Dead and alive: The greatest mentors I’ve never met

One of the best things about reading – and reading widely – is that you can effectively be mentored by people you’ve never met.

As I wrote in my book, I had a slow start out of high school. It took me multiple attempts to get into university and, from there, to build the right skills and experience to be able to get a decent job and be helpful in the workplace.

Learning from books is the key lesson in all of this, and the journey to building knowledge, removing ignorance, steady improvement and appreciating failure.

From a long list of favourites, here are a select few books that helped me along the way.

I suspect and hope, that if others pick them up, they’ll also learn a great deal and prompt us that setback is part of the long and windy road to success.

Up From Slavery by Booker T Washington

Few stories have captured me in the way that Washington’s has, illustrating persistence amid great obstacles, cruelness and misery. Washington (1856-1915) went from a life of Virginia slavery to establishing the famous Tuskegee Institute and then on to the not-so-small-feat of advising American Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Howard Taft. His difficult route to success was carved through education, building skills and constant learning.

I recall Washington being completely inspired by seeing a black man reading the newspaper to a group of illiterate onlookers and wishing one day ‘so can I’. “No race can prosper,” Washington wrote, “till it learns that there is as much dignity in tilling a field as in writing a poem”. It is a great book on the fusion of persistence and gratitude.

Meditations by Marcus Aurelius

Few books, especially if centuries old, can speak to you as if the author was writing only a couple of years ago. For good reason Meditations – written in the second century – remains a classic for a lot of people in our noisy modern world, reminding us of the timeless disciplines and habits within our reach. “Display those virtues,” he writes, “which are wholly in your own power – integrity, dignity, hard work, self-denial, atonement, frugality, kindness, independence, simplicity, discretion, magnanimity.” I’ve written up some of Aurelius’ other lessons here.

Slaying the Dragon by Michael Johnson

Sport isn’t for everyone. But we can learn so much from it. Johnson was the world record holder and multiple gold medallist in the 200m and 400m running events. When I was completing my final year of high school – and struggling to read a book a year – Johnson’s words revealed to me two things. First, that talent means very little without hard work and positioning yourself for opportunities.

Second, that you can be world-beating in one thing and not very good at other things. Johnson, for example, applied the same gruelling athletics regimen to his college maths studies. But he could only manage a C grade. It was good enough to pass, and enough to show us that being a world champion doesn’t always translate to being a champion at other things.

Talent Is Overrated by Geoff Colvin

Many recent books contest the necessity of ‘time spent’ (the 10,000 hours thesis) to success. This is part of a much wider debate. But Colvin’s book shows that, regardless of the exact science, the people we’ve come to know as the best – the Mozarts and the Tiger Woods’ – have still spent significant time conducting deliberate practice, over many years, to get good at what they do. It’s a good counterpoint to thinking about overnight success. And an example we can see in the successful people around us in our daily lives.

Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin

This book came to my attention quite recently. The simple thesis – owning the problem – certainly pushed my thinking. It doesn’t mean scolding one’s self when things go wrong. Or that everything is your fault. But Willink and Babin – former Navy SEALS – show that doing everything humanly possible to be effective, competent, and hunt down solutions, uncovers a sense of responsibility in all of us. Regardless of the endeavours we’re in.

A Soldier’s Way by Colin Powell

Powell went from sweeping floors in a Brooklyn bottling factory to a four-star General, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, National Security Adviser and then to serve as Secretary of State. Again, I read this only a few years out of high school, when reading wasn’t exactly a discipline. But I found this book kept me captivated, showing me that success a zig zag rather than a straight line.

Powell’s story of success is that one can move up in their hierarchy through learning from mistakes, showing discipline, looking out for others (including yourself) and that most problems always look better in the morning.

More From Less by David McAfee

This may be odd for the category of self-help, but there’s something refreshing and inspiring about this new book from the MIT professor. McAfee shows us that, despite what we’re told, we’re not destroying the planet – emissions are going down, and we’re using energy and land more efficiently. One can come away feeling enthusiastic that innovation, good people and a sensible regulatory regime, is helping the planet. It’s uniquely uplifting for those of us serious about continuing these positive trends.

Mindset by Carol Dweck

Some mindsets are fixed. Others are open, meaning that setback is about learning and that skills can be acquired in the process. Dweck’s classic remains a pivotally successful book for successful people, who see setback as a challenge and pay careful attention to learning from struggle.

How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie 

Worrying can lead you to the point of deep illness, as Carnegie – one of the greatest self-help authors of all time – shows us. “When we worry, our minds jump here and there and everywhere, and we lose all power of decision,” he writes. “However, when we force ourselves to face the worst and accept it mentally, we then eliminate all those vague imaginings and put ourselves in a position in which we are able to concentrate on our problem.” Carnegie also stresses the fact that “It is not the situations you have met that have thrown you; it is what you think of these situations.”

So how do you stop worry?

“The remedy for worry,” says Willis H Carter, “is to get completely occupied doing something constructive.” And as Henry Ford famously said, “When I can’t handle events, I let them handle themselves.”

Other than books?

Next week I’ll share some podcasts and speeches, from other mentors, that have had a similar effect on me.

Image source: Library of Congress/The Atlantic

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