#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.

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#73 Adam Grant

?????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????????James Altucher interviewed Adam Grant (@AdamMGrant) about giving, taking, and five minute favors. At first Altucher says he was reluctant to have Grant on because he said ‘yes’ and James was writing a book about ‘no.’ Add in that Grant is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and subtract Altucher’s feelings for academia. Despite his hesitations, Altucher read (and liked) Grant’s Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success.

 The premise of Grant’s book is that people who give in the right way succeed more often than those who take, match, or people who give in the wrong way. Wrong giving would be making copies, writing simple computer code, or running an unnecessary meaning. These givers typically go wrong in three ways; being too trusting, being too empathetic, and being too timid. Matchers don’t succeed because they never reach out to extend their network and takers don’t succeed because they want credit for work done rather than improving their work. In his book Grant lays out the spectrum and provides compelling examples for each thing.

The interview begins with Altucher asking Grant about how he’s continued to be a giver since the book came out. Specifically, Grant says he’s had to change his system for dealing with emails, drawing the line when it starts to compromise your own goals and values. This meant  he had to set some boundaries. His post-book schema included a ranking system for the people in his life; family, students, colleagues, everyone else. This is an example of system thinking, where Grant doesn’t have to decide an items importance, rather who it’s coming from.

Scott Adams is a big fan of system thinking and tells a story about, his first plane ride west. He was heading off to being his career when he met a CEO who offered this career advice:

He said that every time he got a new job, he immediately started looking for a better one. For him, job seeking was not something one did when necessary. It was an ongoing process. This makes perfect sense if you do the math. Chances are the best job for you won’t become available at precisely the time you declare yourself ready.

For Adams this built a system of thinking about working, Grant learned a system for prioritizing emails. I would wager that Grant has eschewed a goal like Inbox Zero in favor of the system.

 In the interview Altucher asks what it means to be on the giving spectrum. Grant says;

“We have the takers who are always trying to get things from others, they don’t want to give back unless they have to…on the other end of the spectrum we have giver who are not volunteers or philanthropists, but who just enjoy helping others.” A final group is the matchers who operate “quid pro quo.”

It sounds good to be a taker in the same way it sounds good to make sure you always eat first at the family reunion. The first few times will be fine but soon people will resent you for eating all the potato salad. Professionally Grant says that takers who are competent can be threats to other people and will be treated like one.

Altucher says he tries to not be taken too often, but that’s been happening for 2,000 years. Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote:

In the ring, our opponents can gouge us with their nails or butt us with their heads and leave a bruise, but we don’t denounce them for it or get upset with them or regard them from then on as violent types. We just keep an eye on them after that. Not out of hatred or suspicions. Just keeping a friendly distance.

 Grant suggests we oscillate between each place and our trends determine what type we are. Being an exclusive giver isn’t without it’s problems though. Grant says, “that’s dangerous, it’s a great recipe for burnout or just getting burned by takers.” In these cases Grant suggest acting more like a matcher, with a bit of giving sprinkled in. Matching can also act as a filter if there is too much taking going on because it upends the balance of giving and taking.

Past guest Carol Leifer used this matching strategy with Altucher, who reviewed her book and so she came on his podcast. This sort of matching jives with her book where she writes that she’s been burned too many friends of friends. She’ll be asked to vouch for someone who turns out to be a dud and so now she’s more reserved with initial giving. Leifer’s matching strategy is one that Grant suggests in the book, to be a focused and cautious giver.

Grant has found that givers are both the most and least successful. “It comes down to being thoughtful about who you help, how you help, and when you help.” Giving the right way means:

  • Successful givers are cautious with takers.
  • Successful givers help in specialized ways. This means you’re helping in a way that excites you and get the reputations that you have a certain kind of expertise.
  • Successful givers take care of their own work first and have separate windows of time to help other people.

Taking care of your own business should be the first priority of givers. Scott Adams writes that selfish generosity is the best kind. “If you do selfishness right, you automatically become a net benefit to society. Successful people generally don’t burden the world. Corporate raiders, overpaid CEOs, and tyrannical dictators are the exceptions.” Grant uses different language but comes to the same conclusion, first do your own work well, that alone will be helpful.

Take the example of Cate Cole, who Grant brings up as an example of the right kind of giver. Cole started out as a waitress at Hooters and now runs Cinnabon. Another example of the right kind of selfish is Trina Barkouras, a recent Shark Tank entrepreneur. Her pitch is worth watching.

Grant discovered the idea of giving while at a youth diving camp. He tells Altucher that couldn’t help not helping a competitor get better, giving him tips as he watched. That other diver ended up performing better than Grant at a later competition but that didn’t matter because Grant chose his values over his goals. He tells Altucher, “There are lots of ways that we can help others that cost very little.”

One of those small cost areas is the idea of t five minute favors that Grant learned from Adam Rifkin, one of the most connected people on LinkedIn.

Altucher proposes that the beat writers of the 1950’s was a pocket of givers. Grant adds that the same is true of the author community, “when I was starting out I reached out to a number of people that I hardly knew and some people that I didn’t know at all.” Grant felt like a huge taker at first, but found that most successful authors were happy to pay it forward. Not only that, but if you ask a giver to give – they like it. Asking was hard at first for Grant but he tells Altucher, “There is a huge difference between taking and receiving.” The former is something selfish but the latter is in service of something bigger, an idea or others.

One key part of Grant’s book is the idea that our networks are composed of strong and weak ties. He tells Altucher, “strong ties are the people we know well and trust, weak ties are more like acquaintances.” Grant found that weak ties help more, and this was dissonant at first. Peeling back the layers Grant found that strong ties are too incestuous, whereas weak ties are more broad. Your circle is probably homogeneous in skills, connections, and values. If you want to move away from that you need a connection that takes you in that direction. Those people are your weak ties.

Pixar Animation Studios Atrium
Pixar Atrium

Grant’s book includes ideas beyond giving and taking, including how collaborating works best.  In the interview he tells the story of an automotive company that became more innovative when they connected employees with a common goal and got out of the way. This happened at Pixar too, where Steve Jobs wanted bathrooms only in the building’s atrium. Jobs thought was that if people were always walking past each other then they would be able to connect and create more. His plan got toppled when a pregnant employee made the case that she couldn’t make the 15 minute walk. Jobs compromised with a single cafeteria.

The interview with Grant is a nice sampling of his book, but do dive into that if you want more about how to give the right way and the benefits it brings. Grant writes about being vulnerable, how to be better motivated, and how to cultivate givers. He uses a nice blend of stories and research throughout.

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