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I’m an avid reader and have been on a major book-reading binge of late and thought I’d share some of those books with you along with my thoughts in case you need a good read on your next flight! We’ll call this series In-Flight Reading and I’m happy to bring you my first review right now!
The Undoing Project, by Michael Lewis
I’m a big fan of Michael Lewis’s books. He manages to take complex systems (finance, baseball, and otherwise, as we’ll get to in a minute) and explains the minutiae in such a way that even
morons the average person like me can understand it. I work in finance so of course I enjoyed Flash Boys and The Big Short is one of my favorite books ever (the movie is up there on my all-time list as well). Many of you are probably familiar with his work covering the Oakland Athletics and analytics in the book (and resulting feature film) Moneyball.
When I heard he released a new book I immediately bought it and recently sat down and went through it.
The Undoing Project departs from sports and finance, Lewis’s usual fare, and took me on a journey through, well, me. The story revolves around two Israeli psychologists, Amos Tversky and Danny Kahnemann. From the battlefields of the Middle East to the lecture halls of prestigious universities, these men led amazing lives, but what they discovered forever changed the way we think about thinking.
Michael Lewis’s storytelling style tends to follow something close to the following outline: cold opening story to grab your attention, large-scale examination of an industry or way of thinking, and a narrative of people who changed that industry or thought model. The Undoing Project is no different, with rare exception. Chronicling the story of wartime Israel and the field of modern psychology as contrasted with economics, I felt like Lewis struggled to find a sense of narrative at first. This is understandable, though, because of the complexity of the subject at hand: how predictably unpredictable humans make decisions. As Tversky and Kahnemann explored the human mind, a close and unlikely friendship developed, the result of which is the modern practice of Behavioral Economics and, tangentially, game theory, Big Data analytics, and really any predictive modeling of human interaction. I know it sounds kind of crazy to lay all of that at the feet of just two men, but it’s the truth.
While the subject matter gets dense at times, this intellectual love story (there’s really no other way to put it) will absolutely fascinate you. The examples that Lewis shares will no doubt spark personal memories of times where you acted similarly. It really peels back the human mind and calls it what it is: unpredictable and irrational. The mastery of Michael Lewis is such that he doesn’t just share what these guys did but he also delves into the relationship they had, unique among academics (or even most people, for that matter)
What I liked
Lewis again displays his uncanny ability to take the complexities of something like a post in a scientific journal and bring it down to my level. I’m personally very interested in human decision making and our biases so I absolutely loved the subject of The Undoing Project. Others, more used to the Moneyball and Big Short-esque books, may struggle with the material at first but this is the type of book where you have to trust the author. By the end of the book you will look back fondly on what you read, at least in my experience. The last chapter, in particular, is one of the best chapters of any book I’ve ever read.
What I didn’t like
The narrative of The Undoing Project, as I mentioned earlier, isn’t as cohesive as I’m used to from Michael Lewis. Looking back I think I understand why: he wanted to show the humanity behind the amazing research being done and show just how unlikely it was for a partnership like this to ever form. In order to do that, he needed to depart from a more linear narrative in order to symbolize the crazy times and experiences these men went through, not only as academics and friends but also as Israelis during the frequent turmoil that followed the establishment of Israel in 1948.
Should you read it?
Well I think everyone should, but honestly if you tend to prefer more fast-paced books this one will probably lose you. I think it’s really important to understand how humans respond to certain stimuli because marketers, advertisers, and politicians already know these responses and use them for their benefit. The enticing narrative is just a bonus, in my opinion. The subject material of this book is worth the effort it’ll take to get through this one.
Have you read The Undoing Project? What did you think? What books have you enjoyed lately? Tell me below and you just might see your recommendations in In-Flight Reading in the future!