5 Books to Kick Your Butt and Break Your Rut

Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers.

Harry S. Truman

Following the Curve of Her EyeWell, here it is. My first tip-of-the-hat to that ubiquitous and quotidian member of the blog family: the numbered list. Call it pandering. Call it trite. Call it a cop-out, a writer’s block, or a cheap attempt to drum up a bigger readership. I don’t really care. I post what I believe is important, and I try to communicate it in the least painful and most palatable way possible. And sometime a numbered list is just what the doctor ordered. If you don’t like it, there are plenty of numberless, listless web pages out there in the nebulon to peruse at your leisure. This blog is no longer one of them.

Los Libros Poderosos

In no particular order (with the exception of numero uno), here are 5 books that have grabbed me by the throat and plunged me into an ice bath of paradigm-shifting reality:

#5 – The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt by Edmund Morris: This powerful biography of the 26th president won Mr. Morris the Pulitzer in 1980. Rich and captivating, it is one of the greatest depictions of seizing the reins of your destiny and living an extraordinary life. It will stick with you forever.

#4 – How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie: The title says it all. Unless you’re some demigod of interpersonal relations, you’re not functioning even close to your capacity in this critical area of your life. Buy this and read it…right now.

#3 – The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey: Truly excellent book from a master of personal development. Even if the only thing you remember from reading this is the Time Management Matrix, you’ll be thanking Mr. Covey for the rest of your life.

#2 – Financial Peace by Dave Ramsey: Forget the Wall Street wise guys. If you want the simplest, most challenging, most transformational way to look at personal finance, this book will certainly deliver. A true counter-cultural uppercut. I still have a black eye from the first time I read this…over four years ago.

#1 – Gaining Favor with God and Man by William M. Thayer: If Financial Peace was the uppercut, Gaining Favor is the entire prizefight. Nearly lost to the abyss of literary history but for the efforts of a priest who resurrected its printing in the late 20th century, this in-your-face, make-you-feel-like-an-abysmal-failure-before-lighting-a-quenchless-passion-for-greatness work of genius radically revolutionized my life. I read it over three years ago and haven’t been the same since. I can’t even lend my copy to anyone because it became my personal journal. I wrote an entire book of my own in the margins, and I reference it continually for material. Get rid of your preconceptions and prejudices, get your hands on a copy, and don’t stop reading until you reach the end. Except to visit your cut-man in the corner after ever chapter.

Are you reading?

– CD

photo credit: Thomas Hawk via photopin cc

All Hat and No Cattle

There are three things extremely hard: steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.

Benjamin Franklin

800px-Stetson_cowboy_hat_1950_

There was a time not so long ago when a man’s wealth and social stature were directly proportional to his annual output of bull$%#*. (Let’s be clear. I am not making reference to politicians here – they still seem to rely on that particular metric up in DC.) The magnitude of a Midwestern rancher’s bovine headcount was a true measure of success in the swashbuckling days of occidental expansion, and I imagine that many a cattleman told many a tall tale about the volume of methane he was contributing to the regional atmosphere. Conflicts over grazing grounds were rampant, and herds would thin and swell as rustlers corralled their rivals’ stock into their own ranks.

A Real Fire Iron

To mitigate the risks of material losses and establish firm claim to hard-won beef portfolios, the process of branding was adopted. These simple trademarks seared into countless rump roasts across the West gave each rancher a definitive survey of his quadrupedal possessions: he knew exactly the breadth and scope of his bovinity and could accurately assess his position within the larger constellation of his cattle-driving peers. No more appropriating the neighbor’s numbers to plump up your own. The painstaking process of identifying and branding herds ensured that everyone knew exactly where he ranked on the T-bone totem pole.

When did this basic concept of taking stock leave a gaping vacancy in the collective consciousness? How many of us, if asked, could present a comprehensive picture of ourselves that would align itself with verifiable reality? Most of us lay claim to all manner of possessions – material, financial, relational, intellectual – in order to present an image of ourselves as we want to be rather than as we truly are. We manage to conjure up fantastically inflated ideas of our own efficacy, influence, skill sets, and even material possessions – and we end up blinding ourselves to the truth of our current circumstances. We don’t really know the headcount of our herds because we haven’t taken the time to do a critical, brand-in-the-hide survey of our real assets.

Too Much?

Now you’re saying, “Woah, Citizen, don’t you think that’s a bit extreme? I mean, I think I know myself pretty dang well.” OK, auto-analyst, ask yourself these simple questions:

  • Have I spoken of my mortgaged home or financed car as though I – rather than Chase or Citi or Fannie Mae – really hold claim to the asset?
  • Have I talked up a skill or attribute to a new employer when deep down I know that I’m nowhere near the smooth-talking expert I’d like him to believe I am?
  • Am I likely I to drop a high-profile name when meeting new friends or business associates – even though I only met the figurehead for five seconds at a Christmas party and know that she wouldn’t know me from Adam?

If you answered any of these in the affirmative, then that house, that car, that skill, and that connection are all rustled cattle – illegitimate additions to your herd – and guess what? Everyone knows. Everyone knows that, in certain areas, you are

all hat and no cattle.

If you’re honest with yourself, you know that you have done and continue to do a good bit of inflationary, delusional self- aggrandizement. In our culture, it’s as pervasive as MacDonald’s – and just as deadly. Being categorically unaware of your weaknesses, deficiencies, strengths, and  attributes makes you the rancher with unmarked bovines – an insecure cowpoke who needs to spin tall tales to prop up his image because he hasn’t had the guts to go through the unnerving process of branding his assets.

How’s your herd?

– CD

Webster’s Soapbox Episode #1: Mother’s Day

Daniel WebsterDISCLAIMER

If you thought this blog was going to be solely filled with high-minded conversations about self-development, consider yourself warned to the contrary.

 

Mothers.

Necessary for the proliferation of the human race. And I don’t just mean conceptions, incubations, and births. It is a non-debatable certainty that pretty much every young fool on the face of the planet would meet his or her untimely demise if it weren’t for the watchful eyes and fervent prayers of worried mothers.

I’m certain that I cheated death on half a dozen occasions thanks to some word of wisdom from my mother leaping like a jackrabbit from the recesses of my subconscious and inserting itself like an mental airbag between my brain and some inane and likely terminal decision. To this day, my mother is one of my closest friends, and I owe her my life in two very literal senses of the word. I love her dearly and would do almost anything to see her happy, healthy, and prosperous.

But I despise Mother’s Day. I hate it. I really do. Actually, I hate seeing the word “Day” printed with a capital “D” and preceded by some dispassionate noun-turned-adjective like “Mother’s,” “Father’s,” “Valentine’s,” and host of other ludicrous appellations. I know, I know. I sound like a horrible killjoy. You’re thinking, “What a Scrooge! What a Gru! This guy probably drowns kittens in burlap sacs and shoves sticks through kids’ bicycle spokes in the park.” While that’s not an entirely unsavory idea (wait, did I type that out loud?), I’m not really as bad as all that.

Care to know my reasons for such a contrarian philosophy?

The first one might actually be quite obvious when you hear it: I hate the commercialism associated with capital-D-days. While I’m all for free enterprise and unshackled markets, I cringe at the fact that, every year, Americans spend about $7.5 billion on greeting cards. CARDS!  Creased scraps of cardboard sporting a bit of paint and a trite message that end up at the bottom of a landfill three days after you send them. And they cost about five bucks a pop. Five bucks. A Lincoln for a piece of recycling. This is planned obsolescence at its finest. The same goes for floral arrangements. Forty bucks. Five days. Garbage can. Enough said.

But my real issue with earmarked days is the undeniable fact that our culture has adopted them as a replacement for the day-in, day-out sacrificial love that forms the foundation of truly meaningful relationships with our loved ones. It’s as if we have absolved ourselves of the need to continually and attentively nurture our relationships by conveniently cramming all of our pleasantries, apologies, presents, and affections into a few 24-hour periods. Isn’t this as ridiculous as attempting to satisfy your annual nutritional requirements by stuffing your gullet three or four days a year?

We shrink from the emotional, physical, and mental efforts of human connection and hide behind the calendar until a special day forces us to buy a quasi-penitent card and quasi-turgid flora in an attempt to show a loved one how much we value them. How trite! How timid! How typically occidental! Always attempting to replace consistent effort with condensed effort. And we wonder why we have divorce rates in excess of fifty percent and teenagers completely disconnected from their parents. I’m not laying the blame for the appalling chaos of our familial situations solely on the doorstep of D-days, but they definitely don’t do much to rectify the problem, do they?

I converse with my mother at least ninety minutes a week, every week. We e-mail. She hears and feels my love for her on a regular basis. And you know what? She’ll get something extra-special on Mother’s Day, because it’s a nice time to emphasize my gratefulness for her years of sacrifice and self-denial and prayers that I would live to see my eighteenth birthday. She’ll know that she’s really loved.

But I still hate Mother’s Day.

– CD

photo credit: wallyg via photopin cc

Janus, Newton, and the Absolute Predictability of Your Future, Part II

Everybody, soon or late, sits down to a banquet of consequences.

Robert Louis Stevenson

banquet tableNow that the groundwork has been established in Part I, we can move on the real meat of this topic: how the truth about consequences will incontrovertibly make you or break you.

The Beauty in the Beast

Like Janus, consequences have a truly dichotomous nature. And like Janus, consequences allow you to look back at the end results of particular choices and apply that knowledge to future decisions. The law of outcomes is an unstoppable beast, and only you can determine whether that beast will devour you or empower you. There is no alternative. Every choice – every choice – you make will result in a predetermined outcome of benefit or detriment. You never get to opt for a “resultsless” decision, nor can you hope for a different outcome when a past decision is repeated:

  • Lie to your friends, lose their trust.
  • Run an extra mile, get a better race time.
  • Waste an hour in front of the television, lose that hour forever.
  • Study the bonus material, improve your final grade.

The results – for better or worse – unavoidably follow the actions, and the same results will follow the same actions with nearly circadian predictability. It is now that we come full circle to the foundational postulation: you can predict your future with absolute certainty, provided that you

think in terms of consequences rather than in terms of choices.

This manner of living – living by the guideposts of outcomes instead of options – demands a radical paradigm shift, a complete departure from ordinary patterns of human behavior.

The Rule of Consequences

The lesson here is to not make laborious decisions about your words and actions until you make concrete decisions about the types of outcomes you want to obtain.  Is it not just as foolish to select a consequence after choosing the action as to select a target after releasing the arrow?

You may chose to read a book because you understand the general concept that reading is a prerequisite for success, but is that really the case? Does the key lie simply in the act of reading, or does it lie in what you are reading towards? Should you not first determine who you desire to become – an accomplished poet? a magnificent orator? a preeminent physicist? – and then discerningly select the materials and manner of reading which will nurture the garden of your mind into a towering forest of knowledge capable of supporting the bold and powerful future for which you so deeply hunger? Only then will you begin to see growth beyond the limitations of an ordinary life. It is this Rule of Consequences that forms the foundation of success’s great palace.

The Feast of Your Future

So this it it. It’s time to determine who you want to become. In every aspect. Mental, emotional, financial, relational, vocational. Dream. Envision. Get specific and lay it out in black and white. Let the paper know exactly the man or woman you long to see looking back at you from the fog on your morning mirror. Then take time to understand how specific actions exert their resulting forces upon the cultivation of your faculties, and only engage in those actions which directly move you towards the great heights to which you aspire.

There is no time for meandering, no excuses for aimless triviality. An extraordinary life demands the fullness of all your energies and the force of all your will. Nothing less will suffice.  Hour by hour, choice by choice, you are preparing a feast of consequences of which you will one day be compelled to partake.

Will your banquet be filled with triumphal successes or painful regrets?

photo credit: John Bollwitt via photopin cc

Janus, Newton, and the Absolute Predictability of your Future, Part I

In nature there are neither rewards nor punishments; there are consequences.

Robert Green Ingersoll

JanusIn their pantheon of deities, the ancient Romans held the god Janus to be the keeper of commencements, terminations, and transitions. Due to his horological nature, he was always depicted as a man having a bifurcated visage, able to view both the future and the past simultaneously.

Skip ahead a score of centuries to the late 1600s, when Issac Newton (not yet a “Sir”) presented his powerhouse work Principia Mathematica Philosophiae Naturalis, which, among other things, contained the game-changing Laws of Motion. The third law, perhaps the best known of the triad, states that, “For every action, there is an equal and opposite re-action.” Hit the pool ball with a cue and the ball “pushes” back on the cue and rolls forward…and hopefully into the pocket.

So what do an ancient bust and a lonely scientist have to do with the predictability of your future? Some esoteric incantation that opens a portal in the cosmos and channels the totality of your existential choices? A cryptic algorithm that maps out with Occam-like precision the certain course of coming events? Hardly. The god and the professor coalesce in the concept of

consequences

– a concept that could save your life.

Ground Rules

Without diving needlessly into the yawning chasm of epistemological development, let’s lay out some simple preliminary ideas. The central absolute upon which the whole argument articulates is this: there is nothing – save one thing – that you are not allowed to do. Nothing. You can give and steal, kill and heal, exhort and debase, create and destroy. You are completely and utterly free to chose any thoughts, words, and actions that are available to the physical and mental faculties of the human race. In this sense you are an unfettered agent with total autonomy over your existential reality.

At this point, you might be thinking, “Citizen, you’re loosing touch with reality. I can’t chose to launder money or steal a vehicle or burn a building because our laws prohibit these types of activities.”

Wrong. The fact that you live in a society founded upon moral principles which are enacted, enforced, and interpreted by a ruling power is subservient to the a priori fact that you are able to choose. Unless you are physically incapable of doing so, there is nothing preventing you from stealing the car. Even the law is not stopping you. It can only impose upon you the consequences of undertaking such an action.

The great truth, ladies and gentlemen, is that the only thing in life which you are not free to choose is the consequence that accompanies a particular decision. Consequence is inextricably entwined with the nature of choice itself; namely, that decisions are made because they are known – consciously or subconsciously – to produce a particular result. You eat because you know – consciously – that it will slake your hunger and – subconsciously – because it is essential to your continued physical existence (few people habitually think of a sandwich as their guardian against impending death). The consequence of eating – inherent in the action and completely outside of your control – is the support of metabolic processes within your body’s eleven elementary systems.

In the same manner, you are permitted to take a five-finger discount on the hypothetical automobile, but you cannot select the consequences associated with that decision: courtrooms, jail time, family embarrassment…regrets.* There is no alternative. These are unselectable outcomes. It’s the Third Law of Motion manifesting as clear as day:

Striking the pool ball with your cue: autonomous choice.

Rolling pool ball: predetermined consequence.

The takeaway here is that you cannot argue with the operation of a law. If you jump off your roof wholeheartedly believing that you can soar to the heavens, your broken legs will win the case for gravity every time.

In the next post, we’ll come full circle to Janus and the knowability of your future. For now, take some time to let the concept of consequences really sink into your consciousness.

What consequences have you endured as a result of your choices?

– CD

*While some may argue that you would avoid the consequences of grand theft auto if you were never apprehended, I posit that you would still suffer some manner of derogatory derivatives: a guilty conscience, paranoia, and continuing moral decay, for example.

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A Universal Malady

How much is enough? – A questioner

Just a little bit more. – John D. Rockefeller

Do you know the name of the number-one disease in our post-modern society? Polio? AIDS? The Big C? Not even close. This silent paralytic is affecting virtually every member of the human race worldwide, and its very nature inures its staying power like the cement of a barnacle on the pilings of an aging wharf. Strangely, in every known case, affected individuals lead completely normal lives and experience no pain, discomfort, or loss of physical ability – but the mortality rates are a staggering one hundred percent.

Yet this crippling and subversive sickness has been embraced by the general public, and leading spiritual, secular, and ethical thinkers even tout the malaise as a high virtue of which the whole of mankind must strive to be possessed. Its name is satisfaction, and, rather than bestow all manner of peace and joy as it is widely believed to do, its singular effect is to create a debilitating necrosis of desire in the hearts and minds of its unwitting victims. It mercilessly erodes the great pillars upon which the very pulse and throb of progress are predicated, and its end is the mortification of hope, the murder of motivation, and the mastery of all who fall under its malignant influence. Among the killers of our age, it is truly chief.

The Twist

Am I saying that, contrary to the tides of conventional wisdom and popular thought, satisfaction is something of which we should remain perpetually abhorrent? Incredibly, yes! Satisfaction and success are mutually exclusive entities. But here is where things take an interesting turn. The fulcrum of the entire argument is founded upon a subtle yet essential syntactical difference between satisfaction and its cousin, contentment. I wholeheartedly believe that you should always be perfectly content at every echelon of your life while remaining completely dissatisfied. Let me explain.

The Cure

Contentment is the intellectual and emotional acceptance of your particular circumstances which enables you to derive the maximum amount of pleasure and benefit from those circumstances. Satisfaction, on the other hand, is a passive acceptance of those circumstances as the pinnacle of achievement with not a thought given to what comes next. The former provides a rich context in which ambitions proliferate with rapidity and efficacy; the latter lays dreams to rest in a lifeless grave of presupposed attainment.

If Newton had been satisfied with basic astronomy, would we have experienced the immense benefits of optics, calculus, and the scientific method? If Edison had been satisfied with the phonograph, would we still be without electric lighting, motion pictures, and alkaline batteries? These men were irrepressibly dissatisfied, and their dissatisfaction left an indelible legacy on the pages of history. No empire was ever forged, no nation erected, no masterpiece crafted, no revolution birthed by the paralyzing impotence of satisfaction. It is a state of enervation, the Slough of Despond, a starvation of the mind and soul.

The content man is free to revel in the shallows while nurturing a visceral longing for the horizon. The satisfied man does not know the horizon exists because he is enamored with his sandcastle and oblivious to the sea.

Are you satisfied with your sandcastle?

– CD

The Great Deception

The heights of great men reached and kept
Were not attained by sudden flight
But they, while their companions slept
Were toiling upward in the night.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Ordinary. Say it out loud. Ordinary. I just made you cuss. Now say it again. Listen as the sound reverberates off your tympanic membranes and deep into your brain.

OR-DI-NA-RY.

These four syllables form perhaps the most offensive word in the English language – next to “can’t,” of course, which we’ll discuss in a later post – and there is simply no excuse for an individual to give that category any space in their mental framework. It is an appellation of nothingness, and it leads to all kinds of egregious offenses against personhood and progress.

The great problem of our time is that the larger part of humanity in the West has been duped into believing that they are “unique,” “amazing,” “gifted,” “entitled,” and all manner of other superlative assignments – when the cold truth is that most people are at best just plain ordinary. They have been inoculated with a falsehood – a lie told long and loud since the 1960’s – that the only requirement for an extraordinary life is passage through a birth canal into the elysian glories of Planet Earth. By simply existing, you somehow vicariously appropriate the collective achievements of history and take your place at the crest of civilization’s rolling wave. One you’ve arrived, you’ve arrived.

Reality

Nothing could be further from the truth. We are born naked, bloody, and helpless –  pathetically ordinary. And in a few short years, passively adrift in the passionless currents of the zeitgeist, we’ll enter our graves in much the same way. From our first inhalation, we are bombarded by a barrage of post-modern rhetoric that proclaims the supreme greatness of who we are as we are. No need to fight. No need to persevere. No need to live what Theodore Roosevelt famously called “the strenuous life.” We buy into this paradigm not because it is true but because it tickles our ears by absolving us of the obligation to wrestle from life those great riches which are hidden away for the few who dare to swim against the spirit of the age.  Instead of constructing enduring monuments from the raw materials of our intellectual and physical endowments,  we remain nebulous shadows of the true greatness that lies within our grasp. Ordinary men doing ordinary things. The boats of science, philosophy, education, and art remain undisturbed, quietly anchored in the placid harbor of former glory.

But along the thread of time, there have been those singular personalities, those great titans who have broken rank with the ordinary and attained for themselves and for mankind eminent splendors that have persisted – and will continue to persist – for a myriad of generations. Consider for a moment what a sampling of these gargantuan individuals would think of our current moods of passivity and entitlement:


Archimedes     Curie     Beethoven     Adams     Carnegie     Vanderbilt     Aurelius     Earhart     Goethe     Plato     Da Vinci     Gould     Mozart     Pasteur     Faraday     Churchill     Livingstone     Webster     Michelangelo     Franklin     Carver


It’s painfully clear that most of us would not even begin to see the ankles of these enormous figures from the platform of our current circumstances. But it was not by magic or fate or sheer talent that these men and women attained the heights of greatness. It was the fact that every one of them chose to walk a path where their abilities were strengthened, their intellects cultivated, and their desires inflamed by rigorous, relentless efforts to live in the realm of the extraordinary. They wrestled with life, its pain, its adversity, and its complexity, and they rose from the chaos with a victory that cannot be denied them by posterity.

The Critical Paradox

I do not know a single person who desires to be ordinary – they would all raise their voices in loud protest at the thought. Yet I know almost no one who does not routinely engage in ordinary thoughts and ordinary actions with ordinary people pursuing ordinary things. Well, my friend, you cannot have it both ways. You become what you read, what you think, and who you know. And if everything about your life seems ordinary – if it looks and smells and feels like the lives of the masses – then your life is ordinary.  But you can’t whine about it if you’re doing nothing to change it. If you want a name and a life like Washington or Nightingale or Rockefeller – which you most assuredly are permitted to obtain – you had better buckle up and get ready for the most fantastically arduous journey imaginable. But until you make the choice to make a change, you best keep your head down, your mouth shut, and stay out of the way of those who are willing to get after it.

Is it not a foolish thing for us to complain about that which we are willing to tolerate?

– CD

Take The Pill

It is not good for human nature to have the road of life made too easy.

Samuel Smiles

Every morning, my wife gives me a mittful of vitamins that could choke an elephant and tells me that I’ll be thankful when I’m 75 and still have a mind like a bacon slicer. I know it’s true. I know I need to take the darn things to keep my body properly calibrated. It’s just that I don’t like the way they feel on the way down. It’s supremely irritating when the football-sized capsules are working their way through my esophagus – usually sideways – at a rate that makes government bureaucracy look like a track meet. Magnesium, garlic, turmeric, probiotics, digestive enzymes…they’re literally a pain in the neck going in, but they’re doing a world of good once they’re assimilated and performing their catalytic functions. I hate the process of getting them in there, but if I don’t get them in there, they’re not going to do me a lick of good.

So it is with life. You and I could spend all day trading off clichés about schools and knocks, seas and sailors, pressures and diamonds, but when it comes down to the crux of the matter, most of us give great lip service to maxims and dogmas that have absolutely no real impact on our earthly lives. Face it. We like things easy. Few of us voluntarily do hard things. We like ease, and we like comfort. Oh, sure, we love the results of hard things, the destinations of roads less traveled…but we really hate the process. We hate sacrifice. We hate delayed gratification. And we really hate being uncomfortable.

So we avoid everything that smacks of even the slightest difficulty…all the while desiring outcomes that can only be created by the difficulties we so desperately want to avoid. That, my friend, is NUTS. It’s like demanding a bespoke suit but being unwilling to go to the tailor because you don’t want to stand like a soldier for three hours and get pricked by straight pins. It’s like demanding a fertile mind at 75 but refusing to choke down a few horse pills to make it happen.

This blog is your pill. It’s not always going to be an easy read, and sometimes it’s going to be downright offensive to your highly-developed sense of personal comfort and political correctness. It’s going to hurt, but if you can swallow it, digest it, and absorb its contents, it could quite literally save your life.