1- See it to believe it. Klein recalls reading Matt Yglesias’ blog and thinking, “if this college kid can do it, I can at least try.”
Penn Jillette said the same thing about going to clown college. Wow, Jillette felt, there are people who want to analyze jokes. This is amazing. B.J. Novak said, “the biggest advantage (to the Harvard Lampoon) is to not think it’s crazy to be a comedy writer or to be a writer at all.”
Even Michael Lombardi felt this when he saw Vince Lombardi coaching football. Although there’s no relation, it still made Michael believe that a career in the NFL was possible.
Sometimes we just need to see someone else doing it to believe that it’s possible.
“So much of my particular path is one lucky break after another,” Klein says. Part of it was his timing with blogs – like Marks’ with bonds. Early on there was no way that Klein – or anyone else – thought blogging would be a career. Now it is.
Why does luck come up so often in the interviews? I think it’s because admissions of luck are an antidote to the disease of hubris.
In the Greek myth, Icarus gets wax and feather wings and a warning – do not fly too close to the sun or ocean. Icarus, of course, does not.
Admitting luck – like the guests above do – is an admission of wax and feather wings. Chris Sacca articulated this when he said that being born male, white, and in the United States is an advantage. It’s good luck.
3- Low overhead. Besides getting lucky, Klein also says that he was able to take advantage of those lucky breaks because his overhead was low. When an internship opened up at the Washington Monthly, Klein was able to take it. He tells Torenberg that other people couldn’t because the pay was too low. They couldn’t afford the opportunity.
Jay Leno told Judd Apatow that he took any job, no matter the pay. Leno could play anywhere and get experience rather aim for money because he required only a little and his day job (a mechanic) covered that. Sarah Silverman mentions the same idea in the same book. “I’ve always kept my overhead low so I could do whatever I wanted.”
This low overhead mindset is one of optionality. Sticking with Apatow’s book we can flip to Jerry Seinfeld’s section and see the same approach.
“Quality. That’s my only real consideration. It could be anything, as long as the people are trying to do something good. I don’t want to do a piece of junk. I’m not starving you know.”
Each of these comedians tells the same story that Ezra Klein advocates. “Trade prestige for opportunity,” Klein writes, and “letting someone pay you a bit of money to become a journalist, or even pay you nothing at all, is better than paying a j-school a lot of money to become a journalist.”
Tim Ferriss took this approach to getting his faux-MBA. Rather than follow in the footsteps of Scott Adams at the Haas School of Business, Ferriss began angel investing.
What if, Ferriss asked himself, I take the money I would have spent on an education and invested it. Either way, in two years I’ll have learned something, made connections, and am moving on to the next things. With investing I may hit it big.
If you want to have options (to make a show like Seinfeld, to angel invest, to write for the Washington Monthly) you have to have minimal resource (time and money) commitments.
4- Availability bias in education and podcasts. The conversation between Torenberg and Klein starts with a brief history of Klein’s schooling and it was great to hear that he wasn’t some tortured genius. He was a slacker.
When asked if he felt that education needed to change, Klein said “yes,” but not especially because of his experiences. If you wanted to get the most bang for your buck, says economist Bjorn Lomborg, “it needs to be something that we know how to do and we know how to do fairly cheaply and it will do a lot of good.”
That wasn’t Klein’s situation.
First, Klein said he was a slacker, but he didn’t think it was odd. Popular culture is full of slackers. Ferris Bueller, Jeff Spicoli, and the Breakfast Club could have all been influences for Klein. Lots of kids are like this, Klein thought.
Second, Klein notes that the people who come on podcasts may not be the most representative population for coming up with a consensus about how to fix education. “There are an unusual percentage of people who get to go on podcasts who have this particular schooling experience,” Klein says. To put it another way, smart kids that were bored with school are probably on a lot of these podcasts. Now we can dig into the availability bias.
We have a tendency to overestimate the frequency of things we easily see or remember.
The best advice comes from Richard Feynman:
5- Path dependence (specific to newspapers and general for careers).
Klein talks about the ways that media has changed, most notably the medium change. For print the question was, “how do you pack the most information into this space,” says Klein. Paper and black ink were the cheapest combination to convey information – so that’s what we used.
With the internet the restrictions of space and cost are gone. The marginal cost for a Vox Snapchat explainer (what a description, eh?) is nil. Plus, Vox gets to tell stories in the ways people prefer to learn – visually.
As we enter this new age of journalism Klein says that he’s hiring like crazy. “I’ve found that you can teach journalism,” Klein says, “but you can’t teach that kind of obsessive deep love of a subject.”
Our big idea in this section is about path dependence, one sequence of doing things is different from another. When you make a salad, it doesn’t matter what order you put on the tomatoes and onions. When you make nachos, it does matter what order you put down the chips and cheese. Knowing how path dependent a situation is can help explain how you got here and where you are headed.
6- Listen to your audience. Klein says that the shift to Vox from the Washington Post was due in part to what he was hearing from his readers. “When I looked at reader email that (about the nitty gritty details) was very rarely the question they were asking, they wanted to know things that were much more fundamental,” Klein says.
B.J. Novak had a similar experience writing jokes for the office. He and Mindy Kaling would kick things around to see what was funny. They would try bits at local clubs. They asked friends. Nobody is smarter than the audience (even in music ).
Right now the identity oriented content blows up Klein says. To know that and create that content means that Klein is listening to his audience.
Thanks for reading. If you want more advice from Klein, check out his Advice to Young Journalists.
I’m @mikedariano on Twitter.