Writer and educator Martin Cohen looks at how books have influenced the career strategies of some highly successful business people, from Steve Jobs to Oprah Winfrey.
How much influence can a book have? Well, maybe more than you think. After all, chaos theory suggests that small influences early on in our lives have big implications later on. Put another way — it’s not career choices made at sixth form or college, but smaller nudges, happenstance experiences and chance encounters that determine future lives.
Take for example British billionaire and entrepreneur, Richard Branson. His motto seems to be 'try everything and see if it works', and if that sounds a risky business strategy, that's because it is. So it is revealing to find that when asked about his favourite reads, Branson mentions a cult 1971 classic called Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart — actually a pseudonym for George Powers Cockcroft, a reclusive figure who says that he admires Zen philosophies. Selling more than two million copies, the book offers a refreshingly subversive way to deal with the complexity of modern life: “let the dice decide”. Branson goes into the nature of this kind of gamble at length in his autobiography, The Virgin Way: Everything I Know about Leadership. He starts by stating that luck is one of the most misunderstood and under-appreciated factors in life and insists instead that it is really all about taking risks.
Or take the anthropologist Jane Goodall, who is today an icon in the field of animal communications known for her exceptionally detailed and long-term research on chimpanzees in Tanzania. Long before she had travelled to Africa, indeed before she had any formal qualifications in the subject, her career path was changed by a deceptively simple series of children’s books. As a teenager, she was struck by an idea in The Story of Doctor Dolittle. Here, through Dolittle talking to his menagerie of pet animals, is brought to life the quite abstract question of how animals communicate. The text is simple, but profound, including this message, delivered by a parrot to the good doctor: “But animals don’t always speak with their mouths. They talk with their ears, with their feet, with their tails, with everything. Sometimes they don’t want to make a noise.” Fast forward to 2010, when Goodall was asked by an interviewer to talk both about her past practical work in the field and what she thought were the greatest similarities she had observed between humans and the anthropoid monkeys. Goodall replied, “The non-verbal communication, kissing, embracing, holding hands, patting on the back, swaggering, throwing rocks…”!
And then there’s Oprah Winfrey, ranked one of the 100 most influential people of the 20th century by Time magazine. Winfrey seems always to have been a very determined character. While still in high school, she landed a job in radio as a reporter for a Nashville radio station, and at age 19, she became the first African American to anchor a local evening news show. Her ability to deliver emotionally powerful questions and responses soon led to the opportunity to present a daytime talk show. This rapidly became the nation's favorite and won no less than 34 Emmy awards — seven of them awarded to Winfrey for best host. It's quite a story, and many books have and will be written about Winfrey’s achievements, but less often mentioned is that books also helped her along the way. At a pivotal moment of self-doubt, after Winfrey had invited white supremacists to her talk show in an effort to gain insight into the source of their hatred and then regretted giving them a platform, she discovered a book called The Seat of the Soul by philosopher Gary Zukav.
Zukav, who was already famous for his new-age investigation of personal psychology and quantum physics offers a grand cosmological theory in The Seat of the Soul: “Each soul enters in to a sacred agreement with the Universe to accomplish specific goals, or take on a particular task. All of your experiences of your life serve to awaken within you the memory of that contract, and to prepare you to fulfill it.” For individuals, this means that every action, thought, and feeling is motivated by an intention, and that intention is a cause that exists as one with an effect. This principle now became a guiding light for Winfrey. Referring to her decision to give up her talk show in 2011 to start her own cable network, Winfrey has said: “Quite frankly, I don't believe I would ever have dreamed of creating such a network had I not read The Seat of the Soul.” And today, Winfrey says this philosophy still drives everything she does: “Do not bring me an idea that I cannot find my thread of truth in”, as she told an audience at Skidmore College in 2017.
Oprah Winfrey (photo credit: Harpo, Inc) and the book that influenced her, Gary Zukav's The Seat of the Soul
This kind of search for ‘authenticity’ is perhaps the key factor in career choices — a search too often made to play second fiddle to practicality, or even ambition. Steve Jobs, Apple computer’s charismatic founder and inspiration always emphasised this truth too. Addressing students at Stanford in 2005, at a time when Jobs had already been diagnosed with cancer and was in reflective mood, he said: “Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking. Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”
Jobs’ words reflect the influence of one book in particular: a counter-cultural bible called Be Here Now. He once recalled in an interview that in this book “there was a constant flow of intellectual questioning about the truth of life”. Be Here Now by Baba Ram Dass, born Richard Alpert, is a guide to meditation and the wonders of psychedelic drugs. It advises things like: “What we're seeing ‘out there’ is the projection of where we're at — the projection of the clingings of our minds.” For Jobs, such hippy ideas “transformed me and many of my friends”. Notice that word ‘transformed’. When Geoffrey James, an editor at the website Inc.com, compiled a list of the ‘12 books Steve Jobs wanted you to read’ what struck him most was that almost all the books were about a single individual overcoming enormous odds and obstacles in order to transform either the world, himself — or both.
One of the books that Jobs recommends is 1984, by George Orwell, the dystopian novel that makes guest appearances in key Apple publicity ads. 1984 is all about one man's desperate struggle against an all-pervasive state that is committed to controlling people's thoughts as well as their behaviors. But Orwell pops up in a lot of other people’s booklists too. It does, for example in that of Mike Duffy, founding c.e.o. of Citybase in the US. Citybase tries to develop ways for people on the margins of society to access public services and Duffy found in Orwell’s autobiographical description of life, Down and Out in Paris and London, insights into contemporary social problems — and novel ideas for solutions.
All of which leads to one conclusion, which is that in careers advice and searching for inspiration alike, there are really two strategies. There's a very literal one, which involves reading about either the career activity itself, or maybe books featuring some fine individual saying ‘how they did it’. Then there's a very different approach which is to roam widely tasting big ideas and extraordinary tales, before stepping backwards, perhaps having extracted just one particular insight or new perspective. The low-hanging fruits come from the first strategy. But the big prizes seem to belong to the second.
Martin Cohen is a writer whose books have been translated into 20 different languages and reviewed in papers including the Guardian, Melbourne Age, LA Times and even the New York Times Green blog. He is also an educator who has taught Philosophy and English in schools and colleges in the UK and in France. His latest book The Leader's Bookshelf: 25 Great Books and their Readers, which looks at similar issues to those discussed in this article, was published last month by Rowman and Littlefied.