#53 Ted Leonsis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Miller writes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


#89 Maria Popova


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

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

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

This may be the cynical content Maria was talking about.

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

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

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

Of course, there is an xkcd comic about this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#1 Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind

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

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

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

He said people who were right a lot of the time were people who often changed their minds. He doesn’t think consistency of thought is a particularly positive trait. It’s perfectly healthy — encouraged, even — to have an idea tomorrow that contradicted your idea today.

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

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

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

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

#3 Be generous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 Notes on the notes:

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

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

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

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

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


#36 Ramit Sethi

Ramit Sethi joined James Altucher to talk about psychology, choice, and experimenting with systems to get them just right. Sethi is the author of the book, I Will Teach You To Be Rich and the blog of the same name. The book has 4.5 stars on Amazon and 500+ reviews. Some people say it’s “entertaining and informative” and “a fresh breath into realistic money management.” Others are more critical, saying it was too long or “for someone in their twenties.”

The interview begins with James telling Sethi that “every piece I read from you is helping people when they need it.” Some of his most popular articles include:

Sethi’s origin story began with the college application. Knowing he had to pay for school, and tired of writing admissions essays over and over again, he set about to create a system. “All the essays had the same five or six prompts,” he told James, so he set about making those five or six expositions extraordinary. This got him admissions, but the round of interviews was harder. Sethi was an awkward kid, and after watching himself in a self-recorded video found out that “Smiling actually matters.”

On the surface it seems like Sethi’s first skill was maximizing his application skills, but when James presses him, he admits that it’s experimenting.

“Breaking down your mistakes is the fastest way to learn.” – James Altucher (tweet this)

This has been Sethi’s point of leverage since, study and experiment and tinker with things until getting them just right. He’s the Goldilocks of the young adult world. James says that to break away from you must be “analyzing frame by frame, the critical moments in your life.”

Rather than authentically experiment, James says we all might be insane, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results” For Sethi, those experiments focus on psychology in the lab of life.

“We are fundamentally cognitive misers (we hoard and spend at little as possible).” He tells James, but that’s how we evolved. Hise stone in his shoe moment came when he invested his first scholarship check in the stock market and lost it all. At this point Sethi realized he better figure out how “this money thing worked.” In his research he found the same anecdotes come up again and again – buy a house, skip Starbucks, don’t eat out. Why were the same answers always given to the prevailing questions but so many people failed? Something was amiss and Sethi began to explore these “great lies.”

Instead of focusing on the small things, Sethi wondered, what if we focused on the big ones. If you nailed four or five big things, then the little things would be irrelevant. He wanted a rich life, which he tells James, “part of a rich life is money, but it’s only a small part…for me a rich life is about saying yes. For a lot of my readers it’s about saying yes ‘I want to go out on Friday night. Yes, I want to take trip to Vegas. Yes, I want to buy a round of drinks, a vacation for my parents.”

Tony Robbins (episode #62)writes about a similar attitude in his book, outlining that you need to keep remembering what you want the money for and that there are levels to your desires. Sethi mentions, buying drinks and vacations in the same breath but they are different lives in reality. Robbins terms these two actions financial security and financial independence. The former is being secure in your basic needs, the latter is to have your needs and desires met. Robbins suggests that you may never be a millionaire, but if your housing, utilities, food, and transportation were paid for, you can be quite happy. Sethi takes a different angle on the same situation, encouraging people to look at the ends you want and work toward them.   

One way that Sethi suggests people go about this is to automate everything. Pay for the things you have to first, and then whatever is left over is yours to spend – preferable guilt free. Alexa von Tobel, founder of LearnVest told Lifehacker that this is her best time-saving trick:

I try to automate all tasks that truly do not require energy. For instance, I basically eat the same breakfast and lunch every day (dinner is my fun meal). Why waste time on figuring out what I want to pick up for lunch? I know what I like, and I stick to it. Small automations like this add up. I think it of as my personal operating system.

There’s good psychology in arranging some things in our life to be automatic. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman writes that “self-control and cognitive effort are both forms of mental work.” Imagine you have 20 manna, points, or lives (any token will do) to spend during the day. If you spend more on motivating yourself to do something (the self control part), you’ll have less to spend on the brainstorming, focus, and depth of learning (the cognitive effort part). When Sethi advises people to buy the coffee they want and then get to work, he’s almost balancing the mental work equation. James puts it another away:

“Saving on that Starbucks won’t make you be rich or go broke.” – James Altucher

What will make you go broke is buying a home. Sethi says that about forty percent of the people that come to him with money problems, owe it to owning a home. James says that for him it’s closer to ninety percent. Sethi has a handful of articles about housing and “phantom mortgage costs.”

Carolina-Duke basketball 2006 1.jpg

Another bias James and Ramit talk about is how we tend to overvalue something we own. Dan Ariely, a past guest,  wrote about this in his book Predictably Irrational. His study focused on Duke basketball, and was a wonderfully real-world experiment. At Duke, students entered a lottery for basketball tickets. If you entered the lottery, you wanted to go to the game. Everyone who entered was a Duke student, so the study group was relatively homogeneous, meaning, there weren’t going to be rabid basketball fans getting tickets and non-fans not getting them. The only logical difference after the ticket lottery would be that some Duke students who wanted tickets got them and some Duke students who wanted tickets did not. Ariely wanted to know if there was a difference in value for the tickets of each group.

He recruited some undergraduates students to walk along the dorms and survey people about whether or not they got a ticket and what they might sell or buy the ticket for. On average, those with tickets would sell them for $2,400 and not a dollar less. On average, those without tickets might pay $175 for a ticket.

That’s a 14X multiplier between buying and seller. WTF is happening here? How do people that are almost the same except for ticket/no ticket become so far apart on price? Once we own something, Ariely writes, things get peculiar. “Our propensity to overvalue what we own is a basic human bias, and it reflects a more general tendency to fall in love with, and be overly optimistic about, anything that has to do with ourselves.” You don’t need to read academic articles to see this, visit any garage sale or flea market to see it in action.

Another of the great lies James and Ramit talk about is how the job market stinks, and you should take what you get. In his spirit of experimentation, Ramit told James that he thought he could help his friends get better jobs if he could study what they did. So he began coaching a friend in exchange for her letting him document the process. Gary Vaynerchuk (guest #2) used this same form of bartering to get discounted billboards and cab advertisements.

Sethi found that “the best jobs happen through personal networks.” Great, you’re thinking, but how do I do that? Adam Grant (guest #73) suggests two specific ways. First, “ask thoughtful questions and listen with patience.” Givers, Grant writes, give best when they give something they know well. Find something that you know and begin to help people in that domain. James does a Twitter QA each Thursday, that’s giving in a way he enjoys. Second, Grant suggests five minute favors for anyone that asks. These micro-favors should be anything that helps another person and only costs you about five minutes. Grant found out that people who give in the right way were more successful than people who were takers, matchers, or givers who gave too much and in areas outside of their expertise. Be good giver and you’ll build a good network.

But I’m (not connected, in the wrong industry, not skilled, <your own excuse>). Take the no complaints diet challenge and forget about the things you can’t do and focus on the ones you can.

In their conversation, Sethi gives two actionable steps for anyone to take:

  1. Email a person – but bring value. Write them to say that you’ve read/watched what they’ve written/done. That XYZ advice had a big effect on you and you tried doing it, but you are stuck with MNO. Can you give me advice?

Part of doing this well is to be prepared and that means having good questions. James said he learned from Tony Robbins that if you “ask lousy questions, you get lousy answers.”

  1. “When you get good at something, you get passionate.” Sethi tells James. This is the rallying cry, trumpet announcement, and bullhorn bulletin from Cal Newport and his book, So Good They Can’t Ignore You takes it’s title from a Steve Martin comment.

stevemartingrammyMartin told Charlie Rose, “nobody ever takes note of (my advice), because it’s not the answer they want to hear.” People plead for a panacea, they don’t want to hear about being good at something. Martin tells Rose that  “I couldn’t even play an instrument in high school,” and “my mother played piano well and my father sang, but I inherited neither. I guess I sang like my mother and played piano like my father.” He learned by lots and lots and lots of practice. He would buy a magic trick and practice it over and over again until he nailed it. To learn the bango he would play a record on a slower speed and pick along, figuring things out as he went and telling Rose, “That’s how we all did it.”

Sethi applies this deliberate practice angle to things like creating side income and successful job interviews. He tells James that there is a very specific response – one you would know if you practiced this enough – to use when you go to a job interview and the employer asks about salary. James warns Sethi about anchoring yourself to too low a number. Anchoring is a tricky mental bias because we sometimes don’t even know it’s there. Let’s try, take this quick 2 question survey about how many years separated the birth of George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte.

I’ll share these results in another post, but that’s not what Sethi is getting at. In his research, talking about salary in an interview fails to show the right competence trigger. Walk in the right way, say the right things, look the right way and you’ll show some something you can never hope to say.

Sethi explained one of the ways he uses competence triggers in hiring. In this video at 99U he explains that he was looking for someone to help run his customer service. He knew he would be getting a lot of applicants and needed a way to filter them out. So he inserted a specific question that he wanted a specific type of answer for. Sethi was looking for certain words that he knew the right applicant would use as a signal of competence. Van Halen used a similar technique, only with brown M&M’s.

vanhalenWhen they were touring in the 1980’s Van Halen had some of the biggest stage shows around. It would take hours to set up custom light and sound riggings, some of which a venue may have had no experience with before. Rather than “Jump” around looking for loose connections or “Dance The Night Away” making sure the rigging was right, they didn’t something more ingenious. They asked for a bowl of M&M’s to be in the dressing room, but all the brown ones removed. Rather than primadonna antics, this was a signal for them about how closely their directions were followed. They assumed, if someone took the time to pick out brown M&M’s, then they also took time to set up everything correctly. You can hear David Lee Roth tell the whole story to NPR.

James asks why Sethi does courses rather than ebooks to which he replies, “I don’t want to play in the $4.95 sandbox.” It’s not condescending, it’s wanting to create something better than that. Sethi explains, “when you get serious you don’t want to sift through things” in a course he can “make sure everything works for you.” Sethi says that he does a lot of experimentation and testing so that when you do begin his course, the kinks are worked out, the hurdles lined up the right away, and if there’s a mountain to scale you’ve at least got climbing gear.

His business is based on The Strategy of Preeminence (TSOP) by Jay Abraham. (I had to dig for this nugget because it only came up implicitly in my research). TSOP is a business strategy equivalent to being a tour guide in an unknown land that someone wants to explore. It’s giving the customer control to make their own decisions, being authentic in your communication, and providing focus for them.

Sethi does this through his courses, which begin around a thousand dollars and go up from there. These classes require work and Sethi’s upfront about this saying passive income, “is mostly B.S.” Dreaming of a job where Google Adsense money trickles in while you sit on a sandy beach is a mirage.

The conversation between James and Ramit pivots to what you might do, if you wanted to create something and it begins with research. Hypothetically, let’s say you want to sell an ebook about how to save money by doing your own home repairs…



Stop right now. Ramit tells James that people who want to save money, don’t want to buy something that tells them how and this halt is the first bit of research that you need to do. Don’t create anything until you know which direction to create in. Rather than something that teaches people how to save money on home repairs, create something that teaches people how to have IKEA looks without composite wood. Alex Blumberg (episode #70) had a recent experiment with this on his Start Up show. Blumberg was kicking around the idea of creating a technology in addition to content. A player for the podcasts. Rather than build an app, they built the skeleton of one. He compares it to a model home where the refrigerator is just a prop and the faucets shine but there’s no water.

This early orientation on what you’re going to create is a crucial step in the research Sethi says. You have to find an idea and identify who is the buyer, what are their hopes and dreams, what is their pain? Before you start to solve a problem, you have to find out what their problem is.

Once you know the exact question and find out a detailed, obstacle clearing answer. You can start to promote it. In Jab Jab Jab Right Hook, Gary Vaynerchuk breaks down the different ways you can connect to people and what they expect on each ramitface.bmpjamesaltucherfacemedium: Facebook is for stories, Twitter is for listening, Pinterest should be pretty. Each connection with people should also reflect what your image is. My guess is that Ramit won’t ever be seen in sweatpants. Altucher’s picture of sitting crosslegged seems right. It shows that his show is informal, he looks inquisitive. Swap these pictures and think about James selling products and Ramit hosting the show and things are quite a bit different.

When it comes to naming things, Sethi has this advice. Rather than name his program “Earn 10K” his course is called “Earn 1K.” Naming things the right way can head off any objections a person has (again, TSOP). He tells James:

“When we created a product called Earn1K, this was the headline…Finally a proven legitimate program to identify a profitable idea and turn it into a reliable side income of a $1,000 a month with just five hours a week.” Then he explains why this works:

  • Earn 10K happens but people might not believe it, 1K is reachable.
  • Don’t I need to quit my job? Nope, it’s a side income
  • This sounds like a scam, has it been tested? Proven and reliable
  • But what if I don’t have an idea? The course helps you identify it.

“We didn’t just come up with it, we didn’t just sit in our room and write it. It’s all about the research.” – Ramit Sethi

And then you have a sale and “there’s something really magical about the first time you make a sale.” Sethi tells James, but that first sale requires work. He tells James:

Instead of trying to sell things and show people how to make  a quick buck, we show people how to build a relationship.”

And relationships are key. Gary Vaynerchuk writes that the Web2.0 is a return to the small town conversations that people used to have, only the topics are now global. “Treat people like you’ll be sitting next to them at dinner that night.” he says. Vaynerchuk joins Altucher and Sethi as a fan of guest blogging, telling James in his interview that it’s “The singular, most fruitful way to build a personal brand or build awareness of what you do.”

When you line something up, be ready to tell stories. Seth Godin (episodes #27, & #86) says that until we’re all “MIT graduates” we will flock to stories, and remember, says Godin, that the best story is “never about the teller. The story is always about the person hearing the story.”

As you write your stories, begin to collect email addresses but walk a clear line. Sethi is all over Tim Ferriss for his weak email newsletter. Sethi tells James that you want to give stuff that’s so good you are fulfilling their demand. Two of my favorite email lists are Farnam Street and Becoming Minimalist. Each time they arrive in my inbox I look forward to what they link to. Gary Vaynerchuk would call these good jabs.

The interview wraps up with a handful of tips and suggestions from James and Ramit.

About starting: Ramit says “If you look at someone from the outside and they have a successful business or blog and a podcast and you’re like wow, there’s no way I could do that. I felt exactly the same way…. but jump in anyway.”

About credibilityRamit says to judge people’s credibility by what they get out of it. The mortgage industry will tell you good news about housing that’s good for them. When you look at Ramit or the mortgage industry (or anyone) ask how credible they are. Nassim Taleb too uses this heuristic and his solution is to look at time. The longer something has been around, the more credible it will be.

About lifehacks: Getting to the gym, eating right, managing your time. Ramit has a pdf of little lifehacks.

About challenges: Periodic challenges seem to move us to take positive actions. James and Ramit suggest you email someone and thank them for some work they’ve done. Do it. Really, go do it.


Yikes! 3,500+ words. I always love feedback about these posts so please reach out on Twitter @MikeDariano, text (559) 464-5393, or in the comments. Finally, I have one big request. Could you please, please, please let me know what’s stopped you from doing a daily idea list? Do you see value in it? Is it a habit thing? Do you need more structure? Advice? Is it lack of knowledge, understanding? Use whatever words best explain why you don’t do a daily idea list. If you do, let me know what works.  

Thanks- Mike

Further Notes:

If you are interested in specific tips for writing, check out Writing Tools by Roy Peter Clark has a slew of exercises. If you want to guest post, I run and people there share good things to read, watch, and use. If you head over and it looks like fun, get in touch. I couldn’t find the Taleb quote about time and people who only say good things. Antifragile is a big book and I wanted to publish this post without it. If you find it in there, please let me know.


#88 Lewis Howes


Lewis Howes (@LewisHowes) joins James Altucher (again) to talk about what’s happened in the last year. Howes was a professional football player who moved from sister’s couch to running a multimillion dollar business.

The interview begins with James asking Howes about his handball experience. Specifically, what his handball? “Tennis without the racket, water polo without the water, soccer with your hands on a big basketball court, lacrosse with your arms.” It’s this:

Howe’s says that while he was recovering from an injury, he watched the Olympics in Beijing. Want to be an Olympian, he started thinking about sports he could hack and found handball, “I was mesmerized” he tells James. In one way he began to study what it would take to become a handball player, in another what it would take to create a business. Howes was applying the same deep understanding that Dick Yuengling (episode #79) had about moving beer barrels and Mark Cuban had for computer network.

Wanting to learn how to play handball, to really become good at it, he figured he had to move to NYC and to do that he had to make some money. He learned LinkedIn and covered a lot of that ground in his first interview. Arriving in NYC, he found a place where people played, and just showed up. He tells James:

So I show up, I say hey guys, I’m Lewis Howes from Ohio. I’ve never played handball but my goal is to make the US national team and go to the Olympics.

Lewis is a big, fit guy. Former pro-athlete. What was the reception?

They all laughed their asses off. I was the only American there.

About those international handball players. “They were speaking in like ten different languages to each other about this white kid that never played, but every week I showed to practice for that year.”

woodyallenshowing“And it’s been a journey ever since.” If you want to cheer on the American team, they have to win the PanAm Games, July 10-26th in Toronto to make the next Olympics.

James focuses the rest of the episode on Howes’s podcast, The School of Greatness. James asks how he got Tony Robbins (episode #62) as a guest. After cancelling because he was going to India, Robbins finally sat down to talk with Howes. James says that he “wanted to make things as easy as possible for him (Robbins)” so he flew down to his house in Florida and had a “good solid conversation.”

You can watch Howes and Robbins talk:

James remarks that “somehow Tony Robbins really resonates with millions of people… in part because he’s legitimately helped millions of people.” Howes has too, and the pair dive in to some of the things he’s learned this past year.

How to double your energy

Howes talked to Yuri Elkaim who wrote The All-Day Energy Diet: Double Your Energy in 7 Days. Howes tells James that his big takeaway was about sleep and coffee. “Caffeine is something that is not going to double your energy” Howes tells James, “A lot of people use caffeine to use energy or get them up, but it’s really something that’s the opposite of what you should be doing.” Howes says that he can feel the effects of caffeine and “gets shaky” if he drinks too much.*

Beyond sleep and caffeine, people can eat the right foods and fasting. Past guest Nassim Taleb advocates random fasting and there is good medical science to support it. Scientific American writes that it’s at least good, if not great to do, and it’s easier than ever. NPR too reported on fasting and gives nice details about the 5:2 plan. If you really want to do it, check out the NPR post, it has specific steps. Though none of this is making James feel better, he tells Howes, “I feel like science has ruined my life in the last few years.”

Howes also mentions an episode with Sean Stephenson who recommends other sleep tips like:

  • Turn off all electronics two hours before bed.
  • Go to sleep between 10 and 11.
  • If you use a screen, get orange tinted glasses.
  • Get room darkening shades.
  • Have a sleep plant in your room.

How to master your memory

Jim Kwik, was on the School of Greatness podcast and Howes says, “he gives a lot of great tips.” Kwik uses a memory palace technique” and Howes asks about how to remember key points to a speech.

This super memory is nothing new. In the wonderful Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer writes:

It was simply a matter of learning to “think in more memorable ways” using the “extraordinarily simple” 2,500-year-old mnemonic technique known as the “memory palace” that Simonides of Ceos had supposedly invented in the rubble of the great banquet hall collapse.


In the fifth-century-BC, Simonides was about to give a speech to a crowded hall. Right before he stepped on stage he got a message to step outside. He did and the moment he crossed the building threshold it collapsed. When the families came to collect the bodies, Simonides was able to close his eyes, recreate the scene, and guide them to the portion of rubble their kin were buried in.

Howes says that Kwik told him he wasn’t always very good at remembering things and forced himself to learn a new way to learn. He’s not the only one, Gary Varynerchuk (episode #2) was a D and F student. Brian Koppelman (episode #59) had bad ADHD.

Altucher hypothesizes that maybe Kwik remembers things that he was passionate it about. My guess is that it’s the connections that matter most. Kwik uses memory walks or memory palaces because they create a visual connection. Altucher is using emotional connections to remember things thirty years ago. Howes mentions that remembering why you want to remember something can even help.

Altucher says that the Kwik interview with Howes reminded him of Apollo Robbins, “The Gentleman Thief.” Rather than describe what he does, you should watch it:

James says, “I wish I had a skill like that.”

Themes of greatness

Howes says that there have been certain things he’s learned this past year that he’s developed into common themes of greatness.

“So many people who are great have a clear vision (tweet this). It’s so crystal clear on what they want to achieve and why they want to achieve it.” Howes tells James. You need to know which direction you want to go, before you can orient yourself that way.

Overcome adversity and turn it into an advantage. “There are going to be injuries or breakdowns along the way” Lewis tells James and he suggests that you “surround yourself with really positive people. When this happened to me, my emotions were really shaky. Losing my dreams was a huge blow for me.” Howes has what Taleb would call domain fragility a cousin of the halo effect. Domain fragility means that while Lewis could physically crush an 82-year-old immigrant living on his block, she was much more emotionally strong.  He can handle the physical weight, she the emotional.

Domain dependence matters because as Stephen Dubner told James, we need to be aware of the Halo Effect in our thinking. This is the idea that because someone knows something about one area, we give them credit for knowing about others. I write these posts and have a decent grasp on psychology, but when my best friend calls to talk about his new diet, I need to learn to shut-up.

You could also find a good coach. Howes tells James:

“all of the greatest athletes I know have amazing coaches. Everyone of them. Gold medalists, they all have great coaches. Not everyone of the greatest business minds have coaches, but some of them do have coaches. I think people are missing out if they don’t have a coach in every area of their life.”

In his book about Money, Tony Robbins shows his remarkable connections because of coaching. He even confesses in the book that he has almost no experience with money and admits in the book about some of the past and current mistakes he was making. What Robbins did have were connections to people who know a lot about money. Robbins coached Ray Dalio on success, Dalio coached him on money.

One new storefront for coaching is There you can start to build habits by not “breaking the chain” of successful days, but also connect with people. I’m a coach there, but there are many other good people to help with eating right, meditation, writing, or whatever goal you’re aiming for.

James wonders aloud if “reading replace coaching?” but Howes is skeptical because how important the feedback is. Ramit Sethi lives and breathes feedback (and his interview notes are coming soon).

The interview ends with Howes telling James what’s next, “my intention this year is really to build a distribution network.” Podcasting funnels people into the School of Greatness Academy but he wants to create more automation. James says their mutual friend Molly Hahn has been doodling Buddhas and “is making a six figure income from it” and succeeded in part thanks to the academy.

James has similar thoughts about podcasting (and book writing) funnels:

“I think people have to realize this. Podcasting itself, just like book writing. Book writing might not be a business model for many writers. You might write a book and you’ll make a little money, but not much money, but you have to think of all the other things it gets you.  It gets you an audience. It gets you those true fans. It allows you to have an impact on people. I think podcasting is similar.”

Howes jumped into podcasting because “I had seen the trends in video, people were watching on-demand.” Would this happen with audio? Maybe. “I want to be where the puck’s going to be.” he says. Howes is lucky, acting in a very Gary Vaynerchuk way, who writes that that we don’t need to scoff at new mediums, like podcasting. Rather, “a smart entrepreneur will head over to the platform, see the bikini shots and think ‘How can I do better.’”

If Howes were giving someone advice, he said that you should find something very specific to focus on. James said the new Denzel Washington is the Greatest Actor Of All Time Period podcast might be a good example of that.

Howes next adventure is creating a digital magazine, which he says, “is either going to be a big win or a massive failure.”

One oddity from this episode was that Howes admits he doesn’t read digital magazines or listen to podcasts. James has said the same things about podcasts. For the alternative they might consider “eating their own dog food/using their own lathe.” If nothing else they’ll find gems like this near hour-long tutorial on storytelling from one of the best, Alex Blumberg (episode #70).

First of all, thanks for reading. Those 1900+ words you just read are about an entire book chapter and that you read them all means a lot to me. I’ve got a request, but I think it’s pretty small. Could you pick one of these questions and answer it?

  • If you do a daily idea list, why do you do it?
  • If you don’t do a daily idea list, why not?
  • If you tried to do a daily idea list, what kept you from doing it?

You can comment below, use Twitter (@MikeDariano), or text ((559) 464-5393).


#2 Gary Vaynerchuk

jabcoverIn the second interview of the podcast, Gary Vaynerchuk (@garyveejoined James Altucher to talk about marketing, becoming an expert, and the missed opportunity of a hey girl meme with Altucher rather than Ryan Gosling.*

Vaynerchuk is on to talk about his book, Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook: How to Tell Your Story in a Noisy Social World and tells James that “our content must be contextual to the platform we put it on.” Gary’s argument is that we shouldn’t be creating visual content on a textual medium and we can use Twitter and Facebook better. Before addressing some of his key strategies he says, “we’ve all become one person media companies.”

The thinking behind his new book is that we need to give, give, give, before we ask. From his book:

Jabs are the lightweight pieces of content; games, laughs, appreciation. Right hooks are the calls to action.

Amanda Palmer (episode #82) told James that we have to ask in small ways – and be ready for rejection. When it’s time to give though, you give as best you can. Palmer wrote, “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.” Palmer continues to give, being active on Twitter @AmandaPalmer.

Example, her “ninja gigs” –

Many examples from Jab are from companies but Vaynerchuk wrote the book for everyone to apply, and even though we have fewer resources, we may be better off. In episode #27 Seth Godin told James that when he was the canoeing instructor he had to learn to tell a good story. Godin was competing against sailing and windsurfing instructors who didn’t need to build their skills of storytelling. Their activity sold itself.  Altucher too has said that constraints work to focus his daily idea list, writing on a waiter’s pad leaves only enough room for the key ideas. The writers who have been interviewed apply this idea in a similar way, Ben Mezrich (#84) writes about high stakes, high reward situations. Simon Rich (#83) takes extremes and puts them in familiar situations. Constraints are good.

Apply these ideas to marketing and Vaynerchuk suggests that the different platforms lead to different types of content – and this isn’t new. Take the commercials for food you hear on the radio. It’s no coincidence that those ads run from 11-1 and then again from 4-7. Restaurants have different marketing for radio rather than TV or print and different nudges for different times of day. Vaynerchuk has advice for other places too.

Vaynerchuk on Facebook:

Vaynerchuk tells James that “you can’t use Facebook for constant calls to action.” This is where you can build a conversation with people and give your expertise to them, for free! Ramit Sethi has a private group that I’ve heard great things about because it’s a conversation with people. There’s very little selling (from what i’ve heard, I’m not a member) there but instead a community of people trying to be better.

Vaynerchuk also tells James that you have to have images in your posts. Have. To. In the constant scroll of feeds, it’s images that stand out more than anything else.

Vaynerchuk on Twitter:

The url is underused he says. Finding out what the conversation is about and latching on to that is another tool. Hashtags too are something that people can try to latch on to during the “land grab” of the changing landscape. For example, when this post went out, #nerdiersports was trending, breaking down podcast is pretty nerdy so I chimed in.

Another example of trend jacking would be to find a way to hop on the hey girl meme that took off in 2011 and 2012.


Vaynerchuk on Guest Blogging:

“The singular, most fruitful way to build a personal brand or build awareness of what you do.”

Mark Cuban leveraged this in a sense when he wrote articles about routers. Seth Godin also wrote for others.

Vaynerchuk on Reddit:

Gary says that Redditt is a great place to connect with people, noting that the concept is wonderful. James says it was “the number one way I was able to market and move sales of my book.” (James Altucher AMA, Gary Vaynerchuk AMA)

During the interview it seems like Vaynerchuk has win after win, but he tells James this isn’t quite the case. He immigrated from Russia, and the first 18 years of his life were hard. He was an F and D student.

After that he went to work in his parents liquor store and started a number of successful companies; Wine Library and VaynerMedia in addition to investing in Buddy Media, Facebook, and Twitter. Then he failed again, telling James, “the reason I failed is because I had big eyes.” He took on too many projects and lacked the right support from the right people. Gary says that the people he worked with were good people, but not good matches for what he was bringing to the table. Contrast this with the Brian Koppelman (episode #59) and David Levine (episode #85) interviews. They are an example of a good pairing, where one compliments the other and the whole is greater than the sum of their parts.

When the interview turns back to his book, Vaynerchuk says that some of “the case studies are crap.” Noting that it’s often helpful to learn what not to do, as what to do. Nassim Taleb terms this idea via negativa, the absence of something makes something better. The 3 F’s are an example from Dr. David Katz. who writes that fingers (not smoking), feet (not sitting), and forks (not eating crappy foods) can reduce your risk of death from the riskiest causes of death, by 75%.

In the interview James tells Vaynerchuk “I took your Amtrak idea and applied it to my own stuff and it’s fantastic how my engagement quadrupled on one post.” So what is the Amtrak idea? It’s about using your sawdust – your by-product – to create something of value. For Amtrak, it was tweeting out a pair of empty seats, and asking people where they would go and with who. But it didn’t stop there, Vaynerchuk writes that “when one fan suggested Justin Bieber as his preferred seatmate, Amtrak replied with ‘But where would Selena Gomez go?’ With one sentence, Amtrak reveals that is employees are our contemporaries, people just like us, with their fingers on the pop culture pulse, a sense of humor, and real interest in their customers.”

When Vaynerchuk prepared to start writing Jab, he read the negative reviews on Amazon of his other books, Crush It! and The Thank You Economy. In these negative reviews he found what people were looking for, he tells James that “a lot of people said, this is a great book, but this is a why book, I want a how-to.”

The interview ends with Vaynerchuk saying that his next book might be about parenting (or something else that’s new) and he tells James he’s found a good middle ground by balancing extremes. He says that flip flopping didn’t work:

I’d be working and then I’d need to spend more time (at home) and I’d just leave and cancel some meetings and get home at 5:30…but there was no system…it didn’t work… I now work eight a.m. to midnight. I mean I walk into my apartment at midnight…I’m a workaholic…on the flipside my weekends I’m completely all in with my family now, no looking at the phone answering email.

Vaynerchuk has found one of the Secrets of Happy Families, that happy families aren’t accidental. Bruce Feiler wondered if there was something that happy families were doing different, and there were. One untapped medium – that Vaynerchuk would love – is having a family brand. Stephen Covey applied this thinking to what his family is doing, Feiler writes:

One of Covey’s real innovations was applying a similar process to families. He suggested that families create a family mission statement. “The goal,” he wrote, “is to create a clear, compelling vision of what you and your family are all about.” He said the family mission statement was like the flight plan of an airplane. “Good families— even great families— are off track 90 percent of the time,” he wrote. What makes them good is they have a clear destination in mind, and they have a flight plan to get there. As a result, when they face the inevitable turbulence and human error, they keep coming back to their plan. Covey said creating his own family’s statement was the most transforming event in his family’s history.

James gives the book two thumbs up, saying, “This is not a BS book. This works.”

*Did we really miss this? This interview was release on 1/31/2014 but these notes are from January 2015. Some things likely changed in between recording and now. This episode also has a 20 minute rant from James at the start, you can probably skip it.

As always, let me know what I messed up or what you want to see more of – @mikedariano If you want a weekly summary of everything I write, you can find that here.


#54 Gabriel Weinberg

James Altucher interviewed Gabriel Weinberg (@yegg), CEO of DuckDuckGo to talk about privacy, building technology companies, and his book Traction: A Startup Guide to Getting Customers. For the most authentic – and meta – experience, I used DuckDuckGo as my research tool du jour.

The pair begin the interview with some banter about how Weinberg introduces himself at cocktail parties, even though he tries to avoid it. When it does happen he says, “we’re a search engine like Google.” The DuckDuckGo site there are three tenants to the company where they differ from Google, “real privacy, smarter search, and less clutter.” Altucher goes on to dispute the idea that Weinberg’s service is “cleaner” than Google, but Weinberg answers with a fair point that most services are all about design and it’s a preference thing, drawing the analogy to web browser choices.

Pragmatically, DuckDuckGo works differently than Google, hence the different results. Where as Google indexes pages to find later, DuckDuckGo rather looks at your query and qualifies what you’re asking, and then returns the best page results. If you search for a person like, “Stephen King” you get an excerpt from Wikipedia, then a link to, another Wikipedia link, and then an page. Whereas A search for the movie, “The Shining” returns; Wikipedia, IMDB, and Rotten Tomatoes.


As the interview continues, Weinberg explains a feature of Google search I had never considered:

“One other point.  You mentioned a more nuanced benefit of DuckDuckGo, which is this constant filter bubble, where at Google you know they’re basically showing you links that they think you’re gonna click on but not necessarily the most objective researched links.  And if you’re like you know you’re a democrat or republican, you’re seeing those kind of links and not opposing viewpoints.  I believe that is pernicious, especially in politics, and that is a benefit of DuckDuckGo.  I usually don’t say it ’cause it’s kind of nuance and hard to explain, but since you brought it up, I thought I’d just mention it.”

This was clear to me last Christmas when I kept seeing ads come up for an obscure gift I was researching. How, I wondered, did all these sites have ads for this quirky thing? They didn’t, but they were members of the Google Ad network. I had searched on Google and the ads I saw were specific to that. I had never – naively – considered that my search and browsing were dictating my ads.

It’s not just the specific sites you and I browse, it could be our phone calls too. A Stanford research study found out that they could infer if you were in a relationship, had heart problems, or  wanted to start growing weed in your basement just based on the meta data on your phone. The study authors concluded these things despite not hearing a single piece of conversation.

Back in the interview, Altucher asks Weinberg how he got started in 2007/2008. Weinberg was just coming off a company sale and was building DuckDuckGo piecemeal.

“I had just sold a business and was kind of doing personal projects and did a bunch of projects enhancing Google in ways that I felt Google was lacking, so removing spam, adding these instant answers, and then thought you know what, I could put some of these together and kind of grow my own search engine and see if anyone’s interested.  That was the genesis.”

That genesis has led to DuckDuckGo on the new iPhones.

Weinberg’s book is based on his experiences. As his company grew they found different things moved their stats in different ways. For DuckDuckGo Weinberg said they used; SEO (searching Google for ‘new search engine’), Reddit ads, content marketing, microsites, print, billboards, TV and now enterprise partnerships like the Apple deal. Each of these avenues led to specific company benchmarks.

After the DuckDuckGo birth story, Altucher asks about Names Database and its sale to United Online for about ten million dollars. Weinberg was a co-founder, and he and James make a strong case to never take investors if you can help it. Weinberg mentions a post he wrote about it, Paths to $5M for a startup founder.

The gist of the post is reminding people how values change when you divide by 4 rather than 2. Easy math stuff, but the post was popular, and listed on HN because we like people to tell us obvious things. We know to do more pushups and eat less pizza, but only after hearing a celebrity interview do we get on board.

One sad note, when I searched DuckDuckGo for “the path to five million dollars weinberg” I couldn’t find the link it in the first thirty results. On Google it was number two.

Back in the interview Altucher adds, “I don’t want to say you can start any business, but look, if you can start a business that has a million dollars in EBITDA, you could sell it and make a lot of money for an individual person who’s never had money before.”

This being the second interview that mentions it, I had to DuckDuckGo EBITDA. It stands for, earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization. Without harkening back to your college accounting textbook (I don’t have mine anymore), that figure serves as a proxy for how profitable a company is based on its current working assets. Apple has an EBITA of 10.38, Walmart one of 8.27, and Macy’s one of 6.90.  Each introductory article about it also warned that it can dress up an ugly financial bride.

Throughout the interview Altucher brings the conversation back to the DuckDuckGo policy on privacy, and Weinberg says that they do that and more; but he never makes a solid case for me about what else DuckDuckGo does well. One differentiator is that don’t develop anything but better search. Weinberg says they have 20 people and they focus “almost zero” on their own advertising. Another tactic is their pursuit of the open source framework of DuckDuckGo’s instant answer service. About it Weinberg says;

“we’re hoping to have you know thousands of people out there working on an open source platform developing these answers, and that’s why it’s all open source.  So any user can suggest you know an instant-answer source or idea.  You know it could be money related, some better stock source.  And then you know you could develop it; someone else can come along and development it.”

Toward the end of the interview Weinberg gives some good advice about how he figures out the “inflection points” for DuckDuckGo, and acts accordingly to those markers. Deciding if your primary goal is to get traction or be profitable will lead to the metrics that dictate your actions. In the case of DuckDuckGo that meant first getting the service running well enough that people could switch to it, then it was getting to 100 million searches each month, and now it’s the pursuit of 1% of all searches. Each step leads down chosen path.

Altucher then asks how someone can tell if they should give up, what if they have a path but arriving at each inflection point is taking a lot longer than they hoped. Weinberg first suggests looking for any “bright spots.” This idea has been most popularly explained by Kevin Kelly’s article on 1,000 true fans (even Seth Godin linked to it!) where he writes;

“A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name.”

One tip from Weinberg’s book is guest posting, and both agree that is a great way to build traction for your business. Another is to build and show your expertise through blogging like Bryan Johnson from Braintree. Altucher shares that he has a friend that’s used educational blogging successfully for SMS marketing, and this has been Pat Flynn’s system from the beginning.

A third tip is to use the underutilized area of e-mail marketing. Tim Ferriss, Tim-freakin’-online-self-promotion-experimentation-king-Ferriss, has just started email marketing. Check out his interview with Ramit Sethi for a great breakdown on the what and why.

The remainder of the interview between Altucher and Weinberg is about his book, Traction.

Researching note: The search experience on DuckDuckGo was overall slower and not quite as helpful as Google. I have a pair of theories. The first is that I already basically know where I want to go. For many searchers I’m looking for the Wikipedia article and they do come faster with Google. Other times I need something from my history. The second theory as to why DuckDuckGo didn’t do anything for me was how unfamiliar I was with the experience. It looked and felt different and that slowed me down. Not much, but enough that I noted.

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#27 Seth Godin


Seth Godin joined James Altucher to talk about how he got started telling stories, the power of placebos, and the only two things we should teach kids in school.

James begins the interview by talking about book sales with Godin, telling him that it took all of 1,800 copies to get on the New York Times list. Godin says that’s nice, but for him metrics don’t matter so much as the impact of his books. This is something he echoes in his second interview with James #86, telling him, “I want to be judged by what people who learned from me, teach other people.”

Metrics and media can be trick because they can be warped, like a funhouse mirror distorts what you look like, so too for the media. An early 2015 example was the trend. Ryan Holiday (guest #18) interviewed the creator of the site, Mathew Carpenter to talk about how he worked his way up the media chain, leveraging lazy reporting at one level to get to lazier reporting on another. The full summary is available at the Observer but the lesson is that what you see isn’t always what there is.

Godin’s origin and storytelling epiphany came from his time spent at Algonquin Park in Canada. There, he was the lowly canoe instructor among the cool sailing and windsurfing ones. Only seeing four people an hour, he realized that something had to change, he decided to try two things; put on a show, and let people grow.

“People go where they grow.” – Seth Godin

Godin tells the story of Joanna Gerwin, a camper that resorted to hitting her fellow campers in the face at the first sign of frustration, but once she got in the canoe, once she learned not to fight with the wind, she changed. Godin taught her to “Breath and think and manipulate the tools at your disposal to make the thing you want to have happen happen.”

James attempts to summarize what Godin is saying and doing, wondering if “to really attract people we have to build a stronger story.”

To which Godin replies, yes, almost:

The story is never about the teller. The story is always about the person hearing the story, and that is where selfish marketers always fail. (Click to Tweet)

Godin says that in both Lance Armstrong and Oprah Winfrey we share some part of their and in following them we were following parts of ourselves. Oprah’s appeal isn’t that she’s so wealthy, it’s that she still struggles with her weight, relationships, and other things and so do we. You read these posts and listen to the podcast because in the best summaries, and in the best episodes, you hear something about yourself and want to learn more.

James tells Godin that Purple Cow and Free Prize Inside were “the most important books you’ve written.” At the time James was running an internet company and he needed to find an alternative to traditional advertising. One of the things Godin taught James was to find something cheap, easy, or unique to give to your customers rather than advertising. Old media advertising is dead (at least in its effectiveness). Godin says that recent brands like Lululemon, Chibani, and Beats have all succeed without relying on the “TV industrial complex.”

Let’s test this. What was the number one commercial from the 2014 Super Bowl? The most watched TV event of the year, not that long ago, and you can’t remember the most popular one? I couldn’t remember any. Here’s 10.

Godin noticed that the way advertisers could command the attention of their audience was changing. He built some products for Prodigy, a precursor and access point to the World Wide Web. It was a rival to AOL. There Godin saw that it was expensive to serve up ads and get people to be online. In those early stages were three lessons:

  1. Constraints matter in creation. Godin had to create something that didn’t take up a lot of resources (bandwidth = money). He made it so his game, GUTS, could only be played once a week for a few minutes at a time.
  2. Provide value. People liked playing the trivia game, even when it featured branded advertising. The simplicity of an online trivia game seems small now, but back then it was new, untapped. It was a glimpse of what the connected world might be.
  3. Give high value, low cost rewards. The compensation for winning a week of trivia was your picture on the front page of the site. This cost Godin almost nothing, yet meant a lot for the people playing. This type of thinking applies to other domains of life, even negotiation. In the classic Getting to Yes, Roger Fisher writes that we need to brainstorm ideas so that we can give up low cost ones to get back high value ones.
Only a screen shot of a digitized newspaper had relevant information!
Only a screen shot of a digitized newspaper had relevant information!

Godin eventually sold his company to Yahoo! in 1998 and became vice president of direct marking for a little over a year. In hindsight he tells James that it seemed odd companies could be valued for so much money, but be making so little. The climax came on March 10, 2000 when the NASDAQ peaked before cycling down.

Selling his company to Yahoo! may seem like a stroke of dumb luck, and Godin admits that it was but also says that “getting up to bat” mattered too. He failed many times before and many times after the sale and only hit a homerun because he struck out so often.

Another interesting nugget from this part of the interview was Godin’s comment about how much of “ones identity as an entrepreneur is really tied up in what you do all day. And that identity was stripped.” This happens to many people, from astronauts to retirees. It’s why Scott Adams advocates for system rather than goal thinking:

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— if you reach it at all— feeling as if you were short of your goal.

Yeah, but what happens when we reach our goal, we’re all winners right?

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. Your options are to feel empty and useless, perhaps enjoying the spoils of your success until they bore you, or set new goals and reenter the cycle of permanent presuccess failure.

One of Godin’s systems is to think in terms of stories, and one character is a placebo. Godin and James talk about placebos, which Godin says can “create an environment to make people better.” Godin tells James that an ethical placebo is one where the customer won’t feel violated when they find out that there was a placebo effect. Consider the cookie.


Look at the oatmeal raisin cookie. It looks fine, we wouldn’t eat that cookie because someone has taken a nice bit out of it, but the cookie looks acceptable enough to eat otherwise. Contrast that with the cookie below.

wrappedcookiesThese cookies are wrapped in a bow. They are in focus and you can see the edges have a bit of crunchiness while the centers look like they still retain that gooey goodness. Plus these have dark chocolate and we all know that dark chocolate chips are good for us. These cookies we want. These cookies are a gift.

In his book, Mindless Eating, Dr. Brian Wansink wondered if we valued this second batch of cookies more, so he did an experiment and found that people will pay 3X as much for a brownie served on glass china compared to one served on a paper napkin.

Godin says that if we were all “MIT graduates” maybe stories wouldn’t have this same effect on us.

Toward the end of the interview Godin tells James, “the only two things we should teach kids in school is how to lead and how to solve interesting problems.” This mimics his TEDx Talk and ebook, Stop Stealing Dreams.

The interview ends with James asking about Squidoo, which Godin says they are still experimenting with. As of August 15, 2014, it was acquired by HubPages.

Please let me know about any typos or weak points on Twitter @MikeDariano or (559) 464-5393. If you want more from me, subscribe to my newsletter.


#86 Seth Godin


Seth Godin joined James Altucher to talk about his new book, dancing with fear, and what happens when we want all the upside but none of the down. Godin’s newest book is available at and you can find his other books on Amazon.

James asks Godin why he decided to write this book, Seth tells him

This book is the most direct, brave testament I could come up with about what is holding us back. And I think what is holding us back is not access to tools or audience anymore. I think what’s holding us back is the voice in our head. (Click to Tweet)

Godin explains that whether it was 1500 or 50 years ago, if you wanted to do your craft you had to do it in your city. You had to know the right people. There were geographical and structural limits that restricted people from doing what they wanted. Those limits are largely gone.

Now we have limiting beliefs – Godin calls them “cultural pollution” – of things that are not true. School for example, he tells James, is an antiquated idea and this thesis is being defended in places beyond Godin’s ebook, Stop Stealing Dreams. There is the Hackschooling TEDx Talk by Logan Laplante who designs his own education. This is a growing movement of “free range schooling” that Ben Hewitt explained in Outside Magazine. Less extreme examples are small academies like, The Iron Yard in the Southest part of the United States. They offer a three-month course that gets people junior-level programming experience and they help you get a job. A three month coding school is a world away from a degree in computer science – as James often points out. We can read nobel prize winning scientist (even economists!) and learn anything we want online.

So what’s stopping us?

Godin implies that it’s an ethos we carry around with us, a cape we think we need even though the weather is mild. Godin says that in 1974 he was abandoned in downtown Cleveland by a ship captain, “with no money” and had to find his way to the airport. He got to the airport, called his parents, and arranged a flight for the next day. That next morning his mom picks him up from the airport and takes him to school! This was just an adventure because that’s what Godin had been taught it was. He was 14. Molly Shannon did him one better when she was 12.

Shannon, (originating in Cleveland rather than ending up there) sneaked onto a flight for New York City by convincing the flight attendant that her family was on board and she was just catching up with them. She told Marc Maron:

Molly Shannon

Well, again, because I had a crazy childhood, we called my dad, and we were like, we did it! And he was like, oh God! Molly! Oh, jeez, well, try to– so, basically, he couldn’t–

Marc Maron

Try to what?

Molly Shannon

He didn’t know what to do. He said, try to see if you can stay– go find a hotel that you can stay in, and me and Mary– my sister– we’ll come meet you. We’ll drive there.But basically, we didn’t have that much. We just had our ballet bags and a little bit of cash. So we went to a diner, and we dined and dashed, and we stole things. We were like little con artists.

Marc Maron

Wait, did you actually make it to the city?

Molly Shannon

We made it to the city. I was like, how do you get to Rockefeller Center? Because I had just seen TV specials.

Marc Maron

Nobody said, are you girls lost? Nothing like that?

Molly Shannon

No. Nothing. So we did try to go to hotels, and my dad would call and ask, could they just stay there until we get there? And none of the hotels wanted to be responsible. So he was like, all right. You’ve gotta come home. And he was like, but I’m not paying for it, so try to hop on one on the way back. So we tried to hop on many planes, but the flights were all so crowded. So we ended up having to have him pay for it, and he made us pay it all back with our babysitting money. The end.

Marc Maron

So that was the big punishment?

Molly Shannon

Yeah, that was– there was no punishment.

Marc Maron

Well, no, I know. I mean, clearly.

Molly Shannon

He loved that kind of stuff. Like I said, he was wild.

Economist Daniel Kahneman might chime in to say that we need these sorts of experiences to build up our library of possible connections. Our brains, he writes, are terribly bad about things we don’t know. He terms it, What You See Is All There Is (wysiats). If your brain solves a problem one way, following the path A-B-C, then it rarely even considers that happened if instead you go D-E-F, much less M-N-O, but these options often exist.

The problem of structured confinement is that it teaches us not to be resourceful, to find the other paths. A passive situation where the teacher provides you with what you need to learn, and how to learn it misses out on other skills. This handholding may actually be holding us back. Researcher Angela Duckworth writes about the value of “grit.” From Wikipedia:

Grit is conceptualized as a stable trait that does not require immediate positive feedback.[3] Individuals high in grit are able to maintain their determination and motivation over long periods despite experiences with failure and adversity. Their passion and commitment towards the long-term objective is the overriding factor that provides the stamina required to “stay the course” amid challenges and set-backs. Essentially, the grittier person is focused on winning the marathon, not the sprint.

Beyond the academic examples are a list of real-world successes that show street smarts is just as valuable as book smarts. Mark Cuban for example failed at two businesses in Indiana before being fired from his first job in Texas. He bounced back by reading user manuals for networks and learning the things very few people knew about. Godin took this same tact of industry knowledge, writing about the pitfalls of Yahoo before Yahoo bought his startup. Each experience built up their respective skills

Altucher and Godin turn the conversation to our fears, to which Godin says, “marketing is everything…and the reason your marketing sucks is because you’re afraid.

He echoes an idea from Tony Robbins, that we need to be thirsty before we go get a drink of water. Robbins, a guest in episode #62 writes that things have to escalate to the point where the pain from the status quo outweighs the pain from change. To have this change Godin says we have to get out of our comfort zone, saying, “change happens when people take the blame but giveaway the credit.”

We resist this because we don’t want “skin the the game.” Past guest Nassim Taleb writes that you have to have something on the line to truly understand things.

The largest fragilizer of society, and greatest generator of crises, absence of “skin in the game.” Some become antifragile at the expense of others by getting the upside (or gains) from volatility, variations, and disorder and exposing others to the downside risks of losses or harm. And such antifragility-at-the-cost-of-fragility-of-others is hidden – given the blindness to antifragility by the Soviet-Harvard intellectual circles, this asymmetry is rarely identified and (so far) never taught.

Taleb and Godin both advocate a “skin the game” approach, because you have to look down over the chasm you’re crossing and bend to the risk to really know what crossing the chasm is like.

One tangible example is Rejection Therapy, the game. Created by Jason Comely, who was tired of being afraid of rejection, it’s a set of cards that challenge people to leave their comfort zone. Godin tells James his own idea. Practice giving away a $5 for a $1.

Really. Godin tells James that it’s a riskless transaction for everyone, but don’t worry about going broke. On his email list James writes:

“So I did this. I went up to everyone I saw and I said, “here is a $5 bill.Can I give you this bill in exchange for a $1 bill.” It was hard to do this. I’m shy so it’s hard to talk to strangers. Also, I had this natural reflex that I didn’t want a total stranger who I would never see again to think I was weird.“

Most people said no. But what if the stakes were larger, what if instead of a five it was a fifty and there were no strings attached. When Dan Ariely did this research he found that only 20% of people took a free fifty and only 1% took a free one dollar bill.

Godin calls this a dance with fear, and it’s one we apparently never get over. People afraid of giving and people afraid of taking.

If you want some inspiration (for anything), check out Ze Frank’s “An Invocation for Beginnings”

For you and me and it could be a blog. Godin says that “there are all these places we can go to dance with fear” and about blogging, “if you’re speaking the truth, your truth, every single day, on schedule. You will learn to dance with fear.”

At this point in the conversation, (36:30 if you want to find it) James asks how people can do this. Godin gives a specific and manageable answer, telling James, “contributing to a community you care about is work worth doing.” Take that time you spend watching TV and create a blog he says. Write about anything, even curling if that’s your thing and write about it every day. Maybe sell vintage things on ETSY, join a Facebook group, dive into the comments. Spend just three hours a week on it. But you and I don’t have three hours a week you say, ah, but you probably do. Laura Vanderkam wrote that we all usually overestimate the time we have in life. Add up a 50 hour a week job and assume you get 8 hours of sleep on average each night. That leaves almost 9 hours each day to spend on the things that bring you joy in life.

Godin suggests that blogging – and dancing with fear – is building something inside of you. You’re getting ideas, clarifying thoughts, and taking risks. You’re thinking about problems and solutions and this will work its way into all the domains of your life like a termite, only this bug is tearing down the walls that kept you blocked.

When asked about his legacy, Godin says, “I want to be judged by what people who learned from me teach other people.”

He realizes that it doesn’t take much to fade from the conversation, mentioning he listened to Zig Ziglar the night before this interview. If you like Godin, Altucher or Tony Robbins you will like Ziglar. Here’ a handful of YouTube clips, all good.

This idea of fading isn’t new, in fact it’s quote old. Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius gave wise counsel about keeping things in perspective:

Survey the records of other eras. And see how many others gave their all and soon died and decomposed into the elements that formed them. But most of all, run through the list of those you knew yourself. Those who worked in vain, who failed to do what they should have – what they should have remained fixed on and found satisfaction in. A key point to bear in mind: The value of attentiveness varies in proportion to its object. You’re better off not giving the small things more time than they deserve.

He remembered that we all die and keeping that in perspective makes a difference.

Godin’s conversation ends with James asking for book suggestions that might inspire someone “to take their turn.” A few from the list with Godin’s thoughts:

Godin learned an important lesson from Tom Peters, “if I got one ideas out of a book that changes my life, it’s a bargain.” To go along with this, remember that the true cost of a book isn’t the financial cost, it’s the opportunity it cost. There are too many good books (and opportunities) to read to spend time with the bad ones.

Let me know what I flubbed, fumbled, or flummoxed on Twitter, @MikeDariano or via text, (559) 464-5393.

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#54 Jimmy Wales

"Wikimedia Conference 2013 - board meeting 10" by Niccolò Caranti - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.James Altucher interviewed Jimmy Wales (@Jimmy_Wales) to talk about his history and daily role as the co-founder of Wikipedia, gamification, and how Wikipedia might expand.

Wales joined Altucher after listening to a session on women leadership at the UN. He mentions some charitable work he heard about, and said that this charity is a “global issue that everybody can get behind.”

No doubt that is true, but do you ever wonder what the best ways to spend charity money? Well, it turns out the Freakonomics team did, and published an episode recently called, “Fixing the World, Bang-for-the-Buck Edition”. The episode features an interview with Bjørn Lomborg who runs the Copenhagen Consensus Center which brings “together lots of economists and seven Nobel Laureates to think about where do we spend money and do the most good per dollar spent.” Podcast host Stephen Dubner asks about which of the many (many!) aims of the UN prove to be the most desirable after a cost-benefit analysis, and Lomborg says, “mostly it needs to be something that we know how to do and we know how to do fairly cheaply and it will do a lot of good.” One example he shares is to get malnourishment to 2 or 3% (rather than “ending” as the UN phrases it). This, Lomborg says, has a big pay off. The younger the child, the more the effect, and you only need about $96 per child. If kids are fed better, their brains develop more, they stay in school longer, and so on. The interview is interesting throughout and Lomborg has given a TED Talk.

Back to the interview, Altucher mentions that Wikipedia is one of the largest sites in the world. According to Alexa it trails only Google, Facebook, YouTube, Yahoo, and Baidu. True to form, and a question I wished more people asked, Altucher inquires about Wale’s origin story. Wales is from Huntsville Alabama where he grew up to the sound of the Saturn V rockets, where “sometimes the windows would rattle from the rockets going by.”

Wales goes on to talk about growing up in Huntsville and mentions that it was different from the rest of Alabama, and maybe not what most people (me included) think. On my first pass, this comments about the diversity in Huntsville slipped by me and I made nothing of it, but the story is so much richer than that. It turns out that the history of the Saturn V rocket really begins with Operation Paperclip, the program which brought Nazi and German scientists to America. Of course it wasn’t that easy, President Truman had to be duped after ordering that no one with Nazi affiliations would be allowed in the country. Consequently the Joint Intelligence Objectives Agency created new employment and biographies for the scientists. A cursory glance at Wikipedia doesn’t suggest that any of these scientists were in Huntsville, but it’s an interesting vein no less. There was also the book, Operation Paperclip released earlier this year. It’s on my to-read list now.

Part of the ethos of Wikipedia comes from the “southern hospitality” that Wales grew up with and he says that he’s happy to make money, but with Wikipedia “it’s more like an artistic statement” and he’s pleased that rather than written by the winners, history is now written by everyone.

Part of Wikipedia’s history were early contributors, one of who Wales said was great in certain areas of the site, but when he got to Israel-Palestine issues he “couldn’t control himself.”  Nassim Taleb (a past Altucher guest) writes about this attitude Antifragile. Taleb terms this “domain dependence,” where we are able to see solutions in one area but not transfer them to another. Altucher solves this by the less elevated term, idea sex.

For disputes, Wales says that most people are akin to a priest and personal rights person coming to a compromise of agreeing to disagree, so long as all the facts are there. Wales says the hardest people to get to settle down are those least convinced of their ideas, because they are most afraid of having their minds changed. This, as Wales points out, brings cognitive dissonance, the mental equivalent of a rock in your shoe.

Cognitive dissonance is the mental stress we have while holding two contradictory beliefs. We can’t both like Wal Mart and the environment so we change our thinking to align with one. If however, we hear a story about how Wal Mart’s advanced logistics reduces transportation pollution, we can again hold both beliefs.

The most famous – or enjoyable – story of rectifying cognitive dissonance is the Ben Franklin effect. Dave McRaney does a much better job with the story, but the tl:dr version is that Franklin had an adversary he needed to turn into an ally. To do so he asked to borrow a rare book the man owned, the man acquiesced, lent the book, and then became Franklin’s friend. The theory goes that because this man lent the book to Franklin, and he only lends books to friends, that Franklin must be a friend. We don’t like the state of dissonance and avoid it, on Wikipedia or elsewhere.

Back in the interview Altucher asks what contributed to the initial viralness of Wikipedia. Wales says that from the start, the site was useful and a good use of a person’s time. Even only a single article about a polar bear would be useful to someone needing to know about polar bears. The second part was a feeling of goodwill that people can “geek out” on.

Wales says he has  “A lot of beef with what goes on under the title of gamification” in part because it doesn’t work well on him. I agree, gamification done poorly is like a lot of other things done poorly, not good. Good gamification though is something that enhances the experience. In his book, For The Win, How Game Thinking Can Revolutionize Your Business, Kevin Werbach writes that gamification is using game elements and game-design techniques in non game settings. For Professor Werbach this means finding a good mesh between game “stuff” and your business “stuff.” Even though he admits gamification doesn’t work on him, Wales admits it would be cool to be a mayor on Foursquare. That’s good game integration. It’s not just leaderboards, badges, and points. Done well it’s much more psychologically rich than that.

Altucher and Wales turn the conversation to what numbers generally say about us and Wales asks the question, “what if you went to work with a number?”  If you think the days of grades, GPA, and SAT scores are behind you, then you aren’t applying for a job at Salesforce, who in 2012 listed a Klout score of 35 or higher as “desirable.” I found this out from the fantastic Dataclysm by Christian Rudder. The book is a combination of Malcolm Gladwell and John Stewart. Rudder’s guess is that beyond past experience we give more through our public tweets and posts. These will be hashed, bashed, and smashed into a single number. Greater than 80 and you’re hired.

While Salesforce is asking for numbers, Tyler Cowen is projecting their arrival in all fields. Klout may serve as a good indicator for Salesforce but Cowen suggest all service providers will have a ranking. It may be Yelp style reviews for everything from doctors to accountants to school district, building, grade, and teacher scores. Whatever number you end up with, make sure you look out for number one.

Wales mentions he is active on Quora where his profile says is a “very small” investor. There he answers questions, like “how did Jimmy Wales learn to code and what is the sequence in which he learned languages?” To which he replies that he’s not a good programmer but began in Basic and most recently learned some Ruby. Some of his other answers include thoughts on Che Guevara, great shows with horrible endings, and how to hack (or not) sleep.

Altucher asks about what the most intense battles on Wikipedia are, and I expected something big. Anything short of a possible cause for World War III would surprise me, and I was surprised. Wales said that recently there was a “big debate about emdash versus dash.” Another recent issue was that the rivers in Poland, which are known by their German names, are now being referred to by their Polish names. How Wikipedia handles this change is something he has been working on.

Altucher then brings up a point about people optimizing their sites for Wikipedia. He’s brought this idea up in past podcast episodes, suggesting the education model if a framework were to exist and Wales is open to the idea, to some extent. “On that first point is something we struggle with a lot. Because there is a lot of that type of behavior that goes on that is quite unethical. Including a lot of lying and pretending to be someone you’re not.”

An ethical suggestion that Wales has is to just start by taking good photos of your staff and releasing them under the Creative Commons guidelines and pinging Wikipedia about them. Here for example is Altucher’s Wikipedia photo.

Wales says that most of the people in the business of helping others with Wikipedia are “selling snake oil” and all you need to really do is email Wikipedia and say “hey there is something wrong with my entry.”

To Altucher’s point about Wikipedia and MOOC, Wales envisions something where Wikipedia entries serve as the reading to be prepared for the lecture and caught up to speed and then watch the video. This doesn’t exist verbatim, but Wikipedia does have articles part of a series.

Wales thinks the growth for Wikipedia will come in non-English speaking language. When the site began it was 100% in English but now 4.5 million pages of the 30 million total pages are in English.

Altucher asks about what the next open-source area will be. According to Jane McGonigal and her book, Reality is Broken, it’ll look a lot like Wikipedia. McGonigal makes the case that the online world does a lot of things better than the real world and – despite our domain dependence – we should take those ideas and apply them there. In Reality is Broken she writes about Wikipedia and the success it’s had. Another example McGonigal gives is the 2009 investigation of members of parliament and their illegal expense claims. The problem with the situation was that there were over 450,000 documents so the Guardian set up a crowdsourcing situation. This “game” led to 28 members of parliament resigned or declared their intention to resign. Another crowdsourcing example was in 2009 when DARPA launched ten red weather balloons in unannounced US locations and offered a $40,000 prize to the first team that could identify the locations. It took a team from MIT less than nine hours to find them all. Their secret, was a social network of only about 5,000 people. From entries on Saturn V rockets to research for rocket scientists, crowdsourcing has a bright future.

Wales seems pretty comfortable in Facebook serving some of the gaps that open source projects may have been part of. For example, he has no problem with Facebook being a login option rather than OpenID.  But he goes on to say, “When I think of that question, what are the next things that can be done in an open source way, one of the ones I’m really interested in is production of video, particularly animation.” Can a community of people who can write, draw, and produce a video get together to make something that rivals Pixar? It hasn’t been done yet but Wales is hopeful.

Wales says that the systems for Wikipedia existed in 1996 but it took 6 years for the social constructs to come through so people would work together to create it. All the pieces for making a movie to rival Pixar are there, but not how the people will do it. For example, who gets the rights, the money, and so on? A current example of this is Slender Man.

Slender Man as created by “Victor Surge” who added the character and captions to a pair of photos. Things were well and good in the community from inception in  2009 until 2010 when “Surge” registered a copyright but a third party “holds the options to any adaptations into other media, including film and television.” Basically, you can make Slender Man art, but not money. This is the next hurdle.

Before he has to go, Wales turns the table on Altucher asking him about the waiter’s pad he has in front of him. Like in other instances, he explains that the waiter’s pad serves to constrain what he can write, leaving room for only the important stuff and focusing his thinking on just that.

Wales wraps the interview by telling Altucher he is working on The People’s Operator; where 10% of your phone bill goes to the cause of your choice and 25% of the company’s profits to charity.

Thanks for reading. This post took 4 hours for the listening, writing, and direct research. If you like what you read and would like to make a donation, you can do so here.

This post was originally published on another platform and as moving to this one.


#85 David Levien

David Levien joined James Altucher to talk about writing, when you’ve done enough research for a story, and the benefits of small actions over time. David has a new book, Signature Kill, which follows Frank Behr who was in City of the Sun which James says “was great.”

The interview begins with David noting to James that his name is pronounced as “le-vean,” saying the pronunciation was “an Ellis Island thing.” Past guest Mark Cuban had the same experiences, his grandfather immigrating as a Chabenisky but changing his name to Cuban.*

In the interview David tells James that his plan always was to become a novelist and filmmaker and after years of working on projects like Rounders, Oceans Thirteen, and (one of my favorites) Runaway Jury he wanted to get back into writing. The only problem was that writing takes time.

When David first moved out to Hollywood he tried to be a writer, but says it was hard. He was working in the film industry, trying to write screenplays, but between crazy hours work and the California lifestyle it wasn’t happening.  “When you’re young, you’re not writing as much as you should. You’re hanging out, you’re partying.”

A lot of us have this problem. Past guest Gary Vaynerchuk has a good five minute video to tell you “the most important word ever.”

This time of being in the room may not have directly advanced his writing career, but at least he was in the room. Carol Leifer (#66) says this is one of the best ways to start.

As he built experience, David was also building up some angst. Like plaque in arteries slowly constricts blood flow, he felt like things weren’t moving forward like they should. I “needed to do something drastic” he tells James, “so I quit.” This can be scary, stepping into the unknown, but sometimes we have to do it. Past guest Ryan Holiday (#18) wrote much the same thing when he dropped out of school to work with Robert Greene, “I was petrified of making a mistake. But then I made the leap.”

Levien went to New York and hunkered down on his writing project, turning out something that was “confused garbage” but was done. This act of finishing was a big deal, Levien saying it was “empowering.” Steven Pressfield writes that finishing is even more important, “finishing is the critical part of any project. If we can’t finish, all our work is for nothing.”

Eventually David teamed up with long time friend, Brian Koppelman (#59) to start writing together. David says he had an idea about what made a good screenplay, telling James that when he was Hollywood he read early drafts of Quentin Tarantino’s work and was blown away. Tarantino he says was “a totally unique voice” who rather than produce another Rom Com derivative was creating new things. Tarantino was applying 10X thinking.

10X thinking is what Nassim Taleb leveraged (he calls it asymmetrical thinking) and more recently Planet Money did an episode about finding arbitrage in a stock. In 2010 an investment fund was looking for other investments and began poking around a Chinese company with a Princeton Review business model; coach students on entrance exams.

There was just one problem. Their website sold no products and their building was vacant. That fund shorted the stock and make a lot of money.10X thinking.**

wonkamadeappTim Ferriss talked about 10X thinking in an episode with Dr. Peter Diamandis who encouraged people to not create another photo sharing, social media, pictures of your food app. Diamandis told Ferriss that people should find something that can change the world.

Returning to the interview, James asks David about the themes of his writing. James has been digging around for themes in a lot of his interviews with writers. He confronted Simon Rich (#83) with the idea that he puts absurd ideas in normal circumstances, to which Rich copped “that’s my whole gimmick.” With Ben Mezrich (#84) he brought up this idea too, noting that he finds areas “where high stakes meet gray areas.” With David he doesn’t get as clean an answer, more the macro idea to create something unique and put characters in a challenging situation. Stephen King gives a more descriptive answer, writing that starting with a strong situation, “renders the whole question of plot a moot point…the most interesting situations can usually be expressed as a What-if question.”

Not a short amount of the conversation is about poker and the Mayfair club but one thing to note was the confluence of ideas that it took to make poker poplar. Watching poker pre-2002 was like watching an NFL game a week later. Part of the problem was no hole card camera. Poker until that point was more of a summary of games and rarely a final table. New camera technology let ESPN broadcast tables as they were live. The people watching on TV finally were able to know more than the players at the table.

David says that he and Brian spent a lot of time at the Mayfair club “filling the bucket” of research before they were ready to make the movie. Take this scene from Rounders, David says they “literally saw Phil Hellmuth do this.”

After collecting everything they needed, David and Brian retreated to write the story. Good material combined with Hollywood connections sounded like a solid formula. Except it wasn’t. Despite his connections, there were no nibbles on the script.

At this time David says, “circuitously my book into a literary agent’s hands” who offered to read over it (remember that “confused garbage”, well he spent years rewriting it). A week later the agent got back to David and said he could probably sell the book. David and Brian had just finished Rounder and David told the agent that he had another project that maybe the guy could also look over, which he did. He came back to David and Brian and said, “I can sell this faster.”

People initially didn’t want to buy Rounders because it was sedentary and different. The people writing it (Levien and Koppelman) were thinking in a 10X way, the people buying it has 2X thinking. Eventually it got sold and one of the lessons David learned during this and other writing adventures was that :

In a very short amount of time per day, as long as you stick to it in a very dogged manner, you can can end up with a finished piece of work.

But this is hard because:

It seems brutal when you’re toiling in obscurity. (Tweet This)

Rounders came out in 1998 and it led to other movies for Levien, most notably Oceans 13 where he says the filming was “just like Entourage.”

After all the movies he felt a pull to get back to writing, telling James, “when you’re doing something creative, you have to find different ways to say fresh.” David needed to rest one creativity muscle and train another.

James has – aware of it or not – been giving creativity advice in the form of idea muscle training.  In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes, “creativity is associative memory that works exceptionally well.” This happens because, in Kahneman’s words, of our System 1 thinking. System 1 can do a lot of stuff, like being creative, but it does not like to expend any extra energy. As such, it pulls together the easiest connections available. You know the Super Bowl is coming up, so finish this word: ___ball.

What did you say? I’ll note my guess at the end, but if it was something affiliated with the game that as your System 1 answering the question and moving along to this paragraph.*** What happened in our mental attic was that you were primed to think about a certain sport, and because that was present in your mind, you drew one word for the blank rather than another.

This all comes back to idea lists, idea sex, and the daily practice because in those actions we build up the connections our System 1 can make. It’s like exploring the woods and forming paths between the trees so that the next time we are in the woods we can navigate quite easily.

During his return to novel writing, David listened to Personal Power by Tony Robbins to help jump start his creativity. In his interview Koppelman mentions Tony Robbins and both used The Artist’s Way too.

For David, a moment of enlightenment occurred when he discovered that his commute into the city was a prime time to write, so instead of driving he hopped on the train and began writing. “Form followed function” and eventually he ended up with a book with tight chapters and quick pacing. David had to fight resistance to not write though, and resistance is tough. Steven Pressfield coined the term and writes:

Most of us have two lives. The life we live and the unlived life within us. Between the two stands Resistance.. Resistance is the most toxic force on the planet. It is the root of more unhappiness than poverty, disease, and erectile dysfunction. To yield to Resistance deforms our spirit. It stunts us and makes us less than we are and were born to be.

David uses an app metaphor, he had to do was “nudge the ball along.” When Pressfield writes about Resistance the ball is at rest and the laws of physics apply to it, keeping the ball at rest until an outside force acts on it. David broke Resistance with a nudge. His story had been simmering a long time, but not until he had his first child did he feel ready to write it. Stephen King says that these are the best ideas, commenting that he doesn’t record ideas and trusting the good ones to stick around.

The end of the interview is all about writing and telling stories, something that David also says differs between visual scenes and the written word. “A movie has to be on rails” he tells James, whereas a book can explore something, whether it’s 200 or 800 pages. Simon Rich told James the same thing, “a book can just be” and Alex Blumberg (#84) found that even the middle ground of radio can’t translate the same way and making TV “is such a gigantic pain in the ass.”

David and James wonder how franchise crime writers do it, turning out a book every year. Before drafting these notes I had no idea, but wow was I missing out. This article on Grantland about Lee Child was incredibly rich. To get a book done every year – to which he is “never late” –  Child “writes from noon until six or seven p.m. During that period, he drinks around 30 cups of coffee, eats stingily, and chain-smokes.”

The other big bright name on the bottom of the cover is James Patterson who has a different strategy, he has a stable.  In an interview with The Daily Beast, Patterson says that he writes an outline which a co-writer then contributes to. After that, the co-worker sends his work over every few weeks and Patterson decides, “This is terrific, I love the way it’s going,” or “We’ve come off the tracks somehow.”

The interview ends with the guys talking about how TV has changed and gotten more complex. There is actually a book about this idea – and one that predicated Lost and The Wire – Everything Bad is Good For You. If you need to make the case that Halo is good for you, this is the book. No need if you watch Parks and Rec, that show is good for everyone.


Part of what makes these shows great is the extra large arcs that they have. David is currently working on a concept for Showtime, and while he hasn’t written them out, he tells James that they have an idea about where the show might go. Craig Turk, showrunner of The Good Wife talks about the different arc they have:

Here’s what the first season looks like, and here’s what the second seasons looks like, and here’s what season five looks like. Because ideally when you sell a television show, they want to know they’re going to get a hundred episodes out of it and get to syndication. So, you want an idea that sort of, you know, that’s potentially that rich. I don’t think in the history of television it has ever gone that smoothly, and I’ll give you an example. At the beginning of the year we sketched out, what we’ll do, what’s the season about? Then we’ll do arcs for characters, and then we’ll break it down to episodes. And we’ll have ideas for cases that we want to do, things we read in the newspaper, things that, you know, we saw on Colbert, anything that sort of strikes you as something that would be interesting and rich as a takeoff point.

Thanks for reading. Let me know what I missed, muffed, or mistook, @MikeDariano.

* This is an interesting idea, if you have good information about why, how, and other details about people switching names when immigrating I would appreciate knowing about it.

** Parts of the Tony Robbins (#62) book focus on the financial angles of 10X thinking.

*** Football! That was a crappy experiment if you got anything but that.