Book Review: The Boys in the Boat

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In 2014, I was working with a client to help him put together a book of profiles of top performers in his field. My client interviewed all of them. My job was to review his interviews and then conduct follow-up interviews. That’s where a strange thing happened.

I like to ask interview subjects a question that’s not related to the project itself that helps me get a sense of who they are and helps set them at ease. For this book project, I asked the question, “What’s the best book you’ve read lately?”

The first time I heard about The Boys in The Boat, I made note of it. The second time, I starred my note, so I would follow up and learn about the book. After the third and fourth and fifth and sixth times the book was mentioned, I knew I had to read it, too.

I’m sure glad I did. The Boys in The Boat was one of the top five books I read in 2014, and one of the best books I’ve ever read. Let me tell you why.

I love books where I learn something, and this book was full of things to learn. I didn’t know much about rowing as a sport, and I certainly didn’t know that in the 1920s and 30s, collegiate crew was as popular as professional baseball and college football.

I didn’t know how hard competitive rowing is, either. I’ve raced other folks in a rowboat and a canoe, but that’s nothing like top-level crew. I was amazed by some of the descriptions in the book. Here’s one.

“There were a thousand and one small things that had to be learned, mastered, and brought to bear in precisely the right way to propel a twenty-four-inch-wide cedar shell, carrying three-quarters of a ton of human flesh and bone, through the water with any semblance of speed and grace.”

In addition to general learning and the enjoyment of reading a well-written book, I’m always on the lookout for lessons that translate over to the field I write about: business.

If you’re a businessperson, you’ll be inspired by the way the rowers work to get better. Of course, business is not exactly like sports. In sports, you practice more than you play. In business, every day is game day. But in both sports and business, the top performers work hard every day at getting better.

There are many lessons about teamwork in The Boys in the Boat. Here’s a quote from the book to think about.

“There is a thing that sometimes happens in rowing that is hard to achieve and hard to define. Many crews, even winning crews, never really find it. Others find it but can’t sustain it. It’s called ‘swing.’ It only happens when all eight oarsmen are rowing in such perfect unison that no single action by any one is out of synch with those of all the others.”

That swing experience for a team is like the flow experience for an individual. Great teams of all kinds have it, even if they don’t call it “swing.”

I was probably primed to see this especially clearly, because my friend and client Stephen Lynch had used the example of a rowing crew as his example of elegant teamwork when we worked on his book, Business Execution for Results.

The parts of the book that deal with the way crews work together will give you some ideas about how to do things more effectively with business teams. Here’s a quote to consider.

“Great crews may have men or women of exceptional talent or strength; they may have outstanding coxswains or stroke oars or bowmen; but they have no stars. The team effort—the perfectly synchronized flow of muscle, oars, boat, and water; the single, whole, unified, and beautiful symphony that a crew in motion becomes—is all that matters. Not the individual, not the self.”

In A Nutshell

The Boys in The Boat will be a great read for you if you enjoy the history and if you enjoy books about sports teams that don’t portray the team members as superior beings. This book is about talented, but not superhero type, men who put in an extraordinary amount of focused, hard work to achieve something important.

If you’re a businessperson, you can read for the story and the inspiration, but there are also good lessons about teamwork. Whatever your starting point, I think you’ll enjoy The Boys in The Boat: Nine Americans And Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown.


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