Learn from the Great Minds of the Past

Biographies let you to learn about the trials and tribulations in the lives of eminent people, the opportunities and the crises they faced, and the choices they made.

By providing a glimpse into their minds, biographies stimulate self-discovery by allowing you to find new ideas, methods, and mental models on your own through the stories of others.

Reading about the life experiences of someone from a different spatial, temporal, and thematic circumstance than your own can also help you see the world in new ways. This new perspective then allows you to appreciate their actions and accomplishments within the context, conventions, and limitations of their settings.

Idea for Impact: If you wish to succeed in your life, there is no better source of inspiration than in the lives of those who have changed our lives and our world for the better.

Charlie Munger on Reading Biographies and “Making Friends with the Eminent Dead”

'Poor Charlie's Almanack' by Charlie Munger (ISBN 1578645018) Charlie Munger (b. 1924,) Berkshire Hathaway’s Vice-Chairman and a distinguished beacon of rationality, wisdom, and multi-disciplinary thinking, is a voracious reader and occupies himself with books on history, science, biography, and psychology.

From Poor Charlie’s Almanack, a compilation of Munger’s ideas and “latticework of mental models”,

In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time–none, zero. You’d be amazed at how much Warren reads–and at how much I read. My children laugh at me. They think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out.

I am a biography nut myself. And I think when you’re trying to teach the great concepts that work, it helps to tie them into the lives and personalities of the people who developed them. I think you learn economics better if you make Adam Smith your friend. That sounds funny, making friends among the eminent dead, but if you go through life making friends with the eminent dead who had the right ideas, I think it will work better in life and work better in education. It’s way better than just being given the basic concepts.

Seneca on Learning from the Great Minds of the Past

'On the Shortness of Life' by Senaca (ISBN 0143036327) From the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca’s 2,000-year-old discourse On the Shortness of Life: Life Is Long if You Know (trans. C.D.N. Costa,)

…if it is our wish, by greatness of mind, to pass beyond the narrow limits of human weakness, there is a great stretch of time through which we may roam. We may argue with Socrates, we may doubt with Carneades, find peace with Epicurus, overcome human nature with the Stoics, exceed it with the Cynics. … We may fairly say that they alone are engaged in the true duties of life who shall wish to have Zeno, Pythagoras, Democritus, and all the other high priests of liberal studies, and Aristotle and Theophrastus, as their most intimate friends every day. No one of these will be ‘not at home,’ no one of these will fail to have his visitor leave more happy and more devoted to himself than when he came, no one of these will allow anyone to leave him with empty hands; all mortals can meet with them by night or by day.

…No one of these will force you to die, but all will teach you how to die; no one of these will wear out your years, but each will add his own years to yours; conversations with no one of these will bring you peril, the friendship of none will endanger your life, the courting of none will tax your purse. From them you will take whatever you wish; it will be no fault of theirs if you do not draw the utmost that you can desire. What happiness, what a fair old age awaits him who has offered himself as a client to these! He will have friends from whom he may seek counsel on matters great and small, whom he may consult every day about himself, from whom he may hear truth without insult, praise without flattery, and after whose likeness he may fashion himself.

Seneca on Gaining Wisdom from the Distinguished

'Moral letters to Lucilius' by Seneca (ISBN 1536965537) On a related note, here is a passage from Seneca’s Moral Letters to Lucilius (Latin orig. Epistulae morales ad Lucilium):

For this reason, give over hoping that you can skim, by means of epitomes, the wisdom of distinguished men. Look into their wisdom as a whole; study it as a whole. They are working out a plan and weaving together, line upon line, a masterpiece, from which nothing can be taken away without injury to the whole. Examine the separate parts, if you like, provided you examine them as parts of the man himself. She is not a beautiful woman whose ankle or arm is praised, but she whose general appearance makes you forget to admire her single attributes.

Yahoo’s Slide into Irrelevance and Marissa Mayer’s Tenure as CEO [Book Review / Summary]

Over the holidays, I finished reading journalist Nicholas Carlson’s Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo! This interesting book offers an account of Yahoo’s steady slide towards irrelevance and Marissa Mayer’s early tenure as CEO.

“Complex Monstrosity Built Without a Plan”

'Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo!' by Nicholas Carlson (ISBN 1455556610) Carlson devotes the first third of the book to explaining Yahoo’s beleaguered history and how years of mismanagement and strategy negligence got Yahoo into the mess that Mayer inherited as CEO in 2012.

The second third is about Mayer and her brilliant career as employee number twenty at Google. In 2010, her career allegedly stalled because Mayer got sidelined after conflicts with other luminaries within Google. Relying broadly on anonymous sources, Carlson portrays Mayer’s intense nature and her personality contradictions: in public settings, Mayer is brainy, glamorous, confident, articulate, and approachable. However, in one-on-one settings, Mayer is a self-promoting, dismissive, calculating, tardy, inquisitorial individual who avoids eye contact. “There was nothing especially abhorrent or uncommon about Mayer’s behavior as an executive,” Carlson writes. “She was headstrong, confident, dismissive, self-promoting and clueless about how she sometimes hurt other people’s feelings. So were many of the most successful executives in the technology industry.”

The last third is devoted to Mayer’s initial efforts to turn Yahoo around. Within the first year at the helm as CEO, Mayer motivated Yahoo’s beleaguered workforce, launched the redesign of some of Yahoo’s major sites, and made acquisitions to make Yahoo relevant in the mobile, media, and social realms. Carlson also describes Mayer’s bad hiring decisions, habitual tardiness, tendency to micromanage, tone-deaf style of communication, and dogged devotion to establishing the universally-despised practice of tracking goals and stack-ranking employees.

Yahoo: The Fabled Legacy Internet Company on the Slide to Irrelevance

Yahoo: The Fabled Legacy Internet Company on the Slide to Irrelevance

Anybody who follows the internet content industry understands that the principal question regarding the then-37-year-old Mayer’s recruitment as CEO was never whether she could save Yahoo. Rather, the question was whether Yahoo can be saved at all.

Yahoo has been a mess for a long time. For early consumers of the internet, Yahoo’s portal was the internet—from the mid-1990s until the early 2000s, Yahoo was the number-one gateway for early users of the internet who wanted to search, email, or consume news and other information. Then, Yahoo floundered as the likes of Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, Twitter, and Microsoft redefined the consumer internet and content consumption. Yahoo’s successive managements struggled to identify Yahoo’s raison d’etre and failed to set it apart from the up-and-coming websites. Yahoo’s management also fumbled on opportunities to harness the popularity of Yahoo Mail, Yahoo Sports, and Yahoo Finance to get advertising revenues growing again.

Mayer’s Arrival Was Too Late for Yahoo

Marissa Mayer could not succeed in reviving YahooMayer came to Yahoo with extraordinary credentials, drive, technical savvy, celebrity, and charisma. Her tenure was centered on answering the single question, “What is Yahoo? What should become of Yahoo?”

The odds of Mayer succeeding to revive Yahoo as an independent internet content company were very bleak right from the beginning, because Mayer took on an increasingly irrelevant business with very little actual or potential operating value—either as an internet content company or as a media company. Carlson appropriately concludes,

Ultimately, Yahoo suffers from the fact that the reason it ever succeeded in the first place was because it solved a global problem that lasted for only a moment. The early Internet was hard to use, and Yahoo made it easier. Yahoo was the Internet. Then the Internet was flooded with capital and infinite solutions for infinite problems, and the need for Yahoo faded. The company hasn’t found its purpose since—the thing it can do that no one else can.

Since the publication of the book in December 2014, Mayer has dedicated her leadership to selling Yahoo’s core internet businesses and its patent portfolio. Yahoo is expected to then convert itself into a shell company for its investments in Alibaba (15.5% economic interest) and Yahoo Japan (35.5%.)

Recommendation: As a fast read, Marissa Mayer and the Fight to Save Yahoo! is great. Beyond Nicholas Carlson’s gossipy narrative and his pejorative depiction of Mayer’s management style, readers of this page-turner will be interested in Yahoo leadership’s strategic and tactical missteps. Particularly fascinating are how Yahoo missed opportunities to buy Google and Facebook when they were mere startups, the rebuffing of an acquisition bid from Microsoft, a lack of strategic focus, the leadership skirmishes with activist investors, the revolving door at the CEO’s office, and an Asian-asset drama.

Books I Read in 2016 & Recommend

Personal Finance: Thomas Stanley and William Danko’s The Millionaire Next Door summarizes anthropological research from the ’90s on the attributes of unassuming wealthy Americans. The authors discuss the fancy trappings of affluence and the high cost of maintaining social status. They explain that prosperous individuals prioritize financial independence over a high social status. Key takeaway: It’s easy to get rich by living below your means, efficiently allocating funds in ways that build wealth, and ignoring conspicuous consumption. {Read my synopsis in this article.}

'Taking Advice' by Dan Ciampa (ISBN 1591396689) Decision-Making / Problem-Solving: Dan Ciampa’s Taking Advice offers an excellent framework on the kind of advice network you need on strategic, operational, political, and personal elements of your work and your life. Taking Advice offers important insights into a seemingly obvious dimension of success, but one that’s often neglected, poorly understood, or taken for granted. {Read my synopsis in this article.}

Creativity / Decision-Making / Teamwork: Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats describes a powerful problem-solving approach that enriches mental flexibility by encouraging individuals and groups to attack an issue from six independent but complementary perspectives. Key takeaway: The ‘Six Thinking Hats’ method can remove mental blocks, organize ideas and information, foster cross-fertilization, and help conduct thinking sessions more productively than do other brainstorming methods. {Read my synopsis in this article.}

Presentation / Communication: Edward Tufte’s The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint argues that presentations reduce the analytical timbre of communication. In other words, presentation slides lack the resolution to effectively convey context, “weaken verbal and spatial reasoning, and almost always corrupt statistical analysis.” Tufte contends that, by forcibly condensing our ideas into bullet point-statements, phrases, and slides, we break up narrative flow and flatten the information we’re trying to convey. Key takeaway: Well-structured and succinct memos can convey ideas comprehensively, clearly, and meaningfully. {Read my synopsis in this article. Also, learn about Amazon’s ‘Mock Press Release’ discipline and Procter & Gamble’s ‘One-Page Memo’ practice to communicate ideas.}

Happiness / Relationships: Janice Kaplan’s The Gratitude Diaries. For one year, Kaplan maintained a gratitude journal and wrote down three things that she was thankful for each day. She also decided to “find one area to focus on each month—whether husband, family, friends, or work—and … see what happened when I developed an attitude of gratitude.” Key takeaway: A grateful heart is a happy heart. Stop whatever you’re doing, take stock of your blessings, and be grateful for everything you have in life. {Read my synopsis in this article.}

'Man's Search for Meaning' by Victor Frankl (ISBN 1846042844) Psychology: Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning. When subject to brutal treatment at Nazi concentration camps in Germany, Frankl changed his initial reaction from ‘Why me?’ and ‘Why is this happening?’ to ‘What is life asking of me?’ Such profound shifts in thinking, Frankl argues, could help you find meaning in life, regardless of what is happening on the outside. Key takeaway: The one power you have at all times is the freedom to choose your response to any given set of circumstances. Uncover a sense of purpose in life and you can survive nearly anything. {Read my synopsis in this article.}

Psychology: John Tierney and Roy Baumeister’s Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. The book’s central theorem is the much-debated “muscle metaphor” of self-control, which states that willpower is like a muscle that tires out—or runs out of energy—as you use it, but can be replenished and purposely fortified through practice. Key takeaway: Budget your willpower and spend it where and when you need it the most. Eliminate distractions, temptations, and unnecessary choices. {Read my synopsis in this article.}

'Sam Walton: Made In America' by Sam Walton (ISBN 0553562835) Biography / Leadership: Sam Walton’s Made in America is the Walmart founder’s very educational, insightful, and stimulating autobiography. It’s teeming with Walton’s relentless search for better ideas learning from competitors, managing costs and prices to gain competitive advantage, asking incessant questions of day-to-day operations, listening to employees at all levels of Walmart, and inventing creative ways to foster an idea-driven culture. Takeaways: ten rules of management success, learning from failure, cost and price as a competitive advantage, and Walton’s ‘Ten-Foot Rule’ to become more likeable.

Biography / Leadership: Deborrah Himsel’s Beauty Queen: Inside the Reign of Avon’s Andrea Jung offers an insightful tale of the spectacular rise to the top and the tumultuous fall from grace of the former Avon CEO. Jung initially led six consecutive years of double-digit growth and then presided over a series of operational missteps that led to her resignation. “Her story is a cautionary tale, one that suggests the critical importance of being aware of your weaknesses and how they can sabotage you.” Key takeaway: Spectacular success, especially those attributable to external circumstances, can often conceal on organization’s or an individual’s flaws. When the tide turns, the deficiencies are exposed for all to see. {Read my synopsis in this article.}

'The HP Way' by David Packard (ISBN 0060845791) Biography / Leadership: David Packard’s The HP Way recalls how Bill Hewlett and David Packard built a company based on a framework of principles and the simplicity of management methods. In addition to their technical innovations, Bill and David established many progressive management practices that prevail even today. Starting in the initial days, the HP culture that Bill and David engendered was unlike the hierarchical and egalitarian management practices that existed at other corporations of their day. Key takeaway: The essence of the “HP Way” was a strong and clear set of values, and a culture of openness and respect for the individual. {Read my synopsis in this article. Also learn about management by walking around and Bill Hewlett’s ‘Hat-Wearing Process’ for decision-making.}

Leadership: Warren Bennis and Robert Thomas’s Geeks and Geezers. The authors posit that all potential leaders must pass through a “leadership crucible” that provides an intense, transformative experience. Only after they “organize the meaning” and draw significant lessons from their “crucible experiences” can they become leaders. Key takeaway: Find your “leadership voice” by reflecting on transformative experiences in your life and examining what you’ve learned from them. {Read my synopsis in this article.}

Look at my articles on how to process a pile of books that you can’t seem to finish, and on how self-help books bring hope that change is possible.

Also, see a list of books I read in 2015 and 2014 and recommend.

“Crucible” Experiences Can Transform Your Leadership Skills

'Geeks and Geezers' by Warren Bennis (ISBN 1578515823) In Geeks and Geezers (2002), renowned leadership academic Warren Bennis and management consultant Robert Thomas interview 40 “geeks” (aged 21–34) and “geezers” (aged 70–82) to evaluate differences in their leadership values and success patterns.

The two groups vary in backgrounds, ambitions, and their role models. The geeks are more concerned with work-life balance than the geezers. The geezers formed their characters during the Great Depression and World War II and hence hold Franklin Roosevelt, Gandhi, Lincoln, Mandela, Kennedy, and Churchill as leadership role models. In contrast, the geeks tend to model themselves after their parents, friends, bosses, and co-workers.

Leadership “Crucibles”: Pivotal life-changing experiences that alter your thinking and actions

The statistics and analyses of geeks and geezers are a gross distraction from the book’s central idea: that all potential leaders must pass through a “leadership crucible” that provides an intense, transformational experience. Only after they “organize the meaning” of and draw significant lessons from their crucible experiences can they become leaders. They must also cultivate complementary leadership skills such as adaptive capacity and the ability to engage others by creating shared meaning, voice, and integrity.

All geeks and geezers interviewed by the authors had one thing in common: each had at least one leadership crucible. The authors explain that each experience was “a test and a decision point, where existing values were examined and strengthened or replaced, where alternative identities were considered and sometimes chosen, where judgment and other abilities were honed.”

The best leaders excel in their ability to create meaning out of adversity

Crucible Experiences Transform Leadership Skills Geeks and Geezers lays monolithic emphasis on the role of transformational crucible experiences in building leadership skills. The authors conclude that such experiences shape a leader; therefore, “great leaders are not born but made—often by tough, bitter experience.” The book implies that most leadership development initiatives (selection, training, mentoring, job rotation, etc.) are not as effective as they are touted to be. The book advises would-be leaders to develop themselves by seeking out crucible experiences at work, school, or in their communities to maximize their leadership potential.

One meaningful takeaway from Geeks and Geezers is a contemplative exercise: to reflect on some crucible experiences in the reader’s life and examine what he/she has learned from them. The reader may be able to create his/her own story and find his/her “leadership voice.”

Recommendation: Skim. Read the final chapter. Beyond the authors’ anecdote-heavy “research,” Geeks and Geezers will engage readers in interesting case studies of successful men and women who moved beyond the constraints imposed by trying circumstances and reshaped themselves. However, most of Geeks and Geezers lacks substance and practical application, especially in comparison to co-author Bennis’s bestseller On Becoming a Leader.

Silicon Valley’s Founding Fathers & Their ‘HP Way’ [Book Review & Summary]

Bill Hewlett and David Packard: Silicon Valley's Founding Fathers

'The HP Way' by David Packard (ISBN 0060845791) David Packard’s The HP Way recalls how he and Bill Hewlett started one of the world’s most successful corporations in 1937 with just $538 (today’s $8,850 when adjusted for inflation) and a rented one-car garage in Palo Alto, California. That garage is recognized today as the birthplace not only of Silicon Valley, but also of a new management approach.

Bill and David first met as electrical engineering students at Stanford University. Despite their different dispositions, they shared a passion for the outdoors and, with a professor’s encouragement, started Hewlett-Packard (HP) to commercialize the latest “radio engineering” theories. Over the decades, HP invented many groundbreaking electrical gadgets that were crucial to the development of radars, instrumentation devices, computers, and other technological revolutions.

In addition to their technical innovations, Bill and David established many progressive management practices that prevail even today. Starting in the initial days at the garage, the culture that Bill and David engendered at HP was unlike the hierarchical and egalitarian management practices that existed at other corporations of their day.

HP Garage: Birthplace Silicon Valley & New Management Style The essence of the “HP Way” was openness and respect for the individual. (Bill Hewlett once sawed a lock off a tool-room cabinet and left a note, “HP trusts its employees.”)

Management by objectives, managing by wandering about, nursing-mother facilities, flextime, decentralization, intrapreneurship, catastrophic medical insurance, profit sharing, employee stock ownership, tuition assistance, and many other management principles that dominate human resources practices today were all pioneered—if not invented—at HP.

Recommendation: Read. The HP Way tells the story how Bill and David built a company based on a framework of principles and the simplicity of their management methods. Good to Great author Jim Collins once wrote in commending David Packard’s The HP Way, “The greatest lesson to be divined from this book isn’t so much how to create a similar company but how creating a company based on a strong and clear set of values can lead to outstanding success.”

Postscript: Notes from ‘The HP Way’

  • Like Sam Walton, the other illustrious entrepreneur of their generation, Bill and David grew up witnessing Americans’ hardships during the Great Depression. This made them risk-averse; they vowed never to incur long-term debt to expand their fledgling company.
  • On the day Hewlett-Packard went public in 1961, David Packard took a subway instead of a taxi to Wall Street, lost his way, and reached the New York Stock Exchange late.
  • The foundations that Bill Hewlett and David Packard established individually with 95% of their stakes in HP are today two of the most prominent philanthropies in America.

The Spectacular Rise and Fall of Avon’s Andrea Jung [Leadership Lessons] [Book Review & Summary]

When companies do well, their CEOs are often heralded as outstanding visionaries and brilliant innovators. In particular, when macroeconomic conditions are favorable, these CEOs are sheltered from scrutiny because the spoils of their success deflect attention from their leadership shortcomings (see my previous article on how success often conceals wickedness.) When the tide turns, however, the leadership deficiencies are exposed for all to see. The CEOs are the first to get the blame, even if they may not merit it.

Deborrah Himsel’s Beauty Queen offers an insightful tale of the spectacular rise to the top and the tumultuous fall from grace of Andrea Jung. Beauty Queen divides Jung’s tenure as the CEO of cosmetics company Avon from 1999 to 2012 into two halves: Jung led six consecutive years of double-digit growth initially and then presided over a series of operational missteps that led to her resignation. Alas, Avon has never since recovered—its numerous restructuring efforts have failed, and its strategic and financial performance has severely deteriorated.

The Rise of Andrea Jung and Avon (1999–2005)

'Beauty Queen: Inside the Reign of Avon's Andrea Jung' by Deborrah Himsel (ISBN 113727882X) Promoted at age 41, Andrea Jung brought glamour, charm, and personal style to her CEO’s role. She quickly reshaped Avon’s image and articulated a powerful purpose for the company. She injected energy into a decaying cosmetics brand and pushed Avon into new profitable markets in China, Russia, and other countries. When Jung became CEO, 60% of Avon’s sales were in the United States; by 2011, only 17% of sales were in the United States and 70% were in developing markets.

Jung’s revival of Avon’s fortune catapulted her fame; she became one of America’s most recognized chief executives. Fortune magazine named her one of the most powerful women in the world. Jack Welch recruited her to General Electric’s board of directors.

Beauty Queen attributes this initial success not only to Jung’s inherent strengths in marketing and branding, but also to her right-hand person Susan Kropf. Kropf was a brilliant operations person, who balanced Jung’s acute lack of skills in running the day-to-day operations of a global company.

The Fall of Andrea Jung and Avon (2005–2012)

Avon’s sales started to slow down in 2005. And, Susan Kropf’s exit in 2006 corresponded with the dawn of Avon’s misfortunes. Andrea Jung never replaced Kropf; Avon was left without a chief operating officer.

As Avon started to struggle, Jung’s inadequate operations experience became a serious liability. A streak of self-inflicted problems resulted in strategic and operational disasters that took a huge financial toll and resulted in a flight of Avon’s top talent. Jung failed to deal effectively with failures of computer systems in Brazil, inadequate inventory and supply-chain management, poor management of working capital, and a staggering bribery scandal in China.

Jung’s lack of expertise to deliver results went up against her bold projections about the business’s future. Straying from Avon’s door-to-door direct selling roots, Jung experimented with a direct-selling channel, but quickly abandoned her strategy of running Avon retail stores. Her attempts to start baby-goods and other new product lines foundered after just two years. Avon’s many acquisitions failed; a silver jewelry company (Silpada) that Jung bought for $650 million had to be sold back to the original owners for $85 million.

Avon never recovered from the blunders that Andrea Jung presided over

Avon Beauty Products After Jung’s several turnaround efforts had failed to take hold, she resigned in 2011. Her replacement, former Johnson & Johnson executive Sheri McCoy, has since struggled to turn the company around.

The bribery scandal in China impaired Avon. In 2014, Avon settled the case with the Justice Department and the SEC for $135 million. To boot, Avon not only spent $350 million on legal fees, but also lost ground in the burgeoning cosmetics market in China.

Avon’s market value fell from $21 billion (1-Mar-2004) at the height of Jung’s success to $1.1 billion (15-Jan-2016). The company’s stock price fell from $44.33 to $2.50.

Lessons from Andrea Jung’s Leadership Style at Avon

Some of the most instructive leadership lessons from Beauty Queen are,

  • “Studying the trajectory of the Avon CEO is a great way to learn leadership. Andrea’s career … offers invaluable lessons about finding the right balance between substance and style.”
  • “Her story is a cautionary tale, one that suggests the critical importance of being aware of your weaknesses and how they can sabotage you.”
  • Leaders should know when to go. “If Andrea had departed in 2008, she would have left with her reputation and halo fully intact … CEOs that are successful early on often err on the side of staying too long.” [See my previous article on why leaders better quit while they’re ahead.]
  • Companies should pair up their leaders with deputies who have complementary skills to offset the Achilles’ heels of the leaders.

Recommendation: Skim through the first six chapters of Beauty Queen for an informative quick read on Andrea Jung’s rise and fall at Avon. Thumb through the next five chapters for an uninteresting discussion of broad leadership lessons and action lists in dry PowerPoint style.

Do Self-Help Books Really Help?

Do Self-Help Books Really Help?

Thousands of self-help titles are published every year with the promise of helping you lose weight, manage relationships, cope with stress, or solve personal problems. Almost all contain glowing testimonials by people whose lives have seemingly been transformed. However, taken as a whole, are self-help books merely empty assurances designed to sell a product?

Self-Help Books Bring Hope that Change is Possible

Even though self-help books have been accused of promoting the “false hope syndrome” and contain many exaggerated and untested claims, by exposing readers to a sizable dose of hope and promise, these books help readers cope with their problems and challenges, even if the books don’t necessarily make readers thin, rich, and ecstatically happy.

Self-help books can be classified as those that offer general-purpose advice (e.g. on personal growth or career success) and those that offer advice on specific, well-defined problems (e.g. transition into a management position, seeking and using advisers, managing a life transition such as pregnancy or divorce.) It is the second type of self-help books that are most effective, especially in combination with some counseling or mentoring. In fact, psychologists use the term “bibliotherapy” to identify therapy that involves reading specific texts with the purpose of healing.

A Matter of Discipline, Not Motivation

The helplessness of self-help books is not so much with the books themselves, but with the readers. Most people who buy dieting books don’t seem to lose weight. They feel no outcome whatsoever from reading the books and tend to dismiss the books as “not working.” Often, they don’t realize that losing weight and getting in shape comes not from buying and reading these books, but consuming the recommended food and practicing the weight-loss strategies and fitness regimens contained in these books.

Self-help books that offer a framework for thought and action can be effective only if readers can translate the motivation from the book to a discipline to take whatever action necessary to achieve what they desire. As I mentioned in my previous article comparing discipline and motivation, people who actually get things done are those who find a way to work at whatever they are interested in even when they do not really feel like doing it.

Idea for Impact: Self-help media (just like mentors, therapists, counselors) can motivate and teach specific skills that can produce real change, but only through discipline and regular practice.

Also, read my articles on why extrinsic motivation doesn’t work here and here.

Lessons from Sam Walton: Learning from Failure

Sam Walton (1918–1992) experienced failures and setbacks. And, like all successful people, the iconic founder of Walmart and Sam’s Club prided himself on learning from those experiences.

Lessons from Sam Walton's Autobiography: Learning from Failure

Walton’s Initial Success … and Then, in a Heartbeat, Failure

By 1950, a 32-year-old Sam Walton had established himself as a successful retailer in Newport, Arkansas. In 1945, Walton had purchased a Ben Franklin variety store and set up a five-year personal goal to make it the most profitable variety store in the region. By 1950, Walton had a record $250,000 in sales and $30,000 to $40,000 in profit (some $2.5 million in sales and $300,000 to $400,000 in profits in today’s dollars.) His success had attracted a lot of attention.

Not only that, the young Walton family—Sam, his wife Helen, and four young children—had firmly established itself in Newport. Sam and Helen were very active in the community and had taken up prominent civic and church duties.

An innocuous legal oversight cost him this success. When he had signed the lease on the property rental for his Ben Franklin variety store in 1945, thanks to inexperience and excitement at becoming a merchant, Walton had agreed to give back the landlord 5% of sales. He later discovered this was the highest any retailer had paid for rental.

More significantly, Walton had also neglected to add a clause in his lease that would give him the option to renew the lease after five years. Therefore, in 1950, when the lease on Walton’s Ben Franklin store expired, his sneaky landlord knew there was nowhere else in town for Walton to relocate his store. The landlord refused to renew Walton’s lease at any price! The landlord bought Walton’s well-established store along with its fixtures and inventory and transferred the store to his son. Walton was devastated; he had no choice but to give up his successful store. In his best-selling autobiography Made in America, Walton recalled this as the lowest point of his business life:

I felt sick to my stomach. I couldn’t believe it was happening to me. It really was like a nightmare. I had built the best variety store in the whole region and worked hard in the community, done everything right, and now I was being kicked out of town. It didn’t seem fair. I blamed myself for ever getting suckered into such an awful lease, and I was furious at the landlord. Helen, just settling in with a brand-new family of four, was heartsick at the prospect of leaving Newport. But that’s what we were going to do.

Walton family: Sam Walton, his wife Helen Walton, and four young children

Sam Walton Was Not One to Dwell on Disasters

All the hard work he had put in to build a successful store and the earning power he had established over five years had become worthless because of an innocuous mistake. Nevertheless, Walton didn’t let this disaster get him down.

I’ve never been one to dwell on reverses, and I didn’t do so then. It’s just a corny saying that you can make a positive out of most any negative if you work at it hard enough. I’ve always thought of problems as challenges, and this one wasn’t any different. I don’t know if that experience changed me or not. I know I read my leases a lot more carefully after that, and may be I because a little wary of just how tough the world can be. Also, it may have been about then that I began encouraging our eldest boy—six-year-old Bob—to become a lawyer. But I didn’t dwell on my disappointment. The challenge at hand was simple enough to figure out. I had to pick myself up and get on with it, do it all over again, only even better this time.

This Newport experience turned out to be a blessing in disguise for Walton. His family relocated to the relatively obscure Bentonville, Arkansas, for a brand-new start. Walton started over and established himself as a retailer again—only in even bigger and better ways. In 1962, Walton decided that the future of retailing lay in discounting. His strategy of buying low, selling at a discount, and making up for low margins by moving vast amounts of inventory, made Walmart the most successful retailer ever. From 1985 until his death in 1992, he was the richest man in the world.

Successful People Learn from Failure and Get On

'Sam Walton: Made In America' by Sam Walton (ISBN 0553562835) Walton’s was a typical entrepreneurial response to failure—successful people take risks, fail sometimes, but pick themselves up, ask what they can learn from the experience, and try again, even harder the next time.

On a related note, Bill Gates, the most successful entrepreneur of his generation, once said, “Success is a lousy teacher. It seduces smart people into thinking they can’t lose.”

Complement this lesson on failure with J.K. Rowling’s reflections on the benefits of failure in her famous 2008 commencement address at Harvard: “Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me…The knowledge that you have emerged wiser and stronger from setbacks means that you are, ever after, secure in your ability to survive.”

Success Conceals Wickedness

Biographies of Steve Jobs (by Walter Isaacson,) Jeff Bezos (by Brad Stone,) and Elon Musk (by Ashlee Vance)

Two common themes in the biographies of Steve Jobs (by Walter Isaacson,) Jeff Bezos (by Brad Stone,) and Elon Musk (by Ashley Vance) are these entrepreneurs’ extreme personalities and the costs of their extraordinary successes.

The world mostly regards Musk, Jobs, and Bezos as passionate, inspiring, visionary, and charismatic leaders who’ve transformed their industries. Yet their biographies paint a vivid picture of how ill-mannered these innovators are (or were, in the case of Jobs). They exercise ruthless control over every aspect of their companies’ products but have little tolerance for underperformers. They are extremely demanding of employees and unnecessarily demeaning to people who help them succeed.

  • Steve Jobs was renowned for his cranky, rude, spiteful, and controlling outlook. Biographer Isaacson recalls, “Nasty was not necessary. It hindered him more than it helped him.” Jobs famously drove his Mercedes around without a license and frequently parked in handicapped spots. For years, he denied paternity of his first daughter Lisa and forced her and her mother to live on welfare. He often threw tantrums when he didn’t get his way and publicly humiliated employees.
  • In a 2010 commencement address at Princeton, Jeff Bezos recalled his grandfather counseling, “Jeff, one day you’ll understand that it’s harder to be kind than clever.” Still, according to Brad Stone’s biography, Bezos often imparts insulting rebukes and criticisms to employees: “I’m sorry, did I take my stupid pills today?” “Are you lazy or just incompetent?” “Why are you wasting my life?” and “Do I need to go down and get the certificate that says I’m CEO of the company to get you to stop challenging me on this?”
  • According to Ashlee Vance’s biography, when an executive assistant asked for a raise, Elon Musk asked her to take a two-week vacation while he contemplated her request. When the assistant returned from vacation, Musk fired her.

“Success covers a multitude of blunders”

The great Irish playwright Oscar Wilde once remarked, “No object is so beautiful that, under certain conditions, it will not look ugly.”

The other great Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw wrote, “Success covers a multitude of blunders.”

British politician and historian Lord John Dalberg-Acton famously said, “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men, even when they exercise influence and not authority: still more when you superadd the tendency or the certainty of corruption by authority. There is no worse heresy than that the office sanctifies the holder of it. That is the point at which … the end learns to justify the means.”

Ethics Violations by NBC News Anchor Brian Williams

Ethics Violations by NBC News Anchor Brian Williams In 2015, NBC suspended prominent news anchor Brian Williams after internal investigations revealed no less than 11 instances where he either embellished facts or bent the truth. Members of his team and NBC staffers who knew about these ethics violations chose to overlook because he was powerful. According to The New York Times,

Mr. Williams has been drawing 9.3 million viewers a night, and his position seemed unassailable. Even as the stature of the nightly newscast faded in the face of real-time digital news, Mr. Williams was one of the most trusted names in America … He was powerful. Williams had the ear of NBC boss Steve Burke. He was a ratings powerhouse. And he spent years overseeing TV’s most watched newscast. He was a winner, for himself, those around him and those above him—until it became clear the man who is supposed be among the most trusted in America had issues with telling the truth.

Power Corrupts the Mind

Brilliant men and women engage in morally wrong conduct simply because they can. They can get away with extreme pride, temper, abuse, and other disruptive behaviors because their spectacular success can and does cover many of their sins, even in the eyes of those at the receiving end of their crudeness.

Our high-achieving culture adores the successful, the powerful, and the rich. And part of this adoration is the exemption we grant these celebrities from the ordinary rules of professional civility.

Idea for Impact: The more people possess power and the more successful they get, the more they focus on their own egocentric perspectives and ignore others’ interests.

Books I Read in 2015 & Recommend

In addition to a number of Rick Steves’ and Lonely Planet books for my summer-long travels across Europe, here are a few books that I read in 2015 and recommend.

  • Biography / Business: Brad Stone’s The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon is an engrossing chronicle of the obsessive hard-driving personality of its founder-CEO and the company that has played the pivotal role in the shift from brick-and-mortar retail to online retail.
  • 'Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul' by Howard Schultz, Joanne Gordon (ISBN 1609613821)Biography / Leadership: Starbucks founder Howard Schultz’s Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul is an interesting depiction of Starbucks’ turnaround after Schultz returned as CEO in 2008. Read Onward for a case study of the founder’s syndrome in action and a self-congratulatory portrait of a charismatic entrepreneur and brilliant corporate cheerleader. Read my summary.
  • Biography / Business: Ashlee Vance’s Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future is a biography of America’s current most audacious entrepreneur and Silicon Valley’s most prominent innovator. While the book details Musk’s bold leadership decisions, it also serves as a great reminder of how an extreme personality and intense success are not without their costs. Read my comments.
  • Decision-Making: Phil Rosenzweig’s Left Brain Right Stuff delineates distinct but complementary skills required for making winning decisions: logical analysis and calculation (left brain skills) and as well as the willingness to take risks, push boundaries, and go beyond what has been done before (right brain skills.)
  • 'Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!' by Richard Feynman, Ralph Leighton (ISBN 0393316041)Biographies / Mental Models: Physicist and Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman’s scientific curiosity knew no bounds. His academic life, acuity, life-philosophy, and ability to communicate science are inspirational to anyone pursuing his/her own life’s fulfillment. The following biographies capture his many scientific achievements, playfulness, varied interests and hobbies, and—perhaps most notably—his many eccentricities.
  • 'Sam Walton: Made In America' by Sam Walton (ISBN 0553562835)Biography / Business: Sam Walton’s bestseller autobiography Made in America is very educational, insightful, and stimulating. Walton inspired legions of other entrepreneurs who thrive on managing costs and prices to gain competitive advantage. Read about an important lesson from this book about cost and price as a competitive advantage.
  • Decision-Making: Suzy Welch’s 10-10-10 Rule advocates considering the potential positive and negative consequences of all decisions in the immediate present, the near term, and the distant future: or in 10 minutes, 10 months, and 10 years. Read my summary.
  • Biography / Mental Models: Walter Isaacson’s A Benjamin Franklin Reader is an excellent collection of the writings of Benjamin Franklin, one of America’s most beloved founding fathers. Franklin was a polymath renowned for his lifelong quest for self-improvement.
  • 'The Art of Stillness: Adventures in Going Nowhere' by Pico Iyer (ISBN 1476784728)Philosophy: Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness argues the importance of taking a timeout from busyness. Iyer contends, “In an age of speed … nothing could be more invigorating than going slow. In an age of distraction, nothing could feel more luxurious than paying attention.” Read my summary.
  • Biographies / Art / Philosophy: Steven Naifeh and Gregory Smith’s Van Gogh: The Life and Michael Howard’s Van Gogh: His Life & Works in 500 Images paint a vivid picture of the artistic genius and the troubled personal life of Vincent van Gogh. Ever Yours is an absorbing anthology of correspondence between Vincent and his brother Theo. Ever Yours sheds light on Vincent’s shifting moods, turbulent life, and philosophical evolution as an artist.
  • Management: Ken Blanchard and Spencer Johnson’s One Minute Manager is a best-selling introductory business book about goal-setting and giving feedback. Read my summary.
  • Biographies: Tenzing Norgay’s autobiography Man of Everest and Yves Malartic’s Tenzing of Everest portray the personal triumph of a poor and illiterate but ambitious, deeply religious explorer.

On a related note, read my article about reading hacks: How to Process that Pile of Books You Can’t Seem to Finish. Also see books I read in 2014 & recommend.