Tom Butler-Bowdon: A second interview, by Bob Morris

Butler-BowdonjpgA graduate of the London School of Economics and the University of Sydney, Tom Butler-Bowdon was working as a political advisor in Australia when, at 25, he read his first personal development book, Stephen Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Captivated by that and by titles by the likes of Anthony Robbins and M Scott Peck, he came to the view that this was an underrated field of writing. At 30, he left his first career to write the bestselling 50 Self-Help Classics, the first guide to the personal development literature and winner of the Benjamin Franklin Award (2004).

This book was followed by 50 Success Classics (2004); 50 Spiritual Classics (2005); 50 Psychology Classics (2007); and 50 Prosperity Classics (2008), all published in the US and UK by Nicholas Brealey. With its commentaries on over 250 books in the self-development field, the series has been published in 21 languages and is sold in over 30 countries. Tom has been described by USA Today as “a true scholar of this type of literature.

He then published Never Too Late to Be Great: The Power of Thinking Long and is now editing and writing the introductions to volumes in a new series, Capstone Classics, published by Capstone Publishing Ltd. (A Wiley Imprint). Titles now available include Niccolò Machiavelli’s The Prince, Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching, Plato’s The Republic, Wallace Wattles’ The Science of Getting Rich, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, and Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich.

To read my first interview of him, please click here.

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Morris: Before discussing your recently published book, Never Too Late to Be Great, a few general questions. First, who has had the greatest influence on your personal growth? How so?

Butler-Bowdon: Apart from my parents, all the great writings in the personal development and spiritual traditions, too many to mention.

Morris: The great impact on your professional development? How so?

Butler-Bowdon: Apart from bosses and colleagues, the writings of Peter Drucker in management and Al Ries in marketing.

Morris: Years ago, was there a turning point (if not an epiphany) that set you on the career course you continue to follow? Please explain.

Butler-Bowdon: Discovering the self-development literature when I was 26.

Morris: To what extent has your formal education been invaluable to what you have accomplished in life thus far?

Butler-Bowdon: Beyond the content of what I learned at university in terms of politics, government and history, just to think more critically and carefully, and being aware of just how much has been written and studied in any given area that you can draw upon.

Morris: Of all the books that you have read, from which have you learned what has proven to be most valuable to you after you read it?

Butler-Bowdon: Miracles to Conversations With God, to the original spiritual texts. Now I practice meditation, so Buddhism provides me with much insight and inspiration.

Morris: Of the five 50 Classics volumes, which was the most difficult to write? Why?

Butler-Bowdon: At the time 50 Spiritual Classics seemed challenging because there seemed to be so much ground to cover, but the discipline required to do it taught me that I could tackle something even more outside my comfort zone, such as 50 Philosophy Classics, which I’m writing now.

Morris: By which criteria did you select the titles? To what extent (if any) were the criteria different from one volume to the next and/or when the selections were made? Please explain.

Butler-Bowdon: Combination of the obvious famous titles in each field, with some interesting newer ones. They had to either be bestsellers or influential, or say something new. Same process for each book.

Morris: Which of the books was the most difficult to classify? Why?

Butler-Bowdon: Perhaps 50 Prosperity Classics, because “prosperity” is not an established field like Psychology or Self-Help.

Morris: What prompted the publication of the new series of classic self-development and prosperity writings that you edited and for which you wrote the Introductions?

Butler-Bowdon: An invitation to do it from the publisher (Wiley Europe). I was happy to do it because it fits in with my larger goal of a more serious or scholarly approach to personal development.

Morris: Were there are head-snapping revelations which reading these “classics”? Please explain.

Butler-Bowdon: As the Tao Te Ching suggests, there is a force or reality behind the apparent, physical universe (call it Tao, God, Mind, implicate order), and it is this which generates everything we see. By attuning ourselves to this force or reality, not what is “apparent.”

Morris: Which of the authors of these series (i.e. Napoleon Hill, Niccolo Machiavelli, Adam Smith, Sun Tzu, and Wallace Wattles) offers the best example of someone who possesses “the power to think long”? Please explain.

Butler-Bowdon: Actually none of them is particularly interested in time; the ‘thinking long’ idea is my creation!

Morris: Frankly, I was previously unaware of Wattles when I began to read the book and thus was especially grateful for your Introduction. For others in that same situation now, why is he significant?

Butler-Bowdon: He offers the metaphysical basis for prosperity that is the basis of The Secret, but wrote about it 100 years before Rhonda Byrne.

Morris: Which additions to the series are now under consideration?

Butler-Bowdon:  Have just released new Capstone editions of  Plato’s Republic and Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching.

Morris: Here’s a two-part question. Of all the authors whose works you have read, which would you most like to interview? What would you hope to learn from that person that you do not currently know?

Butler-Bowdon: I have a special liking for the works of Catherine Ponder, the prosperity and abundance writer who helped to pioneer the field.   I would be thrilled to meet her and have a long chat with her! As for an interview, I’d like to ask her many of the same questions you are asking me.

Morris: Now please shift your attention to Never Too Late to Be Great. When and why did you decide to write it?

Butler-Bowdon: I was reading stacks of personal development books to write the 50 Classics series, and came to the conclusion that there was something missing from it: the appreciation of TIME in achievement. It was all about getting results in the quickest time possible, but it was obvious that all genuine achievements take decades rather than weeks. I didn’t doubt that ‘change happens in an instant’ in terms of a switch of the mindset, but actual accomplishments necessarily involve time. So for me time is the missing link in the personal development literature, and I set out to highlight this.

Morris: Were there any head-snapping revelations while writing it? Please explain.

Butler-Bowdon: We are all living longer lives now, so this extra longevity gives us second, third or fourth chances to succeed at something or change careers. It is great to think big, but the formula for success in our time is also to THINK LONG. There is a huge waste of talent out there because people think they are ‘too old’ or ‘too late’. Actually, if you take the span of productive life from 20 to 80, at 50 you still have 50% of productive years ahead of you.

Morris:  To what extent (if any) does the book in final form differ from what you originally envisioned?

Butler-Bowdon: I did a very thorough book proposal at the outset with chapter outlines, so in the end it was quite easy to write, just a filling in of more examples and finessing.

Morris: In the Introduction, you cite Anthony Robbins’ observation, “People overestimate what they can achieve in a year, but underestimate what they can achieve in a decade.” I agree. How do you explain these widespread, remarkably durable miscalculations?

Butler-Bowdon: Just the way we are built. We want everything in a hurry because our primary aim must be survival in the short term. Long term thinking has seemed like a luxury in human history because lives were shorter, but with our increased longevity we have to figure out what to DO with all our time, and to pace ourselves to achieve things that we want. Hobbes might have been right when he originally wrote that life is ‘nasty, poor, brutish and short’, but today we are AWASH with time.

Morris: Chapter 2: In your opinion, what is the significance of the fact that – with a few exceptions, of course –“life isn’t short”?

Butler-Bowdon: People race to achieve everything by a certain age in their life, be it 40, 50 or 60 – but with increasing life spans 50 or 60 might be just the beginning of a new career, or just the point when you begin to get into your stride.

There used to be a syndrome of me retiring at 65 and then dying not long after because their life was stripped of meaning, without their work. But these days you may live another 20 or 30 years beyond 65 so you have to figure out where you can make another contribution.

The Schwartz exercise in the book amazes people because they realise that at 30 they still 83% left of their productive lives ahead. Life these days is long.

Morris: Chapter 3: What is a “simple way to join the elite”? Who are they? Why do so?

Butler-Bowdon: A simple way to join the elite is having a different sense of time to your peers. In the book I discuss Edward Banfield’s idea of the “long time horizon,” which says that more successful people look further into the future, judging their efforts and results in terms of decades, not weeks or even months. This is the power of thinking long.

I also mention Amazon founder Jeff Bezos who once worked for a Wall Street bank. He had an idea to start the first online book retailer, but it would mean walking away from his annual bonus if he took the leap. He came up with a “regret minimization framework” which had him imagining being an 80 year old looking back on his life. Would he regret not starting Amazon? If the answer is “Yes!” to such questions, we can be sure that the enterprise will be a good use of our time.

Morris: Chapter 4: Please explain to what “time in between” refers. Why does it matter?

Butler-Bowdon: This is the period that elapses between having an initial idea and its completion in an enterprise or task or career. It has been otherwise referred to as the ‘ten year rule’, the time it takes to master any skill or subject, but I also talk about ‘ten years of silence’ and ‘wilderness periods’ where people seem not to be doing much, but in fact are laying the foundation for something real. For example, the years Freud spent as an obscure doctor, mulling over his ideas on the unconscious; the time that Martin Luther spent working in monasteries before he sparked the Protestant Reformation. We all have such periods – the key is to relax into them, knowing they will bear fruit.

Morris: Chapter 5: How do you explain the fact that so many people “never do anything remarkable until their fifth decade”?

Butler-Bowdon: Turning 40 is often a big symbolic point in one’s life. In the 20s we feel we can do anything, but as the 30s progress we become more mature emotionally, and in terms of work tend to focus. These two things combined: emotional maturity and career focus, often produced an explosion of self-purpose in our 40s.

Morris: Please explain what “mid-century magic” is and why it is important.

Butler-Bowdon: With people having longer life spans, 50 is the age at which many people only just get into their stride. Consider Ray Kroc starting McDonald’s at 52, or the novelist E Annie Proulx only coming into the limelight in her 50s. The careers that each had had (Kroc as a paper cup salesman and milkshake machine distributor, Proulx as a journalist) gave them the skills and knowledge that allowed for their real contribution. Never discount things that you have learned so far: they may be the platform for something great.

Morris: Chapter 7: What and where is the “30-year goldmine”? How best to extract what it contains?

Butler-Bowdon: This is the period from ages 60 to 90 in which many people have a new sense of freedom (kids grown up, retired from formal work etc.) about their possibilities. They can either crown a career, start something new, or launch themselves into a meaningful social enterprise. A phase of life that was once seen as an end can now more accurately be enjoyed as a beginning.

Morris: Chapter 8: Please explain how and why “background shapes us, but only to a certain point.”

Butler-Bowdon: This chapter was prompted by something Malcolm Gladwell said: “Successful people don’t do it alone. Where they come from matters. They’re products of particular places and environments.” I felt that Gladwell was right in elevating cultural legacy to an important role in our lives. Our genes, quality of upbringing, educational opportunities and the country we are born in are all-important. And yet, to describe a human being as a “product,” while barely mentioning free will, voli­tion or decision, shortchanges us.

The truth is, we don’t ever really know which way a person will go, and the longer the life, the less justified is anyone in saying that a particular event or chance ‘caused’ their success or failure. Every human being has some scope for action, and can be counted on to do the unexpected. We are not Pavlovian dogs that simply respond to stimuli; we choose our reactions. This is the beauty of people. The environmental view may go some way to explaining achievement, but it can never fully explain it, since it leaves out of the equation that most human thing: the ability to surprise.

Tom cordially invites you to check out the resources at these websites:

Homepage: Please click here.
Amazon Page: Please click here.
Huffington Post: Please click here.
Tom Butler-Bowdon’s website:
Tom’s book Never Too Late To Be Great:

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