Malcolm Gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell (@Gladwell) joined William Channer (@WilliamChanner) on the Dorm Room Tycoon podcast to talk about writing.

There were two legs for the body of this podcast about writing; how Malcolm Gladwell writes and Malcolm Gladwell’s advice for writing. I found both fascinating. I remember reading Gladwell in college and it was enlightening. Not the actual book per se, but the type of book.  Wow, I thought, why can’t we read this in school? His books are wide, clear, and bring together an interdisciplinary approach that many people advocate.

Tren Griffin spoke about interdisciplinary models for business. Sanjay Bakshi spoke about  interdisciplinary models for finance. Phil Rosenthal spoke about  interdisciplinary  models for writing. All of these accomplished people implicitly advocate for Gladwell’s books. Big ideas should be understood as multifaceted. Gladwell shines a light that makes those gems sparkle. Enough about my admiration for Gladwell. Let’s get to the notes.

How Malcolm Gladwell works.

Stumble around

“I tend to start with a puzzle,” Gladwell says, “part of my job description is to be on the lookout for stuff that fuels this exploration.” Gladwell reads books “by the truckload,” and is a fan of the Jack Reacher series.

Gladwell, like many other people featured here, reads widely. His initial phase might mimic what  Maria Popova said about search and research. In an interview with Copyblogger, Popova said:

“I just had tea with someone – a writer whose book I’d written about and who reached out and wanted to connect – and that hour-long conversation gave me a dozen ideas to think about, to learn about, and thus to write about (including two books I already ordered based on our chat). Is that “research” in the sense that one deliberately sets out to find something already of interest? No. Is it “research” in terms of the unguided curiosity that lets one discover something previously unknown and succumb to the intellectual restlessness of wanting to learn everything about it? Absolutely.”

She continued:

“And I think that’s part of our challenge today, not just semantically but also practically – we tend to conflate “research” with search, which is always driven by looking for something you already know you’re interested in; but I think the richest “research” is driven by discovery, that intersection of curiosity and serendipity that lets you expand your intellectual and creative comfort zone beyond what you already knew you were looking for.”

Gladwell says there is, “lots of stumbling. I depend on the stumbling.” What Gladwell is hoping to find is patterns of things. In David and Goliath for example, Gladwell drew in examples from; girls youth basketball, dyslexic CEO’s, and World War Two bombings. Superficially those things have nothing to do with each other. When Gladwell reads about each he dives deep and starts to see common threads under the surface.

Research however you’re comfortable.

Besides “stumbling,” how else does Gladwell work? In one word, comfortably. Gladwell, like Michael Mauboussin enjoys physical books because of the tactile and emotional memories in them. Gladwell says he can walk along his bookshelf, and “each book represents a set of ideas and observations and I know what’s around it.”

That doesn’t mean his way is the only way. Sanjay Bakshi said that digital books work better for him. His purpose (teaching) is different from Gladwell’s (writing).

Fivethirtyeight had a great podcast about the Bloomberg Terminal. It costs $2K a month, and it’s worth it for some people, but I got the impression it wasn’t worth it for everyone. So why hasn’t it been usurped? Switching costs are too high. Even though a rival system may cost less, it’ll take too long to understand. That’s how Gladwell view his process.

What makes a good idea.

Ideas need an element of excitement says Gladwell. For example, why isn’t global warming a bigger deal? “No one has found a way,” says Gladwell, “to tell that story so it seizes your imagination.” Well, one person has. Global warming, says Seth Godin should be called “atmoshphere cancer.” Godin explains, “I’m not being facetious. If the problem were called “Atmosphere cancer” or “Pollution death” the entire conversation would be framed in a different way.

There should be some sort of artistry and flamboyance in an idea Gladwell says. Scott Adams says he noticed then when writing God’s Debris and Dilbert. How do I keep the reader interested, Adams wondered. He did this by using hypnosis. Certain words can engage people in different ways Adams notes. The word “yank” is funnier than “pull” he says. Through words, Adams creates appetizing works. Gladwell orchestrates ideas. Both entertain and connect with their readers.

Editing and drafts.

“I do many, many, many drafts,” Gladwell says. A 6,000 word New Yorker article might take six months and go through seven or eight major versions. And it never comes out right at first.

legoship“I have an expectation when I’m writing,” Gladwell says, “that it’s all going to change.” It’s like Legos Gladwell says. If you have kids, you know that making a Lego pirate ship isn’t enough. It needs to be a pirate ship with laser cannons and knights on horseback. Themes and ideas interlock easily with Legos. So too does Gladwell’s writing.

He says, “I think of writing as very modular.” Pieces can be put together or taken apart, and it’s no big deal. Except it was for Richard Thaler.

When Thaler was writing Misbehaving he had a problem. Much like Daniel Tvessky (who’s own biases about writing were outlined in the Jason Zweig post), Thaler had a problem. He didn’t want to edit his book.

He knew he had to, but he also knew he would be biased about what to take out. Any piece that he worked especially hard on, whether in research or writing, would probably have a sunk cost fallacy. That is, if Thaler devoted so much time to a certain section, he might be inclined to include it because of the investment rather than the merits. But, as a wily social scientist, Thaler had an idea.

Instead of cutting those sections, he moved them to a new document. They weren’t sections that were removed, but repurposed. It’s like when a kid brings home a Christmas art project from school and their parents delicately put it in with the other decorations. It’s being displayed, but only once a year. Good editing is best when you know thyself.

Know thyself.

Gladwell says that he doesn’t feel much pressure to write. “Everyday I’m running across something worthy of exploration,” he says. It echoes what Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg and Anne Lamott said about writer’s block. It’s not a block so much as a gap. If you are exploring and thinking in new ways – if you are developing interdisciplinary approaches and mental models –  you’ll be stumped less.

Gladwell does this, but doesn’t think he needs to churn ideas into hits at the frequency a musician might. “My only test,” says Gladwell, “is, does this strike me as being novel and cool?”

Much like Chris Sacca, Gary Vaynerchuk, and Mark Cuban think about angel investing, Gladwell focuses on what interests him. When  Brett Steenbarger said, “figure out who you are when you are at your best,” this is what he was talking about. Gladwell knows what interests him and how to write about it. That said, he’s still trying to get better.

5 steps to be a better writer.

In this interview, Gladwell sounded aspirational. Not in a worried way, but in a I want to get better before I die way. Culled from different parts, here’s Gladwell’s advice.

1. Take risks. “I’m not sure the screenplay I wrote is any good,” Gladwell says, “but I am sure writing a screenplay made me a better writer.” Brian Koppelman said that he writes music for the same reason. Not because it’s good, but because it draws on something that makes him a better writer in other areas.

2. Make an existing skill better. Gladwell said that a few years ago he started taking narrative more seriously. He stopped what he was doing, and focused on improving one part of it. Astor and Danielle Teller did this when they wrote a book on marriage. They wanted one part of their life (marriage) to be better, so they deconstructed it.

3. Imitate. “I became very interested in the writing of Michael Lewis,” Gladwell says, “I would like to try his way and see what happens.” Gladwell’s capturing on the idea of imitation. He wants to write more like Lewis and see what happens. Jason Calacanis told Tim O’Reilly that he imitated everything he did to get started.

4. Work for a newspaper, but don’t stagnate. What? A dying form? Gladwell says that there is value in writing for a newspaper. It taught him to write quickly, to remove his ego, and to write a certain volume. “It used to take me ages to write,” says Gladwell, “then I worked at a newspaper for ten years and I was cured of that.” Gladwell practiced. Joshua Foer dove deep into practice, and deconstructed the crucial parts. But practice can’t stagnate, you need to move on. On Grantland Gladwell wrote:

“So why are the Jamaicans so good? There are many reasons, but the simplest is that the effect of peers on high performance are REALLY strong. In Jamaica, EVERYONE sprints. There are 20 heats in the 100-meter regional championships. And because everyone sprints, and the average quality of sprinting is so high, everyone’s expectations are raised accordingly. The psychological ceiling on elite performance if you are a high school sprinter in Kingston is, like, a foot higher than if you are a high school sprinter in America.”

Build your skills in a good place, but then move on to be around people who will make you better. Simon Rich said he wants to feel like he’s barely keeping up. Only then will he feel like the challenge level is right.

5. Learn to ask questions. Interviewing famous people can be hard. Gladwell said that when he interviewed Magnus Carlsen, he had to find the story. Even though Carlsen is the greatest chess player alive, the story still had to be chased down. “Know the first thing you want to know,” Gladwell says, but leave room for a conversation to flow.

Stephen King compared writing to digging up a fossil. King and Gladwell write at opposite ends of the spectrum of truth, but this part seems the same. King writes:

“Stories are relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world. The writer’s job is to use the tools in his or her toolbox to get as much of each one out of the ground intact as possible. Sometimes the fossil you uncover is small; a seashell. Sometimes it’s enormous, a Tyrannosaurus Rex with all those gigantic ribs and grinning teeth.”

Gladwell’s question suggestions is a method of of sweeping the fossil.

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

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Naveen Jain

Naveen Jain (@Naveen_Jain_CEO) joined James Altucher (@jaltucher) to talk about the future. It’s brighter than it looks, says Jain, but we’ll need to work smart to get there. Our table of contents.

– The two ingredients of possibilities.

– Fly to the moon by the seat of your pants.

– Experts? Smexperts!

– Refame the assumption.

– How to be happy.

– On learning.

Two ingredients for possibilities.

“If you’re not doing something that is so big, people call you crazy, that means you’re not dreaming big enough.” – Naveen Jain (click to tweet)

There are two things we can do to succeed says Jain; dream big and don’t fear failure. This sounds inspirational, but the validity is proven in the advice of others. Let’s break it down.

1. Dream big. You need to dream big says Jain. It’s the same thing Peter Thiel suggests to people. Have ideas that are new and will change the world, not another social app. It’s how Gary Vaynerchuk think about investing. It’s how Scott Adams confirmed that affirmations work. It’s why Chris Hadfield ended up in space. You need think big.

But it doesn’t mean crazy. You can look around and make wise choices says Jain. “Skate to wear the puck is going to be,” he says. Technology, for example, has at least one very clear (so far, says Kevin Kelly ) area – Moore’s Law. That assumption is that computing power will double every two years. Okay, Jain, might tell you, so what does that mean?

In 2008 Twitter was beset by the fail whale. The image would pop up whenever tweets wouldn’t load. It even caused one engineer to sell his shares of the company and get out. That problem was solved as computing power grew. 

“When everyone is thinking one way,” Jain asks, “how can you go about thinking in a slightly different way?”

2. Don’t be afraid of failure. When Sanjay Bakshi spoke with Shane Parrish, he said that he counsels his students to become financially independent. Only after this can they make good decision. Financial failure is one of many kinds that people can guard themselves against.

But if you fail, know that it’s not permanent. Authors fail all the time. Andy Weir failed after three years of fulltime work to write a good book, but eventually he did. Stephen Dubner failed twice to write a financially successful book, but eventually he did. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg failed to sell Superbad for ten years, but eventually they did.

You need your failure to be part of a systems, says Scott Adams. Adams says, work in a system where even if you lose some battles, you’re gaining experience that will help you win the war.  You want to create a positive net-net results. Chris Hadfield did this when he was training to be an astronaut. Hadfield wrote, “it’s probably not going to happen but I should do things that keep me moving in the right direction, just in case – and I should be sure those things interest me, so that whatever happens, I’m happy.”

Failure will happen, it’s not permanent, and you can create a net-net positive. Don’t be afraid.

Flying to the moon by the seat of your pants.

Jain wants to go to the moon, but, “we can’t possibly imagine what people will do once we land on the moon.” We’ll figure it out on the fly. Look at the iPhone says Jain, “no one would have said, ‘I want to throw the birds at the pigs.’”

We don’t know and can’t know what the next thing will be. Scott Galloway said that he sees Uber as a valuable company not because what they can do, but because what they will do. They can provide last mile solutions for other companies. Uber for _____. Kevin Kelly said that the things in the future that we use haven’t even been invented yet. It’s amazing that the iPhone (in 2015) is only 8 years old. 

Take this speculation about Tesla from Gavin Sheridan:

“If I’m correct — and I think I am — the future for Model X owners won’t involve them being the only drivers of their own cars. It will involve them renting out their cars to everyone else for a price — with Tesla taking a cut — and the car driving itself. As Musk so often says, cars spend most of their productive lives sitting unused in people’s driveways. Which is crazy for such an expensive piece of hardware.”

Good companies look strange Naval Ravikant said. And you don’t need to know what to do when you find it. Just start looking. 

Experts, smexperts.

If you have a big problem, says Jain, you probably don’t want to go to an expert. “Most disruptions happen from outside the industry,” he says. It’s why Tesla rather than GM is building an electric car that will drive itself.

Experts only give you incrementally better solutions, Jain says. Experts know – by definition – too much. It’s why a 12-year-old boy wins a betting pool. Experts lack two things required for big changes, control of luck and innovative framing.

Luck plays a role in many things. The 12-year-old won the betting pool thanks to some luck. Stocks and sports include luck too. Expert or not, no one control luck.

The other thing experts lack is innovative framing. They see things in the areas of their expertise. To a hammer, everything is a nail. To avoid hitting your thumb, you need other tools. Around here we call those tools mental models.

Tren Griffin and Michael Mauboussin speak about mental models quite a bit. So does Sanjay Bakshi and even Phil Rosenthal suggests there is value to having different models in the domain of writing.

Mental models are different tools for diverse problems. Sometimes money is a solution, sometimes it’s not. Analytics in professional sports grew from a lack of money. That’s another area no one predicted, yet has become pervasive in sports.

Jain says that rather than think in the box or out of the box, find a new box. Use those new tools on old problems.

Reframe the assumption.

When Jain started Infospace, he reframed what people assumed a successful internet company needed to be. Rather than build their own services, Infospace created whitelisted services for other companies.

Ditto for the axiom, “information wants to be free.” That may be true, Jain says, but people will still pay for it. He created a company that compiled public data and sold it.

“The problems are plenty,” Jain says, “the biggest thing is to define the problem correctly.”

Take education, he says. Does education need fixed? Yes. Why? Because we are getting such and such outcomes. Well, was the system designed for such and such outcomes? Actually, maybe it was.

To look at the history of education, the layers of requirements, and the social shortcomings  for some children – you could conclude that the outcomes befit the system.

Another example, Jain says, is water. Do we need to create more drinkable water, or do we need to use less drinkable water for non-drinking purposes. Jain says that if we grow meat in new ways, we can use less water.

We did just that with failure. We reframed the assumption that failure is bad. Now, let’s do it with happy.

How to be happy.

Happiness is not something to be acquired, Jain says, “happiness exists inside us.” If you tie happiness to others – my kids make me happy, I love my job, etc – then you give “remote control” of your happiness to others.

Of course your kids may make you happy, but they should be a passenger in the car, not the driver. Jain suggests, find something that you enjoy doing and do it.

“Assume you have a billion dollars,” he says, “and the thing you think of doing is the thing you should be doing.” Jobs bring us contentment says Tim O’Reilly. If you find a way to pay people a livable wage and frame work as something worth doing, many things will change. We should strive for things says Tyler Cowen. The book Mean Genes explains why striving makes sense biologically. “Allowing us to rest on our laurels would be a genetic mistake.” We are biologically programmed to say “it’s not enough.”

All the better if it’s a business. “The only way to solve a problem in a sustainable way, is to create a business that is profitable,” Jain says.

On learning.

Jain wakes up early and spends his first two hours of the day reading. But he doesn’t try to understand everything. “Maybe I’ll understand 70%,” Jain says. Learning is a system that builds upon itself. You learn a little bit, then a little more, and then more. It’s a positive feedback system.

Elon Musk compares it to a tree. Learn the basics first and then you can branch off to more refined ideas. If you don’t understand something, go back to a thicker part of the tree.

Jain says that one day he had read something about biology and understood the first part, but not much more. Later, he was with a scientist and asked about the part he didn’t get. The scientist was happy to explain it to him.

Jain says he wouldn’t have asked a basic question, but a more advanced one he felt comfortable with. If there is something you want to learn about, just figure out A and B. Then you can ask others about C and D.

Jain’s interests at the time of the interview were in the brain and he recommends these books; The Future of the Brain, Incognito, The Brain that Changes Itself, and Epigenetic Revolution.

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

Wow, you read 1600 words. That’s like 6 pages in a book (and forever online). If you found a few things valuable, you can donate $2.

Scott Adams III

Scott Adams (@ScottAdamsSays) talked with Tim Ferriss (@TFerriss) about affirmations, inspiration, and Donald Trump. This is the third Adams post here, check out #47 and #112 with James Altucher.

Our table of contents:

  • Affirmations.
  • God Debris and creativity.
  • Goals and systems.
  • 4 pieces of work advice.

Affirmations.

Okay. Let’s get the elephant out of the room. “It is not my belief,” says Adams, “that if you say your affirmations something magical will happen and the universe will change in some non-science way.”

Naval Ravikant told Ferriss he read a story about Adams quietly practicing affirmations in the bathroom. It wasn’t because Adams was crazy. Well, maybe crazy like a fox.

Whether it’s his diet or career, Adams tests everything. He tells Ferriss that he focuses on results. “If you can give yourself the feeling of a superpower, it’s still worth having,” Adams says about affirmations. You don’t need to know why it works. “It would be dumb, if this thing has something to it,” Adams goes on, “and to set goals that are relatively modest.”

So Adams began testing. In the first instance, he tried to use affirmations to connect with a woman at work who was out of his league. And it worked! Maybe something wasn’t right, Adams says. Maybe Adams is more attractive than he gives himself credit for.

He settles a more objective option, something with numbers. Adams says that it worked for picking Chrysler and another stock. Then his GMAT scores went up. After the last one, Adams says, “I sat in the chair and stared forward for hours.”

Okay, affirmations work, but why?

Well, Adams says, he can think of three reasons why affirmations work.

Here we should pause. Often this sort of explanation is followed by a pitch for a $99 program (that’s $79 if you call in the next ten minutes). Not in this case. “I’m positive the exact method doesn’t matter,” Adams says, “what matters is the degree of focus and the commitment to that focus.”

That Adams can’t explain why it works, and doesn’t sell the “defacto” method, makes it more believable. Nassim Taleb writes about this as a filter for bullshit: “I have used all my life a wonderfully simple heuristic: charlatans are recognizable in that they will give you positive advice, and only positive advice.” If Adams said the only way to do it is his way (and he sells a program to help you) then we could consider it bunk. But he doesn’t.

Why might it work?

1. Reticular activation. This is why you can hear your own name in a crowd, Adams explains. Your brain filters relevant information. The good news is that you get to choose what it filters. You hear your name because you’ve trained to hear it. You see the style of car you bought after you buy it. You notice that your kids’ names aren’t that unique. This structure can be used for becoming a cartoonist.

After Adams began affirmations, he was drawn to a PBS show about how to draw cartoons. Maybe that show had been on a hundred times and Adams just missed it. Maybe the opportunity was always there, but was previously lost in the noise. Affirmations created a new filter that worked.

2. Selective memory. It could be that he forgot, Adams says, “but I don’t have a memory of trying it and it never worked.”

Adams is at least aware of this as option, and that’s about all we can hope for. If we are aware of our biases, we can address them.

Tadas Viskanta has methods for dealing with confirmation bias. Mark Cuban has ideas for highsight bias. A school teacher asked Steph Curry not to visit his school because of survivorship bias.

We can’t prevent biases, but we can create small checks on them.

3. It may be a self identification thing. Adams has a philosophy that we are  “moist robots.” In How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big he writes:

“It might help some of you to think of yourself as moist robots and not skin bags full of magic and mystery. If you control the inputs, you can determine the outcomes, give or take some luck. Eat right, exercise, think positively, learn as much as possible, and stay out of jail, and good things can happen.”

It could be, Adams tells Ferriss,  that the types of people who believe in affirmations, are also people who achieve their goals.  It might not be reading books to kids that matters, Ferriss adds, but it could be the other things that book buying parents tend to do. 

The bad news, we don’t why it works. The good news, it works, and anyone can do it. 

God’s Debris and Creativity.

After being published in 2004, Adams’ book, God’s Debris has become a bestseller. Chris Sacca chided Ferriss about becoming the next Oprah.

After Sacca talked with Ferriss, the same thing happened to the trio of books of books he suggested.

Screen Shot 2015-08-13 at 8.06.18 AM

Sales aside, Adams wrote the book to be “a conversation between a delivery man and the smartest person in the world.” But how do you write about the smartest man in the world? Adams asks.  

The solution came in the shower. We should have known. When Brett Steenbarger spoke about creativity, he noted that we need to analyze and synthesize the data we take in. That means diving deep (analyze) and then removing yourself (synthesize).

Adams does almost exactly this. He tells Ferriss that in the morning he gets his coffee and reads the news. Then he mentally drops everything and begins work. Maria Popova’s differentiating of search and research fits this dicotomy too. If we look for something specific (search) we are in the analyze phase. If we look for things in general (research) were are open to moments of serendipity (synthesize).

The secret to God’s Debris.

A lot of this podcast (and Adams’ Fall 2015 blog posts) were about hypnosis. “The way I use hypnosis is too broadly for the public,” Adams explains, “I’m talking about the science of persuasion.” Okay, but what does this have to do with writing a book?

“My challenge in a book,” says Adams, “is that you will continually get bored.” To combat that, Adams uses the powers of persuasion. Much like affirmations, Adams relies on tactics that work. For example, “I would make my character say something you just thought,” Adams explains. That builds rapport. He also creates things that are relatable, but not specific. You see this in the Dilbert cartoon. Dilbert has an ambiguous first name and no last name. He works for a boss known as Boss. His company has no name and exists in no specific city. “I allow the reader to imbue the characters with as much of what they love as they possibly can,” Adams says, “without giving them a hard stop.”

To Adams, hypnosis is using words to lead, pace, and build trust that creates a connection. Take the words; pull and yank, Adams tells Ferriss. Which one is funnier?  Yank is much funnier than pull. Do they mean the same thing? Kinda.

Adams’ aims with hypnosis is to use certain words to get you to think in certain ways. Yank does that better than pull. “Language has that much control over what you think,” Adams says, “I will get rid of a more accurate word to put in a word that has more of a programming control.”

When Gretchen Rubin was interviewed by Lifehacker she said her best time-saving trick was changing the language of her email signature. “When I was emailing with someone I didn’t know, I clung to the “Dear X” and the “warmly, Gretchen” format and more formal language of letters. But I finally realized that the etiquette of email has now changed enough to permit much greater informality—and brevity. It sounds like such a small thing, but it saves me a considerable amount of effort and time.”

When Rubin changed the words she wrote, she attached a new feeling to email. Words matter. 

Goals and systems

The ideas of goals and systems were first introduced to Adams when he was twenty-one and boarded a plane for California. Adams wore “a cheap three-piece suit” his parents had given him, because he didn’t know what to wear. “I was mostly guessing how the process worked,” Adams writes, “and I didn’t want to take the chance of getting kicked off the flight for being poorly dressed.”

He sits down next to the CEO of a screw company, and they start to talk:

“He asked what my story was and I filled him in. I asked what he did for a living and he told me he was CEO of a company that made screws. Then he offered me some 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.”

lightbulbOnce explained this makes perfect sense. Adams goes on to write that the best job for you probably isn’t going to open up at the same time you need it. The deeper Adams looked, the deeper this idea got. It works for dating he tells Ferris, and house buying. A lot of big things in life work better if you have a system for them.

Goals are fine for simple things and one-off events. Systems are better. Adams talks about systems for who to date, what to eat, and how run a business. “Even if you are failing,” at the moment, a good systems will mean, “you’re still improving your odds and self-worth,” Adams says.

Penn Jillette had a system rather than a goal; get better at magic each day. Jillette knew that he could live in a car, and work on the street if it supported a system where he got better at his craft.

Ferriss applied the idea of systems to his own education. He thought about going to graduate school for an MBA. Then, he had another idea. He would become an angel investor. “I would invest based on the assumption that I would lose it all, but that I would try to optimize for skill acquisition,” Ferriss says.

Systems work because even if specific results are bad, the overall benefit is good.

Scott Adams’ work advice

When Adams first drew Dilbert it was an immediate nation-wide success. Wait, wait, wait. No it wasn’t. Like everyone else here, success took time. For Dilbert it even required someone to die. (One salesman never showed the strip to the papers he visited). Dilbert did get picked up by more and more papers, but Adams kept his day job. 

Okay, you want to create the next thing. Whether it’s a comic, app, or business. Is there specific advice from Adams that we can generalize?

1. Keep your day job.

“I waited until I knew I could do it financially, but I continued waiting long after that because of the skill acquisition and also because the pain of working completely goes away when you don’t need to do it,” Adams says. Ferriss adds, “Keep your current gig, do this early in the morning, and then you can decide where on the spectrum you want to be.” What you want to avoid is financial stress. Sanjay Bakshi advises his students to aim for financial independence because only then can you make truly independent decisions. If you need money, your choices will reflect that.

2. Talk to the people who pay your bills.

Adams included his email address in comic strips so that people could tell him their opinions. It’s how Catbert was named. It’s why Dilbert is an office strip. It’s also a sales tool for Adams. If people from Spokane wrote in to say they loved the comic, but their paper didn’t have it, Adams would print out those emails and present them to the paper.

In her book, The Art of Asking, Amanda Palmer writes, “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.”

1-dylanjobsThe times are a changin’ said Taylor Pearson and Adam Davidson and Tim O’Reilly. The employment landscape is not static. Workers need to migrate. Tyler Cowen wrote a book about it.  You should figure who really pays your bills.

3. Know how you work.

Adams explains to Ferriss his morning routine. It’s a fill up and then dump out system he says. Adams will wake up, read the news, and then try to dump everything before beginning. Sometimes this means coming up with something new, and sometimes it’s continuing a thought from the previous day.

Adams is looking for a signal as he works. He knows that a “half laugh” might be a good joke. Learn signals like this. The Scott Galloway post has a number signal examples like; brown M&M’s, classic cars, and “ugh.”

4. Diversify.

“I’m not going to worry about one friend if I have hundreds. I’m not going to worry about a boss firing me if I have a hundred bosses,” Adams says. Diverse options make Adams less stressed. Nick Murray said that too much financial television (lack of diversification in news) is one of the biggest mistakes an investor can make. Jim Norton said that stand-up is a great way to diversify. He can act in movies, host radio shows, and always fall back on his act. Diversification gives you options, optionality is good. 

Closing thought.

At the end of the interview, Adams tells Ferriss this:

“Think of your life as a system, think of yourself as the most important part of the system, be useful, and make yourself more valuable as you go.”

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Phil Rosenthal

Phil Rosenthal (@PhilRosenthal) was on Brian Koppelman’s (@BrianKoppelman) podcast, The Moment. The pair talk about Everybody Loves Raymond, work at a deli, and food (lots of food).

Koppelman’s interviews have been here before. He had a great double interview with Seth Godin and he’s been interviewed twice by James Altucher, #98 and #59. Here’s the menu for this meal, and remember, the episode is worth listening to on it’s own.

– Dayenu.

– Idiots and honesty.

– You’ll work at a deli, and you’ll like it!

– About writing.

– Phil’s new show.

Dayenu

Dayenu means, “it would have been enough,” and is a Jewish song sung at Passover. Rosenthal stresses that anything in show business would have been enough, and he’s felt this a long time. “You’re a writer, you write alone in a room,” he tells Koppelman, “you’re hoping that the one person at the studio who reads it might like it enough to pass it forward.” Then all you want is a pilot. “What’s better than that?” Rosenthal asks.

Koppelman says, you seem pretty happy and Rosenthal says, what’s not to be happy about? “If all your dreams come true, shouldn’t it make you nicer?”

Rosenthal echoes Wayne Dyer’s thoughts on an attitude of gratitude. Why not be grateful? If you can read this, hear birds, and feel the warm sun, what else do you need?

Dyer was inspired by ancient eastern philosophy, but the Romans figured it out too. Stoic philosopher Seneca wrote:

“When a shipwreck was reported and he heard that all his possessions had sunk, our founder Zeno said, ‘Fortune bids me be a less encumbered philosopher.’”

Rosenthal knows this and more. He quotes Bill Murray:

“I always want to say to people who want to be rich and famous: ‘try being rich first’. See if that doesn’t cover most of it. There’s not much downside to being rich, other than paying taxes and having your relatives ask you for money. But when you become famous, you end up with a 24-hour job.”

But Rosenthal doesn’t mind the job. He also recognizes that money isn’t everything. Tom Shadyac sold nearly everything he owned, and only then became happy. T. Harv Eker thought that if he had a successful business, his life would be better. It wasn’t.

“It would have been enough,” has been proved true in ancient and modern times. From Roman Stoics and ancient Jews to Wayne Dyer and Phil Rosenthal – appreciate what you have. But we often don’t. Why?

We don’t think enough is enough because we aren’t disposed to. Our genes want more because more means multiplying. “We must learn why our genes benefit from building people who have trouble finding happiness yet remain confident that it is within reach, writes Terry Burnham in Mean Genes. “Allowing us to rest on our laurels would be a genetic mistake.” We are biologically programmed to say “it’s not enough.”

Our ancestors were people who craved more than others. They survived because of this. Modern times mean modified rules, and we can divert our genetic desires like a train track switch. We can sing dayenu.

Idiots and honesty.

Before sharing Rosenthal’s ideas on honesty, let me introduce layers. When I was making lunch for my daughter one day, I went to put her sandwich in a zip top bag. It had a slider rather than the traditional pinch and seal. The slider was broken, and the bag was unusable.

Later that week I was shopping for luggage and the salesperson showed me a bag with “ski boot closure.” What’s wrong with a zipper, I asked. Nothing, she said, but this has been used by skiers for a long time. But not on luggage, I thought.

This is the idea of layers.

The more layers there are between something and its natural state the worse it is. The more people involved in a business deal, the more it will cost. The more steps in an exercise program, the harder it will be to do. It’s true for plastic bags, carry-on luggage, and it’s true for the truth.

Ray Dalio writes about this. His investment aims are to find truths:

“Principles are concepts that can be applied over and over again in similar circumstances as distinct from narrow answers to specific questions. Every game has principles that successful players master to achieve winning results. So does life. Principles are ways of successfully dealing with the laws of nature or the laws of life.”

Principles are optimal ways to handle truth. Layers obstruct truths.

Layers don’t need to be shrouded. Each piece of glass is in a window is transparent, but not perfectly. Each piece of glass increases the distortions. In life we need to figure out when people have added too many layers. Figure out when people aren’t being honest (the natural state).

“You do have to recognize when someone is out to get you,” Rosenthal says. He recalls a story about Tom Hanks, who was in a meeting and about to get a bad deal. “Gentlemen,” Hanks said, “you can not take advantage of my good nature.”

When you see idiots in life, you have to call them on it says Rosenthal. Naval Ravikant said much the same thing. When there is the truth and the lie, there are two stories to remember. For Ravikant this keeps him from being in the moment, his best state.

Rosenthal thinks that Avatar was successful, in part, because the Na’vi teach the protagonist to say, “I see you.”

Amanda Palmer had this experience as a street perfomer. In her TED talk, she says:

“So I had the most profound encounters with people, especially lonely people who looked like they hadn’t talked to anyone in weeks, and we would get this beautiful moment of prolonged eye contact being allowed in a city street, and we would sort of fall in love a little bit. And my eyes would say — “Thank you.I see you.” And their eyes would say — “Nobody ever sees me. Thank you.””

Palmer ends her talk with this:

“My music career has been spent trying to encounter people on the Internet the way I could on the box (where she stood as a street performer). So blogging and tweeting not just about my tour dates and my new video but about our work and our art and our fears and our hangovers, our mistakes, and we see each other. And I think when we really see each other, we want to help each other.”

This includes seeing yourself. Rosenthal says he can’t finish the play he’s working on now. “I don’t know how truthful I can be without hurting people and I have to be truthful.” Rosenthal’s honesty exists where he has to be true to the art but also love others. Remove layers and aim for the truth. 

The need to work at a Deli.

Rosenthal says that NYC in the 1980’s wasn’t a great place to be. Even worse if you didn’t have a good job. Both were true for him. He got fired from museum for falling asleep on a 300-year-old bed. His next job was in a deli. One day he showed up for work, but the owner had closed for good.

It didn’t matter (dayenu, remember?). Rosenthal loved his life. “How lucky I am,” he says, “where I’m free to pursue happiness.” A lot of this comes from our point of view. Rosenthal didn’t look down on opportunities to have small roles. It meant he was in show business! In Flash Boys, Michael Lewis writes about what Irish immigrant Ronan Ryan thought about school:

“I couldn’t believe it,” says Ronan. “The kids had their own cars at sixteen! Kids would complain they had to ride on a school bus. I’d say, ‘This fucking thing actually takes you to school! And it’s free! I used to walk three miles.’”

A lot of high achievers frame things to their advantage. Evan Goldberg said writing block is just a term for a bad week, not a persmanent stoppage. Richard Thaler created his entire career on the idea that the way people frame something changes how they see it. Jason Zweig wrote that after people poured out half of a full glass of water, 31% describe it as “half full.” Do the opposite, fill an empty glass halfway, and 88% will now say it’s half full. Two different ways to end at the same place but different answers. The same was true for Ryan, two different ways to become a sixteen-year-old getting to school. So too for Rosenthal. By some standards he was failing, but not by his.  He had the chance to make it in show business, and that was enough. And, he also took the chance.

“You have to get rid of the ‘but I can’t’ and be willing to take the job at the deli that you lose,” Koppelman says. You have to be happy to be an extra in a movie. You have to appreciate those moments. And, you have to learn from them.

“Working at the deli was a lesson in show running,” Rosenthal says, “I was responsible for everything.” His boss never showed up, so he did the work. Decades later those skills were valuable when it was time to make the show Everyone Loves Raymond.

Scott Adams used years of bureaucratic debauchery as inspiration for Dilbert. Mark Cuban slept on a couch so he could funnel his extra time and resources into his business. 

Writing

Here we’ll take a break to jump to another podcast and back in time. While Koppelman and Rosenthal do talk about writing, there’s an even better one. In April, 2013, Rosenthal was on J.R. Havlan’s Writer’s Bloc podcast. There, Rosenthal shared 4 steps to becoming a successful writer.

1. Learn the basics. “I tell everyone to take a writing class,” Rosenthal says, “you can’t learn how to be funny but you can learn the structure.”  Scott Adams says there are six elements to a good joke. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg said they watched tons of movies to learn what makes a good one. You have to figure out the basic things in whatever craft you pursue.

2. Be patient. Besides the deli and museum, Rosenthal says, “I worked on a number of terrible shows for years.” Chris Hadfield trekked, swam, flew, sat, and worked all over the world for a chance to be an astronaut. Hadfield says that when people saw him playing guitar on the space station or speaking in Russian, they asked if he learned those things while there. Ha, Hadfield chuckles, he’s been doing those things for decades. 

3. You have to be you and you have to be new. Rosenthal recalls a conversation he had early on with Ray Romano when they were working on the show. “He (Romano) asked me, ‘Does there have to be a story every week. Can’t we just sit in the diner and make jokes?’ That’s perfectly fine for the show that’s doing that right now,” Rosenthal says, but not for them. He goes on to say that he couldn’t write Seinfeld if he wanted. It’s a good thing he didn’t. Any Seinfeld clone would fail. It’s why Penn Jillette says that if you hate supermarket music you should make supermarket music.

4. Learn something new. “Take a writing or directing class,” Rosenthal says, “you want to come at the problem from every angle.” Like Tren Griffin suggests mental models for business, Rosenthal suggests them for writing. The more filters, ideas, angles, domains, and formulas you can apply, the better your answer will be.

“I’ll have what Phil’s Having.”

Rosenthal describes his new show as, “I’m just like Anthony Bourdain if he was afraid of everything.”

It seems like there are two reason Rosenthal is making the new show. First, it’s a chance for him to connect. “Being on camera is just a way to connect,” Rosenthal says. “You hear my voice in Raymond,” but it’s filtered. Rosenthal and Koppelman comment that this thinking may be behind what made Larry David create Curb Your Enthusiasm.

Second, the new show serves a higher purpose. “I think this is the most important thing I’ve ever done,” Rosenthal says, “when you eat food you’re literally taking in another culture.” When Rosenthal exported Everybody Love Raymond to Russia, he saw that people aren’t that different.

One culture has a meddling – but well-intentioned mother – guess what, so does another. While Rosenthal travels around the world, he tells Koppelman that you don’t have to be worldly to do this. “You can even travel in your own town,” Rosenthal says. You can be a flaneur, which is popular in Paris this fall.

“Flânerie is still so important to the identity of Paris that Hermès has chosen it as its inspirational theme this year. The design house has created a pop-up museum celebrating the practice, on the Left Bank of the Seine at the port of Solférino.”

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

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Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg

Seth Rogen (@SethRogen) and Evan Goldberg (@EvanDGoldberg) joined Tim Ferriss to talk about their narrative arcs. If you listen closely though, you’ll hear more. Between the discussions of old TV shows (Freaks and Geeks, Kids in the Hall) and amid the haze (marijuana smoke), but well before the end (what books they give as gifts) – there is a success blueprint. Rogen and Goldberg’s Hollywood ascent is a proxy that anyone in any area can follow.

They outline six steps:

  1. Start small.
  2. Be you.
  3. Have a process.
  4. Persist.
  5. Double down when the opportunity arises.
  6. Define your own success.

1. Start small.

Goldberg and Rogen grew up in Vancouver, and met at the Jewish Community Center where they took karate class. This was not a typical karate class. “We beat the living shit out of each other,” they tell Ferriss. They stopped when someone fractured a hip.

Moving from one hobby to another, the pair started to pay more attention to movies, in part because they were all around. “You would see movie sets everywhere,” Rogen says about living in Vancouver, “we loved movies.”

They liked Clerks and Bottle Rocket, said Rogen, ” because they had this do it yourself feel.” They started to watch more movies, taking advantage of a local video rental store’s 7 movies for 7 days program.

Of the 7; 2 were good and 5 were bad. They watched and noticed the differences between good movies and bad ones. Goldberg and Rogen started small.

Sam Shank started Hotels Tonight with only a handful of properties. Rick Ross started selling crack on the street before he was a kingpin. Maria Popova began Brain Pickings with an email to seven people. Dick Yuengling carried kegs well before he was the CEO.

For Rogen and Goldberg, starting small had two advantages. First, they realized what they wanted was attainable. They saw Clerks and thought, hey, we can do that.  Stephen Dubner noted that small problems are good problems because they are easier to solve. If you try to solve something complex, other problems will be entangled. Rogen and Goldberg love the Fast and Furious movies, but as teenagers they couldn’t make them. Clerks though, that was possible.

Second, starting small forces focus on the fundamentals. There’s less speculation about what matters and why. When Rogen and Goldberg wrote Superbad, it was super bad. “Superbad was awful at first,” Rogen says. Of course it was, they wrote it when they were 13 years old.

Things will be bad as you get your sea legs.  Austin Kleon said, “there’s a big gap when you’re starting out between what you love and what you’re producing.” But it’s where everyone begins. Small projects like Superbad, have easier fixes in the same way a small house has less problems than larger one.

As you start small you’ll also be less tempted to be anyone but you.

2. Be you.

As Rogen and Goldberg built skills, they started to do more things. Rogen won an amateur comedy contest, but he knew this wasn’t his strength. “I was like a B+ standup comedian,” he says, “that was just something I was aware of.” Rogen noticed that other people were much better, so he drifted away from standup.

“What we’re best at,” said Rogen, “is writing,”

Brett Steenbarger helps traders figure this out. “Figure out who you are when you are at your best,” he advises. Tren Griffin said that Charlie Munger figured this out too. “One of the great contrasts in life,” says Giffin, “is between people who know a moat when they see it and people who know how build one out of nothing.” Builders are people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. Finders are people like Charlie Munger.

Rich Roll had to figure out that he had “an addictive personality,” and his life would be a magnification of his choices – good or bad. Stanley McChrystal figured this out in regards to how and when he ate. Know thyself is valuable advice.

It’s also differentiating. You are your competitive advantage. Neil Gaiman says it like this:

“There are lots of artists in the world, but there’s only one you. And the only person who has your point of view, is you. If you decide not to make things, all you’ve done is deprive the world of all the stuff that only you could have brought to it.”

You are your competitve advantage, said Arthur Samberg.  What Peter Thiel writes about in Zero to One applies here too. You will fail if you try to be the second coming of Bill Gates, Tim Ferriss, or LeBron James. You can only be you.

When Goldberg and Rogen started out they understood this. They didn’t try to duplicate Kids in the Hall. They made something unique.

But uniqueness is not spontaneous. It comes from other things, and grows best if you have a good process.

3. Have a process.

Goldberg and Rogen have a very distinct way to get ideas – survival of the fittest. And the only ideas that survive are creative ones. 

Survival of the fittest.

“We have tons of ideas,” says Goldberg. A current Word file is ten pages. He and Rogen take a if it’s interesting, write it down approach. And the ideas aren’t divine. I was surprised at the simplicity of the list they shared with Ferriss; “husband who holds back wife, wife who enhances husband’s positive qualities, house warming party.” For two funny people, that seems remarkably normal. But in the same way you and a chef may use the same ingredients, the final dishes are quite different.  

As they write things down, Rogen says, “some ideas will stick in your head.” He continued, “Then it’s like a darwinist process, if an idea is around a year later it’s good.” (Tweet this)

Stephen King said much the same thing:

“I never write ideas down. Because all you do when you write ideas down is kind of immortalize something that should go away. If they’re bad ideas, they go away on their own. If you can’t remember it, it was a terrible idea.”

A.J. Jacobs has a similar process. His books like; Drop Dead Healthy, The Know-It-All, and The Year of Living Biblically all came from ideas he put on a master list that wouldn’t die.  

You don’t need to write things down to have darwinist ideas. The process Goldberg and Rogen are using for their newest project – Preacher – they learned from Sam Catlin. Goldberg says “we used to write down ideas, but he (Catlin) taught us not to write down ideas for a month and just shoot them around, lots of talking talking talking.”

The talking follows King’s perspective that ideas aren’t “immortalized.” Ideas can’t accumulate like keepsakes in your aunt’s attic. There needs to be an evolution and we’ll turn to Brett Steenbarger’s two steps for creativity. If you want to be creative, Steenbarger noted, you need to analyze and synthesize.

Analyze

“A lot of our movies are genre based,” Rogen says, “so something we do is watch tons of movies in that genre.” “Like when Craig Robinson went out on the rope,” Goldberg said, “that was based on Mist.”

From 7 for 7 at the local video rental store to “tons of movies,” Goldberg and Rogen have analyzed a lot. This stage transfers to anything. When people here say to read, this is what they mean.

Naval Ravikant said we should read widely. Chris Sacca says everyone successful he knows reads a lot. Jim Kwik said, “the intelligent person learns from their own experience but the wise person learns from the experience of other people.” Howard Marks said that the best way to avoid mistakes is to read widely. Tren Griffin explained how Charlie Munger does this (and Griffin too).

Figure out your domain, and analyze something.

Synthesize

This is where ideas are brought together. Goldberg and Rogen take their ten pages of ideas, and bring together something greater than the sum of the parts. Synthesize also goes by serendipity, and we need to be open to it. Maria Popova said that we shouldn’t confuse “search and research.” Search is looking for something specific, a movie showtime, Q2 earnings. Research is being open to other multiple answers, to serendipity. Sanjay Bakshi found that he stumbled upon more serendipitous things when he switched to e-books. The search feature, he told Shane Parrish, means that he can find ideas that hadn’t come to mind.

Wiggle and fiddle. Search and seek. Create a process and get comfortable because you may be doing it for a long time.

4. Persist.

By the time you notice someone, they have been working at their craft for a long time. It took ten years to get Superbad made. It took so long that Rogen grew out of the role he had written for himself. Pineapple Express was the same story, it was a movie no one wanted to buy.

But Goldberg and Rogen persisted, even through writer’s block. 

The blockage is all how you frame it. “Writer’s block is a term people give for bad weeks,” Goldberg says. “It’s when they lose inspiration,” Rogen adds. Anne Lamott writes that it’s not so much a block as a chasm, “the word block suggests that you are constipated or stuck, when the truth is that you’re empty.”

Writer’s block was less of a problem for Goldberg and Rogen because they had each other. “There’s moments where one of us has to pick up the weight,” Goldberg says. They may be partners, but the work isn’t always even. Having someone to work with helps a lot.

“A lot of companies,” says Peter Thiel, “aren’t solo efforts of a god-like person that does everything.” Jay Jay French persisted to find the right bandmates. Nicholas Megalis said, “find a group of people who are like minded, who can help you achieve certain goals. Everything is a team effort.”

But it will never be perfect.

“No matter what job you have,” says Goldberg, “it’s work and work in some ways sucks.” Austin Kleon said “every job is a job.”

Persisting is like warming up water on the stove. Little by little heat is added to the pot until it boils.

5. Double down when the opportunity arises.

“Once the floodgates were opened, we just shoved everything in there,” said Rogen.

Rogen and Goldberg worked on Knocked Up, Superbad, and Pineapple Express all in a single year. They worked 16 hour days. Goldberg drank all the coffee he could get his hands on, and then snuck off to the bathroom to take twenty minute naps.

This is how Charlie Munger and Warren Buffett invest. They prepare themselves for opportunities and then dive into them. 

There’s not much more to it than that. When the time is right, jump in and hold on tight. As the ride soars, make sure you succeed on your own scores.

6. Define your own success.

When Ferriss asks Goldberg who he thinks is successful, he says his cousin David is. “He just made up his mind in a simple and beautiful way.” Success is tricky.

Naval Ravikant said, “we all want to be successful people but we also want to be happy people and those run in diametrical opposite directions.” Tyler Cowen added that we don’t need to be happy per se, being driven, eating well, and having a stable home life is good too. T. Harv Eker thought that if he only had a successful business, then he would feel like a success. It wasn’t true, Eker still languished while his business flourished.

Success is up to you to define. The key is to define it clearly. In the same way that Nick Murray said you can’t chase financial plans and financial gains, your terms of success can’t be mutually exclusive. Goldberg noticed this too. “We’ll never be number one and if we are, we won’t be cool anymore.” The goal is to find things that go together.

That’s not an easy question to answer, and it’s entirely up to you. The good news is that there are low hanging fruit. Nearly everyone agrees on two things. 

  1. It’s not about the [money](https://thewaiterspad.com/big-ideas/its-not-about-the-money-honey/).
  2. It is about being healthy. Goldberg tells a story about smoking pot with Snoop Dogg and Snoop asks him if he goes for walks. “What?” Goldberg says “no, I don’t really go for walks.” Snoop is disappointed, “you should go for walks,” he says.

Goldberg was disappointed that Snoop was disappointed in him, so he started going for walks. And he loves them. Walking is great. So is Mason Currey’s book Daily Rituals, which he writes about many creatives who walk. This passage is about Soren Kierkegaard:

“The Danish philosopher’s day was dominated by two pursuits: writing and walking. Typically, he wrote in the morning, set off on a long walk through Copenhagen at noon, and then returned to his writing for the rest of the day and into the evening. The walks were where he had his best ideas, and sometimes he would be in such a hurry to get them down that, returning home, he would write standing up before his desk, still wearing his hat and gripping his walking stick or umbrella.

When Ferriss asks for advice they would give to their younger selves Goldberg says “to lose weight.”


You and I won’t be the next Goldberg or Rogen, and that’s good. Even if you’re reading this and you want to be in Hollywood, you can’t be exactly like them. We can only follow a path that others have taken.

  1. Start small.
  2. Be you.
  3. Have a process.
  4. Persist.
  5. Double down with you get a good chance.
  6. Succeed on your own terms.

That’s what it takes to make it anywhere.

Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano.

Wow, you made it to the end of the post. A solid 2300 words. That’s like 9 pages in a book (and forever online). If you found a few things valuable, you can donate $2 or join to get extra content

Brett Steenbarger

Brett Steenbarger (@Steenbab) joined Andrew Swanscott (@BetterSysTrader) on the Better Systems Trader podcast to talk about what successful traders do. Even though the conversation focused on trading, a lot of the big ideas are interdisciplinary. There are three things that makes traders successful, says Steenbarger:

– How to act during the good, bad, and ugly.

– To have unique ideas.

– To leverage your strengths.

How can you and I apply this? Let’s see.

Prepare yourself for the good, bad, and ugly moments of life.

Steenbarger says that there are three situations traders should prepare for; drawdowns, success, and personal problems.

  1. During a drawdown (bad). Traders should be careful that they don’t become more risk averse and change their thought processes, Steenbarger warns. The problem is, our bodies prepare for bad things and we aren’t aware of it. In The Hour Between Dog and Wolf, Dr. John Coates writes about what happens physiologically when traders take a position:

“Consequently Scott and Logan’s bodies, largely unbeknownst to them, have also prepared for the event. Their metabolism speeds up, ready to break down existing energy stores in the liver, muscle and fat cells should the situation demand it. Breathing accelerates, drawing in more oxygen, and their hearts rates speed up. Cells of the immune system take up position, like firefighters, at vulnerable points of their bodies, such as the skin, and stand ready to deal with injury and infection.”

Hormones are released. Dominos are set to topple depending on what happens.

This all happens naturally, fast, and unbeknownst to us. Steenbarger helps traders figure out how to recognize when this happens, and act correctly. Tadas Viskanta suggested to Jason Osborne we create circuit breakers. If something bad happens, stop. Avoid knee jerk reactions.

We don’t need to be traders to to experience this. The biology is the same for everyone. Maybe your boss calls you into the office. You miss a sale. Your kids drive you crazy.

Osborne said he saw this in his personal life. His newborn daughter had a difficult time sleeping, and would wake up every night. When the witching hour came, he and his wife would try to get her back to sleep – all while being less than cordial to each other. But things changes when the Osborne’s created a plan. If their daugher gets up (before midnight/after a bottle/etc.) then they would (feed her/rock her/change her diaper). 

Bad situations will trigger certain hormonal response. This was great for the jungle, less so for the modern world. Our job is to be aware of when this happens, what’s happening to us, and to plan a series of steps for those situations. The best answer for a drawdown, is pre-drawn plans.

  1. During success (good). In these cases, traders should leverage their strengths. “I help traders become more consistent in applying their strengths so they can extend their profitability,” Steenbarger says.

Tyler Cowen said that he found out his strengths early. Cowen has the ability to drink from the firehose of information, as well as to take time to think about things. He’s built these skills because he straddled the decades of slow learning and fast connections.

When Mark Cuban looks to invest in a company, he looks for something he specifically can help. He has the money to help anything, but he’s really good at helping certain things.

Chris Sacca told Tim Ferriss, “I only get involved in deals where I can personally make an impact.” Tom Rath said that if you can find an area you have a natural talent, you’ll succeed that much faster.

The consistent theme – and what Steenbarger tries to do – is to hone in on the things you do well and do them more.

 

  1. During external distractions (ugly). Traders need a work/life balance says Steenbarger. “The biggest lesson I’ve learned, is to have something more important in your life than trading,” he says. If your self worth is tied to your profit and loss fluctuations, then you’re going to blow up.

Your personal life won’t be perfect. Stress from divorce, financial trouble, or lack of sleep can seep in, and Steenbarger teaches traders how to handle it. Brian Koppelman said that marrying the right person was the best decision he ever made. Chris Hadfield wrote that he could never have been an astronaut without his wife. Brett McKay and Rich Roll both run their businesses with their wives.

Find the best people to have in your life. Be ready for some personal chaos, and try to shield your work from it.

Surviving the good, bad, and ugly are all reactionary. If you want to really succeed you need to act, not react. For that you’ll need unique ideas.

Have unique ideas.

“You don’t find generic super-successful traders.” – Brett Steenbarger

Steenbarger notes that “me too” businesses don’t succeed. He echoes what Peter Thiels writes in Zero to One.

Thiel filters people by asking, “what important truth do very few people agree with you on,” and “what valuable company is nobody building?” These questions filter out people who want to iterate. Thiel craves new ideas. Ironically, Thiel iterates the famous Tolstoy line:

“All happy companies are different: each one earns a monopoly by solving a unique problem. All failed companies are the same: they failed to escape the competition.”

When Lewis Howes wanted to be in the Olympics he chose handball. Was it because Howes is a great handball player? No. Was it because his great uncle Lou was a mentor? No. Was it because Howes went to a prep school that featured the “Olympic Sports?” No (Howes played football). 

It was because the competition for handball was low. It was a place he could, escape the competition. Howes recalls showing up to play for the first time.

“So I show up, I say hey guys, I’m Lewis Howes from Ohio. I’ve never played handball but my goal is to make the US national team and go to the Olympics. They all laughed their asses off. I was the only American there.”

But Howes persisted, and made the national team. He examined the landscape of sports and saw that his unique idea was to pick up a sport with limited competition.

Steenbarger says “the successful traders are playing a different game, one where they are able to leverage a unique perspective.” Howes took his experience playing college football, with a desire to learn and grown, in a less competitive environment. 

When the Golden State Warriors won the 2015 NBA Championship they were applauded for their switching defense. This style of play where any defender can guard any offensive player was critical to their success. Teams that couldn’t switch like the Warriors, were limited to a certain style of defense. The Warriors were not. They had a unique idea (and one that is now being copied by other teams).

Peter Thiel – have a unique business idea.
Lewis Howes – have a unique sport to play.
Warriors – have a unique strategy.

This is all great, but it’s all theoretical if we don’t actually be unique. Ideas are one thing, acting on them is another. Steenbarger proposes two ways to be unique; be adaptable and creative.

Be adaptable.

A big problem, Steenbarger says, is that traders find an edge and don’t change. This is a bad idea. Traders need to think more like entrepreneurs, he says. “An entrepreneur knows that marketplaces are dynamic.” If you run a frozen yogurt store and people don’t come, you need to change. If you run a trading fund, and profits don’t come, you also need to change. Some traders can’t take this perspective Steenbarger says. But adapting is wonderful.

Mark Cuban invests in life entertainment. In the world of DVR, selfies, and people paying to do things, what’s better than  live entertainment?

Maria Popova calls adaptability the “uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind.”

Jason Fried recounts Jeff Bezos as saying, “people who were right a lot of the time were people who often changed their minds. He (Bezos) doesn’t think consistency of thought is a particularly positive trait. It’s perfectly healthy — encouraged, even — to have an idea tomorrow that contradicted your idea today.”

Charlie Munger says a year in which you do not change your mind on some big idea that is important to you is a wasted year.


 

People don’t think like this, says Steenbarger. They find an edge and stay with it because, “people are averse to effort and there is a certain hope they can get rich quick.” Ramit Sethi noted that people are “cognitive misers.” We like the easy road.

There is no easy road. There’s no hike where you just arrive at the scenic bluff. There is no wave where you get in the barrel and be done. You have to change.

But change for the sake of change isn’t what we want. We want something new and good. For that we’ll need to be creative.

Be creative.

“Creativity,” Steenbarger says, “is a habit.” Now, wait a moment. Brushing my teeth is a habit. Driving to work is a habit. How can creativity be a habit?

You have to look at things from the micro and macro levels, says Steenbarger. If you take time to analyze the small things and take time to synthesize them, you’ll start to make new connections. People who are creative find good problems with unique answers.

Sometimes this means having a mentor or collaborator. Certain people are better off talking about their ideas, says Steenbarger. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg explained their writing process this way: “talking, talking, talking.” 

When Rogen and Goldberg teamed up with Sam Catlin to write Preacher all they did was talk. At first this was odd for Rogen and Goldberg, but they followed Catlin’s lead. This is how we did it on Breaking Bad he told them.

For other people, creativity will come from introspection. “It’s why so many of our insights will come at seemingly random times,” says Steenbarger, “like when we’re taking a walk or taking a shower.”

Walking has long been a form of fostering creativity.

In, Daily Rituals, Mason Currey writes about the habits of many creatives and one consistent theme is the daily walk. For example, “Promptly at 2:00 (Charles) Dickens left his desk for a vigorous three-hour walk through the countryside or the streets of London, continuing to think of his story and, as he described it, ‘searching for some pictures I wanted to build upon.’”  

Or about Soren Kierkegaard “Typically, he wrote in the morning, set off on a long walk through Copenhagen at noon, and then returned to his writing for the rest of the day and into the evening.  The walks were where he had his best ideas, and sometimes he would be in such a hurry to get them down that, returning home, he would write standing up before his desk, still wearing his hat and gripping his walking stick or umbrella.”

What you want, says Steenbarger, is to leave yourself open to moments of serendipity. Sanjay Bakshi said that he finds this on his Kindle. Paper books are nice, Bakshi says, but a Kindle lets him search, and sometimes those results have ideas he had forgotten.

A.J. Jacobs is the author of the books, Drop Dead Healthy and The Year of Living Biblically and says that a lot of his projects begin this way. “You’ve got to seize serendipity,” Jacobs says,  “a random thing that might seem small,  you’ve got to grab it and follow it for a while.”

When Adam Carolla showed up at a radio station one day looking for a job, he didn’t expect to meet anyone. This was before smartphones, so rather than looking down, scrolling up, or swiping right – he talked to people. He met a guy and they hit it off. It was Jimmy Kimmel.

If you want to be creative and have unique ideas you need to schedule the time for it. You should have unstructured free time, Steenbarger says, working-working-working won’t work. Ryan Holiday says he learned one of his best productivity tips from Robert Green. Swimming. “Why? Because it requires total isolation: no music, no phone, no possible interruptions. Just quiet, strenuous exercise.”

Leverage your strengths.

“You really want to study your strengths and reverse engineer your successes.” – Brett Steenbarger

For creativity, are you a talk-it-out person, or a be-alone person? Figure it out says Steenbarger, because you want to lean on your strengths.

Once you study your success and failures and develop unique ideas, you need to leverage your strengths. Steenbarger is a proponent of inherent strengths. “People trade the market through their personality,” Steenbarger says, and you want to capitalize on our strengths. Arthur Samberg said “your passion is your competitive advantage. Gary Vaynerchuk said this too.

Steenbarger’s strength was pattern recognition. He noticed that the faster the trading, the more pattern recognition mattered – and he was great at that.

Steenbarger says driving skills and trading skills are similar. “Make the rules as automatic for trading as they are with driving.” How?

1. Create a thesis.  When  Scott Adams wanted to get healthy he changed his diet. I can eat as much as I want, Adams reasoned, so long as it’s healthy. That was his thesis.

2. Implement your thesis and note what happens. A lot of time we make changes, but don’t note them. Shane Parrish writes about the value of decision journals. Other times it’s easier – like for Adams, who noticed that he had more energy and less weight.

3. Figure out the role of luck. In everything we do there is some component of luck. Michael Mauboussin said that luck is more important when skills converge. Winning the NBA championship requires some luck. Winning the YMCA championship requires more skill. The goal is to tease out when you were lucky, and when you were skilled.

4. Habitualize it. Once you figure out what you do well, double down on it. “There are many successful traders with different personalities,” Steenbarger says, “but the successful ones leverage their personality strengths in the market.”

It won’t be easy, (“people are averse to effort”) but it can be done.

“Figure out who you are when you are at your best,” Steenbarger says. That’s the person you should try to replicate. The results may even surprise you.

Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano.

Wow, you made it to the end of the post. A solid 2400 words. That’s like 10 pages in a book (and forever online). If you found a few things valuable, and would like to say thanks, you can donate here.

Arthur Samberg

Arthur Samberg joined Barry Ritholtz (@Ritholtz) on Bloomberg’s Masters in Business podcast. As always, these notes are only a sample of the actual interview. Here’s our table of contents.

  • Passion as a competitive advantage.
  • How to be smarter.
  • Synergy and success.
  • Big fish in a little pond.
  • Advice on running a business.

Find your competitive advantage.

Competitive advantage is bounced around like a beach ball at some last-days-of-summer cookout. Fun to bat around, but hard to grasp. Samberg though gives one of the best perspectives for personal competitive advantage I’ve heard.

When Ritholtz asks how he transferred from being a rocket scientist to being a financial analysis, Samberg said, “you gotta follow your passion, your competitive advantage. I could solve the equations but I didn’t know what was going on.” That’s brilliant.

Follow your passion is usually bad advice. Cal Newport took his book title from the Steve Martin interview where he told Charlie Rose:

“Nobody ever takes note of [my advice], because it’s not the answer they wanted to hear,” Martin said. “What they want to hear is ‘Here’s how you get an agent, here’s how you write a script,’…but I always say, ‘Be so good they can’t ignore you.’”

People don’t usually have passion for practice. But doing the work is exactly what you need to do. It’s why Gary Vaynerchuk said that to succeed greatly it needs to be something you’re passionate about. You need to leverage the enjoyment in the late nights, early mornings, and weekends of work. You can’t dabble.

Samberg says that this passion is your competitive advantage. “You are what you are.”

It’s part of the value of knowing yourself. It’s how Gretchen Rubin started her book on habits. You can’t build good habits, Rubin rationed, if you don’t know what habits are good for you. “Knowing our tendency,” Rubin writes, “can help us frame habits in a compelling way.”

We can look at passion as a tool. If it’s something that spurs you on to work harder, then leverage that.

How to be smart, be around smart people.

Early in his career, Samberg migrated back to New York City. Not because it was great, but because his wife needed a job and he knew she could get one there. Samberg got a job at Columbia and started to carpool with Leon Cooperman.

“I learned more in the carpool than I did in school,” Samberg tells Ritholtz. We’ve seen this before. Seth Godin said school teach a lot of the wrong things. “There’s only two things we should be teaching in school, Godin says, “how to lead and how to solve interesting problems.”

I don’t know how right Godin is, but I know that you don’t have to learn in school. Read something interesting. Nearly every post here includes book links. Plus, reading will help you with something critical to Samberg’s success, synergy.

Synergy and success.

“My success in life is taking a decent expertise in technology and combining that with finance and trying to apply those two things to help companies aggregate capital and grow and create jobs.” – Arthur Samberg

Samberg is not the smartest engineer in the world. He is not a brilliant financier. But, when you put those two things together (like mayonnaise on a turkey sandwich) you get something much more than the sum of the parts.

Scott Adams wrote that this is exactly what has made him successful. From How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big:

“I’m a perfect example of the power of leveraging multiple mediocre skills. I’m a rich and famous cartoonist who doesn’t draw well. At social gatherings I’m usually not the funniest person in the room. My writing skills are good, not great. But what I have that most artists and cartoonists do not have is years of corporate business experience plus an MBA from Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.”

Dave McClure was on a similar path to Samberg. Instead of starting a hedge fund, he started a startup incubator. McClure said, “I had both the engineering and marketing side, and there weren’t that many people doing investing that had both disciplines.”

When we combine skills in a Venn diagram we shrink the pool of competitors. If you want to be a big fish, you probably need to swim in a little pond.

Big fish in a little pond.

Samberg tells Ritholtz that creating anything is easier when it’s smaller. “Change becomes more difficult,” Samberg says, “as a trend goes on and you become larger in size.”

Samberg’s perspective is an investing one. It’s easier for a hedge fund to allocate $10M dollars and earn 18% on that money than $500M. It’s the same reason Naval Ravikant said that Freakonomics isn’t as good as it once was. Tim Ferriss notes that many things in life follow the Sigmoid Curve. Rapid learning, growth, earnings, then things slow down.

Making a thousand dollars is easier than making a million. Writing one best-seller is easier than writing two.

If you want to succeed, be a big fish in a little pond. Michael Mauboussin explained how the numbers tell the story. The more people there are, the more skill there is and the more luck comes into play. It’s why Lewis Howes plays handball and why Peter Thiel tells people not to open the 23rd pizza place in town.

This is good business advice, but there is something else Samberg wants people to know.

Advice on running a business.

“It’s a challenge because there’s a lot of smart people out there. But figuring out who’s going to be easy to live with is very difficult.” – Arthur Samberg

It’s easier than ever – though not simple – to find the right people. In Here Comes Everybody, Clay Shirky noted that businesses traditionally stop growing in size because the drag of maintenance ate away at profits. Samberg says much the same thing, “anything that is successful creates an infrastructure around that activity.” And infrastructures have to be maintained.

Imagine you have a road people love to drive on. You charge them each time and they happily pay. Taking a cue (people spend with their feet) you build more road. And then more. Eventually though you had to stop because the old road needed maintenance. The more road, the more maintenance. That same drag is present in organizations.

People muddy the waters more than infrastructure. Asphalt is an inert substance with formulas for tracking how long it might last. People are not the same. When Phil Libin talked with Tim Ferriss, he noticed this at Evernote. There were people scaling issues. Three people were fine, ten was okay, one hundred and things broke down. To fix those things they had to add support to the business (Shirky’s drag, Samberg’s infrastructure).

In Shirky’s book he proposes that as technology progresses, we get better options with less drag. First phones, then fax, then email, now Slack. Each of these simplified communication. This also lets people form their own connections that in the past would have been too expensive. Imagine if I had to mail this blog out via the postal service each week. Yikes.

Samberg’s point is that if you have good people, you’ll have less drag. “I had a hot streak of hiring when I got started,” he tells Ritholtz. When Adam Davidson was on a Hollywood set he saw this. It wasn’t always the most skilled people that were hired. Sometimes it was someone less skilled, but nicer to work with.

Being nice matters.

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