from my bookshelves, life in general

Books that help me think better

I’m not the kind of person whom you’d describe as the walking sunshine who radiates joy everywhere she goes. For me, the closest thing to spreading happiness around is recommending books to others.

I like reading, and some books give me utter pleasure from learning new stuff or from being engulfed in good stories. Infecting others with this pleasure only doubles my happiness. Thus, from time to time, I will make lists of my book recommendations here.

I will kick off with books that help me think better. Thinking skills are fluid instead of fixed. We can upgrade them by exercising and challenging our mind. Similarly, if we stop training our mind, our thinking skills will be depleted.

I’m paid to think (besides churning out clever-looking presentation slides). In my job, thinking consists of analyzing situations and information, reading data and research critically, framing and defining problems, coming up with possible solutions, building and countering arguments —also navigating agency’s or client’s politics, but that’s for another post later on.

These are the books that I find very helpful in improving those skills, in no particular order.

Books that help me become a better thinker

Are Your Lights On? How to Figure Out What The Problem Really Is
by Donald C. Gausse and Gerald M. Weinberg

This is the book about problem definition. If you make money by developing strategies or solving any kind of problems, you are foolish to skip it.

From it, I learn about how tricky trying to define a problem is —you can come up with many possible definitions from one single non-ideal situation. It shows me we can never be sure we have a correct problem definition, even after the problem has been solved. It reminds me to not mistake a solution method for a problem definition, especially if it’s my own method that I sell for a living. It warns me that if I can’t think at least three things that might be wrong with my problem definition, that means I don’t really understand the problem.

The style of the book is very casual. You won’t feel like you’re reading a book written by a prominent computer scientist and a system analyst. You’ll read fables, little stories written in a tongue-in-cheek manner, and eventually you’ll get the moral of them. It reminds me of Aesop’s fables or Zen tales.

I have finished reading the books several times, yet I feel I still can learn more. I always find new things every time I reread it.

Problem Solving 101: A Simple Book for Smart People by Ken Watanabe
If the above-mentioned book focuses on problem definition, this one covers the whole gamut of activities in problem solving: defining the problem, figuring out its root cause and eliminating alternate explanations, and developing the action plans and making priorities (remember the ease of implementation vs. impact diagram that I discussed earlier?).

Although the title says the book is for smart people, it is actually very accessible. It’s written as if it’s a storybook for children, and that’s the beauty of it. Just like what the author writes, nobody is too old to learn how to solve problems. You will learn something, even if you’re already a seasoned strategist or solution engineer. Even if you don’t make a living by solving other people’s problems, you’ll find this book beneficial for your personal life.

Rapid Problem Solving with Post-it Notes by David Staker
What I find really valuable from this book is less on the problem solving heuristics, thus the book will be much more useful if you have read Problem Solving 101. But the tips and tricks on using Post-it are great for me personally for several reasons. Firstly, using sticky notes helps me visualize the relationships between the elements of a situation, and it helps my understanding. Secondly, using sticky notes makes me more physically active when thinking and this keeps me energized. Thirdly, using sticky notes can be turned into activities in workshops or brainstorming sessions.

I still use sticky notes when I’m thinking, and especially when I’m writing presentations. But nowadays I also use the apps for virtual sticky notes. For Chrome web app, I use one that has a creatively unambitious name: Sticky Notes. For iPad, I use the one with a very cliché name, iBrainstorm.

How to Lie With Statistics by Darrel Huff
This is not a statistics book. This is a book about statistical reasoning. This book does not cover any statistical formulas.You don’t need to use calculator at all to follow it. Instead, it guides us on how think critically and draw logically-sound conclusions by applying really basic principles of statistic, like sampling bias, average, charts and graphs, index, and correlations.

Just like the first two books that I discuss earlier, How to Lie With Statistics is easy to digest. The discussion always starts from real news, and the author often adds more colorful stories (like the chapter about how going to college ‘dramatically decrease’ women’s chance to get hitched).

The book is a classic and has been around for ages, so you have to bear with the vintage examples (Kinsey report, for example) and antiquated illustrations. However, the lesson is still very relevant today and years ahead, as long as people use statistics as tools for persuasions.

I have to admit that this book is more relevant for my non-professional life, like when having conversations with others or when reading news. Unfortunately the quality of news in Indonesian media has become so pathetic, they rarely bother to include statistical evidence in reporting. This makes the following two books become more useful.

A Rulebook for Arguments by Anthony Weston
Initially I thought the book was mainly useful for building arguments. Nevertheless, it turns out to be as helpful for scrutinizing arguments. The best way to spot bad arguments is to be really fluent in making good ones.

This book covers the fundamentals, starting from premises vs. conclusions, generalizations, analogies, judging sources’ credibility, causations vs. correlations, modus ponens and tollens, syllogisms, and of course logical fallacies.

This book reads more like a how-to guide. Each chapter is very short, yet we’ll see many clear examples. If you like Sherlock Holmes, you’ll be having a good time with them.

If you are a strategist or want to be one, you can’t afford to skip this book. If you are a senior communication planner and you haven’t read this, well, I honestly think you do a disservice to your profession.

If I had the power, I would make all high school students in Indonesia attend a semester of mandatory course of Introduction to Critical Thinking, in which the translated versions of Problem Solving 101 and A Rulebook for Arguments would be taught as the textbooks.

Thank You For Arguing: What Aristotle, Lincoln, and Homer Simpson Can Teach Us About The Art of Persuasion by Jay Heinrich
This book is dangerous. It contains probably all the persuasion tactics ever known to human beings, described in an accessible and entertaining manner. This book will give you all the ammunition if you want to be a manipulator par excellence. Yet it trains you to be more resistant against others’ persuasion tactics.

If you are in the business to sway people’s opinions, by all means read this book. Reading this book will be more useful than learning hypnotics.

I sometimes find the book a bit chatty, although I understand that its selling point is the examples. If you get overwhelmed, there’s always the summary in the appendix.

Now I’ve shared my recommendations, dear readers, would you be kind enough to advise me on books of similar vein?