Writers can change your mind about love, business and life.

It’s started already - and we have another year and a half to go. Brave political candidates are donning their armor for the United States presidential campaign. Anything and everything that can be will be dragged from the bottom of their personal history barrels and exposed to the light of broadcast media. We’ll hear about who smoked what, slept with whom and hid what from us.

The worst accusation? The one that, when trotted out, spells career doom for the accused?

He (or she) is a “flip-flopper.”

Heaven forbid that you should ever change your mind about something. (I find this label particularly irksome when uttered by someone who has been married, divorced and remarried, don’t you?)

It may make good sense to change your mind about something when presented with new or previously unknown information. Sometimes a challenging life event impacts your view on things. Sometimes a book will illuminate a subject and show another side of a situation. One of the great things about reading is that it helps engage, expand and change your mind.

Dear reader, welcome to the 2007 edition of Ellen’s Book Club. Here’s a sampling of authors’ offerings that have changed my mind about love, business and life. Enjoy!

The Magician's Assistant

- by Ann Patchett

A friend of mine was involved in a relationship that struck me as one-sided. My friend was wildly in love with someone who was not so in love with her. I shared my concerns that she was giving a lot more than she was getting - emotionally and financially.

Exasperated, I stopped calling because I was so upset with her, for allowing herself to be so abused. At least, that’s how I perceived the situation.

Then I read “The Magician’s Assistant.” The title character chooses to marry her employer, the magician, knowing that he doesn’t love her, that he cannot love her as she loves him. It is a beautiful story of imperfect love with a magical backdrop of truth and illusion.

Once in a while, a book sticks with me after I read the last pages. This one did, and it perched on my shoulder until I called my friend to apologize for my arrogant disapproval of her relationship. It felt terrific to just drop my judgment and express my love and acceptance.

A Billion Bootstraps

- by Phil Smith and Eric Thurman

Have you ever been unemployed? Have you ever been laid off? Have you ever just run out of money? Money buys options. Having no money strangles your options. If you have ever suffered through a financial crisis, you might use words like “drowning” or “suffocating” to describe it. And if you have learned how to make money, you enjoy a freedom that touches every aspect of your life in a positive way.

“A Billion Bootstraps” cemented my belief that business is empowering. Good business helps people create financial independence. Good business promotes healthy societies: people exchanging their goods and services with one another.

Authors Smith and Thurman take turns sharing their experiences with micro-credit programs. Micro-credit refers to small business loans - as little as $10 constitutes start-up capital in some countries - offered to entrepreneurs with no access to conventional loans.

Micro-credit programs have surprisingly strong pay-back percentages and are proving to be a major force for eliminating poverty across the globe.

This book changed my mind about philanthropy. The authors claim that Americans contribute more than $900 billion to charitable organizations each year. For the most part, these organizations are not accountable for how they spend these dollars.

Hot Rod and I have often scratched our heads at our own philanthropic efforts. Is there any money in the cure? Or are many organizations committed to an endless inflow of your contributions? The authors maintain that traditional charitable programs often exacerbate the problems that they intend to solve. Micro-credit programs are a “teach a man to fish” hand up, not a handout.

This book gives you concrete ways to get involved in the micro-credit movement, as well as inspiring stories of entrepreneurs who have dramatically improved their lives and communities.

“The poor stay poor not because they are lazy, but because they have no access to capital.” ~Milton Friedman, 1976 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences

The Obvious

- by James Dale

As a business consultant, I keep my eyes peeled for the best way to operate. I am all about systems and accountability. This book hit me at the right time because I was starting to get my knickers in a knot about every little detail.

James Dale is all about the basics. Sometimes good enough is good enough. You are going to make mistakes and you will live to tell the tale - and fix it. Or not. But a mistake is not going to kill you or your business. Lighten up already. The author has opened up my mind. Here’s a sampling of his upstream philosophy:

  • It’s 0-0 tomorrow. You got clobbered today - lost a client, a contract or even your job. Tomorrow it’s a new game, 0-0. You could win.
  • Imagine you worked for you. Is it a terrifying thought? Would you quit? Or would you say, “That guy inspires me to work hard and work smart”?
  • Promote someone who isn’t ready. What he doesn’t know he will learn - fast. Don’t wait for “ready.” By the time you decide he’s ready, your competitor may have stolen him.

    Recently I visited a service business that cranks out more than $30 million in profitable repair and replacement sales per year. I saw a lot of missed opportunities, money pouring through the cracks of the business. However, not many companies in our industry have that sales heft and profit dollars. Perhaps a less disciplined approach is what it takes to blast past the barriers that keep the best service companies in the 8-10 truck range. Maybe good enough is pretty great.

    “Are you facing a catastrophe or a glitch? Is it the end of the world or the end of the fiscal year? It’s not life and death; it’s only business.” ~James Dale

  • Last-Page-Of-The-Magazine Articles

    - by Rick Reilly, Steven King and Jim Olsztynski

    OK. Let’s stretch the Book Club definition and include some magazine articles. The last page is reserved for the magazine’s brightest writers’ parting words. Got a minute between flights at the airport? Do yourself a favor. Head to the newsstand and flip to the last page of Sports Illustrated. Rick Reilly is a wonderful writer who makes me laugh or cry or both in less than 600 words. He changed my mind about autograph collecting and the underhand free-throw shot. He has a way of extracting the essential humanity out of a sports headline or a page 12 sidebar.

    Do you love watching, talking about and reading about sports? Me too. Reilly helps me understand why.

    Jim Olsztynski delivers on PM’s last page. Jim is a first-rate journalist - willing to look at all sides of an issue, yet man enough to take a stand.

    Once upon a time, I read Jim’s last page about dreaded lead in drinking water. I was expecting a whiney warning, but Jim just laid out the situation for what it is - a nonissue.

    I love the smooth way Jim writes. I re-wrote this paragraph seven times, wanting to make Jim proud of my solid noun-verb writing. I hope someday to pull it off half as well as he does. No one, amigo, knows more about our industry than Jim. His insightful writing is at once succinct and eloquent. Lucky you - just turn to the last page and enjoy.

    There is surprisingly good writing in Entertainment Weekly magazine. Every other week, Steven King (of horror fame) writes the last page. In the Aug. 10 issue, he wrote about watching a YouTube video of a Best Buy customer who starts rocking out to a Smokey Robinson song. (Search “best buy guy” at www.youtube.com.) Here’s what Uncle Stevie has to say:
    “I’m talking about the pure happiness that strikes like a lightning bolt out of George Strait’s blue clear sky (another sacred occasion of joy for me). It’s the way I feel about ‘The Wire.’ The way I feel about Forest Whitaker in ‘The Shield,’ offering Vic Mackey’s ex-wife, Corrine, a stick of gum with that scary-shy, passive-aggressive grin of his. The way I felt about ‘Black Rain,’ the new Ozzy Osbourne CD. I don’t know if these things are art, and I don’t really care. All I know is that they make me want to laugh and dance in the aisle at Best Buy.”

    This article didn’t change my mind about the war in Iraq or national healthcare. It did change my perspective, a minor mind expansion, and set up a better rest of the day.

    These books, these authors and others, have helped change my mind. What was important to me at ages 5, 15, 21, 35, 45 ... has changed. Might we consider a different tack as we sail to a clear point on the horizon? Can’t we benefit from the experience and expression of others? Isn’t it a good idea to drop what doesn’t work based on personal experience and explore another approach?

    Call me a “flip-flopper.”