#116 Robert Kurson

James Altucher was joined by author Robert Kurson, (@RobertKurson) to talk about pirates, writers, and treasure. Kurson is the author of Shadow Divers, Crashing Through, and most recently Pirate Hunters. (Via Amazon: “John Chatterton and John Mattera—are willing to risk everything to find the Golden Fleece, the ship of the infamous pirate Joseph Bannister.”)

And they lose so much. But when you Listen to Kurson, it doesn’t sound like the loses matter. The Johns are doing things they enjoy and if they find the treasure all the better. It’s similar to what Chris Hadfield (episode #111) told James about getting to space. “It probably won’t happen,” Hadfield writes in his book, “but I should do the things that move me toward it and make me happy.” Hadfield knew that the work he put in shouldn’t just lead to the big goal (be an astronaut) but it should be enjoyable in itself.

Hadfield knew that the work he put in shouldn’t just lead to the big goal (be an astronaut) but it should be enjoyable in itself. Even though the treasure hunters were digging down and the astronaut was flying up – they both ended up with the same perspective on their work. This was not the case for Kurson.

Much like past guest Peter Thiel (episode #43), Kurson began work as a big-shot lawyer. And like Thiel, he hated it. Thiel recounts his experience this way; “it was a place where everyone on the outside wanted to get in, and everyone on the inside wanted to get out.”

Kurson was in the same boat, he wanted out. One memorable experience that catalyzed this was when he was working on a case about the shade of pickles a McDonald’s franchisee was allowed to have.

So he left the place where “time seemed to tick backwards,” and began his life as a writer. Even though he was a Harvard Law graduate. Even though was making a lot of money. Even though he was successful on many metrics. He still disengaged from that life. How?

Part of it, he tells James, had to do with his family. As a kid he would go on multi-week road trips with his traveling salesman father. James suggests that this experience got him a “head start thinking that things could be done differently.” This different thinking helped Kurson and it can open new doors for us too.

Tim Ferriss (episode #22) says that “some impossibles are negotiable.” T. Harv Eker (episode #100 ) told James that he had to change many thought systems before he was successful.

Kurson also had another skill that helped him become a writer – ignorance. “If I knew how difficult it was to make it as a writer,” he tells James,  “I might have thought differently about it.” This is the kind of ignorance that many of the guests have praised. A.J. Jacobs (episode #94) called it “delusional optimism” and Alex Blumberg (episode #70 ) said he was a “little bit delusional” when he started Gimlet Media.

So Kurson began with small strokes. He didn’t try to write a best-seller, he just tried to write well. Even though his books have done well, they did so because of the small beginnings. James Manos (episode #39) said the same thing about writing for The Sopranos. Manos told James that if they had been trying to create something great, they surely would have messed it up. Instead it was about getting a character, scene, or episode right.

Besides his modest start and bit of ignorance, another helpful part of Kurson’s experience was the disinterest in money. “I was lucky to have made enough money to realize that a BMW didn’t matter to me,” he tells James. Money motives didn’t matter for Kurson (or the subjects in his books). They haven’t mattered to the other guests either. Tom Shadyac (episode #15) sold almost everything he owned and downsized his lifestyle. Kevin Kelly (episode #96) found the same money truths, but with the opposite approach. Kurson had it all, realized he didn’t need it all, and was happy with less. Kelly had very little, realized that was all he needed, and was happy with that. Both perspective led to the conclusion that money wasn’t what they needed.

One of the things money is good for is doing cool stuff. For Kurson’s pirate hunters it meant funding another expedition. Nicholas Megalis (episode #104) calls money “gasoline” because it can fuel the next thing he wants to do.

Kurson didn’t know what he was getting into, he didn’t try to write the next great nonfiction book, and knew early that there was more to it than money. He tells James that he also had one more thing going for him. He had failed before. “The fact that I had been through some things before, where it looked hopeless for me and looked like I had no where to go and I survived helped me jump into the darkness.”

The pits are sometimes the place we need to stand. J.K. Rowling had a similar experience to Kurson. Before Harry Potter, Rowling was not doing well. Her marriage had ended, she was unemployed, and she had a useless degree (in classics). “(I was) as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless,” Rowling writes. She goes on:

“Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me… And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

Rowling and Kurson both had low moments before they soared. Kurson eventually succeeded with Shadow Divers, a book that spent 24 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list. That book began with “a lucky phone call from a friend,” who told him to turn on this series on PBS NOVA.

There was nothing, Kurson tells James, “I was less interested in,” than German U-Boats. Not the fairy tale beginnings we might think.But, there was something missing. The documentary never told the story about why the two guys looking for the sunken ship would do it. That missing answer was the catalyst for Kurson.

But, there was something missing for Kurson. The documentary never told the story about why the two guys looking for the sunken ship would do it. That missing answer was the catalyst for Kurson.

Gretchen Rubin (episode #97) writes about ideas the same way. For Rubin it was over lunch with a friend who told her that in high school, she never missed a single track practice. But now couldn’t get into the habit of exercise. “Why?” That question, Rubin writes, “buzzed in my head with the special energy that tells me I’ve stumbled onto something important.”

Kurson began to explore. He called one of the guys in the documentary. He asked questions. He dug around.

What he found was a burn the ships attitude. The Johns created an environment where there was no backstop for their failings. If they fell, they would fall all the way. Jim Norton (episode #31)  told James that this was the only mindset that worked for him. “I personally left myself with no safety net,” said Norton.

Much of the second half of the interview is about Kurson’s books. It made me want to stop listening and start reading (Shadow Divers has been on my “to read” pile for months.)*

One interesting analogy from this section was a part when Kurson and James talked about how to find a sunken ship. In one case the ship seekers thought they had a pretty good idea about where the ship was. They just needed to triangulate the actual wreckage and get it out of the ocean. The problem was, that they didn’t know exactly where it is. “It’s hard enough if you know where it is.” said Kurson.

This stuck with me because it’s an analogy for many of the things we do. Even if we have a really good guess about the components to a successful career, relationshiop, or business – it’s till hard to do.

Thanks for reading, I’m @MikeDariano.

Two quick notes:

I need your help naming the book that is coming from this website. It’s about how the people who have been interviewed have found success. Each of them seems to follow the path of Skills -> Persistence -> Luck. If you would offer your thoughts on a two question survey, I’d really appreciate it.  (I’ll also send you the ebook for free when it’s done) Click here.

In July I’m going to read Robert Cialdini’s Influence. If you’d like to join The Waiter’s Pad book club subscribe here.

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