Summer Reading 2018: Time for Reflection and Re-Creation

The last two years I started the introduction to the summer reading list with the same quote (read all my blog post on reading via this link). For a different reason, I repeat it one more time:

. . .  the worst thing one can do to feel one knows things a bit deeper is to try to go into them a bit deeper. The sea gets deeper as you go further into it, according to a Venetian proverb. Curiosity is antifragile, like an addiction, and is magnified by attempts to satisfy it – books have a secret mission and ability to multiply, as everyone who has wall-to-wall bookshelves knows well (Nassim Taleb, Antifragile).

For this list, I tried to find books that get you a bit deeper inside yourself, instead of getting deeper in history, science, philosophy or (business) decision-making (i.e. some of the ‘things’ Taleb is talking about).

I picked up just these books because I did not read a lot of new books this year relevant for this blog. (I guessed you didn’t really want a review of books with titles such as Baby-led Weaning, Babywise or Your Baby Week by Week; as those were the books I did read the last months.) Picking up books that you’ve read before, and reading through underlined sections and annotations, is a great way to reflect on yourself: Why did you underline it? What notes did you make? Does it still make sense? Which things did you forget but you really should remember from now on? Etcetera.

Whilst flipping through the pages, the books below magically seem to build on one another like this:

  • You build something big, anything, by working on it bit by bit every single day. Things add up, like training for a marathon. One day, you look back and see all the work you have done leading to the thing you wanted to achieve. This concept is found in Bird by Bird and is mostly about writing but it goes for everything you want to achieve in life really.
  • To achieve the above, you need rituals. You have to sit down (or move about) at the same time every day. This helps prepare your unconscious for the task ahead. Rituals are introduced in Bird by Bird but are the prime subject in Daily Rituals.
  • But what should you be building on? That, of course, is something that you have to find out for yourself. Some intriguing thoughts on that can be found in David Foster Wallace: The Last Interview and The Three Marriages. What struck me is that finding the thing you should work on, is not about rationality. According to these two books it’s more about intuition and gut-feeling. But even then, it is hard work getting there.
  • Hard work and maybe insight. Wisdom too. And prudence. Those are the subjects of The Art of Worldly Wisdom and would make a nice addition to any reading list. But the emphasis on prudence (i.e. acting with or showing care and thought for the future) makes it especially helpful if you want to build something big.

Here is my list for this summer to inspire you to get a little closer to what drives you. Or maybe make some welcome changes as you read through these pages filled with wisdom.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. A book about writing. But at the same time about life. The struggle to write a book, and how to start, can be read as a metaphor for anything you would like to achieve in life. One of the bits I loved:

You get your intuition back when you make space for it, when you stop the chattering of the rational mind. The rational mind doesn’t nourish you. You assume that it gives you the truth, because the rational mind is the golden calf that this culture worships, but this is not true. Rationality squeezes out much that is rich and juicy and fascinating.

Daily Rituals by Mason Currey. Currey, in the introduction, describes what this book is about:

The book’s title is Daily Rituals, but my focus in writing it was really people’s routines. The word connotes ordinariness and even a lack of thought; to follow a routine is to be on autopilot. But one’s daily routine is also a choice, or a whole series of choices. In the right hands, it can be a finely calibrated mechanism for taking advantage of a range of limited resources: time (the most limited resource of all) as well as willpower, self- discipline, optimism. A solid routine fosters a well- worn groove for one’s mental energies and helps stave off the tyranny of moods. This was one of William James’s favorite subjects. He thought you wanted to put part of your life on autopilot; by forming good habits, he said, we can “free our minds to advance to really interesting fields of action.”

You can see why this is a great companion to Bird by Bird. This is not a book to read in one sitting. Currey has a little chapter on the routines of more than hundred authors, philosophers, artists and musicians. It’s a good book to put on your night stand for the holidays. Or a book that you can pick up if you already know you will not have more than ten minutes undisturbed reading at a time. There are some big names here: Freud, Hemingway, Murakami, Proust, Louis Armstrong, Stephen Jay Gould and Andy Warhol, to name a few. A lot in this book echoes what Anne Lamott writes in bird by bird. Consider Murakami’s routine:

When he is writing a novel, Murakami wakes at 4:00 A.M. and works for five to six hours straight. In the afternoons he runs or swims (or does both), runs errands, reads, and listens to music; bedtime is 9:00. (..) “The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.”

The Three Marriages by David Whyte. A book about work-life balance:

The current understanding of work-life balance is too simplistic. People find it hard to balance work with family, family with self, because it might not be a question of balance. Some other dynamic is in play, something to do with a very human attempt at happiness that does not quantify different parts of life and then set them against one another. We are collectively exhausted because of our inability to hold competing parts of ourselves together in a more integrated way.

What follows is a very unusual treatment of the work-life balance. It changed the way I look at my work and relationships. If you want to reflect deeply this summer, pick up this book. But only if you like a very new way of looking at your life:

The pursuit of the self is the pursuit of that part of us not defined by our worries and anxieties. [I had to pause here for at least 10 minutes.] But this pursuit begins only by admitting that human anxiety is endless and to be expected. These waves of existential anxiety may knock down the surface self, but there is another, deeper self with a larger perspective that was never knocked down at all. (..) The pursuit of the self is also the pursuit of that part of us that is untouched by our successes and accomplishments.

David Foster Wallace: The Last Interview. This little volume of interviews with the writer David Foster Wallace makes me want to read his fiction. Zadie Smith said of him: “In a culture that depletes you daily of your capacity for imagination, for language, for autonomous thought, complexity like Dave’s is a gift”. Again, there’s a lot on routines and rituals here, but also some good thoughts on life and work:

[W]hen you’re a child I don’t think you’re aware of how incredibly easy you have it, right? You have your own problems and you have your own burdens and chores and things you have to do. (..) I think when they [i.e. his parents] went into these quiet rooms and had to do things that it wasn’t obvious they wanted to do, I think there was a part of me that felt that something terrible was coming. But also, of course, now that we’re putatively grown up there’s also a lot of really, really interesting stuff and sometimes you sit in quiet rooms and do a lot of drudgery and at the end of it is a surprise or something very rewarding or a feeling of fulfillment.

Definitely a nice little volume for your summer reading list. For the Dave Eggers fans out there: he is one of the interviewers.

The Art of Worldly Wisdom by Balthasar Gracián. Written in the 17th century by a Jesuit priest. A keen observer of human behavior, his 300 observations give you excellent advice on how to get ahead in life. Although the book was written long ago, it still holds truths that you can use in your work as a manager and business decision-maker. This little volume, for some, is therefore included in a list of three great, timeless wisdom books: Machiavelli’s The Prince, Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War, and, thus, Baltasar Gracián’s The Art of Worldly Wisdom. I am only halfway through this book. Here are some quotes I found especially useful in a work setting:

Don’t outshine your boss. When you counsel someone, you should appear to be reminding him of something he had forgotten, not of the light he was unable to see. It is the stars who teach us this subtlety. They are brilliant sons, but they never dare to outshine the sun.

Never exaggerate. It isn’t wise to use superlatives. They offend the truth and cast doubt on your judgment. By exaggerating, you squander your praise and reveal a lack of knowledge and taste. (..) To overvalue something is a form of lying. It can ruin your reputation for good taste, and  ̶  even worse  ̶  for wisdom.

Be diligent [i.e. careful and conscientious in work and duties] and intelligent. Fools are fond of hurry: they take no heed of obstacles and act incautiously. The wise usually fail through hesitation. Fools stop at nothing, the wise at everything. Sometimes things are judged correctly but go wrong out of inefficiency and neglect. Readiness is the mother of luck. It is a great deed to leave nothing for the morrow. A lofty motto: make haste slowly.

For all management consultants out there:

End well. [B]e careful of the way you end things, and devote more attention to a successful exit than to a highly applauded entrance. What matters isn’t being applauded when you arrive  ̶  for that is common  ̶  but being missed when you leave. Rare are those who are still wanted.

And for everyone out there:

Be careful when you inform yourself about things. Much of our lives is spent gathering information. We see very few things for ourselves, and live trusting others. The ears are the back door of truth and the front door of deceit. Truth is more often seen than heard.

This wonderful book is to be read like Daily Rituals: take it in in small doses and do a lot of thinking about the deeper meaning and consequences for your strategies in work and life.

I hope this list inspires you to read this summer. Need more recommendations? Check out all my book reviews via this link.

Enjoy your summer.

 

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Decision Making: What We Can (Not) Learn from Plato

                  “An early management training on rational decision making(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

When I started this blog, I was determined to write some posts on decision making. I am fascinated with the fact that humans think we are rational beings, while all the latest research (on moral psychology, neuroscience, etc) clearly contradicts this. I have tried to write about what I ‘discovered’ to be true (by reading other people’s books that is): that we suffer from a number of ‘errors’ that keep us from taking rational decisions. See for example my posts ‘morality binds and blinds and ‘three tools to overcome conformation bias.

How we came to worship reason: enter Plato

As interesting as new research on these topics is, how we came to think of ourselves as rational decision-makers in the first place, seems a relevant topic in itself. In an – undoubtedly futile – attempt to work through the entire list of Great Books, I managed to make it through a number of works by Plato. As everybody who enjoyed the classical education will surely know, Plato is considered the high priest of ratio. Two quotes from Republic (Plato’s attempt to describe the ideal state) show just how high his regard for reason was:

‘.. when one tries to get at what each thing is in itself by the exercise of dialectic, relying on reason without any aid from the senses, and refuses to give up until one has grasped by pure thought what the good is in itself, one is at the summit of the intellectual realm.’

.. reason ought to rule, having the wisdom and foresight to act for the whole, and the spirit ought to obey and support it.’ [Italics added.]

I often found it hard not to be dragged along by Plato’s arguments. He writes with such passion and comes up with many wonderful stories that are still known today. Think about the myth of Atlantis (to be found in the Timaeus), the metaphor of the cave (see Republic), and the famous comparison of the soul to a charioteer with two horses (read Phaedrus). It all makes for fantastic literature actually.

Plato’s unrelenting belief in reason, however, turns him into an enemy of anything that distracts us from pure thought. Poetry, art, passion, emotion, he will have nothing of it. Why? What follows takes quite some effort to grasp (and likely some leaps of faith):  Plato argues that reason leads to pure knowledge, and only pure knowledge can lead to what’s truly good, and what’s truly good ultimately leads to happiness. He then argues (in Republic) that everything that is in the realm outside pure thought – like impressions, appearances, beliefs, emotions, and opinions – could thus never lead to a happy life. In short, using rational thought is the only way to go about your life; emotions and the senses do not have a place in leading a good life or making the right judgments or decisions. This was a defining moment in history: reason won, emotions were out. Or as Jonathan Haidt puts in The Righteous Mind:

‘Western philosophy has been worshiping reason and distrusting the passions for thousands of years. There’s a direct line running from Plato through Immanuel Kant to [20th century psychology].’

Evidence why Plato is wrong: enter ‘moral reasoning’

Plato beliefs that we use (should use) rational thinking because it will lead us to the truth. Plato believes that we argue to get to the truth. In fact, most of his dialogues feature Socrates engaging in arguments about all kinds of topics with the aim of getting  to the truth of the matter. An opposing view would be that we do not argue to get to the truth, but we argue to win the argument: we have a sense or intuition for the right course of action, and we use our reasoning to justify our intuition. This is exactly what the field of moral psychology is proposing, and there’s overwhelming evidence that our decision making is highly influenced by emotions (or gut feelings if you will) instead of pure reason. As journalist Stephen Hall puts it in his highly readable Wisdom:

‘What if moral judgment, so central a notion to all schools of philosophy and the centrepiece of every major religion, is not the conscious, deliberate, reasoned discernment of right or wrong we’ve all been led to believe, but is, rather, a subterranean biological reckoning, fed by an underwater spring of hidden emotions, mischievously tickled and swayed by extraneous feelings like disgust, virtually beyond the touch of what we customarily think of as conscience? What if Plato, Socrates, and Aristotle were nothing but a bunch of two-bit, fork-tongued, post hoc rationalizers? What if, every time we decide what is the “right” or “good” thing to do, we are merely responding, like dogs, to the otherwise inaudible whistling of the emotional brain? That is where moral philosophy is headed these days, and it’s being driven by a new generation of philosophers and social psychologists, who have adopted the uniform of the lab coat.’

One of these social psychologists is Jonathan Haidt, who did a lot of ground breaking work on understanding where our moral reasoning comes from. One of his catch phrases is ‘intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second’. To buttress this claim, he finds indications in research that shows that ‘moral thinking is more like a politician searching for votes than a scientist searching for truth’. Some disturbing conclusions he draws about our thinking are:

  • We are obsessively concerned about what others think of us, although much of the concern is unconscious and invisible to us.
  • Conscious reasoning functions like a press secretary who automatically justifies any position taken by the president.
  • With the help of our press secretary, we are able to lie and cheat often, and then cover it up so effectively that we convince even ourselves.
  • Reasoning can take us to almost any conclusion we want to reach.
  • In moral and political matters we are often groupish, rather than selfish. We deploy our reasoning skills to support our team, and to demonstrate commitment to our team.

Why should you care? Or: how can you improve your decision making?

Why should you care about what the latest research has to say about reasoning? You may think you always make use of rational thinking and never engage in moral reasoning, especially not in the workplace. Think again. There are very few domains that are immune to moral reasoning. The exception might be science. But science obviously does not include the business environment, which is highly politically motivated and thus vulnerable to moral reasoning.

To improve your business decision making, you might ask yourself these two questions prior to making decisions:

  1. Am I trying to get to the truth (and set my ego aside) or am I trying to win the argument?
  2. Am I tackling this problem logically or am I caught in moral reasoning to try to justify a position I intuitively feel is right (also known as post hoc rationalization)?

Whenever the answer points into the direction of argumentative reasoning or post hoc rationalization, seek the advice of others. Others that have opposing views that is. Because the research I have been discussing also shows that we are very well equipped with coming up with my-side arguments, but terrible in coming up with other-side arguments. Reading Plato is still recommended – especially to learn where and how our adulation of reason came about –, but to improve your decision making you had better stick to the latest insights from psychology and neuroscience.

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Slow Books: A Reading List for Your Summer Break

For those of you who read last year’s summer reading post this is a familiar quote, but I repeat it nonetheless because it is the reason why I read (quote from Nassim Taleb in Antifragile):

. . .  the worst thing one can do to feel one knows things a bit deeper is to try to go into them a bit deeper. The sea gets deeper as you go further into it, according to a Venetian proverb. Curiosity is antifragile, like an addiction, and is magnified by attempts to satisfy it – books have a secret mission and ability to multiply, as everyone who has wall-to-wall bookshelves knows well.

So, what I am trying to do is dig a little deeper and sometimes also further back in time to understand how some ideas first came into being. As Charlie Munger put it:

The more basic knowledge you have . . . the less new knowledge you have to get.

This summer, I hand you some books to get you into a reflective mode: think about your life, think about what you want(ed) to get out of it, and what you might need to change. These are definitely not all new works and I can’t really recall how each of these came into my life. One thing that connects them, however, might be a central word in the title of one of them: ‘slowness’. Much like the ‘slow food movement’, I guess you could call this a selection of ‘slow books’: books to read slowly, let the words sink in and maybe come back to certain parts again and again. ‘Slow books’ do not offer a quick fix to whatever it is you would like to change in your life. But I promise the books introduced below will give you a new perspective on your life and offer you ways to make gradual changes if you would allow yourself to come back to them again and again.

A Life beyond Boundaries by Benedict Anderson. I picked this book up because of a raving review in The Economist (‘an intellectual giant’). This memoir does not disappoint. It calls for an international outlook on life, and especially a comparative outlook on cultures. Anderson echoes Susan Nieman, who I recall saying that it is imperative for anyone to live in more than one culture to really understand the world. Anderson especially understood South East Asia, as he did a lot of anthropological field work there. This is a wonderful book on the need for international experience and a sweeping view of East Asian (colonial) history at that. One of many beautiful lines by Anderson:

The experience of strangeness makes all your senses much more sensitive than normal, and your attachment to comparison grows deeper.

The Examined Life by Stephen Grosz. A book with apparently simple stories of encounters between a psychoanalyst and his patients. Through these stories, Grosz shows how insight – self-insight – can help us find ourselves after losing ourselves. This 2013 book is highly recommended by The New York Times and The Guardian, among others. One of the many things I highlighted in this wonderful selection of stories:

We hesitate, in the face of change, because change is loss. But if we don’t accept some loss (..) we can lose everything.

Into The Woods by John Yorke. What do The Bourne Ultimatum and Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex have in common? Or Hamlet and Star Wars? For those of you have been reading my blogs posts over the last year, it will come as no surprise that I included a book that tries to explain why we humans like stories so much. (Click here to read my other posts that contain a reference to ‘stories’.) This book might hold the answer to that question and why stories matter so much in our personal lives. The Independent called it ‘a mind-blower’; The Financial Times put it on their summer reading list. This is a must-read. One of many highlighted sections in my copy:

It could be that [our own stories bring] us closer to God, to a sexual partner, to appropriate behavior, or to better mental health. But the journey into the woods, the finding of the missing part, its retrieval and the making of something whole, is integral. That something can be us, a puzzle, a mystery or any number of corruptions. As in scenes, so in story, a ridiculously simple process defines them all: two opposites are assimilated and a conflict is stilled. That is why we crave stories like a drug – for it is only through story that we are able to bring our inner selves into line with the external world. In that process some kind of sense is made, and if we’re lucky, some kind of truth discovered. Stories appear to be both as simple – and complex – as that.

How to Live by Sarah Bakewell. The Essays by Montaigne are still on my to-read pile (or ‘antilibrary’, after Umberto Eco), but this is a formidable book on the Essays and what Montaigne had to say on ‘how to live’. A great companion to life, trying to answer such questions as ‘how to get on well with people’, ‘how to deal with loss’, and ‘how to live’. There’s a lot of Stoicism in Montaigne:

Do not seek to have everything that happens happen as you wish, but wish for everything to happen as it actually does happen, and your life will be serene.

If you are looking for a light-hearted book that is still full of insights and, as an added bonus, gives you a good bit of Renaissance history, this is your book.

Solitude by Anthony Storr. Another psychiatrist on this list. This book from the 1980s has maybe more insights packed into one volume than any other book I have ever read. Therefore, it’s probably the book I pick up most often to reread certain passages. One of the themes of the book is the need for solitude to be creative. There’s a lot on the mysterious role for ‘stories’ again (see Into the Woods), and I guess Csikszentmihalyi must have read this book as an inspiration for his wonderful books on creativity: Flow and Creativity. This is a must-read if you want to find out how to be more creative:

The ecstatic sense of wholeness is bound to be transient because it has no part in the total pattern of ‘adaptation through maladaptation’ which is characteristic of our species. Boeotian bliss [i.e. simple bliss; read Thucydides..] is not conducive to invention: the hunger of imagination, the desire and pursuit of the whole, take origin from the realization that something is missing from awareness of incompleteness.

The Discovery Of Slowness by Sten Nadolny. The first novel on this summer’s reading list (‘absolutely stunning’ according to Times Literary Supplement) is a story about admiral and arctic explorer John Franklin. His dedication to understand things (‘he decided to not seek comfort but to think’) got him very far in life.  This is a rare animal: it is a novel about historic sea voyages (to the Arctic and Tasmania among others) and sea battles (e.g. Trafalgar), but also the story of a man who is determined to understand the world and people around him even if he is not particularly bright. We often find him in a slow, almost meditative, state of mind. As one of the character’s in the book puts it:

‘Do you know what I like about you, Mr Franklin? With most people everything moves fast until they understand, but when they get to the point it’s already over. You’re different.’

The Death of Ivan Ilyich & Other Stories by Leo Tolstoy. I included this collection of stories because the Ivan Ilyich story is a superb depiction of memento mori which is a necessity for the reflective mode, I feel. It is about a man who looks back on his life and does not find a lot to like. There are more upbeat stories in this little volume, but The Death of Ivan Ilyich might just get you in the right frame of mind to think over your own life and then pick up another volume in this list to create some positive change.

I hope this list inspires you to read this summer. Need more recommendations? Last winter’s list (on contemporary philosophy) can be found here; last summer’s list (on Mediterranean history) can be found here.

Enjoy your summer.

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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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