Need a jolt of optimism this summer? Well, I suppose your options are limited. Going to see the Hunger Games or Prometheus probably won’t do it, nor will clicking on your favorite news website. If you’re like me, poring over the most recent statement for your 401K is a definite no-no as well. Yet clicking over to your favorite online bookstore just might do the trick. Because several recent releases out there reassure us that life really is much better than we think.
We hear a lot of doom and gloom these days about America’s prospects. A May poll fielded by the Associated Press/GFK found that Americans are getting bleaker in their assessment of the economy, and with unemployment at 8.1%, who can blame them. But as journalist Daniel Gross argues in his book Better, Stronger, Faster: The Myth of American Decline…and the Rise of a New Economy, America has gotten a seriously bad rap. In fact, Gross thinks America has weathered the Great Recession surprisingly well and offers a “reality-based case for optimism” about America’s future. Declinists, he argues, overlook “the intrinsic, enduring strengths of the United States….America has been, and remains, unique—politically and economically—in the way it responds and reacts to crisis, in the way its public and private sectors act, and in the way its private sector innovates and find [sic] opportunities.”
Gross is no polyanna who thinks that great times are on the immediate horizon. “The next several years are going to be a period of digging out, cleaning up, and re-orienting.” But he assures us that we have the capability to get the job done. Offering thirteen chapters tackling topics like policy, productivity, foreign direct investment, exports, reshoring and inshoring, and consumerism, Gross offers several principles or themes we can focus on to improve America’s prospects going forward. He ends by reminding us that the Chilean miners emerged thanks to the “products and services of two small, unheralded U.S. companies,” and that one of the miners subsequently ventured to the US to run in the New York City Marathon. “[T]he competition between nations,” he observes, “like the internal competition of a country to improve its economy, isn’t a sprint. It’s a marathon,” one that we’re well equipped to win.
Okay, you might say, so maybe we still do have an automobile industry, globally admired and relevant companies like Apple, Google, and Facebook, and a higher education system that remains the envy of the world. Isn’t China poised to eat our lunch? Not if you believe Ruchir Sharma, author of another reassuring title, Breakout Nations: In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles. During the next decade, he argues, China’s growth will slow much more than growth in Western economies. “The sense many Americans have of being rapidly overtaken by Asian juggernauts will be remembered as one of the country’s periodic bouts of paranoia, something like the hype that accompanied Japan’s ascent in the late 1980s.”
Taking the reader on a tour of economies the world over, Sharma, an emerging market expert at Morgan Stanley, sees us on the cusp of a “new era that will be defined by moderate growth, the return of the boom-bust business cycle, and the break-up of herd behavior.” He regards the Czech Republic and South Korea, Indonesia, the Philippines, Nigeria, and several countries in Eastern Africa as potential “breakout nations” that will exceed average growth rates for economies at their levels of per-capita income. Most hopefully, he speaks of a “rediscovery of the West” and especially of the United States. It’s tempting to compare us to Japan during the 1990s, but Sharma cautions against it: “Far more than Japan, the United States remains flexible and innovative—the center of creativity in technology, still wide open to people and ideas, with the youngest population in the developed world and a very competitive (cheap) currency.”
Like Gross’ book, Sharma’s is worth reading for the comprehensive and fairly fresh view he offers of the current economic climate. Yet the optimism currently emanating from bookshelves also extends to the daily life of individuals. Charles Duhigg’s bestselling book The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business opens with an account of a woman in her mid-twenties who smoked, drank, struggled with obesity, couldn’t hold a job, and was in debt. By her mid thirties, this same woman had no debt, had worked over three years at a design firm, and had the slim and trim physique of the marathon runner she was. Best of all, she hadn’t smoked a cigarette in years. She had done all this by focusing on changing one bad habit—what Duhigg terms a “keystone habit”—and allowing the rest to fall into place. Duhigg explains: “At one point, we all consciously decided how much to eat and what to focus on when we got to the office, how often to have a drink or when to go for a jog. Then we stopped making a choice, and the behavior became automatic. It’s a natural consequence of our neurology. And by understanding how it happens, you can rebuild those patterns in whichever way you choose.”
How precisely does it work? Duhigg spends the book looking at habits in individuals, organizations, and societies. On the level of the individual, he notes that habits have three parts: A cue or trigger, the routine that comprises the habit, and the reward that follows the habit. Citing scientific research, Duhigg relates that we can never eradicate bad habits, since these often take years to build and which correspond to physiological changes in the brain. But we can modify or change those habits simply by keeping the cue and reward the same but inserting a new habit. In fact, Duhigg trumpets this as the “Golden Rule of habit change,” a precept that has helped untold numbers of alcoholics kick their habit and also helped football coach Tony Dungy take the Tampa Bay Buccaneers from worst to first.
Whether your bad habit is smoking or an addiction to reading every last Firm Voice posting six times over, you can lick it. And there’s no need to feel bad about the economy or to think that America’s best years are behind it. The three titles mentioned here will leave you with a smile on your face and the can-do spirit burning in your breast. Reconnect with your mojo. Crack open that can of whoop-ass. The world isn’t as bad as it seems. As an industry and as individuals, we can do it!
- In: Summer Reading