Profound Ideas From Sterling Sill’s ‘Bottles and Books’

There are times in your life where you read something and it sticks with you. It changes the way you think and act. Somehow, it never seems to fully leave you. I’ve had a handful of these moments in my life. Today I’d like to share what I’ve learned from one such instance.

I was 20 years old when I first read Sterling W. Sill’s  Bottles and Books speech which he gave to an audience on the campus of Brigham Young University in 1977. I consider it one of the all-time great BYU speeches. I have since reread it dozens of times. Reading this speech has inspired me to spend more time searching for great ideas.

Here are my biggest takeaways from the speech:

I Can Overcome Personal Famines

Sill begins his speech by talking about two famines in the world, one for food and another for hearing the word of God. He then tells the solutions humans have implemented to overcome both of these famines. 

We learned how to preserve food. Nicolas Appert made the seasons stand still. Today we can eat peaches any time of the year, not just during the peach harvest. We don’t always consider what preserving food has done for our society.

Sill broadens the scope of the other famine to include any ailments we may face. To circumvent this famine, humans have learned to write ideas down on paper.

If we are struggling with confidence, there are words, ideas, and books that can help us overcome that famine. He said, “In case of any mental, spiritual, or emotional, famines we may take down the appropriate papers from their place on the bookshelf and devour the message to our heart’s content.” Like peaches in winter, we can find answers when there seems to be none.

To implement this idea in your life you should take special care to notice what inspires you. If there is a quote that fills you with hope, then make sure to record it and file it away so when that day comes when you are hopeless, you can turn to it.

I Can Rethink The Great Ideas

Throughout the speech, Sill emphasizes the need for great literature. We should be reading constantly. 

The thrill of reading for Sill is that he can run through his brain the greatest ideas from the great ones of the world. For example, through reading, we can run through our heads all of the tremendous ideas that Shakespeare or Ralph Waldo Emerson thought.

Speaking of Shakespeare, Sill said:

I decided that I would like to take up Shakespeare. Shakespeare comes pretty near the top of most peoples list of great authors, and so I decided to read every word that Shakespeare wrote. That is, I decided to rethink every idea that Shakespeare ever thought, to run through my brain every idea that ever went through his brain. I got started, and I had a pretty hard time—he wrote a long time ago, and a lot of things I did not understand, and I had to look up and go back and reread some things many times, and in the meantime I let my work drag a little bit. I decided a number of times to discard the whole idea, but I had made myself a promise and I do not like to disappoint myself. So I would go back and work at it some more; and finally the clouds began to part and a little bit of the sunshine began to come through, and I had a tremendous experience with Shakespeare as I read his great speeches, felt the power of his motivation, and watched the players upon his stage as they acted and reacted upon each other.

If we truly soak up these great ideas from the world’s greatest thinkers then our brain will start responding as their brains did. We can train our brains to respond just like them.

I Should Collect the Great Ideas

Sill says his greatest possession he has are “twenty-five idea notebooks”, which house around 7,500 pages of great ideas. Ideas that he had found from reading. He said, “When in my reading I come to some little nugget of an idea that sends a chill up and down my backbone and gives me an ambition to do something important, I take that out and put it in my idea bank, and then when I have time I memorize it.”

After finishing Shakespeare, he read 987 of the great classics (I wish I could have this list) that have stood the test of time. He had all the potent passages and other great ideas cataloged in his notebooks.

I love this idea. For years I have attempted to create my own idea notebooks. Unfortunately, I haven’t found a great system to house them, and I have a lot of partially written notebooks. Part of the purpose of this website is to be my own idea treasury. 

Memorize Great Ideas

Not only did Sill collect these great ideas, but he memorized most of them as well. In other speeches of his, he talks about how he memorizes constantly, and his memory has improved with his age (I.e., he can memorize faster than he could in college).

Memorization has a bad reputation these days. Rote memorization isn’t higher-level thinking, critics say. But in my experience, memorizing requires a focus and determination that helps to exercise the brain. The brain has more than one way to be exercised and memorization is a great option.

I want to get in the habit of memorizing every day. 

Final Thoughts

Go and listen or read Bottles and Books. Hopefully, it will have a similar impact on you as it has on me.

If you’re interested, here is a link to all of Sterling Sill’s books available on Amazon. I have partially read The Law of Success but plan on reading more soon.

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