I’ve been trying to think of the three books that have improved my life or my viewing of the world the most. That’s hard. I think this might be it but more accurately this is the list of the books I find myself recommending to people most often.
The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins
I love this book because it’s given me the quickest general explanation of how the world and ideas have come to be.
The title comes from the idea that we should look at evolution from the genes viewpoint. Genes act “selfishly”, i.e. they “want” to propagate themselves (or more accurately their resulting characteristics enable any replicas of that gene throughout the world to prosper). What’s important is that this gene-centric viewpoint can still explain rather selfless behaviour at the organism level.
Here’s an example: in the animal kingdom it’s not unheard of for the runt of the litter to give up on life for the sake of their siblings. The individual’s point of view would expect him to struggle and compete until it’s dying days in the vain hope that he’d pass on his genes. But the genetic point of view explains that it makes sense for him give up on life - happily even! - as by doing so the survival possibilities of its siblings (whom share most his genome) are increased. Therefore any gene for ‘giving up on life if you’re probably going to die and detract resources from your siblings’-like behaviour spreads throughout the gene pool.
Anyway, that’s interesting but it’s not why I like the book so much. What’s amazing is how the gene-centric viewpoint extends to human technology and ideas. The book’s famous for constructing the word ‘meme’ which is the equivalent unit for human culture as a gene is for biological systems. So generally an idea (in the broadest sense) exists thanks to it’s ability to be passed on to others in a similarly darwinistic way as genes. Ideas battle it out with each other and the changing cultural environment and only the most capable of spreading survive. Brilliant.
So like a cactus can survive in the dessert by being watertight, or like a virus has an embedded mechanism to spread itself by exploiting sneezes, ideas can survive in just the same way. Those that exploit human fear or have an embedded spreading mechanism tend to survive better than those that don’t. This goes quite far to explain the reason certain religious ideas have remained so well and others have faded in time. Even this ‘meme’ idea has helped people think they understand the world better and therefore make them want to tell others - and as a result it’s successfully spread.
It’s a really helpful way to examine the world and it makes the big seemingly-never-changing ideas about the world understandable from an evolutionary point of view rather than some underlying strict moral law.
Influence by Robert Cialdini
I love this book because it unravels the strange behaviour of people. Explaining the subconscious effects that influence us that make us act in less than rational ways.
Cialdini break these effects into six categories:
- Reciprocity - essentially that we feel required to pay back a favour, regardless whether it was requested or warranted.
- Consistency - if you’ve said you’ll do something, publicly, you’re highly unlikely to change your position else you’d appear inconsistent with your new self-image.
- Social Proof - the world’s a complicated place so we make assumptions and act on defaults to make it more manageable. So when a new situation occurs, rather than thinking, it is less strain just to look to those similar to us for hints on what to do, leading to herd mentality.
- Authority - we tend to obey authority figures, or even proxies for authority (fluorescent jackets and clipboards have worked for me)
- Liking - easy to forget but obvious to state, people are more persuaded by people they like.
- Scarcity - the fear of missing out on something can subconsciously cause us perceive it to be much more valuable.
I could probably write an entire post on how these things can change the ways you do business or sell a product. But I’ll leave that to you at this point. Read it. Read it twice. These influencing factors are so prevalent that it will really improve your insight into the world. At the very least you’ll get some fantastic stories of how people (and you) have been manipulated by marketing and the media. And by being able to recognise that, you’ll probably fall prey to it less often and start seeing ways you can use it to your advantage.
Yes Man by Danny Wallace
I love this book because without knowing it, it leads you to a better way of living.
Compared to the previous two books this might seem like an odd addition. This book isn’t serious like the others - it’s a diary of a guy who will go on to present XFM’s breakfast show. So it might seem overly dramatic to say it can improve your life but I genuinely think it can.
I read it when I was 15, but even then I could recognise that it was all too easy to justify turning something down. A common excuse is that you’re “too busy with work” to go an do that thing.
Well, in this book Danny Wallace does ‘that thing’. He does everything. He spends an entire year saying yes to absolutely bloody everything offered to him to the point of absurdity. Every invite, every workload, every flyer. And without spoiling it he soon starts to appreciate the benefits.
I don’t believe that’s accidental that he starts seeing a much more exciting life, full of better stories and increased possibilities. I don’t want to sound new-agey about the power of positivity but if Woody Allen said that eighty percent of success is just showing up, seventy percent is just saying yes.
In many ways I followed it’s message. I said yes to things I’d been completely against before. I went to things when I was desperate for any excuse not to. And essentially, it lead to me living more. It’s said that you’ll only regret the things you don’t do and I completely agree with that.
So I highly recommend this book to everyone, and even more so if you feel stuck in a rut. And at the very least you’ll read a fantastic story that is LOL funny in places.
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