Dec 18 2017

Book: Am I Being Too Subtle?

While I enjoy a good biography of a historical figure, I love autobiographies of living people. They are hit or miss – either awesome or awful.

Sam Zell’s autobiography Am I Being Too Subtle? was awesome. I was sent a copy by an editor at Penguin Group who sends me books, presumably that he thinks I’ll like. While this was in my infinite pile of books, I grabbed it randomly last night and polished it off tonight.

If you’ve never heard Sam Zell talk, here’s a recent short clip of him talking about entrepreneurship and a few other things.

I don’t know Sam Zell. While I only have second-degree connections to him, I’ve known of him for a while and I spent an afternoon touring his apartment in Chicago as part of a Wellesley Art Tour that he graciously opened his house for. So I had a little sense of him.

Whenever I read an autobiography, I’m always curious about the tone the person takes when talking about themselves and what they’ve learned over their life. When it’s consistent with the view I have of the person from a distance, I value the content more, regardless of what the content is. In this case, Zell’s personal reflection mapped pretty well to my impression of him over different short snippets of content from the last 20+ years.

I loved hearing the history of his entrepreneurial evolution, from his origin story in his early 20s to current time 50 years later. He’s had massive successes, but also some very big blunders along the way. While he’s gotten lots of criticism for specific failures like the enormous take private (via a leveraged buyout) – and subsequent bankruptcy a year later – of the Tribune Company, he doesn’t dodge his mistakes in this book. He takes the good with the bad and has a mantra of never taking himself too seriously, which he calls “the Eleventh Commandment.”

“… the Eleventh Commandment acknowledges that we’re all human beings who inhabit the world and are given the gift of participating in the wonders around us – as long as we don’t set ourselves apart from them.” 

Of course, he followed this section by talking about the two stately, well-fed ducks that have their own heated pool and live on a deck outside his office in Chicago.

His love of his early partner, Bob Lurie, who died in 1990 at age 48, really stuck with me. It had an emotional tenor that is similar to my feelings for my partners.

Most autobiographies have some self-deprecation in them, but it often stands out as awkward – almost like the writer was following the autobiography-101 script which says “make sure every now and then you sprinkle in some self-deprecation so you feel more authentic to the reader.” While there were plenty of self-deprecating and even cringe-worthy moments in the book, Zell wove them in with style.

I read autobiographies for the stories, not for historical truth. The stories in this one were great.


Also published on Medium.