Category Archives: Book reviews

The Hard Thing About Hard Things in Education Reform

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I’m rereading Ben Horowitz’s The Hard Thing About Hard Things. If you haven’t read it, it’s well worth reading.

The book is an attempt to be brutally honest about how hard is to build a company, as well as give some advice on how to survive the hard times.

I learned a lot from reading about Ben’s experience.

So in case it’s of use to you, here’s some summaries / lessons from my very hard times in my own professional career.

Leading School Development Work Without Instructional Knowledge

NSNO had two experienced educators leading our new school creation work. It was very hard to find two top notch instructional people and we’d done a lot of recruiting to get these awesome folks and I thought we were in good shape staffing wise. I was wrong. They both had children at roughly the same time and I ended up leading our school support work while they were out.

Even writing this now, I feel some sense of embarrassment and guilt as I was 100% not ready for the job. I remember being very anxious and feeling dread going into the schools we working with. They were all start-up schools that needed excellent support and I knew that I personally could not give them the support that they needed.

There is really nothing more to say other than I showed up and did what I could and kept the work moving until our team was reassembled.  The only thing I think I did well was stay calm and focused. I never freaked out publicly and I kept our support visible. We kept on showing up to schools. I’m not sure there is anything I could have done different. It was an external shock and sometimes when external shocks happen you just have to survive.

Failing in Raising a Major Fundraising Round

NSNO was trying to raise somewhere around $15 million for the city and we arranged a final pitch day for our biggest funders. They flew in from all over the country and for the day we put them in front of high status speakers and panels full of our best educators. Then, at the end of the day, they said they needed some time to debrief. So our leadership team, including our board chair, left the room for about an hour. Then we came back in. The funders proceeded to tell us that they weren’t ready to make another major investment; that they still had too many questions.

I was shocked. I thought we had everything lined up. I thought we put on an awesome day. And I felt passionately that the work had to continue; that we were on the cusp of something very very important and that they were going to abandon us. With as much calm as I could muster, I told them this; that they needed to invest. I was very young at the time and if my voice wasn’t shaking audibly my mind surely was shaking. They said they understood where we were coming from but that they weren’t ready to invest. The meeting ended. I went up home to my girlfriend and cursed loudly about how the funders were abandoning us. Then I drank a few bourbons and went to bed.

Shortly after, we told the staff that were unsuccessful in getting the commitments we needed. I forget what we said or how we said it. Mostly what I remember is creating a plan to go back to each of the funders individually and figure out what their concerns were and make sure we fixed it. This is what we did. Eventually we raised more than we had initially set out to raise.

The reason the day was a failure was all our fault. Instead of understanding our funders’ concerns and having deep discussions about these issues, we put on a dog and pony show for them. They were rightful frustrated, and, I think, felt like they had wasted much of the day. Putting on this dog and pony show both kept them from getting the information they needed and made us look like we did not have our shit together. The reason we were able to get through it is that we were very dogged; we did not hold grudges; and, ultimately, we put forth a realistic and compelling vision of what we could accomplish as a city.

Failing to Lead the NSNO Management Team

When I first became CEO everyone on our management team was much more experienced than I was. And while I was confident in my ability to develop our organizational strategy and communicate this vision to internal and external stakeholders, I was not confident in my ability to manage senior staff who had more content knowledge than I did. So instead of building a management team I simply met weekly with our senior staff to make sure the work was moving. I did not set high expectations for the work; I did not build trust amongst the team; I did not provide thoughtful feedback; I did not create an atmosphere of debate.

During our first 360 performance review, I received brutal feedback. The management team made it very clear that I was failing to lead them. It was extremely, extremely difficult to hear. I was emotionally hurt and for about a day couldn’t even really deal with it. Then I got my act together and met with each of them to figure out how I could get better. I built a plan to become a true leader of the management team and mentally committed myself to deliberately managing the team. Soon after, we did an off site retreat and got much more vulnerable with each other; we began to push each other; and I began to internalize the fact that perhaps the most important role I had was leading the management team. Overtime, the management team became, in my opinion, very high-performing and all members stayed with me through my tenure.

Not leading the management team was 100% my fault. I was unprepared to be an effective CEO and if I had prepared more fully I could have avoided some early mistakes. The only reason I survived is that I think every member of the team knew two things: (1) I was passionate about NSNO and (2) I was an extremely committed constant learner.

If people believe you care and they know you want to get better and they trust that you can get better they will forgive you when you fuck up.

Anyways, those were some hard things. I’m sure I got some of the details wrong. But, at the very least, that’s how they felt.

A Book Well Worth Reading

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Last week I left my Kindle at a hotel in Memphis.

So I picked up a book off the shelf that I’d ordered a month ago, The Education of a Value Investor, by Guy Spier.

The book is well worth reading.

I find most autobiographical books to be tedious, dishonest, and overlong.

This book was none of these.

Guy’s story is one of privilege: Oxford to Harvard Business School to Wall Street. Over the course of the narrative, he loses himself, finds himself, and then obsesses about improving himself.

The last piece is what makes the book different than similar books, and it is what I found to be the most interesting, as I have a similar obsession, though it does not run as strong as it does with Guy.

Some highlights:

Guy (and his editor, presumably) do not seem to polish Guy’s personality: Guy describes himself as having both ADD and an obsessive personality. The book’s tone and structure reflect this. By not hiding himself, Guy allows the reader to accurately discount some of the book’s claims and recommendations. No one is perfect, and when an author is open about her imperfections, the reader can better evaluate the author’s main points.

An acceptance of irrationality: Guy comes to the conclusion that he can’t overcome all his irrational biases through logic and mental training. As such, he tries to structure his environment, relationships, and work processes in order to manage his biases. This even includes moving to Zurich because envy makes him invest poorly (he makes too big of bets). Over time, he comes to the conclusion that he’d be a better investor (and person) if he moved to a more egalitarian city, so he moves from NYC to Zurich.

Hacking one’s specific self: In doing things like moving to Zurich, Guy consistently reinforces that these hacks might not work for others who have different weaknesses or strengths. In the effort of self-improvement, it’s easy to fall into the trap of copying what successful people do rather than taking the time to figure out what will make one successful – these will likely not be the exact same things. There are meta lessons to be had from observing others. But ultimately you have to do the handwork of understanding who you are before major improvement is possible.

Intellectual implementation over intellectual sophistication: Guy’ sources of knowledge are diverse, including everything from the self-improvement sector (especially Tony Robbins) to psychotherapy to Roman scholars. But what most struck me was his commitment to intellectual implementation. He talks a lot about reading, re-reading, practicing, and implementing any ideas that could plausibly improve him as a person. It is one thing to be well read. It is another to figure it how to implement what one reads. And Guy obsesses over this. Too many people, I think, read for knowledge instead of behavior change.

An obsession with role models: Guy’s obsession with Warren Buffet borders on worship. Regardless of what one thinks of Warren, reading how Guy learns from role models is quite fascinating, as it is an odd mix of humility (“Warren is much better than me”) and egoism (“I think I can be almost that good”). Reading these sections made think a lot about the fundamental dynamics between mentor and pupil.

Do read the book.

Even if you disagree with most of Guy’s conclusions, you should be able to learn a lot by evaluating the merits and weaknesses of how he thinks.

All in all, this book caused me to increase how much I value author transparency in what I read.

The more honest someone is, the easier it is to learn from her.

Can We Unwind the Allure of Order and Safety?


I recently wrote about Jal Mehta’s excellent book: The Allure of Order.

The book’s title refers to elite attempts to improve public education via repeated cycles of standards and accountability based reforms.

I coined the phrase the Allure of Safety to describe another issue that Jal raises: teaching has not matured into a modern profession (one that is spurred forward by useful research, best practice standardization, and practitioner driven innovation and self-regulation).

I believe teachers have (intentionally or not) taken a bargain whereby they have traded increased professionalization for the safety of onerous union contracts and mutually beneficial relationships with bureaucracies.

If it is true that both the Allure of Order and Allure of Safety are preventing us all (citizens, educators, children) from having the schools we want – how could we walk back from these Allures?

I’m not sure.

Here’s the main issue I’m grappling with: I don’t know how we should sequence the unwindings.

Begin with Educators?

On one hand, you could argue that we need to begin with teacher recruitment and development, and that once these efforts are in place, we can begin to unwind top down mandates and put more trust in well developed talent.

But as David Steiner noted in his critique of Jal’s book, Jal doesn’t present a politically feasible and concrete path forward on this route. Even worse (for those who find this path appealing), Jal narrates in great detail a recent failed national effort to do just this.

Ben Riley and Deans for Impact are trying to make change here but have yet to prove that they can do so. Ditto for Hank Levin and his new effort.

Begin with Elites?

On the other hand, you could argue that we need to begin with the relaxing of top down accountability so as to create on-the-ground conditions that might foster increased partnership with educators.

But, as the current attempts to reauthorize NCLB are demonstrating, the elite consensus around annual testing (and other forms of top-down accountability) remains very much intact.

Moreover, removing top down accountability without any real reforms in educator recruitment and development might wash away the modest gains that accountability has appeared to deliver.

So What to Do?

I’ll try to tackle this in my next post on Jal’s book.

The Allure of Order: Book Review Part I


I just finished Jal Mehta’s The Allure of Order. Over the coming weeks, I’ll be blogging about the book.

The Allure of Order is an excellent book and should be a contender for education book of the year. Jal does an admirable job of deep historical analysis, policy criticism, and solution seeking. I imagine people on all sides of reform debates will find much to their liking. Do read it.

Here is how Jal frames why he wrote the book:

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Jal’s basic premise is that American education reform has suffered, in part, due to the combination of:

  1. America’s weak welfare state and an associated belief that schools can solve more problems than they probably can.
  2. The failure of the teaching profession (practitioners and researchers alike) to professionalize their field through rigorous research, standards of practice, and field advancements.
  3. The fact that our decentralized operational nature of education contributes to wide variations in quality.
  4. The ability of a diverse coalition of elites to exert moral power to demand increasingly centralized levels of standards and accountability over our decentralized school systems.

While it’s impossible to fully explain a hundred years of education history with a few broad strokes, these four conditions do seem to have a lot of explanatory power.

Of course, this analysis raises an important question: is a hundred years of standards and accountability reform the result of morally legitimate desire to inculcate high expectations, or is it the equivalent of saying the beatings will continue until morale improves?

Ultimately, it’s probably both, which helps explain why education is so decisive. In many ways, it pits a morally just vision (children, poor and minority included, can achieve!) against an exasperated field (how can we educators achieve this vision with poor training, little research, a weak welfare state, and dysfunctionally governed school systems)?

How to fix this?

The political knot seems to be this: elites seem unable to deliver what educators need (better training, practice focused research, real autonomy, and non-educational supports for children), and educators seem unable to let go of the institutions and values that protect but ultimately limit them (thousand page collective bargaining agreements and district bureaucracies).

In other words: while too many elites suffer from the Allure of Order, too many educators suffer from the Allure of Safety.

Together, the Allure of Order and the Allure of Safety seem to be at the heart of our educational problems.

Being Mortal


My mother gave me Atul Gawande’s new book, Being Mortal, for Christmas.

In our family, we celebrate this Christian holiday by telling each other what gifts we want, so in some sense I gave this book to myself. That being said, I do try and tell my mother to give me gifts that I think she will enjoy giving me, so I did put some thought into the request. Gawande is an exceptional writer and Indian, a combination that appeals to my mother.

Personal Preferences and the Practices of a Profession 

Although the elderly population is growing rapidly, the number of certified geriatricians the medical profession has put in practice has fallen in the United State by 25%…. Whether we admit it or not, a lot of doctors don’t like taking care of the elderly.”

This is a small but important point: personal preference can drive the priorities of a profession, especially in non-market based sectors of the economy.

I think about this a lot in terms of executing the No Excuses model. A lot of this execution can be a grind. It would not shock me if the limits to the model scaling include the personal preferences of educators.

Design Thinking From the Wrong Perspective

“As one scholar put it, describing the history of the nursing home from the perspective of the elderly ‘is like describing the opening of the American West from the perspective of mules; they were certainly there, and the epochal events were certainly critical to the mules, but hardly anyone was paying very much attention to them at the time.'”

Could we make the same argument for children / schools?

Perspective and Meaning 

“Even when a sense of mortality reorders are desires, these desires are not impossible to satisfy.”

According to research, the more we have to contend with life’s fragility, the more we find meaning in circumscribed pursuits (close friends, simple pleasures); when we feel death is far away, on the other hand, we find meaning in expanding both our knowledge base and friendships.

As it happens, old people are generally happier than young people.

Or to think about it another way: the activities that likely lead to societal innovation (ambition, pursuit of knowledge, etc.) don’t necessarily lead to the highest levels of happiness.

The negative here is that it’s hard to manage ambition and happiness.

The positive is that, to the extent happiness can be achieved by narrowed pursuits, it’s likely that it’s not a state that requires immense wealth.

It can be there for everyone.

Cost Benefit

“In the United States, 25% of all Medicare spending if for the 5% of patients who are in the final year of life, and most of that money goes for care in the last couple of months that is of little apparent benefit.”

Annual medicare spending is about $600 billion.

As it happens, annual K12 public spending is about $600 billion as well.

So we could increase K12 spending by 25% by shifting funds out of Medicare for which there is “of little apparent benefit.”

Why do we spend this money when there is no apparent benefit? Robin Hanson would say because it makes us feel like we’re good people. He’s probably right.

Would increasing education spending by 25% do any good? That’s an open question.


Gawande ends the book by writing about his father. It is beautiful and moving.

Book Review: Blood Meridian Or the Evening Redness in the West


I’m rereading parts of it right now. As it happens in rereading any great author, what was once original is now a caricature of itself. It is impossible to recapture the first reading, try as you might. A drink can help.

The Text 

Whatever exists, he said. Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.

I can relate though less out of dominion and more out of anxiety. I’m troubled by there being information that I don’t know or understand. Of course what I know will always be trumped by what I do not. Still there are gains to be made.

…and allowing as he did that men’s destinies are given yet he usurped to contain within him all that he would ever be in the world and all that the word would be to him and be his charter written in the urstone itself he claimed agency and said so and he’d drive the remorseless sun on to its final endarkenment as if he’d ordered it all ages since…

Or to put it another way: our philosophies – fate, lack of free will, god’s will, or whatever it might be – always give way to our claims of agency, which is our greatest emotion.

By and by the judge rose and moved away on some obscure mission and after a while someone asked the expriest if it were true that at one time there had been two moons in the sky and the expriest eyed the flask moon above them and said that it may well have been so. But certainly the wise high God in his dismay at the proliferation of lunacy on this earth must have wetted a thumb and leaned down out of the abyss and pinched it hissing into extinction. 

I’ve always suspected as much.

The thing about the world, he said, is that anything is possible. Had you not seen it all from birth and thereby bled it of its strangeness it would appear to you for what it is, a hat rick in a medicine show, a fevered dream, a trance repopulate with chimeras having neither analogue nor precedent…

I like the phrase bled it of its strangeness, which is probably inevitable for functioning, but perhaps escapable in reflection.

He rose and turned toward the lights of the town. The tide-pools bright as smelterpots among the dark rocks where the phosphorescent seacrabs clambered back. Passing the through the salt grass he looked back. The horse had not moved. A ship’s light winked in the swells. The colt stood against the horse with its head down and the horse was watching, out there past men’s knowing, where the stars are drowning and whales ferry their vast souls through the black and seamless sea. 

That’s all for this book review.

Micro Book Review – Power: Why Some People Have It and Others Don’t


Understanding how to ethically attain and wield power is an important skill.

Nancy Euske, a former business school professor at Berkeley, covered this topic when we trained emerging charter school leaders at NSNO. 

Many of the leaders we trained were used to measuring their success by their own individual achievements, rather than by how they influenced other adults. Those that did not learn to ethically use power often stuggled as charter school leaders. 

So I’ve thought about power a lot over the past decade, but probably not as much as Jeffrey Pfeffer, the Stanford business school professor who wrote this book

What does Pfeffer have to say about power?

The Text [1]

“The evidence showed that this group, the managers primarily interested in power [as opposed to individual achievement or need for affiliation], were the most effective not only achieved positions of influence inside companies but also in accomplishing their jobs.”

What is interesting here is that the people motivated by power were better than the people motivated by achievement in actually accomplishing their jobs.

The Text [2]

“Leaders touting their own careers as models to be emulated frequently gloss over the power plays they actually used to get to the top.”

 In other words, don’t trust autobiographies of leaders – at least when it comes to power.

The Text [3]

“The data shows that performance doesn’t matter that much for what happens to most people in most organizations.”

 Or as Robin Hanson might say, promotions are not about performance.

The Text [4]

“The surest way to keep your position and to build a power base is to help those with more power enhance their positive feelings about themselves.”

This doesn’t mean that you can’t give feedback or be honest – it just means that you need to, overtime, enhance your boss’s self image.

The Text [5]

“You face a dilemma. Being in a powerful department provides advantages for your income and your career. But for that very reason, lots of talented people want to go to the most powerful units.”

Pfeffer is talking about relative sources of power within divisions of a company, but I often think about this in terms of which city to start your career in.

The Text [6]

“Here’s the rub: to appear competent, it is helpful to seem little tough, or even mean.”

In most cases, I’ve found that wielding power ethically has very few negative consequences, but I do think being mean makes the world a little less great, even if it helps accomplish important organizational objectives.

The Text [7]

“Power is addictive, in both a psychological and physical sense.”

When I was stepping down from NSNO, a mentor asked me how I was going to continue to fulfill my desire for ethically using power (which is a motivating drive for me). Perhaps this blog is a way to build a different kind of power (via a decentralized network rather than a hierarchal position within an organization).


Anyone trying to do good (or bad!) in the world clearly ignores power at their own peril. Using power ethically can bring immense meaning and happiness. But power can also be addictive. It can make you stupid. And it can make you less empathetic.

So be careful out there.

Micro book review: The Depths – the Evolutionary Origins of the Depression Epidemic

I just recently finished the book on depression, a difficult issue that, given the tragic death of Robin Williams, is very much alive in the national conscious.



The book’s author, Jonathan Rottenberg (and a former sufferer of deep depression), explores what might be the evolutionary causes of depression – as well as how this knowledge should effect our understanding  of the disease.

The Text [1]

“Seen this way, depression follows our adaption for low mood like a shadow – it’s an inevitable outcome of a natural process.”

Rottenberg’s main thesis is that depression can’t be understood in isolation; rather, the path to understanding depression is to first understand the evolutionary uses of moods. In short, good moods are useful for social bonding and securing reproductive mates, while low moods are useful for increasing alertness and objectively analyzing risks.

This is not to say that depression is adaptively useful – only that low moods are adaptively useful – and the hardwiring that allows for low moods can cause depression as well.

The Text [2]

“Sadly, what’s good for fitness [low moods] is not necessarily good for happiness.”

This is obvious but hard to remember: we’re wired for survival, not happiness.

 The Text [3]

“The idea that depression results from an inability to disengage from a failing goal is relatively new. Could it be a plausible pathway into depression? … More people in the West – especially the are young – are setting the kind of goals that are likely to become failing goals in the future … today’s youth are much more likely than those of the past to agree with statements such as ‘I will never be satisfied until I get all that I deserve’ … additional evidence for the over commitment theory is that perfectionists are more likely to become depressed than non-perfectionists …”

Raised expectations for the good life – even in the face of objectively higher living standards – may cause depression.

Personally, I try to keep the phrase “nobody promised us anything” close at all times.

 The Text [4]

“People who value happiness are less likely to achieve their goal of feeling happy…. Ultimately, the strong cultural imperative toward being happy bumps us up against a wall: our mood systems is not configured to deliver an end state of durable euphoria.”

This, I suppose, is the ultimate paradox of happiness.

Concluding Thoughts

Depression is a very tragic disease. For me, hearing theories about its evolutionary roots helps me make some sense of depression, even if these theories are tentative.

I would have liked to have seen more evidence for the case that we’re seeing a depression epidemic rather than just an increase in reporting.

I’m open to the idea that increased expectations and a narrow focus on the pursuit of happiness increase the probability of depression, but it’s somewhat hard for me to distinguish causation and correlation here. 

But, ultimately, the books thesis is worth wrestling with: is the risk of depression, which stems from our evolutionary adaption of low moods, increasing due to our modern environment and culture?

Most of all, I hope that continued research will help all those who suffer from depression. No one deserves its afflictions. 

Giovanni’s Room: a Micro-Bookreview

From time to time I hope to post about what I’ve been reading. I’m by no means a literature expert, so I’ll be sticking to micro-reviews (I’m not sure if this is a real phrase, but it seems right). 

jb gio

Plot Summary (no spoilers)

A young, white, American male visits France. His girlfriend is in Spain trying to decide whether or not to agree to marry him. While he is in France, he meets Giovanni – a poor, male bartender. They fall for each other and the narrator is torn between his desire / love for Giovanni and his girlfriend.

James Baldwin 

You can read about him here. Of note in this novel, the protagonist is white. Much to consider re: why – in an era where homosexuality was widely condemned – a black, gay author chose to write a novel about a white, gay protagonist. I’d like to think of it as sort of a throwing the gauntlet down to the world, but this interpretation may be incorrect. 

The Text [1]

“People who believe they are strong-willed and the masters of their destiny can only continue to believe this by becoming specialists in deception. Their decisions are not really decisions at all – a real decision makes one humble, one knows that it is at the mercy of more things than can be named – but elaborate systems of evasion, of illusion, designed to make themselves and the world appear to be what they and the worlds are not.”

From every angle from which I can view the world (philosophy, genetics, physics, sociology, anthropology, neurology, psychology, to name some), I find little foundation for the notion that anyone is a master of her own destiny. Yet, I can only admit this in times of reflection. When I am in the day itself, all I can see is agency, everywhere, as illusionary as it may be.

The Text [2]

“Beneath the joy, of course, was anguish and beneath the amazement was fear; but they did not work themselves to the beginning until our high beginning was aloes on our tongues. By then anguish and fear had become the surface on which we slipped and slid, losing balance, dignity, and pride. Giovanni’s face, which I had memorized so many mornings, noons, and nights, hardened before my eyes, began to give in secret places, began to crack. The light in the eyes become a glitter; the wide and beautiful brow began to suggest the skull beneath.”

The phrase that caught me we “the beautiful brow began to suggest the skull beneath.” In a metaphorical sense, the phrase works. But what about the literal sense? Those (rare) moments in life when being cognizant of our anatomy renders us somehow (more? less?) human. 

That’s all for this micro-bookreview. I highly recommend the novel.