"You should read this book," he said.
"Not a cat's chance in hell," I said.
"It's really good," he said.
"You couldn't pay me to read it," I said.
Turns out I was wrong. For the princely sum of £2.40, he could get me to read it.
It was a surprisingly fascinating read, despite my ego saying ‘Oh, no, no, no.’ Written by Ryan Holiday, a man with a cult following, and a former media stuntman. Media Stuntman? I have no idea, but it sounds very egotistical and hence he is best placed to write a book about ego being one’s enemy.
At the ripe old age of 21, he lost everything. Everything being his job and stellar career. His wife left him soon after. But fret yet not, by the time he was 23 he’d learned a lot about himself. Not least that people are disappointing caricatures of themselves, and you’ll meet plenty of arseholes along the way. So far so good: He and I think alike. He’s probably not yet realised the same thing happens in one’s mid-life too. And most likely, as we go to the afterlife but I’m not quite there yet myself to be sure.
Where we depart is that he is infinitely more learned than I. At least, he knows an awful lot about people with very complicated names. Isocrates, Demonicus, Xerxes and Herodotus amongst other philosophical references. He is also utterly fascinated by the goings-on of military leaders, many now having lost the lot, e.g. life, as well as sports leaders of the American kind. That said, he uses them to illustrate his advice, and dissect everything that is wrong in our contemporary world of leadership and cult followings.
For example, he urges successful people to be more Sherman. Now if, like me, you aren’t all that familiar with William Tecumseh Sherman, then you are likely to gravitate to the Urban Dictionary just to be cool. And from there, you’ll learn that should you happen upon a Sherman, you should marry him immediately. Quite what Sherman feels about this is anyone’s guess. But essentially, Sherman was a humble and rather happy person, unlike his more famous counterpart, General Ulysses S. Grant. Sherman knew his limits, his strengths and could readily focus on the task in hand. He never aspired to be someone, but rather just do stuff. Whereas General Grant was more of a egoist who died impoverished and rather bitter. The point being that gratifying label-making is not what a quest is about, but rather what is achieved along the way: the failures, the curveballs, the ability to develop resilience and to keep on, keeping on all the whilst dodging plaudits and recognition that may knock one off beam.
Once one gets "there" (there being 'success') you must remain humble by learning. And continuing to learn. Remaining forevermore a student, talking less, and not getting swept away by passion and quit aspiring to be the firstest with the mostest. To demonstrate this, the author recounts the dismal failures of more recent Americans - Howard Hughes, John DeLorean and the man who declined to be Field Marshall Marshall. He even enters the foray that is Europe by focusing on the traits that make Angela Merkel, Angela Merkel. From this we learn some sage advice about the perils of entitlement, control and paranoia, and the disease of being, and how not to manage oneself.
The difficulty I face with story-telling to illustrate the learning point is that all too often the writer seeks to isolate the one trait, or activity that one person does, that makes them successful (or a catasclasmic failure) to the detriment of the environmental circumstances in which that person exists, such as the other people, resources and culture involved. It's like the bread my friend made. It was utterly divine. What made it divine? The cranberries she used. If we are to isolate just the cranberries, then all I have is a unremarkable bowl of dried fruit despite them being called 'jewels' by the marketeers. True, the cranberries enhanced an otherwise lovely, fresh, homemade wholewheat loaf in a way, say, that dried chillis would not. But shoving some dried cranberries in couple of slices of brown bread would also not have the wow factor.
Yet, what gives this book the wow-factor for me is that Ryan Holiday is a fantastic writer. I shall be joining his cult-following and possibly read 'The Obstacle is the Way'. I loved his style and his immense vocabulary which stayed the correct side of unpretentiousness for me. My favourite chapter was about Malcolm X 'Dead time or Alive Time' about using adversity as opportunity. Overall, I found his study of historical leaders and influencers truly fascinating despite the obvious American, male, military and sporting bias. Although, to be fair, he's hardly going to write a best-seller about a hidden Kardashian who is happier than other the others as this kind of genre is pitched towards the educated, managerial, types. The types whose egos are likely to get in the way, and not see the falls as they arrive.
In this internet-world we are led to believe that happiness is what happens to successful people, but his views on failure - that it happens to everyone at some point - and how to tackle it is invigorating. On that note, I'm off to tackle the laundry mountain which I have utterly failed to conquer this week.