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Ralph Stayer

This month’s selections may seem unrelated at first, but there is an important lesson for all of us that will be evident to those who read both books. I recommend you read them in the order presented in this column, beginning with From Strength to Strength: Finding Success, Happiness, and Deep Purpose in the Second Half of Life by Arthur C. Brooks. Brooks starts the book with an incident that changed his life. He was seated in the dark on an airplane when he heard a man behind him tell his wife he wished he was dead. Brooks assumed the man had been an abject failure in life. When the lights came on, he recognized the man, who was well-known and revered for the things he had accomplished when he had been a young man. His questions, “Why is this successful person so despondent and what are the implications for me?” are what Brooks answers in this book. 

He starts by showing that our brains change over time. They work much faster and more creatively in specific areas when we are young. Young people are able to multi-task, as is apparent in the scientific community where almost all breakthroughs are accomplished before the mid-thirties. This is the same for everyone, and the decline comes much faster than we want to believe; most people are in the decline by their mid-forties. But this isn’t a tragedy. While our fast response and specific focus skills are declining, our broader conceptualizing skills are growing. We become able to draw on our experiences and make deep connections that are not obvious to young people.

Some people refuse to accept the decline and don’t make the transition to wisdom. Those who do are in position to reap the rewards—those who don’t will end up like the man in the story. This book resonated with me because it described my journey from a self-centered, “all about me” businessman to someone who takes great joy in helping others succeed. I went from being miserable while I was becoming more and more financially successful to feeling joy and fulfillment every day of my life. Try it. You’ll like it.

The second book is a story about the indomitable will of the human spirit. Siggi Wilzig is a Holocaust survivor who was shipped to Auschwitz in the spring of 1943 along with his mother, father and sister. He saw each of them die in the camp, but he survived. He also survived several death marches during early 1945. The book Unstoppable by Joshua M. Greene details the conditions in the camp and what Wilzig did to survive. The inhumane horrors of the camp are gut-wrenching to read, but it is important background to what Wilzig accomplished after being liberated. He worked his way to America after the war, and began his business career by shoveling snow.

He had no more than a grade-school education when he arrived in America, but he could speak English. The book describes Wilzig’s rise from a laborer in a sweat shop to salesman to getting into the oil business. Wilzig had an uncanny knack to see through details to get to the important information that would create success in a business. This was apparent in his story of survival in Auschwitz, when he was confronted with many situations in which the wrong decision would have meant his death. He chose correctly every time. He used this skill to become the CEO of a NYSE publicly traded oil company. This is a man with an eighth-grade education who became CEO of a company in an industry rife with antisemitism. He then took over a small bank in New Jersey and built it to $4 billion in assets.  

This is another of a long list of “Only in America” stories—but this one doesn’t have a happy ending. This is where we make the connection between the first and second books. Wilzig was never able to make the transition from doer to mentor. He was an incredibly gifted person, but the self-reliance lessons he learned in the camps traumatized him to the extent that he could never trust anyone. He eventually drove his entire family away from him. As Wilzig said, he left Auschwitz, but Auschwitz never left him. The lesson is obvious … and that is why these two books are paired. 

Ralph Stayer, an avid reader and owner/CEO of Johnsonville Sausage, leads a book club in Naples with about a dozen other high-power friends. The group only reads non-fiction as a way to keep learning and sharpening the mind. Every month, Stayer shares the latest page-turners earning a permanent spot on his ever-expanding bookshelves.

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