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John Singer Sargent - Man Reading (Nicola d’Inverno) - Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

Read things that tick you off

Not long ago I bought Ann Coulter’s book “¡Adios America!” and gave it a good read. Friends and family who caught a glimpse of my reading material (no, I did not hide the book) were shocked and dismayed. “Doesn’t she make you angry?” someone asked. These days very few opinions I disagree with upset me. Maybe I have lived too long in countries suffering from armed struggles, and ruled by populists or autocrats to be offended by a polemicist who argues that Latinos undermine America.

But the visceral reaction that my reading choice caused others highlighted an important issue in my mind that I want to explore today. We tend to avoid acknowledging those we disagree with. And we certainly spend no time trying to make sense of how they think. In fact, we demonize those people, because we believe that’s what they deserve. If you prize liberal democracy you almost certainly cannot stand a populist Donald Trump, or strongmen like Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un, or Cuba’s Raul Castro. We like to think that in this day and age such leaders and their ideas should not exist.

Good luck with that.

I don’t mean to be flippant. But you need to get into the heads of those you disagree with to understand what they are likely to do next. I have spent years reading the books of left- and right-wing ideologues and regime mouthpieces like Cuba’s newspaper Granma (I also keep an eye on Breitbart). I am paid by companies to anticipate threats and adversity, and to do that well I cast a wide net with my reading. I delve into everything and anything that can give me an angle, a sense of a political trend or of how leaders are likely to act. I never dismiss anyone even if I consider them cranks. If it helps me think of how things might turn out in the future, I read it.

In business and life we must heed this lesson. Think of your mind as a muscle that needs to be exercised, just like your body, to keep it in shape. Our ideas need to be constantly stress tested. Business leaders must understand how competitors think to stay one step ahead of them. They cannot afford to pretend that competing products don’t exist. As citizens and voters, we should not see politics, culture or religion as a form of sport that requires unthinking support for the “home team”. If we do, we will be constantly blindsided by and unprepared for adverse events. Living in a curated idea bubble is not only unwise but dangerous.

The good news is we can do something about it. Here’s some homework: make a list of authors or books that you seriously disagree with and give them a read. Try to think of what motivates those people and what is their intent and capability to get what they want. What is the flaw in their thinking and what can really stop them from achieving their goals? Do that frequently and you will develop a thicker skin, you’ll be better prepared for future events (especially adverse ones) and (who knows?) you may even help a tiny bit to change them.

What I’m (Re)Reading

And while we’re on the subject of reading stuff that makes us angry, “The Coddling of the American Mind” by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, makes my point more forcefully.

The book does a phenomenal job arguing (really, warning), that American universities that help students avoid challenging ideas, with their “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings”, are setting up new generations for failure. The idea that young people – those with the least life experience – cow academics and university administrators into teaching them only what they want to hear should scare us all.

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