Holiday Reading to Blow Your Mind (and expand your perspective)

If reading up on philosophy can make you a more creative and effective manager, why not start by reading some non-business books that focus on contemporary philosophy?

Harvard Business Review argues that philosophy, through an increased ability for self-reflection, makes you a better leader. Reading philosophy:

(…) can promote business success by helping leaders to identify their values and strategic goals, synthesize information to attain those goals, and implement strong action plans.

Bloomberg writes about how philosophy can make you a better manager because it helps you to develop empathy (i.e. put yourself in someone else’s shoes). There is a warning though:

[Philosophy] doesn’t lead to easy answers, but it does help lead to the right questions. And that’s the true value of philosophy in business life. It can lead (…) to valuable self-reflection. But perhaps more importantly, it can help us think more clearly about the practical issues we face every day.

The Economist writes that real thought-leadership can only be achieved through reading ‘a few great thinkers’:

Inward-bound courses would do wonders for “thought leadership”. There are good reasons why the business world is so preoccupied by that notion at the moment: the only way to prevent your products from being commoditised or your markets from being disrupted is to think further ahead than your competitors. But companies that pose as thought leaders are often “thought laggards”: risk analysts who recycle yesterday’s newspapers, and management consultants who champion yesterday’s successes just as they are about to go out of business. The only way to become a real thought leader is to ignore all this noise and listen to a few great thinkers. You will learn far more about leadership from reading Thucydides’ hymn to Pericles than you will from a thousand leadership experts. You will learn far more about doing business in China from reading Confucius than by listening to “culture consultants”. Peter Drucker remained top dog among management gurus for 50 years not because he attended more conferences but because he marinated his mind in great books: for example, he wrote about business alliances with reference to marriage alliances in Jane Austen.

As much as I would love to dig deep into Thucydides here, I’ll keep it contemporary for now. Therefore, for this year’s holiday reading list, I selected some contemporary philosophy books by authors in the sphere of the humanities (a psychiatrist, an economist, a historian, and a moral philosopher among others).

It struck me that every single one of these authors has a different take on the state of our world and culture. Some argue that we (humans) are going into the right direction and there is a lot of progress in different fields. Others argue just the opposite. I find this quite intriguing. In the picture above, I’ve tried to put the books from this year’s holiday reading list on a scale from ‘pessimistic’ to ‘optimistic’. In discussions, some have suggested that the ‘pessimists’ should really be labelled ‘realists’; and those realists actually show much more insight in what it means to be human. I tend to agree. On top of that, people also suggested that one scale might be an oversimplification of where the authors stand: that it should be possible to introduce a second (and even a third axis). They probably have a point there too. However, I decided to stick with the scale for now. Both as a provocation to you, the reader, and a reminder to myself that I still have to come up with a better understanding than the ‘pessimist – optimist’ (or ‘no progress – progress’) dichotomy.

My recommendations for this holiday are (roughly in the order I read them, so ‘optimists’ and ‘pessimists’ in no particular order):

War, What Is It Good For. Ian Morris. This Professor of Classics at Stanford University argues that war has actually made society more productive and safer. It’s a sweeping view of world history from pre-historic times to the present. He introduces beautiful concepts such as the lucky latitudes, stationary bandits, and caging. Add to that the role of fortifications, cities, chariots, bronze, and gunpowder in shaping our civilizations (and the mere geographical (!) position of Germany that would lead to its tragic role in two world wars), and you have a book that will change your view on the role that warfare has had in the history of the world. In a review for this book, a Professor of Biological Anthropology at Harvard writes: “This book is equally horrific and inspiring, detailed and sweeping, light-hearted and deadly serious. For those who think war has been a universal disaster it will change the way they think about the course of history.”

Why Grow Up? Susan Neiman. Susan Neiman, a Harvard educated moral philosopher, held positions at Yale and Princeton, and is now director of the Einstein Forum in Berlin. This short book struck me because of the simplicity of its idea: in our lives we should always strive to bridge the gap between what is and what could be. Being a grown up is all about trying to bridge that gap through your endeavors. Whilst knowing that you can never really bridge the gap, and, very important, at the same time being comfortable with the idea that you will never reach your destination. In the process of reading this short book (perfect length for the holidays!), you will get acquainted with what Rousseau, Kant and Hume had to say about growing up (and how Neiman disagrees with them). She stresses the virtues of travelling, reading fiction, and living and working in other cultures than the one you grew up in. Two snippets (of many) that I especially liked: “We are kept dazzled by a wealth of small decisions”, and “Kant thought the Stoic advice was made for gods, not humans.”

The Silence of Animalson Progress and Other Modern Myths. John Gray. This former Professor of Politics at Oxford, Harvard and Yale doesn’t beat around the bush when he writes about the concept of progress: “Among the many benefits of faith in progress the most important may be that it prevents too much self-knowledge.” In a chapter called Humanism and Flying Saucers, he argues (if the chapter title itself wasn’t self-explanatory): “If belief in human rationality was a scientific theory it would long since have been abandoned”, and “Cognitive dissonance is the normal human condition”. Gray was actually the reason why I put ‘pessimist’ as the label on the left of the scale in the picture above (and you might start to get an inkling why…). Gray uses fiction (cf. Neiman and Heijne) by Orwell, Dostoevsky, and Conrad to show what the actual human condition is like. It’s fitting that Heijne (see below) uses roughly the same authors to come to a comparable gloomy sketch of the status of the world. It’s a beautifully written short book, full of insights that’ll make you question your world view. Although I rate him as a ‘pessimist’, I had to laugh out loud often because of his dark yet witty prose. If there’s one book you should read right now, it is The Silence of Animals.

Our Culture, What’s Left of It. Theodore Dalrymple. I only recently read this 2005 collection of articles after remembering some quotes I read in an old NRC Handelsblad article on Dalrymple. If the hypothesis holds that it is true that understanding other people’s arguments will make you a better decision-maker, I thought I would try to read a more conservative thinker like Dalrymple. He was shaped by working with urban poor all over the world as a prison psychiatrist. This has led to unique insights in the workings of ‘life at the bottom’ (as he calls it in a different book). Something that struck me as particularly insightful (and echoing the work of moral philosopher Jonathan Haidt and Nassim Taleb’s thinking) was: “But critics of social institutions and traditions (…) should always be aware that civilization needs conservation at least as much as it needs change. No man is so brilliant that he can work everything out for himself, so that the wisdom of ages [Taleb calls this heuristics; see my comments on Taleb’s book Antifragile] has nothing useful to tell him.” This is a kaleidoscopic collection of articles on Shakespeare, art, lust, and the transgression of moral standards. The Times Literary Supplement stated: “An urgent, important, almost an essential book (…) elegantly written, conscientiously argues, provocative, and fiercely committed.”

Antifragile – How to Live in a World We Don’t Understand. Nassim Taleb. A must read. I keep coming back to this book. But it’s hard to describe why. A former derivatives trader and risk analyst, Nassim Taleb made himself into some sort of a philosopher-statistician-writer who has held positions at the London and Oxford Business Schools. You could characterize him by being a skeptic; skeptic towards the scientific method (and very much a proponent of heuristics, or rules-of-thumb; also see my remark under Gray’s book):

(…) the best way to mitigate interventionism is to ration the supply of information, as naturalistically as possible. This is hard to accept in the age of the internet. It has been very hard for me to explain that the more data you get, the less you know what’s going on, and the more iatrogenics [harm caused by the healer] you will cause. People are still under the illusion that science means more data.

 He rants against just about anything in modernity:

We are moving into a phase of modernity marked by the lobbyist, the very, very limited liability corporation, the MBA, sucker problems, secularization (or rather reinvention of new sacred values like flags to replace altars), the tax man, fear of the boss, spending the weekend in interesting places and the workweek in a putatively less interesting one, the separation of work and leisure (though the two would look identical to someone from a wiser era), the retirement plan, argumentative intellectuals who would disagree with this definition of modernity, literal thinking, inductive inference [Taleb is very skeptical towards predicting future outcomes by extrapolating the past], philosophy of science, smooth surfaces, and egocentric architects. Violence is transferred from individuals to states. So is financial indiscipline. At the center of all this is the denial of antifragility.

I will not explain what he means with antifragility here; you should find out for yourself by reading this wonderful book. You might be irritated by his ability to put just about everything in a different light in a polemic way. But that’s exactly why you will gain new insights and be able to look at more things from a different angle.

Onbehagen (Discontent). Bas Heijne. A Dutch essay. A sharp analysis on why populism is rising and why that is inevitable. Heijne, a Dutch essayist who studied English language and literature and writes an influential column in NRC Handelsblad, questions if the worldview that he grew up with (i.e. progress) is still valid. With the help of fiction (again, remarkably, Dostoevsky and Conrad) he comes to the conclusion that we should not overestimate human rationality. He writes (book available in Dutch only as far as I know):

Wanneer het humanisme te zeker van zichzelf wordt, wordt het onherroepelijk naïef – en ook hypocriet. De mens laat zich niet rationeel beheersen. Hoed je voor de overmoed van de rede, het idee dat de wereld zich een kant op laat sturen, dat beschaving een blijvende garantie is tegen menselijke agressie en vernietingsdrang. Beschaving en verlichting roepen het onheil over zichzelf af zodra ze blind worden voor tegenkrachten – van buitenaf maar ook van binnenuit.

World beyond Your Head. Matthew Crawford. On my “to read” list for this holiday. From what I read about this book in Heijne’s essay (see above), Crawford goes on a philosophical journey to unravel why our contemporary society is at odds with human nature. The short supply of attention these days is not the result of technology (which helped shape social media and anecdotal news feeds). It is rooted in the philosophical worldview on the self, on the individual. The Guardian writes: “Like the Enlightenment philosophers he rebukes, Crawford makes deductions that stretch commonsense logic to its maximum extent and may have readers performing intellectual somersaults over his reasoning. For those who persevere, the experience should be rich and rewarding.”

Progress. Johan Norberg. This book by Johan Norberg, an economic historian, made this list because of an article in The Economist earlier this year. On top of that, it showed up as one of the ‘books of the year’ in the same newspaper. Also, it seems that this is an upbeat book that sits all the way on the right hand side of my makeshift scale from ‘pessimism’ to ‘optimism’. If you want to learn about the arguments of both the deniers of, and believers in, progress, Norberg’s book seems to be the book to learn about the argument of the ‘optimists’. The Economist writes:

Mr Norberg agrees with Steven Pinker, a psychologist, that humankind is also experiencing a “moral Flynn Effect” [the Flynn effect is a gradual rise in average IQ-scores since the 1930s]. As people grow more adept to abstract thought, they find it easier to imagine themselves in other people’s shoes. And there is plenty of evidence that society has grown more tolerant. As recently as 1964, even the American Civil Liberties Union agreed that homosexuals should be barred from government jobs.

To summarize: whether you are an ‘optimist’ or a ‘pessimist’, you should read up on the arguments of both sides presented in this year’s holiday reading list. These books will present different sides of the argument and will surely help you be a more creative decision-maker. Happy holidays, and happy reading!

P.S. For those of you who worry I abandoned my project “What Every Manager Should Know About…” in relation to the EU-guideline on the disclosure on non-financial information, fear not: I will be back with post #3 in that series – on governance and corruption – in January.

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