#31 Jim Norton

Jim Norton (@JimNorton) joined James Altucher to talk about reworking his routine, being funny as a kid, and why Louie made it big when he didn’t. This interview with Norton proved the adage that you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover because while his comedy can be brash, his thoughts about it are quite refined.

The interview begins with a rundown of their time together in school. It all began – like most pre-teen relationships – over rock music, movies, and chess. Norton wasn’t in school long, he dropped out in high school and says, “I personally left myself with no safety net.” For Norton it was stand-up or bust. At first it looked like bust because “you bomb a lot when you start” he told James. Brian Koppelman (episode #98) said the same thing in his interview. Koppelman began doing stand-up to break out of a creative labyrinth he had wandered into. He told James that part of his success in stand-up was due to the good friends he had around him. Friends he bombed with.

Norton says that he also had to fight off the “voices in my head” that told him how bad an idea this was. A number of guests have hit on this idea of limiting beliefs; Tony Robbins (episode #62), Ramit Sethi (episode #36), and Mark Ford (episode #102) were a few.

The interview is a bit scattered, jumping around from boyhood stories to the current state of comedy, but within that were six tips for everyone.

  1. Build Relationships.

As Norton continued to climb the comedy ladder, he began to learn the nuances of comedy. For example, he learned that it takes a relationship with someone to make a joke. Telling jokes to James and other childhood friends was easy because they had years of history to draw on. When he’s on stage, Norton can’t start ripping off one-liners. It won’t work. He has to build up a connection to people and relate with them.

Norton also built relationships with other comedians. The interview is a who’s who list of current comedians like Louis CK, Amy Schumer, and Sarah Silverman. Norton has worked with these people on different shows, bouncing around like a pinball.

He also got the benefit of the doubt with HBO because of his relationships there. Norton tells James that he has always had a good relationship with HBO and when an executive that planned a project left, HBO ended up honoring that contract when that’s not necessarily how things are always done.

Good relationships are another common theme with the guests. James Manos (episode #39) says you may as well like the people you work with, since you’ll be with them more than almost anyone else in your life. Gary Vaynerchuk (episode #2) has the more explicit prescription: treat people as if you’ll be a dinner guest at their house tomorrow.

  1. Find Secrets.

Peter Thiel (episode #43) talked about finding secrets in his interview and said that secrets are usually found where fewer people are looking. Norton says something similar about comedy, noting that you don’t want to do the same stuff as everyone else. If you get ten men on stage, he tells James, you’re going to hear a lot of the same stuff about relationships. Norton, it sounds like, tries to avoid this overlap and focus on being funny in ways that people aren’t used to hearing. He’s finding secrets in the comedy world.

Dave McClure (episode #98) told James about the secrets he found because of his unique perspective. “I had both the engineering and marketing side and there weren’t that many people doing investing that had both disciplines.” McClure had found a secret, investing in companies that were getting a combination of engineering and marketing right.

  1. Work Hard on Your Craft.

Norton tells James that right now he’s working on removing the emotional delivery from his jokes. Rather than tell an angry joke in an angry tone, he wants the tone to be smoother and for the audience mentally construct the anger that’s in the joke. This is a filigree moment of the career craftsman. Brian Koppelman found another in stand-up, how to deal with hecklers, telling James, “can I be mean enough to dispense with the heckler without losing the rest of the audience.” Both of these little things are necessary improvements to getting better.

Norton also tells James that he watches very few things that he’s been in, choosing instead to keep busy working. Carol Leifer (episode #66) tells a similar story about Bryan Cranston, who would go out for interview after interview between his appearances on Seinfeld. Leifer would sometimes ask what he interviewed for and Cranston often couldn’t remember because there were so many.

Yeah, but that’s stand-up comedy, how does working hard at a job I hate help me? T. Harv Eker (episode #100) said that 67% of entrepreneurs start a business in the field they were in. Consider your current job then, a paid internship for your next thing. (If you really want to dive deep into this idea, do so here). Alex Blumberg (episode #70) told James that he started Gimlet Media because he’s one of the very few people with that set of skills, skills he built up from doing basic NPR reports.

  1. Be Realistic.

Norton has frequently worked with Louie CK and James asks why Norton can’t put out his own comedy show like Louis (or Aziz or Gaffigan) did and Norton says that he’s “realistic about my fan base.” It’s not that they are small, but he hasn’t hit the threshold yet for that level of success.

Norton also notes that he can’t do what Louis CK does on his show because he doesn’t have those skills. “He can do all the jobs on a set,” Norton says about Louie, “you have to have a certain amount of skills to do all that.”

  1. How to Speak to People.

James asks how someone can connect with the people they are speaking to, and Norton gives two bits of advice. Act confident and be honest. He says that people want to see that you are confident even though you might not be. Remember, they don’t know what is supposed to happen, they only see what is happening. If you make a mistake, they’ll only know if you admit you made one. About being honest, Norton says that people want to see that you are human, but only in certain areas. For example, he can be honest about how the lights or sound is off while performing, but not about how his act isn’t so great on a certain night.

Even if you are confident and honest, you’re still going to be nervous. “If you’re not feeling anything before you go on, there’s something wrong with you.” Norton tells James.

  1. How to be Antifragile.

The interview ends when Norton says, “doing stand-up is something I will always have.” Norton has keyed in on the choose yourself ethos and the idea that he doesn’t need HBO, SiriusXM, or Hollywood. Sure, it’s nice to have those things, but he could get by without them. Stand-up is antifragile because of its natural ebbs and flows. Nassim Taleb writes:

“Thanks to variability, these artisanal careers harbor a bit of antifragility: small variations make them adapt and change continuously by learning from the environment and being, sort of, continuously under pressure to be fit. Remember that stressors are information; these careers face a continuous supply of these stressors that make them adjust opportunistically.”

Norton could be a TV actor. Playing role after role on Law and Order or some such show. In many ways that career as a performer is similar, but they are different in one very important way, their fragility. Norton can continue to tour as long as he likes, where as the Law and Order character actor version of himself can’t.

For more Norton, see his list of books and movies on Amazon.

Thanks for reading. If I vandalized an idea, vetoed too much of the conversation, or vagabonded mentally, let me know. @mikedariano

The 21 Days to a Strong Idea Muscle summary is newly updated. It’s available as a pay what you want download and you get a pdf summary along with daily prompts. It’s only for people who will hand-write a daily idea list and who are open to learning about the habitual, psychological, and cognitive aspects of the value of idea lists.

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#46 Chris Guillebeau

 

From the End of The World Party. Copyright Chris Guillebeau
On this episode James interviews Chris Guillebeau about his travels around the world, writing books, and having a quest.


Guillebeau runs the Art of Nonconformity website, where he blogs about much of the same things he and James cover in their conversation. Guillebeau also started Unconventional Guides, which include the guides “Get Rich Slowly”and “Frequent Flyer Master.” Chris also regularly shares travel hacking suggestions on his blog.

 

James begins the interview by asking about Chris visiting all 193 UN recognized nation states and realizes that Greenland is not a country. I didn’t know this either, but according to Wikipedia, since 2009 Greenland is slowly assuming more control in domestic issues while Denmark is still shouldering foreign affairs and defense concerns.  
After traveling to every country in the world, Guillebeau said Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Eritrea were the most difficult. As I listened to this episode I thought where in the world is Eritrea?
Right there:
Chris finished the quest to visit every country in the world in April 2013 with a visit to Norway.
After talking about his travels, they discuss the books Guillebeau’s written, including; The $100 Start-Up. Guillebeau wrote it “to say, like, look at all these so-called ordinary people, average people around the world who have been able to, as you say, create that lifestyle business which is essentially creating their own freedom. Like the business is what it is but it represents something much greater than that to them.  So they’re working for freedom and independence and that’s a value that I want to highlight and share with people.”   Chris continued, “I want to prod people toward a sense of urgency.  I want to prod them and say, like, “Hey, you know, life is short; let’s do something incredible.  We do have so many opportunities available to us, we do have so much possibility; let’s take advantage of this.”
They soon get to Chris’s most recent book, The Happiness of Pursuit and what it means to have a quest. This section of the interview reminded me a lot of Joseph Campbell’s idea of a hero’s journey. If you liked this part, try reading The Hero with a Thousand Faces or watching interview snippets. There is also this set of interviews with Bill Moyer and if you’re into how one company applies it, there is – of course – a Disney version.
Chris shares that his income during the 10 years it took to travel to every country his income ranged from $40,000 to $300,000. I’ve been reading Guillebeau longer than Altucher, and knew he had a number of projects besides writing books, which influenced that income. Even for traditionally published writers, like Chris, 80% of them make less than $10,000 per year.

They also talk about following your passion. This expression is loaded with meaning. On the one hand you have Cal Newport suggesting that rather than passion fueling what we do, it should be skills. There is no career for a bacon expert, even if you are passionate about bacon. On the other hand you have Robert Greene suggesting to look at passion, but examine it deeply. Greene might ask why you’re passionate about bacon. Is it local foods? Eating well? Cooking for others? Both Newport and Greene would agree that you need to build expertise in whatever it is, something Guillebeau agrees with, at least implicitly. For instance, his Unconventional Guide to Get Rich Slowly is written by J.D. Roth.

When talking about quests Chris brings up Robyn Devine. Her quest is to make 10,000 hats. She’s written a book about finding meaning in her life by knitting hats. From her site, “She Makes Hats is one woman’s story of finding meaning, purpose, and passion by way of an old-fashioned yet rediscovered craft. With a push from a friend, Robyn Devine, a thirty-something wife and mother, moved past her apprehension and began expressing herself through texture, color, and design, turning knitting into her hobby, her meditation, and a functional product that helps people all around the world.”
Altucher and Guillebeau return to the conversation about Chris’s journey to every country and discuss how it would have “sucked” to stop ten short. Altucher says, “like if you went to 182 you would actually be like an extreme disappointment.” He’s right, on an olympic level. Every two years a study of Olympic athletes from the 1992 games in Barcelona Spain marches out along with the opening ceremony. In that study researchers recorded a video of the medal ceremony where the contestants were donned with gold, silver, or bronze medals. Then college students were asked to rate how happy each contestant looked. Bronze medal recipients were rated as looking nearly twice as happy as the silver medal winners.  Psychologists hypothesize the difference in attitudes is that we compare our results to “what might have been.”  For the silver medalist, what might have been was gold. For the bronze medalists, what might have been was off the podium. We can scoff at at these Olympians, but when people are offered a choice between making 60,000 at a company where the average salary is 70,000 or making 50,000 where the average salary is 40,000 they more often choose the second. We like to look good.
Altucher and Guillebeau then trade stories about how long things take. They agree there is no one who will “bestow this business on me” because it is not easy. Altucher says he worked for 18 months on his side business. The iPod took four years to catch on:
The Post It note took ten, and only thanks to a church going co-worker. Dilbert took years of drawing and the death of a regional salesman. (Which as I was writing this post found out that Scott Adams is the next guest!)
For practical advice, Guillebeau says that he’s actually pretty boring in his routine. “I have a pretty standardized life.  I don’t know what your routine is like but I tend to do a lot of the same things every day” he tells Altucher, but a lot of successful people do. Daily Rituals is a collection of the routines of famous people. Ira Glass eats the same thing everyday for breakfast and lunch. These no-thought routines are actually hallmarks of the highly successful.
A bit later the pair bring up Jerry Seinfeld who Altucher says will still go out and perform stand-up to improve his craft. Seinfeld may be the next George Foreman. If you didn’t know, Foreman was a boxer turned grill’s salesman. Seinfeld was a comedian before productivity guru (or so his legacy seems to be). Altucher is a fan of his don’t break the chain approach but there’s also this video from The New York Times about taking years to write a joke about Pop-Tarts.
I’ve heard a similar story, though can’t remember the source, about Chris Rock. Rock will go to a club and just read jokes off a piece of paper. If something gets a laugh being delivered in a simple way he’ll note that and amp it up for a larger show. Joan Rivers used to pay people  for their jokes, but said only one out of ten thousand was good enough for a big show.
In the fall of 2014 Chris is on a 40 city tour for his new book. After which he’ll probably return to the pacific northwest to plan the next World Domination Summit for July of 2015.
Currently in a Miami laundromat wearing a sweater and no pants. Book tour is so glamorous.
— Chris Guillebeau (@chrisguillebeau) September 17, 2014

#105 Dan Buettner

Dan Buettner (@BlueZones) joined James Altucher to talk about blue zones, the right diets, and how to live – a good life – to 100. Buettner is the author of The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living like the World’s Healthiest People. It’s his attempt to “Identify pockets around the world where people live the longest.” Here’s a clip from the Today Show that explains what Buettner is working on.

Buettner says that in blue zones, older people are viewed as “repositories of wisdom” and that their social equity goes up, not down. Buettner calls this the Grandmother Effect, that they keep the smart people in their lives longer. It’s not just grandmothers we can surround ourselves with. Many other guests on the podcast have said that they are better with others. Tom Shadyac (episode #15) said that Jim Carrey made him better and vise versa. Adam Carolla (episode #25) told James he paired up with Jimmy Kimmel because “we’re funny together.” Tim Ferriss (episode #22) had a best-selling author (Jack Canfield (episode #90)) in the role of grandmother.

And these experienced advisors don’t retire, Buettner says. “In blue zones, where age is celebrated, older people feel a sense of responsibility.” They may not keep laboring, but they continue to work on something meaningful.

Buettner says that anyone can find this if they align things they do with; their values, what they want to do, what they are good at, and what you can contribute. Adam Grant (episode #73) makes a similar case in the way we give. Grant says that we should give in ways that gives back to us as well. If you have a skills, use that. Not only will you build your skill, but you won’t get burnt out as quickly as someone who gives in a way they don’t particularly enjoy.

bluezonesmap

Buettner says there are a handful of blue zones around the world; Turkey, Costa Rica, California, Italy, and Japan. James notes that a lot of these placed tend to have good weather, to which Buettner says, “you don’t have to live in a warm sunny place to live a long time, it may just make it easier.” That’s the key part to the blue zones, is that the people who live there aren’t trying to live a long time in the same way that you or I might go to the gym to workout so we become more healthy – it’s just part of their lives.

letshaveamomentofsilence_jamIn that Today Show clip, Buettner notes that people in Sardinia Italy will walk eight miles a day as part of their normal activity. And walking just may be a magical elixir. The number of people who walk is incredible. Amy Poehler wrote that she liked to just walk around New York with a friend and talk.

In Daily Rituals  Mason Currey wrote, “After a midday dinner, Beethoven embarked on a long, vigorous walk, which would occupy much o the rest of the afternoon. He always carried a pencil and a couple of sheets of music paper in his pocket, to record chance musical thoughts.” And Soren Kierkegaard, “Typically, he wrote in the morning, set off on a long walk through Copenhagen at noon, and then returned to his writing for the rest of the day and into the evening.  The walks were where he had his best ideas, and sometimes he would be in such a hurry to get them down that, returning home, he would write standing up before his desk, still wearing his hat and gripping his walking stick or umbrella.” Even in the interview James mentions walking in New York City.

Another environmental factor is how people in blue zones tend to eat. Buettner says that they usually eat off of smaller plates, and with the help of Brian Wansink, Buettner has found that this works for anybody. (Side note: This is some of the same research I apply in the 21 Days to a Stronger Idea Muscle.)

In one of Wansink’s studies he found that people scooped 31% more ice cream into a larger bowl than a smaller one. He concluded “As the size of our dishes increases, so does the amount we scoop into them.” That’s from the book, Mindless Eating, which applies the blue zone ethos to eating. Rather than choking down a kale salad, you could simply choose smaller plates to eat from.

Another blue zone feature is to eat a plant based diet, with beans. “The cornerstone to every longevity diet in the world is beans” Buettner tells James. But it’s not just that. Unlike the recent trend toward paleo, which followed the trend of high protein, which followed the trend of high fiber (etc), Buettner says you need to look across a wider range of what people ate. “If you want to know what a centenarian ate to live to be 100, you can’t just ask them what they’re eating today. You need to know what they were eating in their 20’s, 40’s, 60’s, and 80’s.”

Another tip Buettner has, is to be in situations where good food is to be found. If your friends go bowling and drink beer and eat cheese fries, you probably will too. Instead, if you host a potluck at your house, you’ll probably eat better. Wansink has tweaks for potlucks too:

  • Try to be the last person to start eating.
  • Pace yourself with the slowest eater at the table.
  • Avoid the ‘just one more helping’ by leaving some food on your plate.

In the interview Buettner has a lot of statistics, of which we can take with a grain of salt (if that’s okay). I don’t doubt the effort and intention to this data, just that it’s wrapped up too nicely. Saying that walking is good for you is one thing. Saying that walking makes you live 3.5 extra years is another. If we look at the trends, these numbers are probably pretty good indicators about what we should do (or not do).

  • The highest quartile of meat eaters are 4X more likely to get cancer.
  • A sense of purpose to your life lets you live 6 years longer.
  • If we got rid of heart disease, cancer, and diabetes (all of which are preventable) we could expect to live to 90.
  • Air pollutants are the 5th biggest killer.
  • People in blue zones tend to drink 2 glasses of wine a day (with a meal and slowly).
  • Genetics is only about 20% of how long you live.

Besides the environment, Buettner indicates that the people in your life matter too.

“The people who tend to make it to ninety and one-hundred tend to be likeable people with a good sense of humor, they tell jokes, they listen.” – Dan Buettner

They also know their friends a long time. It made me wonder if we can digitize this part of our lives. Nicholas Megalis (episode #104) and Austin Kleon (episode #19) both mentioned that connecting with people online has never been easier. If data exists on this, let me know.

The interview ends with Buettner sharing that the Seventh Day Adventists tend to have blue zone like communities and that most blue zones are austere, though not deprived. His book sounds like a place to begin if you want to create your own blue zone, with recipes and other tips.

Here’s a 2009 TED Talk, “How to live to be 100+” here’s another from 2013, “Longevity and Happiness.”

Thanks for reading. If I was vapid, vulgar, or vandalized an idea, let me know. @mikedariano

A note on health. In 2014 I got on a kick with one of the paleo-esque programs you can find online and it worked well for the time I was on it, but eventually I found myself buying into the wrong parts of the program. I was eating a lot of meat, no beans, and no bread. It felt like something had swung too far one way and I needed to stabilize my diet. There is a lot of conversation about what to eat buzzing about today and I’ve settled on the advice of Nassim Taleb (who doesn’t have a cookbook to promote); the longer people have been eating it, the better choice it is. To me at least, blue zone diets look to pass this test.

Two food notes: If you want to try a Kale salad, this recipe from Seth Godin (episode #86) is the best. If you like hummus, trying making your own. Google a recipe and replace Tahini with Peanut Butter.

#104 Nicholas Megalis

Nicholas Megalis joined James Altucher to talk about Vines, the creative process, and what’s the next big thing. Before you dive into 1,2000 words on my notes, consider that these really don’t capture the interview all that well. Listening was like high speed museum walkthrough and these notes are the equivalent of the museum map. With that in mind, let’s get started.
Megalis is on the show to talk about his new book, Mega Weird. He might be best known for his Vines and tells James, “I make stuff, it’s what I do. I create stuff so I don’t go insane.”

And he started young. Being fourteen and not “good at math or sports” he had to find something to do so he got into music. Here’s a 2010 interview with The Cleveland Plain Dealer. From music he went into social media and tells James he had “a few good years” making money, but that it’s never been about the money. “Money to me is like gasoline” Megalis says, “the priority was to make art.” He’s not the only guest to say this. Tim Ferriss (episode #22) said something similar, “money is an intermediate, it is wampum. It is something that you trade for possession, experiences, access to interesting people, resources. You don’t need to have money as that intermediary necessarily.”

They aren’t the only one. Sam Shank (episode #78) said he would turn down a $4M offer for his company. Marcus Lemonis (episode #51)said the money always follows good work, never the other way around. Tom Shadyac (episode #15)said that money doesn’t bring contentment. Jairek Robinson (episode #96)quoted Jim Carrey who said, “I wish everyone could be rich and famous to realize it ain’t it.”

Take an example from James, and think about what you want in the end and see if there is a way to get that without money. Altucher specifically mentioned this when he interview Maria Popova, (episode #89) which he said was a “totally selfish interview.”

“I feel like I’m on this planet not necessarily to make money but to make people happy.” – Nicholas Megalis

Megalis was inspired as a kid when he wrote to Shepard Fairey and got a handwritten reply with stencils and stickers in it. This is what communicating with fans really meant. Now, he tells James, “I probably spend five to six hours a day communicating with thousands of people. I know their pictures, I know their names, I recognize their hashtags.”  Amanda Palmer (episode #82) writes about the same thing in her book. If you haven’t read it, it’s a you can do it from your big sister who’s done it herself telling you that you can do it. Palmer writes about a time one of her Ninja Gigs fell flat, “Seven people came. I played on the beach and then we all went for ice cream” and “I chatted constantly online, and listened to the input and feedback from the fans. If they wanted high-end lithograph posters, I made high-end lithograph posters.”

Gary Vaynerchuk (episode #2) – who Megalis works with – has been preaching from this pulpit for years now. Vaynerchuk wants you to hustle, to listen, to talk shop where you need to talk shop and entertain where you should be doing that.

As the interview goes on Megalis notes that it was uncommon in his experience, for the interviewer to mention the book like James did and he mentions this exchange that Bob Dylan had with Time magazine.

Which is foreshadowing in number of ways.

Beyond promoting his book – with less than prepared interviewers – Megalis is still helping brands come up with cool content. These companies started coming to him right away and he tells James that a Vine they did for Trident might have been the first ever televised Vine. Whatever he takes on though, “has to make sense in my universe” he tells James.

Even though the Vines are only a few seconds, they aren’t easy to come up with. “A Vine takes about twelve hours” Megalis tells James, and there are thousands thrown away for every hundred that make it out. He might spend a day shooting with a friend and all that he has at the end of the day is the time spent with a friend, which isn’t that bad.

Recently – it sounds like this interview was recorded in March 2015 – Megalis was at a dinner with Gary Vaynerchuk who told him to “get on Meerkat tonight.”  His ear is “always to the soil” on what the next app is going to be and look like.

James wants to know what it takes to be creative and Megalis – in a very roundabout way – suggests two key ideas.

Get in a group.

“Find a group of people who are like minded who can help you achieve certain goals like production, composition, press. Everything is a team effort” Megalis tells James. Austin Kleon (episode #19) asked James much the same thing, “what is the internet but one giant scenius waiting to happen?” Megalis echoes this particular part, “it makes it so much easier now to reach out because of the internet.”

Be inspired to make things.

Step one is to make things. Step two, make things. Step three, make things. Make, make, make, Megalis says, and “fail a billion times.” And don’t expect the things you make to be great at first. Kleon says “there’s a big gap when you’re starting out between what you love and what you’re producing.”

Even when you make it or get big you still have to deal with stepping in the mud. “If I’m having a bad day, of course something will hurt me.” Meglis tells James when asked if the negative comments hurt. Amanda Palmer told James that one negative review can “overpower your psyche for a day.”

Meglis deals with creativity blocks too, though he’s found a neat trick to get around them, switch the medium. “Sure,” he tells James, he’ll be blocked for “days, and weeks on end.” When that happens he switches to working on a film project, a record, or book. David Levien (episode #85) told James “when you’re doing something creative, you have to find different ways to stay fresh.” And Megalis doesn’t feel the constant pressure to produce. “I’d rather do one every week and a half that’s awesome” than a Vine everyday he tells James.

In some ways Megalis was lucky. That he had a skateboarding accident that left him in bed for weeks and to study Vine was serendipitous. Add in that he was an “editor’s pick” on the site and that bolsters the claim to luck. But he had to have some modicum of talent at the very least (and it appears he has much more than that). His advice?  “If you make something really really good, it’ll stand out. You don’t need to be selected. There’s no committee to make you a star.” Simon Rich told James much the same, “Make something great don’t worry about whether it fits in any economic landscape”. (Tweet This)

Thanks for reading. If I used something wrong, understood something incorrect, or underemphasized a key point, let me know @mikedariano.

A penultimate note, if you missed the reference, go back and see who Shepard Fairey is. This is a developing Big Idea, that kind people succeed more than unkind ones do.

A final note, the Vietnamese restaurant James and Nicholas like is here.

*A previous version of this post misspelled Jim Carrey’s name. 

Some of Fairey’s art can be seen here: https://www.artsy.net/artist/shepard-fairey

#22 Tim Ferriss

Tim Ferriss joined James Altucher to talk about self-experimentation, asking the difficult questions, and what the heck happened to his television show. If you don’t know, Ferriss is a blogger, author of books like The 4-Hour Workweek, and online maven.

James begins their interview by telling Ferriss he had a hard time coming up with a single word to describe him and settled on possible in that Ferriss believes so many things are just that. “Some of the impossibles are negotiable.” Ferriss tells James. For example, learning how to speak a language isn’t as hard as people make it out to be. What you need to do, Ferriss suggests, is find people that are succeeding in that thing, that shouldn’t be. Take past guest Nassim Taleb as an example and his career as a writer. Taleb’s books are hard to get through, laborious tomes that include references to Lebanese wine, Greek Gods, and obscure financial products. He covers the same general areas of finance as someone like Michael Lewis, but Lewis’s books are like cotton candy to the the hard tack that Taleb packs. But, Taleb is a successful author. Ferriss would ask, why is that? Why in a field of business books that are short and light, does someone who writes long and dense succeed?

If you find an outlier like this, Ferriss says, you should try to be around them. For Ferriss this meant getting involved in Silicon Valley. There he was able to “learn before you earn.” It wasn’t about moving west (young man) and starting a startup at the start. It was about going west to slowly build up the skills he needed. This is a good attitude, James says, because “incremental things compound.”

Once Ferriss moved he began to develop loose ties. Adam Grant (episode #73) told James that these are the best types of ties for our careers. Loose ties are broad, close ties are deep, and it’s the former that can help us connect to new areas for work and friendship. One of the connections Ferriss made was with Jack Canfield (episode #90) who helped mentor him and help with his books.

Ferriss tells James that he’s used an experimental model for learning anything; deconstruction, selection, sequencing, and stakes.

Ferriss DSSS

Deconstruction. Take something large and break it down into its smallest parts. Stephen Dubner (episode #20)  advocated this too because small problem have smaller answers and often fit better. Gretchen Rubin (episode #97) told James about her friend that hated her job and couldn’t be happy while working there. After a few conversations with Rubin, she realized it wasn’t her job she hated, it was her commute, and by adding an audiobook as the soundtrack to her drive home she was a lot happier.

Ferriss uses the internet and interviews to collect all the data he needs, looking for anomalies. If Sherlock Holmes was a lifehacker, he would be Tim Ferriss. There are two interesting tips that Ferriss gives here, first you don’t need to find the best expert to talk to, any expert would do. In the interview he says that talking to a gold medalist after the most recent olympics would be difficult. However, a silver medalist from ten years ago would be much easier to track down. Second, find an outlet to write for. Pitch a story to a newspaper or popular blog and see if someone there will let you write it under their direction. Then you can include your own questions about the thing you are trying to discover and address what the outlet needs. “It’s about a foot in the door” Ferriss says to find the anomalies. You don’t want the geniuses, because as Austin Kleon (episode #19) “Genius can’t teach you anything.”

You can also deconstruct ways you might fail. For example, if you want to learn the guitar, think about how you might fail to practice. Want to be kind to someone, how might you get around it when they push your buttons. One way to do is this to conduct a “premortem”:

“When the organization has almost come to an important decision but has not formally committed itself, Gary Klein proposes gathering for a brief session a group of individuals who are knowledgeable about the decision. The premise of the session is a short speech: ‘Imagine that we are a year into the future. We implemented the plan as it now exists. The outcome was a disaster. Please take 5 to 10 minutes to write a brief history of that disaster.’”

Selection. “If you’re trying to learn anything, you have to test assumptions and the way you test the obvious is by asking seemingly absurd questions” Ferriss says. It’s closely related to what Peter Thiel (episode #43) notes about finding secrets. Thiel wrote, “the best place to look for secrets is where no one else is looking” and “every great business is built around a secret that’s hidden from the outside.” Note Sam Shank (episode #78) as an example. Getting a hotel room wasn’t considered a problem with the plethora of travel sites available, but hidden in that ease was a complex condition, getting a hotel tonight. That’s the secret that Shank found.

Sequencing. Ferriss says this is the “secret sauce” to learning anything new. Ask yourself, what if I did these things in a new order? He gives the example of chess player Josh Waitzkin learning chess closings before using chess openings. About this Waitzkin says that he became more comfortable in the chaos of a chessboard rather than the structure. If he opponents were focused on getting an opening right, and didn’t, they fell into a position where they didn’t know what to do. This happened – albeit accidentally – to Scott Adams (episode #47) who learned formal drawing much later in his career than other artists. Instead, Adams built up his material banks by working in corporations.

Stakes. People have to build consequences into their life, Ferris says, but not unrealistic ones. “People have a nebulous fear of a worst case scenario.” Ferriss tells James, and we don’t need to have that. He suggests instead that people take a three step approach to solve this problem.

FearresettingFerriss1. What are the worst things, however absurd that can happen?

  1. How can I minimize those each thing from happening?

  2. What can I do to get back to where I am now?

There are a spectrum of options, Ferriss tells James, not just success and failure. Mark Ford (episode #102) mentioned the same thing in regards to negotiations. Often there is an overlap in positions between two parties, find those overlaps he says. We tend to quantify things in listicles or charts but life is more like the broad strokes of a paint brush that colors a canvas but doesn’t stay in the lines.

Long before Ferriss was making television shows or writing books, he started a company called BrainQUICKEN but even this wasn’t all that risky. The stakes for it were low because “I did not just leap into the ether and cross my fingers” he tells James. Rather he was figuring things out for himself, taking the supplements he thought about selling and getting good results. When the product it wasn’t selling, Ferriss shifted the focus of it to a pre-workout aid rather than cognitive enhancement.

The conversation then turned to talking about writing a book and began with an interesting idea, testing your title. Both James and Ferriss mention that they tested multiple titles of their books and it speaks to their openness to getting things right rather than being right. A lot of times we think we know what’s best but many times we at the very least, overestimate the scope of our conclusions. In one example, a military official was asked to gauge the leadership credentials of a soldiers in training after an hour of observation. To an outsider like you and me, we might roll our eyes at how much one can really understand about that, but insiders tend not to. In fact, if you were the insider you would probably overweight your observations and their validity.

It’s been shown time and again that this doesn’t work for things like stocks. In one study, the correlation between the success of wealth advisors was zero. That is, if you took someone that made 15% returns in year one, you should not expect them to make similar returns in any other year. But if you talked to those stock pickers, they would spin great tales about why they were successful or not.

This relates to book titles in this way. In both the example of choosing army leaders or picking winning stocks, we think we have good intuition but we probably don’t. We think we know what a book title should look like, but we probably don’t. If we at least open to the idea that others may know better, we’ll gather valuable information.

Actually writing the book took a lot of work. Ferriss started by taking notes. He tested material in a class he spoke with. He continued his relationship with Jack Canfield and eventually The 4-Hour Workweek was published.

The core message to all of his books, Ferriss tells James, is to “take a completely lateral move” ask “have you ever tested this” and don’t believe any answer that sounds like well, we’ve always done it that way.

If you do create things, Ferriss advices, “focus on the people who get it, not the people who don’t get it.” He suggests watching this clip, from the end of Ratatouille.

In many ways the work of a critic is easy, we risk very little, yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgement. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face, is that in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is probably more meaningful than our criticism designating it so.”

Ferriss has also spoken about how to deal with haters. It can be hard though. Amanda Palmer (episode #82) and James both said that a negative comment or review can stick with them for days. In his interviews, Brian Koppelman made it sound like an actual metamorphosis to go from a creative place and vulnerable place, to one where he could be strong and handle the critics (kind or not).

Ferriss’s criticisms birthed from the land of maligned mathematicians who said that Ferriss didn’t actually work four hours each week, he worked much more than that. “The point of the book,” he tells James, “is to maximize your per hour output” and then do what you want with that extra time.

It reminds of Mr. Money Mustache, an early retiree who focuses on living a life of “badassity.” Part of MMM’s ethos is to do stuff he likes, like building houses and writing on his blog. For each of these things he earns money from it and the critics like collectively shout “Ah Ha! Gotcha! You aren’t really retired.”

But even in these challenges we can find some good, Ferriss says, because they expand our sphere of comfort. Even starting his podcast was a derivative of a challenge. He filmed the Tim Ferriss Experiment but the show was stuck in television limbo while the teams at Discovery Channel and Ferriss figured out the final details. Rather than dawdle, Ferriss started hosting podcasts and he’s had some good ones. His advice is to “focus on the content first and foremost.” Check out Kevin Kelly’s (episode #96) 1,000 True Fans post, Ferriss suggests as a way to get an idea. Gabriel Weinberg (episode #54) told James that this influenced him as he was building DuckDuckGo.

It’s these small pieces, the essential parts of learning, the 1,000 true fans, and a “handful of posts have made my blog.” Ferriss says but he never knows which ones will resonate the most. Jairek Robinson (episode #96) told James the same thing Ferriss mentions, noting that it’s hard to figure out exactly what pieces will matter the most to people.

Ferriss hopes that his television show will feature some things that inspire, but admits to James that “if you’re going to question the impossible, you’re not always gonna come out looking like a superhero.”

The podcasting suites Ferriss he says, because it matches what he wants; digital and on-demand content. Plus, “it feels good to have complete dictatorial control.”

Besides podcasting and book writing, Ferriss also advises companies and tells an interesting story about getting in. He was living out west when an opportunity to invest in Twitter became available. He did, but not just for financial fortunes, but for the uncommon connections. Being at Twitter gave him access and relationships.

Ferriss wanted more, so he reached out to his blog audience to ask for advice on other companies that might be worth investing in. There he found Spotifiy and Evernote and this is the key to having a great blog. Taking time to connect with people is how blogs become business. About monetizing, James says, “the worse answer is advertising” and Ferriss follows up with, “if you’re in a rush to do it, it’s not going to work.”

And maybe it’s not the money that you need.

“Money is an intermediate, it is wampum. It is something that you trade for possession, experiences, access to interesting people, resources. You don’t need to have money as that intermediate necessarily.”

A.J. Jacobs is doing this (accidentally or not) is his great family reunion project. He couldn’t buy a picture with a former president, but, when he’s your cousin anything goes.

The interview ends with Ferriss telling James about his investing advice, and relaying heuristic he learned from Chris Sacca. Does the person you are about to partner with pass the beer test and mall test? That is, would you have a beer with this person for fun and would you talk to this person if you were passing them in the mall? These answers don’t have to be yes, but it helps when they are.

Thanks for reading. If I took something the wrong way, transcribed something incorrectly, or tested the wrong axiom let me know. @MikeDariano.

#102 Mark Ford

Update: January 2016. I don’t trust this post. When I first wrote it up I had a doubt that everything was legitimate, but reasoned with myself that even if it wasn’t,  everyone could teach us something. Well, I still doubt most of what Ford said and don’t think that what he has to teach is worth learning. I could be wrong, but don’t think I am. 

Mark Ford joined James Altucher to talk about working, finding your passion, and what exactly “intrapreneur” means. Ford is the author of a number of books under the pen name Michael Masterson.

Right off the bat James asks Ford about his failure rate and Ford notes that “it doesn’t seem like I’ve had a lot of failures,” but in retrospect knows he’s probably biased. Being aware of his own biases puts him in unique company. Peter Thiel (episode #43) talked about the “investor class” biases against Facebook – and maybe AirBnB – and says he figures this in to his evaluations. Another past guest, Nassim Taleb wrote about biases in his book, Fooled by Randomness.

Ford says that when he has lost money, it’s been in areas he hasn’t understood, like investing. About money, T. Harv Eker (episode #100) told James, “Earning it and keeping it in your business are two different things.” To which James responded, “A lot of people are good at what they do, but when they first have money, they’re not good at having money.” In his book, Money, Tony Robbins (episode #62) wrote, “the most important piece of advice every investor I talked to echoed was, ‘Don’t lose money!'”

To really make money, Ford tells James, “Is to avoid risky things.” He says that becoming a doctor would be a good way to make money because of the low risk. Taleb also writes about this, when he encourages people to think about average lives. Taleb’s train of thought is that rare events are hard to figure out so we should not try to predict them, but avoid the worst of them. Consider two paths, the career truck driver who wins the lottery and the career dentist who does not. For each of them their average career earnings are the same. If you played out their lives one thousand times, the dentist would have an average income of 150K. If you take the lottery winning truck driver though, his average income over those lives would also be 150K but in only one of his thousand lives would he have an income over 50K. Taleb’s conclusion (and I think Ford’s too) is that we should be cognizant of the areas of randomness and luck and do our best to guard against building successes on those grounds.

Take James Altucher as another example. In any given life if he’s a web developer and investor he’ll probably do okay if you played out his life over and over. If however, he was a web developer and investor who was hooked on cocaine then there would be some lives where things don’t work out for him and some that do. In the cocaine filled life he gets fewer “successes.”

Ford tells James that very few of the businesses he’s been in follow any sort of passion he’s had, “Generally, I think if you turn your passion into a business, you’re going to lose the bet.” Austin Kleon (episode #19) told James that every job is a job, meaning that no job is perfect. I was reminded of this while reading Maria Popova’s (episode #89) Brain Pickings one day and thought how nice it must be to read and muse and write. But Maria has a huge website to manage and has to understand the technical parts of it. She has to post on days she doesn’t feel like posting. She has to depend on that site to put food on her table. She may be writing about Walden Pond, but she’s certainly not living there.

One problem we have, Ford says, is that when we follow our passion, we start to see the warts that our passion has. This is one of the topics in our current book club, so I won’t spoil the surprise, but will share this story from Time.com where another person tries (and fails) to start a yoga business. Following your passion is perilous. (You can join the book club for free until April 5th).

Then Ford tells James that an intrapreneur is someone within a company who pushes inventive ideas. It can sometimes be  better to be an intrapreneur of a big organization than the entrepreneur of a non-existent one. One advantages to this include, that it’s easier to become wealthy in a smaller company.

Part of this realization, Ford tells James, came during a Dale Carniege course. Ford had to list his ten goals for live, then whittle the list down to a single one. “If I chose one it felt like I was giving up another.” Ford tells James. But then he realized that if he chose one and didn’t like it, he could always give it up. Adam Carolla (episode #25) likes to joke about when they do this in films and they can’t go back. “Yes you can!” Carolla will muse in his Carolla-road-rage, you just turn the car around and let the bad guys win, go back, go back. Nothing’s final and nothing’s your one thing. As my daughters are singing at the moment, “The sun will come out tomorrow, So you gotta hang on, ’til tomorrow, come what may! Tomorrow, tomorrow, I love ya, tomorrow, You’re always a day away!”

I digress, back to our other car-themed-last-name-guest.

So Ford goes back to work, thinking about how to get rich (his goal of choice) and realizes that the time he’s spent working hasn’t produced much of anything. He was spending half his time on creating a style manual for the company he was working for to us, when in fact, it didn’t really matter. That’s when he switched to a Pareto Principle of thinking.

Once he focused on his specific skills and effort, Ford turned his attention to the newsletter company in general. It wasn’t “how respectable they (the newsletters) are from a literary point-of-view or a technical point-of-view, but were they answering questions that were solving problems for people in the industry.” Ford told James.

One of the newsletters he worked on had some aggressive marking using direct mail. One example of this, though not from Ford, is that 100 houses in a neighborhood each get a mailer suggesting they buy a “hot stock.” Only the con is this, House 1 gets a letter suggesting Company A, House 2 gets a letter promoting Company B, and so on down the street. Now, after one month half the companies go down in value, but half go up. In month two it happens again. After six months of mailings you’ll have two houses that have received letters about a stock for companies K and Y that have gone up each month, just as the letter said! Well, you think, maybe there’s something to this. There is, it’s a con math who knows his math.

Ford didn’t admit to this, but does say they were “looking at what was working” and there is a tone of remorse about some of the things he did in business.

Around the twenty-seven minute mark Ford tells James the “greatest negotiation story” which includes his boss’s father-in-law and a final negotiation twist.

It doesn’t sound like Ford has engaged in any business like this as of late, angling instead to be a “cool old person” who is “relaxed” and “everyone loves.” I couldn’t’ quite congeal my thoughts on this, but there’s certainly a shift in mindset as one ages. It’s been mentioned by James and others to focus less on money and accomplishments and more on the people around you, your health, and your peace with life. I wonder if we could just jump straight to this without going through the crazier parts of life. If you’ve figured this out, let me know.

James rounds out the interview asking Ford what he would suggest someone in a cubicle might do to change their life. Before Ford’s advice, we have to flashback to the interview with T. Harv Eker.  Ford says that we need to think in terms of having multiple incomes for life rather than just one. We don’t have those, Eker argues, because of the invisible scripts in our lives. We are never taught to think in this way, instead choosing the safety of a single job. (If you want to read more on this, Thou Shall Prosper was the first book that opened my eyes to this idea.) Tucker Max mentions this in episode #80.

Ford then gives two pieces of advice.

  1. Figure out how to become the most valuable employee in your area of work.
  2. Decide if your business is one where an entrepreneur can thrive.

Each of these areas falls directly into themes for our book club book of April. In that book, Cal Newport, writes about how important “career capital” is, how to figure out what type of capital is valuable to you, and how to invest that capital. For an immediate mindset change, T. Harv Eker suggested that people who hate their jobs, think of their jobs as training for the next one, a paid opportunity to begin building skills they can use to start out on their own.

If you decide to do this, Ford suggests looking at what area of a business you are in. There are three groups he tells James, “sales and marketing, product production, and management.” Only in that first group will you build the skills that really matter. “What you need to understand,” Ford says, “is how your business makes money.” Just being the best person you can be won’t work. It would like being a soccer or hockey player and deciding that you want to be goalie and trying your hardest to do that. The problem is, there’s only one goalie on each team. Instead you need to find the skills that get you on the field/ice.

Thanks a lot for reading. If I skipped, snarked, or simply overstated something, do let me know. @MikeDariano

Four extra notes.

  • James said “Everybody needs to express their ideas.” and that really stuck with me. This is why starting a blog is such common advice, because it’s an easy chance for us to practice expressing our ideas.
  • I relaunched my 21 Days to a Stronger Idea Muscle Program. Rather than a single pdf (which you still get, and with added images) there is a daily email drip. Each drop into your inbox gives you a prompt and explains the value of idea lists using research on habits, cognition, and neurosciences. It’s a pay-what-you-want option that I would love some feedback on. Find out more here, Gum.co/ideamuscle.
  • Finally, I went back and forth on including this, but it’s my blog and it’s what I feel, be wary of the advice of some guests. The Oxford Club that Ford mentions doesn’t smell right and if a flier for this arrived at my Grandmother’s house I would immediately throw it away. I don’t know if the current form of The Oxford Club reflects what Ford started but his marketing seemed to range from aggressive to malicious. I would guess from the interview that he regrets some of this, but it left me with a cautious feeling.
  • Again, the book club details are here.

#47 Scott Adams

One my favorite books of the last two years was How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life by Scott Adams. I even linked to the story about Dilbert not succeeding until the death of a regional salesman in my notes from the Chris Guillebeau interview. Adams is on the podcast to promote his new book, Go Add Value Someplace Else, which comes out October 28th, and gives you just enough time to read How to Fail first.

To start the interview Altucher and Adams dive into why self-help books don’t work. People are comfortable in their habits and if a self-help book requires changing those, then that’s a much harder thing. Habits are a great evolutionary advantage that lets us give attention to things that are more important. Unless we get into the wrong ones. If you want to change habits two good places are The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg or the free Tiny Habits course by Dr. BJ Fogg.

When talking about the advice he gave in How to Fail Adams says, “I tried to make a big point in mine that I wasn’t giving you a recipe, because everybody’s case is different, but rather I was giving you an example—a template, if you will—that if I did this and this was what turned out, that maybe you could compare that to what you’re doing and what other people are doing and find something that works for you.” This is the same structure that Melissa and Dallas Hartwig give in It Starts With Food, an introduction to paleo-like eating and #2 nutrition cookbook on Amazon.

After this the two dive into system versus goal thinking. Altucher says, “So what I really liked in this book—and I really subscribe to this as well, this idea that goals are bullshit. And you say live by systems; I call it something similar. I say live by themes.” Adams says much the same, in How to Fail he writes: “To put it bluntly, goals are for losers. That’s literally true most of the time. For example, if your goal is to lose ten pounds, you will spend every moment until you reach the goal.” And when you do, then what? “If you achieve your goal, you celebrate and feel terrific, but only until you realize you just lost the thing that gave you purpose and direction.”
For more on the book How to Fail, check out the writings that Shane Parrish has done at Farnam Street.

Adams also talks about his system for each morning, one he’s able to do while still wearing pajamas. Like the stories of other writers in Daily Rituals, he does his most challenging work in the mornings. “I get up around 6:00, get my coffee, and then I usually either read my e-mail or maybe write a blog post on Dilbert.com or do something. Then I kind of get into my cartooning, usually do about two comics on a typical weekday in rough form—I write them and I draw them in rough form. And then sometime later at night or the afternoon when there’s some slow time, I do the finished art, when I don’t have to use the brainpower.” Researcher Daniel Levitin might applaud the use of brain power, because that implies it will run out and need recharged.

Before Adams was able to doodle in his pajamas, he did it at 4:30am before leaving for his job at Pacific Bell. While there he twice got passed over for promotions because he wasn’t a woman and that led him to think, “Well, what could I do that’s not in corporate America where I could do something where my talent alone makes a difference, or better yet move to somewhere where being who I am is an advantage instead of a disadvantage?”

Adams settled on pursuing cartooning. He saw an ad on TV and wrote the the promoter Jack Cassidy, who suggested some resources. Adams tried to write cartoons for magazines and failed. Upon this gave up, having given it a good shot. Then a year later he got another letter from Cassidy telling him not to give up. This reminded me of the letter Carl Sagan wrote to a young Neil deGrasse Tyson encouraging him to study astronomy and even inviting him to his lab. It’s amazing the power little words of encouragement can have. Adams tried his hand at cartooning again, and failed again, only better.“I I got rejected” he reasoned, “I would be rejected at a higher level, which would feel like progress in a way.”

One thing Adams rejects is the idea to follow your passion. Cal Newport is on the same page, suggesting you just get good at something. For Adams “getting good” meant redefining the pool of talent. He wasn’t great in business, but was decent was someone who could draw. Beyond that, he was a funny business man who could draw and understood a nascent internet. That specialization meant that there were very few – maybe no – people like him, and consequently made him the best. And cartooning was only one of many good ideas. “I like to think of life as like a—kind of a strange kind of a casino with a slot machine. Instead of a slot machine that takes your money every time you lose, it’s free. You just pull all day long. So in that sense you can’t control when the luck happens, but you can guarantee that you’ll get a payoff, because you just keep pulling.”

In his book How to Fail, Adams also talks about the energy that people bring into each day, something that generated a lot of feedback. “The two criticisms I got in the book were opposites. One was, ‘Don’t include that stuff about diet and exercise and energy in a book about success,’ and another group saying, ‘You’re saying things that are too obvious; we already know this.’” Sleep for example is really important. In a study reported by Jennifer Senior, parents who got more than 7 hours compared with those who got less than 6 hours had the same difference in well-being compared to those who made $90,000 and those who made $30,000.

Altucher and Adams move the conversation to what Twitter might have looked like an investment pitch, and both agree it would have been awful. Twitter has worked out so far, and reminded me of what Nassim Taleb talked about with Altucher. Taleb was marveling at the book publishing and movie industries, where the companies have realized they can’t predict what will be successful, and instead aim for a long tail approach, cashing in on one or two blockbusters.

As evidence to keep trying other things, Adams explains what Calendar Tree is. It’s hard to remember a time when times weren’t a clickable link that automatically populated in your calendar. But at one time they didn’t. David Pogue was marveling at similar calendar features in an episode of the Cool Tools podcast earlier this year.

A little later in the interview, Adams compliments Altucher about his writing, saying “the only reason that I agreed to this podcast is because I’ve read your writing. So I’m here because I’m a fan of your writing; otherwise I wouldn’t be here.” This situation is what Adam Grant would describe as a pair of Givers helping each other. In his book, Give and Take, Grant recognizes three hats people can wear; giver, matcher, or taker and he makes the case that givers ultimately succeed the most. For Adams and Altucher the explanation might be that because Altucher gives away so much of his writing without asking for anything in return, Adams is happy to help out.

Altucher goes on to praise Adams for his article, How to Get a Real Education, saying it was “hanging up near my desk because it’s so in line with how I think about education.”

The pair propose different overalls of government, most of which sound nice – and wishful. For more of this check out President Me by Adam Carolla.

The resume Scott Adams had to get to where he is is complex and varied and one of a kind. A bit like his popular character. If you enjoyed this interview I can’t recommend his book How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life enough.