How do entrepreneurs succeed?
That’s a question Tracy Kidder addresses in his book, A Truck Full of Money (Random House, September 2016), about Paul English, the founder of Kayak, entitled. By any conventional measure of success, English was a successful guy. In 2012, he sold Kayak to Priceline for $1.8 billion. But Kidder doesn’t focus on what led to English’s success, but rather how his success burdened him.
Paul English is not your typical startup hero. To begin with, he was not particularly passionate about travel. As Kidder put it in his book A Truck Full of Money: “There is a form of business romance that says you must be ‘passionately’ committed to your idea, your industry, your product. But what was there in Kayak’s business to feel passionate about? …. Paul’s team were craftspeople in software, employing the tools of logic – that is, approaching their tasks with a sensibility quite different from passion.”
Paul was passionate, not for product, but for people. At Kayak, he set out to build a great team.“For me businesses exist as an excuse to get a team together, and product is what a team does,” English confided to Kidder. And in retrospect, he attributed a large part of Kayak’s success to that very team he built.
According to Kidder, Paul was never about the money. Early in his career, he had joined a company Interleaf and was considering quitting. If he left, he would forego half of his stock options valued at about one million dollars. It was an easy million he could have kept, but the extra years he would have to put in were not worth it to him. He valued his time more than the money.
He later advised a coworker friend, Karl, whom he was also trying to recruit:
“Don’t do it for money. Money is a yucky reason to switch jobs. Decide what is best for your lifestyle and goals right now. I think we’d probably offer a more stimulating environment, brighter / passionate people, also more upbeat. Also (if you care), you could have a chance to work on leading edge technology that *will* have a big impact on millions of people and the net.”
For Kidder, that was Paul in a nutshell. Paul saw money more as a means than a goal. Money made him feel trapped. “I feel sorry for people that are wealthy and sitting there with millions – some of them billions – just making more money. I ask myself, ‘For what?’,” Paul told Kidder.
The reality is that as a child, Paul would not have stood out as the one to found and sell a company for over a billions dollars. He grew up one of many children in a family with limited resources. His family lived in Boston, a city governed by old money. He finished near the bottom of his high school class. After high school, Paul wanted to be a musician. While he had spent a lot of time tinkering with computers as a kid, he only considered coding as a career after his brother urged him to. Paul had not been laser focused on creating Kayak; instead, a lot of moving parts came together to get him there.
Stepping Into Subjectivity
Before reading Tracy Kidder’s book, I knew a lot about Kayak, but very little about Paul English. After I finished reading the book, it occurred to me that my image of Paul was now shaped entirely by Kidder. I was looking at Paul English’s life through a window created by Tracy Kidder.
Kidder is a wonderful writer. There is no doubt Kidder stayed true to the facts of Paul English’s life. But like any story, I understood a writer can always steer a story in the direction he chooses. In this way, all stories are laced with subjectivity.
Stories, especially success stories, can be deceiving. And it’s perhaps in this light that I most enjoyed A Truck Full of Money. Kidder didn’t paint Paul English in a heroic light. It was much more real, much more raw. Especially for recent graduates – there is nothing more disheartening than reading nicely baked success stories only to realize your own life doesn’t fit together nearly as nicely. Wondering instead why your own life feels a lot more like the randomness of Brownian motion. Success stories just aren’t simple.
Can Storytelling Be Objective?
In an article about a health care reform, The Bill, Malcolm Gladwell has an unrelated nugget tucked into the second section:
“Near-history, the journalistic reconstruction of contemporary events, has come to be dominated by two schools. The first is represented by Michael Lewis…. Lewis’s interest is psychological and moral.…. The second school is associated with the Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward. Woodwardian history is kaleidoscopic. The reporter makes many telephone calls and office visits, and reads many documents. All key players are represented and events detailed.”
It’s generally accepted that facts are facts and should never be altered. But even when the story is factually accurate, there is still room for subjectivity. Even in a “Woodwardian history,” a story can be laden with subjectivity. Stories are born of fact, but a story’s meaning comes from the highlighted facts.
What is the point, if any, of reading such stories?
A Story’s Purpose
For all their flaws, stories remain hugely important. As human beings we are wired to react to stories. As Daniel Kahneman, Nobel Prize winner in economics said in a recent Vanity Fair article, “No one ever made a decision because of a number. They need a story.”
Had Tracy Kidder given us a list of facts about Paul English’s story, A) No one would have remembered the details and, more importantly, B) No one would have cared to read it in the first place. All humans are moved by stories and all stories are built on subjectivity. Subjectivity and facts are not mutually exclusive. Subjectivity is simply the vehicle to deliver those facts.
Our recent election may be one of the clearest examples of how stories compel us to act. Regardless of who citizens voted for, they were swept into the story of each respective campaign. Whether people were engaged in the story of Donald Trump’s rise to power as a political outsider or Hillary Clinton’s rise as the first female president, they were engaged in a narrative. And, like the most powerful stories, that narrative lived on after the end of the election and propelled people into action. I have never seen an election or an event spur people to action quite like this last election, be it charities, non-profits, and governments at the local level.
As a writer, I am often asked what I write about. Fiction? Nonfiction? What kind of nonfiction? These labels always make me uncomfortable. The reason I was interested in the business of writing to begin with wasn’t to write any kind of genre but to bring stories and ideas to life. Kidder transformed Paul English’s two-dimensional resume into a multidimensional story, a story we can touch and react to. Paul English’s story is one entrepreneur’s roadmap, not the only one. Oftentimes as readers we can fall trap to reading a story and understanding it as a guide. That’s one way not to succeed. A story is not a manual, it’s ammunition. A story acts as gas to propel you down your own path, not anyone else’s.
Story by Stephanie Denning , Forbes