The epiphany problem My initial motivation to write was a desire to understand what made people successful. The earlier books in particular, covering

Tom butler-bowdon

Sigmund & Anna Freud

The epiphany problem

My initial motivation to write was a desire to understand what made people successful. The earlier books in particular, covering self-help, success and psychology, were the public result of a private investigation into possible 'secrets' which, if followed, would virtually guarantee that one's wishes would become reality. From this project came two things:

1) A distrust of inspiration.
2) An appreciation of time in achievement.

Being inspired is the starting point of anything great, and the moment of inspiration itself is highly pleasurable. But such intellectual highs don't help us get things done. This 'epiphany problem' is becoming better appreciated now, and I enjoyed a recent blog by Peter Shallard on the subject.

Peter mentions Allan Wheelis, a psychoanalyst who noted that there was a point in the 20th century when Freudian therapy no longer seemed to work. The therapy had not changed, so why exactly did it stop working? Wheelis argued that what had changed was people's capacity for self-control. Freud's early patients had come of age in the late Victorian era, a time when people were arguably more self-reliant and disciplined, and if Freud told them to make some change, they jolly well did so. But as the 20th century progressed, the capacity for self-regulation and self-discipline waned, just as our exposure to 'inspiration' increased. The result: more epiphanies, and less ability to turn them into measurable change.


Shallard refers to Roy Baumeister, the social psychologist and author of Willpower (2012), who describes self-regulation failure as "the major social pathology of our time.” In less intellectual terms, and speaking to his entrepreneur audience, Shallard writes:

"If you’re someone who feels like you’re going crazy experiencing breakthrough after breakthrough, but you’re STILL not getting the results in life and business that you know you’re capable of… well, you might have a Self-Regulation problem. More epiphanies won’t help you. Building your self control muscles will."

Most days I work in Oxford's Bodleian Library. People are working on lengthy dissertations on Virgil's poetry, or researching Descartes' mind-body problem, or getting to the nub of Augustine's City of God. There is good Wi-Fi in the building, but I'm always struck how little time people seem to spend checking Facebook, or catching up with the news, or shopping on Amazon. When they have decided they are going to work on something, they do it. This ability to self-regulate, I would venture, has played an important part in getting them to a top university and increasing their chances in life. You may be very talented or smart, you may have perfect material conditions to pursue a goal, but none of this counts if you are not able to control your behavior and work habits to an extent that you can get things done.

By the way, I am not claiming to be great at self-control myself; there are so many things that take our attention these days and I can easily waste a morning on trifles! But at least I know that epiphanies don't last, and that ultimately what gets achieved is thanks to work. The world is full of good ideas, what is rarer is good execution.


Click to see new website

New website

My new site (click on the screenshot to your left), which includes lists of all the 50 Classics books and some free sample commentaries, went live this week.

It's the third or fourth incarnation of the site since the early 2000s. In that time its had around 2 million visits.

Have a look and see what you think, all feedback welcome.


Sony founders

Purpose or process: which comes first?

Putting the site together, which showcases most of the work of 15 years, naturally makes you think about where you have been and where you are headed.

To your right are Akio Morita and Masaru Ibuka, the gentlemen who started Sony Corporation in bombed-out Japan just after World War Two. At the beginning, they didn't have a product pipeline, just a general purpose or intent. But it was from this that a company was built.

It's interesting, isn't it? That you can build something without knowing, in the first place, where exactly you are going. I never had an ambition to be an author, but a year or two before that happened, an idea of possible contribution arose, to wit:

To help people make leaps forward (personally, professionally, intellectually, spiritually) through making better use of existing information.

It was only after this thought came that the idea for a book came into mind.

This runs counter to the 'lean startup' ethos of today in which, rather than beginning with grand aims, you just come up with a product and get it out there, refining it against user feedback as you go.

It seems there are two ways of doing things. For me, the most important thing was the purpose, and the 'product' came in its wake. What has worked for you?


Claus Mosler

My series has barely scratched the surface of the world's text knowledge, and what's more, why would you bother reading a book about other books, which is what every 50 Classics titles is? Well, it's one way of learning, and using the definition of 'entrepreneur', involves the redeployment of a resource (a book) in order to give it greater impact, reaching more people.

"Education costs money, but then so does ignorance."

So said Claus Mosler, the opera-loving statistician and campaigner for literacy and numeracy, who died recently. Yet it's only expensive if you pay for a formal program of study at a college or university. I've discovered you can learn just as much about a subject by deep immersion in its writings, and you don't have to put up with long-winded professors or stop working.


Listen to me

50 Politics Classics - Audio Edition

Delighted to say that 50 Politics Classics has been released as an audiobook in addition to the paperback.

It's narrated by the excellent Sean Pratt, who some of you will remember also did the 50 Philosophy Classics audio. At 14 hours 30 minutes its great for long journeys, working out in the gym, or listening to a couple of chapters a day on your way to work. You can get it here on, Audible UK or iTunes.

Just a reminder that all the 50 Classics books can be listened to as audiobooks, or read as Kindle e-books.

Speaking of political classics, here is a blog I wrote for Banned Books Month on Alexander Solzhenitsyn's writings.


Real magician

Vale Wayne Dyer

You may have seen that Dr Wayne Dyer died on August 29 in Hawaii, aged 75.

His Real Magic was one of the first self-help books I owned. Devoured it in the back of bus travelling all night from Darwin to Alice Springs, and it was sort of a bible for me for a year or two. A couple of years later I saw Dyer speak at an all-day event in Sydney. His combination of down-to-earth common sense and spiritual insight gained from years of meditation was a good one. Here is a paragraph from my commentary on Real Magic from 50 Self-Help Classics, on relationships:

"Spiritual partners go beyond what they may superficially have in common to see that their relationship has to do with the evolution of their souls. With this basic insight, we treat people as a gift, not a chattel. We try to be kind, rather than right. We allow people as much space and time as they need, which renews the relationship. Lastly, since we know each person is a wonderful mystery, we no longer have to understand them. We 'honour the incomprehensible'!"


The man who delighted readers

Dr Sacks too

Neurologist Oliver Sacks passed away a day after Dyer, in Manhattan aged 82.

Here is a great obituary from The Economist, and of course 50 Psychology Classics includes a commentary on Sacks' famous The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, which I quote from:

"A lifetime's work convinced him that it is often less a matter of 'what disease does this person have', than 'what person has the disease'. You can't examine a patient as if they are an insect – you are talking about a self."


They're not who you think

...and Thomas Stanley

Was sorry to discover that Stanley, author of The Millionaire Next Door (1996) and The Millionaire Mind (2000), died earlier this year in a car accident. Here's an article on Stanley and his co-author William Danko from The New York Times.

Commentaries on both books were included in 50 Success Classics and 50 Prosperity Classics. This is a bit of what I wrote:

"Prior to Stanley & Danko, we did not really know who the wealthy were. The media is not interested in stories of the slow building of wealth based on hard work, discipline and frugality. We only hear about the fortunes of sports stars, singers, film celebrities or quiz show winners. But whereas this sort of wealth is statistically very rare, the type of millionaire profiled by Stanley & Danko is reasonably common. By following the way they live and think, real wealth need not be a pipe dream. In fact, it becomes a promise."

Linking back to self-regulation, one of Stanley's insights was that the accumulation of wealth over time involves self-discipline and frugality. The vast majority of millionaires he surveyed never spent a lot of money on cars, haircuts or holidays, preferring to plough profits back into businesses they had founded, and provide a simple, but good, life for their family. Wealth does not depend on how much you earn, but how much you keep over time.

If you'd like to read my commentaries on The Millionaire Next Door and The Millionaire Mind, with all their insights into the recipes for building wealth over the long-term, just respond to this email with 'Stanley' in the title bar or in the first line of reply, and I'll send you free pdfs of both.


Good book, great hair

The Art of the Spiel

On a different plane, Donald Trump is very much alive and well, and has been talking up his 1987 book The Art Of The Deal on the campaign trail to get the Republican nomination, claiming it is "the best selling business book ever written". It is not by a very long way. As this article notes, titles such as Tom Peters' In Search of Excellence and Jim Collins' Built To Last have sold millions more. However, Trump's face in the news has certainly given the tome a comeback. When I looked recently it was ranked #125 on Amazon.

My commentary on The Art Of The Deal in 50 Prosperity Classics revealed among other things:

• In college, while his friends were reading comics and the sports pages, Trump was poring over listings of property foreclosures;
• His first abode in Manhattan was a rented studio apartment that looked onto a courtyard;
• He is not keen on parties or small talk, and goes to bed early.

It's actually pretty enlightening, not just about Trump the person but has lots of surprisingly good tips about business.

By the way, Trump released a new book last month laying out his policy prescriptions for America, but The Art of the Deal is more entertaining.


Walter Benjamin book, cover by Sasha Stone

Buy, don't burn

Looking for a better life, Trump's German grandfather Friedrich Drumpf emigrated to New York in 1885. He worked as a barber for six years before heading up to Canada, successfully running restaurants in the Yukon gold rush. Drumpf died in the flu epidemic of 1918, a year before his native country transformed itself from the Prussian/German empire to the Weimar Republic. He had wanted to return to Germany, but he might not have liked what he found anyway.

This fascinating article by Mark Dery tells of the flourishing literary scene in the Weimar Republic after World War One, which coincides with new exhibitions on the Weimar in Los Angeles and Berlin. In the new social freedoms that came after the fall of the Kaiser there was a great appetite for all things new, including avant-garde book jackets. It didn't last, of course, as the economic implosion and hyperinflation caused by unaffordable war reparations led to the rise of Hitler, who saw much of the Weimar's artistic output as 'degenerate'.

Dery tells us of the many beautiful books the Nazis burned in bonfires across Germany, including Einbahnstraße (One-Way Street) by German-Jewish cultural critic Walter Benjamin. "He who cannot take sides" he wrote in the book, "should keep silent". Benjamin fled Germany for France in the early 1930s, and planned to settle in America. He was on his way to the ship in neutral Portugal when detained by the Franco government. Expecting to be given into the hands of France's Nazi-supporting Vichy regime, the penniless, stateless Benjamin killed himself.

For me, the Benjamin story is a reminder of how much art and culture rests on prosperity. People like him flower in times of social freedom, but these periods rest on an economic foundation. It was the terrible financial instability in the Weimar years (people losing their life's savings to inflation, bourgeois women turning to prostitution, etc) that led middle-class Germany to embrace an extremist like Hitler. Hannah Arendt's Origins of Totalitarianism (which I write about in 50 Politics Classics) gave one of the best accounts of this tragic process.


No comet


If you live in London, I'm giving a free, informal talk to a Meetup group on Tuesday, 27 October. Will be discussing how to transition to the work you love, and also:
- Inspiration is not enough. Research into self-control & success.
- The long view. Time itself is your best ally in achieving your goals.

If you'd like to come, click here to sign up to the group, wait for confirmation (you will get it) and then click 'attending'.

Last week I went to a talk by Graham Hancock, author of Fingerprints of the Gods (1995), an alternative theory of human history, and the new one, Magicians of the Gods (2015), which claims to prove that civilization is much older than we think (12,000 years) but that it was virtually wiped out in a comet impact before we had to start again. Hancock seems to be anathema to mainstream archeology. Who to believe? Apparently Earth is in the path of a comet belt, and there is a reasonable chance we may be wiped out again. As the compere of the talk said at the end, 'Thanks Graham, after your talk I will be living every day as if it's my last!'.

Kind regards,


50 Classics Series - Expand Your Mind

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