Friday, May 26, 2017

Reflections: Learning in the Light of Faith

Learning in the Light of Faith
Learning in the Light of Faith is more of a tract than it is a book.  Its brevity is one of its most attractive attributes. (I recently finished reading a book which was over 1,000 pages long, so I was ready for something a bit shorter).  Learning in the Light of Faith is a collection of speeches given to students in the Brigham Young University Honors Program by various LDS scholars and leaders. As can be expected, not all of the speeches are created equal, but the cumulative value is very evident.

Several years ago I read People of Paradox by Terryl Givens.  As a Latter-day Saint, it was an illuminating book and one which had a significant impact on how I saw the Mormon culture I am a part of.  One of the most interesting questions explored in that book was that of education and Latter-day Saint doctrine.  Learning in the Light of Faith provides a brief but valuable answer to the salient questionhow should Latter-day Saints, especially scholars, balance their loyalty and deference to reason and revelation?  With scholars like Neal A. Maxwell, Henry B. Eyring, and Dallin H. Oaks answering portions of that question, this little book is plenty authoritative for me.

I have a personal interest in the topics explored in Learning in the Light of Faith; therefore, I may find it much more interesting than a general audience, even a Latter-day Saint audience.  Although all Latter-day Saints should have a keen interest in educationsecular and spiritualnot all need be a scholar in a secular sense; albeit, the requirement to be a scholar in the spiritual sense isn't wisely ignored.  No doubt this little book is useful for both groups, it's much more relevant for the former group.

Learning in the Light of Faith was a refreshing and energizing exploration of topics I care a lot about.  I love the idea of scholarship, and I love the doctrines of the LDS Church.  Therefore, a book like this speaks directly to some of my most cherished beliefs and convictions.  Even with its brevity, Learning in the Light of Faith has plenty to edify its readers.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: The Book of Mormon
Reflections: Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling
Reflections: The Lord's Way

Friday, May 12, 2017

Reflections: The Way of Kings

The Way of Kings
So. Much. Talking. Brandon Sanderson is a very creative writer, but I feel he has not learned a simple but critical lesson of storytellingshow and don't tellThe Way of Kings weighs in at 1252 pages, and my feeling is that it probably should have been half that length. Even though I'm a fan of Sanderson's Mistborn series, I am not eager to recommend The Way of Kings to any reader not willing to slog through pages and pages of banal dialogue and inertia that crescendos into an anemic conclusion.

To begin with, and on a more positive note, The Way of Kings does showcase Sanderson's particular strength as a writer, which is his creativity. Although the fantasy elements of this book are not as surprising and interesting as in Mistborn, mostly because they feel somewhat similar to Mistborn's, but they're interesting nonetheless. Sanderson works hard to establish his world through its culture, geography, and mythologies.  His worlds are detailed but not overwhelming.  The Way of Kings exploresin a limited wayconflicts between reason and revelation, faith and doubt, myth and history.  This is all fine and fun, but the exploration is often times clunky and clumsy.

Now for the not-so-positive.  The Way of Kings is riddled with problems.  One of Sanderson's biggest weaknesses as a writer is his insistence on explaining just about everything through stunted and uninteresting dialogue.  For example, several characters literally spend the majority of the book in a library.  The characters, and the readers, are forced to essentially wait around for something to happen.  Furthermore, sub-plots and conflicts take hundreds of pages to resolve.  And, just like Mistborn, the last few hundred pages is a rush to clear up the many loose-ends Sanderson has created, while still leaving enough mystery to tempt the reader to continue the series.  Some twists and turns are genuinely surprising but most are obvious and unfulfilling, even trite.  With the extended length of this book and its foreshadowing and preparation, the ending should come as a fist to the gut; it should knock the reader over.  The Way of Kings does no such thing.  In fact, I rolled my eyes when, after reading over 1200 pages, I read the following: "Most everything was still wrong."  If you write a book which is over 1000 pages long, then the landscape of the story better look a whole lot different at the end than it did at the beginning.  The Way of Kings, in this regard, is a total misfirealbeit a long one.

Based on the effusive recommendations of others, I had high hopes for The Way of Kings.  I wanted to like it.  I am a big fan of the Mistborn series, even with its problems.  For any one of The Way of Kings' virtues comes multiple storytelling sins.  At the end of any good fantasy novel, the reader should feel an insatiable desire to continue the saga, to keep living the adventure.  I feel no compulsion to continue The Stormlight Archive, and, therefore, cannot recommend The Way of Kings to other readers.

Other Topics of Interest:
Adaptation, Please: Mistborn
Reflections: The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
Ray Bradbury and Me

Monday, May 1, 2017

Reflections: Girt: The Power of Passion and Perseverance

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance
Several years ago I came across Angela Duckworth's TED Talk: Grit.  It elucidated  some of my inner convictions and opened my eyes to compelling evidence related to the power of grit in our lives.  I'm not blind to grit's critics, and I understand the world is a complicated place in which "time and chance happeneth to [us] all" (Ecclesiastes 9:11).  Sometimes no amount of grit can overcome really, really bad luck.  However, for the majority of us, grit is and can be a deciding factor in our success and happiness.  Wanting to investigate more fully Duckworth's research and viewpoint, I purchased her book and have found a new must-read.

A book like Grit, in my opinion, is one which can change your life.  I do not write this flippantly.  As any who read my opinions know, I'm generally not hyperbolic in my feelings toward books and movies.  However, a book like Grit, with its ideas and principles, is something different.  It offers not only evidence regarding the power of grit on an individual level but a worldview in which our very culture can change and be improved by accepting as axiomatic that we do indeed have profound power over our own lives.  Duckworth is not blind to the disadvantages experienced by many; in fact, she goes out of her way to accept such facts, but pushes forward with convincing evidence that someone in a very disadvantaged position can overcome and achieve.  Furthermore, she highlights that even those who experience plenty of advantages often fail in pursuit of their goals because they lack the necessary grit.

In terms of structure, Grit falls into a fairly standard format.  Evidence is presented and then anecdotes are put forward to support the scientific assertion.  Perhaps the most refreshing aspect of Grit is Duckworth's willingness to admit where she lacks evidence.  She is quick to recommend additional research in order to further confirm her assumptions and theories, but she never claims more than what science allows her to.  This can be an issue for a great many academic and professional books.  Authors are often so eager to become a best-seller that they lay humility aside in favor of feigned confidence.  It is not my feeling that Duckworth falls into this trap.

Duckworth's writing is serviceable, albeit not terribly memorable.  She doesn't belabor too many points, but the book, as with most books similar to it, could probably have been a bit shorter and had the same effect.  For the most part, I enjoyed reading the book from beginning to end.  It's a very approachable book and doesn't demand as much from the reader as a book like Thinking, Fast and Slow does.

Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance is an important book.  I feel it is really more of a statement regarding the efficacy of grit rather than a manifesto.  As Duckworth admits, there is more research needed to confirm the effects of grit; however, this is a powerful beginning and one which should not be ignored.  I truly believe that accepting and teaching grit in a more substantial and real way can change and improve the lives of millions.  I believe our culture has overlooked the consequences of grit and has accepted too easily and lazily a worldview of chance and circumstance.  I think Grit shows a powerful alternative, and I highly recommend it for all.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Outliers
Reflections: Up from Slavery
Reflections: Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes the Underclass

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Reflections: Nudge

Nudge by R. H. Thaler & C. R. Sunstein
Nudge has been on my list to read for literally years. In fact, I think I added it to my list shortly after it was published. I have finally gotten around to reading it, and I'm glad I can be a part of a very important conversation.

To begin with, the main thrust of the book requires the reader to accept certain assumptions about human thinking and nature. The authors insist we are not, regardless of how many Economists say otherwise, purely economic creatures which make decisions within a nicely defined and enlightened definition of self-interest but are instead vexed with all sorts of irrationality and injudicious decision-making. Due to this, humans (vs. econs) would benefit from "nudges" from third-partiespublic or privatein a variety of arenas, such as savings, investments, health, etc. I was already familiar with much of the psychology and behavioral economics which support the authors' conclusions and recommendations (Thinking, Fast and Slow delineates quite a bit of it in much more detail), and there is, no doubt, plenty to debate in the science that constitutes the foundation of Nudge.

Nudge presents "libertarian paternalism," which at first glance seems to be a concept that is an oxymoron. Linked with this concept are some additional conundrums, such as someone having the role of a "choice architect." To be honest, much of it makes me feel uncomfortable, albeit I am not repulsed by it. The authors' arguments are at times persuasive, especially when dealing with default choices. A choice has to be made; individuals are already being influenced (realized or not) in one or way or another, why not attempt to nudge them toward the most beneficial choices? This sounds completely reasonable, of course, when dealing with what seem like obvious choices, such as smoking or saving more for retirement. However, the nudge concept quickly becomes more paternalistic and less libertarian the more it's applied and the broader its reach. (The authors deal briefly with objections at the end of the book and the "slippery slope" argument is addressed; yet, it is, as is often the case, underestimated by the authors. The slippery slope argument often sticks because it is often true!) Especially when starting with the premise that human beings are in many ways bad decision makers and need help from more enlightened intellectuals, the technique of nudging can so very, very quickly turn into pulls, pushes, and shoves.

Furthermore, I feel the authors understate the difference between a public and a private institution. Although corporations can be powerful, they can never be as powerful as a government entity, which holds the monopoly over the use of force. This isn't to say that government can't do some good and can even improve the way it presents choices to its citizens, it is a mistake, in my opinion, to equate a corporate board with a congressional chamber. One can use the force of law and another cannot. Harm can be done by both, yes, but the power of one can always dominate the influence of the other. The most useful and safest kind of nudges are those implemented and perpetuated by private institutions and citizens that attempt to nudge others in a social way.

Nudges are everywhere, and this I think is one of the most important lessons I learned from the book. As human beings, we can be overwhelmed by inertia or by loss aversion or by a multitude of other factors when making decisions. Knowing this will hopefully make us better decision makers, regardless of the nudges we're receiving. As this cannot be expected to happen for many, I can be persuaded to incorporate nudges in a variety of areas, but my libertarian guard will always be up against any paternalistic plotting.

Nudge does present some valuable ideas. Yet, I wonder how far "libertarian paternalism" can extend and into what areas without the paternalistic side of the equation tipping the scales in its favor. Having said that, there are some very simple applications of the nudge concept, such as making certain decisions easier to make and breaking down barriers, which could easily be implemented without any significant moral, ethical, and ideological concerns being raised. Those "choice architects" (shiver) just have to get it right, and maybe that's where I lose most of my faith.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Thinking, Fast and Slow
Reflections: Life at the Bottom
Reflections: Utilitarianism

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Reflections: Good to Great

Good to Great by Jim Collins
I can imagine that writing a book like Good to Great is an open invitation to cynics and critics to prove how the author got it all wrong. Being published in 2001, the book represents a snapshot in time, which becomes obsolete, similar to the latest technological product, almost as soon as it hits the public's hands. Jim Collins and his team identified eleven companies which met their criteria, which they wisely detail after the close of the book, that made the leap from a "good" company to a "great" company. What are the primary ingredients? And can it be duplicated?

As would be expected, the book lists (business books love lists) several key components for making the leap from good to great. Although not revolutionary (like most business books), the concepts are thought-provoking and no doubt valuable. Considering the book is about companies rather than individuals becoming great, the concepts are related to organizational effectiveness and transformation. However, as with most concepts, what could be applied at a macro level can probably find some kind of application at a micro level.  Some of those concepts are intuitive, such as having a culture of disciple, but others are less so, such as the "First Who, then What" principle.  However, after some pondering the principle becomes more sensible and less radical.  But is it a true principle? 

Reading the book in 2017 necessarily colors the content of the book in a way which couldn't be considered in 2001. For example, Circuit City is listed as one of those companies which made the leap from good to great. Circuit City doesn't exist anymore. Rather than disproving any of the findings of the book, however, I am intrigued by the idea of constant change and adaptation in the marketplace. Although a company can thrive or even be the best, that does not guarantee its long-term success or even survival. Competition, as well as the natural (and unnatural) forces at work in a marketplace, can make today's titan tomorrow's pygmy.

Good to Great is a fine bookwell written with valuable insight and worthwhile anecdotes and conclusions. It can also, more than likely, all be proven wrong or at the very least severely challenged, as I'm sure many academics and other interested parties have done. Regardless, I enjoyed the book and was able to cull from it applicable and relevant leadership and professional tactics.

Other Topics of Interest:
Reflections: Outliers
Reflections: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Reflections: The Marshmallow Test