If you read good pop psych books for self-help, you need help.
There are two types of people in the world, people who believe that there are two types of people in the world, people who don’t, and people who find either/or debates dreadfully boring.
In 2003, I took a trip to Normandy, France, to fulfill a long-time interest in World War II. Omaha beach, it turned out, is a bland place. Nearly 70 years ago, Allied troops were dodging a fusillade of bullets. When I was there, there were a few tourists wondering the beach. That was it.
I knew, right then, that I was interested in something else: Stephen Ambrose’s D-Day, Saving Private Ryan and the HBO Mini-Series Band of Brothers. I wasn’t a history buff. I enjoyed history books, movies and TV shows that were fun to read and watch.
We might not admit it, but we rarely engage content that’s informative unless it’s also entertaining. Do we watch TED talks to acquire wisdom? Or do we watch TED talks because the speakers are great storytellers, occasionally funny and also informative?
What looks like genuine insight might be great story telling in disguise. “You may have the insight of a Buddha, but if you cannot tell story, your ideas turn dry as chalk,” says Robert McKee.
Negative-advice (what not to do) is more valuable than positive-advice (what to do). We should therefore listen to those who failed instead of those who only succeeded. If you’re going to grad school, talk to drop outs, not professors; if you’re an aspiring entrepreneur, talk to people who never broke even, not Mark Zuckerberg; if you’re getting married, talk to people who got divorced, not happy couples; if you want to start an acting career, talk to the waiters and waitresses in the L.A. area, not Oscar winners; if you want to buy a book, go on Amazon and read all the bad reviews first. If you’re looking for a role model, search for an antimodel—someone you despise. In sum, when seeking knowledge, we can often get closer to the truth through contradiction and subtraction, not verification.
The problem is that most negative-advice is in the cemetery. In the finance section of your local book store hundreds of books promise the “Ten Simple Steps to Get Rich.” The implication is that if you follow each step, you will become rich. The critical book shopper will ask: “Where are all the books written by people who followed the steps and didn’t get rich?” These would-be authors had a hard time pitching their manuscripts from their graves.
What I Learned Losing a Million Dollars, by Jim Paul and Brendan Moynihan (originally self-published), may be the most important book someone interested in finance could read. Here’s Paul’s bit of negative-advice: “Learning how not to lose money is more important than learning how to make money.”
Last week I listened to a panelist speak about the future of digital marketing. His opening remarks—“the world is a complex place” and later “the world is complicated”—were familiar, but I wondered what they meant.
When we say that something is “complicated” we’re usually venting about decision fatigue—what used to take one step now takes five. Think about watching TV today versus fifty years ago. In 1964, there were a few channels and to pick from. Today we plug in Apple TV or Xbox One to watch shows on demand. We need to pick between different payment options, provide credit card information and remember passwords.
“Complexity” is something else. In the language of researchers, it is a system that’s composed of many interacting parts. Complex systems, such as the weather, are sensitive to initial conditions. A slight temperature shift in Africa can trigger a hurricane over the Atlantic, just like a market crash in Russia can send a ripple through the entire system. The world is “complex” in the sense that small local changes can have large global consequences.
Here’s why the distinction matters. If you want to understand something that’s complex, it doesn’t help to study the individual parts. Traffic jams occur when a highway exceeds its carrying capacity. Alleviating a jam requires addition lanes, or maybe more public transportation options, but it won’t help to study the individual drivers—they don’t cause the traffic jam. The system does.
If you want to understand something that’s complicated, it does help to study the individual. Think about Netflix, iPhones, or gmail. They emerged from observation. By watching how a someone rents movies, uses his cell phone, and sends email, we can spot what doesn’t work and design better alternatives. Netflix would not exist if Reed Hasting’s only studied Blockbuster’s business model. He needed to feel the sting of paying those late fees.
If you live in a complex world check out Linked by Albert-Laszlo Barbasi and Six Degrees by Duncan J. Watts.
If you live in a complicated world check out Change by Design by Tim Brown and The Laws of Subtraction Matthew May.