All Posts in “Books”

The Hard Thing About Hard Things by Ben Horowitz | Notes & Quotes

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.”

The Fish That Ate the Whale | Notes & Quotes

“Sam’s defining characteristic was his belief in his own agency, his refusal to despair. No story is without the possibility of redemption; with cleverness and hustle, the worst can be overcome. I can’t help but feel, after all the talk of America’s decline, that we would do well by emulating Sam Zemurray—not the brutality or the conquest, but the righteous anger that sent the striver into the boardroom of laughing elites, waving his proxies, shouting, “You gentlemen have been fucking up this business long enough. I’m going to straighten it out.””

The Fish That Ate the Whale by Rich Cohen is a biography of Samuel Zemurray. A Russian immigrant who built an empire in the banana trade.

Key takeaway:

Zemurray started as an immigrant hustler. He worked lot’s of jobs in his youth and learned how to sell. Eventually, he saw an opportunity that he could capitalize on and took it. He invested all his money in buying ripe banana’s and betting that he could sell them before they went bad. He was right.

He didn’t build a banana empire with focus groups or angel investors. He was simply always aware of opportunities that he could capitalize on and bet on himself. He took it one step (or banana) at a time.

This book also gives you fascinating insight into the story of how a few entrepreneurs turned the banana from an exotic fruit at the start of the 20th century into a low-cost staple food only a few decades later.

Turning Pro by Steven Pressfield | Notes & Quotes

Turning Pro is the follow-up from Steven Pressfield to The War of Art. If you’re pursuing something big in your life it is a great source of fuel and inspiration to take your game to the next level.

Key Takeaway:

Commitment is king. Tips, tricks, and hacks are minor details that may help you get where you are going faster, but without a deep long-term commitment, you aren’t going to achieve anything significant. The analogy between pro and amateur is a powerful lens to look at your own life and realize where you are not committed to getting what you want. The secret formula to success is to wake up every single day and go to work on your craft.

Below are some of my favorite quotes and thoughts from reading.

“Turning pro is free, but it’s not without cost. When we turn pro, we give up a life with which we may have become extremely comfortable. We give up a self that we have come to identify with and to call our own. We may have to give up friends, lovers, even spouses.”

Making a change means giving into a process of self-transformation. You make a commitment to do something before you have the capability and confidence to do it, but with the force of your commitment, you will eventually gain capability and confidence.

Making a commitment to improving, means leaving part of yourself behind, often part that you deeply identify with.

Re-Reading Harry Potter

Last night I finished Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the final book in the series. It was the end of 6 weeks of Harry Potter binging as I read all the books again. The first time I had re-read any of the books since 2007.

Here are some thoughts on the story:

Progression of the story.

Books one and two are clearly written for a younger audience and have a lot of parallels in the stories. There is a common structure between them.

You start with the first act in the muggle world. Shift to act two with the Hogwarts Express. You have a number of smaller narrative’s play out in the middle of the book while the big story builds in the background. Then finally you have the third act where the big story reaches its climax and resolution (Philosopher’s Stone and Chamber of Secrets.)

Book three is very similar but darker and introduces the ideology of the Death Eaters. And some more intellectual food for thought. Book four is a bit of a change up in structure and has some novelty events happen that set you up for books five, six, seven.

The Quality Without a Name

In the book The Timeless Way of Building, Christopher Alexander makes a claim about our perception of buildings. He says that we instinctively know what a good building is, and is not. That we all have an ability to sense it if we are paying attention.

“We have been taught that there is no objective difference between good buildings and bad, good towns and bad.

The fact is that the difference between a good building and a bad building, between a good town and a bad town, is an objective matter. It is the difference between health and sickness, wholeness and divided-ness, self-maintenance and self-destruction.”

If we are willing to exercise our judgment, we can see and feel the difference between good and bad buildings. You don’t need to go to architecture school; you don’t need to study urban planning. You just need to understand your instincts and the incompleteness of language.

“it is easy to see why people believe so firmly that there is no single, solid basis for the difference between good buildings and bad.

It happens because the single central quality which makes the difference cannot be named.”

It is hard to name an objective standard, so a certain type of “expert” tells people that it doesn’t exist. They tell laypeople that only an expert can know the difference between good and bad. That it is a power beyond the reach of the ordinary citizen.

In reality, there is a standard; we just don’t have the language to describe it.

Reality and Language

Just because our language is incomplete does not mean that our reality is subjective.

Because something is hard to describe, does not mean that it does not exist.

Take for example your intuition about people.

You meet someone for the first time, and you leave feeling like something is off.

What was it about the interaction?

It’s hard to say.

You reach for the word creepy, but when you think back, that’s not it. There was no one thing that was scary.

It wasn’t boring.

It wasn’t anything that you can easily decipher.

You think to yourself, “maybe I’m being irrational.” Maybe I need to give this person another chance. But that is often not the correct approach.

There is a good reason to trust your instinct even if you can’t fully explain the instinct yet. Often your conscious understanding will come in the future once you develop the language, concepts, and frameworks to make sense of the feeling.

Interpreting Your Gut Feelings

For buildings, Alexander makes sense of the feeling with The Quality Without a Name.

While there is not one word to describe a good building, there are a number of words that approach this quality.

These words are close, alone they don’t do the job, but together they approach it:

Alive

Whole

Comfortable

Free

Exact

Egoless

Eternal

Your people instinct

Christopher Alexander is talking about buildings and towns, but this quality without a name extends to many areas.

The Quality is a framework you can use to understand the “weird’ feeling about your first meeting with someone or the magnetic pull of charisma.

People with The Quality are alive. Energetic, but not frenetic.

They are whole. Not conflicted. Not at odds with themselves, but they still contain depth and mystery.

They are comfortable. At ease, but not sloppy. Relaxed, but respectful.

They are free. They live their own lives. They do what they set out to do because they want to. But they are not “free spirits.” They are responsible and live with purpose.

They are exact. They don’t waste words. They don’t hide behind passive language, but they don’t bore you with analytic language.

They are egoless. They don’t care what you think of them. They are confident in themselves, and not burdened by a false ego and self-conscious worry.

They are eternal. At the same time, they seem to be both older and younger than they actually are. They contain the unburdened spirit of a child and the undistracted purposefulness of an old man.

When you put all these qualities together, in balance, you get a feeling of someone you want to be around. When they are out of balance, you can’t put your finger on it, but you don’t feel excited to spend more time with that person.

The value of “the quality without a name” is that it puts into words to a vague feeling. It helps us to understand consciously something we experience as an instinct. That understanding builds trust and allows us to operate more decisively.

Instincts are not perfect. Cognitive biases are real and you need to be aware of them to think critically. But too often when people encounter a situation they feel uncomfortable with, but cannot explain, they throw away their judgment. They take a “who am I to know attitude” and allow people in positions of authority to decide for them.

Exercising judgment is an important part of doing anything with your life. Trusting and understanding your feelings is a crucial part of good judgment. New frameworks and a nuanced understanding of language are key to understanding and trusting your emotions.

Books like The Timeless way of Building, may on the surface having nothing to do with your field, but they improve your vocabulary and deepen your understanding of reality. They create the lightbulb moments that allow you to explain your first impressions. They allow you to become a person more in line with the quality without a name.

Updated Books Page

Today my post is actually an updated page on my site. If you head over to the My Favorite Books page, you will see short descriptions for all twenty books that hit the list. I’d previously just had the list of twenty books.

Let me know what you think of my choices and if you have any recommendations for books I should be reading based on the ones that made my list.

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My Favorite Books

My blog post today is actually a page, instead of a post. I went through and wrote down my ten favorite fiction and non-fiction books. I cheated a bit and put a series as a book in fiction and 11 non-fiction books.

Check it out here.

What glaring omissions am I making?

Given the list, what books should I read next?

My project now that I’ve made the list is to write a three sentence summary and an amazon for each about why I like them, and why they’ve made such a big impact on me.

Let me know!

How To Get Filthy Rich In Rising Asia | Book Review

How To Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia

“The virus affecting you is called hepatitis E. Its typical mode of transmission is fecal-oral. Yum.”

It doesn’t take long before you are acquainted with the plight of a child in a rural village in the developing world. I think it’s Pakistan, based on where the author is from, but the location and names of characters are never mentioned. The story “..find(s) you, huddled, shivering on the packed earth under your mother’s cot one cold, dewy, morning” From this point all the way through to your death some 80 years and 200 pages later, you experience the ups, downs, struggles, success’, and human experiences of someone who is trying to get filthy rich in rising Asia.

I picked this book up because of the title. Getting rich in rising Asia sounds like something that I would like to do. I didn’t know anything about it other than the title.The idea of being an entrepreneur in a developing country seemed exotic, exciting, and adventurous.

The sense of adventure, the impact I could have, and the money I could make all drew me in. I picked up the book thinking that I would be reading about someone’s experience making it big in Asia. I thought it would be a fun read about the upside of succeeding in business in a developing country. This book is so much more than that.

What Writers Can Learn from Movies

Good writing is mostly not about actually writing. It took me 26 years to figure this out.

We think of the act of writing, of actually typing the words into a computer, or writing on a page, as the most important part of the writing process. But, as I am slowly learning it may actually be the least important part.