You Should Read This: Atlas Shrugged

I have recently been rereading Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand.  It is my favorite book and this is probably the eighth or ninth time that I have read it.  What amazes me is that each time I read it I get something different out of it.  People ask me why I love it and what I think it says, so I thought that that would make for an interesting post.

First, what is Atlas Shrugged.  Atlas Shrugged is a story about what would happen if the people who think and produce went on strike and stopped thinking and producing in this world.  It was written in the 1950s in a time when communism/socialism versus capitalism was battling for people’s minds and what was the “right” way to live.  Rand came from a communist country(Russia) to America where she developed her own philosophy called Objectivism as a way to champion capitalism and those who thrive within a capitalist system.  It is a sweeping epic that covers a timespan of years and numerous characters.

Rand divides people into two types: creators and looters.  She says that creators are those who have moved humanity forward by constantly finding ways for a better life through productivity, thought and objective goals.  Looters, on the other hand, are those that do not think and thrive off of the work and thought of the creators.  In this world, socialists/communists are the looters and capitalists are the creators.

The rest of this post will be my thoughts on how I interpret what Rand means and should not be construed as what Ayn means definitively.

One interesting thing that people always say to me when I say that Atlas Shrugged is my favorite book is either: society could never work like that, or you should think about others more than you think about yourself.  So I will discuss these two points.

1. Society could never work like that.  I agree.  I do not believe that it is possible to have  society free of laws, rules and regulations where everyone acts to the best of their ability and trusting that everyone else will.  I believe that laws, rules and regulations are necessary simply because everyone is different.  What I think is the right way to do something, you might see as the wrong way.  We might both believe it to our core.  I believe that there are “good” ways to conduct business and life.

I believe that agreed upon laws, rules and regulations enforce that people have to work that way.  I think it is good that doctors, lawyers, bankers, food producers and many more have to prove that they are doing things in a way that keeps their customers safe.  I do not think it is necessary to be reviewed in every transaction, but I do think it is necessary that if a random transaction is reviewed it should be able to bare scrutiny and show that they did everything possible to achieve the best result for their customer.

The second part to this is that for most of my readings of Atlas Shrugged I viewed it solely through the individual.  I never even contemplated it on a societal level.  I saw it as instruction on how I should think and act.  To me, the “good guys” did things that they thought were correct.  They had actually thought about their actions, goals and even thoughts; and decided that they were going to live their lives the way that they thought was right.

The “bad guys” did the exact opposite.  They did not think.  They took what others told them and simply regurgitated it.  They lived based off of feelings.  Most of the time that feeling seems to be fear.  Fear of not doing or being what others wanted.  Fear of understanding what they truly thought about what they were doing and saying.  What I took out of Atlas Shrugged and my other favorite books was that you should decide what life you want and work towards achieving it.

Which leads to point number two: You should think about others more than you think about yourself.  I disagree.  The argument from people who tell me this seems to be the same one as the looters in the book: you are more noble if you devote your life to others than if you devote it to yourself.  (Please tell me if you think I am interpreting this wrong in comments, or if you see it from a different point of view.  I love to discuss motives and viewpoints and am always looking for divergent points of view.)

I have several arguments for my point of view.  One is that it is impossible to make others happy if you are not happy with yourself.  It is just so obvious when you dislike yourself that the person you are trying to help is going to see you as either a hypocrite or a liar.  Which means that you will fail in whatever you are trying to do, see yourself as a failure and fall further into self-hatred.

I believe that making yourself happy is the best possible way to make others happy as well.  Number one it requires that you figure out what makes you happy.  I think this is the number one problem with people who are not happy, they never take the time to think about why they are not happy and what would make them happy.

Doing what makes you happy creates two outcomes: you are happy when you are doing it, and you do it to the best of your ability.  This means that in your everyday life you have a positive attitude which rubs off on those around you and makes you treat them better.  It also means that whatever you produce when doing that thing that makes you happy is of a higher quality because you care, you are invested in what you are making.  You love it, so you take your time and do it well.  This creates a better product or service for those you serve.  That right there makes life better for those you serve.

If everyone in the world focused on what made them happy and trying to attain the life that would make them happiest the world would look like a very different place.  People would not be in jobs, relationships, cities or anything else that they hate.  You would not hear all of the constant complaining that comes out of peoples’ mouths.  People would stop playing the victim and would actively try to better themselves and their life.

The dichotomy that I have created in my life is that of victim versus controller.  I do not want to view myself as a victim.  I always think to myself that I am in control and if there is something that is making me unhappy I have to figure out how to fix it.  This gives me control in my life.  This gives me the chance to think about the situation that is upsetting me and think of ways to make it more to my liking.

A victim has no control over the situation.  A victim gets screwed by a person, a situation or a thought process that, in their mind, they have no control over.  Therefore, they are trapped to constantly be the victim in the future, because there is nothing they can do about it.

Breaking my thoughts into this dichotomy gives me the strength to move forward even when I do fall into the victim trap.  Anytime I feel like I am the victim of something I analyze it in this way and think about it from this point of view.  There are things that are out of my control.  I cannot stop a flood or a freak accident or a force of nature or a disease.  But I can control how I react to it and how it affects me.  I can let it turn me into a victim for the rest of my life, or I can control its affect on me and my reaction to it.

This is what Atlas Shrugged means to me.  This is why I love this book.  It shows me so clearly what becomes of people who think, and what happens to those who don’t.  It pushes me to pursue my dreams and find new and better ways to achieve them.  It shows me that I am in control of my future, and what I do today affects what happens to me in the future.  I work out: I stay healthy.  I study money: I earn more of it.  I learn how to build a business: I control my income and my time.  Cause and effect.  Not random accident: destined outcome.  I am not a victim and I thank Ayn Rand for helping me discover that.

If you have any thoughts on this, I would love to hear them.  This is obviously a passionate subject for me.  So feel free to comment or contact me in any of the ways available on the Contact Us page.