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Reading Steven Pinker: A Guide for Entrepreneurs

Reading Steven Pinker? Probably good for entrepreneurs even if you don't agree with everything he writes.This blog covers practical, how-to subjects relevant to small business owners. We talk here about how to handle accounting problems, deal with technical issues like taxes, and make smart managerial and financial choices when you’re a small business owner or entrepreneur.

Further, we avoid subjects like politics and religion. Those topics are important. But other blogs and media outlets cover those topics. And what’s more, discussing topics which trigger a strong emotion on part of readers, just doesn’t contribute to us discussing the mechanics about how you succeed in small business.

Again, this blog is all about the “how to.” We’d like to help you succeed in your small business, period. Regardless of your political beliefs or lack thereof and regardless of your religious beliefs or lack thereof.

Which brings me to the issue of Harvard psychology professor Steven Pinker and his book, Enlightenment Now.

Pinker’s book provides some really interesting and, I think, actionable insights for small business folks and entrepreneurs. Probably for reasons like this, people like Bill Gates laud Pinker for his insights.

Unfortunately, others see Pinker’s work as pretty tribal and inflammatory. One reviewer describes Pinker as an evangelical atheist–which is probably fair if also inflammatory–because Pinker spends much of his book telling readers they are fools to believe God exists.

Further, if you have any well-formed political beliefs (left or right), Pinker will periodically judge many of your core principles to be irrational and absurd.

Yet, Pinker’s book really does provide some great, actionable insights for entrepreneurs and business managers.

I thought what I’d do, therefore, is point out the big entrepreneurial takeaways from Pinker’s book. That information gives you the ability to benefit from Pinker’s work without having to read his book. And then, at the end of this blog post, I’ll share two comments which fall into the nature of a book reviewer’s criticism. That commentary may help you decide whether you want to read the book.

The Big Big Data Insight

Here’s the big insight from Pinker’s book: Life is getting better.

In other words, though most of us believe things are getting worse and have stalled, almost everything that matters to you and yours is relentlessly improving. Slowly maybe. Incrementally definitely. But progress–true progress–systematically improves human quality of life.

The really good part of Pinker’s book documents this mind-boggling progress, and it discusses why we humans don’t perceive the progress.

In a nutshell, people (especially the poor) are becoming richer. People are living longer. Life is becoming safer and less violent. And on and on and on.

Pinker cites a variety of sources in his book, including the Our World in Data website. And if you can’t quite believe what you’re reading, that’s a good free information source to spend time poking around. (Start with this link: The Short History of Global Living Conditions.)

And here, I think, the first actionable insight for entrepreneurs and small business shows up. You and I should base our business plans and our ventures on the realization that things really are getting better.

Further, we need to discard thinking, assumptions and intuition that suggest otherwise.

By the way? Not everyone agrees with Pinker. Economist and author Ian Golden, for example, does a good tamping down some of Pinker’s arguments for optimism.

But Pinker makes a very strong argument life is getting better–which can surely only be good for entrepreneurs and for small business.

Sidebar for Entrepreneurs and Small Business People

A comment related to this steady improvement.

Pinker says you, as an entrepreneur, professional, manager or small business person, play a critically important role in progress.

Designing and delivering new products and processes that create wealth for you and other stakeholders funds the progress that reduces poverty and improves living standards, extends life expectancy, and makes the world a more peaceful and safer place to live.

Thank you for doing what you do. I mean it.

Lessons from Cognitive Psychology

One other very practical takeaway from Pinker’s book: Pinker points to a handful of common, cognitive shortcuts that humans use to think and make decisions.

He suggests these cognitive shortcuts largely explain why most people miss the reality about progress, hold the tribal beliefs they hold, and just generally behave irrationally.

Pinker wants you and me to correct these glitches in our thinking. Especially in our thinking about politics, economics and religion.

He goes overboard at times in these discussions. I think he himself takes cognitive shortcuts in some of his thinking.

But you know what? I am pretty sure you and I use these same cognitive shortcuts too often in our thinking about entrepreneurship and business. Accordingly, surely we can improve entrepreneurial and small business outcomes by avoiding the cognitive shortcuts.

For example, Pinker points to the damaging impact that the availability heuristic has. The “availability heuristic” concept refers to you or I thinking that something is likely if we can easily think of instances–regardless of what the actual data suggests.

He also highlights our troubling tendency to display confirmation bias. “Confirmation bias” refers to you or I seeking out information that validates what we already think and then rejecting information that conflicts with what we already think.

Finally, and maybe particularly relevant to entrepreneurs, he just shakes his head at the irrationality of magical thinking. “Magical thinking” refers to you or I confusing coincidence with causation.

Pinker’s commentary about these issues counts as really excellent. They are also terribly practical. Especially if you’re a entrepreneur.

Should You Read Enlightenment Now

After some hand-wringing on my part, and with a bit of trepidation, I recommend you read Pinker’s book if you’re an entrepreneur or manager.

Yes, Pinker spends too much of his book caricaturing people of faith. Some of his conclusions seem to rely on the same cognitive shortcuts he discusses. (Nick Spencer does a good job of discussing these problems in his analysis of Pinker’s arguments.)

But Pinker’s book provides powerful actionable insights for entrepreneurs and small business folks.

Further, Pinker makes a powerful, robust argument regarding the upward trajectory of human progress that apparently we all need to consider.


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