The best books for better leadership

| March 16, 2014 | 0 Comments

Every year for more than a decade, intellectual impresario and Edge editor John Brockman has been asking the era’s greatest thinkers a single annual question, designed to illuminate some important aspect of how we understand the world.

In 2010, he asked how the internet is changing the way we think. More recently, he posed an even grander question: “What scientific concept will improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?”

The answers, featuring a wealth of influential scientists, authors and thought-architects, are in This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking2 – a formidable anthology of short essays by 151 of our time’s biggest thinkers on subjects as diverse as the power of networks, cognitive humility, the paradoxes of daydreaming, information flow, collective intelligence and a dizzying, mind-expanding range in between.

Together, they construct a powerful toolkit of meta-cognition – a new way to think about thinking itself. Brockman prefaces the essays with an important definition that captures the dimensionality of ‘science’: “Here, the term ‘scientific’ is to be understood in a broad sense – as the most reliable way of gaining knowledge about anything, whether it be human behaviour, corporate behaviour, the fate of the planet or the future of the universe.

A ‘scientific concept’ may come from philosophy, logic, economics, jurisprudence or any other analytic enterprises, as long as it is a rigorous tool that can be summed up succinctly but has broad application to understanding the world.”

So much we do not know

The diverse answers come from a number of Brain Pickings favourites. Neuroscientist David Eagleman, author of the excellent Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain,3 explores the concept of “the umwelt” coined by biologist Jakob von Uexküll in 1909 – the idea that different animals in the same ecosystem pick up on different elements of their environment and thus live in different micro-realities based on the subset of the world they’re able to detect.

Eagleman stresses the importance of recognizing our own umwelt – our unawareness of the limits of our awareness: “I think it would be useful if the concept of the umwelt were embedded in the public lexicon. It neatly captures the idea of limited knowledge, of unobtainable information, and of unimagined possibilities. Consider the criticisms of policy, the assertions of dogma, the declarations of fact that you hear every day – and just imagine if all of these could be infused with the proper intellectual humility that comes from appreciating the amount unseen.”

Scales of impact

Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, who authored one of the best psychology books of 2011,4 contemplates the “focusing illusion” – or tendency to misjudge the scale of impact certain circumstances, from a pay raise to the death of a loved one, will have on our actual well-being: “Politicians are almost as good as marketers in causing people to exaggerate the importance of issues on which their attention is focused.

People can be made to believe that school uniforms will significantly improve educational outcomes, or that health care reform will hugely change the quality of life – either for the better or for the worse. Health care reform will make a difference, but the difference will be smaller than it appears when you focus on it.”


Martin Seligman, father of positive psychology, writes about PERMA,5 the five pillars of well-being – Positive Emotion, Engagement, Positive Relationships, Meaning and Purpose, and Accomplishment – reminding us that reducing disabling conditions like poverty, disease, depression, aggression and ignorance is only one half of the life satisfaction equation: “Science and public policy have traditionally been focused solely on remediating the disabling conditions, but PERMA suggests that this is insufficient.

If we want global wellbeing, we should also measure and try to build PERMA. The very same principal seems to be true in your own life: if you wish to flourish personally, getting rid of depression, anxiety and anger and getting rich is not enough, you also need to build PERMA directly.”


Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, who has previously examined the neurochemistry of love and desire,6 zooms in on the temperament as the essential building block of the self: “Personality is composed of two fundamentally different types of traits: those of ‘character’; and those of ‘temperament’.

Your character traits stem from your experiences. Your childhood games; your family’s interests and values… The balance of your personality is your temperament, all the biologically based tendencies that contribute to your consistent patterns of feeling, thinking and behaving. Temperament is the ‘I am’, the foundation of who you are.”

 Examining failure

Wrongologist Kathryn Schulz,7 echoing her recentTED talk on the psychology of regret,8 says: “At best, we nurture the fantasy that knowledge is always cumulative, and therefore concede that future eras will know more than we do. But we ignore or resist the fact that knowledge collapses as often as it accretes, that our own most cherished beliefs might appear patently false to posterity.”

In fact, this seems to be one of the anthology’s bigger running themes – the idea that error, failure and uncertainty are not only common to both the scientific method and the human condition, but also essential. Futurist and Wired founder Kevin Kelly9 joins the ranks of famous creators admonishing against the fear of failure:10 “We can learn nearly as much from an experiment that does not work as from one that does. Failure is not something to be avoided but rather something to be cultivated. That’s a lesson from science that benefits not only laboratory research, but design, sport, engineering, art, entrepreneurship, and even daily life itself. All creative avenues yield the maximum when failures are embraced.” And theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli reminds us uncertainty and the willingness to be proven wrong are a vital part of intellectual, and I dare add personal, growth: “The very foundation of science is to keep the door open to doubt. Precisely because we keep questioning everything, especially our own premises, we are always ready to improve our knowledge. Therefore a good scientist is never ‘certain’.”

Curators crucial to culture

But my favourite, for obvious reasons, comes from curator extraordinaire Hans-Ulrich Obrist:11 “I believe [the word] ‘curate’ finds ever-wider application because of a feature of modern life that is impossible to ignore: the incredible proliferation of ideas, information, images, disciplinary knowledge and material products that we all witnessing today.

Such proliferation makes the activities of filtering, enabling, synthesizing, framing and remembering more and more important as basic navigational tools for 21st century life. “As the artist Tino Sehgal has pointed out, modern human societies find themselves today in an unprecedented situation: the problem of lack, or scarcity, which has been the primary factor motivating scientific and technological innovation, is now being joined and even superseded by the problem of the global effects of overproduction and resource use.

Thus moving beyond the object as the locus of meaning has a further relevance. Selection, presentation and conversation are ways for human beings to create and exchange real value, without dependence on older, unsustainable processes. Curating can take the lead in pointing us towards this crucial importance of choosing.”

A potent rupture

As infinitely fascinating and stimulating as This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to Improve Your Thinking is, its true gift is in acting as a potent rupture in the filter bubble of our curiosity, cross-pollinating ideas across a multitude of disciplines to broaden our intellectual comfort zones and, in the process, spark a deeper, richer, more dimensional understanding not only of science, but of life itself.

This article is reprinted with kind permission from Maria Popova, the founder and editor-in-chief of The article was originally entitled ‘This Will Make You Smarter: 151 Big Thinkers Each Pick a Concept to Enhance Your Cognitive Toolkit’.


1. See:

2. Brockman, J. (2012) This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts to

Improve Your Thinking. New York: Harper Perennial Publishers.

3. Eagleman, D. (2012) Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain. New York: Vintage.

4. Kahneman, D. (2011) Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and


5. Seligman, M. (2011) Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and

Well-being. New York: Free Press.

6. Fisher, H. (2004) Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love.

New York: Holt Paperbacks.

7. Schulz, K. (2010) Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error. New York:


8. See:


9. See:

10. See:

11. Obrist, H.U. (2010) Interviews, Volume 2. London: Charta.



Category: Autumn 2014, Book Reviews

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