Tag: books

Reading Notes: March 2021

Each month’s reading leaves me with scattered notes that don’t quite, by themselves, make up a blog post. I hope to gather these and give them some sort of shape as a thinking out loud exercise.

In March I read 8 books, from young adult fiction to academic history (which is pretty typical for my eclectic tastes). I find genre shifts help me stay more engaged and read with closer attention (though it could just be I’m easily distracted by new avenues of thought). I keep my reading list up to date in case you’re curious for the full list.


One thin, practical book I tried to absorb as much as possible was How to Take Smart Notes by Sönke Ahrens.

Ahrens’ premise is that notes are the starting point for writing and it’s through writing that we learn. The system he describes draws from the work of Niklas Luhmann, a German sociologist who wrote at a prolific pace. The basic idea is to write short, individual notes, review them daily, and file them into a system (analog or digital) that creates connections between notes. Those connections help us deepen our understanding and explore topics in greater depth.

This inverts the typical writing process, or at least how it’s taught. Instead of starting with a topic and constructing a reading list and questions from there, you start with reading and out of that generate topics and questions to explore. If you do this well you shift from not knowing what to write about to having too many topics to choose from.

Ahrens’ also suggests that writing creates distance between us and a book. He describes how this distance is required in order to think about an argument instead of just within that argument. Notes and the writing they lead to become not a record of our thought but our thinking itself.

It’s a book I wish I read while still in college. Even outside an academic context, though, I found it valuable and have been tinkering with Obsidian to see how I can implement its core ideas.


In a different genre, Lloyd Alexander’s Westmark trilogy is a delightful set of books. His Chronicles of Prydain holds fond childhood memories. But, somehow, I never got to Westmark.

What I find so enjoyable about the series is its constrained ambition. It’s not a story of existential struggle for humanity; it’s just fun, with well-developed characters and a concise plot. The trilogy has this lightheartedness that lets you enjoy its world for a moment.


I also read two in-depth history books: David Abulafia’s The Great Sea and Peter Turchin’s War and Peace and War. It’s fun to pick up small anecdotes within these larger histories. I often imagine the author’s joy at unearthing some obscure, humorous detail in their research.

The Great Sea is a history of the Mediterranean through what took place on its seas. Among impeccable research and detail is this gem:

In 1599 the Venetians were so exasperated by the Uskoks that they sent a cargo of poisoned wine into Uskok-infested waters, let it be captured, and hoped to hear that the Uskoks had all died from drinking it. Since they remained full of life, however, the ruse obviously failed.1

Imagine being assigned to crew that ship. You wonder what happened to all the poisoned wine and what Uskok conversations were like as they headed back to port.

Or, from War and Peace and War, there’s this description of Elizabeth I’s creative taxation (slash rebellion suppression) system:

When one of her subjects became too wealthy, she invited herself to his castle along with her whole court. After some weeks of dining and wining the queen and hundreds of her followers, the unfortunate host was financially ruined for many years to come, and was too busy paying off his debts to contemplate rebellion.2

That sounds like a gentler approach than Elizabeth’s predecessors, Henry VII and Henry VIII, who would simply kill landowners who got too wealthy.


My reading lists3 remain a mess, but I did add 4 books in particular that I look forward to reading. Through The Long Now’s excellent Seminars About Long-term Thinking I found The Optimist’s Telescope and More From Less. Both Bina Venkataraman and Andrew McAfee gave excellent talks as part of the seminar series. And from Marginal Revolution I added Walter Isaacson’s The Code Breaker and Tom Zoellner’s Island on Fire, which covers an episode in Jamaica’s history that I know nothing about.

  1. Abulafia, David. The Great Sea. Oxford University Press, 2013, pg. 457.
  2. Turchin, Peter. War and Peace and War. Plume, 2007, pg. 272.
  3. Lists are one of the least-functional aspects of Amazon’s empire. They’re so basic and, at times, illogical it merits its own post.

Lessons from Mayo Clinic

I first read Management Lessons from Mayo Clinic after an advisor recommended it to me a few years ago. I was somewhat skeptical about learning from a massive healthcare institution, but Mayo Clinic is not just any healthcare system. The book describes what makes the institution unique and how it excels for its patients.

If you don’t already know the name, Mayo Clinic is a US-based hospital system founded all the way back in 1864 and remains renowned today. Many of its core values connect to the founder’s two sons, who ran the practice in the late 1800s. These brothers were serious about healthcare; one even spent his honeymoon touring hospitals and clinics.

The book has lots of great detail about Mayo’s operations. For the purposes of this post, though, I want to detail the clinic’s careful attention to how their facilities, staff, and behavior send patients clues about healthcare quality. Even small concerns can influence how patients—or customers—view an organization. Below I outline 3 types of clues the authors describe and offer some ideas for how you can apply these to your own customer service.

About Clues

When customers interact with an organization they take mental notes. As the authors write, “Customers act like ‘detectives’ in the way they process and organize experience clues into a set of impressions that evoke feelings.” They tune into all sorts of things and the more variable, complex, or personal the service you provide the more important these clues become.

The authors outline 3 types of clues: functional, mechanic, and humanic, which connect and have their greatest impact when they align with one another. While functional clues influence our rational perspective, it’s the mechanic and humanic clues that build our emotional perceptions.

Functional Clues

The primary role of a functional clue is to strengthen a customer’s confidence in the reliability of what you deliver. Another way to think of them is that they signal your competence. We can often get lost thinking that these are the only clues that matter; if the answer is correct, what else matters? The answer is a lot, because customers often aren’t adept at evaluating technical competency.

Here Mayo’s team-based approach to medicine is its greatest advantage. By coordinating resources they give patients a clear sense that they’re getting the best possible care. Patients aren’t bounced between 3 different doctors with contradictory recommendations. They’re given 3 doctors who work together to figure out the single best course of treatment.

Each support team requires similar teamwork; your training material and best practices all have a role to play. Your answers need to be consistent, thorough, and well-researched. Customers may turn to you as the expert, but help them trust that’s the case and followthrough with clear, relatable answers. There’s a lot of repetitive work in support, but great team performance comes from doing those routine things in an outstanding manner.1

Mechanic Clues

These often define a customer’s first impression as they’re the sensory clues (physical, visual, auditory, etc.) that tell a customer what they can expect. What matters most is that their design both fits and supports the type of service an organization can (and will!) deliver. For Mayo Clinic, they know healthcare is stressful and work to create a reassuring first impression.

They place such an emphasis on mechanic clues that they travel to marble quarries to ensure stones have no natural patterns that would suggest disquieting human forms or disease. In their pediatric wing are 3 different heights of water fountains, rivers and animal tracks that guide children to exam rooms, and exam rooms that are free from 90-degree corners. Individually any of these things are relatively small, but collectively they make it clear Mayo pays careful thought to how children experience their clinic.

There are many analogues for mechanic clues within online customer support. Your contact form, email templates, documentation design, and more all send a customer certain signals. Do they fit together cohesively and imply a level of service you effectively deliver? Each element of your service can reinforce the values you want a customer to understand. But as Mayo shows, doing that well requires care, attention, and creativity.

Humanic Clues

Humanic clues range from dress to appearance, tone of voice, and more. While they’re subjective, they nonetheless have an emotional impact on people. And if you work within a labor-intensive or interactive service profession it’s these clues that are most important in exceeding customer expectations.

At Mayo Clinic this means that physicians wear business attire, nurses wear white uniforms, and the organization has clear standards for how staff act and communicate with patients. The structure is designed to put patients at ease and while some may find it rigid it’s all done with a purpose.

While we don’t all show up to an email conversation in business attire, there are lessons for us in this framework. It’s worth thinking about the clues your writing sends a customer. Things both large (style guide and tone) to small (email signatures and emoji usage) play a role in the customer’s experience and each is an opportunity to influence how they perceive your service. Think about what impact you want to have with customers and then how you can best convey those standards to team members.

Connection to Support

There’s clearly a ton that Mayo Clinic does right. And while we’re not all running massive healthcare institutions I do think there’s much we can learn from how they approach service. With that in mind, this was my favorite line from the book:

A service can be functional and still create negative feelings in customers because of how it is delivered.

That’s such a good reminder. Our responsibility in support doesn’t end at the technical accuracy of an answer as there are so many other pieces that we have to get right. But it’s often that technical accuracy that we spend the most time thinking about, training people in, and evaluating in CSAT scores and the like. Reading Management Lessons from Mayo Clinic is a reminder to step back and look at things holistically. To really understand each part of what builds into your customer experience.

As we start this new year, take a moment to go through each step of your customer experience. How does your contact form greet a customer? Does the confirmation email they get match the tone you strive for in replies? How does your team use greetings, email signatures, and more to create a consistent vibe? Just like the pattern in a slab of marble, these small details can be easy to overlook, but they’re clues that influence each customer’s experience.

  1. Hat tip to Ann Dunwoody for that sentiment. Read her excellent book, A Higher Standard.

2020 in Review

In 2018 and 2019 my annual recap focused on the books I read. Books still occupied a large space in 2020, but with so much change I wanted to widen the lens for a year-in-review.

The year’s biggest change was a sharp drop in travel due to the pandemic. Over the last 3 years, annual work and personal travel spanned 80+ days and 75k+ miles. In 2020 I stayed in Portland from late February on, which was a welcome change. It’s my longest work travel gap in a decade.

Morning light coming into Sagrada Família.
Sagrada Família, from a trip in January.

Prior to the pandemic, 2020 was on pace to be an even busier year and January and February meant trips to Barcelona, California, Washington D.C., and India. Staying closer to home left more time for local activity, with hikes on Mt. Hood and Kings Mountain, along with salmon fishing on the Columbia. It was also nice to have more time for cooking, from pot roast to cinnamon rolls and cake.

This lack of travel meant vast amounts of time for reading as I read 103 books across 2020, which is about twice my pace in 2018 or 2019. Most of those were print copies, a change from last year’s Kindle focus. Without needing the portability of a Kindle my long-standing preference for print won out (though shelf space is a concern at this rate).

In fiction I particularly appreciated rereading books, which brought a sense of the familiar back into a strange year. Of new novels I read, Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future was my favorite, partly because it’s the first science fiction book I’ve read that directly deals with a near future driven by climate change. It was also fun to read Jane Austen’s work, in part for the reminder that people led rich lives in comparatively simpler and more geographically-constrained times.

Of the non-fiction I read, two books stood out. Chris Arnade’s Dignity is deeply compelling and uses a journalistic eye to bring moving stories of people to the forefront. If you add one book to your list I recommend Dignity. Bob Moesta’s Demand-Side Sales, which I shared notes from, is a clear handbook for how to keep the customer at the center of your company. I highly recommend it to anyone working in a for-profit business.

On this site I wrote more regularly about the craft of customer support and started a twice-monthly newsletter in late September. Posts go to both this blog and an email list, for which Buttondown provides just the right level of detail. I like the ability to add to my home on the open web and publish to a known group of readers. But it’s the act of writing and giving shape to ideas that I most enjoy.

2021 seems, more than most, like a year that will laugh at grand plans. My plans are simple: more reading, writing, and time close to home.

Customer-focused Sales

A few months ago a tweet from Jason Fried led me to Bob Moesta’s Demand-Side Sales. I figured that anything Jason would write a foreword to must be worthwhile and bought a copy right away. I’m glad I did as the book is a quick, 200-page read packed full of clear, cogent advice on sales.

The book focuses on a customer-centric idea of sales. This isn’t a book about high-pressure tactics that try to amp up the appeal of certain features or gadgets. Instead, you find practical advice for understanding customer behavior. It’s a clear, customer-first philosophy of sales that anyone working in customer support can learn from to improve their own craft. This makes the book a good reminder about practices you can fold into your day-to-day support work.

The Philosophy

Bob Moesta’s philosophy of demand-side sales boils down to putting the customer at the center of things; gone is a focus on what the company can deliver and in its place is the progress a customer desires. If you’re familiar with the Jobs To Be Done framework this understandably sounds similar as Bob was a contributor to JTBD research.

This view also removes what can often feel abrasive about sales. Instead of trying to push your product on to someone, you start by trying to understand what’s important to them and whether your product can help (it might not be able to!). Bob’s definition of great salespeople could also be said about customer support experts:

People need someone to help them navigate their way to make progress. The salesperson’s job is to help customers figure out what the options are by first understanding what’s important to them.

Bob recommends interviewing your existing customers to find out what’s important to them. The goal is to understand the people who have already made progress with your product since it’s only by doing this that you can find the patterns that’ll help others succeed. If you’re keen to start this practice within your own team the book’s full of practical advice, sample interview questions, and example case studies that give you a great starting point.

Demand-Side Sales Framework

The starting point for any sales process is what Bob calls the struggling moment. It’s this moment when you realize that the status quo isn’t working, so you look around for something that you can buy to overcome the struggle. If you’re not sleeping as well as you used to, suddenly you pay more attention to that mattress store you drive past each day.

Bob also introduces a framework that I found particularly valuable for thinking about sales. The book details 4 forces that influence someone’s progress:

  • The push of the situation (i.e. how bad is it?).
  • The magnetism of the new solution (i.e. how much better is it?).
  • The anxiety of the new solution (i.e. how unknown is it?).
  • The habit of the present (i.e. how much has to change?).

What stuck with me here was the acknowledgement that two of those forces pull someone toward purchasing a product and two push someone away from doing so. From a support perspective that means I want to think about how to amplify the first two points and how to assuage the third and fourth concern. In those first two there’s excitement I can tap into, in the second two is worry I can help someone get past.

How It Works

This all can sound great in theory, but it’s the real-world examples that drive the book’s advice home. The most memorable examples come from Bob and his co-author Greg’s time building homes for retired, over-55 people in the Detroit area. Their competitor in the area tried to motivate home buyers through traditional tactics like free granite countertops or multi-thousand dollar discounts. As you might guess the authors did not take that approach.

Instead, they learned a major barrier to moving was figuring out what to do with sentimental family belongings. They raised the price of the homes, built a storage center across the street, included moving services as part of the package, and added a clubhouse room connected to the storage facility. That boosted sales by over 20% and gave families a way to store their belongings and sort through them on their own terms.

The three case studies in the book also include great examples from banking, healthcare, and consumer electronics. They also present those case studies in a way that helps you understand how to make use of their interview-based approach.

What This Means for Support

Part of why I find this model of sales so compelling is the central role it gives existing customers. Customer support teams talk with existing customers every day! Demand-Side Sales is a reminder to practice a few behaviors.

  • Don’t be shy about selling your product, just focus on what the customer wants to achieve. Remember that they’re struggling with something and trying to make progress. You can focus on this, help them reach their goal, and forget any pressure you may feel to push your product onto them.
  • Don’t get stuck in rabbit holes about a particular feature. This is particularly true if the customer themselves is also stuck! Instead take a step back and make sure you understand what the customer wants to achieve, then help them work toward that in the best way possible.
  • Don’t settle for surface-level details; ask specific, inquisitive questions. The more context you can gather the better working model you can form for what someone is struggling with and what progress looks like to them.

Finally, Demand-Side Sales is a good reminder to get outside your comfort zone. It’s an approachable, customer-focused way of doing sales that taps into some of the same motivations that bring us to customer support. If you’re someone who’s skeptical of salespeople or feels that great customer support is at odds with effective sales practices, I’d encourage you to pick up a copy and approach the book with an open mind. Great customer support, like great sales, helps a customer achieve their goals.

A Complaint Is a Gift

Dealing with complaints can be drudgery, and complaining customers can be angry, stressed, and harsh. The emails, live chats, and phone calls to resolve these complaints often aren’t much fun. They can push us to our most defensive, when we inadvertently make the situation worse.

For all of those reasons I find Janelle Barlow and Claus Møller’s A Complaint Is a Gift to be a go-to resource. The book, first published in the mid-1990s with an updated second edition from 2008, remains a solid handbook for handling complaints with grace and ease.

Within their philosophy of complaints are a few important takeaways:

  • Elegantly handling complaints is possible.
  • People only complain because they hope something will happen.
  • Only a small percentage of people take the time to complain.
  • Each complaint is an opportunity to learn and improve your service.

That last point is central: each complaint is a gift someone gives you. The customer could have just stayed silent and left your company behind. But they spoke up and presented an opportunity to restore their trust, partner with them to fix the problem, and improve your process for next time.

Below I outline three principles that let you make the most of this opportunity. They’re straightforward on the surface, but I’ve found each helpful to revisit and practice. I’m just summarizing, though, and all credit goes to the authors.

Be personal

The first step is to be personal and rebuild trust, and the best way to open is to thank the customer (remember, they brought you a gift). If you’re apologizing, make it genuine and say “I” instead of “we.” Apologize for what happened, not for the inconvenience. And don’t blame the customer (that’s just pouring fuel on the fire), but do offer complete explanations, ask lots of questions, and reassure them you’re invested in fixing the problem. No matter the medium, you want the customer to understand you’re personally working to understand their complaint. You’re not just going through a form or script.

As consultants the authors travel quite often and they share an example from United Airlines that drives this home. After a cascading series of problems with luggage, a United VP proactively followed up, set the script aside, and was sincere. As they relate:

Finally, Janelle wrote a letter. She got a telephone call and a letter in quick order. Then it happened again; no luggage. When Janelle arrived at the TMI office the next morning, a caller was holding for her. The voice at the other end of the line said, “We did it again, didn’t we?” Perfect. A vice president from United was calling and obviously had been alerted to the delayed-luggage report that was filed the previous night. Again, we say that so much of effective complaint handling is in the way it is done.

Make it a partnership

Don’t try to fix your customers’ problems too quickly. Give them a chance to express the emotions they feel.

Complaints often come alongside anger and frustration. To resolve them it’s important to not rush into anything as that won’t help your customer feel heard (it’s also how you can make mistakes). Instead, work to build a partnership with the customer. If things remain adversarial they’ll stay angry, and you’ll be limited in how you can help.

One of the best ways to build a partnership is to detach yourself from the situation. You want to remain invested in fixing the problem while keeping your emotional responses out of the equation; this balance helps you work with the customer. The authors outline 5 behavioral approaches and phrasing models that can help:

  • Investigatory: “Let’s get to the bottom of this.”
  • Advisory: “We can approach this a couple ways.”
  • Listening: “Tell me what happened, I’d like to know as well.”
  • Analytical: “Let’s go through things in order.”
  • Reassuring: “Did I understand all of that correctly?”

The entire “When Customers Go Ballistic” chapter is an excellent set of action-oriented suggestions. There are phrasing suggestions like those above throughout. Two more of my favorites:

  • Instead of “Sir, I can’t help you if you don’t…” try, “Could you help me understand more about what happened…”
  • Instead of, “No, we can’t get that for you today.” try, “We can get it for you, and it shouldn’t take any more than three days.”

Focus on process, not people

Service recovery has two aspects: emotional and tangible. The emotional aspect is helping everyone feel better about the situation that created dissatisfaction. The tangible aspect is doing something to fix the situation.

Once you’ve diffused the emotional aspect of the complaint you can begin to work on the tangible side of things. Here it’s important to consider two levels of fixing the situation: How can we fix it for this customer? And how can we fix it so that this doesn’t happen again?

You want the individual customer to have their complaint resolved and you want to prevent other customers running into the same situation. The goal is not to get really good at handling complaints you could have prevented! That’s why you need to learn what first led to this problem. The cause is very likely to be on the process side and they use a phrase borrowed from an early 1990s medical paper, “Punish process, not people.” With this mindset the more complaints you hear the better.

I hope this gives you a good idea of what you can learn from A Complaint Is a Gift. There’s something in the book for every level of an organization, from a brand new customer support team member on up to the senior leadership team. Its straightforward principles are ones that I’ve found regularly worth revisiting.

The calm of rereading

A list of books that you reread is like a clearing in the forest: a level, clean, well-lighted place where you set down your burdens and set up your home, your identity, your concerns, your continuity in a world that is at best indifferent, at worst malign.

L.E. Sissman1

Even in normal times, reading is my primary hobby. In the midst of a pandemic, with none of the usual work travel that a typical year involves, that’s even more the case. My time for reading has easily doubled and, as importantly, is no longer interrupted by timezone changes and long flights.

One of the most calming ways to spend that time has been to reread favorite novels. These are those enjoyable stories that I find easy to reside within. They don’t have to be profound works of Literature, just books that I connect with.

Rereading brings something familiar back into the day. You catch an echo of previous readings and past versions of yourself. As the poet quoted above notes, rereading provides a piece of understood continuity in a world that can be anything but.

James Hilton’s Lost Horizon is near the top of this list for me. Pretty much anything by Hermann Hesse is, too, though The Glass Bead Game remains a particular favorite. And Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series held up unexpectedly well despite (or maybe because of?) a 20-something year gap from my last reading.2

If you’ve not read a favorite novel in years, pick it up again. Give your brain a break from the world and any desire to be productive, just let it fall back into a familiar story and pattern at a time when we lack those things.

  1. Poet (slash advertising executive) and winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship as quoted in Alan Jacobs’ The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction.
  2. Try to ignore the cover art on the current edition, which feels very non-canonical; such is the problem of locking the first edition you read in your mind as The Right Edition.

2019 in books

Building off of 2018’s more organized list of books, I logged each book I read over the course of 2019. It was a more reading-filled year in which I finished 72 books. A big part of that came from making more time for reading in my vacations; the early morning hours are just the perfect time for a cup of coffee and a book.

Most of that reading happened over a digital format. The new(er) Kindle Oasis from Amazon is a near-perfect device, at least for my habits, and its adjustable warm light is one of those instantaneous difference makers I can’t imagine going without. While I still prefer hard copy books the convenience, portability, and single-purpose nature of the Kindle win out for day-to-day reading.

My favorites on the nonfiction side were Alain de Botton’s Status Anxiety and The Goodness Paradox by Richard Wrangham. They’re very different reads as one is more philosophical and the other more popular science. Status Anxiety considers why, both historically and ideologically, we feel such a need to gain and compete for status (and all the anxiety that comes along with that). The Goodness Paradox is a fascinating look how humans exhibit extremely peaceful day-to-day relations alongside vicious forms of planned violence. The discussion of bonobo and chimpanzee behavior and habitat was one I found particularly worthwhile.

On the fiction side, my standout favorites were three Classics-related books: The Song of Achilles and Circe by Madeline Miller, and The Odyssey by Emily Wilson. Miller’s books are retellings of myths from Ancient Greece. She really masters the storyline in a way that makes them accessible even if you’re unfamiliar with the history. Wilson’s book is a new translation of the Homeric poem. While it’s all written in iambic pentameter she relies on a voice that makes Odysseus’ journey engaging and easy to follow.

There’s a lot from 2019’s reading that has stuck with me and, I hope, will continue to filter into my thinking. A 2020 personal goal is to get more of my reading notes into a public, online format. Over the course of a typical nonfiction book I’ll take a few thousand words of notes, but they sit in raw, local text files. There’s some sort of editorial process those need to go through, though, to be intelligible outside of my own brain.

My 2020 reading list is up and running. And as I figure out how to best share reading notes I’ll link to them from that page.

2018 in books

Last year was the first year in which I kept a more organized list of what I read. I had a loose goal to read a book a week and ended the year having read 48 books. Given that a few of the books were significantly denser academic ones I consider that close enough.

The two best work books I read were Management Lessons from Mayo Clinic and Freedom from Command and Control.

Management Lessons from Mayo Clinic is an in-depth look at how Mayo Clinic works and the service mentality that’s embedded within their operations. I posted some high-level notes over here. If you work in any kind of service team it’s a worthwhile read. It captures in a more structured and easy-to-name way some aspects of effective service that you likely already intuit.

Freedom from Command and Control covers how to apply ideas from Toyota’s production system to service teams of all types. John Seddon is a consultant and covers a bunch of case studies and models for how to evaluate service team performance. Reading it got my mind working more than any service industry book in recent memory. As an aside, it’s $50 on Amazon so I’d generally recommend reading it only if you can find it at a local library. The first two-thirds of the book are fantastic. The last third is more of a rant by Seddon against certain standards bodies.

On the fiction side of things my favorite reads were when I branched out from the science fiction I typically read. Pachinko, Into the Distance, and The Sympathizer were three great ones.

I also refreshed my main reading list to start logging things as I go through 2019. I have a vacation coming up over the next week and a half so that list will grow quite a bit by the end of the month.

Thinking in bets

As a kid I’d occasionally watch World Series of Poker events on ESPN. During the broadcast they’d show the percentage likelihood each player had for winning the hand. I remember thinking, “How in the world do players remember all of this information…”

It certainly didn’t occur to me that some of the betting strategies players applied would also be effective in the business world. That’s part of why I found Annie Duke’s Thinking in Bets a worthwhile read. Duke is a professional poker player and her book is a guide to making decisions within uncertain environments.

She views a bet as, essentially, a decision about an uncertain future. To make effective bets we have to learn how to separate outcome quality from decision quality. The quality of our decisions is all we’re able to control. Yet we tend to evaluate our decisions by their outcomes; if the outcome is good then we made a good decision. The problem is it doesn’t work that way. A bad outcome can stem from a logically sound and effective decision.

Duke doesn’t advocate that we try to change this cognitive tendency through willpower alone. She holds that our capacity for deliberative decision-making is already maxed out. Instead she frames it this way:

The challenge is not to change the way our brains operate but to figure out how to work within the limitations of the brains we already have. 1

A path toward better decisions is to leverage our competitive drive to change our routines. We can change the features by which we compare ourselves (e.g. work to be the best credit giver rather than work to receive the most credit).

If we approach the decisions we make as bets then we can explore alternative reasons for why a given outcome came to pass. If we dismiss another’s good outcome as simply luck then we close down opportunities to learn from their expertise and skill. And it’s those lessons that we can apply to our own decisions.

A big part of what helped Duke in her career was having a decision group to deconstruct and debug situations with. It’s the Mertonian values of such a group that matter most. As she writes:

As a rule of thumb, if we have an urge to leave out a detail because it makes us uncomfortable or requires even more clarification to explain away, those are exactly the details we must share. The mere fact of our hesitation and discomfort is a signal that such information may be critical to providing a complete and balanced account.2

  1. Thinking in Bets, pg. 14.
  2. Ibid, pg. 154.

My list of books to read is immense, and only keeps growing at a rate which outpaces my reading speed. That means there are many canonical books that I’ve never read. In the last week and a half I picked two of them off the list, and loved both.

The first, A Canticle for Leibowitz, is a wonderful science fiction book written in the late-1950s. The focus is a plausible future where humans have annihilated the vast majority of the world’s population through nuclear weapon strikes. Written knowledge, seen as the foundation for that nuclear arms race, becomes both rare and hated.

The second, Fahrenheit 451, is Ray Bradbury’s classic about book burning and the role knowledge and conversation have (or rather, don’t have) in a dystopian future society. Short read, finished in a day, but really fantastic.