2021 has been a pretty eventful year, in the world in general and on Roblog. It’s the year that I started sending out my weekly newsletter, and the year that every one of you signed up to it. Thanks so much for sticking it out; I hope you’ve found something to enjoy, something new, and something interesting on various Monday mornings throughout the year. It’s been a privilege to grace your inboxes.
I thought I’d round out the year with a “best of”: the best things I’ve written, read, and linked to this year. If you missed any of them, I hope you’ll be able to spend some well-earned down-time between Christmas and New Year catching up. (I feel like I do more good reading in these five days than the rest of the year combined…)
If you’ve enjoyed any of these articles this year, consider giving someone you love (or a mortal enemy!) a late Christmas gift by forwarding this email onto them. If you’re not subscribed (for example, if you’ve received this email from someone else), you can sign up here.
I’ve written thirty-seven articles this year. Here are the best five, in my entirely biased opinion, along with some explanation of how writing them changed my mind on an important issue – which is, after all, the whole point!
Why are the people at the top of organisations consistently the last to find out that things have gone awry? I found it so frustrating watching the Post Office Horizon scandal unfold, as an IT project gone awry saw innocent sub-postmasters put in prison. It seems impossible to imagine that those running an organisation could be so ignorant of what was happening within it – and yet this dynamic is far more common than people realise.
“Naming something, even in ridicule, gives it substance,” as Jacob de Zoet said, and this is the case with the distinction Audrey Tang made between “competence” and “literacy”. I’d always felt a strong resistance to rote-learning and blindly following process, but half worried that it was just my own rebelliousness. But Tang’s distinction crystallises the importance of building organisations that encourage people to do the right thing, not the prescribed thing.
Like many people, I’m fascinated by the idea of cognitive biases. But somehow a cartoonish view of behavioural economics has taken hold. It views “rationality” as not just possible, but always desirable, and views any diversions from pure rationality as mistaken. It’s easy to view the objective of humanity as to try to be as rational as possible all of the time. But going all-in on rationality is mistaken, I think: our “irrational”, “biased” ways of thinking evolved for a reason, and are actually advantageous in lots of situations. We forget that at our peril.
The difference between the most prolifically creative times and places in history and the least is almost embarrassingly large. It’s fascinating to dig back into the past to find where and when the creative fires burned the fiercest, and to try to understand why – and whether those conditions could ever be recreated.
As the world faces a climate catastrophe, what’s essential is for businesses to understand their “externalities” – the secondary impact they have beyond the immediate effect of their day-to-day business. Doughnut Economics, perhaps more than any other book I’ve read in the last decade, changed my thinking about what business could and should be. Owning your externalities – and making sure they’re positive – is a huge part of that.
I’ve linked to ninety-eight articles, videos, and other things this year. Here are the best ten:
Forget your carbon footprint. Let’s talk about your climate shadow – a superbly clear explanation of a remarkably useful concept: your climate shadow, your impact on the climate that takes into account not just your own carbon emissions, but the impact of how you vote and bigger choices you make.
The Coordination Headwind – How Organizations Are Like Slime Moulds – a remarkable analogy, remarkable in how unusual it is but also in how accurate it is in summarising what it’s like for an organisation to slow down through no fault of the people in it.
Vector-based pedestrian navigation in cities – one of the clearest and most interesting scientific papers I’ve read in ages, that explains a human behaviour we’re all familiar with – how we get around cities.
Rewilding your attention – an timely exhortation from Clive Thompson, encouraging us to be careful about what we consume, to think about where we direct our attention, and to make the effort to spring surprises on ourselves.
Dancing with Systems – if systems thinking is a superpower, Donella Meadows was its Charles Xavier, helping to push forward the discipline and take it to the mainstream. Her Dancing with Systems is a great primer.
London’s super-recognizer police force – from 2016, but only encountered by me this year, this is a remarkable article on the Metropolitan police’s team of facial recognition officers, people who have a preternatural ability to remember faces.
Let Me Say This With As Much Sensitivity As I Can: Wow, That’s a Lot of Dead People and Crime – a rollercoaster ride through the crime spree of a South Carolina lawyer and his family.
The Boy Who Loved Transit – in New York City, the transit authorities find themselves with a puzzling problem: what to do with a man who suffers from Asperger’s syndrome, is obsessed with trains, and repeatedly impersonates transit workers, even to the point of driving trains?
Purpose wins. Who loses? – Nick Asbury’s impassioned critique of “brand purpose” was one of the most talked-about articles in marketing circles this year, and rightly so.
Why Is There a Bucatini Shortage in America? – a hilarious exploration of America’s shortage of bucatini – “the most sensual of the pastas”. It turns out it goes right to the top.
That’s it! I hope you had a wonderful Christmas, and that 2022 has great times in store for you. Stay safe!