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Recommended Smart Thinking Books

If you want a good grounding in smart thinking, books are the best place to find it. I love reading and particularly love books on smart thinking, whether they’re about the brain, body language, politics or strategy. Naturally over the years I’ve read hundreds of books and decided to assemble a list of the books which have had the strongest effect on my knowledge of smart thinking and those which have impacted the way I think and view the world the most.

As I read and discover more I’ll add books to the list. See Recommended Smart Thinking Books


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The Memory Palace – Learn Anything and Everything – Summary

Memory palaces are one of the oldest memory techniques in existence – they were first mentioned back in Ancient Greece by the poet Simonides. Lewis Smile’s book is the best I’ve read on teaching about how to construct your own memory palace.

Our visual and spatial memories are incredibly powerful and by creating vivid detailed mental images you can remember a startling amount of information. Combined with mental journeys through a building or area you know well, you can dramatically improve the accuracy, depth and reliability of your memory. The technique can be used to learn and memories almost any type of new information.

While the book doesn’t break any new ground or introduce and new concepts, Smile takes you through 2 memory palaces which teach you to remember all of Shakespeare (in chronological order) and Dicken’s works. The writing is engaging and quite simply – very effective. I followed the journey in the memory palace myself and the works of Shakespeare are deeply ingrained in my mind.

If you’re looking for a no-nonsense and effective way to improve your memory practically overnight, The Memory Palace is the perfect book to read.

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Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships – Summary

Sex is a subject that we’re all interested in, but most of us pretend not to be. This reserved approach to sex and human sexuality has existed for a few centuries, but isn’t our natural state. There is one particular narrative on human sexuality that has been drilled into us by religion, politics and society as a whole:

  • Men want as many sexual partners as possible in order to spread their DNA and so they often cheat on their partners to achieve this.
  • Women desire a caring, resource-rich father for their children, but also children with strong genes. So women will often form a relationship with a caring man and cheat on him with a more “genetically compatible” male to carry his child, but be looked after with the resources of the caring man.

This understanding of sex was created by the Victorians and driven by religion and other “morally-focused” institutions.

But this is a zero-sum game in which someone wins and someone loses. Surely humans evolved to try and screw over our partners we’d have become extinct by now?

In The Moral Animal, Robert Wright laments:

A basic underlying dynamic between men and women is mutual exploitation. They seem, at times, designed to make each other miserable.

Authors Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá disagree and said of the above statement:

Don’t believe it. We aren’t designed to make each other miserable. This view holds evolution responsible for the mismatch between our evolved predispositions and the post-agricultural socioeconomic world we find ourselves in. The assertion that human beings are naturally monogamous is not just a lie; it’s a lie most Western societies insist we keep telling each other.

Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships explores an alternative and more plausible idea of how sex used to be.

In short, Sex At Dawn proposes the idea that when we lived in small tribes and bands (max 150 people) all resources and child-rearing was shared among all members of the tribe and therefore paternity wasn’t important. Women would have sex with multiple men and men would have sex with multiple women. Relationships existed of course, but they weren’t monogamous.

Aggression and competition isn’t hardwired into us, but cooperation and sharing is. Men wouldn’t compete with each other for exclusive “access” to a woman, their sperm would do all the competition for them. The strongest sperm and therefore genes would win and only the best genes would be passed on, strengthening the human population over time.

This is how anatomically-modern humans lived for roughly 190,000 years and it’s only in the past 12,000 years or so that our sexual habits changed. It was the advent of agriculture which introduced personal ownership and inheritance – this meant that paternity suddenly became very important.

Larger societies where ownership and exclusivity are so important have twisted our natural state of cooperation and resource-sharing. Society has changed, but our biology and brains have stayed largely the same.

Sex At Dawn investigates not only the holes and contradictions in current theories but examines the issue from a social, cultural, biological and psychological viewpoint. It’s a thoroughly fascinating book that goes against commonly accepted theories. I encourage you to pick up a copy and explore this well-considered approach to human sexuality.

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Thinking, Fast and Slow: Summary

Thinking Fast and Slow is the international bestseller by behavioural economist Daniel Kahneman. The book proposes that there are two methods of thought that Kahneman refers to as system 1 and system 2.

System 1 is rapid fire and helps us to make very quick decisions based on a myriad of previous experiences. It’s intuitive, associated and above all – it’s fast. The brain likes to chunk things together and so this can often be quite biassed and make judgements based on stereotypes or commonly held beliefs. System 1 encourages us to try to create meaning where there is none, extrapolating, often incorrectly from the smallest pieces of information. Because of this, we favour what we deem to be plausible over what is probable.

System 1 exists for one purpose – to keep us alive.  It is a very elegant system that has helped humans to survive for thousands of years. Your subconscious brain absorbs hundreds of thousands of stimuli every day – making hundreds of decisions and judgements. System 1 enables you to make these quickly without having to engage in the slower, deliberate and energy consuming System 2. However, due to the speed of calculation, System 1 judgements are based on biases in our thinking and our experiences of the world.  This means that we fall prey to mechanics such as confirmation bias, representativeness, correspondence bias, the halo effect, primacy, anchoring (heavily used in negotiations) and availability heuristics.

System 2 is slower, more logical and more accurate, but not immune to biases. In fact without deliberate and conscious effort, System 2 often ends up confirming the judgements of System 1. It’s too easy to be lazy and only work from the initial judgement that System 1 gives us (garbage in – garbage out).

The attentive System 2 is who we think we are.  System 2 articulates judgments and makes choices, but often endorses or rationalizes ideas and feelings that were generated by System 1

The book is based on Kahneman’s long career of research and observation. It’s chock full of information which requires reflection to understand fully. It’s my favourite smart thinking book and possibly the greatest psychology book written in the past 10 years. It’s not a book that can be easily summarised in only a few paragraphs; I highly advise you to check it out for yourself.


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Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking – Summary

Blink is the international bestseller by popular author and journalist, and one of my favourite authors – Malcolm Gladwell.

His book covers a similar topic to Thinking, Fast and Slow, but approaches it from a different angle. In Blink, Gladwell suggests that our snap-second judgements are often more accurate than when we take the time to analyse a situation (paralysis by analysis):

Anyone who has ever scanned the bookshelves of a new girlfriend or boyfriend- or peeked inside his or her medicine cabinet- understands this implicitly; you can learn as much – or more – from one glance at a private space as you can from hours of exposure to a public face.

Our subconscious can see patterns and connections long before we even realise  and these connections often manifest in the form of “a gut-feeling.”  Everything you experience from every sense is stored together, somewhere in the brain. However, if you’ve never been in a particular situation before, the brain can draw parallels between similar experiences that might not be right (as is discussed in Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow)

We have, as human beings, a storytelling problem. We’re a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we don’t really have an explanation for.

Gladwell looks at psychologist, John Gottman’s work who found that he could identify, with great accuracy whether a couple would still be together in 15 years after observing them for only a few minutes.

It’s a great read which highlights both the power of our intuition and also some of the pitfalls of relying on it too much – Take a Look.


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