Aug 12

Tim O'Reilly

Tim O'Reilly

Surprises on the Bookshelves of CEOs

There was a lovely article in the New York Times a few weeks ago, entitled Surprises on the Bookshelves of CEOs that I've been trying to find time to write about since it appeared. I was particularly taken with the subtitle: "In personal libraries, more literature and poetry than business bestsellers." I have always felt slightly guilty for not keeping up with the latest business and management advice, so I was heartened to see Mike Moritz of Sequoia Capital echoing my own confession: "I rarely read business books," and that Dee Hock, the creator of the Visa card, finds everything he needs to know in the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam.

On that note, here are a few of the books that provide me with enduring insight:

  • The Way of Life According to Lao Tzu in the wonderful Witter Bynner translation. There is so much practical advice here on both human relations and personal happiness that I find myself returning again and again to this book. Of course, I've read it so often that I've got much of it memorized.

  • The Palm at the End of the Mind, by Wallace Stevens. Poetic meditations on the nature of reality, the power of the imagination, and the dialog between the two. "It is not in the premise that reality is a solid." Indeed. Our science and our art are both the imposition of creative vision, and new discoveries are as much aesthetic revisioning as they are "truth" in some objective sense.

  • Air Guitar, by Dave Hickey, especially the essay "Birth of the Big Beautiful Art Market," which explains such things as the hacker ethic and just why Apple is so successful, despite being written about cars.

  • Rasselas, by Samuel Johnson. Johnson has so much insight into the human condition, and the importance of the imagination to both our happiness and unhappiness. "I consider this mighty structure [the Great Pyramid] as a monument to the insufficiency of human enjoyments....It seems to have been erected only in compliance with that hunger of imagination which preys incessantly upon life, and must be always appeased by some employment. Those who have already all that they can enjoy must enlarge their desires. He that has built for use till use is supplied, must begin to build for vanity, and extend his plan to the utmost power of human performance, that he may not be soon reduced to form another wish." If you've never read Johnson, you must! Read also his essays!

In addition to these touchstone books, I have a large clipping file of quotes that I have remembered or written down over the years, and that recur again and again as tools for my thinking. Here are a few of them, some of which you will recognize from my talks and articles:

Advice for living:

  • "That we must all die, we always knew; I wish I had remembered it sooner." Samuel Johnson, Letter to Sir Joshua Reynolds.

  • "The key to living well is first to will that which is necessary and then to love that which is willed." Irving Yalom
  • "Always tell the truth. You will gratify some people and astonish the rest." Mark Twain.
  • "See everything. Ignore a lot. Improve a little." Pope John Paul II.
  • "Resentment is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies." St. Augustine.
  • "If your morals make you dreary, depend upon it they are wrong. I do not say "give them up," for they may be all you have; but conceal them like a vice, lest they should spoil the lives of better and simpler people." Robert Louis Stevenson.
  • "Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out." Vaclav Havel.
  • "We must never be ashamed of our tears, they are rain from heaven washing the dust from our hard hearts." Charles Dickens.

  • "Our business in life is not to succeed, but to continue to fail in good spirits." Robert Louis Stevenson.

  • "Be who you are and say what you feel because the people who mind don't matter and the people who matter don't mind." Theodor Geisel (Dr. Seuss).

  • "I thought nothing of it now." Samuel Johnson, climbing down from a tree in his 70s, after being told by another old man that he thought nothing of climbing such a tree when he was a boy. May we all stay young in this way!

  • On a similar note, here's a line that is meaningless itself without context, but with that context, incredibly stirring: "I want the last word you hear from my lips as the head of this academy to be the name of Michaelangelo!" Sir Joshua Reynolds, in his fourth discourse at the Royal Academy of Art, in which he rejected his entire career of studied formalism and implored his colleagues to return to a more passionate, embodied era in art.

On honoring other people:

  • "It is well to remember that the entire universe, with one trifling exception, is composed of others." John Andrew Holmes.

  • "Whenever people join together to help another creature people should know about it. We all long to know there is a graciousness at the heart of creation." Mr. Rogers.
  • "Fail to honor people, they fail to honor you." Lao Tzu.
  • "What I do and what I dream include thee, as the wine must taste of its own grapes." Elizabeth Barrett Browning.

On writing:

  • "The skill of writing is to create a context in which other people can think." Edwin Schlossberg.

  • "You can leave anything out, as long as you know what it is." Ernest Hemingway.

On the future:

  • "The future is here. It's just not evenly distributed yet." William Gibson.
  • "I'm an inventor, and that's what made me interested in trend analysis: Inventions need to make sense in the world where you finish a project, not the world in which you start the project." Ray Kurzweil.
  • "The future always comes too fast and in the wrong order." Alvin Toffler.

  • "There will always be people who are ahead of the curve, and people who are behind the curve. But knowledge moves the curve." Bill James.

  • "History is a wave that moves through time slightly faster than we do." Kim Stanley Robinson.

On politics:

  • "You have theories enough concerning the Rights of Men. It may not be amiss to add a small degree of attention to their Nature and disposition." Edmund Burke.

  • "A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse (generous gifts) from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, (which is) always followed by a dictatorship."

    "The average age of the world's greatest civilizations has been two hundred years. These nations have progressed through this sequence. From bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to great courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance, from abundance to complacency; from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependence, from dependence back into bondage."

    Anonymous, from the 1950s, but often mis-attributed to Alexander Tytler, circa 1787, The Fall of the Athenian Republic. (See note and link in comments.)

What are some of your favorite lines from what you've read or heard, things that stick with you and come up again and again as you navigate your life?

tags: life hacks  | comments: 26   | Sphere It

Previous  |  Next

0 TrackBacks

TrackBack URL for this entry:

Comments: 26

  ubaldo [08.12.07 09:54 AM]

The article is not free at nytimes site. Is there a copy somewhere? I wonder when NYT folks are going to realize that building a moat around almost fresh content is a medieval idea.

  Tomek [08.12.07 09:58 AM]

Recently I've found this great quote from Haruki Murakami:

"Whether in music or in fiction, the most basic thing is rhythm. Your style needs to have good, natural, steady rhythm, or people won’t keep reading your work. I learned the importance of rhythm from music — and mainly from jazz. Next comes melody — which, in literature, means the appropriate arrangement of the words to match the rhythm. If the way the words fit the rhythm is smooth and beautiful, you can’t ask for anything more. Next is harmony — the internal mental sounds that support the words. Then comes the part I like best: free improvisation. Through some special channel, the story comes welling out freely from inside. All I have to do is get into the flow. Finally comes what may be the most important thing: that high you experience upon completing a work — upon ending your “performance” and feeling you have succeeded in reaching a place that is new and meaningful. And if all goes well, you get to share that sense of elevation with your readers (your audience). That is a marvelous culmination that can be achieved in no other way.

Practically everything I know about writing, then, I learned from music."

  Rolf F. Katzenberger [08.12.07 10:26 AM]

"You must be the change you want to see in the world." (Mahatma Ghandi)

and of course:

"I never have found the perfect quote. At best I have been able to find a string of quotations which merely circle the ineffable idea I seek to express." (Caldwell O'Keefe)

  David N. Welton [08.12.07 10:45 AM]

To tell the truth, a lot of business books get sort of stretched out. Starting from a good, possibly innovative, and interesting idea that could often be summed up in 10 pages, they seem to try and stretch things out with case studies, sidebars, and other filler, because of course you can't sell a 10 page book. That doesn't mean the writers aren't intelligent or don't have ideas that may even be revolutionary, just that a book is perhaps not the most efficient means of delivering them, simply the most profitable (because if it is a good idea, and the author is a good writer, it will sell).

With that in mind, I set up a "business book summary" site, with summaries written under an open source license, so that people can get at the essence of a book and then decide whether it's worth purchasing:

The idea is also that, since the summaries are free, to create a community interested in discussing the implications and ideas behind the books.

  Antonio [08.12.07 01:51 PM]

The Tyler quote apparently is misattributed.

"And that is where the vice of misattribution lies. Perhaps the words speak the truth of democratic governments; or perhaps they do not. But either way, attributing the words to a scholar who never spoke them is to lend to them an authority and reliability that they do not deserve. Anonymous quotes, which these almost certainly are, should not be given fictitious attributions merely to lend credence to the messages they impart. To do so is to favor persuasiveness over accuracy, and to sacrifice truth for the sake of image. "

Loren Collins [08.12.07 02:15 PM]

Nice list of books, I'll have to add some of them to my bookshelf.

  Tim O'Reilly [08.12.07 03:28 PM]

Antonio, thanks for the correction on the Tytler quote. I'll re-label it "Anonymous," for someone surely was the author, and it's worth keeping as an insightful statement. It's quite interesting that it originated in the 1950s, even though, as Wikipedia notes, it got a big boost on the net around the time of the 2000 election.

Unlike most of the quotes I cite, this did come from something I read on the net, rather than a book. It does say something about the ease of falsification of provenance on the net -- but of course, that has also happened in print. Think Ossian.

  Hamish MacEwan [08.12.07 04:25 PM]

On an X.400 mailing list, not surprisingly run over SMTP, in answer to the question of why "better" systems fail:

this is why a heavy-duty core will always definition, it must offer services which are of interest to only a subset of its users and yet all users are impacted by them... /mtr

  Sean O'Reilly [08.12.07 05:13 PM]

I cannot recommend highly enough The Law of Attraction by Esther and Jerry Hicks. This may well be the concept/source behind the popular book, The Secret.

  Caitlin Aptowicz Trasande [08.13.07 07:12 AM]

"That to which we tune is formed by instrument forged."

My ten-word PhD thesis-writing mantra, encapsulating this loop: in science, we ourselves make the the tools and instruments through which we peer into the universe (and ourselves).

Obvious? Yes. Worth regular reflection? Yes.

The best scientists are "tuned" into something - as if they (sometimes they alone) hear some frequency, some musica universalis. To bask in the brilliant light of discovery and feel a resonant harmonic? Bliss. Then "forged" reminds me simultaneously of "hard work" (the sweaty blacksmith) and "deception." The necessary and the inevitable.

Not bliss-kill, just wabi-sabi.

  Anonymous [08.13.07 09:34 AM]

"Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell."

William Strunk Jr.

  troy [08.13.07 09:45 AM]

When pure feeling is corrupted by intellect, there is mediocrity. That is what most of us are doing. Our lives are mediocre because we are always calculating, asking ourselves whether it is worthwhile, what profit we will get, not only in the world of money, but in the so-called spiritual world, “If I do this will I get that?”

  Sara Winge [08.13.07 10:27 AM]

"An adventure is just an inconvenience properly considered" --G.K. Chesterton

  Sachin [08.13.07 01:28 PM]

Some entirely different category of quotes from those who write fiction, and somewhat amusing too.

"I write fiction by hand, hence the absence of a computer in the picture. I write better since I put the computer in a separate office - partly at least because I am less tempted to play Freecell when I can't think of a sentence." - AS Byatt

"The first drafts of my novels have all been written in longhand and then I type them up on my old electric. I have resisted getting a computer because I distrust the whole PC thing. I don't think a great book has yet been written on computer." - JG Ballard

"I write by hand. I do not understand how people can arrive at even a flicker of creativity by means of a computer." Edna O'Brien

"Computers are a mercy for writers, but they do encourage books that are too long. I write by hand first and then type it up. Writing with a fountain pen is a real pleasure and many writers are pen queens - you'd be surprised at how some of the toughest guys can't wait to tell you about their new Mont Blanc." - Hanif Kureishi

  Ajeet Khurana [08.13.07 04:21 PM]

The problem with popular business books is that their primary objective is to sell and not to educate. This is not always a bad thing, but it often is.

If you want thought provoking business reading, I recommend some of the research coming out of business schools.

(as an aside, I must mention that Rolf's comment misspells "Gandhi". Not that I am a spelling Nazi, but the error seems to be highly prevalent.)

  Bobby Martyna [08.13.07 05:47 PM]

Can't decide if this is irony or hypocrisy:

"Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell."

  quinn norton [08.13.07 08:34 PM]

The hardest of all is learning to be a well of affection, and not a fountain, to show them that we love them, not when we feel like it, but when they do

- Nan Fairbrother

Writing is easy; all you do is sit staring at the blank sheet of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead.

- Gene Fowler

Nobody likes writing; everyone likes having written.

- Updike

Today's weirdness is tomorrow's reason why.

- Hunter S. Thompson

One man's discovery is another man's correction

- Van Baak

... you've got to come out of the measurable doing universe into the immeasurable house of being.

- ee cummings

Works of art are of an infinite solitariness, and nothing is less likely to bring us near to them than criticism. Only love can apprehend and hold them, and can be just towards them.

- rilke

Samuel Beckett once said: 'Every word is like an unnecessary strain on silence and nothingness.'

On the other hand, he SAID it.

- Art Spiegeleman

and of course:

What we call history is merely Shiva's procrastination.

- aubrey menen

  Nina [08.13.07 10:02 PM]

Since the purpose of business is to satisfy existing desires, or stimulate new ones, if everyone were genuinely happy, there would be no need for business any longer.
- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Why is it that with all the information available today on how to be successful in small business, so few people really are?
- Michael Gerber

Things that will destroy man:
Politics without principle;
pleasure without conscience;
wealth without work;
knowledge without character;
business without morality;
science without humanity;
worship without sacrifice.
--Mohandas Gandhi

Reality is what we take to be true.
What we take to be true is what we believe.
What we believe is based on our perceptions.
What we perceive depends on what we look for.
What we look for depends on what we think.
What we think depends on what we perceive.
What we perceive determines what we take to be true.
What we take to be true is our reality.
- Zukav

  Tim O'Reilly [08.13.07 10:07 PM]

Sara --

I thought the Chesterton quote (one of my favorites) was "What is adventure after all but inconvenience properly regarded?" but it turns out we're both wrong. (After Antonio's comment on the supposed Tytler quote, I thought I should check.) Google Book Search comes in handy here for making sure it's not mistyped. The exact quote, from page 36 of Chesterton's book All Things Considered, is actually "An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered," which is actually a bit less poetic than I remembered. The full quote, in context, is this: "I do not think that it is altogether fanciful or incredible to suppose that even the floods in London may be accepted and enjoyed poetically. Nothing beyond inconvenience seems really to have been caused by them; and inconvenience, as I have said, is only one aspect, and that the most unimaginative and accidental aspect of a really romantic situation. An adventure is only an inconvenience rightly considered. An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered. The water that girdled the houses and shops of London must, if anything, have only increased their previous witchery and wonder."

(It's really nice that GBS now lets you at the text of public domain books, as well as letting you see the page image. The next step would be to let people help to correct the OCR text version (which has a few bugs.) I would have gladly corrected this quote on the GBS page rather than just doing after pasting it here!)

Another great travel quote is Stevenson's "It is better to travel hopefully than to arrive."

  David [08.14.07 01:04 AM]

Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you might miss it.

Ferris Bueller

To thine own self be true.

William Shakespeare

  Anton [08.14.07 10:24 AM]

It's stasis that kills you off in the end, not ambition.


  Antonio [08.14.07 11:31 AM]

Again on quotes and provenance, I think this article by Brian Hayes on the origin and evolution of a famous annecdote from Gauss life is very interesting.

  Jim S [08.14.07 03:36 PM]

I enjoyed that article as well. It made me smile because a red eye flight, a failing startup, and Guy Kawasaki put me off business books for five years ( and I'm really glad they did!

  Sean Murphy [08.20.07 11:50 AM]

This was a great post. It reminded me of a longer passage from the afterward to the tenth anniversary edition of "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" (another book to consider for your bookshelf) by Robert Pirsig.

"This book has a lot to say about Ancient Greek perspectives and their meaning but there is one perspective it misses. That is their view of time. They saw the future as something that came upon them from behind their backs with the past receding away before their eyes.

When you think about it, that’s a more accurate metaphor than our present one. Who really can face the future? All you can do is project from the past, even when the past shows that such projections are often wrong. And who really can forget the past? What else is there to know?

Ten years after the publication of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance the Ancient Greek perspective is certainly appropriate. What sort of future is coming up from behind I don’t really know. But the past, spread out ahead, dominates everything in sight."

  Jacob Mathai [09.03.07 08:43 PM]

This is the most practical translation of Lao Tzu that I've come across. Wise words indeed.

Post A Comment:

 (please be patient, comments may take awhile to post)

Type the characters you see in the picture above.