Casey Neistat (@CaseyNeistat) joined Tim Ferriss (@TFerriss) to talk about YouTube, creativity, and the value of scarcity.
I started to follow Neistat after this interview posted and dig through his archives. It felt weird kinda weird. It seems like a lot of his fans are teens, tweens, and being weaned. They’re really young. It reminded me of what Judd Apatow said about a Taylor Swift concert. You can’t seem to disinterested or too interested. You have to find the median of watching with respect.
That’s how I felt about Neistat. His videos are cool. Some are instructions (I’m watching this to learn about that I told myself). Some are less so. Some seem like too much information. I didn’t know how to feel.
Then I realized it didn’t matter. The more I thought about this, the less I cared. Neistat (like everyone else on this blog) speaks about being human. Though each person is different, their stories are largely the same.
Patrick O’Shaughnessy pointed this out in his recent (monthly and recommended) newsletter on books.
“One of Schopenhauer’s main points is that way too many authors simply summarize/synthesize what has already been written on a subject. Given the amount that I read I see this all the time. Even some books that seem very original are not at all! For example, I thought Thiel’s Zero to One was incredibly original until I read de Bono, who in turn I thought was incredibly original until I read Koestler (I’ve yet to find Koestler’s antecedent or superior). For the record I still like Thiel and de Bono, just not as much as I like Koestler.”
That’s almost exactly what this blog is! None of these stories are original. They’re all part of the same story.
It’s like music. Everyone sings in the song of life, but different people can hear different keys. Neistat resonates with people because his story is one that people can hear. Another “key for the song of life,” are the Stoics. Quotes like this resonate with me.
It doesn’t matter who Casey Neistat’s fans are. Gary Vaynerchuk said that when a new app comes out don’t look at the foolish ways people use it (in this case he was talking about sexting). Instead, think about how you can use it well. It’s the same for the influences in your life.
If Neistat says something that resonates with me, that’s all I need to hear. So what did he say that was impactful? The importance of finding your lane, how not to not be huge on YouTube, who is successful, 2 free video creation tools, when to filter your life, a business idea, and books and movies to enjoy.
One word or warning, this post is a monster. You may want a snack.
Find your lane. For Neistat it was a bike lane.
The start of the interview is about Neistat’s history and early career. There’s not much to point out here except that Neistat had a hard life. “I grew up in the poor part of Connecticut,” Neistat says. He ran away from home, dropped out of high school, and had a son when he was 17.
Things changed when he found filmmaking. His brother showed him an iMac and Neistat bought one too. Then things really took off when people started paying him for his work. Asking for $5,000 for a job he would do for $100 was a big moment for him.
Success – in relative terms – continued when Neistat made the video Bike Lanes. (Here’s the first of many YouTube videos on this post.)
Ferriss asks how Neistat was inspired and Casey says, “whatever I care about I make a movie about.” This, we should note.
If we care about something so much that we act on it, we’ve found something important. We’ve found an energy source. It’s like Arc Reactor in Iron Man.
Wayne Dyer compared it to a burning flame inside us. Gary Vaynerchuk calls it hustle. Ramit Sethi sees a positive feedback system where passion feeds skill which feeds passion and so on.
Everyone who succeeds greatly says; your passion must fuel furious work.
That’s what Neistat has done. He points this out many times in the interview with Ferriss and on his YouTube Channel. Making movies, he says, is not about the gear. He started to make films with the simplest equipment and the most basic software. Those are the surface parts of storytelling, the tip of the iceberg. To make something great you need the deeper understanding.
Look at Hollywood movies, Neistat says. They have the talent, money, gear, time, experience, and connections. They have everything you need, but it doesn’t always work out. Why does one Matt Damon movie about space (The Martian) make more than twice as much money as another (Elysium)?
When Seth Godin said this, “Stories are never about the person telling the story, they are always about the person hearing it.” That’s the type of thing you have use your passion to learn. You don’t need fancy camera gear anymore than you need a fancy blog or book or narration by someone famous. What is paramount is story.
Neistat notes that because he never graduated from film school (much less high school), he learned things his own way. School is good, Neistat says, because it teaches you to get from A –> B. If you don’t know how though, you need to figure out your own way, and it could be an advantage. That’s what he did. (Watch this one minute sequence, 3:34-4:44)
Neistat developed the “craftsman mindset.” Coined by Cal Newport in his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You, it’s the focus to build valuable skills. Valuable skills, Newport writes, are the only things that get you great jobs.
When Neistat made Make it Count for Nike, the video opens with this scrolling text:
“Nike asked me to make a movie about what it means to #makeitcount. Instead of making their movie I spent the entire budget traveling around the world with my friend Max. We’d keep going until the money ran out. It took 10 days.”
That sounds great. It’s rebellious. It smells like following your passion. But it hides a bit of the truth. That video, Neistat points out to Ferriss, was the 3rd video in a series for Nike. He had already done two video for them and this one had the “budget of what Nike usually pays for snacks and drinks.”
On the surface it looks like “follow your passion,” but it’s deeper than that. Neistat was an expert filmmaker who had existing relationships and created career capital. Neistat’s career mimics Newport’s framework so much, he could have been a case study the book. Newport writes:
“Career capital theory argues that the traits that define great work are rare and valuable, and if you want these in your working life, you must first build up rare and valuable skills to offer in return.”
Neistat worked furiously to create these skills. He’s doing this again for his company – Beme. How? Just watch what Ferriss calls “a brutal schedule.”
You don’t need to do that. You probably shouldn’t do that. Why? Because you’re not Casey Neistat. That’s his lane. Ferriss, you, me – it doesn’t matter what we do, but we have to do something different. We have to find our own lane. Arthur Samberg noted that we are our competitive advantage. No one does you better than you.
How can you do it on YouTube?
How to not not be huge on YouTube.
Neistat has no idea how to get an enormous audience on YouTube, but he does offer something helpful – how not to be huge. Let’s break down the framework (macro idea of answering questions) here before we talk about how to gain an audience (micro idea of YouTube followers).
What Neistat has done is invert the question, and it’s a helpful tool. Tren Griffin noted that it’s easier to solve problems by looking forward and backwards at them. Instead of asking, “how do I get a better job?” Griffin might suggest you ask, “how do I get better for my job?”
Michael Lombardi said that The New England Patriots find NFL players this way. “Scouting’s not about finding players,” Lombardi says, “Scouting is about eliminating players.”
Ferriss’s question, how do you get YouTube subscribers is hard to answer. No one knows. Neistat reverses the question and answers, how do you NOT get YouTube subscribers.
This, Neistat says, is much easier:
“The biggest waste of energy and resources on YouTube is creators trying to copy and be exactly like someone else. The only thing that succeeds on YouTube are the people that think outside the box and do new things.”
If you want to not succeed, do what everyone else is doing. Find the lanes other people are in.
This gives us something to work with. Knowing what not to do can be as helpful as knowing what to do. What to live a long time? Don’t smoke, drive motorcycles, or weigh more than you should. Those three don’t-dos are more helpful than any three do-do’s.
“Trying to copy and be exactly like someone else,” almost never works. Peter Thiel notes the value of being different. Brett Steenbarger said, “you don’t find generic super-successful traders.” Lewis Howes played handball because it was different.
Being different is really important, but how do you actually do it?
Step 1: Stretch. Steven Kotler said that the best extreme athletes stretch themselves 4% past what they think is possible. These small changes add up.
Step 2: Have wide inspirations. Neil Gaiman said that if you want to be the next Tolkien, don’t read Tolkien.
Step 3: Remix. Austin Kleon said, “everything is a remix.”
Step 4: Persist. Timing is impossible to nail. The only thing you can do is keeping doing it. Mark Cuban offered streaming music years too early. Trip Adler had the idea for ride sharing years too early. Neil Strauss released his book the same weekend as Hurricane Katrina. You have to survive.
Neistat has a suggestion too. “The only way to find your own path is to start.” (click to tweet)
A perk of being different is that you don’t have to be that good. When you find something new, there are fewer people doing it and it’s easier to stand out. Neistat says to start and to do it everyday. You need a lot of repetitions. Malcolm Gladwell gave this same advice to people who want to write. Write for a newspaper, Gladwell says. It will force you to do many things, one of which is to get used to writing a huge volume of stuff.
Practice being the best version of you. And for pete’s sake, make sure you define success as something besides fame or money.
Who is successful?
“My grandmother,” Neistat says, “she loved tap dancing and didn’t stop until the day before she died.” Here again, Neistat inverts the question. Rather than think of success as the time spent doing what you enjoy, think of it as the time not spent doing what you dislike. Even the best of things won’t be perfect.
I like this idea. Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg both said that making movies isn’t all fun and games. It’s some fun and games, but there’s still work. They’ve applied Neistat’s idea of “less-suckiness” to work by creating a more relaxed work environment.
Remember, a perfect job is a fallacy. Austin Kleon makes the art he wants to make, speaks across the country, and has written two best-selling books. When James Altucher suggested he was doing what he loved, Kleon stopped him. “I have to push back a little on that,” he said, “every job is still a job.” Jon Acuff had the same experience. Acuff quit the grind, but said he’s “doing a lot of stuff you wouldn’t consider dreamy.”
What success isn’t.
Success isn’t fame, or money. People don’t get this, Judd Apatow said. “It’s hard for people to understand what it’s like to give up all anonymity.”
Bill Murray added:
“I always want to say to people who want to be rich and famous: ‘try being rich first’. See if that doesn’t cover most of it. There’s not much downside to being rich, other than paying taxes and having your relatives ask you for money. But when you become famous, you end up with a 24-hour job.”
But then Murray stops short because it’s not about the money either. T. Harv Eker said that he thought money would make him happy. He got a lot of money, but wasn’t much happier. What is success?
What success is.
Success is loving the process.
Chris Hadfield calls this creating win-win situations. For Hadfield it was about trying to get to space, but knowing the odds were slim. In his book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth he writes:
“It’s probably not going to happen but I should do things that keep me moving in the right direction, just in case – and I should be sure those things interest me, so that whatever happens, I’m happy.”
Those things were the process. Hadfield literally aim for the moon, but enjoyed the work that he did on earth. That’s how to succeed. One a more practical level, Neistat shares 2 free tools anyone can use.
2 free tools.
No, this still isn’t about the right camera. There is no right camera. There are however, two free tools that anyone can use in life: good friends and some scarcity.
“I always try to surround myself with people smarter than I am,” Neistat says. Simon Rich did this too. When it was time to make his television show Man Seeking Woman, he hired people from all his favorite show like The Simpsons and The Office. “I want to feel like I’m barely keeping up,” Rich said.
It can be hard to ask for help. Amanda Palmer spoke (and wrote a book) about this. “If I learned anything from the surprising resonance of my TED Talk it was this: Everybody struggles with asking.”
But allies are out there and you need to find them. Nicholas Megalis found them for his Vines. Brian Koppelman has David Levien to write with.
The second free tool to use is scarcity. I was going to write a lack of money, but that would be conceited. Poverty as a muse sounds romantic. It’s insulting.
In her Harvard commencement speech J.K. Rowling addresses this better than I:
“They (Rowling’s parents) had been poor themselves, and I have since been poor, and I quite agree with them that it is not an ennobling experience. Poverty entails fear, and stress, and sometimes depression; it means a thousand petty humiliations and hardships. Climbing out of poverty by your own efforts, that is indeed something on which to pride yourself, but poverty itself is romanticised only by fools.”
But, there is something here. There’s something in scarcity, in bottoms, in failure. Rowling continued:
“So why do I talk about the benefits of failure? Simply because 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. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena I believed I truly belonged. I was set free, because my greatest fear had been realised, and I was still alive, and I still had a daughter whom I adored, and I had an old typewriter and a big idea. And so rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life.”
The greatest living author had nothing. Just an old typewriter, a napkin, and a dream. She’s not the only one who tells this story. Scarcity forces people to be creative.
Kevin Kelly said “the lack of money is often an asset because it forces you to innovate. People with money will try to buy a solution, but because you don’t have money, you are forced to invent a solution.”
David Levien said the clipped train ride to work help him to write a better novel.
Tim O’Reilly said that they launched O’Reilly publishing because they didn’t have enough consulting work.
Dick Yuengling said that the brewer adapted because of prohibition.
Neistat says, “don’t blame it on the gear or the lack of resources because it’s never the resources that determine your success. It’s how you use what you have.”
This applies to time too. Austin Kleon and James Altucher both said they’ve seen many people who think that if they only had more time they could do the thing they dream of. It’s not true. Look at Andy Weir.
Weir was a software developer who found himself laid off from work. Between his severance package and savings he could take 3 years off and try to become a professional author. Did he succeed? No. Weir failed.
Out of money, he returned to work. Then the itch came again and he started writing again – all on the side. He wrote a book no one saw. Then the next began as a series of blog posts. People asked him for a format for reading it all at once, so he put it on the Kindle store. A few months later it over 30,000 copies were sold. After than Crown Publishing bought the rights. Then came the movie deal. Andy Weir had good friends that helped him write the book when it was blog posts and he had scarce time to write in. Good friends you’ll have to find on your own. Scarce time though, we have a tip for. It has to do with good signals, Van Halen, and candy.
Signals (what Neistat has in common with Van Halen).
“Everything is given one filter,” Neistat tells Ferriss, “is this good for me and my technology company (Beme), and if the answer is no it gets a pass.” Neistat’s signal is the question, “does this help Beme?”
These one-time filters are everywhere once you look for them:
Richard Feynman got so tired of choosing a dessert, that he resolved to always order chocolate ice cream. That was his dessert filter.
Barry Ritholtz said that he looks at the prices of classic cars as a signal for bull and bear markets, or if people say “ugh” to his trading ideas.
Ramit Sethi said that he looks for specific words when people interview with him.
Stephen Dubner called this, “teaching your garden to weed itself,” and wrote an entire book chapter about it.
Some banks figured out how to filter out dangerous marijuana growers.
The most famous of the signals might come from Van Halen.
The story goes, that when Van Halen was touring they had the latest and greatest light and sound rigs. There was just one problem. Each venue had a different person set them up. The guy who set things up in New York wasn’t the same guy that set things up in Charlotte. So, according to David Lee Roth, Van Halen introduced a wrinkle to their rider.
They said that among the other rock star accoutrements, they wanted a bowl of M&M candy with the brown ones picked out. Some people looked at this as divas being divas, but maybe not. Roth said they did this to see how closely a promoter read the rider. If they removed the brown M&M candy, they probably set up the equipment correctly.
Good signals save people decisions.
A business idea.
Sam Shank founder of Hotels Tonight said that all good business solve two things, time or money (ideally both). Neistat and Ferris both need help to save time interacting with people.
Someone could make a service that queued up responses over multiple channels (YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Quora, etc.) optimized for relevancy.
For example, if Neistat posted a video, the service would combine the video comments from YouTube and the Twitter comments into one timeline for Casey to respond to. Further, it would prioritize by some metric; how long the person followed Neistat, how long they’ve been active on YouTube, how recently they had a question answered, etc. The service could filter out trolls and four letter words as well.
Then when Neistat or Ferriss had time, they would go to that service and quickly respond to more fans.
Neistat say that his two favorite books are The Autobiography of Malcolm X and The Second World War by Keegan. He also recommends The Life and Death Colonel Blimp and Little Dieter Needs to Fly as videos to watch. Ferriss suggests people watch this clip from Miracle for inspiration to work harder.
Neistat suggests podcast listeners check out Make it Count and Draw my Life on YouTube. He says Ben Brown and Fun for Louis are other good vloggers. Also, listen to Jonny Famous on Spotify.
Neistat tells Ferriss that he would want a billboard that tells people to “be nice.” Adding, “being nice is really hard work.”
Thanks for reading. Really, thank you. This post was 3300 words. I’m a freelance writer and if you’d like to say “thank” via a $2 donation, you can donate here.