The Art of Winning has been on the bestseller list for over a month now. Sam Brooks, who is only vaguely familiar with the concept of Dan Carter, reviews – and is surprised by what he finds.
I have never, in my life, seen a minute of Dan Carter playing rugby. This isn’t unique to him – there are many New Zealanders I have never seen play rugby. To me he is more of a concept – if you’d ask me to name a rugby player, his name would be one of the first to come to mind.
Given that, there are three things I know for sure about Dan Carter:
- He has played rugby many times, successfully.
- He has worn Jockeys at least once, successfully.
- He has written three books, including this one, and one with The Spinoff founder Duncan Greive.
I’m not a snob. Anybody can write a book, and a rugby player writing a book does not immediately mean it will be bad more than a writer playing rugby will immediately drop and fumble the ball (this writer excluded). I engage with culture both high and low, and with equal amounts of enthusiasm – I have seen every single episode of Family Guy (which is still going, FYI) and I read The Luminaries in one sitting.
The truth is I initially wanted to review this book because I thought it’d be funny. I would read it, then do my best to apply Dan Carter’s “rules of leadership”, sure to be silly and completely irrelevant to my life. How would a rugby player ever be able to pen advice that would resonate with someone who views a rugby ball as a hazard, and Jockeys as plan B when I’m on holiday? Oh, the punchlines and witty barbs that I could write about this book! Voyager Media Awards, hand over the Best Reviewer prize now!
In other words, I went into The Art of Winning sceptical, knives out and slightly raised, but ultimately open to Dan Carter’s ten lessons in “leadership, purpose and potential”.
Then something unexpected happened: I actually liked it.
My copy of The Art of Winning has 39 dog-eared pages, where I’ve noted an observation that I found insightful or helpful and wanted to come back to, and not just for review purposes. For a book that is just shy of 300 pages, including blank space to write in your answers to some provocations, that’s a pretty good hit rate.
Carter’s book follows a structure of 10 lessons, starting at “purpose” (good place to start), weaving through lessons like “pressure is a privilege”, “make yourself heard”, “identity” and ending up at “sacrifice” (needlessly foreboding). Each lesson plays out like a lecture, involving a little bit of Carter sharing his own experiences, be they as a player just starting out or from some other stage in his storied career, and explaining what he learnt at the time.
At the end of each chapter is a helpful summary of three points to take away from each chapter. These summaries are double-spaced, which is helpful if you like to highlight and make your own notes on things.
Honestly, the most revelatory part of Carter’s book – and I may be in the minority on this, as most people who read this book will be more familiar with Carter than I am – was how frankly he reflects on his own life. A recurring event is the ACL injury which “derailed” his career. He writes that even though his career as a player was over, he had something else:
“My career was over. But like so many other setbacks before, I’d managed to come back from it, and every day I spent playing felt like a gift. Or at least it did most of the time. I’m only human, after all. Some days I had to remind myself to be grateful, but what I discovered is that gratitude is like so many other habits: it can be developed over time.”
Even if your life is lower stakes than playing international rugby and being very much in the public eye, this is just a lovely and relatable sentiment. The book is full of these frankly quite delicate observations. For me, they were new information. For others who have followed Carter’s career, they might provide insights into moments that have largely been viewed through the camera’s lens, or potentially through the classically unhelpful insights that are spluttered out to sports reporters in the moments after the game.
Reading this book left me in an interesting place, not least because I closed it realising that I had almost no cutting insights to offer. Hell, the only thing that made me raise an eyebrow was an off-handed line about an “NFT marketplace” Carter was involved in. The book was mostly a collection of helpful tips for being in a management or leadership position. For example, Carter’s advice on communication:
“Keep your communication clear, so there’s no doubt what is meant; precise, just the essential content required by the receiver; and direct, delivered to the right people at the right time.”
That’s good advice! Is it Proust? No, but unless I wildly misinterpreted In Search of Lost Time, Proust wasn’t a self-help writer. It is, quite helpfully, advice that embodies itself. Clear, essential and direct.
I am not in a leadership or management position – largely I am responsible only for myself (although I have considered giving this book to the people in my life who are required to manage me, professionally and personally). A lot of the book is intended to be read by people who are responsible for a team, a business, or a business that refers to itself as “a team”, so if none of those refer to you, you might get limited use out of it.
However, I walked away from this book with some great common sense things laid out more directly and simply than my brain would ever allow me to do. I look at Carter’s “evolution” chapter summary, right at the end of the book:
“Stand still for too long and the competition will catch you up. You must change your game, even when you’re on top – especially when you’re on top.”
I’m not arrogant enough to say I’m at the top of my game, or any game for that matter, but another version of me might have ripped into The Art of Winning. The me that opened it certainly wanted to, while the me that closed it recognised that that would be a folly. It wouldn’t be a good piece of writing, neither punching down, nor punching up, just limp-wristedly fumbling in the vague direction of spite.
I wasn’t going to stand still and do that. Instead I was going to change my game, and take the book for what it is: a decent collection of helpful tips, written by somebody who has achieved quite a bit in their career and deigned to put it down onto paper. That’s what a good reviewer does, so thank you, Dan Carter – for helping me, just a little bit.
Dan Carter: The Art of Winning is available wherever books are sold.