Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Tim Urban (@waitbutwhy), the author of the blog Wait But Why, who has become one of the Internet’s most popular writers, with his site receiving more than 1.5 million unique visitors per month and having over 550,000 email subscribers. Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss, and welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show, or perhaps you’re listening to the brand new Tribe of Mentors podcast, which is, currently, as of this recording, No. 5 across all of iTunes and Apple podcasts. This is a cross post episode. So, it appears in both places. And I’ll keep this intro short. This conversation you’re going to hear is with Tim Urban, and we’ll get into his bio in the actual conversation. It was recorded at Barnes & Noble in Union Square in New York City on the launch evening of the Tribe of Mentors book. You can learn all about that at tribeofmentors.com. We had a blast. The audience was awesome.
Thank you to everyone who came out. And we’ll probably be doing some more live experiments like this. So, without further ado, please enjoy my very wide ranging conversation with the ever hilarious and fascinating Tim Urban. All right. How’s everybody doing tonight? All right. This is exciting. Thank you all so much for coming. It’s a real honor and privilege to have you all here. And we’re going to do something a little bit different tonight.
Rather than do what is the norm and perhaps what I’ve done many times before, which is get up and tell you all about this book that you already own, I thought we’d do a bonus round with one of the guests, one of the people who was interviewed for Tribe of Mentors.
So, I’m going to welcome him to the stage in just a moment. But I’ll read the bio first while I wrestle with the audio. And here we go. One of my favorite people in New York City. So, I’m excited. And we’ll be asking questions I have not asked him before. So, this is a rare, live edition of the Tim Ferriss Show, in some ways also. Here we go. Tim Urban, who is Tim Urban. Twitter, Facebook @waitbutwhy, waitbutwhy.com. Tim Urban is the author of the blog Wait But Why and has become one of the internet’s most popular writers. Tim, according to Fast Company, has captured a level of reader engagement that even the new media giant would be envious of. Today Wait But Why receives more than 1.5 million unique visitors per month, among them Elon Musk, and has more than 550,000 email subscribers.
Tim has gained a number of prominent readers as well like author Sam Harris and Susan Kane, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, head curator Chris Anderson. That’s one of my buddies, hi, Chris and brain picking, some Maria Popova. Tim’s series of posts after interviewing Elon Musk had been called by Vox’s David Roberts “the meatiest, most fascinating, most satisfying posts I’ve read in ages.” You can start with the first one, Elon Musk, The World’s Raddist Man. Tim’s Ted Talk, Inside the Mind of a Master Procrastinator, has received more than now, I checked it yesterday, 25 million combined views. Please welcome to the stage the incredible, the brilliant and handsome Tim Urban.
Tim Urban: I feel like this is like your birthday party, and I’m stepping in the middle. It’s very uncomfortable.
Tim Ferriss: Well, I said what other Tim can I bring into the fold for those people who are maybe a little older like I am. This is the T2, the improved version. That’s a Terminator reference. All right. So, I figured we’ll jump into it. And what we’re going to do is we’ll have a conversation, which mostly involves me just asking him questions. And then, we’ll jump into this fish bowl and answer some of your questions. And then, after that, we will have the opportunity, we might be here for a while, so, I will not be offended if people are like peace, I’m out. I don’t want to wait. But we will have a chance to say hello.
And people who want to have photographs and so on, we’ll be able to do that. Okay. Let’s just jump right into it. Wait But Why. Before Wait But Why and you and I chatted a little bit about this, I guess, it feels like a couple of nights ago, but maybe it was yesterday, I can’t remember, it’s been a big week, you blogged casually for six years or so on the side. Could you tell us about that blog? What subjects did you cover? What characterized what you did part time for six years?
Tim Urban: So, it was called Underneath the Turban, so, that’s a little thing that I came up with. And –
Tim Ferriss: The turban?
Tim Urban: Yes, because my name is Tim Urban. I was 23. I wasn’t –
Tim Ferriss: It took me a second.
Tim Urban: It was not a serious project. And it was very much a side project. It was actually, I think, I can credit the fact that it was a side project for why I was actually able to kind of be productive because I didn’t have this pressure to do it. I was like what’s my voice? Who am I as a writer? I wasn’t a writer. I was doing something else. I was going to blog to procrastinate from the other things I was supposed to be doing, which liberated me creatively, actually. I was able to kind of do my own thing and kind of find my voice and be kind of a little bit courageous, at times.
And I think for someone like me, it was like I tricked myself into actually doing stuff that I normally probably would have been a little bit more belabored in trying to get it going.
Tim Ferriss: What types of subjects? Was it similar? How was it most different, and how was it most similar to Wait But Why?
Tim Urban: So, it was very much more like a blog blog. I’d write about my day. I’d rant about going to the store, and then, they had McDonald’s there. And then, I was like don’t get the six piece nugget, get the four, and then, I ordered the ten. And it was the end of the night, so, they gave me eighteen. And I ate all 18. And it was like that kind of story about my day, very much off the top of my head just typing, publishing. And it was a small, little, passionate following of like 700 people and 6 comments on a thing, and that was that. And this was this side project. But it was a way for me to actually write 300 blog posts over a 6 year span.
Tim Ferriss: Were there any seeds for that experience that then informed Wait But Why, and why did you create Wait But Why? And where does the name come from?
Tim Urban: Yeah. So, I was able to kind of hone my voice writing 300 blog posts. I look back at the early ones, and I wince at the tones I was using. So, 300 blog posts will teach you the voice you like to write in. And so, that’s one thing. And then, towards the end, I decided one night to try to draw something. And I kind of said let me – I was going to try to depict this concept of it was funny when somebody – it was like doppelganger day on Facebook, and somebody posts a doppelganger that’s way better looking than they are, I always think that’s kind of hilarious. And I was like I’m going to draw a stick figure that’s kind of messy and then a handsome stick figure with a wave of hair.
And so, I did that. And it hit me that I was like that would be better in the drawing. And I realized I liked that. And so, I discovered that there, too. And so, when I started Wait But Why a couple of years –
Tim Ferriss: Did other people also respond positively to that? Or did you just –
Tim Urban: Very, yeah. It got great feedback, and then, I started just every post, it was like the last seven posts on the blog, all had drawings. And it was like I had discovered it at the very end. So, then, it was time to start a new project.
Tim Ferriss: Why was it time to start a new project? Why not continue writing about the Chicken McNuggets? No, I’m not trying to be a dick.
Tim Urban: No, it’s fair. And I also write about chicken nuggets sometimes.
Tim Ferriss: Sorry, family programming, not sure, sorry. Continue.
Tim Urban: No. It was time in my life, in general, to turn all of my attention, not a third of my attention, to one creative project. It was always I’m doing something with my full time, and then, I’m doing these two creative projects on the side.
Tim Ferriss: I’m going to be a pain the ass. I apologize, but that’s my nature. Why was it time? What realization or conversation or getting fired or whatever catalyzed the decision it’s time for me to put all of my eggs in one basket creatively?
Tim Urban: This thing you do makes me love your podcast. But it’s stressful being the person.
I’m just learning this, for the first time. But so, for me, I spent the years from ages 22 to 31 hating myself a little bit because I was burning to do something creative, whether it was writing or music or something. And I always was doing them on the side. It was like that kind of just leap of faith in my own kind of ability to do something creative full time took me nine years. Nine years that I wasn’t very happy. And so, I finally said I have to do something full time because I always thought, if I could just do something full time, put all of the energy from all of these things into one thing, it would go well.
So, I decided – I actually owned a business with my friend, Andrew Finn. And it was the fact that the business got into a decent enough spot that we were able to start something new. And that’s when I jumped on that.
Tim Ferriss: What was the business?
Tim Urban: It’s a test prep company.
Tim Ferriss: This is a great business. So, [inaudible] who is a very successful novelist also go this beginnings in that –
Tim Urban: A good starter business is something –
Tim Ferriss: Adam Robinson as well, so, three people in this book. That’s crazy. I’m just putting it together now.
Tim Urban: Who knew I was on to the starter business idea? I was just procrastinating from my music career is actually all I was doing when I started it because I was tutoring on the side. And then, of course, the side things ended up taking all of my time, which is what a classic procrastinator would do. But, yeah, just simple kind of each session pays for itself. You don’t need overhead. At the beginning, you don’t need any full time employees. But we had built it up to the point where we had good, full time employees, good enough to run it without both of us there. And so, it was time to start something.
And we had done this a couple of years ago. We started a podcast back in 2011 with the theory that podcasts were just going to get bigger, and they did. Unfortunately, we didn’t know how to build a good app. We built a bad app. You shouldn’t build a bad app. But now, it was a couple of years later, and it was time for something new. And I said I’m going to jump on this. I need to do something creative. Let me see if I can do it as also a business that we can kind of own together. You can run our tutoring company. I’m going to go and start something. And it was between writing a musical, which is a terrible business. I wouldn’t want to drag him into that. Or writing maybe a content website. A platform, media platform, that can be a business. So, that’s why we settled on that. I knew those were things I could do creatively well. And so, we settled on this.
And the premise was what if I took instead of five hours a week to write a blog, sixty hours a week to write a blog? What would happen? And I took the things I knew that I’d gotten good at on the other blog, which was just kind of writing colloquially and drawing stick figures. And I started it from there.
Tim Ferriss: What is the origin of the name?
Tim Urban: Sixteen hours on Go Daddy searching for dot coms.
And man, there is not much. But I knew I didn’t – I wanted it to be something that wouldn’t pigeonhole it into –
Tim Ferriss: All right. Were you just typing in random combinations of words? Or was there some itch you had related to the expression? Did you have a habit – I was imagining, oh, it’s because people would say something to you, and you’d want to test the assumptions, or you wouldn’t accept it at face value, so, you’d go wait, but why. That was in my head how I explained it.
Tim Urban: I wish it was that situation. I checked 2,000 things in Go Daddy, 150 came out. My girlfriend knocked out 140 immediately. It was like absolutely not. That leaves me with 10 where I was kind of like, okay, these are all bad. Which is the least bad? If the site is good, it can seem kind of cool suddenly, maybe. But it starts off bad, but then, it’s not bad. And some of the other ones were just extremely embarrassing.
Tim Ferriss: Wait. You can’t dangle that hook in front of me. Were there any that – I can give some examples, too, if it makes you feel any better of book titles that are horrible. But were there any that you really liked that your girlfriend shot down?
Tim Urban: You were like we could both do this embarrassing thing, but actually just you.
Tim Ferriss: I’ll kick it off. So, there was for what ended up being the Four Hour Work Week, there was Lifestyle Hustling. Glad I didn’t use that. There was Drug Dealing for Fun and Profit, which was promptly vetoed by every retailer, thank God. There was Broadband and White Sand. It goes on. It goes on. So, sometimes, you need life to save you from yourself.
Tim Urban: Those are kind of good. Those at least are sensical. They have some kind of – I understand two of those three at least.
Tim Ferriss: All right. I’ll take two out of three. That’s partially because I’m giving you the better of the worst. But your turn.
Tim Urban: Miniatureking.com. I was in a deep Go Daddy spiral. If you’ve ever been on one of these, it gets weird. It gets really weird. So, I’m there, and I’m into this idea of a king because I pictured the playing card king. And I’m like miniature king, and I suddenly got obsessed with it. He has little legs, and he’s very angry. He’s very cranky. And there’s like big, adult people walking by him, and he’s on the ground. And he’s like 2 feet tall. And my girlfriend was like, Jesus, absolutely not. But I got so addicted to the king concept that when I started Wait But Why, I made the logo a playing card king, and he’s pissed off.
Tim Ferriss: That’s amazing. You were like okay, kind of.
Tim Urban: Yeah. I still kind of think miniature king could have worked. He’s the mascot. He’s cranky.
Tim Ferriss: I like it.
Tim Urban: But since then, what you can do, this happens all of the time –
Tim Ferriss: Do you still own miniatureking.com?
Tim Urban: I own miniatureking.com and about 15 others, yeah. There’s a lot. I have Jesus Half Bro. I was going to do a site where I’m Jesus’s half brother, but he’s not like the divine one. He’s just born from Jesus’s mom with some guy. And he’s upset.
Tim Ferriss: What could go wrong with that?
Tim Urban: He’s got all kinds of psychological issues going on. He’s trying to figure out his career.
Tim Ferriss: What were, if you look back because I look back, and I remember my first attempts at blogging at like the first 12 posts. And they’ve, thankfully, mostly been forgotten over time. But what were your first – you had more practice than I did. You’d already put in 300 reps. What were the first posts like? Do you remember any of the topics?
Tim Urban: So, with my early blog, the topics were like they started with three sentence things. The first three were the title was Frankly, and then, it said if peeing in the shower is wrong, I don’t want to be right. That was a blog post back in the day. Flash forward six years now, Wait But Why, I knew more. And I knew right away it was going to be like long and thorough because it was my own site, and I knew I could get into depth, if I could just go longer. So, at the beginning, I was anonymous, and I’m sure you dealt with this, too. At some point, it’s the get attention phase. So, anonymous, the only marketing platform I had was my personal Facebook page.
And I started with seven ways to be insufferable on Facebook, which sounds like a buzz feed headline, but it was much more in depth. It got into the deep, dark psychology of why it’s the wild west of social etiquette, and why we’re all a very embarrassing version of ourselves on it, and what the different negative human qualities that come through on it.
That was the very first one. I actually went to Easter Island for a month before I started Wait But Why, to just alone in the middle of nowhere write blog posts and pick my favorite one to put on first to just kind of figure out what I – and that was the winner.
Tim Ferriss: Why did you pick Easter Island?
Tim Urban: I like the fact that you could take a 2,000 mile yardstick and swing it around the island and not hit any people. That was cool to me. It was so isolated. Plus, the statues and the whole thing. And I was kind of like I’ve always wanted to go. It was either there, or I was going to go to Lithuania in the winter and just creep out some small village. You can tell me a small village to creep out some time. And I actually talked to someone, and they were like you may actually arouse suspicion if you’re this foreigner working every day in the café.
Tim Ferriss: I’m just writing blog posts in isolation in a small, Lithuanian village.
Tim Urban: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: It sounds like a George Clooney spy movie.
Tim Urban: But I do want to do that, in the mid dead of winter, go to a small, cold village somewhere.
Tim Ferriss: So, how did the blog post do, that one?
Tim Urban: It did well. The very first one, I chose well.
Tim Ferriss: How did you choose it relative to the other ideas that you had?
Tim Urban: Trying to do some combo of something that I thought was true enough to me that represented the kind of quality I wanted to do but also that could go viral. Just beginning, how could it go viral because that’s the –
Tim Ferriss: What year was this? Do you know?
Tim Urban: In 2013, summer of 2013. So, that post did really well. It got 500,000 uniques in the first month.
Tim Ferriss: Wow, that’s an incredible number.
Tim Urban: My whole last blog got 250,000 uniques in 6 years. So, this was like okay, longer. Getting into more serious topics and insulting people. It’s on to something. Plus, what I didn’t know, at the time, was that 2013 was a pretty magical year to be promoting content on Facebook. This was that – Facebook had decided let’s show everyone just how powerful we are.
This is why Buzz Feed exploded. Upworthy, you first heard of it in 2013, Viral Nova, these sites exploded because Facebook’s algorithm, basically, said anyone posting content, we’re going to show it to half a million people. I was in the right place at the right time, so, that was very helpful as well.
Tim Ferriss: Just to maybe underscore one thing, for instance, when I started my first business, it was the golden age of Google Ad Words. It was shooting fish in a barrel, so in expensive. And then, when the Four Hour Work Week launched, it was at the same time at south by southwest when Twitter was effectively publicly debuted. There were big screens displaying all of the tweets in the world going on, which happened to be concentrated right in Austin, Texas because it was so small. And I would say that any time is the right time, in some way.
So, these opportunities we’re talking about, there are these opportunities right now. You just have to try to sniff them out, or just shoot in the dark and hope that you’ll catch some tail wind. But everybody has, it seems with these stories, some element of luck involved. But you can improve the odds. That’s just –
Tim Urban: Right. There’s like 10 waves throughout your – and one of the waves is cresting when you’re starting. You don’t know which one. But something is cresting at the time. And it’s the perfect time to start something for some reason always.
Tim Ferriss: Right. And in every story where you find a component of good timing, there’s usually a component of bad timing, right? Like podcast app. You were paddling for the right wave, you were just doing it years too early.
Tim Urban: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: All right. So, I want to bring another figure, another character into this picture. Who is Winston? Can you tell us about Winston, please?
Tim Urban: Winston is a close friend of mine. I met him in 2005 when he was 3 months old. I purchased him.
And we lived happily together ever since. He was the size of a golf ball, at the time. Now, he’s the size of a football, which is a huge upgrade for him. He’s a tortoise. But he’s very loveable. He’s kind of my apartment screen saver. I’m just sitting in what would be a still scene, and there’s this moseying thing. This little, moseying dinosaur that moseys by. And who doesn’t want that? You should all own a tortoise. It’s weird that most of you don’t own a tortoise.
Tim Ferriss: Why did you name him Winston?
Tim Urban: Because I thought he had a Churchill look to him. Or it’s more that Churchill has a tortoise look to him.
Tim Ferriss: I’m sort of imagining, and I know they’re not the same, but the sea turtles in Finding Nemo. And it’s like, yeah, I can see that. Maybe a –
Tim Urban: Yeah, but Winston has less charisma. But otherwise, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: When I look at some of your posts, and I’ve had my life very directly and profoundly impacted by some of your writing, particularly about time remaining with say parents or family.
But when I look at some of your very research heavy posts, and it feels funny to call them posts, whether it’s on AI or other topics that confuse a lot of people. We’re talking about, for those of you who don’t have any familiarity, in some cases, 50,000 words, 70,000 words. That’s a book, everybody.
Tim Urban: How long is the Four Hour Work Week?
Tim Ferriss: Four Hour Work Week, that’s a solid, now, it’s deceptive to use page count, but that’s how I think, it’s about I want to say 420 pages or 430 pages. And it’s not gigantic Dr. Seuss print. So, it’s probably closer, if I’m guessing, taking a stab, to the 100,000 or 120,000 word mark. I seem to have sort of word inflation with the books I write.
They’re getting bigger. But when you’re tackling one of these post, what are some of the approaches or questions you ask that allow you to write something better and different? Because, presumably, many people are out there trying to learn about these various topics. And yet, you put out these posts that are the size of books that end up going viral. And you make complicated or seemingly complicated topics, very digestible. So, what is your approach to tackling a topic like AI?
Tim Urban: Yeah. So, it’s pretty simple for me. First of all, I do this kind of weird thing where I assume that my audience is I picture like a stadium full of me. So, it’s narcistic fantasy. No, but it’s just – I’m just writing for – I’m writing the exact post that I would be thrilled to get.
So, I’m just – that’s my focus group right there, right in my head. And it’s easy because we’re all kind of special, unique people, except not really. There’s like 100,000 copies of each of you out there somewhere. And the truth is, if I just write for me, there are a lot of people that have my exact weird taste. I just know that. So, I start there with kind of like who am I writing for. That makes it easy. And so, with something like AI, if there’s a one through ten scale of how much you know about something, ten is world leading expert, and one has absolutely never heard of the term, I started at two or three on most stuff like most layman. I’m a layman about everything.
And so, then, I spend – just my curiosity is the driver. I pick topics I’m excited to dig into. And I’ll spend however long it takes. Sometimes, it’s one day. Sometimes, it’s three weeks. Sometimes, it’s three months. But I’ll take as long as I need to to learn enough to get me to maybe like a five or a six out of ten.
I’m not going to get a PhD. I’m not going to spend five years getting myself to an eight or nine. But I’m going to get myself to a six where I’m like I can answer, basically, any question a layman asks me. I can do a Q&A with an audience on this topic for 10 hours, and I’ll have a pretty good, solid answer to everything. Not that I know, necessarily, the truth of everything. But I know when the experts don’t know the truth, and they’re arguing. I know what the experts say about, basically, everything. So, I get myself to that level. And then, I think about so, experts have sometimes a hard time explaining because they haven’t been at a two in decades sometimes.
And they have this jargon. And they don’t remember what it’s like to be a two out of ten. I was there three weeks ago. I know exactly what my readers know about this. And I know exactly what – so, I just looked at the road I went down to get myself to a six. And I think about how could I do that road way more efficiently, if I could go do it again now? How could I do it in a much more fun way? And what’s a fun story I could tell to bring readers from the two to a six? And so, that’s my challenge then is to, basically, package the road I just went down for three weeks and make it an hour and a half package instead?
Tim Ferriss: Okay. Not surprisingly, I have some follow up questions. Let’s pick a subject. Have you written about crypto currency or blockchain?
Tim Urban: Not yet.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, perfect
Tim Urban: Highly requested topic.
Tim Ferriss: I’m sure it is. The reason I ask is that much like AI, I have seen dozens of people attempt to explain, without misrepresenting, crypto currency and blockchain 101 for the masses. And it seems like almost every single attempt has failed. If you were to take that assignment on, where would you start?
Tim Urban: So, I always start, I feel like, I’m blindfolded in a room. And I’m just trying to figure out where are even the walls here? Where is the furniture. I just want to start and understand what I even need to learn.
So, I want to get a picture of the topic. And then, I can start diving in, going down various rabbit holes. And, usually, going outside of the topic. A rabbit hole outside of the topic is procrastination. But it also, often, gives you even more context. You’ll find some metaphor out there that you end up bringing back. So, I’ll just read and read and watch You Tube videos all on the internet.
Tim Ferriss: How do you search? Reading, do you start at Wikipedia? Is that ground zero?
Tim Urban: Yeah. I’ll start at Wikipedia for just a basic foundation. Wikipedia is good at telling you where the walls are. Just letting you even understand the topic, in general. And letting you even understand the topic, in general. And Wikipedia has a lot of good knowledge on it. So, I’ll go there, and then, I’ll go to the bottom of Wikipedia and start clicking on the reference links. And I’ll usually Google blockchain PDF, and you end up finding all of these superbly boring journal articles. And then, I’ll go on You Tube. There are a lot of good people, smart teachers explaining stuff on You Tube.
They’re not going to explain the whole thing, usually. They’re going to explain one part. Maybe I realized that, to understand blockchain, you need to first go down three layers. You need to build a foundation that begins with understanding what encryption is. You need to understand how encryption works and public keys and private keys. That’s when you can start to, on top of that, build an understanding of what a ledger is that would be on these different computers and how it could possibly be secure. And by the time you get to blockchain, you’re like eight layers up. So, I’ll go find a You Tube video not on blockchain, but on encryption. And then, I’ll find a You Tube video explaining what ledgers are, in general.
I was reading about the history of ledgers and where they’re used it the world, and encryption and how it was invented and how its evolved. And you just keep doing this. And the reason it’s easy for me, this part, is because I’m super curious. So, the more I learn, the less icky the topic gets. When the topic gets un-icky, it starts to be super delicious, the opposite of icky. And then, I can’t read enough. And it’s so fun suddenly. I’m like I get it. And then, I just want to fill in the knowledge, and I want to watch a You Tube video I already know the answer to just to feel good about I already knew everything he’s saying.
this is great. But it solidifies it. And you hear seven different people articulate it in seven ways. And it just rounds out your understanding. And by the end, I start to be like I totally get this.
Tim Ferriss: I find a video on You Tube. So, last I checked, which was not recently, You Tube was the second largest search engine in the world. There’s a lot of great stuff. There’s also a lot of nonsense. How do you search? So, what are the terms? How do you sort them? How do you go about picking properly?
Tim Urban: Well, so, in Google, I will Google blockchain. Leave that in a window. Open a new window, and I’ll Google bitcoin. New window, Ethereum. New window, crypto currency. New window, decentralized systems crypto. New window, crypto currency is bullshit. New window, whatever. And I’ll just keep going.
And I’ll just think of anything. And then, each one of those windows I go back to, and I just hold down command, and I just click, click, click, click, click, click, and I have 10 tabs, 10 tabs, 10 tabs. And I just go and read everything. So, Google, again, I don’t have to discern. I don’t care if this [inaudible] article is going to be really useful or whether it’s going to be accurate because the beginning process is just if you read 70 articles that may or may not have validity to them, the total sum of them actually you start to understand what do we know as a species? Where are we all agreeing?
And then, where, clearly, a lot of people don’t know what they’re talking about. Or there’s this broad, this kind of dichotomy of a view in this one area. And there’s these people, and there’s these people. You Tube is kind of the same thing. I’ll just start watching without discerning. Again, if you’re a procrastinator, it’s fantastic because you don’t feel bad about just watching endlessly when it’s taking all of your time, and it’s not what you’re supposed to do, and it feels great. So, I’ll just watch. And then, of course, the sidebar starts to figure out – You Tube very quickly, and Google, will figure out what you’re doing. And then, You Tube will start to put all of the things on the side for me. Plus, you start to see names you trust.
Tim Ferriss: Make money in crypto currency in one week.
Tim Urban: Well, it’s funny, I’m just writing a post now on like, we won’t get into this, but like political stuff. And normally, my sidebar is like look how much of an idiot Trump is and his voters. And then, I’m now trying to – I was Googling all of these conservative things because I’m writing about both sides of stuff. And suddenly, the internet starts to indoctrinate me the other way. And they’re like look at this wise Trump voter embarrass this – and I look over, and I’m kind of like – and a couple of hours later, I’m like Trump is the best. So, You Tube figures out your angle, and it will start to kind of feed you stuff.
And then, there’s certain names you trust. Hank and John Green. I trust them. [Inaudible], I trust them. CGP Gray, I trust him. So, you’ll see certain names you trust. Minute Physics, great. So, there’s also that, and the same with Google, of course. I’ll trust certain sources more than others.
Tim Ferriss: And once you’ve ingested massive amounts of information, and you’ve established a basic map for the territory, what do you think are the tools or approaches, anything at all, that help you to be so good at teaching these subjects in the way that you present it or structure your pieces?
Tim Urban: Well, so, again, the starting point is I just went through this. And I teach myself. And I was bad at teaching myself because I didn’t know what I was doing. So, now, the experience of a learner is fresh in my head. So, that’s the first thing that’s helpful. But then, I always, basically, with almost any explainer post like that, I just zoom out. Helicopter up. If you’re looking at the land, and you see kind of like a beach, you don’t know what it is. Is this a huge lake? Is this a little beach? Does it curve around? I don’t know. That’s how I feel a lot of the articles on AI or crypto currency are.
And then, the author might have a full understanding, but they’re just describing the beach. So, you take a helicopter up, and you’re like okay, wait a second. This is a big river. And there’s a – and you go up further, and you’re like oh, no, this is kind of a tributary that goes into the ocean. And now, you’re kind of up where airplanes go and maybe even the International Space Station goes, and you’re like okay, this is actually what’s going on. So, I start there myself as a thinker and then, when I’m trying to explain, I’m just going to start there, which is why people make fun of me because I’ll write about three different things. And they all start at the big bang by the time I’m done with them.
I have to, basically, go back. But, sometimes, it’s helpful. By the time you get from the big bang to now, suddenly, we can see the whole coastline, and now, the beach suddenly makes sense. And I try to make it fun also because who wants to like – so many – the journal articles, the experts, they’re not writing to entertain.
And it’s just bad. It’s like textbooks and school where it’s so bad. They were so boring. Part of the reason I like You Tube is because people who end up with a lot of views on You Tube that are going to end up on my recommended thing, they have an eye for entertainment. So, I try to do the same thing as well.
Tim Ferriss: And if you were to ask say friends of yours who are fans of your writing what your ingredients for entertaining are, what might they say? Or to just ask you. I don’t want you to be overly self deprecating. I’m just trying to figure out what makes it entertaining? Because it is, clearly, entertaining.
Tim Urban: Again, entertaining means 10 different things to 10 different people. Every post, I get nine emails from mothers in Kansas angry at me for swearing. But it depends on it’s, I think, trying to add sense of humor into basically everything. Treating it light, good metaphors. For me, lots of visuals.
I’m a visual learner. If I see a block of text, and I’m just scrolling down, I’m kind of upset. It feels like homework. But if I scroll down, and every few paragraphs, there’s a chart, there’s a comic, I’m suddenly like okay, this is fun. I’m kind of excited. And so, that’s how I think. So, I try to do that. That’s what I would want. So, there’s so many things where you can just do a funny stick drawing or really good diagram. And it’s just way clearer and sticks in your head more. If I’m going to talk about procrastination, I can talk about the limbic system and talk about how it works and our flight or fight zone.
Or I can make an instant gratification monkey because that is, essentially, what it is. And that’s more memorable and I think more fun to read, at the time.
Tim Ferriss: So, you’ve really, in my opinion, exhibited a mastery for taking what many people would consider extremely intimidating subjects, many of them involved in forging what we’re going to experience as a species as the future.
So, I’d like to talk about the future for a second. And I want to read a quote here. I believe that you wrote or said this, so correct me if I’m wrong. “I always thought the future would be intense. But now, I think the future is going fully fucking crazy.” Okay. So, what are a few things that you’re excited about or see coming down the pike in the future? It doesn’t have to be one or two. It could be many.
Tim Urban: It is going to be crazy, and here’s why. So, the first thought a lot of people have is that it’s naïve to think that the future is going to – we’re at the end of times. Everyone thinks that. You’re just another naïve person that thinks they live in a special time. And the reason we all have that instinct is because we’re – biology moves very slowly. It evolves very, very slowly. So, 50,000 years is nothing in biology and evolution. So, we’ve barely changed. Meaning, we’re still a baby born today is a baby that is perfectly optimized to live in a tribe in Ethiopia in 50,000 BC.
And everything about it is ready for survival in that world. But what we’ve done is taken that baby away from its home planet and brought it to another planet, which is the earth in 2017. And that baby isn’t made very well for this world. None of us are. So, the first thing to think about is just that a lot of our instincts and a lot of our intuitions are actually going to be inherently wrong. We’re going to be living in a delusion that was helpful back then and today just is not great. So, the reason – the way you can cut through tis and actually see reality when that baby is not – seeing reality isn’t helpful to that baby. Fitting in with the tribe is and believing what the tribe believes is.
So, today, we want to see reality. So, you can just look at the facts sometimes. So, imagine that – this is going to be a long answer. Imagine that – I have a lot to say about this. Imagine that the – this is what I’m saying about the zoom out. Answers can’t be short in my head. So, imagine that human history is about 1,000 centuries –
Tim Ferriss: Get comfortable, folks.
Tim Urban: Settle in. So, 1,000 centuries of human history, 100,000 years. So, each two centuries is a page in a book. How many pages is this?
Tim Ferriss: About 700 pages.
Tim Urban: So, 500 pages. Actually, whatever. They’re finding older, human mermaids, so, fine. So, 140,000 years, every page in this book that you’re holding is 200 years in human history. So, Page 1 through 650 of that book, hunter gathers. If you’re an alien reading this book to understand what happened on this planet, you are bored. This is really boring. Page 650, 10,000 years ago, you have the agriculture revolution. Wait. So, suddenly, people are coming together and forming cities. They’re starting to actually form larger civilizations. They have a collective intelligence that’s starting to form. They can compare notes. They can kind of create the knowledge tower that is bigger than any one of them.
It’s very interesting stuff. So, that’s 50 pages ago. Then, it gets boring again for a while. Page 690 out of 700, the little tiny end of the book here, you’ve have Jesus. You have 693, you have the advent of Islam. The Roman Empire happens two pages ago. It’s already done. In 697, you have Imperialism. For the first time, you have countries. There’s this new thing that happened in the last three pages. Page 698, you have the enlightenment, you have the renaissance. You have things like this. They discover that there’s galaxies, telescope. Page 699, you finally get to the beginning of the US and the beginning of the constitutional democracies.
Now, Page 700 happens, which is from about 200 years ago to today. So, the beginning of Page 700, the alien turns the page, industrial revolution happens. Big deal, big change. And as he reads down the page, things start to go crazy. You start to have – in 699 pages this alien has read, this boring ass species has communicated through letters and talking.
He was excited about language 500 pages ago. Now, he’s bored. Smoke signals, firing a canon ball in the air, stuff like that. Suddenly, on Page 700, we go to the space station. We have the moon. We have airplanes. We have cars just on Page 700. So, 699 pages, we only communicate through – we have this kind of simple transportation, communication. Now, we have Face Time. We have telephone. We have the internet. Crazy. Less than a billion people for the first 699 pages. On Page 700 alone, we cross the one, two, three, four, five, six and seven billion person marks. So, the alien is reading.
And his wife comes in and is like hey, we’re going to have dinner. And he’s like shut up. This is the most riveting thing suddenly. He’s like what is about to happen to this species? This is crazy what just happened on this page. This is when we’re born. We’re born at the end of Page 700. This is why when someone says what do you think the future is going to be, I’m like Page 701. And he’s like what the hell is this guy talking about. Page 701, there’s no way it’s not going to be nuts.
Tim Ferriss: This shit just goes bonkers.
Tim Urban: Yeah. The first three sentences of Page 701 will take us to 2025 when they predict that AI is going to, basically, infiltrate every single industry and part of our lives the way electricity did in a 10 year span in the 1880’s. That’s the first three sentences. So, to me, I see revolutions. The first half of Page 701, the first quarter of Page 701, I see revolutions in VR, AR. I see revolutions in AI. I see revolutions in brain machine interfaces. We’re going to be able to think thoughts to each other. It’s way cooler for language, for the first time. I see revolutions in genetic stuff.
Your grandkids are going to be like, so, you just had a baby and hoped it was a good baby? It’s going to seem crazy. It’s going to seem so primitive. And you can just go on and on and on with things. How about this one? What are the major leaps for life? You can count on one hand for all of life. Simple cell to complex cell, big one. Complex cell to multi cell, big one. We have animals now. Ocean to land, big one. I would say the fourth that fits on this same list is going from one planet to multi planets as a civilization. That’s happening in the next decade with space. No one is talking about it yet, but they will be.
Just the fact that we’re going to witness, in our lifetimes, one of the great leaps for all of life. This isn’t normal.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. So, I want to talk about extra planetary, just a couple of curious notions that I’ve been bouncing around in my own head.
If you had to bet on more humans inhabiting Mars or inhabiting space stations that don’t have to conquer a separate gravity, where would you bet? Because there are competing camps, or at least technologists who are looking at say inhabiting other planets, or saying no, that makes no sense because now, you’re dealing with a separate environment, gravitational field, etc. We’re going to just build space stations.
Tim Urban: I would say Mars, for a while. Mars is probably going to have a million people in the next five or six decades. And then, it will, eventually, probably end up at a billion people. But I think space stations, in the long run, way better. It’s going to seem really crappy to be on a planet. Being on a planet is going to seem very old school and very kind of rough compared to the space stations we can – imagine dealing with weather. It’s going to seem crazy that you’d have to deal with weather, that you had to deal with things like climate change. It’s just not our problem. We have to deal with bugs. I’d be so happy that there’s no bugs on the space station.
So, I think, in the long run, that. But I have a more important question, which is are you going to go to Mars?
Tim Ferriss: No.
Tim Urban: No?
Tim Ferriss: Well, not in the near term. I don’t want to be the first monkey shot to Mars. I’ll let quite a few people work out the kinks on that one. We can’t even figure out how to upgrade IOS without replacing I with fucking images. I’m going to let someone shoot me to Mars? No, not early, no.
Tim Urban: Okay. Now, picture it’s 20 years from now, and every 26 months, earth laps Mars, and they end up next to each other. That’s when you have this window to go. So, every 26 months, there’s going to be a colonial fleet heading there and another fleet coming back, bringing people back, round trip tickets.
Tim Ferriss: All though different people on the legs, right?
Tim Urban: Exactly. And there’s going to be first class things. There will be like fancy people. But everyone will be jumping around, bouncing around with the gravity. It sounds great like a zero gravity cruise ship. So, the question is, for you, it’s 2038. Or 2045, and it’s been proven, for the last 20 trips back and forth, no one has gotten hurt. It’s totally safe.
Tim Ferriss: Would I visit?
Tim Urban: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: What’s the total time invested, at this point, in the transportation?
Tim Urban: Let’s say the shortest round trip you can do is a 52 month.
Tim Ferriss: I would strongly consider it. I heard Jeff Bezos say recently on stage, before you think about going to Mars, spend a month in Antarctica. That’s a cake walk.
Tim Urban: Oh, Antarctica is way better than Mars. Antarctica but 15 to 20 degrees colder. You can’t breathe the air. And you can’t be outside in the sun without a radiation suit.
Tim Ferriss: So, I think it depends a lot on the brochure of Mars Club Med that I receive.
Tim Urban: Yeah, it’s not good.
Tim Ferriss: All right. Shifting gears a little bit, AI, do you think it is an existential threat or not? And if so, what is the time horizon for it becoming an imminent existential threat?
Tim Urban: So, this is one of the great questions. AI is probably the subject I’ve talked to most experts on. So, I’m not an expert, but I really know what the experts think. And I try to keep up to date because they change their minds a lot.
Tim Ferriss: No, we’ll be fine. No, we’ll be fine now that we’re all dead.
Tim Urban: What I find is very few people who don’t think this is going to basically take over everything. The question is when. And I was surprised that even the people that are pessimistic, they kind of think it might be 100 years from now. Most people think 50, 30, and people that Deep Mine these days at Google, which is like the leading AI company now, they’re saying things like 10. And when I say 10, 10 until what? I’m talking about before any of this moment happens – to understand AI, you have to think about two things. There’s narrow intelligence, and there’s general intelligence. So, humans have general intelligence. We’re smart across the board.
We have social skills. We have creativity. We can understand math. We can read. We can be creative. We can learn from experience. You just name anything, and humans can kind of learn how to be smart there. But when you think about AI, AI is way better than any human at the things it’s good at like chess, the world chess master. And it’s the world master at everything that it does well. But it’s only good at that one thing. So, there’s AI on your phone. There’s AI in your car. There’s AI running most stuff, at this point, but it’s only good at one thing. So, the question is when will AI gain that same breadth that we have?
When will it become broadly smart? And until then, it’s still going to change the world. It’s still going to take a huge amount of jobs and create a whole bunch more. So, it’s going to be a massive group of changes that happen even before we get general intelligence. But the question that I was referring to before is when do we get to this level where AI is not smart like we are but way, way smarter, what Nick Bostrom calls super intelligence where it’s as smarter than us as we are than monkeys.
Yeah. So, basically, if you picture like not only can a monkey not build this room, or when you look out in the night sky, and you see little lights moving around, humans are so smart. We put those there. We put airplanes and satellites in the night sky. So, not only can a monkey not do that, you can show the monkey the lights of this building, and he can’t even understand that you did it. He just will think that it’s just there. That’s just a moving star. So, we’re talking about something that not only can we not do what this thing can do, we can’t even understand that it did it, even if it tried to explain it. That’s how smart this thing is. It’s really crazy concept.
So, things that we think are hard like curing disease, poverty, climate change, anything we consider a challenge, easy, piece of cake for the AI. So, that’s the really exciting side. And then, there’s what if we’re not in control of it the way we want to be, not that it’s going to be evil. That’s this anthropomorphization that people do.
They try to apply human stuff to this thing that’s not human. But when you build a house, and there’s an ant hill there, you’re not like death to the ants. You just built a house, and they were in the way, so you killed them. Big deal. The fear is that the AI is doing its thing and that we’re kind of in the way. And we programmed it in a way that we didn’t think of this thing. But now, it’s too powerful. We can’t change it. And we’re toast. Or it gets annoyed that we’re doing something to it that it doesn’t want, and we’re toast. So, you have some high stakes here, which is why, basically, we’re going to have God on earth because we can play God to every other animal right now, even a chimp.
Chimps are really smart, until we put it in a cage. Now, what are you going to do? We have a gun. We have a taser. We can poison its food. Chimps are nothing compared to our God-like ability because we have a little intelligence gap over them. Little in the scheme of things. When this thing has a big intelligence gap over us. It truly can play God to us. It truly can play God to us. So, the question is is it a good God that can solve all of our problems? Or is it one of those dick gods in the old testament like that guy?
So, this is what they’re talking about. This is why AI safety is so important. But most of the money and time is going into AI development right now
Tim Ferriss: So, last questions, and then, we’ll go to audience questions. How do you view happiness, just to bring it back to things that we may be able to influence, at least speaking for myself and a lot of people in this room? How do you view or define happiness for yourself, if you do at all?
Tim Urban: I kind of think of there’s two kinds of happiness that you have to kind of deal with both. One is micro happiness like are your Tuesdays good? Are you generally having a good Tuesday? And then, there’s like macro happiness. Are you present? Are you like yeah, I’ll dig into this current life for 20 years. I love it. Or are you like I was, for nine years after college, which is like I’m doing this now, but I really want to like – I should be doing – and that’s macro happiness. So, I think you have to worry about both.
I think that the most important one to get right, at the beginning at least, is macro. I think if your macro happiness isn’t there, you’re going to feel frustrated. You’re going to have a cloud over you. And then, I think you can work on micro happiness, which is about lifestyle. This is what your so good at. And I think a lot of people here really both kind of happinesses, they look to you because you have a lot of good advice. But I think with micro, you focus so hard on just really crushing a Tuesday. And I think but all life is is literally a Tuesday again and again, and then, you die. So, crushing the Tuesday is –
Tim Ferriss: That’s the title of my next book.
Tim Urban: Let’s get good at it.
Tim Ferriss: White sand and Tuesdays.
Tim Urban: So, yeah, but the thing that’s hard is a lot of times, we assume that it’s the external world. We have to succeed. We have to get this relationship, and then, we’ll be – this is kind of cliché, but we know that it’s messing with your internal expectations.
It’s getting your mind in the right place and kind of seeing reality, and seeing what is your ego, and what is your fear, and what is worrying about judgment, and what is actually real that matters to you, and realizing that a lot of the perceived risk isn’t really dangerous, and a lot of the perceived reward isn’t really gratifying. And it’s all there in front of you, if you can just look past your primate self with your very rational, intelligent self and just see it, and then, learn to internalize it.
Often, suddenly, the happinesses become very clear how to work themselves out. and it’s – often, we end up spending all of our time trying to get to those happinesses with the primate kind of self in charge. And that usually doesn’t get us there.
Tim Ferriss: So, to add to that, reality minus expectations. Is that a useful framework for defining happiness, do you think?
Tim Urban: Yeah. So, you say your happiness is like an equation, reality minus expectations is your happiness.
And so, you can work on two things. You can work on improving your reality, or you can work on not lowering but kind of refining your expectations to reflect what actually matters to you, which will almost always end up with them lowering, in a certain sense, and maybe going up in another sense. But the classic trap, of course, is you’re in a way better place than you were 10 years ago, but you’re just as unhappy because your hedonic treadmill concept is this term that psychologists use that your happiness goes up because something really good happens.
Even the little examples. You buy something new, and you wake up in the morning like my iPhone X10 or whatever, and you’re all happy. And every day, that goes down. And six days later, it’s just your stupid iPhone again. But we use this in a macro sense. You get the new job. You finally get into a really good relationship. You work it out, or you have a sick friend or a parent, and then, they get healthy. And wow. So, the way to get off the treadmill is obvious.
Just obsess over gratitude. What I have, what I want. And looking up, you’re going to be really unhappy. And the mountain keeps growing underneath you, but you’re not even looking at it. You’re just looking up all of the time. It’s going to seem like everything sucks. If you’re looking down, you’re like look at this mountain. It’s amazing. Look at all of the things I have. You’re going to be really happy. So, the gratitude things are really. All of the things you’re supposed to write the three good things that happened that day. Every night before you go to bed, write three good things that happened and why they happened.
The reason why psychologists say this is good is because it trains your brain to all day be thinking what’s good, and I have to do this thing tonight. What’s good? And suddenly, you’re looking down at all of these things that are good in your life as opposed to looking up at what sucks. What sucks about this situation. How is the world wronging me, which is a pure recipe for unhappiness.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. I’m going to try to put a little icing on top just to add to that, which is I was reading recently about some of the supposedly objectively assessed happiest places on earth. And if you look at them, three of them are Costa Rica [Spanish].
Okay. I’m screwing up my gender already. At least I did it in Spanish. So, moving on, I’m going to move on quickly. Costa Rica, Singapore, any Singaporeans here that want to shout? Okay. I’m all for it. You don’t see it as much in Singapore. And then, Denmark.
Tim Ferriss: All right. You can write a letter. I love Norway. But I will rely on National Geographic. You can write them an angry letter. They are very communicative. So, Norway also. But I can only speak to the Danes, but I will give you the official gold medal. But the silver medal for the Danes. And I want to point out a couple of things knowing people in all three places that, in Singapore, there’s very much an optimization for improving your reality. And it’s very sort of achievement focused. And there’s a large economic component. Nonetheless, the various combination of factors lead them to be in the very top. On the opposite side of that equation, or at least on the alternate side, you have the Danes. And I know a lot of Danes. And I remember, at one point, without even bringing up any of this, I said you guys are, apparently, really happy.
Why do you think that is? And as a group, they said we have really low expectations. I was like wow. That’s interesting. Let me noodle on that. And then, I think Costa Rica is kind of squarely in the middle in a lot of respects. So, stuff to ponder. Work on both. And also, it just struck me that given all of the talk about stoicism and so on that I tend to beat people over the head with, stoicism, in a lot of respects, I would view as a complete philosophical system that checks a lot of boxes but does focus quite a bit on refining your expectations and preparing for the worst case scenario.
So, I often add quite a healthy dose of epicureanism and so on, which is more on the opposite side. In any case, Tim, thank you so much. And we’re going to jump into some audience questions. Please give a hand. And we will definitely be doing some individual hellos. But let me jump in and see what we have here. And I suspect there might be some curve balls/bear traps that I don’t want to step into. So, let me see what we have here. Bear with. All right. You’re 20, you have 3 to 6 months pre-job/post college. I take that to mean three to six months after graduation to do whatever, no financial social commitments, and you’ve already read Tim’s books.
Thank you for that. How do you spend your time to maximize wellbeing and develop perspective? Aman from Paris. Wellbeing and develop perspective, three to six months. Now, you may have already done this. Where is Aman? Is Aman here? Hey, how’s it going. So, you may have already done this. So, if I were giving advice to the normal American audience for that, I would say travel for those three to six months, go to countries where you do not speak the language. Get deliberately lost in places that are safe perhaps like Japan or Costa Rica in most places.
And for wellbeing and developing perspective, wellbeing would mean deliberately exposing yourself to people who are worse off, maybe at least financially, than yourself.
So, spending part of that time volunteering, for instance, in those three to six months. And then, that will simultaneously help you to develop many, many different perspectives. That would be just speaking as someone whose life was changed completely by a number of overseas experiences, which I had starting at age 16 or 17. I had never really spent time outside of the US. That would be my recommendation. Tim, do you have any other thoughts?
Tim Urban: I think that’s right in line with what I would have said, which is, basically, traveling, to me, is another way to zoom out because you’re just looking at your life from far away. It’s like you’re not going there to look at your life, but you end up thinking about your life. And, for some reason, being far away, being out of your comfort zone and out of your element, you just have fresh eyes on your whole situation. You can have this perspective. It’s like going in a helicopter and looking at it from up there. And a lot of things make sense. And then, I would also say couple that with kind of like a hard zoom in on reality, which I think you get from – I might have said wait tables, work construction. Just do something where you’re just around working people. And it just reminds you what work is like, what reality is like, what adults go through. And then, that can help you figure out where you’re about to be and what you want to do.
Tim Ferriss: For sure. And the travel advice I would not limit to someone just getting out of college. I think everybody, when possible, should have that experience because the benefits outlast the trip because what will happen to most people, especially if you put yourself in very foreign environments where perhaps you can’t even read what is written, Japan, China, many different examples, whether it’s Cyrillic, Arabic, doesn’t matter. And you observe different customs. What happened, to me at least, in Japan, for instance, which was my first real time abroad for a year as an exchange student.
The only person who looks like this in a school uniform in a high school of 5,000 Japanese kids. Pretty easy Where’s Waldo game. But I was like they drive on the other side of the street? That doesn’t make any sense. Then, I was like wait a second, maybe we don’t make any sense. They take a shower before they get into the bath tub? That doesn’t make any – wait a second. It makes perfect sense. And I got back, and I realized how many rules we follow are just made up. They’re just totally made up. Very fragile, socially reinforced illusions that we just reinforce.
And that’s very liberating because you realize wait a minute, if all of these different cultures do thing differently, maybe I don’t have to go there to do things differently. I can do that here. Then, you start to really question assumptions. And you become, in my experience, more experimental. Let’s go to another question.
What trends, industries, topics are you most excited about right now? Patrick. Patrick, is Patrick here? Hey, Patrick. All right. I like that hi Tim applies to both of us. It simplifies matters. What’s trends, industries, topics am I most excited about right now. Speaking for myself, trends, I’m not watching very closely. I have trouble explaining why. I suppose I’m not trying to capitalize on any trends because I feel like, particularly having left Silicon Valley and having moved to Austin, which I love on almost every level, if I am spotting trends that I hope to capitalize on, by the time you see it, you’re too late, generally speaking.
So, I’m not paying a lot of attention to trends. Industries, I am interested just almost from an academic standpoint, in space travel, not so much from a personal experiential standpoint.
But, specifically, looking at inhabiting planets versus building space stations. That debate is interesting to me because you have some of the smartest humans of the last 50 or 100 years, arguably, with very, very different viewpoints. And whenever that happens in any field, I’m really interested. You see that in quite a few places.
Topics, I would say, and this might be considered a trend, I’m hoping to turn it into a trend, which would be scientific research using current cutting edge technologies to re-examine both psychedelics and MDMA, which I wouldn’t strictly consider, in the traditional sense, a psychedelic for applications to very debilitating, serious conditions ranging from PTSD to treatment resistant depression, end of life anxiety, and so forth.
So, I’ve taken most of my energy and capital that went into startups and redirecting that to scientific research at Johns Hopkins, hopefully other places like UCSF, NYU also that are taking these compounds that have been used very, very wisely, I think, in certain contexts for millennia by various civilizations and applying a scientific lens to understand the mechanisms of action and the risks involved, quite frankly. But how they can be less politicized and stigmatized for unscientific reasons and examined so that we have a better understanding of why they do what they do, which can be pretty incredible. What about you? Trends, industries, topics that you’re excited about right now?
Tim Urban: Definitely, some of those. I agree with you on getting the stigma off of perspective altering drugs. But I would also add there’s a lot of cool things going on in the field that also has a stigma called life extension. And the stigma is it just seems like it’s just narcistic, rich, white guys that want to live forever. But the truth is, and people think it’s vain and this narcistic kind of thing. But really, you could just reframe it as, if you just cure or learn how to manage four things that kill people, basically, which is like heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s, cancer, it just means that – and other things going on in health like we can just live a lot longer, and higher quality later years, who doesn’t want that?
It’s this knee jerk reaction that makes people not even want to put money or time into this industry. But I just feel like there were definitely people back when humans lived on an average to 40, it would have been like death at 40 is the lot of man. Living to 80 – like now, we’re all happy about that. No one wants to go back.
If suddenly 140 was the new 90, and 90 was the new 50, who is not happy about that? So, and we always say because, at that point, you’re done. Well, that’s only because we got used to that. We’re managing our own expectations. If we all died at 35, I would be like, well, it’s been good. But I’m not like that. I’m all ambitious and excited because I think I have more decades. So, I think that there’s a lot going on. Mark Zuckerberg and his wife are one of the teams that are trying to cure all diseases by the end of the century. This is just a machine. And the diseases are just a glitch inside the machine. If we can have enough nano tech and really fancy AI, medicine and everything, we can go in there and fix it.
This is a fantastic development. The most heart breaking thing is someone that you love died especially early. Let’s work on that. So, I think there’s a lot going on there. But I think that a lot more would be going on, if the stigma of this as kind of like a narcistic pursuit would just go away.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. To comment on one thing there, in terms of the narcistic rich people, everyone should want the narcistic millionaires and billionaires to spend as much money as possible on this. You want them to be the people who create the economies of scale for everybody else. And many of the things we take for granted now like recycling started off being very hoity-toity, affluent experiments. And you want them to be spending millions of dollars on something that, in 10 years, is going to be available for $50.00 at CVS.
Tim Urban: Plumbing, like sanitation, these things were all rich people things for a while. And then, everyone benefits tremendously from them. People also get mad. They think this is just going to benefit the rich. It’s this unfair thing where super rich people will be able to live longer. It’s like yeah, for a while. And then, it trickles to everybody because the cost comes down as we get better, so, get over it.
Tim Ferriss: On that note, moving on. If you want to read some I think very interesting thinking related to what might account to life extension, or at least death prevention, Dr. Peter Attia is one to pay attention to, one of my favorite people. What is the name of the city everyone must visit before they die? Thanks for everything, Steve Correll, not to be confused with Steve Carrell the CA – it’s a great name spelled differently. On my list, I would have to go with Tokyo because it has such an
unusual combination of safety, cleanliness, extreme weirdness, and incomprehensibility, even to someone who speaks Japanese that it provides a really unique – I think I just used that twice, and I’m going to get shit from friends who love to heckle me for using modifiers on unique.
They’re like, no, there’s no such thing as very unique. Okay. I’m going to say it again just to annoy them. It’s a very unique opportunity to feel extreme discomfort and confusion with elation with next to no real harmful consequences. So, I think that provides an awesome learning opportunity and just a fun trip. So, I would say Tokyo is very high on the list.
Tim Urban: You stole my answer again. I was just in Japan all summer. And it’s like going to another planet. And you’re like how does this civilization live? And you’re on another planet. That’s how different it is. And just isolated. Western culture has infiltrated so many places, and it just hasn’t really there. And they just have done everything their own way. And so, you’re like how does the cab door open. Oh, it opens by itself. Then, they get in, and it closes by itself.
That’s really cool. So, to give a different answer, I’ll say Hanoi, Vietnam just because crossing the street is just crazy. So, there’s like bikes, motor bikes, just a sea of them going by. And there’s no stop lights. And it doesn’t stop. And what you do as a walker is you just walk. It’s like Indiana Jones walking over the thing. You just walk, and you just – and they figure it out. And it’s unbelievable. It’s like you feel like you’re God walking on water or something weird. You just walk out, and nothing happens. But the thing you don’t want to do is be a freaked out tourist that stops because then you’re doing something they can’t anticipate. But you’ve got to try this.
Tim Ferriss: Steady, well-paced strides, confident.
Tim Urban: Yes.
Unknown Speaker: [Inaudible]
Tim Urban: Is it the same there? I didn’t go down there?
Unknown Speaker: [Inaudible].
Tim Ferriss: You spent some time in Ho Chi Minh.
Unknown Speaker: [Inaudible].
Tim Ferriss: Go with the flow, or else you die. Good advice. My goodness. That one would take us both several hours knowing the two of us. I apologize to the person’s whose name I will not read. All right. Dear Tim, that applies to both of us, regarding two crappy pages per day, I’ll explain what that means, how do you structure your days and weeks when you are working on a book? Thanks, Jeane or Jeanie, I’m not sure of the E.
Jeanie: Either way is fine.
Tim Ferriss: I’ll go with both. I wasn’t sure how to respond. So, the two crappy pages per day, for those who don’t know, was advice that I received regarding writing and working on a book, which can be, in my personal experience, a very daunting, intimidating task. And I would get frozen for days or weeks. And I’d try to write something, and it wouldn’t be perfect. And I’d throw it out. And a mentor of mine, or an author I knew, said your quota should be two crappy pages per day. And he told me the story about IBM and how they demolished the competition by exceeding every sales quota every quarter. And just absolutely steamrolling everyone for a long time. And he asked me do you know why that is, and I said no.
And he said because the quotas were low. And then, people were unintimidated to pick up the phone to make the calls. And you can do the same thing with yourself with writing. And you do that by making your bar for successful day two crappy pages. That’s it. Even if you throw them both out and you never use them, you’ve won the day if you have two crappy pages.
And, of course, over time, there are days when you just get your two crappy pages. And they are really, truly terrible. Then, there are other days where you overshoot. You’re in the flow, and you get 10, 15, 20 pages. You don’t need so many of those to eventually put together what can become a book. In terms of structuring my days and so on, I’ll be super, super specific here because the weeks and months, basically, look identical. And it’s just copy and paste of this particular day. I realized for myself that I benefit greatly given historical predisposition to bipolar and all of these various things.
That’s just written in my code. It’s a whole other story. But it’s kind of laughable how I’m predisposed my family is that writing your sunshine is really important. So, I write books, generally, during summer months. And my day involves getting up, not super early, but for me, respectably early, which would be say 9:00 a.m. or 9:30.
Before the sun is setting. And I wake up, I meditate for 20 to 22 minutes, which would be, typically, transcendental meditation or some type of guided meditation. Then, I jump in the water because I’m on Long Island. I jump in the water to wake up. I might do a little bit of swimming. I hop out. I already have pages from the night before that I want to edit. I will edit during the day, but I do my pros generation at night. That’s just when I have the best output. But I can edit, do that grunt work during the day. I have printed out pages. I will go into a sauna, which requires all sorts of trickery because you start sweating on the pages.
But go into a sauna, and I will hand edit those pages. Then, I come out, take a quick shower. I have a very small breakfast of some type, typically, macadamia nuts and some eggs.
Very, very small. And I continue to work, very often, at a treadmill desk. And the treadmill desk works during this period of time at a very slow pace because, say in the case of Tribe of Mentors, I’m handing outreach and editing. I’m not going to do original drafts and composition at the treadmill desk. I will work at the treadmill desk, this is literally the exact day. And this won’t take hours to explain. Then, around say noon or 1:00 p.m., hop on a bike with a researcher or someone that I have hired to be with me in the same house at all times. Why is this important? I realized that writing is very isolating for me.
And it can catalyze a lot of negative mental states and downward spirals because I feel alone. So, I have someone physically there, even though we could probably do the work remotely.
They have to be optimistic, which, fortunately, my researcher is. Everything to him is hand clapping, amazing. Really good influence to have around. So, we both get on a bike. So, you’ll notice there are little bursts of physical exercise inserted in the day. Get on bikes. Ride to this very mediocre deli, and we have Mediterranean wraps every day. For those interested, it is whole wheat tortilla with chicken, humus, tomato, avocado added, always extra cost. And we eat our Mediterranean wraps, and I have unsweetened ice tea plus sparkling water. And we will work there until say 5:00 or 6:00, the sun starts to set. Jump on the bikes, sometimes head to the bay, jump in the water again, head home. And then, have a snack, work for an additional two to three hours, then, go to dinner.
There are two or three restaurants that we go to, that’s it. Those are the rotations. And for all of these restaurants, I’ll give a pro tip, Jesus, what a long answer that I said wasn’t going to be long, all right. Pro tip for people who might want to do this. Now, it’s late. We’re going out late. We’re having dinner at 9:00. A lot of these kitchens close at say 9:30, 10:00. What does that mean? Staff is going to be fucking pissed that we’re coming in right as the door is about to close. And I know this because I worked in service jobs as bus boy and waiter in restaurants forever. I get it. So, here’s what you do.
You have three restaurants. You know you’re going to be going to them for a few weeks or a few months. You go to the same restaurant for dinner three nights in a row. And then, the next restaurant, same place, three nights in a row. Each night, you buy rounds of tequila over and over again for every person who works in the restaurant. Front of house and back of house, really important. These people will now love you. And they will let you hang out for an extra hour, hour and a half.
This is really key. So, we do this. Then, we go home, not too much tequila. And we’ll continue to prepare things for the next day, go to bed around 1:00 a.m., and then, it’s Ground Hog Day over and over again. That’s it. And there are – very often, I would say every other day, some type of kettle bell swings or exercise that is done immediately before leaving to dinner. And it’s just that day over and over and over again. Yes, I see a raised hand.
Unknown Speaker: [Inaudible].
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yes. So, important clarifying question, do I work where we have lunch? Yes. There are outdoor picnic tables, and we will sit down and work outside. That’s actually a fairly key point.
But you have to have a high tolerance for mosquitoes and tics because it’s eastern Long Island. So, caveat [inaudible] on the lime disease. Tim, over to you?
Tim Urban: If you take the opposite of that answer, imagine your 16 hour awake is like an amorphous wad of self-loathing. Someone asked me the other day like what do you need with your work? And I was like I need a gnome that will follow me around and shock me if I’m not working when I’m supposed to be working. And they were kind of like – but yeah. No, this is what you’re awesome at and what I admire you for and I –
Tim Ferriss: Well, you can also, just to be clear, have really regimented, well-structured self-loathing, just to make that clear.
Tim Urban: But I was trying to memorize that answer because I think, for me, the times when I am being productive, I find that two pages a day thing resonates for me because, for me, it’s like if I get – my problem, when I’m not being productive, is that I have this in my head.
I’m behind on my stuff, so, I need to work 14 hours. I need 14 hours of writing today. And I have done those crazy hours when there’s like a crazy panic in my life. So, I know I can. So, I think I can but without the panic, it never happens. And then, six hours into the day, I’ve already blown it. I’ve already blown the day, and you get discouraged. And then, you start the self-fulfilling prophecy yourself that I’m going to blow it. I blew it the last three days. And then, so, if I do the same thing, if I say I’m going to write three hours today, and then, I’ve had a successful day, it’s amazing all of the positive like reward pathway feedback that comes in from feeling like you succeeded that day.
And then, that night, you go to bed on time because I already succeeded today, as opposed to thinking, no, I can’t go to bed now. I can’t let this be the whole day. And that can feed on itself. And it’s something I try to remind myself is someone who is three hours of writing five days a week, but really focused.
Like phone is away. Deep, deep focus writing 15 hours a week like shocking how much you can produce. Add those weeks together, 40 weeks later, you have a book. The difference between the prolific writer and the self loathing person who doesn’t write anything is one does 15 hours a week out of their 112 waking hours a week, and the other one does 0 out of 112 waking hours. So one-seventh versus zero sevenths. Six-sevenths of those two people’s days and lives are the same. People who can’t put something together, they have this daunting kind of assumption that the prolific writer is fundamentally different.
They’re just working constantly all of the time. It doesn’t have to be that way, but it’s the consistency. It is the IBM thing.
Tim Ferriss: I’ve never thought about it that way. That’s a really great way to put it. It’s so true, too. Most writers I know spend the majority of their time inventing things to do to avoid writing. They’re like but my plant is dying. There’s really no way that I could possibly –
Tim Urban: Winston needs another massage.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. This is an unconstructive environment. The writing is not going to be high quality, if I don’t polish my tennis shoes, and so on. Very, very true. This will be the last question, and then, we’ll move on to the next phase of this evening. What experiments, questions, hypotheses are you wrestling with right now? How have they changed over your life? Where do you think they’ll take you? Now, we may not have a chance to hit every aspect of this. But let’s start with what experiments, questions, hypotheses. Let’s start with you, Tim.
Tim Urban: Shit. It’s so nice having his answer –
Tim Ferriss: What experiments, questions, or hypotheses are you wrestling with right now? And then, I’m just going to abridge this and go to where do you think they might take you?
Tim Urban: Well, it’s a little like my last answer. I’m trying to sort of – my mind is structured, as I explained in the Ted talk you mentioned, with there’s three characters. There’s the rational decision maker who is like you should be at work right now. It’s 10:00 a.m. on a Wednesday. Very good time to work. Then, there’s his pet, the instant gratification monkey who has a different idea. He has a different idea of what 10:00 a.m. on Wednesday is good for. And the two of them go back and forth. And the instant gratification monkey wins every single time, which leaves me in what I call the dark playground where I’m not working, but I’m supposed to be.
And the only thing that breaks that cycle is the third character who suddenly wakes up when a deadline gets close or there’s some external pressure. That’s the panic monster. And the panic monster freaks the monkey out. The only thing the monkey is scared of.
He runs away, and I can get my thing done. And I’m going to die at 45. And what I’m trying to learn how to do, especially since I’m about to start my first book next year, so, like you’ve done 52 books. I need to learn from this man. A book is too big a project. You can’t just do that all at once. It’s like, at some point, you have to learn how to have this internal motivation. And, for me, I’m like a caricature of myself. But there are a lot of people in this room who maybe aren’t classic procrastinators. But, without realizing it, if there’s no kind of deadline, even if they’re not down to the wire with the deadline, the deadline itself just being there is what makes them do stuff.
And that’s dangerous because, actually, a lot of what’s really important in life is that kind of important but not urgent stuff, the stuff that doesn’t have a deadline. Seeing your friends and family enough, changing careers, improving yourself in the long run. So, I think this whole – these three characters things applies to a lot of people.
It applies very much to me. So, what I’m working on is trying to just really, really working on having productive days with nothing in the external world making me because a child is not good at that. And I’m trying to be less of a child. That’s my goal of the next year.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I empathize.
Tim Urban: Do you?
Tim Ferriss: I do. I do. I do.
Tim Urban: The most productive person in the history of –
Tim Ferriss: No. I’m just really good at showing the – when I get tired, this is going to get me in all sorts of trouble, after spending like a year only speaking Japanese, when I get really tired, I start to mix up my R’s and my L’s. I’m not shitting you. Wow.
Tim Urban: Do you speak Japanese?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Tim Urban: That’s so cool.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, it’s a cool language. So, and just so you guys know, I’m just going to digress for a second, in Japanese they have [Japanese], they have a syllabary. And the R, L, and D sounds are kind of combined into one thing. That’s why they’re not aware of the distinction. They kind of got screwed when God was handing out phonemes. They didn’t get a lot of sounds. It’s really hard for them to learn other languages. A bit of a rip off for them. But I’m showing the highlight reel of like a very mediocre movie. So, it creates the illusion that I’m just knocking out productivity all day. Not the case, which is why when people are like can we follow you around for a day, I’m like no, absolutely not. Because you’re just going to be like aren’t you going to do something.
No, man. I found some lint in the carpet, and I need to fix this. Not a good Dances With Wolves experience for the documentary film goer. So, what experiences, questions, hypotheses am I wresting with right now? I’m going to make this maybe a little soft around the edges, which is not my style, typically. It’s like hard, analytical, quantitative. But whatever.
So, I’ve spent the vast majority of my life, at best, tolerating myself. It’s true. I had some really horrible experiences early on that led me to just decide self love was for other people. I could be a really good instrument for competition though. I could hone myself into an instrument with a high pain tolerance to be really good at certain things. And that was enough. And then, I could get my joy or happiness wherever I found that from observing other people. Long story to unpack that fully. But suffice to say, I accepted a really low level of self regard and was really, really unforgivingly brutal with myself.
I talked to myself endlessly every day, we’re talking about decades, in a way that I would never speak to another person. And what I’ve realized in the last few months, actually, in particular is that if you want to fully love other people and to make other people feel loved, you can’t get away with just tolerating yourself.
You cannot. And you have to learn how to forgive yourself for a lot. But more so than that, for me at least, is to have compassion for earlier versions of yourself that you might view as cowardly or ashamed or weak. And I was introduced to that through something relatively new from me, which is called metta or loving kindness meditation, which sounds super woo-woo. And I mean, the 20-year-old version of Tim would just be vomiting on his shoes right now hearing this. Like oh, my God really. You’re embarrassing us. Stop it. But it’s been a really profound shift in my perspective.
And realizing that even if my only goal is not necessarily to love myself but to do the greatest good I could possibly do with my small amount of time on this planet that I have to put my own oxygen mask on first.
And that’s something that comes up a lot in Tribe of Mentors, Arianna Huffington, Sharon Salisbury. It comes up again and again. And I just want everybody to realizes this is part of my – this was a new mission, of sorts, is for people to realize that, if you’re feeling damaged or flawed, and that leads you to be depressed and to have a really, really low amount of regard for yourself where you’re really aggressively brutal to yourself that the first thing to realize is that you are not alone in feeling that.
And, in fact, certainly not everyone in this book, but I would wager, and this is just speculation, in most cases, but a very, very high percentage have incredible demons and are fighting battles that we all know nothing about.
But really, with some very, very dark periods. So, A) is that you’re not alone, and B) is that you can actually let go of and repair almost all, if not all, of what you think you should just lock away and forget. So, that, I suppose, would be what I’m wrestling with right now and working on and trying to communicate. And there’s some really concrete ways you can go about it. I would recommend everybody, certainly, if any of that resonates, do yourself a favor, get a book called Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach. Terrible title, fantastic book. Give it a read. It could have a huge impact.
Unknown Speaker: Have psychedelics helped you at all with that?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. That’s a question about psychedelics. I would say that yes is my tentative answer.
But I would not recommend that anyone touch psychedelics without professional supervision. There are legal ramifications to consider. And I would take it as seriously you would choosing a neurosurgeon to remove a tumor that, if misoperated on, would result in a fatality. Because a lot of people right now – sorry, man. That’s about it. Right now, a lot of people are going on Craig’s List and finding neurosurgeons. My friend is a shaman. We just ordered some stuff from the internet from China from [inaudible]. We’re going to do it in our slow cooker. Bad idea. Bad, bad, bad, bad idea. So, there are many tools.
I don’t think that’s the only tool. Meditation, silent retreats, which I’m not ready to recommend because I do think they can be extremely destabilizing. There are many, many tools in the tool kit. But the point I want to make is there are tools. And you can start with something that does not involve visiting your ancestors and seeing flashing neon crocodiles in your mind, which could be radical acceptance. So, take a look.
Thank you guys very much, and thank Tim for being here.
Posted on: February 3, 2018.
Please check out Tribe of Mentors, my newest book, which shares short, tactical life advice from 100+ world-class performers. Many of the world's most famous entrepreneurs, athletes, investors, poker players, and artists are part of the book. The tips and strategies in Tribe of Mentors have already changed my life, and I hope the same for you. Click here for a sample chapter and full details. Roughly 90% of the guests have never appeared on my podcast.
Who was interviewed? Here's a very partial list: tech icons (founders of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Craigslist, Pinterest, Spotify, Salesforce, Dropbox, and more), Jimmy Fallon, Arianna Huffington, Brandon Stanton (Humans of New York), Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ben Stiller, Maurice Ashley (first African-American Grandmaster of chess), Brené Brown (researcher and bestselling author), Rick Rubin (legendary music producer), Temple Grandin (animal behavior expert and autism activist), Franklin Leonard (The Black List), Dara Torres (12-time Olympic medalist in swimming), David Lynch (director), Kelly Slater (surfing legend), Bozoma Saint John (Beats/Apple/Uber), Lewis Cantley (famed cancer researcher), Maria Sharapova, Chris Anderson (curator of TED), Terry Crews, Greg Norman (golf icon), Vitalik Buterin (creator of Ethereum), and nearly 100 more. Check it all out by clicking here.