#65 Dan Ariely

Dan Ariely (@danariely) joined James Altucher to talk about our irrationality, why it might not be a bad thing, and his origin story. The interview begins when James says that “I’m an expert, having been irrational and dishonest most of my life.” His story notwithstanding, he asks Ariely in what ways do we think irrationally?

Ariely begins by saying that our emotions are largely irrational, though not without cause for being so. When you lived in the jungle, heard a rustling in the bushes, and took off because there might be a tiger – that was all rational thinking. Our evolution built in asymmetrical thinking, before someone like Nassim Taleb coined that – or any other words. If this doesn’t make sense, Ariely explains: “The cost of running when there is no tiger is the cost of running. The cost of staying when there is a tiger is a very high cost.” If this resonates with you, then your next book should be Antifragile because this is the essence of Taleb’s argument. Probabilities don’t matter as much as intensities matter. Taleb gives the example of security checks before you get on an airplane. The odds of a terrorist being on that plane and successful crashing it is miniscule. But we still check people because if a terrorist takes over and crashes a plane there is a huge cost. Ariely explains to James that we act emotionally because there was a time when it helped.

Another area Ariely says we don’t understand well is opportunity cost. When he surveyed people at a car dealership, and asked them what they would not be able to buy, if they bought this car, very few understood the nature of the question. Their responses were, that if they bought a Toyota, they wouldn’t be able to buy a Honda. Lulz.

If we were more rational, we would list the things we couldn’t do. If you buy a $40,000 car you are trading away the chance to go on eight Disney cruises with your family of four. That’s the thinking that Ariely was searching for. Luckily for us, there’s a group of people who have found this idea and created an action plan for how we can think about things this way. They call themselves minimalists.

If you read the minimalists at all, you’re familiar with their origin story. Too much stuff was taking away from the things they really wanted to be doing. Then comes the moment lightening strikes – and this happens to every single one. They find out that by giving things up, the gain more. Here’s how Joshua Becker puts it:

Minimalism is about intentionality. It is marked by clarity, purpose, and thoughtfulness . At its core, minimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of everything that distracts us from it.

The minimalist sees that the garage full of stuff (plus the time it took to work to buy it plus the tie to maintain it plus the time to manage it) isn’t a great bargain at all.

Returning to the interview, Ariely explains that another way we are irrational is that we value things in different ways. His analogy is that if you needed a quarter for parking and I offered to trade you a dollar in quarters for a five dollar bill you’d feel cheated. If, however, I offered to run to the bank and get quarters you would feel less cheated because you also paid for my effort. Your monetary outcome is the same – $1 in quarters for a $5 bill – but there’s something different about the idea.

James brings up the story about a guy who bought stuff online and sold it after creating a story. Ah, Ariely says, you’re talking about Rob Walker.

Walker created the Significant Objects Project. The Idea is this:

A talented, creative writer invents a story about an object. Invested with new significance by this fiction, the object should — according to our hypothesis — acquire not merely subjective but objective value. How to test our theory? Via eBay!

One man’s trash is another mans treasure and when you mix in a story things really change. Walker writes, “We sold $128.74 worth of thrift-store junk for $3,612.51.” For example, this cow plate.


The story begins like this:

As my husband and I were driving back to New York after my mother’s funeral, I spotted a general store on the Rhode Island-Connecticut border, the kind that exist solely for those who forgot to bring something back from Newport or Block Island or Martha’s Vineyard or wherever. Judging from the weathered sign and the rusting trinkets out front, it seemed decades old, and yet I swear I had never seen it in all my travels along this stretch of I-95. Strange.

Ariely says this means that “the consumption equation is very complex.” Think again about the Disney cruise you’re missing because of the new minivan in your driveway. That Disney cruise is a big boat floating around the Caribbean for seven nights and docking at various tropical ports. Royal Caribbean also has a big boat that floats around for seven days and stops at the same beautiful places. Each cruise is the same in almost every way, except price. Some people choose to pay more because they want a better story, a Disney story.

James says that we tell ourselves stories too, noting that “this happened to me. I got wealth in one area of life and invested in the stock market and lost everything.” For Altucher the story he told himself was that if he knew what he was doing in building companies, he knew how to invest in them too. Dubner (episode #20) calls this the halo effect and warns James about it as a bias but notes “it’s ones of the easiest ones to avoid.”

Okay, James says. We know that we are irrational in many areas like emotions, money, and our reliance on stories. How do we become more rational.

You can’t, says Ariely.


“There’s no single answer.” Ariely tells James. Rational thinking requires focused, deep thinking and it’s impossible for us to operate in that mindset throughout the day. Instead, his suggestion is to manipulate things like our environment. For example, “when it comes to temptation…reduce the prevalence of temptation in our lives” Ariely says. I’m a living example of one of his interview examples, cookies. I always tell people that I’m on a one-hour diet a week. If I can not buy cookies at the grocery store during a weekly one-hour trip, I won’t eat the cookies. If those cookies enter our house though, problems ensue.

In their book Switch, Chip and Dan Heath write that we can “shape the path” of our actions and create an easier route to our destination. One of those tweaks is choosing action triggers of when, where, and how we’ll do something. They include this story from the book.

Peter Gollwitzer, a psychologist at New York University, is the pioneer of work in this area. He and colleague Veronika Brand-statter found that action triggers are quite effective in motivating action. In one study, they tracked college students who had the option to earn extra credit in a class by writing a paper about how they spent Christmas Eve. But there was a catch: To earn the credit, they had to submit the paper by December 26. Most students had good intentions of writing the paper, but only 33 percent of them got around to writing and submitting it. Other students in the study were required to set action triggers—to note, in advance, exactly when and where they intended to write the report (for example, “I’ll write this report in my dad’s office on Christmas morning before everyone gets up”). A whopping 75 percent of those students wrote the report.

Knowing when, where, and why you’re going to do something is a good way to shape the path.

Another way to guide our behavior is to hop on the bandwagon that’s full of other people and going where we want to go. Ariel says that “what everybody else is doing is incredibly important.” Famed violinist Joshua Bell participated in this social experiment with the Washington Post where he played for 45 minutes and only a handful of people stopped to listen to the music. One factor wasn’t the business of our lives but that who stops to listen to train station performers. People at a train station have something else to do, to be.

Contrast this with Disney (what’s with all the Disney examples in this post?) where every “street performer” draws crowds of hundreds. Even though the performers at Disney are doing something much less rare than Bell, they draw people in. Remember, Ariely noted that our environment matters too. If you are in a place that facilitates and encourages enjoying entertainment and one where people are showing you what to do, the path toward a certain type of action is quite easy.

At the halfway mark of the interview Ariely starts to tell his origin story. He was severely burned at 18 and while in the hospital he learned that conventional thinking was sometimes wrong. The nurses thought that ripping the bandages off quickly was better for the patient, but from Ariely’s side of the bed it wasn’t.

What Ariely first glimpsed in the hospital and then studied and articulated later on, is that we don’t generally remember our overall experiences. When you go to Disney it’s the special moments you remember and tell your friends back home about those. We remember is the most intense point (high or low) and the ending.

The interview ends with a sort of rapid fire session:

About Happiness: “It’s about a sense of meaning.” Ariely says. There’s no formula for happiness other than finding something you enjoy doing in life. He gives the example of mountain climbing. The actual mountain climbing part probably isn’t all that enjoyable but those people love having climbed. Ten Leonsis (episode #53) told James much the same thing.

About Placebos: Ariel says that placebos are very interesting. When people pay more for a placebo they think it will be more effective. An interesting study from his book is this. He and some colleagues set up a coffee stand outside at a university. They began handing out free coffee to the students and offered an accoutrement of additives; cream, sugar, orange peel, clove, etc. The secret at hand was that sometimes, the accoutrements were in fancy containers, other times they were in styrofoam ones.

What were the results? No, the fancy containers didn’t persuade any of the coffee drinkers to add the odd condiments (I guess we won’t be seeing sweet paprika in coffee anytime soon). But the interesting thing was that when the odd condiments were offered in the fancy containers, the coffee drinkers were much more likely to tell us that they liked the coffee a lot, that they would be willing to pay well for it, and that they would recommend that we should start serving this new blend in the cafeteria. When the coffee ambience looked upscale, in other words, the coffee tasted upscale as well.

About Habits: Make it special. If you want to make flossing a habit think about how important flossing is for you. How bright it makes your teeth. Get a special kind of floss, very soft and white. Light a candle. Play soft jazz. Ariely may not suggest music, but does say to add “ceremonial elements.”

About Honesty: Ariely tells james that we have a tendency to lie and those lies aren’t as white as we think. Most lies are more like grey lies, Ariely suggests, because we get to avoid some discomfort. “Yeah, I don’t see a probably opening a pizza shop that doubles as a barber shop” you’d tell your friend rather than lose some social karma if you tell them how terrible it is.

If you liked the interview with Dan Ariely, you’ll probably like his books as well. You’ll also like Stephen Dubner’s interview (episode #20).

Mike – @MikeDariano – (559) 464-5393

#57 Daniel Roth

James Altucher interviewed Daniel Roth, executive editor of LinkedIn to talk about, well, LinkedIn. Before my notes, let me say that I’m not active on LinkedIn because in 2008 I bought a house from someone who after the sale, connected on LinkedIn to highly recommend me. While I appreciated the compliment it hinted that the site was mostly bunk. After listening to Altucher and Roth, it seems like LinkedIn has gotten better, and these posts may end up there soon.

After the opening pleasantries, Roth talks about how Altucher had “one of the fastest” rises to the top to become a LinkedIn influencer. That group of influencers includes people like Kevin O’Leary, Farhad Manjoo, and Suze Orman. Altucher sounds like he appreciates this and comments on how some posts on LinkedIn do much better than others, each medium – even Medium – seems to have its own niche.

Roth suggests that an advantage of LinkedIn is that they can see the consistent things people come to LinkedIn for. Anything about technology, where the world is going, management, leadership, how to further your own career and make them better at what they want to do are veins best served by the LinkedIn content.

Altucher mentions that people got “massively demoted” in 2009 and that he sees why those ideas are the most popular. This political season has brought the great demotion to light in my state, Ohio. Governor Ted Kasich is trying to get re-elected and one of his ads proclaims he added 244,000 jobs in the state since he took over as governor. His opponents says that in that figure is a lot of minimum wage work.

Economist Tyler Cowen thinks that this is the direction things will go. In Average is Over Cowen proposes a divergence where there will be more have-nots but also more haves. Cowen argues that the new economy will mean that some people can capitalize on hard work, intelligence, and persistence – Altucher might call them the Choose Yourselfers – while other people won’t. These latter people, ones that might have been looking for the steady factory job that paid well, will find that those jobs are gone and have to work in a more structured environment for less than they had before. Cowen is one of the most thoughtful people I read online, take a listen to him in this 2013 interview about Average is Over.

Back to the podcast with Altucher, Roth says that when they started the Influencer program in 2012, the most popular articles were those about how to get a job and how to quit your job. This played out in the LinkedIn data and not just the posts.

Altucher asks about this data LinkedIn collects and while Roth doesn’t expound on it, he does say there are algorithms at work.  I don’t know what LinkedIn collects from people, but whatever it is, it will say a lot about you. In Dataclysm, Christian Rudder writes that being a data scientist today like being a chemist. Mix these two variables and see what you get. In his book, Rudder gives examples of the different things data scientists can predict with some degree of confidence, like what Egyptian towns will be most upset by border incidents with Israel, whether or not you are gay based on your Facebook friends, and the spread of the seasonal flu. When we search for “homemade chicken soup” that goes into an algorithm at Google along with some other ingredients and predicts the spread of the flu quite well. (Good broth is the key by the way). Google, Facebook, LinkedIn, are all tracking their users, and often this means a better experience. Roth says that he hopes each article you see on LinkedIn is one you enjoy.

The LinkedIn Influencer program launched with a 150 people to start; Richard Branson, Mitt Romney, and Barack Obama among them. “Richard Branson is to business what Leonardo Dicaprio is to entertainment.” Roth says. Later in the interview the pair mention T. Boone Pickens and J.T. O’Donnell as being some of the better current Influencers. Branson alone is a fascinating figure, and if you’re interested in his story at all, check out  Losing My Virginity.

Roth says that a key to LinkedIn’s success is that the site has remained focused on the professional connections that people want to have. It’s not a dating site, it’s not an SEO orgy, it’s professional stuff. That stuff though, is going to be tailored to you by their algorithm. This is the information people seem to want, but that we need to remember how it’s cultivated to you. Seeing different stories through the same frame will likely make you more dogmatic toward particular issues and might lead to a bit of fragility. Nassim Taleb writes in  Antifragile that the news media needs to fill a page – or 20 articles – each day regardless of their importance. If LinkedIn serves you the same number each day, keep in mind that some of those will be more signal than noise.

Later in the interview Roth tells the story of how they got Romney and Obama to write articles. It turns out that Obama’s team was completely disinterested in getting involved so the LinkedIn people turned to Romney’s team and he was in, then “five minutes later” Obama’s team called and said they were in too.

Altucher mentions his article, 10 Reasons You Have To Quit Your Job in 2014, and said that half the people liked it and half the people hated it, this polarizing nature probably made more people tell their friends about it. In Dataclysm, Christian Rudder applied this idea to attractiveness. The essence of online dating is looking at the person’s picture and then going on a date with them to see if you like them (though Rudder argues maybe the picture isn’t quite as important as we may think*). OKCupid had a lot of data so Rudder asked himself, what if a woman averaged a rating of 3 on a 1-5 scale? Being a ‘3’ could happen different ways, a woman could be a 3 because every rating was exactly a 3, while another could be a 3 because half the ratings were 1 and the other half 5. It turns out that for the latter, the woman who have the people love and half the people hate, will get 70% more messages. Later in the interview Altucher ponders how LinkedIn might serve as a dating site but Rudder’s data suggest that people don’t like their dating profiles mixed with other network ones.

One piece of advice Altucher has is to write about the field you are in. He says, “If I was a lawyer I would everyday take a question I was asked in the past week by one of my clients and write the full answer for free and put it on LinkedIn.”  Roth adds, that people want a post about you, not something thin. It’s not anonymous. “You have to talk about yourself, people love hearing about your mistakes.”

Later on Altucher says, “I don’t really listen to podcasts.” If you’re reading this, you probably like at least some of them; a few of my recent favorites are; Freakonomics, Planet Money, You Are Not So Smart, and Working had an incredible episode about Stephen Colbert.

Altucher asks Roth if LinkedIn could be a podcast network. Roth somewhat declines, saying that the site looks at what people are linking to and making sure they deliver good headlines to the right people. Roth says that of the 20 articles you see upon logging in, that 19 of them should be interesting to you. Roth says that his goal is that “You don’t start your day without using LinkedIn.”

Toward the end of the interview, Altucher starts churning out ideas and Roth is a bit taken aback by the torrent of things to-do, and mentions that it’s a challenge to pick the best ideas. This concept is opportunity cost, and it’s a pervasive situation.

Throughout the interview Roth and Altucher talk about things on LinkedIn, but to find some of those things for links here was impossible. Shark Tank Week never came up when I searched on LinkedIn or a Google search on the site. Ditto for their conversation about a butler sharing his experiences. If you know where any of these are, please let me know in the comments.

Altucher teased that he has another Shark Tank judge coming up on the podcast. That’ll bring the number to 3, because Mark Cuban has been a guest, so has Kevin Harrington.

Let me know what I missed and you liked, here or on Twitter, @MikeDariano.

* OKCupid ran an experiment where they jumbled the faces of possible connections in what they called, the Blind Date experiment. For a few hours on a single day this was the only way to make connections and some people tested the service and reported their connections as being about the same as the non-blind date ones they had. This brings up the point, if love isn’t yet blind, maybe it should be.

**This is one of a handful of posts that have already been published but needed migrated to a new blogging structure.

#91 Brad Feld

Brad Feld (@bfeld) joined James Altucher to talk about work-life balance, how to take care of yourself, and what the best entrepreneurs look like. To start, James apologizes for having to do another interview to which Feld replies he’s, “not pissed at all.” He says, “I’ve lost plenty of data in my life.” This reminded me of the very measured tones that Sam Shank (episode #78) said he saw Wes Craven exhibit. It would be easy to yell at the person who messed up, but what does that do? Not a lot.

James and Brad remark about the decreasing latency in communication. Even since each of them began working, communications have gone from overnight via FedEx to instantaneous via fax and now digital messages. It’s an interesting observation that as recently as 100 years ago, wireless communication didn’t exist. In the wonderful Thunderstruck, Erik Larson tells the story about the invention communication via radio waves and the obstacles. People didn’t believe they could travel in anything but a straight line and certainly not through physical obstacles. Reading Reddit in your basement is still inconsistent, but this discovery has taken a long time to take hold. In 1902 Guglielmo Marconi finally sent a message from Glace Bay to Poldhu in 1/13 of a second. A decade earlier the greatest scientific minds of the time would have called this impossible.


The bulk of the conversation between James and Brad is about finding the right sort of balance in your life. James says that “if I don’t focus on my wife and kids, something is subtracted out of my life.” Feld says that this is a good perspective to have and that we would be wise to remember that “at the end, all the lights go out.” In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius wrote something similar (about 2,000 years ago):

Survey the records of other eras. And see how many others gave their all and soon died and decomposed into the elements that formed them.

But most of all, run through the list of those you knew yourself. Those who worked in vain, who failed to do what they should have- what they should have remained fixed on and found satisfaction in.

Wait, what should we remain fixed on? A moment later Marcus writes, “the famous dead as well: Camillus, Caeso, Scipio and Cato. Everything fades so quickly, turns into legend, and soon oblivion covers it.” What then do we work for? Aurelius suggests – and I would guess that James and Brad agree – “proper understanding; unselfish action; truthful speech.”

For James, it’s been a transition from a life of ambition to a life of meaning. As I listened to this part I wondered if it’s wisdom and time that bring this along like a horse might pull a cart, or if it’s success. James has been financially very successful and I wonder if a life of meaning comes from that. My guess is the former, watch this Patagonia video, and make up your own mind.

The people in that video are living out their bucket list and Jack Canfield (episode #90) told James that people wait too long to make up their bucket list. Make that list now he says. Feld echoes this idea telling james that he’s 49 and might have 30 good years left, but there’s also a chance he could die tomorrow. Another quote from Marcus Aurelius:

Suppose that a god announced that you were going to die tomorrow “or the day after.” Unless you were a complete coward you wouldn’t kick up a fuss about which day it was-what difference could it make? Now recognized that the difference between years from now and tomorrow is just as small.

A lot of this reflection comes after Feld went through three periods of serious depression. He failed to take care of himself physically and find the right stimulus until, “my inner introvert threw a shit-fit and said enough already” he tells James. This brought along a period of enlightenment where Feld explored his own motivational structure and learned what depleted his energy stores and what built them up. Feld found that he needed time alone to recharge where other might want to be in a group. Then he gives advice that many don’t, that we all need to find the thing that works best for us. We won’t always get it right he says, but we can keep experimenting to find what is right for us.

Another revelation for Feld was that he didn’t need to swoop in to solve every problem, and often the swooping was bringing more swooning than saving. He tells James that “traveling on a plane to a meeting rarely accomplishes anything.” Feld suggests that people need two things for solving problems, clarity to think clearly about the ideas and time to collect more data.

This all comes in part of the conversation where both James and Brad admit that travelling takes a lot out of them and they need time to recharge. Feld says that another perk of traveling less is having to deal with fewer gatekeepers. There are no junior partner he and his venture firm need to navigate, they just speak to whoever they need to speak to.

Feld tells James that his firm invests in certain themes like human-computer interaction and protocol systems. From their site:

Our themes tend to be horizontal in nature and are often based on an underlying protocol, standard, or market trend that we believe is on the cusp of widespread adoption that has the potential to drive a cycle of innovation and company creation for at least a ten year period. We try to focus on themes and their underlying technologies that are ready to be rolled out to consumers or the enterprise and are well beyond the science-experiment phase.

His Foundry Group portfolio isn’t flashy with a lot of popular companies but each has passed the Feld filter.

Fullscreen capture 2132015 50738 AM.bmp

For each investment Felt and his team ask:

  1. Is the product interesting to us?
  2. Are the entrepreneurs obsessed by it?
  3. Is this a good long-term partnerships for both sides?

Each of those questions need to range from a weak to firm “Yes.”

Besides the investments, Feld helped start FG Press, the publishing arm of Foundry Group. They are responsible for publishing Ben Mezrich’s (episode #84) Q. Feld tells James that this is an experiment. Besides upcoming FG Press books, James asks what else an entrepreneur should read. Feld suggests:

Before the interview closes, James shares two books that he thinks Brad will like.

  • The Martian by Andy Weir, which Brad says was “one of my favorite books of 2014.”
  • How to Fight Presidents by Daniel O’Brien, a past guest on the James Altucher show.

Thanks for reading. As always, you can let me know how smart/stupid this post is/was on Twitter/Text.

One note, after listening to hundreds of hours of these shows I’m pulling out trends and themes. You can click on the “Products Pages” here or in the upper left to see more. Right now there is a 21 day plan for building your idea muscle. This is a pay-what-you-want plan designed specifically for people who have failed to maintain a daily idea list and are willing to take one small action every day for three weeks.

#90 Jack Canfield

Fullscreen capture 2112015 103132 AM.bmp

 “If you’re willing to work the principles, the principles always work” – Jack Canfield (Tweet This)

Jack Canfield (@jackcanfield) joined James Altucher to talk about the release of his book, The Success Principles, telling stories, and why you should make up your bucket list now. James tells Canfield that he is “one of my heroes” and that his initial book “practically saved my life.” That’s a ringing endorsement and he’s probably not the only one. Among his other books, over 500M copies of the Chicken Soup series have been sold.

Canfield’s origin story is as compelling as many of the other podcast guests. He tells James that he was teaching high school students but they just didn’t care. He noticed that that weren’t motivated to learn and they didn’t value personal improvement. This was during a time when Canfield himself was in the midst of self improvement, meeting W. Clement Stone, a friend of Napoleon Hill. The problem, Canfield resolved, was that schools weren’t teaching things like goal setting and the kids weren’t getting this important lesson anywhere else. So he began to teach it. Around the same time in the late 1960’s, but in California rather than Chicago, another person was putting goal setting to use. Arnold Schwarzenegger told this Tim Ferriss:

“My confidence came from my vision. I am always a big believer that if you have a very clear vision of where you want to go, then the rest of it is much easier.  You always know why you are training five hours a day. You always know why you are pushing and going through the pain barrier. Why you have to eat more. Why you have to struggle more. Why you have to be more disciplined. All of those things become much more clear. It’s not like, oh my god, I have do another two-hundred sit ups, it’s more like I can’t wait to do two-hundred more sit ups because that will get me one step closer to the abs that I need to win the Mr. Universe. And that’s my goal.

This was the mindset Canfield was trying to teach.

Another things Canfield was trying to impart was a willingness to try and fail. Throughout the interview Canfield brings up our resistance to trying things, telling James that many people would rather know their discomfort than discover their joy. Amanda Palmer (episode #82) told James that risking anything is hard. For her the risk was in asking. It was putting her art on display and being judged. About this Palmer says “there’s not an easy way, and that’s the point. If there was an easy way we’d all be happy and everybody would do it all the time and we’d be living in a fantastic society.”

Canfield says that he also finds himself teaching people that life’s not fair or unfair.

“Life is just the way it is. Life’s not unfair. It’s just so.” – Jack Canfield

He eventually left the school to teach these ideas to everyone rather than teacher history to kids, but he took a tool from teaching history; stories. This interview with James is full of stories and Canfield says that he clips them whenever he can. He copies pages from books, cuts out newspaper articles, or grabs pages from Parade magazine. He also suggests that all authors put a blurb at the end of their book and ask readers to write in about how that book helped them. This is another way to accumulate stories.

His 10th anniversary edition of The Success Principles has some of these stories and a few other updated sections.

  • About Leadership. “Everyone should be a leader” Canfield tells James and this is one of two things Seth Godin (episode # 27) thinks should be taught in school.
  • About Networking. “Most people when they are networking are saying refer people to me, or buy my whatever.” Canfield says. Rather we need to focus more on sharing. Adam Grant (episode #73) found that people who give rather than take have better, wider, and more diverse networks. Giving is also central to Gary Vaynerchuk (episode #2) who advocates building relationships.

My favorite part of the interview (13:45) is when Canfield tells the story about being overseas and talking to an interviewer who had almost nothing, $3 or so. Canfield gives him some money and wants to give him one of his books, but he doesn’t have any so he goes to a local bookstore to buy his own book to give the guy. Then the story gets crazy. He tells James the guy made this resolution.

 “I’m going to do everything in this book for one year. If it doesn’t work all I’ve have wasted is a year, if it does work maybe I”ll be as successful as Jack.”

Things work out for the guy in quick time, but often it takes much longer. Canfield says that Chicken Soup was rejected 144 times before finding a publisher, and then he gives one of the best answers I’ve ever heard. James asks, when do you give up?

Jack responds, “When would you give up teaching someone to walk?”

It reminded me of this:

“When you want to succeed as bad as you want to breathe, then you’ll be successful.”

Canfield tells James that the universe will test us by throwing things at us to see if we are really resolved to the course we are on. This verges on something that Ryan Holiday (episode #18) told Altucher “This is what successful people do. Period. They don’t get impeded by things, in fact, when bad things happen they get better.”

Canfield and James caution the excited listener to not have a single goal, which James says, “is almost self-sabotaging because it’s too easy to fail.” Canfield says that the successful people find a passion umbrella to roost under.

Past guest Scott Adams would say that you need to focus on a passion system. “Goals suck” he writes, because you’re either in a state of not achieving them (failure) or you have achieved them but then you have nothing else to pursue.

Another one of the success principles James and Jack talk about is that success leaves clues. In 2005 Steve Jobs spoke to the graduating class at Stanford and said:

Again, you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.

Steve Jobs did some amazing things in his life, but there is an aura about him that we propagate in our stories. James takes a crack at it, saying that Jobs succeeded in part because he combined the art of calligraphy with that of computers but that he wasn’t great at either one. This is what Scott Adams advocates, to build up very specific skills so that when you combine them, you’re the only one who can combine them well. He writes:

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.

You don’t have to be the best saleswomen. You just have to be the best saleswomen in the Pacific Northwest selling diamond engagement rings.

My own take on Jobs is this, he was very smart, very lucky, and worked very hard. The only person who had the chance to be Steve Jobs was Steve Jobs. That’s the best lesson we can take from his life, work hard, do your best possible work on everything, and hope to get lucky. Though Canfield has advice on this last part – to use the law of probability, meaning that we need to take a lot of chances to have something hit. Seth Godin (episode #86) told James that he would be the first to admit that selling his company to Yahoo! 18 months before the stock market crashed was luck. But he’ll also point out that he was unlucky hundreds of times before and after that, saying “you have to get up to bat many times” to have a success.

Canfield advocates finding mentors and gives some advice for people who don’t have a mentor. Start small he says, asking for a ten minute phone call once a month. If you get that, try to have something specific to talk about and give back to the person who is taking time to mentor you. When they give you advice, take it, act on it and report back. Ramit Sethi (episode #36) told James that this is the best way for people to reach. Tell them what you’ve done, how you applied something they suggested and what happened.

For a more nuts and bolts punchlist about what it takes to create a mastermind event, the Tropical MBA podcast has Taylor Pearson on to talk about the ideal size, logistics, format, and the 3 biggest mistakes a mastermind CEO makes.

Canfield tells James that mastermind groups and meditation are the two most powerful techniques included in the book. Dan Harris (episode #12) had a wonderful exploration of meditation and mindfulness if you want more of that.

Toward the end of the interview James says that the Rule of Five is one of the “most powerful ideas in the book.” Canfield explains that his is the idea that everyday you take 5 actions to move something forward. You tweet to people, you email contacts, you generate ideas. One of the ways his team did this was sending out free books to certain groups like the OJ Simpson jurors and Navy families after the attack on the USS Cole. Unfortunately I couldn’t’ find pictures of the front page newspaper coverage the Canfield says both acts got. That sort of advertising may be priceless, but Google failed to archive it.

The end of the interview has a bit of talk about the current state of a book tour. James says that “the podcast tour has replaced the book tour” and that “marketing is happening everyday.” Canfield echoes the advice of Gary Vaynerchuk (episode #2) that guest posting is one of the most important things you can do.

Finally, you can buy Canfeild’s book at TheSuccessPrinciplesBook.com and get $100 of free material with it. But that’s not all! It also comes with a money back guarantee.

Thanks for reading. Every 10th one of these I ask for something. If you enjoyed it could you please share it on your social network of choice, or make a donation.

Whenever these type of guests come on, I get excited and ready to take over the world but need to remember that passion alone won’t get me anywhere. If passion and the law of attraction is hooking a fish, doing the work is reeling it in. As always, let me know what you liked or didn’t on Twitter, @MikeDariano.

#20 Stephen Dubner

Fullscreen capture 292015 125354 PM.bmpStephen Dubner (@freakonomics) joined James Altucher to talk about psychology, backgammon, and answer the age-old question, why don’t we say “I don’t know?” By the end of this set of notes, you’ll know. Dubner is the co-author of all three Freakonomics books, Freakonomics, SuperFreakonomics, and Think Like a Freak.

Dubner starts the interview by telling James he was writing a book about the psychology of money but “put that book in a drawer because Freakonomics happened.”  He had left writing for newspapers and magazines to write books and his first two books did okay, but he needed Freakonomics to do much better than those. A day or two before it was released, he asked James “What if this next book doesn’t work out for me?” He told James that, “Most writers vacillate between feelings of intense pride and superiority and intense self flagellation and doubt.” It turned out that Freakonomics was a “total surprise” and complete success and Dubner guesses the books have sold six million copies around the world.

“I could not believe that was me that was going to be attached to a book on the times best seller list. It was full of people who I thought were made of a different stuff than me.” – Stephen Dubner

James says he wants to get into some specific parts from Think Like a Freak, which he says, “could be the best book of all because it gives practical advice, how to think like you guys, from the Freakonomics perspective.”


But first, James has a theory about how Freakonomics was successful, “you give the secret origin story” he says to Stephen. Dan Ariely confessed this in his interview with James. For Ariely, the way his bandages were removed in the burn unit started his thinking about what sort of conventions we hold that might be wrong. How we might be Predictably Irrational. For Mark Cuban the origin story focused on how his old boss was more interested in a store being open on time rather than a customer services. For Wayne Dyer it was teaching people, but not at the university. For Scott Adams it was a cross-country flight that taught him about using systems rather than goals. We all have moments where a switch is flipped to send us down one track versus another.

Stephen thanks James for noticing this, telling him, “most people when they ask about the books just ask about content, and not the process, and they don’t realize that the process makes the content work or not work.” Stephen tells James that “nine out of every ten words I write gets thrown out.” A familiar expression to other writers like Tim Ferriss, Neil Strauss who wish they didn’t send so much waste to the cutting floor.

Stephen says that he started thinking this way by reading biographies, a chance to “reverse engineer” how a person became who they are. Many other of James’s guest have taken this reverse engineering angle. Tony Robbins (episode #62) lives it and a generation before Napoleon Hill wrote about it. A book James says may not be great, but “isn’t bad.”

Two pillars with corinthian capital Roman theatre Leptis Magna LibyaAnother key to the Freak books success James suggests is that Dubner and Levitt tell good stories. It’s even a section in their book, where they admit that telling stories is often a good way to persuade people. Seth Godin (episode #86)says that the story is never about the teller, but the person hearing it. Gary Vaynerchuk (episode #2)would remind you to match the story to the medium.

People are always asking Dubner about writing and how to write better. He tells James that it came from teaching a class at Columbia called Logic and Rhetoric. The class doesn’t exist under that name anymore, but the book the course used is available on Amazon for $0.01 About the course Dubner says:

What was great about it was that it treated writing in this very old greek model. That anytime you wanted to communicate, whether it’s writing, a speech, or whatever. There are these two pillars, they aren’t necessary equal but incredibly important. The logic is all the facts. All the pieces of the argument that add up to what you are trying to articulate. There is the rhetoric, which is how you tell the story, who’s telling the story, the pace, the timing, the tension and so on.

Stephen tells James the secret for a piece of writing to be really successful you have to be good at both the logic and the rhetoric. The way he improved this, was by teaching it. Maria Popova (episode #89) put this ideas in different words, telling James, “learning to read well and to write well is really learning to think well.”

One staple of Freakonomics style thinking is that “conventional wisdom is often wrong” Dubner tells James and which James says, “is incredibly true for entrepreneurship.” We get into trouble with conventional wisdom because we balance between autopilot/heuristical/habitual thinking and objective analysis. Autopilot, or System 1 thinking as Daniel Kahneman calls it and that systems is always on. Take a look at the Muller-Lyer illusion.mullerlyer-illusia

Now, you know that those lines between the arrows are the same length. You probably knew it before I even mentioned it. But don’t they still look like different lengths? That’s System 1, autopilot, heursicial thinking. It’s good for saving energy and making quick choices but is not easy to override.

Another good part of the book James says, is that “incentives are the cornerstones of life.” Incentives are good, but Dubner cautions you to find the right ones. For example, second graders will read more if you pay them $2 per book read. Once you get up to middle school though, the prices goes up to $20 plus some psychologic hypnosis. When middle school students take a test, you could pay them to get good grades and see a small increase in scores. To get a big jump though, you need to make a connection between the recipient and the incentive. In The Why Axis – another pair of economists – Uri Gneezy and John List offered students a cash reward but had them visualize how they’ll spend it this weekend before even taking the test.

Picture this, you’re thirteen years old, daydreaming in the corner and the teacher announces an exam that you loosely studied for. She says that if you score more than 80% correct, you get $20 but she wants you to take a moment to think about how you can spend it this weekend. My little mind would have been saving up for Warcraft:II. Gneezy and List found that if you get students to visualize what they will spend the money on, their test scores jump quite a bit. This theory goes that, once people have something, they hate to lose it. The students had the money in a way that they were mentally spending it. The Why Axis is a good book if you like the Freakonomics series, also check out Jodi Begg’s econ blog, Economists Do It With Models.

Back to the interview with James, Stephen says that finding the right incentive to use with people can be tricky. People have their revealed preferences and their actual preferences. For the middle school test takers, it was pretty clear that they wanted twenty bucks, what else does a thirteen year old desire? Okay, that, but what do they want that you can give them? For others the incentives aren’t quite as clear and we have the disparity between real and revealed. For example, which one of these statements is most persuasive to you?

  • I will conserve energy because I want to save money.
  • I will conserve energy because I want to save the environment.
  • I will conserve energy because other people in my neighborhood are doing it.

Stephen tells James that when researcher Robert Cialdini surveyed people about this question, most said yes to the first two, and very few said they would follow the pack and be persuaded by the third. When Cialdini ran an experiment though, he found this wasn’t quite true. People who found out their neighbors were using less energy, decreased their usage more than people who were inspired to save money or the environment.

How can you then apply this idea? In Think Like a Freak, Dubner gives the following suggestions.

1. Figure out what people really care about

Middle school kids care about twenty bucks, second graders will be satisfied with two. People don’t always want money or time and it’s up to you to figure out what’s truly valuable to them.

2. Choose something they value but is cheap for you to provide

This idea has come up again and again in the interviews and I’ll again and again point to the first place I heard of it, Getting to Yes. Let me tell you a story in my house. My daughters have three chores to do each day. Pick up their room, pick up the entry, and a rotating chore like feed the dogs or take out the recycling. If they do those three chores, they can have $1 or a token for 1 hour of screen time. To me, the dollar costs more and I’m more than happy to keep a $1 and will give up letting them watching some TV or play on the iPad.

3. Pay attention to how they respond to the incentives

Arnold Schwarzenegger did an interview with Tim Ferriss. He told Ferriss about what it was like before he was a movie star (yes kids, he was a movie star before a governor). To make money on the side he started a european brick company in California. He and his partner in the company played good cop, bad cop to get people to buy more quickly and it worked. The rub was that when they went into their routine, they were yelling at each other in languages neither understood but the customers saw it and it was part of the show and deal they got.

Dubner has a few more specific instructions in the book.

kobayashiAnother point from the book James brings up “is knowing what to measure and how to measure it.” In the book Dubner advocates for people to go back and go back again and go back again to find the source of the problem. The divergence between this and that. One way to make this easier is to ask a question a new way. Rather than ask, how do I eat more hot dogs, ask, how do I make hotdogs easier to eat. This is an actual example from the book.

A third point from the book is to avoid your own biases because of domains transfers. It’s wise, Dubner says, to maintain our domain dependence in knowledge. You wouldn’t confuse the skills of an accountant and chef, even though both use their hands to do repeated tasks that require attention to detail. Thankfully, Dubner says, this is “one of the easiest biases to avoid.”

Problems arise because it’s hard to say I don’t know. Maria Popova (episode #89) called this the “uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind.” This is another case where incentives matter. The incentive or cost, of saying “I don’t know” is a loss of face in many instances. Rather if you make a guess, you might be right and if you’re wrong, well at least you tried. Guessing and being right though can cause more harm than good because you think you understand and missed the important variables. If you hit 21 while playing blackjack you wouldn’t say it was because you had a lucky rabbit’s foot, but that’s sometimes what we do.

James gives the example of a report that said political experts were right in their predictions 47% of the time. If  we hypothetically consult with Dubner he would suggest we ask about their incentives. Okay, this makes sense, we keep hearing that incentives matter, so what’s the incentive to someone on TV? To get more viewers. How do you get more viewers? You can be right more often or you can give the people a show.

Dubner doesn’t mind political experts giving people a show and appluads that it’s a form of experimentation, soemthing we don’t do as often as we should. Imagine what would happen today if university presidents, authors, and great thinkers joined something as paranormal as the Society for Psychical Research, but that’s what happened in the 1890’s. Erik Larson writes:

Its membership expanded quickly to include sixty university dons and some of the brightest lights of the era, among them John Ruskin, H. G. Wells, William E. Gladstone, Samuel Clemens (better known as Mark Twain), and the Rev. C. L. Dodgson (with the equally prominent pen name Lewis Carroll). The roster also listed Arthur Balfour, a future prime minister of England, and William James, a pioneer in psychology, who by the summer of 1894 had been named the society’s president.

Why could such smart people do this? My guess is in part they were open to experimentation. This was a time – and Larson’s book follows this story – where inventors and scientists and governments were harnessing a mysterious power to send information transmissions from one place to another without wires. The Society for Psychical Research members didn’t know what was beyond what we could see, so trying to find other things in thee ether makes sense. These mysterious transmissions are what we call radio waves.

Dubner and his co-author Steven Levitt have been successful because they both have jobs that offer them a chance to experiment and ask new questions. Dubner is a journalist, Levitt an economist, and both get rewarded for asking good questions. In the business world this is harder, as Dubner tells James, “out in the real world, people’s reputations are on the line. People who work at firms..there’s ego and cognitive bias to know the way things work out.” The biggest cost of this Stephen says, isn’t being right or wrong in the moment but that we don’t experiment to find out why things are a certain way.

Dubner says, “When you make an assumption (that you know a reason something happened) you stop actually trying to use and embark on creative ways to gather feedback and experiment and find out.” If you want to start, Dubner writes in the book, start small and here’s why:

  1. Small questions are less often asked and may be virgin territory for discovery
  2. Big problems are dense and intertwined small problems that have to be solved first
  3. Small problems have a smaller mass and are easier to change
  4. Thinking big leads to more speculation, small problems can have more accurate observation

Dubner also echos what others have said about education, that maybe it’s too rote, telling James that formal education is “learning a set of standard facts and talking them back.” Seth Godin (episode #27) says that education should be teaching people to solve interesting problems and to lead. Maria Popova (episode #89) told James that education should be learning about how to live.

One way that Dubner and James have used reframing to re-examine a situation is to replace themselves with a different version of ourselves. James has written about pretending to be an alien or someone’s mother. Duber says that he uses a version of this trick while shopping, pretending that the object he’s looking at is at a New England yard sale rather than perfect retail environment.

This takes work though, to pause in the moment and think about whether or not this situation is something you want. Rather, Dubner suggests you “teach your garden to weed itself” a chapter from Think Like a Freak. That chapter is centered on the story of Van Halen and Brown M&M’s. It’s a story that’s been told many times over – and really best told by David Lee Roth himself.

Rather, here’s a more modern version.

Selling marijuana legally is really hard. There’s growing it, legal issues, and selling it the right away. This doesn’t include one of the hardest parts – getting a business checking account. Many banks don’t want to enter this smoke-gray area of the law. This means that people legally selling it find alternate ways to deposit the money. In episode #602 the NPR Planet Money team find out how some banks are offering their services. One credit union in Seattle is offering a checking service, but with a certain set of questions like do you have a business plan and do you have insurances. And this one:

“Do you have an e-business risk management policy?”

Hmm. Why are they asking about e-business when you can’t sell it online in the state of Washington?

You answer the question and move on. Does your facility have; “security access, security cameras, security alarms, 24 hour surveillance, armed guards, or guard dogs?” This credit union has taught their garden to weed itself because if you are selling marijuana and went a checking account you better NOT have an e-business policy, armed guards, or guard dogs. Answer yes to any of those questions, and you’re done.

Another version is from Ramit Sethi (episode #36) who told a 99U audience that he sneaks filtering questions into his hiring process.

I was recently hiring someone to run my support organization and I knew that I would get a lot of applications…I needed a way to filter people out.

Ramit sent out an email with ten questions, but he only really cared about question #7: “Which metrics do you see as most important for measuring customer service?” This was his version of brown M&M’s and armed guards. It was the answer to this question that would show him if he should examine the rest of the applicants essay. Of the 412 responses, only 2 used the words he was looking for in that question.

Thanks for reading. If I misspelled, misinterpreted, or misquoted something do let me know in the comments or on Twitter, @MikeDariano. Every tenth one of these I share a link to donate. 

#53 Ted Leonsis

James Altucher interviewed Ted Leonsis about the six secrets to achieving happiness and success. Leonsis has written a book out about finding those secrets – The Business of Happiness – and in the interview he and James cover a lot of ground about happiness, business, and good timing (or luck depending on your view).

To begin, let’s get some context on Leonsis. I enjoy all of Altucher’s guests, and all of them are considerably successful, but Leonsis is on another level. He’s the owner of three professional sports teams, the Washington Wizards, the Washington Capitals, and Washington Mystics. Leonsis owns the Verizon Center Arena and Snap Films. Leonsis also advises companies like Groupon and was an executive in the AOL heyday.

The book Leonsis is talking about began germinating after a “life reckoning” moment. It was 1983 and Leonsis had recently sold a company for $70 million. He was 26. That company was Red Gate Publishing and it “published magazines for Apple Computer and for Compaq Computer and the like.” Before the sale, Leonsis was focused on only IBM when Apple called to ask if he could do the same for them.

Altucher then asks if Steve Jobs minded that Leonsis was glorifying the IBM PC.

This is a common misconception of early Steve Jobs that Walter Isaacson brings to light in his biography. We sometimes view Jobs as surly and unwelcoming, and he was, to things that didn’t meet his standards. For example, he didn’t dislike Microsoft because they were competitors per se, he disliked them because he felt they made an inferior product and ripped him off to do so. What Jobs sought out and needed early on, was people doing great work. That’s what Leonsis was providing at the time.

The moment that began Leonsis’s rethinking of life was an emergency plane landing.

“While the plane was getting prepared, people started praying and people started crying.  I was left with, “What’s my strength? What am I going to do?” I started to pray.  The best deal that I could try to cut with this higher calling was, “If you let me through this, I’ll leave more than I take and I will try to make this next part of my life more meaningful to the world and not just me.””

Between his company’s sale and that moment on the plane Leonsis was doing what many millionaires under 30 might be doing, “I bought a house.  I had lots of girlfriends.  I bought cars.”

He then made a bucket list, 101 things to do before he died. The list was a good start, but reflected his age. “I made a list as a very, very young person that I’m not very proud of today when I look back because I didn’t have the tools, if you will, to know what would make for a life without regret.” Leonsis included things like “catch a foul ball” and “give x dollars to charity.”

What Leonsis lacked was a meaningful personal narrative, a good story. Up to that point in his life he was living a story that left him feeling unfulfilled. Even though he had money and we think money brings happiness, it didn’t for him. In his book, A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, Donald Miller writes about this. For Miller the moment came when he was making a movie about a book based on his life. When it was time to write the movie though, he realized his life wasn’t very interesting. It wasn’t that Miller had money like Leonsis did, he didn’t, it was that like Leonsis he wasn’t living a story he was proud of.

Miller writes:

“If you watched a movie about a guy who wanted a Volvo and worked for years to get it, you wouldn’t cry at the end when he drove off the lot, testing the windshield wipers. You wouldn’t tell your friends you saw a beautiful movie or go home and put a record on to think about the story you’d seen. The truth is, you wouldn’t remember that movie a week later, except you’d feel robbed and want your money back. Nobody cries at the end of a movie about a guy who wants a Volvo.”

But we spend years actually living those stories, and expect our lives to be meaningful. The truth is, if what we choose to do with our lives won’t make a story meaningful, it won’t make a life meaningful either”

For Leonsis there are specific things to do to be happier. Some he mentions in the interview are:

Connect with multiple communities of interest. Leonsis says, “The busier you are and the more active you are with those multiple communities, the happier and more productive you are.” I’ve seen that to be true in my own life, even having my parents sit me down and suggest I get a job in college after my grades dipped because I wasn’t busy enough.

Leonsis gives many technology examples of this in the interview, Facebook is a community, eBay is a community of interests, he also mentions business that create a positive community.

Have high levels of self expression. “We as a people are inherently creative.  We want our voices heard.  I blog everyday – tedstake.com.  Every single day I blog.  I’ve written books.  I’ve made movies, even though I would be considered a suit – a business person – I’m self-expressing as much as I can.”

Have high levels of personal empathy. Leonsis gives the example of Sergey Brin turning down an offer to bring Google to China. “That was unbelievable personal empathy.  At first, the papers and the analysts wrote what a bad business call it was to not want to play ball in the biggest developing Internet community.  I remember thinking, “The employees are going to rally around him.  The advertisers are going to rally around him.  This is really the right thing to do in the right way, but it’s also going to turn out to be great business.” It did.”

Get out of the “I” and into the “we”. Leonsis tells the story about working in the kitchen for the homeless, teaching people how to cook and then serving them meals. He says that after this you won’t complain about having a bad meal at a restaurant. In doing this you reframe what’s its like to have a meal.

Leonsis introduces the idea of “double bottom lines,” that you can do good for yourself and do good for others at the same time. “They(young people) are willing to trade off a little bit of creature comfort and the win in terms of dollars for satisfaction, happiness, and the ability to say, “I’m a part of something bigger than just being able to have a big apartment or a nicer car.””

I’m not old enough to have seen this for older entrepreneurs, but evidence for the younger generations is clear in the buy a pair, give a pair attitudes of companies like TOMS shoes and Warby Parker.

Up to this point in the interview I’m in lock step with a lot of what Leonsis is saying, then he goes on to say that the Olympics in Washington D.C. is the “ultimate double bottom line.” With this I disagree, and would happily be proved wrong. Whether the Olympics are helpful or harmful to an area, we don’t yet know.

In the interview Leonsis brings up the affordable housing plans that the London Olympic organizers had suggested. That sounds like a great idea, develop an area to use for the games and then repurpose it afterwards.  The actual execution though is not quite so clear. In January 2014, the BBC reported the number of total of homes has fallen from the original 7,000 promised. In the first round of construction only 28% of homes will be affordable housing rather than the original promise of 40%. Leonsis isn’t ignorant, it’s just that his perspective of sports as a double bottom line is different.

Leonsis has been the benefactor of public assistance in the history of the former MCI, now Verizon Center. The arena and sports teams do bring in economic development to the area, and do employee a lot of people. But at what opportunity cost? For one point of view, check out Field of Schemes to see what sort of generous accommodations municipalities have offered to their sport teams.

The best case for the games coming to D.C. might be that Leonsis is an early investor. Other places he’s been invested in early; AOL, Google, and Apple. That’s quite a list.

Leonsis goes on to talk about the convergence of technology with his Apple 2 computer and then shares something I had never heard before. Picture this, you’re working at AOL, the number one internet provider in the United States. Your job is to monitor usage rates, it’s a Thursday night and as the clock ticks closer to 9:00 you reach into your bag to take out Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban to catch up on. You can take this break because there is an actual dip in internet usage for Must See TV on NBC. That’s incredible. In an age of multiple streams and screens, and Netflix accounting for 34% of wired download traffic in North America.

Now we stream nearly everything, everything except sports. Leonsis, along with Steve Ballmer and Mark Cuban (a past Altucher guest), are looking at it from this angle. Cuban went so far in past episodes of Shark Tank to explicitly share this as an investing strategy, agreeing in principle to a $2 million investment in live event company Ten Thirty One Productions.

Altucher’s asks Leonsis what advice he would give to young people. “A strong math background,” Leonsis says, “the best general managers in sports are the ones that have really internalized stats.  So, you’ve got to have a strong basis in math.“

The pair get into the history of AOL and Leonsis says that “we wrote the original business plan.” I rolled my eyes at this bravado, but then he listed the AOL breakthroughs and then who came out. Leonsis may be right; MapQuest and AOL mail were overtaken by Google Maps and Gmail. AIM was the only instant messenger until Google, Facebook, and other companies. It’s easy to laugh at AOL now, and the 2.4 million subscribers that still pay AOL, but they were first in many ways.

Leonsis finishes up the interview with another great story, about how all those AOL discs came about.

“Steve Case was the founder of AOL and my boss and now my partner in our private equity funds.  One of his first jobs was at Procter and Gamble.  He worked as a brand manager on a shampoo product.  They would do sampling.  When they were going to bring the shampoo product into grocery stores in a new community, they would literally put some shampoo in the mail and they would hang it on the door so that you could sample it.  When he saw the first computer with a modem built in, he said, “I understand that.  Why don’t we give away the software to get you online so you could sample it?” My first reaction to that was that was either the most genius thing I’ve ever heard or the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard.  You want to spend 10’s of millions of dollars making the software and hundreds of millions of dollars giving the software away.  That business practice from another field – consumer goods shampoo and sampling – is how we got America Online”

If you weren’t around then, those discs were everywhere. They were in magazines, store shelves, and in the mail. If they had only smelled as nice as the shampoo samples maybe people would have welcomed them a bit more.

To get more of Ted Leonsis check out his 2010 book, The Business of Happiness and his blog, Ted’s Take.

#89 Maria Popova


Maria Popova (@brainpicker) joined James Altucher for what he says is “totally just a selfish podcast for me…the only blog I read is your blog, BrainPickings.org.” Here are some of the most popular post to show you why.

James calls her site, “a museum of the world on the internet” and Maria says this sounds about right. Her goal, she tells James, is to share something meaningful about living a meaningful life. There won’t be any Kim Kardashian pictures (though Maria doesn’t mention how she feels about these), there won’t be any listicles (though Maria isn’t opposed to lists), and there won’t be any content. “I didn’t hear you say the word content once, which is one of my pet peeves.” she tells James.

Her line in the sand against content seems to stem from content for content’s sake. When she started Brain Pickings, she didn’t want advertisements because ads would own her schedule, where she became the horse rather than jockey. For a bit of content, take a recent example from the world of sports, where reporter Clay Travis guessed that NBA player Boogie Cousins would be arrested within five years.

This may be the cynical content Maria was talking about.

In the interview James tells Maria that before going on a TV show once a producer told him that it really didn’t matter what he said, they were just filling time between commercials. About this, she says:

It’s hard to conceive of any self-respecting journalist or scholar or writer of integrity who would stand to call his or her work content.

James says the listicle appeals to people and there’s good reason. In fact, a quick Google search reveals that just about every website has a listicle about why we like listicles. This NPR list of lists was my favorite.

Of course, there is an xkcd comic about this.

When Maria began Brain Pickings, she wanted to create something good in a world that was becoming too cynical (what, she thinks reporters predicting NBA players heading off to jail is cynical?). “Why not build things in the world rather than tear them down.” (-click-to-tweet-) she asks James.

The origin story for Brain Pickings actually began to coalesce in college, “I wasn’t satisfied with my actual education.” The University of Pennsylvania was teaching her facts, not how to think. It echoes what Seth Godin (episode #27) told James, that there are only two things we should be teaching kids, “how to lead and how to solve interesting problems.” The argument goes, in Maria’s words, that “information and facts are different than wisdom” and that “the web has displaced the need for absolute knowledge.”

There were these 400 student lectures halls where the professor didn’t know your name and you learned nothing about life. This sounds like the opposite of Cheers. So, working 4 jobs through college, and earning a name scholarship to help, she made it through.

James asks if she ever considered dropping out of school, to which Maria replies that the thought never even occurred to her. “There’s no Bulgarian word for drop-out” she tells him. Words help clarify things for understanding. Nassim Taleb had to come up with the word antifragility to explain things that gain from disorder. Before Maria heard “drop-out” or I heard “antifragile” we never thought in those terms.

After finishing school she continued to work and share emails with friends. Brain Pickings was originally just an email with three links (no description) to eight people. It started very slowly.

Maria kept reading and tells James that “Learning to read well and to write well is really learning to think well.” She’s not the only one who thinks about thinking this way. Sharing what you know is one of the best ways to test your knowledge about what you know. In The Five Elements of Effective Thinking Professor Edward Burger tells the story of students who would come to his office after a low exam score. They would say they knew the material, they just couldn’t explain it. This. Is. The. Crux. If you can’t explain something well, you don’t understand it well. This is more widely known as the Feynman technique. Here Scott Young explains it.

This is actually how this blog began. There was so much to learn from James Altucher’s guest, but merely listening didn’t provide enough connections for me to remember or apply it.

As Maria began this learning process after school she realized that “the process is a much greater reflection of personhood than the product.” She tells James that John Steinbeck wrote two books when he wrote Grapes of Wrath, the story everyone knows and a journal about the story everyone knows. It’s in this second work that Maria has found an incredible amount of value.

James tells Maria that even though we have access to everything via Google, we still struggle to find the things that light us up. Past guest Shane Snow makes the case that limited options actually help. In chapter eight of his book – Smartcuts – he writes that “constraints force us to throw convention out.” Alex Blumberg (episode #70) said something similar about time. When James asked about how he got it all done, he said that because he didn’t have all the time in the world, he chose the things that needed done.

Maria was working after college, humming happily along, when a glitch in the visa system denied her citizenship application. This meant she had to leave the country, so she emigrated again, spending time in London and Bulgaria. Despite having her life pulled out from under her, there was some good to this, she tells James: “There’s often a silver-lining in these less than ideal circumstances forced upon us.” She was stuck without Amazon (yes, there are places like that) and it forced her to read books that were available online in the public domain. She kept writing and said that she was encouraged to see 100 people reading, 100 people following on Twitter.

Let me take a moment to personally thank you too for reading. We’re total strangers. Only one friend of mine listens to these podcasts so everyone that reads this has no reason to except that they enjoy what’s being written here. Thank you for that, it does mean a lot. Okay, back to the interview.

Maria tells James that her current statistics are about 3 million users generating 8 million hits a month, and James says this is no surprise because, “your site is like Alice in Wonderland going down the rabbit hole. Once you get into one article you have like 5 links to other articles and I could spend an hour going from article to article on your site.”

One of those articles was Happy Birthday, Brain Pickings: 7 Things I Learned in 7 Years of Reading, Writing, and Living. James wants to jump into a few of the ideas.

#1 Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind

Maria says she learned this in part from Andrew Sullivan, and it’s a form of intelligent thinking. Stephen Dubner writes that being wrong is one of the ways you can start to think like a freak, or at least, like him. “The three hardest words are ‘I don’t know’” he writes in Think Like a Freak.

Tackling this tricky tic in true Freakonomics fashion, Duber and his co-author Levitt lay out a type of logic that says guessing is often a much better course of action. If you admit, up front, you don’t know then you always lose some credibility because of the way we view people who don’t know things. If, on the other hand, you make a guess, you have a chance of being right. Rather than saying that we don’t know what Apple ($AAPL) will do in 2015Q2, we make a guess that they’ll be up 40%. There’ s a chance that will happen. If it doesn’t though, there’s no cost for our guess, we can just walk back the position, change it, or even admit that it was a tricky situation and we did our best. James says this isn’t an easy thing to do, especially on TV, where if you don’t know or change your mind, you’ll never be invited back.

Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon stopped by the 37Signals offices to talk about product strategy and told Jason Fried (and the others there) this:

He said people who were right a lot of the time were people who often changed their minds. He 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.

#2 Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone

In their interview James and Maria share the story of Albert Einstein telling a colleague that the awards for doing work aren’t real awards at all, the work is the reward. If you find something you enjoy doing, that’s your thing, your prize, your gold watch.

Stephen King answered a similar question, “Do you do it for the money, honey?”

The answer is no. Don’t now and never did. Yes, I’ve made a great deal of dough from my fiction, but I never set a single word down on paper with the thought of being paid for it…I have written because it fulfilled me.

#3 Be generous

Spac0587 - Flickr - NOAA Photo LibraryMaria writes, “Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words. It’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator.” Austin Kleon shares a list of things he wished he learned when he was staring out, one of which is “Be nice. (The world is a small town.)”

Astronaut Ron Garan is making the case that you don’t need to go to space, to get an “orbital perspective.”

You don’t have to be in orbit to have an Orbital Perspective. This is one of the main points of the book and why I cite so many examples of people acting with an orbital perspective who have never been in space. We apply the orbital perspective by acknowledging the framework that we’ve constructed to view the word, by considering the long term/big picture implications of our words and actions and above all else by practicing what I like to call “elevated empathy.”

Maria also notes- and James enthusiastically agrees – that one remark of criticism scores deeper than one of kindness. Amanda Palmer (episode #82) told James much the same thing, saying that one bad review among 99 good ones can “overpower your psyche for a day.”

The end of the episode is all about how the creative process works, how James and Maria turn lead into gold. James says, “You read and you read and you read and it’s like rubbing sticks together until something catches fire.” which Maria says, “is such a wonderful metaphor.”

The grand finale is a list of books that Maria has recently enjoy and include: On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes.  In that book, Alexandra Horowitz walks down the same block with eleven different experts to get eleven different stories. This demonstrates an idea that Daniel Kahneman terms What You See Is All There Is. He writes: “information that is not retrieved (even unconsciously) from memory might as well not exist.” Our default thinking is to quickly categorize the world around us, and how we categorize those things depends on what we know (can retrieve).

Other books Maria suggests are: The Faraway Nearby, The Art of Asking, A Field Guide to Getting Lost, On the Shortness of Life, Daybook: The Journal of an Artist, Anne Lamott, The Art of Stillness, Joan Didion, Waking Up, Hackers and Painters, Still Writing, Arts and Letters…this list could go on forever, you really should just head over to BrainPickings.org.

Thanks for reading. Let me know where I strayed in the comments or on Twitter, @MikeDariano.

 Notes on the notes:

Maria Popova gave a great interview with Tim Ferriss as well. There they talk about meditation and mindfulness.

If you like Brain Pickings you may also like Farnam Street.

She also wrote in the great Lifehacker series, how I work and shared what she’s really good at, “I do brew excellent kombucha and can do more pushups in a minute than most people. The secret, of these and of any life skill, I believe, is practice and stubbornness.”

The public domain is when intellectual property rights have elapsed. Generally 70 years after the death of an author.

This site participates in the Amazon Affiliate program. If you follow a link from here, to there, and buy anything – a few cents of the purchase get sent to me. Thanks.