#305 Robert Caro on the relationship with your father, power, poverty, ruthlessness, obsession and running

Summary Notes


In this episode, the host discusses the remarkable work ethic and methodologies of writer Robert Caro and entrepreneur Lyndon Johnson, drawing parallels between their relentless drive and the influence of their challenging relationships with their fathers. Caro's dedication to exhaustive research and his "turn every page" philosophy are highlighted, alongside his journey from a struggling writer to a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, emphasizing how the right partners can change one's trajectory. The episode also touches on the importance of ambitious individuals being surrounded by peers who understand and share their drive, as seen through Caro's experiences in the Allen Room. The narrative culminates in a powerful anecdote about Johnson's desperate run up Capitol Hill, symbolizing his escape from poverty towards his aspirations. The host concludes by reflecting on the profound impact Caro's book "Working" has had on him, inviting listeners to delve into the story that intertwines determination, power, and the complexities of human ambition.

Summary Notes

Robert Caro's Unique Work Method

  • Robert Caro writes books longhand and then types them on a typewriter, eschewing the Internet.
  • His approach is contrasted with the need for fast, secure Internet and Wi-Fi in modern business.

Robert Caro is one of the few people in the world that can do world class work without the Internet.

This quote highlights Caro's distinctive method of working without modern technology, which is unusual in today's digitally connected world.

Importance of Internet and Wi-Fi for Business

  • Fast, secure, and reliable Internet is essential for most businesses.
  • Meter is introduced as a sponsor providing streamlined Internet and Wi-Fi solutions for commercial spaces.

For the rest of us, having fast and secure Internet and Wi-Fi is essential to our business.

This quote emphasizes the contrast between Caro's working style and the general dependence on Internet connectivity in contemporary business operations.

Meter's Services

  • Meter offers design and installation, powerful hardware, smart software, and expert support.
  • The service is fully managed and grows with the business, avoiding upfront costs.

They provide you streamlined design and installation, powerful hardware and smart software, both of which they make themselves.

This quote describes the comprehensive services provided by Meter, indicating their role in facilitating business operations through technology.

Searching for Life's Work

  • Founders often search for their life's work, leading them to start multiple companies.
  • Tiny supports this journey by offering straightforward cash exits for founders.

A large part of our lives is actually searching for our life's work.

This quote reflects on the entrepreneurial journey and the quest for meaningful work that defines one's career and life purpose.

Tiny's Role for Founders and Venture Capitalists

  • Tiny is interested in acquiring businesses that may not receive further funding but are still profitable.
  • Venture capitalists are encouraged to contact Tiny with potential opportunities.

Tiny wants to hear about those opportunities as well.

This quote signifies Tiny's business model of acquiring companies that have potential for profitability, even if they are not fit for further venture capital investment.

Robert Caro's Influence and "Invest Like the Best" Podcast

  • Robert Caro's books are highly recommended by Sam Hinkie in the podcast "Invest Like the Best."
  • The podcast episode "Find Your People" discusses lessons from Caro's work.

The reason I got interested in Robert Caro to begin with is because my friend Sam Hinkie kept telling me over and over again how great the books are and how important it was that I read them.

This quote links the influence of Robert Caro's work to the personal recommendation of Sam Hinkie, highlighting the impact of Caro's writing on others.

Biography as More Than Facts

  • Caro believes biography should enable readers to visualize places and understand the subject's life.
  • Insightful moments in research can lead to revelations about the subject's character and motivations.

Biography should not just be a collection of facts.

This quote encapsulates Caro's philosophy on biography writing, emphasizing the need for a narrative that allows readers to immerse themselves in the subject's world.

Lyndon Johnson's Youth and His Father's Influence

  • Lyndon Johnson's relationship with his father was a central fact of his life.
  • Johnson's father's optimism and idealism led to financial failure, deeply affecting Johnson.

You can't get very deep into Johnson's life without realizing that the central fact of his life was his relationship with his father.

This quote underscores the profound impact of Johnson's father on his life and character, which is a recurring theme in Caro's biographical work on Johnson.

Lyndon Johnson's Political Abilities and Ruthlessness

  • Johnson's ability to count votes was remarkable and stemmed from his aversion to his father's optimistic mistakes.
  • Johnson's ruthlessness in politics is partly explained by his upbringing and the consequences of his father's failure.

Of all the aspects of Lyndon Johnson that impressed people when he arrived in Washington, vote counting came first.

This quote highlights Johnson's exceptional skill in vote counting, which is linked to his life experiences and the lessons he learned from his father's failures.

Robert Caro's "Working" and His Dedication to Biography

  • Caro's book "Working" shares experiences from his career and personal discoveries.
  • The book reflects on Caro's dedication to understanding power and political ruthlessness.

Here's a book very unlike the others that I've written.

This quote introduces "Working" as a departure from Caro's usual biographical works, offering insights into his research process and motivations.

Caro's Transition from Reporter to Biographer

  • Caro's transition from newspaper reporter to biographer was a significant change in his career.
  • His work is driven by a desire to understand and explain how power works in the world.

When I left Newsday to write a book on Robert Moses, a change occurred.

This quote marks a pivotal moment in Caro's career, where he shifted focus from journalism to the in-depth study of power through biographical works.

The Importance of Deliberate Inefficiency in Writing

  • Robert Caro's writing process involves a deliberate inefficiency to slow down and thoroughly think through his work.
  • Writing first drafts in longhand is a method he uses to commit thoughts to paper slowly before typing later drafts.
  • His professor's criticism of "thinking with your fingers" led him to develop this meticulous approach.
  • Caro values spending more time with work over efficiency and outsourcing.

"I determined to do something to slow myself down, to not write until I had thought things through."

The quote highlights Caro's conscious decision to change his writing process to ensure more depth and thoughtfulness in his work.

Research as a Central Element of Caro's Work

  • Research is not just a part of Caro's writing process; it is his favorite aspect of work.
  • The phrase "turn every page" becomes a life motto for Caro, emphasizing his dedication to comprehensive research.
  • Caro's approach to research is time-consuming and meticulous, often taking much longer than planned.
  • He views this part of his nature as an unstoppable force that takes precedence over deadlines and financial concerns.

"It's the research, that takes the time, the research and whatever it is in myself that makes the research take so long, so very much longer than I had planned."

The quote reflects Caro's self-awareness of his deep inclination towards thorough research and how it inherently extends the time he spends on his projects.

The Inevitability of Caro's Approach to Writing

  • Caro feels that his thorough approach to writing and research is not a choice but an intrinsic part of who he is.
  • He accepts this aspect of himself and does not fight against it, even if it means spending more time on his work than other biographers.
  • Caro's commitment to turning every page and telling the complete story is non-negotiable for him.

"But looking back now, I have to accept the fact that in deciding to research and write that chapter, indeed, in doing the books as a whole, the way I have done them, taking so long to do them, there was really no choice involved, that I really didn't have one."

This quote conveys Caro's retrospective understanding that his method of working was not a conscious decision but rather a compulsion driven by his nature.

The Purpose and Timing of Caro's Memoir

  • Caro's book serves as a reflection on his work and his unique methods.
  • He chooses to publish his recollections and thoughts about writing and research while still working on another volume.
  • The urgency to publish is driven by his age and the realization that he may not live long enough to write a full memoir.

"Why am I publishing these random recollections towards a memoir while I'm still working on the last volume of the Johnson biography when I haven't finished it, while I'm still at the age of 83, several years away from finishing it?"

The quote reveals Caro's practical consideration of his age and the possibility that he may not complete his intended memoir, prompting him to share his insights sooner.

Caro's Early Career and the Turn Every Page Motto

  • Caro's love for books and research began in his youth, which was marred by a difficult childhood.
  • His time as an investigative reporter at Newsday was pivotal, where he developed his "turn every page" motto.
  • The motto, advised by Newsday's managing editor Alan Hathaway, becomes a guiding principle for Caro's investigative work and writing.

"Turn every page. Never assume anything. Turn every goddamn page."

The quote is the advice given to Caro by Alan Hathaway, which profoundly influences Caro's approach to research and becomes a central theme in his career.

Robert Caro's Recognition of Real Political Power

  • Caro's experience with Robert Moses at Newsday leads to a realization of his ignorance about the workings of political power.
  • Witnessing Moses' influence firsthand prompts Caro to reconsider his understanding of politics.
  • The need for time to reflect and think critically about power dynamics becomes apparent to Caro during his Neiman fellowship at Harvard.

"Everything you've been doing is bullshit. Robert Moses had enough power to turn around a whole state government in one day, and he's had that power for more than 40 years."

This quote encapsulates Caro's epiphany about the nature of political power and his own lack of understanding, which becomes a catalyst for his future work.

Introduction to Robert Caro's Motivation

  • Robert Caro sought to understand and explain the raw, naked realities of power through his work.
  • He aimed to provide knowledge beyond what is found in textbooks, delving into how power truly operates in society.
  • Caro's journey began with an intent to uncover and articulate the source of Robert Moses' power.

"If I could find out where Robert Moses got his power, this power that no one understood, this power that nobody else was even thinking about, if I could explain it, I would be adding something to the knowledge people ought to have."

The quote highlights Caro's motivation to explore the uncharted territory of Robert Moses' influence and contribute to the broader understanding of power dynamics.

The Genesis of "The Power Broker"

  • Robert Caro received a small advance to start writing a book that would eventually become "The Power Broker."
  • Caro anticipated the project would take about seven years, underestimating the actual time it would consume.
  • The initial stages of the book's creation were marked by financial struggles and a significant underestimation of the project's complexity.

"When I first began writing 'The Power Broker,' we didn't have any savings to speak of. And we had a small son."

This quote provides a glimpse into Caro's personal circumstances as he embarked on his ambitious project, highlighting the financial and familial pressures he faced.

Financial Hardships and Persistence

  • Caro faced severe financial difficulties while working on "The Power Broker," with money being a persistent problem for several years.
  • He experienced a defining moment when his editor expressed doubt about the book's potential success and limited its financial support.
  • Despite these challenges, Caro did not give up on his work, demonstrating his commitment and belief in the importance of his research.

"At the end of the year, we were completely out of money. And for the next four years, money was a problem."

This quote underscores the prolonged financial struggle Caro endured while dedicating himself to his work, emphasizing the sacrifices he made in pursuit of his goals.

Overcoming Doubt and Finding the Right Partners

  • A pivotal change in Caro's journey occurred when his original editor left, allowing him to seek new representation.
  • Caro found support in agent Lynn Nesbitt and editor Robert Gottlieb, who became instrumental in the completion and success of his book.
  • The right partnerships played a crucial role in alleviating Caro's financial concerns and providing the necessary support to finish his work.

"My job is to find you an editor you can work with for the rest of your life."

This quote from Lynn Nesbitt signifies the turning point in Caro's career, where he received the assurance and support needed to continue his work with confidence.

Shared Traits with Subjects of Research

  • Robert Caro shares traits with the powerful figures he studies, such as Lyndon Johnson and Robert Moses.
  • Caro's determination and perseverance mirror the ruthlessness of the individuals he writes about, albeit in the pursuit of knowledge rather than power.
  • His approach to his work reflects the same intensity and dedication that characterized the figures he researched.

"One trait I actually think Robert Caro shares with Lyndon Johnson and Robert Moses is the ruthlessness that all three of them have and all three of them use to get what they actually want."

This quote draws a parallel between Caro's tenacity in his research and writing endeavors and the assertiveness of the powerful figures he studies.

Ruthlessness in Power: The Case of Robert Moses

  • Robert Moses' manipulation of votes and exploitation of weaknesses exemplify the ruthless tactics used by those in power.
  • Caro's work reveals the intricate and often morally ambiguous methods Moses employed to achieve his goals.
  • Moses' combination of ruthlessness, genius, and savage energy made him a formidable and influential figure.

"But the key was that this little upstate guy, and then he named some long forgotten state assemblymen, and he had a mortgage coming due on his farm, and the mortgage was held by a bank up there."

This quote illustrates the calculated and strategic nature of Moses' approach to power, using leverage and pressure to sway decisions in his favor.

The Importance of Community for Ambitious Individuals

  • Paul Graham's essays emphasize the need for ambitious people to be surrounded by like-minded individuals to thrive.
  • Caro's isolation during the writing of "The Power Broker" led to self-doubt and a sense of unreality about his project.
  • The discovery of a community of writers at the Frederick Lewis Allen room provided Caro with much-needed camaraderie and validation.

"The most fundamental reason for the feeling of unreality was I had for five years been living in a world utterly unpopulated by anyone else who was doing what I was doing."

This quote captures Caro's sense of isolation and its impact on his confidence, highlighting the transformative effect of finding a supportive community.

Importance of Persistence and Determination in Craft

  • Persistence and determination are recurring themes in the careers of successful individuals.
  • Robert Caro exemplifies these traits through his meticulous research and writing process.
  • The concept of "how bad do you want it?" is central to understanding the drive behind individuals at the top of their professions.
  • Caro's adherence to the advice "turn every page" reflects his commitment to thoroughness.

"And it's this theme that just reoccurs over and over again in the history of entrepreneurship, that those that get to the top of their profession, those are the very best of what they do, just spend more time thinking about their work, practicing their work."

This quote emphasizes the idea that the most successful people in any field are those who dedicate significant time and thought to their work, underscoring the importance of persistence and determination.

The Power of Thorough Research

  • Robert Caro's research process is exhaustive, involving reading every available document to uncover hidden insights.
  • Caro's approach to research in the LBJ library demonstrates his willingness to delve into seemingly irrelevant material, which often yields valuable discoveries.
  • This methodical approach is a testament to Caro's belief in the advice to "turn every page" and never make assumptions.

"Looking through a lot of file folders that, from their description, one would assume contained nothing of use to me. And the wisdom of Alan's advice was proven to me again and again, scores and scores of times this happened."

The quote reveals Caro's experience of repeatedly finding valuable information in unexpected places, validating the thoroughness of his research methodology.

The Role of Empathy in Biography Writing

  • Robert Caro moved to the Texas Hill Country to better understand Lyndon B. Johnson and his roots.
  • Living among the people of the Hill Country allowed Caro to gain a deeper insight into Johnson's character and background.
  • Caro's commitment to empathy and understanding in his biographical research is a key aspect of his work.

"We're going to have to move to the hill country and live there... we rented a house on the edge of the hill country where we were to live for most of the next three years."

This quote illustrates Caro's dedication to immersing himself in Johnson's world to achieve a more authentic understanding of his subject, which is an essential part of his research process.

The Influence of Parental Relationships

  • The relationship between fathers and sons is a recurring theme in biographical narratives.
  • Caro's investigation into Johnson's youth and his relationship with his father provides critical context for understanding Johnson's character.
  • The intense desire to succeed and avoid past mistakes is often rooted in familial relationships and upbringing.

"You can always understand the son by the story of his father. The story of the father is embedded in the son."

This quote underscores the significance of parental influence in shaping the lives and ambitions of individuals, as explored through Caro's biographical work on Johnson.

Reflection of Personal Traits in Work

  • Both Lyndon B. Johnson and Robert Caro exhibited traits of superhuman determination and a relentless work ethic.
  • Their negative self-talk and constant striving for perfection reflect a deep-seated drive to excel.
  • The personal qualities of individuals are often mirrored in their professional pursuits and achievements.

"I'm a reflection of what I do, the way I work is an innate part of my being that applied to Steve Jobs, that applied to Robert Carroll, and that applied to Lyndon Johnson."

This quote connects the personal characteristics of individuals to their professional output, suggesting that their work is an extension of their inner selves.

Unyielding Pursuit of Knowledge and Truth

  • Caro's relentless pursuit of new questions and avenues of research stems from an innate part of his nature.
  • His self-described inability to stop probing for more information is not a conscious choice but a fundamental aspect of his being.
  • The drive to understand and uncover the complete story is a hallmark of Caro's approach to biography.

"The part of me that kept leading me to think of new avenues of research, that even as I thought of them, I felt it was crucial to head down."

This quote conveys Caro's compulsion to follow every possible lead in his research, demonstrating his unwavering commitment to uncovering the full narrative.

The Impact of Background on Ambition

  • Lyndon B. Johnson's impoverished background and his determination to escape it played a significant role in his drive to succeed.
  • Caro's recounting of Johnson's early days in Washington highlights the contrast between his past and his aspirations.
  • The physical act of running symbolizes Johnson's eagerness to leave behind his former life and achieve his goals.

"Leaving his room early in the morning, he would turn left down the alley onto a street that ran between the walls of other shabby hotels. But when he turned the corner at the end of the street, suddenly before him, at the top of a long, gentle hill, would not be brick, but marble, a great shadowy mass of marble."

This vivid description illustrates Johnson's transition from his humble beginnings to the corridors of power, reflecting the transformative power of ambition and determination.

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