I’ve told this story so many times now that I thought I might as well just do a quick blog post about it…
In 2013, I was interviewed by Carrie Sheffield for an article about Stoicism in Forbes magazine:
Robertson, a Scottish-born therapist and classics enthusiast, led workshops on psychological resilience for managers at oil giant Shell called “How to think like a Roman Emperor,” based on the life of stoic philosopher-king Marcus Aurelius.
I’d been asked to deliver some workshops for STASCO, Shell Trading and Shipping, back in 2006, which talked about Stoicism and stress management. I wanted to make it attention-grabbing so I called it How to Think Like a Roman Emperor, which seemed to go down well with the audience.
A few years later, around 2008, I was invited to submit a proposal for a book on psychotherapy for a panel organized by the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP) in conjunction with the publisher Karnac. I sent them a proposal for a book called How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. The UKCP panel rejected it, though, because they didn’t like the title (or the subject matter).
The acquisitions editor, liked the proposal, though, and suggested I forward it directly to Karnac, which I did. They rejected it as well. So I got in touch and asked them if there was something else they’d prefer instead: “What sort of books do you want?” They said they’d like to publish a book by the title The Philosophy of Cognitive-Behavioural Therapy. So that’s how my first real book was published. (I’m about to begin work on a revised second edition, for the publisher Routledge, who now own the rights.)
However, I kept thinking about that title: How to Think Like a Roman Emperor. It just seemed to stick in my mind for some reason. So when I had an opportunity to develop a proposal for a new book on Stoicism, about a decade later, I thought I’d try again. This time my publisher, St. Martins Press, were persuaded to give it a go. Well, How to Think Like a Roman Emperor is now available from all good bookstores, and some bad ones, as the saying goes. It’s doing very well. Today we had a favourable review in The Wall Street journal.
Mr. Robertson […] displays a sound knowledge of Marcus’ life and thought. The author’s accessible prose style, well-suited for recounting both philosophical concepts and arcane Roman history, contributes to its appeal. As an introduction to Stoic philosophy, it’s hard to beat the “Meditations,” which deserve to be read ahead of any commentary on them. That said, Mr. Robertson’s book succeeds on its own terms, presenting a convincing case for the continuing relevance of an archetypal philosopher-king.
So the moral of the story? Well as a kid growing up in Scotland, of course, I had the story of Robert the Bruce drummed into my from an early age. The Bruce had been sorely defeated by the English army in battle and was hiding in a cave to avoid capture.
Depressed and alone he gazed at a spider climbing the wall. Over and over again, as it tried to spin its web, it was blown down by a gust of wind but, relentless, it kept trying until eventually it succeeded. Bruce was inspired and famously exclaimed “If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again!” He reformed his army and would engage the English at the Battle of Bannockburn, in 1314 AD, where the Scots were finally victorious.
So don’t give up, if you think you might have a good idea!