06/30/2014 05:02 pm ET Updated Aug 30, 2014

The Power of Old Books

If you read what everyone else is reading, you'll be thinking what everyone else is thinking, and that may lead to your doing what everyone else is doing.

We've all noticed the way best selling books on business or life can change what's on people's minds and their to-do lists. Fads develop and sweep the world of business, until the next one comes along. And at each stage, at some point, you come to realize that what you thought would give you an advantage and make you stand out has been adopted by all your competition, and your new trick has become the standard used by all, leveling the playing field just when you thought you'd be summiting the mountain.

As C. S. Lewis once said, the only way to break out of the thought patterns of the present and get some truly novel ideas would be either to read the books of the future, or the books of the past. The books of the future are, inconveniently enough, not yet available to us. Therefore, we should read books of the past.

In an era where everyone is trying to make the leap from good to great, there are a few who attain the status of legendary. And that never happens by just doing a little better what everyone else is doing. It requires some revolutionary twist. And how does that get sparked? I've found that it's often people who feed their minds on something different, whose own thinking then becomes interestingly different, and, on occasion, even revolutionary.

So, my advice is to go find a book of the past to read. Some that have meant a lot to me recently are Gilgamesh, the story of a rich, powerful, handsome king in 2700 BCE who went from being an exploitative tyrant to becoming a good leader, building things to last. How? The old epic tale tells the story. Then, there's Beowulf, a great classic cautionary tale about a powerful achiever and slayer of monsters who made one crucial and all too common mistake that cost him everything. You want to avoid it? Read the book. Or try Frankenstein, Mary Shelley's amazing tale of goal setting gone bad. Who knew that Dr. Frankenstein, through a turbulent mix of classic hubris, outsized ambition, self-centeredness and fear, could create a nightmare which he tried to solve, not by doing the right things, but by becoming a motivational speaker!

If you have more time, Don Quixote may be the greatest novel of all time. Is he the ultimate paradigm of the ideal visionary now beloved by the tech world and VCs everywhere, or a stark raving madman to be avoided at all costs? Or look at Moby Dick. If you can stomach all the whale blubber, you get a tale of a captain who is supposed to steer the ship to profits for its owners, but takes it over for his own purposes and ruins everything. Short of time to read? The great Roman stoic Seneca has some of the greatest advice ever in his letters and essays.

I could go on. But I have to go read something old. Meanwhile, have a great day. And, if you can, visit at, where you can find links to my favorite editions or translations of the books mentioned.