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Summer Reading List: Curated Recommendations For a Curious Mind

Summer Reading

If you haven't already decided on your summer reading list, here is a curated list of multi-disciplinary books that can help fill your brain.

Explaining Social Behavior: More Nuts and Bolts for the Social Sciences

Nassim Taleb reviews this book, offering the following: “I read this book twice. The first time, I thought that it was excellent, the best compendium of ideas of social science by arguably the best thinker in the field. I took copious notes, etc. I agreed with its patchwork-style approach to rational decision making. I knew that it had huge insights applicable to my refusal of general theories [they don't work], rather limit ourselves to nuts and bolts [they work].”

Kafka’s The Trial

The tale of Josef K., a responsible bank officer who is suddenly and inexplicably arrested and must defend himself against a charge about which he can get no information. This is widely considered one of the great works of the twentieth century. The Trial has been read as a study of political power, a pessimistic religious parable, or a crime novel where the accused man is himself the problem. For me, this was a chilling tale on the excesses of bureaucracy.

The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains

The most compelling exploration of the Internet’s intellectual and cultural consequences published. As he describes how human thought has been shaped through the centuries by “tools of the mind”—from the alphabet to maps, to the printing press, the clock, and the computer—Carr interweaves a fascinating account of recent discoveries in neuroscience by such pioneers as Michael Merzenich and Eric Kandel. Our brains, the historical and scientific evidence reveals, change in response to our experiences. The technologies we use to find, store, and share information can literally reroute our neural pathways.

The Halo Effect: … and the Eight Other Business Delusions That Deceive Managers

This book “…brilliantly reveals the flaws in just about every best-selling strategy book of the past three decades. Second, and more importantly, it reveals just how skeptical and sharp-minded today’s business leaders must be in order to avoid falling victim to the latest and greatest guru thinking. Rosenzweig exposes how convincing but faulty the logic is of the brightest and most popular business consultants. Reading his deconstruction of their research and arguments is shocking but liberating — in much the same way that a child experiences the revelation that there is no Tooth Fairy or that magic tricks are just illusions. The book excels at revealing a lesson that cannot be repeated enough: The most persuasive and researched arguments are often the most specious.”

How Will You Measure Your Life?

The Financial Times reviewed this book as “an intriguing paradox. A self-help book that is not a self-help book, based on rigorous research but enlivened by anecdotes about the experiences of a man who is hailed as a model by his students. It neatly reverses the technique of those business bestsellers that use the lives and careers of great leaders — from Attila the Hun to General George Patton — to lay down timeless rules for corporate executives.”

Fooling Houdini: Magicians, Mentalists, Math Geeks, and the Hidden Powers of the Mind

From the back rooms of New York City's century-old magic societies to cutting-edge psychology labs; three-card monte on Canal Street to glossy Las Vegas casinos; Fooling Houdini recounts Alex Stone's quest to join the ranks of master magicians. As he navigates this quirky and occasionally hilarious subculture, Stone pulls back the curtain on a community shrouded in secrecy, fueled by obsession and brilliance, and organized around a single overriding need: to prove one's worth by deceiving others.

White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf

White Bread teaches us that when Americans debate what one should eat, they are also wrestling with larger questions of race, class, immigration, and gender. As Aaron Bobrow-Strain traces the story of bread, from the first factory loaf to the latest gourmet pain au levain, he shows how efforts to champion “good food” reflect dreams of a better society—even as they reinforce stark social hierarchies.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

From Pulitzer Prize-winner Katherine Boo, a landmark work of narrative nonfiction that tells the dramatic and sometimes heartbreaking story of families striving toward a better life in one of the twenty-first century’s great, unequal cities. With intelligence, humor, and deep insight into what connects human beings to one another in an era of tumultuous change, Behind the Beautiful Forevers carries the reader headlong into one of the twenty-first century’s hidden worlds, and into the lives of people impossible to forget.

Seeking Wisdom: From Darwin to Munger

This book is the result of Bevelin's learning about attaining wisdom. Bevelin cites an encyclopedic range of thinkers: from first-century BCE Roman poet Publius Terentius to Mark Twain-from Albert Einstein to Richard Feynman-from 16th Century French essayist Michel de Montaigne to Berkshire Hathaway Chairman Warren Buffett. This book is for those who love the constant search for knowledge. We can't eliminate mistakes, but we can prevent those that can really hurt us. Using exemplars of clear thinking and attained wisdom, Bevelin focuses on how our thoughts are influenced, why we make misjudgments and tools to improve our thinking.

Beyond Culture

Hall writes: “A key factor in explaining the sad state of American education can be found in overbureaucratization, which is seen in the compulsion to consolidate our public schools into massive factories and to increase to mammoth size our universities even in underpopulated states. The problem with bureaucracies is that they have to work hard and long to keep from substituting self-serving survival and growth for their original primary objective. Few succeed. Bureaucracies have no soul, no memory, and no conscience. If there is a single stumbling block on the road to the future, it is the bureaucracy as we know it.”

Notes on Democracy

This is probably Mencken's least well known (and most outrageously and politically incorrect) essay on democracy and its discontents. It's not so much that we need to make the world safe for democracy. Mencken argues just the opposite — the world should be made safe from democracy. A few die hard fans believe that you shouldn't even think of voting until you've read this book.

Want more? Try
Book Recommendations from Nassim Taleb
—The best books on the psychology behind human decision making and irrationality?
—Farnam Street's Behavioral Economics Reading List
Seminal Books For Each Decade
—Greg Mankiw Offers 18 Economics Recommendations
—What Bill Gates Reads for Fun
Five Must-Reads for Tackling Complex Problems

How feeling powerless directs the narratives of our mind

In his new book Mastery, Robert Greene writes discusses how feeling powerless directs the narratives of our mind.

We live in a world that seems increasingly beyond our control. Our livelihoods are at the whim of globalized forces. The problems that we face—economic, environmental, and so on—cannot be solved by our individual actions. Our politicians are distant and unresponsive to our desires. A natural response when people feel overwhelmed is to retreat into various forms of passivity. If we don’t try too much in life, if we limit our circle of action, we can give ourselves the illusion of control. The less we attempt, the less chances of failure. If we can make it look like we are not really responsible for our fate, for what happens to us in life, then our apparent powerlessness is more palatable. For this reason we become attracted to certain narratives: it is genetics that determines much of what we do; we are just products of our times; the individual is just a myth; human behavior can be reduced to statistical trends.

Many take this change in value a step further, giving their passivity a positive veneer. They romanticize the self-destructive artist who loses control of him- or herself. Anything that smacks of discipline or effort seems fussy and passé: what matters is the feeling behind the artwork, and any hint of craftsmanship or work violates this principle. They come to accept things that are made cheaply and quickly. The idea that they might have to expend much effort to get what they want has been eroded by the proliferation of devices that do so much of the work for them, fostering the idea that they deserve all of this—that it is their inherent right to have and to consume what they want. “Why bother working for years to attain mastery when we can have so much power with very little effort? Technology will solve everything.” This passivity has even assumed a moral stance: “mastery and power are evil; they are the domain of patriarchal elites who oppress us; power is inherently bad; better to opt out of the system altogether,” or at least make it look that way.

The Power Of Art: Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

“The hushed reverence of the gallery can fool you into believing masterpieces are polite things, visions that soothe, charm and beguile, but actually they are thugs.” That's how Simon Schama introduces us to art in his fascinating book: The Power of Art. The first character he introduces us to is Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio.

From the start, there are only two things you need to know about Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio: that he made the most powerfully physical Christian art that has ever been painted, and that he killed someone.

When you look at Caravaggio's art you respond physically.

[Y]ou look at Caravaggio's shocking painting of himself as the severed head of the Philistine giant Goliath (below). And you see something that had never been painted before and would never be painted again: a portrait of the artist as ogre, his face a grotesque mask of sin. It's an image of unsparing self-incrimination and it certainly makes you wonder.

Caravaggio: David and Goliath

This is an artist who reminds us he's there.

The great breakthrough of the Renaissance painting had been perspective, the depth punched through the far side of the picture plane. But Caravaggio is more interested in where we are, in the space in front of the picture plane which he makes a point of invading. Looking at the outflung arms of Christ in his Supper at Emmaus (below), 1600-01 (National Gallery, London), you almost duck to avoid the impact. Caravaggio isn't a beckoner—he's a grabber, a button-holer; his paintings shamelessly come out and accost us, as if he were crossing the street and, oh God, coming our way. ‘You looking at me?'

Caravaggio — the last supper

In many ways the Roman Church had been waiting for Caravaggio to help with the “greatest propaganda campaign that Christendom has ever seen.”

Assailed by the northern European Reformation, it (the Roman Church) was in dire need of a sacred visual drama that simple believers could respond to tangibly as if it were acted out in their presence. Much was at stake. Images were not just an incidental sideshow in the religious war between Catholics and Protestants; they went to the heart of the matter. For Lutherans, the Word written in the Holy Scriptures was everything. The claim of the Roman clergy, from the Pope down to the parish priest, that they alone held the keys to salvation, and that redemption could only be achieved through the mysteries and rituals of which they were the guardians, was dismissed by Lutherans as a wicked and presumptuous fraud. And at the heart of what they perceived as institutionalized deception were images: the pictures and sculptures of saints and madonnas, of the Saviour and even (the most shocking blasphemy, this) of the Heavenly Father himself. These were the idols, the painted mummery, by which the credulous were kept infantile, held in thrall by the Pope of Rome and his minions. They were, thundered the Lutherans, a plain violation of the second commandment, which forbade ‘graven images.' So along with the secret distribution of vernacular Bibles, the most dramatic expression of the Protestant revolution was the destruction of images. On to the bonfire they went, in the Netherlands, Germany, England and in the reformed Protestant Swiss cities of Geneva, Basel, and Zurich.

Shaken by the scale and fury of the destruction of images, it took little time for the Roman Catholic Church to mount a counter-attack. … Instinctively as well as intellectually the Church Fathers knew that, since the vast majority of men and women in Europe were illiterate, images were still the most powerful way to instruct the masses and hold their allegiance. To do otherwise was to condemn the poor and unlettered to ignorance, heresy and, ultimately the damnation of their immortal souls.

Instead of backing off, they created more.

Sensibly, they conceded that there had been abuses and extravagances in some of the art that had found its way into churches: depictions of fabulous wonders done by dubious saints that were little more than fairytales; liberties taken with the likenesses of the Father and the Holy Virgin; even some gross indecencies that made images more like distracting entertainments than objects of reverence. All of those corruptions would go. Henceforth, the Council decreed, sacred art would be in the spirit of the Saviour himself: modest and austere. It would forgo the seductions and pagan profanities of worldly beauty for the supreme vocation of instilling piety.

They had one problem: no one knew what such art would look like. The Church wanted images that were both naturally simple and accessible; the Renaissance masters for the common folk. Yet the talent at the time was, in Schama's words, “limited.” Luckily for them, Caravaggio rose from obscurity.

Caravaggio: Boy Bitten by a Lizard

Of course, if you had a mind to, you could read Boy Bitten by a Lizard, c.1595, as a warning against sexual mischief. Just in case you hadn't cottoned on to the bitten digit and the thorny rose, a smirking local would have told you that on the streets, ‘lizard' was slang for ‘penis.' The wound inflicted on the saucy lounge-lizard with the flower tucked behind his ear was, then, the bite of the inevitable social disease that visited innocents hooking up with the kind of girls Caravaggio and his pals favoured. Much more important than its snigger value, though, was the work's function as a composite portfolio of all the talents that Caravaggio was pitching. Here was someone who, from the detail in the waterbowl in which his own studio was reflected (making the painting a double-disguised self-portrait), was a dazzling master of illusionist naturalism — the first quality that those in the market for raw young talent would seek. But then the perfectly rendered moment of recoil — body thrown back facial features contorted in pain, skin flushed with a rush of blood — also advertised a master of body and face language, someone who could make visual and extreme passions in just the way Leonardo had demanded of any truly ambitious history painter. … for those who had eyes to see, this was the work of a stunningly strange virtuoso.

Caravaggio: Young Sick Bacchus

The strange virtuoso got stranger.

Perhaps it was when he got out of the hospital that Caravaggio painted his Sick Bacchus, 1593-4 (above). The very idea of it, nevermind the way it was executed, was an outlandish challenge to the conventions. Bacchus, after all, was not just the god of wine and revelry, but one of the patron deities of dance and song; and as such he had always been depicted as a perpetual youth. Caravaggio, however, turned him into a literally sick joke. The lips are grey, the eyes leering, the skin unnervingly shallow, the overloaded wreath of vine leaves around his brow excessive rather than festive. By painting himself as an overdressed party animal the morning after, Caravaggio upended the conventions. … It's not just a joke; it's a revolutionary statement of intent. The whole point of art, according to its Renaissance theorists, was the idealization of nature. Caravaggio had just announced that his business would be the naturalization of the ideal.

Caravaggio brings off this unnerving marriage between the pure and the vulgar with a showy skill that no one had seen in Rome since Raphael.

The reality effect made Caravaggio great. “And that startling immediacy,” writes Schama, “owed everything to his strategically calculated lighting.”

Caravaggio discovered

(Cardinal Francesco Maria del Monte) was hungry for culture — science and mathematics, as well as music, history, poetry and painting. And one way in which the cardinals of Rome established their place in the aristocratic pecking order was by cultural taste and patronage. … del Monte was on the lookout for promising talent. All he had to do was cross the street to Spata's art shop to see The Card Sharps. When he had seen it he must have known he'd struck gold. Caravaggio was made an offer: board and lodging; studio space on the top floor of del Monte's Plazzo Madama; and, best of all, patronage, not only by the Cardinal himself, but by the network of grandees, some secular, some in the Church, who came to the palazzo for concerts, dinners and elegantly high-minded conversations.

Caravaggio: The Card Sharps

Some of the paintings Caravaggio did while living at the palazzo were strangely erotic. Hopefully, they don't make Cardinals like del Monte anymore. In The Musicians, painted under the influence of del Monte, four barely dressed boys are fit into an impossibly tight picture.

music Caravaggio

Awkward physical proximity is precisely the point. It's contact painting: thighs and hands and arms all doing something, turning up, plucking grapes and, in the case of Caravaggio himself, at the back grasping his horn. The fact that the dewy youth on the left comes with a pair of Cupid's wings is hardly more than a non to allegory, a gesture that is a transparently unconvincing alibi against raised eyebrows in the plazzo. This is, after all, a cardinal's residence.

Eventually, Caravaggio's big break came. He was commissioned to paint the Matthews, which would be, by far, the biggest painting he had ever done and, more importantly, it would be the most visible. Caravaggio was assigned to paint Matthew on the chapel wall in the French church of San Luigi. This would also be the first time that Caravaggio was painting something that was not entirely under his control. A french cardinal, Mathiew Cointrel, left detailed instructions on how the scene — of martyrdom and the calling of the tax collector by Jesus — should be handled. Caravaggio knew that this job would be the making or breaking of him as an artist.

Caravaggio Matthew

***

Still curious? You can read Simon Schama's book, The Power of Art, or watch the excellent BBC series (based on the book). While you're at it, pick up E.H. Gombrich's The Story of Art.

Sensemaking as a Complement to Default Thinking

Most of the time we devise strategies in the default mode of problem-solving, prioritizing maximum growth and profit through rational and logical analysis. But we already know that rational and logical analysis doesn't always result in the best decisions.

In The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems Christian Madsbjerg and Mikkel Rasmussen write:

The ideal is to turn strategy work into a rigorous discipline with the use of deductive logic, a well-structured hypothesis, and a thorough collection of evidence and data. Such problem solving has dominated most research and teaching in business schools over the last decades and has formed the guiding principles of many global management consultancies. Slowly but steadily, this mind-set has gained dominance in business culture over the last thirty years. Today it is the unspoken default tool for solving all problems.

This mindset is almost scientific in the quest for precision.

… learn from past examples to create a hypothesis you can test with numbers. As it uses inductive reasoning for its foundation, it is enormously successful at analyzing information extrapolated from a known set of data from the past. Default thinking helps us create efficiencies, optimize resources, balance product portfolios, increase productivity, invest in markets with the shortest and biggest payback , cut operational complexity, and generally get more bang for the buck. In short, it works extraordinarily well when the business challenge demands an increase in the productivity of a system.

But this method often falls short. And one area where it falls short is people's behaviour. “When it comes to cultural shifts, the use of a hypothesis based on past examples will give us a false sense of confidence, sending us astray into unknown waters with the wrong map,” the authors write.

Certain problems benefit from a linear and rational approach, while other, less straightforward challenges—navigating in a fog—benefit from the problem solving utilized in the human sciences like philosophy, history, the arts, and anthropology. We call this problem-solving method sensemaking.

Sensemaking is really about finding how things are experienced through culture.

The hard sciences involving mathematics and universal laws tell us the way things are and tend to take the main spotlight when we discuss our understanding of the world. This tendency is so common, we often disregard the wide range of sciences that are used to shed light on other phenomena, or the way things are experienced in culture. If default thinking shows us what exists in the foreground (e.g., “we are losing our market share in competitive athletic apparel”), the human sciences investigate the invisible background— the layered nuance behind what we perceive (e.g., “well -being, not competition , is the main motivating factor for many people participating in sports”).

How we experience the world may be as important as, or more important than the hard, objective facts about the world. This is especially true for the specific set of problems where past data or scenarios no longer seem relevant.

Default thinking and sensemaking are complementary tools.

How default thinking and sensemaking complement one another
How default thinking and sensemaking complement one another.

But we tend to see leadership more in the default thinking way, which makes perfect sense. Who doesn't want to be hypothesis driven, quantitative, and linear in their approach to solving problems? Most of these things are visible, which has an added benefit too. But if this is the only tool in our toolbox we're going to fall short.

The difference between decision makers and sensemakers.
The difference between decision makers and sensemakers.

It was perfectly rational, yet wrong, for the steel companies in The Innovator's Dilemma to cede low-margin market share to the mini-mills. This is the decision we'd all make if we look at it through the lens of finance and default thinking. In my interview with Forbes last year, I elaborated on this concept as well with the example of a textile company. It's only when you approach problems through different lenses that you can solve them.

The Moment of Clarity: Using the Human Sciences to Solve Your Toughest Business Problems goes on to explain how humanities help solved some of our toughest business problems.

What Matters More in Decisions: Analysis or Process?

Think of the last major decision your company made.

Maybe it was an acquisition, a large purchase, or perhaps it was whether to launch a new product.

Odds are three things went into that decision: (1) It probably relied on the insights of a few key executives; (2) it involved some sort of fact gathering and analysis; and (3) it was likely enveloped in some sort of decision process—whether formal or informal—that translated the analysis into a decision.

Now how would you rate the quality of your organization's strategic decisions?

If you're like most executives, the answer wouldn't be positive:

In a recent McKinsey Quarterly survey of 2,207 executives, only 28 percent said that the quality of strategic decisions in their companies was generally good, 60 percent thought that bad decisions were about as frequent as good ones, and the remaining 12 percent thought good decisions were altogether infrequent.

How could it be otherwise?

Product launches are frequently behind schedule and over budget. Strategic plans often ignore even the anticipated response of competitors. Mergers routinely fail to live up to the promises made in press releases.

The persistence problems across time and organizations, both large and small, indicates that we can make better decisions.

Looking at how organizations make decisions is a good place to start if we're trying to improve the quality of decisions and remove cognitive biases.

While we often make decisions with our gut, these decisions leave us susceptible to biases. To counter the gut decision a lot of organizations gather data and analyze decisions.

The widespread belief is that analysis reduces biases. But does it?

Does putting your faith in analysis any better than using your gut? What does the evidence say? Is there a better way?

Decisions: Analysis or Process

Dan Lovallo and Olivier Sibony set to find out.

Lovallo is a professor at the University of Sydney and Olivier is a director at McKinsey & Company. Together they studied 1,048 “major” business decisions over five years. The results are surprising.

Most business decisions were not made on “gut calls” but rather rigorous analysis.

In short, most people did the all the leg work we think we're supposed to do: they delivered large quantities of detailed analysis.

Yet this wasn't enough. “Our research indicates that, contrary to what one might assume, good analysis in the hands of managers who have good judgment won’t naturally yield good decisions.”

***

These two quotes by Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger explain how analysis can easily go astray.

“I have no use whatsoever for projections or forecasts. They create an illusion of apparent precision. The more meticulous they are, the more concerned you should be. We never look at projections …”
— Warren Buffett

“[Projections] are put together by people who have an interest in a particular outcome, have a subconscious bias, and its apparent precision makes it fallacious. They remind me of Mark Twain's saying, ‘A mine is a hole in the ground owned by a liar.' Projections in America are often a lie, although not an intentional one, but the worst kind because the forecaster often believes them himself.”
— Charlie Munger

***

Lovallo and Sibony didn't only look at analysis, they also asked executives about the process.

Did they, for example, “explicitly explore and discuss major uncertainties or discuss viewpoints that contradicted the senior leader’s?”

So what matters more, process or analysis? After comparing the results they determined that “process mattered more than analysis—by a factor of six.

This finding does not mean that analysis is unimportant, as a closer look at the data reveals: almost no decisions in our sample made through a very strong process were backed by very poor analysis. Why? Because one of the things an unbiased decision-making process will do is ferret out poor analysis. The reverse is not true; superb analysis is useless unless the decision process gives it a fair hearing.

To illustrate the weakness of how most organizations make decisions, Sibony used an interesting analogy: the legal system.

Imagine walking into a courtroom where the trial consists of a prosecutor presenting PowerPoint slides. In 20 pretty compelling charts, he demonstrates why the defendant is guilty. The judge then challenges some of the facts of the presentation, but the prosecutor has a good answer to every objection. So the judge decides, and the accused man is sentenced.

That wouldn’t be due process, right? So if you would find this process shocking in a courtroom, why is it acceptable when you make an investment decision? Now of course, this is an oversimplification, but this process is essentially the one most companies follow to make a decision. They have a team arguing only one side of the case. The team has a choice of what points it wants to make and what way it wants to make them. And it falls to the final decision maker to be both the challenger and the ultimate judge. Building a good decision-making process is largely ensuring that these flaws don’t happen.

Understanding biases doesn't make you immune to them. A disciplined decision process is the best place to improve the quality of decisions and guard against common decision-making biases.

Still curious? Read this next: A process to make better decisions.

The inspiration for this post comes from Chip and Dan Heath in Decisive.

The Art of Roughhousing

​​“Do not be too timid and squeamish about your actions. All life is an experiment. The more experiments you make, the better. What if they are a little coarse, and you may get your coat soiled or torn? What if you do fail, and get fairly rolled in the dirt once or twice. Up again, you shall never be so afraid of a tumble.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Does anyone really need permission to play? For a variety of reasons it doesn't come naturally to everybody. Anthony T. DeBenedet and Lawrence J. Cohen have studied the benefits of parents roughhousing with their children, and present their findings in The Art of Roughhousing.

Roughhousing, to be clear, is: wrestling, pillow fights, jumping off beds, sliding down stairs, etc. And there is a philosophy behind all the horseplay.

Roughhousing is play that flows with spontaneity, improvisation, and joy. It is free from worries about how we look or how much time is passing. It is physical, and it promotes physical fitness, release of tension, and well-being. Roughhousing is interactive, so it builds close connections between children and parents, especially as we get down on the floor and join them in their world of exuberance and imagination. Most important, roughhousing is rowdy, but not dangerous. With safety in mind, roughhousing releases the creative life force within each person, pushing us out of our inhibitions and inflexibilities.

Rowdy, physical, interactive play is by far the most common type of play in the animal kingdom. It occurs in every species of mammal and in many nonmammalian species as well. We’ve all seen videos of lion cubs wrestling, but you’d be amazed by the vast number of species that enjoy rowdy play—elephants, whales, even ants.

Play is good for you.

Play – especially active physical play, like roughhousing – makes kids smart, emotionally intelligent, lovable and likeable, ethical, physically fit, and joyful. … Roughhousing activates many different parts of the body and the brain, from the amygdalae, which process emotions, and the cerebellum, which handles complex motor skills, to the prefrontal cortex, which makes high-level judgments. The result is that every roughhousing playtime is beneficial for body and brain as well as for the loftiest levels of the human spirit: honor, integrity, morality, kindness, and cooperation.

“Sadly,” DeBenedet writes, “roughhousing barely limps along on life support.”

What was once a motto of Safety First has evolved into a fretful new motto of Safety Only. Many parents are more frightened by skinned knees and bruised feelings than life’s real dangers: stifled creativity and listless apathy.

They present an endearing story that Stuart Brown tells in his book Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul about an encounter between a sled dog and a hungry polar bear who become playmates.

Unfortunately, after a few days the polar bear gets hungry enough that his primal instinct kicks in and he eats the dog…but Brown writes, “rough-and-tumble play in animals and humans…is necessary for the development and maintenance of social awareness, cooperation, fairness, and altruism.”

And to take it further, “Lack of experience with rough-and-tumble play hampers the normal give-and-take necessary for social mastery and has been linked to poor control of violent impulses later in life.

It sounds like we should all consider taking roughhousing a bit more seriously.

“Active physical play is the best way for parents and children to build a strong, close, lasting bond.”

Surprisingly, this is not just for fathers and sons, but should include mothers and daughters as well.

…make sure your son knows that he has a secure home base and that he can always climb into your arms for a cuddle or a good cry if his body or his feelings get hurt. And make sure your daughter has a chance to test out her strength and power, so that she can step out into the world with confidence.

Perhaps this is all food for thought in the near constant helicopter-parent world we find ourselves in.

Yuval Noah Harari on Why Humans Dominate the Earth: Myth-Making

“Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That's why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.” —Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens 

***

Yuval Noah Harari‘s Sapiens is one of those uniquely breathtaking books that comes along very rarely. It's broad, yet scientific. It's written for a popular audience but never feels dumbed down. It's new and fresh, but is not based on any brand new primary research. Near and dear to our heart, Sapiens is pure synthesis.

An immediate influence that comes to mind is Jared Diamond, author of Guns, Germs, and Steel, The Third Chimpanzee, and other broad-yet-scientific works with vast synthesis and explanatory power. And of course, Harari, a history professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has noted that key influence and what it means to how he works:

(Harari) credits author Jared Diamond with encouraging him to take a much broader view—his Guns, Germs and Steel was an enormous influence. Harari says: “It made me realise that you can ask the biggest questions about history and try to give them scientific answers. But in order to do so, you have to give up the most cherished tools of historians. I was taught that if you’re going to study something, you must understand it deeply and be familiar with primary sources. But if you write a history of the whole world you can’t do this. That’s the trade-off.”

With this working model in mind, Harari sought to understand the history of humankind's domination of the earth and its development of complex modern societies. His synthesis involves using evolutionary theory, forensic anthropology, genetics and the basic tools of the historian to generate a new conception of our past: Man's success was due to its ability to create and sustain grand, collaborative myths.

Harari uses a smart trick to make his narrative more palatable and sensible: He uses the term Sapiens to refer to human beings. With this bit of depersonalization, Harari can go on to make some extremely bold statements about the history of humanity. We're just another animal: the Homo Sapiens and our history can be described just like that of any other species. Our successes, failures, flaws and credits are part of the makeup of the Sapiens. (This biological approach to history is one we've looked at before with the work of Will and Ariel Durant.)

***

Sapiens was, of course, just one of many animals on the savannah if we go back about 100,000 years.

There were humans long before there was history. Animals much like modern humans first appeared about 2.5 million years ago. But for countless generations they did not stand out from the myriad other organisms with which they shared their habitats….

These archaic humans loved, played, formed close friendships and competed for status and power, but so did chimpanzees, baboons, and elephants. There was nothing special about humans. Nobody, least of all humans themselves had any inkling their descendants would one way walk on the moon, split the atom, fathom the genetic code and write history books. The most important thing to know about prehistoric humans is that they were insignificant animals with no more impact on their environment than gorillas, fireflies or jellyfish.

We like to think we have been a privileged species right from the start; that through a divine spark, we had the ability to dominate our environment and the lesser mammals we co-habitated with. But that was not so, at least not at first. We were simply another smart, social ape trying to survive in the wild. We had cousins: Homo neanderthalensis, Homo erectus, Homo rudolfensis…all considered human and with similar traits. If chimps and bonobos were our second cousins, these were our first cousins.

Eventually things changed. About 70,000 or so years ago, our DNA showed a mutation (Harari claims we're not sure why — I don't know the research well enough to disagree) which allowed us to make a leap that no other species, human or otherwise, was able to make: Cooperating flexibly in large groups with a unique and complex language. Harari calls this the “Cognitive Revolution.”

What was the Sapiens' secret of success? How did we manage to settle so rapidly in so many distant and ecologically different habitats? How did we push all other human species into oblivion? Why couldn't even the strong, brainy, cold-proof Neanderthals survive our onslaught? The debate continues to rage. The most likely answer is the very thing that makes the debate possible: Homo sapiens conquered the world thanks above all to its unique language.

Our newfound language had many attributes that couldn't be found in our cousins' languages, or in any other languages from ants to whales.

Firstly, we could give detailed explanations of events that had transpired. I saw a large lion in the forest three days back, with three companions, near the closest tree to the left bank of the river and I think, but am not totally sure, they were hunting us. Why don't we ask for help from a neighboring tribe so we don't all end up as lion meat?

Secondly, and maybe more importantly, we could also gossip about each other. I noticed Frank and Steve have not contributed to the hunt in about three weeks. They are not holding up their end of the bargain, and I don't think we should include them in distributing the proceeds of our next major slaughter. Hey, does this headdress make me look fat?

As important as both of these abilities were to the development of Sapiens, they are probably not the major insights by Harari. Steven Pinker has written about The Language Instinct and where it got us over time, as have others.

Harari's insight is that the above are not the most important reasons why our “uniquely supple” language gave us a massive, exponential, survival advantage: It was because we could talk about things that were not real

As far as we know, only Sapiens can talk about entire kinds of entities that they have never seen, touched, or smelled. Legends, myths, gods, and religions appeared for the first time with the Cognitive Revolution. Many animals and human species could previously say ‘Careful! A lion! Thanks to the Cognitive Revolution, Homo sapiens acquired the ability to say. ‘The lion is the guardian spirit of our tribe.' This ability to speak about fictions is the most unique feature of Sapiens language…You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.

This is the core of Harari's provocative thesis: It is our collected fictions that define us. Predictably, he mentions religion as one of the important fictions. But other fictions are just as important; the limited liability corporation; the nation-state; the concept of human “rights” deliverable at birth; the concept of money itself. All of these inventions allow us to do the thing that other species cannot do: Cooperate effectively and flexibly in large groups.

Ants and bees can also work together in huge numbers, but they do so in a very rigid manner and only with close relatives. Wolves and chimpanzees cooperate far more flexibly than ants, but they can do so only with small numbers of other individuals that they know intimately. Sapiens can cooperate in extremely flexible ways with countless numbers of strangers. That's why Sapiens rule the world, whereas ants eat our leftovers and chimps are locked up in zoos and research laboratories.

Our success is intimately linked to scale, which we have discussed before. In many systems and in all species but ours, as far as we know, there are hard limits to the number of individuals that can cooperate in groups in a flexible way. (Ants can cooperate in great numbers with their relatives, but only based on simple algorithms. Munger has mentioned in The Psychology of Human Misjudgment that ants' rules are so simplistic that if a group of ants start walking in a circle, their “follow-the-leader” algorithm can cause them to literally march until their collective death.)

Sapiens diverged when it discovered an ability to generate a collective myth, and there was almost no limit to the number of cooperating, believing individuals who could belong to a belief-group. And thus we see extremely different results in human culture than in whale culture, or dolphin culture, or bonobos culture. It's a lollapalooza result from a combination of critical elements.

Any large-scale human cooperation — whether a modern state, a medieval church, an ancient city, or an archaic tribe — is rooted in common myths that exist only in people's collective imagination. Churches are rooted in common religious myths. Two Catholics who have never met can nevertheless go together on crusade or pool funds to build a hospital because they both believe God was incarnated in human flesh and allowed Himself to be crucified to redeem our sins. States are rooted in common national myths. Two Serbs who have never met might risk their lives to save one another because both believe in the existence of the Serbian nation, the Serbian homeland and the Serbian flag. Judicial systems are rooted in common legal myths. Two lawyers who have never met can nevertheless combine efforts to defend a complete stranger because they both believe in the existence of laws, justice, human rights, and money paid out in fees.

Harari is quick to point out that these aren't lies. We truly believe them, and we believe in them as a collective. They have literal truth in the sense that if I trust that you believe in money as much as I do, we can use it as an exchange of value. But just as you can't get a chimpanzee to forgo a banana today for infinite bananas in heaven, you also can't get him to accept 3 apples today with the idea that if he invests them in a chimp business wisely, he'll get 6 bananas from it in five years, no matter how many compound interest tables you show him. This type of collaborative and complex fiction is uniquely human, and capitalism is as much of a collective myth as religion.

Of course, this leads to a fascinating result of human culture: If we collectively decide to to alter the myths, we can alter population behavior dramatically and quickly. We can decide slavery, one of the oldest institutions in human history, is no longer acceptable. We can declare monarchy an outdated form of governance. We can decide females should have the right to as much power as men, reversing the pattern of history. (Of course, we can also decide all Sapiens must worship the same religious text and devote ourselves to slaughtering the resisters.)

There is no parallel I'm aware of in other species for these quick, large-scale shifts. General behavior patterns in dogs or fish or ants change due to a change in environment or broad genetic evolution over a period of time. Lions will never sign a Declaration of Lion Rights and decide to banish the idea of an alpha male lion; their hierarchies are rigid.

But humans can collectively change the narrative in a period of a few years and begin acting very differently, with the same DNA and the same set of physical environments. And thus, says Harari: “The Cognitive Revolution is accordingly the point when history declared its independence from biology.” These ever shifting alliances, beliefs, myths, and ultimately, cultures, define what we call human history.

For now we will leave it here, but a thorough reading of Sapiens is recommended to understand where Professor Harari takes this idea, from the earliest humans to the fate of our descendants.

The Great Books

The Great Books_opt

We all want to read more.

If reading older books is exponentially more beneficial for acquiring knowledge than reading newer things, then reading the great books is a good place to start.

These books build the foundation of knowledge.

One of the best places to find a list of the great books is St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland.

The interdisciplinary curriculum focuses on the foundational works of philosophy, literature, history, political science, theology, economics, music, mathematics, and the laboratory sciences.

Sounds like the type of education I didn't get in school and I'm making up for now. At St. John's, all classes are conducted seminar-style.

By engaging in these small seminar classes, students learn skills of critical analysis and cooperative inquiry. Students also refine their ability to think, write, and speak across all disciplines by writing substantial annual essays and defending them in oral examinations.

Many consider the curriculum an outrage. I wish it were more common.

In the New Yorker, former alum Salvatore Scibona writes, “The college’s curriculum was an outrage. No electives. Not a single book in the seminar list by a living author.” “However,” he continued,

no tests. No grades, unless you asked to see them. No textbooks—I was confused. In place of an astronomy manual, you would read Copernicus. No books about Aristotle, just Aristotle. Like, you would read book-books. The Great Books, so called, though I had never heard of most of them. It was akin to taking holy orders, but the school—St. John’s College—had been secular for three hundred years. In place of praying, you read.

The Great Books

I'm going to post the list in the order students encounter them: freshman, sophomore, junior and senior.

The first year is devoted to Greek authors and their pioneering understanding of the liberal arts; the second year contains books from the Roman, medieval, and Renaissance periods; the third year has books of the 17th and 18th centuries, most of which were written in modern languages; the fourth year brings the reading into the 19th and 20th centuries.

FRESHMAN YEAR

HOMER: Iliad, Odyssey

AESCHYLUS: Agamemnon, Libation Bearers, EumenidesPrometheus Bound

SOPHOCLES: Oedipus Rex, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone, Philoctetes, Ajax

THUCYDIDES: Peloponnesian War

EURIPIDES: Hippolytus, Bacchae

HERODOTUS: Histories

ARISTOPHANES: Clouds

PLATO: Meno, Gorgias, Republic, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Symposium, Parmenides, Theaetetus, Sophist, Timaeus, Phaedrus

ARISTOTLE: Physics, Metaphysics, Nicomachean Ethics, Poetics, Politics, On Generation and Corruption, Parts of Animals, Generation of Animals

EUCLID: Elements

LUCRETIUS: On the Nature of Things

PLUTARCH: Lycurgus, Solon

NICOMACHUS: Arithmetic

LAVOISIER: Elements of Chemistry

HARVEY: Motion of the Heart and Blood

SOPHOMORE YEAR

HEBREW BIBLE

THE BIBLE: New Testament

ARISTOTLE: De Anima, On Interpretation, Prior Analytics, Categories

APOLLONIUS: Conics

VIRGIL: Aeneid

PLUTARCH: “Caesar,” “Cato the Younger,” “Antony,” “Brutus

EPICTETUS: Discourses, Manual

TACITUS: Annals

PTOLEMY: Almagest

PLOTINUS: The Enneads

AUGUSTINE: Confessions

MAIMONIDES: Guide for the Perplexed

ST. ANSELM: Proslogium

AQUINAS: Summa Theologica

DANTE: Divine Comedy

CHAUCER: Canterbury Tales

MACHIAVELLI: The Prince, Discourses

KEPLER: Epitome IV

RABELAIS: Gargantua and Pantagruel

PALESTRINA: Missa Papae Marcelli

MONTAIGNE: Essays

VIETE: Introduction to the Analytical Art

BACON: Novum Organum

SHAKESPEARE: Richard II, Henry IV, The Tempest, As You Like It, Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, King Lear, and Sonnets

DESCARTES: Geometry, Discourse on Method

PASCAL: Generation of Conic Sections

BACH: St. Matthew Passion, Inventions

HAYDN: Quartets

MOZART: Operas

BEETHOVEN: Third Symphony

SCHUBERT: Songs

MONTEVERDI: L'Orfeo

STRAVINSKY: Symphony of Psalms

JUNIOR YEAR

CERVANTES: Don Quixote

GALILEO: Two New Sciences

HOBBES: Leviathan

DESCARTES: Meditations, Rules for the Direction of the Mind

MILTON: Paradise Lost

LA ROCHEFOUCAULD: Maximes

LA FONTAINE: Fables

PASCAL: Pensees

HUYGENS: Treatise on Light, On the Movement of Bodies by Impact

ELIOT: Middlemarch

SPINOZA: Theological-Political Treatise

LOCKE: Second Treatise of Government

RACINE: Phaedre

NEWTON: Principia Mathematica

KEPLER: Epitome IV

LEIBNIZ: Monadology, Discourse on Metaphysics, Essay On Dynamics, Philosophical Essays, Principles of Nature and Grace

SWIFT: Gulliver's Travels

HUME: Treatise of Human Nature

ROUSSEAU: Social Contract, The Origin of Inequality

MOLIERE: Le Misanthrope

ADAM SMITH: Wealth of Nations

KANT: Critique of Pure Reason, Foundations of the Metaphysics of Morals

MOZART: Don Giovanni

JANE AUSTEN: Pride and Prejudice

DEDEKIND: “Essay on the Theory of Numbers
Articles of Confederation,” “Declaration of Independence,” “Constitution of the United States of America

HAMILTON, JAY AND MADISON: The Federalist

TWAIN: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn

WORDSWORTH: The Two Part Prelude of 1799

SENIOR YEAR

GOETHE: Faust

DARWIN: Origin of Species

HEGEL: Phenomenology of Mind, “Logic” (from the Encyclopedia)

LOBACHEVSKY: Theory of Parallels

TOCQUEVILLE: Democracy in America

KIERKEGAARD: Philosophical Fragments, Fear and Trembling

WAGNER: Tristan and Isolde

MARX: Capital, Political and Economic Manuscripts of 1844, The German Ideology

DOSTOEVSKI: Brothers Karamazov

TOLSTOY: War and Peace

MELVILLE: Benito Cereno

WILLIAM JAMES; Psychology, Briefer Course

NIETZSCHE: Beyond Good and Evil

FREUD: Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis

DUBOIS: The Souls of Black Folk

HUSSERL: Crisis of the European Sciences

HEIDEGGER: Basic Writings

EINSTEIN: Selected papers

CONRAD: Heart of Darkness

FAULKNER: Go Down Moses

FLAUBERT: Un Coeur Simple

WOOLF: Mrs. Dalloway

So here's the deal. Pick a few books and start pecking away.

Can Waiting Help You Make Better Decisions?

Great article in the financial times with the subtitle: Watching the world’s best tennis players at Wimbledon over the next fortnight can help us make better decisions.

Here is what I learnt from interviewing more than 100 experts in different fields and working through several hundred recent studies and experiments: given the fast pace of modern life, most of us tend to react too quickly. We don’t, or can’t, take enough time to think about the increasingly complex timing challenges we face. Technology surrounds us, speeding us up. We overreact to its crush every day, both at work and at home.

And

One of the most surprising aspects of Lehman’s collapse was that the firm’s leaders had tried so hard to understand the problems associated with their own decision-making. In autumn 2005, Lehman’s senior managers hired a group of experts to teach four dozen top executives how to make better decisions. Max H Bazerman, a chaired professor at Harvard Business School, reviewed cutting-edge decision research. Mahzarin Banaji, a Harvard psychologist, administered custom-designed tests to help the executives understand their biases. Malcolm Gladwell, who had just published Blink, a bestseller about the “first two seconds” of our reactions, gave the capstone lecture.

These managers sat for a cutting-edge course on the timing of decisions. Then, they rushed back to their offices and made some of the worst decisions in the history of financial markets. Three years later, their firm was gone.

If Lehman had lived until today, its decision-making course would look radically different. The core message of recent research is the opposite of the one Lehman’s executives learnt in 2005: the longer we can wait, the better. And once we have a sense of how long a decision should take, we generally should delay the moment of decision until the last possible instant. If we have an hour, we should wait 59 minutes before responding. If we have a year, we should wait 364 days. Even if we have just half a second, we should wait as long as we possibly can. As the matches at Wimbledon will illustrate, even milliseconds matter.

Thinking about the role of delay is a profound and fundamental part of being human. Questions about delay are existential: the amount of time we take to reflect on decisions will define who we are. Is our mission simply to be another animal, responding to whatever stimulations we encounter? Or are we here for something more?

Life might be a race against time but it is enriched when we rise above our instincts and stop the clock to process and understand what we are doing and why. A wise decision requires reflection, and reflection requires a pause.

If we are limited to just one word of wisdom about decision-making for children born a hundred years from now, people who will have all our advantages and limitations as human beings but will need to navigate an unimaginably faster-paced world than the one we confront now, there is no doubt what that word should be.

Wait.

Still curious? Steven Sample talks about waiting as long as possible to make decisions in the excellent Contrarian's Guide to Leadership. Also check out Wait: The Art and Science of Delay.

Activation Energy: Why Getting Started is The Hardest Part

The Basics

The beginning of any complex or challenging endeavor is always the hardest part.

Not all of us wake up and jump out of bed ready for the day. Some of us, like me, need a little extra energy to transition out of sleep and into the day. Once I've had a cup of coffee, my energy level jumps and I'm good for the rest of the day.

Chemical reactions work in much the same way. They need their coffee too.

Understanding how this works can be a useful perspective as part of our latticework of mental models.

Whether you use chemistry in your everyday work or have tried your best not to think about it since school, the ideas behind activation energy are simple and useful outside of chemistry. Understanding the principle, for example, can help you get kids to eat their vegetables, motivate yourself and others, and overcome inertia.

How Activation Energy Works in Chemistry

Chemical reactions need a certain amount of energy to begin working. Activation energy is the minimum energy required to cause a reaction to occur.

To understand activation energy, we must first think about how a chemical reaction occurs.

Anyone who has ever lit a fire will have an intuitive understanding of the process, even if they have not connected it to chemistry.

Most of us have a general feel for the heat necessary to start flames. We know that putting a single match to a large log will not be sufficient and a flame thrower would be excessive. We also know that damp or dense materials will require more heat than dry ones. The imprecise amount of energy we know we need to start a fire is representative of the activation energy.

For a reaction to occur, existing bonds must break and new ones form. A reaction will only proceed if the products are more stable than the reactants. In a fire, we convert carbon in the form of wood into CO2 and is a more stable form of carbon than wood, so the reaction proceeds and in the process produces heat. In this example, the activation energy is the initial heat required to get the fire started. Our effort and spent matches are representative of this.

We can think of activation energy as the barrier between the minima (smallest necessary values) of the reactants and products in a chemical reaction.

The Arrhenius Equation

Svante Arrhenius, a Swedish scientist, established the existence of activation energy in 1889.

Arrhenius equation

Arrhenius developed his eponymous equation to describe the correlation between temperature and reaction rate.

The Arrhenius Equation is crucial for calculating the rates of chemical reactions, and, importantly, the quantity of energy necessary to start them.

In the Arrhenius equation, K is the reaction rate coefficient (the rate of reaction.) A is the frequency factor (how often molecules collide), R is the universal gas constant (units of energy per temperature increment per mole.) T represents the absolute temperature (usually measured in kelvins) and E is the activation energy.

It is not necessary to know the value of A to calculate Ea as this can be figured out from the variation in reaction rate coefficients in relation to temperature. Like many equations, it can be rearranged to calculate different values. The Arrhenius equation is used in many branches of chemistry.

Why Activation Energy Matters

Understanding the energy necessary for a reaction to occur gives us control over our surroundings.

Returning to the example of fire, our intuitive knowledge of activation energy keeps us safe. Many chemical reactions have high activation energy requirements, so they do not proceed without an additional input. We all know that a book on a desk is flammable, but will not combust without heat application. At room temperature, we need not see the book as a fire hazard. If we light a candle on the desk, we know to move the book away.

If chemical reactions did not have reliable activation energy requirements, we would live in a dangerous world.

Catalysts

Chemical reactions which require substantial amounts of energy can be difficult to control.

Increasing temperature is not always a viable source of energy due to costs, safety issues or simple impracticality. Chemical reactions which occur within our bodies, for example, cannot use high temperatures as a source of activation energy. Consequently, it is sometimes necessary to reduce the activation energy required.

Speeding up a reaction by lowering the rate of activation energy required is called catalysis. This is done with an additional substance known as a catalyst, which is generally not consumed in the reaction. In principle, you only need a tiny amount of catalyst to cause catalysis.

Catalysts work by providing an alternative pathway with lower activation energy requirements. Consequently, more of the particles have sufficient energy to react. Catalysts are used in industrial scale reactions to lower costs.

Returning to the fire example, we know that attempting to light a large log with a match is rarely effective. Adding some paper will provide an alternative pathway and serve as a catalyst — firestarters do the same.

Within our bodies, enzymes serve as catalysts in vital reactions (such as building DNA.)

How we Can Apply the Concept of Activation Energy to our Lives

“Energy can have two dimensions. One is motivated, going somewhere, a goal somewhere, this moment is only a means and the goal is going to be the dimension of activity, goal oriented-then everything is a means, somehow it has to be done and you have to reach the goal, then you will relax. But for this type of energy, the goal never comes because this type of energy goes on changing every present moment into a means for something else, into the future. The goal always remains on the horizon. You go on running, but the distance remains the same.

No, there is another dimension of energy: that dimension is unmotivated celebration. The goal is here, now; the goal is not somewhere else. In fact, you are the goal. In fact, there is no other fulfillment than that of this moment–consider the lilies. When you are the goal and when the goal is not in the future, when there is nothing to be achieved, rather you are just celebrating it, then you have already achieved it, it is there. This is relaxation, unmotivated energy.”
— Osho, Tantra

***

Although activation energy is a scientific concept, we can use it as a practical mental model.

Returning to the morning coffee example, many of the things we do each day depend upon an initial push.

Take the example of a class of students set an essay for their coursework. Each student requires a different sort of activation energy for them to get started. For one student it might be hearing their friend say she has already finished hers. For another, it might be blocking social media and turning off their phone. A different student might need a few cans of Red Bull and an impending deadline. Or, for another, reading an interesting article on the topic which provides a spark of inspiration. The act of writing an essay necessitates a certain sort of energy.

Getting kids to eat their vegetables can be a difficult process. In this case, incentives can act as a catalyst. You can't have your dessert until you eat your vegetables is not only a psychological play on incentives, it's also often less energy than constantly fighting with them to eat their vegetables. Once kids eat a carrot, they generally eat another one and another one. While they still want dessert, you won't have to remind them each time and in the process, you'll save a lot of energy.

The concept of activation energy can also apply to making drastic life changes. Anyone who has ever done something dramatic and difficult (such as quitting an addiction, leaving an abusive relationship, quitting a long term job or making crucial lifestyle changes) knows that it is necessary to reach a breaking point first. The bigger and more challenging an action is, the more activation energy we require to do it.

Our coffee drinker might crave little activation energy (a cup or two) to begin their day if they are well rested. Meanwhile, it will take a whole lot more coffee for them to get going if they slept badly and have a dull day to get through.

Conclusion

To understand and use the concept of activation energy in our lives does not require a degree in chemistry. While the concept, as used by scientists, is complex we can use the basic idea.

It is no coincidence that many of most useful mental models in our latticework originate from science. There is something quite poetic about the way in which human behavior mirrors what occurs at a microscopic level.

For other examples, look to Occam’s Razor, falsification, feedback loops and equilibrium.