btripp_books (btripp_books) wrote,

Retro reading ...

Sometimes I'll take the advice of one author to go check out books by another author without doing much research on them. In this case, when I interviewed Timothy Ferriss over in The Job Stalker blog, one of the "other resources" he recommended was David J. Schwartz's The Magic of Thinking Big, and I surfed over to Amazon to pick up a used copy. How odd.

Considering how outré Mr. Ferriss' systems are, and how deeply entangled with state-of-the-art technologies, it is almost bizarre that he was recommending this book. This was written in the 1950's and, while updated in the mid-60's, has the feel of coming from a Leave it to Beaver world, perhaps crossed with The Dick Van Dyke Show in its update. Dr. Schwartz was a college professor (I've not been able to determine in what field he had a doctorate) and the head of a consulting firm specializing in "leadership development". It was in this role that he encountered many men coming out of the service (World War II experiences are frequently referred to in discussing individuals here), who sought out his advice for their peace-time careers.

Of course, having a "vintage feel" does not necessarily mean that a book has moved beyond its usefulness, after all, Napoleon Hill's Think and Grow Rich was penned in the last Great Depression and is still motivating people today, however The Magic of Thinking Big also comes from a period of unequaled economic expansion, and much of what Dr. Schwartz writes in here sounds extremely pollyannaish in the current economy, especially as it relates to jobs. It seems that any of the people he talked to were able to find a job, even in a new field, in a matter of weeks, and that "opportunities" were there for the taking. Speaking as somebody who has been in the job search in present conditions for well over a year, this quickly leads one to have doubts about how useful the advice is to the modern reader.

Other elements are "stuck in time" here as well. This book was written in a period without global trade as we know it now. Do you recall the days when "Made in Japan" indicated a product was a cheap, poorly-constructed alternative to something domestic? I do, but just barely (and I'm just a year or two older than this book). Schwartz makes a point of encouraging readers to buy the most expensive shirts, suits, shoes, etc. on the assumption that they're going to be better and last longer ... contrast this to the world today when price is largely a function of brand-name and marketing, and the cheapest item available might very well be produced side-by-side with the most expensive one in some factory in China, with one getting the "name" identification and the other (virtually identical item) going out "generic". Similar "dated" conceptions are through the book, with assumptions that many of the men trying to find their place in the post-war economy were coming from rural or similarly "not up to speed" locations, and coaching them how to "fit in". Hardly a factor in the "mono-culture" that TV and its mass communications successors have created in the US, if not the world.

All this being said, there are some very good bits of advice in here, still worthwhile once the matrix of the '50s and '60s is scraped off. Material about the attributes of leaders, how not to sabotage your own efforts, how to properly take risks and make plans, all are applicable in today's world. Unfortunately, so much of this is tied into stories of individuals that it's like trying to extract life lessons from 1950's sitcoms, possible, but needing a whole lot of filtering!

I must admit, there was an added veneer of cynicism for me here, as the used copy that I'd bought had been previously owned by a rather eager highlighter whose mark-up of the book tells a story all its own. I'm assuming that this person got this via some self-help seminar and was totally gung-ho to plow into this, as many paragraphs are underlined, exclamation marks added in the margins, asterisks pointing out sections, lists items circled, etc. ... right up to the half-way point in the book, where they stop. Of course, being the cynic that I am, I spun all sorts of scenarios explaining this, but I found the exuberance irritating while it lasted!

The Magic of Thinking Big is still in print, so if you feel like getting your "secrets of success" wrapped up in retro packaging, you will certainly be able to find a copy. It's fairly inexpensive, and Amazon has it discounted to just over ten bucks, but a "good" used copy can be had for under a quarter (plus S&H, of course). Personally, I'd like to see a "modern" version of this, perhaps a condensation of the "timeless" parts ... between experiencing bitterness over the comparable economies, and the snarkiness over the previous owner's evidently time-limited enthusiasm, I really didn't much enjoy reading this, and probably "got" less of the messages that have kept this in print for half a century that I would have otherwise. Definitely a "your mileage may vary" case ... not something I'd particularly recommend, but not a total waste either.


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