Inside the Mind of Tony Hsieh: An Innovative CEO’s Word Cloud

If you can’t see image click here

Frequency is the currency of a word cloud. The more a word is repeated, the larger it appears in the cloud. (Scroll over the cloud for full effect.)

From this word cloud, based on our interview with Tony Hsieh, we can see what matters most to him. The words “PROFIT,” “MONEY” and “SHOES” are so small that you’d hardly guess that Hsieh is the CEO of Zappos the largest online shoe store in the world. But the super-sized words, “VALUES,” “CULTURE” and “PERSONAL,” offer us a clue into Hsieh’s thinking. His ultimate goal is not to sell shoes but to create a network of people who share common values and seek a higher purpose. In other words, for Hsieh, Zappos’s billion-dollar shoe business is a means to end. He could just as easily be helming an organic chicken farm or a biotech firm.

Hsieh told us,

“All great companies have a vision that encompasses a higher purpose beyond profits or being number one in the market. And the irony is that the higher purpose enables these companies to generate more profits than their peers.”


What a Teenage Sailor Taught Me About Dealing with Stress

Jessica Watson on her 2010 voyage around the world

I’ve fantasized about being an author since I was five years old so selling a book was a dream come true. But the process of actually writing a book made me feel like I was living in a submarine. After months of researching, wrangling, interviewing, transcribing, writing, editing and endless decision-making, I wondered, “Will I ever get through this?”  I fretted about everything from the tape recorder malfunctioning to the distinct possibility that we were producing something that no one would ever want to read.

Watson’s boat, Ella’s Pink Lady

It was the youngest participant in our book, the Australian Jessica Watson, who told me something that helped me deal with my stress. When Watson was just 11, she heard the tale of a young circumnavigator from her mother, and set a goal to do the same—sail around the world, non-stop, alone. Over the next five years, Watson underwent intensive self-directed research, training and planning. At 16, when most kids are still preoccupied with whatever version of popularity their peer group participates in, Watson set off on a 34-foot boat on a journey to become the youngest person ever to sail around the world alone. When we interviewed her about her voyage she told us,

“The success of your trip is as dependent on your mood as it is on your rigging. You’re down there in the middle of the ocean weeks from land or help. You can’t just say, ‘Okay, I’ve had enough.’ …. If you start thinking, ‘Ohh, it’s wet and it’s cold,’ that little thing turns into a bigger thing. And then you get more upset about that. And that makes you more upset about the next thing. And it snowballs. And soon you’re saying ‘There’s a whole ocean to go.’”

[EXPAND ]When I was in the midst of an authorial panic I’d sometimes think of what Watson had told me about how she’d dealt with all she’d gone through—the storms, a capsized boat, system failures, the boredom, the loneliness and the months and months at sea:

“One of the big tricks when you’re out there is to say, ‘Hey, it’s cold and I’m in a bad mood, but I’m going to get through the day, and eventually I’m going to warm up and feel better.’”

What I learned from her was simple. Breathe, focus on one task at a time and keep a cool head. Or as Watson put it,

“You can’t change the conditions but you can change the way that you deal with them.”

Although some might associate success with a raging Steve Jobs or a disdainful Donald Trump, we were surprised how often the people in our book spoke about their emotions and how managing them was critical to accomplishing their goals. Their emotional struggles were as varied as the people themselves. But like Watson, what they shared, was an awareness of the powerful emotions they felt. And when those emotions compromised their goals, they had the commitment and the skills to examine them and figure out how to cope with them.

Homecoming: On May 15, 2010, 16-year-old Watson sails into Sydney Harbor after 210 days at sea. While a customs officer stamps her passport, she devours whip cream from its nozzle just before joining the Australian Prime Minister in a ceremony. Watson’s first wish back: to get her driver’s license.

Face to Face with Guy Kawasaki

Lately we’ve spent a lot of time holed up in our NYC apartment, perched on our chairs, eyes glued to our screens as we develop a social media plan for our book. But this afternoon we took a break to meet with and get some advice from Jen van der Meer, innovation strategist, who just happens to be a neighbor from around the corner. And when we asked Jen the best way to reach blog editors and other potential influencers she said,

“Follow them on Twitter, find out where they live and if you’re in the same town, ask if they’ll meet you.”

Really? Instead of emailing someone a proposal, leave home and actually meet them? That sounds so…pre-Internet!

In fact Jen’s suggestion reminded us of the counterintuitive advice we got from one of the biggest boosters of social media, the business guru and former Apple evangelist Guy Kawasaki. When we interviewed Guy for our book he told us,

“Pressing the flesh is the best way to create relationships, so get out of your chair and jump into the analog world…. Get close enough to people that they become your fan and they love what you do so much that they camp overnight in front of your store to be the first person to buy your iPhone.”

But meeting and relating to people requires emotional risk—the possibility of performance anxiety, the sting of rejection and blow to your self-esteem. So although it may sometimes be more comfortable to obsessively count your Twitter followers, Facebook fans and likes, we shouldn’t forget that ultimately the most primal and satisfying sort of human interactions (and after all, those that may be most beneficial) are usually face to face.

Inside the Mind of Philippe Petit: A Highwire Walker’s Word Cloud

Photo: Kent Barrett

Frequency is the currency of a word cloud. The more a word is repeated, the larger it appears in the cloud. And so, from this word cloud, based on our interview with iconoclastic highwire artist Philippe Petit, we have a window into his thinking and what matters most to him. His words describe physicality, adventure and Petit’s poetic balancing act between life and death.

Scroll over the cloud for full effect.    (If no cloud appears click here.)

How a Bestselling Author Makes His Sentences Sing

In the process of working on “The Art of Doing,” we assimilated dozens of life lessons, tactics and tips—some that even helped us write this book. Stephen Dubner coauthor of the freakishly phenomenal “Freakonomics,” a book that has sold over 4 million copies, spawned a blog, a radio show, and of course, more books, told us,

“Writing was originally a way to preserve oral speech and I’ve never forgotten that….I prefer to write in a way that draws on the oral tradition.”

This was a lesson he learned as a child. Dubner’s family wrote its own DIY newspaper, the Quaker Street Quacker. And being the youngest of eight children, Dubner found competition to be published fierce. His mother would sit with him at the kitchen table and say, “Well, let’s read this out loud and see how it sounds.”

Dubner, who once fronted a rock band, considers writing and music twins.  He uses repetition, call-and-response and varies the lengths of his words and sentences the way a composer varies musical notes and phrases. And Dubner, who has written five books and hundreds of articles (most of which will be read silently by his readers), never forgot his mother’s advice, telling us,

“After writing every sentence, I read the words aloud.”

Even though we sometimes felt pretty silly, we tried this, too—reading aloud what we wrote. Surprisingly we found the ear to be an unrelenting critic. Hearing your own written words can be cringe-worthy. You can’t miss the clunky construction, uncommon word usage and convoluted logic. You’ll also hear when a sentence sings.

So whether it’s a memo or a memoir, a Tweet or a term paper, according to Dubner, listening to your writing by speaking the words aloud can help you write with greater clarity, simplicity and directness.

Oral Tradition Fact: 1906, Mark Twain begins to speak his autobiography aloud to a stenographer, accumulating half a million words. According to The New York Times, Twain argued that “speaking his recollections and his opinions, rather than writing them down, allowed him to adopt a more natural colloquial and frank tone….” Or as Twain himself put it, “One would expect dictated stuff to read like an impromptu speech, brokenly, catchily, repetitiously, & marred by absence of coherence, fluent movement, & the happy things that didn’t come till the speech was done—but it isn’t so.” 2010, Autobiography of Mark Twain Vol. 1 is published and becomes a bestseller.

Who’s Who in the Art of Doing

English author, Lady Constance Howard, writes in her 1885 book on etiquette about what makes a successful dinner party:

“Your guests should be remarkable for something—either beauty, wit, talent, money. You should be certain of such a flow of bright conversation that no one can be bored or feel in any way neglected.”

Although a bit dated, Lady Constance’s advice summed up our own philosophy about who we’d invite to participate in our book—a fantasy dinner party. We wanted brilliant, accomplished people at the top of their field, and of course a mix that would include people in business and art, media and sports, the young and old, the highbrow and low and the revered as well as some rogues.

Click to enlarge

Take a look at our table of contents—the world’s most famous dog whisperer, Cesar Millan is sandwiched between an opera diva and the winningest game show champ in history. A vintner is next to a civil rights lawyer who is next to an extraterrestrial hunter. Alec Baldwin has tennis champion Martina Navratilova on one side and cultural gadfly Simon Doonan on the other. And after all what’s a dinner party without a big game hunter, a rock band, a hostage negotiator, a bestselling author and Will Shortz, the crossword puzzle editor of the New York Times?

The Making of an Author’s Photo, Part 1

St. Matthew, 9th Cent.

One of the earliest examples of the author’s image is the Evangelist portrait. These portraits were glorious full page illuminations of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John that appeared in the frontispiece of Medieval Bibles.

Since then, the author’s image has been reduced from a full-page color illustration in the front of the book to a small black and white photo exiled to the back. But the purpose remains the same—to allow the reader to picture the person who wrote the words on the page.

In the Evangelists’ case, it was to confer saintly grandeur. For modern-day authors, as novelist Richard Ford (pictured to the right in a photo by Marion Ettlinger) once described it, the function of the author’s photo is as:

 “A porthole window on the back of a paperback, which the author peers through and says, ‘Hi.’”

But what about when your editor tells you that she needs an author’s photo of you? How will you say, “Hi”?

First of all, you want to appear intelligent. With some gravitas. You want to seem attractive and interesting. But not pretentious or as if you are trying too hard. You want to be taken seriously, but you don’t want to come across as dull.

There are many pitfalls, such as some of these hilarious examples of awful authors’ photos. Of course, the fantasy is to have the photo on the book jacket look more or less like one of the iconic images of authors pictured below.

Top Row: James Joyce, Franz Kafka, Emily Dickinson. Bottom Row: Alan Ginsburg, Ernest Hemingway, Oscar Wilde

Go here to read Part 2 about our process

The Making of an Author’s Photo, Part 2, Our Process

Since our photo would portray the two of us not only as co-authors but also as a married couple, the dynamic between us would be as important as the way we looked individually. As a photographer (and okay, an image control freak) before taking portraits of others, Josh often gathers examples of images from his gargantuan and not-always-well organized files of inspiration. Since the history of photography is so rich with iconic imagery sometimes it’s better to steal a great idea than come up with a half baked one on your own.

We chose a few images of couples and possible poses and printed them out as a cheat sheet.

We asked our good friend Svend Lindbaek brilliant photographer and technical wizard to photograph us in his studio.

As in most photo shoots no matter how well directed, the majority of the shots are fails.

To see the final image go here


The Making of an Author’s Photo, Part 3: The Final

Our favorite image from our photo shoot was self-plagarized. The pose was based on an image (left) Josh had shot for a fine art project that he himself had plagarized from a Sixties’ era French fashion magazine. We felt and hoped the image of us leaning against each other would communicate some of the complexity of our working relationship, but with a sense of humor. If one of us moved the other would fall.

We couldn’t decide how far to crop into the photo. After much discussion and polling some of our design-minded friends, we chose the full body shot. That is until our editor told us that the picture on the book’s back cover would be so small that it wouldn’t “read.” We’d have to crop it into a head shot (right). Richard Ford’s porthole window from Part 1.

At the shoot our six-year-old daughter Roxie was flabbergasted that she was not included in the photo. She insisted on one more shot that she art directed. It was shot on Camille’s iPhone. In the end it might be the best image of all.

More great author photos and images here and here and here.

Also see Part 1 and Part 2

Judging a Book by Its Cover

In the beginning, an aspiring author’s book is just a bunch of files in a bunch of folders on his or her hard drive. But at some point, if you are lucky enough, like us, to find a publisher, your book will become printed matter, a physical object—and it will need to have a cover.

Chip Kidd, brilliant book cover designer, author and editor, says of the book cover designer’s role:

“We bring stories to the public. And stories can be anything. But they all have one thing in common.  They all need a face to give you a first impression of what you are about to get into.”

A cover for your book like any of these (above) would be a dream come true—a  “face” so memorable and appealing it will be seared into the public consciousness for decades.  But really, what are the chances of that?

So naturally, Josh, (a former designer by trade) created not one, but ten possible book covers (below) to get a feel for what people may or may not like. We sent the covers out to our brain trust of family, friends and allies. The more literate liked the design-y covers. Those who wanted us to go more mass market liked the simpler, bolder (and okay, cheesier) covers. Creating the great cover would be harder than we thought. No one cover pleased everybody, including ourselves.

Then we sent all of these possible covers to the publisher, which they graciously accepted and apparently ignored. You may be the author of your book but that book will be assigned a designer and that designer will come up with cover concepts that will be shown around the publishing house to the editors and marketing people until a design is agreed on, at which point it will be shown to you. It’s as if you’ve been set up in an arranged marriage. What you will see when you lift the veil? Your biggest nightmare: What if the cover is ugly?!

An author’s nightmare: the ugly book cover.

One day the email arrived from our editor:

“Attached you’ll find the proposed cover for THE ART OF DOING. I’m pretty excited about it. I think it does an excellent job of bringing together a complex set of elements and conveying what the book is while being visually arresting.”

Designed by Janet Hansen

Opening the email attachment was like lifting the veil. IT WASN’T UGLY! We liked a lot of the design elements. The arrows conveyed the sense that the book was about process and gave the book an appropriate how-to-ish sort of feel. The dialog balloons communicated the sense that a reader would hear from these high achieving individuals in their own words. But was the cover too busy? Would people get it? Did it skew too young? Too hip? Too yellow? Most importantly, would it sell?

Bill Gross, the brilliant founder of the Technology Incubator  Idealab which has started 100 companies (we interviewed him for our book on How to Start a Startup) was adamant about testing a product or service before going to market. Not in a focus group but in an environment as close as possible to the real thing. Testing his theory of testing, we searched for a same-sized book with a yellow cover and found Philip Roth’s Nemesis was a perfect fit. So we printed out our cover, taped it to Roth’s Nemesis, and set out for Barnes & Noble.


We wandered the store, mock-up book in hand, trying not to draw the attention of B&N employees and guards. We had whispered discussions about which customers to approach, only to have our potential targets leave the floor before we’d worked up our courage. Finally Camille approached a young woman and asked: Would you buy this book? The target was a French tourist who barely spoke English. But we’d broken the ice and approached others. Younger shoppers seemed to get the book. Older ones complained about the small type size and couldn’t fathom what the book was about. One guy with Fifty Shades of Grey tucked under his arm, peered closely at the cover, and nodded, “I’m in.”  He’d try anything he said.

Knowing that our power with the publisher was limited, and basically liking the design, we requested only a few discrete changes, larger type size, text revisions for clarity and an added “many more” line to let people know they’d get their money’s worth.

And here’s what we got. A face we can actually love.

Chip Kidd says,

“Book designers responsibility is three fold. To the reader, to the publisher and most of all to the author. I want you [the reader] to look at the author’s book and say, ‘Wow, I need to read that.’”

We hope potential readers feel the same.

If you’re a fan of book covers, here are enough links to waste an afternoon or two: making of a cover in two minutes, vintage covers, more vintage covers,  Penguin and Pelican covers, sleazy covers, pulp covers, more pulp covers, old paperbacks, French covers, Latvian covers, all kinds of covers, NYPL archive, blog, and another blog.