Margaret Heffernan on Business and Books
May 21, 2015
We conclude our Thinker in Residence series with Margaret Heffernan by asking her a few questions about our bread and butter—business and books.
For the most part, all of my writing has looked at human themes and trends that apply to all of life, of which business is a part.
I love digging into the topics of a book with authors like we did in this morning's with Margaret Heffernan and her new book, Beyond Measure. But I have to admit that, as a reader, my favorite part of these interviews is always when we ask about their reading habits. Knowing what authors authors read, how it crosses genres and influences their thinking, is fascinating to me, and Ms. Heffernan's replies on the matter do not disappoint.
Q: What is the one unanswered question about business you are most interested in answering?
MH: For the most part, all of my writing has looked at human themes and trends that apply to all of life, of which business is a part. As such, they're not 'pure' business books—Beyond Measure may be the closest I've ever come to a pure business book and even then subtle readers will see that its lessons could be applied more broadly. So the ideas I'm drawn to are everywhere in life, not just business. The question which is nagging me currently is: what is courage? What do we mean when we talk about it; what produces it; why is it so rare; and what (if anything) could we do to engender courage more widely? This question first arose because courage was widely used to describe such a vast range of behaviors that it felt to me we don't really know what it means. We know some people demonstrate courage but most don't—why? It's not the same as bravery which is about endurance. It's not the same as boldness or rashness. So what do we really mean by it and could we teach it? I've encountered many people I deem to have been courageous and I'm trying to understand what goes on in their minds that is different from others.
Q: What book has influenced your work the most?
MH: It sounds rather pretentious but I'd have to say War and Peace. I read it about every 4-5 years or when I'm on the brink of some change. It just feels as if all life is in there. It's strange because, on some level, it's not very well written—it's lumpy and chaotic but then so is life and so is business! And I think it captures the contingencies of life. We think we're in charge but resilience truly is about our capacity not to determine events but to respond to them.
In terms of a pure business book, I really liked Ed Catmull's Creativity Inc., which is straightforward and delightfully devoid of jargon and the contorted abstract language that characterizes much business writing. He's calls it as he finds it—and he's done it!
Q: What is the book you wish you had written (or admire the most) and why?
MH: I am a big fan of Tracy Kidder. I loved his Soul of the New Machine and I've loved everything he has written since. He captures the passion that can be found in work better than any writer I can think of—especially the passion that's aroused when work gets really difficult.
Q: What book are you reading right now?
MH: In the summer, I always read fiction—as a break, because I love it and because there's evidence it's good for your thinking! So I'm working my way through the writing of an Italian author, Elena Ferrante.
War and Peace ... It just feels as if all life is in there. It's strange because, on some level, it's not very well written—it's lumpy and chaotic but then so is life and so is business!