Tag Archives: autobiography

Book: Screw Business as Usual by Richard Branson

Richard Branson - Screw Business as Usual

“Do good, have fun, and the money will follow”

372 pages, ★★★★★

Screw Business as Usual starts and ends with stories about natural disasters. In the opening pages, author Richard Branson’s Necker Island family home catches fire following a lightning strike. Times like this “remind us that stuff doesn’t matter”, he writes. The closing pages describe how a category III hurricane hit Necker Island while Virgin Unite (the charity arm of his multi-billion dollar Virgin empire) was staying there. In each case, Branson writes how opportunity rises in the face of adversity; how destruction clears way for the new; and how every unfortunate event has a ‘good’ side. I couldn’t agree more.

On page 12, he issues the readers a warning: “make sure you’ve read [this book] and can articulate its contents before you consider having this book on lying around on your desk!” (The contents, should they need to be articulated, could be summed up like this: Capitalists no longer face a choice between making money and doing good. Many businesses that “do good” (environmentally or socially) are finding that good deeds boost the company’s profits overall”.) Between pages 200 and 250, he includes plenty of detailed case studies to support his point.

I really like that despite Branson’s massive persona, he still laughs at himself sometimes. On page 21, he hints that he name drops too much, and it’s true. Honestly, though, I expected him to: Richard Branson is a ‘big’ personality known for his outlandish gestures and it would have seemed disappointingly out-of-character if he were too modest in this book. (Just type “Richard Branson” into Google Images for some examples of this.) After admitting he name-drops too much, he proceeds to name-drop throughout this book: Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Queen, James Lovelock, Ban Ki-Moon and Al Gore are mentioned many times each. Page 230 adds Ray Anderson, Jochen and Ted Turner to the list of superstars he has close connections with. He laughs at himself on this and on several other occasions. I like the self-aware, self-mocking Branson that we see in this book.

I also really like the emphasis on “doing good”. This is clear not only from his many not-for-profit groups, which work worldwide in many different sectors, but also from his willingness to “do good” even if “doing good” means breaking the law! Twice, he breaks the law and the law changes for him, not the other way around. Once, at he beginning of the book, Branson breaks an old law that made it illegal to mention “venereal disease” in public. Branson felt it was a serious social problem at the time, and that the law was preventing useful health information from reaching the public. So he broke the law, got arrested, then took Her Majesty’s Government to court. (They apologised to Branson and then changed the law!) Later, the end of the book, Branson’s group tells factories in South Africa to ignore the law on racially-segregated toilets, which resulted in many black workers having to urinate, dehumanisingly, in gutters. This time, too, the law changed for him, not the other way around!

I learned a lot from this book. I learned that Peter Gabriel was signed by Virgin Records in 1983. I also learned that Virgin’s staff must love their jobs—Branson holds parties for Virgin Atlantic staff tropical island house and writes them personalised letters of invitation. In these letters (one is copied into the book), I learned that Virgin Atlantic was the first airline to introduce fully-non-smoking flights, and was also the first airline to have entertainment screens on the back of every seat!

Branson tells us all to love our jobs. He gives examples of businesses that do this very well, such as a greengrocery chain in Sussex that hires “local heroes”—people who love their job and their produce, and aren’t there “just for the pay check”. I’m really pleased to say that I’m one of those people 🙂

This quote fits perfectly with this book’s philosophy:

“And then there is the most dangerous risk of all — the risk of spending your life not doing what you want on the bet you can buy yourself the freedom to do it later.”

― Randy Komisar, Monk and the Riddle: The Education of a Silicon Valley Entrepreneur

(I am still yet to review Randy Komisar’s book, Monk and the Riddle.)

In one respect, Screw Business as Usual reminds me a lot of Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. Both books straddle the non-fiction and biography genres. Both books tell tales of opportunity and what makes people succeed. In particular, the story about Peter Avis in this book seemed very similar to a scene in Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers. In this book, Branson writes about Peter Avis, who, like Branson, is also dyslexic. While Branson has long talked quite openly about how his dyslexia shaped his thinking, and how it inspired the clean, easy-to-navigate customer experience that Virgin’s companies offer, Avis found dyslexia very debilitating throughout school and early adulthood. Avis, unlike Branson, didn’t come from such a supportive background, and his dyslexia went unnoticed for many years until someone cared enough to help him solve the problem. Malcolm Gladwell gives a similar example in his book (which I haven’t reviewed yet), where a child might be “blessed with confidence, acting skills and bursts of creativity” if they come from a rich background; but diagnosed with ADHD if they come from a poorer background. What’s more interesting about Branson’s stories, though, is that they’re from his own life—and his own friends—not from unrelated case studies.

In conclusion, Branson says that unrestrained capitalism (“Greed is Good”) versus the flower power peace-and-love of the 1960s have merged to form a new era of capitalism, and Richard Branson labels, “Capitalism 24902”. (Read the book to find out what that means.)

This is a rare, high-quality business management book. It’s laced with personal examples, which are always much more interesting than random case studies, and I love the message he sends out in this book. Recommended for anyone who admires great people. ★★★★★

Book: Mao’s Last Dancer

Happy Easter, everyone! 😀

At last, I have time to read and review a ‘fun’ book this week. Here goes…

Mao's Last Dancer
Mao’s Last Dancer

China’s reforms from the perspective of one Shandong family.
528 pages, ★★★★★

I chose this book because I love reading about China’s tumultuous transition from a chaotic, agrarian backwater to the economic powerhouse that it is today. Rather than reading history books, which give you a top-down perspective, novels give you the perspective of one of millions of Chinese families—like Zhang Yimou‘s To Live (film), and Jung Chang‘s Wild Swans (review coming next).

Protagonist and author Li Cunxin was raised in the 1960s in Li Commune in the outskirts of Qingdao. Despite poverty, despite not liking dancing, and despite growing up in a country with a nationalised hatred for all things extravagant and Western—especially ballet, Li Cunxin was selected for world-class ballet training at Madame Mao’s dance school in Beijing. This led to an international ballet career—and the fame, fortune and international travel that follows. All of this was unthinkable for most Chinese at the time.

China was full of contradictions under Mao’s rule (1949—1976). During the Cultural Revolution, officials issued “self-criticism” assignments to ballet students who indulged in such unnecessary extravagances as eating sweets. But why isn’t ballet itself considered extravagant and unnecessary? The “Criticise Confucius” political campaign included arguments such as, “Confucius was a feudalist whose theories described an ideal society for feudal leaders at the expense of the populace”. But during the Cultural Revolution, wasn’t the Communist Party doing exactly the same thing to its own people? Irony was everywhere, and it propelled Li Cunxin to fame.

His first trip to Houston revealed the true extent of the lies he’d been told back in China. Americans were not poor and unhappy; nor did they all carry guns; nor did they “kill coloured people”, as his family and fellow villagers back in China had warned. In America, he discovered the combination of happiness and wealth 1960s China was craving so much—and he instantly fell in love with it. He even got married, albeit hastily, to the first Western girl that he kissed.

Li Cunxin’s journey represents the journey that China took as a nation. From the 1970s onwards, China became increasingly infatuated with the west, started enjoying some political freedom (communes were dissolved), promoted cultural exchange (intermarriage is on the increase), got richer, emigrated (many Chinese with the means to emigrate have already done so) and started sending money back home (Chinese companies are investing in large western companies—sometimes purchasing them outright). It’s not just millions of Chinese who are following in Li Cunxin’s footsteps, but China as a nation-state, too.

Li Cunxin’s autobiography isn’t just about one man’s lucky journey. It instead describes the tumultuous transition to modernity that millions of people—and China itself—took in the last 60 years. Highly recommended for anyone who loves Chinese historyrags-to-riches stories, economic developmentSlumdog Millionaire, or Billy Elliot. 🙂 ★★★★★

Book: Geisha of Gion

Okay, I’m not just reading education books. Geisha of Gion has been sitting on my desk for a week or more, begging to be read. Yesterday, I finally read it.

Geisha of Gion
Written by the real-life geisha that supposedly inspired the protagonist of the same name in Memoirs of a Geisha. This book is also called, “Geisha, a Life”.

More of a ‘parallel alternative’ than a ‘fierce rebuttal’ to Memoirs.
352 pages, ★★★★

I found this book on Wikipedia while reading about Memoirs of a Geisha. Apparently, according to Wikipedia:

After the Japanese edition of the novel was published, Arthur Golden was sued for breach of contract and defamation of character by Mineko Iwasaki, a retired geisha he had interviewed for background information while writing the novel. The plaintiff asserted that Golden had agreed to protect her anonymity if she told him about her life as a geisha, due to the traditional code of silence about their clients. However, Golden listed Iwasaki as a source in his acknowledgments for the novel, causing her to face a serious backlash, to the point of death threats.[1] In his behalf, Arthur Golden countered that he had tapes of his conversations with Iwasaki.[2] Eventually, in 2003, Golden’s publisher settled with Iwasaki out of court for an undisclosed sum of money.

Iwasaki later went on to write her own autobiography, which shows a very different picture of twentieth-century geisha life than the one shown in Golden’s novel. The book was published as Geisha, a Life[3] in the U.S. and Geisha of Gion in the U.K.

Especially considering the real-life death threats involved, I expected Geisha of Gion to be a feisty, chapter-by-chapter rebuttal to Memoirs of a Geisha (rather like Three Cups of Tea and its rebuttal, Three Cups of Deceit). But it’s not like that at all—there are absolutely zero references to the original book. Instead, it’s a flattering, alternative narrative written with geisha grace. The tone, however, an a few important details have been radically altered.

The main difference between Geisha of Gion and Memoirs of a Geisha is that the former portrays a much more positive light on geisha industry. The author claims that she never had sex as a geisha and that mizuage is not a “ritual deflowering” but merely a “change of hair-style”. She emphasises that the okiya (geisha-house) was almost constantly on the verge of bankruptcy (which destroys any claims that the okiya was making a mint through exploitation).

Mineko describes geishas as high-status entertainers:

We are de facto diplomats who have to be able to communicate with anyone. But this doesn’t mean we are doormats. We are expected to be sharp-witted and insightful. Over time, I learned to express my thoughts and opinions without causing offence to others.

That last sentence is particularly important. In stark contrast to the slightly weak, victimised protagonist in Memoirs of a Geisha, Mineko demonstrates her strength in this book by including stories of how she offended both Prince Charles and the Queen—on separate occasions!

This book’s abnormally high death rate worries me. It’s set mostly in 1970s Japan, renowned for its longevity, but people die at very young ages throughout. Disease is also more common than it should be—is there something dangerous about geisha-hood that this book isn’t telling us?

The truth, not that it matters at all, probably lies somewhere between these two books. I have no idea where; I also don’t care. Just enjoy reading them! ★★★★


Book: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
Black-on-white version also available

Impetus to run.
192 pages, ★★★★

Running is a form of meditation. Murakami says he “doesn’t doesn’t know what he thinks about when he’s running”. When he’s happy, he thinks a little about being happy, and when he’s unhappy, he thinks a little about being unhappy. He says the average human mind isn’t strong enough to sustain a vacuum of thoughts, so random thoughts will seep in occasionally no matter how hard we try to block them out (see my book review on meditation exercises). That sounds like meditation to me.

Murakami started running to recover from an addiction to cigarettes, and has since run multiple marathons, including the original marathon route in Greece (he did it alone, surrounded by traffic!) Running motivated him to write, to give up smoking, and to run even more. Runners compete only against their former selves.

This humorous, autobiographical collection of essays, letters and memories persuades me strongly to get up and run.

Enough said. I want to go running. ★★★★