Making research inspiring

“Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton asked ‘why’.”

This is one of my favorite quotes because it illustrates that knowledge has multiple layers and we can only unfold as many layers as the questions we ask. This is what makes research inspiring for me – the world isn’t simply what we can observe, but what we can understand.

Recently, I was asked to recommend books that have inspired the way I approach research. As a career researcher, this question prompted me to dig deep and unfold layer upon layer to find an answer. I’ve settled, for now, on a shortlist. Below are some books that, over the years, have challenged me to think differently about research. And they continue to keep me on my toes with each research problem I encounter.

Fooled by Randomness, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

This book lays bare the messiness of human decision-making and actions. One of the most important points Taleb makes is that “probability is more random than we think”, though not “all random”. He points to understanding decisions in a broader framework, pairing patterns in human logic with less tangible or abstract motivations. This book can help intelligent researchers understand why empathy is so important in research, and how employing it correctly gets us closer to the truth.

On Bull***t, and its companion, On Truth, by Harry G. Frankfurt

An excellent follow-up to the prior book mentioned, this pair of philosophical essays helps ground us in the basics: the role of truth, the value of objectivity, and how facts are integral to taking action. Every researcher needs to fully grasp the importance of truth-seeking in their work. Our role demands that we stress-test the facts we gather, make objective judgments about what is true and not, and strive to recognize our own, our clients’, or consumers’ subjectivity. Because without truth, decisions are blind. And that, invariably, thwarts the very reason we do research.

Questions Are the Answer: A Breakthrough Approach to Your Most Vexing Problems at Work and in Life, by Hal Gregersen

A lighter read than the prior two books, this book guides the reader to identify the catalytic questions that help ignite creative breakthroughs by unlocking new perspectives, fresh frameworks, or simply by helping us recognize what was not obvious before. As researchers, our job depends on the questions we ask. This is a great reminder to peel away the layers and break free from habitual thinking or heuristics that shape the way we solve problems.

These books, while not research books, reflect the nature of research – varied, complex, challenging and beautifully rich.