Don’t get me wrong about books. My mother was an avid reader whose education lacked a high school diploma. In every book she owned, she wrote, “The Bible…still the greatest.” However, aside from the Bible, I am compelled to tell you about two books that altered my thinking substantially.
As a lead-in, please ponder these quotes:
“The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.”
“The smallest minority on earth is the individual. Those who deny individual rights cannot claim to be defenders of minorities.”
“A creative man is motivated by the desire to achieve, not by the desire to beat others.”
All are from a self-proclaimed atheist, author and philosopher Ayn Rand. The atheist stigma may be a bit exaggerated in biographical information. Her writings support the existence of our God-given abilities to survive, to reason, to overcome the odds. I read that she turned a tiny bit spiritual when her husband died. Grief can be an eye-opener, providing spiritual hope at our darkest hour.
Rand, born Alisa Zinov’yevna Rosenbaum, was a Russian-American writer and philosopher with a calling to recognize the contribution and value of individualism and capitalism. She is known for her two best-selling novels, The Fountainhead (1943) and Atlas Shrugged (1957), and for developing a philosophical system she named Objectivism. Educated in Russia, she moved to the United States in 1926.
I’m pleased to say I’ve read both Rand best-selling tomes, although I read them in reverse chronological order based merely on when I magically found the books. I found The Fountainhead left on a Metro bench in Virginia and Atlas Shrugged on a park bench in Washington, DC (talk about fate!).
I had to look up the definition of the word “fountainhead.” It means source or origin: “a man’s ego is the fountainhead of human progress.” That makes perfect since on why Rand titled her book the way she did. I can’t recall too many specifics about The Fountainhead for some strange reason—selective memory can be strange. I only have enough memory space for things that are most important to me. And my brain sure is full after 70 years of collecting stuff. Now I must start to erase some to make room for others. As I recently heard someone say, the greatest gift of old age is you only live it once! I remember that statement but, true to form, can’t remember who said it.
The critical message in The Fountainhead still holds a place of honor in my crowded brain. It sings the hymn of individual contribution. One of the main characters, Howard Roark, reflects architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s dedication to individualism. I was working for Westinghouse Electric Corporation at the time I read The Fountainhead, and it hit home for me.
The lesson I personally walked away with was that teams are critical in specific situations, but teams are made up of individuals, and sometimes the team loses its value when it tries to stifle ideas and actions of individual members. Yes, some achievements thrive through verified process, while others require a new unique approach. There can be success both ways, I believe. The human challenge is knowing when you must operate as a team and when you should let individualism take the lead.
Even in a team environment, the value of an individual should be recognized. To quote Admiral Hyman Rickover, “Unless the individual truly responsible can be identified when something goes wrong, no one has really been responsible.” Once again, that’s the value of an individual contribution.
“Who is John Galt?” That’s the question throughout the Atlas Shrugged saga. According to The Atlas Society, the expression “Going Galt” means that you recognize the needs of others but refuse to give them a claim to your time, effort, and achievements solely based on their needs. It means “shrugging off unearned guilt, refusing to support your own destroyers, refusing to give them what Ayn Rand termed ‘the sanction of the victim.’”
I know reading Atlas Shrugged is a monumental task—it’s an extremely wordy book that, as a writer and editor, I felt could have used some heavy duty editing to clarify the message for the masses. However, I struggled through the repetition and am still this day grateful for the message it carried. I will never forget “Reardon Steel,” the symbol of the American “can-do” attitude (funny coincidence that Henry Reardon boasts the same initials as Howard Roark in The Fountainhead). How about the heroine, Dagny Taggart, who ran Taggart Transcontinental Railroad against all odds, including a government takeover and financial depression? But the most memorable character was John Galt. He believed in the power and glory of the human mind and the rights of individuals to use their talents in whatever way pleased them, even if others didn’t like it or benefit from it.
Written from experience growing up in Russia, Rand knew what she was talking about, specifically, the difference between living and existing. Way back then, she envisioned America’s future—a deterioration of our world-class freedom to pursue happiness, wealth, success, contribution, and achievement. My read was a paperback version on cheap paper in very small type. As challenging as it was to read, it left me with a life-altering approach to the way I live. I wanted to grow things to eat, learn how to can peaches and maintain and operate a chain saw. Here I was, in love with writing but knowing I must diversify my skills to remain independent while contributing to society directly or indirectly. Caring for oneself as much as we are able—“independence”—is a contribution to our world, nation, community, and family. It also is the foundation of freedom.
I think you get my message. In a one-liner, I recommend reading both these books. Take what you can and want from them, but I bet you’ll respect Rand’s visions of our future and the value she places on each and every one of us.
Be safe, stay informed, and thanks for reading!
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