Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History was awesome. Given that Sears filed for Chapter 11 today, I’ll start with some perspective from 1976.
America is remarkably dynamic. Humans constantly create narratives about things and how they work. Suddenly, popular books are appearing, such as Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, that challenge the relevance of our narratives.
There is so much to reflect on when reading a book like Fantasyland or Sapiens. Pondering the meaning of life is an endless human pastime.
It’s particularly interesting in the context of the growth and development of a country, which in and of itself is a temporary construct, just like everything else.
I’ve always loved reading fantasy. And, after reading Fantasyland, I realize I’ve been living in it also.
This summer I read the page proof version of Scott Belsky’s new book The Messy Middle. It is excellent and is now out and available. I bought 100 copies and am sending them out to every CEO in our portfolio. If you are a CEO of a fast-growing company, I strongly recommend it.
The letter I sent out to the CEOs in our portfolio (with the book) follows:
Since you are a member of the Foundry Group Book of the Almost Every Month Club (bet you didn’t know that was part of the deal when we invested), enclosed is a copy of The Messy Middle by Scott Belsky.
It’s outstanding. Many of you are either in the messy middle or aspire to be (whether you realize it or not.) And, if you don’t aspire to be in the messy middle, but hope to one day be a large company, you may as well deal with the reality that you’ll enjoy time in the messy middle.
Scott was the founder of Behance, a company funded by USV and a bunch of seed/angel investors, that was acquired by Adobe. Scott then served a tour of duty at Adobe, left to spend some time at Benchmark, but then went back to Adobe and is now Adobe’s Chief Product Officer. He’s also had a great track record of angel investments, so he’s been around a bunch of different blocks multiple times.
Rather than read from start to finish, take a look at the Table of Contents while holding a pen and circle the sub-chapters that are interesting to you. There are a lot of them, they are short, and almost all are highly relevant. But, start with the ones that call out to you as a way to get into the book more deeply.
And, if you find something particularly relevant to you, mention it, with an example (if you are brave enough to name names) and put it up on the CEO list.
Scott – thanks for putting so much energy into this book.
I took last week off the grid for my Q318 vacation. Amy and I were originally going to Alaska to look at polar bears but canceled everything after I got sick and did a staycation in Boulder instead. I got at least 10 hours of sleep each day, did a bunch of self-care things (PT, massage, meditate), ran a few times (to the extent that 14-minute miles can be considered running), and read a half dozen books.
I’m feeling a lot better. I’m off antibiotics, feel well-rested, and have renewed energy as Q4 begins. The vacation was well timed and it was awesome to spend a full week just relaxing and recovering.
For the readers out there in blogland, here are quick summaries of the books I read.
One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer: Recommended by Christopher Schroeder, I wouldn’t have ordinarily picked up a book like this. It was awesome and another great read in the memoir category. While I had a view on the Marines, I learned a lot from this book and was engaged from start to finish. I realize all the memoirs I’ve read recently were by men, so I added a few female memoirs to my Kindle to read.
Late to the Ball: A Journey into Tennis and Aging: Another memoir, this time about tennis. Gerry Mazorati started playing later in life and, in his sixties, decided to see how good he could get as a competitive tennis player. His self-reflection, both about tennis and aging, as he pursues this quest, are delicious. I played competitive tennis as a junior (age 10 – 14), stopped for many years after completely burning out, and started playing casually again around age 30. This was a fun nudge in the direction of being more competitive when I play, rather than “just hitting.”
Dietland: When I grabbed some memoirs written by women, I also grabbed some female-centric fiction, which I realized isn’t part of my regular reading diet. I just read the Amazon book summary on Dietland, which follows: “Plum Kettle does her best not to be noticed because when you’re fat, to be noticed is to be judged. With her job answering fan mail for a teen magazine, she is biding her time until her weight-loss surgery. But when a mysterious woman in colorful tights and combat boots begins following her, Plum falls down a rabbit hole into the world of Calliope House — an underground community of women who reject society’s rules — and is forced to confront the real costs of becoming “beautiful.” At the same time, a guerilla group begins terrorizing a world that mistreats women, and Plum becomes entangled in a sinister plot. The consequences are explosive.” It was super provocative and when I finished, I said out loud “three for three so far this week on the reading front …”
Hiking with Nietzsche: On Becoming Who You Are: This was the best book of the week and made things “four for four.” Dave Jilk (my first business partner and, at this point, other than my brother, my longest standing friendship) and I are working on a book project currently titled Nietzsche for Entrepreneurs. John Kaag wrote a magnificent mix of a memoir and exploration of Nietzsche while spending a month with his wife and child in Sils Maria where Nietzsche wrote a number of his books. I learned a lot about Nietzsche, how his philosophy evolved and fit together, and enjoyed intellectually wandering around in mountains that I expect I will be visiting in my future.
Lying: by Sam Harris was poignant and relevant. It was short and should be read by everyone. It’s a great argument for why one should never lie. It felt especially relevant last week.
Blitzscaling: The Lightning-Fast Path to Building Massively Valuable Companies: Reid Hoffman and Chris Yeh’s new book showed up in the middle of the week so I tossed it on the top of the infinite pile of physical books. If you are in a fast scaling company, are curious about some details about fast-growing companies that you know, but might not have heard from, or just want a big dose of “here’s how it works in Silicon Valley when it works”, there’s a lot of good stuff in this one. Dear Reid and Chris – please tell your editor that it is “startup”, not “start-up.”
On reflection, I would have benefited from more fiction last week. I’m in the middle of Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History which is incredibly awesome, so once I finish it I’ll queue up some more fiction.
I enjoyed Bradley Tusk’s new book, The Fixer: My Adventures Saving Startups from Death by Politics. It’s another memoir, a category which seems to be ending up on the top of my reading list a lot these days. It also was in the pile of books I get sent regularly by publishers hoping I’ll read and review them (as in “Dear Brad Feld, here is a form letter about my book, I hope you like it.”)
While I don’t know Bradley Tusk, I know of him, have heard him speak once, and like his first name. When I started reading The Fixer, I had no idea whether I’d end up engrossed, or end up turning the pages every 15 seconds as I skimmed through it looking for the good bits.
I was engrossed, at least for the first half. I started it on Monday night after dinner and got halfway through before I noticed my eyes closing as sleep beckoned. It was about 9:15 pm, which is a typical call it quits time for me on a weekday, especially since I’m still sleeping 10 or so hours a night as I recover from my two weeks of misery.
Last night Amy and I watched Sicario: Day of the Soldado. It was exactly what we were looking for, so I took a night off from reading.
Tonight, I got home at about 7 pm, ate dinner, and finished up The Fixer. The second half had a bunch of startup stories, which were shorter, but also less interesting to me in the context of a memoir. It also shifted from “here’s my story” to “here’s what my business is doing to help startups” which, while better than most memoirs that try to walk the line of self-promotion, still was less stimulating (at least to me) than the first half. Well, except for the chapter about Bloomberg almost running for president, which I loved.
Overall, it’s a winner of a book. And, if you are an entrepreneur who is doing anything that touches on any heavily regulated industry (which is a lot of you), I’d put it in the must-read category to get more context and ideas about what you are up against and how to think about it.
A week ago, while proofreading a draft of Jerry Colonna’s upcoming book, I noticed a few sections where he mentioned Ani Pema Chödrön. When he referenced her book How to Meditate, I went on Amazon and bought a physical copy to read.
Last night, as Amy and I laid on our respective couches reading, I flowed through How to Meditate. With Brooks the Wonder Dog at my feet, I relaxed into what was a wonderfully written book on Meditation. It’s less about the mechanics of meditation (although there are some described) but more about the philosophy of meditation. And, as a human, how to relate to what meditation is, and what it can do, for and to you.
The book reinforced a lot of what I’ve experienced with meditation while giving me some new thoughts about it. Recently, I’ve been doing the Headspace pack on Pain Management as I work through all the pain linked to my summer of misery. Ani Pema’s book gave me the insight to try doing the 20-minute Headspace pain session first thing in the morning while sitting in my hot tub, outside, with my eyes open (but with a soft gaze.) I did this for the first time this morning and it was glorious. I’ll be doing it again tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day …
If you meditate, are curious about meditation, are interested in mindfulness, or notice that your mind is all over the place these days, How to Meditate is worth a quiet two hours of your life.
“How did your book end?” asked Amy from her position reading on the couch across the room.
“Perfectly,” I answered.
A Gentleman in Moscow was magnificent. While there’s still a chance I’ll read something better in 2018, for now, I’m declaring it the best book I’ve read this year.
I started A Gentleman in Moscow earlier this week after finishing Bob Woodward’s Fear: Trump in the White House, which was also excellent, but of a very different nature. Several people had recommended it to me (including, I think Maureen, so this may count as a women’s book club recommendation). According to Amazon, I’ve had it on my Kindle since I purchased it on 9/5/16. After consuming it two years later, it seems fitting that I let it age a little.
I didn’t really know what to expect, so I was startled to begin in Moscow on June 21, 1922. After the first few pages, we spent almost the entirety of the book in the Hotel Metropol. If I ever visit Moscow, I think I’ll stay in Suite 317.
I won’t ruin this one for you. If you like novels, especially with tasty historical backdrops, this one is delicious.
A few months ago Andy Sack got me a subscription to The Next Big Idea Club. Every quarter, a box with two books in it shows up. These books were chosen by Adam Grant, Susan Cain, Malcolm Gladwell, and Daniel Pink – several of my favorite contemporary writers and thinkers.
A box showed up at the end of last week. On Saturday, I read one of the books in the box – Uncensored: My Life and Uncomfortable Conversations at the Intersection of Black and White America by Zachary Wood. I was pleasantly surprised that it landed squarely in the memoir category even though Zachary is only 22.
While Zachary is clearly an incredible human, his story is even more remarkable. The first 75% of the book is his story of growing up in poverty, with an abusive mother, an emotionally distant father, with time split between Detroit and DC, while – at a very young age – falling in love with books, reading, learning, and ideas. Against an extremely challenging backdrop and even more challenging odds – ones that many people grow up in – Zachary developed discipline, grit, and determination that caused me to be awestruck.
When I took the backdrop of his childhood out of the equation, many of his intellectual pursuits and academic achievements were similar to what I experienced growing up. To do this though, I had to delete at least half of the time and energy he put against just surviving day to day, getting to school, having enough to eat, finding money to do pretty much anything, and avoiding endless emotional and psychological pits. Then I had to delete another 25% of the stress he faced being different – both from his academic peers and the kids he lived around. Then I had to delete some more, which was the result of my nurturing parents, in the comfortable middle-class neighborhood, with the safe house, in my own bedroom, surrounded by friends who looked like me and acted like me. There’s a lot more that I kept unfolding as I turned each page, getting a feeling for an entirely different type of struggle than the one I had growing up.
Halfway through the book, Warren Buffett’s famous phrase about winning the ovarian lottery was echoing in my head. While I’ve worked hard all my life, I know I had an enormous head start being born in America, male, white, in the 1960s, healthy, with a good brain, to two loving parents who were both well educated, surrounded by lots of resources.
If Zachary and I were racing in a marathon, I got to start at mile 25 with clean clothes, a Clif Bar, and a water bottle. He started at mile 0 without shoes, wearing jeans, after having stayed up all night.
The last 25% of the book is about his time at Williams College, with a particular focus on his journey with the Uncomfortable Learning organization. To get a sense of the intensity and intellectual commitment of Zachary, take a look at his Senate Testimony from June 2017 titled Free Speech 101: The Assault on the First Amendment on College Campuses. To process any of this stuff, you have to put all of your biases (of which we all, including me, have many) on the shelf, in a box, and hide them in the corner. Then, while pondering what Zachary is doing, reflect on the intense negativity, anger, hostility, and ad-hominem attacks that are endlessly directed at him. And, rather than fight them, he embraces the conflict, while trying to elevate the discussion so that learning occurs, even though it’s uncomfortable.
I went to bed Saturday night with a lot of new thoughts in my mind. My dreams were strange, which is always a signal that I’m processing something new.
Andy – thank you for the gift. It’s a perfect one.
“an autobiography is a chronological telling of one’s experience, which should include phases such as childhood, adolescence, adulthood, etc., while a memoir provides a much more specific timeline and a much more intimate relationship to the writer’s own memories, feelings and emotions.”
Over the past few weeks, I’ve read Omarosa Manigault Newman’s Unhinged: An Insider’s Account of the Trump White House, Lisa Brennan-Jobs Small Fry, Mark Epstein’s Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself, and Gail Honeyman’s fictional Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine.
While it can be argued that each of these (other than Small Fry) belong in a category other than the memoir, reading each of them resulted in a lot of self-reflection on my part. Front and center was the notion of “an intimate relationship to the writer’s own memories, feelings, and emotions.”
Each had something special in it for me. While I was struggling with my bacterial infection, I had a heightened sense of my own mortality. While I only had one 24 hour period of existential dread, Amy was there beside me and let me talk openly about how I was feeling. I was reading Mark Epstein’s book at the time that I had this feeling, and many of the messages in it became more precise – and poignant for me.
As I sit at home, on a sunny day in Boulder, I realize how incredibly fortunate I am on many dimensions. It’s a cliche, but the human condition is extremely complex. Reflecting on other people’s struggles, especially in comparison to my own, generates enormous perspective for me. It is in this way that I find memoirs different (and more enriching) than autobiography.
For me, it’s not about the meaning someone else ascribes to their life, or the history a third person tells about someone, but how one’s self-reflection helps inform, enhance, and evolve the meaning I give to my life.
Our longtime friend Lura Vernon wrote a really fun book last year titled Cool Dogs and Crazy Cats. It’s a coffee table book that is a combination of hilarious dog and cat haikus along with epic dog and cat photos.
I’m a dog person. During my first marriage in the 1980s, I had a gigantic cat named Tiny. It was evil. You’d be lovingly petting it and it would suddenly sink its teeth into your arm. Actually, when I reflect on it, the cat only attacked me regularly. But then I tossed milk bottle caps across the bathroom which it chased, right into the bathtub, which was full of water. Yeah, I contributed to the dynamic we had.
Fortunately, Amy is a dog person. We currently have two giant golden retrievers (Cooper and Brooks) which are #4 and #3 in our life (Denali was the first, followed by Kenai.) They are the coolest of the cool dogs.
I’m a marathon runner, but not an ultrarunner. I’ve only done one ultra (the American River 50 miler) and the combination of the training, race, and recovery was too much for me. But I love the idea of ultras.
I have several close friends who run ultras so I live vicariously through them. I love to watch documentaries about ultras, like the insane Barkley Marathons.
There are lots of ultra runners in Boulder. While I’m not part of the scene, I follow them from a distance.
Scott Jurek is one of my heroic ultra characters in Boulder. I find his running accomplishments completely mind-bending. He is a great writer and I thoroughly enjoyed his previous book Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness. So, when I noticed his new book, North: Finding My Way While Running the Appalachian Trail while wandering around in the Boulder Bookstore Saturday night, I grabbed it.
I read it Monday and Tuesday night, finishing it last night right before bedtime. I was simply awesome. Jurker (Scott’s nickname) wrote it with his wife Jenny. They used a really fun format – alternating sections within each chapter. The first half of the chapter was Jurker’s view of what was going on (in his voice). The second half of the chapter was in Jenny’s voice. Each of them covered a wide range of experiences during the 47-day journey, including lots of fascinating characters along the way.
I have a secret dream of running the Colorado Trail. Please don’t tell anyone, especially Amy or my parents. It’s only 486 miles (vs. the Appalachian Trail which is officially “about 2,200 miles.”). Since it’s a secret dream, I’m going to keep it locked away there, while reading about amazing feats like what Jurker did on the Appalachian Trail.
If you are a runner, endurance athlete, or just love great human adventure stories, you’ll love this book.