#78 Sam Shank

Sam Shank (@SamShank) and James Altucher talk about startups, pivots, and what might happen if someone offered you $400 million for your business and Sam gives the best answer to that question I’ve ever heard. Sam is on the podcast to talk about Hotel Tonight, one of James’s favorite apps. HotelTonight is “Hand-selected hotels at great prices on your mobile device.” Sam wasn’t always in technology though.

Fullscreen capture 192015 80542 AM.bmpHe tells James that his secret origin story was in the film industry, where he worked with Wes Craven on the first Scream movie. If you’re under 25, you may not appreciate the Scream series in the canon of horror movies, but it was the franchise that bridged the Halloween series to the Saw style movies. One story from the set that Sam shares is when something happened with some footage that had to be reshot. Filming is resource intensive between the time and financial costs and a huge pain in the ass. It would have been easy for Craven to loose his head but he followed the same professional kindness that Carol Leifer talked about with James, saying, “don’t be a jerk.”

Sam could see that his upside in film was limited, only a handful of directors get to work on movies each year and there were people years ahead of Sam still doing the work he was. Sam switched to technology, working at Excite and CNET for about ten years. From the interview with James he sounded very focused when he decided to work there, saying, that he had to meet people and get experience before he could start his own company.

James asks about how he knew he was ready to start a company and Sam says, “You’re ready when it just feels uncomfortable enough that you can bear starting a company.” In a sense, Sam was ready to start failing in little ways to succeed in big ones. In her interview, Carol Leifer said, “you should be failing in your career because everybody fails and if you’re not failing then you’re not doing something right. Because it’s through these failures you really get better.” We need to see failures as opportunities for improvement and expect them to arise on our path. In their book about any kind of Switch, the Heath brothers write that we should expect failure; “The answer may sound strange: You need to create the expectation of failure—not the failure of the mission itself, but failure en route.”  Ryan Holiday might take the idea of failure one more step to say that failure isn’t bad, it’s good. Failure is an obstacles and obstacles show you the way. This is exactly what happened with Sam.

He launched Travel Post with “not a lot of downside.” Sam was applying what Nassim Taleb calls asymmetrical thinking. If nothing happened with TravelPost, Sam could go work for another technology company with almost no change in knowledge or income status. If, on the other hand, TravelPost succeeded wildly, then Sam had the upside of a hot startup. TravelPost was eventually sold to SideStep and after working there for 15 months, Sam started Dealbase.

These iterations – through different companies – led Sam to his current venture, HotelTonight. At this point in the interview I was stunned with what came next. I expected that someone who had a pair of startups in his toolbox, a Kellogg MBA, and two partners would have an efficient and scalable system right from the start. Nope.

Instead, Hotel Tonight started with 15 hotels in 3 cities. Sam and his co-founders called each hotel in the afternoon to see how many vacancies and at what price point the rooms could be listed at. There were no boardroom meetings with a Hilton, no elaborate databases. There were three people with a computer and a telephone.

It took two weeks of listing rooms before anyone booked a room and Sam says this lag time was to be expected. People wanted social proof or to see online reviews but the nature of Sam’s business meant it took time. You hear about a video online, you can watch the video. You hear about a hotel, that’s another matter. This timing, I publish something online I want immediate results is an internet fallacy. Even Ryan Holiday, marketing guru, needs time. His email list (which is wonderful) took years to build up. He writes, “Be ok mailing to very few people for a long time. I was. I knew that I had a long-term strategy. I also knew that recommending some life-changing books even to a small number of people was a beneficial activity in itself. Look at my chart–the size is basically unchanged for over a year.”

Sam tells James that the key to any consumer product is solving this equation:

“It boils down to saving time and saving money. I think all consumer products need to deliver on one, ideally both.”

The end of the interview has James and Sam spitballing ideas about other “tonight” services for food, cars, or other hospitality stuff. I do an idea list each day and it’s nice to hear James brainstorming because some of his ideas are as silly as mine.

At the end of the interview is the real gem of the conversation. James asks Sam if he would sell the company for $400 million dollars and Sam says, probably not.

We’ve got big goals for Hotel Tonight. It’s a wonderful platform, where we’ve got a great team, we’ve got lots of resources, wonderful investors. We’ve got great co-founders and we’ve got a really strong vision for where we want to take it. The other way I look at it, is if this all ended right now, what would I want to do personally? What I’d want to do personally is get back to where I am right now.


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#80 Tucker Max

Tucker Max (@TuckerMax) joined James Altucher to talk about his new company, Book in a Box, publishing, and solving problems.

 Tucker is the only guest to have a repeat chance to talk to James and it’s mostly about his new company, Book in a Box. The company’s tagline asks, want to write a book but don’t have the time? “The Book in a Box process is a new way to write a book. We take your ideas and your words, and turn them into a professionally published book, in under 12 hours of your own time.”

 There is a LinkedIn post where Tucker explains the model and process (and is similar to the content of his interview with James), but do be careful wading through the comments.

His idea for Book in a Box came from a LDV Entrepreneur dinner in NYC when Melissa Gonzalez approached Tucker about writing a book. After explaining to her that it’s a long and hard process to write a book, she called him to carpet and said, “in my job I solve problems. Can you solve my problem or not?”

(Eventually he did,The Pop Up Paradigm: How Brands Build Human Connections in a Digital Age)

Tucker has found what past guest Sam Shank says, is one of two things every consumer product should do; save someone time or money. Tucker is angling for saving successful people time, though toward the end of the podcast he shares how that may change.

Tucker explains that this system isn’t what someone like Neil Strauss does. For more about that, check out this interview Strauss had with Tim Ferriss to talk about writing and conversation.

The Book in a Box system begins with an outline that’s been formulated, refined, and distilled to the essence of what is needed. Tucker tells James, “the process has to be set before we can hire freelancers.” Then a freelancer comes in to have an eight hour conversation with the author, some transcription transpires, and an editorial polish cleans things up before a cover and marketing officially launch it. Tucker says that they have a team of freelancers that can turn an interview transcript into a book in a matter of days.

Throughout the interview Tucker repeatedly goes back to the idea of having good systems in place. It’s taken him and co-founder Zach Obront time to figure out what is necessary and what isn’t, but after finding these systems they can remove themselves from the process. James says he has a piece of paper taped to his computer that reminds him to take himself out of the equation.

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Part of the way Tucker has succeed with this is by doing the work. He says that even now he’s applying the Book in a Box process to writing an actual book, this one about Book in a Box. He also introduces the analogy of using a lathe to make a lathe which should replace the eat your own dogfood mantra that exists.

 One specific example from the middle of their interview is what they found with the interview process. Rather than sticking a microphone (or phone) in front of someone, there are specific questions that are asked. Tucker learned how to identify overloaded specificity. He tells James that the interviews are trained to ask for specific examples if the interviewee is being too general, and to generalize if they are giving too many specific examples.

Despite even this refinement (and many others) there are still variations. For the different types of non-fiction books, Tucker says there are different types of outlines.

 “Our process is not for people who enjoy writing or are good at writing or like writing. It’s for people who have ideas that they want to turn into books, but don’t have the time or ability to sit through the writing process or deal with publishing process.”

 When talking about the actual publishing industry, Tucker doesn’t have great answers. He says that 40-70% of all books sales are through Amazon and that number is as high as 90% for certain genres. It turns out that there really aren’t great answers. One Wikipedia page suggests 300,000 for 2013.

 Besides Tucker’s company, there are people doing similar things online. Past guest, Steve Scott has dove, dug, and buried himself in the habit and productivity vein of Amazon. Tucker also says that he knows a guy doing content creation via books. That team will find a trend like paleo and pump out a number of high quality books. Then there is the James Frey, James Patterson stables of writers. In an interview with The Daily Beast, Patterson says that he writes an outline which the co-writer then contributes to. After that, the co-worker sends his work over every few weeks and Patterson decides, “This is terrific, I love the way it’s going,” or “We’ve come off the tracks somehow.”

 Tucker tells James that he can see this Book in a Box idea expanding to other areas like painting, film, and fiction. It reminded me of the Jimmy Whales interview where he hoped the same thing, only for crowd-sourcing. Both Jimmy and Tucker have the same idea, let wisdom chisel this thing into something great. For Jimmy it’s many people with little experience or time, for Tucker it’s few people with much experience and time.

 Both James and Tucker advice that it’s not great to be an employee any more. In Thou Shall Prosper, Rabbi Daniel Lapin put it this way. Always think of yourself as a freelancer, even to your current employer. If you think this way, you can see that you have one client, your employer, but you can always get more. In the realm of coding you see this all the time, people building side projects. Even something as simple as teaching means tutoring options are available too.

 Tucker says he completely forgot about this SNL sketch when naming his company and that if Amazon came along and offered him 80 million dollars he would take it. (Sam Shank probably wouldn’t.)


#73 Adam Grant

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????James Altucher interviewed Adam Grant (@AdamMGrant) about giving, taking, and five minute favors. At first Altucher says he was reluctant to have Grant on because he said ‘yes’ and James was writing a book about ‘no.’ Add in that Grant is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and subtract Altucher’s feelings for academia. Despite his hesitations, Altucher read (and liked) Grant’s Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success.

 The premise of Grant’s book is that people who give in the right way succeed more often than those who take, match, or people who give in the wrong way. Wrong giving would be making copies, writing simple computer code, or running an unnecessary meaning. These givers typically go wrong in three ways; being too trusting, being too empathetic, and being too timid. Matchers don’t succeed because they never reach out to extend their network and takers don’t succeed because they want credit for work done rather than improving their work. In his book Grant lays out the spectrum and provides compelling examples for each thing.

The interview begins with Altucher asking Grant about how he’s continued to be a giver since the book came out. Specifically, Grant says he’s had to change his system for dealing with emails, drawing the line when it starts to compromise your own goals and values. This meant  he had to set some boundaries. His post-book schema included a ranking system for the people in his life; family, students, colleagues, everyone else. This is an example of system thinking, where Grant doesn’t have to decide an items importance, rather who it’s coming from.

Scott Adams is a big fan of system thinking and tells a story about, his first plane ride west. He was heading off to being his career when he met a CEO who offered this career advice:

He said that every time he got a new job, he immediately started looking for a better one. For him, job seeking was not something one did when necessary. It was an ongoing process. This makes perfect sense if you do the math. Chances are the best job for you won’t become available at precisely the time you declare yourself ready.

For Adams this built a system of thinking about working, Grant learned a system for prioritizing emails. I would wager that Grant has eschewed a goal like Inbox Zero in favor of the system.

 In the interview Altucher asks what it means to be on the giving spectrum. Grant says;

“We have the takers who are always trying to get things from others, they don’t want to give back unless they have to…on the other end of the spectrum we have giver who are not volunteers or philanthropists, but who just enjoy helping others.” A final group is the matchers who operate “quid pro quo.”

It sounds good to be a taker in the same way it sounds good to make sure you always eat first at the family reunion. The first few times will be fine but soon people will resent you for eating all the potato salad. Professionally Grant says that takers who are competent can be threats to other people and will be treated like one.

Altucher says he tries to not be taken too often, but that’s been happening for 2,000 years. Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote:

In the ring, our opponents can gouge us with their nails or butt us with their heads and leave a bruise, but we don’t denounce them for it or get upset with them or regard them from then on as violent types. We just keep an eye on them after that. Not out of hatred or suspicions. Just keeping a friendly distance.

 Grant suggests we oscillate between each place and our trends determine what type we are. Being an exclusive giver isn’t without it’s problems though. Grant says, “that’s dangerous, it’s a great recipe for burnout or just getting burned by takers.” In these cases Grant suggest acting more like a matcher, with a bit of giving sprinkled in. Matching can also act as a filter if there is too much taking going on because it upends the balance of giving and taking.

Past guest Carol Leifer used this matching strategy with Altucher, who reviewed her book and so she came on his podcast. This sort of matching jives with her book where she writes that she’s been burned too many friends of friends. She’ll be asked to vouch for someone who turns out to be a dud and so now she’s more reserved with initial giving. Leifer’s matching strategy is one that Grant suggests in the book, to be a focused and cautious giver.

Grant has found that givers are both the most and least successful. “It comes down to being thoughtful about who you help, how you help, and when you help.” Giving the right way means:

  • Successful givers are cautious with takers.
  • Successful givers help in specialized ways. This means you’re helping in a way that excites you and get the reputations that you have a certain kind of expertise.
  • Successful givers take care of their own work first and have separate windows of time to help other people.

Taking care of your own business should be the first priority of givers. Scott Adams writes that selfish generosity is the best kind. “If you do selfishness right, you automatically become a net benefit to society. Successful people generally don’t burden the world. Corporate raiders, overpaid CEOs, and tyrannical dictators are the exceptions.” Grant uses different language but comes to the same conclusion, first do your own work well, that alone will be helpful.

Take the example of Cate Cole, who Grant brings up as an example of the right kind of giver. Cole started out as a waitress at Hooters and now runs Cinnabon. Another example of the right kind of selfish is Trina Barkouras, a recent Shark Tank entrepreneur. Her pitch is worth watching.

Grant discovered the idea of giving while at a youth diving camp. He tells Altucher that couldn’t help not helping a competitor get better, giving him tips as he watched. That other diver ended up performing better than Grant at a later competition but that didn’t matter because Grant chose his values over his goals. He tells Altucher, “There are lots of ways that we can help others that cost very little.”

One of those small cost areas is the idea of t five minute favors that Grant learned from Adam Rifkin, one of the most connected people on LinkedIn.

Altucher proposes that the beat writers of the 1950’s was a pocket of givers. Grant adds that the same is true of the author community, “when I was starting out I reached out to a number of people that I hardly knew and some people that I didn’t know at all.” Grant felt like a huge taker at first, but found that most successful authors were happy to pay it forward. Not only that, but if you ask a giver to give – they like it. Asking was hard at first for Grant but he tells Altucher, “There is a huge difference between taking and receiving.” The former is something selfish but the latter is in service of something bigger, an idea or others.

One key part of Grant’s book is the idea that our networks are composed of strong and weak ties. He tells Altucher, “strong ties are the people we know well and trust, weak ties are more like acquaintances.” Grant found that weak ties help more, and this was dissonant at first. Peeling back the layers Grant found that strong ties are too incestuous, whereas weak ties are more broad. Your circle is probably homogeneous in skills, connections, and values. If you want to move away from that you need a connection that takes you in that direction. Those people are your weak ties.

Pixar Animation Studios Atrium
Pixar Atrium

Grant’s book includes ideas beyond giving and taking, including how collaborating works best.  In the interview he tells the story of an automotive company that became more innovative when they connected employees with a common goal and got out of the way. This happened at Pixar too, where Steve Jobs wanted bathrooms only in the building’s atrium. Jobs thought was that if people were always walking past each other then they would be able to connect and create more. His plan got toppled when a pregnant employee made the case that she couldn’t make the 15 minute walk. Jobs compromised with a single cafeteria.

The interview with Grant is a nice sampling of his book, but do dive into that if you want more about how to give the right way and the benefits it brings. Grant writes about being vulnerable, how to be better motivated, and how to cultivate givers. He uses a nice blend of stories and research throughout.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. Each one of these posts takes 3-5 hours to write and your support is appreciated. Thank you to all those who have already given and if you would like to do so, you can do so here.


BONUS: Mid-December Ask Altucher Summary

This is a test post to see if there is interest in the Ask Altucher posts. If you like this please let me know.

#166 Do You Believe in Intuition?

James is having a great time with his Airbnb rental in Miami when he compares human chess to computer chess and says that intuition is more like a subconscious compiling of our experience. In business James says “what makes or breaks you is the type of people you associate with.” With experience we start to find the good people and the not so good ones, but this isn’t easy. He references his interview with Peter Thiel and notes that the key to success is solving difficult problems.

After a meeting James will consider a worse-case scenario for each person he deals with. See also “pre-mortem.”

James suggests that we can develop our intuition by reading books, Claudia says that journaling has helped her. (Have you tried a decision journal?)

#167 How Long Should You Date Before Having Sex?

This question is from a woman who “needs to know soon.”

“Don’t be afraid to have three months of dating.” James and Claudia both suggest on focusing on the big stuff – one of which is sex but to remember it’s not the only thing.

#168 How Do You Get That Final 1% Finished?

James is moving to Florida and looking to hold meetups. The question about finishing comes from an engineer who gets 99% of a project done, but can’t seem to finish. What can he do?

James says he can “totally relate” and one way he finished a book was to hire an editor to do that last bit. Another tip is to clean up the whole area around you. A tip that happiness author Gretchen Rubin believes in too. Second, list what good your project will do. Third, imagine you’ve already accomplished the project and focus on how good that feels.

In this episode James shares his current reading list:

#169 The Key to Success in Life

Claudia is cooking mashed cauliflower and James wonders what happens if they add avocado. Ugh.

James shares his key to success; “the key to success in life is what you do in the morning.” Forget about staying up late the night before because if you feel crappy the next morning, you’ll feel crappy all day. Altucher sets up his day the night before; limiting his screen time, eating right, and going to sleep early.

James takes a moment to be grateful and visualize what he wants to happen that day. A technique called priming that Tony Robbins said on the Bryan Koppelman podcast. He finds even the smallest things to be grateful for, something Dr. Wayne Dyer says we can all find just in being alive.

Claudia asks James about feeling guilty about eating when so many people don’t and he tells her that no he doesn’t because what would that solve. Scott Adams calls this the right selfishness, that by taking care of yourself first you can take care of others. Flight attendants call this, putting on your own mask first.

James said that everything he does is based on staying healthy, mediation, exercise, and reading.

After two hours, James will spend a few hours of writing (starting with his idea list). “Those moments from 5-10am that sets the day for success.”

For more morning rituals check out Daily Rituals.

#170 What’s The Best Way to Crowdfund?

Claudia shares a few crowdfunding things she’s followed and they call Clay Hebert about crowdfunding.

Clay says he sees a difference between artists and entrepreneurs where the latter feel odd about asking for money. Alex Blumberg said this idea is true for the public radio world too. It may be changing though. The Frontline documentary Generation Like shares that kids don’t know what the word “sell out” means and that the expectation is to sell out. Their idea is to build stuff for free and then get a sponsor or product to promote. They are comfortable with what Amanda Palmer calls The Art of Asking.

For crowdfunding, Clay has a few suggestions:

  • Ask for as little money as you need. The Coolest Cooler failed when they asked for a lot, when they dropped their minimum though they became the biggest Kickstarter in history.
  • The press needs a hook, crushing your goal becomes that hook.
  • But that press needs to be focused and niche or big to act as a testimonial. (See his page above for an example)
  • Nobody wants a digital high five, instead make a valuable first level reward.
  • Tell a good story in a video; “address the problem you are solving in the first ten seconds.”
  • Think about the first ten people that will buy your product. Also, read 1,000 True Fans.
  • Market your product (get a landing page) before running crowdfunding.

#70 Alex Blumberg

James Altucher interviewed Alex Blumberg (@abexlumberg) to talk about his podcast StartUp, his startup Gimlet Media, and media’s changes. If you are interested in the story, as it happens, Blumberg will tell you the story. Histories have biases that weigh in on all things that travel through time. The StartUp is the show with less of them.

The pair start by talking about how Altucher binge watched StartUp and it’s a good demonstration about how media has changed. You can’t actually watch Blumberg’s podcast, but it comes through Altucher’s TV. There is no appointment viewing, things need to be evergreen. It’s a podcast, something that didn’t exist like this a decade ago. Even my daughters who are growing up in a cable free house view commercials as mini-episodes. The times they are a changing.

The reasons for Blumberg as the interviewee rather than interviewer is that he’s started a company, telling Altucher that “podcasting is having a moment.” His experience with podcasting couldn’t be much stronger, and he says, “this skill that I’ve worked and slaved for now has value.” He produced This American Life and co-hosted Planet Money. He’s won awards for his work and tells Altucher that this is a rare opportunity for him. He’s one of the few people in the world with a set of specific skills he can capitalize on.

Shane Snow might suggest that Blumberg is taking a Smartcut, and writes:

“Conventional thinking leads talented and driven people to believe that if they simply work hard , luck will eventually strike. That’s like saying if a surfer treads water in the same spot for long enough, a wave will come; it certainly happens to some people, once in a while, but it’s not the most effective strategy for success. Paradoxically, it’s actually a lazier move.”

Blumberg might have stayed at NPR, won more awards, and gotten a similar job to the one he has now. Maybe.

Instead Blumberg is the podcasting version of Bryan Mills.setofskills

Another line on Blumberg’s resume is his role producing This American Life for TV. About that he tells Altucher, “(it is) such a gigantic pain in the ass to make TV.” Blumberg says that the crew thought because they were good at telling stories on the radio, they would be good at telling stories on TV. Not so, they found out that it was a different form of delivery, radio was about what happened, TV about what was happening. The same idea is shared by comedians that Altucher has interviewed; about writing stand-up and writing for a TV show Carol Leifer said “they are two different animals.”  Ditto for Dave Berg who said Leno’s monologues and stand-up were two different styles of jokes.

In Blumberg’s podcast you hear all the good and bad (that they deem as good for radio) and it shows Blumberg’s awkwardness. This is a testament to how hard starting a business is. He’s one of the most polished, awarded, and successful people on radio that tells stories and in some episodes he comes off sounding juvenile. One of which was episode 3, “How to Divide an Imaginary Pie” where he wonders about finding a partner. It sounds like the last period of junior high where boy likes girl. But maybe it is, Altucher tells him that there are “no rules” in doing this.

Finding a partner and giving up equity in his business seems like a bad idea and Blumberg didn’t want to, but in the end it was easy to divide a company that was only that in name. The value was his idea plus his experience, he was like a cook without a restaurant. While no one could make ratatouille like him, he knew almost nothing about getting a building, hiring staff, and running the books.

In an episode of Shark Tank, Kevin O’Leary gives advice that may have helped:

“You know, when I was in the basement back in the late ’80s starting The Learning Company, after I’d get a $12 million order for “Reader Rabbit,” it would blow up behind me, the logistics. I couldn’t deliver. I met a guy named Mike Perik. I gave him half my equity to solve my problem. We sold the company for $4.2 billion five years later. Best investment I ever made.”

Other sharks from the show and even Altucher have said that giving up equity for someone to be invested in time and money can often be a good thing.

In episode 1 of StartUp, Blumberg is asked about his unfair advantage and says the advantage is him. Mr. O’Leary from Shark Tank wouldn’t like this answer (wondering what would happen to his investment if a bus hit Blumberg tomorrow). Blumberg is talented, but not alone. Later in the episode he mentions that Serial is being run by three of the best and smartest people in radio and Roman Mars has a nice show in 99 Percent Invisible. Even podcast networks aren’t new. He’s closer to someone who climbed Mount Everest, very talented but not the only one.

The pair talk about how podcasts make money and Blumberg says that Mailchimp paid $6,000 to sponsor an episode. Altucher mentions that he knows Freakonomics and Entrepreneur on Fire are profitable podcasts.

Talking about money though sours some of his former colleagues Blumberg says, but explains that in his move from public radio to startup he’s seen the degrees of for profit. “Since I’ve entered the for profit world, every single actor in that world is driven by profit to varying degrees.”

About becoming profitable Altucher says, “Once you start making revenues you have more than one thing to do.”

The pair talk about podcast models and Blumberg says that the best are the most heavily produced. He tells Altucher that he probably has 50 hours of audio for the 3 hours of show they’ve made so far. On Quora a produce of Survivor says they capture 2,000 hours (84 days playing nonstop) of footage for the 15 hours in a season.

Blumberg tells Altucher that everything is exciting and terrifying at the same time. Carol Leifer would probably tell him that this is good. She told James that “you shouldn’t be relaxed” doing stand-up. She also said that if you aren’t failing then you aren’t moving forward enough, and Blumberg got a chance to do that. On episode 9 his podcast company made a mistake of collecting an interview for an advertisement but not making it clear. It’s an example of the awkward, unsteadiness in his journey.

Altucher asks him about getting all his work done and Blumberg says that because of certain boundaries he just can’t. “My kids don’t give a shit about email” Blumberg says and he doesn’t worry about constantly working because he can’t.

We all need more time, But constraints help us focus, On the biggest stuff.

The haiku is one of the pinnacles of poetry because the constraints.

Their interview wraps up for Blumberg telling Altucher that each problem he solves is like building a problem solving muscle and that his muscle has gotten stronger.

If you like these posts let’s connect on Twitter, @MikeDariano. If you are a regular reader and would like to donate you can do that here.


#18 Ryan Holiday

James Altucher interviewed Ryan Holiday (@RyanHoliday) to talk about his book, The Obstacle is The Way and about the application of stoicism to our lives. Stoic thinking is like a lever on a fulcrum, helping us lift any obstacle out of our way. I’m a subscriber to stoic thought and enjoyed Holiday’s book, so consider my bias in these notes.

At the start of the interview Altucher and Holiday head off together, like a three-legged-race team at the picnic of starting businesses. Holiday comments that things don’t need to be perfect to start a business and that they rarely are. His book lists ones started in depressions or downturns; Coors, Costco, GM, United Airlines, Microsoft and many more. Altucher agrees and Holiday says that a crisis are beneficial because they “force us to do things we wouldn’t have done.”

A crisis also provides moments to move forward, moments of challenge. Shane Snow a past guest – writes that we need challenges, not matter the size, to make our lives meaningful. Snow uses the examples of the first men to walk on the surface of the moon. Buzz Aldrin struggled upon returning to earth while John Glenn succeeded. To Snow this means that the former didn’t find new obstacles. Aldrin didn’t answer the question of what you do after walking on the moon as well as some of his compatriots.

The stoics suggest that while having obstacles is important, immediately conquering them is not.  One of the most famous stoics, Marcus Aurelius wrote, “don’t go expecting Plato’s Republic; be satisfied with even the smallest progress.” Even finding your life’s goal may not be that. Carol Leifer told Altucher about the time that Jerry Seinfeld reminded her that a current success was only one of many. She may have been in her current dream job, but that doesn’t mean another dream job isn’t around the corner.

Holiday tells Altucher that stoicism is an attitude about not being put out of shape if things don’t go our way and he wrote the book to correct that. Some of those attitudes that Altucher suggests are unemployment, debt, and stagnation.

 “This is what successful people do. Period. They don’t get impeded by things, in fact, when bad things happen they get better.” – Ryan Holiday

Another stoic – they are everywhere once you start looking – and favorite talisman here, is Nassim Taleb. Stoic thinking is antifragile because it separates the what happened from the how I react to it. A fragile mindset is one that gets more fragile as the winds of change blow. It’s losing control and yelling about rain at a picnic. The antifragile, and stoic perspective, is to see that rain as a chance to do things in the rain.

Our family faced this “rainy picnic” on a recent trip where we had two hours until our flight boarded. This would have been fine for me, I could do some reading, but our six and four year old daughters weren’t going to sit still. Instead the three of us explored the airport together, and it was fun. I saw the time as chance to explore with my daughters rather than them nagging and me answering “no that’s not our plane.”  To get to this point, Holiday writes we should examine how to look at a problem. “We will see things simply and straightforwardly, as they truly are— neither good nor bad. This will be an incredible advantage for us in the fight against obstacles.”

Another stoic story – everywhere I told you – is from Malcolm Gladwell, who wrote an entire book about this idea of seeing things straightforwardly. One puzzle Gladwell tries to piece together is why some dyslexics are successful. Gladwell suggests that the obstacle (a problem with reading words) forced these people to get good at other things (like reading people, learning learning shortcuts, and more). He topples the idea that I can’t read so I can’t learn like a metaphorical Goliath.

Returning to the interview, Holiday says, that even random bad things are a chance for us to get used to a world where bad things happen. Altucher agrees and tells Holiday that he must have done incredible research for the book. Holiday reads a lot and shares the books he reads on email list. If you like to read check it out.

About the bad things, we can often extract some bit of learning for the future. Holiday says that minor obstacles can be practice for bigger ones and it’s an idea that Alex Blumberg has shown. Blumberg – a past guest – told Altucher that he’s had to be “stupidly optimistic” and when pressed about how he solves problems he says he doesn’t know. One recent example is when his podcast team misled a mother and her son about their interview. Mother and son thought they were doing an interview for This American Life, but really they were in an advertisement for Squarespace. The imbroglio ended up teaching Blumberg a lesson and he got a podcast episode out of it. By moving forward, overcoming each thing through a combination of grit, experience, and time Blumberg acted stoically.

Sometimes stoicism gets a bad rap as being something unemotional, indifferent and fatalistic. Stoics consider the bad things to help appreciate the good, and as Holiday points out in the interview with James, this is a good idea.

In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explains the pre-mortem. “Imagine that we are a year into the future. We implemented the plan as it now exists. The outcome was a disaster. Please take 5 to 10 minutes to write a brief history of that disaster.” In the book he writes about sharing this idea at Davos and one CEO of a major company said this idea alone was worth the trip.

Altucher sums up stoicism as being a realist/optimist philosophy. Another way to say it is finding the good in everything. Even loss, Holiday says, can be freeing. He tells Altucher that he worries about losing clients but when that actually happens he feels better. Holiday says, “our attitudes and our intentions they can never be stopped, they can only be rerouted.” A river may get dammed up and stop flowing in one area, but that doesn’t mean the water stops. As any building owner with a basement can attest, water will not be stopped. Holiday suggests that neither can our intentions.

The interview continues to move through many other examples about things that appear bad on the surface but are quite good in the long run. About this Marcus Aurelius wrote, “And when we describe things as ‘taking place,’ we’re talking like builders, who say that blocks in a wall or a pyramid ‘take their place’ in the structure, and fit together in a harmonious pattern.” At the moment of each event will have trouble imagining how all the past and future pieces will fit together. Looking back though how many people say they wouldn’t change a thing? How many high school heartbreaks would we change?

One of Holidays many examples is the tribulations of Abraham Lincoln, but he’s not the only one to focus on our presidents. Another guest – Daniel O’Brien – tells Altucher that many presidents persisted through troubles to succeed politically. Having an easy road is the exception, not the rule.

To act with a philosophy is like choosing our own governance. Epictetus taught that “each human being is primarily a citizen of his own commonwealth.” Marcus Aurelius says it slightly differently, “Lift me up and hurl me. Wherever you will. My spirit will be gracious to me there – gracious and satisfied – as long as its existence and actions match its nature.” Both stoics knew that our spirit is the only thing we control entirely and it will serve us well wherever we are.

The stoics most often cited are from a wide range of history. Marcus Aurelius was emperor of Rome, Seneca was a successful businessman, Epictetus a slave. Each found a way to apply the lever of stoic thinking to their own set of problems. Holiday says that Aurelius had “difficulties of abundance.” We may think that money solves our problems but if you had Kim Kardashians money, would you take her life as well? Holiday guesses that if he were 10X more successful he wouldn’t be any happier. Happiness is non-linear, or as Taleb might say in Brooklyn English “Two weekends in Philadelphia are not twice as pleasant as a single one – I’ve tried.”

The interview concludes with Holiday giving advice about how to react to crappy people. If people are rude to us, we can see that as a situation where they underestimate us. Marcus Aurelius takes the less practical, more philosophical tinge to ask who is hurt when someone insults you. Rather than the insult, consider the type of person who might say that. His logical conclusion is that if a person chooses to insult you, is that a person who’s opinion you should consider?

Altucher asks if Holiday practices stoic thinking consistently to which he responds, “I practice it in my life but I am admittedly not anywhere near as good as it as I’d like to be.”

As the introduction noted, I’m a big fan of stoic thinking. Here are suggestions for further reading:

This version of Meditations (and suggested by Holiday) is my favorite book of all (one of Bill Clinton’s too). It is very accessible. These books from Epictetus are a bit more style than substance, this book from Seneca is more substance than style.

Holiday’s own book, The Obstacle is The Way is also very good, just not an original source. A Guide to the Good Life is another good, non-original source.

If you want more general examples of “the obstacle is the way” mentality read both Gladwell’s David and Goliath and Megan McArdle’s The Up Side of Down.

I always like talking about stoicism and these posts..  Connect via text (559) 464-5393, in the comments, or on Twitter (@MikeDariano).

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#66 Carol Leifer

James Altucher interviewed Carol Leifer (@CarolLeifer) to talk about writing, being funny, and that our dream job isn’t the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

Before the interview I had never heard of Leifer, and after looking up her IMDB profile realized that I had heard of her work. Her writing credits include; The Emmy Awards, Modern Family, The Ellen Show, The Larry Sanders Show, Seinfeld, and Saturday Night Live among many others.

At the start of the interview Altucher and Leifer talk about the “sweet spot of nervousness” and Leifer says, “I’m always anxious whenever I do a show. I think it’s good. I think it’s part of the process.  You should be a little scared. You’re going on TV in front of billions of people. You shouldn’t be relaxed.”  She tells Altucher that she ends up with a good mix of nerves and excitement.

Here is Leifer, seemingly quite calm, in a 1989 interview with Letterman (26:45):

Leifer is talking with Altucher to promote her book, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Crying.  In the interview she tells James that, “you should be failing in your career because everybody fails and if you’re not failing then you’re not doing something right. Because it’s through these failures that you really get better.”

Past guest Shane Snow has similar things to say in his book, Smartcuts, even using another comedian as an example. Snow writes, “In his depression as a failing comic,(Louis) C.K. turned to his childhood comic icon, George Carlin. He resolved to tick like Carlin ticked. So he started to mimic Carlin’s process, memorize the details of his life. He soaked in Carlin’s style of telling raw, honest stories about himself— jokes that exposed Carlin’s human vulnerabilities— and began telling similarly vulnerable jokes about himself. When C.K.’ s long-distance connection with Carlin became more than mimicry, it transformed him. And that’s when his career finally took off.”

For C.K. it took failing in one vein of comedy to find success in another. Scott Adams wrote an entire book about “failing at almost everything.” The right failure seems to move us forward.

Leifer’s career had the right failures because her circle of comedians was a who’s who of comedy. Even in the interview she says that part of her success in writing was being around funny writers. Snow would suggest that Leifer saw the causes of other comedians failures and learned from them.

Leifer tells a story about an interview for The Larry Sanders Show, where after some back and forth and being strung along she was told she didn’t get the job. Rather than hold a grudge she kept working and chose not to have “an attitude about it.” Later she ran into Gary Shandling and it turns out the person they had hired, hadn’t worked out and he offered her the job. She tells Altucher that if she had whined and complained, they probably wouldn’t have wanted to hire her and that “bringing her A game” was the best thing to do.

Prior to working with Shandling, Leifer wrote on Seinfeld and tells Altucher that the process was pretty clear for pitching to Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld. “All the writers were anxious when they had to pitch to Larry and Jerry. It wasn’t easy. You could tell quickly if they loved an idea or if they didn’t respond to it. But I, like every writer there, got a lay of the land, of what to do when you pitched. It wasn’t too much bullshitting up front, it was kind of getting to it.”

At the time, David and Seinfeld were looking for people who hadn’t written on sitcoms before and Leifer fit that role (this was circa 1993). She tells Altucher  that writing jokes for stand-up and sitcoms are “two different animals…writing stand-up doesn’t really translate to writing for a TV show.” Leifer isn’t the only way to express this. Stand-up comedians churn through jokes, Joan Rivers said on NPR that she collected thousands to hope that one would work. Dave Berg, who worked with Jay Leno, said that Leno went through 1,500 jokes a day. Louis C.K. and George Carlin told stories. Simon Rich writes books based on biblical themes and eternal stories. For a single idea, comedy and its creation is quite nuanced.

One theme of Leifer’s business success is giving and reciprocating to others. She tells Altucher that because he reviewed her book on Amazon, she came on his show. She says that this attitude was picked up from Jay Leno, “for every person that he (Leno) gives an autograph to, it’s really not just one person he made a fan of, it’s kind of ten people. That person will go back and tell people ten people that – wow, Jay Leno was really nice.”  Adam Grant takes the business angle on this idea and suggests that these connections, the ten additional people that Leno and Leifer are kind to, are some of the best connections we can make. Grant proposes that it’s not the strong, intimate connections we call on, because those people have a many resources that overlap ours. Rather it’s the wide net of diverse people that can help us the most.

Though short, the interview between Altucher and Leifer was wonderful. On a per minute basis it was one of the best ones.

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#68 Dave Asprey

James Altucher interviews Dave Asprey (@BulletProofExec) to talk about what makes someone bulletproof (metaphorically) and the process for that knowledge (literally).

The interview begins as Asprey tells Altucher about his struggles with weight. Dave weighed over 300 pounds and after surgery on his knee, decided that things had to change. Asprey began his attempts to hack himself, spending 15 years (and $300,000) he’s figured out enough to share it in this interview and his new book, The Bulletproof Diet

In the process of getting healthy, Dave was finding conventional wisdom wasn’t working. he was working out but not dropping weight. He was eating better but felt like “brain was crumbling.” He tells James, “I was in a meeting and I just wouldn’t remember anything. I became addicted to my notepad. There were times when people would ask me questions, things I knew that I should know and I just didn’t remember.”  He began going to anti-aging meetings and keeping a food journal and it was here that Dave discovered that the foods he ate mattered, a lot. 

For Asprey, and many other recent food writers, a lot of what they say goes against the Standard American Diet (SAD). Besides Dave there is Marc Sisson at Primal Blueprint, Tim Ferriss championing his slow carb diet, and Melissa and Dallas Hartwig at The Whole30. Each of these people attacks the bedrock of the food pyramid with a jackhammer, crumbling away the idea that 10 servings of grains each day is required. 

One of Asprey’s moments of clarity was meeting with a physician and asking his opinion about Linus Pauling. His doctor had never heard of Pauling. The good people at Nature have, writing, “Pauling not only helped to lay the foundation of modern chemistry, biochemistry and molecular biology, he also erected much of the edifice” and was awarded – among other things – the Nobel Prize for Chemistry. Asprey was interested in why someone so intelligent would take so much Vitamin C. Pauling takes 18,000 milligrams of Vitamin C a day, the recommended amount for a healthy adult is about 90.

Before you rush out and start eating oranges peel and all, consider what psychologist call the Halo Effect. It is our tendency to view positive traits in one area cause us to feel more positive about other areas. A smoker may rationalize that because Barack Obama is intelligent and because he smokes, that smoking is a good decision.

Taking his health into his own hands, in both the figurative and literal sense, Dave began to experiment. His all vegan diet was great for the first few months but then he began getting more food allergies and more colds. Pig whipworm eggs can help regulate the immune system but Dave found, “I didn’t get any benefit from doing it.” At this point in my first listen I thought Dave has ventured a bit too far, but in writing this article it seems like whipworms aren’t that odd after all. An article at suggests that parasitic worms in the gastrointestinal tract prevents infection in less developed countries. Dave has also tested effects on mold and is releasing a documentary about it.

For all these ideas; vitamin C, parasites, meat, raw, and mold, Dave tests everything, and suggests that people do too. About his new book he says that people can “get rid of all the crap, see how you feel, and go oh, this is how I’m supposed to feel. Well let me add stuff back in, all the suspect foods as we call them on the roadmap, and then you can test it.”

The idea of testing and experimentation can be applied not only to your diet, but at work and with your family. On an organization level, Jeff Sutherland suggests that scrum style work can bring twice the results in half the time. Within a scrum there is a weekly recap about what went well, and why, and how to fix whatever didn’t work. In her studies with Boston Consulting Group, Leslie Perlow writes that a weekly review for each team led to better results for the client and happier employees. Bruce Feiler has written that the same thing works for families. From Monday mornings to Saturday dinners, everything is up for experimentation to find The Secrets of Happy Families

James mentions that he’s been drinking bulletproof coffee which “was like lightning hitting the house”  and helped him write 170 pages and edit 150 in a single weekend. It’s also helped him to feel full longer to which Dave replies, “it’s it liberating to just not be thinking about food all day long.” 

Most of the interview between Dave, James, and Claudia (Altucher’s wife) revolves around how each product Dave sells can solve something. From GABAwave to Brain Octane Oil to Unfair Advantage, for Asprey it’s all about the chemical combinations. Through the interview Altucher tries to get to the best foods, but rather than tell Claudia what might be a good replacement for her cookie craving, he suggests the Brain Octane Oil. 

Asprey doesn’t give many suggestions for what to eat, so here’s one from Seth Godin, for the best kale salad you’ve ever had. Godin says to soak raw cashews in hot water for two hours, and then blend the nuts with olive oil, rice vinegar, and garlic. Then take a mixer and beat the dressing and kale together. Toss with sunflower seeds and cranberries. Try it with a side of guacamole to which Asprey says, “there’s no reason you can’t eat with a spoon.”

The trio also talk about good sleep, which Asprey say he uses dark out shades, Flux software, and of course a mat he’s made and you can buy.

There is a bit of discussion about what it means for a good life and Dave says he’s not looking for fifty million dollars, just “to live really well.” It turns out that this idea is measured by the World Health Organization as HALE (Healthy Life Expectancy). How long you live minus any time due to disease or injury. The American male can expect to live 76 years, 8 of which are “lost” years. The American female can expect 81 years and lose 10. 

In the end I’m skeptical of what Asprey says. It’s too neat for me. Some ideas sound good and make sense (healthy amounts of melatonin, good vegetables), some ok (maybe less fruit, maybe intestinal eggs for very specific cases), and some are off the rails for me. One of his products is named “Unfair Advantage.”

Altucher loves to find the arbitrage in a situation, and I don’t think Asprey has found one. The major drug companies have more facilities, money, marketing, and intelligence and none of them have a product that compares. It’s the same reason that Nike doesn’t sell athletic footwear for cooks, there’s no added value there. That said, there are unconventional things I do too that make me feel better. I have more energy when I eat fewer grains and processed foods, and conventional wisdom isn’t perfect. Maybe the best advice is what past guest, Mitch Lowe said about what Reed Hastings taught him. “I always thought you needed a clear answer before you made a decision, and the thing that he (Hastings) taught me was that you’ve got to use analytics directionally…and never worry that they aren’t 100% sure.” 

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Update 1/24/15. See this Lifehacker article about the Bulletproof Business


#67 Mitch Lowe

James Altucher interview Mitch Lowe (@MitchLowe) to talk about founding companies, pursuing good (but ill timed ideas), and why working for McDonalds isn’t such a bad thing.

The interview begins with Altucher asking how Netflix got its start and Lowe tells the story that Netflix wasn’t started by Reed Hastings, at least not in the same way Apple was started by Steve Jobs. Jobs was like a force of nature, a black hole, pulling in anyone he wanted. Netflix was more like an asteroid bouncing around, requiring a critical mass before becoming something. For people it needed Lowe, Marc Randolph, and Reed Hastings came together. It also needed the breakthrough of DVD’s, which could be shipped in a first class envelope and DVD players, which was the biggest hurdle at first.

The Netflix team was confident in what they were doing, they just had one problem, not enough people had DVD players. Lowe and the others went to the DVD manufacturers and pointed out that “all consumers saw were VHS everywhere.” The Netflix people proposed that there was move value for the consumers if,  as Lowe says, “no matter where they live, they can get every single title that’s available.”

Netflix ended up having free rental coupons in 95% of all DVD boxes sold in the country. About marketing, Altucher says that even though all companies are different, “every company has its own unique way to market its product” and “often there is a giveaway.”

Ted Leonsis shared the same idea in his interview with Altucher, sharing how AOL came up with the idea to give a disk away that had the AOL software. In the interview Leonsis says, we assumed you had a computer and a modem and you wanted to get online.  We started mailing to your house.  You would get on a plane, and they would give you your peanuts and an AOL disk.  You would go to a game and people would hand out disks.  You’d buy an Omaha steak and the steak would come with the disks.” This was all inspired by a partner Leonsis had who saw the same thing happen with shampoo.

Free samples weren’t the only thing going for Netflix, they also had a strategic alignment. I recently finished the wonderful book, The Fish that Ate the Whale. The book is about Samuel Zemurray, the banana king and his conquest of Guatemala. In the 1940’s Zemurray was faced with a challenge in Guatemala, a new government was elected that wasn’t willing to have the same relationship with him. Kickbacks and bribes were out, power to the people was in. Rather than paying foreign politicians, Zemurray paid a lobbyist to hound domestic ones. The man to do this alignment was Edward Bernays, who shifted the question from one of bananas, to one of communism. Bernay and his agents lobbied, campaigned, and informed anyone who would listen that communism was taking hold in central America. Eventually the CIA got involved, and as where most places the CIA gets involved, murky waters get murkier. The essence though is the same, a small boat rides in the wake of a larger one. Both found more powerful partners that could help pull them along.

Lowe left Netflix in 2003 but tells James he learned 3 key things from Reed Hastings.
  1. To focus. Lowe says, “find that one thing you know you can be absolutely the best at it and drop all the others.” For Netflix this meant abandoning a DVD rental box (like those Redbox rental machines you’ve seen.)  
  2. How to use analytics. Lowe says that Hastings taught him not to look at analytics like a crystal ball but more like a weather forecast. If you can get a general idea from the data, take it. In the interview he tells James that for a time Netflix couldn’t’ pick out its core demographic because of so much noise in the data. Hastings helped Lowe find the trend of the data though and after keying in on this they grew their business even more.
  3. Double down on high performers. Lowe says he learned to cut out the average to low performers and keep the best ones. At Netflix this meant spending less on obscure movies and more on popular ones.
Around the midpoint of the interview Lowe tells Altucher about “Netflix Express” a physical location in Las Vegas that was shuttered before the IPO because Hastings didn’t want investors to think Netflix was going to be a brick and mortar location too.

Lowe eventually left Netflix as a full-time employee but continued to consult for Netflix as he worked more and more with McDonalds before finally leaving the former for the latter fulltime. There he was Senior Director and VP of Operation for two years before becoming CEO of Redbox. Even before Netflix, Lowe had built a vending machine prototype for VHS tapes and only now did he fulfill his vision.

As James and Lowe talk about the current state of Netflix, Lowe says that part of Netflix’s recent success is that they know what people like and how to promote it. About knowing what people like, their first two original shows Orange is the New Black, and House of Cards were created by first sticking their finger in the air to see which way the wind was blowing and then typing out the scripts. In one interview Todd Yellin, VP of product innovation says, “We climb under the hood and get all greasy with algorithms, numbers and vast amounts of data. Getting to know a user, millions of them, and what they play. If they play one title, what did they play after, before, what did they abandon after five minutes?”  House of Cards and Orange is the New Black are based on other works, but only in the same way any original work is deviated. Netflix was in the same seat as Christopher Nolan when he made Batman grittier and darker. 

This data idea is true at the movies as well as who you are at the movies with. In Dataclysm, Christian Rudder writes about a blind date experiment on the site OKCupid. To test it, the engineers temporarily jumbled the site profile pictures and only matched people based on interests and location. Rather than looking at a picture, then the interests, a user got a message saying so-and-so has a lot in common with you and is nearby. With these blind dates people had a good time about 80% of the time, the same figure as when people were looking at photos. Rudder writes, “In short, people appear to be heavily pre selecting online for something that, once they sit down in person, doesn’t seem important to them.” Like a fisherman that can see the ferocity of the ocean, a good data scientist can find all sorts of things about you.

Another conclusion, might be what Steve Jobs once said, “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

The interview ends with Altucher talking with Lowe about, where Lowe had most recently served as CEO. Quarterly is “a subscription service for wonderful things” and some of the curators that Lowe mentions are; Tim Ferriss (who Lowe says is making north of six figures on the site), Pharrell Williams (who gave away a copy of The Alchemist), Nina Garcia, and Andrew Zimmern.

Lowe has an interesting journey and I got the sense from the interview he’s steadily moving forward. Netflix canned his pet project, oh well. Being CEO of Quarterly was temporary, that’s fine. Things that might seem like full stops, periods, ends to others are like commas to Lowe. Even at the end of the interview he says to James, “I’m just kind of exploring. I don’t have anything specific. I realized I want to get back into that business (of how people choose movies) again.”

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#60 Jim Luceno

James Altucher interviewed Jim Luceno to talk Star Wars, writing, and the persistence (and luck) it takes to succeed. I’m a fan of Star Wars, but the pair really get into the Tatooine weeds with some of the things they talk about. If you’re not a fan, it’s still worth a listen because there are some good lessons about writing and persistence, and not until the end do the pair talk all Star Wars.
Star Wars Cantina. Photographed by Colin Kenworthy

Jim is a franchise writer, and becoming one wasn’t easy. Luceno has written over 30 novels and 9 Star Wars books, but had very modest beginnings. His first exposure to Star Wars was going with a friend – Brian Daley –  to see A New Hope. Daley is one of the most popular Star Wars franchise writers, penning the Han Solo Adventures and adapting Star Wars for the radio.

After hearing about his connection to Daley, Altucher mentions that innovative groups inspiring and challenging each other is a thread woven through Walter Isaacson’s The Innovators. I haven’t read that yet, but it was true about the Steve Jobs bio. Jobs could literally stumble into new discoveries because of the number of engineers that lived on his street. For Jobs this was incredibly influential, because these neighbors were the right mix of intelligence and technical know how.

In the book Jobs credits his father for teaching him the master craftsman mindset, sharing a story about asking his dad why they finish cabinets with the same wood on the back and not something cheaper. His father tells him that while the customer may never see it, he would know it was there.  Good groups also came up in Altucher’s interview with Brian Koppelman in their discussion of the Mayfair club, which produced a number of World Series of Poker top ten finishers before the club was shut down.

Luceno began writing when his travels led him to wonder if, “maybe there’s a story in there.” Building an actual career took a long time though, he tells Altucher, that after his first few novels he knew “I was going to have to keep being a carpenter.” During this time he built up his litany of work; writing more novels and then being invited to, and selling his first TV script in the late ‘80’s.  Even during the first few years of writing full time, he never felt like he had left carpentry behind.

Now he no longer worries, but tells James each Star Wars book takes “about a year of work.” In the interview Luceno explains that the procedure is much less structured than I would have thought. In my mind, Luceno would enter a secret vault, deep underground at Skywalker Ranch, where a war room with dozens of employees monitor the master plan. Los Alamos for the Star Wars universe. Not quite. Rather Luceno spends months “thinking and research” and then makes an outline for the people at Lucasfilm (now Disney). There they might make a few minor tweaks or suggestions. It’s quite hands-off.

It’s a similar story to the one Robert Lopez and Kristen Anderson-Lopez tell on NPR’s Fresh Air about writing the music for Frozen.  Robert might seem a bit of an odd choice for Disney’s next musical juggernaut considering that his last writing assignment was for The Book of Mormon, about as a non-Disney collection of songs as you can get. Rather than being strong armed, the pair say they had almost complete freedom, the only constraint was not being able to say god. In the interview Kristen explains a double entendre I had missed.  In an early song when one of the sisters is opening the castle doors to outsiders for the “first time in forever” she sings with joy;

“The window is open, so’s that door.
I didn’t know they did that anymore.
Who knew we owned eight thousand salad plates?
For years I’ve roamed these empty halls.
Why have a ballroom with no balls?
Finally they’re opening up the gates”

Once Luceno completes his research and outline – maybe a few months without writing – he begins. He writes in the afternoon and says that each book is like the first book. “There’s always that period in that first couple of weeks  of writing where I’m going I don’t know how to do this, I can’t remember how to do this. But that’s where the sweat comes in to it you just have to stick with and break through that initial period of uncertainty.”

A common theme to the interview is how much Luceno persisted in his writing career. He started very slowly, gathering his material from his personal travels and not until many years after did he pass the point of not having to worry about returning to carpentry. Luceno defeated what Steven Pressfield calls resistance, and writes, “we’re wrong if we think we’re the only ones struggling with Resistance. Everyone who has a body experiences Resistance.” This is the force that tells you not to do something, that keeps you on the couch rather than writing or running. It’s the force that Luceno squared up to and bullied out of the way so he could write about The Force.

That there is no Star Wars master plan makes sense, as the universe has grown since the 1977 release of the movie. As a Star Wars fan, but not a Fan, there was surprisingly little I knew about the actual Star Wars movie, and what a history it has. United Artists, Walt Disney Pictures, and Universal Pictures all passed on financing the movie, calling it “a little strange.” The written script took a number of major changes. The Wikipedia page gives a complete telling that I couldn’t justly summarize here.

One great things about Star Wars, is the fan works exist, like this video version about the  influences to Star Wars:

If you want to Nerd out a bit more: