I’ve been a major slouch with getting Volume 3 out. I’ve had some interesting times lately, but the delay is mostly because I’m a procrastinator extraordinaire. The 80/20 rule is easier to preach than practice…
Apropos of keeping up with this newsletter, a helpful tip from productivity expert Tim Ferriss: when starting a new creative endeavor, commit to a definite number of iterations. The first few tries of a new project can yield a lot of false signals but the benefits of a worthwhile endeavor often take time to manifest.
My commitment for “Three Things” is ten newsletters. Get ready for 7 more of these bad boys!
This edition’s “Three Things” are actually three books. I found them good stubs for organizing some recurring thoughts from the past month.
- Lying, by Sam Harris: This compact 108-page book is probably the most complete and compelling argument for honesty I’ve encountered.
It doesn’t have any groundbreaking new insights but combines the ethical and utilitarian perspectives particularly well. For me, there’s nothing more stressful than keeping different sets of books; telling one person one version of a story and a different version to another is extremely difficult to manage and breeds unhappiness.
I also think honesty is critical to relationships of any sort, whether romantic, professional or platonic. When you lie to someone important to you, you unilaterally bound the value and utility of that relationship, even if your lie is never discovered. You can never let your guard down on that topic again without first exposing your dishonesty and making amends.
On the other hand, I can’t imagine stronger relationships than ones based on universal authenticity, coupled with understanding and acceptance of people as they are – which sometimes requires reckoning with uncomfortable truths.
The alternative is far worse – an isolated existence among relationships built on false pretenses where only you know the truth (that is, if you don’t deceive yourself, which is also very easy to do). And that is a very lonely place to be.
- Leadership in Turbulent Times, by Doris Kearns Goodwin: In addition to being a huge American history nerd, I love biographies.
My friend Boaz lent me Goodwin’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” in Egypt in 2008 and I devoured it. It remains my favorite book to this day. Lincoln is one of the few hallowed historical figures whose reputation survives closer examination, and whose character remains an enduring standard.
So when I found out Goodwin was releasing a book examining the leadership development of four great American presidents, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson, I immediately pre-ordered it.
I’m still reading it, but one clear pattern is emerging: all four men tied their significant personal ambition to an important purpose, often serving purpose at the expense of ambition.
Picture: A young Lyndon Johnson with the athletic club he funded from his own pay
Lincoln ceded his deserved election to the U.S. Senate in 1855 to a fellow opponent of slavery’s expansion, despite having far greater party support. Roosevelt was a tireless reformer of the New York civil service and police force despite enraging the party bosses of the Tammany Hall Democratic machine. Johnson taught Mexican-American primary schoolchildren in a six-teacher schoolhouse in the tiny Texas town of Cotulla. He later became the administrator of the National Youth Administration, a New Deal program that put millions of youth to work on public works projects and teaching them valuable trades.
(Note: I’m currently writing from Saigon where I see first-hand the historical consequences of Johnson’s Vietnam War folly. Johnson’s story serves a powerful lesson in cognitive dissonance and the perils of abandoning critical reflection. I don’t think the famously plain-spoken Johnson would begrudge me this TL;DR – don’t let your head get stuck too far up your own ass.)
The stories of these men and their dedication to service put the current 2020 presidential contest in context; I find it relatively simple to distinguish between opportunist candidates who run to advance their personal ambitions and those who have in service of others and in to advance their convictions. A healthy dose of ambition is a great asset. But leadership ambition devoid of conviction and a desire to serve is corrosive.
I’ve donated to and am supporting the Warren, Sanders and Yang campaigns at this point. I’m not sure if any of them are the ideal candidate to defeat Trump and successfully enact a progressive agenda thereafter, but primaries are also a battle to firmly fix ideas to the agenda, regardless of who the eventual standard-bearer is.
From an ideas perspective, I’m particularly excited about Andrew Yang. He’s a young, successful entrepreneur who understands the transformative nature of the technological revolution underway, eschews the culture war that has dominated our political discourse thus far, and aims to implement policies protecting American workers from the inevitable threat of automation.
Watch Yang on the Joe Rogan show here:
It’s a critical time for citizens to engage not only substantively with the political process, but also financially in the age of unlimited contributions from corporations and the wealthy. Last year, Beto O’Rourke raised a record $78 million from almost a million individual Democratic donors.
So even if it’s ten bucks, consider making a donation as part of your political engagement (citizens only, I’m afraid).
The Hamilton Papers, by Alexander Hamilton (compiled by Ross DiLiegro):
I actually haven’t read this book yet. Nor do I know much about Hamilton beyond the fact he was killed by Aaron Burr (and I only know that because of this “Got Milk?” commercial from the ‘90s).
The reason I’m sharing this book is because it was compiled by my friend Ross, a fellow “digital nomad” I met in Bangkok, and the awesome story of how it came to be.
Two years ago, Ross was listening to the soundtrack from the hit Broadway musical “Hamilton” and noticed Hamilton’s letters and publications are repeatedly mentioned in the songs. After some quick googling, Ross couldn’t find any compilations of the letters and documents mentioned in the musical. Confirmed market gap FTW!
So Ross compiled all the letters and publications (all in the public domain) into a PDF, designed a cover, and uploaded the file onto Amazon’s self-publishing service.
A few months later, Ross had sold hundreds of copies and made thousands of dollars. He even released a Volume 2.
After a polite cease-and-desist letter from the musical’s producers, Ross had to change the cover of the book and sales have slowed slightly, but it’s still a nice little boost to his bottom line every month.
Ross’ story resonated with me and I wanted to share it with you because it fits nicely with a question I’ve been pondering: how can we make our work an expression of the positive values we want to introduce, maintain and perpetuate in the world?
I’m at a point in my career where I’m trying to transition from salaryman to building my own business. Building your own business isn’t easy, full stop. Building one that expresses your values is way harder. That’s why everyone tries to fake it. Cue the “making the world a better place through ____” Silicon Valley clip!
The entrepreneurial transition probably won’t work out this time, but it’s a worthwhile question for anyone, even if you work for a paycheck. We have far more ability to shape a professional life that advances our values than we think. Service-oriented professions such as teaching, journalism and government service provide us with platforms to carry those values forward. (I actually think newspapers are one of the most underappreciated social enterprises, which is why I subscribe to the New York Times, but that’s another blog post)
Maybe all that is a bit much to project onto Ross’ book about a celebrated historical figure. But at the very least, hats off to him for applying a little old-fashioned opportunistic American hustle to a very American pastime: feel-good patriotism.
If you’re interested in Hamilton, learn more about him direct from the source and support Ross’ adventures by buying a copy here.
That’s it for this edition. Hugs from sunny Saigon!
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