We find joy in our work.
Marshall is an avid reader and keeps a stack of all-time favorite reads on the top shelf of his bookcase. He profiles the three best books he reads in any given year in an annual letter, archived below. Send Marshall a note if you would like to hear about a recent favorite selection.
Peter Barton was hard-driving in all respects in his life. “True, I haven’t had the full span of allotted years, yet I have the quiet satisfaction of believing that there’s nothing I have missed,” he writes. He grew up barely middle class and by his mid-40s was highly successful in the media world, wealthy, and retired. He met the love of his life in his late 30s, had three children, and retired at age 46. At 51, he was dead from stomach cancer.
Barton wrote this book, a collaboration with writer Laurence Shames, during the last seven months of his life with the knowledge that he was dying. Faced with death, he finds extreme clarity about what ultimately matters, and he writes believing that others might find value if he simply tells the story straight.
With a highly competitive streak and a love of adventure, Barton’s circumstances could have understandably lead to feelings of disappointment, anger, or inequality. But Barton frames his “final adventure” differently – living now with a failing body and plenty of pain, he largely finds his adventure in reflection, embraces it, and finds many moments that are deeply rich and meaningful. As his co-author notes: “[Peter] set himself a final goal: to die well, with gratitude rather than complaint, with dignity and grace, with a highly personal faith that could coexist with reason.”
This is a beautiful, short book and a truly centering read. I would be well-served to read it every year. It touches numerous aspects of human existence that are challenging for many of us – fear and uncertainty; love, faith, money and health; the value of experiences; and what attributes lead to a richer life. Barton leaves a wonderful example – how to face the inevitably hard things that come along with life with acceptance, gratitude, and curiosity.
Not Fade Away: A Short Life Well Lived
Laurence Shames and Peter Barton
Sam Zell is a remarkable entrepreneur who was born in the U.S. just after his Jewish family completed a 21-month, two continent-crossing escape from Poland. His father, at age 34, put his family on the last train out of the country before the railroad tracks were bombed and became impassible. Much of Zell’s approach to life and investing was formed by this heritage – for example, his attitude towards risk and a deep sense of urgency.
“My father was the first person I knew who had done something ‘impossible’…As a result, I grew up believing that anything is possible. And when you’re not aware there are any limitations, nothing stops you from trying.”
This memoir is autobiographical, and Zell is highly unconventional and sometimes gruff. His preferred response to describe his profession is: “I am a professional opportunist.” Non-conformity and his relentless entrepreneurial style permeate the book. “I was willing to trade conformity for authenticity – even when that meant being an outlier, which it usually did, and even if it meant being on my own.”
He has a lot of fun along the way, too. Zell’s Angels is a group of motorcycle buddies that trek with him around the world on annual trips. One story relates his purchase of a grocery bag full of high-quality cannabis in Kathmandu on one of these trips.
There is plenty to learn from his phenomenally successful style of real estate and business investing. And for an entrepreneur, the lessons shared are invaluable – developing an indifference to rejection, the importance of tenacity, and the value of really listening to what is important to the other side in a deal. This book is a quick, entertaining read that also delivers a load of wisdom.
Am I Being Too Subtle?: Straight Talk From a Business Rebel
In 2014, this author, Ben Reiter, published a Sports Illustrated cover story that predicted that the Houston Astros would be the 2017 World Series champions. The call was considered crazy because the Astros were ludicrously bad at the time. Even within the halls of Sports Illustrated, the elevation of the article to a cover story was not well received by some. Then, the Astros won the 2017 World Series.
The book provides depth around the emerging patterns and behaviors that Reiter recognized as coming together in a special way, and that later led to the World Series Championship. It is a gripping, dramatic read of the path to winning the World Series; most of the people I know who have read the book found it hard to put down. Numerous personal biographies of the key players that came together on the 2017 squad further enhance the story.
Aside from the well-told and improbable story, what made the book especially valuable to me was the broad applicability of the Astros approach to decision-making and continuous improvement, which I found relatable to both business and personal growth. Astros General Manager, Jeff Luhnow and his top analyst, Sig Mejdal, developed a system that fused data science with human intuition to build teams, using data as an overlay to help guide human intuition. It acknowledged that success is not a matter of man or machine, but of man plus machine – as long as man remains in charge.
They came to especially value a growth mindset in a player – a discoverable but elusive human quality signified by persistence and adaptability, an uncommon drive, and an ability to improve. They also recognized other key attributes that align well with long-term investing – emphasizing process over day-to-day outcomes, maintaining humility, and keeping an organization aligned around patience and long-term thinking even in the face of setbacks. Long time readers of my letters will recognize those themes as constants among my favorite business attributes!
Astroball: The New Way to Win It All