Tag Archives: Books

The Best Non-Fiction Books of 2015: The Year of the Biography

One of my favorite sources of reading material is Tyler Cowen. He’s consistently finding exceptional things that I’ve never heard of. His 2015 non-fiction list is no exception.

If he had to pick four favorites out of this list he would choose Musk, Kissinger, Thatcher, and Genghis Khan. (Also revisit his selections from 2014, 2013, and 2012.)

Here is the entire list (in no order).

Kissinger: Volume I: The Idealist, 1923-1968 by Niall Ferguson.
Cowen calls this a “background on America being screwed up.” We were a little more verbose in a recent edition of Brain Food, writing : “We love everything about this book from the font and the way the pages are laid out to the wonderful content. Niall Ferguson offers a rich look at how Kissinger came to be one of the pre-eminent statesmen of the past 100 years. As good as Ferguson is—and he’s magical—it’s the excerpts from Kissinger that really ignite the fire in my mind. A perfect Christmas gift for the intellectually curious.”

Elon Musk: Tesla, Space X, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future
We’d love to have Musk on The Knowledge Project. If anyone can connect us …

Japan and the Shackles of the Past by R. Taggart Murphy
I’ve heard conflicting opinions on this book and Cowen seems to emphasize the last section, calling it “brilliant on current Japanese politics.”

Mastering ‘Metrics: The Path from Cause to Effect
We have a tendency to jump from cause to effect. This book offers the statistical tools to underpin doing that in system two thinking.

Economics Rules: The Rights and Wrongs of the Dismal Science by Dani Rodrik.
“In this sharp, masterfully argued book, Dani Rodrik, a leading critic from within, takes a close look at economics to examine when it falls short and when it works, to give a surprisingly upbeat account of the discipline.”

The English and Their History by Robert Tombs
“A startlingly fresh and a uniquely inclusive account of the people who have a claim to be the oldest nation in the world. The English first came into existence as an idea, before they had a common ruler and before the country they lived in even had a name. They have lasted as a recognizable entity ever since, and their defining national institutions can be traced back to the earliest years of their history.”

Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics by Richard H. Thaler
“Self-recommending,” says Cowen.

Guantánamo Diary, by Mohamedou Ould Slahi
The “first and only diary written by a still-imprisoned Guantánamo detainee.”

Genghis Khan: His Conquests, His Empire, His Legacy by Frank McLynn
“Mongol leader Genghis Khan was by far the greatest conqueror the world has ever known. His empire stretched from the Pacific Ocean to central Europe, including all of China, the Middle East, and Russia. So how did an illiterate nomad rise to such colossal power and subdue most of the known world, eclipsing Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar, and Napoleon? Credited by some with paving the way for the Renaissance, condemned by others for being the most heinous murderer in history, who was Genghis Khan?”

Hive Mind: How Your Nation’s IQ Matters So Much More Than Your Own by Garett Jones

Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science by Daniel P. Todes
“By the way,” Cowen teases, “the whole salivating dog at the bell story is a fiction.”

The Mahabarata, by Carole Satyamurti

The Midas Paradox: Financial Markets, Government Policy Shocks, and the Great Depression by Scott Sumner

Foolproof: Why Safety Can be Dangerous, and How Danger Makes Us Safe
“How the very things we create to protect ourselves, like money market funds or anti-lock brakes, end up being the biggest threats to our safety and wellbeing.”

In Manchuria: A Village Called Wasteland and the Transformation of Rural China by Michael Meyer
In a review of this book in the LA Review of Books, Adam Minter writes: “So long as there have been memoirs, potential memoirists have sought out difficult places in which they might learn about the people and history of the place and — ultimately — about themselves. In one sense, Meyer is no different. In Manchuria is a bet that the desolate plains of northeast China will be more interesting to him and his readers than they are to most Chinese, and even to most residents of Manchuria.”

Schubert’s Winter Journey: Anatomy of an Obsession by Ian Bostridge
“Completed in the last months of the young Schubert’s life, Winterreise has come to be considered the single greatest piece of music in the history of Lieder. Deceptively laconic—these twenty-four short poems set to music for voice and piano are performed uninterrupted in little more than an hour—it nonetheless has an emotional depth and power that no music of its kind has ever equaled.”

Bewilderments: Reflections on the Book of Numbers by Avivah Zornberg
More of Zornberg’s award winning commentary on the Torah.

North Korea Confidential: Private Markets, Fashion Trends, Prison Camps, Dissenters and Defectors by Daniel Tudor and James Pearson,
Insight into how things work there.

The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine by Serhii Plokhy
A good understanding of Ukraine’s storied past.

Hun Sen’s Cambodia by Sebastian Strangio
Cowen writes this “goes deep into a place most people are ignoring.”

The Almost Nearly Perfect People: Behind the Myth of the Scandinavian Utopia
“Journalist Michael Booth has lived among the Scandinavians for more than ten years, and he has grown increasingly frustrated with the rose-tinted view of this part of the world offered up by the Western media. ”

Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder
“A brilliant, haunting, and profoundly original portrait of the defining tragedy of our time.”

Who is Charlie: Xenophobia and the New Middle Class by Emmanuel Todd
“In the wake of the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris on 7 January 2015, millions took to the streets to demonstrate their revulsion, expressing a desire to reaffirm the ideals of the French Republic: liberté, égalité, fraternité. But who were the millions of demonstrators who were suddenly united under the single cry of ‘Je suis Charlie’?”

Landmarks by Robert MacFarlane
“How to talk, think, and write about the British countryside,” Cowen offers.

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World
The foundations of modern environmentalism. He changed the way we see the world.

The Iran-Iraq War by Pierre Razoux
“From 1980 to 1988, Iran and Iraq fought the longest conventional war of the twentieth century. The tragedies included the slaughter of child soldiers, the use of chemical weapons, the striking of civilian shipping in the Gulf, and the destruction of cities. The Iran-Iraq War offers an unflinching look at a conflict seared into the region’s collective memory but little understood in the West.”

Margaret Thatcher: At her Zenith: In London, Washington, and Moscow, vol.2 of the biography, 1984-1987 by Charles Moore.
“This one I haven’t finished yet,” Cowen writes. “I ordered my copy advance from UK Amazon, it doesn’t come out in the U.S. until early January. There is some chance this is the very best book of the year.”

Albert Bandura on Acquiring Self-Efficacy and Personal Agency

Albert Bandura

Psychologist Albert Bandura is famous for his social learning theory which is really more of a model than a theory.

He stresses the importance of observational learning. Who you spend time with matters. “Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do,” Bandura explains.

There is an excerpt in Stronger: Develop the Resilience You Need to Succeed that explains how we can acquire and maintain the factors of personal resilience.

1. Seek to successfully demonstrate and repeatedly practice each of our five factors of personal resilience. Success is a powerful learning tool—Just do it! If the challenge is too large or complex at first, start by taking small steps in the desired direction. Don’t try to achieve too much at first. And keep trying until you succeed. The first success is the hardest.

2. Observe resilient people. Use them as role models. Human beings learn largely by observation. Frequent venues where you can watch people exhibiting the skills you wish to acquire. Read books about people who have overcome obstacles similar to those you face. Call or write them. Ask them to share their lessons learned. Their successes will be contagious.

3. Vigorously pursue the encouragement and support of others. Affiliate with supportive and compassionate people who are willing to give of themselves to be supportive of you.

4. Practice self-control. In highly stressful times, myriad physiological and behavioral reactions occur. Physiologically, people experience the fight-or-flight response we mentioned in Chapter One. This cascade of hormones such as adrenalin better prepares you to fight or to flee a threat. They increase your heart rate, muscle strength, and tension. They dramatically improve your memory for certain things while decreasing your ability to remember others, and they cause your blood vessels to shift their priorities. This often results in headaches, cold hands and feet, and even an upset gastrointestinal system. The most significant problem, however, is that this very basic survival mechanism also tends to interfere with rational judgment and problem solving.

According to Bandura we need to control the stress around us so that it doesn’t become excessive, in part because we often act without thinking in stressful situations.

People often act impulsively in reaction to stressful events, sometimes running away from them. Remember the 1999 movie Runaway Bride, starring Richard Gere and Julia Roberts? It was the fictional story of a woman who had a penchant for falling in love and getting engaged, then developing cold feet and leaving her fiances at the altars. On a more somber note, after the conclusion of the Vietnam War, many veterans chose to retreat to lives of isolation and solitude. The stress of war and the lack of social support motivated many to simply withdraw from society.

Similarly, over many years of clinical practice, we have seen individuals who have great difficulty establishing meaningful relationships after surviving a traumatic or vitriolic divorce. It’s hard for them to trust another person after having been “betrayed.” They exhibit approach-avoidance behaviors—engaging in a relationship initially but backing away when it intensifies.

Contrary to these patterns of escape and avoidance, sometimes people will impulsively act aggressively in response to stressful situations. Chronic irritability is often an early warning sign of subsequent escalating aggressive behavior. Rarely, although sometimes catastrophically, people will choose to lie, cheat, or steal in highly stressful situations. For years, psychologists have tried to predict dishonesty using psychological testing. The results have been uninspiring. The reason is that the best predictor of dishonesty is finding oneself in a highly stressful situation. So in highly stressful times, resist the impulsive urges to take the easy way out.

Also, remember to take care of yourself, physically as well as psychologically. Maladaptive self-medication is a common pattern of behavior for people who find themselves in the abyss. Alcohol has long been observed as a chemical crutch. Others that have only recently emerged are the myriad energy drinks on the market. Both of these crutches have been linked to numerous physical ailments and even deaths. If you are looking for the best single physical mechanism to aid you in your ascent from the abyss, it’s establishing healthy patterns of rest and sleep.

But note the distinction between controlling and suppressing. Often controlling is impossible so we suppress and fool ourselves into thinking we’re controlling. And suppressing volatility is often a horrible idea, especially in the long-run.

Instead of what’s intended, we create a coiled spring that most often leads to negative leaping emergent effects. In the end this moves us toward fragility and away from robustness and resiliency.


If you’re still curious, The Hour Between Dog and Wolf: How Risk Taking Transforms Us, Body and Mind discusses a bit of this topic as well.

Rendez-Vous with Art: The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Art

The pleasures and pitfalls of art

Philippe de Montebello was the longest-serving Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York (1977-2008). Martin Gayford was an acclaimed art critic. Their book, Rendez-Vous with Art, is structured around the conversations they had in churches, museums, and art galleries around the world. It’s an intimate look into the pleasures and pitfalls of art.

Starting with a fragment that’s left of the face of an Egyptian woman who lived 3,000 years ago, de Montebello and Gayford’s book confronts the elusive questions: how and why do we look at art? That is a large subject we will leave you to explore, but there are two parts of this book we wish to draw your attention to.


“If,” they write, “we stand in front of a work of art twice, at least one party — the viewer or the object — will be transformed on the second occasion. Works of art mutate through time, albeit slowly, as they are cleaned or ‘conserved’, or as their constituent materials age.”

As far as the object, Van Gogh’s Irises and Roses collection comes to mind. Van Gogh employed bright pigments in a way that encouraged them to lose their vibrancy over time, anticipating “time will only soften them too much.” The contrast between the originals and those we witness today is stark — color like all living organisms fades over time.

But even more important than the physical evolution of pieces are the ones happening internal to us.

Gayford writes:

Inevitably, we all inhabit a world of dissolving perspectives and ever-shifting views. The present is always moving, so from that vantage point the past constantly changes in appearance. That is on the grand, historical scale; but the same is true of our personal encounters with art, from the day to day. You can stand in front of Velazquez’s Las Meninas a thousand times, and every time it will be different because you will be altered: tired or full of energy, or dissimilar from your previous self in a multitude of ways.

… Our idea was to make a book that was neither art history not art criticism but an experiment in shared appreciation. It is, in other words, an attempt to get at not history or theory but the actual experience of looking at art: what it feels like on a particular occasion, which is of course the only way any of us can ever look at anything.

This brings to mind the famous fragment of Heraclitus: “You cannot step in the same river twice.”


There is undeniably a curatorial aspect to art. De Montebello notes that contrast between addition and subtraction when it comes to selection.  He writes:

In Europe, one often has a sense that a selection has been made by paring down a lot of inherited dynastic objects or spoils of colonization or war. Then a curatorial mind has built on that base. In the USA, you start ab initio. American museums large and small tend to be encyclopedic, whether you are in Toledo, Minneapolis, or elsewhere, because they started from nothing, and from the premise that they’d like to buy a little bit of everything: a couple of Chinese things, a few medieval things, and so on.

While there are differences in what’s on display at American museums, de Montebello also alludes to the “sameness in their governing principles and the criteria used for acquisitions.” The great museums, he argues, “are organisms, constantly changing, and mainly expanding. The collections grow, move in new directions, and, on rare occasion, get sold off. The buildings are adapted and frequently enlarged.” A visit to a museum in itself is part of the learning process.

De Montebello writes:

I have found that when I have forced myself — often with the help of curators — to look at things about which I was indifferent or that even repelled me, I discovered that, with a little knowledge, what had been hidden from me became manifest. I’ll give you an example: for a long time I approached galleries of Greek vases with a sense of dread; whether black- or red-figured, the vases all looked alike to me. Museums were often culpable as they tended to show far too many. So I’d walk into one of those rooms, take one look and dash for the exit. But a curator at the Met, Joan Mertens, told me once to go to the vitrines where only fragments, or shards, were shown. She stood beside me and said, look at one of them as if it were a drawing on paper.

I found I was able to look at it this way, forgetting that it was a fragment of a vessel, a three-dimensional utilitarian object. I could focus on the drawing itself, the line, the composition, and how marvellous it was. But the epiphany came when I was able to put surface decoration and vessel shape together, and look at them as one. It is the only correct way, incidentally.

Fragments are a representation of the whole—to appreciate them we have to engage beyond the instant gratification we so often seek. It often takes us repressing our ego and asking for help to truly see a piece or an exhibit, much like an adult who takes classes to appreciate Shakespeare.

De Montebello concludes:

[O]ne can be taught, and needs to taught, how to look, how to push aside one’s prejudices, one’s overly hasty negative reactions. For me, it was a long learning process, and I have to imagine that for the majority of visitors it can’t be easy either. …  The appreciation of art requires an engagement that is wholly different from the instant gratification provided by most popular forms of popular culture, and museums have a responsibility to help visitors achieve this.

This strikes a familiar note, as we have often called Farnam Street “curated interestingness” for the very same reason: We feel it’s our job to help you find and appreciate the best wisdom the world has to offer.


Rendez-Vous with Art adds to our expanding library on art, sitting next to The Power of Art and The Story of Art.

The 2015 Farnam Street Members Book List

Today’s book list is based on recommendations by Farnam Street Members on Slack over the last few months. If you’re not familiar with it, our community on Slack is a discussion area for members, and one of our ongoing discussions is book recommendations.

We’ve compiled and organized eleven of their favorite choices, especially ones we haven’t seen recommended elsewhere. Enjoy!

Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K. Jerome

“The book was initially intended to be a serious travel guide, with accounts of local history along the route, but the humorous elements took over to the point where the serious and somewhat sentimental passages seem a distraction to the comic novel. One of the most praised things about Three Men in a Boat is how undated it appears to modern readers – the jokes seem fresh and witty even today.”

The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt

“Haidt sifts Eastern and Western religious and philosophical traditions for other nuggets of wisdom to substantiate—and sometimes critique—with the findings of neurology and cognitive psychology.”

Black Box Thinking: Why Most People Never Learn from Their Mistakes, But Some Do by Matthew Syed

“Syed draws on a wide range of sources—from anthropology and psychology to history and complexity theory—to explore the subtle but predictable patterns of human error and our defensive responses to error. He also shares fascinating stories of individuals and organizations that have successfully embraced a black box approach to improvement, such as David Beckham, the Mercedes F1 team, and Dropbox.” (Pair with Mistakes were Made (But not by Me) by Carol Tavris to see how we rationalize our own mistakes.)

Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious by Gerd Gigerenzer

“Gigerenzer’s theories about the usefulness of mental shortcuts were a small but crucial element of Malcolm Gladwell’s bestseller Blink, and that attention has provided the psychologist, who is the director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, the opportunity to recast his academic research for a general audience. The key concept—rules of thumb serve us as effectively as complex analytic processes, if not more so—is simple to grasp.” (Pair with Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman for a different approach.)

The Means of Ascent by Robert Caro

The second book in the Lyndon Johnson series, written by Robert Caro. This one tackles his service in WWII, building his fortune, and his 1948 election to the Senate, which Caro concludes that Johnson stole. Charlie Munger once commented that LBJ was important to study, simply because he never told the truth when a lie would do better. (Pair with the other books in the series.)

The Effective Engineer: How to Leverage Your Efforts In Software Engineering to Make a Disproportionate and Meaningful Impact by Edmond Lau

“The most effective engineers — the ones who have risen to become distinguished engineers and leaders at their companies — can produce 10 times the impact of other engineers, but they’re not working 10 times the hours.” Learn how a great engineer thinks, even if you’re not one yourself.

The Lunar Men: Five Friends Whose Curiosity Changed the World by Jenny Uglow

“In the 1760s a group of amateur experimenters met and made friends in the English Midlands. Most came from humble families, all lived far from the center of things, but they were young and their optimism was boundless: together they would change the world. Among them were the ambitious toymaker Matthew Boulton and his partner James Watt, of steam-engine fame; the potter Josiah Wedgwood; the larger-than-life Erasmus Darwin, physician, poet, inventor, and theorist of evolution (a forerunner of his grandson Charles). Later came Joseph Priestley, discoverer of oxygen and fighting radical.”

Fermat’s Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World’s Greatest Mathematical Problem by Simon Sing

xn + yn = zn, where n represents 3, 4, 5, …no solution “I have discovered a truly marvelous demonstration of this proposition which this margin is too narrow to contain.” With these words, the seventeenth-century French mathematician Pierre de Fermat threw down the gauntlet to future generations.”  (Pair with Number: The Language of Science by Tobais Dantzig, about the development of mathematics over time by human culture.)

Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World by René Girard

“An astonishing work of cultural criticism, this book is widely recognized as a brilliant and devastating challenge to conventional views of literature, anthropology, religion, and psychoanalysis.”

Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why by Laurence Gonzales 

“Survivors, whether they’re jet pilots landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier or boatbuilders adrift on a raft in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, share certain traits: training, experience, stoicism and a capacity for their logical neocortex (the brain’s thinking part) to override the primitive amygdala portion of their brains. Although there’s no surefire way to become a survivor, Gonzales does share some rules for adventure gleaned from the survivors themselves: stay calm, be decisive and don’t give up.”

The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life by Erving Goffman

Written in the 1950s, an interesting look at how we present ourselves to others in social settings, using analogies from dramatic theatre. Reminds us of Shakespeare: “All the world’s a stage.”

How Analogies Reveal Connections, Spark Innovation, and Sell Our Greatest Ideas

Image Source: XKCD
Source: xkcd.com

John Pollack is a former Presidential Speechwriter. If anyone knows the power of words to move people to action, shape arguments, and persuade, it is he.

In Shortcut: How Analogies Reveal Connections, Spark Innovation, and Sell Our Greatest Ideas, he explores the powerful role of analogy in persuasion and creativity.

One of the key tools he uses for this is analogy.

While they often operate unnoticed, analogies aren’t accidents, they’re arguments—arguments that, like icebergs, conceal most of their mass and power beneath the surface. In arguments, whoever has the best argument wins.

But analogies do more than just persuade others — they also play a role in innovation and decision making.

From the bloody Chicago slaughterhouse that inspired Henry Ford’s first moving assembly line, to the “domino theory” that led America into the Vietnam War, to the “bicycle for the mind” that Steve Jobs envisioned as a Macintosh computer, analogies have played a dynamic role in shaping the world around us.

Despite their importance, many people have only a vague sense of the definition.

What is an Analogy?

In broad terms, an analogy is simply a comparison that asserts a parallel—explicit or implicit—between two distinct things, based on the perception of a share property or relation. In everyday use, analogies actually appear in many forms. Some of these include metaphors, similes, political slogans, legal arguments, marketing taglines, mathematical formulas, biblical parables, logos, TV ads, euphemisms, proverbs, fables and sports clichés.

Because they are so disguised they play a bigger role than we consciously realize. Not only do analogies effectively make arguments, but they trigger emotions. And emotions make it hard to make rational decisions.

While we take analogies for granted, the ideas they convey are notably complex.

All day every day, in fact, we make or evaluate one analogy after the other, because some comparisons are the only practical way to sort a flood of incoming data, place it within the content of our experience, and make decisions accordingly.

Remember the powerful metaphor — that arguments are war. This shapes a wide variety of expressions like “your claims are indefensible,” “attacking the weakpoints,” and “You disagree, OK shoot.”

Or consider the Map and the Territory — Analogies give people the map but explain nothing of the territory.

Warren Buffett is one of the best at using analogies to communicate effectively. One of my favorite analogies is when he noted “You never know who’s swimming naked until the tide goes out.” In other words, when times are good everyone looks amazing. When times suck, hidden weaknesses are exposed. The same could be said for analogies:

We never know what assumptions, deceptions, or brilliant insights they might be hiding until we look beneath the surface.

Most people underestimate the importance of a good analogy. As with many things in life, this lack of awareness comes at a cost. Ignorance is expensive.

Evidence suggests that people who tend to overlook or underestimate analogy’s influence often find themselves struggling to make their arguments or achieve their goals. The converse is also true. Those who construct the clearest, most resonant and apt analogies are usually the most successful in reaching the outcomes they seek.

The key to all of this is figuring out why analogies function so effectively and how they work. Once we know that, we should be able to craft better ones.

Don’t Think of an Elephant

Effective, persuasive analogies frame situations and arguments, often so subtly that we don’t even realize there is a frame, let alone one that might not work in our favor. Such conceptual frames, like picture frames, include some ideas, images, and emotions and exclude others. By setting a frame, a person or organization can, for better or worse, exert remarkable influence on the direction of their own thinking and that of others.

He who holds the pen frames the story. The first person to frame the story controls the narrative and it takes a massive amount of energy to change the direction of the story. Sometimes even the way that people come across information, shapes it — stories that would be a non-event if disclosed proactively became front page stories because someone found out.

In Don’t Think of an Elephant, George Lakoff explores the issue of framing. The book famously begins with the instruction “Don’t think of an elephant.”

What’s the first thing we all do? Think of an elephant, of course. It’s almost impossible not to think of an elephant. When we stop consciously thinking about it, it floats away and we move on to other topics — like the new email that just arrived. But then again it will pop back into consciousness and bring some friends — associated ideas, other exotic animals, or even thoughts of the GOP.

“Every word, like elephant, evokes a frame, which can be an image of other kinds of knowledge,” Lakoff writes. This is why we want to control the frame rather than be controlled by it.

In Shortcut Pollack tells of Lakoff talking about an analogy that President George W. Bush made in the 2004 State of the Union address, in which he argued the Iraq war was necessary despite the international criticism. Before we go on, take Bush’s side here and think about how you would argue this point – how would you defend this?

In the speech, Bush proclaimed that “America will never seek a permission slip to defend the security of our people.”

As Lakoff notes, Bush could have said, “We won’t ask permission.” But he didn’t. Instead he intentionally used the analogy of permission slip and in so doing framed the issue in terms that would “trigger strong, more negative emotional associations that endured in people’s memories of childhood rules and restrictions.”

Commenting on this, Pollack writes:

Through structure mapping, we correlate the role of the United States to that of a young student who must appeal to their teacher for permission to do anything outside the classroom, even going down the hall to use the toilet.

But is seeking diplomatic consensus to avoid or end a war actually analogous to a child asking their teacher for permission to use the toilet? Not at all. Yet once this analogy has been stated (Farnam Street editorial: and tweeted), the debate has been framed. Those who would reject a unilateral, my-way-or-the-highway approach to foreign policy suddenly find themselves battling not just political opposition but people’s deeply ingrained resentment of childhood’s seemingly petty regulations and restrictions. On an even subtler level, the idea of not asking for a permission slip also frames the issue in terms of sidestepping bureaucratic paperwork, and who likes bureaucracy or paperwork.

Deconstructing Analogies

Deconstructing analogies, we find out how they function so effectively. Pollack argues they meet five essential criteria.

  1. Use the highly familiar to explain something less familiar.
  2. Highlight similarities and obscure differences.
  3. Identify useful abstractions.
  4. Tell a coherent story.
  5. Resonate emotionally.

Let’s explore how these work in greater detail. Let’s use the example of master-thief, Bruce Reynolds, who described the Great Train Robbery as his Sistine Chapel.

The Great Train Robbery

In the dark early hours of August 8, 1963, an intrepid gang of robbers hot-wired a six-volt battery to a railroad signal not far from the town of Leighton Buzzard, some forty miles north of London. Shortly, the engineer of an approaching mail train, spotting the red light ahead, slowed his train to a halt and sent one of his crew down the track, on foot, to investigate. Within minutes, the gang overpowered the train’s crew and, in less than twenty minutes, made off with the equivalent of more than $60 million in cash.

Years later, Bruce Reynolds, the mastermind of what quickly became known as the Great Train Robbery, described the spectacular heist as “my Sistine Chapel.”

Use the familiar to explain something less familiar

Reynolds exploits the public’s basic familiarity with the famous chapel in the Vatican City, which after Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa is perhaps the best-known work of Renaissance art in the world. Millions of people, even those who aren’t art connoisseurs, would likely share the cultural opinion that the paintings in the chapel represent “great art” (as compared to a smaller subset of people who might feel the same way about Jackson Pollock’s drip paintings, or Marcel Duchamp’s upturned urinal).

Highlight similarities and obscure differences

Reynold’s analogy highlights, through implication, similarities between the heist and the chapel—both took meticulous planning and masterful execution. After all, stopping a train and stealing the equivalent of $60m—and doing it without guns—does require a certain artistry. At the same time, the analogy obscures important differences. By invoking the image of a holy sanctuary, Reynolds triggers a host of associations in the audience’s mind—God, faith, morality, and forgiveness, among others—that camouflage the fact that he’s describing an action few would consider morally commendable, even if the artistry involved in robbing that train was admirable.

Identify useful abstractions

The analogy offers a subtle but useful abstraction: Genius is genius and art is art, no matter what the medium. The logic? If we believe that genius and artistry can transcend genre, we must concede that Reynolds, whose artful, ingenious theft netted millions, is an artist.

Tell a coherent story

The analogy offers a coherent narrative. Calling the Great Train Robbery his Sistine Chapel offers the audience a simple story that, at least on the surface makes sense: Just as Michelangelo was called by God, the pope, and history to create his greatest work, so too was Bruce Reynolds called by destiny to pull off the greatest robbery in history. And if the Sistine Chapel endures as an expression of genius, so too must the Great Train Robbery. Yes, robbing the train was wrong. But the public perceived it as largely a victimless crime, committed by renegades who were nothing if not audacious. And who but the most audacious in history ever create great art? Ergo, according to this narrative, Reynolds is an audacious genius, master of his chosen endeavor, and an artist to be admired in public.

There is an important point here. The narrative need not be accurate. It is the feelings and ideas the analogy evokes that make it powerful. Within the structure of the analogy, the argument rings true. The framing is enough to establish it succulently and subtly. That’s what makes it so powerful.

Resonate emotionally

The analogy resonates emotionally. To many people, mere mention of the Sistine Chapel brings an image to mind, perhaps the finger of Adam reaching out toward the finger of God, or perhaps just that of a lesser chapel with which they are personally familiar. Generally speaking, chapels are considered beautiful, and beauty is an idea that tends to evoke positive emotions. Such positive emotions, in turn, reinforce the argument that Reynolds is making—that there’s little difference between his work and that of a great artist.

Jumping to Conclusions

Daniel Kahneman explains the two thinking structures that govern the way we think: System one and system two . In his book, Thinking Fast and Slow, he writes “Jumping to conclusions is efficient if the conclusions are likely to be correct and the costs of an occasional mistake are acceptable, and if the jump saves much time and effort.”

“A good analogy serves as an intellectual springboard that helps us jump to conclusions,” Pollack writes. He continues:

And once we’re in midair, flying through assumptions that reinforce our preconceptions and preferences, we’re well on our way to a phenomenon known as confirmation bias. When we encounter a statement and seek to understand it, we evaluate it by first assuming it is true and exploring the implications that result. We don’t even consider dismissing the statement as untrue unless enough of its implications don’t add up. And consider is the operative word. Studies suggest that most people seek out only information that confirms the beliefs they currently hold and often dismiss any contradictory evidence they encounter.

The ongoing battle between fact and fiction commonly takes place in our subconscious systems. In The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation, Drew Westen, an Emory University psychologist, writes: “Our brains have a remarkable capacity to find their way toward convenient truths—even if they are not all true.”

This also helps explain why getting promoted has almost nothing to do with your performance.

Remember Apollo Robbins? He’s a professional pickpocket. While he has unique skills, he succeeds largely through the choreography of people’s attention. “Attention,” he says “is like water. It flows. It’s liquid. You create channels to divert it, and you hope that it flows the right way.”

“Pickpocketing and analogies are in a sense the same,” Pollack concludes, “as the misleading analogy picks a listener’s mental pocket.”

And this is true whether someone else diverts our attention through a resonant but misleading analogy—“Judges are like umpires”—or we simply choose the wrong analogy all by ourselves.

Reasoning by Analogy

We rarely stop to see how much of our reasoning is done by analogy. In a 2005 study published in the Harvard Business Review, Giovanni Gavettie and Jan Rivkin wrote: “Leaders tend to be so immersed in the specifics of strategy that they rarely stop to think how much of their reasoning is done by analogy.” As a result they miss things. They make connections that don’t exist. They don’t check assumptions. They miss useful insights. By contrast “Managers who pay attention to their own analogical thinking will make better strategic decisions and fewer mistakes.”


Shortcut goes on to explore when to use analogies and how to craft them to maximize persuasion.

The Single Best Interview Question You Can Ask

In Peter Thiel’s book, Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future — more of an exercise in thinking about the questions you must ask to move from zero to one — there is a great section on the single best interview question you can ask someone.

Whenever Peter Thiel interviews someone he likes to ask the following question: “What important truth do very few people agree with you on?

This question sounds easy because it’s straightforward. Actually, it’s very hard to answer. It’s intellectually difficult because the knowledge that everyone is taught in school is by definition agreed upon. And it’s psychologically difficult because anyone trying to answer must say something she knows to be unpopular. Brilliant thinking is rare, but courage is in even shorter supply than genius.

The most common answers, according to Thiel, are “Our educational system is broken and urgently needs to be fixed.” “America is exceptional.” “There is no God.”

These are bad answers.

The first and the second statements might be true, but many people already agree with them. The third statement simply takes one side in a familiar debate. A good answer takes the following form: “Most people believe in x, but the truth is the opposite of x.”


What does this contrarian question have to do with the future? In the most minimal sense, the future is simply the set of all moments yet to come.

We hope for progress when we think about the future. To Thiel, that progress takes place in two ways.

Horizontal or extensive progress means copying things that work— going from 1 to n. Horizontal progress is easy to imagine because we already know what it looks like. Vertical or intensive progress means doing new things— going from 0 to 1. Vertical progress is harder to imagine because it requires doing something nobody else has ever done. If you take one typewriter and build 100, you have made horizontal progress. If you have a typewriter and build a word processor, you have made vertical progress.

best interview question peter thiel

At the macro level, the single word for horizontal progress is globalization— taking things that work somewhere and making them work everywhere. … The single word for vertical, 0 to 1 progress, is technology. … Because globalization and technology are different modes of progress, it’s possible to have both, either, or neither at the same time.

Peter Thiel
Here is Thiel’s answer to his own question:

My own answer to the contrarian question is that most people think the future of the world will be defined by globalization, but the truth is that technology matters more. Without technological change, if China doubles its energy production over the next two decades, it will also double its air pollution. If every one of India’s hundreds of millions of households were to live the way Americans already do— using only today’s tools— the result would be environmentally catastrophic. Spreading old ways to create wealth around the world will result in devastation, not riches. In a world of scarce resources, globalization without new technology is unsustainable.