June 16, 1999

I don't normally buy business books but my local bookstore was clearing stock and The 500 Year Delta was a blue light special (that's $1.49 to those who can't remember such fine K-Mart moments). I had heard of the book from Wired Magazine (the pre-Conde Nast Wired, that is... the new Wired is all money now... for an e-culture fix, I suggest a Shift). I was interested in the authors' predictions for the future.

As I said, I don't have a personal inclination to read business books, but I have some of them in my day. And I have read enough of them to know that they are books of grown-up fairy tales.

Because they are always geared with rich executives with no "free" time, business books are practically devoid of any big words or long chapters. Like a kid's dream-textbook, they are short and snappy and every key point is illustrated with some memorable story  - and every story of course, has a moral. I suspect that they key to being a good business speaker / writer (same thing in the business world) is the ability is to tell many short strange and humorous antidotes and justify it with some larger 'big idea' context.

While keeping a straight face.

The 500 Year Delta doesn't fail in the parable department. I haven't even finished the first chapter and I've found a prime example:

"A friend of ours works for a privately funded sex-education council in Midtown Manhattan. Not long ago, she was attending a board meeting of the council and met a new member -- a Native American. The new member's hair was, of course, jet black, long and flowing; the new member wore a great deal of makeup and beautiful pieces of native jewelry. Our friend was sophisticated and urbane, but she has spent a good deal of time in the West, among the Crow and the Blackfoot. Getting along famously with the new member should have been no problem for her, but there was one thing she couldn't get around during the first part of the board meeting: She could not determine the sex of the new board member. Because of this, she says, she was paralyzed with anxiety the whole time she was trying to interact.

"If the new board member were a male, would she say something inappropriate and permanently offend him, perhaps even jeopardize her own job? If she were female, would she violate the canons of sisterhood? Every attempt at conversation was stilted by this fear, by her inability to make the cognitive jump, and because it was, every attempt failed. And then finally, our friend says, she saw the new board member coming out of the men's room during a break in the board meting and all the problems of acceptance disappeared in, well, a New York second."

So what should we learn from this, other than we should not read business books for gender or native issues to be reasonably addressed  ...

"It is an extreme example, naturally but a useful one. Reason depends on the constancy of those things we perceive to be givens. We live increasingly in a world where the givens not only don't hold, but can be impossible to determine."

Modern day Aesops they are.