#2 Gary Vaynerchuk

jabcoverIn the second interview of the podcast, Gary Vaynerchuk (@garyveejoined James Altucher to talk about marketing, becoming an expert, and the missed opportunity of a hey girl meme with Altucher rather than Ryan Gosling.*

Vaynerchuk is on to talk about his book, Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook: How to Tell Your Story in a Noisy Social World and tells James that “our content must be contextual to the platform we put it on.” Gary’s argument is that we shouldn’t be creating visual content on a textual medium and we can use Twitter and Facebook better. Before addressing some of his key strategies he says, “we’ve all become one person media companies.”

The thinking behind his new book is that we need to give, give, give, before we ask. From his book:

Jabs are the lightweight pieces of content; games, laughs, appreciation. Right hooks are the calls to action.

Amanda Palmer (episode #82) told James that we have to ask in small ways – and be ready for rejection. When it’s time to give though, you give as best you can. Palmer wrote, “I chatted constantly online, and listened to the input and feedback from the fans. If they wanted high-end lithograph posters, I made high-end lithograph posters.” Palmer continues to give, being active on Twitter @AmandaPalmer.

Example, her “ninja gigs” –

Many examples from Jab are from companies but Vaynerchuk wrote the book for everyone to apply, and even though we have fewer resources, we may be better off. In episode #27 Seth Godin told James that when he was the canoeing instructor he had to learn to tell a good story. Godin was competing against sailing and windsurfing instructors who didn’t need to build their skills of storytelling. Their activity sold itself.  Altucher too has said that constraints work to focus his daily idea list, writing on a waiter’s pad leaves only enough room for the key ideas. The writers who have been interviewed apply this idea in a similar way, Ben Mezrich (#84) writes about high stakes, high reward situations. Simon Rich (#83) takes extremes and puts them in familiar situations. Constraints are good.

Apply these ideas to marketing and Vaynerchuk suggests that the different platforms lead to different types of content – and this isn’t new. Take the commercials for food you hear on the radio. It’s no coincidence that those ads run from 11-1 and then again from 4-7. Restaurants have different marketing for radio rather than TV or print and different nudges for different times of day. Vaynerchuk has advice for other places too.

Vaynerchuk on Facebook:

Vaynerchuk tells James that “you can’t use Facebook for constant calls to action.” This is where you can build a conversation with people and give your expertise to them, for free! Ramit Sethi has a private group that I’ve heard great things about because it’s a conversation with people. There’s very little selling (from what i’ve heard, I’m not a member) there but instead a community of people trying to be better.

Vaynerchuk also tells James that you have to have images in your posts. Have. To. In the constant scroll of feeds, it’s images that stand out more than anything else.

Vaynerchuk on Twitter:

The Twitter.com/search url is underused he says. Finding out what the conversation is about and latching on to that is another tool. Hashtags too are something that people can try to latch on to during the “land grab” of the changing landscape. For example, when this post went out, #nerdiersports was trending, breaking down podcast is pretty nerdy so I chimed in.

Another example of trend jacking would be to find a way to hop on the hey girl meme that took off in 2011 and 2012.


Vaynerchuk on Guest Blogging:

“The singular, most fruitful way to build a personal brand or build awareness of what you do.”

Mark Cuban leveraged this in a sense when he wrote articles about routers. Seth Godin also wrote for others.

Vaynerchuk on Reddit:

Gary says that Redditt is a great place to connect with people, noting that the Reddit.com/ama concept is wonderful. James says it was “the number one way I was able to market and move sales of my book.” (James Altucher AMA, Gary Vaynerchuk AMA)

During the interview it seems like Vaynerchuk has win after win, but he tells James this isn’t quite the case. He immigrated from Russia, and the first 18 years of his life were hard. He was an F and D student.

After that he went to work in his parents liquor store and started a number of successful companies; Wine Library and VaynerMedia in addition to investing in Buddy Media, Facebook, and Twitter. Then he failed again, telling James, “the reason I failed is because I had big eyes.” He took on too many projects and lacked the right support from the right people. Gary says that the people he worked with were good people, but not good matches for what he was bringing to the table. Contrast this with the Brian Koppelman (episode #59) and David Levine (episode #85) interviews. They are an example of a good pairing, where one compliments the other and the whole is greater than the sum of their parts.

When the interview turns back to his book, Vaynerchuk says that some of “the case studies are crap.” Noting that it’s often helpful to learn what not to do, as what to do. Nassim Taleb terms this idea via negativa, the absence of something makes something better. The 3 F’s are an example from Dr. David Katz. who writes that fingers (not smoking), feet (not sitting), and forks (not eating crappy foods) can reduce your risk of death from the riskiest causes of death, by 75%.

In the interview James tells Vaynerchuk “I took your Amtrak idea and applied it to my own stuff and it’s fantastic how my engagement quadrupled on one post.” So what is the Amtrak idea? It’s about using your sawdust – your by-product – to create something of value. For Amtrak, it was tweeting out a pair of empty seats, and asking people where they would go and with who. But it didn’t stop there, Vaynerchuk writes that “when one fan suggested Justin Bieber as his preferred seatmate, Amtrak replied with ‘But where would Selena Gomez go?’ With one sentence, Amtrak reveals that is employees are our contemporaries, people just like us, with their fingers on the pop culture pulse, a sense of humor, and real interest in their customers.”

When Vaynerchuk prepared to start writing Jab, he read the negative reviews on Amazon of his other books, Crush It! and The Thank You Economy. In these negative reviews he found what people were looking for, he tells James that “a lot of people said, this is a great book, but this is a why book, I want a how-to.”

The interview ends with Vaynerchuk saying that his next book might be about parenting (or something else that’s new) and he tells James he’s found a good middle ground by balancing extremes. He says that flip flopping didn’t work:

I’d be working and then I’d need to spend more time (at home) and I’d just leave and cancel some meetings and get home at 5:30…but there was no system…it didn’t work… I now work eight a.m. to midnight. I mean I walk into my apartment at midnight…I’m a workaholic…on the flipside my weekends I’m completely all in with my family now, no looking at the phone answering email.

Vaynerchuk has found one of the Secrets of Happy Families, that happy families aren’t accidental. Bruce Feiler wondered if there was something that happy families were doing different, and there were. One untapped medium – that Vaynerchuk would love – is having a family brand. Stephen Covey applied this thinking to what his family is doing, Feiler writes:

One of Covey’s real innovations was applying a similar process to families. He suggested that families create a family mission statement. “The goal,” he wrote, “is to create a clear, compelling vision of what you and your family are all about.” He said the family mission statement was like the flight plan of an airplane. “Good families— even great families— are off track 90 percent of the time,” he wrote. What makes them good is they have a clear destination in mind, and they have a flight plan to get there. As a result, when they face the inevitable turbulence and human error, they keep coming back to their plan. Covey said creating his own family’s statement was the most transforming event in his family’s history.

James gives the book two thumbs up, saying, “This is not a BS book. This works.”

*Did we really miss this? This interview was release on 1/31/2014 but these notes are from January 2015. Some things likely changed in between recording and now. This episode also has a 20 minute rant from James at the start, you can probably skip it.

As always, let me know what I messed up or what you want to see more of – @mikedariano If you want a weekly summary of everything I write, you can find that here.

#54 Gabriel Weinberg

James Altucher interviewed Gabriel Weinberg (@yegg), CEO of DuckDuckGo to talk about privacy, building technology companies, and his book Traction: A Startup Guide to Getting Customers. For the most authentic – and meta – experience, I used DuckDuckGo as my research tool du jour.

The pair begin the interview with some banter about how Weinberg introduces himself at cocktail parties, even though he tries to avoid it. When it does happen he says, “we’re a search engine like Google.” The DuckDuckGo site there are three tenants to the company where they differ from Google, “real privacy, smarter search, and less clutter.” Altucher goes on to dispute the idea that Weinberg’s service is “cleaner” than Google, but Weinberg answers with a fair point that most services are all about design and it’s a preference thing, drawing the analogy to web browser choices.

Pragmatically, DuckDuckGo works differently than Google, hence the different results. Where as Google indexes pages to find later, DuckDuckGo rather looks at your query and qualifies what you’re asking, and then returns the best page results. If you search for a person like, “Stephen King” you get an excerpt from Wikipedia, then a link to StephenKing.com, another Wikipedia link, and then an About.com page. Whereas A search for the movie, “The Shining” returns; Wikipedia, IMDB, and Rotten Tomatoes.


As the interview continues, Weinberg explains a feature of Google search I had never considered:

“One other point.  You mentioned a more nuanced benefit of DuckDuckGo, which is this constant filter bubble, where at Google you know they’re basically showing you links that they think you’re gonna click on but not necessarily the most objective researched links.  And if you’re like you know you’re a democrat or republican, you’re seeing those kind of links and not opposing viewpoints.  I believe that is pernicious, especially in politics, and that is a benefit of DuckDuckGo.  I usually don’t say it ’cause it’s kind of nuance and hard to explain, but since you brought it up, I thought I’d just mention it.”

This was clear to me last Christmas when I kept seeing ads come up for an obscure gift I was researching. How, I wondered, did all these sites have ads for this quirky thing? They didn’t, but they were members of the Google Ad network. I had searched on Google and the ads I saw were specific to that. I had never – naively – considered that my search and browsing were dictating my ads.

It’s not just the specific sites you and I browse, it could be our phone calls too. A Stanford research study found out that they could infer if you were in a relationship, had heart problems, or  wanted to start growing weed in your basement just based on the meta data on your phone. The study authors concluded these things despite not hearing a single piece of conversation.

Back in the interview, Altucher asks Weinberg how he got started in 2007/2008. Weinberg was just coming off a company sale and was building DuckDuckGo piecemeal.

“I had just sold a business and was kind of doing personal projects and did a bunch of projects enhancing Google in ways that I felt Google was lacking, so removing spam, adding these instant answers, and then thought you know what, I could put some of these together and kind of grow my own search engine and see if anyone’s interested.  That was the genesis.”

That genesis has led to DuckDuckGo on the new iPhones.

Weinberg’s book is based on his experiences. As his company grew they found different things moved their stats in different ways. For DuckDuckGo Weinberg said they used; SEO (searching Google for ‘new search engine’), Reddit ads, content marketing, microsites, print, billboards, TV and now enterprise partnerships like the Apple deal. Each of these avenues led to specific company benchmarks.

After the DuckDuckGo birth story, Altucher asks about Names Database and its sale to United Online for about ten million dollars. Weinberg was a co-founder, and he and James make a strong case to never take investors if you can help it. Weinberg mentions a post he wrote about it, Paths to $5M for a startup founder.

The gist of the post is reminding people how values change when you divide by 4 rather than 2. Easy math stuff, but the post was popular, and listed on HN because we like people to tell us obvious things. We know to do more pushups and eat less pizza, but only after hearing a celebrity interview do we get on board.

One sad note, when I searched DuckDuckGo for “the path to five million dollars weinberg” I couldn’t find the link it in the first thirty results. On Google it was number two.

Back in the interview Altucher adds, “I don’t want to say you can start any business, but look, if you can start a business that has a million dollars in EBITDA, you could sell it and make a lot of money for an individual person who’s never had money before.”

This being the second interview that mentions it, I had to DuckDuckGo EBITDA. It stands for, earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization. Without harkening back to your college accounting textbook (I don’t have mine anymore), that figure serves as a proxy for how profitable a company is based on its current working assets. Apple has an EBITA of 10.38, Walmart one of 8.27, and Macy’s one of 6.90.  Each introductory article about it also warned that it can dress up an ugly financial bride.

Throughout the interview Altucher brings the conversation back to the DuckDuckGo policy on privacy, and Weinberg says that they do that and more; but he never makes a solid case for me about what else DuckDuckGo does well. One differentiator is that don’t develop anything but better search. Weinberg says they have 20 people and they focus “almost zero” on their own advertising. Another tactic is their pursuit of the open source framework of DuckDuckGo’s instant answer service. About it Weinberg says;

“we’re hoping to have you know thousands of people out there working on an open source platform developing these answers, and that’s why it’s all open source.  So any user can suggest you know an instant-answer source or idea.  You know it could be money related, some better stock source.  And then you know you could develop it; someone else can come along and development it.”

Toward the end of the interview Weinberg gives some good advice about how he figures out the “inflection points” for DuckDuckGo, and acts accordingly to those markers. Deciding if your primary goal is to get traction or be profitable will lead to the metrics that dictate your actions. In the case of DuckDuckGo that meant first getting the service running well enough that people could switch to it, then it was getting to 100 million searches each month, and now it’s the pursuit of 1% of all searches. Each step leads down chosen path.

Altucher then asks how someone can tell if they should give up, what if they have a path but arriving at each inflection point is taking a lot longer than they hoped. Weinberg first suggests looking for any “bright spots.” This idea has been most popularly explained by Kevin Kelly’s article on 1,000 true fans (even Seth Godin linked to it!) where he writes;

“A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name.”

One tip from Weinberg’s book is guest posting, and both agree that is a great way to build traction for your business. Another is to build and show your expertise through blogging like Bryan Johnson from Braintree. Altucher shares that he has a friend that’s used educational blogging successfully for SMS marketing, and this has been Pat Flynn’s system from the beginning.

A third tip is to use the underutilized area of e-mail marketing. Tim Ferriss, Tim-freakin’-online-self-promotion-experimentation-king-Ferriss, has just started email marketing. Check out his interview with Ramit Sethi for a great breakdown on the what and why.

The remainder of the interview between Altucher and Weinberg is about his book, Traction.

Researching note: The search experience on DuckDuckGo was overall slower and not quite as helpful as Google. I have a pair of theories. The first is that I already basically know where I want to go. For many searchers I’m looking for the Wikipedia article and they do come faster with Google. Other times I need something from my history. The second theory as to why DuckDuckGo didn’t do anything for me was how unfamiliar I was with the experience. It looked and felt different and that slowed me down. Not much, but enough that I noted.

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#27 Seth Godin


Seth Godin joined James Altucher to talk about how he got started telling stories, the power of placebos, and the only two things we should teach kids in school.

James begins the interview by talking about book sales with Godin, telling him that it took all of 1,800 copies to get on the New York Times list. Godin says that’s nice, but for him metrics don’t matter so much as the impact of his books. This is something he echoes in his second interview with James #86, telling him, “I want to be judged by what people who learned from me, teach other people.”

Metrics and media can be trick because they can be warped, like a funhouse mirror distorts what you look like, so too for the media. An early 2015 example was the shipyourenemiesglitter.com trend. Ryan Holiday (guest #18) interviewed the creator of the site, Mathew Carpenter to talk about how he worked his way up the media chain, leveraging lazy reporting at one level to get to lazier reporting on another. The full summary is available at the Observer but the lesson is that what you see isn’t always what there is.

Godin’s origin and storytelling epiphany came from his time spent at Algonquin Park in Canada. There, he was the lowly canoe instructor among the cool sailing and windsurfing ones. Only seeing four people an hour, he realized that something had to change, he decided to try two things; put on a show, and let people grow.

“People go where they grow.” – Seth Godin

Godin tells the story of Joanna Gerwin, a camper that resorted to hitting her fellow campers in the face at the first sign of frustration, but once she got in the canoe, once she learned not to fight with the wind, she changed. Godin taught her to “Breath and think and manipulate the tools at your disposal to make the thing you want to have happen happen.”

James attempts to summarize what Godin is saying and doing, wondering if “to really attract people we have to build a stronger story.”

To which Godin replies, yes, almost:

The story is never about the teller. The story is always about the person hearing the story, and that is where selfish marketers always fail. (Click to Tweet)

Godin says that in both Lance Armstrong and Oprah Winfrey we share some part of their and in following them we were following parts of ourselves. Oprah’s appeal isn’t that she’s so wealthy, it’s that she still struggles with her weight, relationships, and other things and so do we. You read these posts and listen to the podcast because in the best summaries, and in the best episodes, you hear something about yourself and want to learn more.

James tells Godin that Purple Cow and Free Prize Inside were “the most important books you’ve written.” At the time James was running an internet company and he needed to find an alternative to traditional advertising. One of the things Godin taught James was to find something cheap, easy, or unique to give to your customers rather than advertising. Old media advertising is dead (at least in its effectiveness). Godin says that recent brands like Lululemon, Chibani, and Beats have all succeed without relying on the “TV industrial complex.”

Let’s test this. What was the number one commercial from the 2014 Super Bowl? The most watched TV event of the year, not that long ago, and you can’t remember the most popular one? I couldn’t remember any. Here’s 10.

Godin noticed that the way advertisers could command the attention of their audience was changing. He built some products for Prodigy, a precursor and access point to the World Wide Web. It was a rival to AOL. There Godin saw that it was expensive to serve up ads and get people to be online. In those early stages were three lessons:

  1. Constraints matter in creation. Godin had to create something that didn’t take up a lot of resources (bandwidth = money). He made it so his game, GUTS, could only be played once a week for a few minutes at a time.
  2. Provide value. People liked playing the trivia game, even when it featured branded advertising. The simplicity of an online trivia game seems small now, but back then it was new, untapped. It was a glimpse of what the connected world might be.
  3. Give high value, low cost rewards. The compensation for winning a week of trivia was your picture on the front page of the site. This cost Godin almost nothing, yet meant a lot for the people playing. This type of thinking applies to other domains of life, even negotiation. In the classic Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher writes that we need to brainstorm ideas so that we can give up low cost ones to get back high value ones.
Only a screen shot of a digitized newspaper had relevant information!
Only a screen shot of a digitized newspaper had relevant information!

Godin eventually sold his company to Yahoo! in 1998 and became vice president of direct marking for a little over a year. In hindsight he tells James that it seemed odd companies could be valued for so much money, but be making so little. The climax came on March 10, 2000 when the NASDAQ peaked before cycling down.

Selling his company to Yahoo! may seem like a stroke of dumb luck, and Godin admits that it was but also says that “getting up to bat” mattered too. He failed many times before and many times after the sale and only hit a homerun because he struck out so often.

Another interesting nugget from this part of the interview was Godin’s comment about how much of “ones identity as an entrepreneur is really tied up in what you do all day. And that identity was stripped.” This happens to many people, from astronauts to retirees. It’s why Scott Adams advocates for system rather than goal thinking:

To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose ten pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal— if you reach it at all— feeling as if you were short of your goal.

Yeah, but what happens when we reach our goal, we’re all winners right?

If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or set new goals and reenter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure.

One of Godin’s systems is to think in terms of stories, and one character is a placebo. Godin and James talk about placebos, which Godin says can “create an environment to make people better.” Godin tells James that an ethical placebo is one where the customer won’t feel violated when they find out that there was a placebo effect. Consider the cookie.


Look at the oatmeal raisin cookie. It looks fine, we wouldn’t eat that cookie because someone has taken a nice bit out of it, but the cookie looks acceptable enough to eat otherwise. Contrast that with the cookie below.

wrappedcookiesThese cookies are wrapped in a bow. They are in focus and you can see the edges have a bit of crunchiness while the centers look like they still retain that gooey goodness. Plus these have dark chocolate and we all know that dark chocolate chips are good for us. These cookies we want. These cookies are a gift.

In his book, Mindless Eating, Dr. Brian Wansink wondered if we valued this second batch of cookies more, so he did an experiment and found that people will pay 3X as much for a brownie served on glass china compared to one served on a paper napkin.

Godin says that if we were all “MIT graduates” maybe stories wouldn’t have this same effect on us.

Toward the end of the interview Godin tells James, “the only two things we should teach kids in school is how to lead and how to solve interesting problems.” This mimics his TEDx Talk and ebook, Stop Stealing Dreams.

The interview ends with James asking about Squidoo, which Godin says they are still experimenting with. As of August 15, 2014, it was acquired by HubPages.

Please let me know about any typos or weak points on Twitter @MikeDariano or (559) 464-5393. If you want more from me, subscribe to my newsletter.

#86 Seth Godin


Seth Godin joined James Altucher to talk about his new book, dancing with fear, and what happens when we want all the upside but none of the down. Godin’s newest book is available at YourTurn.link and you can find his other books on Amazon.

James asks Godin why he decided to write this book, Seth tells him

This book is the most direct, brave testament I could come up with about what is holding us back. And I think what is holding us back is not access to tools or audience anymore. I think what’s holding us back is the voice in our head. (Click to Tweet)

Godin explains that whether it was 1500 or 50 years ago, if you wanted to do your craft you had to do it in your city. You had to know the right people. There were geographical and structural limits that restricted people from doing what they wanted. Those limits are largely gone.

Now we have limiting beliefs – Godin calls them “cultural pollution” – of things that are not true. School for example, he tells James, is an antiquated idea and this thesis is being defended in places beyond Godin’s ebook, Stop Stealing Dreams. There is the Hackschooling TEDx Talk by Logan Laplante who designs his own education. This is a growing movement of “free range schooling” that Ben Hewitt explained in Outside Magazine. Less extreme examples are small academies like, The Iron Yard in the Southest part of the United States. They offer a three-month course that gets people junior-level programming experience and they help you get a job. A three month coding school is a world away from a degree in computer science – as James often points out. We can read nobel prize winning scientist (even economists!) and learn anything we want online.

So what’s stopping us?

Godin implies that it’s an ethos we carry around with us, a cape we think we need even though the weather is mild. Godin says that in 1974 he was abandoned in downtown Cleveland by a ship captain, “with no money” and had to find his way to the airport. He got to the airport, called his parents, and arranged a flight for the next day. That next morning his mom picks him up from the airport and takes him to school! This was just an adventure because that’s what Godin had been taught it was. He was 14. Molly Shannon did him one better when she was 12.

Shannon, (originating in Cleveland rather than ending up there) sneaked onto a flight for New York City by convincing the flight attendant that her family was on board and she was just catching up with them. She told Marc Maron:

Molly Shannon

Well, again, because I had a crazy childhood, we called my dad, and we were like, we did it! And he was like, oh God! Molly! Oh, jeez, well, try to– so, basically, he couldn’t–

Marc Maron

Try to what?

Molly Shannon

He didn’t know what to do. He said, try to see if you can stay– go find a hotel that you can stay in, and me and Mary– my sister– we’ll come meet you. We’ll drive there.But basically, we didn’t have that much. We just had our ballet bags and a little bit of cash. So we went to a diner, and we dined and dashed, and we stole things. We were like little con artists.

Marc Maron

Wait, did you actually make it to the city?

Molly Shannon

We made it to the city. I was like, how do you get to Rockefeller Center? Because I had just seen TV specials.

Marc Maron

Nobody said, are you girls lost? Nothing like that?

Molly Shannon

No. Nothing. So we did try to go to hotels, and my dad would call and ask, could they just stay there until we get there? And none of the hotels wanted to be responsible. So he was like, all right. You’ve gotta come home. And he was like, but I’m not paying for it, so try to hop on one on the way back. So we tried to hop on many planes, but the flights were all so crowded. So we ended up having to have him pay for it, and he made us pay it all back with our babysitting money. The end.

Marc Maron

So that was the big punishment?

Molly Shannon

Yeah, that was– there was no punishment.

Marc Maron

Well, no, I know. I mean, clearly.

Molly Shannon

He loved that kind of stuff. Like I said, he was wild.

Economist Daniel Kahneman might chime in to say that we need these sorts of experiences to build up our library of possible connections. Our brains, he writes, are terribly bad about things we don’t know. He terms it, What You See Is All There Is (wysiats). If your brain solves a problem one way, following the path A-B-C, then it rarely even considers that happened if instead you go D-E-F, much less M-N-O, but these options often exist.

The problem of structured confinement is that it teaches us not to be resourceful, to find the other paths. A passive situation where the teacher provides you with what you need to learn, and how to learn it misses out on other skills. This handholding may actually be holding us back. Researcher Angela Duckworth writes about the value of “grit.” From Wikipedia:

Grit is conceptualized as a stable trait that does not require immediate positive feedback.[3] Individuals high in grit are able to maintain their determination and motivation over long periods despite experiences with failure and adversity. Their passion and commitment towards the long-term objective is the overriding factor that provides the stamina required to “stay the course” amid challenges and set-backs. Essentially, the grittier person is focused on winning the marathon, not the sprint.

Beyond the academic examples are a list of real-world successes that show street smarts is just as valuable as book smarts. Mark Cuban for example failed at two businesses in Indiana before being fired from his first job in Texas. He bounced back by reading user manuals for networks and learning the things very few people knew about. Godin took this same tact of industry knowledge, writing about the pitfalls of Yahoo before Yahoo bought his startup. Each experience built up their respective skills

Altucher and Godin turn the conversation to our fears, to which Godin says, “marketing is everything…and the reason your marketing sucks is because you’re afraid.

He echoes an idea from Tony Robbins, that we need to be thirsty before we go get a drink of water. Robbins, a guest in episode #62 writes that things have to escalate to the point where the pain from the status quo outweighs the pain from change. To have this change Godin says we have to get out of our comfort zone, saying, “change happens when people take the blame but giveaway the credit.”

We resist this because we don’t want “skin the the game.” Past guest Nassim Taleb writes that you have to have something on the line to truly understand things.

The largest fragilizer of society, and greatest generator of crises, absence of “skin in the game.” Some become antifragile at the expense of others by getting the upside (or gains) from volatility, variations, and disorder and exposing others to the downside risks of losses or harm. And such antifragility-at-the-cost-of-fragility-of-others is hidden – given the blindness to antifragility by the Soviet-Harvard intellectual circles, this asymmetry is rarely identified and (so far) never taught.

Taleb and Godin both advocate a “skin the game” approach, because you have to look down over the chasm you’re crossing and bend to the risk to really know what crossing the chasm is like.

One tangible example is Rejection Therapy, the game. Created by Jason Comely, who was tired of being afraid of rejection, it’s a set of cards that challenge people to leave their comfort zone. Godin tells James his own idea. Practice giving away a $5 for a $1.

Really. Godin tells James that it’s a riskless transaction for everyone, but don’t worry about going broke. On his email list James writes:

“So I did this. I went up to everyone I saw and I said, “here is a $5 bill.Can I give you this bill in exchange for a $1 bill.” It was hard to do this. I’m shy so it’s hard to talk to strangers. Also, I had this natural reflex that I didn’t want a total stranger who I would never see again to think I was weird.“

Most people said no. But what if the stakes were larger, what if instead of a five it was a fifty and there were no strings attached. When Dan Ariely did this research he found that only 20% of people took a free fifty and only 1% took a free one dollar bill.

Godin calls this a dance with fear, and it’s one we apparently never get over. People afraid of giving and people afraid of taking.

If you want some inspiration (for anything), check out Ze Frank’s “An Invocation for Beginnings”

For you and me and it could be a blog. Godin says that “there are all these places we can go to dance with fear” and about blogging, “if you’re speaking the truth, your truth, every single day, on schedule. You will learn to dance with fear.”

At this point in the conversation, (36:30 if you want to find it) James asks how people can do this. Godin gives a specific and manageable answer, telling James, “contributing to a community you care about is work worth doing.” Take that time you spend watching TV and create a blog he says. Write about anything, even curling if that’s your thing and write about it every day. Maybe sell vintage things on ETSY, join a Facebook group, dive into the comments. Spend just three hours a week on it. But you and I don’t have three hours a week you say, ah, but you probably do. Laura Vanderkam wrote that we all usually overestimate the time we have in life. Add up a 50 hour a week job and assume you get 8 hours of sleep on average each night. That leaves almost 9 hours each day to spend on the things that bring you joy in life.

Godin suggests that blogging – and dancing with fear – is building something inside of you. You’re getting ideas, clarifying thoughts, and taking risks. You’re thinking about problems and solutions and this will work its way into all the domains of your life like a termite, only this bug is tearing down the walls that kept you blocked.

When asked about his legacy, Godin says, “I want to be judged by what people who learned from me teach other people.”

He realizes that it doesn’t take much to fade from the conversation, mentioning he listened to Zig Ziglar the night before this interview. If you like Godin, Altucher or Tony Robbins you will like Ziglar. Here’ a handful of YouTube clips, all good.

This idea of fading isn’t new, in fact it’s quote old. Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius gave wise counsel about keeping things in perspective:

Survey the records of other eras. And see how many others gave their all and soon died and decomposed into the elements that formed them. But most of all, run through the list of those you knew yourself. Those who worked in vain, who failed to do what they should have – what they should have remained fixed on and found satisfaction in. A key point to bear in mind: The value of attentiveness varies in proportion to its object. You’re better off not giving the small things more time than they deserve.

He remembered that we all die and keeping that in perspective makes a difference.

Godin’s conversation ends with James asking for book suggestions that might inspire someone “to take their turn.” A few from the list with Godin’s thoughts:

Godin learned an important lesson from Tom Peters, “if I got one ideas out of a book that changes my life, it’s a bargain.” To go along with this, remember that the true cost of a book isn’t the financial cost, it’s the opportunity it cost. There are too many good books (and opportunities) to read to spend time with the bad ones.

Let me know what I flubbed, fumbled, or flummoxed on Twitter, @MikeDariano or via text, (559) 464-5393.

I write a weekly email about everything I learned, found, and wrote about this week. If you like these posts, you may like it. You can subscribe here

#54 Jimmy Wales

"Wikimedia Conference 2013 - board meeting 10" by Niccolò Caranti - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.James Altucher interviewed Jimmy Wales (@Jimmy_Wales) to talk about his history and daily role as the co-founder of Wikipedia, gamification, and how Wikipedia might expand.

Wales joined Altucher after listening to a session on women leadership at the UN. He mentions some charitable work he heard about, and said that this charity is a “global issue that everybody can get behind.”

No doubt that is true, but do you ever wonder what the best ways to spend charity money? Well, it turns out the Freakonomics team did, and published an episode recently called, “Fixing the World, Bang-for-the-Buck Edition”. The episode features an interview with Bjørn Lomborg who runs the Copenhagen Consensus Center which brings “together lots of economists and seven Nobel Laureates to think about where do we spend money and do the most good per dollar spent.” Podcast host Stephen Dubner asks about which of the many (many!) aims of the UN prove to be the most desirable after a cost-benefit analysis, and Lomborg says, “mostly 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.” One example he shares is to get malnourishment to 2 or 3% (rather than “ending” as the UN phrases it). This, Lomborg says, has a big pay off. The younger the child, the more the effect, and you only need about $96 per child. If kids are fed better, their brains develop more, they stay in school longer, and so on. The interview is interesting throughout and Lomborg has given a TED Talk.

Back to the interview, Altucher mentions that Wikipedia is one of the largest sites in the world. According to Alexa it trails only Google, Facebook, YouTube, Yahoo, and Baidu. True to form, and a question I wished more people asked, Altucher inquires about Wale’s origin story. Wales is from Huntsville Alabama where he grew up to the sound of the Saturn V rockets, where “sometimes the windows would rattle from the rockets going by.”

Wales goes on to talk about growing up in Huntsville and mentions that it was different from the rest of Alabama, and maybe not what most people (me included) think. On my first pass, this comments about the diversity in Huntsville slipped by me and I made nothing of it, but the story is so much richer than that. It turns out that the history of the Saturn V rocket really begins with Operation Paperclip, the program which brought Nazi and German scientists to America. Of course it wasn’t that easy, President Truman had to be duped after ordering that no one with Nazi affiliations would be allowed in the country. Consequently the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency created new employment and biographies for the scientists. A cursory glance at Wikipedia doesn’t suggest that any of these scientists were in Huntsville, but it’s an interesting vein no less. There was also the book, Operation Paperclip released earlier this year. It’s on my to-read list now.

Part of the ethos of Wikipedia comes from the “southern hospitality” that Wales grew up with and he says that he’s happy to make money, but with Wikipedia “it’s more like an artistic statement” and he’s pleased that rather than written by the winners, history is now written by everyone.

Part of Wikipedia’s history were early contributors, one of who Wales said was great in certain areas of the site, but when he got to Israel-Palestine issues he “couldn’t control himself.”  Nassim Taleb (a past Altucher guest) writes about this attitude Antifragile. Taleb terms this “domain dependence,” where we are able to see solutions in one area but not transfer them to another. Altucher solves this by the less elevated term, idea sex.

For disputes, Wales says that most people are akin to a priest and personal rights person coming to a compromise of agreeing to disagree, so long as all the facts are there. Wales says the hardest people to get to settle down are those least convinced of their ideas, because they are most afraid of having their minds changed. This, as Wales points out, brings cognitive dissonance, the mental equivalent of a rock in your shoe.

Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress we have while holding two contradictory beliefs. We can’t both like Wal Mart and the environment so we change our thinking to align with one. If however, we hear a story about how Wal Mart’s advanced logistics reduces transportation pollution, we can again hold both beliefs.

The most famous – or enjoyable – story of rectifying cognitive dissonance is the Ben Franklin effect. Dave McRaney does a much better job with the story, but the tl:dr version is that Franklin had an adversary he needed to turn into an ally. To do so he asked to borrow a rare book the man owned, the man acquiesced, lent the book, and then became Franklin’s friend. The theory goes that because this man lent the book to Franklin, and he only lends books to friends, that Franklin must be a friend. We don’t like the state of dissonance and avoid it, on Wikipedia or elsewhere.

Back in the interview Altucher asks what contributed to the initial viralness of Wikipedia. Wales says that from the start, the site was useful and a good use of a person’s time. Even only a single article about a polar bear would be useful to someone needing to know about polar bears. The second part was a feeling of goodwill that people can “geek out” on.

Wales says he has  “A lot of beef with what goes on under the title of gamification” in part because it doesn’t work well on him. I agree, gamification done poorly is like a lot of other things done poorly, not good. Good gamification though is something that enhances the experience. In his book, For The Win, How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business, Kevin Werbach writes that gamification is using game elements and game-design techniques in non game settings. For Professor Werbach this means finding a good mesh between game “stuff” and your business “stuff.” Even though he admits gamification doesn’t work on him, Wales admits it would be cool to be a mayor on Foursquare. That’s good game integration. It’s not just leaderboards, badges, and points. Done well it’s much more psychologically rich than that.

Altucher and Wales turn the conversation to what numbers generally say about us and Wales asks the question, “what if you went to work with a number?”  If you think the days of grades, GPA, and SAT scores are behind you, then you aren’t applying for a job at Salesforce, who in 2012 listed a Klout score of 35 or higher as “desirable.” I found this out from the fantastic Dataclysm by Christian Rudder. The book is a combination of Malcolm Gladwell and John Stewart. Rudder’s guess is that beyond past experience we give more through our public tweets and posts. These will be hashed, bashed, and smashed into a single number. Greater than 80 and you’re hired.

While Salesforce is asking for numbers, Tyler Cowen is projecting their arrival in all fields. Klout may serve as a good indicator for Salesforce but Cowen suggest all service providers will have a ranking. It may be Yelp style reviews for everything from doctors to accountants to school district, building, grade, and teacher scores. Whatever number you end up with, make sure you look out for number one.

Wales mentions he is active on Quora where his profile says is a “very small” investor. There he answers questions, like “how did Jimmy Wales learn to code and what is the sequence in which he learned languages?” To which he replies that he’s not a good programmer but began in Basic and most recently learned some Ruby. Some of his other answers include thoughts on Che Guevara, great shows with horrible endings, and how to hack (or not) sleep.

Altucher asks about what the most intense battles on Wikipedia are, and I expected something big. Anything short of a possible cause for World War III would surprise me, and I was surprised. Wales said that recently there was a “big debate about emdash versus dash.” Another recent issue was that the rivers in Poland, which are known by their German names, are now being referred to by their Polish names. How Wikipedia handles this change is something he has been working on.

Altucher then brings up a point about people optimizing their sites for Wikipedia. He’s brought this idea up in past podcast episodes, suggesting the education model if a framework were to exist and Wales is open to the idea, to some extent. “On that first point is something we struggle with a lot. Because there is a lot of that type of behavior that goes on that is quite unethical. Including a lot of lying and pretending to be someone you’re not.”

An ethical suggestion that Wales has is to just start by taking good photos of your staff and releasing them under the Creative Commons guidelines and pinging Wikipedia about them. Here for example is Altucher’s Wikipedia photo.

Wales says that most of the people in the business of helping others with Wikipedia are “selling snake oil” and all you need to really do is email Wikipedia and say “hey there is something wrong with my entry.”

To Altucher’s point about Wikipedia and MOOC, Wales envisions something where Wikipedia entries serve as the reading to be prepared for the lecture and caught up to speed and then watch the video. This doesn’t exist verbatim, but Wikipedia does have articles part of a series.

Wales thinks the growth for Wikipedia will come in non-English speaking language. When the site began it was 100% in English but now 4.5 million pages of the 30 million total pages are in English.

Altucher asks about what the next open-source area will be. According to Jane McGonigal and her book, Reality is Broken, it’ll look a lot like Wikipedia. McGonigal makes the case that the online world does a lot of things better than the real world and – despite our domain dependence – we should take those ideas and apply them there. In Reality is Broken she writes about Wikipedia and the success it’s had. Another example McGonigal gives is the 2009 investigation of members of parliament and their illegal expense claims. The problem with the situation was that there were over 450,000 documents so the Guardian set up a crowdsourcing situation. This “game” led to 28 members of parliament resigned or declared their intention to resign. Another crowdsourcing example was in 2009 when DARPA launched ten red weather balloons in unannounced US locations and offered a $40,000 prize to the first team that could identify the locations. It took a team from MIT less than nine hours to find them all. Their secret, was a social network of only about 5,000 people. From entries on Saturn V rockets to research for rocket scientists, crowdsourcing has a bright future.

Wales seems pretty comfortable in Facebook serving some of the gaps that open source projects may have been part of. For example, he has no problem with Facebook being a login option rather than OpenID.  But he goes on to say, “When I think of that question, what are the next things that can be done in an open source way, one of the ones I’m really interested in is production of video, particularly animation.” Can a community of people who can write, draw, and produce a video get together to make something that rivals Pixar? It hasn’t been done yet but Wales is hopeful.

Wales says that the systems for Wikipedia existed in 1996 but it took 6 years for the social constructs to come through so people would work together to create it. All the pieces for making a movie to rival Pixar are there, but not how the people will do it. For example, who gets the rights, the money, and so on? A current example of this is Slender Man.

Slender Man as created by “Victor Surge” who added the character and captions to a pair of photos. Things were well and good in the community from inception in  2009 until 2010 when “Surge” registered a copyright but a third party “holds the options to any adaptations into other media, including film and television.” Basically, you can make Slender Man art, but not money. This is the next hurdle.

Before he has to go, Wales turns the table on Altucher asking him about the waiter’s pad he has in front of him. Like in other instances, he explains that the waiter’s pad serves to constrain what he can write, leaving room for only the important stuff and focusing his thinking on just that.

Wales wraps the interview by telling Altucher he is working on The People’s Operator; where 10% of your phone bill goes to the cause of your choice and 25% of the company’s profits to charity.

Thanks for reading. This post took 4 hours for the listening, writing, and direct research. If you like what you read and would like to make a donation, you can do so here.

This post was originally published on another platform and as moving to this one.

#85 David Levien

David Levien joined James Altucher to talk about writing, when you’ve done enough research for a story, and the benefits of small actions over time. David has a new book, Signature Kill, which follows Frank Behr who was in City of the Sun which James says “was great.”

The interview begins with David noting to James that his name is pronounced as “le-vean,” saying the pronunciation was “an Ellis Island thing.” Past guest Mark Cuban had the same experiences, his grandfather immigrating as a Chabenisky but changing his name to Cuban.*

In the interview David tells James that his plan always was to become a novelist and filmmaker and after years of working on projects like Rounders, Oceans Thirteen, and (one of my favorites) Runaway Jury he wanted to get back into writing. The only problem was that writing takes time.

When David first moved out to Hollywood he tried to be a writer, but says it was hard. He was working in the film industry, trying to write screenplays, but between crazy hours work and the California lifestyle it wasn’t happening.  “When you’re young, you’re not writing as much as you should. You’re hanging out, you’re partying.”

A lot of us have this problem. Past guest Gary Vaynerchuk has a good five minute video to tell you “the most important word ever.”

This time of being in the room may not have directly advanced his writing career, but at least he was in the room. Carol Leifer (#66) says this is one of the best ways to start.

As he built experience, David was also building up some angst. Like plaque in arteries slowly constricts blood flow, he felt like things weren’t moving forward like they should. I “needed to do something drastic” he tells James, “so I quit.” This can be scary, stepping into the unknown, but sometimes we have to do it. Past guest Ryan Holiday (#18) wrote much the same thing when he dropped out of school to work with Robert Greene, “I was petrified of making a mistake. But then I made the leap.”

Levien went to New York and hunkered down on his writing project, turning out something that was “confused garbage” but was done. This act of finishing was a big deal, Levien saying it was “empowering.” Steven Pressfield writes that finishing is even more important, “finishing is the critical part of any project. If we can’t finish, all our work is for nothing.”

Eventually David teamed up with long time friend, Brian Koppelman (#59) to start writing together. David says he had an idea about what made a good screenplay, telling James that when he was Hollywood he read early drafts of Quentin Tarantino’s work and was blown away. Tarantino he says was “a totally unique voice” who rather than produce another Rom Com derivative was creating new things. Tarantino was applying 10X thinking.

10X thinking is what Nassim Taleb leveraged (he calls it asymmetrical thinking) and more recently Planet Money did an episode about finding arbitrage in a stock. In 2010 an investment fund was looking for other investments and began poking around a Chinese company with a Princeton Review business model; coach students on entrance exams.

There was just one problem. Their website sold no products and their building was vacant. That fund shorted the stock and make a lot of money.10X thinking.**

wonkamadeappTim Ferriss talked about 10X thinking in an episode with Dr. Peter Diamandis who encouraged people to not create another photo sharing, social media, pictures of your food app. Diamandis told Ferriss that people should find something that can change the world.

Returning to the interview, James asks David about the themes of his writing. James has been digging around for themes in a lot of his interviews with writers. He confronted Simon Rich (#83) with the idea that he puts absurd ideas in normal circumstances, to which Rich copped “that’s my whole gimmick.” With Ben Mezrich (#84) he brought up this idea too, noting that he finds areas “where high stakes meet gray areas.” With David he doesn’t get as clean an answer, more the macro idea to create something unique and put characters in a challenging situation. Stephen King gives a more descriptive answer, writing that starting with a strong situation, “renders the whole question of plot a moot point…the most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question.”

Not a short amount of the conversation is about poker and the Mayfair club but one thing to note was the confluence of ideas that it took to make poker poplar. Watching poker pre-2002 was like watching an NFL game a week later. Part of the problem was no hole card camera. Poker until that point was more of a summary of games and rarely a final table. New camera technology let ESPN broadcast tables as they were live. The people watching on TV finally were able to know more than the players at the table.

David says that he and Brian spent a lot of time at the Mayfair club “filling the bucket” of research before they were ready to make the movie. Take this scene from Rounders, David says they “literally saw Phil Hellmuth do this.”

After collecting everything they needed, David and Brian retreated to write the story. Good material combined with Hollywood connections sounded like a solid formula. Except it wasn’t. Despite his connections, there were no nibbles on the script.

At this time David says, “circuitously my book into a literary agent’s hands” who offered to read over it (remember that “confused garbage”, well he spent years rewriting it). A week later the agent got back to David and said he could probably sell the book. David and Brian had just finished Rounder and David told the agent that he had another project that maybe the guy could also look over, which he did. He came back to David and Brian and said, “I can sell this faster.”

People initially didn’t want to buy Rounders because it was sedentary and different. The people writing it (Levien and Koppelman) were thinking in a 10X way, the people buying it has 2X thinking. Eventually it got sold and one of the lessons David learned during this and other writing adventures was that :

In a very short amount of time per day, as long as you stick to it in a very dogged manner, you can can end up with a finished piece of work.

But this is hard because:

It seems brutal when you’re toiling in obscurity. (Tweet This)

Rounders came out in 1998 and it led to other movies for Levien, most notably Oceans 13 where he says the filming was “just like Entourage.”

After all the movies he felt a pull to get back to writing, telling James, “when you’re doing something creative, you have to find different ways to say fresh.” David needed to rest one creativity muscle and train another.

James has – aware of it or not – been giving creativity advice in the form of idea muscle training.  In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes, “creativity is associative memory that works exceptionally well.” This happens because, in Kahneman’s words, of our System 1 thinking. System 1 can do a lot of stuff, like being creative, but it does not like to expend any extra energy. As such, it pulls together the easiest connections available. You know the Super Bowl is coming up, so finish this word: ___ball.

What did you say? I’ll note my guess at the end, but if it was something affiliated with the game that as your System 1 answering the question and moving along to this paragraph.*** What happened in our mental attic was that you were primed to think about a certain sport, and because that was present in your mind, you drew one word for the blank rather than another.

This all comes back to idea lists, idea sex, and the daily practice because in those actions we build up the connections our System 1 can make. It’s like exploring the woods and forming paths between the trees so that the next time we are in the woods we can navigate quite easily.

During his return to novel writing, David listened to Personal Power by Tony Robbins to help jump start his creativity. In his interview Koppelman mentions Tony Robbins and both used The Artist’s Way too.

For David, a moment of enlightenment occurred when he discovered that his commute into the city was a prime time to write, so instead of driving he hopped on the train and began writing. “Form followed function” and eventually he ended up with a book with tight chapters and quick pacing. David had to fight resistance to not write though, and resistance is tough. Steven Pressfield coined the term and writes:

Most of us have two lives. The life we live and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.. Resistance is the most toxic force on the planet. It is the root of more unhappiness than poverty, disease, and erectile dysfunction. To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be.

David uses an app metaphor, he had to do was “nudge the ball along.” When Pressfield writes about Resistance the ball is at rest and the laws of physics apply to it, keeping the ball at rest until an outside force acts on it. David broke Resistance with a nudge. His story had been simmering a long time, but not until he had his first child did he feel ready to write it. Stephen King says that these are the best ideas, commenting that he doesn’t record ideas and trusting the good ones to stick around.

The end of the interview is all about writing and telling stories, something that David also says differs between visual scenes and the written word. “A movie has to be on rails” he tells James, whereas a book can explore something, whether it’s 200 or 800 pages. Simon Rich told James the same thing, “a book can just be” and Alex Blumberg (#84) found that even the middle ground of radio can’t translate the same way and making TV “is such a gigantic pain in the ass.”

David and James wonder how franchise crime writers do it, turning out a book every year. Before drafting these notes I had no idea, but wow was I missing out. This article on Grantland about Lee Child was incredibly rich. To get a book done every year – to which he is “never late” –  Child “writes from noon until six or seven p.m. During that period, he drinks around 30 cups of coffee, eats stingily, and chain-smokes.”

The other big bright name on the bottom of the cover is James Patterson who has a different strategy, he has a stable.  In an interview with The Daily Beast, Patterson says that he writes an outline which a 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.”

The interview ends with the guys talking about how TV has changed and gotten more complex. There is actually a book about this idea – and one that predicated Lost and The Wire – Everything Bad is Good For You. If you need to make the case that Halo is good for you, this is the book. No need if you watch Parks and Rec, that show is good for everyone.


Part of what makes these shows great is the extra large arcs that they have. David is currently working on a concept for Showtime, and while he hasn’t written them out, he tells James that they have an idea about where the show might go. Craig Turk, showrunner of The Good Wife talks about the different arc they have:

Here’s what the first season looks like, and here’s what the second seasons looks like, and here’s what season five looks like. Because ideally when you sell a television show, they want to know they’re going to get a hundred episodes out of it and get to syndication. So, you want an idea that sort of, you know, that’s potentially that rich. I don’t think in the history of television it has ever gone that smoothly, and I’ll give you an example. At the beginning of the year we sketched out, what we’ll do, what’s the season about? Then we’ll do arcs for characters, and then we’ll break it down to episodes. And we’ll have ideas for cases that we want to do, things we read in the newspaper, things that, you know, we saw on Colbert, anything that sort of strikes you as something that would be interesting and rich as a takeoff point.

Thanks for reading. Let me know what I missed, muffed, or mistook, @MikeDariano.

* This is an interesting idea, if you have good information about why, how, and other details about people switching names when immigrating I would appreciate knowing about it.

** Parts of the Tony Robbins (#62) book focus on the financial angles of 10X thinking.

*** Football! That was a crappy experiment if you got anything but that.

#84 Ben Mezrich

mezrichBen Mezrich (@benmezrich) joined James Altucher to talk about writing, infectious disease, and the real information highway (it’s not the internet, but contains some of the same content). Mezrich has a new book out, Q, “basically it’s about quarantine law and what happened if a crazy Ebola like disease hit New York.”

Mezrich has an exciting bibliography, most notably Accidental Billionaires and Bringing Down the House. I remember reading Bringing Down when I was in college and it nearly brought me to create my own gambling ring, which I was glad I didn’t. Not only was I not as smart as the MIT students – who are the subject of the book – but my constitution to walk through an airport with $200,000 taped to my body was much lower. But it was for Mezrich too. In an excerpt that appeared in Wired when the book was released he writes:

I try to control my breathing as I stroll through Logan International Airport. Terminal C is buzzing and chaotic, an over-air-conditioned hive of college students escaping Boston for a long weekend. I am dressed like everyone else: baggy jeans, baseball hat, scuffed sneakers. But in my mind, I have as much chance of blending in as a radioactive circus clown. There’s enough money hidden under my clothes to buy a two-bedroom condo. And to top it off, there’s $100,000 worth of yellow plastic casino chips jammed into the backpack slung over my right shoulder.

Mezrich tells Altucher that part of the reason he writes books that translate so easily to Hollywood movies is that he’s drawn that those ideas. He says that Gonzo Journalism has always appealed to him since reading Hunter S. Thompson and he says, “that’s how I wanted to write it.” To pursue this style means dealing with the critics; of which there are many. Mezrich’s books read fast – like I suspect he wants – but they also read loose. Know this when you read his work.

But Mezrich isn’t bothered by the criticism. He tells James, “there will be people who debate different pages in it (his books), but overall the people who were in it will say this is their story.” He also doesn’t worry about falling outside of the traditional non-fiction styles, saying, “non-fiction doesn’t need to be written in a single way.”

Mezrich tells James that it took two years of solid writing, 190 rejection slips, and 9 mediocre novels before he signed his first book advance. Then in 2003 he wrote Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions, and everything changed. He was on the TODAY show, and in Playboy and Wired and things just took off. Each printing of 1,000 books sold out and he estimates 3 million copies have sold.

Altucher asks him why he didn’t give up at 180 rejections and Mezrich said he was just kind of used to rejection in other areas of his life and he just wanted to be a writer. Even after sketching out other careers, he still planned on how he could write.

A bit of delusional thinking goes a long way in getting things done. Past guest Alex Blumberg (#70) told Altucher much the same thing, that you have to be “stupidly optimistic” and “a little self-delusional.” If you’re still afraid of the rejection part, don’t worry, there’s a game for that. Jason Comely created rejection therapy, the game. You can get his prompts – ask a stranger for gum – to practice getting rejected and eventually he says it won’t bother you. Hear Jason tell his story on the Invisibilia podcast. Altucher himself has a system for dealing with rejection, writing an entire section in Choose Yourself and saying, “Every day, in all aspects of our lives, we are rejected. Rejection is probably the most powerful force in our lives.”

Mezrich began researching Q during the SARS epidemic when he began thinking about who might be the front line of defense in an outbreak. He tells James that it won’t be doctors or nurses, but rather emergency responders. He also says that quarantine laws are “almost unlimited.” The recent case of Nurse Hickox in Maine is the modern example, but there is a precedent for lockdown. In the 1900’s  you wanted to avoid Typhoid Mary who infect 53 people and was forcibly quarantined. Mezrich mentions that Cuba quarantined their AIDS patients in the 1980’s to great success – and he’s right. A National Institute of Health article reports “Cuba’s national AIDS program is the most successful in the world based solely on statistics, and this country also has what many believe is the most interesting program in the world.” It’s not a clear victory because for eight years the government sent all positive HIV cases to the Santiago de Las Vegas AIDS Sanatorium – and kept them there.

Mezrich says this is a big problem because “If you interview virologists and infectious disease specialists, every single one of them says it’s not if but when.” Past guest Nassim Taleb had some interesting thoughts about nature (GMO’s rather than infectious diseases but both include similar themes) in a recent interview at EconTalk.


When Mezrich dives into the details about contagion Altucher asks if this is just the like noticing a blue Honda. Once you buy one, you see them everywhere.

This gem of observation is the availability heuristic, and it is pervasive – when you know to look for it. First, in the context of the interview, Altucher wonders if some of the medical scares we see are a result of media manipulation fueling the availability. For example, which is more deadly, the seasonal flu or Ebola?*  The flu, more than 6 times as many people die from the flu in the United States alone than die worldwide from Ebola. We don’t know this difference because we don’t hear about it. The Freakonomics podcast has a great episode on this and it’s worth listening to just to hear about the connection between Osama Bin Laden and Polio.

Mezrich’s thinking is that Ebola isn’t great, but isn’t dangerous. Respiratory infections on the other hand will be pandemics. He says to look at the seasonal flu and how a small mutation has made it a national news story and while a person could walk around New York City (as one did) with Ebola, a respiratory infection is more likely to spread.

Toward the end of the interview Altucher suggests that Mezrich has a certain style in his writing, welding the high stakes to gray area decisions and Mezrich says this sounds about right. A similar moment occurred in episode #83 with Simon Rich when James noticed that his writing is themed around the absurd meeting the normal. (Do watch the clip for Rich’s new show to see what this means).

Mezrich tells James that The Sun also Rises was his favorite book but that he wrote Q as a fictional book because he “wanted to write something like Fahrenheit 451.” It took time for him to find his own voice, saying he read Bright Lights, Big City “hundreds of times” and when he started out he wanted to be Jay McInerney. This “almost ruined my career” he tells James. This is not uncommon.

Stephen King addresses this in his wonderful book, On Writing, where he writes:

Stylistic imitation is one thing, a perfectly honorable way to get started as a writer (and impossible to avoid, really; some sort of imitation marks each new stage of a writer’s development), but one cannot imitate a writer’s approach to a particular genre, no matter how simple what that writer is doing may seem. You can’t aim a book like a cruise missile, in other other words.”**

Compared to interviews with other writers, this one is notably shorter on talk about writing. One specific exception is when Altucher notes that Mezrich often uses short sentences, to which Mezrich notes that it fits his style of action. This isn’t accidental, it’s literally a writing tool. Tool #18 to be exact. Roy Peter Clark writes about writing tools and suggests that the short sentence serves to do three things; simplify, create suspense, or focus on the emotional truth. Clark writes, “the writer controls the pace for the reader, slow or fast or in between, and uses sentences of different lengths to create the music, the rhythm of the story.”

The conversation nearly ends when the pair talk about the sewer system as the real information highway. I’m not surprised Altucher jumps on this idea as he’s mentioned more than once a smart toilet that gives biometric feedback. Thankfully they end talking about Mezrich’s upcoming book, Once Upon a Time in Russia. Mezrich says it’s “The true story of this battle between oligarchs and this incredible rise of wealth. And Putin.” Seven of the wealthiest men in Russia put a “low-level KGB agent” into power as their puppet but the puppet pulls down the strings. You can preorder Once Upon a Time in Russia (but have your salt ready).

* Now, if you guessed correctly you circumvented a different logical fallacy, system 1 and 2 thinking. If you’ve read this note and this sounds interesting then your next book should be Thinking Fast and Slow which explores all this and more.

**What is so great about that King quote is that he uses the analogy of a cruise missile and then uses the example of Tom Clancy. If you have any interest in writing, you have to read On Writing.

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