Jan 3 2017

Reboot – The Fountainhead

Reboot – The Fountainhead

Happy New Year!  Every few years or so, especially after a challenging stretch at work, I’ve needed to reboot myself.  This is one of those times, and I will try to write a handful of blog posts on different aspects of that.

The first one is about a great book.  I just read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead for (I think) the 5th time.  It’s far and away my favorite book and has been extremely influential on my life.  I think of it (and any of my favorite books) as an old friend that I can turn to in order to help center myself when needed as an entrepreneur and as a human.  The last time I read it was over 10 years ago, which is too long to go without seeing one of your oldest friends, isn’t it?  While the characters in the book by definition are somewhat extreme, the book’s guiding principles are great.  I’ve always enjoyed this book far more than Atlas Shrugged, Rand’s more popular novel, which I think is too heavy-handed, and her much shorter works, Anthem and We The Living, which are both good but clearly not as evolved in her thinking.

As an entrepreneur, how does The Fountainhead influence me?  Here are a few examples.

  • When I think about The Fountainhead, the first phrase that pops into my head is “the courage of your convictions.”  Well, there’s no such thing as being a successful entrepreneur without having the courage of your convictions.  If entrepreneurs took “no” for an answer the first 25 times they heard it, there would be no Apple, no Facebook, no Google, but there’d also be no Ford, no GE, and no AT&T
  • One great line from the book is that “the essence of man is his creative capacity.”  Our whole culture at Return Path, and one that I’m intensely proud of, is founded on trust and transparency.  We believe that if we trust employees with their time and resources, and they know everything going on in the company, that they will unleash their immense creative capacity on the problems to be solved for the business and for customers
  • Another central point of influence for me from the book is that while learning from others is important, conventional wisdom only gets you far in entrepreneurship.  A poignant moment in the book is when the main character, Howard Roark, responds to a question from another character along the lines of “What do you think of me?”  The response is “I don’t think of you.”  Leading a values-driven life, and running a values-driven existence, where the objective isn’t to pander to the opinion of others but to fill my life (and hopefully the company’s life) with things that make me/us happy and successful is more important to me than simply following conventional wisdom at every turn.  Simply put, we like to do our work, our way, noting that there are many basics where reinventing the wheel is just dumb
  • Related, the book talks about the struggle between first-handers and second-handers.  “First-handers use their own minds.  They do not copy or obey, although they do learn from others.”  All innovators, inventors, and discoverers of new knowledge are first-handers.  Roark’s speech at the Cortland Homes trial is a pivotal moment in the book, when he says, “Throughout the centuries, there were men who took first steps down new roads armed with nothing but their own vision.  The great creators — the thinkers, the artists, the scientists, the inventors — stood alone against the men of their time.  Every great new thought was opposed.”  In other words, first-handers, critical thinkers, are responsible for human progress.  Second-handers abdicate the responsibility of independent judgment, allowing the thinking of others to dominate their lives.  They are not thinkers, they are not focused on reality, they cannot and do not build
  • The “virtue of selfishness” is probably the essence of Rand’s philosophy.  And it sounds horrible.  Who likes to be around selfish people?  The definition of selfish is key, though.  It doesn’t inherently mean that one is self-centered or lacks empathy for others.  It just means one stays true to one’s values and purpose and potentially that one’s actions start with oneself.  I’d argue that selfishness on its own has nothing to do with whether someone is a good person or a good friend.  For example, most of us like to receive gifts.  But people give gifts for many different reasons – some people like to give gifts because they like to curry favor with others, other people like to give gifts because it makes them feel good.  That’s inherently selfish.  But it’s not a bad thing at all
  • Finally, I’d say another area where The Fountainhead inspires me as a CEO is in making me want to be closer to the action.  Howard Roark isn’t an ivory tower designer of an architect.  He’s an architect who wants to create structures that suit their purpose, their location, and their materials.  He only achieves that purpose by having as much primary data on all three of those things as possible.  He has skills in many of the basic construction trades that are involved in the realization of his designs – that makes him a better designer.  Similarly, the more time I spend on the front lines of our business and closer to customers, the better job I can do steering the ship

One area where I struggle a little bit to reconcile the brilliance of The Fountainhead with the practice of running a company is around collaboration.  It’s one thing to talk about artistic design being the product of one man’s creativity, and that such creativity can’t come from collaboration or compromise.  It’s another thing to talk about that in the context of work that inherently requires many people working on the same thing at the same time in a generalized way.  Someday, I hope to really understand how to apply this point not to entrepreneurship, but to the collaborative work of a larger organization.  I know firsthand and have also read that many, many entrepreneurs have cited Ayn Rand as a major influence on them over the years, so I’m happy to have other entrepreneurs comment here and let me know how they think about this particular point.

It feels a little shallow to try to apply a brilliant 700 page book to my life’s work in 1,000 words.  But if I have to pick one small point to illustrate the connection at the end, it’s this.  I realize I haven’t blogged much of late, and part of my current reboot is that I want to start back on a steady diet of blogging weekly.  Why?  I get a lot out of writing blog posts, and I do them much more for myself than for those who reads them.  That’s a small example of the virtue of selfishness at work.