People hold a tendency to hoist authors and their books onto a pedestal.
It’s easy to do this.
Books can alter our lives in many ways. A passage can shift a belief, teach us a business method or a story can walk us through a difficult personal decision.
It’s easy for us to admire and respect an author and their ideas.
But Success — personal and professional development camps — pushes us into blind belief versus engaging with the ideas and conversing with the author. Hustle Culture and Success Porn push us towards “Leaders are Readers” and here’s how to get the secret key to your Utopia by reading any book in one hour and extracting its key money-making secrets.
I argue that our past education leaves another trace on us: we look at books, correctly, as things to learn from. But we bow down to the author or ideas in the book. We miss that the author is a person with flaws. And we often miss, especially if we admire or respect that author, that their book may contain flaws.
As a result, we turn books into Delphic Oracles and their authors into mystical sages.
And how about the book’s lessons?
Seeking a book’s secrets feels active but proves passive.
We hunt for quotes injecting us with a motivational opiate. That removes you, the reader, from the picture. It removes your experiences, knowledge, thoughts, questions, and character out of the picture.
Here’s the better reading aim: work to leave the book on the same intellectual footing as the author.
And this is tough.
You or I will never exist in the league of David Hume as far as intellect. You may be brilliant. But no matter your brilliance, some books, some authors, are, indeed, smarter.
It’s intimidating to a tactful, self-aware person to think they’re going to read David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature and work to leave on the same intellectual ground.
But what matters most in your reading: the aim.
What does aim mean?
You engage with the words, the ideas, the story, and the author. In non-fiction, you raise questions, reflect, and agree or disagree. With fiction, you chew over the words, reflect on the characters, and place yourself into the story’s world.
Another benefit of doing this, many books, authors, experts, as well as courses, will turn into dross. Business and success books turn to dross the fastest.
Because it’s easy to notice the cliched writing and shallow, rehashed ideas.
Work to converse with the author. Engage with the ideas. That draws out the lessons, the wisdom, and all the other benefits. It connects you to the book, you can feel the arguments or feel the story. Eschew seeking the “secret trick” or waving the book around as the “method” to find Utopia.
Now, you might think engaging with a book robs us of enjoyment, and that you must take things super serious and slow. That’s wrong. Reading fiction slowly, even if it’s a guilty pleasure book, pulls you into that story’s world. You can escape into it, hang with the characters, and the story grows vivid in its color and detail.
Enough ranting, let’s recap.
Washington, Ron Chernow
An absolute masterpiece.
It’s fun reading a book this size and when you need to put it down, to do so, disturbs you.
Chernow delivers an exhaustive biography of George Washington.
From a historical perspective, we get the chronological nuts and bolts of America’s first President. Then we get an accurate analysis of Washington the man. We find his disposition, character, nature, strengths, insecurities, and personal values.
Next, we find the history of the era. Chernow provides a camera as we watch Washington live in his time. Last, we get the conceptual nature of Washington. The period he existed in, the ideas, philosophy, and outcomes and consequences all mixed into a pot. And how Chernow achieved all that, in a balanced manner — not with a political or “lessons of leadership” agenda — is a gift.
Tied to my opening theme, gurus and experts lead you to read a book like Washington solely for lessons on “leadership.” And the book packs leadership lessons.
But I argue that to treat Washington as a categorical leadership tract cheapens the book. And it’ll make you look ad hoc for quotes or phrases that fit current “leadership” themes. But Washington was anything but the “always do something leader!”
He possessed the right qualities popular in today’s leadership literature: he maintained a set schedule, he woke early, he read the great books, and he owned a self-development bent.
But duty-bound describes his leadership. Washington liked to work within a framework versus being the leader that “takes charge and makes his own way.” He could also be rather indecisive. He would ruminate over a decision to the point of self-defeat.
Washington’s duty-bound style misaligns with popular leadership ideologies. Today’s leadership books trumpet ideas of scorching new paths and taking massive action. And to also perform social theatre, like, eating last, or hosting meetings around the company’s “why.”
Instead, in Washington, we find reality and the nuance of human nature. We find a complicated man who at times was thrust into roles that were over his head. At other times his demeanor cemented the American democracy.
Washington lacked the mind to originate constitutional ideas. Yet genius surrounded him: Hamilton, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and more. Those geniuses bandied about philosophical concepts from thinkers like Aristotle, Locke, Hume, Hobbes, and Thucydides. Washington, insecure regarding his level of education and sensing things were over his head, read those thinkers to grasp the ideas. If he struggled, he would defer to someone like Hamilton.
In a way, Washington played an ideal conduit to the framer’s ideas. He got the playbook and ran it. He also lacked the “do something and take charge!” impulse. That impulse, we learn via leadership books, is a good trait, but not the only trait of a good leader. For instance, the constitution and America would likely have stumbled if a more egotistical person, like John Adams, was first out of the gate to run the country.
Washington maintained patience. He worked to get the Constitution up and running.
Books like Washington are must-reads.
One, pure enjoyment. You can read this for fun. Chernow makes it a page-turner.
Two, reading it actively, engaging with it, or reflecting on it, the conceptual depth surfaces. And that’s where the book can work for you. If you’re concerned about today’s political debates, this book has something for you. If you’re curious about the start of a so-far successful democracy, you’ll find out why here. If you’re curious about what made Washington tick, it’s here.
Discrimination and Disparities
Thomas Sowell swings a blunt, empirical ax at fashionable social justice movements (Woke and Progressive politics) today.
Sowell details two parts, as you can guess, discrimination and disparities.
Discrimination entails race, sex, income, gender, and education. As well as more political aspects, such as trade, capitalism, communism, and realities behind “imperialization” and “colonization.”
Disparities entail income inequality, gender gap difference, class, exploitation, countries, and so on.
Sowell expounds on why solutions intended to end discrimination and disparities fail.
Let’s consider disparity.
Sowell points out, empirically, that disparity is natural. It happens with humans, in nature, and everywhere. For instance, geography plays a key role in why some civilizations thrived and others didn’t. Certain port towns owned advantages over other towns due to geography. In New York City, big ships can pull right in. In other coastal cities, either the water is too shallow or contains something like too many poisonous snakes, or breeds diseases like malaria. Certain port towns worked out better than others due to disparities.
The same happens in business or sports. Some people luck out and some own gifted advantages.
Yet many see disparities as a wrong to fix.
Today, it’s trendy to claim New York City found success due to racism. A group claiming that, makes it sound as if white men, in solidarity, conspired to make New York City a success at the expense of another group. The ports, the luck, the time, none of that matters. Sowell doesn’t minimize that ill has happened. Yet the intent behind New York City wasn’t, “a ha!… let’s go to this geographic location, screw over this group, and make a lot of money at the expense of another city full of people we don’t like, and together, we can enjoy our privilege.”
Land grabs and violence have occurred in history everywhere and with all groups of people. Much of it is abhorrent in nature, and we must recognize the abhorrent parts, but self-flagellating ourselves or trying to end disparity does nothing but harm.
And Sowell argues from facts. Given today’s current themes of social justice, you’d do well to read this to gain a sober perspective.
And as I’ll show below, I opine this book shows why pushing the “Big Plan” or trying a radical and sudden change often leads to more headaches. Grab the book here.
The Forgotten Man
I loved Coolidge by Amity Shlaes. And I love Coolidge, the man, and president, more after reading The Forgotten Man.
Amity Shlaes is a writer to study. How she paces the reader, how she details empirical evidence — a way that makes it real and shows the consequences — delivers a masterclass in storytelling. Most copywriting courses teach that you need to press emotions at all times. But some products, in fact, many products, don’t lend themselves to that. As I’ve said before, despite what sales trainers and copy experts proclaim, people aren’t suffering severe emotional lacerations using a product.
If you’re a copywriter, you’d do well to get into Amity Shlaes’s prose style.
The Forgotten Man details the Great Depression in the United States. It looks at the two presidential administrations, Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and what happened.
In particular, Shlaes looks at the famed New Deal put forth by Roosevelt.
If you’re at all familiar with the Great Depression, the common belief tells us that FDR and the New Deal either pulled America out of the Depression or that both saved America from disaster. That’s all canards.
The Great Depression forever changed the American landscape, but not in the way you think. It changed how Americans see the Executive branch, aka the President. The president went from behind the scenes, to rock star celebrity status. And it changed how the political parties are seen. In fact, it fomented the fashionable victimhood and rage against Western culture.
Before the Depression, Coolidge turned down running for president for another term. His famous Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover ran and won in a landslide. Hoover was famous for his rescue efforts in America and abroad. He was a brilliant engineer and wildly successful businessman.
Hoover was a celebrity. He reveled in being famous. And when America elected him, he, like many enjoying business success, believed that success in one area means your ideas and opinions will work in all areas. And Hoover owned the belief that he knew best and could fix anything.
The common misconception says that the Black Tuesday crash caused the Depression. It didn’t. The market climbed back but then a few issues surfaced. And at that point, Hoover couldn’t but help to get involved. With his fame, his business success, he thought he could instantly “right” the country and make it better. Instead of doing what Coolidge did, ride it out, he tried to fix things. Hoover created an utter mess.
Hoover, today, gets a lot of the blame for the Depression. FDR deserves blame for that myth; FDR deserves more blame than Hoover.
FDR took Hoover’s plans and kept them going. He doubled down harder on Hoover’s failures. But FDR added a cherry on top, the Soviet-inspired New Deal.
Yes, the New Deal, pushed by FDR, was in fact, inspired by Marx, Lenin, Trotsky, and most of all — Joseph Stalin.
FDR built and kept a “brain trust” of then-famous progressive intellectuals. These intellectuals went to the Soviet Union and with their rosy-colored Marxist sentiments, loved what they saw. Despite this group seeing poverty, famine, and near backward living, they felt the Soviet Union was headed in the right direction philosophically. They praised Stalin and his plans.
The New Deal and FDR made the depression worse. A lot worse.
Nothing improved under FDR. While some of the programs made progress as far as transportation and roads, the jobs were transitory. For instance, Calvin Coolidge had an unemployment rate of 1.8%. FDR, between 15-30%.
But here’s a theme I noticed as it pertains to today’s deification of “action” and “success.”
Let’s tie in, Washington, and Discrimination & Disparities.
We get lambasted today with, “take massive action.” Or truisms likes “action beats inaction.” We can find books like “The Magic of Thinking Big” and accessory books teaching secrets to attain that “big action” via a prison-like daily routine.
We get it. Take massive action. Think big, dream big, and when it’s time to act, act big.
Possessing strong self-motivation bestows an advantage. But buying into the hype of take massive action! can create dire straits.
Here’s what I mean.
Let’s pick on Herbert Hoover.
Hoover, to the Success world, the money Twitter corner, to gurus and experts, and to modern media — had it all. He owns the hip narrative of “failing all his entrance exams but got into Stanford.” Success acolytes love that story of he failed at the school stuff but succeeded at the life stuff.
As a mining engineer, Hoover proved brilliant. He became a shrewd businessman. He also excelled at rescue missions with his engineering techniques. And Hoover exemplified an honorable humanitarian bent till his last days. Hoover is complicated. A great man in many areas, and a man deserving our respect, but he made mistakes that forever untethered America.
Hoover believed he could fix the country in his vision. He had all the right things on paper. And he failed. Hoover likely would have done better if he took a page from Coolidge’s book, let it work itself out.
Here’s what I’m after.
Action is important. But grand plans aren’t always needed. Soaring actions like eradicating inequality once and for all, or making millions of dollars instantly, prove blind to history and human nature.
Those grand ideas sound great but can lay a trap.
People reflexively buy into rhetoric offering a utopia. In business, we buy into the rhetoric of insane growth. Even our personal growth, people buy into a fast and massive “shift” that will deliver us our personal utopia.
Whereas marginal improvements, letting things ride out, or, my favorite term for personal growth, “sitting in the shit” sounds passive. Instead, we’re taught to do something and we should have had the issue fixed yesterday.
But doing nothing requires action. It requires active observing, patience, and a look into history or others, and again, knowing when not to act. It isn’t at all passive. It isn’t at all complacent. It’s work. And oftentimes, on the personal level, it’s a lot of work. Grab the book here.
C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters is widely acknowledged as a Great Book and a classic.
This short fiction details Screwtape, a devil, mentoring a young demon, Wormwood, trying to turn a man on earth to the dark side.
While this book is unapologetically Christian and Conservative, it doesn’t require you to adhere to both ideologies. In other words, it reads like an original Stoic work: you don’t need to be a Stoic to garner deep lessons and wisdom.
What stood out to me, we all have our own Screwtape.
You might think of it as a one-off sin, like you once cheated on your girlfriend or boyfriend in high school. But Lewis shows that our Screwtape acts more as a pathology rather than a one-off peccadillo. And that pathology comprises the ideologies, insecurities, rationalizations, the entitlements, and the fashionable movements, swaying us into the dark side.
For instance, smug, sanctimonious political or mindset beliefs, pull us into the dark side. You may recognize this in Success. An idea permeates that 9-5 “normie” people are lower, and if you and display extreme willpower and live under a perfect day formula, that somehow makes you better.
On the flip side of that, Lewis isn’t denouncing pride. In fact, he argues and shows that having pride is good. That good pride resembles pride in your work, or pride in striving to be a good wife or husband, and pride in things that come from a place of care, hard work, and diligence.
Lewis captures so much of the human spirit in this work. From the utopian fantasies of certain ideologues to our own attraction to cult-like methods to live a “better” life, to handling our own impulsive passions.
Lewis breathes reality and nuance into what it means to live a good life. He gives life to recognizing the pathologies that drag us down. And through his humor, he teaches critical thinking.
Truly, a remarkable book. No matter your faith or politics, this book is an absolute must-read. Grab the book here.
Charles Cooke of the National Review said on a podcast, “America is a deeply unserious country right now.” That sums up Douthat’s meaning of decadence.
A simple example, politicized military leaders claim they’re now taking out the new threat to America: white rage in the military. Meanwhile, China launches hypersonic nuclear missiles circling the globe.
Another example, as America looks to cancel Abraham Lincoln for not doing enough for black populations — I guess dying to abolish slavery is not enough — China graduates hundreds of thousands of engineers.
Ross Douthat shows why much of America is decadent. To be clear, he uses the classical definition of decadence. His definition works closer to blind stagnation and a society eating itself.
America stagnates in its decadence. We focus on canceling statues, putting our best and brightest on the task of creating better AI advertising technology, and giving a longer news cycle to Dave Chappelle’s comedy routine than to the disastrous Afghanistan pull-out.
Douthat unpacks how this happened, and how it happens not just in America, but elsewhere and in other societies. Decadence doesn’t entail hedonism per se. It’s more or less when it becomes fashionable to hate your traditions.
Let’s look at culture.
Consider today’s popular music. Today, barely any #1 Billboard song is written by the artist that performs it. The last was Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” in 2017. Whereas in the 1970s, it was the norm for the artist to write and perform the #1 song. Today’s pop, rap, and rock features fewer and fewer notes and sounds more and more robotic.
Hollywood leans on reboots. It seems like we’ll never get another Plains, Trains, and Automobiles style comedy. Or an Oscar movie that crowds want to see. Today, Hollywood seems more interested to make old movies woke. And when the reboot bombs in the theaters, we suffer news cycles or the insufferable Trevor Noah lecturing us that it bombed because of white supremacy.
But Douthat’s book isn’t a bitch-fest. It’s a well-written guide on critical thinking. And a guide to see the current culture.
I argue that a book like Decadent Society, and a thinker like Douthat, do wonders to your marketing.
Most copy and sales courses hyper-focus you on “customer psychology.” We get tons of lessons on how to sell to the individual. And that’s not wrong advice. But we overlook that marketing doesn’t exist in a vacuum. People are complex and nuanced, and people live in their way in the world.
Douthat offers us a way to think about our market, our business, and the world our customers and you live in.
One thing screamed to me as I read the book: online marketing and direct-response marketing are decadent.
I’ll unpack this if you’re interested, if not, skip ahead.
Let’s look at this with sales.
Sales and copy ideologies, and even mindset and Success ideologies, remain rooted in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
You might be saying, “But funnels and online marketing!?”
Funnels are not new. A funnel online works no different than the infomercials of the 1970s and 1980s where you called a number and you were sold things.
People mistake the speed as new.
As in, simply having a funnel work faster, track more people, and makes payments easier, that’s the speed of the mechanism, not an innovation. It’s great that we have this speed. But speed doesn’t constitute a breakthrough.
Most “experts” of sales, copy, success, and beyond rehash advice.
Consider success advice and who gives it.
If you trace back, you will hit Clement Stone. He created a framework that spawned gurus. Clement Stone saw that he could make money with Napoleon Hill’s ideas if he put it in a framework (according to Dan Kennedy, Stone knew Hill was a huckster dolt).
Stone then created the framework of stage speaking, selling the products, and having events. It spawned the likes of Norman Vincent Peale, Og Mandino, Tony Robbins, and countless others.
But if you look at the advice, not a whole lot has advanced.
Yes, standouts do exist.
In sales, we find Jim Camp and Oren Klaff. Each arguably advanced the concepts of framing and qualifying the buyer.
If we move over to the world of habits, David Allen or James Clear, both work to get to first principles.
And as for copy, some of you may be wondering, “What about Gary Halbert ?” Joe Karbo spawned Gary Halbert.
Gary, in my opinion, brilliantly took popular sales concepts of his day and put them into print. But remember, Gary wasn’t the only one, he was the most boisterous one.
Consider how many “new” copy courses there are teaching the hottest and craziest tactics. But look at sales letters and Video Sales letters on, say, Clickbank: it all looks the same. Go back to 2012 and compare those sales letters to today’s, not a single thing has changed. Even look back to about 2008, it all looks the same. All that’s improved, font and load times.
I’m not saying innovation must happen all the time. But those tactics, that rehash, fall far away from first principles. The core of a good sales letter comes down to good writing, being direct, and working on ways to get the right buyer.
I’m not saying don’t learn, but realize much of what’s out there is stagnant.
The first principles of David Ogilvy and Claude Hopkins will hold. Being direct, honest, and using good salesmanship will win. Grab the book here.
Why Not Say It Clearly
If you’ve read a lot of books on writing, you won’t find anything new in Why Not Say It Clearly.
And if you haven’t read a lot of books on writing, this book is an excellent guide into writing technical aspects well. You will find a lot on research — excellent for the copywriter — and how to write it clearly.
I recommend this to those writing copy in technical fields. And I also recommend it to those looking how to translate their research into simple, clear, and direct writing. Grab the book here.
Author Jack Carr, a Navy Seal badass, perhaps one of the most badass Navy Seals to have ever lived, wrote an awesome book.
I loved the reality of the main character James Reece. For instance, most badass characters are stoic to the point of cliche. Like the protagonist gets a shotgun blast to the chest, and walks it off, while some damsel worries about him.
But Reece will actually GO to the hospital.
I won’t give too much away, other than it was a fun read.
But, what I appreciated most, Carr deploys a compelling prose example that you copywriters can get hip to.
I love the sentences where he introduces the subject and then hits you with an active verb.
For instance: James rolled….
James the subject, and rolled the verb. He uses this style during action scenes, moving the scene or characters, or to pace a character’s movement. It creates a compelling effect.
The second prose aspect, and it’s a masterclass, when Carr details something technical, like the workings of a gun. He makes it simple, clear, and compelling. Carr describes the workings in a linear fashion but does so with clarity. He roots scenes with these descriptions. And without the emotional hyperbole, the scene or the item described becomes real. We can see it, feel it, hear it, or sense it. Grab the book here.
Not pictured: The Dying Citizen, Victor Davis Hanson
I’m hooked on Victor Davis Hanson’s podcast. He does a remarkable job of unpacking history and classic works of art, literature, or philosophy, and showing what that means for us today. His podcast helped me understand The Federalist Papers and the Constitution. And he’s close friends with Thomas Sowell. So, naturally, I’m excited to read this book.
What To Read and Why, Francine Prose
I adhere to Francine Prose’s method of reading fiction. I love it. Her method added vivid color to my world.
I saw this at the bookstore, I had no idea she had another book, so I grabbed it. It looks to be her insight into some classic works of fiction and some insight on how to read those works.
Leading, Alex Ferguson
This is a Tyler Cowen recommendation. I agree with Tyler that most business books on leadership and success flat out suck. He iterated that sentiment in his review of this book, yet said this book has far more insight. Alex Ferguson is one of the most successful Soccer — football to my outside America crowd — coaches. He managed Manchester United, and some say, he’s the greatest manager of all time.
The book looks to have some substance to it versus the oversaturated nonsense of “on the battlefield of the playing field, we find lessons of character.”
Titan & Grant, Ron Chernow
Chernow is a beast. I won’t get to these ones for a while, I’m down another rabbit hole of early America and America during the 1920s through World War II. Hamilton will be the next Chernow book I read.
Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith
A classic, and Great Book. Adam Smith is hailed as the father of modern economics. This book ties into my rabbit holes three ways. One, it’s a Great Book, two, Edmund Burke respected and admired his friend Smith, and three, the 1920s owes its success to the Adam Smith economic policy than what we know today.
A Treatise of Human Nature, David Hume
Hume wielded influence over Edmund Burke and the Founding Fathers. And this work is one of the most influential works in Western philosophy. I’ve yet to read Hume, I know tidbits. But his name, his ideas, and what he influenced kept surfacing in my life recently. I plan to put a dent in this one soon.
An Essay Concerning Human Understanding & Two Treatise of Government, John Locke
I heard on a National Review podcast, that we have two types of Conservatives today, Edmund Burke conservatives (I’m in the Burke camp in case you’re wondering) and John Locke conservatives. Locke fathered Classical Liberalism, and some of it in response to Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes.
Leviathan, Thomas Hobbes
If you read the above, you see that Locke had, in a sense, a written debate with Leviathan. Leviathan is a classic. When I went to the British Library a few years ago, I saw the original Leviathan. Seeing a book written in 1651, right in front of you, and grasping the gravity of that book, I cherish the memory. I plan to read this before Locke.
Histories is one of the oldest non-fiction works we have if not the oldest we know of. It was written in 430 B.C. So yeah, it’s old. Herodotus is known as a storyteller, and the history he details is a little suspect, but still of substance. In other words, it lacks the accuracy of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. Still, it’s supposed to be enjoyable, accessible, and a good look into early civilization.
The Conservative Mind, Russel Kirk
This book came from my early searches into my political rabbit hole. Russel Kirk hailed Edmund Burke as his hero. This book supposedly wielded a lot of influence on Conservative thought in the 60s, 70s, and 80s.
The Experts Speak, Christopher Cerf and Victor Navasky
This isn’t so much a book but rather a humorous collection of quotes where the experts were wrong. I think this might be a fun source to use in my writings, given that so many business experts are at best sciolists.
The Play of Words, Richard Lederer
This comes from my Garner list.
Garner shows a bunch of books and authors that teach how to build a better vocabulary or grasp syntax via exercises. I enjoy books like these as they boost my vocabulary in the right way: finding the right phrase, and more often the simplest one, to capture what you want to say. Books like this help my writing, and my reading. And I believe if you’re writing a lot, or a copywriter, you should have a steady diet of these books.