The Hard Thing About Hard Things — Ben Horowitz

The Hard Thing About Hard Things is one of the best books I’ve read recently and one of those books whose subject matter is unlikely to interest most of you, but the execution is so good that you ought to read it anyway. The best books transcend their subject; this is probably the best passage in an already great book:

Most business relationships either become too tense to tolerate or not tense enough to be productive after a while. 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.

Implicitly, you could strike the adjective “business” and replace it with a lot of others… or perhaps strike it altogether and still achieve a similar effect. I’ve often felt exactly what Horowitz is describing but never conceptualized it that way. Over and over again, I found myself marking passages and putting checkmarks next to them. In most books, that practice falls off a third of the way through; in this one, I kept going to the very end.

Many sections just demonstrate that Horowitz gets things. Like:

“What would you do if capital were free?” is a dangerous question to ask an entrepreneur. It’s kind of like asking a fat person, “What would you do if ice cream had the exact same nutritional value as broccoli?” The thinking this question leads to can be extremely dangerous.

Wishful thinking can block useful thinking. Which most of us don’t think, or don’t think consciously.

He’s thinking about antifragility before Nassim Taleb wrote the eponymous book:

The close call was a sign to me that the entire operation was far too fragile. I got another sign when our largest competitor, Exodus, filed for bankruptcy on September 26. It was a truly incredible bankruptcy in that the company had been valued at $50 billion a little more than a year earlier. It was also remarkable because Exodus had raised $800 million on a “fully funded plan” just nine months earlier. An Exodus executive later joked to me: “When we drove off a cliff, we left no skid marks.” It Exodus could lose $50 billion in market capitalization and $800 million in cash that fast, I needed a backup plan.

I’m surprised there aren’t more novels set among venture capitalists or startups. The drama is all there. Maybe most writers don’t realize it, but Horowitz is good at stakes and drama. His stories are too often to quote in full, but they’re full of narrative drama and tension in a way most books aren’t. And some character descriptions are as good as anything in fiction:

Wow. I had no idea who I was dealing with until that point. Understanding how differently Frank viewed the world than the people at Opsware helped clarify my thoughts. Frank expected to get screwed by us. It’s what always happened to him in his job and presumably in his personal life. We needed something dramatic to break his psychology. We needed to be associated with the airport bar, not with his job or his family.

Horowitz had an epiphany and he acted on it. Hard Things could be seen as a series of epiphanies, and we get to follow him through.

We’re often told to attend to data, likely because most people don’t, but once you attend to data, “Sometimes only the founder has the courage to ignore the data.” Like Peter Thiel, Horowitz argues that your life is not a lottery ticket and that markets are often wrong (or at least that insiders can see things that the outsiders who create market values cannot):

If I’d learned anything it was that conventional wisdom had nothing to do with the truth and the efficient markets hypothesis was deceptive. How else could one explain Opsware trading at half of the cash we had in the bank when we had a $20 million a year contract and fifty of the smartest engineers in the world? No, markets weren’t “efficient” at finding the truth; they were just very efficient at converging on a conclusion—often the wrong conclusion.

Almost anyone trying to do anything useful should be thinking about what good ideas are not being pursued: “Wall Street does not believe Opsware is a good idea, but I do.”

“The wrong conclusion:” if markets can converge on “the wrong conclusion,” so can individuals and societies. Some of Hard Things can be read as a critique of American society: “My single biggest personal improvement as CEO occurred on the day when I stopped being too positive.” American society is regularly considered to be positive, but in a way that isn’t necessarily founded on skill or improvement. The “self-esteem” movement is part of this trend, even though moving towards self-efficacy would be an improvement. In class, when I started teaching I was often too positive. Now I’m less positive and more likely to emphasize that growth often comes from pain and struggle. The deadlift doesn’t get higher without some pain, and the best lifters learn to love the pain. Same with intellectual, psychological, or emotional growth. Yet we have a society that shies away from those truths.

I’ve heard about Hard Things many times but this recommendation tipped me into reading it, and I hope my recommendation tips you. The best books can be read many ways and applied to many situations, and this is one of the best. I didn’t expect it to be, which makes it all the more delightful.

“F*cked,” the book by Corinne Fisher and Krystyna Hutchinson, is not good

F*cked: Being Sexually Explorative and Self-Confident in a World That’s Screwed seems promising and I’m sympathetic to its premise, but the execution is poor. The pull quote for an early chapter says, “Self-esteem isn’t everything. / It’s just that there’s nothing without it.” Is that true? I don’t know, but there is something without self-esteem. Like, say, the earth. “Everything” and “nothing” are too vague to be useful here. In the same chapter, Fisher writes, “Until I began recording the Guys We Fucked podcast, I really had no idea just how bad people felt about themselves.” Do people feel that bad about themselves? How do we know? We get no evidence and Fisher seems unfamiliar with selection bias; someone writing to an agony aunt is likely to feel worse than a random person in a population.

Another early chapter says, “Shame is nothing new—it’s been used for centuries.” But no longer than 999 years? Or more than that? If it’s more, why “centuries?” One minute searching the literature brings up, “Cross-Cultural Differences and Similarities in Proneness to Shame: An Adaptationist and Ecological Approach.” Almost everything they write about has people who’ve spent their careers studying it, but almost none of that knowledge percolates into the text. A pity.

Psychology Today, a pop psych site, appears at least three times, and there are lots of generalizations but no works cited page. In that respect it’s not worse than the books it criticizes (“We were tired of these books that pander to women like we’re all hot messes, unable to handle our emotions without the assistance of a man, a glass of rosé, and a Xanax”), but there is better out there. A book like The Guide to Getting It On is better.

F*cked presupposes so much anxiety in its readers; again, articles like “The Fragile Generation: Bad policy and paranoid parenting are making kids too safe to succeed” come to mind while reading it, as they did while reading La Belle Sauvage. The books opens, “Are you a degenerate cum dumpster who isn’t worthy of love or affection? Probably not, but odds are someone has made you feel that way at one point in time.” No, and probably no one has. Examples like this are way rhetorical questions should be used sparingly, if at all.

Don’t be like me and fall for the book, even if you are like me and sympathetic to its premise.

La Belle Sauvage — Philip Pullman

La Belle Sauvage is good but suffers from a problem: it occurs a little more than a decade before His Dark Materials and concerns Lyra as a baby. But anyone who’s read His Dark Materials knows that she survives. The supposed threats to her are drained of potency and that in turn drains the book of vibrancy. It feels more like a kids’ book than His Dark Materials, too.

There is even a strange moment on the third page, about Malcolm: “he took tips to be the generosity of providence, and came to think of himself as lucky, which did him no harm later in life.” So we know he survives, too.

Many sections are charming, though not in a flashy way:

There was probably nowhere, he thought, where anyone could learn so much about the world as this little bend of the river, with the inn on one side and the priory on the other.

There are probably many people who do think that you could learn more “about the world” somewhere else, but an 11-year-old could very easily believe otherwise, as Malcolm does.

Malcolm is also charmingly unmanaged; many passages like this:

“I lent the canoe to someone, and that man brought it back.”
“Oh. Well, get on and take these dinners through. Table by the fire.”

between Malcolm and his mother feel not of this world, or at least the chattering-class part of it. Valuable items like canoes would probably be the subject of much supervision today. Too much. Articles like “The Fragile Generation: Bad policy and paranoid parenting are making kids too safe to succeed” came to mind as I read Malcolm’s journey towards antifragility.

Scholars are important in the Pullman world, which is a refreshing change from much of our world.

Sprinkled throughout the book is a sense of malevolent bureaucracy, religious in form here but transferable to other kinds. The Consistorial Court of Discipline, the “Environmental Protection” people, the League of St. Alexander: they all have an undertone of official harassment, and even people not formally part of the organization can act like people in the organization. Yet suspicion of bureaucracy is not enough to impede its growth. The individuals matter, even the ones who are “terrifying” like Sister Benedicta. Even those adults who aren’t part of bureaucracies, per se, are making or speculating on bureaucratic pronouncements, like “I should think every boat that exists will have been requisitioned by the authorities.”

Despite moments of interest, La Belle Sauvage is not as narratively compelling as The Golden Compass, though I don’t entirely know why. Even apart from the issue of Lyra surviving, I often found my attention wandering, thinking about other books.

This piece is excellent and discusses the thematic elements, although it’s also spoiler-laden.

Jung’s Red Book, Liber Novus, is like listening to drunk friends ramble

Jung’s Red Book, Liber Novus, is like listening to your drunk friends ramble; there are endless non-narrative, disconnected passages, and this one is representative:

I find myself again on the desert path. It was a desert vision, a vision of the solitary who has wandered down long roads. There lurk invisible robbers and assassins and shooters of poison darts. Suppose the murderous arrow is sticking in my heart?

The whole thing reads like that. Another, much later passage:

Just as the disciples of Christ recognized that God had become flesh and lived among them as a man, we now recognize that the anointed of this time is a God who does not appear in the flesh; he is no man and yet is a son of man, but in spirit and not in flesh; hence he can be born only through the spirit of men as the conceiving womb of the God.

Word salad or profundity? You be the judge. Jung didn’t intend to publish this book and I’m guessing he knew what he was about when he made that choice. I started it due to the reference in “Jung and the Trumpian Shadow.” Don’t repeat my error.

Jung is an interesting writer and figure, especially for narrative artists, but the Red Book is a poor introduction to him and his work. I don’t know what the best introduction is, but it isn’t this. Suggestions welcome.

The Red Book has 100 pages of introductory material and translators notes as well, which is rarely a good sign.

It is very hard and maybe impossible to predict what the future will value

In one of Tolkien’s letters he writes, after The Lord of the Rings has been an unexpected success:

the appearance of the L.R. has landed me in the pincers. Most of my philological colleagues are shocked (cert. behind my back, sometimes to my face) at the fall of a philological into ‘Trivial literature’; and anyway the cry is: ‘now we know how you have been wasting your time for 20 years’. (238)

But of course those philological colleagues are long dead and forgotten; philology itself has been mostly pushed out of most academic language departments, which are now focused on literature and literary criticism. Still, the larger and more important point is that it’s very hard to and maybe impossible to predict what the future will value; all a person and especially an artist can do is try to follow their instincts and interests. Tolkien’s led him in a direction contrary to what his peers thought valuable, and in this case he turned out to be right. Our peers’ judge of value, especially in public settings, is a pernicious guide to action.

What people really want and really are interested often differs from what people say they want and what they want others to think they are interested in.

 

“Persuader” by Lee Child is actually a modern-day fairy tale

At first I was going to write a post about how ridiculous Persuader is: this is a novel in which not once but twice the protagonist somehow outwits opponents who have guns pointed at him. In both circumstances, the obvious, logical thing for the antagonists to do is shoot Jack Reacher, but instead they do the stupid talking villain thing, like no one would do in real life. One of those opponents is so stupid that he throws his gun away in order to engage in hand-to-hand combat with 6’5″ Reacher, like no one would ever do. But this level of inanity, or inanity interpreted in terms of realism, must point to something else, much as the implausibility of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects made me realize that it isn’t trying to be realistic.*

Persuader is a fairy tale about a knight who is caught between the dark forces of chaos, evil, and greed on the one side and the grinding powers of bureaucracy—FBI and military—on the other. He’s a kind of small-c conservative who is interested in the intensely personal and where it intersects with larger forces of darkness, chaos, and excessive order. Chaos is bad because of the way it destabilizes relationships; excessive order is bad in the Reacher universe because it inhibits Reacher from inflicting his own moral code on the universe, and it’s a universe where the bad guys are conveniently universally bad and the good guys are conveniently universally good.

So what myth, or myths, are we getting from Persuader? That the military is sacrosanct and its training superhuman; that bureaucracy is stupid and the individual not; and perhaps most of all that we are less part of a network than we are a making, doing, acting, achieving supernode. This last is a particularly appealing idea, like life after death, and also in most ways a wildly inaccurate one, which is where the mythic elements of Persuader (and maybe the other Reacher books) come into play.

The novel feels paradoxically fascistic and libertarian at the same time, with different strains predominating at different moments, like someone who cannot quite decide between Judaism and atheism, but Reacher is a person of the immediate moment, not of the mind, so he never considers bigger pictures. His is not philosophy. He does think a little about his own past but not in any systematic way. He likes the specifics of gadgets but not of culture. What details he knows (about guns, say) tells as much as those that are superfluous.

The writing is not especially bad for its genre but not especially good either. Towards the beginning, the narrator (likely Reacher) says things like, “Connecting the pillars was a high double gate made from iron bars bent and folded and twisted into fancy shapes.” “Fancy shapes:” that’s a Reacher-like phrase, as he’s too busy kicking ass or whatever to know the term. “I” and “it” have to be the most common words in the novel, apart from the basics. College students sound like they’re described by someone’s hard-scrabble dad (“He had long messy hair and was dressed like a homeless person” or “He was majoring in some kind of contemporary art expression thing that sounded a lot like finger painting to me.”) We never really get out of this basic register.

Often the novel is just boring: “It showed me she and Eliot had at least five guys who would follow them to hell and back.” We can do better than the cliché but we don’t. Not here, not in many places.

How Jack Reacher was built” persuaded me to read Persuader, but one Child novel is enough, especially because Lanchester says it’s the best of them. Overall, the myth of military invincibility does more harm than good, and I prefer my supermen in different guises, perhaps with some weaknesses and humanity.

Still, the novel is not as offensively written as Camino Island, but I still have no desire to read another, ever, and love for Lee Child tells me something important about the person who loves his work (just as someone’s admiration for Elmore Leonard tells me something important, and positive, about theirs). As always I’m open for suggestions and if you have them leave them in the comments.

I did read to the end and remember very little, apart from the plot’s many absurdities. I’m surprised I haven’t seen more analyses of thrillers and similar works in terms of fairy tale and fantasy, which is what a lot of these works really are. Are they out there? I can’t imagine Child being a popular target for academics today, but perhaps there’s work I don’t know of.


*
When I teach Joyce Carol Oates’s short story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”, students sometimes ask how I (or someone) figure out that the story probably isn’t meant to be interpreted literally. Part of the answer involves implausibility combined with coherent writing: If something is well-done but seems ridiculous, it may be that symbolism or other non-realistic modes are involved, and if we as readers suspect that’s the case, we should start asking why and how.

The Ends of the World — Peter Brannen

The Ends of the World is titled well and is also fascinating—one of the best books I’ve read recently. It tells five (or arguably six) linked stories about mass extinctions; like most people I’m aware of the extinction of the dinosaurs, but I hadn’t realized that in many respects that extinction is actually less interesting than the other four. The dinosaurs steal the show, yet the other extinctions are at least as important—which is part of what makes The Ends of the World valuable. The 500-million-year history of complex life on earth is something most of us, including me, don’t know much about.

We should. For reasons that become apparent as the book moves forward, we may be repeating many histories of mass extinctions. Brannen traces how. Each chapter is set up like a detective story: People figure out that a mass extinction occurred, and paleontologists and geologists have to work backward from crime to culprit, examining various hypotheses along the way. The structure is effective but also difficult to excerpt.

But the preceding sentences also don’t give a flavor for the writing, which is excellent, and it matches the information. For example, the worst extinction of all time isn’t the End-Cretaceous mass extinction, when the dinosaurs died—it’s the End-Permian mass extinction, when nearly all plant and animal life on earth died. Spoiler alert: in the End-Permian event, massive volcanic activity in what we now call Siberia ejected huge amounts of carbon, methane, and other gasses into the atmosphere. But, in addition to that, lava ran into something else:

The Siberian Traps intruded through, and cooked, huge stores of coal, oil, and gas that had built up over hundreds of millions of years during the Paleozoic. The magma had no economic motive, but the effect was broadly familiar: it burned through huge reserves of fossil fuel in a few thousand years as surely as fossil fuels ignited in pistons and in power plants.

Uh oh:

Today humans emit a staggering 40 gigatons of carbon dioxide a year, perhaps the fastest rate of any period in the last 300 million years of earth history—a period that, you’ll note, includes the End-Permian mass extinction. Burning through every last oily drop and anthracite chunk of fossil fuel on earth would release roughly 5,000 gigatons of carbon into the atmosphere. If we do, the planet will become unrecognizable.

If there is slight good news, it’s that the End-Permian mass extinction event range from 10,000 gigatons of carbon to 48,000 gigatons. We’re unlikely to hit figures that catastrophic, but it’s dispiriting enough to think that, for the last several decades, we’ve had the technologies we need to dramatically reduce the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere and we’ve simply chosen not to use them. I’m young enough that I may be trying to explain the psychology and politics behind that decision to grand children in fifty years,

Still, we’re living through an extinction right now, but one that goes back ten of thousands of years. Brannen writes:

even Africa lost 21 percent of its megafauna, with larger animals getting hit the hardest.

British geologist Anthony Hallam (with a somewhat unseemly triumphalism) cites this record of precolonial ecological ruin to ‘dispel once and for all the romantic idea of the superior ecological wisdom of non-western and pre-colonial societies. The notion of the noble savage living in harmony with Nature should be dispatched to the realm of mythology were it belongs. Human beings have never lived in harmony with nature.’

Oddly, for a book about deep time and long time, the paper quality of the physical object is shitty. One would think that publisher (and author, although I don’t think most writers get much of a say on this) would want to produce a physical book that will last longer than the decade or two that most modern books are made to endure. The lousy paper stock implies, “We don’t really give a damn about the final product we produce.” Which is one of the points of the book: Most of us humans don’t.

And we don’t connect our own actions to global consequences. Towards the end of the book Brannen writes, “avoiding [seven to twelve degrees of average, planet-wide warming] will require the goodwill of energy companies to leave 80 percent of their profitable reserves in the ground, and the creation of staggeringly large new sources of carbon-free energy.” But he’s mixing up supply (from the energy companies) and demand (from consumers) here. Energy companies only dig up all those fossil fuels because people want to burn them. If people stop wanting to burn them through some combination of conservation and alternative technologies, energy companies will have no reason to dig.

I’m part of the problem. Back when I had a car, I could’ve bought a Prius, but for some reason I wasn’t thinking closely about energy efficiency at the time and got a Civic. The better car probably only would’ve saved a couple thousand gallons of gas, but multiplied across many people that matters. A friend just moved to L.A., did a similar calculation (or no calculation) and bought some kind of Subaru that probably cost more than, say, a Chevy Volt. Both of us are probably better informed about many planetary challenges than the average person and both of us are sending a signal to those dastardly energy companies to dig up more fossil fuels (and thus contribute to global warming).

Sort of like how people buying books printed on shitty paper are also encouraging publishers to keep printing books on shitty paper.

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