A Change In Direction, Alexander Hamilton, Don Quixote and More
I’m surprised, I’m relieved.
I’m surprised that the most popular part of my site is now anything reading. The articles, the emails, and the Ex Libris page (which needs an updating) get the most feedback. Whatever I’m doing struck two chords, one in me and one in my readers. I’m going to steer more in that direction. I envisioned a direction when I started my site but couldn’t yet grasp it. I’m now grasping it and seeing my path. That path moves me away from copywriting. I’m relieved. I’ll be blunt, I’ll be a snob, only so much can be said about copywriting or marketing. I don’t write offers for anyone else and haven’t for years. My purpose isn’t to be the greatest copywriter ever. I don’t want to talk “Converting Headlines” for the rest of my days. I’ll still talk copy, I still love copy, and I’m going to release a copy course soon, but copywriting is not my purpose.
My purpose exists elsewhere.
As you know, I like bullying sciolists and ultracrepidarians (really fancy-schmancy pejorative term describing “experts” that offer their opinions on things that they’re clueless on or have no experience with, yet pawn it off as expert insight). They need the bullying. It’s fun, I’ll keep doing it, but that’s surface level. I like looking under rocks. The Success world is interesting. It’s a big clique. A clique seducing individuals to hand over their agency and individuality — despite selling individuality — without question. But it’s an alluring clique. It attracts money. It attracts smart people. It teaches people to think and behave in pavlovian lockstep. It fascinates me. So that’s where my compass is pointing me.
And I have a book percolating in my mind. One that will look into the Success (I’m likely going to come up with a new label for this, I find Success a bit generic and want to put things on my turf), and the what and why behind it.
If you’re curious, here are some sentences I wrote and stared at for an hour the other day:
Today, gurus like to homogenize successful people into cardboard figures. Gurus and their parishioners do so by supplanting a successful figure’s individuality and agency with the collective and homogenized agency of Success. That collective agency represents ideologies from books like Atomic Habits, 4 Agreements, How To Win Friends and Influence People, and insert other popular success books.
For whatever reason, I think this is a chapter or an overarching theme I can unpack. It may not make any sense right now, but I figured I’d share rumination’s on what’s to come. And at the bottom of this newsletter, if you’re really interested, you’ll see two ruminating paragraphs based on the theme of this world selling success yet offering safety.
Oh, and I’m going to do a reading course soon. The idea, how to profit from books.
And speaking of reading, I’m fleshing out a reading newsletter as a part of the Good Word Membership (which also features newsletters on copy). As of this writing, I have two published newsletters regarding reading (six on copy). The feedback has been great. More newsletters are to come and, at some point, a reading course.
Ok, enough philosophizing, let’s get into some recaps and the haul.
Don Quixote, Miguel Cervantes
Don Quixote is a classic. It stands among the greatest works of literature.
Many people know some Don Quixote tidbits: Don Quixote and his sidekick Sancho Panza roam the Spanish countryside, and Don Quixote attacks windmills.
I knew the windmill bit, and owned inklings it was a comedy. Don Quixote is readable — at least my translation proved readable — and it’s hilarious. My full conversation with the book would expand well past the bounds of my summary. But here are some quick themes.
As I read it, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the guru world and its worshippers I write about.
Consider the word we obtained from the work: Quixotic. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines it as someone foolishly impractical, especially in the pursuit of ideals. Garner’s Usage Manual shows the usage as impractically based on wholly unrealistic dreams of improving the world.
Don Quixote means well, but he’s quixotic.
He arrived at his quixotic mindset. Quixote inhaled books on Knight Errantry, then, believing he’s found the way, goes out to the countryside and wreaks havoc.
Don Quixote resembles many people in Success, either directly or loosely. This group reaches for betterment. That’s a wonderful quality. But they reach and get yanked into a powerful religion. These people read all the holy success scriptures Atomic Habits, Influence, Grit, Thinking Fast and Slow, Deep Work, The 4 Agreements, Why We Sleep, Think and Grow Rich, The Psychology of Money, The Obstacle is The Way, and more of that fare. They attend events like Gary V., Tony Robbins, Russell Brunson, Traffic and Conversion, and Ted Talks. They may even do Ayahuasca, breath work, Anger to Orgasm workshops, and other “juicy” and “delicious” oddities offered by “life coaches” promising to heal “trauma.”
These people hand over their agency to the homogenized collective. If you ask them what books changed their life, you can guess the answer instantly. They speak in glittering generalities and buzzwords. Their marketing campaigns look like everyone else’s. They treat the tautology the best investment is yourself as a business model.
As a result, these well-meaning people foolishly chase a utopia. They see giants when it’s really a windmill. They are exploitable and easily commanded. This group chases that ever-elusive, next level. That next level? Whatever is fashionable with gurus and the worshippers. That motivation is great. The impetus to attain those next levels is great. It’s reaching to get better. That’s a sterling principle and quality. But like Quixote, the impetus soars to cosmic edges. The worshipper loses agency, personal vision, and sensibility. Failure isn’t reflected on but rationalized and compared to an unverified anecdote read in a mindset book. Financial losses aren’t seen as “my business needs a more stable financial/economic model,” it’s reframed into cosmic reasons to chase conversions and better marketing.
Don Quixote, armed with lessons from errantry, chases his ideals to comedic levels. He has handed over his agency to the cosmic ideals he read in knight errantry. And, like an utter madman, lives out what he read in knight errantry books. He can’t see that’s he blinded by knight errantry. When he faces something real, he scurries away. But he’s quick to grasp a tale to rationalize his cowardice as brave. Don Quixote can’t see his own madness. He’s beyond the point of reason.
But Don Quixote does offer us wisdom in his foolishness. He believed in a sense of honor and duty. And in a way, he is admirable with his vision of duty. He wanted to do right. As misguided as he was by his own foolishness and madness, he moved towards something good. We can admire his belief in upholding oneself to high standards. We don’t need to be blinded, but we can recognize and aspire to the essence of what Don Quixote desired.
Don Quixote exists in contrast with Sancho Panza.
Sancho Panza is Don Quixote’s hapless sidekick. He’s at times passive-aggressive, selfish, resentful, gracious, humorous, empathetic, and slothful. Don Quixote and Sancho Panza mirror each other in one way, they adhere to proverbs and anecdotes. But Sancho is more like that person that quips a folksy answer to explain away everything. Yet we sense that the folksy downplaying acts as a guard.
For instance, you may know someone who leans on humor too much. As in, the humor becomes an excuse, a guard, as to why the person can’t execute a task. Or you may know that person who will use a folksy saying to ignore or downplay everything. It’s like the person who wants to lose weight, they say they want to go to the gym, but quip proverbs as to why they didn’t or can’t go. And their sayings, you’ve heard it before, you agree to it almost, but you know or sense it’s a guard. It’s said in an appeasing manner in hopes of you leaving them alone.
Sancho is that person. He’s stuck in his own way. He is told to do something, doesn’t do it, but to rationalize his not doign it, he comes up with agreeable folk sayings. And Sancho has all the sayings on hard work or bravery, but that’s it, it’s all sayings and little action. And when Don Quixote calls him out — which he does constantly — on his proverbs, Sancho placates Don Quixote with the right proverbs.
Sancho means well. He blindly follows Don Quixote. Don Quixote promised Sancho the world, and Sancho wants it. Though he’s aware Don Quixote is insane, Sancho still holds out hope that he can get something for nothing.
Many people in Success want success, naturally. But success is hard. It’s scary. It takes hard work, it takes luck, it takes failure. Whether you’re trying to start your own business or climb the career ladder, as you work towards something, you wade into unknowns. That unknown scares many. And some people want the recognition of being at the finish line without ever having waded into that unknown. And for this group, all the self-growth and business success books, the events, lessons, the look-at-me-hustle behaviors, all offer the social theatre of work. Some prefer this social theatre consciously. Most get learned into believing they must partake when in fact it’s superfluous and a distraction. It’s much easier to partake in the social theatre of posting about your “grind” than it is doing it. And for some, they come to believe that posting about the grind in a Facebook Group or reading a book like Think and Grow Rich is concomitant to doing the work. But it’s a distraction. A safe one (this behavior exemplifies one of many behaviors that I call, Hustle Signaling).
Sancho isn’t as bad as this. But he stays safe in his proverbs. He stays safe in the platitudes of Don Quixote.
Now, I could go on. As I said, my conversation with this book can expand well past this Recap & Haul. Don Quixote is packed with lessons and insights on human nature. Miguel Cervantes bakes in the good, the bad, and the ugly. At times you pity Don Quixote, at other times you’re laughing hysterically at his foibles.
The translation I read was readable. I’ve seen some qualms on it that it misses some parts. In time, I may read another translation of it. But if you want a readable one then Edith Grossman’s edition is great. If you speak Spanish, then get the original.
Don Quixote is almost one thousand pages. But, again, it’s readable, hilarious, and memorable. After reading it, you’ll notice its influence on movies, stories, shows, and writing. It’s quite a book, and it’s well worth the time.
The Socratic Method, Ward Farnsworth
I had it wrong.
I had the Socratic method as simply asking a bunch of questions to get to an almost nihilistic, hair-splitting impasse. Basically, be that kid who asks “why” to the point you can’t get anywhere. I was wrong. It isn’t that at all.
Yes, Socrates was a gadfly.
But Farnsworth elucidates the Socratic method and makes it accessible and memorable. I’ve read other books by Farnsworth. He does a great job of making the technical memorable and useful. How Farnsworth teaches in his books, you may not walk away remembering the technical term, but you walk away knowing how to recognize and apply the method.
The big takeaway, spotting inconsistencies. Spotting inconsistencies in someone’s point, spotting inconsistencies within yourself and your beliefs, and spotting inconsistencies all around you.
The way Farnsworth teaches it, you’ll spot it all the time. And I like the warmth Farnsworth brings. Here’s what I mean. A camp of people will pick up a book like this hoping to secretly prove everyone wrong. They will think they can covertly get their spouse to change or see things their way. Or maybe they can hop on Twitter and prove Joe Biden wrong. Or that they can instantly detect a weak argument and win. This sanctimonious camp thinks they can turn into bots spotting weak arguments and then making people apologize to them for being wrong and then doing whatever the bot bids.
Farnsworth will disappoint that group. He teaches the tact of the Socratic method. The Socratic method, done right, requires patience, empathy, and warmth.
That warmth struck me.
Spotting the inconsistencies in others requires spotting inconsistencies in yourself. But to spot well, you can’t attack yourself, even if you’re calling out some serious bullshit. It’s a matter of reflection, curiosity, and decisiveness. And as Farnsworth points out, some people will refuse to see their inconsistency. Before you leap and think, “a-HA! All Democrats/Republicans can’t see their own bullshit!” That’s not what he’s showing. Farnsworth details empathetic ways to get people questioning things, yourself included. But if someone starts to get heated, or starts to attack you, he shows ways to get to an impasse because the battle likely isn’t worth it.
And when you’re able to warmly see inconsistencies, it helps you think. It helps you speak up. It does help you argue when need be, but you argue with a sense of compassion and calm.
It’s a wonderful book. For my copywriting crowd, the Elunchus is a great tool to use in your copy. In short, you spot inconsistencies with your competitor’s promises and claims, and then you detail that inconsistency, and, in your marketing, pay off how you offer something better.
For the non-copywriters, The Socratic Method is a great guide to get some critical thinking. You can spot the root issue with bad arguments. You’ll learn an appreciation of good arguments, whether you agree with them or not. And most important, you’ll be able to spot inconsistencies in your own beliefs in a way that doesn’t overly criticize yourself.
It will not hurt to read this book.
The Notebooks of Raymond Chandler – The Little Sister, Raymond Chandler
If you’re a reader of mine, then you know my love of Raymond Chandler.
These works hit me on a palpable level. I love it when you get close enough to an author, and their work can cause visceral reactions. Whether it’s emotional, deep contemplation, or the hair standing on your arm, it’s a special feeling.
First, the Notebooks of Raymond Chandler. Chandler kept heaps of personal notebooks. He had them all burned, but two survived, barely. While he may not have wanted them to survive, it’s a boon to us they did.
In the notebooks, you feel Chandler’s purpose. You feel the heartbeat of his writing. He cared for the craft, he respected the craft, and at times, it drove him to his edges.
But one part of the notebook stood out to me in particular. His open letter to Hollywood.
Recently, I visited Hollywood. And I stayed one block from the fictional home of Chandler’s famous character, Philip Marlowe. The building Marlowe lived in and worked in exists and still stands. And many other haunts of both Chandler and Marlowe exist, like Musso and Frank’s restaurant.
Having visited, then reading this open letter, Marlowe’s world and Chandler’s purpose came to life for me. Chandler put Marlowe in the heart of Hollywood. I see why. And it gives so much depth to Marlowe. And Hollywood took Chandler’s first book, The Big Sleep, and put it on the big screen. It starred Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall. It was a hit. It’s a great movie too.
The open letter to Hollywood in Notebooks was written after that movie, as was the Little Sister.
Personally, after visiting, and reading that open letter and The Little Sister, Chandler’s purpose, his devotion to his craft, and his sensitivity hit me. I felt a man burned out and shocked at the phoniness, shallowness, and self-righteousness of Hollywood. I felt a man questioning himself, yet still confident in his art.
In The Little Sister Chandler bares his soul and leaves it all on Hollywood and Vine. He takes the reader behind Hollywood’s glamorous doors and shows its absurd reality. We also see Chandler exhausted and let down. Behind the glitz and glamour, exists pure shallowness and phoniness. Chandler’s attracted to the glamour yet appalled to nihilistic levels. And when he thinks he can take no more, when he wants nothing to do with it, something pulls him back; the art, the truth, some glimmer of hope pulls him back and keeps him in Hollywood.
Also personally, the parts of Little Sister where Marlowe feels like he’s had it, where he doesn’t recognize who stares back at him in the mirror, but he goes through the motions, that stood the hair on my arms. Towards the end of my scammier direct-response days, I began losing hope. I questioned my professional life. What I had hailed when I first started, after living it, succeeding at it, I saw how empty and nonsensical it all was. The famed personalities were train wrecks. People were mired in financial dire straits, constantly. The products were utter garbage. I was making great money, I was knocking on the door of a seven-figure income, but I felt off. I didn’t feel right. I knew my offers sold bullshit. I ruminated also if I made the right career choice after my success in the car business. I criticized myself harshly for getting into something that felt so off. I wondered if I should move back east, and get back into the car business; to use the weight of my last name and now my newfound, tested, and successful marketing skills. But writing kept pulling me back. Something writing, I felt it in my bones. And here I am today.
I’m not saying Chandler and I share the same story. But I am saying, I felt his disillusion. I felt his manic battle between purpose and why do this anymore?. Plus The Big Sleep, was one of the books that helped me change course. Marlowe will do what’s right without grandstanding or preaching. That influenced me to head where I am today.
Chandler may write a hard-boiled detective novel, but like Marlowe, he’s a sensitive man. Sensitive in the fact that he cares. And that honesty and integrity matter, especially in art.
Intellectuals and Race, Thomas Sowell
Like Chandler, if you know me, I love Sowell. For an intellectual standard or hero, Sowell is it for me. Intellectuals and Race proves eye-opening.
In our era, race is hip. The Black Lives Matter coterie permeates cities. And authors like Robin DiAngelo and Abrams Kendi get $20,000 for an hour of their time.
We hear all these concepts on race today, but where do they arise from? We get words like “systemic racism” but what does that actually mean?
Sowell grounds it and tears it apart with facts and evidence.
Race is a touchy subject. And Sowell marshals arguments that destroy most of the fashionable beliefs on race today.
Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow
Ron Chernow has a knack. He has a knack for grabbing you by the feet and dragging you into the fire of his figures. He shows you their disposition, the time they lived in, the ideas they encountered, and the figures and rivals they encountered.
I read Washington by Chernow. Washington is a person to study. Hamilton is more interesting.
It’s not to say Washington is boring. He set a standard to uphold for American Presidents. He was the right man to run the newly created US government. But Hamilton created most of that government. Washington lacked the mind to originate Constitutional ideas, and, like most founders, lacked the mind to create the American economic system. The current framework America lives and breathes in, Hamilton birthed it. Hamilton had the knack to take the otherworldly ideas and visions and make them small. In other words, he pulled the soaring visions from the clouds, grounded them, and built a framework that became American Democracy. And as he built that framework, other brilliant men, like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, believed Hamilton was running a con or playing with voodoo. Jefferson, once arriving in office, went so far as to investigate Hamilton’s system. He grumbled when, after the exhaustive investigation, the conclusion reported, “Hamilton created the perfect system.”
Naturally, that makes for an interesting man.
What stood out to me, among the many things that stood out, is that we see the human side. Hamilton had a brutal childhood growing up in the West Indies. When he got to America, the erudite young man owned massive ambitions and wished to put his brutal upbringing behind him. And he did. Hamilton was an erudite tour de force. His talents and hard work opened doors for him. He became, well, Alexander Hamilton.
Hamilton is a noble figure. He’s a remarkable man. But he was human. His greatness was combined with weakness. For instance, his inability to let things was both a strength and a weakness. On the strength side, it drove his purpose to create and uphold the Union. On the weakness side, it led to his biggest blunders and to his death. Also, for a man who knew human nature inside and out, he got the wool pulled over his eyes by a conning woman and her skeezy husband. He also couldn’t see that admitting to the affair, in the most honest of fashions, with outright radical honesty, sharing way too much detail, backfired horribly in the public (but, oddly enough, his wife didn’t seem to care). But how was he to know? How was he to know that admitting to one thing would backfire? At other times, when he attacked someone who slighted him, Hamilton made the right choice. And sometimes, it was so off the mark, one wonders how the hell could the man who created the brilliance of the US Government, the three branches of the federal government, wrote most of The Federalist Papers, a military badass, and a man who presciently grasped human nature, not see that?
That’s what’s great about Chernow. He shows the human side. Hamilton lived under high stakes most of his life. He held himself to a high standard and sometimes failed his own standards. He was incredibly self-confident, but incredible self-confidence doesn’t equate 100% happiness as self-help gurus, Yoga influencers, and sciolists sell to the general population. That makes Hamilton accessible. That makes this book accessible. That packs the book with manifold insight and enjoyment.
Read Chernow. There are many reasons why you should.
But here’s a writer’s and reader’s reason.
I love reading him because I need a dictionary. Before you react and think all he uses is ten-dollar words, he doesn’t. Chernow aims to use the right word to encapsulate the right meaning. He’s the kind of writer that expands your vocabulary in the right way. For instance, Chernow knows when to use limn and when to use portray. Limn is a verb, one we don’t see often. It means to outline in clear sharp detail. Portray means to describe in words, or to play the role of. Chernow phrases carefully and pragmatically. It’s like his work, he’s careful and pragmatic. And with that careful pragmatism, he adds rich colors to his writing. Those colors, the words he uses, breathe life, humanity, and accessibility into the towering figures he writes about.
Drink, David Nutt
I sometimes listen to the Art of Manliness podcast. And Shawn Smith on Twitter, someone I respect, mentioned the episode featuring David Nutt on drinking.
I listened to the podcast and enjoyed it. Maybe it’s the myth-busting in me, but David Nutt spoke a lot about the common myths regarding drinking. For instance, that whole “drink a glass of wine a day for the anti-oxidants” is bunk.
What I liked, Nutt didn’t moralize. He said people like drinking for a reason, but on the whole, outside of minor social lubrication, no real benefit to alcohol exists.
Since hearing the interview I’ve been meaning to pick up his book. And as you can see, I found it.
Admittedly, I have not read all of the Chandler books. Nor did I have all of them in my collection. I went ahead and changed that. I can’t wait to read the rest of Chandler, and I know he’s an author I will return to for the rest of my days.
Talk To Me, T.C. Boyle
I’ve never heard of T.C. Boyle.
One of the places I get book recommendations is the print magazine of The National Review. (The National Review also hosts two podcasts, The Bookmongerand The Great Books where I find other recommendations.)
But the review for T.C. Boyle was zany. That made me want to check out this book.
Two different books with two different feels. I’ve read a number of McWhorter articles over the years. While my politics don’t align with his, I’ve always admired his writing and respected his thought. Nine Nasty Words got a great review from The National Review and a few other writers I admire also mentioned it.
Woke Racism I’m looking forward to. McWhorter is a Liberal, and he excoriates current Progressive beliefs on race (Black Lives Matter, Critical Race Theory, Ta-Nehisi Coates, etc.). McWhorter has long said, and I agree, that these “anti-racist” movements infantilize black people. He further poses, and I agree, that it’s racist in the sense that it creates a “movement” that allows a certain faction of white people to feel better about themselves. McWhorter never minces words.
A Conflict of Visions, Thomas Sowell
Sowell is my intellectual hero. I’ve said it before and will continue to say it, he’s one of the greatest thinkers of our time. A Conflict of Visions is his look at why certain political ideologies differ and some why behind that.
War of Worlds, Niall Ferguson
I shake my head sometimes. I respect and admire Niall Ferguson. I read Doom by him and loved it (If you want perspective on Covid-19, read it). And he might be the only guest on Tyler Cowen’s podcast where I listened to his interviews twice. So why shake my head? Well, you’d figure for a fan, that you’d have an idea of his significant works. I had no idea he wrote an esteemed book on the atrocities of the 20th century. I plan to read this after I read Victor Davis Hanson’s The Second World Wars.
The Landmark Thucydides
I had planned to reread the The History of the Peloponnesian War. And to do an analytical read. But I haven’t come around to it yet. Yet, one of my favorite thinkers, Victor Davis Hanson, mentioned this translation. Like above with Niall Ferguson, I can’t believe I missed this one. The Landmark is translated by Robert Strassler. From what I gather, he is the preeminent Thucydides historian and translator.
The Penguin Edition I read was good. But it missed the maps and needed context. Strassler put in the maps, and also according to many thinkers I admire, he has the best and most readable translation. And he offers notes that help guide the reader in what’s going on. This one will be read soon.
Firepower, Paul Lockhart
I heard this book mentioned a few times on a few podcasts I like, The Editors and The Victor Davis Hanson Show. I believe I heard author Jack Carr mention it. It’s about how various weaponry altered the course of war.
James Madison, Jay Cost
This pick is part of my political rabbit hole. I’ve been reading some books on the Founding Fathers. I’m familiar with Madison after I read The Federalist Papers. And more so now after reading Hamilton. Madison is an interesting figure. Some call him the first politician in the modern sense.
The Last King, Andrew Roberts
As I’ve been reading a lot about our Founding Fathers, the one man they castigated, King George III. So what about King George? By chance, a new and exhaustive biography has been written. I plan to get to this one after I read David McCullogh’s John Adams,and Jay Cost’s Madison.
Till the next haul.
P.S. My two ruminating paragraphs. These two paragraphs show my fleshing out themes for my book.
The Success world, both the professional and personal development parts, sells success but in reality it offers safety, safety from failure, safety from originality, safety from the unknown, and safety from being wrong. I’m not saying most who fall under this world’s sway want safety in the sense of complacency. No. Many of these people do want and are reaching for success. But most if not all, divided between those conscious and those unconscious, see the Success fare — the tips, coaching, secrets, methods, etc. — as safe. For instance, a man can pay $10,000 for a weekend in Malibu Beach with Garrett White. That man can play pretend Navy Seal, journal and cry, and get insulted by someone with a drill sergeant complex. All done because it’s safe. Garrett sells that man a shortcut rite of passage promising him that he will become a “self-assured and evolved man with a group of brothers.” In reality, that man needs to lift heavier weights, seek a good therapist, know and uphold himself to masculine values, work hard, read some ancient philosophy and literature, and accept that shit will happen. But that requires work. Garrett White offers safety from that work.
The marketing and business success “secrets” also offer safety. The tips and methods offer an escape from failure and the unknown. It’s “this works according to this expert and many like it.” It’s safety in numbers. It’s a lot like Pick Up Artists. Men sought Pick Up Artists to get the “line” that wins the girl. Instead of putting yourself on the line with “Hi, I’m Jim…” the line, the method, promised to minimize failure and minimize the unknown. And if the line or method failed, one can avoid personal responsibility and scapegoat the method or tactic. It’s not to say you can’t learn basics. Anyone would do well to learn basics. But a point happens when a person needs to do it on their own. They need to put their neck on the line. They can’t always keep the training wheels on. They need to inject their agency into what they do.