Choose Yourself by James Altucher: a re-read

Choose yourself by James Altucher is one of my favourite books of all time — in fact, it may even be the favourite book and I’ve read a lot of books. When I first read it, I thought to myself “Who is this guy?” He talked about gaining millions of dollars and losing millions of dollars multiple times, he wrote, lived out of an AirBnB for a year, played poker, played chess (or maybe still plays both) and has an award winning podcast. In short, it was a resume that I wanted for myself and honestly, I’ve done almost all those things (played poker back in university, played chess back in high school, I’ve lived out of an AirBnB though not for a year, co-hosted a podcast) but whenever I see someone successful, I try to learn something from their lives and how they think about things and that’s what I wanted to do with James.

His writing also gripped me like no one else. There was something about the way that he talked about his failures, what he learned, how humble he was, and trying to learn from everyone around him (mostly on his podcast but in his writing as well). Nowadays, if you follow James, he’s constantly trying to choose himself and reinvent himself (the titles of two of his books) by doing new things — for example, he’s recently taken up stand up comedy, bought out a club I think and devoted himself to learning how to do stand up — which, I imagine, is a difficult skill to learn.

On an annual basis and almost a bi-annual (twice a year basis), I re-read Choose Yourself for a few reasons:

  • To inoculate myself against failure
  • To absorb the philosophy of choosing myself (and not relying on others to choose me)
  • To generate ideas and learn how to become an idea machine
  • To get inspired by his writing

And each time I re-read the book, I take away different things from each reading — a lot of it is because I think about things differently and I’m in a different period of my life when I do re-read it. So with this re-reading, here is what I took away and what I will focus on this year:

Following the daily practice

I have an interesting situation — I am traveling to Calgary for a project and while I am full time on the project, I’m not on site full time — I travel one week and then I’m back one week. When I travel, I find that I embrace what James calls ‘the daily practice’ — it’s a lot easier to exercise, meditate, journal, etc. when you don’t have to worry about cleaning up, cooking, laundry, etc. When I’m home, I do a few of these things but not as consistently as I’d like. Based only on my own empirical evidence of one, I feel a lot better when I am doing more things in the daily practice than on days where I do not do the daily practice or only do one or two things of the daily practice.

And just in case you don’t know, the daily practice that James describes has a few of the following items that I can remember:

  • Exercise
  • Meditation / Deep breathing
  • Being grateful
  • Writing
  • Walking
  • Connecting with someone (loved one, family, friends, etc.)
  • Eating healthy (James eats only breakfast and lunch and skips dinner as a way to practice fasting)
  • Coming up with 10 ideas

Become an idea machine

You might have heard that ideas are a dime a dozen — and that execution is everything. It probably has some truth but at the same time, if you are able to generate ideas on a whim, you’ll have the luxury of choosing which ideas to execute on. It’s also one of those problems that I have (and that I hear others have) when asked about starting a business or doing something on your own.

“Why don’t you start your own business?”

“I’m not sure what to start in”

James provides a number of case studies throughout the book on people who had really amazing ideas and others who had what you might call conventional or ‘boring’ ideas but still managed to make a six or seven figure business. For example, one case study talked about a guy who scraped together rent to own properties from different databases and then charged a subscription fee for being able to access the database.

But how do you become an idea machine? You become an idea machine just like how you become good at anything — by practicing generating ideas every day. If you try to come up with 10 ideas every day on a variety of things (say how to improve your company, different books that you could write about, the table of contents for each of those books, etc.) and really make your brain ‘sweat’ when coming up with ideas, you will find that just like any muscle, it will get stronger and generate ideas just like that.

Learn the crucial skill of selling

I’m becoming more and more convinced every day that selling is a critical skill for everyone to have. And it’s one of those skills that you don’t just learn in school (although you might learn different components of selling). Every business sells something whether it’s a product, service or an experience and I sincerely believe that selling is a fundamental skill that everyone should learn about. James has some great advice for selling — one of his stories was about how he negotiated with a company on how much stake they should own — he threw out a small number, the company negotiated to 50% and James said yes. One of his employees was so disgusted with the negotiation that he quit. But James says that because the company owned 50% of the company, they had a bigger stake in it and had more invested in it. Around the time of the dot com crash, the company did not invest a lot of time in the other companies it had stakes in because it was such a small percentage (and those companies eventually failed) but because they had 50% of James’ company, they managed to help it become a success.

Sometimes, that’s what I like about James — he has unconventional advice about what has worked for him which I think everyone can learn from. When you negotiate, you don’t need to nickel and dime everyone — sometimes there are ways to get what you want without resorting to what everyone normally does.

Choose yourself

The overall theme of the book is to choose yourself. If you think about it and if you listen to any of the tech news or pay any attention on Linkedin, there are lots and lots of jobs that are being replaced by artificial intelligence, robotic process automation, algorithms or just technology in general. From reading Yuval Noah Harari’s book 21 lessons for the 21st century, one of the lessons is that jobs will be replaced but knowing what jobs will be replaced when and what skills to learn to ‘future-proof’ yourself is impossible to predict. Heck, I work as a management consultant and I even see my job being replaced one day by artificial intelligence and machine learning. When James wrote his book, he saw that many full time jobs were being replaced by temps or staffing agencies and then even those positions were being replaced by technology and software which means that at any moment, your job could be gone. Those full time jobs with a steady paycheque and a waiting pension that you thought were secure are no longer secure — what is secure though is to supply yourself with different streams of income. You certainly wouldn’t want to invest all your money into one stock right? So why would you invest all of your time into one source of income that could go away at any moment (you could get sick and be unable to work, you could get fired, the company could go belly up, etc.). This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to start your own business but I do think that if you have one source of income, you should think about investing in other sources of income (and the goal, at least for those that believe what James has been writing about, would be to have your other sources of income replace your full time job).

So that’s what I took away from my re-read of Choose Yourself but what am I going to do this year differently based on the book? That’s where the books really get their power — when you can translate the learnings from a book that you’ve read into something tangible. Here are some of the systems that I will be putting into place:

  • Generate 10 ideas every day — I purchased these great small pocket notebooks from Muji that I like to carry around with me to write down ideas — I was doing this inconsistently last year but going forward, I’ll use a meal (say lunch) to cue me into taking out my notebook and jotting down some ideas
  • From the ideas that I generate, I’m going to share these ideas with others without expecting anything in return. I’ll see where the sharing leads me but again, even if nothing comes out of it, it really doesn’t cost me anything other than a few minutes to jot down the ideas from my notebook
  • From the ideas that I generate, I’m sure a few will be interesting (to get good ideas, you have to come up with a lot of bad ideas) — these ideas will then be transformed into books, podcasts, businesses, etc. throughout the year (this is to generate more sources of income)
  • Exercise more — I’ve gotten into the habit of, when I travel, to work out in the morning every single day that I’m there but I’m going to use a pairing strategy to be more active (pairing exercise with something like watching Netflix)
  • Eat healthy — I’m normally not a fan of diets — I just try to eat more vegetables and plant-based foods but I still enjoy having fish and meat of some sort on a very regular basis. Another coworker that travels to the client like I do is on a keto diet so I’m going to give that a shot for a while to see if I feel better.

Now the question is, what will you do to choose yourself? What do you think of the daily practice? What kinds of things are you going to start doing this year?

About the author:

Wang is a management consultant, self-published author, Distinguished Toastmaster, co-host of a podcast, Udemy teacher, former Uber driver and all around hustler. He is also obsessed about books and he reads books so that you don’t have to. Want a list of Wang’s top ten formative books in his life and career? Interested in book summaries and recommendations every month? Subscribe to Wang’s e-mail newsletter!

Author of Essential Habits. Inspiring others to live better and happier lives through better habits, work and career advice, and mindset changes. www.wangyip.ca