The Hard Thing About Hard Things: A book review by Bob Morris

Hard ThingThe Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building a Business When There Are No Easy Answers
Ben Horowitz
HarperBusiness (2014)

One man’s thoughts and feelings about making especially difficult decisions and resolving especially difficult situations

Up front: I think the word “thing” is worthless because it has no meaning in and of itself; it can be substituted for almost any noun. However, the thing of it is, no one else seems to share this opinion so I’ll say no more about it.

* * *

Three major works were published in 1859: Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Karl Marx’s A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, and Richard Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. I was reminded of that fact as I worked my way through The Hard Thing About Hard Things for the first time and began to correlate themes in these classic works with several that Ben Horowitz develops in his lively and thought-provoking memoir/narrative.

For example, his discussion of “the struggle” is clearly derived from Marx’s assertion, “Life is struggle.” Of course, that claim is predated several centuries by the Buddhist maxim, “Life is suffering.” Horowitz affirms great value in courage, especially when those who launch start-ups proceed through a process of natural selection. According to Darwin, “In the struggle for survival, the fittest win out at the expense of their rivals because they succeed in adapting themselves best to their environment.” That is certainly what Horowitz had to do several times while CEO of Loudcloud and then Opsware when each was near-death. Despite all manner of struggle and suffering, he must have been sustained by his self-confidence and competitive nature when facing daunting challenges.

Jack Dempsey once observed, “Champions get up when they can’t.” Obviously, he is referring to more than physical courage and his comment calls to mind that Dante reserved the last and worst ring in hell for those who, in a moral crisis, preserve their neutrality. My own opinion is that hard times do not develop a leader’s character, they reveal it…or a lack of it …and this is especially true of entrepreneurs. As for Wagner’s opera, it also examines (as does Horowitz) themes of aspiration, determination, and personal sacrifice as well as the perils of defying conventional wisdom.

These are among the dozens of business subjects and issues of special interest and value to me, also listed to indicate the scope of Horowitz’s coverage.

o The Marc Andreesen Relationship: The first 18 years (Pages 9-16)
o Euphoria and Terror (20-28)
o Sixty Days to Live (41-47)
o Survival of the Fittest (47-52)
o The Ultimate Decision (52-56)
o About the Struggle, and, Some Stuff That May or May Not Help (61-63)
o Why It’s Imperative to Tell It Like It Is (66-67)
o The Right Way to Lay People Off (68-72)
o Why You Should Train Your People (106-108)
o Good Product Manager/Bad Product Manager (111-113)
o If You’ve Never Done the Job, How do You Hire Somebody Good? (124-129)
o How to Minimize Politics, and, The Technique to Do So (149-154)
o Creating a Company Culture (180-183
o Organizational Design (188-192)
o When Making the Right Choice Requires Intelligence and Courage (210-212)
o How to Lead: Three Essential Abilities (220-22)
o The First Rule of Entrepreneurship: There Are No Rules (243-247)
o Staying Great: The Standard (255-256)

I really enjoyed reading this book because, throughout, I had the feeling that Horowitz was speaking directly to me, almost as if he had written this book for me. I think many (if not most) other readers will feel the same way. Here he is, warts and all (lots of warts), sharing so much of what he has learned, most of it from hard times, setbacks, crises of various kinds, and – yes -a few ill-advised decisions that he duly acknowledges.

His passion and candor are refreshing, to be sure, but I appreciate much more his insights and counsel that suggest he possesses what Hemingway once characterized as “a built-in, shock-proof crap detector.” He also exemplifies that person whom Theodore Roosevelt once characterized as “the man in the arena.”

There are indeed “hard things” for which an MBA degree cannot possibly prepare a person, nor can a business book. If nothing else, however, Ben Horowitz shares his thoughts and feelings as well as his experiences so that those who read this book will at least be better prepared to make those decisions that all of us dread.

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