What Was I Thinking? by William B. Helmreich

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting when I started reading What Was I Thinking?  I’m guessing I was thinking I would read a book about mistakes, and then have solutions directly following those mistakes.  That’s not exactly what Helmreich has created; his book is more of a sociological study of misbehavior, with long lists of why people do things they later regret, with only the tail end providing some solutions.  For something that labels itself as a self-help book on the back, I don’t think it quite makes it; as a study on the mistakes we all make, however, it’s an interesting read.

Helmreich structures the book by dedicating each chapter to reasons people make mistakes, e.g., arrogance or insecurity.  Within each of those chapters, he gives us about nine different ways that particular reason can manifest.  For example, in the chapter on arrogance, the reasons for the arrogance he provides us are:

  1. Believing you’re untouchable
  2. Overconfidence
  3. Obliviousness to others
  4. Narcissism
  5. A need to dominate
  6. A crusader mentality
  7. Rage
  8. Rigidity
  9. Society

He then gives examples and explains how these aspects can create an environment that lends itself to doing dumb things.   These chapters and their separate sections are interesting to read; Helmreich has a good writing style, and his examples and stories are interesting.

What I’m not sure about is how this book all hangs together.  One reason in one chapter seems an awful lot like another reason in another chapter a lot of the time, and, really, I don’t think we need to know much more than that there are some basic personality flaws or situations that can cause someone to do something dumb.

I also had issues with the way the book is structured.  I think it would have been much more effective if, at the end of a chapter, Helmreich provided some concrete solutions as to how to avoid or prevent committing that type of mistake.  Instead, his suggestions are segregated in the last chapter, which doesn’t lend itself to easy reference.  If I think my problem is arrogance, which is the second chapter, I have to go to the end of the book in order to look for guidance to help me overcome my personality flaw.

I do, however, think that What Was I Thinking? makes an excellent study of human nature.  We all make mistakes, and we make them for a variety of reasons.  I enjoyed reading this book because it made an attempt to make sense of our dumb actions, which was something I thought, outside of cases of psychological pathology, was impossible.  Helmreich has taken his sociological training and produced a book that is engrossing, just not for the reasons he was hoping for.

On the whole, What Was I Thinking? is a good sociological study, but a so-so self-help book.  I’d recommend it for curiosity, but not for actual advice.

Rating: 3/5.



Filed under 3/5, Advance Reader's Copy, Book review, Mixed, Nonfiction

2 responses to “What Was I Thinking? by William B. Helmreich

  1. Interesting book revue. I like to study (for fun) human behavior so maybe I should read it 🙂

  2. I think it’d be a good read if it’s approached that way. Helmreich gives some interesting anecdotes to illustrate what he’s talking about, too, and I liked that. A little bit of pop sociology and a little bit of gossip … not bad.

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