Please enjoy this transcript of my second interview with Safi Bahcall (@SafiBahcall), author of Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas that Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries, which debuted #3 on the Wall Street Journal’s bestseller list.
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 E&Y New England Biotechnology Entrepreneur of the Year. In 2011, he worked with President Obama’s council of science advisors on the future of national research.
Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!
You can listen to my first interview with Safi at tim.blog/safi.
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Tim Ferriss: Safi, welcome back.
Safi Bahcall: Thanks. Really glad to be back.
Tim Ferriss: I thought we could start with a chapter of your life and a capability that I know nothing about. That is hypnosis.
Safi Bahcall: Oh, man.
Tim Ferriss: Where does hypnosis enter the stage, and why hypnosis?
Safi Bahcall: Oh, man. I don’t think I’ve talked about that anywhere. In fact, I think a lot of people don’t know that I studied that. I’m glad this is just between you and me. So this doesn’t get out there, like, “Oh, he’s the hypnotizing CEO” or something like that. So nobody will ever use that phrase on me ever. That’s good. It started with a Thai food truck.
When I was in grad school, maybe 20 years ago, I was at Stanford, in the physics, they really didn’t have any good food, anything that was edible around. Across the campus, there was this Thai food truck, which was awesome. My mouth is watering still thinking about it. It was just a great Thai food truck. You stop, trek across.
It was parked right outside the psychology building. Three or four times a week I would trek over there. One day I saw a sign outside the door that said “hypnosis class.” I was like, “What’s that?” Like, hypnosis is this freaky thing with you wave something and people bark like dogs or something. Why in Stanford and — I went in. At some point, I just got curious. I peeked in and they were all these really tall, big, super athletic looking people. Not what I expected peering into a door that said hypnosis. It turns out it was like half the Stanford football team.
Now I’m getting curious. Why is half the Stanford football team studying hypnosis? Eventually, after probably three or four more walks of Thai food lunches, I go in and I sit down and it’s being taught by a physician from the Stanford Medical School who had written one of the classic books on hypnosis. He starts by debunking some of the myths around it that oh, it’s this freaky thing and it’s actually a very natural state, and there’s a very important evolutionary reason we have developed this state to allow ourselves to be hypnotized.
What hypnosis is as he explained is, in ordinary life there’s something called the magic number seven. As you sit there, as I sit here, or as anybody sits down in your audience and imagines the world around them, they can be aware of roughly seven different things around them plus or minus two. The famous article is The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two.
Hypnosis is really the state of bringing that down to one. You’re just focused on one thing. It turns out everybody, practically everybody, has the ability to go into a hypnotic trance. Why does that exist? There’s a very interesting reason evolutionarily why it makes sense. If you are being chased by a tiger and the tiger has clawed a little bit of your leg and it’s incredibly painful, you really only want to be focused on one thing: getting away from that damn tiger. You don’t want to be focused on “Oh, look, there’s a nice bird,” or “What did I have for lunch yesterday?” or “What might be dinner tomorrow?” Or, “Oh, my leg hurts.” You just want to be focused for your survival on that one thing.
That’s what hypnosis is. It’s just learning how to focus on one thing. I got interested in it because I had trouble falling asleep. I would just have racing thoughts in my brain all the time and I ended up thinking about them for a couple of — I wonder oh, maybe I can —
Tim Ferriss: For a couple of hours.
Safi Bahcall: It felt like a couple of hours.
Tim Ferriss: I had decades of the same thing.
Safi Bahcall: I don’t know if it was actually a couple hours or it would feel like a couple hours, I would just have these racing thoughts. I was like, well maybe this is a tool, the self-hypnosis tool. I started getting curious about it and reading about it and taking this class from this physician. I actually forgot his name now. Why were all these athletes there? Because that state of incredibly heightened focus is the same thing great athletes do. If you are a baseball player and you’ve got the bat in your hand and you’re looking at the pitcher, everything is disappearing except that one baseball, and that baseball will seem as large as a big pumpkin to you. That’s a state of complete focus.
Or if you’re listening to music and — this is why hypnosis and trance induction is so familiar because we all go into this state of very heightened focus. If you’re listening to music or you’re deep in a book and when someone has to call your name a couple times and then you shake your head and snap out of it, you were in a trance, you were completely focused on just that one thing and that magic number seven plus or minus two in the world around you had just narrowed down to one.
What’s hypnosis? Hypnosis is helping someone get into that one. That’s what a good hypnotherapist does is he induces that trance. It’s not with like a mad — I learned how to do it and then started practicing over a year or two with friends and eventually for myself and discovered it’s amazing. Firstly, it’s completely real. It’s amazing what you can do with hypnosis. It probably changed my life.
Firstly, developed some tricks that allowed me to get to sleep in 30 seconds, some fast tricks.
Tim Ferriss: Okay, let’s talk about the sleep and then let’s just talk about just induction more broadly.
Safi Bahcall: Sure. There are many different forms of trance induction and the masters of this are very good at identifying what forms of trance induction work with different types of people. Because the idea is, “Oh, let’s just do X,” but that’s actually not true. There are different personality types and different — in and of itself, it’s a fascinating exercise. And then you do it with your — I was most interested in self-hypnosis to actually just help me get to sleep.
Over the years, I practiced it with friends on hypnotizing others, really just for curiosity to see what it could do and how real it was. It was clearly very real. And then on myself, experimenting on myself on my own mind and guiding your own thought patterns and identifying what little tricks work with your own mind, and eventually found a couple tricks that are incredibly effective for the question that I started with, which is: how do you go to sleep quickly?
There is the short and easy which works maybe 60 percent, 70 percent of the time. And there’s the guaranteed home run, the big guns, takes a little bit longer, but it works essentially 100 percent of the time. The short and easy is — I’ve actually told a couple people this trick and it’s helped them a lot. For those people who have a lot of racing thoughts, it’s almost like a jiu-jitsu move. I studied a lot of aikido, so it’s like aikido: you use your opponent’s energy to achieve what you want.
What you do is you close your eyes and whatever comes, whatever visuals you see, you start to really get curious about them. It doesn’t matter what pattern you see, you might see the vague images of a chair, and you say, “Well, what does that chair look like? What’s its texture? Is it moving? Is it floating? Is it spinning around? Is there something on it?” Because your mind is racing, whatever that object is, it might be a chandelier, it might be just weird images, they’ll start to change in your mind, and you just get curious. What’s it going to change into next?
The reason that’s a jiu-jitsu or aikido move is all those racing thoughts, all those firing neurons, get redirected to that object because it gets curious, that’s wacky. What is it going to change into? And then the object starts to go from this amorphous thing that’s very far away to coming clearer and clearer and closer to your mind and sharper and sharper. The sharper and sharper it becomes in focus, the more you’re getting deep in trance. The more you’re letting the waking world go by.
You just keep asking, “Well, what’s it going to change into next? I have no idea. Let’s follow it.”
That works a good fraction of the time. It just calms you. It just takes all those racing thoughts and redirects them to that one object. If you find your mind straying, just redirect to “Where was that object?” or “What’s it going to do next? Let’s get really curious.” There’s so many things to add. “What colors are it? Is it sparkling? What’s its texture? Is it going to morph into something? Oh, my God, there’s my father.” And just watch it. The more you watch it, the more it crystallizes, the more you’re going deep into trance, and you leave the waking world behind.
I’m a little more visual; if you’re more auditory and you tend to hear a dialogue in the back of your head, there’s trick number two. This is a little bit of a weird — I actually haven’t told anybody this. Again, so glad it’s just between you and me. I ask the audio generator in my brain, which is whatever audio engineer is popping forth, that little audio inner dialogue to focus on generating a random double-digit number between one and 100.
Why double-digit? Well, single-digit is not a really difficult enough test; one, three, four, five, it doesn’t really engage your inner auditory engineer very much. Double-digit is just enough of an effort that your audio engineer can’t play some irritating, keep you awake dialogue and do that other task, it has to pick one or the other.
Why random? Well, if you just do 23, 24, 25 sequence, it’s kind of boring. And then your audio engineer can go back to that really irritating voice that was keeping you awake. By asking your audio engineer to do this task of generating a random double-digit number, and then to keep the audio and the video engineers in your head that are generating this noise busy, you assign them the task of seeing those numbers. I imagine like a cannon launching these numbers in the sky and watching 22, 76, 57. I feel like people listening are going to think I’m crazy. But this actually really works. All those inner racing thoughts, you just take them away from their tasks that they were doing, which was keeping you up and you focus on tasks that you would rather have them doing, tasks that are actually helping you get to sleep faster.
Tim Ferriss: Wow, I love that. Have you found anything else — actually, before we get to anything else that has helped you sleep besides hypnosis, what are some of the more common or more effective induction techniques? If it’s not swinging a pendant in front of someone, which it could be; I’m not saying that isn’t an option, but what are some of the different induction techniques that apply to different people?
Safi Bahcall: There’s so many different induction techniques. There’s a relaxation technique. Let’s start by focusing on a part of the body and notice how it’s relaxing. And then going up the body slowly, and notice how that’s slowly relaxing as we’re talking about it. Then I want you to imagine a color, a green maybe. As that color is spreading up your body, it’s just getting more and more relaxed — each part of your body — then you go and walk up their body, especially around the neck muscles or the face muscles, and you need to acknowledge if there’s anything going on around them. You acknowledge that and then bring them back to the relaxation technique.
Then there’s the counting down from 10 to one as you’re walking down a set of stairs or as you’re floating into a cloud, and then there’s the “I want you to pick someplace you’re very comfortable. As I count from 10 to one, I want you to notice, let’s say you’re on the beach, I want you to notice the sand between your toes. I want you to notice what’s around you,” and you just get them to that place.
All of these are different induction techniques and they’re pretty standard induction techniques if you look at any of the good hypnosis books. What I actually found amazing is some people can do it with just shaking your hand. It’s actually really great master therapists at this. You interrupt a standard pattern. You go to reach across to shake somebody’s hand they’re expecting to reach it, you pull aside at the last second and you interrupt them and you say “Drop.” Some that you shock, you do some unexpected shock to interrupting a natural pattern, and you just drop them into a trance state. I can’t do that, but I’ve seen that; it’s mind boggling to see. It really works. When you practice it a lot and you get good at it, you can help people go into the zone where they’re totally focused on the one. Like a great athlete is.
Like I said, that’s why athletes study it because it helps them get into that zone. When they are there, they’re focused on your voice. The hypnosis part is because at that point you can make suggestions, and those suggestions become realized in their body.
Tim Ferriss: What are some of the best applications of hypnosis? It could nearly everything, it could be a smaller subset. It just makes me think of, for instance, you have platelet rich plasma injections for various types of soft tissue pathologies, and turns out doesn’t appear to work uniformly well in different joints, even though in the layperson’s mind, in my mind, it’s like, “Okay, a joint is a joint. It’s composed of the same stuff.” Turns out, as it relates to outcomes, just not to be the case. There are certain types of pathologies that are really well suited to PRP. What are some of the better applications or more effective applications of hypnosis?
Safi Bahcall: Yeah, that’s a great question. I think there is that common view out there that you can use it to solve problems or address pathologies. That is the case. I actually found the far more interesting use of it, and I’ll give some examples. Actually, a bigger gun technique. I gave you the short, cute, quick trip techniques for going to sleep quickly if you have a racing mind. But I’ll give you the bigger gun one, which has far broader implications. It’s essentially about guiding your own thought patterns, being in charge of what’s going on in your mind. Taking control of what’s happening in your mind.
These tools give you the techniques to essentially create — the way I think about it is meditation is like a volume control on a radio, you can dial down stuff. Learning to guide the thought patterns in your mind is like creating a new station, your own inner playlist for your mind for whatever you think is — it’s like creating your inner Pandora. I think meditation is a very useful tool, but it’s just a dialogue, dialed up dialog, dialed down kind of thing.
The other one is about creating a playlist. You can use it either to optimize or become more effective. I think the most effective tool is in some ways to create inner peace or inner calm. I’ll come back to that. You asked about something I hear about often, which is how to treat certain pathologies. I think what people have found and this is where hypnosis or hypnotherapy morphs with CBT or cognitive behavioral therapy. For certain things like fear of heights or fear or certainly for quitting smoking, a really good master hypnotherapist can be incredibly effective for that. Or in some cases over eating or basically bad habits. It just gives you a new set of tools and techniques for going in and quickly reversing a bad habit. For example, creating an association, you always finish a plate of food. Why?
I did this a few times back then. Well, it turns out a really good hypnotherapist can go in there, find out what association do — When you see a plate, what’s the trigger, what happens? Well, it turns out when I was a kid, my mom always told me to finish a plate. So I always finish a plate. Well, let’s just twist that trigger around. Now, when you see a plate, I want you to imagine it half full, and that’s the end. Let’s just replay that video all the time.
You can, in about a 30-minute session, take control of your brain and just change a trigger. For those kinds of relatively quick fixes, hypnotherapy is very effective. It’s not effective for serious biochemical disorders, like depression or schizophrenia, that it won’t work. But for more common ingrained habits or bad habits, or things that are very difficult to change, it can be very effective.
The other one, which I found even more fascinating, is for achieving some level of inner peace. I’ll give you an example. I was just fascinated the first few years, and it’s been a long time since I thought about it. Let’s start with a going to sleep example. If those quick tricks don’t work for you, this kind of approach gives you, this bigger gun approach will give you, a sense of what I mean by taking control of your brain.
If those tricks don’t work, here’s what you do. You personify each of the thought patterns that are racing through your head. Here’s what I mean. Do you have something about family that you are stewing about? So that’s Mr. Family. You have something about finances. “Oh, should I have made this investment, oh, should I have not made this investment?” or “I’m running low on this in my bank account,” or “What am I going to do about this check that’s coming up?” Or is it something about work, “Oh, my boss said this to me today. Let’s stew about that for 49 minutes.” Or “My significant other said that — is he or she really thinking this?” or “Let’s stew about that for another 57 minutes and replay that videotape for 57 minutes.” Or “My parents this,” or “My kids that. Let’s worry about that problem.” And then cycle back to the finances and cycle back.
Tim Ferriss: You give each of them a character.
Safi Bahcall: Give each of them a character. Whatever you want to name them. Now, you put them around a table, and you are the chairman of that board. You start by assuming positive intent. The character that’s stewing about the work, you thank them for their thoughts and you say “Thank you for raising those things, because that may be helping me and you may be playing that videotape because you want me to learn a lesson. So let’s talk about them. Before I start, how many minutes do you think you need? I hear you that the reason you’re replaying this video in my head is that something happened today and you’re replaying that video over and over; there’s a very good reason that you’re doing that, and I appreciate that because you’re watching out for me. You want me to learn the lesson from that video.”
So let’s do this. This is the inner conversation you have with that one character, and then you’re going to repeat. “How many minutes do you need to explain the lesson? Do you think you need 30 minutes? Well, not really 30. How about one? Well, one is not enough.” Then you end up with, “Let’s take two minutes and we’re just going to listen to it.” You analyze it and you say, “Here’s what you’re trying to tell me. It’s this lesson. I said this stupid thing to my boss. I really shouldn’t do that. in this situation, here’s what I should do.” And then you ask that engineer or that character who’s playing that work video over and over and over where you said some dumb thing, “Did I get the lesson right?” “Yes.” “Was that good?” “Yes.” “Do you want to keep going, or was that enough for tonight? Do you think we should get some rest?” “No, we’re done.” Boom, sits down.
Then you go to the next, the one that’s stewing about what you happen with your significant other, or spouse, or whatever. You’re replaying some stupid video, some stupid thing that you did and shouldn’t have done. “Let’s go through that. How many minutes do you need?” You converge and agree and go “How many minutes?” You give that character your full attention. You start by thanking it for watching out for you; assume positive intent. Instead of making enemies with your thoughts and trying to suppress them, you become partners with them, friends with them.
Now, you walk through one by one, each of the three or four or five characters that were playing videos or sounds or audio about stuff that happened that day that you are stewing about. You just walk around the table. As soon as you’re done, as soon as the last person says, “Okay, I’m done,” you feel this incredible calm, and then you just go to sleep. Because these guys are done.
These are the guys who were playing video or audio in your head and they are done. And then at the end of that, when you’ve gone around the table, you say, “Is there anybody else that feels like they have something they want to…” You actually strangely enough go, “Oh, well you know what? There was the email that I got.” There’s Mr. Email guy about shit that I need to do tomorrow that’s replaying, “Don’t forget this. Don’t forget this.” And then you negotiate. “Okay, let’s hear you. Let’s hear you out. How many minutes do you want?” “Well two.”
“Actually, I’d really like you to write this freaking thing down so you don’t forget it. Okay, here’s what I’m going to do. I’m going to take my little notepad here and get it open. I’m going to write this thing down. Does that address your concern?” “Yes it does.” “Do you need to raise it again?” “No, I’m done. You can go to sleep now.” And that’s it. Then everybody in your head, all those little — and of course we’re creating these characters, but it’s incredibly empowering to create those characters because then you can address them. Instead of being in battle with your thoughts, you become in partnership with them because they are there for a reason. They are doing you good, they’re trying to watch — the only reason they’re replaying those videos in your head, or those audios, they’re trying to improve you, they’re trying to say, “Hey, idiot, learn the freaking lesson from this damn thing that happened today.”
The reason they’re replaying it, you haven’t heard them, and then they’re just going to repeat until they get acknowledged. Once they get acknowledged, you watch them, sit down, shut up, they’re done. It’s amazing, the first few times you do that, it’s like magic. It’s like, “Wait a minute. That video is not appearing in my head anymore. Oh, that’s why he was doing it. He just wanted me to get the freaking lesson and be acknowledged. Now that I got the lesson, it just completely dissipates.”
Anyway, I call that the chairman of the board or the chairman of the mind routine. That takes a little bit longer, it works 100 percent of the time.
Tim Ferriss: This, I love. I want to ask you to dig in a little bit because this —
Safi Bahcall: I didn’t dig in enough there?
Tim Ferriss: You did dig in, but I want to get your opinion as we experience the background melody of fire sirens and so on in Austin, Texas, nonetheless. The power of making friends with your thoughts and bifurcating or trifurcating or identifying different characters or creating different characters that represent this psyche that you’re contending with. Whether it’s during insomnia or because you are suffering with some type of debilitating conflict within your own mental experience of life. I’m bringing this up because versions of this have been one of the most valuable things I have incorporated into my own life in the last few years.
I have not worked with this particular format, but whether it’s Jack Kornfield, who’s been very, very instrumental in helping me to re-contextualize anger, for instance, which was a default of mine for a very long time. There are exercises that he prescribed or visualizations that are close cousins of this, but the common ingredient is viewing these different characters, validating them, thanking them. That very often ends or at least temporarily interrupts the pattern.
I’m curious what you as a very well-trained scientist, what you — the answer does need to be scientific. But what does that say about the mind? What does it say about the ego and the mind that splitting it up into these different characters has such tremendous power? Why is it so effective?
Safi Bahcall: Right. I think our mind is a tool for survival. All that stuff that’s going on your head is about survival. It’s about enhancing the propagation of the collection of genes that’s your body. The thoughts that are going on in your mind are about learning lessons from stuff that’s happened so that you can improve in the future and improve your probability of surviving. What’s happened that’s different in the last 100 years is the world has gotten more complex.
There was an email and work job and spouse difficulties and Oprah and Letterman and Leno and Tim Ferriss, all these things to — what’s happened in the last 100 years that we have not evolved to is just the flood of inputs. Our brain is fine if all you have to think about is running along the Sahara and finding a gazelle or whatever to eat. Let’s learn the lesson from yesterday’s hunt and apply it to tomorrow’s hunt. So you have the videos of yesterday’s hunt in your brain, and you’re like, “Okay, I got that. I’m going to apply that to tomorrow’s hunt.”
Fast forward to now, and we’ve got 10,000 different inputs during the day and our brain just hasn’t evolved. This is a technique to keep pace with how to keep calm and how to keep centered and how to keep saying when you have such a flood of inputs. It’s like, “All right, you, the brain, is trying to improve survival, which is a great — thank you for that. But we’re flooded with inputs. So you’re just flooding with outputs because there’s just so many and that creates confusion.” The reason it’s suboptimal is just because our brain has not kept pace with the evolution of our body and evolution of our brain has not kept pace with the rapid evolution of technology.
The technology has outstripped us; we have far more input that we are capable of handling. This is just a technique for trying to keep it under control. Anger is a great example. Here’s what I do with anger, I think of Michael Jordan. I think of anger as a gift. Why? I reframe it as a gift. Why? I think of a Michael Jordan example. Every time I get angry, Michael Jordan in the later stages of his career, I remember reading an interview or a quote with him, someone said, “How do you think about being an older player?” He was in his mid-30s I think and surrounded by all these younger players. “How do you get up the energy?”
He says, “I’m sitting on the bench before the game. I just think, ‘They say you are too old. They say you are too old. They say you are too old. They say you are too old.’” He created that soundtrack. So he’s doing the same thing. He’s tuning his brain. He is creating anger. And then by the time the bell rings, and he leaps off the bench, he is so fucking pissed off, he goes and he crushes the opponents at age 35, and they’re all 10 years younger than him.
Anger is a gift; you use it as fuel. When publishers told me this is — some agents or whatever, wouldn’t even bother returning my phone call when I talked to them. “Oh, let’s mix physics and business and history.” They kept doing this really irritating thing of like scheduling something and then an hour before, “Yeah, can we do that two weeks from now?” Then an hour before, “Can we do that a week from now?” “Fuck you!” That really pissed me off. If you’re not interested, just say you’re not interested. I’m still angry. But you know what? I use that anger as fuel and I sit down in the morning; I think about that. “Fuck you. I’m going to make this the best God damn book ever because of you. Fuck you.” I’m getting a little carried away!
That’s how anger is a gift. I think of the Michael Jordan example, whether it’s real or not. I’m not really infinitely upset about that, maybe just a little. But you use it as fuel and then it’s a gift. You know what? I thank all the people who rejected me because they fueled me to make a better story and work harder. When I was training every — essentially training. It’s like shooting three-point shots endlessly or shooting free throws endlessly — it’s fuel. You imagine “They say you are too old.” “Fuck you, I’m going to do 100 goddamn free throws. I’m going to read every sentence of the book, and deconstruct everything. What are those little tricks or tips. Whether it’s him — because fuck you.”
Anger, when someone screws you over, it’s a gift. Your job, your trick, is to figure out how is it a gift? What are they helping you become better at? How are they providing you with fuel? They’ve just given you fuel; how are you going to use that fuel? That’s your job.
Tim Ferriss: It reminds me of also Alexis Ohanian, one of the co-founders of Reddit. In the early days of Reddit, they had some meeting with executives at Yahoo. I think it was, I’m speculating here, but probably a fishing expedition on the part of Yahoo to figure out “How can we clone these guys if they’re doing something interesting?” But it was couched in some type of strategic, highfalutin language of importance. They meet with this guy, I assume it was a guy. At some point, he says, after looking at their numbers, he goes, “Oh, wow, you guys are a rounding error.” Alexis and his team made a huge sign in the office that said “You are a rounding error” and put it on the wall so they would see it every day.
But my question to you — and I do want to ask you about depression in a minute, because it seemed like hypnosis might not be the best tool for that. We’ll come to that later. That’s why I’m just planting the seed. But I have used anger as fuel. I have done that, but it became my default. I looked for reasons to get angry to create the fuel to do things. How do you not slip into becoming the vessel full of acid that hurts itself more than anything?
Safi Bahcall: I don’t. I use that whenever I feel a little incipient bud of anger. And then it just dials down the anger. There are two ways to get fuel. One is the anger, as you say, but that in some ways, I think that’s only useful when you’re already angry, or you’re feeling the incipient. Really it’s a trick for not being consumed by the anger. It’s where whenever you feel an incipient bud, you turn it into an opportunity.
My real motivation is I have a phrase that I keep in mind when I started, I got connected to an author named Richard Preston, who wrote The Hot Zone, which is a huge bestseller, and then a number of other great books as a New Yorker writer. We were talking, I was really beginning, and he just said, “You know, Safi, just make something beautiful. Don’t worry about anything else.” Really simple.
Tim Ferriss: It’s great advice.
Safi Bahcall: Whenever this random stuff comes up, of “Hey, could you this thing?” or “Could you write that down?” or “Could you do this interview?” “Could you do blah, blah, blah,” or all these distracting things, or “Is this marketing thing going well?” I’m like, “You know what? my job is just to make something beautiful, not worry about anything else.”
Really, the whole time I was writing, I had that phrase, “Just make something beautiful. Don’t worry about trying to please anybody; don’t worry about how this might go,” and I didn’t. I just was like, “Let’s make something beautiful that I could be proud of at the end.” What motivated me was that phrase, “Just make something beautiful,” and that’s what kept me going.
Tim Ferriss: The search for or the recognition of beauty for a lot of reasons in the last handful of years has become a much higher priority. It seems to not necessarily be a solve all but it covers a lot of bases. It’s difficult for me to put into words why that’s the case. But you’re talking about evolutionary explanations for why the ability to fall into a trance state seems to be nearly universal. Similarly, it’s like why is the recognition of beauty or even the concept of beauty something that seems to be universal? We don’t have to get into that, it’s getting pretty highfalutin.
That the desire to create or recognize beauty has become much more of a driver for me in the last five years, I’d say, in particular. It seems to check off a lot of other boxes rather than trying to check off 20 different things that I need, or solve 20 different problems. If I have a compass that is pointing towards creating something of beauty.
But however, you end up recognizing that yourself, it seems to really solve a lot for me. Let’s talk about an experience of not being able to see beauty. You mentioned depression earlier. How do you think about depression? What do people get right or wrong about it? I don’t know if you’ve suffered from it yourself. In all of your exposure to various types of treatments and methodologies and pharmaceuticals, what’s out there that actually seems promising?
Safi Bahcall: That’s a great question. I learned a lot about depression in the last few years that I knew nothing about. I’m very fortunate to not have had either depression in the family or experienced clinical depression myself. But what happened the last few years is I got to know somebody closely with depression, and realized a lot of wrong things to do that, in fact, no matter how much I thought I was either was self-aware, there are just so many traps.
In fact, one big trap that’s incredibly common to people like, let’s say, you and me, who really are looking to improve how we go about our life in the world, let’s find the things that you can do that will improve, let’s look on the bright side, let’s do this little cognitive change. That, as it turns out, is exactly the wrong thing to do with depression.
I remember I think I heard, I think it might have been Tony Robbins on your show, talk about “Well, here are these techniques that I use to help motivate people and do these great…” which worked phenomenally in that situation. With these people who are depressed, we should just do the same stuff. Some variants have learned to look at the glass as half full. “Look on the bright, et cetera, et cetera, and just change your mind to focus on the good stuff.” That’s what I thought maybe a couple years ago. That is a disaster when you’re dealing with someone with depression. Why? Depression is a biochemical, it’s essentially a diseased or broken organ. It’s no different than you sprain your ankle, or you have trouble with your liver. You’re having trouble with your brain. It’s a biochemical trouble with your brain. Little quick fixes not only don’t help, they make it worse.
Why? When you suggest to somebody with serious clinical depression, “Hey, there’s a glass, let’s talk about where it’s full. Let’s talk about the water. Why do you just keep looking and talking about where it’s empty everywhere around? Because I look and I can take the exact same glass and talk about the water rather than the air.”
When you say that to someone who is suffering real clinical depression, A, it invalidates their depression. It says, “What you’re telling me is not valid because it’s a real quick fix, and I should have known this quick fix, which takes 15 seconds. I’ve been fucking around for however long, whether it’s years or months or weeks.” So it invalidates them. It tells them that they are weak in character. “It’s not a biochemical problem. It’s not like you sprained your elbow or you have a liver problem; you just have a weak personality. That’s your problem. See, I have a strong personality because I know how to look at the glass as half full, and your problem is you have a weak personality. You’re inferior.” It’s just the worst possible thing you could say.
Third, they’re unable to do that. It’s like telling someone who is — an example I was told recently, it’s like telling someone who is infertile, “Just think positive and you’ll have a baby.” How frustrating, irritating is that to hear? “Just think positive.” You have a physical biochemical problem that has nothing to do with how you’re thinking about the world and is not a quick fix. It’s incredibly irritating for all those reasons, and it just makes you feel worse. Not only can you not do these things, you’ve just been invalidated and told you have this inferior, weak personality. The person that you’re talking to totally doesn’t understand you. They are on a different planet. They think it’s a simple, quick fix, and they just don’t get that you are stuck in a deep, brown soup and there’s nothing you can do to get out.
It’s like a disease that takes over your brain, and it just takes over. When you see this stuff, or you say this stuff, it’s the depression talking. It’s not you. It is really no different than having any other damaged organ. It’s like with PTSD. I did get to spend some time with people with PTSD, and it’s a damaged organ, and that’s okay, everybody gets wounds. That’s totally fine, it’s totally normal. What you could do for someone with depression is listen and accept and recognize, but don’t say, “Hey, let’s look on the bright side.” That’s literally the worst thing you can do. That’s among the things that I’ve learned.
Tim Ferriss: What can you do in that case? I certainly, as someone who has suffered from very severe depression, almost offed myself in college. So I have some first-hand thoughts as well. But what have you seen to help in this case?
Safi Bahcall: Well, definitely professional help. The last thing you want is your buddies or your friends saying, “Here’s some quick fix stuff.” Just professional help. Because there are people who spend their entire lives researching, whether they’re therapists or psychiatrists. For many, it is amazing how effective pharmaceuticals are. I’m in the drug discovery, drug development industry. I don’t take a lot of drugs, because they may have upset — I just don’t. There are a lot of things like, something aches, I’ll get over it, no big deal. I don’t really want to put stuff in my body.
But I’ve just seen first-hand, and I know, for many people with depression, even small doses of the right med literally will — because it’s a biochemical imbalance. It’s like, what do you call it when the shoulder falls out of the socket?
Tim Ferriss: Shoulder dislocation.
Safi Bahcall: Right. That’s what happens with your brain in — it’s just no amount of talking about, “Hey, just think positive and it’ll go back in the socket.” No, you just need somebody to go and you need somebody to put it back in the socket. That’s what the med does. It’s a little bit busted, and in some cases, the right med and the right time and the right dose and the right combination will just pop that shoulder right back, and people will be like, “Holy cow. All of a sudden, the brown has dissipated, and I see light everywhere.”
There are many techniques and there are more in development and there’s more coming. But meds — fortunately, there’s, as you probably know, there’s a handful of different therapeutic categories. So a really experienced and very good medical doctor who specializes in this will figure it out. And different ones will work for different people, and we don’t know why. We don’t know why Class A works for this person but not for that person. But Class B works great for — the different drug categories. You really have to have someone who knows what they’re doing and is willing to — there’s just a very, it’s not even a very little, there’s no way to know which one is going to work for you. But the odds that one of them will work is pretty good, or maybe even a combination.
And then yeah, there is some cognitive behavioral stuff that you can do, often in combination with the meds. The clinical studies have shown that in combination with the meds, that can really improve the response rate compared to just baseline meds alone.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I would also reinforce a few things you’ve said, and then add some color as someone who’s spent a lot of time boots on the ground with this, both in the undesirable sense of having suffered from it, and people in my family have been paralyzed by depression. But also having looked at different tools that are available, I would say that it is true that you have genetic markers, and you can have different software with different output. That there certainly seem to be genetic factors that predispose you to say, bipolar depression. When I sequenced my whole genome, that was one of two things that was highlighted for me. They’re like, “We don’t have much to say, only a few things. And one is, you seem to be from one to 10 scale an 11 in predisposition to depression, and then, Alzheimer’s, same, same.”
I was like, “Okay, well, looks like I have some research to do.” That having been said, to draw an analogy, if you have flat feet as I do, for instance, the flat feet, lack of arches can cause a lot of pain. I’ve had pain since I was a kid, much like I’ve had bouts of depression since I was kid. But there are, without necessarily changing the flat foot directly, you could use orthotics. I think that there are certainly pharmacological interventions that work for a lot of people. I know people who have had their lives changed using SSRI for instance, as one class, the Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors. Other people for whom SSRIs had no effect whatsoever.
As an adjunct, just for people who are wondering what you might add to it. I do think it’s a sense more helpful to have this self-directed than someone who is well lecturing you, like you said, but stoic philosophy, for instance. Sounds very dry, and it’s thousands of years old. But there are some very practical tools within that, that have helped me much like you trained yourself to become a better writer, to train myself to view the world differently.
That’s true of say, art classes where suddenly you realize that you perceive concepts, and when you try to draw a tree, you’re drawing what you think a tree is, rather than what you actually see. I think that stoicism can teach you to look at things differently, not saying it’s sufficient in and of itself. There are other tools, CBT also, which is in effect heavily influenced by stoic philosophy.
And then there are, feel free to call BS at me at any point, but there are also tools out there more recently explored, say, like ketamine as an example. One of the theories out there currently is that possibly the reason why ketamine can be so immediately effective, let’s say intravenous administration for someone suffering from acute suicidal ideation, very often done in a sequence of five or six infusions. Sometimes intramuscular. I would discourage anyone who looks into ketamine, I’m not a doctor, I don’t play one on the internet, but nonetheless it does have an interesting capture profile from an addictiveness perspective. Because people can get hooked on ketamine. Which is why I wouldn’t say take lozenges home.
But one of the theories is that part of the reason SSRIs take a few weeks to produce an effect for some people is that they’re ultimately having an effect on say NMDA, where ketamine acts on it more directly. Ketamine is also interesting to me, along with some other therapies like psilocybin, for instance, which has been studied at Hopkins for treatment resistant depression and elsewhere, which might go through phase three trials for that for, prospectively, alcoholism.
What I find fascinating about these compounds, and for anybody listening, don’t try to DIY this, psilocybin found in, say, psilocybe mushrooms, is schedule one. It’s in the same class as cocaine and heroin. The legal side effects can be substantial. And those are beyond debate. But the prospect that you could have, say, a five or six infusion sequence of ketamine or two to three sessions with psilocybin and have a duration of effect that is months long is really interesting, because the half-life of these compounds is let’s call it, well, in some cases, it’s going to be 30 minutes, depending on the route of administration with say, ketamine, and then let’s just call it four to six hours or less with psilocybin. But nonetheless, the durability of effect can be on the range of months.
I don’t want people to — the reason I’m saying all this understanding that I’m not a clinical psychologist, MD, or researcher, is that having struggled with depression for so long, there can be a hopelessness beyond the depression. I think it’s, at least what I want to do is impart some hope to people who are listening as someone who has struggled with very severe depression for decades, but not experienced any major depressive episodes in the last four or five years, that there are tools available that can help you to put orthotics on your flat feet. And that it doesn’t have to be a self-reinforcing pattern where you’re depressed, and then you’re depressed, you’re depressed and assume you’re a broken toy that can never be fixed, and therefore, what’s the point?
There’s this slippery, logically compelling with faulty assumptions process that is really scary that people can end up in. For those people listening, I’ll just say that there are tools out there, you should see a professional if you’re suffering from depression, which I have done in a somewhat unorthodox way. But I have. Also, to explore the tools that will supplement any type of pharmacological intervention or prescription that you would use because there are resources that can help.
I’m talking a lot, but I just want to make two recommendations. One is to take a look at a William Irvine book, which is on stoic joy, which for many people seems like an oxymoron. So William Irvine and his book on stoic joy, I think is worth taking a look at. There’s also a with a very clear but somewhat cheesy sounding title, which is How To Stop Worrying And Start Living by Dale Carnegie, which I’ve also found to be very helpful. It’s not going to change necessarily, I suppose it could in some fashion — it’s not going to change your genetics — but it might change how you respond to your predispositions so that it’s not genetic determinism, you’re not doomed to the same response. You’re just starting with, say, different attachment points on your hamstrings and Achilles tendons. You’re not going to be Usain Bolt, but you can get faster and you can train with subpar attributes to develop capabilities that no one would expect, given where you started with your raw materials.
Safi Bahcall: I think it’s very hopeful that you — thank you for sharing all that. I think it’s incredibly hopeful that you suffered from severe depression, but have been free of a major episode. Just that fact alone. So I’m curious too, if you had to point to one or two things that made a big dip that may have been responsible for turning the corner there? What would you point to?
Tim Ferriss: I would point to a few things, and not all of which are things you can go get at Rite Aid or prescribed by your physician. The short answer is — well, I’ll give you a few. These aren’t necessarily rank ordered. Once we get past pole position. But pole position is sufficient supervised administration in my case, like receipt of psychedelics, and this is one theory, down regulate activity in the default mode network, which is related to rumination and self-reference. So I, I, I, me, me, me also seems to be activity in the DMN appears to correspond to what’s called time travel. So what happens in the future, anxiety, what happened in the past, depression.
When that’s subdued in some fashion, what many people experience, and this is one theory for why, say, psilocybin can have the effect it does on depression or end of life anxiety, is that it acts as a pattern interrupt where people can gain an observer perspective on their behavior without being stuck on the edge of the vinyl record that’s spinning around at high velocity. When you have that perspective, it’s difficult, as you said, when someone’s like, “Just look at the glass half full,” And when you’re in the middle of, “I’m broken, I’m never going to be better, I’m depressed no matter what happens. I see the glass is half full, and I still think life is shitty, what’s the point?”
People can see it, they can see the same thing, and they can say, “Look, I know you are right. And yet, I can’t fucking see it.” And that’s the problem. When that audio engineer, as you put it, just has that one track of self-loathing on repeat, or that one track of acute anxiety related to the what if, you’re not going to hear anything else. But when you can zoom out to 30,000 feet, see the bigger picture, it is very common that people come out somewhat reformatted. It’s not guaranteed. I know I’m talking about things that are not readily available, which is part of the reason why I’m spending so much time and money supporting research related to this, because the underground doesn’t scale. That would be one tool.
Another would be trying to identify coping mechanisms that actually exacerbate the condition you’re trying to avoid. In other words, if you can’t fix depression, which is a big mountain to try to climb at once, and I don’t think it’s very productive to say “I want to defeat my depression.” You can look at the antecedents of depression or the ingredients, and potential triggers. When do you tend to get depressed? Is it when you’re tired? Is it when you go to bed too late, and wake up too late and feel behind the eight ball from the moment you get out of bed? These are personal examples. Does it correlate to consuming too many stimulants, too much caffeine, which leads to the sleep and so on? Then try to compensate for that by consuming more stimulants. Does it correlate to social isolation? Is it inversely correlated to exercise?
This is another thing where people who are depressed are going to say, “Yeah, no fucking shit, Sherlock. I know these things, I just can’t deal with them.” The time to deal with them is in practice when you don’t need the safety net.
For me, I began to put in place, and this is in combination, I should say, with meditation. The most effective specific meditation tool that I would recommend to people and have no stake in this, even though I gave him a nice quote, because I think he deserves it as Sam Harris’s app, Waking Up. The reason I recommend that specifically is there is a progression and there is a skill acquisition. It isn’t just the guided meditation du jour that someone pulls out of a hat at the last minute, because they think it might be popular and get shared on social media. That’s a progression of skill development.
The reason I say this, that people should use that app or something like it, concurrently with trying to interrupt these antecedents or facilitate the inversely correlated, the things that help in other words, I’m being fancy, is that if you don’t have the awareness of your state in the moment, it’s very hard to catch yourself. Whereas if you train yourself to think of consciousness as the light that shines upon everything else that you are aware of — this is getting a little abstract in the training — this becomes very, very understandable as a matter of direct experience. You begin to separate yourself from the emotion. If I’m conscious, and I can observe that I am hot, well, it’s in fact, the observer is separate from the condition. “I am experiencing heat” is the way you can reframe that. “I’m angry.” Well, let’s reframe that and rephrase it, since our words are the limitations of our world and Wittgenstein, paraphrase, the phrasing’s very important.
You would then get to the point where you can say, “I am experiencing anger” rather than “I am angry,” or “I’m an angry person.” If you feel then the lethargy and so on, you can recognize that that’s leading you to a place that in the past would be a double espresso, triple espresso at 6:00 p.m., which is going to end up keeping you up.
I’m getting a little all over the place. But —
Safi Bahcall: Can I inject a thought about a trick that I found that is super useful for that?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Safi Bahcall: I had this weird thing I do. I haven’t experienced the severe clinical depression. But especially late at night I will find myself wallowing in a deep brown stew of thoughts. I recognize that, as one friend of mine said, that’s what our life is like 24/7. It may exist in a few moments for you. What I do is, I have a weird trick, which I think was the mental hashtag, where a thought bubbles up. Let’s say it’s self-criticism. I do hashtag self-criticism, I’m like, “Oh.” As soon as I put the mental hash, I do the little hashtag. I’m like, “Oh, yeah, that’s what it is.” And then the power of it dissipates, or hashtag anxiety. I’m anxious about something coming up. I just do hashtag and “Oh, that’s what it is.” And then the power of it dissipates.
When I’m stuck maybe in that kind of rumination loop, where I’m being critical, either of myself or something going around me, and I realize “why am I doing…?” I’m just filling mental — I do hashtag FTFF, filling time by finding fault. I tell you, I don’t remember anything I was researching. I get some critical thought like, “I’m getting angry,” like, “This thing didn’t work out,” or “That person did this.” Then I do hashtag FTFF, “Oh, that’s what I’m doing. I’m just filling empty time. Because I haven’t taken charge of my inner audio engineer,” They’re just playing this loop over and over.
The way I visualize it, and this comes from a book that probably influenced me more than any other on many of these aspects, and I’ll tell you what that — it’s called Joyful Wisdom. I’ve probably given that book to more people than I can count. It essentially captures the idea of making friends with your thoughts, rather than trying to suppress them, understanding — the example that’s used there, the way I think about it is, I am on a boat going down a river. The thoughts are like the little trees that I’m watching. “Oh, there’s an interesting thought; let’s hashtag it.” Boom, hashtag this thing. And then there’s another one. “Oh, let’s hashtag that one.”
I find that personally very calming, because it does what you’re saying in a very — because I’m pretty visual. So it just does that in a very visual way that the thoughts are separate from what you’re feeling. One of the ways that helps me to stay calm as the world is going nuts is I’m on that boat, and “Oh, there’s that thought going. Let me see what lesson I can tell take. There’s something useful I need to act on.” If not, it just disappears behind my head as I move along the river.
The wonderful example that’s used in the beginning of that book, it’s by a Buddhist monk. I can’t pronounce the name because it’s something broach. [Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche] He is a Buddhist monk who I think I’d label the happiest man in the planet or something. But he opens with a story — there’s also a very helpful lesson on death that I found, which we can get to later if you want. But he opens with this story of villagers who are going between their village, need to do an annual trip between their village and some distant neighboring village and they have to go through a forest each time. Every time they’ve been doing it — they’ve been doing it for years — they get attacked by these bandits, and it’s this horrible thing. They get robbed and so forth.
Then they go, and then coming back, they get attacked by a different group of bandits. They’re fighting and the bandits get injured or lose some lives and then they get — and then one day one of the villagers as the bandits come and approach, the villager walks out and he says “Hang on, I’ve got a suggestion for you. Instead of us fighting each time, why don’t we come to an arrangement? We’ll give you 10 percent of everything we have — or whatever the number is — and you protect us as we make this journey?” All of a sudden they achieved the journey in peace; it’s better for the bandits; it’s better for the villagers. The bandits don’t have to lose any lives, they don’t have to take any risk, they get a steady income. So that’s the metaphor for your thoughts.
Instead of fighting them and trying to suppress them, how can you just turn that perspective around and say, “Thank you for being here, let’s see how what you’re doing is really helpful, and let’s work together. You’re trying to have a — if it’s something that says don’t do this — thank you for being here. You’re trying to protect me.” Let’s say you have two thoughts racing. One side is the Mr. Red and the other side is Mr. Green. Red says, “Don’t do that, it’s very risky,” Mr. Green’s like, “Go for it! No pain, no gain,” and they’re kind of at war. Sit them down around the table, let’s hear you out.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Safi Bahcall: “Let’s come to an agreement. You’re absolutely right, you’re trying to protect me. And you are trying to say, ‘Listen, if you don’t stretch a little bit, you’ll never grow.’ Both are great points. Let’s talk this through, and let’s come to an agreement.” And you know what? By doing that, having that kind of inner dialogue, validating, starting — assuming positive intent — thanking them for what they’re trying to do for you. You may come up with some brilliant — let’s say it’s Mr. Red and Mr. Green about making some — let’s say personal life — going ahead with a significant other. Mr Red says, “No, no, no, no. I don’t want to open up and be vulnerable.” Mr. Green is like, “Absolutely, that’s the only way forward,” then you just don’t know what to do. You’re being pulled at two sides, let’s sit down. Is there — you might come up with some staged approach. Listen, where both sides agree, then guess what happens? Inner peace.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Safi Bahcall: You’re calm. So that’s the benefit of this kind of Joyful Wisdom approach or this inner dialogue or personifying these characters. Why? It helps you achieve inner peace. I can often see that on people’s faces. So when I see somebody, where their face is very tense and they’re saying one thing but their facial expression is indicating something else, you know what I’m talking about?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Safi Bahcall: There’s clearly an anxiety there that’s not resolved. They have Mr. Red and Mr. Green or Mrs. Red and Mrs. Green inside and they haven’t sat them down and talked about it. While they’re talking to you, Mr. Red is saying one thing and that’s coming out the mouth and Mr. Green is saying something else and that’s on the face or the other way around, and you’re just getting two different messages. That’s why they have all this inner anxiety and stress.
So people who look calm, who project calm, tend to be the ones that have already made peace between the two. They tend to go inside and look at what are their motivating forces, what are those characters — what are their positive intents? They’re both trying to get to the same goal, which is a better life for you. Better, more safe, secure, happier life for you. Ultimately, it’s the same goal, the same positive intent, two different paths.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Safi Bahcall: Once you sit down, you just have a simple negotiation. You’re valid, you’re valid. Let’s see if we can find a great compromise, and what happens when it’s done? Inner peace.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. This also reminds me of a few tools people can look into. The Joyful Wisdom seems to be — at least have a component of this that’s very similar. There’s something called IFS, I was introduced to by Michael and Annie Mithoefer, who were involved with many different things, experienced therapists and Michael’s also an MD. He used to work in the ER, among other places, but is involved with phase three studies involving MDMA for PTSD, and it is MDMA-assisted psychotherapy and the two are important to keep in mind together, right? Because you might find a magic bullet out there, but very often it’s the context that is wrapped around that that is critical to the outcomes that you see, which can be really remarkable.
One of the tools IFS — which I believe is Internal Family Systems — it’s a bit of a confusing name, but the gist of it, which people can look into, is that you are examining and interacting with and making peace with, through validating and thanking and many other things, the different components of your psyche, and viewing many of them as protectors. Right. So the label is protectors. It is incredible what you can see when someone, and I’ll personalize it, when I took that approach with, say, anger. Because I would get angry and then I would get angry at the fact that I was angry, or I would be depressed. I think for a lot of people who are depressed and I can speak for myself, it’s not the feeling shitty and seeing darkness everywhere or highlighting the negative, that is the scary part.
Eeyore was Eeyore, but Eeyore kind of made it through. It’s the fear that it will never change. That no matter how good things get, no matter which partner you’re with, no matter how much money you have, you’re always going to simply look at the negative and that this is something that you cannot escape. I would just say that, to reiterate something I mentioned earlier for people wondering, is that I had that belief. I was just like, “All right, this is how it works. I’m not hardwired to be happy, but maybe I can be really good at competition and feel worthy by creating some type of value and achieving a lot of things. That’s just the hand I’ve been dealt. I’ll play the hand to the best of my abilities, but I am not hardwired for this thing that other people refer to as happiness, contentedness.” Sadly, I just didn’t get it. If you look at my family, you see other examples of the same. That proved to be incorrect. You can change and you mentioned a few things, IFS. I want to mention two more and I know we’re giving people a lot of books and what I would recommend is just download them all on Kindle, read the first two chapters of each one, and then whichever one grabs you, just roll with that.
The two others I want to mention, one is Radical Acceptance by Tara Brach, which, as the title might indicate, is cut from the same cloth as a lot of what we’re talking about. Very well-written and Tara has been on the podcast and we’ve spoken about some of the content of the book. Radical Acceptance was recommended to me. Again, it might come off as a really cheesy title, fantastic book recommended to me by a PhD in neuroscience, who is one of the most skeptical women, and I say that as a compliment, I’ve ever met. Right? She is allergic to anything remotely hand wavy or squishy, and this book had a huge impact on her and that is how it found its way to me.
The other is a book called Awareness, which came to me not too long ago because yet another guest on the podcast, Peter Mallouk, who’s involved in finance, mentioned it in passing and said “This book generally gives me at least two weeks of deep-felt inner peace.” Something along those lines, and then we moved on to other topics and I made a note of it and because it seemed so odd as a passing comment. Awareness is written by Anthony de Mello. D-E M-E-L-L-O. The subtitle differs whether it’s paperback or Kindle, it’s very confusing, but the one I like is something along the lines of The Perils and Opportunities of Reality, which I love as a subtitle. That book also helps you to separate your responses and emotions, which are often the same thing, to external factors from your identity. It’s been truly stunning to see the before and after on some people who are highly anxious or prone to depression after reading this book Awareness.
Safi Bahcall: Does that include you?
Tim Ferriss: That does include me. Yeah. I read this book. This is one of the few books, it goes so far beyond pathologies. If you think you’re a high functioning normal, i.e. probably neurotic, like a high-functioning neurotic or normal, and you want to get to super high-functioning, I would also recommend this book Awareness. I think it’s a huge competitive / unfair / worthwhile advantage, even if the only person you’re competing against is the lesser version of yourself.
Safi Bahcall: Do you feel like you experience joy now?
Tim Ferriss: Yes.
Safi Bahcall: And that wasn’t the case a few years ago?
Tim Ferriss: I did not have access — there were moments of joy. I don’t want to make it seem like I was just this dull, gray pane of muddy glass at all times. It’s not — that’s not the case. Also, I should say now I still have hard days, but everyone has hard days. I feel like my hard days are closer to normal hard days than like, “You know what? I wonder what it would be like to jump off this balcony right now. Would that be easier?” I’m not kidding. People have these thoughts and it’s like, “You know what? Here I am, it’s a beautiful day, nonetheless, I’m seeing the negative. What’s the point?” Right? These are the types of questions I asked myself for decades. Just didn’t act on any of them. Came very close in college like I mentioned, but didn’t actually get to the finish line with that.
Now my default calibration is much higher. The baseline of contentedness is much higher. I do think the where of happiness is another ingredient that I didn’t mention, but like the people think of the how and the why. “What should I do? Who should I spend time with?” The where of peace or contentedness is an important —
Safi Bahcall: What do you mean by where?
Tim Ferriss: The where meaning the environmental factors, right? So we’re sitting here right now in Austin and it is a beautiful sunny day. Turns out it’s sunny here most of the time. I was in the Bay Area for 18 years, prior to that, the East Coast of New England where you get a lot of gray and a lot of rain and a lot of darkness. That was not helpful for me. There are many ways that I could try to contort myself or go through months of mental gymnastics, which I did and can, to increase my baseline, or I can just spend more time somewhere that’s sunny, and exercises is another thing, that has become much more consistent.
I always did my exercise at night, typically, or in the evening. I have since completely inverted that and I tend to do my exercise first thing in the morning. And I won’t bore people with the many, many different effects and the cascade of effects that exercise can have on the brain, which is not limited to aerobic exercise, although there’s a book called Spark that looks at brain-derived neurotrophic factor and all sorts of things that are related to exercise. Weight lifting resistance exercises can provoke very similar beneficial responses and actually adaptations over time. But yes, so my default is much higher now. If people want to see IFS in action, although it’s in Hebrew and not in English, there is a movie that I just helped put out, it is a documentary. I don’t make a cent; I’m doing it for free because I think it needs to be seen. It was just sitting on a shelf after being broadcast once on television overseas, which is called Trip of Compassion.
So, if people want to take a look at how therapists work with someone, in this case under the influence of MDMA, but it can still be powerful by itself at interacting with the various pieces of themselves. Maybe the emotions haven’t had access to, as well. Then Trip of Compassion, if you just go to tim.blog/trip you can take a look at that or at least watch the trailer. I will warn you in advance, it’s very intense. I mean, you’re seeing actual session footage of people who have suffered extreme trauma, but I think the payoff is worth it. But yeah, I never in a million years, Safi, thought I would be where I am now.
Safi Bahcall: Yes. I mean that in and of itself is incredibly helpful.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Yeah.
Safi Bahcall: In and of itself it’s just — I think anyone suffering from severe depression, just knowing that is incredibly helpful.
Tim Ferriss: Also, realizing — I know we’re doing what we do best, which is digressing all over the place, but also realizing that just as genetics are inherited, so are patterns of thought and behavior. I think this is really important. I mean, you run into people who say like, “Oh, yeah. My whole family is big-boned and fat.” Well, why are your pets fat then? There are behaviors and there are thought patterns, and not to in any way invalidate the software predisposition that you can come out of the box with. That exists.
But for many of us, certainly I’ll speak for myself, the thoughts that I have in my head are not necessarily my thoughts, right? The scripts that I’m running, the audio engineer’s playlist that has been in — I’ll speak to the listener — in your head for years or decades. Maybe the playlist that your mom gave you, your dad gave you, your uncle gave you, your teachers gave you, your friends gave you, and you have the ability to edit that script.
Safi Bahcall: I think that’s the most important main thought is: who’s in charge of your mind?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Safi Bahcall: You know what? As you say, if that inner audio engineer playing that tape or the — any video engineer showing that movie is showing a movie because they’re doing it for one of two reasons. If you’re not in charge, they’re doing it for one of two reasons. One, as you say, you got it from your mom or your dad or your friend or whatever and you just didn’t realize that. That’s a wake up call. It was like, “Oh, that inner audio engineer is just following my mom’s orders.” “Well, let’s see. Who’s actually in charge of my brain? I am. How about I switch to a different station or I create my own Pandora playlist, right? How about that? Sure, no problem.”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Safi Bahcall: You know why they’re playing that video or that tape? Because you didn’t give them anything better to do. It’s really easy to give them something better to do. A simple trick to start with that is, let’s say you’re replaying some video, just close your eyes and watch that video and switch it to black and white.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Safi Bahcall: You’re like, “Whoa, I didn’t know I could do that,” but guess what? The emotional power is much less. Then take that video, if it’s right here in front of your face, and zoom it back like it’s on a TV set that’s getting farther and farther away. Play the same video, guess what? Much less emotional impact. Like, “I didn’t know I could do that,” but guess what? You can, you know why? Who’s in charge of your brain? You. Those audio engineers, those video engineers, they all report to you. You know why they’re showing that movie? It’s because you didn’t tell them anything to do. They’re like, “Well, it’s like 11:30. I got 40 minutes to kill until lunch. Let me just replay the same movie for 40 minutes where I barfed on my boss. I’m just going to replay that over and over and over.” Why? Because you didn’t get that video engineer any other task.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Safi Bahcall: You’re in charge of your brain, take control of the audio, the video, and then maybe as we said, they’re different characters and they’re each — thank them, they’re just idling.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Safi Bahcall: Until you start to take control and realize you’re in charge, and you can play some movie anyway you want, you can turn it upside down, you can make it black or white, you can make it color. I personally found very powerful is to take something and just move it behind my head. Then I’m like, “Oh, okay. It’s gone.”
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I like that. I haven’t, I haven’t tried that.
Safi Bahcall: It’s very — here’s a fascinating thing is to do this exercise all the time is you interview — you ask people who are on time —
Tim Ferriss: Punctual.
Safi Bahcall: Punctual. Who are on time, punctual. When you close your eyes and imagine your calendar. Just take your hands and move in empty space, where do you roughly see your calendar for the day? The people who are really punctual, tends to be their calendars happens to be right in front of their head. Now you ask the same question for your friends or people who tend to be late, “Where is your calendar for the day?” “It’s over here, far on the left.” “What’s over here in front of your face?” “Well, what I need to do in my grocery list or this other thing, or my cat or whatever, but my calendar is further on the left,” and they’re just not really — the people who are putting the calendar right there in front of them, and in a weird way, optimistic people, will, “Tell me how you see the next day? “Well, it’s on a slope going up and a week from now. Well, it’s up over there.”
Depressed people are more like, “It’s down. It’s going to the ground.” It’s very fascinating how where you put things visually, especially if you’re a visual person, in effect. People who live in the past, you ask them what’s in front of their face. “Oh, well what I did last year.” They’re always talking about their past. What’s in front of their face is last year or last month, whatever. People who are very — I remember asking my dad one time when I got into this, he never — he grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana. Right? Nothing, none of us would ever hear a peep about growing up in the south. We grew up in Princeton, New Jersey, and I was educated, a kind of elite scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton and Shreveport never came up. And I asked him, “Dad, where do you think about when I close your eyes?” It was down at his feet.
Very often people, like for me, past this to the left, center, and what I need to do today and tomorrow and over the next year, in the middle and future sort of off there, up to the right. Ah, but for him, and — so it’s — who’s putting it there? As you say, it’s the default thought pattern. Do you have to do the default thought pattern? No. You’re in charge. If you’re always late, just try experimenting with putting the calendar right directly in front of your eyes. When you close and just — that’s training like riding a bike. You have to do it a bunch of times until it becomes ingrained and cemented and automatic. But those are the kinds of things that happen when you realize that nobody else is in control of your brain. With the caveat that there are certain biochemical things.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Safi Bahcall: That that doesn’t help. But the things that you can control, those are the things, your inner audio engineer, et cetera.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, the biochemical stuff and feel free to slap me down, and actually I’ll come to the biochemical in a second. I have a theory that I’d love to allow you the opportunity to shoot down, related to that. But, first I want it to say the — note another tool that really helped me. That has made a very significant difference, and actually, it does come from Tony Robbins, which is related to how you change your thinking. So you recognize you’re in charge of your thinking. How do you change your thinking? One of the approaches that I and many of my friends have found really, really effective, is from Tony and it’s identifying your default question, your primary question that you ask yourself. And for depressed people, anxious people, it is often something very disabling. It’s a leading question, like “What’s wrong with you?”
Safi Bahcall: Right, exactly.
Tim Ferriss: That assumes something is wrong with you.
Safi Bahcall: Exactly.
Tim Ferriss: If that’s your search function for your brain, your brain is going to come up with answers.
Safi Bahcall: Exactly.
Tim Ferriss: “What’s wrong with me? What’s wrong with me?” That was my primary question for decades. How could you not end up depressed if that’s your default question? I mean, on some level, I’m not saying there isn’t a biochemical component, but it is certainly going to grease the wheels for negative thought patterns.
Safi Bahcall: That’s what your inner audio engineer is playing over and over.
Tim Ferriss: That’s right. If that’s your — you yell across the room to your audio engineer. You’re like, “Hey, what’s wrong with me?” They’ll be like, “All right. Coming right up.” Then there goes the playlist. Becoming aware and thinking about your primary question, your default question that you ask, and then deciding on a replacement. And you do this, I think, naturally. Maybe you came to use it more through these various books and resources, but the — when you’re angry, you’re like, “What can I use this as fuel for?” So a replacement default question that you could use is like, “What can I learn from this?” Which also depersonalizes the situation, right? It doesn’t assume that you are the primary actor creating all of the problems, which is not at odds with recognizing that you’re in charge of your thoughts.
Safi Bahcall: Yeah, I was giving — that’s a great, great example. Actually, there are two different kinds of anger. When you get rejected, whether it’s you lose in a sport or someone’s telling you you’re too old and you can’t play or you — that’s an interesting fuel you can use if you choose to use that. I actually, for a long, long time — I think since I was a teenager because of one specific anecdote have used, I had never thought about it in this language, but anger to trigger a question that immediately defused the anger, and I’ll give you the example. I was with a friend of mine who, we grew up playing competitive tennis in the juniors. And my friend, we were a few years older then. I was probably a decade older. And we were sitting around and she was talking about — she had been a star. She’d been — we were both ranked and she — but she was — she’d done really, really well and had really stopped and had just not done any exercise and clearly you could see that.
I remember we were sitting around catching up, and she was telling me, with growing anger, about her cousins who would get in a car to drive two blocks to mail a letter. They were so lazy, and it just really drove her angry, and she was beside herself. Of course, she was lying sprawled out on the couch and was getting help to just reach over for a box of chocolates or whatever.
Tim Ferriss: Right.
Safi Bahcall: I thought, “Okay. Now, if I had cousins that would get in their car to drive two blocks to mail a letter rather than walk the two blocks, would it make me — would it be curious? Sure. But would it make me angry? No.” I started to realize that a different trigger to anger is, “What does this anger say about me? How does this anger identify? Maybe something in me is an unresolved issue.” Probably, since then, since I was a teenager, every time I would start to get angry in this way, in something that didn’t seem rational, it pissed me off somebody — always, I would say immediately, “What is it in them that’s triggering something about me that I’m not comfortable with?” It doesn’t need to be something that you’re doing now.
I’ll give you an example. When a friend of mine — we were sitting in a bar and he saw somebody, a mutual friend of ours who had said he was going to quit smoking, go outside to have a cigarette. And this was — my friend had tried and had actually given up smoking, and he said, “That so pisses me off, that this guy said he quit and he broke it and he went back and it just — I can’t — what a pussy. It really — It just pisses…” I’m — I had the exact same reaction. “Okay, he tried to quit and he failed, and now he’s breaking his commitment. But I’m not angry about that. Why are you angry?” I didn’t ask him. That was more inner.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Safi Bahcall: Why is he angry? What I started to realize is it’s not only an interesting trigger question that completely defused the anger instantly for me, but it’s also a really interesting mirror of whoever you’re talking to. If they seem to be getting almost irrationally angry about something in somebody else, I set that completely aside and say, “What does that tell me about this person? What is it about their own inner struggles?” So I saw that in myself.
I remember when I was a grad student and there was some guy who was being accused or another grad student sucking up to the professors too much. Whenever I would see him, it just would really piss me off. Then I had that same trigger: “Why is that bothering me? That wouldn’t bother Joe Schmoe, but why is it so bothering me?” I’m like, “Oh, am I worried that I’m — because I was very friendly with a couple of really senior professors who were a generation or two older than me. “Am I worried that I’m acting different to them than I am to my friends? Because I wouldn’t like that,” and immediately, all of my anger towards that other fellow grad student just completely dissipated.
People often ask me, “You don’t seem to get angry about anything.” That — firstly that’s not true, when the Xerox machine breaks, I get freaking angry. So aside from the Xerox machine or the printer breaking at the last minute, I really don’t get angry, and that’s entirely attributed to this trigger question. I feel the bud of anger, I’m like, “Oh, there’s something about me here that it’s a mirror, and I may have solved the problem or not solved the problem, or I solved it years ago,” like the quitting smoking thing the guy who did versus the — but let me — and then all of my anger dissipates.
Tim Ferriss: You should — I’m going to pick up Joyful Wisdom. I would love to hear your thoughts on this book Awareness.
Safi Bahcall: Right. I —
Tim Ferriss: Because this is —
Safi Bahcall: — actually I’m writing these down.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. It’s —
Safi Bahcall: It’s great.
Tim Ferriss: Awareness really helped me with exactly the type of reframing that you’re talking about. It’s slightly different though. A little more conceptual — I think the trigger question is more actionable, but as a background, conceptual framework that is really helpful, it’s probably a very fancy way to put it. But in brief, in Awareness, one of the discussions is it centers on — it’s really an edited transcription of a number of short lectures. Very easy to read, very fun, actually. The guy’s really hilarious, and it focuses a lot on cognitive biases and confirmation bias, although it’s not called anything super fancy. A lot of looking at acute responses like anger to situations, come to entitlement. “What do you feel?” This is another angle, right? It’s not exactly the same, but it’s like: “What do you feel entitled to receive right now? What do you expect? How should the other person behave?” And is that completely unreasonable —
Safi Bahcall: Right.
Tim Ferriss: — because you can’t control other people’s responses? It’s a way to pick apart the weaknesses and the scaffolding that is holding up whatever emotion is about to drive you crazy.
Safi Bahcall: They come straight to the happiness equation. The ultimate happy. It was very simple mathematical — happiness equals reality minus expectations.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Safi Bahcall: So if you’re very frustrated with somebody, is it because of the reality, or is it because of the expectations?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Safi Bahcall: If you lower your expectations, you can turn that into a positive.
Tim Ferriss: So I’m going to give us a 90 degree turn here.
Safi Bahcall: Before — can I?
Tim Ferriss: Yes.
Safi Bahcall: Just before you, because it was so cool and so interesting, the MDMA stuff. In many ways, MDMA is a loonshot. It’s something that people have dismissed as naughty or crazy that it could actually help therapy, but actually may turn out to be incredibly important. Can I tell you another loonshot for depression?
Tim Ferriss: Yes. Please.
Safi Bahcall: That I’m kind of interested in? That I’ve seen some remark and now it’s — it might be in a similar stage where there’s a lot of very good, very interesting patient data. Actually in this particular case, it has been through phase three trials in a certain form. So this is something called rTMS, which is [repetitive] Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation, and what it has in common is that it has this vibe to it that sounds kooky or sounds nutty, or Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, right?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Safi Bahcall: But it’s kind of loonshot as well, especially One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest loonshot, but it is actually based on a very, very interesting observation. As it turns out, it has been through phase three trials and it is approved. I spent actually quite a while learning about it for no reason other than I just found it a fascinating story of a loonshot and a completely neglected idea. In this case, I actually ended up talking to a bunch of my psychiatrist friends, and there’s a center in Boston where I live. That’s actually one of the world’s centers for it, and so I ended up talking, creating some collaborations there with the group that I had met that was doing a really novel twist on it in California. But the bottom line is this: in psychiatry today there’s this focus on what you might call, if you’re a physicist, you would call it position space.
So I’ll explain what I mean and I’ll explain why this different approach is what something in physics we called duality, which is two very different ways of looking at the same problem. One way helps you solve it, one way doesn’t. So in psychiatry, in TMS — well, first I’ll start with what people do today. People do today MRIs to diagnose brain problems, and MRIs are trying to find, Magnetic Resonance Imaging, where in the brain certain activities seem to be concentrated. So that is what you might call position space, where in a position inside your brain or certain activities concentrated. But that’s not what we did.
That’s relatively new in the sense of a couple decades, but if you go back even more to, let’s say, the late 1930s, 1940s, there was a field of study with EEGs, looking at the frequencies that are issued by the brain. So in physics, you have position space and you have frequency space and there are two different ways of looking at the same problem. They’re equivalent: one lets you solve certain problems easier, the other doesn’t, and then for different problems it reverses.
EEGs, it turns out, it was discovered — the brain has a blinking rate. It’s roughly the average in the population in the U.S. is roughly 10 hertz, so 10 times a second. That became a very interesting field of study for about 10 or 20 years and then it dropped off. It’s a very inexpensive tool. MRI was a fancier, more expensive tool and because if you want a big grant and want to be a big professor at a big Ivy League school, you want to use the latest, most expensive one that generates these fancy color images that other people can’t do unless they have big grants like you. EEGs everybody can do. That’s why I find it — it’s a little bit like MDMA because it’s got this reputation.
So as it turns out, with depression if you measure people’s brains, their blinking rate may be a little bit off. And what TMS does, there’s really interesting physics about it, which is actually one of the reasons I got interested in how it works, essentially it creates — it’s an oscillating magnetic field. There’s no surgery, there’s no nothing. It’s like a shower — what do you call it? The shower head that they put your skull and it just has an oscillating magnetic field that kind of locks in the rate and sort of nudges. So if your default blinking rate is supposed to be 10 hertz and you’re blinking at 9.5 hertz in some parts, it just nudges you back closer to 10 hertz.
So as it turns out, that was approved, that was through phase three trials and got approved by the FDA about five or 10 years ago, I don’t remember, in a certain format and technique and actually turns out to work roughly about the same as meds. Not a much better response rate, not a much worse response rate, depending on the study and the population, roughly 30 percent response rate in both. Different side effects. You don’t have the side effects of taking a drug systematically, but the side effects of the TMS, you’re not doing any surgery, you’re not taking a drug. Essentially, it’s like a refrigerator that’s a little broken, you kicking your refrigerator and kicking it back into gear. The side effects, well you can read about them, but they’re much, much less and it was approved.
It’s fascinating, but the younger psychiatrists who are trained to do this recognized that this is a very effective tool. What’s nice is that when you treat any therapy, you want a tool belt. You want a lot of different tools because you never know what will work with a different person. So this one has shown some efficacy in drug-resistant depression, so that makes it a very useful tool to have on a tool belt. Younger psychiatrists really understand the data and understand that it’s safe and effective and approved by the FDA and it’s a technique that was approved, protocol that was approved. Older psychiatrists are much more resistant. But both of them are not using it as much as they could because of the Jack Nicholson effect. You just say, “Oh, I’m zapping your brain,” and they think of a tongue’s going to be hanging out, you’re going to drooling, and your eyeball is going to be rolling. So it’s a little hard to get over but they recognized that it’s as effective or more.
Then recently, what’s so fascinating is that there is a group or a few groups that have recognized — I know the response rate is pretty good. In some cases, it works phenomenally well. You do the TMS session, you kick the refrigerator and the refrigerator, all of a sudden, starts working. Guy was blinking at 9.5, it should have been a 10. You nudge him a little bit and boom! Now he’s at 10 and he’s walking off happy. In some cases, you get and in some cases, you get nothing like the drugs. But then what one group realized is it put measure probes in a different part of the brain and realized what’s fascinating is you can tease out — there’s an average blinking rate in the brain, but it’s not the same for everybody. So your blinking rate, average default blinking rate that you were born with, might be 11.2 hertz, and mine might be 8.7 hertz, and the next guy might be 9.3 hertz. It’s true when you take the population mean it is roughly 10.
Here’s the weird thing: the FDA protocol that was approved in phase three is: treat everybody at 10. That’s weird. If you’re at 11.2 and I’m blinking at 8.7, I’m a little — why should I zap you at 10? Why should I be nudging you to 10? Wouldn’t that be the case that it would probably have no effect on you and it would only really have an effect on the small people who’s — ? So there’s a group that’s realized that and is now doing what’s called Individualized Alpha Frequency TMS and is seeing some really pretty spectacular results and, even more than that, they start to look at different regions of the brain and they see, “Well, wait a minute, it’s not like your whole brain is — just your front left.”
So if I put, let’s say 15 probes around your head, 12 of them are right at — let’s say, Tim, your default blinking rate is 11.2, then 12 out of the 15 are at 11.2 and these three here, they’re blinking at 8.7. So what we do is we take the shower head and we stick it only there and we nudge it back up to 11. Now they’re all in alignment. The interesting thing is when you take a patient, and some of these groups have been able to do that, and just do the probe in different regions of the brain, without talking to patients, some of these physicians have been able to say, “Well, I think this person is depressed because he’s a little too low on the frontal cortex, or I think this person’s problem is mania because it actually turns out to be a little too high, or manic depressive because it’s high here and low there, so let’s zap here and zap there.”
Some of those groups have seen remarkable results, for example, with PTSD. Because PTSD is a lot like manic depression, and when PTSD patients come in, it’s all over the map. They’ve suffered some brain trauma and this region’s low, this region’s high. Yeah, they’re out of control. As one guy I know described it, you’re shopping for groceries, someone drops a milk carton, and he’s like, ready to fight and pulling out a gun because he’s still mentally on a battlefield and that’s the mania. Then other times, he can’t get out of bed, he’s so depressed. Sometimes don’t sleep.
I remember talking to one guy who hadn’t been able to sleep for more than three hours at a stretch for maybe seven years. His family had left him. He’d written a suicide date on the calendar and he went and this was being a clinical trial in one of the VAs in the San Diego area, the Naval base in the base there, and he was like a last resort case. Went in and got this treatment, this individualized TMS treatment. Family moved back in. Suit and tie. Literally, when he got back from the first — it sounds like one of these magic bullet things, but it’s really when you’ve talked to these — it is in clinical trials, so the one protocol has already been proved. We were talking a variant protocol.
It is amazing when you talk to these people and their lives were like literally, “I had a date on the calendar marked for suicide, and my family had left me a long time ago. I hadn’t slept more than three hours in seven years since I returned from Iraq, and I got back home from the first session, I slept 11 hours. It’s just amazing.”
Tim Ferriss: That’s wild.
Safi Bahcall: So what we’re talking about is loonshots.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Safi Bahcall: Loonshots to the future. Are they proven? Not quite yet. Are they in clinical trials? Absolutely. Should we wait until the clinical trial is out? Again, I’m talking for a variant of an established protocol from established therapy. You’re interested in TMS, you speak with a psychiatrist, preferably younger ones are all over — actually, there was a meta study serving acceptance or interest in TMS as a therapy among psychiatrists, and that study identified an age difference that the older ones were less into it and the younger ones were all over it. So if you are intrigued by this, there are these TMS treatment centers in major cities all over. Identify a psychiatrist, speak with your psychiatrist about it. Learn about the pros and cons, see if it’s something for you. It’s just another tool in the toolkit. Maybe it works, maybe it doesn’t.
Tim Ferriss: You can also add, maybe — I’m trying to think if the protocol for the individualized studies are published. Are they published?
Safi Bahcall: Yeah. They are in clinical trials phase. I don’t think that they’re yet in phase three. I think there’s a bunch of phases. It’s interesting who’s sponsoring them. Firstly, the Army. There are statements that I’ve seen by medical leaders in the Army that it’s an incredibly important potential therapy for them, so they’re sponsoring clinical trials. But also, I have heard about insurance companies because for example, I talked to a couple of vets who had done this therapy and they were on so many meds they went completely — after the therapy, you do maybe a couple of sessions a week for four weeks, six weeks, eight weeks, maybe there’s follow-up. They went completely off meds, completely off opiates, and it’s very tough to get off those.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, for sure.
Safi Bahcall: And that’s why the insurance companies are sponsoring it, because it’s relatively low-cost and can get you off meds and off hospitalization. There are more to come on this. I’m excited about that. More to come, clinical studies in the next couple of years.
Tim Ferriss: I’m super excited about TMS. TDCS also pretty interesting for other applications. Do you know which team is doing the research on the individualized? We could put it on the show notes and figure it out, also.
Safi Bahcall: Yeah, I’ll send you an email after and we’ll get that in there.
Tim Ferriss: We’ll put it in the show notes for people. So there are tools being researched.
Safi Bahcall: It’s another reason to be — in addition to Tim Ferriss sitting here, living proof that you experience joy and turn your life around and that’s one cause for hope. And the second one is there is a growing toolkit of things that can help. And the great thing about that is it’s different tools in that toolkit that will work for different people and the bigger that toolkit, the more likely it is that something will work for you and that toolkit is just being added to, and added to, and added to as we sit here.
Tim Ferriss: Since I alluded to it earlier and I’m going to do the right-hand turn after I mention this, but I said I was going to give you the shot to shoot something down. But this is not based on any type of literature review whatsoever, but my theory that I have, and I’m sure there are other people with a similar view, but there may be bidirectional causality with biochemical imbalance associated or, yeah let’s call it biochemical imbalance associated or pathological neuroanatomical activity and the thinking that is assumed to be a byproduct of that. So to put it more cleanly, and again this is not an open/shut case, but almost everyone knows at least a handful of people who are on antidepressants and still depressed. That could be because they developed tolerance. It could be for many, many different reasons.
But if I were to be tasked as a sadistic experimenter to create some type of biochemical change in the brain, let’s just say high levels of cortisol, that would then affect sleep, that would then affect maybe other hormones that would create a measurable pathology and biomarkers, I think that could be done. You could impose stresses on people that might simulate some of the environments in, say, warfare, like whistling of bombs, and mortars, and so on that would potentially create a state of depression or anxiety or feeling tired and wired, which is when people try to go to sleep but instead of getting a spike of cortisol in the morning, which would liberate glycogen and increase blood glucose, they get it at night. And you can measure that with all sorts of devices if you’re interested.
The reason I’m bringing this up is that when I’ve observed myself and also family members who have used pharmaceuticals, different types of drugs to address the manifestations of the depression that I tend to think that not only can the imbalances help produce the thoughts and just make it easier but that the thoughts can also, in some way, affect the biochemistry itself. Curious if you have any thoughts on the plausibility of it being bidirectional, because it’s seems — I feel like if I were like, “Tim, we’re going to give you $10 million if you can manufacture measurable imbalances, but do it by forcing someone to visualize a past traumatic event, or what could happen to their kids, or fill in the blank.” I feel like I would take that offer.
Safi Bahcall: No, I think it’s been demonstrated. So the idea is that biochemistry can influence thought patterns, but also to other way around; thought patterns can influence biochemistry. And I think that’s been proven. You read about, for example, these now monk — I actually forgot the guy’s name. I think he actually started as a physicist who suffered from some depression and had medical problems and psychological issues, psychological disorders, but eventually trained his mind through a bunch of the meditation and some of the techniques that are used and they actually did a whole series of studies, it was actually a whole literature now of studying the properties, the mental properties, of these Buddhist monks who have practiced deep meditation, and you see clear biochemical changes.
So it clearly goes both ways, and we know that from so many systems in the body, it’s almost never one-way. Very often, almost every system in the body, there’s a feedback loop. So thought patterns influence biochemistry influence thought patterns, and so absolutely, I agree that there is something there. I think very similarly, we were talking about how there are nudges or you get stuck and the reason it makes so much sense from a physics perspective, and earlier I actually mentioned duality, looking at the world from two different — so in physics, it’s very common to look at the simplest duality as position space and frequency space.
There are a lot of problems you can solve by looking at position. Hey, where’s electrical chemical potential in space, and how do you find the minimum of that? And that’s where you find your particle is located. I think that’s simplifying it a lot. You solve that problem in position space. But you can look at it in frequency space and it’s exactly the same problem. There’s a simple mathematical transformation. You don’t even need to know what those details are. All you need to know is that it’s just looking through a blue lens or a red lens at the same world. The world is exactly the same, but you could just see different things. There’s no way to understand the properties of a metal, why metals conduct electricity in position space, and that’s exactly what this means about the brain. No way to understand the metal — it turns out when you’d make the transformation frequencies, that it’s almost easy to solve. The brain. fMRI is position space. Where is something broken in the brain? EEGs are frequency space. What are the frequencies that my brain are firing at?
I think one of the things that’s being missed or often not talked about enough in even academic psychiatry is why are we so focused on fMRI and position space? I know EEG is an old technology, but maybe let’s see if we can at least look at the problem and maybe there’s something there. Maybe these frequencies are a little bit off, and maybe there is something to looking at the same problem in both ways. When you look in frequency space, in physics, it is very common that when you have something that’s called a complex system, which means there’s just a lot of interaction, especially as you just said they go both ways, where people end up, there’s something called an egg crate model. And if you imagine where you end up as you’re like a little ball, that’s where you are.
You might be stuck in one well of that egg crate, but you really want to be in this. This is the healthy well, and you’re just stuck there. And that’s what you see in frequencies, that when you have complex oscillators, complex frequencies that are connected, you get these egg crate models. And if you are in an unwell state, you may just be stuck in a local minimum, which is not the global minimum. You really want to be in this other well of the egg crate, and that’s what something like TMS does. I gave sort of jokingly the analogy of bumping a refrigerator that’s stuck, but that really is what happens with a complex system. You’re trapped in this local minimum and you need to get to the global minimum, but you have a little hill or a barrier. The TMS just sort of shocks you a little bit and whoosh, you go over the barrier.
So when I think of it, the model I have of some of these patients with severe PTSD, they’re stuck in this local minimum and they’re getting help because they just, by themselves, or even therapeutics, can’t get them over that little barrier to their somewhat more well state. So to answer your question, yes, I think it makes a lot of sense it goes both ways. The brain is what’s called a complex system where there are many interactions back and forth. I think it’d be an incredibly rare exception if it didn’t go both ways.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you for answering that. You also brought up something I’m going to use as a segue, because I did promise people that we were going to talk about in episode one, I promised towards the end that we would talk about bringing a gun to a knife fight, and incentives, and possibly what a Chief Incentives Officer might be, and we are going to talk about that. What I’m going to use as a segue is something you pointed out, which is that the EGG is an older tool and that fMRI is this fancy, expensive tool, and there may be incentives in the scientific world, whether it’s related to grants, whether it’s related to publication bias with newer tools, who knows, that affect the science and aside from the validity of the tools —
Safi Bahcall: I just have to pause and say that’s like a brilliant segue. I had no idea how you would possibly segue our discussion on hypnosis and depression and brain science to “Let’s talk about teams and companies and incentives!” How the hell is this guy going to get from A to B? And you just came up with this segue on the fly. Good job, man!
Tim Ferriss: Thanks.
Safi Bahcall: That’s a really good segue. Totally not forced. Totally natural.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, this is my job.
Safi Bahcall: But it actually works, because you’re absolutely right.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, there are all sorts of incentives, and I’d love for you to just riff. You start wherever you like, because I think of incentives all the time. All the time. When we were talking earlier, I’ll use another tie-in, about depression and what helped.
Safi Bahcall: Okay.
Tim Ferriss: So let’s see you identify the things that you should be doing or shouldn’t be doing that act as precursors to well states or precursors to depression. Okay, knowing is one thing. How do you stop drinking so much coffee? In my case, what I ended up doing was not just deciding and making a resolution, but creating incentives, whether that’s rewards or punishments. Maybe that is a betting pool with a friend about who can go the longest without drinking caffeine. Or it could be some type of reward. If I do X for Y period of time, then I receive reward Z, whatever that might be. There are all sorts of different ways to set up incentives and there are things you have to be cognizant of like — I think Andy Grove used to do this, but for every incentive they created to hopefully shape a behavior they wanted, they looked for the inadvertent, perverse incentive that was paired with it.
So I’m fascinated by incentives and would love to hear you riff on any aspect of incentives. You can come into it any direction. I just say it’s something I think about all the time because I view my job in parts, with the podcast or other things, as examining what works for behavioral change. That’s really the crux of all of it. So let’s talk about it.
Safi Bahcall: All right. This is a great example of how you come across an idea in science. In another segue, which is we were talking about these little things that you see that don’t seem to quite fit, or that other people may be overlooking and you really want to focus on those, teasing out a bigger idea. So let me mention a couple of what seems like odd paradoxes.
Individually, 10 people all love some crazy new idea. You bring them together, they reject it. Why? That seems kind of odd. Number two odd paradox. We have this myth of the big corporate guys are risk averse. If you’re an entrepreneur, this is what you often get to, and when I was an early entrepreneur, first starting, first-time CEO, first couple of years, you got with your friends for drinks, you’re all young entrepreneurs, emerging new company. You pat yourself on the back and you say, “Oh, all the great ideas come from folks like us because we are the risk takers. We’re the really entrepreneurial types and none of the good ideas come out of big companies, because they’re risk averse corporate types.”
Then as you grow up or as you mature as an entrepreneur, you realize you have to start working with them. You do partnerships with them or whatever and you start getting to know them as people. And you go out for drinks with them or have a meal with them and you realize, “Hey, they’re actually exactly the same as me.” They want the next new gadget or the next new idea or the next new drug. They want to go home and tell their spouse or their kids or their loved ones or their families or friends that they worked on something big. Eventually, sometimes you hire them and then, all of a sudden, the tie comes off, the jacket comes off, and they’re pounding the table just like you. They are you. So why this myth? That’s weird paradox number two.
We are seeing paradox number three is all this emphasis in articles, and books, and management stuff that you and I and almost everyone has read about culture. You see these interviews, and these glossy magazines, and these cover stories of these great legendary CEOs and the interviewer asks, “To what attribute do you attribute your success?” “Oh, it was to our culture. We built a great — ” meaning I built up a great culture usually is what they’re trying to say. And then two weeks later, the same company is in the toilet. What happened? Culture couldn’t change overnight, so what happened? Why does the same company with the same people suddenly transform? Weird puzzle number three. That’s usually the clue when you’re doing science. These sort of unexplained things that don’t quite fit conventional stories. So underlying all of those is incentives, and a new way to think about incentives, and teams, and companies, and groups that can help explain all three of those, and that’s ultimately what actually Loonshots is about.
So let me explain what I mean. Whenever you put people together into a group, you create two forms of incentives. One is what we often of: the stake and the outcome. So let’s take a biotech company, might be a 10-person company. Your stake and outcome is all 10 percent, as if everything’s divided equally just for the sake of simplicity. Now you double that, you’re 20-person now, it’s five percent, it’s getting smaller. As it grows, your stake and outcome is getting smaller and smaller, so your incentives for stake and outcome in rolling up your sleeves and fighting hard to help that loonshot or crazy idea succeed, it’s very high when you’re a small company, but it’s getting smaller and smaller as you get larger. What’s changing?
There’s a second incentive that you create no matter what happens whenever you organize people into a group with a mission and a reward system tied to that mission. You create a second incentive, and that is perks of rank. Two forms of incentive. A simple way to think of it is equity and cash. Equity and base salary. But let’s think about it even more broadly. Stake and outcome and perks of rank. What does that mean? Well, are you the team captain or a team member? Are you the CEO or a VP? When you’re a 10-person company, perks of rank is irrelevant compared to the stake, because if you’re the team captain or the team member, it might be a few thousand dollars difference, but if your project works or not, it’s a few billion dollars, or a few million dollars, or whatever. But of course, as it grows, it flips. All of a sudden, perks of rank become more important.
So when I’m talking about bringing a gun to a knife fight or a Chief Incentives Officer, what I’m talking about is people spend so much time focused on culture, and psychology, and empowering, and group dynamics. There are literally thousands or tens of thousands of books and articles about it. We spend so much less time on structure. What are the incentives? How are we motivating the behavior that we want to see? For example, here’s how it can help us think about that last one: why do groups suddenly change? Well, as they grow big, all of a sudden, the balance between those two incentives, the balance between them shifts. And as you grow bigger, and bigger, and bigger, stake and outcome gets smaller and smaller and perks of rank matter more, and more, and more and, at some point, they cross. Boom!
That’s when people start caring more about politics and promotion and less about the success of their crazy idea. When you care about politics and promotion, what do you do? You try to shoot down other people’s ideas, and that’s when good ideas die. That’s when the wisdom of the crowd turns into the tyranny of crowds. Underlying that is what you ask: incentives. So understanding that is very important to understanding, for example, that we are a paradox of why companies suddenly turn. When you really understand that and you start to tease that out, you can actually work out what are the control parameters of that transition.
So in science, in physics, you talk about a phase transition. That’s exactly when you have two competing forces, boom, you will trigger a transition. But more interesting than just knowing that is what are the parameters? So you can work that out mathematically, what are the parameters? There’s temperature in water, but if you add salt, you lower the freezing temperature. So there’s a degree of salt in water. There’s a binding energy between the molecule. If you lower that, you can also lower the freezing temperature. So you can keep something liquid much longer if you understand those forces.
So the reason that it’s important to understand incentives better, for example, to have a Chief Incentives Officer, is that it can help you control the transition between innovation and rigidity when you embrace wild new ideas and you reject them. It sounds like I’m speaking in a metaphorical sense, but actually you can translate that in the way a scientist or a physicist roll into sort of a straightforward mathematical model with two terms of cash and equity and then calculate where is that transition, at what size company does it happen, and you get a number. It happens at this number, and that number is a function of four parameters, and here are those parameters. So as I dial those parameters, I can dial that number up. Well, that’s cool. I just created four things I can adjust to create more innovative teams. The larger teams that still embrace new ideas rather than reject them.
That answer helps us understand one of those paradoxes, but it also helps us understand the one that I mentioned about the myth of the big corporate risk-averse guy. What happens when I take a molecule of water and I drop it into a glass of water? Well, it splashes around with all the other molecules. What happens when I take a molecule of water and I drop it onto a block of ice? Well, it freezes. But it’s the same molecule. And that’s sort of the same thing with the group dynamics. If you take the same guy, but you give him the incentives of owning a startup, he’s pretty innovative. The same guy, given the incentives where it’s all about politics and promotion, he’s going to be shooting down new ideas. So underlying that paradox as well is incentives.
So it helps us understand these sort of strange or mysterious puzzles. The first one that I talked about is, you take 10 people who love new, wild ideas. You bring them together. Well, if their incentives are more about who’s going to be the team captain, they’re probably going to spend their time shooting down, what gets me promoted, for example. In a large company, you have the same new idea, let’s say a new idea, a new drug, a promising new cancer drug gets a whole small biotech company super excited about it, and they’re all united about it, and it stumbles, and everybody rolls up their sleeves and save it. It stumbles again, and they roll up their sleeves again.
Imagine you’re at Pfizer, you’re at a committee meeting. Same drug, you’re the same person. Well, you could pound the table after its first stumble, and say, “No, no, I think there’s something good here. Let’s all fight.” Or, if the odds for success are low, and the stake in acumen is not very high, because how much is it going to help your career if it works down the road? Not very much. Or you can make sort of smart aleck comments that are maybe funny, about, “I think the science says this,” and “In the latest meta analysis, we see this,” and “I went to this keynote speaker, a Nobel Laureate, and he’s thinking that, and I really think the industry is headed here.”
And by coincidence, that’s what your boss thinks. And that’s what your boss who also happens to be sitting at the table thinks. And they’re nodding along, and you know what they’re saying? “That young fellow’s got a smart head on his shoulders.” And if you keep doing that, and playing politics, and sounding smart at meetings, and kind of shooting down by pointing out all the warts and playing it safe, the next thing, the next incremental idea, let’s say you have the statin drug. Let’s make the 49th statin drug. “Yeah, that sounds like a good idea. I think that’s a good idea. I really think that’s a good idea. We all think that’s a good idea. Good job, young man.” You might get promoted. What happens if you get promoted? You get bump up of 30 percent in salary.
So which do you want to do? You want to wait seven years and maybe move the needle of your company by one percent? Or you want to make smart aleck comments, and get promoted, and maybe next year for 30 percent? Incentives. So that is how it helps you think about all three paradoxes: why people individually who might like an idea, when you put them in a group, you create this second incentive of perks of rank that can outweigh.
So what do I mean by Chief Incentives Officer? Companies today have a, for example, Chief Technology Officer. What’s the job of the Chief Technology Officer? To make sure that everybody’s got the latest gadgets and systems. Well, that’s pretty good, but how important is it to have motivated employees? Is that maybe at least as important as everybody has the latest apps and smartphones and software? I would argue that it is as important or more important. How aligned are your incentives with individual goals?
The job of the Chief Technology Officer is strategic. You get very highly paid experts who are given a certain budget. Your budget is X. With that budget, I want you to optimize the quality of our tools. Same thing with a Chief Revenue Officer. You’re going to get a fixed marketing budget. “Your marketing budget, your sales budget is X. With that, I want you to maximize our revenue.” Why not have a Chief Incentives Officer? “I’m going to give you a certain compensation budget. Your compensation budget equity in cash is X. I want you to take that compensation budget and maximize the motivation of our employees.”
Some motivation is financial, and some is not financial. That’s part of your job. What are the non-financial things that are motivating people? They’re very different. Some people are, in fact, financial considerations are very important. Some people, intrinsic stuff, like am I growing? Am I developing? Am I contributing to a bigger cause? Am I getting recognized by my peers?
Individual managers who are putting out fires, and trying to do strategy, and trying to get things done on time, on budget, on spec, don’t really have the bandwidth to sit around and say, “Of the 11 people reporting to me, what are the different incentives? How can I design something to maximize the return on investment we’re giving for those incentives?” It’s much better handled if there is someone who it’s their first priority than if it’s someone who it’s their 97th priority.
What happens today at the vast majority of companies, including big corporate companies, for incentives? It’s a good year, everybody gets 10 percent. Bad year, everybody gets zero. How motivating is that, if you’re even a 1,000-person company? And we’ll come back to small companies, but if you’re a 1,000-person company, or a 10,000-person company, and you’re five levels down from CEO. You’re working on your project, your design. How much do you influence if it’s the company’s good year or bad year? Not much. So how motivating is it for you to work harder on your design, to know that if it was a good year? Not very. That’s called a wasteful resource.
In economics, it’s called the free rider problem. It’s the same thing with stock options. The vast, many companies say, “Let’s give everybody stock options.” Okay, maybe that’s great if you’re a five-person company, or a 10-person company, or a 50-person company, and your project is the one project, and if you help it, then the value — but suppose you’re a 10,000-person company, or even 1,000. There are 50 different projects, and your project might move the needle by one percent.
Tim Ferriss: Or even a smaller company, a 100-person startup, and you’re not deciding the strategic direction of the company if you’re hire number 100, most likely.
Safi Bahcall: Exactly. So what are your incentives? It’s a free rider problem, because you’d actually be better off if you can spend your time convincing your boss that you’re incredibly valuable. Meanwhile, just twiddle your thumbs, and if the company has a good year, bang, your options go up, and if a bad year, whatever. You spend your time looking for another job.
Tim Ferriss: I’d love to get into maybe some specific examples of — or any examples of — common incentives, or incentives that you see that are problematic. And I’ll just riff on a few problems that I’ve observed, I don’t exactly how to fix them, but just as a reflection of how much I think about this. Which is not indicative of having all the solutions, by any stretch. But for instance, first-hand experience of working on, say, books or television projects when there is a regime change. New leader comes in, says, “If this goes well, I’ll get none of the credit with this catalog of stuff that my predecessor approved, and if any of it goes wrong, I’ll get all of the blame.” Therefore, it’s all going in the vault, or whatever, getting deprioritized. And it’s super, super common, because — for the reason I just said.
Safi Bahcall: Incentives.
Tim Ferriss: And then, having more recently spent time in science, and looking at where there might be weaknesses, there might be funding deficits correlated to weaknesses, or funding pressure to perform science in certain ways, you see a positive publication bias. You could have a really well-designed experiment. Intervention, let’s just say, in one case, shows no effect. That’s still potentially a valuable study, but there appears to be a sort of publication bias for positive effects with intervention. It’s like, okay, well, how does that factor into a whole slew of different decisions that scientists make, or that founders make?
But whether it’s in science, whether it’s in for-profit companies, what are some common sort of default, and/or default compensation structures or offers that you think are problematic?
Safi Bahcall: All right, I’ll give you one example. It might be close to home. Uber.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah?
Safi Bahcall: And we’ll talk about it, because it will be interesting. That will be an interesting discussion. And just so we don’t lose the thread, what does it mean to bring a gun to a knife — what do I mean by that? And that is that if everybody is doing one thing, kind of a 20th century, just reward bonuses, they’re creating a free rider problem. They are not optimizing their use of incentives. They are weak.
If you want to get a competitive advantage as a company, why don’t you bring a gun to a knife fight? Appoint a Chief Incentives Officer, whose job it is to be more strategic. Where those companies are taking X amount of dollars, translate equity to dollars, X amount of cash in equity, and wasting it, why don’t you be strategic? Why don’t you take that X, get rid of the free rider problem, figure out what will better motivate and better incentivize, and essentially, better align incentives and value created for the company?
Individual managers don’t have the time or expertise or training. You don’t ask every individual manager to say, “I’d like you to come up with, identify the best software tools, and the best smartphone apps, and the best hardware, and the best middleware for your team, and could you get that done by a week from now, in addition to all your other — ” No. You appoint a Chief Technology Officer. That’s his job. Same thing with incentives.
So bring a gun to a knife fight. If all your competitors are doing this weak thing, why don’t you just turn that into a competitive advantage? Do it better. Use your resources more strategically to align incentives with value created better than your competitors, and you know what? You’ll create a more motivated force. That doesn’t mean that the cultural stuff doesn’t matter. It’s as a complement: culture and structure.
So, let’s talk about Uber for a second. This will be kind of interesting, since you were such an early investor. So one good friend of mine there, the senior, who has been around a lot of tech companies, we don’t need to mention any names in this conversation, talked about the culture in the engineering group there, pre-CEO transition, before the transition with Travis, as everyone wanted to be captain of their own speedboat. And it was problematic in the sense that whenever you grow very fast, you accumulate a technology debit. There are liabilities and assets, and when you grow —
This is actually, Bob Sutton at Stanford did a great study on this in Uber, and he and I have been talking about it, and this is the way he described it, which I thought was very interesting. When you grow really rapidly, you accumulate a debit, which is all the little technology stuff that you sort of fast forwarded past, and really needs to go back and get cleaned up if you want to scale. At Uber, what appeared to be the culture on the surface was that everyone wanted to be captain of their own speedboat; they wanted to work on the next Uber thing. Uber Eats, or Uber Delivery from Hospitals of Meds, or Uber Flowers, or whatever, rather than go back and fix the technology debit, all the stuff from growing hyper fast they needed to go back, and that led to a lot of problems. So that sounds like a culture problem, almost, doesn’t it? Everyone wants to be their own speedboat. But let’s go one level beneath that.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah.
Safi Bahcall: What was the incentive system? The incentive system at Uber at the time, and you can correct me if you have first-hand knowledge, I just happen to — everybody has a base salary. Let’s just for sake of argument call it $100, and let’s say you have a bonus target of $30, just for the base of argument. It could be very different. But let’s say that’s the multiple. And there is a multiple of bonus that you get depending on how your year went.
And at most tech companies in Silicon Valley, anything less than .5, you’re fired, 50 percent, you might be fired. 70 percent was not a great year, 80 percent. But 100 percent is you hit most of your stuff. And maybe 150, a great year.
At Uber, it was 800 percent. It was a huge multiple. So what did that structure encourage? It encouraged everybody to go find their one project, but push everybody away, because that’s what they were being compensated on. Because if you could demonstrate that you found some little niche, and you grew it, you could get some huge multiple. So that led to the captain of the speedboat problem.
The CEO transition, it sounds like, that was just a culture — actually, they changed the underlying incentives, as well. The captain of the speedboat problem faded, and people started playing together better. They started going back and fixing the technology debits that they’d accumulated from the hyper growth phase.
So, lesson: Sometimes things that look like culture may actually be structure. Sometimes structure drives culture. And that’s why having a Chief Incentives Officer is bringing a gun to a knife fight. It can give you a competitive advantage. If you’re really busy hyper growing a company, do you have time to think about the perverse incentives of your stuff? You’ve got your CEO, or your board of directors. You’ve got all these fires to put out. You’ve got strategy, you’ve got execution. You don’t have time to think about — but if you appointed a Chief Incentives Officer, and that’s his or her job, they can catch some of these traps, they can optimize the use of those resources more effectively. So that’s what I mean by Chief Incentives Officer.
Now, Uber, what are your — what’s your thinking?
Tim Ferriss: Well, I do not have the ground level, first-hand exposure to their compensation structure, so I can’t speak to that. But I think it’s a very valid example, as well as it’s a micro example of a macro phenomenon, right? In the sense that, at the very least, incentives are a large part of culture, insomuch as we think of culture. Just to separate it from the for-profit work world or business world for a moment, think of culture, whether it’s Japanese culture, or American culture, or fill-in-the-blank culture. What does that really mean? The word gets used a lot. What does that really mean, culture?
And in my mind, it is a shared set of beliefs and behavior. I mean, to a large extent. It’s like, okay, putting the beliefs to one side, what dictates behavior? Certainly, to a large extent, it’s incentives. What are you rewarded for, and what are you punished for?
Safi Bahcall: And what you’re saying is, in many ways, structure can drive — I think of culture as patterns of behavior, and I think structure, they’re not mutually exclusive circles. They overlap, and they interact, because structure can drive culture. So incentives can drive patterns of behavior. And by saying that structure can matter, it doesn’t mean that you’re saying culture isn’t important, right?
So, for example, having regular employee beatings is probably a bad idea. I’m just putting that out there. That kind of culture, where you flog people at 11 a.m. in the town hall, that’s probably not going to do great for you. Empowering your employees, celebrating victories, that’s probably good. Those are patterns of behavior.
So, here’s a wacky analogy, but we talked about nature versus nurture, genetic predispositions, versus things you — this is a great segue. Genetic versus nature versus nurture. Genetic predispositions versus things that you pick up from the environment. And I think that’s a good example. There are genetic predispositions to diabetes. On the other hand, if you drink two gallons of Coke every day, you’re probably going to accelerate diabetes. There are genetic predispositions to lung cancer. On the other hand, if you smoke two packs a day, you’re probably going to accelerate it.
Both genes and lifestyle matter, and same with structure and culture. In a company, both structure and culture matter, and I think one issue is that there’s been so much focus on number two, and not enough focus on number one.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, 100 percent.
Safi Bahcall: So much focus on culture, culture, culture. Culture, culture, culture. When I first started as a CEO, and you probably the same thing, I consumed those books, because I wanted to learn how to be a better leader. And after, like, the 100th book that said more or less the same thing, okay, I get it already, but is there any more? And then there were all these kind of funny little paradoxes that I couldn’t really explain.
So it’s not that those ideas and principles, that there isn’t stuff there that’s useful. Evidence, they get repeated over and over. But people have not paid enough attention to structure. And that’s why if you do it well, Chief Incentives Officer, it’s bringing a gun to a knife fight. You create a competitive advantage.
Tim Ferriss: But I think it’s also an example of bringing a scientific mindset to something that has a lot of fuzzy logic, and is full of paradoxes, as you noted. Because it’s like, okay, if the culture is the variable that is determining the success or failure of this company that’s being put on magazine covers, and then a month later, it’s a complete U-turn, how does one explain, then?
And on the incentives side, also, you have very discrete pieces that allow you to run experiments very effectively, whereas I think the culture discussion can get very nebulous, very quickly. It’s like, okay, you want to improve culture. First, let’s define culture. What are you talking about, exactly? Hard to get anyone — not anyone, but it’s often talked about for 200 pages in a book without ever defining it properly. Problem number one.
Problem number two: Okay, you want to impact culture. How are you going to measure improving culture? Is it in top line revenue growth? Is it in any number of key performance indicators? It’s not as cleanly examinable or testable as incentives, in a lot of respects. And that’s why, for me, I’ll give you an anecdote. And this is for people who are listening who are like, “I don’t own a big company,” this applies to you. This applies to you.
For me, the culture would be like, just think more positive, right? Culture is like, go lose weight because you’ll be happier. It’s like, okay, well, the fact of the matter is, I haven’t been losing weight for the last five years that I’ve had that as my New Year’s resolution. Maybe it’s time to shift and look at the structure.
And I remember talking to somebody at one point, they were watching phobias being cured on stage. It was some type of mentalist, or someone who was doing work. And at one point, this woman gets on stage, and she’s afraid of heights, and there’s a ladder that’s put up, and she talks to the mentalist, who cures her of her phobia doing A, B, and C, and then she walks all the way up to the top of the ladder and comes down, and he goes, “How do you feel?” And she goes, “I feel great. My husband said he would give me $100 if I climbed to the top of the ladder.”
Safi Bahcall: It’s like, structure drives favors.
Tim Ferriss: Right. Incentives, people. It’s the incentives, stupid. Sometimes, it’s like, follow the money, it’s the economy, stupid. Well, with human behavior, it’s the incentives, stupid. Really, really pay attention to that, and you can rig the game so that it is more likely you’ll get the outcomes you want if you think about that structure, right, and if you think about the incentives.
Safi Bahcall: Yeah. You touched on the thing, it’s a more scientific approach. It gives you actionable ideas that are sort of surprising, or starting points for discussion, or different ways — I’ll give you two examples. So you can work out the mathematics of when you get this transition, and when you get these control parameters that are parameters of organizational design.
And so here’s one thing it tells you that you can do if you want to build more innovative teams and companies, which is get managers out of the decision of bonuses and promotion. Just take them out of the decision loop. That sounds kind of weird. You’re a manager. Shouldn’t you be deciding? I’ll give you Company A and Company B that do it the different ways, and it will be pretty clear why.
Imagine there is a, let’s call it, some kind of client service, consulting company, a design company, architecture company. Any kind of consulting, here in Austin. And there is the local office — it’s a global company, and there’s the local office here, and there are three vice presidents, and there are 30 associates in the Austin office, and a spot opens up for a fourth VP. Now, in most companies, the local office is going to decide on which of those 30 candidates is going to get that promotion and become the fourth VP. And so what’s going to happen? Those 30 associates are going to be sucking up to those three VPs, and politicking, and stabbing each other in the back all year long, because they all want to get that promotion.
Now imagine a different company, and this is actually done in many ways at Google, and was done at McKinsey, and maybe at some other companies, but not very many. Local office, three VPs, 30 associates. Spot opens up for a promotion. Three VPs don’t decide. They fly in somebody from Denmark, specifically chosen because he or she doesn’t know — let’s make it a she. Let’s call her Eleanor from Denmark.
She flies in because she doesn’t know the three VPs, doesn’t know any of the associates. Maybe from a totally different industry or field, but same group. And her job is to spend a week, two weeks, three weeks, interviewing broadly. Might interview 10, 15, 20 people. Will certainly interview the three VPs. Will interview many of the peers of the candidates of the 30. Will interview their customers, interview their internal customers, their external customers, up, down, and see — make a decision, or make a recommendation to an independent committee that will make the decision.
Now what happens? In the second situation, what are those 30 associates going to do? Are they going to be sucking up to the VPs all year round? No, because the VPs aren’t making that decision. Are they going to be stabbing each other in the back? Not really, because the other associates are going to be interviewed on this decision. So what do you have? Everyone’s going to kind of focus on their job and doing good client work, because they’re going to be interviewing the clients, they’re going to be interviewing internal people. So everyone is kind of cooperating. What did we just do? We took the manager out of the decision.
So where does this come from? Well, if you work out kind of the mathematic, economic model, you can calculate something called return on politics. What’s the incremental value, incremental probability that you increase your promotion likelihood, versus the incremental hour you spend on politics? When that variable or parameter, return on politics, is high, as it was with the first company, you really hurt innovation. When that variable is low, as it was for the second company, you really improve innovation.
So that just falls out — you mentioned scientific — it just actually falls out of sort of a straightforward model of the incentives and these two variables, return on politics. And so it gives you a way of quantifying something that’s sort of fuzzy.
So, if I tell you, or we’re sitting around talking, and a friend of ours says, “I just joined this new company. It’s very political.” It sounds like a cultural thing, but actually there’s a way to quantify. It just means my expected value of return on politics is higher here than in my old company. And that sucks. Every manager is different, and everyone is more or less susceptible to politics, but there’s some average, and that’s what you mean.
Tim Ferriss: Right, and everyone is susceptible to incentives.
Safi Bahcall: And everyone is susceptible to — so that’s just kind of one example of how you can think a little bit more scientifically of incentive. Are my incentives around politics and promotion, in which case it’s not going to be a great place for innovation? Or are my incentives pretty well aligned around the success of my idea, or my project, or my team’s project?
Tim Ferriss: Not just innovation, but am I going to be in an environment where I feel supported by my team, by my peers, or is it going to be like The Hunger Games?
Safi Bahcall: Right.
Tim Ferriss: I mean, which certainly, innovation is one thing that suffers. There are a lot of things that suffer.
Safi Bahcall: Right, and designing incentives is a complicated problem. It’s not like I’m saying there’s an easy solution. I’m just saying that the return on investment of spending more time and more energy, making it at least as equal a function as your Chief Technology Officer or your Chief Revenue Officer, is worth it. Chief Revenue Officer’s to motivate customers to buy your product, as best as you can with a fixed budget. Well, don’t you want to motivate your employees to work as hard as they can, on the best projects for you? Yeah. That’s what the Chief Incentives Officer should do. Isn’t that just as important as motivating your customers, motivating your people? Yeah, so why don’t we do that? Why don’t we make it at least as good?
Tim Ferriss: And this, I should say, I think, certainly also applies to very small companies, even one-person shops. Because whether or not you’ve designed them, you’re responding to incentives.
Safi Bahcall: Absolutely.
Tim Ferriss: So it makes a lot of sense to sit down and figure out what you’re responding to, what you’re most motivated by, positively, negatively.
Safi Bahcall, Loonshots.com.
Safi Bahcall: That’s right.
Tim Ferriss: @Safi, S-A-F-I, Bahcall, B-A-H-C-A-L-L, on Twitter, if anybody wants to wave hello. The book is Loonshots. It’s a really fun read. And for someone like me who really learns best by example and story, to deduce the principle or the lesson, it is just chocked full of stories that I would have expected to have heard at some point in all of my reading, in all of my adventuring in the business and scientific worlds, and yet, the vast majority, I had never come across, which made it not just an actionable read, but a very fun read. So thank you for that.
Safi Bahcall: Thanks for saying that. It means a lot. I really appreciate it.
Tim Ferriss: And do you have any parting comments before we wrap up?
Safi Bahcall: Yeah, because I don’t think we’ve spent enough time together, and talked about enough ideas. I think we’ve got another 72 hours worth of material, because we’ve been so superficial.
Tim Ferriss: That’s true. Skimming the surface.
Safi Bahcall: Not more than a few seconds on each topic. No, no, it’s super fun to be here, of course, and I hope — my hope with this book is that it — the thing that’s been most, that’s made me feel the most satisfied, and you’ve probably experienced this with stuff you do as well, is that a lot of people, especially younger people, have come to me and said they just find it inspiring and uplifting. And my hope with this is that — it’s an especially exciting thing for me if it can inspire people who have a crazy idea, or people who are being told that their idea is crazy, to just keep going a little while, because there is some gold out there if you just persist through the stumbles. And that’s not just the exceptional idea. It’s almost every single important idea. So if you hit a bunch of rough patches, it may be because you’re onto something really important.
Tim Ferriss: Dig it. Safi, thank you again for all the time. It is time for us to go grab some food, and for everybody listening, you can find links to everything we have talked about in the show notes, as per usual, at tim.blog/podcast, and then you can search Loonshots, Safi. Safi is probably the best bet, S-A-F-I. Search his name. All of the links will pop up in the show notes. And until next time, thank you for listening.
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