Monthly Archives: January 2013

The Writer For Our Time?

A couple weeks ago, there was a terrific article in the New York Times Magazine about novelist George Saunders. Highly recommended for anyone interested in fiction, writing, or books generally. Some excerpts below.

Is he the writer for our time? An amazing paragraph:

It’s the trope of all tropes to say that a writer is “the writer for our time.” Still, if we were to define “our time” as a historical moment in which the country we live in is dropping bombs on people about whose lives we have the most abstracted and unnuanced ideas, and who have the most distorted notions of ours; or a time in which some of us are desperate simply for a job that would lead to the ability to purchase a few things that would make our kids happy and result in an uptick in self- and family esteem; or even just a time when a portion of the population occasionally feels scared out of its wits for reasons that are hard to name, or overcome with emotion when we see our children asleep, or happy when we risk revealing ourselves to someone and they respond with kindness — if we define “our time” in these ways, then George Saunders is the writer for our time.

On the value of trying to express yourself in writing:

Saunders defended the time spent in an M.F.A. program by saying, “The chances of a person breaking through their own habits and sloth and limited mind to actually write something that gets out there and matters to people are slim.” But it’s a mistake, he added, to think of writing programs in terms that are “too narrowly careerist. . . . Even for those thousands of young people who don’t get something out there, the process is still a noble one — the process of trying to say something, of working through craft issues and the worldview issues and the ego issues — all of this is character-building, and, God forbid, everything we do should have concrete career results. I’ve seen time and time again the way that the process of trying to say something dignifies and improves a person.”

Some life wisdom:

That Dubai story ends with these lines, wisdom imparted from Saunders to himself: “Don’t be afraid to be confused. Try to remain permanently confused. Anything is possible. Stay open, forever, so open it hurts, and then open up some more, until the day you die, world without end, amen.”

A most elegant way to compliment someone, from Tobias Wolff on Saunders:

“He’s such a generous spirit, you’d be embarrassed to behave in a small way around him.”

Founders Hiring “Professional” CEOs to Run Their Company

Reid Hoffman’s new essay If, Why, and How Founders Should Hire a “Professional” CEO is worth reading for any entrepreneur or any executive thinking about joining a high growth startup. It’s a very personal topic for Reid, and an important one for everyone in the industry to think about. The concluding paragraphs:

20 years ago, venture capitalists were in a hurry to bring in professional CEOs.  Today, many of the same VC firms are busy touting their support for long-term Founder-CEOs.  Both approaches can work, which means that as an entrepreneur, you should focus less on what’s fashionable, and more on what’s right for you.  This is a highly personal decision, and the right answer depends on you and your team—including your co-founders and your VCs.  You might be a Steve Jobs, or you might be a Pierre Omidyar.  As an investor, I’m willing to back you, even if you’re not sure which one you are yet.  In every investment we make, we hope that the Founder-CEO will be able to lead the company to success, but if not, and if you realize as I did that you want to bring in a professional CEO, we’ll work with you to find someone who is a true partner.

So as it turns out, Ben Horowitz was right.  You always do want a Founder-CEO.  But that person doesn’t always have to be the Founding CEO.  Being there at the start isn’t the only path to being a founder.  “Founder” is a state of mind, not a job description, and if done right, even CEOs who join after day 1 can become Founders.

With Whom Are You Comfortable Sharing Your Shitty First Draft?

From a book review in this weekend’s WSJ about the writer/editor collaborative relationship:

One of the secrets of Mr. Kidder’s success is that he is not afraid of writing badly in front of his editor, which frees him from the paralysis of writer’s block. I’ve worked as a magazine editor for 20 years and done some writing on the side, and I’d say that the relationship you have with your editor should be like the one you have with your urologist—you should feel comfortable showing him unspeakable, embarrassing things and trust that he will not recoil but endeavor straightforwardly and discreetly to help. (The writer-editor relationship should also have a confidentiality akin to attorney-client privilege or, perhaps more aptly, to that of the psychiatric couch.)

It’s definitely true in writing: you always start with shitty first drafts and it’s critical to feel comfortable getting feedback on them from others, especially your editor.

It’s true more broadly as well, I’d argue. Important professional/personal growth happens when you feel totally comfortable saying something potentially wrong or unwise. To be precise, it’s usually when you feel confident in the fact that the other person’s impression of you (and your intelligence) is solid enough that that one or two a dozen off-base observations out of your mouth isn’t going to change that.

We’d grow faster if the “how am I coming off? am I going to sound stupid if I say this / ask that?” filter dissipated more often. In other words, we’d grow faster if we didn’t stop ourselves from sharing the draft or speaking up for fear of being held in lower esteem by the other person. But it’s not that you should share your shitty first draft with just anyone. Sometimes, you do not want to ask the dumb question; sometimes, you want to be attentive to projecting a certain impression of yourself. (“Better to be thought a fool than to open your mouth and eliminate all doubt” is good advice in certain circumstances, like with your boss.)

But cherish those people and environments where it feels comfortable to do the equivalent of showing your shitty first draft. Keep those people close.

Department of Cultural Differences, Book Cover Edition

The Start-Up of You is available in over 15 countries. More forthcoming! Fun to see the current gallery of foreign covers. Cultural differences abound.

UK Italy
Japan Portugal
Germany Holland
France Russia
Spain Brazil

Aaron Swartz: He Inspired Me to Think in Public

Web pioneer and writer Aaron Swartz committed suicide yesterday. He was 26. Cory Doctorow’s obit is excellent, and the last sentence in Larry Lessig’s post is incredibly sad.

Many know Aaron for his breadth of political, legal, and technology interests and accomplishments.

Myself, I think of Aaron in a narrower, more personal sense, even though we weren’t close friends. I think of him as someone who wrote fearlessly and thoughtfully about trying to understand the world around him in his late teenage years. When he began his short lived stint as an undergrad at Stanford, he blogged jaw-droppingly honest minute by minute accounts of his experiences. Sitting in classes, going to parties, talking to people in dorm rooms. It was an extreme example of transparency, of living out loud. Here’s one example; here’s another. (It appears his old archive has been re-organized so it’s hard to find the gems but I’ll dig them out.) He also wrote confidently about books and politics and ideas and movies and whatever else was on his mind.

At the time, I was also a teenager and also getting into the writing thing. He was an age-similar role model. He taught me that one could be young and yet still have a voice in the blogosphere. I saw him grapple with the comments and criticisms on his blog and I learned the value of thinking in public.

All told, I read Aaron’s blog for almost a decade. I last met up with him in 2004 to chat about the pros and cons of dropping out of school, but we’d been in touch sporadically by email and blog comments since then.

In fact, Aaron invited me to connect on LinkedIn just last week. Today, he’s gone.

Aaron was a David Foster Wallace fan. In the weeks after Wallace tragically took his own life, Aaron said he re-read every single word DFW had ever written.

Everything is on fire. Slow fire.

Book Notes: Religion for Atheists

Alain de Botton is amazing person to follow on Twitter. He’s also a stimulating author and an inspiring ideas entrepreneur (via the School of Life).

Religion for Atheists, one of his recent books, explains to pro-religion non-believers like myself (an identity label I borrowed from Tyler Cowen) what we can learn from religious institutions when it comes to building community, forming relationships, improving ourselves, etc. Recommended. Highlights below.


We can then recognize that we invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day and which secular society has not been able to solve with any particular skill: first, the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses. And second, the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to professional failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise.

For instance, much of what is best about Christmas is entirely unrelated to the story of the birth of Christ. It revolves around themes of community, festivity and renewal which pre-date the context in which they were cast over the centuries by Christianity.

One of the losses modern society feels most keenly is that of a sense of community. We tend to imagine that there once existed a degree of neighbourliness which has been replaced by ruthless anonymity, a state where people pursue contact with one another primarily for restricted, individualistic ends: for financial gain, social advancement or romantic love.

All buildings give their owners opportunities to recondition visitors’ expectations and to lay down rules of conduct specific to them. The art gallery legitimates the practice of peering silently at a canvas, the nightclub of swaying one’s hands to a musical score. And a church, with its massive timber doors and 300 stone angels carved around its porch, gives us rare permission to lean over and say hello to a stranger without any danger of being thought predatory or insane. We are promised that here (in the words of the Mass’s initial greeting) ‘the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit’ belong to all who have assembled. The Church lends its enormous prestige, accrued through age, learning and architectural grandeur, to our shy desire to open ourselves to someone new.

the Mass embodies a lesson about the importance of putting forward rules to direct people in their interactions with one another.

Prejudice and ethnic strife feed off abstraction. However, the proximity required by a meal – something about handing dishes around, unfurling napkins at the same moment, even asking a stranger to pass the salt – disrupts our ability to cling to the belief that the outsiders who wear unusual clothes and speak in distinctive accents deserve to be sent home or assaulted.

It is hard to attend most wedding parties without realizing that these celebrations are at some level also marking a sorrow, the entombment of sexual liberty and individual curiosity for the sake of children and social stability, with compensation from the community being delivered through gifts and speeches.

religions understand that to belong to a community is both very desirable and not very easy. In this respect, they are greatly more sophisticated than those secular political theorists who write lyrically about the loss of a sense of community, while refusing to acknowledge the inherently dark aspects of social life.

We shouldn’t banish feasting and debauchery to the margins, to be mopped up by the police and frowned upon by commentators. We should give chaos pride of place once a year or so, designating occasions on which we can be briefly exempted from the two greatest pressures of secular adult life: having to be rational and having to be faithful. We should be allowed to talk gibberish, fasten woollen penises to our coats and set out into the night to party and copulate randomly and joyfully with strangers, and then return the next morning to our partners, who will themselves have been off doing something similar, both sides knowing that it was nothing personal, that it was the Feast of Fools that made them do it.

The difference between Christian and secular education reveals itself with particular clarity in their respective characteristic modes of instruction: secular education delivers lectures, Christianity sermons. Expressed in terms of intent, we might say that one is concerned with imparting information, the other with changing our lives. Sermons by their very nature assume that their audiences are in important ways lost. The titles alone of the sermons by one of the most famous preachers of eighteenth-century England, John Wesley, show Christianity seeking to dispense practical advice about a range of the soul’s ordinary challenges: ‘On Being Kind’, ‘On Staying Obedient to Parents’, ‘On Visiting the Sick’, ‘On Caution Against Bigotry’.

Departments would be required to confront the problematic areas of our lives head-on. Notions of assistance and transformation which presently hover ghost-like over speeches at graduation ceremonies would be given form and explored as openly in lay institutions as they are in churches. There would be classes in, among other topics, being alone, reconsidering work, improving relationships with children, reconnecting with nature and facing illness.

We feel guilty for all that we have not yet read, but overlook how much better read we already are than Augustine or Dante, thereby ignoring that our problem lies squarely with our manner of absorption rather than with the extent of our consumption.

This double insight – that we should train our minds just as we train our bodies, and that we should do so partly through those bodies – has led to the founding, by all the major faiths, of religious retreats where adherents may for a limited time abscond from their ordinary lives and find inner restoration through spiritual exercise.

It is a mechanism whereby society – whether secular or religious – attempts reliably to inculcate in its members, within a set span of years, what it took the very brightest and most determined of their ancestors centuries of painful and sporadic efforts to work out.

The signal danger of life in a godless society is that it lacks reminders of the transcendent and therefore leaves us unprepared for disappointment and eventual annihilation.

Our secular world is lacking in the sorts of rituals that might put us gently in our place. It surreptitiously invites us to think of the present moment as the summit of history, and the achievements of our fellow humans as the measure of all things – a grandiosity that plunges us into continuous swirls of anxiety and envy.

our museums of art have become our new churches.

compassion, the fragile quality which enables the boundaries of our egos to dissolve, helps us to recognize ourselves in the experiences of strangers and can make their pain matter to us as much as our own.

It is one of the unexpected disasters of the modern age that our new unparalleled access to information has come at the price of our capacity to concentrate on anything much. The deep, immersive thinking which produced many of civilization’s most important achievements has come under unprecedented assault. We are almost never far from a machine that guarantees us a mesmerizing and libidinous escape from reality.

They were employing institutions, marshalling enormous agglomerations of people to act in concert upon the world through works of art, buildings, schools, uniforms, logos, rituals, monuments and calendars.

In his Republic, Plato conveyed a touching understanding (born from experience) of the limits of the lone intellectual, when he remarked that the world would not be set right until philosophers became kings, or kings philosophers. In other words, writing books can’t be enough if one wishes to change things. Thinkers must learn to master the power of institutions for their ideas to have any chance of achieving a pervasive influence on the world.

Being Behind, Effort, and Comparing Yourself

NCAA basketball teams that are behind by one point at halftime are more likely to win than teams that are one point ahead.

That’s the intruiging finding of two professors who studied more than 6,000 games. The results are the same even when taking into account homecourt advantage, the team winning percentages, and which team got the ball to start the second half. The article says:

So what may be driving this pattern? The reason is motivation. Being behind by a little leads to victory because it increases effort. Not only do teams down by a point at the break score more than their opponents in the second half, they do so in a particular way. They come out of the locker room fired up and make up for most of the point deficit in the first few minutes of the second half.

In sports and politics, you have a clear competitor and where you stand relative to that competitor is transparently displayed on the scoreboard or in the polls. How about in business? The authors of the study say, “Companies competing to win contracts or research prizes would be wise to focus employees on ways their competitors are a little ahead. Similarly, strategically taking breaks…when one is slightly behind should increase effort.”

Perhaps. An underdiscussed dilemma for leaders in the world of business is the extent to which they should clearly define / highlight competitors to employees, and if so, how to frame the competitors’ progress vis-a-vis you — i.e., should a competitor be portrayed as slightly ahead of you (the equiavalent of one point ahead at halftime) so as to maintain the troops’ sense of urgency? Or is this letting you be defined by the enemy and motivated by extrinsic causes? And when does the “underdog hunger” of being just behind first place turn into demoralized hopelessness?

Finally, there’s a related question at the level of individual career. Should you think of the start-up of you as slightly trailing someone else’s career in terms of achievement to keep you maximimally motivated? There will always be someone who’s done more, and keeping your eye on that person — directly comparing yourself to that person — will keep you pushing. Then again, this approach can generate the kind of envy that consumes high achievers. An alternative to is create an entrepreneurial life so unique to you that it destroys reasonable comparisons. Unlike a lawyer who has a million direct peers with whom to compare himself, walk alone on your own path. If you do, envy goes down, genuine happiness for others’ achievements goes up, and success and progress becomes more about achieving individually defined and intrinsically motivated goals. But, realistically, you probably won’t exert your maximum effort, either. We’re social animals. Competition fuels us to be all we can be.

Bottom Line: In basketball, it seems that being behind by a little at half-time yields the greatest possible second-half effort. In business and life, the extent to which you compare yourself to the competition — and how such comparison drives underlying motivation and ultimate effort — is trickier.

(Photo: Flickr)

New Year’s in Moose, Wyoming

New Year’s in Grand Teton National Park was marvelous. Snow shoeing, cross country skiing, and season 1 of the The Wire (at night). Triangle X Ranch — a working dude ranch in the park itself — hosted us with three meals a day and all the necessary equipment and local knowledge. The landscapes of the American west continue to captivate me...

Happy 2013!

(Hiking in sub-zero temps)
2012-12-31_1356985901(The view from lunch at the ranch)