The Great Books


I didn't put much effort into choosing books. I was promiscuous like that. As a result, I have a room full of overstuffed bookshelves.

In an effort to find a few books to donate to the local public school book drive, I've been pulling them off my shelves.

At first, I decided to get rid of the books that, in hindsight, I am ashamed to have purchased in the first place. This was easy. Books like, “Built to Last,” “IN-N-OUT Burger,” and “Last Man Standing” were the first to go. While fun for a one-night-stand, we lacked the potential for an intimate relationship.

As the list of business bestsellers moved aside, I started to feel hoodwinked—I knew the answers but lacked the knowledge.

People told me I needed to lead and I listened. They spoke in the language of Jim Collins and, rather than explore leadership for myself at the time, I ate it up. I turned to books offering easy solutions to complicated problems. If Jim Collins became my partner in crime, Jack Welch was my Godfather.

And it worked. In fact, it worked so well I turned to other best-selling books as a quick fix. Slowly, I started outsourcing my thinking to someone else as I continued with the illusion of progress. It was easy to borrow the ideas of the latest best-selling book, if only to sound like I knew what I was talking about. Level 5 Leader? Check. Golden Ratio? Check. Bottlenecks and Constraints? Check. Strategy? Check.

As a result, I could easily converse with executives (and experts) on most subjects. If you had a problem, I had a solution. All I had to do was remember the highlights from a best-selling book. Maintaining the illusion I knew what I was doing became easy.

I couldn't walk the walk but that didn't seem to matter, perhaps because few people can. Sure I could define leadership. Did you want me to speak using the words of Clinton, Bush, Welsh, Collins or someone else?

Despite multiple degrees from reputable universities and a voracious reading habit across a broad range of subjects, I can't help but feel I'm missing something. A curious person would quickly discover my malnourished mind.

I've been sold this diet, sight unseen, by an education system that constantly reassured me that I was eating all of the essential nutrients. Boy did they know what they were doing. After all, who expects a 13-year-old to question why English class wasn't harder? Certainly parents won't question why classes are easy if their child is bringing home “good” grades. The feedback and incentives embedded in the fabric of the system ensure it gets easier and easier.

In hindsight, university was no better. They want to you to be happy. And what, I ask, does a 17-year-old want? An easy ride to a six-figure salary. The last thing on my mind was building a foundation of knowledge that would endure throughout my life. I wanted a job. I wanted an income. I didn't care what was going into my head as long as it got me to where I wanted to go.

It really bothers me that I've had my head up my ass for so long. I don't blame the system. It's my own failing. At some point education became a means to an end rather than an end in and of itself.

I've spent some time over the last few years tinkering with my diet but I've failed to make the wholesale changes required. I need to change what I'm feeding my mind. Gone are the Pop-Tarts of Collins and Welch. Replaced with nutrient-dense history, literature, and philosophy.

I'm starting with Lattimore's translation of the Iliad.

Stay tuned, I'll be posting more on the Great Books including a booklist shortly. You should follow along via twitteremail, or RSS.