The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Nick Kokonas

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Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Nick Kokonas (IG: @nkokonas, TW: @NickKokonas), the co-owner and co-founder of The Alinea Group of restaurants, which includes Alinea (named the Best Restaurant in America and Best Restaurant in The World by organizations and lists as diverse as The James Beard Foundation, World’s 50 Best, TripAdvisor, Yelp, Gourmet Magazine, and Elite Traveler), Next, The Aviary, Roister, and The Aviary NYC. He is also the founder and CEO of Tock, Inc, a reservations and CRM system for restaurants with more than 2.5M diners and clients in more than 20 countries. The episode was transcribed and therefore might contain a few typos. With some interviews lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!

Listen to the interview here or by selecting any of the options below.

#341: Nick Kokonas — How to Apply World-Class Creativity to Business, Art, and Life
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Tim Ferriss: Nick, welcome to the show.

Nick Kokonas: Thanks, Tim. Awesome to be here finally.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, we have the benefit of having spent some time together, and I have been fed a lot of caffeine by you. You were also of great help with The 4-Hour Chef. So I wanted to, right off the bat, thank you for that. It was a lovely experience.

Nick Kokonas: It was kind of a fun thing, because I remember when you sent me out a preview of the book, and then you called me to say, “Hey, do you want to say anything about it? I was on a chairlift. I was like, “By the time I get off this chairlift, I will have a blurb for you.” It was such pressure.

Tim Ferriss: Which meant a lot. Pressure, I think, is the word to describe so much about you and your life… I want to say “trajectory,” but I’m not even sure that is the right word. I thought a fun way to kick off the conversation would be to share with people listening some of the back-and-forth we had when we were brainstorming what a podcast might look like. Because certainly I don’t think of you first and foremost as a food guy, per se. We were having this exchange via text and then via email. I thought I’d just read one of your responses as we were swapping different ideas. I’ll probably edit for space a little bit here, but not by much. Here we go.

“I’m a huge believer in radical transparency in business. I give numbers and burn bridges with big companies because I think that a lot of times, people don’t ask the basic questions in publishing. For instance, how much did that book cost to print? How many did it sell? Oddly, those numbers are very hard to come by. I dug from months, years ago to do the Alinea book the right way. For bars – why does a bartender wash dishes and talk to customers? We’ve redesigned the bar experience in one best bar in the world. For restaurants – why is it the only form of entertainment that has only mutual promise to show up? Then it goes into behavioral economics. And in parentheses, I don’t even know how to pronounce this last name correctly, Richard Thaler or is it Taylor?

Nick Kokonas: Yeah, Thaler.

Tim Ferriss: “Richard Thaler is a friend and investor. Just won the Nobel Prize. Investing. Been beating the market for nearly 30 years. EVERYTHING (in all caps) is about asymmetric risk taking and information, and yet people’s perception of risk or of what I do is that it’s risky. It is not.”

In a separate exchange, when we were talking about many of the topics that you could talk about outside of restaurants, bars, and so on, even though that’s been a big part of your life in recent history, many of these different experiments, explorations, portions of your career, topics that you could talk about, and then going into what you said, “They come down to a single thought really. Wherever there is opaque information that should be obvious, run to that gap.”

I struggle with where to even begin with the 20 options that we have here. But maybe you can explain to me how behavioral economics and Richard Thaler fit into this? Just for curiosity’s sake.

Nick Kokonas: I’ll go back to the word you used, “options.” Because I started out back in 1992 or 1993 studying options trading, derivatives trading. I think there’s a huge misconception about what that is because of movies, because of The Big Short, because of Wall Street, and all of that. It’s a bit like playing a game of chess for a living, or being the house at a casino, that sort of thing. It’s about taking hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of decisions per day and pretending it’s like a big decision tree. Any given decision is probably, if you’re really good, at a 48 percent chance of being wrong. So, you have to be really, really good at constantly being comfortable being wrong, but knowing that your overall number of decisions that you’re going to be right more than you’re wrong.

I know there’s a big theme with a lot of the folks you have on. They talk about success or failure, how to measure those things. I don’t look at it as success or failure with anything. I look at it as just like, is my pattern of decisions correct? Then getting back to your actual question with Professor Thaler and behavioral economics. Essentially what they’re looking at is decision making. What drives people to make certain decisions. What’s rational about those decisions. What is mostly irrational or emotional. Or what decisions do we make that people don’t even realize they’re making a decision? Which is often the case as well.

Then, if you think about it, every single form of what we do – art, commerce, science, picking a mate, all those things – comes down to a whole bunch of decisions you make without often thinking about the decision itself. Not that you can walk around going, “Whoa, I’ve just made another decision.” But when you are doing business, or starting a company, or publishing a book, or whatever it might be, you can be intentional about that and realize that it’s going to be an iterative process. I think that’s been not only the case for me in learning how to filter things through that mindset, but when you said there isn’t a trajectory, I look at everything I’ve done as the same, in a way. Even though other people look at it and go, “Wow, you went from being a derivatives trader to owning a restaurant, that’s weird.” I studied philosophy in college. People are like, “How do you go from philosophy to finance?” To me, it was all the same thing.

Tim Ferriss: That particular transition or rather, progression, I suppose, from philosophy to finance is one that you and I haven’t really talked about. That one is interesting. I’d love to explore for a second. We’re going to go into a million different nooks and crannies, but did you feel like studying philosophy undergrad was an asset that then later helped you? Or was it just an interest you explored en route to other things?

Nick Kokonas: I can’t remotely imagine having not done that. The way actually I did it was really interesting. I had no intention. When I got to college, I thought I’d study political science, economics, pre-law kind of thing, something like that. My very second week at Colgate University, a wonderful professor who just passed away last year at 94 years old, a really great mentor to me, Professor Jerome Balmuth. He was a tenured professor at Colgate for almost 60 years. He pulled me aside. Introduction to Logic 101. He basically said, “What are you studying here?” I told him and he said, “No, you’re going to be a philosophy major. I’m going to teach you how to think.”

He was the kind of guy – there’s this great scene in A River Runs Through It, where the dad every time the kid writes an essay, the young fisherman kid writes an essay, and he brings it to his father to be graded, he gives it back to him and says, “Half as long again.” Long before that movie ever came out, Professor Balmuth would essentially assign a paper to the class and say, “It should be about 15 pages.” People would be like, “How long?” He’d say, “How long is a piece of string? It’s however long it needs to be.” Then he would tell me, “Yours can’t be longer than three pages.”

People would be jealous. Like, “Wow, you only have to write three pages.” If you take it seriously, that is a much, much harder thing to do. He really trained me, as well as a number of other professors there, to be clear in thinking, succinct, to understand what logic was, to process information, and really to look for parallels in different fields and different field of thought. Man, when I got out of school, I went to law school for like a day and a half. I had gotten into Penn, like a joint J.D./Ph.D. program at Penn. As soon as I knew who the other folks were and what their desires and trajectories were, I was like, “This isn’t actually a good fit for me.”

I remember my future father-in-law told my now-wife, then-girlfriend, that I was in danger of becoming an intellectual bum, because I dropped out of law school before I really entered law school. I floundered around for a little while. But if you grow up in Chicago, you end up meeting people who had this unusual lifestyle. That was back in the days pre-internet, pre-electronic trading, pre-high-frequency trading, where there were literally people on the giant trading floor shouting at each other. You either were attracted to the almost animalistic nature of that. For me, it was a huge challenge, because there were people down there that had Ph.D.s from MIT, then there were people who were butchers that went down there with $100,000 and just kicked ass.

It wasn’t about your level of education or any of the stuff I already talked about. It was about, “Can you show up every day?” Every day is game day. Be really disciplined and very clear-headed with chaos around you.

Tim Ferriss: How did you get introduced to that world?

Nick Kokonas: If you grow up in Chicago, you know some of these guys. Some of them are flashy. I can remember the exact moment, and I’m not going to name a name here, as you’ll find out why in a second, but I was walking down the street. I was six months out of college, didn’t know what I was going to do. I was walking down the street and I bumped into a guy I knew in high school. He wasn’t the best student. He didn’t try the hardest. I was like, “Hey what are you doing now?” He was like, “Well, I’m just rehabbing these homes.” I thought, “Literally, he’s a construction worker.” I was like, “What are you doing with them?” He’s like, “Well, I just bought this block. I’m turning this all over.”

This is a true story. This is so not like a good reason to do something. But I looked at him, and I was like, “What are you talking about?” He’s like, “Yeah, I skipped college. I started as a runner on the Merc, and now I own 25 condos and three townhomes and I trade.” I kind of went like, “Wow.” I don’t know what – I knew a little bit about it. I’d been down on the floor before, just visiting. I was like, “That’s fascinating. That is a truly fascinating thing.” I went down and visited the floor. I had to fake my résumé in the wrong direction to get a job. True story. People lie on their résumé all the time. I’m probably the only person that got rid of my degree and my academic awards and all that.

To get a clerk job on the floor, the last thing they wanted was someone with a good degree, Phi Beta Kappa, magna cum laude, all that stuff. I faked my résumé, got a $5 an hour job, and looked for a mentor. I found a guy named Frank Zarino, who was at Chicago Research and Trading, which also was founded by a philosophy major. It’s actually very common.

Tim Ferriss: Why is that common?

Nick Kokonas: I wish I knew the answer. I don’t know the answer. I do know that there’s three or four of the largest trading firms in the world are run by philosophy majors. If you look back at my class, there’s a few professors in there, but there are people who make movies, there’s a guy who runs an ad agency, a large ad agency. It’s a really interesting path. It’s not just dislike studying physics. I know some great physicists who are great in whatever they do. I think it’s a similar discipline of abstract thought. I can’t think of anything worse than studying business. It just seems like a terrible thing to study to me.

Tim Ferriss: Is that because it’s like the surface of the waves in the ocean topically? It’s just so non-transferable in a sense? Then as you go lower and lower through the slower moving layers, that’s just more multidisciplinary in terms of studying the basics of how things work or how people think?

Nick Kokonas: Yeah. It’s almost like how to do something or how to manage something, but not why to do it. And so, if you’re taught in 1992, if I went and got an MBA, I would’ve been taught a certain kind of management that six years later with the internet would’ve gotten blown up. So, for me, I always ask the why question. You were mentioning the book publishing or a bar. I just look at some things and go, “Why is that? Why does it work that way?” Oftentimes, the people most entrenched in a system have no idea why. They’re like the third or fourth generation of person within that system and they have no idea why a school bell rings in the morning, for example. Or why a bartender is washing the dishes. Often, I don’t know the real answer, but I come up with alternative ones at least that suit my narrative, I guess.

Tim Ferriss: Undervalued skill, by the way, in some cases. You’ve got to be careful. But very, very, very interesting. I want to pause here, partially because I’m over-caffeinated. I was inspired by my nostalgia related to your double espressos. But why did the professor pull you aside? What did that early undergrad professor in Logic 101 see in you – whether he explained it or not later, I don’t know – that led him to take a special interest in you?

Nick Kokonas: Well, I think I was prepared in earnest because I was mostly terrified. He had a reputation of being a – he was a Socratic method teacher. He was pretty harsh. Colgate was very small classes. There was a class of 80 people, and he wanted to whittle it down to a more manageable number. His method to do that was just to kick your ass. I remember – he probably, as great as he was, I doubt he would survive starting out at a college campus now. I literally saw him light fire to someone’s notebook once when he was asking people examples of how to put out a fire. This one guy was just stuttering because he was so in fear, so he just lit his notebook on fire. And he stamped. The kid threw it on the ground and stamped on it. He’s like, “You’ve got to smother it! Sure!” And he called everyone – he memorized every person’s last name. It was Mr. and Ms.

I remember the specific day, he was literally back to the – this was like right out of a movie – he had his back to the class writing on a chalkboard some logic problem, symbolic logic. The guy next to me had no shot at getting it, none. So, he said his name and I wrote on the paper on my desk so he could see it, what the answer was. Then without missing a beat or turning around, he was like, “Mr. Kokonas, please do not help him. There is no way in hell he could possibly have done that without your help.” This is like two or three weeks in. He spun around and he saw that I didn’t have my book. He said, “Mr. Kokonas, where’s your book?” I said, “It’s in my dorm room, Professor.” He said, “Well, a lot of good it’s doing you there.” I said, “On the contrary, it must apparently be doing me a lot of good there.” He said, “I’ll see you after class.”

I thought I was getting kicked out. There was a line forming to create office hours or to ask to be transferred out or whatever. When I got to the front, he said, “Follow me,” and I followed him to his office. I swear, he’s running through the New England fall. I thought I was going to get kicked out of the class. When I closed the door, I turned around and he had his feet up on the desk. He said, “Where are you from? What do you want to do here?” That was it. He took me under his wing. I was very fortunate. I never knew – here’s the amazing part. I never knew the guy liked me until 10 years after I graduated. Then I was treated like a member of his family at his funeral 30 years later. A really fascinating person. A really fascinating moment in my life, where I don’t know, someone saw something in me and went like, “I’m going to make an investment in this person.” He never asked for anything back, ever.

Tim Ferriss: How did you not know that he liked you? Did he withhold in some way so that you wouldn’t get a big head or something along those lines? Did he not want to get overly attached to you so he wouldn’t express it?

Nick Kokonas: No, no. I think I was 19 years old and I didn’t know that the people who like you hold to a higher standard probably. Consequently, it was really, he beat the shit out of me in a good way. You know what I mean? It’s like if you have someone who’s teaching you something and they invest their team in you, and they think you have a chance of being good, they work you harder than the folks around you. So the people that I thought he liked, he was just being nice to because he didn’t think they had a chance.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, he didn’t care; he wasn’t invested.

Nick Kokonas: Yeah. With me, I think, he would be talking to my English professor without me even knowing and being like, “That paper sucks. He can do a lot better than that. Give him a C on that one.” I was like, “What’s going on?” All of a sudden, that class got hard. I didn’t know. I had no idea. It was an interesting, lucky, fortunate place to be at that time.

Tim Ferriss: We’re going to get back to the Merc, but before we do, philosophy – I’m endlessly fascinated by philosophy, but I’m also a nerd and academic and pedantic and have spent a lot of time in school. For people who are listening to this who are already in their careers, or maybe they’re in their early 20s, thinking of starting a company, but are entrepreneurially either involved or inclined, would you suggest if they don’t have any exposure to philosophy that they read any particular books or resources or explore it in any way? Or would you say “Actually, you know what? That was an intermediate step to something else. You would probably be better off studying X, Y, and Z.” Is there like a starter kit or something you would recommend to folks who don’t have the philosophy exposure?

Nick Kokonas: I think part of it is if you read a book in isolation, it’s not as rich of an experience as discussing those ideas within that context. That said, if you’re the kind of person that loves to read and explore ideas, there’s hardly a better place. It’s a matter of finding what you enjoy. I happen to love The Problems of Philosophy, which Bertrand Russell wrote. It’s sort of about Wittgenstein’s ideas, but before Wittgenstein published. It’s written in plain language. It’s not hard to understand. Certainly Nietzsche is more like philosophy with some weird sugar coating of something on top of it. Man, as a young male, reading Nietzsche for the first time, I was like, fuck yeah. You know? It’s not passive. I think people think of philosophers as Zen monks sitting there quietly contemplating the universe.

I think what it is, is people grappling with all the same questions and curiosity that we all have if you pause to think about it. It’s so big that it’s not just Descartes, “I think, therefore I am.” It’s every little bit of that. Read Lucretius. He read the atomic –

Tim Ferriss: Could you spell that? I’m going to be the first one to admit that I –

Nick Kokonas: Lucretius?

Tim Ferriss: Oh, Lucretius.

Nick Kokonas: Yeah, Lucretius.

Tim Ferriss: L-U-C-R-E-T-I-U-S.

Nick Kokonas: Yeah, I’m a terrible speller. Never ask me to spell anything.

Tim Ferriss: We’ll put it in the show notes.

Nick Kokonas: Read that. Or read this great book called The Swerve, which is about this monk ages ago that found that book and then rewrote it and saved it for history. It reads like a murder mystery. You don’t necessarily need to start with philosophy. You can start with the things around it. I continue to find the world of ideas endlessly inspirational. Then, by the way, steal them and use them in whatever you’re doing. They’re there for you.

Tim Ferriss: Lucretius. L-U-C-R-E-T-I-U-S. Titus Lucretius Carus was a Roman poet and philosopher. We’ll put that in the show notes. Bertrand Russell, also. I haven’t read Bertrand Russell in so many ages, but it is very digestible. It is not dressed up in $10 words when $0.10 words would suffice. A lot of his writing is really powerful. I also just wanted to mention for folks, and I just thought about this, ages and ages ago I felt like I had certain gaps in my education after college. I ended up – I don’t know why this didn’t occur to me earlier, but someone mentioned that Stanford, UC Berkeley, these top-tier universities, all had extended or adult education classes taught by professors and junior professors. This is the same team who is teaching. Those are very readily accessible.

Nick Kokonas: Even MIT OpenCourseWare. So many colleges now have taken that model and put great, great, great classes online. I know that every now and then I’m surprised at what I find on there, and get sucked into. Like an all-nighter of taking some college class that I know nothing about, and it’s so far over my head. But it kind of refuels you again to go like, oh, there are huge gaps where I know nothing. The older you get, the harder it is to start into something new, I find at least. It feels like the mountain it too big.

Tim Ferriss: I would actually – not to pull a Nick –

Nick Kokonas: Yeah, you disagree. That’s great.

Tim Ferriss: On the contrary, sir. My book is doing me a lot of good in my dorm room.

Nick Kokonas: That’s right.

Tim Ferriss: I think one of your superpowers is that you ask the fundamental why questions about long-standing assumptions or conventional wisdom in different fields. The more you have done that, the more obvious it is to you to do it as a starting point, in a way. Let’s go back to the Merc. We can go in any direction, of course. You step into this Lord of the Flies/gladiatorial arena with butchers and Ph.D.s and so on. Then what? Is there a point when you’re like, “Okay, I actually do think I could be good at this?”

Nick Kokonas: No. For real, no. I was down there and I had made a fatal error of leaving school. Everyone told me it was a fatal error.

Tim Ferriss: This is the law school?

Nick Kokonas: Yeah. I remember being down there and what I was doing was so brainless. It was literally you take this piece of paper over to that guy, and then that guy would yell at you, and rip the paper out of your hand, and then you’d go get another one. It was literally that brain-dead. I was desperately looking to learn what was going on around me. Of course, I bought books on finance and commodities and options and all that. They were completely ridiculous and opaque and academic. It looked like they had no relationship to what was going on there at all. I started taking classes that were run at the Merc on mock trading, and just learning the hand signals and things like that, which were fine but didn’t really teach you how to trade.

I spent time interviewing with big companies like Goldman Sachs and Société Générale and whatnot, because I did have the academic background where I would get the interview, I’d be able to take the test, I’d do well on their math and psychology tests. I would get offered a job as a trader, and then I would look at the contract. This is a key thing. People get out of college, they get offered a job. I think I’m the only one who ever read the employment contract. What it said in there was basically they could do anything they want with me for three years. I don’t even necessarily need to be a trader. That’s what I was interested in doing. But they could ship me to France and have me do something totally different. I could be an analyst or God knows what.

When I would question that, they’d be like, “Man, you should be really happy. We had 300 applicants for this and we offered eight positions. Just take it.”

Tim Ferriss: Totally your style.

Nick Kokonas: I know. I was kind of like, I grew up, I’d be remiss not to say that my dad modeled – my dad was an entrepreneur by necessity because his dad died when he was really young. He fought both at the end of World War II, he was drafted into the Navy at the end of World War II. Was dismissed honorably after 16-18 months because they were downsizing the Navy. Then he was barely young enough to be drafted into the Army for the Korean War. When he got out, he had no usable skills. So he went to work at the grocery store that he started working at when he was 12 years old. He saved up all of his money from the Army and the Navy, and bought the store.

As I was growing up, my hero was my dad, who was not an academic; who was not what people would think of as an executive in a suit or whatever. But he did really well. He bought property and real estate. He owned a temporary labor office that supplied unskilled laborers to factories and conventions and whatnot. That was a really good business. He had a lot of common-sense smarts. He was horrified that I didn’t go to law school. But meanwhile, I was modeling what he did. When I got down there, I was like, “You have to own your own situation.” So when I was offered those jobs, I was like, “Well, I don’t really see myself working for someone else.”

I found a guy who also felt that way. He was working for a big company. They didn’t want to make him a trader because he was too much of a quant. He was really well educated; he was really mathematical. He wanted to prove them wrong, so he took a small amount of money and started trading currency options. When I found him, I instantly knew that this was the right person, because I had talked to dozens of people and no one was like him. Then he said he didn’t want to hire me. He didn’t want to hire anyone.

Tim Ferriss: How did you meet him? Do you remember how you guys met?

Nick Kokonas: Yeah, I was just introduced to him through, back then, if you were a trader or a trading company, you have a clearing firm like Goldman Sachs. At the time, there was a company called First Options. He cleared First Options. Back then, you literally would have to take the elevator up to key punch in all the cards into a computer that was up 17 floors away. Ancient times. I met him through being introduced to him there. After talking to him, I knew he was the sort of geeky intellectual that I needed. Then when he told me that he didn’t want to hire me because he hired some clerk, I was like, “No, no, no. I will pay you to work for you.” He was like, “This is really strange.”

I explained to him like, “Look, I’ve been here for six months.” I set a goal for myself of getting on a badge, it was called. Leasing a seat, and actually trading within a year. I was like, “I need to get going on this. I need someone that’s going to teach me options.” It’s fascinating because he then hired me for, I want to say it was $400 a week or something like that. I stood right next to him all day every day. He taught me options theory from scratch. Better than any college ever could. To the point where you’re looking three derivatives in, it’s not just volatility curve, but the curve of the curve. As soon as I started grasping this and going deeper down that rabbit hole, the more I liked it as a puzzle.

Certainly the money had an appeal, but it was also, “Hey, here’s this giant competition. It’s like playing a huge, multifaceted chess game that no one’s going to get exactly right.” But like I said earlier, it’s about making hundreds of decisions a day. Even when you get 10 in a row that come up tails, you know that the next one is 50/50. That discipline was interesting. That was more about teaching yourself the psychology of standing there while everyone told you that you were wrong, or you were physically small, or you were too educated, or too serious. You can’t imagine how much of a fraternity house that place was. Everything in Wolf of Wall Street, I have seen. I haven’t lived, but I’ve seen it all.

I started hiring very shortly after I started trading. About a year later, I left and started my own company with almost nothing. I hired my first employee, who became my business partner for the last 25 years. I taught him what I’d learned. I hired people that I considered corporate refugees. People who worked for companies and decided that independence was better.

Tim Ferriss: Why did you leave after a year?

Nick Kokonas: He was moving over to the Chicago Board of Trade, and I had found a couple of awesome programmers to help build this options analysis software. He offered me up to run some of the operations at the Mercantile Exchange when he went over to trade the bonds at the Board of Trade. He was a really smart guy. He made me a deal that when you analyzed it very carefully, got worse over time. I just went, “You know, it’s been great and I’ve learned a ton. We’ve made each other a bunch of money. It’s a win/win.” But I really wanted to do my own thing. I wanted to be the captain of my own ship, I guess. Thankfully, this guy Jim Hanson, who is still one of my dearest friends, had an option to stay with that company or come with a completely underfunded company.

Thinking back, it was so stupid from a risk perspective. It was asymmetric. Far more upside than downside. It worked out really well. We spent most of our time as we hired people and taught them how to do this, it was mostly psychology training. It was mostly standing around after hours and saying, what’s 7 x 28? And screaming it at each other like a drill sergeant until the person couldn’t remember what 9 x 3 was anymore.

Tim Ferriss: Wait. Why did you do that?

Nick Kokonas: Well, you had to be quick on basic mental agility. So, if you bought 450 contracts and it was a 20 Delta, you needed to be able to do, what’s 20 percent of 450? It’s 90. But you need to do that precisely with numbers that are not so round. You need to be willing to not be perfect, and you need to make that decision instantaneously, and realizing that it could cost you $50,000 to $100,000 if you get it right or wrong. You have to be really comfortable with that. What did we do? Well, we stood around and we turned people’s brains into mush. I literally had people punch me, cry, run out. It sounds awful, but it’s amazing training, because the rest of the world moves much slower. So, any other decisions that I’ve made in business since then have felt glacial in pace.

Tim Ferriss: There’s also something to be said for making the training in some or all respects harder than the competition, right? The adage of the more you sweat during peacetime, the less you bleed during wartime. The best competitors I’ve met in many fields often strive to make their training and the toil of their preparation harder than what they expect to face when they actually –

Nick Kokonas: It’s why we like watching big-time sports. When it matters, there are certain people that you know – you can almost look at them and go, “That poor person is going to fade.” Then you hope they don’t. You hope all that training pays off. I love golf for all the same reasons. It’s just a series of constant failures. Then when you look at someone who can pull that rabbit out of the hat at exactly the right moment, it’s pretty wonderful to see. The thing I loved about my time down there, even though I burned out of it after 10 years, is that there were moments where I did – I have friends who will listen to this and they’ll be like, “Oh, yeah, I remember that time in the SOP pit! You really got this right.” But I made some completely stupid decisions. But mostly on the measure, when things go crazy, I was able to perform more than that.

I remember Greenspan’s “Irrational Exuberance” speech was like a formative moment where I went, “Wow, I can not only hang in this environment, I can thrive in it.” You get home soaking wet with sweat. It was a physical job. It was really blue-collar in a lot of ways. I got home that day and I was like, “That was what I prepped my last six years for.” It was very satisfying. It sounds like an awful – it is an awful thing in a way. It’s just about pure commerce. It serves a purpose of price discovery and all that, but any individual person isn’t really the one doing that. I think that there are negatives to the whole system as well, in hindsight. But man, at the time, it just felt like great mental training.

Tim Ferriss: What would you recommend to people who are listening and are having this flashback to the introductory text exchange about beating the market over a long period of time, who are hoping to become better investors? You can take that anywhere you want. But are there any particular tools, books, mental models, anything that you’d recommend?

Nick Kokonas: It’s really hard. I think the mental model is asymmetric risk. Always look for something that the upside is 3-4x the downside. Obviously, quantifying those is very difficult, but that’s the key. Everything is try to do is asymmetric. Then, even though Nassim Taleb is a bit of a pedantic goofball on Twitter, his book Fooled by Randomness is awesome. That was the one that preceded Black Swan. I think Black Swan is great; it’s fine. But Fooled by Randomness is, I think, the better of all his books because man, it just encapsulates everything. People price things incorrectly.

Tim Ferriss: It’s a great book, yeah.

Nick Kokonas: All you have to do is walk through a casino and you see everybody pricing their outcomes incorrectly. The entire city is built on that. If you could get in your head –

Tim Ferriss: Literally.

Nick Kokonas: Yeah, literally. I don’t take any pleasure. People are like, “You must love gambling,” or whatever. It’s like, I would never sit down to a blackjack table because I know that there’s a 49.5 percent chance that I’m going to win, and that’s the wrong way.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Fooled by Randomness has come up a number of times. I haven’t read it in ages, because it is one of his earlier books. Howard Marks also brought this up recently when I was chatting with him. It is an exceptional book I think for developing a new lens on life, not just investing. When you are investing for yourself now, how do you think about risk? Because this is a word that has popped up a few times. How do you personally think about risk in your life? For instance, some startup founders look at the risk as the various early-stage startups, restaurants, bars, and so on, that you’re involved with, and then you play it safe in your other asset allocation? How do you think about risk in your life or in investing?

Nick Kokonas: Yeah, that’s a pretty difficult question.

Tim Ferriss: It is, yeah.

Nick Kokonas: I think that if you look at everything that I’ve done business-wise, everybody would say that the failure rate is super high in what we do. So trading, they used to say, “One of a hundred people that goes down there breaks even their first year. Out of that one, take another hundred of those ones and less than one in a hundred of those becomes a millionaire.” I went, “Great.” It’s like the old Jim Carrey. “So you’re saying there’s a chance?” Then you go to the restaurant business. People are like, “Oh, yeah, 95 percent of all restaurants go out of business in their first two years.” I’m going, like, “Great. That’s perfect.”

Tim Ferriss: Why do you have that response?

Nick Kokonas: Then I’m doing a software startup now, too.

Tim Ferriss: Go for it.

Nick Kokonas: So, the higher, the smaller the hoop, the more interesting it is to figure it out. And once you’re up there and you know how to jump up through that little hoop, there’s fewer people playing that game. The other thing is, I remember right when I was going to start building Alinea with Grant, I was talking to a restaurant owner. By all accounts, he was pretty successful. He had four to five restaurants. One of them I really liked a lot, and we’d go there a lot. I got to know him a little bit. He said, “So what are you up to?” I said, “Actually, I’m building a restaurant now.” He looked at me and he said, “It’s a terrible business. You don’t want to do it. Incredible failure rate; terrible.” I was like, “Why did you build the next four?”

Tim Ferriss: How did he respond to that?

Nick Kokonas: You know, no one does. We’ll get to it, I’m sure, but that’s the way I was with the publishing thing. It’s like, “Hey man, people keep printing books, and yet I can’t figure out any of the information. And yet they’re going to give me $300,000 or $400,000 to write a book. Something is remiss here.” You know what I mean? I’ve never written a book before, but yet someone is going to write me a $400,000 check. There must be a lot of money on the other side of that bet. And so, consequently, I always try to look for the high, small hoops. Then I spend my time learning as much as I can, and then I jump through that hoop. It’s both more interesting, I think, and I also think getting back to the asymmetry of risk, those are the ones that yeah, you might have a – well, first of all, do you really have a 95 percent failure rate if you put in all that effort? I don’t think so.

Second of all, I think they priced it wrong, so to speak. Then second of all, man, that’s where the fun is. That gets you up in the morning and going to work.

Tim Ferriss: This is where, among many other places, averages can be very misleading. I always end up in public Q&As and things of this type hearing various numbers and stats thrown around, many of which I think have no basis on any data whatsoever. There is, “We only use 10 percent of our brains.” Not true. There is the “Nine out of 10 startups fail within the first year,” or whatever the stat is. The first question that occurs to me with a number like the latter, or I guess a ratio is, “Is it because the model is difficult?” Is it because startups are inherently that high risk, or are there other plausible explanations? Is it that nine out of 10 people who attempt to start a startup don’t do any of the necessary due diligence?

Nick Kokonas: I’ve been on a couple of graduate school, entrepreneurship contests and whatnot. One of the things that always happens there is what I call the time machine. Somebody comes up with a business plan that is like, “I’m going to build a time machine.” Now of course, it’s not really a time machine. But I have seen ones that defy the laws of physics, for example. Or new pipeline technology, but they have no idea. It’s just a pipe dream. They’ve done none of the engineering. So you look at that and you go, “You haven’t really done the homework yet, at all.” Then there’s a lot of people who come to me and they’ve spent six months doing their logo and the name of the company, but they don’t actually have a piece of software yet. “Oh, I’m just going to hire someone to build that for me.”

Or an app. I get so many apps pitched to me. They don’t know how to build an app, but they’ve got a logo and an idea. I was like, “That’s a good way to blow a half million dollars on a consultant.” You must get that 50 times worse than I do.

Tim Ferriss: What I tend to get, and this is part of the reason why I stopped all the startup stuff a couple years ago, is it got to the point where 90 percent of the pitches I received – which were unsolicited – would be along the lines of “Hi,” like not even a first name. Or it would be like, “Hi, Tim,” or, “Hey, Tim!” Even better. “I’m the CEO or co-founder of X. We are raising this at this valuation. We are oversubscribed, but we could squeeze you in for 25k if you’re really interested because we admire ABC. Here are the docs attached. Let us know if you’re interested in the next 60 minutes.” Which my default response to anything like that, where people are pressuring me for a fast decision, is “No.” I’ve lost very little money saying no to those things.

Coming back to the examples that you were giving and what we were talking about, bridging over to restaurants and food. So you’re being told how restaurants are an awful business; food is an awful business. I remember someone told me a long, long time ago, “If you want to lose money, go into magazines or restaurants.” At what point – and I have a little bit of the backstory, but not all the details – at what point do you decide to go into or get involved with restaurants, and why?

Nick Kokonas: I left trading in about 2002. 2001 was a tough year between 9/11, which my father had died in February of that year. I was burnt out after going really hard for so long. We’d built up a pretty good size company. I’d merged with a firm in New York. I needed a break, but didn’t know how to really take one at the time. So I left trading. I immediately panicked, because here was something I really, genuinely enjoyed. But I didn’t know what I wanted to do next. I started doing consulting for a small hedge fund. Then I just didn’t know what to do. I had an awesome wife and a young son, and things were good. But I was panicked. I was playing golf with ex-athletes, because who else is 34 years old and can play golf on a Wednesday afternoon? It was just a weird thing. I looked at them and they didn’t seem all that happy, even though they’ve got this lifestyle.

I met Grant Achatz, the chef, while dining at Trio. I went to a lunch there afternoon that some friends set up. It was a transformative experience. It was artistic. It was intellectual. It was thought-provoking. Most of all, it was emotional. Those are all things that I would never have associated with eating a dinner. From a perspective of great art experiences, like seeing a great movie or a great play, or going to an amazing museum opening, we kept getting drawn back there. We kept going back. We would go back so frequently that it was absurd. Because it was a big meal and it wasn’t cheap. Every time we’d go somewhere else, we’d go like, “Wow, why is no one else thinking this way?”

As I got to know Grant a little bit, I think sometimes people bring the chef some wine or beer or whatever. That’s kind of sand to the beach. I would bring him books. I didn’t figure he had a lot of time to read. I would put a Post-it note on a page of an old book. I remember I brought him this book called The Peregrinations of an Epicure.

Tim Ferriss: Hold on a second. The Peregrinations – like a Peregrine falcon? I don’t even know what that is.

Nick Kokonas: No, no, a peregrination is like a wondering about. So, it was written just after World War II by an ex-serviceman. He goes around Paris, I want to say maybe late ‘40s, early ‘50s. I can’t recall exactly. There is a chapter in there on La Pyramide, the best in the world at the time. He described a meal there in emotional terms that resonated with what Grant was doing, even though his technique, his cuisine, everything was completely different. I would literally highlight a couple lines in there and give him this book, which was out of print at the time. We developed this email relationship back and forth, where he would try out some new food on us, and I would give direct, honest feedback. But not, “Oh, it was delicious!” It was more like, “You’re going for a provocation there.” We would go back and forth.

He wrote at the time on a forum called eGullet. I went on there and his spelling and grammar notwithstanding, it was like reading someone who’s really thinking hard about what they’re doing. Everything we just talked about, here was this young, 28-year-old chef from Michigan who looked like Captain America. He was like Hollywood in the sense that he was good-looking and very driven, very clean-cut. But he didn’t look like the stereotype, central casting of a chef, chubby gregarious guy. He was really quiet and introspective, shy. But then you read these, which are still up. You can still Google it. He’d go on for like four pages about bread service. Like, “What’s the point of bread?” This is a guy that I could wrap my head around.

I remember on January 20, 2004, my wife’s birthday. She said, “Yeah, I want to go back there.” We’d never been in the kitchen before. They have a table in there, but we’d never eaten in there. I remember I emailed him and said, “She’s ethnically Latvian, speaks Japanese, and loves Thai food. Good fucking luck.” I knew exactly what that would do to him. That would put him into 10 days of pure hell, because he would research Latvian food. He would redo a whole menu. 20 courses, right? I didn’t know they were going to put us in the kitchen. They put us in the kitchen. It sounds like a jerky thing to do now, but we did have a relationship a little bit at the time.

He served us the most amazing meal of my life. It started out with Latvian sorrel soup with braised ham hocks. It had flavors of the sea, which was a Japanese dish. It had Thai dishes, but it was all in his style. So, it was his own, and yet it had elements of all these things. At the end of that meal, he said to me, “What do you think?” I had watched the kitchen. It was like a watchmaker’s shop. It was not screaming and yelling.

Tim Ferriss: Sorry to interrupt. It is so unlike anything that the vast majority of people listening to this would possibly expect, right?

Nick Kokonas: It’s not Gordon Ramsay.

Tim Ferriss: It is complete silence. It is like a watchmaking factory. It is really something else. Anyway, sorry to jump in.

Nick Kokonas: No, no, that’s totally fine. At the end, I said, “I doubt anybody anywhere in the world had a better meal tonight.” He was like, “Well, thank you.” I was like, “What do you plan on doing with yourself?” I’d had a lot of wine. I looked at him; he sat down with us. I said, “What are you going to do?” He’s like, “What do you mean?” I said, “Well, you’re not going to be here forever.” He said, “Well, I want to build my own restaurant.” I said, “I’d be happy to help you do that.” He said, “Well, what kind of restaurant do you want to build?” I said, “I don’t know, I’ve never built a restaurant before.” That was it. Then like a week later, I got an email with his business plan. I invited him by my house. And a year to the day later of that, that was May 4th. We went back and forth on email. On May 4th, we held a dinner at my house for potential investors. On May 4, 2005, we opened Alinea.

Tim Ferriss: That is nuts. In terms of –

Nick Kokonas: Completely nuts. We didn’t even know each other.

Tim Ferriss: I mean, can you put that in perspective for people? I actually did not realize that was the timeframe.

Nick Kokonas: Yeah.

Tim Ferriss: Can you, just in the context of normal restaurant world?

Nick Kokonas: We argued. We didn’t really know each other very well, but he would come by my house and he didn’t –

Tim Ferriss: Let me interject for a second, because you’ve said “We didn’t know each other very well.” What did you know about each other, nonetheless, that gave you guys the push, the impulse, and the sufficient level of trust/excitement to actually pursue it? There had to be something there. It couldn’t just be nothing. So what was it? You didn’t know each other well. I mean, maybe you didn’t know the full scope of each other’s backgrounds.

Nick Kokonas: I actually studied that. That I actually knew. I knew the facts. I knew what he was putting in front of me. But I didn’t know him the way you’d know someone that you were going to become a business partner with. I think he just thought I was rich. I’m being serious. Like I think everyone else wanted – this is really true because he has said this to me. Everyone else wanted to offer him a restaurant that they had already built or wanted to build. I actually answered that question correctly. The “I don’t know” is an awesome thing to say 90 percent of the time of your life. When he said, “What kind of restaurant do you want to build,” I could have waxed on about some dream I had or just made some bullshit up at the time, but I just said, “I have no idea. That’s a big question. We need to sort that out.”

I think that was the right answer for him. I think that’s all he needed to know was, “Okay, the guy’s got an open mind. He seems to have done well in business. He knows apparently how to build something.” What was really funny was the stuff that I was concerned about, which was like architecture, design, plumbing, building, lease, all of that, he was like, the word “oblivious” is not too strong a word.  This is not a criticism of him either, right? It’s just like he came to my house and was like, “Yeah, I want Martin to design everything.” Martin Kastner, who is a genius designer, has Crucial Detail, which we’ve been involved with for 15 years now. He’s a designer. He’s an artisan. He built plateware and he won the Bocuse d’Or for the platter he designed from Thomas Keller and Daniel Boulud’s team for Team USA and all that. But back then, this guy’s not going to design plumbing or electrical.

I would just look at this guy and go, “No, he can’t. We need an architect and you need to get city stamps and all that.” I think Grant was just like, “Yeah, you find a place, you put tables in it, you build a kitchen, and you go.” In terms of – obviously he knew there were health inspectors and all that. But the process of all this just about – either we’re not going to build it ever eight weeks in because we would’ve hated each other, or we were the kind of people that figured everything out. We just talked it out. Right down to what kind of tables. What kind of glassware. What kind of this. We wanted to rethink the why again of everything. “Why do you put a candle on a table? Why is a candle romantic?” That’s a question we asked. “Why do we need candles? Why is that romantic? Why do people put a little bud vase on the table? Why shouldn’t that be an edible thing? That’d be cool.”

So, we did all of that. We designed the experience to create emotional responses from the moment that you walked in the front door. We didn’t have the podium. We went, “What does a good greeting feel like?” Not just “If you’re at someone’s house, what does that feel like? If you’re at a restaurant, what shouldn’t it feel like?” Well, it shouldn’t feel like a computer in front of your face saying, “What’s your name?” and all of that. We went through every aspect of that. I lost almost 20 pounds that year. Not in a healthy way. Just GCing the construction. I laid tile in the basement like three days before we opened.

Tim Ferriss: Let me pause for one second. So the why question that comes to mind for me is, after the finance, after battling it out on the front lines and going through 2001, why this as your next thing? Why is this the thing that captured your imagination? You had to know on some level, once you started getting into the details, like, “Fuck, this is going to be” –

Nick Kokonas: It’s all in, yeah.

Tim Ferriss: “This is going to be all my chips, energetically.” So why this?

Nick Kokonas: You know, there are occasional times when you wake up in the morning and that thought comes back to you. That like, “Hey, I’m really sucked into this.” For about three or four months, without telling anybody, even Dagmara, not telling her, telling no one, I kept going, “I should build a restaurant with this guy. Like, it would be the best restaurant in the world if it was done all the way.” I recognized my inner voice saying, “That’s a really dumb idea. You don’t know what you’re doing.” I’d never worked a day in my life in a restaurant. I also recognized, and this is also critical, I recognized that so many people built their living room after they made some money. They went, “Oh, I know how to host a good dinner party. I know good wine, so I’m going to build me a restaurant.” Then they sit there like it’s their living room. That’s not good.

I didn’t want to be that deucy guy that built a restaurant because my ego needed to host a party. Whenever I would later on broach that subject and people would say, “well…” and I could almost hear their brain whispering, “Well, of course that’s what he’s going to do.” That was, again, not the best of motivations in the world, perhaps, but the honest one. That was hugely motivating eventually. When we first started, it was this nagging thing like I’d wake up in the morning and I’d go, “You know, I’m not really into what I’m doing right now. I’ve just met somebody who’s the best in the world at what they do, and no one knows it yet.” That’s probably happened to me – I’m really fortunate, but that’s probably happened to me seven or eight times in my life.

When it happens and I meet that person, whoever it might be, no matter what they’re doing, I pause. I kind of acknowledge that directly. Then I just go like, “Can we grab a glass of wine or coffee or something?” That’s something worth marking and going, “Wow, this person’s really invested in something.” Grant had every aspect of being that at 28 years old. In hindsight, it looks smart, but I’ve got to tell you, it was years before it felt smart.

Tim Ferriss: You mentioned just now that you’ve met these people seven or eight times who are the best in the world or potentially the best in the world.

Nick Kokonas: Well, among them, yeah.

Tim Ferriss: Among them. But the key point that jumps out for me is: “…and the world didn’t know it yet.” So my question for you is, that sort of brings to the forefront in my mind at least, the question of, “What is Nick seeing or feeling that other people are not?” Could you talk to that? Is there a feeling or a particular type of observation, a particular type of detail that you notice in these people that allows you to scout the talent where other people might miss it or not pay enough attention to it?

Nick Kokonas: I think you’ve written a couple books about that. It’s definitely intangible. I think it’s different in every case. It’s interesting because you can tell when someone is fully committed, I guess, to their craft, or their art, or their business, or whatever it is that they’re doing, their sport. It’s not be they talk about it all the time, although if you push a little, they’re happy to do so. But it’s more like if you look around, the vast majority of people are not fully committed to whatever, you know? I think part of what you do is you try to steer people to find those things that they can commit to. Or you can try to lower a barrier to show them the commitment is not as hard as you think in this particular area, right?

Tim Ferriss: Right.

Nick Kokonas: But these folks are all in. They’re 99 percent in. That’s what they do. Often to the detriment, frankly, of other aspects of their lives. I guess you get better at noticing them. Now I live for that. I love meeting people that even if it’s not something I’m interested in, that are all in. That’s an interesting – really, I’ve never really thought about it that way. It was just very clear to me that Grant was all in. Here’s the thing. If he wasn’t going to do it with me, he was still going to do it. I was a helper. Over time, I certainly contributed a great deal to it. He contributed a great deal to the business, and I also contributed to the art, but that took time. But I could tell that he was all in. That was fun. It’s fun to work with somebody who is basically like, “Okay, man, if you’re not in, get out of the way, because I’m still going.”

Tim Ferriss: For anyone who has the opportunity, I don’t even know if they would have the opportunity, but to watch, observe Grant for even 60 seconds.

Nick Kokonas: Well, Chef’s Table on Netflix is great.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, Chef’s Table. Great, perfect. Everybody should have the experience of observing Grant working and focusing. I’ve met a lot of people who are good at focusing who have abnormal focusing abilities. Spending the time that we did together in Chicago, and the time that I had to observe Grant, it is a next level of focus. It’s really hard to encapsulate in words. So, Chef’s Table, fantastic. People should check it out, and just watch the level of focus that permeates the appearance, the air, the atmosphere. It’s really something else. To that point, focus. One of my favorite aspects of speaking with you and having conversations is the questions that you raised. Candles. Not just, “Should we have candles?” That’s maybe a good question, but it’s probably not the right first question. Why do restaurants use candles in the first place? Furthermore, why are candles considered romantic? Stepping back.

Nick Kokonas: Basic stuff, yeah.

Tim Ferriss: What are other questions that you asked related to Alinea? Or you could certainly bridge to other, I think it makes sense to chat about Aviary as well. But what are some other questions that you guys asked that people might not think to ask?

Nick Kokonas: Grant set the tone for that in our first meeting, not really knowing me. We started talking. We didn’t even know where to start, right? He said, “Well, I know one thing. I want to have wooden tables. I want to have bare wood tables.” I said, “Why?” He said, “Well why do fancy restaurants have white tablecloths? They literally call it a white tablecloth restaurant if it’s fancy. Why?” I couldn’t really – I came up with dumb answers. “It feels good. It absorbs a spill,” or whatever it may be. He said, “No, it’s because the table underneath is a piece of shit.” He goes, “And you know that. As soon as you say it, everyone goes, ‘Oh, yeah, I knew that.’ You’ve been at weddings and stuff where you feel under the table and you’re like, ‘Oh, it’s plywood.’ But if you go to a really fancy restaurant and you feel under the table, guess what? Also plywood, just a little thicker.”

He’s like, “When you rest your arms on the table, even if it doesn’t come forefront in your mind, you subconsciously know that they’re fooling you.” He’s like, “Why can’t we have black, beautiful tables? It’ll show the food great. It’ll show the plateware great.” Then I went like, “Well, yeah, but the health department in Chicago doesn’t let you put silverware right on the table.” If you put a glass there, the condensation will form a little ring, and then you have a wear issue. But you’ll save $70,000 a year in laundering linens. We started going, “Well how do we solve the water problem? Well, you create a fridge that’s just above the dew point, 44 degrees in the winter, maybe a little warmer in the summer because it’s higher humidity in Chicago, and you just get rid of ice.”

You have these cascading decisions that become part of the art of the place. Some of them start from a really practical thing like, “Hey, we want to have a quality table.” Then all of a sudden you need a little pillow that the silverware goes on that Martin designed, because we didn’t want to have placemats; that’s too cheap. All of a sudden, we had to design a silverware holder. It just became this cascade of interesting little art projects that were there for good reasons, and really created a unique atmosphere. It was one of those things like we never tested until the day we opened. You couldn’t test those things. The very first guy through the door is now a famous chef, Chef Sean Brock of Husk.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, he’s fantastic.

Nick Kokonas: He was not yet a chef then, 2005. He was the first guy through the door. He wrote this giant blog post on eGullet with pictures and everything. You can go see it. Every single thing that we hoped would create an emotional trigger, an emotional reaction, it’s almost all there. I remember going home and seeing that the next day and going, “Wow. That shit actually worked!” Right down to the front hallway that was a reverse perspective, stolen from Chartres Cathedral and inverted. All of my interest in architecture, and art, and science, and all of Grant’s food, and all that, all came together in a year-long conversation on how to do something.

We really fought with the architect and designers and all that because people would tell us the practical reasons why you needed to do this or that. We would just go no, no host stand. We wanted to greet people in an open way. Just little things like that. Then we’ve taken that on through everything that we’ve done, where we took six or seven years to build our next place because we didn’t have that idea that kept us up at night again. When we did, then we did it. I think editing yourself and each other in an open way is really painful, but really important.

Tim Ferriss: Coming back to something you mentioned related to the living room. The well-off, who then creates say an art project that is not – it may be beautiful, but is most often not a viable business. How did you apply those questions, and rethink the business model to make any of this work financially?

Nick Kokonas: You don’t want to be a dilettante, right? And so, my biggest fear is that it would work in an artistic way, but wouldn’t work as a business. So, the answer is, at the beginning, I didn’t do much. I handled all of our marketing and PR. I wrote everything myself. I really thought about open-sourcing the building of the restaurant. You can still go online and see the original business plans and logos we were considering using, and the test kitchen, which was in my house. We didn’t tell anyone at the time, but that was my house at the time. And see the development of this restaurant.

I felt like the open-source movement in that way was a good model for what we were trying to accomplish. Part of that was people would say a restaurant like this can’t make money. I wrote this little spreadsheet that I called the Universal Restaurant Calculator.

Tim Ferriss: Can people find that online?

Nick Kokonas: No, no, no. It would be very unimpressive if they could. But it was basically how many covers per night – this is back-of-the-envelope stuff – how many covers per night can you do? What’s the check average for food? Check average for beverage? What are your food costs, beverage costs, labor costs? What does insurance cost? Your lease, your rent? All those things. I had enough experience with most of those things to at least give good estimates to it. So what I started doing is I started modeling other restaurants using the Universal Restaurant Calculator. I had, again, this goes to the transparency of data. I had real data for only two restaurants. From those two, I would then make assumptions about restaurants like The French Laundry, where Grant used to work, one of the greatest restaurants in the history of America, certainly.

I came up with a number that Grant went, “There’s no way their revenue is that high or they make that much money. That’s impossible.” It’s really funny because years later, I now work with Chef Keller, and he’s a friend all these years later. I literally pulled that out with Grant one day being there and went like, “How close am I back on this in 2005?” He’s like, “Oh, you were within 2 or 3 percent. Grant was just like – we’re talking about back-of-the-envelope stuff. So you asked where can people start to start a business? Start on the back of an envelope. One of my favorite exercises is to sit in a restaurant or a small business of some sort and just literally do the back of the envelope.

It was the kind of the calculation my dad called the two-shoebox method; put me through college. Money coming in one shoebox, money going out in the other. Whatever’s left is profit. Start that basic. We did that. I didn’t really think about the – we did well, but we didn’t make a ton of money. Alinea cost $2.2 million to build. I put up a little over a quarter of that myself and found investors for the rest, all of whom I knew. In the first year, we made about $450,000 to $500,000 on $4 or $5 million in sales. Not a great return. Not a terrible return. We then won Best Restaurant in America from Gourmet magazine. I was horrified that we won that, frankly.

I remember Grant called me and said, “I just got a call from Ruth Reichl.” We had some stated goals of how we would know if this was a success. One of the things we wrote down was, “Ruth Reichl declares it the best restaurant in America.” We wrote that because in 1997, she wrote, “The most exciting place to eat in America is The French Laundry.” Grant was there and cooked that meal and said that the energy of having someone he respected so much — because Ruth is just a great writer; she is one of the unimpeachable food critics in the history of America — having her write that in The New York Times propelled that restaurant to its permanent status. I think that can’t happen nowadays, honestly, for other reasons. This was pre-internet, pre-Yelp, all that.

Then all of a sudden, we got that and I was horrified, because one of our goals was completed so early. We wouldn’t have our lodestar. He was like, “Dear God, can you let me enjoy it for like a minute?”

Tim Ferriss: To you?

Nick Kokonas: Yeah, yeah. He was mad at me. I was like, “That’s terrible!” I was happy. But I was also like, “Oh, no, now what do we do? We need to find another artificial construct here to go after.”

Tim Ferriss: Enough of this. I need to find happiness. Get this other happiness out of my face.

Nick Kokonas: Yeah, for sure. Yeah, no. I really do believe that it’s often the process is so rewarding that when you get something done, it can be a letdown. I wanted that process to go. Then, unfortunately, six months later, Grant was diagnosed with stage IV cancer and given six months to live. So weirdly, that was the moment that after he was going through treatment, where I started going into the restaurant at night. Because, remember, I’m not a service professional. I was running the business of the restaurant. I would start going in at night and start asking really dumb questions again. Weirdly, our goal was to keep Alinea open for when he came back. Mind you, he only missed 12 days, 14 days of service during really intense chemo and radiation. But he was given six months to live.

When people are in that situation and their livelihood is tied to this restaurant, even despite their loyalties, oftentimes they just need to find another job. Because they’re like, hey, in four months, this place is going to be closed. And in the midst of that, we decided to do our first book, really to chronicle what he had accomplished. Because for him, he felt like that would be his legacy. He thought he was going to die. He was told he was going to die. In the midst of creating a self-created, self-published book, and trying to do that differently, and then keeping a dwindling staff motivated, trying to let him know that it would still be there when he got well, all of that, I started going, “This place is run in strange ways, man. This industry is not run right.”

I started asking basic questions. Like, “If we have a wait list for 100 people on a Wednesday, why do we do 74 people on a Wednesday, but 86 on a Saturday?” And the answer was because our incentives were misaligned. The service industry as a whole can’t run at 100% every single day of the week, unless they’re incentivized to do so. You could go like, “Well, yeah, every server there will make an extra $100 a night or whatever.” But they’re going, “Look, if every night was Saturday, I’d be dead. It’s really hard work. You need to figure out ways of load-balancing that and making every day the same. You end up way ahead.” So from a business perspective, that’s when my sort of self-education in this industry came forward. It came forward in a way that I think I was less patient with everything because we were also going through this really difficult, emotional time.

Consequently, when I didn’t get answers that made any sense, instead of being diplomatic about it, I would just be like, “Well, that’s stupid.” Which cut some of the normal social filter off, and I’m sure it wasn’t a pleasant time to be around anybody. But I also think it was accepted within that environment at that time, because everyone knew what we were going through. And so, years later, when we finally were like, “Hey, we’ve got some ideas to build Next and the Aviary,” that’s when I went, “Well, we’re going to do things totally differently here. Anyone who’s not on board, even though they work for us, if you’re not on board all the way in on getting rid of normal reservations and not using telephones and doing all these things, we don’t have a place for you here.” Man, it really worked.

That was the basis of – I talked to every software company in the industry asking for their APIs, asking to build essentially what’s options pricing software on top of reservations systems. OpenTable told me no. The POS systems told me no. I called theaters and went, what ticketing system do you use? All of those told me no. I hired a single programmer, and he and I in six weeks built a really rudimentary booking system. But the first day we turned it on, we sold $562,000 of tickets to our restaurant for the first time ever.

Tim Ferriss: Okay, so pause here for a second.

Nick Kokonas: I know, we’re way ahead.

Tim Ferriss: No, no. This is great. A few things for folks who are not familiar. API – application programming interface – it’s how you can effectively link into someone else’s software. POS – point of sale, not piece of shit.

Nick Kokonas: Ah, but it is a piece of shit.

Tim Ferriss: It may also be a piece of shit. What were the design specs that you were looking for? In other words, before you get to the $500,000+ with a snap of the fingers, what were you trying to fix or what were you trying to create?

Nick Kokonas: I get a lot of grief for saying this in the industry and in the press. But basically, whenever you make a restaurant reservation, one of the two of you talking is lying to each other. If you think about it, no other form, no other industry form of entertainment, which dining out is a form of entertainment. I know it’s sustenance. I know there’s so much culture embedded in it and all that, but you could eat at home. No other form of entertainment you just call them up and say, “Hey, hold a seat to the Bears game or the Cubs game, or the opera, and I’ll show up around 7:30.” Then they tell you, “Yeah, yeah, we’ll have a seat ready for you at 7:30.” Then when you get there, they go, “Oh, you know what? Go wait over there for 30 or 40 minutes, because we’re running a little behind tonight.”

The reason that they’re running behind is because they overbooked because about 15 to 18 percent of people don’t show up. So, they overbook. They also know that if they tell you that they’ll really seat you at 9:00 and you wanted an 8:15, you’ll just go to the restaurant down the street from them that will lie to them, right?

Tim Ferriss: Right.

Nick Kokonas: So they do that and ultimately it’s just bad all around. It’s bad for the restaurant. It’s wasteful for food. And it’s bad hospitality. There are so many pop culture references and entire sitcom episodes built around someone trying to get into a restaurant. It’s absurd. It’s completely absurd. I looked at our no-show rate at Alinea, data-driven, tracked it. I looked at what we call short-seated tables, like the number of tables that were four people, but only two showed up. The dirty secret there is like, people will go like, “Well, what do you have available?” “Well, I have an 8:30 for four.” “Okay, we’ll take that.” They never intended to bring the other two people. That’s just as bad as a two-top no showing. We only have 74 seats in there, so it’s a yield management problem.

So, 5 to 8 percent of our revenue every night was being lost to that transaction. That was a non-transaction. So I wanted to figure out ways to do two things. One, I wanted to figure out a way to make it transactional. Because, again, you asked about Professor Thaler. One of the key tenets is, there’s a little bit of skin in the game, right? When people have a small vested interest in the outcome of something, or even if I gave you a pencil as a gift, and then 30 minutes later I want to take it back, you will get so mad, even though you didn’t care about that pencil. You’re like, “What was that? Dude gave me a gift, and now he’s pulling it back,” you know?

Tim Ferriss: It’s like the expected value of a mug. If you asked them how much they would spend to buy the mug versus giving them the mug and saying, “How much will you accept to sell it?” The differential.

Nick Kokonas: Yeah, it’s huge. So, that came to me one day because my kids wanted to go see a movie at night that I did not want to go see. I would’ve easily paid $50 to not go to this movie. Then my wife basically says, “Hey, let’s go to that movie. I go on Fandango. I buy four tickets. $60, whatever it was. At 5:30 at night, pouring rain, and everyone’s napping. They’re like, “Yeah, I don’t want to go.” I’m like, “Get your asses in the car, we’re going to the movie, man!” Now I would have easily paid that $60 to not go to the movie, but once I had the sunk cost of paying for the movie, my psychology totally flipped. I was like, “We’re going to this movie that I don’t want to go to.” I literally irrationally made everyone go to the movie. Which weirdly cost, from an emotional family standpoint, all bad all the way around, right?

So I thought about it and I was like, “Wow, what if people put down a small deposit on times when demand exceeds supply? So like a Saturday night, 8:00, that’s the best seats at the opera house. Let’s see if people will pre-pay for that or put down $20 for it. That’s fully credited at the end of their meal. It’s not a cover charge. I’m not trying to squeeze people on the actual cost of the meal. I’m just trying to go like, “Yeah, let’s see if people will make a commitment.” Everybody told me, “No, no one’s going to do that. This is not the way it works.” But if you look back historically, this is the interesting part. Again, it’s about digging in deep on something.

If you look back historically, restaurant reservations started with the telephone. At the time that we were starting to do this, the telephone was dying. I didn’t know that at the time. That was eight years ago. But I have a computer in my pocket. If you ring me and I don’t know your number, I don’t want to talk to you. I don’t answer it. I’d much rather receive a little piece of text letting me know what’s going on than a phone call. Similarly, like calling a restaurant is an antiquated thing to do at this point. But long before the telephone, people got room and board. What room and board was literally, you go to an inn and you get a room for the night. Then, do you need food? Okay, well, you get a board of food. That was literally it. And you’d prepay for it. There were hundreds of years of that long before there was a telephone and people called and said, “I’d like to eat at your restaurant.” “Sure, we’ll let you in.”

As the technology for the telephone has morphed into what we all have in our pockets now, I just wanted to update that whole transaction. I also wanted to acknowledge that Tuesday nights should be cheaper than a Saturday night. It has to work both ways. I always thought Uber could fix their surge pricing issues by having discounted pricing when there was no demand. Just move pricing intelligently without directions. If you move pricing in two directions, that whole argument goes away. So, we did that. We priced out different prices by day of the week and times of day. So 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday at Alinea is still cheaper than 8:00 p.m. on a Saturday. By a lot. By $80 to $100 a person. You know what happens?

We have hundreds of restaurants doing this on our software called Tock. What happens is people buy the most expensive seats first, and the cheapest seats first. Which is exactly what you’d expect, actually. Because some people are price conscious and go like, “Wow, this is a really expensive meal, but holy cow, I don’t really care if I eat at 5:00 on Tuesday. Great. I can save $400.” Then there’s some people that go, “I only eat at 8:00 p.m. on Saturday.” Okay, that’s fine. Pay a little more.

Tim Ferriss: Or they’re attracted to the fact that it is the most expensive.

Nick Kokonas: Sure. That happens too. Then there’s a whole bunch of tools that over time can be built on top of that to sell wine pairings or sell books. We sell 20 Alinea books a day on checkout with the booking process. That’s a ton. Because we’re not going to exit through the gift shop at Alinea. It’s a Michelin three-star restaurant. So we would subtly have one book near the restrooms that people could peruse, but it didn’t say, “Buy the book” or anything like that. So typically, we’d sell one or two per night. Now on checkout, when you book Alinea, it says, “Would you like to buy an Alinea book, personalized?” 20 people a night get it. That’s $400,000 in revenue a year. It’s crazy, right?

Tim Ferriss: That’s incredible.

Nick Kokonas: It’s amazing to me that no one did that beforehand. Because ultimately, people can’t buy what they don’t see. People don’t want to be upsold inside of a restaurant. There’s nothing worse in my mind – some places, today’s special is today’s special and it’s real and you know that. But sometimes, it’s just the old fish.

Tim Ferriss: Right. Sunday night.

Nick Kokonas: Yeah, right. We all know these things. I think no restaurant wants to raise their hand and go, “Yup, that’s all true. We were lying to our customers, and we are not really going to seat you at 8:15.” I think when I said that, you can look back through some articles. I remember that there was an article, I think it was in GQ, that they interviewed a grizzled veteran – he didn’t use his name – he said, “An overbook and a bar to wait in has always worked for me.” I was just like, “How does that not sound like terrible hospitality to everyone reading that?”

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, for sure. There are so many systems that have similar overbooking, load-balancing issues, right? You look at airlines, you look at hospitality.

Nick Kokonas: My dentist.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah.

Nick Kokonas: I have a great dentist. They only do it via phone call or email. So I have to play a guessing game. It’s like going into a clothing store and going, “Yeah, I’m looking for a blue, V-neck, cashmere sweater.” They’re like, “No, don’t have one; guess again.” It’s like, “Put the shit on display, man. Just tell me what day you can clean my teeth. Show me and I’ll just go online and hit the button.”

Tim Ferriss: When you then debuted the ticketing option, if I’m labeling it properly, how did you prime the pump for that? Did you need to prime the pump to have what certainly seems like a windfall?

Nick Kokonas: We did a video where Next restaurant was about a restaurant that’s always new, essentially. What’s one of the big problems of the restaurant industry? Well, when you open a new restaurant, it doesn’t matter what it is, people are going to show up for like five or six months. Then after that, you’ve got to struggle to get regulars and find new audiences and all that. But people like the “new,” right? The other problem is that our own staff and chefs were the kind of people who I said to Grant one time, he cooked this amazing French dish at Alinea for me right in the middle of his sickness, because I had driven down from Michigan. I have never eaten before or after in the Alinea kitchen, but he whipped up this little French dish for me of duck. I was like, “Man, let’s open a French restaurant some day.” He went, “Eh, we’ll get bored after six months.”

Then I was at one of our chef’s homes on a day off on a Tuesday. He loves Thai food. He made this amazing Thai meal. Amazing. I was like, “Wow, I had no idea these guys were so versatile.” Then it made sense. Hey, these are passionate, amazingly talented people. It dawned on me, “Let’s just change the restaurant every four months.” Then we dwelled on that for like a year, thinking it was impossible to do. Then Grant said – I said, “Let’s start with a French menu.” He’s like, “Well, what does that mean? There’s southern France, there’s Loire Valley. There’s France that’s nouvelle cuisine. Then there’s France from 100 years ago. Totally different.” I was like, “Yeah, Paris 1906. I don’t need to explain to you what that is. You’d want to eat that.”

If someone said, “New restaurant opening, what’s the menu? It’s Paris 1906.” I’d go like, “Cool, I want to do a little time travel and see what that was like.” So, as soon as we had a city and a time, we instantly knew. That was the idea that kept us up at night. Where we went like, “Wow, look at all these different places we can travel, and what does that restaurant look like and how do you create a kitchen versatile enough to make all these different cuisines? How do you make it not feel like Disneyland, where one time you have a theme of Paris, and the next time you have a theme of Japan?” So you have to do with an austere minimalism.

Tim Ferriss: Is there a reason why you chose the year 1906?

Nick Kokonas: I’m doing some research, and I may get the exact date wrong, because this is eight years ago that I did the research, but I believe the Seine flooded in 1908. Somewhere around there. And so Escoffier, the father of French cuisine, was at the Ritz then. That was the height of that era of cuisine. Then after the Seine flooded, that’s where you got your brasseries and bistros, because they had to go to a more casual; it opened up for more people. It took the price point down. It made it more approachable. And it wiped out dozens of these fancy restaurants. Rent got cheap and all of a sudden, “Hey, we’re going to get this new style of restaurant.” That’s roughly, as I recall it. Somebody’s going to listen to this and tell me I’m all wrong. That’s where we landed, because we do this Escoffier menu. Boy, we argued about that too. They didn’t have blenders then, electric blenders.

Tim Ferriss: So, you wanted to mimic the production?

Nick Kokonas: I did. Grant did not. I remember we had invited the press to a practice dinner.

Tim Ferriss: Grant’s like, “Hey, pal. You don’t have to make the food.”

Nick Kokonas: Well, partly that. But partly he was like, “Should we make it intentionally worse than we can?” Because the recipes were really vague. They didn’t even call for salt. So in the middle of this press dinner where we had The New York Times there, we had all sorts of these people there, which I’ll never do again. That was a genuine error. We were still arguing out conceptually what this thing would be. Then we serve dinner, and we were openly – he’d come out of the kitchen and we’d openly argue about it.

Tim Ferriss: This is at the press dinner?

Nick Kokonas: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I remember he brought the soup out and I was like, “Oh, they must have used the actual blenders, right?” Modern blenders. Because the mouthfeel was perfect. I was like, “Oh, you used the blenders?” He was like, “The recipe didn’t call for salt either, did it? Should I have not used that and had it taste like shit?” Then I was like, “Well, maybe you don’t know that they didn’t have refrigeration then either and they packed the vegetables in salt as a desiccant, so they were almost all pre-salted by the time they got to Paris.” And that was it. People were just like, “These guys don’t like each other at all.” That was our method. That’s what we did. To the day we opened, we had those arguments. Then in terms of the software, man, I didn’t sleep for a week. We set it up on Rackspace. It didn’t work right. I had never done anything like that before. It was like, no one would help. I think nobody would help.

Tim Ferriss: When you say nobody would help, you mean competitors, potential –

Nick Kokonas: Potential allies, potential, these are people at software companies.

Tim Ferriss: I got it. Why wouldn’t they help?

Nick Kokonas: In the case of OpenTable, they had a monopoly. So, why –

Tim Ferriss: That makes sense to me.

Nick Kokonas: In terms of everyone else, I think they just didn’t get it. But even people within my own company thought this was a fool’s errand. Grant, for sure, he will fully admit this now, thought it was a terrible idea.

Tim Ferriss: Why did he think it was a terrible idea?

Nick Kokonas: Because it’s not hospitable. It’s not hospitality.

Tim Ferriss: It’s low touch, not high touch?

Nick Kokonas: Correct. And hugely the case where all of a sudden the price is different every day. Are people going to get that? I just kept looking to other industries. No one has a problem with it when they go to a baseball game. They’re not sitting above the dugout and then the guy who’s in the third deck back row looks down and goes, “Oh, that guy, he totally stole that ticket from me.” They’re two different price points. I think people inherently get that without having to explain it to them.

Tim Ferriss: If I might, how far in advance of the opening were you hoping to launch the software, and when did you end up launching the software?

Nick Kokonas: I launched it about seven hours before the first dinner.

Tim Ferriss: Holy shit.

Nick Kokonas: I had hoped to have done it four to five weeks ahead of that. It was literally a one-man operation plus me; one programmer and me. When we launched it, Rackspace, this is 2010, I’m not saying anything bad about Rackspace. I probably set it up wrong. 2010. It did not, it’s supposed to auto load correct, and self-propagate. Neither happened. We had 17,000 people on our email list that had signed up on the website to be notified when the bookings went on sale. I was expecting maybe 700 to show up — should be fine. Something like 8,000 or 9,000 showed up. Everyone just kept hitting the refresh key. Here’s another fatal error of stupidity. This is not the way our software is built now because we have professionals here. But basically, my admin login was on the very same server as everybody’s public access. So I couldn’t even go in to configure.

The good news on this is that I couldn’t answer hundreds of angry emails all at once. So I created a Facebook group for the business, which in 2010 not very many people did. If you go back and scroll all the way down to the beginning of that, you’ll see me going, “Hey, if everybody could please stop refreshing, I can sort this out.” What was really cool is that people felt part of something. They felt like “Wow, holy shit, this guy is actually doing this himself. We’re part of this experiment and we’re on the inside of it.” I got a lot of empathy from the customers, even though they were the ones that were unable to get what they wanted. Then when it finally started working, I had literally not showered in five days. I had pizza boxes laying around. It looked like a bad movie startup thing. I had a beard. I was just strung out, manic.

I remember I called Grant. It was opening day. He said, “How many should I prep for?” I said, “Prep for full. Because if not, we’ll turn on the phones.” What I didn’t tell him was that I didn’t order the phones because I didn’t want to have a failsafe.

Tim Ferriss: You’d burned the ships.

Nick Kokonas: I just wanted to make sure I forced myself to work. We had no phone line. When it started working, I would double-click, one of the functions was double-click on a table. If it was yellow, it was held; the public couldn’t see it. I could make it available by double-clicking it and it would turn green. Then when it was sold, it would turn red. But the first time I did that to let more inventory out, and clearly things were working, it turned red so fast, I thought it was broken. So then I went into the credit card processing and saw, “Oh, my gosh, someone bought that that fast.” I called Grant and I said, “Dude, you’ve got to come to my house.” He was like, “Uh, we’re opening a restaurant in like six hours. What’s going on?” I said, “As the guy who helped save your life, get in a fucking taxi and come over here, because I need to show you something!”

He looked at me and went like, “What is wrong with you?” I took him upstairs to my office and I explained to him what I just explained to you. I said, “Click on one of those and make it available.” He said, “Which one?” I go, “Any one in the next month.” He clicked like three weeks out at 9:30. It instantly turned red. In another window, I had the credit card thing up. I go, “Look, Mr. Jones bought that.” He went, “Really?” I went, “Yup, there are 4,000 people waiting for you to do that right now.” That was the moment at which I was basically like, “This is the best thing I’ve ever built.” Because it was functionally different than any way that anybody was doing this. It wasn’t novel. It was just applied in a novel way. What was interesting is that, of course, the software itself sucked. But as a proof of concept, it was awesome.

Tim Ferriss: Quick question on that, if you’re comfortable answering. How much money had you put into developing the software at that point, roughly?

Nick Kokonas: I’m going to say $115,000, roughly.

Tim Ferriss: In your mind, were you completely confident it would work? Or — and it doesn’t have to be A or B; there could be C, D, E, F — or were you like, “For $115k or whatever it might be, even if you budgeted for less and it overran, even if there’s a 20 percent chance that this works, it is worth risking the hours and time because it will so completely transform what we’re doing, and if it fucking fails, who cares?”

Nick Kokonas: Correct. The latter one, yeah. Again, it’s about the asymmetric risk, right? It was also about this thing as I dug into how Alinea ran, there’s thing that you can fix and control, and there’s things you can’t. This was the one that I would answer phones at Alinea and it was like being a therapist. People would go like, “I would like to make a reservation on my anniversary, seven weeks from now on a Thursday.” And you’re like, “I’m really sorry, sir, it’s totally full.” 100 percent of the time they thought you were lying to them. Consequently, I realized that we were saying “No” to people more than we were saying “Yes.” That even when we said “No” in a nice way and took 10 minutes to do so, people thought that we were lying, or that they weren’t important to us, or any of those things.

I felt that transparency was actually more important than the actual money and the actual yield management. I felt like allowing people to see the entirety of the inventory was the most important thing. I had the same thing with the trading markets. They’ve moved to more and more transparency, more and more speed. This is true across every industry. I just felt like “Wow, this industry I found myself in was so backwards.” I just wanted to make the whole thing more transparent. Even if it didn’t go beyond my own restaurants, I was totally fine with that. In fact, I didn’t do anything with it for four years. I didn’t really intend on making it a software product. I intended to fix my own problems. I think often that’s where good ideas come from.

Tim Ferriss: Super often. The scratching of your own itch. At least you know you have a market of one. Guaranteed market of one. I also want to point out, we were talking about asymmetric risk earlier, and you’re like, “I want to stand to make 3-4x what I stand to lose.” If you run the math, and I’m sure I’m missing a lot of subtleties here, but when you said we booked $500,000 and it cost $115,000, we’re getting very much within the ballpark of that.

Nick Kokonas: Yeah, but I didn’t even, well, since then, we’ve taken our margins at our restaurants from 10 to 12 percent to at times in good months, 20 to 25 percent. In an industry that over the last five years, if you read – I give a talk called Tuesday is not Saturday, and Seven Things You Already Now But Are Doing Nothing About. It’s a talk that I give to the restaurant industry. One of the things that I point out in there is that there’s so many obvious things that you could be doing to improve your hospitality, to improve your booking process, to get rid of food waste. But people tend to just kind of move along because it’s a really chaotic environment. It’s hard to make change in it because every day is game day. You wake up every day and 100 people are going to come through the door. If your fishmonger doesn’t show up, you need to figure out what to do with that.

It’s not really about the return on that one investment at that one moment. It’s more like 1,000 small improvements over time. If I look back at that system that I built then compared to what we have now, it’s a miniscule part of what it turned into. But it was the seed of an idea, which is more important, which is, “Hey, let’s shake things up.” Then I got a great CFO, who was at Bain Consulting. He came on to help manage the building of Next. When he said he wanted to build out a business team, I was like, “Great. Run with it.” So we’ve built out food cost analysis that uses Marimekko charts. It’s totally different because it’s visual. You give that to the chef and –

Tim Ferriss: It uses what charts?

Nick Kokonas: Marimekko. If you don’t know Marimekko – if you get nothing out of this, one of the greatest visualizations in charts that you could do in Excel or whatever. It’s hard to do vocally, but imagine a square where each of your x-axis is the percentage of let’s say food cost. Then each square within there is meat or produce. But the whole of the square is 100 percent. The y-axis is 100 percent of one metric, and the x-axis is 100 percent of another. So, you could look at any given square and see how much that impacts the whole. It becomes like a big LEGO building with different colors. If you give a busy chef 400 receipts and say, “Hey, every Friday look through these and figure out what we’re spending too much on.” Or, worse, “Hey, your food costs last month were at 36%; I need them at 32%.”

You can’t take percentages to the bank. Let’s talk about dollars. Let’s see where we can save some dollars. Or the revenues could have just gone down that month for whatever reason. August in New York. So, it’s not really a good way to look at it. But you give this person this chart, this Marimekko –

Tim Ferriss: Now, Marimekko, I’m looking –

Nick Kokonas: It’s the guy’s name.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah. It’s M-A-R-I-M-E-K-K-O chart. Is that right?

Nick Kokonas: Again, I’m not good at spelling, but sure.

Tim Ferriss: I think so. There is a Google result for “how to make a Marimekko chart,” in Excel, so I’m guessing that’s probably it. There’s some YouTube videos as well. So I’ll put those in the show notes for people.

Nick Kokonas: Man, I’ve got to tell you, from a utility perspective, you show that to a person, you explain it visually, when you see it, it makes much more sense and they instantly get it. They’re like, “Oh, there’s no way I spent that much on fish last month.” Instantly.

Tim Ferriss: This can be used for things outside?

Nick Kokonas: Everything.

Tim Ferriss: Not just food, not just restaurants.

Nick Kokonas: No, no, no. It’s just a great visualization of utility. Consultants love it. I’ve got to tell you, I don’t love consultants, in general. But if I’ve learned anything from the best consultant that I’ve ever hired, who is now my partner and CFO, he came up with this and as soon as I saw it, I was like, “How did this not enter my life until my 40th year? This makes no sense.” It’s just incredibly useful. My point is that we went through everything in the restaurant and went like, “What are the biggest spending areas that we can analyze?” It’s true in any endeavor that you’re doing. There’s no point in looking at the dimes if you’ve got something that costs $1,000. Start there.

That’s getting into our thoughts on our publicity, our PR. We don’t have a professional PR person, and haven’t in 14 1/2 years. We don’t spend money on any promotions other than social media. Then with the social media, we track all of that. We can see what our ROI is on a boosted post. We can see what our ROI is if we advertise on your podcast. That’s why these mediums are working, is because they’re measurable.

Tim Ferriss: I was looking up, just as you were chatting as I was also looking for Marimekko, a quote that I think applies. You may certainly feel free to disagree, but it applies very well to a lot of the breakthroughs that you have experienced, and also helped to catalyze in a lot of what you’ve done. It’s a quote from Charlie Munger who, for those who don’t know, you should definitely take a look at Poor Charlie’s Almanack. He’s the right-hand or, I shouldn’t even say that. He is the investing partner of Warren Buffett. He’s a fascinating human being. But one of the quotes of his that I really return to a lot when I think I might be outsmarting myself in some way, or in general, as a reminder is, “It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid instead of trying to be very intelligent.”

Because as you noted earlier, you have these practices that are being implemented by otherwise, in many cases, smart people who have just not taken the time to ask “Why are we doing this? Why does this exist?” as the thing. Like you pointed out, it’s so obvious once you reframe it. You walk into a clothing store and they’re like, “What are you looking for?” “Nope, sorry. Guess again.” That’s fucking ridiculous. And yet, that’s exactly the way it works in many other places.

Nick Kokonas: Yeah. Once you start down that road of thinking that way, it will drive you a little nutty. Because you can’t do every business. There’s a couple things that I’ve got in my back pocket that I’m like, “One day I’m going to arbitrage truffles.” Because there’s an opaque market that’s absurd. Here’s an example. I’m going to give somebody out there – call me up because this is a real business idea, and I’ve been wanting to do it for years. But black-and-white truffles – not the chocolate ones, but the kind that the dogs dig up in France and Italy – are as expensive as the most expensive drugs in the world. You order them as if it were an illegal drug. Of course, they’re perfectly legal. But you call up a truffle dealer and you go, “What do they cost?” “Well, they’re $650 a pound right now for black truffles, $1,600 for white.”

You try to talk them down a little bit. You make sure that you get the best quality because, hey, we’re Alinea and we’ll ship you back the stuff we don’t like and all that. Then in an unmarked box stacked with newspaper will come $20,000 of truffles. Good for like a week, by the way. This is not a big supply. It is completely opaque as a market. There is no mycologist touching these. There are knock-offs – well, not knock-offs. There’s different species and quality from Australia, from Tennessee, from China, etc. that they cut into it. Sound familiar? We spend a lot of money on truffles every year. Try to figure out what the U.S. market in the fall truffle season is worth? You can’t. It’s exactly like publishing. You can’t find numbers. Whenever I see something like that, I’m like, someone’s guarding their golden goose.

Tim Ferriss: Whenever it’s a black box, you’re like, I feel like I am not on the best side of this trade.

Nick Kokonas: That’s right. That’s what I did. I did a closing in cellular network between the Merc and the AMEX to arbitrage ETFs to get rid of the phone brokers in the middle. That took me like a year and a half to get through the Merc and AMEX powers that be. I read most of the CFTC, so when they would tell me it’s not in the rules or not legal or whatever.

Tim Ferriss: CFTC is the Chicago Trade something Commission?

Nick Kokonas: No, this is the Federal Commodities Trading Commission.

Tim Ferriss: I see.

Nick Kokonas: It’s like the SEC, but for commodities. Again, sit down and actually read that some day. What’s amazing is that the experts never – it’s like the members of Congress who don’t read the bill. Then if you ask them detailed instructions on it, they’re like, oh, yeah, I don’t really know, but the general tenor is this or that. The people who were governing the exchanges, had never read the rules. So, they would just quote to me like, well, it’s against the rules. I was like, well, here are the seven volumes; please show me where. If not, I’m going to do it. Similarly, truffles, same thing. The booking for the restaurant, same thing.

OpenTable had a monopoly. They wouldn’t tell you who your customers were. They would sell your customers, they still do, to other restaurants. If you’re full one night, they’ll just send you down the street to a Japanese restaurant down the street. They don’t care. I wanted to get rid of all that, so I built the software for that. Truffles, I will someday build a truffle exchange.

Tim Ferriss: So, a question for you. This is something also for, this is maybe just turning this into a therapy session/coaching session for myself. I get attracted like a moth to the flame to puzzles.

Nick Kokonas: I’ve got a puzzle for you.

Tim Ferriss: No, no. I don’t need any more puzzles. I need no more puzzles. But there are many black boxes are there. You have truffles. Like you said, what’s the market size of the truffle exchange at x point in time? Don’t know. Although you guys, as one establishment or multiple establishments, buy a lot. There might be 100 different black boxes like that, that you run into. How do you choose the black boxes worth trying to shine light on like a detective? Because it’s going to consume energy, it’s going to consume time. How do you pick and choose which to go after?

Nick Kokonas: It’s like the manic test. It’s like the one that bothers me the most, I start doing. Then it’s iterative from there. Sometimes you find yourself in a construction of your own doing that was accidental. All of a sudden, you kind of opened your mouth and said something like the truffle thing and all of sudden, oh, okay, I guess we’re building a truffle exchange. I feel like The Boring company’s like that for Musk. He opened his mouth and like, “Yeah, dig big tunnels.” He’s got enough credibility now where some engineers went like, “Yeah, we can dig tunnels that are seismically fine. Oh, you work for SpaceX? Okay. Let’s see if you can dig a tunnel!” I don’t think that was a business plan. He just has a lot of credibility at this point. I think that to a certain extent, a lot of people have a lot of ideas; they just don’t dig down that rabbit hole. I do some as a hobby.

I do some where I have someone that I like within our company and say, “Well, if you really wanted to be independent and do something cool, here’s a project. Learn more about this and start researching it.” We have 300-and-some employees on the restaurant side and about 50 on Tock. Many of them are incredibly hardworking and intelligent. When someone says, “Hey, I want to learn how to be more entrepreneurial,” I take one of my black boxes out and say, “Well, let’s see if that’s true, because this is going to take you six months of independent work without any guidance, and you’re going to get tired of it really fast. Or you’re going to come back to me and say, ‘Hey, you know what? I can’t figure out the total value of the truffle market in the United States.’ And I’m like, yeah, no shit, that’s why I asked you to do it!”

Tim Ferriss: Now when you give them an assignment like this, “You know what, boss? I really want to be an entrepreneur.” You’re like, “Congratulations. I am now giving you a project, and (a) it’s on your time and you’re not getting paid for it.” Or do you pay for it?

Nick Kokonas: No, no, no. I never take – every single intern that works at our restaurants for a minute is paid.

Tim Ferriss: So they do get paid for the black box time?

Nick Kokonas: Oh, yeah, of course. I would never – I think one of the things I really dislike actually, are industries where they say, “Hey, you’re in college or whatever, be an intern.” Then your parents say, “Yeah, that’s a great opportunity for you to learn something” and all that. It’s like, well, if you’re not getting paid, you’re not being valued, frankly. For me, we pay everybody. Nobody who’s working here – I do expect that salaried people are going to work more than just the time here. I think that people who are passionately curious will be given a problem like that and will come up with interesting solutions to find out what the answer may be. That’s enough.

Tim Ferriss: I want to add some commentary on the question that I asked, which is I think it’s incredible that you do pay them for that independent research, which is also acting an entrepreneurial training/filtering for them. But I wouldn’t have judged you harshly at all if you said, no, that’s on their own time. The reason I say that is that if you are going to be investigating black boxes as an entrepreneur, there are going to be periods of time where you are doing it in the evenings; you are doing it on the weekends; you are doing it without a clear road to immediate cash flow, right? So I wouldn’t have judged you if you said, “You know what? I am paying them full time for their normal job, but if they want to tackle one of these black boxes, that’s considered extracurricular time.” So I wouldn’t have judged you harshly if you had responded in the negative on that.

Nick Kokonas: I guess to back up a little bit, when there are people who I don’t know who do not work for our company, and they call me up and say, “Hey, I’ve got this idea for X, Y, Z” or whatever and it’s intriguing enough, I will pose some more difficult questions. But they’re not working for me, you know what I mean? There’s a guy who brought me a food product about a year ago. It was interesting, but not super compelling. I said, “If you did these five things, it would be a lot more compelling for me to be involved and to help with it and all that.” Yesterday, I got a box in the mail, and he had done not only the five things I said, but said, “Hey, when I started doing those, these seven other things popped up. Here’s where the product is. Here’s the people we signed. Here’s the airline we just signed to carry the product. I would love to have you still involved, even though we’re so much farther down the road than I thought I’d be a year later.” That’s super cool.

I didn’t pay that guy, obviously. But there’s a person who’s truly entrepreneurial and did this on his own time. But if they’re working here, if they work for the Alinea Group, if they work for Tock, for sure you could take time during your day during your normal business that’s a project that we’re working on. We also try not to have such harshly defined roles, not within the restaurant. If you’re a server, if you’re a captain, if you’re a line cook, you’re probably not working on my truffle project, realistically. But on the business side, we certainly have people who work in roles as a lawyer or an analyst or something like that who want to get involved with our publishing project, or who want to get involved with the truffle project, or whatever it may be. I’m happy to pull them in and try to include them. Like you said, you used a word as an entrepreneurial filter. I would say 95 percent of the time, people filter themselves out.

Tim Ferriss: Right. I agree with that. They’re going to self-select or self-select out. Are there any particular books or resources that you have found useful on hiring or managing?

Nick Kokonas: If you found one, let me know. Hiring is so hard. I think it’s the hardest of all things to do. I think my style of interviewing people is totally different than it was 20 years ago. We used the word “self-selecting” just a moment ago. It’s exactly what I do. I kind of bring people in. I let them know what I’m about, what the company’s about. They’ve probably already been interviewed by other people before they get to me. At that point, I let them know what the upsides and downsides of working here are. I let them know what the expectations are. Then I tell them people self-select into a job. You don’t want to come here if you’re going to fail, because that would be terrible. I don’t want you to come here and fail, because that would be a waste of my time and resources and would also feel awful. It’s never good to let go of someone. It feels terrible.

Let’s see if you are self-selecting in. What do you want to know? I’ll be completely transparent about what’s good, what’s bad, what’s good about working for me, personally. The fact that maybe you’ll never see me again. It’s a big enough organization where there are definitely people working here who I don’t know at all. But people tend to join organizations where they want to work. I try to make them be able to say no easier than they can say yes.

Tim Ferriss: What would be some examples of how you do that?

Nick Kokonas: I judge the person by what their pain points are. One of the things I like to ask, which kind of resonates probably with you, I say, what are the last five books you read? I’ve got to tell you, that’s a really hard question to answer. Even if you’re a voracious reader, it’s really hard. You remember a book from two years ago, but you can’t remember the one you read two months ago, sometimes. At least I can’t. That is a great filter on people. A couple things will happen. One, the person who is a voracious reader will go, “Oh, my God, I swear to God I read like 20 books this year. Let’s see.” Then they will really start going, “Oh, I read one three months ago that was this and it was about that.” You can tell that they’re intellectually curious and read a lot. You’ll also get a person who goes, “Look, I haven’t read a book in 20 years, but every night I go home and I do woodworking, and that’s my outlet. That’s where I focus. That’s my Zen moment.” That’s a valid answer to that question, too. You don’t have to be a reader. Some people will just lie through their teeth. They’ll answer what they think is the smart answer to that question. I don’t want that person there.

Tim Ferriss: I read War and Peace, and then I went to The Problems of Philosophy.

Nick Kokonas: Yes, yes, yes. Then The 4-Hour Workweek, right?

Tim Ferriss: Definitely not the right answer.

Nick Kokonas: So there’s that, and I ask that kind of question. But then things like, “Do you enjoy writing?” One of my things is, if someone doesn’t like to write, when people ask what I do for a living, I say, “I’m a writer.” They go like, “Oh, you’ve written a couple books?” I go, “No, no, no. I write about 400 emails a day.” That skill is hugely important right now. If someone doesn’t like to write, they’re not going to want to work for me. Because when they send out an email and I’m CCed on it and it isn’t a well-thought-out little thing, the answer coming back is, “Hey, here’s four ways to improve this.” At some point, it’ll be like, “Really? You did that same mistake again?” It comes off kind of harsh in email.

So if you’re the kind of person that doesn’t take feedback well or doesn’t want to learn, man, I am lacking patience for that at this point in my life. I let them know that. Some people look at you and just go like, “Yeah, dude, I don’t want to work there.” More than I would think. Which is great.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, it simplifies matters.

Nick Kokonas: It’s done with a smile. I’m not trying to terrorize people when they come in and interview. Then there’s some people that go like, awesome. That’s exactly what I want. We have everything from double-Ph.D. engineers to people who’ve never attended a university for a minute, but they’ve self-selected into an organization that people ask a lot of questions. I love that I can be in a room and come up with an idea, and everyone there will just be like, “Well, that’s a great idea. There’s no way we’re going to be able to do that in the next six months, because that’s not in our capacity at our size right now.”

Tim Ferriss: I think a question on a lot of people’s minds, and a pain point for most people listening, will be email. So you seem to be at least confident in your treatment of email. 400 is a lot of email. Do you have any particular commandments? Dos, do nots, times you check, things you check first? Any types of systems or approaches that allow you to maintain a degree of sanity with the amount of email that you must receive?

Nick Kokonas: You’re going to hate this answer, Tim. I am terrible at it. It used to be not so long ago that I personally replied to absolutely every single email that came in myself. I used to have an auto-sign that basically was like, if I don’t reply to you within five minutes, I’m dead or asleep. It’s the opposite of everything you stand for. I know that. I was listening to Jason Fried – Jason Fried’s a friend – I was listening to his podcast with you. I don’t get it at all. I would love nothing more than to re-work or to not work, work four-day weeks or have six-week projects and all the stuff that he espouses. He’s a friend. He’s an investor in one of my businesses. But man, that’s not how I function at all. I weirdly think that he misses cause-and-effect a little bit. He has a very successful company, and that’s the cause that allows the effect, which is the ability to manage your time really well.

I live really paranoid. I’m more comfortable that way. Also, I feel a weird moral responsibility to reply to the people who’ve taken their time out of their day to write us a note, even if it’s not critical business for me. One of the things that I did for about 10 years, that I loved doing when we first started Alinea, was I would have Google Alerts set up and I would find some blog that only some woman and her mother read. I would reply personally. “Wow, thank you for the great write-up of Alinea.” They would be mind-blown that I found it and all that. I treated email that way for a long period of time. Unfortunately, now I can’t quite do that.

So I do have a bunch of filters and whatnot, but I didn’t even set them up. My business partner, Brian Fitzpatrick, who used to be the head of Google in Chicago, he runs the engineering team and he’s the CEO of Tock, he said, “Dude, you’re slipping, man. You need to create some filters and get some stuff that’s directly to you.” So he went into my Gmail accounts and forced the issue for me. So now I can’t quite do that. I do wake up in the morning and look at our bazillion social media messages and whatnot, kind of pick a random one, and just answer it. I want to be involved in knowing what our customers are asking, what they’re doing, what they’re saying, what they’re replying. Anything that’s a complaint actually gets brought directly via email to a complaint tracker that me and Grant see.

So, luckily, there aren’t that many of those. But any time you serve 5,000 or 6,000 people a week, you’re going to get something going wrong. But man, I’m terrible at it, honestly. I will tell you a funny thing is that when I go away on vacation, I do try to concoct a pretty funny – I basically say, “Look, I’m going to be on a mountain or on a boat or whatever, and I’m not going to be able to reply. I would make these elaborate stories up, almost as like a fun piece of art project as to why I couldn’t do it. One year, every time I went away, I basically said, “I’m going to visit a panda I adopted and going back to Chicago.” It ended the year around Christmastime when I went on break with a picture of a baby panda, and a really mediocre Photoshop job of me standing there with the panda.

The Chicago Tribune called me up like three days later, like, “Is it going to the Lincoln Park Zoo?” I was like, “No, dear God, it’s not. There is no panda.” That’s what I wrote back. That was my terrible reply to that. The following year, I said, “I don’t like to talk, as you might be able to tell.” So everyone who knows me knows that I can just go on and on. I said I was going to a combination of a tantric sex retreat and silence retreat for eight days to explore my both inner and outer selves. I made some elaborate story.

Tim Ferriss: This is your out-of-office reply.

Nick Kokonas: That’s my out-of-office reply. Anybody would get that, right? I thought that was really funny. Then about two years later, I bumped into some guy who worked for a very big corporation. They wanted to do some work with the Alinea Group. It was kind of a consulting project; very lucrative. He was looking at me really funny. I said, “What’s up?” He said, “Well, I really wished we had worked together, but then you went to that sex retreat, and I just couldn’t get it past everybody.” I was looking at him going, like, “What are you talking about?” Then I remembered like four years earlier, my out-of-office reply. I told him it was a joke, like the panda. He did not find any humor in it. I did. I thought it was hilarious, even though we lost the business, I thought it was really funny. So if you ever get a really unusual out-of-office reply from me, it’s fiction. Probably.

Tim Ferriss: I love that. If you’re serious all the time, you’re never going to get the actual serious work done. You’re going to burn out before that ever happens. I also want to underscore one thing. Then I want to ask you about a black box that you and I have talked about quite a bit, which is publishing. The fact that you pick a message to reply to, even if it’s one, is really important. I’ve noticed this certainly with the audits that I have, listeners, readers, etc. It is not physically possible for me to reply to everyone; it would also be anathema to everything that I’m espousing in many of the books.

But I do want to demonstrate that I am listening. I think that it goes a really long way, even if you do not personally reply to people, if you are able to prove that you’re paying attention. That seems to resolve a lot, or at least act as a salve for people out there who very seldomly feel heard, which does not always necessitate a response. I just wanted to point out that it might seem like a drop in the ocean, but it actually has further reaching implications when you do what you were describing.

Nick Kokonas: Yeah, I feel like it’s genuine. First of all, I’m always curious what people are writing about to the restaurants, what they are writing about to me. My LinkedIn profile basically – I don’t really read LinkedIn at all. I keep it. I think it’s important to have it, but I don’t ever read the messages on there. But in my bio, it basically says “If you can find my email address, I will incite this; I will reply to you. So that gets rid of all of the marketing crap that comes in. But every now and then, I get a subject line to the email address that’s on there that says “Hey, via your LinkedIn bio,” I’ll read that and reply. It just shows me that (a) there’s an actual human on the other line; it’s not just some marketing thing, and (b) they really do have something that they want to talk about.

It’s little things like that are puzzle filters, that I call them. Where I just create a little bit of a barrier. If you’re really into it and you really want to talk to me, you can pretty find me pretty easily. I’m not that hidden.

Tim Ferriss: The detail is really important here. The mini-hurdle. I have a friend I’m not going to mention by name because he’ll get deluged, but he is a very successful author and journalist. When he is hiring for different positions, part-time or full-time, at the bottom of the job description on a job site or wherever it might be, in small print at the very bottom. It will say, do not send a message on this platform. Do not send an email, even though an email address is given earlier. Call this number and leave a voicemail answering the following things. Automatically, he takes the pool of 1,000 people who are going to do the wrong thing, and finds the 10 people who are actually paying attention.

Nick Kokonas: Yeah, 100 percent.

Tim Ferriss: Publishing. We didn’t really talk much about it. Can you give just a tiny bit of background on The Aviary, and then some of your related publishing investigations? Which I think is not an inappropriate word. If you could give people a little bit of context.

Nick Kokonas: Yeah, I’m going to back up before The Aviary, just a little bit. For a chef, doing a cookbook is something that they dream about if they’re a serious chef, from the time they’re 15. Just like if you’re a basketball player, you want to make the NBA. Or if you’re a runner, you want to be in the Olympics or whatever. To Grant, to a bunch of chefs, having their own ideas in a physical, beautiful cookbook is a holy grail for them. It’s very sacred. What was interesting is that just before Grant was sick, we started to get a lot of publishing offers. The natural inclination was to go to what he knew, which was Artisan Press, which published The French Laundry book, which is one of the bestselling, high-end cookbooks ever. It’s certainly beautiful. It was very revolutionary at its time. I think it was published in about ’98 or ’99, something like that.

The typical publishing deal came into us, which was great that they were coming in. It was $250,000 to $300,000. They would basically say, well, out of that, you’re going to pay for the designer and the photographer, and you need a 30-day photoshoot. Here are the guidelines for how many photos you want in the book, to keep costs down, and all that. I looked at all that, and all the offers came within about 10 percent of each other, which immediately the hair on the back of my neck, the Spidey sense starts telling me that something back there is pricing this is an unusual way. Then I started going, “Oh, this is actually like the music industry.”

Tim Ferriss: Very much so.

Nick Kokonas: Because I knew people in bands that would get signed to a record label back in the day, and they would get a quarter million dollar advance. Shit. That seems like a lot of money, right? Then all of a sudden, all your studio time comes out of that, and you don’t recoup another dime until you’ve sold X number of records or CDs or, in this case, books. Then in the contract, it actually said, and the restaurant guarantees that they will buy 2,500 books at half of retail price. I was like, whoa. You’re looking at something like $80,000 right there. That goes right back to them, in essence. Then I went like, “Well, I wonder what a book costs to print?”

I asked them, “How much is this book going to cost to print?” “Well, I don’t really know.” So what they would do is they would always have layers of people, so they said, “That’s not what I do. I am the person that does this. The lawyer gives the contract. The printer does the printing.”

Tim Ferriss: There’s always a plausible deniability or a plausible ignorance.

Nick Kokonas: Yes. Willful, plausible ignorance. And so I do what I start doing. Well, let’s just Google that up and see what it costs to print a book. Or, “Hey, how many copies of The French Laundry books sold? How many copies of 50 other books that we wanted to emulate or that we thought were well done sold?” Man, it’s like asking for keys to the Vatican or something when you call a publisher and ask them that. I’m sure you know this, right? You probably know now because you’ve been so entrenched in the industry. You know your numbers, and you might know that of some of your colleagues and friends, right? But if you wanted to actually do a meaningful comparison across the industry, it’s almost impossible to do it, even though there’s a company that does that.

Then you start trying to reverse engineer it and you go to The New York Times. You can go to The New York Times website and just look at how is The New York Times Best Seller created? On their own site, they say it’s a compendium of known publishers, like publishing houses, as well as these top 50 retailers, back in the day. It’s a gameable system. The way that the publishers want to do it is that they want to ship out all the books at the same time, because that’s how they’re counted for The New York Times Best Seller list and stuff.

Tim Ferriss: I should also note it’s not only gameable, but it’s also conversely highly subjective within The New York Times. So there’s a lot of wiggle room. In other words, it is not like the Olympics, where clear gold, silver, bronze video replay. We know exactly how this was tabulated.

Nick Kokonas: Yeah, so the more that we dug, the more we got more and more curious, and a little bit angry, actually. But Grant was weirdly angry at me, because he’s going like, “Dude, why do you care? I’ve been wanting this since I was 15.” I was like, “Well, look, if this is our budget, it’s not going to be the book you want. It’s not going to be as good as you want it to be because we’re not going to be able to spend six months doing the photography. We’re not going to be able to get great pages. We’re not going to be able to get a picture of every dish.” What do people cook in a cookbook? Well, they tend to cook those pages where they see a picture of the final dish. Because you know what? It looks delicious. You know what it’s supposed to look like. You’ve got something to emulate at least.

When we did the specs for the book, I had one of the best publishers in America say, “If you do that book, there’s no way you sell more than 5,000 of them. No way. No one’s going to publish it. You can’t use metric. You can’t use a gram scale. You can’t have that font. You can’t have those pictures in full bleed. And it’ll cost way too much to print.” And so it took about a month and a half before I got lucky and I called a print broker, who had actually brokered the print job of one of the famous books. I was expecting that if the book retailed for $60, it would cost like $15 to print, $20? I didn’t know anything about it. When he told me it was like $2.23 per book to print per a 30,000 copy run, I went, “No way,” like that. He’s like, “Well, it’s probably less now.” Like, he thought I meant it was too much.

Instantaneously, I went, “Oh, shit. Everything makes sense.” When I would call publishers and tell them this, they would go “Oh, yeah, but look. We did 40 different books last year. Only five of them did well.” I’m like, “That’s your problem, man. I know we’re going to sell well. I don’t really give a shit if you lost 35 percent of the time, and you need to spread your portfolio risk. I’m the one you’re spreading it on.” We decided with the Alinea book, we put together like 20 pages, and Martin made this beautiful, stainless steel bracketing system, and we shipped it out to eight different publishers we like. Two of which were art houses that had never done a cookbook. They all came back and said all the usual criticism, except Aaron Wehner at Ten Speed Press.

Tim Ferriss: Smart guy, by the way.

Nick Kokonas: He basically said, “I’m going to make you an unusual offer. No advance at all. We can negotiate. Essentially, we’ll just be the distributor. We’ll negotiate out what that looks like, and we’ll help you with the printing, and we’ll help you with the editing, which we’re both really good at.” Within 10 minutes, we had struck a deal whereby any of the books that we bought or sold for ourselves for our restaurant, we paid actual printing cost. Not wholesale, actual printing cost. Anything that they sold and distributed through their channels, they would get about 27% of the sale price, which means that we got 73% of that. These are state secrets. Nobody tells this stuff.

For years, I was walking around with this knowledge where if we sold 100,000 books, that would be the equivalent of selling like 500,000 books on any other deal. And we got to control the quality of it. We won both the James Beard award for best cooking from a professional point of view, best cookbook of the year. We won, I say we, Martin and Laura Kastner, won the communication arts award. Where if you’re a designer, their annual is like getting the Oscar.

Tim Ferriss: Similarly, for people who don’t know it, the James Beard awards are also very much like the Oscars.

Nick Kokonas: Yeah. So, we felt really vindicated on that. The book still sells. This is eight years later. We still sell 7,000 to 8,000 copies a year. When we did The Aviary, which is our bar that’s a non-bar that we talked about earlier, we started getting all of the same offers again. This time, it was really easy to go, “Ha, ha!” Just go, “Oh, that’s cute.” I should add that Grant and I wrote his memoir together that we didn’t use a ghostwriter, we wrote it ourselves, called Life, on the Line. That one, we did a traditional book deal, but after our agent got it halfway, I got on a plane and flew out there, and then brokered the deal myself. I got a giant multiple of the highest bid by doing essentially a reverse Dutch auction. Starting at a really high price and working my way downward.

Tim Ferriss: Can you explain to people just briefly what that means?

Nick Kokonas: Yeah, basically, I’ll do this. I think one of the great problems to solve, one of the black boxes, is the agency problem. Let’s say you want to sell your house. You put it on the market and the agent is going to get, I don’t know, 4 to 5 percent of the sale price. That’s a lot for something that’s your biggest investment in your life. But they say, they control the information, they control the MLS, and all that. Will they, if they’re the seller’s agent, get the highest price for you? The answer is almost certainly not, because let’s say a house is going to sell for $500,000; they’re going to get 4 percent of that. That’s $20,000. If they get $490,000, it’s almost no different to them. Right? $400 difference. But if they lose the deal over that last $10,000, it’s a lot.

So they want to price a home so that it sells quickly, so that they can keep their deal flow going. They don’t really care about maximizing their last dollar. Whereas for you, that last dollar is actually like $9,600. It’s a lot more money. So what I do whenever I’ve sold real estate is I figure out what the intrinsic value is of the house. What’s the bare minimum that I’d be willing to sell it for? I price it just slightly higher than that, and I tell all the agents in the whole town, “I will pay you 50 percent of everything over 10 percent higher than that.” They all say, “That’s against the real estate ethics code,” or, “I would never do that deal because it would subvert all of my other deals” or whatever. Then what happens is two days later, you get a dozen phone calls and they’ve priced it 40 percent higher and it sells in two days. Because now they’re actually working for you.

Well, similarly, I went into that publishing negotiation and I was like — by the way, the agent is probably lookup-able. She’s a great person. I don’t think she even knows that’s what was happening, you know what I mean? She was brought up in this industry for this company, and that’s the way it works. She would for sure dispute everything I just said. She would say, “I always try to get the highest price.” But I went in and I was like, “Look, I’m not going to spend my time doing this for X. So I need four times that.” She’s like, “There’s no way you’ll ever get that. You’ve never written a book before.” I said, “Well, we did the Alinea book.” “Yeah, it’s cookbook. It doesn’t count.” These are words. So I went to the publishers that all bid on it, and I just got them all on a conference call and just started at a really high price. Every couple seconds, I went down $10,000. Then one of them blinked and bought it.

That’s a great method of price discovery. If you think about it, most auctions, even if you go to a charity event or whatever, they start low and they try to get interest going high. It’s often the case that if they start really high and start going down, people start going “Oh, my God, someone’s going to say something. Like, I would pay that, someone else must as well.” They could be off by a factor of 30 percent and they’ll never even know it because there’s only one bid that ever happens. So no one knows how off they are.

Tim Ferriss: On that phone call, were you like, “Hey, guys, I would love to get you on the phone,” and then publisher A –

[Crosstalk]

Nick Kokonas: – right away.

Tim Ferriss: I guess my question is, did they know that they were signing up for a Mexican standoff?

Nick Kokonas: Yes, they did.

Tim Ferriss: Oh, they did.

Nick Kokonas: I went and met with them all personally.

Tim Ferriss: You’re like, “John, I’d love to get you on the phone” then it’s like, “All right, congratulations, guys.”

Nick Kokonas: No, you can’t ambush people to a Mexican standoff. You can’t do that. You could. It might be fun, but I didn’t do that. I went and talked. I created enticement. I sold on my ability to actually do it. It was a bit like doing the no phones with the software. I was like, well, if I get a really big contract, I’ll have to figure out how to write a book, and then there will be a lot of pressure. So I did that and I wrote it and I turned it on time, which apparently no one does.

Tim Ferriss: Very rare.

Nick Kokonas: I sent it to them on the day it was due. They went, “What’s that?” I went, “That’s the manuscript.” They went, “Oh, that’s cute.”

Tim Ferriss: It’s kind of like showing up at the restaurant on time as a diner and then being seated at the appointed time.

Nick Kokonas: Apparently very rare.

Tim Ferriss: It’s just this open line.

Nick Kokonas: Do you turn your books in on time?

Tim Ferriss: I do, actually.

Nick Kokonas: I believe that.

Tim Ferriss: I do turn my books in on time and we could get into that a separate time.

Nick Kokonas: I just wanted to ask you a question.

Tim Ferriss: I do. I do not turn them in at the expected length. But I do –

Nick Kokonas: A little longer perhaps.

Tim Ferriss: I do tend to turn them in on time.

Nick Kokonas: I do believe that. What happened with The Aviary is we basically couldn’t figure out how to do another book, because the Alinea book was such a project, and Martin was on to other things. We didn’t want to do it traditionally. I didn’t know anyone who could do what we wanted to do. Then there was this guy, Allen Hemberger. If you get nothing else from this whole talk and you’ve made it this far, go Google Allen and Alinea. Allen is a procedural effects artist. He worked at Weta Studios on all the Hobbit movies doing things like hair and water and things like that. He writes the physics that then makes the magic. He worked at Pixar.

While he was at Pixar, and his wife, Sarah, worked an Industrial Light and Magic as the graphics designer, he was given by Sarah a copy of the Alinea book, to go full circle. He became fascinated with it. He was not a cook. He didn’t know how to cook. He did the Julie & Julia thing. He spent five years not only cooking his way through the entire book, but also would do things like “Well, I don’t know where to get this plate, and I’ve always wanted to learn how to fire porcelain.”

Tim Ferriss: Allen, for people wondering, is A-L-L-E-N. There are also videos of Allen and Alinea. He’s an autodidact. This guy learns and learns and learns. He is the kind of person that goes to the black box and goes, “I’m going to learn how to forge knives, and I’m going to learn how to fire porcelain. By the way, I’m going to cook everything in there and I’m going to make pictures of it, and I’m going to make a book documenting that.” When he asked if he could use – we had a little email relationship, and he came up to Alinea once to ask Grant some questions about how to make something because it wasn’t working. When Grant threw up his arms and goes, “Well, the book might be wrong,” Allen’s world view was shattered. He was like, “What do you mean it could be wrong?” He goes, “Well, we did have some errata in there. We documented hundreds of recipes. It could be wrong.”

At that point, his mentality changed. It’s in the video. We got to know him and I got to know him. When he sent me the book, it wasn’t what I was expecting. I was expecting a homegrown book. What I got was a 400-page, beautifully illustrated, beautifully written book about a person’s journey of learning. It was called The Alinea Project. I had no idea that he had done anything like this. Suddenly, I thought to myself immediately, and it’s in the intro to The Aviary book, I texted him and said, “Holy shit, you’re crazy.” And I have ideas. After waiting for like four or five years to do a book on The Aviary, I immediately was like, “This is the guy to do the book. Now I need to lure him out of Pixar,” which is about the best place to work in the world. Then I found out his wife worked at Industrial Light and Magic and she did all the graphic design. I was like, “This is perfect. You guys need to quit your jobs and move to Chicago.”

They flew out. We had some conversations about what that might look like. It was very much a partnership. They would have equity in the book. We would have creative freedom to do it exactly the way we wanted. We knew more about the printing and the bidding and all that, so I wasn’t worried about the economics of it anymore. I was worried about trying to make something really awesome. Right as they were about to say yes, they found out that they were going to have a baby. So they called me up one day and said, “Oh, my God.” I was like, “Oh, they got cold feet.” Oh, no. They said, “We’re pregnant. We’re going to have a baby.” I said, “Okay, well, we’re going to wait a year, because there’s no way in the world I’m letting you move out of your comfort zone, and have a child, and have that change of life.”

They thought I was punting on them just because — in a discriminatory way. I said, “No, we’re not going to do this with anyone else. We will wait as long as it takes.” About a year and a half later, they moved to Chicago. We spent the last year and a half, set up a studio of our own. Spent the last year and a half doing this book. Did a Kickstarter to just essentially raise awareness for it. We raised almost a half million dollars in the Kickstarter. We’ve sold about another $300,000 of books since then. It comes out in October. You can go to thealineabook.com. The coolest part of that website is that if you look at –

Tim Ferriss: It’s thealineabook?

Nick Kokonas: I’ll show you. Theaviarybook.com. “Bury the lede, Nick, bury the lede.” Genius marketing right there. Yeah, theaviarybook.com. But the coolest part of that is, other than your ability to buy said book, is Allen kept a blog on there called Our Progress. In it, he details every single aspect of what it takes to make a book like this. Right down to line screens and compositing photos. One of the things that every single book publisher told me is that you can’t sell a cocktail book for more than $30. There’s no market for it. And you don’t need pictures, because it’s just liquid in a glass. I think we blew that out of the water with what the book looks like.

I think that because certain things like fire are really hard to photograph, there’s this great picture in there of this one cocktail where we spray some anise and we light it on fire and it creates an aroma into the bowl that it’s served it. It’s called “loaded to the gun walls.” It’s a Batavia rock cocktail. That took a composite of 18 different photographs. So he breaks down the photography techniques. Also, The New York Times Best Seller list. I showed him how Google target marketing works and Facebook ads work and all that. All of a sudden, he went, “Holy shit, I had no idea you could do this.” We are going completely without a distributor or a publisher at this time. I think we’re going to set a, man, I don’t know. I’m either completely delusional. It wouldn’t surprise me if we sold a half million of these in the next two or three years.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, it’s not a $9.95 book either, which it shouldn’t be.

Nick Kokonas: No, it’s $85. We’ve invested close to a million, all the way in, around it. It looks like, I think, I hope.

Tim Ferriss: From what I’ve seen, it looks like it would cost more than that.

Nick Kokonas: We did it all ourselves, too. It’s really like a five-person project. It’s deep enough that if a professional gets it, they’re going to learn a lot. But I’d say about 35 to 40 percent of it can be done at home because unlike the Alinea book where you’ve got to go out and buy duck and your local grocery might not have this kind of duck or whatever, if you need some Flor de Cana rum or a certain kind of tequila or whatever, you just go to your local liquor store, and it’s exactly the same thing that we use. That product is universal.

Tim Ferriss: I read somewhere – I don’t think this is taking us too far afield – I read somewhere that you consider yourself a tequila guy. Or at least in part a tequila guy. Do you have any favorite tequilas or concoctions?

Nick Kokonas: I’m going to do a little video promo for the book that we just filmed last week, where essentially I work with Eric Jeffus, who’s one of our bartenders in the office, which is our little speakeasy below The Aviary.

Tim Ferriss: Which is amazing. If people have the opportunity, they should check it out.

Nick Kokonas: It’s basically Grant just said, “Hey, everything upstairs, people are going to think it’s Alinea smoke-and-mirrors. We need to prove we can make a real cocktail.” So one of the foundational cocktails for me is a daiquiri. It’s three ingredients and a million ways to fuck it up. It’s just lime, sugar, and rum. That’s all it is. And yet most bars you go into will make a terrible daiquiri. Or they’ll blend it or blah, blah, blah. But a great daiquiri is really, really transformative. So I did a video on that. Then I always make a mezcal margarita. That’s my favorite drink. All I’m doing is I’m taking some reposado and a little bit of mezcal in equal weights, along with some Grand Marnier or Cointreau equivalent, and lime and simple syrup. That’s it. That’s all there is to it. Man, I love simple stuff like that.

Then we have a whole section in the book on old whiskeys, dusty bottles, old gins. There’s a growing movement to rediscover some of the distilleries in America that were really, really great that don’t exist anymore, that were more artisanal at the time. You can still find those bottles around. It’s a little bit easier than someone wine collecting or something like that. Man, it’s like an endlessly fascinating thing. I didn’t consider myself a cocktail person 10 years ago. I really loved wine. I felt like from a health perspective it was better as well.

But just like anything else, if you have a well-constructed cocktail, something of high quality, it’s an additive thing. You can have it in a meal, and it can make the meal better. Whereas a vodka tonic is just boozing. It’s just getting drunk. That’s not what we’re trying to do here. We’re trying to make things that are – it’s really a culinary approach to cocktails. Man, it’s endlessly fascinating, just like anything else in this world.

Tim Ferriss: I would also say, just contrasting say someone who wants to recreate something from Alinea, which you certainly could do, I mean, Allen proved that, with something from The Aviary, there is also a tremendous amount of theater and presentation dynamism that you can create with cocktails that does not have to be super expensive or super complicated, that certainly you guys are able to go as complex as you want to go, which is stunning, and I’ve spent time at The Aviary.

Nick Kokonas: You could easily make some ice with Peychaud’s Bitters in it or something like that, then as the ice melts in the cocktail, and it’s going to look really cool, too. Doing some of these things at home is not hard. I did a dinner party once where it was like a cocktail party. I probably had 40 people at my house. Each room in my house had all of the ingredients for the cocktail, and then little instructions on how to make it themselves. That took away the need for a bartender, because they’re terrible anyway, anyone that you bring in, a caterer or something like that. The other cool thing is that people got really into it. They went, “Oh, now I know how to make an Old Fashioned. Now I know how to make a Manhattan.” The one that I discovered at that party was a Frisco Sour. I had like Benedictine, whiskey, and lemon. It was really delicious. It can be more than just a strong cocktail. It can be really delicate and interesting.

Tim Ferriss: People can learn all about this at theaviarybook.com. Is that right?

Nick Kokonas: That’s right, yeah.

Tim Ferriss: Well, Nick, I have two rapid fire questions that are unrelated, and then I think we’re going to bring this neat and tidy round 1 podcast to a close, but we’ve talked about books. Everybody should not only check out The Aviary book, but also, if they have a chance, go to The Aviary. It is tremendous. You can also get some delicious bites and food, at least the last time I was there –

Nick Kokonas: You still can.

Tim Ferriss: – at The Aviary. I hesitate to call it a workaround, but you guys have some very popular establishments. If you want to sample the food, this is also a great way to do it. The drinks are just incredible. It’s a real destination that makes a trip to Chicago worth it in and of itself. I would recommend not only checking out the book, but also checking out a lot of what you guys are up to. Aside from that, books you have gifted the most to other people? Outside of those that you have made yourself, what are the books that you have gifted the most to other people?

Nick Kokonas: I named one of them already. Fooled by Randomness. Almost everyone in my office is forced to read that. I’ve definitely given that away. Boy, that’s a tricky one because just like I said, I can’t remember books very well. But certainly probably No. 1 on a business side of things. On the other side, I tend to give away what I would call vintage art books. So, it’s not a book people can buy, I’m sorry to say, but occasionally I’ll be at a used book store and I’ll find some of these great old art books. I buy a few of them and then when I want to thank someone for something, I send them that.

Tim Ferriss: Peregrinations of an Epicurean. Something like that?

Nick Kokonas: At the end of the day, when I want to give someone something, I try to make it something that, and I really want to make it a great gift, I try to get something that you can’t buy. So I bought an old typewriter, and when I write a thank you note, I type it up on the old typewriter. It is the most confounding thing to people. Because they look at it and they go, “How did you do that?” I go, “On a 1922 typewriter.” It’s like a personal, artisanal thing. I know that’s not what you’re getting at. I can’t think of the number one. I’m sure once we end this, I’ll immediately think of it. If I do, I’ll send it to you so you can link to it.

Tim Ferriss: I think the answer is more interesting with the typewriter. I think what I’m getting at is whatever  you just offered. That’s perfect. If you come up with anything else, we can put it in the show notes. This next one can be tough at times for folks. So the billboard question. So, metaphorically speaking, non-commercial, no advertising, but if you could get a word, a quote, a sentence, a question, up on a billboard to transmit something to millions or billions of people, does anything come to mind that you might put on that billboard?

Nick Kokonas: I don’t know why this came to mind, but the word would be “Pause.” That’s it. I have no idea why that came to mind. I think in talking through this whole thing, you kept asking me: “Why are you digging this black box” or whatever? Or it would be like curiosity. I thinking of those in the same way. I’m not saying “Pause” like “Stop.” I’m saying “think.” I think the hallmark of the people that I like as friends the best is what we try to instill in our kids, and the reason that I like my wife so much and all that, is that intellectual curiosity is everything. I don’t know, how do you get that on a billboard? I think “Pause” or “Be curious” or something like that. I know it’s cliché. I think that’s the thread that ties everything together.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah. You do pause a lot. Even though on a macro level you seem to be moving at hyperspeed a lot of the time, there are a lot of pauses built into that speed, if that makes sense from what I’ve noticed. You are simultaneously one of the craziest fuckers I have know, and least craziest fuckers I know, if that makes –

Nick Kokonas: Well that’s a great compliment. Thank you. I’ll take it.

Tim Ferriss: Where can people find you? I know you have, of course, thealineagroup.com. You have exploretock.com. Theaviarybook.com, which is sort of the most timely for people to check out right now. If people want to say hello or follow you on social, where are the best places, the best handles for that?

Nick Kokonas: Instagram, which is @nkokonas, K-O-K-O-N-A-S. And Twitter is @nickkokonas, N-I-C-K. Hey it’s all Google-able. If you can figure out my email address, I’ll probably answer. Although, given the reach of your podcast, perhaps I will be inundated; it might take a while.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that might be a hug of death situation. But we will TBD.

Nick Kokonas: That’s okay. Good problem to have, I suppose.

Tim Ferriss: Good problem to have. Nick, this was a blast. Thank you so much for taking the time. I really appreciate it.

Nick Kokonas: Thank you, Tim.

Tim Ferriss: Many more conversations to be had. I think another trip to Chicago may be in order soon.

Nick Kokonas: I was going to say, I hope we see you here soon.

Tim Ferriss: I know. I need to get back. To everybody listening, we’ve made mention of the show notes, links to everything we’ve discussed, which you will be able to find at tim.blog/podcast, as with this episode and certainly every other episode. Until next time, thank you so much for listening.

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

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“I just look at some things and go, ‘Why is that? Why does it work that way?’ Oftentimes, the people most entrenched in a system have no idea why.”
— Nick Kokonas

Nick Kokonas (IG: @nkokonas, TW: @NickKokonas) is the co-owner and co-founder of The Alinea Group of restaurants, which includes Alinea, Next, The Aviary, Roister, and The Aviary NYC. He is also the founder and CEO of Tock, Inc, a reservations and CRM system for restaurants with more than 2.5M diners and clients in more than 20 countries.

Alinea has been named the Best Restaurant in America and Best Restaurant in The World by organizations and lists as diverse as The James Beard Foundation, World’s 50 Best, TripAdvisor, Yelp, Gourmet Magazine, and Elite Traveler. His restaurants have won nearly every accolade afforded to them.

Nick has been a subversive entrepreneur and angel investor since 1996. He spent a decade as a derivatives trader, has co-written three books, and believes in radical transparency in markets and business. His latest effort is The Aviary Cocktail Book, which is perhaps the most gorgeous book I’ve ever seen. It is self-published, has already pre-sold nearly $1M in copies, and is being released and shipped in October of 2018.

We’ve been trying to get this interview going ever since Nick was of immense help to me for The 4-Hour Chef, so I hope you enjoy this as much as I did. We talk about much more than the restaurant business, including philosophy, derivatives trading, favorite books, and how Nick tends to break every industry he enters in the most productive way possible! Enjoy!

#341: Nick Kokonas — How to Apply World-Class Creativity to Business, Art, and Life
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Want to hear another episode with someone else who understands that the most interesting way to do something isn’t always the easiest? — Listen to this episode with Astro Teller, CEO of X on moonshot thinking, mutilated checkerboards, “safety third,” and much more. (Stream below or right-click here to download.):

#309: Astro Teller, CEO of X – How to Think 10x Bigger
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The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Paul Stamets

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Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Paul Stamets (@PaulStamets), author, inventor and an intellectual and industry leader in the habitat, medicinal use, and production of fungi. It was transcribed and therefore might contain a few typos. With some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!

Listen to the interview here or by selecting any of the options below.

#340: Paul Stamets — The Mushroom King on Medicine, Psychedelics, and Saving Humanity
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Tim Ferriss: Paul, welcome to the show.

Paul Stamets: Thank you, Tim. Honored to be here.

Tim Ferriss: I’ve had so many listeners request you on the show. I have wanted to have you on the show for so many years. And finally, when you made your very comprehensive cameo in Michael Pollan’s most recent book, that served as the reminder that I had to reach out somehow. So I’m very pleased that you’re here, and I thought we could start with some definitions and pronunciation, which are very selfishly points of insecurity for me. So F-U-N-G-I. How should we pronounce that?

Paul Stamets: Well, that’s an excellent question. Fungi – according to Oxford English Dictionary – with a J is the correct pronunciation. But foon-jee, fun-guy, or fun-jai. So fun-jai is what we mycologists use. Though Spanish mycologists will use foon-jee. Italian mycologists will say foon-jee. But English speakers, the standard pronunciation is fun-jai with a J.

Tim Ferriss: Fun-jai. And then there are two terms that I suspect may not be totally synonymous with mushrooms. My-sill-ium or my-see-lium? I don’t know the correct pronunciation. Are mushrooms a subset of mycelium? One component part? Can you define or distinguish those two for us please?

Paul Stamets: Mycelium is the underground network analogous to the roots of a tree in the fruit bodies of the mushrooms. So they are produced as reproductive structures long after many challenges on the path of growth – in woods, underground, et cetera. The mycelial networks are vast. It’s been called the proverbial tip of the iceberg. But just think of this as the – the mycelium navigates through a microbially hostile environment. Literally, there can be tens of millions of microbes per gram of soil. And the mycelia are these fine filaments that look like cobwebs are running underground.

And this underground network is being challenged by all sorts of microbes. And as many people know, bacteria like to eat fungi. That’s why mushrooms rot. But the fungi are able to navigate with these mycelial networks. Only one cell wall thick. And there can be up to eight miles of mycelium per cubic inch, and now they only have one cell wall between their internal cells and the external environment. We have five or six skin layers that protect us from infection. The mycelium basically has one cell layer, and yet it is able to overcome the challenges of millions of microbes – many of which want to consume it. And it navigates to create the largest organism on this planet. There’s a mycelial mat in eastern Oregon over 2,200 acres in size. Now it’s one cell wall thick, and yet it’s the largest organism on this planet. And that’s a testimonial to the immunological power of the mycelium and this vast underground network that is so central to habitat, and human, and plant health.

It’s something that we have really tapped into. Mushrooms come from mycelium. The mycelium can grow literally for decades before a single mushroom forms. Mushrooms are highly perishable. They’re like fish. In four or five days, they mature. And then they rot. And in doing so, they sporulate just before they rot. And they attract insects that then help spread the spores. Much like birds spread seeds. Birds come to fruit. The fruit of the tree – like a peach, for instance – attracts insects and birds. And then the peach pit, or seeds of an apple, or another fruit are spread. So the fragrance of the mushrooms are beacons. Fragrance beacons that emanate through the ecosystem. And these scent trails then entice animals to come to these bodacious delicious fruit bodies. And then in the course of them eating them, they spread the spores.

But the mycelium literally can be existent, not invisible. Invisible to us ridiculously stupid humans that are thundering giants upon these networks that are underneath their feet. But the mycelium really races behind us. And we’re the biggest walking catastrophe that I know on the planet. And as we walk, we break wood chips. We leave impressions. Well, the mycelium is sensitive to those impressions of our footsteps. And as we create new debris fields, mycelium reaches up behind our footsteps to gobble up that newly made material in competition with other fungi and other organisms.

Tim Ferriss: And mycelium – if we’re looking at mycelium as one component of that or rather the product of that, I suppose – and please feel free to correct me if I screw things up by restating. Mushrooms, people have had a decent amount of exposure to. And they tend to associate it with the produce aisle in a grocery store and think of them perhaps as plants.

From a genetic perspective or an evolutionary perspective, how should people think about mycelium?

Paul Stamets: I love this question. Well, you bring up a very good point. For almost a hundred years now, the mycology departments were a subset of botany departments. They really should be in the zoology departments. We separated from fungi about 650 million years ago. And 650 million years ago, we had a common ancestor. In fact, there’s a new super kingdom called Opisthokonta that joins a fungi and Animalia together. Basically, these mycelial networks, when they hit the land from the ocean, many people don’t realize the largest networks of mycelium in the world now have been discovered below the sediment layers of the ocean. There’re vast mycelial networks throughout the entire ocean.

There’s lots of dead organic plant material that’s falling down to the sediments. And the mycelium is involved in gobbling those up. But from an evolutionary point of view, 650 million years ago, we chose the path of encirculating our nutrients basically in our cellular sac, our stomach. The mycelium digest nutrients externally. They produce the enzymes, and acids, and other compounds that break down complex organic molecules. And then absorbs those through the cell walls. The entire mycelial network is like a sponge. It absorbs selectively those nutrients that it needs. And animals went overground. And we developed these digestive systems and a protective skin-enveloped structure – our bodies. And then the mycelium continued on its course very happily developing underground. So the divergence of fungi and animals is extremely well-documented.

But an extraordinary article came out just this past year. And this article – the Big Bang was about 13.8 billion years ago. The earth formed around 4.5 billion years ago. The first unicellular organisms were found a few hundred million years later. But the first multicellular organisms so far found – the oldest one is 2.4 billion years ago. It was found in South African lava in the basalt. And it’s 2.4 billion years old. The oldest representation so far in the fossil record of a multicellular organism. And these are mycelial networks. So the mycelium had its form long before we’ve had ours. And moreover, in Brazil 115 million years ago – this is before the great extinction event that killed off the dinosaurs.

At that time, mushrooms also had their form. So these mushrooms are really ancient organisms. They had developed their forms long before we had developed ours. We are descended from these fungal networks. They are our progenitor ancestors. So we are really descendants of fungi. This is why, under the microscope, so many of our cells look so similar to that of fungi. And also, why our best antibiotics that we have coming from fungi are very good at preventing bacteria from growing. But we have very, very few good antifungal antibiotics because of our close evolutionary history that are not toxic or highly toxic to us. So antifungal drugs are extremely dangerous. Those who have had immunosuppressants are well aware of this. And when you defeat the immune system of the human body using immunosuppressants for organ transplants and other reasons in medicine, you’re dancing with death.

Because it’s extremely damaging to your immune system that can hold many of these infections at bay.

Tim Ferriss: There are so many directions that I want to go with this. I’m going to try to contain my ADD and focus this in a direction towards another type of utility. And it relates to a problem that if I were to walk 15 feet, I could observe with my own eyes right now. And that is carpenter ants. And I was wondering if you could talk about your history with carpenter ants and the intersection with mycelium.

Paul Stamets: This is a subject very dear to my heart. I’m going to segue. Because there could be listeners out there who have children. And I’m going to tell their children the story how vacuuming and helping your mother and your parents made me over a million dollars. And it ties into carpenter ants.

I grew up in a – I need two minutes to set this up.

Tim Ferriss: We have all the time in the world.

Paul Stamets: I grew up in a small town in Ohio – Columbiana, Ohio. A very conservative town of about 5,000 people. And I grew up in a fairly wealthy household. My family had steel mills and saw mills. And we were affluent. We had 400 people in the town under our employment of a town of about 5,000. So the Stamets Enterprise Company unfortunately because of – after World War II, we bombed Japan. We bombed Germany. But they retooled. They rebuilt their factories. So they had modern factories after the war. In the United States, we didn’t do that. So the machine tool industry really fell apart in the early 1960s in a huge economic downturn. And so the best experience of my life was the fact that I grew up in a wealthy environment. And then when I was 10 or 11 years of age, the entire financial empire collapsed.

We lost everything. And we laid off over 400 people in the town. I’m going to school with these kids and their parents are not very happy about what’s happening. It was really devastating to us. My parents separated. We lived in this big house. The electricity was cut off. The water was cut off. I remember eating cat food. I was just so hungry. It gave me tremendous farts. But my mom was really desperate. My brother John went on to Yale. My brother Bill was at Cornell. And this is towards the end of their college experiences. And I was there home alone with my mother and my twin brother. And I just really had to step up to the plate and help my mother as much as possible. I remember running a hose from my neighbor’s – about 500 feet of hose – just to get two or three psi so we could trickle-feed it into the toilets so we could flush them. It was really a strange and bewildering sort of Kafkaesque existence.

Because we were shunned by the town, my mother went into religion; my dad went into alcohol. They both were self-medicating in a sense with those two avenues. But I got really good at helping my mom vacuum because she needed help and we didn’t have the support team we had anymore. So I was always tearing apart vacuum cleaners, and borrowing parts, and trying to help my mom any way I could. So I vacuumed, vacuumed, vacuumed. I’m still passionate about vacuuming. I’m a really good house husband. I like washing dishes and vacuuming a lot. How this segues into carpenter ants is the following. I grew up in this affluent environment. I came out to Washington state. Became a logger hippie for three years working in the woods. Then I moved outside of Olympia, Washington. I went to the Evergreen State College. And I tried to start this little business.

And I lived in a house that Dr. Andrew Weil said is the worst house he’s ever seen anyone live in in North America. That’s one statement. It was a flat house built with military surplus materials. And I had 12 buckets catching water from the flat roof. Why you’d build a flat roof in Washington state with army surplus materials is another question. But there are so many leaks that I just keep on putting up buckets. And then one day, I remember there was a storm. And the house fell like two or three inches. And my wife goes, “My god. The house is falling.” I said, “Don’t worry, dear. We don’t have to fill the buckets as much because water will run out faster.” I was just trying to be able to be optimistic. Because I was afraid that she was going to get up and leave me because the conditions were so bad. But anyhow, I would be making my espresso in the morning and I look over in the corner. And there’s a pile of sawdust from carpenter ants. And I see them running around. And the carpenter ants are more nocturnal than they are active in the daytime.

And so I make my espresso every morning. I look over to the pile of sawdust. Pull out the vacuum cleaner. Vacuum it up. I did it the next day, and the next day, and the next day. I did this for hundreds of days realizing the house is getting more less structurally sound with the carpenter ants munching them. And so I thought, “I’ve got to do something about this.” I didn’t want to use Raid. I didn’t want to use toxic insecticides because the war against nature, in my mind, is a war against your own biology. And what’s toxic to other organisms is likely toxic to you. And this has been well-founded now with lots of examples. So I went to the Environmental Protection Agency homepage. And I looked up a group of fungi that would attack ants. And these are called entomopathogenic fungi. That’s a mouthful. But entomo means insects. Pathogenic means, of course, causing disease of insects.

And this group of entomopathogenic fungi that was particularly of interest and supported by scientific literature and with the encouragement of the EPA was a group of fungi in the genus Metarhizium. So meta and rhizium – lots of mycelium. Lots of rhizomorphs. And so I looked into this group of Metarhizium fungi. Nontoxic to bees. Nontoxic to fish. Nontoxic to humans. And I got some of these fungi. And I started growing them out. Now I started studying this, and I’m going, “This is really interesting. Why is this not available everywhere? Why isn’t Lowe’s, and Home Depot, and Walmart – why aren’t they selling this?” Well, for a very good reason. The insects aren’t stupid. When you see insects like carpenter ants and they’re constantly cleaning themselves, they’re trying to get the spores of the fungus off of them. It’s the most common fungus – according to some reports – in the soil underneath your feet. It is everywhere. It is a dance of dinner and death between insects and fungi.

Many insects eat fungi. Many fungi eat insects. The two of them don’t like to be at the dinner table at the same time. So I ended up getting this fungus. And I studied it. And the reason why it never came to market is for the spore repellency property. Now this is really important. Because these insects had realized that the scent of these spores meant that there’s a disease threat to the colony. So the insects fastidiously clean themselves of these spores. So when these big companies like Bayer, and Dow, and Syngenta tried to make bait stations using these spores – even though in the laboratory they could dust the insects with the spores and sure enough, five days later they would kill the insects – when they made bait stations around people’s houses, the insects wouldn’t go near those base stations because they’d smell the spores. And so the spore repellency property prevented these bait traps from going into market for preventing termites, fire ants, carpenter ants, moisture ants. All sorts of ants and termites are infected by this sporulating fungus, Metarhizium.

So I thought, “Well, I have a laboratory.” I have very large laboratories. We produce about 50,000 kilos of mycelium of many different gourmet and medicinal mushrooms per week. And my environments are class 100 clean rooms. These are high-tech clean room environments using HEPA filters, high efficiency particulate air filters. And the last thing I want is a sporulating mold in my laboratories. So I brought these cultures. And I was shocked at how many spores there were. It reminds somebody of a Penicillium mold growing on cheese. You don’t want that flying around your laboratory, because my oyster mushroom cultures or my shitake cultures could become contaminated from airborne spores. So I cultured this out really quickly. And so the window of exposure was very short. I set up all these precautions. And then culturing these fungi, they grow out as green molds. And then I saw this white wedge – a v-shaped wedge that was all white. It had no sporulation on it. And I went, “Whoa. That’s interesting.”

I look up the scientific literature and everybody said, “Oh, the culture is losing the ability to reproduce. It is losing the ability to sporulate. It is senescing. Avoid sectors” – this is what they’re called. These wedges are white sectors – “because that path down that gene trail will end up meaning the culture will die.” They partially got that right. But I was motivated by not having spores in my laboratory. So I chased those white sectors. And they grew out in about a week or two weeks on a standard-sized petri dish. And then after about five, six, or seven transfers, that white wedge got bigger, and bigger, and bigger. And pretty soon, no sporulation.

Tim Ferriss: And this is current day? This experiment that you were running is done more recently, not when you were under the flat roof built by military surplus. Is that right? I’m just trying to place the chronology.

Paul Stamets: No, this is synchronous with the flat roof.

Tim Ferriss: Okay, got it.

Paul Stamets: But I had to go out to my laboratory to have enough mycelium to be able to treat the carpenter ants. Anyhow, I finally grew it out. I grew it on rice. And I made a big deal to my daughter. And I am so thankful to her for the reasons you are about to hear. And I made a big deal in the middle of summer saying, “We’re going to trick the carpenter ants. Because every morning, I’m sucking up all this sawdust.” And so, I asked her for her Barbie doll dish, which I still have. I’m going to mount it in a frame. And I put 25 kernels of white mycelium on rice of this Metarhizium fungus without spores. Because they wouldn’t go near the rice if it had spores. And I laid it out around 8:30 at night in the summer. And I made a big deal of it. And it got my daughter involved as a citizen scientist. She was only – oh, my gosh. She was probably 14 at the time. And then we went to bed.

Thankfully, my daughter woke up at 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning. And rather than going straight to the bathroom, she wanted to look at her Barbie doll dish. She went over there and turned on the lights. And it was swarming with carpenter ants. And I thought, “Oh, my gosh. You’ve got to be kidding.” And so she ran into our bedroom and said, “Dad, Dusty, wake up. You’ve got to see this.” And we didn’t want to wake up. It was 2:00 in the morning. But she dragged us out of bed. We went over there, and it was just covered with carpenter ants. And they were picking up the rice. And they’re going into the recesses of the house and disappearing. And I was like, “Oh, my gosh. That was amazing.” Because I had mice in the house. The mice could’ve eaten the rice and I would never have known. But we watched for a few minutes and they took away all the myceliated rice. So we fast-forward. I’m making my espresso every morning hundreds of times. I get the vacuum cleaner out. I go over to that spot. There’s no sawdust. The carpenter ants were gone. And I went, “Oh, my gosh. I just think I figured out a way to overcome the spore repellency property.”

Now this has been elaborated. We published an article in The Journal of Sociobiology proving this is effective against subterranean termites, Formosan termites. We’ve done experiments now with the USDA and other teams. Some of the biggest pesticide companies in the world – I’ve had to check my NDAs to see if they’re still covered or not – but everyone listening can imagine who they are. They tested this. It’s effective against bed bugs, ants, termites, thrips, flies, mosquitoes, mites. Phenomenal reach. And so I ended up finding something that is a super attractant. And basically, the opposite of the spore repellency property is the mycelial attractancy property. Two sides of the same coin. The yin and yang of nature. It’s kind of harmonious in that sense. I like that.

And we found that if we diluted the mycelial extracts on rice without the spores – these preconidial, pre-sporulating sectors that I described – we end up created a super attractant so powerful that when the attractant was diluted 500 to one with water, diluting the extract made it more potent in terms of attractancy. In one experiment, two drops of this was put on a pane of glass, and fire ants walked directly to that place and then scratched at that place until they died, walking about a meter creating a trail that other fire ants then would follow. We have done this now with choice – they’re called t-tests. We’ve done with this – the t-tests are even better. Our t-test oftentimes is go left for the control, go right for the treatment. But we ended up doing four and five choice experiments where there was only one corridor or avenue that had the treatment and the other ones were all controls.

Highly significant activity. And we found something that I can – my dream is to be able to attract a locust plague into a 55-gallon drum. We’ve put these in foggers in Africa and just create a huge attractancy factor. The cool thing also is the attractancy is not lethal. So that comes later. The infectious state of the mycelium grows. And then it penetrates the exoskeleton with a hyphal peg. It kind of anchors itself like a sticky little tongue. And then it dissolves the exoskeleton, the chitin. And then the hyphal peg invades into the body of the insect and it mummifies them. Many people have heard about these zombie fungi. This is what they are. Some of them have a Cordyceps representation as a little club fungi. In Costa Rica and elsewhere in the subtropics, many of the ants there are well-known.

The leaf-cutter ants and other ants are known to – if they get infected with this fungus, they climb to the top canopy of the trees. And they lock their mandible underneath a leaf and a mushroom comes out of their head and their anus. And it sporulates in this way. The fungus gets to sporulate in free air conditions high up in the canopy. So it causes uncontrolled behavior of climbing with these insects. I know, it’s – so that was a breakthrough. And I ended up licensing this to a group of investors, and I got a million dollars. And so I like to tell my daughter she was very instrumental in this. The licensing agreement had some limits on it. They had to take it to market within five years or I pulled back the licensing agreement, and they didn’t take it to market, so I pulled it back. And everything was actually quite friendly. But it’s a little bit of a mystery why it did not make it to market. And I have a lot of conspiracy theories as to why it did not make it to market. I hesitate to mention those.

But I was given a chunk of change. And I was smart enough to realize that they can’t crush this. And that was a condition. This has to come to market. If it doesn’t come to market, then I get the patent rights back. And I’ve been issued nine patents on this. People can go to the U.S. Patent homepage and look them up. The latest patent that I was issued on this two years ago is really phenomenal. Because I have patents on antiviral properties of mycelium, and I have these patents on these entomopathogenic fungi for all insects and all diseases vectored by insects. It doesn’t get bigger than that.

Tim Ferriss: Are there any types – there are a number of different areas I want to dig deeper. Are there any particular common viruses or particularly lethal viruses that you’ve seen applications for using mycelium in terms of resistance or defeating?

Paul Stamets: Yeah. Well, there’s a lot of examples of that. I published an article in the journal – a peer-reviewed journal called HerbalGram in June of 2001 summarizing all the literature that’s been published on the antiviral properties of mushroom mycelium. It is a whopping one page long with like six references. There was virtually very, very little out there. That was in June of 2001. September 11, 2001, 9/11 occurred. Very quickly, the greatest concern for the U.S. Defense Department and biosecurity was weaponizable viruses – pox viruses, anthrax as a bacterium. The anthrax attacks occurred a few weeks later. A group of researchers in the U.S. Defense Department were scavenging the literature and saw my article.

And they said, “Wow. There’s some evidence here.” And they contacted me because I had a very large library. Now it may sound large to people who don’t have libraries. I have about 800 strains of different species of mushrooms, many of which I collected from the old growth forest. Now some libraries have 20,000 cultures, so I’m small compared to them. But I’m private. I’m not a big institution. So they said, “Well, listen. You’ve published some interesting articles here. There’s some evidence. We have been funded by Dick Cheney and George Bush –” ironically, I have a debt of gratitude to them – “with the BioShield biodefense program. It’s called Project Biodefense.” But it then became known as the BioShield program. So they enlisted my support. And then I began to send them cultures – mushrooms boiled in hot water, ethanolic extracts of the mushrooms. The mycelium that gave rise to the mushrooms, et cetera.

And so I ended up sending out sets of a hundred of these samples. I mean, for me, this is a coup d’état. I have government laboratories that will give me free research on my extracts. We started sending these out and didn’t hear from them for a while. And I just realized they were really disorganized. It was a new program, and I got a colonel. I love that he mentioned his name. He worked at Fort Detrick where they have smallpox. It’s a bioweapons facility, biohazard facility of the U.S. Government. Where they have the most pathogenic bacteria, and viruses, and other disease organisms. And so I had an M.D. person who was my controller. Federal Express one day – about two months later after I submitted the extracts – delivered me this big package of research reports on anti-pox properties – smallpox properties of our extracts.

I’m going through it. No activity. No activity. I get to sample number 78. High activity against pox viruses. And sample 81, high activity. Sample 88, high activity. Whoa. It’s like you were looking at not effective and no results in the first 77 pages and it’s pretty disappointing. And then bam. I got really excited. So I called up my colonel at Fort Detrick and I said, “These results are amazing. This is exciting.” And he goes, “What results?” I go, “The results that Federal Express just delivered to me.” He goes, “You’re not supposed to get those. I am.” I said, “I’ll take a photocopy and I’ll send them to you.” He didn’t appreciate the humor. But it was a very, very bizarre time. And some very, very strange things occurred at that time. But we ended up finding that those three highly active results came from an old-growth mushroom called agarikon. Agarikon is the longest-living mushroom in the world. Number one and number two. There’s some debate about that.

It grows exclusively in the old growth forests – northern California, Oregon, Washington, and British Columbia and a few sky islands in Europe or the Alps. In Slovenia and Austria on large trees. But it is an indicator species of an old growth forest. And those three anti-pox results came from three different separate strains of agarikon that I had isolated from my many adventures in the old growth forest. So whoa. This got people very excited. Now, I love to be taken to the mat. I’m reference driven, okay? So anybody out there that’s skeptical of this, you can do two things. You can Google my name – Stamets – National Public Radio, NPR and pox. And you’ll see a vetted press release interview on National Public Radio with me, the former deputy director of the FDA, and the head of one of their research divisions – the BioShield biodefense program – Dr. Jack Secrist from Southern Research University.

And then because I’m in competition with pharma and I’m a lone researcher – I have a little company – I thought – well, I checked into this. And I already had these entomopathogenic fungi patents that were just tremendous achievements. Because the entire pesticide industry missed all that. So I thought, “This is novel. I should protect myself.” So I filed a patent on it – on the agarikon against viruses. Particularly pox viruses, flu viruses, herpes – these are all the other results that we received. These extracts were highly active against multiple viruses, not just pox viruses.

Tim Ferriss: Quick question for you. Is that for preventative use? Curative use? Both? What are the applications?

Paul Stamets: This is, Tim, where I have to draw the line. Because these are in vitro tests with human cells. And taking through three different testing protocols to the point where the next test is an in vivo model of an animal.

So this is the best pharmaceutical drug discovery that you can go through before you get to go to a living host. These are living human cells in vitro and not in vivo. In vivo means it’s a small mammal like a mouse, a rat, a monkey – or it goes into human clinical studies. So these are in vitro tests. And even though we have identified now the molecules that are active against smallpox – we worked with the University of Mississippi School of Pharmacy under Dr. Samir Ross. We did bioguided fractionation over many years. And we have identified two new anti-pox molecules more potent than cidofovir, which is the preeminent comparative anti-viral drug control. With less toxicity and more efficacy than cidofovir.

But that being said, there’s clearly an upregulation of the immune system. And so what is the contribution of these molecules versus the upregulating of the immune system? Is there a combination of both? Is there synergism? If there’s multiple molecules being engaged, multiple immune pathways. This where you can get lost. You can’t see the forest for the trees. If you end up focusing so much on the mechanisms of action and don’t see the result – if you were infected with one of these viruses, you really don’t care about the mechanism of action. You just want to know whether you’re going to overcome the virus or not. So we have found the anti-pox molecules. We have not yet found the anti-flu or the anti-herpes molecules to date. And I have another really good example specific to your original question of mycelium being active against viruses.

Tim Ferriss: Can I pause for one quick second? I have to know what happened after the lieutenant called. Because I imagine someone on his end had to have their head roll for that type of security breach by mailing FedEx to the wrong place with those research reports. What happened after that?

Paul Stamets: Oh, my god. I don’t have to make up these stories. I don’t have to make up any of these stories. They’re too good to be true as they are, but this is what happened. I was in Canada – I’m speaking to you right now from Cortes Island, British Columbia. I was up here on Cortes Island. And one of my employees called up and said, “Paul, there’s a helicopter buzzing around the laboratories.” I go, “No big deal. Helicopters fly over all the time.” And he goes, “No. It’s really low.” And I go, “How low?” And he goes, “Listen.” He puts his cellphone up. I can hear, “Chum, chum, chum, chum, chum.” I go, “Wow. What are the numbers on the tail?” He goes, “There are no numbers. It’s a Black Hawk military helicopter that’s right on top of the laboratories.”

I go, “Oh, my god. You’re kidding.” And this is right after we got the pox results, right after I talked to the colonel. Like two weeks later or a week later. And I said, “Okay, listen. Shut down the business.” And I knew immediately the government’s going to screw up here and they’re going to – in an abundance of caution, they’re going to end up overstepping their bounds. And I said, “This is crazy. I’ve already been vetted. I’ve already been permitted. I’m already in dialogue with these people. And they’re trying to spook me? What’s going on here?” So I shut down the business. At the time, I only had 10 employees. Now, I have a hundred. And I said, “Shut down the business. Give the cultures of agarikon to several of the employees. I never want to know who has them. Let’s decentralize ourselves as a target right now.” And so I shut down the business. All the employees left. The helicopter’s still buzzing around. And so the next day, I called up pretty pissed off to the colonel saying, “What is going on?”

And he got really nervous. Now he’s got two black eyes, right? They delivered the right results to the wrong person. And now, one – he goes, “The government, you know. One hand doesn’t talk to the other. And they got overexuberant. If terrorists got this technology, they could immunize themselves.” And it’s like, “Whatever.” Anyhow, it was funny. Because as I was going through the airports, I got five stars on every single airline ticket. I even joked to my wife, “Here we go again. I’m going to get stopped and searched.” And then after this, all those five stars got taken away, and I stream through security with no problem. But I was obviously suddenly on their radar because I’m non-conventional. But the fact that I’m here today makes me more of a patriotic American than I was before. So anyhow, I filed these patents. A patent on agarikon versus these viruses. I filed it in 2004.

You can look this up. Go to the U.S. Patent homepage. You’ll see my filing dates. I filed this patent in 2004 and 9/11 was in 2001. So I had to write the patent and get more research results. We got lots and lots of positive results from the BioShield program. I think they – I talked to one of the researchers last year. And he goes, “Do you know that we analyzed 2,392 of your samples?” And I’m going, “I’m so glad I didn’t have to pay for that.” But we got about 40 excellent hits from my 800 or so cultures that were surprising, which has led into a paradigm-shifting solution for many of the problems that we face today. But I filed this patent in 2004. In 2006, it’s not even on the patent application homepage. Anybody out there who doesn’t know about patents, usually six months to a year, the patent application shows up at the USPTO.gov website – U.S. Patent and Trademark Office dot gov website. And it didn’t show up.

This was over two years. So I got ahold of my patent attorney going, “What is going on here?” He gets ahold of the patent office. And the Department of Defense took the patent out of the patent office because of national security. I said, “You’re kidding.” That’s kind of a pat on my back. I was like, “Well, really? You think it’s that important?” But I said, “That’s not right.” So we did an intergovernmental agency trace and a request. And the DOD finally released the patent to go back into the queue. And so, 10 years after I submitted a patent application – now, folks, usually in two to three years you get a ruling. 10 years after I submitted the patent, it was approved.

Tim Ferriss: That’s a long wait.

Paul Stamets: That’s a long wait. The good news is it approved in 2014, so I’ve got 17 years. The whole thing about patents – we would not be talking today if there weren’t patents. Patents become open sourced after 17 years. The idea is to reward the inventor, to incentivize things to come to market.

Because a patent that is not practiced is not useful or beneficial to society. Within that 17 years or outside that 17 years, it has to be brought to market. There has to be a commercial incentive. Patents are awarded for three reasons. One, no prior art. No evidence in the scientific or popular literature of anyone saying he’s having the same idea. Two, unobviousness. You want experts saying, “Paul Stamets, you’re full of B.S. This’ll never work.” And so I have a message to all my critics out there. I want to say, “Thank you. You have helped me so much in ways that you did not intend.” But I am really happy that some people come out and make these statements. And the third is usefulness. So those are the three things. No prior art, contrary to conventional wisdom, and usefulness. Obviously, that fits all three of those categories. Then the pox molecules I have not patented. They’re open source. Hopefully we’ll never have a smallpox epidemic or pandemic again.

I think that obviously serves a greater good

Tim Ferriss: Another follow-up question that – out of self-interest – I’d love to ask related to the carpenter ants. For people who are eager to try to address something with carpenter ants specifically, are there any current recommendations that you would have? Number one. And then talking about conventional or contrary to conventional wisdom, I think at this point people are wondering, “How did this guy become so obsessed with this stuff?” So I do want to roll back the clock and talk about – among other things – your stutter. But first, I have to know is there anything you would recommend as it relates to carpenter ants? Or is it a waiting game?

Paul Stamets: Well, the test of a patent is that it’s reproducible. The EPA and the USDA now are allowing this fungus in food handling facilities.

The first fungus ever to be allowed for controlling insects in food handling facilities. It is that safe. The safety documents supplied by the EPA are now open source and in public domain. So the companies that did all the research proving that this fungus is not dangerous now have released all their commercial interest in it. The strain of Metarhizium called F52 is a public domain strain. So what I’m saying is you’re not legal for you to go out and use this and commercialize with without EPA registration. But the test of a patent is reproducible. So all the methods for doing this are published. I just submitted my entire portfolio with all my research and eight or nine patents, all the documentation of all these companies that have done their research themselves.

And I’ve submitted it to a very, very well-known company that has an extremely potent insecticide that many people know that use it on the market. And the word I got back was, “Why would we want to disrupt a proven profit wheel with something that –?” My ants did not reinvade for 10 years. Because after the ants were killed – the carpenter ants – they sporulated. So the spore repellency property prevented future invasions. That’s not a very good economic model when you can treat a house once and they don’t come back. A far better economic business plan is having a consumer buying it every month and spraying toxic chemicals that kill the workers but don’t kill the queen. The whole key to this is the mycelium is taken back into the nest like a Trojan horse. It’s presented to the queen who then spreads it to the brood. And they’re all living in this sort of myceliated palace.

And then, before they realize it, whoosh. It sporulates. And it kills the queen. If you can kill the queen, you can control the colony. After it sporulates, the spore repellency property prevents other carpenter ants from coming into your house. So it’s a 10-year solution for about 25 cents. That’s what it costs to produce. Of course, the packaging and all that stuff would add up numbers pretty quickly. But it’s incredibly – it’s very inexpensive to produce. And it can be produced in huge quantities. So it did not make it to market. And I’m exasperated. I have one really great story on this. This woman named Chris that works for a company that has three letters in their name, she was given the mandate – because their stockholders were really upset because of the reputation of this company causing toxic spills that harmed thousands of people.

And they wanted to grow the green movement. Can you find green solutions? She was given the mandate to find a green solution to replace toxic insecticides. She was given a budget. She found me. We dialogued for months. I gave her samples. She set up experiments. Two of the researchers were so excited that they called me up at home. And both of them said, “I’m not supposed to be telling you this, but this is the most exciting thing we’ve ever seen in our lives as entomologists and fighting these problems.” She went to the board of directors. Prior to her going, we connected. Went over the data together. Messaging how to create the most clear communication to the board of directors – all men. And she was a steel magnolia. I’ve never met her in person. I wanted to hire her immediately. She ran these meetings just so professionally. She was really excited. And she goes in. And then next day in the afternoon, I’m waiting for her call. And she calls. And the person on the phone is so angry.

I’m going, “Who is this?” And she goes, “This is Chris.” She goes, “I’m so angry I can’t see straight.” I mean, she’s totally composed before. And she’s lost her composure. I go, “Chris, what happened?” She goes, “I went in there. I made my presentation. All men. They looked at me steely eyed.” And she said, “This is the best. You gave me this mandate. I found something. This is a game changer. We can come with an ecologically rational and sustainable solution based on nature.” And they looked at her dour faced. And then the chairman of the company looked at her and said, “Chris, your budget never was in research. It was in advertising.”

Tim Ferriss: Oh, god.

Paul Stamets: Very much similar to BP. Remember Beyond Petroleum? How much of BP’s budget actually is in alternative fuels versus how much is in oil? Now how much of their advertising budget is in alternative fuels as opposed to oil?

I mean, clearly – it’s called greenwashing. And so, that was – I just – that happened seven or eight years ago. And then this past month, I had the same thing happen again. It’s a disruptive technology. It rocks the apple cart. And many of these insecticides are coming from the petroleum industry as byproducts from their waste material.

Tim Ferriss: I want to talk disruptive, and something challenging to the status quo, and contrary to most conventional wisdom. But that requires going way, way back and talking a bit about perhaps your childhood, which you described in part already. But when did you develop a stutter? And why don’t you still have a stutter?

Paul Stamets:  I started stuttering really when I was about five years old. I mean, I stuttered from the time that I could talk. My family was dysfunctional. And I had been told that sometimes the type of stuttering that I have is related to a defect of neurological development in the seventh or eighth month. That’s one possible reason. But the type of stuttering I have – anyone who’s seen The King’s Speech, I had that and worse. So I c-c-c-c—you know, could not speak. And I had to find alternative pathways to trick my brain with a prepositional or adverbial phrase. Because your brain gets further ahead than your mouth can articulate. And then you become self-conscious.

And the type of stutterer that I am – as most stutterers, we don’t stutter when we sing. We don’t stutter if I start speaking in a British accent or you create an accent. And you don’t stutter when you talk to animals. So it’s a very interesting – it’s something that’s triggered by social contact. And so, it was very difficult for me to date ladies. They wanted the super jocks, the self-assured men. And I was a stutterer. And so, I used to always stare at the ground. And I found fossils. I found mushrooms. But it was very difficult for me. Now, I grew up in a small town in Ohio. And my dad was an officer on the aircraft carrier The Intrepid during World War II. So after World War II, he got the Intrepid aircraft carrier radio. And it was in our basement. My brother John, who was very interested in chemistry, created this huge – like three racks of chemicals in the basement in this laboratory.

He had Bunsen burners, all sorts of experiments going all the time. But he never let me “play” in the laboratory. I could play on the radio and I could watch him. But he’s my older brother. I was the youngest one in my family. And so John went on to Yale. My brother Bill went on to Cornell. And they left. And they left me this laboratory. So my dream was always to have a laboratory and living in the country. And that’s kind of what I’m doing now. But John, when he came back from Yale, came back with a book called Altered States of Consciousness by Charles Tart. And it was anthology of research articles on changing your consciousness with either drugs, or from spinning, or from dreams. It was one of the early books from the University of California Davis. John lent me this book. And I said, “Johnny, I’d really like to see it.” But he says, “Well, listen. I’m on break for two weeks. But I need the book because it’s part of our class.”  So I got this book. I’m just devouring this book. And John was my hero. He was my mentor.

And John went to Mexico and Colombia. Came back with these incredible stories of magic mushrooms and consuming them. I just adored him. And of course, I wanted to do the same. Then he gave me this book. So I’m really getting excited about this. But my best friend, Ryan Snyder, wanted also to read this book. And so Ryan goes, “Can I borrow your brother’s book?” I go, “Sure. You can borrow it. But I need it back.” And I said, “You have to give it back to me in two or three days.” Several days passed and I asked Ryan about the book. And he hemmed and hawed. And a week later, “Where’s the book?” And he wouldn’t respond. Sort of not looking me in the eye.

Tim Ferris: Always a good sign.

Paul Stamets: Yeah. So I go, “Where’s my book? Where’s my brother’s book?” And it’s been two weeks and my brother, John, is now pressuring me. “Paul, I need that textbook. It’s part of the class.” I finally got ahold of Ryan. And I said, “Where is my brother’s book?” And Ryan said, “Paul, I can’t give it back to you.” I said, “Why?” He said, “My dad found it and burned it.”

I said, “Your dad burned my brother’s book? What?” He goes, “Yeah. It was considered to be counterculture and threatening to our family structure and all” – I could not believe it. I was so upset. And I was so apologetic to my brother, who did not take it well. Like, “That’s the last time I’m going to trust you.” So that was really bad. But I thought to myself, “You know, if this was so disturbing to this alpha male conservative neocon like personality, then I think I’ve found a subject I want to explore more.” That got me into magic mushrooms. And from my experience and also a tremendous amount of guilt for my brother trusting me with this textbook and I couldn’t return it to him. So John was really interested in this subject. He inspired me.

And then John went on to chemistry and neurophysiology at the University of Washington Medical School on a full scholarship. And I was left in the laboratory. And so I started experimenting with marijuana. I remember when the DEA came to Columbiana, Ohio. They had a whole display of drugs. And a whole bunch of me and my friends just went there to look at them. We went, “Wow. Look at that one.”

Tim Ferriss: How old were you at the time?

Paul Stamets: Oh, 14 or 15 years of age. I mean, drugs on display. Drugs you’ve heard about and never seen. Look how small that LSD is. That’s incredible. So I still had this really bad stuttering habit. And it was really socially debilitating on multiple levels. So I was in Ohio and I ended up buying a bag of magic mushrooms. And I was not really into the drug scene, so I don’t really know how much things should cost. For 20 bucks, I bought a bag. And I knew set and setting was really important. But I had no guide. Nobody else in my little circle was into it.

And so there was a really great walk that I liked to walk in the woods up on the hills. Beautiful rolling hills of Ohio – northern Ohio. And I thought, “Okay. Set and setting’s important.” So I took the bag and I thought that would be one dose. It was not one dose, folks. I probably ate about 20 grams of psilocybin cubensis. In defense of this, I need to make it clear. These were not grown. They were harvested. So they were exposed to the sun. So they may have been only equivalent to 10 grams of cubensis. For people who are listening, five grams of psilocybin cubensis is the hero’s journey. Now you’re full blown. You’re into starscape. You’re changing dimensions. Your fractal patterns, the air becomes a sea of mathematical formulas and your mind is opened up. Your heart’s opened up. You feel one with the universe. That’s the hero’s journey. That’s five grams. You really don’t get that until going over three grams. You start getting into it.

So 10 to 20 grams is the superhero’s journey. I’d never eaten these before. So I was walking into this place – about an hour walk. I started consuming them and then drinking water because they were dried. And then I saw a tree that I loved climbing. This tree had this limb, so it was a perfect climbing tree at the very top of a hill. So I thought, “That’s a great place. Set and setting. Getting a good view. That’s what I need.” And I could feel the mushrooms coming on. As I climbed up the tree branch by branch, I got higher and higher. So it was kind of an ascending euphoria that kind of went with everything. It was very cool. And I got to the top of the tree. And it’s a beautiful landscape. And I’m up there and the mushrooms are coming on. I’m getting higher and higher. And I realize I’m really getting high here and it’s dizzying. So I’m holding onto the tree. And on the horizon was this big black bank of boiling, dark, angry clouds. It was a summer storm coming in.

In Ohio, when you see summer storms, they’re terrifying. There are lightning bolts coming down and thunder and lightning. It was off in the distance, but it was coming at me really quickly. And I’m getting higher and higher as the thunder and lightning storm is getting closer and closer. I’m getting vertigo. And I go, “Oh, my god. I can’t get off the tree. I don’t want to fall.” So I held onto the tree for dear life. And it became my axis mundi – sort of my axis right into the earth. And I had this amazing experience. I mean, just a beautiful experience. But also, the threat of lightning coming closer and closer. And every lightning strike, it would hit and be “tzzzz!” Fractal patterns would just emanate out from every lightning strike. And synesthesia occurred. Where the sound and visions were merging together. And sounds had visions. And visions had sounds.

And it was just an incredibly complex – one of my favorite books is The Glass Bead Game by Hermann Hesse – also called Magister Ludi. It’s rather erudite. He got the Nobel Prize for it in 1955. But that was a deep dive into inner space exploration. But I felt like I was a part of the glass bead game. There I was. I was ascending into this higher state of consciousness. And then I realized, “Oh, my god. I’m in the highest point in miles during a lightning storm. This is not a good place to be.” And there I was up there. I was terrified. And the lightning storm came closer and closer. And I had these pathogenic – just empathy for the universe, one. “Everything is fine. If I die here today, my life is complete. Now I understand I’m part of the fabric of all the matter that’s around me. I’m one with everything. I’m made of stardust. Everything’s made of stardust. This is a continuum of nature. Death is natural. Birth is natural. Transitions are just the way of existence.”

And then the lightning storm and the wind came up. I’m rushed with warm rain. And it was just a terrifying lightning storm. And I’m up there and I’m thinking, “Oh, I’m going to die. What if I don’t die, Paul? What are you going to learn from this experience? Challenge yourself right now. This is all great and wonderful. But let’s get down to brass tacks. What are your biggest issues? You’re not going to die. What’s your biggest issue?” And I’m like, “Stuttering.” I’m having this dialogue with myself. I just can’t overcome this stuttering habit. I’m not stupid. I went to – for people to understand how bad it was, I was interviewed for special education because of my stuttering. Because I couldn’t read in class. And so, when it was my turn to read, they would pass on me because no one had the patience to hear a stutterer. And please don’t finish a stutterer’s sentence. Look at them, smile, and engage. Help them finish their sentence. Don’t finish it for them.

That robs them of the opportunity of overcoming this speech deficit. So I scored high in my tests, so I didn’t get put into special education. But it was pretty demoralizing to realize I’m going to go into a special education class. But I didn’t. So I thought stuttering was my issue. And so I started saying to myself, “Paul, stop stuttering now. You can do this. You’re not stupid. You come from a very smart family. You can do this.” And so I said, “Stop stuttering now” over and over and over again hundreds, if not thousands of times. And this storm washed over me. I felt like I achieved a state of godhead. I felt enlightened. I come from a Christian background, so I had this empathy with Jesus. And now I understand why Jesus went in the wilderness. Now I understand why Jesus said, “Don’t go into churches, go into nature.” Whatever. That’s my cultural background.

But I connected on that level. And I realized, “Oh, my gosh. This is something I can overcome.” So I came out of the tree. I obviously did not get electrocuted. I went back home. And then the next morning, there was this girl that I greatly admired. And she was super sweet and nice to me. And I really still love her to this day because of her kindness. And I didn’t want to talk to her because every time I t-t-t-t-talk – then you get these half breaths going on. And then you can’t get out of this loop. And she’s coming along the sidewalk in the morning. And she looks and me. And she’s so sweet. She said, “Good morning, Paul. How are you?” And I cast my eyes up from the sidewalk. And I looked at her. And I said, “I’m doing fine. Thank you for asking.” And I stopped stuttering just like that.

Now, I do that – I’ve had about four or five relapses. If there’s a lot of noise, and I’ve been drinking, and somebody asks me, “How do you grow mushrooms?” it’s like filling a well with a teaspoon. It’s like, “Where do I begin?” You know? Or if I’m meeting somebody who’s super famous or something like that. But that’s natural. People get stage fright when they’re –

Tim Ferriss: Definitely.

Paul Stamets: But it’s something that I think is really important. Because there’s one other aspect that’s related to hearing that I want to mention. I have a really good friend – he’s passed on now – named Bill Webb. He lived in Big Sur, California. And I was 19 years old when I wrote my first book, Psilocybin Mushrooms and Their Allies. I was self-trained. I got involved with the University of Washington with Dr. Daniel Stuntz as part of a taxonomy key council. And I adopted the taxonomy of psilocybin mushrooms as my specialty.

At the time, there was very little literature on it. Most of the books in libraries had been razored – the pages had been razored out. Dr. Stuntz had an intact library, so I could study with him. I became a taxonomist. I wrote taxonomy keys. There I was at 19 or 20 and that became the core of my book. So I had this manuscript. And I go to Montana Books in Seattle to pitch the book. And Montana Books is producing some gay-friendly literature and they were on the cutting edge. And it was recommended that I see them. I made an appointment. I go up to Seattle. I’m meeting the head of Montana Books. They go, “You know, this is not our market. It’s an interesting subject. Really what you need is a book agent.” He goes, “The best book agent I know is Bill Webb and I haven’t seen him in two years.” And at the sound of those words, a little bell jingles on the front door of Montana Books. And in walks Bill Webb.

And the publisher’s going, “No way.” So Bill and I became tight friends. He invited me down to Big Sur. He was a friend of Henry Miller and was just a really fantastic individual. He became a father figure to me at a really critical time in my life. And so, Bill and I did journeys together – sacred journeys. He’s like my Obi Wan Kenobi. He realized I’m 19 or 20 years of age. I’m with a 75-year-old who was a friend of Ansel Adams. He had Ansel Adams’ library of many of his imprints and was working with his wife in curating them. I mean, a really cultured, intellectually interesting guy. Beautiful place. Bill and I tripped several times. And it was a wonderful experience for me. It brings tears to my eyes just talking about Bill. Bill died about 15 years ago.

And Bill calls me up about three or four months before he dies. And he goes, “Paul, I have to tell you something that’s so important.” I said, “Bill, I haven’t heard from you in years. How is it going?” He goes, “Well, frankly, life sucks. I’m losing my sight. I’m losing my hearing. I can’t hear the waves or the seagulls now – I live above the cliffs of Big Sur – except for this damn hearing aid which is always malfunctioning.” He said, “I hate it. But I’ve got to tell you something that’s so important that you know.” And I go, “Okay, Bill.” And I said, “What is it?” And Bill goes, “Now, I really want you to listen, Paul. This is important.” I go, “Bill, I understand.” And then he kept on emphasizing it. And so finally, I got frustrated and said, “Bill, I got the message. Okay? I know what you’re going to tell me is important.” He goes, “I want to make sure that you tell other people. Will you promise me?” I go, “I promise you.” He said, “Paul, I think I found something medically very important about psilocybin.” I go, “What?” He said, “Well, I went on the hero’s journey. I took out my hearing aid. I’m lying in full bliss, one with the universe.” He’s like 80 years of age or 82 years of age when he’s doing this by himself.

And he said, “Look, I could hear the seagulls. I could hear the waves. I go, ‘Oh, my gosh. I can hear everything.’” And then he reached for his hearing aid and he didn’t have it in. And he goes, “Oh, my gosh. I can hear!” And then he heard this click, click, click, click. Tap, tap, tap, tap. And he looks around going, “That’s weird. That’s an unusual sound.” And click, click, click, click, click. Tap, tap, tap, tap. And he couldn’t figure out what it was. And he looked around and looked around. And finally, he saw what it was. There are ants walking on the deck. And he was hearing their footsteps.

Tim Ferriss: That is wild.

Paul Stamets: Now, this is where even I – and I’m a liberal kind of guy — I’m going, “Wait a second. Tell me that again.” And that’s why Bill set me up by saying, “You have to tell other people this.” So I’ve been working with Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins University, the clinical studies on psilocybin, et cetera. And I really emphasize this to many of the researchers.

They could easily do a test while these patients are in session to test their hearing to see if they have increased sensitivity, increased tonal ranges. It’s a very easy metric. But I think what happened with me on the tree in the lightning storm is that I created a new neurological pathway of articulating my thoughts and overcoming the social phobia. The social phobia is a trigger. It’s definitely an environmental trigger. And then we get locked into these loops that are really, really strange. Another good thing to tell a stutterer is, “Can you demonstrate different ways of stuttering?” They’ll do it. You want me to stutter different ways of stuttering? I’ll give you three different ways of stuttering. So it’s really weird.

Tim Ferriss: So does that act as a pattern interrupt that helps them to overcome – at least temporarily – the stuttering? Or is it just useful for a non-stutterer to hear different ways of stuttering?

Paul Stamets: I hadn’t thought of that. I’m not sure how to answer that. But I do think that once new neurological pathways are established, you can capitalize on them by re-remembering them. This is a thing that Johns Hopkins University – some of the most surprising results is 14 months after these experiences – what many of the patients said was the most important spiritual experience of their lives. 14 months afterwards, not only do they have demonstrable benefits – being nicer people, being a better parent or better husband, socially more well adapted – but the fact that they re-remembered the experience reinforced those benefits that they experienced directly after the experience. So a lot of people that are listening to me may not understand. These are not drugs of abuse.

You eat these mushrooms one day. The next day, you’ll go, “No way. I’m not going near those things.” You look at them and you’ve got the repellency property, right? The psilocybin repellency property. Like, “I’m not touching those for months. But boy, that was a great experience.” So these are not substances of abuse. But they’re shockingly powerful. To the point that you’re not ready for the hero’s journey for a long time. So these are not drugs of abuse by any stretch of the imagination. They really should be re-categorized as a therapeutic drug.

Tim Ferriss: Definitely. And this, in many ways, relates to your – well, it relates to a few of your previous stories very well in so much as psilocybin is very challenging as a medical model in several respects. One of which is it does not require daily or weekly administration.

And it is economically difficult to create a for-profit model unless you are monetizing the therapy and adjunct pre- and post-support and things of that type. The sort of one and done or three times and done aspect of it actually makes it pretty challenging to commercialize and make widespread unless you’re relying on donations. I would love to hear your thoughts just to expand on this a little bit. Do you think, say, psilocybin, or another that I know very little about but want to discuss with you – we can talk about both or either. That’s lion’s mane. In this case, should I say mushrooms, or should I say mycelium or mycelia? What would be the right way to –? What would be the right term to use here?

Paul Stamets: Well, mushrooms are what people know. But mycelium is emerging as a tremendously important reservoir of many bioactive molecules that supersede the benefit of mushrooms.

A whole genome sequencing of reishi mushrooms in the genus Ganoderma – the common lingzha, lingzhi, ling zhur, reishi, mannentake – the 10,000-year mushroom, the mushroom of immortality – these are all common names out of Asia. There are 25 percent more genes are active and expressed in the mycelial form than it is in the fruit body form. The fruit body’s the mushroom form. That’s the end of its life cycle. So much of our research is found doing side by side comparisons of mushrooms, which are protein-rich. They are beta-glucan rich. They have lots of carbohydrates and polysaccharides. They’re nutritionally dense. But the mycelium is articulating constantly a bioshield of defense from exposure. When the mushrooms form, good luck to any bacterium that’s going to rot it. It’s going to sporulate in four or five days and then gives himself up anyhow.

Moreover, I think that the sequence of bacteria that rots mushrooms is absolutely instrumentally important for the evolution of the ecosystem to give rise to the trees to create the debris fields that feed the mycelium. So these are deterministic microbiomes. And the fungal biome is determining the microbiome. Because many of these bacteria are adversarial. Some of them are commensal. Some of them are actually mutually beneficial. So the mycelium is this articulation of this network that – because of epigenesis, the ability to respond to environmental stimuli and upregulate and express new gene expressions, it is a fertile ground for learning. For being able to articulate responses as new challenges in the environment. The mushroom fruit body is at the end of the – but you know, people are attracted to mushrooms. And they fear that nature which is ephemeral.

Now we’re around trees and we’re around dogs, and animals, and plants for weeks, months, years. So the familiarity factor of constant exposure day to day gives us some confidence in, “Oh, that animal’s not going to attack me” or “That plant is one that my ancestors have been using and we understand it.” But mushrooms that come up and disappear after four or five days – some can feed you. Some can kill you. Some can heal you. Some can send you on a psychoactive journey. That which is so powerful but so ephemeral is naturally to be afraid of them. So we have about 200 species of mushrooms that are edible, medicinal. I don’t know the difference between edible and medicinal anymore. All edible mushrooms have medicinal properties. But the mycelium expresses a lot more of these compounds. And with lion’s mane, there’s a group of erinacines. Now, the lion’s mane mushroom is called hericium erinaceus. That’s the Latin binomial.

Tim Ferriss: Paul, I don’t want to interrupt. But I just want to pause for one second to plant a seed. And we can come back to it – or spore – and come back to it later. Which are potential applications to neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s. But I don’t want to interrupt. I just want to plant that seed so that I don’t forget it myself. So please continue.

Paul Stamets: So the erinacines are some of the strongest neuron growth factors ever discovered by science. NGF factors, they’re called. Neuro growth factors. And they regenerate myelin on the axons of nerves. Now lion’s mane is perfectly legal. It has a long history of use, multi-thousands of years of history of use. It looks like pom-poms that cheerleaders use. It has white cascading crystals descending teeth. And it’s a beautiful mushroom. It tastes like shrimp or lobster when you add butter to it and when you cook it. But the compounds that are most neurogenerative are from the mycelium, not from the mushrooms.

And so, the erinacines are from the mycelium. Hericenones are another group of neuro growth factors. They’re from the mushrooms. But the erinacines by far are much more neuroregenerative. And in several clinical studies that have come out on mild cognitive dysfunction out of Japan, they are very promising as a – it’s the first smart mushroom. Well, psilocybin mushroom may be the first smart mushroom in my mind. But lion’s mane mushroom is one mushroom that I take it on a daily basis. My mother takes it on a daily basis. She’s almost 93 years of age in a few days. She’s smart as a whip. She beat my two brothers in Scrabble not too long ago, which was a lot of fun. I went, “Really?” I talked to my brothers. “Mom beat you in Scrabble?” And my twin brother goes, “Well, you know. She got lucky.” I go, “Oh, well that was a clean win then.” My brother was very defensive. But nevertheless, the lion’s mane mushrooms, I think, are extremely helpful to prevent neuropathies.

And I think stacking them with psilocybin is something I’m really keen on. Doing microdosing of psilocybin stacked with lion’s mane. Now lion’s mane in and of itself we know has neuroregenerative properties. It’s a big subject of research. You go to PubMed or Google Scholar Alerts and put in lion’s mane and neuroregeneration or NGF factors and there’s several dozen peer reviewed articles extensively exploring the regeneration of myelin, which is the conductive sheath on the axons of nerves. Those who get Alzheimer’s, for instance, have amyloid plaque formation that interrupts and erodes the myelin sheath and prevents neurotransmission. And so lion’s mane mushrooms have been demonstrated behaviorally in people with cognitive tests. But also, through dissection of mice.

Prior to using lion’s mane, they would inject these mice with a polypeptide that induces amyloid plaque formation. It’s a very, very potent toxin. It’s neurotoxic. But it mimics that of what happens to the nervous system of Alzheimer’s patients. Because the amyloid plaque formation can form. Their behavior changes. They lose the ability of navigating through mazes. They lose the novelty inquisitive factor. The short-term memory is basically erased, or much of it. And then when they fed them lion’s mane mushrooms and they dissected those mice, sure enough they saw that the amyloid plaque formation was there. And then there was fully diseased mice, when they would feed them lion’s mane mushroom for 23 days, they regained the ability of navigating through a maze. They reengaged inquisitiveness. It’s called the novelty response – the novelty experiment.

And upon dissecting those mice and the resections of the tissue, they could see that the amyloid plaque had largely resolved and remyelination had occurred. And so, you bundle that with behavior as well as physical evidence, you have regeneration of myelin. So lion’s mane mushrooms are just a very, very fascinating mushroom. I think about Einstein in his last days. I think about some of my mentors in mycology in their very last days. We are losing encyclopedic knowledge. These are mental giants that have so much to give to the next generation. It’s part of our national heritage – our intellectual national heritage. And to lose these geniuses with all this experience, all this knowledge, all this sense of being and context – to lose them at the end of their life is us losing a library that just has library books that fall into pieces in your hands.

And I think it’s so important for our cultures to preserve that knowledge. And I think lion’s mane mushroom is a huge one.

Tim Ferriss: The slow descent into cognitive malfunction is what I would cite when people ask me what I’m afraid of. That is it. Being trapped in your body without the cognitive capabilities that you would want or need to not just function but thrive. And I completely agree with you. This is something I’ve been fixated on for quite some time. If you were to design a study involving the microdosing or microadministration of psilocybin under proper supervision and researcher controls, do you have any idea what that might look like? What the protocol might look like?

Paul Stamets: That’s a very timely question. Because in two hours from now, I have a group of financial people that are key in supporting the current psilocybin research at Johns Hopkins and elsewhere.

They’re arriving here specifically and staying with me for three days to talk about exactly this. I had an idea. And I’m going to probably open source this. Sometimes I file patents. I call them blocking patents. I file a patent that I think should be open source so that other people can’t get a patent on it. And this might be in that category. This whole patent landscape, I see both sides of the arguments. Of open sourcing and then also keeping things closed source. But I filed a patent on neurogenesis. You can look it up. Stacking lion’s mane, psilocybin, and niacin – nicotinic acid. Now, I spoke before about what is patentable. It is no prior art and it speaks against conventional wisdom. So when I gave a talk at MAPS recently, I asked the audience of about 800 people, “How many people remember during the 1970s and ‘80s, it was well known – especially on the West Coast – that if you want to come down from a bad trip on psilocybin or LSD, you could take a bunch of niacin?”

You would get a flush. People who don’t know what it means, when you take 500 milligrams of niacin, you get red. And you get tingly all over your skin. You get this niacin flush. And I had about 50 people raise their hand. I actually recorded that. I needed that for my patentability. Because that was common knowledge that niacin counteracted the effects of psilocybin. I think not. Number one, there’s no evidence that that’s true. But it was common knowledge. Number two, because it excites the nerve endings and neuropathies oftentimes occur in the deadening of the nerves at the fingertips and the toes, it struck me that if I could excite the nerve endings perhaps I could drive these lion’s mane erinacines and the psilocybin to the endpoints of the nerve systems if the vascular system’s still intact to deliver these compounds to create neurogenesis and prevent neuropathy at the endpoints of the nervous system.

So I filed a patent stacking niacin, psilocybin, and lion’s mane. Psilocybin dosage is about one-twentieth of a gram. Now that is below the threshold of what people would experience any change of consciousness. So I know lots of people would not dare take a psilocybin mushroom. But the idea of taking one-twentieth below threshold dose that would create neurogenesis and perhaps make them cognitively more astute and make them a better person socially and intellectually? I know a lot of people are interested in that. And plus, it’s kind of groovy. It’s kind of sexy. These older people say to their kids, “Yeah. I’m microdosing.” Microdosing is extremely popular right now, as you probably are well aware. But that’s something that we would like to see a clinical study. Now, the clinical study – we already know if there are any clinicians out there, you have too many variables in your clinical study. And I agree.

So we’d be looking at psilocybin alone. Lion’s mane alone. Psilocybin stacked with lion’s mane. Niacin will have to come later. You need enough cohorts, enough people enrolled in the clinical study in order to have statistical significance. So that’s what we’re looking at is looking at stacking this. And maybe we’ll do this clinical study in Canada. Right now, the FDA is very favorable to these clinical studies. I had a report from somebody who met with the FDA regulators and their scientists. And they said they have never seen drug that was so non-toxic, so effective from one treatment in the history of their looking at approving new drugs. And they were like – so the FDA scientists are quite focused on this.

And it’s something we all – the difference between a medicine and a toxin is dose. I wouldn’t call psilocybin a toxin. Well, it is maybe. A funny example that just came out of the literature of that. But I wouldn’t call it necessarily a toxin. But having a subthreshold dose, I think, is a really valid approach. And you probably shouldn’t take these every day. Because you’d normalize the receptors. So watching the receptors and having them recalibrate themselves is probably a good thing to do. So pulse therapy – three to four days on, three to four days off is probably a better approach than taking them every day. The jury’s out on that. There are a lot of different opinions of it.

Tim Ferriss: It’s endlessly fascinating though. And you’re right on the money, so to speak. Or the lack of money given how effective they are in a limited number of sessions at the combination – which certainly has been studied and is being studied – of efficacy and low toxicity.

And as you mentioned earlier, for a rat, and if you put – and Michael Pollan and I have chatted about this a little bit in his podcast. But if you were to administer to a rat in a box cocaine or heroin and they have to choose between those drugs or food, they will consume these types of opiates or stimulants until they die to the absence of food. Whereas, say, with LSD, I would also assume, psilocybin, they take one dose and that’s the last time they touch that particular pedal. And this is – I don’t want to take us too far afield and focus on this exclusively. But I really appreciate you having spent so much time thinking about how these natural companions who have coexisted and been ingested by humans for thousands of years can be applied for some of these epidemic scale problems that we’re experiencing.

And I wanted to ask – we are going to talk about some of the applications of mushrooms outside of human medicine. But I would love to read a description of you. And it relates to something we were chatting about a little bit before we started recording. And talk about the decisions that made Paul Stamets Paul Stamets. Because there are so many mycologists out there. I certainly don’t know the exact number. But you are – if not the best known, certainly one of the best known. And the description is from Mother Jones. It says, “Paul Stamets is a modern example of the amateur scientist from the 17th and 18th century who made wonderful contributions with only their native curiosity and keen sense of observation.” You can certainly comment on that if you don’t feel like it’s accurate. But what are the decisions you made – if any come to mind – or habits you’ve cultivated that have helped you to arrive where you are?

I mean, you have made many discoveries. You’ve excelled in multiple fields. Why is that? How did you become who you are in this current moment? And you can start anywhere. I don’t want to be one of the people who asks you, “How do you grow mushrooms?” at a cocktail party.

Paul Stamets: Yeah. I have been exposed to a circle of kindness. And I believe in karma. I was a child who had a lot of problems. And I have a big debt of gratitude to my professor, Dr. Michael Beug. He never humiliated me. And at the Evergreen State College, I’d make some dumb statements. He was entertained by them, but entertained by them in a humorous way that engaged me to explore and dive more deeply into the subject matter. But I was never humiliated. And a circle of kindness. And I really believe in karma.

Because this has been a huge thing in my life. It’s just the fact that I believe evolution is an extension of gratitude and sharing. And it’s not necessarily this neo-Darwinian concept of competition and the first to the food wins. It’s a collaboration of people who are alive together with common interests. And we need to separate all of ourselves from our weaknesses to become stronger. What very few – lots of people know this. But very few different schools of people know this. I got into the martial arts when I was 14. I have two black belts. I had schools for 30 or 40 years. I am a long-haired hippie, a really nice person. And I kind of turned into a different individual. I’ve been in thousands of fights. I studied at the Aspen Academy of Martial Arts. I first got into goju-ryu shodokan. Shito-ryu. Got my first black belt in tae kwon do and then became a black belt in hwa rang do.

Which is by far one of the most sophisticated styles in the world, similar to hapkido and some other styles of kuk sul. But I had one experience that I think is emblematic of this. It is that I was an early young black belt in tae kwon do. And a big biker came in. He was just seething with anger and wired on amphetamines. And he wants to fight a black belt. Just a biker dude pissed off at the world. And he came in. And remember, the head instructor does not fight in a challenge like this. They have too much to lose. They know if they screw up they lose face in front of their students. Anyhow, my head instructor, Jean, said, “Paul, I’ve got another one.” And I go, “Okay.” And so, this biker came in. And Jean said, “Well, I’ll let you fight one of my black belts. Paul, come over here.” And so, I came over there. I was really polite. Extended my hand. Shook my hand. He wouldn’t shake my hand. He just was all piss and vinegar.

He wanted to fight me. And I said, “Well, we have a few rules. Take off your shoes.” And then we got out on the mat and this guy just attacked me ferociously. I mean, it was no sort of – like boxers have a little bit of like, “Okay, let’s do it.” And we have a little compassion for each other, a little simpatico for another fellow warrior. No. This guy was like out to hurt me. So I block, block, block. I block everything. And this guy is just swinging and kicking. And he can’t kick well, number one. But he was just overly aggressive. After a while, you can block 10 or 20 times. But you start getting hurt, right? This guy is just ferociously trying to hurt me. And so, I looked over at my head instructor. And he nodded his head and said, “Okay, Paul. Time to take him out.” Three or four punches. I sucker punched him and did a jumping hook kick. Bam. I hit him in the temple. Bam. He went down.

On the ground, semi-conscious. And then I’m hovering over him and I put my hand under his trachea. I put my middle finger into the inside of his eyeball. And that way I could pop his eyeball and pull out his trachea at the same time. Now, what people are really concerned about is their vision and also in their face. So when you lock your finger in the eyeball and you’re ready to take out the eyeball, people want to give up really fast. He was terrified. He had the look of, “Oh, my god. I’m going to lose my eyeball.” He was just waking up from being stunned from this kick. And I got him like that and I knew I had to – okay, this is it. Now I can take him out right now. This is the end of his life. The end of his – you know. Basically, he’s done. And then I go – I released. I said, “You know, you actually did really well.” And I extended my hand in friendship. He’s lying on the mat. This big burly biker guy started crying because I was nice to him.

I took him down, but I wasn’t glorifying in my win. I was extending my hand in friendship. It changed his life. When I left the school, he was a brown belt. He became this big teddy bear. He’s shepherding all these little – I told him, “Listen, the girl here, she’s got a yellow belt. You’ve got a white belt. You bow to her. That’s the way it works here. It’s based on your experience and respect.” Totally changed his life. So that’s a story of my life. The extension of – and I think psilocybin mushrooms make people nicer people. I just really believe that. There is this understanding that your life is not just your life. Your life is in the context of nature. And how are we going to inspire and lead and promote the forces of good and generosity and mutualism? And how are we going to get away from the people who want to tear it all down? My work with bees, I think, is the cause célèbre of my life.

Tim Ferriss: And we’re definitely going to dig into that. I absolutely want to explore that. I was just going to echo what you said about the power of kindness. A very good friend of mine was just telling me recently – who perhaps not surprisingly has a lot of psychonautic experience and mileage with certain mushrooms that we’ve been discussing. And also, for anyone who doesn’t know what MAPS is, it’s the Multidisciplinary Association of Psychedelic Studies. They’re also focused very heavily on phase three trials for MDMA in the treatment of PTSD. Which is fascinating. And I encourage people to take a look at that at MAPS.org. But what my friend said to me is that not too long ago – several weeks ago – he went into a coffee shop. And it was some Dunkin’ Donuts or something like that in the airport. And this woman said, “Thank you” at the end of the transaction. And he looked at her in the eyes and he said, “No. Thank you.” And he was just kind of being a joker and he’s a charming guy. But he meant it very sincerely. And she just broke down crying.

A similar experience. She had not had – it didn’t seem anyone had expressed kindness to her in god knows how long. I mean, weeks? Months? Who knows? And it just was such a stark reminder – just like your story – about the power of those little acts. Those tiny little microdecisions that we all make thousands of times a day.

Paul Stamets: I have a business. Anybody who’s ordered from our business, I own the business. I run it. And several years ago, I got these little stickers that say, “You are beautiful.” And every time someone orders from our business, in their order are two “You are beautiful” stickers. And I’ve had so many people write saying they were having just a horrible day. A physician just wrote to me recently. He had said, “Oh, my god. I cannot believe this little messaging.” I send two because then they can pass one forward. So every order in every box there are two “You are beautiful” stickers.

And so many people have written saying that’s what they needed to see. That changed their entire day. Again, that extension of gratitude and affirmation. And we are all on this planet together. We live in this time and space. Tim, you’re going to die. I’m going to die. Everybody listening to this podcast is going to die. But we enter into the fabric of nature from which we sprung. And I think that fabric of nature is based on the extension of goodness. And I just know it empirically. And all the noise we have around politics and everything else is just so narrowly focused in the context of the greater being. I think that we are on the verge where science and spirituality are converging. And now, we’re understanding nature and the extent of the cosmos. The hundreds of billions of galaxies – I mean, I always wanted to be an astromycologist. I kind of am now in some sense. But I’ve always wanted to – and I think we’ll find fungal networks throughout nature, throughout the universe, on multiple planets.

Multicellular organisms will form as networks. Networks will give rise to animals. And I think that we are a descendant of this network-based paradigm that’s represented not only in mycelium and in neurons, the computer internet, the organization of dark matter. This is a continuation on different orders of magnitude of the way of being. We are all involved in this network of being. And this is just one of our strands in that network that we’re living today.

Tim Ferriss: I want to get to bees. And I’m going to get to it by way of laying out some illustrations of these webs – these strands of interconnectedness. This is from Discover magazine from a few years back. I’m just going to quote here. It’ll take 30 to 60 seconds probably. And then I want to talk about bees specifically.

It starts with this – and this is a very incomplete list, of course. But, “Stamets is researching a wide variety of ways in which fungi could help solve human problems. Here is a partial list. One, environmental cleanup. Mushrooms could be used to break down petrochemicals or absorb radiation from contaminated soil and water. Two, wastewater filtration. Mushroom mycelia could cleanse runoff from storm drains, farms, or logging roads. They could be used to filter out the nitrates, endocrine disrupters, and pharmaceutical residues that disrupt ecosystems and damage human health. Three, pesticides. Fungal bug-killers could be used to target troublesome species while remaining nontoxic to others. Four, medicines – which we’ve discussed – could provide new antibiotic, antiviral, and immune-boosting compounds and even chemotherapies. Five, forestry. Planting symbiotic mushroom species could speed reforestation in clear-cut woodlands. Six, agriculture. Adding” – oh, this is the word that I can never pronounce. “Adding M-Y-C-O-R-R-H-I-Z-A-L.” How do we say that?

Paul Stamets: Mycorrhizal.

Tim Ferriss:  Mycorrhizal, thank you. “Adding mycorrhizal fungi to soil could improve crop yields without the need for toxic chemical fertilizers. Seven, famine relief. Mushrooms could be grown rapidly in refugee camps and disaster zones, using just wood chips or saltwater-soaked straw. Eight, biofuels. Growing mushrooms for biodiesel could require far less soil and other resources than commonly cultivated fuel crops. Nine” – which segues into what we were just chatting about – “space travel. Because of their usefulness in soil creation, and the tolerance of many species for radiation, mushrooms could be grown by interstellar voyagers and used to terraform other worlds.” I’m going to pause here for one second just to let people soak in that. And then second, in both preparation for this conversation but also over the last two years, reading various descriptions of what has been called the Wood Wide Web, I think is what they call it, in the mycelium and how they facilitate communication between trees and other organisms. It’s really mind-bending stuff.

I mean, it’s the type of narrative and description and discovery that, if described – I’m just making this up, perhaps. But 50 years ago, it would’ve been thought science fiction. And I would love for you to describe what you have done in the world of bees. But I just find this so – not only staggeringly fascinating and much of it counterintuitive, but important. That’s my soapbox for the moment. In any case, I would love you to take that wherever you’d like.

Paul Stamets: Okay. Well, I would recommend that people read my book, Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Could Help Save the World. It covers into the subject very, very deeply. And that book is used now as an introductory mycology book at many universities. I typically don’t promote a product from the stage. There’re no lectures out there where you can find this. But I do want to draw people’s attention to fungi.com – F-U-N-G-I dot com.

There’s an amazing letter from a Syrian refugee. And I want people – we obscured his face because we don’t want him to be targeted by Assad’s assassins. But he has brought mushroom cultivation into refugee camps using recyclable materials from the cardboard and all the paper. And he literally – you have to read the letter to – it just brings tears to your eyes. He has over 1,000 people now engaged in growing oyster mushrooms in refugee camps from the Syrian crisis. They’re helping people feed themselves. And about all those 1,000 people now understanding how to grow mushrooms. What the downstream effect will be with their children when they get out of those camps. They’ll have skill sets that can really expand this in a huge way. I believe that mycelium is the foundation of the food web. It is essential for food biosecurity.

I mentioned the mycelium creates the microbiomes. We’ve done next gen sequencing. We’ve been able to prove this. I have not published it. But people can see my talks on it showing that different mycelial mats control and destined populations of bacteria are uniquely specific to the mycelium that are growing in wood chips or in straw. So they actually articulate the populations of bacteria downstream from the mycelial networks. But this going to segue. So we talked about the antiviral stuff with the BioShield biodefense program and 9/11. Well, I had this entomopathogenic fungi patents and working against termites, and carpenter ants, and bedbugs, and mites. So a good friend of mine, Louie Schwartzberg – he actually has finished a movie called Fantastic Fungi. It is coming out in the next few months.

been making it for over 10 years with Lyn Lear, Norman Lear, and that group. And I just saw the final cut a few days ago. It is quite good. I’m really happy where it’s going. But it talks about the Wood Wide Web. And Suzanne Simard is a British Columbia mycologist and I’m a total fan of her work. Big kudos to her. Because she and I are two peas in a pod. She was doing her work parallel to my doing mine. And we ended up really in the same intellectual ecosystem, so to speak. So when Louie was doing the movie and he was looking at butterflies and then he got into bees and colony collapse. And colony collapse is really – colony collapse disorder is a euphemism created by the media. But it does speak to a very serious issue. In Oklahoma last year, 74 percent of the beehives died. Now, think of it.

If you were having cattle or sheep at your ranch and you lost 75 percent of your sheep or cattle, that is devastating. Well, it’s also devastating to beekeepers. 35 percent or more of our food is directly dependent upon bee pollination and 70 percent is indirect. Many people don’t realize that most of our dairy products are dependent upon bee pollination because alfalfa and hay are dependent upon bees. All the almonds that you consume, every almond you consume was visited by a bee on that flower. And so, the almond industry specifically needs honey bees in particular. So Louie came to me and he said, “Paul, there’s a huge problem with colony collapse and bees are dying. What can you do about it?” Well, I had a series of events. And these events, when you string them together, led me to an epiphany. I am a controversial mycologist. I have been trained academically in mycology as an undergraduate student.

But I married a woman 11 years older than me who had three kids at 12, 14, and 16 when I was 22. I couldn’t afford to move my kids to other cities to go to graduate school; I got accepted into several graduate schools, but I couldn’t afford to move. So I started this little mail order business and packed 30,000 boxes before I had a single employee. Now I have over 100 employees, so it’s a real testimonial to stamina, and good luck, and also the extension of generosity by some very kind people who came to my rescue a few times over my life. But in the course of looking at the situation with bees, I started looking at it and there’s many cofactors. Now, health or disease – in my mind – is a series of coefficient variables. Factors that are strung together and at the end of the equation means health or disease. So there is not a single cause for colony collapse. It’s a perfect storm of unfortunately bad things happening to the bees.

Habitat loss is one. Neonicotinoids, we already know they’ve been banned in Europe. Ironically, from a study that Bayer and Syngenta sponsored thinking that neonics would not be toxic. And then they found out they were toxic. And so they were banned in Europe last month. Neonics are still used in the United States and Canada. There’s so many – 70 percent of the food is thought to be absolutely critically dependent upon bee pollination services – two arm’s length away from bee pollination contact. So bees are dying because of a confluence of variables. Loss of habitat, neonics, pesticide exposure, factory farming – it’s not natural for bees to be put on trucks and travel 1,000 miles to the almond orchards of California. They all are concentrated. They spread diseases amongst themselves and then they disperse. And so that’s a great scenario for diseases to be spread. But by far the biggest one that’s been identified in scientific literature is the varroa mite.

And the varroa mite was introduced in 1987. It came from Asia. Varroa destructor is its Latin binomial. It injects a whole slew of viruses into the bees. And these – now all bees in the world have these viruses. Working with the USDA, Dr. Jay Evans who is a USDA virologist who’s widely published and a senior scientist at the USDA. He has not seen a virus-free bee in more than 10 years. What’s happened now is a virus is being spread by the varroa mite. And the varroa mite was controlled by a miticide that was used to control ticks on cattle called Amitraz. Now Amitraz is not legal to use by beekeepers, but they use it. They were soaking their beehives with this Amitraz – this toxic tick miticide. And they were drenching it twice per year to control the mites.

And now, they’re up to eight times per year within 10 years. The mites have developed a resistance. The mites are like having a pancake on your back. They attach themselves. They’re extremely hard to dislodge. And now 27 viruses have been identified being vectored by mites. What’s the big surprise is all the wild bees now have these viruses. And 80 percent of the pollination services that we benefit from from bees pollinating are actually coming from wild bees. Not the honey bee, which is Apis mallifera. Which are huge colonies. The wild bees are oftentimes called solitary bees. They’re very small groups of a dozen bees or two dozen bees. They’re ground dwellers. And those bees provide over 80 percent of the services that are benefiting agriculture. So the honey bees, at the moment, we have about 2 million hives in the United States. The average loss right now is over 50 percent nationally. A few hot spots, but those hot spots then emanate out.

And epidemics become pandemics. So now we have evolved into a viral pandemic of these viruses spreading throughout the world. And it was just discovered in the past two to three years that these bees are infected with these viruses when they visit a flower and they get the pollen on them. They also spread the viruses to the pollen they leave. And so, when the wild bees come, they become infected. So this is a direct threat to worldwide food biosecurity. The loss of bees is such an important issue. And interestingly, it’s the number one bridge issue between liberals and conservatives. So I like to tell people, “When you’re at Thanksgiving dinner and you don’t want to talk about Hillary or Trump, talk about the importance of bees.” It’s the number one issue that brings liberals and conservatives together. Because everyone recognizes the importance of bees for food biosecurity. So my friend Louie came to me and I started studying this subject.

And I had five experiences in a row that led me to an epiphany. And no matter what my critics say – and I’ve been wrong sometimes. I’m not right all the time. So I accept that. But I push the envelope because I don’t have to worry about tenure. I’m self-employed. I can risk being wrong. But the more I speculate, the more I test, the more I do research, that’s what it takes. It takes efforts to see if something will work. And so I’ve failed a lot of times. And the failure is the price of the tuition I pay to learn a new lesson. All that being said, this is what happened. In 1984, I had the garden giant mushroom growing in my garden. It’s a wood chip mushroom. It grows in wood chips. The biggest mushroom is up to five pounds per specimen. People can look it up. And I had these wood chips permeated with mycelium. And I had two beehives. And one day in July, I come out and I see the bees all over my wood chips. I looked really closely.

They were moving the wood chips to the side – it’s like you pushing a semi truck to the side. Some of these wood chips are really big – to expose the mycelium. And I looked very carefully. And from dawn to dusk for 40 days, there was a continuous convoy of bees to my wood chips of the garden giant mycelium in my garden traveling about 800 to 1,000 feet. As I went out there, I photographed that. Thank god I found the photographs. They were Kodachrome 64 slides. In the sweltering heat two years ago, I found them up in the attic. But I published this in Harrowsmith magazine in 1988. I published this in 1994 in Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms – one of my books. And I speculated, “Oh, the bees are going after the sugar-rich exudates.” Because the mycelium is producing these polysaccharides that are sweet and they’re fragrant. And maybe that’s why the bees were going there. Okay, that’s one – I’m going to give you a micro-factorial equation. So that’s the first micro factor. Factor number one, Paul sees bees attracted to the wood chips in his garden. I forgot about it.

Micro factor number two, Paul gets involved with the BioShield program. Discovers that polypore mushrooms have antiviral properties. And many patents have issued now. I have more patents on this. People can look them up. And so, that was another experience that I had. Number three, getting rid of the carpenter ants in my house using entomopathogenic fungus relaying that insects are vectors of disease. And then moving forward, I am looking at the research articles. And in PLOS – it’s an open source online journal, a scientific journal. On the cover of the PLOS was a big article on the discovery that – see when a colony collapse happens – most people don’t know this. You go out to your beehives on Monday, and everything is fine. You go out there on Thursday, and they’re all gone. They’re gone.

It’s not like there’s a whole bunch of dead bees laying in front of the beehive. They’re gone. They fly away. It turns out that the bees – there’s a deformed wing virus, which is the number one virus of concern that’s been identified by researchers. Almost a dozen papers have been published in the past three years identifying the deformed wing virus as the virus that is the most debilitating to the bees. It not only reduces the tensile strength of their wings, but they’re deformed. They can’t fly at all. We see bees on a flower, it’s the last days of their life. Bees used to go out and get pollen for nine days. And now, they’re going out for four days. So they can’t bring enough pollen back to the hive. So the newly hatched bees, which are nurse bees, are prematurely recruited to go out to get pollen because the colony is stressed. And then the brood has mites on them. And the bees can’t attend to the brood, so they abandon the babies.

And the mites then freely go around injecting these viruses into the bees. And so at some point, it comes to a tipping point. And then the bees leave the hive and they don’t come back. So imagine if you were a cattle rancher or a sheep rancher and you’re losing more than 50 percent of your – it’s psychologically damaging as well as economically damaging. And people just give up. So I had these experiences. and then I saw in this journal that they looked at the honey in the abandoned beehives. It lacked a certain chemical called p-Coumaric acid. p-Coumaric is the chemical trigger that governs the detoxification pathway in bees. It’s called the cytochrome P450 pathway. All animals use it. We have it mostly in our liver. It’s how we break down toxins. Without p-Coumaric acid, they found these bees – hundreds of pounds of honey. No bees in the beehive. It lacks this essential nutrient – p-Coumaric acid.

Now I’m not a chemist. But I had seen p-Coumaric acid before. Because in the research I’ve done, I look at what’s called the delignification of wood – how fungi gobble up wood and break it down. And I recognized p-Coumaric acid as a chemical constituent that was present in breaking down wood. That’s why when you see myceliated wood it smells fragrant and odiferous. There’s a lot of outgassing of micro flavonoids. Phenolic compounds that are going into – and that’s why after a rain in the woods, the wood smells so good. That’s the outgassing of mycelium. All these scent trails are being created to entice us, and insects, and other animals to follow scent trails as part of the outgassing of the mycelium. Okay. I had all those four experiences. And then I go to sleep. And then I have a waking dream. And this waking dream hit me like a lightning bolt. I said, “Oh, my god.” I woke up. I said, “I think I know how to save the bees.”

And so I first called a very good friend of mine, Lee Stein. I said, “Listen. I had this waking dream. I just – it shook me to the core.” He said, “Stop everything you’re doing and focus on this. This is too important.” So I called the University of California Davis. It’s never a good idea to start a conversation with another scientist you have not met with the words, “I had a dream.” That conversation went nowhere. It’s like, “Crazy person. Goodbye.” So I called up Washington State University. I was at TED – I think at the TED that you spoke at. And I was at TED and I went out and I was given Steve Sheppard’s name from Washington University. He’s the chair of entomology in Pullman, Washington. Washington University is an agricultural science college. And I said, “Listen, Steve. Please just give me a half an hour. It’s going to sound crazy to you at first. But let me talk to you about this.” About 15 minutes in he says, “Stop. Go nowhere else. We want to work with you.”

So the end result of this is we tested this on 532 beehives in Southern California two years ago. We’ve done seven tests now in outdoor beehives. We have found something, I think, that is an extraordinary breakthrough. With our mycelial extracts of these polypore mushrooms – these wood conks. They’re called hoof-shaped mushrooms that grow on trees. Everyone’s seen them. With the mycelium that’s extracted, and water, and ethanol – the very same extracts that we used in the BioShield biodefense program. We gave it to the bees. And we submitted an article to a renowned scientific journal. And from one dose at 1 percent – now all beekeepers feed sugar water to their bees. It’s 50 percent sugar and 50 percent water. So one milliliter per hundred, one unit per hundred, one percent – we give it to the bees. And seven to 12 days later, those viruses are reduced by thousands of times.

In the article that we submitted, it reduced the Lake Sinai virus by more than 45,000 times, the deformed wing virus by more than 800 times. With one dose and it doubles the lifespan of bees. Now, think of the implications of this. This means that I think I have a window now into understanding something fundamental to the foundation of nature. The mycelium not only controls the microbiomes and are deterministic in a downstream evolution of ecosystems, but they also control the immunological health in the animal inhabitants. Because the very same extracts that reduce viruses that harm birds – bird flu, H5N1, H1N1 in pigs – that harm people – pox viruses, herpes viruses. Birds, pigs, people, bees – this speaks to something, I think, that is very deeply profound.

An understanding that within nature, these mycelial networks are everywhere. Every tree is infused with mycelium. Every vegetable you eat is infused with fungi. It’s part of the mutualistic relationship that we have with these fungi that increases the host defense and resistance against disease. There’s a plurality of fungi in such diverse populations that create a matrix of defense. We have found that these individual species now – we’ve tested five different polypore mushrooms. They’re all active to different degrees. What we have not reported in that scientific article that we submitted is that we have one result that’s over 100 million times reduction of these viruses with one treatment. Many of these viruses – herpes viruses are known as oncoviruses that cause cancer. Lots of them cause inflammation that destabilizes the immune system. This is something I think is so critically important.

Everyone’s talking about bad news. And we are in the sixth ex – the sixth great extinction known of life on this planet. We have 8.3 million species. We’re losing more than 30,000 a year. Do the math. In 100 years, that’s more than a third of the biodiversity. It’s unraveling all around us. What can we do? This is actionable ecological solutions. It’s paradigm shifting. It’s scalable, ecologically rational, economically sustainable. Again, all these fungi grow in every forest of the world.  And we all grew up with Winnie the Pooh. And everybody missed this. Now I’ve been issued 10 patents in the United States, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and Eurasia. When I first got the first patent award, for five seconds I was excited. Literally. And then I became horribly demoralized. I said, “You’ve got to be kidding? There’s no prior art?”

No one – they did the – the patent office has the most massive search engines in every language – Chinese, French, Japanese, English, German. And there’s not a single mention anywhere out there that bees benefit from mycelium immunologically, let alone reducing the viruses that are being vectored by mites. The fact that I’m the one who discovered this is horribly depressing. It means that we’re truly Neanderthals with nuclear weapons. And people talk about climate change and how biodiversity is a bunch of liberal scientists. Are you freaking kidding? This is so fundamental to who we are and where we’ve come from. So I’ve open sourced it to all the developing countries. You know, in Europe and Eurasia. Not Asia. Not South America. Not Mexico. Not Africa. In order for a solution to be effective, it’s got to be practiced. In order for it to be practiced, it’s got to be commercially successful. In order for it to be commercial successful, it’s got to go to market with some protection of your idea.

The fact now that these patents are issuing is a – and I’ve made mistakes. And there are mycologists out there whose eyes roll. But I’m very happy to receive several rewards. One of which from the Mycological Society of America for bringing more students into the field of mycology than anyone in history. So they’re kind of schizophrenic about me because I’m a psychedelic researcher. I’m not trained and I’m bringing all of these students into their classrooms that want to save the world. And they said, “Paul, you’ve created a huge problem. We want to study yeast and these students want to save the world. What do we do?” So I think this is something that is actionable solutions. And I think I can make the argument – and this is very provocative. But I can make the argument that natural products can be more powerful than pharmaceuticals with a greater bioshield of defense and with less toxicity and more utility in a sustainable way. And that, I think, is paradigm shifting.

Tim Ferriss: I hope you’re right. I hope you’re right. And I look forward to learning more about this as the discussion opens. Is there anything for people listening who are not mycologists nor future mycologists who want to help in some fashion? Meaning they want to make personal decisions, maybe think of policy changes or types of support that would enable them to be part of an environmental and systemic solution rather than simply compounding the existing problems. Are there new behaviors? Things they can do? Anything that you would suggest to people who are listening?

Paul Stamets: Absolutely. The simplest thing that people can do is let wood rot. Give up this idea of an Elizabethan yard that’s highly manicured and managed. Nature likes fractal faces. Fractalization of nature in different orders of magnitude, it gives all these niches to microorganisms and microbiome biodiversity that’s critical for sustainability.

So, rather than hauling the wood off, let logs rot in your garden, in your yard. Mushrooms will come up. That’ll help feed the bees. It’ll help build these fractally intense environments that are really important for biodiversity. That’s one. We have a campaign for supporting Washington State University. WSU – bees.wsu.edu. We’ve raised over 3 million dollars now for bee research at WSU. We are just beginning to explore the role of these polypore mushrooms. There’re hundreds of them to test. We’ve hit the home runs on our very first ones. We’re extremely lucky. But the fact that this is – we can reduce these viruses 45,000 to one with one treatment. I mean, what antiviral drug will do that?

That is a complex soup of constituents. The contrast is surprising. So supporting bee nonprofits. Joining a mushroom society. There’s the North American Mycological Association which is a parent organization called NAMA. Their website is NAMYco.org. N-A-M-Y-C-O dot O-R-G. They have a listing of all the local mycological societies in Canada, the United States, and Mexico. That’s one. Joining your bee – get involved in supporting, frankly, farmers and developing biodiverse landscapes. And the march to monoculture, the march to the industrialization of agriculture is sacrificing the very biodiverse networks that have evolved to help plants grow.

When you add lots of fertilizers and insecticides, you defeat the natural systems of the mycelium that has engaged and helped plants for hundreds of millions of years. When you add mycelium helping plants, you do not need external inputs as much as fertilizers, et cetera. And I think there are ecologically rational solutions to many of the problems that we face today. But this really speaks to the concept of seven generations. And first peoples really have this so much as a pillar of their understanding and dealing with nature. We should give up this idea of making money in the short term. And we should embrace the idea of creating sustainability in the long term. True conservatives should be conserving natural resources and thinking about downstream generations. Right now, we have hungry, greedy people whose morals have been hijacked for whatever reason.

And I think that this nature-loving movement with all of its strange characterizations really is based on something that’s fundamentally good for commons.

Tim Ferriss: Well, it makes me think of what you said in the very beginning or certainly the earlier portions of this conversation. Which is the war against nature is a war against your own biology. And ultimately, what is best for what you’re discussing is also best for us. Which means it’s best for me. It’s best for you. It’s best for each person listening to this. And certainly, if you’re thinking out multiple generations, these problems can be solved in a very pragmatic, holistic fashion. Or they can be compounded to the point where they become exponentially more difficult to unwind and to solve for.

Paul Stamets: I just want to say, in the field of mycology, I know of no other science that is underfunded, underappreciated, and yet has such an enormous elasticity of benefits. Now, if I was a Bill Gates or a Jeff Bezos – I’ve met these people. It’s just not part of my DNA to pitch. And I look at them going, “Oh, I could do so much benefit for hundreds of millions of people.” But I can’t even begin to talk about this because I don’t want to pitch. But thankfully, my company is soaring. And I have a great community of individuals who believe in this and who see the results. And Michael Pollan’s book and Fantastic Fungi, and your support, et cetera helps spread this message. But I’m 63 years of age and I’m going to die with a smile on my face. Because it’s the heritage that we leave, not the material possessions that we own during this short lifetime. We all need to create legacies where our names will be heralded in the future as a person who cared more about other people than they cared about themselves.

That is truly a Christian, a Buddhist, a Zen-like attitude. And I think it’s time for people to take action. We need a revolution.

Tim Ferriss: It is time. It is time for people to take action. I could not agree more. And you’ve given a number of recommendations that I will link to in the show notes, as usual. So everyone listening, everything we’ve discussed, all the links to everything that I can track down and that my team can track down will be in the show notes at Tim.blog/podcast for this episode. And Paul, you’ve been very generous with your time. People can find you at fungi.com, fungi.net, hostdefense.com. And on social media on Instagram, you’re Paul Stamets. Facebook, Paul Stamets. YouTube, Paul Stamets. Is there a – for people who want to know where to go for what, is there one best place for certain things? A certain best place to say hello if people want to reach out to you somehow?

Paul Stamets: That’s kind of complicated like you, Tim. We get so many people wanting to contact us. I want to feed some of the researchers out there and people who want to get into some of the detailed research articles. We have a website that we populate called mushroomreferences.com. There’re several hundred peer reviewed articles that we link to with abstracts that talk about the most recent research from mycelium. And it’s a deep dive. Many physicians are unfamiliar. And because the public expects that they’re going to be experts about everything on health, they’re actually quite ignorant. So I’ve found this has been a challenge.

This is why I speak to a lot of academic conferences, at a lot of medical conferences is that there’s a desperate need from these physicians to get on board and be familiarized with some of the latest research. But otherwise, fungi.com is a hub and we have a resource section on that website that links to many other nonprofits. Lots of other resources. Including Cornell University, and that’s particularly a good one. There is MykoWeb, which is extremely good – M-Y-K-O-W-E-B. MykoWeb’s a really good one. And so, there’s a lot of mycologists out there that are genuinely really, really good people. But they have – I, in a sense, have tasked them with expectations greater than some of which they can deliver. And I apologize for that, but time is short.

This area is so important that everybody gets aboard this starship and try to do good.

Tim Ferriss: Well thank you so much for your time today, Paul. This has been really fun for me. And I’m sure for many, many people who are listening. Is there anything else that you would like to share or recommend before we wrap up at least this first conversation on the podcast?

Paul Stamets: If you see somebody being abused or somebody being shamed, step up. Extend a hand of generosity and show people a better way of acting.

Tim Ferriss: Hear, hear. That is an excellent way to wrap up. And once again, Paul, a real pleasure to spend this time with you. I have pages, and pages, and pages of notes of follow ups for myself and for my family. And also, the many different avenues that I want to explore.

And to everyone listening, you can find the show notes at tim.blog/podcast. And until next time, keep experimenting and express some kindness. It is time to take action. So get off of the earphones. Get off of the earbuds. Get off of the pages in those books that you might consume one after the other and actually take a meaningful step forward with somehow bending the reality around you in a positive direction. And until next time, thanks for listening.

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

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“The war against nature is a war against your own biology.”
— Paul Stamets

Paul Stamets (@PaulStamets) is an intellectual and industry leader in the habitat, medicinal use, and production of fungi. Part of his mission is to deepen our understanding and respect for the organisms that literally exist under every footstep taken on this path of life. Paul is the author of a new study in Nature’s Scientific Reports, which details how mushroom extracts—specifically extracts from woodland polypore mushrooms—can greatly reduce viruses that contribute to bee colony collapse.

Paul is the author of six books, including Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World, Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms, and Psilocybin Mushrooms of the World: An Identification Guide, and he has discovered and named numerous species of psilocybin mushrooms. Paul is also the founder and owner of Fungi Perfecti, makers of the Host Defense mushroom supplement line, and it is something I’ve been using since Samin Nosrat recommended it in my last book, Tribe of Mentors.

Paul has received numerous awards, including Invention Ambassador (2014-2015) for the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the National Mycologist Award (2014) from the North American Mycological Association (NAMA), and the Gordon & Tina Wasson Award (2015) from the Mycological Society of America (MSA).

The implications, applications, and medicinal uses of what we discuss in this interview are truly mind-boggling, and we get into some of my favorite subjects, including psychedelics and other aspects of bending reality. If you’re interested in contributing to psychedelic science and research, you can do so at MAPS (Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies), or if you’ve got $100,000 or more to spare, visit me at tim.blog/science.

I hope you enjoy this entire interview, but if you only have time to listen to one part, I recommend checking in at the [56:24] mark to hear how Paul’s first experience with psilocybin mushrooms affected his lifelong stutter. Enjoy!

#340: Paul Stamets — How Mushrooms Can Save You and (Perhaps) the World
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Want to hear another podcast that explores science and psychedelics? — Listen to my conversation with Hamilton Morris, host of Hamilton’s Pharmacopeia, in which we investigate the mythology of Alexander Shulgin and the difference between poison and a dose. Stream below or right-click here to download.

#337: Hamilton Morris on Better Living Through Chemistry: Psychedelics, Smart Drugs, and More
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The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Samin Nosrat

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Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Samin Nosrat (@ciaosamin), a chef, who has been called “The next Julia Child” by NPR’s “All Things Considered,” a teacher, and the author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking, which is a New York Times bestseller, a James Beard Award winner for Best General Cookbook, International Association of Culinary Professionals Cookbook of the Year, and a soon-to-be Netflix original documentary series produced by Jigsaw Productions. It was transcribed and therefore might contain a few typos. With some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!

Listen to the interview here or by selecting any of the options below.

#339: Samin Nosrat — Master Creative, Master Teacher
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No one is authorized to copy any portion of the podcast content or use Tim Ferriss’ name, image or likeness for any commercial purpose or use, including without limitation inclusion in any books, e-books, book summaries or synopses, or on a commercial website or social media site (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) that offers or promotes your or another’s products or services. For the sake of clarity, media outlets are permitted to use photos of Tim Ferriss from the media room on tim.blog or (obviously) license photos of Tim Ferriss from Getty Images, etc.

Tim Ferriss: Samin, welcome to the show.

Samin Nosrat: Thanks for having me, Tim.

Tim Ferriss: I know that people are going to say, wait a second, he just mispronounced your name, and I want them to know that I double- and triple-checked it with you beforehand. A lot of people say Samin because that would be English-friendly, but the correct pronunciation of your full name is what?

Samin Nosrat: Samin, yeah. You’ve graduated past the appropriate American pronunciation. You’re going for true Persian right now, so it’s good.

Tim Ferriss: Going for Farsi, you know? I will get there. I will get there. I struggled with deciding where to begin, topically, this conversation, but one thing really jumped out at me and I wanted to begin there since I like to follow my interest, and that that is the manifestation journal. Can you tell me about your manifestation journal?

Samin Nosrat: I’m so happy you’re asking about this. I don’t know where the idea for my manifestation journal came from. I think it may have been a self-help blog in approximately 2008, but it’s just a notebook that I bought at an art supply store. It’s just a sketchbook, and I just decided to start writing down the things that I envision for my life, whether they were really big, and I would ever be too embarrassed to articulate them to anyone or whether they were really little. I sort of knew initially that I should be as specific as possible, and what’s pretty bananas is sometimes I’ll misplace the journal. It’ll slide under my bed and I’ll forget about it for, I don’t know, six months or something, and then I’ll pull it out. I think at one point I lost it for about two years and I’ll pull it out and I’ll look, and I’ll be like, oh, my gosh, word-for-word, so many of these things have happened. There are also many things in there that have not come true yet or maybe I was misguided, and I changed, and goals shifted, but it is really sort of mind-blowing to go back and look at how specific goals come to life when you plant a seed.

You achieve things when you plant a seed and you’re really clear about it, and I’ve always known that and I’ve always really adhered to that, and so it’s just one little practice that I have. At this point, I like to look at it around my birthday and around the New Year. Those are sort of the two times of year that I pretty diligently will check in and write into it, but it’s not a big thing that I do all the time, but it is really incredible, especially as I’ve started to achieve bigger goals in my career, to go back and look at it and say, wow, I wanted always to write for this publication and now I am, or I really specifically wanted a book deal with a certain amount of money and I achieved.

Tim Ferriss: Well, I have so many follow up questions because I’m a nerd when it comes to journaling and notebooks, and it’s something that the comes up a fair amount in this podcast. From the profile in The California Sunday Magazine, this was discussed in a few lines, and when the interviewer in this case flipped through the notebook, which I’m jealous of immediately, it gave a few examples.

“Next to small, candid instructions to herself (Chin hairs under control!) and general life notions (Bay leaf piñata!) [I’m not sure what that is, but that’s okay, we’ll come back to that.], there were goals that I found striking in their precision. Go to Italy. Write and publish at least one story in print. Start writing her first book. Those were dated 2008, and all have come true.”

My question is: do you still use the journal? If so, generally speaking, say from 2008 forward, how frequently do you write in the journal, and then what does the review process look like?

Samin Nosrat: I do still use it. I probably write in it two or three times a year, and I also probably look at it two or three times a year. It’s a treat to look at it. Now it’s become this amazing treat where I get to go back and see, did something happen, did I achieve something, or did some thought or notion that I had at some time come true? It really is. Often, it’s a nice thing to sort of help me refocus where I’m headed. I feel like, with my career in a lot of ways, it’s had a really, what’s the word, I was going to say an amorphous shape. There has not been one super clear goal or one super clear path that I can model my career on. There aren’t a lot of other writer-chef-teachers. Often, people just write about food or just cook, or just teach, and so I have done all those things and more and I’ve always just followed my gut.

That can be really overwhelming because I get really distracted quite easily by shiny objects, or a lot of money, or the opportunity to work with somebody, or make a decision because I’m worried what will happen if I say no. I feel like the clearer I am about what I do want to do, the more easily I can say no, or just make better decisions about where I’m headed, so even just a couple times a year having a little bit of quiet time, and usually, I’ll pick up the thing a couple days before my birthday and start thinking about what I’ve done in the past year, good choices I’ve made, bad choices I’ve made, and it is a nice personal check in. I don’t know, there are a million names for these things. I don’t know why I wrote manifestation journal, but it really is that, also just a journal.

Tim Ferriss: When you look at a page, is it dates and then under that, just a series of bullets for things that you hope to achieve?

Samin Nosrat: Basically, yeah. I mean, if I were a little more organized, there would probably be some sort of method to the madness, but in the beginning, it was just bullets. Do you want me to go grab it?

Tim Ferriss: Sure.

Samin Nosrat: I pulled it out the other day. Okay, it’s just here. Let me grab it, then I can read. All right, so it started out as bullets, and the other day, I was reading some of the ones from the very first page for someone. I was saying how, oh, there’s all these things like, I don’t know, publish four books, popular, well-reviewed books that I’m proud of by good, well-known publishing houses, and then, at the very bottom in tiny, tiny writing, so small I could barely admit it to myself, and I certainly can’t believe I’m about to tell you, I wrote, in the tiniest writing, MacArthur Genius Grant. It’s just so embarrassing.

I had a page for long-term goals, I had a page for what I hoped to do that year, ideas. There’s the bay leaf piñata. I wanted to make a piñata that covered, instead of with crepe paper, with bay leaves, so when you hit it with a baseball bat, it smells really good, and we did it for my 30th birthday.

Tim Ferriss: If you’re looking at this journal, picking it up three times a year, let’s say, two or three times a year, is the significance that you are planting a seed in your subconscious? It sounds like you’re not going back and reviewing it in some type of spreadsheet fashion, looking at the progress towards the end goal in each of these cases. You’re visiting it two or three times a year. Is the importance then that you’re planting a seed in your subconscious that will somehow very subtly direct your choices in a different fashion? I know that a number people who have been on this podcast, my friend Josh Waitzkin who is the basis for Searching for Bobby Fischer, Reid Hoffman, do quite a bit of intention setting or journaling either right before bed or first thing upon waking up which has that flavor to it, but why do you think this has had an impact in your life if it has had an impact?

Samin Nosrat: I definitely think this lines up with the idea of planting a seed in my subconscious and also helping me remain accountable to myself, and then I also have all manner of other intention setting and goal making and list making. Just at my office above my desk, I have lists. Actually, it’s funny, I had a list of interviews I would to do and yours was on the list, and so I looked at that list every day I went to work and sat at my computer. There’s a list right next to that of maybe projects I would like to do, and then right next to that is a list of collaborators I would to have. There are people on there, wildly. I sort of just stopped being embarrassed at some point about having what seemed wildly unachievable dreams, or I put Issa Rae and Ava DuVernay on that list. Do I know them? Is there any possibility? I don’t know. What do I know? I just put them on there because they’re people I would like to maybe work with whose work I respect. I just had to stop being afraid that someone would come in my office and see that and judge me and be like, what is this?

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, of course.

Samin Nosrat: For a while, when I first started writing the book, I wrote, visualize Oprah’s Book Club, and I had that on a Post-it note above my desk for years, and then Oprah’s Book Club ended, and also, I don’t think she puts cookbooks on her book club. I wouldn’t say I’ve ever been embarrassed to dream big, and I think the better I have gotten at articulating my dream in words and then really just being mindful of them, and whether it means coming back to them once or twice a year or looking at them every day, I do feel like it makes a difference and it helps me stay on track.

If I look at that list and after a while, some goal or some name or some idea doesn’t feel right anymore, I can cross it off. I don’t know, it’s a nice thing, especially when I’m in the rock bottom part of the creative process where you’re doing the boring stuff, you’re doing the accounting, you’re doing the accounting, you’re doing the terrible writing that’s not coming out easily, it’s nice to look up and be like, oh, yes, I am a creative person who has big ideas and sometimes makes things happen. It’s like a little bit of cheerleading for myself, I guess.

Tim Ferriss: This is really important, so I want to explore it for a moment, and this is going to be very non-chronological. We’re going to bounce all over the place. I do have questions about San Diego, but we’re going to come to that. First, since you said the rock bottom of the creative process, when you are in the rock bottom of the creative process, and almost anyone except for a few mutants here there who just seem to always operate in the proper gear, but for most people with any large or unfamiliar creative project, there’s going to be maybe one rock bottom, maybe many different rock bottom difficult moments. We’re talking about, in some ways, future tense, the things you want to do. When you are in that rock bottom place, do you use anything from the past, things you’ve achieved, or milestones you’ve accomplished, or anything from the present tense to also help buoy your spirits, or is it mostly keeping your eye on the ball that is ahead of you, that future tense that helps you?

Samin Nosrat: I think I need some more therapy and meditation to get to be the kind of person who can feel good about my past accomplishments and let them buoy me, to buoy me forward. I think I sort of achieve the thing and then I forget about it. It’s even hard for me when I receive praise. I get so many emails all the time which are so meaningful in a way. Maybe the most meaningful kinds of feedback that I get is from people who are like, “I read your book and now I cook vegetables for my kids and they eat them, and it tastes good,” and that kind of stuff is really, I think, the most powerful for me, but still, there’s a way where I’m like, oh, somebody else did that, and it’s really hard for me to praise or really fully feel in my body pride and happiness at having achieved these goals I have listed on papers all over the place. I do a lot of work in therapy and meditation and just trying to be better about my body and connecting with my body and feeling that stuff.

Here, up until now, I have not historically used those things to get me through the creative lows. I do have to sort of keep my eye on the prize. I think in therapy and in just my own life, I have had to do a lot of work in reframing what success means and what it looks like so that as I work toward, quote-unquote, success, I’m working towards something that will be positive for me rather than also beat me down. I’m a crazy perfectionist child of immigrants who was raised in a family where nothing was ever good enough, nothing I did was ever perfect. I’m a perfectionist from childhood and then I entered a profession, in particular, began working in an institution which is run by a world-class perfectionist. Nothing that any of us ever did was good enough, which is good because it keeps us pushing all toward doing better, but I haven’t historically had a lot of positive feedback and really allowed myself to feel that, so I’m doing a lot of my own work to sort of be proud at the things that I do, whether they’re perfect, quote-unquote, or just good enough or whatever.

I had a lot of fear before my book was released because it was the biggest project that I have ever worked on. It was the longest dream that I had ever worked toward. I had put everything I had into it and because it took me so long to do, I felt the pressure of a lot of people looking at me and at this book, and people were waiting for it and I knew they were ready to respond in whatever way. I didn’t know what way. I have always worked for external praise and I’m aware of that, and so, I went to therapy and I told my therapist, “I’m really worried that when this book comes out, I am going to sort of sink or swim on the world’s reception of it and I don’t want to do that, so how do I get out of that? How do I exist in a way where, whatever the reception is of this thing, I will still be okay and not break into one million pieces?” He said, “Well, we have to create a definition of success that’s on your terms,” so it took me a lot of months and a lot of thinking, and eventually I came back to him and I said, “You know what? I’ll feel totally successful with this if I know that I’ve done everything I could possibly do to make it as good as I possibly can.” And that means never being lazy and not doing another revision, or never not doing the research, or never not hiring the fact checker, or never not testing the recipe again, or whatever.

Once I know I’ve given everything and turned every stone, then I will be able to respond to any criticism, I’ll be able to accept any praise because I’ll know that I did anything. To me, a big thing about responding to criticism is, if there’s a reason I made a choice and I can speak to that articulately, at least then I’m happy to accept criticism because sometimes it’s just a difference of opinion, but if I felt pressure to do something or I know that I didn’t do my best or whatever, then a lot of times that criticism really sort of gets me in the gut.

I really did that work and I also committed to not reading reviews, and not reading comments and stuff, and so I’ve sort of shielded myself from a lot of stuff, but I have felt generally really safe and strong since the book came out. It’s nice that there is all of the praise or whatever, but I also just feel good about what I’ve done, and I know the ways I could have done it better and I get to go do more work in the world and try and do that better. That’s okay.

Tim Ferriss: How did your therapist help you or how did you put systems in place so that that definition of success would be at the forefront of your mind? I don’t know, of course, because I don’t have telepathy, but I suspect there had to be some point where you saw, maybe it wasn’t a negative review, but they just a lukewarm response or perhaps just some idiot on the internet with a loud voice yelling something or other, and for at least a moment, you were back in your old mindset of looking for external validation and in this case not finding it. Did that happen at all?

Samin Nosrat: Oh, it happens all the time.

Tim Ferriss: How do you take that, I think, very enabling definition of success and kind of bring it onto the front lines with you? Were there any exercises that you did? Was it speaking to the therapist on a weekly basis? This is something I struggle with. I also have historically beaten the hell out of myself for the smallest mistakes and always looked for the things that could be improved rather than the things that we’re done well, so this is also just selfishly something I’d love to pick at you on that.

Samin Nosrat: Tim, I want to give you a hug.

Tim Ferriss: It’s true, it’s true.

Samin Nosrat: I know.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, it’s true.

Samin Nosrat: I mean, I feel you. I don’t know why we’re wired this way, but we are, and it’s its own struggle. I still get those emails. One really clear example that I can think of, here, you know what, this is so epic, I had two separate fact-checkers check my book for cooking science just because I’m not a scientist and I’m sure I got some things wrong, and it turned out I got a bunch of things wrong. Luckily, we caught almost all of them, and in the last-minute sort of shuffle to input all of their changes, I accidentally said something positive when I said I should have used a negative. I inverted the thing, and it ended up being on the very first page of anything science related in the book, Page 29, and it was the most basic definition of osmosis. I accidentally inverted it and gave the opposite definition, which really sets me up to look like an idiot for the next 400 pages.

I didn’t realize that this had happened until the day of publication when the first Amazon reviews went up. Someone very kindly mentioned it in an Amazon review and I lost my mind because 70,000 books had been printed. I was like, 70,000 people are going to get the wrong information and understand osmosis wrong because of me and think I’m stupid. This comes true, my greatest fear, that I’m not a brilliant food science person, which I’m not a brilliant food science person, all of this stuff. That was really hard for me to let go of and be like, well, I made a mistake. It’s a mistake. I tried my best at everything else, there’s going to be many more copies of this book, we’re going to fix it for the future, and so I sort of was able to work through the idea that I had made a mistake, and a mistake is totally different than making a bad choice. I had to forgive myself for making a mistake.

Maybe a year after that, I received this really nasty email from somebody. He was a scientist, and so he took the time to write this really angry email about this mistake. It’s basically like he actualized the things that I had been so afraid of a year before and he made it true. He manifested my worst nightmare. He wrote me this really mean email about, how could this have made it to publication and how lazy was I and my publisher, and don’t we do fact-checking, and if this mistake is on Page 29, then he couldn’t possibly trust anything else I have to say, all of this kind of stuff.

By that time, I had forgiven myself for this mistake so clearly that I was able to write back to him and say, listen, this was a mistake, I’m sorry for this mistake, we’ve remedied it since in future printings, and I really hope that the next time you make a mistake, people treat you with more compassion than you just treated me.

He actually wrote back, and he was super sorry, but it came on official letterhead of his university. It was a whole thing. That was a good practice for me to sort of understand the cycle of this thing, and of course I’m going to beat myself up, but then what do I do right after that? How do I reframe it? Often, what I like to do is think about how I treat somebody else or how I would talk to a friend of mine who made such a mistake or received such criticism, and I would always be way nicer to anyone else, so I’m trying my hardest to treat myself like that now, too, but that’s easier said than done.

Tim Ferriss: It is easier said than done, but I think it gets easier with the addition of examples like that, and people hearing that so that they don’t feel quite as alone, A, but also, B, enabled in a sense because they see that it can be improved. I have to share one book story because it’s not entirely dissimilar, but I don’t know if I’ve shared it before, I just feel compelled because I’m over-caffeinated, which is, I remember when my first book, The 4-Hour Workweek, is getting printed and I’m going to get my first real copy. I come home for lunch at one point and there’s this thick yellow padded envelope that has been shipped to my house, on the doorstep, and I pick it up and I know it’s the book.

I did not open it. I said to myself, I know when I open this book I’m going to find a typo, and I need to prepare for that typo, so I waited all day until 7:00 pm, poured a glass of wine, sat at my kitchen table, and opened this book. Right in the fucking dedication, huge typo, even before we get to the front matter. I’m like, you have to be fucking kidding me. I’m glad I have my wine.

At that point, it’s the same thing. You’re like, okay, there are however many tens of thousands of these floating around and people are going to open it, before they even get to my first paragraph of prose and be like, what? Oh, my god, what a feeling.

Samin Nosrat: Oh, man, I mean, it still gets me. I write a column for the Times magazine where it goes through two editors, at least, a fact checker, and a copy editor, and still, mistakes get through. People really take the time to write to me about grammatical errors. I have a little punch in my gut, and then I’m just like, well, it was a mistake. I’m getting better. One small way in which I’m getting better at being nicer to myself is letting go of mistakes. I do think it’s really funny for people like me and you when we’re literally faced with them on the very first page. It’s just a good reminder no one’s perfect.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, no matter what, every single time you have a piece of writing that is important to you, there will be some error that I think has a consciousness of its own and just wills itself through all of the copy editors to make its way into print, but so it goes. I’m not proud of this, but I’ve never gone to therapy. I’ve actually had a few sessions here and there, but really something like three or four sessions over the course of my life and I never took to it. Have you found any particular type of therapy to be helpful for you?

Samin Nosrat: I love my therapist. He’s the only one I’ve ever been to. I met him because he was my friend’s boyfriend’s therapist. Being an insane person, I’m just really highly anxious and highly kind of neurotic. I Googled his name a whole bunch of times before I went to go see him and after I started seeing him to try and figure out as much information about him and the kind of therapy that he practices as possible, and he’s definitely an old school therapist. There’s no information on the internet about him, so I actually don’t even really know. I’ve asked him so many times and he’s really evasive about the specific kinds of things because he incorporates, I think, so many different types of methods into his work.

We’ve been together not quite 10 years yet, but he’s changed a lot. I can tell that he’s going out and learning and the things that he focuses on changes a lot. Very frustratingly to me for a really long time, his answer to almost anything I would say would be like, “And how do you feel in your body?” I was like, “I don’t want to talk about how I feel in my body; I want you to tell me what to do! What’s a solution?

Over many years, he has trained me to really be attuned to my feelings and my body, which I think that’s a lot of somatic work, and I think technically what he does is CBT, cognitive behavioral therapy, and so that’s the larger framework, and then, within that, we do a lot of meditation and a lot of this somatic work. I feel like, for somebody like me who is so much in my head and so much about action, it is such a nice practice and such a great gift to myself to have this place where I go once a week where I am just led back into my body and into my feelings, and have trained myself to really be aware of my feelings and not just my thoughts. I’m so grateful to him and to this work for that.

Tim Ferriss: This is something that’s top of mind for me because a friend of mine just came back, I want to say about a month ago, from a Goenka Vipassanā meditation retreat, and I’ve never gone to a Goenka meditation retreat, but it seemed, at least in his experience, to focus almost, if not completely exclusively, on bodily sensations. You’re not following your thoughts, you’re always returning to focusing on these different bodily sensations, and I’d love to hear, if you’re willing, because I do think this is very important for me and potentially for a lot of people listening, how this somatic awareness, this reconnecting to the body and the feelings, ends up translating to your life. Could you give an example situation?

Samin Nosrat: I absolutely can, for sure. This, Tim, is so crazy because this is not that different of a conversation than where we started with the manifestation journal, to be honest. I have always been a really gut-led person, intuitive person, and especially in my career, like where I am making decisions about, well, it doesn’t feel right to go work for this or it doesn’t feel right to accept that job. Any time I’ve regretted doing something or I’ve gotten myself into some complicated professional pickle, or a personal pickle, it’s often because I ignored that gut feeling, that gut voice.

What this work teaches me to do is I’m basically just strengthening the muscle of that gut feeling, and sometimes it’s not just my gut, it’s sometimes my heart feeling, but I’m teaching myself to listen to the really quiet, everything else, really as much as possible, quiet my mind, and all the things telling me, well, you should do this, or there was this much money, or shouldn’t you do this thing because then you would get to be on a billboard with so-and-so or whatever? All these other reasons, it sort of gets rid of the reasoning, and it helps me listen to my heart and my gut. Let me think of an example that recently happened.

Tim Ferriss: You could disguise the details to protect the guilty.

Samin Nosrat: No, no. I have been in a lot of emotional pain for the last several months. I’ve been, really, sort of just feeling the weight of the world. I have been learning a lot of things about my own life and things that I feel responsible for in terms of ways that I’ve participated in, I don’t know, systems that have put me down as an immigrant kid with a funny name, and I had made decisions, maybe if I achieve enough, that people won’t notice that I’m different and then they’ll accept me. There’s been a lot of that in my life of, let me infiltrate this elite institution and make my way to the top and then there will be no way that anyone can deny that I belong here. Looking back at my life, that’s been the pattern of everything that I’ve done, and I am sort of reckoning with what that’s meant for me and how I want to continue moving forward and there’s a lot of pain in that for me.

I have been really down, and a lot of my friends can really tell that, and to the point where a lot of them started checking in on me via phone, via text, via email, and I didn’t know why a lot of people were checking in on me because I just have been in such sort of rage and pain, and I have had this boulder of anger and sadness and hurt in my chest. About a month ago, I went to go talk to a friend who reached out to me and she said, please come talk to me, I want to talk to you about this. I’m worried about you. I’m worried that you don’t have the kind of deeply mutually supportive relationships in your life that will support you through this, and also through all of the stuff that’s coming your way with this show coming out and all this kind of stuff.

I went there and I thought she was going to give me a hug and tell me how much she loves me, and tell me how great I am and I deserve all this great friendship or whatever, and she actually sat me down and she said, you know, these are these ways in which you have been letting down me, you’ve been letting down the people around, and I know that you’re in pain because you feel really lonely and separate from us, but you’re actually doing it to yourself. If you can work on some of this stuff, I think it will not only improve your relationships, but you’ll feel better.

It was a really intense come-to-Jesus. We were standing on the corner of the street in San Francisco. We were both crying for two hours. It was really intense. I did not expect it at all, and she said all this stuff and my immediate reaction was to be really defensive. As soon as I started to form the defensive sentences, but this, but that, I realized, well, it doesn’t even matter because her experience of me has nothing to do with my reasons for why I have not been there for her in this way or that way.

I just sort of deflated and I looked at her, and I said, well, what do I do? How do I be better for us, for you, for me, for our friends? Later, she said, I can’t believe you didn’t even have a single defensive reaction. I was really prepared for that and it was really amazing that you didn’t, so we had this very intense three hours together where we unpacked all of this stuff, and I asked her what I could do. She gave me a whole list of basic ways in which I could be a better friend, and ultimately, I felt very loved because I think it’s really hard to tell somebody, have those hard talks, so I felt really loved and cared for by the fact that she took the time and the energy and set the intention of setting me straight in these things. As I was driving home, I got back into my car, I think when I buckled the safety belt and it went across my chest, I realized that this pain, that this boulder of pain that has been in my chest probably at least since December, at least six or seven or eight months, was gone.

It wasn’t that I felt so great all of a sudden, but this rock that has been weighing down every breath was no longer there. It maybe had been broken up and dispersed into my body, and I woke up the next morning and I cried. I mean, I was still really upset about receiving this very difficult feedback, but I also realized I felt really empowered because so much of my pain has been about a feeling of powerlessness, a feeling that there’s so many things going on in the world that I have no power to change or improve. She gave me something I could do something about, and not only could I do something about it, but I could make my life better and my friends’ lives better in the process.

I think having power and feeling the very strong and pure love of my friend really helped to dissolve this bad feeling, and this is not to say my depression has lifted. I suddenly feel so much better, but I will say there was a marked difference, a marked immediate difference, and everyone who I have been around is like, “Oh, wow, you’re so much lighter,” and I really do feel a lot lighter. I don’t know if that was really clear for you.

Tim Ferriss: I think this is important territory to explore, so I appreciate you being game, and we will probably come back to some of this, but I want to make sure that we explore the entire map of the terrain up and down. You mentioned love a few times, so I thought, perhaps, if you’d be willing to share, you could answer the question, when did you first fall in love with food? Was there any particular moment, any particular meal where it just really kind of grabbed you by the collar and made you become as involved or excited about food as you are today?

Samin Nosrat: Oh, wow, I don’t know, because my mom is such an incredible cook, and cooking for us and shopping for us and spending time on food was the primary way that my mom really showed us her love. I think I’ve always associated cooking and eating with that feeling of maternal warmth, and it’s what I try to put out into the world. I have so many pictures of myself as a little kid and the stories. Also, for me now as a cook, there are so many things that I understand about the length that my mom went to to make this really delicious and nutritious and culturally meaningful food for us every day, and how much work went into that and how much time and labor.

There are a lot of things that, in retrospect, I have so much appreciation for her about that I probably just couldn’t have ever imagined, but there’s this dish that she, quote-unquote, invented called Samin polo, and polo just means rice. It was, I think, the food she fed me when I was teething. It was this mushy basmati rice with really soft pieces of potato and tomato and chicken, and so it was just all these typical kid foods, but really, really soft so that you could eat them even if you didn’t have teeth. I would eat that with yogurt, and I loved it so much and I loved that there was a dish named after me. I still sometimes go make that for myself.

To me, I think the Samin polo is a great example of that, and it’s funny because there have been, for sure, some really meaningful meals that I’ve had and there’s the one that sort of led me to become a cook that was really important in the story and in the timeline, but very rarely is a meal for me about the food. It’s almost always about what happens at the table and the conversations and the feelings and all that kind of stuff. I think, yeah, for me, it’s maybe also not the healthiest thing to associate food with love, but I do.

Tim Ferriss: Well, let me just ask the question, where did you grow up?

Samin Nosrat: I grew up in San Diego. I was born there. My parents came from Iran in the mid-70s to San Diego, and then I was born in ’79. I lived, in retrospect, this really funny life where my high school was two blocks from the beach, I grew up going to the beach all the time, eating fish tacos, driving around in cars with all my very American friends, and then I would come home, and my mom always said, when you come back home, this is Iran. At home, we spoke Farsi, there are Persian rugs everywhere, we ate Persian food. She insisted that we follow the traditions of the traditions of the culture and respect our elders. I very much had these two worlds that I was very aware of and still sort of look back and think a lot about how that’s defined me.

I think it led to me feeling like an outsider no matter where I was because I never quite belonged, and in a way, I think that feeling of never quite belonging is one of my superpowers because it’s very easy for me. even as I become more, quote-unquote, popular or successful or whatever to imagine what it’s like on the outside, so it really has made inclusivity and inclusion be a fundamental part of all of my work. Whether I’m writing a recipe for the New York Times magazine, I constantly put myself into the shoes of someone who doesn’t live in California and have access to the world’s best produce, or what ingredients can anyone buy at any grocery store, or will these instructions make sense to anyone, or am I using language that will make you feel like you don’t belong here, or whatever. To me, it’s this funny thing where these things that caused me so much sort of pain and confusion as a kid ended up being really wonderful tools in my work.

Tim Ferriss: I’m so glad you’re talking about not fitting in being a gift. It’s so timely, and I feel like we should definitely hug it out at some point, but literally just a week ago, I was reflecting on how many of the things that I’ve viewed from my past as having damaged me or resulting in me being damaged have actually been gifts. One of them was always feeling, in a sense, that I didn’t fit in and being an observer. I don’t know what your experience was like, but I very often ended standing in a room and feeling like I wasn’t actually there, but I was like a camera on the wall observing what was happening.

What I notice, for instance, in your writing, and I’ve read a million cookbooks, except I certainly would not consider myself a real chef as you are, but have read a lot, I keep very few in my actual kitchen and your book is one of those books because you are so good at putting on the lens of beginner’s mind and really putting yourself in the place of whoever it is you are writing for, who’s intended to receive the teaching that you are putting down on paper or on the screen.

I wanted to dig into that a little bit because I feel that that reframe is so powerful, and it’s easy to, too. It’s easy to forget to put those glasses on with that reframe.

Samin Nosrat: For sure. I definitely have a response to your question, but also, you said something so beautiful and so crazy that I feel like I need to read you this quote that I just saw on Instagram yesterday.

Tim Ferriss: I’m ready, I’m ready.

Samin Nosrat: Okay, so I just pulled it up. It was by Marco Pierre White; do you know who he was?

Tim Ferriss: Oh, yeah, that’s, what is it, White Heat or White Hot, what was the book? [Ed. Note: White Heat 25]

Samin Nosrat: Yeah, he’s still alive. I don’t even know how to describe him, he was a trend-setting avant-garde chef in the ‘80s and ‘90s. He was kind of the original bad boy, if you will, like a proto Anthony Bourdain in some ways, just known for his aggressiveness and his sort of brilliance and his creativity, and I think he’s just sort of this tortured bad boy kind of guy. There’s this beautiful picture I saw of him on this account called Nitch on Instagram and this quote from him. He wrote: “I believe there’s really two species of human beings. The first species is the most common, there’s more of them. They are individuals who, like we all, are born into a certain world and they become a product of that world. They absorb that environment they are born into, they become an extension of it, they become part of it… The rarer species, in my opinion, is the individual who has been damaged as a child. They have suffered misfortune and great tragedy. This doesn’t mean that they are better people, it just means they have suffered… And very few individuals suffer that tragedy. But what happens… is an invisible shell covers you. It protects you, so you don’t absorb the world you’re brought into, you don’t become part of that world… you observe that world.”

Tim Ferriss: Wow.

Samin Nosrat: It was exactly what you just said.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, that’s incredible.

Samin Nosrat: I don’t know that my life has been so dramatic to have been filled with that level of tragedy, but absolutely, I think small pains and small traumas or whatever, just the circumstances of our lives can make us feel. And also, the whole idea of being an outsider lately, I’ve been thinking, I’ve always felt on the outside, but does anyone really feel on the inside? I don’t know.

In terms of the beginner’s mind and that work, I think there are two parts to that for me. I think when I started teaching people how to cook, I never forgot what it felt to be 19 years old in a world class kitchen and not know anything. I didn’t know the difference between parsley and celery, or parsley and cilantro. I did know parsley and celery. I didn’t know anything, I didn’t know any fancy terms. I didn’t know even the most basic things. Everything just was overwhelming and too much information, and so, I’ve never forgotten the feeling of being so overwhelmed and lost and having nothing to cling to, and I feel like, as long as I can remember that and return to that every time I go to teach or talk or write, then I’m really serving the people that I’m trying to serve who are the people that don’t know.

There are so many times where I had to reset myself and remember I wasn’t writing my book or doing my work to impress my peers. It’s not for them. Also, there are a million better chefs out there than me, and I’m not out there to compete with them. I’m there to sort of be a translator for the amateur from the professional kitchen. If I can remember that and remember the feeling of being the beginner, then I can do my job right, and as a writer, I would say the person who really has served as a model for me in that more than anyone else is Michael Pollan.

Tim Ferriss: Oh, yeah. We’re definitely going to dig into Michael.

Samin Nosrat: Yeah. I talked to him right after he recorded with you. I think you blew his mind.

Tim Ferriss: Well, the feeling is mutual. I don’t know how that guy speaks in finished prose, but maybe I’ll figure it out one day.

Samin Nosrat: It’s bananas. He really taught me, and this wasn’t something he actively taught me. I learned by reading his work and really sitting with what it was that was so moving and effective about the way that he writes. It’s an old, time-worn journalistic tool to go do the experiential journalism. He just has this incredible way of immersing himself in really complicated worlds and being able to articulate what he’s experiencing and what he’s learning in a way for anybody. He did that with really complicated things about GMO corn, he did that with the botanical world, he’s done that with the architectural world, and most recently, he’s done it in the psychedelic world. When I first sat down to write, I was like, okay, I’m going to do this the Michael Pollan way, and I tried to do what he would do, which was to be this guide, this newbie guide, but I realized that wasn’t who I was.

What I needed to do was establish some authority as a teacher, so I couldn’t take you on this journey with me. He’s so good at doing it in a way where he’s not condescending at all, but yet he’s so informative, and so I really had to sort of sit with that and let it distill through my bones and through my mind and figure out, how can I take that kernel of not being condescending, of being really clear and articulate, of holding your hand and bringing you through here, yet also having some authority. The best way that I found to do that was to do what I did when I teach people how to cook and when I talk to them, which is to tell the stories of when I didn’t know anything, and all of the 9,000 times I’ve messed everything up because that is the closest that I can be to being in your shoes as a person who maybe doesn’t know how to deep fry or is afraid you’re going to burn your house down or whatever. Ultimately, I couldn’t be Michael Pollan, and that’s fine, for both of us, but I could learn from him and really sort of put some of his techniques into action.

Tim Ferriss: We are going to revisit that because I’m fascinated by writing process, which, really, for people reading, people reading, if you’re reading this, then I want to figure out how you’re achieving synesthesia, but for people listening to this, writing process, you can just substitute creative process, it’s same-same, same with experimenting in the kitchen, same with you-name-it, composing new music. You had mentioned age 19, and this might be a good segue to the question, how did you first get exposed to Alice Waters?

Samin Nosrat: The very first time I ever heard of Alice Waters was when I moved to Berkeley in 1997 to attend college, and at my freshman orientation, somebody was like, “Oh, and there’s a famous restaurant with a famous chef in town.” To me, coming from San Diego eating mostly home cooked food and sometimes fish tacos and Mexican food and Chinese food or whatever, I had no concept of what a fancy restaurant or a famous chef was, so that sort of went in one ear and out the other. The following year, I fell in love and my boyfriend was from San Francisco, and we spent all of our time, all of our free time eating.

Tim Ferriss: Good place to do it.

Samin Nosrat: Yeah, totally. He took me to his favorite ice cream place and his favorite pizza place, and all of the sort of childhood places, and he had always wanted to go to Chez Panisse. I still didn’t really know what it was. I knew it was expensive, so we saved $220.00 over the course of seven months, and there’s a whole thing where you have to reserve your table at Chez Panisse a month in advance, but the menu, which is fixed, only is published a week in advance. I was not yet a really adventurous eater, so we did this complicated thing where we reserved for four nights in a row, and then when the menu was published, we chose the one we wanted and canceled all the other ones.

Tim Ferriss: Oh, because the menu is different each day?

Samin Nosrat: Yeah, it’s different each night. I was like, “Oh, that one looks good.”

Tim Ferriss: Clever.

Samin Nosrat: Then we went in, and yeah, I was 19. I was wearing a blank tank top and denim skirt. We were very out of place in probably Berkeley’s fanciest restaurant, I think everyone probably knew that we were not regulars, and we had this really special meal. I grew up eating really, really delicious food, so it wasn’t like this food was the most amazing thing I’d ever eaten, it was the entire experience was unlike any I had ever had in a restaurant. I really felt like I was at somebody’s house and they were caring for me, and they were so attentive to everything.

The bread and butter were never empty, the water was never empty, the plate, the second we were done, was whisked away. There was just this sort of attention that I had never received in a restaurant before and I think that really got me. When the dessert came, it was a chocolate soufflé, and the server asked if I had ever had soufflé before and I said “No,” and she said, “Would you like me to show you how to eat it?” I said, “Yes, please, sure.” She said, “Well, you poke a hole with your spoon in the top and then you pour this raspberry sauce in, and that way, every bite has sauce.” I did that, and I took a bite, and she said, “How is it?” I said, “Oh, it’s really good, but it would be a lot better if I had a glass of cold milk.” I had no idea that it was so rude to tell this person in this fancy restaurant what would make my thing better, and also, I had no idea that in fancy dining, fine dining, it’s considered a total faux pas to drink milk after 10:00 a.m. That’s why, in Italy, if you order a cappuccino after 10:00 a.m., they know you’re American because only babies drink milk after 10:00 a.m.

Tim Ferriss: Wow, I had no idea. This is good to know.

Samin Nosrat: Even having the idea of asking for milk with chocolate after dinner is so gross to people in fancy food, so she kind of laughed. She’s like, “You want milk?” I was like, “Yeah, hello, hot chocolate thing, cold milk, good combo,” and so she went and then she also brought us each a glass of dessert wine to sort of teach us the refined accompaniment and it was this really sweet gesture.

Tim Ferriss: Once you’ve enjoyed your cold milk, you may want to sample another option.

Samin Nosrat: I don’t know, it was like a little education. I was so moved by this whole experience and this whole dinner that I wrote this letter to Alice Waters. I brought it in a few months later asking for a job as a busser. I always had sort of a basic job that I worked throughout college. I brought it in and they said, “Oh, you have to bring that to the floor manager,” so they led me to the floor manager’s office, and when she opened the door, it was the soufflé lady. She remembered me. In retrospect, I think she was probably really desperate because she was like, “You want to start tomorrow?”

I started the next day, and pretty immediately, I was just so enchanted by what was happening in the kitchen that I wanted to learn what those people knew. That restaurant really exists like a pyramid and the cooks are at the top. They’re the most respected, most skilled people who work there and I wanted that. I was so attracted to that.

Tim Ferriss: What did the letter say that you wrote to Alice? Do you remember any of it? Because you have a letter thing as far as I can tell in the homework that I’ve done, but do you recall any of the elements of that letter?

Samin Nosrat: I’m sure I used the word magical. It’s a very simian word. I’m like, I had a magical dinner at your magical restaurant and I was so inspired, and I also don’t think Alice Waters ever saw that letter. I think it stopped with the floor manager probably, but I had never worked in a restaurant. I’m sure I revealed that, that I was just so moved by this incredible dinner that I wanted to work there, and can I please have an opportunity. I think it was a pretty straightforward one. I’m pretty good with the flattery, I would say. That’s an important part of these letters in my life where I’m writing to someone because I’m a huge fan and I’m looking to collaborate or for some opportunity, so I start really with laying it on thick, it’s genuine, and then I do my big ask. Yeah, I had the Alice Waters letter, then, years later, I had the Michael Pollan letter.

Tim Ferriss: Let’s pause on the Michael Pollan. Place us, time and place, when you get a letter to Michael Pollan.

Samin Nosrat: When’s the letter to Michael Pollan?

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, where were you, what were you doing?

Samin Nosrat: Oh, so that was about 10 years later. Was it about 10 years later? Yeah, almost 10 years later, I was working at a different restaurant in Berkeley and I saw Michael Pollan’s name in the reservation book and I was a huge fan of his, and I had met him a couple times at Chez Panisse and he’d been involved with Alice and her work. Their work really intersected, and so they were big supporters of one another, and I remember, before came out, that, for whatever reason, we had a copy of a galley at Chez Panisse that we were passing around and reading and I was like, “Who is this person? This is amazing.”

Since I had read that book, I had been a voracious reader of anything that he wrote, and I really admired the way that he was an advocate and so eloquent about the things that I care so deeply about and work on. To me, he was somebody who I really looked up to, also because, even though I began cooking, I never let go of the idea of wanting to be a writer. I always wanted to be a writer since way before I was a cook, and that was something that I really kept pursuing in small ways, even as I was cooking.

By the time that Michael Pollan’s name appeared in our reservation book, I had applied to a few different creative writing programs and gotten in and deferred and never taken a leap, and I knew that he was teaching at the UC Berkeley School of Journalism. I quickly scrawled out this card saying I’m your number one fan, you mean so much to me, I would love to come audit one of your classes, and basically that. It wasn’t even a super big letter, but then I gave it to the servers, and I went home that night and I asked them to give it to him when he was eating. Then they did, and then a few weeks later, I mean, this speaks so directly to who Michael is, he wrote me back. He wrote me an email and said,
“Why don’t you come in and talk to me?”

He wrote me back, I went in to go talk to him, and I asked him to audit his class. He said, “It might be a little bit tricky because a lot of people want to audit the class, but there’s one spot, there’s one extra spot, so why don’t you come on the first day and you guys can all vie for that spot.” I showed up the first day of this tiny class and there was 11 people in the class, I think, and I think over 200 people showed up for that last spot. We each had to write an index card saying why we wanted to audit, so we did and then we went away.

Later that day, I was lamenting to my friend that there was no way that I would ever get the spot, and my friend said, “Don’t you know anything? Don’t you know anything about academics?” I was like, “I don’t; tell me.” She said, “You need to write him right now and say that he needs to give you this precisely because you are a cook and you will bring a different viewpoint into this class, and the conversations will be different because you’re from the inside of this world.” Because the class was called Following the Food Chain and it was about the food industry.

I did that, even though it felt so wrong to write to Michael Pollan and tell him what he needed to do from some 23-year-old. I don’t know how old I was, 29, maybe. I did, and he was like, “Okay.” It was so simple and weird. I asked. I did the thing that I was so scared to do and then that led to me auditing this class, which ended up being a really incredible and pivotal moment for me that I don’t know that I could have put my finger on at that time, but now I look back at it and it’s not only when I got to work with Michael and what led to us working together on writing and cooking, but also, I became part of an incredible community of journalists and writers, which is a thing I had always wanted.

By then, I had a really vast network of cooking people and I was part of an incredible cooking world, but I didn’t have a community at all to support me as a writer. I didn’t know what a pitch was. I didn’t know anything about writing. I didn’t know articles are measured in words. I didn’t know any of that, so I learned a lot of that, not only from that class, but also just from being around these people and having peers who I could ask all these questions of, and now I work in an office, a shared writing space with so many of those people. I’ve gone on to collaborate with them. They are my community who I am constantly reaching out to and now I’m able to support in my own ways. That was a really important thing that I asked for.

Tim Ferriss: Let’s look at the nitty-gritty of that. You start with a note in the restaurant that says, “I’m your biggest fan, can I audit your class?” Were there any other ingredients in that?

Samin Nosrat: It was a card. I remember that it was a card. It was not a letter on paper that was folded.

Tim Ferriss: We’re talking card like a Hallmark card? Are we talking a business card?

Samin Nosrat: Yeah, I think, because on the street where that restaurant was, there was a couple stationery stores, so I think I bought a card, like some sort of greeting card, so it wasn’t so long, whatever I wrote. I think, really, it said, “My name is Samin, I’m a huge fan of yours, I have always wanted to write. I really would like to come audit your class. It would mean so much to me.” There’s no reason why Michael Pollan should write me back.

Tim Ferriss: I’m not sure you’re giving yourself enough credit. That’s part one. Part two, he writes you back, you show up, it’s like the gladiatorial games with 200 competitors, and you write an index next card. Do you remember any of what you put on the index card?

Samin Nosrat: I don’t remember that.

Tim Ferriss: No problem.

Samin Nosrat: I wish I had the index card.

Tim Ferriss: No problem. All right, so then your friend says, “Hey, don’t you know anything about academics?” “No, I don’t, please tell me.” You need to write this, so you send this follow up email. Do you remember the subject line, anything else that you put in that email?

Samin Nosrat: No. I don’t know if I had his email address then. Should I search for my oldest email to Michael Pollan right now? I could send it to you later.

Tim Ferriss: We could look it up. You could send it to me later and if you find it, I’ll put it in the show notes for people.

Samin Nosrat: I think the thing for me is that I know that I’m very verbose, so any time I sit down to ask for something, and I intuitively knew this before and now I know it really clearly and articulate it to myself and other people, which is, if you’re writing an email to somebody to ask them for something, just get to it.

Tim Ferriss: Right, yeah, don’t beat around the bush.

Samin Nosrat: Right, I don’t need your whole backstory, I don’t need the boo-boo-boo, just say the thing, so I’m pretty sure I did that one pretty tightly because we were already in this conversation.

Tim Ferriss: You need to have me in the class because I’ll bring a different viewpoint.

Samin Nosrat: Yeah, because I’m a cook and I work in the sustainable food world. I sort of glossed over this before, but what he had told me when I had come to his office hours before I went to that first day of class was he said, “Listen, I know you want to take this class, but it’s never going to happen because I have obligations to a long list of people and you’re at the very end of that list, because, first, my obligations are to the students of this graduate school, and then of the other graduate schools of UC Berkeley, and then to the undergraduates of UC Berkeley, and then the community. There are so many other paying students ahead of you that you are low priority to me.” I mean, he didn’t do it in a mean way, but it was just like he was telling me what it was.

Tim Ferriss: Telling it how it is, yeah.

Samin Nosrat: He was like, “But if you want, you can come to this day,” so I did. I saw it in action, the fact that there were so many people. I also think he’s a softie at heart, even though he comes across as a rule follower. So even though there were only supposed to be 12 people in that class, I think there ended up being 15 of us. I don’t think if I had not followed up with that email and said, “Listen, you need me precisely because I’m not one of those people further up on this list; that that was why I was so enthusiastic.” Since the class, during the class, and since the class, it became really apparent that I did do precisely that, that I did bring a viewpoint that nobody else in that room could have, and I helped arrange for us a field trip to this wackadoodle sustainable farm and there were ways where, because I had an insider’s perspective, I could connect other students with the kinds of stories that they probably wouldn’t be able to find on their own because I was living it and immersed in it. I don’t think he regrets it. I hope not.

Tim Ferriss: We’re talking about a writer who’s had a big influence on your writing, your career. Let’s back step for a second to books that have had a big impact on you. In the course of doing my homework, I don’t know when this came about, and you can’t believe everything you read on the internet, so feel free to correct, but a list of books that the Chez Panisse chefs gave you. This is something that came up and then there are a few folks who came up, I guess Marcella Hazan, Patience Gray. Could you describe how that list got to you and what were some of the books on that list that had a big impact on you?

Samin Nosrat: For sure. I mean, those are also just cookbooks, so I have other books I can talk about too if you want.

Tim Ferriss: Oh, both, yeah. Let’s do both and you can do it in whatever order you like.

Samin Nosrat: Yeah, but in terms of the cookbooks that have been deeply formative, one of the incredible things about Chez Panisse is that, and this absolutely comes from Alice and the world that she’s created, is she is an artist above all else and she really surrounds herself with deeply creative people and artists of all different kinds and so food is just one part of this lifestyle that she really tries to create and teach people and immerse people in, and so beautiful writing is a big part of that.

I think I had a pretty limited exposure to cookbooks before I came to Chez Panisse where I just knew it as the thing that you look up the recipe in to make for dinner. When I begged the chefs there to teach me how to cook and just to set the scene, the time was about, I think this was 2000, the restaurant kept winning Best Restaurant in America from Gourmet Magazine, which at the time was the biggest sort of award of its type. There was no reason for these chefs to let me into the kitchen; there was a line a mile long of much more experienced people than me trying to get this job, and I knew that, and they knew that everyone knew that.

I knew nothing and all I had was my enthusiasm, really, and my dedication and my work ethic. I asked the chefs what I needed to do to earn an unpaid apprenticeship. That’s what I was competing for and they said, “You need to cook every day; you need to watch these cooks every day you’re here; you need to learn how to taste and develop your palate, and you need to go home and read all these books.” They gave me a stack of probably 30 books. I mean, they didn’t actually give me the books, they told me about 30 books to read. They’re like, these are the books that are the Chez Panisse canon. They were books unlike anything I had ever seen.

Patience Gray, who was an incredible writer in the midcentury who traveled with her husband throughout Turkey and Greece and Italy and Spain wrote this beautiful book called Honey From a Weed. It’s like a poem, and yes, there are recipes with cups and measures in there, but there is just a way that, one country to the next, she connects all these dots, and it’s so beautiful and moving and it put together writing and food, in a way unlike I had ever seen before.

That was a really formative book for me. There was another one in the same vein called The Auberge of the Flowering Hearth by a person named Roy Andries De Groot. I think it’s his pen name. This one, if a novel met a cookbook, because it was an imaginary world that this guy had created about this magical Auberge somewhere in the mountains and –

Tim Ferriss: Auberge, which is?

Samin Nosrat: Like a mountain hotel somewhere in France.

Tim Ferriss: Hotel.

Samin Nosrat: Yeah, a mountain inn, a country inn, I guess, and there were just these beautiful narratives that were intertwined in talking about food that were so moving to me. Then there were the basic cookbooks that I had to learn history and tradition and culture from, things like Richard Olney’s writing and Marcella Hazan and, oh gosh, all of the Chez Panisse books. It was really a kind of world that I had never been exposed to because we, at my house, growing up, we had two Persian cookbooks, our culinary tradition was entirely oral, and then we had a Sesame Street cookbook that had a banana bread recipe that I use to make when I was little, and that was about it.

There was not this deep tradition of cookbooks that I grew up around. This was a really moving and influential thing for me. Yeah, writing-wise, I read so much nonfiction, I mean, I love, love, love John McPhee.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, amazing.

Samin Nosrat: Yeah. To me, I’ve learned so much about structure from John McPhee.

Tim Ferriss: Do you have one or two favorites from John McPhee?

Samin Nosrat: Levels of the Game, I love.

Tim Ferriss: Oh, so amazing, recommend to all people, and if you read the book description, people would be like, what? An entire book on a single tennis match, trust me, yeah, and trust you.

Samin Nosrat: It’s so good.

Tim Ferriss: Such a good book.

Samin Nosrat: It’s so good. There was a period where I was like, maybe I write my book like the Levels of the Game and I find a way to tell a story. He is a master of structure and I find, for me, a challenge as a writer, and also, as now just a creative thinker, probably one of the most thrilling things for me that I’m so excited by, but also intimidated by is coming up with structure for things and being in search of always the simplest, most elegant structure. I feel like you can convey information so much more clearly when a structure is right and simple.

Tim Ferriss: For sure.

Samin Nosrat: It’s fun. It’s a fun practice. Right now, I’m figuring out if I’m going to do another show, and/or another book, and I think I figured out an idea. Now I’m just like, okay, how do I structure it? It’s just that stuff where I love those.

Very randomly, this book I saw one day at a store when I was struggling on the 900th draft of my own book and it has been so meaningful and moving to me, it’s called Several Short Sentences on Writing. It’s by a writer named Verlyn Klinkenborg who teaches at Yale, and he used to have a column in The New York Times. I think it was called On Rural Living where – and he’s written about writing, and the entire point of this whole small book is: make your sentences shorter. And it really is so good.

Tim Ferriss: If one is to look at your bio, it’s a very impressive bio, right? You’ve been called the next Julia Child by NPR’s All Things Considered, you’re a New York Times bestselling author, you have this TV show, you have all these various accolades, and I think it’s easy for someone, perhaps, to look at that, be very intimidated and assume that you’ve just been getting up at bat and hitting home runs, since you began one after the other. If you’d be open to it, I’d love to talk about apparent failures that set you up for later success and of course those people who’ve read Tribe of Mentors will recognize this question or heard the podcast, I like to ask this question in terms of favorite failures, past failures that really taught you something, that seemed like a failure, but in fact, if they hadn’t happened something else which was a success wouldn’t have happened later. Can you give us any examples that come to mind?

Samin Nosrat: I have a list. There are so many options here. Yeah, I was thinking I came really close to cowriting two other books before I ended up writing my own book, and neither of those felt right, but I was just so desperate to work on a book that I almost did those ones, and I kind of messed up both of those opportunities and I felt really bad, like I would never get an opportunity to write my own book, and if I had done those I don’t think that I –

Tim Ferriss: How did you mess them up if you don’t mind me asking?

Samin Nosrat: The one that I can remember more clearly was it was going to be a book about pickling. It was so specific. It was going to be a book about pickling and I was going to do it with a friend, and there was a way where we met with this agent, a book literary agent who had brought the idea to her. I couldn’t have put my finger on it, but to me, at that time, I was like, an agent, that’s a high powered – you know what I mean? Only fancy people have agents and I felt like I needed to prove myself to this agent, and there was something about our relationship just didn’t feel right and I don’t think I trusted her completely and I felt kind of put down by her. It just didn’t feel very good.

This was so long ago, I can’t remember exactly what happened, but I think I inelegantly extracted myself from that. I had committed to it, and then I uncommitted because I just didn’t feel like it was the right thing, and then I just worried like, oh, no, does this mean I’ll never find an agent or I’ll never get to do a book? That was one. I’m trying to remember. Oh, there was actually another agent. Man, I really have a trail of burnt agents behind me. There was another agent who came to me, and again, she made me feel like I needed to prove myself to her and that my ideas weren’t that good. I had this one idea and she didn’t want me to do that.

Tim Ferriss: How did she find you?

Samin Nosrat: She found me. I used to do these dinners at Tartine Bakery in San Francisco which is its own cult place, and because of that, these dinners that I had, it was called Tartine Afterhours, it became a little cult thing. In a very small world, it was a very popular thing.

I think she sort of was in that world, and so she found me through that and there was just a way – I think what it was, was, yeah, I’ve never actually spent the time to think about it, but in both of those situations, the relationships, the fundamental, primary relationship, which at that time was with the agent, it wasn’t so much with an editor yet or anything, it just was so on uneven ground and it was this thing where I was struggling to prove myself as a creative thinker to them. I didn’t very much feel supported and that is not a great place for me, or maybe for anyone from which to do your best creative work.

I’ve learned that, for sure, in my career now as a writer who’s worked with so many different kinds of editors, my current editing situation at the Times magazine is so wonderful because the editor, I love her so much, and she knows exactly how to lay it to me. She tells it to me straight. She knows how to give me a smackdown when I need it, but she also is so kind and supportive, and so there’s just this very fundamental trust that we have where I used to turn stuff into her every month in my column and I would have a one-page apology that I would write this apology email with each draft, and she was like, “You have to stop sending these apologies; this is insane. You’re doing your best. I know you’re doing your best. I also know you’re not going to phone it in, and also, the stuff you’re turning in is not bad, so stop apologizing.” But there have just been so many different experiences I’ve had where I have been made to feel like I’m dumb or I’m not trying hard enough and actually, I’m trying so hard.

I now have learned from my own self that I need to be smarter and very careful about what kind of creative collaborations I enter, because I need a kind of a relationship that’s vulnerable and open, and it’s not that I don’t want criticism. I actually do want your criticism because I do want to make it better, but how do you convey that to me and also do we have a fundamental trust between the two of us that we both are aiming toward the same goal of making the best possible thing? I don’t know. Sorry, I completely veered away from your original question.

Tim Ferriss: No, no, no. No, I’ll be the guide rails; it’s okay because I want to actually hone in on something that you said about your editor at the Times who can deliver the smackdown, but do so with a delivery that you find very palatable, that you do want  criticism, but it’s a question of it being constructive and delivered in the right way. Can you give any examples of how that editor might deliver criticism? It could be a hypothetical made up example, or just what makes it thread the needle of being both affective criticism, but not making you defensive or deflating you.

Samin Nosrat: Yeah, I wish I had a very specific example, but I can set the emotional tone of it, which is that there is – we have developed – I mean, it’s been over a year now that we’re in constant contact. We have, at this point, developed an understanding that, I know that she wants the best for me and she knows that I’m always going to do my best. If she tells me something, even in short hand, sometimes now she does this thing where she just writes “Do better,” and so now I know, okay, that’s a phrase that I need to do better, or it’s not working.

I think so much of it is the emotional work that we had done earlier and that had come through these vulnerable exchanges where I had said to her, “I’m really sorry,” and she said, “Listen, I know you’re doing your best.” Once I was able to trust her in that way, I think I have let go of a lot of the defensiveness. I’m trying to think. She was a lot gentler in the beginning, and I think that had a lot to do with it. She was very gentle, and she would sort of write out more complete sentences about why something was over explained or maybe too snobby or whatever. I think she really did the work initially to allow me to trust her and feel safe with her and then now we have such a nice short hand where I can just be like, “Can you just do this?” or whatever.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, keep it short and sweet. Before you came to be writing though, we’ve talked about the cowriting opportunities which did not manifest or that you extricated yourself from, then ultimately having the opportunity to write the type of book that you wanted to write. Do you have any failures or missteps from what preceded that?

Samin Nosrat: 1,000.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, like from the culinary world or restaurant world or otherwise?

Samin Nosrat: Yeah, so many. I would say the two biggest failures of my career are culinary and they sit in beautiful contrast to one another. One of them was, I helped run a restaurant for five years that was struggling financially the whole time it existed, and there was a way where it was not my restaurant; I was helping my mentor run it. I felt very loyal to him.

In the beginning, restaurants often lose money for up to five years before they hit. It’s really just a terrible financial model. There’s a way where they often lose money for a long time before they sort of hit steady ground and we actually hit steady ground after three years, but then, in 2008, the economy crashed, and so it was sort of just this thing where we knew we were never going to make it okay. There was a culture issue in that restaurant that now, with so many years of distance, I can see was almost insurmountable, and if a culture in a place isn’t sort of supported, it’s really hard to turn the culture of a place around, I think.

In some ways, to me, I was ready to call it quits after three years, but for my mentor, this was his big shot that his career had been aiming toward and he wasn’t ready to give up. I stayed for two years longer than I wanted to, and I was really unhappy. I was really unhealthy, just physically, I feel like it took a toll on my adrenal system. I had a really bad temper. This would eventually lead to the breakdown that led me going to therapy. I was emotionally just out of touch.

I was not that kind to the people who worked for me. It was not great. It was not my greatest hour. I think staying through something and feeling how bad that made me feel, how bad it made other people feel and that it ultimately fizzled to this slow painful death really taught me that I don’t ever want to be part of that situation again. I want to be the one calling quits. I want to be the one who determines the end of a story and when I think about it, in any creative project, or business, probably. In some ways, a business is not so different from a creative project. Things have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Even when people sit down to write a movie or to write a series, even if you want to pitch a TV series, an ideal life span for a TV series is five to seven years and before you even start, you know how the series is going to end. There’s a way where it’s not a bad idea and ending is not necessarily a failure.

I really got to put that into practice a couple years later when, after the restaurant closed, I started this small food market that immediately became a huge success and got so much media attention. I started it because I just missed cooking for people and I wanted to cook a little bit in my spare time while I was figuring out how to be a writer, and then all of a sudden, all of my time and resources and energy were going toward running this food market that wasn’t even the main thing I wanted to accomplish in my life.

Even as it grew, and we got more followers and more customers and were making more money or whatever, I knew that it wasn’t what I wanted to do. Instead of letting that also fizzle out, I ended it after two years and all the food media was like, “What’s the gossip? Why is this closing?” I was like, “Nothing’s wrong. I’m just closing it because I want to do something else.”

Tim Ferriss: Was that an easy decision, a hard decision? I mean, walk us through, I don’t know, the weeks before making it official, this is over.

Samin Nosrat: Months!

Tim Ferriss: Months, okay, yeah.

Samin Nosrat: It took months. I knew in one way it was an easy decision because my gut told me that I didn’t want to do it. In practical terms, it was much more difficult because there were a lot of people who I felt responsible to who relied on this market for their income or they thought they relied on the market for their income. There was a story that we all were telling about how important this market was in all of these people’s lives. I have very maternal instincts. I feel a lot of responsibility for the community that I create and to them, and if anything, I felt a need to stay for them rather than for myself and that was really brutal.

Around this time, I was really into yoga, super into yoga, and when you go to yoga class, often what they talk about is setting an intention. I was doing a lot of yoga talk and I had this thing where I realized that because my career was so amorphous because there wasn’t some other person on whose career I was modeling my own, there wasn’t an easy way for me to know that I was moving in the right direction toward anything I wanted to actually accomplish.

There weren’t these landmarks of, when you want to be a doctor, you do this, this, and this and this. When you want to be a lawyer, you do this, this, and this. I didn’t have that, so how did I know I was on the right track to where I wanted to go? I really started to hone this thing for myself, which was, well, since I don’t know where my ultimate ending point is, or my ultimate goal is, what I do know is that it’s a feeling. I have a feeling in my belly –

Tim Ferriss: I like that.

Samin Nosrat: – that I want to work toward, and that when an opportunity come to me or a professional decision comes to me, I can think about it in terms of, if I say yes or no to this thing, will it take me closer to or farther away from this feeling that I try to feel and also create in the world. Probably the biggest conflict in deciding to close that market was that that feeling has a lot to do with community and supporting people, and I knew that closing the market would, in the short term, maybe take me farther away from that, but I also had to fundamentally believe that it would give me the space to, in a different way, on a larger scale, go back toward that.

Tim Ferriss: A few questions related to that. Why was the food market so quickly popular? Were there any particular reasons that come to mind?

Samin Nosrat: I think part of it was timing of it. What it was, I was really good at making pasta. I lived in Italy for two years. I made pasta every day for 10 years. I really love making pasta. When the restaurant closed, I would sort of bump into people in town and they’d be like, “Well, we really miss your pasta.” I really enjoy the beautiful manual labor of making it and the folding, and the cutting and the whole thing. I thought, “Well, what if I cut out all of the parts of having a restaurant that I hate, and I just make the pasta and sell it to people?”

I had these friends who had a commercial kitchen that was empty a lot of evenings; they let me use it, and I was like, “Okay, well, how do I sell this pasta to people?” I think it was 2009, so I think it was before Instagram or it was certainly before Instagram was really big, and I maybe had a Twitter with five followers, but really, Facebook was the main thing that I used, and so I think I put on Facebook, “I’m going to sell some pasta, does anyone buy it?” And I made a Google Doc and people started buying it.

I opened a little Shopify storefront where people would order the stuff online, so I would know exactly how much to make because a big thing in food is, it’s already so hard to make money, and really, if you’re not efficient in terms of every decision of how much labor and ingredient, you’ll really lose money. By sort of taking my orders in advance, I knew exactly how much to make, and nothing was going to go to waste and then people would come pick up their stuff.

Then, very quickly, it grew from just pasta to pasta and sausages, to pasta and sausages and cookies because everyone else that I knew who is an unemployed cook who maybe wanted to start their own food business also wanted to do these things. We started doing this, and all of a sudden, it became this online marketplace where you could preorder and prepay for your food and then come and pick up your stuff a week later. It was sort of this way to get beautiful restaurant quality stuff at home, but it was certainly before Caviar, it was certainly before a lot of these internet food things and it was also before Good Eggs, which is a food tech startup that was sort of born out of this thing.

It was definitely one of the first online, I don’t know, order your food thing. I don’t know, it was just a weird time. Then, we had a mailing list from the restaurant and I started sending it out to that, and then, very quickly, because the press was very interested in this weird way that I was operating this thing, the mailing list grew to many, many tens of thousands of people, way more than I could support.

Tim Ferriss: Wow, yeah, that’s a lot.

Samin Nosrat: It was a whole thing that grew out of control beyond the resources I had very quickly, and I was always struggling to keep up and that became such a source of stress. All I had wanted to do was to make some pasta.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, funny how things –

Samin Nosrat: All of a sudden, I’m managing 9,000 business licenses and permits and health department and taxes and sales tax and vendors, and vendor inviting, and people wanting their beans vegan or whatever. It was so much more than I ever wanted to do, and it took so much energy and I couldn’t do it anymore. I knew I couldn’t do it anymore.

Tim Ferriss: You have this feeling, “I can’t do this anymore,” which I think a lot of people have, and yet, they keep doing it for a long time and maybe forever to a certain extent. Now, while this is happening, you have these maternal instincts kicking in which make you feel obligated on some level to help these people who, at least in your head at some point and in their heads, depend on this income. Do you remember the meal, the drinks you had with a friend, the walk you took where you’re just like, “You know what? Fuck it, I have to close this down.” When you went to thinking about winding it down to, “Okay, tomorrow morning, that’s it. I’m doing it.”

Samin Nosrat: I’m pretty sure it was therapy.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, okay, all right.

Samin Nosrat: I’m pretty sure it was therapy and I’m pretty sure, I think the thought that really hit my body, that I realized it was that I had, by that point, spent 10 years cooking. I had been wanting to be a writer since I was 15 years old. I finally had a chance to make the time to be a writer. I even had an office that I had that I shared. I had everything in place.

Because this thing was ruining my life and making me miserable, I couldn’t do the thing that I always had wanted to do and was basically ready to do, and not that it was some easy thing to just go be a writer, because, what? I ended up writing blog posts for yogajournal.com for $25. It wasn’t so much income or anything, it was just, I knew that this thing was making me emotionally and almost physically ill. I just had to stop, and I think now I’m just so much more attuned to that moment, to the feeling of knowing this thing is bad for me.

No matter how many other people it’s good for, it’s making me sick, and it’s making me feel really bad. I think I try to be a lot more aware of that and sometimes now I get into situations or projects or jobs where that feeling comes up again, but I’m already in it and often now a lot of the work that I do is temporary. I do one project, I do one article, I do one story, I do one whatever.

Now, for me, it’s more about learning and being really attuned to what’s happening, even just, for example, in the process of making the show. I had never made a show before. This was this incredible opportunity that came to me. I was so excited and felt so lucky to go make it and go do it, and I still feel so lucky and so excited, but a lot of things happened throughout the making of the show that I was like, “Oh, this doesn’t feel very good,” or, “This doesn’t feel very fair,” or, “I don’t ever want to be in a situation like this again.”

Now that I know what’s possible, I know that negatively and also positively, I know what to ask for and I know how to articulate that. I will forever insist, to me, I’m going to insist on working with a lot more people of color in the future. I’m going to insist on making sure that I have a lot more power creatively in anything that I do, because I realized I became very frustrated when I didn’t have as much power as I needed or wanted. There are just things, it’s a constant learning thing, nothing’s perfect. We figure things out as we go, and we try to do our best, and what is failure? I don’t know.

It’s not that big of a deal, especially if there’s some sort of positive take away that you have, and maybe my therapist would be really proud of me. Maybe it’s really bad for me to even say that my therapist would be proud of me, but I do feel like all of these stories and all of these experiences really always come back to me sort of paying attention to my feelings.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, hear, hear. That’s something that I’ve also personally been working on because I think I muted my feelings or viewed them as a liability for so long and I’ve –

Samin Nosrat: Me too.

Tim Ferriss: – realized, holy shit, you cannot spreadsheet your way out of everything, nor onto everything.

Samin Nosrat: No, me too.

Tim Ferriss: You really have to pay attention to that, the feelings.

Samin Nosrat: I think about that all the time. I came from a culture that’s very much about appearances and not very touchy feely in a lot of ways. I came from a family that wasn’t super touchy feely. What did I learn to do? I learned to shut down all of my own feelings and then I made my way into a profession who literally tells you to shut down your feelings. When you’re a cook in a restaurant, you don’t have time or room or space for feelings and not only emotional feelings, but if you actually burn or cut yourself, there’s not time or space to address that. You just sort of wrap your hand up and keep going.

There’s this way where I have been trying to unravel the many years of emotional shut down that I have been conditioned to be in. Now, I’m gone way to the other end where I’m like, what is the – I read about Jill Soloway’s sets and she’s the director and creator of Transparent. The other day, I was listening to an interview with one of the actors from Atlanta, and I read about these TV sets where everyone’s really touchy feely and checks in with each other all the time, and they have an emotional check in every morning. I’m like, that’s the kind of place where I want to work. I just want to work where the camera man is – and we are crying together.

Tim Ferriss: If you do have that experience, I want to have a follow up conversation to see if you’re like, “Okay, that’s my home” or if you’re like, “You know what? Pendulum swung too far the other direction, I think I want somewhere in the middle. I can only have half the camera people crying.” You have tackled so many different projects in so many different ways, you’ve had some missteps, you’ve made your mistakes as we all have.

Your book was, at least from the outside looking in, a real flag in the ground that has allowed you to do a lot of things, and it’s a very good book. Like I said, it’s one of the few I keep in my kitchen, and I’d love to chat just a little bit about the genesis because I think it was, let’s say, around 2006 when you slipped this note to Pollan. When did your book come out?

Samin Nosrat: Last year; what’s last year? 2017.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, last year, 2017, okay. This is not a book that you turned out really quickly. You didn’t just assemble another cookbook, which you and I both know are everywhere, and it did make a mark. I’m really curious to know, you’re auditing this class with Michael Pollan, what are some of the early ideas for the book or early titles for the book that never saw the light of day?

Samin Nosrat: After I audited the class with Michael, he started writing a book about cooking, which ended up being Cooked. He asked me to teach him how to cook. When I would come over to his house, we would cook together and talk about cooking, and every week when I went over there, I’d bring over a different book idea.

Tim Ferriss: Smart.

Samin Nosrat: There were so many bad ones. I can’t remember all of them. I do remember there was one where I had this sort of mentee employee who was kind of like this bipolar gutter punk.

Tim Ferriss: What is a gutter punk?

Samin Nosrat: A gutter punk is, well, we have a lot of them in Berkeley. He was just this kind of punky kid, had all these tattoos, and listened to loud music. I don’t know. He called himself a gutter punk and he had a lot of learning disabilities, and I had given up hope on him. I don’t even know why we hired him, and eventually, I gave up such hope on him that I couldn’t look him in the eye for months, and at some point, there was some moment that he had where he turned himself around and he came to work, and suddenly, I think it had to do with taking, honestly, his mental health medication.

He just became this incredible student and I felt really bad for not having been a better supporter of his, but then I also became motivated to really teach him and support him, and this incredible moment was when he came to work one day, and he was like, “I don’t want you guys to be mad at me, but I’ve been going to community college and I signed up for a study abroad program and I’m going to Italy.” I was like, “We are not mad at you. This is the most amazing thing that you somehow went from basically being nearly homeless when you started coming here to caring about food so much that you signed yourself up for community college, you got yourself to go to Italy. This is incredible and we’re going to help you as much as we possibly can.” I learned probably as much from him as he leaned from me, and I was like, “I’m going to write a memoir of teaching Robin how to cook,” and Michael was like, “That’s a terrible idea. Nobody wants to read that.”

I had this other idea where I was going to write The Tartine Afterhours Cookbook, the menu cookbook of all these dinners that I had made, that I was making in Tartine Bakery, and Michael was like, “That’s fine, but I know you’re thinking it’s going to be easy and no books are easy.” Yeah, he’s just like, “There’s no such thing as an easy book.” Oh, he would interview me periodically to get quotes for his book and he said, “What’s the deal? You’re so obsessed with these four elements.” I was like, “Oh yeah, salt, fat, acid, heat, that’s the system that I used to teach myself to cook, I used to teach other people. I always thought I’d write a book about it one day.” And he was like, “Well, there is your book, write that.” I was like, “No, no, no.” I was like, “That book’s going to be really hard to write; it won’t have beautiful photos because it’s not about that kind of cooking, and I just can’t do that.”

I remember this so clearly. He said, “Listen, you live in a delusional universe where everyone who you know who’s written a successful book is already a celebrity of some kind, either a celebrity chef or some famous writer, and you have this really confused notion that book and celebrity are somehow tied together or notoriety or something, but really, what publishers want is a unique and strong idea and that’s what this is. I’ve never heard this before; it makes so much sense and this is your book.” He’s like, “Stop messing around and go do this.”

I was like, “Great,” and then I just felt the weight of this huge task being set before me. Like I said, I didn’t really have the tools in the beginning. I sort of knew what went into a book proposal, he sort of told me, but I also knew that this would look much different than any book proposal he had ever written, and so I just sort of started going to my office, I got a writing residency, and I went to go figure this out.

Tim Ferriss: What is a writing residency?

Samin Nosrat: Oh, sorry.

Tim Ferriss: No, you’re good.

Samin Nosrat: It was an opportunity to go write for two weeks uninterrupted in a beautiful setting and be housed and fed, and that was maybe a mistake to go so early in my writing process because I wasn’t really writing. I was still very much ideating. I just had a wall of Post-it notes, and then everyone else at the residency would come down to the dinner table and be like, I wrote 5,000 words today, and I’d be like, well, I put seven Post-its on the wall.

Tim Ferriss: I always want to slap those people, no offense if anyone listening is one of those people, if they’re like, “Oh, man, I had a pretty tough day, I only knocked out 5,000 words,” and you’re like, “What? I barely figured out what font to use on the first page.”

Samin Nosrat: Totally, I laid in a hammock a lot, and that first round, anything I wrote during those two weeks, that was definitely the time when I was attempting to be Michael Pollan, and eventually, I realized that wasn’t working for me. And then I tried for a short while to be another writer, and then that wasn’t working either. And then eventually I was like, “Oh, I just have to be myself.”

Tim Ferriss: Who is the other? If you don’t mind.

Samin Nosrat: It’s my friend Tamar Adler, who’s an incredible writer. She just has such a beautiful way of writing that I very much enjoy reading, but it’s not me.

Tim Ferriss: It’s not you, yeah.

Samin Nosrat: It’s so good that I want it to be my words, but it’s not my words. I had to just be okay with whatever comes out of my mouth or onto my page is my thing, and I’m still learning that. There are so many times, even when I got this column for the Times Magazine, which at the time when I started cooking was really the highest sort of writing that was coming out about food. To me, it was the thing that I had always dreamt of, was to be able to write the food column for the Times magazine.

I couldn’t believe it when it finally became my job, and I still can’t really believe it and I still have so much terror every time I sit down to write it where I’m like, “This is going to be published in the New York Time’s magazine. Oh, my god, I’m not smart enough for this. I’m not good enough for this.” There was this way where sometimes I’ll just be lazy, and I can’t figure out a different way to say something, so I’ll write the silly stupid way that I would say it, and that’s the stuff the editors are always like, “This is amazing; you’re so good,” and every time I’m like, “Oh, I thought that’s what you were going to cut.”

There was this one time when I said something like, “Hello, my name is Samin.” I basically wrote, “Hi, my name is Samin, and I’m an artisan bread hoarder,” which is such a silly dumb thing to say, and she was like, “This is amazing,” and eventually I had to ask her, I said, why is it that you always like this really silly stuff that’s not crafted? And she said, “Because it’s you and you’re here because we like your voice, and the truer you can be to your own voice, the better that is.”

And I said, “But isn’t that the cheesiest possible stuff? I figured you would cut all those dumb jokes that I make,” and she said, “Maybe if it came from someone else we would cut it, but when it comes from you, it sounds so true to how you would actually talk or what you would actually write that it makes sense for us to keep it,” and I said, “It is how I actually talk.” She said, “Yeah, that’s why we want it.” I’m still getting it through my head that the thing that people value about me is me. Not me trying to be a MacArthur genius or whatever.

Tim Ferriss: You mentioned earlier how Michael said to you something along the lines of, “Publishers are looking for unique and clear ideas,” and I just want to take that and expand it a bit because, for people who are listening, I would also say that what any audience or potential audience, the people out there who are part of your tribe or who want the version of you that is the true you that you can put on the page also want, not just unique and clear ideas, but they want a unique and clear voice. I’ve had friends come to me who have incredible stories and are well spoken, but they say, “I’m not a writer, I can’t write, I don’t know if I could ever tell my story, although people tell me I should write a book, I should do this, I should do that,” and that’s a longer conversation. Whether you should write a book or not is –

Samin Nosrat: Do you want to have the most miserable four years of your life? If the answer’s yes, write a book.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, right, if for whatever reason it exercises more demons than years it pulls out of your life, then yes, but what I try to convey, and this was said to me, actually, is that you don’t need to be John McPhee, you don’t need to be Michael Pollan, you don’t need to be anyone whose writing you admire so much that it intimidates you to actually be a good writer, if that makes any sense. If you have a unique and clear voice and you can consistently be you, then you’ve won more than half the battle, and if you don’t know how to use a semicolon, it’s fine. Not the most material problem and I think you accomplish that really well in your book, and I would be curious to know, as someone who’s dabbled in television a few times now, what did you find most rewarding and challenging about the television format, and why did you decide to say yes? Because you go from a relatively solitary queen of the castle environment when you’re writing a book.

Now, granted, you have editors and so on, but it’s kind of your gig in a lot of ways to, “Holy shit, who are all those people, what am I going to do? Am I supposed to interact with everybody? How do I?” It’s a completely different environment. Why did you decide to do TV and what were things that surprised you?

Samin Nosrat: Well, in terms of this solitary versus social, I have always been both, which is why I continue to cook, because I really enjoy both the manual physical part of it, but also the really communal part of it where I get to go be in conversation and ask other people what they’re cooking and eating and learn new things from other cooks. I think I’d go bananas if I was only sitting at a desk all day, every day. I enjoy having both things. To me, the decision to go work on some collaboration that would bring me into work with a lot of people all the time, that really wasn’t a negative thing at all, and then, I don’t know.

I was so excited about the opportunity to bring this philosophy of cooking to a broad audience that that was ultimately the thing that I was seeking, and to me, I think after the first or second cooking class I ever taught, which I think was around 2006 or 2007, I remember coming to work one day with my friends, with these other chefs, and I said, “This is really inefficient. Here I am teaching 12 wealthy ladies how to, I don’t know, use the right amount of salt or whatever.

“How many of these 12-person cooking classes am I going to have to teach before I actually teach a broad audience this fundamental and really life changing information?” It seems like it’s going to be hard to reach a large crowd, plus just the economics of it for my time and the ingredients and renting a kitchen or whatever, it wasn’t inexpensive. I had to charge a lot of money. That meant that it was already naturally narrowing down the group of people to whom I could teach the stuff.

I came in to work one day and I was like, “I think if I had a TV show, I think if I had a cooking show where I taught people how to cook, I could reach so many more people. I could do it so much more efficiently and it would really make a difference,” and being Berkeley, my two friends were like, “That’s a terrible idea, you are a terrible capitalist who has totally sold out,” because in Berkeley, most people don’t have television; they don’t let their kids watch television, so the idea that I could possibly want to do television was just so morally uncouth or whatever. That really sort of stung me at the time, but now I recently remembered, I was like, “Oh, this has been something I’ve thought about and wanted for a long time.”

When the opportunity to turn the book into a show presented itself, I was like, “Yes, this is amazing. I get to do something different.” I think there’s a lot of food TV out there. There are sort of two types of it. There’s the really accessible everyday cooking stuff that is generally shot in a studio with not-so-great lighting and is meant to be like getting you to make some simple stuff at home, and then there’s the really aspirational cinematic stuff like Chef’s Table, which is not so much about cooking as it is a hagiography of a different chef, and it’s really aspirational and quite elite.

I was really upset when I thought about it, that there was nothing that existed that was beautiful and cinematic, but also accessible. Why didn’t something exist at the intersection of these two things? I knew that I wanted to make something gorgeous and just inspiring, but also be for everyone, and there were ways in which that was very easy for me to translate because I had already been distilling those ideas into the book and into the way I wanted the book to look and the vision I had for the way the book would be in the world and function in people’s lives. And then there were entirely new things I had to learn throughout the process because I have never made a show before.

One of the things, looking back after having gone through both all of the preproduction and then 40 weeks of production and post production, I kept saying to people, they’d be like, “When will you have time?” I was like, “Imagine I’m pregnant, 40 weeks. Imagine I’m pregnant, call me when the baby’s born because that’s how intense this thing is going to be.” One of the things that I did not anticipate but realized pretty quickly that I was so good at and I really enjoyed doing was, for some weird reason, I don’t know why, I have this ability to ignore the cameras and just be me. I don’t change at all. There’s a way people kept saying, “Oh, you’re a natural,” and so I think that’s what they were referring to, was that I’m the exact same on camera as I am off camera, and I had to learn some basic things like where to stand and what’s light, and where do I look and where do I not look.

Tim Ferriss: That was great, perfect, one more for safety. You’re like, “Oh, one more.”

Samin Nosrat: Yeah, totally. You also have to do everything 50 times, and I also, because I’m a perfectionist, would take it really personally at first, and I’d be like, “Oh, no, I did it wrong, I have to do it again.” Pretty quickly, I realized, “Oh, we’re doing it again and it has nothing to do with me doing it right or wrong. It’s because they need a different angle, or the sound guy missed something.” There were just so many different variables, so the way that I could deliver the energy high every time, and that was stuff that I guess isn’t something that everyone has, so I had that, so that was great.

Tim Ferriss: Can I pause for one second?

Samin Nosrat: Of course.

Tim Ferriss: Also, I think that, and this is pure speculation, but you’ve taught so much, I think that you hone that ability also in the process of teaching. I’ve see that overlap for some folks. I don’t know how much of it is nature versus nurture versus nurture.

Samin Nosrat: Yeah, I definitely think, for sure, and also even just cooking itself, cooking is repetition. Cooking is, every day you come in, you do the thing again, whether you did it perfectly yesterday or really badly yesterday. You just have to put your head down and do it again. I feel like there were certain, I don’t know, calluses that I had formed just from my other jobs that made me be ready to be good at this, but it’s funny that there were so many things I didn’t know because I had never done it before and also nobody explained to me.

In retrospect, because maybe I am a teacher who likes to put people at ease and explain things to them through the process there would be these things that I would learn, like distill and articulate, and then at the next day, the next shoot, the next time we were with someone else, I would be able to explain this, because we were going around the world and bringing all sorts of different people onto the screen with us, and almost none of them had ever been on camera before. We show up with this crew of 25 people and all these trucks and all this equipment and lighting, it’s so much stuff and it’s so overwhelming for people, especially in some of the places that we went where it was really off the beaten path, very rural places in Japan and in Mexico.

It’s the beginner’s mind thing where I’m like, “Okay, how do I put myself in this person’s shoes and imagine what it feels like to have this whole rodeo show up?” It’s like a circus and what is that making you feel like and when it’s not explained to these guys, “Oh, we’re going to have to do everything 17 times, but it’s not because you did it wrong.” The things that I learned along the way I would say to everyone, like, “Don’t worry, we have to do it a lot of times, but it had nothing to do with you. You’re perfect, you’re fine,” Or just “Look at me; don’t look at them.” There’s a lot of talking in the background that you have to tune out and a lot of the time they’re calling your name because they’re talking to each other about focusing the camera on you, so I had to be like, “Just ignore. If you hear your name, they’re not talking to you,” because your natural human response is to turn to whoever’s saying your name.

There are these little things that I learned that made it easier for me and then I took great pleasure in being the guide for whoever because it’s my job to put that person, that cook, that grandma I’m cooking with, at ease so that she can be her best self and we can get the best footage from her. I don’t know, it’s that maternal thing or whatever, it’s that teacher thing, and I realized that I was really good at that. Yeah, and it was just nice to have an entirely new field, an entirely new skill to hone in terms of, what is it to be on camera, what is it to work with these different people? That part was really fun. I really enjoyed it.

Tim Ferriss: I’m really excited for you and I’m also really excited for everybody to see this. I’m excited. Just to look at the overall structure of the show, how many episodes are there total?

Samin Nosrat: There are four episodes and each one’s about 50-ish minutes long, and it sort of matches the structure of the book. There’s salt, fat, acid, and heat, and in each episode, we go to a different country to explore the nuances of that element, but then through voiceover and storytelling and beautiful archival imagery, really, our team who’s digging up the archival did such a good job, we were able to connect everything back to some sort of a universal message.

We went to Japan for salt, but honestly, we could have gone to any country for salt. We went to Italy for fat; we could have gone anywhere for fat. It’s this way where, through the specific, I find a way to then connect it to the universal, and my hope for the show and what I think from early small feedbacks that I’m receiving is that what I wanted it to do was to give you a few little nuggets that you could put in your pocket and same as the book, never have to return to the book, never have to return to the show, never have to refer to me again, and these are going to be the little things that change the way that you cook.

From what I’ve heard is that people are doing it. They’re doing the stuff I told them to do. I think especially where Netflix is concerned, there’s so much beautiful food documentary and food-this and even food competitions on there, but I think this is the first show that is really aimed to get you cooking.

Tim Ferriss: I’m so excited. Yeah, I need a reboot. I mean, I do enjoy cooking, but this, I think, is such a fun, culturally rich way to do it. Let me ask you, as people are listening to this and they’re getting excited to not only see these various locations and cultures and learn from you as you’re pulling them into these stories, salt, fat, acid, heat, I read somewhere, I think it was on kitchn.com that, as one of your indulgences, and maybe you’ve changed, you can feel free to change, is a local olive oil, meaning local to you over on the West Coast from KATZ Winery and then there are a few other things. Could you recommend people who want to just grab a few tools?

Samin Nosrat: Oh, yeah. There’s no budget limit, but we’re not going to be buying the latest and greatest super expensive immersion circulator or something, but are there a handful of things, maybe they overlap, like a nice salt, some type of fat, acid, anything that you can think of that most home cooks may have neglected or not incorporated that people can just run out and grab in preparation?

Samin Nosrat: Yes, okay, oh, this is exciting. Okay, for salt, I think that Maldon salt, which is the British salt, the little pyramid flakes that comes in a little white box, that is now more readily available in grocery stores, but also you can buy it on Amazon, and I feel like that not only tastes amazing, but it had this incredible texture that you – just putting a little bit on top of cookies or even ice cream is amazing, but also any salad or tomato toast. I don’t know, I have a huge jar of it that I just reach into all the time at home.

Tim Ferriss: It’s so good.

Samin Nosrat: It’s so good. I think one thing that I learned about on the show that sort of blew my mind that I really hope will catch on after this show is how different and how far superior a good soy sauce is to regular soy sauce, like the regular everyday Kikkoman and the way you know it’s a good one is that it’s been aged in a wooden barrel versus a stainless-steel tank.

Often, it’ll say wooden barrel-aged or barrel-aged on the thing. There’s a brand, probably the brand that’s the easiest to come by in the states is called Nama Shoyu and, again, you can buy that on Amazon, but it’s also in higher-end stores. I’ve also seen it at Whole Foods and it’s a little bit – it’s like $9.00 versus 2.50, but it’s one of those things. The flavor is so much richer and so much deeper and bounces off all of the angles of your mouth. It’s amazing.

It’s so incredible and I would say that soy sauce is really special. Olive oil-wise, I would say KATZ olive oil is really delicious, and also there’s another one that’s local to us in California called Seka Hills, which is made on an Indian reservation. It’s amazing.

Tim Ferriss: S-E-C-A, like dry hills?

Samin Nosrat: S-E-K-A.

Tim Ferriss: Oh, S-E-K-A.

Samin Nosrat: Yeah, and those two are two of the nicest California olive oils and, Seka Hills is actually, I think relatively inexpensive and you can buy it in bigger things. That’s kind of my everyday olive oil now, and then acid-wise, I love a lime, it’s my favorite, but if you’re going to buy, again, vinegar-wise, I think a nice rice vinegar is really – I’m just discovering how much more delicious – in my recipe testing, I try to cook with everyday stuff that you can buy at any grocery store so that my recipes are pretty accurate to what anybody’s going to make anywhere in the country instead of very specific niche ingredients, but sometimes when I’m making my own dinner at home, I just want to have the delicious rice vinegar. That same brand Nama Shoyu, they make a really delicious rice vinegar that’s just so fantastic. Yeah, that’s a really good one, and then heat, oh, here, this is a luxury, this is a little bit expensive, but it’s the most amazing.

Tim Ferriss: I’m ready.

Samin Nosrat: I would say you always want to have a great pan, and for me, I often say, just have a cast iron pan. It’s the most used pan in my house, is a cast iron I bought at a flea market for $25, but if you want to graduate up from a cast iron, there is a company, I believe they’re in Virginia, it’s called Blanc Creatives, B-L-A-N-C. They make these beautiful hand-forged pans that are steel. They’re some sort of a cast steel.

They have this beautiful bluish tint. This pan is unbelievable. My best friend gave me one for a gift a few years ago and for whatever reason I didn’t start using it really regularly until recently. It blows my mind how good it is, because it browns just like a cast iron pan, but it’s much lighter. It heats up a lot more quickly and it just retains its heat. They’re just a delight to use. These pans are a delight to use. I don’t know how else to say it and everything that comes out of it is so good.

Tim Ferriss: Do you cook everything, or can you cook, for instance, would you cook eggs in this?

Samin Nosrat: Yes, absolutely.

Tim Ferriss: You would.

Samin Nosrat: Yeah. No, and your eggs wouldn’t stick, because it definitely has a seasoning that you have to keep up and it will rust. It will rust even a little bit more easily. Sometimes, if I don’t dry mine really well in the morning, there’ll be a little rust forming so I have to wipe it away, but it’s that seasoning that makes it so beautiful and perfectly nonstick. They’re also very gorgeous and look like a beautiful handmade object. I think they’re in the $200 range, but a pan, I don’t know, people buy the Le Creuset pots for 300 bucks and they use them for 30 years, so I feel okay giving one expensive pan recommendation.

Tim Ferriss: Oh, for sure, and by seasoning, are you say, like heating it up, putting salt in it and kind of scratching the surface or is it really just letting it absorb the various oils?

Samin Nosrat: I think, yeah, it’s just the fat. I’m not so good with the science of metal in these pans and stuff, but I think what happens is, as you cook or if you intentionally run it with some fat and then put it in the oven and let it get warm the fats turn into, I think it’s called polymerization, and the fats almost fill in the little – any holes that might be in the metal, invisible minute holes, and then create a really smooth surface.

The smoother that surface is, the more non-stick the thing will be, which is why you buy a cast iron that’s not yet seasoned, if you even touch it with your fingers you can feel that it’s a little bit pebbly in there and that pebbly-ness is where things stick. That pebbly-ness is sticking stuff and Teflon exists at the complete other end of the range where it’s almost entirely smooth. The smoother the thing is the less sticking you’ll have.

Tim Ferriss: Hear, hear! Well, Samin, I think this is an exciting place to probably tie up. I encourage everybody to check out the book and the show, of course. They can find you on the interwebs at Instagram and Twitter, @CiaoSamin.

Samin Nosrat: Yeah, you’re doing it good.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I’m working on it. I’ll just say Samin to keep it easy, but, yeah, @CiaoSamin, C-I-A-O, Samin on Instagram and Twitter, on Facebook, /samin.nosrat, and then saltfatacidheat.com is where they can find information about the TV show as well on that at the URL.

Samin Nosrat: Yeah, book, show, everything will be on there. Also, all the wonderful people, I’m writing profiles of all the people that we got to meet so you can learn more about the people from the show when the website launches.

Tim Ferriss: And I will also link to everything we’ve talked about in the show notes as per usual for folks. For people listening, you can go to tim.blog/podcast for links to everything we’ve discussed including the show and the products, the books everything, that’s coming up.

Samin Nosrat: And if I can find it the email to Michael Pollan.

Tim Ferriss: That’s right and if you can find it, the actual wordsmithing that you used with Michael Pollan, I would love to see that, so I’ll put that in the show notes if we can find it. Is there anything else that you would like to say or ask of people listening or suggest to people listening before we wrap up?

Samin Nosrat: Gosh, no. Happy cooking; use more salt.

Tim Ferriss: Use more salt, don’t forget the lime.

Samin Nosrat: Don’t forget your feelings.

Tim Ferriss: And don’t forget your feelings. What a gift to spend time with you. Thank you so much.

Samin Nosrat: Thanks so much, this was so emotionally resonant and fun, and just really beautiful, so thank you.

Tim Ferriss: Oh, my pleasure entirely. Maybe my therapy is doing this podcast.

Samin Nosrat: It sounds like it is.

Tim Ferriss: Maybe that’s my version of therapy. Well, once again, I really appreciate you taking the time today. The show looks beautiful. I really hope people check it out, and to be continued, I hope we have many more conversations.

Samin Nosrat: Me, too, Tim. Thank you.

Tim Ferriss: And to everybody listening, as always and until next time, thanks for tuning in.

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Samin Nosrat — Master Creative, Master Teacher (#339)

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Photo by Adam Rose

“Things that caused me so much pain and confusion as a kid ended up being really wonderful tools in my work.” — Samin Nosrat

Samin Nosrat (@ciaosamin) is a writer, chef, and teacher who is masterful at turning complexity into simplicity. Her first book, Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat: Mastering the Elements of Good Cooking, is a New York Times bestseller, a James Beard Award winner for Best General Cookbook, was named as Cookbook of the Year by the International Association of Culinary Professionals, and is soon to be a Netflix original documentary series produced by Jigsaw Productions.

Samin has been called “The next Julia Child” by NPR’s “All Things Considered,” and she has been cooking professionally since 2000.

This episode is about much more than cooking. It’s about the creative process, creative highs and lows (and how to push through those lows), rejection, vulnerability, and much more. If you liked the Brandon Stanton episode, you’re going to love this one. Please enjoy!

#339: Samin Nosrat — Master Creative, Master Teacher
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Want to hear another podcast with a world-class chef and writer? — Listen to my conversation with Eric Ripert in which we discuss daily routines, mindfulness, conquering anger, and more! (Stream below or right-click here to download):

#268: Eric Ripert — Lessons in Mastery and Mindfulness
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This podcast is brought to you by Athletic Greens. I get asked all the time, “If you could only use one supplement, what would it be?” My answer is, inevitably, Athletic Greens. It is my all-in-one nutritional insurance. I recommended it in The 4-Hour Body and did not get paid to do so. As a listener of The Tim Ferriss Show, you will receive a one-off supply of 20 free Athletic Greens Travel Packs, valued at $99.95. To order yours, visit AthleticGreens.com/Tim.

This podcast is also brought to you by FreshBooks. FreshBooks is the #1 cloud bookkeeping software, which is used by a ton of the start-ups I advise and many of the contractors I work with. It is the easiest way to send invoices, get paid, track your time, and track your clients.

FreshBooks tells you when your clients have viewed your invoices, helps you customize your invoices, track your hours, automatically organize your receipts, have late payment reminders sent automatically and much more.

Right now you can get a free month of complete and unrestricted useYou do not need a credit card for the trial. To claim your free month and see how the brand new Freshbooks can change your business, go to FreshBooks.com/Tim and enter “Tim Ferriss” in the “how did you hear about us” section.


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: Howard Marks

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Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Howard Marks (@howardmarksbook), co-chairman and co-founder of Oaktree Capital Management and author of the new book Mastering the Market Cycle: Getting the Odds on Your Side. It was transcribed and therefore might contain a few typos. With some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!

Listen to the interview here or by selecting any of the options below.

DUE TO SOME HEADACHES IN THE PAST, PLEASE NOTE LEGAL CONDITIONS:

Tim Ferriss owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of The Tim Ferriss Show podcast, with all rights reserved, as well as his right of publicity.

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WHAT IS NOT ALLOWED:

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Tim Ferriss: Howard, welcome to the show.

Howard Marks: Thank you, Tim. I’ve been looking forward to being here.

Tim Ferriss: I am thrilled to be sitting here with you because I have so many fans of your work and thinking in my friend circles.

Howard Marks: That’s great to hear.

Tim Ferriss: When I went out to a handful to ask for potential topics or questions, they were very forthcoming, but what I thought I would do in this particular episode that I’ve never done in a podcast episode before is to start with a poem. This is always risky business, but this was suggested by a friend. He said, “I would use an A.E. Housman poem.” This effectively captures what he views as the spirit of much of your writing, and you can agree or disagree. Here we go.

“I to my perils

Of cheat and charmer

Came clad in armor

By stars benign.

Hope lies to mortals

And most believe her,

But man’s deceiver

Was never mine.

The thoughts of others

Were light and fleeting,

Of lovers’ meeting

Or luck or fame.

Mine were of trouble,

And mine were steady;

So I was ready

When trouble came.”

And the name of that poem is A Shropshire Lad. I thought that we could certainly talk about that specifically, but in the course of doing research for this conversation, I discovered that you had studied not only finance and what you might look at as vocational subjects when you were in undergrad, but it also seems like you studied Japanese, and there was this concept of mujō that popped up when I was doing my reading. Would you mind describing that time and that concept?

Howard Marks: Well, I went to Wharton at an enlightened time, when you were required to have a non-business minor and a semester of the literature of a foreign country – in English. I never learned Japanese, but for some reason, I started off – it’s interesting that I have no recollection of what motivated me, but I decided against French or English literature in favor of Japanese literature. It must have been the exoticism. I liked it so much that I turned Japanese studies into my minor and took 15 credits at the graduate level.

That’s what turned me from an indifferent teenager into a student, really, but the professor for most of those courses – a guy named E. Dale Saunders – was an inspirational speaker, an Oxford don, and an aesthete. So I took his course in Japanese philosophy, and we came across mujō. “Mujō” literally means “the turning of the wheel of the law” – in other words, the operation of life. The essence is impermanence because the wheel does turn. It also means the unpredictability of the future. These were really formative for me, and they have unconsciously informed everything I’ve done. I personally think that in the investment business – and also in life – you are better off if you realize that life is always going to change on you, there will always be new things coming down the pike, and that you can’t control it. What we have to do is live with it.

Tim Ferriss: In the course of the reading I’ve done to prep for this, which is not only the new book, but also many of your letters of which I already was a fan but came back to revisit, I came across many people who had tried to select favorite quotes, and one that came up a lot – you can certainly correct this if it is not accurate – is something along the lines of, “You can’t predict. You can prepare.” And that leads me to 2008. I suspect we’re going to bounce around chronologically quite a lot. During the 2008 bubble, which of course was a time in which many investors were pulling out of the market, Oaktree did exactly the opposite. You put more than $500 million a week to work over 15 weeks. Why did you do that? Were you predicting? Were you prepared? What led to that type of decision?

Howard Marks: Sure. Well, you mentioned the memos. I’ve been writing the memos since 1990. I wrote one about 20 years ago in the late ‘90s called, “You can’t predict. You can prepare.” I stole the tagline from an ad for Northwestern Mutual life insurance, but I think that’s true of life. Now, it sounds like an oxymoron because how can you prepare if you can’t predict? But the answer is we never know what’s going to happen, but we can consider the likely scenarios and prepare for some of them. By definition, you can’t prepare for every eventuality.

But, I would say that we did have a sense – my partner Bruce Karsh and I had a sense in ’05 and ’06 that the world wasn’t running right, and the main thing that made us conclude that was the crappy deals that were getting done. He and I would spend the day walking into each other’s offices saying, “Look at this piece of crap that got issued yesterday. There’s something wrong. A deal like this should not be doable. The fact that investors are buying this tells me that they’re not being skeptical, they’re not being demanding, they’re not applying standards.” Buffett has a saying: “The less prudence with which others conduct their affairs, the greater the prudence with which we must conduct our own affairs,” and it’s absolutely true.

And so we knew that the market was dangerous because of the behavior of others. Now, you can’t – so we were prepared. We sold a lot of assets, we liquidated large funds, we replaced them with small funds, we became very selective in our buying, and we raised a very large fund for investment if a bursting crisis would come into being.

Tim Ferriss: Was this for distressed debt?

Howard Marks: Distressed debt. Now, the interesting thing, though – so you can prepare; you can’t predict. The thing that caused the bubble to burst was the insubstantiality of mortgage-backed securities, especially subprime. If you read the memos, you won’t find a word about it. We didn’t predict that. We didn’t even know about it. It was occurring in an odd corner of the securities market. Most of us didn’t know about it, but it is what brought the house down and we had no idea. But we were prepared because we simply knew that we were on dangerous ground, and that required cautious preparation.

Tim Ferriss: Let me ask – and I may embarrass myself with questions that display my ignorance about many topics in this interview, but when you raised money for a distressed debt fund, did you emphasize to the LPs or whoever gave you those funds that you had a specific timeline in mind for deploying those funds, or did you emphasize the importance of patience with those people, that you’d be looking for indicators, and that they needed to look at it as a long-term investment? How did you manage the question of when from those people?

Howard Marks: The question of when is one of the hardest ones in our business, and I always say that we may have an idea of what’s going to happen, but we never know when it’s going to happen. You can’t call these things. As one of my partners says, “If you name a price, don’t name a date, and if you name a date, don’t name a price, and then you can’t be wrong.” But we never did name a date. We probably – I can’t even remember – we probably had a limit. In other words, if we hadn’t deployed it within X years, then the commitment got canceled. But I think there was an understanding that we thought it was coming within the next one to three years.

Tim Ferriss: Now, the subtitle of this new book – of course, the title is Mastering the Market Cycle – is Getting the Odds on Your Side. How does one – and of course, this is something we could discuss for many hours on end – why this book, and in this context, how does someone get the odds on their side?

Howard Marks: So I started writing the memos in 1990; I wrote them for 20 years. I always concluded that I would write a book and pull them together into a philosophy when I retired, and then I got a letter from Warren Buffett in 2010 saying, “If you write a book, I’ll give you a blurb for the jacket.” So that was enough to get me off my ass and get me to do it in real time.

I wrote a book called The Most Important Thing because I found myself sitting in clients’ offices saying, “The most important thing is buying cheap,” and then, 10 minutes later, I would say, “The most important thing is not losing money,” and then, 10 minutes later, I would say, “The most important thing is contrarian behavior.” So I wrote a book called The Most Important Thing, which has 21 chapters, and each one starts off with the title “The Most Important Thing Is…” and then it’s a most important thing.

One of those most important things is knowing where we stand in the cycle. As I say, I don’t believe in forecasts. We always say, “We never know where we’re going, but we sure as hell ought to know where we are.” I can’t tell you what’s going to happen tomorrow, but I should be able to assess the current environment, and that’s the kind of thinking that helped us prepare for the crisis. I think that the two most important things are where we stand in the cycle and the broad subject of risk, and in fact, where we stand in the cycle is the primary determinant of risk, so I think that this is a really important topic and it can really help you do better.

What Getting the Odds on Your Side means is that we don’t know what’s going to happen – nobody can tell you – but there are times when the outlook for the future is better and there are times when it’s worse, and it’s largely determined by where we stand in the cycle. When we are low in the cycle – that is to say, we’re coming off a bust – the economy is starting to warm up. Investors are just barely starting to switch from pessimism to optimism and prices are starting to rise. Clearly, the odds are in your favor. The outlook is better. It doesn’t mean you’re going to make money, but the chances are good.

On the other hand, when the upcycle has gone on for a long time, when valuations are high, when optimism is rampant, when everybody thinks everything’s going to get better forever, when the economy has been moving ahead for 10 years and it looks like it’s never going to stop, then usually, the enthusiasm has carried the prices to such a high level that the odds are against you. Just knowing that is a huge advantage in investing. You should know that when we’re low in the upcycle, that’s a time to be aggressive, put a lot of money to work, and buy more aggressive things, and when the cycle has gone on for a long time and we’re elevated, that’s the time to take some money off the table and behave more cautiously.

Tim Ferriss: Question about 2008 – or you could pick another period or bust cycle that you’re familiar with, whether from firsthand experience or research that you’ve done. You raised these funds, and I want to revisit the question of when. From a personal standpoint – and I’ll admit it very freely – I think I’ve had a very fear-based mentality when it comes to public markets. I’ve done reasonably well in privately held technology startups because I lived in the middle of the switchbox in San Francisco and that’s the only thing I paid attention to, and it protected me, in a way, from my lesser behaviors because I wasn’t allowed to sell.

But in the public markets, I’ve almost always held on to cash, waiting for some cataclysmic event, but then lost my nerve in some fashion. I’d love to hear – and maybe catching the falling knives is a way to segue into this; I don’t know, but I found that very interesting to read about, but how do you think about sitting on a position like that and timing? What determines the “go” command for deploying?

Howard Marks: You have really touched on an extremely important topic. Most of us have an inherent bias. Most of us are essentially cautious or essentially aggressive. Probably, more people are essentially cautious than aggressive. So one of the most important things is to assess ourselves, understand our biases, and try to overcome them. Now the Tim Ferriss that I heard you describe – I take that to mean that maybe you were lucky or smart enough to turn cautious leading up to the bubble, the markets fell apart, you’re sitting on cash, you patted yourself on the back for being so smart as to not get caught, and you watched. What you didn’t do is turn aggressive at the bottom.

Tim Ferriss: That’s right.

Howard Marks: And it’s common not to do so. It’s common to – as you say – for people to say, “I’m not going to jump in while this thing is collapsing down. I’m going to wait until the dust has settled and the future is clear. I’m not going to try to catch a falling knife.” But it is when the knives are falling that the people are most terrified that the best bargains are available. So if you wait until the dust settles, the bargains are gone, and that’s what happened at the end of ’08. You mentioned that in distressed debt, we put $500 million a week to work in the last 15 weeks following the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, and across the firm, something like $650 million a week for 15 weeks – that’s $10 billion.

But, the key is that it was at a time when essentially nobody else would. We got great bargains. By the time the end of ’08 rolled around, the hedge funds that were getting withdrawals had either satisfied their withdrawals or gated, and –

Tim Ferriss: What does “gated” mean?

Howard Marks: Told clients they couldn’t have their money back for a while. And so the selling abated. A few people saw the great values, and with the selling – and thus, the fear – having reduced, they were able to come forward, and prices started to move up. Then, it was too late! If you’re trying to buy in a falling market, you can buy all you want at successively lower prices, but if you’re trying to buy large amounts in a rising market, your own buying puts the price up. You’re your own worst enemy. You can’t get much at low prices.

So one of the keys to successful investing is to either be unemotional or, at minimum, act like you are. The great investors I know behave in an unemotional fashion. Warren Buffett couldn’t care less, David Tepper couldn’t care less, and so forth. My own partner Bruce Karsh is very stalwart. But part of it is that we support each other at the bottom. It’s not easy. I say in the book – I recount some of the things we’ve done right with regard to cycled extremes, but I absolutely don’t want to give the impression that it’s easy. It’s terrifying. Others are terrified. That’s why they’re selling. That’s why they’re saying, “I don’t care what the price is, just get me out.” That’s when you want to buy. But the things that terrify them into selling will also terrify you. You have to overcome it.

Tim Ferriss: How much of that stoic resilience or stoic composure is nature versus nurture – born versus trained – from what you’ve observed and experienced? And if a portion of it is trained, how would you suggest to someone that they develop that ability?

Howard Marks: I don’t want to answer categorically. I think it’s a hell of a lot easier if you’re born that way. To teach yourself to be unemotional is to counter human nature, and by definition, it can’t be easy. Other than where we are in the cycle and what’s going to happen in the next six months, this is probably the question I get the most often. How can you teach yourself to be unemotional, to be contrarian, to be a second-level thinker? There is no easy answer. In the first book, on the subject of what I call second-level thinking, I say, “They say you can’t coach height. All the coaching in the world will not make your team taller.” So I don’t know, frankly, whether people can teach themselves to be unemotional, but clearly, if you are as emotional as others, you will probably succumb to the same errors.

Tim Ferriss: So let’s – I’d love to back into this type of…not psychological profiling, but an examination of this type of resilience, maybe indirectly – maybe it’ll come up, maybe it won’t – and I might get the total duration incorrect, but you mentioned a name, Bruce Karsh, that I’d love to bring up yet again. He may come up repeatedly. You’ve had a 23-year partnership, is that right?

Howard Marks: 31. Oaktree is 23 years old, but we worked together for eight years before that.

Tim Ferriss: Prior to that, all right. So if you were trying to hire a 25-year-old version of Bruce, what would you be looking for?

Howard Marks: Well, I’ll tell you what he is. He’s super smart. That goes without saying. He is highly competitive. He’s a chess player. Again, most of the people I know who are good investors are game players – either backgammon, chess, or something like that. We are inherently competitive. He’s also very analytical, and he’s kind of a grinder, and I would describe myself as being intuitive and a quick decider – thinking slow and fast, Kahneman. I’m a fast thinker. You tell me a problem, I tell you my answer in short order and I’m done with it, for the most part.

Bruce will think about it longer, come to his conclusion, and then he’ll come back the next day and say, “You know, I was thinking about it last night. I don’t think that’s right, and here’s why.” Or, “I don’t think you were right, and here’s why.” And he’ll grind on it for hours and days. I think this is part of the secret to our success. Again, something I once wrote on the subject of a good partnership was “Shared values and complementary skills.” If you have a partner that has different values than you do – for example, Bob wants to make the most money possible and Ed wants to operate with integrity. Those are largely contradictory.

So I think it’s very important to share values, but I also think it’s important to not be the same person, a copy of yourself. If it’s a copy of yourself, you don’t need it. The person should bring skills that you don’t bring and maybe operate in ways you don’t, and I think it’s probably helpful that I’m intuitive and he’s analytical.

Tim Ferriss: I’ve heard – well, “heard” is not the right verb – I’ve read…I believe it was Buffett who said that Charlie Munger has something along the lines of the best 60-second mind he’s ever encountered. It sounds like you also have a very highly developed fast thinking capacity. How is it similar or different from Charlie Munger’s 60-second mind?

Howard Marks: Well, first of all, it’s a daunting comparison. I would never put myself in a category with Charlie. He’s brilliant, and one of the best thinkers there is. But the main thing is that he has read more broadly. He’s had another 22 years to read further, and he was probably always a broader reader than I was, and so it’s his ability to call on these references. In a way, it’s kind of silly to think that we can reinvent all the wisdom in the world. It’s great to borrow from others, and Charlie does that broadly, and I try to do it, but he just knows more.

Tim Ferriss: I think we’ll almost certainly come back to Warren and Charlie more in this conversation, but I want to return to Bruce because you mentioned the complementary skill sets, and of course, you’ve written about him and mentioned him quite a bit, and I want to quickly pull up a few lines in the new book. “Bruce and I had exchanged ideas and backed each other up almost daily over that period” – this is the preceding text – “and my give and take with him, especially in the most difficult of times, has played a particularly indispensable part in the development of the approaches to cycles on which this book is based.” Could you share an example of a back-and-forth or disagreement during a difficult time or with a particular decision? Is that possible, just so we have a real-world example of the interplay between the two of you?

Howard Marks: We normally don’t debate individual investments because he operates more at that level and I operate more at the big-picture level within Oaktree, but I think a good example is in the period we’ve been talking about a couple of time – we mentioned the last 15 weeks of ’08 – it was a very tough period because Lehman Brothers had gone bankrupt, Bear Stearns had disappeared, and Merrill Lynch had been absorbed by Bank of America, Washington Mutual, and Wachovia Bank. It looked like falling dominoes, and people were talking about the fact that it looked like Morgan Stanley was next and Goldman was right behind that.

So you just had to conclude that the financial world was either going to end, or it wasn’t. You couldn’t analyze it, you couldn’t prove anything about the future, and so it required an almost gamesman-like approach to whether you buy or not, and we would talk about that in that sense, and we were both very comfortable talking about it in that sense. What we concluded was that if the world ended, it didn’t matter what we did, but if the world didn’t end and we hadn’t bought, we hadn’t done our job. So buck up and do your job.

Now, the great thing is that half the days, Bruce would come to me – because he would be lying in bed at night, thinking about this stuff – and say, “You know what? I think we’re going too fast. I think we should slow down.” And half the days, he would say, “I think we’re going too slow.” So I would play devil’s advocate and support his decision, but try to show him the other side, and he would do that with me. That’s why we got it done.

But, as I say in the introduction to the book from which you read, I don’t think either of us could have done as good a job alone. I think the devil’s advocacy– but in a supportive way – really held the key. In one of my memos, I wrote about a reporter who called me up a few days after the bankruptcy of Lehman and said, “What are you doing?” I said, “We’re buying.” He said, “You are?” like it was the craziest thing he’d ever heard. My reaction was, “If we’re not buying now, when will we?” But it’s been a great partnership – as you say, 31 years – never an argument.

Tim Ferriss: Never an argument?

Howard Marks: Never an argument. Intellectual disagreements, but never an emotional argument, and the key is respect. Even when we disagree, we respect. The great thing about that is you sit down, you disagree, maybe you don’t come to a conclusion, and then you go back to your corners, and he says, “Well, you know what? Maybe Howard’s right.” I say, “Maybe Bruce is right,” and then you can have a productive discussion. If your reaction is, “That moron,” then you can’t benefit from what he has to say.

Tim Ferriss: For people who are hoping to exhibit that type of poise and respect for someone else, are there any tactical recommendations you might have? And the reason I ask that is – I no longer live in Silicon Valley, but I did for 17 years, and you see cofounder splits all the time. Some of them go the distance, but a lot of them end up as fatalities, and you can almost see the writing on the wall when the respect goes out the window, and it’s just a matter of time for a lot of these guys.

For people who are in partnership – for the time being, let’s assume it’s in a business capacity or an investing capacity – what are some of the tools of the trade that don’t let it escalate? Do you walk out of the room if you’re starting to get heated or do you avoid, in a systemic way, given the policies of the firm, any type of mission-critical decisions that become the object of an argument, if that makes any sense? When the stakes are high, what are some recommendations you would have when, perhaps, emotions are starting to escalate?

Howard Marks: The only issue I would take, Tim, is that you started with assuming you’re in a partnership. I think you have to start sooner. With whom do you get in a partnership? You have to share values, and you shouldn’t be partners with somebody you’re not going to like, enjoy spending time with, and be able to work with constructively when the stuff hits the fan. That’s really the key. So I believe that solving most personnel or managerial problems starts at the beginning with the hiring decision or the combination decision. So just don’t get into business with somebody you’re not going to be able to live with. It’s kind of like a marriage.

Tim Ferriss: Do you stress-test their ability to handle potential high-stress situations in some real or simulated fashion? In, say, hiring decisions, do you look back at their history and reference checks to assess that? How do you assess whether someone is going to keep their cool or not?

Howard Marks: Well, we don’t do simulations or wargames, but we do – that’s an important part of reference checking. You have to look beyond whether the person is smart and a moneymaker. We have a “no assholes” rule at Oaktree, and I think that solves a lot of problems. There are lots of people in the world who can make you a lot of money, but you may not want to be in business with them, and it may not be viable long-term. Now, it’s hard to absolutely follow that rule because really smart moneymakers are very tempting, but I think it’s really important.

But then, once you are in business together and you have the inevitable disagreement, I think one of the most important things is to first acknowledge the limits on what you know. If you go in with some humility, then you’re unlikely to have a fight to death – that is, to the death of your partnership – over an issue. It’s great to say – people should wake up in the morning and start the day by practicing, “I don’t know. I don’t know.” It’s a great thing to say, and not enough people say it. The flip side of “I don’t know” is what I said before about our discussions. “Maybe he’s right.” And so I think that’s important – humility.

Number two: Again, a control of emotion. Don’t get into fights just to show who’s more manly or equate winning the argument with success because if you’re in a business situation and you’re fighting for something that ultimately proves out to be a mistake, your success in winning the argument will lead to a failure. So don’t confuse winning the argument with coming to the best decision. Again, try to limit the testosterone. I think that really gets in the way.

Tim Ferriss: One of the many things that I really enjoy about your writing is that it serves – for me, at least – as a reflection on clear thinking that transcends investing. It applies to, if not all, so many areas of life – at least, those governed by the prefrontal cortex – and one that caught my eye while I was reading, which is Page 15 in the new book, is the following. I’d just like to read it. It’s not very long. “In addition to an opinion regarding what’s going to happen, people should have a view on the likelihood that their opinion will prove correct.

“Some events can be predicted with substantial confidence – example given: Will a given investment-grade bond pay the interest it promises – some are uncertain – example: Will Amazon still be the leader in online retailing in 10 years? – and some are entirely unpredictable – example: Will the stock market go up or down next month? It’s my point here that not all predictions should be treated as equally likely to be correct, and thus, they shouldn’t be relied on equally. I don’t think most people are as aware of this as they should be.” Could you expand on this a bit, if that’s possible, and maybe give some examples of how you or other people you respect use that type of heuristic when making decisions – or, I suppose, just reflecting reality in their own minds or perceiving things

Howard Marks: Sure. We all have opinions, and we hold our opinions because we believe in them. Nobody ever says, “My opinion is X, and I think I’m wrong.” We all think that our opinions are correct. And again, the world becomes a better place – an easier place to navigate if we admit that even though there are opinions, they may be wrong. How does an investor like me deal with the fact that he doesn’t believe in future predictions? The answer is I say – and I have opinions on other subjects – but I say it’s one thing to have an opinion and it’s another to believe and act as if it’s right. If you just say, “Maybe I’m wrong,” the world gets easier, in my opinion – easier to succeed, less easy to navigate day to day.

And a big theme of the book is that we have to view the future not as an event which is predetermined and predictable or determined already, but as a range of possibilities, as a probability distribution. I went to the World’s Fair in Flushing in 1964, I think it was, and I stood before an exhibit that IBM had, and typically of technology 50 years ago, it was the most simplistic thing you could imagine. They had a slot at the top and a bunch of balls, and the balls came through the slot, and there were a bunch of pegs in the grid. When the balls hit the pegs, they started to fuse, and by the time they got to the bottom, they were in a bell-shaped distribution.

I think that was probably my first exposure to a distribution, but it’s beautiful, and that’s how life is. The future is a distribution of possibilities, and if we’re really smart, we know what the possibilities are, and we may have an idea of which are more likely and less likely, but we still don’t know what’s going to happen, and I think we have to behave that way. Now, some things we know more, some things we know less. We shouldn’t get confused. But the most important single thing is to not have the same degree of conviction about all of our opinions.

Tim Ferriss: Do you apply a one-to-10 numerical value? Is it more of a light-medium-strong? How do you think about that yourself?

Howard Marks: Well, I think it’s certainly not – for the most part, I’m not a quantifier. If you read the book, I would hope you would be struck by how few numbers there are in it. One of the great quotes which is broadly attributed to Einstein – I don’t think it was Einstein – is “Not everything that can be counted counts and not everything that counts can be counted.” So the most important insights to life are non-quantitative, but when I have an opinion, I try to be conscious of how likely it is to be correct, and I try really hard not to always assume that I’m right.

By the way, let me add one thing. Henry Kaufman, who was the chief economist of Salomon Brothers in the ‘70s at a time when America was riven with hyperinflations – 15%, 16%, 17% a year – nobody could figure out how to stop it, and the world was really a very difficult place to live. There were two guys, Kaufman and Al Wojnilower, at First Boston, who were called “Dr. Gloom” and “Dr. Doom.” But Kaufman said two kinds of people lose a lot of money: The people who know nothing and the people who know everything. Very few of us know nothing, but it’s really important not to assume we know everything.

Tim Ferriss: Is there any reading you’ve done – or, maybe it’s just real-life experience in the trenches of doing this day in and day out – but for people who want to develop that – I saw that you’re what seems like a reader or fan of some of what Nassim Taleb has put out, and he talks about epistemological arrogance quite a bit, the belief that we know it all or more than we actually know. How would you suggest – are there any resources, letters, books, memos, or talks that you might recommend to people who want to really cultivate that awareness of limited knowledge?

Howard Marks: Well, when you started to ask that question, I did fast-forward to Nassim Nicholas Taleb and his book Fooled by Randomness. I think it’s a really important book in terms of its ideas. It’s really about how much randomness there is in our world. Now it’s primarily about the world of investing, not the general world. His example is that if you’re a dentist – he picks on dentists a lot in the book –

Tim Ferriss: He picks on economists, too.

Howard Marks: Yes – and you always fill a tooth the same way, you always get a successful filling, whereas in the investment business, there’s nothing you can do the same every time that will always get a successful outcome because of the changeability and randomness in the world. This is extremely important. We have to think about the world as a probability distribution. One of the things that interests me most is when you look at history, you say, “Well, I don’t know so much about the future, but history – that’s done. That’s settled. We know what happened. We know what the truth was.”

But, Taleb uses a concept called “alternative histories,” the other things that reasonably, probably could have happened, but didn’t. When you look at a historical event, you have to ask yourself if that outcome was inevitable, in which case it demonstrates a truth, or if it was subject to randomness and other things could have happened just as well. In a memo around ’06, I talked about the Rose Bowl game between USC and the University of Texas, and USC was highly touted as the best team in the history of college football, and – I’m not going to go through all of it; I hope readers will take a look at it – but in the end, they lost on one play, so nobody talked about them as being the best football team in history.

My point was – and I entitled this section “What’s Real” – maybe they were the best team in history, and maybe the fact that they weren’t successful on that one play that the whole game depended on was because the wind was blowing left to right or right to left at that moment. And so we should not be too firm in our conclusions. I guess the recurrent theme is a lack of certainty. But I really would push people to Fooled by Randomness. There’s a little book by John Kenneth Galbraith called The Short History of Financial Euphoria that has a great quote. He said, “We have two kinds of forecasters: The ones who don’t know and the ones who don’t know they don’t know.” That has been very inspirational for me.

Tim Ferriss: I was – I don’t think this was attributed to you, but I came across it while looking at some highlights of your memos in prep for this conversation. I don’t think it’s attributed to you, but someone said, “Dumb money can become smart money if it accepts its limitations.” I don’t know if you would agree with that, but it stuck with me as maybe – not necessarily forecasters, but at least, people who cultivate becoming aware of what they don’t know.

Howard Marks: Sure. Well, I think – first of all, knowing what you don’t know is one of the keys to success in anything. Dirty Harry said a man should know his limitations. I wouldn’t say – it’s not my quote. I wouldn’t necessarily say that dumb money can become smart money, but I would say that one of the ways to avoid being dumb money is to not act as if you know things you don’t know. Maybe by the time I get done giving the quote, I’ll be able to remember who said it, but somebody very wise said – Mark Twain, that’s it – “It’s not what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for certain that just ain’t true.”

That is so important. There’s nothing more dangerous in life than being sure you know something that you don’t know. If you have excess certitude, you will do things boldly in dangerous ways and to dangerous extents that have the ability to get you into trouble and get you killed. But a sentence that starts off with, “I’m not sure, but…” is unlikely to lead to fatal action. To me, the distinction is so clear and so inarguable that I think this is one of the most important things for life. Know your limitations.

Tim Ferriss: A little bit earlier, you mentioned how you could potentially say to yourself in the morning, “I don’t know, I don’t know. Maybe he or she is right.” It makes me think of some of these memento mori-type quotes that may be apocryphal from ancient Rome, where they have someone behind the emperor when he’s being paraded through the streets saying, “You’re just a man, you’re just a man,” something like that. I know this is seemingly maybe not on the same topic, but nonetheless, I want to ask about it. Do you have any particular routines or habits in the first hour or two of your day – whether it’s now or whether you were – if there was a particularly productive period in your professional life where you feel like those routines or habits were important, does anything come to mind?

Howard Marks: I don’t have stylized routines. I would just say that my life is pretty calm, and I try to keep it that way.

Tim Ferriss: What would be a symptom of it not being calm, and how would you respond to that?

Howard Marks: Well, watching too much political TV and getting exercised about what you see on TV would be a good example. That’s negative energy. That’s not going to contribute to your effectiveness in the day. Now, the fact that I don’t get exercised about what I see on the news shows is not purposeful.

Tim Ferriss: So up to this point, we’ve talked a fair amount about the importance of avoiding hubris, of understanding your limitations, and the incompleteness of your knowledge. How do you balance that with knowing your strengths well enough or having conviction in evidence to the extent that you can then take action?

Howard Marks: Sure. That’s a great question, Tim. Clearly, it’s essential to balance. You don’t want to be the person who thinks he knows everything, but you can’t be very successful in life – especially not investing – if you think you’re the person who knows nothing. There is no magic in it. There’s no rule, no method. It’s just an awareness. But we have to feel we know enough to take action. Now, most successful people – most smart people – don’t have a problem in that area. They have a history of having their ideas validated for the most part, but it is one of the great conundrums which is methodologically unanswerable.

You buy a stock at $80 and it falls to $60. You say, “Well, I think it’s cheaper now. I like it more. I’m going to buy more.” You buy more, and then it falls to $40. Is there a point at which you say, “Well, maybe I’m wrong and maybe the market is right?” If you throw in the towel and sell every stock you buy when it goes down a little, you can never be successful, but if you ignore the possibility that you’re wrong, you can never be successful, and you have to strike a balance. So when you buy a stock and it goes down a little, you take another look at your analysis. Was there anything you missed? Did your analysis hold water? Maybe you talk to some people that you respect to get their opinions. But again, if you’re too sure, you’re in trouble, and if you’re too unsure, you’re in trouble. You have to strike a balance.

Tim Ferriss: If we come back to the hypothetical example you gave – someone buying at $60, then it drops to $40, then to $30, then to $20 – to avoid being in that position where you are offering yourself the option of buying or selling at each of those check-in points, what do you decide in advance so that you don’t make those interim mistakes or you don’t even make those decisions or look at them to begin with?

Howard Marks: That’s not my approach or Oaktree’s approach. We don’t have pre-set rules. Everybody says, “Well, why don’t you just set a role?” There are things called stop-loss orders. You buy something, it goes down 20 percent, and you sell it very time. There is no rule that will ever work in every case. You have a rule that if it goes down 20 percent, you’re out. If it’s 21 and you sell, it might go up 100, or if it goes down 10 and you don’t sell, it might never go up again. There can’t be a rule that always works.

Just before the publication of my other book, I had lunch with Charlie Munger, and at the end of the lunch, when I got up to go, he said, “Now, just remember, none of this is meant to be easy. Anybody who thinks it’s easy is stupid.” These things cannot be reduced to a rule. The market operates so as to confound rule-makers. I wrote a memo five years ago called “It’s Not Easy.” It all comes down to judgment. If we’re going to have superior investment performance, we have to have superior judgment. You can work on your processes both intellectually and emotionally, but you can’t… Superior judgment isn’t something you can order up, and not everybody can necessarily attain it, but I think one of the most important things is to dismiss the concept of a process or rule that always works in the absence of superior judgment.

Tim Ferriss: Is the judgment the decision to take a certain path versus another? In other words – I know I’m going to be bastardizing this – if an advantage could take the form of access to better information and better analysis of that information, making a better decision with that information that is available, having the courage to act on it and the emotional fortitude to either act on it or sit with that decision – there may be other behavioral or psychological advantages or disadvantages, and I’m sure there are. When you talk about judgment, is that a particular link in that chain?

Howard Marks: I think judgment is everything. For example, just to follow your taxonomy, judgment is knowing when you have information that others don’t, and if you think you know something that others don’t, it’s knowing when yours is likely to be valid and knowing whether you’re likely to be offbeat. It’s understanding how to analyze it. Judgment is the reaching of conclusions based on your analysis, and judgment is all we have to tell us when something goes against us, whether we should hang in or give up. So as I say, I think it’s all judgment.

Tim Ferriss: I would imagine a lot of people read your memos and your writing in hopes of developing better judgment, and that while there is no one rule that will work for all circumstances and all cases, there may be certain questions or tools that prove helpful in a greater percentage of cases than others, and to that, I would love to refer to a few things that I have in front of me.

One is a letter that you sent to me along with the book, and toward the end of the letter, it says, “I draw on my 50 years of investing experience to provide an orientation to the usual cycles of the economy, corporate profits, the availability of credit, and the securities markets, as well as some of the less ordinary ones – for example, in distressed debt, investor psychology, and even in success – but I think potentially, the most useful is the chapter on the cycle and attitudes toward risk. How investors are thinking about risk and behaving toward it at a single point in time might be the single most influential determinant of market position in the cycle, and thus, the best indicator of how we should behave in regard to it.”

And I read that chapter – I believe I had the right chapter – and there’s a point in this chapter that has a few lines bolded – which I really appreciate, by the way – and that is, “If I could ask only one question regarding each investment I had under consideration, it would be simple: How much optimism is factored into the price?” Could you talk about this question and perhaps give some examples of using it or how people might use it?

Howard Marks: Sure. I started in the business in a summer job at Citibank in the summer of ’68, 50 years ago, and the bank was an investor in what was called the “Nifty 50,” the 50 best and fastest-growing companies in America. If you bought the stocks the year I showed up and held them for five years, you lost almost all your money – in the best companies in America. Then, 10 years later, I switched to the so-called “junk bond” business – high-yield bonds. Now I’m lending money to the worst companies in America and I’m making money steadily and consistently.

So clearly, buying good things and avoiding bad things can’t be the secret to success in investing. It has to be the price you pay. It’s not what you buy, it’s what you pay. And there’s no asset which is so good that it can’t become overpriced. Of course, this is something that people have to bear in mind when they look at the FANG stocks, and on the other hand –

Tim Ferriss: For those who don’t know, what is FANG?

Howard Marks: Facebook, Amazon, Netflix, Google, and they throw in Alphabet too. So there is no asset which is so good that it can’t be overpriced. There are very few assets which are so bad that they can’t be underpriced and thus a bargain. So what we have to look for if we’re going to be successful investors – now my school, which is called value investing, puts more emphasis than perhaps venture capital or growth investing, which largely looks for brilliant futures – but the key is paying a low price relative to something called intrinsic value. If you pay a high price relative to the value, you’re unlikely to do well and you probably have to get lucky to have a good return, but if you pay a low price relative to the intrinsic value, then the odds – like my book says – are on your side. So we want low price to value. How do you get low price to value? The answer is low optimism. There are other ways to describe it –

Tim Ferriss: You mean looking for low overall optimism?

Howard Marks: Right. In short, the things that everybody feels good about are likely to be the things that are high-priced, and the things that everybody feels bad about are likely to be low-priced, so if you could find a stock where nobody thinks this company could ever have a good day, maybe there’s a chance that it could produce some favorable surprises and make you a lot of money. If there’s a company like the Nifty 50 back in ’68, where everybody assumed – literally, Tim – nothing bad could ever happen to these stocks, then clearly, there has to be so much optimism in the price that there can never be a favorable surprise. We make money from favorable surprises, and if the positive conviction is so high, then by definition, there can never be a favorable surprise. So I think this is a number one concept.

Tim Ferriss: I think you said the word “never” in this hypothetical, exuberant enthusiasm, as someone might say. I believe there are certain words that you dislike using and pay attention to when they come up.

Howard Marks: It’s all part of this lack of intellectual hubris. We should never say “never,” “always,” “has to,” or “can’t.” These expressions are far too absolute to be winners in a world beset by uncertainty and randomness. When you use those words, you tend to get into big trouble.

Tim Ferriss: When assessing public sentiment – it could be really wide, let’s say anyone participating in the S&P 500, or it could be narrower – but let’s just say we’re looking at the broadest collection of market participants, at least the S&P 500. I was texting with a friend of mine who’s a successful investor but very different stylistically than yourself, and I asked him what some investing pros use to measure how fearful or greedy “the market” is. Are there go-to indices or polls? He said people use the VIX as a measure of fear. He said some people might use something like yield on junk bonds as a measure – in other words, low yield equals complacent market. It seems so difficult to keep track of the media as a whole, although certainly it becomes obvious at some point if it’s all negative or all positive. Are there particular indicators that you like to pay attention to or your firm likes to at least keep an eye on?

Howard Marks: In the old book, there’s a chapter that talks about the importance of taking the temperature of the market, knowing where we stand, and it includes a checklist – largely tongue-in-cheek – called the “Poor Man’s Guide to Market Assessment.” It basically asks some simple questions. What’s going on? If a new fund comes out, does it sell out immediately or does it struggle? If an investor goes to a cocktail party – there you are.

Tim Ferriss: It’s also in the new book.

Howard Marks: Oh, it’s also in the new book. If an investor like me goes to a cocktail party, is he the center of attention that everybody wants to talk to? Well, that’s probably a sign that interest in the market is high. Or is he pushed into a corner and everybody wants to talk to the athletes and the venture capital guys? That’s probably an indication that interest in my part of the market is too low, and that bargains may be available. When you turn on the TV, is all they want to talk about the good news or the bad news? I have some cartoons in the new book – old cartoons dredged up from my files – that demonstrate that virtually everything in the world and in the markets is subject to either a positive or negative interpretation, and if everybody is interpreting everything positively, that tells me that the spirits are too high, and perhaps ready to be dashed, and vice versa.

The greatest thing I was ever taught was back around ’73 or ’74. Somebody said, “I’m going to tell you about the three stages of the bull market. In the first stage, just a few incredibly insightful people understand that there could be improvement. In the second stage, most people recognize that improvement is actually taking place. In the third stage, everybody and his brother believes that things will only get better forever.” Now, I think that one, this is a very accurate description of the world; two, clearly, if you buy in the first stage when only a few people understand the potential for improvement, you’re going to pay a low price because there isn’t much optimism in the price. Then, as you progress to the second and third stage, the unanticipated improvement takes place. That gives the market a favorable surprise. The stock prices or the asset prices rise in response to those favorable surprises.

But you eventually reach a point where the good news convinces people that it’s going to go on forever, and when everybody believes that things will get better forever, clearly, it’s likely that so much optimism is in the stock price that it’s dangerous and unlikely to yield a profit. So I think that the three stages of the bull market – and conversely, of the bear market – are really important, not as a moneymaking rule, but as something to bear in mind and watch out for.

Tim Ferriss: I’m going to ask you a few questions that you may not like, but that my fans will kill me for if I don’t ask. First, where do you think we are at the moment? Of course it has to be time-stamped. We’re talking in August of 2018. What has you worried? What has you optimistic, if you’re optimistic about anything?

Howard Marks: Sure. Well, where are we? For the last 10 years, ever since the crisis, people have been asking that question in the form of “What inning are we in?” When they asked it in late ’08, what they really meant was, “How much longer will the pain go on?” Now, what they’re asking is, “How much longer will the pleasure go on, and the bull market, and the economic recovery?” I think we’re in the eighth inning. Now you don’t have to time-stamp it because I’ve been saying this for a while and I’m likely to continue to do so.

But about a year ago I came to the realization that that observation – even if accurate – is of limited use because unlike baseball, we don’t know how many innings there are in a game. This is a big distinction. In a normal baseball game, we know there are nine innings. If I say we’re in the eighth and if I say it accurately, that means the good times are about to end. But in economies and markets, there is no fixed duration.

So the bull market – this is the tenth year. That’s a long time. In the economic recovery, this month, we have begun the tenth year. The longest economic recovery in recent history is 10 years, so these observations start to tell you not that it’s going to end, but that the likelihood of its continuing is declining. The odds are not on your side. When you’re in the tenth year, the odds of having 10 more years of recovery seemingly are not good. We don’t know if there’s some reason why there has never been a recovery of more than 10 years, but we have to wonder if there is. But on the other hand, we can’t be too sure.

Now I believe that for many years, this economic recovery was the slowest on record. That was probably helpful because that kept excesses from coming into existence that have to be corrected with a downturn. You asked about the good news. The good news is that the economy is functioning at a high level, we just had a quarter of unusually rapid growth, unemployment is declining, and our economy is the envy of the world. Stock prices – which were very high when measured by price/earnings ratio last year – are not so expensive this year because the earnings have been supercharged by the tax bill. The projected earnings of the S&P 500 are way up this year – 23 percent, I think, which is unusual – and everything else being equal, higher earnings mean a lower price/earnings ratio, so by most measures, stocks are only slightly expensive at this point in time.

So that’s the good news. The bad news is that interest rates are likely to increase, and interest rates increase the burden of debt on companies, and when bonds yield more, they offer more competition for stocks. Clearly, there are a lot of uncertainties in the macro world, in the geopolitical world, and in the political world, the greatest of which is the possibility of a trade war, which almost everybody thinks would be extremely negative, not only for the U.S. and for the people who engage in the trade war, but for everyone. I think that interestingly, what we’ve been talking about is assessing the level of investor psychology. I don’t believe that investor psychology is terribly frothy. The way I’ve put it in the past is that people are not thinking bullish, but they’re acting bullish.

A lot of people have moved into higher-risk investments in order to get the returns they want because right now, safe investments – treasuries, high-grade bonds, cash, and money markets – offer so little. So people have been forced to move out the risk curve and take more risk, and that makes the world a riskier place for you and me. I borrowed a phrase from my late father-in-law, who said that those people could be described as handcuff volunteers. They’re doing things not because they want to, but because they have to. But the effect on the market is the same. When people move to riskier actions, it makes the market riskier for everyone.

Tim Ferriss: So if we were to consider all of that, if you had, say, three people come to you and you had to give them some response because it’s your mother-in-law, people in the family, so you have to give them some kind of response – feel free to ask some clarifying questions, but let’s say someone has $100,000 to invest, $1 million to invest, and $10 million to invest. So $100,000, $1 million, and $10 million, they make $100,000 a year, and that is going to remain stable and predictable. Let’s just assume that on the income side. They are very cautious – I think that like a lot of people, the loss aversion and pain of losing $100 hurts much more than the joy they derive from making $100 – and they have their investable funds, $100,000, $1 million, and $10 million, in cash or cash-like equivalents – some of these safe vehicles – currently, and they say, “Howard, I don’t know what to do.” What are your thoughts?

Howard Marks: I think that one of the most important things in investing is to make people comfortable. It’s a mistake to sit there and say, “You should do this, you should do that,” regardless of people’s comfort level because if you violate their comfort level, if you force them into things that are too risky for them and then things go bad, they’re unlikely to do the right thing. They’re more likely to panic and sell on the lows, which is the cardinal sin of investing. So it’s very important to assess people’s needs and ability to withstand tough times.

Clearly, the person who makes $100,000 and has $100,000 doesn’t have a big margin of safety for tough times, and they should invest more conservatively. The person with $10 million, depending on his or her psychology, probably would be willing to stomach some losses in the pursuit of big gains. Now people always overestimate in advance the equanimity with which they would greet losses. Back in 1997-1999, when the stock market and tech stocks were rocketing along, I think what a lot of people said is, “My 401(k) is doing so great; I wouldn’t mind if I lost a third of my money. It’s okay.” Believe me, when they lost a third of their money, they weren’t okay.

But my mantra for the last few years has been “Move forward, but with caution.” So in varying degrees to those three people, I would say, “We are investing every day, we are endeavoring to be fully invested today other than in funds that are strictly designated as standby funds for the crisis, and we are definitely taking risks, but with caution.” We’re a cautious firm. We invest in risky asset classes – high-yield bonds, distressed debt, real estates, emerging market stocks and bonds, et cetera – these are risky assets, and Oaktree has always taken a low-risk approach, a controlled-risk approach, to those asset classes. So when I say “with caution,” I mean with more caution than usual. I think this is a time for more caution than usual, and that’s what I would tell those people.

So I think that the outlook is not so bad and the prices are not so high that you have to practice maximum defensiveness, go to cash, and suffer a 1 percent return on cash, but I think the outlook is not so good and prices are not so low that this is a time for aggressiveness, and I wouldn’t be aggressive. I think one way that I help myself make these decisions – and it might be helpful to your listeners – is I constantly remind myself and others that as an investor, there are really two key risks that we face every day. Now, the first one is obvious and everybody knows about it. It’s the risk of losing money. What’s the second? It’s not so obvious. It’s a little more subtle. It’s the risk of missing opportunity.

When reminded of the twin risks, most people would say, “I think that’s right. The truth is, I don’t want to lose a lot of money, but on the other hand, I don’t want to miss all the opportunities, so I’m going to compromise. I’m going to balance the two. I’m going to do something in the middle.” That makes sense. Other than daredevils and scaredy-cats, everybody should do something in the middle. Exactly where in the middle is debatable and should be tailored to their own psyche and financial position.

So the interesting question is “What about today?” Today, should you be in your normal balance between the twin risks or should you be different? Should you be in a higher-risk position because so many things yield so little or should you be in a lower-risk position because there are so many uncertainties? And I actually agree with the latter. So fully invested – and being cautious does not mean being in cash – and with everything you want to do in the investment business, there are higher- and lower-risk ways to do it, and I think today is a time for the lower-risk ways.

Tim Ferriss: This is not the first time I’ve asked a question like this, but the last time I asked the first part of that, which is about someone who makes $100,000 a year and has $100,000 to spend, I was actually at the Berkshire Hathaway shareholder meeting a long time ago. It was my first and only time there, and I was so excited to be there. It’s Woodstock for investor nerds. There was so much excitement. People were camped out front to be in line.

I was part of that, and I asked someone working there where the microphone was that was hardest to get to, and then I sprinted over there, and I was able to ask Warren and Charlie this question – and of course, you know them, and their responses can be very short. I said, “Hypothetically, if someone were making $100,000 a year and had $100,000 to deploy in some way, how would you suggest they invest that capital?” It was along the lines of, “Invest in the S&P 500 or a low-cost index fund in the S&P 500 and get back to work.” I found that very dissatisfying, but in retrospect, certainly not the worst advice that you could give someone. How do you – with what do you disagree with Warren the most? On what do you guys not see eye to eye?

Howard Marks: Tim, there’s a book out called The Warren Buffett Way, and I was asked to write the foreword for the latest edition, and I wrote something called “What Makes Warren Buffett Warren Buffett?” and I listed the things that characterize him: extremely high IQ, unemotional, great analyst, understands what’s important, looks at the things that are important and figures out their import, ignores the things that are unimportant, and on and on like that. The last one was one of the most important: he’s not afraid of getting fired. He doesn’t have to worry about the interim consequences of error. Most people do.

So his advice was to invest in an index fund. That’s fine as far as it goes, but how much? Should the person who has $100,000 put the whole thing in the stock market, and especially, should they do it today? If they do it all today, we’re confident that 20 years from now, they’re going to have a lot more money and they’re going to be really happy. What about a year from now? Not everybody is financially and emotionally able to live through a decline.

So as I said, the first purpose of investing – especially for people who have more money than they need to eat – should be to make you comfortable. When I started at Citibank 50 years ago, they had a cartoon on the wall. It said, “Scared money never wins,” and it’s true. So everybody should invest only up to their comfort level. I certainly agree with Warren that for most people, they can improve on an index fund, and I’m not saying that Warren says that everybody should put 100 percent of their net worth in the index fund – clearly, they shouldn’t – and I was once at a talk, and I was preceded by a college professor I won’t identify – Warren always says, “Praise by name, criticize by category,” so I’ll only say I was preceded by a college professor.

This guy is known for a pro-stock attitude, and what he said was, “If you are of average risk tolerance, you should have 85 percent of your money in” – no. “If you have below-average risk tolerance you should have 85 percent of your money in the stock market, if you’re average, 105, and if you’re aggressive, 125 percent of your net worth should be in the stock market.” I just think that most people can’t live in the short run with the consequences of being that deeply invested. Being human, we are our own worst enemy. Everything that goes on in the world and the market conspires to make people buy when things are going well and prices are high and sell when things are going badly and prices are low, and fighting that is the number one theme of the book, and it’s the number one theme of success.

Tim Ferriss: Just from personal experience – and I mentioned this earlier – looking at my response in 2008… I bought a house in 2007 with some very unfortunate mortgage terms and made some very bad decisions with money that I had in the stock market at that time. I think in part, it was because I couldn’t have known how I would respond under those circumstances, and when I filled out these very templated forms, of course, for whoever it was at the time – I won’t mention anyone by name, but it was, “To what extent would you be comfortable with a drop in your portfolio over one quarter or one year?” That was the form of the question, and it had 10 percent, 20 percent, 30 percent. I thought, “Well, 30 percent, maybe,” pulling an answer out of thin air. I had to answer it to get through the online form. But I had never experienced anything similar to that.

This just came to mind because I’m looking at a book on your shelf, Bringing Down the House, about games. We were talking about games earlier. As I understand it, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett play a fair amount of bridge. Certainly, many people in the investing world – including some people who are really fantastic, some of the guys from Renaissance and so on – play poker, and then you have backgammon. What do you play, what do you think the game that they select says about the person, if anything, and could the game they select help someone to assess their risk tolerance for larger types of investing or other ways to accurately determine that in any way?

Howard Marks: I think “accurately determine,” yes, “quantify,” no. But I think that we can get a handle on our degree of risk tolerance and risk aversion, and we should. I was with my son and one of his friends this week, and his friend is a great chess player. The interesting thing about people who play chess is that in chess, there’s no randomness. There’s no dice to roll, no wind to blow, and no card to pick from the deck. All the information is on the board and everybody has all the information. So it tells you something about an intellectual process. That goes all the way out to craps, where everything is in play all the time based on randomness.

So maybe which game we like tells us something about ourselves, but how we play also tells us about ourselves. Backgammon, which is one of my main games, is highly probability-intensive because it’s all the dice – it’s the dice and the skill, but the dice mean a lot. In any situation, with any throw of the dice, there are aggressive and defensive ways to play. Probably the interesting thing is if you played and I watched you for a couple hours, I would know if you were aggressive or defensive, risk-averse or risk-tolerant, and you should be able to do the same for yourself. As I said before, one of the great things is to understand ourselves, and without that, we’re really in trouble.

Tim Ferriss: What are some of the things that otherwise smart people miss about cycles or misconceptions that you believe to be true – like Mark Twain said – that just ain’t so?

Howard Marks: I think the biggest mistake you can make is to ignore the repetitive nature of the cyclical pattern. In his book Principles, Ray Dalio talks about how much analysis he and his partners did, the conclusion of which is the ability to look at what’s going on in the world or in the market and say, “Oh, that’s another one of those.” Life becomes very easy when you have studied the past to the extent that you have seen the recurring patterns and you can recognize them when they come up again. So I think that’s extremely important.

But, the other thing is – and I think the guiding quote of the book is another one from Mark Twain, “History does not repeat, but it does rhyme.” History does not repeat. The cycles are never the same in terms of amplitude, speed, duration, cause, or ramifications, but there are themes that repeat that can help us to identify and properly respond to cyclical occurrences.

So I say in the book that I’ve been in the high-yield bond business now for 40 years, and there was a time where there arose a body of thought that most defaults occur on bonds’ second anniversaries since their issuance. I don’t think there was anything magical about the second anniversary, and if people believed that, then they would sell all the bonds they had that were 23 months old and buy them back when they were 25 months old if they had survived, but I don’t think they would accomplish anything by that because I think they were assigning an import to a number that was not valid.

So I think it’s really important to recognize cycles and understand them, but I think it’s unimportant to assign importance to these numbers or rules, but it’s very important to understand what’s going on around us, and when the recovery is old, the bull market is old, the psychology is elevated, the valuations are high, then you should know that the odds are not on your side, and you should take some money off the table and behave in a more cautious way, and vice versa.

Tim Ferriss: So I suppose also, on some level, it necessitates cultivating a fair degree of patience.

Howard Marks: Patience is essential. There was an investment sage named Peter Bernstein, and he said, “The market is not an accommodating machine that will give you high returns because you need or want them.” I believe that right now, we’re living in a low-return world, and if you say, “Howard, I need high returns in a low-return world,” the only way to try to get them is by taking a lot of risk, and by definition, taking a lot of risk is not sure to work and could have negative consequences.

So I believe that when you’re in a low-return world, you have to accept it and deal accordingly. Now, this comes from mujō, which we started the interview with. I talked about mujō in a memo about 20 years ago entitled “It Is What It Is.” I think one of the most important things we can do as adults, be it in the investment world or the real world, is to say, “It is what it is” – in other words, accept things for what they are, deal with them as they are, don’t spend a lot of time wishing they were different, and certainly, don’t act as if they were different. We have to accept the realities.

Tim Ferriss: In my little tiny corner of investing, which is not even worth mentioning in this conversation, but I only bring it up to tie it to how helpful actually reading – it’s not quite scripture, but Buddhist thinking related to concepts like mujō and Stoic philosophy – Epictetus and so on – how helpful that has been to tempering emotional reactivity. You mentioned someone I want to come back to, who is Peter – is it “Bern-steen” or “-stein”?

Howard Marks: “Bern-steen.”

Tim Ferriss: “Bern-steen” – a financial historian who sadly passed away in 2009, I think. I’ve read that you consider him one of the smartest people you’ve ever met. Why is that? Are there any other things that you learned from him?

Howard Marks: 48 years ago, when I was a junior analyst following Xerox for Citibank and I would give the portfolio managers at the bank my opinions, one of them came up to me and said, “Who is the best analyst on Wall Street on Xerox?” I said, “The one who agrees with me the most is so-and-so.” We always think that the people who agree with us are really smart. Peter saw the world the way I did, but in many cases, put it into words better. I wrote a memo called “Risk” in ’06, “Risk Revisited” in ’14, and then, bizarrely, one day, I found a memo from him – you mentioned he passed away in ’09. In ’16, I found a memo from him on my desk. My desk is a little messy and there’s a lot of stuff floating around. It was a great memo entitled “Can Risk be Reduced to a Number?”

I took a bunch of stuff from that in a redo of my memo entitled “Risk Revisited Again,” but I just think Bernstein is great. On the subject of risk, he said, “Every day, we walk into the unknown.” And as I said, the future is a distribution of possibilities, and some days, we don’t even know what the possibilities are. If I can borrow your copy of the book, I’ll conclude with a quote from him because I think it’s so good. If I can find it quickly, he said, “The future is not ours to know, but it helps to know that being wrong is inevitable and normal, not some terrible tragedy, not some awful failing in reasoning, not even bad luck in most instances. Being wrong comes with the franchise of an activity whose outcome depends on an unknown future.” And I think that’s a great way to think about the world we have to work in, and if you accept and inhale the unpredictability, variability, and randomness of the world, I think you’re likely to do a lot better in it.

Now that doesn’t mean you can’t invest, even boldly. What it means is you have to assume that things are not always going to work out right away – well, of course, they’re not always going to work out, but they’re certainly not always going to work out right away, which means what? You have to have patience. You have to have staying power. You have to have fortitude. You have to not invest so much that if it goes against you, you’re going to panic and get out. Preparing for an unknown, unpredictable, and maybe even hostile world in the short run is probably a lot smarter than assuming everything’s going to go right, everything’s going to go the way you expected, it’s going to go that way right away, and you’re not going to be tested. So I think that this is the kind of thinking that… When I read Bernstein or some of the other people I’ve mentioned, I just go, “Oh yeah, right, sure. That gets it for me.” And that’s why I love his stuff so much.

Tim Ferriss: Warren Buffett has mentioned how fond he is of your writing, and I’m paraphrasing here, but if he sees one of your letters in his inbox, it’s one of the first things he’ll pick up to read. I’d love to ask you about your reading. Are there three to five specific newsletters, columnists, economists, or writers who you find yourself excited to read these days? Anyone who comes to mind?

Howard Marks: I think the best… I’ve worked mainly in the credit area, not in the stock market. Most people invest mainly in the stock market, and we’ve talked a lot about the stock market, but that’s not what I do professionally. Oaktree’s investing is largely in something called credit, which means fixed-income securities, bonds, notes, and loans not issued by governments. That’s the definition of credit.

In our world, there’s a great newsletter called Grant’s Interest Rate Observer. It’s a little ironic because Grant’s has nothing to do with interest rates – or, almost nothing – but it’s about credit, and in particular, it exposes stupidity, and it exposes companies which seem to be – where people are not bringing enough skepticism and deals that seem unwise, and that kind of thing, and I think they do a great job.

Now I think it’s fair to say that it has a negative cast. In other words, they’re mainly talking about things which are rated higher than they should be, which you should avoid or bet against. I don’t think they talk as often about the things that are rated lower than they should be and present profit opportunities, but for credit guys like us, avoiding the losers is extremely important, and I think that’s a great newsletter, not only for the content, but for the attitude and the importance of identifying misperceptions. Misperception is the key to operating in the markets.

Variant perception – you understand things differently from the way everybody else understands them – is the key to success, assuming you’re right. If you understand everything just the way everybody else does, clearly you can’t outperform. That’s the death knell for a would-be professional investor. So you have to see things differently from others – that’s a necessary condition for outperformance – but you also have to see it better than others. That’s necessary too. The combination of those two is what I call second-level thinking, which I’ve mentioned a couple times.

Tim Ferriss: You also mentioned how widely read Charlie Munger is, and certainly, in Poor Charlie’s Almanack, for instance, he talks quite a bit about – if I’m not misremembering – evolutionary biology and is really able to pull concepts from seemingly unrelated disciplines into his power zone of investing. I’ve had investors recommend certain books that are much broader than investing, such as Lessons of History by Will and Ariel Durant, which I found really fascinating as well. It talks about cycles, in a way. Are there any books that you’ve found yourself recommending a lot or that you’ve enjoyed in the last few years that are not specific to investing?

Howard Marks: Not specific, yes. My reading is usually closer in than Charlie’s. So an example is the book I’m working on now, which is called Factfulness, and basically, it unmasks a lot of misperceptions that people have about the state of the world, and they hold these perceptions generally qualitatively, not based on data, and the author tries to substitute facts for these perceptions.

He starts with a list of 13 questions describing the state of the world, and fascinatingly, he gives you the answer to one, and you have to think about the answer to the other 12. The average score on the 12 is two, and he points out that if you flip the coin, you’d get six right. So the average American gets two of the 12 questions right, so not only are they systematically wrong, but they’re wrong in the same direction, which is they always pick the more pessimistic answer when the more optimistic one is true, and so he responds to our bias and tries to overcome the ignorance and the bias by using facts and some great, very communicative graphics. So I would recommend Factfulness, and I love the idea of unmasking biases.

Tim Ferriss: You mentioned that – and if I get this wrong as I’m restating, please correct me – in a low-yield environment, to get high-yield entails increased risk. I know you’ve written a little bit about cryptocurrency before. The last one I saw was from about a year ago. What is your current view on cryptocurrency? That’s one place that people are going, often with no understanding of the technology or anything else. It scares me enough, although – anyway, I won’t get into my view on that stuff, but people who are well outside of tech and all that are getting very bullish as it relates to cryptocurrency. What are your thoughts?

Howard Marks: I am what is called a value investor, and that means you look at the situation, you don’t look at the atmospherics, you don’t look at the aesthetics, you look at the hard value – the company’s assets and the cash flow that its business produces – and you value those things, and you come to something called the intrinsic value, and then you see if you can buy it for less. If you pay full intrinsic value, you’ll probably get a fair return; if you pay more, you’ll probably have an unsuccessful experience, but if you can buy it for less than the intrinsic value, you should have an above-average return. That’s value investing, and I think it is the intellectually soundest form of investing, and nobody has been able to tell me the intrinsic value of a Bitcoin.

I believe there are assets in this world where you can come up to intrinsic value, and they are the ones that produce cash flow: companies, stocks, bonds, buildings – that kind of thing. There are a lot of assets in this world that do not produce cash flow. You cannot put an intrinsic value on oil, gold, diamonds, paintings, or Bitcoin.

Yes, it does. We cannot say how many pounds a dollar is worth. People look them in terms of what’s called purchasing power parity, but it doesn’t really work very well. And the truth of the matter is that these macro considerations – the directions of economies, markets, currencies, and commodity prices – what’s the intrinsic value of an orange? These things I think can’t be predicted reliably, and in fact, the so-called macro funds have been doing quite poorly for years.

So there are some things that can be valued and some things that can’t, and I believe Bitcoin is one of the things that can’t be valued, and everybody says to me, “But you don’t understand,” and I wrote about this in my July ’17 memo and returned to it in September. I learned something between July and September, and that’s why I put it in the next memo. People said, “You just don’t understand. People are going to want a currency that the government can’t deflate, that can’t be counterfeited, and can’t be stolen,” and all these things. That’s why I returned to it. But I still don’t understand how it can be valued. Today, a Bitcoin is $6,500 here on August tenth, and I don’t see how you can say it’s worth $7,500, $5,500, or anything like that. You can say it’s going to be useful in the future, you can say people want a nongovernmental currency, but I don’t see how you can put a value on it.

With all of its attractions – to the extent that people find attractions in it – last year, it went from $1,000 to $19,000. Now I could be wrong, but that tells me it’s speculative buying, and by the way, the people who – remember what I said about people who have opinions believing they’re right – if it traded at $19,000, somebody thought it was a good buy at $19,000 because it was going higher, and today, it’s a third of that. So for the most part, reasonably valued value investments do not go up 19 times in a year and then down by two-thirds.

Tim Ferriss: Are there any – understanding that you are a value investor – you mentioned a few other names in the introduction of your book – Joel Greenblatt, who I’m also a fan of – are there any growth investors or venture investors who are…certainly, approaching things differently, but are there any growth or venture investors or people who are playing a slightly different approach who you have a lot of respect for or admire for particular reasons?

Howard Marks: Sure. Let me say there are many ways to invest; there are many people who engage in activities that I think can’t be done, and there are many people in each one who do very well. I don’t say mine is the only way. Venture is an example. I’m not a futurist, I’m not a dreamer, and I’m not highly risk-tolerant. I’m not biased to risk-taking. 40 years ago, when Citibank told me they wanted to start a high-yield bond portfolio, if instead, they would have said, “I want you to start a venture capital fund,” I probably would have been a disaster.

But, in the venture field, success seems to be recurring, not random. If 20 percent or 10 percent of venture capital funds are successful, you would think that with any given firm, 20 percent or 10 percent of their funds would be successful, but there are firms which are repeatedly successful. I was lucky in the last year to get to meet Bill Gurley of Benchmark, and Bill was nice enough to give me a blurb for the jacket of my book, and I was very impressed by our conversation and by Benchmark’s record of achievement. Sequoia has a great record, as does as Kleiner Perkins, so you can do it, but it wouldn’t be right for me. That doesn’t mean it’s not right for them.

Macro – I said 15 minutes ago that macro funds have had a pretty bad record. Some of the greatest investors in history have been macro investors – George Soros and Stan Druckenmiller, for example, have been fabulous. They probably have the highest returns of everybody. Quantitative investing – Renaissance and so forth. So again, it would be a terrible form of hubris to say my way is the only way. My way is the way that works for me. By the way, if you look at the others, the success ratio is not terribly high, but certainly, there are people who’ve done it well.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, there’s a very high concentration of success in a handful, at least within venture. Yeah, Bill’s a very smart guy, and all the firms you’ve mentioned have done really well. So I’ve heard it said – this is not from you in these words, I don’t think – that the right decision at the wrong time is the wrong decision. I’m very excited about the new book and the literacy of cycles that you are helping people to develop with this. We’re going to wrap up in just a few questions.

Are there any particular mental models or heuristics that are in this book or that you’ve used in your investing life that you think are particularly valuable across the board in life? I know that’s a big question and you probably have quite a few directions you could go with that, but just in terms of becoming a clearer thinker and better-operating human being, does anything come to mind that we haven’t discussed so far as it relates to any type of mental model that would be worth mentioning before we wrap up?

Howard Marks: Well, Tim, when I finished writing the book and I was thinking about cycles, I said to myself, “So for example, the economy grows about 2-2.5 percent a year on average. Why doesn’t it just grow 2.5 percent every year? Why is it sometimes four, sometimes one, sometimes five, and sometimes negative?” And the answer is excesses and their correction. People get too excited, they overexpand their businesses, they invest too much, or they invest too much using debt, and then something goes wrong, and their excesses produce booms, and then something goes wrong, and those excessive activities turn out to be unsustainable, and they are then corrected by selling off inventory, closing plants, or liquidating a leveraged portfolio, and those produce busts.

So it’s from excesses and their corrections, and I think the best thing that people can do is be on the lookout for those things, and when other people are engaging in excesses to the upside, we should turn cautious, and when other people are overcorrecting to the downside, we should turn aggressive. It’s been a big part of what Bruce and I have accomplished for the Oaktree investors and my other partners and colleagues, and it’s something that everybody can do if they turn their mind to it.

Tim Ferriss: Well, Howard, I really appreciate the time today.

Howard Marks: Me too.

Tim Ferriss: This was very fun for me, and hopefully – and I believe it will be valuable for people listening. Just to mention a few things, of course, people can find Mastering the Market Cycle: Getting the Odds on Your Side everywhere books are sold. You can also learn more at masteringthemarketcycle.com, people can learn more about Oaktree at oaktreecapital.com, and on social media, you have Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn all the same – HowardMarksBook. Is there anything else you would like to say to the people listening, any recommendation or question they should ponder, action you might ask them to take – anything at all besides the book itself, which I encourage people to check out?

Howard Marks: Well, first of all, we’ve made repeated reference to my memos. They’re all available online at oaktreecapital.com under the heading of “Insights > Chairman’s Memos.” You can get the last 29 years’ worth. You can also sign up for a service that will notify you when one is published. The price is right because they’re free, and I hope people will read them. And I just want to say that I like to hear from people. I don’t always have time to answer everybody, but my writing of the memos and the books has been enormously rewarding because I get lovely memos from people which say that I made complex things seem clear. That’s the one that gets me going the most. So if people want to comment, take issue, or ask a question, I’ll try to get back to them.

Tim Ferriss: And is the best way to reach out to send you a note on social media? I would advise against giving out any type of email address that will get deluged. Or maybe the answer is they should figure it out.

Howard Marks: Well, we’re on social media, and we’d be glad to hear from them there.

Tim Ferriss: Perfect. Well, Howard, thank you again for the time, and for everybody listening, links to everything we discussed will be in the show notes as usual at tim.blog/podcast, and until next time, thank you for listening.

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