Books I read in...July 2017

Books I read in...July 2017

July was the month for autobiographies.  I’m fascinated by other peoples’ lives and how they got to where they are and even after this month’s binge I still have a stack of autobiographies and biographies waiting to be read.

Here’s a selection of my best reads last month.


To Pixar & Beyond (My unlikely journey with Steve Jobs to make entertainment history): Lawrence Levy

I read Steve Jobs’s biography a few months ago, which piqued my interest in Pixar, although it is not covered there in huge detail, and obviously only from Jobs’s point of view.  This book, written by the man Jobs hired to run the company, tells the story in full.

Reading this book reminded me of the tale of ‘The Little Train That Could’ – this little company which changed the face of animation forever.  By the time Levy was hired, Jobs had already sunk $50m into keeping the company afloat, and was eager to take it public as soon as possible, which understandably put a huge amount of pressure on Levy to get it in shape for that.

It’s a lovely memoir, and the tale of the dedication of the whole team and their desire to create something special is faithfully recorded.  There were many times when it looked as though they would never attain success and it’s clear that the fact that they did had a lot to do with Levy’s role in guiding the company.

What I hadn’t realised is that Pixar was a far larger source of Jobs’s wealth than Apple ever was.  Pixar was eventually sold to Disney at which point his stake was ultimately valued at over $13bn.  Not a bad ROI!


Life in Death: Richard Venables & Kris Hollington

Richard Venables QPM joined South Yorkshire Police in 1976, and was on the ground as a uniformed officer during the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, an event that led indirectly to his career in disaster management and disaster victim identification (DVI).  Initially allocated responsibility for temporary mortuary management and training within his home force, he went on to become one of the leading authorities on the subject within the United Kingdom.

He was invited to join the National Crime and Operations Faculty in 2002 to design, develop and deliver the training for Senior Identification Managers and to provide operational support and training in mass fatality victim identification to police forces and was, until 2009, responsible for operational support in the event of any mass fatality incident occurring in the UK.  He has also acted as adviser to the Government Mass Fatalities programme.

As you can imagine, this book made for uncomfortable reading at times.  Venables was involved in the Asian tsunami disaster on Boxing Day 2004, the Morecombe Bay cockle pickers that same year and several rail and air crashes.

Written with a huge amount of compassion, what really came across was just how hard this sector of the police force works to help the victims’ families in what are often unimaginably horrific circumstances.  Striving to maintain the dignity of victims and treating their remains with the utmost respect, despite its somewhat gruesome subject matter, it’s not at all a depressing book.  I found it reassuring to know that these DVI professionals exist.


Meditations: Marcus Aurelius (translated by Gregory Hays)

Marcus Aurelius was born to a prominent Roman family in AD 121 and was later adopted by emperor Antoninus Pius, whom he succeeded in 161.

He led a hard life in service of the state and his personal life was marred by the early death of his wife and a difficult relationship with his son.  He died in 180.

Meditations is widely regarded as one of the greatest works of ethical and spiritual reflection ever written.  A true Stoic, this book is filled with wisdom and knowledge of human behaviour.

This book is tiny – only 200 pages and measuring just 9cm by 15cm, yet is packed with more wisdom than any book I have ever read.  What amazes me is how his advice is so relevant some 2,000 years later.  It’s proof, if proof were needed that humans, deep down, have remained the same throughout time.

I could quote reams from this book, but will just quote one short paragraph:

“Don’t waste the rest of your time here worrying about other people – unless it affects common good.  It will keep you from doing anything useful.  You’ll be too pre-occupied with what so-and-so is doing, and why, and what they’re saying, and what they’re thinking, and what they’re up to, and all the other things that throw you off and keep you from focusing on your own mind.”

This is a book I will dip in and out of many times.  The lessons it contains are simple, but not easy.

When I visited Rome in June one of my ‘must see’ items was his statue on the Capitoline Hill, which is beautifully framed by Michelangelo’s pillars and arches. It was well worth the climb on a searingly hot day!

One final note, buy only the translation linked to above.  It is by far the best there is.


The Hard Thing About Hard Things (Building a business when there are no easy answers): Ben Horowitz

Silicon Valley.  It might as well be on another planet for all I understand about how life works there.  So, I thought I’d better change that and this book certainly got the ball rolling.

Horowitz is co-founder of a venture capital (VC) firm which he set up after he successfully founded, managed, ran and sold a tech start-up.

The book is split into three distinct parts: the first tells the story of Horowitz’s path to Silicon Valley Nirvana – selling his tech company.  It was a rollercoaster of a ride and it took several attempts before he achieved success.  He doesn’t pull any punches about how hard it was, the mistakes he made, and the luck which also played its part.

In part two, he outlines the lessons he learned in running and managing a tech company and whilst a lot of the issues are unique to that type of business, there were also many which apply to any business, although to be honest I didn’t find any great insights in this part of the book.

The final part charts his current venture as cofounder of a successful VC enterprise, which has chosen to take the approach of investing primarily in CEOs as opposed to simply investing in their businesses.

I found the first part of the book the most interesting.  I found the chapter entitled ‘Old people’ the most depressing as I have no doubt he was talking about people my age!


Shoe Dog (A Memoir by the creator of Nike): Phil Knight

I could easily sum this book up in two sentences: It’s brilliant.  Go and buy it.

I loved this book right from the inscription on the first page (‘For my grandchildren, so they will know’).  All I knew of Nike before reading this book was that it was a hugely successful global brand.  The back story is just simply amazing.

Right from the start, it’s clear that Phil Knight is one of a kind.  After finishing university, he decided to take a gap year and go travelling around the world.  No big deal, except this was in 1962 – when air travel was in its infancy and the world was a much bigger place.

He tells his story, and that of Nike, with such humility and wisdom that it’s an absolute joy to read – as well as being another nail biting, rollercoaster of a ride.  The business that he and the bunch of misfits he hired to help him create got so close to going under multiple times.  It’s incredible how he dealt with the stress of it all.

The Nike we see today is, like many successful businesses, built on the blood, sweat and tears of its founders and books like this one are so important in reminding us that ‘overnight success’ is largely a myth.

I hope my comments will convince you to give one or two of these a go.

Warm regards