Illustrating “It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work”

Take a look behind the scenes at the illustration process for Jason Fried and DHH’s new book, “It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work.

Back story

Every essay in Jason and David’s previous titles, REWORK and REMOTE is accompanied by an illustration that captures the key message of the essay. Contract llustrator Mike Rohde’s iconic original art perfectly compliments the irreverent and contrarian tone of the books. We love the format and it has worked well for us but when it came time to design the new book, Jason was eager to try something new. He reached out to the Basecamp team for fresh ideas.

Jason’s post in Basecamp from February 2018

At the time the working title of the book was The Calm Company, which was less provocative but perfectly captured the kind of company we want to have here at Basecamp—the kind of company prescribed in the book. Jason had already asked our team to pitch ideas for the jacket design and with two best-selling books behind us there was a sense that we could take even more of the production in-house. Having already contributed some spot illustrations to Basecamp’s marketing in recent years, I eagerly started work on concepts for It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work.

The concept

From the onset, I felt pretty strongly that the illustrations could be valuable content in themselves rather than simply complimenting the text. So I explored ideas that featured a running narrative that could tell a parallel story of a company that’s anything but calm. I considered graphic novel style spreads, comic strips and even something like Sergio Aragones’ “marginals” in Mad Magazine. I also explored ideas in the style of cartoons in the New Yorker that wouldn’t directly relate to the essays but would be satirical vignettes of situations where it’s crazy at work.

Here are the original sketches I shared with Jason and Basecamp marketing designer, Adam Stoddard, a few weeks later in a video call.

Original sketches pitched to the team in April

I pitched each of these ideas but it was the sketch featuring a blurb about Charles Darwin that we found ourselves most excited about. I had remembered reading an article about Darwin’s daily routine several months before and that had sparked the idea to feature famous people—both current and historical—who had done great things without embracing the extreme work habits that are so often praised today. The illustrations would introduce these figures to readers, reinforcing that it truly doesn’t have to be this way. After all, if Darwin could write one of the most important works in modern science working only 3 hours a day whatever you’re spending 80+ hours a week doing probably isn’t quite as important. So I ran with the concept enlisting our own Wailin Wong to identify, research, and write the blurb for each figure.

We had a tight deadline—only about 60 days from concept to delivery of the final art—so I got right to work exploring visual styles. Modern illustration, especially in the tech world, seems uniformly clean and over-simple so I knew I wanted to try something more unrefined and irreverent. I also had the sense that these should be draw by hand with real materials. Partly for practical reasons like printing at high resolution but also so that the original art would actually exist for posterity. Maybe we’d frame and display them in our office or give them away. So I explored several approaches that shared a loose, rough feel and Adam popped them into the interior layouts he’d been working on.

Style explorations using Charles Darwin as our prototype

They ranged from just bad to outright weird but the idea seemed to be taking shape. I especially liked the ones that were in a more editorial cartoon style and include a prop or other visual gag (such as Darwin’s iguana) but these illustrations needed to feel like a consistent set and I was concerned about finding equally interesting themes for 20+ figures. We decided the more realistic, but slightly unhinged portrait (second row, left) was the way forward. As a final proof of concept I drew two additional subjects from our list in the same style and we submitted the idea to the publisher.

Three illustration spreads presented to our publisher. Interesting note: all three of these subjects made it into the book but I redrew each of them because the style evolved as I worked.


With approval in-hand I got down to work. How many illustrations would ultimately appear in the book depended, in part, on the final page imposition. We hoped for at least 12 but I drew about twice that many so we were ready if there was room for more and so that there was some opportunity for editorial changes. That meant I had to average about one finished illustration per day to meet the deadline—oh and still leave enough time for my normal work.

At first I started splitting my days in half. In the mornings I’d do my normal design work at Basecamp and then I’d switch gears and work on illustrations for the book in the afternoons. This didn’t work out well at all. For one thing, it was easy to let the morning’s work spill over into the early (or late ) afternoon. It was also really difficult to switch between such different tasks. To boost my output and provide less frequent context switching I tried splitting my week into two parts: two days on product design and two on illustration. It was better but I still wasn’t working at full speed. Things only kicked into high gear once I decided to go all-in on drawing and fully immerse myself in the project, ignoring everything else. How much difference did it make? In the first 10 days of the project I did 7 pieces. In the last 6 full-time days I completed 17! Even though it meant putting my regular work on hold for a few days, ultimately by focusing intently I finished the work far ahead of schedule and spent less time than I anticipated overall.

The Process

Since the art would be printed in black and white in the book, I settled on ink and paper for the original art. Even though it would be hand-drawn on paper, I actually did my rough sketching digitally with Procreate on iPad Pro. Why? Speed. Working digitally meant I could easily erase, redraw, resize, move, stretch, copy and skew my drawing as I refined each sketch. Nose, too big; eyes too small? It’s just a matter of seleting and resizing instead of erasing and drawing again. What I could do in seconds with the tools in Procreate would have required dozens on redraws on paper.

Rough sketch of Stephen Hawking with Procreate on iPad Pro (left). This time-lapse recording of Gustav Mahler shows the quick editing digital sketching affords (right)

Drawing portraits of people you don’t know and can’t observe in-person is a tricky thing to do so I had to gather publicly available image references for each figure. Google Images was instrumental in this, in particular because it allowed me to see many images of a person all together. Studying a subject from many angles, in different situations, and even at different times in their lives allowed me to create exactly the portrait I imagined for each person.

Sketching on iPad Pro, allowed me to keep reference images from Google Image search (left) visible while I drew using the split-screen feature (right)

The portraits of Maya Angelou and Stephen Hawking are examples of this that I’m particularly proud of. I had a pretty clear idea going in about how I wanted to represent them and a wide range of reference photos of these well-known figures gave me all the image data I needed. In both cases the final piece is a somewhat ageless portrait that represents their character without recalling a particular, recognizable moment in their lives. I found that the younger reference images didn’t have enough character, but the images in their later years exaggerated their features in a way that helped me understand them better. The final art is more like a set of caricatures than serious portraits.

After completing the rough sketch, I would resize it for consistency and print it out. Then using a classic technique, I’d transfer the image to paper for inking. This made the task of drawing a set of 20+ images at a consistent size and laid-out nicely on the final page mistake-free. If you’ve ever drawn something starting in the middle only to run off the edge of the paper, you know what I mean!

Transferring an image: first I covered the back of the print-out with graphite (left), then laid it down on the final paper and traced over the lines causing the graphite to transfer onto the paper (middle), that left a light pencil outline perfectly placed on the final medium (right)

The last step was to do the final drawing in ink using my transferred sketch as a guide. I used Speedball Super Black india ink with Speedball calligraphy pen nibs and holders on 11 × 14 Canson Bristol Vellum. Splatters were added with ink flicked from the britles of a stiff paintbrush.

Drawing in ink

This project was unlike anything else I’ve attempted. All said, I completed 25 drawings, 18 of which appear in the first print and e-book editions of It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work. I’m incredibly proud of the project and even more grateful for the opportunity Jason and David gave me to contribute to this wonderful book that speaks so clearly about how we work. In fact, the entire project was done almost entirely in-house at Basecamp. It was written by Jason Fried (CEO) and David Heinemeier Hansson (CTO), jacket design and interior design by Adam Stoddard (marketing designer), illustrations by me, Jason Zimdars (product designer), and research by Wailin Wong (producer of The REWORK podcast).

Final spreads (designed by Adam Stoddard) including a new rendering of our friend Charles Darwin (left), THE OPRAH, and a photo of the first print edition (right)

It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work

I did this work at Basecamp where 40 hour work weeks are the norm, no one checks email on the weekend, and our benefits are focused on getting people out of the office, not enticing them to stay longer. We’ve stepped out of the hustle game in Silicon Valley and designed our company differently. This book will show how you can have a calm company too.

It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work is available October 2, 2018 in hardcover, e-book, and audiobook. Order now at or most anywhere you buy books.

The “Basecamp MBA” Reading List

A few months ago, I met a new friend at a Creative Mornings talk. She is going to take some time off at the beginning of 2018 to work through the AltMBA reading list before diving into job searching. I thought this was a great idea and it got me wondering about the kind of reading material Basecamp would suggest for people who want to build a business like ours. Of course, there’s our previous books and the upcoming Calm Company. But with minds like the ones we have, I guessed we can could up with a really fantastic set of material that SvN readers would eat up. With that in mind, I asked my colleagues:

Given your role at Basecamp, what one or two books/resources would you suggest to help someone prepare for the kind of work you do?

Some of the books we recommend. IKEA side table not required.

Before I share the list, I wanted to add some of my own thoughts here, as someone who can get a bit obsessed with collecting information and knowledge: Like a lot of people in today’s modern society, I often have a direct correlation between knowledge gathering and not applying that information to my actions in a meaningful way. Too often, the more I think I know, the less I’m actually doing. So yes, these materials are rich with good advice and ideas on how to start your business or manage people, but they’re no substitute for the real work and experience.

Buying (and hopefully reading) all of these books won’t automatically mean you can create a business like Basecamp. Only doing the work with care, thoughtfulness and sincere effort can do that. (Harmful interpretations of “hustle” not required.)

I’m pleased to present two versions of our list, one sorted by subject and one by who recommended it the books, if you’re into that sort of thing. In lieu of Amazon (for this post), the links are to OCLC catalog listings, which will show you a list of libraries near you that have the item. I highly recommend checking out your local public library to borrow these materials. Your library could very well have these in convenient audiobook or e-book formats. If you don’t see the item in your local library, ask your local librarian about the power of Inter-Library Loans.

The second recommendation I would make would be to purchase these at a local bookstore. If you’d prefer to buy the books online, please use an Amazon Smile link to support a charity or use a referral link from your favorite podcast to support them. Happy reading!

By Subject

Berkshire Hathaway letters to shareholders 1965–2012
Maverick! : the success story behind the world’s most unusual workshop
The Effective Executive
The Secrets of Consulting
Turn Your Ship Around & Turn the Ship Around
Poor Charles Almanack: The wit and wisom of Charles T. Munger
Blue Ocean Strategy
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion
Starting from Scratch
Killing The Sale
Lessons in Service from Charlie Trotter
The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement
How Full is Your Bucket: Positive Strategies for Work and Life
The Encore Effect
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
Crucial Conversations
The Irresistible Offer: How to Sell Your Product or Service in 3 Seconds or Less
The Innovators Solution
The first year of Back to Work, with Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin
Disney War
Must Reads: On Managing Yourself
The Last Days of Target by Joe Castaldo in Canadian Business
Big Med by Atul Gawande in The New Yorker
Famous Names by John Colapinto in The New Yorker
The Cobra by Tad Friend in The New Yorker

Customer Service and Communication:
Badass: Making Users Awesome
Radical Candor
Hug Your Haters: How to Embrace Complaints and Keep Your Customers
The Amazement Revolution: Seven Customer Service Strategies to Create an Amazing Customer and Employee Experience
The Nordstrom Way to Customer Experience Excellence
Delivering Happiness
Thinking Fast and Slow
Elements of Style
Metaphors We Live By
On Writing Well
Wit: a play
Emotional Intelligence: Mindfulness
Susan David: Emotional Agility

Accessibility for Everyone 
a11ycasts with Rob Dodson (From the Google accessibility team)
The a11yproject

The Design of Everyday Things
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information
Interaction of Color
Why We Love or Hate Everyday Things
Elements of Typographic Style
Sketching User Experiences
Understanding Comics
Nature of Order

Refactoring: Improving the Design of Existing Code
Smalltalk: Best Practice Patterns
Learn to Program
Ben Thompson’s Stratechery blog

Invisible Cities
Mezzanine: A Novel
Then We Came to the End: A Novel
Startup: A Novel

Friendly Fire: The Accidental Shootdown of Black Hawks over Northern Iraq
Essential Manners for Men

By Person

Jason Fried, CEO
Berkshire Hathaway letters to shareholders 1965–2012
Maverick! : the success story behind the world’s most unusual workshop
The Effective Executive
The Secrets of Consulting
Turn Your Ship Around & Turn the Ship Around
Poor Charles Almanack: The wit and wisom of Charles T. Munger
Blue Ocean Strategy
Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion

Refactoring: Improving the Design of Existing Code
Smalltalk: Best Practice Patterns

Tara Mann, iOS Designer
The Design of Everyday Things
The Visual Display of Quantitative Information
Interaction of Color
Why We Love or Hate Everyday Things
Elements of Typographic Style
Sketching User Experiences
Understanding Comics
Nature of Order

Invisible Cities

Taylor Weibley, Ops
Starting from Scratch
Killing The Sale
Lessons in Service from Charlie Trotter
The Goal: A Process of Ongoing Improvement
How Full is Your Bucket: Positive Strategies for Work and Life
The Encore Effect
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us
Crucial Conversations
The Effective Executive
Turn the Ship Around
The Irresistible Offer: How to Sell Your Product or Service in 3 Seconds or Less

Friendly Fire: The Accidental Shootdown of Black Hawks over Northern Iraq
Essential Manners for Men

Ryan Singer, Product Strategy
Business: The Innovators Solution
Design: Nature of Order
Implementation: Domain-driven Design: Tackling Complexity in the Heart of Software

Wailin Wong, Rework Podcast
Writing and Storytelling 
Good Prose: The Art of Non-fiction
Out on the Wire: The Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio
On the inner workings of companies:
Disney War
The Last Days of Target by Joe Castaldo in Canadian Business
Big Med by Atul Gawande in The New Yorker

On branding and marketing:
Famous Names by John Colapinto in The New Yorker 
The Cobra by Tad Friend in The New Yorker

Mezzanine: A Novel
Then We Came to the End: A Novel
Startup: A Novel

Chase Clemons, Support
Customer Service and Communication:
Badass: Making Users Awesome
Radical Candor
Hug Your Haters: How to Embrace Complaints and Keep Your Customers
The Amazement Revolution: Seven Customer Service Strategies to Create an Amazing Customer and Employee Experience

Dylan Ginsberg, iOS Programmer
“I recommend reading Ben Thompson’s Stratechery blog. It’s well worth paying for the daily updates, though there is also a lot of good free content in the weekly articles. A good place to start are his end of year summaries.”

Flora Saramago, Programmer
Practical Object Oriented Design in Ruby: An Agile Primer

Joan Stewart, Ghost Support
The first year of Back to Work, with Merlin Mann and Dan Benjamin
On Writing Well
Wit: a play
ASPCA’s Pet Adoption Tips

Kristin Aardsma, Support
Customer Service and Communication:
The Nordstrom Way to Customer Experience Excellence
Radical Candor
Delivering Happiness
Thinking Fast and Slow
Elements of Style
Metaphors We Live By

Michael Berger, QA
Accessibility for Everyone 
a11ycasts with Rob Dodson (From the Google accessibility team)
The a11yproject

James Glazebrook, Support
Emotional Intelligence: Mindfulness
Must Reads: On Managing Yourself
Susan David: Emotional Agility

The books I read in 2017

I didn’t actually read any of these, but boy do they look good!

Last year about this time I extracted all my answers to our monthly Basecamp check-in question of What are you reading? So I thought I’d do the same again. These are the books I read in 2017, as I presented them to the rest of the company:

February 14

With Russia fever at Defcon 2, I’ve made it about half-ways through the biography The New Tsar: The Rise and Reign of Vladimir Putin. It’s a great refresher on post-WWII history, the cold war, KGB, but above all, on the forces present in Russia.

There are many lines to draw between Russia’s struggles after the fall of Communism with the fundamental political theories of Fukuyama (Origins of Political Order / Political Order And Political Decay). When taken together, they lend an all the more human and sympathetic story to why things played out the way they did. While still appreciating just how immense the level of brokenness, corruption, and brutality that journey has brought with it.

On a lighter note, I finished The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo. It’s a short book, but it still manages to repeat itself a lot. And yet the core patterns it covers are as effective as they are simple. I’ve been on a decluttering kick at home and feel so much better because of it. It was also the kickstarter for the conversation with JF that lead us to sell WWR.

April 5

  • The Undoing Project: Michael Lewis is just a great storyteller, and tell a story in this he does. It’s about two Israeli psychologists, their collaboration on the irrationality of the human mind, and the milestones they set with concepts like loss-aversion, endowment effect, and other common quirks that the assumption of rationality doesn’t account for. It’s a bit long-winded, but if you like Lewis’ style, you probably won’t mind it. The scientific recaps could have happened in a book 1/10th the length, but then you’d miss out on the character portrayals of these two fascinating scientists.
  • The Stranger: Seminal novel on existentialism and the absurd by Albert Camus from 1946. Explores that feeling of disconnectedness from society, its norms, and the absurdity of every day life. Striking first-person account in a powerful, direct language.
  • The Myth of Sisyphus: Camus’ philosophical exposition of absurdity, suicide in the face of meaninglessness, and other cherry topics that continue on from his fictional work in novels like The Stranger. It’s surprisingly readable, unlike many other mid 20th century philosophers, yet no less deep or pointy. It’s a great follow-up, as an original text, to that book The Age of Absurdity, I recommended last year. Still working through it.
  • The Antifragile: Ryan recommended this earlier, and I had already read Black Swan, so followed up here. I’m of two minds with this book so far. On the one hand, I think Nassim does a great job at taking swings at The Establishment thinking in economics in particular, but on the other hand the tone at times seem needlessly polemic. The irony of me saying that of all people is not lost. Which is perhaps the best take-away from the book so far: That it’s a mirror on how to present arguments in a compelling, believable, punchy fashion, without getting lost swinging at ghosts and straw men.

July 5

  • Debt: The first 5,000 Years. Fascinating exploration of the history of economics, debunking the “if we didn’t have money, it’d all be inconvenient bartering!” myth, and the morality of debt. Only just in the early parts of the book, but liking the narrative and the anthropologic examples of exchange from other cultures already.
  • About 2/3s through Antifragile, as I mentioned last time. It got better as it progressed, even if some of the examples (like Fat Tony) are still a bit tortured. Wish he would have edited it down to half the length though.
  • In the last 10% of Political Order and Political Decay. It’s been about 50 hours of listening between that volume and the first, The Origins of Political Order. So quite the undertaking. But we’ve finally progressed all the way through the history of political order and arrived at Fukuyama’s diagnosis of modern day societies. It’s a truly epic journey, and one that’s uniquely timely to the current upheaval. “Things are so crazy now” is only something you’d say in the absence of a historical perspective. These books give you just that and then some.

November 7

  • Debt: The First 5,000 Years. After a few false starts, I finally got going with this, and what a treat. It shoots down the common myth that prior to money, everyone just bartered shit. I give you a pig, you give me five pies and a hat. Evidence shows that just wasn’t at all how things went. Most societies were structured either rather communistic (take what you need, give what you can) or with a loose debt-ledger system (or a combination of both). But where things get really interesting is how the emergence of market economies (and money) changed the relationship with human life and dignity. Especially as a consequence of slavery, which put a very explicit price on that which previously was priceless. All sorts of fascinating historical links to women wearing veils (to distinguish them from women who could be bought), how debt peonage really took off once slavery came profitable (so debtors could be sold, or their children sold, if they failed to repay), and how other morality got intertwined with debt. It’s truly eye-opening, and the lines trace disturbingly well from millennia.
  • The Richest Man in Babylon. This is a 1920s classic version of How To Get Rich. The ancestor of all the pale imitations, like Rich Dad/Poor Dad, that came since. And while I scoffed at plenty of the allegories from ancient Babylon that presents the lessons, it was still a neat package. And at least ancient Babylon is a more interesting backdrop for teaching lessons about money than some suburban house flipper. I ended up liking it more at the end than I did at the beginning. It’s also a really interesting tie-in with that debt history book.
  • Never Split The Difference: Negotiating Like Your Life Depend On It. A former FBI hostage negotiator distills the heuristics of how to defuse tense negotiations with unstable humans, and proposes that they’re the same for every other form of negotiations. Not a bad premise, and I found several of the techniques compelling and resonant of what I’ve read about human biases and flaws from other sources. But the FBI bravado is grating. It’s basically “hey, I just learned this stuff, and I whattadoknow, I become so bad ass that I could beat every Harvard trained negotiator with my sick mind hacks”. Okay dude. Nassim Taleb would be proud though 😂.
  • The Celtic Holocaust. This isn’t technically a book, but it might as well be. It’s Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History “podcast”, but calling a 6 hour history show a “podcast” is a bit of a stretch. That’s longer than many audiobooks I’ve read! Anyway, this one is fantastic. It details Caesar’s Gaelic and Celtic campaigns, the military strategy, the political motivations from Rome, and the right and might of empire. It’s uncanny how similar the justifications and the hypocrisy of Caesar mimics that of modern day empires. All the while still portraying him in the fair light as a brilliant writer, strategist, and general. And then there’s of course Dan Carlin which could make even the most boring topic riveting. So when the topic is this good, the combo is just ace. Very highly recommended.

December 21

  • The Wealth of Nations: It’s hard to believe that Adam Smith wrote this tome in 1776! It’s written in such plain, if repetitive, language that it makes the basic economic theory easily accessible. That doesn’t mean it’s right. The book on Debt: The First 5,000 Years spent a fair chunk of time debunking many of Smith’s accounts of “the barter, truck, and exchange” cultures that supposedly were the rude state of man before the introduction of coinage. But the book is all the better from a read with a critical mind. It presents such a basic, plain description of capitalism and its functions that serves as a proper grounding for a critique. It’s also full of kinda hilarious deep dives into the exchange rates between silver and gold and other commodities set to 1770s prices.
  • The Republic: I’m about a third through this and still can’t tell whether Plato is making a mockery of Socrates ideas for the idyllic society or not. So many of the arguments presented as Socrates’ are so tortured and with so disconnected leaps of logic that it’s hard to take it at face value. Yet still, it’s good fun to follow the dialogue. It reads more like a play than a book, and again, immensely accessible. It’s fun to see the lines that continue from a book like this to the considerations of the Stoics all the way to Adam Smith and the Wealth of Nations and then onto a modern critique and history in that Debt: First 5,000 Years. A conversation spanning millennia.

Basecamp is a great place to help coworkers and team mates share what they read on a regular basis, but it’s not the only automatic check-in we use. We also ask What did you do this weekend? and What’s one thing that inspired you this week?, in addition to the question about work and progress. 2018 would be a great year for you and the team to bond over such questions.

Sell Your By-products

It’s the debut of the Rework podcast!

Welcome to the first episode of Rework! This podcast is based on Jason Fried and DHH’s 2010 best-selling business book, which was itself based on years of blogging. So what better way to kick off this show than talking about by-products? In this episode, Jason explains how Basecamp’s ideas have been packaged as blog posts, workshops, and books. We also visit J.H. Keeso & Sons Ltd., a 145-year-old sawmill in Ontario, Canada to see how this family-owned business sells its physical by-products.

We’ll be bringing you new episodes every other Tuesday, so be sure to subscribe via Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music, RadioPublic, or wherever you listen. We’ll take you behind the scenes at Basecamp and bring you stories of other businesses—startups, established companies, makers of physical products, brick-and-mortar stores, and more. Follow along and let us know what you think!

Speed Reading

My 8th grade teacher had a curious process where she made us produce three book reports each quarter — three books that we picked on our own that fit diverse themes she had chosen. When we turned them in, she’d quiz us on the book. How could she quiz us though on these books that we picked out randomly, you might ask?

She read each and every book when we turned in the report over her lunch break. It wasn’t a big class, and we didn’t all turn the reports in on the same day. But she could easily go through a couple books at lunch.

It was amazing and something I wanted to learn myself. I stumbled through some books on speed reading but never really landed on success until I took an Iris speed reading class when they had a Groupon.

I’ll share a few big tips and ideas I learned there, but it won’t substitute for taking a day long class like I did and going through the exercises.

The biggest lightbulb moment for me in speed reading isn’t faster reading but better skimming.

Afterall, most books and material are filled with fluff. Good ideas separated with a ton of sentences you don’t need <- A great case-in-point. You didn’t need that second sentence. The first one was enough. Damn, I did it again.

When I first get a new book I’ll read the periphery of the thing. The back summary, the insides of the covers. Next, I’ll look over the Table of Contents looking for things like “How’s this book broken up? Is it like three parts with three big ideas, or 27 chapters each with a unique point?”

I want to learn as much about the thing I need to devour beforehand so I know what I’m about to do.

Next, I read the first page of the intro, and then I’ll skip right to the end, and finish the last page of the book. Yes, you might ruin any suspense you were hoping for, so if suspense is your goal, don’t do this.

Next, I’ll go through each chapter. I’ll read the first paragraph (two if the first is short and not useful enough).

Then I’ll go through each paragraph of the chapter and read just the first sentence. The first sentence is often the most important point of a paragraph after all:

Often in a book, you’ll have other paragraphs illustrating that topic sentence anyways.

Then, I’ll read the last paragraph of the chapter which often summarizes everything.

And I do all the above at my normal reading pace. I take my time and carefully consume those skimmed sentences and ideas.

Now I have this crazy good outline in my head of what the chapter is about, and what holes I might have in the ideas. Page 10 talked about X which seemed obvious, but later on, page 35 mentioned a story I didn’t quite understand in my skim.

So now, I’ll go through the entire chapter again but this time as fast as I can.

At this point just being a better skim reader has probably earned you 70–80% of the benefit of “speed reading”. You can go through a second read of a chapter you’ve skimmed and probably know exactly what you need to “re-read” to understand better. And you can probably do that at a normal pace and still save a ton of time.

But the other 20–30% is all about getting through words faster.

Reading as Fast as You Can

You instantly recognized a dog. You didn’t have to vocalize the word “dog”. You also don’t have to first look at its nose, then move to its eyes, then body, etc. You seem to be able to take a whole dog in with your eyes, and just know it’s a dog. But a lot of people don’t read like that.

When you were young, you likely read out loud most of the time. Mouthing each and every word. When you got older you probably stopped saying the words out loud, but many people keep vocalizing the word silently in their heads. You have to learn to stop vocalizing words as you read.

Another habit people need to break is having their eyes read each and every letter as they go along. Again, this is something we learn as young readers. We see a word we don’t know, and we look and sound out each letter until it makes sense to us.

You need to learn to just digest words instantaneously. Even better, you want to learn to digest multiple words together at the same time.

Another bad habit most of us have is rereading text purposefully or subconsciously. We skip over something and then reread it again. Tim Ferriss has found we spend about 30% of our reading time in “re-reading”. What a waste.

You need to train your eyes to work like you want them to. You don’t want them going over every single letter. You want them to fixate in fewer places in a sentence.

I remember my 8th grade teacher sliding her whole hand down the middle of the book keeping her eyes stuck there. It’s funny, because using a finger was a technique many kids use to help read but are trained to stop. But you’ll see many speed readers use a finger to read. A finger can help guide your eyes to fewer places on each line and page of a book. It can also force you to keep a pace that’s faster than you might be initially comfortable with.

A lot of this is just practice. Just like running. Get a stopwatch and start timing yourself through some examples. Get an article and figure out the word count. Skim the thing. Now, go back for a reread and get through the thing as fast as possible trying to take in as many words as possible at a time. Keep timing yourself and trying to beat your best. Use your finger/hand to force yourself to go faster.

I won’t go into an in-depth look into training your eyes to ingest more. I’ll leave that up to Tim’s article or classes like Iris.

But one thing I started doing to help train my eyes for faster word digestion: is trying to quickly read a book in a language I didn’t understand. You’ll have much less desire to try and comprehend what you’re reading, because you simply can’t. You don’t have all those same urges to reread things or sound out words.

I hope that helps. The skim reading part is what really cracked open a whole new world of getting through more stuff faster. But I don’t read everything like this. If there’s a great fiction book that I want to take my mind to another place, I read that as comfortably as I can. Speed reading for me is a shortcut to get through stuff. It might even make the book less “fun”. But my goal is often to get through piles of new books and articles out there looking for interesting needles in the haystack.

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The Calm Company (our next book)

It’s about time for something new. What follows is the introduction to our next book The Calm Company. We’re working on it now, and will be shopping to publishers soon for publication later this year.

“It’s crazy at work”

How often have you heard that? Or said it yourself?

Probably too often.

For many, “it’s crazy at work” has become their normal. But why so crazy?

At the root is an onslaught of physical and virtual real-time distractions slicing work days into a series of fleeting work moments.

Tie that together with a trend of over-collaboration, plus an unhealthy obsession with growth at any cost, and you’ve got the building blocks for an anxious, crazy mess.

It’s no wonder people are working longer, earlier, later, on weekends, and whenever they have a spare moment. People can’t get work done at work anymore.

Work claws away at life. Life has become work’s leftovers. The doggy bag. The remnants. The scraps.

That’s just not OK. It’s unacceptable.

What’s worse is that long hours, excessive busyness, and lack of sleep have become a badge of honor for many people these days. Sustained exhaustion is not a badge of honor, it’s a mark of stupidity. Companies that force their crew into this bargain are cooking up dumb at their employees expense.

And it’s not just about organizations — individuals, contractors, and solopreneurs are burning themselves out the very same way.

You’d think with all the hours people are putting in, and all the promises of tech’s flavor of the month, the load would be lessening. It’s not. It’s getting heavier.

But the thing is, there’s not more work to be done all of the sudden. The problem is there’s hardly any uninterrupted, dedicated time to do it.

Working more but getting less done? It doesn’t add up. But it does — it adds up to a majority of time wasted on things that don’t matter.

Crazy companies all tend to be especially great at one thing: wasting. Wasting time, attention, money, energy.

Out of the 60, 70, 80 hours a week many are expected to pour into work, how many of those hours are really spent on the work itself? And how many are tossed away in meetings, lost to distraction, and withered away by inefficient business practices? The bulk.

The answer isn’t more hours, it’s less bullshit. Less waste, not more production. And far fewer things that induce distraction, always-on anxiety, and stress.

Stress is an infection passed down from organization to employee, from employee to employee, and then from employee to customer. And it’s becoming resistant to traditional treatments. The same old medicine is only making it worse.

And remember, stress can not be contained. It never stops at the edge of work. It always bleeds into life. It infects your relationships with your friends, your family, your kids.

The promises keep coming. More time management hacks. More ways to communicate. More information spread across separate platforms and disparate places. New demands to pay attention to more and more real-time conversations happening all the time at work. Faster and faster, for what? Panaceas left and right. Snake oil. Crazy.

On-demand is for movies, TV shows, and podcasts, not for you. Your time isn’t an episode recalled when someone wants it at 10pm on a Saturday night, or every few minutes in the collection of conveyor belt chat room conversations you’re supposed to be following all day long.

If it’s constantly crazy at work, we have two words for you: Fuck that. And two more: Enough already.

Not only does crazy not work, but its genesis — an unhealthy obsession with rapid growth — is equally corrupt. Towering, unrealistic expectations drag people down.

It’s time for companies to stop asking their employees to breathlessly chase ever-higher, ever-more artificial targets set by ego, not need. It’s time to stop celebrating crazy.

Over the last 17 years we’ve been working at making Basecamp a calm company. One that isn’t fueled by stress, or ASAP, or rushing, or late nights, or all-nighter crunches, or impossible promises, or high turnover, or over-collaboration, or consistently missed deadlines, or projects that never seem to end, or manufactured busywork, or incorrect assumptions that lead to systemic institutional anxiety.

No growth-at-all-costs. No constant, churning false busyness. No ego-driven decisions. No keeping up with the Joneses Corporation. No hair on fire.

And yet we’ve been profitable 68 straight quarters, 17 straight years. We’ve kept our company intentionally small — we believe small is a key to calm.

As a tech company we’re supposed to be playing the hustle game in Silicon Valley, but we’re blissfully far away in Chicago with employees working remotely in 30 different towns around the world.

We each put in about 40 hours a week most of the year, and just 32-hour four-day weeks in the summer. We send people on month-long sabbaticals every three years. We not only pay for people’s vacation time, but we pay for the actual vacation too.

No, not 9pm Wednesday night. It can wait until 9am Thursday morning. No, not Sunday. Monday.

Walk into our office and it feels more like a library and less like a chaotic kitchen. Noise and movement are not indicator of activity and progress — they’re just indicators of noise and movement.

We’re in one of the most competitive industries in the world. An industry dominated by giants and frequent upstarts backed by hundreds of millions of dollars in VC money. We’ve taken zero. Where does our money come from? Our customers. They buy what we’re selling and we treat them exceptionally well. Call us old fashioned.

Our benefits are focused on getting people out of the office, not enticing them to stay longer. Fresh fruits and veggies are delivered to people’s houses, not the kitchen at work. Want to learn to play the guitar in your own time? We’ll gladly support you and pay for that too.

We’ll pay for you to get a massage, but we won’t bring the masseuse to the office. Loosening up for 60 minutes only to tense back up hunched over your desk is faux relaxation. No “stay here” signals. Everything’s about wrapping up your reasonable day, going home, and living your life.

Are there occasionally stressful moments? Sure — such is life. Is every day peachy? Of course not — we’d be lying if we said it was. But we do our best to make sure those are the exceptions. On balance we’re calm — by choice, by practice. We’re intentional about it. We’ve made different decisions than the rest. At Basecamp it’s not always crazy at work.

We’ve designed our company differently. We’re here to tell you about it, and show you how you can do it. There’s a path. You’ve got to want it, but if you do you’ll realize it’s much nicer over here. You can have a calm company too.

This book treats the patient, and points out the diseases plaguing modern workplace and work methods. It calls out false cures, and pushes back against ritualistic time-sucks that have infected the way people work these days. We have a prescription to make it better.

Chaos should not be the natural state at work. Anxiety isn’t a prerequisite for progress. Sitting in meetings all day isn’t required for success. These are all perversions of work — side effects of broken models and follow-the-lemming-off-the-cliff worst practices. Step aside and let the suckers jump.

Calm is profitability.
Calm is protecting people’s time and attention.
Calm is reasonable expectations.
Calm is about 40 hours of work a week.
Calm is ample time off.
Calm is smaller.
Calm is a visible horizon.
Calm is meetings as a last resort.
Calm is contextual communication.
Calm is asynchronous first, real-time second.
Calm is more independence, less interdependence.
Calm is about sustainable practices that can run for the long-term.

By the end of the book you’ll understand it all.

Let’s dig into it.

Additional details

We’ll be posting occasional essays from the book as we write it. The best way to stay on top of The Calm Company news, is to click the green Follow button at the top of our Signal vs. Noise blog here on Medium, and by following me (@jasonfried) and David (@dhh) on Twitter. And be sure to check out Basecamp 3 — the product that best embodies the spirit of a Calm Company.

The books I read in 2016

None of what I read was actually printed on paper. It was all Kindle, iPhone, or listened to as an audio book.

At Basecamp, we have a monthly automatic check-in called What are you reading? It’s a great way to discover new books by recommendation of what your colleagues are reading, but it’s also a great way to recap what you read over the past year.

So here are all my answers to that question on the 13 books I read in 2016. This starts with what I read in January and ends up with December.

The Halo Effect: Lovely take-down of Good to Great, Built to Last, and other These Are The Secrets To Business Success stables. It focuses mainly on critiquing the bias that lead to the great companies being models on leadership, customer-focus, etc by pointing out that high-flying companies are always seen in a positive light on those attributes, but when they hit trouble, those same companies with the same approaches are cast in a negative light. This is as much media critique as anything. Note: It starts kinda slow. If you’re sold on the basic concept of the halo effect, you can well skim through the first handful of chapters where this case is being built with repetitive examples.

Being and Time: This is German philosopher Heidegger’s main work. I’m only just starting on it, but it’s incredibly obtusely written, yet also instantly illuminating. He starts by spending 20 pages defining how to properly pose the question of “being”. It’s a fascinating deep dive into the core questions of life that we all take for granted most of the time.

Amazon Web Services in Action is the first technical tutorial book I’ve read in a long time, but time well spent! Great to get a full tour of the latest with AWS. Leaps and bounds are being made. AWS Aurora is really interesting. So is AWS ElastiCache for Memcached + Redis. We will do very well to explore how we can use more of AWS going forward.

The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to the French Revolution by Francis Fukuyama. It’s an epic tome and tour of human progress through the construction of political institutions and systems. It explains a lot of why we are so quick to devolve into tribal affiliations, and why the advent of the state was one of the chief achievements of human evolution. It dives into why some areas, like Western Europe, has developed more stable states, while others like Afghanistan or Africa still struggles. It’s told in a relatively plain language, but does go deep on a lot of minutia of kinship systems and so forth that are interesting but makes for a very long tale. I can recommend the Audible version as well. A solid 23 hours of listening 😀.

Fans of Hardcore History would find a lot over great crosslinks and overlaps with the topics and stories that Dan Carlin covers. It also gives a historic foundation to understand things like Game of Thrones. I thought The Unsullied was a really clever idea from GoT, but it so happens that a slave army like that was actually employed by several regimes throughout history. The Mamluks started as such an army, until they ended up running Egypt, and subsequently defending Islam from both the crusaders and Genghis Khan.

What’s really interesting about such a broad inquiry is how it compares and contrasts different regimes under the lupe of system theory. The use of the Mamluks, and other slave armies, came to be because rulers couldn’t overcome the tribal and family allegiances of their own citizens. Those systems had a tendency to descent into graft and nepotism as a matter of biology (leaving offspring with inheritance and security).

That then ties into later political institutions, like the rise of the Catholic Church. The whole purpose for celibacy came as another way of dealing with the same problem of priests and bishops trying to form dynasties around inherited positions. So the solution was the sledge hammer of “hey, if they can’t have a family, they won’t have allegiance to their own blood over the church”.

Where it all ties back is to give a historical foundation for understanding current events. The separation of church/mosque and state, corruption/elites, traditions for rule of law, and why places like India, China, the Middle East, and the West all ended up with such different notions based on millennia of institutional development.

Some times you wish he wouldn’t go into as much detail, but at the same time it also gives the whole story a gravitas that’s hard to argue with. (Although readers of The Halo Effect will smirk at the option that just the depth of research necessarily gives legitimacy to the formulation of theory.) And it’s fun when you hear about things like the Domesday Book, as covered by In Our Time, put in a broader context.

It’s an epic work. I have a hard time even comprehending how one person could digest that much original source material, make sense of it all, and arrange it in a logical progression to explain something so broad. Inspiring accomplishment.

Errors by Gerald M Weinberg. This is a compilation and refresh of the Weinberg’s six-decade work on understanding software quality and the organizations that produce it (or not). I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that at least a quarter of everything I think I know about software management and quality comes straight from reading the works of Weinberg. He is as profound as he is approachable. A rare combination!

I’d strongly encourage anyone interested in software quality (and who isn’t?!) to give this a try. It’s a good introduction to the topic and doesn’t require much in terms of prerequisites. If this then strikes your fancy, Quality Software Management is the gold series.

Political Order and Political Decay: From the Industrial Revolution to the Globalization of Democracy. This volume picks up where The Origins of Political Order: From Prehuman Times to The French Revolution left off and dives straight into contemporary analysis, including critiques of especially the American political system. Can’t wait to dive deeper!

In between the two, I took a detour to listen to Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. This is the business-oriented intersection of Punished By Rewards meets Flow. The metaphors are some times a bit stretched (from Motivational Operating System 2.0 to 3.0!!), but it’s none the less succinct, overwhelmingly compelling, and reassuring.

The central thesis is that motivation relies on three core components: Mastery, Autonomy, and Purpose. As well as just how important intrinsic motivation (I like the work for the sake of the work) is for creative work compared to extrinsic motivation (I do work because there’s a bonus if I do). It recites countless scholars and studies on motivation and just how harmful a lot of traditional management carrots and sticks can be. Strongly recommended, and it’s a short read/listen.

Disrupted: My Misadventure in the Start-Up Bubble. What a wonderful mirror for much of the contemporary bullshit around startups. The book details his ~2 years working for HubSpot, and the ridiculousness and mismanagement that entails. From calling people who are fired “graduates” to pumping up sappy acronyms for culture like HEART while being utterly brutal with work environments. It’s a cautionary tale of how too much AWESOME!! and CHANGING THE WORLD!! indoctrination can make you utterly blind to the mundane realities of work.

You do have to get past the curmudgeon filter a bit, though. Lyons has a tendency to fall into the “everyone is so stupid, I’m the only one who sees everything” hole at times, but I’m inclined to forgive him given the ordeal. And he does counter that with a fair dose of introspection and self-criticism.

Strongly recommended.

The Age of Absurdity by Michael Foley. It’s part Andy Rooney curmudgeon (or, crank, as he calls it), part tour de force of philosophy (especially Stoicism and Buddhism), part neuroscience picks, and part stand-up comedian observations, all reflecting on How To Live A Good Life, in the grand sense of the phrase.

It’s really good and right in line with many of the philosophies we project with REWORK and SvN. I particularly enjoyed the epic rant on POTENTIAL as the new grail for everything in life and business.

I’ve been listening to it on Audible, which has the added bonus of a Scottish reading, which is just perfect for the tone.

It has a bit of a dip in the middle, which ironically mirrors the conclusion’s focus on the U-shape of enjoyment through life, but finishes unbelievably strong. This is philosophy on how to live a good life without being dense or obtuse. Funny, approachable, profound.

On the philosophy track, I’m about a fourth through The Daily Stoic. It’s meant to provide a Stoic quote for every day of the year to provoke pondering. I don’t really hold to the once-per-day timetable, and some times the “modern contextualization” is a bit trite, but it’s great to have the hardest lessons presented repeatedly from different angles and different texts. Good stuff.

Throwing rocks at the Google bus by Douglass Rushkoff explores the ills of a society focused so exclusively on endless growth. It’s a little bit of a leftist polemic piece that likes to play both sides of the equation whenever it suits the argument, but there are some real nuggets here, and a capture of the sense that Things Aren’t Broadly Working Out For A Broad Enough Number Of People.

JavaScript Allongé is a deep-dive into JavaScript as of version ES6. I’ve written JavaScript for close to two decades in some form, but I’d never really gotten the fundamentals, like prototypes, functional bindings, tail-call optimization, and other functional programming aspects really nailed in my mind. This book did exactly that. Highly recommended for people who don’t just want to write JavaScript but understand it too. It’s probably one of the best technical books I’ve read in years.

An Introduction to General Systems Thinking is a book I first read maybe 15 years ago. I’ve recently come to think about what books I had read in the past that had the biggest impact on my thinking. And this was right up there. Systems thinking teaches you how to find the significant variables, how to ignore that which doesn’t matter at the scale you’re examining, and generally how to think clearly about the world. That’s obviously a great help for any programmer, but it goes far beyond that. It’s just as important to be a clear thinker in business or any other matters of complexity. So I’m giving it a re-read, which is also reminding me what a fantastic writer Gerald Weinberg is. Just 👌

You don’t have my permission

Don’t ask for permission, come with intent.

I don’t read many business books, but last year I read one that had a profound effect on me: “Turn The Ship Around” by L. David Marquet. I guess it’s not really a business book, which is probably why I liked it.

Here’s how it’s described on Amazon:

“Leadership should mean giving control rather than taking control and creating leaders rather than forging followers.” David Marquet, an experienced Navy officer, was used to giving orders. As newly appointed captain of the USS Santa Fe, a nuclear-powered submarine, he was responsible for more than a hundred sailors, deep in the sea. In this high-stress environment, where there is no margin for error, it was crucial his men did their job and did it well. But the ship was dogged by poor morale, poor performance, and the worst retention in the fleet.

Marquet acted like any other captain until, one day, he unknowingly gave an impossible order, and his crew tried to follow it anyway. When he asked why the order wasn’t challenged, the answer was “Because you told me to.” Marquet realized he was leading in a culture of followers, and they were all in danger unless they fundamentally changed the way they did things. That’s when Marquet took matters into his own hands and pushed for leadership at every level.

Turn the Ship Around! is the true story of how the Santa Fe skyrocketed from worst to first in the fleet by challenging the U.S. Navy’s traditional leader-follower approach. Struggling against his own instincts to take control, he instead achieved the vastly more powerful model of giving control. Before long, each member of Marquet’s crew became a leader and assumed responsibility for everything he did, from clerical tasks to crucial combat decisions. The crew became fully engaged, contributing their full intellectual capacity every day, and the Santa Fe started winning awards and promoting a highly disproportionate number of officers to submarine command.

The fundamental premise is that he realized that when people come to you for orders, or ask your permission to do something, they don’t bring any of their own responsibility to the request. They’re asking you if they can xyz. That puts it on you. They don’t have to fully consider their ask because they still need you to OK it. You’re their door stop just in case. So it’s not about them and what they want to do, it’s about what you are OK with them doing. And even if you OK it, it only happened because you said it could happen. That creates too many dependencies, and — like Marquet — I believe people and teams within an organization should be able to move independently of one another. Fewer dependencies, not more.

So instead of asking permission and or seeking orders, he told his sailors to come to him with intent. Instead of “Captain, may I turn the ship starboard 30 degrees?” (which asks for the Captain’s permission to OK the command), he wanted people to come to him saying “Captain, I’m going to turn the ship starboard 30 degrees.” In just a few words, everything’s different.

“May I?” pushes all the power and responsibility to the person granting the permission. “I’m going to” squarely puts the responsibility on the person who’s going to carry out the action. When the person doing the work is the person that has to live with the consequences, they tend to think more completely about what they’re about to do. They see it from more angles, they consider it differently, they’re more thoughtful about it because it’s ultimately on them. When you don’t have permission, it’s on you to make the call.

Now, Captain Marquet still often wanted to hear the intent — especially when the outcome affected the whole ship, and especially early on as he was implementing the new system — but ultimately this is about involving one brain less (Marquet’s), and a hundred brains more (the rest of the people on the ship).

As the CEO of Basecamp, I’ve taken this to heart. I’m still working on it — it’s a big shift at times and I often have to push back against some long-standing habits— but I don’t want people asking me for permission. In almost every case, if someone asks me for permission, something’s wrong.

People shouldn’t ask me if they can do this or that. I want people to tell me what they intend to do. If they want to hear my thoughts about their intention, let’s talk! Let’s riff! Let’s work through it. But don’t ask me if you can this or that — tell me what you’re going to so I can cheer you on, help you out, ask a question, or suggest another approach that may be worth considering. But if it won’t happen unless I say so, I won’t say so.

None of this means I don’t provide feedback, or direction, or guidance, or vision, or purpose. None of this means I can’t disagree — strongly at times. And none of this means if I see you’re about to jump off a cliff I won’t stop you.

But it does mean that generally, most of the time — and hopefully more and more of the time — people will get better and better at thinking things through completely, building the confidence to stand behind their convictions, and take full responsibility for the calls they make.

I’m not talking about a free-for-all. I’m talking about a think-for-all.

Of course there are always exceptions. Captain Marquet reserved one order for him and him alone — the order to kill. If the sub had to fire a weapon, if someone could die, it was his call. I’m still trying to figure out what my reserved orders are, but hopefully there are fewer and fewer over time.

If you haven’t read Turn The Ship Around, please do. It’s a wonderful, important book with great lessons and honest writing. I think you’ll really enjoy it.

Independent, Literary, Political

Illustration by Nate Otto

The front window of Women & Children First bookstore in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood has signs that proclaim: “Opened 1979/Open Today/Open Forever.” If that doesn’t capture the spirit of The Distance, I don’t know what does!

Our latest episode of The Distance about this 37-year-old feminist bookstore has many other elements of a great business survival story: Risk-taking, creativity, adaptability and a sense of purpose. Women & Children First, founded by two women in 1979 and sold in 2014 to two staff members, is a reminder that even as so much of our political and cultural commentary has moved online in the form of essays and hot takes and tweets, there is still an important place for physical spaces where people can connect in person over the ideas and literature that move them.


(Sound of children talking)

LINDA BUBON: Yay, good morning, everybody! Good morning. Good morning. Welcome to story time! Good morning!

WAILIN: Once upon a time in Chicago, there were two friends named Ann and Linda. They dreamed of opening a special store filled with all kinds of books written by women and about women.

LINDA: Ann and I thought about creating a feminist bookstore in a neighborhood, street level, with a storefront and programming and a real children’s section and we started envisioning this store, and we spent most of a year going around to every independent bookstore in Chicago studying their shelving, the layouts of their stores, how they bought their books. We would get advice from anybody who would give it.

WAILIN: Ann and Linda called their store Women & Children First. Now in different parts of the country, far away from Chicago, lived two girls named Lynn and Sarah. Lynn grew up in Pennsylvania, where she spent Saturdays driving with her parents to different libraries in search of the next book in their favorite mystery series.

LYNN MOONEY: You know, it wasn’t good enough that they knew in our county which library had the best mystery selection, but no, they had to do inter-library loan, and if they couldn’t wait that long for the book to come, they actually had to drive to that library and borrow the book from there.

WAILIN: Sarah grew up in Ohio, the youngest of four daughters raised by a professional storyteller and an architect. Her favorite book was one that her father read to her, called The Big Orange Splot.

SARAH HOLLENBECK: This book is about how we need to create houses that reflect our dreams, and it’s about a neighborhood where everyone on the street creates a house that shows what they dream about at night. That book sparked my love of reading because it was how my dad and I connected even before I learned to read.

WAILIN: The lives of these four women would come together at Women & Children First, the bookstore that Ann Christopherson and Linda Bubon founded in 1979 and sold two years ago to staff members Lynn Mooney and Sarah Hollenbeck. Their story is about risk-taking, friendship and imagination — all elements of a good fairy tale, but you won’t find any damsels in distress here. This is a true story about smart, capable women who created a sustainable independent business. Welcome to The Distance, a podcast about long-running businesses. I’m Wailin Wong. The Distance is a production of Basecamp. The brand new Basecamp 3 is everything any team needs to stay on the same page about whatever they’re working on. Tasks, spur of the moment conversations with coworkers, status updates, reports, documents and files all share one home. And now your first basecamp is completely free forever. Sign up at

LINDA: We were like two kids. We were 28 and 30, and we were like building the dollhouse, you know, from the ground up, we built all the shelving ourselves with help from our friends.

WAILIN: Ann and Linda had met in graduate school, where they studied English and participated in a feminist discussion group with their professors. At the time they opened their bookstore, Lynn was a teenager, coming of age in a household where her mom subscribed to Ms. magazine. Years later, she attended rallies in support of the National Endowment for the Arts during a tumultuous period in the agency’s history. It was around this time that Sarah Hollenbeck was wearing anti-Bush t-shirts to grade school — that’s George Bush senior — and going with her mother to their local feminist bookstore in Toledo, Ohio.

SARAH: It was called People Called Women. It’s still there and Gina is the owner, and she, you know, sometimes said that my mom was why she was still in business because she sometimes she was the only person to shop there that day.

WAILIN: Ann and Linda hired Lynn part-time eight years ago and eventually promoted her to store manager. Sarah started working at the store in 2013.

SARAH: Ann and Linda graciously hired me and then almost immediately put the store up for sale, and took us all aside and told us they were going to retire.

WAILIN: A year earlier, Ann and Linda had asked Lynn and the store’s publicist at the time about taking over the business, but the timing hadn’t worked out. They were ready to restart their search for new owners. Sarah was only about a month into her new job at the store, but she jumped at the opportunity and asked Lynn if she wanted to team up on a proposal. Ann and Linda entertained about seven bids that they narrowed to three. In the end, they picked Lynn and Sarah.

LINDA: I knew them. I knew their principles. I knew how they interpreted feminism and lived feminism in their lives. I saw how they behaved towards customers.

WAILIN: Ann and Linda were looking for qualities beyond the cold numbers of a business plan.

LYNN: It became not just about the money. Yes, they were selling a business. It had tremendous value and they’ve worked very hard to build it up, so of course they needed to get something out of it, but it also indicated that they weren’t just going to chase whoever had the deepest pockets, that there was a lot of room for the personal, the relationships, and a vision for how to um bring Women & Children First into the future, update its relevance, update its connections to women and women writers in the Chicago area, and I think that’s part of what Sarah and I were able to do, is present a real passion for those things and a real interest in updating the store in a way that young women in Chicago would think of it as their bookstore.

WAILIN: A major component of Lynn and Sarah’s business proposal was continuing to hold events, something that had been part of the store’s mission from its earliest days. Women & Children First has long hosted readings by emerging and established authors, children’s story time, panels and book groups. The programs, which are partially funded by a nonprofit arm Ann and Linda set up years ago, give customers a reason to visit the store instead of buying books online. Even as so much of the conversation around feminism and politics has moved to the digital realm via op-eds and essays and tweets, the bookstore serves as a place where readers can connect face to face with writers they admire.

SARAH: A lot of authors have spent a great deal of time connecting with fans through social media and developing that personality of the author and people love it. They love being able to have a conversation with the author, so independent bookstores take that one step further and have that conversation in real time, in real life and we’ve seen just a huge swell of interest, especially among young feminists who want to actually meet the author that they’ve talked to online, that they you know, had this Twitter relationship.

WAILIN: Lynn and Sarah’s plan called for something bold: a major renovation to make a separate event space in the back of the store, so that other people could still shop in the front during events, thus creating a dual revenue stream. But they had to get the money and close the store for a couple months to overhaul the space. Lynn and Sarah raised over $35,000 in an online campaign, tapping into the same spirit of generosity that had driven friends to build bookshelves for Ann and Linda decades earlier. And speaking of those shelves, many of them had been in the window, displaying books that faced the street.

SARAH: That was wonderful in that it showed what we had in stock right now, but it also meant that you couldn’t see inside. So Lynn and I were both pretty adamant that although it was risky, we needed to take the shelves down so that people could see inside and say “Oh, I can go inside.” You know, some people are a little wary about what a feminist bookstore is, especially one that’s called Women & Children First. And we just wanted you to feel invited, to feel welcome, to look inside and say, “Oh, there’s a man in there and I’m a man, I can walk inside.” That was a risky decision and it turned out really well. I think we have more foot traffic now than we’ve ever had.

LYNN: Those shelves in the windows as well as the front counter, had been built by longtime dedicated customers, so there were people who would come in and say, “I helped build this front counter.” It kind of tipped us off to the fact that every decision we made was important, that we had to think things through really carefully, and that we needed to be very mindful of our longtime legacy customers and their memories and their associations.

WAILIN: Other parts of the renovation left behind remnants of a less inclusive era.

LYNN: There were several LGBTQ sections of the store that had always been in the back room and we wanted them to be on the main floor. There was a time in the store’s history when having those books in a back room provided the customers with a kind of privacy that times may have warranted were desirable—maybe not for every customer, but for some customers, and that made tremendous sense for a very long time. But we’re living in a different time now, so that’s not the case so much. And so we wanted those sections, especially the queer fiction, queer memoir, we want them to get more attention.

WAILIN: From the start, Women & Children First has aspired to lift up the voices of people like women of color and survivors of abuse. The store has also been about women helping each other in different ways. In the early days, when the store was in its previous location, Linda and a staff member shared childcare, with one watching the kids while the other worked. The author Ann Patchett, a bookstore owner herself, once offered to overnight Lynn and Sarah a projector that they needed for an event. And of course, there’s the partnership between the two owners of Women & Children First, now in its second iteration.

LYNN: I think Sarah is the perfect business partner for me here. She has just so much creativity and energy for things like events and programming and how to market the store and I wish I was that person. I am not that person, but I sure know that you can’t run a successful business without that skill set.

SARAH: We’re very lucky and we know a lot of bookstore owners in Chicago who do it on their own and I don’t know—I literally do not know how they do it because we really need one another to do all the many, many things that need to be done in a day.

WAILIN: The number of feminist bookstores in North America has dwindled in the last few decades from a hundred to about a dozen, depending on who’s counting. Back in 1979, it was extremely difficult for a woman to get funding for her own business. It was a radical notion that Ann and Linda could start a venture—and not just any business, but one centered on elevating women’s voices. With all of the harassment that many women face online for expressing their opinion or simply existing, the role of Women & Children First looks as revolutionary as it did 37 years ago.

SARAH: For me as a woman, I think it’s very risky to comment in online platforms and the thing about having an event in real time is we really strive to create a safe space for commenting out loud with your voice and not with your fingers. I think that will never go away because unfortunately the Internet can be very dangerous for women to voice an opinion. This will never be an unsafe place for women to voice an opinion and I think that’s where we’ll always stay relevant.

WAILIN: At Women & Children First, there’s cause for optimism. Linda sees a lot more dads at story time than she used to. And Lynn and Sarah are encouraged by what they see too.

LYNN: It’s completely standard now in a book about fire trucks that some of the fire truck drivers will be women in children’s books, or in a book about outer space, that some of the astronauts shown in the children’s book will be women. So things like that give me hope.

SARAH: I have had a ton of emails every day from young feminists who want to propose an event to have here, a dialogue of some sort that is really exciting to me because they’re younger and younger. They know what feminism is, they are really upset about the patriarchy. They know it’s a force and they know they have to fight against it. There’s kind of an energy in the air around feminism that I find very exciting.

WAILIN: While Ann has fully retired, Linda still works part-time at the store. You’ll find her leading story time, straightening the shelves, and participating in discussion groups. The work is never quite done.

LINDA: I feel successful now, not because I made a lot of money in my life, but because I learned to live without needing a lot of money and to find my satisfaction and the happiness that comes and goes when you’re living a life of purpose. And that has made all the difference in the world.


LINDA: All right everybody, that’s it for today! Don’t forget April 9th coming up on a Saturday. We do ask a one dollar donation for story time and I hope you all have a great week. See you next week!

The Distance is produced by Shaun Hildner and me, Wailin Wong. Our illustrations are done by Nate Otto. Thanks to Tracy Baim of the Windy City Times for her help with this story. The Distance is a production of Basecamp, the leading app for keeping teams on the same page about whatever they’re working on. Your first Basecamp is completely free forever. Try the brand new Basecamp Three for yourself at

I’d rather text than talk

Illustration by Nate Otto

Are we truly introverts or just socially and emotionally undeveloped? Here’s how I came to learn that truth about myself, how it’s changed the way I think about making software, and why if you make software Sherry Turkle’s “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age” is a must-read. If you’ve ever thought, “I’d rather text than talk”, this is for you.

I’ve long considered myself an introvert. If you’re a designer or programmer, a self-proclaimed geek, a computer enthusiast — if you live on the web — you may think so, too. Perhaps this sounds familiar: I was content to play alone as a kid spending hours building with Lego, lost in my imagination. I made art, read books, and was fascinated by computers.

The computer would do amazing things if I could master its secret language of esoteric syntax. It was absorbing and stimulated the mind. Predictable and consistent, never doing any more or less than instructed.

Unlike people. They were messy and inefficient and cared about the most trivial things! I wasn’t without friends but my tribe mostly cared about the same things I did. When we did get together it was often to share techniques and experiences from our time in solitary activities. Instead of being intertwined by friendship we journeyed through life in parallel. The things we were passionate about made no sense to adults. They didn’t advance our social standing or impress the girls. So we retreated further.

It wasn’t until the internet arrived that it all suddenly made sense. I remember distinctly in college and in my first job after college the elation to learn that I could be paid to indulge in all the things I was already doing. I was able to work with computers all day long, figuring things out, reading, making, building, tinkering. The internet was wide open and seemingly crafted especially for us geeks. You didn’t even have to take a class — everything you needed to know to make things on the internet was on the internet.

Building the case for introversion

Not only did the web allow me to get paid for work I’d have done for fun but it helped me to connect with other people just like me. We worked and communicated through the web. Email and IM meant no one had to comb their hair, put on pants, make small talk, or stand in the corner while the extroverts had all the fun. Asynchronous communication was efficient and transactional. I didn’t have to ask you about your haircut or pets before requesting the information I needed from you. My “friends” were right there, neatly contained in that narrow little window on my screen. There when I need them, minimized when I didn’t.

As we geeks became more essential to the companies we worked for we were coddled. They bent the old rules to make us feel comfortable because we were shy and temperamental. Casual dress codes, unlimited Cokes and foosball tables were standard issue. We were special snowflakes who passed around articles to explain why were were so different and how we should be treated*.

It all came to a head for me a few years ago when I read Susan Cain’s Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. Here was the definitive apologetic I’d been waiting for. I didn’t need to feel bad for being awkward, for preferring emails to phone calls, for wanting to stay in rather than go out — it was just how I was. Here introversion was presented as an advantage, not something to be ashamed of. Damn the extrovert agenda!

Whoever you are, bear in mind that appearance is not reality. Some people act like extroverts, but the effort costs them energy, authenticity, and even physical health. Others seem aloof or self-contained, but their inner landscapes are rich and full of drama. So the next time you see a person with a composed face and a soft voice, remember that inside her mind she might be solving an equation, composing a sonnet, designing a hat. She might, that is, be deploying the powers of quiet.

Years ago when I first joined 37signals I was overjoyed at having found an introvert’s dream job. Here I could work from my home hiding behind a computer nearly 100% of the time. Not working in an office meant nobody to drop by for small talk or force me to speak in front of a crowd. Customer support? Email. Meetings? Toxic. We only got together in-person a few times a year.

I remember those in-person meetings reinforced my self-diagnosis. Sitting around the conference table, the ideas and options came fast and furious. I could hardly get in a word. My coworkers wanted to work out the design now, iterating on a whiteboard in REAL TIME! What I wanted to do was take in all the information, go home and work it out in solitude, at the computer. I knew I could think as creatively as anyone else but I needed to do it on my terms.

Why take the risk of sharing a possibly stupid idea off-the-cuff when I could retreat to my cave and craft a perfectly edited proposal or iterate on a polished design in solitude?

Cain’s book validated all of this. I didn’t need to feel bad, this is just how I was and I needed to assert myself such that I could work on my terms. The book even stresses, “Don’t think of introversion as something that needs to be cured”. So I didn’t look to change, I just kept justifying. Is there anything we’re better at than justifying our faults and failures? And the internet makes it all too easy to follow only the people who agree with us and read only what represents our worldview. I may be a weirdo, but there are thousands of people who are just as weird.

Now my point is not to deride Cain’s book (which is very good) or somehow deny introversion. There is no question that introversion is real and many, many people are wired this way. If you think you might be, “Quiet” is a great read. The problem for me is as great as the book made me feel about my behavior, I don’t think I was actually an introvert.

Introverts are easily overwhelmed by too much stimulation from social gatherings and engagement, introversion having even been defined by some in terms of a preference for a quiet, more minimally stimulating external environment.

Extraverts are energized and thrive off of being around other people. They take pleasure in activities that involve large social gatherings, such as parties, community activities, public demonstrations, and business or political groups. They also tend to work well in groups. An extraverted person is likely to enjoy time spent with people and find less reward in time spent alone. They tend to be energized when around other people, and they are more prone to boredom when they are by themselves.

Extraversion and introversion

I didn’t dislike social gatherings and didn’t need to balance social time with solitude in order to recharge as is commonly said of introverts. Some of the best times of my life were in social settings. I couldn’t think of any time with my computer that would crack the top ten. I wasn’t sure what to do. Introversion justified my behavior but the more clinical definitions left me with questions.


It was only recently, years later, in divorce and another book that I found an answer. Divorce viciously unmasked my self-deception. Covering my social and emotional deficiencies in the echo-chamber of the internet and the apologetics of introversion made me feel better but it let the problems fester. In losing everything I was forced to turn to real people for healing. First in the few relationships I had left, later in seeking and forming new ones. I could have stayed home continuing to wrap myself in the comfort of the misunderstood introvert. Instead I sought change. Forming new relationships and asking for help required a humility and vulnerability I’d never thought possible but offered rewards beyond imagination.

Being comfortable with our vulnerabilities is central to our happiness, our creativity, and even our productivity.

Sherry Turkle’s Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age was the final piece of the puzzle. It’s a rather damning look at how the way we communicate in the smart phone era is killing real, face-to-face conversations in our friendships, families, schools and workplaces and what we’re losing when that happens.

We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation — at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. But it is in this type of conversation — where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another — that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.

Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age

The book is particularly focused on a population who have never developed the skills to truly have a conversation in “real time” and how that’s destroying empathy (sound familiar?). How social media offers the unrealistic promise of connecting without giving anything of ourselves. How the ways we’ve become wired to avoid boredom at all costs — stimulation is just a tap away — has assaulted our ability to be secure in solitude, rest our minds, and open them to the serendipity and creativity that comes from unstructured reflection. How even the presence of a phone on the table changes the depth and nature of a conversation.

In seeking productivity and efficiency we’re turning conversations into, as Turkle’s puts it, merely “transactional” exchanges of information. We’re treating people like apps that we tap when we need stimulation, close when we’re bored, switch away from when something more interesting comes around and delete when they no longer offer anything in the transaction.

What does this have to do with software?

At Basecamp we make software that helps people communicate, get work done and stay connected. Millions of people use it to increase their productivity enabling them to work when, where and how they want. It works on Macs, PCs, iOS and Android, phones and tablets. It notifies you when a task is due, a meeting is starting or someone needs your attention — anywhere in the world, any time of day. I’m proud to help make a tool that helps so many people get things done but I often worry about the other side. Should I be proud when a mom is using Basecamp instead of watching her kid’s soccer game? Who’s fault is it when dad comes home from work on-time but isn’t really present because Basecamp keeping pinging his phone all evening? Every time Basecamp sends a notification should I wonder if it’s helping someone be a better worker or impeding them from being a better person?

The age of the smartphone is here to stay. Well beyond the days of Web 2.0 our industry is making the best software ever seen. Everywhere you look there are beautiful, fast, intelligent apps that allow us all to do more both simultaneously and cumulatively. We’ve had tremendous success in making people more productive but what have we gained? Do we have more free time? More leisure? No! As Turkle aptly puts it, “We are living moments of more and lives of less.”

Reclaiming Conversation ends with a call to make software that has moved beyond mere productivity and thinks about the human on the other side. Can we make apps that are less-sticky, less addictive, that reward users for completing a focused task then quitting rather than enticing them with something else? Can apps encourage uni-tasking? Can they help users take back their time?

I’m proud to work for a company that’s starting to ask these hard questions and seeking real answers. Basecamp’s Work Can Wait feature let’s users create a clear separation between when they’re working and when they don’t want to be bothered with work—even on mobile devices. This is a great step forward. Granted, many apps and operating systems have recently incorporated similar features the help us manage the noise but the future is here when computers are proactively helping us be more human, not less.

Reclaiming Conversation has completely changed the way I think about people, computers, social media, and designing software. If you’re a parent, a co-worker, or a friend; if you’re dating or married; if you’re a boss; if you make apps; if you’ve ever thought, “I’d rather text than talk”, this book is a must-read. It’ll make you think about the way you use software, the ways software can use you, and what you’re losing every time you glance at your phone. Our industry may truly be full of introverts, but I suspect that at least some of you are like me, not realizing how you’ve let these tools change you. I hope I’ve made you curious enough to find out. If you make software, I hope you’re inspired to help your users find balance, too.

Visit to learn more about the all new Basecamp 3, try it for free and start living like Work Can Wait.