Three of the Best Books on Being Human

On being human

“Well that's, like, just your opinion, man!” as the The Big Lebowski would say. We see the world from our point of view. It's the human condition. We all like to believe that our view of the world is the right one.

Being human is complicated, but all other species are taken. So we might as well do the best with what we've got.


Three books to connect some dots

We're all so different. Yet, in many ways, we respond to similar stimuli. Our aspirations range from the most base to the sublime. We're human. The oldest idea that still fascinates us is what sets people apart from other species… and from each other.

Here's a selection of the best readings for some clues.


Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett

Thesis: what does your brain do?

Lisa Feldman Barrett, Ph.D. is among the top 1% most cited scientists in the world for her revolutionary research in psychology and neuroscience.

A few parts with potential to connect what we already know with new insights.

“Sometimes we're responsible for things not because they're our fault, but because we're the only ones who can change them.”

“You can challenge the beliefs that you were swaddled in as a child. You can change your own niche. Your actions today become your brain’s predictions for tomorrow, and those predictions automatically drive your future actions. Therefore, you have some freedom to hone your predictions in new directions, and you have some responsibility for the results.”

“when you try, really try, to embody someone else’s point of view, you can change your future predictions about the people who hold those different views.”

When you train with a coach, you pick up small adjustments that make a big difference to results. Awareness works the same way for the brain. It works even better for what you do, which is the subject of next selection.


Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky

Thesis: Why do we do the things we do?

Though it comes with the replication caveat for some studies, this book distills more than ten years of research. Robert M. Sapolsky is a professor of biology and neurology at Stanford University and the recipient of a MacArthur Foundation genius grant.

Choice reminder.

“You don’t have to choose between being scientific and being compassionate.”

A special mention to culture. Because it drives so many of our habits.

“Why should people in one part of the globe have developed collectivist cultures, while others went individualist? The United States is the individualism poster child for at least two reasons.

First there's immigration. Currently, 12 percent of Americans are immigrants, another 12 percent are children of immigrants, and everyone else except for the 0.9 percent pure Native Americans descend from people who emigrated within the last five hundred years. And who were the immigrants? Those in the settled world who were cranks, malcontents, restless, heretical, black sheep, hyperactive, hypomanic, misanthropic, itchy, unconventional, yearning to be rich, yearning to be out of their damn boring repressive little hamlet, yearning.

Couple that with the second reason – for the majority of its colonial and independent history, America has had a moving frontier luring those whose extreme prickly optimism made merely booking passage to the New World insufficiently novel – and you've got America the individualistic.

Why has East Asia provided textbook examples of collectivism? The key is how culture is shaped by the way people traditionally made a living, which in turn is shaped by ecology. And in East Asia it's all about rice. Rice, which was domesticated there roughly ten thousand years ago, requires massive amounts of communal work. Not just backbreaking planting and harvesting, which are done in rotation because the entire village is needed to harvest each family's rice.

The United States was not without labor-intensive agriculture historically. But rather than solving that with collectivism, it solved it with slavery.”

What we have in common.

“if you’re stressed like a normal mammal in an acute physical crisis, the stress response is lifesaving. But if instead you chronically activate the stress response for reasons of psychological stress, your health suffers.”

“Words have power. They can save, cure, uplift, devastate, deflate, and kill. And unconscious priming with words influences pro- and antisocial behaviors.”

Is it genetic, is it environmental? Is a false dichotomy. We're the result of both: our ancestral DNA and the influences we absorb, especially where we grow up. We're imperfect, but we also have the ability to learn from our mistakes. When we take responsibility.

And that's all we can work for. Plus we can learn to see things from the point of view of others with different stories and wiring.


Think Like a Rocket Scientist: Simple Strategies You Can Use to Make Giant Leaps in Work and Life by Ozan Varol

Thesis: What would your habits, ideas, and strategies be if you were a rocket scientist?

Ozan Varol is a rocket scientist and an award-winning law professor. An interesting career trajectory.

A couple of short excerpts to get a taste of what it looks like.

“To think like a rocket scientist is to look at the world through a different lens. Rocket scientists imagine the unimaginable and solve the unsolvable. They transform failures into triumphs and constraints into advantages. They view mishaps as solvable puzzles rather than insurmountable roadblocks. They’re moved not by blind conviction but by self-doubt; their goal is not short-term results but long-term breakthroughs. They know that the rules aren’t set in stone, the default can be altered, and a new path can be forged.”

“Our ability to make the most out of uncertainty is what creates the most potential value. We should be fueled not by a desire for a quick catharsis but by intrigue. Where certainty ends, progress begins.”

Viewing mishaps as solvable puzzles is supremely useful. The unimaginable is also the job of an entire class of people who deal with complexity. For example, astronauts know that conventional wisdom can get in the way of achievement.

Things can get pretty dicey for humanity. Running fast saved our ancestors. A healthy dose of humor may save us. If you have a sense of humor when things are bad, you can bear the struggle.

As Mel Brooks says, “Comedy is a weird thing. Even though it seems foolish and silly and crazy, comedy has the most to say about the human condition because, if you laugh, you can get by somehow.” 

The stories we tell are filled with clues about who we think we are, our aspirations, but also how our brain works. This is why reading is so powerful. Culture, distilled.