Book Review: Ian Leslie’s Curious—The Desire To Know and Why Your Future Depends on It

Everyone is born curious. But only a proportion of the human population retains the habits of exploring, learning, and discovering as they grow older. So why are so many of us allowing our curiosity to wane, when there is evidence that those who are curious tend to be more creative, more intelligent, and more successful?

In Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It, Ian Leslie makes a compelling case for the cultivation of our “desire to know.” I’ve had the chance to read the book in advance of its publication date (full disclosure: I received a complimentary advance copy of the book from Basic Books, the publisher of Curious), and this review provides my impressions of the book and highlights some notable passages.

The book is divided into three parts: How Curiosity Works, The Curiosity Divide, and Staying Curious. In the introduction to the book, the case is made for why being curious is vital:

The truly curious will be increasingly in demand. Employers are looking for people who can do more than follow procedures competently or respond to requests, who have a strong, intrinsic desire to learn, solve problems, and ask penetrating questions. They may be difficult to manage at times, these individuals, for their interests and enthusiasms can take them along unpredictable paths, and they don’t respond well to being told what to think. But for the most part, they will be worth the difficulty.

 Another assessment of what this book is about is presented in the introduction: 

If you allow yourself to become incurious, your life will be drained of color, interest, and pleasure. You will be less likely to achieve your potential at work or in creative life. While barely noticing it, you’ll become a little duller, a little dimmer. You may not think it could happen to you, but it can. It can happen to any of us. To stop it from happening, you need to understand what feeds curiosity and what starves it. That’s what this book is about.

Something worth pondering over:

Curiosity is contagious. So is incuriosity.

Something that caught my attention in Part I of the book was the evolutionary of advantage of becoming or staying curious. Here, Leslie cites the research of Stephen Kaplan, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Michigan:

The more information about her environment a human acquired, the more likely she would be to survive and pass on her genes. Gathering that knowledge meant venturing out into the unknown, to spot new sources of water or edible plants. But doing so meant risking one’s survival; you might become vulnerable to predators or get lost. The individuals more likely to survive would have been those adept at striking a balance between knowledge gathering and self-preservation.

Perhaps as an incentive to take a few risks in the pursuit of new information, evolution tied the act of curiosity to pleasure. Leslie writes how the caudate nucleus, located deep within the human brain, is packed with neurons that traffic in dopamine. As the brain has evolved (from the evolutionary perspective), it seems to have bootstrapped the urge for intellectual investigation onto the same pathway as our primal pleasures (for sex or food). This research was done at California Institute of Technology by asking undergraduates questions whilst they were in the brain scanner. (I need to read this study in depth because Caltech undergrads are naturally some of the most curious individuals on the planet, so we have a potential selection bias at work here).

In a chapter titled “How Curiosity Begins,” Leslie points out how babies respond to curiosity:

Babbling, like pointing, is a sign of readiness to learn, and babies are also more likely to us it as such, if, rather than ignoring them, they try to answer whatever they think the baby’s unintelligible question might be. If a baby looks at an apple and says “Da da da!” and the adult says nothing, the baby not only fails to learn the name of that round greenish object, but also starts to think this whole babbling business might be a waste of time.

One interesting bit about curiosity: we don’t get allocated a fixed amount of it at birth. Instead, we inherit a mercurial quality that rises and falls throughout the day and throughout our lives. Leslie points out that an important input into the curiosity output is the behavior of people around us – if our curiosity is ignited, it grows; on the other hand, if our curiosity is squashed at a point in time, curiosity may wane over the long term.

In a chapter titled “Puzzles and Mysteries,” Leslie describes how curiosity may naturally wane as we grow older:

Computer scientists talk about the differences between exploring and exploiting—a system will learn more if it explores many possibilities, but it will be more effective if it simply acts on the most likely one. As babies grow into children and then into adults, they begin to do more exploiting of whatever knowledge they have acquired. As adults, however, we have a tendency to err too far toward exploitation—we become content to fall back on the stock of knowledge and mental habits we built up when we were young, rather than adding to or revising it. We get lazy.

The so-called curiosity zone is a function of surprise, knowledge, and confidence. Curiosity is highest when the violation of an expectation is more than tiny but less than enormous. When violations are minor, we are quick to ignore them. When they’re massive, we often refuse to acknowledge them we may be scared of what they imply. The less knowledge you have about something, the less likely you are to pursue getting to know it better. Alternatively, if you are an expert in a particular subject area, your capacity to stay very curious about the subject area may have piqued. The curiosity zone is a concave function, where maximum curiosity happens at the middle. Finally, it is important to have an environment that is conducive to curious thinking. Curiosity requires an edge of uncertainty to thrive; too much uncertainty, and it freezes.

A good anecdote is presented in the “Puzzles and Mysteries” chapter on why The Wire was such a great TV show:

One way of describing the achievement of the TV series The Wire was that it took a genre, the police procedural, which is conventionally based on puzzles, in the form of crimes that are solved each week, and turned it into a mystery—the mystery of Baltimore’s crime problem.

So while routine police work may classified as solving puzzles (with a definitive answer), The Wire, showcased it as more akin to a mystery – multilayered, shifting, nuanced (in Leslie’s words). The Wire, to this day, is in my top 3 all-time favourite TV shows, so I was glad to see its incorporation in the book.

What’s the one company that is doing everything it can to deprive you of the itch of curiosity? Answer: Google. Because according to Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, they are working toward the ambition of incorporating search into people’s brains. All information gaps will be closed. I don’t take as a black-and-white stand in that proliferation of Google will make more people incurious, but I do understand Leslie’s perspective. In general, if you were to ask someone “Is the Internet making us stupid or more intelligent,” Leslie’s response would be a simple “Yes.” He writes:

The Internet presents us with more opportunities to learn than ever before and also allows us not to bother. It is a boon to those with a desire to deepen their understanding of the world, and also to those who are only too glad not to have to make the effort…If you’re incurious—or, like most of us, a little lazy—then you will use the Internet to look at pictures of cats and get into arguments with strangers.

Ian Leslie does a good job of assimilating related research into Curious. For instance, what matters in students are their character traits such as attitude toward learning and conscientiousness, as well as persistence, self-discipline, and what the psychologist Angela Duckworth termed “grit”—the ability to deal with failure, overcome setbacks, and focus on long-term goals. In a chapter titled “The Power of Questions,” Leslie quotes the former CEO of Dow Chemical, Mike Parker: 

A lot of bad leadership comes from an inability or unwillingness to ask questions. I have watched talented people—people with much higher IQs than mine—who have failed as leaders. They can talk brilliantly, with a great breadth of knowledge, but they’re not very good at asking questions. So while they know a lot at a high level, they don’t know what’s going on way down in the system. Sometimes they are afraid of asking questions, but what they don’t realize is that the dumbest questions can be very powerful. They can unlock a conversation.

In what I think is the most important chapter of the book, “The Importance of Knowing,” Leslie highlights the importance of epistemic knowledge, and provides evidence to debunk some of the “twenty-first century” mindset. Leslie presents three misapprehensions about learning, common to the supporters of “curiosity-driven” education:

  • Children don’t need teachers to instruct them. Those who think the natural curiosity of children is stifled by pedagogical instruction overlook something fundamental about human nature—as a species, we have always depended on the epistemic endowment of our elders and ancestors. As Leslie writes, every scientist stands on the shoulders of giants; every artist works within or against a tradition. The unusually long period for which children are dependent on adults is a clue that humans are designed to learn from others, rather than merely through their own explorations. Traditional teaching—the transmission of information from adults to children—is highly effective when skillfully executed. Citing the research of John Hattie, the three most powerful teacher factors (those that lead to student success) are feedback, quality of instruction, and direct instruction.
  • Facts kill creativity. At the most basic level, all of our new ideas are somehow linked to old ones. The more existing ideas you have in your head, the more varied and rich and blossoming will be your novel combination of them, and the greater your store of reference points and analogies. Per Leslie: “a fact is a particular class of idea about the world, and it can be put to work in a lot of different ways.” In this section, Leslie refers to Sir Ken Robinson’s famous 2008 talk on educational reform titled “Do Schools Kill Creativity” and the proceeds to justify that Sir Robinson’s arguments about creativity are almost entirely baseless.
  • Schools should teach thinking skills instead of knowledge. Learning different skills grow organically out of specific knowledge of specific domains—that is, facts. The wider your knowledge, the more widely your intelligence can range and the more purchase it gets on new information. This is why the argument that schools ought to prioritize learning skills over knowledge makes no sense, argues Leslie: the very foundation for such skills is memorized knowledge. The more we know, the better we are at thinking.

On how knowledge gives curiosity the staying power, Leslie writes:

This is why curiosity, like other thinking skills, cannot be nurtured, or taught, in the abstract. Rather than being stifled by factual knowledge, it depends on it. Until a child has been taught the basic information she needs to start thinking more deeply about a particular subject, it’s hard to develop her initial (diversive) curiosity into enduring (epistemic) curiosity, to get her to the stage where she is hungry for more knowledge…Sir Ken Robinson has it precisely the wrong way around when he says that the natural appetite for learning begins to dissipate once children start to be educated. The curiosity of children dissipates when it doesn’t get fed by knowledge, imparted by parents and teachers.

In short, background knowledge is vital, kindling curiosity. From personal experience, I happen to think that there is also a positive feedback loop in place; the more you know, the more curious you become, the more knowledgeable you become over time because you seek to gain more knowledge through your curiosity.

In the last part of the book, Leslie outlines seven ways to stay curious. They are as follows:

  1. Stay foolish. Echoing Steve Jobs’s memorable commencement address, in which Jobs advised Stanford graduates to “Stay hungry, stay foolish,” Ian Leslie points out how Jobs’s curiosity was crucial to his ability to invent and reinvent the businesses in which he was involved (Apple, Pixar).
  2. Build the database. The idea behind this premise is that any project or task that requires deep creative thought will be better addressed by someone who has deep knowledge of the task at hand and general background knowledge of the culture in which it and its users (or readers, or viewers) live. Leslie writes:

    Highly curious people, who have carefully cultivated their long-term memories, live in a kind of augmented reality; everything they see is overlaid with additional layers of meaning and possibility, unavailable to ordinary observers.

  3. Forage like a foxhog. In the words of the Greek poet Archilochus: “The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” The fox evades predators via a variety of techniques, while the hedge adopts one trusted technique (hunkering down and relying on its spikes to thwart a predator). And the thinkers that are best positioned to thrive today and in the future are likely a hybrid of the fox and the hedgehog: the foxhog. You need to be specialized in one or two subject areas (what are knowns as SMEs, or subject matter experts) but also to be a voracious consumer of knowledge from other fields. In short, combine breadth and depth into your skill set.
  4. Ask the big why. In a useful anecdote from the book Negotiation Genius by Harvard Business School professors Deepak Malhotra and Max H. Bazerman, Leslie points out how asking “why” is such a critical component in the negotiation process. If two parties negotiate on their preagreed positions, the negotiation becomes a trade-off where one side necessarily loses with respect to the other, which gains. So then the key is to really try to understand what’s motivating the other party’s interestsand this involves asking the probing, penetrating questions which can be summarized with the why.There is an interesting diversion in this point on the Big Data movement. One of the proponents of it, Chris Anderson (who was formerly editor of Wired), has made the extreme case of asking the Big What instead of the Big Why. With enough data, the premise is that you can glean behavior from the patterns that is observed. But I don’t think it’s that simple. In fact, the more data you collect, the more likely you are to start forming false narratives (Nassim Nicholas Taleb makes a great point of this fact in his excellent book, Antifragile). When we have a lot of data to work with, we get things like spurious correlations.
  5. Be a thinkerer. A portmanteau of “think” and “tinker,” the origin of the verb “to thinker” is unknown. Leslie mentions that he was introduced to the term by Paola Antonelli of Museum of Modern Art in New York City, who traced it to a 2007 presentation given by John Seely Brown (formerly the director of the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center). The idea is enunciated well by Peter Thiel:

    A fundamental challenge—in business as in life—is to integrate the micro and macro such that all things make sense. Humanities majors may well learn a great deal about the world. But they don’t really learn career skills through their studies. Engineering majors, conversely, learn in great technical detail. But they might not learn why, how, or where they should apply their skills in the workforce. The best students, workers, and thinkers will integrate these questions into a cohesive narrative.

  6. Question your teaspoons. The idea is to become aware and curious about your daily surroundings. Parking garage roofs, hand dryers, milk, paint catalogs, and bus routes–they sound mundane but if you dig deeper, you can find out how complex and intricate they can really be. This is what led James Ward to found The Boring Conference (which is a lot more interesting than it sounds!). Leslie points out a good example: Laura McInerney, who used to work at McDonalds. Her shift would be to make the daily breakfast by breaking four hundred eggs, a mind-numbing ordeal on a day-to-day basis. But then she started asking questions on how the proteins in the egg change as the egg is heated, and how she started reflecting on whether it was ethically right to steal eggs from a chicken, or whether the egg or the chicken came first?
  7. Turn puzzles into mysteries. The premise here is simple: a puzzle is something that commands our curiosity until we have solved it. A mystery, by contrast, is something that never stops inviting (further) inquiry. The way to stay curious, then, is for every puzzle that we come across in our daily lives, be cognizant that there may be an underlying mystery behind it that would be worth exploring/pursuing.

In the Afterword of Curious, Leslie highlights one of my all-time favourite commencement speeches, that given by David Foster Wallace to the graduating class of 2005. In it, Wallace argues that we are inherently self-centered (because the world we experience is in front and behind us, above and below us, and it is immediate). It is only through the exercise of our curiosity about others that we can free ourselves about our hard-wired self-obsession. We should be curious about others not just because it is virtuous, but because it’s also a coping mechanism of the routine, petty frustration of day-to-day life.

The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day.

That is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing.

Ian Leslie’s Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It is a well-researched book that cites a number of relevant scientific studies, frames concepts related to knowledge and curiosity with interesting anecdotes, and has a solid bibliography for the curious people to dive further after finishing Curious.

I highly recommend the book. It is available on Amazon (hardcover or for the Kindle) or your favourite bookseller beginning today, August 26, 2014. 

Quotable: Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel

I finished reading Alain de Botton’s The Art of Travel earlier this year, but I couldn’t come up with a good way to review the book. Instead, what I did was highlight interesting passages from the book and related them to my own travels. Below, I reproduce a post which appeared on my photoblog, Erudite Expressions, in August of 2010. The Art of Travel resonated with me strongly, and it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year. I hope you find these quotes interesting as well.

We are inundated with advice on where to travel to, but we hear little of why and how we should go, even though the art of travel seems naturally to sustain a number of questions neither so simple nor so trivial, and whose study might in modest ways contribute to an understanding of what the Greek philosophers beautifully termed eudaimonia, or ‘human flourishing’.

The above quote appears near the beginning of Alain de Botton’s excellent book, The Art of Travel. I finished reading the book earlier this year, and I’ve been meaning to share some words of wisdom for quite a while here on Erudite Expressions.

After I read that paragraph, I scribbled a note in the margin of the book (I purchase all of my books exactly for this reason: to be able to make notes): is this the thesis of the book? Because this notion is quite compelling, and requires a bit of introspection.

When people ask me to recommend where they should travel, I may be quick to blurt out a response, but the explanatory factor may take a bit more time to ponder. For me, I think walking around with my SLR and photographing the scenes around me is the single most effective method of remembering. I organize my photos by dates in my Lightroom catalog because I remembers dates easily. The photo above I captured on July 15, 2009 in Zürich, Switzerland. The actual date isn’t important; it’s just my method of organizing my travels in my head…

I am posting an image of Zürich for two reasons. First, it is the birthplace of the author Alain de Botton. But it was also my destination and departure point last year: I flew into Zürich from Atlanta, and flew from Zürich to New York City twenty-one days later. What I remember flying into the airport is picking up my luggage, taking an escalator down to the train ticket booth, and redeeming my Eurail pass. The cashier spoke flawless English, but I forgot to ask him which way I should head to catch my train to Vienna, Austria. So I came back around, stood in line the second time, to ask him another question…

I remember taking a short train ride to get to the central train station in Zürich. I actually arrived early and had the chance to catch the earlier train (departing around 11AM) to Vienna. But I had already made plans (not reservations) to catch the 2PM train, so I ended up walking around the train station, buying a super expensive bottle of Coca-Cola (it cost more than $3 after I converted Swiss Francs to dollars), going into a downstairs mall (to purchase a SIM card for my phone, which I couldn’t get to work), and finally finding some alone time on a bench where I paid to get some internet coverage so I could send out an email to friends/relatives that I was safe and sound in Europe.

I mention these seeming trivialities because of this passage in The Art of Travel:

A travel book may tell us, for example, that the narrator journey through the afternoon to reach the hill town of X and after a night in its medieval monastery awoke to a misty dawn. But we never simply ‘journey through an afternoon’. We sit in a train. Lunch digests awkwardly within us. The seat cloth is grey. We look out the window at a field. We look back inside. A drum of anxieties revolves in our consciousness. We notice a luggage label affixed to a suitcase in a rack above the seats opposite. We tap a finger on the window ledge. A broken nail on an index finger catches a thread. It starts to rain…We wonder where our ticket might be. We look back out at the field. It continues to rain. At last the train starts to move. It passes an iron bridge, after which it inexplicably stops. A fly lands on the window. And still we may have reached the end only of the first minute of a comprehensive account of the events lurking within the deceptive sentence ‘He journey through the afternoon’.

Quite lovely, no? I didn’t expect all of that to have happened in one minute, but this was a noteworthy inclusion in the text.

Are you the kind of person that tends to be gloomier or sulkier at home compared to when you’re on vacation? I wonder if this is the universal truth:

We are sad at home and blame the weather and the ugliness of the buildings, but on the tropical island we learn (after an argument in a raffia bungalow under an azure sky) that the state of the skies and the appearance of our dwellings can never on their own either underwrite our joy or condemn us to misery.

If you’ve ever traveled, did you notice how you can (or were) drawn to the mundane, the ordinary? Alain de Botton writes:

If we find poetry in the service station and the motel, if we are drawn to the airport or the train carriage, it is perhaps because, despite their architectural compromises and discomforts, despite their garish colours and harsh lighting, we implicity feel that these isolated places offer us a material setting for an alternative to the selfish ease, the habits and confinement of the ordinary, rooted world.

I wouldn’t disagree.

If you’ve been following Erudite Expressions, you will know that I love to post detail shots. Perhaps I am walking on a street and a sign catches my fancy. Or I see a peculiar street sign. Or a brick on a cobblestone road which has loosened. While these things may be inconsequential on their own, I believe that collectively they can enamor us. Alain de Botton begins one of my favorite paragraphs in the book:

Why be seduced by something as small as a front door in another country?

It is here that I pause for a moment and mention that I read The Art of Travel in 2010, long after I photographed the Doors of Prague. If you haven’t seen that photo essay, please do so: I think it represents some of my best work.


A massive door in Prague. Click on the photo to see my photo essay.

Moving on, de Botton continues:

Why fall in love with a place because it has trams and its people seldom have curtains in their homes? However absurd the intense reactions provoked by such small (and mute) foreign elements may seem, the pattern is at least familiar from our personal lives. There, too, we may find ourselves anchoring emotions of love on the way a person butters his or her bread, or recoiling at his or her taste in shoes. To condemn ourselves for these minute concerns is to ignore how rich in meaning details may be.

Wonderful perspective, with which I agree whole-heartedly.

What do you think? Have you ever thought of why you travel (or why you would recommend a certain place to someone)? How about your attention to the mundane? And the details? All of these things, as I read the book, resonated with me and what I photograph…

Book Review: Joseph Brodsky’s Watermark (a Memoir on Venice)

I felt I’d stepped into my own self-portrait in the cold air… The backdrop was all in dark silhouettes of church cupolas and rooftops; a bridge arching over a body of water’s black curve, both ends of which were clipped off by infinity. At night, infinity in foreign realms arrives with the last lamppost, and here it was twenty meters away. It was very quiet. A few dimly lit boats now and then prowled about, disturbing with their propellers the reflection of a large neon Cinzano trying to settle on the black oilcloth of the water’s surface. Long before it succeeded, the silence would be restored.

The above quote is how Joseph Brodsky describes the city of Venice in his brilliant collection of essays titled Watermark. I needed to take a fictional break recently, and I wanted to read something short, and Watermark turned out to be a wonderful (actually: an incredible) selection. The book is only one hundred thirty pages, comprised of forty-eight chapters, each recalling a specific episode from Joseph Brodsky’s many visits to this ephemeral city. But what this book lacked in length, it more than made up for in poignancy and enchantment. Watermark is a beautiful, confessional meditation on the relation between water and land, between light and dark, between past and present, between the living and the inanimate, dreams and achievements.

It’s hard to compare Watermark to other books, because I think it should stand as a classic on its own. But if I had to make a connection: it is the lyricism of The Great Gatsby, the mystique of Invisible Cities, and the confessional of the Notes from the Underground.

In the passages I highlight below, pay special attention to the adjectives and the vigor of the punctuation (the comma, the semicolon, and especially the em dash). If you’re short on time, the parts that I bold are especially worth reading.

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The Art of Non-Conformity: Book Review

Have you ever thought “I don’t like where I am in life right now,” that there must be something more to life than what you’re currently experiencing?

If your answer to the above question is yes, then Chris Guillebeau’s new book, The Art of Non-Conformity, might be the book you need to read next. The book is subtitled “Set Your Own Rules, Live the Life You Want, and Change the World” — admittedly a grand series to accomplish (especially the last part), but Chris Guillebeau sets you on the right track…

Before I begin this review, a disclosure: I’ve been following Chris Guillebeau online over the last two years or so. I am a big fan of his blog and have been for a number of years. His Brief Guide to World Domination is a must-read. I was one of the 99 people to receive an advance copy of this book by leaving a comment in this post. Onward!

The Art of Non-Conformity on my desk...

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Thinking Strategically: Book Review

I finished reading Thinking Strategically by Avinash K. Dixit and Barry J. Nalebuff in March 2010. Subtitled “The Competitive Edge in Business, Politics, and Everyday Life,” Thinking Strategically is an international bestseller and a classic, having been published in 1993. My motivation to read it was because I saw this book listed on numerous forums which listed excellent business books.

The book is organized into three parts, with a total of thirteen chapters. After reading the preface (with the moniker: “Thinking Strategically—Don’t Compete Without It”), the authors explain in the Introduction that the aim of the book is to improve the reader’s “strategy I.Q” while not promising to “solve every question you might have.”

The first chapter sets an excellent tone for the rest of this book; this chapter profiles ten interesting “tales” of strategy. The book leads of with the phenomenon of the “hot hand,” commonly observed by sports fans and sports analysts. In fact, hot hands in such sports as basketball are actually a fallacy, most likely observed because we (humans) have a tendency to focus on streaks of occurrence rather than non-occurrence…

In the first chapter, the authors also explain so-called zero-sum games: one person’s gain is another person’s loss (basketball, football, poker all fit this description). So what isn’t a zero-sum game? The most inviting example is that of the prisoner’s dilemma, where the payoffs of the two participants do not necessarily offset. In part II of the book, the authors have a lengthy chapter entitled “Resolving the Prisoner’s Dilemma” in which they elucidate a few excellent examples (they use OPEC to build the case). The authors explain that participants of a prisoner’s dilemma may try to achieve cooperation, but that there is a large underlying incentive to cheat even if an agreement is made.

The examples in this book are interesting. For example, in Chapter 2 (“Anticipating Your Rival’s Response”), the authors feature the recurring theme in the cartoon strip Peanuts, in which Lucy holds the football and invites Charlie Brown to run up to the ball and kick it. Of course, we all know Lucy’s intentions, but it’s worthwhile to create a decision tree and deduce what Charlie Brown should do (the authors do admit that the story of Charlie Brown is “absurdly simple,” but that this example allows the reader to become familiar with decision trees for more complex situations). Another example in this chapter is the game of chess, in which the players try to envision how their opponent will play a few moves into the future. I found it interesting that the authors pondered about solving chess, something I wrote about when I linked to the Garry Kasparov article, “The Chess and the Computer.”

In the chapter “Strategic Moves,” you’ll learn about unconditional moves (an example of a TV race between United States and Japan is presented), threats and promises (while an unconditional move gives a strategic advantage to a player able to seize the initiative and move first, you can establish a similar strategic advantage through a response rule—either a threat or a promise), warnings and assurances (a warning is when it is in your interest to carry out a threat while an assurance is when it is in your interest to carry out a promise).

Other chapters in the book include “Credible Commitments” (in which you will learn about “apparent irrationality,” contracts, and why it would make sense to burn bridges), “Unpredictability” (in which you will learn about the min-max theorem and the usefulness of surprising others by surprising yourself), “Brinkmanship” (please note that “brinksmanship” is not a word), “Cooperation and Coordination” (with a most interesting case about stock markets and beauty contests: how do they relate?),”The Strategy of Voting” (with considerations about median voting, the so-called “naive voter,” and how it may occasionally behoove to vote for an enemy to see a result you desire), “Bargaining” (with a discussion of handicap system in negotiations), and “Incentives” (an excellent chapter which sets the case for merit-based bonuses in jobs).

I think the best part of this book are the number of examples and the cases at the end of the chapter which reinforce the ideas discussed. Each case has a thorough solution, and so you can definitely learn a lot by reading through these cases. Speaking of cases, the last chapter of the book is entirely devoted to them; there are a total of twenty-three additional cases to go through which further reinforce the concepts covered in the book (again, solutions to the cases are also provided).


Some interesting quotes from the book follow.

Setting the tone for the book:

You must recognize that your business rivals, prospective spouse, and even your child are intelligent and purposive people. Their aims often conflict with yours, but they include some potential allies. Your own choice must allow for the conflict, and utilize the cooperation. Such interactive decisions are called strategic, and the plan of action appropriate to them is called a strategy. This book aims to help you think strategically, and then translate these thoughts into action.

On threats and promises:

Is is never advantageous to allow others to threaten you. You could always do what they wanted you to do without the threat. The fact that they can make you worse off if you do not cooperate cannot help, because it limits your available options. But this maxim applies only to allowing threats alone. If the other side can make both promises and threats, then you can both be better off.

How do I know this book is dated? Reference to the Cold War on page 3 of the book:

As the cold war winds won and the world is generally perceived to be a safer place, we hope that the game-theoretic aspects of the arms race and the Cuban missile crisis can be examined for their strategic logic in some detachment from their emotional content.

On De Gaulle’s rejection of friendship:

A compromise in the short term may prove a better strategy over the long haul.

On Khrushchev’s silence:

Khrushchev first denounced Stalin’s purges at the Soviet Communist Party’s 20th Congress. After his dramatic speech, someone in the audience shouted out, asking what Khrushchev had been doing at the time. Khrushchev responded by asking the questioner to please stand up and identify himself. The audience remained silent. Khrushchev replied: “That is what I did, too.”

On rules of the game:

There are two general features of bargaining that we must first take into account. We have to know who gets to make an offer to whom, i.e., the rules of the game. And then we have to know what happens if the parties fail to reach an agreement.

On taking risks (this conclusion follows after a case study of the 1984 Orange Bowl game between the Nebraska Cornhuskers and the Miami Hurricanes):

If you have to take some risks, it is often better to do this as quickly as possible. This is obvious to those who play tennis: everyone knows to take risks on the first serve and hit the second serve more cautiously.

An explanation of a dominant strategy with a baseball analogy (situation: one or more players on base, there are two outs in the inning, and a batter is facing a 3-2 count):

We say that running on the pitch is the dominant strategy in this situation; it is better in some eventualities, and not worse in any. In general, a player has a dominant strategy when he has one course of action that outperforms all others no matter what the other players do. If a player has such a strategy, his decision becomes very simple; he can choose the dominant strategy without worrying about the rival’s moves.

What is the dominance in a “dominant strategy”?

The dominance in “dominant strategy” is a dominance of one of your strategies over your other strategies, not of you over your opponent. A dominant strategy is one that makes a player better off than he would be if he used any other strategy, no matter what strategy the opponent uses.

Another revelation of the age of this book:

As we write this, the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait has shot the price of oil up to $35 per barrel and experts are divided about the future of OPEC.

On an interesting police tactic:

Police have been known to scare drug dealers into confessing by threatening to release them. The threat is that if they are released, their supplies will assume they have squealed.

How to deter cheating with punishment (you have to read the book to find out the problem with the approach listed below; alternatively, respond with your thoughts in the comments, and I will make note of the correct response):

Next we ask how severe a punishment should be. Most people’s instinctive feeling is that it should “fit the crime.” But that may not be big enough to deter cheating. The surest way to deter cheating is to make the punishment as big as possible. Since the punishment threat succeeds in sustaining cooperation, it should not matter how dire it is. The fear keeps everyone from defecting, hence the breakdown never actually occurs and its cost is irrelevant.

Threats and promises versus warnings and assurances:

Threats and promises are truly strategic moves, whereas warnings and assurances play more of an informational role. Warnings or assurances do not change your response rule in order to influence another party. Instead, you are simply informing them of how you will want to respond based on their actions. In stark contrast, the sole purpose of a threat or promise is to change your response rule away from what will be best when the time comes. This is done not to inform but to manipulate. Because threats and promises indicate that you will act against your own interest, there is an issue of credibility. After others have moved, you have an incentive to break your threat or promise. A commitment is needed to ensure credibility.

On burning bridges:

Armies often achieve commitment by denying themselves an opportunity to retreat. This strategy goes back at least to 1066, when William the Conqueror’s invading army burned its own ships, thus making an unconditional commitment to fight rather than retreat.

On the element of surprise:

If you choose a definite course of action, and the enemy discovers what you are going to do, he will adapt his course of action to your maximum disadvantage. You want to surprise him; the surest way to do so is to surprise yourself. You should keep the options open as long as possible, and at the last moment choose between them by an unpredictable and therefore espionage-proof device.

The essence of brinkmanship:

The essence of brinkmanship is the deliberate creation of risk. This risk should be sufficiently intolerable to your opponent to induce him to eliminate the risk by following your wishes. This makes brinkmanship a strategic move. Like any strategic move, it aims to influence the other’s action by altering his expectations. [Question for the reader: is brinkmanship a threat?]

On inferior technologies:

Our greater experience with gasoline engines, QWERTY keyboards, and light-water nuclear reactors may lock us in to continued used of these inferior technologies.

Final Thoughts

Most books on strategy and game theory can be dry and/or inaccessible to the general reader with overwhelming mathematics. This book is excellent (and interesting to read) because it has an amazing diversity of illustrative examples drawn from political campaigns, corporate relations, sports, OPEC, the military draft, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Cold War (especially the Cold War, if I may so myself), speed limits, and other interesting topics. The book is mostly self-contained but it does require multiple sittings to go through it (I spent over a week reading this book), especially if you’re careful to go through the cases and work through some of the solutions to verify the authors’ findings. Do keep in mind that this book was published in 1993, so some of the topics are dated. Nevertheless, if you’re at all interested in strategy, game theory, and are comfortable with basic mathematical concepts, this book is definitely worth a read.

John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat: Book Review

I finished reading John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat this weekend. This is one of Steinbeck’s earlier novels, published in 1935. It’s a fairly short read, and I read the novel from the Library of America edition.

The novel is split into seventeen chapters, each with a descriptive title. For example, the first chapter is titled “How Danny, home from the wars, found himself an heir, and how he swore to protect the helpless.” The story begins with us finding out about Danny, who used to work as a mule driver during World War I. After he gets back to California, he finds out that he has inherited two houses from his deceased grandfather. The first line of Tortilla Flat:

When Danny came home from the army he learned that he was an heir and owner of property.

In what is a recurring theme in the novel, Danny gets drunk and is thrown in jail. While in jail, he shares a drink with his jailer, and not long after, manages to escape. Danny talks to his friend named Pilon into sharing his brandy and one of his houses (for a fifteen dollar rent).  Pilon soon talks to his friend named Pablo, who also is invited to live in the house, but Pilon mentions to Pablo that a fifteen dollar rent will be due. The story evolves into five friends living in the house: Pilon, Pablo, Jesus Maria Corcoran, Big Joe Portagee, and The Pirate (described as a man whose mind did not grow up with his body, he is a little bit slow and gets easily taken advantage of throughout the novel).

The setting of the novel is Tortilla Flat, a town located above Monterey, California. The five main characters, also known as paisanos, who live in Danny’s house are drunkards, thieves, and vagabonds. They are scheming and conniving, often tricking one another to get a pint of wine to satisfy their cravings. Tortilla Flat revolves around the numerous adventures of these paisanos, including a quest to find treasure on St. Andrew’s Eve by Pilon and Big Joe (they dig at night, only to find a signpost for a geological survey). There are also descriptions of affairs with women. But, I think, the core of this story revolves around heart: the paisanos are generous, and near the end of the novel, when Danny gets afflicted with sadness (he doesn’t leave the porch of his house for a month), his friends throw him the biggest party held in Tortilla Flat. Unfortunately, the night of the party ends in tragedy. The ending of the novel is perhaps not surprising, given the way novel began (no spoilers from me)…

Some interesting quotes from the novel:

An arrival the afternoon:

The afternoon came down as imperceptibly as age comes to a happy man. A little gold entered into the sunlight. The bay became bluer and dimpled with shore-wind ripples. Those lonely fishermen who believe that the fish bite at high tide left their rocks, and their places were taken by others, who were convinced that the fish bit at low tide.

On Jesus Maria Corcoran:

Jesus Maria Corcoran was a pathway for the humanities. Suffering he tried to relieve; sorrow he tried to assuage; happiness he shared.

Is it possible to judge the depth of sleep?

If it were possible to judge depth of sleep, it could be said with justice that Pablo, whose culpable action was responsible for the fire, slept even more soundly than his two friends. But since there is no gauge, it can only be said that he slept very soundly.

Four characters described:

Their campaign had called into play and taxed to the limit the pitiless logic of Pilon, the artistic ingenuousness of Pablo and the gentleness and humanity of Jesus Maria Corcoran. Big Joe had contributed nothing.

A lesson about gifts:

But from everything that happens, there is a lesson to be learned. By this we learn that a present, especially to a lady, should have no quality that will require further present. Also we learn that it is sinful to give presents of too great value, for they may excite greed.

One of the more interesting aspects of the novel is when the narration shifted from third person to first person, occurring late in the novel:

In the year of which I speak, the beans were piled and the candle had been burned.

On time near the sea:

Time is more complex near the sea than in any other place, for in addition to the circling of the sun and the turning of the seasons, the waves beat out the passage of time on the rocks and the tides rise and fall as a great clepsydra.

A mention of sack of potatoes:

They went home, and to their horror, they found that the new sack of potatoes that Pilon had found only that morning was gone.

The party thrown for Danny by his friends was of epic proportions:

Some time a historian may write a cold, dry, fungus-like history of The Party. He may refer to the moment when Danny defied and attacked the whole party, men, women and children, with a table leg…

Another instance of the narrator speaking to the reader, this time to persuade an issue of privacy (you have to read the novel to find out the circumstances):

I shall not go into the bedroom with Father Roman, for Pilon and Pablo and Jesus Maria and Big Joe and Johnny Pom-pom and Tito Ralph and the Pirate and the dogs were there; and they were Danny’s family. The door was, and is, closed. For after all there is pride in men, and some things cannot decently be pried into.

On Nature’s dispositions:

It is not always that Nature arranges her effects with good taste. Truly, it rained before Waterloo; forty feet of snow fell in the path of the Donner Party. But Friday turned out a nice day…

The last sentence of the novel, both conclusive and sad:

And after a while they turned and walked slowly away, and no two walked together.

Final Thoughts

I thought Tortilla Flat was a very good novel, but it pales in comparison to Steinbeck’s greater novella, Of Mice and Men. If you haven’t read any of Steinbeck’s novels, I think Of Mice and Men should be the first one read, as it is the most accessible, and perhaps the most poignant of his shorter novels. I’ve also read The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden, which is one of my favorite novels of all-time. Primarily, I read Tortilla Flat because I enjoyed Steinbeck’s other novels (outside of the novels I already mentioned, I’ve also read The Winter of Our Discontent, The Pearl, and Travels with Charlie), and I also enjoy reading the more obscure works of particular authors to get a greater understanding of how they wrote (especially interesting is development of Steinbeck’s writing style, from his early novels to his magnum opus, East of Eden). I will probably read one or two more of Steinbeck’s novels before the year’s end, since the Library of America edition of his novels from 1932-1937 is on my bookshelf.

If you’ve read Tortilla Flat before, what did you think of it? Do you agree that one should read Of Mice and Men first? Of Steinbeck’s other novels (The Pastures of Heaven, To a God Unknown, In Dubious Battle, Cannery Row), which one do you recommend I read next?

Case in Point: Book Review

I finished reading Marc Cosentino’s Case in Point: Complete Case Interview Preparation in January 2010. I previously read this book in 2007, but I re-read it this year to reacquaint myself with some techniques in tackling case interview questions. If you’re preparing for a case interview, then my recommendation is to purchase this book to help you prepare.

The introductory quote to this book is clever:

The mind is wondrous. It starts working from the second you’re born and doesn’t stop until you get a case question.

And so, the premise behind this book: to learn how to prepare for the case interview question.

And what is the case interview? It’s a type of interview typically held by consulting firms such as McKinsey, Boston Consulting Group, Bain, Monitor Group, and many others. The purpose is to see how the applicant can apply business fundamentals in solving a (usually) real-life case revolving around business principles such as increasing profits, creating a larger marketing presence for a particular product, pricing a product, reducing costs, etc.

In the rest of this review, I explain how the book is organized, what you will learn in each section, and where appropriate, my comments regarding the different sections.

The book is organized into nine sections, with lengths varying from a single page to one hundred twenty pages. The chapters/sections, explained briefly, are below.

  1. Introduction. Mr. Cosentino begins this book by describing a case question and explaining that “consulting firms are in the business of renting out brains.” What do consultants do? They synthesize data, purge irrelevant or inconsequential information, structure an approach to an issue, and provide recommendations/solutions to the respective clients who have hired the consultants. This is a one page section, but Mr. Cosentino reassures the readers of this book that he has relevant experience regarding the case interview: he has been a career officer at Harvard University for over eighteen years, and he has helped more than ten thousand students prepare for case interviews. Even though this introduction is just one page long, Mr. Cosentino sets the record straight: he will prepare you for the case interview if you read this book, but he advises you to read the entire book and not to skip any pages.
  2. Interview. In this chapter, you’ll find how the typical consulting interview is structured. To be sure, you’ll face the typical behavior questions such as “Tell me about yourself” or “Tell me of a time you showed leadership skills?” (how do you answer that?) or “Have you ever failed at anything?” (quick tip: be sure to answer yes for this one). There’s a handy-dandy box which outlines some reasons why you’d want to enter the consulting field (“You’ll work and learn from intelligent and articulate people” and “You’ll be exposed to many industries” are some good reasons; a bad reason is “It will always look good on your resume”). This section also provides some helpful questions which you could ask the consulting firm or your interviewer (“What type of work does an entry-level consultant do?” and “How is a case team picked?”). Finally, this section concludes with tips on how to handle the “stress interview” (where you’re put on the defensive with a barrage of questions coming at you) and advice for international students (since consultants typically present their cases to clients, it is essential to work on minimizing one’s accent, for instance).
  3. Case Questions. This chapter explains what the case question in great detail. In “The Case Commandments” section, Mr. Cosentino gives thirteen excellent tips on how to go through the case interview (for example: how to properly manage your time, to make sure to ask clarifying questions, and to be coachable). The chapter also explains the types of case questions (such as “brainteasers,” for which you might pick up this book to better prepare, and “back-of-the-envelope” questions, which often involve doing some calculations, such as figuring out the weight of a Boeing 747 airplane). This chapter also includes a short note on what you shouldn’t do (things which could annoy the interviewer, such as asking to repeat the question multiple times, going on a five minute spiel/monologue, and speaking too fast).
  4. The Ivy Case System. This is an important chapter which provides a solid framework on how to approach and solve case questions. The Ivy Case System developed by Mr. Cosentino consists of two parts: the four steps to begin the approach and the approach in tackling twelve popular case scenarios. The four steps are: summarizing the question, verifying the objective (the case question always has at least one objective), ask clarifying questions, and lay out your structure to solve the case. The twelve case scenarios are as follows:

    (1) Entering a New Market
    (2) Industry Analysis
    (3) Mergers and Acquisitions
    (4) Developing a New Product
    (5) Pricing Strategies
    (6) Growth Strategies
    (7) Starting a New Business
    (8) Competitive Response
    (9) Increasing Sales
    (10) Reducing Costs
    (11) Increasing the Bottom Line (Profits)
    (12) Turnarounds

    For each of the twelve scenarios above, you’ll be exposed to the typical questions you should ask when encountering a case question which fits into one of those categories. The best part of this section is that you’ll see a graphical tree chart which summarizes the approach. The end of this chapter includes a very helpful “Ivy Case System at Glance,” which outlines the approach and elements for each type of case question type. For example, in Mergers and Acquisitions, you’ll break down your approach to covering the objectives, the price (and how to pay), performing due diligence, and explaining possible exit strategies. If you’re asked to reduce costs, you can reasonably break down the approach into assessment of the situation, and ultimately performing an internal cost analysis (union wages, supplies, materials, economies of scale) as well as an external cost analysis (state of the economy, interest rates, government regulations). For each of the twelve case types, you’ll find a similar breakdown.

  5. Additional Tools and Frameworks. This chapter explores some supplements to the Ivy Case System. One of the frameworks you’ll learn about is the “Five C’s and Four P’s” (Company, Costs, Competition, Consumers/Clients; Product, Price, Place, Promotions). There’s also a small section on the BCG Matrix, which you can read more about in an excellent Wikipedia article. Also discussed is Michael Porter’s “Five Forces” case framework and a framework developed at McKinsey known as the 7-S Model. This chapter also has a very helpful section on “If” scenarios, useful for cases dealing with sales, profit scenarios (example: if profits are declining while revenues are increasing, it is useful to review change in costs, changes in prices, the product mix, or change in customers’ needs), and product scenarios (example: if a product is in its emerging growth stage, it is fruitful to concentrate on the R&D, competition, and pricing). The last part of this chapter contains some business case tips, including a one page peer advice from students who successfully went through the case interviews.
  6. Practice Cases. This is the meat of this book: one hundred twenty pages of thirty-six (36) practices cases. If you’ve previously read about how to approach the case interview but just need to go through more practice cases, this is the chapter to read. The 36 cases touch upon all of the twelve case scenarios listed in the Ivy Case System. My recommendation for reading this chapter is to read the case question and write out your own initial thoughts and approach on a separate paper. You cannot answer the entire case question on your own because the nature of the case question revolves divulging important information relevant to the case depending on the prompts/questions you ask the interview. In effect, most of the cases are read through (which perhaps is a major limitation of this book). There are other case preparation guides which contain charts, graphs, and other information required to solve the case from the beginning. You won’t see this approach in this book (because the practice cases are actual interview conversations), but nevertheless, it is still extremely helpful to read through the cases. You’ll find excellent responses as well as mediocre ones (the end of each case question ends with a comment on the approach taken and how well the student answered the case question). To be sure, you’ll also find incredible responses, to the point where you might question how it would have been possible to even approach the elaborate, clever, and such well-organized responses.
  7. The Roommate’s Guide. This is a one page section which outlines what to do if you’re the friend that was asked (or as Mr. Cosentino puts it, “begged, bribed, or blackmailed”) into helping your friend(s) prepare for the case questions. The review list consist of a bulleted list of questions such as “Did they ask probing questions?” and “Were they well-organized?” to “Did they have a positive attitude?” and other subjective questions. The best part of this section is the “Aftermath,” which simply concludes with a single bullet point of “Go out on the town.”
  8. Final Analysis. This section is only a half-page long, but it perhaps contains the most important advice: no matter how hard you prepare, it is vitally important to come to the case interview with a perspective of self-worth and confidence. In other words, methodical preparation will only go so far in the case interview; the rest of your evaluation is how you come across in terms of personality, confidence, and demeanor.
  9. Consulting Buzzwords. This is a short glossary of key terms which you should be familiar with (or rather, know very well). Some business terms which are listed in this glossary include barrier to entry, cost-benefit analysis, depreciation, economies of scale, interest expense, market share, overhead, price-based costing, variable cost, and venture capital. This is a very short section and definitely not exhaustive.

If you’re preparing for the case interview, Marc Cosentino’s Case in Point is an excellent resource. I do recommend reading it from cover to cover. While the methods and practice cases presented in the book will help you create excellent strategies in tackling/approaching/solving case questions, I should mention that reading the book on its own is not a substitute for a solid education in business, finance, and economics. Those of you in an MBA program are already on the right track; undergraduate students in a non-business major may want to invest in a solid economics textbook and a book on basic financial principles. Overall, having read through numerous case preparation books, I do think that Case in Point is worth your time and money; you’ll learn the solid framework and practice from the numerous (36) case questions this book has to offer. If you’ve already read the book and looking to practice more cases, check out, the complementary website of Case in Point.

As Mr. Cosentino puts it: Case closed!

Vladimir Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading: Book Review

Today, I finished reading Vladimir Nabokov’s novel Invitation to a Beheading. It’s a fairly short novel, at around 220 pages, and I finished reading it in a span of two days.

This is an interesting work, full of vivid imagery, surreal settings, and twisted, sometimes irrational, dialogue. The plot revolves around a young man named Cincinnatus C., who is condemned to death (by beheading) for committing a crime of “gnostical turpitude.” The crime itself is imaginary, so no definition is provided. The majority of the novel takes place inside a prison cell, where Cincinnatus is visited by jailers, an executioner who pretends to be a fellow prisoner, and by his in-laws, who bring their furniture (not to mention household utensils and “sections of walls”) with them into Cincinnatus’s prison cell. The musings of Cincinnatus are bizarre: in one part of the novel, the protagonist imagines the characters as miniature people.

You’re unsure at first, but you discover maybe a quarter through the novel that Cincinnatus has grand visions (or illusions of grandeur). He has a notebook where he writes down his thoughts and what he encounters in his daily life (“to write letters to various objects and natural phenomena”) within the fortress in which he is confined. At times you think he is absolutely clueless about his situation, as the questions he asks may be mistaken for those coming from a child. Still, he tries to reconcile his (grim) situation…

You don’t really read this novel for its plot, absurd as it may be. You read it to digest the dialogue and Nabokov’s eloquent narration. At the end of the novel, Cincinnatus is taken to be hanged, and the way the ending unfolds is just sublime. I read it over multiple times just to make sure I followed (a foreshadowing three-fourths of the way into the novel: “Cincinnatus allowed them the right to exist, supported them, nourished them with himself”).

If you haven’t read any of Nabokov’s work, don’t make this your first. I would recommend reading Nabokov’s Magnum opus, Lolita, first. Then, I highly recommend reading Pale Fire (which I enjoyed much more than Invitation to a Beheading).

Nabokov himself said of this novel: “The worldling will deem it a trick. Old men will hurriedly turn from it to regional romances and the lives of public figures.” But prior to that sentence, the best line: “It [Invitation to a Beheading] is a violin in a void.” Take it for what it is.

The rest of this review is the presentation of certain quotes I found interesting, and where appropriate, my dissection of these quotes.

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