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.

Competition Can Push You to Achieve Greater Results

“A Great Rival is Like a Mirror”

The competition between American tennis stars Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi became the dominant rivalry in tennis during the ’90s. With their remarkably different styles and temperaments, the two produced a great number of remarkable games. Between 1989 and 2002, Sampras won 20 of their 34 head-to-head matches, of which Sampras won four of the five Grand Slam finals they played. Sampras also held the world No. 1 spot for a record 286 weeks whereas Agassi held it for 101 weeks.

'Open: An Autobiography' by Andre Agassi (ISBN 0307388409) Asked how his rivalries helped and hurt him in the October 2015 issue of Harvard Business Review, Agassi (who is married to tennis legend Steffi Graf) recollected:

A great rival is like a mirror. You have to look at yourself, acknowledge where you fall short, make adjustments, and nurture the areas where you overachieve. There were times my rivals brought out the best in me; there were times they brought out the worst. They probably helped me win things I never would have otherwise; they also cost me titles. I don’t know how you quantify what it would have been like without a rival like Pete Sampras. I would have won more. But I think I would have been worse without him.

Idea for Impact: The risk of being outdone by a closely matched rival can push you further

A certain amount of competition can be helpful when it motivates you and doesn’t result in stress or hurt your personal relationships.

Push yourself past the familiarity and safety of your comfort zone by pursuing some healthy competition. Leaving your comfort zone helps you grow, transform, and feel stronger from the experience.

How to Increase Your Likeability: The 10/5 Rule

Air India Maharajah illustrating the 10/5 Rule of Customer Service The 10/5 Rule, also known as the “Zone of Hospitality Rule,” is a well-known guiding principle for extending courtesy to customers in the hospitality, healthcare, retail, and other service industries. The rule instructs,

  • Whenever a staff member is within ten feet of a guest, the staff member must make eye contact and smile to greet the approaching guest.
  • When a staff member is within five feet of a guest, the staff member must also look the guest in the eye and acknowledge him/her with a salutation such as “Hello” or “Good Morning, Mrs. Smith.”

Many companies have adapted versions of the 10/5 Rule to improve friendliness, customer-service, and responsiveness. As I’ve written in a previous article, Walmart’s iconic founder Sam Walton instituted the ‘Ten-Foot Attitude’ and said, “… I want you to promise that whenever you come within 10 feet of a customer, you will look him in the eye, greet him, and ask him if you can help him.” At Disney theme parks, “cast members” are encouraged to make eye contact, smile, greet, and welcome each guest as part of Disney’s famous “Seven Service Guidelines.”

Courtesy is an Influence Technique

'How to Win Friends & Influence People' by Dale Carnegie (ISBN 0671027034) As expounded in Dale Carnegie’s classic self-help book How to Win Friends & Influence People, we are much more likely to feel warmly toward any person who sincerely makes us feel good about ourselves.

Likeable people not only succeed in their personal relationships, but also tend to be more successful at the workplace. Indeed, highly competent but unlikeable employees do not thrive as well as their moderately competent but more likeable peers.

Idea for Impact: Be courteous. Even simple acts of courtesy (making eye contact, smiling more, listening, showing sincere interest in others, for example) work as an influence technique because folks are much more likely to do things for—and accede to requests from—people they perceive as likeable.

The More You Believe in Yourself, the Less You Need Others to Do It for You

If you’re like most people including me, you struggle with criticism. You find criticism harsh and unhelpful because criticism strikes at the very conflict between two deep-seated human desires—the desire to be accepted just the way you are and the desire to learn and grow. Consequently, even a nonthreatening comment can leave you feeling uneasy, irritated, angry, and vulnerable.

The More You Believe in Yourself, the Less You Need Others to Do It for You Your sensitivity for disapproval is often justified. Your detractors aren’t perhaps thinking straight. When they pass judgments about you, their critical pronouncements often reveal a great deal about themselves and little about you. Psychologists contend that critics, in offering their disapprovals, are subconsciously projecting their own insecurities, pessimism, and fears onto you.

Most people are driven by emotions and not hard evidence. They tend to impulsively estimate your merits, instead of evaluating you thoughtfully. Therefore, when you confront those inevitable disapprovals, disappointments, and setbacks, don’t pity yourself and feel sorry for the conditions you face in life. Don’t get hung up on waiting for others to give you positive strokes. Give yourself gratitude for your efforts, and choose to get back up, dust yourself off, and move on.

'The Meditations of Marcus Aurelius Antoninus' by A.S.L. Farquharson (ISBN 0192827901) Life isn’t easy for anyone. But it could be made easier by valuing yourself when you confront adversity, hardships, and disapprovals. As the Roman Emperor and Stoic Philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote about the art of forbearance in Meditations (trans. A.S.L. Farquharson,)

Remind yourself of the kinds of things you have passed through and the kinds you have had strength to endure; that the story of life is written and your service accomplished. How many beautiful things have been revealed, how many pleasures and pains you have looked down upon, how many ambitions ignored, to how many unkind persons you have been kind!

Coaching, feedback, advice, criticisms, and comments are great tools that can help you learn and grow, but only when they come from the right people—benevolent people who are knowledgeable, understanding, supportive, and, most importantly, have your best interests at heart. When they come from others, the best response is to listen, mull them over objectivity (Was the criticism offered in good faith? Was the criticism true?), and disregard them if they don’t seem justified.

Idea for Impact: When people try to tell you who you are, consider them with a grain of salt. You are the sole curator, guardian, and defender of your integrity and your sense of self-worth. So, don’t sweat when others think less than you actually are. Care less for what other people think. Believe in yourself.

A Grateful Heart is a Happy Heart: Book Review & Summary of Janice Kaplan’s ‘The Gratitude Diaries’

At one dismal New Year’s Eve party, veteran author and journalist Janice Kaplan heard a woman gripe and grumble. While reflecting on this experience, Kaplan realized that she herself had much to be grateful for, but frequently wasn’t. She resolved to “spend the coming year seeing the sunshine instead of the clouds.”

That self-declaration was the genesis of an inspiring yearlong experiment in living gratefully and concluding that being thankful really does offer a conduit to happiness.

'The Gratitude Diaries' by Janice Kaplan (ISBN 1101984147) Kaplan recounts her transformation “from grumpy to grateful” in her book The Gratitude Diaries: How a Year Looking on the Bright Side Can Transform Your Life (2015.)

Throughout the 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 become my own social scientist. I wanted to see what happened when I developed an attitude of gratitude.”

Here are a few highlights from The Gratitude Diaries:

  • Kaplan started her yearlong gratitude experiment by appraising her marriage and recognized all over again what a good man her husband was. “When you expect everything, it’s hard to be grateful for anything. So I decided that now was the time to put aside impossible expectations and start appreciating [my] husband.” After she expressed appreciation to her startled husband, “the warm feelings between us [grew] stronger than ever…. Gratitude was making us both a lot happier.”
  • Discussing the importance of not overlooking one’s blessings, Kaplan writes, “We get used to something—whether a husband, a house, or a shiny new car—and then forget why it seemed so special in the first place.”
  • One month, Kaplan instituted a “no-complaining zone.” Writing about the need to emphasize life’s positives over its negatives, Kaplan mentions, “If you can change something that’s making you unhappy, go ahead and change it. But if it’s done, gone, or inevitable, what greater gift can you give yourself than gratitude for whatever life did bring?”
  • Kaplan discusses the story of her heartfelt and earnest reconciliation with her sister. This meaningful experience was the beginning a “new friendship” and had both women “appreciating the good in the moment rather than fussing about the past.”
  • Kaplan concludes, “gratitude lodged deeper and deeper into my heart and soul…. Gratitude affected how I looked at every event that happened. Being positive and looking for the good had become second nature—and that made me much happier.” And, “by living gratefully, I’d had the happiest twelve months I could remember.”

'The Gratitude Diaries' by Janice Kaplan

Recommended: Speed Read. Janice Kaplan’s The Gratitude Diaries confirms that gratitude truly is an attitude—how you feel has less to do with events that occur in your life and more to do with your attitudes. Kaplan’s experiment substantiates that keeping a gratitude journal boosts your sense of wellbeing. With interviews on gratefulness with psychologists, friends, and other thankful people, The Gratitude Diaries encourages you to pause, take stock of your blessings, and be grateful for what you have in life in order to make life more pleasant, gratifying, and peaceful.

The Art of Taking Action: Use The Two Minute “Do-it-Now” Rule

The Art of Taking Action: Use The Two Minute Do-it-Now Rule

Many tasks that people tend to procrastinate on aren’t really difficult to do. People have the ability, energy, and time to undertake such tasks, but just aren’t disciplined enough to not dodge starting them for one reason or another.

One particular habit that robs people of time is putting all their tasks on a to-do list, prioritizing the list, and then tackling the tasks by priority. But it’s often wiser to skip the to-do list and simply do many tasks immediately. This constitutes the Two Minute Do-it-Now Rule, a discipline popularized by David Allen in his bestselling time management book, Getting Things Done. This rule directs you to act immediately on a contemplated task if it can be completed in less than two minutes.

  • You’ll not only save the time it takes to put the task on your to-do list, but also prevent the buildup of tasks hanging over your head.
  • By limiting the time you’re allocating to get the task done, you can finish it more efficiently and avoid being perfectionistic about it. (See my previous article on Parkinson’s Law, which states that work tends to expand to fill up the time you give it.)
  • You’ll avoid procrastination by getting the task done straightaway and not letting it fall through the cracks. Therefore, this technique has the added advantage of making you appear responsive.

Idea for Impact: Don’t put a task on your to-do list if you can get it done within two minutes. You’ll be surprised at how many tasks you tend to put off that you could get done in two minutes or less.

Cope with Anxiety and Stop Obsessive Worrying by Creating a Worry Box

Stop Obsessive Worrying

Most worry is ultimately fruitless

Worries and concerns trouble us all. We waste valuable time worrying about things. As the American motivational author Leo Buscaglia once wrote, “Worry never robs tomorrow of its sorrow, it only saps today of its joy.”

In a previous article, I suggested a mindfulness exercise to help you realize the temporal nature of worry. I also emphasized that most of your anticipated adversities will never occur.

Despite the transitional nature of anxiety and worry, mental anguishes can overwhelm your mind. Sometimes these negative emotions can spill over and seep into the fabric of your day.

Obsessive anxiety and worry can wreak havoc on your body. Stress from worrying about life’s many “what ifs” can actually manifest in physical and medical problems, if you let them. For instance, say you are troubled about an upcoming exam in your least favorite course at college. Your worrying could become so compulsive that your apprehensions about the exam could interfere with whatever else is going on in your life. If unchecked, your worry could manifest in higher acid levels in your stomach. Then, you may start worrying about developing stomach problems if you don’t stop worrying. Your worries thus snowball and consume even more of your time.

Writing about your anxieties and worries can help you cope with current concerns

An effective way to stop agonizing and let go of troubling thoughts is to keep a “worry box.”

  1. Stop Obsessive Worrying by Creating a Worry Box Find a box and designate it as your worry box. Keep it in a handy location. (A “worry journal” may be just as effective.)
  2. Whenever you feel drowned in worries or have anxious thoughts circulating ceaselessly in your mind, take a piece of paper and jot down each worry as it arises. Write down as much about your worries as you feel like writing.
  3. Drop your note into the worry box. Try to imagine mentally letting go of your concerns. Turn your attention to other matters.
  4. Every so often, empty your worry box and throw away your worry notes without looking at them. If you want, you could read them—you will be surprised to see how many of your worries feel unfounded in hindsight, but were in fact seriously troubling in the immediate storms of distress.

Idea for Impact: Maintaining a “worry box” to deposit your anxieties and worries can help you break free from them and prevent them from disrupting your life.

How to Leave Work at Work

Employees are expected to be 100% on

Leave Work at Work There was once a time when people went to work, clocked in, put in their hours, clocked out, and forgot all about work until the next day. They fully disconnected from work and took real vacations. They maintained a healthy separation between their work time and their personal time.

Alas, those good times are long gone. Today’s challenging and competitive workplace demands of people not only their stamina to work exceptionally hard but also their hearts-and-minds’ commitment to bring creativity and insight to their efforts.

The pressure to constantly prove themselves is also exacerbated by how modern society judges people by their professional and financial successes—what they do, what they’ve accomplished, and how quickly they’ve accomplished it.

People are expected to be 100% on, take work home, and check in during their vacations. The upshot is that many people have real trouble turning work off. Work-related thoughts encroach upon their off-work hours. Some even lose sleep or wake up in the middle of the night thinking about their work.

Don’t bring work home in your head

  • Get a Life. Have a life to go to after you leave work. Develop a rich social life. Invest more time in your relationships. Get involved in absorbing activities, events, and hobbies. Schedule fun activities—you’ll have something to look forward to at the end of your workday.
  • Organize your workday. Structure your schedule to prevent hustling through work towards the end of the day. Be realistic about what you want to accomplish. In the middle of the afternoon, review the tasks ahead. Prioritize, reorganize, and pace yourself to wind down your workday. Do not answer phone calls or email during the last hour.
  • Organize and prioritize your next day’s schedule before you leave your office. Clean off your desk at the end of each day. This not only brings about a feeling of order and completion, but also helps you tune down and free up your mind.
  • Create a buffer between work and home. Stop by a gym, go shopping, or visit a friend. After you get home, change clothes, go for a walk, or do something relaxing to mark the transition and create a relaxed mindset for the evening.
  • Vent if necessary. Ask your loved ones to give you a few minutes to “let it out.” Expect them to just listen and be non-judgmental.
  • Don’t bring work home. Leave your briefcase, laptop, reports, and work-related reading at your desk.
  • Disconnect. Modern technology makes it easier for you to stay connected, but also makes it more difficult than ever to leave work at work. Leave your laptop at work. Turn off email and instant messaging on your phone. Resist the temptation to check your email on the family computer. Don’t visit the business center at the hotel when you’re on vacation.
  • Delegate and cross-train your staff to handle some of your responsibilities while you’re away.
  • Stop checking in with the office, especially when you’re on vacation. Your team will get along fine without you around. Crises will get managed, production will continue, customers will continue to be satisfied, and you’ll still have your job when you return. Let your team know how to find you in a dire emergency, but ask them not to bother you with the inconsequential stuff.

Idea for Impact: Don’t let work take over your life. Establish boundaries.

Don’t let your work run you. Don’t take work home literally (in your bag/briefcase or on your laptop) or figuratively (in your head). Enjoy your downtime.

Learn to disconnect from work unreservedly and spend time with your family. Play with the kids. Quality time with your loved ones is often more rewarding than your time at work. And perhaps by doing less work, you may end up loving your job more.

“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.

Lessons on Self-Acceptance from Lee Kuan Yew: Life is what you make of it

'From Third World to First: The Singapore Story' by Lee Kuan Yew (ISBN 0060197765) Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew (1923–2015) was one of the greatest statesmen of the post-WWII era. As Singapore’s quasi-authoritarian leader, Yew transformed his small, resource-poor city-state into an economic powerhouse. (I recommend Yew’s excellent memoir From Third World to First: The Singapore Story.)

Yew’s reply to a question about his perspective on the meaning of life (8:50-minute mark in this video) includes nuggets of wisdom on self-acceptance.

Life is what you make of it. You are dealt a pack of cards. Your DNA is fixed by your mother and your father … . Your job is to make the best of the cards that have been handed out to you. What can you do well? What can you not do well? What are you worse at?

If you ask me to make my living as an artist, I’ll starve, because I just can’t draw… . But if you ask me to do a mathematical question or to argue a point out, I’ll get by. Those are the cards I was handed out, and I make use of them.

Don’t try and do something you are not favored by nature to do.

Pursue Perfect Acceptance, Not a Perfect Life

One of the most effective ways to make positive change in life is to recognize and make peace with parts of yourself that are not innate (or “hard-wired”) in you. Robert Holden emphasized in Happiness Now, “Happiness and self-acceptance go hand in hand. In fact, your level of self-acceptance determines your level of happiness. The more self-acceptance you have, the more happiness you’ll allow yourself to accept, receive and enjoy. In other words, you enjoy as much happiness as you believe you’re worthy of.”

  • 'Now, Discover Your Strengths' by Marcus Buckingham (ISBN 0743201140) Know your limitations. Despite the nudging of countless motivational speeches, you can’t learn to be competent in everything you attempt or think you have a passion for. You can only be great at a few things. Recognize your flaws and do what you’re good at. Indeed, your strengths contain your greatest potential for growth. As Marcus Buckingham argued in his bestselling Now, Discover Your Strengths, discovering and pursuing your strengths is vital to being happier and more productive.
  • Learn to play the hand you’ve been dealt. Don’t engage in wishful thinking. Don’t cry out, “If I only life were different … if only these problems wouldn’t exist, I would …” One of the great realities of life—one that is difficult but important to acknowledge—is that you do not have as much control in life as you would like to have.

Idea for Impact: The key to self-improvement is self-acceptance. Accept reality. Accept yourself. Identify the limits of your abilities and your time and say no to things you know you can’t do well.