B.J. Novak, part 1

B.J. Novak (@BJNovak) joined Tim Ferriss (@TFerriss) to talk about startups, starting out, and stand-up. Novak is on the podcast to talk about his app, Li.st, a place to create and share lists about anything. Beyond talk about the app (and references to Novak’s books) there’s good stuff throughout.

For example, in what ways is Harvard a disadvantage? How did Novak get on The Office? What does it really mean to be a “sell out?”


The benefits of podcasts.

Novak says that he’s started to get into podcasts and, “listening to podcasts is like an extra hour of reading a day.”

Gretchen Rubin wrote that podcasts and audio books changed the way one friend viewed her entire job. In her book, Better Than Before, Rubin writes that she was talking with a friend that hated her job. Her friend gave a bunch of reasons why, but Rubin wasn’t convinced. As they talked more, Rubin discovered that her friend didn’t really hate her job, only her commute.

lightbulbWhy don’t you try audiobooks or podcasts, Rubin suggested. A month goes by and Rubin checks in with her friend, who says that everything has changed. She likes her job and her commute, actually looking forward to the latter.

The advantages and disadvantages of Harvard/The Harvard Lampoon.

Novak tells Ferriss that it took 3 attempts before he got on the staff at The Harvard Lampoon. This was his final attempt, Novak says. Which is too bad, because Novak didn’t know his numbers.

We never succeed all the time, and sometimes fail a lot. That’s normal, and important to remember for your psyche. In The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz writes:

“(If) CEOs were graded on a curve, the mean on the test would be 22 out of 100. This kind of mean can be psychologically challenging for a straight-A student. It is particularly challenging because nobody tells you that the mean is 22.”

It’s not only CEOs. Investors like Ken Fisher and Brett Steenbarger and Kevin O’Leary all explicitily mentioned that failure rates can be higher than success rates.

As Horowitz found out, that can be demoralizing. What you need to do is know your numbers. Ramit Sethi talked about how to do this in business.  Mark Cuban in basketball. 

The advantage of Harvard.

The best part about Harvard, Novak says, was the environment. “Those people (at the Harvard Lampoon) train each other rigorously.” It makes sense, the list of alumni is impressive.

But there’s more.

There was also an acceptance. “The biggest advantage,” Novak says, “is to not think it’s crazy to be a comedy writer.”

Penn Jillette said the same thing when he went to clown college. “This was really really important to me,” Jillette says. He didn’t know he could do that. When he found out, it changed his life. 

The disadvantage of Harvard.

Being at Harvard creates a disconnect, Novak says. You lack life experiences and develop a form of cockiness. It’s a catch-22. If you want the environment where people push each other to be great, you can’t also have the everyman experience.

Novak’s balanced view about Harvard reminded me of “part of the reason thinking,” introduced by Sanjay Bakshi.

When we examine a situation we would do well to look at it as the sum of some parts. Harvard has lots of great things about it, but it has drawbacks too. Just like marriages, jobs, and friendships. No one, no place, no condition is perfect. Each has good and bad parts, advantages and disadvantages.

You can’t be B.J. Novak – so don’t try.

Ben Horowitz wrote in The Hard Thing About Hard Things, “the problem with these books (about business) is that they attempt to provide a recipe for challenges that have no recipes. There’s no recipe for really complicated, dynamic situations.” 

Like becoming a TV star.

Novak says the same is true for show business. “Everyone who gets a job in show business has a story that’s not replicable.” This is actually great news.

Horowitz and Novak warn not to follow anyone’s advice too closely. And that’s true, just not at the beginning. 

After college Novak ended up writing for Raising Dad, a WB comedy starring Bob Saget. Novak tells Ferriss that he looked around the writer’s room one day and realized he didn’t like what he saw. Not the people, but the paths. He wanted to be like Saget or Jonathan Katz (the show’s creator). So he decided to start like Saget and Katz, with stand-up.

This is how we start, with imitation.

Stephen King writes that imitation is good, and in some ways the only way. Ben Mezrich did it. So did  Jason Calacanis who told Tim O’Reilly, “I copied everything you did coming up, you’re my inspiration for a lot of what I do.”

You can start in a place of imitation, but then you have to go beyond that. You have to take small steps on your own.

When you’re afraid to walk, take small steps.

It’s okay if you’re afraid. Don’t do anything big.  In fact, it’s better if you start small.

But you need to overcome your fears (and sooner than later). If you want to get into stand-up, Novak says to book your entire first week of shows in advance. Otherwise you may chicken out. 

Note, this small step (schedule a week of shows) is a small hack, but small hacks have powerful effects. Food researcher Brian Wansink found that small hacks are all it takes to eat less. Smaller bowls and opaque containers cut consumption. It doesn’t take a big diet to lose weight, just small steps. So too for careers. 

You also have to be ready for small improvements. “You can’t make each night a referendum on whether or not you should be doing it,” Novak says about stand-up. If you have three good jokes, keep them and get rid of everything else.

This is exactly how Louis C.K. works. In Sick in The Head Louis says, “everything has been one foot in front of the other, one step at a time.”

Louis also explains that he constructs his act this way. If you have one good joke, that’s your closer. When you get another, that’s your opener. The third good joke is your mid point. It’s like snapping together Legos.

Okay, small steps. Now what?

Now it’s time to get work building career capital. Introduced by Cal Newport in So Good They Can’t Ignore You, it is the idea that to have a great job, you have to have a great skill.

Career capital theory explains that good jobs are the exchange of one valuable thing for another. It’s exactly what Novak did.

After Raising Dad was cancelled Novak did stand-up for 18 months, and got “decent.” That led to a stand-up showcase and Punk’d. Then came a call from Greg Daniels, who wanted to create an American version of The Office. Daniels wanted a small staff like at SNL and the original The Office. He needed people who could write and act. He needed people like Novak.

Novak got the great job because he had great skills. Look at his sequence.

High school and family experiences -> Harvard -> Harvard Lampoon -> “The BJ Show” at Harvard -> The BJ Show special with special guest Bob Saget -> “Raising Dad” -> stand-up in Hollywood and L.A. -> The Office.

Novak accumulated career capital and exchanged it for a job on one of the great comedies of all time. Of course, no one knew how great it would be.

To be great, you can’t focus on how great you might be.

“This was not considered a show with any chance for success,” Novak says about The Office.

Great things never start out as things that are expected to be great. It takes so much work to create a masterpiece that any thought of it’s relevance takes away from the resources for the work.

James Corden said this about his show, Gavin and Stacey. If this could be one person’s favorite show, that would be great, Corden said.

James Manos said the same thing about The Sopranos. “None of us were conscious of creating something that became truly iconic.”

Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano on Twitter.

Tomorrow part 2 will drop, with sections on luck, perspectives, and what “blue sky” means.

18 thoughts on “B.J. Novak, part 1”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.