Things you might enjoy IV

Every couple of weeks I collect a handful of books, essays, threads, and ideas that others — i.e. you — might find enjoyable too.

Let go, notice more, use everything – Robert Poynton’s “Do Improvise”

I’ve been playing improv ever since I stumbled into “TAPS 103: Beginning Improvising” in grad school, an intense 10-week immersion into the art of improvisational theater led by a wonderful teacher, Dan Klein.

I had read Keith Johnstone’s “Impro”, a foundational classic from 1979. It pretends to be about improvisational theater, but it is actually about relationships, power, flow, life, and play.

“Impro” is one of my favorite books and I have been recommending it to everyone who would listen for the past decade or so. The only trouble is that some parts of it are, for lack of a better term, deeply weird, which can put some people off.

Cover of Robert Poynton’s “Do Improvise: Less push. More pause. Better results. A new approach to work (and life)”

Robert Poynton’s “Do Improvise” is, in some ways, a more accessible and contemporary version of Johnstone’s book. It lacks the ever so slightly unhinged bits of “Impro”, but retains a similar sense of infectious joy throughout.

Poynton makes a lighthearted and yet serious case for why you might want to practice improvisation and play improv games, even if you have no intention of ever being on stage. Not only is it incredibly fun, it might open up different ways of being that are well adapted to our chaotic, unpredictable world.

(I got “Do Improvise” from Claus Jacobs, after swinging by his public management class for a guest lecture on innovation in government. I’m not sure what the students took away, but I feel lucky to have gotten such a lovely gift out of that afternoon).

Against government effectiveness – Judith Shklar’s essay on the “Liberalism of Fear”

I work with governments and public administrations at staatslabor and previously did so at the Centre for Public Impact. Much of that work revolves around how we might help government better achieve its objectives.

In these circles we talk a lot about government effectiveness, the idea that the world would be much improved, if governments were better at doing what it is that they are trying to do.

And yet there is a fundamental moral contradiction at the heart of how governments work: they need to use coercion to get things done and at the same time we should fear that same power of coercion.

Judith Shklar’s essay on the “Liberalism of Fear” is the best articulation I’ve come across of how we ought to think of governments in light of the above.

A key passage from Shklar’s essay on the “Liberalism of Fear”

Coercion is necessary for the functioning of government and yet “any confidence that we might develop in [the agents of government] must rest firmly on deep suspicion.”

Because “while the sources of social oppression are indeed numerous, none has the deadly effect of those who, as the agents of the modern state, have unique resources of physical might and persuasion at their disposal”.

Shklar argues for a liberalism that‘s motivated by the avoidance of cruelty and fear, particularly the kind for which coercive government institutions are responsible.

This connects to the idea that in the realm of government (and thus coercion) it may be more important to avoid grave errors, rather than to achieve great things.

If you read Anthony King‘s and Ivor Crewe‘s „The Blunders of Our Governments“ or James C. Scott‘s „Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed“ you do wonder whether it would not have been vastly preferable to do nothing, rather than plunge millions into misery with ambitious, well-meant but ultimately disastrous policies.

(David Graeber’s “The Utopia of Rules” also explores the coercive foundations of the state at length. He reminds us that every trivial parking fine is backed up by state violence. If you don’t pay it, people will, eventually, show up at your door and put you in a tiny room that you can’t leave. If you resist them, they will hit you. It’s a trivial point, but one that’s easily forgotten).

Set aside your morphological prejudices against spatially distributed group entities, will you – Eric Schwitzgebel’s “If Materialism Is True, the United States Is Probably Conscious”

Eric Schwitzgebel’s piece follows the classic structure of “here are some uncontroversial premises from which I will derive a result that you’ll hate but won’t be able to disagree with” you’d expect from a philosophy paper.

But very much unlike most philosophical writing I’ve come across, it is madly entertaining, highly readable and radiates an inordinate amount of joy.

I only have the vaguest of ideas what the literature looks like in which Schwitzgebel’s piece is situated. And yet you just can’t resist a paper that uses hypothetical non-contiguous, thousand-tentacled supersquids to make its point. Highly recommended.

(I came across Schwitzgebel’s paper via the inimitable Dan Hon who got rather excited about it on Twitter — thanks Dan!)

Abstract from Eric Schwitzgebel’s paper about consciousness

Tyler Cowen’s and Daniel Gross’ “Talent”:

We have been hiring for several positions at work and Tyler Cowen’s and Daniel Gross’ “Talent: How To Identify Energizers, Creatives, And Winners Around The World” came along at the exact right time.

The book is intellectually rigorous and at the same time full of practical advice, a rather rare combination.

One interview question I took from the book and used right away was “What browser tabs are open on your screen right now?” It’s unexpected, easy to answer truthfully, and lets people share what they’re interested in and how they spend (some of) their time.

It also feels like Cowen and Gross have created template that many future quality non-fiction books will follow. It leans heavily on the practical experience of both authors, is underpinned by a coherent analytical framework and doesn’t rely on underpowered psych studies to make its points.

Tyler Cowen and Daniel Gross, “Talent: How to identify energizers, creatives, and winners around the world”

Facilitate like the genius you are – Rodney Evan’s thread on facilitating meetings and getting people what they need

Over the past few years I‘ve come to appreciate the unreasonable power of good facilitation. It‘s truly odd just how much value a few simple facilitation moves can create. It‘s also remarkable how underused it all remains, relative to how useful it is.

Rodney Evans‘ thread on what to do when you‘re at your next PTA/co-op board/work meeting and sense there’s no plan or facilitator is an absolute gem. Full of good advice and gets to the heart of what effective meeting facilitation looks like:

That’s it for this edition. I’d love to hear any feedback, thoughts, and ideas you might have. Ping me on Twitter or in the replies here on Medium.

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