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Author: Karen Wilson

Review of “Think Again” by Adam Grant

Think Again is the work of organisational psychologist Adam Grant, a Wharton University professor. In this 2021 publication, he lays out the merits of going through life with an actively open mind about rethinking anything and everything – from knowledge (especially if you consider yourself an expert on a topic) to beliefs, biases and prejudices, best practices, business models, careers, and relationships.

He cites humility, doubt, and curiosity as the three essential ingredients for productive rethinking, leading to learning and progress. This book even has a chapter entitled “The Joy of Being Wrong”!

According to Adam Grant, there are four mental models that people adopt: Preacher (you think you have all the answers), Prosecutor (attacks the other side), Politician (advocates whatever wins favour with others), and Scientist (rigorously and regularly examines data and different perspectives and adjusts accordingly) – the latter being what we should all be striving towards.

He relates stories of exceptional teachers whose approach to education encouraged rethinking amongst their students and celebrating three or four attempts at something rather than just ‘getting it right’. He also details experiences at world-renowned organisations like Google, the Gates Foundation, Amazon, and NASA, where embracing rethinking improved processes, communication, and innovation – and in the case of NASA, probably saved some lives.

He points out that the key to opening the minds of others is to listen more than you talk, recognise common ground, and acknowledge the shades of grey in so many emotive and polarising issues.

Adam Grant’s message is that we should all maintain a flexible and humble mindset in a rapidly evolving world. And whilst we all need supportive people in our lives, having a ‘challenge network’ is equally important to keep us learning and moving forward. The book closes with a handy summary called “Actions for Impact”, in which he lists thirty practical takeaways from his book.

A copy of Think Again can be found in our Chartered Client Library.

Review of To Walk It Is To See It by Kathy Elkind

(1 Couple, 98 Days, 1400 Miles on Europe’s GR5)
Reviewed by Kathy Wilson

After American Kathy Elkind and her husband Jim moved to Vermont and became empty nesters, they decided to plan a grand walking adventure. In her late fifties and moderately fit, Kathy selected the Grande Randonnée Cinq (GR5) route, starting in Hoek van Holland in The Netherlands and finishing in Nice, France, a distance of 2300 kilometres. Her rationale was that this route would be more refined than rugged, offering a better chance of her making it through to the end!

The official trail winds through Europe’s Vosges, Jura and the Alps mountain ranges, so it is not just a leisurely stroll. On longer days, they walked up to 37 km, overnighting in gîtes (simple country lodgings for travellers) or occasionally a hotel as a treat and a chance to rest up in comfort. At times, kind strangers stepped in to find them somewhere to sleep. Along the way, they befriended different local walkers for the brief time that they had a path and destination in common.

Kathy’s richly descriptive writing invites you along for the walk. She brings the scenery, villages, and walking conditions to life and shares her highs and lows as the three-month trek unfolds.

For Kathy, walking the GR5 was also a journey of introspection and discovering who she was as she approached her sixth decade. She looks back on her struggles with dyslexia (that she became a teacher and wrote this book is a huge achievement) and comfort eating, and reflects on her 28-year marriage – did she marry Jim for the right reasons, and how compatible are they, particularly as they enter a new phase of their lives? Seemingly, both she and Jim came away with more clarity and connection, thanks to that Alpine air!

It is an enjoyable read that may inspire sedentary individuals to rush out and buy their first pair of sturdy walking shoes.

A copy of To Walk It Is To See It by Kathy Elkind is available in the Chartered client library for short-term loan.

REVIEW of “The Lost Art of Dying – Reviving Forgotten Wisdom” by L.S. Dugdale, MD

Dying is a subject that many of us skirt around, finding it morbid and unsettling, especially when it concerns ourselves or close family and friends. Lydia Dugdale, Associate Professor of Medicine and director of the Center for Clinical Medical Ethics at Colombia University, is an internal medicine primary care doctor who believes that our approach and attitude to dying have changed to our detriment in the modern world.

Dugdale was inspired to write her book after coming across literature originating in the 15th century. The genre was known as ars moriendi (the art of dying) – a handbook for dying well, to be learned while still in good health, in an era when average human lifespans were relatively short. She concluded that we no longer anticipate and prepare well for our mortality for various reasons. She attributes this partly to advances in medical technology and facilities since the early 20th century, which enable us to distance ourselves from death. We are now also inclined to view medical interventions and hospitalisation as a tool to stave off death, even under the direst circumstances. She deems that sometimes such interventions aren’t beneficial and can add to the suffering of the dying.

Some of the topics she covers are finitude (accepting that there are limits to human life), community (staying connected to and supported by others throughout life and at the end of life), hospital vs home (understanding when hospitalisation and/or resuscitation may not be the best choice) and confronting fear of death and degeneration. Whilst the book is not intended to be religious, she also examines the role of spirituality and ritual in preparing for and navigating death.

The author draws on her own experiences, both negative and positive, with frail and terminally ill patients and shares other stories and trends that lend credence to her views. She encourages people to practice patience, hope, humility, faith, and less attachment to material things during their lives as a way of preparing themselves for the eventual end of life – and she asserts early in the book that “The art of dying well starts with the art of living well”!

A copy of “The Lost Art of Dying – Reviving Forgotten Wisdom” by L.S. Dugdale, MD is available in our Chartered client library for short-term loan.

Review of FINDING ME by Viola Davis

Viola Davis would probably not be the first name that comes to mind for most people if asked to specify an award-winning actress. My only acquaintance with her work was a random discovery of the TV series How to Get Away with Murder when it was screened on eTV a few years ago. Something about the gritty legal thriller and its imposing female lead had me engrossed.

Since reading her 2022 autobiography, I now know that Viola Davis has won all the prestigious performance awards – the Tony, an Emmy, an Oscar, as well as a recent Grammy for the audio narration of her memoir; to date, only 18 actors have achieved all four and earned the distinction of becoming an “EGOT”. She is also a graduate of the Juilliard School’s 4-year drama programme, although she felt that she didn’t really fit into the euro-centric training. That’s a truly impressive list of accomplishments, but reading her story leaves you in awe of what she had to overcome and how hard she worked to reach the pinnacle of her craft and a place of self-love.

Viola was born into poverty in the US and grew up as one of six children in a home where alcohol abuse and domestic violence were her backdrop. She describes rat-infested living conditions in buildings that were fire hazards, no heating or hot water in bitterly cold winters, and regular hunger. As a child, her dark skin and chronic bed-wetting added to her torment. Fortunately, there have been a few guiding lights in her life: her oldest sister loved school and encouraged Viola to learn and work towards something better, a teacher and a counsellor urged her to enter an arts talent competition as a teenager, there were friends and mentors as she pursued her acting career, and (after a friend told her to get down on her knees and pray for the kind of man she wanted) her husband of the past 20 years.

In her book, Viola shares her long, gruelling journey to success and self-acceptance, including therapy in later years as she struggled to embrace the traumatised child she had been and to see herself as worthy.

A copy of FINDING ME by Viola Davis is available in the Chartered Client Library for short-term loan.

Review of The Good Life and How to Live It

Lessons from the World’s Longest Study on Happiness by Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz

Lessons from the World’s Longest Study on Happiness by Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz

The authors of this book (published in 2023) are the current programme directors of a Harvard research project that has been ongoing for an impressive 84 years. It has followed the lives of diverse participants, from their early teens through their senior years, incorporating a second generation along the way – all in a quest to deliver what the title of the book promises.

They aren’t, however, promising a shortcut to euphoria, and the authors do clarify that they are referring to eudaimonic happiness, which is “a state of deep well-being in which a person feels that their life has meaning and purpose” despite the inevitable disappointments, trauma and loss that we all experience over a lifetime.

It all comes down to relationships; other studies over the years also back up the data from the Harvard Study, i.e., quality relationships play a pivotal role in supporting our health and happiness. The Harvard Study participants who fared best in terms of happiness had strong relationships and were in better mental and physical shape into their 80s. Quality of and satisfaction with your relationships count and provide ‘armour’ when life delivers hard knocks.

The message is that all relationships – spanning spouses, family, colleagues, and friends – need effort towards embracing openness, offering and asking for support, facing into challenges, taking time to pause and understand emotions and situations better, paying attention (especially to long-term relationships that have shifted into autopilot) and showing genuine curiosity. Even interacting with a stranger can boost mood and open up opportunities. Loss of friends following retirement is quite common, and the authors encourage being purposeful about maintaining and creating social connections as life progresses.

The book provides some mini-Harvard-Study tools to gauge your ‘Social Fitness’ and plot your ‘Social Universe’, as well as a ‘W.I.S.E.R.’ model for dealing with challenging relationship events. Several life stories and comparisons among individuals who have participated in the Harvard project are included and add the human element to the research data.

A copy of The Good Life and How to Live It – Lessons from the World’s Longest Study on Happiness is available for short-term loan from our Chartered Client Library.

U3A – A Look Over the Fence

Although I still have two feet in the working world, it seemed like sensible pre-planning to find out what social options lie on the other side of the fence for my next (and not-so-distant) life chapter. And so I joined U3A.

I first heard about the rather quirky-sounding University of the Third Age from my neighbour, a fit and feisty 70-something with whom I do a 5 km walk on Sundays – which gives us a lot of time to talk! She explained that U3A is a worldwide organisation that aims to provide mature people, many retired or semi-retired, a forum for continued learning, interaction, and knowledge exchange; there are around 30 branches in South Africa. She belongs to a smaller branch and, in addition to attending some of their talks, she participates in a photographic interest group and one for birding enthusiasts.

I selected one of the bigger branches – for its proximity to work and on the assumption that bigger would mean better when it comes to monthly talks. Upon arriving to attend my first talk and seeing the busy car park, I did have fleeting second thoughts about making a solo entrance. However, in the foyer, I met a friendly lady also on her own who bought me a “welcome” coffee and chatted to me about her part-time work in education; shortly afterwards, I also bumped into a couple of Chartered clients.

Over the past few months, the topics have included conservation, personal stories, and township economics, all delivered by engaging speakers. There are also various special interest groups that one can join, which cover art, computers, writing, hiking, theatre, history, philosophy and – for the poetic at heart – even Shakespearean sonnets! That’s quite an array of options to keep the brain cells firing and meet new friends.

The annual membership fee ranges from around R80 – R200, and the various branches’ monthly talks are usually held on a Tuesday morning in a community/church hall or auditorium in the respective areas. Membership is branch-specific, but most have a nominal visitor’s charge if you want to attend a talk at a branch other than your own.

While online information about the branches and contact persons is currently sparse, an umbrella website is under construction to list all the South African U3A branches with their essential details. For now, a Google search will bring up limited results for U3A Johannesburg, Johannesburg East, Johannesburg North and Pretoria, as well as Cape Town, George, Plett, East London and Durban if you are keen to join or find out more.