The Art of Being Unreasonable: Lessons in Unconventional Thinking.
Few businessmen have achieved as much as Eli Broad. Not only did he develop two Fortune 500 businesses from scratch (and launch a third), he has also been a serial entrepreneur in the arts. Mr Broad backed Jeff Koons and Cindy Sherman, and founded the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles (MoCA). This son of the Bronx now calls the City of Angels home and has set out to give it a new heart by driving the development of a downtown area with a strong emphasis on culture. He has also been a significant and controversial philanthropist, funding scientific research and failing schools.
Mr Broad's straight-to-the-point narrative—165 pages of text with a 12-page appendix of his “career highlights” and just the minimum colour necessary to illustrate the important lessons that life has taught him—is part of what he is trying to convey about himself. Where, say, Jack Welch spews out hundreds of pages in “Jack: Straight From the Gut” (2001) and Richard Branson spares no detail as he explains how he has spent his life trying to “Screw Business As Usual” (2011), Mr Broad has delivered a book that is as brief as he likes to keep everything else in life (“I never stay anywhere—parties, museums, meetings—longer than three hours,” he explains in a chapter entitled “How to Work 24/7 and Still Get 8 Hours of Sleep”).
The brevity of his autobiography is both a strength and a weakness. Messrs Welch and Branson devote much of their books to selling themselves as heroes, whereas Mr Broad's tendency to state the facts and move on often undersells how challenging a life he has led, and how hard won have been his triumphs. He writes of being amused at how films about successful people often condense the “critical ingredient to their success” into “moments overlaid with catchy music”, yet his book does that without the soundtrack.
For instance, the controversial story of how he fell out with the board of MoCA, which he co-founded in 1980 and then rescued when it came to the brink of liquidation in 2008, is given a mere page, when it alone could have filled an entire book. And he writes nothing about how he fell out with the board at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, let alone about MoCA's more recent troubles.
On the other hand, distilling a lifetime into a series of practical lessons has clearly pushed Mr Broad to do some hard thinking and self-analysis, which makes his book a useful read, especially for anyone engaging in entrepreneurship or philanthropy. His personality comes through clearly enough, though one can quibble over whether his choice of “unreasonable” to describe it is exactly right. Mr Broad means it in the same way George Bernard Shaw did, when he said that the unreasonable man “persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends upon the unreasonable man.” Mr Broad started adapting the world to himself at an early age, telling classmates to rhyme his name with “road”, rather than his immigrant father's “rod”. But he also adapted himself to the world, not least in fighting to overcome dyslexia, which he says gave him a work ethic that infuses every part of his life (perhaps too much: he describes his six-decade marriage to Edye in glowing terms, but regrets spending too little time with his growing sons).
Being a solitary child made him less prone than many people to going along with the crowd, and he likes nothing better than to challenge conventional wisdom with a “why not?”. Those are good attributes for an entrepreneur, though they are unlikely to make him loved in the world of art philanthropy, where his “candour” often “ruffled feathers”. (He claims several times not to care what people think of him, but he doth protest too much.) Still, unlike many of his peers among the current generation of American billionaire philanthropists, he does consider giving to the arts a good investment, to “bring beauty, inspiration, and the shock of the new to as many people as possible”.
Two of his rules of business, in particular, are rarely found in books on entrepreneurship. One is that, rather than being the pioneer, it is often better to be second with a new idea—as he was in launching KB Home, which became his first Fortune 500 firm, selling houses that were cheaper because they had no basement, a controversial idea at the time copied from a firm in another state. (“The second guy can just charge along the path the first guy has marked, avoiding the rough patches where he stumbled.”)
This second rule challenges the conventional wisdom that the safest diversification is into an industry closely related to your own: after several years and a great deal of research, Mr Broad built his second Fortune 500 firm in an entirely unrelated business: financial products for retirement. He may call himself unreasonable, but in this short book, Mr Broad manages to talk a lot of sense.