Writing and Running: Haruki Murakami

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I’ve never read one of Murakami’s novels, but I recently picked up his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I just finished Stephen King’s On Writing, so when I spotted it in a bookstore it seemed like a logical thing to read next.

Murakami’s prose is simple and his attitude is unassuming. Basically the entire book is spent talking about running (his main pastime aside from writing). The way he writes sets up a kind of hypnotic rhythm that he builds over the course of the book. Mostly he talks about marathons: training for marathons, running in marathons, competing in triathlons, etc. But every so often the book is also interspersed with these great nuggets about writing and life.

One parallel that Murakami draws between writing and running is that both act as a sort of alchemy for the events and emotions in his life. Both writing and running allow him to take what happens to him – events, emotions, feelings – and transmute them in to another, useful, form.

“When I’m criticized unjustly (from my viewpoint, at least), or when someone I’m sure will understand me doesn’t, I go running for a little longer than usual. By running longer it’s like I can physically exhaust that portion of my discontent. It also makes me realize again how weak I am, how limited my abilities are. I become aware, physically, of these low points. And one of the results of running a little farther than usual is that I become that much stronger. If I’m angry, I direct that anger toward myself. If I have a frustrating experience, I use that to improve myself. That’s the way I’ve always lived. I quietly absorb the things I’m able to, releasing them later, and in as changed a form as possible, as part of the story line in a novel.”

One thing that I noticed reading Murakami he has very deep, zen-like thoughts on the nature of the mind and the meaning of life, but he says them so matter-of-factly that you might miss them:

“The thoughts that occur to me while I’m running are like clouds in the sky. Clouds of all different sizes. They come and they go, while the sky remains the same sky as always. The clouds are mere guests in the sky that pass away and vanish, leaving behind the sky. The sky both exists and doesn’t exist. It has substance and at the same time doesn’t. And we merely accept that vast expanse and drink it in.”

He talks a lot about things that are constantly changing in form: clouds, the sky, and the water in the river where he runs. And he uses it to place himself in the broader picture of the world:

“The surface of the water changes from day to day: the color, the shape of the waves, the speed of the current. Each season brings distinct changes to the plants and animals that surround the river. Clouds of all sizes show up and move on, and the surface of the river, lit by the sun, reflects these white shapes as they come and go, sometimes faithfully, sometimes distortedly…In the midst of this flow, I’m aware of myself as one tiny piece in the gigantic mosaic of nature. I’m just a replaceable natural phenomenon, like the water in the river that flows under the bridge to the sea.”

A lot of writers talk about pain as the engine behind the creative process. Someone like Dostoevsky comes to mind. Murakami is in this camp as well. Here he talks about emotional pain:

“As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve gradually come to the realization that this kind of pain and hurt is a necessary part of life. If you think about it, it’s precisely because people are different from others that they’re able to create their own independent selves. Take me as an example. It’s precisely my ability to detect some aspects of a scene that other people can’t, to feel differently than others and choose words that differ from theirs, that’s allowed me to write stories that are mine alone. And because of this we have the extraordinary situation in which quite a few people read what I’ve written. So the fact that I’m me and no one else is one of my greatest assets. Emotional hurt is the price a person has to pay in order to be independent…”

Aside from just emotional pain, Murakami also talks about physical pain, which is a key part of his routine as a serious marathon runner.

“Of course it was painful, and there were times when, emotionally, I just wanted to chuck it all. But pain seems to be a precondition for this kind of sport. If pain weren’t involved, who in the world would ever go to the trouble of taking part in sports like the triathlon or the marathon, which demand such an investment of time and energy? It’s precisely because of the pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get the feeling, through this process, of really being alive…Your quality of experience is based not on standards such as time or ranking, but on finally awakening to an awareness of the fluidity within action itself. If things go well, that is.”

By the end of the book, he’s sort of established the rhythm of his life for us: he writes, he trains for marathons, he runs marathons. Rinse and repeat. He’s consistently doing things, but not always making visible progress.

He likens it to pouring water in to an old pan with a hole at the bottom: there’s always water running through it, but the pan never fills up. But the message he leaves us with, is that despite pouring tremendous effort in to these seemingly inefficient activities, it’s these very activities that have borne the most fruit in his life.

“Even if, seen from the outside, or from some higher vantage point, this sort of life looks pointless or futile, or even extremely inefficient, it doesn’t bother me. Maybe it’s some pointless act like, as I’ve said before, pouring water in to an old pan that has a hole in the bottom, but at least the effort you put into it remains. Whether it’s good for anything or not, cool or totally uncool, in the final analysis what’s most important is what you can’t see but can feel in your heart. To be able to grasp something of value, sometimes you have to perform seemingly inefficient acts. But even activities that appear fruitless don’t necessarily end up so. That’s the feeling I have, as someone who’s felt this, who’s experienced it.”


14 Dec 2014, 9:04pm | 4 comments

Bertrand Russell and Will Durant on Philosophy, Science and Religion

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I majored in philosophy in college, but it can still be difficult to define exactly what it encompasses and why it’s a unique way of looking at the world.

What does it mean? How is philosophical thinking different from scientific thinking? How is it different from religious thinking? Is philosophy irrelevant in the face of our ever-expanding scientific knowledge of the world?

I recently picked up Bertrand Russell’s classic tome The History of Western Philosophy and came across this excellent discussion of the word in its introduction:

Philosophy, as I shall understand the word, is something intermediate between theology and science. Like theology, it consists of speculations on matters as to which definite knowledge has, so far, been unascertainable; but like science, it appeals to human reason rather than to authority, whether that of tradition or that of revelation.

All definite knowledge – so I should contend – belongs to science; all dogmas as to what surpasses definite knowledge belongs to theology. But between theology and science there is a No Man’s Land, exposed to attack from both sides, and this No Man’s Land is philosophy. Almost all the questions of most interest to speculative minds are such as science cannot answer, and the confident answers of theologians no longer seem so convincing as they did in former centuries.

He goes on to list a few of the kinds of questions that philosophy considers:

Is the world divided into mind and matter, and, if so, what is mind and what is matter? Is mind subject to matter, or is it possessed of independent powers? Has the universe any unity or purpose? Is it evolving towards some goal? Are there really laws of nature, or do we believe in them only because of our innate love of order? Is man what he seems to the astronomer, a tiny lump of impure carbon and water impotently crawling on a small and unimportant planet? Or is he what he appears to Hamlet? Is he perhaps both at once? Is there a way of living that is noble and another that is base, or are all ways of living merely futile? Must the good be eternal in order to deserve to be valued, or it is it worth seeking even if the universe is inexorably moving towards death? Is there such a thing as wisdom, or is what seems such merely the ultimate refinement of folly?

To such questions no answer can be found in the laboratory. Theologies have professed to give answers, all too definite; but their very definiteness causes modern minds to view them with suspicion. The studying of these questions, if not the answering of them, is the business of philosophy.

Philosophy is tasked with answering “unanswerable” questions without resorting to dogma and revealed truth. Does it really achieve that? Many times, it seems like a lot of philosophy is just concerned with debating useless stuff.

Consider the thoughts of historian Will Durant:

Some ungentle reader will check us here by informing us that philosophy is as useless as chess, as obscure as ignorance, and as stagnant as content. “There is nothing so absurd,” said Cicero, “but that it may be found in the books of the philosophers.”

Doubtless some philosophers have had all sorts of wisdom except common sense; and many a philosophic flight has been due to the elevating power of thin air. Let us resolve, on this voyage of ours, to put in only at the ports of light, to keep out of the muddy streams of metaphysics and the “many-sounding seas” of theological dispute.

But is philosophy stagnant? Science seems always to advance, while philosophy seems always to lose ground. Yet this is only because philosophy accepts the hard and hazardous task of dealing with problems not yet open to the methods of science —problems like good and evil, beauty and ugliness, order and freedom, life and death; so soon as a field of inquiry yields knowledge susceptible of exact formulation it is called science.

Every science begins as philosophy and ends as art; it arises in hypothesis and flows into achievement. Philosophy is a hypothetical interpretation of the unknown (as in metaphysics), or of the inexactly known (as in ethics or political philosophy); it is the front trench in the siege of truth. Science is the captured territory; and behind it are those secure regions in which knowledge and art build our imperfect and marvelous world….

Science tells us how to heal and how to kill; it reduces the death rate in retail and then kills us wholesale in war; but only wisdom—desire coordinated in the light of all experience— can tell us when to heal and when to kill. To observe processes and to construct means is science; to criticize and coordinate ends is philosophy: and because in these days our means and instruments have multiplied beyond our interpretation and synthesis of ideals and ends, our life is full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. For a fact is nothing except in relation to desire; it is not complete except in relation to a purpose and a whole. Science without philosophy, facts without perspective and valuation, cannot save us from havoc and despair. Science gives us knowledge, but only philosophy can give us wisdom.

Both Russell’s The History of Western Philosophy and Durant’s The Story of Philosophy are excellent introductions to philosophical thinking.

Over the next few months I’m going to be experimenting with posting excerpts from books I read in this space (like this one) instead of just long essays. Ideally this will allow me write more frequently in between the times when I publish more personal long-form pieces.


8 Nov 2014, 4:10am | leave a comment

Latent serendipity

When I was a kid I liked to dress up in the stories of successful people.

I read about how Bill Gates used to rock in his chair when he was thinking, and for a few months after that I made sure to rock back and forth whenever I was programming. I read a book about Stephen Hawking that described how Oxford graduate students would buy huge sketchbooks to scribble physics formulas in, and so I went out and bought a huge sketchbook to carry around with me.

We all do this. We read little snippets of people’s lives in long magazine exposés, or see adaptations of their adventures in 2-hour summer biopics, and we take their personality traits and try them on like a pair of new shoes. Then we look at ourselves in the mirror of our minds and ask: “Does this fit? Do I do that too?”

When it’s something like rocking back and forth in our chair we can usually fudge it and say, “Yeah, I do that.” Sometimes we really do end up doing those things for a couple of weeks. Something in our brains tells us if we’re similar to these people we’ll be more likely to share in their success.

But sometimes, trying on these stories doesn’t work at all. There’s a special class of stories that make our minds come up blank.

You hear a singer say, “Well, my parents always played Aretha Franklin at home so she was a big influence for me.” Or an entrepreneur say, “Well, I noticed early on that customer service was the biggest part of running a successful business, and so that’s why our vision is to help companies do better support.”

It’s like successful people have these little insightful anecdotes that they can use to explain their lives. Things like, “This has always been important to me.” Or, “I noticed this from a young age.” Or, “I’ve always been really interested in this.” These anecdotes, these calcified bits of personal history, carry a certain kind of inevitability about them. Like they were always important, and clearly pre-destined to have a huge impact on the life of the person telling them.

When we hear these things, we think to ourselves, “What did I notice early on that I can use to start my business?” or “What did my parents do that’s going to influence my future success?”

Usually, we don’t have an answer. Our brains say, “Your parents never listened to Aretha Franklin.” Or, “You never noticed that customer service was important when you were a kid.” There’s nothing obvious about our daily lives that will inevitably lead to our future success.

Why is is this? Why do we feel like we don’t have this special kind of story to tell? Why can’t we talk about these obvious parts of our lives that will inevitably lead to our success?

And, if we don’t have them, how did these successful people get them? Is it causational? Are they successful because they’ve always known what was “unique” about their experiences that they could apply to their lives? Or is something else going on? Continue Reading


29 Sep 2014, 9:39pm | 11 comments

What I learned bootstrapping a 6-figure business from school

When I got to college three years ago I set two goals for myself. By the time I graduated I wanted to:

  1. Be well read
  2. Learn how to build a real software business

By real business I meant a business that has paying customers from day one and that makes enough money every month that I could work on it full time when I graduated.

Although I wouldn’t go as far as to call myself well-read (I don’t think that’s something to be achieved, just pursued) I can confidently cross goal number two off of my list:

In about 11 months we’ve built Firefly up to well into the 6 figures in recurring revenue.

We’ve done this primarily through two channels: on-site website signups and large partnerships.

In July we announced a partnership with Olark to roll our cobrowsing out to their 5,000 paying customers. We’ve also struck similar deals with much larger customer support companies as well as companies in other verticals like financial services.

What makes this somewhat special is that there’s just two of us working on the business, we’re entirely bootstrapped (except for 20k from the excellent Dorm Room Fund), and this year I’m going to be a senior in college.

Because the past few years have been such a crazy ride, I wanted to take some time to write down some of the things I’ve learned along the way. Continue Reading


11 Sep 2013, 4:15pm | 59 comments

You’re selling it wrong

The other day I had coffee with two friends, we’ll call them Peter and Alex.

Peter is working on a new startup, and Alex runs a large organization. Here’s how Peter pitched what he’s working on:

Peter: So basically I’m working on a startup called W. It does X, Y and Z for large organizations. It’s especially great if you need to organize and respond to lots of support emails.

Alex: Wow, that sounds awesome. We definitely need to respond to lots of support emails for Organization X.

Peter: Yeah, it should be perfect for you guys. Would you pay for it?

Alex: Hmmm, I’m not sure. I’d really have to think about that. I think I’d have to see the product before I could say.

Here Alex is pulling away. Peter senses this and pushes further.

Peter: It could really save you a ton of time though. Think of all the hours you spend answering support emails.

Alex: Yeah, yeah definitely. It’s just I think I have to see the product itself first.

Awkward silence.

Ok, let’s stop and rewind. Where did this pitch go wrong?

The first thing to note, is that Peter is doing the right thing by asking for money.

If you’re in Peter’s position, the only way you’re really going to be able to tell if someone is going to buy your product is if they actually give you their credit card number.

But the thing to be aware of when you’re pitching your startup is that you’re not asking for an early customer’s credit card because you want their money – not really. You’re asking for for their money because it’s an excellent way to elicit useful information: people aren’t polite when money is at stake.

The problem is that when some founders ask for money, instead of using it as a tool to gather feedback, they end up steamrolling the person on the other end. They unintentionally smother the signals that are being given off in the conversation because it feels like the goal is to get the credit card.

To be clear, the goal is not to get a credit card: it’s to get information.

The first sign of trouble was right after Peter asked Alex if he would pay for his product. His response was, “I think I’d have to see the product before I could say.” With a response like that, it’s clear that Alex is pushing off a purchasing decision.

Peter sensed this, but he was in Sell Mode so he pushed further about the potential benefits of his product: “Think of all the hours you spend answering support emails.”

Now Alex feels trapped and antagonized. So instead of doing what Peter wants and agreeing to buy, he just politely pushed him off again by saying, “It’s just I think I have to see the product itself first.”

And after that second attempt the conversation was basically over. Peter learned nothing except that Alex didn’t want to buy his product that day.

But that’s not really useful information is it? What Peter needs to find out is: why didn’t Alex want to buy?

Here’s what should have happened:

Peter: So basically I’m working on a startup called W. It does X, Y and Z for large organizations. It’s especially great if you need to organize and respond to lots of support emails.

Alex: Wow, that sounds awesome. We definitely need to respond to lots of support emails for Organization X.

Peter: Yeah, it should be perfect for you guys. Would you pay for it?

Alex: Hmmm, I’m not sure. I’d really have to think about that. I think I’d have to see the product before I could say.

Here Peter encounters the same resistance as before, but instead of steamrolling over it he decides to find out where it’s coming from. The first thing to check is whether Alex can actually make a buying decision for his organization.

Peter: Gotcha, no problem. So if you were going to buy software like this, what would the process be like?

Alex: Well basically I’d take it to my team and we would discuss it. Fred is in charge of the support side of things so it would really depend on how useful he thinks it is.

Bingo. Now Peter knows that Alex was resisting because he couldn’t even buy the software if he wanted to. Now Peter should find out if there are any other reasons why Alex didn’t want to commit, and also how much his organization might be willing to spend.

Peter: Oh that makes perfect sense. Do you guys use any software that does this already?

Alex: Yeah, we actually bought Zendesk for everyone in the office. It’s about $24 bucks a month per person.

Now Peter knows that he can at least charge $24 bucks a seat. Now he needs to find out more about how they use Zendesk.

Peter: Interesting, how do you use Zendesk right now?

Alex: Glad you asked! I love Zendesk, but there are also some things I wished it had…

Do you see how easy it was to take an antagonistic pitch that lasted 4 minutes, resulted in zero sales, and generated no useful information and turn it in to a long, meaningful, and constructive conversation where both parties are engaged and interested?

Be prepared to listen when people give off subtle signals. Read between the lines. Ask for money because it’s the best way to get useful information, not because you want money.

Always try to listen more than you talk.


17 Aug 2013, 12:02am | 9 comments

Public speaking for introverts

A few days before I have to talk in front a lot of people I get this queasy feeling in my stomach that won’t go away.

I don’t want to eat. I just want to cancel the talk because I don’t want to deal with the stress.

My hands get sweaty before I get on stage. I feel like I want to run away. I consider asking someone else to get up there instead of me.

And then I walk out there, do what I have to do, and everything works out fine. I’m usually even pretty exhilarated by the time I get done. Continue Reading


12 Aug 2013, 3:39am | 27 comments

How to get your first 10 customers

Preface: the assumption for this essay is that you’re building a B2B app, and you have something built but you’re having trouble getting people to pay for it

There are three problems with getting your first few customers:

  1. You (probably) don’t know how to sell things
  2. You don’t know who you’re selling to
  3. You don’t even really know what you’re selling

Nobody tells you how to answers these questions, and so most people go out to get initial traction in a haphazard way:

  1. They have a vague idea in mind for who wants their product
  2. They’ve already built the product, so they put together a landing page which which, like, totally speaks to the core value proposition
  3. They write some combination of any of the following:
    A few half-baked ads
    A few forum posts
    A few comments on relevant blogs
    A few blog posts
    A few cold emails to journalists (because, dude, we would BLOW UP if we could just get ‘Crunched)
  4. They send these out into the wild, and (no surprise!), get very few responses
  5. They conclude that the product must suck and that nobody wants it, because Mark Zuckerberg did exactly the same thing to launch Facebook at Harvard and look at how that worked out for him

If you try to get initial traction this way, it’s very difficult to untangle why it didn’t work:

Were the ads targeted to the wrong keyword?
Was the copy not compelling enough?
Was the sample size too small?
Or does no one want what I’m selling?

When they fail to get initial traction, most people conclude that the product is the problem. That no one wants what they’re selling.

They never consider that the way they’re selling might be COMPLETELY wrong (either in the way the product is being pitched, who it’s being pitched to, or some combination of the two.)

I think most of us have been lulled into this sense that the second you post your new product to a listserve you should automatically get sucked into a 4 minute montage scene featuring dark ominous 9 Inch Nails background music only to be spat out at the end with enough money to buy that estate on the Amalfi Coast.

And when that doesn’t happen, our first response is always to blame the product.

Formally this is called the actor observer bias which tells us that we tend to blame things that don’t go right in our lives to circumstances beyond our control:

“No one responded to my emails, so the product must suck. Nobody wants it, otherwise it would already be on TechCrunch.”

This is wrong. Here’s the truth:

You have learned nothing from spending $200 on Adwords, or writing a few comments, or sending cold emails to journalists.

Let me repeat: You have learned nothing. You get a big Zero. You have no actionable information.

Your product could suck. But it could still also be completely your fault. Or it could be completely random that you didn’t get any responses. Maybe the journalists were having a bad day, or the three people who clicked on your ads were just bots.

The point is: buying a few ads, or sending a few emails, or writing a few blog posts is not enough to conclude anything.

Untangling why you’re not making sales seems like an almost insurmountable problem, especially when you realize that at the beginning you don’t even really know what you’re selling.

The problem with startups is that you have to figure out WHAT you’re selling AS you’re selling it.

It’s like having a big black bag with a product inside it, and you have to run around selling it to people you see on the street. And worse, you’re not allowed to look into the bag to know what it is you’re selling. You can put your hands into it and feel around, but that’s the extent of it.

Ok, so how do you deal with this? How do you start to figure out what you’re selling, who you’re selling to, and how to sell? How do you get those first few customers? Continue Reading


17 Jul 2013, 6:49pm | 51 comments

So that’s what they were talking about

There’s a great scene from Woody Allen’s Manhattan that goes like this:

Mary Wilke: Facts? I got a million facts at my fingertips.

Isaac Davis: That’s right, and they don’t mean a thing, right? Because nothing worth knowing can be understood with the mind. Everything really valuable has to enter you through a different opening, if you’ll forgive the disgusting imagery.

I think it poses an important question for entrepreneurs:

What can we understand intellectually? And what, to paraphrase Woody, has to enter you in a different way? Continue Reading


2 Jul 2013, 4:30pm | 13 comments

Why you’re on a startup rollercoaster

Let me know if this sounds like you:

Some days you feel like what you’re working on is going to turn into the biggest company, like, ever. You feel like you’re on top of the world. Like all you really have to worry about now is how you should style your hair on magazine covers, and whether Ben Mezrich is going to write a totally unauthorized account of your meteoric rise to fame and fortune. “No comment,” you’ll say when you’re asked if everything he says about you is true.

But on other days you feel like everything sucks. Like all of this was a total waste of time. Like your prospects are slimmer than a candle in a hurricane. Like you’re surprised that you could ever think that your idea could ever go anywhere.

And the funniest thing is that rationally you know that there is very little difference between the days when you feel great and the days when you feel terrible. In other words, even though you feel different nothing meaningful about your company has really changed.

In short: running your company is an emotional roller coaster. Continue Reading


19 Jun 2013, 3:24pm | 19 comments

On negotiating your first few partnerships

This post was republished on PandoDaily.

Dealing with partnership contracts as a new startup is hard.

There’s very little in the way of “standard” terms and conditions when it comes to software (at least that I can find). Everything is specific to the kind of software you have and the kind of company you’re partnering with. When there’s no standard to work with, the first few deals can be kind of a pain if (like us) you’ve never done this before.

The way we managed to get through this was:

  1. Get good advice about what’s reasonable from people who have been there before
  2. Once you’re actually in the contract phase have a good lawyer (I love you Lowenstein Sandler!) to help you craft language and avoid common pitfalls

Because a lot of this advice cost me about time, money, blood, sweat and tears I thought it might be worthwhile to talk a little bit about these kinds of deals on a high level and get into some specific things that we’ve run into that are helpful to think about. Continue Reading


14 Jun 2013, 10:00am | 13 comments

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