Though the title of Charles Duhigg’s latest book suggests he has mastered the techniques to become smarter, faster, and better, he spends the first pages of the introduction assuring readers that he has not.
Mr. Duhigg opens the book with a portrait of the kind of hectic workweek many have experienced, which he eloquently sums up as “a treadmill of to-do lists, emails requiring immediate replies, rushed meetings, and subsequent apologies for being late.”
This opening admission of his own weakness and ability to become overwhelmed puts the reader on par with the writer as a peer who is equally amazed at the champions of efficiency he profiles in each chapter.
Each of these people serves to exemplify the complex theories Mr. Duhigg distills for the reader. They include a Marine, a school teacher, a Ph.D.-dropout-turned-poker-player, a researcher at Google, a pilot, and many other colorful people.
As he did in his previous book, “The Power of Habit,” Mr. Duhigg explores the counterintuitive, such as how being given less time to produce a movie can result in a huge blockbuster; how automation does not necessarily decrease human error; and how a group of likeminded individuals do not always make for the best team.
This style of compiling interesting stories and extracting lessons from them is sometimes called the “exemplary tales” genre. Like many exemplary tales collections, “Smarter, Faster, Better” examines similar situations with different outcomes; analyzes the similarities and differences; and, finally, identifies a key element that was present in the successful outcome and absent in the failure. The question arises, “How can the presence of the key element be ensured?” Therein lies the message of the book.
Mr. Duhigg repeatedly teaches the reader that long-accepted ideas often capsize when viewed under the lens of modern reality. Innovators, he argues, often do not owe their success to original ideas. Rather, they combine old ideas in new ways. Thomas Edison and Steve Jobs are two examples. Both men are considered pioneers of their industries, but Mr. Edison took well-established ideas from the telegraph industry to other fields, and Mr. Jobs designed the iPod only after he was dissatisfied with the handheld music players that already existed. Annie Duke, who is profiled in the book, won the 2004 poker Tournament of Champions, in large part because she was able to import her extensive knowledge of psychology and probabilistic thinking to the poker table.
Mr. Duhigg might claim to be every bit as overwhelmed by life as his audience, but he has a unique talent for breaking obscure psychological theory and academic jargon into manageable, entertaining chapters, each about 30 pages long. Even the chapter titles are chosen for the general lesson they teach; the first is titled ”Motivation.”
In an age where, “the economy has shifted and large companies promising lifelong employment have given way to freelance jobs and migratory careers,” Mr. Duhigg acknowledges that motivation is more important than ever.
In the first chapter, Mr. Duhigg cites neuroscience journals and techniques from Marine Corps training camps to reinforce his position on motivation. One technique he emphasizes as important in building motivation is preplanning a steady stream of choices, because this gives the sense of being in control.
Mr. Duhigg seems to have taken this concept of choice to heart while writing “Smarter, Faster, Better.” He breaks from the monotony of simple text by sprinkling the book with playful illustrations that help visualize his ideas and concepts for the reader. The image on the book’s cover, as an example, depicts a stick finger bypassing the twists and turns in a circular maze by charging to the center, wielding a directional arrow like a lance.
Mr. Duhigg’s work equips his reader with a toolbox of useful techniques to achieve personal and professional goals. Each chapter outlines a new technique and instructs the reader how and when it should be applied. He does his best to make his readers more productive, whether they are factory workers, soldiers, poker players, or full-time students.
Once again, Charles Duhigg has mesmerized his readers and left them hungry for more.