Mental Improvement and Ungentlemanly Warfare

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One of my favorite sayings is, “It’s not what we know that gets us in trouble, it’s what we know that just isn’t so.” We all have biases based on our experiences, and these biases shape the world we see. We are more comfortable listening to people with whom we agree than having our opinions challenged. We can all look back at certain events that have gone tragically wrong and ask, “What were they thinking?” A more productive question would be, “With the data that was available to them, why didn’t they challenge the current thinking?” One of the books in my last column reviewed the many blunders made by the Bush administration during the second Iraq war. This was a clear case of bias-led decision-making—“Damn the conflicting information. Full speed ahead!” The aftermath of the Iraq war could have been far better if the Bush war council had read Adam Grant’s book, Think Again.

Grant maintains that “the purpose of learning isn’t to affirm your beliefs; it’s to evolve our beliefs.” This book is filled with great tools to enhance your learning capabilities. For example, many people have difficulty admitting they were wrong. This is one of biggest barriers to learning. If you are always right, why would you need to learn anything new? He also discusses the barrier to learning that is imposter syndrome, which manifests itself as a little voice in your head saying, “I don’t belong here. This problem, this situation, is beyond my ability.” We can all remember situations where that niggling doubt arises. Looking for situations that spawn those doubts and learning to cherish them, rather than avoid them, is the key to learning. This book shows you how to do it.

Have you ever tried to have an in-depth conversation with someone whose political beliefs are the antithesis of yours? They usually turn into a bumper sticker shouting match. Grant outlines a method in this book to have productive conversations that will create insights for both parties. If you are at all interested in improving your ability to learn, this is the book for you. The CEO of our company read it, and now dozens of people in the company are reading it and challenging many of our most cherished beliefs. It has engendered an energy of learning and growth that hasn’t existed in many years.

Churchill’s Ministry of Ungentlemanly Warfare by Giles Milton is the story of a top-secret organization to plan espionage and guerrilla warfare against the Germans at the start of the second World War. They were led by six men and women, from outside the British military and scientific communities, whose courage and innovations had a profound effect on the outcome of the war. Some helped to build and succor the resistance in France, the Netherlands and Greece. They planted bombs on railroad bridges and factories. In fact, they were able to disable the rail network the Nazis planned to use to ship tanks and material to the beaches of Normandy, thereby enabling the Allies to establish beachheads and expand outward.

They also destroyed the heavy water production facility in Norway, the only facility of its kind in Europe, denying Hitler’s scientists access to a critical ingredient in the production of the atom bomb and ensuring the war would end before Germany could develop it. These are only a few examples of their achievements. The book is filled with them. The first question that arises while reading this book is, “Why have we never heard of this before?” The dirty little secret is that the military and scientific establishment would have nothing to do with them and constantly tried to disband them rather than acknowledge their contributions and support them. They succeeded in permanently shutting the group down right after the war when Churchill left office. The fact that Churchill saw their value and supported them despite great opposition from his own cabinet is yet another example that cements his place as the greatest political leader of the 20th century.


RALPH STAYER, an avid reader and former CEO of Johnsonville Sausage, leads a book club in Naples with about a dozen other high-power friends. The group only reads non-fiction as a way to keep learning and sharpening the mind. Every month, Stayer shares the latest page-turners earning a permanent spot on his ever-expanding bookshelves.


Photo Credit: Brian Tietz, Penguin, Picador


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