The Secrets of Life

They're all about taking control

  • What Matters Most, by Hyrum W. Smith (Simon & Schuster, 2000)
  • Adversity Quotient @ Work, by Paul G. Stoltz, Ph.D. (William Morrow, 2000)
  • What Do I Do Now? by Charles Foster, Ph.D., M.B.A. (Simon & Schuster, due out in January 2001)

The great philosopher James Taylor -- yes, the singer-songwriter of "You've Got a Friend" fame -- once wrote, "The secret of life is enjoying the passage of time." By that standard, a significant percentage of otherwise successful people are failing to unlock the secret of life. And so the nation's publishers are rushing to the rescue. The common theme in several books is this: if you aren't happy, it's your own damn fault.

The best of the new releases is What Matters Most: The Power of Living Your Values, by Hyrum W. Smith (Simon & Schuster, 2000). As befits the vice-chairman of Franklin Covey and the father of the Franklin Planner, Smith is anything but subtle. But he makes a compelling argument that if life isn't going the way you want, you have two choices: change so you are happy or quit complaining.

Look at how Smith, also the author of The Ten Natural Laws of Successful Time and Life Management: Proven Strategies for Increased Productivity and Inner Peace (Warner Books, 1994), deals with these two common complaints: we don't have control over our lives, and we don't have time to do the things we want to do. He writes: "We can be in control of our lives, and that control comes partly from realizing that we are constantly making choices. When people say, 'I don't have time,' what they're really saying is, 'I value something else more.' Understanding that fact is a critical element in getting one's life in order."

Smith conveys that it is up to you to figure out what is important. His point is simple: you can either react to life or put yourself in a position to control the portion that affects you. Smith suggests you segment your life into three parts:

  • All the roles you play: spouse, employer, sibling, artist, caregiver, whatever.
  • Your values: "what we believe to be of greatest importance and of highest priority in our lives."
  • Your mission: what you see as "your overall purpose in life."

All three are vitally important -- Smith illustrates how with the image of a three-legged stool, where each leg represents one segment of your life -- and all three need to be in sync. If they are, Smith contends, what you can accomplish is limitless. If they are not, you're destined to feel unfulfilled. He makes it sound easy. And perhaps it is.

One thing that gets in the way, of course, is dealing with people who have an agenda different from yours. Their road to enjoying the passage of time and yours might conflict. The question is, What do you do in the face of such adversity?

Echoing Smith, Paul G. Stoltz, Ph.D., argues in his new book, Adversity Quotient @ Work: Making Everyday Challenges the Key to Your Success -- Putting the Principles of AQ into Action (William Morrow, 2000) that it is up to you to make the best of such conflicts. Stoltz, who three years ago wrote Adversity Quotient: Turning Obstacles into Opportunities (Wiley, 1997), is back with this not-so-surprising conclusion: the better you deal with adversity, the happier you will be and the more fulfilling your life will become.

According to Stoltz there are four key components to improving how you react to any stressful situation:

  • Control, which "has two facets. First, to what extent are you able to positively influence a situation? Second, to what extent can you control your own response to a situation?"
  • Ownership, or "the extent to which you take it upon yourself to improve the situation at hand, regardless of its cause."
  • Reach, which "explores how far you let the adversity go into other areas of your work and life." (Stoltz argues that the more you can compartmentalize the problems you face, the better.)
  • Endurance, or "how long one perceives the adversity will endure."

As the CORE mnemonic device shows, it's all up to you. And that is also the message of What Do I Do Now? Dr. Foster's 30 Laws of Great Decision Making, a self-help tome from Charles Foster, Ph.D., M.B.A. (Simon & Schuster, due out in January 2001). The book clearly is designed for the Oprah audience, but a lot of its lessons reinforce the case made by Smith and Stoltz.

All that is not new, of course. The Buddhists put it this way: "Pain is mandatory. Suffering is optional." But these works may teach that lesson in fresh ways.

Charles Handy to the rescue
It may seem odd to recommend a book by a management guru on the topic of creating a more fulfilling life. But then Charles Handy may be the most unusual business teacher around. For one thing, you can understand what he has to say. For another, he long ago realized that people who work inside organizations are more interesting than the organizations themselves.

Handy's new release, Twenty-one Ideas for Managers: Practical Wisdom for Managing Your Company and Yourself (Jossey-Bass, 2000), is actually the revised American edition of a book he published in England in 1990. But that doesn't matter. The lessons he imparts are timeless:

"'Bits and pieces of work, that's not much of a career,' said a friend. No, it isn't, not if a career means a progression up a ladder of jobs. But it is a great career, if career means a succession of interesting projects over the years ... the list of projects ranges from strict business to purely domestic, but it all adds up to a life, a career too rich to be summarized by the kind of rÉsumÉ you might send a new employer."

In keeping with our theme, here's how Handy sums up employment today: "Work used to mean things that we had to do, or were paid to do, usually for other people. Now, it increasingly also means things that we choose to do. That little shift makes all the difference."

May you live in interesting times
The business best-seller lists are always enlightening. Sometimes biographies of CEOs lead the charts. In other times it's books on investing or how to start your own business.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the current best-seller list is the lack of a clear pattern. Of the top business books on this summer, 29% were about management -- which is pretty much a constant -- and after that, everything was up for grabs.

Maybe book readers are just as confused as the rest of us.

Type of book % of the total
Management 29%
Marketing 17%
Internet (general) 17%
Silicon Valley (general) 10%
Fulfillment 10%
Financing 6%
Company profiles 4%
Small business/
Going global 2%

Paul B. Brown has written or cowritten 10 business books, including the international best-seller Customers for Life (Pocket Books, 1999).

Executive Reader

George G. Mueller
President, CEO, and cofounder of Color Kinetics, in Boston

On his nightstand: The Age of Spiritual Machines, by Ray Kurzweil. "This is a great read for anyone interested in the future of human technology and artificial intelligence," Mueller says. "Exponential technological advancement will carry computing power to the future, where computers will be thousands, millions, or even billions of times smarter than we are."

Recent fave: The New New Thing, by Michael Lewis. "This is a great read about Jim Clark, Silicon Valley start-ups, and the venture-capital industry. I love reading books about entrepreneurs, high-tech business, and sailing, and this one happens to combine all three."

His business bible: New Venture Creation, by Jeffry A. Timmons. "Timmons's book is an essential reference text in any entrepreneurial library. This book, covering everything from venture capital to writing business plans, is the how-to text on being an entrepreneur and starting a company. Timmons does a wonderful job of explaining the different parts of entrepreneurial ventures and venture capital." --Mike Hofman

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