Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

A Review of Three Books

Below is an excerpt from an article at The Financial Times, reviewing three books on improving the way we think and our outlook of the world around us. They are all on my wish list. The original post may be read here.

March 7, 2014 6:12 pm

Seeing What Others Don’t: The Remarkable Ways We Gain Insights, by Gary Klein, Nicholas Brealey, RRP£12.99/PublicAffairs, RRP $27.95, 304 pages
Mindwise: How We Understand What Others Think, Believe, Feel and Want, by Nicholas Epley, Allen Lane, RRP£16.99/Knopf, RRP$26.95, 272 pages
Trying Not To Try: The Ancient Art of Effortlessness and the Surprising Power of Spontaneity, by Edward Slingerland, Canongate, RRP£16.99/Crown, RRP$26, 368 pages

A year or so ago, browsing in a bookshop, I came across a shelf dedicated to “Smart thinking”. I had never seen this term used to describe a category of books before yet I instantly knew what it meant. Its elevation to official bookseller’s category is confirmed by the appearance of “Psychology/Smart Thinking” on the back jacket of Gary Klein’s new book, Seeing What Others Don’t, and by Penguin’s launch of its “Think Smarter” e-newsletter.

A crude but generally accurate definition of what makes a smart thinking book is anything you could easily imagine being the subject of a TED talk. The recipe is to find a leading expert and get him (alas, still more often than her) to write about an idea in his field that is interesting to a wider audience and which he believes – or at least claims – can help us change our lives for the better. It has been called intelligent self-help, but since most potential readers would not appreciate the implied association with the dumber varieties, “smart thinking” has a certain advantage.

At their best, these books have facilitated a rich flow of ideas from specialists and academics whose work until recently was little known to the lay readership. There is no better example of this than Daniel Kahneman’s phenomenally successful Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011), a book that distils a lifetime of research into one lucid volume.

Like all genres, however, smart thinking already has its own tired tropes that too many authors fall back on. Chapters open with intriguing anecdotes; jackets and introductions promise transformational revelations; authors weave in personal stories, with self-deprecating confessions of their own wrong turns and heartwarming memoirs of the hikes, spouses and little children that deeply moved them.

Sure enough, three new books heading straight for the smart thinking shelves all get off to shaky starts by following the standard template too closely. Psychologist Nicholas Epley delivers the usual oversell in the preface of Mindwise, when he promises to tell us “how to become wiser about the minds of others”, stating that his goal “is to improve your psychological vision”. Edward Slingerland, a professor of Asian Studies, also finds himself offering the obligatory assurance that by reading his Trying Not to Try “you will gain new insights that you can apply to your own life”. Klein, meanwhile, tries too hard to give Seeing What Others Don’t a narrative drive, resulting in some painful prose: “At times I felt like a bull charging forward at a swirling cape, hoping to make contact with a shadowy matador.” But first appearances can be deceptive and it turns out that all these authors have a lot to say, and mostly say it well.

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