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SBR – Game of Thrones: You Lose or You Die

After reading a marketing email about how one of the characters in the series by George R. R. Martin is the Mother of Branding as well as the Mother of Dragons, I decided I would give the books a try. The first book in the series A Song of Ice and Fire is Game of Thrones. While it has been a bestselling novel and one of the most watched shows on HBO for many years, I have never done HBO so this is my first experience of the book.

“In the game of thrones, you win or you die”

This is the major theme of the first book, mentioned multiple times by different characters. I was reading and I realized that the people who win the throne are not true winners. As a matter of fact, the only people who work their way to some point of rest are those who have died.

So, my theme for the book review is to twist Martin’s words back against him: in the game of thrones, you lose.

Or you die.

There are no winners.

Now, if you are a major fan of the book or television series, you may start arguing with me, but realize that this is a review of one book from a new fan. I will not have your point of view on the characters that somehow manage to survive the next few books and make a life for themselves. But, even so, I am going to hypothesize that this theme will continue through the books.

To borrow from Longfellow,

The vanquished in A Song of Ice and Fire is the victor of the field.

Medieval Realism?

I saw several other reviews that praised Martin for creating a fantasy world that was more realistic than Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings epic, set in a medieval plot-line loosely based on the English War of Roses, where the houses of Lancaster and York fought each other (and everyone else) for the throne of England.

I don’t know that the amount of violence portrayed in the book is true to medieval life.

But, this book fits in well with pre-Christian epics like the Illiad, the Odyssey, or the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Yes, it uses military techniques and technology from around 800-1200 AD Europe, including the massed hordes of horse archers used by Moslem, Mongol, and Hunnish armies and the knights and longbowmen of England and France.

But, as a fantasy, it also pulls together a unique blend of the brutal intricacies of Greco-Roman family politics with the magic of Norse and Celtic mythologies and the capriciousness of Homeric deities.

In other words, the good, the bad and the ugly in this work is more of a reflection of the author and our modern culture than it is of any other human culture in history.

The Theme of Death in Game of Thrones

[Spoiler Alert]

The book starts in the 15th year of the reign of Robert, a minor foil in the series. His inability to mourn and move on from his young love has lead to a power vacuum in the kingdom. Through the book we discover how little he has actually done in his kingdom; he has not even sired any children to carry on his line. All his wife’s children were in fact made in an incestuous affair she carried on for the entirety of her marriage.

Before the opening of the series, we read about the war with the descendants of the dragon kings whose own incestuous habits had lead to a high degree of instability in the family. The last dragon king was known as a mad man. His surviving son is also crazy.

So, we learn that the main characters have ALL lost family members in the last war, including fathers, brothers, sisters, children.

In the course of the book, the king dies and the main male character, Ned Stark also dies.

Ned is the most consistent character in the series. Besides one somewhat mysterious affair when he was on the war path, no one knows who the mother of his son is, he has lived committed to his wife, Catelyn. He honors his friends and his enemies alike through plain spoken candor. But, as he attempts to fill the power vacuum left by his friends’ poor life and untimely death, he gets outsmarted by the Queen, betrayed by many, and executed after he issues a false confession in an attempt to save his daughter’s life.

Ned’s death removes him from the survival equation, mostly unscathed. He dies as a moral and virtuous man, just like those who died before him.

The Survivors

The survivors in the Game of Thrones have not won, but they have all lost much.

They lost the love of a joyful home. They lost the love of a healthy marriage bed, if they ever had it. They lost the peace of a truly just government. They lost sanity. They lost loved ones on the battle field, on the sickbed, and in the intrigues of various court battles.

The survivors are attempting to hold on, to survive for another day.

And the book ends the way it begins: with hurt people playing a game for a transitional power structure and a sense of identity where death is the only victor.

Yes, Game of Thrones is an interesting read, but I have to follow it up with something more full of hope. So I leave you with the entirety of Longfellow’s poem as my response to the first book in A Song of Fire and Ice.

As one who long hath fled with panting breath
  Before his foe, bleeding and near to fall,
  I turn and set my back against the wall,
  And look thee in the face, triumphant Death,
I call for aid, and no one answereth;
  I am alone with thee, who conquerest all;
  Yet me thy threatening form doth not appall,
  For thou art but a phantom and a wraith.
Wounded and weak, sword broken at the hilt,
  With armor shattered, and without a shield,
  I stand unmoved; do with me what thou wilt;
I can resist no more, but will not yield.
  This is no tournament where cowards tilt;
  The vanquished here is victor of the field. 


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SBR: Becoming

I love memoirs. They challenge me to see the world from someone else’s point of view, to understand a new way of doing things or thinking.

So, when I saw a copy of Michelle Obama’s Becomingat a friends house, I decided to pick it up for the next Saturday Book Review. Politically, I am about as far from President Obama’s administration as you could be. But, a significant reason for reading a memoir like this is to see from someone else’s point of view.

Becomingis a well-written book with insight into the family life of the family of the 44th President of the United States and to much of the periphery of their leadership.

It is also the story of how an African-American from south Chicago met a Kenyan-American from Hawaii and his charm, charisma, and passion for the political process led them both to become our first black Presidential family.

Leadership Lessons Learned

Sometimes We Have to Be Comfortable in the Supporting Role

Michelle Obama had to balance the life of a Princeton and Harvard educated lawyer with a career of her own with the life of the primary household and child manager for the years that Barack was in office.

This is a key lesson that I think anyone looking to grow in life should learn: designating one parent as the at-home parent is key for most larger than life goals.

Yes, Michelle is a strong woman. Yes, she has her own career. But, no, she is not able to have an independent career and remain married to the President of the United States. This isn’t a gender thing, it’s the fact that some positions require so much energy that the entire family gets behind it, even if one member is the figurehead.

The Supporting Role Can Be More Meaningful

After Donald Trump became President, he worked to undo much of President Obama’s signature legislative legacy and executive policies. I was struck while reading Becoming  that some of Michelle Obama’s silent work on the side is more likely to survive partisan pruning.

Will the White House’s Vegetable Garden remain?

Longer than the Iranian nuclear treaty.

Michelle was the First Lady of the United States and she never expressed the desire for power that Hillary Clinton was known for in Bill Clinton’s presidency. But, her quiet determination to do something for America’s children had a measurable and long-term impact in both legislative and private processes.

Be Confident

One of the things that attracted Michelle to Barack was the ease of movement that he had, he always portrayed a sense of confidence. Agree or disagree with him on policy, only a reactionary jerk would say that President Obama did not hold himself with presidential decorum.

If you are going to build a business, advance your career, or run for the most powerful position on the planet, you need to show the world a calm confidence in what you do.

Don’t Give Power to Naysayers

Michelle talks about the pain of being a target for conservative media; being a leader in politics today means that your opponents will throw everything at you.

But, she mentions how the goals and worldview they had going in as a couple were the same as when they left. She also talks about how Obama kept an even keel when hurtful coverage threatened to capsize her.

If you want to be in leadership, understand that naysayers will attack you, no matter what.

Read Lots of Books

One story that really stood out to me was when Michelle mentioned that Barack had to have a room where he could spread out his reading materials.

When they were first friends and she tried setting him up with friends at a happy hour, Barack was annoyed because of the chit-chat. He would rather read a book then talk about the social ladder of Chicago urbanites.

This is now my favorite thing about President Obama, and if I ever were to meet him, the first question I would ask is what is the best book he has read recently.

Understanding The Other

It was interesting to read about a politician who I mostly disagreed with from the viewpoint of his biggest fan. It was also interesting to see the comments Michelle made in the book about the other side in American politics.

If you have lived under a rock as far as social media, news, and modern politics, you might have missed the fact that America is deeply divided. As a conservative constitutionalist-libertarianish-almost-anarchist biblically-submitted white boy from a lower income family in rural Idaho, I tend to fall pretty heavily on the “other side” from the Obamas.

That’s why I love true reading.

Reading gives you a viewpoint you might never have. I am 100% certain that I will never ask the Obamas what they thought about the racism of Rev. Jeremiah Wright, even if I met them.

Why am I so confident?

Because Michelle talked about how a news media put together a timeline of racist sermons and it struck them to see from an outsiders point of view. Everybody puts up with their crazy uncle unless it’s someone else’s crazy uncle.

When I read her comments on that, I put the book down and cried. Why? Because I have felt judged because of my race and never before have I even heard someone acknowledge that my feelings are OK to have. Michelle Obama did in her acknowledgement that some of Rev. Wright’s speeches are vitriolic and racist.

valso helped me understand where I consumed news content, and probably shared, that was not political discourse but prejudiced crap.

Understanding the other requires that we listen, and books are one of the best ways to listen, and take the time to truly see where we can come together and where our disagreements can be made with politeness but firmness.

Understanding the other requires that we don’t give up our principles, but relish the discussion.

Whether you loved the Obamas and want a fun look back at their ascendency and time in office or you think almost all of Obama’s laws should be repealed, I highly recommend that you read this book, apply some of President Obama’s habits to your own public presence, and engage in the process of Becoming.

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SBR – Jack: Straight from the Gut

Jack: Straight from the Gut is the memoir of Jack Welch, the CEO of the General Electric Corporation from 1981 to 2001. During his tenure as CEO, General Electric was included in the 1990’s business book Built to Last as a visionary company.

5 Lessons I Learned from Jack

Jack Welch had an amazing career in a period of intense change. When he started his career at GE, it was at the tail end of the Mad Men years, in 1960.

His first break came as a leader for a small plastics research team in GE. His team was able to drastically improve the quality of GE’s plastics manufacturing and keep them competitive in a technological revolution many people do not know happened. The advancements in plastics that have happened since 1960 are incredible, and Jack Welch was at the forefront of the research for it when he started his career.

Be Willing to Experiment

The first lesson I learned from Jack Welch’s autobiography was that we need to embrace learning while realizing that principles continue working even in major technological shifts. Jack Welch was so frustrated with the bureaucracy at GE when he started that he nearly quit.

It was only the intervention of a manager over him who ensured that he would have freedom to work and experiment that convinced him to stay at GE.

When he was the CEO, he kept an agile focus even while growing one of the largest corporations in the world.

Business Leaders Build People

The second lesson I learned from Jack:Straight from the Gut was that to be a great business leader, you have to focus your creativity in building people and culture. Although he received bad press in the 1980’s for hundreds of thousands of layoffs, the book really communicated that he did not want to do layoffs but saw it as the only way to keep GE competitive and enable better paying jobs.

Throughout the entire book, he discussed the people that he worked with, the people he promoted, the people who left GE to lead other companies. Another issue, that I disagree with him on, was his review and reward process. He fired the bottom 10% of managers in every business in GE every year!

Even though he made choices many people do not agree with, I found it very educational to read how the choices impacted the culture of GE during his 20 years as chairman. I was also interested to discover how much the culture he built impacted growth in manufacturing, expanding into services, and globalization.

The Importance of Family

I always read biographies of rich or famous people with an eye towards their families. It is incredibly difficult to be successful at work and successful in your family. Although this book was mostly about his time as CEO at GE, there was some information about how his lower income mom and dad impacted him, especially how his mother gave him a competitive spirit.

Also, he talked briefly about his divorce from his first wife and subsequent remarriage. He mentioned that when he got remarried he purposefully looked for a woman who would be able to spend time with him in traditional business settings like golf. I think this is a key part of any type of leadership and familial success. Bring your family with you.

Think Long Term

This book focused on the period of Jack’s life from 1960, when he started at GE until he retired in 2001, 41 years. During that time, he built businesses within the company, patented new technologies, succeeded one president and brought in another to replace himself.

He oversaw the growth of GE capital, the globalization of the company and using quality control to keep competitive in a more competitive world. It is so easy for people starting a business or career in the fast-paced online world and we forget that the most successful people always take time to build culture, to cultivate the process, and to become experts in what they do.

Careers are Not That Bad

If you have ever read or heard about Robert Kiyosaki’s Cash-Flow Quadrant, you have probably heard that you want to be an investor or business owner in order to be wealthy.

Jack Welch spent his entire life as an employee. He had to learn how to balance career and family life, he had to learn how to manage people and time. And, at the end of that amazing career, he retired with 100’s of millions of dollars.

You don’t have to be a business owner to retire with incredible wealth in this country, and that was one of the inspiring things I read in the book.

Jack, In Conclusion

Although you can read some of the heated debates that have and continue to surround this man, his autobiography is an interesting look at one of America’s most memorable careers. It is highly worth reading if you are interested in leadership, in building a business, or in the history of American business.

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