McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)
I love science fiction, but I'm also a proud member of the reality-based community. Though I may prefer things to progress logically, the whimsical intrusion of random or unrelated events makes things interesting. Let's face it, if drama or comedy unfolded in an entirely reasonable manner, snoozes would ensue. Surprise is the most important element in comedy as conflict is the key to drama.
But in business, we usually try to avoid surprises and reduce conflict. Yet both of these things often produce new opportunities, products and profits. At the very least, they may spark some creative thinking.
Here are three new books that examine randomness, irrationality and creativity:
— "The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives" by Leonard Mlodinow; Pantheon, 272 pages ($24.95).
Mlodinow has written about the brilliant physicist Richard Feynman, collaborated with Stephen Hawking and written scripts for TV shows, including "Star Trek: The Next Generation," "Hunter," "Night Court" and "MacGyver," so clearly, he's the perfect guy to reveal the ways unrelated elements can relate and connect.
Applying his insights to medicine, Hollywood, mortality, sports and more, Mlodinow explores trends and how collectively events may be predictable but individual cases often seem anomalous and exceptional.
He also writes about several situations wherein the authoritative, ''right'' answer was incorrect. Marilyn vos Savant, Parade magazine's genius columnist, once responded to a reader's question about switching choices on the game show "Let's Make a Deal," for which she was excoriated because her answer seemed to defy logic. The resident genius subsequently was denounced by her readers and a succession of mathematicians.
But oddly, she was eventually proven to be correct. When confronted with the formal proof, Paul Erdos, ''one of the leading mathematicians of the 20th century'' (according to Mlodinow), grew angry and refused to believe it until he was shown hundreds of computer simulations of the problem.
— "Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior" by Ori Brafman and Rom Brafman; Currency, 224 pages ($21.95).
Sometimes what we think we know to be true isn't and what we know to be untrue is. The Brafmans recount a number of situations in which people reacted one way despite an abundance of evidence to the contrary. It's not an uncommon occurrence, either. It might be a matter of inertia, avoiding a perception of weakness or the inability to revise one's opinion even when the facts change. There's also a reluctance to go against the crowd, as in The Emperor's New Clothes.
Their book is a breezy yet extremely thoughtful and intelligent work, with implications that extend beyond business. Understanding how and why this occurs may help us avoid bad business decisions and perhaps even another phony war.
—"A Whack on the Side of the Head: How You Can Be More Creative (25th Anniversary Edition)" by Roger von Oech; Grand Central Publishing, 240 pages ($16.99).
Von Oech's book is a classic and ought to be given to all new hires in advertising and marketing. His premise is that the unexpected often triggers new associations that result in creativity.
The author is an enthusiastic proponent of playfulness and making mistakes as stepping-stones to problem solving. A friend of mine once had a boss who gave him a copy of this book and encouraged him to embrace its lessons yet reprimanded him for surfing the Internet. Wonder what Von Oech would have said?
(Richard Pachter is the business book columnist for the Miami Herald. He can be reached at rap@WordsOnWords.com; more columns are available at www.WordsOnWords.com.)
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