Book Review: James Altucher - Choose Yourself

Posted by James on Tue 02 July 2013

Choose Yourself

On the evening that I finished reading James Altucher's new book Choose Yourself, the nightly news lead with the story of 260 employees at Target's Geelong headquarters being made redundant.

Footage showed these newly-unemployed leaving what used to be their place of work. Most were visibly upset, many were crying and some stopped to express their frustration to waiting reporters:

"I can't actually believe it's happened. I've worked my whole life since I was 15. I've never lost a job. And I've got a mortgage to pay and, you know, all the bills to pay. I need a job."

"I moved down to Geelong specifically to put my heart and soul into Target and this is how you get rewarded, so it is disappointing, yes."

Only weeks earlier Ford announced the closure of its Australian plants, a decision set to cost 1200 workers their jobs. More recently, IBM and several others have announced mass-redundancies as Australia's burgeoning economy finally enters its inevitable slowdown.

Economic cycles are nothing new and organisations will inevitably hire in good times and fire in bad. However the Information Age has rendered many of the old paradigms of employment obsolete for both employers and employees alike. Those who fail to adapt may well be left behind, but a new age of opportunity beckons for those willing to embrace a fresh approach.

In Choose Yourself, James Altucher implores the reader to reconsider everything that they've been taught about education, career and how to make one's way in the modern world.

James is a highly successful individual, at least for most commonly-held definitions of "successful". By most accounts he is highly intelligent and independently wealthy, having built up and sold various businesses from scratch. He is a chess grandmaster, a prolific author, (Choose Yourself is his eleventh book) and a sought-after public speaker who apparently counts celebrities and other persons of influence as friends and acquaintances.

And yet at various times in his life, James has also been an abject failure: bankrupt, unemployed, divorced, addicted and utterly depressed. He is by his own admission a flawed individual and in a refreshing departure from the egocentricity of the average would-be life coach, James describes himself as entirely 'mediocre'.

Part auto-biography, part self-help manual, Choose Yourself is James's idea of an alternative path to success, fulfillment and happiness. It is the means by which a 'mediocre' individual such as himself might eschew the supposed security of a traditional career for the boundless possibilities that only become apparent when one takes responsibility for one's own destiny. And with companies increasingly turning to temp staff, outsourcing and automation to reduce headcount, James argues that Choosing Yourself is quickly becoming less an option and more a necessity.

"If you don't write your own rules, somebody else will. And the results won't be pleasant"

--James Altucher, recent interview with Lifehacker.com

To some extent most of us live according to these 'rules', perpetuated by both the well-meaning and the self-serving. Certainly, the realisation that we are programmed from an early age to attend school, obtain qualifications, seek work with an established institution and ultimately become shackled to this work through debt is nothing new.

In Choose Yourself, James argues compellingly that these rules are irrelevant in an information economy, where data is king and change is an integral part of professional life. Individuals or small enterprises are no longer beholden to large organisations: if one has a valuable skill or service to offer, free or inexpensive tools now exist to learn, develop, self-promote, produce and publish:

  • An inexpensive laptop now has enough power for a graphic designer to create anything. They can sell their services via an online marketplace like Freelancer.
  • A group of geographically-disparate software developers can collaborate on a project using Github. When they're ready to go live, they can host their new service in the cloud for next to nothing.
  • There are enough free Youtube tutorial videos to learn the basics of just about any skill imaginable. Forget teachers, courses, books and money. All you need is time.
  • Anybody can design anything in 3d using open source, (free) tools such as Blender. They can sell real, physical copies of their new widget via a 3d printing service such as Shapeways.
  • A writer can self-publish articles via a blog, or entire books via Amazon. In fact, this is exactly what James has done.

Of course it goes against our very nature to break free of what James refers to as the 'prison' of a traditional career path. First we must realise that the prison does not exist, that it is entirely of our own making. James offers reams of advise to aid in Choosing Yourself and making this transition, some examples being:

Have ideas

Great products and services are born of great ideas. But great ideas don't just happen, they are the product of a creative mindset. James suggests that the ability to generate ideas is like a muscle which grows stronger with use, but similarly atrophies with neglect. To build this 'idea muscle', try to write down 10 new ideas every single day. They don't all have to be world-beaters and it may be months before the ideas begin to flow easily, but it will happen.

Forget about 'purpose'

When considering a change in direction, many people focus on finding their 'purpose in life'. James debunks this notion, arguing instead that life is an ongoing sequence of experiences, with the lessons learned from each contributing to those subsequent . Countless individuals who are considered to have been "successful" only achieved that for which they are most known after following various paths throughout their lives.

"The idea of a 'purpose' is a myth. There is no purpose, no be-all-and-end-all after which we will just stop."

--James Altucher, recent interview with Lifehacker.com

Give nobody the ability to ruin your life

Most of us live in a somewhat tenuous position, whereby a single decision made by one of a number of people, (an employer, an important client, a bank manager) can impart a hugely negative impact on our lives. This is an unhealthy situation. Instead, James suggests that one should aim to have a number of 'irons in the fire' such that if one fails, the impact may be absorbed by the others.

Follow the 'Daily Practice'

At the core of all else is what James refers to as The Daily Practice. That is, to ensure each and every day that we remain healthy in 4 distinct ways: physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. This may seem obvious, but a busy lifestyle can quickly lead us to neglect these key areas at the times when we should be focussing on them most:

One time Gandhi said to a group of his backers, “I need to set aside one hour a day to do meditation.”

One of the backers said, “oh no, you can’t do that! You are too busy, Gandhi!”

Gandhi said, “Well, then, I now need to set aside two hours a day to do meditation.”

Choose Yourself is presented in James' entertaining and highly readable style, with points backed by personal experience and fleshed out with anecdotes. He seems to be genuinely motivated by the desire to change the way people think and the ratio of interesting, useful content to padding is significantly higher than in most 'self-help' books that I've encountered.

The content does feel disjointed in places, but if Choose Yourself occasionally reads like a series of blog posts, that's because it is essentially just that. In fact those unfamilar with James' writing should go directly to jamesaltucher.com, where many of the chapters are published and free to read.

If these posts resonate with you as they did with me, I highly recommend that you go on to read Choose Yourself. It is available on amazon.com as an ebook for the princely sum of US\$4.99 and if you're still not convinced, James has offered to refund the purchase price, (or donate it to charity, should you prefer). You can't say fairer than that.


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