"We need all hands on deck to right the ship of humanity."
I must admit, I selected NeuroTribes based on its title, assuming it would shed light on how people congregate in the workplace and how this might challenge the establishment of diverse teams. How I got this impression I am not sure some six months after adding it to my list of books that I wanted to write a summary for on behalf of Actionable Books. I was clearly mistaken, and it took me a couple of chapters to realize the depth of my mistake by not reading the book’s synopsis closely.
Having said that, Steve Silberman has written an extremely interesting and enlightening book about autism, its history, and how our thinking has changed about this condition. Once I was over the shock of my error, I found this book to provide much food for thought about how we can think differently about peers and colleagues as well as the importance of challenging well established norms and expectations. Indeed, our ability to challenge this can be seen throughout our evolution, an example that springs to mind is the long-held belief that the world was spherical, although it wasn’t proved until the 1400s and debate continued until that point.
The Big Idea
Step back and look at the big picture
"…no aspect of human behavior could be understood in isolation: neurology, genetics, family background, and social dynamics all had to be considered to properly evaluate a patient’s mental state."
Whilst this book is about the history of autism, the ability to consider the big picture is vital for everyone’s own health and wellbeing, at work and home. Today’s society has many potential stressors, and being able to step back and observe how these are impacting our own behavior, as well as that of others, is crucial if we are to maintain our own wellbeing and accept that some things are not within our control.
This is a philosophy and approach that is discussed with clients who are seeking to understand their own beliefs and assumptions in relation to multiple and wide-ranging concepts including:
- Career development;
- Whether to set up their own business;
- Motivating their teams to achieve goals and targets;
- Raising their own children; and
- Seeking to understand the perspectives of others.
In a growing globalization and diversification of the workforce, the ability to step back and see the big picture is increasingly important for individuals to sustain both their own growth and development, as well as success at work in being able to work and communicate effectively with others who come from a wide range of backgrounds.
It is important to pursue a path that is true to ourselves
"We were the shapers of our plans, methods, and practices… We were grateful for the one magnificent gift which outweighed everything else—the opportunity to work unhampered, to develop and pursue our curiosities, to test our theories, and at all times to be true to ourselves."
Many authors, including Dan Pink in Drive and Tracy Maylett and Paul Warner in MAGIC, highlight the importance of autonomy in the workplace. Taking this on board, many organizations seek to increase the levels of empowerment as it is considered a critical component in increasing staff engagement at work. This is important as there is increasing evidence that having an engaged workforce helps a company establish and maintain competitive advantage. In today’s economy and with the growth of knowledge workers, having staff who are truly engaged and committed to their employer’s success means that those companies are more likely to be competitive and sustainable into the future.
Embrace the future and those who can describe it
"When wireless is perfectly applied, the whole earth will be converted into a huge brain… We shall be able to communicate with one another instantly, irrespective of distance… A man will be able to carry one [telephone] in his vest pocket."
Many of the people Silberman writes about were considered helpless and no good to society because they didn’t fit the normal societal expectations. Yet, many of them have knowledge and skills beyond the average person. Isn’t accepting those we consider to be “eccentric” or “out there” also a way in which we can welcome and spread true diversity in the workforce? I can only imagine how “strange” this vision of Tesla’s was at the time, yet there was a whole community connected by the entrepreneur Hugo Gernsback through his issues of Modern Electrics. Silberman identifies this as one method for autistic individuals to connect with and find like-minded people to discuss and share ideas with one another. The value of creating communities where autistic people (and their relatives) could meet, share their views, and not be ignored, was instrumental in shifting some of the accepted nature of what it meant to be autistic. Today, in organizations and across professions we commonly bring people together in similar ways, such as communities of practice and professional associations. Humans need to be able to connect with each other and today we have a much greater opportunity for doing so with the internet and other communication methods, ironically some of these being built by individuals now believed to be on the autism spectrum.
Whilst this book was not what I had assumed, it gave me a fabulous insight into how the study and understanding of autism has changed over time. It has also made me rethink those I know who I have considered eccentric, perhaps they are just ahead of their time, much like the entrepreneur Gernsback, who was born in 1884 and installed an intercom system in a local convent 13 years later. Gernsback would admonish his cousin Hildegaard on the telephone telling her “Fix your hair. It won’t be long before the caller can see your face over the wires.”
Silberman has produced a wonderfully descriptive history of autism and I couldn’t help but sympathize with those who put their egos ahead of their patients. I was also inspired by the courage of those who decided to challenge the sometimes sacrosanct medical knowledge given their own very personal experiences and faith in their own skills to bring out the best in their children. As a management coach and someone who works on supporting the transformation and growth of individuals and organizations, this book had many themes which are equally important in my field of work and it was a book well worth reading.