B.J. Novak (part 2)

Part 1 is here.

A quick catch up if you don’t want to follow the link. B.J. Novak likes podcasts because “it’s like an extra hour of of reading.” He commented on the advantages and disadvantages of Harvard (and we added why this perspetive is valuable).

We addressed why it’s a good thing that you can’t be B.J. Novak, but that you can imitate him to get started.

After that it’s up to you to take small steps and build career capital.

Ready for part 2?

And to be great you need to get lucky.

Everyone featured on this site has some combination of skill, hard work, and luck. Novak says two lucky things happened for The Office.

First, it was moved to Thursday night. It’s not a big deal now, Novak says, but in 2005 it was. People didn’t want to watch a show about an office early in the week, Novak guesses, plus NBC Thursday night comedy was a thing. Like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval or a verified Twitter account, it signaled something. Frasier, Friends, and Seinfeld all had that spot.

Second, iTunes helped. Novak says that at the time a lot of The Office fans were young and downloaded episodes. This meant that The Office was a top show on iTunes. The Office got into a positive feedback system known as the Mathews Effect.

Malcolm Gladwell introduced this to me within the frame of Canadian Hockey players. You see, Gladwell writes, most of the best youth hockey players in Canada are born in January, February, or March. Why?

Well it’s because of the cutoff date. Kids born in January of one year are 11 months older than kids born in December of that same year- but they’re in the same league. The older kids are bigger, stronger, and more dexterous. The older kids are “better.” The better kids get more experience and coaching. Then they really get better – and on the cycle goes.

This holds for other areas too. In the early years of Netflix, Crash was the most popular movie on the site. Not because it was great. Rather, it came out when Netflix was gaining popularity.

But don’t get too big for your britches.

Novak says that when he worked on The Office they still needed to test jokes. “You never know how something’s going to play until you test it,” Novak says, “there’s no one smarter than the audience.”

One character in Stephen Witt’s How Music Got Free is Doug Morris. Morris presided over all three major record labels at one time or another, and he did so because he could find hits. Not with his ears, with his eyes.

Morris looked at the regional sales data. If a band was selling a lot of records regionally, then they had the right stuff to sell a lot of records nationally. Limp Bizkit and Hootie and the Blowfish are both products of Morris’s system. Witt writes, “years of scouting the order-taker had taught Morris there was actually no such thing as a regional hit. There was only a global hit, waiting to be marketed.”

How B.J. Novak does creative work.

Novak says that his creative work falls into two phases; Idea Phase and Execution Phase.

Idea Phase, Novak says, is where anything goes. On The Office they had “blue sky periods.” Lasting a few weeks, it was when the writers could come up with ideas for anything. What if Dwight went to the moon, what if Pam and Jim got a divorce.

This is a big theme of James Altucher’s work too. His talk about daily ideas led to this blog – hence the name. I was writing daily ideas when one for a blog that summarized and expanded on podcast hit. It sounded great. That feeling also led to Novak’s second phase.

Execution Phase is when Novak tries to get stuff done, and it relies on the Idea Phase. During the Idea Phase you want to come up with something so good during that the excitement about that will carry you through the obstacles of the Execution Phase.

Two emotions you can leverage to get more done.

Novak says that he always tries to keep a positive attitude. “I consider being in a good mood the most important part of my creative process.”

He also uses self loathing. When it’s late in the afternoon and he’s full of caffeine, Novak says he gets a lot done.

Adam McKay also uses this technique. He takes it one step further and gets a hotel room to work in. So not only has he gotten nothing done, but he’s paying to do so.

Rapid fire.

A few other things that didn’t quite fit elsewhere in this post.

“These just feel like jokes to me.” Novak recalls Steve Carell saying that when they were reworking part of a scene. Yeah, Novak thought, that’s what we do. But it’s not.

Gary Shandling told Judd Apatow that the key is to write more than the jokes. “The struggle in the writing room,” Shandling said, “is getting people not to write just words.”

Any tool will do. When Ferriss asks about what tool Novak uses to write with, the list is notably – and somewhat ironically considering his startup li.st –  generic. Microsoft word, Moleskine notebooks, coffee. The reason that Novak doesn’t use something else is that the switching costs are too high. “I use Microsoft Word,” Novak says, “because it’s what I learned  and got in the habit of.

Casey Neistat said much the same thing about filming. “It’s not worth it to me to investigate and switch,” he said about figuring out new software. This is a big idea, and one that Ferriss misses. It’s not about having the best tools, it’s about having good enough tools and getting to work.

“You really learn something when you parody it.” Novak paraphrase P.J. O’Rourke (and joines Judd Apatow, Phil Rosenthal, and Judah Friedlander) noting that comedy is a way to understand something deeply.

“You’re not on someone’s schedule, ever.” This was a particularly good reminder for me. To remember that Robert Kurson was a lawyer before he was a best-selling (and awesome) author. That Peter Thiel hated his job in law before he became an author and thinker we look to. That it takes everyone their own time to reach their own goals was poignant for me.

On selling out. Novak has a new (to me) take on what it means to sell out. He says that early in his career he resolved not to sell out. He would only do things for their artistic rewards. Then he had a change of heart.

Who am I, Novak asks, to turn down a movie (payday). He says people in Hollywood can earn enough to put their kids through college with a single Christmas movie. So they do it.

Media suggestions.

Easy Riders, Raging Bulls was the sort of think Novak wanted to create.

Daily Rituals is a book both Novak and Ferriss like. It’s one we’ve mentioned many times.

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

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