Book Review: The Journey of Not Knowing

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Amazon’s reader reviews are usually a great tool to point you to great business books. This book is an exception. Great reviews. Not so great book.

I bought The Journey of Not Knowing, in large part, because of the reviews. When I got done reading the book, I wondered if the reviewers had read the same book that I had.

Julie Benezet named Part 1, “What Amazon Taught Me About Leadership and The Unknown.” The author tells a story about her time working at Amazon in the early days. The story centers on preparing Amazon for the Christmas season of 1999. The story is good and well-told. I thought the rest of the book would be just as good.

Right at the end of part 1, the author lays out a brief description of what the book should be about.

“With the benefit of what went on at Amazon, before and many times after that night, I grasped what the missing key ingredient was. It is the deeply visceral aspect of being a leader. In plunging into the unknown world of new ideas and relationships to build something better, a leader must confront and accept the fundamental scariness of it. In other words, to be a leader means having a frame of mind that is propelled to build something better AND is comfortable with the discomfort of not knowing. That is the leadership mindset.”

She’s onto something there. Most leadership books don’t address “the deeply visceral aspect of being a leader.” They ignore the emotional parts. They pretend that fear doesn’t exist. But “A leader must confront and accept the fundamental scariness of it.”

The book starts to go bad in part 2, titled “Leadership and The Unknown.” The book starts going in circles and mixing metaphors. The author uses her own jargon for things more and more. Things make sense, but they’re starting to get muddled.

It’s part 3 when things get awful. Part 3 is the story of “Arrow, Inc.” a fictional company. A good teaching story should make things more understandable and be easy to read. This story is horribly written. If you decide to read it, bookmark or print out the cast of characters and keep it handy. You’ll need it.

Part 4 is, “The Journey of Not Knowing Model.” This is not a model. A model should help you understand a more complex process. The writing in this chapter and the thinking behind it work against simplicity and understanding.

One think that bugged me was that the author uses her own terms for things. One of those terms is “hook.” She could have used the term “trigger” like most business authors. But, no, she must have her own term, and that leads to sequences like the following:

“A hook grabs hold and responds to a triggering event that causes discomfort.”

Then, describing the same situation, “The trigger sets off a chain reaction, that if not stopped, could lead to negative results for you, the organization, and your bigger bets.”

So, are we talking about a hook or a trigger? Then, just a page later and referring to the same incident, we have this: “Her trigger appeared in the form of anger and catalyzed her perfectionist hook.”

Part 5 describes “The Reward of Taking the Journey.” This chapter is about what a swell person Julie Benezet is. She describes her growing up and how she discovered her “core driver.”

One of the things that really bugged me was the writing style. I thought the author was trying to sound witty. I got the impression that she wanted us to notice her style. That’s almost always a bad option in a business book. In a business book, the author’s style should be transparent. That way you focus on the message.

Much of this book is passive voice on parade. I think the author may have been competing in a “pretentious word” contest. My personal favorite of the pretentious words was: “perseverating.” It’s on page 217.

The Amazon reviews were part of the reason I bought this book. I wasted my money. The Journey of Not Knowing is confusing and pretentious.

If you ignore my advice and buy the book, you can get some value out of the first two parts. If you insist on reading the story, keep a cast of characters handy. As you move through the book, keep a dictionary handy. You’ll need that, too.

Bottom Line

Don’t buy The Journey of Not Knowing. The basic insight for the book is sound, but the book is confusing and the writing is pretentious.

You can check out some of my highlights and notes from this book on GoodReads.


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