The cycles of alchemy

For the last 2 or 3 years I’ve become more interested in behavioural economics – or rather, I’ve realised there’s a name for some of the stuff I’ve long been interested in sticking my nose into (so to speak).

One of the more well-known voices in this area is Rory Sutherland. After watching a couple of his TED Talks, reading tweets, and hearing him on Shane Parrish’s Knowledge Project podcast, after a good few months away from his work I was reminded of him last week, this time via a dig into the archives of the ‘Invest like the Best’ podcast.

I find the podcast itself a little myopic – it has a strong focus on white men with plenty of privilege and can at times come off pretty tone deaf to wider society (although given the title I guess it’s something of an occupational hazard) – but there are some interesting conversations to discover.

The discovery of the Rory Sutherland episode came while I was in the middle of formulating a project for a client in the beverage business. A good chunk of the episode gets into Rory’s thoughts on Red Bull – these in turn cleared the path for me to clarify some key strategic insights for said client project. It’s funny how timing and context can hit you; that funny old thing of facilitated serenpendity perhaps

The Red Bull reference is also the lead-in for his book ‘Alchemy’. At the time of writing I’m only a chapter or so in, and already get the sense I’ll be writing a few more posts looking at bits of the book. Here’s one for starters – a bit on cycles.

Rory writes:

“This isn’t the Middle Ages, which had too many alchemists and not enough scientists. Now it’s the other way around; people who aren’t very good at deploying and displaying conventional, deductive logic and everywhere, and they’re usually busily engaged in trying to apply some theory or model to something in order to optimize it. Much of the time, this is a good thing. I don’t want a conceptual artist in charge of air-traffic control, for instance. However, we now unfortunately festishise logic to such an extent that we are increasingly blind to its failings.”

The takeaway here isn’t just alchemy vs science (or more specifically, logic) – it’s that an astonishing amount of trends, themes and phenomena are cyclical rather than being one-offs. 

We vastly underestimate the cyclical nature of things – especially when they may take years, decades or centuries to come back around again.

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