Take me to your leader
So our question to you today is: Who are you studying? What philosophers and professors and thinkers are you actively learning from? Whether they be tutors from today or mentors from millennia ago.
Suggestions from Ryan Holiday include.
Marcus Aurelius: An obvious choice and the only Stoic philosopher on the list. Though I have read Meditations, it occurs to me I have not read a historical biography of Aurelius or any other Roman emperor. We have a possible front runner.
Bill Belichick: Bill Belichick is a football coach. He is a successful football coach. Will reading his life story give me insight into my life? I am dubious.
Jim Mattis: The warrior monk and Donald Trump’s Secretary of Defense is an interesting pick on one level. I will discuss below the lack of villains on this list. Mattis seems almost a caricature of a follower of Stoicism. He is a voracious reader by all accounts and Ryan often name drops him. All that said, the fact he never married (And not because he is some sort of Bill Maher freewheeling bachelor) does seem to indicate a serious lack of work life balance. (Or perhaps something else… not that there is anything wrong with that). His over the top support for Saudi Arabia (To the point of defending crown prince Mohammed bin Salman on the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi and the continued war in Yemen.) is another, shall we say, interesting tangent? May have to wait a few years for a more balanced biography, however.
Queen Elizabeth: I am assuming that Ryan is referring to Queen Elizabeth the second. I like Queen Elizabeth as royals go. (Low bar nowadays, I confess.) Like Marcus Aurelius, her children have disappointed. (Though even Prince Andrew is not as bad as Commodus). But while some others on this list were born (or adopted) into privilege, nobody else has been handed their role quite like the Queen. Her biggest claim to fame as of this writing is longevity. That makes her story a little less interesting in my eyes.
Winston Churchill: Winston is a front runner. Mainly because I already own an eight volume biography from Martin Gilbert and Randolph Churchill. Lazy or practical… you be the judge. (Me not Winston)
Lyndon Johnson: Lyndon is an interesting character. While Ryan is showing his Texas bias here a little, I just have to say kudos for including neither Abraham Lincoln nor Robert E. Lee on this list.
Martin Luther King Jr. : My lack of biography readings is becoming quite apparent. I feel uneducated all of the sudden. Perhaps I should read books that are not about natural disasters or monsters attacking coeds. This is my way of saying that my knowledge of MLK is probably no greater than what is taught in elementary school nowadays.
Angela Merkel: Not the first German leader one thinks of when one is thinking of reading a biography. (Stop that I am referring to Bismarck, of course). Merkel is no doubt interesting but with Russia about to possibly invade the Ukraine partially due to Germany’s bizarre choice of closing all its nuclear plants and instead relaying on Russian natural gas perhaps some time needs to pass before a more well-rounded look at Merkel’s legacy is available.
George Marshall: Note to Mattis. Marshall was married, widowed, and married again (Adopting his second wife’s three kids. She was also a widow). He ran World War 2. I would rather read about Marshall than Mattis, is what I am saying. An interesting choice, to be sure.
George Washington: You know, for the father of our country, I have to confess I don’t recall reading all that much about him. Most of what I know is trivia (He was quite tall. His teeth were not really wooden.) Washington would not be my first choice of founding fathers to take a deep dive in and that may be an error. His greatest fault seems to be he was not very flawed (Or colorful) compared to most of his contemporaries. I can’t help but have the nagging feeling I may be mistaken in my impressions.
Sandra Day O’Connor: Okay? I mean instead of say Sally Ride? Or perhaps Debbie Harry? I am curious what, outside of being the first woman on the Supreme Court, prompted Ryan to include Sandra on this list. I am drawing a blank.
John Wooden: I was going to put I have no idea who this is next to Jeni Britton Bauer below, but apparently I needed to include it here as well. I had assumed Wooden was a collegiate football coach for an SEC team. Turns out he coached basketball for UCLA. The fact he was hired by UCLA in 1948 makes me feel a little better about not knowing this.
Jeni Britton Bauer: Jeni does not have her own Wikipedia page. She writes cookbooks and has an Ice Cream company called Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams (Which in all fairness, has its own Wikipedia page) which I have never heard of. She seems to have reached a level of success in the frozen desert space, though she is no Ben nor a Jerry. I am assuming Ryan is a friend of hers? Recently interviewed her? Wrote this list while he was hungry?
Does it have to be a hero?
Per Ryan “We study the great men and women who came before us for the same reason Roosevelt did: that we might be more like them. So choose your Cato, like Seneca said. Choose a great leader. Study them deeply and diligently. Study the lessons of their lives, their living and their dying, their successes and their failings—today and tomorrow and forever.”
Okay, fair enough. But I am not an impressionable teenager finding my way through life. More to the point, sometimes we can learn as much from bad examples as well as good. Now I am not suggesting a Hitler biography. (As I winked at in the Merkel post above). But would you rather read about Henry the VIII or Queen Elizabeth the second? Would you rather read about Richard Nixon over George Washington? Julius Caesar over Marcus Arellius? Toussaint Louverture instead of MLK?
You can learn as much from a person who did not live the way you seek to live as one who theoretically did.
Do they even have to be famous?
I read a small and I believe self-published book many years ago about the struggles of an American family raising their kids in postwar Korea. It was fascinating. A look inside the ordinary lives of people that were just living day to day in a time and place truly alien to me. Though I cannot recall the name of the book or the people it was about. Yet thirty years later, the impression from reading that book still lingers.
The last non-fiction book I read was Casino: Love and Honor in Las Vegas, about Frank Rosenthal. Now Frank, despite being played by Robert DeNiro in the movie version, is hardly a household name. And he certainly is no one’s role model. But that is kind of the point. I learned a lot from Frank. I can see a lot of my own behavior in his self-destructive tendencies. By experiencing his disasters, it makes me realise that the same behavior in myself may very well lead to similar results.
In both examples above here are somewhat ordinary people (Frank may seem to be stretching that a bit, but in reality he was a mid to high-level executive who let his personal life interfere with his work.) Yet I seemingly can pull lessons from the lives of those that are not conquering nations, nor are they pioneers. Instead, people facing ordinary challenges and succeeding or failing based partially on their own fortitude.
Learning From Failure
The book Shattered about Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign was not supposed to be about failure. After all the title, Shattered was supposed to reference the glass ceiling that Hillary Clinton was about to, well… shatter. Of course, she failed miserably. As the Globe and The Mail put it “how a can’t-miss candidate running against a can’t-imagine opponent missed no opportunity to miss an opportunity, making the inconceivable seem inevitable.”
Can you learn anything about your own behavior and your organization’s behavior from reading Shattered? Yes. An awful lot, it turns out. (Starting with having a reason for doing what you are doing. A mission statement you can explain in less than an hour.) The Clinton campaign simply didn’t have one. Mainly because the candidate didn’t have one. So we ended up with “It’s Her Turn“. Which has to be one of the most tone deaf campaign slogans this side of I want to raise your taxes. (This is not the first time this has happened. It is surprisingly common. A good historic example is Ted Kennedy being asked early on why he is running against sitting President Jimmy Carter and staring at the camera for a full minute, speechless because he hadn’t actually thought of an answer.)
This is of course, only one of many lessons that can easily be gathered from Shattered. It really is an embarrassment of riches of what not to do. In that rich vein of very human errors, there are some lessons that are easily grasped. Could reading such a book be more useful than an inspiring book about Bill Belichick’s morning routine? I would argue yes.
So what am I going to read?
Well, for starters, I am going to finish reading Relic (Which is quite good even though it is about a coed being chased by a monster). But I will make it a point to make my next read a non-fiction biography. Churchhill is an obvious choice, as I already have the books. But I have a few more free months on my Kindle Unlimited subscription, so maybe I will take a gander over there to see what catches my eye. The key is what you take away from the book. I am a firm believer in enjoying what you read. You retain information better if you are interested and entertained. Life is too short not to enjoy what you read. Plus, it will be a cold day in Foxboro before I read a Bill Belichick biography.