Book Review: Farsighted by Steven Johnson

If there’s anything that I’ve learned from the past year or two of writing consistently and putting it out there for everyone to see, I learned that human beings can be quite snotty. All it takes is a single bad review or comment to really ruin a person’s day. It’s something I’ve had to accept–that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, as do I, and not everything can be good all the time.

Therefore, I vowed to myself that if I were to provide my own review on something, I will never say “I hate it. It’s horrible, disgusting. You should be ashamed for writing this!” because I know that despite the fact that the majority of people may like what you write, that one single person who doesn’t can really bring you down. I decided that if I didn’t like something, I would say, “Meh.” (shrug). I recognize that the writer spent a significant amount of their time thinking, researching and writing about the topic, and that alone deserves commendation. After all, it’s much easier to spend five minutes turning someone’s world upside down whereas it takes many hours, days, months and even years to produce something good enough for publication.

That said, after reading Steven Johnson’s book, “Farsighted,” I feel pretty confident saying, “Meh.” The title is called “Farsighted: How We Make Decisions That Matter the Most” but it might as well have been called, “An Extensive Review of A Single Classic Novel, Plus A Few Major Decisions in History” because I felt that it was exactly just that.

Let me explain.


In the book, Johnson tries to capture the essence of decision making. Now, I feel like writing a book about decision-making is a tough topic to begin with, simply because there are so many nuances to making decisions. Our ability to make decisions as a human being is what differentiates us from one another. We may make the same decisions in a similar way, but our thought processes are different, and how we reach the conclusion is also different. Like they say, “What works for one may not work for another.”

In Farsighted, Johnson starts off talking about a major historical decision–about Collect Pond in the early 1800s in New York City. It was rather interesting to learn about how this piece of land became an architectural wonder then later on a decrepit wasteland due to the decisions that the city folks of that time made–the architects, the planners, the city councilmen all play a role in deciding what to do about the Pond. This pond, after all, was special because it was the main water source for the city’s residents.

Back then, New York was growing rapidly and the city had to make decisions how to best accommodate the growth. So they decided to cover up the pond instead of turning it into a recreational park, a place that everyone can enjoy that would benefit the species living in it. Over time, problems arose from the houses being built on top of the pond, and it got to the point where it became dangerous because the houses started sinking due to the buried vegetation and whatnot.

At this point, I’m still interested. I’m learning about history and decision making from a city’s perspective.

Holding Question marks1

Besides the story about Collect Pond, Johnson spent a lot of time diving into the story about the raid that brought down Osama bin Laden in 2011, and the extensive process that it took to make it happen. There were perhaps other “decisions” that he talked about, but honestly I can’t remember them. What I do remember though was him presenting some story or fact, talking about something else related to decision making, then later on, coming back to the same story about Osama bin Laden and Collect Pond and other urban planning tales. His jumping back and forth between two major decisions was rather dull and repetitive and I wish that he’d had more examples of good and bad decisions (i.e. stories).

Lastly, you can tell that this guy loves the book Middlemarch by George Eliot because he spent over 20 pages discussing the book–all the little nuances of it. It was as if he was writing an extensive review of the book that he so loves. Look, I get it–you love the book, but it’s not the only (classic) novel in the world that involves decision making. I thought that 20+ pages about a single novel was a bit of an overkill, perhaps much more suitable for a dissertation or a thesis, not a 256 page novel (because that’s roughly 10% of your book just talking about a single novel and nothing else).

Don’t get me wrong–I think he’s a good writer and a very eloquent speaker. I first heard him talk about the book on the Art of Manliness podcast, episode #486 here. After I listened to the podcast, I was so intrigued that I wanted to hear what he had to say about decision making. As someone who has struggled in the past (and still do) with some major life decisions, I thought it might be helpful to learn about the topic. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen to me. However, if you do read the book, keep in mind that it is not designed to help you be better at making decisions–it is simply a collection of ideas and thoughts that may be employed in the decision-making process. It serves as a tutelage to those who are looking for some perspectives on the process with a sprinkle of history in there but nothing that is going to be life-changing. Nonetheless, I think when it comes to decision-making as a topic, he did his research and compiled it into this book. I just wish he didn’t talk so much about Middlemarch.

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