Thrivner Book Club: Born to Run

Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen
By: Christopher McDougall

born to run

Born to Run, written by Christopher McDougall, is a story of the Tarahumara (a reclusive Mexican tribe who may hold the secrets of being an ultimate ultra runner); tales of the nation’s most elite ultramarathoners; the race they ran to see who was the best of the best; and the human spirit. We chose this book because of the underlying themes about how far people are willing to push themselves and what the driving force behind that determination is.

We focused one part of our discussion on McDougall’s quote, “You don’t have to be fast. But you’d better be fearless” (2009, 61), and whether the notion of being either fast or fearless was the correct comparison. We viewed the concept of long-distance running in terms of self-awareness, and more specifically in the form of noticing resistance to running or learning to run. People tend to view long distance/ultra running as something that people don’t strive for (because who really wants to run 50-100 miles?), and that felt like it rang true for the runners profiled in this book. Most of them just set out to run as a way to find a sense of peace or to get away from life for a bit; the race entries seemed to come as an afterthought, as though none of them really set out to brand themselves as “ultra runners.” In our line of work, we go into a lot of projects with a general idea of what the end result should be, but not a lot of direction on how to get there. So we push forward, knowing that we’ll get where we need to be in the end, even if it takes the whole process to figure out exactly how we’re going to do it.

We also discussed the importance of personal responsibility in running, and that much of success may be due to self-motivation. This then sparked that question, “Does external motivation really have a place in running?” Sure, it’s nice to have people cheering you on while you run, but at the end of the day, only you can make the choice to finish the race or not.

One of the biggest takeaways for us was the generally excellent sportsmanship of the profiled runners. McDougall often described runners who were smiling while in the middle of a race or who were encouraging fellow racers to keep going when they were struggling. This brought us to the quote, “It’s not about the destination; it’s about the journey” (Emerson), which felt like the actual point behind this book. Though it is important to finish what you start and to finish it well, it is often just as important to maintain integrity throughout.

McDougall, Christopher. Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. Vintage, 2011.

Thrivner Book Club | Enlightenment Now

Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress
Steven Pinker

We chose Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress by Steven Pinker because we were curious about Pinker’s primary argument: Reason, science, and humanism – key themes of the Enlightenment now – lead to progress. Pinker’s case for progress rests primarily on descriptive and visual statistics organized by topic areas, each of which is well-worth reading.

However, we ended up being more interested in three side discussions in the book. The first involved media cynicism, where Borstein and Rosenberg theorize that the Vietnam and Watergate eras mark the media’s shift from “glorifying leaders to checking their power,” all of which now shows up as cynicism (Pinker 2018, 50). We discussed competing theories, as well as the implications for society if this theory holds. The second side discussion was on the topic of mitigating climate change, with Pinker’s suggestions including, inter alia, carbon pricing, nuclear energy, and mild geoengineering. We speculate what might be next when/if these solutions do not work. Our third discussion touched on society’s perceived hostility to science, and Pinker’s assertion that it may be because people view science as a cause for genocide and war, or because it may be a threat to the moral and spiritual health of our nation (Pinker 2018, 389). We discussed this topic on its merits and considered mitigating approaches.

The case for reason, science, humanism, and progress was interesting, but our bigger take-aways were: the frame for humanity’s progress has to be longer-term and larger-scale; a positive change over time is different than a fast-rate of change; and the need for systematic attention to the individual- and community-level impacts, effects, and progress.

We viewed these points from our team’s shared interest in futures, and how we can implement more of what we know about the past into shaping the potentialities for society’s future.

Pinker, Steven. Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. Viking, 2018.

Thrivner Book Club | Deep Work

Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World
Cal Newport

Deep Work CoverCal Newport is a Computer Science Professor at Georgetown University, and the author of multiple books including So Good They Can’t Ignore You and Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. In Deep Work Newport argues that we as people are in a constant tug of war between shallow and deep work; and in our current society, shallow work is winning.

Deep Work: Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate (2).

Shallow Work: Non-cognitively demanding, logistical style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create much new value in the world and are easy to replicate (6).

Per Newport’s definitions, Deep Work is more dependent on a state of mind than the content of the work. He offers a number of strategies and suggestions for how to carve out time in your day to allow for this state of mind. Many of the people cited as examples of deep workers are well-established writers or artists who have the ability to cut themselves off from the world. However, many professionals don’t have that luxury. The focus of Thrivner’s discussion surrounded how to apply these principals in everyday life for everyday people. These ideas are also at the forefront as we develop software, including Arena, Momentum, and Chart.

In simple terms, deep work is hard while shallow work is easy. As a general rule for deciding where a task falls on this spectrum, Newport suggests asking yourself the following question:

How long would it take (in months) to train a smart, recent college graduate with no specialized training in my field to complete this task (229)?

This question forces you to think carefully about the amount of time and effort a task or project might take. The idea behind this question is a key part of Arena in that each project is sized to reflect the overall effort and impact. Customers tell us that this visualization is a game-changer. No longer do they work in endless lists where everything looks the same because they can clearly differentiate between the small, simple projects and the more impactful, audacious ones.

Prioritizing Deep Work

Newport implores his readers to “treat shallow work with suspicion because its damage is often vastly underestimated and its importance vastly overestimated (221).” Into every schedule some administrivia must fall but carving out time for deep work is typically the path to learning new things, advancement, promotion, new products, and more. In Arena, deep work can be identified as high effort and high impact (e.g., very big bubbles!) and prioritized using the Must, Should, Could designations.

productivity app

Planning for Deep Work

One surprising suggestion from Deep Work is to plan out every minute of your day. Newport talks about how many people’s initial reaction to this idea is that it’s very robotic and will severely limit creativity or inspiration. He argues that there is often too much emphasis on inspiration and that the deep work that comes after inspiration is more important for adding value. He also clarifies that the goal isn’t to conform to a rigid schedule or to fill your entire day with deep work; it is also important to add in planned fun activities and breaks. By actively planning out the entire day and giving every minute of your day a job, you allow yourself to commit to the work more fully while limiting distractions. With the calendar view, Arena users can clearly see calendar commitments (e.g., school drop-offs, staff meetings, business lunches) and plan when each of their projects will be completed that day. There’s no more wondering what to do when because the day is planned. This provides tremendous peace of mind. If the plan goes awry, it’s easy to adjust with a couple of taps. Mentally, that feels so much better. The human brain isn’t great at storing and managing meetings and to do’s, which causes so much stress. By offloading projects and tasks into Arena, planning each day, and then working the plan, users report ease, productivity, and, yes, deep work.

Another way Newport recommends to help limit distractions is by batching similar things into more generic task blocks to help limit task switching and decrease a phenomena described by Sophie Leroy called attention residue. David Allen also recommends this, and many Arena users employ context-specific bubbles that include tasks to be completed @Home or @Soccer Practice or @Phone Calls. By planning a few, similar tasks to complete during her son’s soccer practice, Emily, an Arena user, reported she was disappointed when the season ended. “I really liked planning a few things to do on my phone during soccer practice each week. Making use of that otherwise lost time made a big difference in my productivity. This was the first year I felt the 10-week season was too short.”

Tracking Progress

Newport talks about two types of measures – lag measures and lead measures – which is an idea co-opted from The 4 Disciplines of Execution. He discusses how lag measures describe the ultimate goal and often come too late to change behavior, whereas lead measures “measure the new behaviors that will drive success on the lag measures.” For his career, a good lag measure is the number of papers he publishes in a year, and a good lead measure is “time spent in a state of deep work dedicated toward your wildly important goal (publishing papers).” The idea of being able to track progress in the form of a lead measure is inherent in Arena. Many users use the points to understand what’s typical for them (e.g., their usual velocity). In a future version of the software, there may be encouragement to press for more in a given day or a warning that too much has been planned. For now, users report satisfaction looking back at their green bars and seeing their accomplishments stack up over time.

Newport finishes by acknowledging that “The deep life, of course, is not for everybody. It requires hard work and drastic changes to your habits… But if you’re willing to sidestep these comforts and fears, and instead struggle to deploy your mind to its fullest capacity to create things that matter, then you’ll discover, as others have before you, that depth generates a life rich with productivity and meaning (262).”

Newport, Cal. Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. Grand Central Publishing, 2016.

Thrivner Book Club | The Four Tendencies

The Four Tendencies
By: Gretchen Rubin

The Four Tendencies is Gretchen Rubin’s exploration into how people respond to expectations, both internal and external. She categorizes people into four main tendencies: Upholder, Obliger, Questioner, and Rebel. Rubin asserts that identification of a person’s tendency will enable that person to live a more successful life, as s/he will be able to tailor approaches to work and relationships to the characteristics of the tendency. Likewise, knowing the tendencies of those around you makes understanding why people act the way they do easier and lays a path for how best to interact with them.

The construct of the tendencies comes across as a fairly simple assumption; the notion there are only four options to describe the ways in which people react to internal and external expectations feels unfair given the complexity of human nature. Our discussion touched on whether or not a particular environment could cause someone to react in a manner not consistent with his or her tendency. We also talked about how frame of mind could alter responses. While the in-depth look at how these factors impact tendency is not very apparent in the book, we came to the conclusion that, like many things in life, the unknown can always throw you for a loop.

Additionally, we discussed the value of knowing the tendency of future hires for our company. There is utility in understanding where people are coming from, which could allow a manager to provide the support an employee may need in order to do his or her best work. The more you know, the more you can help someone.


Rubin, Gretchen. 
The Four Tendencies. Harmony, 2017.

Thrivner Book Club | The Innovators and Leonardo da Vinci

The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution
Leonardo da Vinci
By Walter Isaacson

The Innovators and Leonardo da Vinci, both written by Walter Isaacson, focus on the overlap between art and science, as well as reality and imagination. Both works also show the reliance of society on innovation, and how the receptiveness of invention is often as important as the invention itself.

In The Innovators, Isaacson focuses on the importance of teamwork and the ability to flesh out new ideas while also building on pre-existing ones. Innovation itself tends to serve as the intersection of two things; in this case (and in Leonardo da Vinci), it seems to be the intersection of humanity and technology. The willingness of society to accept, understand, and consume the unknown technologies and devices was in some cases as important as the invention itself. The case was the same for Leonardo da Vinci, whose artistic ability was the base for his scientific inventions. Even though most of da Vinci’s creations never came to fruition, it is clear from the intricate drawings and descriptions that have survived that his ideas were far ahead of his time.

Our (Thrivner’s) conversation focused on the importance of an innovator being able to take the leap, and bring their ideas to the forefront. We also discussed the role of the manager in these scenarios, and what might happen if the manager becomes the innovator. This particular intersection is where the importance of team becomes the most evident. If there is no team to pick up the manager role and support the innovator, there is the possibility that the innovation will fall short, unable to meet all expectations.

The main focus of both of these novels, as well as our discussion, is that the intersection of creativity and science has always been at the forefront of some of the world’s greatest inventions. However, the largest roadblock for moving these from idea to innovation is (and may always be) humanity itself.

 

 

Isaacson, Walter. Leonardo Da Vinci. Simon and Schuster, 2017.
Isaacson, Walter. The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. Simon and Schuster, 2014.

 

Thrivner Book Club | Braving the Wilderness

Braving the Wilderness
By: Brené Brown

Brene Brown’s Braving the Wilderness takes a look at true belonging, and what it means in our current social and cultural landscape. Brown touches on the level of vulnerability this requires, as you may find yourself alone in your beliefs, even when you are surrounded by people. Brown also points out that fitting in is not the same as belonging, and it is only when you are being true to who you are will you actually feel like you belong.

Our conversation touched on the whether our company has a culture of fitting in or a culture of true belonging. We believe in the value of true belonging, as our company aims to create a world in which everyone thrives. If you cannot fully be yourself, you will struggle to thrive. We discussed instances when we as professionals stood “in the wilderness,” what that looked and felt like for us as individuals and as a company, and what we can learn from those experiences. We also took a look at how Brown presents data, and what we, as scientists and communicators, can learn from her storytelling.

Braving the Wilderness helped remind us of how we can recognize, respect, and cheer vulnerability in each other. This is particularly crucial for us in how we relate to ourselves, to each other, to customers, and to would-be customers.

Thrivner Book Club | Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman

Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman
By Yvon Chouinard

book coverYvon Chouinard is the founder of Patagonia, an outdoor gear and clothing company. Chouinard began making his own gear for rock climbing back in the 1970s, and quickly began selling it to his friends, before expanding further to a larger (and larger) market. Chouinard touts himself as a “reluctant businessman,” and carries this theme throughout every story and lesson in the book. His philosophy is that employees should have the freedom to take off in the middle of the day to go surfing, as long as you show that you trust all of their work will be completed (a “results only” work environment). We chose this book to highlight that philosophy, as it is one that we also subscribe to. The ability to fit your work schedule around your life, and not your life around your work, allows people to work when it is not only most convenient, but also at times when they may be more productive.  

Patagonia also strives to be a very environmentally-friendly company, often going to great lengths to create a sustainable product that leaves behind only a small impact. We related to this aspect of his business model, as many of our philosophies match Chouinard’s especially in terms of growth, reinvesting in the company, and putting forward a company that embodies who its employees are.

Despite his life-long reluctance to be a businessman, Chouinard has built an incredibly successful company, and seems to have a solid business plan that not only fits the company, but also the employees. And while the level of freedom that the Patagonia employees maintain certainly seems unattainable in most environments, we have been fortunate that a similar philosophy has worked for us for over a decade. We believe in the importance of a flexible schedule to fit our employees lives, and have found that the results of this business model are beneficial to both the company and the individuals.

 

Chouinard, Yvon. Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman. Penguin Books, 2006.

Thrivner Book Club | Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action

Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action
By: Simon Sinek

book coverYou need to make a decision. You do the research. You gather all the available data. You analyze it, discuss it with colleagues, focus groups, friends, and strangers. You gather all the feedback and viewpoints. And, finally, you feel prepared. You push the button knowing that you will succeed, for you have done all the right things.

And yet you fail.

Why?

Simon Sinek would argue that you failed because you started your decision-making effort with what you need to do rather than with why you need to do it. In his book, Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, Sinek argues that organizations and leaders who start with what they are doing rather than with why they are doing it are going about their business backwards and are ultimately not going to achieve the level of success they desire. These organizations do not necessarily fail because their products or services are inferior or costs higher; in fact, in some instances, a company with a superior quality product offered at a lower price point than its competitors may still lose market share. How can that be possible?

Sinek tells us that the answer is simple: Organizations that inspire their customers with why they do business will have loyal customers willing to be inconvenienced by higher cost, longer lead times, fewer features. Those that market based on what they offer will have loyal customers only so long as they continue to offer more and better features and services at lower cost.

The other benefit to starting with why: Personal fulfillment and increased morale. Sinek argues that an employee who understands why the organization is doing its work, creating its product, or offering its services will feel s/he has a purpose in the work and thus contribute at high levels. Does this argument ring true for you? It does for us.

Thrivner offers products and services to its clients, while also providing benefits and flexibility to its employees. What distinguishes us is that we create those products and services and offer benefits and flexibility to our employees to fulfill our reason for existing: to create a world in which everyone thrives. We realized through our discussion of Start with Why that Sinek’s approach is, for Thrivner, the natural order of things.

And our clients and employees benefit.

 

Sinek, Simon. Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action. Portfolio, 2011.

Thrivner Book Club | Angel: How to Invest in Technology Startups – Timeless Advice from an Angel Investor Who Turned $100,000 into $100,000,000

Angel: How to Invest in Technology Startups – Timeless Advice from an Angel Investor Who Turned $100,000 into $100,000,000 
By Jason Calacanis

book coverJason Calacanis is an entrepreneur, angel investor, the host of This Week in Startups podcast and, now, author. He opens with the criticisms often lobbed his way—that he’s a “fraud,” “a brilliant hype man,” that he’s “lucky” —and he readily agrees with all of it. He’s a C- student from Brooklyn who created success in Silicon Valley through investing and now he’s sharing how he did it. Rather than pulling up the ladder behind him, Calacanis draws readers a map, shares the methodologies that brought him success, and points out the pitfalls. The book, while a fast, entertaining, and useful read, isn’t all virtue: It also settles old scores and absolutely will help his business and his deal flow.

Calacanis argues that angel investing is a great gig: For the cost of an investment, angel investors get to engage with super-smart entrepreneurs and their world-changing ideas. They get periodic intellectual workouts and can then send the founders off to do all of the hard work. What’s not to love about that? According to Calacanis, an angel investor needs to be located in Silicon Valley (see Chapter 5), have $510,000 to invest, the ability to lose every cent of each investment (e.g., a bigger portfolio or stash of cash elsewhere), and a lot of risk tolerance.

Two concepts in the book generated particularly-interesting discussions for our company. In the first concept, Calacanis discusses becoming an angel investor with little or no money and instead adding value to a company in exchange for basis points. We realized that we could be providing advice and guidance to third-wave companies—companies connecting our physical and digital worlds in a way that often requires updates to laws and regulations to keep pace and make room for these revolutionary ideas (e.g., Uber and Airbnb).

In the second concept, Calacanis poses questions to founders that we related to Thrivner in general and our software products in particular:

  • Why has this founder chosen this business? We are our target customer and we developed Arena because the software on the market does not adequately differentiate or motive us to complete some of our usual projects – ‘solve for world peace’ and ‘pick up toothpaste.’ Based on decades of experience and the latest research, Arena gives users a way to see and manage their day that’s unlike anything else on the market. With Arena, you can have a better day!
  • How committed is this founder? We are completely committed to a world in which everyone thrives. We make choices daily, hourly to ensure that outcome for ourselves, our employees and our customers.
  • What are this founder’s chances of succeeding in this business – and in life? Our company has thrived for twelve years and provides the base from which we are launching Arena and our other software products.
  • What does winning look like in terms of revenue and my return? This question is not applicable because our company is not seeking investment.

Calacanis concludes by admonishing the reader that “life is random, but luck isn’t” and implores readers to “do the work”: Angel investors must network, must be a resource in the industry, must research emerging markets, research possible competitors, understand new ideas and the nature of innovation, provide value to their companies, and learn lessons about what worked when and what didn’t. If you do that, if you do the work, invest the cash and tolerate the risk for over a decade, Calacanis believes you’ll have success.

Calacanis, Jason. Angel: How to Invest in Technology Startups – Timeless Advice from an Angel Investor Who Turned $100,000 into $100,000,000. HarperBusiness, 2017.

Thrivner Book Club | Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products

Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products
By Nir Eyal 

book coverEyal’s focus in this book is the Hooked Model, which is a four-step process (Trigger, Action, Variable Reward, and Investment)  for how to create a product that builds a habit. We read this book with a purely self-serving intent; Thrivner is creating an app that will build good habits for users. There is a fine line inherent in the habit loop in that habits can be either good or bad, and Eyal makes it very clear throughout the book that developers must always maintain a level of awareness and responsibility for their product and how it may affect users (which we fully intend to do).

While Hooked focuses on Eyal’s model and what drives people to use certain apps, our conversation drifted into what apps we use individually, and how we use them. Questions such as, “What apps do you use daily?” and “What’s on your home screen?” were asked of everyone, and we discussed what drove us to these apps. This segue provided us with an interesting look at how we each use apps, and whether we are more driven by internal or external triggers. Additionally, we examined how we felt about being triggered and the ways often-used software has evolved their triggering over time to encourage more and more engagement.

Eyal’s Hooked Model provides developers with a tried-and-true path to developing a successful, habit-forming product. Our developers will maintain a high level awareness about how our products are used; we will not cause harm to our users. After all, while we each place a different value on the apps we keep on our home screens, we are all hooked on using them.

Eyal, Nir. Hooked: How to build habit-forming products. Penguin, 2014.