Sunday, December 11, 2011

Atlas Shrugged

It took me forever to get going with Atlas Shrugged, but it was so worth it in the end. Rand's dense sentences pack meaning into every word, unusual for such an immense work. In the beginning, I dreaded picking it back up and had to force myself to keep reading, wondering why I was torturing myself for fun. Everything takes off in the middle though, and it now clearly takes a place in my top 10 favorite books of all time.

I'll admit, for the first 500 pages, I was irritated. It felt like slogging my way through a swamp of philosophy and I kept getting mired down trying to make sure I understood each sentence. I was shocked by the behavior of Hank Rearden and the emphasis on not giving charity and being entirely selfish. I didn't think I could get through a work that was pushing an agenda like that, and it didn't even have any interesting plot or well developed characters at that point to keep me interested.

I actually set the book aside for a few months, something I rarely do. I just recently returned, and forced myself to read a chapter a day. Fortunately, I quickly reached the page 500 mark, and somewhere around there the story took off. By this time, I had become much more connected to the characters and they seemed much rounder, more like actual people instead of stooges for an agenda. The plot also took off, although this clearly never becomes a plot-driven book. I finished the second half of the book in three days.

What happened to turn the book around for me? Two things happened - one was learning more about Dagny and her experience in the corporate world. There are few books out there that cover the corporate world at all, and seeing such an accurate presentation of some of the stuff execs pull was fascinating to read and pulled me further into the story. She's such a strong, driven, intelligent character who just tries to do what's best for her company and she has to fight stupid, lazy, corrupt people at every turn.

The second thing, the thing that made the book for me, is John Galt. The "This Is John Galt Speaking" chapter is incredible. It's a 64-page speech overflowing with philosophy and psychology and economics. Ironically, while it's a chapter focused on rational thinking, I actual teared up while reading it. And I very rarely cry. I returned back to it several times right after finishing it and reread and marked passages.

While there are many, many philosophical ideas to gleam from this section, some of which I don't agree with, some I do, and many that I don't claim to understand, I think the main point boils down to making sure you are using your mind to its fullest. It's about the value of thinking and about how true happiness comes not from escaping our thoughts but through using our mind and thinking.

It also talks about how so much of the world focuses on taking away our desire and ability to think. Too many bosses just want robots who will do exactly as they are told, despite what they may claim to the contrary about wanting "A" players. Teachers often just wants kids to shut up and memorize what's going to be on the test. Even religious leaders often focus on only relying on faith and don't focus on really examining your beliefs. Politicians of course don't want people to think, just to pass control over to them so they can think for us. Most of these people despise being questioned, and too often children are taught to stop asking "why" - either by their parents, caregivers, teachers or all of the above.

I never grew out of the stage, and it's gotten me trouble throughout my life. From second grade, where I wouldn't stop asking why I couldn't work out of the third-grade book since I'd already used the second-grade book in first grade (where my teacher saw my advanced reading schools and bumped me ahead) until finally she gave in after realizing the threat of discipline wouldn't stop my questioning, to more recently in the business world where I've questioned decisions of executives and debated with them. Sometimes this has gotten me ahead, sometimes it's gotten me in heaps of trouble.

Most of the people I've seen who question things in the business world and try to make positive change end up forced out or fired. This is a major source of frustration to me and has caused me to leave positions before as well. That's why I loved this explanation: "Any man who's afraid of hiring the best ability he can find, is a cheat who's in a business where he doesn't belong. To me - the foulest man on earth, more contemptible than a criminal, is the employer who rejects men for being too good." I can sadly name several amazing people who were fired or forced out of a company for just that. It amazes me that this happens, that execs can be so threatened by others who are smarter than them that instead of encouraging them to make advancements for the company, they'll cast them aside because they are intimidated.

John Galt emphasizes that going through life unthinking is essentially sleepwalking through life and you're not truly living. His explanation of happiness so hit home with me and made me clearly explained why I'd been so unhappy at work the last two years in a much more succinct way than I'd ever explained it before.

"Happiness is a state of non-contradictory joy - a joy without penalty of guilt, a joy that does not clash with any of your values and does not work for your own destruction, not the joy of escaping from your mind, but of using your mind's fullest power, not the joy of faking reality, but of achieving values that are real, not the joy of a drunkard, but a producer."

I was so unhappy at work for many reasons, but I think it boils down to that - I was being told not to think, I was helping people who clashed with my values and I was not producing anything of value. Atlas Shrugged reminded me of the vital importance of thinking. It's part of the reason why I wanted to start blogging again. I don't want my reading just to be for entertainment - I  want it to make me think and to challenge me. Blogging helps me think through a book and respond to it instead of rushing on to the next one. It also made me want to continue reducing the amount of TV I watch, which has gone down dramatically since I stopped watching several shows and cancelled Netflix. I'm also trying to eliminate other activities that just don't add value to my life so I have more time to focus on things that are important.

While you probably won't agree with Rand's philosophy of Objectivism and may have to force yourself to get through the first part of the book, I promise it's worth it to give Atlas Shrugged a try.

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