Holiday Reading List 2018 – The Rationalist Delusion

Finally, this last year, long overdue, I picked up Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow (2011). And what a book it is. If you still thought you were a rational human being, deliberately making judgements, weighing pros and cons for every decision you make, consider this quote from Thinking Fast and Slow:

(..) emotion now looms much larger in our understanding of intuitive judgments and choices than it did in the past. The executive’s decision would today be described as an example of the affect heuristic [a mental shortcut], where judgments and decision are guided directly by feelings of liking and disliking, with little deliberation or reasoning.

This resonates so strongly with the work of Jonathan Haidt in The Righteous Mind, that it made me think of one of the themes of that book, the rationalist delusion:

As an intuitionist, I’d say that the worship of reason is itself an illustration of one of the most long-lived delusions in Western history: the rationalist delusion. It’s the idea that reasoning is our most noble attribute, one that makes us like the gods (for Plato) or that brings us beyond the “delusion” of believing in gods (for the New Atheists). The rationalist delusion is not just a claim about human nature. It’s also a claim that the rational caste (philosophers or scientists) should have more power, and it usually comes along with a utopian program for raising more rational children.

How’s that for some provocative ideas worth exploring this holiday?

Haidt’s The Righteous Mind is not on this year’s list because I used it in the past for a number of blogs on biases (see this one on morality bias; and this one on confirmation bias). But the ideas of that book strongly influenced the way I progressed onto the books of this year’s list. Here we go:

Thinking Fast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman. A landmark book if you want to make better decisions. Kahneman shows, that by relying mostly on system 1 (mental shortcuts based on feelings, emotions and morality) in decision-making, and not on system 2 (our rationalist selves), we make predictable errors of judgment. The intuitive system 1 is a lot more influential than your think. Kahneman:

This is the essence of intuitive heuristics [rules of thumb]: when faced with a difficult question, we often answer an easier one instead, usually without noticing the substitution.

Learn how you fool yourself and read about: the availability heuristic (or What-You-See-Is-All-There-Is heuristic), anchoring bias, the law of small numbers, availability bias, the halo effect, and many, many more.

The Economist have their own way of describing the rationalist delusion in a review of this outstanding book:

As Copernicus removed the Earth from the centre of the universe and Darwin knocked humans off their biological perch, Kahneman has shown that we are not the paragons of reason we assume ourselves to be.

The Master and His Emissary – The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Iain McGilchrist. A different dichotomy than intuition and reason is discussed in this ‘fascinating book’ (Financial Times). The leading question here is: ‘Why is the brain divided?’ McGilchrist:

(..) the hierarchy of attention, for a number of reasons, implies a grounding role and an ultimately integrating role for the right hemisphere, with whatever the left hemisphere does at the detailed level needing to be founded on, and then returned to, the picture generated by the right.

This book is almost two books into one: the first part is steeped into neuroscience, tells us why the brain is divided, and which functions the left and right hemispheres perform. (If I would have to place Kahneman’s systems 1 and 2 in McGilchrist’s left and right hemispheres, system 1 would reside in the left, and system 2 in the right hemisphere.) In the second part of the book (called ‘How the Brain Has Shaped Our World’), the story unfolds in a dramatic way. McGilchrist takes us on a tour through the Ancient World (Plato, again, also see my blog on him here), the Renaissance, Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, to come to some daring propositions. One of the most striking ones is that the left hemisphere (the Emissary) has become so dominant that it has seized power over the right hemisphere (the Master), creating a Western culture with an obsession for structure, narrow self-interest and a mechanistic view of the world. I had to think of books on the 2016 reading list by John Gray and Matthew Crawford when I read this. True, or not, it makes for some great reading and stuff worth discussing over a good glass of wine during the Holidays.

Why Buddhism Is True. Robert Wright. No, I’m not going religious on you. And no, I’m not going Buddhist on you. Lauded by The New York Times Book Review, The Guardian, The New Yorker and Scientific American, this book is Darwinian in nature. There’s also a good deal of Kahneman and McGilchrist here:

Again, the part of the brain that controls language [system 2; left hemisphere] had generated a coherent, if false, explanation of behavior  ̶  and apparently had convinced itself of the truth of the explanation. The split-brain experiments powerfully demonstrated the capacity of the conscious self to convince itself that it’s calling the shots when it’s not. (..) In short, from natural selection’s point of view, it’s good for you to tell a coherent story about yourself, to depict yourself as a rational, self-aware actor. (..) It is possible to argue that the primary evolutionary function of the self is to be the organ of impression management [note: Haidt has a similar wording in that he talks about the press secretary].

With the help of modern evolutionary psychology, Wright explains that the mind is increasingly seen as having a modular design. Different modules were created by evolution to size up different situations and take action towards these situations. Much of this action goes on without you (the CEO) even knowing that action is being undertaken. Think about things such as fear, lust, love and many other feelings: are you calling the shots? From a very different angle than Kahneman’s, namely the angle from Buddhist mindfulness and meditation, Wright ends up at the same conclusion:

(..) our ordinary point of view, the one we’re naturally endowed with, is seriously misleading.

Wright goes on to explain why meditation can help us understand ourselves better:

Mindfulness meditation involves increased attentiveness to the things that cause our behavior  ̶  attentiveness to how perceptions influence our internal states and how certain internal states lead to other internal states and to behaviors.

This is an extraordinary book that takes mindfulness meditation out of the esoteric realm. It puts it straight into evolutionary psychology and hands us a tool to help us understand, and improve, our own decision-making.

Mindfulness for Creativity. Danny Penman. Now that I introduced mindfulness meditation above, there needed to be a book on the actual practice of meditation on this year’s list. Mindfulness meditation is still ‘weird’ enough that you have to explain to the world that you are not a tree-hugger, an anarchist or, well, a useless creature in general. Bill Gates, far from being a useless creature, put a book on meditation on his 5 best books of this year. However, even he still felt the needed to explain what the benefits of meditation for creativity are, and that it’s nothing to freak out over:

Back when I was avoiding music and TV in the hope of maintaining my focus, I knew that lots of other people were using meditation to achieve similar ends. But I wasn’t interested. I thought of meditation as a woo-woo thing tied somehow to reincarnation, and I didn’t buy into it. Lately, though, I’ve gained a much better understanding of meditation. I’m certainly not an expert, but I now meditate two or three times a week, for about 10 minutes each time. I now see that meditation is simply exercise for the mind, similar to the way we exercise our muscles when we play sports. For me, it has nothing to do with faith or mysticism. It’s about taking a few minutes out of my day, learning how to pay attention to the thoughts in my head, and gaining a little bit of distance from them.

Well, if it’s something that Bill Gates and Steve Jobs buy into (founders of two of the most valuable companies in the world), I think we should at least give it a try.

If you need more book recommendations, check out the summer reading lists of 2016, 2017 and 2018, and the holiday reading lists of 2016 and 2017.

Happy holidays, and happy reading!

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The Anthropocene – 3 Reasons Why It Matters to Your Business

 
David Pope, Scratch Media, https://www.scratch.com.au/

Introduction to the Anthropocene

In a wonderful new book, professors Simon Lewis and Mark Maslin at London University College, make a convincing case that the Earth has entered the Anthropocene (combining the Greek words for ‘human’ and ‘recent’). Humans have literally become a force of nature. Meaning that human activity changes the Earth from one state to another. To define the Anthropocene, these scholars define a framework in three parts:

  1. Is there evidence that human activity has begun to push the Earth in a new state? In short, yes. GHG emissions are delaying the next ice age and human actions are influencing evolution. Both will show in future fossil records.
  2. Is the new state marked in geological deposits? Again, the answer is yes. Changes in carbon dioxide levels are stored since the expansion of farming. Pollution of the Industrial Revolution shows in swamp sediments, and trees recorded nuclear fallout.
  3. When did the switch occur? From four candidates, the authors settle on the Columbian Exchange and the resulting Orbis spike (a lowest point in CO2) as the start of the Anthropocene:

(..)following Columbus’ 1492 arrival, approximately 50 million people in theAmericas perished and farming collapsed across a continent. (..) Vast areas ofland grew back to forest, removing billions of tonnes of carbon out of theatmosphere and into the new trees. This is seen as a dip in levels ofatmospheric carbon dioxide (..), with the lowest point being at 1610, capturedin Antarctic glacier ice [i.e. the so-called Orbis spike].

How Lewis and Maslin lead us towards these conclusions is a fascinating read. If you loved Guns, Germs and Steel, Sapiens, The Mating Mind, and The Origins of Political Order, you will love this book. (All of these books are highlighted in another post by the way, you can read that post here.) Below is a nice info-graphic that shows (some) of the topics they will run you through:

Source: UCL, https://www.ucl.ac.uk/news/2018/jun/scientists-propose-changing-rules-history-avoid-environmental-collapse

Why Should Managers Care About the Anthropocene? 3 Reasons.

I can almost hear you think: “All well enough that this is a great read, but why is this also a great read from a business perspective?”. Here are my 3 reasons:

1. The Anthropocene has found its way into mainstream vocabulary in relation to externalities of the firm. The term Anthropocene is a matter of huge debate (whether or not we should officially use the Anthropocene as a new geological time scale that follows the Holocene, that is). The debate itself is of little consequence for business. What is of consequence, however, is that it entered mainstream vocabulary. The link to externalities of the firm are easily made, and that’s why you should familiarize yourself with the term. [An externality is, as you know, a negative consequence of an economic activity experienced by unrelated third parties.] Like climate change entered the mainstream vocabulary in the nineties, the Anthropocene is popping up more and more. Leading newspapers, journals and organizations have already picked up on it, see for example: Nature, Wall Street Journal, the World Economic Forum, and the Guardian. There’s even a multi-media project consisting of a movie, a book, exhibitions and an interactive website that is getting a lot of media attention. This paves the way for systems thinking and more and more people and organizations will start asking questions how your business operations (as an integral part of the Anthropocene) affect the Earth’s systems. Do you already have an all-encompassing answer to this question? Do you have innovative sustainability strategies in place that take into account the Anthropocene is a central concept? Do you have the reporting processes in place to tackle this question?

2. The Anthropocene is central to the rise in ESG-pressures on your firm. Understanding the Anthropocene will answer the question where the ever increasing ESG-pressure on firms is coming from. Since more and more people will understand that the Earth is a closed system (see reason number 1), you can expect that every impact your business has on that system will, sooner or later, be under scrutiny. I argue that putting the era in which we live, i.e. the Anthropocene, as the all-encompassing force on Earth’s systems and, in turn, on people’s well-being, gives you a model to understand why there’s a proliferation of social movements and NGO’s pushing for changes in laws, regulations, reporting practices and business models. A possible depiction of how the Anthropocene ̶  through its pressure on physical and social systems  ̶  sets off pressures all the way down to the level of the firm to change business models, business processes and business practices, could look like this:

sleemanconsulting.com

3. The Anthropocene can be used as a super-structure for all ESG-related topics. If you, like me, have struggled how all different topics in the ESG-realm fit together, the concept of the Anthropocene can be used as a helpful tool. By plotting both social and natural/physical topics in the figure above, you have a super-structure where you can find all ESG-topics that might influence your firm’s business model, strategy and processes. This might be a useful addition to tools that you already have in place (e.g. a materiality or priority matrix) and can be used to track and make sense of topics as diverse as the Paris Agreement, Planetary Boundaries, the SDGs or radical transparency. I plotted a number of well-known concepts in the figure above to end up with the figure below:

sleemanconsulting.com

Why to read “The Human Planet – How We Created the Anthropocene”

The Anthropocene, with all that it entails (just a few of the topics, covered in the book, you should know about are: humans as a force of nature; positive feedback loops; complex systems; utilization of ever more energy; generation and processing of more information; increase in collective human agency) is a handy super-framework to connect ESG-topics that might have been considered separately without such a framework.

Even if you do not see the connection to your firm’s ESG-efforts, strategy or processes, and even if you do not see the need for defining a new geological time scale (I couldn’t care less; also see this article in Scientific American), this is a book worth reading. As the reviewer in the Guardian wrote:

‘Brilliantly written and genuinely one of the most important books I have ever read.’

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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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2017 Holiday Reading to Blow Your Mind (and expand your perspective)

In November, I mentioned that Peter Drucker thought of management as a liberal art. Last year I already recommended some contemporary philosophy to broaden your horizons (see, Holiday Reading to Blow Your Mind).  In 2017, I picked up some history books that give grand sweeping views of how we ended up in this day and age. Again, as in 2016’s holiday reading list, I tried to put the books in some kind of broad structure (see the photo directly above). It might give you an indication of what you want to read next after finishing one of the central books in the photo.

The two central books of this year’s list (note: not written in 2017, just read by me this year) are Fukuyama’s The Origins of Political Order and Harari’s Sapiens.

The Origins of Political Order. Francis Fukuyama. One of the first things I learned from glancing through the chapter headings of this book was that political institutions as we know them do not start with democracy in Greece. Instead, Fukuyama shows us the Chinese already gradually built a successful bureaucracy to govern vast lands from the 8th to the 3rd century BCE. The premise of the book is deceitfully simple: countries, empires, republics, etc. that work, have a couple of things in common: successful state building, rule of law, and accountability of governments. Fukuyama takes us on a tour of world history to show us where each of these three concepts first originated. He also shows us many examples of states that do not function because one or more of the three components are missing. Another thing I got out of this book is that I’ll never again take my country’s institutions for granted. In a way, these institutions have been shaped by an evolutionary process on societal level, to hand us working bureaucracies, rule of law and accountable government. If you won’t take my word for it, here’s what The Spectator wrote about this book of big ideas:

The Origins of Political Order is a magisterial work by an influential scholar, drawing on massive research in the social sciences as well as history and evolutionary biology. It provides a powerful and provocative analysis of the origins of the modern state, of relevance not only to historians and political scientists, but to anyone wishing to understand the nature of democratisation in the modern world and how it is to be achieved.

Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind. Yuval Noah Harari. Harari takes us both further back in time than Fukuyama does, and into the future. This is a book with as broad a scope as you can imagine. Harari tries to answer the question why homo sapiens came to rule (and possibly will destroy) the world. One of his key proposals is our capacity for thinking in concepts that exist outside immediate reality:

(…) the truly unique feature of our language is not its ability to transmit information about men and lions. Rather, it’s the ability to transmit information about things that do not exist at all. As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched or smelled.

Concepts such as democracy, human rights, and religion are all put in a new light:

Yet none of these things exists outside the stories that people invent and tell one another. There are no gods in the universe, no nations, no money, no human rights, no laws and no justice outside the common imagination of human beings. People easily understand that ‘primitives’ cement their social order by believing in ghosts and spirits, and gathering each full moon to dance together around the campfire. What we fail to appreciate is that our modern institutions function on exactly the same basis.

This is a thought provoking book. You might not like or agree with some of the things Harari has to say, but he surely makes you see the world in a new light.

Reading Sapiens, I couldn’t stop thinking about another great book a read some years back:

The Mating Mind. Geoffrey Miller. One of the questions that to me always seemed unresolved, is why homo sapiens evolve in such a peculiar way. Or, better put, why do our ideas, concepts and ideologies (think human rights, democracy and religion for instance) evolve faster than the snail’s pace of biological evolution? Miller thinks he has the answer. He compares the human brain with a peacock’s tail. For every species, a different trait evolved to be the mechanism of natural selection. For the peacock, it was the feathered tail. For humans, argues Miller, it was the mind. Thus: our capacity for concepts that sit outside direct reality (cf. Harari);  our capacity for creating and telling stories our capacity to come up with things like democracy and human rights. In Miller’s words:

Once sexual choice seized upon the brain as a possible fitness indicator, the brain was helpless to resist. Any individuals who did not reveal their fitness through their courtship behaviour were not chosen as sexual partners. (…) By opening up our brains as advertisements for our fitness, we discovered whole new classes of fitness indicators, like generosity and creativity. (…) The healthy brain theory proposes that our minds are clusters of fitness indicators: persuasive salesmen like art, music, and humor, that do their best work in courtship, where the most important deals are made.

This is one of those books whose central idea will stay with you. Like Fukuyama’s idea of state building, rule of law, and accountability. And like Harari’s view on concepts existing outside of direct reality.

The other book that I kept thinking about while reading Sapiens, was:

23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism. Ha-Joon Chang. This book is a bit of an outlier in this list. A lot of big ideas and concepts are discussed in Origins and Sapiens, and on some of these ideas have been written wonderful little volumes. One of these is 23 Things. It is not a history (therefore an outlier in this list), but it deals with a concept that features prominently in Sapiens: capitalism. In Sapiens, you are told things like:

Ask a capitalist how to bring justice and political freedom to a place like Zimbabwe or Afghanistan, and you are likely to get a lecture on how economic affluence and a thriving middle class are essential for stable democratic institutions, and about the need therefore to inculcate Afghan tribesmen in the value of free enterprise, thrift and self-reliance.

Where Sapiens looks at capitalism as an ideology and even a religion (you will feel a natural response to protest against this ‘sacrilege’), 23 Things will give you all the more arguments to see what Harari means. Ha-Joon Chang, formerly with the World Bank and now at Cambridge University, explains why we need to think differently about capitalism, and why some truisms repeated over-and-over by world leaders and big institutions alike, might actually not have any truths to them. An important book. Not in the last place because it shows us how we are lured into stories. For the record: I’m not saying we should abandon capitalism; I’m saying we should see it for what it really is. And 23 Things is indispensable in being able to do so.

So, Sapiens triggered me to think about books that were already familiar to me (The Mating Mind and 23 Things). In contrast, Fukuyama triggered me to pick up some new books from my ‘to-read-pile’. Fukuyama makes an impressive case for religion having meant more to societies than just religion. An even more thorough case is made in:

The Evolution of the West: How Christianity Has Shaped Our Values. Nick Spencer. One of the few books I have ever (knowingly) read by a religious writer. Echoing Fukuyama, Nick Spencer argues that Christianity was instrumental in creating individualism in the Western world. Christianity, according to the writer, also shaped rule of law (cf. Fukuyama), humanism, human rights, capitalism, science, atheism, ethics, and democracy, to name just a few concepts covered in this beautifully written book. Warning: this is a rewarding read, but not an easy one. The Economist seems to agree:

It is not a popular thesis but, like a prophet crying in the post-modern wilderness, Mr Spencer provokes reflection that goes far beyond the shallow ding-dongs of the modern culture wars. He wants to make sure Westerners know where they came from as a way to illuminate where they are going.

Another book on the to-read-pile, that seems an obvious follow-up to Fukuyama, is:

Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty. Daron Acemoglu & James A. Robinson. I did not read this one yet. But I’m curious if Fukuyama’s three concepts of state building, rule of law and accountable government also play a prominent role in this book. From the back cover:

Based on fifteen years of research, and answering the competing arguments of authors ranging from Jeffrey Sachs to Jared Diamond [more on him next], Why Nations Fail blends economics, politics and history to provide a powerful and persuasive way of understanding wealth and poverty.

Finally, Sapiens and The Origins of Political Order evoke strong images of:

Guns, Germs and Steel. Jared Diamond. In its scope and grand sweeps, and trying to answer big questions, this is certainly a classic of the genre of big history, big questions, and big answers. I’m sure most of you have already read this book a long time ago. If not, it is probably enough to say that Jared Diamond’s books are in the bibliography of Sapiens, The Origins of Political Order, The Mating Mind, and Why Nations Fail. Harari speaks about Diamond when he says ‘[he] taught me to see the big picture’.

Happy holidays, and happy reading!

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6 Tips to Foster Practical Wisdom in Decision Making

Aristotle might be best known for ‘inventing’ science (see my discussion of The Lagoon – how Aristotle invented science) and being a rather rational kind of chap. Although this is certainly true, and you can learn a lot from reading his treatises (his extant works read more like lecture notes than books) such as On the Soul, Physics, and Metaphysics, I stumbled upon the interesting Aristotelian term phronesis that translates as ‘practical wisdom’.

In The Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle explains that practical wisdom (phronesis) is something else than scientific knowledge (epistēmē). In the sense that practical wisdom is rooted in action and can essentially create different realities (or outcomes) by taking action; scientific knowledge, instead, describes how reality is:

(..) since scientific knowledge involves demonstration, but there is no demonstration of things whose first principles are variable [such as decision making in reality], and since it is impossible to deliberate about things that are of necessity, practical wisdom can not be scientific knowledge nor art [technē, a technique, in the sense of making things]; not science because that which can be done is capable of being otherwise, not art because action and making are different kinds of things. The remaining alternative, then, is that it is a true and reasoned state of capacity to act (…).

This passage is pregnant with implications for managerial decision making. Although you should make use of scientific insights if they are available, and you should take into account knowledge on how to build real-life things (i.e. cars, bridges, consumer products, etc.), managerial decision making often has other, less tangible characteristics. For example, think about creating a strategy, an organizational structure or a company culture. Some characteristics of this kind of decision making that spring to mind are:

  • Uncertainty. You probably do not have all the knowledge and all the details. Outcomes cannot be predicted with certainty and are, thus, contingent.
  • Context-dependent. You are not taking a decision in isolation: How will my competitors act? What will my employees think and do? How will my stakeholders react?
  • Non-demonstrable outcomes. There are no scientific rules. There is not even an exact copy of the problem at hand.
  • Action-oriented. Your decision entails an actual follow-up in the real world; in a way, you will alter reality with your actions.
  • Multiple outcomes possible. Your actions will alter reality. But, the outcome is not fixed as it would be if there was scientific certainty. You change the outcome by taking different actions: you can create endless variations in strategies, organizational structures or cultures, for example.

Professors Ikujiro Nonaka and Hirotaka Takeuchi, in their Harvard Business Review article, call for ‘wise leaders’ to make decisions in such a context:

Dependence only on explicit knowledge prevents leaders from coping with change. The scientific, deductive, theory-first approach assumes a world independent of context and seeks answers that are universal and predictive. However, all social phenomena – including business – are context dependent. (…), the world needs leaders who will make judgments knowing that everything is contextual, make decisions knowing that everything is changing, and take actions knowing that everything depends on doing so in a timely fashion. They will have to see what is good, right, and just for society while being grounded in the details of the ever-changing front line. Thus, they must pair micromanagement with big-picture aspirations about the future.

Echoing Aristotle and Nonaka & Takeuchi, I therefore conclude that (managerial) decision making is not a science (epistēmē) and not a technique (technē). But, rather, it is applying practical wisdom (phronesis) to a situation that demands an analysis and a wise decision when facing uncertainties and incomplete information. Now, with Hardin, we can ask ourselves the question ‘What operations are implied by these statements?’ Or, ‘What does this mean in practice?’

In the following paragraphs, I will therefore offer 6 tips to operationalize the concept of practical wisdom.

Tip 1: use your mission and vision as a guiding principle in decision making

In taking on any decision, hold it against your mission and your vision. Your organization’s mission tells you the organization’s reason-of-being: why does your organization exist in the first place. The vision tells you what you are trying to achieve in the medium to long term. For more on one of the most important aspects of business (i.e. your mission), see my blog on business fundamentals.

Tip 2: get to the essence of a problem or a decision

Always ask yourself these questions: Why is there is a problem? What are we trying to solve? What are we trying to achieve? Nonaka and Takeuchi describe it as ‘relentlessly asking what the basis of a problem or a situation is.’ They go on to describe routines to do just that at two Japanese multinationals:

At Toyota employees ask “Why?” five times to get to the root cause. At Honda they ask the “A, A0, and A00” questions. A questions are about specifications – such as “What should the horsepower of this engine be?” A0 questions are about concepts – such as “What is the idea behind this engine?” A00 questions are about the essential goals of the project – such as “What is this engine for?”

Tip 3: understand the difference between epistēmē and phronesis, and when to use it

You don’t usually need scientific knowledge to make wise decisions (although it can be part of the data that you need for to make a decision, of course). Recognize the existence of practical wisdom (phronesis) as opposed to scientific knowledge (epistēmē). In a funny example, Nassim Taleb explains how relying on epistēmē in a situation where phronesis might be more suited, can lead to serious mistakes. He calls this the green lumber fallacy:

In one of the rare noncharlatanic books in finance, descriptively called What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars, the protagonist makes a big discovery. He remarks that a fellow named Joe Siegel, one of the most successful traders in a commodity called “green lumber”, actually thought that it was lumber painted green (rather than freshly cut lumber, called green because it had not been dried.) And he made it his profession to trade the stuff! Meanwhile the narrator was into grand intellectual theories and narratives of what caused the price of commodities to move, and went bust.

Tip 4: use heuristics (rules of thumb)

According to Taleb ‘heuristics are simplified rules of thumb that make things simple and easy to implement. But their main advantage is that the user knows that they are not perfect, just expedient, and is therefore less fooled by their powers.’ Using heuristics does not require scientific knowledge but can give you insight into what’s going on pretty quickly. In turn, you might be able to use these shortcuts for your decision making. A powerful heuristic, for example, is the 80/20 rule or Pareto principle that states that in many events 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes.

Tip 5: develop your own heuristics through practice and experience

In practical wisdom, experience and practice take precedence over scientific rules. Through practice in the real world, you might be able to create your own heuristics about your specific (business) contexts and realities. In time, you will develop rules of thumb, or even a ‘feel’, for how things play out for your organization in a specific (Aristotle uses particular) situation. In The Nichomachean Ethics, this concept is illuminated as follows (emphasis mine):

Nor is practical wisdom concerned with universals only – it must also recognize the particulars; for it is practical, and practice is concerned with particulars. This is why some who do not know [i.e. do not have scientific knowledge], and especially those who have experience, are more practical than others who know; for if a man knew that light meats are digestible and wholesome, but did not know which sorts of meat are light, he would not produce health, but the man who knows that chicken is wholesome is more likely to produce health.

As an example, read why I use redundancy (as a heuristic) in project plans.

Tip 6: read widely

Now that we have established that (organizational) decision making is practical wisdom instead of science, you might want to practice as much as possible (and create your own practical heuristics along the way). Another way to expose yourself to as many situations as possible, and see how people react to and solve problems, is reading. Peter Drucker famously said that management is a liberal art. Liberal because management is about broadening general knowledge and experience; and an art because management is practiced by doing. So, pick up some philosophy, some history, and some literature once in a while to broaden your exposure to more Aristotelian particulars. A place to start? See last year’s holiday reading list.

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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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Summer Reading

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All my posts so far have introduced books that I think are well worth reading during your summer break. (See the full list of books referred to in previous posts at the end of this entry.) Why read? 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.

My additional recommendations for this summer do not all go back to the source, but are rather books about very old books. I hope you will enjoy them as much as I did.

The Mighty Dead – Why Homer Matters, by Adam Nicholson. I reread both the Iliad and the Odyssey recently and found reading the poems rather hard work to be honest. Then I stumbled across this 2014 book. I started reading to understand Homer better. But the book amazes as an archaeological Indiana Jones’ journey through Europe and Eurasia. The Daily Telegraph wrote: ‘. . . a compelling case for viewing Homer as a cluster of the qualities that still underlie our civilisation. He is horror. He is honour. He is home. He is us.’

The Lagoon – How Aristotle Invented Science, by Armand Marie Leroi. Not many people would want to dig through all that Aristotle wrote on biology and natural philosophy. Instead, you might really enjoy this book when you travel to Greece. Or anywhere else where they serve great seafood really. As the Observer put it: ‘This big, sumptuous book made me hungry. Intellectually, to learn about the classical world’s take on what we now call science. But it made me viscerally and literally hungry: for grilled fish, oysters, figs and meze, and to sit on the shores of the Aegean idling at barnacles and cuttlefish copulating in the spume. Not bad for a science book.’

The Great Sea – A Human History of the Mediterranean. (I seem it bit biased towards the Mediterranean this summer.) To counter the stories about just one or a few — although great — men or books, I will attempt to read this sweeping history of the Mediterranean. I hope to find another great travel book combined with lots of new insights on how our current world came into being. The Sunday Times writes: ‘His book is full of intrepid explorers, anxious pilgrims, enterprising merchants, ambitious politicians and terrified refugees . . . such a treasure trove.’

The books introduced in my posts so far, are all well worth taking on your summer holiday as well:

Enjoy your summer.

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