Evaluating Science

Ingredients: The Strange Chemistry of What We Put in Us and on Us by George Zaidan

Before I read it, I thought this book was about specific foods or personal care items, what is in them, and whether they are good or bad for you. It isn’t. It is about a much bigger topic. How to tell when science is legitimate, especially when reported on in the news.

It is an entertaining, informative, and accessible look at how to evaluate the science behind all those headlines that tell you what is good to eat and what will kill you sooner. The section on the “potholes” to look out for in the scientific studies you read about is alone worth the time to read the book.

His last chapter is his advice after having gone through all the science in the rest of the book. His final four “bits of advice” are:

  1. Don’t worry so much.
  2. Don’t smoke.
  3. Be physically active.
  4. Try to eat a healthy diet; any doctor-approved diet will do.

Oh, and if you are religious, you might want to skip the appendix. It will likely offend you.

Malcolm X: A Man for Our Times

Malcolm X

With the death of George Floyd at that hands (or rather knee) of a Minneapolis police officer and the protests that followed, I found myself wanting to try to understand the perspective of those who don’t share my white privilege. I thought back to the days of civil rights marches and protests in the 1960s. Growing up, I had learned about the Montgomery bus boycott, the March on Washington, and Martin Luther King, Jr. I also learned, but only in passing, about a man named Malcolm X.

What a learned in school about Martin Luther King, Jr. was only the headlines version, but I’ve heard much of his “I Have a Dream Speech” and read his “Letter from a Birmhamham Jail”. The only thing I learned about Malcolm X was that he was an angry Muslim that rather than believing in non-violence advocated for violent resistance. So in the midst of protests that occasionally turned violent, I decided to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

Malcolm X was a complex and dynamic man who isn’t done justice by the simplistic view of him that I had before I read this book. He grew up poor with only an eighth grade formal education. After the eighth grade he moved from the Lansing, MI area to Boston. There he live with his half sister and started work as a shoe shiner. Later he moved to Harlem where he used and sold drugs. He was eventually caught and incarcerated for these crimes and served ten years.

While in prison, Malcolm X spent most of his time either in the prison library or reading in his cell. He always sought to learn and grow. He also converted to the Nation of Islam. After leaving prison, he preached around the country, opening new temples (later called mosques). It was during this time that he rose to public prominence for his views. He was opposed to integration, feeling that the white man was the problem and that the black man needed to take pride in himself and to support and nurture his fellows. His speeches were fiery, and he never shied away from telling it like he saw it. It was during this time in his life that he gained the reputation as an angry, violent man.

Eventually Malcolm X had a falling out and a parting of the ways with the founder and leader of the Nation of Islam. In the process of this severance of ties, Malcolm made a pilgrimage to Mecca that change him profoundly. On this journey he had seen Muslims of all colors and nationalities live and worship as one during the Hajj. When he returned from this trip, he no longer saw the white man personally as his enemy. Instead he took the racist actions of men as his opposition. Unfortunately, no one in the media or public life seemed willing to acknowledge his growth. They still associated him with his days as a minister in the Nation of Islam. And while he was still in the process of redirecting his life in this new direction, he was assassinated.

For me, Malcolm X represents what we need today for civil rights. The 1960s led to institutional and legal changes required to move us further toward a more just and fair society. But now we need to face the hard facts of changing the culture itself. That’s the change that Malcolm X was trying to effect when his life was cut short. He wasn’t willing to wait any longer for justice for his people. The Black Lives Matter movement embraces that spirit. We’ve removed the overt racism that existed in our laws. Now we need to remove it from where it is embedded in our institutions.

For me the lesson of Malcolm X’s life is that we are always capable of learning and growing. The challenge is often that those around us aren’t willing to accept the changes that we go through. In Mecca, Malcolm X was able to see the humanity in everyone and that softened his heart but not his resolve. That’s what is missing in our politics today. Our politics is strong on resolve but lacks the heart of compassion and understanding. I hope that we can all embrace those qualities and work to embody them just as Malcolm X strove to in the last two years of his life.

Playing at Life

Men playing Texas Hold 'Em

Like all primates, humans play. Play can be for the shear joy of it, a way to grow and learn, or even a way for the very talented to make a living. These games fall along a spectrum from games of perfect information like chess or go to games of pure chance like roulette. Life itself seems to fall somewhere in the middle. We certainly lack perfect information when we are trying to make decisions. But neither is our life completely based on fortune, good or bad. Life is somewhere in between. We have some information and our choices do make a difference, but there are also many things that we have no control over. The trick in life is to determine the difference in order to make better decisions. Maria Konnikova, a PhD in psychology, in her book The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win shows how, to her, poker is the perfect game for learning this balance.

This book isn’t about how to play poker. It’s about how to play the world.

Maria Konnikova, The Biggest Bluff

Konnikova is not the first academician to make this argument. In 2018 Annie Duke published Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts. Duke was also a professor of psychology before going pro in poker. Her book is more of a business book, and she is a corporate speaker and trainer. Konnikova’s book is in the same vein but has broader appeal and is much more personal.

The book is the story of how she decided to become a professional poker player to write a book. She admits that this was a gimmick to start with, a way to motivate her and time box her writing process. But she began to become deeply enthralled with what she was learning and what it can teach us about life.

She takes on a teacher and mentor from the start, who teaches her about the game and how to play it. She was such a newbie she wasn’t even sure how many cards are in a deck (52). She tells the story of going from crossing the Hudson River to play online poker legally in New Jersey to playing to winning at the World Series of Poker. Along the way, she entertainingly educates the reader on the science behind what she is learning and how to apply it in our everyday lives.

One of the core takeaways for me is the idea that we cannot properly judge our decisions based on the outcome. We can make the optimum decision based on all the available evidence on hand and still end up on the losing side, of life or a poker hand. Luck, good or bad, is an inevitable part of our lives in every aspect. We need to better understand when we are making good decisions based on what we know. Too often we get lucky and, naturally, attribute it to our wonderful decision-making. Conversely, we often berate ourselves for poor decisions when the outcome is undesirable while the real culprit is something beyond our control or ability to predict. The key is learning how to separate good decision-making from luck, and Konnikova, through her experience at the poker table, shows how to do this in this excellent read.

Vital But Flawed Read

Earlier this year, I discovered The Divided States of America: Why Federalism Doesn’t Work by Donald F Kettl. I saw it advertised on the page of The Atlantic magazine. To my understanding, federalism is part of what made and continues to make such a vast and diverse country as the United States of America work. The blurb in the ad intrigued me, and I decided to buy the book and read it.

While the content here is of vital importance to anyone living today in the United States of America, the presentation is in sore need of further editing. The ideas are complex and deserve a fair amount of repetition in the text. However, it is overly repetitive to the point where I repeatedly found myself skimming passages that I was sure I had read ten or twenty or fifty pages earlier.

That said, it is important that the evaluation of the problem covered in this book be distributed far and wide. The solution proposed does not come till the final chapter, and it is embarrassingly meager and inadequate. Nonetheless, it is the description of the role of federalism and its role in our current political dysfunction that I find most compelling. It uses a blend of history and data to show how what was meant to (and has) preserved our republic for over two hundred years, is now on the verge of tearing us apart.

So I hesitatingly recommend reading this book. But if you can find a detailed summary of its ideas, this might serve you better. I can only hope that a second edition more ably edited will be forthcoming. I expect it might then become a bestseller.

True Leadership

Virginia Hall with sheep in her lap in the doorway of a barn in France

The university I graduated from started an online book club earlier this year. I thought it might be enjoyable to read books and discuss them with others and joined. I just finished reading our second book, A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II by Sonia Purnell. It is the story of perhaps the most successful Allied spy of World War II, Virginia Hall. On top of being a woman in the male dominated world of espionage, she was an amputee. She lost her left leg at the knee in a hunting accident. And the work she accomplished is simply incredible.

She grew up always wanting to do something more than marrying well, her mother’s dream for her. She visited France in the 1920s and fell in love with the freedom she felt there as a woman as well as the people. After her time in France, she attempted to find work at the State Department as a diplomat. They never saw her in that role, resigning her to support roles that “fit her better.”

In early 1940 she became an ambulance driver in France for the French army. When France fell to the Nazis, she found herself in London where she sought to join the newly created Special Operations Executive (SOE). They were looking to place spies in Vichy France to build up resistance fighters. They struggled to do so. They were so desperate that they decided they had nothing to lose by giving Virginia a chance, never expecting her to last very long.

She outperformed every man in the SOE (and later the US’s Office of Strategic Services or OSS) over and over again. The things she accomplished were simply incredible: jail breaks, multiple disguises and names, escaping over the Pyrenees (with one leg!). Despite her performance, she was never given a command until near the end of the war. But she never let that stop her. She was always a leader, whether recognized for it or not. People looked to her and relied upon her to get things done. The result: she and her resistance fighters liberated the Loire valley without regular troops following the Normandy invasion, the first resistance group to do this in France.

Unfortunately after the war, the good old boys’ club kicked in again. She served in the CIA until she retired (mandatory) at sixty. Unlike the men, she was never invited back in a consulting role. After she died, the leadership at the CIA finally gave her the recognition she deserved. Interestingly, Virginia herself was never much interested in recognition. She just wanted to be allowed to do her work. When she was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 1945, she refused a public ceremony as she feared it would compromise her continued work as a spy. She was the only civilian woman in World War II to receive this award.

Virginia’s story is astounding for anyone, man or woman. The fact that she did it as a woman who was often overlooked or looked down on makes it all the more impressive. Add to that the disability of a prosthetic leg and you have the story of one of the most incredible leaders of the twentieth century.

Finding Ourselves Again

For many years now I have been fascinated by the power and need for what might be called “white space” in life. This means leaving down time in your days, weeks, and years for what some might call nothing. It might best be reflected by the body’s need to sleep during which the brain cleans up and processes the events of the day. Not doing this can actually cause us to be less functional. Some ideas on this kind of “doing nothing” were explored in a book by the same name that I reviewed in a previous post.

In her book by almost the same name (How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy), Jenny Odell takes a somewhat different approach. What stands out to me about this book is not so much what it says but how it made me feel. Broadly, it opened up for me a view into myself that I realized that I’ve had for some time now. I just didn’t have a way of articulating. In many ways, I still don’t. It’s more of a feeling that this book helped me learn how to look for, nurture, and embrace.

Two main themes were embodiment and maintenance. Embodiment in the sense of realizing that we live in a physical world. Too often we are looking at screens and the images or text on them rather than simply noticing the world around us. Maintenance in the sense that life is cyclical rather than simply linear. Our lives are now governed by productivity and economic activity while for most of human history they have been governed by nature and the seasons.

“As the body disappears, so does our ability to empathize”

So much of life today is removed from the actually living of it. We interact “socially” through small black rectangles and video conference calls. This removal makes it easier to judge and condemn others, to see issues as binary black and white positions rather than an endless spectrum between the two. When we simply slow down to actually see and listen to others, this is like a prism that breaks our isolation into a rainbow of infinite and various hues.

The author describes an experience where she attended a unique performance at a symphony hall in San Francisco. It opened her mentally to all the sounds around her that she simply wasn’t paying attention to. As she stepped out onto the street, one she had walked many times, she heard sounds that she had never noticed before. They were always there. She just wasn’t attuned to them. It’s the slowing down and contemplating of our surroundings that gives us the space and perspective to see and hear what we’ve been ignoring.

“To me, the only habit worth ‘designing for’ is the habit of questioning one’s habitual ways of seeing, and that is what artists, writers, and musicians help us to do.”

Our western culture’s foundational premise is productivity and progress. But progress toward what? What are we progressing toward? This attitude treats life like a straight line game that at the end we determine if we have won. It is proverbial that those at the end of life are not using the yard stick of productivity to measure their lives. Instead they are measured in their relationships and simply being with others. This is, to use the author’s words, the “ethos of care and maintenance.”

So much of our economic activity is focused on creating something new, and subsequently throwing out the old. Our products are no longer repairable. We’re meant to use them up and throw them out. We live in contradistinction with our environment instead of in harmony with it. Nature doesn’t throw anything away but reuses it over and over again transforming it in the process. How are we transforming ourselves and our world? With a little more time connecting to that world directly, we might find ourselves behaving differently, doing differently, being differently.

Our experience of life in family is in many ways cyclical like nature. We move from son or daughter to parent or aunt or uncle. We nurture and teach the generations following us, passing on the lessons we learned in hopes that the younger generations will grow beyond our achievements. Now what if we slowed down enough to take this view of others who we aren’t related to? What if we were willing to learn from those not like us? This can only happen when we are willing to circle back again and again to review the humanity in others that we see in and allow for ourselves. To identify and care about all embodied life. This is moving from the “I-It” experience to the “I-Thou” experience.

Context is what appears when you hold your attention open for long enough; the longer you hold it, the more context appears.

When we engage with others through any kind of medium, we lose some of the context and connection to them as a fellow human being. When we inhabit the same space as someone else with humility and openness, this is the essence of care and maintenance. In this space, we can check in with ourselves and others, offering the help needed even if it is only our presence and compassion. Absent of physical presence and attention, this is extraordinarily challenging.

The authors end with a discussion of “manifest dismantling”. This is undoing the things we have done to disconnect ourselves from each other and the world in order to make space for the life that is around us. This isn’t an abandonment of progress or productivity but a balance to it that brings the meaning and purpose that we all crave as human beings. And in the process we might just find each other and our humanity right there waiting for us to see them again.

A Hurried and Uninspired Memoir

Partisanship and the controversy surrounding John Bolton are not the reason I was interested in his memoir The Room Where It Happened. I am no Trump fan and am a registered independent voter. My interest lay in why he chose not to testify in the House impeachment proceedings and his experience working for the President. Since this was such a timely subject given the election in November, I decided to read it. I only made it through the first two chapters.

As you might expect, the book is very partizan, sharing the author’s very conservative perspective. This in itself does not bother me but rather intrigues me. I like to understand where people are coming from. I find that as a society we are too quick to pigeon hole someone in a box and then dismiss what they have to say. I’m interested in ideas more than party. As a result, I wanted to know what Bolton thought and how he advised the President. Unfortunately, I found the writing to be excessively detailed and overly flamboyant with too much name dropping.

The first two chapters that I read feel like he barely fleshed out his calendar based on his notes and memories. It doesn’t have the polish or introspection that is the hallmark of the modern memoir. He likes to repeatedly name the politically connected that he met or spoke with. An example of the excessive detail is that every time (yes, every time) he refers to the desk in the Oval Office he calls it the Resolute desk. That is a pertinent detail… the first time he mentions it. It just gets old and absurd after that.

It is clear from the author’s experience that President Trump was woefully unprepared practically and by disposition to act as president in the modern way. That way is to be someone who relies on his cabinet to bring him advice from which he makes informed decisions. Rather, he relies on family, friends, and his own seat of the pants judgment. Some may argue that this might have worked for him as a businessman, but it is certainly no way to govern. John Bolton was never happy with the chaos and haphazard antics of the Trump administration, eventually resigning.

After the first two chapters, I skimmed the rest of the book to see if it was going to continue in the same vein of subpar literature. It did. But I still wanted to know the author’s thoughts on the impeachment and his reasons for not testifying. This is in the final chapter of the book. I read that before laying the book aside.

Bolton’s opinion of the impeachment proceedings was that they were politically weaponized by both sides. He feels this was a dangerous precedent and a misuse of the Constitution. Interestingly, he feels that if the Democrats in the House had taken their time and broadened the scope of the investigation, they may have succeeded. According to the author, there is plenty of proof that the president regularly acted in his own personal interest or in the interest of his own re-election rather than in the best interests of the country.

As for why he didn’t testify, he anticipated having a similar experience to Charlie Kupperman’s. He was subpoenaed by the House of Representatives to testify in the impeachment proceedings. This resulted in the White House and the President ordering him to invoke “testimonial immunity”. Rather than choose which side to listen to, Kupperman filed suit in federal court for advice. Before receiving that advice, the House withdrew the subpoena leaving the court without jurisdiction. No decision was given. By that time, the House had passed the impeachment proceedings on to the Senate. John Bolton decided at that time that he would testify, if called. The Senate never called any witnesses and Trump was acquitted as expected. Given Bolton’s view of the process itself and his desire to hew closely to the Constitution, this makes sense.

In the end the overwhelming detail in this book and the author’s apparent need to brag about all the people he knows and is connected with render this memoir nearly unreadable. It seems that the author suffered from exactly what he accused the House Democrats of. He was in too much of a hurry to give the work the attention it deserved.

Infinite Detail Indeed

Infinite Detail by Tim Maughan is speculative fiction at its best. It feels only a few years (if that) removed from today and has a perspective that really makes the book unique. While some may call it a dystopia, I see it more as an exploration of revolutionary idealists and their perspectives after the revolution.

There has been an event that knocks out the internet all over the world. It’s gone, along with all the trappings that go with it. The world struggles to manage without all that it has come to depend on. And it appears to have been done on purpose. Why? There are lots of reasons that are best experienced in the book itself. But in the end, the revolutionaries debate whether they got it right or not. And will things just go back to normal? And like any good artist, the author poses the question and leaves the answer to the reader.

On top of this fascinating exploration of political ideals in the realm of digital privacy, the author is a fantastic storyteller. The chapters alternate between before and after the internet is taken away. We slowly learn the stories of individuals who were affected by the events or made them happen. The connections slowly come to light as the prose paints vivid and realistic views of a world that could someday be our own.

If you are looking for an entertaining, well-written novel that will make you think, you can’t go wrong with this one.

Going from Life Hack to Life Back

The title of this post is the title of part two of Celeste Headlee’s book Do Nothing. It’s divided into six short chapters that address how to overcome the cult of busy and learn to do nothing.

Challenge Your Perceptions

“As we have become more efficient, we have also become more fragile.” This reminds me of another book I recently read called Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nassim Nicholas Taleb. Systems are more resilient when they are inefficient, when they have redundancy and backups. But our modern life has become more and more efficient. This is great until something breaks. Then it breaks big time.

Many of us are convinced that we work many more hours than we actually do. But simply believing we work more has real negative affects. We need to challenge this perception.

This one small change—becoming more aware of what you do between waking and sleeping—could have a cascade of benefits. As I mentioned, it may leave you with a sense that you have more time to take care of both your needs and your desires and, as it turns out, that feeling is better for you than a raise in pay….

We work long hours in order to make more money, not realizing that once we’ve met our fundamental needs, it is leisure time that increases happiness, not necessarily extra cash.

Celeste Headlee

As a remedy the author suggests tracking your time and then making your ideal schedule. You won’t always achieve this ideal, but simply having it will direct your days more intentionally.

Take the Media Out of Your Social

Stop making comparisons. Social media encourages us to compare our everyday lives to the best snippets of our friends and celebrities. This is a recipe for unhappiness. Comparisons aren’t bad on their own. They can even be motivating. “So the urge to make comparisons is not necessarily bad unless our perception of others is inaccurate and therefore the comparisons aren’t valid.”

Step Away from Your Desk

Even when our bosses encourage us to go home and take our vacation, we don’t. We should. Working that crazy schedule will likely only get us a ten percent raise, if that. Why do we work those extra hours to get that promotion? We hope the extra money will buy us more time and peace of mind. It rarely does as we then equate time off with even more lost money.

If your goal is less stress and more happiness, years of scientific research have proven that rather than trading your time for money, it’s best to trade your money for time…. In other words, paying others to mow your lawn, clean your car or house, or do your laundry is a great use of your money, even if it means you can’t afford a bigger TV or an expensive vacation.

Celeste Headlee, Do Nothing

Working hard doesn’t even make us more productive, but less so. Back in the 1920s Henry Ford instituted a five day week and an eight hour day not because he was a humanitarian but because it made his employees more productive. It seems our focus on working more is counterproductive.

Research shows that if you work without interruption for fifty to fifty-seven minutes, then take a short break, you’ll get much more done, and because you’re more likely to engage the executive part of your brain while using this schedule, your work may be more insightful and creative.

Celeste Headlee, Do Nothing

Invest in Leisure

You need to take breaks. The human mind is not capable of focused concentration for more than an hour. And these breaks need to be filled leisure or nothing at all. Don’t just switch to another task. That’s not a break. We need boredom and daydreaming. Like dreaming in sleep, daydreaming allows our brains to go into a kind of “rest and refresh” mode that it can’t otherwise. This is when we process what we were focusing on. That makes leisure and time off essential to the focus needed at work.

Make Real Connections

Make sure you set aside some time to spend with friends in person. You can even strike up conversations with strangers like the checkout person at the grocery store. Humans are social animals, so it is important to our well-being and health to interact with others. Even just making eye contact with and sharing a smile with a passing stranger can make your day better.

If you take away nothing else from this book, I hope you understand that human beings are at their best when they are social, and human minds work best in connection with other human minds. It may not be the most efficient way to live, but it’s the most likely to foster well-being.

Celeste Headlee

We also need to work more in teams. “Brainstorm alone and evaluate or analyze as a group.” This will ensure a wider diversity of ideas for the group to look at. And do one kind act each day. This isn’t a moral instruction but a practical one. “I’m telling you to do this because years of research proves that doing nice things for people, even small things, is incredibly good for you.”

Take the Long View

The final chapter encourages us to focus on ends rather than means. When we focus on means we lose the purpose behind what we are doing. Practice asking the five whys to find out what your ends are. If your means aren’t bringing you closer to your desired ends, why are you doing them? Don’t give up on your ends; find better means.

The complete list of solutions she suggests in this last part of the book are:

  • Increase time perception.
  • Create your ideal schedule.
  • Stop comparing at a distance.
  • Work fewer hours.
  • Schedule leisure.
  • Schedule social time.
  • Work in teams.
  • Commit small, selfless acts.
  • Focus on ends, not means.

All of these actions are backed by science and by my own personal experience and research. They will probably work for you. But if they don’t, or if it’s not possible to carry out one of them, that’s perfectly fine. The point of all this is to simplify your life and increase well-being, not create another source of anxiety….

The overriding message is this: Stop trading time for money.

Celeste Headlee, Do Nothing

None of these are hard in and of themselves. However, if you are struggling to make ends meet, some may be harder than others.

If there is one flaw in this book, it is that it is primarily addressed to those who are salaried rather than hourly workers. It’s hard for hourly workers to slow down and take time off when doing so means lost wages. Difficult but not impossible.

I’ll leave the last word of my posts on this book to the author herself.

It’s time to stop viewing your off-hours as potential money-making time. It’s not worth it. You can’t put a monetary value on your free time, because you’re paying for it in mental and physical health.

Celeste Headlee, Do Nothing

Are We Doing This to Ourselves?

In the seventh chapter of Do Nothing called “Do We Live to Work?”, Celeste Headlee says that, “The question for me was not whether people enjoyed their work, but whether they needed it.” She then explores the idea from western culture that work is its own reward and that more is better, making people happier. She reviews history and research. Her conclusion?

It’s not the emphasis on hard work that’s toxic, but the obsession with it. We now live in a culture in which we are not happy being and only satisfied when we’re doing.

Chapter 7, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

One study she cited was of how some companies are seeing more productivity when they reduce hours. She tested this for herself. For a full month, she worked only when she felt most energetic and productive, stopping when her focus dropped or she became restless. During this time she kept close track of how many hours she worked and how much she accomplished. She found that she only worked about four hours a day while achieving more than she had in the previous month. “The bottom line is that work is not always good and healthy.”

Toward the end of the chapter, she declares that, “One of the tragic consequences of rising smartphone usage is the death of boredom.” With less leisure, we have less time to daydream and ponder. We truly don’t have room for this with the constant entertainment available to us in our pockets. And research has shown that, like sleep, we also need space in our waking hours to reflect on and review our lives. Somewhat counter-intuitively, this increases our productivity.

Next up in chapter eight “Universal Human Nature”, the author explores what is common to all humans. What about life is common to all of us, and how does this inform her exploration of work and leisure? “[W]hat is a natural environment for humankind? How much productivity is healthy, and at what point does the pursuit of productivity become toxic?”

Language turns out to be one of these core traits of humankind. All humans speak. And all humans are social, living in community with each other. Its how we survived and have thrived as a species. And speech is part of what connects us. In fact our brainwaves sync up with those of someone speaking to us, even when that speech is recorded. So, how much are we losing of our humanity when we move so much of our interactions from speech to text?

I’d imagine that part of the reason we are wasting our time at work and putting in long, unnecessary hours is that we are neglecting to use our voices. In replacing phone calls with email and texts, we are not taking advantage of our own evolutionary inheritance….

You receive information from the sound of a voice that cannot be transmitted in an email attachment. The email may feel more efficient and easier because you don’t have to deal with the other person when you’re writing it, but the efficiency is mostly an illusion.

Chapter 8, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

At the end of the chapter, she summarizes the inherent human needs that seem “to be consistent across all cultures and all generations.” These are:

  • social skills and language
  • a need to belong that fosters empathy
  • rule-making
  • music
  • play

And we can literally make ourselves sick by ignoring these needs with the increased isolation from our obsession with work and our digital existence. Perhaps this is what we are seeing today with increased cases of anxiety and depression.

So, “Is Tech to Blame?” asks Headlee in chapter 9. But technology isn’t the problem. It’s a symptom. The author herself tried three weeks of analog life to find more time for leisure and a break from feeling overwhelmed. It didn’t work. Her addiction to work was still there. Instead, we need to learn to manage our technology rather than let it rule us.

This is incredibly challenging. In part, this is because the technologists are using psychology against us. They make these tools as addictive and exciting as they can. In fact, they purposefully mine the same features that keep people coming back to slot machines in Vegas. And all that interruption isn’t good for our brains and productivity, as we learned before. Feeling uncertain about all this? Consider the fact that many of the leaders of the companies making these tools won’t let their own kids use them. “Would you eat a meal that the chef wouldn’t serve to his own family?”

As she winds down this final chapter describing the problem, the author points not to the technology of today as the ultimate culprit but to history.

But none of this—the addictive apps and the fear of missing out—would be quite as successful were it not for the existing emphasis on productivity and efficiency that started dominating lives in the nineteenth century….

When you’re looking for something to blame for our current state of stress and anxiety and social isolation, you can start with tech, but you have to end in the workplace. The office is where the dysfunction began, not the internet.

Chapter 9, Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

The rest of the book covers some of the authors prescriptions on how to overcome this dysfunction. I’ll pick up there in my next post.