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I don’t typically write book reviews. But I felt like doing one in this case, since the topic hit close to home for me (more on that soon). I’ll start off with: I really enjoyed this book, it helped me understand some things I didn’t before, it was a humorous read, and I think it will have an ongoing impact for me. Highly recommended.

Loserthink by Scott Adams

Loserthink is a book by Scott Adams, with the interesting subtitle “How untrained brains are ruining America.” The book definitely references many American concepts, and refers to US politics quite a bit (I’ll get to that below). For me, those are useful illustrations, but not at all the core of the book.

The first half of the book covers a number of different disciplines in the world, such as engineering, psychology, and economics. This first part is what “hit close to home” for me, and encouraged me to write this book review. In these chapters, Adams walks through how the specialized thought processes in these disciplines encourage helpful ways of thinking about problems.

This topic has been on my mind a lot for the past six months or so. Earlier this year, I gave a talk for LambdaConf titled Economic Argument for Functional Programming. In that talk, I established my credentials (former actuary, now programmer, lots of experience with economics and statistics courses), and then proceeded to explain some economics concepts for making engineering and business decisions. I wasn’t certain how the talk would go over, given that I’ve never known normal people to sign up for an hour long stuffy economics lecture. But people seem to have liked the exposure to a different way of thinking. (Or at least people are really polite to me, or I’m experiencing strong selection bias of only those who like the talk reach out to me.)

I realized quickly when reading Loserthink that the first number of chapters all follow a similar kind of pattern as my talk: present a discipline’s way of thinking, and show how it would approach real-world problems in a better way than “Loserthink” would. For each of these, I had one of three different kinds of responses:

  • Wow, I never thought of it that way before, I’m glad I learned something new
  • I’ve intuitively been thinking about it this way, but now I have a clear method to follow, and to use for helping others
  • I know this solidly, and already use these techniques regularly, and I’m surprised to see how big the gap is from the way most people see things

This last one was strongest in the engineering and economics chapters. I anticipate readers of this blog would be somewhat horrified to see how non-engineers think through problems. I also anticipate many readers here to be shocked at their own “mental prisons” (as Adams puts it) for topics like psychology.

I’ve read a number of Adams’s previous works, including How to fail at almost everything and still win big and Win Bigly. In fact, some of my comments on persuasion in the aforementioned LambdaConf talk were inspired by Adams’s “persuasion filter” concept and Robert Cialdini’s books Influence and Pre-suasion (a book title many people think I’m regularly misspelling and mispronouncing).

Before reading these books, I probably had a typical engineer’s world view on things: I’m a smart, rational person, well grounded in facts and logic, and I follow a straightline path from data to decisions. I’m now firmly a believer that I am nothing of the sort, and this world view shift is deeply pervasive. If people express interest, I may write up some follow up reviews on those other books.

Continuing with Loserthink, the book moves on to point out some real-world examples. As I mentioned above, Adams does have a heavy focus on US politics. This is a double-edged sword, and potentially my only critique of the book. While highly illustrative to those both familiar with US politics and open minded enough to consider both sides of an issue, it may be offputting to others. Adams points out “Loserthink” fairly evenly on both sides of the aisle, and in my opinion all accurately. Without getting into details, I can say that there were arguments he made that made me realize shortcomings in some of my own political views.

Finally, Adams provides guidance on how to escape mental prisons. In many ways, this is a summary of the rest of the book. Which is good, because even given the relative brevity of the book (just a few hundred pages), it packs a punch.

Conclusion If you’re interested in expanding how you think things through, check out Loserthink.

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