“Think before you speak. Read before you think.” — Fran Lebowitz
I recently caught up with a very close, childhood friend of mine. While we had similar childhood experiences largely, he and I ended up taking very different paths right from college. He studied to be a doctor at one of the preeminent colleges in India and later did graduate studies both in medicine and in engineering. He is currently a doctor and a scientist. I ended up following a more default path of my generation — software engineering and then management. Towards the end of my long catch-up with my friend, he suggested that I write a blog with a listing of psychology books that helped transform my thinking (my psychology?). I am certainly no expert on psychology but for various serendipitous reasons, I went through a large transformation in how I approach and live life. I believe this is a result of the good fortune of the grace of a few wonderful mentors and also the influence from a number of books I read in the last few years.
Human behaviour always fascinated me mainly because I found myself behaving in ways which I know were not necessarily beneficial or good for me. For example, why do I find it so hard to resist my sweet tooth and why I used to be so highly concerned with how others perceived me. I have also been fascinated by how a few, otherwise ordinary, people with went on to make extraordinary accomplishments. My curiosity around these fascinations led and informed my reading in the last few years.
From my reading, I learnt and now believe that we really have very little free will, if any. I count this as among my biggest learnings because I was conditioned to believe the opposite of this — that we consciously decide and manifest our actions and behaviour. Whereas our unconscious brain pretty much dictates all of our behaviour and our conscious brain just follows up with rationalization of our behaviour.
Another learning is that our evolutionary history casts a powerful shadow on our present behaviour. What are popularly alluded to as “cognitive” or “unconscious” biases, are really not biases at all. They are psychological tools that have helped us, human beings, survive and thrive. These tools (heuristics, really) are not as readily applicable any more as the environment in which we operate has changed dramatically. No more tigers lurking around the corner. We don’t any more survive day by day — we are reasonably assured that life is generally long enough and stable enough. In modern life, unlike in our evolutionary times, we must plan for our future wellbeing — not just for tomorrow or next month but for years and decades on. Our behaviour is primarily driven by the psychological toolkit that evolution endowed us with, but that is not suitable anymore. Understanding how our unconscious mind works can serve as a big advantage in the current competitive world.
“The reading of all good books is like a conversation with the finest minds of past centuries.” — Rene Descartes
There are many other learnings, of course. Interestingly, a seemingly trifle concept created a profound impact on me. Jonathan Haidt referred to it as the “adaptation principle” in his book — The Happiness Hypothesis. It alludes to the fact that we adapt quickly to the many things in life. This is readily true for materialistic possessions — after the basic material needs (like food, shelter and clothing) are properly met. For example, we adapt to a bigger or a more luxurious car quickly. Which means, additional satisfaction/happiness from a bigger car does not last for long — within a few months, we settle back into the previous level of happiness. Importantly there are things out there which defy this adaptation principle. For example, one cannot adapt fully to bad (long and congested) commute to/from work and also “flow” state. This means we should strive for “flow” state and reduce commute so as to elevate our benchmark for happiness.
“Books can be dangerous. The best ones should be labelled ‘This could change your life.’” — Helen Exley
Finally, here is a list of few of the books that had an outsized influence on my thinking — not all of them are pure play “psychology” books but everyone one of them has influenced my thinking. This is not an attempt to curate the best psychology books — just the list of books that affected me. Additionally, I tried vainly to put them in the order of declining impact.
- Antifragile — Nassim Taleb
- The Almanack of Naval Ravikant — Eric Jorgenson
- Happiness Hypothesis: Putting Ancient Wisdom to the Test of Modern Science by Jonathan Haidt
- Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious by Timothy D. Wilson
- Thinking, Fast and Slow — Daniel Kahneman
- Stumbling on Happiness — Daniel Gilbert
- Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke
- The Art of Thinking Clearly — Rold Dobelli
- Alchemy the dark art and curious science of creating magic in brands, business and life — Rory Sutherland
- “Reckoning with Risk”, “Risk Savvy” and “Gut Feelings” — Gerd Gigerenzer
- How We know What isn’t so? — Thomas Gilovich
- Superforecasting — Philip E. Tetlock
- Think Twice Harnessing the Power of Counterintuition — Michael Mauboussin
- Why Smart People Make Big Money Mistakes and How to Correct Them: Lessons from the Life-Changing Science of Behavioral Economics — Gary Belsky and Thomas Gilovich
- The Ten Commandments for Business Failure — Donald Keough
- Misbehaving — Richard Thaler
I hope that you read any or all these books and benefit from them as much as or more than I did. If you have any book suggestions, please do share.
“Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.” — President Harry Truman
PS: Additionally, I have been influenced rather heavily by a bunch of books on spirituality.
Thanks for taking time to read this. In this newsletter, I share my learnings that could help you improve your decisions and make meaningful progress on your goals. I try to share stuff that I have personally experienced or experimented with. If you find this newsletter worthwhile and if you do not mind it, please do consider sharing it with others.
A bit on my background
I help people make better decisions.
I coach people on “Making Better Decisions”, “Financial Intuition” and “Building Great Careers”. I’m open to run sessions on these topics in institutions — this will help me create larger impact.
I’m also an Investment Advisor (RIA) registered with the Securities and the Exchange Board of India (SEBI). As an RIA, I analyze and prepare financial plans to help people achieve their financial goals.