Amanda Palmer on Creativity, Pain, and Art (#368)

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Amanda Palmer and Tim Ferriss

“I’m just so fundamentally optimistic, and I barrel forth in life with this attitude that everything is going to be absolutely fine and go my way.”
— Amanda Palmer

Amanda Palmer (@amandapalmer) is a singer, songwriter, playwright, pianist, author, director, blogger, and ukulele enthusiast who simultaneously embraces and explodes traditional frameworks of music, theatre, and art. She first came to prominence as one half of the Boston-based punk cabaret duo The Dresden Dolls, earning global applause for their inventive songcraft and wide-ranging theatricality.

Her solo career has proven equally brave and boundless, featuring such groundbreaking works as the fan-funded Theatre Is Evil, which made a top 10 debut on the SoundScan/Billboard 200 upon its release in 2012 and remains the top-funded original music project on Kickstarter. In 2013 she presented The Art of Asking at the annual TED conference, which has since been viewed over 20 million times worldwide. The following year saw Palmer expand her philosophy into the New York Times best-selling memoir and manual, The Art of Asking: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Let People Help.

Since 2015 Palmer has used the patronage subscription crowdfunding platform Patreon to fund the creation of her artwork. This has enabled her to collaborate with artists all over the world with over 14,000 patrons supporting her creations each month. Palmer released her new solo piano album and accompanying book of photographs and essays, There Will Be No Intermission, on March 8, 2019, followed by a global tour. Recorded in late 2018 with grammy-winning Theatre Is Evil producer/engineer John Congleton at the helm, the album is a masterwork that includes life, death, abortion, and miscarriage among its tentpole themes.

Watch the interview on YouTube.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, Castbox, or on your favorite podcast platform.

Want to hear an episode with Amanda’s husband? — Listen to my conversation with author and world treasure Neil Gaiman, in which we discuss the writing process, first drafts, artistic collaboration, daily routines, and the merits of fountain pens. Stream below or right-click here to download.

#366: Neil Gaiman — The Interview I've Waited 20 Years To Do

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

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The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Eric Schmidt (#367)

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Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Eric Schmidt (@ericschmidt), Technical Advisor and Board Member to Alphabet Inc., where he advises its leaders on technology, business and policy issues. Eric joined Google in 2001 and helped grow the company from a Silicon Valley startup to a global leader in technology. He served as Google’s Chief Executive Officer from 2001-2011 and Executive Chairman 2011-2018, alongside founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

He is the co-author of The New Digital Age, How Google Works, and the new book, Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell, which he co-authored with fellow Google leaders Jonathan Rosenberg (@jjrosenberg) and Alan Eagle (@aeaglejr).

Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, Castbox, or on your favorite podcast platform.

#367: Eric Schmidt — Lessons from a Trillion-Dollar Coach


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Tim Ferriss: Eric, welcome to the show.

Eric Schmidt: Thank you for having me.

Tim Ferriss: So if we flash forward, I’m sure we will jump around in a very nonlinear fashion. When I look at your undergrad experience, is it true that you started in architecture and then shifted to electrical engineering?

Eric Schmidt: That’s right. Software didn’t really exist at the time. Computer Science didn’t really exist as a field. I had been programming when I was in high school. It was a rare event at the time. When I meet some 15-year-old boy that has three computers and is a gamer, and sits at home with all sorts of screens all night, that was me back then, without the computers, without the gaming, without the screens.

So when I went to college, I actually applied as an architect because I had studied architecture in high school, and I liked it, but I wasn’t a very good architect. But I was quite a much better engineer. And when I got to freshman year, I was a good enough programmer that I skipped the freshman year programming. And that’s the hallmark of a flexible college program, is they organized around my ability. So I was what we now call an early developed nerd. Although the term wasn’t even used back then.

Tim Ferriss: What did you like about architecture? What drew you to architecture initially?

Eric Schmidt: I’ve always liked building things, and I’ve always liked structure, and I’ve always been pretty analytical. And what’s interesting about computer science is computer science is about scale and sort of scale of systems and organizing systems. It’s all the same stuff, right? So I found in architecture and where, again, I didn’t have the artistic sense, but I had this scale sense, it’s the same skill set.

Tim Ferriss: And we’re going to talk I suspect quite a bit about mentorship coaching, mentors, and coaches in this conversation. And I thought we could look at a few periods in your past to talk about influences, people you’ve learned from. And we can certainly jump all over the place if anyone comes to mind that I don’t prompt, but around 1983, and I’m skipping quite a bit, of course, you joined Sun Microsystems. What, for people who don’t know, what did Sun Microsystems do? And is there anyone who comes to mind as having taught you a lot while you were at Sun?

Eric Schmidt: So one of the things to think about when you look at your phone, or your Macintosh, or your PC, is that there were whole waves of predecessors of these things that were impossibly slower and impossibly more expensive. But had those things not occurred, we wouldn’t have gotten to where you are today. So each generation builds this product that’s impossibly difficult. So Sun managed to build what was impossible at the time, which was a one megahertz processor, a one megabyte memory, and a one megabit screen. Today your phone has a gigabit that is a thousand or more times more than that, and we sold products for $50,000 to engineering design systems, because they were busy doing technical things. And that’s how it started.

The workstation, as it was known, was actually based on something called an Alto that was invented at Xerox PARC, which I had worked with before. And the workstation that was invented at Xerox Alto PARC was also the predecessor of the Lisa, which was the predecessor of the Mac. So again, the provenance of these things are these very early research prototypes. There were a few hundred Altos built. You can see them in museums today. What I will tell you about them is they’re impossibly slow compared to what you have today. But they seemed enormously powerful at the time.

Tim Ferriss: How did you end up at Sun and did anyone in particular take you under their wing or impart lessons to you while you were there?

Eric Schmidt: So in my story, what happened was I was at Berkeley, and my best friend was a brilliant computer scientist named Bill Joy, who was the chief programmer of much of the technology of the time, he did much of the early internet programming. And when I was at Xerox, I worked with another brilliant computer scientist named Butler Lampson. So I had the best, best smartest mentors in the technical sense. So I had a choice of staying and doing research. But I really wanted to go into a company. My friend Bill had founded Sun Microsystems, which was this technical platform at the time. And I showed up and what happened was, there were a couple of — I knew nothing about business. I figured it was fun.

And there were some technical founders, they had brought in a professional CEO. It’s all very scrappy, and within a month of my starting there was a gentleman named Bernie Lacroute who was brought in. He was impossibly old at 39, compared to me in my 20s. And he knew everything, he’d been through everything. I was so impressed by — he knew how to build products, he understood politics inside of a company, he understood how to get things out the door, he had worked at Digital Equipment Corporation. So again, the management style of that generation imparted to the next generation. Digital Equipment Corporation was subsequently purchased by a series of other companies, including Hewlett-Packard. Sun was eventually purchased by Oracle, where you can buy their products today.

So again, that the technology is such that 30 years earlier, that knowledge base survives in the heads of the people who were there and in the legacy of the intellectual property that they invented. And I guess the same will be true 30 years from now for what we’re talking about.

Tim Ferriss: And you mentioned Bill Joy. I’m going to come back to Bill Joy a little bit later. But I’ve only had a few people on this podcast. The people who are on this podcast tend to be well-spoken. But I’ve only had a few on who seem to speak in nearly finished prose. And you seem to be on that short list. Have you always been as clear a communicator as you are? Or is that something that you developed or honed, and if so, how?

Eric Schmidt: I don’t know, to be honest. This is who I am. I think what happens is that I’m a very logical thinker and I’m a good explainer. So logical thinker, plus good explainer, is how it works. And I also try very hard to observe things around me and try to figure out how things work. And that’s been sort of my secret to having a little luck around me. But going back to mentors, so Bernie was an incredible force because he was also tough, and he was also clear and he was also precise, and he would get upset if we weren’t working hard enough on something, and he pushed us. And I learned something. I was a very polite, nice scientist coming out of academia. I learned that in business, you need to be pushed. You need somebody who says, “We’re going to go do this and we’re going to to push it very hard.” And he really trained me in the executive arts, if you will. I worked for him for a decade.

Tim Ferriss: I’d love to talk about those executive arts because in my experience, this isn’t uniform, of course, but some technologists view say, the sales side or the management side, with some degree of disdain. That’s not true across the board, but it’s a somewhat common sentiment. What were some of the executive arts or lessons that you learned at that time?

Eric Schmidt: It’s important to say right now that today we know much more about how to run successful tech companies than we did in the 1980s and ’90s. The formulas, the learning, the standards of excellence are far, far more honed over the last 20 years of executives working in each other’s companies and things like that. That’s part of why things happen so fast in our industry. But at the time, we didn’t really know how to professionally release software in this new space. We didn’t really have open source software established as a principle. We didn’t really know how to sell it.

We figured we would sell direct, but how do we do that? What kind of salesman did we hire? So in that period, it was much more raw than it sounds in hindsight. We honestly didn’t know. Do we hire a blue-suited salesman who looks good and talks a lot? Do we hire somebody who’s very technical? Because our customers were technical. How do we goal them? How do we listen to them? Those of us on the technical side found the salespeople very entertaining because all they did was talk and we would sit there and eventually I was so curious for this.

I asked one of the salespeople to actually come and present to the engineers: what do salespeople do? And what he did is he got up and he said, “Look, my job is to talk to people until they buy things.” And we all said, “Well, how do you actually do this?” He said, “That’s why I’m always on the phone. And I don’t want to have dinner with you; I want to have lunch with you because I want to have dinner with my family.” So we learned a lot about high-end sales cycles that have since become the norm and these big ticket items. What’s interesting is the industry has to some degree moved away from that, now that the industry is gone from more B to B to B to C — that is, consumer businesses. And a big change from that Sun period is now our industry is a consumer focused industry with many, many successful such companies.

Tim Ferriss: And you are a very good and clear explainer, and feel free to fact check me on this, but I believe you’ve taught at Stanford GSB, the Graduate School of Business, and did you teach with Peter Wendell? The Entrepreneurship and Venture Capital class?

Eric Schmidt: That’s correct. I’m also teaching a class on artificial intelligence applied to science at Caltech.

Tim Ferriss: Another fantastic institution. I’ve spent some time with Peter because I went to Princeton undergrad, and had a chance to hear him as a guest speaker, and then went to GSB to sit in on his class when he was teaching many, many years ago, back when I had more hair. And in that class, are there any particular resources or books that you like to point people to? For those who want to learn, like you said a lot of things have been codified in the last few decades.

Eric Schmidt: What’s interesting is a lot of the things that I’m talking about are still not written down from the engineering science perspective. How do you manage a large software project? I’m not aware of a defining book that describes that. There’s plenty of technical books about aspects of software, but the culture of software is still evolving. An example is that a recent change is essentially pair programming, where somebody writes code, another one checks it. There are languages, a recent language is called the Go language, which actually is designed around that principle, right? So we just presume that that’s how programming is done. These were all things that were not worked out at the time. Without plugging my own books too much, we teach how Google works.

In Peter Wendell and my class at Stanford, which is very, very highly ranked class — and I, having just done it — I still think that the basic lessons that we talk about in How Google Works, which are fundamentally that it’s the product, it’s the product, it’s the product; it’s recruiting, it’s recruiting, it’s recruiting, and transparency of how you operate are sort of the key lessons that we learned and they’re codified in that book.

Tim Ferriss: And I think we can segue towards Google because we’re going to spend quite a bit of time on it, and we may hit some of the intervening chapters along the way. You mentioned Bill Joy earlier, and as you mentioned, legendary for his prowess as a programmer, who also then spent some time as a venture capitalist. And when I look at — I think it was an interview or talk that you’ve given and this is actually on the Stanford GSB site — you mentioned that approach that he had — one of his one of his approaches — so he’d find an area of interest, look up research papers about it. He would figure out the two or three best authors, and then call them.

And by the way, these are people who no one ever calls, so they would call him right back, and then he would ask them, “What’s the most interesting thing in your field?” And I bring this up because I am segueing to another venture capitalist named John Doerr. But before we get into the role that John played, according to my reading, at least in your introduction to Google, who is John Doerr? What makes him special? You can answer that, of course, in any order.

Eric Schmidt: Well, John was this mythical figure that I met. When I first joined Sun, he seemed everywhere. And he was one of these prodigies at sales. He had worked at a company called Compaq, and he’d been so successful as a salesperson that he had joined Kleiner Perkins, which became the most successful venture firm in history, and was so for a long time. And he was on the board of Sun and Compaq and a number of other companies. And it was critical. What was interesting to me was I learned a lot from John because he had a pretty simple rule, which is that: what to venture capitalists do? They help the management team, they recruit management team, and they raise money.

So his job was once you had identified a company, you’d invest in it, you were all in on that company. And Kleiner Perkins at the time was the highest return, highest risk margin, highest lead paid partners of any of them. And interestingly Bernie, who was my mentor and coach if you will, went to Kleiner Perkins after he left Sun, and a number of other people, including Vinod Khosla, did as well.

So the world is much smaller than it seems, if you’re an outsider looking at our world, somehow you think it’s this vast world. But to me, it seems like about 100 people and they all know each other. They’ve all been on each other’s boards. They were all working together toward a common goal. I’ve since learned that this is how industries develop. So when you go back to the starting of the automobile industry, or the starting of any other industry, it was a small community and everyone benefited by working together even if they were competing. As an aside, when I first came to Google, I developed a habit of calling Terry Semel, who was the then-CEO of Yahoo — was our primary competitor — to congratulate him for every deal he got, and he developed the habit of calling me to congratulate me for my getting every deal.

And the reason, aside from being a good person — which he was — was we knew that if he got a customer to buy their product, we would shortly follow into that account. And he knew that if we got a customer using this, he knew that he would shortly follow into the account. So there’s a real camaraderie around sharing the building of these new network platforms, these new sort of forces of good, if you will, and they’re a relatively small group for much of their time.

Tim Ferriss: It also seems like, this is just one theory that I’ve come across when people are trying to explain why Silicon Valley happened where it did, that non-competes in California being difficult to enforce seem to have also played a role in a lot of that formation. That we don’t have to take too much time for that. But I thought that was — do you find that sort of a plausible contributing factor when you have, I’d say, this National Semiconductor and these other outlets?

Eric Schmidt: Yeah. So true. In 30 seconds, the history of The Valley was that it started with the Fairchild Corporation, in the late 1950s, and then as a group of eight left, they were called The Traitorous Eight. And they went to Intel and a number of other companies. And they were funded by this guy named Arthur Rock. And he was the only venture capitalist. I interviewed him for something else I was doing. He’s now elderly and retired, but incredibly impressive. And I said, “Well, what was venture like back then?” And he said, “Well, we were the only ones, so we would just wait until we decided.” “How long would you make people wait?” “Oh, six weeks, eight weeks, we were the only money in town.” And he had been clever enough to figure out the limited partner structure, which fueled this industry.

So you have Arthur Rock, and Intel, and then the beginnings of the semiconductor industry, and then the beginnings of Apple and Steve Jobs and, and all of these sorts of things that we know about. But it was very much at the time a valley that was full of technical people because of National Semiconductor, Lockheed, and things like that. But essentially engineers, and they had typically come out of Stanford. So Stanford’s contribution was significant. Once the business started going, the fact that there was not a non-compete meant that people all lived essentially with each other, right? They went to each other’s parties. They were in marriages, if you will. Everybody knew each other.

And from that strength, they lifted all of us. When I was young, and I joined Sun, I didn’t realize that there was a half generation above me that had built this edifice of venture funding corporations, tech startups, and so forth which funded during that period Microsoft, Apple, Google, Oracle and a few others.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, it’s the — do you think Silicon Valley is a non-recurring phenomenon? Do you think that there are or will be areas that resemble Silicon Valley, in terms of positive characteristics for entrepreneurship?

Eric Schmidt: So this, of course, is a raging debate in the world. And the thing Silicon Valley has going for it are, at least historically, abundance of land, great opportunity, plenty of money, two tremendous technical universities in Berkeley and Stanford. This history of entrepreneurial nature of things, a sense of going higher than others. This is the moon shots versus roof shots. There are a set of people who also believe that the nature of California is part of it. There was a book written that some of this happens, this is before my time, because of the anti-war activities in the ’60s and LSD and so forth. And that the kind of crazy thinkers of the time — again, before me — ended up here. And that also helped program the area. So they would think broader or higher.

I don’t know if that’s true or not. But I will tell you that in order to replicate Silicon Valley, you’re going to need to have leading universities, lots of money, and time. We have evidence that Cambridge, Massachusetts has done this. If you look at biotech, they’ve clearly built a model very similar. We have evidence that New York is on its way. It looks like there’s enough money, enough people, enough universities there, obviously a great draw of the city. And we have evidence that Beijing has the same feeling. When you go to Beijing, you get that same feeling of crazy startups. So those are a few; Tel Aviv is another one. We need more competitors than the ones I just named. We need 20 competitors, 30 competitors, 40 competitors.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, it’s been fascinating to visit — like you mentioned — Tel Aviv, Singapore, and many other cities that are trying to replicate, some certainly more successfully than others. But if we come back to Silicon Valley and we come back to John Doerr, like you said, he, for a long time, was this mythical being — I mean, he’s the best known of the best known venture capitalists. And when I moved to Silicon Valley in 2000, certainly that was the case. What role did he have in introducing you to Google?

Eric Schmidt: I had known John for a very, very long time because he was on the board of Sun when I was there for 14 years. And I happened to be at a fundraiser, a political fundraiser, at John Chambers’ house, who was the CEO of Cisco. And John came up to me, that is John Doerr came up to me, and says, “You should check out Google.” And I said, “It’s a search engine.” And he goes, “Yes. And they’re looking for a CEO.” And I said, “It won’t amount to much.” And he said, “Look, you really will enjoy it. You’ll enjoy meeting the founders.” I had briefly met Larry, who seemed very smart, but relatively quiet. And so he encouraged me to come and kicked it off. So I owe the fact that I’m at Google to John Doerr.

Tim Ferriss: And you go to meet Larry and Sergey, and I don’t have too many of the specifics but as I understand it, they had a bio of you or something like that up on a wall, a bunch of food, and then proceeded to have what type of conversation? Paint a picture.

Eric Schmidt: So what’s interesting is that somehow we arrange the time, I show up. And it’s an old building that I used to manage when I was at Sun. So that’s weird. So I’m walking into a building, which has now got this Google stuff in it. And it’s sort of haphazard, a typical sort of tilt up Silicon Valley. So I go up and they have a single office, which they share. They have a projector and they’re projecting my bio on the equivalent of Wikipedia up. Again, this is unusual, they had lots of food in front of them. And I thought, “Okay, interesting.” And they start to question me, and they’re very interested in what I’m doing at Novell, I was a CEO at the time. And they had decided that what I was doing at Novell made no sense at all. And they wanted to make sure that I knew this.

So this went on for an hour and a half and it was rough. I mean, they were very sharp. And I remember as I walked out of the building, thinking, “Boy, I haven’t had that good of an argument in years.” And that was what intrigued me. The story, by the way, is the thing we were talking about were technically called proxy caches. They accelerate the Internet, and they believed that the time that you didn’t need them, and I believed that you did. After we purchased YouTube, the way we handled the extraordinary growth of YouTube is we built proxy caches. So what I like to say is they were right and then I was right. So we both were right.

Tim Ferriss: Is a proxy cache, and I’m going to show how ignorant I am about technology, but similar to a content delivery network in any way?

Eric Schmidt: Yes, a CDN is made out of proxy caches.

Tim Ferriss: I see.

Eric Schmidt: The simplest example is a new movie comes out and everybody wants to watch it online. It makes no sense to send it all from the same place. It makes much more sense to keep local copies near you. So if you’re in Uzbekistan, it doesn’t have to go all the way to Atlanta, Georgia; there’s a copy locally. And the internet is good about making those transient copies transparent to you and keep them up to date. And that’s what that is about. And YouTube is now by far the largest such consumer of such things and made an enormous difference in terms of its bandwidth. I guess Netflix would use the same thing.

Tim Ferriss: What types of questions did they ask you? Or what made their questioning different from others? It was a stimulating debate. Well, what made it so?

Eric Schmidt: Because they’re brilliant. And because they are so technically current, they can ask the really hard questions. And this is something that very few founders can do. Bill Gates could do it, as an example. But most founders couldn’t. But they could. And that told me that the team that they had assembled could really address the hard questions. Their position was, their technical argument was that there is not an imbalance in bandwidth. And that was true at the time, although it was not true once video took off.

Tim Ferriss: And how did they assess you as a potential leader? Not just your technical capabilities.

Eric Schmidt: I’m not sure. They had interviewed for about 18 months before me and they liked to spend a lot of time with their people, their candidates. So they would go on vacation for the day or go skiing with a candidate or so forth to judge cultural fit. It became fairly quickly clear that I would be a good fit because although we were different in age, we had had the same faculty members 18 years apart. And we had a very similar technical background. They were infinitely smarter than I was, infinitely more current, but I had been like them 20 years earlier.

Tim Ferriss: And what did John see in you that he thought they needed?

Eric Schmidt: My understanding, again, you’ll have to ask John, my understanding is that the two venture capitalists, when they had invested, wanted to bring in somebody who had operating experience, this came to be termed “adult supervision.” And my understanding is part of the initial investment that Sequoia and Google made is, that’s what triggered their recruiting. When we finally came to a deal, which didn’t take very long because obviously I didn’t interview anywhere else — I loved these guys and I wanted to work with them — I remember one of them saying to me, “We don’t need you now, but we will need you in the future.” So understanding that my experience with growth companies was quite relevant. And so I said, the way we worked, which worked well, was they were the technical experts and what I set out to do was to build the company.

Tim Ferriss: And I want to definitely dig into that, because you’ve talked about scale and systems or systematizing as early as when we discussed architecture at the beginning of the conversation. And in a piece in Fortune magazine, this is from a while back, 2015. The quote that I have here, feel free to correct it, of course, is: “My role was to manage the chaos. You need to have someone to run fast and have a good product sense. That was Larry and Sergey. My job was to organize the world around them.” What were some of the systems or policies or rules, anything that you put in place to help manage the chaos?

Eric Schmidt: Well, when I arrived, the company was full of brilliant people, but it was sort of wandering around. They would have staff meetings that were very, very interesting, but not very structured. They lacked at the time somebody who’d run all their product strategy, general counsel, that sort of thing. So what I did is I put in place just a management structure, pretty straightforward. So we had a meeting on Mondays where we would run the company. We had a meeting on Wednesdays where we would do product strategy. And we had a meeting on Fridays, where we would look at customers. And this was organized so that the sales lead could leave town Monday night and return Thursday night to wherever he needed to go. We’ve changed that many times since. But simple ways of getting an activity organized was my initial task.

The other thing is that we had to build a corporation. And so we wanted to hire people who could sort of grow and build teams. We had three product managers who were Salar Kamangar, Susan Wojcicki, and Marissa Mayer. Marissa of course, ultimately became the CEO of Yahoo. Susan is the CEO of YouTube, and Salar invented the ad system. So these were people of enormous consequence. But at the time they were just individual contributors. So someone had to develop them. We hired this fellow Jonathan Rosenberg, who is the co-author on Trillion Dollar Coach.

Tim Ferriss: And this may not be something worth exploring, but it’s come up in my reading, so I thought it might be worth opening up. And maybe there’s something there. Could you describe or explain what the 70-20-10 model is? If that’s the right term to use.

Eric Schmidt: That’s correct. So this was Sergey’s idea. And the question was: how do we organize our resources in terms of core things, new things, and experimental things? So Sergey — and we had an offsite with the whole management team, I still remember. And Sergey got up on the board and he did some math. He’s a brilliant mathematician, and at the end of the math he said, “The right answer is 70-20-10. 70% on your core business, 20% on adjacent or nearby things, and 10% on wild bets.” And he said that, “All of these numbers are right, you need the 70% because you need the revenue, the revenue growth. You need the 20% because you need to extend your franchise, and you need the 10%, which is crucially important for the things that you will want to do five or 10 years from now.”

And so we would measure 70-20-10 and try to make sure that the urgent was not overwhelming the important. So there’s a good example of how it works. It was Sergey’s idea, it was Sergey’s math; I took it over in a sense of I think it made perfect sense. And we measured it and we ran the company that way. And the reason I highlight this is I believe that you can systematically manage innovation. You’ll never be able to pick which of the 50 ideas are going to be the next billion dollar corporation, it’s too hard. But you can manage it so that when you get these shots on goal, you identify them, you get a chance to fund them. You look at them. You can systematize innovation even if you can’t completely predict it.

Tim Ferriss: When Google starts to take off, you have a lot of brilliant people; you are starting to add structure. How did you at that time, of course later and certainly now you have many different systems in place, but in the very early days, how did you manage the what I would imagine to be a very large volume of inbound probably landing in your inbox at that time?

Eric Schmidt: I think that that’s what happens with a hyper growth company. Growing, doubling every year is pretty easy. It’s when you’re quadrupling every year — now that’s insane.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah.

Eric Schmidt: And you begin to make mistakes. In particular, when people are trying to contact you, if you fail to actually deal with them, you can create an enemy or at least annoy them. So it’s sort of bad management. So things would slip through the cracks. One of the things to know is that when you’re in a high growth situation, you’ve got to focus on the right things. It’s very, very easy to get distracted, and in a high growth scenario, the most right thing is to make your product better. In other words, product, product, product. Because if you have a very strong product, it’s relatively easy to sell.

It’s relatively easy with a very strong product to make money from it. It’s relatively easy to recruit people to work on it. If you have a weak product, it’s very different. So Google famously was a product company, not anything else. And that was, again, because of the strengths of the founders with me helping them.

Tim Ferriss: And does that then help you for instance, if you’re getting — just making up a number, a hundred? It’s probably more like a thousand. Who knows? Emails a day to filter for product-related communication or prioritizing for internal team first than any external? I know this is a very ground-level question but I’m curious —

Eric Schmidt: I can tell you that as the CEO that my most important thing to do is to make the velocity of interactions faster. So the moment I get an email, I deal with it immediately, which is typically to send to somebody else to deal with it. So everything that lags through me, like molasses, it’s slowing the company down. So I am about spin rate, I’ll use an example. If you want to win the bike race, in the marathon bike race, the best way to do it is to establish a spin rate and hold that spin rate constant, just chug, chug, chug, chug, chug, chug at the same rate, and you eventually get there and you do really well. So my theory of management was just to run at the same high speed, seven days a week. And that meant that every email got forwarded, every issue was addressed, and so forth. And that sort of heads-down focus, I think, is a key in very high growth environments.

Tim Ferriss: You mentioned earlier having — and we’re going to segue to someone you alluded to in just a moment, Trillion Dollar Coach — the one version of weekly meetings: you had Monday, running the company; Wednesday, product; I think it was Friday, customers. For yourself, did you also have — it might have been the same schedule, but I’m thinking of a conversation with Jack Dorsey where he described something similar, right? Instead of having five different pieces of the business being discussed every day, breaking it out so there are daily clear priorities, whether it’s the sort of administrative, organizational stuff, product, or otherwise for you to help the company maintain that spin rate, what did your weekly schedule look like? And that might be a bad question, but I just want to see if there’s anything there.

Eric Schmidt: Well, we initially did the Monday, Wednesday, Friday, but remember, at that time, we didn’t have to travel. The sales guy got to travel, but the rest of us didn’t. As the company grew, there was much more physical traveling. So we ultimately resolved to a Monday, Tuesday structure. Most corporations have a Monday or a Tuesday meeting. And then that allows for the rest of the week to people to travel. And Walmart, by the way, is the inverse. They have the week, the managers are expected to be out in the field. They fly back on Friday night. And then they meet on Saturday morning after doing corporate exercises. By exercises, I mean physical exercise. So these gathering traditions are very, very important. If I had my own way, the way I would run the companies, I would meet every day at 4:00. Because operationally, things happen every day and they can be quick.

What I’ve noticed in the political campaigns that I’ve observed is that they typically have a 9:00 a.m. daily meeting, which is kind of an update. And before 9:00 a.m., everyone kind of figures out what the crisis will be for the day, and off they go. If you look at the White House, the first thing that happens in most presidencies is that there’s the presidential daily brief, which is the issues going on in the world, which is typically a half an hour at 8:00 a.m. So for operational jobs, it looks to me like if you’re not meeting with your staff often in a week, you’re not running it tight enough.

Now this does not mean that I was telling them what to do. These were check-ins. These were issue, issue, issue. And because we were talking to each other all the time, we had context and then because that ends up causing you to think short-term, you then have to have a separate process to have an offsite meeting some kind of strategic discussion, some kind of ideation around what people would like as opposed to what they’re currently doing. You have to do both.

Tim Ferriss: And you would choose for the daily meetings, 4:00 p.m. instead of first thing in the morning, is that right?

Eric Schmidt: Yeah, but that’s just a personal preference. But I think it’s one of those things where if I were to start with a new firm today, the first thing I’d say is, “What is our idealized meeting frequency?” And I think if you ask people what would work for them, you would end up with a couple of meetings a week that would be organized around the life schedules and other personal commitments people have. And it would work. It gets harder — the fundamental problem you have in global companies is time zones, and how do you accommodate people who are on video conference in Europe and things like that?

Tim Ferriss: Could you please tell me who Bill Campbell is? Because I want us to make sure we segue there.

Eric Schmidt: So Jonathan, Alan, and I have written a book called Trillion Dollar Coach and Bill Campbell is, at least in our opinion, the most successful coach in world history. He was the primary coach for Google in its rise. He was also the primary coach for Apple in its rise along with a host of other companies. And that some of the companies that he has coached have now exceeded more than $2 trillion of value. So it gives you a sense of the value that he helped create. His background was that he was a football coach at Columbia. And we pointed out many times to Bill that he wasn’t particularly successful, although he tried very hard, maybe it’s because he was at Columbia, we don’t really know. But he was an extraordinary coach of humans.

And so in my first year at Google, John Doerr, who had placed me here at Google, said, “You need a coach.” And I said, “I don’t need a coach. I’m really good.” And he said after some back and forth he said, “Well, do tennis players have coaches?” And I said, “Yes.” And then he got me. I had to say, “Okay.” So we met and then the rest is history.

Tim Ferriss: He has just an incredible — and I do mean incredible in the literal sense — an incredible resume. As you said, he had this coaching career and then it seemingly segued into technology. And you go down the list and you have Bezos, Marissa Mayer, Steve Jobs, Sheryl Sandberg, yourself. What made him different? Why Bill?

Eric Schmidt: It’s important to explain why coaching matters. You hear all the day that “I need a mentor.” Well, by the way, you need a mentor and I need a mentor; mentors are great. That’s not what Bill was. Bill was a coach and more importantly, he was the best coach of teams ever. And why do you need a team? Because a company is not an individual, it’s a team of individuals who need coaching to achieve their objective. So all those skills that he built over those many years ultimately culminated into this enormous success that he had. Unfortunately he died about three years ago. But I think his legacy will live on forever in The Valley.

The thing that he did is he understood how to coach teams of people who were, themselves, competitive with each other. And I mention this because you would assume that, if you go to a company, as you get higher and higher, you’re dealing with very sophisticated, very educated, very experienced, seasoned professionals; they all know what to do. Well, in fact, not only do they not know what to do, but they’re all caught up in their own politics and their own egos, and they disagree with each other, and they want to make their mark, and they want credit, and so forth. And a coach sorts that out in the same sense that a coach of a football team or a basketball team does. It’s the same principle, but applied to business.

Tim Ferriss: And we were just talking about — I figured we can dive into many different aspects of his coaching. And we were talking about meetings not too long ago. Bill seems to have had very clear opinions on how to start and run a meeting. Do you recall how he did that? Or how we recommend that people do it?

Eric Schmidt: I do. And what’s funny about it is that he was such an integral coach, I can’t tell you what ideas were mine and what ideas were his. All I can say is that we, that is he and I, implemented these principles together, which is obviously a statement of how good a coach he really was. So for example, meetings tend to be unstructured. So his advice was: Make a list of things you want to talk about, and then start the meeting not with that list — unless you’re in crisis — but start with trip reports. Because people were traveling, people would spend five or 10 minutes. We would often use Google Maps and show, “I went from here to here to here.” But then that allowed people to conversationally explain what they were worried about, or what they had observed.

This worked incredibly well, because it humanized the organization. Another thing that Bill did is he made you feel that he loved you by listening to you as a person. And the thing I learned from Bill and I’m used to running fast, and I’m used to “Blah, blah, blah, is this good or bad? That’s fine. Goodbye,” right? That doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for junior employees, and it doesn’t work for senior employees. They’re human too. So if you’re going to manage people, or lead them, lead the whole person. “How are you? How is your family? How is your operation? What are you worried about? What are you better at life? What do you think about the political situation? What do you think about the Grand Prix and the race cars?” Whatever it takes to get people to be humanized turns out to be key and the difference between a coach and a manager, this is important, is a manager will say, “Tim, please do this.”

A coach will say, “Tim, what do you want to do?” And he’ll carefully guide you to what you want to be to what the collective good is. That function is critical. Imagine if we had that in our political system, right? Which we don’t today, Right? Imagine if we had it in most companies, all of these issues, everyone would be kind of marching in the same direction.

Tim Ferriss: So to talk about that — what you want to do — I’d love to look at a specific example which might be related, you can correct me if it’s not, but in 2001, Bill asked Sheryl Sandberg, who was then at Google, “What do you do here?” And he refused all the traditional answers until she understood the real answer he was looking for was not her responsibilities, but in what way she contributed value every day. Did he ask you that question or why was it important for him to ask that question either?

Eric Schmidt: One of those rules was to get past the slogans and with experienced executives, people who’ve been executives for a while, sort of 10 years of executives. Let’s say they’re in their mid to late 30s or 40s, they’ve done it for a while. They’re pretty executive at it, they get pretty good at giving you the marketing answers. “I’m trying to fulfill my life.”

Tim Ferriss: Right.

Eric Schmidt: “I want to make the world a better place.” And those marketing phrases, he thought were a waste of time. Not because you don’t use them to motivate people, but because they don’t give you precision as to what you should be doing. So every day you would get up and your job was to do something precisely that you wanted to do that would make the world a better place and serve the shareholders or your boss or what have it, whatever it is. And you need to be able to articulate that as a principle because if you could articulate it to Bill, you could articulate it to anybody. And he was very good at that. “What do you want to do?” and “What are you doing?”

Tim Ferriss: You mentioned political factors and differences of opinion. How did he handle making decisions or facilitating decisions when people were not meeting eye-to-eye? Let’s just say in a board meeting. He was on a lot of boards. So you have two people who fundamentally disagree or there’s sort of a loggerhead, what would Bill do? How would he handle that?

Eric Schmidt: Well, so the rule we had about meetings was that there was a decision maker in the room, but the decision maker in the room did not make the decision in the room until after other people had been heard. And so there was a protocol for that. So let’s say that I’m the decision maker and you and Maria are having a big argument. So what Bill would say, “Look guys, why don’t we come back with a joint proposal?” And then he would talk to the individuals and see if he could coach them to a common agreement. Even if he couldn’t get them to a common agreement, the fact that they had participated in the discussion had been heard and saw the decision being made, allowed them to overcome their embarrassment or envy or unhappiness that they had lost to go back and fight for a win.

Tim Ferriss: And when Google went public in 2004, Bill recommended that you step aside as chairman and remain CEO, but then he made sure you would get reinstated as chairman later. What was his thinking behind that? And how did he pitch that to you?

Eric Schmidt: There was a complicated discussion about independence involving dual class, sort of a technical matter. And they had come to this idea and I thought, “Well, I’ve done a good job, right? I took it personally. I took it wrong. It was my pride that got to me. And so he immediately recognized that this was a pride problem, right? So he said, “Look, I get it, I understand it.” I think this is best for the company and I, in the next year, I’ll work to make this reverse in the right way.” And his credibility with me by then — this is we started working three years earlier — was so high that I naturally said, “Okay.”

Now imagine if I’d done something stupid and allowed my pride to get ahead of me, right? So that’s the key thing he did, is he understood when people were hurt, their egos were hurt, or they felt that they had been dissed or not understood. And he could not not mollify them but understand them and get them to say, “There’s a bigger goal here.” He said, “Eric, there’s a bigger goal here than you.” And that worked right? And 18 years later, it still works.

Tim Ferriss: How did he first come into the picture? You said three years earlier. Do you remember your first meeting with Bill?

Eric Schmidt: I had met him when I was at Sun. And he, at the time worked at Intuit. The management at Sun was trying to hire him into Sun, but he said, “No.” And I remember people saying [about] him, “He’s the hardest working executive we’ve ever met.” And they described him as flying to Japan for a one-hour meeting, and then flying right back, which I thought was insane. That was his work ethic. I knew nothing else about his capabilities. So when John Doerr called me and said, “You need a coach.” I said, “Yeah, I’m a pretty smart guy.” And then he convinced me that I had to have a coach. But once I sat down with Bill, I knew I needed a coach. And the way I knew was that he had been working with another executive who worked for me, at the time inside of Google. And this other executive had a health problem, a very bad cancer problem. And he, Bill, did not tell me.

And I thought, “If Bill wouldn’t tell me that, then Bill must be able to keep confidences. He must be a person who is going to be on my team, keep secrets of the company, protect us, and so forth.” So it’s interesting when you meet somebody you kind of judge them of: Are they sincere? Are they serious? Are they professional? And Bill was that. And I should say that the first project we gave Bill was to get our product management functions going. I mentioned the three product management people, getting the structure, working with him to hire people, and it worked flawlessly.

Tim Ferriss: How long did it take to implement that first task? I’m just curious how he went about, once he had marching orders on something like that — or had this jointly decided with someone like yourself — on the marching orders?

Eric Schmidt: It wasn’t really marching order. It was sort of, we would have a chat. And he would say, “What do you think about this?” And I said, “That’s great. Why don’t you see if you can make something happen there?” And an example would be that one day we decided to get rid of all of the executives inside of engineering because we weren’t happy with their performance. This was called The Disorg. And one executive ended up with a hundred direct reports. So I told Bill, “Go work on that problem. Try to figure out how are we going to manage a hundred people?” Indeed, that worked flawlessly, right? It actually worked and productivity increased; it was right decision from our founders —  once again, exactly correct. But that’s an example where we were responding to what the founders wanted. And we did so dramatically and quickly.

Tim Ferriss: How does one person manage 100? Or is the answer they don’t and there’s some alternate system at play? I can’t not ask! People will harass me if I don’t ask you.

Eric Schmidt: Now remember that I used the word manage, but what I really meant was lead, right? So the key thing to do was to get this one person, his name is Bill Coughran, by the way, who was incredibly talented at managing large groups. Get him to be able to do this. It’s the only time I know in history of a person successfully managing such a large, flat organization. And of course all of those people are now heads of major operations within Google. So again their development with Bill Coughran’s leadership really made a difference. But there were many, many other examples. Bill and I worked into a structure where I would meet with him once a week. And he had this habit. First place, Bill was a hugger and when I say a hugger, I mean he would hug people on the street, right?

So he would walk into an office, he would light up his smile, everyone would smile, everyone will get a hug and we would sit down. So in my case, I would go to his office, I would have to hug his secretary, he would have to hug me. He’d have to hug his secretary, and then I would sit down. And he would have written behind the whiteboard five words. And those were the things that would prompt the conversation. And I would ask him to just talk and he would, over many minutes, talk about what he had heard and what he saw. And then I would say, “Well, why don’t we do this? Why don’t we do that?” It worked incredibly effectively.

He worked on a similar basis with Steve Jobs. He worked with Steve every day until his death, including on his health and he would — with Steve, he would go for walks when Steve could walk. He visited him in the hospital, he would talk to him on the phone. His house was very near Steve Jobs’ house, so he would literally walk over and serve helping manage Apple in the same way.

Tim Ferriss: I am going to ask a question that involves Steve, but before I do that, what might there be on the board among those five words? What types of things?

Eric Schmidt: It would be the first name of an executive who was inevitably in trouble over something. There would be some theme like revenue. There would be some product that it was in trouble, that we were having issues with. There was some deal or a customer that he had heard about, he wanted to make sure I knew about. That kind of thing. But it’s literally one word.

Tim Ferriss: And how did he structure his thinking when he would — I mean you’re as you’ve mentioned and as is clear in this conversation very structured, highly analytical How would he structure that talking?

Eric Schmidt: Because he was fundamentally a coach humanist, he would talk about how the people felt and he would predict what they were going to do. So here’s an example. We would have an executive that we weren’t sure if they were doing a good job or not. Should we replace them? Should we put them in a different job? That kind of thing. That was where he was heavily involved. He was so good that I would have him do most of the compensation issues. If we had board meeting come up, he would call the board members before the board meeting to see if there were any concerns to ruffle any feathers, anticipate if there were some message that I wanted sent ahead of time. I guess, “Hey Bill, why don’t you guys let them know that I’m worried about something and maybe they’ll have some ideas?” So people could prepare.

So he’s the perfect partner to anticipate problems. So in the same sense that he was a coach of the team if you will, below me or with me, he was also a coach of the board. He played the same role on the Apple board and I know because I was on the Apple board for four years with him as the coach and board member.

Tim Ferriss: So I’m glad you brought that up because I’m looking at a piece from Kara Swisher put this up and Kara, for those people who don’t know, she’s been on the podcast but is quite feared among some in tech circles because she has incredible sources and she’s very direct and very honest with her messaging, so it can cut people. But she put out a piece after Bill’s passing that is one of the warmest things, probably the warmest thing I’ve ever seen her put out. And in the piece she cites a passage from a Fortune magazine for 2014, which is when he stepped down from the Apple board.

And this is part of it and then I have a follow up question. “The highest-profile danger zone was his dual role on the Apple board and advising Schmidt and Google. ’Steve would say, “If you’re helping them you’re hurting me.” He would yell at me,’ recalls Campbell, whose normal banter typically needs to be sanitized for most publications. ’I’d say, “I can’t do HTML, come on. I’m just coaching them on how to run their company better.”’ He continued in both roles for years.” How does someone pull that off? I mean, that is just remarkable.

Eric Schmidt: The quote is correct and Kara is correct in that matter. Bill was not involved in the product decisions as much as he was in the coaching, and he was careful not to cross the boundaries. And he was also not on the Google board. He was only on the Apple board. So again, in hindsight, sort of hard to believe, but somehow we all trusted him on both sides. He eventually, I think got tired of the tension. But from my perspective, he was so honest and so direct that there was no question he could continue. You asked about how did he work with people? And I think that he did a couple things that were profound. His rule was, there would be no gap between statements and fact, that you had to be relentlessly honest and candid and direct. If there was any kind of eliding of the truth, he would know it and he would nail you. And he was, shall we say, very salty in his language.

That kept everybody kind of on and honest. And because of that you both trusted him. You knew that there wasn’t a sense unsaid. And he was also a very good listener. So he did what we call freeform listening. He would literally, he listened with full and undivided attention. He wasn’t doing his email and checking his iPhone and those sorts of things. You had his complete attention as a human being. And if you were rambling, he would let you ramble. And I can remember repeating myself seven or eight times. I said, “Have I just repeated myself?” And he said, “It’s okay.” He understood as a coach that I had to repeat it enough times to believe it.

Tim Ferriss: And how was he able to smell BS or stress test statements so that he could tell when people were bending the truth or omitting details?

Eric Schmidt: I think for one thing, he had this massive experience at doing this, and so you get really good at checking it. But remember, he also had many, many sources. So we would have executives, they would try to do an end-around run around Bill. And they would try to sort of go back on message, “This is what I did. And this is why I did it.” Bill would say, “I’m not sure; let’s go through that again.” And then if the person wouldn’t tell Bill the truth, he would cut them off and he was pretty ruthless. He would come in and say, “We can’t trust this person. We can’t trust this person. We need to get them out of here.” Or, “Move them out of that job.” Or whatever. He was very, very, very committed to the goals of the organization.

So think about a coach, using a football analogy. The goal is not to have the quarterback have the longest ball throw; the goal is to win the game. Now if, as a byproduct, the quarterback has this amazing achievement, that’s great, right? But the moment the quarterback gets confused, we’ve got a problem. So when you’re in the position of coach, it’s all about the team. It’s all about winning. In a business, it’s relatively straightforward. You have a set of shared goals, which are — we all agree to what the goals of the firm are. Bill was very, very good at keeping everybody on that message.

Tim Ferriss: I’m reading a quote here that I have in front of me, that was something that Bill apparently said to the CEO of Chegg, Dan Rosensweig, and here it goes. The last part relates to much of what you just said. “I don’t take cash, I don’t take stock, and I don’t take shit.” So I have two questions —

Eric Schmidt: By the way, that’s Bill.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah. So I have two questions related to that, maybe more. The first is: how was he compensated?

Eric Schmidt: He refused compensation.

Tim Ferriss: I mean, this was all pro bono?

Eric Schmidt: Yeah. And let me tell you why, he explained that he had done really well in his previous job. And this was his give back to the industry, right? He wanted to do this. And he didn’t want to be confused by money. He wanted to work with the people on the principles that he cared about.

Tim Ferriss: Wild. So this was his giving back. I mean, decades of coaching.

Eric Schmidt: And he had made enough money. From his perspective, we did create a foundation for football players, which people donated to in his honor, which he was very happy about. But he’s a good example of one of these people who — he was very motivated about the happiness and success of people. He was happiest when we were winning and working as a team. That was his income. That was his success. And in his personal life, he coached many — he coached soccer, he worked with an awful lot of young football players. He was in his civic duty as principled as he was in his job coaching companies like Apple and Google.

Tim Ferriss: And now that we’re talking about it, it also strikes me that “I don’t take cash, I don’t take stock, and I don’t take shit” are somewhat interrelated in the sense that if you’re not incentivized to maximize your sort of economic return by biting your lip that could encourage you to be much more forthcoming about not taking shit. Are any other examples of sort of binary lines that he had, or things that he would not accept?

Eric Schmidt: Well, he had a sort of rule that you would work the people and then the problem. So if you think about it as a coach again, using football coach analogy, if you’ve got the wrong player in the wrong position, you need to work on that. So over and over again, “Is this the best person that we can get to work on this problem? Is there an alternative choice? What do we need to do get this person performing better in their job?” And then he would work on the problem. What happens in businesses, everybody wants to talk about the problem. He wanted to talk about the people and getting the right people in the right place.

Tim Ferriss: How did he fire people or encourage people to fire people? What was the approach?

Eric Schmidt: We would come to a decision pretty quickly, that it wasn’t going to work out. And then it sort of — because he had high credibility, he even had high credibility with people who were in the process of losing their jobs. And so he would go and say, “Look, this is not working out and I will help you in your next role.” And that made an enormous difference, which of course he did.

Tim Ferriss: Can you think of any particular — and if it’s possible to give any historical examples that’d be really, really helpful — any particular hard challenges that Bill helped you through? Are there any moments that you look back that were particularly stressful or agonizing or difficult, thorny, that he helped you through?

Eric Schmidt: Well, we mentioned this going public role for me. He was very helpful with the company going public, which is a big moment in a corporation’s history, helping us with the venture capitalists, thinking through what the functions were, because of course, he had done it many, many times. But I think there was no great event. It was one of those things where he became in the fabric. He was so important to us that he became — we started having him come to my staff meeting. Initially he had been an outside coach; he actually attended our staff meeting, where he typically didn’t say very much. He would make notes and then of course later would go and work on issues that seemed to come up. He was very helpful when there began to be tensions between Apple and Google. And because he knew both sides, he would sit there.

There were serious disputes between Steve and some of the Google executives over some of the issues in Android vs. iPhone, for example. And those disputes had to do with who could do what, and intellectual property, and those kinds of things. And he got people to talk to each other that wouldn’t have otherwise been able to speak. So there’s a case where having credibility with both groups was extremely helpful.

Tim Ferriss: You said getting people to talk with one another who might not otherwise chat with one another — one of the bullet point facts about Bill that I have in front of me is he taught Marissa Mayer, then-CEO of Yahoo, how to sit quiet during a meeting and let less senior people arrive at a decision. Are there any particular approaches or coaching recommendations that he’s made to you or that you’ve seen him make to other people more than once that fall into that same category of —

Eric Schmidt: Well, I’ll give you an example of that. I would get worked up over some issue and I would violate my own rules. So my own rules are to listen, reason and, then make a decision collectively. And if we can’t make it collectively, then I’ll force a decision. But every once while I’d be sufficiently worked up or upset that I would just blurt out the answer and he would inevitably say, “Come on, you know better than that.” And so that’s an example where a coach, because he’s seen me operating he says, “You crossed a line there.”

Tim Ferriss: What were some of his workplace or work day week rituals, if any come to mind.

Eric Schmidt: He would get up at 5:30 in the morning. He would be on the gym from 6:00 till 7:00. So he was an early riser. He coached soccer at 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon. So he would have to go and he had family commitments. So he would typically be in the office from say 8:00 till 2:00-ish and then he would go coach soccer. Of course we all worked much later than that, so we would call him. But he, for example, believed in doing one thing well, so when he was coaching, he wouldn’t answer the phone. Can you imagine that today, right? From Steve Jobs or me or whatever. And he wouldn’t respond to text because he thought that that was an interruption of what he was doing. So he was one of these principled people of, “This is what I’m working on. This deserves my full attention.” I’m worried that we’re losing that style, which I value a great deal.

Tim Ferriss: What do the first 60 to 90 minutes of your day look like? Out of curiosity. I mean you — what does your morning routine look like during the week?

Eric Schmidt: What I will tell you with — well, let me tell you how Bill and I worked it out. His structure of life was Monday through Friday, you’re just running around with your head cut off, as fast as you can, making things move. And his rule was that on Saturday mornings when you wake up, when it’s typically quiet, that’s the time to sit down and actually think about what happened in the week, go through everything, and get yourself organized. What’s your week like? What’s your month like? And take however long you take to think just in your own head. “Am I using my time the most effectively?” And so I’ve tried to do that every day in the sense that before anything else happens, once I’m awake and up and running. I try to say, “Is this the best use of my day? What am I missing? What do I need to get done? What did I forget to do yesterday?” That kind of thing.

Tim Ferriss: And do you have a sort of boot up sequence that is your default, most mornings? Do you wake up at the same time each morning? I know this seems pretty quotidian, but I’m curious if you have a set morning routine at this point.

Eric Schmidt: When I’m in one place for a while, yes, I typically get up and eat something, although not recently, I guess I’ve tried. I’m now trying intermittent fasting, see if that makes a difference. But in any case, the first thing most people that I know do is they’re online, right? So they’re checking the news. They’re seeing what happened. And the tech industry is so dynamic, stuff really does happen overnight. And you really do need to know what happened. One of the tricks is try to focus on your own news before you have global news. Because global news is so addictive. It’s like, “Oh my God, oh, this happened. Oh, whatever.” You can waste all your time. So try to focus on getting your own world in order. “What do I care about today? What do I want to work on? Am I happy with what I’m doing today?”

Tim Ferriss: If you were giving advice to someone looking for a coach, a business coach, how would you tell them to vet candidates or what to look for?

Eric Schmidt: Coaching is a special skill. It’s like writing. There are people who are great writers, there are people who are great coaches, and there’s more than one, right? So the first question is: Is this a person who lights up a room? Is this a person who has that natural charisma that people want to listen to? Is this this person who we can get to be part of our team? And then I think it’s a question of hopefully people will follow the recommendations in our book about how to actually do it. But coaching is a highly, highly personal thing, right? When you have a great coach, you will love your coach, you can go back to athletics. People talk about their coaches in reverential terms because they get them to perform so well.

Tim Ferriss: I want to ask, shift gears just a little bit, and ask you a few questions about — effectively rapid fire questions that I like to ask a lot of people who are on the podcast and we’ll wrap up in just a little bit. But before I get to those, what are you hoping that intermittent fasting will do? What benefits are you hoping to drive? And how do you do it?

Eric Schmidt: Well, so the answer is, so there’s there’s medical arguments — they’re not fact — that we evolved as hunter gatherers where we had relatively low amounts of food for long periods of time, so fasting was part of being a hunter-gatherer and that our bodies are in fact healthier and better when they eat — they’re not continuous grazing. And so there’s there’s a whole school of thought that says that the best thing to do is to not eat for like 16 hours and then eat a lunch or a dinner or just a dinner or things like that. And people report that their energy is equal or better, that they lose weight, that they feel better. The science is still not resolved on this, but it’s worth checking out.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, for people interested or if — certainly it sounds like you’ve done your homework — Peter Attia, who’s an MD and Dominic D’Agostino, a handful of folks out there have some really good literature exploring the benefits of fasting, both intermittent as you’re describing, say 16 hours and then looking at more extended say three plus day fasts with data that they’re tracking with ketone monitors and glucometers and so on. So let’s just jump into a few of these rapid fire questions.

Eric Schmidt: Let me just add that one of the great scourges of our lives today is the amount of sugar that everybody’s eating and sugar in the form of carbohydrates, and so forth. So experimenting with these low carb diets and that sort of thing might be good for your longevity, and certainly of your short-term health.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, absolutely. Lots to say there. But I’ll save my long-winded soapbox for another time. Do you have any books that you have gifted the most to other people? And certainly you have your own books, right? The New Digital Age, How Google Works, and now Trillion Dollar Coach. Outside of those books, are there any that you’ve gifted a lot to other people?

Eric Schmidt: I think the one that has had the biggest impact on me and the one that I’ve given the most number of people has been [The Better Angels of Our Nature]. And [The Better Angels of Our Nature] is a 700-page book on death. And it’s written by a brilliant Harvard professor who talks at great length about death rates and the human condition. And he spends a lot of time talking about what happened 200, 300, 400, 500 years ago. And when you finish the book, which takes a long time, you conclude that the world is in a much, much better place than it has been in the past, that a thousand years ago, the average man died in a war and the average woman died in pregnancy in their 20s, and that a child born today has a very high likelihood in almost all parts of the world to live to a natural old age. That’s an extraordinary statement. And that’s why the people who run around saying, “Oh, the world’s falling apart. We’ve never had it this bad.” That’s just not true. And the data says it’s not true.

Tim Ferriss: And that’s Steven Pinker for people who want to look that up. And it is a big book, 832 pages. Do you recommend it and gift that book because it delivers hope in a world where the news favors catastrophizing, or are there other reasons that you give it to people?

Eric Schmidt: This is my opinion now. I think what’s happened is we’re surrounded by information. The information that is emotional and negative occupies too much of our brands, that it crowds out optimism. We’ve seen an increase in depression, anxiety, and so forth which I think is to some degree connected to this fire hose of negative information. And a person who didn’t know would say, “Oh, it is the worst time in the world.” And I would say to them, if you think that, imagine you’re the father of an 18-year-old boy in 1943, who’s just been sent to the German front. Or worse, imagine that you’re father of an 18-year-old boy in Germany in 1943. So again, people lose perspective because of the immediacy effect. And also because there’s so much coming at us.

Tim Ferriss: I want to talk about — this may not be directly related, this could be an overstatement, but just depression, anxiety, darker, more difficult times, let’s just say, and understanding that on the macro level, I completely agree with you if you read this book. Certainly, if you look at the data, we are in a spectacular time. For yourself just to humanize you a little bit, for people who are listening, because we’ve talked about many of the successes, many of the companies who’ve been involved with — do you have any favorite failures? And by that I mean failures or really difficult times that set the stage for later successes possibly or taught you something that later ended up having tremendous value.

Eric Schmidt: For me the key moment in my professional career was the decision to go to Novell from Sun and then the decision to leave Novell. And when I was in Novell, which was a hardcore turnaround — a difficult business, lots of problems. That’s where a lot of the skills that I had not developed when I was at Sun were developed. You don’t really know how a good leader you are until you face a really hard challenge. But more importantly, John Doerr would never have recruited me to Google from Sun because it wouldn’t have been appropriate for a board member.

So the fact that I had gone to Novell gave me the training ground that, when I got to Google and there were things that I didn’t like, I would call it, I would say it, I would push it. Another thing that happened was, my hobby is airplane flying and I had been training in a small jet. And jet training, because it’s life and death, they really push you to make decisions and take command. And for me, the jet training — they actually at one point they had a co-pilot and they told the co-pilot to be incredibly unhelpful without telling me that in order to train me to take command in a difficult situation in the simulator.

So those all contributed to my development as a strong-willed leader. Whatever path you get there, you’ve got to be willing to take charge and you got to be willing to make decisions. What Bill would say is, “Somebody’s got to make the decision, have an appropriate process and make the decision and keep going.”

Tim Ferriss: How did you first notice that your co-pilot was being unhelpful and how did you respond to that?

Eric Schmidt: Well, I’m used to having good co-pilots and when they start giving you information that doesn’t make sense and now you’ve got your flying and your crisis and he’s giving you mal information, you get annoyed. And so for me it took a while to figure out that there was something wrong, because I’m so trusting. And one of the things that in this particular co-pilot scenario they taught me was, “You know what’s right; use every piece of your body, right? Your hands, your eyes, your thinking, your experience, to get yourself out of the situation. And if there’s something going wrong over here, then if it’s not life critical, deal with it later.”

And that prioritization really helped. So there were many examples in early Google where there were choices that we would have around how we set up our revenue systems or accounting or what we took to business or so forth. But I knew the answers because I’d been through this at Novell, and I understood that those decisions would be made in the most conservative way — conservative in the sense of least aggressive from an accounting perspective.

Tim Ferriss: You were discussing Bill earlier, or just I should say describing, and it seemed to me at least, if I’m reading between the lines, that he had an incredible intuitive sense as you mentioned, sort of a humanist bent that would lead him to focus on how other people were feeling and the people before the problem and so on. You have superpowers, it would seem, in the hyper analytical development of framework and systems and so on. Have you found, for instance, your exposure to the arts, which I know you have quite a lot of, has aided you in a business sense as well? Or are those sort of separate domains for you as the analytical, the primary driver in business? Is there a place for the more intuitive?

Eric Schmidt: As an aside, my Wikipedia page says that I’m a world’s art collector, and that’s false. And I left it in because I use it as an example to say that not everything you read on the internet is true.

Tim Ferriss: You do have involvement with art, though?

Eric Schmidt: Yes. But let me let me answer. I want to answer your question. I didn’t want to not tell the truth.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah.

Eric Schmidt: So I think when you have a hyper analytical person, which I am, and many people in my industry are, you can be tone deaf, and anything that you can do to increase your understanding, if you’re like me, of how people are going to react to things, how people will perceive emotionally what you’re doing is helpful. When we started at Google, we would just throw things across, just throw things out. We didn’t worry about what impact they had. Maybe they worked, maybe they didn’t.

But we fairly quickly learned that we had to have a whole release process, which again, Bill and I put in place where we would judge for example, how will this be perceived? Should we run this test? Right? What is the moral framework of it? So businesses are more than just products. In fact, they’re about people and emotion and morality. And we had very good values from the founders in that regard. But operationally, it was important for me and everyone to remember that these things affect people’s lives. You have to really think about it.

Tim Ferriss: How would Bill or maybe how did he, I don’t know if he did, think about the word success or what that meant to him or what it should mean to other people? Do you have any window into that?

Eric Schmidt: Well, he lived his life the way I’m talking about him now. So he was a principled person of high integrity, he expected it from others, and he thought that a successful life was one well-lived that was consistent with those principles, and where you could have a purpose that you cared about. And his job as a coach was to get everyone to that, to feel that they had achieved that while collectively getting the team to have that feeling.

I will tell you that there’s nothing more fun than having a very fast-moving team where everyone’s rowing in the same direction, right? That feeling of power and that feeling of excitement and a feeling of energy. And somebody said, “Hey, I just have a new idea. Hey, can we do this? Hey, I want to make this phone call? Is that okay? Is that…” “Sure. Great, blah, blah, blah, blah blah.” Right? There’s nothing like that in my life before or after.

Tim Ferriss: This is sometimes a difficult rapid fire question. The answer doesn’t need to be rapid fire but the question I try to keep short, and if it doesn’t go anywhere, that’s totally fine too. The question is this: if you could put anything on a billboard metaphorically speaking, to reach billions of people non-commercial. A word, a question, a quote, or recommendation and image, anything? Does anything come to mind that you would want billions of people to notice and take stock of?

Eric Schmidt: I guess for me, it’s software and analytical thinking. I am a believer that the next 50 years, human society will have incredibly complicated human systems. So if you think about the things we deal with every day, the judicial system, the political system, the prison system, the traffic system, what have you, they were architected in a world where we didn’t have a lot of data, and we didn’t have a lot of software and we couldn’t really measure everything. And I think a lot of those systems are going to get very, very thoroughly designed. And if you’re going to design those systems, then design based on outcomes you care about. So in prison systems, are you caring more about punishment or recidivism, as an example.

In economic systems, do you care more about revenue growth or job growth? I would recommend the latter because jobs are an identity for everybody. So I would prefer an economic system which maximized job creation over total revenue. So the measurement systems and the analytics, so the sort of software and analytical systems that are buildable now should allow us to have the world we want, right? Do we care more about one group or another? Now our political systems, which will vary by country, need to allow us to make those decisions, but there is hope for people who are subject to punishments that don’t fit the crime, and economic penalties that don’t fit the work to get addressed through these programs systematically. We know, for example, that we can identify bias now in ways we couldn’t before.

So people who have bias used against them, people who’ve been prejudiced against, people who are the victims of these terrible things, we have a way now of both measuring it and, I think, eliminating it with good systems design. So I think for the next 50 years, the big narrative is going to be who’s designing these systems? How do they work? What are the values that are in them? How do we measure them? And much of the work that Google does and I do now is related to using artificial intelligence and machine learning to try to build these systems to be more effective against the goals that our country wants.

Tim Ferriss: Thank you. Excellent answer. I think this is a good place to start to wrap up. And this has been very fun for me. So thank you again for taking the time and I highly recommend people check out Trillion Dollar Coach, subtitle Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley, Bill Campbell, which Eric co-authored with Jonathan Rosenberg and Alan Eagle. Bill has been on my mind for so long, I mean for decades at this point and I have so much regret that I never had the opportunity to meet him in person and have waited for a book like this to come out. I mean it’s just incredible that it finally did and I’m thrilled that you all put this together and that people will have an opportunity to look over the shoulder of people like yourself and this who is who list of entrepreneurs as they were coached by this incredible human being, not just coach, not just business mind, but human being named Bill Campbell.

And people can find more, certainly feel free to add anything here but they can find more about it at They can wave Hello to you @EricSchmidt on Twitter. LinkedIn, they can find you quite easily. And also on Facebook, EricSchmidt76. And I will include links to everything we’ve discussed in the show notes. Eric, do you have any last words? Parting comments, recommendations for people, anything you would like to say before we wrap up?

Eric Schmidt: Well Tim, it’s been an incredible privilege to be on the show. When I think of the way you’ve communicated the ideas and the principles you’ve established, Bill would love you because of what you stand for.

What’s interesting about our book on Bill is that Jonathan and Alan and I started this book just as a thank you to somebody who had been our coach and mentor and had a huge impact. But what we discovered was that there was essentially no literature on how to coach teams in business. There were no facts, there were no analogies, there was no way of talking about. So what we discovered is that the principles that he taught us directly are the universal principles of managing teams, right? From football to business. And everyone needs a coach.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, this is very, very true. I didn’t actually get a coach in this capacity until maybe two years ago and certainly for people listening even if you have a small organization, even if you are your organization, as a single person and work with contractors for instance, having a coach even to simply hold you accountable and force you to clarify your thinking is so leveraged and valuable. I’m just thrilled that you guys have put this book out. So thank you again, I really appreciate you taking the time not only to put together the book, but also to share some of your lessons learned in this conversation.

Eric Schmidt: Okay, well, thank you very much, Tim.

Tim Ferriss: I appreciate it and everybody listening, you can find links to everything in the show notes as per usual at and until next time, thank you for listening.

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Eric Schmidt — Lessons from a Trillion-Dollar Coach (#367)


“You can systematize innovation even if you can’t completely predict it.”
— Eric Schmidt

Eric Schmidt (@ericschmidt) is Technical Advisor and Board Member to Alphabet Inc., where he advises its leaders on technology, business and policy issues. Eric joined Google in 2001 and helped grow the company from a Silicon Valley startup to a global leader in technology. He served as Google’s Chief Executive Officer from 2001-2011, and Executive Chairman 2011-2018, alongside founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page.

Eric serves on the boards of The Mayo Clinic and The Broad Institute, among others. His philanthropic efforts through The Schmidt Family Foundation focus on climate change, including support of ocean and marine life studies at sea, as well as education, specifically cutting-edge research and technology in the natural sciences and engineering. He is the founder of Schmidt Futures, which works to improve societal outcomes through the development of emerging science and technology.

He is the co-author of The New Digital Age, How Google Works, and the new book, Trillion Dollar Coach: The Leadership Playbook of Silicon Valley’s Bill Campbell, which he co-authored with fellow Google leaders Jonathan Rosenberg (@jjrosenberg) and Alan Eagle (@aeaglejr).

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, Castbox, or on your favorite podcast platform.

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

#367: Eric Schmidt — Lessons from a Trillion-Dollar Coach

Want to hear an episode with Silicon Valley’s most feared and well-liked journalist? — Listen to my conversation with Kara Swisher, in which we discuss war stories, missed opportunities, optimistic pessimism, and the art and craft of good questions. (Stream below or right-click here to download.)

#218: The Most Feared and Well-Liked Journalist in Silicon Valley - Kara Swisher

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

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The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Neil Gaiman (#366)

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Please enjoy this transcript of my 20-plus-years-in-the-making interview with Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself), the bestselling author and creator of books, graphic novels, short stories, film, and television for all ages, including Neverwhere, Coraline, The Graveyard Book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, The View from the Cheap Seats and the Sandman series of graphic novels. His fiction has received Newbery and Carnegie Medals, and Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, Bram Stoker, and Will Eisner Awards, among many other awards and honors. Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, Castbox, or on your favorite podcast platform.

#366: Neil Gaiman — The Interview I've Waited 20 Years To Do


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Tim Ferriss: Neil, welcome to the show.

Neil Gaiman: Thank you. Thank you so much!

Tim Ferriss: I have been hoping to have this conversation for years. With a flashback for 10, 15, probably 20 plus years, I’ve been reading your work. I can’t say that about many people I’ve ever met.

Neil Gaiman: You’ve been asking me, incredibly politely, if I could do the podcast or anything vaguely, edging around it and giving me open invitations for a good decade now.

Tim Ferriss: This is true.

Neil Gaiman: I love the fact we’ve managed to do the occasional tiny, goofy thing. I got to do — read a page of your book.

Tim Ferriss: That’s right, that’s right. You read a page of the book, which was incredible, because I find your voice, as many people do, rather hypnotic, and then we got to do a very short chapter in Tribe of Mentors, the last book. Thank you very much for answering those questions. It’s just such a thrill to be able to spend time with you.

Neil Gaiman: I’m loving it.

Tim Ferriss: And I thought we could begin with the glorious beginnings, and maybe for those people who can’t see this, I’ll give some context. I have not just one recorder, but two, three, four different sets of audio. That’s in part because I am once bitten, twice shy when it comes to audio. Then you shared one of your early days stories. What happened?

Neil Gaiman: When I was 15, I really wanted to meet and talk to writers and artists I admired. I couldn’t figure out how you did this. I didn’t know about conventions, if there were conventions back in 1975, ’76. I had a brilliant idea. I would start a magazine. The magazine, as far as I was concerned, didn’t even have to exist. The fact that it went on to exist was really fun, and we called it Metro, which was a name I came up with because it sounded like a magazine.

It didn’t just sound like a magazine, it sounded like a magazine that you have heard of, and I loved the fact that over the years, Metro magazines around the world really do exist now. In 1975, they didn’t, but I could phone up and say, “We’re from Metro Magazine,” and people would go, “Oh, oh yeah.”

Our voices had broken, so over the phone, nobody knew that we were 15. I remember interviewing Michael Moorcock, who was an author whose work I loved with my friend Dave Dickson, who told me recently he just found the tape and is threatening to put it up as some kind of glorious podcast, which I really hope he does. 15-year-old Neil Gaiman and Dave Dickson interviewing Michael Moorcock.

The one that taught me my lesson was the — I think it was the second interview we did. Moorcock was the first, and it was Roger Dean, and Roger Dean is an artist and designer, most famous back then for the covers of Yes albums. This beautiful calligraphy and these floating islands and things like that. I got talking to some kid on the train who said, “Oh yeah, I know Roger Dean.”

We phoned up Roger Dean’s publisher, which was basically Roger Dean — I think they were called Dragon’s Dream — and said, “I’d like to interview Roger.” Went down to Brighton. I remember the sheer amazement and joy of these paintings that were, as far as I was concerned, iconic, religious emblems. I didn’t like Yes very much. I didn’t really like much of the music that he’d done covers to, but I had a copy of his book, Views, and just loved it.

There was a painting he did of some badgers, there were just these things. It felt very Lord of the Rings, it felt very fantastical, and there were these amazing paintings covered in dust, propped up against walls. We interviewed him, and at the end of the interview I noticed that the tape wasn’t going round and got home, played it, and you can hear this 30 seconds of us talking. There’s 30 seconds of us talking in higher and higher pitched voices, faster and faster like mad chipmunks, and then it stops. And that was the Roger Dean interview.

The great thing about that was when, seven years later, I really was a journalist, I really was going round interviewing people. I was interviewing people for magazines that existed and had existed before we decided to do the interviews and things, I always carried spare batteries. I always carried spare tapes.

If I could, at the point where I could afford to, I even carried a spare microcassette recorder, just in case.

Tim Ferriss: Just in case. Two is one, and one is none, as they say sometimes. The gods gifted you with a malfunction early.

Neil Gaiman: Exactly. One good malfunction and you learn your lesson. It’s that pain thing.

Tim Ferriss: We were chatting before we sat down to record, as I was gathering copious beverages, water and tea and so on for us. I’m using the Royal ‘us’, I suppose, mostly for me —

Neil Gaiman: I got water too.

Tim Ferriss: And we were talking about this location downtown where we’re sitting, and I’ve decided in the last few years to use locations outside of my home for a lot of what I do, because I found it, that is, it being sitting at my kitchen table doing a lot to sometimes produce a malaise. This odd association or lack of dissociation between work and home.

I had read at one point that Maya Angelou, and I hope I’m getting that pronunciation right, would rent hotel rooms to work on a lot of her writing. Then you brought up another name.

Neil Gaiman: Back in about 1997, I read an article by Ian Fleming, who wrote the James Bond books, about how he wrote the James Bond books. You read this article, and you realize something, which is, Ian Fleming did not enjoy the process of writing. I was always fascinated by the fact that several of Roald Dahl’s most famous short stories were plotted by Ian Fleming. Ian Fleming would —

Tim Ferriss: Really?

Neil Gaiman: Yeah, he gave Dahl —

Tim Ferriss: No idea.

Neil Gaiman: The two best short story twists, which are Lamb to the Slaughter, where the woman kills her husband with a leg of lamb and then cooks it, and feeds it to the detective who is going, “I cannot figure out what he was hit with.” is an Ian Fleming plot, and so is the one about the evil antique dealer who finds this amazing antique on some farm and decides to cheat the farmers and explains, “Well, the thing isn’t worth any money, but the legs, the legs are worth some money, so I’ll give you 20 quid for the legs.” He’s about to take away this million pound antique thing, and the farmers helpfully rip off the legs and throw the rest of it away.

Tim Ferriss: “Let me make this easier for you.”

Neil Gaiman: Those plots were both Ian Fleming’s, and you start realizing, “Oh, you really don’t like writing” when you read his thing on how he wrote the James Bond books. You write a James Bond book in two weeks, you check into a hotel, you have to check into a hotel somewhere that you don’t want to be, otherwise you might go out and walk around and become a tourist, you have to check into a not terribly nice hotel room, otherwise you might luxuriate and enjoy it. Instead, what you want to be is focused on getting out. Then, you having nothing else to do in this town, in this place, you settle down and you write like a fiend and you get your James Bond book written in two weeks and you leave this horrible hotel room, and that was how he did it.

I have tried it a couple of times. I did it with the American draft of Neverwhere, that was the first one I ever tried, and I did the entire American draft, which was a big second draft. The book had already been published in the UK, but my American editor wanted stuff done because she pointed out that the book, as it existed, was written for people who knew that Oxford Street was a big street with lots of shops on it, or whatever. It was written for Brits and Londoners, and she wanted something expanded, so I expanded it.

Neil Gaiman: I was in a room with, as far as I remember, no windows in the — I think it was a Marriott in the World Trade Center, which is no longer there, but writing in that hotel room, you just wanted to be out.

Tim Ferriss: It seems to me, and you can’t believe everything you read on the internet, so I want you to certainly fact check me as needed. But you also have or have had some internal rules, so you can use your external environment to assist, but I read that, and again, feel free to correct, but making rules, the importance of making rules like, you can sit here and write or you can sit here and do nothing, but you can’t sit here and do anything else.

Neil Gaiman: That was always, and still is when I go off to write, that’s my biggest rule.

Tim Ferriss: Could you speak to that?

Neil Gaiman: Yeah, ’cause I would go down to my lovely little gazebo at the bottom of the garden, sit down, and I’m absolutely allowed not to do anything. I’m allowed to sit at my desk, I’m allowed to stare out at the world, I’m allowed to do anything I like, as long as it isn’t anything. Not allowed to do a crossword, not allowed to read a book, not allowed to phone a friend, not allowed to make a clay model of something. All I’m allowed to do is absolutely nothing, or write.

What I love about that is I’m giving myself permission to write or not write, but writing is actually more interesting than doing nothing after a while. You sit there and you’ve been staring out the window now for five minutes, and it kind of loses its charm. You’re going, “Well, actually, let’s all write something.” It’s hard. As a writer, I’m more easily — I’m distractable. I have a three-year-old son. He is the epitome of cuteness and charm. It’s more fun playing with him than it is writing, which means if I’m going to be writing, I need to do it somewhere where I don’t have a three-year-old son singing to me, asking me to read to him, demanding my attention.

I think it’s really just a solid rule for writers. You don’t have to write. You have permission to not write, but you don’t have permission to do anything else.

Tim Ferriss: That reminds me of another one of my favorite writers, you being the one who’s sitting in front of me, John McPhee, a nonfiction writer who has spent much of his life in Princeton, New Jersey, but has written some incredible Pulitzer Prize winning nonfiction, and I was lucky enough to take a class with him a thousand years ago. His rule was very similar, although he didn’t state it explicitly. He would sit in front of his first, as a young man, typewriter. He could sit in front of the blank page and from eight a.m. to six p.m., and with the exception of a break for lunch and swimming, it was the blank page or writing. He was disallowed from doing anything else.

Are there any other rules or practices that you also hold sacred or important for your writing process?

Neil Gaiman: Some of them are just things for me. For example, most of the time, not always, I will do my first draft in fountain pen, because I actually enjoy the process of writing with a fountain pen. I like the feeling of fountain pen. I like uncapping it. I like the weight of it in my hand. I like that thing, so I’ll have a notebook, I’ll have a fountain pen, and I’ll write. If I’m doing anything long, if I’m working on a novel, for example, I will always have two fountain pens on the go, at least, with two different colored inks, at least, because that way I can see at a glance, how much work I did that day. I can just look down and go, “Look at that! Five pages in brown. How about that? Half a page in black. That was not a good day. Nine pages in blue, cool, what a great day.”

You can just get a sense of are you working, are you making forward progress? What’s actually happening. I also love that because it emphasizes for me that nobody is ever meant to read your first draft. Your first draft can go way off the rails, your first draft can absolutely go up in flames, it can — you can change the age, gender, number of a character, you can bring somebody dead back to life. Nobody ever needs to know anything that happens in your first draft. It is you telling the story to yourself.

Then, I’ll sit down and type. I’ll put it onto a computer, and as far as I’m concerned, the second draft is where I try and make it look like I knew what I was doing all along.

Tim Ferriss: Do you edit, then, as you’re looking or translating from the first draft on the page to the computer, or do you get it all down as is in the computer and then edit —

Neil Gaiman: No, that’s my editing process. I figure that’s my second draft is typing into the computer. Also, I love — backing up a bit here. When I was, what was I? 27, 28? In the days when we were still in typewriters and we were just a handful of people with word processors, which were clunky things with disks which didn’t hold very much and stuff, I edited an anthology and enjoyed editing my anthology.

Most of the stories that came in were about 3,000 words long. Move forward in time, not much, five, six, seven years. Mid ‘90s, everybody is now on computer, and I edited another short story anthology. The stories that were coming in tended to be somewhere between six- and 9,000 words long. They didn’t really have much more story than the 3,000 word ones, and I realized that what was happening is it’s a computer-y thing, is if you’re typing, putting stuff down is work. If you’ve got a computer, adding stuff is not work. Choosing is work. It expands a bit, like a gas. If you have two things you could say, you say both of them. If you have the stuff you want to add, you add it, and I thought, “Okay, I have to not do that, because otherwise my stuff is going to balloon and it will become gaseous and thin.”

What I love, if I’ve written something on a computer, and I decide to lose a chunk, it feels like I’ve lost work. I delete a page and a half, I feel like there’s a page and half that just went away. That was a page and a half’s worth of work I’ve just lost. If I’ve been writing in a notebook and I’m typing it up, I can look at something and go, “Oh, I don’t need this page and a half.” I leave it out, I just saved myself work, and it feels like I’m treating myself.

I’m just trying to always have in my head the idea that maybe I’m somehow, on some cosmic level, paying somebody by the word in order to be allowed to write, but if they’re there, they should matter, they should mean something. It’s always important to me.

Tim Ferriss: You mentioned distraction earlier and your dangerously adorable son, which I certainly agree with. I had read somewhere, actually, before I get to that, this might seem like a very, very mundane question, but what type of notebooks do you prefer? Are they large legal pads or are they leather bound? What type of notebooks?

Neil Gaiman: When they came out, I really liked — I’ve used a whole bunch of different ones. I bought big drawing ones, which actually turned out to be a bit too big, though I liked how much I could see on the page. Those are the ones I wrote Stardust and American Gods in, big size, but they weren’t terribly portable. I went over to the Moleskines, and I loved them when they first came out, and then they dropped their paper quality. Dropping paper quality doesn’t matter, unless you’re writing in fountain pen, because all of a sudden it’s bleeding through, and all of a sudden you’re writing on one page, leaving a page blank because it’s bled through and then writing on the next page.

Joe Hill, about six or seven years ago, Joe Hill, the wonderful horror fantasy writer, suggested the Leuchtturm to me. My usual notebook right now is a Leuchtturm, because I really like the way you can paginate stuff in them and the thickness of the paper, and they’re just like Moleskines, but the Porsche of Moleskines. They’re just better.

I also have been writing, I wrote The Graveyard Book and I’m writing the current novel in these beautiful books that I bought in a stationery shop in Venice, built into a bridge. Somewhere in Venice there’s a little stationery shop on a bridge, and they have these beautiful leather-bound blank books that just look like hardback books, but they’re blank pages. I wrote The Graveyard Book in one of those. I bought four of them, and now I’m using the next one on the next novel, and it may well go into another one. I’m not sure.

Then, at home, I say at home, my house in Wisconsin, which is where my stuff is, I’ve got my — we live in Woodstock, but I have an entire life’s worth of stuff still sitting in my house in Wisconsin, and it’s become archives. It’s actually kind of fabulous having a house that is an archive, but waiting for me in that house is a book that I bought for myself about 25 years ago, and before I die, I plan to write a novel in it. It’s an accounts book from the mid-19th century. It’s 500 pages long. Every page is numbered. It’s lined with accounts lines, but really faint so it would be nice to write a book in it, and it is engineered so that every single page lies flat.

It’s huge and it’s heavy and it just looks like a book that Dickens or somebody would’ve written a novel in and I’ve just been waiting until I have an idea that is huge and weird and Dickensian enough, and whether or not I actually get to write it in dip pen, I’m not sure, but I definitely want to write it in an old Victorian, something slightly copper plating. One of those old flex nib pens that they stopped making when carbon paper came in, just so I can get that spidery Victorian handwriting.

Tim Ferriss: I’m just imagining you putting pen to the first page. When you finish the first page and what that will feel like. That’s going to be a good day.

Neil Gaiman: It will be either a good day or an incredibly bad day. When you get to the end of the first page, it’s “Oh no! I had this pristine — ” it is the thing that I tell young writers, and by young writers, a young writer can be any age. You just have to be starting out, which is anything you do can be fixed. What you cannot fix is the perfection of a blank page. What you cannot fix is that pristine, unsullied whiteness of a screen or a page with nothing on it, because there’s nothing there to fix.

Tim Ferriss: You mentioned a word, and it might be that I’m a little slow moving because I’m from Long Island, but Leuchtturm? What is that word?

Neil Gaiman: L-E-I-C-H, I think it’s T-U-R-M, and then 1917, I think is — their Twitter handle is definitely Leuchtturm1917.

Tim Ferriss: Leuchtturm, and I’ll put that in the show notes for folks, so you’ll be able to find it. Since you gave me — I’m not intending to turn this episode into a shopping list, but I’ve never used fountain pens.

Neil Gaiman: Really?

Tim Ferriss: I have not. My assistant, my dear assistant does. She loves using fountain pens. She enjoys the act. I’ve had a few sloppy false starts and then been rather impatient, but if I wanted to give it a shot, are there any particular fountain pens or criteria that you would use in picking a good pen?

Neil Gaiman: The biggest criteria I would use in picking, if you have the choice, is go somewhere like New York’s Fountain Pen Hospital.

Tim Ferriss: Is that a real place?

Neil Gaiman: It’s a real place. It’s called The Fountain Pen Hospital. They sell lots of new pens, they recondition old pens, they look after pens for you. And try them out, because the lovely thing about fountain pens is they are personal. You go, “No, no, no.” And then you find the one. I tend to suggest to people who are just nervously — “I’ve never used a fountain pen, what should I do?” I will point them at Lamy, L-A-M-Y, who have some fabulous starter pens, and they’re not very expensive, and they’re good. They do a pen called The Safari, but they have a bunch of good starter pens, and they’re just nice to get into the idea of, “Do I like doing this?”

Let’s see, what am I using right now? What have I got in here? This one here is a Pilot. It’s a Namiki, and it’s a flexing nib ever so slightly when you put down weight on it, the nib will spread. It’s a beautiful, beautiful pen. That one’s a Pilot. I think this one here is the Namiki. It’s really weird because Namiki is Pilot, so I don’t quite understand that.

Tim Ferriss: Maybe it’s a Toyota/Lexus thing?

Neil Gaiman: I think it is. It’s that kinda thing. This one here is called a Falcon, and again, you put a little bit of weight on it, and the line will just spread and thicken, which is part of the fun of fountain pens. I’ll go and play. There’s a lovely Italian one. I’ve got my agent, I did a thing some years ago when I realized that I was losing a lot of actual writing time to signing foreign contracts.

Tim Ferriss: This is for books?

Neil Gaiman: This is for books, or occasionally for stories or things being reprinted around the world. The contracts would come in and there would be big sheaves of them because they get printed all around the world, and foreign contracts, a lot of them you have to sign a lot. You have to do a lot of initialing and I would sit there going, “I have just spent 90 minutes signing a pile of contracts, and I love that I got to sign it, but —” I contacted my agent. I said, “Can I give you power of attorney? Would you mind? Would you just sign these things for me?”

She was like, “Absolutely!” Great. I got her — she’d never used a fountain pen and I got her a fountain pen. I actually went to The New York Fountain Pen Hospital with her, and did the thing of showing her pens, “What do you like?” I got her a Visconti, which are just these lovely Italian pens. Mostly I love, there’s a slightly fetishistic bit of having bottles of beautifully colored ink. When you start talking to fountain pen people, they really — they pretend to be interested in what pen you like, but they don’t care, because they’ve found their own pens that they love.

They say, “What do you use?”

I use Pilot 823s for signing. Actually now, I’ve got a Pilot 823, ’cause it’s just a fantastic signing pen. It’s a workhorse, it keeps going, and I got one in 2012 and it was my signing pen. I signed through Ocean at the End of the Lane. Before the book had come out, I had already pre-signed, written my signature 20,000 times with this pen.

Tim Ferriss: I have some footage of you icing your hand after said signings.

Neil Gaiman: That was a signing tour that I really got into icing my hand and wrist and arm. I did the numbers, and as far as I can tell, I’ve signed about one and a half million signatures with that pen, which remained, and I had to send it off to Pilot at one point, not because the nib was in trouble, because the plunger mechanism was starting to stick, and they fixed it for me and sent it back. Then my three-year-old son found a place behind a cast iron fireplace in our house in Woodstock where if you just insert your father’s Pilot 823 pen, which you have found on the table, just to see if it would go in there, you can actually guarantee that without disassembling the house, we actually have to take the entire house apart to uninstall a cast iron fireplace from 1913 to get at the pen. That pen now has been given as a sacrifice to the house gods, so I need to get a new one.

Tim Ferriss: Its strikes me, at least it seems as we’re talking that many of the decisions you’ve made, the tools you’ve found and enlisted, act to make not writing unappealing, or at least boring after five minutes, and to enhance the act of writing to make it something that is enjoyable. I don’t know if that’s true.

Neil Gaiman: That is true, but they also exist for another reason, which is kind of weird, which is to try and trivialize what I’m doing and not make it important and freighted down with weight, because that paralyzes me. When I started writing I had a typewriter. It was a manual typewriter. When I sold my first book, I had the money to buy an electric typewriter.

Tim Ferriss: What was that first book?

Neil Gaiman: Gosh. I actually don’t remember whether I bought the electric typewriter with the money from a book called Ghastly Beyond Belief, a book of science fiction and fantasy quotations I did with Kim Newman, or whether it was for the Duran Duran biography that I did. Either way, I was just 23. What I would do back then is I would do my rough draft on scrap paper, single spaced so that it couldn’t be used, and also so that I could get as many words on. Paper was expensive. I could always do that. I remember the joy of getting my first computer, and just the idea that I wasn’t making paper dirty. Nothing mattered until I pressed print, and that was absolutely and utterly liberating.

And then, a decade on, picking up a notebook, it was for Stardust, which I’d decided that I wanted the rhythms of Stardust to be very antiquated rhythms, and I thought there’s probably a difference to the way that one writes with a fountain pen. 17 century writing, 17th, 18th century writing, you notice tends to go in very, very long sentences and long paragraphs. My theory about this is that one reason why you get this is because you’’re using dip pens, and if you pause, they dry up. You just have to keep going. It forces you to do a kind of writing where you’re going for a very long sentence and you’re going to go for a long paragraph and you’re going to keep moving in this thing, and you’re thinking ahead.

If you’re writing on a computer, you’ll think of the sort of thing that you mean, and then write that down and look at it and then fiddle with it and get it to be the thing that you mean. If you’re writing in fountain pen, if you do that, you just wind up with a page covered with crossings out, so it’s actually so much easier to just think a little bit more. You slow up a bit, but you’re thinking the sentence through to the end, and then you start writing.

You write that, and then you pause and then you write the next one. At least that was the way that I hypothesized that I might be writing, and I wanted Stardust to feel like it had been written in the late 1920s. I thought to do that I should probably get myself a fountain pen and a book, so that was how I started writing that. Again, what I loved was suddenly feeling liberated. Saying, “Ah, I’m not actually making words that are not going down in phosphor on a computer screen.”

Tim Ferriss: This trivializing is very, very important and I’d love to dig into a little bit, because this is something that’s come up quite a bit, initially very unexpectedly with people I’ve interviewed on the podcast. I remember having a conversation with Shaun White, the legendary snowboarder, and I asked him what he said to himself, what was his internal monologue or dialogue right before the gate opened for the last run in the Olympics for the gold medal. His answer was, “Who cares?” Which surprised me and he said, “Yeah, because in effect, if I apply an incredible amount of weight to myself, it’s going to do nothing but handicap me.”

You do see, or there are many examples of writers, of musicians who have crumbled with sophomore syndrome after a success and had great difficulty putting out work. You’ve put out a lot of very, very good work. I’ve read and listened to and watched a lot of your work. What are other things you do to remove that weight, if anything? Are there things you say to yourself when you commit to writing a book? When you sign the agreement with the publisher for yet another novel? Is there any other advice that you would give or things that you do to help remove the psychological performance anxiety?

Neil Gaiman: If you’re me, you tend to do the things that are not actually financially sensible, but make life easier. I like writing things that nobody’s waiting for. It’s much more stressful writing things that people actually are waiting for, that people care about. It’s why it felt wonderful to follow American Gods up with Coraline. Nobody even knew that I wanted to be a kid’s author, and it was an odd thing to be, and I’d just written this giant novel that’s won all of the awards and it’s incredibly adult and it’s thick and it’s a proper book and look, I got the Hugo, and look, I got the Nebula and so on and so forth, and then here’s a book nobody’s waiting for about —

Tim Ferriss: Did you work on — you worked on that before anyone knew. In other words, you hadn’t set expectations?

Neil Gaiman: Coraline was written — I thought Coraline was unpublishable and that I was told it was initially. I started it for my kids, my daughter, in particular, Holly. I showed it to an English editor who told me it was completely unpublishable. We moved to America. The idea was that I was writing it in my own time, but I didn’t have any own time. Somewhere in there I sent it to my friend, Jane Yolen. I mentioned to Jane, who was an amazing children’s author, but also at the time was editing a line of books.

She wanted to buy it and the people upstairs at the publishing house, said, “Absolutely not.” This was just the first third of Coraline. It hadn’t even got bad yet. I put it away, and then a few years on I looked around and realized I now had another daughter. I now had Maddy and she was a baby and she was getting bigger, and if I didn’t finish that book, this book I started for Holly and now Holly’s too old, almost, and I needed to finish it, so I sent it to my new editor, but I sent it to my adult editor. I didn’t have a children’s editor.

Jennifer Hershey at — I can’t remember, were we at Harper Collins at the time or was it still Avon? I think it was still Avon. Avon got bought by Harper Collins, which was how I became a Harper Collins author. She read it and she called me up and she said, “This is great. What happens next?”

I said, “Send me a contract, and we will both find out.”

Bless her, she did, so I went back to writing it, ’cause now it was actually something that actually had a delivery date attached. I did not have the time to write it in. It wasn’t like I had more time. I remember, what I did was I had a notebook by the side of my bed, and instead of reading three or four pages a night and then turning off the light and going to sleep, I would write maybe 50 words of Coraline, which doesn’t seem much.

Tim Ferriss: Right before bed?

Neil Gaiman: Right before bed. So I wasn’t reading before bed, I was just writing before bed, but I’d go to bed and I’d reread what I had written on Coraline, and I would do five or six lines of Coraline.

If you do it that way, you’ve written a page a week and it kept moving forward, and then we went on a cruise, a fundraising cruise for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which is a first amendment thing, and I was working on American Gods and I did not pack — due to a packing error — the American Gods notebooks, but I did have the Coraline book with me, so on that cruise I got to write quite a bit more Coraline. A couple months later, I was in despair of ever finishing American Gods because I’d been writing it by that point for at least 18 months and figured that I had about a year to go, and just said, “Fuck it.” And wrote Coraline and just finished it and sent it off to my publisher and was like, “Here is a book. You can publish this.”

They were like, “That’s great, but we’ll wait for American Gods.”

Tim Ferriss: Do you tend to work on multiple projects at once?

Neil Gaiman: I used to. I used to be really good at working on multiple projects at once. I think I have to start accepting that I’m not as good anymore at that.

Tim Ferriss: What does that mean?

Neil Gaiman: It means that in the old days when I was young, I would have at least three things on the go, which was great because if I got stuck on any one of them, I would do the other. Even when I was writing American Gods, I would always have the next Coming to America short stories in my head so if I got stuck on Shadow, I would just take a week and I’d do one of the Coming to America stories, and then I’d go back to Shadow again.

But, these days, I don’t think I’m as good at that anymore. I think I am, I think it’s great to have three or four things going on, but there is that point when I start looking at myself and going, “Actually, I’m getting less done.” I’m not doing that thing where I get stuck on project A so I just immediately whip over to project B. It takes me a little ramping up time to get to the head space now, on project B. At the point when I have project A, B, C, and D all waiting for me, what I do is look at them, make a noise like Lurch from The Addams Family, one of those “Ohhhhh” kind of noises. I go off and make a cup of tea and play with Ash or something. I think, actually, it’s one of those things where you just know thyself. I think I now have to start going, “Just one thing at a time.”

This also means I’m going to have to say no to more introductions and things, and I love doing introductions.

Tim Ferriss: Introductions? You mean writing introductions?

Neil Gaiman: Writing introductions. Writing introductions to other people’s work, writing introductions and essays and things where you go, “Here is a thing I love. I can get it to the world. I can tell people why I love this thing, and maybe they’ll discover it.” Every now and then, sometimes you know your introduction makes no real difference in the scheme of things, and then sometimes — James Thurber, I was told they would bring The Thirteen Clocks back into print if I wrote the introduction to it. I was like, “Yes, I’m writing the introduction to it.” Because it has an introduction by me, I’ve run into many hundreds of people who I assume are representatives of thousands of people over the years who’ve said, “You know, I picked up that book because your name was on the cover, and oh my God, it’s become my favorite book. I read it to my kids. It’s amazing.”

I go, “Good. That’s what it’s for. That’s why you do this.”

Tim Ferriss: You mentioned writing right before bed. I’d love to talk about the — maybe not the scheduling, but the timing of writing. I was doing prep for this conversation and I came across an interview in which you said, that for nonfiction you can write wherever it happens to fall. If it’s a script it’s something else, but for novels, very often you tend to write between one and six p.m. you’ll handle email, maybe writing a blog post and so on the morning, and I’d love to chat about that because many of the writers I’ve spoken to, and I’m sure it differs person to person, but tend to write either very late or very early because they feel like they avoid distraction.

Neil Gaiman: When I started out, from the age of about 22, when I was a young journalist, 26, 27, a starting out comics writer, all through there I was a late, late, late night writer. Nothing really happened until the kids were in bed. Nine o’clock, I might have faffed around a little bit during the day, but now it’s all done, and now I’m getting done to work. At two or three o’clock in the morning, and I’m writing in England at this point, I may phone a friend in America just to talk enough to make sure that I’m awake.

That’s what I did, and I was a smoker and a coffee drinker and it was great. I moved to America in ’92, gave up smoking ’93, stopped drinking coffee, went over to tea and tried being a late night writer. Tried carrying on being a late night writer and gradually realized that I wasn’t anymore. What tended to happen was somewhere around one in the morning, I’d be writing away and then I would lift my head from the keyboard at four o’clock in the morning and have 3,000 pages of the letter M, and just go, “Okay, this doesn’t really work anymore for me.” Then I started rescheduling, trying different things out.

Part of what I discovered, particularly about being a novelist, is writing a novel works best if you can do the same day over and over again. The closer you can come to Groundhog Day, you just repeat that day. You set up a day that works for yourself. The last novel that I actually wrote, I was at Tori Amos’ wonderful house in Florida. She has this lovely house on the water that she’s lent me many times to go and write in. I went down there and I would get up in the morning, I would go for a jog, come back, do my yoga, get dressed and get in the car, drive down to a little café where there were just enough people around that I knew that other people existed, but nobody that I would ever be tempted to talk to, and I would order myself a large cup of green tea, sit in a corner, and just start writing.

I would do that day over and over and over and over. A couple of months later looked up and I had The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which was only meant to have been a short story anyway, it just kept going. That, I think, works really, really well. I also think that the most important thing for human beings is to be aware of the change. The biggest problem we run into is going, “This is who I am, this is what I’m like. This is how I function.” while failing to notice that you don’t do that anymore. I’m perfectly aware that I may one day become one of those people who wakes up early in the morning and goes and writes.

My friend Gene Wolfe, who is now in his late 80s and is one of the finest writers that America has, for years was an editor of a magazine about factories. It was called Plant Engineering. He’d get up at four o’clock in the morning and write for an hour before anything else, before the day started, before he had to leave for work, and before anybody else was up, and that was how he did it. I cannot imagine getting up in the morning and just writing. That’s not how my head works. I need a while to get here, but I can absolutely imagine that one day I’ll have become one of those morning writers, from having been a late night writer in my youth, and an afternoon writer in my middle age. In my dotage, I can absolutely become a morning writer.

Tim Ferriss: In your dotage. I think that’s going to take a while. I do want to ask you a question related to a name that came up earlier, and that is, this of course, I think I’m getting right, because it comes from a reliable source, which is your blog.

Neil Gaiman: My blog is a pretty reliable source.

Tim Ferriss: I think it’s very reliable. For those who know your work outside of the blog, I would really encourage to read some of your work on the blog. There’s some really touching personal work, one in particular about your gorgeous white dog whose name I’m —

Neil Gaiman: Cabal.

Tim Ferriss: Such a beautiful piece, in fact, I owe you thanks for because it led, in part, there were many factors, but to me getting my first dog, as an adult, Molly, which I put off for decades. Thank you for that. This question —

Neil Gaiman: You’re welcome.

Tim Ferriss: Beautiful piece. Is related to Holly. I’m going to use this as a very sneaky way to ask you a question that you probably dislike being asked, and it involves 57-year-olds. My understanding is you’re convinced to speak to your daughter’s class about where ideas come from. What I noted here, I’m not going to ask it that way, but the line that stuck out is you get ideas when you ask yourself simple questions. What if — what if you woke up with wings? If only. If only real life was like it is in Hollywood musicals. I wonder — If this goes on, this is one I really liked, if this goes on, telephones are going to start talking to each other and cut out the middleman. Wouldn’t it be interesting if —

The question I’m going to ask is a follow-up. It doesn’t have to map perfectly with this, but I would love to hear the genesis story of The Graveyard Book. The reason I ask about that book specifically is that it is my absolutely favorite fiction audio book of all time. I remember the exact moment when I finished The Graveyard Book in audio, and multiple versions, people have asked me, I have not listened to the ensemble version.

Neil Gaiman: It’s really good.

Tim Ferriss: I’m sure it’s spectacular, but not to sound creepy, I do find your voice very soothing. I finished it as my plane — not my plane, let me rephrase — as a plane was landing and I had a few minutes before we landed and I thought about restarting the book. It’s had a wonderful place in my heart and my mind. Where did that book come from?

Neil Gaiman: Actually I can give a slightly better answer to that now than I could’ve done a year ago or I have done in previous years, because I found something accidentally, recently, which gave me an insight. I was 25 years old. It would’ve been 1984, ’85, maybe even into ’86. I was living in Sussex, a little town in a very tall house. My dad owned the house. Actually, what he owned was a shop underneath, and the house came with it.

Because little old English towns go back for a long time, the house was at least 300 years old. It was across a little lane from a country graveyard, and the house was incredibly tall and incredibly thin. You get a couple of rooms, then you get stairs. I had a son, who, at that point was two years old. His favorite thing was his little tricycle. The problem with little tricycles is you cannot ride them around houses like that, otherwise you die. You hit the stairs and you die.

Every day I would take him and his little tricycle over the road into this little churchyard and he would pedal happily round and round the paths through the gravestones. I remember just the thought process. I remember going, “He looks so happy here. He looks really comfortable.” There is something very sweet about a little kid riding a tricycle through a graveyard. I thought, “I could do a story! Wouldn’t it be fun to do a story about that? It would be like a kid in a graveyard getting brought up by dead people.”

And then I thought, “Well actually, Kipling already did that once with The Jungle Book, which is a kid in a jungle being brought up by wild animals and teaching him the things that wild animals know, so I would have to have a kid in a graveyard being taught the things that dead people know.”

I went up to my office, my little office, and I sat down at my typewriter and started to write. When I told people this in the past, I’ve said “I wrote a couple of pages and realized that it wasn’t good enough, and I was wrong.” I actually wrote an entire first chapter, I discovered. About a year ago, looking for something else, I found it and it wasn’t very good. What was fascinating and delightful about it was the portrait of the kid, which was very obviously a really, actually looking back at it, a quite good pen portrait of my son Mike who is now a —

Tim Ferriss: That you did.

Neil Gaiman: I’m describing the baby and I only knew one, so it’s Mike. And that was really interesting, but the story doesn’t work. I think I’ve got a — there’s a demon in it who I think is the person who winds up being the person who accepts him into the graveyard. Nothing’s quite right, but yet there’s a central idea there. I remember writing that and just going, “Okay, this is a better idea, and I am a writer, so I need to put this off.”

About a decade later, I came back, tried it again, and this time, at least according to memory it was only a couple of pages and again, I went, “Oh, no, still not good enough for this.”

Tim Ferriss: May I pause for one second?

Neil Gaiman: Yeah.

Tim Ferriss: You must have ideas for potential stories all the time.

Neil Gaiman: Yeah, but this was different. This was one where I knew it had legs and I knew it was real and I knew it was good. In fact, it was interesting; there was a point when I thought I wasn’t going to do it, and I gave the idea to Terry Pratchett. We had our photos taken in a graveyard and we were talking about graveyards and kids. I said, “There’s this book that I was going to write, and this is what I was going to do in it.”

What is lovely is Terry didn’t do that, exactly, but he wrote a book called Johnny and The Dead, which was taking some of the stuff, but it wasn’t close enough that I couldn’t then still do my story. What was great is I knew that this was still important and I still wanted to tell the story and over the years, I would just let it accumulate. Finally, in about 2003 I finished writing, I think it was Anansi Boys

Tim Ferriss: Which I also listened to on audio.

Neil Gaiman: Ah, Lenny Henry, isn’t he brilliant?

Tim Ferriss: He’s incredible. Such a great read.

Neil Gaiman: I got to the end of Anansi Boys and I thought, “I don’t think I’m getting any better. This is now, as a writer, I’m probably me. This is probably it. I may improve a tiny bit, but it’s not going to be the leaps and bounds that I know that I was. I have absolutely no excuse for putting off The Graveyard Book. But when I’ve started the other two times and it didn’t work, I started with Chapter One. I’m going to start right in the middle,” and I wrote the first two pages of The Witch’s Headstone, Chapter Four, and did, emotionally, the same thing I always do. I had all this down at that point with The Graveyard Book, which is go, “Oh, it’s not good enough. It’s not good enough.” My daughter Maddy, because at this point we’re in The Cayman Islands on a small holiday, me, Maddy, and Holly. Maddy comes out of the sea, wanders over to me and says, “What are you doing?” I said, “I’m writing a story.”

She says, “Read it to me.” I read her the first page and a half that I’d written, and she said, “What happens next?” So I kept going. I think I would’ve absolutely have been capable of giving up and failing at that point, except Maddy wanted to know what happened next, so I kept writing. By the end of that, I’d written a story that felt like it worked. I had the tone, I had the voice, I had Silas, I had all of that stuff.

Tim Ferriss: What a great character, by the way.

Neil Gaiman: He’s so lovely.

Tim Ferriss: Silas.

Neil Gaiman: Then I started it from the beginning. The one thing that I have no idea where it came from, because it was just sitting in the notebook when I came to start, it’s like I’d written it at some point in the previous five years knowing that I would have to start at some point. It was just a line that was, “It was a hand in the darkness and it held a knife.” Knowing that that was the first line in the story, and having very mixed feelings about that because on the whole, this story is going to be very loving. It’s going to be very tender, it’s going to be about growth, it’s going to be about families, it’s going to be about villages, it’s going to be about people, but the first few pages are going to be absolutely terrifying. That was the first line.

Tim Ferriss: You’ve certainly delivered on the first few pages being very, very terrifying. I’m going to go back and listen to that again. Maybe I’ll try ensemble this time around.

Neil Gaiman: The ensemble is really — I’m not just saying this because for me, listening to one of my own audiobooks is a lot like back when you were young and you had answering machines and you would be listening to messages people had left for you and then you’d suddenly hit your own voice. “No, I don’t sound like that!” It’s Derek Jacobi, who is one of England’s greatest actors, as the narrator. The cast of people, Miriam Margolyes, Reece Shearsmith, just this fabulous cast.

Tim Ferriss: You mentioned the name that I was planning on bringing up anyway, and that is Terry Pratchett. I think many people who, at least in the United States, are less familiar with Terry than perhaps, they should be. Could you tell us who Terry is and how you first met?

Neil Gaiman: Terry Pratchett, later Sir Terry Pratchett, was an English writer who died in March, 2015. He was a humorist, a satirist, best known for the Discworld novels set on a flat earth, which is on the back of four elephants on the back of an enormous turtle swimming through space. He was my friend.

Terry and I met when his first book, the first Discworld book, The Colour of Magic, was due to come out in paperback and we met — for years and years, we would tell everybody that we met in a Chinese restaurant. Again, a few years ago, I found my desk diary from 1985, and I thought, “Ah, there’s Terry and me meeting in February, 1985. I wonder which Chinese restaurant it was?” It turned out we actually met on the 28th of January and it was Bertorelli’s Italian restaurant in — was it Goodge Street? I think it was Goodge Street, proving that memory is gloriously fallible.

Embarrassingly so, since I’d actually filmed a piece to camera in a Chinese restaurant about Terry’s passing. I was a young journalist. Terry, at the time, was working as the press officer for the Central Electricity Board in the UK, and we hit if off in a way that’s just that sort of thing where you go, “Oh, you have the same kind of mind that I have.” Not exactly, but the Venn Diagram of overlap is — it was the point where we got onto the subject of grimoires, of occult books, and Terry mentioned that he had come up with one called The Necrotelicomnicon, The Book of The Telephone Numbers of the Dead, and I said, “That’s really weird, I’ve just come up with one called The Liber Fulvarum Paginarum, the Book of Yellow Colored Pages.” And he’s going, “Oh, we have the same kind of head that goes to the same kind of places.”

We became friendlier. After a while, Terry would start sending me his books to read as he was writing them. A floppy disk would arrive and it would have 30,000 words on it of a novel, or my phone would ring and Terry would say, “‘Allo, it’s me. So which is funnier?” He’d just be writing and he’d want somebody to talk to.

I had written a book called Don’t Panic. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Companion, which was great. I got to work with Douglas Adams, I got to rummage through Douglas’ filing cabinets and obscurity stuff. I’d written the whole book of who Douglas was and what Hitchhiker’s was. I realized, by the end of it, that I could write in that style. Classic English humor with funny footnotes and things like that. That was something that I could do.

I had an idea for a book inspired, really, by reading The Jew of Malta. I’d been reading Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta and there’s just a line in it where these evil Jews meet and they compare evil that they’ve done. I thought you could do that scene with demons and it would be really nice if you got Demon Number One who’s done lots of evil, Demon Number Two, who’s done lots of evil, and Demon Number Three, who just hasn’t, really.

That was the start — so I wrote and I had this idea about a baby swap, kind of like The Omen, but it all goes wrong and it becomes a nice kid. So I wrote 5,000 words of this thing, and I sent it to a few friends to look at, and then Sandman and Books of Magic took over my life and my time and didn’t really think about it. I knew it was a thing, I knew that I’d get to it one day, and then I got a phone call from Terry.

Tim Ferriss: How much later was this?

Neil Gaiman: Maybe eight months, nine months. He says, “That thing you sent me. Are you doing anything with it?” I said, “Well, no, I’m doing Sandman. I’m doing Books of Magic.”

He said, “Well, I know what happens next. Either sell me the idea of what you’ve written so far, or we can write it together.” As far as I was concerned, that was a lot like Michelangelo ringing me up and saying, “Do you want to paint a ceiling together this weekend?” I loved Terry’s craft. Terry became, somewhere in there, before the arrival of J. K. Rowling, the bestselling novelist in the UK.

Tim Ferriss: Tens of millions of copies.

Neil Gaiman: Millions upon millions of copies. This was before that. This was, he’d just retired from the electricity board to become a full time writer, but I knew how good he was, and I’m like, “This is a fabulous apprenticeship.” Even though I didn’t have the time, I said yes, and my life, when I look back on it, I’m just really glad that I was 27, 28 when I was doing this, because I couldn’t do it now, just physically and mentally couldn’t do it now, but I would write Sandman until midnight, I would write The Books of Magic from midnight until about 2:30, and I would write Good Omens from 2:30 until about 6 a.m., and then I would get up at one o’clock in the afternoon and my answering machine would have a little blinking light on it and I would press the button and the tape would rewind and then Terry Pratchett’s voice would come out of it and he’d go, “Get up, get up you bastard! I’ve just written a good bit!”

That was the process of writing. It was very fast, very mad, and was the first draft. Second draft took us much longer, but we had Good Omens. We had this wonderful incredibly collaborative book. It was almost immediately bought by Hollywood, and Terry and I went out and had one of those hellish awful Hollywood experiences that you laugh at when other people tell you in their stories about them because you’re like, “It can’t be that bad.” No, it really is that bad. It really was that bad.

Then over the years, Terry Gilliam tried to make it into a film, which we loved the idea of, then we were going to do it as a TV series, and we couldn’t really find somebody to adapt it. Eventually, Terry and I had a deal that we would never do anything individually on Good Omens. It had to be together or not at all, and then one day he emailed me, and he said, “Look you have to do this. You have to do this because you’re the only other person who has the same amount of love for and understanding of the old girl that I have, and I want to see it before the lights go out.”

I said, “Okay.” And then Terry died, which meant that now it had become this last request and if the upcoming Good Omens series is good, which I believe it is, a lot of what makes it good, a lot of what, because I was the showrunner. I wrote it and I showran it, but I think what makes it good is I wasn’t prepared to compromise on it, and I am normally very prepared to compromise. I am encouraging when other people want to bring ideas to the table. I’m like, “Yeah, go do something fun with this. I’ve already done the book.”

In this case, I had Terry Pratchett in the back of my head who I had to please, and the producers would say, “Neil, I know you’ve written this sequence where Agnes Nutter, the witch, is taken out and burned and we have villagers and it’s the 1640s and you’ve got a giant bonfire and an explosion and all this kind of stuff, and we thought we could save a lot of money and do it just as well if we had wood cuts of what happened, and the narrator telling the story.”

I would be like, “Okay.” And then I would stop and I would think, “What would Terry think about that?” Terry would have nothing polite to say about any of these people and “I’m sorry, we’re going to have to do it the way I wrote it. And the way it is in the book. We’re not doing it with woodcuts.” It was like that all the way through, just trying to hold the line and make this thing that Terry would’ve been proud of and using stuff that we came up with in the book, using stuff that we’d come up with talking after the book, stuff that we would’ve put into the next book if there ever had been one, and just making it all something that Terry would’ve been proud of.

It’s been really wonderful. This South by Southwest has been the first time anybody has seen anything from Good Omens, and we showed some clips. Hearing audiences laugh was kind of amazing. “Oh, it does work. They’re liking it. They’re loving it.”

Tim Ferriss: It does work. You showed me only a very short clip, but I know the book and I’m familiar with it and with the work you’ve done or any work or characters I deeply care about, I collected comics for my entire childhood, still have probably 10,000 polybagged comics that I refuse to get rid of, and every time a comic book movie would be made in my younger years, because they were not done, generally, very well, I would peek through a crack in my fingers to see how characters would turn out, and it was always very stressful for me, because I had so much invested in many different characters. Just want to get a thank you to Hugh Jackman for getting Logan in Wolverine right. It was a huge relief. And seeing this clip, it really gave me the feeling that you’d pulled it off. That it lived up to my experience as a reader and a listener.

Neil Gaiman: I think, mostly, we have. I think a lot of that is casting. Michael Sheen and David Tennant were perfect, and they’ve never really been in anything [together] before, because they go up for the same parts because they are very similar actors, and people were like, “Why would you cast them? It’s like casting the same person.” Yeah, it kind of is, actually, and it’s one of the reasons why it works so well. They have joked about — and I’m not sure if they’re joking about if ever I write a stage play version of Good Omens, they would go on tour with it and alternate roles each night.

Tim Ferriss: That’s a brilliant idea. Wow. I want to — first I should say, and we’ll put this certainly in the show notes and everywhere else and as people have already heard, in the introduction, where can people learn more about Good Omens?

Neil Gaiman: That’s a really good question. One thing that I would recommend you do is read the book. Good Omens, the novel, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman. It won’t spoil anything for you with the TV show. There’s enough stuff in there that I put in for people who knew the book. There are Easter eggs in there where only somebody who has read the book will know that something is funny or know why something has happened, but there’s also things that people who read the book will not be expecting.

That’s the first thing. YouTube or any Amazon Prime ads have the ad for Good Omens up, the trailer. You can go and watch that. It’s a lot talkier than the trailer. The trailer, a lot of it is things going bang, because that’s what they like putting in trailers. If it were me, my trailer would’ve just been three minutes of two characters talking. “Here you go, here’s the trailer. If you like this, you’ll like the show.” I think, very wisely, they put in giant walls of fire and Heaven and Hell, and hellhounds and all of the glorious stuff.

Tim Ferriss: You mentioned a word: apprenticeship. What are the types of things that you learned from Terry, or picked up?

Neil Gaiman: The biggest thing, looking back on it, that I learned from Terry was a willingness to go forward without knowing what happens. You might know what happens next, but you don’t know what happens after that, but it’s okay because you’re a grownup and you will figure it out. There’s lots of metaphors for writing a novel and George R.R. Martin, for example, divides writers into architects and gardeners. I can be an architect if I have to, but I’d rather be a gardener. I would rather plant the seeds, water them, and figure out what I’m growing as they grow and then prune it and trim it and pleach it, whatever I need to do to make something beautiful that appears intentional, but at the end of the day you have to allow for accidents and randomness and just, “What happens when things grow?”

The joy of Good Omens — the best thing about Good Omens was having Terry Pratchett as an audience, because if I could make Terry laugh, I knew it’s like hitting that bell, hitting the thing in the circus with the hammer. If you bing the bell at the top, and that’s what I did when I could make Terry laugh.

Tim Ferriss: He is no longer with us, and I’d be curious to know how he faced mortality, because I, for instance, have Alzheimer’s on both sides of my family, so I’ve had the opportunity to observe people with Alzheimer’s, which can be very, very difficult. How did he approach his own mortality?

Neil Gaiman: Terry made an astonishingly powerful — he faced it head on and he made two or three incredibly powerful documentaries, one about Alzheimer’s. The one that ripped me up emotionally was the one about assisted suicide. It was the one about the right to die, which Terry became a very firm believer in and made his film as a piece of polemic about should he be allowed to turn off? Should he be allowed to go, “Okay, this is the situation I’m in and I’m in this body and I am done?”

He followed a man to Switzerland where he went through the end of life process and he turned off the cameras while he did. It was incredibly moving. Terry, the last time I saw him, confided in me very proudly that he did have the death cocktail and that it was hidden away, and it was there for him when he was ready. I knew at that moment he was never going to take it, because Terry had a rear-brain Alzheimer’s. Memory was basically okay, but shapes weren’t. The physical world had fallen slightly apart on him. He couldn’t see things. He couldn’t perceive objects. He could still think straight, but all of your spatial recognition, all of your object recognition stuff was failing.

I thought, “Even if you’ve got the stuff, you can’t find it. You can’t get something from a hidden place. Nobody else is going to get something from a hidden place for you.” Also, I thought, “You’re now actually beyond the point where you ever wanted to be. You didn’t want to be here. You wanted to have stopped four or five months ago, but now you’re here, and if you’re here, you’re here ‘til the end.”

Indeed, a few months later, he fell into unconsciousness and a few months after that, he stopped completely. But it was inspiring. It was inspiring watching Terry talk about Alzheimer’s, bringing Alzheimer’s, which everybody has to deal with one way or the other, into the public consciousness as something that was okay to talk about. Not as something slightly shameful that happens to Grandpa. Also, just talk about the right to die, and talking about it as a human right and I understand, you can list out to me all the reasons why it’s a bad idea and here’s a creepy family and if they could kill Mum for the money they would, and right now they’ve got her in a home. They would’ve killed her and announced that she wanted to do it herself. I get all that, but also, I get that the right not to be alive, the right to end it all, the right to go, “Okay, I’ve come as far as I can in this, and it’s okay to stop before I become something that is a shallow shadow of who I once was.” That has to be all right too.

Tim Ferriss: How does it feel as such a close friend of his, to be able to share this work that you created together and to have?

Neil Gaiman: Weird. Really, really weird. Mostly it’s wonderful, and then sometimes it isn’t. Saturday night, Amazon had taken over a 19,000 square foot lot, turned it into The Garden of Earthly Delights. It has a bookshop on a corner and hairdressers and a giant tree in the middle that serves alcohol. It has wings that if you stand in front of them and activate some kind of Instagram filter, or maybe it was a Snapchat filter, will make the wings start to flap. Just filled with wonderfulness and I’m there and we have singing nuns and then a Queen cover band come on, and I’m looking around and there’s Jon Hamm and David Tennant and Michael Sheen and all my guys from my lovely American Gods cast come over and they’re hanging out, coming over and I get to introduce — it’s like introducing two families.

I was kind of melancholy, because I knew that I should just be enjoying it, I knew I should just be going, “This is magical. This is the kind of fun, wonderful thing that you don’t get very often in your life and I should just be exulting in it,” and instead, I’m just thinking, “I wish Terry were here.” He would’ve loved the nuns. He would’ve had a great time with the Queen cover band and he would’ve been just grumbling to me about tiny details and enjoying it.

Or, taking enormous pleasure in tiny details and deciding which color wings he liked having best. Whatever, he would’ve loved it, and he’s not around. And then, by the same token, I know Terry well enough to also know that the way that Terry was built and who Terry was, we probably would never have gotten to this point had Terry been alive, because if you’re doing something like making a big TV show or something, something this big, this complicated where things can go wrong, sometimes when things are getting weird or things are going wrong or the BBC are going a bit mad or whatever, the only thing you can do is just focus on the outcome and just keep going and keep a steady course and so on and so forth. I knew Terry well enough and worked with Terry long enough to know that he was absolutely, constitutionally incapable of doing that.

At the point where things, any one of a dozen places where all we would have to have done is just keep on going and Terry would’ve been making the phone calls to the head of the BBC or the head of Amazon, telling Jeff Bezos exactly what he thought of them. Just the wrong thing to do right now, so there’s also that weirdness of going, “Had Terry been around, we probably never have got here, but getting here was all about making this thing for Terry, which he also wasn’t here for.”

A giant interwoven panoply of strange emotions. Absolute joy in having made it. Joy in having made it for Terry, because nothing else would have stopped me writing novels for three and a half, four years, but that did.

Tim Ferriss: I think, I have to imagine he’d be thrilled to see you in this amazing circus just before this piece of work is released to hopefully millions more people who will be impacted by the work.

Neil Gaiman: I think, and I think he would’ve loved so much of this and also being Terry, he would’ve loved the fact that then people would come pick up Good Omens, the book, and then they’ll go and read Discworld books, and that will make Terry even happier.

Tim Ferriss: Neil, this has been so much fun.

Neil Gaiman: It can’t be 90 minutes already.

Tim Ferriss: 90 minutes.

Neil Gaiman: That flew.

Tim Ferriss: It did. It did, and I certainly hope it’s not the last time we have a chance to —

Neil Gaiman: We’ll have to do it again.

Tim Ferriss: Absolutely. I’d love to. I’d really love to. I know we have — maybe not state it that way. Many, many of my fans are your fans. Just as Terry shared his gifts with the world, you continue to share yours, and it has an impact. It helped me through some very tough times, was able to transport me, delight me, shock me, scare me, and take me through a whole range of emotions I didn’t, at the time, even know I had access to. I want to thank you for making good art and sharing it with the world. You’ve done a great job.

Neil Gaiman: You are so ridiculously welcome. Thank you.

Tim Ferriss: Do you have any closing comments, thoughts, remarks, anything you’d like to say before we wrap up?

Neil Gaiman: No, not really. I genuinely enjoyed — one of the great things about having you as a fan is the books arrive from you, and they actually get read. I learn from them because you go off and explore parts of things that I’m never going to. I appreciate that too, enormously.

Tim Ferriss: Thank you so much. For everybody listening, we will include links to everything we’ve discussed —

Neil Gaiman: Including fountain pens.

Tim Ferriss: Including fountain pens. This might be the time to buy some stock. Everything that came up will be in the show notes, as always, at You can just search Neil or Gaiman and it will pop right up. Neil, once again, thank you so much. I really, really appreciate it, and to everyone listening, until next time, read widely, check out Good Omens and we’ll chat soon. Bye.

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Neil Gaiman — The Interview I’ve Waited 20 Years To Do (#366)


“The biggest problem we run into is going, ‘This is who I am, this is what I’m like, this is how I function’ while failing to notice that you don’t do that anymore.”
— Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman (@neilhimself) is the bestselling author and creator of books, graphic novels, short stories, film and television for all ages, including Neverwhere, Coraline, The Graveyard Book, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, The View from the Cheap Seats and the Sandman series of graphic novels. His fiction has received Newbery and Carnegie Medals, and Hugo, Nebula, World Fantasy, Bram Stoker, and Will Eisner Awards, among many other awards and honors.

His novelistic retelling of Norse myths, Norse Mythology, has been a phenomenon, and an international bestseller, and won Gaiman his ninth Audie Award (for Best Narration by the Author).

Recently Gaiman wrote all six episodes of, and has been the full-time showrunner, for the forthcoming BBC/Amazon Prime mini-series adaptation of Good Omens, based on the beloved 1990 book he co-wrote with Terry Pratchett.

Many of Gaiman’s books and comics have been adapted for film and television including Stardust (starring Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer), Coraline (an Academy Award nominee and the BAFTA winner for Best Animated Film), and How to Talk to Girls at Parties, a movie based on Gaiman’s short story. The television series Lucifer is based on characters created by Gaiman in Sandman. His 2001 novel, American Gods, is a critically acclaimed, Emmy-nominated TV series, now entering its second season.

In 2017, Neil Gaiman became a Goodwill Ambassador for UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency. Originally from England, he lives in the United States, where he is Professor in the Arts at Bard College.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, Castbox, or on your favorite podcast platform.

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

#366: Neil Gaiman — The Interview I've Waited 20 Years To Do

Want to hear an episode with another world-building dreamer? — Listen to my conversation with filmmaker Darren Aronofsky in which we discuss nomadic writing, how to navigate tough conversations over creativity and control, dealing with critics, and much more. Stream below or right-click here to download.

#263: Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky — Exploring Creativity, Ignoring Critics, and Making Art

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This episode of the Tim Ferriss Show is also brought to you by Hello Monday, a new podcast from LinkedIn’s Editorial Team filled with the kind of advice that stays with you — the kind you can actually use.

Each week, host Jessi Hempel sits down with featured guests, such as Seth Meyers, host of Late Night with Seth Meyers, and Elizabeth Gilbert, bestselling author of Eat, Pray, Love, to uncover lessons you can apply to your career.

For example, Elizabeth Gilbert talks about relieving creative pressure to get more done: As Liz was approaching her follow-up to Eat, Pray, Love, she tried to write for six million people and felt overwhelmed. Instead, she focused on writing for her 10 closest friends. She didn’t know how to please millions of strangers, but did know how to reach those 10 friends.

Find Elizabeth Gilbert’s episode and other episodes from Hello Monday on Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

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

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The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Michael Pollan (#365)

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Please enjoy this transcript of my SXSW interview with Michael Pollan (@michaelpollan), author of seven previous books, including Cooked, Food Rules, In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and The Botany of Desire—all of which were New York Times bestsellers—and one of TIME magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world for 2010. His newest book is How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, which will be available as a paperback in May. Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, Castbox, or on your favorite podcast platform.

#365: Michael Pollan — Exploring the Frontiers of Psychedelics


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Tim Ferriss: Thank you all for coming. Good afternoon. And we’re going to settle in for a long spring nap. Hopefully not that. But if you have to leave early, that’s totally fine. I just want to make sure that the doors in the back are closed so there’s not too much noise. I am thrilled to be here on stage with Michael Pollan. Michael, the cross-pollinator, as a friend of mine referenced him as being. @michaelpollan on Twitter, if you want to say hello, is the author of seven books prior to the one we’ll be discussing quite a bit, including Cooked, Food Rules, In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, one of my favorites, and The Botany of Desire, all of which were New York Times Best Sellers, so he’s a clear underachiever.

A longtime contributor to The New York Times Magazine, he also teaches writing at Harvard and the University of California Berkeley, where he is the John S. And James L. Knight Professor of Science and Journalism, the class I’ve always personally wanted to take, but alas, I have to stick to my tropes.

In 2010, Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world, and his newest book, which I have personally gifted to hundreds of people at this point, is How to Change Your Mind, and it’s subtitled What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence. Michael, thank you for being here.

Michael Pollan: Thank you, Tim. Great pleasure to be here with you. Thank you.

Tim Ferriss: This is not the first time we have had an opportunity to speak. Quite some time ago, more than a handful of years ago. And I thought that in this session, we could cover some basics, some fundamentals, of the subject matter of the new book, and then stretch outside of the context, and talk about some recent developments and learnings since the publication.

So let’s begin with defining a term: psychedelics. What are psychedelics?

Michael Pollan: Well, a psychedelic is a term coined — it sounds like a ’60s term, but it’s actually a ’50s term. It was coined in ’57 by an English psychiatrist named Humphry Osmond, who was in a dialogue with Aldous Huxley, who wrote a very famous book about what were not then known as psychedelics, called The Doors of Perception, where he recorded his own mescaline trip. And he worked very closely with Humphry Osmond, trying to understand these new substances, because they just kind of were sprung on the west in the ’50s and no one really understood them.

And they went through this process of conceptualizing these strange molecules, and at first, they called them psychotomimetic, because it appeared to imitate psychosis. And the thinking at the very beginning, this was the early ’50s, was that these chemicals were a very good way to help the therapist understand the mind of the madman, the schizophrenic, and allowed you to put yourself in his shoes or her shoes. And it sure looked like psychosis, right? I mean, people were seeing things that weren’t there and hearing things that weren’t there, and they were feeling their personalities dissolve. 

But then, the shrinks themselves started trying the drugs, which was very common then. It was actually considered the responsible thing to do, if you did drug research, was try it on yourself first. Now it’s considered unethical. And they said, “You know, this feels much better than psychosis.” And they were having these often ecstatic experiences. So they had this discussion, like, “Well, we need a better name.” And in this debate, actually, it was Osmond who came up with the better word, which is essentially, it combines the Greek word for mind, psyche, and delic, delos is manifested. So it means mind manifested. It’s vague in a way, but it’s suggesting that these drugs bring the mind into kind of an observable space.

And that name has kind of stuck, although there have been efforts to rebrand them post-’60s as entheogens, which means the god within. But that seemed a little religious to some people. So I decided I liked the word psychedelic, and I would try in my book to rescue it from all the encrustation of ’60s, day-glo, acid rock, all that stuff, and see if we could reclaim it, because it means the right thing.

Tim Ferriss: Why are so many people saying and writing that there is a renaissance in this field? Because a renaissance, rebirth, implies that there was a death somewhere along the line.

Michael Pollan: Or a dark age.

Tim Ferriss: Or a dark age, yeah. So give us some context to why there is a renaissance, and why that is necessary.

Michael Pollan: Why we needed one. Well, like a lot of people, I sort of assumed that psychedelics were a product of the ’60s. That’s when we first heard about them. That’s when the public first heard about them in a serious way. But In fact, there had been 15 years of very promising research into these compounds that was being done in Europe, in America, at five or six different centers, and they were using the drugs for various indications, such as addiction, depression, to relieve anxiety, people who are dying of cancer. All the things they’re being used for now, in fact. And they were getting some very good results. It’s true that the standards for scientific drug research were very different. The double-blind, placebo-controlled trial didn’t until 1962, really. So they may not be to our standards, but it was a very promising period of research.

And then in the ’60s, when the drugs were embraced by the counterculture — the way the narrative is usually told, they escape the laboratory. But actually, they were thrown over the wall of the laboratory by people like Timothy Leary and others. And as the counterculture basically adopted these drugs, it became very difficult for the researchers to continue studying them, especially when there was a turn against them in 1965 approximately, and you have this moral panic about psychedelics. That they’re leading to bad trips that are landing people in psych wards, which did sometimes happen. That they were —

And then there was a lot of medical risk. There was a big study that came out saying they scrambled your chromosomes. It was retracted within weeks as faulty science, but nevertheless, that stuck. There were stories about people staring at the sun until they went blind. It turned out that had been complete urban legend, made up by the Commissioner of the Blind for the state of Washington, who was hoping to discourage psychedelic use. He lost his job.

And the media, which had been very pro-psychedelics — all through the ’50s, Time Life, Henry Luce’s empire, ran article after article about how promising these substances were. In fact, Henry Luce himself, and his wife, Clare Boothe Luce, had been treated with LSD in L.A., where there was a lot of that work going on. But the media, as it’s wont to do, turned on a dime, and they started demonizing these drugs. And it was probably because the media often follows the government, and the government was turning against them.

Nixon, President Nixon, regarded LSD as one of the reasons that boys were not willing to go fight his war in Vietnam, and he may have been right. He really saw — I mean, it was unprecedented, right? I mean, in general, for most of history, if you send an 18-year-old male to die in a war, they just go. They don’t ask any questions. That’s the history of warfare. Suddenly, they were like, “No, I don’t think this is such a good idea. Is this a just war? Is this something I want to fight for?” And LSD, which encourages people to question all sorts of frameworks in their life, may have contributed to that. Certainly, President Nixon thought so, and he started the Drug War trying to basically remove the chemical infrastructure of the counterculture.

And the drugs were also contributing — look, there were a lot of very positive things happening around psychedelics in the ’60s, and it’s very easy to fall into the trap of everything that happened was really bad. Lots of very valuable experiences were had. Great art and music were made, which owes to psychedelics. But it was a very threatening drug. And the reason I think it was, was that it really did contribute to a generation gap.

We had this unprecedented situation where the young had a rite of passage that the old didn’t know anything about. That’s very freaky. Usually in culture, rites of passage, whether you’re talking about bar mitzvah, or a vision quest in the Native American tradition, is an ordeal organized by the elders to bring the young into the adult community. Here, the young were organizing their own searing rite of passage, and it plopped them down in a country of the mind that the adults couldn’t recognize, and that was very threatening, too.

So with this moral panic about psychedelics, the research gradually grinds to a halt, and by the early ’70s, there’s only one place in America where anything is happening, and that’s Spring Grove in Maryland. But the researchers just kind of backed off, the funding dried up, and the drugs, as a serious research project, disappeared. And this is unprecedented, right? To have a line of productive scientific inquiry stop. The history of science doesn’t have another example, except maybe Galileo.

Tim Ferriss: And if we look at the conditions for which some of these compounds were promising then, perhaps were promising for hundreds of thousands of years ago, since many of these have been consumed by, actually, nearly every culture, some psychoactives, psychedelics have been consumed ritualistically. And then we flash forward to current day, and you have places like Johns Hopkins, you have NYU certainly, and many others, who are doing research. What are these compounds good for? What are psychedelics — well, where do they seem to show promise?

Michael Pollan: You know, most of the researchers in this renaissance, and it’s good you mentioned Johns Hopkins, because they really drove a lot of this research. A very good and prominent researcher named Roland Griffiths, who had been studying drug abuse for years and years, got very interested in psychedelics, and drove that agenda there. And he got interested in that because he had his own mystical experience in his meditation practice that got him very curious about consciousness.

And so he began with a study that had no medical benefit or use at all, which was: could you use psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms, to occasion a mystical experience, and there’s a definition of that that William James helped develop, that would have enduring value for somebody’s life? And he proved that in two-thirds of cases, you could do that. And then he went about, and other people too, well, okay, how might that experience benefit people who are struggling with mental illness?

The first and most beautiful study they did there was with people who had cancer diagnoses. And that’s really what got me interested, and that’s really the germ of the book, was interviewing people with terminal diagnoses who were paralyzed by fear and anxiety at the prospect of their death, or their recurrence, in some cases. And they had these transformative experiences that, in many cases, completely removed their fear. It was the most astonishing thing. So that was one important indication, picking up again on work that had been done in the ’60s.

And then, there were — the scores that were measured in that test included anxiety and depression, so there was a signal there that there was some value in depression. So right now, there’s a lot of work going on, and there will be some very large trials trying psilocybin for depression, both major depression and treatment-resistant depression.

Addiction, it’s shown a lot of benefit. In the ’50s, and ’60s, it was used to treat alcoholics. It appears to have had about a 50 percent success rate, according to the meta analyses. It’s being used with striking success in a small study of smokers at Johns Hopkins, and a study of alcoholics at NYU. It has, I’ve seen great potential for eating disorders, and I think they’re going to try that at Johns Hopkins.

Let’s see. Any kind of behavior change. I think one of the things these drugs do is make it possible to break out of repetitive loops and destructive narratives about yourself. “I can’t get through the day without a cigarette.” “I’m unworthy of love.” These stories we tell ourselves, we know, where we tell those stories in the brain, and that is part of the brain that the drugs seem to quiet, and it gives you a chance, basically, to get out of whatever destructive groove of thought you’re in.

So that suggests all kinds of behavior change. Obsessive-compulsive disorder, which has been trialed in a small pilot study. Eating disorders, as I suggested. Gambling, conceivably. All of the different forms of addiction. Telephone addiction, which those are studies we can all qualify for.

So there’s a range, and I think that we don’t know yet. It’s very important to point out that, yes, we’ve had pilot studies, two studies of anxiety of depression in the dying, but we haven’t had a big study of depression yet, and we’ll have to wait and see. But there’s certainly reason to be hopeful, and for that reason, there’s a lot of excitement in the mental health community about the potential of having a new tool. And with the exception of ketamine, which was just approved last week, there has not been a new tool in the treatment of depression since the antidepressants back in the late ’80s, early ’90s, and they didn’t work very well for many, many people, and they don’t work long term, and people don’t like being on them, and they’re addictive.

So the idea that you could have a treatment that really involves one or two big experiences, and these are — I mean, we should probably define. They’re guided psychedelic experiences.

Nobody’s writing a prescription, and you’re not going home with a pill of psilocybin. But you’re with a guide the whole time, a trained therapist who prepares you very carefully for what’s going to happen, creates a very safe environment, sits with you the whole time, and in these studies, it’s a male and a female usually, a diad, and then helps you integrate the experience, make sense of it after. So this is not a recreational psychedelic experience. And you’re wearing eyeshades, too, and listening to music on headphones, so you’re encouraged to really go inside, rather than dealing with all the sensory fireworks going on.

So there’s great reason for hope, but it is still bad. We haven’t proven it.

Tim Ferriss: How do scientists who are engaged in research on these compounds, or people from the underground — and certainly, you’ve spent time with some highly experienced facilitators, let’s call them, on the underground, thousands of administered sessions — how do the people you respect explain how these compounds have the duration of effect that they do? In other words, you have these people, the patients, going through, let’s just call it, a four to eight hour experience. They have preparatory sessions, which are sober, the integration sessions, which are sober. Maybe some type of psychotherapy. They have two or three of these sessions, and in some instances, you see months or years of durability of effect, as it relates to, say, addition, or compulsive behaviors. And you alluded to this, which may appear to perhaps be variations of the same dysfunction, right?

Michael Pollan: Yeah.

Tim Ferriss: Which is partially why this default node network, being not really deactivated, but kind of downregulated, is very interesting. How do they explain the duration of effect? Because clearly, the half life of these compounds —

Michael Pollan: Yeah, they’re out of your brain in six or eight hours. And so, it’s not a purely psychepharmoligical effect. It really is the experience you’re having. You’re administering a certain kind of experience. And it’s very powerful. It’s kind of like a reverse trauma, in a way, right? It’s a big event in your life, and many of the people who undergo this treatment say that this is one of the two or three biggest experiences of their lives, that they compare it to the birth of a child, the death of a parent, which is astonishing that a pill could have such a profound effect. So you really have to look at the phenomenology of the experience, which when it works best, is what they call a mystical-type experience.

I think what’s central to that, though, is an experience of ego dissolution, of complete depersonalization. It is your ego, in a way, that writes and enforces those destructive narratives, very often. And if you can shut it off for a period of time, and realize that there’s another ground on which you can stand, that you’re not identical to your ego, that you can get some perspective on it, that, I think, is very positive.

The ego builds walls, right? It isolates us from other people. It isolates us from nature. It’s defensive by definition. And when you bring down those walls in the psyche, what happens? Well, you merge. You merge with something else. There’s less of a distinction between you and the other, whether that other is other people in your life, or the natural world, or the universe. And so, these lines of — as the doors of perception open, as Huxley said, these lines of connection, there’s this incredible flow. And it sounds banal, but very often what flows through those connections is love. Powerful feelings of love and reconnection.

I say this based on all the interviews I’ve done, and the experiences I’ve had myself, but a lot of the problem with depression and addiction is disconnection, right? I mean, addicts get to the point where their relationship to that bottle is more important than their relationship to their children, to their spouse. It’s an astonishing thing. And the drugs appear to help people reconnect.

So yeah, you’re only having this temporary experience, but it has this remarkable authority, and that’s one of the most curious things about it. William James called it the noetic quality of a mystical experience, and that is the belief that whatever insight you have, whatever epiphany you’ve had, is not a subjective opinion or idea. It’s a revealed truth. It’s actual knowledge.

And so I talk to these smokers, or ex-smokers, now, and I would say, “So how has this experience allowed you to stop smoking? Just this one experience. This is a lifelong habit that you’ve had.” I remember this one woman, she was an Irish woman, she was about 60, and she said, “Well, I had this incredible experience. I sprouted wings, and I flew all through European history, and I witnessed all these great scenes in European history, and I died three times, and I saw my ashes, my smoke from my body, rise on the Ganges. And I realized, ‘God, there’s so much to do and see in the world that killing yourself with cigarettes is really stupid.’”

Now, probably she had thought that before, and people had probably told her that smoking was stupid, but she believed it in a way that she had never believed it before. And it has something to do with, I think, the way psychedelics, this is at high dose, dissolve the subject-object duality. Everything is objective. Or, means the same thing, everything is subjective. You don’t have this idea, “Well, it’s just an idea in my head that’s not out in the world.” It’s all about peace.

So it’s a real reset of the mind, which is very hard for conventional therapists and psychiatrists to grok. I mean, it’s a weird idea that a single experience could have that effect. But if you think that a single trauma can put your mind on a new path, perhaps permanently, unless it’s treated, whether it’s sexual abuse, or a bomb going off, or a crime being committed. I mean, the mind has certain moments where right-angle turns happen, and perhaps it can happen in a positive way, as well as a negative way.

Tim Ferriss: Absolutely. That’s terrific. Michael, you and I have spoken both in conversation that’s been recorded, but also over meals and such, about the activity on the scientific front, a lot of the developments that you were seeing, and you’ve also had a tremendous influx of feedback, and maybe pushback, since the book came out. And I want to explore all of that with a handful of questions, but let’s start with getting granular on psychedelic, and perhaps naming a few names.

So within the umbrella of psychedelics, and you have different chemical classes which you don’t necessarily have to get into, the tryptamines, phenylalanines. But if you were to look at, say, some of the usual suspects, LSD, psilocybin, as you mentioned, we have DMT, ibogaine. And then DMT, often confused with NMDMT, or DMT, then 5-MeO-DMT. Ibogaine. You mentioned ketamine earlier, which I think is one of the 10 most essential medicines, according to the World Health Organization, as anesthetic, but at sufficient enough doses, has a psychedelic effect.

Which of these compounds have most captured your curiosity, and why? And it doesn’t have to be limited to that list. We didn’t really get into mescaline-containing plants, or just by itself.

Michael Pollan: Yeah. I’ve focused a lot on LSD because of its importance to the social history psychedelics, and it’s one of the most powerful, long-lasting psychedelics, but it’s not being used in research in this country, mostly for practical and political reasons. It’s very controversial. Everyone’s heard of it, so you’re more likely to get some congressman standing up and saying, “We’re funding LSD research, and what a scandal that is,” whereas that same congressman probably doesn’t know what psilocybin is.

Tim Ferriss: It’s hard to pronounce, even.

Michael Pollan: Exactly. Hard to spell.

Tim Ferriss: The Brits and the Americans can’t even agree on it.

Michael Pollan: It’s true. And then, there’s the practical benefit that psilocybin has a shorter half life. And the importance of that is, you know, you can fit it into a therapist’s workday, right? Instead of a 12-hour trip, hangover time — I mean, it’s a long trip. Psilocybin is like, four to six hours. So you can fit it in. Psychedelic therapy is going to be very hard to fit into psychotherapy as we practice it, but it would be much harder if you were talking about 12-hour trips.

But you can get the same effects, probably, on LSD. It has much more association, though. You’d have to deal with everything. Since set and setting are so important with all psychedelics, people bring a lot of baggage to LSD, and that was the one I was the most frightened of, personally, because of everything I’d heard.

There is very little — the research on DMT is essentially ayahuasca research. DMT is the psychedelic in ayahuasca, and there is some work being done, especially in Brazil, to try ayahuasca as a treatment for depression. It’s a tricky one, though, because there are too many variables. It’s two plants.

Tim Ferriss: It’s hard to standardize. It’s like an old-fashioned.

Michael Pollan: Yeah, exactly, it’s like an old-fashioned. I asked a researcher in Brazil —

Tim Ferriss: But not as effective, to be clear.

Michael Pollan: I asked this researcher who was doing a very interesting study with the urban poor in Sao Paulo, and giving them ayahuasca. I said, “How much are you giving them?” And he said, “I have no idea. I just ask the shaman how much to give them each.” I don’t think you can get published in JAMA with a study that’s like, “A shamanic dose of ayahuasca.” So that’s hard to study, but worth studying, I think.

I mean, everything about psychedelic research is a square peg in the round hole of both reductive science and psycho — mental health care as we practice it. DMT in the chemical form is a very fast-acting and short-lived psychedelic, which some people think might have some value.

Tim Ferriss: In Earth time.

Michael Pollan: In Earth time, yeah. It’s an eternity by other scales, or in other dimensions. So to me, it looks like psilocybin has the best practical prospects. And people don’t bring a lot of associations to it. It’s not as controversial.

Tim Ferriss: And by practical, you mean in the scientific context, research?

Michael Pollan: Yeah, research, exactly. Yeah. And frankly, access to it. I mean, it’s not hard to get access to. People can grow it themselves, if they want. So yeah, I think it offers a lot of benefit.

Tim Ferriss: Speaking personally, because at least as I recall it, you did not set out to have a quarter or a third of your book comprised of personal experiences — or maybe it wasn’t that high a percentage, but a decent chunk. Were there any particular experiences that have seemed to have a lasting effect on you personally?

Michael Pollan: Yes. I had a series of experiences for the book. Which, I knew when I decided to write this book, I had to do that, for various reasons. To describe the experience without having had it, and just relying on interviews, was not satisfying. I also, this is what I do as a writer. I mean, when I wrote about the cattle industry, I bought a cow. And so this was my equivalent. I think my readers expect some first person. Don’t you?

Tim Ferriss: Buying the psychedelic cow. I can see the headline now.

Michael Pollan: But I didn’t expect to go quite as deep as I went. So I had an experience on LSD —

Tim Ferriss: I think that’s a common statement.

Michael Pollan: Yeah.

Tim Ferriss: “I just had one drink.” It was ayahuasca.

Michael Pollan: That’s right. A couple of experiences on ayahuasca, a couple on psilocybin, and one on 5-MeO-DMT, which was not a happy experience. It was a terrifying experience that I wouldn’t wish on anyone. And that is not DMT. It’s a different chemical, that it is the smoked venom of the Sonoran desert toad. How about a species that figures that out, huh? A hand for humanity. How did they figure that out?

Tim Ferriss: Also, figured out pretty recently, like in the last 50 years.

Michael Pollan: That’s right.

Tim Ferriss: This is not an ancient, indigenous tradition. It’s squeezing toads onto plexiglass to scrape off this —

Michael Pollan: And Dr. Andrew Weil was involved in that discovery. So yeah, that was not — and we can talk about that more later, but that was my introduction to a really bad trip. And I’ve been told since, in fact, at an event we were at together, that either I took way too much, or not nearly enough. But what do you do with that information? I don’t plan any further experiments. But you asked about lasting.

Tim Ferriss: And if you’re willing to share, what effect did those experiences have, with psilocybin and ayahuasca?

Michael Pollan: So I had a high-dose psilocybin experience, guided, with someone that I really trusted, who created a very comfortable environment. I mean, safety is so important. If you’re going to allow your ego to get blasted to smithereens, you really have to feel safe. It’s a dangerous thing to do psychologically, and she created an environment where that could happen, and to my amazement, did happen. So I mean, I could recount it quickly.

It was a trip that didn’t begin very well. Her taste in music left a lot to be desired. She put on this New Age music that I learned later was by an artist who I hope is not in the room, named Thierry David. And I looked up later, he was thrice nominated for “best chill/groove album.” Only nominated. But it sounded like electronic music, and one of the most amazing things about psychedelics is the synesthesia. The fact that one sense gets cross-wired with another. So that with music, especially if you have eyeshades on, you are projecting a concrete version, that the music is generating landscape, place, emotion. It’s just the most amazing thing, that every note was creating this black and white, computer-generated landscape that was — I’m not into video games. It’s not where I wanted to be, and it went on and on and on.

I subsequently learned why that happened. It turned out it wasn’t electronic music, but my ear heard it that way. And that was that I had brought a computer into the treatment room to do a test, an experiment on myself. There’s a famous test called the rotating mask, or the mask illusion. You’ve probably seen it, maybe. But it’s a mask, one of those dramatic masks, and it’s hollow on one side and convex on the other, and it’s on a turntable, and it turns, and as the convex part gives way to the back, to the concave part, it pops out and becomes convex again. Your mind refuses to see a face as hollowed-out, because it never has before.

This is predictive coding. This is the predictive brain. Which is to say, we don’t just take in information. We’re actually having a controlled hallucination most of the time. We’re projecting what we expect to see, and then we’re letting reality correct it. So this is a classic case of the brain providing a fictional version of what it’s seeing. But that’s pretty adaptive, because, hey, most faces are not hollow. Almost all faces are not hollow.

But I had read that schizophrenics, the illusion doesn’t work on them. I mean, it doesn’t pop out. They see more truthfully. And people on high-dose psychedelics, also, it doesn’t pop out. So the predictive coding, that handshake between the model in your head and the sense information coming up from your senses, breaks down. And I thought, that’s really cool, I’m going to test this on myself. So I brought that imagery into the room, and it completely infected the whole experience.

Now, just very quickly, the test, when I did it, I did it once, it didn’t work. Did it twice, didn’t work. The third time, when I was at the highest, the peaking of my dose, I opened it up, I pressed the button, and the thing started rotating, and then it just melted. I mean, it just — so it was just a bust.

I mention all this to say that it was not entirely a happy trip for this part. I really felt trapped. At some point, I took off my eyeshades, because I had to reconnect with reality. I was feeling claustrophobic, and it was amazing. This woman’s loft was just jeweled with light. It was incredible. And I had to pee, so she kind of walked me to the bathroom. I was a little wobbly in the legs. And I get to the bathroom, and I really — I’m not going to look in the mirror, because I don’t know what I’m going to see. And I mentioned this to an audience in England, and someone says, “Oh, yes, trip face.” To be avoided.

Tim Ferriss: Oldest trick in the book.

Michael Pollan: I peed. I produced this spectacular crop of diamonds. Very proud of that. I make my way back to the woman I call Mary in the book. That’s obviously not her real name. And she asks me if I’d like a booster dose. And I had originally said I was going to go up to a certain dose. I was trying to basically mimic the Johns Hopkins dose using real mushrooms. They use the synthetic psilocybin.

And she squatted next to me, and Mary is very Nordic-looking. She’s got long blond hair, parted in the middle, high cheekbones. And I looked at her, and she had been transformed into a Native Mexican, indigenous, a Mazatec Indian. And I knew exactly who it was. It was Maria Sabina, who is this legendary character who gave the first Westerner a psilocybin trip in 1956. And so Mary’s hair had turned black. She had leathery brown skin, and then a wrinkled brown hand that she handed me this mushroom. I didn’t know whether I should tell her what had happened to her. I did later, and she was so proud, because it’s one of her heroes.

I go back under, and I’m still seeing video game world, and I ask Mary to change the music. We finally agree. She puts on some Bach, this beautiful piece of music called Unaccompanied Cello Suite in D Minor. It’s the saddest piece of music in the repertoire, it’s amazing. Amazingly sad.

And I look out, and I see myself burst into a cloud of little Post-its, like confetti. And that’s me. And I’m gone. I’m just completely gone. But yet, I’m perceiving it. And I didn’t understand this new perspective had opened up. I mean, I’m using the first person, but it wasn’t exactly me. I’m just kind of objectively watching myself. And then I look out again, and I’ve been transformed into a coat of paint on the landscape, or butter. I’m just spread, this very thin layer.

And it was fine. I wasn’t upset. This other perspective was so calm and reconciled to what had happened, and it was the most amazing — one of the most amazing experiences of my life. And so I no longer had a self, and what then happened was, I merged with this piece of music. I became one with this, it was Yo-Yo Ma, and I could almost feel the horsehair of the bow going over my skin. And then I felt like there was no space between me and this music. I was it.

And it was an astonishing experience. It was ecstatic in the literal sense, of I wasn’t in my usual body. But it wasn’t happy. It was sad. I was incredibly sad, and it was all about death. But I was completely reconciled to it. And it was that moment that I understood what happened with the cancer patients, I think. That they had attained this consciousness, this perspective, where the loss of their bodies, the loss of their self, was the most natural thing in the world. It was a rehearsal of death, basically.

And the calmness of this perspective basically told me that there was another ground on which to stand, that I’m not identical to my ego, that I can let my ego go and not be obliterated. And most of us, I think, assume, are identical to our ego, right? That shattering voice in our head that’s being self-critical, or keeping your distance from things, protecting you. And we think that when that voice goes quiet, we’re dead, but in fact, that’s not true. The ego is one character in this drama inside your head. And that was valuable.

I went back the next day for my integration session, and I said to Mary, I told her what had happened. And she said, “Isn’t that worth the price of admission?” And I said, “Yeah, but my ego is back in uniform, back on patrol. I’m back to baseline.” Going back to your point about enduring changes. And she said, “Well, you’ve had a taste of that perspective, and you can cultivate it.” And I asked her how, and she said, “Through meditation.”

There’s a very organic passage from psychedelics to meditation. Most of the American Buddhists began with psychedelics. And psychedelics are not a practice, right? I mean, you can’t do it every day. It’s a very bad idea. And it probably wouldn’t work. But meditation is a practice, and you can bring — you can achieve some sense of that ego-free consciousness through meditation. And indeed, I became a much better meditator after this experience. I sort of had a sense of the space I wanted to get to. I know we’re not supposed to strive in our meditation, but we do. So that had an enduring effect.

It also, I think, changed my understanding of what is spirituality, and I was really not a spiritual person when I started this. I had described myself as spiritually retarded, and I think that is true. And part of that was because I’m very much a materialist in my philosophical outlook, that nature is all that there is, and everything can be explained as a result of the laws of nature and energy.

But it turns out — so I thought to be a spiritual person was to believe in the supernatural, and I was allergic to that. I didn’t believe in the supernatural. But this experience, and especially the kind of merging that went on, made me realize that that’s not the right duality. The opposite of spiritual is not material. The opposite of spiritual is egotistical. It is our ego that keeps us from the profound connections, whether with your loved ones, with humanity, with nature, with a piece of music. That’s the wall, and if you can bring down that wall, that, to me, is what spiritual experience is. And that was a big takeaway. For me, that was the biggest takeaway in the book.

Tim Ferriss: So as you recount this story that we just heard, if, say, a talk therapist were to sit down and try to guide you through that —

Michael Pollan: 10 years minimum.

Tim Ferriss: 10 years minimum, and it would also be very off-script for many therapists to do so. Have you received much resistance after the book has come out? And I should also say that if you were to read the trip reports, or the summaries of subjects that go through this type of experience for smoking cessation and so on, they’re going to have quite an interesting movie, with parts that are sort of coherently related to the addiction, perhaps, but a lot that aren’t.

Michael Pollan: No, that’s right.

Tim Ferriss: Nonetheless, going in with that intention, and I’m sure there’s some selection bias, can have some really remarkable outcomes. What type of resistance, if any, have you run into? Like, which groups have been least receptive, and which have been most receptive?

Michael Pollan: Well, in general, I’ve had a lot less pushback than I expected, from all quarters. I’ve been pleasantly surprised. I mean, I was worried about legal pushback. I’m talking about a felony. And I was worried that somebody might come after the guides that I worked with. And that it would be ridiculed by the mental health establishments. But it wasn’t, actually. There’s a remarkable receptivity, as I said earlier, borne of desperation, basically.

Mental health care is really broken in this country, and in the world. If you compare mental healthcare to any other branch of medicine, cardiology, oncology, infectious disease, they’ve all made huge strides in the last 50 years. They’ve reduced suffering, they’ve prolonged life. Can you say that about mental healthcare? No. I mean, depression is getting worse numbers. Suicide is getting worse. Addiction is getting much worse. And mental health professionals are really at a loss.

So on the one side, you see openness to it, and I’m hearing — I get invited to speak at grand rounds in hospitals and psychiatry departments. I didn’t expect that to happen. Or address the American Psychological Association. I didn’t expect that to happen.

But there are kind of old line psychiatrists who have trouble processing the idea that psychological experience, not simply a neurochemical effect, can be therapeutic. There is a lot of reductive science, and they will tell you, “No, no, depression is a neurochemical process. It can only be addressed at that level.”

And in the same way, psychology used to be about psychoanalysis, and the criticism was that it was brainless, right? It didn’t take into account the brain as a physical organ. Well, now it’s mindless, right? Psychiatry is completely mindless, and there’s not a lot of room for talking about experience, and psychological experience.

So I have heard from people who just cannot figure out why this would help anyone with depression, in particular. Now it may not work on all types of depression, it’s true. Some may be more neurochemical than others, and the depression of someone with cancer is a special case, right? I mean, it’s an event in their life that has given them very good reason to be depressed. They may not be lifelong depressives. So those are all active questions.

And then there are the psychiatrists, some of whom have written to me, or spoken about what I’ve said, what I just told you about, and many psychiatrists, if they heard the story I just told you about that trip, would say that I had had a psychotic episode, right? I had depersonalization. I was seeing things that weren’t there. I was looking at this blond woman, and she turned into an Indian. I was crazy. And by their diagnostic criteria, I guess I was. So I just think that’s a limit of that framework. But I think it will change. I definitely think it will change.

But in general, I think that’s been the exception. I’m really amazed at how many medical schools and departments, because this is very much — if you go to any psychiatry department around the country right now, they’re talking about psychedelics. Could we study this? How could this work? How can we use our training to interpret this event?

It is true what you said earlier, though, about “What about in talk therapy? Could I get to this point?” And I would say, “Probably.” I mean, if I had the patience for it and the money for it. But it would take me at least 10 years to get that kind of perspective on my ego. Which is what you work on in talk therapy, very often, I think. But I got there in an afternoon, and that’s pretty astonishing.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah. It’s remarkable. And I want to come back to something that I think you said in passing, which related to explaining how these compounds do what they do, and that a lack of ability or tools to explain the mechanism of action does not mean that the mechanisms are unexplainable, or supernatural. And I’d be curious if you’ve had any conversations with what people might consider hard scientists, physicists, people along those lines. How do they respond to this conversation, or to these experiences?

Michael Pollan: I think it’s important to note that we do a lot of psychiatric and psychological treatments, and we have no fucking idea how they work. Don’t let any doctor tell you that they know how SSRIs work. They don’t really know. We think it elevates serotonin. There’s no evidence it actually elevates serotonin. It changes what happens at that little juncture. And the pharmacopeia is full of chemicals that seem to have some effect on psychosis, on whatever they’re trying to treat, but no one really can explain, because our understanding of the brain is really primitive. Much more so than I realized when I started this process.

So a lot of what we say about mechanism is hard. We don’t really know exactly how a psychedelic drug — we know it binds the serotonin to a receptor, and then — seriously. And then you start seeing things. But that cascade of effects…

Tim Ferriss: Dot, dot, dot.

Michael Pollan: Yeah, ellipsis. They use terms like that. And then the cascade of effects leading to synesthesia and hallucination and things like that. But we don’t know. It may be that it alters the pattern waves. I mean, your brain, we’re learning now, only recently, communicates not only through chemistry, but there’s a wave action, too, that seems to organize brain activity.

And there was a study that just came out two weeks ago, that was the most astonishing thing, where they sliced a hippocampus, a memory center, in half, created a gap, and they found that one set of neurons on one side of the gap, nevertheless, was able to interact with ones on the other, without direct contact. What the hell is that? Maybe it’s this wave action. Maybe there are other levels of communication going on in the brain that we don’t know about yet. So it’s really important to be humble in anything we say about the brain.

The best model, with all that by way of warning, is this idea of the default mode network, and one of the really striking findings when they began imaging the brains of people on psychedelics, both LSD and psilocybin, the expectation — and this happened in England first, Robin Carhart-Harris’ lab at Imperial College. The expectation was that they’d see lots of activity everywhere, because it’s a pretty lively medical experience.

Tim Ferriss: [crosstalk]

Michael Pollan: Right. But they were very surprised to see that one particular brain network, called the default mode network, which I’d never heard of, was suppressed in its activity. Less blood flow, less energy going to it. And that was curious.

And then, so, what is the default mode network? Well, Marcus Raichle, a neuroscientist at Washington University, discovered it about 20 years ago. It’s a tightly linked set of structures in the midline that connects the cortex, which is the evolutionarily most recent part of the brain, executive function, consciousness, supposedly, to older, deeper areas of memory and emotion. And it’s kind of a traffic cop for the whole brain, but it’s intimately involved with ego function.

It is where time travel takes place, the ability to think about the future or the past. And if you think about it, without that, you don’t have a self, right? Your self is everything that’s happened to you before that you remember, and your objectives for the future. People who don’t have memory don’t have a self.

It’s involved with self-reflection. It’s involved with the narrative self, the stories that we tell ourselves. So for example, there’s a part of it called the posterior cingulate cortex, that if I showed you a list of adjectives, patriotic, handsome, chubby, whatever, I’m just being hypothetical —

Tim Ferriss: Thank you, very much.

Michael Pollan: I said handsome! It would not light up, right, if you just read that list. And then I say, “All right, think about how all those adjectives apply to you, or don’t apply to you.” Boom. The posterior cingulate cortex goes into action.

Tim Ferriss: It’s self-referential.

Michael Pollan: It’s totally self-referential. So if the ego has an address in the brain, it’s somewhere in this network, and this network is the one that gets quieted. When it does, since it has a kind of management function for the whole, as the ego does, other parts of the brain start talking to one another. And there’s a two-page spread in the book where I show, using these Imperial College scans, what a brain on normal consciousness, how it’s wired, and then how it gets rewired temporarily. And it get rewired in a very novel way. Everything is talking to everything else, rather than going through the orchestra conductor of the default mode network.

So the curious thing about this is, it was confirmed by scans of very experienced meditators.

They put someone with 10,000 hours of meditation into an fMRI scanner, asked them to meditate, and then took pictures of their brain, and the scans looked identical. Their default mode network was suppressed. And of course, ego dissolution is one of the goals of meditation.

So it’s opening up these really interesting questions of consciousness, and what is the self? What is the self for? Do you need to have one? Would you be better off without one? Now there are very good reasons to have an ego. Ego got the book written. The ego does all sorts of good stuff. On the other hand, an overactive ego is a tyrant.

Tim Ferriss: And if you look at the availability of the type of experience you described, and we could get into the science, and I think we might get into more of it. And for people that are interested, I would certainly recommend, there are many talks out there, including Roland Griffiths’ TEDMED talk.

Michael Pollan: Or anything by Robin Carhart-Harris.

Tim Ferriss: Robin Carhart-Harris.

Michael Pollan: Who has really been the most interesting theoretician of what’s going on in the brain with psychedelics.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Has a great paper called The Entropic Brain.

Michael Pollan: The Entropic Brain is a fantastic paper. I had to read it six times, but it’s a fantastic paper.

Tim Ferriss: It’s dense. Fantastic and dense. So you can get an overview through those types of talks on the outcomes of studies applied not just to pathological conditions or addictions, but also to healthy volunteers, for various purposes, and I think we’ll see more studies looking at so-called normals.

Michael Pollan: Healthy normals.

Tim Ferriss: Healthy normals, yeah. High-functioning neurotics. What I’d love to talk about is the bottlenecks. The things that are currently preventing wider access. And it seems to me, at least one of them is a scarcity of funding. If you look at the field as a whole, we’re dealing with mostly schedule one drugs. Some people call them narcotics, although we could certainly disagree.

Michael Pollan: Well, they’re not addictive.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, so that’s part of the problem with that designation. But what is the path forward, then? Because there’s a lot to learn from underground practitioners, but they are underground because the activities are illegal. And there’s a tremendous wealth of knowledge, but to translate into national, international level access for people with PTSD, treatment-resistant depression, there seem to be pieces of the puzzle that are missing. So what would you like to see, or if that’s too personal, what might happen over the next handful of years, and what are the risk factors that could set us back from wider access?

Michael Pollan: I’m glad you mentioned it, because it’s very important that we talk about this. So we’re on a path right now toward basically going though the standard FDA new drug approval process, and that’s three phases. There’s phase one, which is kind of a pilot study, very small numbers. Open label, in other words, no placebo. And then there’s a more ambitious placebo-controlled trial, phase two. And then a much bigger version of the same thing.

And if you get over those hurdles, and you show that the drugs are both safe and effective, the FDA will approve it as a medicine. And believe it or not, we’re not that far away from that happening. It could happen in five years.

Tim Ferriss: For MDMA and psilocybin?

Michael Pollan: Yes. For MDMA — MDMA is actually a little further ahead. They’re already in phase three. This is ecstasy, being used to treat trauma, especially. The challenge is — and the FDA has been remarkably supportive. In fact, it’s granted breakthrough therapy status to both psilocybin and MDMA, which means that they actively help the researchers design trials that will quickly move these drugs to approval. This is quite astonishing. This has all happened in the last year.

The challenge is, they’re expensive to do these studies. They cost millions of dollars, and the government will not fund this, for two reasons. One is, it’s still controversial. You could imagine people getting upset about tax dollars being used to fund psychedelic research. But the main reason is there’s no money for mental health research. The NIMH, which is part of the NIH, National Institute of Mental Health, has a budget of like, one or two billion dollars. That’s it. So there’s not a lot of money to play with.

So all of the psychedelic research being done so far has been privately funded, by foundations and individuals who really believe that this is important work. And more people need to step up and finish this work.

Tim Ferriss: I just want to pause for one second. We should say, for people wondering, it’s not just San Francisco, Haight-Ashbury, tech liberals at all, right?

Michael Pollan: Oh, no. I mean, there are people in the tech community who —

Tim Ferriss: You have that, but you also have Rebekah Mercer, you have the Pritzker family.

Michael Pollan: That’s right. You have some right-wing money too, which is great inoculation, right? Rebekah Mercer has contributed to the MDMA work, and it’s not a right-left issue.

Tim Ferriss: No, these are bipartisan issues.

Michael Pollan: Especially when it comes to treating soldiers for PTSD. And people in the pharmaceutical business have gotten interested in this, privately, to help fund it. So there’s money to move forward. It’s not like it’s stymied by lack of money, but it will take a fair amount.

And then there’s the whole issue of how you incorporate it into mental healthcare as we practice it. I mean, think about it. What’s the business model? It’s really hard to figure out. The pharmaceutical industry is not interested in the drug you only take once. They make money — they won’t even research antibiotics anymore, because you only take them for five days. They only do drugs that you take every day for the rest of your life. That’s where the money is. So they’re not going to put a lot of money into it.

And then look at the therapist community. Their business model depends on you coming back every week for years and years and years. So they’re not going to love this. And it takes a very heavy intervention for that short amount of time, right? You’ve got, we talked about the preparation session, the guiding, two guides. It’s a lot of labor over a short amount of time.

So exactly how — and it’s also just unconventional in that, as we said earlier, you’re not simply prescribing a drug. You’re prescribing an experience. And it’s not simply psychedelic therapy. It’s psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy. You need both. It’s a package. Doesn’t work without — you need both elements. So that’s going to be hard for the mental health community to get their head around, and I think we’ll figure it out, but it’s a whole new structure, it’s a whole new paradigm, and so that may take a little while.

The risks, though, you asked about that. I do worry that there could be another backlash. Right now, the press on psychedelics is very positive, as it was pre-1965, and all through the ’50s. You don’t read a lot of negative stories about it, but it could happen. The risk of, I think, sexual abuse in that therapeutic setting is real. Hearing about the situation where underground, you only have one guide, usually, you don’t have two. So you don’t have the chaperone function. And the person on the psychedelic is not in a position to defend herself or himself. And MDMA in particular creates this deep bond of trust with the therapist, that an unscrupulous therapist could abuse. So I think that’s a real concern.

Tim Ferriss: Can we do anything to hedge against that, or to mitigate? Any of those factors.

Michael Pollan: Well, here’s the problem with an illegal drug. I mean, the fact that the underground is underground, it’s very hard to regulate something that’s illegal. One of the best arguments for decriminalization, or legalization, is you can then set rules. You can have professional society from which people can be expelled if they behave badly. You can have penalties. You can set standards. You can have a code of conduct, and all these kind of things like other professions have.

Doing that with an underground, even an underground that is somewhat organized, and in fact does have a code of conduct, I write about that in the book. But who knows who’s subscribed to that code of conduct? Lots of people are just declaring themselves psychedelic therapists. I think one of the big risks now is the demand is so great that there are unscrupulous people declaring that they’re therapists. Or simply people who are green, and don’t have enough experience, and don’t know how to react to a medical emergency, don’t have that kind of training.

So there are real risks going into the underground, and I say that having interviewed many underground therapists, some of whom I would not have entrusted my mind to. I mean, I didn’t have confidence in them. But many of whom are professionals, and are incredibly conscientious. So it’s a mixed bag, but it’s the wild west, so you’re taking a chance.

In terms of generally, the risks of the drugs, though, which I think it’s very important to say a word about, and perhaps I should have done earlier. Here’s what we know: the physiological risks on psilocybin are remarkably light. There are — we don’t even know the lethal dose of psilocybin, okay? We know the lethal dose of Tylenol. You have many drugs in your medicine cabinet that have a lethal dose in the dozens of pills.

Tim Ferriss: Oh, sure. I mean, Tylenol is in the top three, four for fatalities, at least for ERs. It messes with the liver.

Michael Pollan: Yep. So there’s no LD50. We don’t know. They’re not that toxic to the body. They raise blood pressure a little bit, heart rate, things like that.

Tim Ferriss: LD50 is, if we gave everybody in this room, 1,000 people, a dose, that it would kill 50 percent of you. That’s LD50, which is determined for a lot of —

Michael Pollan: And we know that for most drugs, but we can’t find it for this drug. There is an elephant that was killed with LSD once. What a horrible idea. Like, who’s like, “Let’s see how much you have to give an elephant to kill an elephant?” I mean, but they were also giving — they had to tranquilize the elephant to get him to play, so it may have been the tranquilizer. I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to go down that path, but it horrifies me, that story.

They’re non-addictive. They’re not habit-forming. If you set up that classic thing with the rat in the cage, they have two levers, and one administers cocaine to their bloodstream, the other glucose, and the rat will keep hitting the cocaine lever until it dies. You put LSD in that setup, and the rat will do it once, and never again. Rats do not like to trip.

Tim Ferriss: I don’t think humans like surprise trips very much, either.

Michael Pollan: Well, that’s true.

Tim Ferriss: Have some apple juice. Ahh!

Michael Pollan: This was a thing in the ’60s, though, dosing people. I mean, the Grateful Dead were famous for dosing anyone who came near their green room, which I think is an incredibly cruel thing to do. I just can’t imagine that.

But so the risks are psychological, the real risks. And they’re real. And I think that using the drugs in a poor set and setting can lead to potentially psychotic breaks. There are people who have been tripped into schizophrenia. Would that have happened anyway? Probably. There’s a phenomenon where before the onset of schizophrenia, which happens when you’re around 20, very often, and then again at around 30, is that you feel weird for a period of time, and you start self-medicating. And so it can be kicked off by LSD, but also alcohol and cannabis.

So we don’t understand that phenomenon, but there are people that have trips that are so bad that they’re traumatizing, and about eight percent of the people who use psilocybin not in a clinical setting report seeking psychiatric help at some point after their experience. So those are real risks. They’re mitigated to a large extent if you’re in the care of an experienced guide who’s prepared you properly, and knows what to tell you if you do get into trouble. And I found that was the most useful, getting that kind of advice.

Tim Ferriss: Like the flight instructions.

Michael Pollan: The flight instructions. What do you do when something really scary happens? Well, don’t run away. Or if you feel yourself going mad, or your ego dissolving, go with it. Surrender, is the basic takeaway. And that is the best advice for using psychedelics, I think.

Tim Ferriss: What do you hope to see, or what are the most exciting things that are happening right now, or have been happening since the book came out? Is there anything that comes to mind that is particularly interesting or exciting to you?

Michael Pollan: Well, I think the mainstreaming of this as a subject. It’s a subject people can talk about. People are coming out of the closet and talking about their psychedelic experiences. I’ve had many conversations with psychiatrists, and even some celebrities, that they feel safe talking about it now. And I think that’s great, because the more this is closeted, the more stigma attaches for that reason. So I think people talking frankly about their experiences is a very positive thing. Telling stories, and kind of demystifying it by talk. I think that’s very encouraging.

I’m very encouraged to see some very mainstream psychiatry departments, medical schools, places like Yale, Columbia, wanting to conduct psychedelic research. Roland Griffiths took a huge chance, and Steve Ross, at NYU, when they started doing this, and they got a lot of shit from their bureaucracies. And now, these universities proudly boast about the psychedelic research going on on their premises. When Steve Ross started studying cancer patients at NYU, the oncologist would not give him patients. Said, “I don’t want you near our patients. You’re giving crack to our cancer patients.” And it was only the nurses that would tell people about the study. And now he’s been invited into the cancer center to set up a treatment room.

So that’s very exciting. I’m very heartened by that. I think one of the best indications is people who have not just cancer, but life changing diagnoses. People who have just learned that they have Alzheimer’s. People who learn they have ALS. People who have learned they have Parkinson’s. They go through a very difficult psychological passage, and I think that these medicines could help people in all those areas.

I do worry that we’re putting all our chips on the square marked depression, and there’s a lot of resources going to treating depression, and I don’t want to leave behind these other things. Addiction, I think, is very important, and cancer. We have so little to offer terminal cancer patients, and this seems to — I mean, it’s really proven itself more in that case, I think, than anything else.

Tim Ferriss: And we talked about one aspect of maybe misperception of psychedelics, or misrepresentation, over lunch, which was — or rather, a distinction that his helpful to make, and that is, psychedelics are not a panacea. They do not treat everything. They will not pay your bills for you.

Michael Pollan: Well, in my case —

Tim Ferriss: Well, actually, in your case, they do pay the bills. But even that, I can see the late night programming now. Just lay Michael Pollan’s psychedelic blanket on your stack of bills. But in any case, what I was going to say is, they do seem to hold promise for conditions that are frequently thought of as intractable or untreatable.

Michael Pollan: Yes. And separate. I mean, one of the interesting things about it —

Tim Ferriss: And separate.

Michael Pollan: The indications, the forms of mental disorder that they seem to work best on — I was very skeptical of this panacea idea too, and I was interviewing Tom Insel, who was former head of the National Institute of Mental Health, and I said, “Isn’t it a little suspect that the same drug would work for depression, and anxiety, and addiction?” And he said, “Why?” And I said, “It’s like, it’s a panacea.” And he says, “No. Don’t assume all those conditions are so different.” They may be a product — they may be different symptoms of the same mental formation, which is an excessive rigidity in the brain. They’re all forms of stuckness. They’re all forms of destructive narrative. And so we may learn something about the nature of mental illness in this research too, which is very exciting.

And psychedelics seem to work on those kind of locked-in conditions, that all are characterized by obsessive thinking to one degree or another. And somebody said, who I interviewed, depression is regret about the past, anxiety is regret about the future. They’re similar. They’re very similar. And addiction and depression often go together.

So I thought that was very interesting, but then there’s a whole — that’s one end. If you think of mental disorder on a spectrum, and at one end you have those very rigid, closed-down brain conditions, at the other end, you have brains that are obsessively chaotic, or too entropic, to use Robin’s phrase. And that’s schizophrenia, not useful for that. Personality disorder, probably not useful. Manic depression, less likely. And so we may see that a lot of the things that it treats are the same thing.

And he said that these words, like depression, anxiety, addiction, these are DSM artifacts, right? “We need to put a label on things so we can charge the insurance companies and write our code,” he said, “but they’re artificial.” They’re totally artificial. And I didn’t realize that.

So one of the things that excites me most about psychedelics is, yes, there’s a treatment here, potentially, and it could be very important, and help us deal with one of the biggest problems we face as a civilization. On the other hand, they’re also very interesting probes to understand the mind. And way back when, Stanislav Grof, famous psychedelic psychiatrist, who did really great work in the ’60s and ’70s, he wrote this line, which actually got Robin Carhart-Harris started, and got me started, in a way. He said that “Psychedelics would be for the study of the mind what the telescope was for astronomy, or the microscope for biology.” Now that is an audacious claim. But I no longer think it’s crazy.

Tim Ferriss: And for those who are interested in where this is going, you mentioned that there is currently effectively a complete lack of federal funding. And there is some money, but what a lot of people may not realize, and what I didn’t realize until a few years ago, is that even the most productive scientists working on psychedelics today spend, in some cases, upwards of half their time writing grants for non-psychedelic studies to pay for their salaries.

Michael Pollan: Yeah.

Tim Ferriss: So there is a certain survival mode that most of these groups experience, which makes it very hard to commit to the types of studies that the scientists and the world would like to see, that require staff for multiple years, and so on.

Michael Pollan: And most of that money is for drug abuse studies, from NIDA, National Institute of Drug Abuse. And NIDA money is supporting Roland’s lab.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah. So there are studies that I’m aware of that have sort of yet to be funded, related to it, whether that’s opiates/opioid addiction, or Alzheimer’s disease, as you mentioned, which would also track their cognitive parameters and so on. If someone in the audience is interested in trying to facilitate this type of research, better understanding of these compounds, that then lead to better understanding of the mind, including the pathologies, how would you think about selecting the higher-leverage places to invest your own time or money?

Michael Pollan: Well, if I had endless resources and felt — as a journalist, I can’t contribute to this without creating all sorts of ethical quandaries for the publications I write for. But I would consider it a very good, highly leveraged investment to give money to one of the labs doing this research, whether it was Roland Griffiths, or the UCSF work, which I think is really exciting, Josh Woolley’s work, or NYU. These are relatively small investments that have the potential to have a tremendous payoff for society. And I think that you will see more kind of charitable organizations of various kinds, grant making organizations, doing this.

I also think, though, there’s the pure science piece, which is really interesting. I interviewed, in the book, Alison Gopnik, this psychologist who’s a colleague of mine at Berkeley, a child psychologist, and she has a fascinating — she studies the mind of a child, which she thinks is an altered state of consciousness. And she said, “If you ever want to experience an expanded consciousness, just have tea with a four-year-old.” And she really believes that kids are tripping all the time, up to about four or five. And in a very specific sense, that they take in information in this global way that we don’t. We have something she calls spotlight consciousness.

Tim Ferriss: Or the reducing valve?

Michael Pollan: Or the reducing, exactly, it’s the same metaphor. And it’s also ego-driven consciousness. It’s very pointed. We can block everything out. But kids have lantern consciousness. They’re taking in information from all different sides. That’s why you can’t keep them on task. But they’re doing something really important, which is exploring their environment and mastering it in a way that we, as adults, cannot at a certain point. It’s like learning a language after you’re 10. It just gets much harder.

Michael Pollan: So she’s kind of got a very interesting model that you could use psychedelics to restore some of the qualities of children’s consciousness, the kind of creativity, the kind of problem-solving that kids actually do better. We talked about the mask experiment, predictive coding. Kids don’t have all those models in their head telling them what’s likely to work, or what’s likely is happening. So they’re taking in all that sensory information, and they’re more creative as a result. Well, could you put us back in that head?

So there are pure science experiments that I know she would love to do that need to be funded, also. And I think there’s a real potential to learn important things about consciousness. Basically, one of the ways you learn about any complex system is disturb it, and we now have this amazing tool for disturbing everyday, normal consciousness, and studying the results. So I would love to see that happen, too. And that’s academic research. And I hope that there will be centers for psychedelic research at Johns Hopkins, perhaps at UCSF, where this work could be done, because I think the payoff could be tremendous.

Tim Ferriss: So I know you can’t contribute to many of these things, for all the reasons you outlined. I can, so if anybody is interested in helping to build centers at these universities, reach out to me. And just to give some concrete examples of how a very little can go a long way, you mentioned Josh Woolley, Brian Anderson, UCSF, they’re looking at long-term — or, I should say, treating long-term demoralization in AIDS survivors. And they’re doing some things that are very innovative in a research setting, like group integration, which could transcend that study to apply to a lot of other things. And to get that off the ground, I was involved with that, it was a meaningful contribution to commit $10-25k.

Michael Pollan: Yeah.

Tim Ferriss: That is enough rocket fuel, along with a few other people, to get it off the ground as a pilot study. So this is really, it could have significant implications, and open the door for lots of other studies with larger amounts of money later.

Michael Pollan: Yeah.

Tim Ferriss: And if you’re looking for the larger, let’s say more involved, longitudinal studies with — we were just talking about this at lunch — say, opiate addiction, my best friend growing up had a fentanyl overdose. My aunt died of a Percocet-alcohol combination a number of months ago. This is the scale of this problem, and the suffering —

Michael Pollan: 70,000 people last year died of opiate —

Tim Ferriss: Which is comparable to what?

Michael Pollan: Well, 50,000 people died in the entire Vietnam war, just to give you an idea. It’s mind boggling.

Tim Ferriss: So to begin to chip away at that in a leveraged way, then you’re talking about millions. But it’s not $100 million. It’s like, $2-4 million. So in any case, this is a place where you could really potentially bend the arc of history, not necessarily only financially. One thing I’ve wondered is, if there are ways to sort of galvanize the space to get more researchers involved, because 20 years ago, this was career suicide, or at least viewed as a dead end. It’s ceasing to be labeled as such, but nonetheless, it’s hard to get, say, a guaranteed salary for many, many years if you want to make psychedelics your focus.

So offering, say, fellowships. If anybody is listening who may want to sort of galvanize for even lower dollar amounts, $50,000, $100,000, there are probably ways to do that. Or if you’re a researcher that could actually look into spending more time on this, because as you pointed out, phase three trials on MDMA — which we could debate whether or not that is a psychedelic; for simplicity’s sake, let’s call it a psychedelic — is already in phase three for PTSD.

And for people who are interested in seeing what that looks like in practice, I also want to mention, actually two documentaries, before I forget. The first shows actual therapy sessions that are MDMA psychotherapy sessions for PTSD, and it’s called Trip of Compassion, and I ended up just helping filmmakers who are based in Israel to launch this digitally, literally yesterday. So it’s now available for people who want to watch that. I don’t make a cent. I’m doing this all pro bono.

Fantastic Fungi, which should be coming out shortly, in which you make a cameo, covers a lot of the, not only the incredibly complexity and beauty and mystery of fungi and mycelium, but also the work done at places like —

Michael Pollan: Johns Hopkins.

Tim Ferriss: Johns Hopkins and NYU. So if you want to really have a visceral response to seeing what this can do, and to see cancer patients with terminal diagnoses, and hear their stories, these two documentaries are really, really worth the time.

For people who are curious about learning more, you mentioned, of course, your book, as I stated at the very beginning, How to Change Your Mind, I’ve gifted to literally hundreds of people. And that, I think, is a tremendous resource for a historical overview, and a scientific primer, along with your personal stories. And I think walking that, sort of threading that into a narrative, is extremely difficult, so I want to applaud you again for putting the book together.

What other resources would you encourage people to perhaps take a look at?

Michael Pollan: Well, I do think there’s great value in looking at some of these documentaries that are out and coming out, just to hear the voices of the people whose lives have been transformed. The people who are really in trouble. And so I found looking at those accounts, reading those accounts when I had the opportunity, because all the patients, all the volunteers write up a narrative of their experience. That was just something.

I think, as I mentioned earlier, Robin Carhart-Harris, if you’re interested in the neuroscience piece, that’s where I would look, is some of his papers, which are quite striking. He’s the rare scientist in that he’s doing therapeutic work, clinical work, he’s doing theoretical work, and he’s doing brain imaging. And it’s very rare you get one scientist doing all those things.

Another place to contribute, though, is MAPS. They’re focused on MDMA work right now, but they have — Rick Doblin, the head of MAPS, has really driven this renaissance, and he deserves a lot of credit. In 1985, when he was graduating from college, he wanted to be a psychedelic therapist, and he said, “I’ve got to change the laws in this country in order to be a psychedelic therapist.” And he’s been knocking his head against this wall since 1985, and it’s finally yielding, and it’s an amazing story. They need money, too, to conduct this MDMA work.

And there’s another nonprofit called The Heffter Institute that’s funding a lot of the more speculative psilocybin work, and that’s also worth looking at.

God. Other things to read? One of the experiences I had working on this book was, “Wow, I have all this space to myself. Why isn’t anyone — why aren’t there 20 books on this topic?” I didn’t understand it. There’s a good book on MDMA therapy called, for some stupid reason, Acid Test, because it has nothing to do with LSD, but it’s a very good book by a man named Tom Shroder, a Washington Post reporter. So if you’re interested in the trauma, MDMA side, that’s the book.

Tim Ferriss: It covers a lot of work with veterans, as well.

Michael Pollan: Yeah. It’s really good. And there will be more. There’s going to be a lot more.

Tim Ferriss: If you were trying to give guidelines to people who are going to ask, and I’m sure have asked you, how do I find a guide? Which is a tricky question to answer. I mean, which is also tricky for me to answer. I get asked this constantly. One of the recommendations I have made is, read some of the books that publishes, like The Secret Chief, about Leo Zeff, who is a stellar guide. Or, I think it’s Healing Journey, or The Healing Journey by Claudio Naranjo from Chile, so that you understand what a good guide looks like. And then, you at least have some litmus test by which you can discard the people who don’t qualify.

Michael Pollan: Yeah. I would add to that James Fadiman book, The Psychedelic Explorer’s Guide, which actually has very good advice for people who want to guide, or are shopping for a guide. He’s a psychologist who was very involved in the research in the ’60s and ’70s. And the code of conduct for guides is reprinted in that, and he has a lot of instructions, so that’s useful.

Look, it’s — one of the most striking things, and we were talking at lunch, what is it like being the psychedelic guy after having been the food guy? And I have to say, the food guy was a lot easier. They sent over a nice extra dessert when you went to a good restaurant sometimes, and there were perks like that. Here, it is an unrelenting stream of emails, phone calls, and letters from people who are really suffering. Who have a suicidal son, or an alcoholic mother, who are really at the end of their rope, and they think that this holds out hope. Perhaps the last hope in many cases, for people with cancer.

And I haven’t been able to make any referrals. I mean, it just, it wouldn’t be smart. Especially for the guides themselves, because if I introduce somebody to a guide, they’re assuming this person is vetted, but of course, the person isn’t vetted. At some point, law enforcement may decide to bring down a guide to set an example, so I can’t do that.

But a practical strategy is: go find a ketamine therapist. And there are legal ketamine clinics, now, all over the country. And if the ketamine therapist doesn’t think you are right for ketamine, that actually have trauma, not depression, or you have addiction, not depression, they’re often in a position to make a referral. There’s some overlap in those communities. So that’s my inside tip.

But it’s just too big a responsibility to introduce someone to an underground therapist. Things can go wrong. It is underground. And so you have to be very careful. And interview whoever. If you’re actually doing this, interview several. It’s like choosing a shrink. You’ll know when someone has the right head for you, and you have a bond with. And if you have any doubts, stay away.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah. When in doubt, decline.

Michael Pollan: And you can volunteer for these aboveground trials, by the way. There are waiting lists at all these places, and if you go on the website at Johns Hopkins, Roland Griffiths’ lab, or NYU, they’re listing what they’re studying, or about to study, and maybe you’ll get lucky and there’s a big, healthy, normal study.

Tim Ferriss: Which does happen, actually. I have a few friends who have become subjects, sometimes for compounds that are not as friendly as psilocybin. In any case, this has been a wide-ranging and very fun conversation for me. I’m personally very fascinated and dedicated to this space, because I’ve received a lot of the letters that you’ve received, thematically. I have friends say, in law enforcement and military, or even, say, who are commercial pilots, who say, “I am not allowed to have mental illness.”

Michael Pollan: Yeah.

Tim Ferriss: And they are depressed, or they’re suicidal, and they do not want to run through insurance, and they feel trapped. So systemically, there’s things that need to change, and I think that you are part of changing the national conversation, as you mentioned, just as one example, by the types of organizations that are now inviting you to speak. And for that, I thank you. Do you have any closing comments, requests, asks, anything of the audience, before we wrap up?

Michael Pollan: I mostly want to thank you. It’s a pleasure to have a conversation with someone who knows as much about this as I do. You’re really in deep, and I applaud you, and you’re making a positive contribution to this work.

I guess I would say to the audience, please pay attention, follow this research, support it if you can. And if you decide to have an experience, safe travels.

Tim Ferriss: All right. Michael Pollan. Thank you, everybody.

Michael Pollan: Thanks so much.

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Michael Pollan — Exploring the Frontiers of Psychedelics (#365)


Photo by Ken Light

“An overactive ego is a tyrant.”
– Michael Pollan

Michael Pollan (@michaelpollan) is the author of seven previous books, including Cooked, Food Rules, In Defense of Food, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, and The Botany of Desire, all of which were New York Times bestsellers. A longtime contributor to The New York Times Magazine, he also teaches writing at Harvard and the University of California, Berkeley where he is the John S. and James L. Knight Professor of Science Journalism. In 2010, TIME magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

His newest book is How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, which will be available as a paperback in May.

And if you haven’t yet, check out “Trip of Compassion”, which is the most compelling movie I’ve seen in the last year. It documents one unusual approach to healing trauma that might astonish you, an innovative treatment involving the psychoactive drug MDMA (commonly known as “ecstasy”). As you will see firsthand, if the therapy is well designed, true rebirth and transformation can happen in a matter of weeks and not years. Find out more by clicking here.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, Overcast, Castbox, or on your favorite podcast platform.

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

#365: Michael Pollan — Exploring the Frontiers of Psychedelics

Want to hear another episode that explores science and psychedelics? — Listen to my conversation with Paul Stamets, an intellectual and industry leader in the habitat, medicinal use, and production of fungi. Stream below or right-click here to download.

#340: Paul Stamets — How Mushrooms Can Save You and (Perhaps) the World

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

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