I began my career as a reporter before we started shoveling news online, so I've been interviewing a while. Actually, it's been a while, but I know a good interview from a bad interview, for sure.
One of my first professional interviews was with Tish Hinojosa. It was awful. I didn't even know how to pronounce her name. I couldn't get her to open up about anything, and it was all my fault. I'd received her most recent album the day before the interview, didn't particularly enjoy it on first listen, didn't have time to study it, and didn't know who Barbara Kingsolver was or why her writing some of the liner notes was a big deal.
Another bad interview I had was with someone whose work I really enjoy: Bruce Campbell. Now, if you know Campbell's work, you have some idea of his personality. He's warm, confident and doesn't enjoy taking crap from anyone. I was so nervous for the interview – he was on tour for If Chins Could Kill: Confessions of a B Movie Actor. I'd read it twice in three days, already knew the Evil Dead trilogy by heart, and even went and checked out some of his more obscure stuff, like 1992's Mindwarp. I thought I'd impress him by referencing it. I did so by asking if he thought The Matrix had merely ripped off the concept with a higher budget. Then he gave me a list of about 15 other films Mindwarp had ripped off.
I've had some great interviews, too, and some of those were surprising. Joan Jett, who comes off really shy in person offstage, gave me 10 minutes over the phone in an airport once. It was amazing. She even let me get away with a bad question. I asked if she was tired of being known primarily for one song ("I Love Rock 'n' Roll"). She told me no, in fact, she could play whatever she wanted and it didn't matter how the rest of the show came off. By the end of the night, she could play that one and everyone would sing it for her and be into it.
David Clayton-Thomas [via]David Clayton-Thomas, best known for work he did way before my time (as frontman for Blood, Sweat & Tears), wanted to talk at 7 a.m. (yes, a musician wanted to talk at 7 a.m.), and we were on the phone for two and a half hours.
This is not about name-dropping. Hell, it's not even about me. It's about interviewing. Maybe more accurately, it's about how to have a conversation.
You might know Biz Markie from 1989's "Just a Friend." You might know him from the scene in Men in Black II when he beat-boxes in the back room of a post office. If you have kids, you might know him from Nick Jr.'s "Yo Gabba Gabba."
James Altucher, who does one of my favorite podcasts, interviewed Markie recently (see episode 35). And it was awful. So bad, in fact, that the podcast wasn't the straight interview. Altucher ran a commentary track, stopping every time he had a criticism.
Now, Altucher had done his research. He knew a lot about his subject. But it took a while to let his subject know that. It was really, really awkward. Sometimes, when it's like pulling teeth to get an interview, it's time to give up on the interview.
On the other side of the spectrum is comedian Marc Maron, who's had one of the top-rated podcasts on iTunes for years. It's called WTF, and, apart from having amazing guests, features amazing interviews, even the ones he's really nervous about doing. They all turn into good conversations that flow easily between topics and across timelines. Some of my favorites include his interviews with the likes of Roseanne Cash (No. 511), Bob Newhart (No. 523), Shepard Fairy (No. 497) and Lewis Black (No. 485).
I came to his podcast late – there are dozens of interviews I'll probably spring for the premium app to hear. Go give them a listen; the last 50 are always free.
That brings us to this: What makes a good interview? Does it take a professional? Does it take practice? Does it take research?
No, it doesn't take a professional. It definitely takes some practice. A little research is not a bad thing, but is entirely unnecessary if your subject is patient.
A good interview winds up being a conversation. And you can have a conversation that essentially turns into an interview. And if you've never heard of your subject, or conversation partner, just ask the pertinent questions without appearing nosy or pushy.
Have an idea of points you'd like to hit along the way, but be as open about yourself as you want your subject to be about himself or herself. It should feel natural after the initial discomfort of meeting a new person.
Go try it on a friend, then a stranger, then someone famous. Good luck!
Altucher spoke with Austin Kleon, who, among other things, creates poetry by blacking out large chunks of newspaper articles, leaving only the words that form his works. It has both a written and visual element, and includes some of the built-in commentary that nothing is truly new, it's just a reorganization of something that exists.
Kleon said two things on that podcast that I found interesting.
One was that when we make something, we should record the process, because the process is also of interest to people.
This, of course, is not new. There have been "the making of..." documentaries on movies and TV shows for decades now. But it might be something a lot of solo or small-group creators don't think about. In addition to selling your finished product, you can sell a thing (book, DVD, whatever) about how you made the product.
The other thing was this. When using social media, you don't have to share your output every day, but you should share your input. That is, you may not want to tell people what you're working on that day, but tell people what you consumed – if you're learning from it, let someone else learn from it, as well.
I'm doing more listening than reading these days, most of it to the podcasts I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, and I'm trying out some silence at times of the day when I normally wouldn't have silence.
One of my new favorite things is listening to podcasts. Better than listening to music for taking my mind off the pounding I give my knees on a run and requiring less attention than audiobooks, I'm picking up useful information and being entertained.
These are some of my favorites right now. Please share yours; I'm just getting into them, so I'd love some recommendations.
The Tim Ferriss Show. You know Tim Ferriss from the 4-Hour series (work week, body, chef) and maybe from his television show, which I haven't seen. His podcast is new (as of this writing, there are three episodes; there might be a fourth by the time this publishes), and very entertaining. Life-hacking, entrepreneurship, self-experimentation, meditation and more are subjects discussed in long-form entertaining interviews over copious amounts of wine (seriously, I think episode 3 is almost a constant pour over two hours). On Twitter: @tferriss
The James Altucher Show. I'm a big fan of Altucher's books (Choose Yourself! and others), his writing, and his weekly Twitter Q&A. I waited a little while to start listening to his podcast (he announced it in January), but I'm glad I did. He has some great guests, and his shows are generally a much more manageable length (35-60 minutes) than Ferriss's, if that's an issue for you. On Twitter: @jaltucher
Brew/Drink/Run. This is exactly what it sounds like. Home brewing beer, drinking craft beer, and running. They brew at all levels, from starter kits to complicated all-grain recipes. They run at all levels, from an endurance athlete to people who struggle to get a mile in some days, and they review beers that aren't your average Miller Lite. It's a very entertaining crew, and you might pick up a little something here and there. On Twitter: @BrewDrinkRun
Foundation. This is a podcast by Kevin Rose, the founder of Digg and the guy who decides which startups Google Ventures writes big checks to. He has some wildly interesting people on the podcast, talking about entrepreneurship. There aren't a lot of people giving away content who are having conversations with Elon Musk and David Copperfield. Take advantage of it. On Twitter: @KevinRose
Snap Judgment and The Moth. I put these two together because they have similar offerings. You can hear both on NPR stations across the country, and both feature storytellers, often in a performance environment. Snap does some long-form feature reporting as well. I don't know that there's much crossover in terms of people who tell stories, but I'd suggest giving them both a listen. On Twitter: @SnapJudgment and @TheMoth
Addendum: WTF with Marc Maron. Holy crap. Mark Maron is a comedian I never heard of until recently, and he's had one of the top-rated podcasts on iTunes for a few years now. He's 500-something episodes in, releases two or three a week, and has amazing guests. Like Robin Williams (2010), Claire Danes (there was mutual fandom there) and Bob Newhart. Maron was part of the crash-and-burn standup crowd, coming up with Sam Kinison and doing too many drugs and drinking too much. He has a show on IFC ("Maron"), still tours, and, in addition to his interviews, speaks to his audience about his life – his neuroses, his health, his relationships, what have you. He's incredibly relatable, and every interview is a conversation with what seems like an old friend.
Frustrated with the dogmatic bent of the Presbyterian Church — which always seemed to him to be looking for more Presbyterians instead of making good people out of the Presbyterians it had — Benjamin Franklin sought to define the most important virtues in life for himself outside the boundaries of Church language, and he did so with the idea in mind that the Church's virtues were few with wide definitions, so he wrote more, with more narrow definitions.
From his autobiography, Franklin's 13 virtues (with his explanations) are (in the spelling of his time):
1. Temperance. Eat not to dullness; drink not to elevation.
2. Silence. Speak not but what may benefit others or yourself; avoid trifling conversation.
3. Order. Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.
4. Resolution. Resolve to perform what you ought; perform without fail what you resolve.
5. Frugality. Make no expense but to do good to others or yourself; i. e., waste nothing.
6. Industry. Lose no time; be always employ'd in something useful; cut off all unnecessary actions.
7. Sincerity. Use no hurtful deceit; think innocently and justly; and, if you speak, speak accordingly.
8. Justice. Wrong none by doing injuries, or omitting the benefits that are your duty.
9. Moderation. Avoid extreams; forbear resenting injuries so much as you think they deserve.
10. Cleanliness. Tolerate no uncleanliness in body, cloaths, or habitation.
11. Tranquillity. Be not disturbed at trifles, or at accidents common or unavoidable.
13. Humility. Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
I've written about moderation before. It's one of the hardest things to achieve in our world as it is, I think. Even now, while I'm concentrating on writing, I have the television on and eight browser tabs open, with my tablet to the right of my laptop and my phone to the left.
I've also written about quiet and needing to shut up once in a while. Every now and again I get drawn into a stupid discussion, but for the most part, in both real life and online, I'm getting much better about not saying anything unless I have something to add to a discussion. I won't raise my voice to be heard, so if I do have something to contribute but the conversation isn't civil or at a normal tone, I keep out of it.
Basically, I think Franklin got it right. Be good to people, live as simply and as calmly as you can. It's interesting that he paired Jesus and Socrates as representatives of humility. I believe it's clear that it has nothing to do with Jesus's divinity if he's paired with a very early scientist.
Sun Tzu's The Art of War has long been a manual for field battle, and, for not quite as long, a manual for management in the business world and even sales. But reading it recently, this is what stood out to me:
7. There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.
8. There are not more than five primary colors (blue, yellow, red, white, and black), yet in combination they produce more hues than can ever been seen.
9. There are not more than five cardinal tastes (sour, acrid, salt, sweet, bitter), yet combinations of them yield more flavors than can ever be tasted
We have, of course, found notes beyond the pentatonic (though not many), and now understand white and black not as primary colors but as, respectively, the combination of all colors and the absence of all color.
But take this point to heart. All of the wonderful variety in life can be drilled down to a few basic attributes. When these simple attributes are combined in various ratios, we get all the beauty in the world. Start with small pieces, and let it grow.
I read a lot. Most of the stuff I read is absolute crap, but I read it because I'm hoping it will teach me something. But no longer. I spent 2013 consuming as many words as I could, and I figured out that there are three things I could read every week that will make me smarter.
That's not to say I don't think there are other useful newsletters out there, and that I'll stop reading books and features and news and such. I'm just going to be more picky – a little more selfish with my time.
These are the three things that I read every week, that I think you should, as well.
1. James Altucher's weekly Twitter chat.James Altucher has done a few things right in his life, and a lot of things wrong. The things he's gotten right vastly outweigh the others, though, and I think he's a really smart guy (I recommend his book, Choose Yourself!, as well). He hosts an "ask me anything" Twitter chat Thursdays from 3:30-4:30 p.m. Eastern. During that hour, tweet him at @jaltucher and he'll respond.
I tend to go to his Twitter page and refresh every few minutes so that I can monitor the answers, and then I have the option to check out the question if I wish. If you can't catch it live, you can always head to his page later and scroll back through. You get not only his collected wisdom, but also you get to read what people are asking about, which might give you some ideas as well.
I think you can get just as much from lurking here as you could participating.
2. Mitch Joel, Alistair Croll and Hugh McGuire's weekly link exchange. Each week, three entrepreneurs collect one link for each of the other two, resulting in a blog post every Saturday on Mitch Joel's blog titled Six Links Worthy of Your Attention. Some weeks you'll find more interesting than others, but that will come down entirely due to personal preference. Give yourself a little time; it's worth at least reading all the explanations, and if you wind up clicking something, you might be in for 15-20 minutes of reading or watching.
The links run the gamut from entrepreneurship to education to space exploration to music, sculpture and everything else.
3. Brain Pickings weekly. Maria Popova writes long-form blog items that are really, really interesting. She writes on writing, habits, music, language, science and a variety of other topics, and she always has interesting take-aways from people who know their fields and have names like Einstein, Fitzgerald and Sontag (that is, names you've heard).
Each Sunday, she sends out a newsletter that can help you through your first pot and a half of coffee (you can't tell me I'm the only one, especially on Sunday morning).
Other newsletters I get include a daily email from Web Urbanist, which usually includes some cool photos with a little text (recent ones included a former subterranean brewery that is now a bunch of hot tubs and heated pools, and a post on large concrete arrows in the middle of the U.S. desert that appear to point nowhere but in the 1920s helped direct mail traffic by air before the use of radar), and a weekly offering from C. Hope Clark at Funds for Writers; she writes about the craft of writing, and also about marketplaces, grants and contests.
What do you read consistently that you'd like to share?
We describe things with the word "comfort" when they lull us into complacence. This is not always bad, but it's not always good.
The comfort of your own space, for instance? Awesome. Your surroundings are familiar. You know the smells, where to sit, where you can be productive, how the coffee pot works. You're probably not on your toes (unless you have a Kato in your life). You can kick off your shoes and fall into whatever it is you're doing.
Comfort food? Maybe on occasion, but think about it: When you eat a big plateful of fried chicken and macaroni and cheese, you're ready for a nap. Conquering the world will have to wait.
Art, for me, is somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, I'll dance around to a pop song, but the art I come back to over and over really challenges me. After 40 hours in the car last week, I listened to a lot of music, and I was reminded that James O'Brien's work has always challenged me. From his song "Paint":
Like God, this will demand a conversion
Strip you bare, make it say what it is you're scared of
Like God, this will certainly divide you
What you think, what you feel, what you love
So you sit and sip your coffee
You consider the blackness of your cup
You said, "Paint? I thought you were a singer.
Now all this talk of canvas and God?"
I don't know why I picked that one. It could have been anything. Don't want the music (or can't find it at this point)? Try his book on being an independent writer.
I figured, if it's the challenging stuff I come back to, I'm probably not alone. So I was surprised I got exactly one response to a tweet asking who challenges you. I mean, I'm not Superman (or Tim Ferriss), but I have enough people following my Twitter feed that I should have had more than one response.
Here is Derek Hess's work. He's got a clothing line, too. His stuff is, indeed, challenging. Great stuff.
But why did I only get one response to two askings? Are most people simply not willing to be challenged? Why not? It makes you more complete, moves you forward. I promise.
I'm going to leave you with two things. First, I know I've said it before, but read The Flinch. It's essentially the opposite of Malcolm Gladwell's classic Blink. Instead of being about the stuff that makes you make a sudden judgment, it's about breaking the snap "don't" reaction. It's free, and it's about a 2-hour commitment. Plus a little sweeping and a shower.
Also, I'm leaving you with Tom Waits's "Potter's Field." It's a bargain from the edge of a maniac's dream.
In retrospect, these ads have always been around for a long time. But over the past year, I guess I've been exposed to a lot more broadcast advertising than I have in a long time. Working from home until 3 a.m., I usually leave the TV on as background noise. And I've been listening to sports talk radio in the background while I go about my day, though I think I'll be going back to Public Radio Remix.
If you just dropped in from outer space and learned from some of the ads I've started noticing, you'd find that we humans by rule:
• Have awful teeth
• Can't sleep
• Do most of their dating on the phone
• Have lots of extra skin around their necks
• Smell awful
• Have too much body hair
OK, I get that I might someday need a new car, and might benefit from learning what is on the current television station at what time. I can even live with ads trying to sell me mediocre beer, crappy snacks and sandwiches they can't even make look good on camera, because at some point I'm probably going to want to eat and have a beer. I can't fault someone for trying to get my business.
But no wonder we're so fucking unhappy. Look at all the shit the TV says is wrong with us!
If you're truly unhappy, turn off the television, turn off the radio, and look in the mirror. Talk to your reflection, find out what's really wrong.
It may be you hate your job. It may be you're in your relationship for the wrong reason. It may be you have the wrong people around you. It may be you don't eat well, don't get enough exercise, and in general don't get enough dopamine (read: happy neurons) rushing through your system.
Whiter teeth, laser hair removal and new deodorant are not going to help you.
If you're unhappy, you probably have some changes to make, but you're not going to get happy from these made up problems. There's nothing fundamentally wrong with you. Just turn off the TV and get on with your life.
Important: This post is for people who are frustrated with where they are in life and want to make changes to turn that around. If you are medically depressed or suicidal, this post is not for you. Here is a list of suicide hotlines by state and here is a list of American Psychiatric Association offices by state. You'll still need to take the step, but one of those is a better direction for you than this post.
I've read a lot of motivational, self-help stuff. Not as much as some, but certainly enough to know that a lot of them assume that you are able function at the same pace and capacity as a person who is generally happy or that you have already reached that low that causes the epiphany that lets you say, "It starts today."
I'm going to assume that you're just in a rut; maybe you don't like your job, maybe you've got just enough debt that you'll never get ahead, maybe you're just going through the motions daily. Here are some actionable tips that I think will help change your attitude over time, and will push you in the direction of where you want to be.
I've implemented this stuff and I'm getting happier and stronger, and while I still struggle with some of the shit I had going on before, getting through what I need to get through seems wholly achievable, and I've been much more productive since putting these things into practice.
1. Eat high oxytocin foods. This was James Altucher's suggestion (full post here). I implemented it, and within a couple of weeks, I started back up blogging, we ramped up the wedding planning, I started making beer and I managed to get 75 bags of brush together and about 3,000 pounds of construction garbage piled so we could rent a roll-off. I still have a 9-hour work day and sleep a full night – I didn't get more time, I just got more energy and a new attitude. Altucher's breakfast suggestion is eggs + banana + pepper (it doesn't matter what kind of pepper – black pepper, bell pepper, hot pepper, whatever). Since I'm a big exerciser, I add some stuff; my normal breakfast is a pepper, apple and either onion or potato cut up in a 4-egg omelet, plus a banana on the side. Every day. I feel like Superman most days.
2. Drink more water. Start when you first wake up – you would be really thirsty if you went eight hours during the day without any water, and you just slept for eight hours without a sip. I drink about 4 liters (128 oz) a day (I also work nights and from home, so maybe that's going to be a lot for you, but I bet you can drink more than you do now). When we're dehydrated, our brains don't function as well as they could. And if you reach for something sugary or caffeinated instead of water, you're actually making it worse. Go ahead and have a cup of coffee, but drink water alongside it, and get hydrated in the morning before you start on the coffee.
3. Get some fresh air. You don't need a lot. I submit that 60 seconds of being outside and just breathing at the sky a couple of times a day is going to vastly improve your energy and attitude. Even on a cold or rainy day. There's still air out there. (Disclaimer, because we're stupid and litigious: If it's actually dangerous out there – hurricane, tornado, active shooter, stay the hell inside, moron.)
4. Get a little exercise. And I mean a little. You need to be a little more active than what you do at work. If you sit at a desk all day, a 20-minute walk will do you good. If you have to have a one-on-one meeting that doesn't require sitting at a computer, make it a walking meeting. Drop and do 10 pushups a couple of times a day. You'll actually become more popular in the office for that, as opposed to being the office weirdo. If you walk seven miles a day on a retail floor, a 20-minute walk isn't going to do it; you'll need to do something to get your heart rate up. Jog, jumping jacks, squats in place, that sort of thing. Again, you only need a few minutes. If you want something a little more difficult to start with, do a 30-day #100plus100plus1 challenge.
5. Create something. It could be a recipe, a painting, a spear. Whatever. Use your hands, and make it require some time. It could suck. It doesn't matter. You took some materials, put time in, and made those materials something else. Accept the success of completion.
6. Take care of something. When your dog has to pee, you have the option of either getting your ass off the couch and getting outside with the dog, or getting your ass off the couch to try to get pee stains (and smell) out of your rug. Which is more appealing to you? If something else is relying on you, you can't spend all your time being a selfish, miserable prick.
We've become quite the "right-now" society. We want everything, and we want it right now. Some things we want so right now we'll wait in long lines for them instead of just giving it a couple of days. All you people who updated to iOS7 right when it was released and spent two hours stalled in queue? I waited two days and updated in 10 minutes while I made breakfast. You got frustrated, I got to read my Flipboard while chowing on my giant plate of food.
We eat fast food, we prefer gas grills because we don't have to wait for the coals to get hot, and we'd rather microwave a cup of water with a tea bag in it for two minutes than take eight minutes to boil water and five minutes to steep loose tea, even if the second tastes so much better. We generate piles of garbage by using our one-cup coffee makers with K-Cups instead of waiting for pots of coffee to brew (come on, you don't drink four cups a day? yeah you do).
Home brewed scotch ale, maybe a couple of days early, but, well, yum.
I spent a large chunk of time this summer taking care of brush in the yard. And by "taking care of brush," I mean I filled 80 lawn bags with wood. Some of it I had to take a hand saw to. I've also, with a couple hours' help on some of the items I couldn't move myself, put together about a ton and a half of construction garbage that we'll get rid of after we rip up the carpet.
Could it have been done more quickly? Sure. But I committed myself to the process of getting it done. It didn't need to be done now, and it wasn't a skill job that I didn't know how to do, I just mustered the patience to let it take some time.
And then it came down to beer.
People have been drinking beer since someone in Egypt left a pot of grain out in the rain and went to go visit his in-laws. (That's my story and I'm sticking to it.) I enjoy beer. I've toured breweries, so I have a basic understanding of the process. I like to cook, I have some patience, and I was curious, so I started homebrewing.
This glass is from my first batch, a scotch ale. I started drinking it a little early, but there are plenty of bottles still gathering some carbonation. You can see that, even in a thick-walled water glass, it still has a little head on it with some lacing (that's when the head sticks to the glass). It looks like beer and behaves like beer. It also smells like beer and tastes like beer.
It's not amazing, but it's better than a lot of what's out there commercially.
I went in with low expectations (there's a lot of process involved and it was my first batch), but I figured if it came out awful, I could walk it back and see what I can do better, and all I lost was some time and five gallons of liquid I'd dump in the bushes and let the neighborhood fauna eat the solids. I didn't see as much fermenting as I expected, and there was a small leak in the bottling bucket that I had to contain. But it's a drinkable beer, and I'm happy with it.
I will certainly change up some of the process with my next batch, and there are some minor equipment adjustments I've made (bigger boil pot, for instance and a new bottling bucket), but really, all it takes is some patience. Once it's in the fermenting bucket, it takes a week or so. It may take a day or two or three in the bottling bucket. It should sit in bottle for a couple of weeks getting carbonated.
It's a long time to wait for something I could grab at the gas station, but I control the taste and get the satisfaction of knowing I did it myself. I'm sure somehow that makes it taste a little better.
Henry David Thoreau [WikiMedia Commons]
If it were awful, I'd know, because I'm also kind of a critic and my own worst enemy.
I've never been able to sit down and read Walden (kind of like watching "Last of the Mohicans," I just fall asleep every time I get started), but I listened to an audio version of it while I was working on the brush and the construction waste. It was therapeutic because I think Thoreau just got to the point where he didn't understand process anymore, and to keep his own work moving along, he had to go be self-sufficient for a little while.
I get that from the way he wrote of his neighbor, the man who worked hard and so had to eat a high-protein, high-fat diet to maintain his energy, and had to keep working hard to earn the wages to maintain that diet. A couple of hours on the pond, and Thoreau said he had enough fish for a few days, and he could grow most of the rest of what he needed, or buy it cheaply in bulk and store it.
Whatever his motivation, it's clear that Thoreau got satisfaction from doing stuff himself, and it motivated him to keep going. The bit about him building the chimney? That's appreciation of process, even from his hunt for materials that had previously served in a fireplace.
Did he know any of his undertakings would work? No, but when something went wrong, he tried again and again until he got it right. Nobody wants a roof to cave in or a chimney to collapse in the middle of a New England winter.
My challenge to you: Try something that requires at least a 48-hour process. You don't have to work for those 48 hours straight, you just have to handle some maintenance along the way. Cook something that takes a couple of days. Make a walking stick from a branch (including finishing it and attaching a loop or a top-piece). Make your next glass of wine yourself.