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  • Writer's pictureRyan Bailis

A Novel Idea – Reading over Winter Break 2019

Updated: Jan 14, 2019

I’ve never considered myself much of a book-worm, but with some extra time over the winter holiday and plenty of books given to me over the past year, I decided to spend some time reading. From Elon Musk’s startup success and intense personality, Jane Maas’ perseverance in the advertising industry, and Ken Langone’s incredible ability to motivate his team, I’ve been introduced to inspirational characters that have forever changed the course of history. And through books like The Biggest Lie in the History of Christianity, Designing Your Life, and The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, all of which feature amazing stories and deeply personal life lessons, I’ve learned a lot about myself and the person I want to become.

I’d highly recommend these books to anyone, especially my college-aged peers looking to learn about themselves and discover a deeper meaning in life. I’m not (by any means) a book-reviewer, but I thought I’d talk about what I learned from each of the six books I read.

1. I Love Capitalism

Ken Langone

Ken Langone’s book I Love Capitalism is a living-breathing testament to the American Dream and the idea that prosperity comes to those who are passionate, hard-working, and considerate. Langone’s autobiography starts by depicting his humble beginnings as a poor boy in New York and his near drop-out experience at Bucknell University. But after a few short chapters, Langone has climbed the corporate ladder, taken on Wall Street with the IPO of Ross Perot’s company (Electronic Data Systems), and co-founded retail giant Home Depot. Throughout the book, it is clear that Langone had an innate ability to capitalize on opportunities and find a way out of difficult situations.

Langone has focused on delivering results and helping people live meaningful and productive lives. He estimates that over 1.5 million people have been impacted and employed by the organizations to which he has proudly served. Langone also prides himself as a philanthropist; he has donated millions to organizations like the NYU Medical School, Bucknell University, and The Promise Academy. Langone is an inspiration to anyone interested in investing on Wall Street, leading a corporation to new heights, or building an industry-leading retail startup in a sustainable and ethical manner.

Langone's dedication to doing the right thing and making a healthy profit puts him among one of the most inspirational people I have read about. He has been on the edge of history numerous times, and his story is well worth the read. His entrepreneurial mindset, wit, and sense of humor was incredibly cometic at times. My biggest takeaway of his story? Nice guys generally come out on top. Make the deal sweet for everyone at the table, and there will be more deals to be had in the future.


2. Designing Your Life

Bill Burnett and Dave Evans

Two friends and Stanford educators, Bill Burnett and Dave Evans, wrote the book Designing Your Life to make clear the importance of a designer's mindset. Burnett and Evans argue that in order to make sound and logical solutions, it is necessary to empathies with others. When coming up with possible solutions, "don’t start with the problem, start with the people." Burnett and Evans offer many tools to discover what is holding us back from finding something we are passionate about. I won't discuss these techniques in too much detail here, but I encourage you to visit their website ( and download their numerous resources.

In addition to life-design, Burnett and Evans include numerous leadership tactics throughout the book. Over the past year, I’ve been increasingly interested in exploring how to be a better leader within my organizations. Here are a few of my favorite leadership strategies offered by Burnett and Evans.

The “rules” for group discussion:

  • Respectful

  • Confidential

  • Participative (no holding back)

  • Generative (constructive, not skeptical)

The “rules” of brainstorming:

  • Go for quantity, not quality

  • Defer judgment, and do not censor ideas

  • Build off the ideas of others

  • Encourage wild ideas

The five steps of design:

  1. Be curious

  2. Try stuff (bias to action)

  3. Reframe problems

  4. Know it’s a process (awareness)

  5. Ask for help (radical collaboration)

I really enjoyed the methodology offered by Burnett and Evans. This book has further convinced me that designing possibilities, rather than engineering scenarios, will allow me to live a happier and more productive life. I would recommend this book to anyone looking to reprioritize certain aspects of their life, explore a different career path, or discover what research has deemed the most effective leadership tactics.


3. The Biggest Lie in the History of Christianity

Matthew Kelly

Matthew Kelly’s book is an eyeopener for anyone looking build a relationship with God and move closer to 'earthly happiness'. Kelly’s book doesn’t try to prove the existence of God, but rather tries to convince readers that God is present on the long and difficult journey of being the best version of yourself. By being open to transformation in our own lives, Kelly guarantees the improvement of society, for Christians and non-Christians alike. As he correctly points out, “bringing happiness to other people increases your chances of being happy.”

For Christianity to succeed in the future, Kelly believe Christians need to stand out from the materialistic and crazed culture, not blend in. This is exactly what happened 2000 year ago, and it needs to be done again. What can we do? Well, if your church is not serving the unchurched, you are probably a part of a country club rather than a church.

Kelly defines a Holy Moment as the “moment when you are being the person God created you to be, and you are doing what you believe God is calling you to do.” A Holy Moment is an instance in which you set aside self-interest and personal desire. It’s when you embrace what you believe will bring the most good to the most people in that moment. The world needs “Holy Moments," and change starts within individuals. It is up to each of us to make a difference in our own communities. Towards the end of his book, Kelly stresses that encouragement is a basic need of each and every human. As such, it is up to each of us to encourage the people who are struggling in our own lives.

Some of my other favorite quotes:

  • “The world [media, advertisements] want you to become fat, dumb, and lazy. The world is not very interested in helping you become the best version of yourself.”

  • “People don’t do anything until they are inspired, but once they are inspired, there is almost nothing they won’t do.”

  • “The world should be different because you were here. We have a human obligation to leave the world better than we found it.”

  • “Life is for living, and the best living is done amid the ordinary things of each day. The modern culture’s distain for the ordinary and worship of the extraordinary has rendered us oblivious to the amazing things in front of us around us, and within us right now.”

In many ways, this book is a modern proclamation of Christianity and the ways in which spirituality can transform our lives. This book is a quick read, and I highly recommend it for anyone on a journey to learn about oneself and one’s relationship with God.


4. Mad Women

Jane Maas

This book, given to me by Bucknell President John Bravman, is another inspiring story of a notable Bucknell alumni. Jane Maas, Class of '53, worked for numerous advertising agencies on Madison Avenue during a time where she was expected to stay at home and raise her kids. In her memoir, it is clear how brilliant of a woman she was and how she succeeded in a male-dominated profession. Maas was a true trail-blazer of her time. She took part, and eventually led, some of the most successful advertising campaigns of her time, including the “I Love New York” campaign that famously saved the State and City of New York from bankruptcy.

My favorite part of her memoir is her stories depicting her time at Bucknell, where she describes what it was like to be female on a predominantly male campus. Girls at college lived in separate housing, had strict curfew rules, and lacked the freedom to do as they wished. But Maas saw her obstacles as opportunities to prove that she could rise above her male counterparts. During her career, Maas worked tirelessly to become a copywriter, a creative director, and eventually an officer. Maas’ persistence is a wonderful inspiration, and her impact will be felt in and out of the advertising industry for years to come.

At the end of her memoir, Maas questions the progress society has made. She recognizes the tremendous strides forward but is reluctant to say that the struggles she endured in the 1960's are entirely gone. She acknowledges that the working women of today are able to achieve much more career success than she could ever imagine, but they often have to give up their motherly instinct to spend time with their kids. I would recommend this book to anyone interested in peering into the shocking reality of the past or truly understanding how culture norms (or lack thereof) can change rather quickly.


5. Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future

Ashlee Vance

Elon Musk is the craziest person I have ever read about. His incredible success and ability to avoid catastrophic failure continually surprises tech-buffs and investors alike. After selling PayPal, Musk didn’t wait around for another opportunity to knock on his door. He took his $150 million and began Space X in 2002 and Tesla Motors in 2003. His success at these companies can be attributed to his intense personality which motivates his team beyond what is humanly possible.

One of Musk’s greatest abilities is his unique aptitude to hire brilliantly driven young engineers and surround himself with world-class people. His employees work tirelessly to see his vision through and acknowledge they are pawns living in Musk World. Elon’s ex-wife Justine is quoted to have said, “He [Elon] does what he wants, and he is relentless about it. It’s Elon’s world, and the rest of us live in it.” But these characteristics make Musk as much hated as he is loved. Vance wrote that when Musk's assistant Mary Beth Brown asked for a raise, Musk gave her a two-week vacation. During her time away, Musk took on her duties. When she returned from vacation, Musk let her go because he realized he could simply do her work himself. Brutal.

Musk’s vision is fueled largely for his desire to experience interplanetary human existence. As much as he champions clean renewable energy and high-speed transportation, he wants nothing more than to conquer Mars and to beat the inevitable demise of Earth. While this was science fiction just a few years ago, his 20-hour/7-day workweek coupled with his ability to deliver astounding results keeps nudging us closer. Musk simply will not rest until he sees his vision through. Even then, he’ll likely explore some other industry in desperate need of innovation.

I walked away from Vance’s book both inspired and distraught about the future. As companies like Tesla, Amazon, Google, and Facebook become increasingly wealthy and influential, they have created a world in which there is no escape. But maybe this dominance is a small price to pay for the conveniences of the modern world.

There is no doubt that Elon Musk will continue to reinvent the old and reimagine the impossible. For many reasons, I’m delighted Elon and I are living on the same planet, at least for the time being.


6. The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck

Mark Manson

Mark Manson is absolutely hilariously. His book is filled with personal adventure stories and failures, which makes the book a raw reveal of some of his most private memories. As he exposes himself more, he includes lesson after lesson about finding happiness and becoming a better person. Ironically, Manson has found happiness through, you guessed it, not caring about anyone or anything not worth caring about.

This is a very quotable book, and here are some of my favorite takeaways:

  • “Warren Buffett’s got money problems; the drunk hobo down at Kwik-E Mart’s got money problems. Buffett’s just got better money problems than the hobo. All of life is like this…”

  • “The vast majority of your life will be boring and not noteworthy, and that’s okay.”

  • “While investing deeply in one person, one place, one job, one activity might deny us the breadth of experience we’d like, pursuing a breadth of experience denies us the opportunity to experience the rewards of depth of experience.”

  • “Our culture today confuses great attention and great success, assuming them to be the same thing. But they are not.”

The book is based around what Manson calls the “five counterintuitive values”. These are truly genius.

  1. Radical responsibility: taking responsibility for everything that occurs in your life, regardless of who’s at fault.

  2. Uncertainty: the acknowledgement of your own ignorance and the cultivation of constant doubt in your own beliefs.

  3. Failure: the willingness to discover your own flaws and mistakes so that they may be improved upon.

  4. Rejection: the ability to both say and hear no, thus clearly defining what you will and will not accept in your life.

  5. Contemplation of one’s own mortality: paying vigilant attention to one’s own death is perhaps the only thing capable of helping us keep all our other values in proper perspective.

By being hilariously negative, Manson reveals multiple elements of truth that have illustrated the importance of a change in perspective. This book is a fantastic read. I highly recommend it.


I recommend all of these book for one reason or another – they really are all worth reading. As the semester starts back up, I'm not sure how much time I will have to read in the near future. But I have already started building up a stack of books that I hope to conquer in the near future. Until next time...

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