men seek redemption in romance, but these subplots are red herrings (and in the case of The Hucksters, it's such a departure that it kind of loses us). As the stories close, the common lesson is really about finding meaning and success in the same place.
The Books: The Great Man (1955) and The CEO (2005)
"There's a certain amount of bastard in all of us," says Ed Harris, the protagonist in The Great Man, by Al Morgan. "And I'm being given the chance to let it develop." The network's egomaniacal TV and radio headliner has died, and before the coffin has even been chosen, Harris, a midlevel
New York radio personality, finds himself thrust into the national spotlight, the heir apparent to the throne. Now if only he can keep a level head and make the right decisions.
But leadership isn't big on providing right answers. There are only best answers — and often they aren't that appealing. The Great Man, as the network star was known, was the cream of the scum — and just about everyone who knew him is convinced Harris is bound for the same fate. In just a few days, Harris is double-crossed, blackmailed, and tempted with bribes, liquor, sex, and power (all of which he samples).
Throughout the barrage, Harris questions if he's up to the job — whether you have to be an SOB to be the boss or whether this self-described decent guy would be better off just walking out. Does he take the gig? The question is never answered; Harris's final words — "Will I?" — leave the reader to decide what Harris should do.
The CEO, by Owen Burke and Duff McDonald, also realizes that leadership is a choose-your-own-adventure game. This subtle-as-a-brick satire places you at the head of a wildly successful clothing company, Fleece Industries, and offers different outcomes depending on the choices readers make. It forces you to confront the same vocational crises — whom to trust? Whom to fire? Whom to sleep with? — as does The Great Man. As your net worth climbs, you face just about every ripped-from-the-headlines executive dilemma imaginable. Do you take the call from the old college buddy who helped give you your start? Is your head saleswoman scamming you out of millions? Make the right choices, and you're only rewarded with even greater challenges (think your teenage daughter, a sex tape, and the Internet).
If leadership were easy, we wouldn't have to look at Jack Welch's grinning mug every time we pass Barnes & Noble. There are two choices: Magically become a leader overnight, or hone your skills over time by "learning" to make smart choices with quick reads like The Great Man and The CEO. Both books will pass the time faster than any treatise on Six Sigma.
Finding Perspective in a Journey
The Books: The Log From the Sea of Cortez (1941) and The Motorcycle Diaries (1995)
These nonfiction personal journals by two of the 20th century's greatest minds, John Steinbeck and Ernesto "Che" Guevara, are factual accounts furnished with colorful, candid observations, their implicit message being an imperative to discover the world beyond our field of view. The first rule of a journey: Don't go alone. The second: The American diet of work, stress, and deadlines could use a serious adjustment.
Steinbeck was the first to get wise. Enlisting his best friend and a small crew, he pushes off from the dock in San Diego in a 70-foot yacht bound for the Gulf of California. Sailing away from the crowds and commerce, he watches from the deck "as though they moved, not we," signaling that the journey ahead offers a refreshing shift in perspective. Steinbeck and his crew's social values, their priorities, and even their sense of time are soon thrown into stark contrast by the native Americans they encounter in Baja California. Here they find a people "too ignorant to understand the absurdities merchandising can really achieve when it has an enlightened people to work on."
Attempting to buy a man's harpoon, Steinbeck discovers that the natives have no concept of time as a "salable article." The harpoon may cost three pesos, he says, but the man is unable to put a precise cost on the three days he must travel in his canoe to buy another.
Like Steinbeck, Guevara and his closest friend set out on a similar journey of exploration, but across South America on a motorcycle. In the impoverished towns and villages, they encounter a slower pace of life, and a people "halfway between two worlds." Outside of Caracas, Venezuela, Guevara encounters peasants living in boxcars while modern aircraft soar overhead. Out of sync with the modern culture around them, the South American natives nevertheless have much to share. Guevara writes of how he's changed from what he's seen. "The person who reorganizes and polishes [these notes], me, is no longer, at least I'm not the person I once was."
Like the unscripted journeys they catalog, Steinbeck and Guevara are at the whim of time, place, and chance. The experiences they bring back remind us that real life takes shape outside the confines of quarterly reports and mission statements.
A version of this article appeared in the July 2005 issue of Fast Company magazine.