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Dan Levy has written a wonderful, compassionate book, that allows readers to tap into the wisdom of Richard Zeckhauser and his legendary 40-year standing course in Analytical Thinking at the Harvard Kennedy School. I believe is wonderful, because it is written in language that is accessible for the non-specialized reader, without losing the essence of the principles. And it is compassionate because it is cognizant of the mental biases and flaws human beings have in the process of thinking and decision-making.
There are maxims here that have the potential to enhance decision-making and help readers live a better life, organized around five areas: thinking straight, dealing with uncertainty, decision-making, understanding policy, and living fully. They are all illustrated with specific examples from real-life situations, going from choosing a marriage partner, cancer treatments, or designing and implementing an appropriate Covid19 response strategy; told by a wide range of people from Zeckhauser's teaching assistants to the Prime Minister of Singapore.
My favorite maxims incidentally came back-to-back in the book. Number 14 on applying the notion of elasticity - often elusive even to economics' students - to everyday situations. Love the notion that we cannot decide between doing more of A or more of B, without considering how much of A and B are we already doing, to begin with. Amazing to how many situations this simple principle applies! And then Number 15, on the importance of understanding heterogeneity in data, that is not particularly relying on averages, because the average person more often than not is actually an individual that does not look alike anybody, be it an individual or group. Instead, understanding heterogeneity allows you to divide the population into sub-groups, with very different characteristics and behaviors. I found the example on how understanding heterogeneity in Covid19 transmission of average rates - groups with very low contagion rates versus "super-spreaders" very enlightening when thinking about Covid19 policy responses.
Don't be put off by jargon, an additional value-added of the book is to teaching you some vocabulary that will make you sound sophisticated in cocktail parties!
This book offers some useful mental models for helping one to figure out complex problems. The structure is very simple, a maxim is laid out and then three or four real-life examples are given to elaborate on each and how this has helped them to think about a problem. This is a highly practical book, and during the reading of the book you will begin to think about some of your own decisions. I have used some of the maxims in the book to help figure out how long I should keep running my ageing car to optimise economy and even career direction.
The constant tributes to Zeckhauser and his colleagues are excessive though. Better to leave those in the prologue or reviews rather than the main content within the book.
For many decades now, Richard Zeckhauser has been one of the leading scholars on human decision making, especially from a prescriptive perspective. That is, he accepts that humans are human indeed (being emotional, confused by complexity, looking to others), and aims to provide advice that helps people to make better decisions, on the spot. During a successful career in research and teaching multiple cohorts of future decision makers from all over the world, Richard developed simple rules, maxims, for successful decision making that all of us can easily apply in our daily work (and beyond). In this book, Dan Levy together with Richard collected and organized the experiences of many of Richard’s former students and advisees around these maxims. The interplay of the practitioner-provided examples from several fields (from business to public health), with additional commentary illustrating the key insights from Richard’s thinking, makes the book both exciting and useful reading.
As the subject line says, this was rather fluffy and lacking in substance - filled cringeworthy, contrived anectdotes that make you feel stupider for having read them.
Here's an example which follows from the maxim "When trying to understand a complex real-world situation, think of an everyday analogue", which takes something taught to primary school kids and tries to make it sound like some mind-blowing insight: -- A simple analogue is to say that you want to compare apples to apples. I have used this analogue hundreds of times in training policy makers about evaluation of social programs by showing them a slide with two identical groups of apples, and it is incredible how such a simple image helps cement this abstract idea. They refer to this analogue frequently throughout the training when discussing whether a given evaluation method is likely to yield a credible result. --
The Good: The maxims in the book all make sense and are useful. Dr. Zeckhauser sounds like a wonderful mentor.
The Bad: Continual name dropping of Nobel Prize winners, the Harvard School of Economics, and its numerous elite intellectual alumni becomes annoying after awhile.
Many cases discussed in the book were left unresolved, particularly with regard to COVID policy. Some answers were given at the end of the book on page 211, but it would have been nice to know up front that the answer key is at the end.
Overall, the book is worth the money but a bit unsatisfying while reading it.
This book will be read, and reread, frequently for the wisdom it imparts. Dan Levy explores a master economist's key teaching principles. He provides examples applying these principles to day-to-day personal decisions (should I purchase insurance on my iPhone?) and complicated public policy decisions (how to use the tax code to promote worker training?) - as well as everything in between. The content is stellar. My only critique is the title, "Maxims for Thinking Analytically", does not capture what this book really is about: "Wisdom for Work and Life" would be more fitting. But once you start reading, that becomes abundantly clear.
Dan Levy has written a wonderful book about his mentor and colleague Professor Richard Zeckhauser from Harvard University. Each chapter goes over one of Zeckhauser’s maxims to help you think analytically. It’s beautifully written and full of examples, including from well known colleagues or former students of Zeckhauser, which makes it fun and very practical. I hope you love this book as much as I did.
Excellent list maxims for your reference. But the 90% of the text that follows each maxim is of little use. It mostly talk about who used this maxim for what, while not bothering to explain how it was done. Disappointing as a book. Would be good if they cut all the fluffy stuff and make this into a blog post.
this is an exquisitely well written book. logical, well organized, filled with practical advice. when you think you just need one more example to get it...they provide it. the anecdotes are hit or miss...but mostly hits. the maxims are simple, deceptively so, because it requires enormous practical experience to master them.
it is lite ... and can be read in one sitting, but only can be internalized and practiced in a lifetime. the younger you are the more beneficial this book will be for you....
Zeckhauser is an intellectual Everest at Harvard and in policy, starting out with Schelling and Macnamara...his advice is grounded, practical and useful. highly recommended.
I have had the opportunity to attend several of Richard Zeckhauser‘s lectures at Harvard Kennedy School. I left each with new insights into my own analytical thinking and how to more effectively teach my students. Dan Levy‘s book, Maxims for Thinking Analytically, does a wonderful job of pulling together the full range of Richard’s concepts into a single digestible read. Richard’s ideas are organized into 19 maxims which makes the book a useful reference. The examples and narratives provided by those who use Richard’s teachings bring the concepts to life. I have already adopted several ideas in the book and know will be using more of them in the future.
Mark Fagan Lecturer in Public Policy Harvard Kennedy School