Podcast SOS: Three sure things

I got a text today from a student on a road trip out west with some of his friends:

“EJ! Currently on a road trip across the US and wanted to know if you had any podcast suggestions while we are driving!”

I get this kind of request for podcast recommendations regularly.

I sent him these three podcast episodes:

Malcom Gladwell’s Revisionist History – The Big Man Can’t Shoot

The Art of Manliness – Becoming a Digital Minimalist

The Knowledge Project with Shane Parrish – The Angel Philosopher

Gladwell’s podcast is excellent throughout—provocative and compellingly counterintuitive. But that episode about free-throw shooting in basketball is the one that first got me hooked.

The Art of Manliness’s interview with the author Cal Newport is a solid introduction to his call for culling out the digital distractions currently overwhelming most of us.

And Shane Parrish’s interview with Naval Ravikant is full of nuggets of deep wisdom and practical life advice.

My podcast listening usually takes place while I’m driving or while walking my dog. I just don’t listen to the radio unless my kids take over in the car. Dad problems.

(Lately, though, podcasts have been shelved while I’ve listened to the audiobook versions of Robert Caro’s third and fourth volumes on LBJ: Master of the Senate and The Passage of Power. I’ve never read/listened to any book quite like these. This is the pinnacle of biography, at least from what I’ve read. The level of detail is extraordinary, but it’s not at the expense of truly riveting storytelling. Highly recommend.)

What I’m listening to and reading

I recently listened to some fascinating interviews:

Shane Parrish interviewed Naval Ravikant on Parrish’s podcast, The Knowledge Project. Ravikant is thoughtful and interesting and candid and often counterintuitive. And Parrish is a solid interviewer. He sets a good pace and does a nice job of facilitating and keeping the focus on the interviewee.

Tyler Cowen interviewed the author Malcolm Gladwell on Cowen’s podcast, Conversations With Tyler. Two sharp minds in a very entertaining question and answer session.

Ezra Klein interviewed the author Yuval Harari on The Ezra Klein Show. (I then searched Klein’s podcast episodes and also enjoyed listening to his conversation with the author Elizabeth Kolbert who wrote the Pulitzer Prize winner, The Sixth Extinction. Klein also has a new podcast up with a great interview of Tyler Cowen that is fast-paced and packed with information.)

Harari wrote the book Sapiens, which is the most remarkable book I’ve read in the last two years. It’s a sweeping, refreshingly readable, and enlightening history of humankind.

I’ve just begun reading Harari’s follow up book, Homo Deus, which looks forward to what humans might become. This book hasn’t grabbed me yet like Sapiens did. (I like Sapiens so much I’ve read the e-book version more than once, I bought a hardcover copy just to have on my shelf, and I’ve listened to the audiobook.)

As for other books, my little side table can barely hold the books that are in my current reading buffet. It’s a nice mix of fiction and non-fiction. I don’t wait to finish a book before adding new books to my stack. If the description of a book grabs me, I grab it.

Have no shame in your library game. Stockpile the books that interest you. Don’t feel bad if you never get to them all. And don’t hesitate to move on if a book doesn’t interest you enough to finish it.

Even just one excellent paragraph that stretches your mind and awakens a new possibility is worth the price of a book.

On having the courage to look silly in pursuit of excellence

“Show me a guy who’s afraid to look bad, and I’ll show you a guy you can beat every time.” –Lou Brock

via Shane Parrish

My ego puts me at a disadvantage.

If I don’t care that I might come across as weak or naive or silly, I’m open to possibilities and flexible and more willing to try something daring.

But if I’m worried about protecting my image, I’m significantly less likely to accomplish anything worthwhile.

There’s safety in sticking with conventional wisdom and not being an outlier. Of course, “caution is the devil.”

The author Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of Wilt Chamberlain’s free throw problem in his excellent podcast, Revisionist History. (What a great podcast series, by the way. Every episode is compelling.)

Chamberlain was one of the all-time great basketball players, dominant in every phase of the game except one—free throws. His teammate, Rick Barry, was one of the best free throw shooters, but he used an unconventional method, the granny shot, an underhanded and surer shot. 

Barry coached Chamberlain on the granny shot, and Chamberlain switched to it—for a while. But using the granny shot subjected the player to the chance of being ridiculed, by other players and by fans. When Chamberlain used the granny shot, his free throw percentage improved significantly. But he refused to stay with it, because as he later wrote in his autobiography, “I felt silly… like a sissy.”

Instead, his brilliant career was marred by his terrible 51 percent free throw percentage.

I’m a big fan of the high school football coach, Kevin Kelley of Pulaski Academy in Little Rock, who is famous for defying the conventional wisdom about how to play football. He rarely punts on fourth down and almost always calls an onside kick when his team kicks off. And he’s remarkably successful, with six state championships and many appearances in the state playoffs. He was recently named USA Today coach of the year

When asked why more coaches don’t adopt his methods, he said “It’s simply risk aversion. People are scared they will have to suffer ridicule by fans, players and the media.”

If you don’t care about looking silly or making a fool of yourself, you’ll have so much room to grow and to fulfill your potential.

For me, I simply need to more regularly just say “I don’t know” rather than scrambling for any response to avoid looking clueless. So many of us feel like we will look bad if we don’t seem sure or confident. It’s acknowledging the not-knowing that often lights the way to breakthroughs.

Have the courage to look silly in the pursuit of excellence.

The thrill of fresh work from Dan Carlin

HH57-slider

I scanned through my podcast queue in Overcast yesterday and got a little thrill to see a new Hardcore History episode.

If ever there were an artisanal, hand-crafted podcast it’s Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History.

Who knows how much time he puts into crafting the multi-hour series that covers expansive topics such as all of World War I?

Each episode plays as a single seamless, intricately detailed narrative with Carlin holding forth in his uniquely captivating style.

Three-and-a-half hours fly by. I seek out reasons to drive so I can listen some more.

When it’s over, I’m left waiting weeks until the next installment, waiting patiently until my comfortably familiar podcast queue is interrupted with that little thrill once more.

Carlin is, in essence, performing a sort of extemporaneous yet exhaustively plotted audio book with each series. And his work is remarkably compelling. He shines a light on the tragic foibles of our species.

Seeing terrible headlines today seems less shocking when you consider the even more awful things humans have been doing to each other since history has been recorded.

Carlin is a craftsman who clearly cares deeply about what he makes. He goes deep and creates work that adds real value to my life. 

Care deeply. Go deep. Make something worth talking about, something that might cause even a little thrill for someone, somewhere. 

(If you want to get started with Carlin’s work, my favorite series are his World War I deep dive, Blueprint for Armageddon, and his take on the fall of the Roman Republic, Death Throes of the Republic.)

 

 

Finally, a new Hardcore History series 

 
Today I opened the Overcast app (my favorite podcast player) and scrolled through my recently downloaded episodes and was delighted to discover the first episode in a new Hardcore History series, King of Kings, about the ancient Persian empire.

Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History is my favorite podcast. In each series he explores one topic in history over several multi-hour episodes.

Carlin is a compelling, thorough, and passionate story teller, and it’s clear he puts in a lot of work to make these podcasts flow so smoothly and cover so much detail while maintaining an engaging, conversational style. 

The downside is waiting for the next episodes to be made. 

You don’t have to be obsessed with history to enjoy his work. If you love good stories well told (and you do), you will enjoy this podcast and accidentally learn a lot as you listen.   

Raiders

While listening to a technology podcast today I was reminded of just how good the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark is.

Not like I needed reminding. It’s always been my immediate response when asked for a favorite movie. But I tend to chalk up my affection for it as a bit of nostalgia rather than simply an appreciation of the merits of the film.

I saw it when it was first released in the summer of 1981. I was a rising high school senior. My family went to see it on opening weekend at the downtown theater In my hometown and sat in the balcony. Classic.

But, we arrived a few minutes late and missed the opening scene. We then sat through what was the most sensational film I had ever seen. We were all delightfully stunned. It was unlike any other movie. And when the closing credits rolled, we decided to stay for the next screening to see just the first few minutes we had missed. And then we ended up staying and watching the whole film again. We couldn’t stop watching. We went through some popcorn that night. And happily.

The very next weekend I was back at the theater to watch it again, this time on a memorable first date with a girl from my high school.

That movie was etched into my consciousness. Indiana Jones’s  improvisational heroics and authentic, rough-around-the-edges cool became my inspiration.

But it was more than just a happy teenage summer memory that endears the film to me. It was also a remarkably well crafted film. Spielberg and Lucas were in their prime, and the great Lawrence Kasdan wrote the script. The casting was spot on. There were no wasted scenes. The story was tight. The dialogue rang true and remains so quotable. There was clever humor and action and an unconventional love story. The cinematography was impeccable. The music was epic.

I took a screenwriting class a few years later in college. The professor had us over to his home one night to watch Raiders (on VHS tape, of course, at a time when owning a copy of a movie was expensive). Raiders was my teacher’s example of an ideal screenplay. The class gathered around his television while he charted the plot points with us. And we all marveled at the skill of the filmmakers in creating an unapologetically fun film that could stand as a work of art as well.

Yes, it’s just an action/adventure film, but it’s impeccably made, crafted by true icons of the film world. I would not hesitate to rank it with some of the best films ever made. I can’t think of any Spielberg film that’s better than this one, and that’s saying something.

I went back today and listened again to the episode of The Incomparable podcast that’s devoted solely to Raiders. And those guys feel the way I do. It’s such a satisfying film on so many levels.

If you haven’t seen Raiders, go fix that. And make an event of it. Watch it on the biggest screen you can. Make the room dark. Pop some popcorn (not the microwave kind, certainly), and enjoy a truly great escape.

Tim Kreider’s manifesto on the merits of idleness

Tim Ferriss is featuring an audiobook version of Tim Kreider’s book, We Learn Nothing, on his podcast. He posted a sample of the audiobook with a free chapter, Lazy: A Manifesto.

The sample chapter is a terrific essay on the crazy obsession our culture has with being “busy”. When you ask someone how they’re doing, “Busy” is a common and depressingly acceptable, even admirable, response.

Go listen to that free chapter. It’s so good. And Kreider will have you questioning your own addiction to at least appearing to be busy.

From the book:

“Yes, I know we’re all very busy, but what, exactly, is getting done? Are all those people running late for meetings and yelling on their cellphones stopping the spread of malaria or developing feasible alternatives to fossil fuels or making anything beautiful?

This busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness: obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are *so busy*, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day. All this noise and rush and stress seem contrived to drown out or cover up some fear at the center of our lives.”

And this:

“Idleness is not just a vacation, an indulgence, or a vice: it is as indispensable to the brain as vitamin D is to the body, and deprived of it we suffer a mental affliction as disfiguring as rickets. The space and quiet that idleness provides is a necessary condition for standing back from life and seeing it whole, for making unexpected connections and waiting for the wild summer lightning strikes of inspiration—it is, paradoxically, necessary to getting any work done.”

There is not enough idleness in my life. And most of my busyness is probably not accomplishing much in the big scheme of a 13-billion-year-old universe.

“I can’t help but wonder whether all this histrionic exhaustion isn’t a way of covering up the fact that most of what we do doesn’t matter.” –Tim Kreider

Do less, better. That should be my mantra. What does matter? What will count for something worthwhile when I look back on it? What makes for a really good day? Focus on the quality of those things that will send me to bed each night with the satisfaction, not of having been busy, but of having spent my time wisely and joyfully.

Go play

The latest TED Radio Hour episode is all about play and how vital it is even for, especially for, adults.

It turns out, play is not frivolous. It’s necessary for a healthy, fully functional human existence. Without regular doses of play, we become, physically and emotionally, more brittle, less resilient, and a lot less fun.

“The opposite of play is not work. It’s depression.” –Brian Sutton-Smith

As kids, we played like it was our job. What if, now, we did our jobs like it was just play? And what if we were intentional about seeking opportunities to play every day?

I had a colleague years ago who got me to bring my baseball glove to work so we could play catch, wearing our ties, during our lunch break. We got odd looks from passersby, but it was a delight.

There is a distinctive pleasure in physical play that mental play like board games or video games can’t match. I’ve been enjoying dashing off on my daughter’s scooter recently. And there’s Slomo.

And today, after my TED Radio Hour inspiration, I came home and dug out our baseball gloves and played catch with my 10-year-old. We had more smiles than dropped catches. And we’ve promised to get back out there again tomorrow.

Go play this weekend. Like it’s your job.

 

 

 

Conan O’Brien on creativity and perspective

After listening to the Brian Cox episode of the Nerdist podcast, I came across an older episode featuring a long conversation with Conan O’Brien. So good.

I’ve come to think that most really good comedians also are some of our most insightful philosophers. They actively explore the absurdity of life. Imagine being on a constant search for “What’s funny about this?” And then to regularly stand in front of audiences and try to express those absurdities in an effective way, that must lead to a unique perspective on life.

In this podcast episode, Conan reflects on his experiences creating for a daily television show and how most things miss the mark. But sometimes, it just works. I transcribed this from around the 54:00 mark of the episode:

The really great stuff has to be rare… It’s not just back to back to back…

My only hope is that you’re judged for your best work. If you’re judged by your best work, I’ll be okay.

Someone explained to me once that your creative life is laying down little tiles. And you can’t see what it’s all making, and sometimes it’s a slightly darker tile than the other. Sometimes it’s a really brightly colored tile. Sometimes you’ll lay down seven grey tiles in a row. But you’re making a much bigger piece which when seen when it’s completed, when it’s done, could be quite fantastic, you know, but you’re doing it tile by tile, day by day and you can’t know.

You can’t know. At least not from the zoomed in perspective of this moment. But keep laying down tiles. Then, hopefully, you can zoom out eventually and see a body of work that might be more fantastic than you could have planned in advance.

 

Standing on the edge of the known

A recent episode of the Nerdist podcast featured physicist Brian Cox, who hosts his own entertaining and enlightening podcast, The Infinite Monkey Cage.

I listened to most of this episode of the Nerdist while walking my dog last night. The podcast was a fascinating conversation between regular humans and a super smart scientist who has a knack for making complex concepts approachable for the rest of us.

It’s a great episode and made me consider possibilities about the nature of the universe that I hadn’t before. And Cox had this poetic comment more than an hour into it that I had to write down:

“I think the key to being a scientist is to delight in not knowing. It’s to stand on the edge of the known and face the unknown with curiosity and delight and not fear.” –Brian Cox

It’s the key to being not just a scientist, though, but a curious, open-minded human no matter your work. This embrace of not-knowing has been a theme in much of what I’ve read recently.

Courage is required, but delight and wonder and new possibilities are the reward for letting go of certainty.

Screen Shot 2014-06-26 at 9.25.17 AM

The hardest thing

“The hardest thing is spending the most time on the most important things.” –Matt Mullenweg

Mullenweg is the very young founder of WordPress (the home of this web site and many more). He said this in the most recent episode of The Tim Ferriss Show podcast when talking about his work and his company’s focus. (Ferriss’s podcast has been killing it recently with quality guests.)

Knowing what’s most important is one thing. Relentlessly devoting most of your time, at the expense of good things that just are not most important, is another thing. But these two things are everything.

Choose what to focus on, what will have the biggest impact over the long term, and keep checking that your time and attention are pointed there. This means eliminating good stuff, but the most important stuff likely won’t get done otherwise.

Upgrading your life “operating system”

I listened to this Tim Ferriss interview with entrepreneur Peter Diamandis recently. Diamandis is promoting his new book, Bold, which is a challenge to aim higher, dream crazier dreams, and take bold action.

The podcast is a solid interview, filled with perspective shifting insights and stories.

I was particularly struck by Diamandis’s notion that we should periodically reevaluate our mind’s OS, our operating system for how we think and behave. I upgrade my computer’s OS almost yearly, but how often do I tinker with my primary mental default settings?

We add “apps” (a new language or skill, for example), but rarely do people examine, tweak, or completely upgrade their default “OS”, the set of assumptions and beliefs about life most people are handed by family, friends, and culture.

Computer software tends to get buggy and slow down over time, and to keep up and remain effective it needs regular updates and occasional wholesale upgrades.

But don’t most of us still rely on unexamined beliefs and principles and buggy habits and potentially outdated modes of operating?

My recent immersion in Stoic philosophy, for example, has led me to rewire my approach to obstacles and setbacks. I’m less of the blind optimist and more willing to embrace the negative.

The primary worldview I had at age 20 is mostly gone now, replaced, however, by an approach that is more realistic, more challenging, and ultimately more empowering. I know, though, how difficult it is to upgrade and debug a long-established mindset. Maybe I’m just slow and particularly resistant to change, but it’s taken three decades to reboot some fairly basic, outdated patterns.

The unexamined life, though… Not. Worth. Living.

A great podcast: Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History

Podcasts have almost completely replaced the radio for occupying my driving time, and I often listen to podcasts on my daily walk. There are so many good podcasts to recommend – TED Radio Hour, Serial, The Tim Ferriss Show, Jeff Garlin’s By The Way.

But the most impressive and engrossing podcast I’ve encountered is Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History. Carlin goes deep and produces what are in essence audiobooks about each historical topic he takes on. But he delivers these amazingly well researched stories in a conversational tone that makes you feel like you’re sitting with a really interesting friend who knows everything about history AND who can tell a great tale.

His latest series on World War I is stunning for its detail and for its effectiveness in conveying the staggering tragedy of the first modern war. He doesn’t gloss over or minimize the stark, often shocking realities of what humans have done to each other throughout history, hence the name “Hardcore History”. His podcasts are not light entertainment. But they are remarkably good.

It’s easy to make a podcast now. You just need a microphone and a computer and you can talk your heart out and post it on iTunes. But what Carlin and the best podcasters create are works of art, carefully, painstakingly crafted with strong content and excellent production values.

Carlin goes deep into his subject, reading voluminously on the topic and laying out his narrative carefully before recording. What he delivers ends up sounding effortless. This level of commitment to quality content and production, though, makes a show like Hardcore History shine.

If you’ve got some time in the car ahead of you this holiday week, Hardcore History or any of the other podcasts I listed above are a great way to fill a few hours.

*My podcast app of choice, by the way, is Overcast for iOS.