This is a book review of ‘The Diary of a CEO: The 33 Laws of Business & Life’ by Steven Bartlett.  Despite still only being 31, he seems to be around for a long time and has achieved a great deal. 

Steven Bartlett Background

He has founded and co-founded a number of businesses, specifically around being disruptive in the social media and marketing areas. He is also an investor in a number of businesses including health, wellbeing and e-commerce and in 2022 he became the youngest dragon in the BBC Dragons Den TV programme. He has written books and is also a headline speaker around the world. However, to a lot of people he is probably best known as the host of ‘Diary of a CEO’, one of the biggest podcasts in the world where he sits downs and talks to some of the most influential people, experts and thinkers across all walks of life. I have talked about this podcast previously and I would certainly recommend it. 

The Four Pillars of Greatness

In the book Bartlett lists the 33 laws under four different pillars, which he calls the Four Pillars of Greatness. I list all of the 33 ‘laws’ but focus in just one under each pillar for this review: 

Pillar 1 – The Self – this is you and self 

1 – Fill your five buckets in the right order 

The sum of your 5 buckets is the sum of your professional potential. The buckets are: 

(i) What you know (knowledge)

(ii) What you can do (Skills) 

(iii) Who you know (Network) 

(iv) What you have (Resources) 

(v) What the world thinks of you (Reputation) 

You should fill your buckets in the right order. You start professional life acquiring knowledge and when it is applied, it is a skill. When you have knowledge and skills you become professionally valuable to others and your network grows. When you have access to knowledge and skills and your network, your access to resources expands and you will then earn a reputation. 

The buckets are interconnected and filling one helps to fill another. An investment in the first budget of knowledge is the highest yielding investment you can make. 

There are only 2 buckets that any professional earthquake can never empty – it can take away your network, your resources and even your reputation, but it can’t remove your knowledge or skills. 

  • 2 – To master it, you must create an obligation to teach it 
  • 3 – You must never disagree 
  • 4 – You do not get to choose what you believe 
  • 5 – You must lean in to bizarre behaviour 
  • 6 – Ask, don’t tell – the question/behaviour effect 
  • 7 – Never compromise your self-story 
  • 8 – Never fight a bad habit 
  • 9 – Always prioritise your first foundation 

Pillar 2 – The Story – harnessing the power of storytelling 

  • 10 – Useless absurdity will define you more than useful practicalities 

This law shows how to make your marketing or brand message travel ten times further and reach ten times more people with a hundredth of the budgets. 

An example Bartlett gives is when he was 21 and accepted a $300k investment into his marketing company. He immediately went out and took out a 10-year lease on a huge warehouse as an office and spent a further £13k on an enormous blue slide. The business was growing really fast and grew sales by an average of 200% per annum for 5 years. But during that time, they never needed a sales team because that slide was the biggest driver of media publicity. They were featured in every major press title, every TV channel and it was photographed hundreds of times. A documentary was even made about it. 

Bartlett recognises it is ridiculous and he does not advocate going out to buy a slide, but in many cases it is not the products that you sell, but the useless absurdity that your brand is associated with. It said something to the world that their firm was different, young, disruptive and innovative. 

Another great example is Tesla. Tesla has a zero advertising budget. It is brand driven and defined by its absurdity. It is riddled with intentionally absurd features such as its driving modes of Insane, Ludicrous and Ludicrous+ 

11 – Avoid wallpaper at all costs 

12 – You must piss people off 

13 – Shoot your psychological moonshots first 

14 – Friction can create value 

15 – The frame matters more than the picture 

16 – Use Goldilocks to your advantage 

17 – Let them try and they will buy 

18 – Fight for the first five seconds 

Pillar 3 – The Philosophy – your set of beliefs, values and principles 

19 – You must sweat the small stuff 

20 – A small miss now creates a big miss later 

21 – You must out-fail the competition 

22 – You must become a Plan-A thinker 

23 – Don’t be an ostrich 

24 – You must make pressure your privilege 

25 – The power of negative manifestation 

The law teaches us the wonderful power of something he calls negative manifestation and how it can help you to see red flags, future risk and anything else that stands in the way of success 

The Single Question

Bartlett finds that a single question has spared him more financial loss, squandered time and wasted resources than any other. 

The question is ‘Why will this idea fail?’ 

He considers there are 5 psychological biases that will prevent you and your teams from asking the seemingly simple yet essential question: 

(i) Optimism Bias – makes us focus on the good things and ignore the bad things 

(ii) Confirmation Bias – we pay attention to information that supports our ideas 

(iii) Self- Serving Bias – makes us over-estimate our own skills  

(iv) Sunk-Cost Fallacy Bias – we stick with decisions because of money spent 

(vi) Groupthink Bias – people don’t want to disagree with the group 

Bartlett had his own example of where he gathered his team together having invested a huge amount of money in a new project and shortly before the launch, he spoke to them all and asked, ‘Why is this a bad idea?’ This opened the floodgates and within an hour they had decided to shut down the project, despite on paper the whole project looking rosy just hours before. 

Pre-Mortem Method

Another concept he uses is the Pre-Mortem Method. A pre-mortem is the hypothetical opposite of a post-mortem, you do it before the death has occurred.  This is a decision making method developed by Gary Klein which encourages a group to think from a place of failure, before a project has begun. Bartlett uses a five step process to deploy the pre-mortem method: 

(i) Set the Stage – gather team and explain purpose of the analysis 

(ii) Fast Forward to Failure – imagine project has failed and visualise in detail 

(iii) Brainstorm Reasons for Failure – team members to do this independently 

(iv) Share and Discuss – each team member to share reasons 

(v) Develop Contingency Plans – work to mitigate or avoid 

26 – Your skills are worthless, but your context is valuable 

27 – The discipline equation: death, time and discipline! 

Pillar 4 – The Team – who you work with and how 

28 – Ask who not how 

29 – Create a cult mentality 

30 – The three bars for building great teams 

31 – Leverage the power of progress 

This law shows the most important force for team engagement, motivation and fulfilment in any organisation. If you can make people feel this, they’ll love being part of your team. 

Bartlett talks about the superpower of small wins and marginal gains. Professor Teresa Amabile talks about how to create the perspective of progress in teams: 

(i) Creating meaning – humans have a deep-seated desire to do meaningful work 

(ii) Setting Clear and Actionable Goals – layout objectives clearly 

(iii) Providing Autonomy – give the team members space to take charge 

(iv) Removing Friction – pro-actively remove any obstacles and bureaucracy 

(v) Broadcasting the Progress – point out, publicise and praise progress loud 

32 – You must be an inconsistent leader 

33 – Learning never ends 

I enjoyed the book. Some of the laws I have heard before or heard them in a slightly different way, but many were new, and I liked the way he used examples and stories I’d not heard before to show how each of them work. 

If you like the book, he is also on a speaking tour round the country in March.