Alex Ferguson combined an incredible work ethic with an obsession for football to become the most decorated football manager of all time, having won more trophies managing Manchester United from 1986 to 2013 than any other manager in the history of football. ONI is not a particularly football focused work place: I rarely hear the game discussed around the coffee machine, but Leading by Alex Ferguson and Michael Moritz is recommended reading here. The lessons shared on leadership can be generalised; perhaps best explained in the extended epilogue by Michael Moritz, who states Ferguson would have been a successful founder “if for some reason Silicon Valley had developed between Glasgow and Edinburgh”.
Leadership in brief
In 3 words: Preparation. Perseverance. Patience. In 1 word: Consistency.
Throughout the book, anecdotes about travelling to distant fixtures, taking little holiday, waking up in the night to watch games, and being the first and last at the office, emphasise the amount of effort expended by Ferguson to achieve. He describes the need to work very hard as “baked into [his] marrow” (p. 38), and gives the examples of playing football on his wedding day and the day his first son was born. Pointing out that “an hour … squandered is time you will never recapture” (p. 164) Ferguson explains that he “cannot imagine how, if you aspire to be better than everyone else, you can have balance in your life” (p. 167).
In the first chapter titled “Becoming Yourself”, Ferguson begins his guide to leadership by emphasising the importance of observation. Listen to others, detach and watch, and read. He guides this by suggesting the test of being surprised: “When you are a step removed from the fray, you see things that come as surprises – and it is important to allow yourself to be surprised” (p. 17).
Ferguson’s partner Cathy, married since the age of 24, has supported his obsession throughout his career. Ultimately it was the death of Cathy’s sister that drove Alex to retire. He writes: “It is hard to conjure up a more tangible reminder of mortality, and I felt that, after all those years during which Cathy had put me first, it was time that I took care of her needs” (p. 335). The singular focus on work that Ferguson demonstrates often comes at the expense of an enduring relationship, but in this case that relationship seems to not only have survived, but thrived.
Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin uses experiences from their military career (primarily during the Iraq War) to describe principles of leadership. I found the book helpful, particularly as it addressed several weaknesses I see in myself. Both in war and business, the contexts used to describe implementing the principles were higher stakes and more challenging than the situations I find myself in, so I feel the solutions offered would also help solve my problems. Since encountering Jocko’s philosophy via his podcast over a year ago, I feel implementing the ideas in Extreme Ownership have helped me to grow and succeed.
The military content, which makes up a majority of the text, at times glorifies war and some readers will find it distasteful. I would suggest simply reading and considering the core principles, which together make up approximately 30 pages of the 320 page book. The 12 chapters each follow a structure of: 1. military anecdote 2. leadership principle 3. application to business. I found these anecdotes illuminating. In the first chapter, where Jocko describes taking ownership of mistakes leading to a death by friendly fire, he writes “I dreaded opening and answering the inevitable e-mail inquiries about what had transpired. I wished I had died out on the battlefield. I felt that I deserved it.” Even within the intense environment of war, something as common as email can cause “dread” because of the courage required to take ownership of mistakes. The example uses the dire consequences of war to motivate me to take ownership of my own mistakes.
The Principle of Extreme Ownership
Everything that happens to you is your responsibility. Do not make excuses. Do not blame others. Inevitably things will go wrong, and you will fail, but taking ownership can lead to learning, growth, and overcoming that failure. Making excuses, and blaming others, prevents growth and leads to more failure.
I find this a useful mindset. I have much more control over my own actions than others. I can choose what I do, but not what others do. If I externalise control to the world or others around me, and blame the world and others, then I am unable to solve my problems. If I focus on what I can do, on what I can control, then I can make progress.
Quotes I Found Helpful
Note: I hope to add more quotes and expand on these quotes later.
Every leader and every team at some point of time will fail and must confront that failure (p. 8)
This is consolation, failure is to be expected rather than feared. Failure does not mean an individual or team cannot ever succeed. Knowing this, it is possible to move past the embarrassment of one’s failure, and focus on how to improve and overcome.
It’s not what you preach, it’s what you tolerate. (p. 54)
Standards are set and maintained through tolerance. While an individual or team can have lofty aspirations, consistent performance requires intolerance of sub-standard behaviour. In short: Hold the line.
Relax, look around, make a call (p. 161)
Mantras like this help the right decision be made in difficult situations. This needs to be balanced with hesitation, which can be more damaging than haste. Relax: take a deep breath, move past the adrenaline and the pounding heart, clear your thoughts. Look around: detach, take in the bigger picture, understand the context of the situation, what is actually happening here. Make a call: once the situation is understood and a pause can be taken, only then make a decision.
Twitter backlash can change a person’s life. In this 2015 New York Times Magazine article a person making jokes (in poor taste) to her 170 followers went viral and triggered an outpouring of public shaming. The internet makes the spread of information so fast and irreversible that I am fearful of making a mistake that lands me in infamy.
I learned about this glider that you can launch by running and I want one. (Video of it in action). Much of my excitement is driven by the possibilities of carbon neutral air travel. Related; this scientist has turned to tree planting to offset the emissions from his air travel.
Kowal describes her use of sci-fi as “set dressing” to help “explore things that [she] is thinking about from the real world and it allows [her] to talk about them without all of the emotional baggage so [she] can approach them more as a thought experiment”. Dressed in sci-fi, Dr Elma York (main character) grapples with mental illness, patriarchy, and racism, while background elements invoke the politics of climate change.
It was new for me to read fiction where most of the cast, including the first person narrator, are women. As with film (I highly recommend checking out this blog post) women tend to be less represented in stories I read (e.g. The Lord of the Rings). While the main plot of The Calculating Stars centres on women fighting to be included as astronauts, The Fated Sky shifts focus to issues of race. The diversity of the cast is necessary for the story Kowal sets out to tell, and whilst she clearly has a progressive stance to share, at no point did I feel narrative was compromised to make a political point (though as far as I can tell I largely share the author’s views).
The first novel opens to a scene involving Elma and Nathaniel’s (main characters) sex life, and their emotional, sexual, and professional relationships feature significantly in both books. Kowal states in the Google Talk that she “wanted their relationship to always be rock solid”. I am fortunate that my relationship is similar enough to find myself relating to Elma and Nathaniel. While there has been criticism that “Nathaniel York is too perfect to be realistic” (which Kowal has responded to via twitter), being able to see the familiar stresses of over-commitment to work, mental illness, and maintaining intimacy over distance, helped me invest in them both as a couple and as individuals.
Science-fiction and fantasy make for interesting psychological insights into readers. While no one has experienced contact with aliens or magic, the audience’s immersion may be first broken by a very human behaviour. In the talk Kowal discusses that her writing is criticised for her depiction of Elma’s weaknesses as it seems contradictory for Elma to be so paralysed by anxiety in a social context but utterly comfortable with near death experiences in space craft. This is in spite of the real lived experiences of those with social anxiety disorder. Another criticism of the character I have seen in a few places regards her mathematical prowess:
“The least relatable thing about Elma is that she’s so smart that no one else can match her. She went to college at 14. She does math in her head. Oh, you have to solve differential equations with a piece of paper and a pencil? You’re actually a dumbass in comparison.” — librarything review by yvonnekins
I remember feeling a similar jealous sentiment towards Patrick Rothfuss’ protagonist in the Kingkiller Chronicle series. It is easy to be jealous of characters who are defined by their intelligence, particularly if you operate in a world where intelligence is worshipped. When it comes to astronauts however, Elma’s skills did not break my immersion, as I have seen astronauts tend to have pretty incredible CVs, e.g. Jonny Kim. Also child pilot and accomplished physicist Sabrina Gonzalez Pasterski is not a fictional character.
Some uncomfortable feelings when I come to write about books
Generally, despite really enjoying the story, coming to reflect on it here inspired some painful feelings. While it would be easier to ignore those feelings, that would miss an opportunity to grow past them, and fail to follow the example of sharing personal weakness set by Kowal and others who inspire me. I feel it is important to hold and express thoughts about the books I read, and I couldn’t do that if I avoided emotions that come with reflection. Emotions are difficult to untangle, but two strands I can draw out are:
1. I feel I should write about books but I don’t know why or how. I feel disappointed with myself that when I finished the first book all that made it into the blog was “I finished reading The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal, it is excellent.”
2. I read slowly. It is also disappointing to me that it took me nearly 3 months to read The Fated Sky. I quickly convert that rate of four books a year through the relatively short human lifespan, and feel a great sense of loss that there are so many texts I will never read.
I highly enjoyed both books (on paper), but given Kowal is a voice actor and does the narration, I would recommend listening to The Calculating Stars via audiobook. I eagerly anticipate the third book in Elma and Nathaniel’s story, due in 2022.
Minimalism is most simply the practice of attempting to minimise one’s possessions. Minimalism, and its popularity, is a response to the suffocating clutter many people experience. The cost of producing many items (clothes, appliances, toys) has fallen, and marketing to consume these items has become more prevalent and sophisticated, resulting in consumption beyond individual’s needs and capacity to manage possessions. Like many cultural phenomena, it is not merely a pragmatic solution to a problem, but also manifests as a set of values and an aesthetic (of which Apple Stores are an often cited example). Some of these are potentially problematic; A New York Times opinion piece opens with “[minimalism] has become an ostentatious ritual of consumerist self-sacrifice“.
My Experience with Minimalism
I have a natural urge to collect things. I inherited a sense of scarcity from parents who have escaped times of political upheaval. I detest waste, and find it easy to see potential uses for many items that ultimately I never use (scrap pieces of paper that might be handy to put down a note, packaging that might be used to carry something else someday, old electronics that I could strip for useful parts). The result is an ever growing collection of possessions that take both physical space and organisational time.
The mental problem I have with clutter is more significant. It is upsetting to wake up, and come home, to a growing pile of physical objects that correspond to tasks left undone. Books that would be nice to read, models it would be fun to build and paint, even an ever-thicker envelope of receipts that would, if analysed, give me insight into my spending habits (how much did I spend on cheese in 2017?). As this pile grows so does my sense that I am not in control of my life; if I were, wouldn’t I be able to get all these tasks done? “Maximalist” clutter becomes the physical representation of my poor time management and lack of drive. On each passing glance over this reminder, I am made a little more anxious, and my willpower is slightly sapped. Putting off those tasks trains the terrible habit of procrastination.
Minimalism provides an escape. By ascribing to the philosophy I am forcing myself through the discomfort of casting away what I perceive to have relatively low value. Through this I rid myself of the negative emotions that come from feeling out of control, and ultimately I find more time that is more comfortable. My first experience of this minimalist joy was moving to Oxford with only a suitcase of possessions. Suddenly, without distractions and incomplete projects surrounding me, I was more free to explore my new surrounds, to step up and tackle projects like this website.
Where I take issue with minimalism, particularly at the more extreme end (e.g. Fumio Sasaki’s), is the impracticality and expense. Ultimately you are outsourcing clutter to others, for example cooking and transportation. Food is a necessity. It is more affordable and often healthier if prepared from simple ingredients bought in bulk (e.g. flour, market vegetables). It is impractical to shop for food daily, and so storing groceries, the kitchen appliances needed to cook, and utensils to serve meals, are very practical anti-minimalist behaviours. Similarly while uber and bike sharing schemes can be convenient, owning and maintaining my own bicycle is cheaper and more pleasurable to ride.
Minimalist Book Report
I was given Goodbye, Things by Fumio Sasaki for christmas in 2017, but only set aside time to read it while flying. In five chapters it summarises the authors experience in finding minimalisim, discusses the development of the problems he feels minimalism solves, lists tips on adopting a minimalist lifestyle, gives examples of ways in which minimalism has helped the author, and concludes with some brief notes on happiness. I found the individual experiences relatable, but the historical and philosophical arguments less compelling. The many short guides in Chapter 3, “55 tips to help you say goodbye to your things, and 15 more tips for the next stage of your minimalist journey” become repetitive, but I feel there is value in explaining the same concept in a number of different ways as different readers will find some phrasings easier to digest than others. Ultimately, minimalism has clearly benefited Sasaki and helped him find a coherent identity, and as such he provides useful advice to aspiring minimalists. The mix of quoted individuals in Chapter 4 (Steve Jobs, Einstein, Lao Tzu, Tyler Durden) reveal an attempt to put minimalism on a cultural pedestal that I find unconvincing. I am left feeling minimalism is a useful tool, but a shallow philosophy.
The face of minimalism, via her Netflix series, is Marie Kondo. Sasaki talks about Kondo’s influence on minimalism in his 2015 book, pointing out that her recent fame in the English speaking world was preceded by much earlier interest in Japan. Google trends supports this chronology. On the left in red, the search trends for 近藤 麻理恵 (Marie Kondo in Japanese) peak in December 2011 and May 2015, corresponding with the release of her book and being listed in the Time 100 most influential people respectively. Search trends for her name in English peak in January, with the release of her Netflix show.
Short version: I read Peter Thiel’s notes on startups, had a couple college formal dinners, cycled in the Cotswolds, and bought some protein powder.
Zero to One
Peter Thiel is founder of PayPal, and an early investor in Facebook, which have made him a billionaire. In 2012 he taught a course about startups at Stanford, which via Blake Master’s notes became the book Zero to One.
I will update this post later with my thoughts on the book and other missing sections.