Learning to Enjoy “Ristening” Again

by Glenn on October 10, 2017

At 54, I feel a certain anxiety about, among many things, the short list of books I read each year and, cumulatively, looking at the limits of age and time will never read this side of eternity. On the one hand, I do read some books every year which puts me, according to this study, in the 70th percentile, above those people who have not  touched even one book this year.

The same study referenced above says that Americans read an average of 12 books a year. This number is skewed, though, because the median number of books read is four, indicating that at least some people who read books read lots of books. The number that was important to me was the 17 books per year read by college graduates. I’d like to be better than average.

Over the Christmas holiday in 2015 I read Steve Leveen’s, The Little Guide to Your Well-Read Life (Delray Beach, Florida: Levenger Press, 2005).

It’s a short but inspiring read and includes some helpful advice. For example, he offers a rule that says if you are not loving a book after 50 pages, move on to something else. He is fighting “finish-your-plate mentality” when it comes to reading.

I’ve taken his suggestion of keeping a written “List of Candidates” (books you may want to read) and a physical “Library of Candidates”— shelves of books you want to read (though one assumes these are still subject to the 50-page rule, of course).

The best thing I picked up from this book, though, was a practice of reading that includes listening to books, especially in the car, which for him was “the end of road rage.” He invented a word for this—“ristening” (reading + listening). This has been a habit in the past—I’ve listened to George Orwell’s 1984 and the fabulously narrated Harry Potter books, for example—but have decided to be more consistent about it.

So for the past few years, I’ve been ristening as I am out and about. I will turn still to our local jazz (KMHD 89.1) and/or classical (KQAC 89.9) station when my mind is too preoccupied for concentration, but I’m amazed at the ground you can cover when you rescue drive time from the endless (and what often feels like pointless and sometimes insufferable) talking on NPR or political talk shows.

I have one cautionary note: “Ristening” is a different kind of reading because you can’t take notes (legally or safely) when you are driving. It may be that “ristening” is better-suited for works with a strong narrative focus—literature and novels and biography/memoir, but for this season I’ve been focused on non-fiction.

Initial achievements:

1

Barbara Ehrenreich. Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America. New York: Macmillan Audiobook, 2009.

Cover artwork of Barbara Enhrenreich's Bright-Sided

My previous exposure to Barbara Ehrenreich was when I read Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America, which was hard to put down and challenging to process. She described her experience trying to live on minimum wage for a few months, including time at Wal-Mart and a maid service. My impression of her was of an honest and thorough reporter dealing with an issue that is tough to resolve. I know I tend to compare up—I look at people whose incomes and lifestyles are greater than mine. When I think about “lack,” it’s much different from someone earning minimum wage.

Bright-Sided was a different kind of book. It began with Ehrenreich’s experience with cancer, where she was told her attitude was an important part of her recovery. Different from a minimum wage job, which was kind of an experiment, this was her actual life. She described group processing sessions for cancer patients where you weren’t allowed to be negative. I felt a kind of tension as an observer to the experience: You have the group facilitator who perhaps doesn’t want to deal with excessive negativity and then you have the cancer patient who is feeling negative but told that their negativity is hurting them. Happily for Ms. Ehrenreich, she survived cancer, but she reports it wasn’t because she was positive. Further, her background in the sciences made it clear that her attitude about her cancer had nothing to do with whether she survived cancer. The agenda of this book is to show that so-called positive thinking hurts more than it helps.

It took a while, but the longer I read the book the more I liked it. I guess up front I was a little resistant to what feels like an obvious fact: that sunnier people are easier to be around than the pessimist/realist. I struggled at first because I felt like she was discounting what I would call a common-sense approach to being positive. This simply means that if you’ve got a group of people working together and one of them is sullen, relentlessly negative, etc., it’s tough to be around them. In the workplace, you do need people who will caution, “This won’t work because …” or “Maybe we should consider …” They are invaluable. But day in and out, they are hard to take if nay-saying is all they have to offer.

If you have to choose between working with upbeat or woeful, don’t most of us choose the former? You show two potential employees a pile of work that needs to be done. One says, “Wow, look at all that. When can I get started?” The other moans, “Whoah. That’s so much.” Which one are you going to hire?

I think Ehrenreich is not focused on personalities, though. The deeper point she wants to make is that positive thinking can be dangerous. She references the Bush Administration and the ramp-up to the Iraq War. She reported that the Bush administration at the highest level had a kind of allergy to anyone who would say anything negative about the planning and operations for the War in Iraq. There wasn’t room in the room for anyone who wanted to raise the question of what possibly could go wrong. This is fair criticism. Plenty went wrong and while there’s no way to see how things might have turned out had we not taken on Saddam Hussein,  it’s hard to argue that the Iraq War has left the region in better shape than it was. Her point is that anyone who does not want to look at possible downsides is neglecting their duty.

Having been, though, in the situation where you’re trying to take a group of people from here to there, after you’ve considered downsides and tried to anticipate all the things that can go wrong with a course of action—unintended consequences—, when it’s time to move, you want the team to be in action with a problem-solving attitude, not endlessly having to defend the course of action, hearing why it’s a bad idea, or, worse, having someone tell you, “See I told you so.”

I may be quibbling, though.

Ehrenreich is against hucksterism of all stripes. This includes motivational speakers. But it also includes religious leaders. Though she is critical of the very idea of faith in God (and Calvinism takes some hits along the way), she is respectful of most Christians. My favorite part of the book was the chapter, “God Wants You to be Rich,” where she discussed her experience at Joel Osteen’s Lakewood Church in Houston, Texas. I found it hard to disagree with much of what she said.

Also, the chapter on psychology was fascinating. As a culture, we are obsessed with happiness.

What was difficult about this book is the worldview. Ms Ehrenreich is one who doesn’t see much use in religion. She has (at least when she wrote the book), and I hope this is both a fair and accurate description of her position, a materialist view of the universe, which simply means there is nothing beyond our experience of the world. There is no God or heaven or hell. And while she doesn’t mock those who believe in God, she certainly takes some of them to task.

There is a significant tension in our world between people of faith and people with the materialist (not intended as a pejorative word) view of ultimate things. The apostle Paul would confirm that “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing,” but while I don’t hold to Ehrenreich’s view, it’s hard to be critical because she is intellectually consistent.

Where we may have common ground, is that I believe we are both against what I would describe as “faith in faith,” which might be characterized by the person who says, “I just think it’s important to believe that things are going to work out.” Faith requires an object beyond itself. If you want to believe in God, then believe in God. If you don’t believe there’s a God, then you can trust other people. But you can’t trust in the idea of belief, because there’s nothing there. Believe is something you do. To give power to it is idolatrous if you believe in God or nonsense if you think there isn’t one.

It’s been a while since I listened, but if I were able to sit with Ms. Ehrenreich and talk over a cup of coffee, I’d want to ask her about the importance of faith vs. realism in everyday life.

The great American myth, of course, is, “You can be anything you want to be; you can do anything you dream about doing.”

It seems to me that many of our enterprises in life require a kind of faith. To make things happen, don’t we at some level have to believe that we can make things happen? Writing a book is an act of faith—you believe that you can do it. Creating a new product is an act of faith—you trust that if you get the brightest people you can find around the table, together you can make something useful.

While we dream of possibilities, we can’t ignore reality. Ehrenreich’s point is that without a firm grounding in reality, you end up with an Iraq War, the sub-prime mortgage meltdown, and a culture that blames victims for their circumstance—”You got sick; you must have been thinking sick thoughts” or “You lost your job; you must have had a bad attitude.”

This was a great “read” but, ultimately, when it comes to the decision to orient my life around an understanding that there is or there is no God, I find I have to agree to disagree with her, even as I consider many of her words a kind of prophetic statement for Christians.

2

David Allen. Making It All Work: Winning at the Game of Work and the Business of Life. New York: Viking (The Penguin Group), 2008.

Covert artwork of David Allen's Making It All Work: Winning at the Game of Work and the Business of Life

David Allen says that the people who need his help the least are often the ones who gain the most. I’m not one of those people. If my organizational style is a Peanuts character, then I am Pig-Pen.

I can’t say that Allen has saved my life or anything, but he sure has saved my sanity. Earlier in life I attended time management seminars and purchased planners and tried to get my act together to no avail. David Allen’s great gift is helping people whose lives are in chaos to gain both control and perspective.

Getting Things Done (GTD) is the approach Allen has developed over his career to help people be more productive. For many years I was a non-implementing fan. I knew that somehow he understood me and “Wow, this would be great if I ever really needed it,” but I was able to get by in life without a serious approach to organization because much of my work was self-evident. For everything else, I could wing it, using bits and pieces of GTD. I was able to tell others the best practices for Getting Things Done, but wasn’t doing them myself. I didn’t have what Allen calls the “complete inventory of agreements with myself and others.” It was (and often still is) noisy in my head as I did exactly the opposite of what Allen recommends, “doing things when they show up rather than blow up.”

In the last few years, I have been forced me to embrace his system. (Truth is, I needed it before, but life was less hectic and I could fake it better.) For this season of life, though, I am working in a hectic retail environment that includes frequent interruptions and requires continual task-shifting. New inputs often are coming faster than I can close loops. It’s exasperating. These circumstances were the prodding I needed to get serious and implement GTD fully for my own peace of mind. If the world in which I work is spectacularly inefficient, at least I’m not always making the problem worse.

Every once in a while I read someone who is critical of Allen and his methodology. They say things like, “Life is not about getting things done, it’s about getting the right things done.” While that sounds wise and condescending, it is odd, needless, and inapplicable criticism because I don’t think Allen would ever say, “Make sure that you are productive in the most irrelevant and trivial areas of life. Put all your focus there.”

Allen does say,

“If you don’t give appropriate attention to what has your attention, it will take more of your attention than it deserves.”

On some level, it’s all important—whether we’re talking about purchasing groceries, getting the bills paid at work, or maintaining a devotional life—and Allen’s real help to people like me is he gives me a way to handle it all, because it all needs to be handled.

Still, we have only so many hours in a day, and our culture of endless distraction will give us things to do that don’t need to be done, or at least doing them comes at the expense of other things. Making It All Work is the book (and I’ve gone back and read the actual book, too) that ties productivity to discernment. Allen cautions, “You can do anything, but not everything.”

With this book Allen reviews, briefly, his basic productivity system, which amounts to a five-step process. He has used different words over the years, but the steps are:
1. COLLECT or CAPTURE
2. PROCESS or CLARIFY
3. ORGANIZE
4. REVIEW or REFLECT
5. DO or ENGAGE

That is the material that made Allen a, if not the, productivity expert. This five-step process is all about control. When you’re doing what needs to be done, life is much more peaceful. But along with control, you also need perspective, which is the primary focus of this book. Perspective is found in the six “Horizons of Focus,” also referred to as an “Altitude Map.”

On the runway are ACTIONS that we need to take in a “this moment doing level.” One hopes there is a portion of your day when you can take the actions you need to move your life forward. These actions are organized onto lists by context. For example, any calls you need to make should be on a “Calls” list.

At the 10,000′ level are PROJECTS that you’ve committed to finish that require more than one step to complete. These need to be tracked. On a minimum weekly basis (in the “Weekly Review”), you need to go through each of your projects and determine the next action, which then goes on the appropriate action list.

At the 20,000′ level are AREAS of FOCUS and RESPONSIBILITY. We have roles in life and things that must be maintained. Periodically, you go through the Areas of Focus and Responsibility to make sure these areas are moving forward.

At the 30,000′ level are GOALS and OBJECTIVES. These are the things we want to accomplish at work and in life. They are not projects because the timeline is longer. The achievement of a goal or objective will require the completion of a number of shorter-term projects.

At the 40,000′ level is VISION. This is where you ask, “Are you in the right game?”

Finally, at the 50,000′ level is PURPOSE and CORE VALUES/PRINCIPLES, which is where you ask the questions, “Why am I here?” and “Am I living the life I want?” This list doesn’t need to be visited as often as the Projects List, but it does require our engagement from time to time, to make sure we are living from the inside out.

*  *  *

I appreciate that Allen doesn’t really sell a product so much as teach you principles for how to think about “stuff” in all its crazy permutations. I’ve attended workshops where they give you a planner and show you how to work the planner and I felt broken—like the proverbial square nail in the round hole. The rewriting of lists every day and identifying A, B, and C tasks simply didn’t work for me. I was working for the planner, rather than the other way around. To be honest, I’ve struggled quite a bit to create a GTD system that does work for me, but think I finally have my implementation.

(I tried an online system—IQ Tell, a business that has now gone under—then shifted to the cross-platform app OmniFocus 2, before going back to paper because of the lack of learning curve.) One of my issues was getting past that feeling of wanting a system that looks good and makes me look cool vs. a system that actually is good because it works and I am able to rely on it. (I’ve decided it’s better to actually be productive than to be trying to figure out how to use a computer to be more productive.)

Also, I appreciate Allen’s gracious spirit. There’s no “Or else …” quality to his writing or teaching. It’s not that he is unclear about what he is teaching in terms of best practices, but he’s figured out a way to engage with people without being confrontational or patronizing. He comes across as a servant, which is refreshing.

Some things I’ve learned from Allen:

Organization is not a one-time event. I think that’s a fallacy I accepted along the way. You don’t get organized and then suddenly everything is easy. I’ve assumed that somewhere out there is a time and place where I won’t need to bring order to a cluttered world. That’s delusional. Organizing is an ongoing process. We sometimes “fall off the wagon,” one of Allen’s metaphors for losing control, but the point of the system is that you have a system (“At least you have a wagon.”) and you can get back into control.

Learning Allen’s system does take some time. He encourages a two-year horizon for incorporating the methodology and developing new neuro pathways. This is helpful. I might have quit, otherwise, assuming I would never get it. The end of last year was two years of my getting serious with GTD. While I still have far to go, especially with consistency around the weekly review (the core of the system), things are so much better than they would be without this system. I was helped by a statement I heard Allen make somewhere (possibly in this book):

“I guarantee that if you only increase the amount of things that you write down and don’t lose consistently by 10%, it will change your life for the better.”

This is true.

Allen teaches the concept of “Someday/Maybe”, which has saved me so much time. Just having a place to dump ideas and random thoughts that I may or may not want to act on in the future (but definitely don’t want to keep thinking about or lose) has been unbelievably freeing. I used to think that having the thought meant I had to follow up on the thought. Maybe? Maybe not. For example, perhaps I hear about a book I might want to read. In the past, I would have purchased it. I still might if there are compelling reasons, but more likely these days I will put it on a books list in the Someday/Maybe section of my planner.

The best thing I have learned, though, is how to keep track of projects which, by their scope and design, will take a couple of years to finish. For example, reading and listening my way through Michael Steinberg’s The Symphony, and reflecting on the experience; also, reading through the complete works of William Shakespeare. These projects are important to me, but tend to get put on the back burner (or, worse, lost) when my schedule gets out of control. But these days I have a project list and can go back any time and pick up where I left off.

This is the study that is making other study possible.

3

Timothy Keller. King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus. New York: Macmillan Audiobook, 2009.

Timothy Keller is among my favorite preachers these days. Among the things I enjoy about his preaching is his focus on the gospel: the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. His sermons are neither self-improvement projects, nor unrelated to normal, daily life.

Here is Dr. Keller giving an introduction to his works.

What I learned listening to this book is that this is exactly the wrong sort of book to listen to in the car. There are too many places where in a regular book I would want to highlight/underline/write a note/etc. And, as a sometime preacher, there are some excellent quotes in here. The problem is there is no easy or legal way (while driving) to capture what you are listening to. And so I’m learning that books that are trying to teach you something are not ideal for the car. So this was a little frustrating as a listening exercise.

Fortunately, I had already read the book, which is in a banker’s box in storage. As we had just started a series on the Gospel of Mark at church, I decided I wanted a review.

One of the things I appreciate about Dr. Keller is his use of the Gospels to define the gospel. I think most of my church upbringing, the gospel message was what Paul preached, something along the lines of, “You are saved by grace through faith in Jesus.” And while that’s true, it’s also the easier path, because if means it means that when Paul says in so many words that we need to have faith in Jesus, then all we need to do is to unpack the word faith and encourage people to “faithe” (using the word as a verb, which is the essence of faith) or believe.

I think it is more difficult to derive truth from narrative. And it takes a little more something to tie the gospel stories together into a coherent framework of what the gospel is all about. You need to be faithful to the individual stories, but then make sense of all the stories together. Keller does this.

This book clearly is based on a sermon series that Dr. Keller gave at his pastorate, Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, but it doesn’t read like a series of sermons. And it’s not a commentary so you don’t get verse by verse notes. Neither does it deal with every passage in Mark. This is a meditation on the themes of the Gospel of Mark.

The book mirrors the structure of Mark, so it comes in two parts: first, telling us who Jesus is and what makes him King; and second, what he did on the cross and why it matters.

One interesting thing about this book was the narrator—his work was fine, but he did pronounce one word in a way I wasn’t used to. Keller uses the Hebrew word Shekinah on a number of occasions, referring to God’s glory as present in Jesus. I’ve always heard it pronounced, “sheh KIE nuh.” This narrator kept saying, SHEH kih nuh, which threw me off. One of the virtues of hearing a book read is that you often learn how to pronounce words correctly (for example, “her My uh knee,” rather than “HER me own.”) On the one hand, I love it when this kind of thing happens, where I learn to pronounce a word correctly. On the other hand, it’s always a little humiliating to recognize you’ve been  (apparently) mispronouncing a word most of your life.

 

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