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The Good Neighbor by Maxwell King
I have happy but indistinct memories of watching Mr. Rogers when I was a toddler. I did not give Mr. Rogers much thought in the 30+ years that followed. In the past few years, however, Fred Rogers has surfaced again and again in my reading–not in books about childhood education, or even books targeted at adult nostalgia, but in serious books about character. These treatments revealed an aspect of Mr. Rogers that I had never recognized, or at least had taken for granted: he was a man of deep and authentic character and power, traits which emerged through a lifetime of disciplined spiritual formation.
Mr. Rogers has drawn widespread attention in recent years, with the documentary Won’t you Be My Neighbor? (which I have not yet seen) and the Tom Hanks film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (which I have). Arriving between these films was The Good Neighbor, the first and only book-length biography of Rogers. The ever-humble Rogers had long resisted a biography, but towards the end of his life recognized that it was an important part of sustaining his lifelong mission and ministry among children.
You pretty much know what you are getting, plunging into a biography of Fred Rogers: 320 pages about a good and decent man, faithfully married to one woman, who spent more than 30 years carrying out a vocation that he arrived at early in life. It is a biography conspicuously free of vice, conflict, or explosive revelations. For that reason, it sometimes felt like the author needed to stretch for material–recounting numerous summaries of particular TV episodes, touching conversations, or Fred singing It’s You I Like to some guest or another. Yet the book is never boring, and I found plunging into the cool waters of Fred Roger’s life deeply refreshing. Even when repetitive, the book felt like a meditation on decency; it was a welcome alternative to almost every other source of media I consume.
As a writer and entrepreneur, I enjoyed learning more about Fred’s creative process and discovering that, in addition to being a natural TV presence, he was an extremely prolific and talented artist, musician, and entrepreneur. He was deeply rooted in strong values, to include vehement opposition to marketing to children, which meant the viability and success of his shows was never guaranteed. Because of his values Fred Rogers and to work twice as hard to realize and sustain his dream of nurturing young children through television, but that same commitment to values is what allowed him to pull it off.
Fred Rogers has drawn so much interest in recent years largely because his decency, goodness, and faithfulness to a sense of calling are so sorely absent in modern times. Civility has become the foremost casualty of our political climate, while hatred, division, and mockery are now celebrated as virtues. In his Afterword, King touches on critics who believe that Fred Rogers ruined a generation of children through excessive coddling. Yet for those who are not quite ready to surrender kindness and compassion as vices, Fred Rogers’ life still gives us hope that a better way is possible. As David Books writes in an op-ed about Rogers, “moral elevation gains strength when it is scarce.”
Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand
I have had Ayn Rand’s 1,088-page magnum opus on my shelf for years but finally summoned the energy to read it, helped along by a friend who agreed to read it simultaneously.
Atlas Shrugged is one of the most complex, profound, powerful, and disturbing books I have ever read. I have seldom read a book that required me to think so deeply, or one that evoked such a broad range of emotions. For those reasons, its standing as a classic is well-deserved. With that said, it is a work of mad genius–literally. Rand’s genius flashes through repeatedly, but she strikes me as a deeply disturbed person whose self-righteous hate, by book’s end, reaches a fevered pitch of insane obsession. The book’s shortcomings are severe, and I find it frightening the degree to which policymakers reach for the book as a basis for policy.
The novel focuses on a small, heroic band of industrialists who are responsible for most of the economic process in the United States. Heroine Dagny Taggart runs operations for the Taggart Transcontinental Railroad; she must repeatedly outmaneuver her inept brother Jim Taggard, who consistently makes disastrous decisions that sacrifice the railroad on the altar of social good. Hank Rearden is a steel magnate who underpins nearly the entirely industrial economy, but who is widely despised for his windfall profits. As the novel unfolds, these productive capitalists who sustain so much of the United States find themselves under relentless attack by “looters” who regulate, steal, undermine, sabotage, condemn, and otherwise seek to destroy them–all in the name of social progressivism, brotherly love, altruism, and other perverse vices. In response, the enigmatic “destroyer” John Galt vows to stop the motor of the world. The book is an extended reflection on what would happen if the world’s most productive capitalists essentially went on strike. It flows directly out of Rand’s underlying philosophy: reason is supreme, self-interest is the highest virtue, and altruism is an evil that diminishes human dignity.
The book has extraordinary power, and Rand’s imagination and prose can be breathtaking. A family member recommended the book to me after my painful experiences founding and leading an innovation team within government, which put me in constant conflict with entrenched defense bureaucracy. Parts of the book spoke to my soul; as I watched Dagny Taggart pull off one miracle after another to outmaneuver ignorant bureaucrats and drive progress, my heart soared with recognition. One of the most spectacular moments in the book comes when Dagny rides a new rail line for the first time, a line she has struggled against all odds to build.
The character drama can also be rich, complex, and nuanced. Early on, Hank Rearden gives his wife Lilian a precious gift–a bracelet, the first object he made with a new kind of steel he has developed. The value of this gift is predictably lost on Lilian, but a profound turning point arrives early in the novel when Dagny spots the bracelet on Lilian’s wrist at a party. The three-way interaction between these characters is extraordinary, with insinuation and subtlety making for a far more powerful story than raw action or melodrama ever could.
Rand’s critique of misguided social values is poignant and insightful. She rightfully defends the dignity of the human individual and the centrality of reason. She powerfully demonstrates the risk that charity or altruism can actually undermine human dignity. She offers a devastating critique of political, social, and economic groups who seek to tear down the very builders of the prosperity they enjoy. There is a kernel of truth to Rand’s savage distaste for “looters.” And in fiction, it is a valid technique to use hyperbole–to push a point to imaginative excess, to make the point stark and clear, to burn an impression into the reader’s mind. 1984 did this masterfully.
The problem is that I’m not so sure Rand intended to be hyperbolic. Atlas Shrugged is a 1,100 page obsessive diatribe against a straw man. By book’s end it has been pitchforked, dismembered, beheaded, burned, urinated on, and kicked a few times for good measure.
A straw man is “an intentionally misrepresented proposition that is set up because it is easier to defeat than an opponent’s real argument.” It is hard to see Atlas Shrugged‘s argument as anything but that.
Over and over again, foolish business executives make disastrous decisions to sacrifice profit in the name of the public welfare. I have encountered many inept bureaucrats in my life, as well as many purveyors of leftist ideologies I consider dangerous. However, I have never met this species of corporate executive who is hellbent on doling out his company’s profits to others. These characters are so commonplace in the book that it is hard to take the critique seriously.
Atlas Shrugged presents a false dichotomy between two types of characters: a tiny productive caste of industrial barons, and vast hordes of soulless looters who would tear them down. Most of us, when we are young, love good vs. evil stories. As we mature, we have to learn that the world does not simply consist of good guys and bad guys; the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. That is difficult to grasp because it makes the world a far more complex and difficult place, which demands much more careful moral reasoning. However, Atlas Shrugged leaves no room for this subtlety; Rand’s small cadre of noble industrialists are the only characters exhibiting any virtue, while the unwashed masses have no redeeming qualities. Rand’s critique smacks of profound hubris and a deep hatred for most of humanity.
When I look at the world, I do not primarily see noble monopolies driving human progress while parasitic startups try to loot their wealth. That certainly happens sometimes, but the conventional wisdom about monopolies is that they risk becoming looters; monopolies tend to underperform and use political connections, cash reserves, or other forms of market power to block the rise of promising competitors.
The behaviors Rand detests are observable in almost any company or individual. Even the most productive companies leverage government to their benefit. When COVID19 hit, every business was trying to get tax breaks or subsidies, big or small. The savviest business operators are also the first in line to apply for government relief after natural disasters. We are all self-interested. Even those of us who value hard work and like earning our keep usually take advantage of every legitimate opportunity to come our way; that is part of what it means to work hard.
If the vices Rand detests are found at every strata of modern society, so are the virtues she cherishes. In the real world around 600,000 Americans start new small businesses each year, while millions more are educating themselves and trying to build their futures. Yes, a small percentage will be among society’s most productive, but the rest are not simply looting; many are trying in their own way.
As for the tension between self-interest and altruism, many scientific disciplines–to include evolutionary biology and game theory–have converged on the notion that instincts for both self-interest and cooperation are deeply encoded into our DNA, that both can align, and that both are necessary for human happiness and flourishing. Rand’s moral universe is far too black-and-white to tolerate this level of complexity.
Finally, Rand’s moral universe leaves no room for inequality of opportunity and the way this rigs the game. Heroes like Dagny Taggart and Hank Rearden, as well as villains like Jim Taggart, appear as fully-formed adults from the vague primordial soup of the author’s imagination. In this world, there are only self-made men and looters. It does not matter to Rand–does not appear to occur to her, in fact–whether the deck was stacked in favor of her heroes from the beginning. This is the fundamental issue at the heart of right-left debates about white privilege, structural racism, government redistribution, and social welfare programs. Rand’s critique cannot serve as the basis for real-world policy when the chief argument of her ideological rivals is missing entirely.
There is room for vigorous debate about all these issues, but we cannot simply wave them away. Towards the end of the book, one of Rand’s characters rails against “some barefoot bum in some pesthole of Asia” and the “mystic muck of India”, contrasting them with entrepreneurial individuals–presumably white Americans–who use reason to build advanced technology. That diatribe made no allowance for overt oppression that keeps some people subjugated to the benefit of others. If we allow evils like plantation slavery or King Leopold II’s Congo Free State into the universe, Rand’s critique looks more brittle.
As a work of fiction, the book’s value sags and then collapses around two thirds of the way through. It would have been stronger at half the length. The last few hundred pages are painfully tedious. The first rule of storytelling is “show, don’t tell“, but Rand can’t help herself. By book’s end, a character makes a 60+ page speech that reads like a rambling university essay, telling the reader exactly what she meant to express through fiction in the previous 1,000 pages. Rand comes across as a woman possessed.
Overall, Atlas Shrugged is a powerful and engaging book. It contains forceful, important critiques. Rand is right about a lot. But at the end of the day, Atlas Shrugged is an adolescent fantasy. High fantasy novels give shy teenagers access to entire worlds in which they wield swords or bows, slay monsters, woo princes or princesses, possess magic abilities, and discover forgotten birthrights. Atlas Shrugged does much the same thing for savvy entrepreneurs who feel maligned by the world, abused by incumbent powers, or made to feel ashamed of their gifts and aspirations. It is a fantasy in which the geniuses are finally recognized for who they are, and their despised enemies finally get their due. I love a good fantasy as much as the next person, but at the end of the day, fantasy is fantasy. The real world demands more of us.
Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up by Jerry Colonna
Jerry Colonna has carved out a fascinating niche for himself as one of the most beloved CEO coaches of our time. The founder of Reboot, Jerry does not teach strategy, tactics, or organizational design; he is more like a spiritual guru and therapist who guides leaders on journeys of radical self-enquiry. Jerry is a voice in the wilderness for lonely executives who silently carry the burden of leadership and do not know where else to look to nourish their souls.
Jerry is a delightful anomaly. In a business world where concerns of the soul are carefully kept out of sight and relegated to other domains of life, he feels perfectly comfortable asking CEOs to bare their souls. He writes frequently of “brokenhearted warriors”, language that might make us shift uncomfortably in our seats but also appeals to something deep within us. He references poetry, Buddhist philosophy, and vision quests. In his podcast he cuts right through the protective bubble wrap of social etiquette, asking his guests deeply personal questions.
All of those peculiarities make Jerry a treasure for the modern business world. We need more of what he brings. In addition to being an experienced founder and investor, Jerry is a kind, thoughtful soul who overflows with gratitude for both his own journey and the opportunity he has to help other CEOs on their own journey.
Reboot is an extended reflection on Jerry’s own journey and lessons he has learned from coaching other CEOs. It is well-written, engaging, sometimes unfocused, and frequently beautiful. The book is a gentle introduction to Jerry’s style of coaching, and is sure to provoke thoughts and reflections about one’s own journey. It also points a hopeful way forward for how we can address soul-deep needs in the challenging domains of business and leadership.
Perennial Seller: The Art of Making and Marketing Work That Lasts by Ryan Holiday
Ryan Holiday is one of my favorite authors–not just because he writes insightful books about Stoicism relevant to modern life, but because he is a serious craftsman. Holiday takes the art and craft of writing seriously.
That is why I loved his book on creating and selling work that lasts. Like many creative types, I have always felt an instinctive tension between craftsmanship and marketing. I have bruised feelings from living in a world in which artless or dishonest hacks strike it rich, get funded, or find wide readerships, while the honest, dedicated craftsmen go unrecognized. As I have grappled with my own writing career (more specifically, my failure over 20 years to get one going), I knew this was a self-limiting belief that I needed to overcome if I was ever going to make it. Some cursory Googling led me right back to Ryan Holiday, to this book which I hadn’t known existed.
Although probably lesser known than his other books, Perennial Seller is the best book I have read on marketing for creatives. The book begins with a passionate appeal for craftsmanship. Holiday starts with the premise that there is no substitute for doing the hard work of writing the best books we are capable of writing. Yes, we can probably make a living by churning out a lot of average material, but the books that endure are masterpieces that serious writers carefully labored over. Craftsmanship is the foundation on which everything else is built. From there, Holiday goes on to write about positioning, marketing, and platforms. If you are a creative who struggles with marketing, you won’t find a better book to help you find your way.
The Hard Truth: Simple Ways to Become a Better Climber by Kris Hampton
Kris Hampton is the voice behind The Power Company podcast, which I enjoy listening to while training for climbing. He has distilled 26 blog posts and essays into a new book aimed to kick the reader’s ass into overcoming self-limiting thoughts and behaviors.
This is a book specifically for climbers (mainly plateaued intermediate climbers)–but for those who climb, it also speaks to life. This was a fun book that any climber will enjoy. I appreciated the frank tone. It could have used better editing, but was otherwise a solid read.