Safi Bahcall — On Thinking Big, Curing Cancer, and Transforming Industries (#364)

“All these things you’re sure are true — what if they weren’t?”

— Safi Bahcall

Safi Bahcall (@SafiBahcall) is the author of Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas that Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries. Loonshots describes what an idea from physics tells us about the behavior of groups and how teams, companies, and nations can use that to innovate faster and better. It has been selected for The Washington Post‘s 10 Leadership Books to Watch for in 2019, Inc.‘s 10 Business Books You Need to Read in 2019, and Business Insider‘s 14 Books Everyone Will Be Reading in 2019.

Safi received his PhD in physics from Stanford and his undergrad degree from Harvard. After working as a consultant for McKinsey, Safi co-founded a biotechnology company specializing in developing new drugs for cancer. He led its IPO and served as its CEO for 13 years. In 2008, Safi was named Ernst and Young’s New England Biotechnology Entrepreneur of the Year. In 2011, he worked with President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology on the future of national research.

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

#364: Safi Bahcall — On Thinking Big, Curing Cancer, and Transforming Industries

Want to hear an episode with someone else who likes to ask big questions? — Listen to my conversation with Nick Kokonas, subversive entrepreneur, angel investor, and restaurateur extraordinaire (stream below or right-click here to download):

#341: Nick Kokonas — How to Apply World-Class Creativity to Business, Art, and Life

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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 Safi Bahcall:

Website | Twitter


  • How Safi and I first met. [07:17]
  • How the atypical lessons we learned in our respective Total Immersion Swimming experiences can be applied to other aspects of life. [09:36]
  • How psychologist Daniel Kahneman changed economics by approaching it from a human perspective. [13:15]
  • My own experience as a lab rat for Kahneman at Princeton. [15:12]
  • What circuitous path led Safi from particle physics toward his work with cancer? [16:04]
  • A digression: Safi’s Men’s Wearhouse story. [19:30]
  • Back on track to cancer. [22:22]
  • Some of the why: Nobody writes 15,000 page essays (except for Safi). [26:15]
  • A lesson in the difference between active and passive voice — and why a Pulitzer winner’s advice regarding their use might differ from a schoolmarm’s. [29:32]
  • How Safi began training himself to become a better writer by slowly dissecting paragraphs instead of succumbing to the more popular inclination of speed reading. [30:52]
  • Two books that resonated for Safi during this period. [33:28]
  • Have you heard the music of Nabokov? Safi has. [36:34]
  • How did chess champion Garry Kasparov’s post-game analysis shift Safi’s mindset about the decision-making process? [37:51]
  • How Safi has implemented this system versus outcome mindset to other areas of his life. [43:14]
  • What other questions might someone ask in a business setting to decipher how they came to a certain decision — whether or not the outcome was ideal? [45:56]
  • How might this process be applied to decision-making in a personal setting? [49:20]
  • An aside about single life in Manhattan, SWAE and no BLC gatherings. [51:34]
  • How Safi fell into an unfulfilling junk dating pattern during this time. [54:34]
  • Upon prompting, Safi shares a little more personal detail about this pattern. [57:08]
  • Two criteria for finding the right life partner from one of Safi’s well-practiced friends, and the one that became his system versus outcome litmus test for breaking out of the junk dating funk. [59:50]
  • When he came to the decision to do so, how did Safi go about paring down his peer group? [1:01:47]
  • How Safi met his wife and gleefully exited the dating world entirely. [1:04:09]
  • Safi often uses acronyms as memory tools. So what does “Write FBR” stand for, and how might it help liberate you if you’re a writer with perfectionistic tendencies? [1:10:26]
  • With creativity as with riding a bike, task switching is really expensive — from the perspective of effort as well as physics. [1:15:21]
  • The two hats Safi wears for reading: RICLS and REAS. [1:11:22]
  • Why a physicist biotech entrepreneur and I are having a conversation about writing, and what Safi has tried to convey with his first book. [1:21:14]
  • The three hats Safi wears for writing: hunting, drafting, and editing, and how it’s a bit like the way director Robert Rodriguez makes a movie. [1:24:30]
  • Possibly the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to Safi about his book. [1:27:50]
  • How did Safi come up with the wacky stories that wound up in Loonshots? [1:28:42]
  • Safi’s three rules of creativity: speed, attention, and courage. [1:29:46]
  • Why the sequence of these hats and heuristics matter for giving purpose clarity, with a Tony Robbins exercise for the sake of illustration. [1:34:12]
  • False failure and the difference between a loonshot and a moonshot with a case study of Friendster vs. MySpace vs. Facebook. [1:35:36]
  • Who was Sir James Black, and how does his story connect with Safi’s? [1:41:34]
  • The three deaths of the loonshot: how great ideas get killed easily and often — in spite of what revisionist historians will tell you decades after the fact. [1:44:45]
  • The problem with Silicon Valley’s “Fail fast and pivot!” slogan. [1:46:19]
  • The two types of loonshots: P (product) and S (strategy). [1:47:22]
  • Robert Goddard’s universally ridiculed notion that a rocket could make it to the moon in 1920, and the Eiffel Tower’s initial opposition. [1:51:08]
  • Mental reminders for ushering an aspiring loonshooter through the three deaths and the so many nevers. [1:55:29]
  • Why does Safi have a Post-it note on his wall that says “The Adventures of Luke Starkiller,” and how does it tie in with a spy-fighting limey truck driver? [1:58:59]
  • Why entrepreneurs and small teams should nurture loonshots and eschew the idea of “disruptive” innovation. [2:05:00]
  • The differences in nurturing loonshots between larger and smaller teams. [2:08:19]
  • A summary and parting thoughts. [2:14:00]


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14 Replies to “Safi Bahcall — On Thinking Big, Curing Cancer, and Transforming Industries (#364)”

  1. I love listening to your interesting conversations. I often send episodes of your podcast to friends (with a screen shot of the section that I think pertains to their life). The analogy Safi used comparing the game of Chess to the decision making process in business / personal life is something I plan to use. Thank you!

  2. Hey Tim,


    How are doing, I hope you are doing great. Have you heard about this person called Sadhguru? Check out his book called ‘Inner Engineering”.


  3. Such a great interview. The kind of guy you’d share a beer with, but at the same time you can tell he’s super smart at what he does.

  4. Is this new format here to stay? It would entail that I give more of me, more me to you. More attention, more time, more more. I listened to this episode already, and yet I am here. I used my Saturday to work on my personal projects, writing mainly. The painful thing is not to write, but to edit. My ideas seem so composed when I first write them down, and when I have to edit, I bleed. It’s like the essence of my idea looses traction. What’s the temporality of that idea? I guess that’s what editing is. To evaluate the permanence of the idea. What Safi mentions about writing as fast as you can, is exactly what I do. I’m young, I’m impatient, no wonder I’m not natural at editing. People seem to like my reading anyhow. And last week I got asked, who’s gonna read it? As much as this question took me by suprize, I was pleasantly comfortable to think about the response, as it is something that I have been thinking lately. I must feel comfortable with editing, to get rid of the glitches of the story.

  5. Hi Tim I understand you are busy but if you can please help me out by answering these 5 quick questions I’d really appreciate it!!!

    1. If you had to restart today, knowing everything you know now, what would you do?

    2. What does the media industry look like 5-10 years from now? Is youtube relevant? Blogging?

    3. Book recommendations for someone interested in the media industry? (other than your own, I already read them)

    4. What failure are you most thankful for?

    5. All time favorite quote?

  6. The first 45 minutes was the most boring conversation I’ve ever heard. I will avoid Safi Bahcall talks in the future.

    1. I found it very intresting. I like when Tim’s guests are getting vulnerable, almost to embarrassment moment to talk about their emotions, but in a very practical way. As someone mention here, it’s like having a beer with an uncle who you respect. Good conversation. Tim you getting extremely mature recently and I feel I’m growing up parallel with you!

  7. What Safi says – how counterintuitive takes on something everybody does or believes is true can easily transform other aspects of life – (Laughlin on total immersion swimming and Kahneman on economics), reminds me of what Marie Kondo has done for organization.

    Pretty much everyone has learned the bad habits of keeping things because they may be needed someday or they have some quantifiable monetary value. What we’ve seen though, is like other bad habits, this criteria created drag in people’s lives and most people have overstuffed drawers and closets and the stress that comes along with them.

    Marie then came along and says – decide what to keep based on how it makes you feel. She flipped the marker from rational to emotional. It’s not a hard habit to correct, and the effect is transformative.

    I’m 15 minutes deep in this podcast, and is usually the case, have already found a pearl of wisdom that makes me pause and take note of it.

  8. Hi Tim,

    Thank you for another excellent conversation.

    It seems that you are abandoning your beloved rapid fire questions.

    IMHO you are becoming even more atuned to your guests and even more willing to let the stories unfold by themselves.

    Great work!

  9. First exposure to Safi. Brilliant and endearing, Love the acronyms, and the 3 step approach to, well, everything. My second favorite podcast to date, just slightly trailing Neil Gaiman. Thank You, Tim, for another great show!