Brain Pickings

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29 JUNE, 2011

Anything You Want: Derek Sivers on the Secrets of Entrepreneurship

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Why not to trust futurists, or what the entrepreneurial power of empathy has to do with the art of letting go.

Derek Sivers may be best-known as the founder of CD Baby, commonly considered the first true empowerment platform for independent musicians, but he also happens to be one the smartest, most interesting and most curious people I know. His first book, Anything You Want, is out today and makes the entrepreneurial heart sing with inspiration and insight into the business of following your dreams.

The book is the latest release by The Domino Project, one of 7 platforms changing the future of publishing.

Today, I sit down with Derek to talk about the essentials of entrepreneurship, selflessness, and forming a healthy relationship with the prospect of failure.

q1

You’re extraordinarily good at synthesizing complex insights into digestible, bite-sized nuggets. If you had to do that with your top three learnings from your CD Baby experience, what would those be?

#1 : Delegate, but don’t abdicate.

Founders have a problem delegating, so I learned that one well, and my business took off huge because of it. But then I tried to delegate even more, even delegating major decisions inside the company that completely changed its culture. And that’s when it all went downhill. I had over-delegated. That’s when I learned the word “abdicate” : to give away authority or power. I learned it too late. The damage was irreparable. That’s why I sold the company.

#2 : If it’s not a hit, quit.

Many times before and after CD Baby, I launched projects that I thought were brilliant. But people weren’t into it. I used to persist, to try to push my idea into the world, against all resistance. But now I’ve learned from experience: starting a business is like writing a song. You can’t know which one people will like. If the world isn’t into it, don’t keep pushing it. Change the song or just write another song.

#3 : Know what makes you happy.

Too many people start business by emulating others. Thinking they need to be like the people profiled in magazines, or the last business author they read. But what you want out of life is different than them. If you prefer privacy, or are happier when your company is small, you need to know this and make a plan that accommodates it, instead of pursuing someone else’s path.

q2

What’s the number-one quality one needs to have or choice one needs to make in translating a brilliant idea into successful entrepreneurship?

Be selfless. Do not think of yourself, your needs, your protection, your security. Think only of what would be a dream-come-true for your customers, and find a way to make that happen. Only after you design a perfect business from their perspective, should you adjust the numbers to make sure it’s sustainable. But focus entirely 100% on them, not yourself.

q3

Other thought-leaders have previously spoken about the fear of failure and it — or, more precisely, your seeming resistance to it — seems to be a running undercurrent in much of your work. What’s been the role of failure in your career and what would you say is the key to having a healthy relationship with it as an entrepreneur?

Like the “#2: If it’s not a hit, quit” thing: You need to learn to let go, shrug it off, and try something else. Think of the life of a songwriter. They write 100-500 songs in their life. One is a hit. Who knows why? Some random combination of ingredients or timing makes it really click with people.

It’s the same with anything we do. Even if you had a big dream, pushed for it, and it didn’t happen. Learn to let it go and do something else. There are so many different things worth doing. You’ve got plenty of ideas.

q4

Much has been said about the tectonic shifts in the music business today. Where do you see it all going in 10 years, both as an industry model and a sociocultural paradigm?

Nobody knows the future. Anyone who claims to know the future is full of shit, and not to be trusted.

Seriously. We have this strange obsession with wanting to know the future. But if you can learn to let that go, and admit you don’t know, you can stay focused on the very valuable skill of helping people here-and-now, instead of guessing what might be some day.

I don’t think about the future for one minute. Not at all. I can have some personal intentions, like, “I would like to move to Brazil in a few years.” But guessing what might happen in the world? No need.

q5

Back in the day, you and I became friends largely through the overlap of our reading lists and our shared belief that what we choose to read plays an important role in the life of the mind and the entrepreneurial self. What books have excited you the most over the past year?

The Personal MBA by Josh Kaufman

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William Irvine

Seeking Wisdom by Peter Bevelin

Switch by Chip Heath and Dan Heath

Ed.: Anything You Want is out today and an absolute gem. It’s available in hardcover, mp3 audiobook, CD audiobook, shareable 5-copy and 52-copy mulitpacks, ultra-limited-edition collectible signed by Derek, and, of course, on Kindle.

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28 JUNE, 2011

The Ego Trick: Julian Baggini in Search of the Self

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Why “I” is a verb, or what the building blocks of identity have to do with developing compassion.

How “you” are you, really? Character is something we tend to think of as a static, enduring quality, and yet we glorify stories of personal transformation. In reality, our essence oscillates between a set of hard-wired patterns and a fluid spectrum of tendencies that shift over time and in reaction to circumstances. This is exactly what journalist Julian Baggini, co-founder of The Philosopher’s Magazine, tries to reconcile in The Ego Trick: In Search of the Self — a fascinating journey across philosophy, anthropology, sociology, neuroscience, religion and psychology, painting “I” as a dynamic verb rather than a static noun, a concept in conflict with much of common sense and, certainly, with the ideals of Romantic individualism we examined this morning. In his illuminating recent talk at The RSA, Baggini probes deeper into the theory of self-creation and the essence of our identity.

The topic of personal identity is strictly speaking nonexistent. It’s important to recognize that we are not the kind of things that simply popped into existence at birth, continue to exist, the same thing, then die off the cliff edge or go into another realm. We are these very remarkably ordered collections of things. It is because we’re so ordered that we are able to think of ourselves as being singular persons. But there is no singular person there, that means we’re forever changing.” ~ Julian Baggini

For an excellent companion read, you won’t go wrong with Antonio Damasio’s excellent Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain.

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28 JUNE, 2011

BBC’s The Romantics: The Birth of the Individual in Modern Society

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What The French Revolution has to do with the love of nature and the birth of the modern individual.

The great philosopher and writer Jean-Jaques Rousseau (June 28, 1712–July 2, 1778) sparked a new dawn of hope for liberty and equality, ultimately fueling one of the greatest sociopolitical upheavals in the history of our civilization — The French Revolution — and, eventually, the American Revolution. These “Romantic” ideas permeated nearly every facet of culture, from art to politics, and the legacy of his seminal novel, Émile: or, On Education underpins many of the concepts in these 7 must-read books on education.

To celebrate Rousseau’s birthday, here is a fantastic 2005 BBC documentary titled The Romantics, exploring the birth of the individual in modern society. Each of the program’s three parts examines one key aspect of the Romanticism movement. Liberty looks at how Rousseau and his contemporaries, including Denis Diderot, William Blake, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, challenged the authority of Church and King to rein in a new era of self-empowerment.

Eternity explores the search for meaning in a world without God, following the revolutions of the 18th century, which forced people to make sense of their new reality outside the sanctions of the Church.

Nature examines how The Industrial Revolution tried to subvert and dominate nature on the path to profit, and how Romantic artists attempted to counter this tension by recasting nature in a context of relevance, approachability and understanding.

For more on Rousseau, the fascinating and honest The Confessions of Jean Jacques Rousseau won’t disappoint.

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