All of us enter seasons, from time to time, when we feel we have lost our way. I have been in one of those seasons lately. My involvement in my last startup came to a turbulent, unexpected, and deeply disorienting end a few months ago. Add in a cross-country move, the alienation imposed by COVID19, and the unraveling of American democracy, and the result is an existential sense of dislocation.
Fortunately, my personal journey is hardly unique. This midlife disorientation is an almost universal part of the human experience, and some wise and good writers have done us the great service of acting as guides. Most of my reading list this month reflects time I have spent sitting at their feet.
Crossing the Unknown Sea, David Whyte
I first encountered David Whyte in Jerry Colonna’s book Reboot, which I read last month. The notion of a poet who wrote about work caught my attention. I am so glad it did; this is one of the most beautiful and powerful books I have read in a long time. The prose is consistently gorgeous. This is one of those rare books I will return to again and again, just to savor the majestic beauty of individual sentences.
This was exactly the right book for me at this time in my life. Whyte writes of his own sense of dislocation, which led him to follow an inner call away from organizational leadership to pursue his dream of becoming a poet.
Whyte cuts right to the heart of the midlife passage, with all its profound questions about identity and purpose. For example, he writes,
To have even the least notion of what we want to do in life is an enormous step in and of itself, and it is silver, gold, the moon, and the stars to those who struggle for the merest glimmer of what they want or what they are suited to.
He also captures our deepest yearnings for a life half-glimpsed beyond the horizon:
Some have experienced fulfillment for only a few brief hours early on in their work lives and then measured everything, secretly, against it since.
I underlined dozens of such passages as I went, each of which sang to me.
Whyte recogizes that the pursuits of good work and good lives are inseparable. He emphasizes the nobility and glory in good work, validating our yearning for it. Yet he also recognizes the immensity of the challenge to find good work; it is a journey and a pilgrimage, not a destination, and “there is almost no life a human being can construct for themselves where they are not wrestling with something difficult.”
Perhaps the best we can do is learn to dwell in the deepest parts of ourselves, to listen to the quiet voice within that pleads to be heard but is so often drowned out by our ceaseless activity. To be truly alive, we must learn to live at what he calls our cliff edge, that dangerous but beckoning horizon we often fear to approach.
Whyte ultimately views the pursuit of good work as a living conversation between ourselves and the world. It is always a negotiation, always a mutual search and accomodation. You cannot find a better book to guide you into that conversation.
Essentials, David Whyte
I was so enraptured by the first chapters of Crossing the Unknown Sea that I immediately ordered several more of Whyte’s books. The first was Essentials, a slim, pocket-sized volume of his best poems. The economy of his poetry stands in contrast to his rich prose, but it is perhaps even more powerful—a concentrated dose of all his heart and insight. Nearly every poem hit me with tremendous force.
Many of these poems articulate every step of the midlife passage, every hidden thought I have struggled to find my own words for. “Sweet Darkness” beautifully captures both the heartbreak and the hope of this passage. I hesitate to do violence to the poem by only quoting part of it, but you can read the entire thing here:
Time to go into the dark
where the night has eyes
to recognize its own.
There you can be sure
you are not beyond love.
The dark will be your home
The night will give you a horizon
further than you can see.
My throat also caught at Mameen, which crystallized my experiences of failure into something I can treasure:
Recall the way you are all possibilities
you can see and how you live best
as an appreciator of horizons
whether you reach them or not.
Admit that once you have got up
from your chair and opened the door,
once you have walked out into the clear air
toward that edge and taken the path up high
beyond the ordinary you have become
the privileged and the pilgrim,
the one who will tell the story
and the one, coming back from the mountain
who helped to make it.
So many other poems touch on other related aspects of this journey through lostness and renewal. Equally powerful are the handful of love poems, which evoked a bright and deep appreciation for my wife as I read them. There is little more I can say, as the poems need to speak for themselves.
If I was stranded on a deserted island, Essentials is now among the books I would want with me. I have begun memorizing my favorite poems so I can always have them at hand.
P.S. Whyte is also a wonderful speaker. I enjoyed this webinar, which speaks to the pain and alienation of our COVID19 era.
Given, Wendell Berry
I do not read poetry very often, but I picked up this volume years ago after a friend recommended I try Berry. I rediscovered it on my bookshelf one evening recently when I was feeling restless. Although it did not hit me with the force of Whyte’s poems, I did enjoy it.
In addition to being a poet, novelist, and essayist, Berry is a farmer and environmental activist. His writing has an earthy, simple goodness to it, evoking my memories of visiting my grandparents as a child on their small family farm. These are poems about birds and flowers, hills and streams, the changing of the seasons. They are intimately tied not just to landscape in general, but to specific places. Berry celebrated the local, which is perhaps countercultural in our transient, mobile world; as his Wikipedia entry puts it, “His writing is grounded in the notion that one’s work ought to be rooted in and responsive to one’s place.”
I read the book over several evenings, and found the poems a refreshing alternative to the stresses and pressures of our crazy times. They are a call to not forget who we are:
What I fear most is despair
for the world and us: forever less
of beauty, silence, open air,
gratitude, unbidden happiness,
affection, unegotistical desire.
More than an escape, these poems are a challenge to see and experience daily life at a much deeper level. Nearly every poem is a meditation on everday miracles that most of us, in our frantic desperation, would never take the time to see.
Startup Life: Surviving and Thriving in a Relationship with an Entrepreneur, Brad Feld
I discovered entrepreneur, venture capitalist, and writer Brad Feld while researching mental health among entrepreneurs—a subject near and dear to my heart, after my scorching experiences over the past few years. Brad has built a remarkable career in the Boulder, Colorado startup ecosystem, but he is especially remarkable for working to dismantle the taboo around discussing mental health in the startup world. He has written numerous articles, appeared in a TechStars mental health series, and spoken candidly in venues like the Tim Ferriss podcast.
Startup Life, coauthored with his wife Amy Batchelor, is a relationship manual for entrepreneurs and their significant others. I had no idea such a book existed, and think it could be helpful for many founders. Much of the book mirrors general relationship and marriage advice available in other books, but it shows a unique sensitivity to the pressures of startup life; there are limits to how much founders can slow down in this arena and still survive, which in turn imposes unique strains on relationships.
I have been married long enough, and read enough relationship books, that I can’t say I gleaned too much new information. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the read. Brad and Amy are what make the book strong; they have such authentic voices, and seem comfortable with themselves and each other, and their humble example gives them unique credibility. Probably the most interesting aspects of the book to me were practical strategies and practices they have developed to keep their own marriage strong.
Startup Communities: Building an Entrepreneurial Ecosystem in Your City, Brad Feld
Very different from Startup Life, Startup Communities is about building an innovation ecosystem in a particular locale. The style is again casual. Brad seems comfortable in his own skin; coming straight from my reading of Startup Life, I was impressed with his ability to shift between varied subjects to weigh in with informed perspective.
I was evaluating this book for possibly inclusion in the innovation course I teach. It caught my eye because so many government innovators right now want to create their own innovation ecosystems. I am usually skeptical of these efforts; government efforts to build innovation ecosystems often consist of creating a dazzling new building, then passively waiting for innovation to happen. I once saw Marc Andreessen give a talk in which he laid out the ingredients of an innovation hub like Silicon Valley: abundant capital, a critical mass of talent, a risk-taking culture, a nexus of companies and universities, and so forth. He said that when he describes these elements to government ecosystem-builders, they usually look at him blankly afterwards and say, “Okay, let’s say we can’t have any of those things… THEN how do we build an innovation ecosystem?” That story still makes me laugh because it rings so true.
This book reminds me of that talk. Brad focuses the book on his own home innovation hub in Boulder, Colorado. He pays special attention to the different kinds of stakeholders and their roles. He unapologetically believes that entrepreneurs need to be the driving force for innovation, and that everyone else—like government, investors, and universities—can only ever be in supporting roles, although these roles are important.
Some might find the focus on Boulder too narrow, but Brad’s goal is to use this specific example to show how innovation ecosystems might grow elsewhere. In his introduction he says:
I have a deeply held belief that you can create a long-term, vibrant, sustainable startup community in any city in the world, but it’s hard and takes the right kind of philosophy, approach, leadership, and dedication over a long period of time.
If that whets your appetite, the book is worth a read.
Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience, Sharon Salzburg
This is another book I discovered through Jerry Colonna. In 2002 he was, in his own words, at the lowest point in his life. He was “at a point where, as St. Augustine wrote, my soul was a burden, tired of the man who carried it.” Three books helped him reboot his life: Let our Life Speak by Parker Palmer (which I reviewed in July), When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron, and Faith by Sharon Salzberg.
Salzberg aims to rescue the concept of faith from the necessity of believing specific religious claims. She writes, “whether faith is connected to a deity or not, its essence lies in trusting ourselves to discover the deepest truths on which we can rely.” The book is part memoir, part spiritual reflection, and part introduction to Buddhism, as Salzberg recounts her own story; a story “of knowing, even in the midst of great suffering, that we can still belong to life, that we’re not cast out and alone.”
This is a fine book, and well-crafted, although it did not resonate with me in the way that other books have. Perhaps I went in with too high of expectations, or perhaps I was spoiled by books like Whyte’s that spoke so precisely to my current journey. Most of the territory felt well-trodden. If I took one thing away from the book, it was a sense of validation about my own feelings of disconnection and encouragement to lean into the pain–not to deny it or run from it. One passage reads:
All of us go through times in our lives when we feel as if we are lost in a wilderness, caught in a violent storm. Exposed and vulnerable, we look for something or someone to help us through the upheaval. We look for a place of safety that won’t break apart no matter what we are experiencing. As many of us have discovered, the refuge we may have sought–in relationships, in ideals, in points of view–ultimately lets us down. We begin to wonder, Is there any refuge that is real and enduring?
That is exactly it. The pain of that question leads some people to “walk away”, in Salzburg’s words, which breeds cynicism. Salzburg sees cyncism as “a self-protective mechanism. A cynical stance allows us to feel smart and unthreatened without really being involved.”
A persistent willingness to engage those deep doubts is how we surpass cynicism to find new life. This is hardly easy. At one point in the book, Salzburg blurts out to a teacher, “Isn’t there an easier way?” That is the universal question, and the answer is invariably no.
The Bureaucratic Entrepreneur: How to be Effective in Any Unruly Organization, Richard Haass
A reader of my blog recommended this book to me. I was amazed that I had never heard of it before. The book is about getting things done in government, and it was written by a man who can speak from experience; Haass was a special assistant to President George Bush Sr. and a senior director on the National Security Council.
I’ll admit that reading a book about government bureaucracy felt a bit dreary, after reading the invigorating, soulful books by Whyte and Salzberg. However, if we want to have an impact in this world, we cannot isolate ourselves from the messy, hard, and frustrating work of engaging with people, organizations, and the complex problems we all face together. Our soul work should lead us to a place where we are equipped to re-enter the world. This might be the best book you will find on how to meaningfully do that in government.
Haass begins with an honest recognition of how hard it is to work inside government. He notes that bureaucracy was once “championed by advocates of good government. It was a welcome inovation, one designed to add professional standards and checks and balances to institutions and processes all too commonly characterized by corruption, spoils, and patronage.”
Now, he writes, bureaucracy is viewed as part of the problem they were meant to solve:
No democracy can thrive for long amid the perceived failure of its governing institutions, for such failure breeds cyncism, alienation, and in, the end, desperation.”
He wrote those words in 1993; I can only imagine what he would think of government in 2020.
Rather than despair, Hass says that all of us in government have a responsibility to help close this gap. He develops the metaphor of a compass to guide policy entrepreneurs in their efforts to be more effective in getting things “done”—which means not just approved but implemented.
At the center of the compass is you. You must know your values, your strengths, your weaknesses, and your personal agenda. Effectively managing yourself is the foundation of your public service, competence, and ability to influence. Doing anything in government requires working together with diverse stakeholders, so the rest of the compass points to others; north is those for whom you work, south is those who work for you, east are those with whom you work, and west are those external stakeholders with whom you should work. Each chapter of the book is dedicated to a different compass point, and packed with strategies for effectively working in this human territory. The book is enriched by dozens of interviews with other policymakers.
To the best of my knowledge, this is the only book of its kind; Haass wrote it precisely because such a book did not already exist. Every part of the book rang true to my experience leading innovation at DIU, which often entailed messy entanglements in policy. The book is practical and wise, honest about the difficulties of government while still being optimistic. My only critique is that the book is beginning to show its age; the first edition was published in 1993, and the second in 1999. Haass’s examples will be old history for a rising generation, and it would be helpful to see Haass weigh in on the rapidly worsening dysfunction in government today. Nonetheless, I’d still recommend the book for anyone working in government policy.