April 7, 2013 by startupengineering .
I’ve avoided reading anything by Robert Caro for years now. He’s the guy who wrote a Pulitzer Prize -winning book about Robert Moses (published in 1974) and since then, has been writing a multi-volume biography of Lyndon Johnson. Thirty years writing about Johnson? I assumed Caro was just crazy and obsessive. History will probably thank him for his painstaking research and everything, but who really wants to read painstaking detail about Johnson’s 1948 senatorial campaign?
But the latest volume was excerpted in the New Yorker last year, and my wife and I have a habit of bringing stacks of old New Yorkers on vacation to read and get rid of them, so I finally read some Caro. It was a transformative experience, a red-pill experience.
The result of Caro’s craziness and obsession is that he figures out the truth and writes it. Reading his history is not only mesmerizing; it casts a harsh light on most other history and biography. After you read Caro, you read something else that’s ostensibly true and realize that it was mostly made up.
Try it yourself: here’s Caro, writing about Johnson in a rented convertible trailing the Kennedy motorcade down Elm Street in Dallas:
“There was a sharp, cracking sound. It “startled” him, Lyndon Johnson later said; it sounded like a “report or explosion.”…Rufus Youngblood, the Secret Service agent in Johnson’s car, didn’t know what it was, but he saw “not normal” movement in the Presidential car ahead – President Kennedy seemed to be tilting toward his left.…Whirling in his seat, Youngblood shouted – in a “voice I had never heard him ever use,” Lady Bird recalled – “Get down! Get down!” and, grabbing Johnson’s right shoulder, yanked him roughly down toward the floor in the center of the car, as he almost leaped over the front seat, and threw his body over the Vice-President, shouting again, “Get down! Get down!” By the time the next two sharp reports had cracked out – it was a matter of only eight seconds, but everyone knew what they were now – Lyndon Johnson was down on the floor of the back seat of the car. The loud, sharp sound, and the hand suddenly grabbing his shoulder and pulling him down: now he was on the floor, his face on the floor, with the weight of a big man lying on top of him, pressing him down – Lyndon Johnson would never forget “his knees in my back and his elbows in my back.”
Reading that, you know in your bones that it’s a true account of what was happening at that moment in that car fifty years ago. Caro has interviewed everyone he could, watched the tapes, reconstructed the events, tested his reconstruction, re-interviewed, and written an account that includes what he knows for a fact and leaves out what he doesn’t know. It’s not omniscient – we don’t know what Ladybird was thinking, or whether Lee Harvey Oswald was considering a shot at LBJ. And there’s a tremendous amount of selectivity (most accounts of those few seconds, of course, focus on Kennedy’s car). So, partial, yes; selective, yes, but still, you read it and know it’s true.
Contrast that with a story that made the front page of the New York Times this week, headlined “Payment for Act of Kindness: 2 Days in Car Trunk at Age 89.” It’s a moving and powerful story. A woman named Margaret E. Smith offered a ride to two teenage girls, who locked her in the trunk. Here are some excerpts:
“Two girls, 15, and 14, appeared at the window, calling her “Miss” and offering to pay for a ride to the other side of town. Her inclination was to say no, but her strong belief in offering kindness to strangers won out.”
“The Buick roared away with its frail owner curled up in the hold’s casketlike darkness. She was tossed about like forgotten luggage with every bump and turn.”
It’s a powerful story. Margaret Smith’s strength and resilience is commendable, even inspirational. But the details ring false. They’re just props. Her strong belief in offering kindness to strangers wining out, the “casket-like darkness,” being tossed about like forgotten luggage. Did the reporter investigate whether there was any evidence about Margarets’ beliefs, or press her on how she really made the decision about letting the girls into her car? Did he crawl into the trunk to see how dark it really was? If you’re in the trunk of a Buick, how recklessly does the driver have to go before you’re really tossed around? Caro would have figured out all those things, and he would write it in a way you could trust.
The world is a lot less coherent than we think. In a coherent world, Youngblood would have leaped to the back seat of the car, not “almost leaped.” Johnson would remember “his knees in my back” but not his elbows, because someone’s knees and elbows in someone else’s back is an awkward, slightly incoherent picture.
The job of a startup is searching for the truth. Like Caro, you don’t need omniscient, unselective truth (which is a good thing, because you’ll never find it). But you do need to leave in what happened, and what people really said, and leave out the props that make sense of it all. When you remember what a customer said or how they acted, in a way that conforms with and supports your theory, then you’ve robbed the interaction of exactly the information you need to understand what they need.