Editor’s Note: At 70, John Bechtel is on his third career, and writing and communication skills have been a critical component of his success in all of them. From humble beginnings, and getting a late start, he began working his way through college as a janitor-for-hire, which he developed into a multi-state cleaning and facility management businesses. He achieved recognition as a frequent author in trade magazines, which often led to new business. For one large insurance company, he even researched and wrote a working manual for managing an Asian flu pandemic. When he retired from business 30 years later, he was a frequent speaker, consultant, and seminar leader for two national education companies, and led programs on dealing with difficult people, and improving reading, writing, and presentation skills for federal and state government, military, and Fortune 500 companies in the fields of banking, manufacturing, and service. He has also ghostwritten books for several clients, the most recent being a book on medical malpractice published in 2017. In 2014 he attended a seminar for those interested in the travel writing profession, and a year later became a regular contributor to a glossy niche cultural magazine called Scandinavian Press.
MM: You are a longtime Objectivist, but you were raised a Jehovah’s Witness (JW). As we were planning this interview, you mentioned that you aren’t bitter about the years you spent as a JW. That’s not easy to do. How did you reconcile yourself to your mistakes and go on to create for yourself the life you wanted?
JB: There's a difference between willful blindness and being born blind and not knowing what it's like to be able to see. I was born into a closed environment where association with outsiders was forbidden. Even reading was confined to school textbooks.
My mother rebelled, thankfully, and so did I. For years, every two weeks, we checked out fiction and nonfiction books from the public library, sneaking them home in brown paper grocery bags. I hid those books under my mattress and read them each night by flashlight.
I was an ambitious kid. I was bright, and I excelled in the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the only world that was known to me. I was on television by the time I was 12 years old, and I spoke before audiences of as many as 3000 people as a teenager.
I was invited to the JW Headquarters when I graduated from high school. Headquarters was what I like to call the world's largest monastery. 2000 single men lived and worked together there in Brooklyn, New York.
Part of my job was to answer questions, apply church policies and to write. I began to discover huge contradictions between church theology and reality. I began suffering headaches every day at work just processing the contradictions. And I realized that I wasn't going to find answers for myself, and certainly not for the people I was supposed to be leading, within those walls. So I resigned and left.
I didn't know a thing about earning a living or about life in the outside world either, but I had lots of office skills, skills in public speaking and skills organizing material, people and events. Eventually, I found a market for them. I got a job as a janitor at a car dealership, where I learned a lot about cleaning and contracting. And since I'd been a writer all my life, I began writing for trade journals in the industry. Within a couple of years I had a lot of name recognition and my own cleaning business, with 100 people working for me.
I was ostracized eventually –– JWs calls it disfellowshipping –– excommunication, abandoned by everyone. To my family, to my friends, I became persona non grata. Still, I was relieved to be out. I felt fortunate.
MM: How did you first learn about Ayn Rand?
JB: I was on the board of directors of the International Building Service Contractors Association and attending one of their conventions in Washington, DC. One evening I went with a few other contractors to Blues Alley Jazz Club in Georgetown. During one of the sets a colleague yelled into my ear, “Have you ever read Atlas Shrugged?” And I said, “Atlas who?”
Well, I'd never heard of the book, and I'd never heard of Ayn Rand. Although it turns out that at that time my apartment in New York was within walking distance of hers. Anyway, a few days later I bought the book. It took me three days to read it. I was in my early thirties, on my second career, and this book absolutely took me by storm. There was hardly a page and certainly not a chapter that didn't resonate with me.
After that I bought everything of hers that I could find.
One of the things that resonated with me almost immediately was reading about her escape from Soviet Russia, and how disappointed she was when she got to the West and found that so many of the intellectuals were in love with Joseph Stalin and the Soviet experiment! That was exactly how I felt coming out of Jehovah's Witnesses. So glad to be free, and then so astonished to find so many more closed minds.
MM: What is your favorite Ayn Rand book and why?
JB: The Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology. Atlas Shrugged introduced me to Ayn Rand. I was enraptured with Francisco d’Anconia’s Money Speech, and I loved reading Galt’s Speech. But I read Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology cover to cover in one sitting. I couldn't put it down.
The concept of value formation, with life as the ultimate value, and the idea that virtue is not an end in itself, this really changed my way of thinking. From my religious upbringing I’d learned that religion is all about virtue. Now I was reading that life is the ultimate value because without life there can be no other values. How simple! And how clear! And that virtue is not an end in itself, but what promotes life. That resonated with me so deeply. I’d never heard before that joy was a virtue. Or that what makes successful living is what promotes joy.
I’ve read many things since then that helped me put more of the pieces of the puzzle together, which reminds me, I'm so glad that Stephen Hicks is a Senior Scholar at The Atlas Society. His book Explaining Postmodernism was phenomenal.
MM: How did you get involved with The Atlas Society?
JB: In 1988 I met David Kelley. David was still associated with the Ayn Rand Institute (ARI), as was I, and we met at an ARI softball game on a Saturday afternoon. I took a picture of him at bat.
Shortly thereafter of course David left ARI and started The Objectivist Center, which would later become The Atlas Society. David became aware of my history with the Jehovah’s Witnesses. The two of us began to talk, and he invited me to speak about cults at an event in Burlington, Vermont. So I did. The response to my speech was so positive that he invited me to speak at a similar event in Vancouver, British Columbia the following year. So that's how I got involved.
MM: You eventually became a travel writer. How did that happen?
JB: In 2014 I took a seminar on travel writing in San Diego. I was retired from my business and ghostwriting a book for a neurosurgeon. I was halfway finished with that project and wondering what I would do next. About a year later, I got a tip that there was work with a magazine called Scandinavian Press.
I didn't even think to ask about money. I was just so thrilled to get a byline. So I wrote the article, and they published it. I called the editor and asked how much I was going to get paid, and he said, “In all the 25 years that we've been in business, I’ve never paid a writer. They all write for free.”
That was not the answer I was expecting. I’d already written a second article though, so I sent it in and again he published it without paying me.
This time I waited a few months and then sent him an email saying, “Okay no more free stuff.” He wrote back and basically said, “Thanks so much. Have a nice life.”
About a month or so after that though I got an email from him offering to revisit my request for payment. And I went from writing for free to being one of the best paid writers in the industry.
He never told me why he changed his mind, but I suspect that he had been getting comments from readers, and he decided that he was better off paying me than losing me.
I had total editorial control. He never once assigned me a story, never challenged or questioned my views. And that's a dream come true for a writer. I never missed a deadline either.
Over a four-year period I wrote 53 Feature Articles, including “Learning from Scandinavia's Game of Thrones.” It looks at a lengthy period in Scandinavian history when they invaded each other so often that people in the villages no longer knew what language to speak or who they were supposed to hate. I unearthed surprising nuggets of information for my readers. There were also articles about Nordics in the fine arts; dance, music, architecture, authors and playwrights and cuisine and about Nordics in the Caribbean, South America, Eurasia, Canada and Africa. I have written from many places in the world, and will continue to do so. I like to think I write in the spirit of Ayn Rand, to see a thing for what it is, and to raise questions for thoughtful readers. I still write a free blog, www.johnbechtelwriter.com/blog.
MM: Do you think that travel will resume post-coronavirus?
JB: We’ll probably see the really big-ticket items, the luxury travel, resume first. Those travelers are still going to be nervous about whether it is safe to travel, so I think the travel industry will focus on places like Disney and New York City and on the biggest, best and most expensive hotels. They are going to pull out all the stops to make people who can afford it feel safe and excited about traveling again.
MM: Thanks John. I enjoyed this. Happy travels.
JB: Thank you, Marilyn.