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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#218: The Most Feared and Well-Liked Journalist in Silicon Valley - Kara Swisher
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This episode is brought to you by Inktel. Ever since I wrote The 4-Hour Workweek, I’ve been frequently asked about how I choose to delegate tasks. At the root of many of my decisions is a simple question: “How can I invest money to improve my quality of life?” Or “how can I spend moderate money to save significant time?”

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

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

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

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

#366: Neil Gaiman — The Interview I've Waited 20 Years To Do
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Tim Ferriss: Neil, welcome to the show.

Neil Gaiman: Thank you. Thank you so much!

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

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

Tim Ferriss: This is true.

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

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

Neil Gaiman: I’m loving it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neil Gaiman: I got water too.

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

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

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

Tim Ferriss: Really?

Neil Gaiman: Yeah, he gave Dahl —

Tim Ferriss: No idea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tim Ferriss: Could you speak to that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neil Gaiman: Really?

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

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

Tim Ferriss: Is that a real place?

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

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

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

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

Tim Ferriss: This is for books?

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

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

They say, “What do you use?”

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

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

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

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

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

Tim Ferriss: What was that first book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tim Ferriss: Right before bed?

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

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

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

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

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

Tim Ferriss: What does that mean?

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

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

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

Tim Ferriss: Introductions? You mean writing introductions?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neil Gaiman: My blog is a pretty reliable source.

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

Neil Gaiman: Cabal.

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

Neil Gaiman: You’re welcome.

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

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

Neil Gaiman: It’s really good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tim Ferriss: That you did.

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

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

Tim Ferriss: May I pause for one second?

Neil Gaiman: Yeah.

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

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

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

Tim Ferriss: Which I also listened to on audio.

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

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

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

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

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

Neil Gaiman: He’s so lovely.

Tim Ferriss: Silas.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tim Ferriss: How much later was this?

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

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

Tim Ferriss: Tens of millions of copies.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tim Ferriss: 90 minutes.

Neil Gaiman: That flew.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Neil Gaiman: Including fountain pens.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#366: Neil Gaiman — The Interview I've Waited 20 Years To Do
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Want to hear an episode with another world-building dreamer? — Listen to my conversation with filmmaker Darren Aronofsky in which we discuss nomadic writing, how to navigate tough conversations over creativity and control, dealing with critics, and much more. Stream below or right-click here to download.

#263: Filmmaker Darren Aronofsky — Exploring Creativity, Ignoring Critics, and Making Art
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This podcast is brought to you by Peloton, which has become a staple of my daily routine. I picked up this bike after seeing the success of my friend Kevin Rose, and I’ve been enjoying it more than I ever imagined. Peloton is an indoor cycling bike that brings live studio classes right to your home. No worrying about fitting classes into your busy schedule or making it to a studio with a crazy commute.

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Pollan: Or a dark age.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Pollan: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Pollan: Exactly. Hard to spell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tim Ferriss: In Earth time.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Pollan: Yeah.

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

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

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

Michael Pollan: That’s right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tim Ferriss: Oldest trick in the book.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Pollan: 10 years minimum.

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

Michael Pollan: No, that’s right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tim Ferriss: Dot, dot, dot.

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

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

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

Tim Ferriss: [crosstalk]

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

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

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

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

Tim Ferriss: Thank you, very much.

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

Tim Ferriss: It’s self-referential.

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Pollan: Or anything by Robin Carhart-Harris.

Tim Ferriss: Robin Carhart-Harris.

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

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

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

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

Michael Pollan: Healthy normals.

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

Michael Pollan: Well, they’re not addictive.

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

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

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

Tim Ferriss: For MDMA and psilocybin?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tim Ferriss: No, these are bipartisan issues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Pollan: Well, that’s true.

Tim Ferriss: Have some apple juice. Ahh!

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

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

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

Tim Ferriss: Like the flight instructions.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Pollan: Well, in my case —

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

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

Tim Ferriss: And separate.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Pollan: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

Tim Ferriss: Or the reducing valve?

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

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

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

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

Michael Pollan: Yeah.

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

Michael Pollan: Yeah.

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

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

Tim Ferriss: Which is comparable to what?

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

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

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

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

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

Michael Pollan: Johns Hopkins.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tim Ferriss: Yeah. When in doubt, decline.

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

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

Michael Pollan: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

Michael Pollan: Thanks so much.

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

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Photo by Ken Light


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

#340: Paul Stamets — How Mushrooms Can Save You and (Perhaps) the World
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QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.

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Ten Lessons I Learned While Teaching Myself to Code

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Note from the editor: The following is a guest post by Clive Thompson (@pomeranian99), a journalist who’s written about technology and science for two decades. Clive is a longtime contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired.

In his guest post, Clive outlines the most important lessons he learned teaching himself to code after interviewing 200+ programmers for his new book Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World.

Enter Clive…

So, you want to learn to code.

Join the club! We live in a time when, as the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen famously put it, “…software is eating the world.” So the people who know how to program are in a catalytic spot; they can make things happen. Maybe you’ve watched this from the sidelines and thought: Huh. Could I learn to do that? Perhaps you’re out of school; maybe you can’t afford either the money or the time to go back and do a four-year degree in computer science. You’ve seen a zillion of these online tutorials in coding. Could you just sort of, well, teach yourself?

The short answer is: Sure you can.

The longer answer is… the rest of this essay.

The reason why I think you can do it is that I’ve met tons of people who did. I’m a science journalist who spent three years interviewing about 200 programmers for my upcoming book Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World. The bulk of them had studied computer science, but a surprisingly significant minority were self-taught. They were artists or accountants or speechwriters or marketers or musicians or carpenters or stay-at-home parents or people from just about any walk of life, but they’d gotten interested in coding, buckled down, and learned.

They inspired me, frankly, to dive in and teach myself. I’d gone my whole adult career doing essentially no coding. As a teen, back in the ’80s (I’m old, people), I’d learned some BASIC on those computers you plugged into your TV. It was a blast—I made little (terrible) video games and insult generators and bits of computer music, but I didn’t get very far because my mother refused to let our family own a computer. (“He’ll just sit around playing games all day long,” she told my dad.) So I never studied coding and, instead, did degrees in English and political science. As an adult, I’d really only tinkered with a bit of HTML and some web pages. When I started thinking about learning to code a few years ago, I had a day job and couldn’t study full time.

So I decided to teach myself in my spare hours. I wasn’t looking to become a full-time coder, mind you. I had no visions of creating some app and scoring boatloads of VC money. I was just curious to find out: how learnable was this, as a skill? Could I do it well enough to make software that was, at a minimum, useful for me?

The answer was, on all fronts, yes.

I learned a ton, and now I very frequently write code to help me in my job as a journalist and book author. I’ve written little scripts and programs that make my work and personal life easier. I’ve also discovered I enjoy it—it can be an absolute blast, intellectually and creatively.

Along the way, I gathered some hopefully-useful lessons for you.  Some of them from my own experience and some from talking to experts—those who teach programming and some full-time coders who taught themselves.

So the advice I gleaned, in order, is:

#1) The online world is your friend. Start there.

It’s never been easier to get started learning to code because there are dozens of free-or-cheap courses online. If you’d tried to do this even a decade ago, the pickings were slim. Now, it’s a cornucopia. Within five minutes of reading my list, you could be starting an online course.

Me, I decided to learn some JavaScript, since it’s a language that powers the web. After reading reviews and canvassing some recommendations, I started with the JavaScript lessons at Codeacademy, which begin very much at zero, assuming a newbie knows essentially nothing about programming concepts. Each lesson gives you a bit-by-bit primer on some part of coding—like assigning data to variables and using if-then statements—then challenges you to do something simple with it. After a few weeks using it, I read some blog posts touting freeCodeCamp, a different site for newbies, which integrates JavaScript alongside learning HTML and CSS, the languages for making web pages. I bounced back between the two tutorials, finding that their different approaches to teaching the same thing helped to cement the basics in my mind.

I didn’t stick to one language, though. I’d also heard that Python was a good language for neophytes, easier to pick even than JavaScript; and it’s used a lot in data analysis, something I was intrigued by. This time, instead of doing an online tutorial only, though, I used a book—Zed Shaw’s Learn Python The Hard Way, which many coders highly praised online. Indeed, while doing these online courses, I also amassed a small collection of paper books, like Crash Course in Python, Automate the Boring Stuff With Python, and Eloquent JavaScript, all of which were really useful: They were fast to flip through and refresh a concept in my memory. There are a ton of resources online—the instant you forget how to reverse-sort a list in Python, you can Google it—but it turns out paper books are still very useful. A good book like Shaw’s has been organized specifically to structure info about a coding language so it makes sense.

A word of warning as you dive into online courses? Buyer beware: “Most of the stuff that says it’s ‘Great for a beginner’ is not,” as my friend Katrina Owen—a self-taught coder who works as an engineer for GitHub and founded Exercism, an open-source project that offers coding challenges to help sharpen your chops—says. She’s right. I’ve seen a ton of “tutorials” that are supposed to be for newbies but are written erratically. Half the time they’re great, patiently walking you through material, then half the time they assume you already know what an object or an IDE is. If you try these, you’ll wind up feeling frustrated and thinking that it’s your fault you don’t understand things, but it isn’t. So find recommendations: Read online reviews of a course, use my suggestions here, ask friends.

#2) Don’t stress over what language to pick.

Don’t get bogged down picking the “perfect” language to learn. Your goal in the early days is just to become familiar with the basic concepts of coding, which are similar across all languages.

“If you can learn one programming language, you can learn the other ones, and where you start doesn’t matter nearly as much as you might think,” as Quincy Larson, the founder of freeCodeCamp, told me. So pick one—the common ones for newbies are things like Python, JavaScript, Ruby, or, say, Microsoft’s C#—and dive in. You can switch around later or even, as I did, try a few and see which ones “take” better with your style of thinking. (Me, I prefer writing Python—it’s prettier, to my eyes—but JavaScript is more useful for building the web tools I use in my work, so I’ve stuck with both.) “Stop looking for the perfect coding course,” advises Madison Kanna, who taught herself programming at age 23. “Just pick a curriculum and stick with it.”

Actually, you may want to avoid Googling “What coding language should I learn?” because you’ll immediately find yourself deep in the sprawling flames wars that coders engage in over Which Language Sucks/Rocks. These arguments are a) frequently nuts and b) to the extent that they have any meaning, nothing you need to worry about right now.

Now, there’s one big exception to my rule here. If you’re learning to program specifically because you’re sick of your job and want to retrain for full-time coding work, as fast as possible? Then your choice of language does matter. You want to match it up to market needs—specifically, your local market, notes my friend Saron Yitbarek, a developer and the founder of CodeNewbie, a podcast about programmers. So research your local job scene: What types of entry-level coding jobs exist, and what languages and skills do they ask for? Then find tutorials and books that will lead to those skills. “Find the jobs that you want, and then reverse engineer your curriculum,” she tells me.“ Too many people go, ‘Oh, I heard about JavaScript. Now I’m going to learn JavaScript.’ And they realize there are no JavaScript positions anywhere where they live. Then they’re stuck in a community that really wants them to learn .NET,” a Microsoft framework, “and they didn’t take the time to learn .NET.”   

#3) Code every day.

This is a big one. You should try to do some coding every day—at least, say, a half hour.

Why? Because this is just like learning Spanish or French: Fluency comes from constant use. To code is to speak to a computer, so you should be speaking often. Newbies often try to do big, deep dives on the weekends, but that’s too infrequent. “Programming languages are still languages, so attempting to learn them only on weekends doesn’t train your ability to use them naturally. It requires daily practice and study,” as Zed Shaw told me. But you’re busy, so how are you going to find time to code every day? Well, Shaw argues, take the time you normally allocate for something fun—watching TV, going out with friends, video games, watching sports—and use it instead to code daily. “It’s better to do one hour a day then ten hours on Saturday,” argues Avi Flombaum, who runs the Flatiron School, one of the first coding bootcamps, and now a WeWork company.

They’re right—this was precisely my experience. When I was doing a bit of coding every day, I found I could much more quickly grasp key concepts. But if I stopped for a few days or, every so often, a few weeks, when a crush of work in my day-job and a load of personal-life responsibilities arrived, it was like wiping the slate clean. I’d come back to work on a coding project and I’d have forgotten a shocking amount of basic stuff.

Related to this advice, it’s worth noting that learning to code—to the point where you can build something useful for yourself or others—isn’t going to happen quickly. A while ago there was a vogue for books with titles like Learn Java in 10 Hours, which is frankly insane. It’s more like, “Learn to code in ten months,” (or, as the longtime Google programmer Peter Norvig once wrote, “Teach Yourself Programming in Ten Years”.) It was a few months before I was beginning to make little scripts and web tools that actually accomplished a useful task for myself.

And while getting a half-hour a day is useful, if you can do more, do more. Programming typically requires immersion: When you’re trying to understand a new concept, you’ll do a lot of staring at the screen, trying to grasp or visualize or apprehend the flow of logic or data through a snippet of code. Very often I’d find I would sit down to learn something in an evening, thinking I’d spent 30 minutes, then get stuck—and two hours would go by before I’d get unstuck. It isn’t always easy when you’ve got a busy life, but free up as much time as you can.

For sheer density of learning, one option to consider—if you have the money and time—is a bootcamp. These are crash courses, typically several months long, where you study programming all day (and often into the evening) in a formal schooling environment with instructors and classmates. (A good community college can offer similar courses.) Bootcamps aren’t cheap, averaging over $11,000 in tuition, though some defer tuition until you get your first coding job. Their great upside is that they give you a curriculum: “…it takes away ‘decision fatigue,’” notes Flatiron’s Flombaum. Teaching yourself to code on your own, requires endless decisions: Should I keep learning this language? Which JavaScript front-end framework should I try? “Whereas here you have someone making those decisions for you, so you can just focus on learning,” he notes.

The trick here is finding a good bootcamp. It’s an unregulated field, in which high-quality ones with solid track records of grads finding jobs exist cheek-by-jowl with dodgy, fly-by-night ones. In NYC where I live, some well-regarded ones are Flatiron (which also operates in eight other locations, including Houston, Washington and Atlanta), Grace Hopper (which also operates in Chicago), and General Assembly (which also operates in 19 other locations around the US, such as Austin, San Francisco and Boston). In San Francisco, it includes Hack Reactor and App Academy. It’s very much a city-by-city scene, though, so do your local research if you go this route; SwitchUp is a useful resource here.

#4) Automate your life.

When people think, “I’m going to learn to code,” they often assume it needs to end in making a product—some app like Facebook or Grubhub or Uber.

Sure, that could happen. But honestly, the more practical reason to learn to code is much simpler, more mundane, but much more personally powerful. You can very quickly learn to automate boring things in you life.

That’s because computers are amazing at doing dull, repetitive tasks. They’re also great at being precise. Since we humans are terrible at doing dull tasks and quite bad at being precise, this makes us a match made in heaven. So one enormous pleasure in learning to code is that you begin to see how you can automate many difficult, onerous tasks.

For example, when I’m reporting I often find a great speech on YouTube, and I want to copy and save the automatic transcription of it. The problem is, the transcriptions that YouTube generates are messy—every other line is a piece of timecode. So when I’d cut and paste them into a research file, the file would be long and hard to skim. I could go through and delete every other line, but yikes, what a hassle!

So instead, one evening I quickly wrote a dead-simple little web tool that lets me paste in a YouTube transcript, and, with a button-push, clean up the transcript, removing the timecode lines and rendering it into a single paragraph. It’s much easier to read that way.

I’ve written tons of other scripts to automate boring things. My youngest son once ran into a problem: He wanted to get his homework done quickly after getting home from school, and his teacher would post it to the school’s web site, but sometimes she’d delay. So he’d sit there, refreshing the page every so often, waiting for the homework to post. To automate that, I wrote a little web-scraper that would check the page every five minutes, and once it detected the homework was posted, it’d shoot a text message to me and my son—so he could now do whatever he wanted, knowing he’d get an automated alert. These days, I’m working on a little script that registers where I’ve parked the car on the streets of Brooklyn (where I live) and sends me an automated reminder when I need to move it before I get a ticket.

This is the secret value of coding, for me. I’m not going to quit my job to build a software company or get hired as a coder. But coding makes me more efficient, more empowered, at my job and in everyday life, often in weird and delightful ways. Odds are this will be true of you, too.

Don’t learn to code, learn to automate, writes the coder Erik Dietrich. This is bang on. Nearly every white-collar job on the planet involves tons of work that can be done more efficiently if you know a bit of coding. Maybe you can automate collecting info for reports; maybe you can automate dull, routine emails. (I’ve done that. Gmail makes it easy with built-in JavaScript.) Before Katrina Owen became a coder, she was working as a secretary in Paris and would build bits of software that automated parts of the office workflow: She made it so employees could upload their spreadsheets to a form, and it’d pick apart the spreadsheet and input the info into a database. It was insanely valuable—though, as she notes, “I had no idea what I was doing was coding.”

But it is. And, indeed, this sort of coding—tucked into the corner of your existing work—is insanely powerful. Rather than quit your job to become “a programmer,” learn some coding so you can become much more valuable at your existing career and maybe move up in pay. There are people who do that all the time, as Zach Sims, the founder of Codecademy, tells me.

“Coding,” he jokes, “is marketed poorly.”

#5) Prepare for constant, grinding frustration.

Coding is brutally, punishingly frustrating.

Why? Because the computer will do whatever you say—but only if you are perfectly, utterly precise in your instructions. One small mistake, one misplaced bracket, and odds are high the whole shebang stops working.

“Programming is a constant stream of failures thrown at you by a computer that does not care how you feel,” Shaw notes.

This is the fulcrum around which all coder experience, and all coder psychology, pivots. After interviewing scores of developers for Coders, I’ve come to an interesting conclusion: Being logical and systematic is not, at heart, what makes someone good at programming. Sure, you obviously need to be able to think logically, to break big tasks down into tiny steps. That’s a prerequisite. But if you asked me what’s the one psychological nuance that unifies all the coders I’ve interviewed?

They’re all able to handle total, crushing, incessant failure and roadblocks (at least, at the keyboard.) People think that programmers code all day long; you look at Hollywood movies, and the hackers’ fingers are flying, pouring out code onto the screen. Looks fun, right?

Nope. Most coding goes like this: You write a few lines of code, something intended to do something fairly simple, then you run a test on it, and… it doesn’t work. So you try to figure out what’s wrong, isolating sub-parts of the code and testing them, or Googling the error messages the computer spits up, in desperate hopes that someone else online has written about this particular problem. And quite often I’d discover, after long periods—minutes, certainly; often hours, sometimes days—that the problem was my own error, and an aggravatingly “how obvious” one: A tiny typo, a missing colon. Nothing has ever made me feel like an idiot so regularly, so routinely, than computer programming.

And this psychological storm doesn’t really let up, no matter how good you get or how long you code. I’ve spoken to top coders for places like Facebook or Google or Baidu, and they’ll tell you the same thing: They spend a lot of their time trying to figure out what’s wrong, why things aren’t working. They don’t make the stupid newbie mistakes I make, clearly, but since they now work on very complex systems, they run into very complex problems. Either way, they face grinding frustration, too.

Now, why would anyone endure such a grind? Because of the flip side. When you finally figure out the problem—when you fix the bug, and things start working—there’s a sudden, narcotic rush of pleasure that’s almost unlike anything you’ve ever experienced. It’s delightful, people. There are few things in life that give you that absolute sense of mastery and joy. My wife got used to hearing me give a sudden whoop when some busted piece of crappy code I’d been tinkering finally twitched its Frankensteinian eyes open and came to life.

It’s almost cheesy now to talk about the “growth mindset,” the idea that you should approach a new skill assuming it’s going to be hard, but it can be learned. But this is crucial with coding. The frustration will never let up; the better you get, the farther you’ll reach, and the more fiendish will become your bugs. But coding isn’t some mystical act. It’s just sheer persistence and work ethic. “It’s hard, but it’s not impossible,” as Owen says.

This is why, also, try not to get intimidated by other people’s code—or by programmers who breezily boast online, when you read a thread on Stack Overflow about how obvious some concept is. Ignore them. Everything in coding is hard the first time you do it. “Never compare yourself to others and don’t take online criticism personally,” says Lydia Hallie, a 21-year-old woman in Stockholm, who taught herself to code as a teenager. “The fact that you’re struggling when you’re teaching yourself how to code is completely normal and doesn’t say anything about how good of a programmer you’ll be later.”

#6) Build things. Build lots of things.

When you’re learning to code, you need to start trying to build things—real pieces of code you can use.

Certainly, the online tutorials and books are good for giving you the basics. But what really teaches you how code works is when you try to make a piece of software that does something. That’s when you finally grapple with what you do and don’t know. It’s the difference between learning French phrases from a book or in class, then going into a restaurant and ordering a meal.

Now, when I say “build things,” I don’t mean: Build the next Facebook or Snapchat—heh, no. It can be something tiny, something weird, something small—but it’s something you can use, or show to someone else. For example, early on while learning JavaScript and HTML, I started building little web apps that would do funny things like autogenerate surrealist Pokemon names (to amuse my kids); the night of the 2016 election, I was so stressed out I wrote a little script that just flashed a variety of zomg messages on the screen, so I could externalize my nervousness and have the computer freak out for me. These were all small and silly, but they had to at least function, and when you have to make something function, that’s when you learn.

One extreme example of this “build stuff” approach is Jen Dewalt. Back in 2013, she was a designer with a background in fine art but no real experience coding, when, at age 30, she decided to teach herself programming. To make it serious, she decided to make a website a day… for 180 days. At first they were incredibly simple pages, like a button you could click to change the background color. But within a few weeks, she’d learned enough to make little interactive games or a clock that displayed the time in words. And by the last few days, she was doing complex stuff, like a mood analyzer that would count how often hashtags like “#awkward” were being used on Twitter, in real time.

“I highly recommend starting with small, tangible projects,” she told me. If she wanted to make something, she’d use snippets of code she found at coder sites like Stack Overflow, not worrying if she didn’t understand them very well, so long as they worked. (Though she’d always type in the code, herself, to work it into her muscle memory. Zed Shaw suggests this, too. Don’t cut-and-paste code if you’re borrowing it from someone else. Type it in yourself; it forces you to ponder it a bit more deeply.)

Dewalt’s main advice? “Just Fucking Do It (#JFDI)!” The sooner you start trying to make things, the quicker you learn. You certainly may not have the ability to do what Dewalt did; she saved enough to not work for months, so she could learn coding all day long. (Not an option for me.) But the general idea—do little, tangible things—is key.

#7) “View Source”: Take other people’s code, pick it apart, and reuse it.

If you wanted to learn how a clock works, you’d disassemble it and try to reassemble it, right? That’s how the pioneering programmer Grace Hopper’s mind worked. As a curious kid, she took apart so many clocks, her parents bought her one just to disassemble and reassemble.

So it is with code. When you’re building stuff, you don’t need to start from scratch. You can grab things that already exist, rip them apart, and see how they work. It’s a superb way to learn. For example, very early on in my coding tutorials, I wanted to make a little web page to decode and encode secret messages for my kids, but I honestly hadn’t yet done enough HTML or JavaScript to figure this out. So I went to Codepen.io—a site where people post little web doodads and where you can inspect and reuse any of their code. I found a couple of text boxes that worked more or less the way I wanted and added in some secret-code decryption scripts. Presto: I had my project done. And by poking around in someone else’s project, I learned a bunch of useful new things about using JavaScript and HTML.

Later on, when I was looking to learn how to set up Node, a type of JavaScript used to run web servers, I started using Glitch. It’s like a server version of Codepen: There are tons of projects you can grab, remix and tinker with. I wanted to make a Twitterbot that auto-generates haikus, so I grabbed an existing Twitterbot on Glitch and started poking around in the code. By now, I understood enough JavaScript to be able to figure out what part of the Twitterbot I needed to rewrite, injecting my own function that takes 1,000 lines of haiku, randomly picks three, and squirts that out to Twitter as an insta-poem. It was a terrific way to get started. If I’d had to start from scratch, I’d never have done it.

“That’s how open source works,” as Chris Coyier, Codepen’s founder, tells me. You see something great, and you reuse it. “You’re in the clear, not just legally but morally.” Indeed, the vast majority of software you use all day long relies heavily on reused, open-source code—something someone grabbed and modified for their own purposes.

Also, starting with an existing app and making it do something new, something you uniquely want, can help prime your pump and make it less intimidating to begin a piece of code that stretches your boundaries. “It’s good when you’re not starting from a blank page because whenever I’m getting into learning a new language or a design pattern, when I started from a blank page I was overwhelmed and paralyzed,” as Jenn Schiffer, the director of community engineering for Glitch, tells me.

#8) Build things for you—code you need and want.

As I learned more coding, I realized I could make a lot of little pieces of software that were useful for me.

Here’s a funny one: I made my own Pomodoro timer. You may have heard of the “Pomodoro” technique, where you set a timer for 25 or 15 minutes and work in a focused way—not checking email or distracting yourself—until the dinger goes off, at which point you take a short break. It’s a great concept, and I used to use various Pomodoro timers online. But they all had one problem: They generally forced me to pick a quantum of time that was 15 or 25 minutes.

And, well, my procrastination problems were worse than that. I wanted a Pomodoro timer that would let me work for… five minutes. Or three. Or one minute. When I was truly avoiding work, hell, working for one damn minute would be a victory, people! But none of the Pomodoro software was designed for someone as horrifically work-avoidant as me.

So I thought, to hell with it, I’ll code my own. I used Python to make a simple “command line” timer that lets me pick precisely how many minutes I could work. (I can even pick increments: 10% of a minute! Six seconds!) And to make it funny and witty to use, I wrote a ton of cheery, you-go messages for when I finish each work session and coded it so the robotic voice of my computer speaks it aloud. (“Rock and roll,” the computer intones. “Boo ya.”) It is a weird, crazy piece of software, utterly specific to my needs. That’s precisely why no one else on the planet was going to make something like this! And why I made it for myself. It’s a customized app for an audience of one: Me. And wow, was it useful! I started using it on a daily basis; I still use it a few times a week, when I feel myself starting to slack off.

The more I coded, the more I found things I could build to make my work easier. I made web scrapers that would auto-grab material I needed off websites for journalistic research. I made Twitter scripts that would archive any links I posted to Twitter every day and email me a summary. When I got worried that I was too frequently using italics while writing my book (it is a bad habit, stylistically) I wrote a Python script to analyze the text, pull out every italicized word, and deliver me a long and humiliating list.

The point is, one of the best ways to motivate yourself to learn coding is to build little apps that actually do something you need done. It’s deeply motivating. If you’re coding in an abstract way, doing tutorials, it’s easy—when you get stuck—to think, ah, screw it, and stop. But if you’re actually building a tool you’re going to use? It pushes you to go further, to work past the frustration and the blockages.

By the way, this isn’t just about utilitarian tools. I also discovered I loved using P5.js (a “library” of JavaScript) to make little bits of interactive art, merely for the pleasure of making something pretty or playful. This is as good a motivation as any for learning to code, says Daniel Shiffman, a professor at New York University’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, who makes fantastic learn-to-code videos (including some for P5.js that I learned from). Shiffman tells me that one great way in to coding is to take something artistic you like—music, drawing, games, wordplay and text—and learn programming that works within your field.

“It’s useful to learn programming in the context of applying it to something that you’re already passionate about,” he says. If you make music, try learning Sonic Pi, which lets you program tunes. If you dig art, learn P5.js or Processing. If you like games, make one with Phaser, also based on JavaScript. Approaching coding as a fun, creative hobby demystifies it. “It’s like the way you take up knitting or join a band. You find your local community of people who are hanging out in a coffee shop learning to code, just to have fun, and an experience where you don’t know where it’s leading—as opposed to, hey, I need to memorize the top five sorting algorithms so I can pass my Google interview.”

#9) Learn how to learn.

While researching my book, I visited with the programmer who’d created a Y Combinator company that had just landed its first series of funding. “What’s the secret to being a good coder,” I asked him? He laughed.

“It’s having good Google-fu,” he said. Sure, he’s a programmer, so he writes code. But what many programmers do much of the day is sit around Googling things, reading up, trying to figure out how to do something—how to solve a problem, how to kill a bug that has stopped them in their tracks.

And frankly, given how much there is to know, a lot of programmers tell me they’re constantly Googling even pretty basic stuff—like different ways to sort or chunk a list. They might have done it hundreds of times before, but there are so many little fiddly aspects of the languages they use that it feels weirdly inefficient to use their brains for rote memorization because they can just Google whatever rote knowledge they need to quickly recall. “I’d call myself a JavaScript expert,” as Glitch’s Schiffer tells me, “and I would say I can’t remember any string-manipulation function because I can just look it up.”

(I was so deeply relieved when she said that! Me, when I’m writing JavaScript and need to find the length of a string—i.e., how many characters in “Clive Thompson”?—I look it up. Every. Single. Time.)

So when you learn to code, your core skill is going to be constantly learning and constantly relearning. That’s true in the short term and the long term. Over the years, new languages and frameworks always emerge, and old ones evolve. “Being a programmer basically means you’ll be an eternal student,” as Lydia Hallie told me.

#10) Reach out to other coders.

Learning to code can be pretty isolating—it’s hours of just wrestling with the computer. And while it’s good to try to figure things out, yourself, sometimes the fastest way to get unstuck is to ask someone else, How the heck does this work?

So nearly everyone I know who taught themselves to code built some sort of social network around coding. freeCodeCamp’s Larson urges it: “Hang out with other developers. Go to tech talks and hackathons, and hang out at startups and hackerspaces. This will help you make valuable connections and stay motivated during the long process of learning to code,” he told me. If you live in a really remote region or don’t have the mobility to find people face-to-face, try them online; freeCodeCamp and Glitch both have active forums, and sites like CodeNewbie have everything from a Slack forum to regular Twitter chats, where neophytes talk and connect.

Frankly, I wish I’d done more of this socializing. I too often spent time grinding away at a problem, myself, instead of asking for help. When I did talk to other coders about problems I was having, inevitably they’d suggest an approach that helped.

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Clive’s new book Coders: The Making of a New Tribe and the Remaking of the World will be available on March 26th. 

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The Tim Ferriss Show Transcripts: Safi Bahcall (#364)

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Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Safi Bahcall (@SafiBahcall), the author of Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas that Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries. Safi received his PhD in physics from Stanford and his undergrad degree from Harvard. After working as a consultant for McKinsey, Safi co-founded a biotechnology company specializing in developing new drugs for cancer. He led its IPO and served as its CEO for 13 years. In 2008, Safi was named Ernst and Young’s New England Biotechnology Entrepreneur of the Year. In 2011, he worked with President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology on the future of national research. Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!

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

#364: Safi Bahcall — On Thinking Big, Curing Cancer, and Transforming Industries
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Tim Ferriss: Safi, welcome to the show.

Safi Bahcall: Thanks Tim. Glad to be here.

Tim Ferriss: And I’m going to read your bio here. This is one of the several, I would say, interviews that I’ve done where it’s not going to be a challenge, as I said to one of my employees earlier, to find things to talk about. It’s going to be a matter of trying to ask you all the things I would like to ask you, but I’ll give people some context first. So by way of bio, Safi Bahcall, you can find him on Twitter @SafiBahcall. He received his PhD in physics from Stanford and his undergrad degree from Harvard. After working as a consultant for McKinsey, Safi co-founded a biotechnology company specializing and developing new drugs for cancer. He led its IPO and served as its CEO for 13 years. In 2008 Safi was named Ernst and Young’s New England Biotechnology Entrepreneur of the Year.

In 2011 he worked with President Obama’s Council of Science Advisors on the future of national research. Safi, you are most recently the author of Loonshots. That is the title, subtitle: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas that Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries, which has some of the best cover blurbs I’ve ever seen on any book. We might talk about that. Daniel Kahneman does not give a lot of blurbs for books. Loonshots describes what an idea from physics tells us about the behavior of groups and how teams, companies, and nations can use that to innovate faster and better. It has been selected for The Washington Post‘s 10 Leadership Books to Watch for in 2019, Inc.‘s 10 Business Books You Need to Read in 2019, and Business Insider‘s 14 Books Everyone Will Be Reading in 2019. That would be good for you if that ends up being the case.

And we go back a ways. So I’ve been really excited to catch up, because our lives have changed quite a lot since we last were spending a lot of time together. And I thought we could just start at the very beginning. So could you describe for people how we first met, and a little bit of the context?

Safi Bahcall: All right. Sure. So we were at — this is maybe 10 years or so ago. And we were at the Sundance in — where is Sundance?

Tim Ferriss: Sundance is in Utah.

Safi Bahcall: At Sundance in Utah. And there was a conference organized every year by Peter Thiel and Auren Hoffman. And Auren’s a good friend of mine for many years. And I was sitting at a lunch table, and I had just taken up as a hobby triathlon, long distance triathlon. And I had just learned for the first time real swimming, not just splashing around in a pool, but how can you — because splashing around in a pool, you can swim a couple laps, and you get tired. But that’s not going to help you if you want to swim 1.2 miles in the ocean. So I had found this course called Total Immersion, and I was just having such a blast, because it takes you from a two out of 10 to a five to a seven really, really quickly. So you can like knock out 1.2 miles, no problem.

So I was sitting at lunch, and somehow there was this guy, quiet but happy guy next to me. And he had also just taken up Total Immersion Swimming. And then we just totally connected on how amazing it was and how it can transform your swimming and how it’s a metaphor for life. And I started using that as a metaphor for learning, breaking down everything you know about life, about like a swim stroke and all the bad habits that you learn, and replacing them, and how interesting it is that just small little tweaks can take you so rapidly from a two out of 10 to a six out of 10 or a seven or an eight, and what kind of a joy that is, and how that can apply in so many areas of life.

And this other guy sitting next to me was like, “Yes, yes, absolutely. And I just did Total Immersion, too. And I feel exactly the same way.” And then since then we’ve been friends.

Tim Ferriss: And Total Immersion in a way is such a perfect introduction and metaphor for a lot of what you do in life and what impresses me about you. And, as you mentioned, a great example of learning something in an atypical way, right? Because it’s not just looking at the small things that have a disproportionate output or testing them, but also it is fundamentally about testing assumptions, right? And, for those people who don’t know, we won’t spend the entire interview on Total Immersion, but it’s a great lead in, because speaking as someone who’s born and raised on Long Island, surrounded by water, had a few near drowning experiences when I was very young, I did not learn how to swim, meaning I could not do to and fro in a decent size pool until my thirties. And had a really acute fear of water. And after about a week of Total Immersion by myself with a book, keep in mind, not even video at that point, was doing 20, 30 laps at a time and finding it relaxing, which is just bonkers to think about.

And I’d failed up to that point even though another friend, Chris Sacca had — actually no, it wasn’t Chris Sacca at that point. Before that, another friend, Chris Ashenden, had assigned me a new year’s resolution. We realized we’re more likely to actually fulfill our new year’s resolutions if we assign each other resolutions with rewards and punishments. And mine was to do a one kilometer open water swim, and his was to drink nothing stronger than green tea for a year, because he liked double espressos.

But I had failed up to that point in part, because every lesson started the same way, which was here’s a kickboard and go do 10 laps in the pool. And after a lap and a half, I’m like, “I can’t even feel my legs, I’m so tired.” And the lesson was as good as done. And then you take Total Immersion. And one of the first things Terry Laughlin encourages you to think about is minimizing the legs and minimizing drag. And it’s just a rethinking of the entire approach to swimming. So you, more than almost anyone I’ve met —

Safi Bahcall: I feel like 10 years ago, we’re having the same conversation again from 10 years ago. And the really cool thing about it, the way it applies to so many areas of life that I found is, it starts by a counterintuitive take on something that everybody does or believes is true, and that is, well, if you’re swimming forward, you want to see where you’re going so you raise your head. And so that’s exactly what’s wrong with swimming, with most casual swimming, because then you’re kicking your feet to maintain horizontal balance. And by kicking your feet, you’re using — 80 or 90 percent of your energy is just going to correct bad position. That’s why you’re tired.

And so in so many areas of life, when you learn this kind of bad habit, that’s this very natural that every human does; once you become self aware of that, it’s really not hard to just put your head down. Yeah, and don’t kick. That’s it. That’s basically the magic. Put your head down and don’t kick. And that’s it. And then so many different areas of life, it turns out there are these bad habits, these things that you think you should be doing or you’re programmed to do or everybody tells you to do, and they create drag in going through life.

And then some day somebody, maybe it’s Tim Ferriss, says, “You know, here’s this really counterintuitive, weird trick, don’t do that. Do this.” And all of a sudden the drag goes away and you can swim a mile.

And I actually think it reminds me, you mentioned, we were talking a little bit about Danny Kahneman and how he transformed economics. It’s very similar, right? Because what he said for economists for 200 years had said, “Oh, there’s one way to think about incentives and how they influence behavior. Everybody calculates net present expected value of my financial return doing X and doing y, and if X is greater than y, I do x.

Tim Ferriss: The rational actors.

Safi Bahcall: Right. And Kahneman just said, “You know, I’m a psychologist and that’s like bullshit. That’s just not what happens. It’s not what people do. People operate on these little rules of thumb, and sometimes X may rationally be greater than y, but they do Y anyway, for these reasons.” And it was, it’s not rocket — it was a very simple adjustment. Like hold your head flat and don’t kick.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah.

Safi Bahcall: It was basically saying, “Hey, humans are humans. They’re not calculators.” That’s it.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah.

Safi Bahcall: And that transformed economics. So there you should just start the same Total Immersion Swimming trick, which changes swimming, is what Kahneman did for economics. He changed economics with this one idea. Hey, actually humans are humans. They operate on some heuristics, not NPV calculations.

And he comes from like, “That’s not possible. They operate on NPV.”

“I don’t think so. I kind of know humans, and they don’t do that.” Which in retrospect sounds sort of obvious, but it was a big, big change.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah. And you know more — well, you’ve forgotten more probably in the last week than I’ll ever know about physics, but as a layman who’s interested in science, but by no means a real scientist, it makes me think of Richard Feynman. And I’m going to butcher this, I’m sure, but something along the lines of, “It doesn’t matter how pretty your theory is. If it doesn’t fit with the experiment, it’s wrong.”

Safi Bahcall: That’s right.

Tim Ferriss: And there’s a lot of disregarding perhaps the obvious in favor of these legacy theories that just do not fit the reality of that is that is right in front of you. Funny, well maybe not funny, but little known fact, I was actually a subject in some of Kahneman’s studies when I was an undergrad for my $4 an hour or whatever, hitting a space bar with various psychological studies in Green Hall.

Safi Bahcall: That’s right. He was at Princeton and you were at Princeton. And actually that’s the connection. I think he was a neighbor of my mom and dad who — because I grew up in Princeton.

Tim Ferriss: Oh, that’s right. I didn’t — well, we’ll talk about growing up in towns like Princeton another time. I didn’t grow up in Princeton, but I grew up in the end of Long Island, which has some similar dynamics. Let’s zoom out a bit, and we’re going to do this quite a bit in this conversation I think, because I want to talk about Safi, the individual, and your personal practices and you’re thinking, because I think there’s a lot — I don’t think, there is a lot to explore there. You are one of the most systematic people I know.

But I also want to give people the context on your career and some of what you’ve done and your past, because I think it’s helpful. And we were just talking about Terry Laughlin, who passed away not all too long ago. And he was hospitalized shortly after — just before and then shortly after my interview with him, which was the last long form interview he ever did. And he had cancer and then a stroke that was a complication and a number of things following, and then he passed away, which was very sad. What is your history with cancer, in the sense that, why did you get involved with anything related to cancer?

Safi Bahcall: I started in academic science and theoretical physics. And after a few years, and this may be a personality flaw, but I — and it’s taken me many years to appreciate this, but I really get excited. All right, I’ll explain this in physics geek language, and then I’ll try to tran — there’s a saying — the way I think about it is I couple to the derivative, and I’ll break that down.

So the derivative is a slope. So, zero derivative means no slope, and big derivative means a very high slope. And in physics, when you say you couple to something, an electronics traveling along the line and have some coupling constant to the photon, and that’s how it interacts with light. And that’s always the case. And so when I say “I couple to derivative,” it means that I derive energy from the slope, from the slope of learning.

so when I started in theoretical physics, I was learning an enormous amount. And then after I was in one area of theoretical physics called particle physics — it’s a science of the very small  — what happens inside a proton or neutron or quarks. And after a few years I felt like I had gotten very deep in that tunnel and I wasn’t learning as much. And I mean there were, you know, not going to exaggerate. There’s was a ton still out there to learn, but it wasn’t like drinking from a fire hose, like starting off feeling like an imposter, or starting off being barely able to swim one lap and then going to swimming a kilometer, no problem. And particle physics has gotten a little stuck in the last 20 or 30 years in some sense, which we can talk about some other time.

So I switched to a totally different area after about five years. And then I got into the business world. I realize I’m far from your cancer question.

Tim Ferriss: That’s okay.

Safi Bahcall: But I switched out of academic science, because after about five years in each of these areas I felt like I learned and I wanted to learn something new. So I went into the business world, went into McKinsey. Didn’t know anything about — I didn’t even own a suit. Actually I remember — all right, can I take a digression for weird little story?

Tim Ferriss: I love digressions for weird stories, so yes. I’ll remember — if need be, and I don’t think  —

Safi Bahcall: I’m getting kind of far from your cancer question now, but it’s sort of a funny story. So it’s how I got ended up in cancer when I started off in this weird physics place. So I had only, I basically hadn’t set foot off a university until I was 30, because my parents are academic scientists. We just went to Princeton. And so I spent a lot of time around there. And then a college, grad school, post doc. And then I was getting a little like, “Is this what I want to do for the rest of my life, just write papers and grants and referee and the same conferences?” So I started exploring. and I had some friend that had been to this company called McKinsey, which I’d never heard of. And they said it was sort of interesting problem solving. It’s like, “All right, I’ll do that.” I sent an application, interview comes, and my friend told me, “You need to wear a suit.” And I’m like, “Wow, I haven’t had a suit since my bar mitzvah, 18 years ago or whatever.”

So, I asked like, “Where do you buy a suit?” And so I got the name of a place and I went in. And it was just this incredible place with these super expensive clothes. And it was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen. It was called the Men’s Wearhouse. And so I bought a suit, and I felt like a million. I paid like $120 or something. And I was like, “This is like 10 X more than I’ve ever paid for any clothing item.” And I felt like a million bucks.

And I fly to New York for this interview with this firm. And I remember coming into the city and getting off and walking up Park Avenue. And I’m wearing like this old beat up ski jacket, because it would go skiing. And I didn’t realize that people also have some fancy jacket. Everybody around me is wearing this blue — now I know.

Tim Ferriss: Like the overcoat.

Safi Bahcall: Exactly. So I got this like I feel like a million bucks, because I had this $120 Men’s Wearhouse suit. And I probably spent $18 on the Men’s Wearhouse tie, and I’m feeling really extravagant. And then I’m walking down the street and I had this beat up old ski jacket with still the ski tags hanging off of it.

Tim Ferriss: On top of your Men’s Wearhouse suit.

Safi Bahcall: My Men’s Wearhouse suit. And I’m like, “Why am I the only one wearing this on this whole street?” And I’m like, “Huh, that’s weird.” And so then I get to my interview, and I hide the jacket in the coat closet before I get in there. But anyway, did that. And that was drinking from a fire hose because I’d like never set foot off university, and all of a sudden I’m wearing a suit. And I hadn’t worn a suit in, well since my bar mitzvah.

And then they throw you — I mean they educate, they take time to educate you a little bit online, and that was super fun. All these professors fly in to just educate you. And I’m like, “This is the best thing ever. They’re paying me.” And all these professors had been flying into this four-week course on this resort with 30 people from all over the world who are really interesting people my age. And people are flying in just to teach us all day long. I’m like, “This is awesome.” And I’m learning all this new stuff. And I was drinking from a fire hose, and it was going from — well in this case was a zero out of town. I had never even balanced the checkbook. If I had $6 to buy a burrito in San Francisco, I was happy. That’s awesome.

But after a couple of years you’re like, “Oh, okay,” now I got like what people do for a living and how it works and the business stuff. And then I was like, “How do I combine —” I don’t think I just want to be a guy who sort of whispers to people, “Here’s what you might want to do if you want to build your business.” I wanted to do something. But I wanted to do something back in the science world. And also something that was more about either let’s make more money, which is what big companies are trying to do and what you’re as a consultant, you’re trying to help them.

And in academia it’s about the search for truth. So I wanted to do something different that would feel like, I may be a little corny or cliche, but you’re helping people who are suffering. And there’s something, you could be very selfish about it, there’s something just very satisfying. Even if you just think at the local level, like there’s a kid in a hospital bed, and the family is going to lose that kid. And if something you can do can help save that kid and so that family and that kid have decades of life together, even if that’s just one kid, that feels so much more satisfying than having X or Y or Z in the bank or even publishing another original research paper so that’s on your res — If you can see a family experiencing life together for decades and they might not have, that’s incredibly satisfying.

And so I stumbled into cancer, to get back to your question, because that was a really hot researcher. This was 18, 19 years ago. That was a really exciting area, and there was really very little progress made in that area. And I had spent about six months or a year talking to scientists at different universities who might have some promising ideas and didn’t want to work with venture capitalists, and thought that physics was this exotic, weird bird. And so I was — they were just like, “Who is this guy who’s coming to talk to us about biology and chemistry and medicine and oncology? Who needs a physicist?” So there was a mutual interest there.

And eventually started a company and just got more and more into it and interested in seeing these individual lives and how little progress had been made and how many good ideas were floating around. And if I could make a difference, bridging some of those ideas into the real world, into the commercial world, into the business world, into the industry where they could become drugs that could save lives. Even if you just save one kid, help one family, that would feel incredibly satisfying, more satisfying than writing a paper or making money. So that’s kind of how I got into cancer and oncology.

Tim Ferriss: Thank you for that. I had never heard the Men’s Wearhouse story either. This is I think something I wanted to establish early on, because it gives an indication of where you were pointed, right? And then when we get into the habit and the routines and the frameworks and so on, that you use personally or within organizations, it shows some of the how, but I wanted to at least get some of the why first.

Let’s take a bit of a 90 degree turn. And this is going to seem strange, but I thought this would be a good illustration of not just Safi the scientific innovator, but you the person, because they go together. So I’m going to going to read what I think is a quote. This is in doing research for having this conversation, which is always a little strange when I’m doing research on my close friends. It feels like I’m doing something illicit. In any case, I’m going to read something, and then he can give us context for what this is and why you have this habit or had it. “I would get so excited when I stumbled across a perfect passage and its beautiful music: I would record it in Evernote, whip out my phone at dinner, and read that passage to whoever my poor dinner companion happened to be, pounding the table to the rhythm, pointing out the beauty and the choices — see how he did X here and not Y — that’s why it works! Silence. No one cared. But I enjoyed it.” So what is this about?

Safi Bahcall: Oh man. I don’t know how you found this stuff. But so I had to do with another — so I was with this company that I started for 13 or so years and then through a weird series of coincidences and stumbles and different things, ended up in writing. And so first I wrote a long form essay, and then it was 15,000 words. I edited a lot and people seem to like it. And then some much more experienced author friends and journalist friends with like “Nobody publishes 15,000 word essays anymore. That’s a book. Also you have a lot of ideas in here and that needs to be fleshed out. It’s too—”

So that turned into a book. And as I started with writing, I broke it down a little like swimming. What are the — you think you know. People tell you a bunch of stuff. And the more you get into it, the more you realize a lot of stuff that people tell you is really not very helpful or often wrong.

Tim Ferriss: And could you give any examples?

Safi Bahcall: Oh, just like “Don’t use passive voice.” There are actually some great reasons you do want to use passive voice. But I get this picture of like this old schoolmarm hitting you with a ruler. “Don’t use passive voice! Never use passive voice! Always use active voice!” And then you read some of these phenomenally beautiful passages, and you look in them, and they’re using passive voice left and right. And you’re like “Really? Because some of these guys have won the Nobel Prize for example, or Pulitzer Prize, and they’re using — so why?” And —

Tim Ferriss: Just for people who are — could you give an example of active and passive voice for people who may not be familiar with the terms?

Safi Bahcall: Active voice is: “Johnny flew the helicopter to go videotape the fire.” And then — so funny, I don’t do these things. “A helicopter was brought in to go view the fire from high above and film it for video.” And so “A helicopter was brought in” is kind of passive. “Johnny flew the helicopter.” Now in this case for example, why would you want to use the passive voice? Well, if you’re telling a story, you’re telling the story of the fire; do you really need to know that Johnny flew that helicopter to put out that fire? I think this is an example on something, it seems like that specific helicopter. It’s actually kind of distracting, because Johnny is kind of irrelevant to the story. So what you’re doing is you’re inserting something in the reader’s mind that’s an irrelevant distraction that you’ll never come back to. That just is a glitch in the storytelling.

So that’s one example of why you want to use pass — there are many examples of why you want to use — but anyways, as part of — I found that I — people that said, “Oh, you’re a pretty good writer.” I think that’s meaning for like a physicist. So that’s a really low bar, or even a CEO of a public company, that’s a really low bar. “You’re pretty good for a public company executive.” I’m like, “Thanks. I’m the 1.5 rather than one.”

But I just started to find it fun to try to break down writing like you break down swimming or break down other things. And then how do you train to get better? And so I read a lot. And eventually I came up with a training. And I would write. I dropped my daughter off at school in the morning and come back, lock myself from this little eight by eight cave, shut down everything and just do one of the three modes of writing, whether you’re reading, you’re writing, or editing. And 5:00, 6:00, pick my daughter up from school, from daycare, bring her back, dinner. And then my wife would check out at 7:30, 8:00. She gets up really early, and she was just done.

So from 8:00 on every day for almost two years, I would bring out one of actually just a couple of books. And often I would just go — we were living on Mass Ave. in Cambridge, and so there are a lot of great bars and little restaurants. And I would go to the bar counter, get a burger or a pizza or something and a beer. And I would spend the next two hours, usually just on two paragraphs.

Tim Ferriss: Were these the same books or different books each time? Or were they consistently the same?

Safi Bahcall: Almost always the same. Actually I would focus on probably two books, and I would just dissect a paragraph or two from those two books for almost a year. And that was one of the other things, like with swimming, everybody says “Keep your head up” or “It’s natural to keep your head up.” There’s this natural inclination to try to read a ton, read widely, read all these authors and you get all these lists of, “Here’s my favorite 20 authors.” Like, “Oh, I should read those 20.” There’s somebody else’s favorite 20. “Oh, I should read those 20.”

And so I kind of threw all that out and said, “I’m going to actually focus.” I don’t know much about literature. I never — I did sports and I did like math and science, and that’s it. I really didn’t read. So I didn’t — so I have like a big gap. But I picked two books that really resonated for me.

Tim Ferriss: What did you pick?

Safi Bahcall: Nabokov short stories and I’ll explain why. And Donald Hall, Essays After 80. And this is for just to develop an ear for writing. And I just read a paragraph or two or three from those books each night and then I would break it down. “Why did this guy use —” I wasn’t reading for content. I was just reading for ear.

So Nabokov, I had read a little bit of this and a little bit of that and reading here. And then I picked some friend, I think had sent me — pointed me to Nabokov short stories. And by the way, I should say, I don’t think I’ve read anything of his, just that one. And when I opened it up to at random, the book of short stories, and I started reading his sentences, my jaw dropped. I didn’t know the English language could do that. How is this guy doing that? It’s probably sort of like your sports thing, with athletes. How the freaking hell is this guy doing it? And it just so different at such a higher level than anyone. So that’s why I would take two paragraphs at a time or three paragraphs and I’d say, “Why did he put this word here in this sentence and not there, because the natural thing would be, let’s say, to make it active voice, or the natural thing would be to — why did he use this transition from this sentence, the end of this one to the beginning of the —

Why did he use this transition from this sentence, the end of this one to the beginning or the end of this paragraph? Suppose I do it differently. It just sounds worse. Why? Why does it sound worse when I move this word? He could’ve picked any word. There are like six words you could imagine that mean this thing. Why did he pick this one? Let me try a different one, and then, oh, it just sounds worse.”

I would just do that repeatedly. Nabokov, because his sentences and rhythm and musicality of his writing, which is jaw dropping, and every one, every one is a 10 out of 10. It’s not like, “Oh, there’s a great sentence or a great passage.”

Tim Ferriss: Not a one-hit wonder.

Safi Bahcall: Yeah. It’s just like, “How the freaking hell does this guy do this?” Again, I have to say I’m not a literature guy or an English guy, and there’s 99 percent of famous authors I’ve not read. I just couldn’t believe this. I was, “How does this guy do this?”

After doing this sort of over and over, and there were a few other beautiful passages and I would capture them in my Evernote and then I would highlight the word, like, “Why this word?” in yellow, and then sometimes I would bold.

He uses a lot of alliteration, so I would highlight the first letters just to see his alliterations, and then I would highlight the transitions and then I would break down the transitions between paragraphs into, “Well, there’s seven different types of transitions. Here’s an example of one. Oh, this is the pivot transition.” So I started to get a sense of that.

I started having this weird experience after doing this for a year or so, which was I would read passages and I would hear music. I would hear them in my head, but as music. So for example in the book, if I would hear — this is a little weird to say all this stuff ’cause it’s private internal mind — talk about it out loud.

Tim Ferriss: This is the podcast for that.

Safi Bahcall: Oh, yeah. Nobody listens to it, right?

Tim Ferriss: No. It’s just you, me, and a handful of our best friends.

Safi Bahcall: It’s just you and me, right? So it’s all private stuff. I would just hear this thing like music and it was in perfect harmony, and then I’d pick up the newspaper or I’d pick up some other stuff or some random book and I couldn’t read more than two sentences ’cause it just sounded like clashing. Well, the transitioning and the use of passive and this word could’ve been that word. I’m like, “I can’t even read more than three sentences ’cause it’s grating.”

I go back to this other thing where there was perfect harmony, which is musical. At some point, I wouldn’t even know why, but one thing would just grate. It’s like somebody rubbing fingers on a chalkboard. The other one is just like, “Ahhh.”

Tim Ferriss: So can we talk about decisions a bit more?

Safi Bahcall: Sure.

Tim Ferriss: Okay. Because you are examining, in that case, decisions of a writer. You’re doing a forensic analysis of why certain things happen, why certain choices were made. This may be a natural place, maybe not. You can tell me. To talk a little bit about a totally different field, although a similar-sounding last name, Garry Kasparov.

Safi Bahcall: Oh, okay.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Could you describe to me why you find Kasparov interesting, and who he is for people that don’t know?

Safi Bahcall: Okay. Another book that I really enjoyed was his book Life Imitates Chess. I love that book. I love it for a lot of reasons. I have a real admiration for excellent chess players ’cause it’s something that takes incredible focus, incredible commitment, and people who do it really well do something I could never do. It’s so impressive. So I’ve always found it fascinating to learn about great chess players. I listened to some podcasts you did with a guy named Josh.

Tim Ferriss: Waitzkin.

Safi Bahcall: Waitzkin, which was fascinating. I actually loved his book, too. And then because of that, I went and got — I didn’t know who he was before — got his book, which was awesome, about —

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, The Art of Learning.

Safi Bahcall: Love of Learning, something.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, The Art of Learning.

Safi Bahcall: The Art of Learning, right.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah. You guys would love each other. At some point you should meet.

Safi Bahcall: Yeah, ’cause he did chess and then did martial arts and I did martial arts for a long time and then physics. So Kasparov, as you may know, is the longest-reigning chess champion in history. He wrote this book about how life imitates chess where he breaks down what he did. It’s so fascinating, but one particular lesson really resonated for me as a mindset shift for how to think about making decisions or analyzing decisions, both in business life and in personal life.

Kasparov said one of, if not the key to, his success in chess was after a game, whether he won or lost, rather than analyze the game by saying, “Oh, I moved pawn to bishop. Pawn takes bishop here and that was a bad move and that lost the game, so next time I shouldn’t do pawn takes bishop.” Rather than analyze the move and the outcome, which is what most chess players do, and you can call that an outcome mindset, he analyzed, “How did I arrive at the decision to make that move? Not just so much the move itself, but what was my decision-making process? Which series of moves did I go through? How long did I go through them? What did I consider? In what order? How did I prepare for the match and how did that affect me?”

All these meta level, not the outcome itself, but one step above which is, “What was my process that I used to arrive at that decision? Given that it was a bad decision, where did that process break down in my decision, and therefore how should I tweak my decision-making process?”

He said that one lesson, “Keep asking ‘Why did you make that decision?’” You can call that a system mindset. Let’s analyze the system rather than the outcome. That’s one higher level, and that has enormous power and leverage, because if you can identify a weakness in your process and adjust that process, now not only next time won’t you do pawn takes bishop, you might do pawn does something else, but you’ve now improved your process, which can help you in 500 other situations. Rather than help you in one situation, that can help you in 500. So I took that and I call that system versus outcome mindset, and that can help you enormously in personal life or in business life. So that’s the Kasparov story.

Tim Ferriss: This has extremely, as you’re saying, wide-ranging implications and applications, right? This outcome versus process distinction is also something that comes up if you talk to any really, really high level poker player, right, because you can have a great outcome that is just dumb luck, right?

Safi Bahcall: Exactly.

Tim Ferriss: You had a terrible decision-making process where you threw caution to the wind and really just flipped a coin and hoped that you would get heads, and you did, and so you’re like, “Oh, wow. Let me reward that decision-making process,” which might have not been a process at all, or you can make the right decision. You can have a good process and the deck is just stacked against you.

Safi Bahcall: Exactly.

Tim Ferriss: It doesn’t mean that you should stop making decisions that way.

Safi Bahcall: Exactly.

Tim Ferriss: So you really have to zoom out. This makes me also think of many, many other things, right? On some level, all of life is investing, right? You find that time, find that energy, find that capital, and even if the markets can remain irrational longer than you can remain solvent, which is part of the reason why really good poker players who are thinking systematically also understand the importance of having a bankroll, right, because if they have a string of bad luck, even with really, really good strategy and decision-making, they need to be able to weather a series of bad hands, for instance.

This is such a critical distinction. I don’t want to belabor it, but I think it’s something that I’d love to hear a little more about, if you could personalize it. So, how do you implement this yourself or have you in terms of doing post-game analysis on decisions?

Safi Bahcall: Right. At the business level, the poker analogy is perfect, because people don’t realize how much is luck in real life, whether it’s an invention or an innovation or launching a new product.

On a business level, and I’ll tell you kind of a totally different angle, personal level, but at the business level, there are some pretty good teams or companies that will try to do a postmortem after some product launches and they’ll analyze, but they’re still at that level one of outcome mindset of, “We did pawn takes bishop and it didn’t work, so let’s not do pawn,” so they say, “We launched the product and it didn’t have this feature and customers like this feature and that’s why it didn’t go as well, so let’s make sure we have this feature.” So you’re still on level one.

The really, really great teams and companies, and there are not that many of them, say, “How did we arrive at that decision to launch that product at that time? How did we make that decision? Who was involved in the decision? What information did they have? Are we making the decisions in the right way? Are we presenting the people who are making the decisions with the right information at the right time, analyzed in the right way?”

You see the difference. In one case, you just learn, “Let’s not put feature X on product Y.” In the other case, you learn something that can apply to 500 different products. “Let’s think about how we tweak our decision-making process in the future.” So that’s system versus outcome mindset on the business side.

Tim Ferriss: If I can pause for one second. So on the business side, and this might apply elsewhere, are there other questions you could ask when trying to decipher what your decision-making process was? Why did we think it was a good idea? What were we missing? What information didn’t we have until too late? I don’t know what the right selection of questions would be.

Safi Bahcall: Oh, yeah. There’s so many. What are people’s individual incentives? The people who are involved in the decision. So few people ask that question. Are they really incentivized by the project launch or do they have some other thing, like are they really focused on promotion? So how does being focused on promotion, how did that affect the decision? If we altered their incentives, might they have arrived at a different decision?

So people rarely ask, “Let’s just think about the X number of people who are involved in the decision. Let’s walk through one by one what are their incentives. Let’s just have even a 20-minute conversation. Do we really think the incentives are the right incentives that are aligning people with the outcome or not?” How are people communicating?

How are people exchanging ideas? Are they meeting the day of? Whose set of analyses are they looking at? Somebody who really knows what they’re doing or not, and did they get presented the right data at the right time to make the most informed —

Now, the real key is, as you said with luck and cards, you want to do this for not just for failures. That’s wrong. You want to do it as much if not more for successes. You might have just gotten lucky. Those are the most dangerous traps.

Let’s say you kick a soccer ball into the goal and you were five feet in front of the goal and you kicked right at the goalkeeper. It just happens that the goalkeeper slipped in the mud or whatever. It was raining. But you kicked right at the goalkeeper and you got a goal. Does that mean you should keep kicking right at the goalkeeper? That’s the right strategy? No, you just got lucky. Yeah, you won the game and maybe the World Championship, but you got lucky. Do you want to do that again next time? No.

You bet on some dumb internet stock and it quadrupled or something and you had no idea what you were doing. You were drunk when you made the investment, but you made quadruple your money, so does that tell you you want to be drunk before every investment and not look at any due diligence? No, you got lucky.

So it’s more important to actually look at the successes and think about, “How do I make that decision?” than it is the failures, ’cause everybody thinks hard about a failure. People rarely think about, “Did I get lucky?” They like to say, “Oh, it was my genius blah blah blah.”

So it’s more important as a team to say, “All right, this worked. Where did we get lucky? Where do we actually have flaws in our process that we need to adjust next time? We were uninformed and we simply got lucky. Our competitor stumbled. We just got lucky.”

The reason that’s more important is ’cause it cements bad habits. “This is what we did last time. We got drunk before we made an investment and it was a great investment. Let’s get drunk again and make another investment.” It cements bad habits ’cause you confuse good outcome with good decision-making process. That’s on the —

Tim Ferriss: On the business side.

Safi Bahcall: Business side. So it can have a pretty big effect on the personal side as well. One example is, I’ll give one example for married people and one example for single people. So, single one, I actually did use. It’s a little personal, but whatever. Again, it’s just you and me, right?

Tim Ferriss: It’s just us.

Safi Bahcall: Okay, good. Let’s say you get into an argument with your significant other and you find yourself getting into an argument. You say something about, I don’t know, whatever, the dishes, or you say something about the driving, and it leads into an argument.

The outcome mindset is like, “Well, I said something about the dishes. Don’t say something about the dishes in the future.” So guess what’s going to happen? You’re going to have the same kind of argument about 57 other subjects ’cause you’re not getting at the root. What were you thinking when you said that thing about the dishes? Why were you thinking it? What state of mind were you in? Maybe you’re frustrated about something at work, as an example, and you’re mentioning some nagging comment.

Tim Ferriss: Right. Was the problem really about the problem?

Safi Bahcall: Right. You say, “Now I have a flaw in my system where I’m frustrated at work and it comes out as a comment about something that just is a bad idea.” So maybe rather than just say, “Don’t ask about the dishes next time,” say, “If I’m frustrated at work, what else can I do other than make comments about the dishes? Can I set up a punching bag and just start hitting the punching bag and take a shower and then I’m in a better mood and I don’t give a shit about dishes,” or whatever.

So you find, what were you thinking at the time when you made that comment? Is there a tweak to your decision-making process so that you don’t make not just that comment, not pawn takes bishop, but many other similar things? So that’s married life, for example, personal example.

Single life. Actually, when you and I knew each other, both were single. You’re still — we haven’t caught up in a couple years.

Tim Ferriss: We haven’t. I actually have a wonderful girlfriend I’ve been with for a while now and things are going extremely well, so we can talk more about that.

Safi Bahcall: We’ll talk more about that later. So I was living in Manhattan as a single guy. The company that I was running was in Boston, so I was just commuting back and forth and I didn’t have almost any social life because so much time in the plane and then dealing with running a business. So I would set up these gatherings, some of which you came to, I remember —

Tim Ferriss: Yes. They were good.

Safi Bahcall: — in my apartment. I called them SWAE, scientists, writers, artists, and entrepreneurs, and then eventually added, mostly ’cause I was trying to exclude them and eventually I just became explicit, no BLC. No bankers, lawyers, or consultants.

Tim Ferriss: Which one should note, you used to be, at McKinsey, which is great. No bankers, lawyers, or consultants.

Safi Bahcall: Right. Self-hating consultant. So it was SWAE and no BLC. Also, ’cause I just don’t remember stuff unless I have a silly acronym or something. So I called it SWAE no BLC. As soon as I said, especially when I added the no BLC, interest skyrocketed, especially from the BLC crowd. My banker, lawyer, and consultant friends were like, “Can I come?” I’m like, “Wait. What part of no BLC? I just said no BLC.” “Yeah, yeah, but can I come? Can you make an exception?” I’m like, “That’s weird.”

And then single women in Manhattan, really interesting, intelligent, attractive women friends would be like, “I am so there. I so want to come.” I was sort of out of it, but I realized there was such frustration among really intelligent women, professional women. They were so tired of the same old, ’cause New York is full of these really ambitious bankers who are just focused on banking, and they were so curious to meet scientists. So for me, I see scientists all day long, and writers I was sort of curious about and entrepreneurs.

Anyway, it ended up becoming this really fun thing. I went out on a series of dates, but for probably 10 years, I never really had — we’re coming to the system outcome in dating.

Tim Ferriss: I’m not in any rush.

Safi Bahcall: Okay.

Tim Ferriss: No, no. I’m loving this. So take your time.

Safi Bahcall: So, you, Tim, I remember coming to these sort of SWAE no BLC events. Auren Hoffman, my friend, used to come to these things. They were awesome. I ended up having some decent dating life because I would do these things mostly just ’cause I was not around very often. I would just pick a day and then everybody would be there.

Five years, 10 years, I was a single guy in Manhattan. A friend liked to describe it as, you know how you have junk eating where you just move from — It was sort of like junk dating. There’s a high on the first date, and then that high is still sort of there on the second date, and then it fades on the third date, and so then you go to the next one ’cause there’s a high.

Manhattan is full of this junk dating, like you have the junk eating thing. You go from one to another. It’s really a bad, bad place for dating I think because there’s so many carbs around. Everyone’s looking for the next shiny penny and you don’t actually take the time to really relish and savor and get past a couple little speed bumps to find what’s really valuable underneath.

Anyway, I’d been dating five years, six years, seven years, and then at that point my father had gotten ill and then passed away from cancer from a rare type of leukemia. That I think gave me a mind shift, like, “What am I doing here?”

I had been doing this mindless, kind of like the Garry Kasparov, pawn takes bishop, “Well, that didn’t work out with that dating thing, so let me not date some woman who looks like this or is in profession Y or has this characteristic.” Okay, so that’s one pawn takes bishop. Don’t do this move. Don’t do that move. But I’d never stepped back and said just systematically, “What’s wrong here? Why have I not dated anyone for more than two months or three months in a bunch of years?”

I took a weekend and I just said, “All right, let me try to be really honest with myself. I do want something more serious. I want a life partner. Let me just think through the last 10 or 20 women that I’ve gone on some kind of date with. Why did it not develop? Is there any pattern here? What was I thinking?” Again, what was your decision-making process that you want to —

Then, when I was pretty honest about it and stepped back and looked at it from the view above, there was a pattern that came out. I was like, “This is stupid. I’m doing this same pattern over and over and I need to be thinking in a completely different way and I need to be making my decisions about who I date and why I date them in a totally different way.”

Tim Ferriss: I know we’re getting into a therapy session here or a lot of personal details, but are you open to sharing what the pattern was?

Safi Bahcall: This is just between you and me, right?

Tim Ferriss: It’s just between you and me.

Safi Bahcall: Okay. Got it. I think one of the lessons there is that no matter how self-aware you think you are, you’re really influenced by your surroundings, at least I was, really influenced by who I was surrounded with more than I appreciated. I thought, “Oh, I’m my own person. It doesn’t matter.”

But at the time, I had a number of friends who were in the film and fashion world, so I didn’t have a lot of time to arrange social life stuff ’cause I was flying all over, and so I would go to social events with them and they were really interested in other film and fashion, so a lot of my dates were film and fashion. Occasionally I would meet some other variants, and they were really especially interested in some of the more superficial qualities, and fast dating based on superficial stuff and how people look or how people talk.

As much as I thought I was a good guy, I fell into that trap of dating based on much more superficial. Because I was able to make conversation reasonably well and have a good time, I could have a fun first or second, and then kind of fool myself into thinking, “Oh, I really connect with this person, because look at these really interesting conversations.”

You mentioned Richard Feynman. One of the great Feynman quotes is, “The most important thing is not to fool yourself and you need to remember that you are the easiest person to fool.” I was fooling myself. I was saying, “Oh, I’m really into that person ’cause they’re a great people person and we have all these great people insights.” Meanwhile, the person wants to go to clubs at midnight or one a.m. and that’s the last thing I have any interest in doing.

So then I said, “I’m really being influenced. I need to just step out of this. I need to actually break up with some of my guy friends,” which is a weird thing to think, but you get kind of reliant, and then you just sort of follow. “I need to break up because this is influencing me and I need to make different decisions about who I want to go out on dates with because that stuff is not really me. It’s not who I am at my core and I’m making the first few conversations fun but then I’m getting bored.”

I had an old friend who told me there were two criteria for finding the right life partner. He was a New York guy and he was an older guy and he was a mentor for me. Very successful, very good-looking, very classic Midwest gentleman and been very successful in dating.

He learned a lot ’cause he was on his third wife. This is a footnote, but very happily married. I think he learned more from failure obviously than success. He learned a lot. He said just two criteria. One, mental health, and especially Manhattan, that’s a pretty high bar, and two, find somebody you like having dinner with, ’cause you’re going to be having a lot of dinners together. If that’s not appealing to you, it’s going to be a tough marriage. The physical stuff takes care of itself ’cause you won’t be there, but that was just a —

Tim Ferriss: Physical stuff meaning it’s either there or it isn’t.

Safi Bahcall: Yeah, and you know that within the first few, and you’re just not going to go there. It’s so overrated. It’s so overemphasized anyway. That’s not something you need to think about. What’s underemphasized is —

Tim Ferriss: Stuff you’re more likely to miss or not see.

Safi Bahcall: It’s just a really straightforward litmus test. How much do you like having dinner together? What I realized is when I went back and looked, I wouldn’t rank high how much I liked to have dinner with the people I’d been dating. So that’s what I started looking for, people who were more just an intellectual mind fit for me and less worried about any of the other stuff, less worried what any friend would think or anybody would think or anyone around me. I see you’re smiling.

Tim Ferriss: I’m smiling because I want to ask just a few follow up questions. I know that I’m jumping in a lot, but this is what I do anyway. If we were having drinks, I’d be doing exactly the same thing.

You mentioned peer group. There’s at least two components of, I would imagine, making a shift. One is breaking up with some of your friends, and the other is gathering the people you hope to be positively influenced by.

Safi Bahcall: Right.

Tim Ferriss: I think for a lot of people listening, the latter part is the easier part, or adding more people is the easier part. Did you break up with your friends by doing the slow drift where it’s like by the time you were gone, they didn’t really notice because it was very gradual, or did you do it more directly? How did you break up with people?

Safi Bahcall: Well, firstly we’re guys so we don’t talk about stuff. I think women have a much more communicative thing and guys are just like, “Oh, whatever. He didn’t answer a couple texts so whatever.” It’s also Manhattan, so the social life is like, “Let’s text 10 friends at 5 p.m. and see what’s going on at 7 p.m.” So after a while, you don’t answer some of those texts, so breaking up in Manhattan with some guy friends turns out —

Tim Ferriss: Not to be a heavy lift.

Safi Bahcall: Not to be a heavy lift. Of course, it depends. But yeah, it is breaking up, and then finding people who you think are more resonant, really excite you and you really enjoy, and are more the way you want to be aspirationally, how you want to live your life.

Not long after I did that system mindset as opposed to outcome mindset on dating, I went out on a couple dates and they were just totally different level. I enjoyed them at a much different level. “How much am I genuinely enjoying dinner as opposed to how much am I telling stories trying to be funny and it was funny and she laughed and that’s great, let’s go to bed or whatever.” This thing’s not on, right?

Tim Ferriss: The mics are off.

Safi Bahcall: Okay, good. That’s great. That never happened by the way, honey. You’re the first, really. I’m going to be in trouble. Anywho.

Tim Ferriss: We have magic in post-production if needed.

Safi Bahcall: Anyway, so no, it just started. Very shortly thereafter, I was set up on an introduction. I call it a date. My wife calls it a business meeting, so there’s a slightly different perspective here. I don’t know if you know this story. Do you know this?

Tim Ferriss: I don’t.

Safi Bahcall: ‘Cause you were at the wedding.

Tim Ferriss: I was at the wedding, but I don’t know this part.

Safi Bahcall: Okay. So I was at a cocktail event. There was a theater group. Actually, Catherine was at the wedding too, who was responsible for all this. There’s a theater production group in New York and they had their annual gala and I went to raise the flag in support. It’s full of artists and theater people. I didn’t know the first thing about theater or all this stuff, so I just went in line for a drink just to hide out and have an excuse not to talk to people.

There was a guy standing next to me who said, “Oh hey, my name is so and so. What is your name? What do you do?” I said, “Oh, I do medical research,” because in New York, at the time, nobody knew what biotech was. He said, “Oh, that’s interesting. My ex-girlfriend does cancer research in Boston.”

All of a sudden, my ears perk up. My antenna goes up, like, “Ding ding ding ding ding. Really?” ‘Cause this was a pretty good-looking dude. He was this tall and nice-looking guy and he was clearly well-adjusted and kind of a likable guy, and I thought A, cancer research in Boston. That’s what I do. B, if this guy’s pretty good-looking, his ex-girlfriend is probably pretty hot. C, she’s probably pretty well-adjusted because most women in science, there’s so few that the guys are like sharks, but if she can interest a guy who doesn’t know any science who’s pure arts, she must be kind of a well-rounded personality. So A, B, C. I’m like, “Ding ding ding ding ding,” ’cause I was already on the lookout ’cause of this system mindset, like who I’m dating.

Within about the first 30 milliseconds I’m like, “How can I stalk this guy electronically tomorrow, figure out who his ex-girlfriend is, and then somehow accidentally arrange to bump into her?” This was all within the first few seconds.

Tim Ferriss: He’s just talking and you’re not hearing any of it.

Safi Bahcall: He’s just talking. I’m just mentally —

Tim Ferriss: Planning the next day.

Safi Bahcall: Planning, “Tomorrow I’m going to figure out, does he know the woman who’s hosting and then can I find out what his last name is?” Anyway, I’m doing all these calculations in my head. Then, so he asks, “What’s your connection?” I explain, “I run a biotech company in Boston in cancer research.” “Who’s your advisor? Oh, I know that guy,” dah dah dah. He says, “Oh, do you mind if I introduce you ’cause he might be interested in a job in industry.” I’m thinking, “Ding ding ding ding ding.” But I’m sort of calm. I’m like, “Sure. Well, I’ll see if I can make the time for that meeting.”

So then I go home and the next morning I’m thinking, “All right, what are the odds? It’s Saturday night in New York. Some guy in line for a drink tells you something about his ex-girlfriend, that he’s actually follow through?” So this is less than a 10 percent chance, right?

So I’m already thinking, “How do I figure out who this guy was?” And then I get this email. He’s like, “Oh, Safi and Magda, I want to introduce you. Magda is interested in so and so and Safi does such and such.” Later I found out he Googled me and there was this profile written about me online and there was a little video, and so he forwarded all that stuff to her. I didn’t know that at the time.

Anyways, so I get this email, and then so 10 milliseconds later I Google her and out comes this model pose. I’m like, “What the freaking hell? That’s a cancer biology PhD who’s at postdoc at Harvard? Oh my god, I am so taking this meeting.”

So then I arranged to meet her, and then we meet up one week later. It was supposed to be just a coffee. It’s the least romantic. I was down at the Dana Farber Cancer Center for some meetings and she was working right nearby so we met at the Longwood Medical Galleria. Doctors in scrubs everywhere and it’s just a fast food court, and there’s some cheesy little hotel there with a cheesy little restaurant. I forgot the name.

I sit down, 5:00. It was supposed to be a 30-minute coffee and it turns into five hours, and I don’t even notice the time. For the first time, I feel like I’m not trying. I’m not trying to be entertaining or tell a story or blah blah blah. It’s just like, this is the actual me, and she’s like a female version of me. Not really, but female version minus 14 years, very attractive, and from the Czech Republic and I’m from Israel, and New Jersey, but other than that.

Tim Ferriss: Other than that, very similar.

Safi Bahcall: Other than those little things. No, but she really cared about science and the search for truth and family and really didn’t care for anything else. All this stuff of the glitz or financial or material stuff that is really sadly pretty common in Manhattan, she just had no interest. She just liked the science she was doing and figuring out good science and she cared deeply about family, and that was it. She knew what she cared about and she clearly just had fantastic values, and I was like, “This woman is awesome.”

Tim Ferriss: How’d it work out?

Safi Bahcall: And I would say eight months later you got the wedding invitation.

Tim Ferriss: Amazing.

Safi Bahcall: Yeah.

Tim Ferriss: Beautiful wedding.

Safi Bahcall: Thank you.

Tim Ferriss: Also.

Safi Bahcall: Thank you.

Tim Ferriss: And — so I like the weaving that we’re doing from sort of personal to business, because it’s same same but different, right? Like a lot of the thought processes behind them. And one thing I was hoping to do today also, which you’re doing a great job of doing yourself, but it is humanizing you in the sense that I read a very simple bio of you. But if we got into a lot of the details, you can be very intellectually intimidating, I think, you could be. You’re a very smart guy, and there’s no doubt some hard wiring that helps with that, but you also use systems, and you enable yourself with tools.

So you mentioned no BLC, right? And you said very quickly in passing, “Well I can’t remember anything unless I use acronyms.” So let’s talk about acronyms for a second, because this type of shorthand can be really helpful. What other acronyms have you used and there are a whole bunch that pop up, literally many, many, many acronyms that you use. So I’m looking at one here, but you can start with any one you like, one FBR, write FBR, what the hell does that mean? But what are some other, whether it’s sort of heuristics or acronyms that you use to help perform better, make better decisions anything.

Safi Bahcall: All right. Write FBR. So that’s one of the writing rules of thumb that I learned was one of the most important writing rules. After a year or two or three I kind of broke out writing for myself into style, story, and process.

Tim Ferriss: Style, story, and process.

Safi Bahcall: So I had kind of five rules on style that I worked on and iterated, kind of five rules on story that I worked on and iterated, and five rules on just writing process, which is sort of writing routine. But probably one of the most important ones on the routine process was write FBR. So that means write fast, bad, and wrong. And the reason that that’s so important is that especially if you have any kind of perfectionistic tendencies, and I know a lot of people write about this, but FBR is what resonated for me and how I remember it. It just means when you’re starting to write, let’s say you found the idea and the narrative thread and the thing that you’re — the wheels are turning and you think you can see — it’s like driving and you can only see a few feet ahead, because you’re in a fog, and sort of the mist clearing and you’re like, “Oh, I see. I see where I’m going with this thing, and let’s just go.”

The inclination is when you write a sentence or a paragraph or the first couple paragraphs is to stop and backtrack either for style or for facts. I’m doing nonfiction, so I’m not doing fiction, so on such and such date this guy did this thing, and then he did that thing. Was it really that date? Then let’s go check the internet. So that is a disaster; you’ll never get anything done if you do that. So the trick is to go exactly 180, especially if you haven’t — write FBR: write fast, bad, and wrong. Put the wrong date. You don’t get the style right? The sentence doesn’t sound good? Great.

Write fast, write bad, and write wrong. Terrible style, terrible grammar, terrible word choice, wrong facts, and that liberates you. That liberates you to follow the narrative thread and just keep going and going with it. And not stop and backtrack, because every time you stop, maybe it’s like a car going down the highway, it’s easy to stop, but then you have to spend all this fuel to get back up to speed, and you might not get there. So once you’re finally going, what you often discover — you write a lot too — is like once you start writing, and start pulling on that narrative thread, like it’s just really surprising where it goes. But only if you go fast. Not if you go slow.

Not if you say, “Oh, is it 1941 he did this, or was it 1939? Was he with this person or was he with that person? Am I spelling his name correctly? Let’s go check on the internet.” Then you’ve lost the thread. And it hurts on many levels; not only do you get less done, but you lose the creativity, ’cause it’s only when you’re at high speed, and the wheels are turning and you’re like, “Oh, wait, wait a minute, oh, I could go here, oh, I could go there, and oh, I could go here.” When you’re driving fast, you can make a left turn, it has a big impact. Not when you’re driving slow.

Tim Ferriss: You know, I was just thinking, creativity, and there are many different types of creativity, but it’s in some ways a lot like riding a bike. It’s easier at slightly higher speeds.

Safi Bahcall: Exactly.

Tim Ferriss: You try to ride a bicycle really really slowly and you’re twisting and turning and trying to keep your balance, and it’s herky jerky and the stopping and starting, that task switching is really expensive.

Safi Bahcall: It’s funny you’re saying that, because the physics of that is the angular momentum of the wheel, and once you have high angular momentum, you’re much more stable than at low angular momentum.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah. I was going to digress into motorcycles for a second, but — of course part of the fun of having our conversations is that it’s just a beautiful medley of digressions. But trying to maintain some semblance of professional podcasting protocol —

Safi Bahcall: Oh, we can go on a motorcycle digression too, I got motorcycle stuff, but that’s another — you’re in charge, you go wherever you want to go.

Tim Ferriss: We’ll come back to motorcycles. We’re going to segue to other subject areas, but what other, we’re not going to go through all of the rules for style, story, and process, but I’m curious particularly on process, but it could be any. Are there any other rules that you have found to be particularly valuable for writing that jump to mind?

Safi Bahcall: It’s the hats. For me I realized, and again a lot of this stuff took a long time, there are two hats you wear on reading, and there are three hats you wear on writing. And you just want to be very clear about what hat you’re wearing when, so you don’t confuse them. And then you’re much more efficient. So you asked about acronyms; I have some really silly, I don’t think I’ve ever said these out loud, it’s more like inner voice acronyms. But since you’re an old friend —

Tim Ferriss: That’s what I want.

Safi Bahcall: — and this thing is definitely not on. So in reading there are two modes, two hats you wear, or at least for me. And the first one I call RICLS, and the second one I call REAS.

Tim Ferriss: (laughs). Okay.

Safi Bahcall: I can tell it’s like silly and stupid, but that’s how I think about it. RICLS is reading for information, content, lessons. RIC — whatever it is. RICLS, reading for information, content, lessons, and stories, RICLS. If you’re writing nonfiction, that’s for like the raw meat of the facts or the ideas of the story. And you’re really reading for information, for content, and for lessons.

Tim Ferriss: And when you say reading, are you referring to research that you’re doing?

Safi Bahcall: Research.

Tim Ferriss: Got it.

Safi Bahcall: So that’d be the research. Let’s say you’re writing about World War II, then that’s in RICLS. You’re reading very fast, as fast as you can and as deep as you can, and chasing different threads, and different footnotes, and different archival — and that is the RICLS hat. You’re reading for the information, for the content, or for the lessons you want to use, or for the stories you want to tell: RICLS.

Totally different hat is REAS. Reading for ear, art, and skill: REAS. So when I was reading —

Tim Ferriss: Nabokov.

Safi Bahcall: Nabokov for example, I was reading for kind of the musical rhythm, and the pacing, and the tricks that he uses on transitions and, or others. He wasn’t the only one I did that. Donald Hall, whose book Essays After Eighty — he was, again, I’m kind of ignorant when it comes to literature, a lot of people knew this, he was a Poet Laureate —

Tim Ferriss: First time I’m hearing his name.

Safi Bahcall: I remember talking to some English friends and they laughed at me that I didn’t know who he was. But, anyway, some friend had sent me his essays, and I picked that up, and as a poet he also has incredible word choice and rhythm and pacing and it’s very different from Nabokov. Nabokov is fun but it’s completely eccentric, and completely unique style that only applies if you’re a Russian emigre who plays with a dictionary for fun. It’s not relevant for copying, it’s just interesting to develop ear.

But Nabokov is cold. He’s clearly, he’s writing for entertaining himself with language. He was the first to say, “I don’t have any messages; I don’t have any morals,” and you can sort of tell he doesn’t care about his characters. He’s just playing. He’s playing with language. Hall is warm. He wrote, he just passed away, sadly, he wrote so movingly and sparingly about incredibly deep, emotional, personal things. His love affair with his — how he fell in love with his wife, and how he thought she would outlive him and they made all these plans, and then she came down at an early age with leukemia, and he just couldn’t believe that he was out burying her, and she was — but he writes in a not a maudlin way at all, and he write it so beautifully, and so powerfully, and so tightly.

So I read Hall for “How do you write about emotion?” which I had zero experience, especially as a scientist, emotional is not like a top skill, right? And communicating emotion was not something I had any skill in doing. So I read him not only for the beautiful but very different writing style, but also for “How do you write about emotion? How do you write about people? How do you write about characters in kind of a poetic way?” Not overtelling, but using as few words as possible. Anyway, that’s REAS.

Tim Ferriss: I want to pause for one second, because I’ve been able to see the output of that in Loonshots for instance, in the very beginning, in some of the stories you tell with patients. It’s a great example —

Safi Bahcall: Oh yeah. Thanks.

Tim Ferriss: — of like the output of training that ability that you did not consider yourself as that faculty you didn’t consider yourself as having developed, right?

Safi Bahcall: Absolutely, yeah.

Tim Ferriss: And I want to, I am going to interrupt but not for very long, because I do want to get to the writing side. I want to underscore for folks who are like, “Why are we talking about writing with the physicist biotech entrepreneur?” and the reason we’re talking about it is because it’s same same but different. What I’m really fascinated by is how you structure your thinking and question and stress test your thinking. So just for people who are like, “Why are we talking about writing?” That’s why. So, please continue.

Safi Bahcall: Okay. So you asked about the other writing lessons, these multiple hats. So in reading it was RICLS, now I’m going to put on my hat that has nothing to do with style, so just shut off that part of the brain, you read it really fast for a story or a content. And then REAS I’m reading for ear, art, and skill. So it’s pure writing skill. So the way I train for it is to think strategically about “Where am I weak?” So I can explain a technical idea pretty well; that’s what I’ve been doing my whole life, whether in academic science, or in a biotech company trying to explain technical stuff about how a drug works with the biology or chemistry to people who are not as technical.

So explaining an idea I can do, even in plain English, but books that just explain ideas are boring. I don’t even like reading them. People don’t really connect to ideas. People connect to people. If you can tell a story about people through which an idea is revealed, that’s the best of all worlds. So just talking about ideas is just eh, so so. Just talking about people, then you’re sort of a fairy tale. But if you can combine the two, tell stories of people through which an underlying idea is revealed, which is connected by an underlying idea, which is what I tried to do in this book, that’s for me the grander challenge, that was really kind of the big challenge. How do you not do A and not do B but do the combination of A and B?

So I was not good at telling stories of people. You don’t really do that in academic science, you write a paper, you’re not going to write a paper saying “Well let me tell you about the day I first had this idea, and then I was wrong about this, and then Joe — ” That’s not how you write an academic paper, and when you run a biotech company you do your earnings call if you’re public, or you’re at an investment meeting and you do your 25-minute road show, you’re not “You know, let me tell you a story about how failures and the characters — ” No. They’re like, “What was your RND spend —

Tim Ferriss: Just the facts, man.

Safi Bahcall: Just the facts.

Tim Ferriss: All right. Safi, we’ve talked about the two hats of reading. What are the three hats of writing?

Safi Bahcall: The three hats of writing, the way I think about is there’s hunting, there’s drafting, and there’s editing. In hunting, you’re looking for the narrative thread that’s going to hold your story together, or if you do nonfiction the series of stories, and the series of anecdotes, and the lesson you’re going to draw. That’s the hunting. The drafting is where you’re writing FBR, fast, bad, and wrong. Just as fast as you can. Then the editing is where it all comes together. You get rid of all the glitches and make it shine.

As we were talking, I was thinking about this movie you took me to see, this premier you took me to see yesterday by Robert Rodriguez, where he made this kind of amazing movie for $7,000. Before that he was talking about a master class, he was doing his master class in film, which was just really a master class in creativity. He was talking about how in film, he thinks of making a film also in three stages, like cooking, where you write your recipe, then you go grocery shopping, and then you do the editing at the end just like you’re cooking.

I think it’s very similar in writing. The hunting, the finding the narrative thread is like your recipe. The drafting fast, bad, and wrong, the FBR, write as fast as you can, is like going to the supermarket and just filling your cart as fast as you can with all this stuff. Then it all comes together in the editing. It’s actually very interesting hearing that from Robert Rodriguez, because it just reminded me of the three hats that I wear when I’m writing.

Tim Ferriss: Well it maps almost perfectly to it.

Safi Bahcall: Yeah, yeah.

Tim Ferriss: He used index cards, like a pack of index cards you can get for probably a dollar, or two dollars, and he’s like, “This could change your life.” One pack of index cards. He’ll lay it on the floor, and then rearrange the order, and so on. Like you said, that’s the hunting for the structure, or the arc. Then, same as you, fast, bad, and wrong in quick drafting. Then assembling it in some respects with film, I know this is slightly different, but improvising on the fly when things go wrong or other opportunities present themselves on the actual set or day of shooting.

When you are doing the hunting, did you have, for instance, a within chapter structure that you tried to stick to? Were there common ingredients with a chapter, where you would try to start with a story, then add facts, then close with a story? Or did you look at it as more of an arc and a build over the course of the book? Or perhaps both? How did you approach the hunting portion?

Safi Bahcall: I’d love to say I had a system or a method, but absolutely not. I literally started with a blank page, and almost panicked. I actually had to learn — one of my rules is patience over panic. You start with a blank page, and I just had absolutely no idea what was going to happen, where it was going to go, what story. I end up with all these kind of crazy stories. In fact, this is probably the nicest thing somebody said to me about the book, it was this guy named Bob Sutton, who wrote this book called The No Asshole Rule.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah, Bob’s a good guy.

Safi Bahcall: Very funny guy. We were having beers at the Dutch Goose in Menlo Park, which I used to go to 20 years ago. He’s been like a lifelong customer since he was like 12. We were in the second or third beer. There’s another author friend of ours there. At some point he turns to me and he goes, “Your book.” I go, “Yeah.” He said, “Man, that was some wacky shit.” I feel like that’s some — you have Pan Am, and Einstein, and Kepler, and Steve Jobs, and U-boats. I feel like in some ways that was actually the nicest thing anybody said to me.

Tim Ferriss: Oh yeah. I think “wacky shit” is a strong endorsement.

Safi Bahcall: Yeah. When you asked what did I do to get these wacky stories in each chapter, all of them are so different. Comparing Juan Trippe at Pan Am with Bob Crandall in American, or Steve Jobs and Jef Raskin versus Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke, comparing across two centuries. I have absolutely no clue where they — I would just lock myself in my little cave, shut the blinds, and I would just disappear into some zone. Then I would reemerge at 5:30 to pick up my daughter from daycare. I’d look at what — where the hell did that come from? I have no idea.

To answer your question, I would just look at a blank page and then I’d look up at 5:30 and this, what did he call it? Wacky shit was just all over. That’s the grocery shopping. We were talking about the Robert Rodriguez film, and once you start, that’s the advantage of writing FBR, writing fast, bad, and wrong, is that once you start going at a high speed, all this stuff just —

Tim Ferriss: Yeah. The speed is really important.

Safi Bahcall: Yeah. I’ve always thought, since I sort of have three rules for everything, creativity for me is about speed, attention, and courage. You want to go as fast as you can. For me, getting the stories is about speed reading. I had so many sources. I think I had about 5,000 files. I mean I scanned almost all the books, so I have everything electronic. I could search in the database electronically.

I was just reading as fast as I could because eventually something — that’s number two. First is speed, second is attention. You want to be reading as fast as you can and then all of a sudden there’s a tiny little thing, like whoa, wait, what? That’s where you go. The visual I have, because I have sort of a visual for everything, is that there’s this dense forest of stuff which is all the facts, and data, and stories. There’s this beautiful clearing on the inside, which is a central core idea. You’re looking for the path in.

You’re running around the circle as fast as you can, and you’re looking for a path in, or something to guide. Maybe you’re looking for a little red sparrow that’s hiding, that’s going to peak out behind little leaf, or a tree. You’re running, looking and looking, running, going as fast as you can. Then all of sudden you see that. You need speed, you need attention to keep your eye out for that tiny little red sparrow to say, “I’m over here. This is the path.”

Then, you need courage. It may look like a really wacky sparrow. You need to have some balls to really follow that idea. Your first thought is “There’s just no way I could compare Steve Jobs and Isaac Newton, that’s absurd.” Well, let me pull on that a little bit more. Oh, it turns out Steve Jobs didn’t really develop the Macintosh, he had this assistant named — no, he didn’t have an assistant.

There was a guy working at Apple who had been working on this project that he called the Macintosh Project for a year or two before Jobs. He tried to interest Jobs in it, and Jobs dismissed it. Eventually, just because of, by default after Jobs had kind of messed up the Lisa and Apple III, that was the only project they could find. History got rewritten, that oh, he invented it. That’s not really what happened.

That’s kind of what happened with Isaac Newton. Oh, he just came up with the idea of gravity. Well actually there was a guy who was a much less charismatic, much less good communicator named Robert Hooke who came up with a couple of the central ideas of gravity. He sort of fed them to Isaac Newton, and then Isaac Newton ran with it, just like Jef Raskin kind of fed the ideas of a graphical user interface and a small computer called the Macintosh, it already had the name, to Steve Jobs.

Now Steve Jobs was a much more charismatic, much better communicator, in some ways much more ambitious, and shoved him aside. Just like Isaac Newton had a lot of skills that the other guy didn’t have. I mean Steve Jobs was a great synthesizer. He could bring in marketing, and motivate people the way that Jef Raskin couldn’t. I realize we’re going on a really long tangent here.

Tim Ferriss: It’s okay.

Safi Bahcall: Isaac Newton also had some better skills, but he was really fed the early ideas by a guy named Robert Hooke. For creativity, what I found is speed, attention, and courage. You have to say the idea of comparing Steve Jobs and Jef Raskin with Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke sounds nuts; who would ever do that? You have to have some balls to go after that.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah. It strikes me also that one could look at it not just as a potential sequence, but also as a hierarchy in the sense that, if you don’t have speed, you’re not going to be able to develop the 360 degree view to have the attention yield any fruit. You need to have that as almost a precursor to the attention. Then the attention is a precursor to the courage, which is sort of the execution on what you find, that little red sparrow.

Safi Bahcall: Yeah. That’s exactly right. It’s in order. Speed, attention, courage. That’s what I found for me was the secret of creating wacky shit.

Tim Ferriss: If we come out again to look at the world of business, and not fooling yourself, or not confusing process and outcome and trying to really have, to read something correctly, I should note also that these different hats and these different heuristics for being clear on your purpose before say reading a book, or selecting a book in the first place, is really really really important, and — I’ll give an example that illustrates this in a very different context.

So Tony Robbins does an exercise at some of his events where he’ll ask people to scan the room and he’ll say, “Before you scan the room, I want you to note anything red, a reddish hue, remotely close,” and they do that for 60 seconds, then he says, “All right. Run through the list of all the things you saw that were red,” and then he asks people, “Now note without looking around the room what you saw that was blue.”

Safi Bahcall: Right.

Tim Ferriss: And people can’t do it.

Safi Bahcall: Right.

Tim Ferriss: And it’s to have that search function set in place before reading a book, before editing, is really really critical. Let’s talk about, I think the term you used is false failures? Or …

Safi Bahcall: False failures.

Tim Ferriss: Let’s talk about that for a second, because it also might tie into someone you mentioned at the very beginning of the conversation who is Peter Thiel, but can you talk about what a false fail or false failure is?

Safi Bahcall: So false fail is the idea. Let’s say you’re nurturing some crazy idea that everybody thinks is nuts, which I call for lack of a better word a loonshot, rather than a moonshot. A moonshot everybody knows what it is, a big goal and an exciting destination, but the big ideas that really make, that transform whether it’s an industry, a science, or even world history, almost never arrive dazzling everybody with their brilliance. They tend to be the ones that are floating around for years or sometimes decades, and the people championing them are written off as nuts.

In the revisionist history, looking back it’s like, oh it’s obvious that it was right, it’s sort of a natural tendency to assume that, and the guy was obviously a genius, but most people don’t talk about the fact that everyone said he was an idiot for 20 years, including some of the most famous people and famous discoveries we know of. But what you see with loonshots, with these crazy ideas, is very often people give up on them because of what you might call a false fail. By false fail I mean it was a flaw in the experiment, rather than the idea. The outcome is the same, the experiment gave a negative result, and everybody walks away; in science that’s the case. Experiment gave a negative result, everybody walks away, but the problem is not with the idea, it’s with the experiment.

So the example, you mention Peter Thiel, so the example I use, I think I might have first heard about this from Ken Howery, another mutual friend. So I think Ken was telling me this one time over drinks, this was many years ago.

Tim Ferriss: He was at PayPal with Peter, part of the PayPal Mafia.

Safi Bahcall: That’s right. I think they knew each other from Stanford days or something like that.

Tim Ferriss: Yep, and then later Founders Fund and so on.

Safi Bahcall: Right. So Ken had started working with Peter on his private investments. This was just a few months or a year before it turned into Founders Fund, so he was kind of helping him out. And he mentioned that this guy Zuckerberg had come by, Mark Zuckerberg, with this idea for a social network, and social networks had been around for a decade at that point, and they’d all gone nowhere. There was a dozen of them. Even I can remember all these crazy names of all these things, you know, ASmallWorld, Tribe — whatever. All these things went and flamed out. And at the time, there was another one that was rising, it was sort of the popular one at the time called Friendster, which some people may remember, and that was just starting to flame out, and people were leaving Friendster for the new thing at the time which was called MySpace.

So when Zuckerberg was going around, Ken was telling me this story, everybody had kind of passed on investing because everybody said, “Well look at all the social networks —”

Tim Ferriss: Bishop takes pawn.

Safi Bahcall: They said “All these guys fail, and do you know why they fail? We know why they failed: because you can see that all these users are hopping from network to network and that’s the outcome.” That’s the bishop take pawn. It lost the game. “All these social networks are going nowhere; there’s no money in them. So no, we’re not giving our money to this Zuckerberg kid or whatever his name is.” And Ken and Peter said, “Is that really why they’re failing? Let’s take a look.”

And so they had friends behind the scene at Friendster, I don’t remember if they were investors or not or whatever, but it’s a small community, and they said, “Let’s ask for the data, for the user retention data. People are clearly fleeing,” and we know they were using Friendster and the website was kind of glitchy and it was sort of crashing. So they got the data on the user retention in Friendster and they found, “Holy crap, people are staying on this site for hours. Now this is a site that’s crappy — no offense to whoever’s listening who is part of that team — but this site is crashing all the time,” and they happened to know that they had been given advice on, “Okay, you need to build — you’ve scaled from a few users to a few million; you need to improve your systems because your site is glitchy.”

And what they realized was that people were staying on for hours, even though it was a crappy, glitchy website, and that the MySpace just had a better website. It wasn’t that it was a bad business model like clothing fads, that’s what everybody thought, you just switch, everybody will switch en masse every season. They were actually great. People were staying forever on these sites; these guys just had a bad website. They had a software glitch. So it was a false fail. It was a false fail of Friendster. It was a flaw in the experiment, in the process by which people were making their judgment. Not a flaw in the underlying idea, the loonshot, this crazy idea that social networks had some value.

So Thiel wrote Zuckerberg a check for $500,000.

Tim Ferriss: I think he was the first outside money in Facebook, or non-family and friends in Facebook.

Safi Bahcall: That’s right, and I think eight years later he sold it for a billion dollars. And that’s how paying attention to a false fail can be very lucrative.

Tim Ferriss: So, let’s see here, there’s another name I wanted to bring up, who I am blanking here, it begins with Sir James…Black. So who is Sir James Black, and what did he say to you at one point that sticks in memory, because this may relate in some way.

Safi Bahcall: So he was — and he passed away a few years ago as well — he was a Nobel prize winning pharmacologist, chemist from Scotland, and he in some ways revolutionized drug discovery. He’s one of the first legendary what people call drug hunters. He just had a nose for identifying great new drugs. And so when I met him I think he was already in his 80s, but we got him interested in what we were doing, there were things that he liked about our little team and our little band of biologists and chemists, and we had to sort of — we went against the grain of what people said you should be doing and that kind of appealed to him.

So he would fly over periodically from Scotland and advise our team, and I remember one night he had flown over — remember, this is like an 80-year-old guy — and he had flown over some transatlantic flight, landed in the morning, and he probably had a 12 or 14 hour, he just went through the whole day of like research, research, stories, and he’d been talking the whole day, and standing on his feet, and we’re at the end of some dinner and I am like dropping dead of exhaustion, and I’m probably in my mid 30s or early 40s at the time, and I’m just like, “I want to go home to bed, because this was a long day.” So I’m getting up to go and he goes, “No, Safi, stay, sit down, sit down. Come have a whisky with me.” I can’t do a Scottish accent.

Like everybody else leaves and I’m like, “Oh my God. How is this 80-year-old guy just full of energy?” So he gets some whiskies and tells us why he loves what we’re doing and this and that, and then, he starts with “Well let me tell you when I was —” and starts with like the Korean War. I’m like, “Oh, my God.”

Tim Ferriss: This is going to be a long night.

Safi Bahcall: I’m going to need a shot of adrenaline or something just to stay alive. But I mean they’re fascinating stories, this guy really developed two phenomenal drug categories that saved millions of lives. So we start talking, he tells me this stuff, and at some point I tell him about how there’s this project in the lab that I’m feeling kind of depressed about, because I was really excited about it, but it hit this negative result. And he pats me on the knee again, and he goes “Oh, my boy, it’s not a good drug unless it’s been killed three times.”

And I took away from that, it really kind of gave me pause and made me rethink. And then as I started going through more histories and stories, the revisionist histories that you read about these great discoveries, “Oh, I had this idea on a Monday, and then I showed it to people on Tuesday, and we’re all excited on Wednesday, and it worked on Thursday, and the drug was approved on Friday!” That is not what happens.

These people with these great ideas, they get killed. Like really, the project gets terminated, everybody hates it, it’s pull the plug. People say it’s tough to pull a project, let me be a big man and kill a project. It’s really easy to kill a project. If you’re in charge, you just say no funding, you’re done, and it never comes back. No one’s going to work on a dead project, so no one can prove you wrong. You seem like a big man, it’s actually hard to keep a project going. Why? Because any good, crazy idea stumbles and fails, like Jim said, it gets killed through time, it has these terrible failures it seems like a really bad idea, it doesn’t work, it looks like it’s not going to work out, and then if you have a really great champion, or you get really lucky, you survive that failure.

And all of his projects, that he won the Nobel prize for, there are two drug categories, the beta blockers and the histamine antagonists, failed like that multiple times. And so that’s what he meant, and then when you look back in history like the statin drugs, I tell a little bit of that story, probably saved millions of lives, prevented millions of heart attacks, they were killed multiple times, and they almost died and disappeared and never happened. I’ve come to think of that as the three deaths of the loonshot. The truly important breakthroughs are killed several times, and it does go against the grain of the stuff that you hear in Silicon Valley all the time of fail fast and pivot. Fail fast and pivot.

Well, okay, if you fail fast and pivot, that’s probably what everybody else did when they hit the exact same stumble. And sometimes it’s the opposite. Everybody will fail fast and pivot when they hit that same stumble, but there’s something really important underlying there, I mean often that is the reason why there’s something really important is because everybody has turned away from the same stumble, you need to make it past that first stumble, past the second stumble, past the third stumble, and then you have the goal. And that’s why it’s gold, because everybody gives up on the first or second — because everyone is following fail fast and pivot, so everybody’s given up. If you persisted through those failures, that’s where the really, really big breakthroughs are.

Tim Ferriss: So let’s do a little retrospective on looking at some historical examples, and maybe by way of example, describing what loonshots are, and I believe there are two types, and we can talk about Juan and Bob, which is not a country music duo. Give us some examples of loonshots and maybe the different species of loonshots.

Safi Bahcall: The two types, so, there is the one type I think of as a product or a technology that everybody says won’t work. So you go way back to the telephone, people said, “This is a pointless toy,” or the transistor, “There’s no way you can make a switch out of some solid state device,” or personal computer, “That’s not going to be important,” or digital cameras, or even jet engines, that’s the Juan and Bob story, jet engines, there’s no way you could ever make a commercial plane with a jet engine. So those are products or technologies that everybody says won’t work, let’s call those P type.

The other thing is much less, those are kind of glamorous, because you can put a picture of a product —

Tim Ferriss: P for product.

Safi Bahcall: P for product, P type. You can put that on the cover of a magazine, people get really excited. There is, we’re at South by Southwest, so there is this obsession of product, product, product. But what people often miss, and is sometimes much more important, and is a dangerous trap if you miss it, is the other kind, is a small change in strategy, that involves no new technology. It’s a small change in strategy, it’s called S type, that everyone says is crazy, or won’t work. So what’s an example of that?

Well, let’s take a story of a young kid who wanted to go into retail and wants to open a shop where all the customers are, which is big cities. And then his wife happens to say, “Well, honey, I’m happy to support you in this dream of yours, but I just hate big cities. I’m only willing to live where the town is smaller than 10,000 people.” So he says, “Okay.” And he decides he likes being married. He also likes quail hunting. So he knows there’s this region in the middle of America where the four states come together in the corner, and there are four different quail hunting seasons, so he puts his store there, and he moves to a little town called Bentonville, Arkansas, and he opens his store.

And he makes it a little bit bigger, and he sells stuff a little bit cheaper, and he gives the store a name, it’s called Walmart. Okay, now that ends up absolutely dominating the retail industry and wiping out everybody else. Now is he thinking about “Let me go disrupt the retail industry?” No, he had a wife that didn’t want to live in a big town, and he liked quail hunting, and he made stuff a little cheaper. So he had small changes in strategy, where he put his store, how big he made his store, and made prices a little bit lower. Were there any new technologies? No. He just sold stuff. Did he invent retail? No. Did he invent selling stuff a little bit cheaper? No.

These were small shifts in strategy that ended up being incredibly important. So those things are much harder and they’re much less glamorous because they’re harder to write about and harder to prove than the P type things, which are easier to prove. So those are the two types.

Tim Ferriss: And just so people aren’t left hanging with Juan and Bob, Juan Trippe and Bob Crandall, American Airlines. But the example that really, I had actually not had any familiarity with — which I’d love you do describe briefly is Robert Goddard and the rocket flight in space, because people credit other people, namely, I guess it would have been JFK, but could you describe a little bit of the backdrop for that story?

Safi Bahcall: Sure, so in fact that gets right to the moonshot loonshot. So in 1961, Kennedy announced in a speech to congress his ambition of putting a man on the moon. And of course that was widely applauded and —

And of course that was widely applauded and that’s actually where the term moonshot comes from. But as we mentioned, those breakthroughs that get us there are rarely recognized and widely applauded at the time. So in fact, how did we actually get to them? And well, we got to the moon on a rocket. Rockets work through liquid fueled jet propulsion. So the principles that got us to the moon were invented by a guy named Robert Goddard four decades earlier. And he had written it up. He had demonstrated. He’d been working on experiments. He had proved it to pretty good certainty, but he was ridiculed. And I remember I found this in The New York Times in the archives. This was pretty hilarious, in 1920 I think it was, after Goddard had suggested his idea that we could get to space with these liquid fueled rockets, in 1920 The Times came out with an editorial and said, “Oh, this guy, Professor Goddard with his ‘chair,’” they literally put quotes around the word chair and physics like that’s a bad thing. You know, air quotes, his “chair” and “physics” at some university like Clark and making fun that he wasn’t an Ivy League guy and he was a “chair.” And he says, “This professor doesn’t understand the basic laws of physics that we teach our children every day in schools.”

Tim Ferriss: “Seems to lack the knowledge ladled out daily in high schools.”

Safi Bahcall: Exactly. Namely that Newton’s Laws of Action and Reaction make rocket flight in space impossible. End of story. So the funny part of that is like fast forward, I think it was July 11th, 1969 if I remember, it was the day after the successful launch of the Apollo 11 rocket to the moon, The Times issues a retraction. And it says, “apparently rocket flight does not violate the laws of physics.” The Times regrets the error.

Tim Ferriss: And even when you really, really put these seemingly miraculous successes or iconic structures, for instance the Eiffel Tower, under a fine sort of forensic lens, you realize that, I’m not going to say all of them, but it’s certainly very high percentage, not only encountered resistance, but exceptionally violent and heavy handed, that sort of ad hominem attacks. I mean the Eiffel Tower, which everyone knows at this point and it’s in every brochure and every sales pitch for Paris and France was opposed by just about everyone. I mean, it was all uphill. And I want to talk at some point about how smaller teams or entrepreneurs who are maybe solo, maybe with a handful of folks can think about embracing or a structured thinking around loonshots.

But I wanted to jump back to your personal experience for a second. And again, feel free to fact check this because you can’t believe everything you read on the Internet and certainly not in every book. But I have here a quote from Michelle Wie, the golfer’s coach who instructed her, and this is from a book, The Net and the Butterfly. She was given a quote by her coach to repeat to herself whenever she missed a putt. “I’ve gotten that out of the way. Now I’m one step closer to becoming the best putter in the history of golf.” The segue is that you were then mentioned afterwards and the quote is, “I often think of that quote when I screw up.” A, is that true? B, are there, how do you use such a quote or other quotes as a practice or a reminder? It’s a lot of questions at once.

Safi Bahcall: No, sure. That’s good research. So that’s from my very good friend, Olivia Fox who was also at the wedding. You may have met her there. But she sent me an early draft and I gave her that quote. And it’s a mental reminder of whenever you screw up and anyone who’s gotten anywhere, it’s because you’ve been through those three deaths. You’ve been called a failure, an idiot, including in drafting this book when like everybody, you had the same experience, every publisher is like, “Oh, yeah, there’s like no way. Books trying to mix physics and business never work.” And I’m thinking like, “Really? Like what book that mixes physics? I haven’t read any books.”

Tim Ferriss: There’s so many nevers just to like books on physical fitness, cookbooks don’t travel internationally. I mean, there’s so many nevers and you’re like, “Really? Like, where’s the data on that?”

Safi Bahcall: Yeah. And so, Olivia, who’s a good friend, asked me for that quote and I thought about that at the time. And the inspiration a little bit is also tennis. So I played in the juniors as a kid and grew up playing tennis and at the time it was probably, shows how old I am, Pete Sampras versus Andre Agassi. And so both were, I admired both. Agassi developed this tic or trick, which is at the end of a bad point, if I remember correctly, at the end of a bad point, he would slap his thigh, and that was like a mental little hook to forget about the point. He just associated with slapping his thigh with forgetting the bad point that he just fucked up and focusing on the current. And that was a little trick for his brain just to stop wallowing in the bad and focus on now and the bad just went away.

And it’s the same thing with Michelle.

Tim Ferriss: Michelle Wie.

Safi Bahcall: Yeah. Michelle Wie. And it’s, you screw up, you do something stupid, even in business life, you had a bad board. You said stupid things or you had a bad investor meeting or you did something dumb with an employee that you regret doing, you need to slap your thigh or think of the Michelle Wie example like, “I screwed that up. And that’s one step along the way of me getting better in whatever I’m going to do. Now slap the thigh and let’s focus on, set that behind you and move forward.” And so that’s the kind of golfer quote or the Andre Agassi slap your thigh trick.

Tim Ferriss: Okay, related because you use, and not to belabor this, but you have, you use systems and reminders a lot.

Safi Bahcall: Yeah.

Tim Ferriss: Why do you have a Post-it note and you may no longer have it, but a Post-it note that says “The Adventures of Luke Starkiller?”

Safi Bahcall: Oh yeah. It’s still up on my wall.

Tim Ferriss: What on earth is that?

Safi Bahcall: So I did a lot of, one of the stories I tell, I tell a bunch of film stories. One of my really close friends is in film and we’ve been friends for many, many years. And so I’ve, he and I have traded stories and part of the inspiration was it was so fascinating to me how many of my stories from biotech were so similar to the stories from film and how what a biotech CEO does is so similar to what a film producer does and how the markets are structured. The hundreds of biotech companies and the hundreds of film and the few film majors are so similar to the hundreds of small production shops and the few film majors at the top, the few pharma majors at the top and the hundreds of production SOPs and the hundreds of biotech companies. The film industry structure, the financing of it, the dynamics of it, the focus of it was so similar. Developing a film was so similar to developing a drug. I just found that connection fascinating.

So I tell a fair amount of film stories, and I realized my answers are kind of long winded here, like I tell a lot of stories to get there. My wife hates that by way. I’m doing that again? I’m going off on a tangent story of a tangent. This is a tangent of a tangent of a tangent.

Tim Ferriss: That’s why I do long form.

Safi Bahcall: That why there’s a delete button on those videos,

Tim Ferriss: Sure.

Safi Bahcall: Anyways, I tell us a fair number of film stories. I tell a kind of James Bond story, which was a loonshot. Like Ian Fleming had written these Bond novels and he really, he didn’t have as much money as some of the lifestyle he aspired to, which you can see in these Bond movies. And so he was really trying to sell the film and everybody had just written this off. Like all the studios, they just weren’t buying and there were a bunch of false fails. They made some TV show, which was a disaster. So that was a false fail. And American studios were like, “There’s just no way Americans want to see a British dude with an accent or they’re going to believe that.” It was like some heroic spy saving the world. The stories are junk. And he’s kind of a metrosexual, like who wants to watch that? He’s kind of prissy about his stuff. Like who wants to see that?

And actually even the first, when he finally got it, he gave up after eight or nine years trying to do and got these like random producers who, one had just bankrupted his business. And they were trying to sell the movie, they just sold it to some studio and they’d cast this guy who was 32 years old who had been in a movie like Tarzan and the Little People or whatever it was, I forgot what the name was. And like two movies and he’d been a milk truck driver. And Americans, they made it for a million bucks and this American studio said “You know what? This is like, this is absurd. No one’s going to want to see…” Literally the quote was, “No one’s going to watch a limey truck driver fighting spies.” Of course, that guy was Sean Connery, but they really were so sure it wouldn’t work. They opened it in drive-in studios. I think it was in like in Kentucky and Texas. “Let’s just put it in a couple of drive-in studios and then write it off as a loss.”

And then the reaction, the crowd reaction was like, “Wait, what?” And then of course it became one of the greatest film franchises of all times. And the other, the second, the two top film franchises of all time are James Bond and Star Wars. So I ended up going way back tracing like minute by minute what happened with Star Wars. And if you search you can actually find the early drafts. There are four early drafts of the script and you can actually find them. And I read the drafts. They were freaking horrific. It was, the writing was terrible, the storytelling was terrible. The characters were nothing like the characters that you have at the end. The plot was incomprehensible. It sounded absurd, which is you could see why people studios rejected it at first. And one of the titles of one of the drafts, actually this was the shooting version of the script, the first title was The Adventures of Luke Starkiller. And it was such a stupid name. The hero was called Mace Windy.

Tim Ferriss: Mace Windy.

Safi Bahcall: Mace Windy, which sounds like a superhero that farts. And it was just like, it was so bad yet it became one of the greatest movies of all time. And so I keep that to help me write FBR, write fast, bad and wrong. You just realize that all first drafts are shit. Everything when it starts off is shit. And if Star Wars, one of the greatest movies of all time, was just such horrific shit in the beginning, then you’re probably okay. It’s all right to have your stuff sound terrible and that’s okay. Just keep going. You fix it up in the editing, which is what they did.

Tim Ferriss: I knew every line to that film as a kid when it came out and I would drive audiences nuts because I think it’s the only film, maybe that and E.T. where I insisted my mom take me to the movies repeatedly. And for my family it was quite an indulgence to go to the movies to begin with. Right? But I knew the entire movie by heart and a split second before any character would say a line, I would say the line in the theater, which understandably drove the people around me bat shit crazy, but stuck with me. Had a huge impact. So now I know that Mace Windy is to thank for it.

How can smaller teams, and we have so much to chat about, I mean, hopefully we can do a part two, a round two at this because I would love to, and it’s so fun to spend time together. But maybe just with some of the time that we have left, you could talk about how individual entrepreneurs or small, small teams can think about loonshots. Like what is the significance for a single person or a small group?

Safi Bahcall: Right. So, the moral of the story is you want to nurture these loonshots. So forget about moonshots or big goals or even the word “disruptive” innovation is a terrible word. It should be crossed out of every dictionary and taken off of every website because it’s misleading. Because anybody who’s been an entrepreneur knows that the ideas that ended up becoming incredibly important that actually in retrospect, disrupt the market, nobody knows at the time. Like Sam Walton had no clue. He just liked quail hunting. That’s why he went to Bentonville. He had no clue. He wasn’t thinking, “Let me disrupt the retail industry by locating stores in rural America and building them somewhat…” No, he was just like his wife said she didn’t want to live in a big city. And as he pointed out later, we had no idea what the demand would be.

So real innovations are less about market projections and some guru waving a PowerPoint about you’re going to disrupt this market. That’s crap. A real innovation that ends up doing something is like a leaf in a tornado. You just never know where it’s going to end up. Anybody tells you it’s going to end up there has not been a real entrepreneur. Most of the great — like the transistor. They were working on building better switches for telecom, and when they came up with Bell Labs, when they invented this solid state device, it turned out it wasn’t good enough to use in telecom. So they really had no idea what to do with it. It was five years before the first application, which ended up being in hearing aids.

So were the scientists working on the transistor going to their bosses and saying, “Let’s disrupt the hearing aid market! I have an idea for you!” No, they were just trying to build better switches. So the reason you want to nurture loonshots is to challenge beliefs. It’s not a — you want to use disruptive innovation if you’re a history professor and you’re writing about what happened in hindsight. Otherwise don’t use it. Yeah, Walton disrupted the retail industry, transistor disrupted everything. But that’s in hindsight. When you’re really there at the time, you nurture loonshots to challenge beliefs, to challenge accepted wisdoms. Some things that you think are absolutely true, maybe you’re right. But suppose you’re wrong. Do you want to read about it in a press release from your competitor, or would you rather be nurturing it in your own lab or trying it on yourself and seeing how it plays out? So that’s why you nurture loonshots.

So what can small teams or groups do? Well to succeed with anything, just the idea is a small fraction of it. If you think about a football field, the idea is getting you from your own goal, maybe to your own five yard line or your own 10 line. Just there’s a lot of ideas in the world. You want to be able to take an idea into a real product. You need people who understand the markets, who understand how to segment the market, who understand audiences, who understand how to build, or understand how to manufacture, or understand how to release, how to understand timelines and getting things done on time, on budget, on spec. And that’s the other 90 yards. So you need both.

And you can think of one as sort of the artist and one as sort of the soldier. You have artists that work on the crazy ideas and you have the soldiers that get the ball down the other 90 yards, and so you need both. And so that’s some kind of, one of the things that I get into is why companies often fail is that they don’t wear those two, they don’t understand the separation that you need for both. That you need to be motivated by two completely different things and you need to tailor the way you interact with the systems you design, the incentives, the metrics, totally different, almost exactly opposite for artists and soldiers. For artists, you want a high failure rate if you’re not trying stuff and failing stuff. For soldiers, you want a low failure rate. Like let’s go to military for aviation, the guys who are coming up with crazy ideas for new technology, if you want them to try lots of stuff and crazy things that nobody said could work. But the guys who are assembling planes, you don’t want them to launch 10 planes in the sky and say, “Well let’s see which eight fall and crash.” No. So it’s the exact opposite things you want to reward. So you need to separate your artists and your soldiers and design different tools and manage the balance between the two. So that’s if you’re a larger company.

Now you asked about what if you’re a smaller company or a solo. So you want to separate your artists and soldiers. You can, if you’re a larger company, you can separate that by role. If you’re a smaller company, you want to think about separating that by time. You want to be very mindful. This sort of comes back to wearing different hats. You want to be very mindful. We’re going to go into a zone where all we’re going to do is the art is created and we want to maximize failure. And then we’re going to step out of that zone when we’ve listed the hundred different ideas and picked the five, and we’re going to minimize failure. We want to get these five ideas done on time, on budget, on spec to customers. So you need to be very self aware of what zone are you in. And the confusing thing is when you’re running a small team, because you don’t have different people, you don’t have an artist and a soldier. Sometimes you do, but you don’t want to tell your artists, “All right, I need you to have a 98 percent success rate on your ideas.” Like that’s, “I need you to have two ideas on Monday, two ideas on Tuesday, three ideas on Wednesday.” You can’t schedule creativity.

The converse is when you’re dealing with your soldiers, you want to create those metrics. So in a small team or small group, if you can’t separate that by role, you want to separate that. We’re all going to put off our execution hat, our operational excellence hat, and we’re going to put on our crazy, artist, wacky, what ideas could kill our business? What are the things that are floating out there that we’re sure are not right? The loonshots. But if they were right, they would kill us. What are those things? What are embedded assumptions or beliefs about our customers?

Tim Ferriss: Right.

Safi Bahcall: … our competitors, our substitutes, the nature of our market or regulatory, whatever. We know that these are right. We know that our beliefs are true, but what’s the opposite? Suppose they’re wrong. What could somebody be doing to kill us? Let’s just take a week or whatever it is and think of all the things that we know we’re sure is true, what’s the opposite? And now let’s suspend disbelief like a movie. Let’s suspend disbelief. How might somebody, here’s all these reasons to dismiss it and why it could never be true. all the reasons people use to dismiss a loonshot, that’s why it’s a loonshot, like they made fun of Goddard. “Rockets can never fly in space. It’s against the laws of physics.” All these things that you’re sure are true, like The New York Times was sure Newton’s Laws of Physics applied and ruled out rocketry. All these things you’re sure are true — what if they weren’t? Or how might a really creative person get a way around that, and how might that kill us?

Let’s just take a week and walk through all the loonshots that are out there on our customers or our markets or products or whatever it is, whatever we’re doing, how might they kill us? And then if we identify those things, how can we flip that around and use that to knock out our competitors? So that’s like separating the artists and soldiers not by role, but by time.

Tim Ferriss: Yeah.

Safi Bahcall: And then now that we’ve done that, let’s take off that hat and now let’s focus on operational excellence, on time, on budget, on spec. Okay? This is not a moment for like innovative, dreamy. This is like deliver on time, on budget, on spec. And there you separate by time rather than by role if you’re a small company.

Tim Ferriss: So this is, and we’re going to wrap up in just a few minutes, but I want to highlight for people listening how tied together everything is that we’ve talked about throughout this session one of hopefully at least two, because I love hanging out with you and catching up. In the sense that whether it’s fast, bad and wrong …

Safi Bahcall: Right.

Tim Ferriss: Right? Spitting out your two shitty pages a day or whatever it might be. In other words, on an individual level, being clear on the hat that you’re wearing and segmenting by time or within an extremely large organization, segmenting by role between artists and soldiers and so on. There are ways to systematize your generation of ideas, vetting of ideas, execution of ideas. And one of the reasons I enjoy whether it’s having drinks, hanging out at your wedding, or simply batting around ideas with you is that you’re very good at asking questions that help with clear thinking, which helps with clear action or more effective action.

Would you be willing, not right now, but some other time to do a round two where we talk about how to bring a gun to a knife fight, which we kind of alluded to, right?

Safi Bahcall: Right.

Tim Ferriss: Incentives, how to apply incentives to other people, to yourself, to teams, et cetera, because this is really, really, really underappreciated and a whole bunch of other things that I’d love to talk to you about. Would you be willing to do that?

Safi Bahcall: Let’s do it.

Tim Ferriss: Okay. Awesome. Now, for those people who were only going to perhaps get this episode, I highly, highly recommend, and for those of you who listen to this show a lot, I don’t say that lightly that you grab a copy of Loonshots. It is incredibly pragmatic. It is very well written. I was really impressed because with all the time we’ve spent together, it’s like I haven’t, the identity that I have sort of painted on top of this avatar in my head called Safi is like scientist, entrepreneur, etc. I get sent a lot of books and I get sent a lot of books by my friends, too. And every time I get one I’m like, “Oh, God. I hope this isn’t garbage because it’s just going to be so uncomfortable to try to like dance around this somehow.” And it’s a damn good book.

Safi Bahcall: Thanks.

Tim Ferriss: It really is. So I encourage people, loonshots.com, take a look at the book. And if you’re like, “I still need to be sold,” okay. Go read up on Safi and you’ll be like, “Okay, there are probably additional things that I could learn from Safi and from the historical examples that you weave together, right?” It’s really the way that I like to learn personally and I think it’s the way a lot of humans learn as you pointed out, is through stories that illustrate points. And it’s tempting I think, and this is another thing that impresses me about you, is to, from the influence of, in some cases academics too, to speak in abstractions and conceptual frameworks without the real life sort of human glue that makes it memorable. And the memorable component is really important because if you don’t have the acronyms, the stickiness of these concepts, how the hell are you going to apply them when the time comes that they are actually important to implement? So check out Loonshots, @SafiBahcall on Twitter, SAFIBAHCALL. We will be continuing the conversation somehow some way.

Is there anything else you would like to say before we wrap up this round one? Any questions, comments, suggestions to the audience? Anything at all that you’d like to say before we wrap up this first portion?

Safi Bahcall: This was just a ton of fun to see you again and just catch up. So, yeah, looking forward to part two and look forward to having drinks together one of these days and …

Tim Ferriss: For sure.

Safi Bahcall: … catching up some more.

Tim Ferriss: All right, awesome. There’s so much more to explore. So folks, keep an eye out for round two. I’m going to twist some arms if necessary, bribe with alcohol if it’s called for and for links to everything that we’ve discussed in this episode, all the names mentioned, books, et cetera, authors and so on, you can go to the show notes, so Tim.Blog/podcast and just search Safi, SAFI or loonshot, loonshots and he will come right up and you’ll have all of it. And until next time, thank you for listening.

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