Book Notes: The Road to Character

brooksI’m a longtime lover of David Brooks’ columns and books. His most recent book, The Road to Character, resonated. It connects well with the themes I touch on in my essay Happy Ambition: Striving for Success, Avoiding Status Cocaine, and Prioritizing Happiness.

Brooks shares stories about exemplars of moral virtue from various historical periods. He makes a special point to underscore how our modern culture may be distorting the most fulfilling version of the good life. He challenges those who take moral shortcuts en route to professional achievement. Most of all, he recommends prioritizing “eulogy virtues” (the sorts of things people talk about at your funeral) over “resume virtues” (the sorts of accomplishments you list on your resume).

Highly recommended. Below are some of my favorite paragraphs and sentences.


The self-effacing person is soothing and gracious, while the self-promoting person is fragile and jarring. Humility is freedom from the need to prove you are superior all the time, but egotism is a ravenous hunger in a small space—self-concerned, competitive, and distinction-hungry. Humility is infused with lovely emotions like admiration, companionship, and gratitude. “Thankfulness,” the Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey, said, “is a soil in which pride does not easily grow.”

This is the way humility leads to wisdom. Montaigne once wrote, “We can be knowledgeable with other men’s knowledge, but we can’t be wise with other men’s wisdom.” That’s because wisdom isn’t a body of information. It’s the moral quality of knowing what you don’t know and figuring out a way to handle your ignorance, uncertainty, and limitation.

But we often put our loves out of order. If someone tells you something in confidence and then you blab it as good gossip at a dinner party, you are putting your love of popularity above your love of friendship. If you talk more at a meeting than you listen, you may be putting your ardor to outshine above learning and companionship. We do this all the time.

One could, Frankl wrote, still participate in a rapturous passion for one’s beloved and thus understand the full meaning of the words “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”

A dozen voices from across the institution told students that while those who lead flat and unremarkable lives may avoid struggle, a well-lived life involves throwing oneself into struggle, that large parts of the most worthy lives are spent upon the rack, testing moral courage and facing opposition and ridicule, and that those who pursue struggle end up being happier than those who pursue pleasure.

Eisenhower himself would later lose his own firstborn son, Doud Dwight, known in the family as “Icky,” an experience that darkened his world ever after. “This was the greatest disappointment and disaster in my life,” he would write decades later, “the one I have never been able to forget completely. Today, when I think of it, even now as I write about it, the keenness of our loss comes back to me as fresh and terrible as it was in that long dark day soon after Christmas, 1920.” The fragility and remorselessness of this life demanded a certain level of discipline.

When modern culture tries to replace sin with ideas like error or insensitivity, or tries to banish words like “virtue,” “character,” “evil,” and “vice” altogether, that doesn’t make life any less moral; it just means we have obscured the inescapable moral core of life with shallow language. It just means we think and talk about these choices less clearly, and thus become increasingly blind to the moral stakes of everyday life.

We really do have dappled souls. The same ambition that drives us to build a new company also drives us to be materialistic and to exploit. The same lust that leads to children leads to adultery. The same confidence that can lead to daring and creativity can lead to self-worship and arrogance.

The danger of sin, in other words, is that it feeds on itself. Small moral compromises on Monday make you more likely to commit other, bigger moral compromises on Tuesday. A person lies to himself and soon can no longer distinguish when he is lying to himself and when he isn’t. Another person is consumed by the sin of self-pity, a passion to be a righteous victim that devours everything around it as surely as anger or greed.

Since self-control is a muscle that tires easily, it is much better to avoid temptation in the first place rather than try to resist it once it arises.

He was willing to appear tongue-tied if it would help him conceal his true designs. Just as he learned to suppress his anger as a boy, he learned to suppress his ambitions and abilities as an adult. He was reasonably learned in ancient history, admiring especially the crafty Athenian leader Themistocles, but he never let that on. He did not want to appear smarter than other people, or somehow superior to the average American. Instead he cultivated the image of simple, unlearned charm.

Eisenhower, for example, was fueled by passion and policed by self-control. Neither impulse was entirely useless and neither was entirely benign. Eisenhower’s righteous rage could occasionally propel him toward justice, but it could occasionally blind him. His self-control enabled him to serve and do his duty, but it could make him callous. 

He distrusts passionate intensity and bold simplicity because he know that in politics the lows are lower than the highs are high—the damage leaders do when they get things wrong is greater than the benefits they create when they get things right. Therefore caution is the proper attitude, an awareness of the limits the foundation of wisdom.

The whole object of VMI training was to teach Marshall how to exercise controlled power. The idea was that power exaggerates the dispositions—making a rude person ruder and a controlling person more controlling. The higher you go in life, the fewer people there are to offer honest feedback or restrain your unpleasant traits. So it is best to learn those habits of self-restraint, including emotional self-restraint, at an early age. “What I learned at VMI was self-control, discipline, so that it was ground in,” he would recall later.

And indeed, if we look at love in its most passionate phase, we see that love often does several key things to reorient the soul. The first thing it does is humble us. It reminds us that we are not even in control of ourselves.

Love is a surrender. You expose your deepest vulnerabilities and give up your illusions of self-mastery. This vulnerability and the desire for support can manifest itself in small ways. Eliot once wrote, “There is something strangely winning to most women in that offer of the firm arm; the help is not wanted physically at the moment, but the sense of help, the presence of strength that is outside them and yet theirs, meets a continual want of imagination.”

Next, love decenters the self. Love leads you out of your natural state of self-love. Love makes other people more vivid to you than you are to yourself.

If the shallow person lives in the smallness of his own ego, a person in love finds that the ultimate riches are not inside, they are out there, in the beloved and in the sharing of a destiny with the beloved. A successful marriage is a fifty-year conversation getting ever closer to that melding of mind and heart. Love expresses itself in shared smiles and shared tears and ends with the statement, “Love you? I am you.”

Self-control is like a muscle. If you are called upon to exercise self-control often in the course of a day, you get tired and you don’t have enough strength to exercise as much self-control in the evening. But love is the opposite. The more you love, the more you can love. A person who has one child does not love that child less when the second and third child come along. A person who loves his town does not love his country less. Love expands with use.

Augustine’s feeling of fragmentation has its modern corollary in the way many contemporary young people are plagued by a frantic fear of missing out. The world has provided them with a superabundance of neat things to do. Naturally, they hunger to seize every opportunity and taste every experience. They want to grab all the goodies in front of them. They want to say yes to every product in the grocery store. They are terrified of missing out on anything that looks exciting. But by not renouncing any of them they spread themselves thin. What’s worse, they turn themselves into goodie seekers, greedy for every experience and exclusively focused on self. If you live in this way, you turn into a shrewd tactician, making a series of cautious semicommitments without really surrendering to some larger purpose. You lose the ability to say a hundred noes for the sake of one overwhelming and fulfilling yes.

Furthermore, the world is so complex, and fate so uncertain, that you can never really control other people or the environment effectively enough to be master of your own destiny. Reason is not powerful enough to build intellectual systems or models to allow you to accurately understand the world around you or anticipate what is to come. Your willpower is not strong enough to successfully police your desires. If you really did have that kind of power, then New Year’s resolutions would work. Diets would work. The bookstores wouldn’t be full of self-help books. You’d need just one and that would do the trick. You’d follow its advice, solve the problems of living, and the rest of the genre would become obsolete. The existence of more and more self-help books is proof that they rarely work.

One key paradox of pride is that it often combines extreme self-confidence with extreme anxiety. The proud person often appears self-sufficient and egotistical but is really touchy and unstable. The proud person tries to establish self-worth by winning a great reputation, but of course this makes him utterly dependent on the gossipy and unstable crowd for his own identity. The proud person is competitive. But there are always other people who might do better. The most ruthlessly competitive person in the contest sets the standard that all else must meet or get left behind. Everybody else has to be just as monomaniacally driven to success. One can never be secure.

One of the things you have to do in order to receive grace is to renounce the idea that you can earn it. You have to renounce the meritocratic impulse that you can win a victory for God and get rewarded for your effort. Then you have to open up to it. You do not know when grace will come to you. But people who are open and sensitive to it testify that they have felt grace at the oddest and at the most needed times.

As the theologian Lisa Fullam has put it, “Humility is a virtue of self-understanding in context, acquired by the practice of other centeredness.”

Johnson was living a life, familiar to us now but more unusual in his own day, in which he was thrown continually back on himself. Without a settled trade, like farming or teaching, separated from the rootedness of extended family life, he was compelled to live as a sort of freelancer according to his wits. His entire destiny—his financial security, his standing in his community, his friendships, his opinions and meaning as a person—were determined by the ideas that flashed through his mind. The Germans have a word for this condition: Zerrissenheit—loosely, “falling-to-pieces-ness.” This is the loss of internal coherence that can come from living a multitasking, pulled-in-a-hundred-directions existence. This is what Kierkegaard called “the dizziness of freedom.” When the external constraints are loosened, when a person can do what he wants, when there are a thousand choices and distractions, then life can lose coherence and direction if there isn’t a strong internal structure.

Man’s chief merit consists in resisting the impulses of his nature.

He devised a strategy to defeat the envy in his heart. He said that in general he did not believe that one vice should be cured by another. But envy is such a malignant state of mind that the dominance of almost any other quality is to be preferred. So he chose pride. He told himself that to envy another is to admit one’s inferiority, and that it is better to insist on one’s superior merit than to succumb to envy. When tempted to envy another, he persuaded himself of his own superior position. Then, turning in a more biblical direction, he preached charity and mercy. The world is so bursting with sin and sorrow that “there are none to be envied.” Everyone has some deep trouble in their lives. Almost no one truly enjoys their own achievements, since their desires are always leaping forward and torturing them with visions of goods unpossessed.

Montaigne came to realize how hard it was to control one’s own mind, or even one’s body. He despaired over even his own penis, “which intrudes so tiresomely when we do not require it and fails us so annoyingly when we need it most.” But the penis is not alone in its rebellion.

A philosopher can cultivate the greatest mind in history, but one bite from a rabid dog could turn him into a raving idiot. Montaigne is the author of the take-you-down-a-peg saying that “on the loftiest throne in the world we are still only sitting on our own rump.” He argues that “if others examined themselves attentively, as I do, they would find themselves, as I do, full of inanity and nonsense. Get rid of it I cannot without getting rid of myself. We are all steeped in it, one as much as another; but those who are aware of it are a little better off—though I don’t know.” As Sarah Bakewell observes in her superb book on the man, How to Live, that final coda “though I don’t know” is pure Montaigne.

He’s a little lazy, so he learns to relax. (Johnson gave himself fervent self-improvement sermons, but Montaigne would not. Johnson was filled with moral sternness; Montaigne was not.) Montaigne’s mind naturally wanders, so he takes advantage and learns to see things from multiple perspectives. Every flaw comes with its own compensation.

The ardent and the self-demanding have never admired Montaigne. They find his emotional register too narrow, his aspirations too modest, his settledness too bland.

Most important, Johnson understood that it takes some hard pressure to sculpt a character. The material is resistant. There has to be some pushing, some sharp cutting, and hacking. It has to be done in confrontation with the intense events of the real world, not in retreat from them.

This moral realism then found expression in humanists like Samuel Johnson, Michel de Montaigne, and George Eliot, who emphasized how little we can know, how hard it is to know ourselves, and how hard we have to work on the long road to virtue. “We are all of us born in moral stupidity, taking the world as an udder to feed our supreme selves,” Eliot wrote. It was also embodied, in different ways and at different times, in the thought of Dante, Hume, Burke, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Isaiah Berlin. All of these thinkers take a limited view of our individual powers of reason. They are suspicious of abstract thinking and pride. They emphasize the limitations in our individual natures.

Some of these limitations are epistemological: reason is weak and the world is complex. We cannot really grasp the complexity of the world or the full truth about ourselves. Some of these limitations are moral: There are bugs in our souls that lead us toward selfishness and pride, that tempt us to put lower loves over higher loves. Some of the limitations are psychological: We are divided within ourselves, and many of the most urgent motions of our minds are unconscious and only dimly recognized by ourselves. Some of them are social: We are not self-completing creatures. To thrive we have to throw ourselves into a state of dependence—on others, on institutions, on the divine. The place that limitation occupies in the “crooked timber” school is immense.

Then came humanistic psychology led by people like Carl Rogers, the most influential psychologist of the twentieth century. The humanistic psychologists shifted away from Freud’s darker conception of the unconscious and promoted a sky-high estimation of human nature. The primary psychological problem, he argued, is that people don’t love themselves enough, and so therapists unleashed a great wave of self-loving.

If you were born at any time over the last sixty years, you were probably born into what the philosopher Charles Taylor has called “the culture of authenticity.” This mindset is based on the romantic idea that each of us has a Golden Figure in the core of our self. There is an innately good True Self, which can be trusted, consulted, and gotten in touch with. Your personal feelings are the best guide for what is right and wrong.

Pride is the central vice. Pride is a problem in the sensory apparatus. Pride blinds us to the reality of our divided nature. Pride blinds us to our own weaknesses and misleads us into thinking we are better than we are. Pride makes us more certain and closed-minded than we should be. Pride makes it hard for us to be vulnerable before those whose love we need. Pride makes coldheartedness and cruelty possible.

Once the necessities for survival are satisfied, the struggle against sin and for virtue is the central drama of life. No external conflict is as consequential or as dramatic as the inner campaign against our own deficiencies. This struggle against, say, selfishness or prejudice or insecurity gives meaning and shape to life. It is more important than the external journey up the ladder of success.

You become more disciplined, considerate, and loving through a thousand small acts of self-control, sharing, service, friendship, and refined enjoyment. If you make disciplined, caring choices, you are slowly engraving certain tendencies into your mind.

Defeating weakness often means quieting the self. Only by quieting the self, by muting the sound of your own ego, can you see the world clearly. Only by quieting the self can you be open to the external sources of strengths you will need. Only by stilling the sensitive ego can you react with equipoise to the ups and downs of the campaign. The struggle against weakness thus requires the habits of self-effacement—reticence, modesty, obedience to some larger thing—and a capacity for reverence and admiration.

Sin and limitation are woven through our lives. We are all stumblers, and the beauty and meaning of life are in the stumbling—in recognizing the stumbling and trying to become more graceful as the years go by.

Book Notes: Happiness from n+1

happiness_3_grandeI’ve been reading n+1 magazine for a long time. It gives me a flavor for the Brooklyn intellectual hipster scene. Some of the topics are too highfalutin for me but the writing usually makes me think in a new way. Their greatest hits — essays, that is — have been compiled into a book titled Happiness: 10 Years of n+1. It’s excellent. So many well written essays on literature, sex, torture, and writing itself. Below are my highlighted paragraphs/sentences. Note they come from different essays so do not necessarily make sense in order…


The moral responsibility is not to be intelligent. It’s to think. An attribute, self-satisfied and fixed, gets confused with an action, thinking, which revalues old ideas as well as defends them. Thought adds something new to the world; simple intelligence wields hardened truth like a bludgeon.

Far more effective, the torture theorists say, is to shatter the routines that make us adults without physical violence. Sleep deprivation becomes the favored tactic, accompanied by such macabre tricks as putting clocks forward or back randomly, making sure that the prisoner cannot tell day from night, irregular feeding, temporary starvation, random extremes of temperature, loud music constantly, and, of course, random responses from the captors, either rage or bizarre affection, always absurd and unmotivated. (It’s allowed, for instance, to reward uncooperative behavior, the better to induce false hopes in the subject.)…Deroutinization… At least since the Scottish Enlightenment, people have recognized that habits and chains of association make up a strong part of individual identity, but it would be a twisted view of humans that made our habits both the necessary and sufficient condition of our individual life.

Did they notice that the scene begins when Ivan Karamazov asks his brother if he would torture a child if it meant ensuring happiness for the rest of the world? We know our president’s answer would be an enthusiastic thumbs-up, as long as it’s someone else’s thumb.

Adults project the sex of children in lust, or examine children sexually with magnifying glasses to make sure they don’t appeal to us. But these lenses became burning glasses.

Now children from junior high to high school to college live in the most perfect sex environment devised by contemporary society—or so adults believe. Now they are inmates in great sex colonies where they wheel in circles holding hands with their pants down.

The lesson each time is that sleeping with strangers or being photographed naked lets the authors know themselves better. Many of these institutions are driven by women. Perhaps they, even more than young men, feel an urgency to know themselves while they can—since America curses them with a premonition of disappointment: when flesh sags, freedom will wane.

Though the young person has never been old, the old person once was young. When you look up the age ladder, you look at strangers; when you look down the age ladder, you are always looking at versions of yourself. As an adult, it depends entirely on your conception of yourself whether those fantastic younger incarnations will seem long left behind or all-too-continuous with who you are now. And this conception of yourself depends, in turn, on the culture’s attitudes to adulthood and childhood, age and youth. This is where the trouble arises. For in a culture to which sex furnishes the first true experiences, it makes a kind of sense to return to the ages at which sex was first used to pursue experience and one was supposedly in a privileged position to find it. Now we begin to talk, not about our sex per se, but about a fundamental change in our notion of freedom, and what our lives are a competition for.

At times I wonder if we are witnessing a sexualization of the life process itself, in which all pleasure is canalized into the sexual, and the function of warm, living flesh in any form is to allow us access to autoerotism through the circuit of an other. This is echoed at the intellectual level in the discourse of “self-discovery.” The real underlying question of sexual encounter today may not be “What is he like in bed?” (heard often enough, and said without shame) but “What am I like in bed?” (never spoken). That is to say, at the deepest level, one says: “Whom do I discover myself to be in sex?”—so that sex becomes the special province of self-discovery. Continue reading

Book Review: Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki

41lJWvuUV2L._SX349_BO1,204,203,200_I’m a huge Haruki Murakami fan. His latest novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki: And His Years of Pilgrimage doesn’t disappoint. While not quite as richly textured as some of his longer, stranger novels, there’s nonetheless a vivid, intoxicating mood to Colorless Tsukura’s story.

The book is easy to read. There’s a core story told with few characters: A young man gets exiled from his childhood best friends and tries to understand why. As he comes of age, he struggles to form new friends and romantic partners in adulthood as a man who, in his own estimation, is utterly ordinary (“colorless”).

The unstoppable flow of time becomes a central theme. In one of my favorite passages, Tsukuru is with an old female friend from high school. They hadn’t seen each other in a long, long time. She is now happily married and living abroad. As they reminisce about what once was, she confesses to having a crush on Tsukuru back when they grew up. She says, “That amazing time in our lives is gone, and will never return. All the beautiful possibilities we had then have been swallowed up in the flow of time.”

Opportunities bloom and wilt before you’ve even noticed them. Friendships that seemed unshakable somehow manage to peter out, but new ones form with a beautiful immediacy. Soon the future becomes the past. You can only wonder what would have happened had you made a different decision at some crossroad along the way. These are the sorts of thoughts I had when I read the book; the tone of the book is wistful.

As with all Murakami, Japanophiles will appreciate some the ambient descriptions. The protagonist’s profession is as a designer of train stations. There are some lovely scenes set in Shinjuku station, describing the orderly chaos that you have to see to believe.

I loved this final paragraph from the NYT review of the book:

The writer sits at his desk and makes us a story. A story not knowing where it is going, not knowing itself to be magic. Closure is an illusion, the winking of the eye of a storm. Nothing is completely resolved in life, nothing is perfect. The important thing is to keep living because only by living can you see what happens next.

Only by living can you see what happens next.

Impermanence Thought of the Day

Genghis Khan created the Mongol Empire in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. He ruled most of Asia and even parts of Europe. His word affected the lives of millions of people.

Today, he is just one more chapter in the rise and fall of empires. And most people have never heard of him, let alone think of him with any regularity.

Almost all of the most important, influential, and wealthiest people of our time will be utterly forgotten in just a few generations.

(Adapted from Joseph Goldstein’s book Mindfulness.)

Book Review: Purity by Franzen

purityJonathan Franzen’s latest novel, Purity, is a page turner that locked me into a rich, multi-layered plot and had me staying up at night later than I should have so that I could keep turning the pages. 

With so many other forms of entertainment available today, purely plot-driven genre novels are a hard sell to me. I want psychological intimacy. I want complex characters. I want to get inside the head of someone balancing competing ambitions. I want to learn about someone whose love life is messed up, or family a wreck, or career falling apart, or someone who’s terribly lonely. It’s in the exploration of psychological hardship that a skillful novelist can write candidly about things a non-fiction writer wouldn’t touch. 

Franzen delivers the goods in this respect. There are no heroic characters. Fucked up family relationships. Problematic love lives. Searing guilt. Friends who betray the friendship; friends who become fuck buddies; friends who literally help bury bodies. It’s telling that when Pip, a central character, hears the word ‘sister’ “her heart constricted with hostility. Having no siblings of her own, she couldn’t help resenting the demands and potential supportiveness of other people’s; their nuclear-family normalcy, their inherited wealth of closeness.” That tells all you all you need to know about the nature of family relationships in this novel. Or when Leila reflects on her long-term relationship with Tom, the narrator says: “Her life with Tom was strange and ill-defined and permanently temporary but therefore all the more a life of true love, because it was freely chosen every day, every hour.” Strange, ill-defined, permanently temporary: Yup.

The psychological drama surrounding these relationships unfolds in the background. The focus in Purity is on the action, which takes place through several different characters as much in their historical backstories as in their present-day storyline. The settings include the Santa Cruz mountains in California; rural Bolivia; and Cold War era Germany. The present-day story is utterly contemporary: leaked documents, Wiki-leaks style, drive a couple a non-profit organizations that engage in activist journalism. Edward Snowden and Julian Assange are top-of-mind for the characters in this novel.

Franzen is restrained stylistically, relative to his ability. The “idea bombs” that I noted in my review of his previous novel Freedom — discursive remarks either said by the narrator or by some character on some general topic of consequence — are embedded in dialogue rather than formal set pieces. That said, there are plenty of sentences you’ll re-read. For example:

[Pip struggling to undress and hook up with a guy] Self-pity seeped into her, a conviction that for no one but her was sex so logistically ungainly, a tasty fish with so many small bones.

Or:

Reporting was imitation life, imitation expertise, imitation worldliness, imitation intimacy; mastering a subject only to forget it, befriending people only to drop them. And yet, like so many imitative pleasures, it was highly addictive.

Or:

“I’ve spent most of my life hating her,” he said. “I told you some of the reasons I hate her. But now I get this email and I remember that they weren’t the real reasons, or not the whole reason. They’re half the reason. The other half is that I can never stop loving her, in spite of all those other reasons. I forget about this, for years at a time. But then I get this email…”

Or:

Andreas was gripped by an unfamiliar physical sensation. He was such a laugher, such an ironist, such an artist of unseriousness, that he didn’t even recognize what was happening to him: he, too, was starting to cry. But he did recognize why. He was crying for himself—for what had happened to him as a child.

Or:

Leila felt keenly, after the call, that she liked the girl too much. “I miss you” was already more than she had a right to elicit from a subordinate and still not as much as she wanted to hear. She felt dissatisfied and exposed and somewhat nuts. The tenderness she felt with children had always had a physical component, situated close in her body to the part that wanted intimacy and sex. But the reason she felt such tenderness was that, no matter how she warmed to a child in her arms, she knew she would never betray and exploit its innocence. This was why nothing could replace having kids—this structural insatiability, both painful and delicious, of parental love.

My full highlights pasted below. See my review of Freedom  here. My favorite lines from his book How to Be Alone. Here’s how Franzen dealt with envy when he read a galley of Infinite Jest.
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Book Review: Deep Work by Cal Newport

My friend Cal Newport’s new book Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World comes out on January 5, 2016, and I highly recommend it.

As Cal defines it, “Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time.” Deep work is a superpower in the modern economy, Cal argues, as fewer and fewer people possess the ability of going deep. Instead they get lost in a blur of social media and email and other infosnack addictions.

I’m sold on the diagnosis. Deep work — producing the sort of valuable accomplishments that only happen with hard focus over a long period of time — is critical in many industries. It’s an increasingly rare skill, which makes it all the more valuable in those environments that demand it.

Cal’s solution — the “what do you do about this?” section in the book — is bold. Plan your days diligently week-by-week. Go cold turkey on social media. Embrace boredom and train your mind to not require constant stimulation. Among other ideas.

Cal’s strategy benefits from at least two work patterns, which are not universal to all professionals. First, you know what you want to do and what your priorities are. Clarity around a personal mission drives structured work processes. Unfortunately, not everyone is so lucky. Second, you have a relatively structured, not-especially-externally-facing job in which pre-planning is possible, social media absence not detrimental (i.e. you don’t have a boss that insists upon it in order to talk to customers), and so on.

In my long review of The Age of the Infovore, I describe the advantages of a life filled with diverse, “distracting” information inputs, and push back a bit against claims that all distractions are bad distractions. To this end, I won’t be abandoning social media anytime soon.

That said, as social media has expanded deeper and deeper into our lives, I’ve become more and more concerned about my own ability to focus and do deep sea thinking for long periods of time. (How many times have I opened new browser tabs and gotten distracted while even writing this blog post? I’m too embarrassed to say.) What’s more, when I reflect on my accomplishments, I find myself deriving more satisfaction and pride from the things that took a long time to complete and are demonstrably “harder” than average to execute. Publishing books, for example, or building out teams inside organizations. So I find myself more and more drawn to Cal’s thinking. And, even if you don’t accept his prescription wholesale, there are various practical nuggets that anyone can and probably should adopt to be a more effective professional.

Over the years, Cal and I have talked about the thesis for Deep Work many times on walks, over drinks, and on phone calls. To see his thinking evolve and sharpen into this book — the latest in a series of winners — has been a real pleasure. I hope my 2016 involves more deep work.

What I’ve Been Reading

I’ve been flipping through a bunch of books that people have sent me. A few recent ones on my Kindle that I read in full:

1. How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything by Dov Seidman

Dov is founder and CEO of LRN, a leading corporate learning firm that specializes in ethics and compliance. His book How encapsulates his philosophy of business (and life) very well. It’s a deep examination of what corporate “values” are and why they matter. A few paragraphs I enjoyed (taken out of order):

Roughly two centuries ago, the Scottish philosopher David Hume observed that the moral imagination diminishes with distance. It follows that the moral imagination should increase as the world becomes smaller with the globalization of information and capital. And so it has. We are no longer distant, and therefore we need to reawaken our moral imaginations.

Engagement scores among U.S. and many global workers have tumbled in recent years. I think that’s because we’ve been spending too much time engaging workers with carrots and sticks, and not nearly enough time inspiring them with values and missions worthy of their commitment.

I call it the paradox of success—that you can’t achieve success by pursuing it directly. Inspirational leaders understand that real, sustainable value can be achieved only when you pursue something greater than yourself that makes a difference in the lives of others.

It reminded me of the old story about two guys doing masonry work on a building. The first one, when asked what he was doing, says, “Laying bricks.” The second replies, “Building a cathedral.” Some people see themselves as bricklayers. Angel builds cathedrals. He doesn’t define himself narrowly, as simply a package delivery person

A Swiss person might tend to distrust a South Korean because, in the Swiss person’s view, Koreans don’t respect authority, and that Korean might in turn disrespect the Swiss believing that they do not sufficiently value friendship and loyalty

Metaphorically, leaders don’t show up and tell you perfect time; as James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras told us so brilliantly in Built to Last, leaders build clocks that keep telling the time whether they are there or not.

2. The Power to Compete by Hiroshi Mikitani and Ryoichi Mikitani

In Tokyo a couple years ago, for the release of The Start-up of You in Japanese, Reid and Mikitani, the founder/CEO of Rakuten, did a fireside chat. I was impressed by Miki’s comments that evening and by his accomplishments more generally, obviously. Rakuten is an internet giant by any standard. But more striking than Rakuten is his total commitment to revitalizing Japanese entrepreneurial culture at large. This short book is a conversation between he and his economist father about what Japan needs to do to win in the 21st century. A surprisingly enlightening book and recommended for Japanophiles.

3. Why Information Grows by Cesar Hidalgo

I couldn’t wrap my head around the overall thesis here but the first half of the book contained some quotable nuggets about innovation, information, and globalization. A few quotes:

There are two pieces of bread. You ate two. I ate none. Average consumption: one bread per capita. —NICANOR PARRA

Today our world is still linguistically fragmented, but that fragmentation is both declining and structured. Twelve thousand years ago, humans spoke an estimated twelve thousand languages. An estimated six thousand languages are spoken worldwide today, but most of the world’s population communicates in a few global languages. And in many important online and offline forums, including Twitter, Wikipedia, and book translations, English has emerged as the “hub” language bridging communication between most other languages.20 As a Chilean married to a Russian, working with students from the United States, Israel, Bulgaria, Macedonia, Chile, Argentina, Germany, and India, I am a living example of the benefits that the existence of a global hub language

Knowledge and knowhow are so “heavy” that when it comes to a simple product such as a cellphone battery, it is infinitely easier to bring the lithium atoms that lie dormant in the Atacama Desert to Korea than to bring the knowledge of lithium batteries that resides in Korean scientists to the bodies of the miners who populate the Atacaman cities of Antofagasta and Calama. Our world is marked by great international differences in countries’ ability to crystallize imagination. These differences emerge because countries differ in the knowledge and knowhow that are embodied in their populations, and because accumulating knowledge and knowhow in people is difficult.

It was in this Q&A that a student asked, “Pep, if we built a team of robots, would you come and coach it?” His reply was short and cunning. He said, and I paraphrase: “The main challenge of coaching a team is not figuring out a game plan, but getting that game plan into the heads of the players. Since in the case of robots I do not see that as a challenge, I kindly decline your offer.” Pep’s answer summarized succinctly one of the main challenges of working with teams of humans. His years of coaching experience had taught him that one of the most difficult aspects of his work was not just figuring out a game plan but distributing the plan among his players.

Book Notes: Drive by Dan Pink

I respect Dan Pink a ton. He writes original, provocative business books. He speaks well. He’s intellectually curious. And, full disclosure, he’s also been helpful to us with The Start-up of You and The Alliance. He did a Q&A with Reid, Chris, and me on the Amazon page for The Alliance.

I’ve been meaning to read his book Drive for awhile. You see it everywhere — airports, bookstores, office shelves. It met my high expectations. It’s an engaging tour of what drives people to be the way they are. My highlights from the book below. (I had one nice small surprise reading it. Pink was telling a story that seemed so familiar that I looked up the endnote and he cited my old AEI piece on side projects.)

Bottom Line: Drive is a good read for any manager thinking about how to get the most of his or her people.


[Organizations] still operate from assumptions about human potential and individual performance that are outdated, unexamined, and rooted more in folklore than in science. They continue to pursue practices such as short-term incentive plans and pay-for-performance schemes in the face of mounting evidence that such measures usually don’t work and often do harm. Worse, these practices have infiltrated our schools, where we ply our future workforce with iPods, cash, and pizza coupons to “incentivize” them to learn. Something has gone wrong.

Try to encourage a kid to learn math by paying her for each workbook page she completes—and she’ll almost certainly become more diligent in the short term and lose interest in math in the long term.

[Paying people to donate blood] It tainted an altruistic act and “crowded out” the intrinsic desire to do something good. Doing good is what blood donation is all about. It provides what the American Red Cross brochures say is “a feeling that money can’t buy.” That’s why voluntary blood donations invariably increase during natural disasters and other calamities. But if governments were to pay people to help their neighbors during these crises, donations might decline.

Goals that people set for themselves and that are devoted to attaining mastery are usually healthy.

Contrast that approach with behavior sparked by intrinsic motivation. When the reward is the activity itself—deepening learning, delighting customers, doing one’s best—there are no shortcuts. The only route to the destination is the high road. In some sense, it’s impossible to act unethically because the person who’s disadvantaged isn’t a competitor but yourself.

[Fining parents who pick up kids late] The theory underlying the fine, said Gneezy and Rustichini, was straightforward: “When negative consequences are imposed on a behavior, they will produce a reduction of that particular response.” In other words, thwack the parents with a fine, and they’ll stop showing up late. But that’s not what happened. “After the introduction of the fine we observed a steady increase in the number of parents coming late,” the economists wrote. “The rate finally settled, at a level that was higher, and almost twice as large as the initial one.” And in language reminiscent of Harry Harlow’s head scratching, they write that the existing literature didn’t account for such a result. Indeed, the “possibility of an increase in the behavior being punished was not even considered.” Up pops another bug in Motivation 2.0. One reason most parents showed up on time is that they had a relationship with the teachers—who, after all, were caring for their precious sons and daughters—and wanted to treat them fairly. Parents had an intrinsic desire to be scrupulous about punctuality. But the threat of a fine—like the promise of the kronor in the blood experiment—edged aside that third drive.

In other words, where “if-then” rewards are a mistake, shift to “now that” rewards—as in “Now that you’ve finished the poster and it turned out so well, I’d like to celebrate by taking you out to lunch.” As Deci and his colleagues explain, “If tangible rewards are given unexpectedly to people after they have finished a task, the rewards are less likely to be experienced as the reason for doing the task and are thus less likely to be detrimental to intrinsic motivation.”

But take a step back and think again. Management didn’t emanate from nature. It wasn’t handed to us from God. It’s something that somebody invented. It is, as the strategy guru Gary Hamel has observed, a technology—and an 1850s technology at that. Now look around your office or home. How many nineteenth-century technologies are you still using? Sure, some companies have oiled management’s gears, and others have sanded off its rough edges. But at its core this technology hasn’t changed much in more than a hundred years. Its paramount goal remains compliance, its central ethic remains control, and its chief tools remain extrinsic motivators.

Autonomy, as they see it, is different from independence. It’s not the rugged, go-it-alone, rely-on-nobody individualism of the American cowboy. It means acting with choice—which means we can be both autonomous and happily interdependent with others. And while the idea of independence has national and political reverberations, autonomy appears to be a human concept rather than a western one.

But the billable hour has little place in Motivation 3.0. For nonroutine tasks, including law, the link between how much time somebody spends and what that somebody produces is irregular and unpredictable.

The opposite of autonomy is control. And since they sit at different poles of the behavioral compass, they point us toward different destinations. Control leads to compliance; autonomy leads to engagement.

According to the consulting firm McKinsey & Co., in some countries as little as 2 to 3 percent of the workforce is highly engaged in their work.

Goldilocks tasks offer us the powerful experience of inhabiting the zone, of living on the knife’s edge between order and disorder, of—as painter Fritz Scholder once described it—“walking the tightrope between accident and discipline.”

So the shrewdest enterprises afford employees the freedom to sculpt their jobs in ways that bring a little bit of flow to otherwise mundane duties. Amy Wrzesniewski and Jane Dutton, two business school professors, have studied this phenomenon among hospital cleaners, nurses, and hairdressers. They found, for instance, that some members of the cleaning staff at hospitals, instead of doing the minimum the job required, took on new tasks—from chatting with patients to helping make nurses’ jobs go more smoothly. Adding these more absorbing challenges increased these cleaners’ satisfaction and boosted their own views of their skills. By reframing aspects of their duties, they helped make work more playful and more fully their own. 

“Purpose provides activation energy for living,” psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi told me in an interview. “I think that evolution has had a hand in selecting people who had a sense of doing something beyond themselves.”

That’s the thinking behind the simple and effective way Robert B. Reich, former U.S. labor secretary, gauges the health of an organization. He calls it the “pronoun test.” When he visits a workplace, he’ll ask the people employed there some questions about the company. He listens to the substance of their response, of course. But most of all, he listens for the pronouns they use. Do the workers refer to the company as “they”? Or do they describe it in terms of “we”? “They” companies and “we” companies, he says, are very different places.

According to The Boston Globe, they believe that “companies can improve their employees’ emotional well-being by shifting some of their budget for charitable giving so that individual employees are given sums to donate, leaving them happier even as the charities of their choice benefit.” In other words, handing individual employees control over how the organization gives back to the community might do more to improve their overall satisfaction than one more “if-then” financial incentive.

Book Notes: Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed

daumcoverMeghan Daum is on the “read everything she writes” list for me. I loved her essay collection The Unspeakable. She recently edited a collection of essays from other writers titled Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on Their Decision Not to Have Kids. It’s a set of wise, authentic women and men who decided not to have children and who share their reflections on the matter.

Daum writes in her introduction, “It’s about time we stop mistaking self-knowledge for self-absorption — and realize that nobody has a monopoly on selfishness.” I agree. I don’t have a decisive view on the having kids topic myself, but I found these essayists refreshing and different. We live in a culture that rarely provides air time for their points of view.

Some highlights below.

Paul Lisicky confesses, “I’d probably say yes if I ever become involved with someone who wanted to be a parent…though I might be saying it with the same level of commitment with which I’d say, ‘Of course I’d move to Tokyo.'”

Courtney Hodell’s essay is one of the best. Some quotes from her: “When you talk about not wanting children, it is impossible to avoid sounding defensive, like you’re trying to prove the questionable beauty of a selfish and too-tidy existence. It is hard to come across as anything other than brittle, rigid, controlling, against life itself.”

“I, too, was sometimes aghast at the short-fibered thoughts of my friends whose small children beseeches or bellowed as their stories were begun again and again and never finished, whereas I got to spoil myself with long hours of unspooling daydreams.”

“All the flailing around, the mad activity — going to parties, falling in love, buying houses, striving at work — could be smashed like a soda can into this flat fact: we have children so they can have children so they can have children. I had a blast of vertigo, as when you look into a puddle and see the stars falling away behind your head.”

On her childless boyfriend holding her niece for the first time: “When Nathan, my boyfriend of five years, held Elsa for the first time, he wept — big sparklers caught in his lower eyelashes, too light to drop. ‘Not sadness,’ he said, ‘just big feeling.’ Now the decision is made. But the decision is not past. No matter how it came about — was it my procrastination; disinclination; anxiety; self-absorption? — we live with its consequences every day.”


Laura Kipnis, on the idea having children is natural:

“But what’s with all the sentimentality about nature anyway, and the kowtowing to it, as though adhering to the “natural” had some sort of ethical force? It’s not like nature is such a friend to womankind, not like nature doesn’t just blithely kill women off on a random basis during childbirth or anything. No one who faces up to the real harshness of nature can feel very beningly about its tyranny. Sure, we like nature when it’s a beautiful day on the beach; less so when a tidal wave kills your family or a shark bites off your warm.”

The idea of maternal instinct is an invented concept that arises at a particular point in history — circa the Industrial Revolution.


“The other move put on you by the parenting lobby is that you should have kids because you might regret not doing so when you get older. This seems demented and irrelevant in equal measure since while life may not have a purpose, it certainly has consequences, one of which is the accumulation of a vast, coastal shelf of uncut, 100-percent-pure regret. And this will happen whether you have no kids, one kid, or a dozen. When it comes to regret, everyone’s a winner! It’s the jackpot you are guaranteed to win.


“Who could blame anyone, child or adult, for wanting to enrich his experience by sharing it with a friend, a caring witness? We all want that. We wall want someone to say, “That thing you love is so interesting and worthy that I have to love it, too.”


“Children learn quickly that they can expect unconditional love only from their parents. To reassure themselves that they are secure in that love, they test it, push it, measure it, and test themselves against it. The parent is the only person they can cross and vex with such volume and constancy without getting an injunction to go to hell and never come back.”

Book Notes: Master of the Senate

I completed the third volume of Robert Caro’s biography of Lyndon Johnson: Master of the Senate by Robert Caro. Here’s my review of book #1 The Path to Power.

It’s another epically long but epically engaging account of one of the most influential political actors in American history. In this book-cover-mastervolume, we learn about the institution of the Senate and how LBJ transformed a lethargic, obstinate body into one that did his bidding — eventually, that bidding included key civil rights legislation that is now part of his legacy. Johnson’s relentless ambition is on display as always. With respect to civil rights, you’re left unsure what his actual principles are — i.e. how much he truly believed in the cause of equal rights for blacks or whether it was sheer political expediency (an aspiring President needed support from the north) that drove him to action. In the end, perhaps it doesn’t matter since he got the job done. He got it done because of his knack for understanding people and exploiting their insecurities; for brokering compromise among his Senate colleagues; for kissing the butt of power brokers; for courting the media and feeding them memorable zingers; most of all, it was his knack for simply working hard and never giving up on his ambition.

It’s a remarkable book. Feel free to skip the more detailed blow-by-blows of less important Senate battles. Do not skip Caro’s description of Johnson’s character and his relationships. My highlights from the text are below. Bold font is my own. Most of these sentences/paragraphs do not appear consecutively but they do appear in this chronology.


Many county Boards of Registrars required black applicants to pass an oral test before they would be given the certificate of registration that would make them eligible to vote, and the questions were often on the hard side—name all of Alabama’s sixty-seven county judges; what was the date Oklahoma was admitted to the Union?—and sometimes very hard indeed: How many bubbles in a bar of soap?

But these Leaders were not Lyndon Johnson. “I do understand power, whatever else may be said about me,” he was to tell an assistant. “I know where to look for it, and how to use it.”

Power corrupts—that has been said and written so often that it has become a cliché. But what is never said, but is just as true, is that power reveals. When a man is climbing, trying to persuade others to give him power, he must conceal those traits that might make others reluctant to give it to him, that might even make them refuse to give it to him. Once the man has power, it is no longer necessary for him to hide those traits.

It was, thanks to him, a bill that the House could also pass, and that the President could sign—the first civil rights legislation to be added to the statute books of the United States since 1870. The Civil Rights Act of 1957 made only a meagre advance toward social justice, and it is all but forgotten today, partly because it was dwarfed by the advances made under President Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965. But it paved the way—its passage was necessary—for all that was to come. As its Leader, he made the Senate not only work, but work toward a noble end.

Abraham Lincoln struck off the chains of black Americans, but it was Lyndon Johnson who led them into voting booths, closed democracy’s sacred curtain behind them, placed their hands upon the lever that gave them a hold on their own destiny, made them, at last and forever, a true part of American political life.”

DURING THE GILDED AGE—the era of its greatest power—the Senate sunk from the heights of public esteem to the depths. Its inertia was a subject of public ridicule—“The Senate does about as much in a week as a set of men in business would do in half an hour,” one newspaper correspondent wrote

THEN, AT HIS INAUGURATION on March 4, 1933, the new President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, declaring that “This nation asks for action, and action now,” summoned Congress into special session. If there was a single moment in America’s history in which the slow slide of power—now in its fourth decade—from Capitol Hill to the White House suddenly became an avalanche, so that, for decades thereafter, governmental initiative came overwhelmingly from the Executive Branch, with the legislature only reacting to that initiative, it was that session—the session that lasted a hundred days, and was so significant a landmark in the nation’s history that it became enshrined as the Hundred Days, the session in which a President proposed, and proposed, and proposed again, in which he proposed the most far-reaching of measures—a session in which Congress scampered in panic to approve those proposals as fast as it could. Should Congress fail to provide immediate action, the second Roosevelt

For almost two years beginning in September, 1934, the high-ceilinged, marble-columned Senate Caucus Room was the chief rallying point for isolationist sentiment in the United States,

 The Senate vote for the Neutrality Act of 1937 was an overwhelming 63 to 6. In October, 1937, with Japanese troops now pushing into North China, with the fascists winning in Spain, with Germany having reoccupied the Rhineland in violation of the Versailles treaty and with Germany, Italy, and Japan having formed a military alliance, Roosevelt warned that if totalitarianism rolled over one country after another, America’s turn would eventually come.

But when Britain, alone, beleaguered, asked for help to keep fighting—fifty or sixty overage World War I destroyers to combat Nazi submarines—Roosevelt feared the Senate mood hadn’t changed, at least not enough. “A step of that kind could not be taken except with the specific authorization of Congress, and I am not certain that it would be wise for that suggestion to be made to the Congress at this moment,” he told Churchill.

IN A SINGLE FLASH, the flash of bombs, the policy of the Senate of the United States was exposed as a gigantic mistake. The failure of the world’s most powerful nation to lead—or in general even to cooperate—in efforts, twenty years of efforts, to avert a second world war must be laid largely at the door of its Congress, and particularly at the door of its Senate. That has been the verdict of history.

power of committee appointments within the Senate, passing resolutions that committees would be chaired by members of the majority party, that members of committees be carried over from Congress to Congress, that rank within each committee be determined by length of service in the Senate, and that the most senior member of the majority party would automatically become chairman. Thereafter, party caucuses drew up lists of committee appointments; the Senate as a whole simply accepted them. A senator’s rank on a committee was therefore determined by one qualification, and one alone: how long he had sat on it.

As disgust with the Senate’s ineptitude intensified after the war, a hundred critics focused on the seniority system as a major culprit. Columnist Ernest K. Lindley wrote in 1949 that “it has been condemned in recent years by almost every authority or impartial observer of Congress.”

OF ALL THE AREAS in which the Senate failed America, it failed most memorably on the issue that was the single most important issue of the time: race.

Says one extremely conservative Republican congressman, “Politically, if we disagreed, it wasn’t apparent to me. Not at all.” In fact, no one really knew Johnson’s heart because he seldom fought for an issue or even expressed a definite opinion about it.

EVERY STAGE of Lyndon Johnson’s career had been marked not only by pragmatism but by what is, in a democracy in which power is conferred by elections, the ultimate pragmatism: the stealing of elections. 

“What convinces is conviction. You simply have to believe in the argument you are advancing: if you don’t, you’re as good as dead. The other person will sense that something isn’t there, and no chain of reasoning, no matter how logical or elegant or brilliant, will win your case for you.”  Exhibiting his penis to his roommates, Johnson called it “Jumbo”; returning to his room after a date, he would say, “Jumbo had a real workout tonight,”

Nervous and restless, he couldn’t seem in public to stop moving, and among the movements was an inordinate amount of scratching: of his chest, of his stomach—and of areas not generally scratched in public. He was constantly pulling his trousers lower, either in front or back, while complaining about his tailor’s failure to provide him with sufficient “ball room,” and he was continually, openly and at length, scratching his rear end—quite deeply into his rear end sometimes.

Years later, Richard Goodwin, a speechwriter who had just begun working for Johnson, was summoned to the President’s bathroom in the White House. Watching Johnson, “apparently in the midst of defecation,” staring at him “intently, looking for any sign of embarrassment,” and “lowering his tone, forcing me to approach more closely,” while “calculating my reaction,” Goodwin realized that he was being given a kind of “test.” Goodwin passed—and so had many of the staff members to whom Johnson had given the same test during his years in the House of Representatives.

Johnson defined what he meant by that: “I want real loyalty. I want someone who will kiss my ass in Macy’s window and stand up and say, ‘Boy, wasn’t that sweet!’ ”

“The most important thing a man has to tell you is what he’s not telling you,” Johnson said. “The most important thing he has to say is what he’s trying not to say.”

As with all his talents, he had analyzed it himself. “I always liked to spend time with older people,” he would tell Doris Kearns Goodwin, and, besides, spending this time had a purpose, even when he had been a boy. “When I was a boy, I would talk for hours with the mothers of my friends, telling them what I had done during the day, asking what they had done, requesting advice. Soon they began to feel as if I, too, was their son and that meant that whenever we all wanted to do something, it was okay by the parents as long as I was there.” 

“There’s nothing wrong with being pragmatic. Hell, a lot of us were pragmatic. But you have to believe in something. Lyndon Johnson believed in nothing, nothing but his own ambition.”

Under the leadership of Richard Brevard Russell Jr. the Senate was indeed the place where the South did not lose the Civil War.

After a while, the conversations no longer took place only in Russell’s office. Russell would be drafting a committee report, or reading over one that he had assigned Johnson to work on, and there might be more work to do on it. Or there might be a line of questioning to be worked out for witnesses in the next day’s hearings. Johnson would be helping. Why didn’t they finish over dinner? he would suggest. Lady Bird had dinner waiting for him. It would be no trouble at all for her to put on another plate. It would make things easier all around. “You’re gonna have to eat somewhere anyway,” he would say. And after a few such invitations, Russell accepted one.

And after Spring arrived, occasionally, in the late afternoons, Lyndon Johnson would make another suggestion, one to which Russell always responded with uncharacteristic enthusiasm. Asked years later what drew the two men together, Russell mentioned first the sport he loved. “We both like baseball,” he explained. “Right after he came to the Senate, for some reason we started going to the night baseball games together.”

LYNDON JOHNSON’S MAIDEN SPEECH was delivered during one of the century’s most bitter civil rights battles, for Truman’s dramatic 1948 election victory—after a campaign during which his commitment to civil rights never wavered, a campaign, furthermore, in which black voters played a newly important role in key northern cities—had combined with the Democratic recapture of Congress and the arrival on Capitol Hill of aggressive civil rights advocates like Hubert Humphrey and Paul Douglas, plus a rising public outcry against Jim Crow, to give liberals confidence that the long-awaited day of social justice was at last at hand, that Congress’s Southern Bloc could no longer stand in its way.

The image was summarized in Healy’s lead paragraph, which said that “the junior United States Senator from Texas maintains the most rigidly one-track mind in Washington. Johnson is entirely preoccupied with the science of politics, which for him is an exact science and one which he has mastered superlatively.

Lyndon Johnson’s political genius was creative not merely in the lower, technical aspects of politics but on much higher levels. And if there was a single aspect of his creativity that had been, throughout his career, most impressive, it was a capacity to look at an institution that possessed only limited political power—an institution that no one else thought of as having the potential for any more than limited political power—and to see in that institution the potential for substantial political power; to transform that institution so that it possessed such power; and, in the process of transforming it, to reap from the transformation substantial personal power for himself. Lyndon Johnson had done that with the White Stars. He had done it with the Little Congress. He had done it with the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. And now the eyes of Lyndon Johnson were focused on another institution: the Senate of the United States.

The episode almost became one of America’s gravest constitutional crises. “It is doubtful if there has ever been in this country so violent and spontaneous a discharge of political passion as that provoked by the President’s dismissal of the General,” Arthur Schlesinger and Richard Rovere wrote. “Certainly there has been nothing to match it since the Civil War.” “The homecoming of the legendary MacArthur was like nothing else in American history.”

Few emotions are more ephemeral in the political world than gratitude: appreciation for past favors. Far less ephemeral, however, is hope: the hope of future favors. Far less ephemeral is fear, the fear that in the future, favors may be denied. Thanks to Sam Rayburn, Lyndon Johnson now had, at least to a limited extent, those emotions on his side in dealing with senators; he had something to promise them, something to threaten them with.

Lyndon Johnson’s sentences were the sentences of a man with a remarkable gift for words, not long words but evocative, of a man with a remarkable gift for images, homey images of a vividness that infused the sentences with drama. A special interest group—organized labor in Texas, say—was never merely weak, it was “not much stronger than a popcorn fart.”

AS SOON AS THE LBJ RANCH was in good enough shape to be shown to journalists from Washington and New York, Johnson began to invite them down, because he wanted to use the ranch to create a picture of himself in the public mind—the picture of a self-made man who had pulled himself up in life by his bootstraps, of a man who, no matter how high he had risen, still had his roots firmly in his native soil. He wanted his image to be that of a westerner, or to be more precise a southwesterner—a Texan; a true Texas image: a rancher with a working, profitable ranch.

At the bottom of Humphrey’s character, as Johnson saw, was a fundamental sweetness, a gentleness, a reluctance to cause pain; a desire, if he fought with someone, to later seek a reconciliation, to let bygones be bygones, to shake hands and be friends again. And to Lyndon Johnson that meant that at the bottom of Humphrey’s character, beneath the strength and the ambition and the energy, there was weakness.

Hubert Humphrey was trying to use him, just as he was trying to use Hubert Humphrey. Lyndon Johnson knew that. But he knew something else, too. If two men were each trying to use the other, the tougher one would win—and he, Lyndon Johnson, was the tougher.

FOR A MAN WHO LOVED and idealized his “Southland” as deeply as did Richard Russell to be told to his face that no southerner could be President was, in Goldsmith’s phrase, a “visceral blow.” He “had indeed known, rationally, that he could not be nominated. Before campaigning in the North, however, he had not heard political leaders … tell him to his face that he was obviously the best-qualified candidate, but that they could not support a Southerner.” As George Reedy says, “It’s one thing to know something academically; it’s another to have it hit you in the face.” 

THE LESSON OF RICHARD RUSSELL’S DOOMED, quixotic campaign of 1952 was not lost on Lyndon Johnson, for whom it had the deepest implications. After all the acknowledgments that Russell was the best qualified candidate for the presidency—acknowledgments that had come from the North as well as the South—he had received virtually no northern votes at the Democratic Convention; the fact that he had never had a realistic chance of winning his party’s nomination, much less the presidency, had been made dramatically clear.

And this hard fact created for Johnson the most difficult of dilemmas. Being linked with the South would keep him from rising beyond the Senate. Yet being linked with the South was the only way in which he could rise within the Senate.

As his chauffeur on some of those trips puts it, “It was like he was having discussions with himself about what strategy had worked or hadn’t worked,” when he had tried to persuade someone, “and what strategy he should use the next time.” And not just discussions. Behind that closed office door, Lyndon Johnson would be playing out a conversation: what he would say; what the other senator would say in response; what he should then say—“He would be in there rehearsing, doing it over and over, trying to get it right,”

For all these reasons, Lyndon Johnson didn’t move against Joe McCarthy until the time had come when moving wouldn’t hurt him, and when he did move, he stayed sufficiently behind the scenes so that his own alliance with the Texas reactionaries would not be weakened.

“I see nothing wrong” in such “trickeries.… Lyndon Johnson knew that the illusion of power was almost as important as real power itself, that, simply, the more powerful you appeared to be, the more powerful you became. It was one of the reasons for his great success.” 

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