Finally, A Self-Help Book for Humble Geniuses

Review: 'Just the Good Stuff' by Jim VandeHei

April 28, 2024

Are you a loser? Jim VandeHei, the founder of two successful media startups, has some advice: Don't be. Do you constantly fantasize about crushing your enemies? Don't do that, either. Unless they're a bunch of toxic jerks who really deserve it, which they totally are. These are just a few nuggets of wisdom from VandeHei's forthcoming self-help guide for humble geniuses with rippling abs who win at life.

Just the Good Stuff: No-BS Secrets to Success (No Matter What Life Throws at You) is light on original content. It's mostly a compilation of "transcendental ideas" from VandeHei's weekly column for Axios, the consulting firm he founded in 2016 to help corporations "elevate" their communications. It also runs a news website using proprietary Smart Brevity® technology that optimizes engagement with bullet points and bold font. VandeHei's advice typically falls into one of four categories.

No sh!t: Successful leaders should hire talented employees. Eating less junk food will make you feel better. Little things can turn into big things when you add them together. Talking is great, but have you tried listening? Insightful stuff. Makes you wonder if at least some of the book was "written" by the Beta version of some new artificial intelligence product Axios ($525 million valuation) is developing. The book's painfully generic title suggests as much. The real Jim VandeHei is adamant about "winning" the AI revolution the same way he demanded his reporters "win the morning" and "drive the conversation" at his first startup, Politico ($1 billion+ valuation).

Dear diary: VandeHei teased this book last year in an interview with Politico he now regrets doing. The ensuing article, about how a "chest-thumping," "hyper-driven" "media baron" has evolved into an "assertive empath" and "lifestyle guru," incited the Beltway media equivalent of a street fight when VandeHei drunkenly accosted Politico's editor during a White House Correspondents' Dinner party at the Swiss ambassador's residence. He reportedly bragged about poaching two of the rival publication's best reporters.

That's useful context for understanding why some parts of Just the Good Stuff seem specifically tailored for Jim VandeHei. It's as though the author was really impressed by some advice his wife or therapist gave him and wanted to share it with the world. The aforementioned incident features in a chapter on "taming demons" that conveys an almost Trumpian obsession with perceived slights and petty dramas, even as it counsels readers to do the opposite. To stop whining and take ourselves less seriously. To "choose joy" and kill with humility.

Most people, for example, do not require an "anti-vengeance counselor" to calm their boiling rage toward enemies they may have acquired due to a rancorous departure from Politico in 2016, allegedly involving a dispute over money. Some people are just "unrepentant, unfixable jerks," VandeHei huffs. Repeatedly. They are "actually rotten" and "wholly defined by toxic insecurity." They will never change. Purge them from your humble genius lives. It brings to mind the adage about running into assholes. If it happens in the morning, then you ran into an asshole. If it happens all day, you might be the asshole.

Ruthless tranquility: VandeHei's advice for how to be a "selfless superstar," the official name for the ideal Axios employee, can be somewhat contradictory. He writes about how Politico developed a reputation as a "sweatshop" for scoops, but doesn't necessarily see that as a bad thing. Indeed, the author has struggled to navigate the left-wing nonsense promulgated by elite cultural institutions. For example, he originally coined the phrase "killers with empathy" to describe the ideal employee, only to be shouted down for promoting toxic masculinity.

VandeHei wants Axios to be just as successful as Politico but with more "humanity," which means that in addition to winning mornings and driving conversations, employees should spend less time on their phones and more time exercising, meditating, and self-reflecting. But mostly winning. "I am all for work/life balance, in theory," VandeHei writes in a chapter about how to win by being the best. "But the most driven are 100 percent self-motivated to do whatever it takes."

Good stuff, actually: Successful startup founders are weird. VandeHei is not unusual in that regard. He's a workaholic freak with "exceptional inner core strength" and a "massive chip" on his shoulder. A self-proclaimed guru of self-help. He's obsessed with health, fitness, and transcendental meditation. He got his first tattoo at age 51—a Malawian tribal word for "it is possible." The usual.

He's not entirely wrong, either. If we had to choose a weirdo corporate guru whose vision will shape America in the coming decades of the 21st, we could do a lot worse than VandeHei. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, he might be the most obnoxious, except for all the others. He's not interested in turning professional spaces into struggle sessions for snowflakes. He devotes several chapters on how to deal with whiny brats who complain about taking orders from a "straight, white, cisgender guy," and who insist that companies weigh in on every political controversy that makes them feel unsafe.

Some of the beliefs outlined in Just the Good Stuff are actually good, albeit hideously controversial in the eyes of people such as Katherine Maher, the NPR chief executive who defended looting, denounced "white silence," and couldn't stop "crying with relief" when Joe Biden won in 2020. VandeHei has no time for "people who gripe and moan about others' unfair advantages or flaws" or otherwise talk trash about America. In this country, he writes, "every person, even in the crappiest of circumstances, has the potential to do great things."

Bottom line: Some ideas are better than others.

Just the Good Stuff: No-BS Secrets to Success (No Matter What Life Throws at You)
by Jim VandeHei
Harmony, 256 pp., $28