What’s it like to be the subject of a book by Tracy Kidder, master of narrative nonfiction and Pulitzer Prize winner? We tracked down computer genius and entrepreneur Paul English, who’s portrayed in A Truck Full of Money, to find out.
A native of Boston, English received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computer science from UMass Boston. After working as a software engineer, he co-founded Boston Light Software, which was sold to Intuit in 1999, netting $8 million. A later start-up, the travel website Kayak.com, would bring a far larger return when it was sold to Priceline in 2012 for $1.8 billion.
In a fascinating, fast-moving narrative, Kidder follows English from his days at Boston Latin School (where, as a seventh grader, he hacked a teacher’s computer and captured his password) to his recent passion for philanthropic causes, from education in Haiti to helping the homeless.
Did you have any reservations about allowing Kidder to write about you? How much access did he have and what were the ground rules?
When Tracy first approached me with the book idea, I declined. Although my work often puts me in the public, I’m uncomfortable being the center of attention. However, I soon decided to accept his offer, hoping that the book might raise awareness for my nonprofit teams. Plus, Tracy is an insanely fun person to hang out with! He is the most voracious reader friend I have, so we had a lot of fun talking about books. Tracy and I spent a lot of time together over the three years this book was in process. He lived with me for a while—we would eat breakfast together, he would come to all of my meetings, and we’d often shop at Whole Foods after work to cook dinner for friends and family. Tracy gets really personal with his subjects—one day he accompanied me in a workout with my personal trainer, and another day he sat in the chair next to me when I got my hair cut!
"Tracy gets really personal with his subjects—one day he accompanied me in a workout with my personal trainer, and another day he sat in the chair next to me when I got my hair cut!"
Have you read A Truck Full of Money? Did any of Kidder’s observations surprise you?
Although Tracy trailed me for three years and took notes constantly, I had no idea what he was actually going to write about until I got my first read of the book in June. I admit that I only skimmed it, because it is a little uncomfortable reading a book about yourself. I provided no input to the manuscript. Although I’m open about my bipolar illness, I was surprised to see how much he decided to write about that. Some of it was embarrassing to read, although I hope it can in some ways be helpful to others, in the same way that Touched with Fire was useful to me so many years ago.
You evidently learned many of your negotiating skills from watching your dad make deals at yard sales. Do you ever think of him as you make deals?
Absolutely. My Dad was a very charismatic person, and he often got deals done by connecting with and charming the other party. I probably model his behavior in that I’m always trying to understand other people, and trying to get them to smile. This is true in daily life as well as when negotiating a big business deal.
At heart, you seem very much a Boston boy, and yet you’ve made much of your fortune from the travel business. Do you ever have the time or desire to travel simply for pleasure?
I travel extensively. In the last year I was in Japan with some friends, and then in Australia with my kids. In the next few months I will be in Haiti, London, Los Angeles and San Francisco. And I just signed up to take my son to climb Kilimanjaro in January.
Can you imagine what you might have done had you been born before the age of computers?
The most obvious role for me would be to become a social worker or psychotherapist, following in the footsteps of my mother and of two of my siblings. I’m fascinated about learning from other people. My own struggles with depression and anxiety allow me to feel the pain of others, and I enjoy trying to alleviate that pain whenever I can.
You’ve had many successes as well as failures. What’s your proudest achievement?
The first thing that came to mind was raising two kids with an amazing woman. The next thing that came to mind was my work creating Summits Education in rural Haiti. This is the longest-term project of my life. We are educating almost 10,000 kids in the central plateau. I’m committed to sending many of them to college.
Kidder vividly describes how being bipolar has affected you, asking rhetorically whether hypomania has helped you by increasing your energy and brashness, or whether you’ve made your way in spite of the condition. Your thoughts?
Sometimes I find mental health labels frustrating. I’ve had many labels thrown at me over the years—ADHD, ADD, bipolar illness, depression, etc. I knew as a teen that something was different about me, from frequent visual distortions (later attributed to temporal lobe epilepsy) to fascination with light and sound, dark depressions, panic attacks, anxiety, weeks with very little sleep, racing thoughts, grandiosity—you name it. The combination of being bright and hypomanic is mostly a great thing, because it can push creative instincts very far. If someone invented a magic pill to rid me of bipolar illness, I would not take it. I continue to struggle with finding meds that keep out the bad parts without eliminating the good parts of being bipolar. At the moment, I feel pretty healthy.
You’re a driven person who loves driving. Are you still an occasional Uber driver, with your Tesla? Do people ever recognize you?
I drove Uber last fall as a way to learn about what it felt like to know that you would be rated at the end of every trip. I wanted to learn this, since our Lola travel agents are rated at the end of each of our traveler’s journeys. Driving was really fun. It opened my eyes to meet all kinds of people in Boston who I would not normally come in contact with.
A Truck Full of Money is a compelling read, especially for young people starting out in business. Any advice for young entrepreneurs?
The most important decision you will make—by far—is who you decide to work with. Please pick people who are fun, confident, humble, curious, open-minded, ethical and driven.
Kidder writes that you “felt like going into hiding” when the news broke about Priceline buying Kayak for $1.8 billion. Any worries that this book will make you feel that way again?
I’ve had to learn how to cope with this over the last few years. I think my friend Tracy is going to cause my inbox to get flooded a bit more than the few hundred emails I get each day now, but I’m trying to get prepared. Check out my one-page site paulenglish.com to see how I list my top few projects these days.