Seen vs Unseen

January 24, 2013 — 17 Comments

We are most often held back by obstacles we aren’t even aware of–bad habits, flaws, ego, neuroses, self-destructiveness, aversions and fears we hardly know we have.

The world doesn’t usually take the time to plead, argue and convince us of our errors. Feedback is usually whispered, in the form of small failures, small problems, little trends. But we’re too thickheaded and resistent to hear it. We’re soft bodied but hard headed. We have too much armor to fail well.

So when you bump up against something that is clearly an obstacle and hindering your progress–from an a business deal gone wrong to your car getting stolen–you’d do well to say: “Hey at least I know about this. It’s an exposed issue that either has a solution or it doesn’t. Now I can try to solve it.” Don’t complain. Be thankful. Celebrate the fact that at least you’re not fighting yourself on this one.

And try to do a better job listening in those other types of situations. Because it’s time you understand that the world is telling you something with each and every event. Things about you, things about others, things about life. It’s all feedback–easily translated into precise instructions. It’s trying to wake you up from your cluelessness. It’s trying to teach you something.

Best Book Recommendations of 2012

January 6, 2013 — 22 Comments

I recommended close to 200 books through my Reading List Email this year. I know you’re all very busy people and I imagine only a few of you ended up reading more than a handful of the suggestions. Don’t worry, that’s on me and not on you.

Now, If I could only recommend 3 books from 2012, what would I pick? I couldn’t actually narrow it down to 3 exactly, but I tried my best. Below are the my favorite books for the year and the ones that made the biggest impact on me. There is no question they are worth reading and your time.

The Fish That Ate the Whale: The Life and Times of America’s Banana King by Rich Cohen
The book sucked me in completely. The subject, Samuel Zemurray, is fascinating and compelling. The writer has a voice that is utterly unique. Since reading this book, I have explored all of this further: I studied Zemurray (whose house was not far from mine in New Orleans and still stands) and am using his story in my next book. I interviewed the author, Rich Cohen. And I read his other books, am particularly found of Tough Jews: Fathers, Sons and Gangster Dreams. The book has all sorts of things going for it: it’s the American Dream, it’s history via microcosm, it’s drama/violence/intrique, and it’s a course in business strategy and leadership. Everyone I have recommended it to was blown away. I won’t say it’s as good as The Tiger, which was my favorite book of 2011, but in terms of an author I’d never heard of taking a subject I don’t care about and making it AWESOME? This book deserves to be talked about in the same breath.

The Civil War
I went so deep into Civil War in 2012 that I lost track of all the books. I started this last year when I read Sherman by B.H Liddell Hart (and recommended as a favorite). I came to admire Sherman so deeply that I read two more books about him: Sherman’s Memoirs and a big old book from 1933 Sherman: Fighting Prophet. From there I went on to Grant’s Memoirs, which are incredibly readable and deeply moving as well as the biography Ulysses S. Grant: Triumph Over Adversity, 1822-1865 by Brooks D. Simpson. I loved learning about Lincoln, especially in Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness. I read two important memoirs from slaves as well, and strongly recommend 12 Years a Slave by Solomon Northup and A Slave in the White House about Paul Jennings. In terms of obscure or unusual books related to the war, I love Incidents and Anecdotes of the Civil War by Admiral David Porter (1885) and Wicked River: The Mississippi When It Last Ran Wild by Lee Sandlin (plus his WWII article which is the best essay I’ve ever read). Fiction-wise, I read all of Ambrose Bierce’s Civil War Stories and was blown away–it is dark, beautiful writing. I also read discussions of a bunch of Southern/Civil War writers in Patriotic Gore by Edmund Wilson and The Legacy of the Civil War by Robert Penn Warren, which helped me understand and contextualize what I’d already read from the people listed above. And most of all, I was inspired by following Ta-Nehisi Coates’s provocative journey through the same subject on his blog for The Atlantic. Instead of getting into why I read all these books or why they’re important, I’ll just say that nothing has given me more pleasure or expanded my understanding of history and humanity than reading these books. Try one of them and see what happens.

Titan: The Life of John D. Rockefeller Sr. by Ron Chernow
A biography has to be really good to make read you all 800 pages. To me, this was one of those books. Since reading it earlier this year, I’ve since found out it is the favorite book of a lot of people I respect. I think something about the quality of the writing and the empathic understanding of the writer that the main lessons you would take away from someone like Rockefeller would not be business, but life lessons. In fact, when I went back through and took notes on this book, I filled out more cards for Stoicism than I did for Strategy, Business or Money. I found Rockefeller to be strangely stoic, incredibly resilient and, despite his reputation as a robber baron, humble and compassionate. Most people get WORSE as they get successful, many more get worse as they age. Rockefeller did neither of these things, he grew more open-minded the older he became, more generous, more pious, more dedicated to making a difference. Does that excuse the “awful” things that he did? Well, the things he did really weren’t that awful so yes. (By that I mean I’d certainly choose him over the robber barons of this age like Zuckerberg or Murdoch.) If you do enjoy this biography, I followed it up with a few others I consider to be in the same league: Knight’s Cross: A Life of Field Marshal Erwin Rommel by David Fraser, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, and Mencken: The American Iconoclast.

See my recommendations from 2011 and don’t forget to sign up for the Reading List Newsletter if you haven’t already. 

A Second in the Present

December 16, 2012 — 10 Comments

Go out for a run right now. Even though you don’t want to.

Feel the bite of the cold. Or the drag of the heat.

Stay with the struggle. Stay with it.

Run parallel to the river. Stay steady against the harsh wind of passing cars on the freeway. Or cut through the glass and steel skyscraper canyon. Roll through the hills and their dark, quiet houses.

Turn the music way up. So you can’t hear anything else. Hit the back button a few times in a row on the same song. Don’t let the mind wonder. Don’t let it think or do anything. Just be. For a second, or a minute or as long as you can.

The point is to be reminded of the immensity. Feel unprotected against the elements or forces or surroundings. Remind yourself how pointless it seems to complain about problems. You may have felt out of sync before, but now you’ve experienced flow, you’ve connected by disconnecting.

Let the feeling carry as long as you can. Then go out and do it again.

Defy and Trust

December 10, 2012 — 15 Comments

Defiance is a form of optimism.

Like this: I refuse to acknowledge that. I don’t agree with your assessment. I resist the temptation to declare this a failure.

Acceptance is equally optimistic: Well, I guess it’s on me then.

The two come together well in the following principle:

There will always be a countermove, always be an escape or a way through. And just because you can’t see it right now, doesn’t mean that it isn’t there.

Defy and Trust. And you’ll never get stuck.

The Walk

November 20, 2012 — 24 Comments

Heading down the sidewalk of a street in New York City, you get the sense that there is something wrong with many people. Look at the way that they walk. Look at the momentary hold ups they cause. It’s a river of people creating its own eddies and backflow.

When I don’t have anywhere I need to be in a hurry, I like to take a second to watch: how they have no idea where they are going (and how hard navigating is). How unnatural it seems to be for them to walk in a straight line, or walk quickly. They veer this way and that way, or more often, drift slowly off kilter and don’t even realize it.

Two people manage to take up 6-10 feet of lateral space between them, conspiring unintentionally to block others from going around. Where on the earth is stopping abruptly when there are people behind you a common practice? They get surprised and scared because they get bumped, as if there wasn’t such thing as spatial awareness. Nobody snuck up on them, they just weren’t paying attention.

I see it as a metaphor. Here are a bunch of different people trying to go in different directions and do a bunch of different things. It’s life.

Some are deliberate and self-contained. Others are not. Is there more aggression in the former than the latter? Absolutely. But more responsibility as well. Less externalizing and disruption too.

How out of reach that all seems to be for many. These are easy things that seem to be so hard. And then we wonder why real obstacles seem to set people back in life. How we are caught off guard or easily discouraged by them.

We can’t even walk straight. Go or wait? I don’t know, what do the rules say? We see a runner bearing down in the opposite direction, left or right? There are no rules, better freeze.

A few simple traits cut through this knot of indecision and impotence: knowing where you’re going (or rather, that you are going somewhere), knowing the value of your time, appreciating the existence of other people (and treating them as they deserve), and proper carriage. That is, to carry yourself properly, directedly and under your own volition.

And to not be alarmed when you realize how much this sets you apart from the crowd.