Porcupine Books

Porcupine Stack

I confess: I am a complete, unabashed and irredeemable bibliophile.

It is the closest I come to addictive behaviour on the indulgence scale and is my favourite brand of retail therapy. I dislike borrowing books because I can’t interact with them – and I LIKE to converse with the books I read.  As a result, the ones I really like tend to look, um, very well loved (or whatever the book equivalent of deshabille is). They are full of highlighter pen, scribbled remarks, cross-references, turned down pages and – most noticeably of all – neon sticky memo thingies poking out in all directions, endowing them with porcupine-esque characteristics. (I suppose I could be more patriotic and call them Echidna Books, but it really doesn’t have the same ring to it).

Anyway. Here are some books I’ve found useful, insightful or just plain brilliant (many more to come).



Porcupine Books:

Iconoclast: A neuroscientist reveals how to think differently

by Gregory Berns – Book RAP summary

Really enjoyed this book – lots of yellow pen.  Berns identifies 3 mental barriers that prevent average people from ‘doing the impossible’ and proving everyone wrong (ie thinking iconoclastically): flawed perception, fear of failure, and the inability to persuade other people of ‘the vision’.  Or to put it positively: you need the ability to see things differently, courage, and social skills.
Being moderately obsessed with perception, that was probably my favourite bit –  much juicy information about how our expectations and experience define our perceptions, and how we can’t see what we don’t  know to look for.  Also the interesting observation that major breakthroughs are overwhelmingly visual in their inception.
Fear is obviously a huge inhibitor – really enjoyed his discussion around fear of isolation (which makes people go along with ridiculous assertions even though they know they’re wrong) and fear of uncertainty or ‘ambiguity aversion’.   This one to me is critical since the ability to be comfortable with paradox is so critical to creativity and innovative thinking.
Social skills are an interesting one, and his key point that innovations must above all provide a discernible advantage over current offerings whilst working comfortably (& being triable) within people’s current frameworks, is sound advice.

Dr. Gregory Berns video talk – Authors@Google

 A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers WIll Rule The Future

by Daniel H. Pink – Book RAP summary

I read this ages ago and felt like I’d finally found my place in the world, or at least a world where I wanted to thrive and play. Bring it on!  Wonderful stuff. I loved the historical overview that we’ve moved from the Agricultural Age, through the Industrial and Information Ages and have now entered the Conceptual Age, where mechanistic, commodotised thinking is of diminishing value, and creativity and unique perspectives are currency on the rise.  The question, as always, is “What are you offering?”  And if the answer is something that can be as well or better by a computer or someone overseas, then the answer is, “not much of value”.

In a conceptual age, creativity is the key differential, and Pink explores it via 6 key ‘senses’:

  • Design (not just function but purpose and emotionally engaging
  • Story (a compelling narrative is essential, again going beyond rational to emotional engagement)
  • Symphony (synthesis rather than analysis, big picture merging with detail and cross-contextualisation)
  • Empathy (relationships and understanding what makes others tick)
  • Play (hurrah for humour and light-heartedness!)
  • Meaning (the intrinsic motivation of purpose, transcendence and spiritual fulfillment).

Loved it.

Daniel Pink on How the 21st Century Affects Creativity

 Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience

by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

A book of iconic status, of course, and a beautiful philosophical treatise. (I’m much more comfortable talking about it since someone told me the way to remember his surname was to think “Chicks sent me high, Lee”.)

Flow is such a glorious state to be in – I feel it most when immersed in making art, writing, deconstructing & generating ideas, and (on good days) when on stage or at the front of a room teaching. The more time I spend there, the happier I am. My dog lives there all the time… There’s so much much to talk about with this one, but will leave that to the summaries and just include a few of my favourite ‘bits’.

First of all was his discussion of the power of dissipative structures (physical systems that harness energy which otherwise would be dispersed and lost in random motion). The fact that “complex life forms depend for their existence on a capacity to extract energy out of entropy – to recycle waste into structured order” is at the core of all my beliefs about the need to cultivate resourcefulness and ingenuity as a way of life. To find the gold in the sh*t, as it were. The inspiration in error. And so on.

I also love his definition of the “autotelic self” (which literally translates as a ‘self that has self-contained goals’) as one that easily translates potential threats into enjoyable challenges, and therefore maintains its inner harmony. A person, in other words, who lives in flow most of the time.

He also makes a lovely distinction on the paradox of control: that what people enjoy is not the sense of being in control as much as the sense of exercising control in difficult situations.

A must read.

Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi: TED talk – Creativity, fulfillment and flow

 Made To Stick: Why Some Ideas Take Hold and Others Come Unstuck

by Chip and Dan Heath – Book RAP summary

As an ex ad-chick, how could I not love it? Wish I’d read it before I started out. A must read if ever you want to sell through a presentation.

What sticks? Things that are Simple, Unexpected, Concrete, Credible, Emotional and are told as Stories. An easy read, well-researched, endless anecdotes and case studies, sharp thinking and lots of fun.

Chip Heath on FORA.tv



The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything

by Ken Robinson

Ah but the man is glorious, and his TED talks are an absolute must-see.  This is a book I wish I’d written.

From the whole opening premise that the question we should ask is never “How intelligent are you?” but rather “How are you intelligent?” , his insistence that creativity is a key literacy for the knowledge era (and one that is routinely quashed by the factory based and compliance driven education system and corporate world) to his exploration of what it means to find and be in your element, the book is a stunner.  The drive for conformity bred into us by our education system cripples our ability to innovate and embrace change as adults.  I also loved his discussion of the Pro-Am movement – where people pursue an activity or interest for the sheer love of it as an amateur, but to a professional standard, though I query how new this phenomena actually is (the topic is developed at length by Carl Shirky in his new book on Cognitive Surplus – another TED talk worth watching).  A quick trip through BIll Bryson’s A Short History Of Nearly Everything is enough to convince anyone that a vast number of scientific breakthroughs, fields and even disciplines (geology and biology to name a few) were made by amateurs, often after decades of intensive and dedicated work.

His definition of The Element is that “place where the things you love to do and the things that you are good at come together.” According to Ken, The Element has two main features; aptitude and passion,  and two conditions for being in it; attitude and opportunity.  As he puts it: “I get it; I love it; I want it; Where is it?”  Finding The Element is different for everyone, but he believes that doing so is essential to discovering what you can really do and who you really are.  Having spent several years doing precisely that and spending much of my time now helping others do the same, I can vouch for that sentiment.

And the best news?  Everybody has it, and It’s never too late to start.

TED talk – Ken Robinson: Do Schools Kill Creativity?

TED talk – Ken Robinson: Bring on the Learning Revolution

FORA.tv Video – Ken Robinson: A New View on Human Capacity

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