Five not-so-business books that informed my perspective on business

Jaywalking came up in conversation recently, and reminded me of a wonderful book that devoted an entire chapter to the subject: James Scott’s Two Cheers for Anarchism. That got me reflecting on all the other non-business-y books that have informed my thinking about business.

The Valve Handbook for New Employees

Through their employee handbook, Valve introduced me to the idea that an empowered work environment can work at a large scale.

Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, Matthew Crawford

A recovering philosopher and disillusioned think tank executive director decides to start a motorcycle repair shop. The book articulated an important idea that I now reflect on nearly ever day: extrinsic vs intrinsic motivation.

Two Cheers for Anarchism: Six Easy Pieces on Autonomy, Dignity, and Meaningful Work and Play, James Scott

Scott shares six short stories of how anarchy (I’ll define anarchy as “emergent order without authoritarianism”) guides the overwhelming majority of human interactions. The book was a great reminder to me of the danger of top-down and the virtues of bottom up.

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand

This book probably has the second largest number of attacks and dismissals penned by people who have never read it (the Bible holding the top spot). Rarely have I come across a critic who has ever opened it. Atlas Shrugged is a story about creativity, what it means to be creative, how that affects the world, and what would happen if we lost our creative people.

The Man Who Planted Trees, Jean Giono

This very short and beautifully illustrated book follows a French shepherd named Elzéard Bouffier, from the eve of WWI through the end of WWII. It’s the story of what happens when vision meets consistent and deliberate action. Setting out to plant a garden is aspirational; Setting out to plant a forest is visionary.

School and Anxiety

The_Danger_of_Back_to_School_-_Google_Sheets

 

Peter Gray presented some data about the correlation between anxiety in children and the school calendar in an article in his Freedom to Learn series.

“Kids are people,” Gray writes, “and they respond just as adults do to micromanagement, to severe restrictions on their freedom, and to constant, unsolicited evaluation.”

I thought a chart might make it easier to digest, so I put this one together via Google Sheets.

This looks only at data from the Hartford Connecticut Children’s Mental Center. I’d love to see this on a national scale, for specific cities and regions, and–though I can’t imagine how the data would be collected–from school to school (including homeschoolers and unschoolers).

The CEO as Steward of the Tree

Some friends and I were recently discussing the CEO job description, with each of us sharing what we do everyday. The CEO role is different from that of a Founder, and I approach my responsibilities as CEO by viewing myself as Steward of the Tree.

Over the years, we have nurtured a tiny seed of a company into a healthy little tree. Our tree helps all sorts of creatures live their lives: it offers shade for customers, fruit for owners, and branches on which employees can build their nests. The leaves that fall during autumn decompose and fertilize the forest floor of our community. Our seeds scatter in the wind, take root elsewhere in the forest, and begin their own journey toward tree-dom.

Our tree is still young, and has plenty more room to grow. My task as Steward of the Tree is to help it fulfill its potential – to grow to maturity so that it’s impact is amplified many times over what it is now.

I can make reckless decisions that stunt its growth or kill it. I might push it to grow at a rate that’s ultimately unhealthy, and would cause its branches to weaken or would jeopardize it’s strength by not giving its roots time enough to dig deeper into the soil. Or I might be negligent or lackadaisical, so that other trees reach up and block our sunshine, and then our little tree will wither.

When I’m being most effective, there’s not really anything that I must do. The tree is just fine without me tending to it for a few days. But there is always something I could be doing: whether it’s pruning a rogue branch, inspecting a fungus, or simply learning about how to help trees be healthier.

If there’s nothing in particular that I need to do on a given day, rather than feeling lost, useless, or guilty about it (which I’ve come to learn is a common feeling among CEOs), I should feel some pride: I have helped a seed grow to a strapping young tree that doesn’t need my immediate attention. If the tree needs my constant tending—if I am fighting back blights or urgently toting buckets of water during dry spells—then perhaps I am tending it in the wrong way. That’s probably a signal that I could be doing a better job as a steward.

A core responsibility of the steward is to provide. Provide comes from the Latin prōvidēre, with prō meaning “forward,” and vidēre meaning “to see.” To be a provider, one must literally see forward.

Our executive team recently finished The Hard Thing about Hard Things, and we spent a good bit of time on the one of the common themes in the book: the difference between “wartime” and “peacetime” CEOs. In growing our business through four years of a great economic apocalypse, every day certainly felt like battle, and I’m grateful to have shared that difficult journey with some incredibly talented and committed people.

Today, we may not feel so many immediate threats to our existence—we have enough recurring revenue, enough operating income, and enough cash on hand to withstand a great many blows—but insidious threats still loom. We are no longer battling to ensure that our tree survives until tomorrow or next month. Today, we battle to ensure that our tree is thriving years from now. The threats are less obvious and palpable (which makes some aspects of the steward’s job more challenging), but they’re still all around us. We must still combat our greatest enemy: complacency.

A handful of writings and people that have influenced my thinking about the CEO’s job:

The Man Who Planted Trees, Jean Giono

How Andreesen Horowitz evaluates CEOs, Ben Horowitz (this post was also in THTAHT)

What a CEO Does, Fred Wilson

I first came across the “CEO as Steward” analogy from one of our customers, Scott Barr of Southwest Exteriors, an accomplished remodeler in San Antonio.