Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst is probably one of the most interesting books that I am reading. There are books that change your mental model and I would categorise this book in that cohort.
The author Robert M. Sapolsky is one of the leading neuroscientists in the world, studying stress in primates and humans. Dr.Sapolsky has received numerous honors and awards for his work, including the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship genius grant in 1987, an Alfred P. Sloan Fellowship, and the Klingenstein Fellowship in Neuroscience. He was also awarded the National Science Foundation Presidential Young Investigator Award and the Young Investigator of the Year Awards from the Society for Neuroscience, the International Society for Psychoneuroendocrinology, and the Biological Psychiatry Society.
Here is Dr.Sapolsky talking about the biology of our best and worst selves.
Most of our decisions and behaviour is based on our genes, our ethnicity, the environment where we grew up, our culture and society, our pre-disposition to that behaviour etc. It is not one specific thing that makes us behave a certain way it is the combination of all of these variables. Genes are important but they do not determine our predispositions, it is the combination of the genes and our environment that makes us behave a certain way. Why is this important? it is important because we need to go deep into our own understanding of how we behave before we judge anyone harshly. We judge everyone so easily and harshly what with the power of 140 characters and ability to post in social media platforms. There are so many biases and prejudice that we face especially the minorities, immigrants and women, there is a perfectly good biological reason for all those inequities. That being said we can also learn how to change our behaviours and our environment, the author in the book shows some examples of people who rose above the biological predispositions to do things that were inspirational, those are things that I encourage you to learn from.
Watch the following lecture by Dr.Sapolsky to a graduating class at Stanford, we as humans are not unique in the ways we understand what we are unique at is expanding beyond those normal animal behaviours.
I know, I know you are wondering what has all this got to do with Startups and Entrepreneurship? well the journey of building companies is built on behaviours, the values and cultures that you believe in. Understanding how these base building blocks are formed in each human being allows you to structure your own thoughts and actions. Words like empathy, equality, respect, patience, delaying gratification, humility come to mind. It is a fascinating book and I am almost done, I can say this is a keeper.
Dr.Sapolsky’s work is also on Stress and its impact on primates and humans. I don’t know of an environment more stressful than the journey of building something from nothing, well maybe being in battle or combat is probably more stressful, but not by much according to our biological stress responses. Learning how your autonomous systems behaves under stress can be a great teacher for when you are facing uncertainty in the crazy journey we call building a startup or entrepreneurship. This book enabled me to understand quite a bit about our biology. It also reinforced my belief that all founders and entrepreneurs need to train their brain i.e. through meditation to become more mindful. I wrote about being a mindful founder before, I cannot emphasise this enough. Meditation and being self aware are the great learnings for me being on this rollercoaster of a journey of being an entrepreneur and founder.
The book also had some interesting research and siting of things that we know intuitively to be right, for example gender equality. The author sites a paper in Science published in 2008 by L.Guiso et al. “Culture, Gender, and Math”, Science 320 (2008):1164. I am going to paraphrase the book
The authors examined the relationship between math scores and sexual equility in forty countries (based on economic, educational, and political indices of gender equality; the worst was Turkey, the United States was middling, and, naturally, the Scandinavians were tops). Lo and behold, the more gender equal the country, the less of a discrepancy in math scores. By the time you get to the Scandinavian countries, it’s statistically insignificant. And by the time you examine the most gender-equal country on earth at the time, Iceland, girls are better at math than boys.
In other words, while you can never be certain, the Afghan girl pictured on top, on the next page, seated next to her husband, is less likely than the Swedish girl pictured below her to solve the Erdös-Hajnal conjecture in graph theory.
In other words, culture matters. We carry it with us wherever we go.
Given the Google Memo and the biological differences between genders the author of that memo sited, it also depends a lot on the environment in which those biological differences exist. The author of the Google memo made a lot of mistakes in his argument, the above example shows that we can rise above the biological and gender specificities by creating an environment where equality actually brings the best in all of us. I am not saying there should be no competition but make sure the playing rules are fair and equal to all and give everyone the opportunity to rise and we will see interesting cohorts of people rise above their potential. We are living in unprecedented times, we can learn so much about ourselves, work on interesting problems that can expand our life span, our geography or even our understanding of what it means to be human, however none of that will become material if we don’t understand our limitations. The book encouraged me to look beyond what is group thinking, as I have always maintained these mental models force you to think for yourself. I am looking forward to learning more about neuroscience, endocrinology and how our brain works, the key to human behaviour is in all those systems.