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.

Doing Is Everything

Many people know what they should do: lose weight, start exercising, stop smoking, get serious about managing careers, find a romantic partner, start saving money, and so on. Yet they can’t seem to make themselves do.

Doing is everything / Knowing is nothing

You know what to do, but you don’t do it!

It is told that long ago in China, a reclusive monk climbed up a tree in a forest. He settled comfortably and sat there in deep meditation, undisturbed by the outside world.

That became his everyday routine.

People from hamlets in the vicinity adopted him. They approached him with offerings and discussed their affairs. And he imparted his wisdom.

His fame soon spread everywhere. Visitors from far-flung towns trekked to the forest for his counsel.

Folks started calling him Birdsnest for the reason that he perched high up his tree.

On one occasion, the local king learned of Birdsnest and set forth to see him. After an arduous journey, the king located Birdsnest’s tree.

The king hollered at the monk trying to seek his attention. “O wise one, I have an important question to ask of you.”

The king waited for Birdsnest. No response came.

The king tried repeatedly to evoke Birdsnest, but didn’t succeed.

The king grew impatient waiting for Birdsnest.

Eventually, the king became irritated and shouted out, “I can wait no longer! Here is my question. Say, what is it that all the wise ones taught? What is at the heart of all the teachings of the great masters? What is the most profound thing the Buddha ever said?”

The king lingered around Birdsnest’s tree for a long time.

Finally, Birdsnest summoned the king. Holding a meditative poise, Birdsnest declared, “At all times, do good things. Don’t do bad things. This is all the Buddha said. This is what the wise men instructed.”

The king became infuriated.

Birdsnest continued to meditate with a gentle half smile behind his eyes. He was obviously toning down the power of the Buddha’s wisdoms.

The king screamed, “I can’t believe this impertinence! Is that all you’ve got for me? Do good things and don’t do bad things. I knew that when I was three years old, you blithering fool!”

The afternoon sun filtered in through the trees as Birdsnest looked down from his perch. His compassion and matter-of-factness radiated out from your heart. He sympathetically acknowledged, “Indeed, the three-year-old knows it. Yet the eighty year-old finds it very difficult to do!”

The Knowledge-Action Gap

'The Now Habit' by Neil Fiore (ISBN 1585425524) One of the most insidious obstacles to your success in life is the chasm between knowing and doing—between thinking about something and acting on it, between ideating and implementing.

Your ideas may be impressively simple, but accomplishing them with discipline and steadiness can be very, very difficult indeed. This is the knowing-doing gap.

Ruminate about what stops you from accomplishing the things you need to do, want to do, and know how to do, but can’t get to do. Usually, your alleged obstacles—your boss, parents, spouse, children, colleagues, situations—are but excuses. When you sincerely unearth the reasons for your putting things off, you’ll realize that, by and large, it’s you who are sabotaging yourself.

Yes, occasionally, you may face a few genuine external obstacles. Nevertheless, in the grand scheme of things, you usually have the power to overcome them or work around them.

Transform your thoughts into action

Procrastination is a Breakdown of Self-Discipline

As I have stated in my previous articles, procrastination is weakness of will. Chronic procrastination is a recurrent breakdown of self-discipline.

The overpowering emotion associated with chronic procrastination is guilt. These feelings of guilt are not just specific to the task you’re dodging, even though, at the time of procrastination, your mind may be full of qualms and repentance under the direct influence of your putting off the dreadful task. More accurately, the guilt you feel about your chronic procrastination is the outcome of not living up to your full potential and not authentically engaging in the many possibilities life presents you.

'When Things Fall Apart' by Pema Chodron (ISBN 1611803438) It takes courage to face your anxieties, to forge ahead despite your feelings, and to act. Self-improvement begins with self-reflection. And self-reflection derives from self-compassion. The renowned Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön wrote about self-compassion in her wonderfully reassuring classic When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, “The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.”

Don’t hunt for motivation. As I’ve asserted in previous articles, motivation is glorified as a personal trait. While it is beneficial to be motivated, folks who actually manage to 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: Make 2017 the Year of Getting Things Done

Transform your thoughts into action.

Put your ideas into practice.

Don’t let excuses, apologies, indolence, or a lack of motivation get in the way.

Knowing is nothing.

Doing is everything.

The Power of Sharing Your Goals

Seek the Positive Effect of Goal-Accountability

This research from the Dominican University of California suggests that writing down your goals, sharing them with friends, and sending your friends regular updates about your progress can improve your chances of accomplishing your goals. The research implies that

  • People who merely thought about their goals and how to reach them accomplished their goals less than 50% of the time.
  • In contrast, people who wrote down their goals, enlisted friends for them, and sent them regular progress reports succeeded in attaining their goals 75% of the time.

Let Your Goals Guide You

  • Put your goals in writing. Writing down goals can be a strong motivator. Use the SMART technique to avoid being vague about your goals. Connect each goal to a larger purpose, be specific, use action verbs, include measurable outcomes, and stipulate target dates for completion.
  • Enlist the help of others. If you can identify a friend or coworker who may share a goal, team up with them. Convince the other person to go to the gym, quit smoking, or share healthy meals with you regularly. A partner can help you stay motivated and committed.
  • Seek a mentor. Look for role models who may have struggled with goals similar to yours or already achieved the goals. Ask them for advice and suggestions.

Idea for Impact: Seek the Positive Effect of Goal-Accountability

Committing to friends, family, or coworkers on goal-directed actions and making yourself accountable can impel you to stay on course and reach your goals.

Write your goals down, share them with others, provide them regular updates, and ask them to keep you on your toes.

Stop Trying to Change People Who Don’t Want to Change

Stop Trying to Change People

Change is seldom as easy as we think it will be

Consider how many people engage in smoking, obesity, problem drinking, procrastination, rage, and other self-defeating behavioral patterns. Despite being fully aware of the negative consequences of their behaviors, these people tend not to change.

Many people are unsuccessful when they try to change their own behavior. People are creatures of habit, and habits evolve over time. They become so deep-seated and instinctive that people are often oblivious to the behaviors and consequences that their habits drive.

It is therefore very hard to change old habits even when they’re bad. Consequently, people find themselves incapable or reluctant to make essential changes in their lives. They discover that habits are persistent and necessitate many consistent repetitions to change. Even when they are motivated enough to change, long-lasting change entails much commitment, consistency, and discipline.

When do people change?

The American self-help author Tony Robbins once wrote, “Most people are unhappy with some area of their life, but are not unhappy enough to actually do something about it. Unfortunately, 90% of people fall is this category.”

People typically don’t change because someone tells them that they need to. Many people change from their own accord as the result of physiological vicissitudes in their lives or from psychological impositions of external circumstances: transition to adolescence, retirement, becoming a parent, a job loss, or the death of a spouse, for example. Nevertheless, very few people change from within—deliberately, willingly, and on-purpose.

People don’t change until they think they need to

The Italian astronomer and philosopher Galileo Galilei once said, “You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him find it within himself.” Helping people change involves helping them want to change, instead of trying to persuade them through guidance, counsel, urging, social pressure, or other forms of inducement.

People don't change until they think they need to Therapists (and mentors, coaches, and managers) are most successful in bringing about long-lasting change only in people who are intrinsically motivated to make the change. Therapists have little success with people who have no interest in changing.

Effective therapists explore, understand, and tweak their clients’intrinsic motivations toward change. They understand their client’s motivations, listen to any reluctance about change, and sensitively try to fortify those elements of their clients’ intrinsic motivations that may favor and hence facilitate the intended change.

Idea for Impact: When people do not want to change, don’t try to change them

As children, spouses, parents, friends, managers, and colleagues we are continuously attempting to point out others’ errors and expecting them to change. Even when our concerns are genuine and our attempts to change others are sincere, we often fail to bring about real behavioral change because people don’t change until they think they need to. So, don’t try to change people when they do not want to change.

They may change in a short time, but unless there is a compelling reason or a significant emotional event that astonishes them to change, people go back to their natural state.

Harboring expectations of being able to change can only lead to frustration and futility. Therefore, as the Buddha taught, lower your expectations of people, appreciate people as they are, and thus raise your own joys. Alternatively, find the people who have the behaviors you want and teach them the skills they need to be productive.

Don’t Push Employees to Change

Don't Push Employees to Change One of managers’ most common complaints relates to their failure to persuade their employees to change.

Having high expectations of employees can lead to bitter disappointment. The frustration that comes from employees not wanting to change causes many managers to focus on their employees’ negative qualities. Such an attitude makes it easy to find errors in employee behavior, leading to more disappointment—even resentment.

Even when an employee wants to change, he often fails to because he is pulled in two directions: by a motivation to change and by a motivation to maintain the status quo. Since change is seldom as easy as we think it will be, the motivation to maintain the status quo often triumphs.

The real reason employees (and people in general) don’t change is that underneath each employee’s commitment to change, he has an underlying, even stronger commitment to something else, as identified his intrinsic motivation.

Employees Resistant to Change For instance, an employee who expresses a desire to earn a promotion may avoid tougher assignments on his current job because he may be anxious about not measuring up. This employee may not even be fully aware of his own opposition. Therefore, managers are best served by understanding what truly motivates (and limits) each employee—i.e. his elements of intrinsic motivation. Only then can managers, through coaching and feedback, impel the employee to change by channeling the levers of extrinsic motivation (rewards, salary raise, fame, recognition, punishment) through one of the employee’s elements of intrinsic motivation.

Idea for Impact: Trying to change people will result in frustration and futility. Employees may change for a short time, but unless they have a compelling reason for change, they will go back to their natural state. Managers must temper their expectations about changing employees. As the Buddha taught, one way to lessen disappointment in life is to learn to lower your expectations of others.

Eight Ways to Keep Your Star Employees Around

Eight Ways to Keep Your Star Employees Around

Every manager should make employee retention a priority and regularly inquire, “How many of my star employees would leave my organization if they could?”

Employee turnover can be expensive. Managers must find and hire replacements, invest in training the new employees, and wait for them to get to up to speed—all while suffering productivity shortfalls during the transition. The more talented an employee, the higher the cost of replacing him/her.

Here’s what you need to do to keep your star employees around.

  1. Identify them. Find key attributes that distinguish top performers from average performers. Then rank your team against these attributes and identify those employees who are critical to your organization’s short- and long-term success.
  2. Perform salary and compensation research within your industry and offer an attractive-enough benefits package. Beyond a particular point, compensation loses much of its motivating power. Consider flexible work arrangements.
  3. Understand what your star employees value and help them realize their values and regard their work as meaningful, purposeful, and important. Often, the risk of losing employees because their personal values don’t correspond with the team’s values is far greater than the risk of losing them because of compensation.
  4. Get regular feedback from your star employees. Ask, “What can I do as your manager to make our organization a great place for you to work?” Let them tell you what they need and what they like and don’t like about their jobs. Adjust their assignments and their work conditions accordingly.
  5. Invest in training and development. Give star employees opportunities to develop their skills and increase their engagement and job security. Hold frequent and formal career discussions to determine employees’ goals and aspirations and coach them.
  6. Give your star employees the autonomy, authority, and resources to use their skills and do their jobs in their own way.
  7. Keep them challenged and engaged. Make work more exciting. Set aggressive, but realizable goals. Move your star employees around into positions in the company where they will face new challenges and develop critical skills. Employees would like to be challenged, appreciated, trusted, and see a path for career advancement.
  8. Appreciate and give honest feedback regularly. Make timely and informal feedback a habit. Don’t disregard employee performance until the annual review. Help employees feel confident about your organization’s future. Earn their trust.

To Inspire, Pay Attention to People: The Hawthorne Effect

The Hawthorne Effect: When managers pay attention to people, better morale and productivity ensue

The Hawthorne Experiments

Sociologist Elton Mayo’s Hawthorne Experiments marked a sea change in industrial and organizational psychology. In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Mayo led this famous series of experiments on workers’ productivity at a Western Electric factory in the Chicago suburb of Hawthorne.

The experiments’ initial purpose was to study the effects of workers’ physical conditions on their productivity. The lighting in the work area for one group of workers was dramatically improved while another group’s lighting remained unchanged. The productivity of the workers with the better lighting increased.

The experimenters found similar productivity improvements when they improved other working conditions, viz., work hours, meal and rest breaks, etc. Surprisingly, the workers’ productivity increased even when the lights were dimmed again. In fact, even when everything about the workplace was restored to the way it was before the experiments had begun, the factory’s productivity was at its highest level.

Recognition and even simple acknowledgment can give people a boost

When Elton Mayo discussed his findings with the workers, he learned that the interest Mayo and his experimenters had shown in the workers made them feel more valued. They were accustomed to being ignored by management.

Mayo concluded that the workers’ productivity and morale had not improved because of the changes in physical conditions, but rather from a motivational effect—the workers felt encouraged when someone was actually concerned about their workplace conditions.

'The Social Problems of an Industrial Civilisation' by Elton Mayo (ISBN 0415436842) The Hawthorne Experiments understood the individual worker in a social context. The resulting insight was that employees’ performance was influenced not only by their own innate abilities but also by their work environment and the people they work with. Mayo wrote in The Social Problems of an Industrial Civilisation, “The desire to stand well with one’s fellows, the so-called human instinct of association, easily outweighs the merely individual interest and the logic of reasoning upon which so many spurious principles of management are based.”

Over the decades, the methodology and conclusions of the Hawthorne experiments have been widely debated. Yet the key takeaway is profound: when managers pay attention to people, better morale and productivity ensue.

Idea for Impact: Employee engagement is the very heart of effective management

Inspire your employees by asking them how they are doing. Let them in on the plans for your organization, seek their opinions, recognize them, appreciate their work, and coach and give them feedback.

Even a little appreciation and praise can go a long way to boost employee morale. The desire for recognition is a basic human need; and managers can easily fulfill this need with the aim of bringing out the best in people.

Identify Your #1 Priority and Finish It First

Identify Your #1 Priority and Finish It First

“He who every morning plans the transactions of the day and follows out that plan carries a thread that will guide him through the labyrinth of the most busy life. The orderly arrangement of his time is a like a ray of life which darts itself through all his occupations. But where no plan is laid, where the disposal of time is surrendered merely to the chance of incident, chaos will soon reign.”
Victor Hugo

“A Guaranteed Formula for Success”

Ivy Lee's A popular legend recalls a time management trick that efficiency expert Ivy Lee showed to Charles Michael Schwab (1862—1939,) the American steel magnate and President of Bethlehem Steel, then the second largest steel manufacturer in the United States.

Lee famously advised Charles Schwab and his managers to list and rank their top priorities every day, and work on tasks in the order of their importance as time allows, not proceeding until a task was completed. After implementing the suggestion, Charles Schwab famously said that Lee’s method for managing priorities had been the most profitable advice he had ever received and paid him $25,000.

When Charles Schwab was president of Bethlehem Steel, he confronted Ivy Lee, a management consultant, with an unusual challenge. “Show me a way to get more things done,” he demanded. “If it works, I will pay you anything within reason.”

Lee handed Schwab a piece of paper. “Write down the things you have to do tomorrow.”

When Schwab had completed the list, Lee said, “Now number these items in the order of their real importance.”

Schwab did, and Lee said, “The first thing tomorrow morning, start working on number one and stay with it until it’s completed. Then take number two, and don’t go any further until it’s finished or until you’ve done as much with it as you can. Then proceed to number three and so on. If you can’t complete everything on schedule, don’t worry. At least you will have taken care of the most important things before getting distracted by items of less importance.

“The secret is to do this daily. Evaluate the relative importance of the things you have to get done, establish priorities, record your plan of action, and stick to it. Do this every working day. After you have convinced yourself that this system has value, have your people try it. Test it as long as you like, and then send me a check for whatever you think the idea is worth.”

Mary Kay Ash Helped Her Beauty Consultants Juggle Spouse, Children, and Career

'You Can Have It All' by Mary Kay Ash (ISBN 0761501622) Mary Kay Ash, American beauty products entrepreneur and founder of Mary Kay Cosmetics, had a variation to this technique. In You Can Have It All, she writes:

Each night, I put together my list for the following day. If I don’t get something on my list accomplished, it goes on the next day’s list. I put the hardest or most unappealing task at the top of the list. This way, I tackle the most difficult item first, and once it’s out of the way, I feel my day is off to a good start.

Mary Kay Ash taught her cosmetics sales consultants this technique of prioritizing their work and thus avoid being stretched too thin. Most of Mary Kay’s cosmetics sales consultants were women filling multiple roles as mother, wife, and businesswoman.

We try very hard to get our consultants to organize themselves. The best way I have found is a little pad of paper we issue called “The Six Most Important Things.” I teach consultants to write down the six most important things they have to do the next day every night before they go to bed. I suggest that people organize things by priority. First, put the thing they most don’t want to do at the top. Then write down the six most important things—not sixteen, because this is frustrating, but six.

Idea for Impact: Squeeze the Most out of Your Day

The best way to start your day is by accomplishing something instead of fiddling around with email or contemplating the day’s priorities. So, every evening, before you leave the office, write down the most important tasks you’ve got to get done the next day. Leave it on your desk along with any support material you need to work on it. This will help you get rolling first thing in the morning.

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.