Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with politician Cory Booker, the junior United States Senator from New Jersey. Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!
Listen to the interview here or by selecting any of the options below.
DUE TO SOME HEADACHES IN THE PAST, PLEASE NOTE LEGAL CONDITIONS:
Tim Ferriss owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of The Tim Ferriss Show podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as his right of publicity.
WHAT YOU’RE WELCOME TO DO:
You are welcome to share the below transcript (up to 500 words but not more) in media articles (e.g., The New York Times, LA Times, The Guardian), on your personal website, in a non-commercial article or blog post (e.g., Medium), and/or on a personal social media account for non-commercial purposes, provided that you include attribution to “The Tim Ferriss Show” and link back to the tim.blog/podcast URL. For the sake of clarity, media outlets with advertising models are permitted to use excerpts from the transcript per the above.
WHAT IS NOT ALLOWED:
No one is authorized to copy any portion of the podcast content or use Tim Ferriss’ name, image or likeness for any commercial purpose or use, including without limitation inclusion in any books, e-books, book summaries or synopses, or on a commercial website or social media site (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) that offers or promotes your or another’s products or services. For the sake of clarity, media outlets are permitted to use photos of Tim Ferriss from the media room on tim.blog or (obviously) license photos of Tim Ferriss from Getty Images, etc.
Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls. This is Tim Ferriss and welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show, where it is my job each and every episode to deconstruct world-class performers from many different areas and try to connect the dots. So they may come from chess, entertainment, athletics, or otherwise, military, for instance. But what are the common habits, the favorite books, the routines that you can apply to your own life? That is what I try to tease out. In this episode, we have a very special guest. He was highly requested, has been requested for years by thousands of you at this point. Cory Booker.
That is C-O-R-Y, @corybooker on Twitter and elsewhere. He’s an American politician and the junior United States Senator from New Jersey. Now, I want to say right up front, I generally have an allergy to politics and long-term listeners know this. I very seldom dig in and try to penetrate that world. But, a few things. No. 1, Cory and I actually go back a ways.
We’ve spent time together. Second, his story is endlessly fascinating to me. For instance, he’s faced down death threats from gangs, run into burning buildings and much more, aside from all of the official stuff that you see. That, I think, is worth mining. He’s also very well spoken and very well educated and pulls from many different disciplines. We cover a lot in this wide-ranging catchup, which we did in person in Austin, Texas, including his diet, lessons from early mentors, as in athletics, routines, most impactful books, the books he’s gifted the most to the people, learning how to “street fight,” in New Jersey after a Rhodes Scholarship and a fantastic education and much, much more.
Cory began his political career, as some of you probably know, as a City Councilor from 1998 to 2002 in Newark, New Jersey’s largest city. He later then served as Mayor of Newark. Under his leadership, Newark entered its biggest period of economic growth since the 1960s.
The first new downtown hotels were constructed in 40 years, the first new office towers in 20 years, etc. He then won the Senate Democratic primary in August of 2013 and then won the general election on October 16, 2013, becoming the first African-American U.S. Senator from New Jersey. I hope you enjoy this conversation as much as I did. I always enjoy spending time with Cory. So without further ado, here is Cory Booker.
Cory, welcome to the show.
Cory Booker: It’s pretty amazing being here, actually.
Tim Ferriss: I am so thrilled to finally be sitting here with you to have this conversation. We met many years ago and I’ve wanted to get you on the podcast ever since I realized the podcast was going to be more than drinking too much with my one or two closest friends in San Francisco and embarrassing myself.
Cory Booker: I love the drunk taking questions.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, the drunk dial episodes?
Cory Booker: Yeah, those episodes are great. But this is one of those moments where literally when my team, my team that works with me in the Senate, says to me, Tim wants to have you on his show.
It’s like this moment where I’m like, wait a minute. I see the show as you having masters of their domain on the show and the fact that I want to be on the show, I have this severe problem of imposter syndrome. Like I am not worthy. I’m a huge fan of your show. It has literally influenced my life in a very significant way, as you did.
In fact, when we met at Dialogue, I was way overweight and you took the time to stand with me as everybody left. We were at some table and just coached me for ten minutes. I then went on to lose – it was probably the best shape I had been in until more recently. But you just coached me. I followed your gospel and I got myself in shape. By that point, I was like, this guy changed my life and I just became a fan. I read The 4-Hour Workweek, read The 4-Hour Body. My staff just got me your most recent book. I’m just thrilled to be here. I’m not sure if I’m worthy.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, I think you’re worthy, more than worthy. I have so many questions that I was waiting to ask you, whether in person just over dinner or on the podcast.
So I figured why not just do it on the podcast? I wanted to ask you to start maybe at the beginning, because I came into this not knowing a whole lot about your upbringing and childhood. Could you tell us a little bit about your parents?
Cory Booker: I hit the lottery to be born to these two amazing American folks who both have tough backgrounds. They are black people who were born in the ‘30s basically. Growing up under Jim Crow. My father, especially, very poor, single mom to a mother who couldn’t take care of him, then a grandmother that couldn’t take care of him. I’ve now, since I was on this great show called “Finding Your Roots.” So I actually now know about my roots going back to the 1600s in America, actually, amazingly. But for that branch of the family, my father’s, is poverty, poverty, poverty, slavery. These parents came from tough environments, but both were fortunate enough to get to a college.
Through the interventions of a lot of really great people, especially my father, it was a community of people, when his mom couldn’t take care of him, that took him in and bent the branches of my family towards college and usually towards being middle income. They pitched in money. I don’t know what their ROI is on those people that gave like a buck to my Dad to get his first semester’s tuition paid for and then work his way through college. But incredible amounts of individual kindness got my Dad to college.
And then hey, great, you land in college right during the civil rights movement and you got black people, white people, Christian, Jewish, Muslim, all pouring into the South for you to basically give you equal opportunity in this country. So doors started opening up to blacks that never had been before. My parents both get to Washington, D.C. after college, and my Dad – thanks to, again, the activism of blacks and whites, Christians, Jews, Republicans, and Democrats who were just saying to these companies, you’ve kind of got to start hiring black people and companies opened their doors.
So my Dad became the first black salesman for an oil company, first black buyer, I think, for a department store, then he became IBM’s first black salesman for the entire Virginia area. What happens when you let people at the table to have a fair chance to compete, he kicked ass. Excuse me. The next thing you know, he’s like their top 5 percent of their global salesmen and gets promoted to New Jersey with his new wife. At that point, I was four months old. We moved to Jersey. That’s how my Jersey origins come.
Tim Ferriss: I spent a good amount of time in Jersey. We’re going to get to Jersey. We’re going to spend a lot of time on Jersey, I suspect. What were some of the lessons or sayings that you found most impactful or have retained from your parents?
Cory Booker: Well, look, James Baldwin says that children are never good at listening to their elders, but they never fail to imitate them. So I’ve learned that my parents said certain things that I abided by because that’s how they lived. My parents told me a whole bunch of stuff that I didn’t embody because they didn’t live in allegiance to what they told me to do.
Look, my parents embody this interesting ethic. They were very entrepreneurial people. They were very business-minded people, but they also – it almost felt like they just had this debt to society because they knew the extraordinary acts of love and kindness that got there. My Dad’s work ethic and my Mom’s work ethic – as I get older, I more appreciate my mother. I don’t think I appreciated it as much when I was young. But my father was one of these guys that like if it was a snow day and I’m in first grade all excited, I would be woken in the morning by 5:00 a.m. to my Dad shoveling the driveway when everybody’s staying home, because he was going to go to work and be the first person at work no matter what.
My Dad, even though he had this incredible work ethic and climbed the ladder into middle class through the sheer grit that he had, he also had this understanding that if it wasn’t for lots, thousands of people that you don’t even know, I wouldn’t be here. My Dad had this powerful story he told that got more dramatic the older I got.
You have to understand, I’m walking around – by the time I’m 18 years old, I’m thinking I’m the greatest gift to the world. I’m a two-position, high school, All State high school football player, All American high school football player, president of my class, I’m thinking I’m somebody. My father would look at me and say, “Boy, don’t you dare walk around this house like you hit a triple. You were born on third base.” It’s like “You think you’re special? You know how many people,” – and I would get the lecture, you know? It was easy for him to do that lecture because he knew that I knew that I was very different than my peers in the sense that I was black.
As my father called us, we were the four raisins in the tub of sweet vanilla ice cream. We were definitely not the norm in terms of race in the town. So then he could easily tell me how I got there. Look, when my parents moved to New Jersey, I grew up in the northeastern county, the one that looks across the Palisades, across the Hudson River at New York, north of the George Washington Bridge. My father basically is like, “Look, what took us to get here?”
When my parents when they tried to buy homes in Bergen County, there was only a handful of towns in this 70-town county, 70-plus-town county, that would let blacks move in. They didn’t have laws at the time. People think the North – it was the South that that the segregation laws. No, it was real estate steering. Black family shows up. “Let me show you homes in Teaneck or Englewood or Hackensack. You don’t want to go up here.” So what my parents ended up doing, a group of just – again, blacks and whites joined together to create a storefront operation called the Fair Housing Council. They would go with blacks, my parents, and send a white couple right behind them.
My parents would look at a house, be told it was sold. The white couple would come and find out the house is still for sale. On this house that my parents fell in love with, 123 Norma Road in Harrington Park, New Jersey, they were told it was sold. The white couple came and found out it was still for sale. The white couple puts a bid on the house, papers are drawn up. On the day of the closing, my father shows up and a volunteer lawyer, a guy named Marty Friedman, a Jewish lawyer who just on his own time wanted to help black families out.
Literally, the real estate agent stands up angrily when he realizes he got caught in a sting operation. He doesn’t relent. He doesn’t say, yeah, I broke the law. No, he punches my Dad’s lawyer in the face and [inaudible].
Tim Ferriss: Always a great response.
Cory Booker: And puts a dog on my Dad. Literally, sics his dog on my Dad. I always joke that every time, as I got older and older, the dog got bigger. Eventually, it was like a pack of wolves. “And I fought a pack of wolves so you could eat that tuna fish sandwich.” But then we move into this home. For me, as my father would say to me, he says, “You’re drinking from wells of freedom and liberty and opportunity that you didn’t dig. You’re eating from banquet tables prepared for you by your ancestors.”
This is the kind of stuff my parents inspired my understanding to recognize that if you have the luck – I just had a Senate hearing last week about Yemen and 3 million internally displaced people, war, it’s a country on the brink of famine, which is not something that the U.N. does lightly to talk about widespread famine.
If you have the fortune, the blessing of being born an American, you are in the rarefied of rarefied airs in humanity, if you’re American in the 21st century. What my parents did a good job of bringing fully to my consciousness through the portal and lens of the black experience, but frankly I don’t care if you’re Irish-American, if you’re Indian-American, this is all of us how much effort had to go. It wasn’t Abraham Lincoln and FDR, no. It was good folk, ordinary folks who just said, “You know what? I may be Jewish, you may be Christian. I may be black, you may be white, but we are in this together.
If you’re facing an injustice, it’s a problem with me.” I’d hear, before I’d even studied this stuff in history, “Son, people stormed beaches in Normandy for you. They swept floors for you. They went on freedom rides for you.” So if any sort of family mantra that was there for my brother and I is, yeah, you have an obligation to take the blessings God gave you and work is the most important thing.
Don’t let anybody ever outwork you. You and I have shared this in sports or what have you. Work ethic is important. But service has got to be a part of that too. You owe a debt you can’t pay back to your ancestors. You’ve got to pay it forward by paying it to other people.
Tim Ferriss: So you played ball. You ended up at Sandford.
Cory Booker: I always say I got into Stanford because of a 4.0 and 1,600. 4.0 yards per carry, 1,600 receiving yards.
Tim Ferriss: You grew up, as I understand it, about a mile or two away from a previous guest, John Crowley. So he suggested that I ask you about – and I know nothing about football, so I’m getting into the deep end of my ignorance pool here, but Lou Holtz trying to recruit you. Maybe you could provide some context for people who don’t even know who Lou Holtz is.
Cory Booker: Well, Lou Holtz is probably one of the greatest American college football coaches of all times.
I was, in all fairness, because the older we get, the better we were at our sports, but in all fairness, I was probably the most overrated high school football player ever. People thought I could part the seas of linebackers and score anytime I wanted to. It was a lot of hype. I think the song back then by Public Enemy was “Don’t Believe the Hype.” That was written, I think, about my football career. But I had a choice of going anywhere. I just looked at it. You went to Princeton. Again, this idea that okay, I have a chance to get a full scholarship to any college in the country. I’m going to go – because of my parents’ wiring – to the best academic school I can go to.
I looked at Duke and Stanford and UVA. But Notre Dame was definitely on that list. Lou Holtz is probably one of the most persuasive human beings ever and I always talk about the fact – and definitely an embellished story – but going out there and Lou Holtz, who is a short man.
I’m 6’3” and I would say he’s like 5’ and a smidgen. But a booming guy. You look up to him right when you meet him. He just gives me the best sell you could imagine. We actually go into the Notre Dame locker room and there’s my jersey with my high school number on it. Needless to say, you’re 17, 18 years old. This is amazing. Lou Holtz goes, “Take a knee.” When Lou Holtz says take a knee, I’m a Christian boy, but I bowed before that man. Then he gives me the best pre-game speech I’d ever heard in my life. He pulls from all history. He’s talking about the Gipper. He even talks about Rudy, for crying out loud. He goes to Rudy.
So I’m all hyped up and then he goes, “Rise, Cory Booker, Rise.” It didn’t take a muscle twitch. I literally elevated up into the air after he told me that. I’m ready to go out and chop down trees. Then Notre Dame, you go through this little tunnel. There’s like a four-leaf clover there or something you hit. I don’t care if you’re black, if you’re from Bangladesh, when you touch that Irish, the Irish Isles call you.
You feel your Irish ancestry. I’m fully baked. Then I walk down through the tunnel. You get on the field and Holtz is still in your ear and it’s like as if he’s narrating your moment on that field. I’m walking down and “Cory Booker, you’re going to score a touchdown in that end zone.” So you get to that end zone and then you turn around and the field is like a bowl. But there’s a building behind the field that’s called – it’s their library I think. On the field, there’s a picture, a mural of Jesus Christ with his arms up as if he’s saying touchdown. In fact, his nickname is “Touchdown Jesus.”
The only time you can see it – so I turn around and now I don’t care if you’re Baha’i, Sikh, Christian, Jewish, you see Touchdown Jesus after Lou Holtz has pumped you up – it is a conversion moment. I knew what Jesus wanted from me at that moment. He wanted me to score a touchdown in that end zone. I’m swearing I’m going to score a touchdown. I get home and my parents are like, “Where are you going to school?” “I’m going to Notre Dame!”
It took them psychologists and –
Tim Ferriss: They had to deprogram you.
Cory Booker: They had to deprogram me to eventually get me to go to Stanford when I realized that we played Notre Dame in their end zone. In my senior year, my best career game was against Notre Dame. We weren’t even ranked in the top 50. Notre Dame was ranked No. 1 in the country. We were going in and everybody said we were going to get killed by 10, 20 points. They score a touchdown, we score a touchdown. We’re actually staying with them. I had this pass over the middle and Todd Light, an All-American corner – I have one move in sports and he must have not watched the film, but it’s basically me throwing my hips one way and running the other way as quickly as I can.
He actually fell down and I’m running towards Touchdown Jesus. I’m hearing the Lord calling to me. “This is what I’ve wanted from you for your life.” I get tackled from behind by some spawn from Hell, who takes me out. Eventually, we scored a touchdown and won the game.
But my Notre Dame experiences – I love the school. If anything, I learned from that because we had no right to be in that end zone. I used to always tell people my true lesson from that story is that if you have the right team, you can be up against people that are superior athletes, superior intellect or whatever, but a good team, people together, can beat any group of great individuals.
Tim Ferriss: Okay, that is a fantastic story. We are going to talk about delegating a team I think a little bit later because there were some listener questions about that. But I want to talk about persuasion. You mentioned Lou was very persuasive. I think of you as very persuasive and you’re a very gifted speaker. I think we’re going to take a slight left turn. It’s going to seem that way, but it’s related. We talked a little bit about this before we started recording. Correct me if I’m wrong here, but you ran a student-run crisis hotline.
Cory Booker: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: At Stanford. Could you talk about that? Specifically, I want to know what did you learn about that experience and what works when you are on a crisis hotline.
Cory Booker: This is a crisis hotline called The Bridge at Stanford. It was probably one of the best life experiences because I was sort of a teenager going into my early 20s and it was the first non-profit I ran in this collective of other leaders. There were five of us that lived at the center 24 hours a day, would cover the night. You have to understand when I just started as a counselor there, I’m this 18-year-old or 19-year-old young man who, a lot of us I don’t think get this understanding that we’ve lived our lives in our own lane and we don’t necessarily get to pull back the screen and talk to other people about their experiences beyond the niceties we’d exchange every day.
I can’t remember who said about “Be kind to one another because we’re all fighting a hard battle.” It might have been Socrates or someone. But it basically punched me square in my nose about how important kindness and empathy is because when I started sitting on that phone and on a Friday night, I was so shaken.
Because we would have rape calls. I had women that were there, I still remember one girl named Alison who would pick up women that were escaping spousal abuse. There was another counselor there named Danielle Bowe, another amazingly beautiful human being. I just had no idea how – again, this early ‘80s, early ‘90s – how ignorant I was about gay and lesbian Americans and how many biases had stemmed from my ignorance. Sitting down and having people calling about their experiences coming out.
Hearing the truth of people talking about thinking about killing themselves because they are not attracted to someone of a different sex or talking about the horrors they experienced and abuses they experienced. Or eating disorders and being in forms of honest conversation about how just saying something to somebody like, “Hey, you’re gaining some weight,” and how comments like that can hurt.
Or what it’s like just growing up in an environment where you’re constantly being told that your worth is based upon how much weight you have. I can go on and on and on, but it was one of those places where I felt like Stanford is great and my course load got great, but I learned so much about empathy and about listening and about non-judgmentalism, sort of the fundamental core. We literally had the first five rules of peer counseling that were about empathy, that were about non-judgmentalism, about listening.
Tim Ferriss: Do you recall specifically what any of those rules were?
Cory Booker: Some of them were as simple as “Be non-judgmental.” That’s something that I think – I literally was just talking with one of my closest friends about that yesterday because they were going off about someone who was involved in a protest or something and how it wasn’t sincere and so on and so forth.
We just don’t realize how often we’re casting judgment when we know nothing about the person. We know nothing about their struggle and we just are so quick to judge other people. How harsh it would be back to us. To actually be taught to be a counselor to somebody and hold no judgment of them whatsoever or to suppress that and just be there to listen and to give them empathy. All these are often tags for love. It was a powerful lesson for me. I guess what I’m saying to you is I think there’s something about persuasion that people often go about it as thinking about how am I going to convince you to do something.
I think about that from the start of no, it’s not about me and what I’m going to do to you to get you to do something, it’s actually about me being there for you and opening myself up to create a safe space for me to actually listen and hear you.
This has been a hard lesson. When I was living in really a tough environment in Newark – when I first moved there I was living in some high-rise projects which became public housing – it’s like these same lessons you’re meant to hear on your journey in life, when you start getting the same thing over and over again to try to teach you. I think the universe tries to do it the easy way first, but when you see the same thing coming – but this idea of empathy. Now, in our society, and you and I sort of touched on this, I’m one of these people that gets kind of bothered that we’ve stopped listening to each other.
I wish I could find this study and I asked my team to help me find it. But I remember being on an airplane reading a study, and I thought it was USA Today about a public policy position in education. They said this is the Democratic position. Immediately 80 percent of Republicans were against it. They didn’t even know it. They flipped it around. Democrats were the same way. They said this is a Republican policy. 80 percent of Democrats were against it. It just shifted by just labeling it Republican or Democrat.
What I often find is we’re at a point in our society right now where we have just stopped listening to each other and stopped being empathetic, and instead are leading with that judgment. The problem with that is it disables us and our ability to come together to do the kind of things that need to move our society forward. That’s why I think now more than ever, and I say this in my speeches all the time, in America we need a courageous empathy, where we are willing to let go of our own ego and tune into to another human being, to really listen to them.
I may not agree with that Black Lives Matter march. They may offend me, but we’re all wired the same way. So why are they out there yelling and screaming? Is it because they’re bad and I’m judging them, or am I taking time to really try to surrender my own position for a minute and listen to that person in the Midwest who is a serious Trump supporter and try to really understand where they’re coming from.
Tim Ferriss: I want to talk about both – and I might separate these two out – but the empathy and the courage, which are going to be recurring themes.
On the empathy side of things, what you just said reminded me on a micro level of what Bryan Johnson said to me once. He described all-hands meetings or town hall meetings for Braintree, which he then sold to eBay for, I want to say, $600 million or something like that, $900 million. At that point, who cares? I mean, it’s a big number. He said that when he had all-hands meetings, people were very hesitant to bring up certain problems. He would stand there and he would make jokes about himself and mistakes he had made and wait until, as he put it, people would bring up the pebble in their shoe.
He said very often that was all needed to solve the problem was to give someone the space and elicit them to talk about the pebble in their shoe. In the case of the crisis hotline, what are some of the tools that you used to either make people feel better or calm them down?
How do you go about doing that when, let’s say, even in your own head you might be subconsciously judging a situation or making assumptions. Are there any particular lines or questions? Because you’re no stranger to conflict. You’ve been in a fair number of street fights.
Cory Booker: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Not literal, but, well, I mean, you certainly have. There’s a lot of excitement in the biography of Cory Booker. But how do you calm people down and diffuse situations? Are there any particular words or questions or any tactics that you use?
Cory Booker: There’s definitely a tactic and I want to talk about that. Just to give more affirmation of what Bryan was doing. I wrote a book the year before last called United. The best reaction I was hoping from people who read the book was to say, wait a minute, this is not what a politician would write. Because I wanted to write about – and there’s five or six major instances in a book or actually a lot of more smaller ones – of this is me being a jerk. This is me being a royal ass. This is a big mistake I made.
I don’t mind being a little vulnerable here because I find that vulnerability actually creates a climate for all of us to learn. I think it’s bad when we put people on pedestals. I think it’s so much better when we – this is why I like Biography – when we see people. Like Lyndon Johnson was a jerk in terms of the way he treated other people. Martin Luther King, Cornel West always talks about it, the Santa Claus-ification of Martin Luther King. He was a complex man with flaws. I think that makes it more accessible and real when you realize that.
So I think that what he was doing was creating an environment where, let me tell you what I did that was really dumb, it gives people a safe space for them to start sharing and build more effective teams when you have those kind of connections. But in terms of a tactic for counseling, which is a tactic that we all know already, those of us who practice this, who’ve been up at night and you can’t sleep, you have anxiety.
You open a book and you just write down what you’re anxious about. Suddenly, it’s real and on the paper and it’s a really a good way to get to a point where you go from the emotional anxiety of it all to suddenly seeing it in a more objective way. Not that it still doesn’t have emotional triggers and the like, but you see it in a more objective way. I’m sure you’ve probably done that yourself.
Tim Ferriss: I actually very routinely do something called Morning Pages, which is effectively trapping those anxieties and monkey mind-generated insecurities or emotions on paper so that I can get on with my day.
Cory Booker: Right, and most of us don’t understand how in our own lives, something simple – we allow our minds to do things to us that are horrible. The most important conversations you have every day are the ones you have with yourself, that you’re not even often aware of.
Tim Ferriss: That’s a great way to put it.
Cory Booker: We’re driving ourselves often insane with these scripts. Sometimes they’re just a little bit below the consciousness of the scripts we’re running.
Sometimes when you take a pause – this is why just breathing in and out, just taking a moment to remember to breath or meditation is a tool that I love that you talk about also, but writing something down. In a counseling setting, often what moves a person to call a crisis hotline is they’re at a peak moment of emotion or distress or worry. That’s where the active listening comes in. People have this mis-idea about being a counselor that they’re somehow going in there, getting great advice. I can’t solve your problems. But you are equipped.
From a person of faith, I don’t really believe the universe puts anything on you or God puts anything on you that you can’t handle. Sometimes you need to know the right people to go to or the right person to ask. But I think the tactic of just allowing somebody to talk and being a good filter or paraphraser back to the person.
So maybe it’s not physically writing it down, but that person is beginning to hear themselves and be able to sort through what’s going on and help them start to see strategies that they could be pursuing to make themselves better. We all have so much more wisdom inside of us than we give ourselves credit for.
Tim Ferriss: I want to flash forward, given the Memento-like scripting or lack of scripting in these conversations, I’m sure chronologically it will be challenged, but we’ll jump around a little bit. As we were doing a sound check before we started, I asked you what you had for breakfast today and you said, “I’m fasting today.”
Cory Booker: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Now, I have, as you know, a deep interest in fasting. I thought that we might touch on a ten-day hunger strike. Correct me if this is inaccurate. But as I understand, it was to bring attention to open-air drug dealing and related violence and so on at the time. Can you place us in terms of what you were doing at the time and why you chose to take that approach?
Cory Booker: Right. Your question has so many things I want to talk about with you because the whole concept of fasting and the benefits of fasting, I so want to talk to you about it because I’ve learned so much from you about it already. Now it’s become a regular part of my practice.
Tim Ferriss: How do you fast? I’m curious.
Cory Booker: To take you through the Tim Ferriss effects on my life, which are many – you are such a good soul because you make yourself vulnerable. I think that’s one of your attributes. You know that you are a schmuck at times, like we all are. And you admit that. Which again, makes me feel a brotherhood with you. But yet you have like my father, that dogged work ethic where you’re willing – and also a willingness to hurl yourself off cliffs with no parachute.
Tim Ferriss: As my MRIs can attest to.
Cory Booker: Yes. And I find, by the way, I’m in a profession that does not like risk. Politicians are like what is the least amount of risk that I can have because I don’t want to offend anybody, God forbid. You have no problems. I think you’re good at that. But I think my best times learning – and we can get back to the ten-day hunger strike, because this was a big moment – when I take the greatest risks and I just hurl myself off.
That was an act of desperation. But I love the fact that you’re willing to use yourself and embrace this idea that I don’t have all the answers and I’m going to try to learn something. I’ve following you through a lot of your journeys and learned a lot myself and hacks, shortcuts, by learning from you. So you go to that moment where we met and talked deeper, years ago. It was 2009, I think, where you helped me get my physical health back. But it’s something I’ve always seemed to be able to sacrifice my physical health and my own wellbeing and relationships.
This terrible view I’ve had to fight where it’s all about the service, it’s all about the mission. But self-care, I’ve learned as I’ve gotten wiser, is so important. It’s like Stephen Covey sharpening the saw. But most of us forget that. I then went back and gained a ridiculous amount of weight. I was over 300 pounds again. It was a few of my friends talking to be about intermittent fasting that was a tactic.
Obviously, there was a lot more going on when you’re in that moment, but it was a great tactic to use. It was everybody from a Congresswoman who was hearing this. A lot of people started giving me that information. But it was Ezra Klein. I was on his podcast and we started talking about it. He was just talking about not eating until noon most days, or 11:00 a.m., if I remember exactly. So I hurled myself into trying it.
The more I tried it, I found so many benefits to my life of doing two to three days a week, of doing what they call intermittent fasting, 500 calories or less a day. I can talk to you about all the benefits I found, but your podcasts about the subject matter about everything from cancers to Alzheimer’s.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, Dominic D’Aogstino, probably.
Cory Booker: That was exactly it. But I remember that you said something on one of your podcasts about the stress you used to have if you missed a meal. Oh, God, I’m in the airport, I missed breakfast. Where am I going to get this? And how much peace I have now where even on days I’m eating, I’m like wait a minute, I’ve gone three days without eating.
Why am I stressing over that? Or just the mind space. It clogs your head thinking about food and all the time that suddenly I get a more zen-like path. My Chief of Staff, who’s sitting in here to leap at me should I say something that he’s unhappy with, but on days that I eat, I get that 3:00, 4:00 exhaustion where I need a nap. On days I’m fasting, I don’t feel the need to take a nap. So I can go on about intermittent fasting. I’m of these people, again, like you in my life, there have been moments where I’ve just said, I’m going to try something for three months, like becoming a vegetarian.
I was a peak athlete at the time. I just said I’m going to try this and see what it does to my body. I stayed with vegetarianism first and foremost, I’d like to say it was for environmental or ethical reasons. My body just jumped to a whole new level of performance when I first shifted to becoming a vegetarian. So that was the first thing that sort of like, wow, this feels great. But this is something I tried in my life, intermittent fasting, that really works.
It’s very different than the ten-day hunger strike. You’ve inspired me. You said you now do some days just water, as you see me here drinking this green juice.
Tim Ferriss: Green juice. No, there are different ways to go about it. We’ll get into fasting for a second. There are those like Valter Longo, for instance, a researcher who’s talked a lot about the fast mimicking diet, which is generally, I think it is fewer than 500 calories per day for anywhere from say three to five days. I’ve tended to go more in the water fast direction, maybe allowing some fats like coconut oil or MCT oil, which is something that Dominic D’Agostino, who is the Ph.D. who first talked about fasting on the podcast, or Peter Attia, another, in that case, an M.D. example. Let’s talk about ten. Because ten is serious commitment.
Cory Booker: Right. The one thing you do that I can’t is testing your blood and seeing if you’re hitting ketosis. I listen to all that and say to myself, “Dear, God, Tim. I can’t my blood tested.”
Tim Ferriss: But I can tell you, at ten days, you’re in ketosis, for sure.
Cory Booker: But you have to, just before I get into this ten-day fast, my Chief of Staff and I were in the Middle East. I wanted to go to Iraq. We were meeting everybody from the Prime Minister to the leader of the opposition. We were in Baghdad. When we got there, I decide, you know what? I’m going to, the entire time I’m here, I’m just going to fast. It was almost this sort of spiritual experience when you’re dealing with real, very serious issues. But still, I was amazed at how much energy I had, now much clarity of thought. I hope, that as you do with your life and inspire me to do with mine, is that people just try stuff.
Don’t put such a level on that if it’s noon and you’re fasting and you suddenly start eating, don’t hate yourself. But I think it’s the kind of stuff we should do is we should experiment. What’s Gandhi’s autobiography? What is it? The title of it is My Experiments with Truth.
I think we all should take things, not just fasting, but I’m a Christian, but so you know what? I’m going to do a little bit to study Islam. I hear all this talk about Islam, let me study it. Just doing little experiments in your life to learn, to grow, to help understand. I think it’s just an incredible way to learn. And actually, at the other end of experiments that I do with my life, I always find myself better and more enriched.
Tim Ferriss: Let me jump in for one second because I want to underscore what you just said. Those experiments can take many different forms. So it could be a three-month experiment with vegetarianism. It could be a one-day experiment with fasting. And obviously, folks listening, I am not a doctor. Neither of are doctors and don’t play doctors on the internet. Talk to your medical professional. But all of that said, experiments can also take the form, and I do this a lot when I journal, of thought experiments. One of the more productive brainstorming session that I observed recently was about a group of 15.
The moderator started, because there were a lot of heated topics that were going to come up, political or otherwise. He said, “Let’s start with everyone, each person, we’ll go around the room, thinking of one of their most deeply held beliefs, taking the opposite viewpoint and then justifying it or explaining why it’s correct.” So assuming, taking one of your deepest held beliefs, taking the opposite, and then actually giving a compelling argument. This is something that I believe has the nickname “steel manning,” as opposed to “straw manning.”
Darwin actually did this in Origin of Species. To prepare for the onslaught of criticism that he would receive, he predicted and pre-empted many of the positions that his critics would take. He did not dismiss them. He actually made them the strongest versions of those criticisms that he could and then addressed them in the book so that he would be prepared. That was one of the experiments that I most enjoyed observing as a moderator to set the tone, which I thought was really productive.
Cory Booker: Again, you can’t interview all the great people on this podcast because many of them have died, but many of them left clues for how they experimented. Like Ben Franklin, he didn’t mean to write his autobiography. He wanted to write a note to his family about what he’d learned in his experiments. He would take one theme. Just imagine if we all said, okay, today I’m going to look at the idea of gratitude and figure it out through this experiment. Mark Zuckerberg said, “Okay, I’m going to have a year where every day I say thank you to somebody and write those notes.”
These are glorious sort of journeys or odysseys to see where it leads you and it doesn’t always do it. You’re right, they can be just one moment. You know what, Sunday is my day of faith and I’m going to honor God by not going to the church I go to all the time. Maybe I’m going to go down into Camden, New Jersey and go to a black church or maybe I’m going to go to a Latino church. Or let’s think crazy. Maybe I’m going to go a mosque or a synagogue just to experience that and meet different people.
We get caught in these grooves and we’re playing the same record over and over again. Just doing one thing differently, we may not like it, but it actually is going to stretch and broaden us and actually change our, as you know, I know you’ve studied a lot about brains and how we work, just by changing the synapsis of that normal routine, even something as simple as you and I have read about, don’t drive the same way to work every day. There are collateral benefits that brain scientists will say to you that benefit your life in other ways.
Tim Ferriss: Definitely. I’m not going to forget about this hunger strike. We’re getting to it, folks. But we might end up in a more interesting place by taking some detours. By the name Phil Zimbardo came up before we started recording. For those people who don’t know, he was one of the lead investigator, if not the designer of the protocol, the Stanford Prison experiment.
Cory Booker: Which is profound.
Tim Ferriss: Which is profound, and many experiments afterward that showed how you could influence good people to behave in evil ways or neutral people to behave in evil ways.
There are some really interesting studies that have looked at so-called Good Samaritans and how you can impact their behavior based on a feeling of urgency and so on. But the point I was going to make is that he encourages people to do what he calls the “deviant for a day” experiment. It’s, in effect, doing something that is so out of character or so socially odd that people might criticize you or at least look at you in an unusual way. The example he gave was encouraging his students to put, much like Ash Wednesday, where people will put ash on the forehead.
But put a mark on your forehead and walk around all day and even if people try to take it off of your forehead, which they probably will, refuse to do that and keep it on. Just so you become more comfortable with discomfort. That could though, deviant for a day, could take the form of say going to a church you would never think of going to.
Or changing your routine in such a way that maybe – I met someone recently who took, and this can be a complicated subject, but he routinely does not give money to homeless people, but will invite them to dinner and have an entire dinner with homeless people. He’s done this, I want to say half a dozen to a dozen times. Let’s just say hypothetically that you earmarked – for me it’s usually Saturday that I do these experiments.
I met someone, a technologist, recently who’s decided that even though he’s not particularly religious, he is Jewish, but he’s going to observe the Shabbat and from, I think it’s sundown to sundown, for one day a week on the weekend. He is not going to use any technology whatsoever because he realizes how dependent he has become and how distracted he’s become based on that. Hunger strike. I promised –
Cory Booker: Hold on. I just – because the problem with you is you give these – well, first of all, when you talk about Stoicism and this idea of dressing for one day in rags. There’s such a power of teaching ourselves to be more empathetic to people who might have different experiences.
I was a Stanford student who did graduate work in sociology. Just watching actual experiments, not experimenting myself. There was an experiment, I think you can still get the video of it, where you have rooms full of different people that all sit in one cohort – a bunch of guys. And you put two or three women in there and just watch how many times a woman tries to speak and gets cut off versus the men in the room, when they try to speak. It made me, even if you do 50/50 in the room, it just made me suddenly wake up and start looking for that pattern in my own conversations that I had in life.
It was a really mind-blowing experience for me. Another experiment we did where we were the experiments in the room where we all had to reach into a bag and we pulled out a chip and the chip was yellow, blue or red, let’s say. It decided the station we had in this game. Whether you were the upper class, middle class or lower class in this game.
The rules of the upper class were great. They really benefitted us. So we knew what the game was. Okay, this is like class society. But we quickly, in the upper class, made laws that protected us. And the lower class people, but what was interesting about the game more than that was that groups were sat in different areas and the animosities amongst players that began. The anger and the defensiveness and the shouting. It descended into a very bad place. To the point at the end of the experiment, they said, I want everybody to take their chips, throw them on the ground, and stamp on them. They had us do a bunch of exercises to get that –
Tim Ferriss: Purge.
Cory Booker: Purge you. Just like Zimbardo’s prison experiment, as well as this, I think the game was called Star Power or something like that. How quickly we fall into these roles. So for me, I had this one experience where I went from living in affluent suburbia to living in a housing project.
Tim Ferriss: Can you explain to people what the catalyst for that was?
Cory Booker: It was the parents I described to you. I was really affected when I was at Stanford by working in East Palo Alto. It was literally –
Tim Ferriss: The contrast is just incredible.
Cory Booker: For me, just literally, you cross these tracks into East Palo Alto. Especially at that time. Now you’ve got a Four Seasons or whatever there. It’s gentrified in some ways. But for me, I needed to get my haircut as a black guy. There’s no place on Stanford’s campus that’s used to cutting black hair. So my first time was just going to find a barber back when I had hair.
Tim Ferriss: You and me both.
Cory Booker: Yeah, but then the summer of my freshman year, I started working a place called the Onetta Harris Community Center, which is technically East Menlo Park. But it was a similar community. I found such a connection with these kids. I basically said, “Okay, this is my life work. I want to work in cities.” So I worked everywhere from East Harlem to East Palo Alto. When I was at Yale, helping to run legal clinics. I just felt a kinship and connection with what I thought my soul mission was, which was – when I say these words “liberty and justice for all,” –
I always say to people, before you tell me about your religion, first show it to me in how you treat other people. Well, our civic gospel in this country, we all know the words to the Declaration of Independence, or at least we all know a lot of those words. We know the words to our Pledge. We know the National Anthem. But those words actually have power and meaning. It’s just like a religious text that we read and then we go out on Sunday and cut a driver off and flip him off or are we living with grace that Christ, or whatever your religion is, commands? I think we have a civic gospel as well.
We are pledging allegiance to the idea of liberty and justice for all. But most Americans don’t know that we have a justice, that by its definition, treats you better if you’re rich and guilty rather than poor and innocent. Because if you and I get arrested for the exact same crime, I’m wealthier than you, you’re a poor white guy from wherever you’re from. I can get out. I can bail myself out, but you’re stuck in the jail sometimes for months. People don’t realize this. Some people stay for months. So if you really believe in that idea of liberty and justice for all, what did you do today to live that to the gospel?
So for me, and again, this is just for my own path. What I saw was that I so benefitted from this country. I didn’t have – you interviewed people in the military. Which you and I are both wired this way that we see people in uniform and are just very drawn to them. When you meet some of the guys you’ve interviewed and see what they’ve gone through and see what they’ve done for this country, they have a level of sort of patriotic ideal that is lived in a way that I revere. But I also have that same thing for people that take themselves out of their privilege and say, you know what?
I believe those words that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere and I’m going to do whatever I can to commit myself. You and I both have friends at Teach for America. You know what? I’m going to go off and make a lot of money, but for two years of my life, I’m going to do the Peace Corps. I going to do TFA. I’m going to do something.
Anyway, I had all these ideals. I think the challenge in all of us in our life is to try to live lives of the best integrity we can when we live in accordance to our ideals. Lo and behold, though, Newark, New Jersey flipped the script on me and basically said to me, you think you’re here to serve. I was 26 or 27 at the time. You think you’re coming here to serve, you think you’re coming here to help, we’re going to flip the script on you. I always say I got my B.A. from Stanford but my Ph.D. on the streets of Newark. This actually leads me to the hunger strike, where I decided that I was going to move into the toughest area, literally as I’m moving in.
Tim Ferriss: Was this before or after the City Council?
Cory Booker: No, I’m a Yale Law student at the time.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, this is Yale Law School, got it.
Cory Booker: Yeah, I was a Yale Law student. Again, I’d worked one summer in East Harlem. I’m very much engaged in what I think are some of the frontiers of our democracy, but I’d never really been a part of the community. A lot of us – I would volunteer then I’d go back to my dorm at Yale.
I just said, you know what? I want to live my life. I want my professional life to be a part of a community. Here I am, I’m a United States Senator and I have the privilege of going back to one of the wealthiest community of all the Senators to go back to. The median income is $14,000 per individual, but I live in a community that blows me away. Every day, I see Americans with a fealty to the ideals of this country literally in the grass roots or in the trenches of our fight for our democracy every single day.
I love when reporters or whoever wants to come, walk around my neighborhood and see great people who often are stereotyped or misunderstood because we wall ourselves in America. We often don’t cross these lines, unfortunately in our society. Long story short, I move onto the south end of Martin Luther King Boulevard in Newark. Literally as I’m moving in, my big Italian best friend from fourth grade, a guy named Chris Magaro, was helping me carry stuff in. We come back to the car and my stuff is stolen.
Tim Ferriss: Welcome to the neighborhood.
Cory Booker: Yeah, welcome to the neighborhood. Unbeknownst to me, but the abandoned home – I shouldn’t say this, I did actually know this at the time, but the abandoned home next to me is where you see, again, a real great cross-section of American life because drug addiction knows no race or socioeconomic status boundaries, so people are coming into this community to buy drugs. I didn’t realize – I’ve now learned a lot more about the drug market, even than when I was Mayor, because I went back to write a lot about this for my book. I went back and interviewed drug dealers from the ‘90s.
But this was a hot place to sell drugs because one guy who was probably a guy that should’ve been in corporate America. He ran the drug operation in Newark, just found a way to get cheap, high-quality product. So I had moved into the middle of this not realizing that I was in probably one of the most violent drug markets. I knew it was bad, but I didn’t know it was as bad as it was. When I went in and I actually interviewed this guy and some of the drug dealers, they had set things up in a way that I was with a person who was helping me record a lot of the interviews.
This is sounding like New Jack City. So I’m in the middle of this. I go with this arrogance to the tenant leader. I’m now living in the neighborhood. I’m thinking, ha ha, I’m here. I’m riding in on my white horse, da, da, da. Newark is this amazing city that doesn’t deal well with people – at least the attitude that I had at that point because Ms. Virginia Jones, the tenant president, looks at me when I’m telling her how much I’m going to help her. She looks at me with this cynical, almost just like, I don’t have time for this look. She did this experiment with me where she takes me down to the middle of Martin Luther King Boulevard. Again, I’m this Yale Law student, I’m here to help you. She goes, “What do you see?” I go, “What do you mean?” She goes, “What do you see in this neighborhood?” I just describe it just the way I did to you, “Crack house and drug operation.” I described the neighborhood.
She just looks angry and she says, “You can’t help me.” She starts walking away. I run after her. I grab this woman from behind, very respectfully. I say to her, “What are you talking about? I don’t understand.” She says to me words that changed my life. She says to me, “Boy, you need to understand something. The world you see outside of you is a reflection of what you have inside of you. If you’re one of these people who only sees darkness and despair, that’s all there’s ever going to be. But if you’re one of those stubborn people who every time you open your eyes, you see hope, opportunity, love, if you see the face of God, then you can be somebody who helps me.”
And she leaves me there sort of looking at my feet, thinking to myself, “Okay, Grasshopper, thus endeth the lesson.” I went back and I just was like, okay, “I’m here to learn. I’m not here to help. I’m here to learn.” I sat on this woman’s couch and watched what I just was in awe of. People would come to see her with problems.
She would help people with rent, somebody needed a job. She held this community – her son in the ‘80s, before I arrived, was murdered in the lobby of the building that I lived in, that I eventually would live in. She and I were probably two of the people that were some of the highest income earners in there. We could’ve lived anywhere. But she, literally after her son was murdered, stayed in those buildings, remained the tenant president, held that community together with the force of her will. Both buildings – I live in the neighborhood still, but those buildings aren’t there anymore.
They still have a reunion every year. Think about this. These were buildings when I lived in them for eight years, heat and hot water irregular, homeless people or worse, sometimes collapsed. I’d walk past people in the stairwells when the elevators weren’t working wondering occasionally if someone was alive or not, trying to nudge them. You’d see feces in the hallways, mice. I could tell you all the challenges of living in these buildings, but yet there was such a sense of community created there that still years later, the buildings are gone, and there’s still a reunion being held.
The alumni from those buildings, because of the spirit in that community, go on to do incredible things. I give, like I’m sure you do, try to write checks at the end of the year to people who are doing great things. One of them is a guy, a police officer from those buildings, who grew up in those buildings, who still does things. I had gone into politics because – okay, so fast forward. Me and Ms. Jones and other tenant leaders are taking on the slumlord who eventually got convicted in federal court, fighting noble battles. But the residents in that building and a number of others are really frustrated that they don’t think the City is being responsive to their concerns and needs.
There’s talk about running somebody for City Council. It’s one of those times where you’re standing in a line, “Who volunteers?” and everybody steps backwards and you’re the person. Before you know it, I’m the candidate. I won the central ward of Newark. Which if you go visit me in my Senate office, that’s the map behind me that still sits there. Who got me into politics. This place with an abundance of public housing, overwhelmingly black and Latino.
Folks who put their faith in me before they even knew me. This was about a year after I moved into the neighborhood. Before I was even a known commodity, they said, “We’re going to take a risk on you.” The reason why the hunger strike ended up is because I get elected and a year later, I am at the nadir, the lowest point of my professional life where I felt like a failure. I wasn’t getting anything done. The Mayor of the City, who was like, if I’m just a novice in politics, if this is like my freshman year of high school as a first-year City Councilperson, Sharpe James – and anybody will tell you this in New Jersey – he was the grand master. I was a Paduan Jedi; he was a Jedi –
Tim Ferriss: Darth Vader.
Cory Booker: Depending on your perspective. Let’s give love to people. But he was a Jedi knight. Again, we’re laughing and people here might not know it, but this period of my life was a documentary called “Street Fight.” It got nominated for an Academy Award.
It won the Tribeca Film Festival for audience choice. I always say ignominiously, now as a vegan, it lost to a movie called “March of the Penguins.” So I always say I make an exception for penguin meat when I’m eating. But this was an interesting moment.
Tim Ferriss: Feathered sausages, as they’re known.
Cory Booker: As they’re known. You and I are going to get letters from The Humane Society.
Tim Ferriss: You guys can all mail those to Brian Callan, the comedian. He’s the one that came up with it.
Cory Booker: My first year, basically Sharpe James is toying with me. The headlines are still there because I pulled them to write this book, so I want to show people I’m not making this up. I was getting my car ticketed everywhere, when I parked in front of City Hall with the other Council people. My phones were tapped. This is something that sounds almost funny two decades later, but my phones were tapped. I wasn’t getting anything passed. My own community was getting frustrated with me because we put all this effort into getting you elected.
So I’m ready to quit. I was more effective as a young, tenants’ rights lawyer than I have been in elected office. On my lowest day, one year later, the summer of 1999 – I’d been elected in ’98 – I’m at my wit’s end.
I’d gained weight. I go to bed most nights with pounding headaches. I’m stressed out of my gourd. I feel like – people were warming me that the police were following me. I think the Mayor might have seen me as a future threat. Which was prescient for him. So people warning me that the police are following me. I’m just scared. I’m feeling like a failure as a guy who so much of my life has been afraid of failure and now in the first steps of my professional career I’m failing.
On the lowest day, when I’m getting outvoted all the time on the City Council for my great, brilliant ideas that people are supposed to bow down before. I’m being a jerk because it’s one of the moments I admitted I was a self-righteous jerk to my fellow City Council people. I’m supposed to find common ground with the past stuff. So I’m making all these mistakes. I get a call from a tenant leader named Elaine Sewell at these other high-rise, low-income housing and she basically says to me, “It’s off the hook up here.” I still remember the movie that summer was Wild, Wild West.
She’s like it’s the Wild, Wild West out here. There was a horrible incident where security guards were attacked by some of the drug dealers in this open-air drug market underneath a – these buildings sat by Highway 280 in New Jersey. So it’s a place people drive by but never slow down to look, except to buy drugs, because it looked like a McDonald’s drive-thru. People would line up to buy their drugs. So the drug dealers controlled this area. The security guards were undermining that. They tried to light the guard booth on fire. She’s like, “You’ve got to do something.” I’m basically like, “I can’t do anything.” I just professed impotency.
I said, “I can’t get anything done. What do you expect me to do?” She and I start yelling. I’m like, “I can’t even get the cops to stop ticketing my car. How am I going to get them to come out there?” She basically says to me like the worst thing she could to me. This is not because of her, but it’s just because I had a wound. She’s like, “Why did we elect you then at all if you can’t do anything?” I was done. I lose my temper, raise my voice, hang up on her and now I storm home. You don’t have this problem, but I do.
It’s one of my addictions. All I want to do is get back to my apartment in Brick Towers and hang out with my two buddies, Ben & Jerry and just eat myself into a food coma and go to bed.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, I’m familiar with the cookie dough mixture. Self-medication.
Cory Booker: Yes. And so but unfortunately, I’m walking past to get to my apartment, this woman, Ms. Virginia Jones. This pain in my neck. This righteous pain in my neck. The tenant leader, who happens to be standing out in the courtyard. I literally as I see her, I’m not in the mood for you, Ms. Jones. I need to get back to my apartment and eat my dag-nab cookie dough ice cream, because they combined the two now. As I try to walk past her grunting her hello like a falcon would like a mouse, she starts playing with me. She says, “Don’t walk past me.” I’m like, “Why?”
I turn around and stop. She read me right away and she’s like, “Come here and give Ms. Jones a hug.” I walk over and I give her the most insincere hug in the world. Like when you say you’re still going to be friends with somebody after you break up with them.
It’s just like yeah, yeah, yeah. I try to turn around and she grabs me by the arm and she goes, “Tell me what’s wrong.” I just got like angry. I’m like, “You want to know what’s wrong? YOU want to know what’s wrong?” And I vented on her, probably blaming her a little. “This is not working. I’m in this office. I’m not getting anything done.” It was like the cry me a river, woe is me speech. Then I ended with what’s happening to Elaine Sewell in Garden Spires and literally said, “I don’t know what to do.” I must have repeated “I don’t know what to do” like three times.
Finally, she looked like a lightning bolt had hit her. She suddenly gets really excited. She goes, “Oh, my gosh!” I stop like she erased my script and my pity party. She’s like, “I know what you should do!” I’m like you know what? This is a wise woman. Occasionally she pulls some amazing gem out. I’m thinking maybe she has hope for me. I’m like, “What do I do?” She goes, “I know exactly what you should do.” I go, “I heard you. What should I do?” And then she repeats it. “Yep, I know what you should do.” I’m like, “Ms. Jones, I don’t have time to play.”
Tim Ferriss: Enough foreplay, what’s the plan?
Cory Booker: Yeah, so what’s the plan? And she looks at me, she leans in and she goes, “You should do,” and I’m like, “Yeah, yeah.” She goes, “You should do something.” I’m like, “That’s it?” And if my Momma didn’t raise me right, I probably would have said some wrong things to her. I storm off to my building, elevator’s not fricking working. I climb 16 flights of stairs. Practically kick open my door. Plop down on my couch. And if you walk into my office today, I still have the Bhagava Gita, the Koran, the Torah, the Bible.
The Bible’s sitting next to me in my apartment. I open it up and there’s this passage that most Christians know called “If you have faith the size of a mustard size, you can move mountains.” But the next passage, which I didn’t know well at that point, says “Sometimes you have to fast and pray.” I just thought to myself, you know what, I had not. I was too caught up in my drama, too caught up in my script, that I hadn’t sort of surrendered myself with an open heart. I decided I was going to fast.
Then the ideas started flowing. I could do something. I said, “You know what? I’m not just going to fast, I’m going to plop right down in the middle of the drug market and fast. And I’m not going to just fast and pray, I’m going to get a tent.” Before you knew it, my mind just started kickstarting. This is a problem most people don’t understand is that despair or cynicism is the worst. I think cynicism, just like despair, is a toxic spiritual state. It gives you the inability to see faint hope amidst glaring problems.
But again, I’m a person of faith. I believe that we were made in the image of a creator and therefore one of our greatest gifts is to be creative. To think of new opportunities. But if you’re so negative and so cynical about the world around you, you disempower yourself and not do something about it.
Tim Ferriss: You’re only going to see the problems and not any of the solutions.
Cory Booker: Right. And you and I have both had conversations with somebody that’s in that state. They say they want help, but every time you bring up an idea, they just shoot it down. Because they’re not open to the possibilities.
So long story short is go out there to Garden Spires. We set up a big tent. I apologize to Elaine Sewell. Literally, there might have been some hugging and crying between the two of us because we were such close friends. I wouldn’t have gotten elected without her. Then I do what politicians love doing – I called a press conference. I just said, “This is the United States of America. People shouldn’t live in fear.” I announced that I was going to stay on this pavement and fast as long as it took for something to change. I invited people to pray with me. First day, there were four of us praying and everything. Then I went to bed.
The first night was scary. Courageous people slept with me underneath it, in this, what used to be the drug dealers’ territory. People threw diapers on top of us. It was a scary night. But I woke up the next morning, and a bunch of correctional officers were there. They said, hey, we saw you on the news. You’re not staying out here alone. Over ten days, the world came out. There were community leaders. Newark has such a reservoir of strength and love. People poured out. But then people – a suburban Mayor from West Orange came out with his police officers.
Hospitals started coming out and doing health screenings. Employers started coming out doing job fairs. People were donating computers. By the tenth day, the Mayor of the City came out and it was so funny because he came out with prepared remarks. He and I would fight bitterly later, but after ten days of fasting and praying, I looked at him differently. I saw his humanity. I saw that he was a guy. We hugged. I’ll never forget. My editor wanted me to write this part out because I’ll forget.
Smell is one of the most powerful triggers to memory. I hugged him and I breathed deep as we were hugging. I smelled him. He smelled like a family member of mine. I was at that point like a 30-year-old. He was my father’s age. When I smelled him, it felt like older uncles and things like that. We parted from our embrace, which became the front page of this section of the newspaper. He put away his prepared remarks and turned and gave an incredible speech.
He made promises that he ultimately – like he was going to build a part in the area. That stuff never happened. But it was a beautiful moment. The tent came down. I always say that change never happens in an instant. You know this even in your own life, changing your own life. It’s something you have to keep at and work at. So the world didn’t change. But I always tell people, for me, it was one of the most powerful moments of my life. Because the problems at Garden Spires didn’t go away. It was something I worked on until eventually I became the Mayor, built a park in the area and all this stuff.
The point I always try to tell people is the most powerful moment of the whole experience to me was the last prayer, where there were now from four or five people praying and shaking on the first day, now there were 100, 200 people. There was everybody there. I looked and said, “This is my America.” There were white folks, black folks, Latino folks, Asian folks. There were Imams, Rabbis, priests, ministers, young, old. People when they started praying were praying in Hebrew and Arabic and Spanish.
I was the weakest I’d ever been after ten days of not eating, but you know this from fasting. But I think it was also the circle. I just felt such strength, such power, such energy like I’d never felt before. I felt like I was connecting to who we are as a country, that ideal of e pluribus unum, that when we all come together, nothing is impossible. It was the most hopeful moment of my life at that point. It also gave me a renewed sense of mission. That if I could find ways with others to bring people together, we could blow away problems in this country and everybody could benefit.
Tim Ferriss: I want to ask what you learned from that, because it seems to me, and I don’t like when people put words in my mouth, so I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but that you found an option when you thought there were no options, right?
Cory Booker: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: I’d love to know what you learned from that and how it impacted maybe later decisions. Maybe I’m making it too complicated. What did you learn? Because to me, there are a couple takeaways. I’m taking notes, for those people who can’t see me because you can’t, it’s audio.
I constantly take notes. I’m circling things, I’m highlighting things. That you also forced the Mayor to respond.
Cory Booker: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: Because you were calling attention to something. So if you couldn’t go through official channels, you could use the court of public opinion to force his hand to respond, right?
Cory Booker: Yes.
Tim Ferriss: I would just love to know what you learned from that experience that maybe became part of your repertoire or set of options later.
Cory Booker: Well, so this was my first experience with lessons that people have learned a lot through activism experience. If you can bring attention to a problem – look, when Martin Luther King and James Bevel and Dorothy Cotton were fighting Bull Connor, if they had tried to fight that battle alone, who knows what the outcome would’ve been. But he had the fire hoses, he had the dogs and all of that. But by their ability to bring attention to the problem. After their demonstrations, the story went viral back in the day where you didn’t have social media, but you had the traditional media.
Suddenly the Soviet Union is mocking our democracy because watching black kids get bit by dogs, people in Iowa sitting there having their dinner and saying, oh, my gosh, look at the humanity of us all. We all love each other or have reservoirs of love for each other that once we trigger each other’s consciousness or expand each other’s moral imagination, let’s just say that, it activates us. Clearly, in New Jersey, we set up this society unfortunately. A lot of this was very bad policy, some of the very bigoted policy of redlining and decisions by the federal housing organizations to pack all this poverty in one area.
Tim Ferriss: What is redlining?
Cory Booker: Redlining is where – it comes from literally what they did on maps. They said okay, this is a black area and we’re not going to give mortgages and loans to people. We’re going to devalue the neighborhoods there. Decisions made about zoning where we’re going to let certain people live.
So you see some of these maps that are still around. This is part of our history where at a time when people were starting to flee urban areas, it was a federal policy that enabled certain people to move out and get good value for their homes and the like, certain people not. It was put on top of that were everything from restrictive covenants to real estate steering, which my family did. Think about this, and New Jersey is a great example, as lots of states are.
If they decided instead of putting a whole bunch of public housing in one area, like thousands and thousands of units, what if we took every unit like at Harrington Park, you take four units of affordable housing. We now know that poor kids, same poverty, poor kids in middleclass neighborhoods do so much better than when you concentrate all poor kids in poor neighborhoods. And by the way, these were overt policies. These were like, we cannot let black people out of neighborhoods. What are we going to do to keep them in?
And so that created these ghettos that then became – well, where did the jobs go to? They went outside of the communities. Where are the good schools? Because, remember, if everybody leaves the city, their ability to have a tax base to support the education system is not there. And by the way, the tax base has now disappeared. You can’t even support police officers or everything so cities start tumbling downward. Then you create laws to keep people back. I was shocked when I got to Newark that surrounding suburbs with really great schools would actually hire people, private investigators, to say okay, there’s a black kid going to these schools, let’s follow them around to see where they go home to.
In fact, there’s a woman, I just saw her again, last name Martinez, who was a writer for the Wall Street Journal education page. Her family used a fake address in a different neighborhood to get her kid to school. They were caught. She was pulled out of, ironically, a journalism class, and forced to go back. It was a horrible situation. A lot of people don’t realize that a lot of these problems that exist today are not legacies to slavery. These are legacies to the ‘50s, ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.
But they forget the other story of America, which is literally the creation of toxic zones in our nation. So people don’t understand. When they flee these cities, corporate America was allowed for years to pollute those cities pretty badly. In Newark, I used to remind people, literally pollute. Now you’re a kid growing up in an environment where you’ve got lead paint, and we have epidemic levels in Newark. You and I both know, you don’t even need to be lead poisoned, just elevated blood lead levels affect your brain where your executive function deteriorates.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, your oxygen carrying capacity and all of that.
Cory Booker: All of that. But it’s not just the lead paint. The air – because now you’ve created cities again, where did we choose to build highways and roads that the oxygen is so bad that you have asthma levels that are three and four times as high in urban areas? It’s not even done yet. I remember when I wanted to try to get rid of the food deserts in Newark; big campaign.
I just finally got a Whole Foods that we just opened. We got supermarkets. But we also said let’s create urban agriculture. We’re going to create acres and acres of farms in Newark, which we did successfully and have guys coming home from prison, men and women coming home from prison, jobs. But we also said, wait a minute, we want to dig in the ground. The state said, you can’t dig in the soil. It’s got too much lead. Imagine this now. Your air quality, your soil quality. What about the river that 100 years ago immigrants from Ireland and you pick an area.
If you were poor, you could still go into the river and it was a commons, right? You could get fish. We had lots of clams and the like. But now it is – I’m not exaggerating this – it is literally a superfund poisoned with Agent Orange, all kinds of other dioxides from years of corporations despoiling the river. Literally stealing from future residents of Newark and calling it profits in their present. Imagine this, you’ve got schools that have deteriorated. You’ve got a physical environment that’s toxic.
You have large concentrations of poverty and then you have something on top of that, which most Americans don’t realize, which I mentioned earlier, but let’s just understand it, called the criminal justice system. This is why I love from the Coke Brothers, to the Heritage Foundation on the right, to Democrats like me, all agree because of this reality that I now know from my own experiences. My friends in Harrington Park, New Jersey and Old Tappan High School I went to – I hope they don’t get mad at me for saying this – but we broke a lot of laws.
Drug laws, friends of mine on senior cut day kicked open a liquor store that was closed. They couldn’t use their fake IDs, so they stole cases of beer and got caught. That’s breaking and entering. That’s a felony. Very little consequence, besides our parents and others maybe getting upset. But my friends and I have all gone one with our lives, raising families. Very different justice system for doing the exact same things to experience in many places in our community. Our criminal justice system is now overly targeted towards poor people. At Stanford, at Princeton, nobody was getting stopped and frisked coming home. By the way, if they did from a frat party, they would find drugs.
No FBI operation right now saying how are we going to get those college kids and break their drug ring? When I know on college campuses, from Adderall to X, you can get them, sometimes on a smartphone. But in the inner city, those things become literally the difference between you making in life and you don’t. And in a nation where almost one in three adults now has an arrest record, for you and I right now, if we get arrested, we have the means with which it’s not going to change our lives. It might change my politics, but it won’t change our lives. The problem with inner cities, and I saw this when I went out to Riker’s Island, if you get arrested, you can’t even afford the bail.
I was out in Riker’s and these were kids missing six months to a year before they’re even adjudicated. There is a documentary Jay Z just did about Kalief Browder, who spent two years-plus in jail for stealing a backpack. Most people don’t realize in jail what we do to kids. Other countries call it torture, which is solitary confinement. Talk about life experiments. We’ve heard about this. There’s a great guy you should interview who wrote an amazing book about what he did with trying to cope with being stuck in solitary.
But psychologists now conclude – in fact, over 50 percent of the suicides of juveniles in prisons are kids that were in solitary confinement. Over 60 percent, if you include kids that just got out of solitary confinement. So now you have a criminal justice system that preys upon the poor. And by the way, you and I are both guys of means, but in America right now, there’s no difference – drug dealing and drug usage is sort of equal amongst races in America. In fact, young white men have a little higher levels according to some studies, of dealing drugs.
But if you’re black in America, you’re going to be arrested for that usage 3.7 times more likely than someone who is white. So now you get these poor areas, toxic physical environment, designed to be poor because of the compacting and public housing in those certain areas. Now you get a criminal justice system that is focused on them, not in my town where I grew up. By the way, most Americans don’t know that if you get arrested in America, most states can legally discriminate against you.
I can deny you a job just because you have an arrest, even if you were cleared of the charges. Most people don’t realize that FBI records are so bad that a large percentage of the FBI background checks come back wrong. I think the majority of them come back wrong. So you may have been cleared of your charges, but that employer, you don’t even know they’re looking at it, thinks you still had something wrong. But the American Bar Association identified 40,000 collateral consequences if you have been convicted of a non-violent drug offense. Remember, two of the three last Presidents, felony drug use they copped to, not just some pot, Obama and Bush – felony drug use.
There are Presidents, a lot of Congress people the same. But if you’re a kid in Newark who got caught for a non-violent drug offense doing something stupid that we did, that Stanford students and Princeton students are doing, they can’t get a Pell grant, they can’t get food stamps, they can’t get business licenses. I had a guy begging me when I was Mayor of Newark, “Why can’t I get a cab license? It was 18 years ago and I was just caught with a little bit of drugs.” You can’t get a job at Burger King in Newark. I say all this –
Tim Ferriss: Mind if I jump in? Oh no, go ahead.
Cory Booker: The conclusion of all this is that’s sort of what got me into fighting against a lot of stuff and finding like the concrete of Garden Spires where I did the hunger strike, learning that if I try to fight these battles without creating unusual coalitions – basically if I can create unusual coalitions, I can get unusual results. If I can awaken people to the facts of what’s going on, if I can appeal to people’s moral imagination, I can tap into a tremendous amount of energy.
For Newark, I had to hack the system. In many ways, what I did with the hunger strike taught me that if I can think of ways to hack the system and get people to pay attention that weren’t paying attention before, I can actually make tremendous things happen very quickly.
I became Mayor at the worst time to be a mayor of an American city, during the Great Recession, which is a Great Depression. I had a guy who was my friend, and I know I say that and some of my Democrat friends get mad at me, but Chris Christie is my friend. I can write a dissertation on our disagreements, but I said, “I’m the Mayor of the largest city. You’re the Governor of the biggest state. Let’s not focus on where we disagree.
Let’s see if we can find some things we can work together on because if I don’t, I’m just going to be screaming at you from the outside, as opposed to sitting at the table with you and finding things that at least two Americans can find six or seven things that we can work together on.”
Tim Ferriss: Just to pause – everybody should rewind that and listen to the exact wording of that five to ten times because it’s useful.
Cory Booker: My funniest Chris Christie story is – not funniest, but most instructive to me – was when the press got mad at me. It was marriage equality. Gay marriage was being voted on. Something I’m strident about; equal justice under the law. Chris Christie is stridently against. It’s being voted on in the State Senate in New Jersey.
I had a meeting – I didn’t plan it this way, but it was scheduled with Chris Christie in Trenton in his office on the same day that all this was happening. Imagine this – protestors outside, media outside. I’m going in to meet with Chris Christie and everybody’s thinking the first person who ever raised the pride flag in front of City Hall in Newark, the guy that refused to perform marriages when I was Mayor because I’m not going to marry anybody unless I can marry everybody, I’m marching in to meet with Chris Christie and everybody’s like, “Yeah, he’s going in there to give Chris Christie hell.”
Really I’m marching in there with him because I was working on a $300 million project in downtown Newark that had places for schools, and that had affordable housing. I brought together an unusual coalition. Unions pledging to do apprenticeship programs for my kids, Goldman Sachs (God forbid) because they were one of the few that I could get to get capital for the project. It was an amazing coalition to benefit my city, to create jobs and the like and he’s critical to getting it done, so I’m going in to meet with him. I come out and the press it putting microphones in my face.
“Did you give it to him on this?” I’m like, I could have sat there for my entire one hour I had with the Governor of the State of New Jersey and fought with him and we would’ve changed neither of each other’s minds. But by focusing on something – and I’m not saying there’s not a time and place. Chris Christie has not been soft on me on things he disagrees with. He publicly criticizes me. Even when I’m Senator, he still publicly criticizes me on things. I haven’t been soft on him, but in that precious time I had with him, I wanted to get this dag-nab project done so I could get jobs for people who yesterday or the day before, they needed to go to work and that was what was important.
Tim Ferriss: I’m glad I didn’t interrupt you. Sorry for attempting. Where I was going to go was exactly where you helped me segue, which is something that we chatted about very briefly before recording. Feel free to wordsmith this because I scribbled it down very quickly. But we’re becoming reactivists, not activists. For people who listen, for instance, when you were talking about all of these various problems.
There are many people in this country, and certainly around the world, who feel overwhelmed, disempowered, like it’s all just too much that they can’t do anything. Then they become or they take on the cynicism that we already talked about as being very toxic and contagious also. How would you suggest, if people care about a specific issue, they want to do good. But let’s say they have a full-time job. What makes someone a good activist?
Cory Booker: Well, great question. I’m just trying to figure out how to approach this. I guess there are two things that are bubbling up in me. The first is again, life lessons that you and I have talked about in our past, but more you’ve talked about. I find that if every day I get up and can focus on and keep clarity on what the mission is.
What is my purpose today? Even back to the time, I credit my success in college from failure. Life does this to me a lot. It beats me down to the basic elements of my being. You and I have both probably been through that. Newark did that to me a lot. I think from our brokenness – it’s also necessary to be broken because that’s often when the light gets in. It’s like when in our shining armor and stuff like that and nothing’s penetrating. But sometimes it takes us getting broken down.
My first brokenness in my post-18-year-old life was getting to Stanford as this big hyped football player and failing. Sinking on the depth chart so the coach had to dig a little hole and write my name really low on the ground because that’s how far on the depth chart I was. Just getting into a fight on the football field – I’m not a fighter. I’m a guy that –
Tim Ferriss: Fight meaning punch, punch?
Cory Booker: Oh, my God, yeah. I went at it. I always say this to kids, if you bump into somebody in a hallway and you’re in a great mood, that’s just a bump in the hallway. But sometimes when you have a lot of anger and you bump into somebody, you take all the anger from all other areas of your life and you focus it on the person.
I was just feeling like a failure on the football field and anxious and nervous and fearful. Because you get there at Stanford for football, you get there like around August and school doesn’t start at Stanford until like September or October. I’m fearing this reality that the truth is I was not the greatest student, not as great as kids I’m with, these brainiacs. I thought to myself, I’m not competing on the football field and I’m about to go in the classroom and just get my butt kicked by these smart kids from around the globe, who should be Stanford students. I’m an imposter.
I got here as an over-hyped football player who’s not good enough to compete in school. I’ll never forget the moment I really was contemplating leaving Stanford before school even began and tucking tail and running. I pulled out of my notebook a piece of paper and just clarified.
I basically put values down. Statements of who I am, what I stand for, and what I am trying to achieve. The goals then became, and you can talk to my college roommate, who is still a dear friend. I’d have a whiteboard up, my entire college career.
Tim Ferriss: In the dorm room?
Cory Booker: In the dorm room. I put it in code because I didn’t want people to know what my goals were.
Tim Ferriss: I have to ask – what would be an examination of a goal? If you don’t remember, you can make something up. Then what would the code say? I’m guessing it wasn’t just like pig Latin or something.
Cory Booker: No, the code would be like I really wanted to transform my body. Some of the goals were very specific, like, I’m going to weigh this much, I’m going to run this 40 time, I’m going to bench this much, and I’m going to do everything I can to get to these numbers. Academically, it’s the same thing. I’m taking this course load. I’m going to decide beforehand what grade I want to get and what I’m willing to do to get to that grade.
What I found in college was this was a liberating experience because I realized if I was willing – and I have a good book in me. If you ever want to co-write this book, how to get straight A’s in college. How to get straight A’s in college if you’re a dumb person, like I was.
Tim Ferriss: Sounds like a winning title.
Cory Booker: Because I just realized, you know this, everything’s a hack, right? Everything is the strategy that you have. Forgive me, Maya Angelou; forgive me, Alice Walker. I can’t remember who said it. There’s a curse in it. But I’m pretty sure it’s Alice Walker. This is the quote: “If you want to fly, you’ve got to give up the shit that holds you down.” The power of that is that most of us want things, but we’re not willing to give up something to get it. What I learned in college that still serves me now is what am I willing to sacrifice? Am I willing to sacrifice? In college for me, it wasn’t a complicated life. There wasn’t anything I was willing to give up for the two things I wanted to excel in: academics and athletics.
Once I realized that and really got it clear, then I could do it. So what happened to me? Why did I become an A student when in high school I was a B student? It’s simple. Because when everybody else on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights were going to parties, I realized if I do what everybody else is doing, I’m going to get the same results. If you want things that other people don’t have, you’ve got to be willing to do the things that other people don’t do. I said I’m going to go to the library for three or four hours. I’ll still go to the party at 11:00 or 12:00, but I’m going to do things that other people aren’t doing and study.
I’m going to learn little hacks. If the paper’s due on the 7th, I’m going to find out who’s grading my paper and give them a rough draft on the 1st. But really the 1st I give my best effort. Like this is the best thing I could put together, here. I found out that the TAs would say – I would say, here’s some of my ideas, can you read this over and tell me if I’m on the right track? They would then tell me the pathway I needed to take to take that B paper to an A paper. I could go through all of the things I did to come out of Stanford and be qualified to get a Rhodes Scholarship.
But what I’m saying to you, more importantly, going to this idea of activism, and I do this all the way, especially because in politics there are so many forces trying to erode your moral core. I looked funny at my Chief of Staff because we just went through one of them on drug imports where we got publicly castigated. We ended up getting to where we were in a place in accordance with our values for the right for importation of drugs from Canada. But if I didn’t know my moral core before that, I would have veered way off course.
What college did for me was said focus in on what’s important and cut everything else out and then find people who can teach you. What I did there, and the joke I always say is, on the football field, there was a guy named Jeff James, this great wide receiver. I studied him. He didn’t know it, but I watched what he did. I literally would begin copying the way he dressed to go out on the field. Like his towel was a certain way. I used to go back and sulk that I was so low on the depth chart.
But I started seeing that the superstars on our team were going to the gym when everybody else was going to the training table. I transformed my body. I made the California All Strength Team by going in and doing all the extra work. In the classroom what I did was just look at who the smart people were. I saw smart people have better habits than me. They sit different places than I used to sit when I was in class. For anything you want to do in life, except for maybe being in politics, which I can talk to you about. It was harder for me then. I always look for a model. What are they doing right?
What can I innovate upon that they’re doing so I can find a way to do even better? And then by the way, share with other people your results. Tell them about your story and so on and so forth. Let’s get back to activism right now. One thing I have to get off my shoulders and I don’t want to be a complainer. I know your audience wonderfully is you have Republicans who listen to you and Democrats who listen to you. This is one of the greatest podcasts in America and I’m not just trying to blow your head up. Because one of the few spaces in America where people from different political parties come to listen to the same guy.
That’s great that right now – and there might be some Republicans listening right now that are like, “God, who’s he got this week? A Democrat. I usually don’t listen to him, but it’s Tim, I’ll give this guy a shot.” So this is a wonderful space that Right and Left are listening to. Let’s just take it from people on my side of the aisle, who are so upset about Trump right now. One of the things that bothers me right now is because we don’t understand that before Trump, right or left, why were we so disturbed before this about the injustices in our country? That Superfund site in Newark? By the way, there are Superfunds in every single state in the nation. Ronald Reagan was one of the last Presidents to re-authorize a cleanup mechanism. Mitch McConnell, the current leader of the Senate, voted for it. It was to take polluting industries and do a teeny, tiny tax. No difference, teeny, tiny tax, to fund Superfund sites. We’re now in a different era.
God Bless Ronald Reagan, but a lot of the things he did, we currently don’t necessarily want to do.
That has lapsed and nobody is willing to re-authorize it. So what’s happened to Superfunds in America? They’ve gone up. We have more Superfund sites now. They’re increasing.
Tim Ferriss: Can you reiterate what a Superfund site is?
Cory Booker: I’m sorry. These are sites that are so profoundly toxic and dangerous, even living around them –
Tim Ferriss: And it’s Superfund?
Cory Booker: Super, F-U-N-D because we created, as Congress, bipartisan, a fund to clean them up. We said these are so toxic and dangerous, that we are going to take special legislation to clean these up. God Bless Reagan for re-authorizing it, and God Bless Mitch McConnell and others for voting for it. Now it’s lapsed. When I got into Congress, this was a mission for me because New Jersey is the No. 1 state in America for Superfund sites. North to South, and they’re overwhelmingly concentrated in poor areas.
Now we have longitudinal data that we know that unfortunately, children who are born around Superfund sites have significantly higher levels of birth defects and autism. This is a threat to American children. It’s been going on.
Why aren’t people more activated by that? I’ll give you one more example and this is a controversial example, because we all like our bacon. But North Carolina has 9 million pigs. Why is that an important number? Pigs create ten times the excrement that a human being does. So they’ve got the same population in pigs as New Jersey has people, but ten times the excrement. What do you do with that excrement when you have that kind of factory farming? Well, New Jersey’s human waste, we put it in waste treatment plants. It doesn’t poison us. We don’t get poisoned by our own crap. In North Carolina, unfortunately, a lot of these pig farms are located in very poor, low-lying areas. These people who live in those areas didn’t invite the stuff in. I talked to a Vietnam War veteran who leaves his home to serve in Vietnam, comes back, and there’s one of these places. What they do is they put all the crap into lagoons. Just weeks ago, I went to stand with these people and try to figure out how I can help them.
Then they take the excrement and they spray it in the air over what are empty fields. But the problem is – and I stood there and watched – is the mist from that stuff floats off the property of the pig farmers. By the way, the pig farmers in many ways don’t even own the pigs. They get these pigs delivered by the larger corporations. They have to raise them for six months and then they get picked up. But long story short, this community has horrific cases of cancers and respiratory diseases. They can’t open their windows. They can’t run their air conditioning.
Every time they try to elect somebody that will represent them, the industry, one of the most powerful lobbies in Washington, is Big Ag, these corporate farms, corporate folks, will just put a lot of money behind people that will fight them. I bring this example up because no human being could have gone where I went, Right or Left, sat with these people and see what they’re enduring and their children are enduring, and not been outraged by it. Why, all of a sudden, now that we have a new President – and I don’t care if it was Obama or whatever.
Why have we lost our sense of urgency and our sense of outrage? The last example I’ll give you is a Chris Christie example. I’m glad I said already – I talked to him a few weeks ago. If you can’t find a way to be a friend with another American, I always say, “Patriotism is love of country. You can’t love your country unless you love your fellow countrymen and women.” Even our founders understood this. A bunch of very different people. At the end of the Declaration of Independence, they call to future generations and say, in order to make this country work, we have to have an irrational commitment to one another that makes even, it’s irrational, it doesn’t even make sense.
We’ve got to mutually pledge to each other our lives and our future. I love this last one, our sacred honor. So if you’re one of those people who just because somebody says they’re a liberal, you call them a “libtard,” this is the stuff I read. Or just because someone says they’re a Republican, you call them a “racist,” whatever, whatever, whatever, then you are not honoring the vision that this country was founded upon about the irrational commitment.
Tim Ferriss: A team of rivals, right?
Yes. Governor Christie, I use him as an example and I apologize if he’s a big listener to this, because I went to go vote in 2008 for Barack Obama in Newark, New Jersey, a majority black city. Let’s just say he was a little popular in Newark. Lines around the polling places. I go vote there. There’s a woman at the end of the line. I’m rolling deep. I’m the Mayor of the City. I’ve got officers next to me. I’m getting out of a fancy SUV. The woman looks at me, as Newarkers do, I love my city. We keep it real. It’s not like, Mayor, nice day. She just looks at me and the first thing she says is, “Don’t you think you’re cutting in this line now.” I’m like, “Yes, ma’am.”
I waited in this long line. One year later, it’s the Governor’s race in New Jersey. I go to vote. Nobody is there. I walk right in and vote. I hugged the woman behind the table because she looks lonely. Then the results come out. Chris Christie narrowly wins that election. I look at the data. If just the cities in New Jersey had turned out a fraction of what they did a year before – then people are complaining to me.
I told you, I’m Mayor during the most difficult hand of cards. I’ve got a Republican Governor who is now cutting back on funding. Again, New Jersey as a state had terrible problems. He just said, “I’m not going to fund cities like I used to.” Trenton cuts off a third of their police department. I lay off 12 percent. Then we see the earned income tax credit, which is a way for working Americans making $30,000, $40,000 a year to get tax breaks. He ends that system.
He cuts funding to Planned Parenthood which, again, different people on this recording might have different views on it, but for Newark, it was one of the best ways for people to get access to preventative care and prevent unplanned pregnancies. People were saying, “Why is Chris Christie doing this to us?” My response to them is, “Chris Christie is not doing this to you. What’s happening is we didn’t come out and vote.” What people don’t understand, and King said this, again, nobody’s evil here, but he said that the problem we’ll have to repent in our day and age is not the vitriolic words and violent actions of the bad people, but the appalling silence and inaction of the good people.
Tim Ferriss: Can I jump in for a second here?
Cory Booker: Jump in, yeah.
Tim Ferriss: All right. If you were providing a cheat sheet to people listening, maybe, and almost certainly people in the Carolinas were thinking, my God, that’s terrible. It’s in my backyard. I want to do something but I fear (a) it’s too overwhelming, (b) I won’t have an impact, or (c) maybe I could have an impact but I don’t have the time. If you were providing, aside from ensuring that you vote on the things that you claim are of importance to you, what else, if you had a training school for super activists, what would some of the tenets be?
Cory Booker: That’s the point I guess I was trying to make with some of my earlier comments to you, which is the same point over and over again. It’s this idea that Ms. Jones said. I was overwhelmed. I didn’t know what to do. She didn’t prescribe things. She said, “do something.” The problem is, we often let things feel so big, we allow our inability to do everything to undermine our determination to do something.
What people don’t get is that you and I, and I know a little bit about your family history. You just heard a bit about mine. What if that person in North Carolina, again, my father’s home state, said “I can’t do anything about segregation. I can’t do anything about poverty. I can’t do anything about lack of education for black kids in this town. It’s terrible. Somebody should do something about it.” What if instead they said, “This is one black kid named Cary Booker. I’m going to give him a dollar to go to school.”
That act of love literally had a time/space jump that I am sitting here right now because a small group of small, North Carolina folks in the mountains decided that I can’t change the world, but I can do one thing for one kid. There’s a United States Senator where he is today because of those acts. Not one action done in a righteous cause. Look at people who are hacking our politics. Money is one of the most toxic influences on our politics, yet you just watched Bernie Sanders run a campaign where he didn’t ask for one corporate dollar.
Not because somebody said I only have $5 to give somebody. I believe in that candidate, I’m going to give $5 to them. Well, all those small actions in the aggregate turned into a tidal wave of action. You and I, I don’t know about you, but I get appeals for money a lot. If I can’t help, I at least give a dollar or $5 to show I care about this issue and it’s something important. That’s my hope for anybody listening. Don’t feel powerless ever.
Alice Walker says the most common way people give up their power is believing they have none. We all are so much more powerful that we realize. Sometimes if we want to curse the world around us because it’s not kind enough or there’s too much cynicism, nothing is going to change about this world unless we do first. If that might just be doing the smallest thing, like I just spent this week reading about Yemen. It is awful, god awful what’s going on there.
But I can’t get mad at other people for not knowing what’s happening in Yemen. But if I say I’m going to one thing. On my Facebook page, I’m going to post a little bit more about the near-famine going on in Yemen. I’m going to give people one instruction of an action they can take. If we were all doing that about issues we care about, we would be influencing each other. That’s what I’m just saying is I’ve learned in my life, again, I got a little cut off, but if you’re an activist or if you’re a person, what is your life mission statement? Why is that not clear? What do you stand for?
I don’t care if your mission is to go out and make $1 billion. Are you getting up every single day and at least knowing what your mission is, what your values are and how you’re going to fight the good fight as you know it? Are you living in allegiance to that? That’s why I always say that’s civic gospel. Before you tell me about your religion, show it to me in how you treat other people. How are you living in accordance to those values that you hold that you intellectually have and be that kind of activist?
[Don’t suddenly – and I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with suddenly waking up and saying I reject what’s going on, but try to be consistent in what you do, even if it’s a small way.
Tim Ferriss: And maybe – I know we’re coming up on time a little bit. But if we have a few more minutes, I was just going to reiterate and reinforce what you just said. Perhaps it’s the word that scares people, “activist” or “activism,” because it sounds like a full-time job. If we were to maybe just call it being a good person as you define it in accordance with your values and so on. That you could look at it almost like a behavioral change of any type. If I’m trying to get someone to change their diet, to take exercise as a new habit, I’m going to want them to do less than they think they can do so they can build momentum in doing very small things.
So no, it’s not going to be the gym for five days a week an hour at a time. It’s going to be five minutes in the gym twice a week. Anything beyond that is bonus credit. Diet? Great.
Fixed your breakfast? Everything else you can keep the same. So they build momentum. The challenge that maybe I would issue to people listening is if it seems too big, keep ratcheting it down until it seems easy and then just make that your 30 minutes of being a good person for the week and put it in the calendar for a week from now. That could be donating $5, $10 to a classroom on donorschoose.com in the town where you grew up. It could be educating yourself for 15 minutes on a site like QuestBridge, which is another incredible, educational non-profit I’m involved with. Make it small enough so that it’s not intimidating, so it’s easy.
Cory Booker: That’s the gift you gave me back in 2009 when you told me about working out. I think about you – and again, I feel like this is like I have little fan boy moments with you. But there are days I can’t work out and I say to myself, Tim told me just raise your heart rate for 12 minutes. So from my home where I live in the Capitol to the Senate office building is a little over a mile.
I don’t have to sprint it. I’m telling everybody right now. It’s embarrassing. But it’s about a 12-minute run for me. I think about you. I’m saying like look, I’m missing a workout because my Chief of Staff, closest friend, jerk over here doesn’t schedule me time to work out. I think of Tim. I say at least I’m going to get 12 minutes in. I’m telling you right now, when it comes to being an activist, it’s even as simple as this. I really believe that there should be more people being mentors in this world.
I can’t be a mentor myself, but I am going to once a week on social media post the link to Big Brothers and Big Sisters. Somebody, one of your circle of friends – if you have more than 100 followers – is one day – and if you post the data, you and I love data, about one mentor in a kid’s life dramatically changes their life outcomes. If one person in the next month that you do that or two months that you do that once a week or whatever, one person is a mentor, you’ve just helped to change somebody’s life. So that’s how much power you have. You don’t even have to give the $10 to Big Brothers Big Sisters.
That’s what I’m saying. There’s so much we could do that we just don’t do because we don’t understand. With this power, I’m holding up my smartphone right now, that we have to connect to people. I found this out as a political scientist, that more powerful than one of my political ads trying to get somebody to do something is someone posting information to their friends. It affects behavior more than we know.
Tim Ferriss: So just a few very quick closing questions because we could talk for hours and hours and hours. Maybe we’ll be able to do a Round 2, because I know we have a lot of listener questions. Some of which were really fantastic. I apologize to people that we’re not going to get to delegating today. We will get to it some other time hopefully. But what are some books that you have gifted the most to other people?
Cory Booker: I have gifted your book a lot. It wasn’t The 4-Hour Workweek. The book of yours that I gifted to anyone was The 4-Hour Body. I just thought there were so many great little hacks in there. Some of them Rated R.
Tim Ferriss: Yes, yes, it is not all family programming, folks.
Cory Booker: No, it is not all family. As I realized as I was handing to a teenager.
Tim Ferriss: Well, that’s why it was taken out of Costco. Because it also apparently is printed in such a way that it flips open to some pretty explicit diagrams. So for those who enjoy adult recreation, but fair warning.
Cory Booker: Maybe I shouldn’t even waste my time because most of the good folks who listen to you probably have already listened to that. Look, I thought Just Mercy, this book written by one of the greatest American heroes that I know, a guy named Bryan Stevenson, who is a death penalty defender. I try to consume as much as I can, so I do a lot of listening to books. That was one of the biggest books that I handed out.
Tim Ferriss: Just Mercy.
Cory Booker: Just Mercy, back in 2015. It is a beautiful listen. It’s one of those books that is a really good story. It takes you out of where you probably are and lets you look into a window of aspects of our society that are really important. I’m trying to think of other books.
I’m just going to open up my Audible. Oh, you know what book I loved? A buddy of mine wrote this book, and just for men and women that just want to work out a lot. The book about living with a Navy SEAL. Do you know what book I’m talking about?
Tim Ferriss: You know, I do know of the book and I’m blanking on the title.
Cory Booker: Living with a SEAL, that’s what it is. It’s Jesse Itzler. If you are a workout guy, it reminds you of things you already know. That you can push your body and yourself far further than you think. I think I listened to that around the time I was starting to battle back into shape from being the heaviest I ever was. It was a wonderful book. He’s going on to write more books like that. I’m just going through some more of these. I listen to a lot of history and biography.
Tim Ferriss: If you were to suggest people to start with one biography, if they’d like to get into biographies but are not sure where to start?
Cory Booker: I think Gandhi’s autobiography is a profound read. I think Parting the Waters, Taylor Branch’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book. If you’re an American, it’s just an unbelievable story of our country.
Tim Ferriss: Question that you wish more people would ask themselves or that you wish people would ask themselves more often?
Cory Booker: Well, it’s productive for me to do a re-centering a lot. I think I even brought this up to Matt, who is my Chief of Staff, will get really into – in this context, we were deciding whether to do an interview that is kind of a quirky request that we got. It was so easy for me to fall back on why am I here in the Senate? What is my mission? I do really think that’s a really productive thing. If you have an hour just to sit with an open notebook and just say, what am I about?
What do I stand for? What are most important values? If you actually can do that and then actually have an honest conversation about am I living in accordance to my highest values? What legacy do I want to leave? What energy do I want to leave on this universe? I sat down with – and how I feel like I’m doing more name dropping – but a guy I revere named Neil deGrasse Tyson.
Tim Ferriss: I know Neil deGrasse Tyson. Brilliant guy.
Cory Booker: Brilliant guy.
Tim Ferriss: I’m hoping to have him on the podcast someday.
Cory Booker: You should have him on. Neil, Neil! You should really come. People would really benefit. Talk about a guy who’s nonpartisan. He’s the guy that would give you that lecture about go where the science leads you, whether it’s left or right. I’ve heard him talk in ways that ticks off – if you’re ticking off both sides of the political aisle, you’re probably doing pretty good. But we had this conversation because I love, again, I love talking about things from a spiritual perspective, but I’m now finding that science and religion are really – the frontiers of science really are very spiritual.
So in astrophysics, I wanted him to confirm this with me. I was using it in major speeches, talking about stars are millions, if not hundreds of millions of light years away. That’s what I wanted to confirm with him. I had always heard that we’re looking at stars at night that have disappeared, but because their light goes on in perpetuity, we see those stars as if they’re there, but they’re really gone. He confirmed all of that. I said that’s powerful that a being of energy could be gone millions of years ago, but we’re still basking in its light, marveling at its glory, feeling its warmth.
I said, “We are beings of energy too.” So this idea that the energy we give off while we’re alive, this idea that it dissipates. No, I’m sorry. I am basking in the warmth of those men on the beaches of Normandy, as my Dad might say. I’m basking in the warmth of those people who helped my family buy our first house. You’ve got to see yourself as no good deed doesn’t resonate. But the problem is, we all shrink ourselves.
Bigotry, hatred, and negativity shrinks us. But what makes us bigger and bolder is courage and kindness and we get radiant when we live within those values. What are your moral values? Are you living by your highest, most luminescent self? Understand what your triggers are. When you get small? When do you get petty? I think that kind of self-work really helps you be more effective in living out your mission. You and I know this, if I got in my car and didn’t know where I was going, I would just waste energy, waste fuel and what have you.
But if you know like a laser beam where you’re supposed to be headed, if you’ve taken that time to do the work, when the craziness of life happens, you can easily fall back. Why am I here as a Senator? Why am I here as an entrepreneur? What values am I trying to do? I think we’ve lost that. Capitalism is a great example. As a guy who loves a free market, capitalism got lost when we were allowing people in a very un-free market way to foist their costs off on society.
Most people don’t realize that a person working at an Ihop in Newark, you are subsidizing that IHOP by giving that – because I have friends that work at IHOP that live in public housing. It’s taxpayer subsidizing. It’s outsourcing the costs of paying somebody a living wage to the rest of people in society. Most people don’t understand that capitalism, if you really read Adam Smith, in his Moral Sentiments, he really talks about the larger vision. And again, he’s a Democrat. The head of AEI is a guy that talks about we as Americans don’t believe capitalism and free markets are the end.
We believe it’s a pathway to reaching the free market. What I’m saying is we remember why we have capitalism. This is why I love people who get perverted in their corporate goals, when it’s just about that quarterly report. Well, if you look at some of the earliest entrepreneurs in America, they weren’t looking at short-term views of their company. We’ve allowed a lot of things to erode our moral compass and make us smaller and greater because we don’t reset what are we really about as a society?
Why did we form as a nation? What are our guiding principles? Live more in accordance to those.
Tim Ferriss: Last question: do you have any ask of the audience? Something you wish the people listening would do or think about and where can people find you, say hello, learn more about what you are up to?
Cory Booker: The easiest way to find me is if you have social media platforms is @corybooker, C-O-R-Y B-O-O-K-E-R on any platform. Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and I try to do my best to live my authenticity on those platforms. I guess my request for people which is tough today, I think that I do worry about the divisions in our nation. If I’m worrying about something, I’m trying to do something myself to heal those.
That’s why when I went to the Senate, I told my state, I’m not going down as a Democratic Senator, I’m going down as a Senator from our state and I’m going to listen to Bill Bradley, who was one of my mentors, to try to do everything I can to create working relationships with my Senators. So, Republican Senators like Deb Fischer, she and I have done such good works together. Senators like Tim Scott, a Republican from South Carolina, we’ve done really good work together. Rand Paul, who is a guy people wouldn’t imagine, but he and I have done really good work together.
I guess I’m saying that as a preamble to say this. It’s a shame that in our society we’re creating divisions that are so deep between us that we fail to see each other or hear other. Back to how we started about non-judgmentalism and leading with a courageous empathy. My request for people is one of my first mentors in Newark, this amazing tenant leader who led the longest rent strike in our city’s history back in the ‘70s. He won against the government. It was public housing. He led people on this amazing rent strike.
This crotchety, you look at him and he was not dressed in fancy clothes. But I watched him at tenant meetings. You and I have both been to them – whether dorm meetings, whatever. Everybody wants their moment and they speak for too long. But I watched this guy just look at everybody with these eyes that he was listening to you. While I’m getting nudging and tired, he’s still looking at people. The irony of his sight was that he went blind. Yet, he would tease me every time I’d see him. I’d say, “Hey, Frank, it’s Cory.” He’s like, “I see you.”
Anyway, I want to end with my request to everyone. And I’m foreshadowing what I hope to share with some of the students who I’m going to speak to in a commencement speech in a couple months. His last words to me were – I walk into his room and he’s in hospice. My ego, which I need to check, is upset. I’m like, this guy, tens of thousands of human beings had heat and hot water or stayed in their homes because of him.
Why is he dying without crowds of people? This guy taught me that significance is more important than celebrity. That purpose is more important than popularity. He lived a life of great purpose and great significance. I go into his hospice room after the nurses have told me that it’s not going to be long. He can barely talk. I hope many people have not heard people towards the end of their lives. I saw this with my father and others. Your breath gets really short.
But yet he was aware enough to know that I came in the room and I announced myself and he forces out these words that used to be what he used to always tease me with. I go, “Hey, Frank, it’s Cory.” He’s like, “I see you.” I spent time with him, I hugged him and kissed him on the forehead right before I left. I said to him, “I love you, Frank.” His last words to me were, “I love you.” I think about that. “I see you,” “I love you.” “I see you, I love you.”
We have lost our way in a sense in America, or at least many of us. Maybe I’ll implicate myself. That we think the highest calling of this country is tolerance. We’re a nation of tolerance as if that’s a good thing. But tolerance says if you disappear off the face of the earth, if you’re that person at that party and you just disappear, we’d be better off or I wouldn’t be worse off because I was just tolerating you. But this country, as our founders said in the Declaration of Independence, pledging to each other an irrational commitment, this country says, we were not called for tolerance, we were called for love.
To move beyond tolerate to that because love always see worth, sees dignity, sees value in the other person and knows actually that if your kids do well, if your kids become an entrepreneur or an artist or a teacher, my kids are going to benefit from that. That is what makes a great society. We cannot tolerate each other. We cannot tolerate divisions. We have to find ways to stitch this country together with love. So my request to everybody listening is you can be fervently against a Republican.
You can be fervently against a Democrat. You can be fervently against those people who are marching in the streets or what have you. My request is that we all try to, all of us, including me, starting with me, try to see each other, our humanity, our dignity, and try to love each other. I see you, I love you. Love demands a surrender of ego for a little while. It demands a courageous empathy, as we’ve talked about. It demands a surrendering of your position. Not always, but for a moment, let me imagine what it is like to be you. Love demands you learning about somebody else. I love my Irish-American colleagues or my Jewish-American colleagues. Have I taken the time to learn about the Irish experience in America? Which is one of the great stories of America. The Japanese-American experience. What a great story of America. Have I learned about you so this idea that people always say the Biblical sense of “knowing each other.”
But love, not Eros love, but Agape love necessitates knowledge, knowing one another as well. I guess that’s a long-winded way of saying my request for all of us, for people that you think you disagree with, take time to see them and to feel in your heart a love that Americans should feel for each other. You don’t have to agree with each other. Always like each other. But do you sincerely believe that patriotism obliges you to love Americans? If it does, then really try to love, which is not a being word, it’s an active word. It necessitates us acting towards our neighbor with a certain level of commitment.
Tim Ferriss: I think that’s the perfect place to end. Cory, thank you so much for taking the time.
Cory Booker: Thank you. I’m blown away that you would have me on.
Tim Ferriss: Well, it’s great to see you again and I hope that we don’t go as long before the next time we see each other. Thank you again. I really appreciate the entire team making time.
Cory Booker: Thank you. I’ll say this one more time. You are one of the sources of inspiration in my life and more than just inspiration – education. I’ve learned a lot from you as a guy. I see you as a peer, but in many ways, you are one of the teachers of my life and I appreciate you, Professor Ferriss.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you. Thank you, Cory. Well, you said you were a Paduan at one point earlier. I think you’re definitely in that teacher role and certainly in that leadership role. This is a conversation I hope we can continue. For everybody listening, as always, you can find the show notes for this episode, links to all of the books, documentaries and many other things mentioned at tim.blog/podcast. You can find links to the show notes for all other episodes there. Until next time, thank you for listening.
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 600 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.