Book Review: The Hard Thing about Hard Things

I just finished The Hard Thing about Hard Things by Ben Horowitz.  This post will be about that book (which I read as an audio book), and have two parts: A general recommendation, and a key lesson.

First, the general recommendation:

This book was hilarious, informative, and highly enjoyable to listen to. Horowitz anchors hard-won lessons about managing technology companies with insightful comparisons to sports, music, and other industries.

The book is written largely in the second person – Horowitz is talking to you, and often talking to you pretty directly. The advice he gives is wrapped in exciting stories about his own experiences managing technology companies. The advice is about managing technology companies, but a lot of it is applicable to anyone. For example: There are many decisions when you know the right thing to do, but you’re afraid to commit, so you do a nearly right thing, or a related thing, or nothing. Don’t do that; have courage and commit. That advice might seem obvious, but I know I can remember times when I failed to follow it. Horowitz’s memorable examples will help me catch myself the next time I’m about to make the same blunder.

Horowitz talks directly about what helped him and what hurt him, what he did and what he learned. I recommend this book. I listened to this edition.

Second, the key lesson:

“Hire for abundance of strength rather than absence of weakness.” Horowitz said this numerous times during the book, and used it to explain why committees have so much trouble making great hires: Exceptional hires are atypical by definition, and therefore don’t fit into everyone’s view of what the candidate should look like, so the committee will pass on them because of some member’s strong objection, and then settle on a mediocre but expected candidate that Horowitz ridicules as coming straight from “general casting.” In contrast, if a candidate is evaluated for their possession of particular strengths, the bias of the hiring manager or committee is more easily overcome, and the organization can hire more exceptional people.

The goal of optimizing for particular strengths rather than avoiding general weakness is a great decision making metric. It reminds me of funfunfunction’s talk on frameworks, where he talks about how the more different things a tool does, the less likely it is to be excellent at a particular thing. I think I can summarize that video’s advice by saying: Use a general-purpose tool, unless or until you know you need the particular strengths of a specific tool, then use that tool. Horowitz, I think would agree, but would argue that when you’re hiring for a specific role, you need a known set of specific strengths.

There are other lessons in the book, but that seemed like the most broadly applicable to me. I found myself taking extra walks and extra trips to the gym just so I could keep listening to this book, which is a pretty good sign. I recommend it.

Till next time, happy learning!


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