Hello and welcome, It is always nice when people say they have been inspired by one's books, but it is even more pleasing when someone tells how they

Tom butler-bowdon

Hello and welcome,

It is always nice when people say they have been inspired by one's books, but it is even more pleasing when someone tells how they have used them as a system for self-education.

Kevin Walsh kindly sent me this picture from his cabin at a remote mining settlement in Western Australia. An engineer by day, at night he relaxes into a program of self-study, assisted by the 50 Classics titles. By writing great quotes and insights onto pieces of card, he finds he is more likely to remember and absorb them.

For me there is a quite a difference between idly reading a book, and taking notes from it and writing up the key points with your own comments. In doing this, you 'own' the book, and won't have to read the whole work again; your distillation or key quotes are all you need to stay inspired.

Though the new website has some fancy words on the 'About' page, my aim is simple: expand your mind. The 50 Classics books are written to that end.


Well dressed in the wasteland

In order to arrive at what you do no know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.

TS Eliot, Four Quartets, ‘East Coker’

You may have wondered why, from an initial personal development base, I branched into areas like psychology, philosophy and politics. Well, it would have been easy to stay an 'expert' in the self-help and motivational literature, but it felt natural to extend the 50 Classics concept into other areas I wanted to know more about.

Personal development is never far from my mind though, and my hope is that all the stuff I have gleaned from these 'other' areas will help to create a larger work in the future which takes in many aspects of human experience, including the material, spiritual, psychological and political. So if you are still thinking of me as a personal development writer, bear with me – I am, but to arrive at some insights that might be useful, I feel I have to move beyond the field as it stands now and get ideas from other disciplines.


Crash course in capitalism

Lately I've been enjoying some brilliant political economy books, including John Kenneth Galbraith's The Great Crash, 1929, and Robert Shiller's Irrational Exuberance.

Galbraith's, written in 1955, had a resurgence of interest in the wake of the financial crisis because of some obvious parallels between 1929 and 2008. In particular, it wasn't so much the things governments did, on both occasions, that was the problem, but rather what they failed to do. In 1929, arguing that stock prices were horribly inflated seemed unpatriotic or even anticapitalist, and the Federal Reserve was unwilling to spike interest rates or prosecute some of the dodgy investment trusts and traders who fouled the system. In 2008, not even warnings from the FBI about extensive mortgage fraud was enough to convince the authorities to clamp down on subprime lending. To act, they had to wait for banks to begin failing.

As Galbraith writes towards the end of the book:

The government preventatives and controls are ready. In the hands of a determined government their efficacy cannot be doubted. There are, however, a hundred reasons why a government will determine not to use them.


With the recent financial market turmoil, you may have have been wondering, do the fluctuations really affect our everyday lives? Why is it important to analyze stock and real estate booms, which after all seem to be a normal part of capitalism?

In 2000, Robert Shiller was one of the few to call the boom in tech stocks a bubble that was about to burst, and then in 2005 warned that the US housing market was overheated and could not sustain itself.

Market levels are in theory based on fundamental asset values, but their unexpected surges, swings and falls, Shiller says, tells us that human psychology is the driver. Psychological mistakes multiplied by the millions turn into bubbles, which vacuum up savings and resources which may otherwise have gone into building infrastructure, schools, universities, and other kinds of social and human capital, including pension funds and social insurance. People with savings, universities with endowments, charities with funds to invest for the future, all need to know: are current market prices are roughly in line with economic reality, or will being involved in the market damage what they have built up? The 'efficient markets hypothesis' says current prices always reflect whatever can be known about an asset, and therefore bubbles cannot really exist. The reality is that asset prices are always a combination of underlying value and psychological projection.

Shiller notes that the current price to income ratio of American stocks is around 26. It is a long way off the PE ratio of 2000, which went to 44, but still way above the long-term average of 16. We are warned.


Time for Keynes or Friedman?

Last week I went to a seminar at Oxford University by Anatole Kaletsky, economics editor of The Times. Kaletsky argued that capitalism only develops and evolves through crises, and that its history has essentially been an ideological see-saw between the belief in free market equilibrium (originally espoused by Adam Smith and Ricardo, and brought back in the 1980s by Milton Friedman, Reagan and Thatcher) - and belief in the need for government to manage the economy (think Keynes and Roosevelt's post-Depression New Deal to get America back on its feet).

Kaletsky argues that, after the 2008 crisis, faith in markets and government is misplaced. People don't trust politicians with the incredible complexity of running pensions, education and health, let alone keeping financial markets stable, yet we also know that markets sometimes yield catastrophic mistakes based on faulty risk assessment and sheer greed, which impact on the real economy. If he is right, we are in for a time of new pragmatism in which ideology plays a smaller part. I liked what Galbraith, who was an adviser to four presidents, said in an interview with C-SPAN in 1994:

I react pragmatically. Where the market works, I'm for that. Where the government is necessary, I'm for that. I'm deeply suspicious of somebody who says, "I'm in favor of privatization," or, "I'm deeply in favor of public ownership." I'm in favor of whatever works in the particular case.


Also reading Michael Lewis' 2010 The Big Short: Inside The Doomsday Machine, about the traders who could see something rotten in the US housing market in 2006, and bet that there would be a collapse the following year. As you know, it is now a film starring Brad Pitt, Christian Bale, Ryan Gosling and Steve Carell. Hope to see it soon.

Last summer I loved reading Lewis' Flash Boys, about the high-frequency trading made possible by new technology, and the possibility that it can rig markets. Not for nothing did Malcolm Gladwell call Lewis "the greatest finance writer of our time". If you have little interest in this area, read one of his books and enjoy the way he makes it comes alive through portraits of little-known people who have changed the system in some way.


The year ahead

If you did not quite achieve the aims you set yourself in 2015, don't despair. As Bill Gates, paraphrasing Anthony Robbins, said:

We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don't let yourself be lulled into inaction.

By taking the longer view, you can also be more forgiving of yourself and yet enjoy life more in the present, which is, after all, the only time we ever have.

Enjoyed a recent article in The Economist on the fashion for collaboration and collaborative work spaces, which it argues has gone too far. Sure, we can get insights from discussing work with colleagues, but it should never replace the main reason that knowledge workers are hired to do a job: to think. Amid the whirl of meetings and social media, it is easy to lose track of the fact that the most valuable things in modern capitalist life, from great literature to the development of new technologies, come from highly focused individuals blocking out time for themselves to think and create. Among the things you have promised yourself this year, include some of this time.


It is a very good plan every now and then to go away and have a little relaxation... When you come back to the work your judgement will be surer, since to remain constantly at work will cause you to lose the power of judgement.

Leonardo da Vinci, A Treatise on Painting

Leo was right: along with the blocked-out work periods, don't forget to allow yourself regular down time, holidays, and weekly 'sabbaths' in which you switch off from all media and just spend time with loved ones or in nature.

This is how we really reenergize, and as Tony Schwartz and Jim Loehr put it in The Power of Full Engagement, "Energy, not time, is the fundamental currency of high performance."

Kind regards,



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