Alchemy: an amazing book about the magic of original thinking

03 January 2023
Alchemy: The Surprising Power of Ideas That Don't Make Sense by Rory Sutherland is a brilliant and fun as hell book that shows that we have to be irrational and sometimes silly to spark our creativity and find clever solutions to problems we are solving.
Rory Sutherland is a living advertising legend – the Vice Chairman of Ogilvy, where he has worked since 1988. He has a long track record of successful advertising decisions, many of which were counterintuitive but worked not only in spite of it, but because of it.

His book is full of vivid examples and stories of how to strive in business and life by letting go of logic and embracing the irrational.

Rules of Alchemy

  • The opposite of a good idea can also be a good idea.
  • Don't design for average.
  • It doesn't pay to be logical if everyone else is being logical.
  • The nature of our attention affects the nature of our experience.
  • A flower is simply a weed with an advertising budget.
  • The problem with logic is that it kills off magic.
  • A good guess which stands up to observation is still science. So is a lucky accident.
  • Test counterintuitive things only because no one else will.
  • Solving problems using rationality is like playing golf with only one club.
  • Dare to be trivial.
  • If there were a logical answer, we would have found it.

There are often two reasons behind people's behaviour: the ostensibly logical reason, and the real reason.

Just a couple of thoughts from the book

Being rational makes you weak

Being rational is dangerous because you become predictable. Predictability makes you weak. When you are predictable, people (and competitors) can hack you. A rabbit running away from dogs makes unpredictable turns. Even it itself does not know when and where it will move next time. It becomes harder for the dogs to chase the rabbit. If the rabbit deliberately changed its trajectory, the dogs would sooner or later understand its logic, predict the movements of the rabbit and kill it.

Irrational people are much more powerful than rational people because their threats are much more convincing. Remember the political moves of Donald Trump? Many of them were illogical, unpredictable, scary. You could expect anything from him, and that made you take him seriously.
The fatal issue is that logic always gets you to exactly the same place as your competitors.
All rational ideas are discovered already

The greatest discoveries seem crazy at first, no one believes they can work, and everyone calls them nonsense. The ideas people hate can be much stronger than the ones they like. We must find and try counterintuitive and irrational ideas, because all the rational and obvious ones have already been tried. We have to do irrational things because no one else will.
Not everything that makes sense works, and not everything that works makes sense.
Don't obsess over data and user research

The more data you have – the easier it is for you to find a logical explanation for anything. Metrics and averages narrow your view site to the middle of the market while innovation happens at the extremes. It's also important to remember that big data all comes from the same place – the past.

The "average user" doesn't exist in reality but teams obsessively focus on them and build for them. Great ideas however pop up when you start looking at real people with peculiar needs. We tend to think about representativeness, averages, and medians, run market research and focus groups to build what the "average user" wants. But it's highly likely that by obsessing with this, we killed many great ideas just because they didn't look logical for our "average user".
More data leads to better decisions. Except when it doesn't.
Dare to be trivial

We – humans – generally prefer simple things that serve a single purpose. Look around, everything you can see (except for the mobile phone) are things that are used for one purpose and they don't need instructions, tutorials, or tips on how to use them.

By reducing the possible applications of the device to one-time use, we clarify what the device is intended for. The first Walkman didn't have a recording feature, although it was easy to add one. This is done on purpose - to clearly show what the device is intended for and how to use it.

Intuitively, we feel that the more features, the better for the user - as if we provide more value for money. But in many situations, this is not the case. Adding functionality to a device or service "reduces the clarity of its affordance, making it less pleasurable to use and quite possibly more difficult to justify buying".

Be simple. Don't confuse users.
There is a whole academic discipline devoted to the idea that human behaviour can be modelled as if it were a physical phenomenon: it's called economics.
Friction creates trust

There are three main mechanisms that build trust: reciprocation, reputation, and pre-commitment. You work with a small local firm that depends on your loyalty, use a big company with a famous brand or trust someone who made a huge investment into getting a badge or obtaining a license and risks losing it in case of cheating.

It's customary to think that the user experience should be as smooth and simple as possible. Everything should be done in one click and any friction is deadly for users. But in some cases (for example, in 2-sided marketplaces) we need to create quite a lot of friction for users so they commit to certain rules and earn something valuable that they are afraid to lose. By doing this we'll inevitably reduce the number of users, but those who remain will be committed and trustworthy.

If you know that a taxi driver has spent 4 years of their life exploring thousands of streets and landmarks to get a license, you would trust to put your kids in their taxi. But if you knew that anyone could become a taxi driver without any friction, you would probably hesitate a lot more.
There are many many more great ideas in the book: about the power of branding, people's reasoning, attention, anecdotal evidence, user research, and silly questions. This is a very funny book that opens your eyes to things you thought were obvious, helps you take yourself less seriously, and shows you how to be brilliant by defying convenient logic and recognizing that people are not machines, but psychological beings.

Happy reading!

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Olga Shavrina
Product manager. Human being