My recommended books – and other content – for July 2020

5. General

My recommended books – and other content – for July 2020

If you could resurrect one person from the past to deal with the Covid-pandemic, who would it be?

For me, there’s only one answer: Dr. Hans Rosling.

Unfortunately, on 7-February, 2017, the world lost this gem of a man – who was incredibly talented, insanely driven and a superb storyteller to boot …

But he left behind an unparalleled legacy.

Probably the most enduring part of that legacy for me? Not his much loved TED videos (which are brilliant of course)… His most important legacy is a massively important, fascinating and superbly-readable book: Factfulness.

(Hat tip to Meghna Pal for the recommendation. Incidentally, even after the reco, I had bought the book but hadn’t managed to read it. Then my dad read it and said, “This is the most important book I’ve read”. I had to pick it up then.)

Let’s get started.

1. Books:

a. ‘Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About The World – And Why Things Are Better by Hans Rosling, Ola Rosling and Anna Rosling Rosslund:

“The world is going to the dogs”.

“Things were so much better back then”.

“It’s all because of XYZ that we landed in this soup now”

Do you find yourself (or others around you) proclaiming some of these sentiments?

You may be a victim of one of the many biases that plague our thinking.

In his masterful treatise, Dr. Rosling makes a compelling case for ‘Factfulness’ – the ability to focus on hard facts instead of getting swayed by one or more of the ‘dramatic instincts’ that we are prone to.

What are these ‘instincts’? Here’s a short extract from the book:

Imagine that we have a shield, or attention filter, between the world and our brain. This attention filter protects us against the noise of the world: without it, we would constantly be bombarded with so much information we would be overloaded and paralyzed. Then imagine that the attention filter has ten instinct-shaped holes in it—gap, negativity, straight line, and so on. Most information doesn’t get through, but the holes do allow through information that appeals to our dramatic instincts. So we end up paying attention to information that fits our dramatic instincts, and ignoring information that does not. The media can’t waste time on stories that won’t pass our attention filters.

This book delves into each of these ‘instincts’ and shares ideas for how to avoid getting swayed by them.

You should read this book…

– If you want to know a fact-based, balanced view of the real state of the world.

– If you want to learn how to present data better.

– To marvel at the brilliance and kindness and humility of a privileged Westerner who could’ve led a very comfortable life in Sweden, but instead dedicated his life to helping the entire world (especially Africa).

– To laugh, cry and get shocked at the wondrous anecdotes this natural storyteller weaves in, while making his points.

– And to understand your own biases and ‘dramatic instincts’ which may lead to wrong decisions.

If it were up to me, I’d make this book compulsory reading for all high-shool and college students.

And since we are dreaming, if it were up to me, I would love to resurrect Dr. Rosling – so that he could have guided us through this terrible pandemic … with his wisdom, care and wondrously goofy humour.

b. ‘Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick‘ by Wendy Wood:

Over the last 10 years there have been many bestselling books on how to change your habits for the better.

There was ‘The Power of Habit‘ by Charles Duhigg (2013) followed by ‘Atomic Habits‘ by James Clear (2018). This book (Good Habits, Bad Habits) released in 2019 and in 2020 we saw ‘Tiny Habits‘ by BJ Fogg.

Two questions arise:

(a) Why so many suddenly? and

(b) How is this book any different?

For (a), here’s the answer by Wendy Wood:

The years 1980–2000 were low points for “habit.” The science of habits didn’t completely die out, and the rapid upward surge in use of the word during the previous decade is evidence that we are undergoing a correction. What led to this turnaround?

As with so much else in recent years, technology was a driver. Interest in habits resurfaced in part with the development of brain-scan technology (functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI) that enabled previously unimaginable assessments of brain activity.

In other words, scientists could get real evidence about the ‘Chemical locha’ that happens in our brains when habits are activated.

Coming to (b) – why is this book different?

Now when it comes to books in any academic field, there are two types of writers. The Scientists and the Storytellers.

Charles Duhigg is a storyteller (NYT Reporter). James Clear is also a storyteller (blogger turned author).

Wendy Wood is a scientist.

(Interestingly, BJ Fogg, who’s written Tiny Habits, is also a scientist. I’ll be picking that up soon!)

So essentially the storytellers usually beat the scientists to the party. But the scientists naturally bring more credibility and …well, science.

So this book is great for reinforcing some of the concepts about habits that you may have read about before (context, cues, rewards etc.) – but does so with solid neuroscience and scientific-experiment backing.

For instance I found this insight striking: “Fully 43 percent of the time, our actions are habitual, performed without conscious thought. We had provided the first scientific estimate of how often people act out of habit.

In short, this book is great at answering the Why of habit formation. It doesn’t go too deep into the ‘How‘ (do I improve) part. (For that there’s always James Clear). But I found it a useful read to strengthen my concepts on the topic and get some more motivation for breaking some bad habits of my own (that post-meal dessert craving is a killer for instance).

Don’t expect the book to be a page-turner. At parts it plods through and sometimes repeats the same points multiple times. Still, I think it is a great addition to your collection on a critical topic.

If short of time, you can visit the book’s website where they have a few cool surveys you can take. This podcast conversation offers a good summary.

2. Podcast

a. Play to Potential by Deepak Jayaraman I’ve been listening to podcasts for over 6 years now, and initially, when I’d tell friends about them, they’d respond, ‘What’s a podcast’?

Thankfully we’re beyond that stage now, and there’s been a massive increase in popularity of this content medium. No wonder then, we are seeing a flowering of dozens (hundreds?) of Indian podcasts now.

But one person picked out this trend early and went on to build, what is probably the most popular podcast among India’s corporate leaders: Deepak Jayaraman.

(Hat tip to Monika Sood for the reco)

In ‘Play to Potential’, Deepak interviews global leaders, across disciplines, and has thought-provoking conversations with them: about their life, key ideas, their key choices and motivations, career transitions, growth, advice for others et al.

But where Deepak truly innovated was not in the questions or the format itself. His breakthrough innovation is in how he packages and presents the insights to listeners.

Given that each conversation holds multiple ‘insight-nuggets’ across a wide array of topics, Deepak breaks the episode down into these individual nuggets.

And he takes the effort of tagging and briefly describing each nugget.

And so if you want to listen to the whole conversation with, say, R. Gopalakrishnan, that’s great… but if you just want to listen to a 5-minute excerpt about getting ‘cross-industry transitions right’… you can do that too!

The innovation doesn’t stop here. Realising that multiple leaders would bring different, valuable perspectives on the same topic, Deepak made the cross-section of conversation nuggets available on the podcast website. So if you want to know more about ‘Authenticity’ – you can click the ‘tag’ and you will get a brilliant variety of perspectives – from a corporate leader (like Pramath Sinha) to a famous Stand-up comic (Papa CJ) to a historian like Ram Guha. Fabulous stuff.

3. Articles:

a. Do the Real Thing by Scott Young: This is a ‘call-to-arms’ piece about not procrastinating about THAT thing you have been procrastinating about.

Life is short, and we are incredibly talented at preparing to do the real thing, instead of, you know, just doing it.

I know what my ‘thing’ is, and by gosh, have I been preparing for it for some months (years?) now. This article was useful inspiration.

Hat-tip: R3 Compound by Choose to Thinq

b. Writing rules from writers:

This is an oldie, but a goldie. A 2001 NYT piece by a fiction writer on how not to write fiction. Some of the tips apply to everyday business writing too. For instance

Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But ‘said’ is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ”she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

c. The 3R Formula for Thought Leadership:

I recently posted this on LinkedIn, and thought of sharing it here too, in case you missed it.

For me, the way to achieve expertise on any topic is to follow the 3R formula: Read, Reflect and (W)rite.

This newsletter is a good example of ‘Reading’ – essentially consumption of thought-provoking content.

Then you need to allow the thoughts to be provoked, without bombarding your mind with content all the time! That’s the reflection piece.

Finally, it’s only when you create some output that others can read your thinking and benefit from it.

d. How to get kids to learn critical thinking:

Critical thinking is one of the skills that would be relevant even as AI takes over all mundane jobs. This short article gives some practical tips for how to get kids to learn this skill.

For example:

Instead of asking kids, “What are the main causes of climate change?” (which can be answered with a quick web search and leads to superficial knowledge), ask them “How exactly does X cause climate change?” and “Why should we worry about it?” To answer, they’ll need to go beyond the bare facts and really think about a subject.

4. Videos:

a. WW1 Oversimplified

(6:23 mins) History made interesting is always a fun topic for me. This series of videos does a great job of (over)simplifying complex historical events and presenting them in a contemporary, humorous manner.

Enlightening, hilarious and binge-worthy.

b. Webinar on Podcasts

(1:13:06 mins) Whoa, wait a minute. In an email newsletter, you are reading about a webinar … on podcasts… that’s playing on YouTube? MEDIA OVERLOAD ALERT!!

Seriously though, this is a super-insightful conversation – about the state of podcasts today – moderated by Word Hatter (a content marketing agency) with some stellar guests. The founder of IVM (India’s largest podcast company), Intel India’s Marketing head and the afore-mentioned Deepak Jayaraman. A great primer for upcoming podcast creators, marketers and others from the ecosystem.

(Hat tip: Deepak Jayaraman)

That’s it folks: my recommended reads, listens and views for the month.

Photo by Stanislav Kondratiev from Pexels

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