Please enjoy this transcript of another episode of the “Books I’ve Loved” series, in which I invite amazing past guests, close friends, and new faces to share their favorite books—the books that have influenced them, changed them, and transformed them for the better.
This episode, we have Matt Mullenweg (@photomatt), the founding developer of WordPress, the open-source software used by over 35% of the web. Matt is also the CEO of Automattic, which is now the force behind WordPress.com, Jetpack, and many other products.
Having built his own 1200-person company with no offices and with employees scattered across 68 countries, Matt examines the benefits and challenges of distributed work and recruiting talented people around the globe on Distributed, which you can find on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch a few minor errors. Enjoy!
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Matt Mullenweg: Howdy. Howdy. My name is Matt Mullenweg. I am the co-founder of WordPress, which is open source software used by about, actually about 35% of all websites now. And I also run a company called Automattic, which is a fully distributed company of over 1200 people that makes services for WordPress and fun serve things like WordPress.com, Jetpack, Tumblr, and BootComers. So this topic on favorite books is very exciting to me because I love to read so I’m going to go through a bunch of them as fast as I can and basically four categories: fun, life, professional, and then, well actually two final bonus categories like mind-expanding authors, where I just read everything they publish. So start with the fun ones. The first two are actually collections of short stories, which I love, because you can kind of work them in between other readings, almost like a refresher while you’re reading longer things.
The first is called The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, which is by Ken Liu. This is kind of SciFi, but honestly, I recommend this to a ton of people and couldn’t get a copy for Tim before and they’ve loved it. It’s just a huge variety of stories that really make your mind think differently, and Kin Liu is honestly, one of the authors, new authors, at least new to me authors I’m most excited about. He also translated one of the Three-Body Problem books and he just has a ton of great work out.
Second one is called Sum, which is 40 Tales from the Afterlives. This is by a guy who’s normally more of a science writer named, David Eagleman. Each one of these stories is only two to three pages long and it starts out at the point of an afterlife beginning and that sounds, it doesn’t do it justice actually. What I would do is maybe just pick this up and check out the very first story and see what it does to your mind.
I love actually reading one of these before I go to bed. I find that it kind of resets my brain a little bit and also sometimes gives me really cool dreams. I’ve also even read them to people as gifts at Burning Man. That’s how cool the stories are. These first two were actually recommendations that I got from a friend who is a designer named Connie Yang. The third and the fun section or fiction section that I’ll recommend is actually kind of a secret weapon in that I’ve met a ton of other CEOs and founders and folks who ultimately told me they were highly, highly influenced by this book and that is Foundation by Isaac Asimov. It’s actually a short series and yeah, it’s just so wild how I’ll meet people from all walks life, including CEOs of companies worth tens of billions of dollars that say this is one of their most influential books, especially when they were young.
I read this as a kid. I think it’s a great gift for kids. I actually recently have picked it back up and am rereading it. It holds up very well, but if you have any kind of like young adults in your life that you feel like could enjoy like some really interesting SciFi, just the concepts in it kind of make you think about the world differently.
All right, the second category I’m going to call life things. So the first and foremost I’ll put here, which is actually someone I recommended that Tim had on the podcast named Krista Tippett. It was a great podcast. It’s called “On Being,” and has a book called Becoming Wise that covers a lot of her, kind of like a best-of almost of her work. And I would say if you’re only going to [read one] in the life section, that is the one I would recommend.
The second that I’m going to recommend is called, On Grief and Grieving, which is by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. Kübler-Ross created that scale that you might’ve heard of—you know, the five stages, where it’s like anger, denial, acceptance, blah, blah, blah. She actually created that, and this book was the last of, I think, three books she did in her series, and it was actually finished posthumously by her writing partner because as she was writing this book, she herself was passing away. This book was extremely helpful and important to me after my father passed, and I’ve recommended for a number of folks, including those who don’t have anyone in their life that’s currently ill or has recently passed.
It is one thing that is certain for all of us that, you know, we’re going to, people in our life are going to pass at some point and how this book talks about pre-grieving, about grieving, it really opened up my mind to really be able to process and deal with what was a total whirlwind and still is in some ways a whirlwind of emotions. So this is one I can recommend without hesitation to any human.
On that topic a little bit. And this one is probably going to make you cry if you read it. It is called When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi. And this is also a little bit of a posthumous book that was sort of a professor who tragically found out that he was not going to make it. And so what he did with his last bit of life and how he acted and his family and everything. Beautifully, beautifully, beautifully written, very, very special book. And finally on the life side, this one has a funny title, but it’s a really, really good book. It’s called a Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright.
This… I grew up Catholic. You know, this wasn’t a book… I’m not Buddhist, I’m not becoming Buddhist, there are no plans there. But I found that this book, which takes kind of a neuroscience view of text and Buddhism, Hinduism that go back sometimes thousands of years, is really, really fascinating. And it is an interesting juxtaposition of kind of how older wisdom intersects and interacts really well with the latest findings of science and how you can apply that to your life to quiet your monkey mind, to be able to focus. Of course there’s talk about meditation and other things that you’ve probably heard a lot on Tim’s podcast. So this, regardless of your religious leanings or non-religious leanings I would say is excellent and a great read.
All right, this next category section is the one where I have the most books, so hopefully you’ve made it through the fun and life ones and now you’re ready to be more professionally successful.
Each one of these has had an influence, and I would consider pivotal to my success and the things that I’ve done in creating WordPress and Automattic. The first is relatively new and I wish it had come out a decade before because I could have saved a lot of trouble. It’s called Principles by Ray Dalio, who’s one of the most successful hedge fund investors and he runs his company in an extremely interesting way. And this is the first of I think several books he’s planning on doing where he spells out the things he’s learned. He’s one of these folks who has an extremely analytical mind, writes down everything and checks it later. So if your mind is not as analytical like mine is not quite there. Actually, I think probably a few people in the world are quite as analytical as Ray Dalio is. It can be, I would say provocative and challenge you to think in different ways. Also it pairs very well with the last recommendation I’m going to do here, The Great Mental Models.
The second is another one with not a great title but a really good book, called Nonviolent Communication, which is by Marshall Rosenberg. And this means nonviolent in the sense that Gandhi was nonviolent or Martin Luther King, where it’s not like don’t yell at people but more how is what we say and how we say it and sometimes doing the opposite of what we intend? So it’s a way to communicate the exact same thing in a better way, that people will be more receptive to whatever you’re saying. This book, I think I read originally in like a personal context. I put it in this section because I found that it completely leveled up all of my communication where that was in family relationships, personal relationships, and where it probably had the biggest impact was in my work relationships.
You know, in Automattic, we do a ton of communication over text as well as using our internal tool P2, also a lot of Slack and you know, sort of applying what I learned and by reading Nonviolent Communication, I found I became a lot more effective, particularly at tech space communication and kind of getting the intention of my message across. Speaking of being a distributed company with lots of text communication, I’m going to recommend a book called Remote, which is by the folks over at Basecamp, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson.
This is probably the best guide available right now to doing working remotely or in a distributed fashion. Also Base Camp, formally known as 37 Signals, it’s a very refreshing, no nonsense first principles way of working and I feel like any company that can apply some of their principles—you can pick and choose; it’s like a buffet book—can probably become a lot more effective. And like I said, it’s probably the best resource for distributed work right now, but I will also take this opportunity to plug my podcast, which you can find at distributed.blog which is interviewing folks, including the Basecamp folks at some point, how to be effective or scaling distributed companies.
Writing is so key and you might be detecting a theme here and the book that’s been most influential my entire life there was called On Writing or is called On Writing Well by William Zinsser. Writing to me is not just something for communication, it’s also something that really helps me learn how to think better. And I would point pretty much anything significant that I’ve done in my life to something that I sat down and wrote and really worked through it in a written form first and I have all sorts of hacks. Sometimes I write things out long hand. Sometimes I type it in simple notes.
Sometimes I type it in WordPress. Sometimes I do a Google Doc and collaborate with people. Sometimes I just text my friends, but this book I would say is probably the classic for improving the clarity of your writing, which therefore improves the clarity of your thinking of anything I’ve read and I’ve probably read dozens of writing books at this point because it is a topic and genre of book, which I find very fascinating, so save lots of time.
You don’t have to read the dozens of books that I write. Just check out this one, and it will definitely level up your written communication.
Going to go a little esoteric for this next one and talk about a book, which is a little more academic, which is by an author named George Lakoff and it’s called Metaphors We Live By. There’s definitely a writing theme here. So many people don’t know this, but a lot of how we talk is actually in metaphors. What this book breaks down is what these metaphors are. Many of which you probably use day-to-day without even realizing it and how you can change how you use metaphors to basically say what you’re trying to say and not negate what you’re trying to say. As an example… may need to edit this part a little bit. So as one example of metaphors that you probably use all the time, but don’t think about it, there’s categories.
One that he talks about in the book is argument is war. As examples: Your claims are indefensible. He attacked every weak point in my argument. His criticisms were right on target. I demolished his argument. I’ve never won an argument with him. You disagree—okay, shoot. If you use that strategy, he’ll wipe you out. He shot down all of my arguments.
If you listen there and really dig in, you’ll see that there’s a lot of war metaphors and terminology and imagery being used when talking about something not to do with war at all, which is arguments.
There’s all sorts of examples like this including what I find really fascinating, which is spatial metaphors. And if you learn this, this actually I think goes to a bit to how the mind works, which brings us pretty well to the final one in this section, which I recommend, also a fairly new book, by Shane Parrish, best known for a Farnam Street, which has a great podcast and it’s a great site—fs.blog, I believe—and they’re doing a five volume series called The Great Mental Models.
You’ve probably heard about mental models if you follow Warren Buffett or Charlie Munger at all. And I’ve had previously, there’s this great book called Poor Charlie’s Almanac, which was a collection of Charlie Munger speeches where he really laid out a lot of his, sort of very heterodox thinking, things that have made him very successful as half of the pair that’s been probably one of the most successful investors in history alongside Warren Buffet.
These speeches were not terribly accessible though. They had a lot of extraneous material. They were repetitive in some ways and the book itself was a little hard to access. So these Great Mental Models is a one if you can’t buy the hardcover, like it’s, it’s one of the most beautiful books I’ve actually interacted with in a long time. And if you’re able to build what they call this latticework of mental models, it can make you essentially approach all sorts of situations much faster or more effectively than you would if you were trying to figure out things from scratch every single time.
This pairs really, really well with Principles by Ray Dalio.
Okay. Fourth category I’m going to call mind-expanding. These are two books, actually ones I’ve just read this year, both of which go pretty well with Metaphors We Live By, but around consciousness, theory of mind, kind of how everything works. One’s a little bit of an older book, I think from 1980 and it’s only available in print, which like everything else I’ve recommended that you can get on the Kindle or something. It’s called, The World is Sound or Nada Brahma. It’s by a German author, Joachim-Ernst Berendt. And basically it goes through just really, really interesting, as a musician myself, I learned about things like the harmonic series or the overtone series, which is a beautiful set of whole number of ratios that sort of govern Western music and the 12-tone scale and things. But I didn’t know as much about just versus, even intonation, and how also these ratios show up kind of everywhere in life, be it, you know, from how plants—for them—to the orbit of the planets to lots of things.
I have Googled a lot as I read this book. Some of it is still spot on. Some of it’s been, we have sort of newer understandings of some things it talks about, but again this is the mind-expanding category, so I always say, it is an interesting—I’ll put it as provocative, as well—read. Not something that you’ll agree with everything in the book, but something that probably opens your mind to a lot of things you hadn’t thought about before or never even considered. I would also say it’s completely accessible to non-musicians as well as musicians. I just found it particularly interesting because it applied some things I had learned in different sort of fields or different contexts and a more scientific context.
The second, which is also a fairly fairly new book, is called Conscious: A Brief Guide to the Fundamental Mystery of the Mind. It’s by Annaka Harris, and this is what they call the hard problem. What is consciousness? Where does it come from? Who is… Who’s listening to me talk right now and who is it that listens to you talk to yourself? All of these questions I find endlessly fascinating and is an area of in some ways a lot of study and in some ways much less than you would expect. So this was a very short book. You can actually get through it in just an hour or two. So I feel actually even better recommending it because it packed a huge amount of information and value into a very kind of tidy package. I always love when books are just as long as they need to be and no longer. So, this will definitely give you lots to talk about at parties or with friends. And I find just, it’s good from a philosophical point of view to sometimes think about and ponder these bigger questions.
Okay. Last, I promised you the authors that I read, literally everything they publish, no matter what it is, and these are Besides Tim, of course, because if you’re listening, you probably already read all his books. Two folks I’m going to recommend here. I apologize if I mispronounce their names, but the first is Yuval Noah Harari. He’s probably best known for Sapiens, which is, I say Yuval is an author who can synthesize a ton of information across history, both modern and older, and present it in like a really compelling way. So I loved Sapiens like everyone did. I read Homo Deus, but I would say my favorite, if you’re going to pick one book of his was his last one, which is 21 Lessons for the 21st Century. Super fascinating. Very cool to see a historian look at the contemporary things and I thought he was spot on in many of his thoughts.
The second is a much more controversial author, but I would say ever since I was exposed to one of his early works, Fooled by Randomness and The Black Swan, I will probably always be a fan of Nassim Taleb and he is, you know, a writer who is not humble, who, you know, is not afraid of sprinkling tons of obscure references and non-obscure references. You could easily take one of his books and then read 20 or 30 others, but he is a provocative thinker. He is an original thinker in many ways. He’s a fun writer and he writes in a very engaging style and whether you agree with or disagree with him, I think your mind will be sharper for having read his work and considered it. The Black Swan was, I think, the very first one I read of his and a wonderful introduction. But all of his books are quite fun and funny and I will continue to keep reading everything that he publishes.
All right, that looks like it came in just under time. Again, my name is Matt Mullenweg, co-founder of WordPress, CEO of Automattic. If you’d like to check out more of my random musings, my blog is at M-A dot T-T. I’m on Instagram, Twitter, and Tumblr at PhotoMatt. That’s P-H-O-T-O-M-A-T-T and I love hearing from folks. So you can also check out some of my photos at Matt.blog. I’ve been publishing online for a long time, so I’m sorry I have so many places. But I learned a lot from Tim’s podcast and I can’t wait to hear what other people’s book recommendations are because I’m always looking for new things to read. So if you end up reading any of these, drop me a note or a tweet or something. If you like them, if you hate them, and hope you have a wonderful day, bye-bye.
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