#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.

thewireonparks

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.

#84 Ben Mezrich

mezrichBen Mezrich (@benmezrich) joined James Altucher to talk about writing, infectious disease, and the real information highway (it’s not the internet, but contains some of the same content). Mezrich has a new book out, Q, “basically it’s about quarantine law and what happened if a crazy Ebola like disease hit New York.”

Mezrich has an exciting bibliography, most notably Accidental Billionaires and Bringing Down the House. I remember reading Bringing Down when I was in college and it nearly brought me to create my own gambling ring, which I was glad I didn’t. Not only was I not as smart as the MIT students – who are the subject of the book – but my constitution to walk through an airport with $200,000 taped to my body was much lower. But it was for Mezrich too. In an excerpt that appeared in Wired when the book was released he writes:

I try to control my breathing as I stroll through Logan International Airport. Terminal C is buzzing and chaotic, an over-air-conditioned hive of college students escaping Boston for a long weekend. I am dressed like everyone else: baggy jeans, baseball hat, scuffed sneakers. But in my mind, I have as much chance of blending in as a radioactive circus clown. There’s enough money hidden under my clothes to buy a two-bedroom condo. And to top it off, there’s $100,000 worth of yellow plastic casino chips jammed into the backpack slung over my right shoulder.

Mezrich tells Altucher that part of the reason he writes books that translate so easily to Hollywood movies is that he’s drawn that those ideas. He says that Gonzo Journalism has always appealed to him since reading Hunter S. Thompson and he says, “that’s how I wanted to write it.” To pursue this style means dealing with the critics; of which there are many. Mezrich’s books read fast – like I suspect he wants – but they also read loose. Know this when you read his work.

But Mezrich isn’t bothered by the criticism. He tells James, “there will be people who debate different pages in it (his books), but overall the people who were in it will say this is their story.” He also doesn’t worry about falling outside of the traditional non-fiction styles, saying, “non-fiction doesn’t need to be written in a single way.”

Mezrich tells James that it took two years of solid writing, 190 rejection slips, and 9 mediocre novels before he signed his first book advance. Then in 2003 he wrote Bringing Down the House: The Inside Story of Six MIT Students Who Took Vegas for Millions, and everything changed. He was on the TODAY show, and in Playboy and Wired and things just took off. Each printing of 1,000 books sold out and he estimates 3 million copies have sold.

Altucher asks him why he didn’t give up at 180 rejections and Mezrich said he was just kind of used to rejection in other areas of his life and he just wanted to be a writer. Even after sketching out other careers, he still planned on how he could write.

A bit of delusional thinking goes a long way in getting things done. Past guest Alex Blumberg (#70) told Altucher much the same thing, that you have to be “stupidly optimistic” and “a little self-delusional.” If you’re still afraid of the rejection part, don’t worry, there’s a game for that. Jason Comely created rejection therapy, the game. You can get his prompts – ask a stranger for gum – to practice getting rejected and eventually he says it won’t bother you. Hear Jason tell his story on the Invisibilia podcast. Altucher himself has a system for dealing with rejection, writing an entire section in Choose Yourself and saying, “Every day, in all aspects of our lives, we are rejected. Rejection is probably the most powerful force in our lives.”

Mezrich began researching Q during the SARS epidemic when he began thinking about who might be the front line of defense in an outbreak. He tells James that it won’t be doctors or nurses, but rather emergency responders. He also says that quarantine laws are “almost unlimited.” The recent case of Nurse Hickox in Maine is the modern example, but there is a precedent for lockdown. In the 1900’s  you wanted to avoid Typhoid Mary who infect 53 people and was forcibly quarantined. Mezrich mentions that Cuba quarantined their AIDS patients in the 1980’s to great success – and he’s right. A National Institute of Health article reports “Cuba’s national AIDS program is the most successful in the world based solely on statistics, and this country also has what many believe is the most interesting program in the world.” It’s not a clear victory because for eight years the government sent all positive HIV cases to the Santiago de Las Vegas AIDS Sanatorium – and kept them there.

Mezrich says this is a big problem because “If you interview virologists and infectious disease specialists, every single one of them says it’s not if but when.” Past guest Nassim Taleb had some interesting thoughts about nature (GMO’s rather than infectious diseases but both include similar themes) in a recent interview at EconTalk.

bluehonda

When Mezrich dives into the details about contagion Altucher asks if this is just the like noticing a blue Honda. Once you buy one, you see them everywhere.

This gem of observation is the availability heuristic, and it is pervasive – when you know to look for it. First, in the context of the interview, Altucher wonders if some of the medical scares we see are a result of media manipulation fueling the availability. For example, which is more deadly, the seasonal flu or Ebola?*  The flu, more than 6 times as many people die from the flu in the United States alone than die worldwide from Ebola. We don’t know this difference because we don’t hear about it. The Freakonomics podcast has a great episode on this and it’s worth listening to just to hear about the connection between Osama Bin Laden and Polio.

Mezrich’s thinking is that Ebola isn’t great, but isn’t dangerous. Respiratory infections on the other hand will be pandemics. He says to look at the seasonal flu and how a small mutation has made it a national news story and while a person could walk around New York City (as one did) with Ebola, a respiratory infection is more likely to spread.

Toward the end of the interview Altucher suggests that Mezrich has a certain style in his writing, welding the high stakes to gray area decisions and Mezrich says this sounds about right. A similar moment occurred in episode #83 with Simon Rich when James noticed that his writing is themed around the absurd meeting the normal. (Do watch the clip for Rich’s new show to see what this means).

Mezrich tells James that The Sun also Rises was his favorite book but that he wrote Q as a fictional book because he “wanted to write something like Fahrenheit 451.” It took time for him to find his own voice, saying he read Bright Lights, Big City “hundreds of times” and when he started out he wanted to be Jay McInerney. This “almost ruined my career” he tells James. This is not uncommon.

Stephen King addresses this in his wonderful book, On Writing, where he writes:

Stylistic imitation is one thing, a perfectly honorable way to get started as a writer (and impossible to avoid, really; some sort of imitation marks each new stage of a writer’s development), but one cannot imitate a writer’s approach to a particular genre, no matter how simple what that writer is doing may seem. You can’t aim a book like a cruise missile, in other other words.”**

Compared to interviews with other writers, this one is notably shorter on talk about writing. One specific exception is when Altucher notes that Mezrich often uses short sentences, to which Mezrich notes that it fits his style of action. This isn’t accidental, it’s literally a writing tool. Tool #18 to be exact. Roy Peter Clark writes about writing tools and suggests that the short sentence serves to do three things; simplify, create suspense, or focus on the emotional truth. Clark writes, “the writer controls the pace for the reader, slow or fast or in between, and uses sentences of different lengths to create the music, the rhythm of the story.”

The conversation nearly ends when the pair talk about the sewer system as the real information highway. I’m not surprised Altucher jumps on this idea as he’s mentioned more than once a smart toilet that gives biometric feedback. Thankfully they end talking about Mezrich’s upcoming book, Once Upon a Time in Russia. Mezrich says it’s “The true story of this battle between oligarchs and this incredible rise of wealth. And Putin.” Seven of the wealthiest men in Russia put a “low-level KGB agent” into power as their puppet but the puppet pulls down the strings. You can preorder Once Upon a Time in Russia (but have your salt ready).

* Now, if you guessed correctly you circumvented a different logical fallacy, system 1 and 2 thinking. If you’ve read this note and this sounds interesting then your next book should be Thinking Fast and Slow which explores all this and more.

**What is so great about that King quote is that he uses the analogy of a cruise missile and then uses the example of Tom Clancy. If you have any interest in writing, you have to read On Writing.

I’m a writer and earn a living by writing posts like this. If you enjoyed it, please consider a $3 donation

If I missed it, messed it, or meant something else let me know on Twitter, @MikeDariano.

#62 Tony Robbins

robbinscoverTony Robbins joined James Altucher to talk about his book, MONEY Master the Game: 7 Simple Steps to Financial Freedom. The conversation explores many ideas and stories from the book and besides getting the Tony Robbins attitude, the interview provides a nice overview of what the book offers.

Altucher begins the interview by telling Tony that he’s had a big effect on James’s life. He says that he read Tony’s book over and over a decade ago, and it made a big difference in his life. Robbins thanks Altucher for the kind words and says that he was glad to help, in fact, it’s wanting to help now that inspired him to write this book. He says that 2008, “made me sick.” Between the story told in Inside Job and the ruin he saw, Robbins felt for the people. Not only that, but he tells Altucher that he wrote this book too because “we didn’t just bail them (the bankers) out, we put them in charge of the recovery.”

As he watched what unfolded, he felt the need to do something and realized that his power was the power of connection. He tells Altucher: “I’m gonna go to 50 of the smartest people in the world financially.. and say, what did they do? How did they get there?” Later in the interview Altucher calls this the Tony Robbins method; find successful people and see what they do.

Very quickly Robbins saw that money was a complex subject and tells James that “complexity is the enemy of execution.” Fees alone are a swamp of hazards that can trip up your returns and knocked you down. Robbins found 17 different kinds of fees that may be attached to financial products and while they seem small, they add up.

Imagine, Robbins tells Altucher, that three people each invested money for 30 years and earned 7%. The only difference is that person A pays 1% in fees while person B pays 3%. It doesn’t sound like much but A makes more than one and a half times what B does ($7M v $4.2M for example).

Warren Buffet would suggest an index fund with minimal fees, and made a bet along those lines. In 2008 he bet Protege Partners that after fees were subtracted,  Vanguard’s Admiral fund would outperform any five hedge funds of their choosing. Buffet is up 43% so far while Protege is up 12.5%. Those figures are from this very interesting Fortune article which that shares nuances of the original million dollar bet have changed its structure as well. Do read it.

Beyond the fees that active investors charge, there is also the “skin in the game” problem that inflicts money managers. It turns out that very few “eat their own dogfood” (or use their own lathe). In the book Robbins reports that nearly half of all fund managers, don’t own any shares in the fund they manage.

Past guest Nassim Taleb calls this the “skin in the game” problem, and says that it’s a big one, he writes:

Which brings us to the largest fragiliser of society, and greatest generator of crises, absence of “skin in the game.” Some become antifragile at the expense of other 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.

In “Brooklyn English” this means that without bearing the consequences of your decisions, you learn nothing from them. Any parent knows this after seeing their child do something foolish and think, “well, I told  you so.” The kid had to have skin in the game to learn.

Robbins tells James that “the goal of this book is to make you the chess player, not the chess piece” and he went out to find the best players.  He tells Altucher that he learned this strategy – of finding the best of the best – early on when he had to teach the US Army how to shoot. He says that he showed up and asked the Army to give him the experts and masters in pistol shooting and he observed them. While watching he would say, “Stop, what are you doing in your head? What are you doing internally? Externally?” Robbins was look for the things experts consistently did and tried to model that for everyone else. It worked.

The biggest, consistent things he learned from those experts were:

  1. Diversify your holdings
  2. Minimize your taxes
  3. Don’t lose money

The average Joe has to learn these things because, as the poet once said, the times they are a changin.

What does that change look like? Robbins tells Altucher that it means being valuable to many. Growing up he wondered how his dad could work so hard as a parking garage attendant, but not make much money. He worked hard, but he was working hard at the wrong things. Robbins realized that there isn’t value in a job everyone can do. You have to find and build skills that are valuable.

In Average is Over Tyler Cowen makes the case that the valuable skills will be working well with computers. His proving ground is the chessboard where the human-computer teams are the most dominant, beating either human or computer. Ditto for medical surgery, teaching, or stock trading. The humans need to know how to leverage the computer, that’s the value proposition. Cowen wrote, “Writers and teachers need to consider what aspects of their work are better done by intelligent-machine analysis and look closely at the irreplaceable value they do provide.”

In the interview Tony Robbins provides a different example. He sees the light at the end of the tunnel, but rather than being the oncoming train, it’s the driverless truck. Robbins wonders if truck drivers see technology coming and changing their lives much like it did for farming. He writes, “In the 1860s, 80% of Americans were farmers. Today 2% of the US population work in farming and agriculture, and we feed the entire world.” What we aren’t doing then is looking toward the future at what our careers and financial futures look like. But how?

What do you do then? In Choose Yourself, Altucher gives rules for getting started with something.

  1. Take out the middleman.
  2. Pick a boring business.
  3. Get a customer.

The book lists four more, but that’s good enough to start (and if you haven’t read it yet, what are you waiting for?)

Day_60_Occupy_Wall_Street_November_15_2011_Shankbone_18One way that Robbins focuses on becoming valuable is another tip he learned from the successful people he’s coached. “Every great person I know spends 1% of the time on the problem and 99% of the time on the solution.” In the interview he uses the Occupy Wall Street protests as an example, wondering how people making over $30,000 a year can be outraged when they themselves are the global 1%. This limited scope is what Taleb calls domain dependence, where our thinking in one area doesn’t translate to another. You may be poor in America, but globally you’re not. Cowen takes a similar angle, suggesting that even though there is a stagnation in earnings, our lives still get better. The stock market took five years to bounce back, but few would want the medical treatment, entertainment, and food choices of five, ten years ago. For a more tangible example look at your smartphone, even the iPhone is only 7 years old.

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What Robbins is suggesting in the interview – and book – is to construct what you need in realistic stages. He tells Altucher that financial security and absolute financial freedom are two different ideas, but that we should know what both mean for us. The first includes the five basic areas for security; housing, utilities, food, transportation, and basic insurance. Once you have these things taken care of you have a peace of mind. Plus, getting to that stage is a lot easier.

One modern day model of this is Mr. Money Mustache (MMM). In 2014 he lived the luxurious life for a total of $25,330. He is living one version of what Robbins is telling Altucher, find what you really want in life and work for that. For MMM it meant retiring at 30 but he hardly feels deprived. One action he took is to ask, “will buying this really improve my overall lifetime happiness?” In many cases the answer is no, and he’s happy without.

For MMM, $600,000 is what he needed for complete financial security. Robbins wants his readers to find their own number, because like many of the people he’s coached, bringing our target closer makes it easier to achieve. In his own life he found that moving to Florida saved him enough in state income taxes to pay for his new house there. In six years! Florida’s zero state income tax is the opposite of Californias 10+% bracket.

Part of what Robbins wants everyone to do is just to start, start thinking, investing, and acting in a way that leads to your dreams. He tells Altucher that people project the best motivations on themselves and less great ones on others. This is known as the fundamental attribution error (FAE) and it’s a problem for people like you (just kidding, that’s the error right there). The problem is that we tend to see mistakes by other people as their fault, and our mistakes as conditional. Your brother lost money in the stock market because he’s reckless, you lost because the market tanked. Robbins wants you to be thinking with less bias, to realize that it’s your choices too that affect what happens.

Altucher asks Robbins what would happen if he had to start from scratch, and Tony says that this happened to him after his divorce. Needing money, he got back to work and he leveraged his skills of serving many to build up his income again. That’s what he calls “a winter in life” and tells James “we all have them.” Being born in 1928, or graduating in 2008 was bad luck, but there’s nothing you can do about that. The thing you can do is make the best of what you have.

In the book Robbins outlines financial products and themes to fight these financially winds, and while even good plans go down, we always have our frame of mind. In Robbins’s other books like Awaken the Giant Within he has quotes from the stoics in regard to our mental fortitude. In our pursuit of wealth we may never get the beach house, but maybe we don’t need one. In Meditations Marcus Aurelius wrote:

People try to get away from it all – to the country, to the beach, to the mountains. You always wish that you could too. Which is idiotic: you can get away from it anytime you like.  By going within.  Nowhere you can go is more peaceful-more free of interruptions-than your own soul.

Near the end of the interview the pair talk about effective communication being important, even when you’re right it doesn’t matter if you can’t communicate with people who disagree with you. If you haven’t read it yet, go get Getting to Yes as the de-facto starting point for thinking about negotiation and communication. You’ll also be following Warren Buffett’s best piece of investment advice – invest in yourself. Buffett spends 80% of his work day reading, accumulating facts and corralling ideas. After investing in yourself, you can begin the investing strategy he suggests to Robbins. From MONEY Master the Game:

All he would tell an individual investor today is to invest in index funds that give you exposure to the broad market of the best companies in the world and hold on to them for the long term.

And when he dies, what will he suggest for his family?

Put 10% . . . in short-term government bonds and 90% in a very low-cost S&P 500 index fund. (I suggest Vanguard’s.) I believe the trust’s long-term results from this policy will be superior to those attained by most investors— whether pension funds, institutions, or individuals— who employ high-fee managers.

The interview ends with Robbins telling Altucher; “most people overestimate what they can do in a year and underestimate what they can do in a decade.” What action will you take?

Notes: Robbins’s book is good, but has had a fair amount of criticism online. Do educate yourself, but taking a motto from the book, diversify where you learn and what.

Thanks for reading. These posts take 3-5 hours to write and writing is how I earn a living. Please either share this post or donate

#83 Simon Rich

Simon Rich joined Altucher to talk about his new show, the architecture of his jokes, and how much the people around us matter. This was Rich’s second interview with Altucher, here are the notes from round one.

Fullscreen capture 1192015 54105 AM.bmpAltucher gets right to it, asking Rich about what it’s like to have a new show and Rich says he’s, “super nervous.” Despite the difference in ages and stages, all the comedians on the show have had similar comments about their work. In episode #66 Carol Leifer told Altucher that you have to be on the edge of failure. “If you’re not failing then you’re not doing something right because it’s through these failures you really get better.”

Rich has a nice chance to fail, though that’s not what he’s seeking. Failure is the output, what Rich is getting a chance to play around with is the input. Altucher highlighted this in his TEDx talk, noting that we shouldn’t be praising failure and, in his words, “failure porn.” Instead we should think in terms of experimentation. He gives the example of Thomas Edison and how we explain his work as experiments, not failures.

Getting a framework to work in is equivalent to a plant in a greenhouse rather than outside. Past guest Scott Adams advocates experimenting within your systems. He writes:

Think of healthy eating as a system in which you continually experiment with different seasonings and sauces until you know exactly what works for you. You want to be able to look at a vegetable and instantly know five ways to make it delicious, at least two of which don’t require much effort. When you change what you know about adding flavor to food, it will change your behavior. You’ll no longer need much willpower to resist bad food because you will be just as attracted to the healthy stuff.

Back to the interview, Altucher asks Rich what he’s been up to and Rich has a litany of things since the last time they spoke. He tells Altucher there’s his new show, Man Seeking Woman, along with some books and movies. This “project pipeline” is similar to what past guest Steve Scott mentioned in episode #18 on his own podcast. Scott explained, “What the book project pipeline is… something that helps me manage multiple projects at the same time. So in a given week I’ll be working on three books at the same time. The three books are the books I’m developing, the book I’m writing, and the book that’s in post production.”

All these projects have kept Rich busy and Altucher asks what has been the most anxiety inducing moments. He tells Altucher, “trying to keep up with everybody.” It’s quite the crowd – he’s working with writers from some of the all-time best comedies; The Simpsons, The Onion, and Seth Rogen among many other talented people. And trying to keep up is a good thing.

In an email to Bill Simmons, Malcolm Gladwell explained why surrounding ourselves with the right culture and the right people can make us a lot better than we otherwise might be. Gladwell frames this idea in terms of why Jamaican sprinters are so good. Their best youth runners are better than the adults in many countries. Gladwell writes:

So why are the Jamaicans so good? There are many reasons, but the simplest is that the effect of peers on high performance are REALLY strong. In Jamaica, EVERYONE sprints. There are 20 heats in the 100-meter regional championships. And because everyone sprints, and the average quality of sprinting is so high, everyone’s expectations are raised accordingly. The psychological ceiling on elite performance if you are a high school sprinter in Kingston is, like, a foot higher than if you are a high school sprinter in America.

Rich has lifted the psychological ceiling on comedy writing and tells James he seeks this out, wanting to “feel like you’re barely holding up.”

This challenge also makes his skill set more diverse. Even though the act of comedy seems straightforward, it’s anything but. Different mediums require different techniques. Rich tells Altucher that “you can’t shoehorn things” into a show or movie like you can in a book. In his books he can diverge and take the scenic route, in TV he has to be moving in an arc. Leifer found the same thing, getting a writing job on Seinfeld because she didn’t have TV writing experience. She told Altucher that Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David were looking for people with a fresh perspective. Dave Berg, producer of The Tonight Show, told James that monologues are different than stand-up which is different from sketches. Even storytelling can differ from one place to another. Alex Blumberg said that what it took for stories to succeed on the radio was not the same as TV.

Altucher asks Rich what an average day is like and Simon gives him the birds eye breakdown about what happens. First the writing team spends a few weeks brainstorming what’s going to happen and then “breaking the stories” and getting the natural character arcs. Craig Turk, executive producer of The Good Wife said their process is similar. (And it’s a good interview about the entire writing and production podcast)

Altucher asks Rich for his tips on becoming a great writer and Simon gives him one big piece of advice:

Make something great don’t worry about whether it fits in any economic landscape – Simon Rich (Tweet This)

Rich also tells Altucher that he’s glad he thinks the clips are “YouTubable” and hoping the joke, scene, and concept all stand on their own.

About working with FXX Rich says that he “feels really grateful they let us do it.” Gratitude is one of the best mental exercises we can do. Research from UC Davis concludes that people who take time to record reasons of gratitude exercise more, complain less, get sick less, and feel better about their lives overall.

Altucher suggest we engage in “creative gratuity.” In his TEDx talk he says that being grateful for things like our family is “emotional sugar.” Quickly satisfying but not lasting. To get the real effects, we need to breakthrough a certain limit. It’s the same framework as his idea muscle, when coming up with ideas we often flounder when we get to number six or seven, but it’s in these moments we can push forward and see real changes. Rich could have complained about the things he didn’t get – a better time slot, more writers, a bigger network – instead, he appreciated the things he did.

In his book Excuses Begone, past guest Dr. Wayne Dyer, breaks down the different ways we can be grateful. That we have the ability to get online with our computer or tablet. That you can read these words. One prayer from Thich Nhat Hanh that also works is: “Waking up this morning, I see the blue sky. I join my hands in thanks; for the many wonders of life; for having 24 brand-new hours before me.”

Switching projects, Altucher asks about what it’s like to work with Seth Rogen, to which Rich says: “The biggest thing with a movie, is the story working? Are the character moving in the right direction? Is the pacing right? Is it high enough stakes? The actual jokes and oneliners, those come along the way. You can’t really build a movie on jokes.”

Rich says that the secret to his success is tapping into a real feeling in an absurd concept. His new show clearly does that, and only the trailer can do it justice:

In the last set of notes there were a bunch of books mentioned, and in this one Rich shares a few things that inspired him while creating the show; The Adventures of Pete and Pete, anything by Kurt Vonnegut, and Kids in the Hall.

Thanks for reading. If you enjoy these post please share them or consider a monthly $3 donation. Each post takes three to five hours from first listen to finally publishing. 

#52 Simon Rich

James Altucher interviewed Simon Rich about writing, writing for Saturday Night Live, reading for writing, and did I mention writing. Despite the singular subject it was entertaining throughout. One note, there were a lot of books mentioned in this episode, and I’ve included links to them here, just make sure you’re logged into Amazon. Rich joined Altucher to promote his new book Spoiled Brats.

As the recording equipment gets set up, Altucher asks Rich if he actually listens to any podcasts. He says it seems like everyone is doing them, but can’t think of many people that listen to them. Rich says he listens to the Posting and Toasting New York Knicks podcast and sometimes Jalen Rose. Altucher said he likes WTF with Marc Maron and Nerdist with Chris Hardwick. He also says he should listen have been listening Adam Carollaa past guest – before interviewing him, but listens to his podcast now.

Then the reading love affair begins, and it really is an intimacy with the printed page. Altucher says he’s read all of Rich’s books and that they were hilarious. Those books are:

The Last Girlfriend on Earth: And Other Love Stories. Thirty short stories about love.

Ant Farm: And Other Desperate Situations. The humor in our everyday lives, including the classic conundrum, “If your girlfriend gives you some “love coupons” and then breaks up with you, are the coupons still valid?”

Free-Range Chickens. A follow up to Ant Farm with more stories of comedy from our “hopelessly terrifying world.”

What in God’s Name: A Novel. God as an absentee owner of Earth who delegates our survival to a pair of angels.

Elliot Allagash: A Novel. The kid who no school could control turns his attention to helping a the least popular kid.

The Married Kama Sutra: The World’s Least Erotic Sex Manual. This “sequel” to the original includes the “prodding position,” where the woman cleans near a man’s feet so as to prod him into helping. The Daily Mail has more illustrations, all SFW.

The pair quickly jump into Rich’s experience at SNL, and he gives some nice backstage information. For one, that he wrote the opening monologue for Seth Rogen, and that most hosts never write their own. That speaks to both the talented writers at SNL, and the hosts who can deliver it so naturally. Rich also said that laughter during rehearsals is a key factor in getting skits to make the final cut. If shows run long before going live, odds are the sketches with the fewest laughs will be the first to go. For more SNL history, Bill Hader said in a NYT interview that “the “S.N.L.” book is Tom Shales and James Miller’s oral history, “Live From New York.” I think most current cast members, the day they find out they’ve been hired, run out and buy that book to see what’s in store for them. I know I did.” In the same interview Hader also said “Simon Rich’s “What in God’s Name” was brilliant. Actually, most of his books are brilliant.”

Rich says that when he wants to see something funny he’ll watch Mr. Show (YouTube clips) with his writing staff.  A few times in the interview he tells Altucher that he watches or reads something to see how it was done. “We should really watch this Mr. Show sketch because it’s very similar to the premise that we’re trying to pull off here.  Let’s learn from this great sketch.” Mr. Show was co-created by Bob Odenkirk who also has a new book out, A Load of Hooey. Ditto for BJ Novak (who also has a book out, The Book with No Pictures), and who recommends Rich’s writings. In his interview with Altucher, Rich explains that comedy writers may not laugh out loud because something is funny, but appreciate jokes on a different level. They may not laugh, but they certainly put in good word about their comrade’s books.

James and Simon talk about 1990’s sketch shows like Kids in the Hall, The State, and Upright Citizens Brigade. They have an interesting conversation about what shows were “the best.” Rich says that it’s hard to figure out the best of something because the order and circumstances matter. “It’s sort of unfair to compare those shows.  You know, it’s like comparing, like, the – you know, the Beatles and, like, the Kinks and, like, the Smiths.  It’s like you have to kind of – they’re so influential on one another.”

Altucher opens a new drawer to ask about the nuts and bolts of writing, and Rich does not disappoint, telling Altucher, “my favorite comedy games are thousands of years old.”

“What do you mean by a comedy game?” Altucher asks.

Rich then goes on to talk about story archetypes. One is the character who is naively missing a key to their survival. Later in the interview he says that another type is the “do anything to get to the top type.”

Whenever writers explain things like this I’m struck by how obvious it is in so many stories. Like a Magic Eye picture, once you know what’s there, you can more easily see it. (Couple that thought with this book.)

Then Rich gives the funniest joke breakdown of Abraham in the old testament. Like Altucher, I had never thought about it this way, but laughed out loud after hearing it.

Rich then talks about the difficulty in being a good stand-up comedian, which Altucher thinks he could do, but Rich doesn’t. He says, “Well, I just know myself to be a terrible performer.  I can tell from reading my pieces out loud in front of people.  And also, you know, you – usually stand up comedians, they love performing.  You know, just like how I love writing.”

Altucher asks Rich about his writing habit, to which he responds that he writes seven days a week. Simon echoes past guests like Matt Stone, when he says that writing is something that you should only do, it if you really want to do it. “I never get anxious about what I’m gonna write ‘cause it – if I don’t have anything to work on, that’s when I get to come up with something new, which is its own kind of fun and exciting experience.” Some days he’ll continue writing what he was working on the previous day, like a screenplay. Other days he’ll have nothing to do and that’s when he gets to work on a new project. “ I wake up in the morning and I’m really excited to sit down and write.  That’s – I can’t wait to do it.”

There’s a lot of conversation in the middle about Simon’s upcoming show, praise of other comedians, and why every four years people hate SNL but not Family Guy.

Then Rich gives a great writing tip about writing comedy – take one idea and flip it. He says:

“All you’d have to do is be, like, have somebody say, yeah, I won.  All right, great.  So what did I win?  You know, then all of a sudden you’re – and it’s like, why’s everybody looking at me.  Is it a car?  It’s a car, right?  I mean, you know, it doesn’t take that much to flip something.  Same thing with Stephen King, like a lot of his premises can be flipped.  The Simpsons has been doing it for years, all their Halloween specials.  You just take a classic Twilight Zone premise, a high-stakes Twilight Zone premise and you just tweak it really very slightly and all of a sudden you’ve got a great comedy premise.”

On his website Stephen King shares how he gets some of his ideas. “I get my ideas from everywhere. But what all of my ideas boil down to is seeing maybe one thing, but in a lot of cases it’s seeing two things and having them come together in some new and interesting way, and then adding the question ‘What if?’”

Off hand I remember hearing about him saying that as he walked out to his mailbox one day and collected its contents, there was a missing persons, “have you seen me?” card. This sparked the idea for a story where those faces could talk to him. About these ideas, King says that he never writes them down, taking their mental stickiness as a gauge for how interesting they truly are.

The pair then get into a whole slew of books that would make me really smart to have read, or at least that’s how they sound. The spitballing of literature includes:

Douglas Adams, Rich says his books kinda bleed together into a single awesome story. Kurt Vonnegut is “another one of my (Rich’s) favorite writers.” Ditto for T.C. Boyle, and the pair agree that Greasy Lake is great. Other writers that Rich enjoys are P.G. Woodhouse, Ray Bradbury, Philip Dick, Roald Dahl, Alec Wilkinson, and Jon Ronson.

Despite all these books and television shows they turn the pages of and reflect on it’s “The Simpsons above all.”

Rich’s has said in another interview that he quotes The Simpsons “ad nauseum.” One interesting moment of the interview was when he was telling Altucher about sitting down with his writing team and saying “we need to make this scene more like this very, very specific, you know, joke or scene or premise on this The Simpsons episode” and who is on his writing team but former Simpsons writer Ian Maxtone-Graham who ”will remember when, you know, he or somebody else wrote it, which is a totally surreal experience.” I’m no where near as big a Simpsons fan as Rich, but that would be cool.

A little later in the interview Rich implicilty gives advice that Scott Adams (a past Altucher guest) shares. About BJ Novak, Rich says, “Right, well that’s a guy who’s obviously a brilliant writer, but he also happens to be a great actor and performer, which is just like – I mean, that’s like knowing how to play guitar and sing.  Like, what are the odds, you know, and if you can do both of those, it’s extremely impressive.”  Adams would define this in terms of his success formula, that is “every skill you acquire double your odds of success.” While this isn’t a mathematical proof, failing to stand up the real world physics, it’s ethos is right. Novak has his level of success because he’s a brilliant writer + great actor + performer.

The interview was good throughout, and if like me, you haven’t read anything by Simon Rich yet, check out Sell Out online at The New Yorker.

#82 Amanda Palmer

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Amanda Palmer, (@AmandaPalmer) joined James to talk about the art of asking, art, and that we all do both whether we realize it or not. She tells James that we need to ask in small ways and with all our heart. We need to ask and be ready for rejection and realize that it’s part of asking like melting is part of eating an ice cream cone.

Palmer is on the podcast to talk about her book The Art of Asking. James tells her that he got depressed reading it because he was going to write a similar book to which Palmer replies that she felt the same way about Daring Greatly, telling James, “Fuck, she already wrote my book.” Renee Brown, author of Daring Greatly takes a more academic pursuit on the angle and contributes a foreword to Palmer’s book. James says Amanda’s book is more like a sequel to Just Kids by Patti Smith.

Palmer makes the case to James in the interview and in her book that:

“We’re all artistic at a certain level. We’re all creative. We all see connections. We all have the ability to manifest from scratch.” – Amanda Palmer

Her case goes, that when we make connections to things, that’s art.You don’t need to be in costume or on a stage. If you’re selling Volkswagens and you do it well, you’re an artist. Brooks Brothers provides your costume, the showroom is your stage. In episode #80 Tucker Max said much the same thing about writing. About writers he told James, “they like their identity as a writer.” Some people feel most like a writer by doing the traditional writer things, but Palmer’s saying it doesn’t need to be that way. Anyone, traditional or not, is an artist.

For all artists (ergo everyone), there is “the ask.” And that part is often hard. Amanda tells James, “There’s not an easy way, and that’s the point. If there was an easy way we’d all be happy and everybody would do it all the time and we’d be living in a fantastic society.” (Tweet this!)

This is hard, because in asking we bring judgement.

Part of the interview (and part of her book) is about Amanda’s successful Kickstarter, where she raised over a million dollars, the largest music launch at the time. The project was a confluence of happiness, chaos, love, and hate. Her fans were happy to support and part of the success she tells James was in giving a small option, even just a dollar let people contribute and be part of it.

The Kickstarter also brought along “outrage porn” as James calls it. People decided to be mad at Amanda Palmer for some reason or another. She’s not a real singer, she’s not really independent, she has a rich husband. She shares how this affected her in her book, and it’s painful. She says she felt a lot of these things and worried about getting sucked into wondering if they were true or not.

She tells James that even 1 bad review among 99 good ones can “overpower your psyche for a day.”

Palmer developed a unique angle on viewing an ask when she posed as a human statue and again as a stripper. She found a model in Dita Von Teese, who, rather than strip to nothing, started out in lingerie and stripped down to her underwear. Palmer tells James that while the traditional strippers earned 50 ones, Von Teese would earn 1 fifty. That would be Palmer’s arbitrage.

Amanda and James conclude that there are 3 layers of people we can ask. There are the people blind to us, our weak ties, and our strong ties. The people blind to us we can contently ignore, knowing that we don’t show up on their radar anymore than someone 1,000 miles away might. The weak ties are the ones we can ask for some sort of trade. Palmer doesn’t see money as bad for an artist, it’s simply the medium of exchange. Song for a dollar. Flower for a dollar. Dollar for a coffee. Each of those transactions has an element of appreciation, an unspoken thank you from each party.

These weak ties are also important because they have often have connections we don’t. For Palmer this meant couchsurfing on her tours and meeting some wonderful people (and the book has some fantastic stories). This is a strength for us says Adam Grant, guest of episode #73. Our weak ties are the web we can draw on and Palmer uses this same imagery in her book.

Finally there are our strong ties, the hardest to ask. For Amanda it was asking her husband to float her some cash to pay her band until a big check came. For us it’s our family and friends. James asks for advice on asking and Amanda tells him to accept the feeling and tell the person it. Be truthful about being scared and allow their answer to be “no.” Allow people the “space and grace” to decline your offer without malice from you. Tim Ferriss uses this same technique when emailing people, always giving them a chance to politely decline.

Isn’t there a way to get over this fear, James asks. Palmer says it helped her when she realized she was providing something her fans really wanted. In her book she writes,

“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.”

She gave the fans what they wanted and they were happy to support her. In couchsurfing, in crowd surfing, in crowdsourcing – Amanda asks and by asking she trusts.

Despite her success, she still worries about the Fraud Police. That someone who knows is going to come and take away everything she’s made. Amanda says you start by believing in what you do. She tells James, “Step one. If you’re gonna ask with grace, you really need to believe in the worthiness of what you’re asking for.”

Often artists believe there is value in what they do, but don’t know how much. The key is to trust what you do and charge people for it (experimenting along the way). In her book she tells the story of a friend who asked her fans for money but then worried about sharing a photo of her on a beach or in a new dress. Amanda told her to be content with needing inputs for outputs, and it was the latter that the fans were most passionate about. They didn’t care about martinis or pencil skirts, they just wanted the music.

Amanda Palmer, Auckland, 2Once you believe in what you are creating, you have to charge for it. Palmer says that if the default is free but people can pay, most will pay nothing. If, however, you switch it to a default of a few dollars but people can make it less, they pay more. James found the same thing with his book, offering to refund anyone’s money if they sent a receipt and said they didn’t like it. He tells Amanda fewer than 1% of customers did.

In the interview James calls this “sunk cost” which isn’t quite right (and is part of the benefit of writing these posts later rather than thinking on the fly). Sunk cost is when we’ve already committed to an item, but shouldn’t influence our decision to continue to use the item. For example, if you buy Amanda’s book and feel like because you bought it, you should read it. That’s sunk cost fallacy. The price of the book is gone, you would be better off making better use of the time.

Rather, when we buy something we value it more. Where sunk cost thinking might go, “I bought this dessert, I may as well eat it.” What James and Amanda are suggesting though is something more like reducing cognitive dissonance. That thinking might go, “I bought this dessert, I must like it.” Our brains enjoy getting our thoughts to match our actions to maintain cerebral harmony. For more about this bias check out the wonderful Dave McRaney.

The interview ends with Amanda and James talking about who can ask for money. They agree that anyone can. If we accept that the Rolling Stones can ask for $150 a ticket, then we should accept a garage band that charges $5. Each is an artist. Palmer calls the financial critiques of small acts a “cruel sport” in this “Guardian Piece.” (Do read the whole thing, it’s very good.)

James ends the interview with this quote from Palmer’s book, “”You can fix almost anything by authentically communicating.”

If I missed something, do let me know, @MikeDariano on Twitter.