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What I'm Reading (No. 88): Deep Work + Super Pumped
This week I finished the gripping and fascinating new book about the rise and fall of Travis Kalanick — co-founder and former CEO of Uber. I also wrapped up Cal Newport's well-known Deep Work, which is oft-cited among business leaders and creatives.
And since we're just over a month out from Halloween, I've also been digging into some classic scary short stories: Ambrose Bierce, Dickens' ghost stories, Shirley Jackson, Washington Irving, and more. It's been fun, and will be an Art of Manliness piece in about a month. In the meantime, I may fill you all in on some of my favorites. So far, it's been Bierce's Civil War Stories. They're framed as short tales about the Civil War, but you wouldn't necessarily know it if they weren't presented that way. It's a collection of often haunting stories about soldiers and citizens and the fear that comes with being both.
Anyways, let's get into those two books I finished.
Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber by Mike Isaac (2019, 345 pages)
It's impossible to read this book and not be reminded of last year's superb Bad Blood, which told the story of Elizabeth Holmes and the now-defunct Theranos. Holmes and Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick are remarkably similar in their egocentrism, their creation of a dysfunctional company culture, their delusion about their product and employees, and now, their Silicon Valley banishment.
The very real difference between the two stories? Theranos didn't have a real product, whereas Uber was basically printing cash for a handful of years, leading the company to be called the "unicorn of unicorns" (a startup valued at $1 billion).
Uber subversively wound its way into major cities (even internationally) breaking dozens of local regulations en route. But debut author and NYT tech reporter Mike Isaac, through hundreds of interviews, pulls back the curtain on the appallingly destructive and misogynistic bro culture that was lurking in the shadows. Kalanick is a bit like the Wizard of Oz — initially seen as a magical tech founder who could do no wrong, but is ultimately revealed as a troubled and deeply flawed leader.
In 2017, which Isaac calls one of the worst single years ever for a corporation, Uber was in the news a lot, mostly for ill. From the infamous Susan Fowler blog post, to Kalanick's involvement with President Trump's tech council, to the even more infamous video of Kalanick berating one of his own drivers, things couldn't have been much worse. The co-founder departed, decidedly not amicably, and now the company is trying to claw its way out of PR hell.
This is one of those books where the writing complements the story in such a way as to not be a hindrance. The focus is not on the words necessarily, but in how those words are carrying the crazy plot forward. Isaac finds this balance very well, as John Carreyrou did in Bad Blood.
Super Pumped is a page-turning and noteworthy book which adds to the growing library that exposes Silicon Valley’s not-so-glamorous underbelly, and one that will force readers to reconsider their use of not only Uber, but ride-sharing companies in general.
A Silicon Valley Reading List
Bad Blood by John Carreyrou. Mentioned above. Great read. Will make you mad at Silicon Valley.
The One Device by Brian Merchant. An attention-grabbing look specifically at the iPhone — how it came to be, and even more interestingly, how all the phone's physical components get manufactured and assembled. Sounds sort of boring, but I promise it's not.
Say Everything by Scott Rosenberg. I read this in college back when I was blogging on the regular. I found it really fascinating; you probably only will if you were an old school blogger.
Startup by Doree Shafrir. A novel that's not actually set in Silicon Valley, but is certainly reminiscent of that culture. Acts as a portal to startup culture, especially through the eyes of a talented and ambitious young woman.
The Accidental Billionaires by Ben Mezrich. Better known for its film version (The Social Network), but the book is great too. One of the original insider stories about Silicon Valley and hooked me on the niche topic.
Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World by Cal Newport (2016, 287 pages)
I wrote about Cal's Digital Minimalism back in February, which also led to a lengthy piece on the Art of Manliness. Before that book was conceived, however, was Deep Work, from all the way back in 2016. The gist is pretty simple: the modern worker is plagued by "shallow" tasks like meetings, emails, rote to-dos . . . not to mention the distractions of social media and the internet at large. To combat that plague, Newport presents the idea of deep work: giving long, intensely focused chunks of times to our most important, highest value pursuits.
This is one of those books that reinforces — very strongly — the notion that most of already have that distractions kill our productivity. How Newport takes it further is in saying that even a lot of our job description tasks impede our forward movement by hindering what we do best.
He's a computer science professor and researcher, and the book is outlined very much as you'd expect that type of person to outline a book. But, the writing is conversational enough, and the reading becomes almost addictive as he gets super detailed into laying out exactly how to implement more deep work into your life.
I read Deep Work very quickly and highlighted a ton of passages. The hard part, as with any productivity-type book, is putting the important stuff into action.
I can pretty much guarantee that if you're a "knowledge worker" of any type — someone who does creative stuff or works in almost any sort of office setting — you'll find something useful in this book. (And the rest of Cal's books for that matter.)
That's it for me this week. I love hearing about what you're reading, so please keep letting me know! Thank you, sincerely, for the time and inbox space.