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7 July 2023

The problem with smart thinking

We can’t all be philosophers, but a whole genre of bad books will try to make you one.

By Josiah Gogarty

“Half of being smart is knowing what you’re dumb about.” This is written on a sign on a table marked “smart thinking” at my local bookshop, in front of two shelves also labelled “smart thinking”.

Smart thinking is a strange sort of book classification. It doesn’t really connote an established genre, like history, biography or poetry. (Is the implication that all of those are the product of stupid thinking?) But you know it when you see it. Outside of its dedicated habitat, smart thinking is found on the shelves at airport WHSmith’s, and on the beaches that people fly to after, presumably, buying books at airport WHSmith’s. Not everyone thinks that smart thinking is smart – one alternative description I’ve heard is “the stupid person’s clever book”.

On those bookshelves, there are no more than five proper nouns among a couple of hundred titles. They instead deal in such grand concepts as Quiet, Values, Friends, Noise, Deep Thinking, The Power of Bad, The Power of Us and The Delusions of Crowds. The Wisdom of Psychopaths is one of three psychopath-related books, which suggests a worryingly permissive view of what kind of thinking is rated as smart.

Seduced by these big words, you flip a book over and – bam! – a bullet-pointed blurb coshes you over the head with all the ways it can improve your life and, more importantly, your career. The back cover of The Organised Mind, by Daniel Levitin, explains that:

•  Your brain has a daily processing limit – why waste it on cat photos?

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The Power of Us, by the psychologists Jay Van Bavel and Dominic Packer, reveals how the pair’s research can be used to:

•  Boost cooperation and productivity;

•  Overcome bias;

•  Escape from echo chambers;

•  Break political gridlock;

•  Foster dissent and mobilise for change;

•  Lead effectively;

•  Galvanise action to address persistent global problems.

[See also: The 14 best books of the year so far]

Some books number their promises. Future Proof, by Kevin Roose, offers 9 Rules for Humans in the Age of Automation

The godfather of smart thinking is Malcolm Gladwell, who has made millions from hawking theses that are counterintuitive enough to surprise but obvious enough to sell. In 2011 the writer Cory Bortnicker set up an online Malcolm Gladwell book generator, which suggested titles like Vague: The Power of Generalisations to Impress the Bored; Nothing: What Sandcastles Can Teach Us About North Korean Economic Policy; and Blank: 300 Empty Pages to Fill with Your Own F***ing Theories. Now it seems that publishers all have their own Malcolm Gladwell book generator.

Gladwell also gives his name to “malcolms” – as coined by Stian Westlake, the former head of the Royal Statistical Society. These are the anecdotes used in non-fiction books to begin a chapter and illustrate the theory which follows. The multi-million-selling Atomic Habits, for example, opens with an explanation for British Cycling’s post-2008 success: the new head coach had a policy of “the aggregation of marginal gains”, which included redesigning bike seats and teaching athletes proper handwashing. The overall argument – good habits, even regarding small things, lead to greatness – flows from here.

The diversity and quirkiness of a book’s malcolms is frequently touted as a selling point. According to its Amazon listing, The Power of Us promises to dredge up the common thread between “such seemingly unrelated phenomena as why men cry at football games but not funerals, why the history of slavery in US counties is one of the best predictors of current-day racism, and why Canada keeps a national reserve of maple syrup”.

But malcolms also exemplify the problem with smart thinking. A fun anecdote, plucked out of the messiness of human life and nestled in a tidy theory, offers no more than the mirage of the real world. These books are all form and no content – all jug and no juice.

A novel, however trashy, tells a story about your fellow ape; a history, however simplified, explains the stuff that happened to other people in the past; a science book explains the world we live in. Smart thinking isn’t bothered with all that humanistic flim-flam. Its concern, beyond providing psychology professors with second homes, is to serve up key learnings and actionable deliverables to optimise, rather than expand, your own narrow ken.

Back at the bookshop, the smart thinking section is positioned between “business and management” and “popular science”, a neat illustration of its implied function: helping businesses acquire the legitimacy of science. It’s symptomatic of an age in which degrees are marketed via their “transferable skills”, and management consultants barely out of university are parachuted into a field of business and expected to plausibly feign expertise. We’re increasingly enraptured by systems and altogether less bothered by what’s fed into them.

Given the individualist, entrepreneurial flavour of smart thinking books, they end up being strangely left wing. Traditionally, we expect the turtlenecked academic in their ivory tower to be the dealer in jargon-crammed abstraction. The brutal capitalist mogul, however, scrabbles around in the dirt, sees the world for what it really is, and builds an empire on sweat and empiricism.

Now the money men seem to have taken up rationalism too. We can’t all be philosophers, though: surely someone needs to watch the shop? “Half of being smart is knowing what you’re dumb about.” That quote, in front of the smart thinking section, is about knowing, not thinking. The what is just as important as the how. It’s not doing a very good job of selling the relevant books.

Thankfully, readers are still interested in the whats that constitute our big wide world. The top ten bestsellers on Amazon UK last year included only one smart thinking title; the rest were recipe books, popular fiction from Colleen Hoover and Richard Osman and, that glorious compendium of whats, the latest Guinness World Records. That all sounds a lot smarter to me.

[See also: The best non-fiction books to read in 2023]

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