The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz documents Ben’s career and focuses on building Loudcloud (and transforming it into Opsware). It is an excellent book for anyone who works in a growing company, both for the lessons you can pick up and also for the simple relief it provides in experiencing second hand the extreme highs and lows of Ben’s experience running a company.
Below are my notes and select quotes from the book.
On business advice/self-help books:
“The problem with these books is that they attempt to provide a recipe for challenges that have no recipes. There’s no recipe for really complicated, dynamic situations. There’s no recipe for building a high-tech company; there’s no recipe for leading a group of people out of trouble; there’s no recipe for making a series of hit songs; there’s no recipe for playing NFL quarterback; there’s no recipe for running for president; and there’s no recipe for motivating teams when your business has turned to crap. That’s the hard thing about hard things—there is no formula for dealing with them.”
A few years ago I was all about recipes. I read a ton, I listened to lots of podcasts, but I didn’t actually get started and do anything. Learning is imperfect. Learning from the experience of others can help, but there is no substitute for simply starting to do things that you don’t know how to do and figuring things out as you go.
“Either people challenge each other to the point where they don’t like each other or they become complacent about each other’s feedback and no longer benefit from the relationship. With Marc and me, even after eighteen years, he upsets me almost every day by finding something wrong in my thinking, and I do the same for him. It works.”
This is Ben talking about his relationship with Marc Andreson. Conflict avoidance is overvalued. The way most people grow up teaches them to self-censor in order to avoid conflict. This can occasionally improve your life in the short-term, but to avoid saying things because someone else may not want to hear it will lead to pain in the long-term and a lot of missed opportunities.
“Then one day I asked myself a different question: “What would I do if we went bankrupt?” The answer that I came up with surprised me: “I’d buy our software, Opsware, which runs in Loudcloud, out of bankruptcy and start a software company.”
Ben’s epiphany moment of how to turn things around at Loudcloud came from reframing a common question. Instead of asking himself “what’s the worth that could happen?” he asked, “what would I do if the worst happened?”
Picturing the worth thing that could happen in any given situation can take a lot of the sting off of anxiety, but reframing it to focus on the actions you would take, connects you back to your personal power and offers insights into actions you could take now to avoid negative outcomes.
“People always ask me, “What’s the secret to being a successful CEO?” Sadly, there is no secret, but if there is one skill that stands out, it’s the ability to focus and make the best move when there are no good moves.”
This isn’t just a CEO skill. Most people freeze when they realize that there are no options that don’t have significant downsides. Instead of making a choice, they end up putting a decision off until it can no longer be avoided, or until their hand is forced.
“The Struggle is when you wonder why you started the company in the first place. The Struggle is when people ask you why you don’t quit and you don’t know the answer. The Struggle is when your employees think you are lying and you think they may be right. The Struggle is when food loses its taste. The Struggle is when you don’t believe you should be CEO of your company. The Struggle is when you know that you are in over your head and you know that you cannot be replaced. The Struggle is when everybody thinks you are an idiot, but nobody will fire you. The Struggle is where self-doubt becomes self-hatred. The Struggle is when you are having a conversation with someone and you can’t hear a word that they are saying because all you can hear is the Struggle. The Struggle is when you want the pain to stop. The Struggle is unhappiness. The Struggle is when you go on vacation to feel better and you feel worse. The Struggle is when you are surrounded by people and you are all alone. The Struggle has no mercy. The Struggle is the land of broken promises and crushed dreams. The Struggle is a cold sweat. The Struggle is where your guts boil so much that you feel like you are going to spit blood. The Struggle is not failure, but it causes failure. Especially if you are weak. Always if you are weak. Most people are not strong enough. Every great entrepreneur from Steve Jobs to Mark Zuckerberg went through the Struggle and struggle they did, so you are not alone. But that does not mean that you will make it. You may not make it. That is why it is the Struggle. The Struggle is where greatness comes from.”
^This is my favorite part of the whole book.
“I excitedly reviewed the plan with my engineering counterpart, Bill Turpin, who looked at me as though I were a little kid who had much to learn. Bill was a longtime veteran of battling Microsoft from his time at Borland and understood what I was trying to do, but he was not persuaded. He said, “Ben, those silver bullets that you and Mike are looking for are fine and good, but our Web server is five times slower. There is no silver bullet that’s going to fix that. No, we are going to have to use a lot of lead bullets.””
It is easy to get caught up using your energy on trying to find one perfect solution to all the problems that you are facing. Whether that is in a company or in your personal life. Most of the time the answer is to get to work at try as many as the imperfect solutions that you have.
“Ironically, the biggest obstacle to putting a training program in place is the perception that it will take too much time. Keep in mind that there is no investment that you can make that will do more to improve productivity in your company. Therefore, being too busy to train is the moral equivalent of being too hungry to eat. Furthermore, it’s not that hard to create basic training courses.”
I am my own manager. Ryan Ferguson Inc. has some clients that may look like employers, but they are clients. As my own manager, it is important that I invest in my own training. I love the metaphor of being too busy to train as the same as being too hungry to eat. If I am in a position where I am consistently too busy to invest in improving the skills that will help me do my work better, I cannot afford, in the long-term, to not invest in improving my efficiency and effectiveness.
““Since Dennis Rodman is allowed to miss practice, does this mean other star players like Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen can miss practice, too?” Jackson replied, “Of course not. There is only room for one Dennis Rodman on this team. In fact, you really can only have a very few Dennis Rodmans in society as a whole; otherwise, we would degenerate into anarchy.”- Phil Jackson”
“By far the most difficult skill I learned as CEO was the ability to manage my own psychology. Organizational design, process design, metrics, hiring, and firing were all relatively straightforward skills to master compared with keeping my mind in check. I thought I was tough going into it, but I wasn’t tough. I was soft.”
Two things jump to my mind reading this. The first is that this lesson applies to much more than just CEO’s. The type of work you need to do to be successful now requires more than a divided attention. You have so much information and so many tools at your disposal that the ability to think and control your attention becomes crucial no matter what the role.
The second is that there is no way to become tough, mentally or physically without putting yourself through extremely difficult situations. You can’t get tough without getting beat up.
““I tell my kids, what is the difference between a hero and a coward? What is the difference between being yellow and being brave? No difference. Only what you do. They both feel the same. They both fear dying and getting hurt. The man who is yellow refuses to face up to what he’s got to face. The hero is more disciplined and he fights those feelings off and he does what he has to do. But they both feel the same, the hero and the coward. People who watch you judge you on what you do, not how you feel.” —CUS D’AMATO”
“Over the past ten years, technological advances have dramatically lowered the financial bar for starting a new company, but the courage bar for building a great company remains as high as it has ever been.”
“In peacetime, leaders must maximize and broaden the current opportunity. As a result, peacetime leaders employ techniques to encourage broad-based creativity and contribution across a diverse set of possible objectives. In wartime, by contrast, the company typically has a single bullet in the chamber and must, at all costs, hit the target. The company’s survival in wartime depends upon strict adherence and alignment to the mission.”
It is interesting and valuable to think about peacetime and wartime within a company as requiring different things of a leader. But I think you can expand this down to a micro level. Within an organization, there are roles that are more consistently peacetime, and there are roles that are more consistently wartime. Within your role, there are likely some activities that are better approached from a peacetime perspective and some that should be approached from a wartime perspective. When there is no room for error, you should happily pay the price of likeability.
“If you are a founder CEO and you feel awkward or incompetent when doing some of these things and believe there is no way that you’ll be able to do it when your company is one hundred or one thousand people, welcome to the club. That’s exactly how I felt. So did every CEO I’ve ever met. This is the process. This is how you get made.”
Confidence and capability come from the commitment and courage to follow through exactly when you don’t have confidence or capability.
“Hard things are hard because there are no easy answers or recipes. They are hard because your emotions are at odds with your logic. They are hard because you don’t know the answer and you cannot ask for help without showing weakness.”
Great work has a lot more to do with grit, courage, and the ability to work with the imperfect than it does with hacks, intelligence, and talent. The great thing about that is that it means greatness is accessible to everyone. All you have to do is throw yourself into the storm and hold on for dear life.