A very curious mind indeed

As the world appears to become “curiouser and curiouser”, we could all do with some instructions as to how to make more sense of what is happening, connect dots, draw conclusions and make good – if not better – decisions.

Thankfully, SmallDataForum co-founder and regular co-presenter Sam Knowles has written the book that has those instructions, and much more. In How To Be Insightful, Sam combines the experience of a career helping organizations communicate better with his training as a classicist and a doctorate in psychology to tell the story how insights work. As a true data storyteller, he does so with plenty of evidence.

Published a few weeks ago, the book is Sam’s second – although as he’ll explain, Narrative by Numbers is in many ways the prequel – and so the SmallDataForum convened for its first ever Book Special to discuss with the author how learning to apply his STEP Prism of InsightTM helps us get to that “profound and deep understanding of a person, a thing, a situation, or an issue that we can use to help us advance…the very definition of insight.”

There are easily 100 ‘business years’ between the three of us, and thus an overload of experiences and examples of what Sam calls the cavalier ways of using “insights” (imagine the air quotes) in communication and marketing.

No, “Yorkshiremen like tea” is not an insight. Neither is “Germans are punctual” – that’s more like a truth universally acknowledged. As for “Football is a simple game – 22 men chase a ball for 90 minutes and at the end, the Germans always win” – ok that gets us closer. Football does feature in How to Be Insightful, though mainly in its American version. Nike’s “Dream Crazy” campaign around activist football star Colin Kaepernick is one of the case studies discussed.

The three of us each have our own ways to conduct our metacognitive musings, to let the mind wonder when it wanders. One of Sam’s central conclusions of a life spent thinking about thinking in one way or another is to switch off, take time out, distract yourself. That’s music to Neville’s ears, for whom “being in a state of lack of distraction is a huge struggle.”

In the book, Sam interviews the neuroscientist Baroness Susan Greenfield who recommends “being somewhere big” to open the mind – a cathedral rather than a chapel, say. Not being hemmed in is a necessity for insights.

I ask Sam about the distinction about analytical and insightful thinking, which for him is profound, like the difference between Sudoku and a cryptic crossword puzzle: one is linear and follows predictable patterns. The other requires outside the box thinking and combining old things in new ways: the core of every insight.

True insights rarely occur in one’s comfort zone, and Neville observes a “generational incuriosity” in his / our cohort, unlike the seemingly more open-minded iGen. Another interviewee in the book, Brazilian marketeer Ricardo Sapiro, lists repertoire and always being hungry for knowledge as key ingredients to finding “higher human truths”.

Which brings me back to the foxes and hedgehogs from a recent episode, to connecting the dots from the classics to philosophy, psychology, statistics and communication today in the curious mind of Dr Knowles.

From Archilochus and Isaiah Berlin to Daniel Kahneman, Nate Silver and David Spiegelhalter – Sam has no doubt that Nate Silver’s advice (referencing Berlin) to “be more foxy” is the route to better insights.

And so we learn that the logo of Silver’s FiveThirtyEight media brand is indeed a fox: in The Signal and the Noise – a close intellectual relative to How to be Insightful – Silver discusses the Greek poet Archilochus’s insight that “the fox knows many little things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Philosopher Isaiah Berlin turned the idea into an essay about Tolstoy, and the metaphor lives on – most recently in the eerily timely Radical Uncertainty: Decision-making for an Unknowable Future by economists John Kay and Mervyn King.

The insight for our times, then, is that we need more foxes. You’re much more likely to be insightful if you’re a fox, as Sam concludes. I should point out that Silver’s “Be foxy” chapter is followed by “Why hedgehogs make better television guests”. Which leads to another insight regarding Hilary Clinton and Donald Trump. But that’s for another podcast.

In the meantime, assuming this post and the podcast will have whetted your appetite: go and start your foxy metacognitive journey into the open spaces of true human insights. Buy and read How To Be Insightful and Narrative By Numbers.

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