“If you’re too busy to write your normal blog posts, at least tell us what books you’ve liked reading recently.”
That’s a request I’ve heard in several forms over the last month or so, as I’ve been travelling widely on work-related assignments. On these travels, I’ve met several people who were kind enough to mention that they enjoyed reading my blog posts – especially those postings recommending books to read.
In response to this suggestion, let me highlight four excellent books that I’ve read recently, which have each struck me as having something profound to say on the Big Topic of how to make major life choices.
Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, by Tim Harford
Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure draws out all sorts of surprising “aha!” connections between different areas of life, work, and society. The analysis ranges across the wars in Iraq, the comparative strengths and weaknesses of Soviet-style centrally planned economies, the unorthodox way the development of the Spitfire fighter airplane was funded, the “Innovator’s Dilemma” whereby one-time successful companies are often blindsided by emerging new technologies, different approaches to measuring the effectiveness of charitable aid donations, the risk of inadvertently encouraging perverse behaviours when setting grand over-riding incentives, the over-bearing complexity of modern technology, the causes of the great financial crash of 2008-2009, reasons why safety systems break down, approaches to tackling climate change, and the judicious use of prizes to encourage successful breakthrough innovation. Yes, this is a real intellectual roller-coaster, with some unexpected twists along the way – revelations that had me mouthing “wow, wow” under my breath.
And as well as heroes, there are villains. (Donald Rumsfeld comes out particularly badly in these pages – even though he’s clearly in some ways a very bright person. That’s an awful warning to the others among us who rejoice in above-average IQs.)
The author, Tim Harford, is an economist, but this book is grounded in observations about Darwinian evolution. Three pieces of advice pervade the analysis – advice that Harford dubs “Palchinsky Principles”, in honour of Peter Palchinsky, a Russian mining engineer who was incarcerated and executed by Stalin’s government in 1929 after many years of dissent against the human cost of the Soviet top-down command and control approach to industrialisation. These principles are designed to encourage stronger innovation, better leadership, and more effective policies, in the face of complexity and unknowns. The principles can be summarised as follows:
- Variation – seek out new ideas and try new ideas
- Survivability – when trying something new, do it on a scale where failure is survivable
- Selection – seek out feedback and learn from mistakes as you go along, avoiding an instinctive reaction of denial.
Harford illustrates these principles again and again, in the context of the weighty topics already listed, including major personal life choices as well as choices for national economies and international relations. The illustrations are full of eye-openers. The book’s subtitle is a succinct summary: “success always stars with failure”. The notion that it’s always possible to “get it right the first time” is a profound obstacle to surviving the major crises that lie ahead of us. We all need a greater degree of openness to smart experimentation and unexpected feedback.
The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, by Sam Harris
That thought provides a strong link to the second book I wish to mention: The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. It’s written by Sam Harris, who I first came to respect when I devoured his barnstorming The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason a few years ago.
In some ways, the newer book is even more audacious. It considers how we might go about finding answers to big questions such as “how should I live?” and “what makes some ways of life more moral than others?” As some specific examples, how should we respond to:
- The Taliban’s insistence that the education of girls is an abomination?
- The stance by Jehovah’s Witnesses against blood transfusion?
- The prohibition by the Catholic Church of the use of condoms?
- The legalisation of same-sex relationships?
- The use of embryonic stem cells in the search for cures of diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s?
- A would-be Islamist suicide bomber who is convinced that his intended actions will propel him into a paradise of abundant mental well-being?
One response is that such questions are the province of religion. The correct answers are revealed via prophets and/or holy books. The answers are already clear, to those with the eye of faith. It is a divine being that tells us, directly or indirectly, the difference between good and evil. There’s no need for experimental investigations here.
A second response is that the main field to study these questions is that of philosophy. It is by reason, that we can determine the difference between good and evil.
But Sam Harris, instead, primarily advocates the use of the scientific method. Science enters the equation because it is increasingly able to identify:
- Neural correlates (or other physical or social underpinnings) of sentient well-being
- Cause-and-effect mechanisms whereby particular actions typically bring about particular changes in these neural correlates.
With the help of steadily improving scientific understanding, we can compare different actions based on their likely effects on sentient well-being. Actions which are likely to magnify sentient well-being are good, and those which are likely to diminish it are evil. It’s no defense of an action that it makes sense within an archaic, pre-scientific view of the world – a view in which misfortunes are often caused by witches’ spells, angry demons, or spiteful disembodied minds.
Here, “science” means more than the findings of any one branch of science, whether that is physics, biology, psychology, or sociology. Instead, it is the general disciplined outlook on life that seeks to determine objective facts and connections, and which is open to making hypotheses, gathering data in support of these hypotheses, and refining hypotheses in the light of experimental findings. As science finds out more about the causes of human well-being in a wide variety of circumstances, we can speak with greater confidence about matters which, formerly, caused people to defer to either religion or philosophy.
Unsurprisingly, the book has stirred up a raucous hornet’s nest of criticism. Harris addresses most of these criticisms inside the book itself (which suggests that many reviewers were failing to pay attention) and picks up the discussion again on his blog. He summarises his view as follows:
Morality and values depend on the existence of conscious minds—and specifically on the fact that such minds can experience various forms of well-being and suffering in this universe. Conscious minds and their states are natural phenomena… fully constrained by the laws of Nature (whatever these turn out to be in the end). Therefore, there must be right and wrong answers to questions of morality and values that potentially fall within the purview of science. On this view, some people and cultures will be right (to a greater or lesser degree), and some will be wrong, with respect to what they deem important in life.
As Harris makes clear, this is far from being an abstract, other-worldly discussion. Cultures are clashing all the time, with lots of dramatic consequences for human well-being. Seeing these clashes, are we to be moral relativists (saying “different cultures are best for different peoples, and there’s no way to objectively compare them”) or are we to be moral realists (saying “some cultures promote significantly more human flourishing than others, and are to be objectively preferred as a result”)? And if we are to be moral realists, do we resolve our moral arguments by deference to religious tradition, or by open-minded investigation of real-world connections (investigations such as those proposed, indeed, by Tim Harford in “Adapt”)? In the light of these questions, here are some arguments that deserve thought:
- There’s a useful comparison between the science of human values (the project espoused by Harris), and a science of diets (what we should eat, in order to enjoy good health). In both cases, we’re currently far from having all the facts. And in both cases, there are frequently several right answers. But not all diets are equally good. Similarly, not all cultures are equally good. And what makes one diet better than another will be determined by facts about the physical world – such as the likely effects (direct and indirect) of different kinds of fats and proteins and sugars and vitamins on our bodies and minds. While people still legitimately disagree about diets, that’s not a reason to say that science can never answer such questions. Likewise, present-day disagreements about specific causes of happiness, mental flourishing, and general sentient well-being, do not mean these causes fail to exist, or that we can never know them.
- Likewise with the science of economics. We’re still far from having a complete understanding of how different monetary and financial policies impact the long-term health of the economy. But that doesn’t mean we should throw up our hands and stop searching for insight about likely cause and effect. The discipline of economics, imperfect though it is, survives in an as-yet-incomplete state. The same goes for political science too. And, likewise, for the science of the moral landscape.
- Attempts to reserve some special area of “moral insight” for religion are indefensible. As Harris says, “How is it that most Jews, Christians, and Muslims are opposed to slavery? You don’t get this moral insight from scripture, because the God of Abraham expects us to keep slaves. Consequently, even religious fundamentalists draw many of their moral positions from a wider conversation about human values that is not, in principle, religious.” (I especially recommend Harris’s excoriating demolition of surprisingly spurious arguments given by Francis Collins in his surprisingly widely respected book “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief“.)
Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation, by Daniel Siegel
The next book on my list serves as a vivid practical illustration of the kind of scientifically-informed insight that Harris talks about – new insight about connections between the brain and mental well-being. Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation contains numerous case histories of people who:
- Started off lacking one or more elements of mental well-being
- Became a patient of the author, Dr Daniel Siegel – a Harvard-trained physician
- Followed one or other program of mindfulness – awareness and monitoring of the patterns of energy and information flowing in the brain
- Became more integrated and fulfilled as a result.
To quote from the book’s website:
“Mindsight” [is] the potent skill that is the basis for both emotional and social intelligence. Mindsight allows you to make positive changes in your brain–and in your life.
- Is there a memory that torments you, or an irrational fear you can’t shake?
- Do you sometimes become unreasonably angry or upset and find it hard to calm down?
- Do you ever wonder why you can’t stop behaving the way you do, no matter how hard you try?
- Are you and your child (or parent, partner, or boss) locked in a seemingly inevitable pattern of conflict?
What if you could escape traps like these and live a fuller, richer, happier life? This isn’t mere speculation but the result of twenty-five years of careful hands-on clinical work by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D… one of the revolutionary global innovators in the integration of brain science into the practice of psychotherapy. Using case histories from his practice, he shows how, by following the proper steps, nearly everyone can learn how to focus their attention on the internal world of the mind in a way that will literally change the wiring and architecture of their brain.
Siegel is, of course, aware that drugs can often play a role in addressing mental issues. However, his preference in many cases is for patients to learn and practice various skills in mental introspection. His belief – which he backs up by reference to contemporary scientific findings – is that practices such as meditation can change the physical structure of brain in significant ways. (And there are times when it can relieve recurring back pain too, as in one case history covered.)
Siegel defines the mind as “an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information”. He goes on to say:
So how would you regulate the mind? By developing the ability to see mental activity with more clarity and then modify it with more effectiveness… there’s something about being able to see and influence your internal world that creates more health.
Out of the many books on psychotherapy that I’ve read over the years, this is one of the very best. The case studies are described in sufficient depth to make them absorbing. They’re varied, as well as unpredictable. The neuroscience in the book is no doubt simplified at times, but gels well with what I’ve picked up elsewhere. And the repeated emphasis on “integration” provides a powerful unifying theme:
[Integration is] a process by which separate elements are linked together into a working whole… For example, integration is at the heart of how we connect to one another in healthy ways, honoring one another’s differences while keeping our lines of communication wide open. Linking separate entities to one another—integration—is also important for releasing the creativity that emerges when the left and right sides of the brain are functioning together.
Integration enables us to be flexible and free; the lack of such connections promotes a life that is either rigid or chaotic, stuck and dull on the one hand or explosive and unpredictable on the other. With the connecting freedom of integration comes a sense of vitality and the ease of well-being. Without integration we can become imprisoned in behavioral ruts—anxiety and depression, greed, obsession, and addiction.
By acquiring mindsight skills, we can alter the way the mind functions and move our lives toward integration, away from these extremes of chaos or rigidity. With mindsight we are able to focus our mind in ways that literally integrate the brain and move it toward resilience and health.
The sections in the book on meditation are particularly interesting. As Siegel has become aware, the techniques he recommends have considerable alignment with venerable practices from various eastern traditions – such as the practice of “mindfulness“. However, the attraction of these techniques isn’t that they are venerable. It is that there’s a credible scientific explanation of why they work – an explanation that is bolstered by contemporary clinical experience.
Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters, by Richard Rumelt
From a great book on psychotherapy, let me finish by turning to a great book on strategy – perhaps the best book on strategy that I’ve ever read: Good Strategy Bad Strategy: The Difference and Why It Matters. The author, Richard Rumelt, Professor of Business and Society at UCLA Anderson School of Management, is a veteran analyst of strategy, who gained his first degree as long ago as 1963 (in Electrical Engineering from the University of California, Berkeley). He speaks with an accumulated lifetime of wisdom, having observed countless incidents of both “bad strategy” and “good strategy” over five decades of active participation in industry.
“Strategy” is the word which companies often use, when justifying their longer term actions. They do various things, they say, in pursuit of their strategic objectives. Here, “strategy” goes beyond “business case”. Strategy is a reason for choosing between different possible business cases – and can provide reasons for undertaking projects even in the absence of a strong business case. By the way, it’s not just companies that talk about strategy. Countries can have them too, as well as departments within governments. And the same applies to individuals: someone’s personal strategy can be an explicit reason for them choosing between different possible alternative courses of action.
It’s therefore a far from ideal situation that much of what people think of as a strategy is instead, in Rumelt’s words, “fluff” or “wishful thinking”:
It’s easy to tell a bad [strategy] from a good one. A bad one is full of fluff: fancy language covering up the lack of content. Enron’s so-called strategy was littered with meaningless buzzwords explaining its aim to evolve to a state of “sophisticated value extraction”. But in reality its chief strategies could be summed up as having an electronic trading platform, being an over-the-counter broker and acting as an information provider. These are not strategies, they are just names, like butcher, baker and candlestick maker…
Bad strategy is long on goals and short on policy or action. It assumes that goals are all you need. It puts forward strategic objectives that are incoherent and, sometimes, totally impractical. It uses high-sounding words and phrases to hide these failings…
The core of [good] strategy work is always the same: discovering the critical factors in a situation and designing a way of coordinating and focusing actions to deal with those factors…
Bad strategy tends to skip over pesky details such as problems. It ignores the power of choice and focus, trying instead of accommodate a multitude of conflicting demands and interests. Like a quarterback whose only advice to teammates is “Let’s win”, bad strategy covers up its failure to guide by embracing the language of broad goals, ambition, vision, and values. Each of these elements is, of course, an important part of human life. But, by themselves, they are not substitutes for the hard work of strategy…
If you fail to identify and analyse the obstacles, you don’t have a strategy. Instead, you have either a stretch goal, a budget, or a list of things you wish would happen.
The mention of a specific company above – Enron – is an example of a striking pattern Rumelt follows throughout his book: he names guilty parties. Other “guilty parties” identified in the midst of fascinating narratives include CEOs of Lehman Brothers, International Harvester, Ford Motor Company, DEC, Telecom Italia, and metal box manufacturer Crown Cork & Seal.
Individuals that are highlighted, in contrast, as examples of good strategy include titans from military history – General Norman Schwarzkopf, Admiral Nelson, Hannibal, and Hebrew shepherd boy David (in his confrontation with Goliath) – as well as industry figures such as Sam Walton, Steve Jobs, Intel’s Andy Grove, IBM’s Lou Gerstner, and a range of senior managers at Cisco. The tales recounted are in many ways already well known, but in each case Rumelt draws out surprising insight. (Rumelt’s extended account of Hannibal’s victory over the Roman army at Cannae in 216 BC indicates many unexpected implications.)
Why do so many companies, government departments, and individuals have “bad strategy”? Rumelt identifies four underlying reasons:
- A psychological unwillingness or inability to make choices (this can be linked with an organisation being too decentralised)
- A growing tide of “template style” strategic planning, which gives too much attention to vision, mission, and values, rather than to hard analysis of a company’s situation
- An over-emphasis on charismatic qualities in leaders
- The superficially appealing “positive thinking” movement.
Rumelt’s treatment of “positive thinking” is particularly illuminating – especially for a reader like me who harbours many sympathies for the idea that it’s important to maintain a positive, upbeat attitude. Rumelt traces the evolution of this idea over more than a century:
This fascination with positive thinking, and its deep connection to inspirational and spiritual thought, was invented around 150 years ago in New England as a mutation of Protestant Christian individualism…
The amazing thing about [the ideology of positive thinking] is that it is always presented as if it were new! And no matter how many times the same ideas are repeated, they are received by many listeners with fresh nods of affirmation. These ritual recitations obviously tap into a deep human capacity to believe that intensely focused desire is magically rewarded…
I do not know whether meditation and other inward journeys perfect the human soul. But I do know that believing … that by thinking only of success you can become a success, is a form of psychosis and cannot be recommended as an approach to management or strategy. All [good] analysis starts with the consideration of what might happen, including unwelcome events. I would not care to fly in an aircraft designed by people who focused only on an image of a flying machine and never considered modes of failure…
The doctrine that one can impose one’s visions and desires on the world by thought alone retains a powerful appeal to many people. Its acceptance displaces critical thinking and good strategy.
As well as pointing out flaws in bad strategy, Rumelt provides wide-ranging clear advice on what good strategy contains:
A good strategy works by harnessing power and applying it where it will have the greatest effect. In the short term, this may mean attacking a problem or rival with adroit combinations of policy, actions, and resources. In the longer term, it may involve cleverly using policies or resource commitments to develop capabilities that will be of value in future contests. In either case, a “good strategy” is an approach that magnifies the effectiveness of actions by finding and using sources of power…
Strategic leverage arises from a mixture of anticipation, insight into what is most pivotal or critical in a situation, and making a concentrated application of effort…
A much more effective way to compete is the discovery of hidden power in the situation.
Later chapters amplify these ideas by providing many illuminating suggestions for how to build an effective strategy. Topics covered include proximate objectives, chain-link systems, design, focus (“pivot points”), competitive advantage, anticipation and exploitation of industry trends (“dynamics”), and inertia and entropy. Here are just a few illustrative snippets from these later chapters:
In building sustained strategic advantage, talented leaders seek to create constellations of activities that are chain-linked. This adds extra effectiveness to the strategy and makes competitive imitation difficult…
Many effective strategies are more designs than decisions – are more constructed than chosen..
When faced with a corporate success story, many people ask, “How much of the success was skill and how much was luck?” The saga of Cisco Systems vividly illustrates that the mix of forces is richer than just skill and luck. Absent the powerful waves of change sweeping through computing and telecommunications, Cisco would have remained a small niche player. Cisco’s managers and technologists were very skillful at identifying and exploiting these waves of change…
An organisation’s greatest challenge may not be external threats or opportunities, but instead the effects of entropy and inertia. In such a situation, organisational renewal becomes a priority. Transforming a complex organisation is an intensely strategic challenge. Leaders must diagnose the causes and effects of entropy and inertia, create a sensible guiding policy for effecting change, and design a set of coherent actions designed to alter routines, culture, and the structure of power and influence.
You can read more on the book’s website.
The book is addressed to people working within organisations, with responsibility for strategy in these organisations. However, most of the advice is highly valid for individuals too. Are the big personal goals we set ourselves merely “wishful thinking”, or are they grounded in a real analysis of our own personal situation? Do they properly take account of our personal trends, inertia, entropy, and sources of competitive power?