50 Facts That Should Change the World 2.0

I’m reviewing this book after mailing my copy to a friend… so that’s not quite setting myself up for success, is it? Anyway. Let’s see. The book is at its best when it is using numbers to show the contrasts in the world, such as the relative daily subsidy for a cow in the European Union (>$2/day in government subsidy, if I recall correctly) as compared to the aid subsidies for human beings in some comparatively poor places (<$1/day). Compare those two numbers, and you learn a thing about how badly the world is doing at living consistent with some kind of shared group anti-poverty value. The book is decently stuffed with numbers like these, that help you know what kind of world you live in. The book is somewhat less successful when it advocates for what to do about any of these problems, or how to view their root causes.

Sometimes it is able to point to very highly successful ideas that are being implemented (such as using technology or trained animals to find and disarm/dispose of landmines), but it often falls far short of an insightful look at the roots of these problems, instead seeming to take the view that these problems would go away if only people would, ahem, care about them more. Caring more is sometimes a solution all on its own–particularly where what is needed is government action, voters who care more can be a great solution, or where the problem itself is that people feel hated rather than loved. A kind word can go a long way. And more people caring more is almost always, if not helpful, then at least harmless. (NASA’s success with the moon landing program, one way or the other, probably didn’t depend that heavily on how much any particular person outside NASA ‘cared’–but more people caring sure didn’t hurt.) But where government action can’t readily address a problem, individuals just caring more might not do much to solve anything. In some cases, the caring is at least arguably a very serious contributor or even the root of the problem (See, e.g., Dead Aid by Dambisa Moyo, which I haven’t read yet, but did read enough of to recognize that this is not a trivial concern). Where 50 Ideas gets less informative is when it departs from where the “caring” lens is strong: identifying numbers that stand in apparent stark contrast with values; once 50 Ideas is in terrain where it is necessary to apply something more than a shallow not-caring-is-the-problem lens to understanding or solving these problems… it falls down completely.

Edited briefly for readability 24 Jan 2017.

Snakes in Suits: Psychopaths in the Workplace

Snakes in Suits, by Paul Babiak and Robert D. Hare, is marketed as a toolkit for businesses that are looking to create environments that don’t attract psychopaths or promote them to positions of reward and influence. In other words, this book markets itself toward those who are worried that an otherwise talentless, lazy person will deeply master all the “soft” skills of being superficially likeable and professional, such as good eye contact, pleasant conversation, a firm handshake–and with occasional viciously Machiavellian gambits, and a complete lack of compassion or conscience–will end up running a department, or the whole company.

Unfortunately, it more reads as being a marketing guide for the advantages of mastering those “soft” skills, and offers only fairly obvious tools for detecting snakes. As the Shakespeare line has it, “Angels are bright still, though the brightest fell. Though all things foul would wear the brows of grace, yet grace must still look so.” In other words, like the rest of us, psychopaths know nobody wants to work with a psychopath, so they try to blend in, so how would we catch them out anyway?

In the introduction titled Grand Entrance, “Dave” arrives for a mid-level job interview at a hot professional firm, dressed impeccably and flashing a brilliant smile. He is charming to all, quickly navigating people past their planned H.R. scripts and getting them to talk about themselves. He does so well in a few interviews with folks in the department, that they call and cancel interviews with other applicants: they already have the “perfect” applicant. Dave is offered the position at a top-end salary, but negotiates hard and gets a starting bonus and a promise of a performance review–with a shot at another raise–within six months. Of course, the cover has a picture of a man wearing a snake for a tie, and “Snakes in Suits: When Psychopaths go to Work” is, ahem, suitably expressive, so we know that “Dave” isn’t someone we want to be. But hold on for a second–who doesn’t want to be in Dave’s shoes, hired to such a fast-tracked, lucrative position on the strength of his smile and handshake?

Okay. Yeah, so actually, most of us would prefer to have that kind of richer emotional landscape than psychopaths really enjoy. Duh. So, there’s that. So we don’t actually want to *be* pathologically amoral, we just want some of the skillset that pathologically amoral people tend to develop (such as a good handshake or good eye contact), and other skills also. This book, however, is not much help for that. It references what skills psychopaths may have at the level of recognizing them, not developing them.

Ultimately, the book can be seen as comprised of three styles. First, there’s a companionable voice that weaves parables about “Dave” and other true-life or plausible pyschopaths into a parade of horribles to scare any corporate executive into worrying that maybe they really are vulnerable to psychopathic manipulation–this is the emotive appeal. Second, there’s a medical, authoritative voice offering a clinical appraisal, relaxing the reliance on gut appeal, and switching to a shallow logic of appraisal. Third, there’s a pragmatic voice that cuts in with proactive steps HR departments and others in corporate settings can use to protect against manipulative people.

Overall, this third voice is the only one that’s really very practical, and it’s by far the smallest fraction of the book: there are only a small handful of practical tips accompanying the fear-peddling stories and the authoritarian confidence of a “medical” understanding (that appears rooted firmly in anecdote).

What tips there are will fit handily into the rest of this review. The tips are handily divisible along the classic Art-of-War division: know thyself, know thy enemy.

In the first category, psychopaths are arrogant, even sometimes sloppy liars. So double-check references and resumes. Likewise, psychopaths are attracted to h.r. settings where there are shortcuts around the hard work of personal skill development–so make sure to have multiple, seriously considered candidates for each position to be filled, rather than “grooming” a single candidate. And don’t reward people who over-rely on the work of others.

In the second category, psychopaths prey on weaknesses, so know yourself, and your team, and be proactive about addressing your insecurities and desires, and make sure people have a supportive h.r. department where they can take complaints and concerns. If so-and-so is nervous they are perceived as incompetent, or so-and-so feels underpaid and underappreciated–that’s the sort of thing pyschopaths pick up on, and exploit.

In particular, the book mentions that psychopaths are often well-attuned to who in an office has “soft” power, such as the mail room staff, schedulers, or I.T. trouble-shooters–so taking care that there are clear responsibilities, and that people from the very top to the very bottom are responsibly integrated into the company culture can be prophylactic.

Lightly edited 24 Jan 2017 to remove typographical errors.