Reading list

Here are the books I read during the month of August. 

NONFICTION BOOK OF THE MONTH
Beatles '66
by Steve Turner

The first book I read after my departure from Kickstarter was decided. I went to McNally Jackson, a bookstore in Soho, thinking I would buy a self-help book about transitions. Instead I came across this: a monthly diary of everything the Beatles did, listened to, or smoked/took in 1966, the year they released Rubber Soul, recorded and released Revolver, and recorded half of Sgt Pepper’s — aka the single greatest one-year artistic evolution the world has seen.

This very satisfying book gives a strong feeling for what it was to be a Beatle. My respect for Paul and George (already my favorites) went through the roof. Both are diligent, curious learners who used their time to seek new ideas and had the talent and humility to filter them through their own work. Paul’s interest in the avant-garde was early and knowing. The tape loops that back John on “Tomorrow Never Knows” were actually home recordings made by Paul. (Also surprising: "Tomorrow Never Knows" was the first song recorded for Revolver.) George’s interest in Indian music was sincere and devoted — it took a while for Indian musicians to take him seriously.

The book is full of amazing anecdotes, including John and Paul playing “Tomorrow Never Knows” for the Stones and Dylan before it was released and the pair hearing Pet Sounds for the first time. The book notes how the Beatles had the privilege of seeing the future in art, fashion, food, and ideas before anyone else. The culture that came to be in the ‘60s owed much to their incredible vision. For any fan of the Beatles or cultural production, this is a must-read.

Grade: A

FICTION BOOK OF THE MONTH
Before the Fall
by Noah Hawley

The story of a private plane crashing on its way from Martha’s Vineyard to NYC with a dozen wealthy passengers on board. Two survive. From there the book leaps into a Lost-like array of timelines and backstories with a very satisfying denouement (Lost-unlike). 

The book was written by Noah Hawley, head of the TV adaptation of Fargo. The feel for cinema and tension is exquisite. Just as impressive is the writing, which possesses a Delillo-worthy emotional elegance. As good a thriller as I’ve read.

Grade: A

NONFICTION BOOK OF THE MONTH RUNNER-UP
The Fifties
by David Halberstam

Wow. This is an enormous book with each chapter devoted to a deep overview of a key aspect of America in the ‘50s — civil rights, McCarthey-ism, Elvis, the bomb, Eisenhower, and other iconic developments. They're written with a perspective that is fresh, surprising, and all-knowing. Most enjoyable were the chapters on things I hadn't thought about: the washing machine, the suburbs, I Love Lucy. The way that every corner of culture informs and provokes the rest. This book makes me wish Halberstam had the time to do this for every decade. Tremendous.  

Grade: A+

FICTION BOOK OF THE MONTH RUNNER-UP
You Should Have Left
by Daniel Kehlmann

A novella about a writer and his family going to a house in the country. Surprising, well written, satisfying. Imagine Karl Ove writing The Shining except you'll finish it in two hours, not two months.

Grade: B+

The Invisibility Cloak
by Ge Fei

This was my first time reading contemporary Chinese fiction and I enjoyed it quite a bit. It tells the story of a high-end stereo expert in a fantastical contemporary Beijing whose poverty traps him in a series of confusing experiences. It kept my attention, though the ending was so abrupt I tried re-downloading the book to make sure there wasn’t some kind of technical issue (there wasn't).

Grade: C

Barbarians at the Gate
by Bryan Burrough and John Helyar

My second time reading this business classic, the story of the sale of RJR Nabisco in the late ‘80s — at the time the biggest and most high profile leveraged buyout in history.

The book is an incredibly reported sprint of ego and competition. Every one of Wall Street’s Masters of the Universe pop up, all of them looking worse for the experience.

The book unintentionally and unknowingly reveals the shallowness of capitalistic competition, media hype, and the destructiveness of ego. For all of the time, money, and brain power used to complete this “deal of the century,” the epilogue reveals that the whole event was almost meaningless. Nothing came to pass the way any of the players expected, and for most of them their careers were effectively over once it was done.

Grade: A+

Anything You Want
by Derek Sivers

A series of business and personal vignettes from the founder of CD Baby. There’s a humbleness and clarity of vision that’s appealing.

Grade: B-

A People’s History of the United States
by Howard Zinn

History is written by the victors. Here’s the other side. I'm halfway through this classic of American history told from the side of the marginalized, the discriminated against, and the defeated. The net takeaway: the challenges many see and feel with America now have always been there, many by design. These things aren’t accidents. Americans are really good at telling ourselves myths.

Grade: Incomplete (still need to finish)

Know your job

The other day I had breakfast with a founder. I had recently announced that I was stepping down as CEO of Kickstarter. That morning I learned he was considering stepping down from his company too.

Business is good, he begins. He’s been at it for almost a decade and it’s arguably the best it's been. The metrics are up. People are happy.

But he's not happy. He doesn't feel useful. Things are growing but it's not from his ideas. Instead new leaders are doing well. When he lets them drive, things grow. When he takes the wheel, things stall.

I’m not meant for this job anymore, he says.

I listen. Then I ask a question.

Why are we talking about the failure of your ideas and not the success of the team you’ve put in place?

He raises an eyebrow.

The CEO's job is to build an organization that succeeds. How do you do that? By knowing where you want to go and hiring people who can get you there. It sounds like you've hired the people. Now you need to make sure you know where you're going.

Getting perspective takes conscious effort. You have to create space for it. Regularly. It means spending less time in the office and in the weeds. It means letting the team do their job while you do yours. 

Your job is to see the matrix. There are many ways to start seeing it: talking to peer CEOs, meeting customers, reading books, a weekend of solitude, taking drugs in the woods. All involve time, space, and separation.

Seeing the matrix means you learn to see the world through the lens of where you're going. You learn to communicate, guide, and decide as if your future successful self is looking back on current events. It's not every step and every detail. It's colors, shapes, a direction.

Everything else comes from the team as you talk through the vision together. It's a constant conversation. And when the team and vision come together, the sky's the limit. That's when the future becomes real.

Now's not the time to quit. Now's the time to grow into your new job.

He is smiling. He likes this new way of seeing things. We walk outside. It's a beautiful morning.

It's amazing how different the world looks when we manage to get out of our own way.

How the White House budget threatens creativity

Kickstarter was launched in 2009 — not by a computer science major or an MBA, but by an artist, a designer and me, a music critic. Arts and culture were important to us and we thought a lot of other people, too. It took off. 

When a Washington Post headline a few years later declared "Kickstarter raises more money for artists than the NEA,” I felt both humility and apprehension. We were mentioned in the same breath as the National Endowment for the Arts, an organization whose mission we admire deeply. But I worried our success might be seen as an argument that the private sector alone should address arts funding.

Read in full: Published as an Oped in The Hill

Decisions

There are two types of decisions: ones you’ve made before and ones you haven’t. Every decision starts as one you’ve never made before. It’s only with experience that decisions that would have fallen into the latter category move into the first.

Easy decisions are the first ones you’ll make. Options appear to reason through, and you choose a course based on your values and wisdom.

As time goes on and the easier decisions have been made — or systematized in such a way that others can make them — leaders are left with the hard decisions. Ones that are entirely new in their subject matter, stakes, or the ambiguity of whether a right decision truly exists.

Instinct is the gradual shift of new decisions into familiar decisions. It’s the pattern recognition of seeing how our guidance can shape the world, and an understanding of the fallibilities of our ego, impatience, and fear.

The whole world is a series of decisions made individually and collectively. It’s easy to become paralyzed by a challenging new decision, but take comfort in humility. Decisions of similar scale have been faced before, and it’s unlikely that the stakes are ever as large as they seem. Most likely a decision will simply create further decisions to consider.

When making decisions it’s vital to reflect beyond the situation at hand to what you most value. Imagine a future where your values are realized. What decision at this moment in time makes that future most probable? What could prevent that reality from coming to pass?

As a leader, each day is nothing but decisions. Where experience provides instinct for a decision, use it. Where a situation is entirely new, approach it with humility and care. And be grateful for the experience it will bring to the next decision you’ll be asked to make.