I had the honor of interviewing Tim Ferriss for the second time in the Design Matters studio. Since our last interview, his brand new book, Tribe of Mentors has just come out and he performed on the main stage at TED. We had (as per usual) a deeply personal talk about depression, perseverance, and (believe it or not), I got Tim to recite some poetry.
Debbie: It may take a village to raise a child, but when the child is grown up, what then? Where do they turn for advice and counsel to make their way through jobs, relationships, life? Tim Ferris says no one should go it alone. We all need mentors, and he brings many to choose from in his brand new book, "Tribe of Mentors Short Life Advice from the Best in the World." Tim Ferris is a four time "New York Times" bestselling author, and tech investor, and host of the wildly popular podcast, "The Tim Ferriss Show," which has been downloaded over 200 million times since its inception. He's here today on the other side of the mic and I have lots to ask him about his new book, his most recent TED talk, and life. Tim Ferriss, welcome back to "Design Matters."
Tim: Thank you for having me. It's all downhill after the intro. The secret to happiness low expectations, my dear listeners.
Debbie: Congratulations on your spectacular year. "Tools of Titans" debuted at number one on the New York Times bestseller list, and I think I called that in our last podcast.
Tim: You did. You did. The Nostradamus of publishing had called it.
Debbie: Your new TED talk has been viewed, at this moment, nearly four million times.
Debbie: Isn't it extraordinary?
Tim: It's been a really wild 12 months.
Debbie: Let's talk about your TED talk first. You introduce your talk by showing a cheerful picture of you from 1999 and describe that it was taken when you were a senior in college after a dance practice, when you were really, really happy. Then, in a startling turn of events, you state the following, "I remember exactly where I was about a week and a half later. "I was sitting in the back of my used minivan in a campus parking lot when I decided I was going to commit suicide. I went from deciding to full blown planning very quickly, and I came this close to the edge of the precipice. It's the closest I've ever come, and the only reason I took my finger off the trigger was thanks to a few lucky coincidences and, after the fact, that's what scared me the most the element of chance."
Debbie: Tim, my God, what happened in the week between the dance recital and being in your minivan?
Tim: I should take a step back and give a little bit of TED background that people haven't heard, and then I'll gladly answer that, but I'm going to tiptoe around it first. [laughs] I was going to do an entirely different TED talk. It was my first time on the TED main stage in the opening session, which is Broadcast Live to hundreds or thousands of movie theaters. I had an entirely different talk, which I scrapped entirely about a week before the night before the final rehearsal via video conference with Chris Anderson and everyone in the upper ranks of TED because the talk I had created was...it was a good talk, but it was safe. I felt it was a copout really late that night and that I had a moral obligation to talk about what I ended up talking about. I pulled an all nighter and did the rehearsal, just really shaky on. Chris, who's a really interesting character and just comprehensively a very interesting and accomplished man said, "Well, Tim, I have some bad news," very Chris. [laughs] "You're not going to be able to wriggle out of this one." [laughs] I go, "Oh, Well, here we go." Word to those who might give TED talks on really difficult subjects, you might want to give your family or parents a heads up about the subject matter which I forgot to do, and then they went to see it in the movie theater. Nonetheless, it wasn't so much what happened in between the week of that dance practice and then the decision, what's called seven days later. It was a confluence of many different things hitting me at once over, perhaps, a six week period. I had, for instance, suffered a devastating relationship loss. I had broken up with a girlfriend, or been broken up with, more accurately. I had, in fact, at that point, right after that dance practice or shortly thereafter, left Princeton for a year. If you want to dress it up, you could call it a sabbatical, but really what it was hitting pause because I was afraid I wasn't going to finish my senior thesis. There was a huge dispute with my then thesis advisor, and we don't have to get into all the weeds of the details, but he wanted me to incorporate about 60 to 80 pages of various studies in Japanese, which was my concentration within East Asian studies, into my already drafted thesis. To do that, I would have to rewrite, effectively, the entire thing. The thesis holds a very, I think, unusually heavily weighted position at Princeton. At the time, it was something like and I'm probably getting the numbers wrong but 20 25 percent of your four year departmental GPA. With one fell swoop, you could, at least in my mind, wipe out all of the hard work that went into many years. There were a handful of other things, but suffice to say, at that time I didn't know that, although I'd observed in certain ways, manic depression is genetically predisposed in my family to an almost absurd degree. It's called spinal tap, like 1 to 10, it's an 11 when I looked at my genome and the interpretation recently. I'm off campus. The class I was going to graduate with is graduating without me. I feel like the advisor's going to flunk me or give me a terrible grade because, when I informed him that I was taking a year off to test a few jobs and also to do a better job on the thesis, he got furious because [laughs] I think partially he wanted to incorporate my analysis of the studies into his own later presentations.
He said, "Well, this better be the best thesis I've ever seen. Now, get out of my office," basically. What I'm explaining is really the thinking at the time. Looking in the rear view mirror, it's like, "Well, boo hoo. A kid at Princeton, doing reasonably well. What's the big deal?" but I think that it's many times impossible to get that perspective when you most need it. For me, my family had supported me incredibly and was not wealthy. My parents never made more than 50 grand a year combined. In my head now, I go into this tailspin where I'm thinking, "My parents, my extended family have helped pay for this education. I've somehow put myself in a position where it's all going to get wiped with this thesis situation. Then, on the other hand, I'm a student at Princeton who's done well up to this point, and I feel miserable. If I'm not happy now, or can't figure out how to be happy, I'm never going to figure out how to be happy. So, perhaps I'm better off and the world is better off without someone so incapable coping with reality." Of course, that didn't lead anywhere terribly productive, but I started hitting the snooze button, and sleeping in, and so on. I recall the day before that minivan incident...This is more detail than you get in a TED talk, [laughs] certainly, because that's the whole TED talk. The TED talk is 14 minutes, and we get into other things. I went to a Barnes & Noble because I was drifting. I did have different types of work, but unfortunately for me, at the time, I was working for Berlitz, which I was excited about doing, redesigning some of their Japanese curriculum, but I expected I'd be working at headquarters. Then, they informed me, "No, no, no. This is a remote work arrangement, so you can work at home. Not really ideal when you have your thesis spread out all over the floor that is making you crazy and that you're completely blocked on, and no one else is around, and all of your friends are graduating. It's a recipe for really unstable mental states. At least in me. I went to Barnes & Noble just to try to clear my head somehow, and I was wandering around. I saw this book on a display table. It was of the Kevorkian variety. It was a how to book on assisted suicide for loved ones. I thought to myself, "That's a sign. That's what I've been looking for." I sat down. I always had my notebooks with me. For the first time this is going to sounds really weird, but I was so excited and relieved, because I was like, "These are the details that I need. I was just thinking about this. Maybe there's a way I can make it look like an accident. Maybe there's a way..." As soon as I went into planning mode, because I was really good at planning, which can be particularly hazardous to your health in a situation like this, I specked out all the scenarios. I had everything planned out. I was trying to figure out who, if I needed someone to help me, could I get to help me, but not in a way that they would feel guilty. It went on, and on, and on. The only reason that stuff didn't happen, there were a few contributing coincidences. The primary was that I, after reading that book, went into the bibliography. I was like, "Oh, I need to do further research. If I'm going to do this, let me do it properly.
Debbie: Oh, Tim.
Tim: I want to get an A plus in suicide, so let me go figure out the absolute best way to do this and to try to absolve my parents of any guilt that they might feel," which, of course, is ludicrous, but, in my state of delusion, that was the thinking. I went to Firestone Library at Princeton, this incredibly gigantic library, to look for one of the books in the bibliography. It was already checked out by another student. [laughs] There are a lot of suicides in these high pressure academic environments, but one of the dirty tricks...it's not a dirty trick. It's a negligent trick that a lot of the administrations deliberately or indirectly make is, if a kid seems unstable or spiraling into a dark place that puts them at risk, most universities try to get them off the university campus and clock as soon as possible. They encourage them to take time off, but they do not offer any support. Nonetheless, the point being I had forgotten to update my mailing address at the registrar. The way the library notifies you when a book comes in, thank god, back in the Pleistocene era, before [laughs] digital notifications, is via postcard. They sent a postcard, not to the apartment which I was living, but to my parents' address. My mom got this card saying, "Timothy Ferriss, this letter is to inform you that the book you requested, 'Such and Such How to Kill Yourself' has arrived at Firestone Library. Please pick up," and whatever it was. My mom called. I got this call from my mom. She was shaken up, but holding it together, and she asked me about it. I was fast enough on my feet that I tap danced, and I said, "Oh, that. You've nothing to worry about. So sorry that that caught you off guard. My friend goes to Rutgers. He doesn't have access to Firestone. He needed it for a blah blah blah research project, and that was for him." What it did, just hearing my mom's voice, is it snapped me out of it. I realized, "Wow, if I were to kill myself, even if I have no care for myself, even I would really love to kill myself, I can't do it.
It would be like taking 10 times the pain I feel and imposing it on all the people I care most about, that there was no magic trick, some sleight of hand that I could use to make my parents go, "Oh, no. Terrible, tragic accident, but we're not to blame." That trick doesn't exist. Here we are. That's it, and so when I say lucky coincidence, I'm not exaggerating.
Debbie: How did you recover from that particular bout of depression, aside from hearing your mom? Maybe it was just the fact that you were hearing how much love your mom had for you in her voice.
Tim: Yeah. I think there are a few different questions that we could consider. One is, why didn't you kill yourself? It was simply because that option had been removed from the table. That was no longer a defensible plan. Not for me, I didn't care about myself, but for other people.
Debbie: First of all, I want to say that I think there's some really interesting symmetry that you rewrote your TED Talk the night before the talk about an experience that was triggered by you having to rewrite your thesis. In the talk, before you talk about how you are able to cope with depressions, you reveal that most people have between 6 to 10 major depressive episodes in their lives. I didn't realize that this was so common.
Tim: I wanted to get my facts as right as I could if I'm going to cite any type of statistic. Looking at a fair number of sources that appeared to be reliable, that range of number of episodes kept coming up.
Debbie: That's incredible. You also talk about how you have suffered from 50 plus depressed episodes in your life and you've learned a lot from them. What have you learned from those episodes?
Tim: I should say I've learned a lot from my experiments with different approaches to resolving those episodes. Does that make sense?
Debbie: Yes, it does.
Tim: The episodes, [laughs] they're depressive episodes. They suck. They're terrible. [laughs]As I've become better at coping, either...For instance, mitigating the onset of, that's one piece. It's almost like you could treat it like the flu.
Tim: Lots of Echinacea. You can use something or you can spot the early indicators of onset, and you...
Debbie: What are those?
Tim: I think it's very individual. For me it would be difficult to explain physical lethargy. Just feeling listless, feeling tired is one. I think that other behavioral triggers include skipping breakfast for too many days in a row and causing biochemical wonkiness, where I might have extended low blood sugar, and then compensate by taking caffeine. Then I end of over caffeinating, which feeds into anxiety, and agitation, and, "Uh oh, here we go." Not a good cocktail. Those are a few. I would say perseverating on...and this we could unpack for months of talk therapy if we wanted. Maybe we'll do that someday over more wine. If I feel unfairly attacked or victimized in some way. It could be the smallest thing. In this day and age it could be someone who knows nothing about anything who implies that I'm somehow discriminatory in some way, or whatever. It's the Internet. That's the neighborhood you choose to walk through.
I get so righteously indignant and upset about that, but I simultaneously recognize the futility of [laughs] trying to wrestle a pig in the mud.
Debbie: Yeah, it makes you feel helpless.
Tim: It's not going to be a productive use of time. I have a lot of history, past trauma, and so on, that I think feeds into this. If I allow myself to be exposed to that too often, it's also a trigger to some chronic states that are really unhealthy. You're seeing that a lot now, quite frankly, in people who might normally view themselves as fairly put together. I have a number of friends we don't need to digress down this path who are almost giving themselves pre and posttraumatic stress disorder by overexposing themselves to the divisive aggression online. I have a number of friends who are normally, two years ago, very calm, very put together, who are so hair trigger about everything now because they have conditioned themselves to be that way by subjecting themselves to certain environments. Conversely, I try to take the advice of a good friend of mine, Naval Ravikant. Brilliant, brilliant man. Incredible investor and entrepreneur, and a really soulful, deep thinking [laughs] guy. He said to me once, "Rule number one of conflict resolution is don't spend a lot of time around people who are constantly in conflict." I will frequently subtract people from my life. Sometimes gently and diplomatically, and other times not so gently and diplomatically if I feel like they are feeding the dangerous tendencies of my lesser self. The words of Sharon Salzberg come to mind quite a bit more me, and, in particular, in the last year. It applies here. She is, for those who don't know her, thought of, I would say, as one of the five or six main people responsible for bringing Buddhist meditative practices to the West. One of her phrases is, "Before helping others, put on your own oxygen mask," or something along those lines. If you want to, for instance, love other people, help other people fully, you have to put on your oxygen mask first. I've been very, very proactive about curating the people around me, not necessarily for my self gain, or business purposes, nothing, but purely for psychological health. Those are a few things. The physical lethargy is probably the biggest cue. If I'm like, "Oh god, I want to sleep in," and boom. Before I know it, two days in a row I'm waking up around 10:00, or 11:00, or 12:00. That tends to trigger bad things. In fact, after I did my I haven't talked about this, but after I did my rehearsal, the day before that TED Talk, so the day before did a rehearsal, and I remember in the rehearsal everybody's so nervous. To lighten this up a little bit I'm jumping around, that's how my brain works if you ever go to TED as a speaker they have...I think they call it the calm down room. Something like that.
Debbie: Is it padded?
Tim: It's where you have the three or four speakers who are coming up next staged. If you ever want to freak out completely, go into the calm down room, because everyone's like, hyperventilating, and pacing. It's the absolute opposite of what you would need right before you go on stage. I bring that up because, in the rehearsal, I nailed it. I just nailed it. It was flawless. I remember asking, "Do you guys ever use the video from the rehearsal or piece it together in post afterwards?" They're like, "Oh no, we don't even record the rehearsals." I was like, "Oh, you're murdering me right now. The point I was going to make is, right when I got off stage, Ray Dalio was watching. He was also a speaker and he had to rehearse, himself. For those that don't know, Ray Dalio, founder of Bridgewater Associates, the largest hedge fund in the world, $160 billion under management. Fascinating guy. Really fascinating. He came up to me and was just so heartfelt and gracious in thanking me for it. I didn't understand why initially, but he mentioned that his son has gone through some extremely difficult times with manic depression, and we shared notes. It turned out that his son's conclusions and mine were very similar. For instance, what leads to waking up late and then, perhaps, getting you off kilter in terms of a schedule that encourages social interaction, and that is going to be really late. A lot of people who suffer from bipolar, it seems, go to bed really late. His son found that if he went to bed before 11:00 PM it was a really reliable way to stave off the onset of these episodes.
Debbie: When you're experiencing a depressive episode, how do you calibrate your internal life and your external life? For example, I went through a particularly difficult depressive time from September to February 2015/16. I remember meeting somebody on the street that I hadn't seen in a long time. She asked me how I was and I said, "Terrible," and I think I started crying. She said, "Oh my god, you seem fine on Facebook." I was like, "Everybody's fine on Facebook."
Tim: Everybody's Tom Brady and Gisele on Facebook.
Debbie: It was very clear to me at that point that I was living two lives. This internal life that maybe my friends and closest comrades knew about, and then the rest of the world, which thought everything was fine.
Tim: I haven't thought much about it, honestly. I will say that I have learned that if I think I'm slipping into a depressive period, one of the most important things to do is to schedule, in advance, group activities with friends, because the very self defeating tendency that I have is to go into isolation. I don't want to subject anybody to this. This is bullshit. I know what it is. I'll sort it out myself." That is not the right instinct. As soon as I'm like, "It looks like I'm getting into some funky period..." In general I've tried to do this, is to, for instance, have at least one group dinner with two, three, four friends per week. I do now, these days, enjoy cooking, so all the better if I can do something that requires my attention, lest I chop off some fingers, [laughs] because then the focus on present state awareness will help me to not perseverate on whatever silly loop happens to be replaying in my head. As a preventative measure, I do think that daily AM, first thing in the morning, meditative practice 10 to 20 minutes, is very, very, very helpful. Meditation needs a rebrand. The word is so repellent to so many people, and it was to me for decades. The way that I view it is that you are, depending on the type or style that you use and that could be transcendental meditation, it could be Vipassana insight, it could be using an app like Headspace, which I think is a great place for many people to start for, say, 10 minutes a day for 10 days. The primary skill, I view that you are not just learning but practicing or developing. Like you might go to the gym to prepare for a sport, is observing your thoughts without being tumbled by them. You might be sitting on the couch and it's like, "All right," you're thinking about somebody who cut you off in traffic the day before, or a coworker sent a snarky email, or you're just sitting there thinking about whatever, [laughs] the porn you saw two days ago, and you're like, "Why am I thinking about this for 18 out of 20 minutes? Really?"
Debbie: It's porn. [laughs]
Tim: It's the porn. There's a price for it. The point being you're observing. Instead of reacting immediately to whatever that thought is, you almost act like a viewer in a movie theater. You go, "Huh, interesting choice, director. Hmm." Then you just watch it. Then, like a cloud, it slowly morphs into something else and you don't have to push it away. You don't have to hate yourself because of it. You don't have to get angry. By practicing that, then you are into the far messier real world and in between, say, an event, a trigger, a stimulus, somebody saying something really rude [laughs] at Starbucks, it doesn't matter what it is. Instead of immediately reacting, you have some tiny gap that you learn to widen where you say, "Pause," millisecond or two, "Now I choose my response." That helps to catch a lot of the downward spirals before they become a spiral.
Debbie: I actually find that, if I'm in a spiral, one thing that's helped in getting older is because they've been somewhat repetitive over the course of my life I no longer feel that I'm going to have one that lasts for the rest of my life. I know they're episodic and there's some comfort in just letting it play out and knowing that I will recover.
Tim: I recently did a 10-day silent meditation retreat, which I do not recommend for everybody. It was one of the harder things I've ever done.
Debbie: No words for 10 days.
Tim: Not only speaking, but no reading, no writing, no music.
Debbie: No eye contact, right?
Tim: You're allowed to make eye contact, but most people choose not to. You have nowhere to run and hide.
Debbie: What did you learn about yourself?
Tim: That can be round 17 on the podcast. But, I will say that whatever you think you have locked away and compartmentalized, whatever damage you've received that you feel like you have safely exiled to a place where it will never return, surprise, surprise.
Tim: [laughs] It's right there waiting for you. You become very unlayered in a process like that. You end up dealing with everything. The reason I brought it up, though, is to say, when you first start observing your thoughts...You can do it in a very structured prescriptive way so it's not really nebulous and woo woo, and there's not necessarily a bunch of religious overtones inserted.
Debbie: It must have been like you're tripping.
Tim: Yeah, and one of the staff members from the retreat center said, "Do you want me to go in and get you..." I was just getting some sparkling water, which I hadn't also had in 10 days and it made me gag and almost [laughs] spew everywhere. I think my body just wasn't used to it. I said, "No, I'm fine. I'm good. I can handle it." I walked in and it was so overwhelming. What I also noticed is that, because I've been inside my own head for 10 days straight, I was suddenly much more interested in everyone else. I wasn't thinking about my usual loops, and I was looking at people. This could have just been a hallucination on my part, but I don't think so. I just saw so much pain and anguish in almost everyone. You could see it. They're holding it together, but like, "Fuck, what's going on underneath the surface there?" I think part of reason I was also predisposed to that is, in the solitary, by definition, you're not talking, so you also think, "God, am I the only one going totally crazy right now?" Completely crazy. Like, "I'm worried I'm going to come out of here and I won't be able to function because my nerves are being so exposed." Then you break the silence and you start talking to people and you're like, "Oh, no. I wasn't the only one." You hear people crying in the meditation sessions and people are really losing it. That's never really been my style. I'm not saying it's good or bad. I think it's actually worse in some ways. It's how I've compensated through my life by putting on all sorts of armor because the armor doesn't just keep things out. It keeps all sorts of stuff in. I'm not sure where, exactly, I was going with this but, suffice to say, if you think you're uniquely fucked up and flawed, you're not. You're not, at all. What I found in these depressive periods is the most dangerous mental frame that I get into is saying something like that to myself. Like, "Wow. Like, you're really fucked." Not only are you depressed, but you're getting angry that you're depressed.
Debbie: Or ashamed.
Tim: Yeah. Then that just makes you more...It becomes this almost tragically comic, [laughs] 15 person one man act in my head. I would just say, continue with that, and getting better at preventing it, and shortening the duration. You asked about duration. I've had episodes back in the day that were, geez, six months, a year long. These days, I still expect it to come visit, but it's generally much shorter in duration because I have better coping tools. I have better strategies now. Particularly, again, making myself accountable to other people. Like, "Oh, shit. OK, I feel a little bit of turbulence in the force. Let me schedule two or three" whatever, "tennis lessons a week with someone, and then a dinner, and then a this, and then a this." I mentioned the caffeine being an issue. Booze, I like my booze, but that can become a very unhelpful force if you start to really self-medicate with that. The physical training, in a way, offsets that, if that makes sense, because I'm working out so hard to prevent the onset, I don't feel like drinking a lot because I know, "Oh, geez. I gotta wake up at 8:00 in the morning tomorrow to do an hour and a half of fill in the blank exercise. Yeah. No, I'm good with one glass." Those are a few thoughts. I do think, if we're also going to look at some of the silver lining, that...OK, look at a book like "Daily Rituals," for instance. This is really common among people who strive to do anything creative. It seems like the default.
Debbie: Well, you have to be sensitive to perceive the world in a creative, artistic way. Why wouldn't you experience sensitivities that are sad?
Tim: Yeah. If you're in the mode of exploring the edges and the extremes, it makes sense that you will experience or inflict those on yourself. It's not to romanticize it. If you could tell me, "Hey, I can wave a magic wand and you can do all the creative stuff that you do, and you're just gonna be like a smiling Buddha all the time instead," I'd be like, "Yeah, I'll take that pill. Sure."
Tim: But, here we are.
Debbie: I think we should start a new website called ShameBook. Everybody signs up and, instead of posting all the great things that happen in their lives, they post when they're scared, and nervous, and angry at themselves.
Tim: "Here's a photo of me in my tidy-whities after eating an entire box of Ho Hos."
Debbie: Exactly. The whole world could join in on the shame spiral together.
Tim: [laughs] Oh, God.
Debbie: Let's talk about the tool. Your Ted talk focuses on a tool that completely changed your life in 2004. You said you found it because of two things. A very close friend, a young man your age, unexpectedly died of pancreatic cancer, and your then girlfriend who you thought you were going to marry left you. The words that you used in the talk that the tool found you. I wanted to know, do you believe in fate?
Tim: Ooh, good question. [sighs] Fate.
Debbie: I love when you sigh like that, Tim.
Tim: I'm going to redirect and just talk about the exercise which is fear setting, which I will defend, if necessary.
Debbie: What is fear setting and how do we do it?
Tim: Fear setting is called fear setting because we've all heard that you can't accomplish your goals unless they are specific. This is true, I think. You need a really clear target. You have a scope, and there's a target, crosshairs has to be in focus. If you want to overcome your fears, they also have to be really specific. That's the point of this exercise, and it's real simple. If you take a piece of paper, 8 and a half by 11, whatever, journal, and you turn it lengthwise, so you're looking at it kind of landscape view, and you create three columns. Then at the very top of the paper, you write, "What if I," dot, dot, dot. And the dot, dot, dot or whatever you're considering doing that you've either been pushing off or that's causing you anxiety. What if I quit my job? What if I started this company? What if I asked so and so to marry me? What if I ended this five year relationship? Oh, God. I've done that. Not easy. What if I took my first vacation in 10 years?
Debbie: That's one of your fears?
Tim: That was one of mine. That was the one that I used for the illustration, and I'll use that again. I don't expect everybody to watch TED Talk even though I would enjoy it if...
Debbie: I highly recommend it.
Tim: I would enjoy it if you did.
Debbie: And it's 13 minutes.
Tim: Yeah, it's short. It's really short. For people who don't want to write all of this down, just for what it's worth, if you want to see the written description of this exercise, you can go to tim.blog/ted, and it's all available for free. But, in my case, I wanted to take a 4 week break because, as you mentioned, my long term girlfriend had left me. I was melting down physically. I was using stimulants to keep going during the day. I was using sedatives and alcohol to go to sleep at night. Not an ideal sustainable situation, particularly given my past experiences. I knew this was really riding the razor's edge. I had planned to take a four week trip to London to get out of my routine to either shut the business down, wind it down, get a real job or figure out a way to redo all the systems and extricate myself as a bottleneck. But I didn't take the trip. Instead, I thought about all the things that could go wrong in a very nebulous way. "Well, you know, I will get some...Like, the IRS will send me something. I'll miss it, and then I'll get audited and then my roommate won't pay the rent, then my stuff will get pulled out and thrown into storage, and I'll get kicked out, and da da da da," which seem specific, but they're not. What you do, what if I took a 4 week vacation, eight week vacation? What if I whatever? Then in the first column, you have Define. You're going to write down at least 15, let's say, very specific bad things that could happen. They need to be specific. That's the whole point. While I'll miss some type of notification from the IRS, and they'll audit my business, and it'll be some type of legal complication, and I'll get sued, and game over. That's one thing.
Debbie: So, basically the results like, "End up homeless in the street?
Tim: That would be one. Number two might be something like...It could be anything. My friends will think I'm crazy, and when I come back I'll be completely out of the social loop, and even if I figure it out blah, blah, blah. Or, for me, I'll get to London, it's going to be rainy and dark, and I'll spin into a depression. Then I will take a four week "vacation," get nothing done, come back, and I will have hurt my business and got nothing done. It's a column of 15 of those, at least. Take some time. This is worth at least an hour, believe me. Every time I've done this at critical junctures in my life, it has fundamentally changed my life and helped me to choose, I think, the right fork. Next column, so we went through define. The next is prevent. For each of those bullets you've come up with what could you do to prevent them or decrease the likelihood of them happening even one percent? Possibly, what could you do? I could change my mailing address for the IRS stuff to a UPS store, and then I could pay them to scan all the mail and email it to me. This is back in the day. There are now services that do this for you. That should actually do it even though I'm checking email once a week that kind of solves the problem. Then in other cases maybe it's not as clear for the depression. I could potentially change location. Maybe I go to Spain instead, or maybe I go somewhere in the US that's sunny. You progressively can see how ludicrous your fears are when you start to put them under a microscope. Ludicrous is a strong word, but defeatable, reversible, and that's the third column. We have define, prevent, and then you have repair. In the last column it's like, "All right, hey, shit happens." Let's say you do all your fancy defensive pre emptive work and this happens regardless. What do you do? What could you do to either get back on your feet temporarily or reverse the damage? Again, even one percent. Not talking about 100 percent. Now you don't feel hopeless and helpless. You actually have an option. Then so on and so forth down the list.
Debbie: That's the define, prevent, repair page.
Tim: Exactly. That's the first and one of the most important. The second page is What would be the benefits of an attempt or a partial win? It's very easy to view failure on success in binary terms, but the results are seldom binary. As James Cameron would say, and I'm paraphrasing, if you aim high enough, you will fail above everyone else's success. For instance, the vacation, the starting of a business. What are the benefits of an attempt or a partial win? Well, you could develop very specific...You want a longhand journal on this. Give it time. I use bullets because that's just [laughs] what I like to do, but it could be longhand. Really dig, don't just dismiss it. For instance, I'll give you some leads. What are the skills or relationships you might develop that could transcend that project or decision and apply to other things in your life later? Those snowball in a really beneficial way. How would it change? Even if it failed, but you tried it and you were able to recover from it. You start a business, doesn't work out. How does that change your, perhaps, conception of what is possible? Even if you try it, doesn't work, but you learn a bunch, you develop a bunch of new relationships, and then you have to take a temporary bartending job to get back on your feet. Well, hey, you're alive. You can get back at bat.
Debbie: I think it's important to be able to test yourself to know that you can rely on yourself.
Tim: Yeah, and it might give you confidence in your own ability to improvise with uncertainty. This is a big one. A lot of people will go to MBA programs, or get law degrees, or graduate school, or follow a predictable career path. If they don't dabble in the sandbox that is something with uncertainty, they can very often become or feel paralyzed because they haven't conditioned themselves, just like in the sleeping bag eating the oatmeal for a week, wearing the same pair of jeans for a week, wearing a ridiculous goatee to get used to people ridiculing me so I don't care.
That's trainable. It's like getting a suntan. It's a progressive conditioning. There's that. Maybe you just become more comfortable with uncertainty. That is a huge gift that you can give yourself. The fact of the matter is, for instance, my first few business ventures failed abysmally, horribly in a financial capacity, but the skills, and relationships, and so on still serve me to this day. The question, "What are the benefits of an attempt or a partial win?" is really important so that your bar for worthwhile isn't, "I'm Babe Ruth and I'm the home run king." That's something that I've seen myself and other people do as a way to rationalize staying the course, whatever the status quo is.
Debbie: You talk about how important it is to consider what the atrocious cost of the status quo is. That is something that I think is really beneficial in this exercise.
Tim: Yeah, and that's page three. Page three, which is, in some ways, I'm not going to say the most valuable page, but maybe my favorite, because it's so rare. This is something that I've certainly borrowed and adapted from other people, specifically Tony Robbins, who I've had the great privilege of getting to know over the last couple years. He's one of those people that you're more impressed by the better you get to know them. This page is, in some ways, influenced by his thinking. Last page What is the cost of inaction? Because we very often look at the potential benefits of winning, and then the things that could go wrong if we try to change something. We don't consider the sometimes atrocious costs of just continuing to do what you're doing. What are the costs—physical, emotional, financial, psychological—to not just you, but the people around you and the people you love 6 months from now, 12 months from now, three years from now, five years from now? What does that look like? In many cases it's a fucking disaster, but, unless you put it on paper, it's this black cloud phantasm that just floats around in your head in a very unproductive way. Once you put it on paper, and then you can see it, it's like, "Wow, all right." [laughs] Even if the answer to the first two pages was, "Wow, this still seems like a shitty bet," once you go through the cost of an action you're like, "Actually, the cost of an action almost guaranteed cost if an action is 10 times worse than doing anything else, so I have to do something. I have to change something." That's the exercise. Certainly, in the time that I just took to describe it, you could do the whole exercise, probably. It's worth spending some time on. It's been incredibly critical for making what, in my head, I had—I'm not going to say manufactured, but—elaborated upon as very difficult, unknowable decisions, almost, into very concrete, very clear next steps.
Debbie: You've said that it's helped you achieve all of your biggest wins and helped you with all of your biggest averted disasters. I want to talk about your new book, Tribe of Mentors. What made you decide to write a new 600 plus page book?
Tim: [laughs] The Genesis stories of these books have some commonalities. The first is that I almost always write books that I can't find myself, because I find writing really difficult and usually very painful, but, if I can't find the book that I need, I'm too impatient or fill in the blank adjective at this point to not then reach out to experts and try to just put it together.
Debbie: The Tribe of Mentors is 130 people that you have reached out to, understanding that they were people that could help other people in a vast array of topics?
Tim: Right, and it was a dream list, because the advice that I received when I was just getting started and that I give, that I perhaps have found most valuable, is you are the average of the five people you associate with most. I wanted to give people a choose your own adventure buffet of people they could choose from. All of them are incredible and range from, say, Kelly Slater, the most decorated surfer of all time, to Dara Torres she has 23 medals in the Olympics to David Lynch, the director, and to Ben Stiller.
Debbie: You start the introduction with the revelation that you were about to become 40 and you had no plans for after becoming 40.
Tim: Right. Good news, bad news. Tim doesn't off himself. Tim never thought he was going to make it to 40, and then I arrive at 40, which, for me, wasn't actually a big deal. Maybe I'll have delayed onset panic, but I don't think so. I take care of myself physically. I feel good. I feel like the 40s are actually going to be a really good ride for me, knock on wood. But, I had a number of friends unexpectedly die in a really concentrated fashion, within a 12 month period. In fact, one of the mentors in the book, Terry Laughlin, very sadly passed away a few weeks ago, also from pancreatic cancer. Good God. It struck me that 40, symbolically, could serve as a good excuse or reason just to hit pause, and really reassess, and ask a lot of big questions. Refine what I want to say no to, and get better at saying no, and getting, perhaps, better at saying yes to the very few things that I would have to define as most important to me. Rather than try to figure it all out on my own, which has been my somewhat unnecessarily labor intensive habit in the past, I said, "Well, after doing the podcast and meeting all these various people, why don't I just reach out to the people I thought were demigods when I was in high school or college. And put together this eclectic dream list and ask them all these questions that I'm struggling with?" That's what I did.
Debbie: I'd like to talk to you about a couple of the questions. In one question you asked whether your goals were your own or simply what you thought you should want. What did you discover in that investigation about your goals?
Tim: A lot of them were not mine. Sometimes people absorb goals or belief systems from their parents. I think he's a little heavy handed sometimes, but it's Richard Dawkins who said we should never say a Muslim child or Jewish child. We should say a child of Jewish parents, because that's something that they are taught. I think that, as humans, we've all grown up with certain labels or words. Maybe we grew up and everybody in the house said Democrat, Democrat, Democrat in a positive way. Maybe we grew up in a house where it's the opposite. Who knows what the keywords were. As far as goals go, I realized, and I'm still realizing this, that many of the goals I pursued so intensely were not my own. I was unclear on what I wanted, so I looked at how people were competing and tried to find games where I could win.
I don't think this will surprise you, given our background and our conversations. I spent most of my life, until very recently, to put it mildly, having a very low regard for myself. I did not care for myself. I would say hated myself and felt anger towards myself as a primary state.
Debbie: That breaks my heart, I have to say.
Tim: Yeah, but that's what it was. The way that I spoke to myself in my head for 30 plus years is so belligerent, harmful, and hurtful that I would never use that tone. I don't think I've ever used that tone with any other human being. Suffice to say...Where was I going with that? Oh, right. What I decided to do in lieu of loving myself, which seemed super self-indulgent and ridiculous, was to develop myself into a sharp instrument of competition. It was like, "OK, now my pride," joy isn't the right word, "will come from developing an ungodly capacity for pain, and outworking everyone, and winning. Who knows where that comes from? I suspect I know, but it's not very helpful for people listening to get into that right now. I chose many goals, and arbitrary financial targets, and worlds to explore because I thought could go harder than anyone else, take more than anyone else, and win.
Debbie: What have you discovered in the process?
Tim: I've discovered in the process that you take a lot of bullets and sustain a lot of damage, number one. That any type of elation, which is also not the right word, because I never did it for the joy of winning. I did it for the relief of not losing. Those are really different. What I've learned is that...Well, there are a lot of things I've learned, because I know we're bouncing around quite a bit. As it relates to everything I just said in the last few minutes, number one is to seek goals and paths that excite and energize you, not just paths that give you some type of temporary relief. That's number one. Number two is that, if everyone is competing for something or claims to be striving for something, it's probably very poorly defined and may mean, in fact, that the ladder you're climbing is leaning against the wrong wall, so who gives a shit if you get to the top of that ladder? [laughs] Last, as it relates to the goal selection, I would say before you idolize someone or emulate their path, look at their life as holistically as possible, because you may find...This is very true, I...It's very unfashionable to say, "Well, guys do this and girls do that," but I'm going to do it, because who the fuck are we kidding? Work in progress, but I will tell you, I think Tim of 12 months ago and Tim of right now are two very different people. In a good way, I hope. We'll see.
Debbie: It sounds like you're really exploring and embracing a whole new way of thinking about yourself.
Tim: Yeah, and realizing, [heavy sigh] in some senses...Patton Oswalt —a very well known comedian—was one of the contributors to the new book. He's had some very difficult experiences. His wife died, I want to say, a year and a half, two years ago. He suffered with depression. He's definitely had his own demons. Brilliant, incredible performer.
For those people who, like me, love "Ratatouille" the movie, he was also the voice of Remy the rat. I asked him what his favorite failure was or a failure that had set the stage for later success. He said and I'm paraphrasing, of course, "Every night I ate it on stage, bombed, and woke up the next morning and the world hadn't ended." I spent most of my life feeling like I needed to fight and run my head through walls because there was no safety. I was like, "All right, fuckers. If there's no safety, I'm going to go Wolverine, and I'm going to learn to fight. You're not going to want to fight me because, even if you beat me, I have no self regard, so you're going to have to go through hell and back, so good luck." That's how I was programmed.
Debbie: A lethal weapon.
Tim: Yeah, and what I've realized, I think, is that when you put that much armor on, you're not guaranteeing that you won't be hurt because, let's just say, to keep going with the [laughs] metaphor, your head's exposed. You have Achilles heel, and so on, exposed. It's not going to prevent all the damage, but it will guarantee that you keep all that dark shit inside, and, by the way, maybe in my advancing years, with my Fu Manchu elfin beard that I have, that almost everything is survivable. By putting that amount of armor on, really the outcome of that is just making yourself a victim of all of the things that you will not be able to let go of. Maybe that's really abstract and people are like, "Man, I thought he was going to talk about email autoresponders. What the fuck?" but that's been my experience. I talk a lot in terms of to do lists, priorities, and businesses, looking for that lead domino, but had never really thought about it, because I don't view myself as a trauma specialist or anything like that, certainly. I'd never really considered the implications from an emotional standpoint. That is the homework assignment for me and I think not to...I'm not a doctor, not a therapist, don't play one on the Internet, but I think it's probably a good homework assignment, also, for a lot of people who are listening to this and being like, "Wow. Yeah, that's kind of me in some sense." That doesn't mean seek out Tim Ferriss. [laughs] It means seek out professionals and resources that can really give you some hope and show you what tools might be a good starting point. Dip your toe in the water, like the loving kindness mediation, where it's not just one of your friends or family members. It's some version of your past self.
Debbie: I want to ask you if you'll read two things for me. The first thing I think would be helpful for our listeners is to really get a sense of not just the mentors that you have in the book. You've already shared quite a few of the names of the people that you've enlisted to answer the questions, but what the questions are because you, yourself, state, "The older you get, the more time you spend on crafting better questions." You asked all of the contributors the same questions. They didn't have to answer them all, but there were 11 questions you asked. I think that this is, in many ways, the best way for our listeners to really be able to understand the type of content that's in this book.
Tim: As I go through these, if it's helpful, I can also maybe add a little bit of color commentary as to why these questions are important.
Tim: Some of them will seem anything but important. They'll actually seem really trivial. [laughs] I can explain why. The first two questions start off reasonably light. They're very, very, very specific because I'm sending, keep in mind, this request to some of the busiest people in the world. If I start off with something really heavy... [laughs]
Debbie: What is the definition of life?
Tim: Yeah. They're going to go, "Oh, fuck. I don't have time for this shit." They're going to be like, "Tim, I'd really love to, but I'm out of bandwidth. Good luck." You got to get the foot in the door, give them a little Scooby snack, give them the positive re enforcement of allowing them to give you a specific answer, and then you reel in the marlin. It's got to be a long game.
The first one is "What is the book or books you've given most as a gift, and why? Or, "What are one to three books that have greatly influenced your life?" Either of these is a better question than what are your favorite books, because the people I'm asking this question of have read hundreds of thousands of books. "What are your favorite books?" number one, is going to lead them to probably just pull something out of the hat that they read in the last year or two.
Second, anyone who's well known...This is actually good training for, I think, an aspiring journalist. For instance, anyone who's really well known is going to hesitate to answer "What is your favorite book?" because they're going to be afraid of getting quoted, having it in Wikipedia forever, and then looking at it for the rest of their life and saying, "God, if I'd only five minutes to think about it, I wouldn't have given that stupid answer." [laughs] Make it easy. Make it low risk. "What is the book or books you've given the most as a gift, and why?" is the key because they almost always have one to three go to books. Next, and this is for both the person answering and the readers, because the deep stuff, the profound stuff, the hard, dark stuff, all of that is the main course, but it also requires a lot of digestion. I want, for instance, people reading it to be able to go, "Question, answer, boom. Amazon Prime, fuck yeah, I got this cool thing that's gonna help me out," as an example.
The next one is "What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months?" Then we get everybody to answer that, or people who choose to. One of my favorite things is going on Amazon and getting all of these things before my book comes out, when most of them will sell out.
Next question. When people have asked me, for instance, "If you had to choose one of these," and some people did; they're like, "I can't even answer three of four of these"— "what's one that you want me to answer?"—It would be this one. "How has a failure or apparent failure set you up for later success? "Do you have a 'favorite failure' of yours?" for all the reasons we're already talked about, so I won't get into it.
Now, the next question is one of my reader and listener favorites, but you cannot open with this, and I know that because I've tested it and people just bail. "If you could have a giant billboard anywhere with anything on it, metaphorically speaking, getting a message out to millions or billions of people, what would it say, and why?" A lot of these parenthetical bits are important because, A, they buy the person time and, B, they de risk the question.
Next one, "What is one of the best or most worthwhile investments you've ever made?" That could be time, could be money, could be energy. Another thing that I do, for those who might be interviewing people and, by the way, you're always interviewing people is I provide sample answers. That's super, super key for two reasons. One, if they're busy muckety muck person and they're just like, "Ah. Tim Ferriss. This kid again. What does he want? All right, I'm going to give him a two word answer." Then I'm like, "Oh, by the way, sample answer from equally impressive muckety muck who gave me three awesome paragraphs." They're like, "Fuck," which is good. B, for related reasons, it's social proof. They're like, "OK. All right. This is a real thing." Next, "What is an unusual habit or an absurd thing that you love?" This is a fun one. I try to keep writing of my books fun by inserting weird things like this, sort of the spirit animal is Tools and Titans, just for shits and giggles, honestly, because writing is hard, at least for me. What this also does is firmly establishes that everybody is completely crazy. [laughs] Normal people are just crazy people you don't know well enough yet. On a related note, I read a quote recently from someone named Ram Dass, who has a crazy story, if you want to look at the background of this person, Ram Dass, but his...
Debbie: Is it Baba Ram Dass?
Tim: Yeah, Ram Dass. Former Harvard professor, associated with Timothy Leary, then renamed...It's a whole thing. The quote was, "If you think you're enlightened, go spend a week with your family." Everybody is nuts. Next, "In the last five years, what new belief, behavior, or habit has most improved your life?" If I had to choose two questions from this, this would probably be the second. Next, "What advice would you give a smart, driven college student about to enter the so called real world? What advice should they ignore?" The ignore one is important, because what you say no to, the conventional wisdom that is actually very destructive, that you should avoid, is often what determines what you can do and the advice you can follow. Next, similar, "What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?"
Next, "In the last five years, what have you become better at saying no to?" Then the follow up on that was, "What tips or recommendations would you have? What has helped you recently to get better at saying no?"
The last one, which I am really happy was included, and was a new addition is, "When you feel overwhelmed, or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do?" because it doesn't matter what your grand ambitions are and how incredible your plan is if you end up in some corner of darkness and can't get yourself out.
Those are the questions. I expected to get really short, [sighs] politely curt answers and man, oh man, did I get [laughs] some awesome answers.
Debbie: You did. 600 plus pages from, as you had stated, some of the best in the world answering really wholeheartedly, with great detail and great humility, these questions.
Tim: Not everyone said, "Sure, I want to be in the book."
Debbie: Actually, there were a couple of people that said no and you included their no responses. Let's look at one.
Tim: If we were to fear set at this—and I actually did do this—like, "Well, what if I reach out, and I get rejected by all these people, and I want to develop a relationship with them, but now I've blown it, and ahh." Internal bullet ricochet. Let's put it on paper. "Well, what could I do?" and I started getting rejections, and I was like, "Oh. Oh, poor me. Eeyore. Ooh." Then I said, "Wait a second. Wait a minute. Wait. Wait. There's actually an idea here for how I might repair this." It was in response to Wendy MacNaughton. Incredible illustrator. Also, just hilarious. Awesome woman.
Debbie: She wrote you quite a rejection letter which you printed.
Tim: Yes. She sent me a fantastic rejection letter that was so thoughtful, and it was so Juno in how it just grabbed the intention and then moved me where it wanted to move me, and I ended up with no hard feelings and totally cool. I read it and then I said, "OK. No problem. I totally understand." Then I read it again and I was like, "Wait a minute. I should put this in the book" because one of the questions is about how do you say no, and she just said no, and it's great, so here's...
Debbie: Read that for us.
Tim: "Hi, Tim. Gah. OK, I've been battling with this and here's the deal. After five intense years of creative output and promotion, interviews about personal journeys and where ideas come from, after years of wrapping up one project one day and jumping right into promoting another the next...I'm taking a step back. I recently maxed out pretty hard and, for the benefit of my work, I gotta take a break. Over the past month, I've cancelled contracts and said no to new projects and interviews. I've started creating space to explore and doodle again, to sit and do nothing, to wander and waste a day and, for the first time in five years, I'm finally in a place where there is no due date tied to every drawing. No deadline for ideas and it feels really right. So, while I really want to do this with you, I respect you in your work, and I'm honored that you'd ask me to participate, and as capital S stupid as it is for me professionally not to do it, I'm going to have to say thank you, but I gotta pass. I'm simply not in a place to talk about myself or my work right now. Crazy for a highly verbal only child to say. Hopefully, we get a chance to talk somewhere down the line. I promise any thoughts I'll have for you then will be far more insightful than anything I can share with you right now. I hope the space created by my absence is filled by one of the brilliant people I suggested in my previous Email," this is Tim talking now several of which ended up in the book, "and, really, thank you so much for your interest. I'll be kicking myself when the book comes out, when and if not."
That, ladies and gentlemen, is how a professional artist gives a good decline. I wanted to include that, and there are a few others. Neal Stephenson, the science fiction writer. His decline is [laughs] perfect Neal. He was just talking about a five headed hydra in his rejection letter. I'm like, "Thank you. I love this."
Debbie: That's when you know somebody is a good writer, when they can bring even a rejection letter to life in a way that no one else can.
Tim: Yeah, and to do it in a way also that is very clear. There's no ambiguity. It's not, "I really can't do this, but maybe if you ping me next week..." There's none of that. It's very clearly a rejection, but it's handled so deftly that I end up liking her more than before I received it.
Debbie: The thing that I like so much about the book is that there are so many perspectives. You even talk about this in the introduction. Not every answer is going to be for everyone, but there's so much variety. It shows the myriad ways that humans engage, and create, and are frustrated, and combat fear. It's just a really remarkable book, and I really want to thank you for writing it.
Tim: Thank you.
Debbie: The last question I have for you is about my absolute favorite entrant, one of the mentors in a Tribe of Mentors. It's Jerzy Gregorek...
Debbie: ...who is the winner of four World Weightlifting Championships, the co founder of UCLA's Weightlifting Program, and the acclaimed Happy Body Program, and is a published, highly regarded poet. I got very excited when you said that you've been reading poetry now. In response to that final question, question 11, "When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?" he responded that he has 11 go to poems that he reads whenever he is feeling depressed, and states that, "Usually two poems are enough to make me feel better and restore love in my heart." I went to read them all and I fell especially in love with the poem "Eating Alone" by Li Young Lee. I was wondering if you would consider reading it for our listeners now.
Tim: I'm happy to read it. I am nervous about reading it. As a delay tactic, I'm going to read it but, I want to give a little bit of background on Jerzy because this guy is awesome and awesomely hilarious. He came to the US as a political refugee from Poland after suffering all sorts of horrible things. His mentor was actually kidnapped and killed a pastor by the government and ended up in LA with his wife, with no money, sleeping on floors, and they've created an incredible life for themselves. His wife also, by the way, has five World Records.
Eating Alone, poem picked by Jerzy Gregorek, subsequently picked by Debbie Millman, written by Li Young Lee:
"I’ve pulled the last of the year’s young onions.
The garden is bare now. The ground is cold,
brown and old. What is left of the day flames
in the maples at the corner of my
eye. I turn, a cardinal vanishes.
By the cellar door, I wash the onions,
then drink from the icy metal spigot.
Once, years back, I walked beside my father
among the windfall pears. I can’t recall
our words. We may have strolled in silence. But
I still see him bend that way-left hand braced
on knee, creaky-to lift and hold to my
eye a rotten pear. In it, a hornet
spun crazily, glazed in slow, glistening juice.
It was my father I saw this morning
waving to me from the trees. I almost
called to him, until I came close enough
to see the shovel, leaning where I had
left it, in the flickering, deep green shade.
White rice steaming, almost done. Sweet green peas
fried in onions. Shrimp braised in sesame
oil and garlic. And my own loneliness.
What more could I, a young man, want."
Debbie: Tim Ferriss reading poetry on Design Matters. What more could I want? Tim Ferriss, thank you so much for coming back to Design Matters, and thank you for your warmth, and your generosity, and your wonderful spirit. Tim Ferriss's new book is called Tribe of Mentors: Short Life Advice from the Best in the World. To find out more about Tim Ferriss, go to his website, timferriss.com, and listen to his amazing podcast, "The Tim Ferriss Show." This is the 13th year I've been doing Design Matters, and I'd like to thank you for listening. Remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I'm Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.