Bird by Bird

There’s nothing like a good beach read.

And thanks to this recent Quartz post, there’s even more value in that “book reading by the sea” process than you might think. Here’s a quick excerpt from psychotherapist Robin Rosenberg:

“In our regular lives we’re all over-scheduled, and probably stressed,” says Rosenberg. In addition to that stress, Rosenberg refers to the heavy ‘cognitive load’ we carry each day—the constant need to sort and weigh information in an overstimulated environment. “When you’re sitting on a beach, the cognitive load is very low,” says Rosenberg. “[When reading] You have time to wonder, to let your mind wander, to be really curious, to be introspective if you’re an introspective person.”

So, if you’ve got a beach trip lined up, or if you’re just on the hunt for a good summer read, I’d like to offer my official recommendation. (Bonus: It won’t just entertain you; it’ll help you grow as a communicator and a productive leader, too.)

The book is Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Although packaged as writerly advice (which Lamott doles out effortlessly and humorously, with chapter titles like “False Starts” and “$%^& First Drafts”), the insights it reveals resonate across disciplines. It’s especially helpful if you’re a person who finds yourself constantly short on time but overwhelmed by projects you need to tackle and results you need to show.

There’s a lot to be said for reading Bird by Bird in its entirety, and I was pleased to learn that Quartz’s managing editor agreed (She called it “a good transition book at the start of vacation, when she wasn’t quite ready to dive into mindlessness.”)  For now, to whet your appetite, here are three of my favorite life lessons from the book:

  1. Baby steps absolutely count. In the most memorable passage, Lamott shares a beloved family story about how to move the mountains that overwhelm you.  Whether your mountain is a book report, a research paper, or even that first novel – you can get it done, but only by taking that first terrifying, little step:

“Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day…[H]e was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”

  1. Get to the heart of what matters.  Both good writers and strong leaders recognize the importance of stripping away the excess.  As Lamott observes, in describing what she learned after the death of a good friend: “That’s how real life works… and this is what good writing allows us to notice sometimes. You can see the underlying essence only when you strip away the busyness, and then some surprising connections appear.”  How does this relate to our day-to-day lives as communicators?  It’s simple: Don’t say in two paragraphs what you can tell your reader in two strong, evocative sentences.  Or don’t beat around the bush when sharing constructive criticism with a colleague – they’ll respect you more when you cut to the chase. Get the point – the heart – of what you’re trying to say, and you’ll be far more successful every time.
  1. Know when to put things to bed.  For those of us in the business of helping organizations tackle outsized problems and challenges, a critical lesson of the book comes in a chapter unassumingly titled, “How Do You Know When You’re Done?” Lamott notes that this is a question her writing students constantly ask, and it is one that she also struggles to answer.  But her advice rings clear when she says to stop when you feel done, adding: “Of course, there will always be more you could do, but you have to remind yourself that perfectionism is the voice of the oppressor.”  It’s funny, to be sure, but it’s also a good admonishment to resist circling and circling on that proposal that you insist could be better phrased, or that message platform that’s taken weeks and weeks to get exactly right.

So whether you’ve read it before, or not – I hope you’ll make Bird by Bird your next beach read this summer. You’ll be astonished by what you’ll take away from it – one step, one word, or one bird at a time.