Interview with Investor Max Gurvits: Favorite Books & Reading Habits
Max Gurvits believes Central and Eastern Europe is the best place to build startups, and he’s doing everything he can to support the local community. He’s now an investor, director of Cross Border Angels over CEE and MENA regions, but started as a lawyer and then turned entrepreneur.
Max studied law in Netherlands, and, in 2008, founded an online legal service company. After selling the business in 2011, he moved to Bulgaria, where he was on the Eleven Startup Accelerator founding team – one of the biggest regional acceleration programs and seed funds in the Balkans region. He was was also a partner at Teres Capital, a venture capital firm for post-traction startups in Southeastern Europe, and co-founded CCC Startups, a global network focused on supporting entrepreneurs and ecosystem-building across Eastern Europe and Middle East.
Thanks to Gabriel Coarnă, who introduced me to Max, I had the opportunity to find out more about what books influenced him and the lessons he learned from them. I also share a similar story with what he said about James Altucher‘s impact, as we both started following him 7 years ago or so, when James just started writing. But I’d better leave you with Max’s words, so you can find out more details about it directly from him.
P.S. one last thing: Max reads books in four different languages, English, Dutch, Bulgarian, Russian. How awesome is that?
What’s your favorite book and why? Business and non-business, if possible.
Thatʼs an interesting way of defining literature. I guess I should start off by possibly disappointing the readers here, as I generally donʼt read “business” books. Preparing for this conversation, I had a good look at my Kindle and iBooks libraries, only to find a few titles that could be categorized as “business”, which I turned out to not have really read. Perhaps glanced through at most. Not so much due to sanctimony, I hope, rather due to my laziness in exploring new things. It simply hasn’t happened yet that someone whose opinion I trust came to me with “Max, you absolutely have to read this business book”. Maybe it will happen one day soon, I don’t know. However, if we talk about fiction and non-fiction, I can easily name two favorite titles: “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera (fiction), and “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” by Richard Feynman (non-fiction).
The Unbearable Lightness I first read when I was 16, and twice more at six-year intervals since then. Which is a good reminder that I should read it again in the next 12 months, keeping up the tradition. That book has a beautiful mix of a love story, a glance at life during the Cold War, particularly at the angst of intellectuals living behind the Iron Curtain, who are trying to reconcile their understanding of the fallacy of the regime and their personal fears, with a dictated sense of normalcy. For me, its strongest message is about the threats of cowardice and jealousy, that surround us in everyday life. That very “unbearable lightness” is not just a way to lock oneself up in a daily routine without paying attention to the world around us falling apart, but also the hardship that comes with a lifestyle perceived by others as worth of jealousy. And the realization that a carefully crafted life of sense and beauty sometimes invokes illogical anger from others who try to emulate it, but canʼt.
As far as Surely Youʼre Joking is concerned, Richard Feynman is probably one of the best storytellers the world has known. The book is a collection of stories about his work (heʼs one of the fathers of the US nuclear program, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1965) and his passions, like music and teaching. What’s really exciting about Feynman, and a trait I think generally is one of the most important in life, is that he manages to explain very complicated things as if they’re the simplest you can imagine, constantly making fun at his own expense and showcasing his insatiable curiosity and optimism. This resonates a lot with my own, very modest, experience in doing anything successfully: if it’s really great and good, it feels like a walk in the park.
Another great mind who had this ability was one of the 20th century’s greatest pianists, Arthur Rubinstein. Unfortunately, he didn’t write books, but if you look up some of the TV interviews he gave when he was already a very old man in the 1970s, you can sense that almost childlike exuberance and light-hearted carelessness, as he explains classical music to the general public.
Was there a moment, specifically, when something you read in a book helped you? Can you tell me about it?
I had a number of moments like that, mostly in my teenage years, when I was struggling to find voices of encouragement for whatever I wanted to do or be. I remember in particular reading the autobiography of CNN correspondent Peter Arnett (Peter Arnett – Live from the Battlefield), who grew up in a remote town in New Zealand, bored and looking for trouble as a teenager, much like I did in the remote town I was growing up in in The Netherlands. And I thought to myself, “well, he made it alright, and so can I”. And I think that helped.
What books had the biggest impact on you? (perhaps changed the way you see things, dramatically changed your career path)
I don’t think a single book changed the way I see things or my career path. I’m trying hard to think now of something that impacted me in such a way… Maybe to some extent James Altucher did (James Altucher – How to be the Luckiest Person Alive!). He’s kind of a recognized author nowadays, but I remember following him on Twitter 7-8 years ago, when he was still up and coming, and his almost comical, seemingly self-destructive advice on just doing your thing and not paying attention to others made a lot of sense to me. I was at that time in the midst of my first company, which looking back did alright, and all of us co-founders have done well, but as it was developing it was really the proverbial roller-coaster from the startup war stories. And much like with Richard Feynman whom I already mentioned above, Altucher’s witty observations on living life and doing business were a great source of support. Later, in 2011, the book came out based on his earlier blog posts and I remember pre-ordering it just out of gratitude for those earlier writings. And I have to admit, I haven’t really been reading him since then.
What books would you recommend to youngsters interested in your professional path? Why? (no number limit here)
There seem to be so many personal development and business books around, but again, I don’t read business books, and I very rarely read startup blogs or business writings in general. I think that when it comes to business or careers, any kind of mentorship, including blogs and books, is kind of faulty. There is a whole discussion going on in the tech world about the survivor-bias character of giving business advice, and I think it’s true. When someone shares their “success story” it’s mostly just about working really hard and being lucky to be in the right place in the right time, with the right people. That’s all that business success really is. The specific details of how it was done cannot be repeated or even recreated. I can name countless such stories from my own experience, but I think the best advice given on this was by the now very controversial Woody Allen: “90% of success is just showing up“. Or Churchill’s famed “Success is going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm“.
I do think however that to be successful in work and life, it is important to read books. Preferably good fiction. There is a reason that writers like Nabokov, Garcia Marquez, Kundera, Bulgakov, Ondaatje, and others are considered classics. Reading quality prose is an activity that allows you to look inside your deepest thoughts, engage in a conversation with yourself, moderated by a great writer, and to reflect on the really important questions of life through the lens of a literary work of art. Love, Destiny, Belonging, Hope. Those are the really important questions in life, and I think when you get closer to finding out meaningful answers for yourself on these, you will automatically make much better decisions in stuff like work or business, which really is a very small derivative of the whole of your existence. To me personally, great 20th century classics are the best for this kind of deep quality reading. I find 19th century works to be too distant to fully empathize with, while the very modern ones (21st century that is) usually feel too fresh and documentary. Great art needs time to become great, I guess.
I’m interested in finding out more about your reading habits. How often do you read? In what format?
I actually have a very specific routine of reading, which is a consequence of my somewhat unusual upbringing. I had the tremendous privilege of spending the first 18 years of my life pretty much equally distributed between four language areas, fully immersed. Russian at home, English, Dutch, and Spanish at school or in the street. And so what I do nowadays is to make sure I read equal amounts in all four (Spanish has been replaced by Bulgarian in recent years).
For me, reading in Russian and Dutch is like connecting to a world that I’m part of but that is not daily present in my life. An when I read in Dutch, I find myself thinking very Dutch thoughts about the events happening in my life or described in the book, from a very different angle that I would in English or in Russian.
That sounds pretty schizophrenic, but is an immensely enriching experience. So at any time I make sure I have at least one book I currently read in each of the four languages.
In terms of format, I completely ditched paper. With my traveling routine, the iPad is a life-changing device. I actually don’t read anything, even news analysis articles, on my phone or laptop anymore, but use Instapaper on iPad for reading them later. Instapaper, Kindle, and iBooks are the most used tablet apps by far for me.
Reading is almost exclusively in airplanes or on a rare Saturday when I’m at home and have the luxury of hanging around on my couch with the iPad. The iPad is brilliant, because it’s a full-blown productivity device that’s also great for reading, and it’s only one thing you need to carry, instead of bulky books that become wrangled and ugly in a bag. It’s funny: I recently left my iPad on a plane and wasn’t able to recover it. My first thought was “let’s see if I can live without it”. After two months, I realized I’m not reading anything at all anymore and so I joyfully got a new one, which immediately brought me back to my reading routine.
Paper is just really inconvenient, plus obtaining paper books is a logistical nightmare. Remember that I read in four languages simultaneously? Good luck with finding the latest Russian or Dutch, or Bulgarian books in the same bookstore, even if it’s an online one. Sometimes it does happen that for whatever reason an English book only comes out on paper, and I had an interesting experience recently with Jack Barsky’s book about his years as a KGB spy in the US (Jack Barsky – Deep Undercover: My Secret Life & Tangled Allegiance As a KGB Spy in America). I really wanted to give the book as a present to my dad, which normally would involve buying it on Kindle and dispatching to his e-mail address, but then it turned out itʼs only available in print! And so I had it delivered to the place I always stay at in San Francisco (for free, thanks Amazon Prime!), and then found myself inadvertently with a big bulky object for the next two weeks, until I saw my dad again in Europe. Which of course allowed me to read the book myself, but also presented me with inconveniences I had already forgotten about. Can’t read on the backseat of an Uber at night! Can’t read in bed when your partner is trying to fall asleep! Can’t read during a redeye flight when people around you in the cabin are angrily waking up to the “reading” light you just turned on! Thank heavens for the iPad and other e-readers, I don’t know how I would read without them. 🙂
How do you make time for reading?
I explained it a bit above already, I have certain moments in my daily life when I read, and do just that. On airplanes (I usually do 120+ flights a year, so that’s a lot of time), when I go to bed or just woke up (10-20 minutes each day), and the occasional lazy Saturday or Sunday. Also whenever I’m somewhere, where I don’t have connectivity and there’s nothing else to do, so again very often during travel time in countries where I don’t have roaming (Taxi/Uber rides, waiting for someone at a cafe without wifi, etc). It all adds up nicely to a good hour or so each day on average.
Do you take notes or have any other technique for conquering the torrent of information?
I actually haven’t until recently, and it’s a good idea. I just discovered the extensive highlighting functionality in Kindle a few weeks ago, and used it a number of times while reading Garry Kasparovʼs wonderful book on chess and AI (Garry Kasparov – Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins). There are so many thoughts there that are excellently summarized in a single sentence or paragraph, that it was enjoyable to go over the highlighted sections after finishing the book.
How do you choose what books to read next?
I keep a list of suggestions from friends whose literary taste I trust. There is a note in my iCloud that is called “Reading List” where I add entries after someone mentions a book they liked, with the Author, Title, and the Name of the person who told me about it. It’s the first place I look at after finishing another book. I also have the privilege that several of my friends (particularly in The Netherlands and Russia) are editors of newspaper book sections, so sometimes I get early warnings about something amazing they just put their hands on.
Do you prioritize those recommended by certain people? Is there anyone that you consider a book-recommendations guru?
As mentioned, I’m lucky to have friends who are in the know about great books. If I was to recommend anyone in particular, I’d say my friend John Biggs, who writes for TechCrunch, and is a wonderful fiction and non-fiction author himself. He has a cool website with stories about books, including his own, and you can sign up for his monthly e-mail newsletter where he mentions the best of the latest books on his radar.
Last question: what book are you currently reading and what are you expecting to gain from it?
Right now the four books I’m reading are “The Little Friend” by Donna Tartt, “45th Parallel” by Polina Zherebtsova (in Russian), “The Physics of Sorrow” by Georgi Gospodinov (in Bulgarian), and re-reading the Dutch classic “Au Pair” by W.F. Hermans (in Dutch). It’s hard to say what we expect to gain from reading. Perhaps only true for introverts, but books are a way to look really deep into ourselves and have very meaningful conversations in our mind about the questions we think about as we go about our daily lives. Then thereʼs the supportive role of literature too. Once upon a time long ago, there used to be an artsy interview series on Dutch public television, aired on Sunday at 11pm, with famous writers and artists being questioned for three hours on end about the “meaning of life”. The series was called, translated from Dutch: “Of Beauty and Consolation”. I think those words best describe the reason we read books, or experience any art as it comes. We look for beauty and consolation when we read. Beautiful stories and insights, and the reassurance that everything will be alright. Which it of course will, because as Mikhail Bulgakov famously wrote in “The Master and Margarita”,… the world is built on that.
Links where you can follow Max Gurvits or find out more about his projects:
Books mentioned by Max in this interview: