What I’ve Read This Month – August 2013

Books Bought:

  • Quiet – Susan Cain

Books Read:

  • האם שימפנזים חושבים על פרישה? – יעקב בורק
  • איך מוצאים חתול שחור בחדר חשוך? – יעקב בורק
  • Quiet – Susan Cain

August was a slow reading month. Might be the summer heat. Might be because I read only non-fiction books this month. But most likely it was due to the fact I was travelling a lot and had little time to myself. The outlook for the next few months doesn’t look too good, unfortunately. Some developments at work look like I’m going to be busier than usual. We’ll see.

“?האם שימפנזים חושבים על פרישה” (“Do Chimpanzees Think of Retirement?”) is a book I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. It was published five or six years ago and immediately earned glowing reviews. I just finished reading it and, frankly, I don’t see what the fuss was all about. My guess is it’s all about timing. The book hit the bestseller lists at the height of popularity of behavioural economics books, such as “Predictably Irrational” by Prof. Dan Ariely. “Chimpanzees” is of the same genre so the zeitgeist was perfect for its success.

Jacob Burak is a successful businessman who, like many before him, has “seen the light”. After founding and leading a successful venture capital firm, he probably had enough money to retire from full-time employment and so began thinking about the “important things in life”. Today he is involved (surprise!) in several social schemes designed to improve the lives of others. (I do apologise, somewhat, for the cynicism; but it never ceases to amaze me how these successful businessmen “discover” the underprivileged around them only after they’ve made so much money themselves).

Anyway, Mr. Burak’s book is a popularized eclectic collection of psychological studies that highlight the irrational behaviour of humans – mostly in business or investment environments. Ordinarily I would list a few examples here but I think that in our day and age most of the readers of this review will already have a good idea of what the book is about. I just can’t bring myself to be awed, yet again, by studies (some of which are decades old) that point out the obvious: we humans are fallible creatures. And others, like Prof. Ariely and Prof. Kahenman, have done a much better job than Mr. Burak in writing about these fallacies.

The irony is I also bought Mr. Burak’s latest book together with this book. Guilty about not having read “Chimpanzees” when it was all the rage, I will now immediately go on to read “Black Cat” (what’s with the animal metaphors?).

This is the second book by Jacob Burak that I read, and most likely the last one.

The previous book, “Do Chimpanzees Think about Retirement” (see above) was just OK, I guess. But if that book rehashed known research about “behavioral economics”, this book, “איך למצוא חתול שחור בחדר חשוך” (“How to Find a Black Cat in a Dark Room”) is a complete chaotic regurgitation of this research.

This time Mr. Burak rides the latest trend of “societal awareness”. Or at least that’s what the back of the book says. I found it difficult to find a common thread in this haphazard collection of anecdotal facts, personal ruminations and so-called awareness to those less fortunate among us (a trend now fashionable among rich people who “made it” by being completely self-centered and selfish, and are now so bored they finally have time to discover that other, less fortunate, people exist).

I’m not going to waste time writing about this book. I will just say this: if I ever see or hear Burak mention again the amazing/surprising/mind-boggling (choose your superlative) phenomenon of how we humans ignore conditional probability, I promise I will scream. Seriously, how many times can one read about the Monty Hall problem? It’s 2013, for crying out loud.

Don’t waste your money and time on this book. Unless, that is, you’re in desperate need of small talk anecdotes for a cocktail party attended by particularly ignorant people.

This book was recommended by a friend, and as is my experience with friends’ recommendations, it turned out to be a good one.

Susan Cain is an introvert who discovered, after years working as a Wall Street lawyer, that she is unhappy with constantly having to adapt her behaviour to match the expectations of an extrovert-centric society. “Quiet”, sub-titled “The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking”, is her personal crusade against the extrovert ideal we are all expected to aspire to (especially in the USA).

Ms. Cain covers the extrovert ideal in education – from kindergarten, where children are encouraged to work in groups and “participate”, through to Harvard Business School, where the entire system is built to encourage socializing. She talks about her experiences having to speak forcibly and loudly as a lawyer to make her point. And she shows how the open-space office trend of the past couple of decades is conducive to less, not more, worker productivity and innovation.

The book is full with quotes about psychological research (perhaps too much) to back Ms. Cain’s argument for change. But even she admits, towards the end of the book, that not everything is black and white. Human personality is too complex for simple solutions, and there are many introverts among us who can adapt their behaviour according to the social situation they find themselves in. They can spend hours by themselves thinking or reading a book, and the next day they can give a successful presentation to a large audience. Yes, things can and should change, giving more attention to introverts who find it difficult to shine “in a world that can’t stop talking”, but the spectrum is so broad I’m not sure there is a one-size-fits-all solution.

While reading this book I took a couple of online versions of the Myers-Briggs test, to check where I score on the introvert-extrovert scale. I won’t disclose my personality type here, but I can say the result did not surprise me one bit. I guess with age comes also understanding of who we really are.

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