Transcripts > The Tim Ferriss Show > Ep 27: Kevin Kelly - Part 3
Hello ladies and gentlemen. This is Tim Ferriss. Welcome to another episode of the Tim Ferriss Show. What you’re about to hear is part three of a three-part conversion with Kevin Kelly, co-founder of Wired Magazine, best-selling author, and all around fascinating human being. If you didn’t catch the first two parts, you might want to do that before venturing in.
But if not, no fear. We answer a lot of questions. It is a conversation. You can pretty much dip in and dip out as you like. So, if you don’t mind your stories as more of a jigsaw puzzle then by all means keep on listening. So, with out further ado, please enjoy part three– the final part– of the Tim Ferriss Show with Kevin Kelly. And thank you for listening.
I’d love to perhaps jump into some rapid fire questions, and they don’t have to even be rapid.
(laughs) Just some fire questions.
Just some fire questions. The questions will be rapid. The answers can be as short or as long as you’d like. What book or books do you gift or have gifted the most to other people outside of your own books?
There is a short graphic novel by Daniel Pink called Bunko, and it’s career counsel advice. It’s aimed at young people. It’s a graphic novel. It’s a cartoon, basically, and it’s aimed at young people as trying to teach them how to become indispensable. I’ve given that away to young people because it’s, for me, the best summary of … Again, it’s not how to become successful; it’s how to become indispensable, too.
That’s right. It’s Adventures of Johnny Bunko, or something like that. I have that in my bookshelf back in San Francisco, in fact.
If you know a young person who is just starting out, hand them that book. It’s very easy for them to read. Again, it’s graphic novel. It’s not threatening. It’s fun. It’ll give this five great principles for starting out and helping them go orient themselves as they start working, in the working life.
For someone who’s facing a lot of the same questions let’s just say, you have graduates asking the “what should I do? Why am I here? What am I good at?” If we fast forward to say, for the sake of argument, mid-30s, people in middle age hitting that particular point, are there any books that you would recommend they read?
Well, there is a book that I’m recommending by Cal Newport. It’s called So Good They Can’t Ignore You. This changed my mind because I bought into the New Age California dogma of follow your bliss, one will follow. He makes a really good argument and convinced me that’s actually not very good advice, that what you really want to do is to master something and to use your mastering of something as a way to get to your passion. If you start with just passion, it’s paralyzing because … and I know this from my own kids. They’re 18. They literally don’t know what they’re passionate about.
Some people are lucky enough to know, and a lot of people aren’t. This is a book for people who don’t really know what they’re really excellent at, don’t really know what they’re passionate about.
His premise is that you master something, almost anything at all, just something you master, and you use that mastery to move you into a place where you can begin to have passion, and that you keep recycling that the way you find your passion is through mastery rather than the other way around, which is people think that they’re going to get their mastery through passion.
I believe that former … that passion would lead to mastery, but after thinking about it, looking at his examples and his argument, I’m pretty sure that, at least, for most people, you can get to your passion through mastery.
That would also give you a currency or a lever to use in getting to that point.
Do you have a favorite fiction book?
I usually don’t get one answer. This is great.
Shantaram. It might take me a while to explain this, but it’s author who wrote one book because this is very autobiographical. The premise of the book and the author’s life seems completely incredulous and almost Hollywood-ish, but what you get from it and where it’s set, it’s set in India, it’s set in the slums of India, and you get an incredibly vivid, immersive, deep, and in some ways uplifting view of India and the underworld in India, into that part of Asia.
The main protagonist is this very interesting Zen criminal. He’s sort of a Coyote trickster blend of someone who is … He does bad things, but at the same time, he’s sorry about it, and he has a cosmic perspective. It’s very, very unusual, but it’s a long book.
I actually recommend that if people are going to try this, you actually to get the Audible version and listen to. It runs on and on, but it’d be one of those books that you wish will never end. I’ll just tell you the beginning of it, which is that, and this is the true part, which is that the guy, the author became a bank robber in New Zealand. He was hooked on drugs, started robbing banks, was eventually caught, and escaped from prison. He made his way to the slums of India, where because he had a medical kit, he was treated as a doctor.
Got involved and hooked on drugs in India; got involved with the Mafia; was put to prison, tortured, left, abandoned. Nobody knew he was even in there. Started writing a book. Hereafter, he wrote his book, they ripped it up, destroyed it. He was recruited, found a guru, an Afghani, was recruited in … was fighting there because entire company was wiped out. That’s just the beginning. That’s like the first day.
It’s really interesting that you would bring up Shantaram for those people who haven’t heard Josh Waitzkin. I also had him on this podcast. Josh was the basis for Searching for Bobby Fisher, the book and the movie. World class chess player. Also very deep, soulful guy, and this is one of his favorite books as well. You would love Josh. Sometime, I will have to put you guys in touch, but any favorite documentaries?
Now you’ve asked the wrong question because I have a cycle of true films, for the past 10 years. I have reviewed the best documentaries, and I actually have a book called True Films, which is the 200 best documentaries that you should see before you die.
Oh my God! No kidding. You have no idea how timely this is. It’s T-R-U-E Films?
Yeah. True Films. There are a couple of films that I would say have served universal appreciation. They may have a rating of 100 on Rotten Tomatoes or something. The one documentary that I think everybody I know have seen has love is Man on Wire.
That’s such a good movie. Oh my God! Yeah.
It’s just transcendent. It’s just a beautiful movie. It’s based on fact that this guy basically he’s going to walk the Twin Towers. The moment was he was a 14-year old kid in France, was at a dentist’s office looking at a magazine, and he’s hold … There were had the plans to build this Twin Tower New York. He saw those two Twin Towers, and he said, “I need to walk between them.” He didn’t know how to tight walk. The towers had not been built. He was already planning this thing. He was filming himself the whole way. He does it, and how he does it is amazing.
Another great documentary that I love because it’s very unusual among documentaries and that it films the villain side of the whole thing as well, which is King of Kong.
This has been recommended to me. I still have not seen this movie.
King of Kong is about a guy who becomes the video game, arcade game King of Kong. He becomes the champion, but he is basically competing against this cabal of people who are trying to subvert him and are doing all kinds of really terrible things to stop him, which was all on film. Here’s this really Midwestern, really lovable guy, and you’re rooting for him all the time while these really sleazy guys are trying to take him down. It’s just fantastic.
I have to watch that.
That’s the second one. The third one is when … but it’s called State of Mind. It’s about the spectacles in North Korea, which these two filmmakers had access to. They followed several different young athletes who were practicing for this spectacle, and these spectacles, of course, where there’s these people are pixels.
They have this huge stadium size things, and they’re like little robots. They’re cogs in this machine, which is perfect. You can imagine a picture that’s made up of pixels, but every pixel is actually a little boy or girl holding up a card, colored cards in sequence so these things move, which means that there’s not a pixel missing. It means that nobody’s sick. You’re not allowed to be sick. You can’t make a mistake at all, and it’s getting inside of North Korea, which turns out to be a nationwide cult.
I think that in 50 years when they’re gone, nobody will believe that, that was impossible, and this documentary will be here saying like, “No, no, no. There really was a nationwide cult, and they really did believe this.” It really is amazing just to see what’s going on there.
I know what I’m doing for the next few days, next few evenings.
I can’t go on unfortunately because I have a lot of them, but go to the True Films. I only review ones that are great, so I don’t do … I’m just saying these are fantastic.
Man, I’ve been looking for this. I cannot believe that I’m only learning this now. I’m embarrassed about that.
When you think of the word or hear the word successful, who’s the first person who comes to mind?
Why would you say that?
There aren’t that many people who’ve left their mark on as many people in the world as he has. I think what he was up to, what he was doing is vastly been twisted, misunderstood, whatever word you want, but nonetheless, what’s remarkable is … and here’s a guy who didn’t write anything.
I think success is also overrated.
I’d love for you to elaborate on that.
Greatness is overrated. I mentioned big numbers, but it’s more of the impact that they had on people’s lives. I think we tend to have an image of success that’s so much been skewed by our current media, just like our sense of beauty of women. In terms of all possibilities, it’s in a very small, narrow, define … ritualistic in a certain sense. I think our idea of success is often today it means you’re somebody who has a lot of money, or who has a lot of fame, or who has some of these other trappings, which we had assigned, but I think can be successful by being true to, and being the most ‘you’ that you could possibly be.
I think that what’s I think of as when you think of Jesus, whether you take him as a historical character or anything beyond, was about … He certainly wasn’t imitating anybody, let me put it that way. I think that’s the great temptation that people have is they want to be someone else, which is basically they want to be in someone else’s movie. They want to be the best rock star, and there’s so many of those already that you can only wind up imitating somebody in that slot.
I think to me the success is like you make your own slot. You have a new slot that didn’t exist before. I think that’s of course what Jesus and many others were doing, but they were making a new slot. That’s really hard to do, but I think that’s what I chalk up as success is you made a new slot.
What is your new slot? You knew that was coming.
Who says I’m successful?
I’m not. I’m trying to not make any assumptions here. Or what would be your slot?
My slot would be Kevin Kelly. That’s the whole thing. It’s not going to be a career or you would really ideally be something that would … you had no imitators. You would be who you are, and that is success actually in some sense is you didn’t imitate anybody, no one else imitated you afterwards.
In a certain sense you have, if you become an adjective, that’s a good sign, right?
I think success is actually you make your own path. If they’re calling you a successful entrepreneur, then to me that’s not the best kind of success.
Because you’re being confined to that category.
You’re in a category.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
I could sing.
Aha! You’d like to sing.
Yeah. I seem to be unable to carry a tune. I can’t remember when my wife can hear something once, she can just sing it back later. I can hear the same song or have heard the same song and I couldn’t tell you three notes of it. I’m sure because I’m a Tim Ferriss fan, I’m sure I could train myself to … that. I know I could, but I guess I haven’t, and it would be something that I have to really work at and I haven’t, but I have trouble carrying a tune, staying in tune, remembering a tune.
I love music, and that I appreciate it, but in terms of actually singing and/or play … I don’t play an instrument, so maybe I would say if it was a little easier for me, that would be something nice.
Have you take lessons or attempted to take lessons?
I got it. Just in the spirit of trade. I’ve recently started exploring hand drumming with Jim bass and different types of drums. If anyone out there can get me a pen art hang, I would really love to hear from you. Those of you that … won’t mean nothing to most people who are hearing this, the research that has peaked my curiosity most recently, and, of course, you don’t want to run out and just start swallowing these things, but there’s a common anti-epilepsy drug called the Valproate, which apparently has some implications for opening a window for achieving perfect pitch in mature adults. Very fascinating stuff. If I do any experiments with that, I will certainly report back.
Now that you’ve talked about it, not the drug part, but I did, I remember I did take one class … You mentioned drums. I took a one class at an adult summer camp, which I highly recommended. If your kids go to camp, you should go with them, and that was a steel drum course. I loved that. Like you, I think if I did take up an instrument, it would be drums of some sort because that, I seem to respond to it, and I did pretty good for the intro course on steel drumming.
I find percussion to be so primal. It just satisfied some type of need that probably predates verbal communication even. Certainly written notes.
I think it’s your inner cave man that’s responding.
Are there any particular, let’s just say in the first two hours of your day, any particular morning rituals or habits you have that when performed consistently, you find produce better days for you. I’m leaving better days undefined on purpose, but I love studying mornings and/or what people do when they wake up. What time do you wake up? Are there any particular habitual rituals that you find contribute to better days?
I’m a very good sleeper. I don’t sleep a lot. These days, I get up at 7:30 and I have some rituals, but I don’t vary them enough maybe to know whether they are … I’m not morning person to begin with.
You’re not a morning person. The fact that you don’t vary them is perfect.
I know, but I don’t necessarily optimize it in any way, or I can’t tell which is better, but for better or worse, one of the first things I do is I read the paper version of the New York Times. It’s what I call a guilty pleasure. I don’t know whether that makes me better at anything else I do, but I don’t drink coffee or anything. It’s a ritual, and when I’m not here, I don’t read it, so it’s like I don’t miss it. I’m curious, but if I’m here, it’s like I got to do it. It’s weird.
Is that immediately after waking you read the paper, or is there anything you do?
Just about. In my pajamas, I walk out to the front gate, and I pick it up, and I read it. I don’t read all of it. I just go through, and I usually don’t even read the news part. I read the slower stuff. I’m not sure why. Now that you’re asking, and that’s it. That’s the entire ritual. I don’t have the same thing for breakfast or anything like that. It’s just that morning hit.
Do you do anything throughout your day, regularly? Maybe it’s before bed or anything else that most other people probably don’t do.
That’s a good question. No.
I have no special sauce.
But you’re very consistent. Your days seem to be … don’t vary very well. At least that, in and of itself, might be something that a lot of people don’t.
Let’s pick up two different things. While I’m here in the studio, have a lot of control over my time. What I do during the day is greatly varied though. I do a lot of things for short amount of times. I’ll go into my workshop. I’ll read, actually read books, sit down and read books during the middle of the day. I’ll go out. I’ll do a hike and bring my camera almost every day. Maybe that is something that most people don’t do is probably they probably aren’t taking pictures with their camera every day.
More reading books in the middle of the day for them I think
Maybe that’s true, I guess.
How do you choose your books? That’s a paradox of choice problem for a lot of people.
It is. It’s like, what are you going to listen to next in music. The music becomes free, and everybody has all the music in the world, but deciding what you’re going to listen to becomes the thing you pay for. That’s been my prediction about Amazon is they will soon going to have any book you want for free. Amazon Prime, digital version of it. You can have it whenever you want, but you’ll pay for us for the recommendations
That’s a great point.
I have a network of friends, and I listen to lots of podcasts. I get it from all over the place. Like probably you are at this point, I long ago decided that in terms of the greater scheme of things, the cost of books are really cheap, and if I wanted a book, I would buy it.
The result is that I’m right now speaking in a two-story high library of books that I have. I don’t do the same with digital books because I finally figured out that if I purchase it, a book before I’m reading it, it’s not going anywhere. It’s just sitting there. I shouldn’t really purchase a digital book until five seconds before I’m going to read it.
I have exactly the opposite habit.
It’s just there. The whole point of Kindle is that you don’t have to have it until you need it. On the digital books, I don’t buy anything until I’m seconds away from reading it, then I’ll get it, but the paper books, I was near to the point of actually digitizing and getting rid of all my paper books.
I was that close about five years ago, but then I had an epiphany. I went to private library, and I realized that books were never as cheap as they are today. They never will be as cheap, and that there’s some power about having these things in paper always available, no batteries, never obsolete, and that if you made a library now, you would never be able to make some of these libraries in 50 years, so I decided to keep and to cultivate this paper library as something that was going to be powerful in the future.
I like that. Or at least I can use it as justification for keeping a lot of paper books around.
I get tips for books from podcasts, from blogs, from friends, from Amazon recommendations, anywhere, and whenever I hear someone recommend a book, I’ll go and check it out, and then I’m fairly free in buying it, but which means I read a lot of really mediocre books.
That’s part of my job in Cool Tools. The book that we were just talking about, which is this catalog of possibility for the self-published that has, oh I don’t know, 15 hundred. Maybe there’s couple hundred books that are recommended, but I probably read thousands and thousands and thousands of books in order to select those.
I see part of my job reading through, and I read a lot of how-to books. Most of the books I’m reading is nonfiction. A lot of the easy, instructional stuff on how to build a stonewall, how to do origami, how to send a cell, microcell to space, whatever it is, it doesn’t matter. I’ll look at it, and I’ve seen tens of thousands of them, 50 thousand how-to books over my lifetime. I can spot a really good one, but still I’ll read through the other ones so that someone else doesn’t have to and I can recommend the same, “This is the best book on building a tiny house if you want to build a tiny house.”
When you read these books on origami or stonewall, do you follow through and attempt these projects, or are you evaluating it purely based on your amassed experience of reading lots of these types of instructional books?
No. Actually, maybe one of the other things that I don’t do every day, but one of the things I do in general that maybe everyone else is not doing is that I have thousand hobbies. I dabble in things. I have built stonewalls, more than one. I have done origami. I have made beer. I have made wine. Whatever it is, I’ve tried to do these things in my life, and I continue to try and do that. I have homeschooled my son.
As much as possible, this is … I was telling you before about my day. It’s irregular in the sense that I’m here and I have things, but I’m doing new things, and I’m reading new things all the time. When I’m outside, I’ll make a go-kart or a wall; do something that I haven’t done before. That’s the basis for helping decide about these books. I don’t have to be an expert in them, but I can know enough to tell whether or not the information they’re telling me is useful.
What odd project over the last year has been the most fun? Let’s start there, for you.
Just the last couple of months, I finally built myself a real workshop. I wish I could show it to you because one of the cool things that I did was if you go on to U Line or somewhere, this container, they have these racks of bins. I’ve filled an entire wall of hundreds and hundreds of bins so I can organize stuff.
I’m a big fan of Adam Savage. He has a principle for his workshops called First Order Access, which basically means that you don’t want to store things behind anything. Everything has to be at the first level so you can look and see it. It has to be within reach. He says you have to be able to see everything that you have and it’s accessible. You don’t want things hidden behind other things.
That’s part of what I was doing with this workshop is this first order access. It’s tremendously powerful. The few days or the weeks I’ve had working, and it just transforms everything.
I had the same problem with my books for many, many years. I had books like multiple different bookshelves in the house. I had them in boxes. I had them this and that. Moving everything to one location, to a library where there was two stories, I could see all my books, just transformed them and made it really useful because I could find them. Just really go and reach for them. The same thing was I’m finally bringing that to my tools, which is that you want to have things plugged in, ready to go, labeled, organized, first order access, and it can make simple jobs really simple instead of the hours of looking for something. Also-
Like gathering all the tools.
Gathering all the tools and also-
Just like cooking. It’s just like cooking. It’s like having a manual, random access memory, right?
You have your mise-en-place right in front of you.
You know the tools are.
That’s very cool. If there were one object, manual project, building something, do you think every human should have the experience of doing, what would that be?
That’s very easy. You need to build your own house, your own shelter. It’s not that hard to do, believe me. Actually, I built my own house.
Your house is amazing.
Not this house. I built one from cutting down the logs, cutting down the trees in upstate New York, and doing the stone hearth. Unfortunately, I don’t recommend this, maybe like 2 by 4s from trees. You don’t want to do that because it’s a pain. Standard lumber is very good. If those things are off a little quarter of an inch as they are with rough sewn lumbers, it’s a mess.
Nonetheless, a large portion of people in the world have made their own homes, adobe, rammed earth, bamboo, whatever it is. Going back to what we originally started off with, even if you don’t wind up living in it, it’s empowering to know that you can do it, and if you do wind up living in it, I have a friend, Lloyd Conn, who built his magnificent place in Balinese that he built with salvaged material from scratch over the many years. It gives you the power to alter it.
I believe that your house should be an extension of you, that really is another projection. It’s another way of, and also, going back to what we’re talking about, is just another way to discover who you are and discover what you’re good at because a well-designed house should really reflect you. What I’ve discovered, lot of people designed houses, and they have this imaginary fantasy idea about themselves and what they’re going to do. Whatever it is, they’re going to have a swimming pool. They’re never going to use a swimming pool. Whatever it is.
Very few people actually have a very good sense of who they are and what they’re going to use something for, but if you really study yourself and really are honest and designed something that space can help you become successful in the sense of making a slot for you, making your own slot.
It’s both a by-product of who you are, and also can help you become who you are. It works both ways.
I like that. You’re not just finding yourself; you’re creating yourself.
This is a larger philosophical question, but this is something I talk about a lot. In a very high dimensional space, which means space of many pending possibilities, the act of finding and the act of creating are identical. There’s no difference between discovering something and inventing something. We could say that philosophically, Benjamin Franklin invented electricity. We could say that Christopher Columbus invented America. We could say that discovery and invention are the same, so that discovering yourself and inventing yourself is really the same things that bring about that process. You have to do both at once.
I really enjoyed that. Last question. If you could give your … let’s say, you can pick the age, either 15 or 20-year old self, one or a few pieces of advice, what would they be?
You don’t have to do everything yourself. You can hire people to do stuff. I wish I had known that when I was younger. I wish that I had, when I was 20 working for Whole Earth catalog, I wish I had known that I could have hired a programmer to do something. I could have hired someone. It took me a long time to understand that.
Then recently, I’d been really big on it, hiring people through Elance. Because I came from a little bit of a do-it-yourself … I made a nature museum when I was 12. I had a chemistry lab that I built myself, building that stuff. I could buy any glassware, but I had a whole chemistry lab. I had nature museums. I did all the stuff, and I did it myself, and then of course moving into the Whole Earth catalog, which is a do-it-yourself thing, I really was … I just talked about building my own house.
Now, I will hire professionals to work. It just took me a long time to realize that there’s something about … Being able to pay professionals to do what they do really well is not a weakness. It helps them. I’m happy. They’re happy. We’re all happy. I can do a lot more. There’s certainly a pleasure in doing things yourself and dabbling in it, but there’s also this other thing, which I didn’t realize, which is there’s this leverage that you get by hiring people who are really good, paying them fairly, working with them to amplify what it is that you want to do. I wish I knew that when I was younger.
That’s a fantastic answer. You have, if I remember correctly, an assistant and a researcher. Is that still true?
Yes, one and the same person.
Oh, they are the same. I thought that at one point, you had believed that you needed those people to be two separate people but you-
Here’s what I was saying was that it’s very unusual to find one person who can do both of those tasks. Both of those tasks are often not found on the same person because there’s the hunting, the researching. There’s a hunter aspect to research that’s often found in a certain personality, and then they’re the kind the admin. It’s more nurturing, kind of making sure things, gardening a little bit. It’s often rare to find someone who can do both, but it’s possible.
Was it luck that you happened upon this particular individual that you work with now? Or did you have a method for … ? Was there a particular approach …
I found that the place where I found … over the 14 years, I’ve had two, the place where I found that they’re more likely than not to have a combination was librarians.
I love it.
We put out notices on the librarian mailing list and stuff.
I said last question. This will be the last question. Is there any other thoughts or advice you’d like to leave with the listeners, and then where would you like people to find more from you, your writing, anywhere else.
I would say congratulations to the people who have listened to the podcast. I think podcast are these fantastic new medium. I’m spending a lot of time there. I think it’s this really great. We’re in the early days of where this will go. I’m really impressed by the power of this medium to teach and to inform; sometimes to entertain. Again, I’m thankful to you, Tim, for having me on and having the chance to gab here, but to the people who are listening, I think keep going. Listen to more podcasts. Try to go wide. I know Tim mentions them here and there. Take a chance. Listen to some more.
That’s one thing I would say as far as finding out more about me, I lucked out with a very easy website. It’s my initials, KK. KK.org. I have very public email for the past 25 years. You can find it very easily on my website if you want email directly. I have not outsourced that unlike other people that I know. My writings and books and whatnot are www.KK.org.
Cool Tools is a book that I really believe that each of you out there should have. It’s on paper. It’s the best of the website, Cool Tools, which is me going on for 11 years now where we review every day, one great tool. They’re only positive reviews. Why waste your time on anything but the best? Tools in the broadest sense of the word of things that are useful, whether it’s Elance, or a book on how to do psychedelics, or a book on how to build a workshop, or how to build a house, or how to hitchhike around the world.
I and others recommend the best here with some great contexts. It’s printed on paper, available on Amazon. Not so easily found in bookstores because it’s huge. It’s like 5 pounds weighs. It’s really, really big. If you don’t find 500 things you didn’t know about but you wished you know about, like last year, I’ll give you your money back. Enjoy that. That said, Cool Tools or Cool Tools in Amazon.
Kevin, this has been a blast. It always is. Every time we chat, I feel like we should chat more. Hopefully, we’ll get a chance to spend some more time together soon back in Nor Cal or somewhere else?
Nor Cal? In China.
Or in China. It’s been a long time. I could get back.
I’m heading back to Japan again, and I know that you have lots of roots in Asia, but I go there to renew my sense of the future because they are … They’re bulldozing the past as fast as they can and headed, racing into the future. I want to see what Asia has in store for us because mathematically, we don’t count anymore. 1.3 billion, whatever, the 3 billion Asians and 300 million Americans. What can you say?
(laughs) Study up, folks. Specialization is for insects. I think that was a hind line.
Yep. Hind line.
Enjoy your time on this planet and look broadly like Kevin said. Kevin, thank you so much. I will talk to you soon, and have a wonderful day. I will talk to you soon.
Thanks for having me, Tim.