5 books, part 4: Alchemy by Rory Sutherland

625 words, 3 minutes.

“Things are not what they are; they are what we think they are”

My wife is a cryptic crossword fan, and she’s very good at them. I’ll confess here and now, I am hopeless at them. The secret to cryptic crosswords is to not take the clues literally. There are patterns and rules that can lead you to the answer, and there are signatures of the crossword setter. There are always reasons, but they’re not what you might think they are.

So if “reality” is only what we think it is, does that mean there is scope for changing perception without having to change an actual thing? Can a little ‘cryptic crossword magic’ apply to the everyday? Rory Sutherland seems to think so, and his book ended up being the most enjoyable read I had last year.

“To avoid stupid mistakes, learn to be slightly silly”

Throughout the book Sutherland gives examples of “psychological moonshots”. Take the Uber map — it doesn’t reduce the waiting time for a taxi but makes waiting less frustrating. His TED talk from Athens is worth a watch. Just view the next minute or two from here (the link should take you to 6:22 in) where he talks about how we could’ve saved billions on the Eurostar HS1 train link. OK, so it’s a little flippant, but it’s an alternative way to get us to look at the same situation differently.

As with the other three books visited up to now, Sutherland tells a great story. Throughout the book there are more examples like his HS1 suggestion that were less flippant and actually used (charity mail shots and pension planning, to name two seemingly dull topics brightened by a little alchemy). He’s also visited a lot of the same books as I’ve been drawn to in this series, often referencing Kahneman’s material, for example. 

One book he mentions I’ve not read — The enigma of reason by Dan Sperber and Hugo Mercier. I’m sure we’d all like to think we make decisions by deductive reasoning, but Sperber and Mercier came to a different conclusion:

“One astonishing possible explanation for the function of reason only emerged about ten years ago: the argumentative hypothesis suggests reason arose in the human brain not to inform our actions and beliefs, but to explain and defend them to others. In other words, it is an adaptation necessitated by our being a highly social species.”

This explains another of Sutherland’s comments, which I’m sure all of us in corporate life have sadly experienced at one time or another:

“what often matters most to those making a decision in business or government is not a successful outcome, but their ability to defend their decision, whatever the outcome may be.”

We are so often led down the garden path by the need to appear logical and scientific, when a better result may come from thinking quite the opposite. And this is what Sutherland attempts to get us to do throughout the book (“This book is intended as a provocation”). As he says very early in the book, “the opposite of a good idea can also be a good idea”.

It takes courage to think differently to the crowd, but if you don’t think differently, how will you stand out when you need to? New products, companies and even working methods in existing organisations will require different thinking. The ideas in this book, coupled up with Loonshots, should be preparation enough for most of us.

Let’s leave Alchemy with a subsection heading from the book. The importance of this can’t be understated:

“Context is everything”

Come back next time for the final part in the series, when we’ll look at John Yorke’s Into the Woods, a book about storytelling.