Surprises on the Bookshelves of CEOs

There was a lovely article in the New York Times a few weeks ago, entitled Surprises on the Bookshelves of CEOs that I’ve been trying to find time to write about since it appeared. I was particularly taken with the subtitle: “In personal libraries, more literature and poetry than business bestsellers.” I have always felt slightly guilty for not keeping up with the latest business and management advice, so I was heartened to see Mike Moritz of Sequoia Capital echoing my own confession: “I rarely read business books,” and that Dee Hock, the creator of the Visa card, finds everything he needs to know in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

On that note, here are a few of the books that provide me with enduring insight:

  • The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu in the wonderful Witter Bynner translation. There is so much practical advice here on both human relations and personal happiness that I find myself returning again and again to this book. Of course, I’ve read it so often that I’ve got much of it memorized.
  • The Palm at the End of the Mind, by Wallace Stevens. Poetic meditations on the nature of reality, the power of the imagination, and the dialog between the two. “It is not in the premise that reality is a solid.” Indeed. Our science and our art are both the imposition of creative vision, and new discoveries are as much aesthetic revisioning as they are “truth” in some objective sense.
  • Air Guitar, by Dave Hickey, especially the essay “Birth of the Big Beautiful Art Market,” which explains such things as the hacker ethic and just why Apple is so successful, despite being written about cars.

  • Rasselas, by Samuel Johnson. Johnson has so much insight into the human condition, and the importance of the imagination to both our happiness and unhappiness. “I consider this mighty structure [the Great Pyramid] as a monument to the insufficiency of human enjoyments….It seems to have been erected only in compliance with that hunger of imagination which preys incessantly upon life, and must be always appeased by some employment. Those who have already all that they can enjoy must enlarge their desires. He that has built for use till use is supplied, must begin to build for vanity, and extend his plan to the utmost power of human performance, that he may not be soon reduced to form another wish.” If you’ve never read Johnson, you must! Read also his essays!

In addition to these touchstone books, I have a large clipping file of quotes that I have remembered or written down over the years, and that recur again and again as tools for my thinking. Here are a few of them, some of which you will recognize from my talks and articles:

Advice for living:

  • “That we must all die, we always knew; I wish I had remembered it sooner.” Samuel Johnson, Letter to Sir Joshua Reynolds.

  • “The key to living well is first to will that which is necessary and then to love that which is willed.” Irving Yalom
  • “Always tell the truth. You will gratify some people and astonish the rest.” Mark Twain.
  • “See everything. Ignore a lot. Improve a little.” Pope John Paul II.
  • “Resentment is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies.” St. Augustine.
  • “If your morals make you dreary, depend upon it they are wrong. I do not say “give them up,” for they may be all you have; but conceal them like a vice, lest they should spoil the lives of better and simpler people.” Robert Louis Stevenson.
  • “Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” Vaclav Havel.
  • “We must never be ashamed of our tears, they are rain from heaven washing the dust from our hard hearts.” Charles Dickens.

  • “Our business in life is not to succeed, but to continue to fail in good spirits.”
    Robert Louis Stevenson.

  • “Be who you are and say what you feel because the people who mind don’t matter and the people who matter don’t mind.” Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss).

  • “I thought nothing of it now.” Samuel Johnson, climbing down from a tree in his 70s, after being told by another old man that he thought nothing of climbing such a tree when he was a boy. May we all stay young in this way!

  • On a similar note, here’s a line that is meaningless itself without context, but with that context, incredibly stirring: “I want the last word you hear from my lips as the head of this academy to be the name of Michaelangelo!” Sir Joshua Reynolds, in his fourth discourse at the Royal Academy of Art, in which he rejected his entire career of studied formalism and implored his colleagues to return to a more passionate, embodied era in art.

On honoring other people:

  • “It is well to remember that the entire universe, with one trifling exception, is composed of others.” John Andrew Holmes.

  • “Whenever people join together to help another creature people should know about it. We all long to know there is a graciousness at the heart of creation.” Mr. Rogers.
  • “Fail to honor people, they fail to honor you.” Lao Tzu.
  • “What I do and what I dream include thee, as the wine must taste of its own grapes.” Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

On writing:

  • “The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think.” Edwin Schlossberg.
  • “You can leave anything out, as long as you know what it is.” Ernest Hemingway.

On the future:

  • “The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” William Gibson.
  • “I’m an inventor, and that’s what made me interested in trend
    analysis: Inventions need to make sense in the world where you finish a
    project, not the world in which you start the project.” Ray Kurzweil.
  • “The future always comes too fast and in the wrong order.” Alvin Toffler.

  • “There will always be people who are ahead of the curve, and people who are behind the curve. But knowledge moves the curve.” Bill James.

  • “History is a wave that moves through time slightly faster than we do.” Kim Stanley Robinson.

On politics:

  • “You have theories enough concerning the Rights of Men. It may not be amiss to add a small degree of attention to their Nature and disposition.” Edmund Burke.

  • “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover
    that they can vote themselves largesse (generous gifts) from the public treasury. From that moment on,
    the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the
    result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, (which is) always followed by a dictatorship.”

    “The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been two hundred years. These nations have progressed
    through this sequence. From bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to great courage; from courage to liberty;
    from liberty to abundance, from abundance to complacency; from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependence,
    from dependence back into bondage.”

    Anonymous, from the 1950s, but often mis-attributed to Alexander Tytler, circa 1787, The Fall of the Athenian Republic. (See note and link in comments.)

What are some of your favorite lines from what you’ve read or heard, things that stick with you and come up again and again as you navigate your life?