B.J. Novak of The Office on Creative Process, Handling Rejection, and Good Comedy (#121)


“I find that being in a good mood for creative work is worth the hours it takes to get in a good mood.” – B.J. Novak

This episode covers principles and tactics for creating amazing careers, comedy, writing, and much more. Hilarious stories weave it all together.

My guest is B.J. Novak (@bjnovak), best known for his work on NBC’s Emmy Award-winning comedy series “The Office” as an actor, writer, director, and executive producer. He has appeared in films such as Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds and Disney’s Saving Mr. Banks. He is also the author of the acclaimed short story collection “One More Thing” and the #1 New York Times Best Seller “The Book With No Pictures” (great Christmas gift), which has more than one million copies in print. Last but not least, he is co-founder of The List App.

In other words, he does a lot and does it well. What are the habits, tools, and routines that help him to do this? That’s what we explore in this conversation.

You can find the transcript of this episode here. Transcripts of all episodes can be found here.

#121: BJ Novak of The Office on Creative Process, Handling Rejection, and Good Comedy

Want to hear another podcast from a comedian? — Listen to my conversation with Whitney Cummings. In this episode, we discuss turning pain into creativity (stream below or right-click here to download):

#84: How to Turn Pain Into Creativity (Whitney Cummings)

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QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: In this episode, we discuss how a good mood impacts productivity. What situations do you find most difficult to overcome, and what techniques have you tried to reestablish a positive mindset? Please let me know in the comments.

Scroll below for links and show notes…


Selected Links from the Episode

  • Download the li.st app and follow BJ Novak
  • B.J. Novak’s suggested podcasts:

The Great Debates | Intelligence Squared

Tim: Man on Wire | Project Nim

BJ: Catfish |  To Be and To Have | The Overnighters

Twitter | Facebook 

Show Notes

  • Why do so many people migrate from Harvard to Hollywood? [6:42]
  • What happened the year after B.J. Novak graduated from Harvard [13:07]
  • How B.J. got Bob Saget booked for his event, and how it opened the door to Hollywood [14:12]
  • Stories and tips for getting started as a stand-up comedian [21:52]
  • On becoming a writer-actor [29:07]
  • The tipping point for when The Office became a success [31:12]
  • Lessons learned while working on The Office [33:37]
  • The experience of working with Steve Carell [35:47]
  • The writing process for The Office: Blue Sky Period [36:42]
  • How to maintain positivity and other creative productivity advice [40:15]
  • Note-keeping habits and the creative process [44:12]
  • What B.J. Novak’s freshman seminar at Harvard on comedy writing would look like [49:12]
  • What B.J. Novak’s freshman seminar at Harvard on screenwriting would look like [54:32]
  • Why B.J. wanted to create an app [58:42]
  • Describing the li.st app [1:02:12]
  • Top lists [1:08:22]
  • Rapid fire questions:
    • Who comes to mind when you think of the word successful? [1:13:32]
    • What was your senior thesis? [1:13:52]
    • Most gifted books [1:14:37]
    • If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be? [1:15:37]
    • Do you have any bad habits that you’re working on? [1:16:22]
    • Are their words or phrases that you overuse? [1:17:05]
    • Best purchase that you’ve made in recent memory for less than $100 [1:18:52]
    • Favorite documentaries [1:19:36]
    • How to ‘power up’ in the morning [1:21:47]
    • Is there a particular time of day when you do your best writing? [1:24:00]
    • Examples of good comedy writing TV shows [1:24:42]
    • What historical figure do you most identify with? [1:25:15]
  • Advice to an aspiring comedy writer [1:27:02]
  • Advice to your 30-year-old self [1:29:47]

People Mentioned

The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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23 Replies to “B.J. Novak of The Office on Creative Process, Handling Rejection, and Good Comedy (#121)”

  1. Hi Tim,

    I am listener from India and your podcast does not get listed in the Apple Podcast app. Could you please make it available for non US listeners as well?

  2. Your emails have a part broken.

    There is a line that says “Download as an MP3 by right-clicking here and choosing ‘save as’.” This does not rack up an mp3. It connects you to an html file. It may be that there is something in the ensuing html file that will lead you to the mp3, but you wouldn’t want to save it to find out.

  3. Yes! Mr. Show! “this hamburger is fucking delicious!”

    QOTD- cold call rejections. Just don’t take it personal when people treat you like shit on the phone. Empathy for that person helps to overcome any anger towards him/ her. Because you never know what is going on in that person’s life in the instant you call. A loved one passing away, just got fired, just got divorced, etc. Pondering this helps calm me down and bring me back to neutral.

  4. Just discovered your podcasts in the last few weeks- I’m an endurance athelete (ironman) and mountaineer and find your interviews engaging and practical – I especially appreciate the questions on workout routines and morning rituals – I also appreciate how you ask specific questions on food and workouts. I’ve shared the podcasts with friends with similar interests. You’ve shown vulnerability during the interviews and that helps you connect with your audience.

    I especially loved the Iceman and Jimmy Chin interviews. I can honestly say their words have motivated me to incorporate their activities in my daily routine. Your having a positive influence . Give thanks

  5. Im enjoying your blogs Tim. Thank you.

    Im planning a trip to Beijing in the fall to volunteer at some animal shelters (Im a vet) and also to film our adventures for a documentary or reality-like tv show…so learning of other people’s creative process helps a ton.

    xie xie ni (thank you)


  6. FHWW (audio), Magic of Thinking Big (audio), and TFS podcasts during a commute or walking the dogs has been my mechanism to return to a pos mindset for the past few years. Without fail. Anger, frustration, confusion, depression, anxiety, in a slump, etc. Cure-all. Sincere thanks, Tim.

  7. Hilarious analogy about sex and writing comedy “…it’s a physical reaction you’re going for.” – BJ Novak (audio 49:00)

    Thanks for the smile 🙂

  8. There seem to be a correlation between StandUps and StartUps. Most of the startups also change once the show gets going. They have to pivot and find the things/ features that work.

    Similat to BJ’s story about his standup experience. He found a lot of jokes that didn’t hit and some that struck gold. Keep what’s working and discard what’s not.

  9. I read BJ Novak’s book of short stories. When I picked it up, I thought “Oh great, another Hollywood type publishing a book because they can.” But it was a great set of short stories and I will never forget the opening one about the Tortoise and the Hare. Very nice interview.

  10. In response to your QUESTION OF THE DAY:

    Title: How a Jobless Loser Triples his Creative Confidence in 15 Minutes.

    Since leaving an “ideal” work situation two years ago I have bounced from one part-time job or project to another (currently sporadic sub teaching and other randomness) while our savings dwindles slowly and without any real direction for the next “real” work. So, plenty of cause for self-doubt combined with depressing inability to stick with one thing for long. So that’s the daily negative.

    Positive action/technique to overcome or put me in the “positive” creating mood:

    First, “Making the beds” every morning (much as your military interviewees have pointed out about doing at least one thing you can control, that matters, and puts the conscious mind to sleep momentarily).

    Secondly, I have been taking at least 15-30 minutes every day to make art with my 3 and 5 year old daughters. What started out as a way to keep them away from electronics just a little longer during each day has morphed into family bonding time. After embracing the other motives for it, I semi-consciously determined to create at least some work of pure, “worthless” art every day.

    To be clear, I have never, ever been an artist or taken art classes after kindergarten.

    Yet the girls think my stuff is awesome, so to them I’m a rock star.

    My bizarrely practical wife is surprisingly impressed (surprising since my stuff is pretty lame compared to the real art being put out by a few of her nieces) and often intrigued (always good to have intrigue in romantic relationships).

    Whether I am doing a temporary creative project or mindless pay-the-bills work for the day, I leave the house feeling, if not great, at least like the people who matter most to me think I’m a cool, creative dude.

    Simple guides:

    – no more than one minute to decide what to do – when stuck, ask the brain to take me “outside,” then think nothing, and take the first subconsciously-generated vision, even if only very impressionistic

    – be able to walk away (ie change little man’s diaper) any second – I subconsciously work then in layers that by themselves could actually mean something in the event I never return

    – never think about sharing with anyone besides the girls

    – no intentional teaching – I don’t introduce new techniques or materials unless they ask – which, of course, they do with surprising frequency – it helps I don’t know what in the world I would teach them

    – do NOT schedule the art session – just do it whenever the “what to do” look is on their faces – most enjoyable in morning, but carries over to next day from evenings

    – if they don’t “want to” color, we do next best thing – wrestling!

    Last week, my wife says “I can’t think of the last time the girls asked to watch a show or play on the computer.” The amount of original art they have created is staggering. We started with mostly coloring books and they have naturally transitioned to creating mostly on their own.

    For singles without the built-in family audience, I would strongly suggest that while you fearlessly use your close friends/family as your incubator or feedback loop for professional work, you intentionally make time for sharing with them your original art/science you NEVER intend to share publicly.

    I find it interesting to note that most publicly celebrated performers in art or science have another consistent side audience of those at home who are much easier to impress and care less about the quality of the output as much as the shared experience of creation. They often create completely different art/science for that audience than what they are known for professionally. Eg, you with creative/reactive wrestling and martial artsy stuff when your writing is so precise and analytical.

    Originally, I had typed the following in the comments about the super-enjoyable interview with BJ until your question side-tracked me – not surprisingly, the ideas are closely related:

    Creative phase (brainstorming, mind vomiting, etc)

    separate from

    Development phase (trimming, tweaking, testing).

    Like the 80/20 principle and saying NO, separating the phases (whether by time slots or by literal rooms as Disney does) exponentially improves my “real” work WHEN I remember to plan the separation. You would think that after finally reading Bird by Bird I would actually schedule my week this way, as BJ apparently does, as opposed to simply continuing to nod in agreement and move on. Maybe this week!

    After two years of floating professionally, we have used 4hww principles to stay above water, I will have helped my dad publish his book about winning the Olympics with his brother (in large part due to training with Dan Gable), co-founded a pretty cool resource website for football players (not profitable other than lessons learned – gotta be stricter on my muse creation process), established relationships and skills that have exponentially increased our connection to high quality local-ish, chemical free food, enjoyed renovating several family/friends’ yards and overgrown fruit trees, and gained experience in four distinctly different industries along with so many minor new skill sets I stopped counting.

    Very few regrets. And a growing portfolio of completely publish-unworthy, yet well-received pencil drawings 🙂

    When I let myself FAMO (Forget About Missing Out), I feel pretty good about life.

  11. Hi Tim! I think you’re cool.I write lovingly. I write in response to 5 bullet Friday because I don’t use twitter. There’s been a bunch of times you use words I simply don’t understand. You’re a good writer but I know you want to be better so I’m sharing respectfully. To be honest I have some irritation sparked and I know that’s to do with me, not to do with you, but it’s also to do with a theme I observe with North Americans writing for an international audience but making refernces highly north american specific and assuming everyone understands? It seems more pronounced however because 5 bullet friday is so brief and tight and concise and it’s beautiful and then there’s these references that are the opposite of clear . i just keep tripping over things I don’t understand. Like Happy Thanksgiving? What is that exactly? I know it’s something to do with North America and I know it happens once a year and everyone likes it. Something to do with Gridiron ‘football’ maybe?

    last week you mention ‘JFK’ a few times. Now, even I know that’s a president. But how it related to your 5 bullet friday – sorry you lost me. Someone recently referred to you saying ‘the bluebonnet was, not surprisingly, the winner” Pray, tell, what is a bluebonnet! It was the answer to a statement about keto vs protein for breakfast. Wow. And I wanted to know the answer 🙁 In alll three of your books I have stumbled across repeat instances of this – it makes me wonder ‘do I need to be between 30-35, be male, watch TV, and live in California, to know what this is referring to?’ You, Maestro, , master of clarity, cutting through the hype, distilling the essence, and yet providing solutions in wonderful little free giveaway bite sized emails with – enigmas! It’s just a bit confusing. And I felt you may appreciate the feedback. If not appreciated, I know you’ll move on 😉 It’s with love xoxox

  12. It still amazes me when really attractive people say they wish they were more attractive, though it really shouldn’t anymore. Thanks for this awesome episode! I really admire B.J.’s approach – it’s clear that he takes his work immensely seriously while managing to remain incredibly humble and easygoing. Also I finally started watching The Office a month ago and am now on Season 8.

    Absolutely agree with the importance of ‘good mood’ for creative work and productivity, as nebulous as the term is. For me the biggest challenge (as I work in a highly codependent office & profession) is fighting to carve out long stretches of time where I can be alone during the middle of the day when I am most productive. Once that’s done, a few cups of good coffee and one or two good songs will usually get me in that creating mood.

  13. Loved the episode! Thank you so much! So many discoveries. Exactly what my creative-self needed! Thank you for the Demetri Martin! Found my favorite stand-up comedian, was looking for some cerebral comedy for a while. Binging on his shows! And thanks for the list app! I absolutely love it! Im such a list addict. 🙂

    B. J., What are the best books/shows/movies etc. you would recommend for someone who wants to cultivate good/smart/edgy sense of humor?

    And by the way I love Inception and Interstellar! Those movies make you think different, ask questions and I watched them both a couple of times, they are VERY enjoyable 🙂

    Thank you for this episode!!!

  14. Great Episode Tim and BJ!

    Love this quote from BJ…

    “I find that brewing my own coffee at home is so unpredictable, it’s like getting artisanal Tylenol. I want to know what my dose is, you wouldn’t ever be like “oh, I made some Tylenol!” No give me two Tylenol.” – BJ Novak

  15. Loved this interview, my wife and I are hooked on the Office now that its on Netflix – gotta say I disagree with the statement about Interstellar – Me and the guys in my band loved the concepts being presented in it – Some of them are NASA scientists though 😉