BOOK REVIEW: 'Rush': Competition, Stress Make People -- and the World -- Go Round

Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
BOOK REVIEW: 'Rush': Competition, Stress Make People -- and the World -- Go Round
Todd G. Buchholz uses dozens of examples from movies, plays and books to help make his point that stress and competition are good for people and countries in his extremely readable "Rush: Why You Need and Love the Rat Race" (Hudson Street Press, a member of the Penguin Group, 304 pages, $25.95), but he left out one example that I think would have been useful.

He's got one of my all-time favorite nature vs. nurture songs "Gee, Officer Krupke" from the play and movie "West Side Story" -- lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, music by Leonard Bernstein (page 96) but I didn't see him mentioning Bill Murray's impromptu leadership of the bumbling basic training unit in the Ivan Reitman-helmed movie "Stripes" (1981) when Murray and his buddies take over the training cycle of the troops after their drill sergeant (played by the irreplaceable Warren Oates) is injured. Using such motivational techniques as reminding the recruits they are Americans, descended from the "wretched refuse" of every country in the world (Buchholz makes the same point on page 221 as a positive leading indicator of American success), the leaderless post-draft recruits are shaped into the unconventional star attraction at the graduation parade: "That's a fact, Jack!"


"Edenists" -- Buchholz's term for people who tell us to drop out of the rat race and conjure up a world that never existed (for example, when would you want to be born, the Middle Ages, before the Industrial Revolution, when the average lifespan was in the 30s and life-threatening diseases lurked around every corner). Today's competitive, stressful -- in the good sense -- world produced cures for polio and vaccines for childhood diseases that were once life threatening, Buchholz reminds us.

Todd G. Buchholz
Todd G. Buchholz

Buchholz, a former White House director of economic policy who has also run a successful hedge fund, taught at Harvard and co-produced the award-winning Broadway hit "Jersey Boys",  makes the point throughout the book that humans are hardwired not to relax on a beach with an umbrella drink but to compete like Steve Jobs, Warren Buffet,  Jimmy Buffett and just about everybody else.


If you follow the advice of the late and unlamented (by Buchholz) Harvard psychelic psychologist Dr. Timothy Leary and his advice to "turn on, tune in, drop out" Buchholz asks about "how many smart kids burnt out their minds tripping on LSD in order to tune out the hazards and stresses of the 1960s and 1970s."  He says the "social successes of past decades did not come through dropping out of the fray, they came through people like Martin Luther King Jr. , who refused to go away."


Weaving in everything from neuroeconomics to evolutionary biology to renaissance art to General Motors, to the aforementioned examples of popular culture,  Buchholz may convince you as he did me (I had to read the book twice to digest the many examples he tosses at the reader) that the race to compete has not only made us taller and smarter, it's what we love and need. Among the book's many counterintuitive takeaways are:

* Put off retirement: it can make you stupid.
* We all need to be control freaks.
* In-house competition is actually great for morale.
* Never let the ninth place team take home a trophy. Kids today have too much self-esteem.

Having read Sara Gruen's  2010 novel "Ape House" which centers around the supposedly gentle Bonobo apes, I was attracted to the section, beginning on Page 97, outlining the  hunt by Edenists for the good ape. Chimpanzees no longer make the cut, but Bonobos,  their smaller cousins,  are being promoted by  Edenists as stand-ins  for the "good ape" in all of us. "They have more sex than residents of a co-ed dorm in Amsterdam," Buchholz writes, and are extensively studied -- in captivity. There's the rub: Nobody has studied them in the wild, when they could be killing their young the way other apes -- and humans  -- do, he says.


Since I don't go to work every day for a paycheck, I was particularly intrigued with Buchholz's assertion, on pages 115-116, that if you want to get dumb, fast, retire today.  He writes: "Retirement appears to spark a drop in cognitive abilities, even when controlling for age and health issues. When people decide to retire and when they actually do retire, they cannot recall as many words, or think as clearly as those of the same age and health who keep at it." Technically I'm retired, since I don't get paid for my journalism. But I don't consider myself retired and never will.


More takeaways: Countries with few natural resources but with smart, hard-working people, do better than countries  "cursed", like Russia and Venezuela,  with plenty of natural resources like oil and natural gas. Israel, with well under 8 million residents,  is second only to the U.S. with companies listed on the NASDAQ,  Buchholz says.  Like Hong Kong and Singapore in a different part of Asia, its lack of natural resources is more than made up in human resources.


Venezuela  (Pages 181-2) is a good example of a country cursed with natural resources, especially petroleum, which one of its oil ministers has dubbed "the devil's excrement," but it's going nowhere fast, economically. Compare the South American country, led by the crazy as a loon Hugo Chavez, with South Korea, "which lacks gooey black gold" of Venezuela, Buchholz says.


 In the early 1960s, South Korea was poorer than Venezuela, on a par with Haiti, believe it or not. "Because South Korea has little oil, it must rely on brainpower and hard work," he says. Today it's an economic power house. There is  perhaps one exception to the "curse" of petroleum abundance, Buchholz points out: Norway, a major petroleum producer: "Norway stands out because the country has been investing its oil proceeds into other businesses and other countries," he writes, "creating one of the world's largest nest eggs. As for Venezuela, Iran, and others, there is no nest egg, just a deadly trap."


"Rush" is an outstanding business book, but it should inspire us on many levels in this stagnant economy. Home prices are sinking like a 500-pound boulder in a swimming pool, tens of millions are out of work, but we can take away a message from "Rush" that this too shall pass.


About the Author
Todd G. Buchholz is a former White House director of economic policy, managing director of the Tiger hedge fund, and coproducer of the Tony Award-winning Broadway hit Jersey Boys. He has written for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. He lives in Solana Beach, California. His website: www.toddbuchholz.com. Publisher's website: www.penguin.com.
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