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Suggested Reading – Part One

It was always the plan to round off my blogging career at the school with some reminders of the best books I have read over the last few years and some of the ideas that have resonated most with me.  I also received a nice email a couple of weeks ago from a parent of one of our Upper Sixth leavers, saying that they had been discussing some of the themes I have highlighted over the years at their dinner table and asking that I put together a suggested reading list before I go, which I am more than happy to do.

In the same way that you should never start a joke by saying that it is funny because what you find amusing may not be the same for everyone, I will simply say that what follows are examples of what I found interesting.  In no particular order, I will summarise a few of the assemblies I have delivered in recent years and let you decide whether you feel the same way or not.  Rather than edit out something that might turn out to be the one piece of information you really like, I have left almost everything in place, with the consequence that this will be about twice the length of the normal weekly output.  But, then again, in two weeks’ time, there will no more new blogs to read, so you might want to save some of what follows for a rainy day.    

From ‘The 100 Year Life’ by Lynda Gratton & Andrew Scott, I learned that a child born today has a better than 50% chance of living to be 100 years old.  A century ago, this figure was just 1%.  There are 168 hours in a week.  Across a 100-year lifespan, that is nearly 874,000 hours.  If it takes 10,000 hours to accumulate specialist expertise, there will be plenty of time in a 100-year life to do so.  Mastery in more than one field is neither daunting nor impossible.  Three-stage lives, like the one I have lived, have only two transitions: from education to employment and from employment into retirement.  The multi-stage lives that younger people will lead will have many more transitions, but these will not always be distinctive stages. 

When I first heard about becoming an expert through 10,000 hours of practice, the concept of the growth mindset and the idea promoted by Angela Duckworth about the power of grit – by which she means perseverance rather than the small stones that stop us crashing our cars in the snow – I thought they were game-changing concepts, but I am not so sure now, for reasons that will take far too long to explain here.  Nevertheless, it is hard to disagree with some of what Dr Duckworth suggests in ‘Grit’, for example there are two key factors to promote excellence in individuals and teams: deep and rich support, and relentless challenge to improve.  We all face limits, not just in talent but also in opportunity.  But more often than we think, our limits are self-imposed.  We try, fail and conclude we have bumped our heads against the ceiling of possibility.  Or maybe after taking just a few steps we change direction.  In either case, we never venture as far as we might have.  To be gritty, she says, is to keep putting one foot in front of the other; to hold fast to an interesting and purposeful goal; to invest, day after week after year, in challenging practice; to fall down seven times and rise eight.

‘The Invisible Gorilla’ by Christopher Chabris & Daniel Simons gives arguably some more realistic advice, when the authors tell us that although we may think we can multitask, we cannot.  We like to think we remember things clearly, but we don’t.  Instead, we habitually overestimate our own knowledge, particularly about how things work, which is why projects always take longer than we think they will and cost much more.  Nor is it true that playing classical music makes us more intelligent or better at doing tasks, and we do not have vast reserves of unused capacity in our brains.

Guy Claxton & Bill Lucas’s must-read book for anyone interested in teaching and learning is ‘Educating Ruby'.  They quote Jean Piaget, who said, ‘Intelligence is knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do.’  The most powerful learning tools are questioning and thinking, not memorising and regurgitating, and they advocate what they call ‘The 7Cs’ as the basis for a sound education: confidence, curiosity, collaboration, communication, creativity, commitment and craftsmanship.  To cope well with tricky times, you need more than a bag of knowledge and a clutch of certificates; you need a strong and supple mind.  Good grades will open doors, but it’s what happens when you get through the doors that matters.

In ‘Moonshots’, Naveen Jain makes the point that they used to say that knowledge is power, but today the ability to ask questions is power.  We are drowning in knowledge but thirsting for questions.  Education is more than just job training.  And considering that we don’t even know what the jobs of the future will be, it must be something more.  To see just how obsolete the prevailing paradigm is, he asks us to consider that half the jobs that exist today did not exist just twenty-five years ago.  And half of today’s occupations will disappear over the next ten to fifteen years as artificial intelligence and other exponential technologies transform everything they touch.  Meanwhile, whole new categories of jobs will be created by these very same technological advances.  Astoundingly, though, we are still setting up students for a singular soon-to-be-obsolete career in an economy that we cannot even fully define.

This idea is reinforced in the John Brockman-edited book called simply ‘Thinking’, where he tells us that the Chief Economist at Google, Hal Varian, has said many times, ‘The sexy job in the next ten years will be statisticians – and I’m not kidding.  The ability to take data – to be able to understand it, to process it, to extract value from it, to visualise it, to communicate it – that’s going to be a hugely important skill in the next decades.’  As an example, which I hope will make you smile as much as I did, he cites the American weather forecaster who announced on national television that if the probability that it will rain on Saturday is 50 per cent and the probability that it will rain on Sunday is 50 per cent, the probability that it will rain over the weekend is 100 per cent. 

If you are looking for a realistic and eminently sensible view of the world, I recommend anything by Steven Pinker.  Sometimes he can be a bit too clever for his own good, but in ‘Enlightenment Now’ we learn that in 1850 it took twenty-five men a full day to harvest and thresh a ton of grain, while today one person operating a combine harvester can do it in six minutes.  One of my perpetual favourites to explain the way we misinterpret risk is that in 2015 in the USA the following were all more dangerous than terrorism: lightning; hot tap water; hornets, wasps and bees; drowning in the bath; and the ignition or melting of clothing.  Pinker quotes Barack Obama, speaking in 2016, who said: ‘If you had to choose a moment in history to be born, and you did not know ahead of time who you would be – rich or poor, man or woman –  or where you would be; if you had to choose blindly what moment you’d want to be born, you’d choose now.’

Rutger Bregman had some good advice in his book ‘Humankind’.  This came firstly in the form of a story where an old man says to his grandson, ‘There’s a fight going on inside me.  It’s a terrible fight between two wolves.  One is evil – angry, greedy, jealous, arrogant and cowardly.  The other is good – peaceful, loving, modest, generous, honest and trustworthy.  These two wolves are also fighting within you, and inside every other person too.’  After a moment, the boy asks, ‘Which wolf will win?’  The old man smiles.  ‘The one you feed.’  And Bregman suggests ten rules to live by, which may be a few too many, but which would surely help all of us to lead better lives: when in doubt, assume the best; think in win-win scenarios; ask more questions; temper your empathy, train your compassion; try to understand the other, even if you don’t get where they are coming from; love your own as others love their own; avoid the news; don’t punch people; don’t be ashamed to do good; and be realistic.

‘Alchemy’ by Rory Sutherland was an eclectic mix of fun facts for fact fans and some deeper insights, for example from point-of-sale data, with over 30,000 items on the shelves, the single item most frequently purchased, as per all grocery shoppers in Britain, is a banana.  Steve Jobs suffered from an unusual fear of buttons – koumpounophobia – which drove him to develop products that did not use them.  Modern printer ink, ounce for ounce, is more valuable than gold.  We approve reasonable things too quickly, while counterintuitive ideas are frequently treated with suspicion.  Most valuable discoveries do not make sense at first.  If they did, somebody would have discovered them already.  And ideas which people hate may be more powerful than those that people love, the popular and obvious ideas having all been tried already.

In ‘The Address Book’, Deidre Mask tells us that only 2.6 percent of street names in Paris commemorate women.  In England in the 1700s, 90 percent of men had one of only eight names: John, Edward, William, Henry, Charles, James, Richard or Robert.  In England, a country with soaring house prices and a housing shortage, more than 200,000 houses sit empty for more than six months – and at least 11,000 have been unoccupied for more than ten years.  In 2019, over £53 billion worth of property sat empty in the country.

Whisper it quietly, especially to his legions of fans the world over, but I found that some of Bill Bryson’s travelogues could get a bit tedious after a while, being overly reliant on the same formula and thereby becoming a bit repetitive.  That said, if you pick the right ones, they are a great read.  In ‘The Road to Little Dribbling’, he tells us that George Everest, after whom the highest mountain in the world is named, actually pronounced his name Eve-rest, with two syllables, and never saw the mountain during his lifetime.  London is one of the least crowded cities on earth.  New York has 93 people per hectare, Paris 83, but London just 43.  If London were as densely populated as Paris, it would have a population of 35 million.  Instead, what it has are parks – 142 of them – and more than 600 squares.  Almost 40 per cent of London is green space.  You can have all the noise and bustle of a metropolis, then turn a corner and hear birdsong.  Meanwhile, if you tried to visit all the medieval churches in England at the rate of one a week, it would take you three hundred and eight years, and all the known archaeological sites in Britain would require no less than 11,500 years of your time at the same rate.

In his book ‘Shakespeare’, Bryson tells us that we actually hardly know anything about the playwright, so we have settled on a popularly acceptable version that allows us to get on with our lives without troubling ourselves too much.  The entrance money that people paid to attend a Shakespearean theatre was dropped in a box, which was taken to a special room for safekeeping – hence, the box office.  Shakespeare was a wonderful teller of stories so long as someone else had told them first.  When we reflect upon his works, it is of course an amazement to consider that one man could have produced such a sumptuous, wise, varied, thrilling, ever-delighting body of work, but that is of course the hallmark of genius.  Only one man had the circumstances and gifts to give us such incomparable works, and William Shakespeare of Stratford was unquestionably that man – whoever he was.

If you like knowledge for the sake of knowledge, you could do far worse than ‘The Etymologicon’ by Mark Forsyth, who tells us that the first recorded gun in history was a cannon in Windsor Castle mentioned in an early fourteenth century document as being called Queen Gunhilda, the shortened form of which is Gunna.  As far as anyone can tell, all guns are named after her.  She was the Queen of Denmark and mother of King Canute.  Her father-in-law was King Harald I of Denmark, who is alleged to have had blue teeth.  When the computer engineer Jim Kardach was getting computers to talk to each other, to unite the warring provinces of technology as he saw it, he was looking for a name for his product.  Pan was already taken, so he settled on Bluetooth because he had been reading a book about Vikings set in the reign of Harald Bluetooth and he liked the name.

On the theme of obscure knowledge, in his wide-ranging and thought-provoking study of the European conquest of the New World, ‘Guns, Germs & Steel’, Jared Diamond provides a couple of ideas that have stayed with me over the years.  Firstly, it is almost impossible to lasso a zebra.  Even rodeo cowboys cannot do it, because zebras have the ability to watch the rope and duck out of the way at the last second.  Moreover, when zebras bite they do not let go.  As a result, more zookeepers are injured by zebras each year than by tigers.  Secondly, the QWERTY keyboard was designed in 1873 with the deliberate intention of making people type more slowly in order to stop typewriters from jamming.  A different design was suggested in 1932, by when typewriters did not jam so easily, which would have allowed people to type twice as fast, but it was rejected by all the people who benefited from the existing system.  All moves towards keyboard efficiency have been crushed for nearly one hundred years.

It is always quite something to claim that a book has changed your life, and I am not the sort of person who would ever really reach such a judgement, but I have to say that some of the ideas in ‘Why We Sleep’ by Matthew Walker have stayed with me, not least that unless you can regularly get seven or eight hours’ sleep each night you run the risk of doing considerable damage to your health, both mentally and physically. 

As the author puts it: ‘Amazing Breakthrough! – Scientists have discovered a revolutionary new treatment that makes you live longer.  It enhances your memory and makes you more creative.  It makes you look more attractive.  It keeps you slim and lowers food cravings.  It protects you from cancer and dementia.  It wards off colds and the flu.  It lowers your risk of heart attacks and stroke, not to mention diabetes.  You’ll even feel happier, less depressed and less anxious.  Are you interested?’ 

Then later, he says: ‘To Sleep or Not to Sleep – Within the space of a mere hundred years, human beings have abandoned their biologically mandated need for adequate sleep, one that evolution spent 3.4 million years perfecting in service of life-support functions.  As a result, the decimation of sleep throughout industrialised nations is having a catastrophic impact on our health, our life expectancy, our safety, our productivity and the education of our children.’  And to end on a slightly more upbeat theme: As the American entrepreneur E. Joseph Cossman so eloquently put it, ‘The best bridge between despair and hope is a good night’s sleep.’

Happy reading! 

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