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Book Review: Surviving Your Serengeti

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I don’t often do book reviews on Notorious, although I do read quite a few of them, but when the author is a man I respect, a good friend in bad times, and an all around great guy, and his publisher sends me a review copy… well, the least I could do is give my impressions of the book.

The book, of course, is Surviving Your Serengeti: 7 Skills to Master Business and Life by Stefan Swanepoel. I read the thing in one night, because… well, that’s just how I roll, baby. 🙂

No, seriously, the book is written for the mass audience. It’s an easy read that blends storytelling with travel writing with solid business advice. Large chunks of it read like a novel, because… well, it’s sort of written like a novel, and you find yourself just turning one page, then another, then the next.

Longtime readers of Notorious know that I’m nothing if not honest — some might say “brutally honest”. There will be no exceptions just because I admire the heck out of Stefan. Read on for my impressions.

The Good

Fortunately, the good of Serengeti outweighs almost everything else.

The book is written as a fictional account, mostly from the perspective of Sean and Ashley Spencer – a Los Angeles based renewable energy entrepreneur and his wife who was laid off from a school teacher job. (Because the characters are fictional, I suspended disbelief that a Los Angeles school teacher would ever get laid off. But then, Stefan doesn’t say Ashley is a public school teacher, a member of the all-powerful teacher’s union, so maybe it’s a private school.) They go on an African safari trip to the Serengeti, where Sean runs into a former roommate of his at the London School of Economics, a Zachariah Makena, who used to work for the African Wildlife Foundation.

Zachariah, it appears, has translated the survival skills of the animals of the Serengeti into business principles, and the rest of the book is essentially a series of stories interspersed with the Lesson from each animal.

Stefan writes in a breezy, travelogue style. The characters are reasonably realistic, given the constraints of what he’s trying to do — impart life lessons from the stories of animals. The stories of finding and seeing the animals are vivid. Here’s one passage as an example:

The lionesses crept slowly along the edge of the bushes toward a small group of trees on the perimeter of the clearing where the zebras were feedings. Two younger lionesses stayed with the cubs, which were still lying in the tall grass like little statues. It was difficult to see the lionesses as they crouched down and slowly edged toward the browsing herd.

The book is filled with such vivid descriptions, and the reader just moves along almost able to picture the scenes as our protagonists are seeing them.

There are seven animals that Stefan covers, each with its own unique “survival skill”, and after each section, he summarizes the skill, defines it, tells you what traits you would identify in yourself to see if you fit that animal’s skillset, and gives advice on how one might maximize that skill. The seven animals and their skills are:

  • Wildebeest: Endurance
  • Lion: Strategy
  • Crocodile: Enterprising
  • Cheetah: Efficiency
  • Giraffe: Grace
  • Mongoose: Risk-Taking
  • Elephant: Communication

I’m not going to go into depth here since you should buy the book and read it for yourself. But each skill and each animal are well-matched, especially coming at the end of a vivid story of how Sean and Ashley discover those skills through seeing them in nature with Zachariah.

Above all, Stefan weaves such a vision of hope, of overcoming difficulties, and of promise that it’s hard to be entirely cynical about the world, about business, about problems, and about difficulties as you read Serengeti. As I believe that to be one of his main purposes in writing the book — reminding stressed out First World people that their problems can be managed — I think he succeeds marvelously there.

The Bad

There really isn’t much to complain of in this book. Is it a great work of literature? No. But I don’t believe Stefan set out to write Out of Africa. He set out to write a series of modern fables, using fictionalized characters and fictionalized stories to make his point. And he does that well. So is it “bad” that the characters speak like perfect lectures? Not if you understand the book as an allegorical tale.

The natural cynic, like yours truly, might have fun with some of the lessons. For example, the Wildebeest embodies Endurance, and Stefan spends quite a few pages pointing out that the Wildebeest’s journey is fraught with peril, with no guarantees of survival, but exults in the fact that the Wildebeest overcame all of those dangers to become the most populous animal on the Serengeti. I couldn’t help but think, however, that the species as a whole may endure, but individual Wildebeests get eaten. Thousands of them. So one wonders if the real skills of the Wildebeest are (1) fertility, and (2) willingness to sacrifice the weak.

But that’s nitpicky, and the kind of stuff one would chat about at book clubs or something, because it’s fun to talk about little details. The big picture point that Stefan makes remains, and it remains an inspiring one.

The Ugly

There isn’t one. This is a solidly written book, offering a message of hope to people at a time when they probably most need it. The lessons, the skills, mostly make sense, and the stories move along quickly, entertaining all the while.

Overall

Surviving Your Serengeti isn’t a “business book” filled with statistics and studies and academic language. There are plenty of those in the marketplace. It’s a personal growth book, if you will, and one that is fun to read, easy to read, and has inspirational messages throughout. Plus, Stefan’s own passion and love of the Serengeti comes shining through in some of his descriptions. I couldn’t help but think that many of the adventures that Sean Spencer has, and many of the amazing sights that he and Ashley witness were precisely the adventures and sights that Stefan himself may have witnessed in person.

A very nice read, especially for those in need of some positive inspiration.

-rsh

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Rob Hahn
Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, and the grand poobah of this here blog. Once called "a revolutionary in a really nice suit", people often wonder what I do for a living because I have the temerity to not talk about my clients and my work for clients. Suffice to say that I do strategy work for some of the largest organizations and companies in real estate, as well as some of the smallest startups and agent teams, but usually only on projects that interest me with big implications for reforming this wonderful, crazy, lovable yet frustrating real estate industry of ours.

8 COMMENTS

  1. I had the great privilege of receiving a preview copy of the book at a time when I was becoming overwhelmed and needed to make some changes quickly. I read the book in one sitting as well. The book helped me step back, gain perspective and remember the skills that I have to move myself forward. This special book is as you say for the mass audience. I try and spread the word.

  2. Thanks for taking the time to write this detailed review Rob. I am thrilled to have survived your read and find much delight in various kind remarks.

  3. What a relief to read this review. I received my copy from Amazon this week and finished it in two days (hey, the kids had soccer and lacrosse games). When I opened my reader this morning to see that you had just posted about Surviving the Serengeti I winced. I had been left with such a positive feeling of optimism after finishing the fable that I was not in a mood to have that deflated. And guess what, you didn’t puncture my balloon! Your right, it won’t be required reading at the Harvard Business School (although it might bring some good there) but it certainly holds some life lessons and does give glimmers of hope to the otherwise disillusioned among us. Thanks for reviewing this and for giving me a mental image of you smiling during your read.

  4. Great review, you had me cracking up with your description of the LA School Teacher and the Unions. But, Rob I was waiting for you to say which animal fit you best.
    It made me want to go to the Serengeti.

    • Me? I think I fit the missing animal: the Tourist/Hunter who doesn’t need survival skills because he has luxury tents, catered meals to go home to at night… 😀 I identified most strongly with Sean Spencer, heh.

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