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​Books, Intuition, and Elastic Thinking

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True confession time. My initial plan for this particular blog post was going to be the tried-and-true, end-of-year approach — a list of books I had read in the last year I thought were worth everyone's time.

However, as I was working on that list (and a worthy list it is, too) I realized I was falling into a trap. I was being lazy. End of the year, we're all tired, another year is looming, so let's just look for the quick and easy solution before we have to get into the real work of starting a new year. Everyone does it, you do it, "they" do it, and I was about to do it.

Upon recognition of the trap into which I was blithely falling, the entire project lost its pizzazz, its zeal, its raison d'etre, the impact I hoped my blog post would have..

Don't get me wrong, you're going to wind up with a list — a list I feel includes some books that it would behoove you, for your personal and professional betterment, to read. However, I serendipitously came across an interesting interview regarding how we think, how we learn, and the impact of these processes on productivity. It appeared in a recent list from the New York Times — a list of overlooked stories. I missed, ignored, or overlooked this story, and I'm glad this list gave me a second chance.

In July, Ezra Klein, podcaster for the New York Times, interviewed Annie Murphy Paul about her book The Extended Mind — an exploration of the active role environment has in driving our cognitive processes. Now, there is a lot in the interview, and many a deep dive could be performed from this material. However, for purposes of this post and related to the initial topic of "Books I've Read You Should Read," there is a specific discussion in the interview regarding how we take in information. Here is Ms. Paul discussing information input and gut feelings.

As we go through our everyday lives, there's way more information than we can process or retain consciously. It would just completely explode our mental bandwidth. But we are taking in that information, noting regularities and patterns, and storing them in the non-conscious mind so that it can be used later when we encounter a similar situation…The body lets us know. I mean, that's what we call a gut feeling or what psychologists, what scientists call interoception, which is the perception of internal sensations that arise from within the body. And people who are more attuned to those internal signals and cues are better able to draw on that wealth of information that we know but we don't know. We possess it, but we don't know it explicitly or consciously. So that's what a gut feeling is. It's sort of your body tugging at your mental sleeve and saying, hey, you've been here before. You've had this experience before. Here's how you responded. It worked or it didn't work. Here's what is the right thing to do now.

Gut feelings, intuition, and even the tingling of an auditor's Spidey-sense may be real things. Quite simply, the more information we have, the more we can rely on those gut feelings to guide us. Our experiences at work, our experiences in the audit world, our experiences in dealing with people — all our experiences are stored away, ready to provide us quick solutions to the problems we face.

This may be counterintuitive to the way we auditors like to think we think — we like to believe that logic and brainpower win the day. But admit it, we've all had those gut feelings while we've been working, and we have succumbed to those feelings, and, most importantly, we've all seen those gut feelings lead to the correct decisions.

So, the more inputs, the better the outputs — the better our guts can lead us.

In this context, the number one input source is the experience gained with every day's work in the audit field. But there is another side of the whole "inputs" discussion. As noted, we need a lot of inputs. But that is not just restricted to our work experience. Later, Ms. Paul discusses how the brain uses all the information it has taken in and stored for later use.

[The brain is] assembling its thought processes from what's available in its environment. And that means that thinking better is not about working the brain ever harder. It's about creating a space and a set of capacities wherein you have more and better resources from which to assemble your thought processes.

Of course there's a dandy chance I've misinterpreted what she has to say, but I see this as recognizing that our brains need inputs from everywhere — that intuition, adaptability, and creativity require lots of input. And when we restrict the types of inputs we are willing to accept, we restrict intuition, adaptability, and creativity. The more varied the inputs, the better the results. 

What this all comes down to is that, for auditors to provide the greatest value — to provide new ideas and creativity and see things that others may not be seeing — it is important to look well beyond the sources we generally fall to in an effort to get better at our jobs. Yes, read Internal Auditor and the white papers put out by professionals and books on internal audit and books on business and all the standard resources we think of when we think of being a "better" internal auditor. But the obtuse and weird resources — the books, articles, and social media sources that do not seem to immediately apply — will give the brain the additional inputs it needs to be intuitive, to be adaptable, and to be creative. (Adaptable intuition, intuitive creativity, creative adaptability — put those words together any way you want and you have the beginning of what can be accomplished when exploratory learning is allowed to flourish — when the typical is eschewed for the unusual.)

And with that, having used up a good portion of my thesaurus and my word count, let me give you that list I promised: a list of books I read or reread this year (or maybe in the last couple of years) that I think have value. The purpose and value of some of these will be self-evident. But others may not exactly scream, "This is a book that applies to what you do!" But then, that is the point. Self-evidency is not a requirement.

My list of books:

Radical Leadership – Steve Farber
Madness, Rack, and Honey – Mary Ruefle
Writing Down the Bones – Natalie Goldberg
Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized Word – David Epstein
Humor, Seriously – Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas
Elastic: Unlocking Your Brains Ability to Embrace Change – Leonard Mlodinow
One! Hundred! Demons! – Lynda Barry
Dream Teams – Shane Snow
The Excellence Dividend – Tom Peters
Being Wrong – Kathryn Schulz
Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces that Shape Our Decisions – Dan Ariely
Thinking Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman

And feel free to share with all of us any books that moved you this year.

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