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 hear from Ann Miura-Ko (@annimaniac), co-founder of Floodgate and formerly of Charles River Ventures and McKinsey and Company. Some of Ann’s investments include Lyft, Ayasdi, Xamarin, Refinery29, JoyRun, TaskRabbit, and Modcloth. Ann has been called “the most powerful woman in startups” by Forbes and is a lecturer in entrepreneurship at Stanford. The child of a rocket scientist at NASA, Ann is a Palo Alto native and has been steeped in technology startups from when she was a teenager.
Due to the success of her investments, she was on the 2017 Midas List of top 100 venture capitalists. Ann is known for her debate skills (she placed first in the National Tournament of Champions and second in the state of California in high school) and was part of a five-person team at Yale that competed in the Robocup Competition in Paris, France. She has a BSEE from Yale and a PhD from Stanford in math modeling of computer security. She lives with her husband, three kids, and one spoiled dog. Her interests are piano, robots, and gastronomy.
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This interview was transcribed by Rev.com.
Ann Miura-Ko: Hi, my name is Ann Miura-Ko. I’m a co-founding partner at Floodgate, which is a seed-stage venture capital firm in Palo Alto, California.
Our firm is known really well for investing early, or way too early, into the world’s craziest startups, and as a result of my investing experience, I was named to the New York Times top 20 venture capitalists worldwide in 2019, and that is because I have backed companies like Lyft and Refinery29 before they were even known.
I’m also a lecturer in entrepreneurship at Stanford, where I’m a co-director of the Mayfield Fellows Program. I also got my PhD in math modeling of cybersecurity at Stanford back in the day, and I am also a co-founding member of All Raise, which is a nonprofit committed to improving diversity in funders and founders.
I am so excited to talk to you today about some of the books that I have found to be really important in my life and to tell you a little bit about why it’s been life-changing for me.
So to start off, I thought I would talk about this book called How Will You Measure Your Life? And it’s written by a Harvard Business School professor, Clayton Christensen.
I love Clayton Christensen’s story because he wrote this book after he suffered some very significant health issues, and in overcoming the same type of cancer that had taken his father’s life, he started to think about, not just business questions, where he had excelled, but, really, how do you measure your life.
And as he thought about this, he wrote this book—this very groundbreaking book—about how do you balance your career and your personal life, and what is the source of happiness even within your personal life.
And there’s a few lessons that I thought I would share with you today about why it made a difference for me. And some of this is actually backwards looking and some of this is forward looking.
So in backwards looking, he has actually, even in business, a framework that he talks about around emergent versus deliberate strategies. And he applies this actually in life. An emergent strategy is something that sort of comes up, and it’s not planned. And obviously the deliberate is actually something that is very planned.
And he talks about how you balance these emergent and deliberate occurrences in your life. And I think that in my life, when I look back, I was fortunate enough to have incredible balance between what emerged and some crazy luck that came into my life and then also planning for how I made myself lucky.
And to give you an example of what that was like, I took a job—I took almost all of my jobs, actually, not because of some predestined plan but because I really thought that the person I was going to work with was incredible. And sometimes it fit into some plan that I had for my life, and sometimes it didn’t fit in at all. But every time I took those steps, and even when I couldn’t explain it from a logical standpoint to anyone else, if I knew that the person that I was working for was going to be a huge source of inspiration, someone I could learn from, it was always the right decision.
As an example, in 2003 I decided to go back to my PhD at Stanford, and I knew that was going to be a five-to—maybe—eight-year commitment, and a lot of people actually questioned why I would do that. I was five years into my career—most people went straight into a PhD—and yet I felt this urge, this calling, to actually go back and study. And this was in 2003. And in 2003, Google had yet to go public, and there were a lot of people with my work background who were starting to work there.
And for a moment I considered working in a place like Google. And I remember talking to my now husband about this and saying, “I just don’t know. It’s hard to explain, but I have to scratch this itch to get my PhD.”
And ultimately, I remember when Google IPO-ed, I felt like maybe I had made the wrong call. I was making I think $26,000 a year, the graduate-student stipend. But even that didn’t feel bad at the time. And when I knew that I didn’t feel badly about it, that’s when I knew I’d made the right decision.
And so sometimes there are things that you can plan out and there are other things that you also realize in retrospect was the right decision. And it doesn’t look like it makes sense in the moment, but your gut tells you it’s the right decision. Then sometimes I’ve learned it’s really important to follow your gut. And Clayton Christensen talks about that.
The second thing that I really learned was, he talks about the difficulty of figuring out what your job is in human relationships. And this comes from a business framework that Clayton Christensen talks about, which is, what’s the job to be done.
And when he originally talked about it, it came from a study he’d done at McDonald’s, where they studied how people bought breakfast items. And it turned out that a bunch of people were buying milkshakes for breakfast. And so McDonald’s was trying to figure out what is this all about? Should they sell more milkshakes, more flavors of milkshakes?
And Clayton Christensen’s group went in and instead of just diving into the question of how do they grow this revenue source, they asked the question, what job did you hire that milkshake for? And it turns out the consumer who is buying the milkshake for breakfast needed something that was portable and easy to eat or drink.
And so because the form factor of a milkshake was high calorie, it was easy to hold and it was something that they could drink in their truck, there was a lot of people who needed this sort of high calorie—they were usually doing a lot of physical labor—that’s what they needed this milkshake for. And so he uses this framework of what job are you hiring a product to do in a lot of different areas to great effect.
And I even used that framework for a lot of my portfolio companies, but he applies this actually in life, especially as a parent. What job does my child need me to do? And I think that’s a really interesting question to ask. Or what is my… what job does my spouse need me to do? Or what job does my parent need me to do?
And I try to actually think about this every morning. And when I wake up in the morning, I sit and I think about the most important people in my life. And this is exactly the question I try to ask myself.
And it’s been incredible how I have figured out things that people need me to do for them in those really early hours of the morning because I’ve really reflected on it. And I’m not reacting from a place of what I want to do for them, but rather what they need me to do.
And then the third lesson that I extracted from this was more recently, in chapter eight, Clay Christiansen talks about the school of experience. And I really reflected on this chapter because of my daughter, who’s now 12 years old, was going through something at school that really made her have to advocate for herself.
And in this chapter he talks about how you have to help your children learn how to do difficult things. And that’s probably the most important role that we play as a parent, and we have to equip them for the challenges of life.
And one of the things that I’ve really thought about is that advocating for yourself and figuring out what’s the right solution for you is an important skillset for kids to have.
And I felt like, at 12, my daughter should have that by now. So recently she was in a class that she was deeply unhappy with, and she decided she wanted to drop the class that she felt she wasn’t learning anyway, and so she wanted to find an opportunity to drop the class and potentially do something else with the time.
So I asked her for a plan, and I didn’t help her with it, but when she came back, she had not only figured out how to drop the class, she had gotten all of the signatures she needed from the teachers. She also had figured out a new class that she could TA for, so she could have credits during that period.
She figured out the online course that she could sign up for. She found other students to take the online course with her. She found a teacher who was willing to tutor her because she wanted an in-person experience as well, and she had done all of this on her own at the age of 12.
And it was amazing to me, mostly because I wouldn’t have thought that she was capable of that if I hadn’t kind of forced her into that role.
And I think that it gave her self-confidence as well. It gave me self-confidence as a parent. But this book, How Will You Measure Your Life?, I recommend it for anyone who’s starting off in their career, in the middle of their career, if they have kids—it’s relevant for almost everyone because it will make you stop and think about where you spend your time, how you spend your time, and why you do it.
Just to change things up a bit, I’m going to talk about a second book, which is fiction. And I read about 50% fiction and 50% non-fiction. And my favorite book that I keep recommending to every single person I meet is this book that I read probably six or seven years ago. It’s called The Dovekeepers, and it’s by one of my favorite authors. Her name is Alice Hoffman, and this book is about a fictionalized account.
2000 years ago, 900 Jews held out against Roman armies in this area in Israel called Masada. It’s a mountain in the Judean desert. It’s a place that you can still actually visit, and it is long known that it was the last stronghold of the Jews in this period.
And according to sort of this ancient rumor, there were two women and five children who ultimately survived. And so the Romans essentially attacked this fortress that was at the top of this mountain by building, essentially, a ramp up to the top of the mountain over two years.
And so the 900 Jews who are waiting it out on the top of this mountain knew that this was coming for some time and basically all commit suicide at the end. And the rumor was that two women and five children survived.
And this story takes the perspective of one of the survivors and talks about how they escape. And the story was so beautiful and so compelling that for all this time I’ve wanted to go to Masada, and this next February, we as a family are going to Israel.
And of course one of the stops is going to be Masada because I absolutely have to see this place. And I also absolutely need to see this incredible Roman ramp that was built to the top of the mountain. So I think I’m going to try to reread this book actually before I end up in Masada in a few months.
The third book that I really love is a book called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion. And it’s written by Jonathan Haidt, H-A-I-D-T and he is a social psychologist.
I love this book because it clarified for me a lot of things that I’ve been feeling for so long around… I actually have a lot of different types of friends and friends who I think would violently disagree with one another on a number of different topics.
I love them all. And I also know that if I got onto the wrong topic of conversation and confessed my beliefs to them, that we would end up in some serious disagreements with one another. And as a high school debater, I was forced to actually take the opposite side of what I believed multiple times, and I think it allowed me to explore ideas more completely as a result. And so I feel like, on some level, I have sympathy for when someone believes something fairly different from what I believe. I try to keep it a relatively open mind.
But what I appreciated about what Jonathan wrote was that… He said that—one thing that really struck me—”morality binds and blinds,” and what he meant with that statement was that there is this deep-seated need for people to actually belong.
And he actually says this one thing, which I thought was really interesting. “We do moral reasoning not to reconstruct the actual reasons why we ourselves came to a judgment; we reason to find the best possible reason why somebody else ought to join us in our judgments.” In other words, reasoning is used to back up, not question, judgment these days. And that’s sort of a natural inclination of humans.
The other thing that he points out is that there’s a group of people—and we’re all kind of part of it if you’re listening to this podcast: Western, educated, industrialized, rich, democratic people; he calls them “WEIRD” because it’s Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic—we are actually outliers when it comes to morality. The vast majority of the world actually believes in strong communities, sacred things, family, religion, nation-states, and people who live in WEIRD locations are much more into individualistic rights.
And the way we perceive the world is not necessarily majority opinion. He also talks about how religion itself can create incredibly cohesive, altruistic, moral communities because they create a much bigger than sense of self. And it made me think of this one time when I went to a volunteer opportunity, and it was the county fairgrounds, and we’re trying to help people get free dentist work done.
And you might think, how big of a need is that? Well it turns out that in California, when this was done in Bay area, there were people lined up for someone to look at their teeth or help them starting at 2:30 in the morning. They were opening up the gates at eight.
And there were literally hundreds of volunteers who had lined up to help these people. And literally every volunteer there came from some church. And it really made me think about how much that altruistic moral sense and the sense that there is something bigger than yourself creates incredible community and an incredible sense of giving.
The other thing that I learned from this book was that there are many ways to think about morality, and many of us are really limiting how we look at morality to a few things that we think are super important, but that not everyone believes that.
So he talks about how important care, release from harm, is. He talks about how another element of morality is fairness. He also talks about how loyalty is important to some people. Authority, liberty, and sanctity. And so he calls this sort of the six, kind of, “taste buds” of morality.
And that there are many places where the idea of what care and fairness and liberty and loyalty and authority, that all these things can actually seem very foreign, or the interpretation of these values can be very different.
So as an example, he talks about how care for someone can be reflected as freedom from oppression. And that same care can also be interpreted as how do you make sure that you help the people who have made sacrifices for their group?
Or fairness can be interpreted as civil and human rights. And then on the other hand, fairness can be interpreted as rewarding in proportion to your contribution, or fairness can be social justice. And that we recognize that the wealthy exploit the middle class and the poor, and then, at the same time, that same idea of fairness is again rewarding in proportion to contribution.
So it’s just really interesting to see how these different ideas can translate in such different ways and how we might all say that one thing is important, but we can actually interpret it in completely different ways.
And when you look at the language that’s being stated, many times you can actually agree with both sides. It’s just that we might be two ships passing in the night.
And so The Righteous Mind was important to me because it allowed me to open up my mind to different perspectives and allowed me to make sure that I know where my biases stand and why I might have them and allowed me to be more empathetic to people with very different views.
So those are the three books that I have really found to be profoundly impactful, either in actual decisions or the way I think or travel plans—The Righteous Mind, The Dovekeepers, and How Will I Measure My Life? Or, actually, How Will You Measure Your Life? So the three books are The Righteous Mind, The Dovekeepers, and How Will You Measure Your Life?
Thank you so much.
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