How do you find a black cat in a dark room by Jacob Burak

Who doesn't want to know the 10 rules of happiness or the five most common regrets of people on their deathbeds? Or that nearly one in every 20 business executives may be a psychopath?


Reviewed by Gary Booker, chief executive officer, Selinon

How do you find a black cat in a dark room by Jacob Burak

Published by Watkins Publishing

I've always been a sucker for a quirky book title (a Confucius reference by the way), but it was the sub-heading of this particular book that lured me in. "The psychology of intuition, influence, decision making and trust", talking about "the things money just can't buy", and being "whole and happy at work".

All highly relevant topics to understand better in the crazy-busy corporate world in which we daily try to thrive and survive. The author’s background ranges from the Israeli Navy to Tel Aviv tech entrepreneur to Prime Ministerial advisor, but 10 years ago he left the business world and immersed himself in the psychology of why we do what we do: "If there’s one thing I learned during years of diverse experience, it is that the essence of military, business, and philanthropy alike is people, and the essence of people is psychology". What are the real human drivers at work in the office? What truly makes people behave in the way they do? How can we get a better understanding of some of the covert psychological, social and behavioural science elements at play?

To answer these questions, the book dives into a chapter-by-chapter summary covering some of the leading research findings across the broadest possible spectrum of personal and interpersonal drivers. Topics such as ambition, smart decision making, FOMO, individualism / narcissism, trust, and incompetence are covered with engaging detail, right through to other more rarely touched but fascinating areas of research such as the role of willpower, of humility, and of the power of hope in delivering success. 

Who doesn’t want to know "the 10 rules for happiness" for instance? Or the five  most common regrets of people on their deathbed?

Along the way there are some real gems and fascinating thought-provokers. Who doesn’t want to know "the 10 rules for happiness" for instance? Or the five  most common regrets of people on their deathbed? Or the interesting consequences of knowing that your willpower depletes during the day like a tired muscle? Or that "nearly one in every 20 business executives may be a psychopath"?

This is a very accessible and readable one-stop shop summary of behavioural science studies. Its major problem though is that whilst it is divided into four sections and does a great job of churning out punchy research summaries, it lacks a coherent thread. It references the leading studies that are linked around a particular theme in absorbing detail, but is much weaker at drawing compelling conclusions from these, or in pulling all the strands together succinctly for the reader. Great from a psychology point of view, but less great in terms of clear marketing outcomes and business actions. Ultimately it’s a very enjoyable and interesting read, but all a little disjointed. 

Key takeouts

  • 10 rules for happiness: Don’t strive for money; Invest in experiences rather than assets; Find true friends; Exercise regularly; Get proper sleep; Set achievable goals; Be in a state of flow; Don’t watch TV; Give your time to something worthy; Be grateful and don’t chase happiness
  • Be grateful every evening about three good things that happened to you that day and you’ll notice a positive change in your mood within three weeks 
  • The pain and regret humans ultimately feel from inaction is worse than the regret from action 
  • A leader is a dealer in hope
  • We are living in the most narcissistic generation in history
  • Overconfidence is a regular problem – actually we make better decisions the more we acknowledge what we don’t know
  • If we didn’t feel the need for others and their approval, humans would act in a purely selfish way. Since we rely on cooperating with others, and our place in society depends on how others assess us, we have to continually balance the naked personal interest and the desire to belong. This tension is the very heart of psychology 

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