I enjoyed Bradley Tusk’s new book, The Fixer: My Adventures Saving Startups from Death by Politics. It’s another memoir, a category which seems to be ending up on the top of my reading list a lot these days. It also was in the pile of books I get sent regularly by publishers hoping I’ll read and review them (as in “Dear Brad Feld, here is a form letter about my book, I hope you like it.”)
While I don’t know Bradley Tusk, I know of him, have heard him speak once, and like his first name. When I started reading The Fixer, I had no idea whether I’d end up engrossed, or end up turning the pages every 15 seconds as I skimmed through it looking for the good bits.
I was engrossed, at least for the first half. I started it on Monday night after dinner and got halfway through before I noticed my eyes closing as sleep beckoned. It was about 9:15 pm, which is a typical call it quits time for me on a weekday, especially since I’m still sleeping 10 or so hours a night as I recover from my two weeks of misery.
Last night Amy and I watched Sicario: Day of the Soldado. It was exactly what we were looking for, so I took a night off from reading.
Tonight, I got home at about 7 pm, ate dinner, and finished up The Fixer. The second half had a bunch of startup stories, which were shorter, but also less interesting to me in the context of a memoir. It also shifted from “here’s my story” to “here’s what my business is doing to help startups” which, while better than most memoirs that try to walk the line of self-promotion, still was less stimulating (at least to me) than the first half. Well, except for the chapter about Bloomberg almost running for president, which I loved.
Overall, it’s a winner of a book. And, if you are an entrepreneur who is doing anything that touches on any heavily regulated industry (which is a lot of you), I’d put it in the must-read category to get more context and ideas about what you are up against and how to think about it.
A few months ago Andy Sack got me a subscription to The Next Big Idea Club. Every quarter, a box with two books in it shows up. These books were chosen by Adam Grant, Susan Cain, Malcolm Gladwell, and Daniel Pink – several of my favorite contemporary writers and thinkers.
A box showed up at the end of last week. On Saturday, I read one of the books in the box – Uncensored: My Life and Uncomfortable Conversations at the Intersection of Black and White America by Zachary Wood. I was pleasantly surprised that it landed squarely in the memoir category even though Zachary is only 22.
While Zachary is clearly an incredible human, his story is even more remarkable. The first 75% of the book is his story of growing up in poverty, with an abusive mother, an emotionally distant father, with time split between Detroit and DC, while – at a very young age – falling in love with books, reading, learning, and ideas. Against an extremely challenging backdrop and even more challenging odds – ones that many people grow up in – Zachary developed discipline, grit, and determination that caused me to be awestruck.
When I took the backdrop of his childhood out of the equation, many of his intellectual pursuits and academic achievements were similar to what I experienced growing up. To do this though, I had to delete at least half of the time and energy he put against just surviving day to day, getting to school, having enough to eat, finding money to do pretty much anything, and avoiding endless emotional and psychological pits. Then I had to delete another 25% of the stress he faced being different – both from his academic peers and the kids he lived around. Then I had to delete some more, which was the result of my nurturing parents, in the comfortable middle-class neighborhood, with the safe house, in my own bedroom, surrounded by friends who looked like me and acted like me. There’s a lot more that I kept unfolding as I turned each page, getting a feeling for an entirely different type of struggle than the one I had growing up.
Halfway through the book, Warren Buffett’s famous phrase about winning the ovarian lottery was echoing in my head. While I’ve worked hard all my life, I know I had an enormous head start being born in America, male, white, in the 1960s, healthy, with a good brain, to two loving parents who were both well educated, surrounded by lots of resources.
If Zachary and I were racing in a marathon, I got to start at mile 25 with clean clothes, a Clif Bar, and a water bottle. He started at mile 0 without shoes, wearing jeans, after having stayed up all night.
The last 25% of the book is about his time at Williams College, with a particular focus on his journey with the Uncomfortable Learning organization. To get a sense of the intensity and intellectual commitment of Zachary, take a look at his Senate Testimony from June 2017 titled Free Speech 101: The Assault on the First Amendment on College Campuses. To process any of this stuff, you have to put all of your biases (of which we all, including me, have many) on the shelf, in a box, and hide them in the corner. Then, while pondering what Zachary is doing, reflect on the intense negativity, anger, hostility, and ad-hominem attacks that are endlessly directed at him. And, rather than fight them, he embraces the conflict, while trying to elevate the discussion so that learning occurs, even though it’s uncomfortable.
I went to bed Saturday night with a lot of new thoughts in my mind. My dreams were strange, which is always a signal that I’m processing something new.
Andy – thank you for the gift. It’s a perfect one.
“an autobiography is a chronological telling of one’s experience, which should include phases such as childhood, adolescence, adulthood, etc., while a memoir provides a much more specific timeline and a much more intimate relationship to the writer’s own memories, feelings and emotions.”
Over the past few weeks, I’ve read Omarosa Manigault Newman’s Unhinged: An Insider’s Account of the Trump White House, Lisa Brennan-Jobs Small Fry, Mark Epstein’s Advice Not Given: A Guide to Getting Over Yourself, and Gail Honeyman’s fictional Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine.
While it can be argued that each of these (other than Small Fry) belong in a category other than the memoir, reading each of them resulted in a lot of self-reflection on my part. Front and center was the notion of “an intimate relationship to the writer’s own memories, feelings, and emotions.”
Each had something special in it for me. While I was struggling with my bacterial infection, I had a heightened sense of my own mortality. While I only had one 24 hour period of existential dread, Amy was there beside me and let me talk openly about how I was feeling. I was reading Mark Epstein’s book at the time that I had this feeling, and many of the messages in it became more precise – and poignant for me.
As I sit at home, on a sunny day in Boulder, I realize how incredibly fortunate I am on many dimensions. It’s a cliche, but the human condition is extremely complex. Reflecting on other people’s struggles, especially in comparison to my own, generates enormous perspective for me. It is in this way that I find memoirs different (and more enriching) than autobiography.
For me, it’s not about the meaning someone else ascribes to their life, or the history a third person tells about someone, but how one’s self-reflection helps inform, enhance, and evolve the meaning I give to my life.
I’ve written this post in the style Geraldine used in her book. As you read this, assume that I’ve failed miserably at it and Geraldine is 1000x funnier and more clever than I am.
I had a weekend of books. Amy’s cold drifted over into my part of the world so I slept a lot, ran a little to try to clear out the goo in my head, and read until I feel asleep again. And I ate nachos, several times, which I never do at home.
Last week I ordered 51 hardcover copies of Geraldine DeRuiter‘s new book, All Over the Place: Adventures in Travel, True Love, and Petty Theft, from Amazon. I did it to celebrate that my 51st year on this planet coincided with the publication of Geraldine’s first book. I brought two of the books home – one for me, and one for Amy. I think I’ll make a chair out of the other 49.
Geraldine writes a popular travel blog called The Everywhereist. Amy has characterized it as “pee in your pants funny” which I’ve never actually experienced, but I think I understand. Geraldine’s book doesn’t disappoint, as I wandered to the bathroom several times while consuming the 274 pages on Saturday. I laughed out loud a lot, but I also drank two bottles of Pellegrino in an attempt to stay hydrated.
All Over the Place is a memoir masquerading as a travel book. Geraldine starts off strong with a disclaimer which points you at what the journey of this book will actually be.
“So, if there is any advice I could dispense, it would be this: it’s absolutely incredible, the things you can learn from not having a clue about where you’re going – lessons that emerge after making a wrong turn, or saying the wrong thing, or even after accidentally doing something right. And in my case, this was all undertaken not in the company of a new love, but one that has enough miles on it to circle the earth three, maybe four times, is now sufficiently jet lagged, and lost its pants somewhere over Greenland.”
If you know Geraldine’s husband Rand Fishkin, you may recognize him as the not a new love. I learned a lot about Geraldine and Rand in this book, including their experience with poop and toilets, but is gender reversed from the experiences Amy and I have had (hint: Rand and Amy are the heroes of those particular stories.)
The chapter titles give you a feel for what you are in for:
- Marry Someone Who Will Hel You Deal with Your Shit (see above paragraph)
- Home Is Where Your MRI Is
- The Contents of My Mother’s Carry-On Look Like Evidence from a Prison Riot
- Life Lessons from a Three-Hundred-Year-Old Dead Guy and His Boring Clock
- Gelato Is an Excellent Substance in Which to Drown Your Sorrows
I think y’all know I’m a big fan of chocolate gelato. Which is what I went out and got after I had an extremely uncomfortable phone call with Geraldine after realizing that she’d found out that FG Press wasn’t going to publish her book by noticing that we’d taken her off the FG Press website as a future author. Of course, this was totally my fault, as I’d told the FG Press gang a month or so earlier that I’d call Geraldine to tell her we were shutting FG Press down and, as a result, wouldn’t be publishing her, or any other, books. I apologized 49 times, went out and found a chair to sit in, and had a chocolate gelato. I think she eventually accepted my apology, kept working on her book, and found a serious publisher (PublicAffairs/Hachette) who did an awesome job with All Over the Place.
I’m extremely proud Geraldine. Her first book is extremely true to her writing, her soul, and her soulmate. I learned a lot while reading it, and not just about Geraldine and Rand, but about life.