This week was a holiday week in the United States. On Wednesday July 4, we celebrated our independence as a country. This particular holiday comes equipped with fireworks, late night parties, and depending on your personal preferences a variety of typical "summer" and "outdoor" activities.

I think interestingly enough due to the middle-of-the-week nature of this particular holiday celebration this year the nation as a whole seemed to take a more casual and relaxed approach to the office and to work. Days were quieter, the pace less frantic, and the general busyness of people seemed to be slightly less. (Honestly, to me it was slightly reminiscent of the slower more family-focused approach to living I think tends to be more commonly seen in European and South American cultures).

I personally appreciate a thoughtful approach to life and to work because I believe it starts to put things more into their proper place. It's almost as though the purposes for meeting with others and sharing time with other people becomes a little more focused on the "right things".

I also found this idea to be one which perhaps was more immediately evident to my thinking based on the reading I did this week. As you know I like to share three books with you centered around a common theme and this week is no different. Here's the interesting common thread I am going to propose for these books:

Life is as much an art as it is a science. Whether it's how we meet and share life with others, how we handle our own lives, or thinking deeper about the underlying why behind it all. Even in the age of data - art and our creative brains are an extraordinary force for shaping our world.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck

The first book for this week has sat on my shelf for a while. Although I've skimmed parts of it multiple times, the aggressive nature of the title, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, had kept me from highlighting it in a weekly post. I read it more in depth this week and am excited to share with you some key takeaways.

In this book the author Mark Manson seeks to share his opinion and thoughts on how to live a good life in a somewhat counterintuitive approach. Mark is known for never softening his punches or being particularly politically correct. He's far more interested in making a difference and encouraging others to improve their lives by being incredibly real, honest and transparent about themselves and their feelings.

While the style of the writing is meant to be familiar and personable Mark still manages to mix scientific quotes and data with his relaxed approach to language. Although he doesn't share revolutionary new thoughts he does encourage a revisiting of and thoughtful introspective approach to some common themes. (Themes I've even written about myself in the past though perhaps with a slightly more formal approach.) Here's a couple of highlights:

  • Problems never stop; they merely get exchanged and/or upgraded. Happiness comes from solving problems. The keyword here is “solving.” If you’re avoiding your problems or feel like you don’t have any problems, then you’re going to make yourself miserable. If you feel like you have problems that you can’t solve, you will likewise make yourself miserable. The secret sauce is in the solving of the problems, not in not having problems in the first place.
  • Certainty is the enemy of growth. Instead of striving for certainty, we should be in constant search of doubt: doubt about our own beliefs, doubt about our own feelings, doubt about what the future may hold for us unless we get out there and create it for ourselves. Instead of looking to be right all the time, we should be looking for how we’re wrong all the time. Because we are. Being wrong opens us up to the possibility of change. Being wrong brings the opportunity for growth.

There are of course many more of these ideas and I've only pieced together a few snippets to help give you an idea of the thoughts Mark presents. The takeaways are clear. Don't try to live a fake life where everything is perfect and nothing bad ever happens. Rather, seek to be truly happy by appreciating all of life for what it truly is, the good, the bad and the ugly.

The Art of Gathering, How We Meet and Why It Matters

gathering understanding why meeting

The second book this week covers the topic of meetings, why we hold them, how we hold them, and why they matter. In The Art of Gathering, Priya Parker addresses this idea and others based on history, culture and human nature around the world. She focuses on thinking more about meeting with purpose and understanding the implications of each interaction.

Priya says this near the beginning of her book, "Gathering—the conscious bringing together of people for a reason—shapes the way we think, feel, and make sense of our world." This is the basis on which she then continues to draw meaning and value from meetings, interactions, and the underlying need for humans to gather together.

First, I need to say as someone who dislikes meetings and the purpose or lack of purpose which seems to form the basis for many such meetings, I was hesitant about how I would feel about this book and its focus. I was relieved and surprised to see the values Priya holds to as meaningful and relevant were very much in alignment with my own. This book speaks to a thoughtful and deliberate approach to meetings and gatherings. She encourages passion, debate, and even heated discussion suggesting that in the proper context and with the proper boundaries these are all very important and necessary parts of meeting.

Priya's focus and goal is a simple one: Always seek to identify your purpose for gathering. And in all things, be aware of when and where to draw the finish line and then walk over it with those you are with.

The Book of Why

As I am oft prone to do I have saved my favorite book of the week for last. Not to be confused with a similar "why" book which I refer to frequently, this book, The Book of Why, by Judea Pearl is an incredibly smart book discussing the idea and science behind cause and effect. This is a very tricky topic which Judea handles expertly and with a skillful deftness.

Judea tackles the challenges of correlation versus causation and soundly defeats this decades-old incantation chanted by scientists intent on not picking a side in a debate. He does so in a compelling manner and all while exploring not only yesterday's but perhaps even more interestingly he does so in light of tomorrow's opportunities. I speak specifically about artificial intelligence.

As many frequent readers to my posts will recognize the topic of machine learning and artificial intelligence is one which has gained significant attention and has become a common topic for our weekly "what's ahead" posts. I almost hesitated to include this book in this week's reading because I enjoyed it so much and believe there is much to draw out to share, but I will probably follow up with another post regardless to focus on those things.  Here's a few high level takeaways:

  • "If I could sum up the message of this book in one pithy phrase, it would be that you are smarter than your data. Data do not understand causes and effects; humans do."
  • The book is centered around the concept of "the Ladder of Causation" which includes observation, intervention, and counterfactuals. This leveling up mentality around causation is the basis for the modeling found throughout the book. Judea uses causal diagrams extensively to provide a visual representation of the mathematical and scientific thoughts surrounding causal effect.
  • The understanding and recognition of the value of causation in the theory and science of artificial intelligence is the key to unlocking the true power of this machine learning. Judea focuses on the concept of Bayesian networks as a central factor for proper and true artificial intelligence.

I'll leave this book review with a quote from the author:

I believe that causal reasoning is essential for machines to communicate with us in our own language about policies, experiments, explanations, theories, regret, responsibility, free will, and obligations—and, eventually, to make their own moral decisions.
- Judea Pearl

All in all, this book is amazing. I couldn't put it down and I would highly recommend others read it with thoughtful intentionality. I'll be using it for more in a future post but trust me when I say it's worth the time to read.

Art and Understanding

The understanding of "why" has incredible implications for what we create as individuals. I realized in retrospect there is incredible value in placing these three books together in a single write-up. Cause and effect come into play repeatedly through the creation of art, expressing creativity in our own personal growth and in better understanding our relationships, gatherings times, and meetings with others. Whether you read the above books or not, I hope these take aways are helpful for you and relevant to your life. Maybe the next time you meet with someone or think about saying "yes" when you should say no, you'll think of this post and these books.