Everyone experiences a book that “changes their lives” – if you haven’t, then it’s time to read more provocative material. But for me, that book appeared in 1992 when a friend handed me a copy of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged and said I “had to read it.”
But all I could do is stare at the 1,000-plus pages. And laugh.
He wasn’t joking though, and thankfully I began my journey into Atlas Shrugged. The principles of the novel have since guided major parts of my life — the name John Galt has great meaning to me, and once you read the book it will be significant to you, too.
Atlas Shrugged chronicles an entrepreneur’s epic journey in the midst of the U.S. economy almost collapsing from an overbearing government and widespread corruption. There’s action. There’s betrayal. There’s romance and suspense. Rand presents a philosophical and moral framework of life through a captivating story, placing the highest adulation on hard work and iconoclastic thinking.
When I first read the book I was 22 years old and in law school. I was certain that I didn’t want to practice law, and I was contemplating the entrepreneurial path. By the time I turned the last page, I not only was sure I needed to create businesses, but I was convinced it was the best way for me to truly push the limits of my intellectual capacity.
In just the last few years I’ve given more than 500 copies to young people, hoping they will also find something that uniquely speaks to their dreams.
Why did Atlas Shrugged speak to me so clearly? These seven points resonated in my heart and mind:
A new hero
Many books cast businesses and non-mainstream passions in a negative light.
But not this one.
Atlas Shrugged creates a new brand of hero — one that embodies dedication, creativity, capitalistic achievement and excellence. The book defines a person’s greatness by his or her dogged pursuit of entrepreneurial success and refusal to accept political barriers, pessimism and the status quo.
I had never before read a story about relationships — spanning those in circles of business, friends and romance — where everything centered on the quest of reaching one’s highest calling. The most respect, admiration and love went to those who had a clear definition of their purpose and who strove for it despite the odds.
Profit as a moral goal
While many look askance at people for seeking profit, Rand presents it as a virtue. Pursuing profit through innovation, creation and entrepreneurship is invaluable for mankind, as capitalism is the greatest economic framework we’ve seen thus far in the modern world. And while we are all free to do what we want with our finances – give to charity, spend, save, invest – it’s important no one feel guilty about making money. Rand affirmed my belief that when we achieve success we should be proud of what we earn, not apologetic. Profit is a healthy and vital aspect of capitalism, and is a worthy endeavor.
Innovation is the highest human pursuit
There is a power in creators — of revolutionary products, designs, medicine, architecture and more — but most of our society has a default setting to be skeptical of these talented people and doubt their motives.
Disrupting the world through innovation is the greatest use of the human mind. It should be respected, not scorned. In Atlas Shrugged, Rand elevates the role of creator to mythical status and shows what a perfect civilization would be like by positioning the disruptive creator as the one whom society should cherish. When the value of the creator is respected, the power of collective imagination is unleashed and humanity is able to achieve radical advances. The book illustrates this ideal world, and provides a true “north” for anyone who burns with the fire of innovation and creativity.
The proper role of government: Less is more
Atlas Shrugged helped me imagine what it would be like if our government fully respected the power of individuals to solve societal problems – because the book paints a depressing picture of life under a government that inserts itself in the middle of commerce, stifles innovation and mutes individuals’ motivation. The characters seek the ideal, in which religious dogma and nonsensical regulations are not used by the government to hinder scientific progress or interfere with individual rights.
People who earn money should determine how best to spend it. The government shouldn’t take their wealth and redistribute it. Atlas Shrugged clarifies the ideal role of government: to protect property rights, to protect us from violence and from each other and to limit its regulatory guidance beyond that. She demonstrates that government involvement is a slippery slope that gradually eats away at the human motivation for achievement and excellence.
The greatest crime: Laziness
Taking the easy way out is the greatest crime we can commit against ourselves. We all have a moral responsibility to challenge ourselves and reach our highest potential. Denying our innate gifts and giving up on goals and dreams only shatters our futures and that of the next generation.
People who use their minds to create new things are the ones who move civilization forward – if we fail to explore those limits of our minds and efforts, we don’t just fail ourselves. We fail humanity. Atlas Shrugged illustrates the pursuit of greatness as a critical element of individual happiness and emphasizes the importance of hard work and persistence in overcoming all obstacles.
Philosophy matters – a lot!
Before Atlas Shrugged, I didn’t have an appreciation of philosophy or the imperative of having an explicit moral framework in life.
But the book directed me toward insights about making the most of our limited time on earth, such as Aristotle’s conviction that the pursuit of happiness is at the core of human existence, and that the good life is one of personal fulfillment. Rand’s philosophy is built on Aristotle’s. Both agree that what we perceive around us is reality, that people are capable of dealing with this reality and pursuing a good life, and that humans are thinkers, and therefore, heroes who can achieve greatness. The book caused me to also understand that some philosophies can be inhibitors, like Plato’s doubting about whether we even exist and his denying that the material world is real.
Having a clear philosophy and faithfulness to that foundation is the cornerstone of a full, inspired life. Atlas Shrugged provides an empowering philosophy – a key element of the novel that makes its impact so lasting.
It matters who is on your team
The story helps creators and entrepreneurs understand what to look for in a spouse or life partner – someone who affirms our values, who is morally-aligned with our vision of success and who understands that being a creator is not easy, but worth the fight no matter what the outcome. An ideal partner appreciates your dedication because they know that the opposite of you following your dreams is mediocrity – the equivalent to being dead while alive. Finding a partner who embraces your quest for greatness is romantic, empowering and a critical element in your journey. Rand’s heroes leverage the faith their partners have in them as they pursue their highest callings.
My once-crisp hardcover copy of Atlas Shrugged has been transformed into a marked-up, underlined, lovingly dog-eared fixture on my bookshelf. I’ve poured over countless articles, speeches and other books analyzing Rand’s writing and philosophies. And while I may not subscribe to all of her Objectivism principles, I find truth and validation in her thinking.
While Atlas Shrugged is not based on a true story, it’s as relevant today as it has ever been. This is a critical time for our nation and world, and we need to tap into to our greatest asset – the human mind – to solve our many complicated problems. Unleashing the power of human ingenuity is imperative, and it’s unethical (and immoral) for anyone, governments or others, to get in our way. We must remind ourselves that philosophy matters to help us recall the virtue in our pursuit and to help us persevere in the face of adversity and doubt. Certainty of purpose is the predicate to decisive decision-making and bold action, and we all could use more of both.
So as you contemplate what book should next be on your nightstand, consider Atlas Shrugged. It just might change your life like it did mine.