Monday, February 18, 2008

Basic Black : a book review

I just finished reading Basic Black (Crown Publishing Group, 2007) by Cathie Black, president of Hearst Magazines. Touted as “the essential guide to getting ahead in work (and in life)” the book’s major promotion plays on its potential role as a mentoring guide for young women.


I heard Ms. Black on NPR’s Diane Rehm in December. I liked her manner and her story about how she settled on the approach to the book. I was also intrigued that men called in to comment and this was perhaps the most telling aspect about the book’s breadth. That men were reading a career guide written by a woman, and an unapologetic feminist who was once affiliated with Ms. (magazine), suggested that there was more of substance to lure the serious reader than just a famous woman’s dashing life in the world of magazine publishing.

Black’s stated audience for the book was the young woman just finishing college and embarking on her career. However, the larger audience that stands to benefit are those individuals, whether woman or man, who are looking for guidance on how to follow a dream whether a life change, a job change, or even changing the kind of work they’re doing. Cathie offers more than just a few fluffy statements; rather she offers suggestions about discovering what you want, getting past the gatekeepers, and negotiating the general maze of the corporate landscape.


She breaks down the subject into topical chapters like an outline for a series of personal coaching sessions. Chapter I found particularly useful were about Drive, Risk, Fear and Passion. Every career-minded person deals with these issues over and over again. Black’s handling seems intent on normalizing these issues and demystifying them into manageable chunks.

Between the topics are inserted case studies and sections titled “Black and White” which illustrate the topic at hand but are broad enough that several points can be seen. A typical case study is about her experience with Talk a fledgling magazine that folded and how her choice of focus helped her move on to another position. The “Black and White” sections are more general like “First Impressions” and “Landing Your Dream Job.”

She spends a lot of time on taking risks and making changes. Taking risks and making changes, whether by choice or by necessity, can be exciting but they can also be stressful and riddled with hazards. Black points out a number of common hazards, not only how to avoid them but how to grow and overcome the resulting setbacks that result from getting tripped up by a hazard along the career path.


One thing Black does well is distinguishing between personality and personal habits. She emphasizes getting to understand personality type and taking an honest look as to whether personal habits and ways of thinking enhance the pursuit of a career track or create unnecessary stumbling blocks.

A key nugget found on page 210 is “Value yourself by your aspirations not your limitations.” Women far too often look at what is in the way instead of what could make their dream possible. True, the focusing on the obstacle rather than the possible can happen even to men, however women are too often coaxed into seeing themselves as small and so the world and its obstacles look even bigger than to men in general.

One thing that sets Black’s book apart from other career-guides for women is that it is about more than just “giving more” she talks about finding balance that works. She frequently uses a term “360O life” pointing out that everybody works for what they go home to at the end of the day. She stresses that there needs to be an acceptable work-life balance based on personality, experience, and personal situation.

Last word

On a final note, after I finished reading the book I was reflecting on the subtitle, “The essential guide to getting ahead…” and on one hand it seems an unfortunate choice of words. That is not to say it is inaccurate any way and there are likely those who have gotten ahead by following the advice in the book. However, I think it introduces to risk of insinuating an unnecessary barrier between some potential readers and the book.


Sylvia C. said...

I think it's neat that you got to hear her talk. That makes a book so much more personal.

Hope your week is off to a great start!

Sylvia C.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the wonderful book review.

It's all very interesting to think about where our modern world has pushed all of us -- men and women.

G's Cottage said...

@sylvia - She is one of the few author interviews I have truly enjoyed.

@karen - I am so saddened by the number of children who go home to empty houses. Many only see their parents at breakfast.