#1 Robert Greene

Robert Greene joined James Altucher to talk about power, writing, and what it means for us to really become great at something. Greene is the author of Mastery, The 48 Laws of Power, and The Art of Seduction.

The interview begins with Greene telling James that he just finished reading Phil Jackson’s book Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success. “I’ll read 200-300 books for each book I write,” Greene says. Wow. Ryan Holiday (episode #108) told James that his career as a writer started because he was Greene’s research assistant.

“What is your current reading leading towards?” James asks. Greene says that he’s taking the chapter from Master about social intelligence, and expanding that into an entire book. The big ideas, says Greene, go back thousands of years and the new book is an attempt to explain to people how to use them.

One example from the book is how to persuade somebody to do something. Pretend you have a project, says Greene. You tell someone about it, they seem interested, but two weeks later they’re suddenly not interested anymore. Why?

Well, it could be that they’ve cooled off. That happens to all of us and it might be the case. Or, maybe you didn’t get to their self-interest. You need to be able to successfully identify the cause says Greene.

There are two powerful ideas here. First is the Rumpelstiltskin effect, second is persuasion jujitsu.

The Rumpelstiltskin Effect

In a podcast from June 23, 2015, Adam Savage says that he was looking for a glass bottle for a model he was building. It had to be a certain size and shape, and have a lip that curved just right. Savage says that he would search for “small round bottle” and “skinning bottle with medium lip” but  without luck.

His fortunes changed however when he learned that bottles are classified by the type of lip (also known as bottle finish).


Once Savage learned this, he quickly found the bottle he was looking for. Just like in the fairy tale Rumpelstiltskin, once he knew the name of the thing, the spell was broken. Other examples include:

  • Carol Leifer (episode #66) needed to know how to shut down hecklers. Once she knew the name of the technique, and the spell was broken.
  • Michael Mauboussin (episode TKP1) says that people make poor predictions when they lack a system. Once you have a name for decision steps, you make better decisions, and the spell was broken.
  • Dan Ariely (episode #65) explained the same idea in economic decisions. When he asked people what they would buy if they didn’t buy a certain car, they often said they would buy a different one. But once he explained the term “opportunity cost,” people started to see things differently, and the spell was broken.

To break the spell you must know the name of the thing. Greene’s point is this, you have to identify why you failed to connect and there may be many reasons.

Like a doctor diagnosis a medical ailment, we can diagnose social ones. How? By persuasion jujitsu.

Persuasion Jujitsu

In Influence – our current book club book – Robert Cialdini writes about negotiation jujitsu. The trick, he writes, is to realize that you won’t overpower someone and get them to change their minds. Instead you need to use their own invisible scripts to get them to do what you want.

Once you know the moves to make for each of their attacks or feints, you can take a certain course of action.

Say for example, you want people to use less energy in their homes.

  1. You could educate them about the negative environmental effects of burning coal.
  2. You could inform them about how much money they might save if they use less energy.
  3. You could tell them how much their neighbors use and incite a friendly competition.

Researchers have looked at this exact question many times over and the results are regularly the same. People will say that #1 or #2 might work, but certainly not #3. When researchers apply the test though, it’s  #3 that has the biggest effect.

Social pressure, it turns out, get us to act more than financial or environmental ones. I don’t know what type of social intelligence Greene is writing about, but this is the sort of jujitsu I’m sure he’ll make note of.

Social Intelligence in Mastery

A lot of what’s in the book Mastery, says James, is social intelligence. How important is that? “It’s 25% of the game,” says Greene. “No matter what field you are in, you have to have some degree of awareness of how other people are thinking.”

Let’s say, Greene explains, you’re at a new job. You get hired and most of the people there are friendly, but not overly so. Except for one guy who acts way too nice. What does this mean? As a society we have a spectrum of interpersonal relationships. Some are social, some formal, some professional, some intimate. You need to know, Greene says, when somebody isn’t acting the right way at the right time.

Adam Grant (episode #73) talked a bit about this with James as well. Grant’s angle was that there’s a certain kind of social giving you should do .

  • First, only give your time to others once your own work is done.
  • Second, give in a way that makes you feel good and uses your skills.
  • Third, don’t be a pushover. It’s this last part where Grant gives specific advice.

In giving situations, Grant writes, you can cooperate or compete with someone else. If you find yourself in a competing situation, you don’t want to cooperate fully because that person will take advantage of you. Instead you need to identify the situation and cooperate two-thirds of the time.This will keep you from being taken advantage of, and it will let you remain a successful giver.

The (Happy) Sorcerer’s Apprentice

As the interview moves on, James asks Greene about the his book Mastery, which he says is “a brilliant book, I highly recommend it to everybody.” But how do you become a master, James asks.

Step one, says Greene, is to find something you can enjoy doing, “listen to your own voice.” Gary Vaynerchuk (episode #2) says to find something you love to do because you are going to work your butt off if you want to do it well. Gretchen Rubin (episode #97) says to “know your tendencies,” before you choose something.

Ask, “what excites me?” says Greene. For Maria Popova (episode #89) it was the discovery of human ideas and truths. Popova didn’t get this in college – to the point that it surprised her – so she started a small email. Now she runs Brainpickings.org.

For Amanda Palmer (episode #82) it was always about being a performer. Palmer’s act as a street artist taught her about how to ask. She learned so much, and asked so often that she wrote a book about it.

At this stage you want to double down on experience, even at the expense of income says Greene. (Palmer and Popova both had none early on). Big shot lawyer? Yeah right, that doesn’t always turn out rosy. It turns out more like a prison said Peter Thiel (episode #43) who said that when he left his law firm his colleagues congratulate him, expressing that they couldn’t leave. “It was a place where everyone on the outside wanted in,” says Thiel, “and everyone on the inside wanted out.”

Robert Kurson (episode #116) said the same thing about his experience in corporate law and how much it drained him. Kurson described it as a place where, “time seemed to tick backwards.” Law isn’t like a John Grisham book, at least it wasn’t for Kurson. One of his last cases was to determine if a McDonald’s franchisee was using pickles that were too green.

If you aren’t going to chase dollars what do you go after? Experience says Greene. “Once you get in a field where you want to work, think of your 20’s as your apprenticeship.” Alex Blumberg (episode #70) took this path. His career sequence was ; freelance reporter, producer for This American Life, creator of Planet Money, then founder of Gimlet Media. I don’t know what a freelance reporter for NPR gets paid, but it couldn’t have  been much. Instead Blumberg accumulated so much experience he told James, “this skill that I’ve worked and slaved for now has value.”

And you don’t have to know where you’ll end up. Blumberg certainly didn’t know podcasts would be a thing when he graduated college in 1989. Neither did Kevin Kelly (episode #96) when he was starting out. What does the Whole Earth Catalog and living in Asia have to do with editing Wired Magazine? Little, except that Kelly had the right set of skills when that job came along. And you need to build some skills.

The 10K Hour Rule.

The rule considered gospel since Malcolm Gladwell wrote about it in Outliers . If you aren’t familiar with it, here’s the Wikipedia page. More concisely it’s this: it takes about 10,000 hours of dedicated and intentional practice on something to become world class in that thing.

Greene says this idea is still true, but maybe not to the extent of the original research. Your hours of experience can come from anywhere. Maybe you worked as accountant for 7 years, that’s about 10K hours of accountant work. But what if you want to quit that job to be a motivational speaker? Hmm.

Don’t stress too much says Greene. Rather, you probably have a few thousand hours from that job as an accountant that will translate to motivational speaking. For example, you know how to talk with people, you understand their fears, you see the value of a plan. Plus, you’ll know how to balance costs against revenue for your new business. You might be a quarter of the way to mastery before you’ve given a single talk.

A Day in the Life

James asks what a typical day is like for Greene. “It’s not horribly glamorous,” says Green. The actual writing is only about one-third of the process he says. If that’s what he’s working on, he’ll write for three to four hours and then take a break to exercise. The other parts are research and then the miscellany of management, small tasks, etc. For more about writers:

One thing Greene doesn’t care to do is to create Pinterest images of his quotes – in general terms. “I find it exhausting and depressing for me.” Greene says about social media.

Thanks for reading, I’m @MikeDariano on Twitter and find it exciting. If Greene’s comments about a career, apprenticeship, and 10K hours struck you more than anything else, then you need to read Cal Newport’s book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You. That book makes the case that the biggest thing you need to build up is career capital and there is a correct sequence to it. Newport’s book stands well on its own but if you want some help, I created a guide with further examples and questions. If you’ve read this far you enjoy my insights, connections, and further stories. The guide is no different.


#119 Michael “Mickey” Singer

Michael (Mickey) Singer joined James Altucher to talk about leaning back, finding out who you are, and owning your mind. Singer is the author of The Untethered Soul (which James says “is a beautiful book,” and which has a whopping 2,200 Amazon reviews!) and the recently released The Surrender Experiment. The interview takes place at Singer’s Temple of the Universe.

One programming note before we get started. This was a personal interview. Not that it’s personal to James – though it sounds like it is – but personal in however you take it.

Much like Wayne Dyer (episode #6) and T. Harv Eker (episode #100 ), this interview is spiritual in nature. My first thought to what Singer said was to apply a stoic filter, much like I wrote about in the Ryan Holiday (episode #108) notes. I have a bias going it and that’s it. One quote from Marcus Aurelius and we’ll get started:


Singer began his spiritual transformation when he was finishing his Ph.D. in economics. He realized then that he could watch rather than be the voices in his head. Eker had a similar realization, telling James that is was wonderful when he realized he could say to those thoughts, “thank you for sharing.”

For Singer it was an “evolution of consciousness,” that led him to realize that he controlled his thoughts. His theory goes, that if we don’t have the same primal factors to fear (hunger, predators, etc), we will manufacture something to fear. We build emotional threats. We resurrect  things from seven years ago. We feel alone.

Even if you have it all – says Robert Greene, a past guest – people will come for it.

But you don’t need those things says Singer. “You have everything you need to live at a deeper level” he says to James. Rather than focus on the outcomes of the world, focus on your inner voice he says.

Adam Carolla (episode #25) said similar things in a different way. For Carolla it was how he dealt with rejection for a television pilot he wrote. He did the best he could with a good idea, but it was rejected. Oh well, move on.

The stoic Marcus Aurelius has another perspective, if it can happen it will happen, and we shouldn’t be surprised by anything really.


Singer draws the analogy that your mind is like a house, and you need to choose what comes in and what doesn’t. “This is my house, this is where I live,” Singer says, “I’m going to straighten this out.”

This is easier said than done. It’s hard to shift your thoughts, and it’s a writing tool that helps me. In her book Bird by Bird, Ann Lamott says she thinks small to get started.

”I go back to trying to breathe, slowly and calmly, and I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments. It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame.”

For shifting our mental situation try to focus on one small thing. Maybe it’s your kids, your boss, or your spouse. Maybe it’s not getting angry about traffic. There’s no limit to how small you can start.

Maybe start with your thoughts. There is a wonderful parable from The One You Feed Podcast (one you may enjoy) that goes like this:

An old grandfather told his grandson: “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, and resentment. The other is good. It is joy, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, and bravery. “The boy thought about it, and asked, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?” The old man quietly replied, “The one you feed.”

Singer’s perspective is that the universe already has many things figured out. It doesn’t need you to push forward, cells still split, the sun still shines. Singer says – and James echoes – that his book lays out the steps one at a time.

For Singer one of the early steps meant ignoring a vagabond in his yard. This was hard. Eventually though he had a mental shift. “I let that voice in my head know you’re not running things here.”

In the middle of the interview James asks Singer about how he makes decisions. This is a great question area and I hope it joins the “cubicle” question.

There are lots of good ways to make decisions.

  • Chris Hadfield (episode #111) makes decisions by knowing the “boldface.” That is the rules for spaceflight that have been learned through repetition or accident.
  • John Chatterton (the subject of Robert Kurson’s (episode #116) second book) made decisions by asking how he would feel when he was older. When he was an old man, would he be happy with his choice?
  • Billionaire Seymour Schulich has the decision maker. Tally two sides of an argument and score each item’s importance. Only if one side is double the other do you change from the default choice.

Singer doesn’t give an answer with the same clarity, but he does say that he tries not to think too far ahead. He likens life to being like a river. You know where you’ve been on the river, and you can forecast some of what’s ahead – but you can’t see the entire course of the river or the obstacles underneath.

In The Five Elements of Effective Thinking, Dr. Burger writes about this as a tool for thinking. If your knowledge was like a river, look at what you’ve learned and what the natural progression might be. Sometimes it’s obvious. For Steven Kotler (episode #118) and Austin Kleon (episode #19) it was clear. On their book tours, people were asking them the same questions over and over. Their next books set out to answer those questions. Kevin Kelly (episode #96) told James he uses this technique to get ideas for what the future may hold.

James has learned a lot of Singer’s ideas. “In my worst experiences it’s like, oh wow, here’s an opportunity to take a step.”

Nassim Taleb also takes this idea – though I believe Taleb is well versed in the stoics rather than Singer – and it’s a key point in Antifragile. “Wind extinguished a candle and energizes a fire.” Taleb writes, “Likewise with randomness, uncertainty, chaos: you want to choose them, not hide from them. You want to be the fire and wish for the wind.”

The interview ends with a neat little story about what happened when Oprah called. You can watch part of that interview here:

Thanks for reading, I’m @MikeDariano. If you want to join our book club, we just started and there’s still time to catch up. After this week though it might be too late to get up to speed. If you want to learn more about stoicism start with Meditations or On The Shortness of Life. Both were accessible to me and I had no philosophical background.

If you want to see the effects on stoicism on me, I wrote about my experiences applying stoic thought to parenting. It’s been the single biggest positive effect on my parenting.

#118 Steven Kotler

Steven Kotler (@KotlerStevenjoined James Altucher to talk about the future, progress, and his new book Tomorrowland: Our Journey from Science Fiction to Science Fact. Kotler has been on the podcast twice before, once on episode #10 where he talked about the flow state. Later with Peter Diamandis in epsiode #93 where they pair talked about the 6 D’s of the future. If you haven’t gathered, Kotler is very much about the future and where we go from here.

riseofsupermanThe interview starts with a message about finding mentors from David, the podcast producer. I try to do something like this with our book club. If you want to join over 50 other people, sign up soon, we just started Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.

As the interview begins, Kotler tells James that he wrote Tomorrowland in response to many of the questions he heard while on his book tour. Austin Kleon (episode #19) told James that his second book – Show Your Work – was born from the same womb. Jack Canfield (episode #90) also uses this technique. In his books, he includes a place you can send your own stories. Canfield then uses them when he writes. Any enterprising person could collect questions almost instantly via Twitter…

The takeaway from each of these authors is that there isn’t an instantaneous moment of clarity. They all have a moment of need to write, but it never comes fully developed. Kleon likens it to a bucket that gets filled with water. The only way to have a full bucket is to make many tiny drops into it. In writing books – and life – there is no hose that readily fills your bucket.

Kotler tells James that his career has been like this as well. “When you are coming up as a writer, you think I’ll get one book out and it’s going to level me up. I won’t need to worry about making a living and do what I want with my time. Which is not true at all.”

For Kotler it took 7 books before he felt like he was a writer. James says that it took him 10. When he looks at his progress now, Kotler says that he sees three phases.

  1. Develop your voice. Kotler says that people liked his voice, but not necessarily all of it. “We want you to write Kotler like pieces,” he recalls one editor saying, “and this isn’t it,” as he threw an early draft back.
  2. Spend time in the box. Kotler realized that he had to write in a certain way. His articles at GQ were done one way. His articles at Wired another. There was a path the editors expected his articles to follow, and it was up to him to find it.
  3. Work four-times as hard, but on what you want. Now Kotler writes about what he wants, but works much harder. Stephen Dubner (episode #110) told James much the same thing. He was fortunate Freakonomics succeed or else he would have to go back to phase two.

“How did you figure this out?” James asks, in an attempt to peel back another layer of the process. I try to be the “dumbest guy in the room,” Kotler says. He aims to focus on the details that go into a book and get them right. But once a book is gone, it’s gone. Adam Carolla (episode #25) had the same sort of detachment that Kotler has. Do your best possible work and put it out there and let it go. It’s gone. You can’t do anything about it.

Kotler also echoes the advice that Andy Weir (episode #92) told James. Weir’s second piece of advice about writing was, “don’t tell people.” He says that when you tell people you begin to feel like you’ve done the thing.

Kotler’s books often deal with big, futuristic ideas and James asks him, “how do we separate the real deal from the raving mad med?” Try these two filters:

  1. Ask about the first principles. He tells the story of Elon Musk who looked at the costs of battery components and realized that the components didn’t cost that much. If a battery costs 100, but the parts only 20, where does that extra money go? Ah, if we can build them a better way they will be cheaper. If the first principles inspire you to think, well that’s not too bad go on.
  2. Look for user interface. If there is an easy way for many people to adopt a technology, it will be adopted. This blog is one example. The wonders of WordPress, Evernote, and Downcast – the tools I use to write with – make it easier to write. Clay Shirky wrote about this is Here Comes Everybody. The point there is that once technology is easy, we can all use it to do the things we haven’t yet done. Not doing something now doesn’t mean you won’t do something once it becomes easier.

Kotler tries to take these filters and apply them in his latest book, Tomorrowland. James says that the chapters on anti-aging piqued his interest and asks if he could be the six million dollar man. No, he can’t, even if he had the money. Planet Money did a podcast and asked if the new 6 BILLION dollar man television show would be financially possible. (tl;dr – no, not even the government could spend that much).

What you might see, says Kotler, is more performance enhancements in sports and other parts of life. We’ve seen life elongation on the front end with better sanitation and medication. The back end is where things get more difficult. Kotler says that we are using things like stem cells to regrow body parts like the cornea and that’s where we should expect things to head.

In another instance Kotler says, “I met a blind man and then two days after (vision surgery) he could drive a car around a parking lot.” Robert Kurson (episode #116) told James that one of his early books was about a man who regained his sight.

When you break it down, the pair resolve, our senses are as much peripherals as they are a part of us. Think about, our bodies can detect sound waves but don’t have a discernible way to identify the cellular radio waves that bounce about us all day long. We can’t tell how much solar radiation is out and about – well actually, we can – it’s our tan lines. What if we could pick up on cellular or solar waves more readily?

One of Kotler’s contemporaries, David Eagleman, tries to answer that question in this TED Talk:

Okay, this is informative, but how I can use this for personal or professional gain asks James. Kotler tells him that neurochemicals work, but we don’t know exactly how. Both Tim Ferriss (episode #109) and Peter Diamandis would have better suggestions he says. Kotler says that rather than take something, try do something. How well do you use flow Kotler might ask. Take a diagnostic test at the Flow Genome Project to get an idea about where to start. If you have a roadmap, Kotler says, it’s easier to know where to begin and what shortcuts to take. Ultimately, “you have to conduct the experiment yourself.”

Self experimentation, it needs to be done. From Neil Strauss (episode #113) to Gretchen Rubin (episode #97) to Scott Adams (episode #112), they all experiment in their lives.

From the business side of things, Kotler doesn’t know exactly what to do. Mark Cuban (episode #24) told James that we’ll look back with disbelief that we all took the same quantities of medicine so maybe that’s one area.  But whatever it is, you must be passionate, says Kotler, “You have to build these businesses on the back of passion because it’s so god damn hard to be an entrepreneur.” Gary Vaynerchuk (episode #2) told James much the same thing in his interview. But it’s not just about passion. It’s about being passionate enough and good enough.

You can also help things out if start with a small monopoly. Peter Thiel (episode #43), borrowing the structure from Anna Karenina, advises:

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

The interview ends with some book recommendations from Kotler: Anything by Neil Stephenson, William Gibson, or Richard K. Morgan (Altered Carbon especially).  Ready Player One is also very good.

Thanks for reading, I’m @MikeDariano. If you want more book suggestions, I have a monthly email you can subscribe to. Also, please consider a financial donation or answer two questions about this blog and the book it’s becoming.

#117 David Bach

David Bach (@AuthorDavidBach) joined James Altucher to talk about money, values, and which of those should lead the other. Bach is the author of a twelve books including; The Automatic Millionaire, Start Late Finish Rich, and Smart Couples Finish Rich. He joins James to talk about his current tour and his website is Finish Rich

Bach begins the interview with a story about a woman he met at an airport. “Your book helped free me,” she told Bach, “I felt trapped…everywhere I turned I felt trapped.” He opens with this story because it gets to the heart of the money issue – as he sees it. Your problems aren’t about your money. Your problems are about your values. Figure those out first and then figure out your money.

Bach advices values based financial planning. “I wasn’t living my values,” said a client, Bach recounts, “but when I started fixing my financials I started living my values.”

Here he touches on a counterintuitive point that some other podcast guests have mentioned too. Sometimes it’s easier to start with changes to our actions rather than our thoughts. Both A.J. Jacobs (episode #94) and Gretchen Rubin (episode #97) said that our thoughts can be hard to change. Our actions though, they are a bit more malleable and like the tail follows the dog, they will come along too.

DISGUST_RenderThis all works because our thoughts don’t like to be out of line. They are like the fringe member of a cliche. They just need to fit in. Rather than you’re wearing that, really?

The leader of his mental cliche is cognitive dissonance. This is the voice in our minds that keeps thoughts and actions in step. When we act like A but believe in B we have mental unease (cognitive dissonance). Either our thoughts or actions aren’t quite right. Because we can’t change what we did, so we have to change what we think.

A great historical example is when Benjamin Franklin wanted to borrow a book from an unfriendly peer. Franklin approached the man, told him how he admired the book and implied that anyone who would own such a book must have good taste. The man, slightly flattered, lent Franklin the book and the two became friends.

The psychological reasoning goes:

I don’t like him (thought)  -> I lent my book to him (action) -> Why would I lend a book to someone I don’t like, maybe I like him (thought)

For our financial choices the reasoning might go like this:

I don’t like my financial life (thought) -> I change my finances to reflect my values (action) -> I must like the things I’m investing in and will pursue those (thought)

Remember, it’s not about the money, it’s what you do with the money that matters. Tim Ferriss (episode #109) says that “money is wampum.” It is the bridge that takes you from one place to the other. Sometimes you don’t need the bridge. Sometimes you take the long way, and sometimes that long way is even more fun.

That’s what Wayne Dyer (episode #6) did when he was selling his first book. After multiple rejections from the national television shows (who said that if he called one more time they would never put him on again) he had to figure out something else. He could buy advertising, but that would cost a lot of money. Or:

“There’s a second way, and it’s a lot more fun. You go to everyone in American.”

So, Dyer loaded his car up with books and began a cross country trip.

Kevin Kelly (episode #96) would applaud Dyer’s choice. For Kelly it goes beyond just not needing money, but seeing the value that the constraints of not having money. If you have money, Kelly reasons, you can often buy a solution. If you don’t have money, Kelly goes on, you have to create one yourself.

All of these ideas are fall under the advice umbrella to choose yourself. In his book that shares these ideas James writes:

“That’s when it clicked. When everything changed. When I realized that nobody else was going to do it for me. If I was going to thrive, to survive, I had to choose myself. In every way. The stakes have risen too high not to.”

It’s being selfish in the right way. Scott Adams echoes these thoughts:

“The most important form of selfishness involves spending time on your fitness, eating right, pursuing your career, and still spending quality time with your family and friends. If you neglect your health or your career, you slip into the second category— stupid— which is a short slide to becoming a burden on society.”

Find your values, and pursue them. That’s the essence.

But it’s hard to find your values, choose yourself, or be selfish in the right way because there are so many voices telling you otherwise. In the interview Bach guesses that we see “thousands” of advertisements a day. James guesses “50K.” According to CBS News it was 500 in 1970 and is up to 5,000 today. That’s about five a minute.

In addition to the advertisements, another problem is how you view money and how your spouse views money. Some of us are natural savers and some are natural spenders Bach says. Despite the differences they can – and must – work together. If you don’t work together, he says, you’ll face the number one cause of divorce, disagreements over money. There are two things to figure out:

  • Don’t have a different view on what “small purchases” means. Make sure that you and your partner have the same expectations for what purchases you should talk about and what you don’t.
  • Don’t let someone become disengaged. Often one person will handle the money and the other won’t know much of what’s going on. Have monthly (or bi-annual at the least) meetings to go over where you are financially.

If you can make it past the advertisement barrage and marriage money spats you are nearly home free. The final hurdle is when you retire. Bach says that your chances of death are highest the year you are born and the year you retire. “I saw multiple men die within six months of retiring,” Bach tells James. Part of it is their health goes on them, but I think there was something else. A job is part of an identity.

Both Seth Godin (episode #27) and Jason Calacanis (episode #77) bring up the emotional weight when they lost (Godin sold, Calacanis folded) their companies. It was the thing that they identified with most of all, and like a horcrux, it was painful to see it go.

On the health side, look no further than what Gretchen Rubin told James in her interview. “Start the way you want to continue,” advises Rubin. For her it meant getting up early on her first day at a new job, no matter what. If Rubin can do it before clerking for a supreme court justice, you can too.

Bach goes on to tell James that for some people the recession had positive outcomes. “The good thing about the recession,” Bach says,  “was that it forced people to reboot their lives.” Being able to change and be flexible is like a superpower, and my guess is that people who were most flexible handled the situation best.

Sam Shank (episode #78) is a good example of flexibility. Shank arrived in Hollywood ready to “pay his dues” and then get a chance to show his creative skills. There was one small hurdle – he could “pay his dues” his entire career.

“I looked around,” Shank told James, “and there were people decades older than me at my level or one higher.” He saw the harsh landscape of Hollywood. It’s a pyramid of roles. There were precious few director, producer, and creative positions.

Shank left Hollywood films for technology websites. After building up a set of skills, he started a travel website that he sold. Then he ran another company. Now he runs Hotels Tonight. He reinvented.

Sam attached his work to an idea, not a position. Have a job that allows me to be in charge of something creative is more flexible than be a Hollywood director. Jack Canfield (episode #90) gave the same career advice. Don’t be attached to one thing, but find an general area to aim for with your career.

Bach has the same idea, but calls it values. “Find your values,” Bach tells James, “ and align with them.” You don’t have to be a near retiree to do this either. In his book ,The Secrets of Happy Families, Bruce Feiler writes about creating a family mission statement; “a central tenet of the family strengths movement, going back to the 1960s, has been a focus on what families should do and less on what they shouldn’t do.” Bring focus, whether it’s to your finances, family, or faith.

Another piece of advice Bach has is to cut out your daily latte. The daily latte. It’s the scapegoat of regular purchases. Bach mentions it, but says that when he goes into people’s homes for  makeover he sees so much more. Cable, subscriptions, lots of stuff.

Wait, wait, wait. What’s that sound. Oh my. It’s Ramit Sethi storming in.

When Bach mentioned the financial foolery of a Latte, I knew that would lead to Ramit Sethi (episode #36). For Sethi (and I think for James based on his comments) it’s not about cutting out the latte. It’s about increasing the money you get from it. As James mentioned in the interview, you can only cut so much. Stop buying lattes and you save $4 a day. Instead, think about making more, which has an unbounded upside.

Gretchen Rubin might chime in to echo Sethi’s advice, don’t strip everything away. Rubin saw this when she was studying why people wanted to get in the habit of going to bed earlier, but couldn’t. As one interviewee told her, “if I go to bed earlier then I have no time for myself and feel like the firm owns me.”

This opposition, no latte but more money vs. one latte but less money, is something you need to figure out on your own. Don’t take any advice here as gospel. Everything must be tested. Self experimentation is how you figure things out in life. A.J. Jacobs and Jim Norton (episode #31) are two good examples.

That said, if you want a starting point for testing something, the Big Ideas are a good place to start.

The middle of the interview is mostly about becoming an “intrapreneur” and beyond what James and Bach say, Mark Ford (episode #102) encouraged this too.

The pair also touch on what it takes to reinvent yourself. Bach said that a decade ago there used to be many publishing jobs in NYC that paid 350K. Now there are none, and all of those employees are fighting to work for 175K. This seems bad, but maybe not as much as we think. Bach says that he’s seen people who are forced to reinvent their lives and face some of the most exciting work they’ve ever experienced.

There’s actually an entire book of these stories – The Up Side of Down – where Megan Mcardle shares many stories about good outcomes that come from bad events. What did the the Hawaiian prison system do when they had too many inmates? What did a married woman do when her husband left her? Why do companies, behind closed doors, admit that 2009 was helpful? These bad events all end positively because  – in Wayne Dyer’s words – they’re all “enlightenment through suffering.”

The interview ends with three valuable points.

  • If you don’t know what your values are, try writing in a journal. Meditation is also good.
  • The most effective way to get rich says Bach, “is to pay yourself first.” Here’s a Quora question with other answers.
  • Don’t forget to give back. Bach says that he’s seen people give back well before they were financially wealthy because it brought them a spiritual and emotional wealth. Giving is good, just see what Adam Grant (episode #73) had to say how.

Thanks for reading. I’m @MikeDariano if you want to connect on Twitter.

One of the big ways to improve – “to reinvent” as Bach might say – is to read. It’s listed over and over on the podcast and if you want to do it together, you sign up here. In July we are reading Influence by Robert Cialdini. It’s a book both James Altucher and Ramit Sethi highly recommend.

Unlike the first book club we did, there will be no regularly scheduled emails from me, just big ideas for us to talk about. The first round was like a classroom where I was the teacher. This round is more like meeting over coffee to talk.  These by the way, are always free.

One final favor. I’m writing a book that ties up the ideas on this blog into a nice bow. If you could help me give it a title (2 survey questions here) I’ll send you the e-book for free.

#116 Robert Kurson

James Altucher was joined by author Robert Kurson, (@RobertKurson) to talk about pirates, writers, and treasure. Kurson is the author of Shadow Divers, Crashing Through, and most recently Pirate Hunters. (Via Amazon: “John Chatterton and John Mattera—are willing to risk everything to find the Golden Fleece, the ship of the infamous pirate Joseph Bannister.”)

And they lose so much. But when you Listen to Kurson, it doesn’t sound like the loses matter. The Johns are doing things they enjoy and if they find the treasure all the better. It’s similar to what Chris Hadfield (episode #111) told James about getting to space. “It probably won’t happen,” Hadfield writes in his book, “but I should do the things that move me toward it and make me happy.” Hadfield knew that the work he put in shouldn’t just lead to the big goal (be an astronaut) but it should be enjoyable in itself.

Hadfield knew that the work he put in shouldn’t just lead to the big goal (be an astronaut) but it should be enjoyable in itself. Even though the treasure hunters were digging down and the astronaut was flying up – they both ended up with the same perspective on their work. This was not the case for Kurson.

Much like past guest Peter Thiel (episode #43), Kurson began work as a big-shot lawyer. And like Thiel, he hated it. Thiel recounts his experience this way; “it was a place where everyone on the outside wanted to get in, and everyone on the inside wanted to get out.”

Kurson was in the same boat, he wanted out. One memorable experience that catalyzed this was when he was working on a case about the shade of pickles a McDonald’s franchisee was allowed to have.

So he left the place where “time seemed to tick backwards,” and began his life as a writer. Even though he was a Harvard Law graduate. Even though was making a lot of money. Even though he was successful on many metrics. He still disengaged from that life. How?

Part of it, he tells James, had to do with his family. As a kid he would go on multi-week road trips with his traveling salesman father. James suggests that this experience got him a “head start thinking that things could be done differently.” This different thinking helped Kurson and it can open new doors for us too.

Tim Ferriss (episode #22) says that “some impossibles are negotiable.” T. Harv Eker (episode #100 ) told James that he had to change many thought systems before he was successful.

Kurson also had another skill that helped him become a writer – ignorance. “If I knew how difficult it was to make it as a writer,” he tells James,  “I might have thought differently about it.” This is the kind of ignorance that many of the guests have praised. A.J. Jacobs (episode #94) called it “delusional optimism” and Alex Blumberg (episode #70 ) said he was a “little bit delusional” when he started Gimlet Media.

So Kurson began with small strokes. He didn’t try to write a best-seller, he just tried to write well. Even though his books have done well, they did so because of the small beginnings. James Manos (episode #39) said the same thing about writing for The Sopranos. Manos told James that if they had been trying to create something great, they surely would have messed it up. Instead it was about getting a character, scene, or episode right.

Besides his modest start and bit of ignorance, another helpful part of Kurson’s experience was the disinterest in money. “I was lucky to have made enough money to realize that a BMW didn’t matter to me,” he tells James. Money motives didn’t matter for Kurson (or the subjects in his books). They haven’t mattered to the other guests either. Tom Shadyac (episode #15) sold almost everything he owned and downsized his lifestyle. Kevin Kelly (episode #96) found the same money truths, but with the opposite approach. Kurson had it all, realized he didn’t need it all, and was happy with less. Kelly had very little, realized that was all he needed, and was happy with that. Both perspective led to the conclusion that money wasn’t what they needed.

One of the things money is good for is doing cool stuff. For Kurson’s pirate hunters it meant funding another expedition. Nicholas Megalis (episode #104) calls money “gasoline” because it can fuel the next thing he wants to do.

Kurson didn’t know what he was getting into, he didn’t try to write the next great nonfiction book, and knew early that there was more to it than money. He tells James that he also had one more thing going for him. He had failed before. “The fact that I had been through some things before, where it looked hopeless for me and looked like I had no where to go and I survived helped me jump into the darkness.”

The pits are sometimes the place we need to stand. J.K. Rowling had a similar experience to Kurson. Before Harry Potter, Rowling was not doing well. Her marriage had ended, she was unemployed, and she had a useless degree (in classics). “(I was) as poor as it is possible to be in modern Britain without being homeless,” Rowling writes. She goes on:

“Failure meant a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself that I was anything other than what I was and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me… And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”

Rowling and Kurson both had low moments before they soared. Kurson eventually succeeded with Shadow Divers, a book that spent 24 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller list. That book began with “a lucky phone call from a friend,” who told him to turn on this series on PBS NOVA.

There was nothing, Kurson tells James, “I was less interested in,” than German U-Boats. Not the fairy tale beginnings we might think.But, there was something missing. The documentary never told the story about why the two guys looking for the sunken ship would do it. That missing answer was the catalyst for Kurson.

But, there was something missing for Kurson. The documentary never told the story about why the two guys looking for the sunken ship would do it. That missing answer was the catalyst for Kurson.

Gretchen Rubin (episode #97) writes about ideas the same way. For Rubin it was over lunch with a friend who told her that in high school, she never missed a single track practice. But now couldn’t get into the habit of exercise. “Why?” That question, Rubin writes, “buzzed in my head with the special energy that tells me I’ve stumbled onto something important.”

Kurson began to explore. He called one of the guys in the documentary. He asked questions. He dug around.

What he found was a burn the ships attitude. The Johns created an environment where there was no backstop for their failings. If they fell, they would fall all the way. Jim Norton (episode #31)  told James that this was the only mindset that worked for him. “I personally left myself with no safety net,” said Norton.

Much of the second half of the interview is about Kurson’s books. It made me want to stop listening and start reading (Shadow Divers has been on my “to read” pile for months.)*

One interesting analogy from this section was a part when Kurson and James talked about how to find a sunken ship. In one case the ship seekers thought they had a pretty good idea about where the ship was. They just needed to triangulate the actual wreckage and get it out of the ocean. The problem was, that they didn’t know exactly where it is. “It’s hard enough if you know where it is.” said Kurson.

This stuck with me because it’s an analogy for many of the things we do. Even if we have a really good guess about the components to a successful career, relationshiop, or business – it’s till hard to do.

Thanks for reading, I’m @MikeDariano.

Two quick notes:

I need your help naming the book that is coming from this website. It’s about how the people who have been interviewed have found success. Each of them seems to follow the path of Skills -> Persistence -> Luck. If you would offer your thoughts on a two question survey, I’d really appreciate it.  (I’ll also send you the ebook for free when it’s done) Click here.

In July I’m going to read Robert Cialdini’s Influence. If you’d like to join The Waiter’s Pad book club subscribe here.

#114 Matt Barrie

Matt BarrieMatt Barrie, CEO of Freelancer.com, joined James Altucher to talk about startups, stories, and the moment when Barrie realized, “I could hire an army with a credit card.” Even though this interview started out slow, it was filled with some Big Ideas. Plus, many of the podcast guests are on the show to sell something. That’s not bad and it’s great to learn from people like Andy Weir (episode #92), Nicholas Megalis (episode #104), and Jack Canfield (episode #90). But it’s also fruitful to hear from people who are just getting work done. While Barrie is promoting Freelancer.com, it’s less so than others.

Barrie starts the interview by telling James that the types of jobs available at Freelancer.com are “anything that can be done on a computer.” Of course, the pair quickly dives into what it’s like to “choose yourself” and Barrie says, why not. You can “architect your career,” he tells James. Scott Adams (episode #47) has similar advice in his book, How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. Adams writes that for every skill you have, you double your odds of success. In the book, he has a list of ideas:

“I made a list of the skills in which I think every adult should gain a working knowledge. I wouldn’t expect you to become a master of any, but mastery isn’t necessary.”

His list includes public speaking, psychology, and accounting among many others. It’s the working knowledge part that Adams stresses.

In some ways I think Barrie is expressing the same thing. If you want to hire a freelancer to build you a website or write some code – you don’t have to understand everything that goes along with that. You have to understand just enough.

One thing that might help, says Barrie, is the parallel alignment between you and the freelancers. Everyone who works in freelance is there to make money Barrie says, so you’re dealing with people who want the same things as you. Being around the right people like this is often part of what makes something a success.

Peter Thiel (episode #43) told James that PayPal was built by people all aligned around a common goal. Jay Jay French (episode #75) needed to find band mates that were aligned with his goal of making great music. Thiel and French and create great things because they worked with their friends. They created great things because they didn’t. The more powerful alignment was with goals, not personalities.

Barrie says that 3D printing is the freelance trend of the moment, but there has been an uptick in Apple development requests as well because of the Apple watch. James says that he thinks 3D printed jewelry is one of the next trends that will be big. (For more futuristic predictions, go back to the Kotler and Diamandis (episode #93) interview)

One thing that neither could have predicted was giant inflatable swans.

The story goes, according to Barrie, a guy wanted inflatable swans for a party. Not being able to find what he wanted, he created a contest at Freelancer to have people design a new swan. He got a good option, ordered some from a factory in China, and now just sells them. It’s his full-time job.

The biggest project on the site was $340K for an ongoing series of website templates. In another case, an engineer was hired to reverse engineer a boat.

One of the far-reaching benefits of a site like Freelancer.com, says Barrie, is the change in the quality of life. “The quality of life of someone changes dramatically as they go up the s-curve of industrialization.” Tim Ferriss (episode #109) said that he looks to the s-curve (also know as the Sigmoid curve) when he tries to help people too.

James asks Barrie how he started Freelancer.com and it was a case of needing to scratch your own itch. Barrie began with a degree in engineering (from Stanford of all places, and at the same time Brin and Page were there building Google) and he started a circuits company. Eventually, that company was sold to Intel, but only years after Barrie left. When he first left the company, “I was actually crushed emotionally and physically crushed” Barrie tells James. The problem was that the timing was off. His company was good but good at the wrong time.

Mark Cuban (episode #24) tells James that his timing has been off too. In Cuban’s case, it was streaming media, which his companies had done years before Pandora or Spotify. Trip Adler (episode #61) told a similar story about his idea for a ride-sharing app that was ahead of its time.

In Barrie’s case, his lack of timing here would be balanced out many years later. After leaving the circuit company he started doing some website work. Eventually he had some data entry he needed to be done, but couldn’t find anyone local to do it. After a handful of failed attempts, Barrie stumbled onto a freelance site and had someone from Vietnam do “perfect work” in a matter of days for less money. “This was the real eureka moment,” Barrie says, because “every great business needs to have a problem that’s being solved.” Sam Shank (episode #78) told James much the same thing:

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

Barrie realized that he could hire an army of developers, coders, and designers with a credit card. Rather than transatlantic flights for meetings – which are often unnecessary, just ask Brad Feld (episode #91) – Barrie started hiring people digitally. Eventually, he realized he should just own the freelancing company he was using.

This is where Barrie gets the timing right. Before 2008, he says, developing countries weren’t on the map for freelancing. You could go online and get something done, but chances were that the person wasn’t all that different from someone would meet offline. It might be the case where you were in Boston and ended up with someone from New York. The idea was so prepubescent that sometimes you even had to meet face to face to collect the software. After 2008 though, technology reached the point where you could get good work done by people who really were remote.

Clay Shirky wrote an interesting book about this very idea. In Here Comes Everybody Shirky writes that the burden for organization was too high. Much like Archimedes when he said, “Give me a place to stand and a lever long enough, and I will move the world.” Connecting to people around the globe lengthened the lever.

Even though technology allows you to reach more people, you still have to find the good ones. The hardest ones to find now are good designers says to Barrie. This was his experience at least.  After he bought the freelancing business for $3.5M, one of the first things he did that changed the revenues was to change the design. It had a huge impact. One person who’s figured this out is Ramit Sethi (episode #36). “We are all cognitive misers,” Sethi told James in their interview. This is why design can be such a crucial element. We don’t want to spend the time and energy to compare and contrast things. We don’t want to weigh the pros and cons.

What we want is to have easy decisions that we can feel good about. Who can design things to be this way, designers.

Barrie ends the interview by telling James that his success was thanks to “timing and luck.”

“If I was six months earlier it probably wouldn’t have worked out and if I was six months later it would have been financed by venture capitalists.”

Much like Kevin Kelly (episode #96) and Adam Carolla (episode #25), Barrie admits that part of it was luck.

And it’s important to recognize this for decision making says Stephen Dubner (episode #110). If our success = skills + persistence + luck and we fail, then we need to know how much of each we had and how much of each we need.

Thanks for reading, I’m @MikeDariano. My favorite quote from Barrie that didn’t fit was; “the Australian stock market is like Kickstarter for grown-ups.”

One small request. I’m working on a book that unifies the concepts on the blog and need a good title. If you could take this two question survey about title ideas and leave some feedback, I’ll send you the e-book free once it comes out.

Our book club for July is going to change a bit. We’re going to try a book buddy system. The book is Influence by Robert Cialdini. If you’d like to join The Waiter’s Pad book club subscribe here.

Remember, reading is something a lot of successful people do. Barrie said, “education has always been the lubrication for moving up in the labor force.” If you don’t want to read Influence, you can sign up to see the other things I’m reading.

Photo credit: “Matt-barrie-1” by freelancerOwn work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

TKP2 – Michael Lombardi

Michael Lombardi joined Shane Parrish to talk about the four elements of leadership, good systems, and what a week in the NFL is like.

Just a programming note, this was not a James Altucher podcast. James consistently has great interviews, but I’d like to expand to more smart people figuring things out. If you know of someone, do get in touch.

Lombardi is an NFL executive, currently with the New England Patriots though he’s been throughout the league, from Oakland to Cleveland. He tells Shane that he started small, playing football at Hofstra and attending any coaching clinic he could find. That led to an unpaid position at UNLV and he was off. Slowly for sure, but off none the less.

When you want to accomplish big things – Lombardi was looking up to Vince Lombardi of all people – it’s hard to start small, but that’s the only place to start. Sam Shank (episode #78) started Hotels Tonight with only a handful of properties. Rick Ross (episode #115) started selling crack on the street before he was ever on top. Maria Popova (episode #89) began Brain Pickings with an email to seven people.

Stephen Dubner (episode #110) writes that starting small has four specific benefits:

  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 easier to change.
  4. Thinking big leads to more speculation, small problems can have a more accurate observation.

It was #3 that was especially true for Lombardi. “There’s a fine line between producing work and learning,” he tells Shane. At the highest level, there’s always work to be done and finding time to get better can be hard. The NFL, according to Lombardi, “is similar to chess.” You have to dive deep and have a rich knowledge of the three key aspects of the game (offense, defense, special teams) as well as the nuances of the different positions.

Alex Blumberg (episode #70) is a good example of diving deep. Blumberg is a skilled radio reporter, working for shows like This American Life. But when the TAL team tried to take the show to television, it wasn’t as successful. Blumberg says that they failed to achieve the same relevancy because storytelling on the radio is different from storytelling on television.

Comedians have shared this insight in a more specific way. Carol Leifer (episode #68) and Brian Koppelman (episode #98) both told stories about hecklers, and how each learned to shut them down without losing the audience.

Lombardi says leadership is the one skill that solves these small problems and good leadership has four elements.

  • Management of attention. You must be able to get people to follow you because you “have a plan.”
  • Management of meaning.  You must be able to “explain your plan clearly and concisely.”
  • Management of trust. You must “be consistent, and not have double standards.”
  • Management of self. You must be able to “self-correct.”

Within these four areas is the key to a successful system. The west coast offense (a popular and successful NFL system in the 1980’s*) worked within these four areas. Bill Walsh, Lombardi explains, had the plan and a way to explain it. When it was time to practice the system he did so consistently and when the team lost there were procedures to identify why.

Each of these things, says Lombardi, “have to be time tested.” This is one of the favorite tools of Nassim Taleb as well. Taleb applies this from the simple (drink only things that have been around a long time like water, wine, and coffee) to the complex (everything will blow up, make sure you don’t blow up with it).

Not only does this team philosophy need to be time tested, but it can’t be in a state of constant change. Lombardi’s implied message is this; study history to find something that consistently works and do that thing with only minor adaptations.

Another part of a successful philosophy in the NFL is to draft the right players. “Scouting’s not about finding players,” Lombardi says, “Scouting’s about eliminating players.”

In a world of constant lifehacks, pro-tips, and new blog posts – sometimes all we need to do is not do something. If you avoid the bad eggs (in life and football) you’ll often be just fine. Gary Vaynerchuk (episode #2) proved it was true for marketing, Astro and Danielle Teller (episode #81) found it was true for parenting.

When you get the right players (or avoid the wrong ones) you still aren’t quite there Lombardi says. “You have to have a team that can play right or left-handed,” and if you can’t do this you have to hope to get very lucky. In a sense, that’s what happened to Scott Adams (episode #112). Adams would have had to get lucky if he were just a cartoonist, businessman, or MBA graduate. Instead, Adams is all of these things and so he can play right or left-handed. Adams rephrases Lombardi when he writes, “every skill you acquire doubles your odds of success.”

The end of the interview focuses mostly on the last part of leadership, management of self. “Control what you can control,” Lombardi says, and be able to ask yourself what went wrong. He stresses to Parrish that it’s important to separate the process from the product.

It comes down to figuring out:

  • Did I have the right plan but bad luck?
  • Did I have the wrong plan and good luck?

This distinction is important. If luck is a component of an outcome, we should figure out how much luck there was to see how much of an effect it had. If it was bad luck, we need to get over it. Adam Carolla (episode #25) likened it to getting a traffic ticket. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad driver, just an unlucky one.

Part of the analysis between process and product is finding the urgent and important data points. One example Lombardi mentions is scouting. Twenty years ago a scout might go to a school to watch film, talk with coaches, and meet the players. Lombardi says that while this took a lot of time and there wasn’t much film, you at least got to glean a few nuggets about the player. Maybe how he stood, shook your hand, or acted on campus. That was all data.

Now, the data is every snap a players plays (all available as on demand video) but less time on campus meeting people. This is a change in the data. The successful coaches need to adapt how they evaluate players Lombardi says.

Coaches aren’t the only ones who need to adapt, Lombardi says, players do too. There’s a lot less structure in the NFL than there is in college, Lombardi points out, and some players have a hard time adjusting. New conditions are a great time to begin new habits, writes Gretchen Rubin (episode #97). When Rubin got her job as a Supreme Court Clerk, she wanted to make sure she exercised. Rather than wait until she got a feel for the job, she started working out the first day. “Start like you want to continue” she writes in her book, Better Than Before.

Shane ends the interview by asking Lombardi for some reading recommendations. Lombardi says that “anything you can get your hands on” will help. Some specifics he suggests are; The Life and Times of RFK, When Pride Still Mattered, The Rabbit Hunter, Win Forever and The Wright Brothers.

-Thanks for reading, I’m @MikeDariano.

  • One interesting little nugget from this interview was how much history of football Lombardi knew. Bill Belichick was featured in an interview and showed how much he knew as well. Even the term “west coast offense” has a rich history that explains the origin that you would have to know.