Diversity + Innovation = Business Success

Sponsored by Amway


Why a more diverse workplace is also a more talented one

Ram Charan has spent his working life as a business mentor and consultant to CEOs of global companies. He's the guy that Coca-Cola, KLM, GE, and Bank of America (just to name a few) call when they need help. And he's a firm believer in a diverse workplace. If a 90-year-old can do the job the best, then why not hire them? Raw talent doesn't just exist in ivy league business schools, he says, and that applies to the whole company... from the work floor to the boardroom. Ram's latest book is Talent Wins: The New Playbook for Putting People First , and he is brought to you today by Amway. Amway believes that ​diversity and inclusion ​are ​essential ​to the ​growth ​and ​prosperity ​of ​today’s ​companies. When woven ​into ​every ​aspect ​of ​the talent ​life ​cycle, companies committed to diversity and inclusion are ​the ​best ​equipped ​to ​innovate, ​improve ​brand image ​and ​drive ​performance.

Would companies be more diverse if A.I. did the hiring?

The best hiring manager might just be the computer sitting on your desk. AI and ethics expert Joanna Bryson posits that artificial intelligence can go through all the resumes in a stack and find what employers are missing. Most humans, on the other hand, will rely on biases — whether they are aware of them or not — to get them through the selection process. This is sadly why those with European-sounding names get more calls for interviews than others. AI, she says, can change that. Joanna is brought to you today by Amway. Amway believes that ​diversity and inclusion ​are ​essential ​to the ​growth ​and ​prosperity ​of ​today’s ​companies. When woven ​into ​every ​aspect ​of ​the talent ​life ​cycle, companies committed to diversity and inclusion are ​the ​best ​equipped ​to ​innovate, ​improve ​brand image ​and ​drive ​performance.

How equal parental leave can help close the gender pay gap

It's no small secret that America is far behind the rest of the world when it comes to maternal leave. But studies are finding that paternal leave shouldn't be overlooked, either. Lauren Smith Brody, former editor of Glamor magazine and now a full-time author and founder of The Fifth Trimester movement, makes the case here that dads need time off, too, to bond with their newborns, and that modern companies need to understand and appreciate that. Lauren's latest book is The Fifth Trimester: The Working Mom's Guide to Style, Sanity, and Success After Baby. This video is brought to you by Amway. Amway believes that ​diversity and inclusion ​are ​essential ​to the ​growth ​and ​prosperity ​of ​today’s ​companies. When woven ​into ​every ​aspect ​of ​the talent ​life ​cycle, companies committed to diversity and inclusion are ​the ​best ​equipped ​to ​innovate, ​improve ​brand image ​and ​drive ​performance.

Real talk at work: How Amway created a better office for more people

Most people approach talking about difficult subjects as if they were at a debate. That is, arriving at the table (metaphorically speaking) with preconceived notions and ideas. But Amway's VP of Global Litigation and Corporate Law, Claire Groen, knew there had to be a better way. She and the leaders at Amway devised what they call RealTalk, which brings people together to hold conversations on current topics. And when the topics happened to turn into hot-button issues like immigration, the racism at Charlottesville, and so forth, these talks became an incredible conduit to a more inclusive office. People were heard, and in turn listened more to ideas outside of their comfort zone. This resulted in a better and more inclusive culture at Amway. Amway believes that ​diversity and inclusion ​are ​essential ​to the ​growth ​and ​prosperity ​of ​today’s ​companies. When woven ​into ​every ​aspect ​of ​the talent ​life ​cycle, companies committed to diversity and inclusion are ​the ​best ​equipped ​to ​innovate, ​improve ​brand image ​and ​drive ​performance.

Breaking the ice: How astronauts overcome their differences aboard the ISS

Look up—you can see the greatest feat of human cooperation orbiting 254 miles above Earth. As commander of Expedition 35 aboard the International Space Station (ISS), Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield understands the difficulty of cultural barriers in team work, and the life or death necessity of learning to communicate across those divides. The ISS is a joint project between five space agencies, built by people from 15 different nations—and each of them has a different take on what is "normal". Hadfield explains the scale of cultural differences aboard the spaceship: "What do you do on a Friday night? What does "yes" mean? What does "uh-huh" mean? What is the day of worship? When do you celebrate a holiday? How do you treat your spouse or your children? How do you treat each other? What is the hierarchy of command? All of those things seem completely clear to you, but you were raised in a specific culture that is actually shared by no one else." Here, Hadfield explains his strategy for genuine listening and communication. Whether it's money, reputation, or your life that's at stake, being sensitive and aware of people's differences helps you accomplish something together—no matter where you’re from. Amway believes that ​diversity and inclusion ​are ​essential ​to the ​growth ​and ​prosperity ​of ​today’s ​companies. When woven ​into ​every ​aspect ​of ​the talent ​life ​cycle, companies committed to diversity and inclusion are ​the ​best ​equipped ​to ​innovate, ​improve ​brand image ​and ​drive ​performance. Chris Hadfield features in the new docuseries One Strange Rock and is the author of An Astronaut's Guide to Life on Earth: What Going to Space Taught Me About Ingenuity, Determination, and Being Prepared for Anything


.

How experiencing discrimination in VR can make you less biased

What would it be like to live in the body of someone else? Since the dawn of mankind, people have imagined what it would be like to inhabit another body, just for a day or even for a few minutes. Thanks to the magic of VR, we can now do that. Jeremy Bailenson, the creator of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab, has designed a VR experience called 1000 Cut Journey that may change the way people see race: by experiencing it firsthand. Jeremy explains to us, "You start out as an elementary school child and you’re in a classroom. You then become a teenager and you’re interacting with police officers. You then become an adult who’s going on a job interview, and what you experience while wearing the body of a black male is implicit bias that happens repeatedly and over time." Jeremy is brought to you today by Amway. Amway believes that diversity and inclusion ​are ​essential ​to the ​growth ​and ​prosperity ​of ​today’s ​companies. When woven ​into ​every ​aspect ​of ​the talent ​life ​cycle, companies committed to diversity and inclusion are ​the ​best ​equipped ​to ​innovate, and ​improve ​brand image ​and ​drive ​performance.

When data drives diversity and inclusion, good things happen

What makes a job a great place to work? A sense of equity and ownership, says Michael Bush, the CEO of the conveniently named Great Place to Work. They're a global consulting and analytics firm that produces the annual Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list, the 100 Best Workplaces for Women list, the Best Workplaces for Diversity list, and dozens of other distinguished workplace rankings around the world. Michael's new book is A Great Place to Work for All: Better for Business, Better for People, Better for the World, and he's brought to you today by Amway. Amway believes that ​diversity and inclusion ​are ​essential ​to the ​growth ​and ​prosperity ​of ​today’s ​companies. When woven ​into ​every ​aspect ​of ​the talent ​life ​cycle, companies committed to diversity and inclusion are ​the ​best ​equipped ​to ​innovate, ​improve ​brand image ​and ​drive ​performance.

Neurodiversity: Many mental 'deficits' are really hidden strengths

Color-blindness. Left-handedness. Dyslexia. Autism. These are all different ways in which the brain is rewired differently than the norm. But Heather Heying, evolutionary biologist and former Professor at Evergreen State College, is saying that these so-called differences are really strengths. For example, she relays us a story about her autistic students being far more adept at spotting social dynamics emerging in the classroom, long before non-autistic students. And left-handed people are often way more creative than their righty counterparts. Evolution might suggest that we need these differences to be stronger as a whole. Be sure to follow Heather on twitter: @HeatherEHeying and through her website, heatherheying.com. Heather is brought to you today by Amway. Amway believes that diversity and inclusion are ​essential ​to the ​growth ​and ​prosperity ​of ​today’s ​companies. When woven ​into ​every ​aspect ​of ​the talent ​life ​cycle, companies committed to diversity and inclusion are ​the ​best ​equipped ​to ​innovate, ​improve ​brand image, ​and ​drive ​performance.

More playlists
  • Learn to collaborate within a team and identify "thinking talent" surpluses – and shortages.
  • Angie McArthur teaches intelligent collaboration for Big Think Edge.
  • Subscribe to Big Think Edge before we launch on March 30 to get 20% off monthly and annual memberships.

Why is burnout such a widespread phenomenon in the workplace? Collaboration expert Angie McArthur argues that it's the result of a work culture that pressures everyone to excel in every area. The fact is that people vary drastically in their "thinking talents". Do you know what your thinking talents are? How about knowing how to map the thinking capital in any given room?

Subscribe to Big Think Edge and you'll learn from Angie McArthur, CEO of Professional Thinking Partners and co-author, of "Collaborative Intelligence", how to collaborate in a way that sustains you, your team, and leads to success. You'll also discover why you shouldn't hire someone you like over someone you need.

Master intelligent collaboration, with Angie McArthur

Angie McArthur teaches "Collaborate intelligently: Energize yourself and others" for Big Think Edge's Become a better manager learning path. Under her guidance, you'll uncover your thinking talents, identify your blind spots, and learn to map the minds around you in order to drive more successful team projects.

Whether you're managing a team, seeking a business or creative partner, or simply want to mentally click with the people around you and get great ideas going, Big Think Edge's Become a better manager lessons will get you there by placing you face-to-face with digital mentors from Harvard Business School, the Navy SEALs, NASA, and the upper echelons of business consulting.

Subscribe to Big Think Edge to become a better collaborator and manage all your life's projects without burning out.

Do it before we launch on March 30, and you'll get 20% off monthly and annual subscriptions.

Abraham Maslow was the 20th-century American psychologist best-known for explaining motivation through his hierarchy of needs, which he represented in a pyramid. At the base, our physiological needs include food, water, warmth and rest.


Moving up the ladder, Maslow mentions safety, love, and self-esteem and accomplishment. But after all those have been satisfied, the motivating factor at the top of the pyramid involves striving to achieve our full potential and satisfy creative goals. As one of the founders of humanistic psychology, Maslow proposed that the path to self-transcendence and, ultimately, greater compassion for all of humanity requires the 'self-actualisation' at the top of his pyramid – fulfilling your true potential, and becoming your authentic self.

Now Scott Barry Kaufman, a psychologist at Barnard College, Columbia University, believes it is time to revive the concept, and link it with contemporary psychological theory. 'We live in times of increasing divides, selfish concerns, and individualistic pursuits of power,' Kaufman wrote recently in a blog in Scientific American introducing his new research. He hopes that rediscovering the principles of self-actualisation might be just the tonic that the modern world is crying out for. To this end, he's used modern statistical methods to create a test of self-actualisation or, more specifically, of the 10 characteristics exhibited by self-actualised people, and it was recently published in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology.

Kaufman first surveyed online participants using 17 characteristics Maslow believed were shared by self-actualised people. Kaufman found that seven of these were redundant or irrelevant and did not correlate with others, leaving 10 key characteristics of self-actualisation.

Next, he reworded some of Maslow's original language and labelling to compile a modern 30-item questionnaire featuring three items tapping each of these 10 remaining characteristics: continued freshness of appreciation; acceptance; authenticity; equanimity; purpose; efficient perception of reality; humanitarianism; peak experiences; good moral intuition; and creative spirit (see the full questionnaire below, and take the test on Kaufman's website).

So what did Kaufman report? In a survey of more than 500 people on Amazon's Mechanical Turk website, Kaufman found that scores on each of these 10 characteristics tended to correlate, but also that they each made a unique contribution to a unifying factor of self-actualisation – suggesting that this is a valid concept comprised of 10 subtraits.

Participants' total scores on the test also correlated with their scores on the main five personality traits (that is, with higher extraversion, agreeableness, emotional stability, openness and conscientiousness) and with the metatrait of 'stability', indicative of an ability to avoid impulses in the pursuit of one's goals. That the new test corresponded in this way with established personality measures provides further evidence of its validity.

Next, Kaufman turned to modern theories of wellbeing, such as self-determination theory, to see if people's scores on his self-actualisation scale correlated with these contemporary measures. Sure enough, he found that people with more characteristics of self-actualisation also tended to score higher on curiosity, life-satisfaction, self-acceptance, personal growth and autonomy, among other factors – just as Maslow would have predicted.

'Taken together, this total pattern of data supports Maslow's contention that self-actualised individuals are more motivated by growth and exploration than by fulfilling deficiencies in basic needs,' Kaufman writes. He adds that the new empirical support for Maslow's ideas is 'quite remarkable' given that Maslow put them together with 'a paucity of actual evidence'.

A criticism often levelled at Maslow's notion of self-actualisation is that its pursuit encourages an egocentric focus on one's own goals and needs. However, Maslow always contended that it is only through becoming our true, authentic selves that we can transcend the self and look outward with compassion to the rest of humanity. Kaufman explored this too, and found that higher scorers on his self-actualisation scale tended also to score higher on feelings of oneness with the world, but not on decreased self-salience, a sense of independence and bias toward information relevant to oneself. (These are the two main factors in a modern measure of self-transcendence developed by the psychologist David Yaden at the University of Pennsylvania.)

Kaufman said that this last finding supports 'Maslow's contention that self-actualising individuals are able to paradoxically merge with a common humanity while at the same time able to maintain a strong identity and sense of self'.

Where the new data contradicts Maslow is on the demographic factors that correlate with characteristics of self-actualisation – he thought that self-actualisation was rare and almost impossible for young people. Kaufman, by contrast, found scores on his new scale to be normally distributed through his sample (that is, spread evenly like height or weight) and unrelated to factors such as age, gender and educational attainment (although, in personal correspondence, Kaufman informs me that newer data – more than 3,000 people have since taken the new test – is showing a small, but statistically significant association between older age and having more characteristics of self-actualisation).

In conclusion, Kaufman writes that: '[H]opefully the current study … brings Maslow's motivational framework and the central personality characteristics described by the founding humanistic psychologists, into the 21st century.'

The new test is sure to reinvigorate Maslow's ideas, but if this is to help heal our divided world, then the characteristics required for self-actualisation, rather than being a permanent feature of our personalities, must be something we can develop deliberately. I put this point to Kaufman and he is optimistic. 'I think there is significant room to develop these characteristics [by changing your habits],' he told me. 'A good way to start with that,' he added, 'is by first identifying where you stand on those characteristics and assessing your weakest links. Capitalise on your highest characteristics but also don't forget to intentionally be mindful about what might be blocking your self-actualisation … Identify your patterns and make a concerted effort to change. I do think it's possible with conscientiousness and willpower.'

Christian Jarrett

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

  • Ghosting, or cutting off all contact suddenly with a romantic partner, is not nice.
  • Growth-oriented people (who think relationships are made, not born) do not appreciate it.
  • Destiny-oriented people (who believe in soulmates) are more likely to be okay with ghosting.

Most folks who have been on the dating scene since the advent of smartphones are familiar with 'ghosting', the practice of suddenly cutting off all contact with a romantic partner: not responding to or sending texts, not picking up the phone, unfriending on social media, and so on. In essence, it's an effort to make your digital self disappear from the recently dumped person's life.

There are plenty of reasons why ghosting is an unsavory practice. For one, the ghosted party doesn't realize they've been dumped for quite some time. It also implies a disregard for the other person's feelings and conveys a sense that they don't matter all that much. However, not everybody feels the same way about this practice.

Ghosting is more popular with believers in romantic destiny

Photo by James Sutton on Unsplash

Recent research in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships revealed that people's feelings and practices in regard to ghosting depend on which romantic camp they belong to: Those with destiny mindsets or those with growth mindsets.

Co-author Gili Freedman and colleagues write, "[People] with stronger destiny beliefs are more likely to believe that individuals within relationships are either meant to be together or they are not—that is, individuals have soulmates." People with destiny beliefs are love-at-first-sight people. They have a soulmate, and after they find them, they'll have the ideal relationship together.

In contrast, Freedman writes, "individuals with stronger growth beliefs think that relationships are malleable and can be improved upon through communication and overcoming hurdles in the relationship." Growth-oriented people believe that a relationship is made rather than born. It's important to remember that these two attitudes aren't exactly mutually exclusive, and people can have these attitudes in different degrees.

Freedman and colleagues were interested in how these two broad categories of people approached break-ups – specifically, what they thought of ghosting. To find this out, they conducted two studies; the first was to assess people's attitudes and practices towards ghosting, and the second was to replicate the results of the first as well as to uncover what people thought of ghosting in friendships as opposed to romantic relationships. In both studies, the participants were given a questionnaire designed to measure whether they had more of a destiny-oriented attitude or more of a growth-oriented attitude.

The results were striking. Compared to growth-minded participants, participants with destiny-oriented attitudes were 24.6% more inclined to think that ghosting was an acceptable way to end a relationship after two dates or less, 22% more likely to think that it was acceptable for ending a short-term relationship, and 63.4% more likely to think that ghosting was a fine way to end a long-term relationship. They were 23.6% less likely to think poorly of somebody who ghosted others, too. Interestingly, they also reported that they were 35.7% more likely to have been ghosted before, which lends credence to the idea that birds of a feather flock together.

The second study replicated these results, and also showed that people from both camps believed it was more acceptable to ghost friends, either short-term or long-term friends, than it was to ghost a romantic partner.

Why we feel differently about ghosting

There are a few explanations for this stark divide. First, people who believe in destiny, in soulmates, are more likely to believe that there's no changing a bad relationship; it either works or it wasn't meant to be. In contrast, growth-minded individuals are far more likely to put in work to improve relationships over time. This accounts for the huge divide in opinion over whether it's acceptable to ghost a long-term partner. Destiny-minded people were 63.4% more likely to think it was okay to ditch a bad relationship they had stayed in for too long. In contrast. Growth-minded people would consider it anathema; the longer a relationship had gone on for, the more work they had put into it, and the more likely that it was a loving, healthy relationship.

Another interesting finding was how growth-oriented people's opinions on ghosting changed over time. They believed that ghosting was more acceptable the earlier in a relationship it occurred, especially if it happened prior to physical intimacy. In contrast, destiny-oriented people felt that ghosting was acceptable pretty much any time. The authors speculated that this could be because a destiny-oriented individual is more likely to have a love-at-first-sight effect; once they begin contact with somebody, their relationship has begun because they are destined for one another. Growth-minded people are more likely to believe a relationship has begun after they've met a major milestone, like physical intimacy.

So, the next time somebody ghosts you, don't feel too bad; they might just see the world in a different way than you. And the next time you consider ghosting somebody else, maybe consider whether they'll take it as a sign that it "wasn't meant to be" or as a harsh rebuke.

  • Earth is the third planet from the Sun, so our closest neighbor must be planet two or four, right?
  • Wrong! Neither Venus nor Mars is the right answer.
  • Three scientists ran the numbers. In this YouTube video, one of them explains why our nearest neighbor is... Mercury!

Did Musk pick the wrong planet to die on?

Image: upload.wikimedia.org

Elon Musk has said he wants to die on Mars.

By 2024, Elon Musk wants to land humans on Mars – the billionaire entrepreneur has said that he himself wants to go to the Red Planet, and even wants to die there (just not on impact, he quips). But has SpaceX chosen the wrong planet to colonize? If the plan was to pick the closest planet: yes indeed.

While Mars looms large in human culture and imagination, most scientific sources refer to Venus as the planet that's the shortest distance away from Earth. NASA mentions Venus as our closest neighbor. But while it's true that no other planet comes closer – the shortest approach is 0.28 AU (1) or 25 million miles (41 million km) – it's not true that Venus is the closest planet (2) on average (even though that too is often erroneously asserted).

A faulty line-up of the solar system 

Image: Wikipedia

A line-up of the usual suspects. Only the sizes are to scale, not the distances. And they usually don't line up as nicely as this.

"As it turns out, by some phenomenon of carelessness, ambiguity or groupthink, science popularizers have disseminated information based on a flawed assumption about the average distance between planets," write Tom Stockman, Gabriel Monroe and Samuel Cordner in an article published by Physics Today.

They go on to explain the mathematical method they devised to prove that, when averaged over time, it is in fact Mercury – the first rock from the Sun – that is Earth's nearest neighbor.

Long story short: Mercury is closest to Earth on average because it orbits the Sun more closely. That also means – mind-blowingly – that Mercury is the closest neighbor of all planets in our solar system, including gas giants Jupiter and Saturn and snowball planets Neptune and Uranus on the freezing outer edges of the system.

Unbelievably cool or unbelievably obvious?

Image: Tomment Section

Simulation of Mercury (grey), Venus (orange), Earth (blue) and Mars (red) circling the Sun, and the calculation of average distances to Earth.

In Physics Today, the three scientists describe their method in great detail. For laypeople like (probably) you and (certainly) me, the YouTube video at the top of this post, narrated by Mr Stockman, is more illuminating. In 6 minutes 40 seconds, he had me convinced.

While some commenters agree ("a neat new way to think about it!"), one or two are irritated that the hoi polloi are only now clocking on to this ("Any idiot should have been able to point this out").

Either way, one has to feel for the one commenter who seems to have figured this out a long time ago, but didn't have this video to prove their point: "I told my school teacher many years ago that Mercury is nearest to Earth but they laughed at me."

Video found here on YouTube. If you like your math like Saturn likes its gravity (spoiler: heavy), here's the article in Physics Today.

Strange Maps #966

Got a strange map? Let me know at strangemaps@gmail.com.


(1) 1 Astronomical Unit (AU) is the average distance between the Earth and the Sun: 93 million miles (150 million km).

(2) Their name aptly derived from the Greek 'planetai' for "wanderers", planets orbit around the Sun, hence the immense variation in the distances between them.

  • Literature expands our ability to feel empathy and inspires compassion.
  • These 10 novels tackle some facet of the American experience.
  • The list includes a fictional retelling of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard, and hiding out in inner-city Newark.

We call it "getting lost" in a novel, but what we find there is often more impactful than any nonfiction work can offer. Literature makes us more empathic and intelligent. Storytelling is how we bond, as tribes and a planet. A powerful narrative, like a good mythology, carries us far away from ourselves only to deliver us right back where we started, transformed.

Since the European invasion that brought a host of newcomers to these shores, the American experiment has produced a lot of suffering and plenty of beauty. This nation leads the world in many domains, many of which are not pleasant. Yet the core principles of democracy remain an important component of who we are, even if at times like this we seem to forget what that really entails.

The novels below do not comprise a "best of" list simply because there are too many books I have not read. (If you have a suggestion, please tweet at me @derekberes.) These are 10 works of literature that made an impact in my life, offering varied perspectives of what happens between the two oceans and two nations bordering us (speaking continentally, of course). Most importantly, they're all amazing books.


American Pastoral — Philip Roth

Every Philip Roth novel is a slice of America, mostly told through the lens of the Jewish experience in and around Newark. Sure, there's something purely Americana about Seymour "Swede" Levov, a former high school star athlete squaring off in later age with adultery and mortality. The novel traces Jersey life during the cultural upheaval of the late sixties, when Swede's daughter, Merry, hides out in inner-city Newark after she killed multiple bystanders by planting bombs. Merry's character profile—an outlaw devoted to Jainism living in squalor—is one of the most fascinating in modern literature. The book is a meditation on the dissolution of the American dream in front of a family's eyes.


Another Country — James Baldwin

James Baldwin is one of the most fearless writers of the 20th century. While lacking the explicit sexuality of "Giovanni's Room", "Another Country" explores bisexuality and interracial relationships in America during the imagined "Golden Era" of the 1950s. Some point to that age as the true height of American ethics and values; Baldwin exposes the hypocrisy as it happened; he started writing it in 1948 and published in 1962 while living in Istanbul. The characters grappling with jazz drummer Rufus Scott's lifestyle after his death makes for gripping and harrowing writing by a master of literature.


Caleb's Crossing — Geraldine Brooks

Having worked as a foreign correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Australian-American writer Geraldine Brooks turned to novels in 2001. Her deep working knowledge of international history informed her fiction, including this gorgeous tribute to Caleb Cheeshahteaumuck, a member of the Wampanoag tribe on Martha's Vineyard. Cheeshahteaumuck lived a life of integrity and tragedy. The first American Indian to graduate from Harvard in 1665, he died less than a year later of tuberculosis. Brooks' retelling transports the reader to the challenges of the earliest years of the American experiment, dealing with many issues of immigration and citizenship that sadly remain with us today.


Cannery Row — John Steinbeck

How to choose one work from the primary voice of Depression-era America? "East of Eden" is always a reflexive choice. Yet there's a beautiful tenor in this much simpler tribute to the citizen of Cannery Row. Set amidst sardine canneries in Monterey, California—the city renamed the street in honor of the book's title—the story focuses on a culturally diverse cast of shop owners, town elders, and a marine biologist. A party for the biologist, Doc, ends in disaster, but the deeper narrative identifies the pain points of trying to survive in uncertain times—a recurring occurrence seemingly tailor-made for this current era.


Continental Drift — Russell Banks

Globalization in the 1980s serves as the foundation for this dizzying tale of a New Englander and Haitian converging in Florida. Banks' novels pick up where Steinbeck left off; most any of his books could make this list, especially the tour de force about John Brown, "Cloudsplitter". Yet "Continental Drift" identifies the primacy of the American illusion in passages such as this: "Only, like Columbus and all those guys looking for the Fountain of Youth, when you finally get to America, you get something else," as well as: "You'll get to America, all right, kid, and maybe, just like me, you'll get what you want. Whatever that is. But you'll have to give something away for it, if you haven't already. And when you get what you want, it'll turn out to be not what you wanted after all, because it'll always be worth less than what you gave away for it."


Crossing to Safety — Wallace Stegner

The Pulitzer Prize-winning "Angle of Repose" will always be first to mind when discussing Wallace Stegner, but this aged and wise last novel is also a classic. Stegner tells a slow tale of two couples summering together over the course of decades, a review of their triumph and losses, of friendship and love and death. In just over 300 pages, you live a number of lives, tracing the idealism of youth transforming in the bitter pill of hardship and aging. "Crossing to Safety" is one of those novels where not much and everything occur simultaneously, a stunning tribute to the mythology of the mundane.


Let the Great World Spin — Colum McCann

This dizzying, intersecting tale, as rich in connections as "Cloud Atlas", hinges around Phillippe Petit's famous tightrope walk between the Twin Towers. Most fascinating is McCann's ability to speak in multiple voices when switching between stories. The Irish writer consistently chooses fascinating topics to write about, such as sandhogs—the men who burrowed underneath New York City to build the subway system—and the persecution of Romani culture during World War II. McCann invokes an incredible amount of empathy for characters in New York ghettos in the seventies without losing any of the culture and music of the time.


The Other — David Guterson

This is probably the most heartfelt book on friendship I've ever read. American novelist David Guterson, most well-known for "Snow Falling on Cedars", is one of the Pacific Northwest's greatest biographers. The plot of "The Other" occurs in the Seattle area in 1972, when Neil Countryman and John William Berry meet for the first time. Countryman chases the American dream (as his name suggests), while Berry decides to forgo society to live in the woods, completely off the grid. The scene in which Countryman reminisces over being taught to shave with cold water has stuck with me all these years later—the intimacy of friendship, and, as the novel progresses, the wrestling with transience we call encounter.


The Overstory — Richard Powers

At some point in the near future we will all have to grapple with the effects of climate change. For millions that day has already come. Richard Powers investigates what humanity has lost by disconnecting to the environment with this breathtaking exploration of our relationship with trees. "The Overstory" is one of the most expansive queries into the human condition I've ever read, powered by Powers's beautiful storytelling. You're transported to a time before the comforts and treachery provided by modern convenience. We will give up little until forced to do so; read this as a cautionary tale.


Room — Emma Donoghue

While this story could have occurred anywhere (and often does), Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue's book is centered in Akron, Ohio (at least in the film version). Beyond geographical location, "Room" drives to the center of feminine fear. Ma and her young son, Nick, are held captive by Old Nick, trapped in Room (a soundproofed shed in his backyard). The family's entire universe is Room, which is visually startling when you see them escape in the film in a suburban neighborhood (and even more wrenching in your imagination when reading the book). Such a tale might be an extreme, but the entire book hits home for any experiencing sexual abuse and the ravaging that occurs in the victim's mind.

--

Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.