Book Summary: The Start-Up of You

by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha

What’s it about?

This is a book on career advice from Reid Hoffman, cofounder of LinkedIn, and entrepreneur Ben Casnocha, on how you can benefit by adapting common characteristics of Silicon Valley tech startups to your individual career. They contend that all humans are entrepreneurs, in the sense that we all are hard-wired to create things, to be curious, and to seek out lucrative opportunities. Thus, being entrepreneurial, even if you’re not literally starting a business, is a necessary strategy to survive in the workforce today. Resilience, effective planning, smart risk tolerance, and networking are all discussed.

Why I read it:

I heard about it from Ben Casnocha’s blog, who seems to run in the same circles as a few other people I’ve been reading: Ramit Sethi, Robert Greene, Ryan Holiday, Charlie Hoehn.

My impressions:

This book contains a lot of ideas that have been floating around in my head from other books and blogs, so while I can’t stay it gave me a whole lot of new insight, it did present those ideas very cleanly and compellingly. Despite the buzzwordy title, it was surprisingly low on actual buzzwords and overall business book fluffiness.

A key theme is adaptability. Near the beginning, the writers are quick to take a swipe at the near-sacred mantra of “follow your passion” as delineated in Richard Bolles 1970 classic What Color is Your Parachute?. In the vein of Parachute, Hoffman and Casnocha say you need to focus on the intersection of your assets, your aspirations/values, and the realities of the market. The departure from Bolles is that you need to realize that the three pieces are in constant flux and are subject to constant reevaluation during your career. The common-in-some-circles idea that each person has one golden idea, one true path to follow, is bunk.

So you need to experiment, potentially by working for free or on the side. It’s especially interesting to hear the example of how Reid got product development experience simply by pitching product ideas to a friend in the field and asking for feedback. I personally tend to think too that this kind of free work or internship-type stuff needs to be technical, but I have been looking for way to develop and demonstrate soft skills exactly like this.

When strategizing, utilize “ABZ Planning” in order to think like a start-up:

  • Plan A – Your current career or objective. Your main focus. Concentrate on making constant tweaks, small changes, and iterations. If something changes….
  • …take Plan B. Plan B is your pivot plan. It’s related to Plan A, but it’s a bigger shift than an iterative approach allows. It might be a change of field or industry.
  • Plan Z – Your worst-case scenario. Your “move back home and work at Starbucks” plan. This exists so that you can fearlessly answer the question “What have I got to lose?”

Networking is another major point. All start-ups have strong professional and personal support networks, so The Start-Up of You needs one as well. Networking gets a bad rap, but the secret is to realize that networking is not slimy. It’s not transactional, and it’s not all about Me, Me, Me. When meeting someone in a business context, you must emphasize mutual benefit instead of give-and-take. Always have something to offer, and never expect anything in return.

Curiosity and resourcefulness are important as well. Entrepreneurs always look for more information because they’re always asking “Why?”. They see opportunities where others see problems. They made do with what they have. They are persistent. Do I really have to explain how these are applicable to an individual’s career?

Lastly, the book talks about how risk is a fact of professional (and for that matter, personal) life. Despite common misconceptions, careers in relatively stable professions like teaching, engineering, and government are surprisingly risky precisely because they don’t expose you to risk. On the other hand, risky careers like freelancing carry less risk over the long run because you’re trained to tolerate the risk every single day, so when the market crashes you’re able to cope better than the person who just got laid of from his sole employer for two decades.

Good book for anyone my age who is looking for a job, trying to rethink his strategy, or just get a better understanding on the way the job market works today. Just try to ignore the shameless plugs for LinkedIn and Sheryl Sandberg.

Further Questions:

  • What are some other ways to add value, to provide small gifts, and to do free work that isn’t quantitative? Hard skills are easier to sell, but what are the best ways to sell/demonstrate soft skills?
  • How does the “many paths to happiness” idea relate to that of Marcus Aurelius when he says “people who love what they do wear themselves down doing it”? Did Marcus read What Color is Your Parachute? What about Paulo Coehlo’s Personal Legend idea?
  • How can I make myself hustle more? Is fear holding me back from pushing harder and developing an “action bias” as David Schwartz says in The Magic of Thinking Big? If so, fear of what?

Quotes:

“[I]f you are not genuinely pained by the risk involved in your strategic choices, it’s not much of a strategy.” – Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix

When you have no resources, you create them. When you have no choice but to fight, you fight hard. When you have no choice but to create, you create.

Fragility is the price we pay for a hyperlinked world where all the slack is optimized out of the system.

Discovering what people want, in the words of start-up investor Paul Graham, “deals with the most difficult problem in human experience: how to see things from other people’s point of view, instead of thinking only for yourself.”

Until you hear “No,” you haven’t been turned down.

The puzzle pieces are always changing. The best you can do is articulate educated hypotheses about each. “I believe I am skilled at X, I believe I want to do Y, I believe the market needs Z.” All plans contain these kinds of assumptions.

Book Summary: The Inner Citadel

by Pierre Hadot

What’s it about?

It’s all about Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor and an important figure in the branch of philosophy called Stoicism.

Why I read it:

After Meditations became my favorite book of all time when I read it this summer, was eager to learn more about the man and his philosophy.

My impressions:

This book goes very deep into Marcus Aurelius’ philosophy, so by necessity it serves as a pretty solid textbook on Stoicism in general. It delves into the foundational tenets of Stoicism as well as Marcus’ influences and fellow Stoics, Epictetus and Seneca.

On Meditations: One of the most incredible things about Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations was that he wrote the book only for himself; he never intended for it to be published or read by anyone else. I think this makes the original work seem all the more powerful. Marcus wrote these brilliant, incredibly lucid passages for himself, and for nobody else. He was a humble man who was trying to do his best to live up to his principles, and he was absolutely not trying to preach. Hadot points out, by laboriously grouping together all the passages in Meditations which share a common theme, that there are in fact very few original ideas in the work. You can practically see the pattern of Marcus’ thought as he tries to assimilate the words of others, turn them around in his head, and reformulate them in a way that makes sense to him. They’re not neat or coherent, and they’re not indexed. Sometimes they’re hard to understand at all, or they reference unknown works. And they’re not literary or poetic, but I think that is for the best. Hadot calls the writing of these thoughts a “spiritual exercise.” It gives them authenticity and kind of a forceful beauty and would have been ruined if Meditations had been anything other than a first draft.

On Stoicism in general: As I said, this book is incredible for the way it distills and identifies the fundamental ideas of Stoicism. The basic idea behind Stoicism is this (in my words):

There are two kinds of things in the world– those you can control and those you cannot. Accept the things you cannot and work ceaselessly to perfect the things you can.

That’s it. It’s a very simple philosophy. Or as Hadot says, “There is no good but moral good, and there is no evil but moral evil.” In other words, the good/evil dichotomy exists only inside one’s mind and actions. The Stoic says that everything else– disease, war, suffering, others’ aggression toward you– is completely neutral and is neither good nor evil.

This is what is meant by “The Inner Citadel.” The Stoics believed that your soul is your stronghold. It’s the only thing over which you have complete control, and striving to perfect your soul your intentions in the only thing that matters in life. Old age, violence, and the trials of life may lay waste to your body, but your soul is untouchable to the outside world. It is entirely your own, and it’s maintenance is entirely your own responsibility.

There are three pieces to the Stoic conception of the good life. They are:

1) Judge everything objectively.

You must eliminate all prejudice. See things as they are, and never as anything else. “To lay them bare… to strip away the legend that encrusts them” as Marcus says. When you experience things in the world, in a sense you’re having a dialogue. You see a painting and the painting seems to ask you “Do you like me?” and you respond internally, “I like you. You are good.” When you smell rotting garbage or experience physical pain, your answer is “This is uncomfortable. You are bad.” To the Stoics, this is not ideal. Instead, try to be objective and quiet your inner discourse with the world. See things only as they are, and resist the temptation to add your own thoughts and impressions. Do not judge the value of things in the world, because they are all equal and they are all outside your control anyway.

(To follow this too strictly, in my opinion, is pretty extreme. The perfect Stoic would derive absolutely no pleasure from art, music, sex, food, etc., just as he would feel no pain from hunger, poverty, or discomfort. Luckily I don’t think my will is strong enough to run that risk.)

2) Don’t wish your circumstances to be any different than they are.

The second point is to love your fate, and to fearlessly accept whatever happens to you without complaint. The Stoics had a complicated relationship with Destiny or Fate, but the basic point is that you shouldn’t complain. Anything bad that happens is not an obstacle, but it is actually an opportunity. Your weaknesses are actually your strengths if you frame them correctly in your mind, and when you encounter something blocking your path, it is merely a chance to practice some new virtue that you have been neglecting. Patience, tolerance, persistence, courage, or something else. If you don’t love your fate and respectfully submit to whatever the world throws at you, you will just get stuck complaining about things and feeling sorry for yourself. Stop saying: “Life would be so easy if I only had an Ivy League degree / $X in the bank / the right connections / better parents.” Start saying: “This is the hand I’ve been dealt, and these are the tools I have. What can I do with them?”

Marcus is relentless in his admonition of people who aspire to fame or riches. By remembering your own mortality and the relative insignificance of the entirety of your life, you are more able to realize the indifference of Nature to your tiny little actions, and therefore more accepting of things that occur.

3) Be fair, generous, and dignified, both to yourself and to others.

The first two principles deal with the right thoughts and frame of mind. This is all nice in theory, but what principles should guide our actions day-to-day? What does Stoicism look like in its practical application? That’s number three– right actions. First: you must concentrate every minute on doing what you know is right, on living each minute like it will be your last, and, as Marcus says, “worship your inner power.”

You need to respect yourself by working diligently to do what Nature intended for you, and you must also be respectful and altruistic toward others. Realize that they are not so different from you. All men are brothers, so by doing good to one you are doing good the whole community, including yourself.

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This is obviously just a basic introduction to Stoicism and Marcus Aurelius. Like so many things, the fundamentals are simple but there is nearly infinite room to explore the depths and make connections, as Hadot does in his book.

At times it’s a little tedious and academic, but it was a great way to explore the context of Marcus’ Meditations, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in Stoicism.

Quotes:

The Stoic philosophical life consists essentially in mastering one’s inner discourse. Everything in an individual’s life depends on how he represents things to himself–in other words, how he tells them to himself in inner dialogue. “It’s not things that trouble us,” as Epictetus said, “but our judgements of things,” in other words, our inner discourse about things. . . Marcus was thus practicing Stoic spiritual exercises. He was using writing as a technique or procedure in order to influence himself, and to transform his inner discourse by meditating on the Stoic dogmas and rules of life . . . since the true philosopher is he who is conscious of not yet having attained wisdom. -Hadot

What depends on us are value-judgements, impulses toward action, and desire or aversion; in a word, everything which is our own business. What does not depend on us are the body, wealth, honors, and high positions in office; in a word, everything which is not our own business. -Epictetus

Book Summary: The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship

by Stephen Potter

Summary:

“The Theory and Practice of Gamesmanship” is a tongue-in-cheek guide to the subtle psychological tricks and games we play on each other. This book is strictly about sportsmanship, but Potter’s other books cover the same principles as they apply to daily life, work, love, and so on.

How I found it:

It was quoted in “Strategy 28” in Robert Greene’s The 33 Strategies of War.

Impressions:

“The Art of Winning Games Without Actually Cheating,” is the hilarious subtitle, which already gives you a sense of what to expect. This is without a doubt the most British thing I have ever read. It’s hysterical in the absolute driest and most deadpan way imaginable. Presented as a self-help work, the author teaches you how to declare polite psychological warfare, for example, by getting your opponent to buy you a drink without realizing it until he is mid-backswing. Or how to unnerve your enemy by repeatedly whistling a tune with one chronically wrong note. There are footnotes, academic-style references that don’t seem to lead anywhere, and plenty of sketches and diagrams to illustrate, say, the proper position on the tennis court from which to deliver a certain sharp remark. I love the fact that he provides example scripts, which make it all the more tactical. You can just imagine a couple of Englishmen shooting the breeze in their knickers, trying to best each other verbally with wit and subtlety.

The humor us so clever and low-key that you really have to pay attention. More than once I caught myself getting bored with the text, quickly pressing ahead until I found the next joke. Turns out they were there, I was just thoughtlessly blowing past them. When I did catch them, I found myself genuinely laughing aloud, a rare thing when reading a book, and especially one from the 1950s. I got this book as part of “The Complete Upsmanship,” containing the whole four-book “gamesmanship” series, and I can’t wait to read the other three.

Humor aside, there is some really useful strategy here. In Potter’s world, it’s not enough to win by scoring; you have to win psychologically too. Consider his advice on being the “antithesis” of your opponent. It is supreme gamesmanship, he explains, to deliberately and confidently take the opposite approach of your opponent. If he is taking a competitive approach, play the amateur; make casual conversation about something else. Nature, or women. But if the opponent is trying to be leisurely, then act like a professional; offer advice to diminish him, give backhanded compliments, and stay focused on the game. Similarly, if your opponent is underdressed, be sure to overdress, and vice versa. This will make him feel slightly awkward and out of his element. By adopting these methods, you can appear to be the winner in your opponent’s memory regardless of the actual outcome.

The goal, above all, is to get your opponent to over-think and second-guess himself. Get under their skin. Use satire, criticism, misdirection, whatever. But don’t be too overt. If you come on too strong, then your opponent will elicit sympathy from others. Do it with tact, and you can make your opponent feel rushed, bored, overextended, or uncomfortable without ever quite sensing why.

Very funny, surprisingly useful read.

Quote:

Potter’s Opening:A chess opening “invented for use against a more experienced player who is absolutely certain to win. It consists of making three moves at random and then resigning. The dialogue runs as follows:

SELF: Good. Excellent. I must resign, of course.

OPPONENT: Resign?

SELF: Well… you’re bound to take my Bishop after sixteen movies, unless . . . unless . . . And even then I lose my castle three moves later.

OPPONENT: Oh, yes.

SELF: Unless you sacrifice there, which, of course, you wouldn’t.

OPPONENT: No.

SELF: Nice game.

OPPONENT: Yes.

SELF: Pretty situation . . . very pretty situation. Do you mind if I take a note of it? The Chess News usually publishes any stuff I send them.”