The book Maxims for Thinking Analytically, by Dan Levy is a relatively short, very accessibly written book that can help you think clearer and make better decisions. It does so by covering simple principles as often taught or used by Harvard professor Richard Zeckhauser.


Merriam Webster defines maxim as

1: a general truth, fundamental principle, or rule of conduct

Mother’s favorite maxim was “Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.”

2: a proverbial saying

advised her daughter with the maxim “marry in haste, repent at leisure”

Merriam Webster

Maxims can be quite valuable. According to this book:

Maxims are useful for two reasons. First, they make us think about things that might not be intuitive at first. […] Second, they can help us correct behavior when we intuitively know what the right behavior is but yet somehow don’t engage in it.

Levy, Dan. Maxims for Thinking Analytically: The wisdom of legendary Harvard Professor Richard Zeckhauser (p. 2)

Maxims typically exist in specific context, where they are relevant and valuable. This book focuses on thinking and decision making.

Thinking Analytically

To think analytically means approaching situations in a structured, logical, hopefully objective manner. We care about facts and evidence, want to determine what is true and resolve often complex issues to determine effective decisions or solutions. It often means to go deep.

This type of thinking is applicable in numerous quite different contexts, such as complex business challenges, scientific or academic research, analyzing or determining economic policy, diagnosing medical problems, tackling high-impact challenges in personal life, complex strategy, et cetera.

It is an important skill, broadly applicable.

This Book

The book provides a collection of simple maxims, each of which is discussed with numerous examples as well as stories relating how students, colleagues and/or collaborators of Richard Zeckhauser were influenced and found ways ways to apply the given maxim.

The covered maxims fall into the following categories:

  • Thinking straight. How to get unstuck when trying to make sense of a situation.
  • Tackling uncertainty. Coming to better terms with the uncertainties of life.
  • Making decisions. Improving our odds, when we make decisions.
  • Understanding policy. Evaluating policy and the world around us.
  • Living fully. Making personal life better.

This book has been one of my favorites this year. I have found myself thinking about it, referring back to it and browsing the notes and references.

Reading this has changed me – it has improved how I think.



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