Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Soman Chainani, a detailed planner, filmmaker, and New York Times best selling author. Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello ladies and germs, this is Tim Ferriss and welcome to another episode of the Tim Ferriss Show, where it is my job to deconstruct world class performers of all types, whether they are military strategists, super athletes, business icons, or anything in between, really, to tease out the habits, routines, favorite books, tips and tricks you can test and apply in your own life.
And this episode was a real treat. If you enjoyed my episodes with Seth Godin, Noah Kagan, any episode that really gets into the nitty gritty details, then you are going to love this one. It is a conversation with Soman Chainani, and I’ll spell that for you: S-O-M-A-N, C-H-A-I-N-A-N-I, trying the English today. You can find him on Twitter, on social @somanchianani. He was introduced to me by Brian Koppelman, very, very accomplished artist, screenwriter, producer, co-creator of the hit show Billions, and a very, very long filmography. When I asked Brian what I should dig into with Soman, he said many things.
But among others, his “discipline and rigor, carefulness of his approach in all aspects of life.” He’s in incredible physical condition. He’s super careful about financial security. He kept tutoring after getting a three-book deal. He’s a detailed planner and an artist of high order; more disciplined and organized and business-like than almost any artist I’ve met.
So who is Soman? Well, his debut fiction series, The School for Good and Evil has sold well over a million copies, has been translated into 25 languages across six continents, been a New York Times best seller for more than 30 weeks, and will soon be a film from Universal Pictures with Soman co-writing the screenplay.
He’s a graduate of Harvard University and Columbia University’s MFA Film Program, after which he began his career as a screenwriter for film and TV. He was recently named to the Out 100 and has received the $100,000 Circle Grant and the Sun Valley Writer’s Fellowship, both for debut writers. He’s also an incredible tennis player, which we will dig into. There are a lot of parallels and a lot of transfers.
We talk about his obsession with Disney and we cover so much ground. I think you guys will really enjoy this episode. So pay attention, get a notebook ready, and please enjoy my conversation with Soman Chainani.
Sonan, welcome to the show.
Soman Chainani: Thanks so much for having me.
Tim Ferriss: I am sitting here with a set of questions and exploratory bullets, and each one of these could be explored, I would say, for an hour or two I would guess. So we may need around two at some point, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start at the mutual connection that we have. How do you know the incredible Brian Koppelman? And for you people who don’t know that name, he is a polymath, he is a writer. He co-wrote Rounders, The Illusionist; I think The Illusionist he co-produced, and is co-creator of Billions, this new hit show that I’m absolutely in love with. But how do you know Brian?
Soman Chainani: It started I think because in my 20s, I’d come out of film school at Columbia and I’d gone straight to London, and I had been working on a movie over there for a couple of years. That was supposed to be my sort of hot-shot debut, and all that stuff. It ultimately fell apart, so I came back to New York when I was 25 or 26, broke, a quarter of a million dollars in debt from college and film school, and I didn’t know how to make money. So I didn’t know what to do. Luckily, a friend saved me and introduced me to a couple clients and told me to become an SAT tutor. So I sort of learned overnight how to tutor, and got into that whole business.
It just happened that Brian’s son needed a tutor. So that’s how it started. I was working with his son and a bunch of his son’s friend s as I was starting to write the first School for Good and Evil book.
So he sort of watched the entire evolution from hot-shot film maker, to broke and penniless tutor, to then rising from the ashes into a new career. He knows me better than anyone, my God.
Tim Ferriss: He is one of your biggest fans. He’s an enthusiastic guy to begin with but if we were to spinal tap that and take it to a level; the enthusiasm with which he wanted to make the introduction was, of course, an immediate yes then on my part. One thing he mentioned to me, and I wanted to dig into this, is first let’s back up. This is going to be a very non chronological interview; we’re going to jump all over the place because that’s what conversations tend to do.
The School for Good and Evil, how many books are there in that series right now?
Soman Chainani: There are three books in the series right now, and then there’s a full-color, kind of graphic handbook that’s a companion guide that we offer to reluctant readers; to kids who hate to read and will never read novels, ever. But if they want to be part of the universe, they get this sort of graphic version of the world. So there’s either the three novels, or there’s the handbook. And then I’m in the process of writing the fourth one as we speak, and I think there will probably be, in the end, six in the series. Just also because the movies are going to start to come out from Universal, so I wanted to have enough books to stretch out to match the movies.
Tim Ferriss: You didn’t want to end up in a Game of Thrones situation?
Soman Chainani: At least once a week I think of that situation and cannot imagine that. Just because I get so involved in my work, and I take it almost too seriously at times. The idea that you have to share your secrets of what’s going to happen with somebody who then is going to put it on TV before you – oh, my God, I’d kill myself. I couldn’t do it.
Tim Ferriss: So you are, according to Brian and this is our first conversation, you and I, one of the most disciplined and rigorous people he knows in all things. One of the adjectives he used was “careful,” and I wanted to explore that because I thought it might lead us to some back story. So he said – and correct me if I’m wrong – that you kept tutoring, you kept doing your tutoring after you got a three-book deal. Is that true?
Soman Chainani: I kept tutoring after we made the movie deal, and the movie deal was enough for me to not have to work for 15 years.
Tim Ferriss: So why keep tutoring?
Soman Chainani: I just couldn’t get out of my head the idea that art is something that you should not depend on. I don’t like depending on my art for income because then I start to think in a mercenary way.
I had to get it through my head that it’s okay; you’re making enough now from the books and the movies that you don’t have to confuse them. You don’t have to confuse money and art. Because the great thing about tutoring was it took all the pressure off the book. Even though I was broke at the time, even though I had nothing going for me, it meant that I could write freely because at the end of the day, my money wasn’t going to come from that book.
So I couldn’t let go of tutoring. I tutored up until last year. I went three or four years longer than I should have because it just meant that I had that absolute freedom in the back of my head that if it all went to pot, I still had tutoring.
Tim Ferriss: Should have is a tricky contraction because I like the separation of church and state that you described in so much as you were not feeling as though you have to find rent money through your art, even if your art is compensating you well; psychologically allowing you to compartmentalize that you don’t think about what will sell best as the primary directive of your art, perhaps. Where did you grow up?
Soman Chainani: I grew up in a little island off Miami called Key Biscayne, that is now quite popular as a resort town. It has a Ritz Carlton, it has a Starbucks now; it had neither of those things when I was growing up. It was basically just beaches and trees when I grew up, and it was very, very small. But the one thing it was famous for was tennis. If you didn’t play tennis on Key Biscayne, you weren’t part of the cool crowd. It’s still where a lot of players train these days. That’s where I grew up.
Tim Ferriss: How would you describe your – I don’t know what age to pick, here – say, 10-year-old self? Were you a popular kid?
Soman Chainani: Let me think. No, not until high school. And I think it was because I just was a little confused, I think, at that age. I was the only Indian kid on the island I grew up on. I was one of three people of color at my high school. So you grow up not looking like anyone else. Then once I turned 12 and 13 and I start liking guys instead of girls, that adds another dimension to the whole thing.
Also at the same time, I’m basically 6 foot and at that time I was like 110 pounds. I could not put weight on to save my life. So all those things, it just felt like I just didn’t fit in in any way, shape or form. I didn’t know what to do. I think it led me to basically retreat into work.
So I became the kid who won everything. They used to give out subject awards at school every year. They gave out 11 on the last day of school. From seventh grade through 11th grade, I won all 11 every single year. So it was basically me just walking back and forth picking up trophies, because that’s sort of what I did. I just threw myself into work. It was only once I got to the later years of high school, 11th and 12th grade, that I started to let my real self come out a little bit. I just think it broke through on its own, and I think people started to realize I actually did have a sense of humor, for all my workaholic tendencies.
Tim Ferriss: When did you become openly gay?
Soman Chainani: I think it was my senior year of college. It’s so funny because now I watch kids come out, and it’s done with such empowerment and this kind of beautiful freedom.
And if there’s one thing I’m sort of envious in the entire world, it’s the way that kids come out now. Because when we did it in the early to mid 2000s, there just wasn’t anything out there to help you. So it was just traumatic, having to come out to people, to your parents, to your friends. Every time you did it, it was just trauma.
So I think once I actually came out is when everything sort of broke open and that’s when I think the path I was on… Up until then, I thought I was going to be in business. I thought I was going to be a consultant or a banker or any of these things. And it was only after I came out that I think my creative self came back. It was almost like that had gone in the closet, too and it took time for both to come out.
Tim Ferriss: I was talking to a dear friend of mine, Adam Robinson who has been on the podcast as a guest before but alongside several other people. We just did a solo episode. He battled with depression for a long time, and I’ve had my own bouts with depression. I’m not saying these are the same thing but we had a long discussion about one of the ingredients being inauthenticity, meaning not following who you are or opening up to who you are fully as one of the ingredients in that particular breed of depression.
I’ve thought a lot about that. Were you able to be yourself with your parents at a young age? Or did they know you were gay? Was that an open secret? Could you describe your dynamic with your family?
Soman Chainani: You know, my parents are amazing. They’re just both brilliant people, and both at the end of the day so open minded.
I don’t know if it was so much about worrying about disappointing them as much as at that time in the world there were no models of how to do it in a real way, especially in the world of Indian families. There was nothing. So I don’t know if it was them specifically that scared me as much as the idea. I didn’t even know what it would look like. I thought if you come out of the closet, you’re going to live this very small, lonely life; that’s what I thought at the time.
What’s funny is once I came out, once I became a writer, all these things, I look back at that time and think thank God my life unfolded the way it did. Because if you look at the School for Good and Evil books, there are 120 characters. Each has their own story. It’s an entire labyrinth world that I don’t keep track of with notes. I know it in my head. Everything’s in my head.
And I think all of that energy, this entire universe of creativity was trapped. So no wonder I was a complete basket case for so much of my young life. Because forget the gay thing; if you’re not actually letting out this absolute volcano of creative energy inside of you, it’s going to be rough. And so I think that’s one of the missions I have in life, just myself is whenever I sense another creative soul who’s bottled themselves up, I gravitate towards them and try to find a way to let them out.
That’s what the books are, too; the message of the books in there for kids is find your tribe. Don’t buy into the matrix of what society is telling you a successful person or a hero has to be. Find your tribe.
Tim Ferriss: What did you major in undergrad?
Soman Chainani: English, just because when you go to a school like Harvard, there’s nothing practical. A lot of the finance guys will major in economics or government but only out of just default because there isn’t anything applicable at a school like Harvard, really. In my head, I knew I was going to go into consulting or banking but it didn’t matter what you majored in so I figured I might as well major in something that I actually like, which was English.
Tim Ferriss: I remember having an open Q&A not too long ago. The question was related to entrepreneurship, and I gave a response. Then they interrupted and they said it’s easy for you to say because you’re a male who went to an Ivy League school. But I remember thinking to myself, the last thing an Ivy League school does is prepare you to be an entrepreneur.
Soman Chainani: Oh, you’re so right.
Tim Ferriss: It molds you to be a very well polished cog in a fancy machine like consulting or banking but it does not, in any way, probably if anything inhibits in many respects entrepreneurship. But that could be a whole separate podcast, I suppose.
Soman Chainani: We have to at some point do our dump on Ivies because I have so much to say. I almost want to put on my forehead that if you went to an Ivy, I probably won’t date you, which is like the ultimate form of self loathing.
Tim Ferriss: Where did film or the fiction come into the picture?
Soman Chainani: I think growing up, film was my love. I always wanted to be in film in some capacity; I thought that was what I was going to end up doing. The big problem, I thought, was that I was not one of these people craving to direct just for directing’s sake.
I didn’t have this burning desire to be a Spielberg or something like that. I wanted to control a vision of a world. So I already had a fantasy streak inside of me. I gravitated towards Narnia, Lord of the Rings; all the Grimm’ fairy tales, things like that. So I think ultimately, what I wanted to be able to do only sort of came into existence once J.K. Rowling wrote Potter.
Because once I saw Potter, I thought oh, wait, this is exactly the kind of brain I have, which is create your own universe; control how this universe is going to be presented in media, whether it’s books, it’s film or whatever. I think that’s where School for Good and Evil came from at some level was this desire to somehow bring a universe in my head into the world in the most fully, realized way possible, combining my interests in both film and literature.
Tim Ferriss: I have something I can’t get out of my head so I’m going to jump back to tennis. The first thing I was thinking was at 6 foot whatever you were, 110 pounds, you must have had a really mean serve. That was the first thing I was thinking. And the second is really a self-interested question because I have been considering learning tennis this year.
You’ve spent an incredible amount of time tutoring, granted it doesn’t sound like you were tutoring in tennis but how would you recommend I learn to play tennis, if I were going to take it seriously? And what should I focus on and what should I spend less time on, maybe things that novices waste a lot of time on? Do you have any thoughts on that?
Soman Chainani: That’s such a good question. It’s funny. I’ll tell you how I play to this day, and it might help. Which is that all year long in New York, I play four or five times a week with different people.
It’s usually we play matches, or we hit, or whatever. And then every two months, I go down to Miami to the condo complex I’ve lived in since I was a kid, and I play with the coach I’ve had since I was a kid. I’ve been playing with him for 25 years.
Tim Ferriss: And for context for people listening, you did not lose a first round match for ten years, correct?
Soman Chainani: What happened was I went ten years playing tournaments all the time from high school up until probably my late 20s and never lost the first match. Because I always felt like I had paid the entry fee, I had done so much work to get there because often the tournament was in another state or another country; I would not lose. It didn’t matter who you put me against; I had this sort of killer, iron will that would get me through that match. And as soon as I started writing Good and Evil, as soon as I was putting all my creative energy elsewhere, I think I lost six in a row.
Tim Ferriss: You have to pick and choose where you put your energy, right? I interrupted you telling me how you play, though.
Soman Chainani: I go down to Miami and I play with the same coach I’ve been playing with for 25 years. He’s 70 years old; he cannot move. So what he does is he takes a basket of balls and feeds them to me quite slowly and analyzes my swing on every single one. So it’s 100 percent about technique, 100 percent about timing. It’s as basic as it gets.
But it’s like three or four times a year; he’s just training technique. If I had a kid or had to teach somebody tennis, it’s get your technique perfect. Because the thing about tennis is it’s so unconscious. If you try to consciously think your way through the strokes or anything like that, you’re going to end up in trouble just because of how fast it ultimately goes. It’s like ping pong. So it has to become automatic; it has to become conscious. Your technique has to be impeccable.
One of the things he taught me from an early age is don’t rush to the baseline. Start at the service line and get your technique right, and then things will flow. So I became sort of technique obsessive, which of course flows into all the other aspects of my life because I’m big on technique and process.
Tim Ferriss: Service line is where you serve from?
Soman Chainani: No, service line is the line in the middle of the court.
Tim Ferriss: Got it, here we go. Alright; now we’re at my level. Thanks.
Soman Chainani: The funny thing about tennis is it reminds me of gymnastics and figure skating where it rewards attention to detail. It rewards individualistic obsession. You’re talking sweet spot of my personality. It’s just the one sport I love, and I also think it’s a great sport where you can put me up against somebody who is enormously big and powerful, and it won’t help them.
It’s a sport where power is not going to do all that much for you ultimately against somebody who’s fast. And we can see that in the men’s game now with Djokovic and Murray and all those guys.
Tim Ferriss: I have next to me, literally five inches from my left thigh, I have the book I’m finishing which is Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chang; it’s a science fiction compilation of short stories. And then right next to that is the next book I was planning on reading, The Inner Game of Tennis by W. Timothy Gallway. I don’t know if that’s how you pronounce his last name. Where do novices waste a lot of time? We’re going to get into what makes a good coach, and this is I think going to take us a few different places. But where should I not spend a lot of time in the beginning? And that relates to how should I choose a tennis coach.
Soman Chainani: I think one of the things is when coaches put you against other kids very early and you’re playing matches very early because they want to develop your competitive instincts, again ] I think it’s super dunderheaded.
Because what they don’t realize is that your competitive instincts are far stronger than your technique. So what you’ll end up doing is coming up with this hatchet job way of playing tennis that somehow will do the job to win you some matches, but it isn’t going to serve you well in the long run.
Tim Ferriss: It’s like memorizing openings in chess versus learning first principles.
Soman Chainani: Yes. That’s how you get to the club. When you go to the club and you see all these people with hacking backhands, or they slice both the forehand and the back; they play in a way that doesn’t make any sense. It’s because as a kid, they were put against too many of their compatriots in competitive matches and were never taught actually how to play. So I think it’s more about finding a teacher that is obsessive with technique. The coach I played with invented the two-handed backhand on tour. He was the first person to ever use it. it’s a guy named Mike Belkin. He played Connors at Wimbledon.
All he cares about is are you hitting the ball in the micro meter sweet spot. I can hit the perfect shot; he doesn’t care. He’s just looking at where I hit it. Ultimately, I think tennis is about knowing your weaknesses. And I think my weaknesses, for instance, are weaknesses that show up in other aspects of my life. So having someone call me out a few times a year actually helps me not just on the tennis court but everywhere else.
Tim Ferriss: What are some of your weaknesses that manifest elsewhere?
Soman Chainani: Oh, boy. I would say –
Tim Ferriss: We could just trade weaknesses for two hours, but don’t worry. I won’t do this the entire interview.
Soman Chainani: He doesn’t understand why my margins are so small. He thinks the comfortable way to play tennis is to give yourself two inches of net clearance.
Tim Ferriss: I see; margins you mean the space over the net with which you clear it; got it.
Soman Chainani: Space over the net, yeah. And mine is like two millimeters because I hit the ball very hard and very flat for the lines.
And he doesn’t understand why everything has to be so dangerous, which is the same note I get when I submit my books to my editor; why does everything have to be so provocative? Why does everything have to be so aggressively on the edge of what’s appropriate? So it shows up all the time.
The other two things are when I get tense, I tend not to finish my swing which I think shows up in life also, which is when you’re nervous, or tense, and you go in feeling on your heels. You don’t let the full expression of yourself through. So that’s something that I think shows up. And maybe also, and this I think is a common one, whenever I’m going through a string of unforced errors or anything like that in tennis, it’s because I’m hitting the ball too early. I’m reaching for it; I’m not waiting for it. It’s not coming into my strike zone; I’m lurching forward for it instead of holding on a little bit.
Tim Ferriss: Do you do that with deal making or negotiating, things like that? Where else does that show up?
Soman Chainani: Yeah, I think sometimes it’s a tendency to want to jump at something. It’s a yes to everything. And I’m lucky to have the greatest agent ever, who weirdly enough is a lot younger than me and who basically doesn’t let me say yes to anything. He’s just like wait, hang on.
Tim Ferriss: Start with no and build from there.
Soman Chainani: Yeah, and it’s not just sayin yes. It’s like you have to wait until something actually excites you, you know?
Tim Ferriss: As another friend of mine, Derek Sivers, an entrepreneur, would say: it’s either a hell, yes or it’s a no; nothing in between. And that’s how he makes his binary decisions. But you brought up something that I really want to underscore for people who haven’t experienced it, perhaps, or who haven’t utilized it enough. This is a lesson that I revisit quite a lot and sometimes forget.
That is in general, U.S. culture talks a lot about mind over body and so on. But you can use body over mind in so much as the sports arena, the gym, the tennis court can be used, like you said, as a way of surfacing and working on weaknesses that then transfer to other areas. I have found that to be the case, which is one of the many reasons that when my exercise regimen is consistently on point, everything else improves or is easier. So that’s something that I’m focusing a lot on right now.
Alright, let’s dig into some of this other stuff. Where to even begin? I have so many notes in front of me. We talked about tennis; I want to talk about Walt Disney and Disney.
You are apparently obsessed with Disney, Disneyworld. Let’s talk about it. I’ll just let the door open and we can go from there.
Soman Chainani: I don’t know if it was by choice. I think what happened was we didn’t have TV growing up, we didn’t have cable, internet, any of the things grow up now.
Tim Ferriss: What did your parents do growing up?
Soman Chainani: My dad was in real estate and my mom was a very young mom; she had three kids by 23.
Tim Ferriss: Wow.
Soman Chainani: So there was a lot going on. She was trying to figure out how to raise three kids. And back then, you had your VCR and your TV that played a couple channels and that was it. We used to complain a lot to them that we had nothing to watch, we didn’t have a Nintendo; we didn’t have anything. So my grandparents finally relented and came home with the entire Disney animated collection on VHS, which was I think 27 movies or something like that.
And that is all I watched from age 6 or 7 until 15; that was all that was in the house. So that was our only source of entertainment. And so I think Disney at some level infected every cell of my brain and it became, for good or bad, sort of an essential part of how I thought about the world. And it was only later on, once I got to college I took a class, sort of a famous class at Harvard on fairy tales taught by a professor named Maria Tatar, who has become sort of like the most famous expert on fairy tales in the world.
And she exposed me to the original Grimm’s stories, which are horrific and dark and insane. And half the time, the evil character wins and half the time the good character wins. I think that gap between the Disney stories I grew up with and I took so seriously, and the real fairy tales, is where the School for Good and Evil started.
Because the question that kept sticking in my head is why did kids 200 years ago grow up with stories where the hero didn’t always win? Where the hero died a horrible death if they made a mistake, and we got these very sanitized version of the story where the hero always wins, even if the hero is not particularly smart. You look at The Little Mermaid, you look at the Lion King. Arielle should die brutally in that movie because she’s an idiot, a complete idiot.
The number of mistakes she makes in that movie doesn’t make any sense. Then to read the original Little Mermaid, where she dies at the end, suddenly made sense. And I think that’s where I started thinking okay, how do we get kids in our world to get the real stories? How do you get them to start reading something where good and evil are in balance, where it actually means something again?
And I think all of that stuff, and then the arrival of Potter, my knowledge of Disney; that all sort of played into what the School for Good and Evil ultimately became, which is a mix of all of that with an attempt to give fairy tales back to children and make them really think about what good and evil is.
Tim Ferriss: I remember reading the original Hansel and Gretel stories, a few variations. There’s an illustrated version people can check out if they want. They should read it before their kids read it, which I think Neil Gaiman played a part in which really underscores how brutal some of these stories were. I have thought a lot about Disney in the last few years, but I’ve thought about Disney more so in the capacity of Walt Disney. There’s a fantastic Walt Disney museum here in San Francisco.
Soman Chainani: Which I’m dying to come visit at some point.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, it’s so good and it looks at Walt Disney the thinker, Walt Disney the imaginer, etc. but also Walt Disney the technology innovator. Glenn Beck, of all people, has a book and he carried it with him for some period of time, and my understanding is that it expired Disneyworld; it’s The Garden Cities of Tomorrow.
Soman Chainani: Oh, I’ve read that book?
Tim Ferriss: You have? By Sir Ebenezer George Howard. Have you been to Disneyworld?
Soman Chainani: 40 times. Like I said, Disney was somebody that I admired so much that I came to a point where once you start admiring someone and studying them, you start to see your flaws. And that’s where you start to see the seeds of your own career. Because I think once you have an idol and you study them long enough, and you realize their weaknesses, you think oh, wait, I can come in here with my own voice and do something totally different that’s going to ultimately be its own thing.
So I studied all of that stuff. The most important thing that I was fascinated about with Disney was his desire to create his own city. He was obsessed with this idea of creating not just Disneyworld amusement park; he wanted his own model community that the rest of the world would then adopt. That’s what Epcot was supposed to be. It never ended up happening, and then for whatever reason, they abandoned it after his death.
I think once I’m done with School for Good and Evil, I’m dying to do another series that’s sort of analogous to this idea of what the perfect city of the future looks like.
Tim Ferriss: You bring up something I’d like to add to, which is the benefit, in a way, of Heroes with Clay Feet. People have probably heard the recommendation “never meet your heroes.” That is said because of the fear and the reality that oftentimes when you meet the people you most admire, they disappoint you in some way.
There is some type of flaw, there’s some type of weakness. The frame to have, I think, that is more enabling is the one that you just described. Actually, you’re allowed to be disappointed. You can be disappointed but even if you feel disappointed in some way, everyone is flawed and that should just encourage you because it humanizes them. You realize okay, they’re not some metaphorically some entrepreneur or fill in the blank who is hitting every foul shot 100 times out of 100.
It’s like no, they have real weaknesses. And that then, like you said, opens the door to the possibility that you could do something of that magnitude. So I find it really encouraging, in a way, when I explore the weaknesses of people that I really, really admire.
In any case, I appreciate you making that point; the paradox of heroes. If you have one, what is one of your favorite failures? Because I think a lot of people listening will think to themselves, good God; this guy seems to be a savant in everything; I don’t have those attributes. Let’s talk about some failure.
Soman Chainani: Oh God, there have been so many.
Tim Ferriss: Do you have a favorite failure? Meaning a failure that in retrospect really planted the seeds of later success?
Soman Chainani: You know, I think one small one and one big one. I had sort of tested School for Good and Evil at film school in a three-page treatment of the story. The professor was this ultra jockey, you’re talking patriarchal culture entrenching kind of guy.
I submitted it, and I went in to talk to him at office hours. He goes, “Let’s talk about this story you wrote about an Indian family.” And I said, “I didn’t write anything about an Indian family.” He didn’t have names on them, or he hadn’t looked at the names. He’s like, “Which one was yours?” And then he got distracted and was talking about how his favorite one was this one about fairy tales. And he’s like, “Whoever the girl that wrote it is, she has a future.”
I said, “That one’s mine.” His face just totally changed. He couldn’t get over the idea that I had written it. That a boy had written that story that had a female lead character, was set in the world of fairy tales. We never went over it because he couldn’t get over the shock of it. And there was something in that moment that I think I took badly. I think I got ashamed of it.
And had I reacted with a little more self confidence at 23 or 24, however old I was, I would have taken the positive comment he had given, more than the negative one. Do you know what I mean? But for some reason I felt embarrassed by it. But it was an important one. Because I think years later when I came back to it with a little more self esteem, out of all the kids in the class, he liked that one the best; why didn’t I run with it? It was a serious idea.
The failure that became the cornerstone of my life happened after I graduated film school. Which was I came out sort of the hot graduate. I got picked up by CAA, off a script that had won –
Tim Ferriss: For people who don’t know, sorry; just for context. The CAA is one of the largest talent agencies in the world, if not the largest. It’s CAA, WME, William Morris Endeavor; there are a handful of these UTA out there but CAA is one of the big mother ships.
Soman Chainani: So they had picked me up and the script had won a ton of stuff, and it had won this big grant. So I immediately got a studio deal out of England to make the movie for I think it was a $6 million budget, which is ridiculous for a graduate of film school.
Tim Ferriss: For a movie that you wrote?
Soman Chainani: For a movie I wrote. So it was almost like an autobiographical story at some level with some fantasy elements to it. So I moved to London. I spent a year and a half prepping it, doing all the work to get it ready. We had crews set up, we had a great cast; we had everything set. It was right at a bad time in the industry financially, and the studio had had three or four flops in a row. Then their big movie came out and died, and that was it. they went bankrupt six weeks before we were starting shooting. And that was it.
In a year and a half, I lost everything I had worked for all those years. I just didn’t know what to do, and I remember going home and that’s when I started tutoring and all that stuff. But the biggest thing that came out of there is I remember thinking never again; that’s never going to happen again. I’m never going to work on something for two years and put my life and soul in it and not have it see the light of day.
That’s when I realized there has to be a way you can control your IP. There has to be a way to control the creative property so that you can be in charge. That’s when I started thinking why don’t I go back to what I was always meant to do, which was fantasy. And what if I start with it as books first, what can I do? But even then I thought alright, say I write a book and it comes out and no one reads it; then we’re back at square one. So I did a lot of investigation into the kids’ book industry.
This is where I found sort of the magic secret. Which is I watched a lot of authors going on tour, who wrote kids’ and teen books. And if you’re a teen author, you tour like an adult author does. You just go to bookstores every night in different cities and you meet your fans. Which is great but if you don’t have any fans, then there’s no point. If you write for kids 8 to 12, you don’t go to bookstores. Instead, they send you send you to schools and you’re put in front of captive audiences anywhere from 200 to 1,000 kids at a time who don’t know anything about you.
And you get an hour to sell your book three times a day to three different schools. I thought okay, that I can do. If I write a book good enough, and you put me on tour and I get to see 3,000 kids a day, I can sell. That’s what got me going. I realized I could control the creative and the business side of it. And for someone who lives their life wanting to control, I saw a career waiting to happen.
It looks like an accident, I guess, but I had sort of seen how it could be done.
Tim Ferriss: I want to talk about the selling. The more I hear about three times a day 1,000 kids at a time, I’m like why have I not been choosing my genres more intelligently? Because you can show up to a gigantic book signing, even if you’ve had successful books, and have 12 people or two people. I remember going to the UK. Just as a contrast, I’ve never done what anyone would consider a book tour.
After the The Four Hour Workweek came out, and I went to the UK and I expected to have this fantastic launch, and it did pretty well. But they wanted to rely on everything that had happened in the U.S. I remember going to my first book signing that the publisher in the UK was handling. I showed up, and I don’t remember the exact name of the bookstore but I’d show up at 7:00 or 8:00 at night.
It’s raining outside, and literally over two hours, two people showed up; one person who was just wandering around and wanted to talk to me about things, anything unrelated to my book. And then one person who had already bought the book somewhere else.
Soman Chainani: You know, nothing brings you back to earth like the British.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, my God, it was just such a punch in the nuts. After that, I was like no more. Much like yourself, different context but I was like never again, ever, ever in my life am I going to have my head stuffed in the toilet this hard from an ego demolishing standpoint. But I digress.
Soman Chainani: I think it’s important because also, I think at some point all the principles that you believe in, and I’ve been reading your books for years and immediately sensed a fellow soul who is interested in the same things. All that stuff, kids need.
And the School for Good and Evil in a weird sense is kind of a fictionalized expression of all the stuff we’re talking about. It’s everything I believe in about the world and making your own destiny, and planning, and not fitting into society’s constructs. So people who want to raise their kids with those values I hope would then find interest in the books.
But at the same time, I think you’re due to write a kids’ version of yours. Because I just think teenagers more than anything need it, and parents will buy it because they know you. I think it’s coming.
Tim Ferriss: It might. I’ve been very intimidated, and I’m going to come back to the coming out of college and film school a quarter of a million dollars in debt because I think that’s an important topic to dig into.
I’ve been very intimidated in a very good way, some what I would call – and the genre names are confusing, so young adult fiction…
Soman Chainani: It’s 13 plus.
Tim Ferriss: Okay, 13 plus. When I picked up, this was, I don’t know 2005 – actually. I know exactly when it was. It was 2005 because it was when I was doing my walkabout around the world prior to the The Four Hour Workweek. When I was doing all my experiments I was in Panama. I was reading His Dark Materials; Philip Pullman, The Golden Compass. I had to look up probably two or three words a page to define them for myself; nautical terms, all sorts of stuff. I remember wondering who the audience was.
Soman Chainani: Well, I’ll blow your mind on that one. Golden Compass and Philip Pullman is not young adult. That’s middle grade; that’s 8 to 12.
Tim Ferriss: What? I consider myself a pretty well educated guy.
Soman Chainani: No, he’s intense. He’s part of the whole specter that I aspire to as well. Which is if you look at Narnia, if you look at Golden Compass, even if you look at Potter, middle grade is where you find the books that really transcend to adults, as well.
Tim Ferriss: Is NeverEnding Story, would that be considered middle?
Soman Chainani: Yes, NeverEnding Story as well.
Tim Ferriss: That was my favorite book growing up for three or four years in elementary school.
Soman Chainani: It’s an amazing book. The thing with a lot of young adult is it’s there to gratify specific teenage impulses from 13 to 17, so it’s a very, very sort of melodramatic and romance-based at times. Romance becomes an essential element of it. Whereas in middle grade, you’ll often find the more high fantasy that you would also find in adult fiction.
Which is why I think often some of the best books that cross over, even like if you look at the best Neil Gaiman, like The Graveyard Book, these are middle grade books.
Tim Ferriss: My favorite audio book of all time, probably, is read by Neil himself. It’s so good.
Soman Chainani: That’s also why I love this genre. School for Good and Evil, for instance, the number of adult fans we have is insane. There’s no way we would sell as much as we have sold and been able to do what we have done without adult readers. What happens is the kids get obsessed, and then they give it to their parents. The parents read it and then they start getting into it. The trick with the middle grade series is that the first book has to be a little younger. That’s why the first Harry Potter book –
Tim Ferriss: So they can grow into the rest of the series?
Soman Chainani: It has to feel like a kids’ book. It has to get the kids into it at some level. And then you can start getting deeper and deeper.
That’s sort of how it’s done. Which is why even if you look at His Dark Materials, Golden Compass is a little bit easier but then two and three are intense.
Tim Ferriss: Tough. You mentioned controlling your IP, your intellectual property so that you would be the master of your fate more than you had been when this film evaporated in front of you that you were going to work on. Golden Compass, one of my favorite books in that genre…
Soman Chainani: Oh, God, I know where we’re going.
Tim Ferriss: One of the worst movies I’ve ever seen in my life, and I was so fucking enraged when I came out of that theater. I was like, how could you? How could you? I was so upset that they tried to cram one and a half, or two of these gigantic, gorgeous books into 90 minutes or whatever it was; it just infuriated me. What have you done, or how do you think about protecting the integrity of your work?
How do you go about ensuring that is likely to be the case? I’m not going to generalize, but yes I am; I’m going to. You don’t want to take people’s word for it in Hollywood or anywhere else. There are too many players; there are too many cooks in the kitchen. So what do you do?
Soman Chainani: The first thing I do is I have this piece of paper. And any time I get on the phone with anyone from LA, I put it on my wall and it says “They are lying.” I’ve been doing that for about three years and it really makes a difference. Because they are lying. They are saying whatever they need to say. The great thing about Hollywood is once you figure out it is essentially the same kind of engine as the political system, designed to slow things down, designed to make things move as slowly as possible, and you start to realize it’s essentially like working with Congress; then for some reason you start to accept it a little more.
I think the difference with me is I come from that world, right? I’d gone to film school, I’d come out and been involved with not just the movie that had evaporated, but I was getting offered a lot of projects at that time. So I had met a lot of people. So when it came to selling the rights to School for Good and Evil, I got to pick who it was. I didn’t just go with whoever gave the best offer. I put together the producing team, which was Jane Starts who did Ella Enchanted and Tuck Everlasting and is known for putting together the most faithful children’s adaptations of all classic books.
That’s her reputation. And then put her together with Joe Roth, who is Alice in Wonderland, Maleficent, Snow White and the Huntsman, who is the big blockbuster fairy tale producer.
That combination has been kind of the magic bullet. Because A) I got to make sure I wrote the first couple drafts of the script to make sure that we were in the right direction before I stepped off to keep working on the books. And then I made sure we took on a new screenwriter who would put in the studio’s notes who also loved the books, who turned out to be right now David McGee, who wrote Finding Neverland, Life of Pi, and is doing the new Mary Poppins for Disney. And his daughters loved the books.
So I’ve been reading every single draft of the script. I’ve been involved every step of the way. And as of now, it could not be more faithful to the books. That is not to say that it will not end up being the worst movie of all time that has nothing to do with the series. But all you can do as an author, I would say the advice would be hold onto it until you put together the right team yourself. You don’t just hand it over.
Tim Ferriss: Whether it’s through social engineering and just managing relationships in a particular way, how do you minimize the likelihood of really stupid studio notes getting forced into your script?
Soman Chainani: I think for that, time has helped because of social media. The fan base of the series is getting bigger and bigger by the day. They have learned from too many things like Golden Compass or Beautiful Creatures, or movies where the fans revolted before it ever came out. You have to have the fans onboard because at the end of the day, they’re the ones who are going to make all the noise. My biggest goal when I wrote Good and Evil was look, the way to make a success is not necessarily to have the most readers straight off the bat but to have the most passionate ones.
Tim Ferriss: They become your marketing force, right?
Soman Chainani: That’s it, and that’s everything. To this day, I spend at least half an hour a day doing fan engagement to make sure that the people who love the books most get as much access as possible.
Tim Ferriss: What have you found most effective for that, in that half hour?
Soman Chainani: It’s tricky because with 8 to 12… Our core fan base I don’t think is really 8 to 12; it’s more like 10 to 15. But I think they are not on social media so much. They’re not on Twitter, they’re not on Instagram. So we built an interactive website that I think is the best of any kids’ series in the world in terms of how complex and how much it offers. There are 18 moderated chat rooms, there are games, there are contests every week, there’s a YouTube channel; there’s so much for them to do there. There’s a forum in the chat forums called Questions for Soman, and they can ask me questions any time I want, and I go on half an hour a day and answer them all.
Tim Ferriss: Got it; it’s centralized.
I’m going to lay this out. I’m looking at some specs, your player stats. These aren’t really stats but you write a 500 to 700 page book, you tour 60 to 80 days, film a weekly YouTube show, work on film, manage the business side of the School for Good and Evil. Plus, parenthetical you’re single at the moment, which is a part-tim job in and of itself.
Soman Chainani: In New York, which is not just a part-time; it’s like death of your soul.
Tim Ferriss: You also have a New York that is a whole, separate… you have an extra layer of paradox of choice plan shopping issue. There’s an abundance of riches in some respects that makes it challenging. But what does your time management look like? What are the keys to your time management? What do you do differently? I know that’s a lot of questions but I’d love for you to describe how you keep things in order and prioritized.
Soman Chainani: There are a few tricks.
The big trick is one day a week is where anything non essential happens. So if I have to meet my agent, or get a haircut, or go do some press thing, or a radio interview or something; all of that happens on one day. So everything gets shoved into usually Tuesday. Tuesday becomes the funnel day for anything –
Tim Ferriss: Miscellaneous.
Soman Chainani: Yeah. And so I think that becomes the main day. Then for me, it’s all about segments. The core anchors of my day are I play tennis in the morning, usually at 7. I work out with my trainer at 2. And just having those two anchors makes everything go so much smoother. Because then I have a big block in the morning from 8:30 to 1 to write and manage whatever else I have to, and then after I train, from 3:30 to 6.
That becomes the way I manage time. Also, you’re fueled from those two workouts; you come back ready to go. You’re just like in it. So I always feel like I’m operating on pure adrenaline at any given time, and operating very single-mindedly on something. Then I try to finish working by 7. Because I also think if you work too late, it ruins the work the next day.
Tim Ferriss: Are there any particular tools you use to help you manage all of this?
Soman Chainani: I’ve had fights with friends over this who think I should use a calendar. When we were growing up, my dad never used a calendar for his business; he just wasn’t into it. He just felt like he could keep everything in his head. And I don’t know, it’s how he grew up, it’s how I grew up.
I never kept track of my homework in school; I never wrote stuff down. So I don’t have a calendar, which is so ridiculous to say out loud but I don’t have a calendar.
Tim Ferriss: Now, is that a reflection of just having a prodigious memory or is it a reflection of it being more free flowing? Do you wake up in the morning knowing exactly what you’re going to do in those two major blocks of time?
Soman Chainani: Yeah, I think that’s it. I think it’s because I know the anchors; I know what’s happening. Obviously, if I’m scheduling a trip for April or something, I’ll have it written down somewhere.
Tim Ferriss: As an exercise, today is Tuesday. Today is your odds and ends day. What does tomorrow look like for you, and what are your key priorities, if you can talk about them.
Soman Chainani: I usually get up at about 6, and then what do I do in the morning? I’ll meditate for about 15 minutes.
Tim Ferriss: What type of meditation? How do you meditate?
Soman Chainani: That will take us down a whole rabbit hole.
Tim Ferriss: We’ll come back to that. I’ll bookmark that. So 15 minutes of meditation.
Soman Chainani: I start my day every day; I boil water, and I put a towel on my head and I inhale steam. Because for some reason, it gets the sweat going and somehow clears out my head. I don’t know; it’s just something I do.
Tim Ferriss: I like it.
Soman Chainani: It always works and it just feels like you went to a sauna in your house. Then I’ll eat, grab a juice from the place next door, and then get to tennis by 7. I’ll get home by 8:30; I’ll be writing by 9. Right now I’m working on revisions to the first ten chapters of book four. So I’ll do that until about 1. Then I’ll eat. Then I’ll go meet my trainer.
Tim Ferriss: Do you have a set lunch that you have?
Soman Chainani: We were talking about this before we came on. I can’t cook, and I just don’t have time to think about food. So I have tried every meal delivery service in New York City and I use Portable Chef, which is really good.
It’s basically like a customized personal chef and they deliver all your meals for the day the day before so everything is set for you. That one’s really great. Heart and Belly is really good. It’s not like Blue Apron or something like that where you have to have pots.
Tim Ferriss: It’s minimal. So you heat it up and you’re ready to go?
Soman Chainani: Ready to go. Then I’ll go train with Trainer Dave, as I call him, from 2 until about 3:30. Then from 4 to 6:30 or 7 is that second block where right now, it will still be revising. But inevitably, there’s business stuff, too so I try to do that in a solid hour, as well. And then because I work in my apartment most of the time, after 7 I leave. I never am at home after 7. I always go out or do something, see friends, or go on a bad date.
Tim Ferriss: What are your favorite ways to wind down after a day?
Soman Chainani: I think it’s just talking to people. The good thing about having lived in New York for 15 years is I’ve met so many cool people. I try to go see a show, go see a movie. I have a lot of actor friends who are in things so there’s always something happening.
Tim Ferriss: Something premiering. Do you have any pre-bed rituals, or anything that you do typically before bed?
Soman Chainani: If I really want to sleep well, then I’ll stop watching anything by 10, even 9:30. Because I’d rather read than watch TV. Because for some reason, I just have a very sort of open, spongy brain and if I watch TV too close to bed, that’s what I’m going to dream about when I’d rather not be dreaming about the Real Housewives of New York.
Tim Ferriss: What are you reading at the moment, or what’s the last book you found memorable?
Soman Chainani: I’ve read this book three times, now and I’m trying to stop rereading it but I think it may be the best book I’ve ever read. It’s called A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara.
Tim Ferriss: The Little Life?
Soman Chainani: A Little Life. It’s big. It’s almost 700 pages. But I think it was nominated for the Pulitzer or something, and it’s just incredible. It’s about these four male friends who grew up in New York City together, and it’s tracking their life from when they’re 20 to 60. For anybody who loves to have a bigger view of what life is, and look beyond – again, the matrix of what life is supposed to look like according to society, that book will just completely ravage your brain.
I give it to so many people and never once has anyone come back to me and not said “that changed my life.”
Tim Ferriss: I think that might be the title of this podcast episode: Ravaging your Brain with Soman. So a few things. The first is meditation. What type of meditation? Or describe your meditation.
Soman Chainani: It’s super simple. It’s just going to sound a little crazy to everyone because I’ve been doing this for a long time. I remember I read the Tao Te Ching when I was 23 or 24 and going through a rough time after the movie had collapsed, or maybe it was a little later.
Tim Ferriss: So a copy of that also six inches from my left thigh.
Soman Chainani: I remember reading it and being like okay, this makes no sense. But you just keep reading it again and again and slowly, I started to get the point of it which is thank God I play tennis.
But it was saying the same thing that I talked about to you about tennis earlier, which is there should not be any decisions. It should be automatic. It’s not automatic because there is something in the way and the thing in your way is the I, the ego, your self consciousness.
So every meditation I’ve done since then, and it’s now been ten years, it’s 15 minutes of trying to find the I, that sort of energy that makes up that conscious will inside of me and realizing that that’s actually the place that you do not want to operate from; that that is actually an illusion. That’s just residual anger and frustration and your inability to control things in the world. So all of my meditation is recognizing the I that you operate from and the world tells you to operate from, and realizing that that’s what you have to let go of.
Tim Ferriss: When you sit down, assuming you’re sitting, are you then – I’d like you to get as concrete as you can and describe it. Are you imagining the me, so to speak, in parenthesis sitting behind the I and trying to visually or graphically observe it?
Are you observing the words in your head as a detached third party? What are you doing, exactly?
Soman Chainani: It’s more like trying to sense the me. Just sort of thinking okay, where is I? Where is I in my body right now and trying to actually imagine your entire perception, your entire consciousness; everything that’s in your mind, everything that’s in your body, everything that’s in your thoughts right now is that I and realizing that all of it is actually wrong. All of it is energy that you’re holding that needs to be let go of.
And what you really want is empty space. I think the line in the Tao Te Ching that stuck with me the most is why is there something when there should be nothing? It’s that whole idea of the true, happy human is clear; there shouldn’t be anything there. So that’s what the meditation is.
It’s trying to find the I, that center of me. I could actually identify what the me is, and realizing that that needs to be let go.
Tim Ferriss: So you’re very self directed, even in lacking a calendar. I hope the studio has a good key manager in its view. It’s a great point of leverage, though, having this entire world you’ve created inside your own head, not without its risks. You mentioned having a trainer. In doing some of my review before this, you appear to train exclusively with trainers. I am almost the opposite, so I’d love to hear why that is.
Soman Chainani: Wait, first tell me why you’re the opposite?
Tim Ferriss: It’s not entirely… it’s changed a bit in the last few years. I’ve realized that there are certain types of physical movement that I view as physical recreation, not primarily training. So I’m not using them to lose body fat, or fill in the blank; like acro yoga, acrobatic yoga, partner gymnastics, that type of thing. There are certain instances where you need a technical coach; tennis, gymnastics strength training. In those instances I will have a coach, whether I’m using video or otherwise.
But training for me, exercise has always been my me-time, my meditative time to live in the present moment and very often use some type of cadence. I never thought of it this way, doing this until maybe a few years ago but a mantra of sorts, where I’m simply counting, say, the seconds up, seconds down of a particular lift, or the number of repetitions. That, for me, is my mental palate cleanser for the day. For a very long time, it was my version, in a sense, of meditation.
So I didn’t want to banter with someone else. I didn’t want to have any type of sensory input from someone else. That’s why I train by myself.
Soman Chainani: That’s so interesting.
Tim Ferriss: That’s still the case with, say, weight lifting unless it is a very technical skill and I’m working with someone for, say, an Olympic weight lifting movement where the penalty of doing it incorrectly is so high and you really require a separate set of eyes to correct because what you think you’re doing is probably not what you’re doing, at least in the beginning. So that’s why I’ve always trained alone. And, I like to train late. I love to train at 9, 10, 11 p.m. for a host of reasons.
Soman Chainani: I have a theory, though. I think that you might instinctively be what I call a somatic person, which is when it comes to anything in the body, you want to push yourself.
You won’t let yourself get away with incorrect form, or not pushing yourself to the max when you do a workout.
Tim Ferriss: That’s true.
Soman Chainani: Which is not me. Mentally when I’m working on a book or something, I will die to make sure it’s perfect; to make sure it’s exactly right. But when I get to a workout, my instinctive thing, just because I grew up like the kid who never thought he was ever going to be strong, who kids always made fun of for being skinny. So when it came to lifting weights and things like that, I came in scared.
And I always bailed before it ever got heavy, thinking I’m too weak to do this or whatever. I need trainers to push me at some level. I need them to say this is what you’re doing and we’re not getting out of it. Because if it was just me, I don’t know. I don’t think it would be the same.
It also lets me have one moment of the day when I’m not in charge, which is nice.
Tim Ferriss: Right, right. This makes a lot of sense. This could lead into all sorts of relationship discussions.
Soman Chainani: All sorts of of interesting things.
Tim Ferriss: How many trainers have you worked with, or is it always the same person or handful of people?
Soman Chainani: I work with the same trainer in New York.
Tim Ferriss: Trainer Dave.
Soman Chainani: Trainer Dave. His name is Dave Stogsdil at CrossFit NYC.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, boy. He’s about to get a lot busier.
Soman Chainani: He is an absolute genius. I chose him the same way I chose my agent, which you’re going to laugh at but I chose them both by their photo. And I think it’s because I spent so much time casting movies that I’m very good at just when I see a photo, or maybe I spent too much time on Tinder or something, but I know when I see a photo that that’s the person. So I remember going through all the CrossFit gyms in New York, and looking at photos and I saw his.
And I was like, that’s the right guy.
Tim Ferriss: Hold on; I have to pause, here. Is this purely subconscious or is what you do a teachable skill, do you think?
Soman Chainani: No, I think it’s instinct. With trainers, I was looking for a softness.
Tim Ferriss: Kind eyes type of thing?
Soman Chainani: Yeah, like a non-bro bro. Do you know what I mean?
Tim Ferriss: Right. Yes, I do.
Soman Chainani: And that’s him. He’s the guy you go to if you are coming at weight training not from the broiest place.
Tim Ferriss: What do you do when you’re on the road?
Soman Chainani: Then I get a trainer every single city, every single day. It’s a bit obsessive, but…
Tim Ferriss: How do you find them and how do you choose? Are they all photograph-based?
Soman Chainani: No, that’s too much work.
That the assistant does. She’s pretty good at knowing what to look for now because I’ve been on enough tours. And I’ll be like that one was great; that one wasn’t that great. She’s started to get a sense of what I’m looking for. But I’ve worked with so many different trainers. I think what makes Dave so great is he figured out very early on that it wasn’t just going to be cross fit that I needed, but he’s mixed in a ton of GST stuff, which is gymnastics strength training; a lot of Z health stuff which is like exercises that also complement my brain neurology.
He’s very good at customizing based on your personality, what your goal is. He knows not to give me intense conditioning pieces because I can out-cardio anyone on the planet; it’s just the way I was born. He’s focusing on my weaknesses.
Tim Ferriss: Got it. I’m not going to spend too much time on trainers because there are so many other places I want to dig. A quarter of a million dollars in debt, that’s a fuck ton of money after the undergrad and the MFA. How did you end your family, make the decision to go so far into debt? Because in the U.S., and I think this is dangerous on a lot of levels, at least in Silicon Valley there’s a very romanticized anti college notion. I do think that student debt can be a paralyzing problem for many people. How did you and your family decide to go that far into debt? And I don’t know if it was you, or you and your family; I don’t know how that was arranged.
Soman Chainani: At some level, Indian families are a lot like Jewish families and other cultures that put a primacy on education. Where there is this expectation that your family will pay for school.
My dad was going through a hard time in the ‘80s because he was in real estate and that’s when the market was tanking. He took on a lot of debt himself in order to pay for Harvard. So I don’t think where Harvard is where the main source of debt came from. The main source of debt came from film school and there was no way he was going to pay for that, or I was going to let him.
So it was just my decision, really, to basically be like okay, I was so deluded, I guess, into thinking that somehow I was going to pay it back. I look at some of the kids who came out of film school and are saddled with so much debt now, and I just don’t know what you do. I was lucky enough to discover tutoring, which paid really, really well. I was lucky to get a ton of clients and do really well at it. that’s what got me through, and ultimately the book deal helped me pay the rest off.
But it is a gamble that is not wise, I think.
Tim Ferriss: Now we’re getting to the next question, so much like college has lost its luster for a lot of people, although I do generally think that if you can get into a top tier name recognizable brand, which sounds terrible, but whether it’s undergrad or, say, MBA then it can be worth it sometimes.
Soman Chainani: I agree with you.
Tim Ferriss: The MFA, film school, is also one of those divisive topics where a lot of successful filmmakers will say ah, waste of time. But then there are many successful film makers who come out of film school. Aspiring film maker, about to graduate from undergrad or has already graduated from undergrad, did decently well in however you want to think about that; should I go to film school?
They love film. Maybe they’ve done a few short films in some elective classes in college but their major was something else. Should they go to film school? What do you say to that person, or what do you ask them? What’s the conversation?
Soman Chainani: What would I say now? I would have such specific advice now, which is only go to film school if you can get into USC. That would be my only advice. And the reason why is the industry has changed so much to basically eliminate independent film. So that the only productive education you’re going to get in film school that will lead you to a Hollywood career at some level is to be in southern California at USC or maybe UCLA where you have studio connections and are working with studio professors.
And if you’re good enough, you might get seen. That’s what I would say. Because when I went to Columbia, it was in the heyday of independent film, at some level.
And so a lot of the great things that happened to me at Columbia were because I had access to all the successful independent directors and producers who loved my work, and therefore introduced me to all these great people. All those people now are having trouble making films, of course, because there’s no outlet for them. So they’ve all gone to television or whatever.
So film, if you want to work in film, we’re talking working in the studio world which means you’ve got to be in LA. You have to be at one of those two film schools. But otherwise, I would say I don’t think there’s a need for it. I don’t think you need to go to film school. I think you just need to make work.
Tim Ferriss: The USC reference or recommendation with caveats makes me think of Stanford, also, in my backyard here in the Bay Area.
Certainly as a competent computer science major, the demand for engineers so outstrips supply it’s just ludicrous. But if you want to be part of the Silicon Valley tech scene and you’re debating between different undergrad options, then Silicon Valley and being based in Palo Alto where you have all of the venture capitalists literally in the same town, or right next door can give you a huge leg up, similarly, depending on which facet of the business you want to be a part of.
Soman Chainani: Because I helped so many kids with their college applications over the years, Stanford was the one school I rarely, rarely, let them apply to.
Tim Ferriss: Why is that?
Soman Chainani: I said it was too hard.
Tim Ferriss: Too hard?
Soman Chainani: I said the problem with Stanford… the college application game is very simple. Whichever school you apply to early, you better be fairly sure you have a good shot at getting in.
When you apply early, your chances of getting in are much better. But you have to at least be in the game to get in. Stanford’s acceptance rate is so low, and everybody applying to Stanford is so good and so smart that to get in takes an act of God. You’d better be a real miracle of nature. So it was the one school I recommended; more often than not I said you are throwing away your application because they don’t take anyone. It’s harder than Harvard, it’s harder than Yale, it’s harder than any school. To me, Stanford is the top school in the country right now.
Tim Ferriss: It’s a great school. Their business school program is also outstanding. I considered it. I always thought I should have gone to Stanford, had I been able to get in. I applied early to Princeton, got accepted; ended up having a very difficult time at Princeton. Always thought you know, I would have been much better off having gone to a Brown or a Stanford.
Soman Chainani: Yeah, because Princeton is very square.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I don’t know if I’ve ever talked about this publicly. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the very weird eating club, social club structure at Princeton.
Soman Chainani: Yes, absolutely.
Tim Ferriss: In effect, for people who aren’t familiar with this, you have a street that is lined with gigantic mansions. That is where the partying happens, generally.
Soman Chainani: Welcome to Princeton; parties of [inaudible] –
Tim Ferriss: You have gigantic mansions. They’re all stylistically different, which is very odd. So you have kind of an old, tiny, blue blood, New England rich mansion. Then you’ll have Colonial style, kind of Georgia belle from old money mansion. And it goes on and on; it’s a very odd place. They’re effectively co-ed fraternities is the easiest way to describe it, where you also eat meals.
Some of these eating clubs, it’s just mind blowing. Like Ivy, for instance, I believe has an endowment, so to speak, that is larger than some name brand universities in the United States. It’s just mind blowing. I ended up trying to fit in in some of these eating clubs and getting very disillusioned and unhappy, and then joining an eating club called Terrace. So Terrace, to give you an idea, had a rainbow flag flying out front.
Soman Chainani: I would have loved it.
Tim Ferriss: I’m not gay but it’s basically like your Tuesday. It’s where the odds and ends, the people who didn’t fit in anywhere else ended up going. It was the one thing – I don’t give any money for Princeton for reasons that you guys can look up. If you want to read “Some Practical Thoughts on Suicide,” an essay that I wrote, that will give you an idea why I don’t give money to Princeton. But I do give money to Terrace because it saved me. Anyway, I’m not sure how I got onto that.
I didn’t fit in in any way at Princeton whatsoever.
Soman Chainani: This is important because I think most of your listeners at some level, regardless of whether on the outside they fit in or not, I think inside they don’t which is why they’re looking for something different. And that’s also why I wrote the books. When I was growing up, there were no books for the odds and ends. The hero always won. It was always the good looking guy. Even if you read Harry Potter, he’s always the good kid, he always does the right thing; you know he’s going to win at the end because there’s no version of Potter where Harry ends up in a pool of blood and Voldemort goes kicking into the sunset.
I’ve wanted to write a book that questioned all those assumptions at some level, and said what about us? What about us weirdoes who root for the villains, or us weirdoes who don’t think evil is what evil is made out to me and that good often is not good, and all those big questions.
It’s why I think I’ve always been attracted to your work and people like you at some levels because that questioning reality and what the structure is is so important. I think kids are helpless to do that. If we can train them not to through books, because that’s our No. 1 medium to get to them, it’s a big deal which is why I take what I do, like I said, too seriously, probably.
Tim Ferriss: I think anyone who’s really good at what they do, really, really good, tends to have a certain degree of pathological obsession with what they do. If you had to recommend books on writing, or books that would help someone’s writing, is there a short list? Are there any that come to mind? And I’m not going to make it genre-specific on purpose. It could be anything. For instance, I’m a nonfiction writer at this point.
But Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, which is written for fiction writers, really, I found just the best – the cheapest therapy that money could buy.
Soman Chainani: That one’s an amazing book. I’m less interested in books specifically about writing because I think writing, to me, is like breathing. You write the way you breathe. Everybody has their own way of doing it. every true writer has to write to stay alive because that’s how we live. That’s our connection to the cosmos. And so every writer has their specific process. I don’t get so much out of writer books. What I do get out of books are two things. One, books about creativity and sort of creative spirit, and then documentaries about creative process. Those are the two things I look at.
One of my favorite books is called The Spark. It’s written by Cirque du Soleil, of all companies.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, very cool. I love Cirque du Soleil.
Soman Chainani: They have a book called The Spark, about where their ideas come from. It’s very short; you can read it in 20 minutes. But it’s fantastic and it gets to this idea that so much of creativity is about the fact that we try to control it. again, it goes back to that idea of the I that I’m trying to get rid of. That if we just let go of this idea of the conscious I trying to control when we work creatively, that’s when the universe comes rushing through.
So it’s about almost making yourself into a clear vessel and accepting that it’s going to come. I think one of the great things about writing a series is that now that I’m on book four, and I’ve settled into a rhythm, I start to trust myself. And when I trust myself is when the great stuff happens because I’m not monitoring, I’m not judging.
Tim Ferriss: Right, you’re not editing when you’re generating.
Soman Chainani: Not editing. And I’m getting twist after twist where every chapter is ending in a twist like I never predicted. The character is doing something I never had any idea they would do, and it’s happening. Versus the first couple books, the first three books where it’s every chapter, one twist or whatever. Now, it’s constantly, constantly, because I’m allowing myself to take things in new direction. And along with The Spark, they’ve got a cool documentary. I think it’s called The Fire Within, that follows eight people who try out for Cirque du Soleil. It’s a wonderful Canadian documentary about people passionate about their art.
And then the other thing is I’m obsessed with documentaries about creative process, specifically about fashion designers. Because if you look at fashion, it’s where you get 100 percent undiluted creativity because it’s on such a short cycle with all the different fashion shows.
Tim Ferriss: It’s also, in a sense, purely subjective which adds to the creativity by necessity in some respects.
Soman Chainani: Yes, and so you get to watch these madcap geniuses who aren’t constrained. Because again, it’s subjective so they can do whatever they want because people have already judged them to be geniuses at some level. So you get these amazing things. Things like Dior and I, or Valentino the Last Emperor, or Lagerfeld Confidential.
Tim Ferriss: If you had to pick one of those three for a non fashion… I’m the most disheveled, unfashionable person you could possibly imagine. Which of those three should I start with?
Soman Chainani: Let me give you another one. Let me give you one I think is the best of them all; it’s called Ballet 422, and it’s on Netflix. American Ballet Theater has a choreographic internship that I think is the most prestigious choreographic award a young person can win. People compete from all over the world for it, I think.
The person who won it one year was someone inside their own company, who was just sort of a middling dancer in their company and who was only 24, which I think is the youngest they’ve ever given it to. It tracks his internship and his choreographic process. When you meet him, you think he’s a complete yahoo. He doesn’t seem smart, he doesn’t seem charismatic. The guy’s name is Justin Peck. You don’t see why they gave it to him. You’re just watching this movie thinking it’s dull; watching paint dry.
Because there’s no narration. It’s 100 percent watching this guy work. About 15 or 20 minutes into it, you start to see him at work and you start to realize slowly by slowly, you are watching a genius. You’re watching like a Mozart who is just gifted with something that is absolutely unrivaled. It’s only like an hour and ten minutes but it’s the best hour and ten minutes you’ll ever spend because you get to see true genius in process without any editorializing.
Tim Ferriss: Ballet 422.
Soman Chainani: Ballet 422, and he’s since become the best choreographer in the world.
Tim Ferriss: Wow.
Soman Chainani: And he’s young. You get to watch it happen. It’s completely amazing.
Tim Ferriss: I love it. Have you seen… and it’s a bit of a – I use this in a loving way – bumbling documentary. It doesn’t take itself too seriously but there are aspects of it that I found so hilarious that I could charge through it. but Six Days to Air?
Soman Chainani: No, tell me about it.
Tim Ferriss: It’s about the South Park team putting together an episode from scratch, zero, nothing to shipping, finished product for air in six days.
Soman Chainani: Oh, see that I’d love.
Tim Ferriss: After they went to – I’m so out of La Look at Land, maybe they went to the Emmys, perhaps? I’ll just say they went to the Emmys, the Golden Globes or something in women’s dresses on acid.
They committed to each other that every time they were interviewed on the red carpet they could talk about anything except for the dresses. They couldn’t even make mention of the fact that they were in dresses. And they were on acid. They get back to the office and they’re like, holy fuck, we only have six days to ship a new episode; better get to work on that. And then it’s just crunch time, all nighters, insanity.
Soman Chainani: That’s being watched tonight. It sounds so good. That kind of stuff where you get to see how the sausage is made is really the only type of documentary I want to watch. There’s another one that everybody should watch called Theater of War, about the making of Mother Courage when they did it in Central Park with Meryl Streep. It’s the only time Meryl Streep has ever let anybody film her rehearsing, ever.
She said she didn’t want to do it because she said rehearsal looks like bad acting. And she goes, “I don’t want to see me doing bad acting.” Then she changed her mind and thought it might be valuable.
And to get to watch Meryl Streep’s rehearsal process, you realize how much of writing in the beginning, how much of acting in the beginning, all of it is bad. It’s just about doing all the bad stuff to get to the good stuff.
Tim Ferriss: For sure.
Soman Chainani: Yeah, that’s another great one.
Tim Ferriss: I love it. Alright, I’ve been making a list of docs to watch. I was already on this yesterday in my mind so now I have a bunch of new ones to work on. Let me jump to I suppose what I always call rapid fire questions, but your answers don’t need to be short or rapid. What book of books have you given the most to other people, if you have, besides your own.
Soman Chainani: I would say A Little Life, for sure and then a book called The Velvet Rage.
Tim Ferriss: The Velvet Rage.
Soman Chainani: The Velvet Rage, which is ostensibly about if you grow up a gay man, like how to deal with it in the world. But I think it’s more about modern masculinity and about what it means to be a man in America.
Tim Ferriss: So even for a hetero normative…
Soman Chainani: I think so. I think so. The one thing A Little Life and that book share in common is an attempt to deconstruct what the tenets of being a man are in this country because I think it ultimately restricts emotional health. I think both those books give you a window into an alternative.
Tim Ferriss: If you wanted a different shade of grey in a book with all your spare time that you might enjoy, that a number of my friends, male and female, have just found extremely powerful is Tribe, by Sebastian Junger.
Soman Chainani: [Inaudible].
Tim Ferriss: I found it to be just a fantastic and thought provoking book that helps to explain a lot of what we see in the world. And it might add just a different lens through with to look at that, as well.
Soman Chainani: Fantastic.
Tim Ferriss: What is the best investment you’ve ever made? And that could be energy, time, money, or any other resource. I’ll give you an example. So for instance, Amelia Boone is a three-time world’s toughest mudder champion, also a power attorney at Apple; just a killer cyborg. I asked her this question and she said it was the entrance fee for her world’s toughest mudder, or it might have been her first very toughest mudder.
In either case, the fee was $450.00 which for her at the time was actually a stretch. But if she hadn’t done that, this entire other career and life for her wouldn’t have opened. Does anything come to mind for you? It doesn’t have to be the best but it could be one of the best investments.
Soman Chainani: This is so small but it made such a big difference in my life, which was that I had struggled with acne for a lot of my teenage years, and it was something I couldn’t get rid of. And as an adult., just having breakouts and stuff. It starts to get in your head a little bit that you couldn’t get rid of it. and so you try everything. That’s the problem when you’re built like me and a lot of your listeners, you try every effing thing. So you’re going to doctor after doctor. You’re trying antibiotics, you’re trying creams, you’re trying every kind of soap. And I just had had it; I just gave up.
Then I read this story in the Times about a company that had started. It was called AOBiome, I think.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. Yes, absolutely.
Soman Chainani: I became one of their early adopters. I was one of the first ten people to try the product.
Tim Ferriss: Could you describe for people? This was my year without soap, or something like that.
Soman Chainani: So you’ve done it.
Tim Ferriss: I actually got a prototype sample of AOBiome way back in the day, which is its own story. But can you describe for people… Well, you could take a stab at it, I could take a stab at it but could you describe for people what this is? It’s not antibacterial, for sure.
Soman Chainani: No, it’s the opposite. Tell me if I’m wrong. As far as I know, it’s a probiotic spray. It’s a spray that’s just pure water and bacteria that’s supposed to naturally reside in your skin. Their hypothesis was animals don’t use soap and don’t really have skin issues as regularly as humans do because they have a certain kind of bacteria that sort of oxidizes all the bad bacteria.
So they created this bacterial spray that they said all you need to do is throw out all your soap, any cream, anything you’ve ever used in your entire life and just use this. You don’t even have to shower and you potentially would be fine. So I was desperate. And so I became one of their first customers, tried it. Within three days my skin was clear and I’ve been using it three and a half years. They are now called Mother Dirt; they’ve changed their name.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, Mother Dirt.
Soman Chainani: Yeah, because AO Plus Biome was not all marketable.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, it doesn’t roll off the tongue.
Soman Chainani: And they have a shaving cream now that you can use, they have a shampoo that you can use that is bacterial friendly. And man, it made a difference, let me tell you that. It just changed everything. Forget the skin thing; that’s just superficial. But to realize that the problems you were chasing for ten years or more could be solved by your own body and by something that was natural already, that theoretically you don’t even need the mist at some level.
Like if I don’t have it for a week, I just don’t use soap and then my skin stays completely fine.
Tim Ferriss: Definitely.
Soman Chainani: That was a big shift.
Tim Ferriss: And it’s called Mother Dirt, now?
Soman Chainani: Mother Dirt. MotherDirt.com.
Tim Ferriss: So if people want to read the New York Times piece, the New York Times does what I do, which is confusing sometimes. They’ll use a different headline online versus in the print edition and then it makes things very confusing people. It’s the “My No Soap, No Shampoo Bacteria Rich Hygiene Experiment.” I think the author’s name is Julia Scott. Discovers what she smells like after 28 soapless days. It’s fascinating. It’s really, really fascinating.
Soman Chainani: It’s great. Everyone should be on this product. I feel like it’s am k that’s going to explode soon.
Tim Ferriss: What other tricks do you have like that? Do you have any other expedient solutions to common problems like that?
Soman Chainani: Let me think. You know, I feel like everyone’s stress goes somewhere in their body. Like some people get back pain and that becomes their big thing. With me, usually it was always skin until that was solved. And then I guess when I was younger, it was stomach.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, one of my best friends has that. He always gets stomach issues.
Soman Chainani: Stomach issues and also because I was on antibiotics for the skin problems when I was a teenager, so that was something that stuck around. Again, I did a lot of research and realized that you can take a daily probiotic but that probably wont be enough. So I sort of cobbled together my own probiotic therapy where I would buy two or three bottles of different brands and take those on tour. When you’re basically not sleeping, eating God knows what, and completely off rhythm and just by taking maybe like eight probiotic pills a night from a combination of different brands, it solved all my problems.
I can travel anywhere in the world and as long as I’m overdosing on probiotics, mixing up different brands; no issues whatsoever. It’s the mix of the different brands is I think what solves.
Tim Ferriss: It’s key, right.
Soman Chainani: The other thing that helps to sleep, just in terms of insomnia, if you have an aroma therapy diffuser, one of those wood diffusers you can get on Amazon for about $20.00, and you use lavender oil in it, it will zonk you out very, very fast.
Tim Ferriss: Lavender oil, alright. I’ll have to play around with this. I started using a diffuser for the first time after I had Nicholas McCarthy on the podcast, who is a one-handed concert pianist.
Soman Chainani: Oh, my God.
Tim Ferriss: He uses geranium oil when he’s composing. He says it’s the perfect mixture of relaxation without sleepiness; it’s relaxation plus alertness for him. So I use geranium oil for a lot of my editing and writing sessions when I did Tools of Titans. Do you use the diffuser for anything other than lavender oil?
Soman Chainani: I do. This is such a stupid answer but at the food market I go to, they have this basket of 50 percent off of oils of whatever hasn’t sold that week. So I just buy whatever’s in there. So I never really keep track of what’s in the diffuser on any day; it’s just a different smell. Welcome to my life. But I’m willing to seek control over what oil is in the diffuser.
Tim Ferriss: When you’re traveling as much as it sounds like you do, 60 to 80 days a year, and I’m sure you have other non-tour related travel, do you have any tips for minimizing onset of cold, flu, etc.; things like that?
Soman Chainani: The steam thing before I leave helps a lot because it really does clear your sinuses. Because that’s where you can get sinus infections, and I think I was prone to those a lot. And it’s funny. I read a book about Steven Spielberg, who apparently does the same thing when he’s shooting a movie for him not to get sick. Which is he drinks tea incessantly, and herbal tea to stay warm.
Because you never know what the weather is, you never know what the situation is going to be but he’s always downing hot tea of some herbal variety. When I’m tour, everywhere I go, every time I get in the car I get a hot tea. Every time I get to a school, I drink a hot tea. So I’m drinking like seven or eight cups a day.
Tim Ferriss: Do you have a go-to hot tea or is it like the 50 percent off?
Soman Chainani: If I can get to a Starbucks, they’ve got the mint majesty which is really good. We should preface this all by saying I can’t drink caffeine because it makes me crazy.
Tim Ferriss: Do you drink alcohol, or no?
Soman Chainani: No. The glass of wine if it’s been a particularly horrific day but otherwise, not really.
Tim Ferriss: You don’t need the enhancement or handicap, one way or the other?
Soman Chainani: This is what I would say, and this is sad but I think there’s a happy lining to it. which is that I spent so long in my 20s and teens trying to get control of my brain and trying to make it a happy place; do you know what I mean?
Tim Ferriss: Sure.
Soman Chainani: When I finally found peace of mind and the creative space to work in, and now live in a fairly, I don’t know, just like constant state of goodness, I don’t want to mess it up.
Tim Ferriss: I get it; totally get it.
Soman Chainani: I think that’s where I am at the moment.
Tim Ferriss: What topic would you speak about if you had to give a TED Talk on something that you’re not known for at all? So it can’t be tutoring, can’t be tennis. It certainly can’t be the writing that you’re doing.
Soman Chainani: It might be on things that make people laugh. Because I’ve done all these studies. When you’re writing, you want to get to the sense of what makes kids laugh. As horrific as the School for Good and Evil books are at times, they’re quite dark; they’re also quite funny. And a lot of it is trying to find to what makes kids laugh. So I would do a TED Talk, I would hope; I read this study about these people who spent ten years trying to figure out what makes people of all cultures laugh no matter what.
Even if you go to the recesses of the Amazon, it will make people laugh. They came up with four things. And the four things were – I’m going to try not to die laughing while I say these. No. 1 is beating someone with a kitchen utensil.
Tim Ferriss: Got it; good to know.
Soman Chainani: No. 2 is falling down a short flight of stairs, which apparently no matter where you are, it makes people laugh. No. 3 is a swift fart delivered in silence.
Tim Ferriss: I was going to say fart has to be in there somewhere. I like how specific; a swift fart delivered in silence.
Soman Chainani: They’re so specific.
Tim Ferriss: That could also be the name of my memoir.
Soman Chainani: I use that. I use that in chapter 3 of the first book and it’s always mentioned as one of the kids’ favorite moments. And I’m like of course, it’s one of the four things. No. 4 was such a shock, and then it stayed with me. Is adults dressed as twins.
Tim Ferriss: What?
Soman Chainani: Adults dressed as twins. If you parade two adults dressed in the same clothes in front of a weird tribe in the Amazon, everyone will laugh.
Tim Ferriss: Alright, that would make a good TED Talk.
Soman Chainani: So things like that; like what connects everybody. What are the common denominators; I just think those are important. So I’m trying to get to the bottom of those. Because that’s what fairy tales are, also. At the end of the day, School for Good and Evil at the core are fairy tales so I’m trying to get to the essentialness, and maybe this is why I’m so focused on Zen and meditation and trying to understand the world beyond the matrix; of trying to get to the bottom of what connects every kid, what connects every one of us before our blank slates are filled.
Tim Ferriss: Definitely. What is the bad advice that you hear given out often in your world?
And I’m deliberately keeping that very, very broad. I’m not going to define your world for you; you can take it any way you want.
Soman Chainani: This whole idea of following your passion, following what you think you were meant to do, or following what you love; I don’t always know is going to lead you somewhere productive. Because I think ultimately what you were meant to do isn’t necessarily what you love; it’s what you’re good at. It’s what you’re divinely meant to do; what you’re good at.
I always think that’s the better question; what are you better at than anyone else in the whole world? What would you put yourself against anyone else in the whole world? I think that’s what’s going to lead you somewhere really good. Because what, everybody wants to be a professional athlete or movie star at some level.
So I don’t know following what you love or your passion is necessarily going to guide you to the most fulfilling career.
Tim Ferriss: I think it’s also easier in the sense that there are more options for taking something you are good at and molding it into something you can be excited about, or combining it with other things you are excited about. Then, starting with an undirected passion and then trying to become good at wherever that leads you.
Soman Chainani: Oh, you’re right. You’re 100 percent right. Because if you’re just following the passion, you don’t have whatever it is, the 10,000 hours that is behind mastery to even begin to get going.
Tim Ferriss: If you could have one gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it, a short message, no advertising; what would you put on it, a message to get out to the world?
Soman Chainani: I think one of two things. One is if I’m in New York, it would be “death is coming.” One of the things I meditate on a lot is just what it would feel like to die. Oh, besides looking for the me, some days I just try to imagine what it would feel like for everything to just disappear; for the something of consciousness to become nothing. So actually trying to experience death. I think that has led me more towards happiness than anything else in my life. Trying to understand that your life is short and it’s going to end, and it can end at any minute so take advantage. Really try to make of your life everything you can. So that’s the one thing.
The second one is when I’m in Miami, because my parents have a beach house on this island, and it’s so clear above that you can see the night sky with the stars. And so if I was anywhere else but New York, I would just say look at the stars because you can’t see stars in New York.
Because every time you look up there, you realize the fact that there’s life on earth is such a weird, freak accident that should never have happened. And there is no meaning to life, necessarily, in the larger, cosmic scheme of things. It’s just a fluke; it’s an accident. So enjoy it because the fact that you got to have a life in the first place, compared to the infinity of the universe is pretty remarkable.
Tim Ferriss: I like that. It surprisingly echoes the thoughts of two very disparate people I’ve had on the podcast also, BJ Miller who is a palliative care physician; helps people to die in hospice care. And Ed Cook, who is a memory champion and entrepreneur from the UK. Both talk about the stars in a similar way.
I think that is a profound place to start to wrap up. Just a few more questions and I’ll certainly ask at the very end where people can find you and so on. But do you have any ask or request or suggestion for the audience? Any parting words, recommendations, suggestions, please?
Soman Chainani: I would just say if these are the principles that you’re interested in, not just for yourself but for kids, either your own or somebody else’s; this book series will lead those kids in the right direction. Because it forces them to question all their assumptions about what good and evil are, about what they usually see in the world, and about what their life is going to look like. It’s about empowering kids when kids usually don’t feel empowered, and usually feel so helpless.
So it lets them reinterpret what heroes really are. So I would just say give it to a kid and see what their reaction is.
Tim Ferriss: Soman, thank you so much for the time. This has been a blast. It would be great to grab some Mid Majesty tea when I’m next in New York or you’re next in San Francisco. Where can people find you online, learn more about you, say hello on social if that’s one of the places to find you? Where should they find you?
Soman Chainani: Besides Tinder?
Tim Ferriss: Besides Tinder. If only there were a search function; alas.
Soman Chainani: I think Twitter, I tend to post pretty regularly; Instagram as well. We have our YouTube channel which is called Ever Never TV but that’s mainly for the kids. So Twitter and Instagram for the adults; Ever Never TV for the kids, and also the School for Good and Evil website is a treasure trove for any kid under the age of 16, even if they haven’t read the books.
It’s just a great place to spend some time because there are so many awesome interactive features on there.
Tim Ferriss: And Twitter, it’s @somanchainani, am I getting that right?
Soman Chainani: Chainani, yes. Somanchainani on Twitter, and then Instagram is somanc.
Tim Ferriss: Got it; S-O-M-A-N-C. Soman, thank you so much for taking the time; I’ve really enjoyed this conversation. And to everybody listening, you can find links to everything; the School for Good and Evil of course, everything else, all the books we mentioned, all the docs we mentioned, in the show notes which can be found with the show notes for every other episode at fourhourworkweek.com/podcast, all spelled out. Fourhourworkweek.com/podcast. As always, and until next time, thank you for listening.
Posted on: June 21, 2018.
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Who was interviewed? Here's a very partial list: tech icons (founders of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Craigslist, Pinterest, Spotify, Salesforce, Dropbox, and more), Jimmy Fallon, Arianna Huffington, Brandon Stanton (Humans of New York), Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ben Stiller, Maurice Ashley (first African-American Grandmaster of chess), Brené Brown (researcher and bestselling author), Rick Rubin (legendary music producer), Temple Grandin (animal behavior expert and autism activist), Franklin Leonard (The Black List), Dara Torres (12-time Olympic medalist in swimming), David Lynch (director), Kelly Slater (surfing legend), Bozoma Saint John (Beats/Apple/Uber), Lewis Cantley (famed cancer researcher), Maria Sharapova, Chris Anderson (curator of TED), Terry Crews, Greg Norman (golf icon), Vitalik Buterin (creator of Ethereum), and nearly 100 more. Check it all out by clicking here.