Four Books to Understand how Reality Works and How to Deal with it


[image from The Wizard of Oz]


“A fire broke out backstage in a theater. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that's just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it's a joke.” Søren Kierkegaard, Either/Or, Part I

Not assuming is a superpower. As Ray Dalio says, “Truth—more precisely, an accurate understanding of reality—is the essential foundation for producing good outcomes.” It could save your life.

But, as Orwell wrote, “To see what is in front of one's nose is a constant struggle.”


A healthy mind

A healthy diet provides you with essential nutrition. Simpler and fresher foods vs. highly processed and sweetened foods for the body, classics and well-researched writing for the mind, and rest/sleep, art/thought/meditation (as applicable) for the soul.

The mind is a powerful instrument. The mind of a creator is full of words. Columnist David Brooks (via Polina Narinova) wrote about this idea called “the theory of maximum taste.”# Your mind is defined by its upper limit—the best content that it habitually consumes and is capable of consuming.

Reading better material could mean ignoring topics that drain your attention, and embracing topics that challenge your thinking. You don't have to agree with the author to get something out of a book or article. But it's useful to place ideas in the right context. And you can't do that without learning a bit about history—from ancient to contemporary.

A healthy mind is a mind trained to process and synthesize information from different points of view. The closer to the source is your evidence, the fewer filters you need to discount. You want the nutrient—what the author intended—included in the fertile soil of her work.

Which is why any form of translation is a responsibility—it invites you to understand and faithfully convey the writer's intention, transmitting the same ideas and emotions in a different cultural context.


Four books to understand how reality works

Every age asked the age-old question, “Can you succeed without being a terrible person?” We often think that 'nice guys finish last.' But does that mean you have to go to the other extreme, and be a bully or Machiavellian to get anything done?


The Art of Fairness: The Power of Decency in a World Turned Mean by David Bodanis

Thesis: fairness, applied with skill, works better.

The author presents ten vivid profiles: featuring pilots, captains (Captain William Blight), presidents (Roosevelt), CEOs (Steve Ballmer and Satya Nadella), Goebbels, and even the producer of Game of Thrones. He demonstrates that the path to greatness doesn't require crushing displays of power or tyrannical ego.

Certain tactics people use to grab power and hold onto it are the same today as they were in the 1930s. That's because people change at a much slower pace than technology. Hence why it's useful to look back to see now.

Bodanis provides food for thought on how simple fair decency can prevail.

Our future depends on a fair assessment of what's going on. Statistics can help. But only if you accept them as part o the process of understanding.


How to Make the World Add Up by Tim Harford

Thesis: good statistics clarify reality.

Given people's general propensity to glaze over when mentioning statistics, Harford offers 10 rules for how to think effectively about numbers and data. Because statistics matter.

He explicitly contrasts his book with Darrell Huff’s classic How to Lie with Statistics, published in 1954 and still in print. Huff considered statistics a cute trick, useful to politicians and advertisers to pull the wool over people’s eyes.

Harford takes a more positive view: the right statistics can be a force for good, and we should delight in their usefulness. I've enjoyed Tim Harford's books since the very fist one his publisher included in a mailing of another book, whose title I forgot.

Simplicity often means getting back to basics. You know, the stuff we think we know and we stop checking.


How to Decide: Simple Tools for Making Better Choices by Annie Duke

Thesis: see and address your biases and you can make better decisions.

This is an introductory book. But as is often the case, we overlook the fundamentals. For example, how ridiculous it is (paradoxically) to judge a decision by its outcomes. Do you consider that some things are out of your control?

The dissection of the language of probability can be quite useful. Maybe you use the exercises for your pre-mortem. That is the analysis you do before deciding, assuming it all went wrong. It's a good exercise to imagine failure and prepare for it.

You could also get into the habit of keeping a decision journal, which would help you understand how you choose (your strategies). This will work only if you're honest with yourself, of course. After all, we demand honesty from companies.


Unfiltered Marketing: 5 Rules to Win Back Trust, Credibility, and Customers in a Digitally Distracted World by Stephen Denny and Paul Leinberger

Thesis: people want to make their own decisions based on raw and unfiltered information.

The growing influence of technology and digital communication, the increasing lack of trust by consumers, and reduced attention spans make effective marketing one of the greatest challenges companies face.

Denny and Leinberger draw on four years of research and offer a five-step process to reconnect with people.

I received a review copy of this book via Stephen Denny, whose blog and previous book and practical guide I found useful, and have found it interesting. Marketing may necessitate unfiltered tactics.

But this book like all books, including those I read and recommend, require close scrutiny. 


How to deal with reality

Umberto Eco wisely noted that, “The problem with the Internet is that it gives you everythingreliable material and crazy material. So the problem becomes, how do you discriminate?” Filtering means that you may use your beliefs, biases, and assumptions to vet ideas and see and hear only what resonates with them, like an echo.

There's a deeper level to get to a truth, and that is to subject what you read to inquiry. Eco also maintained that, “Books are not meant to be believed, but to be subjected to inquiry. When we consider a book, we mustn't ask ourselves what it says but what it means.”

We cannot see back stage. All we see is the presentation of an issue or topic by someone who's as human as we are. While certainty remains an impossibility, we have our imagination, curiosity, and the ability to create new things we can rely on.


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