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Suggested Reading – Part Two

Next week’s final blog will be the transcript of my address from our annual prizegiving ceremony, so this week I will round off the second part of my compilation of writers and books that I have found interesting over the last few years.  Although I had written a few magazine articles and education thought pieces during my previous headship, it was only after I arrived at Radnor House that I began to turn my hand to writing a regular blog.  At a quick count, there have been over 200 of them in the last seven years, which I hope have provided some useful reading from time to time.  If anyone can claim to have read them all, I salute you, and I am most grateful to everyone who has offered such positive feedback over the years.

I finished last week with a book that, while it did not change my life, certainly made an impression – Matthew Walker’s writing about the importance of sleep. I will therefore start this week with ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ by Daniel Kahneman, which was similarly eye-opening back in the day. Because I only started making detailed notes from my reading in 2017, and I read this well before then, I cannot immediately highlight a section to share with you, but the following paragraph comes from Kahneman’s obituary in the Guardian following his death in March.

'The book “Thinking, Fast and Slow” brought to a wide readership Kahneman’s integration of his and Amos Tversky’s results with a model of psychological processing that answered the question of how the human race had managed to survive and thrive despite its susceptibility to irrational biases. The model suggests that we initially assess a situation with a fast, intuitive process based on prior experience that in evolutionary terms is often the key to survival. On top of this is a slow, effortful, conscious process that can, but does not always, correct errors made by the first process.’

A less highbrow, but nevertheless similarly themed read is ‘You Are Not So Smart’ by David McRaney, which also focused on the way we use so-called heuristics to jump to the wrong conclusions. For example, he tells us that the human mind is generated by a brain that was formed under far different circumstances than the modern world offers up on a daily basis. Over the last few million years, much of our time was spent with fewer than 150 people, and what we knew about the world was based on examples from our daily lives.

Mass media, statistical data, scientific findings – these things, he says, are not digested as easily as something you have seen with your own eyes. The old adage of ‘I’ll believe it when I see it’ is the availability heuristic at work. Politicians use this all the time, as we have seen all too clearly in recent weeks. Whenever you hear a story that begins with ‘I met a mother of two in Manchester who lost her job because of a lack of funding for…’ or something similar, the politician hopes the anecdote will sway your opinion. He or she is betting that the availability heuristic will influence you to assume that this one example is indicative of a much larger group of people. It is simply easier to believe something if you are presented with examples than it is to accept something presented in numbers or abstract facts.

I plan to re-read some of my favourite books when I have more time to do so, with anything by Yuval Noah Harari likely to be top of the list – ‘Sapiens’, ‘Homo Deus’ and ‘21 Lessons for the 21st Century’. In ‘Sapiens’, we are told that most abilities have to be nurtured and developed. Even if somebody is born with a particular talent, that talent will usually remain latent if it is not focused, honed and exercised. Not all people get the same chance to cultivate and refine their abilities. Whether or not they have such an opportunity will usually depend on their place within their society’s imagined hierarchy. Harry Potter is a good example. Removed from his distinguished wizard family and brought up by ignorant muggles, he arrives at Hogwarts without any experience in magic. It takes him seven books to gain a firm command of his powers and knowledge of his unique abilities.

In ‘Homo Deus’, the author explains that each and every one of us has been born into a given historical reality, ruled by particular norms and values, and managed by a unique economic and political system. We take this reality for granted, thinking it is natural, inevitable and immutable. We forget that our world was created by an accidental chain of events, and that history shaped not only our technology, politics and society, but also our thoughts, fears and dreams. The cold hand of the past emerges from the grave of our ancestors, grips us by the neck and directs our gaze towards a single future. We have felt that grip from the moment we were born, so we assume it is a natural and inescapable part of who we are. Therefore we seldom try to shake ourselves free and envision alternative futures. Studying history aims to loosen the grip of the past. It will not tell us what to choose, but it at least gives us more options.

A similar sweep of history can be found in Lewis Dartnell’s ‘Origins’, which reminds us that by about 5,000 BC, humanity had learned to domesticate a wide diversity of edible plant species in a variety of climatic zones and landscapes, with cereal crops being by far the most significant. Grains like wheat, rice and maize, along with millet, barley, sorghum, oats and rye, have supported millennia of human civilisation, with wheat, rice and maize today providing around half of all the human energy intake around the world. Cereal crops are all species of grass, and the astonishing truth, as Dartnell sees it, is that we are no different from the cattle, sheep or goats that we leave out to pasture – humanity survives by eating grass.

Anything written by Malcolm Gladwell is always worth reading. From ‘Outliers’, for example, we learn that Mozart was not in fact a child prodigy, as is often believed. He only began to produce world-class work when he was about twenty-one, i.e. after he had completed about 10,000 hours of practice. Successful Canadian hockey players are mostly born between 1st January and 31st March, which is the start of the school year in that country, and which means that these players are bigger and stronger than their peers. I believe the same statistics can be seen with national sports teams in this country for those whose birthdays fall between September and December. Meanwhile, by the time The Beatles became successful they had played over 1,200 live gigs, far more than many bands ever play in their whole careers – which is why they were so good.

And of the 75 richest people who have ever lived, from Cleopatra to Elon Musk, fourteen of them are Americans born within nine years of each other in the mid-nineteenth century. They had talents and determination, but above all they were born in the right place at the right time to take advantage of the huge opportunities that came their way – people like Vanderbilt, Rockefeller and Getty. In the last century, Bill Gates was born in 1955 and so was Steve Jobs; almost everyone who made a fortune in personal computers was born between 1953 and 1956. Older than this and they were all settled down at IBM, with wives, children and mortgages; therefore they were unwilling to take a risk. Younger than this and they had missed the boat.

Likewise, Matthew Syed’s books are full of thoughtful ideas. In ‘Bounce’, he tells us that studies have shown that great entrepreneurs fail many times before they build the business that makes their fortune. Henry Ford’s first venture, the Detroit Automobile Company, collapsed, as did his involvement with the second, the Henry Ford Company. But these failures taught him valuable lessons about the importance of pricing and high quality products. The Ford Motor Company, his third venture, changed the world.

Great sportspeople demonstrate the same fortitude. Michael Jordan, the basketball legend, missed more than 9,000 shots during his career, lost 300 games and on 26 occasions was trusted to make the game-winning shot, but missed. ‘I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life; and that is why I succeed.’ I think it took Cristiano Ronaldo something like forty-five attempts to score from a dead ball situation for Portugal before he got a free kick to end up in the net. As Syed says, it is not failure that is important but our response to it. The point is not that we all share the same potential, but that none of us will reach our potential unless we persevere.

For eclectic knowledge wrapped up in European travel and history, which is the sort of book I would one day like to write myself, I recommend Simon Winder’s trilogy of ‘Germania’, ‘Danubia’ and ‘Lotharingia’, which I am certainly planning to re-read before I go travelling in the next few years. As a good example, the author explains that we are used to thinking of the Middle Ages in terms of men covered in sheets of metal, clopping about on horses and trying to kill one another, whereas the true image of the period should be that of a monk writing. Many suits of armour are still around today just because they are made from a relatively non-reactive metal, but the work of the monks has survived in everything we think, know and believe.

Some of the creative initiatives of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries are characteristic of what was in many ways one of the most exciting, cheerful and entertaining periods in all European history. As usual, we could tut-tut about life expectancy, poor hygiene and the relentless grind of agricultural labour, but this is just to buy into the patronising and intellectually dull idea that, in effect, the entire prior sum of human activity across the planet should be pitied and disregarded for not having had access to broadband.

Anything written by the economist and broadcaster Tim Harford is also to be recommended. For example, in ‘Fifty Things That Made the Modern Economy’, we are told that all migration creates winners and losers, but research indicates there are many more winners – in the wealthiest countries, by one estimate, five in six of the existing population are made better off by the arrival of immigrants. So why does this not translate into popular support for open borders? There are practical and cultural reasons why migration can be badly managed: if public services are not upgraded quickly enough to cope with new arrivals, or belief systems prove hard to reconcile. Also, the losses tend to be more visible than the gains. Suppose a group of Mexicans arrive in America, ready to pick fruit for lower wages than Americans are earning. The benefits – slightly cheaper fruit for everyone – are too widely spread and small to notice, while the cons – some Americans losing their jobs – produce vocal unhappiness. It should be possible to arrange taxes and public spending to compensate the losers, but it does not tend to work that way.

I described W.G. Sebald as the best writer you have probably never heard of, with my awareness of him only coming through my daughter’s study of comparative literature at university. ‘The Rings of Saturn’ is an extraordinary travelogue combined with interesting ideas. It had never occurred to me, for example, that a strikingly large number of our settlements are oriented to the west and, where circumstances permit, relocate in a westward direction. The east stands for lost causes. Especially at the time when the continent of America was being colonised, it was noticeable that the townships spread to the west even as their eastern districts were falling apart. In Brazil, to this day, whole provinces die down like fires when the land is exhausted by over-cropping and new areas to the west are opened up. In North America, too, countless settlements of various kinds, complete with gas stations, motels and shopping malls, move west along the turnpikes, and along that axis affluence and squalor are unfailingly polarised.

My fascination with history, as for so many people, has grown and developed over the years and I particularly enjoyed ‘Great Tales from English History’ by Robert Lacey and ‘An Utterly Impartial History of Britain (Or 2,000 Years of Upper Class Idiots in Charge)’ by John O’Farrell. David Mountain’s book ‘Past Mistakes: How We Misinterpret History and Why It Matters’ occupied several blogs because I found his ideas so compelling, and the same could be said for ‘Fake History’ by Otto English. To get a different perspective on global history that is not perpetually Anglocentric, I would recommend Peter Frankopan’s ‘The Silk Roads’ and ‘The New Silk Roads’, while if you want to develop a better understanding of how this country’s history shapes its present, then ‘Empireland’ by Sathnam Sanghera and ‘Bloody Foreigners’ by Robert Winder both offer fascinating perspectives.

Elsewhere, ‘Factfulness’ by Hans Rosling is likely to make you change your mind that the world is going to hell in a handcart, ‘Good to Great’ by Jim Collins is the best book I have read about business leadership, and Susan Cain’s book ‘Quiet’ reminded me that introverts have a very important role in our society. She listed twenty characteristics that introverted people display, of which I ticked off seventeen in my own personality, which should give food for thought in more ways than one.

The best book that I never quite found the time to review and share is ‘The Social Animal’ by David Brooks, which charts a fictitious life to share some absorbing insights into the human mind. For example, the author highlights how modern society has created a giant apparatus for the cultivation of the hard skills, while failing to develop the moral and emotional faculties we really need. Children are coached on how to jump through a thousand scholastic hoops. Yet by far the most important decisions they will make are about whom to marry and whom to befriend, what to love and what to despise, and how to control impulses. On these matters, they are almost entirely on their own. We are good at talking about material incentives, but bad about talking about emotions and intuitions. We are good at learning technical skills, but when it comes to the most important things, like character, we have almost nothing to say.

When talking about social hierarchies, Brooks tells us that some people are status exaggerators. They wildly inflate their spot in the pecking order. They are sixes but they think they are eights, and when they ask out people who are nines they are flummoxed when they get rejected. Other people are status minimisers. These people will never apply for jobs for which they are amply qualified because they assume they will be crushed by the competition. The most successful people are mildly delusional status inflators. They maximise their pluses, thus producing self-confidence, and decide their minuses are not really that important anyway, thus eliminating paralysing self-doubt.

And finally, not that anyone has asked, but if I had to choose one book to take to my desert island, I would be torn between ‘Head, Hand, Heart’ by David Goodhart, which almost certainly took up more blogging space than any other book, and which offers a compelling narrative about why the society we have created is so flawed, and ‘A Short History of Nearly Everything’ by Bill Bryson, which is the best ‘science for non-scientists’ book I have come across. After doing what it says on the cover, by providing an overview of all of history, which is clearly no mean feat, his conclusion would appear a rather neat way for me to sign off – a very good idea in the hands of someone else’s expertise that can be adapted as needed to our own circumstances.

Bryson writes: ‘If this book has a lesson, it is that we are awfully lucky to be here – and by “we” I mean every living thing. To attain any kind of life at all in this universe of ours appears to be quite an achievement. As humans we are doubly lucky, of course. We enjoy not only the privilege of existence, but also the singular ability to appreciate it and even, in a multitude of ways, to make it better. It is a trick we have only just begun to grasp. We have arrived in this position of eminence in a stunningly short time. Behaviourally, modern humans have been around for less than 0.01 per cent of Earth’s history – almost nothing, really – but even existing for that little while has required a nearly endless string of good fortune. We really are at the beginning of it all. The trick, of course, is to make sure we never find the end. And that, almost certainly, will require a lot more than lucky breaks.’

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