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24 Books in 24 Months and All I Got Was This Lousy List

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I get my reading in when I can, because it’s one of the few activities that I find relaxing. While I don’t lack reading material, I lack proper diligence to finish books within a reasonable amount of time. I suspect that this list would be triple the size had I actually committed to reading each evening, and not try to multi-task several books at once. Oh well.

I tend not to write proper reviews for finished books. I believe book impressions, instead of full-on book reviews, are more important. I tend to forget most of the details around a particular book, save for one or two salient points. Much like how good films evoke particular feelings, good books leave solid and resonant impressions. The impression can be this author really knows his domain well, and I’d better keep the book as a reference guide. Maybe it’s holy smokes the author is really speaking to me! And then there’s the ever dependable hey, I learned something new about the world today. Each impression is valuable in its own way.

This is a shared list of impressions. Links are also provided, in case you want to explore the plot summaries and other bits of detail.

Highly recommended

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Marty Cagan, Inspired: How to Create Products Customers Love. They should just change the title of this book to “The Product Management Bible Every Product Manager Should Read” and call it a day. The guidance in this book is unbelievably on-point, and every current and aspiring product manager should buy a copy of this book. I don’t do 30% of the things he describes at a proficient level, but hey, knowing is half the battle. There’s also a great interview with Jeff Bonforte, who is now running the show at Yahoo as a senior executive.

Dave Eggers, The Circle. The nightmarish vision contained in this piece of fiction is scary because it is so close to reality. We are already halfway there in terms of having technology and social media take over our lives. This is the first piece of work I’ve read from Eggers, and I intend to read more.

Peter Hessler, River Town. Hessler writes about his experience as a foreigner teaching English in the Sichuan province of China during the late 90’s. I couldn’t put the book down because so much of it explains why China is the way it is today. As I read page by page, I couldn’t help but see that all of us are shaped by our education. More importantly, we all have dreams, hopes and aspirations. The classroom and teacher dynamics that Hessler describes are revealing. This was an engrossing book, and I hope you read it even if you don’t plan on visiting China.

Chuck Klosterman, Eating the Dinosaur. Klosterman is the smartest guy in the room – a laid-back, analytical, intelligent guy who can write convincingly about any pop culture or sports topic. After getting a taste of his style on the Grantland web site, I dove head first into this collection of essays. He’s smart, but not trying too hard. He makes you laugh with the seriousness in which he dissects pop culture minutiae, but it’s earnest and coming from the right place. After Eating the Dinosaur, I’m set on devouring the rest of his bibliography.

Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, Superfreakonomics. While I’ve not had the pleasure of reading the original Freakonomics manifesto, I truly enjoyed this sequel. What’s the book about? To quote the authors: “People respond to incentives, although not necessarily in ways that are predictable or manifest. Therefore, one of the most powerful laws in the universe is the law of unintended consequences.” Maybe I’m drawn to the book because I’m in China, and China is basically a massive social and economic experiment with unintended consequences. Or maybe I just really like the book’s attempt to correlate suicide bomber profiling with life insurance.

Brad Stone, The Everything Store. Each company has its strengths, weaknesses and quirks. The leader defines the DNA of the company; Jeff Bezos and Amazon is no exception. I read this book before I joined Amazon, and loved every page of it. Everything that makes Amazon what it is today can be traced back to the early days. We like to say that “It’s Still Day One” at Amazon, and this book takes you there.

Yu Hua, China in Ten Words. Yu Hua is a gifted writer, and this collection of stories from his past is framed around ten Chinese concepts. Much like the other books on this list, you’ll get a vivid picture of what made China the society it is today. One of the key points Yu makes is that the Cultural Revolution never ended – it merely evolved into the Economic Revolution. It’s a deep and insightful look into the Chinese psyche. Although I will never “understand” China, this book has allowed me to take a step towards the impossible goal.

Recommended

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Lizzy Acker, Monster Party. Acker is a writer with an incredibly gifted imagination. As I started reading this book in-between works of non-fiction, I enjoyed the creativity and fluidity of her narratives. There are crazy stories in here that are not really all that crazy because they come from a place that’s real. It’s hard to describe, but she has a unique voice and imagination that will knock your socks off.

James Altucher, Choose Yourself. If you haven’t heard of James Altucher, do yourself a favor and Google him. He’s the Rodney Dangerfield and Conan O’Brien of entrepreneurs – self-critical, honest, self-deprecating and all-around guru of managing your life in a non-BS way. After reading his blog for some time, I bought this book to learn what it really means to “Choose Yourself.” There’s some really good advice in here if you’re willing to curate the ones that are most valuable for you. As with any self-help book, your mileage may vary.

Scott Berkun, Confessions of a Public Speaker. This is a step-by-step guide on public speaking. Berkun is an accomplished writer and speaker who has done the speaking gig for a long time, but the point of the book is that we all get nervous from time to time. It doesn’t matter if you’re speaking to five people or a room of bored students. It doesn’t matter if you’re new or experienced. There are tips in here that will work for anybody. I really enjoyed the down-to-earth, practical advice contained here.

Titus Chalk, So Do You Wear A Cape? Chalk created a detailed account of the origins of Magic: The Gathering, from the early days of Richard Garfield to the modern game that it’s evolved into today. You pretty much only have to read the words “Magic,” “The,” and “Gathering” to make a decision on whether to touch this book with a 10-foot pole. If you are a Magic aficionado like I am, please show some respect for tradition and read this book.

Nir Eyal, Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products. How do you build addictive products? What are repeatable systems to do it? How are the Facebooks and Twitters of the world doing it? And is it morally acceptable to get people hooked on Candy Crush Saga? This is a short read, but a really good one.

Walter Isaacson, Steve Jobs. Isaacson writes a compelling biography about the Leonardo Da Vinci of our generation. Jobs was not a perfect human being by any stretch of the imagination. But he was a unique product visionary who transformed how we live today. Say what you will about Apple – it has lived up to our expectation of technology as a cultural and social transformative force. As Isaacson had intimate access to Jobs, the work here is insightful and revelatory.

Ian Johnson, Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China. The book captures three important lessons about modern Chinese society, in the guise of three stories. Johnson paints a vivid picture of what it means to face injustice in the Middle Kingdom today, and what the common man (and woman) is doing about it. Really engrossing stuff, made all the more poignant for me because Beijing is at the center of it, both literally and metaphorically.

Michael Lewis, Flash Boys. Can I just say something real quick? (Yes, Kanye.) I absolutely love Michael Lewis as a writer. In my mind, he’s the Michael Jordan of writers and can do no wrong. Having said all that, Lewis didn’t quite achieve classic status with this book. It’s about Finance, it’s about David vs. Goliath, but the payoff just isn’t as rewarding as some of his previous work. Give the man credit, though – if I ever want to learn about janitors or watching dust settle, I want Lewis to write about it. He can make anything laugh-out-loud funny.

Hamish McKenzie, Beta China. In a quick but revealing read, McKenzie gives a number of examples to illustrate the “incremental innovation” that is coming out of China tech companies. Some of the biggest names in China today are highlighted in his book. If you think the Chinese have done nothing original since inventing paper, pick this one up and be prepared to change your perspective.

Sam Smith, The Jordan Rules. This book was controversial when it was initially released, because it was a no-holds barred inside look at the Chicago Bulls locker room during the Jordan era. It’s fairly tame by 2014 standards, but if you ever wanted to know why Toni Kukoc and Jerry Krause were so reviled by Jordan, this is your jam. Smith writes with a steady hand, although if the foreword is to be believed, the success of the book really got to his head. But hey, the NBA – it’s greaaaaaaaat!

Michael Watkins, The First 90 Days. The classic book they ask you to read at MBA schools everywhere. It’s all about how to make a credible impact in the first 90 days of a new role or situation. It’s actually a very good book backed up with a lot of credible research, and a handy reference guide to revisit.

Wil Wheaton, Just a Geek. It’s unfair to pigeonhole Wheaton as merely a former child actor who happened to play Wesley Crusher in one of the biggest television shows ever. This book was a pleasure to read because he perfectly reveals his fears, joys, and insecurities – the whole nine yards. If you ever wanted to know what it’s like to be famous but not that famous, read this book. There’s a little bit of everything in here, from fatherhood to rejection to geek cred to anger. About being a human being, really.

Not recommended

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Roger Ebert, Life Itself. I bought this book because I wanted to get into the mind of one of the greatest film critics of our generation. I grew up watching Siskel and Ebert, followed by Ebert and Roeper. I have tremendous respect for Ebert’s critiques. But this book just didn’t do anything for me because it was dry, it was humorless, and there was a lot of narrative that I didn’t care for. Maybe I was just not in the right place to appreciate it.

Chris Hedges, War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning. Hedges is an American journalist who spent considerable time in warzones all around the world. It’s a nail-biter of a book, well written, and probably worthy of the accolades bestowed on it. But I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind to appreciate it. It took me several attempts to finish the book over a period of two years. I don’t regret reading it, but I wouldn’t recommend it, either.

Seth Godin, All Marketers Are Liars. I just can’t connect with Godin, supposedly one of the best marketing minds of our time. Between this book, Permission-Based Marketing and Purple Cow, I just can’t disseminate his writing style and guru-ness. It’s an incredibly short book, but I’d be hard pressed to tell you about anything I remember from it. Your best bet is to look for the Wikipedia summaries of his books – I suspect a 30-second summary will do the trick.

Harvard Business Review, On Managing Yourself. A collection of HBR essays on (drumroll please!) managing yourself. Only 20% of the book was valuable for me – the rest tended to repeat. I would try to find the essays individually instead of buying the whole book, if I had the chance to do it again.

Sheryl Sandberg, Lean In. While I’m not the target audience for this book, I was intrigued enough to pick up a copy. Most of the book reads like it was ghost-written by someone other than Sandberg. I never got a strong sense of authenticity from the narrative, nor do I feel that her advice would apply to white-collar women everywhere. It’s really one of those “love it or hate it” types of books, and I err on the latter.

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How to work with people

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This is an article about how to work with people, and how to be successful in the workplace. Most of the advice here applies to a corporate environment, which is the type of environment that I’ve been working in the longest. While I’ve held retail and other types of contract-for-hire jobs in the past, everything here applies to information workers in the new economy. I am not saying this to discount other types of jobs. Rather, this is an admission that the article is not meant to be comprehensive by any stretch of the imagination.

Why am I writing this? There are two reasons. The first reason is entirely selfish. I want to see if I can collect my thoughts on work, in a coherent way, and have people read it. I want to know if my system of thought resonates with readers. The second reason is more about giving. I want readers, new and experienced workers alike, to benefit from the advice. Whether you’re new to the corporate workplace or a seasoned veteran who’s looking for a different “gear” to shift to, I hope there’s something here for you.

I will also readily admit a key fact. There are a billion and one articles about working effectively with people and bosses and bosses’ bosses. There are a trillion more articles about “finding yourself” and “owning” your career and everything in between. The quotation marks in the previous sentence are not intended to denigrate any of the terms contained within – there is a time and place for each subject.

Instead of claiming to be exhaustive, my article focuses rather selfishly on what worked for me. It is my hope that this dire self-centeredness may somehow be helpful for you (no sarcasm-mo). What are things that you can always be mindful of, whether it’s your first day or your 5 year work anniversary?

Read on, my dear friend. And may we work together someday.

The world is not fair

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The company doesn’t owe you anything. You’re here because someone was delusional or optimistic enough to hire you, or there was budget available for a headcount and you happened to walk in the door. It’s crazy, but people expect to be rewarded – positionally or monetarily – without putting in the work. And then they get jealous when coworker X gets a promotion instead of them.

My rebuttal to these negative feelings is – do you really know what other people went through? Do you truly know their strengths? You may not think they’re all that great, but maybe their strength is sucking up to the boss or making their boss look good. If so, is that “fair”?

Maybe you should ask yourself – why should the world be fair for you? And if it’s not fair, are there things you can do to better improve yourself? The sooner you realize that companies are managed and held together through ego, and not through some universally agreed standard of fairness, the better.

The biggest mistake I see people make when things don’t go their way is sulk, gossip, and do bad work. Also known as: ruin it for the rest of the team. In this situation, you will have made the real mistake – which is to drag the organization into a downward spiral. If you do this, well, then the company really doesn’t owe you anything. It is easy to criticize – just like how we criticize a Transformers movie for not living up to one’s artistic aspirations – but it’s so much harder to create something and transform negativity into positivity.

Please repeat after me once again – the company doesn’t owe you anything. You owe yourself a good career, positive state of mind, and taking action to do something about all the negativity around you. You can complain, but it won’t help and five years from now you’ll be wondering why you’re still in the same old stale job.

All speed is relative

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You may think you’re taking too long to create that report, but you’re on the same team as The Tortoise and he can’t get anything done. You may think you’re Speedy Gonzales, but there is someone in the next cubicle who is chasing a promotion. He’s not going to sleep tonight, or next week for that matter, because he thinks that’s what it takes.

When your VP says “I want us to act fast” how fast do you think he means? If you ask him, what will he say? Think deeper and you may realize that there’s a reason he wasn’t specific – he wants people to draw their own conclusions and act on those impulses.

All speed in an organization is relative. Don’t beat yourself up over the small stuff. Do the work correctly. Communicate and manage expectations properly. One person’s “fast” is another person’s “slow” or “unbearable.” You’ll never be able to satisfy everybody, even when you’re the CEO.

Never, ever, EVER underestimate the power of hierarchy

There are plenty of organizations that claim to have a flat hierarchy, or a pure meritocracy. The CEO claims to have an open door policy and everyone is best buds with one another. Have escalations? Feel free to directly email your boss’s boss. And if that doesn’t work, just send an email to the CEO, he’ll help you. It’s a great environment, no political BS, everyone is on the same page.

In Magical Christmasland, maybe.

Here’s why every company has a hierarchy, despite what they tell you:

  1. People are paid different salaries.
  2. Humans are inherently hierarchical.
  3. Lowest common denominator. Even if a group of you – I’ll go out on an optimistic limb and say five people on the same bloody team – are completely ego-less and don’t care about rank, all it takes is one bad apple to ruin it for everyone else.

If you find a company that has neither 1, 2 or 3, please call me. I’m interested in studying your Magical Christmasland scenario.

Understand other people’s motivations

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The world doesn’t revolve around what you want. We’re all selfish creatures, driven by our own agenda and career aspirations. It sounds intuitive, but it’s surprising how often we forget this at work.

The company line is to “do the right thing” and serve the company goals. That’s fair and that’s what we’re paid for. But always understand where other people are coming from. If you are wondering why your neighborhood friendly coworker is stalling on your request, think about why that’s happening. Is it because he only listens to his boss? Talk to the boss. Is it because their team has a higher priority to address? Understand that priority. Is it because she just received a bad performance review? Talk to her later, or reach out to her colleague instead.

Listen to others

“Listen to others” does not mean that you should always do what others tell you to do. Having your own point of view is important. Rather, when someone is trying to tell you something, really listen. I’ve made a number of mistakes in my career (and life) where I thought I knew what someone had to say, but I really didn’t. I interrupted them. I wanted the quick solution. I put proverbial words in their mouths. I jumped to conclusions.

Why is this important? We’re human and want to be heard. We want our voices to matter. We want to get our grievances off our chests, and not to a random bartender in a local bar. You’ll know whether you’re listening right when you can see the acknowledgement in your coworker’s eyes. You will see it in their body language and how they respond to subsequent discussions.

People don’t remember specifics of issues or conversations over time – they only remember whether you were a nice person, or a prick. Remember this.

Don’t write when you can talk

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Mistake that I’ve made time and time again. It is so easy to hit that “Reply All” button and write a treatise on the situation that is longer than the American Constitution. Guess what? We don’t know what people read into emails. We don’t know if they’re reading it at all, or if they’re your worst enemy, extracting choice sound-bites to “quote” you later out of context.

Humans are analytical creatures. We like to over-think things. For every terse and verbose answer written on a smartphone, there’s a 40,000 word essay being drafted somewhere in Microsoft Outlook.

Have you noticed that eloquent writers are not so eloquent in interviews, or in conversation? This is because they have to speak their thoughts in real-time. They don’t have the luxury of writing and re-writing sentences.

When we write, and when we read, we have the capacity to make things overly complex. But when we converse, things get a little bit easier because we can’t process all that in real-time.

Own the communication. Pick up that phone and work it out with people. If possible, schedule a quick face-to-face.

You’ll be surprised what you can discover when you talk to someone and you ask them, “What’s the biggest thing we need to work out?” Or: “What’s your biggest concern right now?” You can often break a complex problem down to a few action items.

When you do have to write, don’t leave a dead-end

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If you do have to write something, the rule is to encourage a response or action. There is no email that can ever be comprehensive. It doesn’t matter if you think your communication is rock-solid – it never is. Don’t write your email as if you’re making a proclamation or speaking to a wall. Be fact-driven, tone down the fancy language, and invite a response.

“What do you think?” is a sentence that is surprisingly underrated in emails. I encourage you to give it a try.

Be good at something and own it

The information economy is full of casualties and has-beens and burnouts. We’re in a battlefield for our survival. We’ve been talking about outsourcing and people taking over our jobs for decades. We’re scared and we’re resentful. We’re probably looking over our shoulders.

The only solution to all of the fear and anxiety is to be good at something and market the heck out of it. Own the strength that you have, and let others know what you’re good at. And when times get bad – as they often do – buckle down and renew your skills. Do a skills inventory and figure out what you have to improve on. Follow through and improve it.

Don’t worry about fixing all of your weaknesses. Nobody is perfect. Make your strengths really strong, and improve your weaknesses to the point where they aren’t overshadowing all of your strengths.

Do what you say

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There’s a common phrase that “talk is cheap.” It’s true. Good talkers only survive for so long until the ruse is up. People, and organizations, have long memories.

When you say you will do something, do it. Don’t hide behind excuses. It’s easy to hide behind excuses, but it won’t be good when people find out (if you’re a pragmatist) and it won’t be good for your soul (if you believe in that kind of thing).

I was in project management for a long time. In the project management line of work, it’s all about under-promising and over-delivering. It’s why there are assholes like me who like to say “no” to everything. But it’s better to say “no” so that when you do say “yes,” people know you’re going to deliver.

Gossip doesn’t have to be negative

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Gossip is a tricky thing. You do it to feel some common bond. You feel like crap when you get involved in it, but it’s addictive. You want more. Then, you wonder what they’re saying about you when you leave the room. It’s like a refreshing beer – fun in small doses, but drink too much of it and you’ll get a nasty hangover.

The other thing to consider is that there’s an ultimate price for gossip. The price is the time you spend doing it with colleagues. Like attracts like, and if you want to get bogged down in negativity then gossip is a really effective way to reach that goal. Just like in your personal life, you want to be hanging around cool people. Cool people don’t gossip (all that much).

I’m a strong believer in “good gossip.” Gossip doesn’t have to be negative. Rather, it’s possible to spread the word about Bob being a good employee, or that Jane resolved major obstacles for you this week. If you do gossip right, it’s a bond between you and the team, and a win-win for all involved.

In closing

What does it mean to be “successful in the workplace”? For most people, it means that they are at peace with themselves and their situation. It means acceptance. Acceptance that when you crawl out of bed in the morning, the day is not going to feel like one continuous grind. The feeling that you’re going to get an honest day’s work in, and that you can leave with your head held high.

Are those lofty aspirations? Maybe. But it is attainable through a proper dose of self-awareness. Everything starts with the self. If you don’t take care of yourself, no one else will.

Look, work is damn hard. And if you’re having a great time in the workplace, then you’re probably not reading this anyway. But for the rest of us, it’s a continuous process of managing expectations, getting along with your peers, and developing a healthy relationship with your boss. It’s a journey that most of us take for pragmatic reasons, but we may as well make the journey semi-tolerable while we’re at it.

You have one life. You have to work. If you have to work, make it count.

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A German holiday

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How was the trip?

Glad you asked! Here is the short version of our answer:

Fun, but short. The Germans were nice and direct people. Trip was eye opening in many respects. A great trip, would definitely consider visiting again in the future.

For a longer version of the experience, please read on.

Setting the stage

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Donna and I took a vacation in Germany this month. Neither one of us had ever visited the country before, but we knew it was rich with history, culture and tradition. If anything, visiting Germany was high on our “bucket list” of things to do.

We mulled over several alternatives — Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Switzerland, France and Spain — but settled on Germany for several reasons. The Southeast Asian countries were more relaxing, “sit by the beach” affairs. They were comfortable but unexciting spots. Japan and Korea boasted vibrant, metropolitan cities, but they just weren’t exotic enough or distant enough for Chinese visitors. Some of the other EU countries were objectively “prettier” than Germany, but Donna had been to a number of them and we wanted this trip to be a collectively fresh experience. While going to Germany would require more research and “work” than a laissez-faire vacation, we felt the investment was worth it.

With only one week to spend in Germany, the itinerary came down to the following cities: Berlin, Weimar, Prague, and Munich. We would focus on the eastern part of Germany, as Berlin and Munich were two of the best cities to visit. Prague was a lovely city, and fairly close to Berlin, so it became an obvious choice for us. The plan was to fly into Berlin, rent a car, and then have a week-long road trip. 

Note: I want to give a special shout-out to my friends Peter, Frank and Chris for the invaluable tips on Germany. The trip could not have been nearly as enjoyable without your suggestions. Thank you. 

Something else weighed on my mind, and catapulted my desire to visit Germany. I was a keen student of twentieth century European history in high school and wanted to see Germany with my own eyes. The twentieth century was full of change for the Germans, to say the least. The epic disappointments and disillusionment of the First World War ultimately led to the rise of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. From that point on, many atrocities were committed in the name of progress and ideology. Germany was defeated in the Second World War, but it carries its national guilt and atonement to the present day. It’s a shadow that, like Japan, continues to impact the way people perceive the country, both within and without. (Unlike Japan, Germany manages to acknowledge its past, which is a topic for another day.)

Important events happened in this country which continue to impact the world today. Although younger generations have largely moved on, and Germany has transformed into a prosperous, modern-day democracy, it can be mind-blowing to think about everything that’s happened in less than a hundred years. I write this not to dwell on the negativity of the past, but to show an appreciation for the very ground I stood on during the German trip. Everything we saw — from the ruins of the Berlin Wall to the parliament buildings of Munich — carried significant historical ramifications. We came, we saw, we experienced.

Of course, I cannot speak of Germany and its rich culture without sounding a bit condescending. I simply don’t have enough exposure to the German way of life to pass value judgements. These impressions are formulated in the abstract, and largely in the recesses of my own brain. I hope you’ll forgive some of the snap judgements in this post. More importantly, I hope to hear your responses.

Instead of a day-by-day account of the trip, I will outline a few key observations during the trip.

The German people

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We found German people to be generally friendly, helpful and easy-going. They are quick to make a joke or smile at us, very much unlike the stereotypes I had heard about. When they see tourists like us who are wandering around and probably lost, they are quick to step in and provide help. Germans also seem to have a wider perspective of the world than most Americans I’ve encountered. They have a sense of understanding what goes on beyond their own country’s borders — probably a necessity, given the interlocking nations of the EU.

In our experience, we found Germans to be direct and principled. For example, one of the things we’re used to doing in China and the United States is to “try on” footwear barefoot (no socks). In Germany, you need to wear socks and there are disposable socks in most department stores for this purpose. The first time we tried on shoes barefoot, a woman nearby pointed the rules out to us. The tone of the instruction, in this case as well as others, suggests that the Germans have a very clear view of what is right and wrong.

Trying on shoes without a sock is wrong — if you do it, I will tell you.

If you bought this ticket and you lost your receipt, then you lost it and there is nothing I can do. There are no excuses.

You should not go with option A if option B is available — to go with option A is a complete waste of time.

I can definitely see how a sense of order is good in most cases. I, for one, would love to live in a society that places more emphasis on directness and requires less inference of others’ intentions. In corner cases, however, I have to wonder: how do Germans manage ambiguity? They seem to have a strong sense of right and wrong, which can be a double-edged sword depending on the particular situation.

Language

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In Berlin and Munich, everyone our age speaks English, with varying degrees of fluency. This is very helpful when it comes to communication. Every once in a while, with an older person, it would be more difficult to communicate, but it was never a big issue.

We watched Luc Besson’s new movie “Lucy” at the Berlin IMAX theater, in the original English language with no subtitles. I am not sure if the audience got all of it — but I am sure they understood at least 80% of it, based on the audience feedback to movie dialogue.

It does make me wonder if Germany is big on promoting itself as an “English capable” country (compared to France, for example). On the one hand, you can watch an English language movie in Berlin with no German language assistance. On the other hand, you go to a smaller city like Weimar and shopkeepers don’t speak English. I suppose it depends on the region and level of education that the Germans receive.

Note: I am not attempting to label the English language as some kind of “de facto” language that every person in the world must learn to speak. I am simply making observations from my own point of view, since I can’t speak German and English is the only conceivable way I can communicate with the German people.

Getting stuff done takes forever

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Perhaps Donna and I have been in Beijing for too long, but we found everyday activities in Germany excruciatingly slow and painful. Whether it’s going through checkout, checking into a hotel, renting a car, lining up for coffee, waiting to order at a restaurant, waiting for the bill, or going through customs — everything is slow. It’s not that the Germans botch up anything listed above, or make mistakes in their paperwork. Rather, they can be too meticulous, down to the last detail. Even on vacation, we felt impatient because we were stuck in queues all the time.

The Berlin Starbucks was the slowest Starbucks I have ever encountered in terms of service. There were a dozen people in front of us and it took us at least 30 minutes to order. For fun, I counted how long it took to process a order and the customer right in front of us took 5 minutes. That’s 5 minutes total to say the order, repeat it (in German), fish for some loose change, barista processes order, barista makes small talk, writes the order and customer’s name on cup, the works. The baristas there made small talk with customers without having any type of awareness that traffic was high.

For a store with this kind of traffic, there were three baristas manning the counters. No problem right? Only problem is that somehow, they only have one barista taking the orders. It makes sense to have one barista make the drinks, but they could have still had the third barista take orders instead of merely writing orders on a cup. It was the complete opposite of the efficiency I witnessed daily at any Beijing Starbucks location.

Prior to the German trip, Taipei held the “honor” of slowest Starbucks location, but this take the cake.

I had a definite feeling that if the visitors in any given queue were to double, the service would grind to a complete halt.

The lining up made me question how efficient German society was, as a whole. If it takes this long to get a cup of coffee, how long does it take for a major decision to get made, or for a road to get built? This was like the anti-China in terms of efficiency.

Driving on the ‘bahn

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As we drove, we couldn’t help but notice that the Germans are very disciplined drivers. They observe all the rules of the road. There are no obvious short-cuts taken, which fits their general demeanour and black-and-white view of the world. Something is either right or it is wrong — and the driving reflects that. Hardly anyone tried to beat a yellow light.

I was pleasantly surprised on a number of occasions to see drivers yield to me merging into a lane, well before I signalled my intentions. There’s a definite order to the road which is good.

Having said that, there’s quite a bit of passive-aggressive driving on the highway. As we drove in the fast lane, faster cars would tail us extremely aggressively until we could get out of the way. They would do this silently, without honking, which I found interesting.

Later, a friend told us that using the car horn in Germany was a fine-able offence under ordinary conditions. So that does explain why the roads are so quiet, at least when compared to North America or China.

As a whole, I much prefer the German way of driving. There is less road rage and less craziness going on.

Magic: The Gathering in Germany

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Well, you didn’t think I could write this piece without mentioning my favorite game in the world, did you?

I met up with Julian Knab in Munich. In Berlin, I met with Peter Raab and Carsten Kotter. They are all accomplished Magic players, particularly in the eternal formats. And extremely friendly Germans, to boot!

Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I could not sit down with Julian for a game. On my last day in Berlin, however, I had time to play a number of games with Peter and Carsten. It was truly an educational process and an honor to play them both. I learned a lot from our brief play-testing sessions, and they gave me a lot of good advice. I made more mis-plays than usual, due to only having 3 hours of sleep, but it was a good time nonetheless.

Although Magic is merely a hobby of mine, it is very cool to have now played Magic in 5 countries: Canada, United States, Netherlands, China and Germany. Next stop this year is United States, followed by Japan next year. It will be a lot of fun to meet up with old friends again.

The rest

Well, they say a picture is worth a thousand words…so here’s 5000 more words.

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On being Chinese, but not.

This is my story. It is not a fun story. Rather, it is a factual and cruel story with a chance at redemption towards the end. I hope you enjoy it.

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I wrote a few words on the great new show “Silicon Valley.” Here’s why you should check it out, even if you’re not in the tech scene.