Overcoming Doubt, Battling the Busy Trap, and Enhancing Life — M. Sanjayan (#285)

“The messenger matters as much as the message.”

– M. Sanjayan

M. Sanjayan (@msanjayan) is a global conservation scientist specializing in how nature preserves and enhances human life. He serves as CEO for Conservation International, having joined CI in 2014 as executive vice president and senior scientist. He has led several key divisions including Oceans, Science, Development, Brand and Communications and Strategic Priorities.

Sanjayan holds a doctorate from the University of California, Santa Cruz, and his peer-reviewed scientific work has been published in journals including Science, Nature, and Conservation Biology. He is a visiting researcher at UCLA and distinguished professor of practice at Arizona State University.

Sanjayan has hosted a range of documentaries for PBS, BBC, Discovery, and Showtime. Most recently, he was featured in the University of California and Vox Media’s Climate Lab series.

Sanjayan is a Disneynature Ambassador, a Catto Fellow at the Aspen Institute, and a member of National Geographic Society’s Explorers Council. I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did!

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

Overcoming Doubt, Battling the Busy Trap, and Enhancing Life -- M. Sanjayan

Want to hear another conversation inspired by Tribe of Mentors? Listen to this episode where discuss my answers to the 11 questions I asked all of the mentors, including my favorite failures, best purchases of $100 or less, my morning routines, and much more. Listen to it here (stream below or right-click to download):

The Answers to My Favorite Questions

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QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.

Scroll below for links and show notes…

Selected Links from the Episode

  • Connect with M. Sanjayan:

Conservation International | Twitter | Instagram | Facebook

Show Notes

  • Introductions. [06:15]
  • What is Sanjayan’s birth name? [08:05]
  • Not everyone has a monkey birthday cake story. [11:14]
  • How did Sanjayan’s family wind up moving from Sri Lanka to Sierra Leone? [15:38]
  • How does Bruce Springsteen tie in to Sanjayan’s move to the United States and a career in science and conservation? [17:41]
  • Important advice Sanjayan received — and why it might not hold true today. [21:39]
  • What recent purchase of $100 or less has had the most positive impact on Sanjayan’s life? [23:38]
  • As a frequent traveler, what does Sanjayan rely on for saving his sanity and health on long flights or boat trips? [25:32]
  • What freshman college class would Sanjayan like to teach? [28:38]
  • What key principles would Sanjayan try to hammer home in a seminar on getting things done? [30:46]
  • Sanjayan considers these subjects crucial to a balanced education. [33:25]
  • Why Sanjayan feels his summers at The World Bank were “unbelievably useful” — even though he was studying wildlife biology at the time. [33:39]
  • The power of skill stacking and crossing disciplines. [35:25]
  • “Storytelling is one way to rule the world.” [36:39]
  • How does a good storyteller know when to stop? [43:33]
  • Same story, two tellers: “Respect” from the perspective of Aretha Franklin and Otis Redding. [44:52]
  • Influential books Sanjayan gives most as gifts. [46:41]
  • The big change that occurred after 3 hours of freediving instruction. [48:51]
  • Why you need to use the buddy system when experimenting with breathing. [50:11]
  • What would Sanjayan’s billboard say? [51:23]
  • Common misconceptions about conservation, and how to approach it without getting overwhelmed. [52:34]
  • Suggested resources for someone who wants to get informed about conservation issues. [57:15]
  • Why the people today are in a unique time and place to save the planet. [58:46]
  • How can we train ourselves to think more long-term. [1:00:55]
  • The messenger matters as much as the message. [1:04:05]
  • A final book recommendation. [1:06:11]
  • How does Sanjayan start his mornings — and avoid getting derailed early? [1:06:54]
  • The value of regularly meeting with mentors (and how to select them). [1:08:22]
  • How M’s mentor group coached him to aim for the CEO position at Conservation International when he was having doubts about interviewing. [1:13:22]
  • As a busy person meeting with busy people, how does Sanjayan schedule time with his mentors? [1:16:44]

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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34 Replies to “Overcoming Doubt, Battling the Busy Trap, and Enhancing Life — M. Sanjayan (#285)”

  1. I need a mailing address for Tim , my son reads everything that he writes but does not have access to any on line media but he want to write to Tim. [Moderator: additional text and email address removed.]

  2. Hi Tim,

    You’ve been a huge inspiration for me to start my own business! The 4 Hour Work Week was exactly what I needed at the right time. I highly respect your opinion and advice, so I had a quick question I was hoping you could help me with.

    I’m about to launch a blog / t-shirt design company for outdoor adventurists, more specifically rock climbers. Recently I’ve received feedback from a few friends I’ve talked to that have advised I don’t limit my target audience to only rock climbers, but rather target a broader audience in the outdoor adventure space similar to how Patagonia or The North Face has done. (including surfers, mountain bikers, adventure travelers, ect..) Just starting out, would you recommend I begin with only targeting the rock climbing community, then possibly expand out at a later time? Or should I start broader by targeting the adventure lifestyle itself?

    Thank you so much for your time! I hope to hear from you soon.

    Coty Williams

    PS. If you know anyone in the outdoor adventure space who I may be able to work with or ask advice from in the future. Please feel free to share my contact information with them. Thanks!

  3. Hey Tim, you have been a huge inspiration for me. I am a physician trying to help fight one of the worst epidemics this country has ever seen, by informing the public about how a plant known as kratom can save thousands of live. The fda is trying to ban this plant which will threaten all future research. [Moderator: Additional text and link removed.]

  4. Hi Tim,

    Please can I ask where the Kindle version of the 4 Hour Chef has gone on Amazon UK? Or am I imagining that a Kindle version was available?!

    I went online to buy it today, but it will only bring up the German version. Ironically, I want to learn German, but I think that would be jumping in at the deep end!


  5. Any recommendations on which of Tim’s books to get for a 17-year-old? I’d love to introduce one of my younger brothers to Tim’s work, but I’m not sure where best to start.

    And Tim, if you read this, thanks a million for all the great podcasts and posts. Your work has been incredibly informative and inspiring!

  6. Tim: you MUST add the Dreissegacker brothers to your interview menue…they are the inventors of by the original, and still world class composite oars, AND, the amazing Concept 2 ergometer, the now unifying training benchmark for all rowers worldwide, and also now many other sports. Fascinating guys who have devoted their lives to re-shaping the sport of rowing. You will love them.

  7. Hi Tim,

    Thanks for introducing us to Sanjayan. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear about his work name until now, but after searching on YouTube and finding a few videos, it gave me a glimpse of the change he’s looking to accomplish.

    I enjoyed the videos where all the information is visual and I can imagine this is how people’s perception can be changed, by having big and colourful pictures of what is actually happening. Until the emotional pain point is triggered, I doubt there is much change that can be done, although I did find a rather entertaining YT channel where the main topic was trash (no pun intended). However, it is inactive for a few months even though it got to over 100k subscribers.

    A good conversation and I hope the tiredness didn’t affect the answers that much, especially since there were many in this podcast.

    Appreciate it,


  8. Hi Tim, can you provide a transcript of your conversations in a link under the listen links? I prefer reading and I can’t always listen. Thank you


  9. Hi Tim

    You have added so much value to my life I wanted to try and give a tiny little bit back. Hope this helps answer a question you have been asking about how to choose a tennis coach. Being a coach myself for 12 years and a life-long student and lover of the game, I thought I could give you an extra perspective. I’ve tried to keep it short for convenience:

    1. Make sure you really like the person. Obvious, but no less important for that. You need to feel connected in some way and that they get why you want to learn, and can outline a plan to help you reach your goals.

    2. They see themselves as a student of the game and not a master. If they are continuing to try and improve their game, they will be closer to the perspective of a learner and will be able to therefore have more patience, but more importantly, excitement about your progress.

    3. They understand the mental side. I don’t just mean the tactics, strategy or even mental toughness. I mean, the stuff that goes on in your head, both on and off the court. They get what might be a block. There is too much to talk about here, but trust me on this, if they don’t see tennis as a spiritual practice,

    or at least a way to learn about yourself, then you will be missing out on one of the most compelling depths of the sport.

    4. They teach you how to breathe properly in time to the shots. So many coaches do not focus on this with beginners and this makes it much harder to integrate later on. And it affects so much: mentally it keeps you calm, and it stops you being tense as you hit the stroke which translates into more power and a smoother stroke.

    5. They can provide you with off-court homework. This is key to fast progression as so much ‘muscle memory’ can be learned outside of the court and in front of a mirror.

    Hope this helps in some small way. Since reading the 4-hour body I have always wondered how you would do applying the principles to tennis.

    Good luck and enjoy!


  10. Great conversation and many insights! I’ll definitely think about the personal board of advisers. That’s a brilliant idea. Do I understand correctly that the mentors of Sanjayan come not necessarily from the same domain? I’m wondering how he exactly structures the meetings? He first describes his issues and listens to recommendations? or may be he comes with specific questions and trusts experience and wisdom of his mentors?

  11. I wish your show notes would have actual content in them instead of yet more clickbait. This was a powerful episode and I want to refer to the actual content.

  12. Hey Tim, I’m getting ready to teach an English course for Middle Eastern oil executives. I would like to use excerpts of your books for professional development and reading comprehension. I can send you my lesson plans when I’m done. We’ll be promoting your books during the courses. Thanks, Steve Sacco

  13. This only proves that you can’t give what you don’t have. Mr. Sanjayan is capable of saying anything because He has knowledge on what he says.

  14. I really enjoyed this conversation! Thanks for the exposure to someone I might not have heard about otherwise, and for focusing on the important issue of conservation.

  15. Hi there!

    I absolutely adore you Tim, I’m in love with your brain and how you work. I just finished up your 4 hour body and had a personal question about the reversing permanent injuries.

    My old brother is turning 30 tomorrow and the poor thing can barely stand for more than an hour because of his lower back pain. He had a herniated disk and then had surgery, and now he has pinched nerves. Doctors and insurance are beginning to give up on him and many are just trying to blow him off and say it was a botched surgery.

    I know it’s a long shot getting a response but he is in chronic pain all the time and it breaks my heart to see it. In your opinion what step should he take next? I just feel like at this point he is throwing his money away with corticosteroid injections, doctor visits, etc.. He is a newly wed and should be having the time of his life right now, instead he can’t even try and start to have a family because of the amount of pain he is in.

    Thank you so much for even listening. I look forward to learning many more amazing things from you.

    Sincerely Danielle

  16. Hi Tim

    I love your podcast and am working my way through listening to them. I’m trying to apply the lessons to my life while also considering how I’ll pass them onto my young sons as they mature.

    One thing I would love your questions to focus more on is how the guests’ childhood and parents helped shaped their success if indeed it did. It gets touched on to some degree but I’d like a bit more detail. Your guests are clearly successful and have many positive attributes which must have started early on and I’d love to know where this came from and how their parents fostered their creativity and passions. Many of your listeners are helping shape the next generation and if there is any tips or learnings we can apply it would be most helpful.

    Finally, I loved the Esther Perel episode and could see a parenting focussed episode working equally well.

    Thanks so much


    1. Hi Gemma,

      As a short recommendation, I’d suggest listening to the Maria Sharapova podcast. You might like it because the conversation is focused specifically on her childhood at one point. It’s probably a subject that is easier to cross your mind when you’re interviewing athletes. They are at that level less by chance and more by learning or doing something repeatedly from a young age.

      To put it into perspective, many get a new job after maybe 1 year of learning something. An athlete might say get his job after around 10 years of actually doing something.

      This question probably comes along when Tim knows his guest found excellence at a young age, which in many cases, doesn’t really happen until we get at a later stage where books change our course in life.


  17. Hi Tim – re 5 bullet Friday’s reference to SENNA. I’m working on a Japan set feature film with the director, Asif Kapadia – it’s an adaptation of David Mitchell’s (Cloud Atlas) Number9Dream and – as a fellow Japanophile (I lived there 5 years, speak the lingo too) – I had an instinctive feeling it might be of interest to you in some way. If your assistant wishes to contact me to find out more, I’d love to hear from them. Absolutely love your blog and books. Will be buying some for Xmas prezzies. Thank you!

  18. As a Tim Ferriss fan, I know Tim is always wondering for the groups’ opinion on potential next interviews. Have you ever reached out to Kelly Slater? I feel his resume speaks for itself, being a world champion surfer at almost 40 years old and still beating 20 years-olds today. He also has a very time intensive life outside of professional surfing, with strong opinions that could make for a great interview.



  19. Tim – Welcome to Austin. I’d love to talk to you about foundations & doing good work to help spread happiness. How can we chat?

  20. Hey Tim,

    Just listened to your rich roll podcast and had the same realisation about making 2018 all about dealing with trauma etc…

    I found that Teal Swan on youtube helped me a lot and is in alignment with your new direction. She healed herself from 13+ years of ritual abuse and has lots of tools for diving into the subconscious and healing childhood wounds.

    Would be cool if you interviewed her!

  21. Hey Tim, really great podcast, thanks for sharing. On the topic of conservation/making choices and how we can make a difference on an everyday basis, I think it would be amazing to discuss where and how we get our food. There’s a couple of people doing some really interesting things in that field- Joel Salatin and Jules Pretty are two who I think are coming at agricultural reform from two very different angles but each paving the way. Agroecology (based on complex systems theory) and regenerative agriculture are also really great topics to wrap your head around.

    Hope that’s of interest,


  22. Thank you for inviting Sanjayan, and bringing conservation challenges to your audience (I work in the sustainability-focused investment sector). In particular, I valued his riffing around the privilege we enjoy as a generation of having data (and how we must use that) and the important recommendation on having a personal board.

    1. P.S. At 59:00 you’ll find the conversation on how we’re the first gneration to have powerful data, and at 1:10:30 the suggestion of “personal board” concept.

  23. Hi Tim Ferriss & M. Sanjayan,

    My wife and I were there to see your live podcast. It was an amazing experience and we have told so many people about the “I would run through a wall to get this job.”

    My wife is a collegiate volleyball coach and has coached at UVA, OU & is now at Maryland. This week she was reached out to by the best coach in the game, Russ Rose of Penn State. Kristin, my wife, played at Penn State which is consistently in the top 5 programs. I am kind of proud of this woman and might like bragging about her, but back to you. So she opened up her cover letter with the exact advice you gave us. “I would run through a wall…” this is actually how she feels but would have never said it if it wasn’t from your advice. The next morning she got the call for the interview and we are headed back home next week for it! Thank you for the wise words and thank you for your help

  24. My favorite quote or lesson from this episode is when he says that people shouldn’t get stuck on where they can have the biggest impact and should instead just pick someplace to start and begin! I’m paraphrasing of course. For a long time, I was one of those people stuck in analysis paralysis not knowing where my time and money would have the biggest impact so I did nothing!! This episode inspires me to change that today.

  25. Just catching up on episodes and I can’t believe you left us hanging at the end of this one. What was the advice he received from his personal board that helped him keep the two other internal CEO candidates from leaving?!

  26. My first ever listen of your Podcast. Sanjayan seems like a guy with some really good advice. Tim thanks for covering a wide variety of topics with him, his answers seemed very educational and something everyone can put to use. Please do another episode with him.

  27. Wow, now I officially think Sanj is famous. Tim Ferris show! Congrats man. You live near my mom in Montana. We’ve met. Haha. Keep up the good conservation work!