Tim Urban, Wait But Why // The Craft of Storytelling + Thinking Like Elon Musk

✍🏼 Who Is Tim Urban?

Tim Urban is one of the internet’s most popular writers. His blog, Wait But Why, attracts millions of visitors including famous fans like Elon Musk. His talk on procrastination is the #1 TED talk on YouTube with 33mil+ views.

He doesn’t do too many interviews, so I hope you enjoy this one. Let me know what you think on Twitter (@bzaidi)


🧠 Five Things You’ll Learn:

(1) his writing + research process
(2) first principles thinking + lessons learned from Elon Musk + Tony Hseih (Zappos)
(3) techniques to overcome low confidence + find your authentic voice
(4) how he’d start from scratch today
(5) how to explain complex topics like AI + Neuralink through storytelling


⏳Time Stamps (YouTube)

00:00:00 Preview
00:01:15 Intro + Tim’s Cuddly Toys
00:03:48 How Elon Musk Became A Fan
00:04:43 11yr Old Tim Meets The Internet
00:06:27 Trip Down Internet Memory Lane
00:08:49 “Underneath The Turban” + Finding A Creative Path
00:13:17 Micro + Macro Happiness
00:14:32 Finding A Voice + Getting Traction

00:16:49 “What Could I Do With 60hrs A Week?”
00:18:14 Tim’s Research + Writing Process
00:24:43 “Neuralink Is A Magic Hat”
00:26:03 Tools + The Magic of “Text Edit”
00:31:03 Talent vs Craft
00:33:22 “Writing For a Stadium Full of Tim’s”
00:35:53 Adam Grant’s Antidote to Paranoia
00:37:57 Vicious Cycle of Confidence

00:41:17 Headlines
00:44:46 Example: Fermi Paradox
00:47:58 Creativity vs Promotion
00:49:43 Starting From Scratch Today
00:51:01 Facebook Ads In 2013
00:53:07 Owned, Rented + New Platforms

01:00:11 Dream Person To Interview
01:02:47 First Principles + Learning From Elon Musk
01:07:47 Manage A Business Like Elon Musk
01:09:47 Latest on Neuralink + AI
01:14:47 Re-Thinking A Cyborg From First Principles
01:15:33 Memories + Lessons From Tony Hseih (Zappos)
01:21:29 Tony’s Relationship Ripple Effect


⏳Time Stamps (Podcast)

00:00:00 Preview
00:02:05 Intro + Tim’s Cuddly Toys
00:04:38 How Elon Musk Became A Fan
00:05:33 11yr Old Tim Meets The Internet
00:07:17 Trip Down Internet Memory Lane
00:09:39 “Underneath The Turban” + Finding A Creative Path
00:14:07 Micro + Macro Happiness
00:15:22 Finding A Voice + Getting Traction

00:17:39 “What Could I Do With 60hrs A Week?”
00:19:04 Tim’s Research + Writing Process
00:25:33 “Neuralink Is A Magic Hat”
00:26:53 Tools + The Magic of “Text Edit”
00:31:53 Talent vs Craft
00:34:12 “Writing For a Stadium Full of Tim’s”
00:36:42 Adam Grant’s Antidote to Paranoia
00:38:47 Vicious Cycle of Confidence

00:42:07 Headlines
00:45:36 Example: Fermi Paradox
00:47:58 Creativity vs Promotion
00:50:33 Starting From Scratch Today
00:51:51 Facebook Ads In 2013
00:53:57 Owned, Rented + New Platforms

01:01:01 Dream Person To Interview
01:03:37 First Principles + Learning From Elon Musk
01:08:37 Manage A Business Like Elon Musk
01:10:37 Latest on Neuralink + AI
01:15:37 Re-Thinking A Cyborg From First Principles
01:16:23 Memories + Lessons From Tony Hseih (Zappos)
01:22:19 Tony’s Relationship Ripple Effect



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    📖 Full Transcript

    Note: This transcript is computer-generated, so may have some minor errors. I’d love to know if this is useful for you. Tweet me @bzaidi

    Bilal Zaidi

    Tim, welcome to the show.

    Tim Urban  

    Thank you. Thanks for having me on.

    Bilal Zaidi  

    First of all, I have to comment on the backdrop. So people who are listening, I just love like the situation we’re all in right now working from home,

    Tim Urban  

    there’s a lot going on here, there we’ve got um, we’ve got, we’ve got a panic monster, and instant gratification monkey. So that’s, that’s par for the course very annoying. Here we have. This is a social survival mammoth who makes you feel desperate for approval from others. And then over here we have Kurt schizo duck, which is the best YouTube channel. And they’re good friends of mine. And I didn’t get this for free, they never offered. Never a good friend never offered his right to buy this, but it’s a it’s one of their ducks. So I’m, I’m very pleased with this. And then every time I my wife does a meeting here she makes she takes them all down, and I have to then put them back up after so

    Bilal Zaidi  

    I love it, man, his very own brand. And I think this is capturing a moment in time. And this is perfect. So thanks for sharing that. So listen, man, I think you don’t really need that much of an introduction. But for the few people who are watching this, who haven’t heard of you or seen your number one TED talk on YouTube, read your blog. Wait, but why? like it’d be great just to get a little bit of a background on kind of who you are and what you’re what you’ve been working on for the last few years.

    Tim Urban  

    I write a blog called Wait, but why long form blog that started with a friend Andrew Finn in 2013. So it’s been a while. And yeah, it’s it wasn’t started a long form blog just started as a blog. And the I just kept kind of getting more thorough as I went. And it’s become kind of typic typically at least long form. stuff with with drawing, so I put bad drawings. And I’m a terrible artist. And I think that it turns out that bad drawings, the badness of the drawings, is makes it seem authentic, because it’s clear that no like real company did those. And so that’s kind of the thing I do online and then and then I’m also starting to get into like the world of books.

    Bilal Zaidi  

    That’s plenty to keep me busy, for sure, man. Well, I think for people who haven’t read the blog, a few things that I’ll just share is a lot of your posts are so long that they could be booked already. Right? Like they’re 40 50,000 words. Sometimes. Yes, the

    Tim Urban  

    longest ones could be booked. Yeah,

    Bilal Zaidi  

    I think the first post I ever read were probably the Ilan series I think I can’t really remember because I’ve seen so many of your your post but there was for people who haven’t seen it, I will share it in the show notes. You Ilan musk had become a fan of your blog, and he reached out to you and said, Hey, I’d love to get you to come and check out what we Got SpaceX and Tesla and stuff. And you ended up spending six months with him and writing these epic posts as well. But you’ve got so many different posts like from AI to what’s going on in the political world recently, to procrastination, which was the TED talk that I referenced earlier. So, look, man, you’re definitely one of the most popular writers on the internet. And today, we’re gonna dive into kind of two parts. One is the art of storytelling and your process for writing. And then the second part is just discussing some of those topics that you’ve been really interested in. One of the things I haven’t heard you talk that much about is kind of like a younger version of you. I’m just curious, like, as an 11 year old, Tim urban, someone who we all know, as one of the most curious people in the world. What were you like as, like an 11? year old?

    Tim Urban  

    Pretty similar? No, like, you know, forget 11 when I was three, my biggest passions were dinosaurs and planets. And like, those are still up top five. So like, I had good taste when I was three, my drawing skills were the same than as they are. Now. If you ask me to draw a stick figure, then it would have looked very similar. I would say that at least especially I can writing I do try to tap into a lot of the core things kind of about, like who I was, as a kid, I wonder if that kid had the internet or phones? What would have been different in some people like to be like, Oh, it’s so bad. The kids in the phones, and it definitely is for many reasons. Like, I don’t think Instagram would have been a good thing for that kid necessarily, I don’t think I wouldn’t have been like, I don’t think like an obsessive Instagram person. But I don’t see why it would have been a net positive. On the other hand, I could indulge my curiosity a lot more, you know, I could have not been just picturing some of the YouTube science channels I watch today, Curtis Assad and you know, cgp, grey and One Minute Physics and, you know, all these kinds of YouTube channels, and blogs and other stuff, I think I could have learned a lot more at that age than I actually than I did. On the other hand, I could have maybe been, you know, up at 2am watching YouTube, and, you know, it would have been damaged a bunch of my bad qualities, but I haven’t really thought about that. Really, you know, what, uh, what, what, what would the internet have been like, for that kid? And I think it would have been a lot of pros and cons. And it’s hard to know, but, but, you know, this was just 11 I was like, it was 1993. And at that time, basically, there was, yeah, there was TV and that wasn’t like a huge TV person. So I don’t really know what I did. But when were you 11

    Bilal Zaidi  

    I was born. I’m 32. Now, so 32 going on with 33. So yeah, I was born at a sudden 90s as well.

    Tim Urban  

    Late Night problem with when you’re 39 which is what I just turned. Everyone’s younger than you suddenly like I it’s like, of course, of course you’re seven years younger than me. Like it’s not even a question like there’s no it’s the only question is how many years was it going to be but yet seven was the answer. But, but anyway, so when you were 11 you did

    Bilal Zaidi  

    kind of have the 299 Yeah, so I was already I think we got our first computer just a few years before, but it was still the dial up Internet with the crackle crackle crackle Brewer like that stuff. Yeah, exactly. So I was definitely like using internet and like making little websites on Dreamweaver and stuff like that, but not, you know, like, I think of what the kids have now. And I’m jealous because I wish I had that at that age as well. Because, you know, we were learning stuff on that forums, which was great. But just like to have YouTube, I learned like 95% of why No, it was probably from YouTube and podcasts.

    Tim Urban  

    Right. So internet, pre podcasts, pre YouTube, pre social media, pre Google even. It’s not even really the internet. You had you had basic email, you had chat rooms. I mean, that was a big thing I remember being I think it was right after I was 11. Like maybe when I was 13 and 95. Or we all went to this one friend’s house who had AOL, whatever that meant. He had it felt like he had like, you know, it’s like, Nintendo 64 is like one of these like, he had a new thing. It was it wasn’t video games, it was like something different. And we went over there and we like would log on it. It was like seven bucks an hour or something. He would go into these chat rooms, like four of us huddled over the screen. And we were just be and it was just so mind boggling that like, the computer had become this magical thing that could talk to other people, real people like that was so weird,

    Bilal Zaidi  

    just to fast forward a bit because we could talk for two hours just about that whole that whole time. But I’ve heard you say that between the age of 22 and 31. You hated yourself. And I don’t know if you met literally or figuratively but you were saying that you wanted to do some creative full time. And you didn’t really you weren’t doing that yet. You have Either a job or a business on this that you are doing, and you had this blog on the side called underneath the turban? Yeah, I’m just curious, like, Is that accurate? First of all, was that like a throwaway line that I’ve latched on to?

    Tim Urban  

    Yeah, I think I think it’s hyperbolic. Like, I don’t think I’ve ever like, been like a dark, like self loading period, like really like hate rights. It’s never you know, I’ve, I’ve always somewhat liked myself, somewhat, it’s more that I’ve been, I’ve gone through periods of, you know, real frustration. feeling like I knew what I should be trying to do. And I like was just delaying and delaying and delaying and delaying and that so that that gets pretty. Now that that’s, that gets exhausting, but I, you know, I really, in a lot of other ways, I can’t complain, because it’s not like I was doing some like, dead end job I hated. I was running a small company that I started with my best friend. So we were having fun. And that’s, that’s part of why it was actually that took a long time to make any kind of change because it was fun. We had great staff like we were, you know, it’s a small kind of like Test Prep company, tutoring, Test Prep mentorship. You know, we hired 20 somethings to basically spend time with teens working on their work and teaching them how to both like the material and also how to be a student and also why this matters. And you know, doing a lot of like, kind of motivation, stuff like that. So it was just it was it was gratifying. I, I was having fun. And if I didn’t have this one burning thing that I just like, since I was 11. I mean, even younger, that I just knew I wanted to do was like something creative. I wanted to make stuff. I wanted to connect with lots and lots of people, 1000s of people, right and with stuff I was making, this was this thing I just really wanted to do. If it weren’t for that I would have been nothing really happy and very fortunate. And I did feel fortunate. But this burning thing was kind of ruining for me is the way I would describe it. One of the things that was nice was actually the business partnership I was in with my friend Andrew, we’ve been friends since we were five it was it was really a friendship first and a business partnership. Second, and what I mean by that is like when one of us was like, Man, I’m dying here, I need to like try something different. I need, I need something I need to change. Instead of, you know, being like, well, I guess maybe you know, you should do that. It was always like, Okay, well, let’s figure it out. Like, you know, I’ll hold this down, why don’t you go start this thing. And we’re in we’re in it all together is kind of that attitude. And it’s that is one of the things that allowed me to kind of make a change in like a risk, it felt like a risk free way, which is, you know, I would like to say I would took some bold, you know, life change risks at all. But I didn’t like I still had this other thing going on. And this was kind of, we had other ventures kind of that we would take on like we built a podcast app. And that was Andrews main thing while I held down the company stuff. And then this idea was like, I was like, I want to do something creative, but it would be cool to do it. Like also, that could be an interesting business maybe. So I was interested in music and writing like a musical, or, you know, songs or something. But I was also interested in writing I had started this, um, I had started this, this blog, and I, that was a my friend will started a blog. And I was like, that’s fun. How did you get something onto the internet? That seemed like really cool. It was like 2005. And he was like, Oh, it’s a site you can just do and I was like, Oh, wow. So I started doing that. And I was like, Oh, this is fun. And there was no pressure. It was like my least important venture. You know, there was there’s business stuff. And then there was music thing I cared about. And this was just for fun. And so that sort of allowed me to I think actually enjoy it and like do it a lot because it had no pressure on it. And so we decided that like a media platform. Me writing was going to be one of the things I wanted to do. But also that could be some kind of like, larger thing. Maybe we would hire a writer, we had no idea. But it was just a venture idea. And then I spent a year procrastinating on starting it and then finally finally got it going. But um, but yeah, and it just felt a lot better thought that it was easier like I still on a day to day basis. Right now, if anything, like in a micro sense on like a random Tuesday, I was actually hating myself less back then because I was you working with other people, I’m not going to not do something that day, I’m gonna go into the office and there’s staff there and my partner and we’re gonna be working on stuff. And I would finish at a normal hour and go home and it was like a normal human existence took weekends off most of the time. But I had this macro problem where I was like, This isn’t the right place for me in general in life right now. Now I’m like, feeling very macro content. I’m like, No, no, no, this is great. This is I’m making stuff and I’m connected with lots of people with that stuff. That’s all I want it I have it like I have no complaints.

    But a micro sense like on a Tuesday. It’s a nightmare because there’s no there No one else to work with right now. That’s going to help me be a normal person. So I will just fight against myself throughout a lot of these days. Especially when you take a longer project that like an immediate end and and so there’s a mixed bag, but I will I personally will always take macro contentedness over the micro, if I have to choose one or the other

    Bilal Zaidi  

    God, yeah, for sure. No, I love that man. And it sounds like you did like 300 blog posts on aside from this first blog, and that kind of laid the foundation. And the last seven, you started drawing. And that became this thing where you got some traction and you realize, okay, cool, there’s something here. I’m curious, like, what was the? Was it literally just the fact that people more people were sending messages or writing comments, like, what was the spot that made you realize there’s something here that wasn’t there previously,

    Tim Urban  

    I thought I thought from pretty early on, like I had, I had like a good internet voice I thought, you know, from the very beginning, I was just being super colloquial, like 0% trying to be forget a journalist, you know, not even anywhere near that. But just like, just even a writer, I didn’t think myself as a writer, I thought of myself basically, as if I’m writing, you know, sometimes I come back from a trip and I’d write like, an email to like 15 friends, I would just like put a bunch of, you know, family, but a lot of people on and I would do a little recap, and I would do like a tick list. And it would be like funny, and I would just like, and I almost was like, that’s the voice just like if I’m writing an email to friends just like being totally, like silly and, and colloquial. And so that was very natural. Just do that. When I started this blog, because it was no pressure i’d zero readers from day one or one reader. And so it was just like, no, and then quickly, I started to realize I was like this is that’s actually like, a fun internet voice. Like, it makes sense as a blog, like, it was natural. And so that it didn’t blow up ever. But it had, you know, went up from probably, you know, I don’t know, 10 or 20 people I knew reading it up to maybe 1000 or 2000. Total, like and and you know, I get like 50 or 100 views a day. But it was steady there. And there was like a, you know, with some, you know, handfuls of couple dozen comments on posts, and and the people who read it liked it and people in my life, like getting soy. I guess I just had this. There was like two facts going on. One was I think that I’m pretty good at this. And I think that the people who read it really like the other factor was this hasn’t blown up at all. Like is there a reason? Am I ceiling is it just like a little niche thing. And and I didn’t really know, but I knew I liked it. And I thought that like I wanted to the one thing I was I didn’t know is I was giving it five hours a week. And I was like, What if I gave it 60 hours a week and just did this totally different game? All these ideas are popping into my head, I can do research for something I could. I could I could. Yeah. And then the drawings, you know, because of their our tutoring company started doing online stuff, we started realizing that online tutoring, one on one sessions still but through like, you know, some combos, Skype and the time with WebEx or one of these things could work. We had all these charring tablets that tutors were using. And so I was in the office late one night writing a blog post and I saw on the shelf, the strong tablet, and I’m like, I actually could maybe put like a few drawings and see what happened. So I did that. And that really like people really liked that. And we you know, get most of these are people in my own life already. But they’re like, Oh, that was delightful. Like, you know, I love that do more of that. So that, you know, I petered out on that. Because eventually just I think what happened is as I started to do the drawings, the post started, you know, those, those, those last few posts took way longer than the other posts, and it became more of an ordeal. And I and I started to just burn out because I was like, This is such a side project. Like I don’t have time to do a lot of these. But when when it came time to do like a new blog, it was like, Oh, I can go back to the drawing thing. And I can, I started to like, you know, move to another level there at the end. And I thought you know, we could take that to that to this other thing and see what happens. I

    Bilal Zaidi  

    love that man. And that kind of segues us nicely into to kind of your process and your writing style and that whole ordeal because it’s not an easy thing that you’re doing. It’s not like you’re writing a few 100 word posts. As we said before, you’re basically writing these mini books sometimes. And it’s incredibly well researched. And what I love about your your writing is you take really complex ideas and you make them fun and digestible. And you break them down into sizable chunks. And anyone can go through them and just be like, Okay, cool. This is a very high level, and they can just keep drilling down and maybe they get to a point where it’s like, Okay, this is more than I need to know. And but it’s pretty difficult because this is entertaining. So let’s go into that a little bit. So I’ve heard you describe what you do as taking your knowledge of let’s say AI or ra So anything from a two out of 10 to a six out of 10. And I really love that it really stuck with me because, you know, a PhD researcher who’s dedicated their life to it is a 10 out of 10. But most of the time, they haven’t been at two for many, many years. So they can’t explain the concepts to a layman like myself, where do you start in that process? And how does it evolve over time?

    Tim Urban  

    There’s like, two, well, there’s two phases, there’s me learning and then me outputting that, you know, there’s in you know, in taking and then processing it, and then then outputting it. Um, and in the intake slash processing phase, like there’s, there’s two things going on. One is just curiosity, like, sometimes I will just, if I’m having fun, I will do more research, and I’ll dig in more, and I’ll get even more excited to write about it. If I’m bored, like, let me be less self. And then there’s curiosity, and then there’s, and then there’s me feeling like oriented or not? And when I’m in what one driver for me is just like, Do I still feel foggy? And what do I feel foggy about? And I know, and it’s like, it’s so satisfying. What happens is, a topic is very icky for me, at the beginning, usually, because I don’t understand it that well. And I don’t feel very confident about me as a thinker in that topic, because I just, I want other people talk about that. I never know what the hell’s going on. And it’s actually not that interesting, when you don’t know very much. So if I read some article, it’s kind of like, okay, it’s like jargony. And I don’t really like, why is this important. And then what happens is, as I and this is, this is just a lesson for anyone I think, is that, you know, as you learn the basics about something, it suddenly becomes the shakiness goes away and it becomes the opposite. And suddenly, you’re so excited, because it’s like, oh, I totally get this. And now, you’re just at least for me, like, I, it becomes like, so fun and satisfying to now keep adding to this new pile of knowledge in my head, it’s like I call that like a tree, where it’s like, you know, you have to have that tree trunk first. If you’re just reading it, someone sends you an even medium level article, on a topic you don’t know the foundation about, it’s not interesting, you don’t fully get it. And you might feel like oh, I kind of get that. But you don’t really and you couldn’t really talk about it intelligently. And you’re going to forget what you learned. Because it doesn’t have that it’s a leaf or branches, or twig, is what you’re actually reading and it doesn’t have a tree trunk to stick on to. So what I’m trying to do is get that foundation, I’m just going to try to like, understand what’s going on and sometimes within what you’ll think you understand, there’s some stuff in there, you don’t really get Okay, so that’s not you’re not done yet. And I’ll just keep digging, until I start to be like, okay, I really starting to get this now, you know, like if I’m gonna learn, okay, well, here’s a topic I don’t know about, like how computers work CPU, like what, like our computer chip really works. So if I were gonna do that, like I already understand it better than I used to, like, understand what an integrated circuit is, I get that it’s a ton of transistors that kind of get what transistors are there, they’re binary switches that can display a kind of blacker wider array one or zero, and then I get that the one in ones and zeros are bits. And they you know, and and those combinations of those things can show can can can be a color of a pixel, it can be lots of other things. So again, you can see, I’m like, I don’t really know what I’m talking about, but I kind of do. Now, if I wanted to write about this, there’s like two things I would dig in, I’d be like, Okay, what, like exactly how, what are the ones and zeros behind like anything I’m doing right now, if I’m on the computer, and we’re on zoom? Like, what? how did how do you get from ones and zeros to the zoom? Right? And so is it all ones and zeros? Are there other mechanisms that are supplementing the underlying code that I that are not ones years later? Truly, I don’t know right now? Like, I have no idea. So I would start like trying to learn about that. So I would start like looking out first, I guess, rather than figure out like, well, where are the answers, I would just start by reading about like binary code. I’m sure there’s incredible like long YouTube page on I just read the whole thing. Sorry, YouTube, Wikipedia, start with that, just read that, that I would look in the bottom of the references in Wikipedia. See if there’s any, like really good explainer, sometimes, like on wired or somewhere, you’re going to find some, like long explainer or one of these. So I go and read that, as it’s happening right away, all of this, like, fog is starting to clear. And I’m starting to get stuff. And then from there, you know, I would start you know, I would start filling in other gaps and I would learn what the other gaps were, as I got more oriented, I can kind of see the space now. And I’m like, okay, there’s, here’s the space and there’s fog over there and over there, but at the beginning, I don’t even know what the space looks like. So I you know, so, um, so I would do that and then I would start to be like, Okay, and then the hardware aspect is a little clearer to me. I’m like, okay, silicon wafer, but I’ve done a little because I did for the post on neuro link.

    I learned a little about this world. Go and you know, really understand what’s going on with transistors. And as I’m doing this, what I would find is, you know, and also then I would start to the Apple chips and the Intel chips and are the same Are these the same as these totally different technology? As I’m going I usually becomes more and more interesting and it’s and what happens then as I’m researching and learning myself and getting more and more excited about it. A story is starting to form as well. So there’s the knowledge and then there’s the story that starting to form and what’s the interest? Is there an interesting story here? Other than you know, just some like, basic explainer is not actually that fun? Like, is there? Is there like a good story here? Is this like a? Okay maybe is it what is the CPU? Is it like a magical Is it like a magical city of of, you know, what actually is it? Is it a mat you know, you know, like with with neuro link, it was like, there’s a wizard hat. Once I got that in my head. I’m like, okay, right. So this is the wizard hat. And this became so exciting. I’m like, Oh my god, Elon Musk is trying to build like a wizard hat for your brain like that gives you magical powers in your head. And now from there, I was like, that’s a story that’s like so interesting. You know, SpaceX, this is trying to colonize Mars and change space travel forever. And once I understood the landing the Rockets thing, I was like, oh, man, like, so cool, like landing rockets cut that changes the whole face of it for the price reasons. And, and then they can go and so so once there’s a story now, the story starts to carry research. And it’s like, you know, if I’m learning something, and it’s not at all related to the story, I’ll probably skip it, or unless it’s a really great like diversion, which I like to do sometimes if it’s just some really interesting thing about the technology. But so I guess that’s kind of my thing. I’m just trying to, like, walk through, like, what I would do if I were gonna do this. And part of this picking topics in the first place that seemed like they probably have a good story, there seemed like there’s a lot going on. And that like, probably most people a don’t understand it, that well, and B wish they understood it better. You know, you need that criteria, or else it’s a it’s not a good topic.

    Bilal Zaidi  

    I love that man. And just to this sounds like quite a tactical question. But and I don’t think anyone should necessarily follow exactly the way you do things, because everyone should find what works for them. But I’m just curious, like, why you’re taking in this information? Are you literally writing notes in like an app or using like Evernote? Are you writing in by hand? Or like, Are there things that have helped you over time to get better at that? And do them to organize those thoughts better, so that you’re speeding up that process? Or is it very similar to what you did originally,

    Tim Urban  

    it’s evolved a little, but I’m, I’m really like an old man about how I do this. Like, there’s so much software and people I’ve tried, you know, I’ve tried the software, I can like, put, make a little outline, and like you have the thing you can like open the toggle, and then it comes down with these things, I can slot in the things. And for me, it’s just not right at least, and maybe maybe I’ll find something that is but for now, what works fine is text edit, which is the most primitive, it’s like it’s like a it’s like the kind of thing that would be on like a 1992 computer. But it’s it’s the it’s max like utility. It’s not even pages or word it’s like because I like it, because it there, it’s the most bare bones thing I open and it’s basically a white square. But that’s all I want is a white square, or a rectangle that I can resize and type into. And I can bold stuff and make different colors. That’s important, because I use that a lot. But there’s no other annoying thing. There’s no margins and like big buttons at the top, I just want a white square with like, two or three capabilities like bold, italics, caps, and like colors, that I can resize anywhere, anywhere I want. Because I sometimes I have lots of different if someone’s I have like 12 of these squares open to my screen. And each one is like a different segment of research, for example. And they’re like buckets and just throwing different things that I’m researching on Chrome, and then I make a copy of quote and I command tab. And all my there there is the 12 you know, the 12 squares, and I’ll throw it into the one word belongs, you know, and for me, it’s just so easy. It’s like, it’s like, there’s not there’s no I don’t want anything more complicated cuz I understand where everything is and what it is. And when something’s bolded it means something to me. And so this is the 12 things would be a little later, that’s often when I have a massive pile of research already. And now I’m starting to actually I’ve outlined this long thing and I’m thinking okay, here are like the 12 sections of the post. And I will now be slotting the big pile of research in to the 12 buckets where it goes when so but the original stage, when I’m just learning, I’ll probably have one or maybe two text edit docs open. One will be it like I’m collecting links, like I’m reading through links, watching YouTube videos, reading journal articles. You know, that’s usually a little later. And just learning and learning, right? And so if something’s useful, I’ll paste the link and then under that link, I’ll start to pay stuff From that link, so I know what the source is later if I use it, if there’s a quote, I’ll put it in it sometimes, then I’ll have an idea, like a story idea coming to my head, or like I thought like, oh, a metaphor, you know, this is, you know that the this thing is a little like a wizard hat. Okay, I’ll put that in the second Doc, you know. And so the second talk is maybe I, you know, specific ideas that can start to look almost like the beginnings of an outline. But the other doc will get really, really long. And often, it’s just, it’s just pouring stuff in there. And then what I’ll do later, is I’ll go back to the beginning of that Doc, and like, read through it and start putting stuff into buckets. And just this exercise, as I do, this is like seven rounds, I’ll put that into buckets, and then I’ll go through those. And then I’ll re outline and I’ll do new buckets so that by the time, you know, seven rounds are starting to really clarify. And I’m starting to really get to that. And by the end, the eventual thing, the final thing is I have like this really tight outline on one dock, and then another Doc, where each section of the tight outline has a heading and all the notes on the floor. So as I’m going through that thing, you know, and then every time I do a section of the post, I’ll then pull out that sections notes, and I’ll have that on the left side of the screen. I’d like Microsoft Word doc on the right side of the screen. And so I’m an old man, like, I know, it works,

    Bilal Zaidi  

    man. And that’s the main thing. And I think a lot of people I mean, the best books of all time, were probably written by hand or typewriter or whatever. So like, I definitely agree, man, I think I was more interested in like that process, which I think you did a great job of explaining of the research phase, and then taking those links and summarizing them. And you’ve gotten this process where it just works for you. And I think that’s the most important thing. I think a lot of time people are looking for a magic tool that’s going to save the day and turn them into a great writer. Of course, there’s some great tools that save you time and can help. But if it works for you, then that’s the most important thing. One of the things you mentioned, there was the wizard hat. I love that, first of all, but I’m just curious, when you describe that to me, like you kind of lit up again, and I started laughing out loud, even though I was on mute. And I’m curious like that, obviously comes from a sense of humor that you clearly have in your day to day life, and you’ve had maybe forever. But I’m curious, like how much of that turning a complex idea into something fun that people can, you know, have this image in their head of how much of that you think is innate talent, essentially, versus something that you’ve learned over time?

    Tim Urban  

    I think it’s sometimes just effort, like putting the time in to I think, you know, I’m thinking through people I know, and I think any of them could come up with that if they just if they were tasked if that was the job at hand, if it was like, Okay, what is this thing? Like, what what is, and they had like a brainstorm session that maybe went on for multiple days, I mean, maybe multiple weeks sometimes, to get the right metaphor, and sometimes I have a metaphor, I know is not very good. And it’s weeks later that finally, you know, something better comes in. So if you put that effort in, and the job and your job is to think, you know, what is this thing? What really is it? So, you know, I’m sure there’s some elements of like, some people are better at that naturally than others. But I think a lot of it is, um, is just obsessively being like, this is not ready to be written this post, until there’s like, a story that you can set up in a few words that like, really captures it. And, and again, you know, I think, if if I were, if I could just rob the top of my head, like, instantly always come up with the best thing. You know, maybe I’d say yes, there’s some, like, real talent there. But I think given how much time I often spend trying to get to the right things, I think a lot of it is effort.

    I think that,

    you know, it’s like effort plus, in some ways, it’s like confidence, like competence, and just like writing your own voice, and be okay with that. And to just like go with them really weird, silly metaphor that you think is good in your head, you know, and it’s like those two things, like, you can do a lot, but just those two things like effort and then like the belief in yourself or your like, the effort with the fruits of the effort, you’re like, this is something I’ll push out into the world because I think it’s I think it’s gonna be that’s great, man. No, I

    Bilal Zaidi  

    love that. And I definitely agree, I think obviously, there has to be some level of intelligence and, and some creative ability or one, but like, a lot of the time it is, the more people I’ve interviewed, you just see that they’ve just been doing it for so long. And they’ve been going through the process so many times that those 100 terrible ideas turn into three pretty good ones, and then it becomes one amazing post all the time. So I definitely think there’s something to take from that. Another thing I’ve heard you discuss is your audience. And I’ve heard you describe it as writing for a stadium full of Tim’s or stadium full of people that look like you’re basically yourself. And there’s a contrasting view and of course, like anything, there’s no right or wrong answer in many ways. But for you, you have always written for someone like yourself. Other people I’ve spoken to or have listened to have said, well, you need to figure out, like, Who’s gonna like your sort of stuff and write for them. My personal opinion is the same as yours. Like, when I do these interviews, I’m doing it because I want to ask these questions for myself. And I know with 7 billion people in the world, there’s gonna be some other people like me out there who find this interesting. So, like, how important is that for you?

    Tim Urban  

    Yeah, well, so it’s, I think I said earlier about how the original voice I started with, when I started, my old blog was like the same exact voice, I would write a funny email to friends after a trip. And so it’s a stadium full of 10s. But it’s also just kind of like a group of people that like, no one love you. You know, it’s like, the reason I would do that email to friends. And is because I know, you know, it’s not a group that’s going to write back and be like, Alright, man, like TMI, like, thanks for like, the long thing, they’re not gonna do that, like, these are friends who I know will be like, delighted that I wrote this long thing. And for them, like, the longer and the sillier, like, the better because they’re just like, I know, they’re like, giggling reading it. And other I know, they want me to do this, right. So it’s that feeling like the people are writing for like me, and R want to hear from me. And like, when I am being my full self, they like that, right? That brings out like a very authentic, that colloquial voice that I think is fun to read. I think I definitely one of the most important things happened in the old blog is I built up this confidence that this relationship with those readers where I’m like, it was like this plate, you know, I would get feedback after the post and be like, okay, they really into it. And they wish I wrote more. And they’re, like, really excited about this. So now I have this excitement I’m writing cuz I’m like writing for people that, like me, and what I’m doing, like Adam Grant, talks about the idea of like, what is that a bad quality or quality to work on is if you’re paranoid that everyone doesn’t like you, it’s going to bring out a really bad side in you, it’s just going to bring out like, not not your best a shell of your real self. So he said, You know, he talks about how you want to do, you know, feel pronoia, which is assuming that everyone in the room, but everyone you know, out there is saying great things about you behind your back. And it’s like this funny idea. It’s like, if you just imagine that everyone is saying great things, it brings the best out of you. Because you’re the most inner self because the more inner the self that’s coming out, the more interesting in my view, the more the more interesting to me, I think the if you look at the best writers, the people who on the, you know, on the internet, or in books or whatever, especially if we’re talking about like nonfiction, or like, you know, comedians, like you know, like, a Louie ck, or a, you know, someone like David Letterman, I’m just thinking about, like, the people who are magnetic, it’s often because like, the most inner inner self is coming out confidently. And that’s just this really unusual and magnetic thing when it happens. And I think the way you you can do that is if you have this belief that the people you’re in your audience love you and love what you’re doing and think it’s great, really, like deep down, it’s like writing an email to those friends. And it’s that same idea where it’s like, now a bigger group, but it’s like, you know, my situation, it’s like, wait, but wide community, you know, this group of people who all connect with my writing stuff, and then it’s like, so fun to write for them. If I were suddenly writing in the Wall Street Journal, you know, for a huge group one time, I might do well at that, but I might like, it might screw me up a little bit, in some ways, because I wouldn’t feel like a safe I guess it’s like, you know, it’s this feeling of like, when you feel really safe, and like warm feeling from from the thing you’re doing, like you’re gonna is great things gonna come out of you. Versus like, if you’re trying to, you know, a Wall Street Journal, it’s like, well, it’s not really my world anymore.

    Bilal Zaidi  

    I’m running in someone else’s world. For other people, you brought up something, which I haven’t actually heard you talk too much about before, which is kind of like the confidence, like I’ve heard you talk about finding your voice. But this is almost like the finding the confidence to put yourself out there authentically?

    Tim Urban  

    Well, one thing that’s interesting, just just to follow up for a sec, is that it’s a, it’s a vicious cycle, or a virtuous cycle where when you are being confident in who you are, does not you know, not and not not because you’re some extra special person, just a normal person, being confident in who they are. people end up liking that person, they end up or they end up you know, being interested in that person and, and respecting that person often. And so that makes you more confident the reactions you get. And so it’s the cycle that goes up and and like anyone, I’ve gotten plenty of cycles, both in phases of my writing and in the real world where you feel unconfident about who you are, and what happens like something starts the cycle going the other way. You may have bad some bad experience or even just have bad thought you start getting paranoid often often in your own head. It starts in your own head, but the paranoia that you know you read something the wrong way. Once you’re being paranoid, you’re always, you know, you’re reading everything in the worst light. This, you know, people think this about me Oh, that’s why that email came in this time. And this way you start to like, you know, we have a story and negative story and then you start to not want to show your real self. And so then you start being this less interesting, less authentic person that we have a real fine tuned radar for that humans like so even if they someone couldn’t tell you, they just like you a little less are they like, they’re just a little less drawn to you, when you’re being kind of like this shell of yourself. And then you feel that and now it starts to become real. And now you really know the parrot paranoia gets out of control. So it’s the cycle that I think we should all be thinking about. And that’s what Adam is saying is pronoia is good, because it, it can start the cycle going in the other direction, just it’s just actually the exercise of imagining everyone’s out there talking great saying great things about you behind your back. And you know, it, you know, you walk into a room and assume everyone’s gonna like you, you’re gonna be the most likable version of yourself. So it’s this interesting mindfuck that I think, you know, when you’re, when you’re in a bad zone with this, it feels really bad. It doesn’t feel like you mindfuck yourself, and you are, and you are being paranoid, and it feels like you’re just not that awesome person. And like, I don’t even know who I am, it feels really bad. And you feel like on the other end the other cycle, when it’s going the other way you feel on top of the world, like you’re just, you know, glowing orb of confidence. And you feel like you’ll always be like that, but it’s like, you’re going to go back and forth. And so it’s important when you’re in a bad zone to remember that it’s a zone that everyone goes in that zone, it’s a totally human, and that you’ll come out of it, you know, you’ll come out of that zone. And you’ll feel better about yourself at some point. And I think, yeah, it’s interesting topic.

    Bilal Zaidi  

    No, I love that. Because I think a lot of people ask the question of, what do you do when you’re feeling down? Or like when you’re not motivated or something like that? How did you get out of that, but I like the way this part of this discussion went was, is very specific. It’s like when you’re not feeling like you’re yourself or you’re, you’re not feeling confident, like this is a very specific kind of like exercise you can do. And it should hopefully bring you back to the best version of yourself. So just to dig into a couple more things in the writing process, and just your philosophy of writing. A lot of writers a lot of people I’ve spoken to talk about headlines being incredibly important, of course, right? Like if in an in an age where you were building your blog, originally with a lot of virality on Facebook and different social platforms. Sam Parr who’s a fan of the hustle came on the show and he said 97% of his his blog posts were it’s all about the headline essentially, because if people don’t click the headline in the first place, you don’t even get those people into your onto your landing page in the first place to read your your great work. So I’m curious like what is your philosophy on that? Because yours You clearly have like deep work as well, that is, takes up majority of the time. But I’m curious, like, what makes a good headline for you and how much time do you spend on kind of perfecting?

    Tim Urban  

    Yeah thought a lot about this topic because it early on. It was all about like, how do we get these posts to be read by the most people and I was all I was fully you know, trying to do enticing headlines with also the pictures really important. So I would try to pick a good feature drawing, it’s called where it’s the drawing that if you’re if you’re actually on social media, you know, you’ll almost always see my posts if I post something with a comes along with a picture of the picture and a lot of ways for me more important. So as the blog started to get more attention and and there were more people sign up for like the newsletter because it doesn’t matter what the headline is for the newsletter, it’s, you know, I’m sure you get a little bit better click rate if it’s an enticing headline, but the people on the newsletter mostly sign up because they want to read what I write and I don’t write very often. So I think you know, we have a pretty good click rate. And I don’t think the headline matters that much for them. And the truth is, that’s the big rush of people that comes in the newsletters. Biggest engine for us right now. So, as it’s become less about, like, how do we get this to go viral on social media, and more about like, the newsletter is going to automatically bring a certain minimum people to this, there’s been a tension between in decision making between going for the juiciest headline. And going for kind of the headline that makes sense. You know, each post I consider like a piece of art that I worked forever. And it’s so undignified sometimes to pick a clickbait headline for it, it’s not worthy of the post that clickbait headline. And if especially the ones that do really well, I often regret having been as click Beatty as I was it makes me wince. When I scroll down in the front page of the site, I see some of the headlines that are click Beatty. So in a couple examples, like the very first post was like ultimate clickbait, you know, seven ways to be insufferable on Facebook, you know, that that’s when Facebook was like, the ultimate engine. So like, it’s gonna go viral on Facebook, like most of the time, and, you know, and, and, and, and so like that that one, like, you know, early on in the beginning, I think if you’re starting out with this, or you know, you wish your audience were bigger than it is, I don’t think there’s any shame in going for what the headlines, you know, come on, you know, you got to do what you got to do. It’s a busy world of content out there. And like, you know, that’s fine. But you know, when I did post on the Fermi paradox, which is kind of the question of why we haven’t seen any evidence of alien life, when we can, you know, when it should, there should be so much out there. And it’s, it’s a post that, that could, I just decided, as I’m finishing it, like how click Beatty to be with the headline. And I decided to go full dignity full like this. But what I named this post if it were automatically going to be read by a lot of people, and I just called it the Fermi paradox, which I think is intriguing. And it’s, it’s what it is, that’s just what it is, um, if I’m being click baity, I would have said

    Tim Urban  

    reasons we haven’t seen aliens like and seven reasons we might or something that’s super annoying, right, like, and I’m so happy I didn’t do that, like looking back, it would have been such a bummer. If the posts were called 13 reasons, you know, there’s this post, I’m really proud of it. To me, it’s a piece of art that I’m really proud of, it’s not a piece of news for one week, it’s an evergreen thing that I really like, you know, I think it should be read for a long time, hopefully. And, and so that kind of was a good lesson. Like, don’t go nuts with the click bait stuff. You know, because if this thing, especially if it does really well, you’re really gonna like when to even just you know, I did a post a couple years ago called like, how to pick a career. But instead of just saying that, which is kind of like the headline it should be, it was how to pick a career parentheses that actually makes sense for you know, it’s fine. The parentheses part makes me wince a little bit because it’s just like you know, it maybe it’s more descriptive of what the thing actually is. But it’s it is a little like, you want to read this trust me like it’s different than your normal advice like, or that actually makes sense for you. Because the normal advice is stuff that supposedly makes sense. But here’s what actually made you know, it’s like a little bit like and I just, I worked really hard on that post and it took like it was years of it was many years of thinking that then I know that I’ve opened this topic I always thought about and I’m like what what, you know, I just, it’s just an ugly long headline now. So for me, and again, this is because now I have the luxury of having a newsletter, I know there’s going to get a certain minimum people I would rather at this point, I think go for the headline that makes sense. Even if it’s going to maybe hurt the views. Now you think No, well, obviously, you can go mega viral, which has happened a few times, which has been huge for the site, it’s great. It brings in a ton of new people. That’s great. And so sometimes if it just you know, it seems like this thing could take this headline could really be on a different level for this post then it’s really hard to resist but I don’t know this is just the kind of stuff I think about now there’s a whole other level that a lot of people go to that which is full technical like SEO and keywords and really getting you know gaming kind of gaming the system I’ve just never done that it’s not the kind of thing that it doesn’t make sense for my for my site really to go to that level. But I think for a lot of sites like it’s a skill that can that can be met you know, turn your stuff up you know get into way more views so i don’t think i think that’s a cool thing to get good at.

    Bilal Zaidi  

    Yeah. Now that that I love that man i think is this you described this tension between the creative, the purist in you, which I find the same with myself and people I’ve interviewed and then the other side, which is okay, here’s a few. I don’t want to call them shortcuts by like best practices or things Things that we know will maximize the impact. And I think all of these micro decisions, we have to make all come back to laddering. up to like, why am I doing this in the first place? What What does it mean to me and obviously, for you, you’ve gotten to a place where you’ve got 600,000 people plus on your newsletter, I think, and you already know, a great amount of people are going to already already see this. And you can just put your best eye out and afford to do that. Whereas I guess, obviously, someone starting from scratch, might need to toe that line a little bit more carefully. And lean into that sometimes,

    Tim Urban  

    I would just say that. I think early on, I definitely think, you know, you want to think about SEO and keywords and headlines, and, and all of that. But I think probably it’s a mistake to put too much focus into that. Because the thing that truly makes a site grow, in my view, is just content that people really like, I think, you know, people should be putting almost all their effort into just making something that when people read, they think Damn, that’s good. This was great. Who is this? Who wrote this? You know, okay, is it can I read more about this thing, and then like, sending it to friends or putting on social just, you know, being like, being like, this is great read this, like, it’s that is what that is the growth engine headlines, you know, can get people in the door. So that’s important. But you know, putting out B plus work, and then crushing it with the headlines is not the right plan. the right plan is to put out a plus work. And then also putting some effort into the headlines.

    Bilal Zaidi  

    Definitely. No, no, I had to play I agree. And this was a question from the audience. So both Hector asked this and Dallas Ortiz from Mexico, they were basically asking if you were starting from scratch in 2021, like what would you be doing differently now

    Tim Urban  

    it is a different world. 2013 I think from my experience was it really happened to be a good time to start a blog. Totally luck, luck of the draw for me, but it was, it was a time when Facebook especially was a crazy engine for growth of something new like this. Partially because it was just, you know, you know, social media, is this oozing evolving thing of what’s the most popular where people are? It was 2013, like, everyone was on Facebook, that’s just the place that was the place. There was no in Star Snapchat or tik tok yet, but Twitter was there and Twitter was a big deal. But Facebook was like the world’s gathering spot, and it was less diffuse than it is. Now I’m not sure any social media site will ever get to that place again, because there’s just so many other options now, in those now curated social media platforms for you know, younger people and for people who want this and you know, people want to be social versus shared news on Facebook was just the everything place at that time. And it really, the whole world was on. So that plus the fact that they were, I think just really getting going with their like content like like at their ads. They think that they were like realizing how much money they could make. Because they knew it was the everything place. And they realize that they’re out there the power of their algorithm to make something explode. If you paid enough, you basically could guaranteed that it would get a ton of views. That was this power that again, I don’t think anyone has that power. Now, I don’t think anyone out there, if if we’re trying to, you know, you know, help a content creator get huge, I don’t think anyone could do it, as well as Facebook could do it then. So this is when a lot of things blow up. BuzzFeed really blew up around the same time. upworthy came out of nowhere and blew up. Sites like viral nova came out of nowhere and exploded, and huffpost exploding, all these things were exploding all through Facebook, by paying Facebook, by paying Facebook, especially with the targeting. You could reach 100 millions of people if you paid enough and specifically targeted so it was just this crazy thing. And so they started I think but in 2013 and this is again, this is I’m not sure about any of the truth of this. This is my take from what I think happened. It seemed like and I remember read some article back then they were actually they started out really cheap. To show everyone just how great a platform this was. So that you know, they were gonna show they’re, you know, they’re gonna flex a little and be like, just watch what we can do for anyone who pays us. And I think I happen to start right around them because we were paying we started because first we got these followers who were paying at first. And we realized one of the things Facebook started doing is you know, we had a pretty good number of followers pretty early on, you know, I don’t know 50 100,000 early on, on Facebook. And we couldn’t reach that we stopped being able to reach them without paying. You know, even the people who followed us we were reaching 85% of them but if you pay not only could you reach a lot of them you could reach a lot more people. So if you paying like I don’t know $500 or something and it would be the They would send it to 500,000 people’s timelines. And then if I put a really good funny drawings to figure drawing people like What’s this? And so it was a huge thing until like, there was a post that I did that came out then and really blew up about like millennials. And, and it was all on Facebook, it was just like blew up on Facebook. And so anyway, so that’s a long way of getting back to the question, which is, I don’t think that’s the case today. Facebook is a fine engine for us. It’s it’s an engine to get some people so it was Twitter. The email is the best engine? There’s no but but um, there’s nothing like it today. So I think I got lucky, I think if I start today would be harder to get that to get a following quickly. So what would I do? I would Well, first of all, I spent a long time prioritizing Facebook at the bottom of the post because you know, you’re not going to get people to do everything. If someone likes your site, they’re not going to, you know, someone will go and follow you on every account and sign up for your newsletter. Most people will just do one thing if that at all. And so what are you gonna push for? And so I used to be the first thing was Follow us on Facebook big button, and then Twitter next to it. But Facebook was like the big thing we were trying and it’s hit us like pretty early on like Facebook throttled. You know, further, there was like a week when suddenly it was really expensive to reach anyone, and they’ve made it harder to reach out. And followers, I was like, I don’t want to trust them. A people might not be all be here forever. People go somewhere else this is useless. And be like, they might just start saying, Yeah, now Now it’s 10 grand, if you want to reach the same people you’re reaching earlier for 500, we don’t have that money. So

    email was suddenly like, wait a second email is way safer. I think people are, at least for a while people are going to be checking their email. And if something is if that moves somewhere, we can email everyone telling them we’re over here now. But either way, like, That felt safer. So we started only pushing for email, that I would start that from day one. Today, email to me still is the best. Now I’m sure there’s some people that are being thinking about this more creatively than I am. And maybe there’s some like, you know, I don’t know, some some, you know, cool way through WhatsApp, I don’t know, talking about but like some, some other more modern stuff that I’m not that attuned to right now, that’s better. But for me, like, just collect email addresses cuz that’s like a floating audience. That’s wherever you, you know, I can disappear now for a long time. But when I write something, boom, send lots of emails in there, the floating audience appears right, right, where I left them, you know. So you know, you’re not relying on people coming to the site or whatever, which people if you don’t write often, you know, they will forget about you and forget to do that. So I would do that. And then I definitely wouldn’t start with like seven ways to be in suffering. I just think that’s an old format. It’s it’s stale, that you know, or maybe you bring it back like you make this cool again, by really doing it. Well, you know, so there’s a lot of stuff to

    Bilal Zaidi  

    think about. But I actually think that’s a great answer, because I think, like, again, just studying this quite deeply. I agree, I think most people nowadays should go to what you’re describing an own audience, like, you own the email list. You if you’re on Facebook, you’re renting from them, essentially, right? So you’re, you’re going there originally, you get 50%, organic reach, it drops down to five nowadays, that’s like 1%, for a lot of people even less, and then you’re paying more because the auction has become more expensive to reach those same people. So I definitely agree. And I think you’d really answered it. Well, I guess one follow up question is, given the other things you do in your own life, in terms of how you consume information, would you potentially change the format? So you’ve always been writing and illustrating, but in 2021, would you say, actually, maybe I’ll give YouTube ago, maybe I’ll give podcasting? Just because there’s a lot more attention there? Or is it just a matter of, I’m a good writer, I like writing gives me the time to collect my thoughts. I’m just curious on the medium, would you potentially change that?

    Tim Urban  

    Yeah, well, so as it is, today, I am planning on expanding the medium. I actually love writing, I think it’s one of the best formats, writing with drawings, I think is like, a way that I can work on something for a long time, and then like push out, like a quality thing. And I think that, you know, people will always read something really good, even if they’re not someone who typically reads articles, if someone they trust sends it to them. So I’m gonna keep writing. I am going to probably start some kind of podcast and I do want to start doing YouTube videos because it sounds fun. And I my my ideal is that I think of a topic and rather than thinking, Okay, what’s the blog post on this? I think well, first of all, what’s the medium? What’s the best medium for this and I had this kind of like, different mediums to choose from. And, and so that would be that’s, that’s what I probably will do today. Now, if I were starting from scratch. I might experiment I might like start with writing. And if that doesn’t seem to be something that’s like, hitting as much as I think it would, any more than then maybe I would start doing YouTube videos, I do think, you know, I guess the game early for a while was like, try to go viral try to like get initial people. That was the first game. Today, maybe YouTube would would be the answer I would be looking for, like, I might just say, like, I think, you know, I think if you can do a really, you know, there’s a lot of YouTube videos, lots and lots. But if you do if there’s a really funny YouTube video, or a really good explainer, or just a really interesting point someone’s making right into the camera or something that does often today really kind of go viral, it still stands out. Oh, yeah, the YouTube algorithm is very powerful. And I think the rule with both writing and YouTube and podcasts is that there’s a you know, it can be intimidating seeing an ocean of stuff going on, like up, there are 10s of millions of these things. And it feels like well, how does anyone get noticed? But what you have to remember is that when you get up to that, like top level doing something that’s excellent, there’s not 10s of millions of those at all, there’s maybe a few 1000. You know, there’s if you do something really excellent, like people will find you because the the cream rises to the crop to the top with these algorithms and with people sharing and people just noticing. So I do think there’s a lot of hope. You know, if someone’s out there who wants to start something and get an audience, and they think they think they can do something? That’s excellent. I think that they should try it, because and I think they should feel optimistic because the algorithms have refined what really well, where if you do something excellent, like the algorithm will notice how much people like it, even if there’s only a few and we’ll start pushing

    Bilal Zaidi  

    love that Yeah, no, I think it comes back to like where there’s already an audience and there’s some potential for virality still and to be able to stand out from the crowd. Just to switch gears a little bit of thanks for going through that whole process. I definitely haven’t heard you go into that much detail before. So I really appreciate that. We’re going to start talking about some of your your posts and things you’ve been obsessed by. One of the most popular ones on your site is obviously about Elon Musk, and all the cool things he’s working on. And I’ve heard you describe that process how you love just going there for six months and spending this time and getting all this access outside of Elon Musk. If there was a dream person you could spend that same amount of time with and do another deep dive, whether that’s someone from history or a contemporary or someone who’s around nowadays. I’m curious if anyone stands out to you that you that you haven’t been able to do that with Yeah,

    Tim Urban  

    yeah. I mean, I kind of feel like I’d love to talk to Bill Gates. And and dig in to what’s going on there. I’d love to talk to you know, Sheryl Sandberg and dig in there, you know, and I have actually had a chance to talk to Sheryl but like to do a full deep dive into like, What is her universe? You know? What’s going on there? You know, she and you know, Mark Zuckerberg, they have a lot going on. They’ve got they are complete pioneers in the VR world, which I’m not sure everyone quite realizes. I mean, people know that. But Oculus did they are really huge there and and then there’s so many platforms, Whatsapp and Instagram. Here’s what I mean. It’s just like, so there’s a lot of like, people in the tech world and then there’s and then there’s, of course, you know, all kinds of people outside the tech world. It’s almost like I mean, there’s just too many options here. I mean, just a really anyone who I think kind of lives in a fascinating universe. So like a prominent politician. It kind of can’t stand politics. I’m writing about it right now tortuously, but, but it’s more like what is the universe of a big politician? What is going on there. And like that, that sounds really interesting. This is part of what I think is fun about a podcast is I can dig in with some of these people to their universe without having to spend six months necessarily on it. Now, you know, Ilan was especially good because there’s a few reasons I mean, his each of his companies is a is like a window into the future and a window into humanity’s chances in the future because they’re all geared towards raising humanity’s chances have a good future and, and they each have a whole universe of tech and, and and paradigm shift that’s going on. So that’s one thing. You know, if I’m gonna write about a company, it has to, you know, has to be because the thing they’re doing is a window into something much bigger, but separate separately. Ilan himself is I think, like a master at reasoning from first principles. And this is a very he the way he thinks is it’s worthy of a study on its own. It was worthy of a big way but why post I did, I think like there’s a ton we can learn from Eli, I think everyone can learn from how he thinks. And I would say the same about someone like Steve Jobs or certain people were the way they think is A critical life lesson. So that’s why he was a great person to talk to. And I do think a lot of the people in the biggest, most prominent positions who have done amazing things, I think probably you could say that you know, that there’s probably something about the way they think that is a really important lesson. If you really just read a great biography of a person, you know, an Abe Lincoln or someone you know, you’re gonna, you’re gonna the way they think is going, it’s going to be a valuable lesson for you. So, yeah, so I don’t know, I it’s, it’s pretty cool. But like, specific, because there’s such an endless list here. But I guess that those are the things I’d be looking for is Yeah,

    Bilal Zaidi  

    no, I love that. And and you mentioned Ilan there. So this was also a few, quite a few people asked questions from the audience about your time spent with him. Specifically, a couple people asked, was there something you learned from him that you didn’t put in the series? And or are there stories or something most people wouldn’t really know about him that you experience through that process.

    Tim Urban  

    So one of the things that happened, and you know, then we work together again, for nerlynx. So I’ve actually, and we’ve had a chance to talk since about some of the big things he’s doing, I might write about some of the stuff. I mean, I just, you know, very fortunate to have an ongoing relationship with one of the most interesting people. And part of the reason is because, like, we’re actually buddies, and what I mean by that is, like, he’s, he’s, um, he’s really just a normal dude, in such a unsurprising way where a lot of our talks, we would be kind of chit chatting about whatever, for 20 minutes before getting into it. And it’s partially because he just likes to talk about things that everyone else likes to talk about, you know, you people think he must be on some higher level thinking genius things and worrying about his companies, he will legit just want to talk about Game of Thrones and and, you know, we’re talking about, you know, what’s going on with the election or something, he truly is tapped in to the things that the rest of us are tapped into. That’s part of why he’s really active on Twitter. You know, you listen to look at his Twitter and all the TV shows, you watch his name, big TV show, he’s watched it, you know, and I don’t know where the time comes from. But so part of the reason that I think this has been an ongoing relationship is that he’s a he, he is a normal guy who likes to interact kind of like a normal guy. And again, this shocked me, because he’s, it seems like the opposite of a normal guy for you know, if you don’t know anything, um, and, and so he also just had more time on these calls. And I thought, I think, you know, he’s, he likes chatting with people who thinks, think the same way. And it’s not, you know, he doesn’t need you to be a genius. He just again, if you’re just kind of a normal person who’s thoughtful about this stuff, he just likes to chat with you. I picture if I go back, and Steve Jobs were alive, and I did this with him. I mean, maybe I’d be surprised also, but I picture him being like, okay, anything else, you know, like, 20 minutes and being like, you know, here’s what we want to do and saying his thing, and maybe he’ll dig in a bit, but it’s very specific on topic, and he’s being Steve Jobs, and then he’s out, he’s not gonna be sitting there. joking around in the phone and then being like, okay, okay, shoot me. I gotta go. You know, it’s like, it’s just so that’s surprising. And I think sometimes people mistake certain things on Twitter, they’ll be all harsh on him or something when I’m like, he’s just being a dude on Twitter a lot of the time. And you know, he’s not thinking that hard about what he’s saying. He’s not like, you know, curating he doesn’t he, he definitely does not have like a PR team or anything like that. Maybe it is inauthentic. That being them?

    Bilal Zaidi  

    Yes. Right from the house.

    Tim Urban  

    Yeah, again, and this is because it’s like he almost refuses to accept that he is as big a deal as he is. He doesn’t, he seems like someone who is like adamantly stayed who he was before. Well, so one of the things that I you know, we’ve, that I didn’t publish, because it wasn’t really on topic. It’s just a lot of the off topic, things we talked about. He’s um, he’s someone who thinks about things hard about all everything. And he’s really educated, like, he knows. I’m talking about like, the origin of Islam, and he can tell you all about it, you know, he talked about, you know, go back to the Assyrians. And he’s like, Oh, yeah, they were like, of course, and tell us some jokes and like, start bursting out laughing talking about how like, it’s like, so he knows a ton. And he thought about this stuff. And he’s great. One of the things he’s he’s really great at is like, seeing the pet the pattern. So he’ll like, he’ll just like, be able to frame what’s really going on in a historical story. In a really kind of, high level way. He’ll like bear down to what’s really going on, which, you know, of course, is part of why he’s so good at what he does is he can look at an industry, I think, you know, I always you know, kind of asked him once like, you know, you you you always had a great engineering mind, but we wanted to start doing this, you’re suddenly running these giant enterprises, these massive international companies deal. How did you learn how to do business? How did you learn? And he kind of like, scoffed at that question was like, all businesses is a group of people trying to accomplish a goal together. There’s no such thing as a business to him. So he’s like, we’re just trying to accomplish a goal and there’s problems in your way and you learn to solve them. That’s an example of like, how he thinks like, you know, I’ve never heard, you know, the concept of business be boiled down so succinctly into what it actually is. And so he does that for everything. And that’s again, part of his success is he’s just this really clear headed thinker. But it’s but but so anyway, we talked about a lot. So he’s really, I guess the point is, he’s really interesting to talk to you about everything. So at one point, we were just talking about something else, and we’re talking about power. And, uh, and I was saying, I was saying, like, so who’s the most powerful person on earth? And we just got into like a 20 minute combo on this. And we’re going back and forth. And we’re like, how can maybe it’s not the president united states, because he’s too, like, constrained in a lot of ways by his own government. No, maybe it’s like Putin because he could like invade a country when he wakes up in the morning, if no one else wants to he could decide to do that. And like, he doesn’t need any approval. That’s a semi. I don’t know if that’s true. But that’s like what we were talking about. And like, you know, for sure, so there’s a lot of stuff like that, like Fermi paradox. He has thought about the Fermi Paradox forever. Ai obviously, people know he’s, you know, because that’s something he has talked a lot about publicly. But like, you don’t even know how much he thought about AI and how much he knows he’s on the board of so many of these companies. And he really keeps in a tune with it. So I guess that’s just it’s just that he’d be a great podcast guest. Yeah,

    Bilal Zaidi  

    yeah. I mean, of course, he’s always got an open invite to create a lab for sure. So, so Elan, if you’re listening right now, we’ll have to get you on for sure, man. But listen, no, that’s, that’s awesome. I really enjoyed that a lot. You talked a lot about AI and neural link there are you mentioned your link anyway. So if anyone’s interested, for the sake of time, we can’t go to a full deep dive on AI because that could take two hours. But I will definitely recommend your posts on both of these. And we’ll link to those in the in in the show notes as well. But since since you wrote these because these were written a few years ago, by this point, right, and the world has moved on AI has, has gotten smarter, and things have gotten more powerful since then, from those conversations with someone like Ilan, who’s working on neural link, which for anyone who doesn’t know, is a brain machine interface. Essentially. I there are things now that you believe that you didn’t previously or as you’re thinking on it changed, or are there things that he’s talked to you about, or you’ve done from your art, you’ve seen from your own research, that you’re even more blown away by?

    Tim Urban  

    Well, yeah, so neural link in particular. I that was so early, they were literally I was talking to the eight founders, basically about neural link, there wasn’t even really a company yet. They were like about to start the company. And so it was a very open, open ended kind of discussion that was that, you know, they almost refused to make predictions and stuff. So neural link has really filled in a lot. I mean, there’s probably three years later now. And what I can say is, it’s the it’s the most optimistic kind of story from my post is the one that seems to be happening, like it is moving even quicker than I thought possible. And I think maybe that they thought possible, um, things that that that seemed like they were maybe 10, or eight to 10 years away, see more like four, four to six or three to five. And and and it was clear at the time, it was that the technology was so new and difficult. That the eight to 10 might be 50. As far as we knew, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a human with there actually, one of these knurling things in their head. Like in two years, I don’t know, I don’t have a chat. I don’t have like definitive info on that. But from what I’ve seen that the pace seems like we’re close that seemed like it was at least a decade away in 2017. And now it might be early 20. So neural link is like yeah, moving faster. Things like AI and and and SpaceX and neural link, the thing about them is that the specifics change, you know, oh, this is will be faster than I thought, Oh, this is an even bigger danger than we realized, Oh, this is this is a bigger obstacle, it’s going to slow things down and whatever, that for sure. Changes year to year, month to month. I mean, if I do a talk on AI, I have to review what happened that month, you know, to make sure that I’m up to because it’s it’s just so so much rapid change. But the underlying stories in these things. Those don’t tend to change too much. I mean, I’m sure they, some of them will over time. But the underlying story with SpaceX, for example, is like we want life insurance for the species by not having all of our eggs in one basket. So we want to have people know, humans populating to planets, which makes it more likely that humans will survive for a long time. That’s not going to change. You know, that’s still the premise. Whether that we humans, touchdown on Mars in 2024 2028 or 2032. That might change but it’s like The underlying story is true AI is like, you know, something smarter than we are, is being born on this planet slowly but surely, that’s crazy. The implications of that are insane. And that premise hasn’t really changed, you know, so neural link still is a wizard hat from there for the brain for the same reasons, you know, which is to help us become AI, so that we can survive in a world where I exist. So yeah, I find that sometimes, you know, what’s what’s nice about writing long form, when you really dig deep to what’s the big, big story, the big, big story is likely to stay the same, which is why some of the posts can be read for a long time, because that story, you know, doesn’t change very quickly. But yes, of course, the specifics change a lot. And I do want to do follow ups of some of these posts into

    Bilal Zaidi  

    now. That’s awesome, man. I mean, yeah, the neural link stuff. When I heard Elan musk on Joe Rogan’s podcast, that was kind of mind blowing to me, because he was talking. I don’t know if you’ve heard that one. But he, he’s just the way he explained, it was just like, okay, that kind of makes sense. Whereas originally going into it, even someone like me who loves technology, and is generally an early adopter, even I was quite skeptical. But when I heard that he kind of described to us as kind of mini cyborgs already, like, the phone is a computer with AI, but it’s just in our hand, instead of under the skin or in the brain or whatever. And of course, a lot of people listen to this, that sounds insane. But

    Tim Urban  

    but that’s the thinking. That’s the thinking. I’m talking about like that exactly the same thing. He said, The

    Bilal Zaidi  

    first principle is human.

    Tim Urban  

    Yeah, business is just a group of people trying to do something together. a cyborg is just a human that has other case, non human capabilities. And why does it matter if the phones it’s under the skin? Or which side of the skin that thing is on? It doesn’t really matter? It’s not really material for whether you’re a cyborg or not. And it’s like, to him that’s so obvious. Like he just looks and says, of course, yes. Now that we have this phone, we’re all cyborgs. Rest of Us are kind of like, Huh, and but when when you when he actually says it, you’re like, that’s correct. I can’t argue with that. That is true. And it’s like, I think we all need to like try to figure out what that is. The first principles reasoning, and just do it more, because it’s such a magical superpower, if you have that. And it’s, it’s just looking a little harder at everything or even getting in this habit.

    Bilal Zaidi  

    Yeah, that and I love that man. So just a couple of last things to wrap up here. And I hope you don’t mind me asking this because there’s quite recent. But I saw you post about Tony Shea who recently passed, you know, famous from Zappos, one of my favorite books growing up, I read his book, and I was like, wow, this is kind of inspired me. And he seemed like one of the good guys. And I know you knew him, and you wrote a nice post about him recently. And I was in a clubhouse room where you were talking a little bit about this as well. So if you wouldn’t mind me asking like what what should the world know about Tony as someone who did actually spend time with him and knew him a little bit?

    Tim Urban  

    So the first thing I’ll say is that I would say he is on that the level He’s like, the only other person I know that I think and maybe you could say someone like Steve Jobs. That is that is the most incredibly first principles thinker. He is really badly worded, but you know what I’m saying? Um, he, um, he was a, first of all, yes, as far as the good versus bad scale, being one of the good guys he’s like, the goodest of the good guys. And I really don’t just mean like, you know, it’s it’s hard in these moments because people when someone dies, that everyone says these big cliche nice things about them. And when and when someone is truly special like that, who dies. It’s it’s, it sounds like you’re saying the big cliche things. When you listen to people are saying it sounds like Yes, of course. You know, he was like one of the most special people doing great things in the world and like he’s changed the world and you’ll be missing him like no, no, but like, actually in these cases. That’s the thing about Tony is like, he was a really special dude.

    Tim Urban  

    like when I say the goodness of good guys like he was he was 0% pretentious, even though he was incredibly wealthy, famous, you know, important person, you would not know it in a group of eight people that are, you know, around, you wouldn’t be able to pick out, you know, who is the kind of alpha person here, he just was loving, hanging out with his friends, this is how he was he was like, He always was surrounded by friends. And he, anyone friend needed something. I mean, he would say, I would just like you let me know what you need, and I’ll do whatever I can. And so he was like a truly good dude, he was just always doing I’m thinking like really big and first principles, he about how things can be done. So like, when the last time I talked to him, he was just talking about like, the whole new kind of like structure, he wanted to, like build it examples of how people would work and like these units. And I don’t remember the details, but it was like a totally different way a corporation could exist. And the thing is, the guy had credit as like someone who when he has a big idea, like it often comes true. And then it changes the way everyone does business. So Zappos with their customer service, and all of that, I think, you know, fundamentally changed the way that people thought about customer service. But you know, honestly, the things I have to say about him and the things I know are not really the business related things I never really knew him as a business person. I met him because he originally reached out when he read my post and was like, Hey, we do these salons on like Tuesday at our the trailer park I live in in Vegas. And he like lived in like a trailer park of Airstream with all of his friends. Like, cool. Wow, that’s weird and cool. And so I went there and it was this like little utopia of this, like a bunch of air streams, just like visitors in and out all the time. Friends living there, and then they’d have these bonfires and they had outdoor, you know, movie screen. And it was just the coolest thing. And I was like, I guess you can just do things that you want to do in the specific way you want to do them. That’s just like, it’s a crazy lesson. But anyway, so he invited me out there and we ended up talking late into the night. And it was just interesting. I would I I felt like he was a really interesting combo of like, on one hand, like truly non judgmental, I just like and I and the more I’ve gotten to know him like I would introduce him to any friend of mine doesn’t matter. are they important enough to meet Tony are they smart enough a witty and it doesn’t matter? I will send them anyone. And I know he’s just gonna be like, Who is this person? And like, what’s what’s up with them? Like, it’s just in he was just so everyone is just a full like, equal like, human being. So I felt very uncharged and I felt like, you know, you just very safe saying anything being just your total self. On the other hand, he like, he kept it real where if if I you know, you get small talk around him if I smoke if I was just like, you know, he was like, Hi, you know, how are things? And I’m like, Oh, you know, like, if I say some some bullshit answer, I’m just like, you know, getting by, you know, he’d be like, like, he’d be like, Well, what do you mean? I’m like, shit, you know? I’m like, Okay, well, I’ll say, and it’s like, you know, he, he he just anything you said he would think about and, and dig in further. And like, if you were small talking, you’re gonna get like, challenged on that. And then if I said something big, like, I came to him once. And I was like, oh, there’s two brains in your head, you’ve got like, the higher mind and the primitive mind and this and that. He was like, That’s not true. And I was like, what he’s like, I don’t think that’s right. I think it just like, right there, like, you know, right away, just like your big idea is wrong. And here’s why I think it is, you know, and so, he was just a very intense person to interact with and that way, but somehow also, like, so easy, because you could just be totally yourself. So I rambling because there’s just like, you know, how, you know, what do you say about someone who there’s just so much to say about you want to do it justice, it’s not really possible. But what I can say is just like he

    it’s like, a a huge, huge loss for the world for his friends. I mean, he was a really just big presence, a lot of people’s lives and in the broader world, but he kind of like lived a philosophy. He’s one of those like, philosophers by doing, he didn’t talk very much the quiet guy, but he, when, you know, knowing him as a, he was a big connector, I think he’s created literally 10s of 1000s of relationships. I mean, I know at least 15 new people I’m still in touch with because of Tony. So that’s just like one of the ripple effects of that and a what, you know, relationships are the most important thing. So he’s made so many people, happier people, but more relationships, but also what are the ripple effects and all those people knowing each other, but then, the way he kind of did his thing as a philosopher kind of the way he did customer service at Zappos is is really a customer is really about, you know, how people should be treated and some you know, it’s it’s a lesson on other things, and how to make people feel special and you know, whatever and, and, and then the way he was with his, with his generosity and and his and his open and his first principles thinking about these are all philosophies life lessons. And I think that he was such a big presence that I do believe that like the spirit of Tony and like the, the lessons I do think had been spread into 10s of 1000s. Maybe, you know, if you think about the big picture of millions of people’s brains, and the ripple effects are huge. I do think he’s, his philosophy is going live on, you know, Tony will live on through that. And, yeah, but I’d be like, you know, it’s finally be able to, like talk about this without getting like, just like, overwhelmed with sadness, because a few days later, and I can like talk rationally, but, man, it’s a it’s a tough person to, to lose.

    Bilal Zaidi  

    Yeah, thanks a lot for sharing that man. I know, that’s not easy, even for me who someone who doesn’t actually know him personally, just from his words, and following kind of his kind of lessons in a way and philosophies has been, it was even emotional for me just to hear that news. So thanks a lot for sharing that. I know, that’s not an easy thing. So appreciate it, man. Listen, man, I don’t know how we could finish on a better note than that. So thanks for honoring, honoring him and for sharing so openly. Man, I love you know, everything you’re doing and have done. You’ve been incredibly generous with your time with me. And, you know, Ryan begemann, who introduced us has only said amazing things about you as well. So I’m glad we’ve got to connect. And I know we could do this for an hour, four hours. So hopefully, when things come down, we’ll be able to meet up and grab dinner and do all that sort of fun stuff in person.

    Tim Urban  

    Yeah, and thanks for having me on and taking the time yourself. And, yeah, it would be great to meet sometime in person.

    Bilal Zaidi  

    Awesome, man. I’ll speak to you soon. All right.

    Tim Urban  

    Talk to you soon.

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