The Long View vs. The Short View; or, the old “Forest for the Trees” issue – A Reflection on Learning from Reading Books

I have actually read a fair amount of Aristotle.  Not in the original language (although, a little bit of that too).  But in my graduate work in rhetoric, we had to read Aristotle.  And he is really, really important.  But, now, centuries later, his main ideas are usually summarized by others.  And the summaries are accessible, make sense, and are profound.  For many, a good summary is enough – enough information, enough to launch the thought processes that lead to real-world ideas and changes for the better.

From Aristotle, for example:  to be persuasive (rhetoric is all about finding the available means of persuasion), you need logos (a good logical argument), ethos (a good ethical case/argument — true credibility on the part of the speaker/writer), and pathos (a good emotional argument – an engaging “this matters to me” by the speaker/writer).  And a few others back from around the time of era of Aristotle add the power of a fourth element, mythos (the narrative appeal – this rings true to our story as a people/nation/company…).  Now Aristotle wrote on many other themes, but you get the point.  A person writes a book.  Others read it.  And with the passage of time, they are able to summarize, really effectively, the truths and principles and insights from books.  And it helps us understand.

I thought of all this as I read this excellent summary of a series of recent books on the financial crisis. What Caused the Economic Crisis?  The 15 best explanations for the Great Recession by Jacob Weisberg.  (from Slate.com and Newsweek – I read it on the Slate site).

Though the crisis is recent, there is a large number of books proposing explanations for the economic crisis with clear themes and explanations proposed for consideration.  Weisberg summarizes many of these, dividing the suggested explanations into themes and explanations, and concludes with this phrase:

But if we haven’t at least learned that our financial markets need stronger regulatory supervision and better controls to prevent bad bets by big firms from going viral, we’ll be back in the same place before you can say 30 times leverage.

I think the article is worth reading.  I have perused a few of the books mentioned, and the article does a good job summarizing the key explanations.  And learning these is important – we would really like to dig out of this crisis, and certainly to avoid similar crises in the future.

But the purpose of this post is more about the process of reading books and then learning something important from what we read.  None of us (ok – very few of us) can remember all that we read.  But we can remember key points, extract the most important principles and themes, and then allow these to inform our thinking and direct our practice.  That is why we read (at least, why we read nonfiction and business books) – to learn, to keep learning.

I have learned this from my own experience from reading, and presenting synopses of, business books.   In the last few months, I have read Outliers (Gladwell) and Talent is Overrated (Colvin), and learned that it takes 10,000 hours to get really, really good at something, and that those hours have to be spent in deliberate practice – practice for the purpose of getting better.  I have read 10-10-10 by Suzy Welch, learning that decisions can be better made if we look at their impact in the next 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years.  I have read The Opposable Mind (Martin) and discovered that to make the best decisions we need to hold two opposing ideas in our heads at the same time.

These are just a few of the “summaries” that I think of just from the last few months.  Are these books worth reading in their entirety?  Absolutely.  But with all of the stories, supporting information and data in the books, it is the key principles that matter, that shape my thinking, and that I remember most from reading these books.

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