This is a somewhat unusual post. It is not the full announcement for my next book, Ego Is The Enemy (B&N)(UK), but is the first time I’m talking about it.
Ego Is The Enemy takes the thinking in The Obstacle Is The Way, and applies it to our greatest internal obstacle—own own ego. If The Obstacle Is The Way was a philosophical approach to dealing with the difficulties we face in life, Ego Is The Enemy is a philosophical exploration of difficulties we create for ourselves in life. Early in our careers, ego impedes learning and the cultivation of talent. With success, ego can blind us to our faults and sow future problems. In failure, ego magnifies each blow and makes recovery more difficult. At every stage, ego holds us back.
The book draws on a vast array of stories and examples, from literature to philosophy to history. Using the stories of people like William T. Sherman, Katharine Graham, Bill Belichick, and Eleanor Roosevelt, all of whom reached the highest levels of power and success by conquering their own egos. It also tells a bit of my own story over the last two years, and the disastrous effects of ego on the companies I’ve helped build as well as in my own personal life.
Thanks to your support, my last book was incredibly well received, it even unexpectedly found a strong footing with professional athletes. It couldn’t have happened without you. As I did last time, I wanted to reach out to you, my readers, for help and ideas in introducing this book to communities and potential audiences. If you have a podcast, have a friend who does, run a big blog, or can think of an influencer who would love this book, let me know in the form below. I’m open to anything, of course, but please, let’s think in terms of ROI for its June 14 release date.
If you have ideas, suggestions or better, have access to a large audience of your own, might want to order in bulk in exchange for speaking or consulting, or want to cover the book, I want to hear from you. Filling out the form below will give me an idea of how you can help with the launch.
Epiphanies are bullshit. People think it’s some momentous wake up call that leads to innovation, identity crises, insight or breakthroughs.
Like that’s why someone “suddenly” quits the NFL. Or goes public with allegations. Or proposes a bold new theory about the world after staying up all night.
But the people who think that are mostly people who haven’t done anything like that. And probably never will. They haven’t had to walk away from a big job or a lot of money. Or ever questioned some dominant point of view or institution. Their creative output is next to nil. They’re too busy chasing (or waiting for) an El Dorado that doesn’t exist.
I get it. You want to be like the people you admire–and they all seem inspired, bold, and have no problem burning the place to ground. I wanted to be like that too.
But then I actually made some of those decisions. I dropped out of college and it was terrifying. I decided to write an expose about the media in which I would have to admit bad things I had done. I broke ranks with a mentor and friend and it’s been eating me up inside.
So lately, I’ve been trying to think about how that actually goes down. What is it actually like to come to question everything and change your mind or life? What do you need to know going into it?
In The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Thomas Kuhn argued for the first time that it wasn’t flashes of brilliance that change scientific thinking, but instead it’s a slow process in which assumptions slowly unravel and then require a new explanation—a paradigm shift as he called it. In this frothy period of shift and flux, real breakthroughs begin to occur.
That isn’t how we like to imagine it though. We picture Edward Snowden hearing his bosses lay out some maniacal plan to spy on the world and deciding: “I am going to bring those motherfuckers down.” In actuality, he sat on the info for five years before going public. Doing what? Probably thinking, probably afraid, probably changing his mind a million times. It’s always more complicated—in fact, the whistleblower is usually complicit in the crimes in some way or at least blinded to their severity before coming forward.
The Fosbury Flop—which turned the Olympic High Jump on its head—wasn’t something that Dick Fosbury tried out for the first time at the 1968 Games. Nor was it something he was even certain about. Instead he’d been fooling with jumping and falling over the bar sideways as opposed to hurdling it since elementary school–to only middling results. He’d tried it high school and was told it was a “short cut to mediocrity.” He kept going back to way you were supposed to but that didn’t work either. As we know now though—after his Gold Medal and every medal since—that he was right and his technique stuck.
We think The Great Gatsby was a sniper shot of insight into the Jazz Age and its participants. In fact, the book was rejected and reworked by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s editor three times and only turned out to be right four years after publication, after the market crashed.
I think movies and television are partially responsible for this total misconception about the world. Because they can only show scenes, because they can’t get us inside the character’s head, we’ve started to think that’s how our lives should be. I think of that scene in Benjamin Button where Brad Pitt sneaks out one morning without a word and never comes back because he doesn’t want to burden his wife and family.
Yeah OK, like they would have been fighting for months and not known why. Like they wouldn’t have broached the topic or floated alternatives. Like the breakup would have stuck the first time. And he wouldn’t have been torn up inside and done a bunch of stupid things to cope with it. But as viewers all we’re left with is the action, the montage scene and the ultimate vindication, but not the process which precedes and proceeds it.
This is insidious because it intimidates first timers and the fearful. Because we believe that it must have been clear for other people, and yet it feels so opaque for us, we convince themselves not to take a risk. We doubt ourselves because we’re cut off from the humanness of the experience and the vulnerability that’s actually there.
When I wrote my first book, which was positioned as a confessional, every interviewer would ask me when I realized what I wanted to do. They’d say, “What was the thing you were asked to do that you regretted, that made you realize?”
The reality is never. I’m really struggling with it. It’s a fucking process. One that ironically didn’t even start to feel like it made sense until well into the writing and publishing process. Because that’s how people are, they act before they are fully ready and they figure things out as they go.
But I have to tell people something—so I give them an answer. Dropping out of college was the same thing. It was something I’d been considering, sure. Then I got an offer. Then I decided not to take it. Then I decided it was worth the risk. Almost immediately after, I felt it had been a mistake. But by then, I’d got into a rhythm. But a year later, I seriously considered going back. Yet my bio—my narrative—makes it seems like I knew at 19. (In fact, I turned 20 during the months this all transpired.) It’s not true, but that doesn’t help some other 19-year-old struggling with whether to leave college.
So if you’re staring some life changing decision in the face right now, you need to understand this. It is always going to be inscrutable. There will not be clarity. Not before, not during, not until well, well after.
You see, Thomas Kuhn said something else very wise and applicable here. Once a new paradigm takes hold, he said, it becomes almost impossible for people born into that paradigm to understand the logic of the system that came before them. As Kuhn put it, incommensurability separates one paradigm from the one that preceded it.
We can hardly recognize the world that we used to live in, and whatever it was that made us think the way we did. Because now things are radically different.
It would be nice if this was a clean break, but it isn’t. It’s like an internal Civil War—eventually there is a clear winner, but it didn’t feel that way at the time. It took a while for everything to get sorted out.
What I mean to say is this: embrace the limbo period. Take risk. Question things. Do not wait for certainty to act…because it isn’t coming. It never has.
Warren Buffett is undoubtedly considered one of the greatest investors of all times. His empire, Berkshire Hathaway, is worth $355 billion, an increase of 1,826,163 percent since 1964 when Buffett took over. He owns (or owns big chunks) of some of the biggest brands in the world including GEICO, Dairy Queen, NetJets, half of Heinz, and significant holdings in companies such as American Express, IBM, and Wells Fargo. But Buffett’s very best investment—responsible for literally billions of dollars in profits over the years—was very cheap. Because it was a book.
In my own life I can say I had similar books. The magnitude was not the same, but in relative terms the impact was still there. Each one of these was for me, what the economist Tyler Cowen calls a “quake book.” They shook my entire world and then, as it happened, were responsible for a great deal of success in my career, relationships, and my happiness.
The first came when I was in college in the mid-aughts and I was invited to a small, private summit of college journalists that Dr. Drew, then the host of Loveline, was hosting. After it ended, he was standing in the corner and I cautiously made my way over and decided to ask what books he would recommend a young man like myself. The books he turned me on to were those written by the stoic philosophers Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus. I’d been going through a rough times and it was exactly what I needed. My life has not been the same since. This was a special event in my life but whatever you’re working on right now, whatever problem you’re struggling with, is probably addressed in some book somewhere written by someone a lot smarter than you.
Whatever problem you’re struggling with is probably addressed in some book somewhere written by someone a lot smarter than you.
No one says: How do you have time to eat? How do you have time to sleep or have sex? You make time. It’s the stuff of life.
Step one is adding books to that list. The key to reading lots of book begins with no longer thinking of it as some extra activity that you do. It’s not a pastime, it’s a priority. As Erasmus, the 16th century scholar once put it, “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left I buy food and clothes.”
Not to say you have to take it as far as Erasmus, who lived a bit of a monkish existence. Personally, books are probably my single largest expense each year—behind housing and food. Since dropping out of college, I’ve averaged well over $1,000 a year in books (even more in 2013 when I bought basically my entire Amazon wishlist for tax purposes). In a given year I purchase at least 100, but closer to 250, books.
While some might bristle at such an expense, it’s become quite natural—I budget for it like any other necessity. It’s not something you do because you feel like it, but because it’s a reflex, a default. Like breathing. Like drinking.
Step two is to turn reading into a daily and regular routine. Carry a book with you at all times. Every time you get a second, crack it open. You also need to constantly be discovering new books. As a simple rule of thumb, always ask the smart people you meet for book recommendations, as I did with Dr. Drew (and if you need more recommendations, I am your man). Don’t borrow books—build your library instead and take pride in that. It will be an investment that pays off in the long run. If you see anything that remotely interests you, just buy it. If you don’t get to read it immediately and it piles up, that’s ok. It’s part of building your “anti-library,” or the stack of unread books that will humble you and remind you just how much there is still to learn.
A small sampling of my notecards, taken from books as I read them.
But don’t just passively read. Make reading an active process. Make notes and comments to yourself as you read (this is called marginalia). If you see an anecdote or quote you like, transfer it to a commonplace book and use a system to organize and store all of it. For my last book, The Obstacle Is the Way, the actual writing of the book took only a few months, because the years of reading and research that went into were already there, systematized and ready to use, all thanks to my notecards and common place book.
Marginalia in action.
Even if you are not a writer, having stories and quotes ready at hand will always come in useful, whether it is in conversations, presentations, memos, pitches, etc. Always strive to return back to the purpose of it. As the Roman philosopher Seneca said, we need to read so that “words become works.” I love reading more than almost anything, but even I’ll admit that it would be a waste of time if I just let it all accumulate in my head. More than that, I wouldn’t truly know what I’d read because I’d never put myself out there, applied it, or made connections.
My commonplace book and a collection of notecards.
Step three, be ruthless about acquiring knowledge through books. If you see anything that remotely intrigues you–just get it. Quit books that don’t hold your interest or deliver the goods. Swarm onto topics that do, even if there is no immediate relevancy to what you’re doing. After all, creativity comes from combining old ideas into something new. Reading a variety of topics gives you more ammo than your competition.
If something enthralls you and you want to deeply understand it, go at it. You don’t have to slowly trudge along through a book. Think of someone like Frederick Douglass, who brought himself up out of slavery by sneaking out and teaching himself to read, or Richard Wright who forged notes from his white boss so he could check out books from the library. Books weren’t some idle pursuit or pastime for these great individuals, they were survival itself.
So Get Started!
Of course, many of the benefits of reading are intrinsic and personal. They allow us to relax, they teach us empathy, and provide quiet time in a noisy world. At the same time, a look at any random sampling of successful people finds a common trait: a love of books and an education that was primarily self-driven.
Many of these people lived thousands of years ago, when reading was considerably more difficult. They didn’t have mandatory schooling, they didn’t have Amazon or magical Kindles. Lincoln, for instance, often took notes on the books he read on pieces of wood he found. We live in a time where books from every age (many that were previously lost to history) are not only available, but cheap or even entirely free.
It’s up to us to take advantage of these circumstances. The only thing stopping us, is us.
It took me way too long to get my act together on this, but I’ve finally put all my writing in one place. Now you can get all the writing I do for this site, Thought Catalog and New York Observer and other outlets, via email.
This site is still my favorite place to post stuff but, most of my long form stuff (usually two columns or so per week) is now published on other outlets, where it reaches a larger audience. Why do I write so much? Well, that’s a whole other question (one that I answered on one of those sites, in case you missed it)
For those of you using RSS readers (that’s what I use), the feed for this site will continue to work as it always has, and so will my email book recommendations. You can also follow me on Twitter and Facebook where I post most of my writing as well.
Few years ago, I came up with new rule that I’ll basically accept any offer if it will tie me up and keep me away from Austin during SXSW week. The results have been awesome: Last year, I went on my honeymoon. This year, I am speaking in Brazil.
It’s not because I live in Austin now and can rent out my place for a lot of money if I’m gone (although that is nice). It’s clearly not because I have a problem with conferences in general, or I wouldn’t have spent time at others. It’s not even SXSW, though since 2007 I’ve seen it undergo some changes and transformations that I can only shake my head at.
It’s because you don’t learn anything at a get-together with 286,000 people at it. You don’t find opportunities in the spot that everyone else has descended upon to look. And you definitely don’t get much out of an event that is clearly inclined to be an ego-assuaging party more than it is a conference.
“But they had Shake Shack at SXSW this week!” you say. If only it wasn’t also sold in six other states the other 355 days of the year.
It’s funny, for all the love of business books and buzzwords, SXSW is the definition of a red ocean—it’s loud, overcrowded, competitive and difficult to break through. There’s too much posturing, too much bluster, too much fighting the last war. Every startup taking their eye off the ball to recreate Twitter’s launch at SXSW in 2007 (which I remember scoffing at, at the time). It’s skating to where the puck was. It’s a choreographed performance that everyone feels obligated to do each year.
Let’s be honest: if you know your field, conferences are not usually the best place to learn or work. The bigger they are, the more general they become—as SXSW clearly has—and the further they lag behind. The need to appeal to the broadest possible cohort of attendees puts them six months to two years behind current, let alone more innovative practices. So why are we supposed to go this, again?
The panel format exacerbates this. It’s not one speaker, articulating a message or telling a story to an audience. It’s five nobodies, averaging each other out—each looking for a soundbyte so you’ll remember their name. At this point, panels are like poorly curated podcasts with no editor. They mostly benefit the people speaking…and make them feel important.
Shall we review some of the preposterous panels from SXSW this year?
And when they’re not writing panel titles that appear designed to give people douchechills, most panelists (and speakers) are lying. By that I mean, either exaggerating their credentials and expertise or, if they truly have some, lying by omission (nobody wants to give away their secrets). In fact, when you are honest—which I try to be, especially at events when I am getting paid—most people areshocked. They tell you this after the fact with genuine surprise. As if they expected (and were OK with!) everyone phoning it in and fluffing it.
Oh but you meet so many great people / everyone is in town for one magical week.
Strategically, I can think of no worse time for an entrepreneur to pitch a journalist, or a startup to pitch potential investors or employees. Do you not realize these people are as overwhelmed (or inebriated) as you are, and phoning it in just enough so their bosses don’t notice? Upon the Betabeat staff’s return from SXSW 2014, they reported their slogan for the week was, “Oh there you are!” which is what the aggressive networkers they were trying to shake would say upon finding them again.
Bluntly, SXSW has turned into an ironic spring break for people with corporate jobs to escape their lives. You can pretend to work while waiting in line for free beer and hoping to hook up with someone like you. But I’m not sure corporate attendees realize this is nothing more than a dress-suit bribe, offered by their employer to give them trappings of power, instead of the real thing. Your boss writes it off as a business expense.
At the very least spring break was supposed to be fun. The parties at SXSW? This is tech at its worst. Why do you have to get on a guest list or RSVP to seemingly every party? This exclusivity is manufactured, to give every startup spending other people’s money a chance to feel important and special. It’s definitely not to limit the amount of free booze they shill (corporate sponsors pay for that). It’s to manufacture status so attendees will feel like they got into the “cool” party with the “in” crowd. And the only way corporations know how to be cool is by proximity—to musicians, to film stars, to writers—and creating exclusive lists for parties that are expensive and lame.
I want to be clear. I don’t think the conference organizers at SXSW are to blame. Nor was this terrible car accident anyone but the drunk driver’s fault. From everything I’ve seen, they put on a good show, care about safety and seem to have stayed true to their origins. And they’re doing a good job: SXSW 2014’s economic impact on Austin this year was $190 million. The problem is you. The problem is us. That we willingly subject ourselves to everything I just described. And don’t even think about why we’re doing it.
I stopped going when I heard someone—and unfortunately I forget who—describe South by Southwest as a metaphor for everything that is wrong with the internet. Too big, too corporate, too hyped, too bullshit. I think they’re right.
But there may be another, more specific metaphor. Every year during SXSW, every post, column and wall in town is covered with Saran wrap—so that posters can be quickly torn down at the end of the night. And yet…thousands of bands and startups and directors spent how many thousands of dollars to print up flyers and posters simply to be overwhelmed and torn down a few hours later. That is SXSW—an ephemeral moment of self-promotion lost amidst a sea of other self-promoters doing the exact same thing, while thinking they’re doing something totally different. Pardon me, disruptive.
It’s like that line from Arthur Miller about writing your name in a cake of ice on a hot summer day. Except SXSW is an oven…and you chose to do it there instead of any number of places where the etching would last longer.