David Heinemeier Hansson is the co-founder of Basecamp and NYT bestselling coauthor of Rework and Remote. He’s also the creator of the software toolkit Ruby on Rails, which has been used to launch and power Twitter, Shopify, GitHub, Airbnb, Square, and over a million other web applications. Originally from Denmark, David Heinemeier Hansson moved to Chicago in 2005 and now lives between the US and Spain with his wife and two sons. In his spare time, David Heinemeier Hansson enjoys 200-mph race cars in international competition and photography. David’s most recent book, co-written with Jason Fried, is called It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work. Please enjoy my interview with David Heinemeier Hansson.

How do you describe your occupation?

I’m a software writer first, and a business owner second.

What is something about you that people might find surprising?

I have a wide array of interests and pursuits, so sometimes people who know me from race-car driving are surprised to learn that I’m a programmer. Or people who’ve read my books are surprised to learn that I drive race cars.

But for my core profession of writing software, I think most people would be surprised to learn that I didn’t really pick it up in earnest until I was in my 20s. There’s so much lore around these programming prodigies who’ve been programming since they were 8 years old, which serves to create the impression that if you start at age 20, you’re already a decade behind, so, perhaps, why even bother? That’s just utter bollocks.

Same goes for driving those race cars. I didn’t get my driver’s license until I was 25 years old. Didn’t sit in a race car until 27. And then won my class at the prestigious 24 Hours of Le Mans at 35. You can get really good at most things, even if you start “late”, if you know how to learn.

What are you reading at the moment and what made you want to read it?

I always have a handful of books going at the same time. I’m just at the tail end of Fear and Trembling by Søren Kierkegaard. It’s the first original text by Kierkegaard that I’ve worked my way through, even though you think that as a Dane I’d be nationally obligated to read the great philosopher. So making up for lost time! What got me interested in Kierkegaard was his position as one of the pivotal figures in the Existentialist branch of philosophy. I had already read Satre and Camus and really enjoyed that perspective, as both a contrast and a compliment to the Stoic philosophy books I’ve spent the last five years diving into so deeply.

I’m also reading How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan about the history and escape from freedom - David Heinemeier Hanssonlessons of psychedelics. I never did drugs in my youth (besides a single encounter with marijuana),  and to be honest, I kinda regret that! I think there’s something deeply fascinating about the altered states of consciousness that drugs give us access to. And none more so than psychedelics. But right now, I’m not really in a great place to experiment, as a father of small children, business owner, and a litany of other responsibilities. So I live vicariously through the accounts of Pollan’s personal journey and that of others in the books.

And then, finally, I just completed Escape from Freedom by Erich Fromm. That’s probably one of my favorite books from the last few years. It’s written in 1941, and traces the psychological evolution of going from feudal, primary bonds of old to our modern age of being disconnected yet “free”. It’s obviously influenced heavily by the Fascist regimes at the time, but its diagnosis feels as timely today as it did then. Truly a spectacular and imminently readable book.

What was your favourite book as a child and why?

I wasn’t much of a reader as a kid. At least not for joy. Reading for me as a kid was more of a tool. I would read the rulebooks to Dungeon & Dragons and other roleplaying games. I’d read video game magazines. And yes, occasionally I’d read just pure fiction for school. But it wasn’t until much later that I started reading for the sake of reading.

When did you fall in love with reading?

Late bloomer again, I’d say. For the last 4-5 years, I’ve probably been reading 10-15 books per year. Not a lot compared to many, I’m sure, but a lot for me. In my mid-twenties, I’d be surprised if I read more than 3-4 books per year. I just felt absorbed by other things.

Part of that was that I was simply reading the wrong books. I was reading books about technology or business, and they were all recent books. And the fact is that most books just aren’t that good! So to increase your odds of a book being good, I find the simplest heuristics is simply to read something old. If you read a book that’s been around for a hundred years, is still in print, and is still being read, chances are pretty good that it’s going to be worth your while. A book that’s been around for 2200 years (like many of the stoic texts)? That’s going to be a wonderful book.

You’ve recently finished your new book, It Doesn’t Have To Be Crazy At Work –  can you tell me where the idea for the book came from?

So many of the tools we use at work keep getting better. Computers are getting faster every year. Bandwidth is increasing. The software is getting more sophisticated. Based on those factors, you’d think that work at the modern office would be getting easier, calmer, and more productive. But it’s not. It’s getting harder, crazier, and less productive in most ways. That’s a damn tragedy!

Our new book seeks first to offer a diagnosis of why that is, and our thesis rests on two main pillars: 1) Work doesn’t happen at work any more because we’re being bombarded with ever-increasing physical (open offices!) and digital (constant chat!) interruptions. 2) The gluttonous desire for ever-more, ever-faster growth has gone into hyperdrive as everyone races to be the next disruptor. Both factors conspire to make work miserable for far too many people.

What can some expect to learn from the book?

We really want to take the pride out of the common answer to “so how’s work?”, which, for far too many people, is “oh, it’s crazy busy at work!”. That’s not good, that’s not worth bragging about! Being “crazy busy” does not mean that you’re doing it right, it means you’re doing it wrong.

We try to share a countermelody to that prevalent tune by offering up our own example. Basecamp has been in business for nearly 20 years. We work 40 hours (or less!) every week. We’ve built a wonderful company, business, and product with more than 100,000 paying organizations, and we’ve been profitable every year. All this without ever developing a penchant for hustle mania or grinding it out. Not on day one, not on year 20.

So we want to show people that it’s completely possible to build and operate a great business without all the crazy. That aspiration for running a calm company is powerful and achievable.

What was the last book you purchased, and why did you buy it?

Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now by Jaron Lanier. I’ve only just read the first few pages, but the title just called for me. I’ve been growing ever more disillusioned with what social media is doing not only to society at large but to me personally. I’ve been taking more frequent sabbaticals from social media, and I thought a book like that might just give me even more strength to make them longer and more frequent.

What are perfect reading conditions for you?

I love reading outside. I have this little balcony next to our bedroom with a place to lay down on some pillows, feel the breeze of the soft Southern California wind, hearing the birds chirp, and overlooking the ocean. I read best laying down, for some reason. Or slouched at least. And preferably in the middle of the day.

the manual - David Heinemeier HanssonWhat book have you found most inspiring, what effect did it have on you?

Probably the most powerful books I’ve read have been the great Stoic works. Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, On The Shortness of Life by Seneca, and The Manual by Epictetus. They all revolve around the concept of separating perception and reaction, and I’ve found that level of control of your own mind very inspiring.

That all three lived more than two millennia ago, yet were able to dissect the human condition with such accuracy and insight is just astounding. That is true wisdom, not the least for its practicality. I draw on the Stoic lessons and aspirations every single day.

What’s the most obscure book you own; how did you discover it?

I’ll take obscure to mean difficult for me. And that’s probably Being and Time by Martin Heidegger. It’s an immensely dense book about the philosophy of being, potentialities, authenticity, and a whole host of other topics. I’ve only made it about a third into it. I feel like I can only really touch that book when I’m at 100% mental capacity and I have able time to feel frustrated and bewildered. One day I’ll make it through!

What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?

That award must go to Escape from Freedom by Erich Fromm, with a runner-up award to The Manual by Epictetus.

What is your proudest achievement?

Being able to live an authentic life where I feel neither too good or too intimidated to share my raw impressions of the world or the lessons I’ve learned along the way. I feel like I’ve found this magical sweet spot where on the one hand I’m insulated from worries about what a boss might say (or fire me for saying), and on the other hand living in enough obscurity that I don’t have to worry much about what others might think. I get to call bullshit on the bullshit I see. I get to share failures and lessons and insights as they arrive. That does feel truly #blessed (ha!).

If you were trying to impress a visitor, which book that you own would you leave on the coffee table?

I don’t really care to impress visitors with my reading habits. In fact, for many years I wouldn’t keep almost any books at the house at all. I’d read a book, and then either throw it out or give it away. And then I embraced Kindle when it appeared to be able to read books without leaving a physical residue. And much of it was to avoid this pretentious bullshit of a trophy case of books. Oh look how smart I am for having read all these books! *gag*

But. I’ve come around to physical books. And I’ve even come around to keeping the best of them. Not for other people, but for myself. I’ve realized that the hard part about most books is not reading them but recalling their knowledge or insight when you need it the most. So having the key books around still is a way to remind myself of their lessons. To recenter.

If an alien landed in your garden; which three books would you gift them to showcase humanity in the best possible way?

I’m not sure I’ve well-read enough to accept that responsibility on behalf of humanity. But I’d share the books that I’ve read that I found show us in the best light. That would probably be: 1) Finding Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, to teach them how most people experience true moments of bliss in everyday life, 2) The Manual by Epictetus, to give the briefest, yet most powerful, account of the mental struggles we all struggle with every day, 3) Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl, to show our incredible potential for perseverance in the face of the most hopeless circumstances.

What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?

It’s hard to pick just one thing, but I’ll credit A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine for turning me on to the Stoics. I don’t know if that book in itself provided the biggest impact, but it provided the stepping stone to the series of original stoic books that did have the biggest impact.

Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?

I haven’t mentioned any fictional books yet, and even though that isn’t my primary genre, the best of which I’ve read have still had a profound impact on me. The first shoutout would go to The Trial by Franz Kafka, 1984 by George Orwell, and The Stranger by Albert Camus.

These are all fictional books that deal with the topics of alienation, society, purpose, and a bunch of other profound topics.

Which book sat on your shelf are you most excited about reading next and why?

I’m looking forward to reading more books by Erich Fromm, given how much I liked Escape from Freedom by Erich Fromm. The next book I have ready by him is The Sane Society. On the existentialist journey, I have two other classics lined up: Notes from the Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre.

If you’d like to learn more about David Heinemeier Hansson, you can find him on his website and Twitter.