May 05, 2016


The Power of Being Yourself: A Game Plan for Success by Putting Passion into Your Life and Work. By Joe Plumeri. Da Capo. $14.99.

Chasing Perfection: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at the High-Stakes Game of Creating an NBA Champion. By Andy Glockner. Da Capo. $25.99.

     The notion of “authenticity” for success in the workplace is scarcely a new one, but motivational speaker Joe Plumeri – who would prefer to be called “inspirational” – tries mightily to reinvent it in The Power of Being Yourself. Plumeri, former head of global insurer Willis Group and before that a senior banking executive, suggests using the book in a collaborative way, sharing it with friends and discussing its points among yourselves so everyone will presumably benefit from Plumeri’s insights. The problem is that the insights go nowhere beyond that of Shakespeare: “This above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” And Shakespeare delivered those lines in Hamlet with a sly twist, having them spoken by Polonius, whose wisdom was interspersed with matter-of-fact observations and a tittle of nonsense. Plumeri’s urging of readers to find their inner core and stick to it is given with no sense of irony whatsoever – instead, it is overlaid with guilt. And that is ultimately what sets The Power of Being Yourself apart from many other, otherwise very similar books. Plumeri offers heartfelt stories and a series of anecdotes about personal experiences, the deepest and most distressing of them being the death in 2008 of his oldest son, Christian, who battled anorexia and drug addiction from age 13 and died at 39 from, Plumeri says, an enlarged heart. Plumeri’s own heart seems to be a large one, in the emotional rather than the medical sense, and he makes it clear again and again that he holds himself greatly responsible for his son’s many failures and early death – even though Plumeri rescued Chris again and again from a long series of awful life choices, even to the point of raising Chris’ child when Chris could no longer do so. “My son was a drug addict since he was thirteen years old. I thought I did everything I could to help him, but obviously I didn’t do enough. I did the things that were structurally correct, but I didn’t spend the time or put in the emotion that I should have, and this is where I hope every reader of this book is paying attention. …So I’m a living, breathing cautionary tale.” Plumeri parlays this deeply distressing part of his life, with which readers surely will empathize, into advice and exhortations that are far less involving than the troubles underlying them. There are eight chapters encapsulating Plumeri’s advice to find work-life balance, and only one is headlined “Let Sadness Teach You,” but that is the main valuable message the book ultimately provides. The rest of it is not so much about personal authenticity in one’s career as it is about focusing on things beyond work, realizing that work is not all there is to life and it is crucial to be involved deeply in other things, family being paramount. This is scarcely revelatory. Plumeri comes across as likable and, through much of the book, as pleasantly upbeat despite the darkness in his family history. But readers seeking anything new in their quest for accomplishment in the business world will not find it here.

     They may, though, find some of it in Andy Glockner’s Chasing Perfection – that is, if they can take the information in this basketball-saturated book and use it for purposes beyond professional sports. Glockner here writes about people whose approach to success is the opposite of the one professed by Plumeri. There is nothing authentic whatsoever in these players, coaches, managers, team owners or the people advising all of them – there is only a set of objective data, collected and manipulated and squashed and squeezed and extracted and applied in every possible way to the enormously lucrative business of what some people laughably think of as a “game.” Really, this is not a book about basketball, except incidentally – but unfortunately, Glockner is a sports writer, and he clearly cares a great deal about basketball, thus guaranteeing that any reader who does not share the author’s predilections will find the book extraordinary difficult to become involved in or even, at times, to follow. Really, there is nothing particularly interesting in the umpteenth story about hugely overpaid professional performers engaging in competitive feats against other hugely overpaid professional performers. But there is a great deal that is fascinating about Big Data and the way Big Sports is now using Big Information to make Big Money. Old-fashioned basketball terms such as points, assists, rebounds and free-throw percentage are not the point here: the new vocabulary, Glockner says, includes gravity scores, offensive efficiency, real plus-minus, paint touches and more. These are the words used in analyses by companies such as Kinduct, P3 (Peak Performance Project), Second Spectrum, SportVU (which specializes in motion-capture cameras), Synergy Sports Technology and the like. Teams that have devoted themselves intensely to computer-based analytics have, Glockner says, been among the most successful in recent years; Glockner’s specific discussions of the San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets will interest basketball fans. Those interested in how Big Data is affecting more of our lives every day may be more intrigued by the reasoning behind the Rockets’ decision to sign James Harden, who had played rather fecklessly for the Oklahoma City Thunder but whose numbers added up in a way that led the Rockets to believe that, within their organization and within their playing style, he could become a superstar – which he did. Then there is the story of the Atlanta Hawks’ Kyle Korver, labeled by Glockner as the National Basketball Association’s “most perfected player,” who spends summers working out at P3 so the analysts there can fine-tune him. And yes, that sounds robotic, and that is exactly the point. The Big Data approach – which permeates pro basketball and other sports and is now being used at the college level as well – sees people as collections of data, manipulable in much the same way that Andy Serkis could be computer-manipulated to become Gollum in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings films. There is no emotion, no “heart” in Big Data – and there are some serious privacy concerns as the information is used to track players’ health and help owners and managers produce teams that are as strong as possible. Chasing Perfection raises some of these issues, and would be a far better book, and one of far greater reach, if it explored them outside its very limited context. But it is that context, professional basketball, that Glockner really cares about, so he has written a book for super-fans who take pro sports seriously and consider them meaningful – ignoring the genuinely serious and meaningful societal context in which these “games” are increasingly making use of minutiae of information, on whose basis there is a lot more riding than the question of who beats whom for some sports championship or other.

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