The Life Lessons and Success Habits of Four Presidents — Doris Kearns Goodwin (#335)

(Photo by Annie Leibovitz)

“If we think this is the worst of times, history will tell you, no, we’ve had more turbulent times before, and we got through them when you had the right leader fitted for the right time.”  — Doris Kearns Goodwin

Doris Kearns Goodwin (@DorisKGoodwin) is a biographer, historian, and political commentator who found her curiosity about leadership sparked more than half century ago as a professor at Harvard. Her experiences working for LBJ in the White House and later assisting him on his memoirs led to her first book, Lyndon Johnson and the American Dream. She followed up with the Pulitzer Prize-winning No Ordinary Time: Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt: The Home Front in World War II. She earned the Lincoln Prize for the runaway bestseller Team of Rivals, the basis for Steven Spielberg’s award-winning film Lincoln, and the Carnegie Medal for The Bully Pulpit, the chronicle of the friendship between Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft.

Her newest book, Leadership: In Turbulent Times, examines how the four presidents she’s studied most closely — Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, and LBJ — found their footing. It goes all the way back to when they first entered public life and takes a look at the daily habits, tricks, and tools they used to navigate confusion, uncertainty, fear, and hope to establish themselves as leaders.


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

#335: The Life Lessons and Success Habits of Four Presidents — Doris Kearns Goodwin

Want to hear an episode with another spellbinding biographer?Listen to this interview with Walter Isaacson in which we learn life lessons and tactics from Steve Jobs, Ben Franklin, Leonardo da Vinci, and more. (Stream below or right-click here to download):

#273: Lessons from Steve Jobs, Leonardo da Vinci, and Ben Franklin

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

Scroll below for links and show notes…


  • Connect with Doris Kearns Goodwin:

Website | Twitter | Instagram | Facebook


  • Doris talks about the greatest gift her father ever gave her. [08:04]
  • How Doris’ father coached her through disappointment and momentary lapses in self-confidence. [10:01]
  • Is it true that Doris was the first woman journalist allowed in the Red Sox locker room? [11:59]
  • How relaying the details of Brooklyn Dodgers games to her father helped Doris hone early storytelling chops and develop a love for history. [12:55]
  • Lessons learned from fellow historian Barbara Tuchman. [14:21]
  • On coaxing stories from her sick mother as a way to keep her young. [16:09]
  • What the best history teacher in New York state taught Doris. [17:12]
  • What steered Doris away from law and toward writing about dead presidents? [18:08]
  • Doris talks about her time working for LBJ — first at the White House and later on his ranch. [18:47]
  • What does Doris think LBJ saw in her? [23:02]
  • Why was Doris reluctant to work with LBJ full time, and what did she do when she wasn’t helping him with his memoirs? [25:25]
  • While she loved teaching, what made Doris give it up to become a full time writer? [28:19]
  • Did Doris have any moments of self-doubt in the 10-year span between her first and second book? How does she approach a new project? [29:35]
  • How did one of Doris’ books break somebody’s nose? [31:35]
  • What does Doris find most striking about Abraham Lincoln? [32:15]
  • Why does Doris believe temperament is the greatest separator in leadership? [36:23]
  • How does Doris interpret what Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once said about FDR? [37:44]
  • How did Lincoln develop the uncanny ability to turn opponents into friends? [38:50]
  • The importance of bringing people near us who can argue and question our assumptions. [42:22]
  • How does Doris consciously surround herself with people who have wildly divergent opinions and perspectives to speak truth to her? [43:29]
  • How does Doris suggest that such a group of people might have civil discourse about potentially polarizing topics without the conversation devolving into a shouting match? [46:26]
  • Historical examples of early mistakes, weaknesses, or roadblocks experienced by presidents and how they were overcome. [48:36]
  • How might someone gain the broader perspective to see the world through someone else’s eyes? [53:18]
  • What is the importance of a first lady? [57:24]
  • Are there any presidents or leaders Doris feels have been underrated? [59:52]
  • The time Doris tried to make a corrupt bargain with then-President Clinton. [1:01:21]
  • The anger management rituals of Abraham Lincoln and FDR in contrast to LBJ’s less subtle (and less effective) technique. [1:02:17]
  • Doris talks about the first time she got a phone call from Barack Obama to talk about Lincoln, and what Hillary Clinton said to her upon becoming Secretary of State. [1:05:43]
  • How the experiences of past leaders influence the decisions and expectations of the leaders who come later. [1:07:50]
  • What Teddy Roosevelt could teach us all about overcoming procrastination. [1:10:39]
  • What Abraham Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt, and FDR could teach those of us in the 21st century about the importance of carving out time for relaxation and replenishment even during times of crisis. [1:11:30]
  • How the White House became the most exclusive residential hotel of World War II. [1:13:51]
  • As a busy person herself, what routines or tools does Doris use to rejuvenate or decompress herself? [1:16:07]
  • How one of FDR’s anxiety-busting exercises led to a solution for Britain’s supply problem prior to official US involvement in WWII. [1:18:15]
  • FDR’s twist on counting sheep to fall asleep. [1:20:07]
  • How thinking about Teddy Roosevelt’s attitude toward an election helps Doris when she finds herself worrying about her own mortality. [1:20:47]
  • Doris shares her husband’s optimism, enthusiasm, and hope even in the face of his battle with cancer. [1:21:33]
  • What inspired Doris to put the time and energy into writing her latest book? [1:25:02]
  • The lodestar that kept Abraham Lincoln from succumbing to suicidal depression. [1:27:20]
  • How the fatalism Teddy Roosevelt adopted after losing his wife and mother on the same day led him to follow a more spontaneous life. [1:28:52]
  • The insight, humility, and compassion that FDR’s struggle with polio and paralysis instilled in him. [1:29:52]
  • The near fatal heart attack that set LBJ back on a path of purpose he’d nearly forgotten. [1:31:46]
  • Case studies examining pivotal moments in these leaders’ histories. [1:33:02]
  • Where does ambition come from? [1:33:39]
  • Recommended bedtime mysteries and meeting John Grisham. [1:35:44]
  • Parting thoughts. [1:37:18]


The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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20 Replies to “The Life Lessons and Success Habits of Four Presidents — Doris Kearns Goodwin (#335)”

  1. Really enjoyed these last two podcasts. Especially giddy about the mention of Frost, ‘she walks in beauty’ is a looking time favorite.

    So hey Can you grab Stephen King for an interview? Or maybe another with Gabor Mate, I’ve watched that podcast at least three times and he teaches me something new each time, great content. He’s one of my favorites! Your work is appreciated, much love to you Tim 🙂

    That green benie in the pics on here reminds me of the Dharma Bum hollering atop a mountain to God… totally useless thought I suppose hah. I shall leave you with a random quote that’s been on repeat today in my mind.

    “It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.” – Thoreau

  2. Tim this is one of the best episodes in recent times. Some much value for leaders about empathy, listening, relaxing and controlling anger. Awesome one.

  3. Thank you for this podcast. On the surface, it was a great interview of an accomplished woman and adept storyteller. But for me, there was a deeper message. It was an example of someone who made choices to put her family first, changed career directions and still found success. There was a line where she said: “I sometimes wonder what I could have accomplished as a man, but I’ve lived a good life.” In the world of productivity, there is little acknowledgement of how critical these sacrifices are for the betterment of those around us, but also how they can enrich the caregiver’s life as well. I am also in a place where I have taken a step back from a typical career in order to raise my family while slowly and surely working on projects of my own. Doris Kearns Goodwin gave me hope and motivation to keep moving forward. Both in my family life and keep building my projects; even if they appear dormant for a time, they can bear fruit one day.

  4. Presidents as role models! Forgetaboutit! Kearns-Goodwin’s hero LBJ lied us into a massive escalation of the Vietnam War that cost hundreds of thousands of needless deaths. She has had great success promoting the phenomenally bad idea that politicians deserve your admiration. They don’t.

  5. Excellent show Tim, I’ve read most of her work and really really enjoy her writing. She’s had an interesting life and career and I think you did a great job of letting her share her stories

  6. Hey Tim. Thanks for another episode! Can’t wait to dive in!

    Only today went through emails and noticed your plans to visit Lviv one day. Wow! Being a ukrainian myself, wanted to share a few things on the #UkraineTim topic!

    🥘 While Lviv is definitely the most remarkable city in Ukraine, culturally & historically – it’s also an incredible foodie spot. Me & my wife Polina go there for a gastronomy getaway every few months traveling from Kyiv. 😋

    🍂 Spring & Autumn is the best time to visit (summer’s too hot, winter’s too cold). Autumn does compliment all the city epic architecture nicely with its dramatic mood. Lots of cool apartments on Airbnb in Lviv too!

    [Moderator: additional text and link removed.]

    🇺🇦 Cheers! Long time follower & Tim Ferriss Show listener since episode one.

    [Moderator: website removed.]

  7. Today listening to your interview with Walter Isaacson I was struck by the problem with our school system. Our schools squash the curiosity of the students. Why this struck me was that my 17 year son, who is a senior, was just telling my how he wants to graduate early so he can quit having to take classes that don’t teach him anything interesting. He said the teachers say you won’t use this but this is what we are teaching. We both agreed it was a problem and then he says why haven’t you tried to do anything about it? Feeling guilty I did what any good parent would do and asked what are you going to do to change it? Maybe not now, but once you graduate? It seems like a huge problem and no one is responsible to change it. (I know there are some great teachers and I respect what they do. My comment is more about our school system in general.) Even after I hit enter I highly doubt I will take steps to make a change. I have three boys who have all been squashed by the public school system and they even went to one of the better schools. How do we get our kids curious again?

  8. Doris is a favorite author and A Team of Rivals is my favorite book illustrating the art of bringing the best out in competitors and drawing them to loyalty of the team. finally read The graveyard, and really liked it. Tim, do you have a spreadsheet listing all of the recommended books of guests to show the overall favorites of 300+ people? Tim-continue to interview inspiring people. thanks. Judy

  9. I’d like to start something that will leave the world in better shape than when I started here,trouble is how to narrow down the choices? Where would I have an impact? Do I write, produce art, start a non profit? Or should I blog about a non profit I’m starting while simultaneously utilizing a print on demand company with my artistic abilities (lol whatever they may be) to have products endorsing the non profit. Haha I dunno man. But I’ve got ideas…. Too many if you ask me..

  10. Coincidentally, I was jogging on the banks of the Pedernales river on the LBJ Ranch when she was describing her experiences there with LBJ. What a great chilling experience thinking about her running around the ranch I jog on. Cheers!

  11. This is one of my favorite interviews. I love how Doris could so readily draw comparisons across all four of the presidents she’s studied and specifically describe some of the practices that helped them succeed. I also really enjoyed how she could clearly and succinctly answer a followup question that Tim interjected with, and then swing around and finish answering his original question without missing a beat. I became giddy listening to her recount her own stories and those of the lives she’s researched so thoroughly.

  12. Thanks you from an insightful interview with a master storyteller. I loved her description of her morning routine, I get up early go downstairs before the household wakes up and light a fire if it’s winter, or snuggle under a blanket in the air conditioning. Most would say I get up early, and read.. She presents an image that makes me want to do the same thing!

    It is also sad that our current leadership presents none of the qualities of a leader, and will definitely not read Goodwin’s book unless she reduces it to 14 characters.

    Tim. I appreciate, that you as an interviewer allowed her to talk and share her stories, without interrupting or changing her direction. You took her lead, and honored her. You have a gift in welcoming your subjects to present their true selves in conversation.

    Thank you.

  13. Thank you Tim and Doris for this fabulous interview. I’ve always admired her and her vast knowledge. Her voice just draws you in….the same way any good book would. She has a gift!

  14. I absolutely loved your interview with Doris Kearns Goodwin. I hadn’t known about her and some of her icons, prior to listening. She has the most beautifully powerful way of seeing (& navigating) the world and human beings. Her clarity and presence is inspiring.

  15. This interview was so wide ranging and not what I expected.

    It was informative, personal and funny. It really encapsulated your ability to elicit awesome information.