Tag Archives: Autobiography

Swimming Across: A Memoir by Andy Grove

Summary

  1. Andris Grof (Andy Grove) tells us about his childhood in Hungary and how he lived through and dealt with WWII, Russian communist influences, and how he escaped to America. “I was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1936. By the time I was twenty, I had lived through a Hungarian Fascist dictatorship, German military occupation, the Nazis’ “Final Solution,” the siege of Budapest by the Soviet Red Army, a period of chaotic democracy in the years immediately after the war, a variety of repressive Communist regimes, and a popular uprising that was put down at gunpoint. This is the story of that time and what happened to my family and me.”

Key Takeaways

  1. But I could see in my mother’s face that there was something else. She went on, “I think it’s time for you to become Andris Grof again.” I was stunned. I had become Andris Malesevics so through and through that for a moment I was confused. But only for a moment. Then the significance of being free to use my real name engulfed me.
  2. The sensation of being in a dream kept me from feeling fatigue and also kept me from wondering what would await us at the end of our journey. I just kept walking, numb. After a while, I was neither particularly surprised nor unsurprised by anything we encountered.
  3. My father was an outgoing man. I was impressed and also a little envious at how easily he struck up conversations even with complete strangers. He was able to find a common bond with everyone he encountered — the waiter at the restaurant, the conductor on the streetcar, or somebody sitting at the table next to him. He seemed genuinely interested in these other people. Every once in a while, in his enthusiasm, he got me involved in these conversations. Most of the time, I would listen for a while, but I would soon get impatient to go home.
  4. I discovered C. S. Forester’s books about the nineteenth-century British navy captain Horatio Hornblower. Something about the character really intrigued me. Although I wouldn’t tell anyone this, I fancied myself as a latter-day Captain Hornblower, a man of few but deeply thought-out words, carrying the weight of the world on my shoulders, pacing an imaginary deck with my hands behind my back, living a rich inner life that my classmates never suspected.
  5. I felt distinctly inferior in comparison with my friends. I didn’t play the violin — or any instrument, for that matter — and I wasn’t a math or physics genius. While I was a good student, I wasn’t particularly outstanding in any one area. And I was still bad at all sports except swimming. But they accepted me as their equal. I think that the main asset I brought was that I was more comfortable with the rest of the class than they were. I served as their bridge to the wild bunch. We had something else in common: All five of us were Jewish. We weren’t the only Jews in the class. There were a few more whom we had not become friendly with. But as we gravitated to each other’s company, and hung around with each other at recess and after school, a subtle wall formed around us. No explicit acts of anti-Semitism were ever expressed toward us. But the separation was real. We never discussed the fact that we were Jewish. We just knew that we were, just as the other members of the class knew it, too. Hungarians almost always knew who was or wasn’t Jewish, kids or adults. It became a sixth sense for all of us, never a subject of explicit discussion, but one of constant tacit awareness.
  6. Even the places that specialized in chemical compounds generally didn’t have them in stock. In an economy that operated by central planning, shortages of just about everything were commonplace.
  7. One reaction to the growing political oppression was the number of jokes that sprang up about it. They acted as a safety valve for feelings that couldn’t be expressed otherwise. Jokes about current events in Budapest were an art form. They were created and transmitted almost instantaneously.
  8. (The most annoying slogan was “Work is a matter of honor and duty.” It was posted everywhere — on factory walls, in stores, and even on street signs — right above the heads of people who were listlessly trying to get away with the minimum amount of work.)
  9. I realized that I needed help. Everything, from getting a job to getting a telephone, required “connections.” My father found somebody who knew somebody who knew somebody inside Chinoin. This person moved my application along, and I got hired as a laborer.
  10. I realized that it’s good to have at least two interests in your life. If you have only one interest and that goes sour, there’s nothing to act as a counterbalance to lift your mood. But if you have more than one interest, chances are something will always go okay.
  11. This evening, I was hanging on the outside as usual, looking ahead in the gathering May dusk, but I didn’t see the traffic or the familiar streets going by. My mind was filled with atoms and molecules and experimental schemes. Then, all of a sudden, I got it. I don’t know what set it off. The experimental results that were floating around in my head suddenly jelled and the confusion of the previous weeks coalesced into a solid vision of where I was and where I needed to go. I jumped off the tram and ran home. I took out my notes and checked to see whether my recollections of the past experimental results were correct. They were. I couldn’t wait to get back into the lab the next day. With complete confidence, I planned the next sequence of experiments to confirm my hypothesis. They worked.
  12. Political parties that had long been disbanded came back to life, and dozens of newspapers sprang up to publicize their beliefs. It was as if the gradual thaw that had slowly been taking place over the past couple of years had suddenly turned into a flood.
  13. The coffee we got was made from real coffee beans. In Hungary, “coffee” was made from ground, roasted hickory nuts. Since coffee wasn’t produced in any of the Communist-bloc countries, we didn’t have it. Real coffee tasted very good.
  14. I’ve never gone back to Hungary. To be sure, as the years went on, political and economic life both improved, at least as far as I could tell. Hungary even ended up becoming a member of NATO. But although I’ve retained fond memories of Hungarian music and literature, and I still look with some warmth at picture postcards of Budapest sent to me by friends who visit there, I have never desired to revisit it myself. I’m not entirely sure why. Maybe I don’t want to remind myself of the events I wrote about. Maybe I want to let memories stay memories. Or maybe the reason is something simpler than that: My life started over in the United States. I have set roots here. Whatever roots I had in Hungary were cut off when I left and have since withered and died.
  15. I went through graduate school on scholarships, got a fantastic job at Fairchild Semiconductor, the high-flying company of its day, then participated in the founding of Intel, which in time has become the largest maker of semiconductors in the world. I rose to be its chief executive officer, a position I held for eleven years, until I stepped down from it in 1998; I continue as chairman today. I’ve continued to be amazed by the fact that as I progressed through school and my career, no one has ever resented my success on account of my being an immigrant. I became a U.S. citizen. I was named Time magazine’s Man of the Year in 1997. My two daughters now have children of their own. In fact, it was the arrival of the grandchildren that stimulated me to tell my story. As my teacher Volenski predicted, I managed to swim across the lake — not without effort, not without setbacks, and with a great deal of help and encouragement from others. I am still swimming.

What I got out of it

  1. Amazing what Grove went through by the time he was 20. You can see the foundation, the grit, the perspective he got from these difficult times and how it later informed his life at Intel, becoming one of the most respected CEOs of all time. 

Who is Michael Ovitz? by Michael Ovitz

Summary

  1. A powerful, vulnerable, and honest view into Michael, his sculpted personality and persona, and the reciprocation and unhappiness that comes from being one of the most feared men in Hollywood. “I would’ve had a much happier life if I didn’t develop the persona of being all-knowing and irreverent. It invited attacks and people looking to celebrate my downfall.”

Key Takeaways

  1. Ovitz grew up in California’s valley, in a very middle-class family. He was hungry from the start, working hard to make a name and life for himself. He started his career at William Morris Agency in the mailroom and worked his way up. He came in hours earlier than everyone and stayed later. Before there were hard drives, there were thousands of manila folders with a complete history of the company, its talent, and its decisions. He read through each and every one of them, impressing his seniors with his interest, dedication, work ethic, and knowledge. He became indispensable to one of the senior executives, doing everything from laundry to secretarial duties to finding stock tips for investments and this eventually led to a quick promotion
  2. Ovitz rose quickly through WMA, but got fed up with the nepotism and, with one of his good friends, Ron Mayer, they set out to start their own company. They wanted this talent agency to represent the stars and not an individual agent, they would be candid and upfront rather than sales-y, and would actively go find work for their talent rather than simply having job offers come in the door. This was to become Creative Artists Agency. CAA was a classic start-up in the first three years, posting zero profits. They used the strength of the big agencies against them. These incumbents all focused on the social life, big parties, and big spending. CAA decided to be more businesslike, putting the client first, strategizing on their behalf, knowing everything about them. They would seem almost square next to the incumbents, but people trusted them to deliver. CAA was out to flip the power structure from the studios to the artist themselves. They wanted to own every piece of the food chain and rake in fees on all of it. They had better information because they represented every side, knowing everything that was going on. This allowed them to be able to better match and package the best people and deals for each show or movie, was able to resolve conflicts better, and make better projections and pitches. They used this to their advantage, leveraging their better information in negotiations and tactics. 
  3. CAA had four commandments:
    1. Never lie to your clients or colleagues
    2. Always return calls by the end of the day
    3. Don’t leave people guessing
    4. Never badmouth competition
  4. Ovitz always started with an end vision in mind. Where do we want to go?
  5. He always started his talks and negotiations with current or prospective talent with all the negatives. It was like an inoculation for the flu
  6. Michael reflects that for much of his life he was black and white – you were either with him or against him and, while this helped him get to where he got, it also hurt him in many ways. Much of life is gray and for a long time he didn’t allow for great thinking
  7. Some lessons Michael learned early on in the movie business was that you need to have constituents who support you, you need to have connections, you need to love what you do, deals almost always fall apart 20 times
  8. Michael used to walk around the office with sheets of paper to make it look like he was going to a meeting when he was really just gauging the mood and temperature of his people and seeing who looked confused and out of sorts. For the first 10 years, he would call every employee who was out sick to see he could do anything. He wanted them to feel loved and taken care of but also for them to know that he was aware and kept a watchful eye over all of them
  9. Michael made it a priority for himself and his team to be well-versed in a number of topics and encourage those people to have dozens if not hundreds of magazine subscriptions so that they could knowledgeably talk about nearly anything the clients were interested in
  10. Being the calm in the storm is a great talent to have and very disarming for people. Another tactic Ovitz used was what he called “ground shifting.” If somebody threw out a number or idea that was supposed to be confidential, he would counter by saying, “no it’s higher” (or lower) and this would throw people off balance make him seem ominous. This also allowed him to gauge how confident people were and what they were saying. Michael was extremely soft-spoken and even more so in difficult situations. He wanted to speak so softly and calmly that people had to lean in to hear what he had to say
  11. CAA was a huge fan of gifting but never anything disposable like champagne. They preferred gifts that were sturdy, thoughtful, and that would last. They kept track of everybody’s interests, hobbies, and passions and would get them gifts based on what they knew and learned about all their clients
  12. A useful tactic is to get to your competitions’ friends and kids, having them convince their influential friends or parents about what you want. Listening and watching what the younger generations are doing is important – once you hit 35, you have no idea what the next trend or wave will be
  13. Beware of the totally natural human trap of thinking that because you succeeded in one realm that you can do anything
  14. CAA followed Nemawashi – a Japanese term where you had to have full consensus before somebody was brought in or promoted. This made onboarding smooth and people went all-in
  15. Ovitz helped broker deals between Sony and Universal and later Matsushita and Lew Wasserman. This brought CAA to the next level and propelled Ovitz to global deal-maker status
  16. In any multiplayer game, you want to be the outlier
  17. Just like in martial arts, if you aim for the target you lose all your power. You have to aim beyond it. The same applies in life. You have to think bigger and broader than you think imaginable and only then will you be able to achieve what you truly want
  18. Ovitz had his entire spine fused because he worked out every day, never giving himself a rest. His crazy travel, workout, and martial arts schedule beat up his body 
  19. Reflecting on his past, he misses most the camaraderie, the relationships of long-time friends, the loyalty and trust that he’s felt and seems regretful for having been so tough and hard on some of his people, straining his relationships when everything would’ve been better if he just focused on the people that he cared about 

What I got out of it

  1. One of my favorite recent biographies. His vulnerability, raw ambition and work ethic were all really interesting to learn about. A great reminder that you don’t want to sacrifice your relationships and life in pursuit of something else. Don’t put yourself in the same position where you reminisce and look back, wishing you had spent more time with family, been kinder to your friends and colleagues, and generally had a more balanced life. 

Autobiography by Benjamin Franklin

Summary

  1. Franklin tells us about his life and path up until 1791. It was published before his death and has become one of the most famous examples of an autobiography: “He felt the need of school training and set to work to educate himself. He had an untiring industry, and love of the approval of his neighbor; and he knew that more things fail through want of care than want of knowledge. His practical imagination was continually forming projects; and, fortunately for the world, his great physical strength and activity were always setting his ideas in motion.”

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Key Takeaways

  1. From a child I was fond of reading, and all the little money that came into my hands was ever laid out in books.
  2. About this time I met with an odd volume of the “Spectator.” It was the third. I had never before seen any of them. I bought it, read it over and over, and was much delighted with it. I thought the writing excellent, and wished, if possible, to imitate it. With this view, I took some of the papers, and, making short hints of the sentiment in each sentence, laid them by a few days, and then, without looking at the book, tried to complete the papers again, by expressing each hinted sentiment at length, and as fully as it had been expressed before, in any suitable words that should come to hand. Then I compared my “Spectator” with the original, discovered some of my faults, and corrected them.
  3. I continued this method some few years, but gradually left it, retaining only the habit of expressing myself in terms of modest diffidence; never using, when I advanced anything that may possibly be disputed, the words “certainly,” “undoubtedly,” or any others that give the air of positiveness to an opinion; but rather saying, “I conceive” or “apprehend” a thing to be so and so; “it appears to me,” or “I should think it so or so,” for such and such reasons; or “I imagine it to be so;” or “it is so, if I am not mistaken.” This habit, I believe, has been of great advantage to me when I have had occasion to inculcate my opinions, and persuade men into measures that I have been from time to time engaged in promoting; and, as the chief ends of conversation are to inform or to be informed, to please or to persuade, I wish well-meaning, sensible men would not lessen their power of doing good by a positive, assuming manner, that seldom fails to disgust, tends to create opposition, and to defeat every one of those purposes for which speech was given to us,—to wit, giving or receiving information or pleasure.
  4. So convenient a thing it is to be a “reasonable” creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.
  5. I should have mentioned before, that in the autumn of the preceding year I had formed most of my ingenious acquaintance into a club of mutual improvement, which we called the “Junto.”
  6. I began now gradually to pay off the debt I was under for the printing house. In order to secure my credit and character as a tradesman, I took care not only to be in reality industrious and frugal, but to avoid all appearances to the contrary. I dressed plainly; I was seen at no places of idle diversion; I never went out a-fishing or shooting; a book, indeed, sometimes debauched me from my work, but that was seldom, snug, and gave no scandal; and, to show that I was not above my business, I sometimes brought home the paper I purchased at the stores through the streets on a wheelbarrow. Thus, being esteemed an industrious, thriving young man, and paying duly for what I bought, the merchants who imported stationery solicited my custom; others proposed supplying me with books, and I went on swimmingly.
  7. And now I set on foot my first project of a public nature,—that for a subscription library. I drew up the proposals, got them put into form by our great scrivener, Brockden, and, by the help of my friends in the Junto, procured fifty subscribers of forty shillings each to begin with, and ten shillings a year for fifty years, the term our company was to continue. We afterward obtained a charter, the company being increased to one hundred. This was the mother of all the North American subscription libraries, now so numerous.
  8. The objections and reluctances I met with in soliciting the subscriptions made me soon feel the impropriety of presenting one’s self as the proposer of any useful project that might be supposed to raise one’s reputation in the smallest degree above that of one’s neighbors, when one has need of their assistance to accomplish that project. I therefore put myself as much as I could out of sight, and stated it as a scheme of a “number of friends,” who had requested me to go about and propose it to such as they thought lovers of reading. In this way my affair went on more smoothly, and I ever after practiced it on such occasions, and, from my frequent successes, can heartily recommend it. The present little sacrifice of your vanity will afterward be amply repaid. If it remains awhile uncertain to whom the merit belongs, some one more vain than yourself will be encouraged to claim it, and then even envy will be disposed to do you justice by plucking those assumed feathers, and restoring them to their right owner.
  9. This library afforded me the means of improvement by constant study, for which I set apart an hour or two each day, and thus repaired in some degree the loss of the learned education my father once intended for me. Reading was the only amusement I allowed myself. I spent no time in taverns, games, or frolics of any kind; and my industry in my business continued as indefatigable as it was necessary.
  10. It was about this time I conceived the bold and arduous project of arriving at moral perfection. I wished to live without committing any fault at any time; I would conquer all that either natural inclination, custom, or company might lead me into. As I knew, or thought I knew, what was right and wrong, I did not see why I might not always do the one and avoid the other. But I soon found I had undertaken a task of more difficulty than I had imagined. While my care was employed in guarding against one fault, I was often surprised by another; habit took the advantage of inattention; inclination was sometimes too strong for reason. I concluded at length that the mere speculative conviction that it was our interest to be completely virtuous was not sufficient to prevent our slipping; and that the contrary habits must be broken, and good ones acquired and established, before we can have any dependence on a steady, uniform rectitude of conduct. I included under thirteen names of virtues all that at that time occurred to me as necessary or desirable, and annexed to each a short precept, which fully expressed the extent I gave to its meaning. These names of virtues, with their precepts, were:
    1. Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
    2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
    3. Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
    4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
    5. Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i.e., waste nothing.
    6. Industry. Lose no time; be always employed in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
    7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
    8. Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
    9. Moderation. Avoid extremes; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
    10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, clothes, or habitation.
    11. Tranquillity. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
    12. Chastity.
    13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
  11. My intention being to acquire the habitude of all these virtues, I judged it would be well not to distract my attention by attempting the whole at once, but to fix it on one of them at a time; and, when I should be master of that, then to proceed to another, and so on, till I should have gone through the thirteen; and, as the previous acquisition of some might facilitate the acquisition of certain others, I arranged them with that view as they stand above. Temperance first, as it tends to procure that coolness and clearness of head which is so necessary where constant vigilance was to be kept up, and guard maintained against the unremitting attraction of ancient habits and the force of perpetual temptations. This being acquired and established, Silence would be more easy; and, like him who, having a garden to weed, does not attempt to eradicate all the bad herbs at once, which would exceed his reach and his strength, but works on one of the beds at a time, and, having accomplished the first, proceeds to a second, so I should have, I hoped, the encouraging pleasure of seeing on my pages the progress I made in virtue, by clearing successively my lines of their spots, till in the end, by a number of courses, I should be happy in viewing a clean book, after a thirteen-weeks’ daily examination. I entered upon the execution of this plan for self-examination, and continued it, with occasional intermissions, for some time. I was surprised to find myself so much fuller of faults than I had imagined; but I had the satisfaction of seeing them diminish.
  12. This article, therefore, cost me so much painful attention, and my faults in it vexed me so much, and I made so little progress in amendment and had such frequent relapses, that I was almost ready to give up the attempt, and content myself with a faulty character in that respect, like the man who, in buying an ax of a smith, my neighbor, desired to have the whole of its surface as bright as the edge. The smith consented to grind it bright for him if he would turn the wheel. He turned, while the smith pressed the broad face of the ax hard and heavily on the stone, which made the turning of it very fatiguing. The man came every now and then from the wheel to see how the work went on, and at length would take his ax as it was, without farther grinding. “No,” said the smith, “turn on, turn on; we shall have it bright by and by; as yet, it is only speckled.” “Yes,” says the man, “but I think I like a speckled ax best.” And I believe this may have been the case with many, who, having, for want of some such means as I employed, found the difficulty of obtaining good and breaking bad habits in other points of vice and virtue, have given up the struggle, and concluded that a “speckled ax” was best.
  13. I did not, however, aim at gaining his favor by paying any servile respect to him, but, after some time, took this other method. Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favor of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I returned it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favor. When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death. This is another instance of the truth of an old maxim I had learned, which says: “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another than he whom you yourself have obliged.” And it shows how much more profitable it is prudently to remove, than to resent, return, and continue, inimical proceedings.
  14. My business was now continually augmenting, and my circumstances growing daily easier, my newspaper having become very profitable, as being for a time almost the only one in this and the neighboring provinces. I experienced, too, the truth of the observation that “after getting the first hundred pounds it is more easy to get the second,” money itself being of a prolific nature.
  15. When I disengaged myself as above mentioned from private business, I flattered myself that, by the sufficient though moderate fortune I had acquired, I had secured leisure during the rest of my life for philosophical studies and amusements.
  16. Human felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day.
  17. The above fact I give for the sake of the following observation. It has been remarked, as an imperfection in the art of ship building, that it can never be known, till she is tried, whether a new ship will or will not be a good sailer; for that the model of a good sailing ship has been exactly followed in a new one, which has proved, on the contrary, remarkably dull. I apprehend that this may partly be occasioned by the different opinions of seamen respecting the modes of lading, rigging, and sailing of a ship. Each has his system; and the same vessel, laden by the judgment and orders of one captain, shall sail better or worse than when by the orders of another. Besides, it scarce ever happens that a ship is formed, fitted for the sea, and sailed by the same person. One man builds the hull, another rigs her, a third lades and sails her. No one of these has the advantage of knowing all the ideas and experience of the others, and therefore cannot draw just conclusions from a combination of the whole.
  18. Wealth is not his that has it, but his that enjoys it.
  19. If you know how to spend less than you get, you have the philosopher’s stone.

What I got out of it

  1. Some simple and beautiful anecdotes on how to improve ourselves and our thinking

Decoded by Jay-Z

Summary

  1. Jay-Z’s autobiography where he gives context to his songs by explaining what was happening in his life when he wrote that song and what different lyrics really mean

Key Takeaways

  1. Grew up in a public housing project named Marcy. Saw his first cipher when he was still young and was instantly drawn to it. He’d write down every rhyme he could think of and said it was easy from the start. He practiced like it was a sport and read everything he could get his hands on, especially the dictionary, to improve his vocabulary
  2. Crack overtook his neighborhood by storm and by the time he was 15, while still rapping, it had taken a back seat to selling crack 
  3. Used rap to tell his story but wanted to be explicitly honest with it

What I got out of it

  1. Very interesting to see his actual lyrics paired with footnotes of him explaining exactly what he meant or what experienced influenced that line. So much depth and poetry worked into his lyrics that at least I had overlooked for years even though I have listened to some of these songs for years 

Junk to Gold: From Salvage to the World’s Largest Online Auto Auction by Willis Johnson

Summary
  1. This is a story of a man who believes in hard work and treating people right. Willis always says things like, “If you take care of the company, the company will take care of you,” and “Watch your pennies and your dollars will take care of themselves,” and “Don’t forget a lot of people are counting on us.” These values led to his desire to have no debt on his balance sheet, to go public on the NASDAQ Exchange, and to build a great company from the ground up.. “Barry, here’s the thing. I’m not just buying a can of soup for twenty-nine cents and selling it for forty-nine cents,” I explained. “I have ten different services that are growing all the time. Think of us like the local sewer system.” Well, that got his attention. “We’re a utility. Nothing can get rid of us—nothing. Two of the biggest businesses in the world are car manufacturers and insurance companies,” I went on. “If insurance companies don’t write insurance policies on cars, then they’re out of business. If manufacturers don’t make cars, then they’re out of business. They’re always gonna make cars, and they’re always gonna insure them. We’re the guy in between.” I looked him right in the eye and said, “As long as we’ve got the land in the right place to put the cars on, we can’t fail. We are like the septic tanks of the sewer system. You can’t have the system without us.” Barry told me later that after our meeting, he called his wife and told her he had just met the smartest man he’d ever met in business. I don’t know about that; I’d probably give my dad that title. But I do know that despite the fact Barry and I were so different and came from such different worlds, we still understood each other completely. Barry was slick, and I was unrefined. Barry was uptown; I was downtown. But he liked the way I approached business, and I liked his tenacity. We were gonna do business. And we were gonna make some money.”
Key Takeaways
  1. Embrace Adventure and Learn from Second Chances
  2. Don’t Feel Sorry for Yourself
  3. Know What You’re Paying For
  4. Be as Relentless as the Cows
  5. Everyone Is Created Equal, but They Aren’t Always Treated Equally
    1. While my dad taught me how to crunch numbers, build a business, and take chances, Mom played an important role in making me a leader. The most important lesson I learned from her was that no one was better than anyone else.
  6. Take Care of the Business, and the Business Will Take Care of You
    1. Both my dad and I also built reputations in the business world of always standing by our word and never doing business if a deal felt wrong. We both walked away from opportunities that may have helped our businesses but would have crossed a moral or ethical line. To us, the business world was black and white, and a deal you aren’t sure about isn’t really a deal at all. It never ceases to surprise me, though, when others cross that line without even a blink of an eye. I was raised to believe that cheating is the same whether you are taking ten cents or $10,000. And if you could do it once, there was a good chance you would do it again.
  7. Don’t Forget Where You Came From
    1. One of my favorite phrases is, “Sittin’ in high cotton.” It means everything is going well. The cotton’s high, which means the profits are too. But I’ve found you appreciate sittin’ in high cotton a lot more when you’ve had times you couldn’t even find the cotton. It’s those times that keep
  8. Find Something in Common to Unite Around
    1. It took me a long time to figure out what was really going on. That sergeant wasn’t all that concerned about the bed. He was just giving us something to unite around. That bed making brought us together. We all became buddies no matter where we had come from. It didn’t matter if we were jocks or hippies. It was us against that sergeant.
  9. Push through the Fear
    1. So the war taught me how to make the best decisions for the people around me, not just for myself. And the military taught me other lessons too. Having good leaders and a clear chain of command is important. And it taught me cleanliness and order. Keeping things lined up makes for efficiency.
  10. When Times Get Tough, Get Creative
    1. I also learned another important lesson that day. The reason we were able to make such a good deal was because we were the only guys who got dirty. We did our homework and knew exactly what we were buying. As a result, Dad was able to outbid the others, who didn’t know the true value of the yard or had underestimated what others knew about its value. It was also another example of why it’s important to take action and not procrastinate.
    2. All of us would take our lunch breaks in a room above the store. This was before stores commonly installed security cameras, so the room was also a great way to observe customers and catch them stealing. Boy, was that an eye opener. I found out just how dishonest people could really be sitting above that store. That little old lady that you never thought would steal was putting stuff in her purse when no one was looking, or the fat guy was putting pork ribs down his pants and walking out of the store. It made me really think of how theft can affect a business and how you can’t ignore it. Safeway also reinforced the need for order that was established earlier when I was in the army. The aisles had to be organized and clean for people to want to shop and so they could find what they were looking for. That meant paying attention to stock empty shelves, checking expiration dates, and holding specials for items that were overstocked.
  11. When You Make a Promise to Someone, Keep It
    1. Back home and back at the business I loved, I took all I had learned in the military and at Safeway and applied it to dismantling. I tripled the income at the yard by taking good care of customers and calling body shops and mechanics to tell them what inventory we had in stock.
    2. After Dad backed out of the promise he made me, I told myself I would never do that, even if it meant I would lose money. I never promised something to someone that I didn’t do, and I never made promises I couldn’t keep. My word is gold. You don’t have to get me to sign something for me to take my commitment seriously. That was a really good lesson to learn, even if there were better ways to learn it.
  12. You Need to Sacrifice to Build a Dream
  13. Ideas Can Come from Anywhere—Even John Wayne
    1. For those of you not in the business, a dismantling yard primarily deals in used auto parts and recycling scrap iron. I would buy cars—mostly the ones that weren’t drivable and had come to the end of their life—and pay thirty-five dollars to fifty dollars and then tow them to the yard. There, I’d pull all the parts off that I thought I could resell, drain the fluids out of the car (which is called “depolluting”), and then haul the shell to the smelter, where I’d get paid for the iron by the ton. If I had a motor that was cast iron, or any copper or aluminum, I got paid different rates for that as well. At first, when I didn’t have a lot of money, I relied on the scrap iron to make ends meet. As the business grew, I hoped to be able to buy better cars and build up the parts side of the business.
    2. Tammi says she and the other kids all learned how to work and about the value of work during that time. She also says I set a good example for them about how to work hard. But really, I was just doing what I had to do—working late nights and weekends to make the business work. I did make a point, however, of reserving Sundays for family.
    3. While I was building the company, that was our time because building a successful business means nothing if you don’t have your family or your faith.
    4. I did try to use the business to teach my kids some important lessons. Reba tells me I never expected anything from anyone that I wouldn’t do myself, and she’s right.
  14. The Sum of Parts Is Greater Than the Whole—at Least in Dismantling
    1. My dream to build up the parts side of the business was starting to come true. As I was able to buy better cars, Mather was able to stock more and better parts, including motors, transmissions, and rear ends. As this happened, the business relied less on scrap iron, which gradually went from the main revenue stream to a byproduct of the parts business. The better the cars I could buy, the better the parts, and the better the profits. We were also able to pay off all the money friends and family gave us to start the business.
      1. Virtuous cycles, leaping-emergent effects
    2. One other big boost was that I was the first in the industry to dismantle parts, not just cars. Typically, if someone came into a dismantling shop and asked for a 4.6 liter motor, the shop would pull the whole motor out of a wrecked car and sell the motor and everything hanging on it—including the alternator, starter, regulator, smog pumps, air breather, carburetor, and distributor. A fully dressed 318 Dodge engine with twenty-two thousand miles on it might have cost a customer about $400 back in the early ’70s and would have come with a warranty. But if the motor had been sitting for a while, the carburetor might be dried out—the water pump shot or other parts didn’t fit the car just right—meaning there was a good chance the dismantler would have to buy it back to honor the warranty. The customer might also already have a good alternator and not need another one. But they were forced to buy the whole package. That didn’t make sense to me. That’s why if the same customer went into Mather, he or she would find just the motor—steam cleaned and painted and looking brand-new. The additional parts would have been taken out as soon as the motor had arrived to the yard, restored, and sold separately so customers could buy only what they needed. I would sell them just the motor, undressed, for $275—a deal if that’s all they needed. Then I’d sell the other parts separately—the distributor for $50, the alternator for $25, the carburetor for $100. By the time I was done, I could get $700 for the same parts sold separately that were sold together by my competitor for $400. And the customer was happier. I also had fewer buy-backs because I didn’t have to guarantee all the parts on the motor. This caused my profit margins to far exceed that of my competitors.
      1. Making it easier for the customer, adding transparency/ease/velocity can have incredible returns
    3. Whatever made it look nice, we did. That way, when people walked in, it was like they were walking into a real retail store. It made it more personal. They could shop. I know that sounds crazy—shopping at a wrecking yard. But no matter what you are buying, you want it to be a good experience, and you want to find what you want easily. Up until then, people just thought of a wrecking yard as a bunch of wrecked cars in a field that you had to wander through to find what you wanted.
      1. Can use poor competition, low standards to stand out
    4. As I saw the effects Ray’s death had on his surviving wife and kids, it also made me think even harder about the real reason I wanted to be successful—so I could take care of my family.
    5. Even with the larger building to display parts, I knew that to really compete with other auto dismantlers in the Sacramento region, I would need to do something different. I just couldn’t realistically keep every make and model part stocked like the larger dismantlers with more money and space. But I knew of some dismantlers like Al Parker in Citrus Heights who was doing well specializing in only Rambler parts at a small two-acre yard. All the larger dismantlers sold their Rambler parts to him and sent Rambler customers his way because they preferred stocking only hot-selling items that had a high demand. Because Al was the only specialized Rambler dealer in the area, he could draw customers from a large geographical area.
      1. Don’t expect to get different results by doing the same things, you have to act differently
    6. I came back and told Curtis that if we were going to compete, we needed to specialize in a car the other dismantlers in town didn’t want to carry. At the time Chrysler, Dodge, and Plymouth were not cars dismantlers wanted to have because they weren’t hot-selling items. So we made a decision to specialize in Chrysler, Dodge, and Plymouth. All the other dismantlers thought I was crazy. But they were more than willing to sell us their Chrysler parts that weren’t moving and send business our way so they could continue to stock more-popular items. My friend and brother-in-law Mike James says I’m not afraid to break the mold and go where no one else has gone before. I guess I just don’t like people telling me I can’t do something. When people tell me, “Willis, you can’t do that,” it just pushes me to show them I can. It wasn’t that I thought I was better than anybody; I just always thought if you wanted something bad enough and worked hard enough for it, it would happen. And it did. Soon I was drawing on a large area of customers who needed Chrysler parts because other dismantlers didn’t have them. In any one area, there wasn’t a big demand for Chrysler parts, which is why most dismantlers didn’t want to carry them. But in the entire area including Sacramento, Stockton, Marysville, and Yuba City, there was a big demand. There were pockets of General Motors and Ford specialty yards but not Chrysler, so we were filling a need for a big area. It was also cheaper to stock Chrysler parts. At the time we were still partly in the scrap business, so we could buy all the junk Chrysler cars for thirty-five to forty dollars whereas we were paying seventy-five to one hundred dollars for General Motors junk cars. I could go to an auction and buy a wrecked Dodge Polara for twenty-five cents on a dollar compared to a Chevrolet. So I could buy parts cheaper, but the parts were just as valuable, especially since no one else carried them. Before we specialized, Curtis and I were running between $3,500 and $5,000 worth of parts a month at Mather. After specializing, we were running around $3,500 worth of parts a day.
      1. Specializing in a certain niche, even if seemingly unattractive on a standalone basis, can be very attractive when pooled and efficiencies are found – Willis found a 30x in a niche nobody wanted!
    7. Curtis remembers that other people thought I was crazy (or stupid—or maybe both) to spend so much money on a computer for a wrecking yard. But I was never afraid to spend money on technology if it could help us be more efficient. And it turned out that the whole industry would end up computerizing once they saw the benefits it gave people like me and Marv. As large and foreign as this machine seemed back then, it paid off because it gave me a complete picture of the business and the inventory, which in turn gave me more knowledge and control over the yard, which helped me make more money. For example, the computerized system could tell me in a few keystrokes not just how many of each type of make and model doors were in the yard but could also tell me how many right doors we had, how many left doors we had, and what color they all were. If we had a lot of side doors that were the same color, I would discount them to move the inventory. But if we had only one right green Volare door, for example, I could charge customers more because it was harder to find and I could justify the price, which they usually paid because it saved them time and money from having to paint it. This allowed us to move parts faster and maximize our profits. The computer also kept track of the hot-selling items. For example, after we computerized we learned that we sold a lot of right front fenders and left front doors—although I don’t know why. So I made sure we had those in stock. I also started dismantling the right front doors—which didn’t sell as frequently. That way, if a customer needed door glass or a door motor, which didn’t have to come from a specific side, I could sell them out of the doors that weren’t selling very often. This allowed us to still move these parts but not take away from other sales. The customers were happy because they didn’t have to pay for a whole door, and we were getting money for inventory that might have otherwise just sat there.
    8. I did other things that other dismantlers looked at me funny for too, although not for long. For example, all the wrecking yards around Sacramento had agreed to use the same size ad—a little tiny ad—in the yellow pages because it was really inexpensive. Well that didn’t make any sense to me, so I went and bought a half-page, color ad. Curtis jokes that all the other dismantlers were mad at me for a while because they had to do the same thing to compete. I went big—they went big. I wanted to take it to the next level, and the rest of the guys had to try to keep up.
    9. I’d also use the trip to mine other wrecking yards for ideas I could take home and implement at Mather. We’d suck in all their ideas, and they didn’t care if they told us because we weren’t direct competitors. So I would learn a lot about what they did that worked and what didn’t work, like how they were handling antifreeze and tires as environmental regulations weren’t yet developed. Their experiences helped make our company better.
    10. He taught me that you have to do your research and that if you don’t stay on top of reading about other people’s ideas, you never come up with ideas yourself. It’s good to learn from others.
    11. My sister Bonnie said she will never forget how excited Peter and I were. We were excited to buy a salvage auction and to be branching out from the wrecking business. It was a big step, one that would change my life forever. What made the U-Pull-It model unique was the high volume of cars it could turn around. I liken it to the Wal-Mart of dismantling. But it was also a little like the old days of Mather because there was a lot of scrap iron. To keep everything cheap and to be able to retain a high volume, U-Pull-It dealt mostly in end-of-life cars. It got its cars by running ads in the paper announcing, “We’ll buy your junk car.” How much we paid for that car depended on how far we had to tow it and how popular the parts on that make and model were. Popular makes and models would sit out for about thirty days while people pulled what they wanted from it. Less-popular cars would sit for sixty days. At the end of the allotted time, what was left was crushed, and fresh cars brought in with fresh parts. At $70 a ton you can get about $140 for a two-ton car. But if you can sell another $100 or $200 worth of parts out of it, you are doubling your money. Then you multiply that by one hundred cars a day, and that’s where the money comes in because it’s not about how good the parts are on it. If you have three hundred car doors that you would normally crush and you can sell some of them for $5 or $6 each, you’re that much further ahead. We could do this because the customers at a self-service yard like U-Pull-It were also different than customers at my other businesses. These were people who didn’t have a lot of money and were barely getting by. They needed to get their cars running as cheaply as possible to get to work the next day and oftentimes were fixing it themselves. By contrast, Mather dealt mostly with body shops and mechanics, people wanting late-model parts that were guaranteed and as perfect as possible. Most of the customers at U-Pull-It were driving cars just like the ones inside the gates. In some cases, customers would even sell their cars in exchange for one that was slightly better inside. They could buy a car there for $300, drive it until it barely worked, and bring it back a few months later and sell it for $50. Then they could buy another $300 one again. It was a cheap way to maintain transportation. U-Pull-It was also a popular stop for buyers from Mexico, who came with semitrucks and filled them with fenders, radiators, and other parts they would then take over the border and resell. We would give them a discount for buying more than $5,000 worth of parts. The model for U-Pull-It was simple. It didn’t matter what the condition of a part was; all parts of the same kind cost the same amount of money. That put the liability on the person buying it, not the person selling. It benefitted the customers to hunt for the best part they could because they were paying the same amount. In the end, U-Pull-It also had three revenue streams—the gate fee, the parts sales, and scrap iron. That was just three more reasons to like the business, as far as I was concerned. It also had another by-product of business. Because many of the cars were abandoned or forgotten, much of what was left inside had also been forgotten. We created a thrift store out of htese items – baby strollers, CD cases, clothing, and more. Our customers, always looking for a deal, loved the bargains,a nd it provided yet one more revenue stream to the mix.
    12. I was sittin’ in high cotton, running on all cylinders with the Mather Chrysler yard, the mini-truck yard, Today Radiator, Mather Auto Parts, and U-Pull-It. I had also decided to specialize yet again, opening up a foreign auto parts yard next to U-Pull-It under the now well-known Mather name. Foreign cars had become more popular, and I could ship in foreign parts from Taiwan for pennies on the dollar for Datsuns, Toyotas, and Fords. I also sold aftermarket sheet metal from the foreign parts yard. But I still wanted to increase business, especially at the specialized yards. I started a dismantling magazine so I could advertise and allowed all specialized yards in the Sacramento area to purchase full-page ads in it, which I then direct mailed to body shops, mechanics, and insurance companies. I didn’t start the magazine to make money but to be a tool that I, along with other specialized dismantlers, could use to get more business. At first, we just called the magazine Specialized Magazine, a boring name I didn’t care for. We needed to think of something better. Then I remembered from my days growing up on a farm how farmers would store their grain together in a co-op and how other businesses would form similar alliances for a mutual benefit. Since the magazine was a co-op of parts dealers using it for the mutual benefit of advertising, I decided to call it Copart instead.
    13. Instead of waiting for the DMV to find a better way, I went to them and proposed a solution. I would develop a way to create electronic forms and print them from a computer, thereby eliminating the need for the DMV to send out the books at all, saving them money and my business valuable time. I spent about $40,000 building the computerized system for the state of California. Now we could go to the computer and fill out all the paperwork needed and didn’t have to wait for books. It sped up the whole process and was an example of how it pays to fix something yourself instead of waiting for someone else to solve the problem for you.
    14. I got the inspiration to create new services within my companies from Disneyland. When I was younger and I went to Disneyland for the first time, Disneyland wasn’t just a theme park to me or a place to have fun. Disneyland to me was a model of how to build businesses within a business. I paid a fee just to get in the gate. And then when I went to a restaurant, I paid to eat and drink. Then I paid money at the gift shops. I paid for tickets to the rides. Everything I did was another business. I thought, Okay, I’ve got to find a business that has multiple revenue streams within it. Disneyland taught me about building other revenue streams. Every time you can add a revenue stream to the same pipeline, the profit margins change drastically. You are putting more through that pipe. That’s what I always tried to do in my businesses, and it is how we were successful.
    15. U-Pull-It grew up as my children also grew up. As each of them turned sixteen, I would find them a wrecked vehicle from one of the wrecking yards for them to fix up themselves and drive. The kids had to put up half the money—which Joyce and I would match.
    16. My work didn’t drain me; it energized me and drove me. Jay wanted to be like that.
    17. I’d tell him how much I liked a certain motor because it broke a lot. Jay didn’t understand that at first; why would a motor that broke all the time be so great? But I told him, “You’re never going to sell it if it doesn’t break. What are you going to do with a bunch of motors that never break?” It was a big learning curve.
  15. Be Your Customer’s Most Valuable Partner
    1. What if we could clean up those cars—take out the debris, vacuum them out, and make them look clean and new again (outside of the damage)? They would be more attractive to buyers and get more bids, driving the price higher, I thought. I knew I could get the insurance company more money if I cleaned these cars up, but I also knew I would have to charge the insurance companies for that service. That was a problem because insurance companies didn’t want to pay you to clean up a wrecked car. To them it was junk. I had to find another way. I proposed a deal to the Fireman’s Fund. Instead of charging fees, I would keep a percentage of the sale price for each car—20 percent on older, highly damaged cars; 10 percent on newer cars. That meant that the burned-out car I could only sell for twenty-five dollars would only get me five dollars. But I could more than make up for the losses on the badly damaged cars with the 10 percent I got off of the newer cars that could be more easily repaired—especially if we cleaned them up and drew top dollar. The Fireman’s Fund was thrilled because they no longer had upside-down cars and they were seeing their returns go up because the newer cars were getting more bids. And I was watching Copart’s profits go up with the returns. But maybe most importantly, PIP represented a significant shift in the industry. Now the salvage auction was a partner with the insurance company, with the goal of getting the best possible price for each car, eliminating any arguments over fees.
      1. Win/Win
    2. When you buy a business, you can inherit some great talent from that business. To let that talent go is bad business. I learned to really respect the people who came with the facilities we purchased, and many of them turned out to be great, long-term employees who really helped us grow and do well.
    3. Efficiency is what excites Jay. Looking at something and finding a better way to do it is his forte. And that’s something I not only valued but embraced. I’m not the kind of guy who says, “Look, kid, I’ve been doing this for twenty years, and I’m not interested in changing.” I never have a problem if someone tells me something is broken. I have always wanted to do things better and improve on the model.
  16. On Going Public
    1. I had never cared about the stock market. The stock page in the newspaper was as foreign to me as the sports page and about as useful. I hadn’t a clue about Wall Street. But when I heard that IAA was making big moves that could affect my business, I decided I should start to care. Marv sent me IAA’s prospectus, and I read it. Then I read it again. And again. I didn’t understand most of it at the time, but I did understand this: IAA had not been making the money I thought it should be to go public. They were in debt. Going public allowed them to raise a ton of money, and they didn’t even have to pay it back. On the other hand, we were making money, and we weren’t in debt. Even though I knew nothing about going public, I figured if they could do it, so could I. We had a better company.
    2. I know what I don’t know. I also think it’s a good idea to learn as much as you can.
    3. I went down to the library and tried to find a book to explain it all. When you don’t know what you’re looking for, it’s not easy to find it.
    4. Steve told me later that he admired my principles and the fact that failure wasn’t an option for me. But while I was driven, I was also willing to wait to do it the way I wanted, without cutting deals I shouldn’t or selling myself or the business short. John and Steve respected that, which I appreciated
    5. Sometimes people underestimated me because of the way I talked and because I looked more like an Okie farm boy than a polished city slicker. Those people usually lost out. It was a good way to weed out the jerks, though—the Wall Street types who would talk down to me, thinking I was less than them somehow. They didn’t know it, but as they were judging me, I was summing them up too—seeing if they were going to play honest or try to take advantage of me.
    6. I’ve been in business a long time, and if I don’t trust people from a conversation across a dinner table, I’m pretty sure I’m not going to trust them with my reputation or my money. And if I don’t trust them with my money, I’m sure not going to go making money for them. I told Barry, “They’re not good partners. I don’t want to deal with them.”
    7. We all met at a restaurant—which had become my favorite place for these things because deals just go better on a full stomach.
    8. I also knew Copart was mine again. At the time, I had three million shares, making me the biggest shareholder, with 40 percent ownership of the company. I could do one of two things—use my stock as currency to buy other companies or go back to Wall Street to raise more money. Now that Copart was public, raising more money would be easy.
    9. In the meantime, IAA was gobbling up facilities across the country as fast as they could. I knew from my dealings with Bob Spence that their plan was to acquire as many locations as they could and let the yards still run like they had been before they purchased them, even if that meant they ran on separate computer systems and used different business models. IAA figured they’d worry about converting them into one system later, when they had finished growing. My philosophy was much different. I felt Copart should grow slowly, acquiring strategic locations and then converting each one over to the Copart system and business model immediately. Jay had already become an expert at converting yards—taking the lead in changing things over in all the facilities I had acquired while getting ready to go public. I just didn’t want to grow to grow. I wanted to build a brand. I wanted anything with a Copart logo on it to run the same way—same computer system, same pricing, same way of treating our employees—so people started relating our name to a certain way of doing business. We spent time converting things over and converting employees over and teaching them our way of doing things because in many cases, the old way they were doing things hadn’t been working. That’s why they had to sell. That’s also why I think IAA’s approach to keeping newly acquired yards running the same way was wrong. They weren’t fixing what was broken in the first place.
    10. IAA was especially focused on big cities, so we looked at more rural areas. The good news about that is it is a lot cheaper and easier to run a yard in a rural area. There is also less competition. Copart’s board of directors didn’t agree with my approach. They wanted me to grow like IAA was growing—finding locations in big cities like Chicago. I decided what they didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them. I told the board I would look in Chicago, but then did what I wanted to do anyway.
      1. Doing things differently, courage to stand up for what you believe is right
  17. Look Beyond Balance Sheets
    1. IAA would show up wearing suits and riding in limos. I showed up wearing cowboy boots and driving a rental car. Some owners were wooed by the flash of IAA. Some were put off by it. For other owners, it came down to the bottom line—who would pay more? I had the advantage there. IAA bought companies the Wall Street way—based on pretax or after-tax earnings. I had my own method based on how many cars the auction sold and the value of the land. I knew what didn’t show up on the balance sheet of a private, family-owned company—that many of these business owners used a lot of their profits to buy personal cars or pay salaries and benefits to their family members. Many of the businesses were undervalued as a result. I paid a little more for these businesses, but I was also able to see their potential. With my operating systems and business model, I also knew we could increase profits almost instantly. The other philosophical difference between Copart and IAA was that IAA purchased the cars from the insurance companies while Copart charged fees to store, clean up, and sell the cars. The advantage of this was Copart could limit its liability and get a greater percent of earnings per investment, since they were putting out less cash. The downside was IAA could show more revenue on its books, which people on Wall Street saw as having more potential. I didn’t care though because I knew in the long run, it was about earnings. The bottom line is: what percentage are you making on your business? If we are pulling 30 to 40 percent to their 10 percent, we are a stronger company.
  18. Consistency Is the Key
  19. Look for Leaders Everywhere
    1. Loyalty was a trait I valued. Whenever I shake the hand or meet somebody, I really size them up. After that first meeting with Vinnie, I thought, If he’ll stay with the company, he’s going to be a big leader here. Vinnie told me that his impression of me on that first meeting was that of a simple, easygoing guy with a clear vision and who was quick to react. I was a guy who had a lot to get done in a hurry, and Vinnie knew that. In that, we found a common bond.
  20. Admit Your Mistakes
    1. It was just a bad idea, so we went back to the original model. But the good thing about Copart is even though sometimes we have bad ideas, we learn from them and correct them. That’s the advice I also passed on to Jay and Vinnie: Any time you make a mistake or bad news comes and you’re really upset about it, remember there’s a lesson in it. Just chalk it up as a lesson, and don’t let it happen again. When you lose a customer because you bid wrong, don’t get mad at the customer. Ask yourself, “What did we do wrong to not get that contract?” Just like with buying cars—it didn’t work, so we learned that lesson and moved forward.
    2. Even great entrepreneurs make mistakes, but they only make them once because they learn from them. Willis was never afraid to take a risk, but when it didn’t work, it was time to course correct. Making sure you learn from past mistakes was one of the best lessons I learned from Willis over the years.
  21. Keep Your Growth Sustainable
    1. Jim Grosfeld, who was on Copart’s board, gave me some sage advice: “Willis, Wall Street doesn’t care about ups and downs. They hate that. What they like is consistency. If you just make that earnings line just move up a little bit every quarter, every year, you’ll get paid a really good high multiple because then they can figure your company out.” From then on, I concentrated on steady growth, and when I thought about buying another location, I didn’t try to buy it just because I wanted to grow the company. I bought it because it was a good fit and was in a strategic area that helped fill in our network. I learned an important lesson, and that was not to grow too fast. You have to grow slow and steady, or Wall Street will make you pay for it. They always compare you to what you did last time. If you exceed what you did last time, you’re successful; if you come in under what you did last year, they don’t like you.
    2. At one point, I asked David when it would be done. We needed it now, and I wasn’t good at waiting. When David told me it would probably take another eight to ten months, I wasn’t happy. “Well, put more programmers on it—then we’ll get it done faster,” I told him. “Willis, I’m going to give you a lesson in life right now,” David replied. “One woman can have a baby in nine months. But nine women can’t have a baby in one month. The time doesn’t change. That’s the way it is.” CAS (Copart Auction Systems) ended up taking a year to build at a cost of $3 million—huge money at the time. Now he could see how many cars we picked up that day, how many cars we sold that day. It helped us manage our business better and bring it all together.
      1. Irreducible minimums are important to identify and understand
  22. Embrace New Ideas
    1. Jay talked to buyers himself about online bidding, trying to educate them about the new web-based technology. At this time, online bidding had descriptions of cars for sale but no pictures. All the buyers told Jay it was a dumb idea; no one would bid on a car they didn’t look at first, they said. Jay told them, “I’m not asking you to not see the car. I’m asking you to come look at the car the day before the sale, and for thirty-five dollars you can submit a bid on our website and not have to stand in the auction all day or pay a contract buyer one hundred and fifty dollars to stand there for you.”
      1. Removing frictions, making it easier for the customer to do business
    2. Something else amazing with online bidding was happening too. One day, Jay saw a car in San Diego sell to a buyer in Connecticut. We had never imagined cross-state bidding, let alone cross-country bidding. Jay had David call up the buyer and find out how he was bidding on vehicles he was too far away from to come look at prior to the sale. The buyer told him he knew what he was doing, but it would be helpful if Copart put pictures of the cars online too.
  23. Fill in the Gaps
    1. Copart was still physically growing too. Now that the systems were in place, I had a goal of adding six to ten yards per year in strategic locations between existing yards to not only grow the network but also to shorten tow times and cycle times, which is the time between getting a car into a yard and having it be sold and picked up. Every time we added a dot on the map, we saved towing. This was especially important because at the time, about 70 percent of our customers were using the PIP program and we were eating the cost of long tows. Any time we saw our towing costs were too high, we’d try to put a yard between locations to improve our bottom line. If we can tow a car 50 miles instead of 150 miles, that’s money in the bank. The new yards would also free up space in nearby existing facilities, which in turn could take in more cars.
    2. It was all about making the company stronger, without any debt, and having more cash in the bank. We wanted to take care of our employees, the insurance companies, and our buyers.
      1. Stakeholder win/win mindset
  24. Make Doing Business Easy
    1. As the temperatures continued to drop, so did the number of buyers who braved the cold. With fewer buyers, returns also dropped. So I had an idea: Why not bring the buyers inside, into a nice, warm building, and show them the cars on television monitors? People would no longer have to follow around auction trucks in the cold. That’s when EVA (electronic viewing auction) was born. We brought the auctioneers inside and displayed pictures of the cars on one screen and the make, model, and other information about the car on another screen so no one had to go outside anymore. Buyers loved the idea, but to make it work, it required a lot of building. We had to build an auction booth inside the building, get chairs and coat racks, and buy donuts. We had to do more interior things than we ever had before, including wiring these televisions up on stands. It took a big capital investment to get people inside, but they loved it. While about 40 percent of people were bidding online, there were still a lot of people coming to the sale at this time.
  25. Never Stop Improving on an Idea
    1. Internet buyers still wanted more. They wanted a way to increase their bids on the day of the sale too. Jay figured if there was a way people could bid online during the sale, we would get even higher returns.
    2. I learned that from the military. You don’t leave anyone behind.
      1. As a leader, you also have to be on the frontline, facing danger head on; officers have to eat last; group size should be small and manageable (Dunbar’s number)
    3. We had also seen on the news that commercial planes all over were being grounded—not because the government was grounding them but because no one wanted to fly. On the other hand, car rental companies were booming. You could hardly find a car that wasn’t already rented. I told Jay people weren’t going to fly as much after this. Instead, they were going to drive. If that was the case, they were going to wreck more cars. That meant our business was due to grow again.
      1. Willis understood the whole system, and secondary effects
    4. I talked to one of the guys at Salomon Smith Barney and asked if he thought us doing an offering would be OK even though it had only been three weeks since 9/11. I also told him why I thought this was a good time to grow. He told me no one was doing offerings at this time. Wall Street had pretty much shut down since 9/11, and although there were people who wanted to invest and there was money out there, everything had pretty much come to a screeching halt. This made me think, Well, if there’s a lot of money out there and we have a good story to tell, this may be the perfect time to do an offering.
      1. Greedy when others are fearful
    5. We went out on the road show, which we were used to from our first two offerings. Usually you go from one investment company to another, and you only have thirty minutes at each one because their calendar is full. You have twenty-five minutes to tell them about the company and another five minutes to talk numbers, and maybe, if you are lucky, five minutes of questions. Usually there are also only two bankers in the room to make orders because they are so busy. That wasn’t the case this time. In fact, it was totally the opposite. We’d go into a conference room with fifteen investors, and they wanted us to stay because they had no one else coming in—nothing else to do.
      1. Find opportunities for contrast
  26. Ask Yourself, “What’s My Job?”
    1. Because it was easier for buyers to participate and they could do it from anywhere, more buyers bid on each car. The Internet auction also retained the same excitement as live bidding, which kept the competitive atmosphere alive. With more competition, returns went up. In fact, the sale had the highest returns of the entire year. It went over like gangbusters.
    2. It was time to make a major business decision. That decision wasn’t whether we were going to roll out VB2 to all the yards—that decision was obvious, even to the auctioneers who would lose their jobs. So we had to figure out what our job was. We literally sat in a room and wrote the words, “What is our job?” on a board. We decided our job was to help buyers purchase cars easier so we could get the most money for the sellers. That was our job—to get the insurance company more money. That superseded anything else.
    3. I didn’t see it from a seller’s perspective, though. I didn’t expect returns to go up. I wasn’t thinking that by making it easier, more buyers would use it—and that buyers from all over the world would be able to use it. With all those buyers competing over the cars, it was a natural result that the returns would go up. That was the kicker for me.
      1. “Good” decisions are those which have unintended, positive knock-on effects
    4. It goes to show you that any company today has to pay attention to technology and how the world is changing and incorporate that if it wants to survive. You can’t do things the same way and expect to be around in ten years. The world moves too quickly. The moment you snooze, you lose.
    5. Our philosophy is always to be on the bleeding edge and to never let those young kids come up behind us and do what they’ve done to so many industries. We need to hire those kids instead so we can stay ahead of the curve on all the new technology.
  27. Don’t Lose What Makes You Special
    1. It was 2002 when Jay realized something bad had happened to Copart: no one knew anyone anymore. We had gotten so big we didn’t have that mom-and-pop feel anymore. This was especially evident when Jay called up a yard to talk to a general manager one day, and was surprised to find out no one knew who he was. “Jay Adair? I don’t think I know you. Do you work at Copart?” asked the employee who had answered the phone. Copart had become a much different kind of company than when Jay first started working there in 1989. It was big. It was financially secure. It had revolutionary technology. But the vision and spirit we had built the company on was no longer reaching its employees. The employees, as a result, did not act as a team or feel like they were working together. That in turn negatively impacted the company’s progress and its relationship with its customers. So Jay decided Copart needed a revolution. It needed to get back to its roots.
    2. Another catalyst for Jay’s decision to have a revolution was when Copart disbanded its fleet of tow trucks and began to contract with drivers instead. This improved efficiency and cut transportation and insurance costs. But the decision—which meant laying off hundreds of drivers—also hurt morale.
    3. About 75 percent of our workers’ comp costs were for truck drivers. Seventy-five percent of our liability claims were because trucks were driving over mailboxes or knocking down gates. When we added it all up, it was ridiculous. It’s crazy we never thought of it before. After testing it out further, the company decided to get out of trucks altogether. But they needed to find a way to do it that would be fair to the hundreds of drivers who would no longer be on the payroll. Gerry Waters took the lead in an effort to sell all of Copart’s carriers to each driver at a discount. He put together a packet of information for all the drivers that outlined how to start their own businesses, including everything from getting a business license and insurance to lists of lenders that had already been identified as willing to finance their new venture. Copart also promised to favor the new entrepreneurs when choosing subhaulers in the future. Whatever the other local guy towed for, Copart offered to pay more if the driver used to be an employee. Only about 20 percent of the drivers took the deal, with the 80 percent choosing not to take the risk of running their own businesses. Copart found that owner-operated tow trucks worked harder. Each tow represented more money for their business, while regular employees got paid the same no matter how many tows they did in a day. All of a sudden we had people doing more loads in the same amount of time for us—because they were hustling more. They were doing three loads a day instead of two. And they were working earlier and later instead of just punching a clock because it meant more money for them. They were in control of their paycheck. As Copart progressed, the subhaul program progressed with it. Copart began offering incentives for tow companies, like discounts on cell phones and insurance, to sweeten the pot and attract the best companies. It again goes back to the lesson that when something bad happens, like the union problem in Michigan, you don’t need to panic or get mad; you just need to step back and find a new way. And more times than not, that bad thing that happened will turn into a good thing if you listen to the lessons it is teaching you.
    4. There were more lessons. Copart didn’t just learn that it could operate better without its own fleet of trucks; it also learned it needed to change the way it interacted with employees. We learned it wasn’t just enough to treat your employees nice, give them good benefits, and hope they got it. That wasn’t enough to keep the unions out. We treated the employee nice, gave them as many benefits as we could, and treated them like we didn’t want them to leave—because we didn’t. But we didn’t tell them we loved them; we didn’t show them how much they meant to the company. That’s where we had fallen short. This was another reason Jay wanted a cultural revolution at Copart. We had been a nuts-and-bolts company where as long as you got the work done, it didn’t matter if you had fun doing your job or liked the people you worked with or even knew why you were doing what you did. That made us into a place that on some levels really wasn’t a great place to work because it didn’t matter if people would rather work around you than with you. That needed to change. Jay told managers at a conference in 2002 that from then on Copart was going to be a company that didn’t just hire on skill sets or IQ (intelligent quotient); it was going to hire based on attitude—EQ (emotional quotient). We were going to be a company in which people liked their coworkers and had fun at what they did. If that happened, we knew they would probably be more efficient and productive and capable of delivering legendary service. If employees are happy, that translates directly to how we treat our customers and how we can move forward as a company.
    5. Becoming a big, public company, we decided, didn’t mean we had to sacrifice having a culture where people worked hard, had fun, and were rewarded for it. Jay remembered how in the early days he was given the freedom to disagree with me and share his ideas, which helped him grow. He wanted all employees at Copart to have that same opportunity. You should be respectful of your boss but not fear your boss or be afraid to disagree with him or her. If you have the ability to speak your mind, the company benefits too because that’s when great ideas are born. We also wanted to communicate to employees that the most important thing at Copart was keeping a clear moral direction. So many people separate different aspects of life by saying “this is life” and “this is business” and give them different sets of rules. But we look at business and life and family as all intermixing. If you are happy at home, you’re happier at work and vice versa. If you do well at work, you can provide more for your family. Jay also wanted everyone at Copart to treat each other like friends and family. Take care of the company, and we’ll take care of you. Take care of customers like you want to be taken care of
  28. Have a Clear Mission, Vision, and values
    1. To communicate some of these lost ideals and vision, Copart developed a mission, vision, and values statement to guide its business principles and employees. Its mission was to streamline and simplify the auction process; its vision was to continually offer compelling, innovative, and unique products and services to propel the marketplace forward. And the first letter of each of its values spelled out the Copart name itself—committed, ownership, profitability, adaptable, relationships, and trust. But it wasn’t enough to just hang these on the wall. The mission, vision, and values also became a key element in Copart’s training and culture. The CIC—Copart identity campaign—was also launched and introduced initiatives designed to build morale, teamwork, and customer service standards. The campaign included company-wide initiatives, such as the twenty-four-hour rule in which employees must follow up with customers within one day. A weekly cheer was also introduced to bring employees together and build company pride, and employees were also encouraged to wear the company color – blue – one day a week.
    2. I also formed the Copart Private Foundation—a scholarship fund created directly from private contributions made by me and other executives. The foundation was set up to help Copart employees’ children with the costs of college and books. No one who has applied for the scholarship has been turned down. My military background and strong love for my country also prompted me to start a program at Copart that paid 50 percent salary to any employee deployed to an active US military campaign. Positions are also held for six months for those who are deployed. This policy earned Copart national recognition from the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR)
    3. Despite these improvements, Jay was still concerned that the senior management of Copart was still too far removed from the people working in the yards, as was demonstrated when the woman who answered the phone didn’t know who he was. As he was talking to a business associate one day, he thought out loud about how great it would be if he could meet every employee personally and travel to all of Copart’s yards, which numbered more than 110 at that time. His associate laughed at him and commented he would never be able to do it. Was he crazy? That was all the challenge Jay needed to prove him wrong. Jay promised all the employees he would come meet them personally at their yard over the next year. The world tour was born. Jay didn’t know what he was getting into, though. The world tour took on a life of its own, and the spirit and excitement that had been lost over the years returned as employees tried to outdo one another by staging stunts, games, and skits for Jay and other executives when they visited. During the 2005 tour, Jay found himself riding a donkey, being arrested, getting dunked in a dunk tank, and dressing up as Elvis. It was an opportunity for employees to turn the tables on executives and put them on the spot—and as a result, the executives became more like ordinary people in their eyes. More importantly, the world tour also had a powerful message. Jay talked to each yard about where the company had been and where it was going. He told them how Copart’s change-centric culture had made Copart a leader in the industry and how the company would keep embracing change and finding better ways to do things. He explained Copart needed to provide not just good service but legendary service—service that left customers saying, “Wow, how did they do that?” and telling others about the experience. He shared the strength of the company’s future with employees and talked about how the salvage industry was recession proof because people would always be wrecking cars. The world tour really brought the company together. We got to know our employees better, and they got to know us. We got back that mom-and-pop feel we had lost.
    4. Helping out in the Katrina disaster – Through the ordeal, Copart did not pass any of its added costs on to its customers. Copart chose to absorb the costs for a couple of reasons—first, because it was the right thing to do. Copart emerged as an important ally in the clean-up and recovery efforts, with many government agencies asking for and receiving Copart’s help. One of Copart’s first priorities after the storm was picking up vehicles at Kessler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, so rescue operations could be made to New Orleans. Copart also absorbed the costs because it wanted to prove to its customers it was not just a vendor but a business partner they could rely on even at the worst possible time.
    5. Finally, I decided to get a second opinion. I called Richard Reese, the CEO of Iron Mountain, who already had operations in the UK. I had met Richard at a CEO group I attended and had asked him for his advice before. “Richard, what’s the most important thing I need to do in England?” I asked. Richard’s advice was quick and direct. “You need to introduce your company’s culture there.” Richard went on to explain that in the UK, business was very hierarchical, meaning managers didn’t like to talk to people many levels below them. “That’s not the way your company or my company works, Willis,” Richard told him. “We need to have that communication between management and the employees—that idea flow—for things to work well.”
  29. Other
    1. Her gut [his wife’s] was always right. She really helped me make good decisions. Joyce always told me she liked to hear about my ideas and see me excited about the next big thing I had planned. There was nothing she felt I couldn’t do, she told me. That’s a pretty amazing thing—when you have someone on your side who feels that way. She knew how much I loved Copart and loved taking it to different places and trying new things. Neither of us really knew if I could ever give that up.
    2. I have only one regret—that I now spend more time with my grandchildren than I was able to spend with my children while they were growing up. I was too busy growing the business to enjoy them as much as I would have liked.
    3. One thing I’ve taught all the executives in the company is that while you may be good in our business, that doesn’t mean you are good in any other business. Don’t get a big head and think you know it all, because that’s when you’ll lose. You’re really good in the car business. You’re really good in the recycling business. You’re not necessarily good in everything else, and you need to understand that. Stay with what you are good at, venture out if you see an opportunity, but pull your horns in if you make a mistake.
    4. Willis didn’t come home at seven at night with his shoulders down like he had just put in another day at the salt mine. His work didn’t drain him; it drove him. I wanted to be like that.
    5. Willis used to say if you get big enough, you can make an industry behave in a particular way.
What I got out of it
  1. Humility, common sense, work ethic, admitting mistakes, being in the thick of it on a daily basis, surrounding yourself with great people and doing the right thing are all key attributes of leaders, as Willis amazingly demonstrates

Against the Odds: An Autobiography by James Dyson

Summary

  1. Dyson wants to tell his story to inspire other inventors and to share his unorthodox business philosophy – no gimmicks, simply a better product. “The best kind of business is one where you can sell a product at a high price with a good margin, and in enormous volumes. For that you have to develop a product that works better and looks better than existing ones. That type of investment is long term, high risk, and not very British.”

 

Key Takeaways

  1. Dyson was in debt and it took years and thousands of failures but he eventually had his breakthrough with the Dyson Dual Cyclone. He never lost faith but it took years even after that to convince others he had something revolutionary
  2. On Mentors
    1. Some of Dyson’s heroes include Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Buckminster Fuller, and Jeremy Fry (his mentor).
    2. There was in Brunel, a level of conditioning. His father had been an engineer of almost equally gargantuan vision, building the first tunnel under the Thames and planning one under the Channel, too. For Isambard there was that doubled-edged Oedipal desire both to impress and to outdo his father. It is what the literary critic Harold Bloom calls the Anxiety of Influence, and the need for a figure to be ‘slain’ was paramount in the creation of originality – and genius. My father was dead, and his achievement, anyway, was as a classicist. External figures had to count for a father. It is why a man called Jeremy Fry became so important to me, and Sir Hugh Casson, and Anthony Hunt. But they had to be overcome before I could move forward. If I was to push further there had to be new fathers. There had to be Buckminster Fuller, and Brunel.
    3. Jeremy Fry
      1. He was a man who was not interested in experts. He meets me, he thinks to himself, ‘here is a bright kid, let’s employ him.’ And he does. He risks little with the possibility of gaining much. It is exactly what I now do at Dyson Appliances – take on unformed graduates to throw youthful ideas around until they have given all they can and are ready to move onto new things. The attitude to employment extended to Fry’s thinking in everything, including engineering. Like Brunel, he did not, when an idea came to him, sit down and process it through pages of calculations; he didn’t argue it through with anyone; he just went out and built it.
      2. The root principle was to do things your way. It didn’t matter how other people did it. It didn’t matter if it could be done better. The Ballbarrow was not the only way to make a wheelbarrow that didn’t get stuck in mud – but it was a way. The trick is not to keep looking over your shoulder at others, or to worry, even as you begin a project, that it is not going to be the best possible example of its kind. As long as it works, and it is exciting, people will follow you
      3. There were times when he was wrong. In business you will be wrong, by and large, 50% of the time. The trick is to recognize when you have gone wrong and correct the damage – not to worry, at the moment of making the decision, whether it is the right one
      4. Jeremy later took me to France and had me designing first a pedalo, and then a pair of “Jesus floats” which could enable his daughter to walk on water. As a novice designer, as a novice anything I suppose, you are like a sponge looking to soak up mentors and models, and in Fry I had an ocean of experience to absorb. Like Brunel, he operated empirically. He had no regard for experts from other fields (always teaching himself whatever he needed to know as he went along) and he was an engineer interested in building things that derived not only excellence from their design, but elegance as well.
  3. Entrepreneurial and Business Principles
    1. Anyone can become an expert in anything in six months
    2. Now, with a hindsight that proves I was right, those faults of mine seem less criminal. And perhaps that is the nature of “vision”: when all has come right, the kind of man who persisted despite constant ridicule from the controlling forces will be said to have possessed vision. In my case and for all inventors, “vision” might equally read as “stubbornness”. This fastidiousness of mine was to prove my strength in the long-term
    3. Don’t overanalyze! Just go out and build it. With enthusiasm and intelligence, anything is possible. The root principle is to do things your way
    4. Never underestimate the role of beauty in design
    5. Selling the Sea Track was quite easy because I really believed in what I was pushing. You find out what your man wants, and when he comes to you he is buying it as soon as he starts talking, before you even start to sell. It is not about the right adjectives, or shouting your mouth off. It is about discovering a need and satisfying it. Not creating a need, by the way, as many of your cynical marketing men would have it. I have seen many of our own salesmen (I should say ex-salesmen) trying to sell things in meetings, showing the buyer things he couldn’t possibly be interested in, making him feel like a sucker, and cocking everything up. Without exception, the best agents were the ones who, quite irrespective of their business or financial sense, saw the boat for what it was, and loved it for it. While the temptation (and board pressure) was to hire established boat distributors, who knew the market and would order vast numbers, I was determined to choose people who were mad keen on it. They were the only ones who would be able to overcome all the obstacles and difficulties of selling an entirely new concept, and make a real business out of it. Best of all, I decided not to sign up any agent unless he would undertake to buy one boat ever year. Having twigged that we were wasting a lot of time signing up distributors who never ordered a thing, I realized that not only would it be infinitely easier for our agents to sell if they had a model to demonstrate, rather than just a brochure and a standard patter, but that if they had bought it already, then they would be doubly determined to sell it. Of course, I sold the concept to the agents as being entirely about demonstrability, but in fact it was far more to do with motivation. That, and the fact that with all the publicity we were getting and the hundreds of enquiries from potential distributors all over the world, I realized that we could make good business just from opening up new markets. Anytime we were short of sales, in fact, we would simply set about looking for new markets.
    6. The British obsession with the quantum leap holds back our country. We always want to create something new out of nothing, and without research, and without long, hard hours of effort. But there is no such thing as a quantum leap. There is only dogged persistence – and in the end you make it look like a quantum leap. Just ask the Japanese
    7. Working and aligning with first principles – “It is a law of physics – don’t ask me why, I don’t make these laws – that when a particle with mass makes its first turn around a curved wall its speed is multiplied three times. You can see it happening when the ball is spun in a roulette wheel, or better still when you shoot a ball in a pinball machine and it accelerates around the corner. Now, the reason that the cyclone is cone shaped is that when you reduce the diameter around which your object is travelling it will accelerate again, by about 50%. In this way the cyclone in the vacuum cleaner, for example, accelerates the dust particles from 20MPH to 600MPH and then to 924MPH, or about 324,000RPM. You need to think of the whole caboodle, dust and air, as being like a long sausage. As it enters the top of the cyclone it is being pushed round and round the walls until it comes to the bottom. The dust and rubbish, which has this great weight, is not enjoying the journey, adjust as when you drive your car hard at a bend it wants to keep on going straight and you have to exert pressure on the steering wheel to keep the car on the road. The air, which has no mass, doesn’t have this problem, and rather than straining at the walls, which would ultimately blow the whole thing up, it can get to the center of the cyclone, and take the easiest possible exit. So, at the top of the cyclone, in the middle is a chimney. The air happily escapes out of the whole; the particles cannot. Thus, the only thing that can get out is pure air, so no expelled dust, and no smells. Like so many industrialists, the particle has an insurmountable sheep mentality
    8. You have to take the Edisonian approach: test, and test, and test until it works best. I made hundreds of cyclones in the early years, and then thousands of them. Testing all the different styles, I found that the important thing was the entry point that it should enter peripherally, and at a pure tangent. I tried it with one entry and with two entries, I even made one with 140 entries, just in case it was better, but you only ever got one flow of air. Slow, slow, slow. These things cannot be hurried. When you develop a prototype you have to change only one thing at a time. If you are really going to improve things, and that is what inventing is all about, then you are going to have to be patient, very patient.
    9. Innovation requires builders, not bean counters. You need them, just not in the top spot. However, the British instead go with spending millions with big advertising or PR consultancy to persuade the public they were better than everyone else, and were in some way new and exciting. It never occurred to them to invest the money in the research and development of something genuinely, and tangibly, new and exciting. That, I am afraid, is the only way to achieve long-term growth, wealth, and stability. Slow, boring and initially expensive it may be, but the cataclysmic boom and bust of the years that followed were the price we paid for excitement.
    10. The best looks come out of following the engineering
    11. Design / Invention Philosophy
      1. No one ever had an idea staring at a drawing board – Francis Bacon always got his ideas from walking in the country-side and observing nature, rather than sitting in his study. SO get out and look at things, and when an idea comes, grab it, write it down, and play with it until it works. Don’t sit and expect ideas to come.
      2. Every day products sell
      3. New technology – the thing about truly new technology is that it makes your invention patentable. And then no one can copy it.
    12. One of the most crucial business lessons of my life: to stint on investment in the early stages, to try to sell a half-finished product, is to doom from the start any project you embark on.
    13. My big mistake had been presenting the same craft to each customer and telling them, ‘this can be adapted to suit your needs.’ If someone wanted a diving boat I would explain that it could be fitted with compressors, heaters and a very slow diesel engine. If an oil company wanted a crew bus, I would tell them that suitable seating and a faster engine could be fitted. To the military I said I would bulletproof the sides and engine. To constructors in search of a bridging tug I said, special buffers? High power engine? No problem.’ I convinced not a single one of them. People do not want all-purpose; they want high-tech specificity. So, out with the universal modular craft. In with, ‘I have just the boat for you, my dear sir: a purpose-built diving boat/bridging tug/assault craft/etc….’ For each function Deirdre designed a brochure, and they began to sell. And it all seemed so obvious: you simply cannot mix your messages when selling something new. A consumer can barely handle one great new idea, let alone two, or even several. Why tell them this thing was universally adaptable when universality mattered to the individual consumer not a whit? It was for the same reason that when I put the Dual Cyclone on the market I kept more or less stumm about its potential as a dry-cleaning tool. How could I expect the public to believe this was not only the best vacuum cleaner ever made, but also something completely different? And so, with a quite respectable product to present, I set off around the world to start selling it properly. It was time spent away from designing, but it was to teach me, above all else, that only by trying to sell the thing you have made yourself, by dealing with consumers’ problems and the product’s failings as they arise, can you really come to understand what you have done, to bond with your invention and to improve it. Conversely, of course, only the man who has brought the thing into the world can presume to foist it on others, and demand a heavy price, with all his heart
    14. I enjoyed selling to the military because they were never interested in cost, only what the thing did, and how well it did it. A fantastic situation for a young engineer or designer to be in
    15. One of the strains of this book is about control. If you have the intimate knowledge of a product that comes with dreaming it up and then designing it, I have been trying to say, then you will be the better able to sell it and then, reciprocally, to go back to it and improve it. From there you are in the best possible position to convince others of its greatness and to inspire others to give their very best efforts to developing it, and to remain true to it, and to see it through all the way to its optimum point. Total fruition, if you like
    16. Only way to make any real money is to offer the public something entirely new, that has style value, as well as substance, and which they cannot get anywhere else
    17. When salesmen and accountants become king, all risk goes out the window, and with it, all experimentation, trial and error, innovation, difference, and beauty
    18. Don’t trust in experts, hire smart, unformed youth who can throw ideas around and give all they can until they want something new
    19. Dyson’s desire for simplicity and his moral code led him to never bribing or taking bribes which greatly helped him in the long-term although the immediate benefits could have been great
    20. The establishment of a client base by word of mouth is what gives a product integrity and longevity
    21. Sidney Jacob could see the negotiations only from his point of view, and had no inkling that I, like any businessman, needed to be motivated into doing the deal too. That combination of charm and steel is very nasty indeed to encounter. It leaves you feeling utterly shafted and unwilling to do a deal. So I didn’t.
    22. In dealing with Japan and the importance of dogged, incremental progress over a very long time frame – “But they retain those key elements in their psyche that made them such ideal partners for someone like me, and a product like mine. They are not inventive, in the way that we, the British, like to think that we are. They do not bumble along in the hope of making it big when some bright new idea dawns on the horizon. They believe in progress by stages, in the interactive development that I have described as Edisonian, the persistent trial and error that allows them to wake up one morning, after many, many mornings, with a world-beating product…And all their success is born out of a theory of gradual development that is the very antithesis of the British obsession with the quantum leap. The Japanese always took the opposite view in that they never put any faith in individualists, and lived an anti-brilliance culture. And that was healthy. They know full well that quantum leaps are very rare, but that constant development will result, in the end, in a better product. And that is the mindset I share with them. I am not a quantum leaper. I produced something only after gradual and iterative development.”
    23. Always respect the creatives. I am constantly amazed at the way businessmen seem quite happy to treat designers in this way, an approach they would never take with, say, accountants or lawyers. They seem to perceive design as some sort of amateur indulgence, a superfluous frippery in which everyone can chuck in their opinions and to the hell with the designer.
    24. Out of town lawyers hardly ever win their case in America
    25. The importance of a unified team – “This was not a collection of underlings with me bossing them about, by any means. We were a band on a mission to design a vacuum cleaner that could challenge the world, and it was bloody exciting.
    26. Has always depended on raw, young graduates to bring in new blood and fresh eyes
    27. Manufacturing is about making things people want, which work well, and look good
    28. Dyson End of Life Recovery (The Recyclone) – “It seemed terrible, after all that had gone into each one, that they should just be thrown on a landfill when they die, and so it occurred to me that we should offer to take back all our vacuum cleaners at the end of their lives, and recover whatever is recoverable. And then it occurred to me that everything should be recoverable. And so we did, and it is. All you have to do when your Dyson dies – which should not happen for a very, very long time – is to call the hotline number on the handle and we will send round the undertakers free of charge
    29. After the soon to be launched DC-03, 04, and 05, there will be other and different products. But they will not be ‘copycat’ products – that is no principle by which to work. We are in the business of developing new technology and new products, and of recruiting bright young graduates to help us do exactly that, so nothing will come out that is not both innovatively designed and conceived around a brand new invention. It is an ambitious attitude for us to take, and is bound to slow down our growth, but though it is slower, it will send our roots deeper than the quick development of a huge portfolio of old technology that we have merely redesigned. And it will be much more satisfying for body and soul.
    30. Short-termism is such a national illness that it could be called short-termitis. And yet nobody does anything about it. That, if anything, is the recurring theme of this book. Let us please invest in R&D for future profit. And let us reduce our spending on advertising, so as to refocus on business, and make it into something product-oriented, and R&D driven
    31. Debt, you see, is a terrible thing for a small company. It fosters a bizarre reverse psychology that comes from the darkest depths of the human psyche and makes you even more inclined to overspend. The reason for this, is that when you have no money and are in debt you start thinking about all the things you could do if you had money, and that sets you to dreaming up all sorts of schemes and projects, which lead you into further debt as you try to realize them. When you have money, on the other hand, you tend to be more careful, largely because the occasion does not arise where you sit around desperately trying to think of ways of making money. You just get on with your life without thinking up hair-brained schemes you couldn’t possibly carry out. Thus, without an overdraft you are not only freed of the interest burden, but your mind is freed to think more clearly and you can negotiate more effectively with both suppliers and customers, because they can see that you are not stretched financially and desperate to make a deal.
    32. What we were attempting to offer was a panacea to all your gardening troubles. But, rather as had happened with the Sea Truck, consumers were simply not able to grasp so many improvements in one fell swoop. And the thing was too universal, too all-purpose. Had we begun it as, say, a greenhouse watering system, with a single timesaving benefit, thus appealing to a specific need, it would have bedded down nicely into the real market. We could then have gradually introduced the other ideas and made a real success of it
    33. As you suffer each rejection, you learn a little bit about your product, and what people want from it, and why – and you can sometimes justify your profitless ploddings that way, too
    34. In America, with a population 5x bigger than in Britain, each niche is 5x bigger, and since each person has about twice the spending power of someone in Britain, that niche is in real terms 10x bigger than it would be here, and the risk is thus reduced 10x
    35. The thing about inventing is that it is a continual and continuous process, and it is fluid. Inventions generate further inventions. In fact, that is where most inventions come from. They very rarely come out of nothing. So while it was the Dual Cyclone that was the basis of my first vacuum cleaner, as I went on to develop it over the next 12 years, and, crucially, in the nine months before bringing out the DC-01 (as it was to be called), dozens of other innovations were generated along the way.
    36. It was easier for us, as designers working apart from salesmen, to exclude the ‘bells and whistles’ because we were simply designing our won ideal product without worrying about marketing demands. When it came to talking to retailers, however, they always wanted to know where the height adjuster was. We would explain to them that we had designed a free-floating cleaner head that automatically adjusted to the pile of the carpet, or indeed to a stone or wood floor, but, for simple sales guff, I suppose the DC-01 appeared underequipped
    37. It is received wisdom in the appliance market that brand is important. But I knew that myth could be exploded. Brand is only important when two products are identical; it is not important if one of the products has better technology or a better design than the other. Hoover had traded on their name for too long, which was easy as long as all the products were the same – theirs was identical to the Panasonic or the Electrolux so why not buy it? That band dependence was quite simply shattered when the Dyson came along, because it gave the consumer, for the first time since men wore top hats in town and rode horses to work, the choice of something better. And suddenly the customer had something other than brand name to look at. We even went so far as to make our own brand name not very clear, which emphasized the point. If you are selling cornflakes or cola then branding is all important – it ought to mean nothing when you are selling technology.
    38. We also scooted to number one so silently because our profile was raised more by editorial coverage than by paid-for advertising. Apart from being cheaper, this is much more effective, because it carries more of the weight of objective truth than a bought space. But in terms of visibility it is less popularizing, while being more efficient in selling to those to whom it is exposed, because those prospectively in the market will be drawn to it. It is also out of your control – you cannot make journalists write about you, and I have never tried. And, when they have, I have never sought to influence what they write and have never asked to see their copy before publication. They take me, or the products, as we are, and I have to hope they like us. It is one of the virtues of having such a strange-looking product, however, that journalists are more likely to take an interest in it. Something genuinely different has a humanity, even a humor value, that another clone model from Miele or Panasonic will never have. A journalist’s job, particularly in the area of design and technology – but also in the field of business – is to find things that are going to be exciting in the future and then get there first, or as early as possible. They also seem to be unerringly good at it. And one story can generate a groundswell of editorial coverage that gives you the kind of accreditation that advertising never can. Advertising can only take you so far, you see, until the consumer realizes he is being sold something.
    39. And the fact is that they are not creative at all. They are doing the very worst thing you can do, which is to sit there staring at a drawing board trying to come up with an idea out of nowhere. You need dialogue to create. Of all the creative jobs I have encountered it is advertising people who make the most song and dance about creativity. And, you know, they are not creative at all. When I think of the real creation that my designers are involved in, and compare it with these “creatives” who are earning so much more to just sit around in the Groucho Club and be generally useless, it makes me vomit. I can’t go on supporting an industry like that, I’m afraid
    40. Why don’t we tell people how the machine dry-cleans, how it climbs stairs, how it has automatic hose action? The answer is twofold – you can’t sell more than one message at a time, or you lose the belief of the consumer, and we had to establish, beyond all question, that our machine overcame a problem that all other systems suffered from.
    41. Who is it that gets neglected? The inventor, that’s who. The designer, the engineer, the chemist, the brewer, the boffin. The people obsessed by the product; who willingly accept that the sizzle is important, but who get their kicks trying to make an even better steak. Car companies used to be run by people who loved cars. They knew how to make cars themselves, and were always trying to make them better. Retail companies used to be run by people who loved shops, and a hundred and something years ago, George Safford Parker was nutty about fountain pens. As business got bigger and more complex, these obsessive, impractical, product-driven enthusiasts couldn’t cope. They had to be helped by money men and lawyers and marketing persons with advertising agents. From that moment, the status of the maker in this country has been in decline. And the rise and rise of marketing persons, through no fault of their own, has done nothing to help…it might even be, I think, that the erosion of our manufacturing sector, and the rise and rise of our service sector, is in part connected with the de-coupling of making things from marketing things. In other words: if you make something, sell it yourself. And so we did. And absolutely nothing went bang. Except, of course, everyone else’s market slice
    42. Although there is usually a single great development at the core of any revolutionary design or invention, I am a great believer in the autogeneration of inventions out of each other, a kind of asexual reproduction of the product gene, if you like. It is usually when you actually come to design the product that some of the most interesting things happen. The thing that really excited everyone about the DC-02 for example and got it so much press attention, even after that of the Dual Cyclone had been pretty exhaustively covered, was its ability to sit on stairs, and even to climb them.
  4. Business and Design Philosophy
    1. As often as I am asked about my design philosophy, I am cross-examined as to how I run my business. People see the numerical and financial success of the product and want to know how it was done. It is never enough to say that it is down to the qualitative difference of the vacuum cleaner, and to be fair, there may well be more to it than that. But a business philosophy is a difficult thing to distill out of the daily workings of a company, because you never really know how you do it, you just do it. It’s like asking a horse how it walks. I thought, perhaps, if I tried to explain everything we do that other companies probably do not do, then people might be able to work out the philosophy for themselves:
      1. Everyone who starts work at Dyson makes a vacuum cleaner on their first day – the idea is that everyone understands the whole product, even though they may only be working on a small part of it
      2. A holistic design approach to design – open offices plans so everyone can communicate easily and feels part of the same team, graphics and engineering people are in the geographical center of the office and that reflects the centrality of design and engineering to the whole operation, no department boundaries, freedom of movement and of expression is total
      3. Engineering and design are not viewed as separate. Designers are involved in testing as engineers are in conceptual ideas
      4. Everyone is empowered to be creative and knowledgeable
      5. No memos – ever. Dialogue is the founding principle for progress. Talk to people, they listen. Monologue only leads to monomania. Memos are also tacky, soulless, and get lost. I would rather people did less, if it means doing what they do properly, and a memo, though quicker than a conversation, is far more likely to lead to a misunderstanding.
      6. No one wears suits and ties – every company needs an image. The smaller and less established you are, the more important the image becomes. I do not want my employees thinking like businessmen
      7. A cafe, not a canteen – create a social atmosphere at work where employees find it easy to get to know each other
      8. Encourage employees to be different, on principle – very few people can be brilliant. Those who are, rarely do anything worthwhile. And they are over-valued. You are just as likely to solve a problem by being unconventional and determined as by being brilliant. And if you can’t be unconventional, be obtuse. Be deliberately obtuse, because there are 5 billion people out there thinking in train tracks, and thinking what they have been taught to think.
      9. Don’t relinquish responsibility once the sale is made – it may sound like an expensive service for us to run, but real service, like real innovation, is what people want more than anything, and people are so delighted when they discover that we will immediately send them a new machine that their call of complaint becomes a call of gratitude
      10. Employ graduates straight from university – it’s easier to teach fresh graduates a different way of doing things and enable them to challenge established beliefs, than to retrain someone with ‘experience’
      11. Meet the staff as equals, because they are – clinics where staff can ask senior management anything and also have a suggestion box for those who are more introverted and make sure those letters are always answered personally. Feedback from the floor, when it concerns production, usually centers around the quality of components fed to the line by subcontractors. It is a crucial melting pot of ideas, that enables us to share with the assembly staff our management expertise and efforts with the subcontractors, at the same time as they describe the end results of our efforts. So useful is this proving, that we have arranged, in future, for subcontractors to attend the meetings. Hope they can take it
      12. The final assembly is done entirely by hand – allows for flexibility to lengthen or shorten the line when we need to, to add or remove people, or to add new liens at a moments’ notice, chance the assembly method, change the design of the product. It does mean that we rely more than others on the skill of our assembly staff but it allows us that “can do” attitude to change that is anathema to British manufacturing otherwise
      13. We pay our staff well – pay very well and on top of it, on a weekly basis, that is subject to full attendance, as a reward for reliable and loyal staff, pay a flat premium
      14. Japanese influences – we are always trying to improve our product, take any complaint very seriously, and solve the problem. Customer feedback is our way of foretelling and directing our future, and we spare no expense in acting on that feedback. We are fascinated, to the point of obsession, with the product. It is this that allows us to maintain ownership of our product, and without it we do not have a business.
      15. Dealing with suppliers – there are 4 straightforward requirements that we have of our suppliers: that they should provide (a) what we order, (b) at the time stipulated, (c) in the correct quantity, (d) to the quality stipulated. I wish.
  5. The Ballbarrow
    1. The wheelbarrow market was a very attractive one to me at that time. It seemed relatively unambitious market, where I would not be competing against any multinational giants as you do in, say, electricals. A kinder, gentler market altogether, or so I though. Furthermore, the fact that no one had contributed anything faintly new to it in 10,000 years (rather as the vacuum cleaner went unchanged over 100), meant that anything new, with major design improvements and innovations, would have enormous impact.
    2. The spirit of the thing, you see, was in the ball and the dumper shape – anything else would be gliding the lily. This principle is a crucial one. Just as the spirit of the Sea Track was in the flat hull, and the spirit of the Dual Cyclone is in the cyclone, so there was a simplicity about the Ballbarrow that displayed its newness and superiority and shouted its usefulness. To attempt other gimmicks might lead to a customer believing it was just the same old thing with something added. So, off came the dump facility and a twisty handle, a swift redesign, and we were ready to launch
    3. It was an interesting lesson in psychology, teaching me that the entrenched professional is always going to resist far longer than the private consumer. Many of the advantages, you see, were simply not perceived by the builder as advantages at all, for the reasons I mentioned earlier, and all the things that would make it so popular with gardeners were utterly irrelevant to him.
    4. It always seems to be journalists that are first to see the potential of a new invention, which is odd when you consider that they are not, in their nature, particularly commercially minded people. It is also the very best way of convincing the public. One decent editorial counts for a thousand advertisements. People are far more likely to believe someone who has tested something for themselves – and it is assumed that a journalist has done that. From that point on, and throughout my struggles to launch the Dual Cyclone, I made editorial comment the basis of all my thinking about publicity. As with the Dual Cyclone, so with the Ballbarrow: the establishment of a client base by word of mouth is what gives a product longevity and integrity, a sort of wise man building his house on the rock principle
    5. The Waterolla was a garden roller that instead of being a large metal drum full of concrete, was a large plastic drum full of nothing which could be filled up with water. It is the perfect example of making a product too good. Once one person got it, the whole neighborhood could easily use it and never bought another.
  1. It is in our engineers that we should place our greatest faith for the present, in that they determine the way our future will be
  2. Was a great runner when he was young and he trained differently than everyone else – he used the sand dunes in his home country to train and build his endurance. “In so many ways it taught me the most significant lessons in all my youth. I was learning about the physical and psychological strength that keeps you competitive. I was learning about obstinacy. I was learning how to overcome nerves, and as I grew more and more neurotic about being caught from behind, I trained harder to stay in front. It is a horribly labored analogy – and it is flavored with the fickle seasoning of hindsight – but to this day it is the fear of failure, more than anything else, which makes me keep working at success.” This later helped me build the confidence and the stupidity to start doing things differently not only in sports, but in academics and in business

 

What I got out of it

  1. Really fun and well written book with some timeless business and entrepreneurial lessons –

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memory of a Family and Culture in Crisis by JD Vance

Summary
  1. JD Vance wrote this book not because he’s accomplished anything extraordinary, but because he’s accomplished something ordinary. His poor upbringing and difficult childhood indicates he’d never escape but he was able to graduate from Yale Law School.
Key Takeaways
  1. There is of course inequality but there is also a lack of agency, of responsibility, of accountability that JD has found in his cohort
  2. The honor culture of the south leads many into violence and revenge, not being able to let an insult go
  3. For most hillbillies, the only way up is to move out. There are astonishing numbers of people moving away from the Appalachian region every year, in pursuit of a livable wage
  4. People don’t expect much of themselves because the people around them aren’t doing very much
  5. Despite all the social and peers pressures, JD received a different message at home that it was alright to learn and to strive and that made all the difference to him
  6. Parent’s desire for their kids to do better didn’t just relate to education, work, and pay, but to relationships too. Low expectations for those living in the Appalachians is hurting every generation
  7. JD had no role models for relationships and thought that screaming, violence, and hitting was how adults spoke to each other
  8. We are all very bad at judging ourselves
  9. His grandma was his most important positive influence as she showed him not only what was possible but how to get there. She helped him raise what he expected out of himself
  10. The instability in JD’s life was so disruptive. He was in several different homes with several different father figures in only a couple of years. Once he had a safe, stable place with grandma, he was able to focus and do his work
  11. JD enlisted in the marine corps and graduating was his proudest accomplishment. He got out of his learned helplessness and it made him see and question things once he returned home
  12. Sometimes those in power try to help the helpless without truly understanding their situation, which often ends up with negative consequences
  13. When a group believes that hard work will pay off, they all work harder and go all-in, often with amazing results
  14. The predominant emotion in lower middle class working white Americans is a sense of pessimism and a lack of accountability. They’re not willing to work hard and be consistent and blame others or the government for their problems
  15. Most successful people don’t even play the same game as the people JD grew up with. He had no idea how important networking, one’s social capital, was for one’s prospects. He learned this during his time at Yale Law and going through the interview/admissions process
What I got out of it
  1. An amazing dive into the life of poor Appalachians and the struggles they face. JD told his story in such an open, transparent, vulnerable way and gave me insight into situations I didn’t appreciate or know much about before. Inspiring how hard JD worked to escape his situation, his learned helplessness

My Life and Work by Henry Ford

An incredibly simple and clear analysis of the successful business practices that propelled Ford to the top of the competitive auto industry.

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin by Charles Darwin

Summary
  1. The life and accomplishments of Darwin through his own eyes
Key Takeaways
  1. I have attempted to write the following account of myself, as if I were a dead man in another world looking back at my own life. Nor have I found this difficult, for life is nearly over with me. I have taken no pains about my style of writing.
  2. The passion for collecting which leads a man to be a systematic naturalist, a virtuoso, or a miser, was very strong in me, and was clearly innate, as none of my sisters or brother ever had this taste.
  3. I have heard my father and elder sister say that I had, as a very young boy, a strong taste for long solitary walks; but what I thought about I know not. I often became quite absorbed, and once, whilst returning to school on the summit of the old fortifications round Shrewsbury, which had been converted into a public foot-path with no parapet on one side, I walked off and fell to the ground, but the height was only seven or eight feet. Nevertheless the number of thoughts which passed through my mind during this very short, but sudden and wholly unexpected fall, was astonishing, and seem hardly compatible with what physiologists have, I believe, proved about each thought requiring quite an appreciable amount of time.
  4. The school as a means of education to me was simply a blank. During my whole life I have been singularly incapable of mastering any language. Much attention was paid to learning by heart the lessons of the previous day; this I could effect with great facility, learning forty or fifty lines of Virgil or Homer, whilst I was in morning chapel; but this exercise was utterly useless, for every verse was forgotten in forty-eight hours.
  5. I believe that I was considered by all my masters and by my father as a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard in intellect. To my deep mortification my father once said to me, “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.” But my father, who was the kindest man I ever knew and whose memory I love with all my heart, must have been angry and somewhat unjust when he used such words.
  6. Looking back as well as I can at my character during my school life, the only qualities which at this period promised well for the future, were, that I had strong and diversified tastes, much zeal for whatever interested me, and a keen pleasure in understanding any complex subject or thing. I was taught Euclid by a private tutor, and I distinctly remember the intense satisfaction which the clear geometrical proofs gave me.
    1. NOTE: recipe for learning
  7. I had many friends amongst the schoolboys, whom I loved dearly, and I think that my disposition was then very affectionate.
  8. With respect to science, I continued collecting minerals with much zeal, but quite unscientifically—all that I cared about was a new-named mineral, and I hardly attempted to classify them.
  9. This was the best part of my education at school, for it showed me practically the meaning of experimental science.
  10. I was sent there to commence them. But soon after this period I became convinced from various small circumstances that my father would leave me property enough to subsist on with some comfort, though I never imagined that I should be so rich a man as I am; but my belief was sufficient to check any strenuous efforts to learn medicine.
  11. I also attended on two occasions the operating theatre in the hospital at Edinburgh, and saw two very bad operations, one on a child, but I rushed away before they were completed. Nor did I ever attend again, for hardly any inducement would have been strong enough to make me do so; this being long before the blessed days of chloroform. The two cases fairly haunted me for many a long year.
  12. My zeal was so great that I used to place my shooting-boots open by my bed-side when I went to bed, so as not to lose half a minute in putting them on in the morning; and on one occasion I reached a distant part of the Maer estate, on the 20th of August for black-game shooting, before I could see: I then toiled on with the game-keeper the whole day through thick heath and young Scotch firs.
  13. After having spent two sessions in Edinburgh, my father perceived, or he heard from my sisters, that I did not like the thought of being a physician, so he proposed that I should become a clergyman.
  14. Considering how fiercely I have been attacked by the orthodox, it seems ludicrous that I once intended to be a clergyman.
  15. But I am glad to think that I had many other friends of a widely different nature.
  16. But no pursuit at Cambridge was followed with nearly so much eagerness or gave me so much pleasure as collecting beetles. It was the mere passion for collecting, for I did not dissect them, and rarely compared their external characters with published descriptions, but got them named anyhow. I will give a proof of my zeal: one day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles, and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas! it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced to spit the beetle out, which was lost, as was the third one.
  17. I have not as yet mentioned a circumstance which influenced my whole career more than any other. This was my friendship with Professor Henslow. Before coming up to Cambridge, I had heard of him from my brother as a man who knew every branch of science, and I was accordingly prepared to reverence him. He kept open house once every week when all undergraduates, and some older members of the University, who were attached to science, used to meet in the evening. I soon got, through Fox, an invitation, and went there regularly. Before long I became well acquainted with Henslow, and during the latter half of my time at Cambridge took long walks with him on most days; so that I was called by some of the dons “the man who walks with Henslow;” and in the evening I was very often asked to join his family dinner. His knowledge was great in botany, entomology, chemistry, mineralogy, and geology. His strongest taste was to draw conclusions from long-continued minute observations. His judgment was excellent, and his whole mind well balanced; but I do not suppose that any one would say that he possessed much original genius. He was deeply religious, and so orthodox that he told me one day he should be grieved if a single word of the Thirty-nine Articles were altered. His moral qualities were in every way admirable. He was free from every tinge of vanity or other petty feeling; and I never saw a man who thought so little about himself or his own concerns. His temper was imperturbably good, with the most winning and courteous manners; yet, as I have seen, he could be roused by any bad action to the warmest indignation and prompt action.
  18. Looking back, I infer that there must have been something in me a little superior to the common run of youths, otherwise the above-mentioned men, so much older than me and higher in academical position, would never have allowed me to associate with them. Certainly I was not aware of any such superiority, and I remember one of my sporting friends, Turner, who saw me at work with my beetles, saying that I should some day be a Fellow of the Royal Society, and the notion seemed to me preposterous.
  19. During my last year at Cambridge, I read with care and profound interest Humboldt’s ‘Personal Narrative.’ This work, and Sir J. Herschel’s ‘Introduction to the Study of Natural Philosophy,’ stirred up in me a burning zeal to add even the most humble contribution to the noble structure of Natural Science. No one or a dozen other books influenced me nearly so much as these two.
  20. These gravel-beds belong in fact to the glacial period, and in after years I found in them broken arctic shells. But I was then utterly astonished at Sedgwick not being delighted at so wonderful a fact as a tropical shell being found near the surface in the middle of England. Nothing before had ever made me thoroughly realise, though I had read various scientific books, that science consists in grouping facts so that general laws or conclusions may be drawn from them.
  21. We had several quarrels; for instance, early in the voyage at Bahia, in Brazil, he defended and praised slavery, which I abominated
  22. The voyage of the “Beagle” has been by far the most important event in my life, and has determined my whole career; yet it depended on so small a circumstance as my uncle offering to drive me thirty miles to Shrewsbury, which few uncles would have done, and on such a trifle as the shape of my nose. I have always felt that I owe to the voyage the first real training or education of my mind; I was led to attend closely to several branches of natural history, and thus my powers of observation were improved, though they were always fairly developed.
  23. During some part of the day I wrote my Journal, and took much pains in describing carefully and vividly all that I had seen; and this was good practice.
  24. The above various special studies were, however, of no importance compared with the habit of energetic industry and of concentrated attention to whatever I was engaged in, which I then acquired. Everything about which I thought or read was made to bear directly on what I had seen or was likely to see; and this habit of mind was continued during the five years of the voyage. I feel sure that it was this training which has enabled me to do whatever I have done in science.
  25. Looking backwards, I can now perceive how my love for science gradually preponderated over every other taste. During the first two years my old passion for shooting survived in nearly full force, and I shot myself all the birds and animals for my collection; but gradually I gave up my gun more and more, and finally altogether, to my servant, as shooting interfered with my work, more especially with making out the geological structure of a country. I discovered, though unconsciously and insensibly, that the pleasure of observing and reasoning was a much higher one than that of skill and sport.
  26. As far as I can judge of myself, I worked to the utmost during the voyage from the mere pleasure of investigation, and from my strong desire to add a few facts to the great mass of facts in Natural Science.
  27. I think that I can say with truth that in after years, though I cared in the highest degree for the approbation of such men as Lyell and Hooker, who were my friends, I did not care much about the general public. I do not mean to say that a favourable review or a large sale of my books did not please me greatly, but the pleasure was a fleeting one, and I am sure that I have never turned one inch out of my course to gain fame.
  28. In July I opened my first note-book for facts in relation to the Origin of Species, about which I had long reflected, and never ceased working for the next twenty years.
  29. Because no other explanation was possible under our then state of knowledge, I argued in favour of sea-action; and my error has been a good lesson to me never to trust in science to the principle of exclusion.
  30. No other work of mine was begun in so deductive a spirit as this, for the whole theory was thought out on the west coast of South America, before I had seen a true coral reef. I had therefore only to verify and extend my views by a careful examination of living reefs.
  31. This excursion interested me greatly, and it was the last time I was ever strong enough to climb mountains or to take long walks such as are necessary for geological work.
  32. I saw more of Lyell than of any other man, both before and after my marriage. His mind was characterised, as it appeared to me, by clearness, caution, sound judgment, and a good deal of originality. When I made any remark to him on Geology, he never rested until he saw the whole case clearly, and often made me see it more clearly than I had done before. He would advance all possible objections to my suggestion, and even after these were exhausted would long remain dubious. A second characteristic was his hearty sympathy with the work of other scientific men.
  33. “What a good thing it would be if every scientific man was to die when sixty years old, as afterwards he would be sure to oppose all new doctrines.”
  34. His knowledge was extraordinarily great, and much died with him, owing to his excessive fear of ever making a mistake.
  35. —reminds me of Buckle whom I once met at Hensleigh Wedgwood’s. I was very glad to learn from him his system of collecting facts. He told me that he bought all the books which he read, and made a full index, to each, of the facts which he thought might prove serviceable to him, and that he could always remember in what book he had read anything, for his memory was wonderful. I asked him how at first he could judge what facts would be serviceable, and he answered that he did not know, but that a sort of instinct guided him. From this habit of making indices, he was enabled to give the astonishing number of references on all sorts of subjects, which may be found in his ‘History of Civilisation.’
  36. During the first part of our residence we went a little into society, and received a few friends here; but my health almost always suffered from the excitement, violent shivering and vomiting attacks being thus brought on. I have therefore been compelled for many years to give up all dinner-parties; and this has been somewhat of a deprivation to me, as such parties always put me into high spirits. From the same cause I have been able to invite here very few scientific acquaintances.
  37. My chief enjoyment and sole employment throughout life has been scientific work; and the excitement from such work makes me for the time forget, or drives quite away, my daily discomfort.
  38. I record in a little diary, which I have always kept, that my three geological books (‘Coral Reefs’ included) consumed four and a half years’ steady work;
  39. To understand the structure of my new Cirripede I had to examine and dissect many of the common forms; and this gradually led me on to take up the whole group. I worked steadily on this subject for the next eight years, and ultimately published two thick volumes
  40. From September 1854 I devoted my whole time to arranging my huge pile of notes, to observing, and to experimenting in relation to the transmutation of species. During the voyage of the “Beagle” I had been deeply impressed by discovering in the Pampean formation great fossil animals covered with armour like that on the existing armadillos; secondly, by the manner in which closely allied animals replace one another in proceeding southwards over the Continent; and thirdly, by the South American character of most of the productions of the Galapagos archipelago, and more especially by the manner in which they differ slightly on each island of the group; none of the islands appearing to be very ancient in a geological sense. It was evident that such facts as these, as well as many others, could only be explained on the supposition that species gradually become modified; and the subject haunted me. But it was equally evident that neither the action of the surrounding conditions, nor the will of the organisms (especially in the case of plants) could account for the innumerable cases in which organisms of every kind are beautifully adapted to their habits of life—for instance, a woodpecker or a tree-frog to climb trees, or a seed for dispersal by hooks or plumes.
  41. soon perceived that selection was the keystone of man’s success in making useful races of animals and plants. But how selection could be applied to organisms living in a state of nature remained for some time a mystery to me. In October 1838, that is, fifteen months after I had begun my systematic enquiry, I happened to read for amusement ‘Malthus on Population,’ and being well prepared to appreciate the struggle for existence which everywhere goes on from long-continued observation of the habits of animals and plants, it at once struck me that under these circumstances favourable variations would tend to be preserved, and unfavourable ones to be destroyed. The result of this would be the formation of new species. Here then I had at last got a theory by which to work; but I was so anxious to avoid prejudice, that I determined not for some time to write even the briefest sketch of it. In June 1842 I first allowed myself the satisfaction of writing a very brief abstract of my theory in pencil in 35 pages; and this was enlarged during the summer of 1844 into one of 230 pages, which I had fairly copied out and still possess.
  42. But at that time I overlooked one problem of great importance; and it is astonishing to me, except on the principle of Columbus and his egg, how I could have overlooked it and its solution. This problem is the tendency in organic beings descended from the same stock to diverge in character as they become modified. That they have diverged greatly is obvious from the manner in which species of all kinds can be classed under genera, genera under families, families under sub-orders and so forth; and I can remember the very spot in the road, whilst in my carriage, when to my joy the solution occurred to me; and this was long after I had come to Down. The solution, as I believe, is that the modified offspring of all dominant and increasing forms tend to become adapted to many and highly diversified places in the economy of nature.
  43. The success of the ‘Origin’ may, I think, be attributed in large part to my having long before written two condensed sketches, and to my having finally abstracted a much larger manuscript, which was itself an abstract. By this means I was enabled to select the more striking facts and conclusions. I had, also, during many years followed a golden rule, namely, that whenever a published fact, a new observation or thought came across me, which was opposed to my general results, to make a memorandum of it without fail and at once; for I had found by experience that such facts and thoughts were far more apt to escape from the memory than favourable ones. Owing to this habit, very few objections were raised against my views which I had not at least noticed and attempted to answer.
  44. I gained much by my delay in publishing from about 1839, when the theory was clearly conceived, to 1859; and I lost nothing by it, for I cared very little whether men attributed most originality to me or Wallace; and his essay no doubt aided in the reception of the theory.
  45. Whenever I have found out that I have blundered, or that my work has been imperfect, and when I have been contemptuously criticised, and even when I have been overpraised, so that I have felt mortified, it has been my greatest comfort to say hundreds of times to myself that “I have worked as hard and as well as I could, and no man can do more than this.”
  46. An unverified hypothesis is of little or no value; but if anyone should hereafter be led to make observations by which some such hypothesis could be established, I shall have done good service, as an astonishing number of isolated facts can be thus connected together and rendered intelligible.
  47. My ‘Descent of Man’ was published in February, 1871. As soon as I had become, in the year 1837 or 1838, convinced that species were mutable productions, I could not avoid the belief that man must come under the same law. Accordingly I collected notes on the subject for my own satisfaction, and not for a long time with any intention of publishing. Although in the ‘Origin of Species’ the derivation of any particular species is never discussed, yet I thought it best, in order that no honourable man should accuse me of concealing my views, to add that by the work “light would be thrown on the origin of man and his history.” It would have been useless and injurious to the success of the book to have paraded, without giving any evidence, my conviction with respect to his origin.
  48. During subsequent years, whenever I had leisure, I pursued my experiments, and my book on ‘Insectivorous Plants’ was published in July 1875—that is, sixteen years after my first observations. The delay in this case, as with all my other books, has been a great advantage to me; for a man after a long interval can criticise his own work, almost as well as if it were that of another person.
What I got out of it
  1. So many nuggets but Darwin’s recipe for learning is gold: concentrated self-study, keeping of a diary/journal, keeping indexed notes of relevant material, seeking to test and destroy beloved concepts by immediately scribbling down ‘unfavorable’ evidence/results and thinking through why this may be right, and learning lessons by heart

Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life by Steve Martin

Summary
  1. A fun and honest recounting of the highs and lows of Steve Martin’s early life and comedic career
Key Takeaways
  1. Spent 18 years in stand up comedy – 10 years learning, 4 years refining and 4 in wild success
  2. Gained the ability to have his mouth in the present and his mind on the future, observing the audience and the past and understanding where to go and when. Enjoyment during performing was rare but after the show had long hours of elation or misery
  3. Was seeking comic originality and fame came as a byproduct
  4. Feels like this is more like a biography than an autobiography as often it feels like these events happened to someone else or that I was in a dream
  5. Jokes are always funniest when played on oneself
  6. His father was physically abusive to Steve and verbally to the rest of the family. His father was tougher on anybody else because he was jealous of Steve as Steve was doing what he had always wanted to do
  7. Steve’s first job was selling guides at Disneyland and this gave him a tremendous sense of independence and confidence. He later became a rope trick performer by studying every nuance of the current main act and mouthing along the lines and imagining that the audience’s laughter was really for him
  8. Realizing that suffering will happen a lot and that it is part of life seems to make it more bearable
  9. Dariel Fitzkee’s Showmanship for Magicians had a tremendous impact on Steve Martin and how he thought about comedy and showmanship
  10. Would record the crowd’s reaction to all his gags and then write down ideas for how to improve every one of them
  11. Credits his naiveté when young to even consider going into comedy without what he says are any talents whatsoever
  12. Early on, at The Birdcage, Steve was able to practice 4-5x per day 6 days per week. He learned timing, poise and how to deal with failure
  13. Over the years, I have learned that there is no harm in charging oneself up with delusions in between periods of valid inspiration
  14. Every new philosophy is good for creativity
  15. Comedy is a distortion of what is happening
  16. Had panic attacks over a 20 year span
  17. Began the phrase “well, excuse me”
  18. The more physically uncomfortable the audience, the bigger the laughs
  19. A valuable tip he got from a great showman was “always look better than the crowd does”
  20. It is possible to will confidence
  21. Steve was a bit of an eccentric, rambler, out-there type comedian who won people over by being different, true and having a unique point of view on things
  22. Much of Steve’s success was due to hard work but luck also played a large role – what he wore, his timing, the environment around him, the culture, his use of visuals, how he sold his albums, etc. weren’t totally thought through all the time but made people curious and pulled them to his shows
  23. He learned never to alienate the audience
  24. Was shocked and elated that he had become the cultural focus. He had come from nothing, from a simple magic act into the country’s most popular comedian. His joy of performing diminished though as it turned from experimentation to a feeling of responsibility to entertain people. Stress and bad reviews got to him and he realized how ephemeral comedy was. Normal conversations were impossible and social rules did not apply to celebrities like him, his privacy was no more
  25. Moved to starring in movies as comedy was really ephemeral and the travel was killing him
  26. His father was never impressed with his accomplishments or success and his mother was mostly concerned about fame, fortune and luxury
  27. Steve noticed in the early 1980s that he wasn’t selling out shows anymore, he had lost touch with why he got into show business in the first place and that night was his last night of stand up
  28. He was able to reconcile the relationship with his parents and his father became less judgmental and more positive on Steve and his career. His father said he was sorry and jealous because Steve did everything he had wanted to do. He was sorry for receiving all the love he had and not being able to return it. Steve responded by saying “I did it for you” rather than the more complicated “I did it because of you”
  29. Moving on and not looking back at all on his stand up career until writing this book was his way of tricking himself that he hadn’t achieved anything and spurred his creativity
What I got out of it
  1. It took Steve Martin a decade or more of pain and struggle he Steve gained confidence and comedic acclaim. He was willing to put himself out there night after and slowly but surely learned how to become a great showman and what kind of comedian he wanted to become