I took a bit more time off from writing posts than I thought I would. The last one, announcing that I planned to do so in order to do some thinking, reading, and some work with my hands, was in March of this year. Here we are in November, and here I am again. As I will show you in future blogs, I definitely have done work with my hands.
I have been retired from active duty on the Stanford University faculty for 18 years, and am now 83 years old. I am amazed, and quite pleased to still be alive, because when I was born, the life expectancy for males in the U.S. was 59 years. And my interests seem to still be out of control, with the result that they have changed a bit recently. I am still interested in product quality, creativity and innovation, engineering and technology, business, and all of those good things. But the past year has been eventful, to say the least, including phenomena reaching from Trump to drones, and jihad to crispr-cas9.
In particular, I have become increasingly interested in what brain researchers and cognitive psychologists have been up to, and how that new knowledge helps explain we Homo Sapiens Sapiens (wise wise people) a bit better. As to what I am thinking, we should be calling ourselves Homo Demi Sapiens (half wise people) rather than believing that we can find answers to increasingly complex problems and increasing expectations that please everyone. I am even working on a book with the title of Homo Demi Sapiens.
But I am not yet exercising the degree of curmudgeonishness (how do you like that for a new word) that my age entitles me to.
Unsurprisingly, I am particularly interested in what we are doing to ourselves with the present relatively rapid changes in technology, and with overall rapid change (or at least our attempts to do so. My interests in creativity and innovation began many years ago with an attempt to better understand such things in individuals. But then I was swept along by expanding attention paid to creativity and innovation in groups, probably stimulated in the U.S. by Japan’s successful use of groups who were producing automobiles and electronics products that were giving us a run for the money. Then I became interested in creativity and innovation in organizations, especially as it is affected by growth and success. But then I really bit the bullet and began to try to understand creativity and change in very large groups of people, such as nations. cultures, and religions.
Here we run into some real barriers. I am a firm believer in evolution (which may make some of you less eager to read what I write). It is a slow process, and to the extent that we have deep beliefs, skills, and desires, they do not easily or rapidly change. I recently gave a talk to a 50th reunion of a Stanford Business School class on change. In that talk I discussed with them 15 aspects of humans that were probably of value before the Neolithic Revolution, when we were hunter gatherers, relatively few in number, and living in tribes. Now they seem to be getting us into trouble Examples are:
- We focus on the short term
- We are tribal
- We like others to think like we do
- We want simple answers to complicated problems
- We depend on faith and defend it viciously
- We ignore expertise if we do not like what it says
And so on.
I was a bit worried when I gave the talk, but to my pleasure they became deeply engaged in the topic. There will be some of that in my posts.
Also I have reading a great deal about what’s going on in brain research that gives new insight to my old friends creativity and change. One book I wholeheartedly recommend is The Undoing Project – A Friendship That Changed Our Minds (W.W.Norton, by Michael Lewis. It is the story of the partnership of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, two Israelis who have made a huge impact on our understanding of thinking and problem solving —Kahneman (author of the popular book Thinking Fast and Slow) to go on to recently win the Nobel Prize in Economics, even though he is a psychologist. Not only is the story well worth reading, it is beautifully written. Lewis has written books such as Flash Boys, The big Short, Money Ball, and Liar’s Poker. and to my mind is the best there is at explaining complicated concepts to a lay audience.
The other is Behave – The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst(Penguin Press) by Robert M. Sapolsky , a Professor of biology and neurology at Stanford, an incredible teacher, a true polymath, and a proven outstanding writer (A Primate’s Memoir, The Trouble With Testosterone, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers). He has studied everything from baboons to neurons, and is outstanding at explaining broad subjects (such as behavior) from many angles. This book is more technical than Lewis’s book, but is fun to read because of Sapolsky’s writing style and humor. His book is organized starting with the small and fast moving (neurons to the large and slow (Cultures) . And his empathy for the reader is unmatched. When one is tempted to quit reading because the content is becoming overly technical, he will often put in a foot-note advising the reader to continue because the discussion of that particular material is almost over, or before the content becomes difficult, warn the reader that it is for the very motivated and not needed to understand the rest of the book. My favorite foot-note referenced a truly difficult to read paragraph. It read “I have no idea what it is that I just wrote”.
One of the reasons I was so pleased to find Sapolsky’s book, is that I have been very interested in the brain and behavior for many years, and the book draws it all together from the viewpoint of many disciplines and many levels. It is not the easiest book I have ever read, but I read it twice and am in the process of going through it a third time. That, from me, is a very high recommendation.
More information on the books in recommended books column