25 Things I’ve Learned From a Decade of Podcasts
In his letters—the pre-digital medium for distant long-form conversation—Seneca instructs his friend Lucilius to find one thing each day that will fortify him against death, despair, fear, or adversity. Just one thing. One nugget. And that’s what most of Seneca’s letters to his friend are about. They have a quote in them. Or a little prescription. Or a story. But in each case, Seneca is explicit. Here’s your lesson for the day, he says. Here’s your one thing.
Obviously that’s the logic behind the daily emails I write (Daily Stoic and Daily Dad) but it’s also the way I try to live. Every time I listen to a podcast or record one myself, I try to walk away having grabbed at least one little thing. That’s how wisdom is accumulated—piece by piece, day by day, book by book, podcast by podcast.
So today, I wanted to honor that Stoic process by sharing some of the lessons I’ve picked up over a couple thousand hours of listening to podcasts, being interviewed on podcasts, and interviewing people for the Daily Stoic podcast (which you can subscribe to here and here). And with over 30 million downloads of Daily Stoic’s episodes so far, I get really excited to think about how much cumulative knowledge that’s created for people.
But here’s some top-line stuff you can use right now:
- Interviewing is a skill like any other. It seems easy—aren’t we all good at having conversations? No we are not! I’m always looking to see masters at work and I try to learn from them when I get a chance to watch. Trying to myself, and seeing how hard it was, has been a great lesson.
- Brian Koppelman’s podcast is called The Moment. It’s about the critical moment in every aspiring artist’s life. When the craft they have long elevated as magic or beyond their grasp suddenly becomes a bit more comprehensible. When they begin to see the medium in a new way. When they realize that on the other side of the work they admire and love is just another human being. And I’m a human being too—which means that if I work hard enough, I can do the same thing. I wrote about my moment here.
- What should a person do after they screw up? What can they do? It occurred to me when I was asked to be on Lance Armstrong’s podcast a couple years back. What does Lance call his podcast? He calls it The Forward. Because that’s really the only thing you can do in life: go forward. That’s what Lance is trying to do with his life now. You don’t have to like him. You don’t have to forgive him. But move on and move forward, is all he can do.
- It’s not fair. When I interviewed Tim Ferriss for the Daily Stoic podcast, he advised that we strip those three words out of our vocabulary. Because they are impotent and meaningless. Because they don’t do anything but make us upset or make us believe we don’t have options. We talked about that Epictetus line, “It is not things that upset us, but our judgements about those things.” “Fair” is an opinion we have about an objective reality we’re in.
- Also from Tim. Tim has always stressed the value of evergreen long-form content. As he told me in my interview with him, “Long-form content isn’t dead; it’s simply uncrowded and neglected. I double-down when formats are out of favor.”
- Matthew McConaughey told me why he shut down his production company and his music label. “I was making B’s in five things. I wanna make A’s in three things.” Those three things: his family, his foundation, his acting career.
- Another from McConaughey. He told me he’s known in Hollywood as “a quick no and a long yes.” What a great expression! Before he says yes to doing a movie, he sleeps on it for ten days to two weeks in the frame of mind that he’s not going to do it. If he sleeps well, he doesn’t do it. If the thought that he has to do it wakes him up at night, he does it.
- An amazing chat with James Altucher on his podcast inspired my piece on envy and jealousy and a thought exercise I still do. We’re usually envious of certain aspects of a person’s life. Instead, picture that you can change places with them in every way. Would you? The answer is always no. You gotta stay on your path. Don’t be distracted by others.
- The legendary basketball coach George Raveling told me he sees reading as a moral imperative. “People died,” he said, speaking of slaves, soldiers, and civil rights activists, “so I could have the ability to read.” If you’re not reading, if books aren’t playing a major role in your life, you are betraying the legacy that they left for the generations after them.
- An essential piece of advice I got from the author Steven Pressfield: There are professional habits and amateur ones. Which are you practicing? Is this a pro or an amateur move? Ask yourself that. Constantly.
- I asked Jocko Willink what his advice would be for someone reeling from the events of the pandemic. “Really, it just comes down to having humility.” People who accept reality can change and adapt. People who let their ego get out of control and deny the severity? Those are the people he’s been seeing get their asses kicked.
- Just a few more years, we tell ourselves. Just until I make enough money. These are the lies we all tell ourselves, the rationales for why we’re doing the thing we hate or being the kind of person we’d rather not be. The brilliant comedian and writer Pete Holmes called it the lie of the “One Last Job.” It’s the lie that bank robbers tell themselves, just as comedians or musicians do—one more tour, one more album, then I’ll slow down. But it never happens. You could leave life right now, Marcus Aurelius reminds us. We have to let that determine what we do and say and the jobs we take and the work we do.
- Pop star Camila Cabello talked about that metaphor from Stillness about looking at the human race as a single person and yourself as an individual part of that person. Just like it’s not the hand’s job to be the best eye, Camilla said, “It’s not everybody’s job to be number one. It’s just your job to be you. The world needs you to be you.”
- Wright Thompson’s book The Cost of These Dreams was one of the books I recommended everyone should read in 2020. I liked his line in our interview, “It’s over now—was it worth it?”
- I was surprised to hear Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes say that she doesn’t miss or reminisce on being at the Olympics or standing on the podium. “When I dream about exciting moments and memories in my life, those don’t come up… It’s those moments with your family. It’s those moments with your spouse. It’s those moments knowing you planted an amazing positive seed in a stranger’s life. Those are the moments that fulfill us.”
- I asked one of my favorite writers, Rich Cohen, about how he’s able to be so consistently productive at such a high level. He said he approaches a big project like he approaches a cross-country road trip. “The way you deal with long road trips is you set yourself a minimum number of hours a day, no matter how you feel.” The point is that “not much” adds up if you do it a lot. That what Zeno said too: “Well-being is realized by small steps, but is no small thing.”
- The great basketball coach Shaka Smart said something similar. He tells his players not to figure out their priorities, but to figure out their priority. “The root of the word ‘priority’ is singular… It was a singular word—the one thing. In modern times, we’ve turned it into ‘priorities,’ but then all of a sudden it turns into eight, ten, 15 things and that defeats the purpose.” Just do one high-quality thing every day, he said; it adds up.
- Another great basketball coach, Buzz Williams, told me that he keeps a list of what-ifs. Ten times a day, he asks himself, “What if?” What if the college basketball season is canceled? What if we can’t travel for recruiting? What if I experimented with a new routine? “The what-if scenarios force me to think how I can be prepared no matter which way this all unfolds. Because on the other side of this… the people who are going to be the most successful are the ones that can pivot the quickest.”
- One of the first greek words I ever came across was in a lyric of a MxPx song: “First step to Kairos is to take the shells out of our eyes.” I’ve always wondered, what the hell does that mean? I finally got to ask MxPx singer and songwriter Mike Herrera, what the hell does that mean? It’s his spin on the biblical line about hypocrites: “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye.”
- We do a bad job imagining ourselves on the other side of the judgment we swiftly render against other people. As Billy Bush told me, “We have to be able to fail. We have to tell our children, ‘It’s OK to fail and to not be at your best and to screw up, and then build yourself back up.’ People have to allow other people to do that. It’s not sustaining to not allow people to do that because, at some point, it’s going to be you looking for that welcoming, empathetic embrace.”
- Along similar lines, Rich Roll said, “It’s only through weathering obstacles and grappling with difficulties and you know making mistakes that we truly learn who we are and as a consequence grow.” (Or the obstacle is the way…)
- Austin Kleon talked about being a parent: “You have to be the kind of man that you want them to be. You have to become the kind of human being that you want them to become.” Marcus Aurelius was talking about being a human being: “Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.”
- I loved what the philosopher Quill Kukla said on Tyler Cowen’s podcast about why they love boxing: “From a philosophical point of view, why is boxing good for me? I think philosophers who only do philosophy and nothing else tend to be bad, boring philosophers… I think that if you just do philosophy, you literally don’t have material… Imagine if you were a stand-up comic, and all you did is sit there and try to write comedy all day long. You wouldn’t have any material.”
- Danica Patrick talked about the surreal reality that’s been her life as an international celebrity. “It made me realize that the stuff that we see—the celebrities, the magazines we pick up—we just think, ‘Oh, they’re famous.’ No, they’re being made famous. Somebody’s paying for that… So early on, I realized that there’s a lot of bullshit out there. And that there’s an agenda behind everything.” This is something I try to remember whenever I see someone getting attention and wonder, “Why am I not getting that?”
- One of the great perks of my life is getting to have regular conversations with one of the great writers of our time, Robert Greene. We recently decided to record one of those conversations. I asked him about what I think is the thread through all his books, something which is also in short supply these days: an unflinching commitment to reality, even when it’s inconvenient. “Whenever I hold a belief, or I’m writing a book,” Robert explained, “I always start with the premise that I’m probably wrong, that i’m actually quite ignorant, that my idea is pretty stupid. And I look at the evidence on the other side and I examine it and I try to convince myself that my initial idea was right. And if it isn’t, then I change it.”
The line from Zeno was that we were given two ears and one mouth for a reason. That reason? To listen more than we talk.
Today and everyday, we should try to honor the Stoic virtue of wisdom. Get your one thing.
Two ears, one mouth.
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