Book Review: Start Something That Matters (Random House, 2011)
At the start of 2018, I made it my resolution to read one fiction and nonfiction book per month for pleasure. Now, that may not sound many, but I probably read at least two other books per week as part of my day job, so it’s a realistic goal rather than an ideal one.
In February, I chose Start Something That Matters, by the founder of the TOMS shoe brand, Blake Mycoskie. It's been in publication for seven years now, but I only came across it recently and was curious. I was interested in it because social entrepreneurship is such a growth area, and since TOMS launched, other “one-for-one” initiatives have sprung up. Did TOMS invent that model? Perhaps not, but it is certainly the highest profile example, and as such, it has undoubtedly inspired other for-profit companies that give one of whatever they sell to someone in need, including Warby Parker (eye glasses) and Smile Squared (toothbrushes).
Having worked in the nonprofit sector for 15 years and seen the struggle organizations have in raising funds, I LOVE the “conscious capitalism” movement. Companies like TOMS would never replace the not-for-profit sector, which often plays such a critical political role, but social entrepreneurs are adding something valuable to the philanthropic landscape. I have high hopes that, one day, giving will lie at the heart of every successful business and that corporations that don’t follow suit will simply not survive.
Mycoskie’s book is a clear attempt to influence people of his generation and younger to follow his lead. He says, “I feel a deep responsibility to share everything we have learned at TOMS, so that as many others as possible can start something important.” It could have been a straightforward business biography, with some advice thrown in, but in keeping with his view of the world, Mycoskie explores a range of other inspiring stories of mission-driven people with a simple idea who are making a difference.
“Simple” is a key message of the book. You cannot save the world yourself, but you CAN solve one of its problems. It’s a powerful point. Mycoskie had a lightbulb moment in 2002 while on a trip to Argentina. He liked to wear the locally made alpargata shoe and thought they would have a market in the United States. But then he discovered that local children were walking barefoot to school, and he realized how much easier and more comfortable the kids’ lives would be if only they had shoes, which is something we all take for granted in the affluent West. In 2006, TOMS carried out its first “shoe drop” of 10,000 pairs in Argentina and the brand was truly born.
The book is a useful guide and giver of inspiration. However, it’s not the most riveting read. My principal criticism of the book is that the writing is somewhat sterile, and I don’t get a clear impression of Mycoskie. He had a cowriter, which may explain this absence of voice. This is an issue for people who have something to say but need a cowriter or ghostwriter to say it for them, and even the best ghostwriter in the world will still act as a filter (perhaps unconsciously) that sifts out some of the nuance of an individual’s voice. But in this case, I doubt “voice” was Mycoskie’s main concern. He set out to honor his responsibility to share the TOMS experience, not blow his own trumpet, and he achieved it. And, if you yearn to start something that matters, you should definitely add this book to your reading list.
In June 2002, Kyra Oliver experienced the worst tragedy imaginable: the loss of a child. The death of Hayes, Kyra’s four-month-old son, as a result of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), was a catastrophic event that prompted her to embark upon a personal healing journey focused on helping other parents understand SIDS and on her health and wellbeing.
The journey began with the Hayes Foundation, which Kyra established just a few months following Hayes’s passing, with monetary donations that she requested be given in place of floral tributes. Four years later came the “This Side Up” campaign that provided invaluable SIDS information for parents of new-borns. During this time, Kyra turned to extreme fitness as a way to find strength and community. She says, “I realized there was no way I was going to be able to handle this pain that I will have the rest of my life if I didn’t take care of myself. I feel so lucky that I saw this and felt it. I didn’t even realize just how amazing it could be at the time, but I did know that I had to take care of myself. I had to be healthy in order to survive.” This move toward physical health ultimately led Kyra to establish Your Own Utopia (y.o.u.), a business that focuses on helping individuals find the wellness approach the works best for them.
For about 10 years, Kyra had been working on a book about her experiences and insights. “I knew that I needed to get this information out, and it was kind of in my head for a while. Then finally I started writing stuff down and typing it up. It just kept nagging at me, ‘You’ve got to get this thing done, but how can I get this focus?’” While she struggled with her book, a friend had noticed some inspirational material that Kyra had been posting on Facebook and encouraged her to use them as the basis of a different book. And so, this shorter book became her first; however, the book she truly needed to write was still unfinished.
Finally, Kyra realized the way to get it done. “I work really, really well with deadlines,” Kyra says. “You give me a deadline, it gets done.” After this epiphany, she decided to set a release date for the book of June 11, 2018; the anniversary of her son’s death. Having the date to work towards gave her all the impetus she needed to complete the book: “I have a lot of work to do, but it’s going be released! It is called Lifestyle That Feels Good: Finding y.o.u. (Your Own Utopia).”
It is a book that pushes the message of wellness and how to achieve it based on what works best for individuals, including recipes and fitness suggestions, and positive mindset. The first book, entitled 8 Ways of Being: How To Motivate Yourself to Live Happy and Free Every Day, was released early this year, on January 23, which is another significant date because it’s Hayes’s birthday.
By using these key dates, Kyra found a way to not only make the books available but also make them part of Hayes’s story. Most importantly, though, her books are a gift that share a message of healing with other people. Kyra says, “While my growth has been huge—I’ve worked really hard at that growth—my intention is to give back and to try to create a better world.”
And books that are at once cathartic and generous are true books with spine.
(A digital version of Kyra's first book, 8 Ways of Being: How To Motivate Yourself to Live Happy and Free Every Day is available on Amazon now. The print version will be available on Amazon in March.)
Whenever a nonfiction manuscript arrives in my inbox for editing, I usually can’t wait to dive in: I’m excited not only to iron out any kinks in the prose but also to learn something. Recently, I’ve gained insights into living with dementia, alcoholism, and terminal cancer (and I should add that none of these books were miserable—they were all incredibly inspirational!). From a less emotional standpoint, I have learned about the craziness of being an HR specialist, the exploits of a nineteenth century American rogue, and working in the music industry.
But there is one kind of book I find it hard to muster much enthusiasm for: books about “financial freedom.” There a LOT of books on that subject around, it seems. It’s not the subject, per se (who doesn’t dream of financial freedom?); it’s the fact that the books I come across are all predictably similar. They all talk about setting goals, shifting one’s mind, and investing in real estate. It was interesting the first couple of times, but now it’s so rote that it’s deathly tedious.
To add some excitement to the process, I’ve begun to place little bets with myself as to what page range I might find the first reference to Tony Robbins or Robert Kyosaki. There are few others, too, but those dudes are the two most oft repeated names. A passing reference is irritating enough, but I am willing to let it slide. It’s a different matter, however, when I see whole passages given over to regurgitating the teachings of these “masters,” and I become incredibly hot under the collar.
So angry, Lorna! Chill, sister. Why do you care?
I guess this aggravates me for two reasons.
1. It shows a lack of original thought on the behalf of the writer. No “book with spine” relies too heavily on the wisdom and experience of other authors; it has its own contribution to make to the world. I don’t know much about Kyosaki, but after watching a documentary about Robbins, I know he has a uniquely powerful voice (in a literal sense, too; it’s as if he’s just finished smoking a 4-foot cigar), and any mention of him in your book will just make you sound like a follower, not a leader, and undermine your authority about your subject. After all, who was it said, “It is not the acolyte who sets the world alight”? Me. I said that. I just made it up as I typed. See? It’s easy to be original (if not especially profound...).
2. The likes of Robbins and Kyosaki DO NOT NEED HELP. They are more than capable of making their own book sales without free promotional support from unknown authors. According to Worth magazine’s 2016 “The Power 100,” Robbins is already worth $500 million and his many businesses generate $6 billion annual revenue. So, no, please don’t help him out. I think it’s safe to assume he wouldn’t do the same for you. I’m even annoyed I’m giving these guys some free publicity here! But I’m doing it to make a point, so I guess it's okay.
I’m not saying it is wrong to be inspired by people, and, let's face it, a completely original thought is a mythical creature that lives with the unicorns, but it is still possible to be endlessly original in the way you express those thoughts. So, put your own special spin on everything, and rid your writing of cliché and the likes of Tony Robbins forever! And if you get it right, you’ll be the one other authors can’t resist quoting … and then you know your message has set the world alight.
Lorna Partington Walsh, Wordsmith