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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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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