Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Prince

Wow… it’s time for a political treatise!  You have to love the NYU RAs as the diversity and types of favorite books really go from autobiographies to sci-fi to children’s books, to love stories.  This one is a classic presumably written by the Italian diplomat and political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli with the book called The Prince.  It is considered one of the first “philosophical treatises.”  Machiavelli begins with a description of the political power base, the state, or how one rules.  After he provides a short overview of the types of ruling models and how it is done, he then reviews how princes who rise to power in newly organized states.  He notes that with new states, it is usually based on the strength of the prince himself, giving much credit to an individual, rather than a collective group from the new community. The prince’s new state could be created by receiving (or taking) a fortune or criminal action, and notes how princes move into their positions (supported by the people or appointed by a great leader).  He later discusses the relationship with the church (Catholic in this case) and how to sustain a military presence.  He spends a good amount of time on what qualities are needed for a successful Prince.  Should they be generous? Be kind and merciful or cruel?  He then gives guidance for keeping their word and avoiding hatred.  And finally some advice on the importance of prudence, to include: how to gain honors, dealing with nobles and the staff, avoiding flatterers, and how to avoid losing your state.  The treatise is a great overview of the thinking of the time and helps give great context for those who are history buffs.  Obviously the translation makes this book readable!  I’m not the biggest history guy, so for me, it was ok.  Give me a good novel sometime soon RAs!

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

A Pakistani man named Changez meets with an American man while at a café in his native homeland in the town of Lahore and shares the story of his life while in the US.  Changez attends Princeton University on scholarship and flourishes there playing soccer, until an injury stops him from continuing, but he bonds well with his very smart American counterparts.  Changez is a smart man who battles to get to the top of his class, working three jobs on the side, never letting on that he is not from a family of money.  When finance season hiring begins in his senior year, he sets his sights high for a company called Underwood Samson, which hires ten newly minted bachelor degree students each year.  Changez, during a grueling interview, gets hired by the interviewer, Jim, who shared similar financial struggles while attending Princeton two decades previously.  Prior to beginning work, he meets a young woman, Erika, while on a group vacation in Greece (he used his “signing bonus” to join his friends) whom he is immediately attracted.  Erika is a promising young author and eventually the two begin to date. Simultaneously Changez shares the challenges of the new company, its training programs, and life outside of work.  Erica and Changez’s relationship deepens but suddenly she withdraws from him after sharing the fact that her first boyfriend died of cancer and she has never recovered.  She goes into a deep depression and is finally hospitalized.  During this time the 9/11 terror attacks occur.  Changez’s Middle Eastern heritage makes him feel very uncomfortable as he is often targeted as someone who could be a terrorist.  When things get tough at work, he decides to go back home to Lahore where he becomes a University professor teaching Finance.  He is seen as an activist against US policy and students look to him as their role model.  He advocates non-violence response to his students but one of his students gets apprehended for attempting to assassinate a US dignitary.  As the conversation about Changez’s life comes to an end, the two men walk home towards the hotel the US man is staying at.  As the scene ends, the US man reaches for something in his pocket (a metal instrument) that has a shine to it.  The novel ends as he reaches for it leaving the reader to wonder if it is a gun?  Was he going to assassinate Changez?  We are left to guess what happens.  I like story that leave the reader guessing.  This is an engaging story that shares the “other side” of the foreigner’s experience.  It is a short story that reads very fast.  Liked the way it was presented as well.

Friday, August 15, 2014

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

Another relatively quick read with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.  The book was published in the late part of 1962 and is set in a Russian (Soviet) labor camp after World War II.  There was a movement by the Germans to turn over Russians and claim they were spies. If the captured man, whom was normally innocent, refuted the claim, he was shot on the spot.  If he agreed and said he was a spy, he would be given a ten year term at the camp, though it could usually turn into many more years than that. The prisoners rarely had the chance to inform their families, who would think their missing family member was dead.  This story describes one day of a prisoner, Ivan Denisovich Shukhov, and the routine that occurs among his squad of prisoners. This is a good “psychological” realism story that exposes the depths in which a man is pushed, especially in the winter in the far reaches of the Russian deserted lands.  The men are asked to go to extremes in building a structure for the captures. The author shares the various lengths at which they will go for bread rations and other small items that will keep them warm or having a full stomach. It is the same routine everyday with only the hope for freedom that keeps the men from going crazy.  The story created some controversy when it was released at the beginning of the cold war.  If you like a lot of action, this one may not be for you, much more on the character development side of storytelling.  Well written and captures the challenge of the day.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Young Money

The ultimate book for the business school undergraduate dreaming about dollar signs after graduation.  Kevin Roose’s Young Money is an expose of the lives of recent grads entering the world of I-banking on Wall Street after the crash of 2010.  Roose heads undercover to find young grads willing to share their experience of leaving the top Ivy schools (one of the young grads is from my alma mater – Fordham – but others all come from the top notch colleges), sorry Fordham, no knock, just reporting as Roose does in his book.  Roose finds willing participants to discuss the recruitment process, the preparation to begin work, and then the slamming reality of what a first-year I-banker experiences – the money, the tireless hours of work, and the change in personality that beset each of those who participated.  Roose also goes undercover to the recruitment career fairs, recruitment events of Goldman Sachs (which he is asked to leave while at an off-campus event) and finally to the swanky event of the underground “fraternity” of the “Big Boys” in the field that induct CEOs each year at a dinner (and roasting) at the St. Regis Hotel in NYC (yes, Roose is discovered taping the event on his phone and rudely escorted out).  He exposes the event in a NY Times article and shares in the book as well.  He also shares the spiraling downward of each of the eight newly minted I-bankers who spend over 100 hours a week perfecting excel spreadsheets for their managers on deals for mergers, acquisitions, trades, etc.  Each of the eight have struggles adjusting to the lifestyle of money, but no time to spend it.  The aim for each is to work hard for two years as an analyst and then potentially get picked up by an equity firm and double/triple their salary after their banking experience.  The crash doesn’t provide the kind of bonuses once received previously, yet the expectation that you sell your life to the company doesn’t change.  After meeting with so many NYU Stern students in my RA 1-1s, I finally really now have a glimpse into the abyss that these students will soon be entering.  Is it worth it?  Well, if money and stability (from a financial point of view) is your goal, I guess, but what about your relationships with your family and significant others?  Health issues, use of drugs, loss of relationships, and other “unintended consequences” all are outcomes for this group.  Clearly Roose is not a fan.  He also chronicles the effect Occupy Wall Street movement has on the reputation of the industry and those who are thinking about joining it.  Is money more important than making this world a better place?  I guess that is the question Roose wants his readers to examine.  This might be a really helpful read for every business school student to think through what life is really like.  I really did enjoy it and learned a ton about my students in the process.  Good, fascinating read.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Like the Flowing River

Fear… and what it can do to us… can be debilitating.  Instead have faith in yourself, your dreams, and for those who believe in a higher being, you will be supported through all of life’s various challenges.  These messages and the stories surrounding this author’s decision to be a writer form the theme of this book, which was written by Paulo Coelho.  Coelho’s book of short stories and articles, called Like the Flowing River, was written in 2004, but has material from many decades of his work.  Coelho shares the story of his conversation with his mother when he decides that being a writer is his life dream, though she explains that it is not the kind of profession he should follow.  The book is deeply rooted in Coelho’s faith tradition, Catholicism, and draws from stories in the Bible.  Yet he also shares stories and fables from other faith traditions, especially Muslim.  His belief is that “It” really doesn’t matter what supreme- being you believe in, as they are really the same “God.”  It is just the traditions we celebrate that make how we act out our faith that is different.  His stories are lessons he has learned in life.  Rich, simplistic and very easy to take away the lesson.  All of the stories are quite short but have powerful messages.  I love how he brings in nature (wind, the clouds, the sand, and living animals).  At points I feel as if he is the new Thoreau, venturing into a new domain, a new version of Walden.  This was one of the best books as it made me reflect on faith, earth’s natural resources, human frailties, and the fear we all have within ourselves which holds us back from meeting our truest potential.  He often has an older character that dispenses “wisdom” to a younger person.  My favorite of these is the “Story of the Pencil” in which the grandmother describes the utensil she is using to write her story and how she hopes that her grandson will grow up like the pencil.  It is not like other pencils and she describes the five qualities that makes it different.  By having these qualities, she explains, you will be at peace with the world:
First quality: you are capable of great things, but you must never forget that there is a hand guiding your steps.  We call that hand God, and he always guides us according to His will.
Second quality: now and then, I have to stop writing and use a sharpener.  That makes the pencil suffer a little, but afterwards, he’s much sharper.  So you too, must learn to bear certain pains and sorrows, because they will make you better.
Third quality: the pencil allows us to use an eraser to rub out any mistakes.  This means that correcting something we did is not necessarily a bad thing: it helps us on the road to justice.
Fourth quality: what really matters in a pencil is not it wooden exterior, but the graphite inside.  So always pay attention to what is happening inside you.
Fifth quality: it always leaves a mark.  In just the same way, you should know that everything you do in life will leave a mark, so try to be conscious of that in your actions.
Profound messages, but stated simply.  Coelho offers reflection on social issues facing his own country of Brazil to President Bush’s attack of Suddam Hussein of Iraq.  He has opinions on people being used and abused for political purposes.  While those who are not religious may take “offense” to the connection to a Supreme Being, the poetry of his words is quite beautiful.  The Alchemist, one of his earlier books, ranks in my top three favorite reads of all time so I was not surprised by how much this book “spoke to me.”  I strongly recommend this book and the stories, which may be best read over a longer period of time than in one sitting, which I did.  I have a feeling there are many short stories I will refer to in speeches and presentations I do in the coming year.  It may be the book I use for my speech to the RAs at their closing banquet in May.  Worth reading even if you are without a faith based tradition.