Thank you down in South Africa

ImageI just became aware of a fantastic podcast about Hannibal and Me from South Africa. I don’t even know when it aired (possibly months ago).

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Ian Mann

But now I’ve got this link. (It took a while to load in my browser, but persevere.) The bit about Hannibal and Me is between minutes 47 and 54.

At first, the host makes a slightly goofy segue into the (admittedly prolific) genre of business books about mass murderers from history. But then a management strategist named Ian Mann, of Gateways Business Consultants, comes out swinging for me with humour and verve.

He keeps extolling my alleged “erudition” and then quips that Hannibal and Me is

one of the few Self-Help books that an intelligent adult can read without wrapping it in a brown cover.

He then makes the case why Hannibal and Me is the book to read if you want to understand your career, whether you’re “stuck” (as the host suggests) or at the top of your game, or dealing with disaster.

Recall from my radio interviews a year ago that I was never very good at talking, in sound bite, about my book. Ian Mann is much better at it. Thank you, Ian!

Voila: the cover of the paperback

Well, you recall that, earlier this summer, my publisher was fiddling with designs for the paperback version of Hannibal and Me, and you guys had some input.

I now see that the paperback is up on Amazon and on Penguin’s website (Penguin owns Riverhead), though it won’t be released until February 5, 2013 (13 months after the hardcover was released).

If you compare the actual to the earlier designs, you see that

  • the helmet has changed (become more fearsome) and
  • the “Us” in the subtitle has moved up one line, because it had caused such offense in its previous position.

Lance Armstrong and the Grief Cycle

Click for credits

Lance Armstrong is all over the news, as all of you know by now, and as several of you have pointed out to me already, since Armstrong makes an appearance in Hannibal and Me.

The premise of Hannibal and Me, to recap, is that triumph and disaster are impostors, as Rudyard Kipling said so sublimely.

So those of you who have not yet read my book might assume that Lance Armstrong was included to show how his triumphs — ie, all his victories on the bike — were impostors, meaning fake. Reprehensibly fake.

They may well have been. (My understanding, by the way, is that there is still no proof that he was doping, even though most people may now assume that he did, because he has decided to stop contesting the charges.)

But as those of you who have already read the book know, and the rest of you might now be surprised to find out, Armstrong was chosen for the opposite reason: to show how disasters can be impostors.

The disaster in his case, with which so many people can identify, is called cancer.

Armstrong and Kübler-Ross

I chose Armstrong as one of my examples to illustrate how people move through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s “stages of grieving”, and in particular the stages of Anger, and also Depression, and then Acceptance.

So he appears in Chapter 7, Dealing with Disaster, in which the main characters are Quintus Fabius Maximus, Eleanor Roosevelt and Ernest Shackleton.

Here are excerpts:

… anger usually begins with the question of “Why me?” Lance Armstrong is a good example. When he was twenty-five, his career as a bike racer was “moving along a perfect arc of success,” with sponsorships, a large house on a lake, and his own powerboat and Jet Skis. Then he began to cough up blood. Soon one testicle swelled to the size of an orange. He found out that he had testicular cancer. The doctors gave him at best a 40 percent chance of surviving. He was diagnosed on a Wednesday, had his testicle removed on Thursday, masturbated into a cup on Saturday (because he would soon be sterile), started chemotherapy on Monday, and discovered on the next Thursday that the cancer had already spread to his lungs and brain. Every devastating day was followed by an even more terrible day. And Armstrong became angry. “I was fighting mad, swinging mad, mad in general, mad at being in a bed, mad at having bandages around my head, mad at the tubes that tied me down. So mad I was beside myself, so mad I almost began to cry.” … [pp 154-155]

… Lance Armstrong also suffered a bout of preparatory depression. “It’s all over. I’m sick, I’m never going to race again, and I’m going to lose everything.” His depression felt “as though all my blood started flowing in the wrong direction.”

Eventually, however, some grief-stricken individuals will arrive at a state of acceptance. As Kübler-Ross puts it, “Acceptance should not be mistake for a happy stage. It is almost devoid of feelings.” But it is the stage where the person is ready to move on…

Lance Armstrong accepted his cancer relatively quickly. He simply “decided not to be afraid.” Then he confronted his cancer. “Each time I was more fully diagnosed, I asked my doctors hard questions. What are my chances?” He also personalized the disease and made it his “enemy,” as though he were facing Hannibal. [In the surrounding passages, I am comparing Armstrong to Fabius, after the initial losses to Hannibal.] “It was me versus him or her or it — being the disease — so I absolutely hated him or her or it, and when the blood work came back, or the tumor markers cam back [saying] that I was getting better, I felt like I’m winning, the scoreboard says I’m winning.”… [p. 157]

My thoughts TODAY

Do I regret including Lance Armstrong in the book now?

Not really. The mistake was to include any living person. When drawing lessons from the life trajectories of people in the past, it is best to make sure that those lives are entirely, not partially, past. For human lives, while they unfold, have that way of surprising us (which is of course the point of the book).

So I had similar issues with Tiger Woods and Steve Jobs (though not with Amy Tan so far), who also appear in the book, and who also made startling news while the book was being printed.

The idea of including Armstrong predates the current controversy. It goes back to my reading — years and years ago, when I had not even heard rumors of his alleged doping — of his book, It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life. I then wrote the passage (which quotes mainly from that book) in 2008 or 2009, when the rumors were just that.

So he fits. Except that he now fits in more ways than one. And if I did my job well in the book, the reader, by the time he or she arrives at the passage, will have got that bigger point, and will still find Armstrong’s victory over cancer uplifting.

And, who knows, Armstrong may turn his life around a few more times yet. The Greeks called that peripateia. Turning things around — upwards and downwards — is what the people in my book do. As do its readers.

The review in Strategy + Business

A huge Thank You to David Hurst, who reviewed Hannibal and Me in strategy + business, a management magazine published Booz & Company. It’s in the fall edition of the print magazine, but the web link is already up. An excerpt:

… The effect of this meticulously crafted structure on the reader is sometimes revelatory. You are riding along, enjoying the stories, when suddenly, in the shock of recognition that the ancient Greeks called anagnorisis, you realize that the story is about you and your organization, and a meaningful pattern emerges in what seemed like a series of inexplicable actions and random events. …

Getting ready for the paperback

Even as reviews are still dribbling out — such as this one from South Africa — my publisher is preparing to launch Hannibal and Me in paperback.

I got an email with the two cover-jacket designs above that they’re choosing between. All that takes me back a year or so, when I first saw the hardcover jacket.

Your aesthetic opinions are welcome, as ever.

The Globe and Mail reviews Hannibal and Me

The reviews are still trickling in. The latest is in The Globe and Mail, one of the big Canadian newspapers. Reviewer Harvey Schachter concludes:

The book is a fascinating, illuminating look at careers through the prism of Hannibal’s life and the other people Mr. Kluth weaves in. His writing is seamless, the ideas provocative, and the book may offer you insights about your own career and life journey so far, as well as what lies ahead.

Thank you, Harvey!

A timeless story: Plutarch > Böll > us

Heinrich Böll (click for credits)

Let’s have a few minutes of fun tracing the genealogy of a story to illustrate the concept of archetypes — the Jungian idea that we tell each other the same timeless stories again and again, in infinitely many variations.

(My book is based on that idea: namely, that we see ourselves in the stories of others, whether they lived 2,000 years ago or 2 years ago, or whether they lived at all.)

On pages 140-142 of Hannibal and Me, I tell two versions of a short story. (This is the very end of the chapter called Tactics and Strategy in Life, which is about the fiendish difficulty of telling ends from means in life and the consequences of getting it wrong, as I hinted in this post for the Harvard Business Review.)

So I end the chapter with this:

A few years ago, one of those chain-letter emails landed in my inbox. It told the story of a fisherman who was lying in the warm afternoon sun on a beautiful beach, with his pole propped up and his line cast out into the water. An energetic businessman walked by.

“You aren’t going to catch many fish that way,” said the businessman to the fisherman. “You should work harder.”

The fisherman looked up and good-naturedly asked, “And what would I get for that?”

The businessman replied that he would catch more fish, sell them for more money, save the surplus, and invest in a boat and nets, which would let him catch even more fish.

Again the fisherman asked, “And what would I get for that?”

Somewhat impatiently, the businessman explained that he could then reinvest the even greater surplus and buy more boats and hire staff, becoming a small business and catching ever more fish.

Again the fisherman asked, “And what would I get for that?”

Now the businessman lost it. “Don’t you understand that you can become so rich that you never have to work for a living again? You could spend the rest of your days sitting on this beach, just enjoying this sunset!”

The fisherman’s eyes lit up. “And what do you think I’m doing right now?”

In the chapter, I then go on to tell another, and much, much older version of that story, which I’ll repeat in a minute. But here is what my cousin Bettina realized the other day as she was reading the above passage in my book: The story I was retelling from a chain email in fact derives from a short story by Heinrich Böll, the Nobel-Prize winning giant of postwar German literature.

Böll’s story, written in 1963, was titled:

Anekdote zur Senkung der Arbeitsmoral

I love that sardonic mock-bureaucratic tone. It translates into something like:

Anecdote for the Diminishment of the Work Ethic

Here is the German text, very simply and beautifully written. The Wikipedia page tells me that

The story, with its several adaptions, has been circulated widely on the Internet, and has been quoted in many books and scholarly papers. In one of the most popular versions, the tourist is an American (an MBA from Harvard in some versions), and the fisherman is Mexican.

Clearly, Böll’s story has a timeless kernel. So where might Böll himself have gotten the idea? (And by the way, he may not have realized where he got it, for we usually do not recall what influenced our ideas.)

Well, I think he got it from a story written about 2000 years ago about events more than 300 years before that. The author was Plutarch. The story was about Pyrrhus, the one who gave us “Pyrrhic Victories“.

You can compare it to the original here. But on page 141 of my book, I retell it this way (with anything in quotation marks directly sourced from Plutarch):

Pyrrhus was making preparations to invade Italy and attack Rome when Cineas struck up a conversation.

“The Romans, sir, are reported to be great warriors,” said Cineas. “If God permits us to overcome them, how should we use our victory?”

“But that’s obvious,” said Pyrrhus. “We will be ‘masters of all Italy’ with all its wealth.”

“And having subdued Italy, what shall we do next?” asked Cineas.

“Sicily,” replied Pyrrhus without missing a beat. “A wealthy and populous island, and easy to be gained.”

“But will the possession of Sicily put an end to the war?” asked Cineas.

“God grant us victory and success in that,” answered Pyrrhus, “and we will use these as forerunners of greater things; who could forbear from Libya and Carthage then within reach?” Once we have those, will anybody anywhere “dare to make further resistance?”

“None,” replied Cineas, which leaves us to “make an absolute conquest of Greece. And when all these are in our power, what shall we do then?”

Pyrrhus smiled and said, “We will live at our ease, my dear friend, and drink all day, and divert ourselves with pleasant conversation.”

“And what hinders us,” said Cineas, “from doing exactly that right now, without going through all these troubles?”

Pyrrhus suddenly looked “troubled” and had no answer. Then he went ahead and invaded Italy anyway — without success.

Some of the titles that could have been

One of my habits is, sporadically, to go through old stuff in order to throw most of it away and be reminded of the few nuggets worth preserving.

As I was doing that, I came across a little Post-it note on which I seem to have scribbled, at some point over the past four years, ideas for titles and subtitles for my book, to be discussed with my editor. (As you can see from the older posts with the tag “titles“, it was on my mind for a long time.)

Here are the ones just on that particular Post-it note:

Hannibal and You: Uncovering the mysteries of success and failure in our lives

Reversal: Triumph and disaster in life, from ancient times to today

The two impostors: Tracing the mystery of triumph and disaster from antiquity to our own lives

The Hannibal Archetype: The eternal mystery of triumph and disaster in life

Hannibal’s riddle: The mystery of success and failure in life

When Hannibal met Scipio: The mystery of success and failure in our lives

The Hannibal Challenge

In the end, of course, the publisher chose the title and subtitle you see on the jacket on the right, and at the top of this blog. What would you have chosen?

Michael Stürmer’s review

Michael Stürmer, a high-profile German columnist and historian, has written a great review of Hannibal and Me in Die Welt.

It’s in German, but I’ll translate a few bits. (Those of you who can may fact-check me. ;))

… It’s a brilliant hybrid-study, in the genre of the moral biographies of older times…

What was — this is the recurring question — the secret of success within both triumph and disaster?

… After 300 pages, conclusions are drawn. These are politically incorrect in that they extrapolate from the art of war to life. The most important: Remain calm when others flounder. Never confuse ends and means, strategy and tactics. Whether young or old, have young ideas. But cultivate, even while young, old (and old-fashioned) discipline.

When misfortune comes, react at first as Fabius Cunctator did, and then as Scipio did…. Success depends on how you define it. See the best in people but protect yourself against the worst in them. Success means becoming a mensch. Do what you must do with equanimity.

But enough propaganda. I was just going through some old files and found something amusing. Let me tell you in another post….

Overlapping lessons: Hannibal and Me & The Big Five

Admittedly, this one might be all Greek to you — or rather all German, because that’s what we were speaking.

Uwe Alschner, who evangelizes the “Big Five for Life” concept in Germany (a guide to more purposeful living), had a great Skype chat with me about Hannibal and Me. (And the book’s not even been translated into German yet.)

Thanks, Uwe!