Archive for the ‘Career Memoir’ Category

Bonus Post

Tuesday, April 1st, 2014

This blogger skimmed the book, “A Political Education” by Andre Schiffrin, published in 2007. The author, born in 1935 in France, discussed how his family survived WWII, and his career in American publishing.

Schiffrin followed his father, a prominent figure, into the industry. In the late 1940′s, “… there were 350 bookstores in New York City, ten times the number there are today.” The author received an American elitist Northeastern education, despite the religion he was perceived to be, and with which he himself identified (Jewish). In the early 1950′s, he was politically active in school– leading various organizations that spread their opinions and lodged protests in cooperation with other student groups internationally. Schiffrin opposed France’s colonialism in Algeria and Vietnam, and Soviet repression in Hungary.

The last third of the book contains the author’s lament over how, “In America, we gradually built a system of welfare for the large corporations…” Up until the 1970′s, in the industrialized nations of the world, the publishing business was used to making an annual profit of 3%. The philosophy of publishers was “…that the successful books should subsidize those that made less money”– like, ironically, with venture capitalism nowadays– because there will never be maximum profitability for every entity funded. Yes, the ultimate goal is to make money. Humans have a history of spawning unexpectedly wildly successful books and start-ups. But society benefits more than otherwise from a diversity of intellectual, experimental endeavors, even if they fail.

The atmosphere changed when corporate America got even more greedy. It was the usual story: When avaricious bean-counters take over a creative and/or intellectual realm, everything goes south. “Wall Street was looking for profits of 10 to 20 percent.” As can be surmised, it didn’t get them. This blogger thinks the author was naive in saying, “For the first time in history, ideas were judged not by their importance but by their profit potential.” Even in the 1970′s, there was nothing new under the sun.

Read the book to learn how the last three decades of Schiffrin’s working life saw radical political and cultural changes that adversely affected the book business in the United States. For instance, the major publishing companies practiced censorship due to American politics from the mid-twentieth century into the first years of the twenty-first. Schiffrin wrote that the Right wing felt entitled to control the Middle East. Communists and Islamists were interlopers; “… if things weren’t working out [with regard to America's takeover], it had to be due to traitors and subversives at home.”

As an aside, this blogger was reminded of two books Mr. Schiffrin would have enjoyed: “Wasn’t That a Time?” by Robert Schrank and “Confessions of an Economic Hitman” by John Perkins.

I Am Jackie Chan

Sunday, March 23rd, 2014

The Book of the Week is “I Am Jackie Chan” by Jackie Chan, published in 1998. This is the autobiography of Jackie Chan, a kung fu movie stuntman.

Born in April 1954 to parents who worked as household help in a foreign embassy in Hong Kong, Chan was frequently subjected to cruel physical punishment by his father. When he was about seven years old, unable to sit still in a formal classroom, he was sent to China Drama Academy, a boarding school. There, approximately fifty kids of all ages were taught kung fu, and for a fleeting time, basic academic subjects by a series of tutors. When Chan left the school after ten years, the kids numbered about thirty, due to attrition. Discipline was meted out with the painful striking of a cane on the hands by the master for even minor infractions. The master’s senior underlings were into bullying.

After leaving the Academy, Chan had difficult periods in his life as a young adult, involving a romantic subplot, poverty, more bullying, and dangerous physical work, among other adventures. He spoke no English. He could take jobs that required minimal literacy, but those were all menial, with no chance for growth. Formal education was not for him. He came to the realization that his career options were extremely limited because the only marketable skill he possessed was as a stuntman.

Much later, during the making of the movie, “Rush Hour” Chan writes, “Three insurance guys were standing around the director… It took several hours for them to rig padded mats so that they’d catch me if I fell… ” It took a while for Chan to get used to the hassles associated with litigious American culture.

The making of Hollywood’s movies cost many times more than Chan’s Hong Kong movies. Many American producers spared no expense whenever they needed props or equipment but stuck to a strict shooting schedule, which meant reluctance to re-shoot scenes that weren’t perfect. Chan’s culture in Hong Kong was the opposite. He would resourcefully use whatever props or equipment were on hand and re-shoot a scene innumerable times to get it perfect with no insurance, no… “private jets, no mansions, no luxurious trailers, no fancy food.”

Read the book to learn how Chan separated his identity from that of Bruce Lee, and became a director, producer, film editor and stuntman in his own movies.

Work is My Play

Sunday, February 9th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “Work Is My Play” by Wallace E. Johnson, published in 1973.  This is the career memoir of a lifelong workaholic.

The author discusses his passion for doing business. In the 1950′s, he co-founded Holiday Inn on the concept of offering an affordable place for families to stay while they were on a road trip, with accommodations and dining that were superior to those of Howard Johnson’s (no relation to the author), the only other option at the time.

The author fondly describes the opportunistic personality of one of his business partners with a memorable anecdote. The partner grabbed his wife before she had finished her lunchtime pie (she was used to that) in order to punctually attend a government auction of land parcels in an undeveloped area. He then proceeded to win the bid on every single parcel because he knew real estate prices would rise in the long term.

Read the book to learn how the author had fun working nonstop and making lots of money.

The Outsider

Sunday, February 2nd, 2014

The Book of the Week is “The Outsider” by Jimmy Connors, published in 2013. This is the autobiography of the American tennis Hall of Famer.

Born in 1952, Connors grew up in Illinois. His mother and grandmother were instrumental in turning him on to tennis.  He started playing in junior tournaments at twelve. However, at that time, there was no money in tennis, so he played to try to get a scholarship to college. That turned out to be a moot point, as his grades were poor, partly due to an undiagnosed learning disability.

Connors was left-handed, and a two-handed-backhand player. Like John McEnroe, he was a hothead on the court and launched profanity-laced tirades when he thought the line judges were making bad calls. He became an “outsider” when he hired a litigious, greedy manager who shook up the then-professional tennis organizations of the early 1970′s.

Read the book to learn about the people who influenced his personal and professional life, and the people who shaped his generation of tennis players.

Married to Laughter

Monday, January 27th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “Married to Laughter” by Jerry Stiller, published in 2000. This is Stiller’s autobiography.

Born in 1927, the author grew up in Brooklyn’s East New York and Williamsburg neighborhoods in New York City. “During the Depression, many husbands left their homes and moved into the bathhouses, establishments normally occupied by alcoholics and womanizers drying out after a night in the bars.” Stiller’s father went to stay at a bathhouse when his parents weren’t getting along. For a while, his father was an unemployed cab driver who had to feed a wife and three kids. During a physical fight over money, the author’s mother told the author to call the police. “Jews did not call the police– Jews fighting among themselves. The police would only watch and laugh. Encourage us to kill ourselves.”

 As a youngster, Stiller wrote to the radio station to get his family free tickets to witness the recording of Eddie Cantor’s radio show at Rockefeller Center in New York City. The author was then inspired to become a comedian.

“Off-Broadway theater was a new concept in 1947. It wasn’t Broadway. But it was theater.” After his discharge from the army, Stiller tried to become a stage actor. He ended up attending college on the GI Bill, the original reason he’d joined the army.

Stiller had this to say about the TV show “Seinfeld” on which he played George Costanza’s father: “The show was successful because it never apologized for the behavior of its characters. Nor do most people in real life apologize when they step over the line. The show mirrored not just Jewish behavior, but everyone’s.”

Read the book to learn about Stiller’s adventures in the army, how he developed his craft with a professor’s help, and about his life with Anne Meara– his partner in comedy and in life.

Four Seasons

Sunday, January 5th, 2014

The Book of the Week is “Four Seasons, The Story of a Business Philosophy” by Isadore Sharp, published in 2009. In the early 1950′s, in his early 20′s, the author worked with his father, a construction contractor. He served as construction manager, rental agent, salesman, and financier. He parlayed his experience into building hotels in later decades.

The first Four Seasons opened in Toronto in 1961. It was a motel. Because the location of the second Four Seasons (actually called “Inn on the Park”) was less than ideal– the Toronto section of North York– it had to offer a few unusual features and amenities, such as smoking and nonsmoking floors, a restaurant and a fitness center, in March 1963. The property manager got a famous sports trainer to run the fitness center. In 1966, the trainer was accused of pushing performance-enhancing drugs. “He later died of lung cancer, from smoking.”

In the late 1960′s, London already had five five-star hotels. But Sharp wanted to build another one anyway. He and his business partners “…signed an 84-year lease at 210,000 Pounds Sterling a year, to be renegotiated every 21 years. He insisted on having air conditioning, unlike the competition. The hotel, opened in January 1970, ended up costing 700,000 Pounds. The lease was modified to allow a renegotiation every fourteen years.

Over the course of four years prior to the building of the hotel, the author’s London contact engaged him in social interaction to make sure he was trustworthy. The foundation of business is trustworthy relationships. The author said of certain of his major investors and his brother-in-law, “There was complete trust. Once we shook hands on a deal, there was no need for lawyers and signed documents.”

The author established an investing policy due to skyrocketing inflation in the mid 1970′s: putting a ceiling on his share of ownership at a small percentage of equity. No more than $3-5 million per property. This was based on a simple calculation of the maximum hotel fees he would collect over the first five years; Four Seasons became a property manager, rather than a real estate developer.

The Four Seasons hotels offer high-end luxury, targeting exclusively wealthy Americans and business executives. As its culture has evolved, it has identified a set of values to which its employees adhere and by which it does business: respect, fairness, honesty and trust. Sharp sought to make it a companywide habit.

Sharp knew that employees whose jobs include direct guest interaction are the ones who directly generate most of the hotel’s revenue, and the experienced ones are “… storehouses of customer knowledge, role models for new hires and advisers for system improvement…”

The author claimed that hotels other than Four Seasons face the major competitive challenge of easily accessible reservations data due to technological advances. The Web “…put every week’s best hotel deal at every traveler’s fingertips, raising the specter of unusually lethal periodic price wars… We didn’t compete on price… we were the one hotel company that could take full advantage of the new [economy] without any problems.” Right.

The last quarter of the book was a brag-fest. Nevertheless, read the book to learn of Sharp’s unpleasant episodes with regard to: Sheraton in Vancouver, attempts to open hotels in Italy, India and Venezuela; political unrest in Indonesia, ownership of The Pierre Hotel, and much more.

Bonus Post

Thursday, November 21st, 2013

“Heads in Beds” by Jacob Tomsky (pen name), published in 2012. This ebook is the career memoir of a hotel employee.

The author provides tips and tricks for gaming situations in the jobs of valet, housekeeping manager and front desk manager. He writes that entry-level workers start on the overnight shift, laboring on weekends and holidays. The managerial positions are stressful with long hours and no overtime pay.

The dead-end position of bellman pays well, but never offers advancement, just better shifts. The reason is that hauling luggage allows for frequent collection of cash tips which might be shared with fellow employees, but not with the IRS. Some workers singularly collect considerable tips on the sly by developing one-on-one relationships with guests– reserving the best rooms for them, “… supervising the bill, and essentially being a private concierge…”

Union membership offers lots of paid time off and job security. However, if a private equity firm purchases a hotel but the hotel-property-manager-seller continues to manage the hotel, there might be extensive replacement of non-union personnel with inexperienced, lower-paid incompetents.

Furthermore, top management might impose petty, draconian supervision that makes life difficult and emotionally tiring for the workers– as happened with Tomsky’s employer. The quality of customer service declines forthwith. Nevertheless, Tomsky and his colleagues were under pressure to keep guests coming to the hotel, so when management turned penny-pincher and minimized one freebie, workers continued to grant others, like room upgrades, free breakfast, late checkout, reduced minibar charges, etc.

Tomsky also relates that immediate causes for termination include “stealing and sleeping on the job.” Movie and minibar are the charges that guests most often challenge. Both guests and hotel employees have money-saving or money-making schemes. The author writes, “… beware of any employees not wearing name tags. They are up to something and don’t wish to be identified.” Some guests make odd requests. One time, eight female guests rumored to be partying, requested a Bible. The author writes, as it turned out, “They just wanted to roll a joint, simple as that.”

Read the book to learn the phrases hotel employees and guests should use to get desired results, the kinds of punishments the hotel agents mete out to difficult guests, and how guests can get the most out of their stay.

Bonus Post

Friday, November 8th, 2013

This blogger skimmed the ebook “My Beloved World” by Sonia Sotomayor, published in 2013.  This is the autobiography of Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor. Born in 1954, she grew up in a low-income neighborhood in the Bronx, in a close-knit family of Spanish-speaking origin.

Sotomayor’s mother’s philosophy was that whatever one is doing, one should do it well. Sotomayor internalized her advice. She became an overachiever in high school. As a Puerto Rican, she benefited from the growing popularity of “Affirmative Action” policies of the early 1970′s. She attended an Ivy League college. “The Daily Princetonian routinely published letters to the editor lamenting the presence on campus of ‘affirmative action students,’ each one of whom had presumably displaced a far more deserving affluent white male…”

In the United States, Affirmative Action, aka “diversity” is still a very controversial practice in education and employment in which the people in power, some say, out of “white liberal guilt,” are trying to salve their consciences for past discrimination of “minorities”– people who are not of white European origin. Ironically, this can result in reverse discrimination in specific sectors of society– favoring of non-white over white candidates. On the other hand, some ethnic groups comprising the minorities are statistically no longer in the minority of the entire population of candidates; they are now the majority.

Even so, people are becoming more tolerant of the growing popularity of multi-ethnic situations. Sotomayor remains very close with her younger brother, who married, had a daughter and adopted twins, “…Korean boys with Irish names, a Polish (adoptive) mother and a Puerto Rican (adoptive) father– the perfect American family.”

In college, Sotomayor had a lot of catching up to do, linguistically and culturally because she had grown up in a sheltered, limited environment. She writes, “I was enough of a realist not to fret about having missed summer camp, or travel abroad, or a casual familiarity with the language of wealth.” She had had trouble learning to write an essay because syntactically, her writing reflected her first language– Spanish, making for awkward phrasing in English. It was only as an undergraduate that she realized she needed to use the same thesis-oriented communication style she used on her high school debating team, but commit it to paper.

When she was planning her wedding, Sotomayor became a bargain-hunter, but “The prices horrified me, each piece of the fairy tale seeming a bigger rip-off than the last.” She attended Yale Law School and became an Assistant District Attorney to get litigation experience. Her dream was to become a judge. Even at Yale, there had been no program that equipped students with the specific skills and experience for becoming a judge.

When she told her mother about her appointment to her first judgeship, she had to explain that various aspects of the job would be less than exciting. There was no world travel involved. She would get to meet “interesting people,” just not the kinds she would be able to make friends with, as she had in her previous position. On top of that, she would be earning very little money, compared to what she could earn at a big-name law firm.

Read the book to learn the details of Sotomayor’s life triumphs and tragedies, and her opinions on various issues.

How to Castrate A Bull

Sunday, October 27th, 2013

The Book of the Week is “How to Castrate A Bull” by Dave Hitz with Pat Walsh, published in 2009. This ebook chronicles Hitz’s career, describes the ups and downs of the tech company he co-founded– NetApp, and imparts wisdom on management, leadership and interesting trivia. A flash drive can store a small amount of personal data of everyone on earth, a hard copy of which would represent 20 million pounds of paper.

NetApp was a start-up in the early 1990′s that built and sold business-to business, a “…network storage system in eighteen months with eight people and $1.5 million.” It went public in November 1995. A start-up has to sell something people are willing to pay for, such as a physical product, or advertising.

During the year 2000, NetApp’s share price tanked– as did that of many other tech stocks– plummeting from $150 to $6. The company delayed laying people off, and did not speak of it, as long as possible. “We announced layoffs one day and did them the next.” Hitz thinks taking care of such unpleasantness quickly is the best policy. Prolonged “palace intrigue” is bad for the work environment. Employees who know their last day is in the future are going to have less than optimal productivity, loyalty and a stable emotional state, to say the least.

When it came time to write the section on the NetApp’s philosophy in the company manual, Hitz says, “Company values only work if the leaders say, ‘These are things I really do believe. If I violate them, please call me on it… Values should remain constant, but appropriate behavior will change as a company grows.” When an employer provides “fun stuff” or free food to its employees, “that’s a symptom of good culture, not a cause of it.”

Read the book to learn Hitz’s explanation of how NetApp became a tremendously successful company, and how it fared after the dot-com crash.