September 20, 2016.
A Truck Full of Money
Tracy Kidder – author of The Soul of a New Machine and Mountains Beyond Mountains – now brings us the spirited life of an American original, the engrossing story of an inventive, kinetic, and generous man who faces what seems like an enviable problem: How to deal with great success.
Paul English grew up in working-class Boston in the 1970s, a boy who rebelled against authority, but discovered a world that called out to his talents the first time he saw a computer. He had a mind for the age that lay ahead.
With the skill of a natural storyteller — “master of the craft of nonfiction narrative” (The Baltimore Sun) – Tracy Kidder takes us on a pilgrim’s fascinating journey through the technological revolution of the last 30 years. It became clear early in his life that Paul English was a member of an elite class. He belonged to what one of the world’s greatest living computer scientists, Donald Knuth, calls “the 2 percent”: people with a special talent for programming, a talent that had lain dormant for millennia in a fraction of humanity, waiting for its very instrument — the computer — to be invented.
But Paul English was more than a brilliant programmer. Despite suffering from what was eventually diagnosed as bi-polar disorder, he discovered in himself a genius for building teams and conceiving the innovative enterprises that could employ them. He became , as one observer put it, “a Pied Piper of geeks,” his optimism and kindness, and his innate sense of fair play as well as his native genius, inspiring intense loyalty among his followers.
As a young man touched by what he calls “the fire,” Paul English invents companies, and while not all succeed, he keeps bouncing back. Early on, one colleague who leaves a good job to follow him to a start-up remarks, “Someday this boy’s going to get hit by a truck full of money, and I’m going to be standing beside him.” When English does indeed make a fortune as co-founder of the travel website Kayak.com — it sells for almost two billion dollars – the first thing he thinks about is how to give the money away. “What else would you do with it?” The second thing he thinks is, “What’s next?”
In A Truck Full of Money, Tracy Kidder gives us a window on the paradoxical world of software engineering and internet commerce, where genius and artistry often mingle with vulgarity and greed, and where Paul English, for all his his success, seems at times almost an innocent. Kidder casts a fresh, critical, and often humorous eye on the way new ideas and new money are reshaping our culture and the world, often frivolous and yet vital to the functioning of virtually aspect of modern society.
The Los Angeles Times has said that Tracy Kidder’s “kind of literary journalism…involves seeing the world through the eyes of those he writes about, not judging them, simply presenting them as they move through life. Kidder is one of the best, if not the best, at it.” With this unforgettable portrait, Kidder takes us inside the mind of a mesmerizing figure who is unique and yet a representative creature of our entrepreneurial age, bold, big-hearted, and as unpredictable as America itself.
Excerpts from A Truck Full of Money
Paul English on money:
When asked why he chose to give away money, he said:
“What else would you do with it? I’m a little bit communist in that I don’t think money ever really belongs to one person. Money’s supposed to move around. I mean, money’s a fiction, right? Money’s this fictitious thing created to facilitate trade and for building things, so I think hoarding it is a disaster, because it goes against what money was created for.”
On November 9, 2012, the morning after the sale of Kayak was announced, Paul woke up to find his picture on the front page of The Boston Globe. “Priceline makes a $1.8 billion deal for Kayak” read the headline. The caption added: “Kayak cofounder Paul English shaped apps that compare travel searches.” All this in the newspaper that he used to deliver on his bicycle. In his place, of course, many hometown-boys-made-good would have been delighted. Paul felt like going into hiding.
Emails, texts, phone calls, even knockings on his door. All his channels of communication were flooded, less with congratulations now than with requests for money: pleas for help from pathetic- sounding strangers who might or might not be con artists; from old friends and new acquaintances representing worthy charities; from a doctor who had been treating him, now asking, on behalf of his hospital, if Paul would mind being contacted by the development office. Also from a friend of a friend who wondered whether Paul could spare fifty thousand for a real estate investment. The woman arrived at his door a few nights later, wearing a tennis dress though the night was chilly. Paul turned her down gently, simply saying that he didn’t invest in things like real estate….
Paul had a knack for making money but he didn’t seem very interested in keeping it. Now he had an absurdity of money. True, some things remained out of his reach. He was still a member of that 99.995 percent of Americans who can’t really afford a Gulfstream jet. But $120 million is exactly 120 times more than $1 million— a wholly different category of money for Paul, the kind of money that got one’s picture on the front page of the Globe. Seeing his face there was like waking from a troubling dream, the dream of the unnamed crime. You wake up knowing you didn’t do it, but the feeling lingers that you did.
Paul thought about a remark that a few friends of his had made over the last two years. When Paul had told them how uncomfortable he felt about his Kayak fortune, several had replied, “You shouldn’t feel that way. You worked hard for your money.” The implication Paul heard was that poor people wouldn’t be poor if they weren’t lazy. But I didn’t actually work that hard, Paul thought. I’m just good at something that makes a lot of money.
In this book, Paul English serves in part as a window on the paradoxical world of software engineering and Internet commerce, where genius and artistry often mingle with vulgarity and greed – and where Paul, for all his success, seems at times almost an innocent. After Kayak was sold, for nearly two billion dollars, Paul left and started a company that he called Blade. The name, outside of cutlery, didn’t really denote anything, and Blade’s mission was also rather vague. It was to be an “incubator,” hatching new Internet companies:
Blade posted a public invitation on its website. It read in part: “Blade is interested in software and hardware that will be used by tens of millions of users. Interested? Reach out to us to hear more.” The invitation also said that Blade would finance “a few technology start-ups a year.” The warning was implicit, but there was a world of longing out there on the Web….
The proposals rolled in. Several dozen opened like loud and cheerful voices at the door. “Hello Blade!” “Hi There!” “Good evening!”
“Hi guys – cool space, I’d love to learn more.” One began: “I am a creator. I am an entrepreneur. I am a woman.” Most were men, and most were young. None seemed to lack passion. One wrote: “Seeing the description of reaching ‘tens of millions of users’ fits the concept I’ve been working on.”
The Blade application asked candidates to describe the problems they intended to solve and not the solutions they’d devised, but many couldn’t resist. Several had created electronic versions of the glossy brochure, “pitch decks,” for this purpose. Ideas were awesome, revolutionary, disruptive, game-changing, and, in one email, “extraordinary, futuristic in vision, massive,” also “exciting, disruptive at its core, and universally game changing.”
All would continue the process of converting the culture from analog to digital. They’d be moving in, that is, on “spaces ripe for disruption.” “The antiquated, agent-based system for buying and selling real estate.” The lack of “video chat” for consumers trying to contact businesses. The need to connect “busy professionals with great barbers to provide on-demand, in-home, in-office haircuts saving customers time and hassle.”
There were plans for an online tool to help people replace lost and stolen stuff. For a better kind of automated pet door in homes with small animals. For replacing “posters, art prints, and other wall decor with an intelligent highresolution display.” The frustrations of parking in a city could at last be solved: By an app for letting drivers locate vacant public spaces in real time. By a mobile valet service; call or email ahead and people will come and park your car for you, assuming they don’t steal it.
Does that boy or girl you see across the room find you attractive, too? Are you too shy to find out in old fashioned ways? There was already an app in development to help with this. All it needed was seed money. The time was also right for “an online cannabis order and delivery service.” Convenience stores could not be allowed to stand; they failed to be aligned “with the way we (urban dwellers) now live our healthy and examined lives.” And there was an urgent need for an app to aggregate the news: “No one our age has the time or patience to read a newspaper.”
Twentysomething entrepreneurs seemed to think of themselves
as a little nation. Perhaps they were, and maybe they were busier than anyone in human history, thanks to the millions of experiences – literally millions – that one could have online. But what if, once sorted out, those experiences still left a person unsatisfied? One Blade suitor wrote: “The problem I am trying to combat is the inability for people in today’s society, to make actual human contact. Whether it is because we are too busy, we are somewhere unfamiliar or we simply lack the social skills, many relationships are maintained through computer screens and online connected devices. We don’t think about it but there is something to be said for having a face to face conversation and doing activities with another person.” A prototype of an electronic solution existed, but Paul and his colleagues would have to wait to hear about it. Unlike a number of other Blade suitors, this one obeyed the instructions on the website. “My solution is . . . I was
paying attention, I won’t tell you about this yet.”
You didn’t have to be around Paul long to get a taste of his vigor. He didn’t walk so much as stride, moving so quickly that it was hard to keep up without performing a combination of jogging and race- walking. His speech could accelerate to the point where you had to strain to understand him. He tended to repeat himself, telling the same stories to the same person, forgetting he had told them. To many of the people around him, all this was “just Paul”—an energetic, confident, talented guy who happened to be “hyperactive.” But in Paul’s case, hyperactivity was likely just a symptom of his deeper problem, his “bipolar disorder.”
The general term denotes what used to be called manic-depressive illness, but it had been broadened to include intermittent, alternating, and sometimes mixed states of depression and mania, vary- ing widely in kind and severity. In the past, Paul had suffered from near-immobilizing depression but not from the psychotic states of full-fledged mania, in which one is consumed by delusions. He was subject instead to the oddly, vaguely named “hypomania,” which means less than full-fledged mania.
… He and his current psychiatrist had found a drug, an antiepileptic called Lamictal, that had kept Paul’s depressions mostly at bay for a decade, and with minimal side effects. But his bouts of hypomania, his “highs,” recurred. At their apex—when he felt “on fire”—he was prone to what psychiatrists and therapists call “grandiosity.” Then everything seemed possible for him and the success of every new venture assured. A hypomanic high could also be a lonely and irritable state, as when everyone seemed too slow to understand him and he’d stare at people who were talking to him, straining to be polite. “That’s pretty funny,” he would say, while thinking You just made my blood pressure go up, because I just lost three seconds that I’m going to beg for on my deathbed. Often during highs, he gave away a lot of money. More important, he didn’t sleep much and sometimes used alcohol to calm himself, and a high could lead to his sleeping with someone he later felt he shouldn’t have. When he returned to a quieter state, his fires banked for a while, these risks were clear: “It’s bad for money and sex and for drinking.”
But as a rule hypomania took away his ability to resist it, even when he was aware of being in its grip and mindful of the risks. In Paul the highs tended to build in intensity, sometimes over hours, sometimes, it seemed, over months. Usually, a set of physical sensations told him the full-blown thing was arriving. He would feel a tingling in his arms and hands, then blood racing through his arteries and veins. The colors around him changed, sometimes to lurid hues, and he felt alert to everything. He was reminded of the commotion of feelings that came flooding over him in the moments before a traffic accident. But the sensations around accidents soon subsided. These lasted for hours, sometimes for days, rising and ebbing and rising again. The overall feeling struck him as bizarre, as something that his body wasn’t meant to feel. An uncomfortable state when he’d first experienced it years before. Now when he sensed it coming, he felt both a little frightened and thoroughly exhilarated. In one email, he wrote: “Adrenaline. Hard to sit. Mind racing. Thrill. It feels good.” In another: “If someone invented a drug that normal people could take to feel like i feel this morning, that inventor would be a billionaire.” On one occasion, he said, “I love the highs. I can feel the blood racing through my veins. And I get a lot done.” In the midst of a high, he was apt to wonder what it was that needed to be cured. He knew this in his quieter times: “It’s a funny thing about mania—it feels so good that when it is with us, we feel cured, perfect, and we don’t want the meds anymore.”
One afternoon at the very end of July, half a dozen friends received an email from Paul with the subject header “Graves Light.” The email contained a link to a story in The Boston Globe about the impending sale of the lighthouse on the outermost island of Boston Harbor, a towering, weather-beaten old lighthouse fronting the open sea on a pile of rocks called Graves Ledges. Under a photograph of the structure, a caption read “The Graves Island Light Station near the entrance to Boston Harbor has no plumbing or utility services, and getting to the front door requires a climb on a 40-foot ladder.” Paul’s email continued:
i am going to place a bid just before auction close in five days don’t tell anyone yet!
…. Paul bid half a million dollars for the lighthouse and woke the next morning alarmed. “What the fuck have I done? That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.” Remorse was like a little clearing in the sky. Someone offered more for the lighthouse, and Paul felt no temptation to compete. He felt he had been rescued.
Born To Program:
One is always aware that individual talent gets suppressed by societies, the gifted child mired in poverty. But there may also be a kind of talent that gets suppressed by time, a talent diffused within the human gene pool, which lies dormant awaiting its technological moment. One of the fathers of computer science, Donald E. Knuth, speculates that this had been the case with computer programming. In a series of interviews published in Companion to the Papers of Donald Knuth, he is quoted as saying:
In another conversation, Knuth refers to these born programmers as “geeks.” This used to be the name for carnival performers portraying wild men, but it had long since been reapplied to denote socially graceless eccentrics who might also be dedicated to a special field. More recently, it had also become a term of proud self-mockery. Knuth used it that way:
“A Truck Full of Money brings us into unknown spaces of the complex workings of the mind—of a brilliant software engineer, of this new decade, of the brutal/fast business of technology, of stunning privilege, and of one man’s efforts to put his fortune to humane use.”
—Adrian Nicole LeBlanc