Tag Archives: 1 star

Book: The One Thing: The Surprisingly Simple Truth Behind Extraordinary Results

The ONE Thing

Originally posted at Dark Matter Fanzine

Office-desk fantasy for dullard corporate brainwash victims
240 pages, ★

Admittedly, I usually don’t like self-help books. At worst, they can seem preachy and idiosyncratic. They overuse bolditalics and underlining, which makes the insulting assumption that, like those office workers I mentioned previously, I am incapable of focusing on extended prose. Only a tiny minority of self-help books persist with long-term fame (Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, for example), while the vast majority get thrown out along with each passing fad.

That said, I do like some self-help books. It was an excellent self-help book that encouraged me to start reading back in 2011. I bought David Buzan’s Speed Reading from a market stall and used it (along with a blog) as motivation to read hundreds of books in the two years that followed. I lapped it up because I needed it. By applying the same logic, I conclude that the target audience of The One Thing is a sedentary desk-worker overwhelmed with boring, repetitive filing tasks and whose life has no sense of fulfillment. I didn’t gain anything from this book because thankfully, I’m not one of those people. I want you to read this review with an image of the book’s target audience in mind.

The One Thing is set in a fantasy world where small-minded, burned-out office workers busy themselves with mundane tasks like organising emails into folders or rearranging staples. People’s attention spans have been crushed, creativity has been killed, and people only skim-read because they have no time to pause and reflect. People are cogs in corporate machines and have forgotten how to think for themselves. Their universe is no wider than an office cubicle, and their only ‘window’ is a glaring computer screen.

The book tried to improve these people’s lives with the following mantra: “Focus on one thing at a time”. It then spends 240 pages rephrasing this same message repeatedly with bewildering diagrams. Some of these diagrams are so confusing that they look satirical. (I’ll be respectful and not post them here.)

The book’s biggest downfall is that it lacks ethos, or credibility. There are no historical references (in fact, there are no references at all) and the “exemplary people” mentioned in this book are all either modern-day corporations or billionaires. Predictably, the book mentions how Apple and Bill Gates both succeeded because they focused on their “One Thing”, but the logic of this link is tenuous at best. Where the ‘good’ self-help books make ample references to ancient wisdom and modern-day science and give dozens of inspiring anecdotes and statistics, The One Thing fails to deliver on all those fronts. I have no reason to take anything in The One Thing seriously.

There’s no foreword. There’s no preface. I therefore start reading chapter one without knowing the authors, without knowing why I should read this book and without knowing what I’m going to gain from it. This is a failing of The One Thing, not of the self-help genre in general. Tony Buzan, to name just one example, puts huge emphasis on the successes of his program before we even start reading. He peppers his writing with inspiring stories that are interesting to share with friends. The One Thing’s authors, however, have cut out all the useful parts (including references, which would have made the book somewhat credible) to make room for some more “fat” in the middle chapters. As a result, The One Thing is a book of zero importance.

The book is also bland. Take this quote as an example of its banality:

I ask, “How much money do you want to earn?” I get all kinds of answers, but usually the number is quite high. When I ask, “How did you pick this number?” I frequently get the familiar answer: “Don’t know”. I then ask, “Can you tell me your definition of a financially wealthy person?” Invariably, I get numbers that start at a million dollars and go up from there. When I ask how they arrived at this, they often say, “It sounds like a lot.” My response is, “It is, and it isn’t. It all depends on what you’d do with it”.

Most of the book is written in this nonsensical language. It hasn’t even been proofread properly and grammatical errors are surprisingly regular. Lacks humour throughout. I wish it didn’t take itself so seriously!

The One Thing doesn’t stand up to the competition. It tells you how to improve your life, but doesn’t do nearly as well as Buddhist books like Happiness or Tiny Buddha, which are also classed as ‘self-help’. It’s so bland that it’s not quite bad enough to be cleverly satirical (like Fight Club); and it lacks the depth of science and history that Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers brought to the table in 2008.

As far as “how to improve your life” goes, it’s nothing compared with Lin Yutang’s The Importance of Living, who wrote at length in beautiful language about the placement of objects on your desk, the height of your chair, what to eat and how to sit, and how to clear your mind before working. Lin Yutang even told us at what times of day we are most productive.

The One Thing is a failed attempt at enlightenment for people in very boring lines of work. Take chapter 12 for example, which is titled “The Path to Great Questions”. After walking us through a brainstorming technique designed to formulate such “great questions”, the authors give us these four lame examples:

  1. What can I do to increase sales?
  2. What can I do to double sales?
  3. What can I do to double sales in six months?
  4. What can I do to increase my sales by 5 per cent this year?

WHAT? Is that all that’s on the author’s mind? So dull…

My criticisms aren’t all subjective, either. I also found this book internally-contradictory in places. There’s a whole chapter on “don’t be self-disciplined” (which is controversial purely for its own sake). Just ten pages later, the author says we should all be self-disciplined again, and spends three pages describing an experiment that suggested toddlers with more willpower would grow up to be happier, smarter, richer, healthier adults. So should we be self-disciplined or not? Confusing.

Here’s another contradiction: on page 73, he writes, underlined, “A balanced life is a myth”. We then wade through nine pages of jargon and idiosyncratic diagrams before finding the author’s proposed alternative on page 82: “Counterbalance your personal life bucket” (sic). This is another contradiction at worst, or just jargon-juggling at best. He’s certainly not giving useful advice.

I laughed when I reached page 114. Here, “One Thing” theory collapses when the authors explain that life is full of “One Things” and then asks us to do all of them in balance. (It therefore looks like the “One Thing” theory has been disproven!)

In conclusion, The One Thing is an idiosyncratic, pointlessly antagonistic and self-contradictory book written for people with no time (or for search engines!). It has tiny chapters, is highly visual, and makes heavy use of capitals, italics and underlining. Actually, this book is so repetitive and confusing that I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that it’s been written for search engines rather than people. This might just be the world’s first “search-engine optimised” book! Such poor-quality conveyance of such poor-quality ideas only deserves to be condensed into a one-page article and posted onto LinkedIn so we can all skim past it. It should never have been made into a book.

As a metaphor, this book is like a non-dry hand wash. I walk past it, I press it and I use it just because it’s there. It feels cold and flavourless and drips off my skin rather than sinking in. Even though it has a short-lived positive impact, I will never feel any long term benefits from having picked it up.

Reading this book is like eating plain tofu straight from the fridge. It’s not unhealthy, it’s just very, very bland—and around half-way through, you’ll realise it’s so pointless and tasteless that you’ll be mocking yourself for ever having read it. Aimed at Fight Club’s protagonist. Not recommended for anyone. 

Book: The Case for God

I love Goodreads. It makes it so easy to discover new books and create reading lists.

Sometimes, it’s too easy to select books on Goodreads. Recently, I made a few selections based solely on the book’s title because my small, shattered iPod screen makes reading Goodreads reviews inconvenient. I say “never judge a book completely by its cover”, but on three occasions recently, I did just that—and I regret it.

If the title were an accurate representation of the book, however, then this wouldn’t happen… if only books were labelled as strictly as, say, medicines or wines. Never mind.

The Case for God
The Case for God

376 pages, ★

I found this book inaccessible partly due to my disappointment that it was not a “case for God” at all. The title was lying and I never really forgave it.

This book should be called, “A meticulous history of some major religions” instead.

What did I learn? That religion requires “perseverance, hard work and practical action”. We Buddhists agree.

I read half of this book then skimmed the rest when I realised that not only is it an academic book rather than a religious one, but also that it contains no “case for God” whatsoever. I recommend this book for Philosophy of Religion students only.

Book: Liquid Gold

Liquid Gold
I live near here.

I’m not interested.
438 pages, ★

Synopsis: Australia now makes wine. Originally, snobby Europeans told them they’d never make good wine because the climate wasn’t suitable/ the workers weren’t talented/ the vineyards weren’t mature enough/ or it all tastes the same and is therefore too boring to sell.

Defiant Aussie wine-growers persisted to build a strong wine industry in the face of a declining gold industry. Australian wine is now considered among the best in the new world.

I usually admire stories of triumph against the odds, and I would fall in love with this story, too, if were about anything but alcohol.

Most readers would give this book 4-5 stars. Most readers, though, probably also love drinking wine. I’m not interested, though. ★


Book: Whackademia

Whackademia: An insider's account of the troubled university
The title and subtitle together is an anagram of, “KIDDISH WANNABE AUTHOR FERMENTS REVOLUTION. SAUCY DICE, Act I.” How apt.

Sooooo predictable with added juvenile cynicism and pranks. Yes, pranks.
239 pages, ★

Too mechanical? Yep. Too expensive? Yes. Not what the prospectus promised? You got it. Too market-orientated? Yes. Too market-irrelevant? That, too. Academics feel overworked and students feel neglected? Absolutely right.

Without reading this book, you can guess all the criticisms of higher education that he’s going to make.

Two third of this book is about complaining. Yes, many people don’t like their jobs, but only a small fraction go about writing a book about it. This author didn’t just do that: he gathered rants (yes, they’re rants) from 60 education workers and pasted them into his Whackademia scrapbook. The result is unhealthy.

Rants range from the banal to the absurd. A tearful professor details how she is inundated with work: “I get emails at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning!” To this, I reply: So? You don’t have to reply to them at 3 or 4 in the morning! Do that in your “email time” instead, be it 9am, 4:30pm or on the morning train. That’s the beauty of email.

I noticed how Stephen Fry only ever mocks himself: his appearance, his weight, his smoking habit, his lack of dancing ability, and his opinions of Cambridge people (after all, he is one of them!) In Whackademia, Richard Hil does the opposite of Stephen Fry: he criticises everything around him, wittily, assuming that only he is right. I don’t like that.

The final third of the book opens with, “Enough complaint, now what?” Here, the author squanders the opportunity to save his whiny reputation by telling teachers and administrators to pull pranks on their employers. Yes, pranks.

On the one hand, he describes universities as stubborn and delinquent, just like the student body they supposedly nourish:

“Andrew observed that the universities appeared self-absorbed and resistant to change—a bit like recidivist juvenile offenders. To break this apparent recalcitrance, Andrew called for a ‘modern parnership’ between business and the university sector.”

Yet, on the other hand, his solutions are mostly from the Anarchist’s Cookbook:

Never sign off on critical reports;

If you are on video link, turn on the ‘mute’ button.

Never admit to screw-ups, cock-ups, student complaints…

Keep adding to and subtracting from your workload documents over time as, over time, this will exhaust the apparatchiks.

Claim depression, stress, anxiety disorders, backaches, drug and alcohol problems resulting from excessive workload.

If the author’s being sarcastic here, then this book nothing more than a useless collection of 60 rants. If he’s not being sarcastic, then he’s caving in to the same stubborn, juvenile behavour that he spent two-thirds of his book criticising; and doesn’t deserve any of my jameskennedybeijing stars at all. Conclusion: just love your job. Never publish rants, and never read them either. ★

Book: Student Survival Guide

Student Survival Guide
One major pitfall: this book’s target audience DOESN’T READ BOOKS.

Written by students. Never take university advice from students.
176 pages, ★

This book made BBC news. It’s a collation of sometimes conflicting advice from different students, most of which is rubbish. It concerns topics as broad as drinking, drinking games, parties, hangovers and drunken accidents. Sarcasm.

Student Survival Guide assumes not only that university students are stupid, and that they’re supposed to be stupid, but also that being stupid responsibly is the highest state of being to which they should all aspire. The sloppy title font is used for all chapter and subchapter headings—a periodic reminder not to listen to the author. Never take advice from someone who uses this font.

This book is filled with hangover cures, drinking games—yes, drinking games—most of which you already learned in kindergarten (without the alcohol). It tells students that the whole point of university is to be stupid. And that’s very irresponsible.

This book was written by two Welsh students in 2001. Back then, Welsh students were lucky enough to have all their tuition fees paid by the Welsh regional government. Maybe that’s why these authors played and drank during university—because it was free, they took the experience for granted, perhaps?

There’s nothing useful in Student Survival Guide. Students who don’t know any better will be negatively-influenced by this book. It’s full of bad advice. Keep it away from them. ★


Book: The Personality Compass

The Personality Compass
Subtle, introverted colour choices. Is the publisher a little shy of promoting this weak thesis?

Over-simplistic theory milked ad absurdum without any redeeming comic value.
Like turning Tic-Tac-Toe into a religion.

304 pages, ★

I pity this book. Its oversimplified thesis won’t teach you anything worth knowing about psychology. Worse than that, this book might even make you dumber. So don’t read it.

The premise is simple: there are four types of people, which can be labelled as ‘north’, ‘south’, ‘east’ and ‘west’ personality types. The premise is then inflated to a level of detail it doesn’t deserve, with 300 pages of quizzes, quotes, checklists and puzzles in the style of a typical self-help book.

Just imagine taking the thesis to heart and sharing it with some friends. You’ll first have to explain the four types of personality (north, south, east and west), which is tedious in itself, but you’ll then start giving lifestyle advice to people based on arbitrarily-allocated compass-points. You’d look crazy and lose your audience’s interest in doing so. So don’t.

The Personality Compass might make an interesting picture, diagram, or maybe a bedroom poster. But this throwaway thesis should never have been inflated into a 300-page book. It sells second-hand for $1—even at that price, you should leave it on the shelf. ★