Rework — Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson

Rework is the rare book that could and even should be longer than it is: Fried and Hansson even say, “Writers eliminate good pages to make a great book. We cut this book in half between the next-to-last and final drafts. From 57,000 words to about 27,000 words. Trust us, it’s better for it.” I do trust them, but they may have lost some of the fun stories that might give the book more texture. They’re overfond of assertion without demonstration. But so what? The book as a whole is still worth reading. It’ll take an hour or two to get through the whole thing, which is peppered with little moments like, “You’re better off with a kick-ass half than a half-assed whole” or “Don’t sit around and wait for someone else to make the change you want to see. And don’t think it takes a huge team to make that difference today.”

ReworkIn other words: do it now, whatever the “it” happens to be. Waiting is your worst enemy, doing your best friend, and anything that stops you from doing something should be ignored or overcome. Friedman and Hansson are speaking of business, but they’re also speaking of art, science, and almost everything good in this world. They say, “What you do is what matters, not what you think or say or plan.” This is equally true of writing, but a lot of would-be writers seem to like the idea of writing more than the actual writing itself. I often offer this challenge to people who say they want to or wish they could write a novel:

1) Turn off your Internet access and cell phone.

2) Write chapter one over three days (or so; the actual timeframe doesn’t matter, as long as it’s short); continue if you want to.

3) Send me the result. I’ll read it and send it back.

So far, I think one person has taken that challenge, and I never got chapter two. I interpret this as meaning that most people who say they want to write a novel (or write anything else, or learn the guitar, or get laid, or lose weight, or start cooking, or any number of other skilled endeavors) don’t actually want to, because if they did, they would start today. If you shoot for, say, 500 words a day, you’ll have a pile of around 80,000 in six months, leaving some room for missed days, editing, and so forth.

If you shoot for 1,000 words a day, you’ll have it in three months.

This, however, is only the start, which I didn’t realize when I was nearer to the start than I am now. But if you’re not putting in the seat time, writing, you’re not going to do anything and all your intentions aren’t going to matter. Fried and Hansson are pointing this out in the context of business, where it’s equally valid, and there are probably an equal number of people saying, “I should start a business” and “I should write.” Most of them are probably better off not acting on their impulses. But if they do, why not start?

They’re giving you permission you don’t need to be given, but they’re doing it in a way that feels fun. They elevate fun to a cardinal virtue, and they want to get rid of things that aren’t fun or don’t add value to people’s lives. At one point, for instance, they say:

The business world is littered with dead documents that do nothing but waste people’s time. Reports no one reads, diagrams no one looks at, and specs that never resemble the final product. These things take forever to make but only seconds to forget.

Who would want to stand up and proudly proclaim that they write “dead documents?” In this framing, no one. But sometimes a guy with a document that says why thing x is better than thing y wins. Sometimes dead documents serve important signaling functions. That’s the thing about Rework: read it, but don’t assume it’s always right.

Over the last two months I’ve been on a binge of business or quasi business books: Rework, Anything You Want, How to Win at the Sport of Business: If I Can Do It, You Can Do It, Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose, all of them good in their own way, and all of them subtly contradicting each other in various ways.

If Steve Jobs had written a book about business the Apple way, he’d probably contradict all of them. Yet the writer of each book is successful in their own field. If my Dad and I wrote “Doing Business the Seliger + Associates way,” we’d probably say some things that are similar to what Hansson and Fried say but some things that are very different because of the peculiarities of our field. Every business situation is slightly different. What works in one field may not work in another.

The meta lesson may be that no two successes are exactly alike, and that, while you should read these books, you should also realize that you might use pieces of them but you’re unlikely to use all of them. They’re all to be subjected to interrogation, not venerated.

I can say, however, that each of the books above inspires in its own way, and sometimes inspiration has an importance that goes beyond the immediate truth value of a piece.

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