Tracy Kidder describes and extols the accomplishments of Paul English, a product of the Boston school system, who was a creative student of technology and a supporter of entrepreneurship for decades. His ventures, large and small, some hare-brained and some brilliant, some failed and some successful, were and still may be, all over the map, but he made fortunes and lost fortunes, because he was in the right time and the right place at the crossroads of an America about to enter cyberspace. For English, it was full speed ahead into the future; he had the nerve and the brain power to survive and succeed. English was a risk taker, and he sometimes broke rules, even as a school boy. To partner with him, you would risk failure, but when you succeeded, it would be beyond your wildest dreams. His creation Kayak, which merged with Priceline, set him up financially for the rest of his life. He became a very wealthy man.
The book begins describing him as a troubled young boy who continued to be troubled as a young man. He struggled with huge mood swings, and manic episodes. He was finally diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. He researched his mental illness to find out how to control it better without becoming a zombie from the medications. He resisted them because of their side effects, but over many years and many trials and errors, he finally found a woman who validated him and medications he could tolerate. Together, they could keep him centered. His illness worked to his benefit because it inspired him to keep thinking and doing and to not accept failure as a consequence, but to always rise up in the face of it and begin again. He often judged himself and found he fell short of the mark. This inspired him to do better. When his mom said “keep up the good work”, on her deathbed, he interpreted her remark to mean he, so far, hadn’t done well enough. His moments of depression, the alternate side of his bi-polar disease, never seemed to gain control of him. He always kept trying to do something else to change the world, to enter modernity with a bang.
He needed to always have a project in the pipeline, something on the drawing board, something to work on that would move him in a useful and a productive direction. He liked building teams of workers. He wanted to interact with others to get ideas, and even today, that need inspires him to use his own Tesla to drive for Uber, not for the money but because he likes to interact with people, to learn about their ideas. These may be the people he might someday consider hiring to work for him on a project. So, he always needed to keep busy, busier when he was in a mania phase of his bipolar disease, but it was his passion that stood out most for those people who worked with him or listened to him or attended his classes. His display of sheer excitement, when an idea came to him, and he promoted it, actually enticed people to join in his efforts and endeavors. Some were wary of his impulsiveness, at times, and tried to rein him in, but it also attracted the creative technocrats who admired his passion.
He was inspired to create an anti NRA organization for people who liked guns but thought there should be better controls for the industry. It failed, but not because of lack of good reasons, but more because of lack of interest. Some of his ideas failed, not because they were not good ideas, but because they were before their time. Another person would bring them to the world, like Uber and Trip Advisor and cars that could think and act to curtail speeding and prevent accidents. He brought aid to Haiti when he witnessed the sad state of affairs for the children. He investigated the homeless situation to find out how he could better help them, aside from simply donating money.
English is definitely one of the do-gooders in our time. He doesn’t waste too much time thinking about what he should do, he acts on his ideas promptly. He took time off to care for his father when his memory began to fail. Until it was necessary to put him in a facility, he was devoted. He is one of those people who is more interested in the value that his work brings to the world rather than in the money he receives for it or the money he pays for it. Fortunately, his successes have placed him in a financial position to feel that way. The results of his efforts are what actually inspire him. His need to help others less fortunate is genuine and he seeks out those who need help.
Paul English never stared defeat in the face, rather he looked askance at it, dusted himself off and sought another avenue to explore and build upon, another company, another group of people to support and to encourage in their endeavors.
English is driven by the idea of opportunity. His results, come what may, don’t deter him. If he fails he just keeps trying to succeed. The mania part of his illness works positively for him because it keeps him on his toes, thinking and creating constantly. The book is well written for what it is, but I really had no interest in it. The narrator did as good a job as one would expect for a book that was a bit dry, but I wasn’t inspired by it, although the subject of the books apparent “goodness” is admirable. I will soon have a hard copy and will give it another look-see, since I am going to an author breakfast with him. Perhaps in a hard copy, it will be more inspiring.