“A book with a couple of legs sticking out.”
I realized in 2013 that I had stopped reading books.
It wasn’t intentional —things got in the way, like life, learning how to do venture capital, three kids under 8 years old, the Warriors improbably beginning to figuring out how to play professional basketball. Dumb reasons for not doing something so important.
I was at a dinner event and Tim Ferriss asked: “What book do you give the most as a gift?” — and I really had no answer to this question. Not only because I am a bad person who doesn’t give books as a gift, but actually because I wasn’t making time to read books. Naval Ravikant (our host) suggested The Secret Race, Tyler Hamilton’s absolutely fascinating account of the success (and cheating) of the USPS Tour de France teams, and I was hooked.
The key for me was getting hooked on Audiobooks with an Audible.com subscription. With Bay Area traffic and the dispertion of companies between the Peninsula and SF, plus living in Oakland, I have a lot of time on the road. I listened to podcasts before, but have found the switch to mostly books to be very gratifying — as interesting as they were, podcasts were more junk food and I get a lot more nutrition from books. I listen to both fiction and nonfiction, but one genre of audiobooks I have fallen in love with is memoirs, especially when read by the author. There are so many interesting people in the world who have accomplished and experienced so much — and hearing them tell those stories in their own words is always compelling.
I was brought back to the thoughts of an inspiration and mentor of mine, the great Irv Grousbeck. He’s both the best teacher I’ve ever had and one of the great entrepreneurs of the 20th century. He was inspired to work hard and found Continental Cablevision in part by reading. Continental Cablevision was a unicorn long before the term applied — founded in 1964, and sold in the 1980's for $5.3 billion. In the 1980s!) Irv memorably taught that he was inspired to entrepreneurship in his late 20's by reading many biographies of great men and women, and learning that the majority of these people had no significant advantages of him at their same age, and had not accomplished significantly more than he had by this age. He had no excuse, it was not too late. Well, he did, and ran with it.
It’s like Charlie Munger, Warren Buffet’s business partner, said: “In my whole life, I have known no wise people (over a broad subject matter area) who didn’t read all the time — none, zero. You’d be amazed at how much Warren reads — and at how much I read. My children laugh at me. They think I’m a book with a couple of legs sticking out.”
My kids, Kenzo and Sachi, are books with a couple of legs sticking out, too. You could do worse than emulate the wisdom of a ten- and eight-year-old.
Hopefully, if you have decided that being an entrepreneur (or being whatever you are) doesn’t leave you enough time to read, I’ve inspired you to reconsider that decision. And to that end, let me run through some of my favorite audiobook memoirs (all read by the author) of the last couple of years:
A Full Life by Jimmy Carter
I’ll list this first, not because it’s the best, but I just finished it and liked it. Much like the lesson Irv learned in his 20's — it’s not too late — it made me feel the same way about me at 44 — it’s not too late to do something worthwhile! Carter has accomplished a ton in the last 40 years of his life — after being President, whereas what do you think of in terms of contributing to the world post-Presidency for either Bush, Clinton, Reagan, Ford, Nixon? Carter has fought tirelessly for free elections, built houses in Habitat for Humanity, learned to ski, built all the furniture in his house by hand in his own workshop, written ~20 books. Just a reminder it’s not time to take up golf anytime soon.
Also, many (particularly the celebrity/entertainer) memoirs show a fascinating but often hedonistic life of some struggle sprinkled on great, fun, amazing events with amazing people. President Carter offers a nice contrast of a life focused around service and principles, and the reward for hard choices.
The Kid Stays in the Picture by Robert Evans
You may not have heard of Robert Evans, but I bet you will find his life fascinating.
A handsome, somewhat successful young actor, he had ambitions to be more than just a pretty face on the screen, and was on the verge of leaving Hollywood. Through some crazy circumstances he was thrust into the role as head of a failing studio, and ushered in (and helped create) the golden age of American cinema by paying for, championing, or making great movies like The Godfather, Chinatown and many others. He’s a man of principles and backbone, and an entrepreneur who decide that win or lose he would do it his way. He didn’t end on a high note but the journey along the way is fascinating.
How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big by Scott Adams
Scott Adams is known for being the creator of the Dilbert cartoon. In this book he has collected all the wisdom he has learned in life and shared it with you.
It’s all very, very practical stuff — how to spend your time, how to set yourself up for success — mixed in with the story of how he has lived his life. He was driven to be successful and developed a system for doing so, and though it took a while, the system eventually paid off. In fact, that is one of his key pieces of advice: Goals are for Losers, Systems are for winners. As a VC, he would advise me not to set a goal of investing in the next Uber, but instead, develop a system for finding good investments and keep implementing and refining that system until it paid off. There’s a lot of solid advice in here, and I also enjoyed hearing about his fairly quirky life.
Stories I Only Tell My Friends by Rob Lowe
We are now into the celebrity memoir section — this starts to be a little less nutrition and a little more like junk food.
This book seems like it wouldn’t be any good, but is actually a very fun and interesting read. Rob grew up in the midwest, far from showbiz, but worked to put himself in a position to be successful, and eventually was. Along the way there are many great stories. One of the funniest things to learn was that, when they (Lowe, Estevez, were the hottest young stars in LA, they would all go out together and hold court in the table in the center of the hottest spot in West Hollywood which was… The Hard Rock Cafe.
He came from humble beginnings, worked hard, as is very frank about mistakes and wrong turns he took, and is clearly a smart and good guy. I really enjoyed it.
I’d skip his next book (Love Life) however — the success of his first seemed to go to his head, and with the humility gone it’s a pretty tough book to get through.
Yes Please by Amy Poehler
Bossypants by Tina Fey
I Must Say by Martin Short
These three memoirs from comedians are all pretty entertaining reads, though ultimately not much more. But it’s pretty fun to hear these very funny people narrate the twists and turns of their lives.
One practical tidbit from Martin Short that many entrepreneurs could use: he has kept a scorecard of his life, and every Monday he grades himself for the previous week across the following categories:
Self (Physical health, weight, etc); Immediate Family (relationship with wife, kids); Original Family (parents, siblings); Friends; Money; Career; Creative Fulfillment; Discipline; Lifestyle (Are you having fun?). By evaluating all nine categories, he avoids becoming overweight in one area and ignoring the rest. And when things weren’t going so well in his career, he felt better (and was more relaxed) at seeing that it was just impacting a couple of the things that were important to him.
I have seen entrepreneurs frequently neglect areas of their life — not take care of their body, lose touch with their family, etc — and I do think it’s unhealthy to get too deep solely in your business, and this seems like one way to recognize it.