Interview with Tom Butler-Bowdon: On enabling personal advancement

tombutlerbowden600x600Vera: You’ve been quite successful in distilling other people’s work and presenting them in a way that’s really helpful. Why did you go this route?

Tom: I feel my job is to mine the often transformative information in books and bring it to a bigger audience. Most people only have the time to read a few books a year, but just a single important insight could put them on the path to something great. What drives me is the idea that at some point in the future, the average person will possess much more knowledge than what is acceptable now. The possession of knowledge on its own doesn’t automatically translate into success, but what it does do is provide more references against which to check new information. For instance, it is easy to get swayed by some new idea or movement on social media or television, but if you have some grounding in history or economics, you will be able to say, “This idea has come around before, and it didn’t work”. What has been shown to work is x, y or z.


Vera: The aim of the 50 classics series in your own words is “leading people to expand your mind, leading people to discover people, ideas and books you may not have found otherwise”. How do you determine what books would be good to include in your work?

Tom: In any subject, be it self-help or psychology or politics, there will be a core list of famous books that you couldn’t not include. It is hard to imagine 50 Economics Classics, for instance, without Adam Smith, Keynes, Marx or Schumpeter. This core list might make up 50-60 per cent of the list. The rest is composed of people who are slightly less famous but have made an important contribution to the discipline historically – and a further list of contemporary people who are well-known in the here and now for their insights. With 50 Economics, that would include Joseph Stiglitz, Paul Krugman, Thomas Piketty, famous economists often mentioned in the news who have done important research.


Vera: How has reading all these works in order to produce your books impacted you beyond expanding your own mind?

Tom: The earlier books I wrote in the series, on the classics in Self-Help, Success and Spirituality, each provided hundreds of amazing ideas that I could try out in my own life, or they inspired me onto new things. Every book I wrote about provided me with something memorable that I could use to improve my life. Today, all I need to do to remind myself of the power of a book is to go back to the ‘In a nutshell’ summary of it that I’ve written. Other people also seem to find this feature useful.


Vera: You started with the 50 Self-help classics and have now have a series of 7. Which series has been the most successful/popular with readers and why?

Tom: So far, 50 Self-Help Classics and 50 Psychology Classics have been the most popular. 50 Self-Help filled a niche, in that no-one had written a proper review of the great writings in the field, and my book gave voice to the love that people felt for these books. By the way, a revised edition of 50 Self-Help, with new chapters, will be published in early 2018.

50 Psychology classics has also been very successful because people have an enduring fascination with human nature, or ‘Why we do what we do’. It seems that people the world over have this fascination, because the book has gone into close to 20 languages now. It also provides a good introduction to the science of psychology, and I guess writing about the key books in the subject provides a good way into it, if you have not studied it at university.


Vera: Considering how prosperous most people want to be, let me pick on your Prosperity classics series. How do you define prosperity and more specifically the millionaire mindset? What does that the latter look like in operation?


Tom: The Oxford English Dictionary defines wealth as “an instance or kind of prosperity”. That is, it is contained within the larger concept of prosperity. Whereas wealth is simply the possession of money or assets, or the process of getting more and keeping more for ourselves, prosperity is defined as the state of “flourishing, thriving or succeeding”. In short, wealth is about wealth, but prosperity is about life, taking in larger ideas of good fortune, abundance and well being.


I write about Harv Eker’s book The Millionaire Mindset in 50 Prosperity Classics. Here is something I learned from Eker: Never complain, act

Eker’s golden rule for wealth and life is ‘never complain’. What you focus on always expands, therefore if you complain about problems they will only grow. Complaints are, he unceremoniously remarks, a ‘crap magnet’, and he challenges the reader to not complain once in a seven-day period, including mental complaints. He has been amazed at how many lives this small exercise has transformed.

What has this got to do with wealth? Poor people have a habit of blame, complaint and justification. Their financial or life situation is always the fault of the economy, their upbringing, their spouse or something else. Rich people, on the other hand, believe their life is to be shaped according to their will. They never consider themselves victims. If something needs to change, they take it upon themselves to act.

You can keep a set of behaviors that keeps you in mediocrity, Eker remarks, but just remember that “every time you blame, justify, or complain, you are slitting your financial throat.” Why not adopt the rich way of experiencing the world, which is a joyful focus on opportunities and action.


NB:Your readers may find this list of “Prosperity Principles” useful.


Vera: Success is the other concept that does not have universal meaning although many equate it with having a lot of money.  What was the frame/concept of success you used to pick the books featured in the success classics series?

Tom: I framed success in terms of “authentic achievement” – that is, not just money, power or fame, but achievement that truly fulfils the potential of the person. Plenty of people were rich but not happy, plenty of people had power but were evil, and many today are famous for no good reason.  From the inspirational rags-to-riches stories of such entrepreneurs as Andrew Carnegie, Warren Buffet and Sam Walton to the leadership lessons of Sir Ernest Shackleton, Eleanor Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln and Nelson Mandela, I wanted 50 Success Classics to go back to the basics to find the classic books on staying true to ourselves and fulfilling our potential.


Vera: You do of course now have the book ‘’Never too late to be great’’ an original work.  Many people start retiring not just physically but mentally too by mid life. How does one become great if they are focusing on greatness later in life and more generally what’s the recipe for being great?

Tom: I started to think, if all the self-development stuff out there is true, why hasn’t it delivered everything we want already? The answer is that books with titles like ‘Change Your Life in 7 Days’, while superficially attractive, have nothing to do with the reality of building success through the years and decades. What really matters is not our level of our motivation in any one moment, but how we bring desired things into being across a lifetime. The flash or vision of a great organization, a great family, or work of art takes years to make real. Even great spiritual leaders like Mother Teresa, St Paul, the Buddha and Malcolm X, who each experienced famous epiphanies or callings, still had to do the hard work of gathering the followers and implementing the vision over several decades.

So success generally takes longer that we would like to admit, but there was another fact that I couldn’t ignore: most people today are enjoying longer lifespans, and therefore most of us have second, third or fourth chances to begin and complete big life projects that may never have been possible if we had lived in another generation.

Our culture glorifies instant success when, particularly given the facts around increasing longevity, it makes a lot more sense to start thinking long…to see our lives in terms of ripening or unfolding. People tend to overestimate what they can achieve in a year, but underestimate what they can achieve in a decade, and if we do start to think in longer timeframes, suddenly a lot more becomes possible. That is a more realistic approach, precisely because it factors in obstacles, changes of mind and unexpected events and makes genuine success more likely. This does not mean some people don’t achieve great things when young, but their visibility blinds us to the way that most people do.


Vera: Greatness is arguably specific to each individual and is a journey. What have you discovered are some important platforms and stepping stones to greatness that people generally discount?

Tom: Good question. Apart from the role of time itself, there is having a supporting family and group around you that keep loving no matter what is happening in your professional life. There is an element of good fortune involved, in that by being born in a certain place and a certain time we have opportunities that give us a big head start towards doing something great. So gratitude for this is important.

On a superficial level, it doesn’t hurt to stand out from the crowd in some way, by looking different, sounding different, being bold, breaking down barriers in terms of ethnicity, gender, background. It is always good to be the first in something. Others may be ‘better’ than you, but being first has a real advantage.


Vera: If you were to draw 3 top lessons from your work that has enriched your own life and career that others could learn from, what would those be?

Tom: 1. Think long – you probably have more time than you think to achieve your aims

  1. Trust your Intuition – if something seems obvious to you, even if no one has thought of it, just go for it! Equally, if something doesn’t feel right, leave it.
  2. Live in Day-Tight Compartments – big ambitions can seem too daunting, but if you break things down into daily tasks and focus on the present (what I call process over outcome), one day you will wake up and a big project will be completed.


Tom’s profile

Tom Butler-Bowdon is the author of seven books including 50 Psychology Classics (2007), 50 Philosophy Classics (2013) and 50 Politics Classics (2015). Bringing important ideas to a wider audience, the award-winning 50 Classics series has been read by over a million people and is in 23 languages. Tom is a graduate of the London School of Economics (International Political Economy) and the University of Sydney (Government and History), and lives in Oxford, UK. Visit his website


For more information on Vera Ng’oma’s work and resources in leadership, personal and career development and excellence building, click here.