I was driving with a friend in California some time ago when we heard a song on the radio by Cat Stevens, the sentimental singer from the 1970s. We both listened for a while. “Listening to Cat Stevens,” my friend said, “is a good way to test how cynical you have become.”
A similar test is posed by Twitter founder Biz Stone’s new book, “Things a Little Bird Told Me,” which, in just over 200 pages, tells the story of his career and dispenses advice to would-be Stoners. Stone is an exceedingly positive and upbeat person, whose account of how he made it big by being a nice guy you will find either uplifting or unbearable, depending on your disposition.
Stone was one of the three or four founders of Twitter (the number is debated), never quite the driving force but more of a Ringo Starr figure, tying it all together. As with Ringo, Stone’s most important characteristic appears to have been his good-naturedness. He was agreeable enough to have been the only founder to survive the legendary battles among the company’s other creators, Jack Dorsey, Evan Williams and Noah Glass (the latter makes only a brief appearance). Stone’s role at Twitter, he reveals, was not so much to write code or make big decisions, but to be a positive force, “to keep up the company’s spirits.” As Stone puts it, “Every company needs an idealist.”
As Twitter’s resident idealist, Stone provides a version of the firm’s history that lacks many of the lurid details and treacherous maneuvering revealed in Nick Bilton’s recent “Hatching Twitter.” Stone mentions “all kinds of crazy stuff” and “bad blood,” but believes there was never malice. He does seem less than fond of Twitter’s current chief executive, Dick Costolo, and he includes a hilarious account of a very awkward meeting with Mark Zuckerberg. But generally speaking, by book’s end, you’ll find Stone has not drawn blood. That just isn’t his style.
Similarly, if there is darkness in Stone’s heart, you will not find it here, and it may not exist: He seems to be a genuinely nice guy. His book is subtitled “confessions,” but his most sinful divulgence is that he once snuck into a high school dance by climbing through a window and then ran away from the vice principal. There’s romance in the book, but it consists of Stone asking a woman on a date and then marrying her years later.
If you were hoping that a book about Twitter’s founding would feature absurdly rich young men doing lines of cocaine off the hindquarters of prostitutes, you may have chosen the wrong industry, or perhaps the wrong set of confessions.
Rather, Stone seems credible when he pens such sentiments as “we were in the business of uniting humanity,” “people are good” and “every day’s a new day.” What he calls “bright spot theory” is an unironic version of Monty Python’s “always look on the bright side of life.” It is all captured in the book’s conclusion, which could be taken from a manual on positive thinking: “We are all marching together. We’re headed toward something big, and it’s going to be good.”
An agreeable nature has rarely been a leading characteristic among Silicon Valley founders, with the exception of Apple’s Steve Wozniak. And so there is something cheering about the fact that a regular guy like Stone, a college dropout from a normal family, has made it so far. If Stone had just stuck with that story, his book would have been very agreeable. Unfortunately, he or his editor seems to think that his success and good fortune demand that he deliver life lessons, an exercise that gets somewhat hard to take.
To be fair, many of Stone’s lessons are solid. He recommends, for example, trying to find a job you are passionate about. (“Once true passion hits you, you can recognize all the times in your life when you were chasing the wrong dream.”) It is important to take risks. (“If you really want to succeed big, you have to be willing to risk crazy failure.”) And with a nod to Twitter itself — whose tweets are limited to 140 characters — Stone says that constraints can sometimes be an aid to creavity.
But it is hard to know how much to credit such career lessons when conspicuously missing from the book is the one fact that should strike anyone as obvious: Nice he may be, but Stone also got incredibly lucky. Innovation is an unpredictable process, and few would have guessed 10 years ago that something like Twitter would take off. As Stone acknowledges, most start-ups, even with great ideas, fail.
The truth is that Stone’s great success probably has less to do with his own teachings than with just being at the right place at the right time.
THINGS A LITTLE BIRD TOLD ME
Confessions of the Creative Mind
By Biz Stone
Grand Central. 224 pp. $26