I recently finished reading “Nonsense”. A fascinating read about how human mind struggles with things that make no sense at all.



A key dimension of emotional intelligence, according to the book, is the ability to handle ambiguity. A strong need for closure which leads to a desire to resolve ambiguity. But as Nonsense reveals, our need for closure has its own dangers. It makes us stick to our first answer, which is not always the best, and it makes us search for meaning in the wrong places. When we latch onto fast and easy truths, we lose a vital opportunity to learn something new, solve a hard problem, or see the world from another perspective.

In other words, confusion–that uncomfortable mental place–has a hidden upside. We just need to know how to use it. This lively and original book points the way. The book talks about cults, espionage, hostage negotiations, Ducati, Zara and a lot of other interesting stories.

Ambiguity leads to people closing their minds and stick to preconceived notions. So if you want people to not be open to your ideas, flash them something that causes them to reconsider things – such as a red spade (An experiment from the book). On the other hand, if you want people to be open to your ideas, meet them in a place that is really comfortable for them like their homes.

One of my favorite sections of the book was about teaching. It talks about how lectures that just transfer information do a great disservice to the students. A better approach is to engage students in solving some problems that forces students to learn and apply.  The book also talks about how puzzles that require lateral thinking can teach kids to keep an open mind and to consider alternative scenarios.

Overall five stars to Jamie Holmes for a very engaging and easy to read book with a heavy dose of insight and through provoking ideas.

Here is one of the puzzles from the book (rewritten):

Don was driving his semi under an overpass when suddenly he came to a screeching halt. Don wasn’t paying enough attention and inadvertently drove under the overpass that was just barely as high as his truck. The semi was wedged so tightly that he could not go forward or backward. A fellow trucker came by and told him how he could easily get the semi out from under the bridge. What did he suggest?

(Leave comment for an answer)


13 thoughts on “Nonsense

  1. Hi JNG – I had an Oh S#*! moment recently and I defined Nonsense as exactly the thing that Arjuna was going through in the battlefield that formed the basis of Bhagavad Gita. I am referring to the agony and conflict that Arjuna was facing – Kill his cousins and uncles or forsake is duty?

    Am I getting the gist of your “nonsense” correctly?

    • Pk, yeah! In a way.

      Gita was a struggle of Karma as a way to make complex decisions. About community and society above personal.

      Nonsense is about need for closure or to settle on a story to make sense of random facts. In a way karma is a story too to make sense of killing and Sri Krishna told it really well.

      In the end choice of story is the key for connecting with people…

      Best, Jitendra

  2. I am mainly referring to Arjun’s conflict (how can I kill these people?) as nonsense. Actually, he was seeking closure on this conflict standing in the middle of the battlefield. He was lucky to have Krishna with him to clarify his nonsense.

  3. Dude – Does the book lay out a method of dealing with the nonsense. I deal with my nonsense using spiritual tools. Is there a method laid out in the book in terms of how to deal with it? I am curious on how to converse on this topic with people at work who are not care about spirituality. Just the awareness of the nonsense is a huge deal and first step in getting out of it. But I dont know how you become aware of the nonsense without the spiritual practice.

  4. The point that we seek closure and hence jump to preconceived notions may not be universally correct. It is certainly true for people who have no inclination to learn and who are under pressure to decide, which may not be a normal occurrence. Else, how would advancement of knowledge have happened in the society? I am reminded of F.Scott’s quote “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function”. My point is that it seems too simple to make such a sweeping generalisation. I would certainly agree that our first attempt to find answers to problems confronting us makes us look at past familiar places since it is more easy and reliable. But, unless it carries a strong bias, a relatively open mind (and there are many open minds in society) ackowledges the need to find new answers to hitherto unencumbered problems.

    Regarding Gita’s battle field, my view is that Gita points the way to finding every individual’s true calling in life. Since Arjuna was a prince (more importantly thought of himself as a Prince), given the events that had led to his coming to the battle field, his future course of action is clear. How can he consider himself a King (a protector o subjects), if he cannot defend his own life & property? So once he considers himself to be a King, his future action becomes clear, irrespective of his opponents. My guess is that if Arjuna had been a teacher by profession (instead of a warrior) and if similar events had happened in his life, the suggested future course could have been very different. Perhaps to seek asylum with some other king or run for cover or plot to take revenge a la Chanakya. Anything but a direct confrontation. The point is that Gita, to my mind, makes us look back the path we have travelled so far in life (which itself is a product of destiny or Karma), identify for ourselves what we think we are and once that is done the future course of action becomes suddenly clear.

    • S. Durgashanker,

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment.

      I think the need for closure is a basic need – different people have in different degree – or rather different people are able to tame it to different degree – but its always there, its fundamental and key to evolution and survival. Now some people are able to handle different ideas in their heads for longer by taming their instincts but its painful – As I suspect you have noticed as well.

      Most people just go with the best available story to fill the gaps…A potential example is the last US election (depending on who you ask) where a narrative beat out a lot of disparate and alarming facts.

      In any case, I did not mean to discourage the “many open minds” in the society instead my goal was to identify the value and effort required for having an open mind so that we can appreciate the ones with the open mind and understand/empathize with the ones without.

      Best, Jitendra

  5. Sorry for the typo. I meant unencountered and not unencumbered.
    On the topic, I was also reminded of the saying that if you have lost an article somewhere, you need to look for it in the place where you lost it and not where there is light, where it is easier to search. 😊

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