Brain Pickings

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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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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7 Platforms Changing the Future of Publishing and Storytelling

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Cutting out the middleman, or what the Nobel Peace Prize has to do with harnessing the potential of tablets.

Depending on whom you ask, these are either the best or the worst of times for the written word. As with every other branch of traditional media, the Internet has pushed the publishing industry to a critical inflection point, something we’ve previously discussed. Disrupting the mainstream marketplaces for journalism, literature, and the fundamental conventions of reading and writing themselves, here are seven startups that promise to reshape the way we create and consume ideas.

BYLINER

Byliner, whose beautifully designed site officially launched last week, is easily the most ambitious of the initiatives featured here. The startup is both a publisher, via its Byliner Originals subsidiary, and a discovery platform for longform nonfiction, offering Pandora-like recommendation functionality. The site is already loaded with more than 30,000 pieces, is searchable by author, publication, or topic, and allows writers to create their own pages and interact with audiences.

The startup’s first original offering, Three Cups of Deceit, tells the story of the now-disgraced Nobel Peace Prize nominee and bestselling author Greg Mortenson. National Book Award winner William T. Vollman penned Into the Forbidden Zone, a gripping, Gonzo-style report that had the author venture into Fukushima, Japan with only rubber kitchen gloves, a face mask and a self-procured radiation detector. Other longform exclusives from marquee names like Mary Roach, Mark Bittman, and Buzz Bissinger are forthcoming.

THE ATAVIST

With the tagline, “longer than an article, shorter than a book,” The Atavist considers itself a “boutique publishing house” that turns out bespoke nonfiction and narrative journalism for digital devices. It launched at the end of January with Lifted, a piece by founder and editor (and regular Wired contributor) Evan Ratliff, about one of the most elaborate bank heists in history. The Atavist‘s angle is to present “a new genre of nonfiction, a digital form that lies in the space between long narrative magazine articles and traditional books and e-books.”

Offering original content from well-established journalists and reporters, The Atavist also adds supplementary audio, video, and other contextual info to its selections, which are specifically designed for iPad, iPhone, Kindle and Nook.

UNBOUND

Bringing a crowdfunded model to books, the U.K.-based Unbound has been called the Kickstarter for publishing. Launched at the beginning of June, its idea is straightforward: “Publishing without middlemen. No gatekeepers. Just authors and readers deciding between them what books get to see the light of day.”

Currently only offering a curated selection of both fiction and nonfiction projects, Unbound hopes eventually to open its platform for other authors looking to self-publish. Most exciting for us at Brain Pickings among Unbound‘s first six selections: a potential iPad version of a gem we featured just a month back, The Cloud Collectors Handbook. With only 22 days left to earn funding for production, you can give to author Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s project here.

RED LEMONADE

Bringing the social networking paradigm to publishing, Red Lemonade aims to create a community of writers and readers around fiction and narrative nonfiction. The site’s mission statement stakes out an editorial position, as well:

We avoid labeling what we do but it tends to be risky, socially charged, misbehaving stuff. Red Lemonade is for the writers other publishers are afraid of.

Although Red Lemonade features titles by established (and excellent) authors Lynne Tillman and Matthew Battles, anyone can create an author profile and then annotate existing work. While it remains to be seen whether the website will reach the kind of critical mass necessary for sustained critical input, we’re excited by the works on display so far.

40K BOOKS

So called because its e-titles take 40 minutes to just over an hour to read, 40K Books presents a series of original novellas and nonfiction essays in English, French, Italian, Portuguese, and Spanish. The Milan, Italy-based startup impressed us early on both with its price points — 99 cents per purchase — and its strong selection of sci-fi and speculative fiction — including a few fantastic stories by Bruce Sterling — and practical pieces on publishing and the creative process.

Read our full feature on 40K Books here.

THE DOMINO PROJECT

Partnering with Amazon’s Kindle Singles initiative, marketing guru Seth Godin started The Domino Project in early 2011 as a series of manifestos on changemaking. The stand-out so far is author Steven Pressfield’s Do the Work, a powerful instruction manual on how to break through your creative blocks. We’re also totally revved for tomorrow’s release of Derek Sivers’s Anything You Want.

Read our full review of Do the Work here.

TED BOOKS

Of course Brain Pickings was first to the birthday party for TED Books, a nonfiction flash publishing imprint with an editorial vision matching TED’s world-class lecture series. All titles are under 20,000 words, and for $2.99 you can collect Cindy Gallop on sex, Nic Marks on happiness, and Gever Tulley on the dangers of dangerism.

Read our full feature on TED Books here.

Although these seven startups are thrilling, they barely touch on self-publishing, a phenomenon undergoing its own sea changes and seismic shifts. Regardless, for now we’re excited to follow the words, wherever we can find them.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

Brain Pickings has a free weekly newsletter and people say it’s cool. It comes out on Sundays and offers the week’s best articles. Here’s an example. Like? Sign up.