The Imperfect Mind

Book Review of Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Thinking Fast and Slow is the best book I have read in 2018 so far. It might also be the only book I have held on for the longest. I first stared reading Thinking Fast and Slow in 2015 in my Amazon Kindle, soon to realize that I need a hardcopy to progress through this dense book on human rationality and irrationality.

The book is not just a theoretical piece on behavioral economics, but one full of exercises and thought experiments, which exposes the readers themselves to the flaws in their conventional thinking before the author attempts to explain those cognitive biases from a scientific perspective. And I believe that’s exactly what made the book an international best seller.

Being a student of cognitive science, I had already been formally introduced to most of the biases discussed in the book, through the psychology lectures I had attended. However, the book was a great refresher and has helped me to look at those biases through the lenses of a behavioral economist. I should admit that I have had a few ‘Aha’ moments as well. If you are a complete newbie to cognitive psychology or behavioral economics, I assure you, the book will present you with much more ‘Aha’ moments than I had.

The book starts by proposing that we have two modes of thinking: a fast one, which the author calls system 1 and a slow one, which he calls system 2.

System 1 is in charge when you are doing things that doesn’t require much mental effort like keeping track of the route to your home while talking with friends or day dreaming and walking, whereas system 2 kicks in when you are doing mentally tiring things like doing complex calculations or driving through heavy traffic. System 2 thinking draws up so much of energy from your body that you can visually identify if someone is using their system 1 or system 2 by closely watching their pupils dilate or monitoring their heart rate from their skin tone through a high speed camera.

One of the ideas that gave me an ‘Aha’ moment was the concept of ego-depletion: the idea that you can have only so much of mental reserve, which gets used up each time you make a hard decision. This is the reason why it is very hard to stick onto a new healthy-diet and workout routine after a tiring day at work. This taught me the importance of reserving the ‘hard-choices’ only to tasks that are really important than putting too much control on every task. The author also suggests that you can refill your mental-reservoir by treating yourself with foods rich in glucose.

One of the other biases to which we often fall for are the ‘Priming effects’. I think the below video is the best illustration on priming effect.

 

Two areas that heavily rely on priming effects are advertisement industry and product placing.

Towards the second half of the book the Dr. Kahneman heavily criticizes authors of the book like Built to Last in their attempt to make formulas for success through systematic analysis of successful corporations, because he says, such acclaimed experts as well as the public often underestimate the importance of luck and overestimate the importance of strategy and talent. He further strengthens his argument by quoting confirmation bias and narrative fallacy – biases that forces us to make sense of a chaotic world.

One of the cognitive bias concepts that gave me retrospective moments were ‘Planning Fallacy’ – our tendency to overestimate our achievement/chances of success relating to a project and the tendency to underestimate the time required for the project in planning phase. I must say, this must have been the pitfall I most fell into, in the days of my graduate studies.

These are only a few among the best ideas discussed in the book and I urge you to read the book to be a good decision maker and be informed of the possible cognitive traps that others might exploit you of; after all it’s written by one of the world’s leading cognitive psychologist and the Nobel laureate for economics in 2002.

In Search of Meaning; Reflections on Life

In search of meaning is a series of blog posts intended at reviewing ancient philosophical textbooks.

Today I will be reviewing Meditations by Marcus Aurelius. It was one of the books in my reading list that was recommended by many, including people from all walks of life. This title was also one of the common entries for all the answers to ‘What are the must read books in one’s life?’ in quora.

Meditations is a collection of books on the reflections of the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, who lived in the 1st century and was one among the best rulers Rome ever had. Once you read the Gregory Hays’ [translator] portrayal of Marcus Aurelius’ character, you will discover that the characterization of Marcus Aurelius in the 2000 hollywood blockbuster, Gladiator, is a fair one.

Meditations were a set of notes he wrote to himself and was never intended to be published for general public. This book is classified under stoics in philosophy. Stoics by definition is a way of philosophical living in which the follower endures pain and hardship without showing their feelings or complaining.

With this book I realised how much the translation of a book matters. Meditation is translated by many publishers but the one I enjoyed the most was by Gregory Hays. Readability of Hays’ translation has to be appreciated and his thought of providing the socio-economical and political background of that time, to make the literature more meaningful, is worth mentioning.

Meditations is a book of practical advices. What you get out of this book depends on what you have gone through in life. If this book had been taught in schools and colleges, we could have had better citizens and better humans.

Some of the quotes worth quoting here are:

The real nature of things our senses experience, especially those that entice us with pleasure or frighten us with pain or are loudly trumped by pride. To understand those things – how stupid, contemptible, grimy, decaying and dead they are – that’s what our intellectual powers are for.

I have never read a better explanation for what intellectualism means!

Look inward. Don’t let the true nature or value of anything elude you.

If you can cut yourself – your mind — free of what other people do and say, of what you have said or done, of the things that you’re afraid will happen, the impositions of the body that contains you and the breath within, and what the whirling chaos sweeps in from outside, so that the mind is freed from fate, brought to clarity and lives life on its own recognizance — doing what’s right, accepting what happens, and speaking the truth

Isn’t this this ultimate spiritual awakening, all the mortals are after?

To the world: Your harmony is mine. Whatever time you choose is the right time. Not late, not early

How many of us have waited long enough to start something? That wasn’t a good idea even in the times of ancient Rome.

At dawn, when you have trouble getting out of bed, tell yourself “I have to go to work – as a human being. What do I have to complain of, if I’m going to do what I was born for – the things I was brought into the world to do.” People who love what they do wear themselves down doing it, they even forget to wash or eat.

Do you need a better motivational piece of text to start working on your purpose in life ?

Don’t feel exasperated, or defeated, or despondent because your days aren’t packed with wise and moral actions. But to get back up when you fail, to celebrate behaving like a human – however imperfectly – and fully embrace the pursuit that you have embarked on.

The only quote you need to read to be resilient in life.

Meditations may be the only book you need, at times of difficulties and at times of triumph.

Creating Content That Matters

Great writers write everyday, great coders code everyday, great musicians compose every day, great artists paint everyday. It’s no surprise that all this greatness comes with a cost – the willingness to sacrifice the trivial matters in life. Even if we have got the willpower to do it we find ourselves falling back into the vicious loop of mediocrity. From high school physics we all have studied that all objects tend to remain in its state of stable equilibrium, the state which requires the minimum amount of energy, and for us humans this state of stable equilibrium is being mediocre, to follow the crowd.

But the ambitious ones aim for the nonconformity and search for the tools to get there. We live in an internet age where everyone from a 5 year old kid to the retired scientist seek the help from Google for each and every question that pops in their head. And Google gets us a ranked list of websites it believes is great in content, but the truth in most cases are, at least for these ambitious people, these are nothing other than some naive advices from a higher level mediocrity group who are devious bloggers/content creators who trick the search engine algorithms. These advices might work for someone who is only trying to reach this higher level of mediocrity but not the ones who are looking for a intense quality works on which they can reflect upon.

I have become a fanatic of this deep work since I have started my graduate studies and I always ask to the people who create deep works, ‘How do you create such deep literatures?’. Most of their replies are, ‘We too started first as admirers of deep works and by seeking more deep works and enjoying such literature we have learned to create works of such magnitude, the hard way, somehow halfway through the journey’ . We can’t blame them for giving us such a half-baked response. This happens to us as well: We might acquire a skill through various means but once we master it, it becomes so straightforward that we too might have a hard time telling other the exact set of steps through which we acquired it.

Finding these superheros, who create such deep literatures, is hard. Because these are not the ones who try to use search engine optimization tactics to gain huge audience through click baits and plan to exploit them but rather the ones who are interested in delivering intense quality literatures. The literatures of these authors find their audiences eventually, but not as easily as the mediocre ones. It requires effort to scout such literatures because in my opinion almost 95% of the information we receive from the internet is rubbish and only 5% accounts for the quality work that we could gain insights from and recommend to others with full confidence. Some of such personalities in the limelight, whose books I have enjoyed the most, are authors like Malcolm Gladwell, Yuval Noah Harari and Daniel H Pink. There exist a thousand more, in the ocean of internet, whom are yet to be discovered.

While reading some literatures of such a personality, the author mentioned about Cal Newport’s articles in his references as a resource of motivation for the author’s own creation. The name stuck.

I happened to see Cal Newport’s recent book ‘Deep Work: Rules for focused success in a distracted world’ in my goodreads feed yesterday and I decided to give it a try. [ Cal Newport is a professor at Georgetown University and he writes books and blog posts on productivity.] Deep Work was one of those few books that I have read in one sitting. Most of the advices he give are simple and may seem as common sense. In the chaos of information that is seeking our constant attention, where we are losing sight of even such simple rituals or common sense and thus making our lives miserable, these simple advices in an organised format looks as if they are words of pure wisdom.

The book is divided into two half. The first half, which accounts to the one third of the book content, explains why deep work is important in the new economy and workplace and the second half gives advices and tips on how to create deep work routines.

The author emphasis the importance of scheduling each day of your work and making them a ritual. He also asks the readers to reconsider the use of social media and observe if it is having a negative or positive impact on their work and personal life.

In short “Deep Work” is a great book for the ambitious who had been looking for the ways in which they can create deep lasting quality work.

You Are What You Think

“Mindset: The New Psychology of Success” by Carol Dweck peeked into my reading list after being recommended by Bill gates in his blog, gatesnotes. Even from the initial chapters, I felt like the book was very much inspired from the books ‘Talent is Overrated’ and ‘Outliers’. Or it could just be my opinion as I have read both and the book at hand had so much overlapping ideas from the former ones

The whole book basically talks about the two mindsets we, humans possess: the growth mindset and the fixed mindset. As the name suggests, fixed mindset people are the ones who strongly believe that they are what they are born with. In the fixed mindset itself, there are two spectrum of people, the ones who believes they are superior to others and the ones who think they are inferior. And I guess the latter one is more common.

The author throughout the book cites different examples ,from history and our daily lives, of both types of fixed mindset; the ones who got to the pinnacle of their careers and later spiral downed to failure due to their fixed mindset and the ones who even failed to take off!

The second type of mindset that’s being discussed in the book is growth mindset. These are the people who believe that anything and everything could be achieved through practice and patience. These are not the flick achievers we see but the ones who have made it to the top and stayed there till the end of their lives and beyond. In Dweck’s words, these are people who believe that “a person’s true potential is unknown (and unknowable) and it’s impossible to foresee what can be accomplished with years of passion, toil and training”

The book interestingly contrasts how different mindset people approach different problem. While the fixed mindset people sees a failure as devaluation of themselves and success as proof of being worthy, the growth mindset people see both as opportunities for improvement.

When you look all this in a bigger perspective, you can see that your mindset determines, a lot more than you think of, what you become in life! The author also shows us how teachers and parents have a huge influence on what mindset we adopt, early in our lives. The book concludes with the workshop she and her colleagues have developed to shift students from a fixed to a growth mindset. So this is a must read for the parents and teachers who want to mold a new generation of ‘outliers’.

The book is very much oversimplified for general audience and could have been trimmed down. For someone who hasn’t read Outliers or Talent is Overrated, this book could be motivational and could enhance how you approach life and problems in life.

The Unknown Unknown

The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb was one of those books I had been longing to read, after being recommended by one of my teachers. And hence, it was after I ordered the book that I looked for its reviews. It seemed like Nicholas Taleb completely failed to delight the reviewers and critics. Most reviewers called it ‘bloated’ ‘uneven’and a ‘waste of time’. While it may be true that the book could have been trimmed a little bit, I don’t think it was ever a waste of time.

The Black Swan is not a vacation read and not an easy read either. It was neither written to please the majority. It needs to be approached with as much seriousness as the author demands. The Black Swan is harsh in spitting out the truth, so is Taleb. So many readers might have been hurt in the run and I guess it might have been them that later turned out to be his negative reviewers.

Taleb describes black swans as events that are rare, has an extreme impact, and is predictable and explainable only in the hindsight. The success of Google was a black swan. The 9/11 terrorist attack, Katrina hurricane, the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the spread of religion, all were black swans. The book centers around the idea of ‘Empirical Skepticism’ – a way of approaching randomness in the world. Taleb wants us to accept the fact that black swans are unpredictable.

The book starts with the story of swans. For ages Europeans believed that all swans were white. It was only after the discovery of Australia that people came to know black swans existed. The story embodies Taleb’s main theme, the idea that what we don’t know is more important than that what we do know. Black swan to one need not have to be black swan to another. The killing of an American turkey after feeding him for the first 1000 days might seem as a black swan for the turkey but for the butcher it is not.

Taleb also claims that we humans are blind to black swans by default. He strengthens his argument by three points, what he calls as the triplet of opacity:

  • The illusion of understanding or how everyone thinks he knows what is going on in a world that is more complicated than they realize
  • The retrospective distortion or how we can assess matters only after the fact
  • The overvaluation of factual information and the handicap of authoritarians & learned people

In succeeding chapters he further strengthens his argument that we are programmed to be blind to black swan by three more problems, what he calls ‘The Narrative Fallacy’, ‘The Problem of Silent Evidence’ and ‘The Lucid fallacy’.

He also goes on to explain why predictions fail and he unsympathetically attacks the bell curve fallacy or the intellectual’s and statistician’s tendency to fit almost all predictions and hypothesis into the Gaussian curve and calls it ‘The Great Intellectual Fallacy’.

In the closing note he advises us that the only way to deal with the black swan is to maximize luck and prepare for the consequences that would arise from those events.

If we accept what we don’t know, we can redefine ‘possible.’