#109 Tim Ferriss

Tim Ferriss (@TFerriss) joined James Altucher to talk about dealing with big organizations, meta learning, and what it takes to film a television show. This is Ferriss’s second interview with James, appearing first on episode #22.

This interview begins – and is dotted throughout – by the story about what happened on screen and behind the scenes with the Tim Ferriss Experiment, a show he describes as “Jackass meets Mythbusters.” What surprised me this story was how long this process has taken, nearly a year before Ferriss was talking about the show and promoting it. “It took a long time to make the show in the first place” Ferriss tells James. That things take time is prudence we can exercise. The overnight success is a good marketing story says Austin Kleon (episode #19) and Trip Adler (episode #61) said that companies fail because they fail they forget this.

Not only does making a show take time, but Ferriss wanted to work with Zero Point Zero Productions to film a non-fiction television show rather than a reality television show. This is a notable difference, even though it may not appear so on the surface. Real tv isn’t all real and knowing the difference is valuable. Alex Blumberg (episode #70) saw this working for This American Life. Blumberg tells James that he thought telling good stories on the radio meant he could tell good stories on television. Not so.

James notes that Ferriss must have been busy while filming, and “these episodes were not four hour work weeks.” Ferriss agrees that he was very busy, acting as co-executive producer, actor, and actually learning the things he’s attempting. He’s also quick to point out being busy fits within the 4-Hour ethos. Because he’s optimized, arranged, and organized his life around a 4-Hour type of system, he can do things like film television shows. The 4-Hour Workweek isn’t literally about only working four hours, it’s about promoting a system that lets you get the required stuff done in four hours so you can do something else. As Austin Kleon told James, “every job is still a job” meaning that each job has parts that just need to get done. Ferriss wrote the book to teach you ways to get those parts done in less time.

In this attempt to avoid a scripted product that was closer to reality than reality tv, Ferriss says that they had to plan their shoots very carefully. He tells James they had a bunch of If/Then propositions ready, like, “if Tim breaks his leg, then we do this.” It reminded me of Ramit Sethi’s (episode #36) interview with James when he mentioned his theory of preeminence. Sethi approaches his projects by trying to figure out everything that needs done ahead of time. He tries to figure out a customer’s objections and have answers, find their problems and build in solutions, and translate their misunderstandings and explain things more clearly.

Despite the work, Ferriss got through all the filming (though not unscathed). During this he was hearing rumors about unrest at Turner Productions, but was hopeful that his show would get released, and it did, on HLN. This was a bad fit Ferriss said. His audience wanted on-demand options, not appointment viewing. They wanted digital, not broadcast. They wanted portable, not televised. It was a bit of bad luck.

Lady luck plays a lot of rolls in the lives of the interviewees. Mark Cuban (episode #24) and Seth Godin (episode #86) both told James they got a bit lucky selling their companies when they did. Scott Adams (episode #47) and Kevin Kelly (episode #96) makes the strongest case for luck their lives. But we all get lucky and unlucky and rather than curse it, quit, and lick our wounds, we should just keeping going. Seth Godin told James it’s like getting up to bat over and over again and to just keep swinging. Scott Adams compared it to a slot machine that doesn’t require any money to play, just that you put forth a bit of effort to pull the handle.

Ferriss saw this programming arrangement as a bad break and took a page of freaky thinking from Stephen Dubner (episode #20) and asked himself: Did my show not do well because it’s a bad show or did it not do well because of bad luck? He reasoned that it was probably luck since all the other pieces were competent at what they were doing.

Ferriss eventually found out that the branch Turner Production that included his show was closing and he moved in to get the rights. He reasoned that the people who were now in charge of his show wouldn’t want it because it was a lose-lose situation for them. If the new executive came in and relaunched The Tim Ferriss Experiment and it worked, his predecessor would be praised for the success. And if the show failed, the new executive would bear the burden. Ferriss then began the process of buying back his show, telling James, “large organizations are often not properly incentivized to cooperate.”

The pair then get into the different experiences Ferriss has had, beginning with being a rock and roll drummer for Foreigner to learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu from Marcelo Garcia.  Ferriss says he was connected to Garcia through mutual friend Josh Waitzkin, who ironically James met “briefly on a street corner.” (Though this is an interview I would love to hear)

The conversation moves to dating and, Ferriss tells James he worked with Neil Strauss on his cold approaches, that is, going up to someone without any reason to talk to them other than getting to know them. Ferriss tells James, “I was nervous every time I did it.” But with some tweaks from Strauss (stand laterally, don’t overthink it, don’t start with “sorry”) he was able to get over his initial fears.  In Choose Yourself Altucher writes that “rejection is probably the most powerful force in our lives.” And because we can’t avoid it, we may as well get used to it. Ben Mezrich (episode #84) for example, told James that he got 180 rejections for his writing. He probably faced a similar experience to Ferriss where the first few were hard, but it got easier. Gretchen Rubin (episode #97) told James that if we make this sort of thing a habit, it can “dampen our emotional reaction to things.” For Rubin it meant driving a car and becoming less anxious about it, for Mezrich it was writing rejections, for Ferriss it was cold shoulders on cold approaches.

Hearing all this James says that he could never approach women like Ferriss did, but Ferriss responds, “none of the rejections were that bad.” Ferriss said something similar in his first interview, noting that we often have a “nebulous fear of failure.” Instead we can ask ourselves what’s the worst that can happen, how can I minimize this thing from happening, and if it does happen, what can I do to get back to where I am now?

In his experiments Ferriss looks to deconstruct the key elements to understand them. He wants to dive deep into the details to figure out each one. James has had other guests mention this as well. Brian Koppelman (episode #98) and Carol Leifer (episode #66) both have great stories about how comedians have to figure out the chemistry between, funny, harsh, gross, brash, TMI and LOL.

Ferriss says that his systems involves a lot of experimentation and James says this is a great idea, not just for best-selling authors on television shows but anyone, “take investing in startups, almost nobody knows in advance what’s going to make a successful startup” Altucher says because each startup goes through some iteration and experimentation to be something better. Jay Jay French (episode #75) told James the same thing about playing in a band and writing songs. You just have to keep doing it, learning something, change it, and do it again.

And don’t be afraid to mess up during these experiments. “I screw up more than most people I know, but when you see the highlight reel in a bio or a book that’s the end product, you don’t see all the work that goes into it” Ferriss tells James. Ramit Sethi had similar counsel:

“If you look at someone from the outside and they have a successful business or blog and a podcast and you’re like, wow, there’s no way I could do that. Know that I felt exactly the same way.”

Another experiment for the show was to get better at poker, and Ferriss says, “your psychological state is very different when you’re playing with your real money.” Past guest Nassim Taleb writes that English bridge builders used to have to spend time under their bridges to ensure their incentives were in line with those using the bridge.

Ferriss said that some types of poker require a good player to fold a lot of hands and that can lead to boredom, “I don’t have a problem with being bored for long periods of time if I have a system that supports it.” A lot of the guests talk about letting systems guide their thinking. We need systems, argues Ramit Sethi, because we are “cognitive misers.” Chris Guillebeau (episode #46) for example, told James that “I do a lot of the same things everyday.” These aren’t boring to Guillebeau because he knows that those actions will help him get what he wants. Ditto for T. Harv Eker (episode #100) whose entire framework is built on reframing our systems and thought patterns.

Some of Ferriss’s other shows focus on urban evasion and escape (hot-wiring a car, getting out of duct tape handcuffs), open-water swimming, and golf. In all of these things Ferriss tells James that the learning got easier because he began to understand the meta learning aspects with each experiment. He also recognized his own patterns in life and began to adapt those to what was required for filming a television show. He looked at when he was getting tired and tweaked his sleeping schedule. He looked at when and how he was getting hungry and changed what and when he ate.

Near the end of the interview James tries to draw analogies between learning chess and learning anything. It sounds like Ferriss is on board with this connection, but that he doesn’t have the same understanding of chess as James. He can’t give examples to connect the two as easily as he might in one of the experiments. Ferriss does say that one key part is chunking the big aspects of something. In another clip he says that if you learn twelve basic sentences in a foreign language, you can start to cobble together a bunch of other things. He tells James, that once we build a model for doing something in our brain, we don’t need to make a lot of effort the next time. For example, look at this text. You can probably read it easy enough even though someone learning to read would have great trouble with it.

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But once we get those chunks established, it’s hard to override them, even when it’s something as simple as riding a bike.

Riding a bike that steers the opposite way is evidently really hard and Ferriss tells James that “there are definite skills that allow you to fake it sooner than others.” If you want to learn to play the guitar, you might consider learning four chords:

Ferriss says that he’s doing these things because “the skill that I’m refining is meta learning.” Ferriss is looking for the best ways to go from being at the 0 percentile and improving to the 95th percentile. He tells James that it Logistic-curve.svgonly takes about six months of constant work to do this. Learning anything, Ferriss says, progresses like the Sigmoid curve. Slow at first, then a rapid ascent of skills and then another plateau in the final stages.

James asks for specific techniques about how Ferriss has learned about meta learning and Ferriss goes back to DSSS: deconstruct, select, sequence, stakes.

Ferriss says that the show cost him “blood, sweat, tears, and money.” James says he’s going to force his children to watch it as part of their education. Ferriss ends the interview quoting Thomas Edison, “When you have exhausted all possibilities, remember this – you haven’t.”

Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano.

One final note: In the interview Ferriss talks about Josh Waitzkin’s book The Art of Learning and Joshua Foer’s book Moonwalking with Einstein. I’ve read both and would recommend them to anyone interested in learning. I have a newsletter where each month I share what books I’ve been reading. I’ve also created a Slack group for people to talk about what they’re reading, get help reading more, and find your next book. So many of the guests talk about reading as part of their success. James talks about reading almost all the time. Get in touch for an invitation.

#61 Trip Adler

640px-Trip_AdlerTrip Adler (@TripAdler) joined James Altucher to talk about startups, lessons learned, and starting small. Adler is the cofounder of Scribd and Forbes has listed him as a 30 under 30 to watch.

The interview begins when James asks Adler what Scribd is, and he says it’s like “YouTube for documents” and that their goal is to be “one of the the broadest and largest libraries of content on the internet.”

Adler began trying to figure the problem of sharing documents when he dad, a doctor at Stanford, was frustrated by the eighteen month delay in medical publishing. Instead he wanted a place to share his work online. This proximity led Adler to find what Peter Thiel (episode #43) calls a secret. “Every great business is built on finding secrets” Thiel writes and the secret that Adler found was a missing connection between readers and writers. In the same way that Uber connects riders with drivers, Scribd connects readers with writers. He tells James that they’ve found a way to preserve the formatting, get documents indexed by Google, easily embed them, and monetize them for the writers.

Uber is a fitting analogy for this, because that’s the company Adler wanted to start. “I met my founder Jared and had an idea for a totally different company. It was basically the idea for Uber but I was a few years too early.” Mark Cuban (episode #24 ) told James much the same thing about his experiences in the streaming music industries. “It pisses me off,” Cuban says, that they were doing that sort of stuff years before Spotify, Pandora, or anyone else. You have to be a little lucky with your timing. Jim Luceno (episode #60) was lucky to get a chance to write for Star Wars and told James, “sometimes hard work isn’t enough.” Seth Godin (episode #86) and Mark Cuban admit to lucky timing when they each sold their companies.

But it’s not just luck. Stephen Dubner (episode #20) told James that we should look at luck as one ingredient, like raisins in a cookie. If you make a batch of oatmeal raisin cookies and don’t like them, it doesn’t mean you don’t like cookies, just that you don’t like those. Luck is an ingredient to experiment with and quantify as best you can. If your effort and skills were good but something didn’t work out, you can figure in a bit of bad luck.

So, instead of the ride sharing service, Adler says that he and Jared spent “a good year, year and a half iterating on ideas.” And then, “after trying and failing at a bunch of ideas we had the idea for Scribd.” Sam Shank (episode #78) did the same thing with his career. When he saw that becoming a Hollywood director was a long shot, he looked for other areas he might have creativity and control.

When they decided to start down the path of building Scribd, Adler tells James they built a minimum viable product. Guest after guest on the podcast have advocated for starting small on big projects.

  • Jon Acuff (episode #106) spoke anywhere for free before being paid as a public speaker.
  • Maria Popova’s (episode #89) Brain Pickings was first an email to eight people.
  • Lewis Howes (episode #88) did instructional videos for LinkedIn projects before expanding.
  • Ramit Sethi (episode #36) said not to look at what people have built, because built things are far from starts.

Adler started small, building up the Scribd community, which turned out to be a good move. Before launching he tells James, they were “picking off internet users one by one” reaching out to anyone what might be a good fit for the service. It’s always striking to me how often technology companies start with so much non-automated activities. Scribd didn’t have a base of customers so they had to email people one by one. Sam Shank tells James much the same thing about Hotels Tonight. When they started they had to call each of their participating hotels each day to see how many rooms were available and at what price.

Scribd had a successful launch though because they manually built a community. Since then the company has grown and started to compete with SlideShare and Amazon. Throughout the interview Adler really seems to know his industry, talking knowledgeably about both his own company and his competitors. Jason Calacanis (episode #77) told James that he looks for founders who, “know this stuff cold.”

As Scribd has grown Adler has learned some valuable lessons, things he had to go through. “Getting advice is only going to help you so much, ultimately you’re going to have to learn these things on your own” he tells James about the bumps along the way. Jairek Robbins (episode #96 ) told James the same thing about his coaching business, noting that his dad Tony Robbins (episode #62) could have warned him about so many things – but that those lessons wouldn’t have been as valuable.

One of those hard lessons was in 2011 when, “a lot of things were not working out at the same time” Adler says. We’re all going to have our moments like this. Alex Blumberg (episode #70) has had a lot, figuring things out as he goes along. Ditto for Ben Mezrich (episode #84)who didn’t know if he’d ever be a full time writer.

James asks if Scribd had a “Lazy Sunday” moment (ala when the Adam Samberg video Lazy Sunday went viral and people began to discover YouTube.) No, Adler says, their model is more like the long tail. Kevin Kelly (episode #96) termed the coin and talked to James about it. Amanda Palmer (episode #82) has lived the long tail as a career.

James paraphrases Stephen King and asks, do you do it for the money, honey? Adler has a King like remark and says, nope. “The trend to start a company and make a lot of money is on the way out” Adler says. Sam Shank told James the same thing and Peter Thiel recounted the same story about Mark Zuckerberg. There’s more than money to life because some guests have had all the money they could ever need, and still weren’t happy. Tom Shadyac (episode #15) found himself sleeping in a closet and dealing with a disconnect between an actor making $20M for a movie and the janitor on set making $20/hour. Brad Feld (episode #91) tells a similar story of going through depression even though his financial health was great.

The interview ends with Adler sharing three lessons he’s learned:

  1. Focus. “Decide what you need to be” Adler tells James.
  2. Communicate. “I didn’t naturally communicate as frequently as I had to as CEO.”
  3. Effort and Determination. “The main reason companies fail is because they give up.” Jay Jay French (episode #75) told James about as it related to Twisted Sister. It took French 11 attempts to form a band with competent members and 6,000 shows before signing a recording contract.

Thanks for reading, if you want to connect, I’m @mikedariano.

#108 Ryan Holiday

Ryan Holiday (@RyanHoliday) joins James to talk about hard work, meeting the right people, and creating win-win situations. Holiday has written three books; Trust Me, I’m Lying, Growth Hacker Marketing, and The Obstacle Is the Way. Holiday was a previous guest in episode #18. What I liked about Holiday’s interviews is that he tells James, “I’m a person who’s worked hard and had some success, I don’t feel like I’m some prodigy or something.” This matters to you and me because we can learn from the things he’s done in life. If you aren’t taking away life lessons from these interviews, you’re really missing out.

Holiday’s admission means that we can tease out natural talent as a reason he’s had success. Austin Kleon (episode #19) told James that “genius can’t teach you anything,” meaning that someone who didn’t need to work, hustle, and dig around to find nuances, has less to teach you than someone who did. Stephen Dubner (episode #20) told James that this is a tool he uses when writing the Freakonomics books. Dubner’s success is built on figuring out what might have been randomness and what was not. So what did Ryan Holiday do that we can learn from?

Their conversation turns to when Holiday just getting started. He was writing for a school paper and liked what Tucker Max (episode #80) was doing. So, he wrote an article about Max, “without needing anything” Holiday says.  He sent it to him, hoping it would lead to an interview but not dependent on it. Holiday wasn’t seeking money, or a job, but instead the chance to talk to Max. Tim Ferriss (episode #22) mentioned this idea in his interview with James when he said that we don’t need money for a lot of things. (And James modeled in when he interview Maria Popova (episode #89)) In fact, money probably couldn’t have bought a meeting between Holiday and Max, only his effort could.

And you can’t be fixed on the goals, because sometimes the goals don’t ever come. Jon Acuff (episode #106) tells James, “you can’t do it for the money, results, or affirmation because you’ll stop as soon as that stuff doesn’t show up.” And that stuff takes a long time to show up.

Astronaut Chris Hadfield might be the best example of this. Hadfield was a Canadian who needed to be accepted to test pilot school in America and then get launched into space on a Russian ship to the international space station. He had to stay healthy (and did barely) be better than many others and luckier than some. He had to actually survive, because each year he saw one of his peers die. About getting to space he writes:

“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 these things interest me, so that whatever happens, I’m happy.”

Holiday’s internship with Max led to a connection with Robert Greene, who had hired Max to do some work for him. Creating nodes in a relationship network have proven to be fruitful to other guests as well. John Acuff told James that this was how he got featured in the Southwest Airlines inflight magazine. Ditto for Adam Carolla (episode #25) who never intended to become friends with Jimmy Kimmel, but did, and it launched both their careers.

Holiday went from his internship with Max to working for Robert Greene, about which he says: “I would not be here right now, I would not be a writer if I hadn’t been Robert’s research assistant.” That job meant sorting through Greene’s unread pile of books and finding things he might use for his work-in-progress. It was, “far and away my favorite job of all time.” Holiday says.

Now that Holiday has earned his own success, he tells James that he gets people coming to him in similar situations and saying they would be happy to work for him for free for the experience but “for me to train this person to do something for me is not free for me.” If you’re reading this thinking about having a mentor in your life you need to take a different direction. Do not email someone and offer to work for them. Tim Ferriss suggests helping other people and not expecting any return, a refrain that Adam Grant (episode #73) suggested too. Ramit Sethi (episode #36) told James that he wants people to come to him prepared, to read something he’s written, and bring value by asking a new question about it.

Greene’s mentorship to Holiday led to an introduction at American Apparel where Holiday organized the marketing division of the company. It sounds like this is where Holiday developed the idea of a story about the story. American Apparel did this with advertisements that featured naked porn stars. About this Holiday says, those ads only ran on two sites, but the story about them were picked up on hundreds. It was a campaign around the campaign and has been leveraged since; Tucker Max tried to sponsor a Planned Parenthood, Tim Ferriss talked about being excluded from Barnes and Noble, and even James Altucher got in on things when he accepted Bitcoin for his books. Click the image to watch him on CNBC.

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Holiday calls this “leaning into the problem” and it’s another thing to learn from.

At this point in the interview the pair dive into some rapid fire advice:

  • About Marketing Mistakes. “People don’t do the work beforehand because they get so caught up in their love of their own creativity and ideas.” Holiday says. They need to dive deep and figure out what people want, not only what they can provide.
  • Holiday’s Two Rules for Writing. “Who am I writing this for and how will it reach them?” Make sure you know what group of people is going to buy the first thousand copies Holiday tells James.
  • About Email Lists. Start small and slowly build it up. It’s the most valuable metric Holiday has because 1 email newsletter subscriber is more valuable than 100 page views for an article.
  • Write at Other Sites. Holiday says that “everyone needs content” and “no editor has ever said, ‘we have too much good content.’”

The interview concludes with the pair talking about the publishing industry and what it looks like. Holiday says that he hasn’t self published yet because the “constraints make me better and stronger.” Constraints helped David Levien (episode #85) write his most recent book series. Astro Teller (episode #81) told James that time constraints lead to better time spent with kids for divorced couples.

But Holiday is keeping his options open to self publishing. This is the sort of optionality made Nassim Taleb rich (but not smart) about that  billionaire business man Seymour Schulich writes “is a terrible thing to give but a wonderful thing to own.” Holiday owns his future writing options.

Thanks for reading, I’m @mikedariano.

One final note. A lot of what Holiday talks about sounds like it’s passion driven but what Holiday really has is control. He went from having no skills and no control (sleeping on Tucker Max’s floor) to have valuable skills and much more control (owning his own business, writing the books he wants. Holiday built up career capital that he traded in for control (and presumably a bed ;)) If you want to learn more about the ideas of control, capital, and why following your passion is bad advice check out http://gum.co/sogoodbookclub which teaches So Good They Can’t Ignore You.

#24 Mark Cuban

markcubanMark Cuban (@MCuban) joined James Altucher to talk about following your passion, leaving a trail, and finding success in life. Before we jump in, know that a lot of the conversation in this interview revolves around Cuban’s apps, Cyber Dust and Xpire. It’s an interesting conversation about big ideas, but not a lot of ideas you and I can apply to our own lives. But there are some good ones, like:

Why following your passion is bad advice. James begins the interview with a nice twist, turning things around on Cuban. James lists all of Cuban’s companies and experiences and asks him if isn’t going from building computer networks, to creating an audio company to stream basketball games, to buying an NBA basketball team a procession of passion?  No, it’s not Cuban says.

“It wasn’t because I wasn’t passionate about systems integrations. It wasn’t because I was passionate about computers, even though I liked them…The more I worked with computers, the better I got at it. The better I got at it, the more passionate I became about it. The more passionate I became at it, the better I got at it.”

On his blog, he’s a bit more blunt, writing, “What a bunch of BS.  “Follow Your Passion” is easily the worst advice you could ever give or get.

PassionSkill (1)Ramit Sethi (episode #36) told James something similar, “When you get good at something, you get passionate.”  Mark Ford (episode #102) took a stand against following your passion as well, noting that if you start a business with your passion, you’ll start to see its warts. If you find yourself stuck in this passion rut see the note at the end of this post.

Cuban tells James that his thinking was formed during college when he and some friends owned a bar. The bar was going to be shut down due to some violations but it imprinted on Cuban the idea of survival. He tells James, “I went through a period where I just wanted to survive month to month” and when he moved to Texas and started his own company, his short term goal was just to be profitable and survive another day. Jay Jay French (episode #75) told James the same thing happens with a band. If you can just keep playing, making enough money, and see another day – you’re doing okay.

When Cuban’s (profitable) company – MicroSolutions – sold, Cuban walked away with $3M in his bank account, which was more than enough. He tells James, “my goals was to retire, but my parameters were that I could live like a student.” Cuban was hoping for one million and live off ten percent of that. Tim Ferriss (episode #22) noted a similar mindset in his interview. Ferriss said that money was just “wampum” – a medium you used and that you don’t always need money for that. Cuban for example, bought a lifetime pass on American Airlines, which cost a lot of money up front, but for the rest of his life he gets to fly first class. Kevin Kelly (episode #96) echoed this too, once you figure out how little money you really need, you can focus on many other things.

Fast forward through the 2000’s where Cuban has more financial success trading stocks. Now he’s created Cyber Dust, and James says the name sounds kind of antiquated. Yeah, Cuban says, but “there’s no such thing as a good URL that’s going to work no matter what.” Cuban lists all the domains he owns, and some of them seem good, but he doesn’t have businesses that will work in them. Jay Jay French told James the same thing about writing music, “nobody knows why anything is a hit.”

At this point in the interview the pair talks about Cyber Dust and Xpire. If you’re not interested in any of this you can skip to the 34:00 mark, but there was one other point to add here.  Cuban notes that with all the data that exists about us, people can figure out quite a bit. Some people know this as the curly fry effect. Researchers at Cambridge looked at 60K Facebook users and found that, “their ‘likes’ alone, predicted a wide range of personal traits. The researchers could predict attributes like a person’s gender, religion, sexual orientation, and substance use (drugs, alcohol, smoking).”Another study was able to predict where people would be in twenty four hours. If you have an iPhone, it can do this.

James and Cuban move their conversation to what Cuban looks for on Shark Tank and Cuban says there are four things he aims for a company to have:

  1. Growth. Peter Thiel (episode #43) told James that every successful business has to find a secret. Secrets are areas where few people are and have more room for growth. An example Thiel often gives is to think in terms of atoms rather than bits. In bits (Facebook, Twitter, Uber) we’ve seen major changes but in atoms (biology, transportation) we haven’t. Thiel reasons that you’ll have a better chance of growing in atoms than in bits.
  2. Entrepreneurs that can run it. Jason Calacanis (episode #77) told James that he looks for entrepreneurs that “know this stuff cold.” They need to understand both their business, but their competitors too, and the industry at large. They need to understand the nuances as well as a comedian – like Carol Leifer (episode #66) knows about how to shut down a rowdy audience member.
  3. Differentiation.  Dave McClure (episode #98) told James that differentiation was how he started 500 Startups. He saw that in the domain of angel investing, very few people understood both marketing and engineering as well as he did. He was different in a good way.
  4. That Cuban can add value.

About selling his own companies, Cuban notes  “luck and timing have a lot to do with it.” Scott Adams (episode #47) compared success to pulling a slot machine handle and eventually getting lucky. Kevin Kelly said he “lucked out to be at this moment.” Jim Luceno (episode #60) told James that “sometimes hard work isn’t enough.” Noticing luck is important – says Stephen Dubner (episode #20) – because it helps us better evaluate our effort and skills. If you tried something and it didn’t work, it’s good to note why. If it was back luck, you know your effort and skill were good and you should try it again. If not, then something else needs to change.

James asks for a few predictions about what the next big things are going to be and Cuban says that he thinks passive sensors, like a heart rate monitor or cameras that can quantify data will be a growing area. He also thinks that personalized medicine will become larger and that our grandkids will ask, “is it true that everyone bought the same kinds of medicine.”

Thanks for reading. – @mikedariano

One more note, about So Good They Can’t Ignore You. I created a reading supplement to the book, offering updates on the examples in the book, providing case studies (from some guests here), and creating an email drip that can spur you along in your reading and get you asking (and answering the right questions). You can find more details here or on the Products page of this site.

#75 Jay Jay French

Jay Jay French joined James Altucher to talk about systems, playing fields, and the best business advice he ever got. I nearly didn’t do a set of notes from this interview but I’m glad I did. If you missed it, go back and listen to it. In this interview there were 5 main lessons.

  • Survey the playing field and know the rules.
  • Avoid the big risks to your survival
  • Use financial validity as a directional test
  • Have some ego and delusional thinking
  • Build up career capital

I’ve put them in bold, let’s go.

French is on the show to talk about the upcoming We are Twisted Fucking Sister documentary.

It sounds like the interview covered a lot of the same ground as the film and French starts out by noting “we were not a west coast, L.A. hair band.” It’s what they get identified as but they weren’t. Instead, “we learned our craft after years and years in the bars” French tells James. As the interview goes on French tells the story about coming up the bars. “The early days were a struggle, it was constant defeat. Constant rejection.” It wasn’t a lack of money, no that they actually had a bit of – it was getting signed by a record company. Back then, French says, you didn’t go out of your region without a record label. So they tried to get signed only to fail.

French took a look at what they were doing and “surveyed the playing field.” The best example was late in their career when French began to manage the licensing of the song, We’re not Gonna Take It. This helped make the song more universal and French implies that this has prolonged the band’s ability to tour. Rather than selling out with the song, it’s a method in the new economy. The new playing field isn’t about one song, but part of that song everywhere.

Starting out that economy and playing field looked different. French saw that a band could share a house, truck, and rent their lighting rig. If they played five or six nights a week and paid themselves “the bare minimum”, they could make it – and making it until tomorrow was all that matter. Today, he tells James, the economics of that process are totally different.

Another lesson was to avoid the big risks and just survive. Part of the risk in a band is incompatibility of bandmates. French tells James that Twisted Sister is on its eleventh iteration, in part because of the crazy people he worked with early on. One singer pulled a gun on their drummer, and the band broke up. Another time two band members stole French’s truck, and held it ransom, and the band broke up. Not until French met Dee Snider did the group survive. In part because of French’s and Snider’s abstinence of drugs and alcohol. “We became obsessive in our desires to succeed and not have anything stand in our way” French says. In the early iterations he saw the negative effects that things like that could have, and he wanted no part of them.

They also had to survive the nearly-made-its. French says that more than once the band was almost signed when something happened. One time they had signed all the papers only to have everything unravel when their German producer died of a heart attack on the plane ride home. French says you just have to, “mourn the setback, accept it, then you reapply and reinvent.”

Part of their survival was because Twisted Sister was validated. French says “we were validated in what we were doing and who we were by the fan base that we had.” French had financial validity. Even though the band hadn’t been signed, they were making money and had fans coming to see them. About knowing when to quit French says, “we knew we weren’t wrong…but it’s a tough call.” It takes time to get this, Stephen King advises writers, “And if you’re not succeeding, you should know when to quit. When is that? I don’t know. It’s different for each writer. Not after six rejection slips, certainly, not after sixty. But after six hundred? Maybe. After six thousand? My friend, after six thousand pinks, it’s time you tried painting or computer programming.”

Cal Newport writes about this too, noting that checking the financial validity of your ideas is a good way to test the temperature of the water before you jump in. Quoting Derek Sivers, “I have this principle about money that overrides my other life rules, do what people are willing to pay for.”

And you must have an  ego and bit of  delusional thinking all the while. “I don’t know if I’m brilliant or just stupid” French tells James. Alex Blumberg (episode #70) praises stupid optimism while A.J. Jacobs (episode #94)  like delusional optimism. You’re going to need this when you push into unfamiliar places. Peter Thiel (episode #43) told James that “imitation is very endemic to the human condition.” Thiel means that we need a new mindset if we are going to think about things in new ways.

After all the club shows, failed auditions, and setbacks of a rotating cast, Twisted Sister was signed to a record and made this music video:

We were “much more developed as a band than 99% of the bands on MTV” French tells James. Twisted Sister has developed career capital that helped them become a huge band. French compares their skills to an iceberg:

“The surface, the shiny tip you see that sticks above the water is beautifully formed and underneath it is a base that so broad, so large, so heavy and all encompassing and in that base lies our history.”

This story has been told over and over again. Tim Ferriss (episode #22) seems like an overnight success – until you look at his history as an academic researcher, startup employee, entrepreneur, volunteer, and event planner. Tim Ferriss isn’t Tim Ferriss without all this. Austin Kleon (episode #19) told James that overnight success is a good story, nothing more.

Then Twisted Sister made it and everything was good. Or not. French tells James that during their apex as a band they, “couldn’t stand to be in the same room” and soon after disbanded.

French soon found himself going from divorce, to bankruptcy, to divorce again, and working menial jobs. “Did I go through all that just to end up bagging groceries” he asked himself. French says that he opened up Tony Robbin’s (episode #62) book, Awaken the Giant Within. After the first page he tells James that he began to think differently. He began to think in terms of the systems he needed in his life. Systems work. For Kevin Harrington (episode #49) it’s tease, please, seize. For Marcus Lemonis (episode #51) it’s people, product, process.

French tells James that it’s been a long road, but that he wouldn’t change anything. About each thing that happens French echoes this video of a talk Alan Watts gave.

Now French is up to a number of different things. Twisted Sister still tours, and do a surprising range of audience ages. He tells James that in South America, “no one is older than twenty-two,” Europe has the next youngest group of fans, and America has the oldest. French also writes for Inc Magazine and speaks.

Thanks for reading. One final note:

What advice would French give? “I’ll give you advice, but whether that advice applies to you, I don’t know.” This quote sums up my recent thoughts from listening to the podcast, that there are common themes to all of the guests that James has on, and those are the things we can draw on. Some of the ideas the guests share will have little effect on most of us, others share big ideas we all can use. I’m collecting those big ideas for a book and would love to talk to others about the big ideas they’ve taken away. If this is you, let’s connect.

#107 Rich Roll

Rich Roll (@RichRoll) joined James Altucher to talk about running, addiction, and what you do when you get more energy than you’ve ever had in your life. Roll has a new book out The Plantpower Way and tells James that a lot of the interview was a similar story to his other book Finding Ultra.

When it comes to the fitness guests, I’m always a bit skeptical because they seem so sure of themselves and their systems. The it worked for me, it’ll work for you attitude was present at least in part with Dave Asprey (episode #68) and Dan Buettner (episode #105). Roll has a lot less of it, telling James, “we all have different ways we choose ourselves, and we all have different ways to express ourselves athletically.” It echoes what Brad Feld (episode #91) told James – experiment with what works for you.

Roll got to his place of athletic expression the hard way. In his late twenties and early thirties he was an addict. Addicted to drugs, alcohol, and – it sounds like – work. It was a gradual build up, Roll tells Jams, “suddenly you find yourself living someone else’s life, how do you break free from that?” Roll had what past guests Wayne Dyer calls and inciting incident – a night in jail. After a DUI and facing up to his boss at work, Roll entered a rehabilitation program and got clean. “It was my best thinking that got me institutionalized” and maybe that best thinking wasn’t really best. Rehab gave Roll a chance to pause his life and take the ten-thousand foot view.

After rehab, Roll attempted to repair the damage he had done, professionally. He tells James that he adopted a “window diet,” where you pull up to a drive-thru window and they hand you food. At thirty-five – an age James says, “where people feel it’s often too late for them” – Roll started over. One night, after a long day of work and his stomach full of fast food hamburgers, Roll got winded walking up the stairs. This moment of clarity, it turns out, was a blessing. “If you’re lucky enough to have a moment like that in your life, and you can make the decision, you change your life.” So he did.

But it was hard. “It didn’t seem responsible,” Roll says, to begin his push to get healthy. It’s hard to be selfish, but sometimes that’s the best thing we can be. Scott Adams (episode #47) wrote that “If you do selfishness right, you automatically become a net benefit to society.” Gretchen Rubin (episode #97) told James to seek happiness because, “happier people are more altruistic” and “when we’re unhappy we tend to get defensive and isolated and pre-occupied with our own situation.” Roll says that his wife “was a rock” during all this, and it’s further evidence on the importance of picking a great spouse. Brian Koppelman (episode #98) said it was the best decisions of his life. Even in the podcasts with Claudia it sounds like a spouse on the same wavelengths is incredibly valuable. It reminded me of the example Aaran Brabham used when he told James what he wanted in a spouse, some to “climb” with him. Brabham said that he envisioned marriage like a pair of climbers going up a mountain. Sometimes one was higher and the other was supporting them, sometimes the roles were reversed.

Roll’s wife suggested he try a juice cleanse. He was skeptical. “I didn’t really understand it, but I was willing to try something different to say to myself, you know, what I’m doing is not working, here’s something I can do.”

As Roll began to switch to a healthier lifestyle (mentally, physically, emotionally, spiritually) he drew on his experiences with removing drugs from his life. There is “a little discomfort, but after a few weeks, the feelings dissipate, that’s been my experience with drugs and alcohol and that’s been my experience with food.” Roll advises James.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAJames notes in the interview that it’s often hard to choose to do this because supermarkets themselves aren’t set up for this. It’s an astute observation that I wished the pair had dived into more. Habits, routines, and the path of least resistance work powerfully on us. In his book, Mindless Eating, Brian Wansink notes that there are hidden persuaders all around us; from the size of the package to the name of the food, it’s tangled web we have to navigate. Wansink provides a great roadmap for avoiding these traps.

At this point in the path of “one of the 25 healthiest men alive” Roll is attempting a “junk food vegetarian diet.” He tells James that you can be vegetarian and still have Pizza Hut and Oreos. Don’t fall into the vegan = good trap, Roll says, instead, find something with true health benefits. Austin Kleon (episode #19) told James that “we’re big fans of the overnight success story” and “it’s a really good marketing myth.” Roll brings this up tangentially in his interview, telling James that a good cleanse needs to include nutrients, not just lemon water and cayenne.

As his diet got healthier, Roll says that he got more energy. “My body was vibrating” he tells James and he used this to “join my kids at their energy level.” One morning during this transformation Roll tells James that he just felt great. “Either I had unlocked this dormant gene, or something about this plant based living was agreeing with me in a way that I had not foreseen.”  Rich Roll had found a secret.

Peter Thiel (episode #43) told James that we need to look for secrets, “if you believe there are secrets to find, then you will work at them and be someone who finds them.” Roll never would have found that a vegetarian, highly active lifestyle was something that worked for him unless he was willing to look for things that might work for him. To try new things. To question his best thinking so far. To experiment.

Roll wanted to test what he was doing and began looking for a race. He found an ultra Ironman and finagled his way in. He hired a coach. He got serious. During this transformation he kept his day job, taking conference calls while on his bike.

As he engaged in more athletic adventures, Roll tells James that he began speaking to anyone that would have him. Jon Acuff (episode #106) did the same thing, taking vacation days to speak while working his main gig. Soon, Roll had a book deal and small advance. He went on the road to promote his book. Wayne Dyer told James a great story about his own decision to go on the road to promote his book. Dyer called so many media outlets to try and get on to promote his book that they began telling him, “if you call again the answer is no this time and forever.” So, Dyer tells James, he had to go to plan B. There’s another way to reach everyone, it’s a little more tedious but also a little more fun. Go to them. Dyer packed up his car with books and began a tour across the country. Roll experienced the same effect in the digital age, though going across the country just meant doing it digitally with a lot more Skype calls.

Now though, Roll has established a better routine. He tells James that most mornings begin with a smoothie (improvised with whatever is in the fridge) and he heads out the door to exercise. He also takes his workout stuff with him and “if I have a free hour I’ll get in a run.” That small line seems like nothing, but it’s everything. Roll fills the grout time of his life with the thing he’s trying to do. Stephen King suggests this too. King writes that if you want to be a writer, you need to do two things above all others, write a lot and read a lot.

“I’m a slow reader, but I usually get through seventy or eighty books a year, mostly fiction…I take a book with me everywhere I go, and find there are all sorts of opportunities to dip in. The trick is to teach yourself to read in small sips as well as in long swallows.”

Roll says that it’s not that hard to live a vegetarian life, “no one cares” about your eating habits he tells James.  Roll says that he sometimes had to go to meals with clients and, “I’d eat before going to dinner so I’m not starving and I’m not tempted to make a bad choice.” Preemptive planning like this is a big part of what got Chris Hadfield to the space station. In his book Hadfield writes that on one of his early flights he didn’t have anything to do during one part of the mission. Hadfield came up with his own list of things todo and writes that “having a plan of action, even really mundane action, was a huge benefit in terms of adaptations to a radically new environment.” For Roll is was planning what to eat, for Hadfield it was knowing what to do in space. When we don’t have these plans, we look for the path of least resistance and sometimes that path leads where we may not want. Like Rich Roll has found out.

Thanks for reading.  If you want to connect, let’s, @mikedariano.

And the final note with these health and wellness guests, do try it for yourself and take notes. I was actually so taken up by this interview I made a green smoothie to drink while writing this post. The best wisdom I can include here is the idea from Nassim Taleb, time is the best filter we have. Time is what separates good ideas from bad ones and does so almost perfectly.

#106 Jon Acuff

Jon Acuff (@JonAcuff) joined James Altucher to talk about starting over, always learning, and the one question you should ask a potential mentor. Acuff is on talk about his new book, Do Over: Rescue Monday, Reinvent Your Work, and Never Get Stuck but also brings up Start: Punch Fear in the Face, Escape Average and Do Work That Matters and Quitter.

Their interview begins with Acuff noting that he’s “doing a lot of stuff you wouldn’t consider dreamy.” Austin Kleon (episode #19) told James that “a job is still a job.” Sure, Acuff left a major organization to start out on his own, but that doesn’t mean he’s made it. His job still has meetings (over a kitchen table rather than conference table)  with support staff (his wife) and someone still has to buy the muffins at CostCo before a book signing (that someone is Acuff now.)

Acuff and Amanda Palmer (episode #82) – who calls them ninja gigs – will both have impromptu events where they announce that they’ll be somewhere and that people can meet up with them. Sometimes these events don’t go as imagined. Palmer tells the story that one time only a handful of people showed up and they hung out at the beach and then went for ice cream. Acuff to had a time with two people came in a ninety minute event. Things are bumpy when you do stuff like this.

But wait, there’s more “not dreamy” stuff that Acuff has to do. He tells Altucher that he really stinks at marketing through an email list. It felt like too much self-promotion and was hard he tells James. “Things I’m not good at I don’t want to do,” Acuff says, “It’s not comfortable but that’s where i’m going to push through and that and go. If I’m going to develop this skill I’m going to be brave.”

Acuff started this version of a choose yourself career while he still had a day job. He would do interviews during his lunch breaks and take vacation days to do speaking gigs. “Eventually you develop relationships with people who say hey, we have a handful of dollars, would you like to speak here” Acuff recounts. James says this is part of the process, “you need to go through the experience of having a crappy job while working on your dream idea.”

A lot of times we don’t want to go through that experience the pair note, “people think they’ll quit their jobs and then they’ll hustle” Acuff says, noting that it’s often more fun to think about the thing, rather than do the work. Amy Poehler wrote about her experience with this. Her show, Parks and Recreation, was nearly cancelled a number of times, so what did the cast and crew do? “We kept our heads down and did our jobs. We controlled the only thing we could, the show. We did the thing. The talking about the thing isn’t the thing. The doing of the thing is the thing.

These challenges only existed because Acuff left Dave Ramsey’s wings. He’s very complimentary of the people he worked with there and the things he did, but he tells James that he had to leave. “I didn’t sleep well for six months” around the decision Acuff says, “even if it’s the right decision, when you can’t go back it’s scary.” Ryan Holiday (episode #18) commented on the same thing in his interview. For Holiday is was turning his back on a year of college for a new opportunity.

So Acuff left Ramsey’s team and realized – painfully – that he had gotten entitled while working there.  He tells James he had many “learn how to do something moments,” like getting the muffins for a book signing.  Jairek Robbins (episode #96) told James the same thing. Robbins wondered at first why his dad didn’t give him a heads up that a problem might pop up, and then realized that he had to learn that lesson on his own to actually understand it.

James calls entitlement like this “a disease.” Former NBA basketball coach and current President of the Miami Heat, Pat Riley called it the “disease of more.” Riley describes it as everyone wanting more after a successful sports season. In the previous season, Riley notes, people will make sacrifices for the good of the team to achieve a certain goal. Once that goal is achieved though, people become more selfish, wanting more for themselves.

James and Acuff reveal that when they write, they try to leave room for two stories. The first story is the one that they are telling, the one about what happened to them. The second story is the story of the reader. How they can relate and empathize and commiserate or celebrate. This room for two is what makes a story good.

Listening to Acuff talk, it sounds like he’s got a lot figured out. Not so. “It’s taken a long time and I’m still figuring it out” he tells James. One thing he did was align himself to win-win directions. “You gotta find something where, if the money doesn’t show up as fast as you want or the results, or the affirmation, you keep going. You can’t do it for that because you’ll stop as soon as that stuff doesn’t show up” he tells James. Altucher says that “every single guest would have said that” and some non-guests too. In his book, astronaut Chris Hadfield wrote that he had to create a mindset that would provide balance if he never conquered the long odd of making it to space:

“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.” – Chris Hadfield

acuffsformulaThe pair get into the contents of Acuff’s book, Do Over. Acuff says that we need a career savings account which is constructed by relationships, skills, character, and hustle.

  • Relationships. “The people you lock arms with.” Adam Grant (episode #73) told James about the value of weak ties and Acuff provides another example about how well they work. Acuff connected with the guy who runs the Southwest social media account and after one thing led to another, Acuff was offered a profile in the in-flight magazine.
  • Skills. “Relationships get you the first gig, skills get you the second.” Acuff says there are new and old skills to build and gives the example of an orthodontist who needs to work on email marketing and social media in addition to knowing how to affix braces. These are hard to build up because, “it’s not fun in that moment and your ego comes in and goes, you’re only supposed to do things you’re great at” Acuff tells James. Chris Hadfield writes about astronauts who were caught unaware that this might happen and struggled in their training. “Early success is a terrible teacher” Hadfield writes, “so when you find yourself in a situation where you must prepare, you can’t do it, you don’t know how.” Acuff had this experience when writing his most recent book. His editor told him that he couldn’t just throw in jokes (Acuff cops to this being his crutch) but that they should serve the audience or move the narrative forward.
  • Character. “Be generous.” Try meet-ups. Connect with people. Attempt new things. This is the mindset Acuff advocates. It was in this part of the interview he offered the advice about finding mentors. Don’t ask someone to mentor you, Acuff says, instead ask them for a book suggestion. Ramit Sethi (episode #36) told James that the best way to connect with him is to read something he’s written and ask a good question about it. Tim Ferriss (episode #22) noted that good connections take time to build and his might go on for years before he asks anything.
  • Hustle. “Focus, not frenzy.” Acuff says that to him, hustle means to be focused with your work, using a scalpel not a saw. In Essentialism Greg McKeown writes that “the essentialist sees boundaries as liberating.” Constraints – from ourselves or others – are often a good thing. Even “a lack of money is often an asset” Kevin Kelly (episode #96) told James.

Near the end of the interview the pair talk about how to deal with negative people in our lives. Acuff warns us to be wary of the gossip gang at work. If you spend too much time with them, he says, you’ll start thinking and feeling like them. Hadfield knew this all too well as an astronaut, think about having a horrible boss and stuck in the space station with them. In training then, Hadfield tried to never let a bad attitude start. In his book he highlights experiences like being hot and stuck in a capsule to pushing a sled through the snow in the cold. Those instances are prime for negative comments which can swell if they aren’t tempered immediately.

And about your horrible boss Acuff says, “every horrible boss is saying I dare you to leave. You get to be frustrated or accept that dare and do the things in the mornings, nights, or weekends that help you leave that boss.”

Thanks for reading. If I whiffed, waffled, or waxed too long about something, let me know. @mikedariano

If you didn’t pick up on it, I’m currently reading An Astronaut’s Guide to Life and Earth and it’s very good. One of the best biography I’ve read in the past few years. There will be plenty more to learn from it and included in these posts.

Acuff tells James he was nervous about talking with him because Altucher has so many good ideas – one of which was the idea list. If you need help starting your own idea list habit, you can find a pay-what-you-want option here. It’s a 21 day email series where I give you prompts, suggestions, and research to understand why it’s such a powerful habit.