Monday, September 14, 2009


It’s around 10:20am Sunday now as I begin writing this post. I am conveniently seated at the upper floor of some train that takes me from Delft to Amsterdam; the weather is cold and gloomy, however the forecast did not mention any rain coming so this should be a pleasant day to wander around Amsterdam.

A few small children are yelling at the back; I happen to have this indispensible talent to attract myself to train cars containing noisy children. It’s either that, or all train cars have noisy children.

I decided to counter these annoying kids with another round of Get Lucky right into my ears. The BlackBerry’s randomizer happened to choose Monteleone as the first song – ironic, as this is the most relaxing, chilling-out track in the entire album.

I have the urge to write about something, so how about I tell you of a few books that I have been reading recently, and can warmly recommend.

The first one would be Viktor E. Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. This book is an all-time best seller and I have heard about it many times before actually placing the order in Amazon, which resulted in this magnificent book lying neatly in my mailbox two days later.

Viktor E. Frankl is a holocaust survivor, a psychiatrist in his training. At the concentration camp (he wandered amongst a few), he worked as a psychiatrist, mainly dealing with inmates who have lost their will to live due to the ridiculously unbearable concentration camp life.

While performing his work, he came up with an approach called Logotherapy (in Latin, “Logos” means “meaning”). Contrary to commonly-used schools of thought at that time, attempting to trace problems back to childhood traumas and / or environmental causes, Frankl argued that the vast majority of patients suffer, after all, from the inability to find purpose and meaning in their lives.

His claims rely on logic that I find hard to negate, and he builds his case brilliantly.

First, he describes concentration camp life. The first 80-90 pages of the book go into the details of camp life; what it was like, and specifically the horrors that inmates had to go through.

(We just stopped at Leiden Centraal and the voices of the kids are easily swallowed by the constant chatter of about 20 old women who boarded the car I am in. This can only happen to me. I feel like unboarding the train and walk to Amsterdam, however that would mean not being able to type)

The part of the book dealing with concentration camp life has been extremely touching and horrific for me. This can be explained by the fact that I was born and raised in Israel; even though my family roots did not arrive from Eastern Europe and therefore no family members of mine had to go through that man-made hell back in the 1940’s, you can’t (and, I would say, shouldn’t) possibly grow up in Israel without knowing a great deal about one of the most vicious genocides that “humanity” ever produced.

What Frankl had found was, that the inmate’s ability to find meaning and purpose in their lives has been quite a determining factor in the inmate’s chances of survival. In other words: those who had what to live for, usually found the how. Essentially, this book is an extrapolation of Nietzsche’s saying “he who has what to live for, can endure almost any how”.

And, my friends, the “how” here is truly the toughest “how” you could imagine. Millions of people have been stripped off everything they had. From human beings with aspirations, hopes and dreams, they became merely numbers. Frankl makes an interesting point: even in these extreme conditions, people could still find meaning and purpose in their lives, didn’t give up and ended up surviving that hell.

In other words: if you think you’ve got problems that make you want to lose the will to live, perhaps you should get a little perspective and witness for yourself that your troubles is not really what causes you to want to give up.

Granted, the reason I was attracted to this book was not that I lost any will to live; the contrary is true – despite a couple of extremely low points so far in 2009, I happen to love my life. I simply am a big fan of books and research that deal with psychological and social phenomena. And that leads me to the next two books I feel obliged to recommend. Both were written by the same author who happened to grow up in Elmira, Ontario (about 10 minutes drive from my house) and is now world-renowned for his sharp, yet down-to-earth, writing style. He is one of the two individuals I hope I get to meet at some day.

His name is Malcolm Gladwell and the books I am talking about are his first two books: The Tipping Point and Blink.

(He wrote another book called Outliers. I haven’t got around to reading it yet)

The Tipping Point deals with the causes and drives behind epidemics – be it commercial, social, criminal and so forth. In this book, Gladwell analyzes the process that causes a mere idea to become a wide-spread epidemic.

One of the key techniques that Gladwell uses in his books is providing reference to social and psychological experiments that have been performed over so many years. The results of most of those experiments can, and will, shock you at first. I recall not being able to let this book off my hands, and often dropping my jaw in awe.

One of the first phenomena that Gladwell analyzes in The Tipping Point is the infamous “Six Degrees of Separation” experiment. That was an ingenious experiment done in the previous century, with the end conclusion that, on average, between any two people in the world, there exists”chain” of six (yes, only six) people that “separate” them (i.e. I may reach any person in the world through, on average, six people). He then points out a few details about that research that have escaped most people’s eyes. I found it fascinating.

Blink, published in 2005, deals with the power of rapid cognition. As interesting as The Tipping Point was, Blink is that and more. I was struck with awe ever few pages, as Gladwell refers to social and psychological experiments that turn out conclusions that are as distant from common sense as the Earth is from the Moon.

In simple words, this book deals with the nature of gut feelings, what they are, how they are created and why so often they turn out to be right, contrary to common sense.

One of the prominent arguments Gladwell builds throughout the book is, that more often than not, having a lot of information before taking decisions is as counter-productive and useless as a screen door in a submarine. He demonstrates, through references to countless incidents, experiments and research papers, that when faced with ample information, the human mind often misuses the multitude of information in a way that deviates one from taking proper decisions. This aligns with another topic I have been reading about – the paradox of choice – showing that “too much” often means “too little” and we’re often better off sticking to simplicity rather than get immersed in details.


I am finishing this post over coffee at Cafe Luna, at Amsterdam’s city center. I have been here during my first visit to Amsterdam, but something must have happened to the coffee here because it royally sucks. Maybe it’s because Rosanna doesn’t work here anymore. Will go look for better espresso elsewhere.




Laurenzia said...

This post is amazing.

Thank you again for the inspiration.

I have read "Blink" by MG. It took me by surprise that he's Canadian- I borrowed the book from a local library and it was donated there from Embassy of USA... Just wanted to share this useless information with you :)

Bill said...

You're wrong, a screen door is very useful on a submarine, only if it's on the bottom to keep out the wildlife. :)