The Other Side of Me

The Book of the Week is “The Other Side of Me” by Sidney Sheldon, published in 2005. This ebook is Sheldon’s autobiography.

Born Sidney Schechtel in 1917, Sheldon showed a talent for writing at an early age. However, during the Depression, he was forced to work day and night at a series of dead-end, soul-killing jobs, such as courier in a gear factory and coat-check clerk at a hotel. Sheldon was unafraid to approach strangers, and at that time, low-skilled jobs could be obtained in a simple five-minute conversation.

One day, he went to a Chicago radio station to inquire about an amateur talent contest sponsored by a band leader, and by chance, was asked to be the show’s announcer. It was then that he changed his last name to Sheldon, thinking it sounded more show business-y. His excessive talking caused the show to go fifteen seconds overtime, so he was not asked back, but from that experience, he thought he wanted to become a radio announcer.

On another day, he wrote a song with the help of his family’s spinet piano. He went to a hotel to try to sell the song. “In that year, 1936, the major hotels in the country had orchestras in their ballrooms that broadcast [on radio] coast to coast.” He was introduced to a manager at a big-name music publisher who directed him to another hotel with a better-known band leader. Perhaps naively, he never signed a written contract. His song was played and aired, but was never published. He therefore never received a penny in royalties.

Sheldon encountered many more episodes similar to the above, in which he was at the mercy of powerful people who made arbitrary decisions on the use of his creative works– Broadway musicals, screenplays and TV scripts and novels. Read the book to learn more about his bipolar disorder that had a hand in his self-doubt and despair, baseless optimism and persistence, missed opportunities, failures and successes.

Bonus Post

Besides Andre Agassi’s ebook, there is Pete Sampras’: “A Champion’s Mind,” published in 2008.  This ebook’s author tends to be a bit narcissistic, as is evident from the title, and the fact that the passages describing the matches he won, outnumber those he lost, by a few.

Nevertheless, Sampras racked up bragging rights through becoming the number one ranked tennis player in the world for six years. He won fourteen Grand Slams. He overcame various problems, including the stress from unfortunate occurrences concerning a fellow pro tennis player and two of his coaches (deaths and crime), his illnesses and injuries, plus meeting the psychological challenges of playing many finals matches in major tournaments against Andre Agassi, a formidable rival, beating him more often than not.

Read the book to learn the details.

Open

The Book of the Week is “Open” by Andre Agassi published in 2009. This engaging ebook tells the life story (up until his mid-thirties) of a famous American tennis player.

The author’s traumatic childhood invites the reader’s sympathy and the entertaining writing keeps the reader enthralled. Although this is a first-person account and the book is all about him, he does not come off as narcissistic. He has bragging rights as a world-class tennis player, and has done some serious introspection– he shares with the reader his emotional states while recounting his life lessons.

Agassi’s childhood was tennis-obsessed, as his father ordained that he was going to grow up to be a professional tennis player. As a powerless child, he could not argue. Besides, he told himself that he loved his father, wanted his approval, didn’t want to make him mad. His father became even more tyrannical than usual when angry. So his tennis career became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Fortunately, during his journey to the top, Agassi met friends, mentors, lovers and even opponents, who helped him to become a better athlete and a better person. When he got his first taste of celebrity, Agassi writes, “Wimbledon has legitimized me, broadened and deepened my appeal, at least according to the agents and managers and marketing experts with whom I now regularly meet.”

Grateful for his fame and fortune, the author decided to give back. He wanted to create “… something to play for that’s larger than myself and yet still closely connected to me… but isn’t about me.” He co-founded a charter school called Andre Agassi College Preparatory Academy, located in Nevada.

Agassi proudly describes the school; a few aspects with which this blogger takes issue. He claims that pouring money into the school would make it a better school. He says Nevada is a state that spends less money per student on education than most other states. At least one study has shown that spending is not a factor in improving education quality.

Agassi also supplied the 26,000 square foot education complex with “everything the kids could want”– the very best entertainment and computer centers, athletic facilities, etc. On any given day, a famous politician, athlete or musician might drop by to teach the kids.

The author boasts, “Our educators are the best, plain and simple.” Yet, he goes on to write, because the school “… has a longer school day and a longer school year than other schools, our staff might earn less per hour than staffs elsewhere. But they have more resources at their fingertips and so they enjoy greater freedom to excel and make a difference in children’s lives.”

In other words, Agassi’s take on education is misguided in various ways. It seems he thinks kids will get a better education with quantity over quality when it comes to money and time. True, passionate teachers do not work solely for the money, but they value student enlightenment and recognition more than sparkling new classrooms. Admittedly, the author is a man of contradictions. Read the book to learn more about them.

Between Two Worlds

The Book of the Week is “Between Two Worlds” by Zainab Salbi and Laurie Becklund, published in 2005. This ebook tells Salbi’s life story, whose themes include women, war, family and religion. During her childhood in 1970’s Iraq, her mother was a teacher and her father, an airline pilot. In the early 1980’s, since they were government workers, her parents were forced to join Saddam Hussein’s Baath political party.

Iraq had a liberal, Westernized culture because it had previously had close ties with the United States. Nevertheless, Hussein and his followers committed unspeakable acts of cruelty against the populace. Life was unbearably scary and stressful, even for the upper classes; especially those who were sucked into “friendship” with Hussein, as was Salbi’s family. Hussein derived power from his political party, army, the war with Iran, and oil but “he found time to keep meticulous accounts of our emotional peonage.”

Hussein initiated a witchhunt in order to deport people who were deemed to be of “Iranian origin” as indicated by their citizenship papers, to Iran. His military then looted their homes. He incited hostility between Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims, and encouraged male dominance through raping of females of all ages an act whose perpetrators went unpunished.

The Iraqi people were powerless to protest when they found themselves living under a brutal dictatorship. “Boys and girls joined the Vanguards, the tala’a, and wore… uniforms… as they practiced marching and singing at school…” Teenagers were pressured to enter endless poetry, art and marching contests to exhibit their love for Hussein. His birthday was a national holiday. He built new palaces every few months. You get the picture.

Read the book to learn more about the emotional traumas Salbi experienced that led her to find her life’s work.

Bonus Post

A short ebook, “How the Mighty Fall” by Jim Collins, published in 2010, presents an analysis of big, public, reputable American companies that have gone out of business, or made a major fumble but recovered.

The author and his colleague conducted extensive, comprehensive research on the reasons, across a range of dimensions. Collins writes, “We learn more by examining why a great company fell into mediocrity” than the opposite.

So as to avoid bias in how he viewed a company after its failure or recovery, Collins pored over documents in chronological order (thus remaining unaware of how a company ultimately fared until he reached the information in due time), starting well before the crisis.

Companies do need continual creative re-invention. However, “companies that change constantly but without any consistent rationale will collapse just as surely as those that change not at all.”

Collins developed a theory that there are five stages companies go through when heading for bankruptcy. The author provides examples in the histories of real-life businesses when they were being led by particular CEOs.

The difference between Wal-Mart and Ames (a competing department store chain that disappeared in 2002) is that in the late 1980’s, the former had a humble CEO who was always eager to learn. Unlike his narrow-minded peers, he met with Brazilian investors to find out about their retail culture. “Wal-Mart does not exist for the aggrandizement of its leaders.”

Collins’ data indicated a counterintuitive notion: many companies that fell were actually not resting on their laurels. They fell not because they failed to take bold action, but because they exceeded the limits of their resources in doing so. This blogger remembers Woolworth as one of those.

Another point the author conveys is that businesses that delivered cumulative returns to investors in the long term as opposed to focusing on unsustainable short-term growth to put on a show for Wall Street, became great businesses.

The author contends that another element of success is staffing a company with “the right people who accept responsibility” rather than building a bureaucratic hierarchy whose bureaucracy breeds more bureaucracy. The former bestows individual credit and blame.

Read the book to learn:

  • the stages of decline;
  • warning signs;
  • different ways management reacts to them;
  • why IBM was able to right itself by the late 1990’s from its low in 1993, while HP’s pain, starting in the late 1990’s, persisted much longer;
  • why Texas Instruments got its mojo back but Motorola did not; and
  • much more.