Settee with Potato London cushion by bookshelves
Books! Books! Books! Potato!

Learning is important at Potato. Each studio has its own library and Potatoes can request new books of their choice, on any subject they like. In celebration of Book Lovers Day, some of our Potatoes have reviewed the books that have influenced them in life and work...

The book that helped change the way I approach problems - Laxmi Kerai, Coach. London.

You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney

Laxmi holding book entitled You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney
Laxmi and David McRaney's book, You Are Not So Smart

Apparently, the ‘best’ book to read on understanding cognitive biases and decision making is Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking fast and slow. It’s the book everyone cites as the must read book in Psychology. I must admit, I ride the wave and find myself nodding and smiling when people reference it. And boy, does this book get referenced a lot in and out of work! In truth, I’ve tried to read it a few times and always found that it needed either intense concentration or was written too academically for my liking. That’s not to say the theories which emerged from the book are irrelevant. The book just hasn’t rocked my world (yet).

The book which really helped change the way I approach problems was You Are Not So Smart by David McRaney. This book is a crash course introduction in the world of cognitive biases and is written in a digestible manner. It makes for an excellent primer before you attempt Kahneman’s book. You Are Not So Smart takes 48 basic assumptions of how we as humans consider ourselves to be ‘rational’ beings and breaks the biases down through introducing relevant studies and examples of how we are, well, not so smart. The book follows a simple misconception vs truth breakdown. For example, priming is a concept where the misconception is that you’re aware of how you’re being influenced and how it impacts your behaviour. In reality, humans are unaware of the constant nudging we receive from the unconscious mind, McRaney explains. The author also has a great podcast series if you want to delve deeper into the various cognitive biases.

Maybe this blog post has primed you to finally read Kahneman's Thinking fast and slow and/or McRaney’s You are not so smart. Either way, I hope it’s got you thinking more about your behaviours and internal biases.

The book that made me think differently about the way I think: Charlie Harding, UX Designer. Bristol.

Thinking, fast and slow by Daniel Kahneman

We like to think of ourselves as a pretty smart bunch, the human species. As we march assuredly through life, we pride ourselves on being able to make informed decisions about nearly everything. We summon the facts, swerve lazy thinking and guard against prejudice. We congratulate ourselves every day for being largely rational, engaged human beings. Daniel Kahneman - if he wasn’t such a nice guy - would scoff in the face of such smugness. His book ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’ is part warning, part celebration of the beautifully suggestible nature of the human mind.

He posits human cognition comprises of essentially two systems: the first ticks over in the background, making decisions for us based on everything we’ve come to learn about the world. It's reliable and requires little energy but is fundamentally flawed: because it largely relies upon experiences as a means to make decisions, it often overlooks singular details that can make all the difference. It’s this part of our minds that makes us susceptible to psychological phenomenon like ‘anchoring’, ‘framing’ and the ‘sunk-cost fallacy’.

System 2, we use far less frequently. We might use it to dig into our memories to recognise a sound or solve a particularly difficult arithmetic challenge. Harnessing the power of system 2 requires significant resources, hence us only being able to sustain pure, focused cognition for a short space of time. Daniel Kahneman clearly thinks there’s a delightful economy in how these two systems interpolate but also that we should be wary of attributing too much faith in our system 1 or ‘resting’ state of mind.

Where the book really delivers is the end of chapter summaries where the author offers a list of comments you might make after reading the preceding chapter. For example, after reading about the Halo Effect as a by-product of system 1 thinking, Kahneman offers this boardroom-ready piece of smart arsery: “If you like the president’s politics, you probably like his voice and his appearance as well. The tendency to like (or dislike) everything about a person — including things you have not observed — is known as the halo effect.” There we have it: beware of your brittle cognition but also beware of sounding like an intolerable swot when talking about it!

The book that helped change the way I communicate - Lir Cowman, Delivery Director. London.

Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are by High Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan, Al Switzler

Sometimes, you read just the right book at just the right moment, and something sinks in, in a way that mightn’t have happened at another point.

Crucial Conversations is not a great book by literary or academic standards. It’s decent enough - reasonably well written in a standard American pop-psychology type of way (you know the style: full of anecdotes like “Bob was frustrated. He’d been…” whatevs). Easy reading.

But, at the point when I read it, something sank in.

I’d been stuck in a pretty crappy relationship for far too long. I’m not an argumentative person, but somehow, that particular relationship seemed to consist of one argument after another. Looking back now, I can’t even remember what the arguments were about. But the same pattern of communication (or non communication) kept on going in circles. Reading through this book, I suddenly realised that - yep, that’s me doing that silence / violence cycle they’re talking about - lurching between saying nothing and yelling. And yep, the arguments can’t actually be about what they seem to be about on the surface - maybe I should just take a step back and explore what the actual problem is, rather than reacting straight to the emotion and apparent content. I don’t have to just get wound up; I can ask for information.

Went home that evening. Something blew up (nope, can’t remember what it was that time either). Felt myself starting to tense up - and took a deep breath. I asked about the problem. And calmly kept asking and listening, really trying to understand. My partner occasionally tried to get back into the usual way of arguing - but I kept returning it to a real conversation. We slowly worked through a bunch of things that evening.

At the end of the night, my partner asked me in puzzlement, what had happened, I seemed to have changed suddenly.

“I read a book”, I replied.

So now, embarrassingly, of all the great literature and serious academic research I’ve read - the book that springs to mind as having made a real difference to me, is one which talks about “pools of shared meaning”.

Postscript: yeah, I broke up with that person soon after. The good thing about a crappy relationship, is that you really know what to avoid in future. Life is so much better now!

The book that made me realise overnight success stories are far from the norm - Bruno Belcastro, Coach. London.

The Hard Things About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz

This book is one of the best pieces of entrepreneurship literature I’ve read in the past few years. Whilst a lot of authors will try to sell you their point of view or methods on how to build and/or run your company “the right way”; Ben acknowledges the fact there are no silver bullets or perfect approaches. Some of the advice outlined in the book is not only helpful for running a business, but also a good way of framing life decisions.

His advice is based on anecdotes from his own career, from co-founding the early cloud service provider Loudcloud to building the renowned and successful venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz venture with his friend Marc Andreessen. This book is not, by any means, well crafted and a victory lap, but a true statement of how business (and life) is full of puzzling and hard decisions that will be tough to make.

Some of the highlights of the book revolve around keeping a clear state of mind to be able to make the right choices at the right time, how to approach difficult conversations with your team and employees, shifting the table and reshaping worst-case scenarios, dealing with internal office politics and building and developing company culture as a whole.

I’d recommend reading this book as it will also validate some assumptions about the fact that there are no absolute rights or wrongs in business or in life. At the end of it, every entrepreneur’s journey is full of up and downs and sometimes we should embrace the struggle.

Thanks to our book loving Potatoes for these awesome reviews. What are you reading today? Tell us on Twitter