How To Beat “The System”: The Ultimate Scarcity of Good Stuff

March 19, 2014 — 7 Comments

It’s totally messed up if you think about it. There are millions of people out there dying to be writers. Yet when a good writer puts together a book proposal (that is, a potential book), publishers actually bid against each other for the privilege of publishing it.

And before you say “Oh, that’s only for established authors,” it isn’t. My first book started a bidding war. All sorts of first time authors experience this. Some guy you’ve never heard of just got $2 million for a 770-page historical novel. As desperate as people are to be writers, publishers are apparently as desperate for good writing.

Thought Catalog did a piece on young people who had their dream jobs. Considering the economy, there are undoubtedly a bunch of other struggling kids (and adults) out there dying for those jobs. At the same time, the sad irony is that those young kids with the dream jobs probably fend off job offers from other companies on a regularly basis (Note to the girl at Gawker: You should absolutely accept the next one that comes your way. Your life will get better.)

So what’s going on? Why do some people live the dream while others are grinding it out in obscurity, waiting for their shot?

Well, some people would say those lucky few at the top have some natural talent advantage. That’s probably part of it, but most of the smart analysis of mastery show us that those things are relatively minor factors when it comes to achieving greatness. Or they’ll say it’s a matter of “privilege” — but if that were so, how did any disadvantaged people make it through?

Which leaves us to the explanation that always seems to come up in people’s gripes: The System. We have a broken system that holds people back, we tell ourselves. It doesn’t care about me. It’s just luck. It doesn’t appreciate my work.

But that’s just bogus.

The system is not a person. It is not sentient. But as far as it is, we’ve got to realize that it wants only one thing: good stuff.

Do you think store owners are sitting around going, “We can’t possibly fit another hot product in our stores. We have no more room for things, even though they’ll sell”? I have to have the same discussion with my clients who are nervous or intimidated about marketing and publicity. I ask them, “Do you think reporters are sitting around complaining, ‘Man, there are just too many great stories to write about?’”

Of course not. It’s the opposite. There’s never enough.

They want you as much as you want it. Provided that you truly deliver the goods.

Here’s what you’ve got to realize: that is super rare. Good stuff is the ultimate scarcity. And the market for it is basically infinite. That is why the people who have it command insane, illogical compensation for it. But everyone is too focused on the wrong things and so the spoils go only to an elite few.

There is a story about George Clooney, who struggled early on in auditions as an actor. His problem was that he just wanted everyone to like him. Then he remembered that they were trying to hire someone. That was their job. And his job as an actor was to solve their problem.

No one is keeping you from your dream job. In fact, the people hiring for your dream job are sitting around wondering where the fuck they can find some good applicants. The same applies to basically everything else.

Writing a book isn’t about getting a good agent. Making something that sells isn’t about lining up the right investors. Getting press or attention isn’t complicated.

You have to do something that’s good. That means: drastically better than existing stuff, different than existing stuff, or easier to work with than existing stuff.

That’s the simple part. The hard part is that this takes a long time and a lot of work. You have to pay your dues. Read the books. Study the best — the ones who came before and the ones who are doing it now. Find a mentor. Don’t phone it in — find that thing that really, passionately compels youApply yourself at more than one thing and then roll it all together into something special and new.

When you do this, eventually you become the solution to a common problem across basically every section of the economy. They are all trying to separate the really excellent people/ideas/companies/things from the crap. Because there is so much crap. There is so much sameness. There is so much “looks good on paper but totally under delivers.”

You don’t have to be one of those people. One of those sad, resentful cases who doesn’t have what they want and think someone else is preventing them from having it. On the contrary, they need it! And they’ll pay you out the ass if you promise to keep up the supply.

This post originally ran on ThoughtCatalog.com. Comments can be seen there.

How to Keep A Library Of (Physical) Books

March 10, 2014 — 29 Comments

The hardest part of my most recent move: figuring how to transport nearly 1,500 books. All the rest of our stuff–in the age of IKEA–turned out to be easier to sell on Craigslist or throw away than to move. But the books? Something had to be done.

My library Sept 2013. Austin, Texas

My library Sept 2013. Austin, Texas

They are my life and my livelihood.

Ultimately, I ended up hiring 1-800-Pack-Rat to send a portable storage unit to my house– a pod 8 feet by 8 feet by 8 feet– which I filled up and then shipped off to the new house. Nearly 30 full boxes of books were loaded in (plenty of space left if I’d had more). I used movers on TaskRabbit and didn’t have to pick up a single one. The books arrived right outside my door about ten days later. It was amazing. I wish I’d thought of it before.

See, I’ve been keeping a library for as long as I can remember. My enthusiasm has been sporadic of course. (There was a boneheaded moment in college where I sold a bunch of books back because they were giving away Skittles to the people who did it.) But I read a lot and strive to keep, return to and reference what I’ve read whenever I can.

Moving the books New Orleans (Garden District)

Moving the books New Orleans (Garden District)

That isn’t to say it’s been easy. I’ve moved a lot over the years and every move makes you question why you keep something that weighs thousands of pounds and takes up many cubic feet. Just two years ago, when I moved to New Orleans, my library was much smaller. Still, I had to rent a small U-Haul trailer just for my books and drive it across the country. And because I had a smaller place, most of the books had to stay in boxes and couldn’t be arranged properly. It was miserable.

Today, finally, after years of waiting, I have them all in one place. I could not be be happier. I’m already reaping the benefits in my writing and my work.

My library (in infancy), mid-move. August 2008. Downtown Los Angeles

My library (in infancy), mid-move. August 2008. Downtown Los Angeles

Below are some tips on keeping and maintaining your own library. I hope they help:

-First, you have to read a lot. A lot. Read when you fly, read when you wait for doctors appointments, read when you’re eating, read before bed, take breaks from work and read. Every chance you get, read. If you need recommendations, I’m your man (more on this below)

-Buy, buy buy. I took some heat for criticizing checking books out from the library a while back. Books are an investment. I understand they cost money upfront…but that’s how an investment works. I think I spent something like $4,000 on books in 2012. 75% of that was on Amazon, the rest was B&N in store or various indies. You gotta spend money to make money.

-Oh, that sounds like a lot? Average student loan debt for the same period was about $30k. If you don’t like that equivalency, what’d you spend on cable, movies and bar tabs? What are the chances of that ever turning a profit? The books have more than paid for themselves (if only in improving my life and outlook and providing pure enjoyment, to say nothing of their ideas, inspiration and lessons).

-I’ll be real clear about the benefits of owning physical books: You own them. They are there, physically, in your house. You cannot forget about them. A different app is not one click away. You can see patterns. You can gauge your progress. You can show off your efforts (and you should–reading is something to be proud of). You can look for what you need, find it on the shelf and satisfyingly say “Ah, here it is” and find the exact passage you marked for this purpose.

-In my eyes, there is no question that I am able to write as much as I do and have been able to accomplish as much as I have been fortunate to accomplish because of the library I have built. When I do my taxes each year and look at what I’ve earned vs what I’ve spent on books, I see the correlation and think “Sounds about right” and then I push to up it in the following year.

-In other words, RESIST THE KINDLE. I’ve purchased a fair amount of Kindle books. Do you know how many times I have “flipped” through those books after I read them? Or looked at the notes I took? Never. I don’t even remember which ones I bought. If there were no other reason to prefer physical to digital, this is it.

-Same goes for audiobooks. They are even less justifiable in this sense. Yes they might be easier to listen to in the car, but that convenience comes at a high cost when you are trying to remember ‘where you heard that good idea a couple months ago.’

-The books on your shelves–if properly selected–represent literally thousands of years of cumulative human wisdom. This is wisdom that you can reach out and access at any second. It also stands there, also, as a reminder of the pettiness of so many of our problems and complaints.

-Organize, organize, organize. I do themes (moving messed them all up, but it was fun to start over).

-Some themes of mine: Classics. Fiction. Autobiography. Power/Strategy. Business. Cities I’ve Lived In. Civil War. War. Media/Marketing. Non-Fiction. Hollywood. Big Books That Don’t Fit in Normal Shelves. Etc.

-Have a “LIFE” section–for books that changed your life or books to live your life by. Return to these often.

-Aesthetically, once in themes I prefer to have them arranged in order descending by height. I tried color once but it didn’t work. The height gives it a sense or order and symmetry which you notice only when it is not there.

-Nassim-Taleb talks about an “anti-library.” That is, not just books you’ve read–which represent you know–but all the books you haven’t read. Knowing what you don’t know is just as important. The books you haven’t read are humble reminder.

-At the same time, I find that if books pile up, I don’t read as fast (or I forget them). So I keep multiple Amazon Wish Lists where I track books I intend to read. Every week or so I’ll buy a couple to keep my ahead of schedule.

-Pick one off the shelf every now and then and flip back through it.

-I don’t tend to care if they are brand new, used, paperback or hardcover. I usually try to get whatever the best deal is, or if I’m in a hurry, whatever will arrive first.

-Having a personal library in your house functions as a good litmus test for people who come over. If their first question is “WOW, have you read all these?” it says something about them. If they immediately start looking for books they like, or start inspecting the titles like it’s a bookstore and they’re looking for something to pick up, that says something too. You can tell a lot about a person based on their relationship to reading.

-But it takes up so much space! Just wall space, really. We fill up our living spaces with so much crap, I have to think books are maybe the least bad thing. If it wasn’t there, a couch would probably take its place.

-I understand that keeping a library of books puts you minority or at least part of a dying breed (like someone who started a record collection in 1998). Whatever. Of all the “old” traditions to stick to, a three- or four-thousand-year-old one strictly observed by basically every smart and accomplished person ever seems like a good one to go down with.

-Treat them like shit. Books are made to be broken–literally or figuratively. I recently bought a 80+ year old book for $76 (a rare book called If It Had Happened Otherwise). I took special pleasure folding the pages and writing on them. It’s mine, why treat it like a delicate flower?

-The author signed it? Cool, it’s still for reading.

-We all know that public libraries are calming and quiet. Having books displayed–or better, a room dedicated to it–brings a little of that effect into your home.

-Become a resource for others. I love recommending books. I love being able to suggest “the best” book on a certain topic. Or when you see someone you know reading something, try to think of other books you might like. Nothing builds a connection like a shared book or author.

-Refer back to them! If you’re writing a memo, see if you can’t include an anecdote from a business book. If you’re working on a blog post, cite a book you’ve read. If someone you know is going through something, try to track down that quote you vaguely remember. The more you do this, the better your recall will get.

-The point of owning the books is to use them. Make sure you take notes and keep a commonplace book. It will change your life, I promise.

-Books are no substitute for human contact, but it is still beneficial, I think, to be in the physical company of the greats. There’s no way I’m ever going to be in the same room as all the people I’ve read biographies for. Most of them are dead, for starters. But having their books close to me is a decent half measure.

-Don’t be afraid to quit books that suck. Our lives are too short to suffer through crappy books. There are too many good ones out there–put it down if you stop getting something out of it. If they really suck, sell them back to Amazon, donate to charity or throw them away.

-On that note, don’t collect for the sake of collecting. Leave that for hoarders. Get rid of the stuff you don’t like or have no real use for. When I moved I got rid of two full boxes…which I have subsequently replaced with better stuff.

-Don’t loan. If I LOVE a book enough that I want you to have it, I’ll buy it for you…or I’ll just bother you until you buy it yourself. I’m not letting you borrow my copy. (My grandfather used to put his address labels in books–I still have a few of his copies. It isn’t my style, but seeing the stickers always makes me smile)

-If you need ever a reminder to read, the constant physical presence of books near you in your own home is quite helpful.

-It’s all about the IKEA shelves. Why? Easy, cheap and you can get rid of them if you need ‘em. I prefer the Billy Bookcase but I’ve also used the Expedit in the past. Higher is better (so if they have the extenders), put the books you need the least at the top and you’ll save room.

-Collect the unusual. My favorite section of books is weird books about animals. It is two full shelves and includes a ridiculous book called The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals–a fascinating read to say the least.

-If you want a cheesy library joke, refer to your books as the “[Insert Your Name] Memorial Library”

-Is it really that much of a pain to carry books around? I never got this argument. Only once in my life after like a month on the road was I so overloaded that I had to mail some home (and I read way more than the average person). Suck it up, the benefits are worth a heavy suitcase.

-Go through other people’s libraries. I have a standing arrangement with one of my friends who has a lot of books–if I see something I like (and he hasn’t marked up the copy), I take it and ship him a replacement.

-Having a library keeps the information fresh in your head. Even just catching a glance of a title as I walk through the room is a enough sometimes to bring not just the content of the book back into my mind but where I was when I read it, what I was doing, what music I was listening to at the time.

-Try to find those books you remember as a kid. It’s nice to have and every once in awhile it will make you think or smile. I guess that’s why I tell myself I bought a copy of Everybody Poops and the Stinky Cheeseman.

-Ask smart people for recommendations. Smart people read, people who read become smart. End of story. Find out what worked for other people. It’s a great conversation starter too.

-When you read a book, mark down the other books it cites either in the text or in the bibliography. My general rule is to try to find one new book from every book I read. This will pull you into some weird but unexpected directions.

-Walk into bookstores. Whether you’re in an airport, walking down the street, traveling in a foreign country–try to find bookstores and poke your head in. I always find good, unexpected stuff this way. Sometimes I buy it there, sometimes I make a note and buy it later. Even if you use Kindle or iBooks, do this. Discovery is important.

****

You keep a library ultimately because you love books. Because books are awesome.

But I wanted to write this to make the point that there are other benefits too–benefits that cannot be recreated on your iPad or Kindle. I don’t have a problem with eBooks but I can say seriously that there isn’t a single time that I read a good digital book that I didn’t immediately wish I had a physical copy of.

And these benefits far outweigh any costs or impositions. Though I imagine that next time I move, I’m going to need a bigger storage pod.

This post originally ran on ThoughtCatalog.com. Comments can be seen there.

Announcing: The Obstacle Is The Way & How You Can Get Involved

February 17, 2014 — 13 Comments

This is a somewhat unusual post. It is not the full announcement for my new book, The Obstacle Is The Way: The Timeless Art of Turning Trials Into Triumph (B&N)(UK), but it may as well be.

I’m writing to ask for your help. The Obstacle Is The Way is a total departure from my previous books, which dealt with media manipulation and marketing and much closer to what we’ve been writing and thinking about together on this blog for so long. This book is one I’ve wanted to write since I was 19 years old and was first blown away by stoic philosophy and now I want it to reach as many people as possible.

In brief terms, the book is a manual for approaching the obstacles we face in life and flipping them into advantages. Steeped in philosophy and using examples of history’s greats who used the principles to overcome incredible adversity, it is a book that should become more valuable as you revisit it, using it to overcome the adversity we all face in life.

Because this book is so different from my previous efforts, I’m asking you, my readers, for help in marketing the book and seeding it in communities and outlets that would benefit from it. 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 May 1 release date.

If you have ideas, suggestions or better, have access to a large audience of your own, I want to hear from you. Filling out the form below will give me an idea of how you can help with the launch. Specifically I’d love to reach groups who have dealt with adversity (12-Step groups, the military, college clubs, startup incubators, etc.) but this book will work for lots of places.

Fill out my online form.

 *Note: Don’t worry I’ll still be doing all my normal marketing stuff, including a pre-order campaign like last time. This is just a way to hear from people who might have marketing/media relationships that will help the book. To get updates about The Obstacle Is The Way, sign up for my reading newsletter

A Note To Self

January 27, 2014 — 7 Comments

“To be casual, relaxed, the person in every situation who tells everyone else not worry about it. Not the other way around–the agitator, the paranoid, the worrier or the irrational. Be the calm, not the liability.” Found in a bin of papers, dated 6/24/10

How And Why To Keep A “Commonplace Book”

January 24, 2014 — 36 Comments

The other day I was reading a book and I came across a little anecdote. It was about the great Athenian general Themistocles. Before the battle of Salamis, he was locked in a vigorous debate with a Spartan general about potential strategies for defeating the Persians. Themistocles was clearly in the minority with his views (but which ultimately turned out to be right and saved Western Civilization). He continued to interpret and contradict the other generals. Finally, the Spartan general threatened to strike Themistocles if he didn’t shut up and stop. “Strike!” Themistocles shouted back, “But listen!”

When I read this, I immediately began a ritual that I have practiced for many years–and that others have done for centuries before me–I marked down the passage and later transferred it to my “commonplace book.” Why? Because it’s a great line and it stood out to me. I wrote it down, I’ll want to have it around for later reference, for potentially using it in my writing or work, or for possible inspiration at some point in the future.

In other posts, we’ve talked about how to read morewhich books to read, how to read books above your level and how to write. Well, the commonplace book is a thread that runs through all those ideas. It what ties those efforts together and makes you better at each one of them. I was introduced and taught a certain version of this system by Robert Greene and now I am passing along the lessons because they’ve helped me so much.

What is a Commonplace book?

A commonplace book is a central resource or depository for ideas, quotes, anecdotes, observations and information you come across during your life and didactic pursuits. The purpose of the book is to record and organize these gems for later use in your life, in your business, in your writing, speaking or whatever it is that you do.

Some of the greatest men and women in history have kept these books. Marcus Aurelius kept one–which more or less became the Meditations. Petrarch kept one. Montaigne, who invented the essay, kept a handwritten compilation of sayings, maxims and quotations from literature and history that he felt were important. His earliest essays were little more than compilations of these thoughts. Thomas Jefferson kept one. Napoleon kept one. HL Mencken, who did so much for the English language, as his biographer put it, “methodically filled notebooks with incidents, recording straps of dialog and slang” and favorite bits from newspaper columns he liked. Bill Gates keeps one.

Not only did all these famous and great individuals do it. But so have common people throughout history. Our true understanding of the Civil War, for example, is a result of the spread of cheap diaries and notebooks that soldiers could record their thoughts in. Art of Manliness recently did an amazing post about the history of pocket notebooks. Some people have gone as far as to claim that Pinterest is a modern iteration of the commonplace book.

And if you still need a why–I’ll let this quote from Seneca answer it (which I got from my own reading and notes):

“We should hunt out the helpful pieces of teaching and the spirited and noble-minded sayings which are capable of immediate practical application–not far far-fetched or archaic expressions or extravagant metaphors and figures of speech–and learn them so well that words become works.”

How to Do It (Right)

-Read widely. Read about anything and everything and be open to seeing what you didn’t expect to be there–that’s how you find the best stuff. Shelby Foote, “I can’t begin to tell you the things I discovered while I was looking for something else.” If you need book recommendations, these will help.

-Mark down what sticks out at you as you read–passages, words, anecdotes, stories, info. When I read, I just fold the bottom corners of the pages. If I have a pen on me, I mark the particularly passages I want to come back to. I used to use flag-it highlighters, which can be great.

-Again, take notes while you read. It’s what the best readers do, period. it’s called “marginalia.” For instance, John Stuart Mill hated Ralph Waldo Emerson, and we know this based on his copies of Emerson’s books where he made those (private) comments. You can also see some of Mark Twain’s fascinating marginalia here. Bill Gates’ marginalia is public on a website he keeps called The Gates Notes. It’s a way to have a conversation with the book and the author. Don’t be afraid to judge, criticism or exclaim as you read.

-Wisdom, not facts. We’re not just looking random pieces of information. What’s the point of that? Your commonplace book, over a lifetime (or even just several years), can accumulate a mass of true wisdom–that you can turn to in times of crisis, opportunity, depression or job.

-But you have to read and approach reading accordingly. Montaigne once teased the writer Erasmus, who was known for his dedication to reading scholarly works, by asking with heavy sarcasm, “Do you think he is searching in his books for a way to become better, happier, or wiser?” In Montaigne’s mind, if he wasn’t, it was all a waste. A commonplace book is a way to keep our learning priorities in order. It motivates us to look for and keep only the things we can use.

-After you finish the book, put it down for a week or so. Let it percolate in your head. Now, return to it and review all the material you’ve saved and transfer the marginalia and passages to your commonplace book.

-It doesn’t have to just be material from books. Movies, speeches, videos, conversations work too. Whatever. Anything good.

-Actually writing the stuff down is crucial. I know it’s easier to keep a Google Doc or an Evernote project of your favorite quotes…but easy has got nothing to do with this. As Raymond Chandler put it, “When you have to use your energy to put those words down, you are more apt to make them count.” (Disclosure: for really long pieces, I’ll type it up and print it out).

-Technology is great, don’t get me wrong. But some things should take effort. Personally, I’d much rather adhere to the system that worked for guys like Thomas Jefferson than some cloud-based shortcut.

-That being said, I don’t think the “book” part is all that important, just that it is a physical resource of some kind. If you do want a book, Moleskines are great and so are Field Notes.

-I use 4×6 ruled index cards, which Robert Greene introduced me to. I write the information on the card, and the theme/category on the top right corner. As he figured out, being able to shuffle and move the cards into different groups is crucial to getting the most out of them. Ronald Reagan actually kept quotes on a similar notecard system.

-For bigger projects, I organize the cards in these Cropper Hoppers. It’s meant for storing photos, but it handles index cards perfectly (especially when you use file dividers). Each of the books I have written gets its own hopper (and you can store papers/articles in the compartment below.

-These Vaultz Index Card boxes are also good for smaller projects (they have a lock and key as well).

-Don’t worry about organization…at least at first. I get a lot of emails from people asking me what categories I organize my notes in. Guess what? It doesn’t matter. The information I personally find is what dictates my categories. Your search will dictate your own. Focus on finding good stuff and the themes will reveal themselves.

-Some of my categories for those who are curious: Life. Death. Writing. Stoicism. Strategy. Animals. Narrative Fallacy. Books. Article Ideas. Education. Arguing with Reality. Misc.

-Don’t let it pile up. A lot of people mark down passages or fold pages of stuff they like. Then they put of doing anything with it. I’ll tell you, nothing will make your procrastinate like seeing a giant pile of books you have to go through and take notes on it. You can avoid this by not letting it pile up. Don’t go months or weeks without going through the ritual. You have to stay on top of it.

-Because mine is a physical box with literally thousands of cards, I don’t carry the whole thing with me. But if I am working on a particular section of a book, I’ll take all those cards with me. Or when I was working on my writing post for Thought Catalog, I grabbed all the “writing” cards before I hopped on a flight and through the post together while I was in the air.

-It doesn’t have to be just other people’s writing. One of my favorite parts of The Crack Up–a mostly forgotten collection of materials from F. Scott Fitzgerald published after his death–is the random phrases and observations he made. They are aphorisms without the posturing that comes with writing for publication. So many of my notecards are just things that occurred to me, notes to myself in essence. It’s your book. Use it how you want.

-Look at other people’s commonplace books. It’s like someone is separating the wheat from the chaff for you. Try a Google Books search for “Commonplace Book”–there is great stuff there.

-Use them! Look, my commonplace book is easily justified. I write and speak about things for a living. I need this resource. But so do you. You write papers, memos, emails, notes to friends, birthday cards, give advice, have conversations at dinner, console loved ones, tell someone special how you feel about them. All these are opportunities to use the wisdom you have come across and recorded–to improve what you’re doing with knowledge passed down through history.

-This is a project for a lifetime. I’ve been keeping my commonplace books in variety of forms for 6 or 7 years. But I’m just getting started.

-Protect it at all costs. As the historian Douglas Brinkley said about Ronald Reagan’s collection of notecards: “If the Reagans’ home in Palisades were burning, this would be one of the things Reagan would immediately drag out of the house. He carried them with him all over like a carpenter brings their tools. These were the tools for his trade.” I couldn’t have put it better myself.

-Start NOW. Don’t put this off until later. Don’t write me about how this is such a good idea and you wish you had the time to do it too. You do have the time. But start, now, and stop putting it off. Make it a priority. It will pay off. I promise.

If anyone wants to post photos of their Commonplace Book or describe their personal method–go for it (or email it to me).

This post originally ran on ThoughtCatalog.com. Comments can be seen there.