#118 Steven Kotler

Steven Kotler (@KotlerStevenjoined James Altucher to talk about the future, progress, and his new book Tomorrowland: Our Journey from Science Fiction to Science Fact. Kotler has been on the podcast twice before, once on episode #10 where he talked about the flow state. Later with Peter Diamandis in epsiode #93 where they pair talked about the 6 D’s of the future. If you haven’t gathered, Kotler is very much about the future and where we go from here.

riseofsupermanThe interview starts with a message about finding mentors from David, the podcast producer. I try to do something like this with our book club. If you want to join over 50 other people, sign up soon, we just started Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

As the interview begins, Kotler tells James that he wrote Tomorrowland in response to many of the questions he heard while on his book tour. Austin Kleon (episode #19) told James that his second book – Show Your Work – was born from the same womb. Jack Canfield (episode #90) also uses this technique. In his books, he includes a place you can send your own stories. Canfield then uses them when he writes. Any enterprising person could collect questions almost instantly via Twitter…

The takeaway from each of these authors is that there isn’t an instantaneous moment of clarity. They all have a moment of need to write, but it never comes fully developed. Kleon likens it to a bucket that gets filled with water. The only way to have a full bucket is to make many tiny drops into it. In writing books – and life – there is no hose that readily fills your bucket.

Kotler tells James that his career has been like this as well. “When you are coming up as a writer, you think I’ll get one book out and it’s going to level me up. I won’t need to worry about making a living and do what I want with my time. Which is not true at all.”

For Kotler it took 7 books before he felt like he was a writer. James says that it took him 10. When he looks at his progress now, Kotler says that he sees three phases.

  1. Develop your voice. Kotler says that people liked his voice, but not necessarily all of it. “We want you to write Kotler like pieces,” he recalls one editor saying, “and this isn’t it,” as he threw an early draft back.
  2. Spend time in the box. Kotler realized that he had to write in a certain way. His articles at GQ were done one way. His articles at Wired another. There was a path the editors expected his articles to follow, and it was up to him to find it.
  3. Work four-times as hard, but on what you want. Now Kotler writes about what he wants, but works much harder. Stephen Dubner (episode #110) told James much the same thing. He was fortunate Freakonomics succeed or else he would have to go back to phase two.

“How did you figure this out?” James asks, in an attempt to peel back another layer of the process. I try to be the “dumbest guy in the room,” Kotler says. He aims to focus on the details that go into a book and get them right. But once a book is gone, it’s gone. Adam Carolla (episode #25) had the same sort of detachment that Kotler has. Do your best possible work and put it out there and let it go. It’s gone. You can’t do anything about it.

Kotler also echoes the advice that Andy Weir (episode #92) told James. Weir’s second piece of advice about writing was, “don’t tell people.” He says that when you tell people you begin to feel like you’ve done the thing.

Kotler’s books often deal with big, futuristic ideas and James asks him, “how do we separate the real deal from the raving mad med?” Try these two filters:

  1. Ask about the first principles. He tells the story of Elon Musk who looked at the costs of battery components and realized that the components didn’t cost that much. If a battery costs 100, but the parts only 20, where does that extra money go? Ah, if we can build them a better way they will be cheaper. If the first principles inspire you to think, well that’s not too bad go on.
  2. Look for user interface. If there is an easy way for many people to adopt a technology, it will be adopted. This blog is one example. The wonders of WordPress, Evernote, and Downcast – the tools I use to write with – make it easier to write. Clay Shirky wrote about this is Here Comes Everybody. The point there is that once technology is easy, we can all use it to do the things we haven’t yet done. Not doing something now doesn’t mean you won’t do something once it becomes easier.

Kotler tries to take these filters and apply them in his latest book, Tomorrowland. James says that the chapters on anti-aging piqued his interest and asks if he could be the six million dollar man. No, he can’t, even if he had the money. Planet Money did a podcast and asked if the new 6 BILLION dollar man television show would be financially possible. (tl;dr – no, not even the government could spend that much).

What you might see, says Kotler, is more performance enhancements in sports and other parts of life. We’ve seen life elongation on the front end with better sanitation and medication. The back end is where things get more difficult. Kotler says that we are using things like stem cells to regrow body parts like the cornea and that’s where we should expect things to head.

In another instance Kotler says, “I met a blind man and then two days after (vision surgery) he could drive a car around a parking lot.” Robert Kurson (episode #116) told James that one of his early books was about a man who regained his sight.

When you break it down, the pair resolve, our senses are as much peripherals as they are a part of us. Think about, our bodies can detect sound waves but don’t have a discernible way to identify the cellular radio waves that bounce about us all day long. We can’t tell how much solar radiation is out and about – well actually, we can – it’s our tan lines. What if we could pick up on cellular or solar waves more readily?

One of Kotler’s contemporaries, David Eagleman, tries to answer that question in this TED Talk:

Okay, this is informative, but how I can use this for personal or professional gain asks James. Kotler tells him that neurochemicals work, but we don’t know exactly how. Both Tim Ferriss (episode #109) and Peter Diamandis would have better suggestions he says. Kotler says that rather than take something, try do something. How well do you use flow Kotler might ask. Take a diagnostic test at the Flow Genome Project to get an idea about where to start. If you have a roadmap, Kotler says, it’s easier to know where to begin and what shortcuts to take. Ultimately, “you have to conduct the experiment yourself.”

Self experimentation, it needs to be done. From Neil Strauss (episode #113) to Gretchen Rubin (episode #97) to Scott Adams (episode #112), they all experiment in their lives.

From the business side of things, Kotler doesn’t know exactly what to do. Mark Cuban (episode #24) told James that we’ll look back with disbelief that we all took the same quantities of medicine so maybe that’s one area.  But whatever it is, you must be passionate, says Kotler, “You have to build these businesses on the back of passion because it’s so god damn hard to be an entrepreneur.” Gary Vaynerchuk (episode #2) told James much the same thing in his interview. But it’s not just about passion. It’s about being passionate enough and good enough.

You can also help things out if start with a small monopoly. Peter Thiel (episode #43), borrowing the structure from Anna Karenina, advises:

“All happy companies are different: each one earns a monopoly by solving a unique problem. All failed companies are the same: they failed to escape the competition.”

The interview ends with some book recommendations from Kotler: Anything by Neil Stephenson, William Gibson, or Richard K. Morgan (Altered Carbon especially).  Ready Player One is also very good.

Thanks for reading, I’m @MikeDariano. If you want more book suggestions, I have a monthly email you can subscribe to. Also, please consider a financial donation or answer two questions about this blog and the book it’s becoming.

17 thoughts on “#118 Steven Kotler”

  1. […] Steven Kotler said that we can think about improving in small steps. You don’t need to try something twice as hard, instead aim for a 4% improvement. Coyle compares it to a hockey player or figure skater who occasionally falls down. That’s the zone we want to be in. […]


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