As an entrepreneur, I read all sorts of self-help books or guides on corporate governance and similar issues. The book “Dare to be Different and Grow Rich. Secrets of Self-Made People!” is different than many of its type, because for long stretches is reads like a suspenseful novel, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, like a radically condensed executive summary that distils the essence of around 50 highly different biographies that I would never have found the time to read in their entirety.
I readily admit that many of the “success books” make me somewhat wary because I often get the feeling that their authors basically succeeded in one field only in their lives – namely, the field of teaching other people in seminars and books how to be successful. The author of this particular book, however, is familiar to me as a very clever real estate investor and owner of several companies in Berlin. As an entrepreneur, I have always found it easier to accept advice and tips from fellow entrepreneurs than from writers who do nothing but write.
There was another thing that delighted me about the book: Nowhere will you come across hollow phrases like “positive thinking,” “motivation,” etc. that make much of the self-help literature so tiring. Zitelmann’s insights feed on three sources: For one thing, he systematically analysed the biographies of successful celebrities, secondly, he is personally acquainted with many successful entrepreneurs and actually talked to some of them when writing the book – among them such fascinating figures as Christoph Kahl or Hans Wall. And thirdly, Zitelmann keeps citing examples based on first-hand experience he made during his various career stages as publishing executive, historian, journalist and entrepreneur. Readers get the strong feeling that Zitelmann actually lives up to the advice he gives.
What makes the author’s approach original is that he hunts for the personal success factors in each biography he discusses, unperturbed by the boundaries separating fields of expertise or industries. He is after the common ground shared by successful people regardless of the field in which they prospered. So you get a fashion designer from the first half of the 20th century like Coco Chanel, successfully and universally renowned investors like Warren Buffett or George Soros, pop icons like Madonna, football players like Oliver Kahn or celebrated entrepreneurs from our day and age – and in each case, Rainer Zitelmann studies the respective biography for the specific moments and ways in which they laid the ground for their achievements.
Each chapter distils the insights gained from these analyses into stringent – and sometimes almost urgent and insistent – recommendations how to implement them in your day-to-day routines. These recommendations range from rather basic issues like the proper way of defining your goals and of maintaining your focus on them, to the preservation of autonomous thought or to skills in coping with obstacles and set-backs, all the way to seemingly negligible details. For instance, the author discusses in detail how to boost the efficiency of your work routine, how to avoid having your focused work effort disturbed or interrupted, or at least how to minimise such disturbances and interruptions. He describes how to protect yourself from a burn-out by keeping strain and relaxation in a balanced relationship – this being an issue that forced even John D. Rockefeller to take a more or less involuntary vacation of eight months. The reader is given suggestions how to handle conflicts or how to avoid being eaten up by petty problems of day-to-day living or squandering one’s energy on negligible issues.
The constant effort not to get lost in hypothetical observations, but to derive directly applicable insights even from the least of details is one of the key characteristics of this book. It is a theme that runs like a thread through the chapters and invests the book with an extraordinary applicability, though never at the expense of reading pleasure – unlike a great number of other “how-to” books. I, for one, found myself chuckling time and again when pouring over its pages, for instance when Zitelmann recounts the success story of sex education pioneer Beate Uhse or when sharing clever negotiating strategies with his readers. At the same time, the book betrays Zitelmann’s academic training as a historian, for he backs everything he says – just like in a scientific publication – by citing his sources, and his bibliography lists hundreds of them.
The book virtually forces its readers to reflect upon themselves and their career plans. He actually wonders whether he himself could not be more successful if he accepted greater challenges in his life.