Notes from What You Do is Who You Are by Ben Horowitz
Ben Horowitz is one of my favorite authors because he finds a way to synthesize the world in a new way. I was a huge fan of his first book and wrote a pretty comprehensive review that you can find here. His second book, What You Do Is Who You Are deals with creating a corporate culture.
Instead of only writing from his own viewpoint, however, Ben examines the life of Toussaint Louverture, the Samurai, Genghis Khan, and Shaka Senghor and shows us how we can apply their lessons in our own lives. What follows is my personal notes and takeaways from the book.
Creating Culture – the Toussaint Louverture method
I was really intrigued by the section talking about creating shocking rules. Basically, Toussaint implemented rules so shocking that everyone had to question them before accepting. By forcing people to ask why, Toussaint made sure that everyone remembered the answer. If the rule isn’t shocking enough people will take it for granted and the true meaning will be lost.
This reminds me of my time in school. The most dangerous questions on quizzes and tests were the ones that appeared easy while studying. The answer seemed so obvious that I didn’t need to question how to get there, but when the proof appeared on the test I almost always blanked. In order to prevent that from happening, Ben says you need to have four components of your shocking rule.
It must be memorable
It must raise the question “Why?”
Its cultural impact must be straightforward
People must encounter the rule almost daily.
The Way of the Warrior – Bushido and the Samurai
I was really struck by the chapter on Japanese Samurai and the Bushido (way of the warrior). The samurai had their own culture codified within a code of action. They believed in virtues instead of values. Anyone can say a value, but to really pursue a virtue you had to act.
There was a really interesting quote: “The extent of one’s courage or cowardice cannot be measured in ordinary times. All is revealed when something happens.”
The part that really stuck out to me was the section on the importance of death. There are two key quotations.
If you realize that the life that is here today is not certain on the morrow, then when you take your orders from your employer, and when you look in on your parents, you will have the sense that this may be the last time—so you cannot fail to become truly attentive to your employer and your parents.
The idea is to take care of your public and private duties day and night, and then whenever you have free time when your mind is unoccupied, you think of death, bringing it to mind attentively.
This really resonates with how I wish I was living my life. People often talk about dying in the sense that they would change their lives. What would happen if you knew you would die in 6 months? Would you live the same way you do now?
Most people would say no. They’d go on vacation, they’d quit their jobs and do drugs, etc. But some people would say they’d call their parents and tell their best friends how much they love them. I think the value of thinking about death is somewhere in there.
There’s nothing stopping us today from doing some of these things. Why wait to tell someone you love them? There’s nothing holding us back from doing it today. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to not live with regret, but most of my thoughts have dealt with long-term regret. I haven’t given short-term regret as much thought.
I guess I take it for granted that friends, family, and I are going to wake up healthy and ok tomorrow. But freak accidents happen all the time, and if someone is gone you don’t get a second chance.
On a less morbid note, thinking about death helps me really see how much of a waste some things I do are. I only get one shot at every day, and I feel like I don’t make the most of it. Am I proud to put my name on everything I publish? If my work was to be shown to 100 other professionals, would I be proud to claim it as mine? For some of it I’d say yes, but I can’t say that I would be for all of it.
If I treat everything I do as a first and last impression, maybe I’d do a better job. Something to think about, and something to work on.
Stories and sayings define cultures. I didn’t realize this until I read more into this section, but I definitely agree from firsthand experience. I was on the tennis team at UChicago and over time you hear the same stories told again and again. Each person on the team had their own kind of personality story – the story that was told to younger players so that got a sense of who they’re dealing with.
Over time, the stories about the key matches and key players defined the culture of our team. I don’t think we ever used these stories to revert a changing culture, but I could definitely see how they worked to reinforce the one we currently had. For a new company or a new team, crafting and retelling the core stories are important for creating the culture.
The Way of the Warrior a Different Way: Shaka Senghor
This is one of those sections where you really have to buy the book to get the full impression. Ben recounts entire sections of Shaka’s story which were both interesting and eye-opening. I don’t know much about prison, and if you’re reading this blog post you probably don’t either. Through Ben, Shaka explains how you learn to find your people in prison and how important joining a gang is.
My favorite quote from the beginning of the story when Shaka first goes to state prison: ‘If this is about survival, can you make that call? You don’t know who the fuck you are in prison until you face something that makes you fearful or courageous.’
There were five gangs in the Michigan prison that were oriented around some kind of worship – Shaka joined the Melanics which taught principles derived from the Black Panthers and Malcolm X. They were supposed to be protecting one another, but the leaders were profiting off someone in the group because he was insecure. By invoking their own principles and the Socratic method, Shaka slowly gained leadership roles within the gang.
He began reading a lot in the prison and changed after reading The Autobiography of Malcom X. He realized that what they did in their group had ramifications for the whole prison environment. When people left the prison, they took what they learned with them. It took nine years, but he was able to figure out how to decide how he wanted to live his life and disseminated that to his members.
The Melanic code revolved around being responsible for their fellow members. You had to come to the aid of any member in need; his beef became your beef. A member could become unworthy if he didn’t come to the aid of another and would therefore lose his protection. Because they were dealing with low levels of literacy it was difficult to get people to understand the culture, so they hosted weekly study sessions where they would read books and talk about it.
There were two qualities Shaka looked for in selecting new members: you either had to be willing to serve a life sentence for whatever they asked you to do, or be willing to die. Once a member, he expected them to carry themselves well and didn’t allow them to use profanity or smoke with the membership badge on. They didn’t want to show a lack of intelligence or self-control. They had a small gang, but when the fighting started 100% of the Melanics showed up while 80% of the other gang would abandon their group.
That’s the kind of loyalty I want. It reminds me of Axe Capital in Billion. While there was fighting within the firm, when push comes to shove it was Axe versus the world. Why would you want to work anywhere else?
Eventually, Shaka realized he wanted more from himself and his members. It wasn’t enough to be savages, he wanted them to be people too. So the Melanics had to break bread together, discuss the books distributed for reading together, and created a culture so that when they went back to the community they could fix it for other kids.
Shaka Senghor Applied
Ben had two key takeaways from Shaka’s story:
Your own perspective on the culture is not that relevant. The only releavant question is, What must employees do to survive and succeed in your organization? What behaviors get them included in, or excluded from, the power base? What gets them ahead? They will adjust to conform to these.
You must start from first principles. Every ecosystem has a default culture – don’t blindly adopt it.
Ben believes the best way to understand the culture of a company is not by asking old employees, but by asking the new employees. First impressions for employees last a long time and they’re extremely impressionable. The culture they learn is not only important for the company but for the employee’s life. People spend most of their waking life in the office at their job, and what they do in the office becomes who they are. Office culture is highly infectious.
Genghis Khan – Master of Inclusion
This was another chapter where I learned a lot. I learned about Genghis Khan in history classes in school, but I definitely forgot a lot of the story. Not only did I re-learn much of the history of Genghis and his rise to power, but Ben tells the story through the lens of culture-defining moments which is definitely not how it’s taught in school.
Every company and almost every country in the West likes to consider themselves meritocracies. We’ve long recognized that it’s in the best interest of everyone for the best to lead. However, these ideals are often not realized. Genghis’s army was far more meritocratic than any of his contemporaries, but they still fell short as he bequeathed large lands to his family over others. Most importantly, though, he allowed common soldiers to become generals. By giving people the belief that they too could lead, he inspired a greater level of effort and loyalty from every soldier.
This is something that I’ve experienced in my work in private equity. While it’s important to think about the leaders and their motivations in a company, the average employee is just as (if not more) important for the success of the company. In order to get the most out of every worker, they have to believe there is a chance for promotion and advancement in a company. In order to do this, it’s important to have well-defined roles and expectations for each position. If the rate of advancement is uncertain and the metrics are undefined, people cannot be expected to reach the stated goals of the company. By giving people a path to advancement, you motivate the right people and the unsuccessful will self-select out of the company.
The prior sections were the main takeaways I had from the book, but that doesn’t mean those were the only important points Ben made. There were additional sections on edge cases within companies that dealt with how to manage different types of employees, transgressions, and conflicts. They were interesting but for the moment inapplicable to my life as I don’t run an organization that requires those types of decisions, but it’s worth looking into if you do.
There was a really interesting point made in the ‘Final Thoughts’ chapter on trust.
Are you an honest person? I’ll be you thought for a moment, then answered “Yes.” Now, who else do you know who’s honest? I’ll be that was much harder to answer. How can everyone believe that he or she is honest yet have such difficulty identifying other straight shooters?
The truth about telling the truth is that it doesn’t’ come easy. It’s not natural. What’s natural is telling people what they want to hear. That makes everybody feel good… at least for the moment Telling the truth requires courage. Less remarked on – but equally important, for our purposes – is that it requires judgement and skill.
It reminded me of all the studies asking people where they thought they belong in comparison to the average on a multitude of measurements – attractiveness, driving, etc. Researchers consistently find that the average responses of people indicate that they are above average. Either they are consistently selecting a more exceptional portion of the population or people consistently overestimate themselves. I believe it to be more of the latter.
This is something I really want to think about moving forward. Where’s the line between telling the honest truth and being hurtful to people? In a business it makes sense to be straightforward with a colleague or subordinate if they are hurting the company, but what happens in friendships? If someone is in a relationship that you don’t think will be good for them in the long-run, how do you tell them in the most beneficial way? Telling the friend that you don’t like their partner causes all sorts of defensiveness and can put you at odds when you really only have their best interests in mind.
Overall, this was a very easy but informative read. Ben is a master of synthesizing fields in an easily digestible way. If you had to choose between reading this book and The Hard Thing About Hard Things I would suggesting reading the latter first, but this was a great follow-up. You can find the book on Amazon here.