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David Wen
Entrepreneur, software developer, management consultant. He keeps a ukulele by his desk, just in case.
Roughing it
Roughing It

Reviewed by David Wen

Mark Twain is the source of amazing quotes such as "Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don't mind, it doesn't matter." Admittedly, I have yet to read his books beyond "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn". Or was it Tom Sawyer? Perhaps that's why Twain has another quote: "'Classic' - a book which people praise and don't read."

What I do recall though is that Twain's books are always entertaining, so when I saw that it was one of his earlier books, I was curious to see what his style was like at the beginning of his professional writing career. The book talks about his real and imagined trip to the Wild West. Twain wrote with such amusing observation that at times it seemed like he was a modern day tourist who was traveling back in time. As a contemporary, he was still able to satire many of the things we would probably satire if we went back, such as the way people dealt with arguments (duels) or the way people behave when smitten with money.

The latter piece struck me in particular because of its similarities to my current work in the startup world. A big part of the story is about Twain going to prospect for silver and gold. He talks about how people take stakes in different pieces of land, and trade them with each other based on the prospects of that land becoming a literal gold mine. He describes an environment where everybody was sure they were millionaires, even though nobody actually owned anything of worth. Nobody actually mined the land they owned (which was a lot of work) and people simply took around samples of rock in their pockets to prove the contents of their potential wealth by means of extrapolation (regardless of whether or not that rock actually came from that mine, or is a representative sample). I felt like perhaps that's what I'm doing in the startup world. Everyone wants to own an app, yet not many of them actually create hard value. But we trade around figures like user growth and page views as indicators of potential value, whether or not that value will actually materialize down the road.

Despite the above serious train of thought, I found the book to be highly entertaining. I found myself feeling a little stressed whenever Twain decided to live on credit for months on end or journey to the middle of nowhere without much preparation. Stressed, and impressed, for I knew that he was living it up based on what he wants to do, as opposed to living a life others supposed he should do. He probably would have coined the hashtag #YOLO if he were alive today.

One thing that struck me was the blatant racism throughout, towards Indians, Chinamen, Mormons, and Hawaiians. At the same time though, I knew the era in which the books were written, and somehow I could feel that Twain didn't actually take actions upon the stereotypes he held. Accurately or inaccurately, he was observing what he felt to be true. Plus, nobody's perfect, which I think Twain is perfectly comfortable with being. This, you can tell from the following quotes:

“The worst loneliness is to not be comfortable with yourself.”
“A clear conscience is the sure sign of a bad memory.”

Well said.

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David wen avatar
David Wen
Entrepreneur, software developer, management consultant. He's been to Luke Skywalker's hometown of Tatooine.