A Year For Stories
I would consider myself a bibliophile. When it comes to both buying books, and reading books I am more solidly established in the buying camp. Every time I go into a bookstore, I can’t help but buy something. Especially when it’s an independent bookstore, my interest in Bookstore Economics kicks in, and I have to support local business. In terms of reading books, I certainly hit a downward trend line during COVID. I was reading ~40 books a year, often with the bulk of my reading during my commute. When COVID hit, I lost a lot of that consistency and am now reading ~12-15 a year.
On top of that, 2022 marked my first year consistently writing. I’ve written a post every week this year for Investing 101, writing 115K+ words and growing it to 10K+ subscribers. It’s certainly one of the most consistent things I’ve done and, while the quality of the writing certainly varies, it’s something I’m proud of.
Between having my third kid, starting a new job, writing consistently, and moving, I’ve found myself without nearly as much time for reading. I’m reminded of that every time I have a conversation with my sons about how much they love reading. In particular, my son Dax has started reading literary classics like Captain Underpants and Dog Man. Recently, we were driving and saw a deer run across the road. “Dad! Why is that deer our here jaywalking?” In moments like that, you realize that as soon as your kids start to read they’re exposed to ideas that you had nothing to do with. “Where did you learn what jaywalking is?”
So, in addition to trying to consistently engage with my sons on the ideas they’re being exposed to, I also sat down for my annual tradition of reflecting on the themes that seemed to emerge from my reading this year. I never set out with themes, I sort of pick what I read fairly haphazardly. But I always seem to find a set of themes that come out fairly organically, maybe its in part just what I happen to be thinking about and noticing already.
I continued my goal from last year of trying to read more fiction, with almost 50% of the books I read this year being fiction. I also continued my obsession with Brandon Sanderson, having read 6 of his books last year, and 4 this year. I have massive respect for the storytelling skill that Brandon Sanderson has. Beyond fanciful storytelling, this whole year for me I kept coming back to this idea that storytelling can often be just as important as reality. Perceived reality is craftable.
In The Founders, Mike Moritz was on the board of PayPal from Sequoia, and has a great quote about Elon Musk: “Elon, as the world knows today, is a very gifted storyteller. And some of the stories even come true.” I may touch more on my reflections on Elon Musk in some future writing, but I see this as one of his greatest skills: being able to paint a vivid picture of the future.
In a similar vein, in The Ride of a Lifetime, Bob Iger said to his board about Disney, “As Animation goes, so goes the company,” while they were considering the acquisition of Pixar. You can abstract that to storytelling being the lifeblood of a company like Disney. I would argue that is true of almost any company.
“Tell me your story, and I’ll tell you how successful you’ll be.”
Many of the people doing the storytelling in the books I read this year were doing so in the role of a leader. Whether fictional characters leading rag-tag bands of bridgemen, or CEO’s of Fortune 500 companies. The principles of leadership so often revolve around storytelling as well. Rallying people to believe in something, and then executing towards that belief.
Bob Iger had a handful of pearls in The Ride of a Lifetime, but this one stuck with me in terms of storytelling for yourself and the people around you:
“Optimism emerges from faith in yourself and in the people who work for you. It’s not about saying things are good when they’re not, and it’s not about conveying some blind faith that “things will work out.” It’s about believing in your and others’ abilities.”
Predicting The Future
When it comes to predictions, it’s typically true that “the only thing they all have in common is that they’re wrong.” Specific predictions can amount to little more than guesswork, but understanding frameworks for how the world works can increase the likelihood that you at least won’t be surprised by certain outcomes. As I reflected more on some global topics, I read books like 2034, and China in 10 Words, and continue to feel a sense of apprehension about global politics.
Reading The Greatest Minds and Ideas of All Time wasn’t originally part of my attempt to better reflect on what’s going on in the world, and what that mean for the future. It was a book I read as part of a book club. But as I was reading it, I couldn’t stop thinking of this quote about history.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
When I reflected on the ideas in Greatest Minds, you see frameworks from Dante, Kant, Plato, Confucius, and more, and you can’t help but appreciate how much of the world around us is dictated by human nature. If we did a better job of studying human behavior, we would probably all be better at predicting markets.
Faithful Question Asking
In a very different vein from what I read that most often makes it into my work, and writing, I spent a fair bit of time this year thinking more deeply about questions and faith and the honest pursuit of truth. I belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, I believe in Jesus Christ, and a spiritual purpose in everything around us.
I’m also politically fairly liberal, and ideologically I’m deeply skeptical of blind belief in anything (whether its Jesus, Elon Musk, or creatine.) I think every perspective can, and should, be reasoned out. I love this quote from Charlie Munger:
“I feel that I'm not entitled to have an opinion unless I can state the arguments against my position better than the people who are in opposition. I think that I am qualified to speak only when I've reached that state.”
So when I choose to believe in a deity that I can’t see or hear with my physical senses, and I’m confronted by fairly intelligent atheists that deride all forms of organized religion, I’m forced to be very thoughtful about why I believe what I believe. I read books specifically to better understand the process of questioning my own religion so that I can justify why I believe it.
The Books I Read This Year
After finishing the Mistborn series last year, I read this novella that is set at the end of that first series (side note: novella is a very fun word to say out loud.)
More than anything, books like this that weave through a universe that someone has built with their writing is incredible to me. I get lost in these worlds and only want to be able to see more and more of the characters that I’ve grown to love.
You can tell that Sanderson has the same love for his own characters. He wants to give them a proper chance at getting their story told. This one is no exception.
Big thanks to my good friend, Erin Price-Wright, for casually reading this book while we sat next to each other on a bus. As we talked about it, I couldn’t stop thinking about reading it.
I’ve never had the chance to work at venture firms before that were willing to invest in defense companies, but at Contrary we’ve invested in some exceptional companies like Anduril and Modern Intelligence. I’ve never served in the military, and the closest military service was both my grandpa’s, whose generation almost all served.
But I consider myself a realist when it comes to the necessity to build technology for modern warfare in a world where democracy is increasingly threatened.
Over the last two years, climate tech has been a category that I’ve spent more and more time in. I’ve had the chance to invest in companies like Patch, and Peter Reinhardt, the former CEO of Segment, whose building Charm Industrial in the climate space, is a Contrary LP.
I continue to believe that leveraging technology in fighting climate change is a sector that everyone should be spending more time thinking about. “A lot of people think that climate tech is a trend that will ebb and flow with markets and regulation, but demand is only tracking up. And the category is a broader set of potential solutions and approaches than just carbon accounting software.”
Brandon Sanderson’s stories, particularly the Mistborn series, always struck me as revolving around this concept of misfits. Whether it was a kid living as a thief on the streets thrust into royalty, or a rich kid who just wants to be a lawman.
But Warbreaker was the first book where I really appreciated the idea as being more nuanced. Sanderson’s characters aren’t just misfits; they’re working to define themselves. How people perceive themselves (whether as a princess, a pauper, or a God) can define how they act.
Going back to theme of storytelling, we may even start to believe the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.
There’s one other aspect about Brandon Sanderson’s writing I’ve come to appreciate. He really understands the psychology of a leader. All year, I kept coming back to this quote from Confucius:
“To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.”
The characters in Sanderson’s stories have to first “set [their] hearts right.” Then, as leaders, they’re setting about changing the story of who people believe themselves to be.
As a Christian, I often have a problem with the character of most “mainstream Christianity.” Disciples of Jesus Christ should be the most open-minded, accepting, socially-minded philanthropists, but instead the most prominent Christians are sometimes the exact opposite.
One of the former presidents of The Church Of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has a quote about truth: “We are open to truth of every kind, no matter whence it comes, or who believes in it. It is the duty of all intelligent beings to search after truth, and to permit it to influence them and their general course in life, independent of all bias or preconceived notions.”
I want my faith journey to revolve around truth, not just preference.
This was the first book we picked as part of a short-lived book club I engaged in this year. Even as China continues to be prevalent in news across geopolitics, warfare, global health, and technology, I still get the sense that very few people appreciates the massive role that China will continue to play in the world’s progress.
China’s population represents 18%+ of the global population, compared to the US, which represents ~4%. Chinese culture is quite distinct from Western culture, and people who enjoy democracy in the US and other countries seem to often be surprised when things like State-controlled tech leads to advanced warfare or top-down cultural content decisions on TikTok.
The second (and last) book in our book club was this overview of powerful ideas from different disciplines of thought throughout history. Will Durant wrote an 11-volume set called The Story of Civilization (there’s that storytelling theme again). After studying the history of civilization’s progress, he put down the most powerful ideas with this perspective:
“I see history not as a dreary scene of politics and carnage, but as the struggle of [humankind] through genius with the obdurate inertia of matter and the baffling mystery of mind; the struggle to understand, control, and remake [themself] and the world.”
Just when I thought I was getting the hang of how Brandon Sanderson crafts a story, this one really sucked me in. I listened to this on audiobook while on a few road trips this year and there were multiple instances where I was just staring ahead, with my mouth gaping open, surprised by the outcome of the story.
Once again, I saw these themes of self-creation and storytelling, and the role of leadership in remaking the people around you. Taking people who are beaten down by their circumstances and changing who they believe they are.
One of the biggest criticism of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is that women are not ordained to positions of leadership that require priesthood authority. This is a pretty nuanced topic, given our definition of priesthood authority can be quite different than most mainstream Christianity.
My Church could do a lot more to improve the cultural attitudes that many men have in believing they’re “in charge” of women. Any ideas like that are just plain wrong. But the things my religion believes about the eternal nature of people, and their potential to become like God means that any inequity among men and women is inaccurate. We just have to do a better job of making human institutions reflect spiritual teachings.
I’d wanted to read this book for a while, and it was just always on the back burner. But when I heard that Bob Iger was coming back as CEO of Disney, I wanted to dig into the history of his first run.
I’ve had a reasonable obsession with Walt Disney for awhile, in part because of my fascination with city building (an interest that Walt Disney shared), but also from the spiritual nirvana I feel every time I walk down Main Street in Disneyland.
What I most enjoyed about this book was Iger’s honest reflection on his years of experience as a leader and the principles that carried him to a fairly successful run.
I read this book earlier in the year, but in January I’m going to have the chance to sit down and interview Jimmy Soni, so I re-read it and continue to be struck by the one-in-a-million collection of talent meeting a pivotal point in time for technology.
The story touched on plenty of my themes again, whether it’s storytelling, leadership, or predicting the future (and sometimes those predictions, like PalmPilot money beaming, really suck!)
But reading this story is impactful for me, in particular, because my whole framing for the kinds of investments that I look for are talent vortexes, very much like what they built in the early days of PayPal.