When was the last time you reread the classics? Catcher in the Rye, maybe, or The Great Gatsby? Frankenstein or War and Peace? Whiz up and down through the centuries and you can add almost anything by Shakespeare, Faulkner, Twain, Bronte, Hemingway, and so many more to the list of books you ought to read—or reread.
But who’s got time? Especially when your night table’s sagging under the growing stack of books and magazines you keep dumping on it.
Especially when you’re buried under all the blogs and emails and articles and videos that people send you.
Especially when you’re committed to building your social media presence and need to read through Facebook and LinkedIn and Twitter and Google+ and Instagram, not to mention Tumblr and Reddit.
Especially when you’ve already read those books in high school or college and were bored to tears. Why would you read them again?
With all due respect to the younger readers among us, when was the last time you took a reading recommendation from a 17-year old? Because if you’re deciding what to read today based on your high school memories, that’s what you’re doing.
So what’s the point in rereading these musty tomes? Besides the simple pleasure of enjoying the words of great writers and enjoying their stories, there’s so much to learn. One of the reasons these books have stood the test of time is because of the universality of their subjects. That is, the situations that authors were dealing with generations and centuries ago can be just as relevant today as they were back then.
Remember, too, that despite the way we pinball through the millennia sourcing content, all history did not happen at once. So even though we might think these noted authors were contemporaneous originators and it’s just us who are standing on the shoulders of giants, what a little research uncovers is that they too were repeating the tropes and themes that had been written and developed by earlier authors.
Gary Schmidgall – who has written extensively on both William Shakespeare and Oscar Wilde – points out that the supernatural picture, the main literary device of Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, was not original to that author. Instead it was “astonishingly ubiquitous (in) Gogol’s The Portrait, Hawthorne’s Prophetic Picture and Edward Randolph’s Portrait, Disraeli’s Vivian Grey, Henry James’s Story of a Masterpiece, and Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer.” Plus “…dozens of other haunted pictures (can) be found in long-forgotten novels” written years before Wilde’s masterpiece.
What Wilde’s book and so many others tell us is that we all look at the human condition with the same eyes and we often see the same things. It’s not a matter of copying or plagiarizing what has come before; rather it’s a matter of interpreting current events and activities in a way that is relevant for our readers, our clients, and our audiences.
Back in the not-so-distant dark days of Web 1.0, I belonged to a group of entrepreneurs, engineers, and marketing types called The Internet Users Group. We would meet once every couple of months in San Francisco and talk about how the new Internet technology was developing and how we could use it. Most of the group was made up of young tech types buzzing on giant cups of Peet’s Coffee. Only one member of the group, a bearded historian from Stanford University, was older.
At each meeting the jittery techies would argue over their visions and the historian would quietly scribble in a little steno pad. But during one heated conversation, he spoke up and disagreed with the most strident speaker.
“Why should we listen to you?” the techie snapped. “You don’t know anything about the Internet, you just know some creaky old history.”
“You’re right,” the historian answered. “I don’t know very much about the Internet. But I do know what you don’t – I know what’s going to happen. You see, the technology we’re studying has never been seen before. But the people who are involved are the same as the people who caused the Dutch tulipmania in the 17th Century and the Great Depression in the early 20th Century. Thanks to history I can chart exactly how the Internet will boom and bust and then grow again. I might not know exactly where or exactly when it’ll happen, but I know exactly what will happen.”
And wouldn’t you know it – everything the historian predicted that foggy afternoon came true. Maybe not exactly the way he said it would but pretty damn close. And while I didn’t become a tech gazillionaire when the tech bubble inflated, I also didn’t lose everything I owned when the tech bubble burst.
THAT’s the power of history: providing us with an understanding that while the tools may change, the rules never do. And the power of the classics is that they provide brilliant, enjoyable commentary on the human condition that you can count on time after time after time.
On one of our morning runs last week, Stella was telling me about her son and how he wins at everything. He’s a high school golf champion, he always wins when they play Scrabble, and even though he doesn’t run regularly, he did run three miles with his marathoner parents and beat them too.
“It must be great to win at everything,” Stella said. “I’d usually hate someone like that, but he is my son.”
It got me to thinking how hard it must be to always win. Imagine being Bill Gates. One day, you’re ticked off about something and venting to a friend. “Well you know, Bill,” the friend might reply, “there’s always someone else who’s — [big pause] — oh yeah, sorry, I guess there’s not.”
I mean what does Gates do when he’s feeling blue? Call the Sultan of Brunei to commiserate?
My friend Adam Goldstein is the President and CEO of Royal Caribbean International. In his limited spare time he’s a competitive runner and much faster that a 52-year-old workaholic has any right to be. But maybe that’s because he’s also the hardest training guy I know. I see Adam when I pull up to the track at 5:30 on Tuesday mornings and his coach has already put him through a grueling regimen of laps and exercises.
Last weekend was the big race Adam was training for, so I sent him a text asking how he did.
“Mercifully 2:29. First time under 2:30 since 1977. (But a) 48-year old from Cayman ran the 800 in 2:17 so still a long way to go. Thanks for asking.”
2:17? I couldn’t have gone that fast if I was on a motorcycle. Truth be told, I couldn’t have run the race in 2:29 — or 2:45 — if I had hired my buddy to run it for me. 2:29 is awesome. But it’s not the best.
But here’s the problem with being the best: best according to whom? Does winning the race make you the best? How about all the other races? Which ones count and which ones don’t?
Rolling Stone magazine just printed a cover story about the 100 best guitar players of all time. The best according to them? Jimi Hendrix. Number two? Eric Clapton. Three? Jimmy Page. Four? Keith Richards.
Now granted, they’re all great players. And the judges, a who’s who panel of musicians and music journalists, were no slouches either. But c’mon. Who’s to say which of these players is really the best? Most influential, maybe. But best? That’s not possible, especially considering that the list didn’t even include guys like Stevie Vai, Robben Ford, Django Reinhardt, and Jorma Kaukonen. Not to mention all the astoundingly talented players who are strumming away in obscurity.
There’s another problem with being the best. How long are you the best for? While I’m writing this, the French Open has been delayed for rain so we don’t yet know if Rafael Nadal or Novak Djokovic is “the best.” But where is Roger Federer? It wasn’t too long ago that he was the winner of every single tournament out there and now he doesn’t even make it to the finals. Of course someone younger and better comes along eventually, but Rolling Stone said Hendrix was still the best and last time I checked, he’s still dead. Federer hasn’t stopped playing and winning. Certainly he deserves the same respect of being called “the best.”
There’s an old line about success in Hollywood. First they ask, “Who the hell is Frank Smith?” Then it’s, “Get me Frank Smith.” Before too long it’s “Get me a young Frank Smith.” Then, “Get me anyone BUT Frank Smith.” And finally, “Who the hell is Frank Smith?”
Clearly the title “The Best” is both ephemeral and fleeting. And in business, being the best brand is just as temporary a title. Remember when the word “Blockbuster” meant a great movie? Just a few years ago, Blockbuster was a huge brand, arguably the best video retailer around. Today, Blockbuster means a great movie again. And Netflix, which hastened Blockbuster’s demise, isn’t the powerhouse it once was either.
So perhaps the way to be the best brand is to simply be you. Or as Oscar Wilde pointed out, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.”