Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Review: Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know

Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don't Know by Malcolm Gladwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I hadn’t planned to read this book, but since it came as a bonus in a Next Big Idea Club box I gave it a read, and I was glad that I did. Gladwell uses stories of situations gone wrong to illustrate how our our interactions with strangers sometimes fails, and why. Through a number of stories bookended by the tragic Sandra Bland incident, we see the challenges of interacting with people when we assume that we understand their motivations, the downsides of our default to trust people, and the risks of being being too suspicious.

The two main themes of the book are that transparency (the idea that you can “read” people) is rarely reality, and that“defaulting to truth” (basically trusting people) has pros and cons, but the pros outweigh the cons. Gladwell uses stories of spies, terrorist interrogations, and policing to illustrate how things go wrong when we misunderstand how transparency and trust work.

In terms of Transparency, these stories put something important in the context of my personal and professional life into a larger context: It’s hard to guess what people are thinking based on externalities, and acting based on them without checking yourself-- especially when you have an opportunity to ask -- is a good way for interactions to go down hill. It can be difficult to guess what a spouse, colleague, or neighbor is thinking, even when you share a common context. When interacting with people you never met from different cultures and/or backgrounds it’s probably impossible, and curiosity is more likely that not the best approach.

Defaulting to Truth, the idea that people generally believe what others are saying is accurate, is more interesting. Gladwell give us a number of examples of how being too trusting let spies and other bad actors evade detection, even in the face of (in retrospect) obvious clues. On the other hand going the other way and being overly skeptical can lead to dysfunction, and bad things. While sometime bad things happen when we engage in Truth Default behavior, it is also necessary for us to function as society, community, and in interpersonal relationships.

My two main take-a-ways from the book are that, while Truth Default can sometimes lead you astray, the alternative can be worse , and that transparency is a myth, and curiosity is better. We need to understand when to apply healthy skepticism, both of others, and of our own perceptions to thrive as a community. With endnotes and footnotes for those who want to dig deeper, Talking to Strangers is an engaging book that is very topical. Anyone who wants to think about how to build better interactions, at any scale, should find this book valuable.

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Friday, December 27, 2019

Review: Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick

Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick by Wendy Wood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Having read The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, and more recently, Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, I was skeptical that there was much more I could discover about habit and motivation by reading another book. I was wrong. Good Habits, Bad Habits: The Science of Making Positive Changes That Stick by Wendy Wood is an insightful exploration of science behind how and why habits form, and how we can use this information to improve our work and personal lives, as well as our health, told from the perspective of someone who has studied the subject from a scientific and social perspective.

Wood describes habits as a kind of automation, which allows us to focus our mental energy on more “important” things, as well providing us for default behaviors in times of stress. In some cases the habits serve us well, in others our habit behavior can be the wrong thing for the moment. Wood Explores how habits help us move forward, how they can lead us into “ruts” and how to use our tendency to form habits to our benefit, and for growth rather than letting them keep us static.

A recurring theme in the book is the relationship between habit and “context”. Those who do well on avoiding distractions and deferring immediate, if not beneficial, rewards (“The Marshmallow Test: Mastering Self-Control) succeed less because they are actively ignoring the temptation, than because they are good at setting up contexts where they don’t notice temptation. The relationship between context and habit provides useful guidance in how we can create good habits and change bad ones; by setting maintaining (or changing) our contextual triggers, we can affect our automatic behavior.

With examples of how habits apply in the workplace, our personal lives, and in our relationships, Good Habits, Bad Habits is an engaging book that can help you think about how you do what you do, and how to influence yourself and others to form productive dynamics. For those who want to dig deeper, there are many end notes pointing to research, as well as a good bibliography. We all have habits, and our habits, and those of those around us affect the quality of our lives, so it is worth understanding how they work. Wendy Wood’s book gives you that information.

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Lessons in Change from the Classroom

This is adapted from a story I shared at the Fearless Change Campfire on 22 Sep 2023 I’ve always been someone to ask questions about id...