Talking to Strangers

I found it oddly satisfying that Talking to Strangers was the fortieth and the last book that I read as part of the Goodreads 2019 Reading Challenge. For those of you who are expecting this to be a self-help book, let me make it clear that is not (However there is one very important take away from this book personally). Instead it is an exploration of the various theories and mental models that are used in our daily interactions with strangers.
I’m reading Malcolm Gladwell after a very long time and had skipped the last few of his books. So, Talking to Strangers was something like a re-introduction to Gladwell for me. So how good is this book? Well, rather than putting a number to it, let me put it this way. This book is as good as Gladwell’s other books. Like all his writing, in Talking to Strangers, Gladwell tries to leave the audience with an important thought – whether our current mental models are helpful or harmful in our interactions with strangers. Using examples from varied fields (only some of which are relevant in daily life), Gladwell explains how social psychology can work for or against an individual and consequently can shape societal trends.

A mixed bag of characters

While the case studies on the Cuban spies and the Chamberlain meetings with Hitler may not be too relevant in today’s world, there are others that hit home hard. The cases of Jerry Sandusky, Sandra Bland and the drunk frat party incidents are particularly harrowing to read as these can affect you and me any day.
Gladwell proposes three major theories in this book – Default to truth, Transparency, and Coupling. The default to truth theory refers to people’s general inclination to believe that the other person is being truthful in his or her communication. This theory plays a major role in shaping negotiations between strangers, especially when there is an asymmetry of information. Gladwell says that although relying on the default to truth theory can sometimes work against you in some of the cases, it is a very worthwhile heuristic to keep in mind in our human interactions. Without it, he claims, that there would be a complete breakdown in trust, commerce and other activities. An example that Gladwell beautifully brings out as far as Wall Street is concerned.
The theory of Transparency proposes that an individual’s outer behaviour matches what they feel inside. If a person smiles and moves energetically, he is feeling elated inside.
We tend to judge people’s honesty based on their demeanor. Well-spoken, confident people with a firm handshake who are friendly and engaging are seen as believable. Nervous, shifty, stammering, uncomfortable people who give windy, convoluted explanations aren’t.
This is another heuristic that society uses in measuring up the other party in any interaction. A majority of people in the world are transparent. Their behaviour matches their inner feelings. So for the most part this heuristic works. From cops trying to find out whether a suspect is lying, or juries (or judges) when attempting to sum up a defendant. But for cases where people are not matched, relying on this heuristic can be very dangerous. Gladwell explains this with the case of Amanda Knox, an American woman, who was wrongfully incarcerated for four years in an Italian prison after being found guilty in a murder case. According to Gladwell, it was he mismatched behaviour and lack of transparency that led the police and the judiciary to rule that she was guilty, even in the light of insufficient evidence to prove that she was in the room where her roommate was murdered.
The Coupling theory proposes that the behaviour of an individual must be seen in relation to his circumstances. If, in our, interactions with strangers, we are not aware of the context in which the other person is behaving it can lead to confusion at best and disaster at worst.

The end-point

Like other books by Gladwell, Talking to Strangers is an easy read and I breezed through it well within a week. Gladwell must be complimented for his lucid writing and his ability to keep the readers hooked. It also helps that his stories nicely wrap together the theories that he proposes (the downside of this later).
On the other hand, it can also be argued that, as is with most nonfiction books, Gladwell stretches out a point needlessly with case studies and anecdotes, some of which are totally irrelevant to the individual. At other times it feels like that the author is trying to shape the interpretation to fit the theory. An example of this is using the Friends episode to explain the concept of Transparency. Totally, anecdotal in my opinion. In his own words, “I’m interested in collecting interesting stories, and I’m interested in collecting interesting research. What I’m looking for is cases where they overlap.”
This does not mean that this book is not worth reading. For me, the biggest takeaway in the book for me was the issue of Transparency, or the lack thereof. Amanda Knox was caught and thrown in prison because of her lack of transparency. She could not show on the outside what she felt on the inside. And society misread her and wrongly punished her for it. Although such cases are far and few between, it still warrants a second thought on the importance of matching one’s outer behaviour with inner feelings.
Read Talking to Strangers if you’re interested in how individuals use these heuristics to process and simplify human interactions and what happens when these theories fail in practice. There is definitely a few useful pointers to take from this book and fans of Gladwell will definitely enjoy another thought-provoking book by him.

A little more on Gladwell’s writing

Now that brings me to a broader look at Malcolm Gladwell’s writing. Gladwell broke into the literary world through his first book – The Tipping Point which was an instant bestseller. He received a $1 million advance for writing it after his article on the same topic in the New Yorker. And through that book (and next bestselling book, Blink) the world of pop psychology was forever changed. Yes, that is what Gladwell’s writings can be classified into. His works do have popular impact and are often picked up by his readers as fact. As an example, the famous 10000 hour rule was first introduced by Gladwell in the Tipping Point. This limit is considered as a threshold for gaining expertise in any human endeavour. Post this there have been countless books and Youtube videos that profess the 10000 hour rule as gospel truth. That it has been equally debunked by other studies is a separate point.
There is no doubt that Gladwell’s writings makes society think. And his books bring otherwise bland and often dry theories to a wider audience. He can probably package the most yawn-worthy stories into a fun to read bestseller. Whether it is the Tipping Point, Blink, or Talking to Strangers, there’s enough serious material in each of these books to make you pause and think.
But personally I feel that beyond that initial ‘hmm’ and pause in one’s life, the reader tends to move on. Malcolm says that his aim is to get more people to take psychology seriously. But ironically, in order to do that, the serious reader would have to explore further and deeper than simply to spout the theories that he proposes in his books as gospel.
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The Untethered Soul Book Review

I don’t exactly recall the site where I found recommendations to this book. maybe it was reddit, maybe it was goodreads itself. But after months of this book being in the subconscious and in my Goodreads Want to Read shelf, I finally got around to it at a tumultous phase in my life.

And now that I’ve finally reached the end of the book, I must say that this book has made me a little better. Or at least it has definitely set me up on the path to getting better. I plan to re-read this book very soon to get a better grasp of the book’s message.

What I liked about The Untethered Soul was its simple to understand language. The author, Michael A. Singer, does not bother making it esoteric by cramming it with esoteric prose. Compare this to a book by Deepak Chopra that almost aims to humiliate, or at least create an inferiority complex with its abstract concepts and pseudo-spiritual advice. This book however made me feel like the author was having an easy going conversation with me.

The book is divided into five parts, further broken down into short chapters. Each chapters focuses on bringing you one step closer to freeing your soul with a solid takeaway. There were particularly a couple of pieces of advice that I loved the most. The first was about finding the seat of your consciousness from which one can observe all their thoughts, feelings, emotions, without getting caught up in them. It was like having my very own Iron Throne.

Another advice that I liked was the fact that things happening in one’s life cannot be classified as good or bad. It is one’s expectations that make an event good or bad. By letting go of their expectations, one can simply enjoy life’s events as they come instead of fuming when “things don’t go their way.” As I said earlier, I was reading this book during a time of major change in my life. And I found these techniques very effective in helping me handle this uncertain period.

It is surprising that this book is not known enough in the self-help genre. I would rate this book much more effective than the more popular or best-selling books in the market. By the time I reached the end, I felt that I had learnt a lot from this book in a short span of time, and without much spiritual or meditative rituals.

The only thing out of place in the Untethered Soul was the last chapter. This is when the author starts spouting verses from the various holy books in order to make his point. The fact that the chapter was titled “The Loving Eyes of God” should have warned me about the same. But it was jarring that the author who had mostly avoided religion and new-age references throughout the book suddenly felt the urge to close out with direct religious quotes and references.

Thankfully, this chapter doesn’t take anything away from how useful this book is for people wanting to find a new dimension in their thought patterns. People wanting a religious basis for self-improvement will enjoy this chapter, others can simply skip it.

As it is, the rest of the book is packed full of wisdom. Michael A. Singer provides a very useful framework to anyone wanting to untether their soul from the chains of rigid thought patterns. I highly recommend this book for anyone who wishes to do so.

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The Geometry of Wealth by Brian Portnoy – Book Review

Was I reading the right book?

When you have a “How to” in the title of your book, one expects that it is a more of a practical guide to whatever you are ‘HowTo’ing. And it is that expectation that led me to explore this book. The book is almost a year old but there only were a handful of reviews on Amazon. Also, 91% of them were 5-stars. But more of that later. Continue reading “The Geometry of Wealth by Brian Portnoy – Book Review”

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When by Daniel H Pink – Book Review

Before I started this book, I had kept reminding myself, “Suspend your disbelief.” The reason I did this was that I have been very cynical of behavioural/psychological/anthropological books that spout studies selectively and creates an artificial narrative. Specifically an example is the spate of books that attribute certain behaviours of the modern human to that of his ancestors when they roamed the savannah. I’ve said it before as well that my brain does not process kindly such attributions. And in keeping with the times, this book too has this attribution somewhere in its pages (economic rationality is no match for a biological clock forged during a few million years of evolution).

“When” starts off quite well. The author structures the book into three parts – The Beginning, the Middle and the End. Each part deals with a specific time of any project/activity/task and it discusses how that particular part fits into the bigger picture. The author quotes multitudes of studies to bring home the point.

Mercifully the book is not too long and rambling. And that is where the good things about the book end. Although the author mentions in the introduction that this book can be used as a practical guide, by the time I reach the end, I’m left wondering for what. Other than a Malcolm Gladwellish analysis of social, mental and psychological phenomena, I didn’t finding anything much to take away from this book. To put it even more plainly I couldn’t discern the purpose of the book.

There are a few commonsensical tips scattered in the book. If you’re a morning person do your heavy work in the mornings. If you’re an owl, do it later in the day. Drink a glass of water as soon as you wake up to rehydrate yourself.

Interestingly the useful content of the book follows the much repeated peak, trough and recovery graph that the author introduces at the beginning. The chapter on Midpoints seemed much devoid of actual useful information mirroring the trough that people face somewhere during the midpoint of a project.

The author proposes many changes in the daily schedule for a person for him to take the maximum benefit of the “when” concept. However, a typical working professional is highly constrained by the office timings and rules for him to gain any significant benefit out of these. A twenty minutes mid-day nap? Good luck convincing your boss to implement this idea.

Some of the most supposedly most actionable parts were the Time Hacker’s Handbook chapters. I assume this was the practical steps part that the author talk about. But in the end, these seem like simple (and repeated) life hacks. The Zeigarnik effect has been discussed in much detail in other books that I have read. Atul Gawande has better explained the importance of checklists in his excellent book. Yes, the Seinfeld chain recommendation is well known to most familiar with the self-help genre.

Getting the timing right in any aspect of life is quite important, and quite difficult. If done right, any material on this can definitely help improve the quality of one’s life. But as far as this book goes, I would not recommend this book more than a quick and light read, compiling many of the experiments done earlier as well as a miscellaneous collection of productive tips.

Time isn’t the main thing. It’s the only thing.—MILES DAVIS

Thankfully this book didn’t take much of my time.

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Atomic Habits by James Clear – Book Review

Sometimes, but rarely, in your book reading journey comes a book that impacts you so much, that you can’t wait to end the book just so that you can write a review of the book. At times the book is so brilliant that you want to praise it profusely, or sometimes it is so horribly bad that you want to get done with it and close the chapter forever, and leave a scathing review for wasting your time. This book, Atomic Habits by James Clear, is clearly one of the former.

Although this is by no means the first book written on the psychology or science of habits, I have a feeling that it will become a very important one in the future. I’ll come to why. But first let me talk about the first book that was actually written, or at least the first book that broke down habits, and how they can be made or unmade, widely known to the general public. It was the book The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg. I have read that book a couple of years back and while it was a groundbreaking book, it didn’t do much for me. Somehow I felt I didn’t connect with the book. For some reason I felt that The Power of Habit belonged more in the Psychology/Reference section instead of Self-Help.

That is why I loved Atomic Habits. For someone looking to get an idea of why they have certain habits or how they can change their habits, this book would be a much more effective recommendation. Because it explains the science as well as sets out clear, concise and actionable steps to achieve the change that you’re looking for. The book had so many aahaa moments that I couldn’t stop recommending it to everyone around me. Frankly speaking, it took me my entire willpower to stop a stranger on the street and exhort him to read this book ASAP. Well maybe, that is what I am doing just now, not on the street but on the Internet!

From one of the author’s own interviews, this is what a reader had to say about the book. “[Atomic Habits] seems a LOT more practical and focused on guiding people on how to actually make changes. Power of Habit is more journalistic, though it does have the appendix at the back that talks about how to implement habit changes.”

According to the author, there are four laws that can be used to create good habits or to break bad ones. The book follows the same structure. It starts with talking about the importance of making small changes in your routine to improve yourself. There is a well repeated statistic on how a 1% improvement every day can bring compounded changes over a long period of time. It then introduces the habit feedback loop where each habit follows the cue -> craving -> response -> reward cycle.

Each law focuses on one of these four aspects. The crux of the book is that a habit can be changed by targeting one (or more) of these steps. The beauty of the book (and the feedback loop) is that this concept itself is complete. If you can understand this concept thoroughly, you’ve read enough of the book. You don’t need to read further. But of course I would still recommend you to completely read the book. Because it is that good. There are many sections that will resonate with you, especially if you have tried earlier to create habits and have struggled to follow through on them. The language used by the author is clear, practical, and not exceedingly anecdotal.

By the time I reached the 2nd law, I was ready to start habit stacking, temptation bundling and all the other cool-sounding (and effective) keywords that are used to describe a particular strategy. I feel sheepish to say that for the longest time that this book felt like a template self-help genre book that was high on fluff and low on content. This was my perception before having opened the book and even reading a single page of it. In fact I actively avoided reading it for as long as I could. But given the time of the year, when new year resolutions are being prepared, this felt like a suitable read. And boy am I glad I picked this book up. I’m pretty sure that by using the concepts in this book you can create resolutions that you can stick to till the end of the year, instead of seeing them evaporate by mid March.

I can’t wait to finish this book, and then go through all my highlights and notes to prepare a one pager. A cheat sheet if you will (Update: What do you know? There’s a cheat sheet already available at the end of the book!) This is a book that I will be rereading multiple times. Atomic HABITS is in my books, a clear winner and an addiction killer. Go read it before you create your new year resolutions for 2019.

Update: I did finish this book well in time for the new year and am ready to make my habit checklist. At the end of the book, there is a section that I found really strange. The author has given a few additional tips and techniques for people further wishing to explore the subject of effective habit creation. These tips, although useful and interesting, feel disjointed and feel out of place in this excellent book. Nevertheless you can choose to read it or ignore. Either way it won’t hurt you.

Star rating – 5/5
What next can you read – The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg, Nudge by Richard Thaler.

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The Laws of Human Nature – Book Review

I’ve enjoyed Robert Greene’s previous books immensely. The 48 Laws of Power was my introduction to the Machiavellian world of power and intrigue. Each page of the book was filled with useful ways to create an aura of power and become a more powerful social creature. His later book, Mastery focused more on an improvement of the self. In that book Greene explored the ways one can learn from the various Masters who have lived before us and have made a profound impact in various areas. And it was with this same interest and hope that I approached this book.

Just like his other books, this one is massive as well. Going for a never-ending 624 pages, it is by no means a quick read. And after reading through a few chapters, I realized that the book has fallen prey to the oft tried and tested trend in self-help literature. Anecdotes, anecdotes and more anecdotes. Mind you this is a safe method. That is why most self help literature heavily rely on this structure. But it is something that I greatly abhor. Yes successful stories do strengthen the conviction of a particular theory. But they also tend to suffer from confirmation and selection bias. It is almost as if Greene made a rough outline of the laws and then searched for examples that would fit these theories. Moreover it feels like that some of the anecdotes are greatly simplified or even modified to suit the narrative.

He might have done the same in his other books as well. But for some reason these anecdotes don’t work here. After a couple of chapters, I found myself skipping the anecdotes directly to the part where he explained a particular law.

Me, every five minutes

But by the time I reached the fifth law, I found it quite impossible to carry on. And hence I closed the book, abandoning it for good. I very much would have wanted to like this book and learn from it. But unfortunately the denseness of the material really put me off. The author has rambled on and on to fill up the book with feel-good stories and then propose a one-page full fount of self-help advice. I feel a better idea would be to go through the bibliography that the author has given at the end and instead peruse some of those works. That would be a more productive use of your time.

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