Books 40 & 41: Quiet & The Big Short

Quiet by Susan Cain & The Big Short by Michael Lewis

It wasn’t the plan to read these back to back, but they made for an interesting double. Quiet is a fascinating, research-based look at introversion and what the implications are for today’s society and work. Ostensibly, if you believe that around half of the population have introversion characteristics, shouldn’t we start designing work, education and life to get the most out of them – rather than constructing those things to achieve exactly the opposite. For example, there is research that shows that open-plan offices make people (on average) less productive: because plenty of people thrive on quiet, demarcated space to concentrate. Cain also details how education, particularly in universities, tends to view ‘speaking out loud’ as success rather than ‘someone saying something before they have really thought about it’ which is often the reality. If this doesn’t make you go away thinking about the people you love, work with and interact with…and how you might act differently armed with this knowledge, then you haven’t read it properly.

The Big Short has recently been made into a film (which I haven’t seen) but I’m a long-standing fan of Michael Lewis, who has the (fairly unique) gift of explaining finance and economics in both a compelling and understandable way: Flash Boys and Boomerang are great accompaniments to this book. It details those who foresaw the 2008 sub-prime, credit default swap, synthetic collateralised debt obligation-fuelled crash coming…and how they were laughed at, ignored, taken a bit seriously, taken a bit more seriously, and ultimately proved right (& therefore becoming richer). It’s a heady and exciting tale, but the chilling underbelly of the book is how the large investment banks (Goldman Sachs et al) operate in a complete moral vacuum, turning on their own clients, believing their own hype and generally embodying the “irrational exuberance” accorded to them subsequently. What is also terrifying is that it is entirely clear that little has changed significantly, and it is completely possible, even likely, that this may all happen again.

As you might expect, one thing that occurred to me is that we could do with a few more thoughtful personalities with more introverted characteristics in some of the key positions in those banks – though it may not be that simple: some of the algorythmic geeks in a room (who are the ‘stars’ of Flash Boys) sit on their own in a darkened room creating products which are disconnected from the real mortgages and lives from which they are constructed.

Scores: 8/10 for both

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