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Tom Butler-Bowdon: First interview, by Bob Morris

Butler-BowdonjpgThe 50 Classics concept is based on Butler-Bowden’s belief that every subject or genre will contain at least 50 books that encapsulate its knowledge and wisdom. By creating a list of those landmark or representative titles, then providing commentaries that note the key points and assess the importance of each work, he hopes that an increased awareness of these key writings will include readers who may not otherwise have known of their existence. The series was introduced with the volume that focuses on the subject of self-help, 50 Self-Help Classics was followed by 50 Success Classics (2004). The third, 50 Spiritual Classics (2005) explores some of the famous writings and authors in personal awakening, and has been translated into 10 languages. 50 Psychology Classics was released in 2007 and has been translated into 12 languages. As for Butler-Bowdon, he was working in the early 1990s as an adviser at the New South Wales Cabinet Office in Sydney, then took a year off to do further study in the UK, but put aside his political economy textbooks to read a growing pile of motivational and self-help literature. On returning to Australia, he spent some time in the Outback, where the idea came to him of writing about the classic books in the self-help literature. To date, he has written five volumes in the series. He earned a BA degree in politics and history from the University of Sydney and a Masters degree in International Political Economy from the London School of Economics. He is based in Oxford, UK, and travels frequently to Australia, the United States, and throughout Asia.

Morris: First of all, I want to thank you for the volumes that comprise the 50 Classics series. I think you have made an enormous contribution to helping people locate primary sources in the subjects of prosperity, psychology, self-help, spirituality, and success. Before discussing any of them, however, a few general questions. First, how did you decide which 50 “classics” works to discuss in each volume?

Butler-Bowdon: Thanks, Robert, for your kind words on the series. When you read widely in any subject, certain books are obvious inclusions in a ‘best of’ list. They are famous, and have often been around for a long time. So in any list of classics, be it spirituality or psychology or success, perhaps fifty per cent of the titles are must-includes. The rest involve judgments on my part.

I come across a lot of key works through peer referral.  That is one author mentioning a book that inspired them, so I seek out that book to see what it was that they found so great. For instance, in How to Win Friends Influence People, Dale Carnegie mentioned the autobiography of someone I’d never heard of, Edward Bok. I found his book, The Americanization of Edward Bok, which is now quite obscure, but sure enough it was a great read with many lessons for today, so I put it in 50 Success Classics. Other books I include because I feel they fill an important niche for the reader, such as Richard Koch’s The 80/20 Principle (in 50 Self-Help), or The Inner Game of Tennis (50 Success).

Overall though, I wanted to create a “canon” of works in the self-help and success fields. This hadn’t really been done before because these areas are either considered too recent or too lowbrow to merit such a thing. But I felt it was time, and that many of these works deserved critical recognition, not just bestseller status.

Morris: Many of the selections are no longer in print. How did you obtain copies of those you did not already have?

Butler-Bowdon: You can usually get hold of out of print titles either from good libraries or from used sellers like  I am lucky in that I live a few miles from Oxford University and its famous Bodleian Library, which has just about every book you would want to search for. So I spend a bit of time in there.

Morris: Of all the non-religious works that were composed before (let’s say) the 20th century, which one of them were you most surprised to find is relevant today?

Butler-Bowdon: My personal favourite of the 19th century is Samuel Smiles’ Self-Help, published on the same day as Darwin’s The Origin of the Species in 1859. Smiles was a Scottish doctor cum journalist who had begun giving inspiring talks to working men in the north of England, drawing on many of the Victorian success stories of his time. The book is a wealth of examples of people who beat the odds and did something great with their lives, and although it is dated to the extent that he included almost no women, it is still a brilliant motivational work that deserves a bigger readership today.

During his lifetime Smiles was quite famous, and it was said that many homes only had two books: the Bible and Self-Help. It was also the inspiration for Orison Swett Marden, the founder of Success magazine in the US and the author of books like Pushing To The Front.

Morris: To me, “spiritual” has always been an elusive term to define. What did you decide when selecting and then discussing the works in the 50 Spiritual Classics volume?

Butler-Bowdon: First, it was never going to be 50 Religious Classics. I was less interested in famous theologians or works of orthodoxy than whether a book had deeply moved or inspired people, whether it was written five or five hundred years ago. And I wasn’t bothered if some writings would be seen by others as sacrilegious (I wrote about a book on Wicca, for instance) or even a bit ‘trashy’. I was very keen to highlight that this has been a golden era in terms of modern spiritual writing, with books like The Celestine Prophecy, The Power of Now, Conversations With God and The Way of the Peaceful Warrior representing a new canon that lay totally outside established religion. Again, as with the previous 50 Classics books, I wanted to show that, even though many of them had been huge bestsellers, and people’s lives were being changed by these writings, they had not been given due critical recognition.

Having said this, I was also keen to cover many of the famous spiritual writings by authors such as Augustine, Teresa of Avila and Al Ghazzali. I wanted 50 Spiritual to be a treasury of inspiration covering many centuries.

Finally, my aim was to make this a spiritual book for people who don’t necessarily believe in God. The point I make is that, whether or not you believe in a divine entity, there is an unseen order that moves the universe, and that getting in tune with it provides for a magical, purposeful life. You become a vehicle for this force, helping to advance the universe in a positive way.

Morris: Were there any significant differences between your approach to 50 Success Classics and to 50 Self-Help Classics? If so, what were they and the reasons for them.

Butler-Bowdon50 Self-Help was my first book, and covered a lot of ground. Everything from Norman Vincent Peale to the Bible – I threw a lot in, and never expected to follow it up or that it would turn into a whole series. But after writing it I realized that there was a wealth of motivational and leadership classics that I hadn’t been able to put in, and as 50 Self-Help had done well, my publisher wanted me to do another book anyway. So 50 Success Classics was born.

The basic distinction between the two is that 50 Self-Help aims to provide general life guidance and inspiration, whereas 50 Success has a tighter focus. It presumes that the reader is basically happy with themselves, but now wants to succeed at a worldly level. The book was the beginning of an abiding fascination with the question of whether you could identify laws or rules of success, and I include in my Introduction an early attempt at this, with the section, “Characteristics of Successful People.”


Morris: I thoroughly enjoyed reading all of the volumes and frequently re-read portions of each. In my opinion, one of their primary functions and, indeed, one of the greatest benefits is the provision of so many different perspectives on a specific situation or issue, such as overcoming adversity. Is that a fair assessment?

Butler-Bowdon: Yes. I wanted to show the sheer variety of solutions and perspectives that had been offered, some from centuries ago (Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, for instance). My goal was to introduce readers to books and authors they never would have come across normally, showing the abundance of ideas and inspiration that was out there. The flipside of this is that the material can be overwhelming. In the course of writing one of these books I am coming across hundreds of great concepts, tips and laws, and I want to convey them all! But I believe, and its my experience, that you only need to remember one idea per book, and then you have 50 more ways to enhance your life or deal with anything that comes along. It’s all about expanding your references.

Morris: Let’s go down the line, one volume at a time, beginning with 50 Self-Help. Which of the works discussed in it did you personally find most valuable? Why?

Butler-Bowdon: That’s hard, because as I just mentioned you tend to get something important from each book, and it becomes a part of you. But looking now at the list of 50 Self-Help Classics, I’d like to do it this way:

For finding purpose in life and following your dream: Wayne Dyer, Viktor Frankl, and Paulo Coelho
For people skills: Dale Carnegie and Daniel Goleman
For peace of mind: Emerson, Thoreau, Marcus Aurelius and Deepak Chopra
To understand relationships: Robert Bly, Camilla Estes and John Gray
To overcome fear: Susan Jeffers

Most people would also be inspired by three great 20th century titles: Peale’s The Power of Positive Thinking and Murphy’s The Power of Your Subconscious Mind.

Morris: Which in 50 Success Classics? Why?

Butler-Bowdon: I love the landmark motivational works, Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich, Bristol’s The Magic of Believing and Schwartz’s The Magic of Thinking Big. Though none have much scientific basis, they each have a timeless, specific message that doesn’t fail to lift you up. But there are so many brilliant books in this sub-genre that these are just the start. My aim with 50 Success Classics was that the reader would put the book down and have an expanded idea of what might be possible for them.

Morris: Which in 50 Spiritual Classics? Why?

Butler-Bowdon: Again, impossible to pick one favourite. Doing this book was such an enriching, wonderful experience. But two autobiographies in it I found particularly memorable and powerful: The Road to Mecca by Muhammad Asad, who was a European Jew that converted to Islam and then led an adventurous life in Arabia as an advisor to Saudi royalty; and Malcolm X’s autobiography, which traces his remarkable journey from Harlem street hustler and criminal to Muslim political leader.

Both books happen to involve a conversion to Islam, but I include a few more like them in the book just to show the incredible metamorphosis people go through in such situations. The personal development field likes to see itself as offering positive change for individuals, but nothing in it compares to the power of a spiritual epiphany or conversion experience. A person can change dramatically, and for good. It shows us what the power of belief can do.

Morris: Which in 50 Psychology Classics? Why?

Butler-Bowdon: What I wanted to do in this book was get psychology back to being ‘the science of human nature’, or why we think and behave the way we do. So I covered some of the uncomfortable truths revealed in books like Obedience To Authority, which came out of Stanley Milgram’s famous experiments, and Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, about the human tendency to get swept up in mass movements. On the positive side, what came through strongly in other titles I covered was the human need for love, and to love. But if I had to choose one, I’m a big fan of Carl Jung, so it was fantastic reading Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious.

Morris: Which of the works in 50 Prosperity Classics? Why?

Butler-Bowdon: I enjoyed covering the works of economists such as Milton Friedman and Adam Smith. They still have so much to teach us. But among popular prosperity works I love the writing of Catherine Ponder, who in her 80s is still pastor of a church in California. Much of what I have learned and practiced in this area is drawn directly from books like The Dynamics Laws of Prosperity and Open Your Mind To Prosperity. To some her writing might seem a bit old-fashioned but the metaphysics behind her thinking is pretty solid.

Morris: What will be the subject of your next book?

Butler-Bowdon: My next book is not a 50 Classics book. It comes out of my analysis of all the major writings in the self-development field, and the conclusion I came to that the literature lacks something: a full appreciation of the role of time in success and achievement. Today, it is all about “Change your life in 7 days.” Well, maybe you can change your state (i.e. how you perceive, feel or think) in a day or a week, but no one ever becomes successful in such a short time. Every genuinely successful person takes decades to make their full contribution, and I want readers to realize that they are not “over the hill” and actually have much more time than they think to achieve what they want.

This is all the more so because of the fact of increasing longevity. We have an extra 20 or 30 years to do things that our grandparents or great grandparents did not. So time to learn new skills, have an extra career, reach a climax in an existing career. It’s a paradox: things do take longer than we expect to achieve, yet we also have more time in which to start and finish them – so it’s never too late to start being great.

Morris: Which question do you wish had been asked – but wasn’t — and what is your response to it?

Butler-Bowdon: That question would be: What is the future of self-development? And my answer is, it will get more rigorous, more scientific. It is at a very early stage in which the major practitioners are populist seminar leaders, but I would like to create a proper discipline, much like management became a discipline under Peter Drucker. To do this we must pull together all the research that is being done in diverse fields, and try to identify the facts about what makes people successful or otherwise over the course of a lifetime. I’m talking about the trajectory of lives. This is a vitally important subject not just for every individual, but for society.

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  1. […] read my first interview of him, please click here. *     *     […]

  2. FRITZ BA. RUDERT = LEONARDELL on May 6, 2016 at 10:12 am

    Der self-help-reader war meiner vobü geschenkt und ich habe eine ganze nacht hin und her gelesen. CLEARY über BUDDHA; fantastisch kurz zusammengefaßt. Wer willens ist, die welt zu verstehen, lese entweder SCHOPENHAUER oder FRIEDELL oder MAUTHNER oder MAINLÄNDER oder TOM BUTLER-BOWDON. Daß er 5 jahre recherchierte, um dem leser 50 klassiker erfahrbar zu machen und dazu 50, die er nicht ausgewählt hat, aber die ebenso wichtig sind und von ihm kurz beschrieben sind, das ist einzigartig. Mein dank gehört dem nachdenkenden herausgeber. Auch das interview mit ROBERT MORRIS zeigt, daß der interviewer alles mit gewinn gelesen hat und manches mehrfach. Kann es ein besseres lob geben? Bei einer solchen bücher-reihe (serie) kann man/ich fast hoffen, daß die menschheit besser wird. Denn wenn jeder potentiell an diese bücher herankommt, wird er sich bessern, nicht kriege unterstützen, höchstens staatliche mediation befürworten.

    I can that all translate in English and with wordbook slowly in Latin. I do it later for my magazine, the unperiodicum, existing as z.B. since ’67/’68.

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