Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with M. Sanjayan (@msanjayan), a global conservation scientist specializing in how nature preserves and enhances human life and CEO for Conservation International. 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: Today’s guest is M. Sanjayan, PhD. Oh, my goodness, are you in for a treat. You’re going to hear about everything from monkeys and birthday cakes to building a personal board of advisors for yourself. I’m not going to give you the bio right this second because you’re going to hear it from a live recording. The live recording was taken at Sixth & I, a very famous historic location in Washington, DC. Sixthandi.org. You can check them out. Where I interviewed to different people in separate sessions. Steve Case, the co-founder of AOL and known for many other things, and then, M Sanjayan who you are going to hear from next. Enjoy.
Is everybody loosened up, limbered? Let’s just jump right into it. This is going to be fun. I’ve been looking forward to this, trying to make this happen, hoping to make this happen, and here we are. So, let me just jump right into out. Our next guest is M. Sanjayan, PhD, a global conservation scientist specializing in how nature preserves and enhances human life.
He serves as Conservation International’s chief executive officer. We have met before. And we’ll get into that. Sanjayan joined CI in 2014 as executive vice president and senior scientist and has led several key divisions, underscoring that for you guys, including oceans, science, development, branded communications, and strategic priorities. That sounds like a lot. 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 a distinguished professor of practice at Arizona State University. Raised in Southeast Asia and Africa, Sanjayan’s background and expertise provide a unique lens for hosting and co-hosting a range of documentaries for PBS, BBC, Discovery, and Showtime. Most recently, he hosted the University of California and Vox Media’s Climate Lab series. Sanjayan is a Disney Nature Ambassador, Cato fellow at the Aspen Institute, and a member of the National Geographic Society Explorers’ Council.
He posts frequently from his expeditions @msanjayan on Twitter. Please welcome to the stage, M. Sanjayan.
M. Sanjayan: Hello.
Tim Ferriss: Welcome. All right. So, I want to start with something we were discussing very briefly before we got up here. And I said wait, wait, wait, don’t tell me. I want to hear the story, but let’s save it. What is your full birth name?
M. Sanjayan: Okay. Can you guys hear me? Okay. First of all, Tim called me up yesterday, when I was in Botswana getting on a flight 22 hours to get here and said, “Hey, are you in DC because I’m going to be there?”
And I’m like, “Yeah, but I’m not just arriving.” And he’s like, “Well, I’m there for 24 hours, but hey, I’d love to see you. Do you want to come to this thing? Oh, by the way, do you want to be on stage?” And I’m not very good at saying no, which we’ll get to, having listened to his last podcast about saying no to things. But I feel so much better today because I realized it isn’t a last minute invitation because he did the same thing to Steve Case. I’m feeling really good about it.
So, I’m a [inaudible]. I’m from Sri Lanka. And some of us are just given one name. So, on my birth certificate, it just says Sanjayan. But my dad’s name, which I use as a last name like from my American passport, is Muttulingam. And I don’t use it much for two reasons. One reason is an obvious one because, if someone said Dr. Muttulingam, it would be my dad who would look, not me.
So, I don’t associate it distinctly with myself. That’s the reason I’ve told everyone. The reason I don’t tend to use it, I’ve never, ever told this to anyone, at least not in a public audience, is that when I came to America, people have this obsession about what your name means. They always ask you like oh, wow, cool name. What does that name mean? I don’t go around going like Michael, what does your name mean? I’m an angel. It doesn’t come up. But they do tend to ask that of foreigners, for some reason. And the problem is this name Muttulingam quite literally means giant pearl penis.
And until I was like a junior, I was deeply conscious of that, and I would never say it. And then, one day, in a bar, somehow, it kind of blurted out. And the reaction I got was really? And so then, it became not a problem anymore sort of thing.
Tim Ferriss: That sounds like a last name meaning I would shout from the rooftops.
M. Sanjayan: So, you know what lingam, is, look it up. That’s like a phallic representation. It’s like penis. It’s the same thing. And muttu means pearl. It’s actually mother of pearl.
Tim Ferriss: It’s like the Hope Diamond of penises.
M. Sanjayan: Yeah. I know. It can be –
Tim Ferriss: It’s the best last name ever or adopted last name. So, I think the most logical segue here is to ask you about bullying during your childhood. We’ve suffered, many of us, through bullying. And I want to talk about a monkey who stole your birthday cake.
M. Sanjayan: How do you know that?
Tim Ferriss: Can you explain what the hell is going on here? Yeah, could you please explain monkey birthday cake story?
M. Sanjayan: Sure. I’ll do that very quickly because it actually comes to one of your questions that you ask people, which is about a strange habit. So, one of my strange habits or unusual habit is that I like to do something new, something I’ve never done before, I like to try it on my birthday. And that’s a tradition. It’s been everything from writing poetry to learning how to snowboard when I was 45 to fly fishing to learning to bake a beef Wellington. So, it could be anything that I’ve never done before.
And I instituted this as a practice about 15 years ago because I would always get very depressed on my birthday because what happened on my birthday is that – this is a long story. I have to do it very short. So, a very quick version is –
Tim Ferriss: No, no. No quick version. It doesn’t have to be short.
M. Sanjayan: So, at 5 years old, we just moved from Sri Lanka to Sierra Leone, West Africa. And not just in town. We were like in the bush, in the country like way out there.
My mother, amazingly – in Sri Lanka, I was like a little prince. I had these amazing cakes like a battleship cake, entire zoo cake. It was like that kind of cake. And then, we went to Sierra Leone, and we had to flee Sri Lanka in the middle of the night because of trouble in the country. And my mom actually packed, which is amazing I think back on it, a pound of flour and icing sugar because we came to Sierra Leone on December 4, and my birthday was on December 26. And she knew this. And so, out there, in the middle of the jungle, she baked me a cake.
It was a simple, little, round cake with chocolate frosting, which is like the simplest frosting you can get. Basically, you can make it almost anywhere. And I didn’t like it. So, I was crying. I was weeping. I was unhappy about it. My mother eventually got tired. She said, “That’s it, here’s the cake.” She put it on the table. She goes in to take a bath, and I kind of stop crying, as you do when you’re 5 and no one is watching, and I walk into the living room. And, out of the corner of my eye, I catch a glimpse of something.
I turn and look, and there’s a monkey. And the monkey is holding my cake like this. And the monkey looks at me, and I look at the monkey, and we’re both like – the monkey is like – and then, it jumps. It jumps on the window sill and it flees, it goes, gone. And I go screaming in, “The cake, the cake, my cake,” like just that kind of thing. My mom comes out. She’s like worried, petrified. She’d only been in the country for a few days, at that point, like 22 days, shaking me. She’s like are you okay, are you okay. And I’m like the cake, the cake. She goes to the window, no cake there. She goes to the window, and our house is on stilts to avoid flooding in the rain forest.
And she looks down, and the cake is down there. And she turns to me, and she says, “You wicked, wicked child. Your birthday is cancelled forever. We will never do birthday again. Just wait until your father comes home.” And that was it. And now, I’m on the floor because, for a child, injustice is like the worst thing ever.
So, since then, birthdays have been really, really difficult for me. It’s also on December 26, which is not great for lots of reasons. And so, it creates this gigantic sense of anxiety. It’s never good enough. It carried right into adulthood. It was very, very destructive to everyone around me. And even today, by the way, when we get together with my family, there is discussion about whether I threw the cake out the window or not. And this has what’s happened to my mind. I start thinking did I really see that monkey, or did I actually throw the cake? I don’t even know, after a while, which is sort of interesting. Anyway, that’s a very long story, but that’s it. Sorry.
Tim Ferriss: That is a great story. I want to hear the monkey’s version of that story. At some point, I’ll track that monkey down. That will be a really awkward podcast. How did your parents, or how did your family, end up going to Sierra Leone, of all places?
M. Sanjayan: My dad got attacked in the middle of the night. My parents are the mildest, meekest mannered Asians you can possibly meet. My dad is an accountant. And even now, when I travel, in Botswana or Namibia or Indonesia or Colorado, Aspen, the same advice. Don’t talk to strangers. Be careful what you eat. Call. It’s the same kind of meek, careful advice. But they had this one gigantic moment of courage, which I still don’t understand because, even today, it would be a massive deal to do.
But these Asians who never have left the country decided to pick up their 5-year-old and 1-year-old and, over a weekend, decide that the country was getting politically really bad. And with two suitcases and only the jewelry my mother had, just left. And the only place my dad had a job offer was in Sierra Leone as an accountant for a forestry company. Later on, his career just took off, and he did great. But it just was this unbelievable thing. And not just Freetown. This is like where Ebola was recently. This is where there was a 30 year civil war in Sierra Leone. We didn’t just go to the capital. We went 200 miles in the interior and lived in like a tree house with, quite literally, monkeys, obviously, around us. And I don’t get that. And I still ask them. And they’re like yeah, you know, we didn’t have a choice. Just like the two lotteries you win. The parents you have, that’s one lottery. You don’t get to pick that.
I won that one. And the country of your birth is your second lottery. I sort of snuck into that one. But those are the two things. And Steve is completely right. All of the other things in your life tend not to matter as much as those two lotteries that you get.
Tim Ferriss: So, let’s talk about the factors – or maybe if you could describe for us how you ended up in science and then conservation.
M. Sanjayan: Sure. I always loved nature. I loved animals. I think all kids love nature and love things that move. And, as you get older, it kind of gets beaten out of you. You just stop encouraging to do that. But my parents just let me do that because it was the only thing that was sort of around me. And I fooled them for a long time thinking I was sort of in pre-med and kind of went further and further into that realm, until, eventually, very late in my – I had my master’s and just getting into my PhD, I sort of realized there’s actually a career that was actually open to Asians in thinking about the environment and thinking about conservation and thinking about actually saving the planet.
You could actually do that respectably so for most of your life and be okay with it. It took a lot of convincing for that bigger family to get that. Once I got my PhD, I tell a story of it, I went back to Sri Lanka. And my grandmother, I overheard her telling her friend who is like across the wall, kind of leans over, and they have this conversation. My grandson is back. He’s a doctor now, but not the kind that saves people. And she had to add that, right? And I started thinking about it. And I’m like isn’t that what we’re actually trying to do because, ultimately, it’s all connected? People need nature to thrive.
And that is one virtuous cycle. But it was a fooling game. And I bet many, many people who follow their “passion”, sort of try to find their way do a lot of fooling around and fooling of other people, fooling of social circles. I was just lucky, lucky, lucky enough that there was enough there. And I finally realized that I could actually do this.
Tim Ferriss: What was the triggering event? You were getting, at the time, your master’s and PhD were in what?
M. Sanjayan: So, where were they?
Tim Ferriss: The fields, what was the concentration?
M. Sanjayan: It was biology for my master’s, and genetics for my PhD.
Tim Ferriss: And was there a conversation or a book or something that proved to you that conservation could be a path you could embrace? Or was it –
M. Sanjayan: Honestly, I wish there was something more epic on that. I think there were two moments in my life where I made these big leaps. The first was coming to America, deciding that I wanted to be here for graduate school or for my higher education. And that was because of Bruce Springsteen, kid you not. Kid you not. That’s how we picked colleges back then because I didn’t have the internet. And I definitely didn’t have any way of knowing why America would make sense for me. Very little concept of America.
But someone gave me that Nebraska album. And I remember looking at the cover of that album. And something about that cover and something about the songs on that and the last song on that album. And it just made you want to think of sort of endless possibilities and wide open spaces. And it always felt confined in my life, confined by society or by whatever. I was always a stranger in a strange land no matter where we moved because we moved around a lot throughout Africa and sometimes into Asia. And I just felt that was a big leap. Taking the sort of bet to come to America.
And then, the second one, I think, had more to do with I had an amazing advisor, a guy named Michael Soulé who was the father of conservation biology. He really coined that word, and he put it on the map. And 20 years ago, he was the guy. And I was lucky enough to work with him. I just cold called him and sort of pestered him until he took me on as a student. And I think that made me realize there was a path there.
Tim Ferriss: So, you mentioned this professor. Could you remind me of his last name, the pronunciation?
M. Sanjayan: Soule, S-O-U-L- E.
Tim Ferriss: Now, I’ve read that he told you your job as a graduate student was to train yourself as a critical thinker. I believe, maybe that’s the internet lying to me again, but –
M. Sanjayan: No, so, what was true is I was eager to say things. You thought that’s what you did. I wanted to go save wildlife. And he said, “No. Right now, your job is to just do a really good piece of science. It’s actually good advice. Do a really hard piece of work so that you’d own it, and you’d know that, once in your life, you could do that. And there’s time enough later to say things. He tells me now that he might not have said that advice today. But, at that time, it made an impression on me, and that’s sort of what I did.
Tim Ferriss: Why wouldn’t he give that advice today? Did he explain it?
M. Sanjayan: I think he is so distraught about what has happened in the last 20 or 30 years to our planet. And so, am I. And I think we all are really impatient. And I keep waiting for other people to see something that I have seen. And very, very few people around me, somehow, seem to have that gene turned on. And I think that impatience is what sort of makes us sometimes be irrational, but other times just feel desperate.
Tim Ferriss: So, the intention, just to take a step back so you guys have a meta context here – what are we doing? That’s the question of the evening. So, initially, I was like you know what would be really fun? Is to have Steve Case come up, who is in the book, and ask him questions that aren’t in the book. And then, to have someone, you, come up and ask the questions that are in the book. But then, of course, we got the birthday cake and the monkey, and we’re off on a completely different landscape.
So, I’m going to bounce around between questions that I’m dying to ask but then the questions that I feel like would be fun to sprinkle throughout. So, there’s going to be very little connective tissue. It’s going to be like the worst edited movie you’ve ever seen.
What purchase of $100.00 or less has most positively impacted your life in recent memory?
M. Sanjayan: That’s a really hard question for me because I don’t buy a lot of stuff. I’m a total snob when it comes to the stuff I own. And the reason for that is because I travel incessantly. And when I travel, I just have one bag, and I have to take it. So, everything I own has to do like double duty. And so, I’m very, very, very picky about either simplifying or just taking exactly what I like. So, I can’t think of something really easy that comes to mind under $100.00 that I could just name. Ice Breaker Underwear. Ice Breaker is a great company. They produce amazing stuff all out of marina wool, a New Zealand based company.
I think you and I both know the founder, Jeremy Moon. And I like his person ethos, and his stuff works. I don’t get paid by his company or anything like that. But that’s probably the last under $100.00 purchase I made that I love.
Tim Ferriss: Do you have a go to bag? You mentioned you have one bag. Have you vetted a lot of bags?
M. Sanjayan: Yeah. So, I used to love this Victoria Knox bag. They don’t make it anymore. It just kills you, right? It really kills you. You just figure out that there’s something that works really well, and then, they go and change it. It’s like shoes, athletic shoes. Oh, my God, did they change it. And there’s a whole race to change it fast. So, this is really a hard question because I now use a Tumi bag, and I like it because I like the four wheels. I also like the sturdiness of that bag. It’s heavy. That’s the downside on it. But I’m getting older, so, I can’t really carry things on my back anymore, so, I need the four wheeled, Tumi bag.
Tim Ferriss: Do you have a protocol for surviving or maintaining your sanity and health for really long flights? Like that flight from Botswana where I ambushed you with this invitation? Is there anything special you do? And I know friends who carry saline misters for their noses or wrap their heads in all sorts of weird contraptions to block out sound and light. Or do you just go out, and you’re done?
M. Sanjayan: No, I try to be as comfortable as I possibly can during the flight. It’s just the usual stuff. I try to get myself on the new time zone fast. I’m very strategic about when I drink coffee or anything like coffee or tea, very strategic about the timing on that. I tend to fast a little bit on flights. I don’t eat a lot just because I can catch up later. And it always makes me feel a little better. I guess that’s sort of it. Sometimes, you get – it depends. I did this flight, and I’ll be absolutely honest with you, I fly so much that, sometimes, I’m flying in business class, especially for very, very long flights when I have to land there and get into meetings. Sometimes, I fly in economy.
I did this very long flight from Sydney to Johannesburg, and I’m in the back of an old 747, middle seat with these two very nice but large Samoan gentlemen. And I decided – the plane hadn’t even really taken off. They both fell asleep. And their hands kept falling into my lap, boom, like this. And I had to lift and put it. That kind of flight, you just have to completely do this mind shift. So, I stripped all of my stuff off, got into my jeans and a t-shirt, curled up, made my little space, and then, I started playing this game. So, all you have to do is think about what worst form of transportation you could be stuck in in that moment. So, you just have to think this could be Mombasa to Kampala truck ride right now in the back of a local bus.
And you’re like oh, my God, this would be so much better than that. I can order food. I can get drinks. Just infinitely better, infinitely better. So, that’s the trick. I once had to spend an entire month in a very small cabin on a boat, no windows. It’s a research vessel. I’m stuck in there with another roommate, tiny, for a month. And we had food, literally, cans of food under our bed. That’s how small the whole – but I kept thinking this is like a sleeper suite on Singapore Airlines like a $20,000.00 ticket right now because I can sleep. There’s a shower. I can walk around. And it just makes you feel so much better. So, that’s the trick with distance. Any time there’s space constraint, just think of what’s worse and then just mind shift. It works.
Tim Ferriss: No, it sounds like a fantastic trick. I’m still thinking about the thick Samoan hands landing in your lap. If you were to – we were talking about one of your mentors and the advice he gave you. If you were to have the opportunity to teach say, I’ll give you three options, a ninth grade class, college freshmen class, or college senior class, you choose one of those three and to teach a seminar or class of your choosing, what age would you choose, and what would you teach for a semester?
M. Sanjayan: So, tell me again how old people are at ninth grade because I didn’t go to school here.
Tim Ferriss: Ninth grade is 14 or 15, I would say. Fourteen probably.
M. Sanjayan: I’d probably teach that freshmen seminar class.
Tim Ferriss: Freshmen College.
M. Sanjayan: Freshmen College. Because I think I have relatable experiences that I can translate to that group, and it’s still early enough for their trajectory to make a big difference. So, that’s probably why I’d pick that group. And what would I teach?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. What would the class be? And it doesn’t have to be – there’s no pre-req. There’s no –
M. Sanjayan: It would be like how to get shit done.
Tim Ferriss: This is a good subject.
M. Sanjayan: It’s like so much stuff that we learned in college is wasted. You just think about the vast amount of stuff that they taught us that we never, ever actually use. So, I would probably teach a class, being really honest because I do teach at universities. So, it would probably be something about biology and something about the environment. So, chances are it will be in that vein. It might be a class in communication because I’ve done enough television work and stuff like that to be able to do that legitimately so or storytelling. But I would probably teach a class in biology.
But if I really could get away with it, I would do something like all of the things you wish you’d known getting into this, or how to organize your life to get stuff done. And it would be kind of in that vain. I’d actually just, basically, take some of your books, crib it, regurgitate it.
Tim Ferriss: So, I want to ask both about the getting shit done freshmen seminar, but let’s just, as a thought exercise, if it were, instead, so, you don’t have to think about the entire semester, if it were just a three to four hour seminar, what would be some of the key principles or strategies or anything that you would want to hammer home?
M. Sanjayan: You’re getting me after a really long flight, so, my brain is –
Tim Ferriss: And we could also buy some time by asking you what you would teach in a storytelling class.
M. Sanjayan: So, stay with the first one.
Tim Ferriss: Or – no, I’m kidding.
M. Sanjayan: So, what was the question, again, sorry?
Tim Ferriss: The question was, if you have a three to four hour seminar on getting shit done, what are some of the – any of the key messages or strategies of anything that you would emphasize? Because you get a lot done. I’ve observed how much you do, and it boggles my mind. I don’t know how you stand in one piece.
M. Sanjayan: Yeah. So, there’s some of the principles that you’d probably want to get into are dealing with focus. So, this is a major challenge, especially for younger people. And it’s not getting any better. And I have the ability, and it’s not because I have some magical ability, it’s just because I practice it, of intensely focusing on one thing for a few seconds or for a few minutes. And I think that ability to intensely focus on something and not be distracted from anything else is a very useful habit to have. And so, I’m very good at – when you’re one on one, you can be one on one, and you can be very focused. And I think that’s true for storytelling.
I think that’s true for really getting information out of people. And I think helping people focusing on one thing and then, switching to another, so a serial focus, is a very, very useful practice. I think that we waste enormous amounts of time pretending to work. And we can just sort of get rid of that whole thing. I think we’re not honest with ourselves about what we’re really good at and what we’re not good at. And very early, success to light is being absolutely, brutally honest about what you’re not good at. And you can compensate for it, in some ways. But just don’t – ask people what do you think you’re good at.
And they’ll sort of tell you their resume, or they’ll recite you that – and that’s not particularly useful. I’ll tell them about the things that I wish I had – I think every student going through should take a class in ethics. I think every student going through should take a class on communications and storytelling.
I think every student who goes through should think about how, during their four year or whatever their college term is, spending a little time working on something that is completely unrelated to their primary area of interest. That was probably the best thing I ever did when I was going through the American education system is that, during the summers, I was restricted on what jobs I could do because I was a foreign student. I would go and work at the World Bank. And for a biologist to be walking around at the World Bank was a very strange thing, at the time. And it was unbelievably useful to me. It was like the most useful thing I did, really.
Tim Ferriss: Why was it useful?
M. Sanjayan: Because it put me in touch with a whole bunch of people who were completely unlike me and would think about the world in completely different terms. I’d go in there, and they’d be like you must be an economist. And I’d be like no, I’m a wildlife biologist. And they’d be like wow, that’s crazy. What are you doing here? But I just started realizing how they worked and how a whole different set of rules applied and how a whole other institution was working on problems.
And it just opened my eyes. The easiest thing would have been for me to go work for a nonprofit like the one I work for now, a conservation [inaudible]. I didn’t do that. I really, particularly, went and got jobs in areas that had nothing, nothing to do with my primary area of interest just to see what it looked like. And the best – the funnest things in the world are all on those angles when you can bring two different fields together. There’s so much gold in those angles. You do that all of the time, actually. And I’ve really – learning how to exploit that is often your little trick to getting a head start.
Tim Ferriss: It makes me think, also, of career advice that I’ve heard from both Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, and also Mark Andreessen in different senses. But they’ve said, this is more Scott Adams and his writing, that there are different ways to “succeed”.
One is you can try to be say top 1 percent of 1 percent like a Michael Jordan in one skill. That’s really, really, really difficult. The other approach is that you can be say in the top 10 percent in 2 typically uncombined areas. So, you have Scott Adams who would say himself, he’s not the best artist. He’s not the best comedian. But he’s unusually good at combining both of those things. And, in the world of business, it could be a JD plus computer science, or softer skills.
And I’ve heard Warren Buffet talk about his best ever investment being I believe it was Toast Masters or some equivalent public speaking course because you layer that on top of almost anything, and it automatically puts you in a position to have a really unfair advantage. So, storytelling, you were kind enough, we were trading before this, and you mentioned storytelling
So, this is one thing I highlighted of notes that you sent to me, which was storytelling was one way to rule the world. And another friend of mine who has been on the podcast, Chris Sacca who is just an incredible investor, hilarious guy, but he originally trained to be a lawyer. And he was beaten soundly, at one point, by this guy who got – after Chris had presented all of his spreadsheets and all of the data, and some guy got up, I think it was in Arkansas or Texas or somewhere, and he was like you can’t lead a horse to water or something. He just started speaking in five or six different parables and completely kicked Chris’s ass.
And so, Chris concluded that stories beat spreadsheets. How have you developed your ability to tell stories? Or how would you recommend people develop, perhaps, books, tools, practices, the ability to tell better stories because I think it’s, as you’ve said, so, so, so powerful.
M. Sanjayan: Right. So, I really agree with what you just said. And I think storytelling is one really powerful way to kind of rule the world. And a lot of people that we kind of look up to and think about like from Einstein to Elon Musk to Steve Jobs, they were really powerful storytellers, in their own way. So, they had this ability through words or through images to really convince you that you could do something that no one else could think about. And just that mind shift that they created propelled you along with their vision. And, all of a sudden, you were doing it. So, and you absolutely learn those skills.
You can actually get better at it. When I was in high school, I was painfully shy. Like painfully shy. I wore very thick glasses. I had long hair. I did get beaten up all of the time. I went to school, for my high school, I went to school, it was like Hogwarts’s without any of the magic.
So, it was tough. But I had a break. And the break was, this is such a funny break, so, I was sent to boarding school in England for a year. And the break was that we had a debate team, which was quite good. And it would go up against like Eaton and all of the other schools like that. And the kid who was supposed to be the main kid for this debate team got ill. And they suggested that I fill that role, and I did. And I really had to – the first time I did this, they make fun of my accent because I had a bit of an accent. I didn’t actually have much of an accent, but in their minds, I had a very strong Asian accent. And what I did was I started the debate with that very, very strong – I over emphasized. Everyone laughed at me.
I laughed at myself. I got over it. And I moved on. That’s not a big deal to do today. But when you’re 14 or 15, it feels big and scary and really hard to do. And I realized there was power in that. By the way, we went all the way to the finals, and this kid then got well. And then, they kicked me off the team. And then, this kid actually lost. I’m not saying anything here, but this is exactly what happens in my life. Literally, three debates, three rounds we were doing fine. The team was doing great. Okay. He had chicken pox. And then, he was out of quarantine, so, he could come back on the team.
And then, I was off. So, you can practice, and you can get better. So, I practiced. And I think about it, and I think about how people tell stories. Look at Tim’s – you open those first couple of pages, and he talks that little story that he puts in there about what he was grappling with in his college days. It immediately captivates you. You just immediately want to know more and read more. So, there’s real power there.
And you can develop and get better at it. So, what are some of the ways in which you can do this? So, you have to be genuinely interested in the stories you’re telling. You can’t fake that. If you’re interviewing someone, you’ve got to be actually a fan of that person. If you’re not a fan of that topic or that person or not genuinely interested, it’s just not going to work. You’ve got to own that story. It’s got to be all you. You can’t bluff the story. You can’t lie about it. You can learn a story and repeat someone else’s story. But you really have to own it in like a deep, deep sense of it. You have to know when to stop. You have to know when to – the message is also important.
That’s something I often say. It’s not just the story, but it’s also the kind of stories you tell, and they have to be true to who you are as a storyteller. So, I’m not a professional at like teaching people how to tell stories. I can’t do that professionally. I know I do it. I know I practice it. I got it from my parents. I think it’s a wonderful craft to think about. Read books and figure out what piece of that is really catching your heart. It always starts with the heart. It always comes from a place of commonality and laughter and love or pain or something from the heart before you can engage the mind. And those sorts of stories always tend to win.
Tim Ferriss: So, I want to underscore something you said. And then, I want to ask about this very, very clear smirk that came on your face when you just said something a second ago. But I think the going for the heart or noticing what captures the heart applies to questions, too. For instance. Cal Fussman who was one of the main writers of the What I Learned column in Esquire for a long, long, long time, I want to say 10 plus interviews, interviewed Gorbachev and all of these people routinely would get told, right before an interview, yeah, this hour long interview, you now have five minutes.
And so, he would have to hook someone like Gorbie into continuing to talk. And he’d think about his questions. And then, he’d say tell me about when your father left for war. Was there any particular lesson he taught you? And he would go for the emotion first. And that would then allow him to get to the headier questions later. So, I think that it applies to not only the telling of stories, but the asking, the eliciting of stories.
M. Sanjayan: And good storytelling is that, right. So, in a good story, a really phenomenal story is one way you actually are having this relationship with the audience. And it’s a two-way story. And when people do that magically, you’re a whole other kind of level of it. And when you talk about how you organize your questions, it sounds so simple. Like okay, he’s got a bunch of questions. But there’s so much thought going into it because you’re actually engaging a story. And you’re doing it in that way so that you can get the whole thing kind of coming out, right?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Absolutely. And the piece that I wanted to ask about, and maybe it was just because you enjoy smiling and do it so well, but you said you have to know when to stop. And then, I think you had this big grin on your face. Maybe that was me noticing something that wasn’t there. But what’s behind knowing when to stop? What’s the opposite? What does that look like? Just telling a long story that goes on too long?
M. Sanjayan: So, the best storytellers leave you wanting to hear more. The best comedians just absolutely will leave you wanting to hear more. There’s a real art to that. You can’t give it all away. You have to leave the audience saying I wanted to hear – tell me more. And that’s really important about knowing when to be able to stop. And you can over explain things many, many ways. And I’m really not articulate today, by the way. I’m apologizing a little bit for that. But that’s a really important skill to know like when does that story end. Don’t bury the punchline. So many times, it’s like there’s a whole wind up where I’m going to tell you a story about a monkey that stole my – don’t do that.
Just go right into it because you have them at the first minute. And then, every minute after that, you’re going to start losing audience share, so, you want to get it fast and get right into it as fast as you can.
Tim Ferriss: So, I want to talk about –
M. Sanjayan: By the way, can I tell you one thing about that?
Tim Ferriss: Yes, of course.
M. Sanjayan: So, when I was talking about the message about owning a story, go do this when you get a chance, when you get home. You know that song Respect, R-E-S-P-E-C-T? You know that song, right? So, who sang that? Aretha Franklin. Everyone knows Aretha Franklin. Everyone can hum it right now. If I played it to you, you’d know it in a heartbeat. She’s not the one who actually first sang it. It was actually done by Otis Redding. Same words, same song, very different meaning. The song is really exact opposite of what Aretha makes that song to be. Otis Redding’s song is like I’m working all day, woman, and I’m putting food on the table for you. And when I fucking come home – I’m so sorry I said that.
Tim Ferriss: No, no, no. Curse away.
M. Sanjayan: I think it’s in this song, when I come home, all I want is just some god damn respect. That’s his song. Never made it big, but Otis Redding was a big singer by then. A decent blues song. She owned it. She completely – same words, but just the way she put that story together, her complete ownership of it. And who will forget her spelling of that just makes her the one who remembers it. And later on in life, Otis actually kind of complained slightly about her taking the song and making it so huge and no one remembers that he’s the one who recorded and sang it and performed it for at least two years before she came along. So, you want to see two stories, same story, told in different ways, listen to those two songs.
Tim Ferriss: That’s amazing. I had no idea. I want to talk about some of the stories, and the stories may not be the right word, but narratives that have stuck with you. And I’m going to prompt it with a question. And I can certainly cheat a little bit and prompt. But what is the book or books you’ve given the most as a gift and why? Or books that have influenced you?
M. Sanjayan: Yeah. Tim and I have talked about this a little bit. So, for me, books are all about the moment and the emotion that I’m in and the person I’m giving it to is in. and so, I can’t tell you that there’s one book that has predominated how I give because I love books, and I love to give books. And I carry books around. Even today, I brought two books for you to autograph that I’m giving away. So, there’s an act of giving. And a book is a wonderful way to convey something to another person. Books that I’ve loved giving away, Norman McClain’s A River Runs Through It. I read that book in so many different ways, in so many pieces. It totally influenced my life in terms of fly fishing and finding magic in words and that quiet space.
He also wrote that book when he was 71 years old. Kind of only the really big book he wrote. It was at 71. And you think about all of this sort of bullshit about creative genius being in the young and all of that. As you get older, you start appreciating it. If Norman could do it at 71, maybe I could do it not quite at 71 yet. Another book I really liked, a more recent book, is Stanley McChrystal’s Team of Teams. Completely different reason. Just a really clever, smart book about how to organize businesses and enterprises for today’s world. And he takes this experiential army in Afghanistan and brings it over to sort of your life or my life and makes it kind of relevant and meaningful. I found it very influential. I’ve given away quite a few copies of James Nester’s book, The Deep, which you might have read, right. You’ve read his book.
Tim Ferriss: I haven’t read The Deep.
M. Sanjayan: That book is pretty damn good. It’s about free diving, which I knew nothing about. That was one of my birthday things. That was like two years ago. So, I thought I’ll try this free diving thing because I read Nester’s book. And it’s amazing, the physiology of the human body and what it can do is amazing. So, I read this book. It’s about free diving, a very scary, it can be a very dangerous sport, but also an amazing sport because it completely changes the way you think about your body and what you’re capable of. And I thought this book inspired me. I’m going to go try and take a lesson in free diving.
So, I went to Hawaii around my birthday, and I took a lesson from a very, very good – you want to do this with someone very, very good, and I did. And this woman, Shelly Eisenberg, who was my teacher for the day, basically, this is what she did. Within three hours, I could hold my breath for maybe 45 seconds, maybe a minute if I tried. Within three hours, three hours, just by doing exercises with me, she had me at two minutes, ten seconds.
That floored me. It would be like saying how fast can you run around, I’d be like I can do a nine minute mile. And you say give me three hours, and I’ll get you down to a six minute. You just couldn’t do that. And that floored me. And she’s like yeah, let’s keep going. And sure enough, you’re doing three minutes. You’re doing three minutes within twenty-four hours. Unbelievable. True story, you can do it. Everyone in here can do that, too. That’s why that book was so kind of mentally transformative.
Tim Ferriss: I feel obligated as the person who is certainly not a doctor, and you’ve heard this before, I don’t play one on the internet. But you have to be very, very careful with this type of training. So, do not take the DIY approach. I know people who have died. And I know people who have come very close to dying from shadow water black outs. And when you, depending on the technique, if you blow off a lot of CO2, you won’t sense that you’re going to black out before you black out.
You’re fine, and then, you’re blacked out, which you don’t really want to have happen in any amount of water. You could Jimi Hendrix yourself, or it could be in 1,000 feet of water, same outcome. So, be very, very careful only with supervision, but it is fascinating.
M. Sanjayan: I mean, two Navy seals drowned in a training exercise in San Diego like two years ago, just the two of them trying this out and breaking the rules. The No. 1 with this is you’re doing it with a buddy who can do this better than you can. And you definitely want to do this, and that’s why I didn’t just try this. I read this book. Then, I went and got one of the best teachers, and I spent time with her. And that’s why I think it’s amazing.
Tim Ferriss: Billboards, let’s talk about them. If you could have a giant billboard anywhere with anything on it –
M. Sanjayan: A giant what?
Tim Ferriss: Billboard, with a message that you would get out to millions and billions of people, what would it say, and why?
M. Sanjayan: I’m going to take an easy one. I’m going to use one of the slogans that we at Conservation International use, in some ways, which I would probably say something like either people need nature. That’s not obvious enough. I’d say nature is speaking. Or I might say nature is screaming. And I’d like to put those outside of every place where there’s this “natural disaster”, which is usually human disaster that was exacerbated by just not listening to nature. That’s what I’d do. And I was always influenced by you drive across this country; you see these signs for religious purposes. So and so deity will do this to you or not do this to you if only you believe.
And I always thought why don’t we put that same kind of effort into putting billboards up that says nature is screaming or nature is speaking. When are we going to listen? Something like that. So, that’s probably what I’d put on it.
Tim Ferriss: So, I really want to, and this isn’t just professional courtesy, so we can talk about the work you’re doing. Conservation and the state of progressive destruction of our natural habitats and surroundings causes me a lot of anxiety personally. In part because I feel like, for instance, if a study comes out on metabolism, and there are a bunch of conflicting headlines, and things are poorly interpreted by certain media, I can parse it. I can go to [inaudible]. I can figure out what’s what. But, in the world of conservation or trying to do the right thing, I sometimes feel lost, in the sense that I attempt to do the right thing, what I perceive to be the right thing, and then, I find out, oh, shit, that type of wild caught fish or farmed fish is exactly the opposite of what I should be doing or whatever it might be.
You’re going to have a lot of people listening to this, people in this room, and then, people on the podcast. If people want to think more precisely about this and feel like they can take proactive steps, what are some of the most common misconceptions about conservation? Or what’s a smart way to just approach thinking about it?
M. Sanjayan: Right. So, the first thing I would say is, don’t let perfection and trying to find the silver bullet keep you out of the game. So, we were both, recently, at summit in Los Angeles. And I heard people talk about philanthropy and giving and wanting to find the most perfect way to give. And I was sort of struck by how many people around me were all nodding. And I was just thinking to myself really? Yeah, okay, I want to make sure my dollar goes the furthest as well. But there are so many other things in life, which we waste all of the time, and why this one we want perfection?
So, when someone says to me tell me the one thing I can do to change the planet, guess what, there isn’t. There are lots of things. And it’s messy. And you’re not always going to get it right. And is it better to drink out of ceramic cup that you have to wash in hot water or a Styrofoam cup? Those are important questions for you to think about. But, ultimately, they shouldn’t stop you from getting engaged. So, the truth of the matter is very, very, very few people are actually engaged in trying to care about the fate of our planet, the fate of where we live and our kids’ lives. And I just want to get more people in it.
And I think if more are in it, then, absolutely, we’ll come up with more honed solutions. But it shouldn’t stop you from getting in it. So, that’s my first thing I would say. If you want to make some small changes in your life, what you eat and how you cook it makes a huge difference.
It’s probably the one thing that you could do. So, being thoughtful whether it’s farm caught or wild. That’s a useful question to think about and try to get the best half way there. And I can answer that for you. Like Seafood Watch that the Monterey Bay Aquarium puts out gives you a reasonable pathway. But how you cook and how you waste food, like wasting food, is a big, big deal. Your energy output on those completely outweighs what car you drive or anything like that. So, that’s just something simple you can do. Getting engaged in the political system, I think it really does matter. It really does matter.
So, there was this kind of crazy decision very recently on wanting to, at this moment in time, when all of these crises are going on on the planet, on overturning the ban on importing elephant heads from trophy hunting from Zimbabwe and Zambia.
That actually somehow became a priority for the administration all of a sudden. We’re going to overturn the ban so that any hunter who goes to Zimbabwe or Zambia and shoots an elephant can bring the ivory and the head into the country. Why is that all of a sudden, the thing to do? And people really got upset about it. And, believe it or not, it kind of did change something, at least for now. There’s been a reversal of that decision. So, the administration has decided to wait on that for a while. So, make your voices heard. It’s important that you make your voices heard. And don’t sit this out.
Tim Ferriss: Are there any other resources that you would suggest people look to, like Seafood Watch, or any other websites where people could find simple things they might not think of like the slower shipping to make an impact? Just assuming these people are busy professionals with high demands on their time, where do you suggest they look?
M. Sanjayan: Okay. And without being totally self serving. So, I will say my own organization, conservation.org, decent website. You’ll find lots of ways in which you can be engaged. The Nature Conservancy, nature.org, decent website. Lots of ways you can get engaged. Environmental Defense Fund, they do a lot of great work, particularly in the United States around climate. World Resource Institute gives you the macro picture. They have great graphics, great infographics. It gives you sort of the macro picture.
I did a series, recently, on Vox with the University of California called Climate Labs, which are just these eight minute, very short, digestible, little videos on something like food waste. Slightly irreverent, slightly counterintuitive, simple ways in which you can either get engaged or make a change in your life. You can have an impact.
And so, we took a bunch of different topics like shipping and did the short videos on it. It’s called Climate Labs on Vox. So, those are things that come quickly to mind. But here’s the most important thing, seriously. I really mean this we really are on a race to save the planet. I really, really believe this. Here’s the thing. We’re the only generation who actually has some foresight. Think about this. In the entire history of humanity, we had to rely on crystal balls and a burning bush sitting where we are to give us a glimpse of where we’re heading. And now, we actually have some data. We’re the first generation in human history to see the – I met John Glen before he passed away.
Amazing guy. Amazing American. First American to go around the planet, see the whole thing. I asked him, and he said, “Yeah, it blew me away. I never thought we could see the whole planet all at once.”
If you were standing on a flat earth, if you’re standing on the sea shore, you see about seven miles. After that, the horizon dips away. And as long as humans have been around, we’ve been climbing taller and taller mountains, towers, trees to be able to see what’s over the horizon. What are we looking for? We’re thinking about a lion that’s over the horizon that might bite us, or looking for opportunity. Now, in our generation, we can see the whole thing. And not only that, we’re also mostly all connected. There is no reason for us not to act right now. And believe me, that window is small.
And if we don’t do it, I swear, future generations will look back and say what a waste. You had that opportunity when the opportunity cost was actually relatively cheap. The price of conservation will never get cheaper in the future. It’s as cheap as it’s going to get now, and it will only get more expensive. So, not acting now is crazy. And that’s why people who have done the giving pledge like Steve Case and others, I so applaud that because they’re not just saying we’re going to leave this for future generations to deal with.
They’re saying we’re going to deal with it now because, right now, is probably the cheapest to be able to deal with it.
Tim Ferriss: So, I’ll ask just a few more questions, and then, we’ll do some audience. And then, we’ll head off to tequila shots or whatever comes next. But I really want to ask you what you found helpful for training humans to think more long term because it strikes me that, if you look at history, and you don’t have to go very far back, but you certainly could, we’ve evolved from millions of years, effectively, to survive until puberty, have sex, and procreate. That’s basically it. That’s Darwinism at work. And people act in their intensely worst of interests long term for short term gain.
How do you train people to think more in longer term time horizons and in ways that are more communal and not individual? It seems like a very tough task but a very, very, very important one. What are some of the most effective learnings or lessons that you’ve had with that?
M. Sanjayan: So, I don’t know. That’s the truth of the answer. I don’t know how to fundamentally beat evolutionary biology. It is so hard wired into us. The people who do and do it rationally, so, you look at what Charlie Munger says. He says, basically, our investment technique that he and Buffet used is just don’t do anything stupid over the long run. Pretty much he basically says that, right?
It’s surprisingly simple but incredibly hard to follow, incredibly hard to follow. And the people who do it tend to be sort of investors and others who sort of faithfully follow a system. But even they get spooked, as we’ve seen many, many times over. So, it’s very difficult to beat it. So, I’m not trying to do that. I’m just trying to figure out how I can make you change your life for the betterment of the planet in your own enlightened self interest. And the better I can do that and tell you that it’s actually going to make your life better now, now, now, now, not even your kids, but your life, the better chance I have of promoting change.
The interesting thing is it doesn’t have to be rational because we do so many things that are completely irrational. And so, it doesn’t have to be rational. It can be very emotional. And it has to be about your own enlightened self interest. It can’t be about the future.
Tim Ferriss: So, I think, at some point, we’ll have to do a Round 2.
M. Sanjayan: And I’m stuck. And any help you have and want to throw it my way, our way, we’ll take it. But I’m actually stuck because I know much better communiques than I am and far smarter people than I am in my field who are, basically, stuck as well.
Tim Ferriss: To that point, my next question is going to be what ask would you have of people listening? Is there anything that you’re looking for, any particular type of help, or just next steps that people – you would like to see people take because you’re going to have a lot of people listening, people in all different walks of life, different sectors, every possible place imaginable. What would you like them to do or consider?
M. Sanjayan: So, the most important thing you could do for me or for us or for this cause is to be a messenger. It really is, quite simply, that because the people who are more likely to listen are people like yourselves.
They’re more likely to listen to the message coming from you than if it came from me. And that’s really – so, I strongly believe in that. So, the messenger matters as much as the message. You can reach audiences that I could never reach. So, being that messenger, to carry that message into your community, into your church or synagogue, your place of worship, your school, your community, your family is far, far more useful than me trying to just get my voice to be bigger and bigger and bigger.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you. And where can people say hello to you on social or learn more about what you’re up to? Is Twitter the best place?
M. Sanjayan: Twitter is a good place. Facebook is also really good because it allows a longer conversation to occur. I can easily be found as M Sanjayan on Facebook. And that’s a good place to also engage. Twitter is fine, too.
Tim Ferriss: And then, conservation.org.
M. Sanjayan: Yeah. And conservation.org. I think our website and our social media platform is a great place to engage.
Tim Ferriss: Perfect.
M. Sanjayan: Particularly for a DC audience, but I think also for a global audience.
Tim Ferriss: So, this is, I think, a great place to grab just a few questions. And then, we can close up and have some tequila, give George Clooney a few hundred million more dollars, if anybody knows the [inaudible], what a story.
M. Sanjayan: By the way, while he’s thinking about that, one other book I wanted to mention to you guys, especially for this town, is a book called Destiny of the Republic by Candace Millard. It’s a fantastic book. She’s a great author, and she talks about President Garfield and being shot and how his life could have been saved, if they had only listened to the surgeon who gave them advice, but he was sort of ignored because he was this black surgeon in the Union Army. And, instead, they took another route, and it’s just a fascinating story about race and technology at the cusp of a really important moment in our nation. About a president that very few people had heard about but who, if he had survived, would have completely changed the course of our country probably for the better.
Tim Ferriss: So, this is a question from Bill from Long Island. It’s addressed to me, but I’m going to ask you, since I’ve talked ad nauseum about my mornings. What does the first 60 to 90 seconds of your day look like? I’m going to modify this. But he’s asking what do you do to jump start the first waking moments? Do you have any morning rituals or routines that are consistent for you?
M. Sanjayan: Coffee. Yeah. To jump start my day?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Or just anything that you do as part of your routine in the mornings?
M. Sanjayan: Yeah. So, I often put the toughest things I need to deal with and the most creative things early in the morning. It’s just as simple as that. I tend not to check my email until I’m actually starting work. That’s just something I – my work email, until I’m actually starting work because it just really clutters the mind. So, what happens with email, especially for my company because it’s a global organization, so, I get emails in the middle of the night. And so, they pile up. And so, if I find out that if I open my day by checking email, I get diverted into all of these other small things that I am very bad at saying no to. So, I kind of ruin the rest of that day. And rather, I want to sort of set my agenda, then, look at it, and deal with the ones I can deal with and ignore the others.
Tim Ferriss: This is a question from it’s either Eric or Erin, I’m not quite sure. Who is your most recent mentor, and what has that person taught you? And if you have an answer for that, great. Otherwise, we could modify it to just be what is a recent lesson that you’ve learned or insight?
M. Sanjayan: That’s a good one because it kind of harkens back to Tribe of Mentors. So, one of the things that I did that I found very, very useful in my life, and I think, for many of you, you could apply it, too, is that, some years ago, I created a personal board. So, a group of individuals who would personally spend a little bit of time vesting in my and my success. And I didn’t do this because of some grandiose notion of who I was. But it struck me that, whenever you wanted letters of reference when you go for a job, you always have to sort of scramble around and try to catch up to people who you haven’t spoken to for a long time and hope they give you this letter.
And they really don’t know you, by that point, and life has sort of gone by. And I thought what happens if I had a group of five individuals that I would pick, and I would make a promise that I would never solicit them for money, which I have kept up, even though some now do give to CI, but that’s not the purpose. They don’t belong to my organization. They’re not my board for my organization.
They’re my personal board. And they’re great people. And I would just say to them, listen, can you do this for me? I’ll meet with you two, maybe three times a week. We’ll have coffee or lunch.
Tim Ferriss: Two or three times a week?
M. Sanjayan: I’m sorry, two or three times a year.
Tim Ferriss: It’s like man, this is a really generous board.
M. Sanjayan: Sorry. And we’ll just have a little conversation and a catch up. And I can just occasionally ping you for guidance. That has been incredibly, incredibly useful. I picked some great people. You might know some of them. But it’s been very, very helpful.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. So, I want to dig into this because this is really interesting. So, your personal board.
M. Sanjayan: By the way, they all said yes. Not one person turned me down.
Tim Ferriss: How could we not get into this? Now, I want to mention, just as a side note because people might find this helpful, something that I found very helpful from Chris Fussell who co-authored Team of Teams with Stan McChrystal.
And he was Stan’s aide-de-camp for quite a long time in JSOC. And advice he was given was, at all times, you want to surround yourself with at least three people. Someone who is doing an excellent job of what you hope to be doing say a few years from now, someone who is doing a better job than you are, in some capacity, at what you’re doing now, and then, somebody who is doing something you used to do, but is doing it much better than you did. And that was how he ended up seeking out people to surround himself with. How did you choose – since they all said yes, I guess you reached out to five or six people, right?
M. Sanjayan: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: How did you choose those people? What were the criteria?
M. Sanjayan: I wanted people I respected. So, that was sort of important to me. They had to be people I really respected. I wanted people who were not in my field because I had plenty of colleagues in my field. So, I’ll give you some names. I don’t think it matters that much. So, Tom Tierney, Bridge Span, he’s also the chairman of the Nature Conservancy now. A really smart guy. He kind of gets how businesses should organize. He coached me on how to get the CEO job for Conservation International. And the tips he gave me were incredibly valuable, incredible. I never realized that you could actually coach your way into a job. And that guy really helped me do that. So, that was one. Paula Kerger, she’s the president of PBS, amazing woman, very unusual. She was a development staff.
So, she asked people for money and then, rose through the ranks and ended up running PBS. She’s also across the road from my office, so, it’s kind of easy to sometimes see her. Really smart, very thoughtful, wonderfully kind, generous person. A guy name Seth Neiman, Cross Point Venture Partners is one of his companies. He’s also a race car driver. That guy interviews CEO’s for a living. So, his whole job is about interviewing CEO’s and deciding which ones he wants to bet on as a venture capital guy. Really useful for me as I’m thinking about what qualities and attributes I want to strengthen as a CEO. So, I sort of looked at it that way as sort of this group of folks who could sort of help and guide.
Tim Ferriss: Were they people you’d had contact with before?
M. Sanjayan: Yeah. They were all people who had somehow been in my orbit. And then, I thought, well, let’s just try to make this formal, in some way. And let’s just see if they would agree to do this. And they all said yeah, so long as you do that to me in return, which was a very nice, flattering thing. I’m sure it doesn’t work that way. But that’s been very useful. And believe me, I did end up using that board when I went through the CEO search. So, 150 days ago, our founder who had been running Conservation International for 30 years stepped down.
And I became the CEO. And last year, the board went through a very challenging process of trying to decide who the next CEO and what the next leadership team would look like. And it’s a very scary moment for an organization because over half to the CEO’s who come in after a founder fail. And, actually, if you want to get the job, you want to be the one in waiting. Seriously, that’s what typically happens. New CEO comes in, they fail, and either the old CEO comes back, or the person in waiting kind of gets the role and then, runs it. So, it’s fraught with challenges and dangers all over the place.
And I really didn’t think I would get it. I thought there was a chance I would get it. But I was really worried about it for lots of reasons, including my color, to be absolutely honest. And this mentoring group, honest to God, coached me. Them and a couple of other people really helped coach me through this.
Tim Ferriss: Can you share any of the advice that they gave you?
M. Sanjayan: Yeah. One really simple one. So, this is such an amazing thing, and I’ve applied for other jobs before like kind of like the CEO or top level person job and not got that. Three times, in the past, I’ve been rejected for that. I’d get very close and then, somehow, either they talked me out of it, or I get rejected. Here’s what I was doing. So, they would ask me, tell me about this. So, why do you want this job? And I’m like well, I’ve got a good career. I don’t really need this, but if it was the right thing. You kind of had this kind of long, meandering story about saying I’m not totally vested. Yeah, I could do this, but I could do lots of other things. And I actually feel that way, in a lot of ways.
So, in a lot of ways, I think I’m definitely – I didn’t start my life thinking I want to be the CEO of Conservation International. It was never a dream. It was never a goal, never a goal. The goal was to have impact. I didn’t really care how I had impact. But what these guys said to me was like one guy actually said this to me. He said that is not the right answer. I want you to repeat after me. Say I will walk through a wall to get this job.
Say it. I’m like really? Say it. He says, “Now, when you go into that interview, they’re going to ask you this question. And I want you to repeat this.” So, he did, first question. Why do you want this job? Tell us what prepared you for this job. And I said, “Let me make one thing clear. I will walk through a wall to get this job.” And they all went, great. Because, guess what? Most times, when you’re hiring people, and I do this all of the time, I hire people all of the time. And I’m so amazed that I didn’t listen to my own rule. You want someone who gives you the confidence that they will solve the problems that you don’t want to deal with.
You want someone coming in saying I got this. You don’t want someone to come in and say I don’t know if I really want it. Convince me. And you start negotiating at Day 1. You don’t want to do that. It’s a very, very, simple rule. So, whatever job you go for, start by saying let me be clear, I really want this job. I will walk through a wall to get this job. Now, let me tell you what makes me so great for this, and then, just lay it out. You can negotiate later. It’s a really simple one.
Tim Ferriss: When you sent the emails out to recruit this X Men team of mentors to form a structure, a couple of questions, and this won’t go on for hours. Don’t worry, guys. Even though it could, and it might later with tequila. I don’t know why I keep thinking of tequila. We can psychoanalyze that later. Do you interact with these mentors as a group? Or is it all one to one?
M. Sanjayan: It’s one on one, although they know about each other. Getting them together as a group would be too difficult.
Tim Ferriss: Impossible, yeah. Do you block out say a week every quarter just to schedule them in batches?
M. Sanjayan: Yeah. I schedule it around travel that I have in their city. So, I do this as much as I can I person, unless I have a crisis or an emergency, and I just need to get on the phone. And then, they’re always willing. I, literally, today, I had a little, minor crisis. I, literally, had a CEO of a company I don’t want to name, but enormous company, he returned my call today. I’m so floored. It’s like I’m so sorry it took me so long to get back to you. And I’m like you’re kidding me. Once you get that relationship with those few individuals, it does work. It can really work very well.
Tim Ferriss: Did you say, hey, let’s grab coffee and then, make the pitch in person? Or did you lay it out in email?
M. Sanjayan: I made it – no, I don’t think I did it by email. I think I did it all by phone or when I met them in person after the first coffee. So, the people I knew well, I did by phone. I’ll tell you one thing though. I do take it sort of seriously. So, when I go to see them, there are two things that I never make informal, two things that I never make informal. One is when I talk to my board, my organization board, or my group of mentors’ board, which means I put on a shirt. I kind of put on a jacket, if it’s appropriate. Whatever way you want to do it, and it’s not about dress code.
But I’m whatever way you want to do it, you want to make sure that they understand that you are using and taking their hour really seriously. So, just don’t waste time with that. And the other thing I do, I always take seriously, when I ask people for money, something that I never do on the – I never ask someone for a donation or to fund Conservation International when I’m having a drink with them, or when I’m fly fishing with them or going on a hike with them because people don’t want to be hit up all of the time. You want to just go do that and enjoy it and have fun.
And then, you want to say can I meet with you at 3:00 tomorrow afternoon, or can I meet with you at 8:00 a.m. tomorrow or today or whatever it is. I want to just clean up, show up, and be straight about it.
Tim Ferriss: I said last two questions like twenty questions ago. But when you’re preparing for one of these meetings, what does it look like? You have 60 minutes with such and such super hot shot, what’s the format of the hour?
M. Sanjayan: It often depends. At this point, it depends on what the major thing that I’m dealing with has been and what’s been kind of bugging me on my mind that I really want.
Tim Ferriss: Could you give an example, or is it too personal?
M. Sanjayan: It’s not a big surprise. Any time a founder leaves an organization, there are – so, here’s a really legitimate answer. So, I was not the only internal candidate going for this job. There were two other very, very good candidates for this job as well. And they both could do this job. They both could be CEO’s. And my No. 1 task, as soon as I knew I was going to get this job, was to figure out a way to keep them. It almost never happens. And think what you’ve just done. You’ve now lost the second best person to run your organization has just walked out your door. It almost never happens.
So, that was something I prepared for, I thought about how I might try to approach it. I went to them, and I said this is a problem. It’s a big problem. Tell me what I need to do to be able to do this.
And they gave me – some of them, not all of them, different people, and you’ve got to filter that advice. But the two individuals I went to gave me incredibly good advice that I followed to a T. And it served me well, I think it served me well, because both of those individuals are incredibly valuable and still part of Conservation International.
Tim Ferriss: Well, on that note, I want to thank you for so much good advice. Ladies and gentlemen, M. Sanjayan.
Posted on: February 4, 2018.
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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.