Iconoclast Book Review

What’s It About?

The author, Gregory Berns, defines an iconoclast as “someone who does something that others say can’t be done”, but then uses it throughout the book as “someone who changes the way people look at and think about (this thing)”. Either way, we’re talking how to be different, stand out, and change things. The US constitutional authors were iconoclasts – they changed how everyone thinks about government, what it does, how it works, and its relationship to the people it governs. The Wright Brothers were iconoclasts (for a long time, people trying to design aeroplanes were trying to copy birds), but Charles Lindbergh really wasn’t – he just extended previously known and understood principles to accomplish something that hadn’t been done before.

Mr. Berns is a neuroscientist, and looks at iconoclasm through that lens: what is different about the brains of iconoclasts that makes them capable of iconoclasm? The answer, he says, falls into three categories:

  • Perception the iconoclast must perceive the world differently than other people (otherwise they can’t create/do/describe something that changes the way others look at the world).
  • Courage the iconoclast must be able to stand up to public opinion (saying that the old ways are best) long enough to consider, study, experiment with, develop, and persuade others of their new, revolutionary ways.
  • Social Intelligence It does no good to develop a new way of looking at/thinking about/doing something if you can’t persuade others to follow suit. (I mean, it’s fun and all, but if you can’t convince others, the idea dies with you.)

He examines where these abilities come from in our brain (and also where their opponents – conventional perception, fear, and social ineptitude – come from), and what can be done to nurture the desired traits.

What Could Be Improved

The details of each chapter are wonderful and clear, and I feel that he does a great job of explaining the technical side of neuroscience so that skeptical laymen like me can understand it. But the overall structure of the book could be made a little clearer – a summary/transition chapter would be helpful after each section, as well as an overall summary at the end. From a purely stylistic standpoint his writing is occasionally stilted or redundant, but it doesn’t interfere with communication.

What’s Awesome

The details of each chapter are wonderful and clear, and the scientific studies are well-chosen to illustrate his points.

It does a great job of explaining seemingly inexplicable behavior (ever asked a 5-year-old or a 15-year-old why they did something and had them say “I dunno”? They really don’t know – but Mr. Berns does know, and will explain it to you.) When you’re frustrated by your own inexplicable behavior, it can help to know that you’re not crazy, that this behavior is well-intentioned, and what you can do to get around it.

It includes some ideas and example of what can be done to avoid the traps that evolution has laid for your brain: how to improve your chances of seeing things differently, how to turn down the fear response to new things, and how to increase your social intelligence or at least find a partner who has enough to help you.

Is it worth reading?

Overall, I’d say yes. In Shipping Hurts, I talked about what Seth Godin calls “the lizard brain” and why it doesn’t want you to try anything risky (it thinks the worst-case outcome of any scenario is getting eaten by lions); Iconoclast explains why “the lizard brain” does that, and why it seemed like a good idea at the time. Just knowing what’s going on and where those feelings are coming from can help a lot in overcoming them. Add in the ideas offered on how to overcome them, and this book could be enormously helpful in overcoming the barriers you face to becoming an iconoclast (or at least a highly effective person).

Buy Iconoclast while simultaneously helping African children get an education. (Affiliate Policy)

Resources for Further Reading
Why Courage
Are your weaknesses actually your talents?
Using the time you have

  • “It does a great job of explaining seemingly inexplicable behavior (ever asked a 5-year-old or a 15-year-old why they did something and had them say “I dunno”? They really don’t know – but Mr. Berns does know, and will explain it to you.)”

    That line, above all others, makes me want to read this book. I laughed out loud when I read that, and thought, ‘Why don’t kids know why they do some things?’

    Excellent review, thank you for sharing.

    • apingel

      Hey, you don’t know why you do things, why should they know why they do?