“Can you recommend a book for…?”

“What are you reading right now?”

“What are your favorite books?”

I get asked those types of questions a lot and, as an avid reader and all-around bibliophile, I’m always happy to oblige.

I also like to encourage people to read as much as possible because knowledge benefits you much like compound interest. The more you learn, the more you know; the more you know, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more opportunities you have to succeed.

On the flip side, I also believe there’s little hope for people who aren’t perpetual learners. Life is overwhelmingly complex and chaotic, and it slowly suffocates and devours the lazy and ignorant.

So, if you’re a bookworm on the lookout for good reads, or if you’d like to get into the habit of reading, this is for you.

It’s not just a list of books that I’ve liked–it’s a list of books that have strongly influenced my ideas, attitudes, and behaviors, and that I think everyone who wants to be better than they are now needs to read.

I truly believe that if you read these books with an open mind, you are guaranteed to improve along the way, and probably in ways that will surprise you.

Happy reading!

The War of Art

By Steven Pressfield

the war of art

Contrary to the title, it’s not just for artists. It’s for anyone that wants to make a good life for themselves and their families.

It’s a tribute to persistence and industry, and some of its core messages are…

Don’t just wander through life from pillar to post. Find something that matters to you and pursue it passionately.

Don’t whine about how much hard work it takes to succeed. Learn to love the work and despise failure and quitting, instead.

Don’t let your feelings dictate your actions. What you want is rarely what you need, and you can create the right feelings by taking the right actions.

Don’t wait for inspiration. That’s how amateurs stay amateurs. Do the work, grind it out, and eventually you’ll get inspired.

These bits of advice are all well and good, but what really makes it stand out among the many other books that say many of the same things is it doesn’t just tell us what we “should” be doing to succeed, which is pretty commonsensical, really, but it goes deeper, and tries to get at WHY we find it so hard.

The biggest obstacle in our way, Pressfield says, is something he calls “Resistance,” which is the central theme of the book.

He defines Resistance as a mysterious force within us that works to sabotage our dreams and abilities and prevent us from creating the life that we really want.

Pressfield points out that most of us have two lives—the life we live, and the unlived life within us—and Resistance’s sole mission is to ensure that we never realize that unlived life. That we remain small, weak, and unhappy.

That’s why Resistance resists any act that rejects immediate gratification in favor of long-term growth, health, or integrity. It will tell us anything to keep us from doing any of those things. It will feed us all kinds of enticing excuses, justifications, and bargains. You know…we’re too tired right now…we can just do it later…we’ve been working hard enough or maybe even too hard…why not start next week…does it really matter?…is it really that important?

We’ve all been there, and I think Pressfield is right that this alone is one of the biggest barriers that we face in creating the type of life that we want.

My 5 Key Takeaways from The War of Art

1

If the Muse exists, she does not whisper to the untalented.

My Note

The famous painter and photographer Chuck Close is famous for saying that “inspiration is for amateurs–the rest of us just show up and get to work.”

It think that’s 100% spot-on, and you can replace “inspiration” with “motivation” as well. If you or I or anyone decide to wait for the right mixture or intensity of feelings before we will do the things that we know we should be doing to get to where we want to go, we’re doomed. The only reliable way to feel “inspired” or “motivated” is to create the feelings through action. It’s the feeling of forward motion and momentum that inspires and motivates us to keep going, not the mysterious inner workings of our unconscious minds.

2

Like a magnetized needle floating on a surface of oil, Resistance will unfailingly point to true North — meaning that calling or action it most wants to stop us from doing. We can use this. We can use it as a compass. We can navigate by Resistance, letting it guide us to that calling or action that we must follow before all others. Rule of thumb: The more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel toward pursuing it.

My Note

(If my note here sounds familiar, it’s because I decided to include it in The Little Black Book. ?)

The fact that something is hard isn’t a sign that it’s probably not worth it. The struggle is the point. The struggle is how it signals its worth and potential to transform. The fact that it’s hard isn’t a sign that you don’t belong in the arena. The struggle is how you prove you’re worthy.

Epictetus, the influential Greek philosopher, wrote about this in his Discourses:

What would have become of Hercules do you think if there had been no lion, hydra, stag or boar – and no savage criminals to rid the world of? What would he have done in the absence of such challenges?

Obviously he would have just rolled over in bed and gone back to sleep. So by snoring his life away in luxury and comfort he never would have developed into the mighty Hercules.

And even if he had, what good would it have done him? What would have been the use of those arms, that physique, and that noble soul, without crises or conditions to stir him into action?

The moral of this simple allegory extends far beyond the tales of Greek mythology. It strikes at a fundamental aspect of human nature: We can only be as great as our circumstances demand.

3

Grandiose fantasies are a symptom of Resistance. They’re the sign of an amateur. The professional has learned that success, like happiness, comes as a by-product of work. The professional concentrates on the work and allows rewards to come or not come, whatever they like.

My Note

I’m all for hitching your wagon to a star and dreaming big dreams, but if you’re not willing to work at least ten times as hard as you think you’ll have to work to actually see those dreams come to fruition, you’re almost guaranteed to fail. One of the hallmarks of a true professional is he or she focuses almost exclusively on the work, and rarely mentions anything else.

4

Someone once asked the Spartan king Leonidas to identify the supreme warrior virtue from which all others flowed. He replied: ‘Contempt for death.’ For us as artists, read ‘failure.’ Contempt for failure is our cardinal virtue.

My Note

This extends to everyone, not just artists, and I think it should include not just contempt for failure, but contempt for hard work, for pain and discomfort, for setbacks, for naysayers, for anything physical, emotional, or spiritual that might get in our way.

Many of the greatest achievers in history all had this type of dismissive attitude toward obstacles and barriers. They didn’t really care how difficult their goals were going to be, how hard they were going to have to work, or how much they were going to have to sacrifice. They just threw themselves wholly and completely into their endeavors.

5

The years have taught me one skill: how to be miserable. I know how to shut up and keep humping.

My Note

This strikes at what I think is one of the greatest predictors of long-term success and achievement: how much distress and discomfort can someone endure on a given path before giving up? Or, viewed differently, how much does he or she value being comfortable?

Simply put, the more effort and pain someone is willing to push through, and the more he can resist the desire to lie around and consume things that make him feel good, the more likely he is to be able to make his dreams a reality.

You can push yourself a lot further than you realize, and you can endure far more hardship than you think, so don’t sell yourself short. You don’t need to break yourself every day, but you can easily go well outside of your comfort zones without any real consequences. Furthermore, the more you do this, the more your capacity to stretch yourself expands, allowing you to accomplish more and more without feeling like you’re exerting yourself or suffering any more than before.

Mastery

By Robert Greene

mastery

If you want to know how to create more purpose, meaning, and satisfaction in your life, and how to find more material and interpersonal success while you’re at it, then you want to read this book.

This is one of my all-time favorite success/self-development books and one that I regularly gift and recommend to others because I attribute much of my own success in business and other areas of my life to the lessons found in Mastery—lessons that I believe can transform anyone’s life for the better if they’re truly taken to heart.

The premise of the book is simple: any one of us can become an elite performer in a skill or field if we simply embrace and embody established attitudes and behaviors that have produced past and current champions, and more importantly, that every one of us should strive toward greatness if we want to lead fulfilling lives.

I think these messages are sorely needed because they’re in stark contrast to much of our mainstream culture, which is producing more and more people who are less and less interested in self-actualization than worshipping and pursuing meaningless materialism, entertainment, and distractions, and who are then dismayed when they realize that their lives feel hollow and insignificant.

This philosophical argument was explored in another book that I recommend called All Things Shining, wherein philosophy professors Hubert Dreyfus and Sean Dorrance Kelly argue that throughout history, we’ve placed tremendous importance and value in notions of sacredness and meaning, but since the Enlightenment, we’ve moved away from these concepts as a consequence of the radical political changes that saw individual autonomy rise above the social order imposed by a God or king. In short, when we abandoned religious and royal dogmas, we tasked ourselves to identify what’s meaningful and what isn’t, and quite frankly, we haven’t done a very good job of it. Hence, the creeping nihilism and widespread malaise of modern life.

There’s a pragmatic argument for choosing mastery over mediocrity as well, as our current economy pays a huge premium to people who are willing to do the hard, deep work necessary to demonstrate mastery–if you want to make a lot of money, get so good at something that people can’t ignore you and you’re halfway home–and tomorrow’s economy is going to demand mastery, as more and more simple, shallow, redundant work will be passed off to machines.

My 5 Key Takeaways from Mastery

1

People who do not practice and learn new skills never gain a proper sense of proportion or self-criticism. They think they can achieve anything without effort and have little contact with reality. Trying something over and over again grounds you in reality, making you deeply aware of your inadequacies and of what you can accomplish with more work and effort.

My Note

Confidence is important, but if it’s not based on a realistic appraisal of who you are and what you can do, it’s mere smugness and delusion. Self-esteem is a hot topic these days, especially with children, and I don’t think we can just conjure it up in ourselves by thinking the right thoughts or saying the right words or give it to kids through coddling or osmosis. The only way any of us, young or old, can develop self-esteem is by working hard at things that we can’t do until we can do them and repeat the process.

2

The future belongs to those who learn more skills and combine them in creative ways. And the process of learning skills, no matter how virtual, remains the same.

In the future, the great division will be between those who have trained themselves to handle these complexities and those who are overwhelmed by them—those who can acquire skills and discipline their minds and those who are irrevocably distracted by all the media around them and can never focus enough to learn.

My Note

In the industrial economy of old, people were paid to crank widgets for a few decades until they retired. Those days are long gone. In today’s information economy, more and more of the rewards are being reserved for people that can quickly learn how to do complicated things.

3

Mastery is not a function of genius or talent. It is a function of time and intense focus applied to a particular field of knowledge.

My Note

Many people mistakenly think that masters rely mainly on inborn talent and genius to produce extraordinary works, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Research shows that there’s little connection between natural aptitude and mastery, and that with enough “deep” or “deliberate” practice, even the most modest beginner can become a virtuoso.

4

Too many people believe that everything must be pleasurable in life, which makes them constantly search for distractions and short-circuits the learning process. The pain is a kind of challenge your mind presents— will you learn how to focus and move past the boredom, or like a child will you succumb to the need for immediate pleasure and distraction? Much as with physical exercise, you can even get a kind of perverse pleasure out of this pain, knowing the benefits it will bring you. In any event, you must meet any boredom head-on and not try to avoid or repress it. Throughout your life you will encounter tedious situations, and you must cultivate the ability to handle them with discipline.

My Note

Our culture no longer promotes the development of discipline through seeking out challenging situations, enduring the initial wave of confusion, frustration, and boredom they produce, and continually sacrificing our present lives for the benefit of our future lives.

Instead, we actively avoid whatever is difficult and uncomfortable and decry life’s challenges as unfair and people’s criticisms as hurtful. Even our self-help books speak in soft tones, telling us what we want to hear instead of showing us how far we still have to go if we’re going to have any hope of living a good life.

5

If you are doing something primarily for money and without a real emotional commitment, it will translate into something that lacks a soul and that has no connection to you. You may not see this, but you can be sure that the public will feel it and that they will receive your work in the same lackluster spirit it was created in.

My Note

Every line of work has its share of drudgery, but if you can’t get fired up about the essence of your work–the writing, programming, selling, personal training, whatever–it’s going to show in the details. The best work in every field is always produced by people that are absolutely obsessed with their crafts, and every one of us can find something valuable that we can be obsessed with doing, too.

The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

By Stephen Covey

the 7 habits of highly effective people book review

If you want to gain more control over your life and destiny and aren’t afraid of facing subjects that many people find unpalatable, like responsibility, integrity, long-term thinking, and self-mastery, then you need to read this book.

In it, Covey takes you by the hand and says . . .

“Look, if you want to live a good life, you can’t be an irresponsible, self-absorbed, insolent, small-minded, unenlightened, judgmental, delusional little child.”

“You might be able to bullshit your friends, family, and even yourself, but you can’t bullshit the universe.”

“For whatever reason, there are some basic rules to this game of living and if you work with them, you can win. Flout them and you’ll lose.”

He then lays out…in way too many words…his ideas about what makes people effective and ineffective in life, and I wholeheartedly agree with many of his assessments.

There’s a reason why it’s on just about every “books you have to read list”–it’s full of powerful insights that, if internalized, can truly change your life.

I have to warn you though: you’re probably not going to like reading it, mainly because Covey isn’t much of a writer. It’s twice as long as it should be and a lot of the prose is purple, but it’s well worth the slog.

My 5 Key Takeaways from The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

1

That which we obtain too easily, we esteem too lightly. It is dearness only which gives everything its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price on its goods.

My Note

These days, too many people wear themselves to a frazzle chasing easy.

They don’t want processes and paradigms, they want shortcuts and handouts. They don’t want to plant in the spring and tend in the summer to earn a harvest in the fall, they want to shirk and slack and reap a bounty they didn’t sow.

This is particularly bad with today’s youth. Generation Why–why’s it gotta be so hard?

Well, what they fail to realize or accept is nothing truly easy is worth doing. Easy is boring and bland. It’s the wormy fruit that fell off the tree days ago. Nobody respects easy.

One of the greatest lessons we can learn is that the most difficult way is, in the long run, often the easiest. By doing the hard work that most people don’t want to do, we can obtain the results they most wish they had.

2

The way you spend your time is a result of the way you see your time and the way you really see your priorities.

My Note

When people say they “don’t have time” for things, it’s usually bullshit. What they’re really saying is they don’t really want to do them.

There’s very little we’re actually incapable of, there’s only our sense of urgency and necessity.

If you have any doubts–if you truly think that you don’t have time to get your workouts in or read books or whatever else– record how you spend every minute of every day for the next week and then review how much time you wasted on less important or even fruitless activities.

I did this myself recently simply because I think it’s a healthy exercise to do every so often. It not only allows you to evaluate the worthiness of what you are doing with your time, it also allows you to weigh your actions and activities against what you’re not doing.

Remember: our character is comprised of our attitudes and actions, and our attitudes are largely determined by our actions, so practically speaking, who we are is simply a reflection of how we spend our time.

3

People are intrigued when they see good things happening in the lives of individuals, families, and organizations that are based on solid principles. They admire such personal strength and maturity, such family unity and teamwork, such adaptive synergistic organizational culture. And their immediate request is very revealing of their basic paradigm. “How do you do it? Teach me the techniques.” What they’re really saying is, “Give me some quick fix advice or solution that will relieve the pain in my own situation.”

My Note

I don’t believe in glib, ready-made roadmaps and formulas for happiness and success. There are too many personal and circumstantial variables, so the tactics that have worked for me may not work for you, and vice versa.

I do believe, however, that there are fundamental laws and principles that can provide us with guidance and direction and help us chart more fruitful and satisfying courses in our lives. One of the reasons I really liked this book is I think it hits on some of these laws and principles, including the importance of principled living, accepting full responsibility for our conditions in life, doing the right things because they’re right, even when it’s hard, and more.

4

If our feelings control our actions, it is because we have abdicated our responsibility and empowered them to do so.

My Note

Some of the most ineffective people I know live almost exclusively according to their feelings, which manifest as whims and impulses, whereas some of the most effective people I know live according to deep-seated values that they express through purposeful work.

The former suffer a sense of personal powerlessness and pointlessness, and their lives are an aimless wreck, lacking in any structure or fixed points of reference.

The latter, on the other hand, have chosen to internalize and organize themselves around specific, carefully considered ideals and standards, like courage, generosity, or industry, and their lives are marked by orderly progression and expansion.

5

…real success is success with self. It’s not in having things, but in having mastery, having victory over self.

My Note

Socrates once said that we should be less concerned with what we have than with what we are, and those words couldn’t be more relevant today.

First, there are the millions of people that think they’ll be happy when they have the thing–the job, money, girlfriend or boyfriend, or whatever. This never works. Once you have the thing, the goal posts just shift and it’s no longer good enough. You now believe that you need the next thing.

Second, self-love is all the rage right now, and especially in the health and fitness space. According to the hordes of Insta-philosophers, we should just accept ourselves the way that we currently are, blemishes and all, and stop insisting that we should be something more.

Why the hell we would want to do that?

If we abandon the quest to gain dominion over ourselves, we’re also going to abandon our self-respect because, let’s face it, we’re going to have a hard time truly liking ourselves. And who can blame us? How can we delight in our inability to control our feelings, actions, and lives? How can we celebrate a virtual absence of self-mastery? How can we admire the magnitude of our ignorance and incompetence?

We might be able to figure out how to lull ourselves into a sort of nihilistic apathy or psych ourselves up with superficial self-talk, but deep down, we know the truth: real, lasting self-esteem comes from victory over ourselves, from true independence.

The ONE Thing

By Gary Keller and Jay Papasan

the one thing

This is one of the books that I have recommended most to people that want to be more successful in business and life.

It’s short, has very little filler content (much appreciated), and delivers a powerful and practical message, which can be summarized in a question:

What’s the ONE THING I can do such that by doing it everything else will be easier or unnecessary?

In other words, how can we go beyond merely “being busy” in any area of our lives and develop a sense of the essential?

Napoleon once said that a military commander should be slow in deliberation and swift in execution, and the authors of this book think we should apply that advice to all areas of life. That we should, before acting, pause long enough to decide what really matters, and then allow that to drive our days.

One of the reasons I find this concept so compelling is I think that modern living is, in many ways, an embarrassment of riches.

We have more freedom and options in every aspect of our lives than ever before, and that’s why I think a major part of achieving success and fulfillment in any of them is identifying the things that will produce a disproportionate share of the results–you know, the 20% that produces the 80%.

Therefore, success is more about doing the right things than doing everything right. It’s not about developing superhuman discipline and endurance, it’s about exerting just enough effort and self-control to establish the right habits–the ones that make everything else easier or unimportant.

For example, in terms of health and fitness, those habits would include controlling your caloric and macronutritional intakes, and regularly eating nutritious foods and doing effective resistance training workouts.

If that’s all you knew and did, you could ignore almost everything else in the health and fitness space and have a lean, muscular, healthy body for the rest of your life.

In terms of work, it really depends on your business or career. In my case, it’s creating content — articles, podcasts, books, videos, and the like. If that’s all I did, ignoring every other idea and opportunity that came my way, my brand and companies would keep growing.

My 5 Key Takeaways from The ONE Thing

1

We hear about balance so much we automatically assume it’s exactly what we should be seeking. It’s not. Purpose, meaning, significance— these are what make a successful life. Seek them and you will most certainly live your life out of balance, criss-crossing an invisible middle line as you pursue your priorities. The act of living a full life by giving time to what matters is a balancing act. Extraordinary results require focused attention and time. Time on one thing means time away from another. This makes balance impossible.

My Note

The idea that you should strive to keep all aspects of living in some magical state of perfect balance never really made sense to me, simply because extraordinary results require extraordinary sacrifices of time, attention, and energy.

There’s just no way around it. You can’t, all at once, create an extraordinary career, family life, social life, and personal life. Something has to go. You’re going to have to choose what matters most and give it all the time it demands, and that means your life is going to get pretty unbalanced, which you’ll then have to correct from time to time.

In my case, I focus on my work and family. I’d say that about 80% of my waking hours are spent working or spending time with my family, 10% are spent eating and exercising, and the remaining 10% is mainly spent educating myself or pursuing a hobby or pet project of some kind.

That probably sounds like torture to some people, but I wouldn’t have it any other way.

For me, happiness and fulfillment lies in being active and engaged and taking on more responsibility, as opposed to being passive, disconnected, and unaccountable.

2

Achievers operate differently. They have an eye for the essential. They pause just long enough to decide what matters and then allow what matters to drive their day. Achievers do sooner what others plan to do later and defer, perhaps indefinitely, what others do sooner. The difference isn’t in intent, but in right of way. Achievers always work from a clear sense of priority.

My Note

If we do that, we’ll inevitably focus on the things that most people delay and defer, sometimes indefinitely — you know, the hard things, the uncomfortable things, the complicated things, the unexciting things, the exhausting things — and work and live from a clear sense of priorities, not a compulsive “busyness.”

3

Do your most important work— your ONE Thing— early, before your willpower is drawn down.

My Note

Most people start their days with a full tank of mental energy and willpower, and every decision that they make — whether they’re going to snooze their alarm or go to the gym, what clothes they’re going to wear, what they’re going to eat for breakfast, and everything else that the day has in store — progressively diminishes these reserves.

Some of us are more mentally resilient than others, but at some point, we all run out of cognitive bandwidth and become more susceptible to illogical and impulsive behaviors.

This is known as “decision fatigue,” and one of the easiest ways to inoculate yourself against it is to eliminate distractions and decisions that don’t really matter. Reserve your energy and willpower for the activities that are critically important.

4

We usually succeed in spite of most of what we do, not because of it.

My Note

The key to success isn’t in all the things we do but in the handful of things we do well.

Therefore, you can gain a lot from evaluating the various compartments of your life and deciding in clear terms what you want, and then working backward to identify the actions that will be most productive, and making those your number one priority.

It’s the difference between waking up every day and asking “what shall I do?” or “what SHOULD I do?” Without a sense of purpose and direction, it doesn’t really matter because whatever you do will get you somewhere. But when you can say you want to go in THAT direction for THIS reason, then you can know what you SHOULD be doing. It inculcates a natural sense of priority.

5

I cannot believe that the purpose of life is to be happy. I think the purpose of life is to be useful, to be responsible, to be compassionate. It is, above all, to matter, to count, to stand for something, to have made some difference that you lived at all.

My Note

Research shows that people are very bad at predicting what will bring them sustained happiness. The Great Western Disease is “I’ll be happy when…I buy that house…find that guy or girl…get that job…”

I believe that true, lasting happiness can’t be pursued but can only ensue from personal dedication to a course greater than oneself — a course that gives us compelling reason to endure all the effort, chaos, and pain that must be faced if we’re going to live a full, rewarding life.

Getting Things Done

By David Allen

Getting Things Done by David Allen.

If you’d like to know how to get more done every day with less worry, confusion, and stress, then you need to read this book.

Unlike other productivity books that focus mostly on changing specific behaviors, adopting certain attitudes, or cultivating various habits, Getting Things Done is all about getting organized.

Ironically, I think the book itself was rather poorly organized (and too dry and long-winded), but it’s worth the slog.

Its premise is simple: the more organized your mind, work, and life is, the easier it’ll be for you to do the things that you need to do to get the results that you want.

It doesn’t just talk about these things, either — it provides you with a system that you can immediately implement to see how the principles work for you.

The goal of this system (“GTD,” as it has come to be known) is to help you turn anything that has your attention (concerns, worries, problems, issues, tensions, etc.) into achievable outcomes to be executed with concrete next actions.

It’s hugely popular because it’s simple and practical — requiring nothing more than a handful of lists and folders (online or offline), and a calendar — and it pays emotional dividends quickly. Within your first week of using GTD, you’ll probably notice more mental energy and clarity and less friction and stress.

My 5 Key Takeaways from Getting Things Done

1

There is always more to do than you can do, and you can do only one thing at a time. The key is to feel as good about what you’re not doing as about what you are doing at that moment.

My Note

One of the biggest “secrets” to high productivity is doing what you’re doing when you’re doing it. That’s why multitasking sucks, and why the inability to fully concentrate on one task for long periods of time makes it impossible to produce a lot of high-quality work.

2

I suggest that you use your mind to think about things, rather than think of them. You want to be adding value as you think about projects and situations, not creating stress by simply reminding yourself they exist and you need to do something about them.

My Note

You might be surprised at how much energy and attention you waste every day on maintaining a mental laundry list of to-do’s and don’t-forget’s — energy and attention that could be used creatively and productively, instead.

3

Your work is to discover your work and then with all your heart to give yourself to it. — Buddha

My Note

As someone who loved Robert Greene’s Mastery and Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow, this quote resonated with me. ?

4

Doing a straightforward, clear-cut task that has a beginning and an end balances out the complexity-without-end that often vexes the rest of my life. Sacred simplicity.

My Note

I’ve always found that work can be both a refuge from and antidote to the chaoses and complexities of life. No matter what’s giving me trouble in my life, staying productive always helps me better deal with it.

5

You often need to make it up in your mind before you can make it happen in your life.

Many of us hold ourselves back from imagining a desired outcome unless someone can show us how to get there. Unfortunately, that’s backward in terms of how our minds work to generate and recognize solutions and methods.

My Note

Positive visualization may or may not actually help you accomplish your goals, but clearly and completely outlining and envisioning desired results before taking action or even figuring out what action to take is commonsensical but rarely done.

The Lessons of History

By Will Durant

lessons of history

If you want to gain some much-needed perspective on the current political, social, and economic zeitgeist, and get an informed idea of what will come next, then you need to read this book.

Because whether we’re talking our (extremely entertaining) political pageantry, (extremely troubling) racial and social antagonisms, or (extremely naive) grievance and entitlement worship, know this:

It has all happened before and, human nature being what it is (hardened), it will play out again in more or less the same ways.

So yes, let’s look doe-eyed to Washington to solve all our problems, conveniently forgetting that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, and that every system of government we’ve ever created has ultimately been destroyed by crooks and villains.

Right, let’s enthrone the ideas that we have no personal responsibility for the conditions we face in life and that the individual exists only to serve the collective whole, conveniently forgetting that these beliefs have resulted in some of the most tyrannical and deadly regimes in all of history.

Sure, let’s burn the rich and redistribute all their wealth, conveniently forgetting the catastrophic consequences of the French Revolution.

Durant’s wife Ariel said it well:

“The present is the past rolled up for action, and the past is the present unrolled for understanding.”

If you want to better understand and navigate the world as it is, then you want to better understand and navigate it as it was. It’s that simple.

My 5 Key Takeaways from The Lessons of History

1

Since practical ability differs from person to person, the majority of such abilities, in nearly all societies, is gathered in a minority of men. The concentration of wealth is a natural result of this concentration of ability, and regularly recurs in history. The rate of concentration varies (other factors being equal) with the economic freedoms permitted by morals and the laws.

My Note

I think this elegantly summarizes why there will always be “haves” and “have nots”, and why Marxist ideologies are fundamentally flawed and will never produce anything but more death and suffering.

As we’ve seen, even when you take from each according to ability and give to each according to need, inequality still grows. People are not born equal in physical and psychological capacities and character, and no matter how many declarations or constitutions we write, this will never change because more than anything else, nature loves differences and is engaged in a never-ending process of selection and evolution. Therefore, some people just come better supplied to meet the tests of survival than others and, accordingly, more often come out on top in the various competitions of life, including business and moneymaking.

The most obvious example of this is what we saw in the 19th century in England and America, with laissez-faire capitalism, where men of outsized ambition and ability built the foundations of modern society as we know it in just a few decades and, despite their many sins and abuses, raised the average person’s standard of living to a level never before seen in history.

All this is why people who whine about how “unfair” it is that others have more than them are almost always below average in ability and initiative and have very little to show for themselves, and why I don’t think you or I or anyone else owes them anything. There’s absolutely no shortage of money and opportunity to any of us in first-world countries, and I’m wholly convinced that with enough grit and hard work, anyone who’s in good physical and mental health can develop a skillset and work ethic that allows them to earn at least $75,000 per year–about the point where the emotional benefits of income drop off precipitously for most people–regardless of their upbringing, education, or anything else, and that anyone that hasn’t done this yet is, whether they realize it or not, is choosing not to.

2

Generations of men establish a growing mastery over the earth, but they are destined to become fossils in its soil.

My Note

Humility is a powerful virtue, and especially for people like me who tend toward aggression and enterprise, because while these qualities are useful, they can also lead to dangerous arrogance. Thus, simple, Stoical reminders like this are worth reflecting on.

3

Let it be our pride that we ourselves may put meaning into our lives, and sometimes a significance that transcends death.

My Note

I believe that life is inherently meaningless and if we don’t strive to give ours meaning and purpose, it won’t amount to much. This is why I personally am more driven to achieve significance and nobility than “happiness,” because 1) I don’t think happiness can be pursued but must ensue as the side-effect of how we conduct ourselves, and 2) dedicating my efforts to a course greater than myself is more satisfying than chasing pleasurable stimuli.

4

So the conservative who resists change is as valuable as the radical who proposes it–perhaps as much more valuable as roots are more vital than grafts. It is good that new ideas should be heard, for the sake of the few that can be used; but it is also good that new ideas should be compelled to go through the mill of objection, opposition, and contumely; this is the trial heat which innovations must survive before being allowed to enter the human race. It is good that the old should resist the young, and that the young should prod the old; out of this tension, as out of the strife of the sexes and the classes, comes a creative tensile strength, a stimulated development, a secret and basic unity and movement of the whole.

My Note

A timely reminder that the conservative elements of a society or group play a vital role in its overall health by enshrining what works in culture and law and resisting the proposed changes of progressive thinkers who have the burden of proving their ideas will, in fact, be better than the status quo.

5

Consider education not as the painful accumulation of facts and dates and reigns, nor merely the necessary preparation of the individual to earn his keep in the world, but as the transmission of our mental, moral, technical, and aesthetic heritage as fully as possible to as many as possible, for the enlargement of man’s understanding, control, embellishment, and enjoyment of life.

My Note

Simply put: I think that people who don’t consistently educate themselves on how to be and do better in life have very little chance of reaching even a merely satisfactory existence, let alone an extraordinary one.

Nobody comes into this world with all the knowledge and wisdom needed to do all the right things well and make all the right decisions at the right times, and the only way to escape this ignorance and increase our odds is education.

That’s why almost all of the most effective and successful people I’ve known and read about spent tremendous amounts of time educating themselves in many areas, and were still painfully aware of how little they knew in the grand scheme of things.

Deep Work

By Cal Newport

deep work

If you want to know how to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in your work and life in less time, then you need to read this book.

This is one of my favorite books I’ve read this year and one I will definitely be reviewing regularly.

In it, Cal defines deep work as “the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task,” and he argues that it’s the skill that will most help you achieve excellence in everything that you do and enjoy the deep sense of fulfillment that comes from reaching a level of true craftsmanship.

In short, Cal believes that deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy, which is going to be radically transformed by smart and capable machines. Furthermore, this skill is becoming rarer and rarer as more and more people surrender more and more of their time to the frenetic whirlwind of email, social media, and on-demand entertainment, which means those that do master it will be in great demand and enjoy the lion’s share of success.

I particularly enjoyed this book because it’s part social commentary, part theory, and part practical. Cal articulates his personal philosophy for work and living, which really resonated with me, and makes a strong case for the importance of cultivating the ability to do deep work, and then provides a simple but powerful regimen for actually developing that ability.

I’ve implemented several of the strategies outlined in the book and enjoyed immediate results in terms of increased productivity and satisfaction, and I think you can, too.

My 5 Key Takeaways from Deep Work

1

In this new economy, three groups will have a particular advantage: those who can work well and creatively with intelligent machines, those who are the best at what they do, and those with access to capital.

My Note

Cal says that he believes the two most important abilities for thriving in the economy of the not-so-distant-future are:

  1. The ability to quickly master hard things.
  2. The ability to produce at an elite level, in terms of both quality and speed.

And I think he’s absolutely right. If we don’t want to be replaced by machines in the next couple of decades, we’d better be able to do things they won’t be able to do, and we’d better be really good at those things, because competition is going to be fierce.

Furthermore, the single faculty that will most determine how well we can achieve those objectives is the one most under assault in our current culture: focus. The ability to focus deeply and solely on a single task at hand, and for long periods of time.

As Cal says in the book, “High-Quality Work Produced = (Time Spent) x (Intensity of Focus).”

2

The Principle of Least Resistance: In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.

My Note

I’ve found this to be very true in not only in work but all areas of life. It’s very easy to shy away from short-term discomfort at the expense of long-term satisfaction, and in many ways, our culture is engineered to help us do just that.

As far as work goes, the trap is avoiding the hard, intense work that will really move the needle, like product formulation, market research, and content creation, by wallowing in shallow, low-value work instead, like email, social media, and meetings.

As far as the rest of life goes, try this for the next 30 days: put more thought into your leisure time. Instead of defaulting to whatever might catch your attention at any given moment, like addictive websites or TV shows, think about how else you could spend your downtime. Maybe you could pursue hobbies or personal interests? Maybe you could try getting more involved in your community? Maybe you could sneak in some much-needed exercise?

For example, I watch very little TV and instead use most of my away-from-work time to work out, read books, learn German, and do outside-the-house activities with my family, and it pays huge dividends in terms of physical, mental, and emotional health and well-being. That, in turn, greatly enhances my ability to do deep work by improving my ability to deeply focus on tasks at hand and stay in that state for long periods of time.

The bottom line is if you don’t do this—if you don’t give yourself specific things to do outside of work—you’ll always find the many shiny, barren objects around you alluring.

3

We who cut mere stones must always be envisioning cathedrals.

My Note

Most activities, work and otherwise, tend to follow a U-shaped emotional curve, and when you’re in the middle—the “dip,” as Seth Godin puts it—it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture, the why, and with it your motivation to keep showing up and putting in the work.

Well, this quote is a nice reminder when you’re in the trenches of the dip every day slugging it out. I come back to it regularly myself. Some people like to say I’m building a fitness “empire,” but that’s a little too braggadocious for my liking. Fitness cathedral has a nicer ring, I think. ?

4

If you want to win the war for attention, don’t try to say “no” to the trivial distractions you find on the information smorgasbord; try to say “yes” to the subject that arouses a terrifying longing, and let the terrifying longing crowd out everything else.

My Note

This is so true. If we’re going to take back control of our attention and minds, we need a very good reason to forego all the many forms of instant gratification immediately available to us at all hours of every day. The only type of reason that will ever be good enough is an interest, goal, or ambition that we feel drawn toward above everything else, a burning curiosity or desire that drowns out all the noise.

For me, that’s reading and writing. I enjoy many aspects of business and marketing, but the one thing that most keeps me going is learning, interpreting, explaining, and persuading. For whatever reason, I’m just compelled to do it.

5

I build my days around a core of carefully chosen deep work, with the shallow activities I absolutely cannot avoid batched into smaller bursts at the peripheries of my schedule. Three to four hours a day, five days a week, of uninterrupted and carefully directed concentration, it turns out can produce a lot of valuable output.

My Note

If you organize and tackle your work in batches according to type (as opposed to regularly jumping between different types of tasks) and reserve three to four of your best hours every day for your most important deep work, you might be surprised how much meaningful production you can get done. It’s one of the best productivity “hacks” you can find.

I myself do it like this: mornings are my best energy- and focus-wise, so unless something is on-fire urgent, my first three to four hours of the day are for writing. These days I’m working on a new book, several digital courses for Muscle for Life, and articles for my blogs at MFL and Legion. Then, after my writing is done, I do all of my email in one go, which can take anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours. If I have podcasts, calls, or meetings, they’re almost always in the afternoons (intentionally scheduled that way), and if not, I usually have miscellaneous tasks to do related to running my businesses. I also find that I enjoy writing at night, so if I’m going to be working after dinner, it’s almost always that and not shallower activities.

This basic schedule has served me incredibly well over the years and has allowed me to maintain a steady, high productive output without putting me at risk of burnout, mentally or physically.

Benjamin Franklin

By Walter Isaacson

benjamin franklin

If you look into the reading habits of extremely successful people, you’ll notice that many of them spend a lot of time reading biographies and autobiographies.

For example, top Nike designer and entrepreneur D’Wayne Edwards attributes much of his unlikely professional success to a biography of Jackie Robinson that inspired him to endure great hardship.

Elon Musk has also spoken many times about his love of biographies of brilliant inventors and entrepreneurs, including Howard Hughes, Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla, and, fittingly, Benjamin Franklin.

There are several reasons why this type of literature is so popular among overachievers.

First, we humans love good stories, and if someone has a book dedicated to his or her life, chances are it’s because they have an unusual and compelling story to tell.

Second, biographies are the ultimate in self-improvement literature because they provide you with wide-ranging, raw, and unfiltered information that as opposed to pre-digested morsels. Unlike most self-help books, biographies aren’t making carefully crafted arguments intended to sell you on particular ideas, strategies, or ideologies—they’re showing you the real-world results of very different paradigms for thinking and living, which you can then assess and analyze to formulate your own highly individual lessons and takeaways.

In this way, a biography is a “choose your own adventure” of sorts, and can resonate in very different ways with each and every reader.

So, with that, let’s talk about this week’s book, which is widely considered to be the definitive biography of Benjamin Franklin, and a book that sits on the “must read” lists of many notable people.

I loved it for several reasons:

First, I’m a bit of an Isaacson fanboy. He’s not only an outstanding researcher, writer, and storyteller, but he has also worked his ass off for decades to hone his craft and establish himself as one of the premier biographers of our times.

Second, I think that Franklin was a man worth modeling in many ways. What spoke most to me was his intense curiosity, diligence, persistence, practicality, lightheartedness, congeniality, and relentless drive to improve both his life and the lives of others. The world could use more Franklins.

Third, I’ve always enjoyed American history and the Revolutionary period in particular, and as Franklin played a pivotal role in both the winning of the war and creation of America, I was already inclined to like the book.

The bottom line is if you’re already into biographies but haven’t read this one yet, I promise it won’t disappoint. Similarly, if you’ve never read a biography before and my pitch has sold you on giving it a go, this is a great place to start.

My 5 Key Takeaways from Benjamin Franklin – An American Life

1

To pour forth benefits for the common good is divine.

My Note

Franklin sincerely believed in leading a virtuous life and serving the country he loved, and despite what you might hear from some of the more degenerate members of society, many highly accomplished people have a very similar philosophy in life.

I’ve met many wildly successful people in my life—millionaires, multi-millionaires, and even a couple billionaires—and one of the first things that struck me about almost all of them is how genuinely nice and caring they are, and how much they go out of their way to help others without anything expected in return. The enjoyment they get from being of service is pay enough.

2

Let this be a caution to you not always to hold your head so high. Stoop, young man, stoop— as you go through this world— and you’ll miss many hard thumps.

My Note

Many of the overachievers I’ve known (and read about) have also been exceedingly humble. So much so that it has made me uncomfortable more than once because I couldn’t help but feel arrogant in comparison, which is a pathology that I really don’t want to develop. I’m all for cultivating self-confidence, but there’s a big difference between growing as an individual and swelling.

3

I would rather have it said,” he wrote his mother, “ ‘He lived usefully,’ than, ‘He died rich.

My Note

According to research conducted by Nobel-prize winning scientists at Princeton, the happiness derived from making money tends to level off at around $75,000 per year.

In other words, if you’re like most people, as your income rises toward that number, your spirits also rise, but once you reach it, the effects plateau. Thus, going from $35,000 to 75,000 per year can make you markedly more cheerful, while going from $75,000 to 150,000 per year is much less likely to positively impact your happiness.

Why $75,000, you’re wondering? Well, here’s how the researchers explained it:

“More money does not necessarily buy more happiness, but less money is associated with emotional pain. Perhaps 75,000 dollars is a threshold beyond which further increase in income no longer improve individuals’ ability to do what matters most to their emotional well-being, such as spending time with people they like, avoiding pain and disease, and enjoying leisure.”

The research team also found that the wealthy were generally more satisfied with their lives than the middle class, but this wasn’t a function of their wealth per se. Instead, it stemmed more from what they had to do to acquire it—the games they had to play and win at to make the money.

I’ve experienced this personally and seen it in many high net worth people that I’ve had the pleasure of knowing and interacting with. Most of them realized long ago that there’s very little happiness to be found in consumerism, and so many have turned to donating considerable amounts of their time and money to charitable causes that they believe in and finding ways to help who they like.

4

Those who met with greater economic success in life were responsible to help those in genuine need; but those who from lack of virtue failed to pull their own weight could expect no help from society.

My Note

I believe that everyone should have equal access to legal justice and educational opportunity, but I fundamentally disagree with the notion that able-bodied people should be able to contribute nothing to society yet receive its many benefits in the form of handouts, suffrage, goodwill, and so on. As Franklin said, people who don’t pull their own weight and offer something of tangible, exchangeable value to the group should expect nothing in return.

5

As we enjoy great advantages from the invention of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours, and this we should do freely and generously.

My Note

As you can tell, Franklin felt very strongly about the importance of serving others and viewing it as a privilege, not a burden, and this is something I remind myself of regularly. Our forebears made tremendous sacrifices just so I can sit here and write this and you can sit and read it, and we can pay it forward by doing the same, giving freely and generously of ourselves for the sake of future generations.

Elon Musk

By Ashlee Vance

elon musk

In case you’ve just arrived to Earth and spend most of your time in orbit, Elon Musk is one of the most fearless entrepreneurs around these parts. He was one of the founders of Paypal, and he used the money he made there to create SpaceX, Tesla Motors, and Solar City, which are space exploration, electric car, and solar energy companies, respectively.

Elon’s genius, vision, work ethic, courage, and integrity has earned him billions of dollars and a cult of personality, and rightfully so, if you ask me. His story is a master lesson in the power of big think, hard work, and iron will, and we’re lucky to have people like him working for the betterment of humankind and not selling more knicknacks or creating new ways for us to waste time on our smartphones.

My 5 Key Takeaways from Elon Musk

1

The guiding principle at SpaceX is to embrace your work and get stuff done. People who await guidance or detailed instructions languish. The same goes for workers who crave feedback.

My Note

The world is starved for people that have initiative — people that are willing to venture out into unknown territories and risk time, money, and effort on new and untried things that may ultimately come to nothing.

If you can develop this trait in yourself, it’s one of the easiest ways to increase your earning and career potential because there are, right now, an infinite number of problems that need solving, just waiting for someone to come along and figure them out. Why not you?

2

And the absolute worst thing that someone can do is inform Musk that what he’s asking is impossible. An employee could be telling Musk that there’s no way to get the cost on something like that actuator down to where he wants it or that there is simply not enough time to build a part by Musk’s deadline. “Elon will say, ‘Fine. You’re off the project, and I am now the CEO of the project. I will do your job and be CEO of two companies at the same time. I will deliver it,’” Brogan said. “What’s crazy is that Elon actually does it. Every time he’s fired someone and taken their job, he’s delivered on whatever the project was.”

My Note

A leader earns devotion by showing devotion and never asks his people to do something he won’t do himself, and you’d be hard pressed to find someone more devoted to their vision and willing to shoulder any burden than Elon.

For example, several years ago, when it looked like both SpaceX and Tesla were going to fold, Elon lived in his office. He worked 18 to 20 hour days, 7 days per week, and slept on a bean bag in his office. Employees actually wondered if he was even taking showers because they literally never saw him leave.

3

As he sees it, all of the design and technology choices should be directed toward the goal of making a car as close to perfect as possible. To the extent that rival automakers haven’t, that’s what Musk is judging. It’s almost a binary experience for him. Either you’re trying to make something spectacular with no compromises or you’re not. And if you’re not, Musk considers you a failure.

My Note

Perfectionism can be paralyzing — at some point you have to stop tinkering and just ship it — but too many people think about too many things other than simply making the best product. They fail to realize that the number one best way to grow a business is to make products and services so good that customers tell everyone about them.

4

Even then, as essentially a college kid with zits, Elon had this drive that this thing— whatever it was— had to get done and that if he didn’t do it, he’d miss his shot,” Heilman said. “I think that’s what the VCs saw— that he was willing to stake his existence on building out this platform.

Musk actually said as much to one venture capitalist, informing him, “My mentality is that of a samurai. I would rather commit seppuku than fail.

My Note

When you can make decisions, big or small, with this amount of force — when you can say that you’re going to do or not do something and that only death can change this — then you enter a whole new realm of existence.

Goethe said that boldness has genius, power, and magic in it, and I’m a believer. The moment you truly commit to an action, plan, or path, all sorts of things align to help you that otherwise never occur.  You can find countless examples of this in the lives of the great men and women of history, and can experience it for yourself just as easily.

5

Elon came to the conclusion early in his career that life is short,” Straubel said. “If you really embrace this, it leaves you with the obvious conclusion that you should be working as hard as you can.

My Note

People often say that when you’re on your deathbed, you’re not going to be proud of how much you worked. I disagree. If you spend your life in service of something greater than you and engaged in meaningful work, you’re going to be very happy about it. What you’re not going to care about is how many video games you played, TV shows you watched, or arguments you think you won on Twitter.

Titan

By Ron Chernow

titan

This is, hands down, one of the best biographies I’ve ever read.

What struck me first was how masterfully Chernow can write. His prose is tight, articulate, and vivid, and he does a wonderful job telling a compelling story (and teasing out undercurrents and meaning) as opposed to merely recounting facts.

I see why he has a Pulitzer. ?

And then we have Rockefeller Sr.’s life, which was fascinating in so many ways. He grabbed himself by the bootstraps and went from absolutely nothing, the son of a deadbeat grifter, to the richest — and most hated — man in the world, and there’s a lot we can learn from his journey.

What struck me first about Rockefeller was his relentless work ethic, indomitable spirit, and unwavering self-assurance. Much like history’s great military conquerors, he was ferociously competitive, hated losing, and not only thought big but did big.

I love reading about these types of people because it makes you reflect on what you’re truly capable of and willing to do and endure to realize those ambitions. I wholeheartedly believe that every one of us can be, do, and have so much more than we presently believe, and that half of the battle is just learning to get out of our own ways.

Rockefeller also believed that God had chosen him for greatness — that he was destined to rule over a vast empire — and that this end justified any means.

As he accumulated more wealth and power, those means turned darker and darker, making his tale cautionary as well, a classic illustration of the corrupting influence of money and power and the consequences of being driven to win at any cost.

I also couldn’t help but think that it’s too bad that miscreants like Rockefeller, Morgan, Carnegie, Gould, and Cooke were at the helm of America’s budding free market economy during the turn of the 20th century.

If they hadn’t been so hellbent on abusing it to overflow their coffers, American capitalism would have emerged from the Industrial Revolution as an honorable and indisputable force for social good, without the taint of radical wealth inequality.

Anyway, if you’d like to walk in the shoes of one of history’s most brilliant, powerful, and ruthless businesspeople and see what you can learn, then you want to read this book.

My 5 Key Takeaways from Titan

1

Oh how blessed the young men are who have to struggle for a foundation and a beginning in life.

My Note

Read enough about tremendously accomplished people, and you can’t help but notice how many of them had hardscrabble childhoods.

Many lived in wretched poverty, were handed nothing, and learned at a very early age a lesson eloquently summarized in Alice in Wonderland: you have to run as fast as you can to stay in place, and twice as fast if you want to go anywhere.

2

When he rested his head on the pillow at night, he warned himself, “Because you have got a start, you think you are quite a merchant; look out, or you will lose your head— go steady. Are you going to let this money puff you up? Keep your eyes open. Don’t lose your balance.”

My Note

It’s easy to fall in love with yourself and your creations when you get a taste of success. To swell instead of grow, and loosen your grip on the reins.

Ironically, this is exactly the opposite of what you should do to avoid falling from grace. It has been said that those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. Substitute “mad” with proud.

3

I have always been contented, but I have never been satisfied.

My Note

Maintaining a sense of urgency throughout a company is one of the most difficult challenges in business.

Bill Gates once said that in business, by the time you realize you’re in trouble, it’s too late to save yourself. Unless you’re running scared all of the time, he said, you’re gone.

4

His employees tended to revere Rockefeller and vied to please him. As one said, “I have never heard of his equal in getting together a lot of the very best men in one team and inspiring each man to do his best for the enterprise.… He was so big, so broad, so patient; I don’t believe a man like him comes to this world oftener than once in five or six hundred years.” Rockefeller worked by subtle hints, doling out praise sparingly to employees and nudging them along. At first, he tested them exhaustively, yet once he trusted them, he bestowed enormous power upon them and didn’t intrude unless something radically misfired. “Often the best way to develop workers— when you are sure they have character and think they have ability— is to take them to a deep place, throw them in and make them sink or swim.”

My Note

A brilliant stroke of leadership that largely influenced how quickly Standard Oil was able to conquer its industry because high-performers — of which it had many — are naturally drawn to and thrive under this style of management.

Trust, autonomy, the ability to demonstrate competence and contribute to something greater than themselves, these are the things that great workplaces are made of.

5

I trained myself in the school of self-control and self-denial. It was hard on [me], but I would rather be my own tyrant than have someone else tyrannize me.

My Note

If you don’t live deliberately and spend the majority of your time in the pursuit of clear and calculated goals and objectives, you’ll sacrifice large chunks of your life to the plans and whims of others, or worse, to the chaotic unknown.

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little black book of workout motivation cover

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