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Egonomics by David Marcum and Steven Smith

16 May

Written in an accessible and conversational style, this book is an easy read. Marcum and Smith decided to study ego, within the context of business, setting out with the idea that the ego was “negative and needed cold-blooded elimination”.

Once they started studying it (and I suspect clarified their definition), they found it can also be very helpful, hence the subtitle of the book “What makes ego our greatest asset (or most expensive liability)”.

While the book is written with a business focus, it’s blatantly applicable to life in general, and the business context simply gives a nice set of examples through which to understand the concepts they’re teaching.

The most interesting idea from the book is that our greatest strengths can be turned against us when our “ego isn’t balanced”. Some examples:

–         assertive becomes pushy

–         charismatic becomes manipulative

–         discerning becomes judgemental

–         pragmatic becomes uninspired

–         determined becomes stubborn

–         innovative becomes impractical

This is a double whammy as our weaknesses can feel almost the same as our strengths, so it can be a dangerous blind spot. This is where having trusted people around you is important – we are great at spotting the faults in the reasoning in others, but not in ourselves.

Marcum & Smith give some nice systems to aid awareness of these issues. When ego is working against us it is likely that we are:

1)      being comparative

2)      being defensive

3)      showcasing brilliance

4)      seeking acceptance

Being comparative means we become less competitive, as we give up our own potential to the goal of only being better than the person with whom we are competing.

Being defensive is when we start to defend ourselves rather than an idea. If we separate ourselves from our ideas then we can let the best argument win.

Showcasing brilliance means that we want people to recognise our expertise. The irony is that while we’re showcasing, people will tend to ignore the good points that we are making, however brilliant they may be.

Seeking acceptance is when we need others to validate who we are. It’s important to be aware of what other people think, but that must not keep us from being our true selves.

To counter these they give “three principles of egonomics:

1)      humility

2)      curiosity

3)      veracity

In the second half of the book they expand on these principles to give practical advice on how to put them in action.

They make the excellent point that intensity should not be confused with aggression, and humility should not be confused with meekness. They define intensity as the ability to argue a position with passion and strength, and humility as the ability to question everything. Both of these qualities are needed to come to the best conclusions. Otherwise you either have confrontational clashes without conclusions, or courteous but meaningless exchanges. They argue (strongly!) that vigorous debate is extremely productive if there is humility alongside it. People need to understand that it is ideas that are being questioned, not their identities. I think this distinction is very, very important.

Regarding curiosity, it’s easy to go with the first solution that presents itself, especially if that solution is your own. The ability to take other solutions on board and weigh them equally is key. So the authors give 4 questions to aid curiosity, a mini-version of Socratic questioning:

1)      What do we mean?

2)      What are we seeing?

3)      What are we assuming?

4)      What does that lead to?

The final area is veracity. They define veracity as an active searching for truth. People often avoid this as “the reaction to hard-to-hear truth when revealed isn’t usually favourable. As a result of the typical reaction to candour, most people believe truth telling is risky… A major barrier to hearing truth is our belief that dissent is disloyalty. If we view dissent as disloyalty, we’ve closed our mind. More often than not, there’s positive intent behind a negative comment.” Both those speaking truth, and those hearing it, have equal responsibility towards humility.

To counter these issues, before speaking up they suggest you:

1)      establish permission

2)      make your intentions clear

3)      be candid.

To be able to understand these lessons, and apply them to myself, I found it practical to digest this book in small chunks over time. I read a few chapters every week or so, then observed myself and others, looking at ways to improve.

Usually we are our own worst enemies, so it’s worth a read if you find yourself slowing down your own progress.


The Political Animal by Jeremy Paxman

10 Feb

Power doesn’t change you. It reveals who you really are.

Jeremy Paxman‘s book is a perspicacious insight into the way politicians and politics work in the UK.

I enjoyed his book about the English people and this book is bigger and better: more in-depth and better researched.

Before I go any further I have to shout at anyone who says ‘ah, politics, boring, nothing to do with me‘. Rubbish. Politics is about how we interact; it’s about the rules by which we operate with each other and how the government looks after us.

He looks at the kind of people that get into politics, and how this has changed over time: from families that have always supplied MPs, to the modern breed of career politicians. I definitely agree with his view that more experts in their field are needed in parliament.

He describes the varying motivations of politicians, and looks at how they have such an oddly disparate set of roles: from constituency support worker to legislator to party poodle.

Paxman gives Simon Hughes a lot of credit for his constituency work – one of the few stars among the cast. Hughes is someone who works very hard to ensure people with no one else to turn to are given help.

He looks at the amazingly unrepresentative way possible MPs are selected, then once they get in what they have to deal with: the ludicrous pomp, the allegiance to the monarchy, even the impracticality of the houses of parliament.

He looks at the influence political parties have – I’ve never liked them anyway – and the way individual views are steam rollered into submission by the whips, sometimes by physical violence, often by bribery. This is something that gets me very annoyed. In my uneducated view, the party system nullifies an MP’s ability to represent the views of their constituents, and means they can’t act on principle.

He looks at the price of fame, and how the path to power can sadly take away a person’s idealism. For example, a person will start off with a set of ideals by which they think the country must be run, for the betterment of the people. However to get into a real position of power, they must toe the party line and do as they’re told to get the promotions and even to get a better office at Westminster. The end result is that “the game becomes more important than the reasons for which they started playing”.

He discusses the immense difficulty of life after politics; it’s not an easy transition, contrary to the way it seems from the handful of stories we read about how the top politicians schmooze with big industry.

A lonely looking plus point is that (even taking into account Archer, Hamilton, et al) ours is one of the least corrupt governments in the world.

He calls for action when he says: “a society which loses faith in the way it governs itself is in danger of falling apart”.

I’m fairly cynical about politics, and have often been frustrated by the many faults of our democracy. Reading this book has made my view even worse by an order of magnitude! However, he does briefly offer up some ideas for improvement:

  • remove the anachronistic ritual and traditions
  • change the shape of the commons so it’s less adversarial
  • use it better so there is real debate
  • change the people in there
  • and give select committees real power.

If you want to understand how the UK government works, read this book. It’s well written, very informative and well researched, informed by years of being one of the most recognised reporters in the country.

Politics And The English Language by George Orwell

22 Jan
Note to readers - hover mouse over links for word definitions.

Political language… is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

– George Orwell

As one partial to a spot of sesquipedalianism, Orwell’s essay is a particularly poignant piece of prose.

I do get big fat chufties from using fancy sounding long words, but of course logorrheic loveliness adds gravitas groundlessly.

Some delightful consonantal alliteration there, don’t you think?

As there are a million wonderfully diverse words available to the English speaker, it is great to be able to choose a word, however unknown, if it really pins down the quiddity of a concept. But if your audience does not know of that delightfully descriptive term, then what use is it?

I remember learning this showy phrase at a young age:

A slight inclination of the cranium is as inadequate as a spasmodic movement of one optic to an equine quadruped utterly devoid of any visual capacity“.

Translation: a nod is as good as a wink to a blind horse.

As the first one sounds so well spoken, it’s easy to think ‘oo, that sounds like someone clever wrote it, therefore it must be true‘, but the presentation of a message is not necessarily an indicator of its truthfulness, a kind of argument from authority.

A good example is in the previous sentence: I wanted to say ‘veracity‘, but ‘truthfulness‘ is a word that is more easily understood – given it’s used more often – so will be more likely to help you understand the point I’m making. On the other hand, the Latin etymology of the erudite alternative does make it sound more authoritative. There are studies that prove if something is written simply, and even if the font is easier to read, then the reader is more likely to accept the points made – it’s a cognitive bias called cognitive ease.

Anyway, enough waffle. To the essay at hand. In it Orwell describes how to write terse, clear English, which clearly communicates with the reader. He decries the use of obfuscatory language, saying we should use simple concrete language, only adding more words if they add more meaning.

We should use fresh metaphors that evoke a strong image in the mind of a reader, rather than one dulled by overuse – ‘carrot and stick  is a good example.

When a metaphor is new it has a great effect as it brings a sharp image to the mind of the listener, adding weight to the case. However, once one is accustomed to the turn of phrase, it simply becomes an abstract grouping of words with a meaning attached, and loses its visual power. Interestingly many linguists argue that most if not all words were birthed in a metaphor, so its power may have increased in other ways: once it is in common use, it has a well defined meaning and can convey that meaning more efficiently.

C. S. Lewis said: “Don’t use words too big for the subject. Don’t say infinitely when you mean very; otherwise you’ll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.” Orwell says we should use ‘use’ instead of ‘utilise’, ‘method’ rather than ‘methodology’… the list is literally endless. Sorry about that one – I had to squeeze in that pet hate. Using literally as an intensifier, or in place of its antonym figuratively, is egregious.

He opposes the use of unnecessary words. The pretentious “In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that” should be replaced with “I think“. It may make the presentation appear more grandiose, but it adds no meaning. We all know that when a politician answers a question, they do go on and on with their formulaic phrases; hearing them answer a question with a simple ‘yes‘ or ‘no‘ is quite jarring, yet I see it as refreshingly clear and honest.

Whilst discussing such things it behoves me to point out that ‘while‘ is a perfectly serviceable word. Why do people insist on using its anachronistic predecessor? Dost thou think thine utterances carry increased weight? No, they just sound asinine.

I will say that while I like well written English, I do object to a slavish following of the rules. Old Churchill puts it well: “From now on, ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I will not put”. Orwell says “correct grammar and syntax…are of no importance so long as one makes one’s meaning clear“.

Orwell says: “Look back through this essay, and for certain you will find that I have again and again committed the very faults I am protesting against“. Ahem. I ain’t sayin’ nothin’.

Orwell ends his essay with six rules for writing good English, which are nicely summed up in this comment: “Probably it is better to put off using words as long as possible and get one’s meaning as clear as one can through pictures and sensations. Afterward one can choose — not simply accept — the phrases that will best cover the meaning, and then switch round and decide what impressions one’s words are likely to make on another person.

How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

28 Dec

After following Jonah’s very readable blog for a while I decided I had to read his book. His blog introduced the latest neuroscience and psychological research in a very clear and digestible form.

That Lehrer has been embroiled in controversy for recycling his own work, and using unreferenced quotes from others is well known, however that of course does not detract from the message of his book in any way.

It’s an easy read, that is not too in depth and covers a lot of ideas about how the mind works that I’ve read before. While it’s not as incisive and informative as his blog, it is still useful, and reinforced ideas in a practical way.

He starts by describing how we use intuition (the examples of a quarterback & chess were used). Calculating faster than a computer, we are able to subconsciously make a good decision, if we have trained ourselves enough. We’ll “feel” that something is right without knowing why, or even needing to know.

However it’s important to know when we can use this intuition: if it’s an area you know well, where you have experience, then let the intuition lead. However if the decision is in a area in which you have had little practice, then don’t rely on your subconscious – think it through consciously.

Our subconscious training can be tripped up. Choking is well known, especially in sports, for example golf. If someone who is expert in an area consciously tries to figure out the technicality of what they’re doing, say understanding the position of their shoulder or the angle of their elbow, then they can easily lose the ability to fluidly use their body. Rather they must think in more general terms, such as a smooth golf swing.

There’s another way we can decide whether it’s best to use our intuition or our conscious mind to figure something out: if some problem has about 5 variables then we should use our conscious mind (the frontal cortex), however if there are a lot more variables, we should soak them all in, focus on something completely unrelated for a few minutes, then come back and make a decision – in that case the subconscious is good at sorting through the key facts.

He points out that the brain is an advanced pattern matching machine. This is very powerful when we want to figure out how things work, or make quick decisions, but it can lead to problems – recognising a face in clouds is a simple example. Also superstitions, seeing ghosts, etc. are faults with the system.

He talks about how morals are subconscious and are justified post-hoc, and are often not often logical.

He covers what Pinker would call the functional mind, i.e. that different bits of the brain will argue with each other, and once they’ve made a decision, present the result to the conscious part of the brain. He advises becoming aware of the argument, and embracing uncertainty until a good decision is found.

To be honest, having read a lot of stuff in this subject area I found this a really basic book, but if you are new to reading about neuroscience and how the mind works, it’s an easy-to-read introduction that you could get through in a few quick hours.

The best conclusion from this book is that we can understand how we work, use our inbuilt skills when they are appropriate, and train ourselves to make better decisions.

Feel the Fear . . . and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers

17 Sep

There are no big or small tasks. All are equally important.
– Shinzaemon Shimada – 13 assassins

I don’t remember how I came to read this book, but there’s something very enticing about that title.

Fear is something I’ve pondered before. There are different ways of viewing fear, or perhaps one could say there are different categories of fear. While there are many damaging and limiting fears that people can hold, I generally view fear as a useful tool to make me aware of either danger or my limits. To put it another way, it lets me know when I’m crossing the line I call my edge.

For example, with rock climbing, I started with very narrow limits, and a fear of putting my trust in the rope, but as I’ve learned to trust the rope and the person holding it, I’ve gone from tentatively putting my body weight on the rope to fearlessly throwing myself off the climbing wall, knowing that I’d be caught. At first I had a healthy fear of letting go of the holds as I perceived a chance of falling and hitting the ground, but as I learned the necessary trust, and I pushed through the fear, it subsided, and I was able to do more.

Similarly, when tree climbing without the safety of a rope, I was at first tentative, again being limited by safety fears, but as my climbing abilities increased, the fear receded, and my edge was pushed further away so I could make more apparently dangerous moves, opening up more possibilities for me.

And so it goes with the main principle in this book.

Jeffers talks of fear that stops us doing what we want, that keeps us from moving forward, or away from unhealthy relationships or jobs. She says that you will always feel fear, and if you’re not feeling fear it means you’re not growing as a person. She adds that the fear of trying new things and challenging yourself is smaller than the fear of being stuck and motionless.

She suggests some ways of dealing with this fear, such as understanding that whatever happens “I can handle it”, or realising that every choice will have a positive outcome, regardless of whether your initial goal is achieved. She justifies this by saying you’ll always learn from the choice, and the outcome you had envisaged may not happen, or even be desirable, as over time events will occur that make the outcome unlikely, and that will change your motives so that your end goal may change.

She describes how to have a balanced or “whole” life. By this she means we shouldn’t build our life around just one relationship or just our job. You become dependent on that thing / person and if it goes then it’s pretty hard to recover. So she discusses a balance between work, family, friends, hobbies, alone time, leisure, etc. She also valuably describes putting in 100% to each of these and, in each area, understanding that you are valuable, to “act as if you really count”.

Jeffers moves on to talking about giving from a place of love and trust, so not giving with an expectation of receiving something of equal value back. If you’re always expecting something back you’ll be disappointed and fearful. If you give with no expectation of receiving then in fact you’ll receive “so much richness back in return” anyway. She defines giving as giving thanks, information, praise, money and time.

She gets a bit weird in the penultimate chapter talking about getting with the vibe of the universe, but what she’s saying makes sense, and I guess she just hasn’t figured that bit out properly so resorts to a more ‘magical’ description as too many people do. She talks of saying “yes to your universe”, i.e. accepting what is. This is a key theme in just about any book of this kind, and is a prerequisite to enacting change.

She covered her bases well: when I had a question or an objection to what Jeffers was saying, she’d usually cover my issue in the following paragraph.

Yes, it’s essentially one of many American self-help books, however that’s no reason to be put off, because it’s a very practical book to help you live a more fulfilled, happy, positive and enriching life. Can’t complain about that. I’ve put in to practice what I’ve read to my benefit, and I’ve bought it for several friends one of which told me that it’s one of the best they’ve read.

Essays in Love by Alain De Botton

2 Aug

Essays In LoveAnother good read from the practical philosopher Alain de Botton.

I would have called this An Anatomy of Love.

It’s a story of love with a gently philosophical explanation of the stages of a relationship.

If you’re going to read this book don’t read the next paragraph – from my perspective it’s better to read it without knowing what’s coming, to enjoy the story for what it is with no expectations.

It is essentially a story of love, from start to end. I empathised with most of the facets of his love story: the irrationality and idealism with which the loved one is initially perceived, despite the randomness of the meeting; what beauty is; what you think of during sex; the dropping of boundaries so that each person takes on the personality traits of the other; the pain of heartbreak.

And the ending is just perfect.

In some ways I would hesitate to recommend this to someone in a relationship. I suspect it is more suited to someone who has recently broken up. It may not offer answers, but the knowledge that others have experienced the same as you is helpful.

(And if it doesn’t work, then Mr Minchen’s fine tune will undoubtedly put things into perspective!)

That said, people in a relationship often make assumptions based on their parental influences, and put hope in feelings, but don’t understand the work required to keep it healthy, so this book can be seen as a helpful way to understand the different aspects of a lover’s relationship – both the good and the bad.

So I didn’t find it revelatory, but it’s a an enjoyable and easy read.

I’ve read a few of Alain de Botton’s books and you can see other reviews here.

The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain De Botton

23 Jul

Alain de Botton

Alain De Botton is a great chap who makes philosophy accessible, and relevant to everyday life. He not only does this with his books and lectures, but also through his School of Life which “runs courses in the important questions of everyday life” about “things we all tend to care about: careers, relationships, politics, travels, families“.

This book is a fun read, and surprisingly quite a page turner. It’s not a profound philosophical treatise or psychological exposition, rather an almost whimsical insight into different careers.

Alain describes a group of people in different types of work, from boring office work, through aviation and entrepreneurship, to a chap that designs electricity pylons. And that last one was fascinating: did you know that 2/3 of the London power supply comes from one nuclear station on the coast, along a 175km line of cable, which is made up of 69 aluminium strands, configured in the so-called cowslip formation?

cowslip formationWhat Alain perfectly described was the joy of someone who genuinely loved his work. This guy even went on holidays trekking along the routes of major power lines. A geek in the best sense of the word.

At first it seems as if he’s just describing different kinds of jobs. And he is. But there are plenty of gems in there if you look for them. The painter was a fascinating case – a dude that painted a tree. The same tree. Again and again for years. “Have you ever noticed water? Properly noticed it, I mean – as if you had never seen it before?

Or the career counsellor: “It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.

Alain is so good at writing he’s able to bring these different jobs to life. Which is the point really. It doesn’t matter what you do – doing something that is ‘you’ to the best of your ability, and loving it is what’s important. It’s about living. Pointless though it may seem in the grander scheme of things, it does matter from your perspective. So embrace it.

Here is a sample of just how good his writing is:

The man was evidently disinclined by nature to pay extravagant compliments, for when he finally spoke, it was to say ‘Fuck off‘ again with a resolve which his previous riposte had perhaps lacked – to which sentiment he then added, lest there remain any ambiguity, ‘Get the hell out of here before I shoot you in the ass.'”

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