Monthly Archives: September 2012

Book Review: Startup Communities

Want to make your city more of a hotbed for entrepreneurship? It’s the obsession of many entrepreneurs, mayors, and university professors. Finally there’s a book overflowing with practical, credible advice on how to do it — Brad Feld’s latest: Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City. In addition to myriad tactics and examples, Brad also presents a persuasive set of overarching principles that all good startup ecosystems have. It’s a must-read if you are involved in trying to stimulate entrepreneurship in your region in the U.S. or abroad.

For me, the best part of the book is having seen first hand how my good friend Brad walks the walk on the things he writes about in the book. He is the entrepreneur who leads the community in Boulder, CO and who has run or supported almost all of the community-building experiments. He speaks from direct experience.

As it happens, in October, 2008 — well before the national press flocked to the scene! — I wrote a long-ish piece about Boulder as a startup town. The gist of the piece is that rather than be a pale version of Silicon Valley, Boulder is self-confidently something different: a small, energetic startup ecosystem filled with people who love to live in Boulder for the outdoors and quality of life, and who also work in the tech industry. A comparison: A liberal arts college offers something valuable and unique in the higher ed marketplace. It shouldn’t try to compete with a large research university; rather, it should embrace its strengths while fully admitting it’s not for everyone. That’s Boulder.

The one shortcoming of Startup Communities is that there is comparatively little detail about how communities other than Boulder have fared in their efforts to become startup hubs. I’ve personally seen differing approaches in places like Santiago, Chile, Austin, Texas, and Zurich, Switzerland. More on comparing and contrasting approaches from regions around the world on this vital issue would be interesting. The good news is that I expect that’s a theme Brad will take up on the Startup Revolution companion web site. Congrats, Brad!

Book Review: Why We Get Fat

I found Gary Taubes’ Why We Get Fat to be provocative and persuasive. It challenged my long held assumption that the way to lose weight is to eat less and exercise more. Taubes’ hypothetical exposes the oddity of the “eat less, exercise more” maxim:

Imagine you’re invited to a celebratory dinner. The chef’s talent is legendary, and the invitation says that this particular dinner is going to be a feast of monumental proportions. Bring your appetite, you’re told—come hungry. How would you do it? You might try to eat less over the course of the day—maybe even skip lunch, or breakfast and lunch. You might go to the gym for a particularly vigorous workout, or go for a longer run or swim than usual, to work up an appetite. You might even decide to walk to the dinner, rather than drive, for the same reason. Now let’s think about this for a moment. The instructions that we’re constantly being given to lose weight—eat less (decrease the calories we take in) and exercise more (increase the calories we expend)—are the very same things we’ll do if our purpose is to make ourselves hungry, to build up an appetite, to eat more. Now the existence of an obesity epidemic coincident with half a century of advice to eat less and exercise more begins to look less paradoxical.

I also liked this sentence:

To ‘explain’ obesity by overeating is as illuminating a statement as an ‘explanation’ of alcoholism by chronic overdrinking.

The thesis of the book is that what you eat determines weight loss. Namely, what kind and how many carbohydrates. Taubes advocates the Atkins diet — low carb, high protein, high fat. Taubes is a science journalist, not a researcher himself, so he positions himself as a syntheizer of the literature. Here’s his recent podcast interview with Russ Roberts on Econtalk. For a more skeptical take, here’s a blog post from Scientific American.

I reccomend Why We Get Fat to anyone interested in nutrition, diet, and health. Thanks to Saar Gur and Tod Sacerdoti for the recomendation.

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Also from the book: diet and disease:

Eat Western diets, get Western diseases—notably obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer. This is one of the primary reasons why public-health experts believe that there are dietary and lifestyle causes for all these diseases, even cancer—that they’re not just the result of bad luck or bad genes.

To get a feel for the kind of modern evidence supporting this idea, consider breast cancer. In Japan, this disease is relatively rare, certainly not the scourge it is for American women. But when Japanese women emigrate to the United States, it takes only two generations for their descendants to experience the same breast-cancer rates as any other local ethnic group. This tells us that something about the American lifestyle or diet is causing breast cancer.

Colon cancer is ten times more common in rural Connecticut than in Nigeria. Alzheimer’s disease is far more common among Japanese Americans than among Japanese living in Japan; it’s twice as common among African Americans as among rural Africans. Pick a disease from the list of Western diseases, and a pair of locations—one urban, say, and one rural, or one Westernized and one not—compare people in the same age groups, and the disease will be more common in the urban and Westernized locations and less common outside them.

Book Review: So Good They Can’t Ignore You

Cal Newport’s latest book launches today and is titled So Good They Can’t Ignore You: Why Skills Trump Passion in the Quest for Work You Love. Having read most of the major career books in the field when writing The Start-up of You, I say with confidence that Cal’s is one of the best yet written. Here are the Four Rules of the book, in Cal’s voice:

  1. Rule #1: Don’t Follow Your Passion. Here I make my argument that “follow your passion” is bad advice. You’ve heard me talk about this on Study Hacks, but in this chapter, I lay out my full-throated, comprehensive, detailed argument against this common advice.
  2. Rule #2: Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You. Here I detail the philosophy that works better than following your passion. This philosophy, which I call career capital theory, says that you first build up rare and valuable skills and then use these skills as leverage to shape you career into something you love. During this chapter I spend time with a professional guitar player, television writer, and venture capitalist, among others, in my quest to understand how people get really good at what they do. You’ll also encounter a detailed discussion of deliberate practice and how to apply it in your working life.
  3. Rule #3: Turn Down a Promotion. Here I argue that control is one of the most important things you can bargain for with your rare and valuable skills. I discuss the difficulties people face in trying to move toward more autonomy in their working lives and describe strategies that can help you sidestep these pitfalls. During this chapter, I spend time with a hotshot database developer, an entrepreneurial medical resident, an Ivy League-trained organic farmer, and Derek Sivers, among others, in my attempts to decode control.
  4. Rule #4: Think Small, Act Big. In this final rule, I explore how people end up with career-defining missions — often a source of great passion. I argue that you need rare and valuable skills before you can identify a powerful mission. I then spend time with a star Harvard professor, a television host, and a Ruby on Rails guru, all in an effort to identify best practices for cultivating this trait.

Longtime readers may be familiar with links to Cal’s blog. For years, he’s been writing about the world of work with an unusual level of imagination. I relied heavily on his insight when working on The Start-Up of You. And over the past several years, he’s become a good friend and trusted ally to me on all fronts.

If you’re a thinking person who knows you can’t rely on easy (and wrong) answers about what will make your career go; if you’re instead ready to confront the necessity of deliberate practice and real skill development — then buy this outstanding book. If you order the book this week, you’re eligible to win one-on-one time with Cal.

Getting Feedback: Diagnosis and Remedy Are Different Things

In my article on lessons learned from publishing a book, I write about the process of getting feedback on the manuscript:

Here’s my big lesson on how to get helpful help. Remember when Reid asked his friends whether the manuscript was great? The value judgment great / not great is helpful to know whether you are finished. We thought we were close to finished, but in fact we were not. That was a helpful part of the feedback process.

But once we realized we had more work to do, hearing whether someone thought it was great or not great – whether they liked it or didn’t like it – was not usefulWhat’s helpful is how you actually make the text better regardless of whether they like the current version or not. As Tim Harford suggested to me, if you know you have work to do on the manuscript, just ask someone for one or two tips to make it better. Focus their mind exclusively on practical, actionable specific changes you can make to improve it.

Tucker Max emailed in with the following observation about gathering editorial feedback: “When people say that something is wrong, they are almost always right. When they tell you how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.” Exactly the case in our experience, and an excellent point in general.

Being able to identify that something’s not working — be it in writing or in any other context — is separate from identifying how to actually fix it. Problem vs. solution. To offer a good solution, you have to understand the problem. But just because you understand the problem does not mean you have a good solution.

Admiring Excellence, An Ongoing Series

I recently watched two documentaries I highly recommend: Jiro Dreams of Sushi and Being Elmo. Each is about a craftsman and his craft: Jiro, a master sushi maker in Tokyo, and Kevin Clash, the brains and voice behind the muppet Elmo. Both available on Netflix streaming. It reminded of my post last year titled Admiring Excellence, which I’ve re-posted below. It’s a topic I continue to think about almost every day…


At a San Francisco Giants game a couple months ago, I joked to Cal Newport, who was sitting next to me, that the Newportian analysis of the game had nothing to do with bases and balls and everything to do with the years of deliberate practice that rocketed each player to the peak of their profession. Cal sees remarkable talent as the product of years of craftsmanship.

I thought about that moment at the ballpark with Cal the other week when I was listening to a commentator who, after reporting that the Houston Astros (one of the worst teams in baseball this season) beat the Giants, said that it doesn’t matter how bad the opposing team is–when you’re competing against professional athletes, it is always hard work to win. The worst player on the worst team in the major leagues is still one of the best athletes in the world. When you see a National League pitcher go to bat and hack at balls way off the plate, he looks like he’s never swung a bat before. Yet, that hitter was probably the best hitter on his high school team by far. When professional pitchers are made to look silly at the plate, it’s a reminder of how good major league pitching is. Only those who devote their professional careers to hitting stand a chance–and full-time pitchers, obviously, do not.

You don’t need to be a pro at the craft to admire it in others. In the baseball example, if you don’t know the rules of baseball you won’t appreciate the players’ talents. You need a base level of knowledge. But you can be an amateur and still be awed by the pros, if you let yourself.

Why admire excellence? First, admiring excellence is part of appreciative thinking. In a terrific, packed restaurant, admiring excellence becomes appreciating the myriad details the restauranteur has nailed to make the dining experience flawless. Purchasing a product on Amazon becomes appreciating the data analysts who processed billions of bits of data in order to optimize the shopping cart process. This appreciative, admiring mentality is also a backdoor entrance–in the house of feelings–to gratitude. “I’m grateful to be in the presence of someone who’s world class at their craft.”

Second, consciously admiring and recognizing the excellence of someone is the first step to becoming a master yourself. If the key to mastery of any skill is deconstructing what current masters did to get to where they are, then step one is knowing when you’re around professionals–and letting yourself admire them!

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From Josh Kaufman, a Craftsman’s Creed.

Via Carlos Miceli, Denis Dutton’s TED talk, which Carlos summarizes as: “Meticulous work, regardless of the field, is beautiful. We find beauty in skilled performances.”

Lessons and Reflections from Publishing the Start-Up of You

I just published a long article/essay on the process of publishing The Start-Up of You. In addition to sharing background on how Reid and I came to partner on the book, I share lessons learned and insights on the key editorial questions that define a book, how to ask for and incorporate feedback from early readers, the reality of self-doubt and self-dissapointment that’s part of the process in a project like this, and much more. I hope it’s useful for authors and entrepreneurs alike. Since it’s long, I suggest printing or viewing in Readability mode for your convenience. Enjoy!