Barbara Scher, Refuse to Choose: Use all of your Interests, Passions, and Hobbies to create the life and career of your Dreams (2006)
Chiefs of Staff are often generalists, shifting diagonally across their careers from one technical area to another, to management and strategy and across to operations. Scher identifies a ‘scanner’ type, someone always keeping their eye on the horizon rather than diving deep into a specialism, with lots of passions and interests, who struggles to commit to just one project. Scher argues that rather than reflecting the failure to make a choice, this can be a strength.
The book is designed as a workbook, and identifies both the ‘scanner’ type (in contrast to the deep ‘diver’) but also multiple sub-types. There is increasing scepticism about the utility of typographies in the literature, from Myers-Briggs to Learning Styles to astrology, particularly when the typographies are used to limit or fix identities. Where the typographies can be used to expand the narratives about what is possible or beneficial, however, they can be useful.
For a profile of a diagonal pathway, Chief of Staff at Google Libby Dabrowski was inspired by Sheryl Sandberg’s advice from Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead (2015) in The Chief of Staff journal, December 2021 issue.
Jeremy Dean, Making habits, breaking habits: how to make changes that stick (2013)
Dean argues that if a third of people’s working hours are running on autopilot, then it’s important to ensure that the autopilot hours are aligned with what you actually want to do, and that your habitual decision-making processes are fit for your current role. Habits are efficient, quick and boring, so building habitual practices will help you keep up the pace and down the stress at work.
Dean goes beyond the simplistic mantra that you only need to do something for 21 days (especially for complex new habits), without falling into the fallacy that habits are just how we are and we can never change.
If you enjoyed the The Upside of Stress, you might want to jump into another book by Kelly McGonigal, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It (2011) which looks at the motivation and consistency to break habits.
Sara Ahmed, Willful subjects (2014)
A decision is an act of having a will, and attempting to impose that will on the world. This book is some pretty dense philosophy, by one of the most disruptive thinkers working currently in the field. Ahmed both expansively surveys the history of ideas on the will, from Augustine, Rousseau to Hegel and Arendt, and locates her explorations in those people who are socially discouraged from expressing their will. The metacognition about will, willingness and willfulness, in human beings, but also specifically in relation to gender, sexuality and race, is intended to disrupt assumptions about who is encouraged to exercise free will, and who should accept another’s will being imposed upon them, towards greater inclusion and freedom.
Research shows that we instinctively feel comfortable in homogenous teams, but actually make better decisions in diverse teams. The call for disrupting the status quo thus becomes both moral and practical. Ahmed’s argument is moral, she is interested in justice and liberation, impacting the political, economic and social realms. Not an easy read, but one that will make you think hard.
If you want to read the practical arguments for why diverse teams are more effective, see this overview by David Rock and Heidi Grant, ‘Why Diverse Teams Are Smarter’, in the Harvard Business Review (2016), https://hbr.org/2016/11/why-diverse-teams-are-smarter or go straight into the deep-dive research, for starters with Levine et al., ‘Ethnic diversity deflates price bubbles’, PNAS, (2014) https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1407301111 (open access)
Timothy D Wilson: Redirect: Changing the stories we live by (2011)
Writing as a psychologist, Wilson reminds us again that decision-making is not only about gathering data, analysing it and acting on it, but that people fit that data and decisions into bigger narratives about their lives and how the world works. Editing the story of our lives can help people to make more effective big-picture decisions, he argues, for example moving from ‘I made a mistake which proves I don’t belong in this position’ to ‘I made a mistake so I should take on feedback and next time I’ll do better’. As well as being shaped by reality, decisions in turn can create reality going forward.
Wilson’s book spends a lot of pages looking at how university student’s self-limiting beliefs impact their decisions about what careers and specialities to pursue. A common self-limiting belief is that some people are just no good at maths, and therefore must avoid any quantitative or technical fields of expertise. Barbara Oakley, in A Mind for Numbers: How to Excel at Math and Science (2014), debunks this belief and demonstrates how anyone can learn to be good at numerical thinking.
Jennifer Ackerman, The Genius of Birds (2016)
Thinking about how animals make decisions—from creativity, tool use, awareness of other people and of the future—can also help us to reflect on how we make decisions. Animal brains are far more complex than we previously understood. ‘Bird brained’ is an insult that assumes that the smallness of avian brains was linked to simple intellectual abilities, however, we now know that birds have a different structure of the brain, densely packed with neurons. Birds are able to solve problems, using creativity, building tools and predicting others’ behaviour. They use curiosity, learned behaviour and instinctual reflexes in navigating the world.
If this line of reading takes you down a ‘rabbit-hole’ of animal cognition studies, you may also enjoy philosopher of science Peter Godfrey-Smith, in Other Minds: The Octopus and the Evolution of Intelligent Life (2018).
Vyāsa, ‘Bhagavad Gita’ in the Mahabharata (n.d.)
The ‘Bhagavad Gita’, a classic of Hindu philosophy, is a chapter in the epic Mahabharata where Arjuna is paralysed by doubt and feels unable to take the decision to fully defeat his cousins in the battle for the throne. By delaying, his charioteer avatar of the god Krishna reminds him, Arjuna is causing greater suffering for all. A reflection on duty, purpose, action and violence.
There are many translations of the ‘Bhagavad Gita’ into English. Gavin Flood and Charles Martin’s translation The Bhagavad Gita (2015) has good contextual material as Norton critical editions often do. If you want to read the Gita in the context of the sweeping Mahabharata, to fully understand the stakes, I recently enjoyed Carole Stayamurti’s translation of the Mahabharata (2020).
If you are inspired to unpack into other ancient reflections on decision-making, you might read next Marcus Aurelius Antonius (CE 121–180), Stoic philosophy and emperor of Rome on living according to your deepest principles and clearest attention during times of crisis and risk. Again, there are many translations, but Marcus Aurelius, Meditations: A New Translation, with an Introduction, by Gregory Hays (2003) is direct, immediate and powerful.
Jessica Dore Tarot for Change: Using the Cards for Self-care, Acceptance and Growth (2021)
For millennia, humans have used external tools of chance to help them make decisions: runes, dice, the entrails of animals, tea leaves, crystal balls, coins and cards. Such tools relieve the responsibility of choice making. Sometimes these tools are used to give a (random) answer, and sometimes they function as tools to provoke reflection. Dore is a licensed social worker with a background in psychology and behavioural science, and in this book she proposes a new way of looking at the tarot deck as a tool for reflection, as messages from ourselves rather than from some otherwise unknowable future. Dore also uses psychology, mythology and folklore.
In situations where the right choice is unknowable, or where humans are likely to make bad choices, a random throw of the dice or flip of a coin might be as good a tool as any. If you are interested in random decision-making, dive into the academic literature, starting with Biondo et al., ‘Are Random Trading Strategies More Successful than Technical Ones?’ PONE (2013) https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0068344 (open access).
What are you reading this quarter? We encourage you to share your own reading lists via LinkedIn (tag the Chief of Staff Association so we can read what you are reading!), or explore other ways of developing your knowledge is through our regular webinars, or even the Oxford Chief of Staff Executive Education Program.
Dr Katherine Firth is an author and academic, who publishes widely on productivity and writing skills. Her books include How to Fix your Academic Writing Trouble (2018), and Level Up your Essays (2021); Your PhD Survival Guide (2020). She is also the Chief Editor of The Chief of Staff.