Not Fade Away | Laurence Shames


Published in: 2004

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Peter Barton was an American businessman who, in 2002, died of stomach cancer at the age of 51. The book, written by the novelist Laurence Shames, is a review of Barton’s life in the fast lane. Barton’s last job was with Liberty Media, working for John Malone. There he had a highly successful career which made him a wealthy man. Prior to his time at Liberty Media, Barton was a ski bum, a musician, a Harvard MBA student and active within top politics. At the end of his career, he was also a board member of several Fortune 500 corporations. Barton retired at the age of 46, relieved to have surpassed the age at which his father died of heart disease, only to one year later learn that he had stomach cancer.

GULP LIFE. His father’s early passing persuaded Barton to spend his life like he was in a great hurry. He threw himself into adventures, business and family. He believed that it is more important to live fully than to live in a straight line and that the best measure of a good life is how many other lives it makes a positive impact on.

“Illness has always been a temporary setback; nothing prepares us for that one illness that doesn’t go away.”

ON PICKING A CAREER. After Harvard he contacted a few places he wanted to work at and set his own starting salary at zero. For the first 90 days he wanted no money. After that they could let him go, or he could choose to leave. He only cared about working for someone he thought was wildly smart. To learn and advance fast, he would also only work directly for the head of the company. He would also only work in an up-and-coming industry and was baffled about how few of the smart MBA students that analysed the underlying trajectory of the industries within they searched for career opportunities. This unusual strategy gave him a chance to work with the legendary John Malone.  

BOLDNESS TO THE POINT OF RECKLESSNESS. Most business managers counsel prudence and caution. At Liberty, Malone and Barton urged the opposite. They wanted their people to be bold almost to the point of recklessness. Peter had a personal credo that he advised others to follow: Don’t ask permission, just beg for forgiveness.

“If you’re going to make a mistake, make it with your foot on the accelerator.”

TWO BIG IDEAS ON LIFE. Barton had two big ideas that many of life’s big decisions comes down to, whether in business or in family life. The first is being able to recognize the difference between a dumb risk and a smart one. To avoid the first one and have the guts to take the second one. The second is being able to understand when you need to change direction and have the guts to do it. To no get trapped by life’s “boiling frog” situations. By small daily increments, it is easy to end up with a life totally untrue to yourself.

GET TO KNOW YOURSELF. Barton considered himself lucky to be part of the baby boom generation. His generation wasn’t forced to becoming grown-ups too soon. They could take some time to “find themselves” – a concept that in modern times have become one of ridicule. Something that Barton questioned.

“What’s unworthy about working to understand who you truly are and what you really want from life? What better use can a person make of his youth?”

ON MONEY. Barton believed that wealth is a lot more enjoyable if you’ve thought yourself that you can have a good time without it. He knew he would make a lot of money, but it was not an end goal in itself. He believed that if one works for fun, money will come. If one sets out working only for money, enjoyment likely is not going to be part of the equation. Barton loved his job at Liberty. But when his kids were born, he made himself a pledge that he would not, for any price, allow his career to turn him into an absent father.

“Maybe the single best thing about having money is that it makes money seem a great deal less important”

ON HEALTH. Everybody knows that you cannot buy back your health. Yet many live like they believe the opposite. People exhaust themselves to advance at their jobs. Business travellers eat junk food at airports, then drink too much to wind down from the day, sacrificing exercise and sleep.

If you have your health, you can always make more money. But all the money in the world can’t buy back your health. “Isn’t it clear that the person who compromises his health in the name of making money is cutting himself a really lousy deal?”

BEING “PRESENT” ISN’T POSSIBLE IN BUSINESS. The common view on happiness is the importance of living in the present. But unless you are living as a monk, that isn’t possible. Especially in business, you need to be concerned about the future – otherwise you might not have one. The whole idea is to figure out what will happen, and to act on it before anybody else does. In business, the present hardly exist. And to plan successfully for the future, you have to worry about the future. Therefore, worrying becomes a common and important trait for a responsible adult.

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