This post appeared originally on the New York Observer in November 2014. 

In May 2009, I sent an email to a friend. I’d been posting book recommendations on my website for the last couple years, but what did he think of the idea of doing it as a monthly email instead? It was a bad idea, he said–because people wouldn’t be able to share the blog posts anymore. People are protective of their emails, so who would want to sign up for that?

I considered his advice and decide to ignore it. In the five years since, that list, known as the Reading List Email, has grown from 50 friends to roughly 35,000 people with a 50% open rate (which is crazy compared to most lists). It has readers from all over the world, ranging from high school students to Fortune 500 CEOs, NFL coaches, bestselling authors, publishers and entrepreneurs. I’ve sent close to 100 emails to a “total” audience of 400,000+ over the years and sold a few hundred thousand dollars worth of books for retailers over the years.

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After having a great deal of fun writing two big posts for the New York Observer on the ins-and-outs of book marketing, I thought I would do a similar breakdown on how to build an email list.

But first, why build one at all? I love recommending books but deep down I have to admit there was another motivation for creating the list. In 2009, I dreamed of one day writing my own book. How would I tell people about it? I thought if I spend every month for the next several years recommending amazing books to other people, maybe those readers would give me a shot when it was my turn. And they did!

Building an email list is the single best way to communicate with your audience, period. Better than Facebook, better than Twitter, better than ads. Because you own it. Because it is a relationship of mutual trust and opt-ins. That is why you need to build one.

So here’s what I learned building mine:

-When I started, I knew so little about email marketing that I just put up a post on my blog and told people to email me if they wanted to sign up. I figured I could just email them all directly.

-So the first year of the Reading List was me copy and pasting the emails into Gmail. I found out the hard way that Gmail only lets you email 250 people a day (or did at the time). Sometimes I had to batch it over a couple days.

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-Eventually, I turned to Mailchimp–that made my life way easier. But more on that later.

-One of the best books I’ve ever read on marketing taught me a lot about emails. Check out Seth Godin’s Permission Marketing. It will change how you approach your customers.

-It’s critical that you pick an angle for your mailing list. I see so many authors and brands just put up a form that says: “Sign up for my newsletter.” What newsletter? Why would I want a random newsletter from a random person? I decided on book recommendations because no one else was doing it and it was something I was good at. What are you good at? What can only you offer via email?

-I decided to go no frills with the reading list email too. No images, no formatting, all text–partly because it’s easier but also because it is better for mobile. Before you waste too much time designing some fancy template realize that there are marketers out there making millions of dollars on great copywriting alone. Maybe you don’t need frills.

-Though I don’t use a template, I do have a very standardized format that I follow, including the same conclusion I paste onto each email. Keep it simple and you’ll find the list less of a burden.

-I also decided that I wanted my email to be a conversation. I “send” all the emails from my personal address and encourage subscribers to reply. Every month I have all sorts of great conversations about books. Sometimes I even get recommendations that I end up reading and using myself later.

-I said I decided to go with Mailchimp for my backend. Why? I only send one email a month and most plans are designed for people who send lots of emails. Using Mailchimp was cheap and easy. Also they allow bulk imports of emails, which was important because my list already existed. If you use this link to sign up, MailChimp will give you like $30 in bonus credits.

-There are a lot of other good programs out there such as SendGrid, AWeber and ConstantContact.

-Mailchimp also allowed me to put a little form on my website for entries.

-But I’ve also always encouraged people to just email me directly with the words “Reading List” in the subject line. It’s a little bit of a pain but over the years I have manually entered hundreds of addresses this way. Would those people have signed up the other way? Maybe, but I didn’t want to take the risk that they wouldn’t.

-The list chugged along by word of mouth for about two years. Every month I did an email and sold a couple books via Amazon’s affiliate program. The first real bump in subscribers came from Tim Ferriss–I wrote a post for his blog in 2011 and asked if I could link to the list at the bottom. Almost 1,000 subscribers came to the list just from that post.

-Speaking of which, you have to give yourself time. I knew that I wouldn’t need to deploy my email list for years so I was able to develop it over time and treat it right. If you have a product you’re releasing next week, that’s just not enough runway to build a proper list.

-Also because I am thinking long term and know that I have no plans to abandon this list, I was able to buy Mailchimp credits in bulk (a few thousand dollars at a time) and save a lot of money on the cost-per-send.

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Charlie Hoehn suggested a couple years ago that I do a yearly round up. His point was that most people follow along but don’t have time to read all the books. Could I recommend 3-5 BEST for the year, as well? So I do that in December or January and I post it online too. It actually drives leads. Here are the ones from 2011, 2012 and 2013.

-I’ve tried multiple different toolbars at the top of my site to drive signups. First I used HelloBar. Then I moved to the ViperBar, which was great because it offered A/B testing. Recently I moved to Noah Kagan’s SmartBar which is absolutely killer.

-Don’t obsess over unsubscribes. You can’t make an omelet without breaking a few eggs–you can’t email lots of people without pissing off a couple. Provided that you’re adding a lot more than you’re losing, you’re good. A couple months ago, some kook got very upset about something I said about Adam Smith–so I unsubscribed him myself. No reason to bother with it.

-I deliberately have zero monetization plans for this list. It has made a decent amount of money from Amazon affiliate links over the years but in all honesty, it probably barely covers my time and definitely doesn’t cover how much I’ve spent on books myself. The benefit of the list is meaningful, direct access to 35,000 avid readers. The value of that is essentially priceless.

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-In fact, in seven years I have sent a total of two emails to the list that were not exclusively book recommendations. Even my short book, Growth Hacker Marketing, did not get its own dedicated blast–that’s how protective I am of not abusing the privilege of communicating with these readers. This has paid off. For the announcement of my first book, the email list alone was enough to send it sub 100 on Amazon two months before release…and the list was less than 5,000 people then.

-Be ok mailing to very few people for a long time. I was. I knew that I had a long-term strategy. I also knew that recommending some life-changing books even to a small number of people was a beneficial activity in itself. Look at my chart–the size is basically unchanged for over a year. In reality I was excited each time 2-3 people signed up and I also knew that it takes time for word of mouth to spread.

-Obsess about quality. There are some months when I was so-so on the books I read. I debated whether to include them in the list (because that is lost affiliate revenue). I always decide no. The trust and respect of the readers has to trump all. I would rather recommend nothing than recommend a book that ends up letting people down.

-According to Amazon over 30,000 books/products have been ordered via my affiliate link since creating the list.

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-As you can imagine, this was a convincing bit of information to include in my book proposals. I wasn’t just saying that I had some fans who would buy my stuff, I had proof that I had a list of people who bought tons of books on my recommendation (that I didn’t even write!). Having a platform is one of the biggest things that agents and publishers look for.

-Oh yeah, during the launch of Trust Me I’m Lying, I found out that my Brazilian publisher actually found out about my book because they’d been a subscriber for a few years and were willing to take a chance on me.

-One thing I’ve never done well is proofing or editing my emails. I know I should spend more time and I get this criticism a lot. Learn from my bad example here.

-I saw my friend Ben Casnocha speak at UC Riverside a few years ago and was impressed with how he sent around an email signup sheet at the end of the talk. I didn’t want to do that, so I decided I would put a slide in all my presentations that gave away some bonuses if people emailed a certain email address. I’ve probably snagged 1,000 email addresses this way over the last two years.

-The list added 32 people yesterday. I didn’t do anything. Not bad for a day’s work.

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-My publisher Portfolio was nice enough to let me put a page in the back of my first book pushing the newsletter under the title “Further Reading.” As you can see from the graph at the top of the post, this correlates nicely with the growth of the list. It also worked out that they’ve continued to publish my other books–and have benefited from its sizeable growth.

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-That’s something to remember: Lists help promote launches. But launches, if done right, also help grow lists.

-I use MailChimp’sEmail Beamer” to draft almost all the emails. Basically, I type up the email in Gmail, send it to a special unique address and bam, the campaign is ready to go in my account.

-Another unexpected benefit of the list. Authors and publishers send me free copies of their books all the time. It’s also been a great way to connect with authors I admire. Amazon added me to “Amazon Vine” and other cool stuff like that. When the list was small, nobody cared that I recommended a book to 100 friends. But now when I say, “Hey Joe Author, I loved your book and just told 35,000 people to buy it,” they tend to be pretty friendly.

-For the launch of The Obstacle Is The Way I did a Bittorrent bundle. Their email gate (to get the content you have to provide an email) was responsible for over 5,000 emails I got to add to my list. It was the single largest driver for me to date (other than word of mouth).

-I’ve also been a long-time Slideshare Pro user–a program that they inexplicably discontinued recently. Last year, I paid $200 to have this Slideshare made to promote my list. It has done 152,000 views and driven substantial numbers of new emails to the list. Before that, it was a successful blog post. The point is, create content in multiple mediums to inform people about what you do.

-Another thing about protecting your list? Through MailChimp I use AlterEgo to require double authentication for login. I don’t want to mess around with security or privacy with these emails.

-The best way to drive people to your list is to have a list that people enjoy being on. I put a little line at the bottom that encourages readers to forward the email to friends. A lot of them do so because they genuinely do recommend it. Like all things, word of mouth is the best marketing there is.

-Sometimes friends will ask me to recommend their books to my list. I have to be super choosy–honestly, I won’t even recommend books by clients who pay me to consult on promoting their books unless I love love love the book.

-There are a couple of high-profile subscribers like Mark Frauenfelder at Boing Boing and the author Austin Kleon. Their occasional mentions of the list has been hugely helpful.

-In 2012 I got my act together after talking to my friend Derek Halpern. I redid my sign-up page for the list with a clear explanation of what the list was, why people should sign up and what they’d get out of it. It has done wonders for the number of new subscribers. Who’d have guessed?

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-But what really made a difference was the auto-responder I set up. For more than five years, new subscribers were simply added to this list but received nothing from me until the next monthly email went out. That meant that sometimes readers might go 45 days before they heard from me, meaning that some forgot that they’d even signed up (and then promptly unsubscribed). So I added a short, clear email that you now automatically get when you sign up. It hits you with 5 book recommendations to start you off and provides links to some popular articles I have written about reading and writing.

-Of the 20,000-plus people who have gotten this initial note, more than 80% have opened it. It’s sold many, many copies of the books I’ve written, driven great traffic to my articles and of course, made the list more active and engaged. For more on this, I would check out these resources: Start with The Art of the Welcome Email and 13 ‘Welcome’ Email Ideas. You should also look into Really Good Emails, which has a category dedicated to great welcome emails. Tim Ferriss’ introductory email is a great example to follow–it provides exclusive content and highlights some of his best posts.

-In the future I might create a track for users so that there are more automated emails. For instance, a 1-year anniversary email or a bump after three months with some thoughts about reading. Onboarding is incredibly important and I want to get better at it.

-My list doesn’t currently offer sign-up bonuses but I have worked with plenty of clients to develop some. Look at what we set up for Robert Greene. In less than three months he has nearly doubled the size of his email list simply by offering this cool little document we created to anyone who signed up.

-The regularity of the list is important. Some people let their lists lie fallow for a long time. I don’t get that. On the other hand, look at Groupon, which could have been this hotly anticipated, exclusive email once a day but instead became forgettable by oversending. For a list like mine, once a month has been a great middle ground. Enough to keep people active, not too much to lead to burnout.

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-The list has an open rate of nearly 50%. That’s crazy for a list of this size. And guess what? I do basically no subject line testing, no clickbait, no trickery. In fact, for like a year I forgot whether I called it the “Reading List Email” or “Reading Recommendation Email. One might be better than the other but what really matters is having a solid email that people actually want to open.

-I’ve never done affiliate mailings to my list, but I have worked on them with clients. Essentially, it’s when someone mails to their list on your behalf for a cut of the revenue. This can be a great way to expand your reach for a product launch or particular push. Here are some resources: Look into this post on Indiemark, MarketingSherpa’s 10 rules of thumb and Mailchimp’s post on the pitfalls of email list rental.

-Oh yeah, when you have a list, people will come to you all the time to ask “if you’ll send to your list for them.” They ask like it is some tiny favor. See the affiliate point above, but also be very cautious about this. Protect your list. Don’t give yours away. The whole value is that the readers believe that you carefully curate this and that its content reflects your actual values and sensibilities. Don’t trade trust today that you might need down the road. (One nice lesson I learned with my list is that by having a very defined and clear format, I can easily say no because their request just doesn’t fit with what I do.)

-I also worked to develop a popup. I generally hate popups and don’t think they are effective–but a clear, non-intrusive call-to-action can really work. I had it coded so the popup came only after your second visit to the site and only after you’d been reading for something like 30 seconds. This did well for me at first. Recently, I switched over to Noah Kagan’s popup, which is more automated and looks better. It shows up after a reader has seen 80% of a given page and can be easily x’d out of.

-One question I’ve gotten a lot over the years was access to the Reading List Email archive. I’ve deliberately declined to make that available to most people because I want the list to be forward focused. I want them to sign up and look out for the email each month, not go back through what I recommended in 2010. But the archive did make for a really good PDF bonus when I did a pre-order campaign for The Obstacle Is The Way.

-Last month I tried out a KingSumo contest that encouraged people to sign up for the list. I offered a free copy of every book in the October list to one winner. But the benefit of a KingSumo contest is that it incentivizes entrants to invite their friends to participate (by offering them a better chance of winning). My contest wasn’t as huge as some people’s but I did snag around 700 new names to the list.

-I also have two other smaller lists. I’ve collected more than 3,000 emails for my launch of Growth Hacker Marketing (detailed here) and it made for a great asset for the launch. I also collected about 500 random emails during the launch of The Obstacle Is The Way (though almost all went directly to the Reading List Email).

-Think about it: Facebook just announced they were going to be deliberately throttling marketing messages (what a scam). Most Twitter messages get lost in the stream. Email is the best way to reach your people because no one can get in the way.

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I hope this case study was helpful and of course, I hope you sign up for the Reading List Email. More than that, I hope you start creating your own list. You’ll thank me later.

I’ve built a lot of different assets in my career, from marketing campaigns to books to businesses. Honestly, building this list ranks among my proudest achievements. It’s something that no one else has replicated and has succeeded with an incredibly discerning audience. I take some extra satisfaction that it succeeded despite some doubters.

Where it will go in the future, I have no idea. I know it will continue trucking along–in fact, I’m typing up this month’s blast right now.



(Photo: Erich Chen)

Two moments now stand out at me in my life. Driving home, by myself, after my high school graduation, thinking: I am finally free. And now, driving with my father, on the way to my wedding.

Such different feelings toward two similar life events, almost exactly a decade between them. One, excited to get away—anywhere, anything. Now, excited to be here—to be at peace, like heading home. The experiences feel so different, it is as if they are happening to two different people.

Of course, it’s because so much has happened between these two versions of myself. Not just in my relationship with my parents, which 10 years ago I would have doubted would be this way. But more importantly, I met a girl. Or rather, I met the girl.

It’s funny for me to think that my now wife and I met not long after that first moment. At a party, as sophomores in college, eight years ago. I was much closer to the first me. Young, ambitious, impatient. Driven by an almost manic intensity to do things, to prove certain points, to make a mark. Things are different now, if only by degree.

For all the productivity and success advice I’ve read, shaped and marketed for dozens of authors in the last decade, I’ve never really seen someone come out and say: Find yourself a spouse who complements and supports you and makes you better. Instead, we’re supposed to believe that relationships tie people down, that they are the death knell for creativity and ambition. When Cyril Connolly said that there was “no more somber enemy of good art than the pram in the hall,” he was voicing, in appalling clarity, the selfishness and self-absorption that draws many people away from love and happiness.

Maybe I worried about it when I was young and ignorant, but today, I don’t feel any shame in saying that I would have spun off the planet a long time ago if it wasn’t for her. We don’t have kids, but relationships take their own time and toll. Yet, I’ve been in one nearly the entirety of my working life and it’s accelerated everything I ever hoped to do.

It’s as if we don’t want to admit that we can’t do this alone, or that success may require dealing with the soft parts of ourselves, the uncomfortable, sticky parts we’d rather pretend weren’t there. We have trouble seeing the ramifications of our personal lives on our professional lives and that the best way to navigate the public world is to master and find contentment in the private one.

The myth is of the lone creative entrepreneur battling the world without an ally in sight. A defiant combination of Atlas and Sisyphus and David, wrestling a Goliath-sized mass of doubters and demons. In reality, I’ve found that nearly every person I admire—every person I’ve met who strikes me as being someone who I would like to one day be like—lives a quiet life at home with a person who they’ve teamed up with…for life. The reason this one person strikes us as special, I find, is because they’re really two people.

Why it took me so long to grasp the freeing truth of this, I do not know. Samantha and I met when we were 19 years old. We’ve lived in five cities together, published three books, traveled the world, started (and dissolved) companies, quit jobs, broke several bones and, of course, on the eve of our engagement, had most of what we owned stolenincluding the ring. In that time we’ve faced and experienced things far beyond what most people so young should or could experience (mostly good rather than bad things—I’m not trying to be melodramatic), and yet it was the two of us that helped each other through it.

In my part of the vows, I said that marriage was essentially one of the few regrets I have in my short life—in that I wish I’d done it sooner. Because it feels like we have always been married—partners in it together. It’s been this way almost since we met, but without the legal status, the ceremony and of course, the acknowledgment or understanding of other people. I think we always knew we would get married, but there was some slight resistance or immaturity that held it back from being made real. With time that fell away, until what was left felt natural and necessary, this step and commitment.

Anyway, that’s what I said in my vows. In hers, she promised to continue to allow goats in the house despite my repeated objections. This is, after all, what makes her special and attracts me to her, that she is so inexplicably different. That she defies and baffles the order, logic and seriousness with which I tend to treat the world. At the end of her vows, she stated she would continue to manipulate me as long as she could, into whatever other ridiculous schemes and larks she’s decided upon. That she would be both my biggest supporter and even bigger distraction. Not that I don’t love it anyway, but if this is my fate, cleaning it up and dealing with the insanity of it all, will be a plenty fair penance to pay.

Penance? One of the most difficult things about starting a relationship as kids and getting married as adults is this: “stupid kid mistakes” didn’t happen to someone else, some unfortunate ex. It happened together, or to one of you. You grew up together, instead of coming together as more fully formed people.

Biologically, women mature earlier than men, which means one thing for young but sustained relationships: I’ve usually done the ridiculous things, held on to stuff and made issues where there shouldn’t have been any. And did this to her. A man nearing his thirties can only look back on his twenties—however successful they may have been—and think: Goddamn, I was an idiot. Or more likely, an asshole. I suppose the reverse is true for her too, that I put up with her growing phases, but that’s not really the case. Or at least it doesn’t feel like it.

There’s a line from Kurt Vonnegut where he says that at the root of every couple’s fight is this claim, which neither understands or can admit: You are not enough people. I need more people. In retrospect, I see how true this was over the years and only now, have we started to fully become enough for each other. It took trial and error to begin building the support structures necessary to allow these two different people to live and fully be together.

But in this moment, heading to the wedding, all is far from my mind. Seeing her come down the aisle with a baby bunny in a basket instead of flowers, it was her moment to be the center of attention, which she not only richly deserved but relished. There were ponies and baby animals. There were friends, some wealthy and well known, some old acquaintances from life phases nearly forgotten, and there was a cake shaped like an armadillo. And there was, thankfully, only a little bit of dancing.

This post appeared originally on the New York Observer.



Every year, I try to narrow down the hundred plus books I have recommended or read down to just the three or four best. I know that people are busy, and most of you don’t have time to read as much as you’d like. There’s absolutely no shame in that–what matters is that you make the time you can and that you pick the right books when you do. In 2015, I read a lot—though not as much as I have in years past. I was more disciplined this year and I’d like to think I tackled books that were more challenging, personally and intellectually. When I was 19 or 20, Tyler Cowen talked to me about the concept of “quake books”—books that shake you to your core. But he said something at the time that I didn’t quite understand. He said that as you get older, you experience that feeling less and less. I wasn’t sure I believed him then, but he was right.

Below are some books I absolutely loved and loved above the others. Did they turn my world upside down? No—but that’s a good thing. Because the books I read in 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014 and long before that have set up a sturdy foundation.

The Score Takes Care of Itself by Bill Walsh

In 2014, I read The Education of a Coach, a book about Bill Belichick which influenced me immensely (coincidentally, the Patriots have also read my book and were influenced by it). Anyway, I have been chasing that high ever since. Bill Walsh’s book certainly met that high standard. Out of all the books I read this year, I marked this one up the most. Even if you’ve never watched a down of football, you’ll get something out of this book. Walsh took the 49ers from the worst team in football to the Super Bowl in less than 3 years. How? Not with a grand vision or pure ambition, but with what he called the Standard of Performance. That is: How to practice. How to dress. How to hold the ball. Where to be on a play down the very inch. Which skills mattered for each position. How much effort to give. By upholding these standards—whatever they happen to be for your chosen craft—success will take care of itself. A few other excellent coaching and leadership books I read this year: The Winner Within by Pat Riley and The Essential Wooden: A Lifetime of Lessons on Leaders and Leadership by John Wooden (thanks to the friend who recommended all these). Also related to this, another inspiring coach recommended the book The Way To Love to me. It has nothing to do with sports, but was a highlight of my reading year.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

There’s no question this was the year’s best book about media and culture–maybe even the best of the decade. Not only is it provocative and insightful, but the idea—interviewing and focusing on people who have screwed up and found themselves in the midst of massive online controversies—is one I am genuinely jealous of. Ronson proceeds to write about it with such sensitivity, empathy, humor and insight that I was blown away. If you’ve at all appreciated any of my media criticism over the years, please read this book. It looks at all that’s wrong with the rage and glee with which we tear people down–often people who were never public figures to begin with. He is just a helluva writer. If you get a chance, watch Monica Lewinsky’s TED talk which is also surprisingly good and pairs well with the ideas in the book.

Howard Hughes: His Life and Madness by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele

For me, this year was filled with what one might called “cautionary biographies”—bios of people you don’t want to end up like—and Hughes is at the top of the list. The authors clearly respect what was great about Howard—his daring, his talent for flying, his sense for people and love of negotiation—but they also see clearly his many, crippling flaws. They are able to tell his story in a way that gives one real insight into the life of a tragic and tortured figure. I very much related to the stories in the book given my more recent experiences at American Apparel and I imagine anyone else who has dealt with powerful personalities and eccentric figures will too. Related and with equal weight, I want to recommend George B. McClellan: The Young Napoleon by Stephen W. Sears (a biography of the talented but utterly delusional General George McClellan), Rebel Yell: The Violence, Passion, and Redemption of Stonewall Jackson by S.C. Gwynne (a biography of the brilliant but manic Stonewall Jackson) and Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton (an equally brilliant, more accomplished but equally tragic founding father). All these books made me angry, sad, and confused. But they also made me look inward and taught me quite a bit.

Misc

This year I want to make my Misc section (which usually exists because I can’t stick to just a few books) and dedicate it exclusively to fiction. I read a lot of it this year and got so much from the books I read. First, James Salter’s The Hunters: A Novel was a magnificent book which focuses on the burning fire of ambition—in this case, that of a young fighter pilot—and what it does to us. I read The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe which looks at a different burning fire—that of young love—and how crazy it makes us. A beautifully written book that every person should read. Dr. Drew recommended Voltaire’s Candide, which I read on my wedding day, and found to be fantastic and educational. Equally allegorical, I read The Little Prince for the first time which for some reason I’d never been exposed to before. If you’re in the same boat, read it. It’s short but great. Finally, I’m not sure what compelled me to pick Fahrenheit 451 back up but I’m so glad I did because I was able to see the book in a very different context. Bradbury’s message (made explicit in his 50th Anniversary Afterword) is much less a warning against government control and much more about a road to hell paved by people attempting to rid the world of offensive speech and conflicting ideas. In a world of microaggressions and outrage porn, this is an important idea to see in such a timeless work of fiction.

Also, great news: my book Growth Hacker Marketing: A Primer on the Future of PR, Marketing & Advertising is discounted to $1.99 as an ebook this week. It’s just in time to give as a gift or if you’re looking to read something over the break. What started as a short 10,000 word experiment is now an expanded edition that’s sold more than 40,000 copies and is translation in close to a dozen language. Hope you like it.

Enjoy and looking forward to reading with you in 2016!



(Photo: BK/Flickr)

The media narrative about millennials is well worn right now. You’ll read they’re lazy, narcissistic, soft, and entitled. It’s a great way to get pageviews—it either gratifies the older reader, or it pisses of the younger one. The result is a lot of comments and angry Facebook shares.

Of course, this doesn’t accomplish anything. The reality is that the economic situation for millennials is not a good one. Thirty-six percent of our generation still lives with their parents. Unemployment for millennials is twice the national average. Half of all Millennials have taken a job they didn’t want just to pay the bills and only 30 percent consider their current job a career. According to one 2011 study by the University of Michigan, many graduates aren’t even bothering to learn how to drive. The road is blocked, they are saying, so why get a license I won’t be able to use? Despite student loan debt rising above $1 trillion, surpassing credit card debt, we go back to school.

And a lot of young people are stuck because of it. We are paralyzed by the obstacles which lay before us. Fear. Frustration. Confusion. Helplessness. Anger. Depression. These are understandable emotions in the face of what seems like insurmountable obstacles everywhere we look.

Of course, this has always been the case for young people. As Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote in 1841:

“If our young men miscarry in their first enterprises, they lose all heart. If the young merchant fails, men say he is ruined. If the finest genius studies at one of our colleges, and is not installed in an office within one year afterwards in the cities or suburbs of Boston or New York, it seems to his friends and to himself that he is right in being disheartened, and in complaining the rest of his life.”

If that was printed in The New Yorker tomorrow under a different name, no one would bat an eye. That’s because our situation is not unique. We’re all, at varying points in our lives, subject to random and often incomprehensible events. It just so happens that when we are young we don’t have the framework to deal with these problems. We have no idea how to turn them around.

But we are in great luck, because we can find examples in the icons of history who used this formula to persevere and turn their obstacles into advantage. They took what should have held them back—paralyzed with the same emotions we are feeling—and used it to achieve great success. Just like them we have the ability to see our obstacles for what they are and attack them to achieve what we want in life. Like them, we can use the following framework to stand out amongst those who remain mired in this rut.

Control Your Perceptions
John D. Rockefeller took his first job in 1855 at the age of 16 making 50 cents a day. Less than two years later the Panic of 1857 struck. It was at the time the greatest market depression in US history and it had hit him just as he was starting his career. Instead of getting angry or growing despondent, he looked at the panic as an opportunity to learn, a baptism in the market. Within 20 years of that first crisis, Rockefeller would alone control 90 percent of the oil market. We can try to see disaster rationally. Or rather, like Rockefeller, we can see opportunity in every disaster, and transform that negative situation into an education, a skill set, or a fortune.

Laura Ingalls Wilder, author of the classic series Little House, faced some of the toughest and unwelcoming elements on the planet: harsh and unyielding soil, Indian territory, and the humid backwoods of Florida. But Wilder wasn’t afraid or jaded, she saw all these unforgiving environments as adventures. As she put it: “There is good in everything, if only we look for it.”

For us, we face things that are not nearly as intimidating, and then promptly decide we’re screwed. Just because other people say that something is hopeless or crazy or broken to pieces doesn’t mean it is. We decide what story to tell ourselves. Or whether we will tell one at all. That is the power of perception.

Direct Your Actions
When former President James Garfield couldn’t afford his tuition at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute in 1851, he paid his way through by persuading the school to let him be the janitor in exchange for tuition. Within just one year of starting at the school he was a professor—teaching a full course load in addition to his studies. By his 26th birthday he was the dean.

In the 1920s Amelia Earhart couldn’t make a living as a female pilot, so she took a job as a social worker. Then one day the phone rang. On the other end of the line was a pretty offensive offer: She could be the first woman to fly across the Atlantic, but she wouldn’t actually fly the plane and she wouldn’t get paid anything. Guess what she said to the offer? She said yes. Less than five years later she was the first woman to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic and became, rightly, one of the most famous and respected people in the world.

Sometimes, on the road to where we are going or where we want to be, we have to do things that we’d rather not do. Often when we are just starting out, our first jobs “introduce us to the broom,” as Andrew Carnegie famously put it. There’s nothing shameful about sweeping. It’s just another opportunity to excel—and to learn.

Strengthen Your Will
Theodore Roosevelt spent almost everyday during the first 12 years of his life struggling with horrible asthma. The attacks were an almost nightly near-death experience. But as a fragile child born into great wealth and status, he could have remained weak and would have been taken care of throughout his life.

Instead, he one day looked at his father and said with determination: “I’ll make my body.” He proceeded to work out feverishly every day for the next five years. By his early twenties his battle against asthma was essentially over. Roosevelt had worked it out of his body. Like Roosevelt, we can choose to not accept the hand we’re dealt with, a hand we don’t control. Instead of sitting back and enjoying the modern cushy life, we can prepare for the adversity that is all but guaranteed to come our way and react accordingly.

Abraham Lincoln’s life was defined by enduring and transcending great difficulty. He grew up in poverty, lost his mother while he was still a child, and suffered through intense bouts of depression. Because of the difficulties he endured in both his personal life and as President, he was able to embody the Stoic maxim: sustine et abstine. Bear and forbear. Acknowledge the pain but trod onward in your task. With all our modern technology has come the conceited delusion that we control the world around us, which is of course not true. We can follow Lincoln’s example andadjust to a world that is inherently unpredictable by remaining confident, calm, and ready to work regardless of the conditions.

Our generation needs to always remember that over a hundred years before us, people stood right where we were and felt very similar things, struggling with the same issues. People have always had to dig themselves out of messes they had nothing to do with creating.

This is a recession, not the Great Depression. Those that came before us dealt with much worse problems and had fewer safety nets and tools at their disposal. They dealt with the same obstacles we have today, plus those that they worked so hard and sacrificed their lives to eliminate for us.

We’d be so much better following the lead of Emerson’s counterexample, as someone who “tries all the professions, who teams it, farms it, peddles, keeps a school, preaches, edits a newspaper, goes to Congress, buys a township, and so forth, in successive years, and always, like a cat, falls on his feet.”

This is perseverance. And with it, Emerson said, “with the exercise of self-trust, new powers shall appear.”

The post appeared originally on the New York Observer



 

There is an old Zen story about a king whose people had grown soft and entitled. Dissatisfied with this state of affairs, he hoped to teach them a lesson. His plan was simple: He would place a large boulder in the middle of the main road, completely blocking entry into the city. He would then hide nearby and observe their reactions.

How would they respond? Would they band together to remove it? Or would they get discouraged, quit, and return home?

 With growing disappointment, the king watched as subject after subject came to this impediment and turned away. Or, at best, tried halfheartedly before giving up. Many openly complained or cursed the king or fortune or bemoaned the in- convenience, but none managed to do anything about it.

After several days, a lone peasant came along on his way into town. He did not turn away. Instead he strained and strained, trying to push it out of the way. Then an idea came to him: He scrambled into the nearby woods to find some- thing he could use for leverage. Finally, he returned with a large branch he had crafted into a lever and deployed it to dislodge the massive rock from the road.

Beneath the rock were a purse of gold coins and a note from the king, which said:

The obstacle in the path becomes the path. Never forget, within every obstacle is an opportunity to improve our condition.

What if you had the ability to flip your obstacles and turn them into opportunities?

Here are 10 historical strategies for doing just that—practiced by great men and women throughout the centuries.

Strategy 1: Alter Your Perspective

Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become the next moment. — Viktor Frankl

We chose how we look at things. How we approach an obstacle determines how daunting it will be to overcome.

By controlling our irrational emotions, we are able to see thing as they are, not as we perceive them to be.

Think of it as selective editing—not to deceive others, but to properly orient ourselves.

Where the head goes, the body follows. Perception precedes action. Right action follows the right perspective.

Strategy 2: Flip The Obstacle On Its Head

There is good in everything, if only we look for it.— Laura Ingalls Wilder

The events that we initially perceive as negative all contain a positive, exposed benefit that we can recognize and act on.

A computer glitch that destroys your work is now a means to make it twice as good because you’re better prepared.

Having a terrible boss is now an opportunity to learn from his faults while you fill up your resume and look for better jobs elsewhere.

Notice this is a complete mental flip: Seeing through the negative, past its underside and through to the positive.

Strategy 3: Stay Moving, Always.

We must all either wear out or rust out, every one of us. My choice is to wear out. — Theodore Roosevelt

Those who attack problems and life with most initiative and energy usually win.

Courage is really just taking action. Start by saying yes to create momentum and you’ll be on your way.

Obstacles seem more intimidating when we stop to look up at them.

Strategy 4: Fail Cheaply and Quickly

What is defeat? Nothing but education; nothing but the first steps to something better. —Wendell Phillips

Engineers now like to quip: Failure is a Feature.

There’s nothing wrong with being wrong. Each time it happens, new options open up to us and problems can be flipped into opportunities.

When failure does come ask: Why did this happen? This helps birth alternative ways of doing what needs to be done. Failure puts you in corners you have to think your way out of and is a source of breakthroughs.

Strategy 5: Follow The Process

Under the comb the tangle and the straight path are the same. — Heraclitus

In the chaos of life, process provides us a way.

For whatever obstacles you come across, take a breath, do the immediate, composite part in front of you—and follow its thread into the next action.

The process is about doing the little things, right now. Not worrying about what might happen later, or the results, or the whole picture.

Strategy 6: What’s Right Is What Works

I don’t care if the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice. — Deng Xiaoping

We spend a lot of time thinking about how things are supposed to be.

As they say in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, it doesn’t matter how you get our opponent to the ground, only that you take them down.

Start thinking like a radical pragmatist: not on changing the world right at this moment,but ambitious enough to get everything you need.

Think progress, not perfection.

Strategy 7: Use The Flank Attack

Where little danger is apprehended, the more the enemy will be unprepared and consequently there is the fairest prospect of success. — George Washington

Think about this: In a study of more than 280 military campaigns, only two percent were decided on a direct attack on the enemy’s main army.

Being overmatched don’t have to be a disadvantage. It forces us to find workarounds, instead of challenging our enemy head on.

Remember, sometimes the longest way around is the shortest way home.

Strategy 8: Use The Obstacle Against Itself

Wise men are able to make a fitting use even of their enemies. — Plutarch

Action has many definitions. Sometimes you overcome obstacles not by attacking them but by withdrawing and letting them attack you.

A castle can be an intimidating, impenetrable fortress, or it can be turned into a prison when surrounded. The difference is simply a shift in action and approach.

So instead of fighting obstacles, find a means of making them defeat themselves.

Strategy 9: Seize The Offensive

The best men are not those who have waited for chances but who have taken them; besieged chance, conquered the change, and made chance the servitor. — E.H. Chapin

Ordinary people shy away from negative situations and avoid trouble. What great people do is the opposite.

They never waste an opportunity to flip a personal tragedy or crisis to their advantage.

At certain moments in our brief existences we are faced with great trials. We must see that this “problem” presents an opportunity for a solution that we have long been waiting for.

It is in these moments that we must seize the offensive, because it is when people least expect it that we can pull off our biggest victories.

Strategy 10: Focus On Something Bigger Than Yourself

A man’s job is to make the world a better place to live in, so far as he is able—always remembering the results will be infinitesimal—and to attend to his own soul. — Leroy Percy

Sometimes when we are personally stuck with some impossible problem, one of the best ways to create opportunities or new avenues for movement is to think:

If I can’t solve this for myself, how can I at least make this better for other people?

You’ll be shocked by how much of the hopelessness lifts when we reach that conclusion—the strength that comes by thinking of people other than yourself.

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way. — Marcus Aurelius

So when you’re frustrated in pursuit of your own goals, don’t sit there and complain that you don’t have what you want or that this obstacle won’t budge. If you haven’t even tried yet, then of course you will still be in the exact same place. You haven’t actually pursued anything.

All the greats we admire started by saying, Yes, let’s go. And they usually did it in less desirable circumstances than we’ll ever suffer.

Just because the conditions aren’t exactly to your liking, or you don’t feel ready yet, doesn’t mean you get a pass. If you want momentum, you’ll have to create it yourself, right now, by getting up and getting started.

The post appeared originally on the New York Observer.