Transcripts > The Tim Ferriss Show > Phil Keoghan — The Magic of Bucket Lists and Amazing Races
I am being watched right now. This is Tim Ferriss. Welcome to another episode of the Tim Ferriss Show.
I’m going to whisper right now, and just assume that all of you have ASMR fetish or preference. If you don’t know what ASMR is, you should look it up. There’s a huge community on Reddit, for instance. It stands for Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response. That’s why I’m also going to bite this piece of shortbread right now. I’m whispering because I’m in a Lufthansa lounge at JFK. That one’s free, Lufthansa. Call me. I can’t be my usual boisterous self, but as per always, on the Tim Ferriss Show, it’s my job to deconstruct world class performers, people who are very good at what they do. People have interesting stories, and very specific tactics, recommendations that you can implement in your own life.
Let me just finish that shortbread.
My guest today, and it’s very appropriate that I should in the airport because he travels more than any human being I have ever met. I’ve seen videos of him shaving in airport and airplane bathrooms, for instance. Phil Keoghan, that’s K-E-O-G-H-A-N. You can say hello on Twitter, @philkeoghan. Has worked in television for almost 30 years on more than 1000 program episodes on more than 100 countries. His work has earned him numerous awards, including 10 Primetime Emmy Awards. He is perhaps best known as the co-executive producer and host of the perennial favorite CBS series, The Amazing Race, currently in its 29th season.
But there’s a lot more to Phil’s story than you might know of or expect, including unbelievable bucket lists and how important they are to how his life has been run and improved and many of the decisions that he’s made. A near-death experience, probably more than one, and much more. He is very good at proactively creating adventures for himself and he’s also a very impressive athlete on multiple levels. For instance, in 2013, he decided to retrace the 1928 Tour de France, riding an original vintage bicycle with no gears, weighs, I’d say, at least twice as much as modern bikes. To tell the forgotten underdog story of the first English-speaking team to take on the toughest sporting event on earth.
He captured this entire experience and turned it into a brand new film documentary called Le Ride, a gorgeous doc and the first to be shot on a Sony F55 camera in 4K, which is the equivalent of Super 35 mm film. You can check that out at philkeoghanleride.com and we will talk a lot more about that but there are many things to take away from this conversation and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did so, as I always say, without further ado, here is Phil Keoghan.
Phil, welcome to the show.
Thank you for having me.
I am excited to have you here in Austin.
Rainy Austin. Sit across the table and to talk about your life and experiences. I don’t even know where to start. There are a few options and I think I’m going to go with humor first.
I was hoping you could tell us a little bit and then we’ll spread out in both directions chronologically, about Milli Vanilli and dreadlock twirling.
Oh, yeah, wow. Yeah. Milli Vanilli. I started in television when I was really young, like 18. I really wanted to be a cinematographer and tell stories with a camera, be in television. I was not popular with my family for making that choice because I wanted to go straight out of high school into working in television. There were no degrees you could get in broadcasting or communications degrees and so, against my family’s wishes, I went and took this job, it was hard to get, where I was a television assistant. Miraculously, that led from me being a camera assistant to then being in front of a camera. I guess I was 20 and I was working on a daily live show. It was called 3:45 Live! That’s how the thing went, 3:45 Live! because it was on at 3:45 and it was live. Anybody who was anybody who came to New Zealand came on this show, 3:45 Live! Monday to Friday.
Milli Vanilli make their way to New Zealand. This is when they’d won the Grammy for best new artist. Those songs, those great songs, Blame It on the Rain, I’m trying to think of what the other songs were, but anyway, then came in and they were beautifully dressed. Looked like models, male models. The dreads were all beautifully kept. They wouldn’t sit down on the chair. The manager was talking to them. There was no lead up to the chat, they just sort of were off on one side, talking amongst themselves. We were about to go 3:45 Live!, and then they sat down at the last minute and we were on the show live-
Why didn’t they sit down?
They didn’t want to crease their pants, is what I suspected because the pants had these beautiful creases in them. Like I said, they were beautifully dressed, so a lot of attention to detail. They finally sat down and then in the middle of the interview, I’m looking across, I think it was at Fabrice, because it was Rob and Fabrice, and I noticed that the dreadlock is detached from his head while he’s twirling it. I was like, “Ahhhh.” I’m figuring that this … I’m looking to see whether it was noticeable on the monitor. I turn around and I see behind me, the manager is gesturing to them to tell them that the dreadlock had become detached. I should have just gone with it but I don’t think they really had a sense of humor. I don’t think they would have thought that was funny. They were way too concerned with how they looked. It would have been very off-putting.
How many segments, if you had to guess, in total do you think you’ve done of television? Of any show?
Impossible, I don’t know.
Thousands. I’m going to be 50 this year. I started in front of a camera at 19, so what is that? 31 years? I don’t know. I don’t know. I did a lot of live television. I did this show, 3:45 Live! for a year, so there was 200 something live shows. Then I did a daily live show called Breakfast Time in the early 90s. Tom Bergeron was the host and then there were a number of us who were out on the road doing basically anything we wanted to do. They gave us a satellite truck, a camera operator and a production assistant. We could go anywhere in America to do five stories from anywhere in America. We would go every day live, and we’d have to do two stories from that place, live. Everything from hand-feeding sharks live to changing a light bulb on the Verrazano Bridge live, to milking spiders, to being in a coal mine or whatever it was. That was, over the period of four and a bit years, that would have been close to 800 shows.
How old were you at the time, when you did that?
I was 24, I think. 24, 25.
Before we go into the nearer future, from Milli Vanilli-
Nearer future, I like that. Yeah. Half my life ago.
That’s right. In the grand scheme of the universe, the blinking of a firefly. Back to age 19.
You had an experience that it seems has framed a lot of what came afterward. I was hoping you could describe what happened.
Yeah, so when you’re 19, most 19 years olds, they don’t think they’re going to die. I certainly didn’t think I was going to die. I was invincible. We used to do ridiculous things, think that we were somehow protected by the speed gods or whatever it was. We did things that we probably shouldn’t have done. Now, to think looking back on it, I’m just lucky to have got to this point in my life, I think. We’re like putting ski bindings and skis and strapping them to a roof rack of a car and then going into a tuck and seeing how fast we could drive the car, as fast as we possibly could.
I was doing a story about a 22,000 ton shipwreck that had sunk in New Zealand. It was down about 120 feet underwater and it was on its starboard side. 22,000 tons is like, it’s as big as a cruise liner that you see going around at the ports around the world. Big, really big.
120 feet, for people who’ve never done any scuba diving, unless you have special equipment, that’s not a lot of bottom time.
Exactly. Most recreational divers get certified to dive to about 60 feet. The best stuff that you see underwater is generally in the first 30 feet because once you get past 30 feet, the color changes, you lose all the reds and everything becomes very blue. I always say to people, “You don’t need to go deep unless you’re going onto a wreck or something, some real reason to go deep.” The only reason to go deep, if it is a wreck, you can get great diving in 10, 15 feet of water, the coral close to a surface, the colors are brighter and so on.
This wreck was deep. As you said, the deeper you are, the faster you chew through air and you eat up air. That affects how long you can stay down. The longer you’re down deep, the more nitrogen you get in your blood so there’s a real science to diving and you have to be super careful. You’re a diver?
Yeah, so you understand that.
I’ve seen people get nitrogen narcosis, at exactly 120 feet. He tried to take off all of his gear and just drop it, in a small group. He was stopped by the divemaster.
That was the guy that worked at Chippendales. I know the guy.
This is a different guy.
No, a different guy, okay.
I’ve seen the same thing. They take the regulator out and they start having conversations with fish. It’s not a good idea.
Getting narced. That’s all the more reason to get properly certified.
I was with some very experienced divers, way more experienced than me, and they were doing the salvage and we were going to be the first people to shoot on the ship, get to go inside the ship and explore it. The cameraman that I was with was also very experienced but because there was so much silt inside the boat, and there was a current as well, rolling through the boat … In those days we were shooting on film. It’s not like today where you could go down with a great GoPro and some lights and you could film for a couple of hours. We had a two and a half minute roll of film in a 100 foot daylight spool roll that was in a little housing inside the case. Literally, that’s the only amount of footing we had to shoot, on film. That’s how long I go back.
The plan was that we would go into the ball room of this ship, big, big ball room then the crew would come in from another door and we would meet in the middle, so that we didn’t stir up all the silt going in the same entrances. We’d swim towards each other. They’d get us coming towards them. So we go down and what I know now is, if you go into a wreck, you tie a line on the outside of the wreck so that you have something to follow out if something goes wrong. These guys were so familiar with the wreck, and so experienced and knew the place so well, they didn’t tie a line on. I just followed them in, not knowing that that was what you should do. The other rule with diving is you never leave your dive buddies so I’m following this guy. I was too scared to tell him, because I was trying to be a man, before that I’m really claustrophobic.
I go in this little doorway. Imagine a small window, two by three, we go through this little porthole and then we start weaving our way through the ship. As we go in deeper and deeper and deeper into the shipwreck, I’m completely disoriented. I have no idea where I am.
I think my hands sweat just listening to the description.
Oh, yeah. I started to breathe but every time I was at the point of tapping him to go, “I’ve got to get out of here, I feel panicky,” he just kept disappearing deeper and deeper and deeper, and another corner, another corner. He was moving quickly because he’s used to being in this wreck. They’re doing the salvage on this thing.
Finally, we come into an opening and then he shines the light around and there’s this huge ball room. The ship is on its starboard side, on its right side so all the tables on a ship are all bolted to the floor, so imagine the table’s on a right angle to us. He gestures to me to hold on to the table. He had told me on the surface that we were going to switch out the lights to save battery power because it’s cold. We’ve got 7 mil wetsuits on, it’s pretty cold. You can feel the current pushing through the ship. That’s why we’re holding onto the table, so we didn’t drift through the room.
Now we’re looking ahead and he sort of points at me and looks ahead and says, “That’s where the crew’s going to come out.” I knew that that’s where they’re going to come out so I was like, “Okay.” We’re waiting with the lights off, in the dark, and I’m processing all of this, starting to try to slow my breathing down and stay calm, it’s okay, you’re with an expert, everything’s good. After what seemed like minutes … I wanted to turn my light on but I also didn’t want to do it because I thought he’ll think I’m a wimp, like why am I turning my … I just wanted to turn my light on to see where I was, to have some sense of where I was.
He flicks his light on, like in Halloween when you take your light and you put it at the chin and you make yourself look scary? That’s all I remember. The light went on, he’s pointing from his chin looking up. He looked scary then he gestures to me with his hand, puts it out in front of me like, “Wait,” then he points at my hands on the table and gestures for me to hold onto the table. Then boom, he just disappears around a corner. I don’t have my light on, he’s got his light on and the light disappears and he’s gone. In that moment, I’m like, “Why is he leaving? Why did he just leave?” In my haste to find my light, I start flailing around, let go of the table and I feel myself drifting away from where the table is and moving, drifting into the ball room. I just went into a mad panic. I couldn’t find my light.
By the time I found my light, I’d silted up all the water around me. I couldn’t see anything. Now I don’t know where the table was that I was meant to hold onto. I’m looking ahead, I can’t see any lights. I can’t see him and I started to breathe really, really fast. Now you’re a diver, you understand this, but when you dive, and for anybody who’s never had a regulator in their mouth, if you breathe too quickly, there’s a little diaphragm that allows for exhalation and inhalation in the regulator that you put in your mouth to suck in air. If you go too fast, the diaphragm can’t keep up with the speed of inhalation and exhalation and then you start to suck water.
I started taking little bits of water and I’m beating valve, just panicking, like mad, mad panic. I thought, “I have to get out of here.” All you want to do is just get out, right? But I don’t know how to get out. I don’t know where up and down is. The bubbles don’t go up when the ship’s on its side like that and you’re deep down. They hit the walls and then they run up the walls, they follow weird paths. I thought, “I have no idea where I am right now. I can’t even see where the table is.” Panicking, panicking. I knew that someone had died in there. Someone had gone in there and got disconnected from a group and he had died and drifted off into the ship and died. I also knew that one of the engineers never made it out when the ship sank in the first place.
Just to set the stage, just for people listening: I remember when I did a dive at the Blue Hole in Belize, which is about 120 feet. This is when this guy got narced. It takes so long to get down because you’re equalizing. By the time you get down, at least we were told at the time with the gear we had, you have eight minutes. So all this is happening-
Yeah, very quickly.
Very quickly and we weren’t on nitrox. Nitrox, as you know, is a mixed gas that you can get where it has more oxygen and less nitrogen so it increases your bottom time. This is pre-nitrox days. Yes, you’re absolutely right, we had a very limited window, which is why he must have gone off to find the crew, because he realized we were eating up a lot of time and where were they? Where were the crew?
I don’t remember exactly how I got from there to the boat but this guy obviously came back to get me and, really, it’s all a blur between panicking, mad panic, eyes wide like saucers, to being on the boat, to looking up into the sky and seeing the most amazing blue I’d ever seen in my life, just looked totally surreal. I’m lying on the ground, breathing. I look up and all these faces looking down, “Phil, you good? You good?” I’m like, “Yeah, yeah, I’m good, I’m good,” trying to play like nothing happened but my heart is pounding, like pounding.
The feeling of euphoria, the relief of being alive, to know that I was alive, was like nothing I’d ever experienced. It was if my IQ went up 25 points in that moment, you know what I mean? Because I was like, “How dumb were you that you thought you were going to live forever? How dumb were you that you’ve been doing all these dumb things in your life and really have no purpose in life?” I started to think about … This is all happening while I’m having these conversations with them but I’m thinking, “Man, I love girls and I haven’t even explored that whole world.”
That’s like the second or third thing that comes up.
It was actually right up there.
I was obviously in my sexual prime. I mean, come on. It was right up there. I don’t want to say it was a first thing because I don’t want you to get the wrong idea about me but it was up there. I was like, “Damn, you’ve got a lot to do with your life.”
There were all these things that came to me. A lot of them were very selfish. I was 19 years old. I got myself together. I wanted to find a piece of paper and a pen. I just wrote down everything that I felt like I had all the time in the world to do and that I had to get down on a piece of paper, to get out, to go, “Okay, this is not a dress rehearsal. You can die. You will die. You don’t know how long you’ve got before you die. You’d better figure out what you’re doing with your life and you better get on with it straightaway.” One of the first things on my list was go back in the shipwreck, seriously, because I thought, “I cannot walk away from this fear.” I was so petrified of what had happened. I decided I would explain to the diver that I found it challenging. He knew that.
It was kind of like falling off a horse, I really felt like-
Got to get back on.
… got to get back on. I have to go back because if I let this fear get on top of me-
This time with some string or something.
… I didn’t actually go back because I didn’t have time to do the lesson about the string but I went back by disclosing a little more of my fear to the diver, was more honest. When he knew that, and we had to get this thing shot, he was obviously more aware … He thought I was so … because I was so gung-ho, he didn’t have any indication that there was any fear in me at all but then I said, “Listen, man, I really freaked out.” He goes, “Oh, no kidding,” and I said, “But I need to go back, we’ve got to go back and do this.” We went back and we did it. We shot it and that was the start. That was the first thing I ticked off my list.
Question for you: so when you decided to go back down-
Yeah, still petrified.
… as you’re descending, and getting ready to go through that tiny opening, what was the self-talk? I mean, it’s a long time ago but what is your self-talk like in a moment like that?
It’s something that I’ve used a lot since then, which was, instead of internalizing everything, I looked out and what I realized was that this guy was super experienced and had been down on that shipwreck many times and come out of there successfully many times. If I followed his procedure, and if I observed him being an expert doing something and looked out at that, rather than turning it back into my own head about what I didn’t know and what I couldn’t do, that I was in good hands. Ever since that moment, in all the crazy things that I’ve done, I’ve taken a tremendous amount of comfort in being surrounded by people who I know are better at me at doing something, who have tremendous expertise at whatever they’re doing, and to really observe them in that moment when they are using expertise-
In their element.
… that has taken possibly at least 10,000 hours to get to, and to look at it in a way like, “Wow, how cool is that. I’m with this person,” man or woman, whoever it is, “that is allowing me, giving me the privilege to be with them, to do what they do so well. They’re a specialist and they’re so good.”
So you would be explicitly reminding yourself of all these things if you’re going into a situation that is provoking nerves and fear?
Is that the voice inside the head?
It is. I made up a quote that I share with a lot of people, which is, “Focus on what you do have and what you can do, instead of what you don’t have and what you can’t do.”
I really am a big believer in practicing to change mindset. My daughter, who’s 21, I say to her, “Elle, you’re young. You have this amazing pliable brain.” I said, “If you practice being an optimist now, at this young age, by the time you’re my age, with 10,000 hours of practicing being an optimist, you’re going to be an amazing optimist. If you practice focusing on what you do have and what you can do as opposed to what you don’t have and what you can’t do, you are going to be so good at using what’s around you and focusing on what you can do with it, that the negative stuff will be there but it’s going to be squashed by this positive energy that you have.” I said, “The last thing you want to do is get to my age and be somebody who is so practiced at making excuses and so practiced at being a pessimist, that it’s hard to make the turn. You don’t want to be 50 trying to make a turn, being an expert as a pessimist.”
We’ve all met them. You meet a pessimist or somebody who is great at excuses, sometimes I will hear excuses and I will laugh out loud. The person will look at me like, “What are you laughing at?” I’m like, “Dude, you are unbelievably good at excuses.”
Expert, black belt.
“You are a black belt in excuses.” I never think it’s too late to change. I’m just saying that it’s harder to change because I really believe the mind is like a sponge and it’s harder and harder to keep that sponge moist as you get older but I really started to practice that. All my life, I’ve tried to put myself around people, I’ve gravitated towards people who see that things are possible and that anything is possible. To me it’s like magic. I feel like I’m around magicians who make things happen out of nothing. I feel very honored that, with all the stuff that I’ve done in my life, I’ve met so many of these people.
I want to talk about optimism and learning or teaching optimism because what you were just saying reminded me of a conversation I had with a close friend of mine. He’s not much older but a bit older. He has a number of kids. I asked him when we were hiking once, “What would your advice be to a first time parent?” He said, “Really, it’s only two things.” And he said, “Number one, your kids don’t owe you anything because you choose to have them.”
Number one. “Number two is, teach your kids to be optimists.” He said, “If you teach them to be optimists, they can handle almost everything else.”
That’s great advice, by the way, and I totally agree with it.
How would you or how do you help to cultivate optimism in your daughter, or in other people? What types of patterns would you interrupt or what types of things would you have them do? Does anything come to mind?
Yeah. I think, going to those two points that you mentioned, practice optimism, right? One of the rules that we had in our house with my daughter is, and we all had to correct each other from time to time, we had this game where nobody was allowed to say, “I can’t” we took “I can’t” out of the vocabulary in our house. We all did it but we all got better and better at not doing it. I wanted my daughter to practice that. She’d say, “Well, Dad, there’s just certain things I can’t do.” I’d go, “Yeah, but you don’t want to be saying or perpetuating the idea that you can’t do something so find another way of saying that you find something challenging or that it’s difficult without saying ‘I can’t,’“because we don’t know what we are truly capable of.
We have no idea what our full potential is, which is the exciting part of living, right? We have no idea where we’re going to end up or how we’re going to get there. If you take that out, and you say, “I find this really challenging. Is there a way that you can help me do this?” You can identify something that you find really challenging but take “I can’t” out of your vernacular and you’ll be in a much more positive frame of mind. With my daughter, and I think with kids when they’re young, just allow them to dream without putting your own limitations on what it is they think they can do or they say they want to do.
I remember my daughter came up to me when she was about nine. I would always read to her every night. That was my thing. I would read some piece of a book to her so we have that time together.
Any favorite books, do you remember?
We read all of the Harry Potter books together. I read every page to her. My daughter’s quite a sharp cookie and sometimes I’d be tired and I’d skip a few pages but she’d remember every single page and she’d go, “Dad?” I’d go, “What?” She’d go, “You skipped a part, didn’t you?” I’m like, “Oh, man,” I’d have to roll back. To me it was just about that one on one time where we were together and I looked forward to it.
The other rule I had was if my daughter ever asked me to do something, no matter what I was doing, no matter even if I was on a deadline, if she said, “Dad, can we go play with the dog, kick a football, play volleyball? Will you read to me?” I would always say yes. That was the rule that I had, which I really value.
What would you say in that case, in moments when … You are a very, very busy guy. You have a lot going on. You’ve done so much. Let’s just say, hypothetically, and I’m sure there were these times that you are under a crunch deadline, there are people, maybe metaphorically yelling and screaming because they want something by a certain time, and your daughter comes up to you and asks you for something. I’m not going to ask this for everything but I’m very curious, what would you say to yourself or what was the way that you would ensure that you said yes? Does that make sense? Aside from practice, of course takes practice but …
I think it’s the idea that life is a series of moments. What will you remember at the end of your life? When you take your last breath, what’s the last thought you’re doing to have as you die? What is that? Is it some moment with somebody? Is it some regret? You want to die, I think, in peace, with something special and so those moments where your kid asks you to do something, they’re limited when you have them. It’s a gift, right? The whole idea that you have a child, you never get that back. The deadline thing, there are many times where I put what I was doing on hold and spent the time with her and then it cost me into the night trying to make up the time but I can’t even remember what it was I was trying to get done, but I do remember the moments with her. In the long term, those are the moments that you remember. I couldn’t tell you what deadlines I was rushing to get done that I theoretically sacrificed to go spend time with my daughter.
I say to a lot of people, I was forced into creating this life list and writing this book and trying to help other people with my philosophy of no opportunity wasted because I had this experience. A lot of people don’t have that experience and I say to them, “If you were to take your last breath tomorrow at 3:00, what do you think would be the last thing on your mind?” I get them to just project to that. It could be something as simple as, “I always wanted to write a book, I always wanted to start my own business, I always wanted to play the guitar, or I always wanted to spend one on one time with my dad, or I wish that I’d repaired that relationship with my brother because we haven’t spoken.”
Is that a good way to start such a list? I always wanted to …
Yeah. I really think when you put something down on paper, it sounds so simple. Just like a pen and a piece of paper, just write down something. I really believe that it’s not a small thing. That’s almost like a contract that you’ve made with yourself. Just putting it down. The other thing I say to people is, “Don’t just put it down but write it down and then put it on a sticky and put it everywhere where you go, where you have little moments, when you’re brushing your teeth or when you go out to get your keys from the garage and you put the sticker next to the keys. Places and wall spaces that you repeatedly hit, on the refrigerator, places that your mind goes to every single day around the house, in the car, wherever it is.” Little reminders of, “Why am I not doing that?”
I want to touch on a couple of things you said. The first is a recommendation for people who are listening because that had a huge impact on me, which is an article called, The Tail End, written by someone named Tim Urban, who has a site called Wait But Why, which is very intelligently written. This was recommended to me by a friend, Matt Mullenweg, who’s also been on the podcast. Coincidentally, he recommended to me, I want to say a few months before his father unexpectedly passed away … The point of the article, and I’m not going to do it justice, everyone should read it, was that, it was effectively directed at kids. Kids who are now adults. It was an encouragement to spend more time with your parents because it said effectively by the time you leave high school and leave home to go to college, you’ve spent 80% of the total hours you will ever spend with your parents before they die.
You could look at it the other way around, right? As a parent, by the time your kids leave high school or leave home, you will have spent, or had the opportunity to spend, 80% of the hours you’re ever going to spend with them together. Perhaps that type of framing makes it easier to push off the deadline and sacrifice a little bit of sleep. That article had, and continues to have, a big impact on me.
The second was more of a question, I suppose, about the “I can’t.” I really think that our words, our language, reflects our thinking-
I totally agree.
… in a very important way. Word choice has, over time, become more and more important to me. I’ve tried to fix certain tics for instance, this is going somewhere … For a long time, I realized I was very lazy with adverbs and I used “pretty” too much. Oh, that’s pretty good, that’s pretty smart, oh that’s pretty interesting. It was such a garbage word that I used as a filler so I forced myself to say “fucking” after “pretty” every time I said it. I’d have to say, “That’s pretty fucking interesting, that’s pretty fucking difficult,” to pattern interrupt because I would embarrass myself in mixed company. That is how ultimately I ended up stopping using this adverb, at least as much as I used to.
I have tried to help other people who have tics like “um” or “like” to do something similar. There are a couple of different approaches. What would you say if you caught, say your daughter, saying “I can’t?” Would you just raise a finger or what was the button that you would push?
It got to a point where she would catch me too, because I would say it. It would just be, “Ah, Elle.” We would just call each other out. It was more that she became hyper-aware of it because we pointed it out to each other. I became hyper-aware of the times that I would sometimes say it too.
Funny you should say about word choices. One of the first shows that I ever worked on was called That’s Fairly Interesting.
Yes, I wanted to talk about this.
This speaks to the New Zealand psyche. In America, we watch the show in America called That’s Incredible. “Well, John, that was incredible.” In New Zealand, there is a tendency for high achievers to understate their achievements. We in New Zealand could not have said, “That’s amazing,” we had to say, in a New Zealand accent it would be, “Oh, yeah, that’s really interesting.” The other thing we would say is, some New Zealander could do something that was groundbreaking but in New Zealand, because it was a New Zealander who had maybe achieved this groundbreaking idea, we would say, “Ah, it’s pretty good.” Or they’d say, “Ah, yeah, that’s pretty good for a New Zealander.”
I did an interview with Peter Jackson and he said the number of times that a studio would call his agent, panicking about something that Peter Jackson was making, because they’d get on the phone with Peter Jackson and they’d say to Peter, “How’s it’s going? How’s the cut going on the film?” Peter would say, “Ah, yeah, it’s pretty good. It’s coming together and looking pretty good.” All the executives back in LA would start panicking because they’d be like, “He sounds less than enthused that this is going to work.” He’d get off the phone and then his agent would call him, “Peter, Peter, what’s wrong? Is there a problem with the production?” And Peter goes, “No, it’s fine, why?” He goes, “Well, they’re panicking. They didn’t think you sounded very excited about what’s going on.” That’s a huge part of our psyche is understating what you’re doing.
I’d love for you to elaborate on why that’s the case. One of my closest friends is a Kiwi. He loves New Zealand but he has mixed feelings because he talks a lot about tall poppy syndrome. Could you maybe explain what is?
Oh, that’s one of my favorite topics of conversation. If you imagine a field full of poppies, they’re all beautifully uniform and all the poppies in the field are at the same exact height. You look out and it’s so comfortable to look at because every single poppy is within a millimeter of each other. It just looks so lovely and uniform. Then you cast your eye over to the other side of the field and you see, “Oh, my goodness. There’s a poppy sticking up and it’s taller than all the other poppies. What could that possibly be? Oh, that’s some guy showing off. He thinks he’s better than all the other poppies in the field and he’s sticking up there, showing off. Well, we’ll fix that.” Get a pair of scissors and you cut that tall poppy down and now everything is beautiful and uniform again and we don’t have to worry about that tall poppy, do we?
It’s part of our psyche to keep everybody like the common man. So the New Zealand rugby team, they’re called the All Blacks. We wear an all black uniform, we have a silver fern on the uniform. The most successful sports team in sports history.
Just google that. Just go “New Zealand All Black rugby team Haka.”
H-A-K-A, it’s a Maori name, it’s a Maori war dance. Now a lot of American football teams have actually copied it as a way of getting psyched up. When the indigenous people of New Zealand, the Maori people, before going to war, they would get themselves psyched up doing this Haka. It involves a lot of different moves and slapping themselves and basically getting themselves hyped and ready to go. Now we use it as a way to get hyped before our rugby games. If you see this, it’s pretty powerful. The All Blacks have a winning percentage of, I think, over 75% in the last 100 years, right?
Very rarely do we lose but if you speak to any of them, and world champions, the only rugby team in the world to be world champions three times, only rugby team in the world to win back to back championships. If you talk to an All Black and you go, “Wow, you guys are amazing. You’re incredible players, the best, you’re the best,” an All Black or a New Zealander who’s a high achiever will tend to undersell and go, “Ah, it was really nothing. We just went in and did our thing and we just happened to beat the other team but they played really well, the other team.” “Yeah, but you beat them 85-0.” “Well, yeah, I know but we just had a good day. Hats off to the other team.” That’s what you do. You undersell. It’s part of our psyche to be just like everybody.
It’s hugely endearing in one way because New Zealanders, and I feel like I’m one of these people, where I perform better when the expectations for me are lower than when people expect a lot from me. I don’t cope with that very well. When I have to go do a speech, I do a lot of speeches, when everybody’s expectation of my speech is that it’s going to be, I’m going to hit it out of the park and it’s going to be really great, it makes me nervous because I feel like, okay so you feel like I’m meant to hit this mark. Where do I go from there? I don’t know where to go from there. I have to hit it out of the park twice? What do it do?
Just to get a passing grade, right.
Exactly, whereas if people’s expectations are, “Well, we think Phil will do a good job and it should be good,” if their expectations are there then I love that space that’s left for me to go punch above that and go hit it out of the park. There’s nothing better when you exceed people’s expectations. I think New Zealanders, they always try to underplay where they’re at so that they can exceed expectations. What you find with a lot of New Zealanders, incredibly hard working, they’ll tend to undersell themselves and they tend to surprise. They tend to come out of nowhere and just like, “I had no idea you could do that.”
I’ve just finished working on a project for the Smithsonian Channel where I talk to a bunch of New Zealanders about inventiveness because if there’s one word I would use to describe what Kiwis are, they’re incredibly resourceful and inventive. They’ve invented a lot of amazing things. We find ways of doing things in new and different ways because we’re kind of forced to think. I love that about our culture but sometimes when we come to an environment like in America, we’re a little reluctant to put our hand up and go, “I got this.” It’s other people who sometimes make a lot of noise, maybe don’t have the same skills but they’re much better at making a lot of noise.
Just because this is one of my favorite topics … Topics isn’t the right word for it. One of my favorite things to observe is Kiwis and Aussies going after each other.
Oh yeah, that’s just born into us.
What are the most common go-to insults that Aussies use against Kiwis and vice versa?
All sheep jokes go across the Tasman. A lot of people don’t realize that it’s a three hour flight between New Zealand and Australia. We still have people calling up New Zealand tourism going, “How long do it take to drive across the bridge from New Zealand to Australia?” You think I’m joking.
No, because Sydney and Auckland both have bridges that look quite similar and they think that if you drive over the bridge in Sydney or in Auckland, that’s what’s on the other side.
Makes me feel a lot better about the US now.
Three hours, what are you talking about? We’re like the little brother. We’re four million people. They are 20-something million people. We’ve always felt like they’re the big brother that wants to beat us up but we’re going to prove ourselves to the big brother. So yes, any sheep joke, we don’t need to go into the details-
Lots of sexual innuendo.
Oh, come on. This isn’t family programming. What’s one good one?
The one that gets told a lot is, “Why do Australians make love to sheep with their gum boots on?” “So the hind legs of the sheep can be held in the gum boots.” Or, “Why do Australians make love to sheep on the edge of cliffs?” “So they’ll push back harder.”
That’s pretty good.
If you need some quick draw ammo, that’s not a bad one to have in the back pocket.
I’ve been to rugby matches in Australia where you stand up in your chair and if there’s an Aussie behind you and they know you’re supporting the All Blacks, they’ll pour some beer down the back of your chair. Listen, it’s a healthy rivalry, I think. It’s just that the Australians, to me, are closer to the American culture in terms of their sports psyche. They are really good at sport. You want to talk about believing and winning, Australians really, I think, exemplify that. New Zealand, I think, less so. Again, I think New Zealanders, they want to come in under the radar and then exceed expectations so they don’t tend to use the same kind of psych up and there’s a lot of … With the cricket matches, they call it “sledging” where the Australian cricket team are out there on the pitch, in the middle of the pitch, they’ll be just going at the opposition to psyche them out, basically. They have that edge about them.
The Australians do seem to do more of that.
It’s a different edge. And they’re very successful, by the way. You look at the number of medals they win at the Olympics per capita. It’s pretty high. We’re up there as well but, I’m saying, the Australians, they’re … It’s a great rivalry, let’s just say that. I married an Australian, by the way.
No, I know. This is part of the reason I brought it up. The Australians also tend to get, it depends on how drunk and sharp the Kiwis are at the time, but a lot of convict jokes get thrown at the Australians, as well.
For those people who want to be amused or completely confused, or maybe both, by Kiwi/Australian humor, there’s a video that, I feel like it was watched by everybody in New Zealand at one point, called Beach Days. “Oh, oh, Beach Days, bro. Beach Days.”
Beach Days, bro.
Has to do with a whale and, I think it’s a seagull, among other things. You guys can look that up and chances are you will not understand what’s going on.
Yep. Look, I think there’s something like a half a million New Zealanders living in Australia. It’s like a huge portion of the New Zealand population live in Australia but now a lot of Australians are wanting to come to New Zealand because our economy is doing okay.
It does feel like a sibling rivalry.
New Zealand is the last habitable land mass on earth to be populated. We offered a lot of land incentives to the Irish, English and the Scots. A lot of Dutch came over in the 50s. We’re a very young country, like super young country. In 1880, if I’m not mistaken, the population was something like 80% men in New Zealand, which is where all that mateship came from, probably a few sheep jokes, as well. We’re a super young country. Now Australia had a tremendous number of criminals go there because England didn’t want them. That’s the English for you.
Let’s send them way down there to that penal colony down in Australia. That will fix them. So they sent them down there. They’re a rugged bunch but don’t ever confuse New Zealanders and Australians. We don’t like that. We don’t like that. Just like Canadians a lot of times-
That’s just what I was going to say: does one get more offended than the other? For instance, if you call an American Canadian, we’re like, “Ah, whatever.” Canadians get very, in general. I love you guys, Canadians.
I think we’re probably more sensitive.
I have a lot of Canadian friends but Canadians are more sensitive.
I think New Zealanders are probably more sensitive about it. I think Australians, they probably care less than we do.
I wanted to ask you about low expectations versus high expectations because, I remember a friend of mine, Naval Ravikant, once said, “If you want to be happy,” and I’m paraphrasing here, “but if you wanted to be happy, spend time with people who are less successful than you. If you wanted to be successful, spend time with people who are more successful than you.”
You’ve spent a lot of time in New Zealand as well as in the US. I remember at one point when, and I’m dubious of how these things are determined, but the Danish beat out people in Bhutan and elsewhere to be voted the happiest people in the world.
Bhutan, isn’t it the kingdom of happiness?
They have the gross national happiness, which I think is actually just a propaganda tool to distract from lack of GDP growth, among other things, but the point I was going to make is that I asked a number of my Danish friends about this and they said in effect, “It’s because we have such low expectations. That’s why we’re the happiest, because our expectations are so low.”
At the same time, you’ve achieved a lot, you’ve done a lot and you’ve spent a lot of time in the US where, I would say a lot of people might argue that when expectations are higher and people expect you to do greater things, you do greater things. Clearly, when I’m looking at, and I’ll just read off a few examples here, if we look at some of the things that you’ve done, No Opportunity Wasted, NOW, we could go on and on. I could just spend 20 minutes reading these-
Don’t do that.
Pot of Gold. I’m not going to do that. A golf ball across Scotland, finishing at St. Andrews, complete the Leadville 100 mountain bike race. We’re going to get to this in detail but ride the 1928 Tour de France on a fixed-gear bike, correct?
They’re the same equipment that was used-
Actually it was a single-speed bike.
Single-speed, I’m sorry. World record bungee jump with seven or eight adventure crazies, it just goes on and on and on. You have this long list. If you had really, really low expectations, could you actually set these types of goals and achieve them?
It’s not that I’ve ever had low expectations-
This is something that I battle with personally so that’s why I’m asking.
Yeah. I’ve never had low expectations. I’ve always had this desire to do new and different. If there is one thing that I would like to be known for, it’s that I’m prepared to try something new and different. I like to be surrounded by people who see, again, what they do have and what they can do as opposed to what they don’t have and what they can’t do. Nothing drives me crazier than being surrounded by people who immediately start with a ‘No’ or immediately start with not having the vision to see that the impossible can happen. I’ve been lucky enough to be around people who have achieved extraordinary things and it feeds me.
Malcolm Gladwell says, “Anything new and different is most susceptible to market research.” I really feel that so many people apply potential and possibility based on what does it compare to, what can we compare it to, will it work. There’s a fixation on this idea of failure. I find people talk a lot about things failing in a negative way. I’ve failed so many times at so many things but I try not to call them failures as much as I call them giving it a go. If there’s one thing that I love about positive people is that they are prepared to give it a go. Positive people just are constantly putting themselves out there to fall on their face and eventually they stumble on something that works.
Do you have any favorite failures that come to mind? What I mean by that is a failure that somehow laid the groundwork for a later success? Does any particular failure come to mind, in your mind, or what other people might consider a failure that actually was a blessing in disguise?
Early on in my career, I tried to put together show ideas that I thought would really work and they just didn’t really work but it was all the groundwork to be better the next time I tried to get something to work. I’ve been involved with a lot of things that are pretty mediocre but, again, I really do believe in trying and trying and trying again.
When I was young, I learned how to play the violin when I was three years old with the Suzuki method, which was rote learning, where you would be in a room with a whole bunch of people and you’d play tunes over and over and over again. Eventually I could play by ear. When I was seven or eight, my mum’s a music teacher, I learned how to read music. I became quite proficient at playing the violin. I used to go to a music school in New York. I was living in the Caribbean, I grew up in the Caribbean. I used to fly from Antigua in the Caribbean, go up to this music school for up to nine weeks-
The travel was due to your father’s job?
Yeah, my mum and dad traveled all over the world. We lived four years in Canada, eight years in the Caribbean, we lived in South America, through the Caribbean, lived in Australia.
I went to this school and I was probably the worst musician out of all of these really talented kids, strong enough to get into the school but certainly not the best. I remember being surrounded by the most extraordinary talent, some of the talent that has gone on to play in the New York Philharmonic but a big part of playing the violin and being successful, particularly at that age, was just practice and practice and practice. I remember how hideous and horrible I sounded starting with some new pieces early on but you’d play and play over and over and over again. You could say that the first performances that I made were a failure and then with all of the work and the effort, you end up with something that sounds halfway decent.
I really do believe in the idea of perseverance. I feel that a lot of people stop short at achieving goals because they’re not prepared to risk failure. We analyze failure, particularly as we get older, more and more. I always try to encourage that with my daughter too, I say to her, “Give it a go, just give it a go and see what happens. You never know where it’s going to take you.”
What you learn and what you fail at, may help you with something else. You may not understand how they’re related now but five years from now, you’re going to draw on that. It’s about life experience and putting your hand up and saying, “Yeah, I’ll give it a go.” That’s definitely something that is a New Zealand trait. “Yeah, yeah, I’ll give it a go.” Fake it until you make it. That’s a huge part of our psyche. Just give it a go. I meet a lot of people who have way more talent than me at doing a lot of things. I’m amazed at how reluctant they are sometimes to step up and I’ll pat them on the back and go, “Hey, you got this, dude. I’m prepared to give it a go and you’re better than me. Come on. Get up there.”
Get amongst it.
Yeah, get up there. I think that comes a lot from the way that we talk about it in our culture because we celebrate success but I think we should also just celebrate people giving it a go.
Give it a go, definitely. I think it’s also dependent a lot on where you are, even within the US.
Where, say, I live in Silicon Valley, I live in San Francisco where there is very much a supportive environment for giving it a go.
Giving it a go. Those people are on the cutting edge of … They’re like the pioneers of where we are at right now, trying new and different things. You know the famous story of the guy who wrote up the idea for FedEx. They all thought he was crazy. New and different, right? It was like, “What do you mean we’re going to have these central packaging locations and you’re going to fly everything? You’re flying everything there and then you fly … That doesn’t make any sense.” I think he failed too, didn’t he?
I think he got a “C” or something. I feel like I want to say it was a business school final project …
It was a business school platform.
Got a barely passing grade or something along those lines.
My frustration is a lot of people who are in decision making positions tend to be the least creative and the least visionary. They’re much more about nuts and bolts and analyzing. We would not have gone to the moon, we would not have done all the crazy things that we’ve done in this world if people did it based on what we knew at that time. We’ve done all these extraordinary things because some crazy people said, “I’m going to give it a go and we’ll see what happens.”
If your daughter were putting together her own “No Opportunity Wasted” bucket list and she said, “Dad, I’d love some help. Can you help me make this as good as possible.” She already has, say, 30 things listed and she’s like, “I’m worried some of these things are frivolous. I’m not really sure if they’re good items to have on the list.” How would you respond?
First of all, there are two kinds of lists, I think. One is the very personal list that you have that you might want to really keep secret because I do believe sometimes, when you put things out into the universe to other people, it can pick up momentum. Also, I believe that sometimes if you put something out there, there are negative energies sometimes with some of the people that might hear of something you’re trying to do and knock you down because maybe they have their own frustrations or they have their own preconceived ideas about what’s possible and they can put a black cloud over what it is you want to do.
I would say to my daughter, first of all, believe anything is possible and give it a go. I remember when she was nine she said, “Dad, I want to be a professional tennis player, a wildlife vet and a professional photographer.” Professional photographer, wildlife vet and professional tennis player. The rational part of my brain is thinking, “How’s that … “ If I was giving advice and she was about to make the choice that day or she was working out how she was going to do it, you could say, “Well, that’s not really practical because listen, if you want to be a professional tennis player, it’s going to take this many hours. If you want to be a photographer, it’s going to be this, and if you want to be a wildlife vet, you’re going to have to do this, that and the other,” but instead, I remember making a deliberate effort to say, “That’s great. How are you going to do this?”
I wanted to understand what was in her head. She says, “Well, I was thinking I could work on some kind of research project and then I could train, I could work out a way to train and then I could take photographs while I’m doing my work and then I could fly to Europe and I could play in the circuit there. That would keep me really fit and focused and everything. At night, I’ll work on my photographs and then I’ll go back and take … “ She had a vision in her head about how she was … Who am I to say to her, “It’s not possible to do all of those things?” I don’t know. Maybe she could have found a way to do that. I don’t know. I wanted her to feel at that age, yeah, okay. Go for it. Give it a go, see what happens.
You are often associated, you’re associated with a lot of things, but with The Amazing Race. How did you come to be part of that show?
It’s a good story. I came to America when I was 23, 24. I thought I wouldn’t get arrested because I had a New Zealand accent at the time and I was told nobody wants a New Zealand accent on television. This is the early 90s. They weren’t wrong because … Then a guy took a chance on me. His name was Jack Sussman, who is now at CBS. He gave me a shot to host a show on VH1. That opened the door and then once I got in, because none of my credentials from before in New Zealand meant anything in America. Not like today where you could be a host of _Dancing with the Stars_ in New Zealand and use that to leverage getting work here. They didn’t understand. “Oh, what’s this show: “That’s Fairly Interesting?”
Sounds really exciting. In America, we’ve got “That’s Incredible.” There’s a reason for me telling you that, just because he was later at CBS. Then I had this show that was set up by an Australian by the name of Peter Faiman who directed Crocodile Dundee. He was setting up FX networks. He took a chance on me to be one of the field people with that show I was telling you Tom Bergeron hosted. I did that for four and a half, five years. He took a shot on me because there were some people were like, “You going to put a New Zealander on the air?” But anyway, that gave me a lot of American TV experience.
Then we did a show together on Discovery Channel and I worked with a cameraman who shot this adventure series, it was called _Phil Keoghan’s Adventure Crazy_. It was following my list of things I do before I die. It was shot all around the world. That cameraman was being considered to shoot Amazing Race. They looked at his footage and saw me in his footage and then said, “Who is that guy?” The EIC, executive in charge of production on Amazing Race had worked with me on that show and he said, “Oh, that’s Phil. I just was working with him.” CBS was aware of me because I’d been passed over for Survivor. It was between Jeff Probst and I for that job. A big concern, again, was that I was a New Zealander.
Finally, I remember I met with Les Moonves and he said, “This is the second time your name has come across my desk in the last, I think it was, year.” He said, “I’m going to give you a shot.” I remember I got shortlisted down to three, then to two, and then Les had this conversation, Les Moonves. I just had to get sign off from Jerry Bruckheimer, Bertram van Munster, Elise Doganieri, Jonathan Littman, the network and all the executives who were involved in the show. They said yes and then I had a shot.
How many episodes have you done at this point, if you were just guesstimating?
I’m guess it’s got to be 300, 400.
It’s a lot. It’s 29 seasons of 12 and 13 episodes a season.
Those 12 or 13 episodes are each shot in a window of what?
So 12 shows in 21 days. That’s the part that a lot of people don’t realize is how intense it is.
Just the logistics, just getting the visas alone for everyone.
The team that I work with, I’m lucky to be part of a great team. Going back to your point before, about being lucky enough that that’s been my experience throughout my career, that I’ve been surrounded by people who are better than me at doing certain things and, as a team member, you want to try to match the level of their input. You want to be known as a valuable team player. My grandfather always said that you could build a stereo system but the stereo system only sounds as good as weakest link in the stereo system. Same thing, I guess, with a chain, right? It’s the same thing. You always want to be somebody who is higher up the chain, who is really a strong element in that team, in that framework but never the biggest chain.
Never the biggest target.
That’s not a good feeling. I’ve been in those situations
I see what you’re saying, right.
… where you feel like you’re the most experienced in a team. To be honest with you, I don’t really like that. I really love looking across at somebody in a team that I’m on and going, “Man, they are so experienced and so much better.” I’ve been working with 60 Minutes Sports and working with the people who produce 60 Minutes. Being surrounded by those storytellers, you feel like you’re 18 again and you’re starting back at school.
I remember some advice that I was given quite awhile ago, which is if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re in the wrong room.
Yeah, that’s a good one.
Question to you about hosting. What are the most common mistakes that come to mind that novice TV hosts make?
I think where they make it about them. I think the best hosts, and again this is only my opinion, the best hosts are the ones that can facilitate a conversation with the least number of words, where you’ve done your research and then you basically are letting them go. You let them go. You’re there to just keep things moving and you’re there to make them look good. The better you make them look, the better you are.
Where I get turned off with some hosts is where they feel like they have to one up the person that they’re meant to be-
… showcasing. I see it a lot of times where … And it’s finding that balance. Finding the balance of really connecting with the person but ultimately letting them be the guest and giving them the last say, or the last word, I guess. You want to make them look good. You’re focused on that.
Are there any particular hosts or television personalities, it could be radio, doesn’t matter, you looked at or do look at as the epitome of that? Are there any role models that you grew up looking towards or even now, where you say, if you had to create the super host, you could combine two or three people. Do any names come to mind?
I love the way Jimmy Fallon plays with his guests but he’s always willing to back out and let them shine.
He is really good at that.
I just think that takes a real skill because he himself is so talented as a performer, but he has that ability to step back and say, “You’re the star of my show. Do your thing.” He really has a way of having fun and relaxing. I think he’s gotten so much better at it too. I think when he first started, he was trying to find his way and now he’s sort of hit the sweet spot. What’s interesting now is so many people are watching Colbert because he’s got much more of a political message and people are gravitating towards that more than they are the fun stuff. You can see that in the ratings. I love Jon Stewart’s style. I love Colbert’s style. I was a big David Letterman fan. I loved Carson.
I’m new to podcasts so I’ve been listening to a lot of different podcasts. I was saying to you before, I love the piece you did with Arnold. I like that you’re so well researched with your guests and you draw stuff out and hit them with things that they don’t necessarily see coming. I think preparation with a good host is so crucial.
And I’ll tell you who else is, for a lot of people it’s surprising, and that’s Howard Stern. He has a way of getting people to open up.
Howard’s a Jedi when it comes to-
He’s really good. I personally wasn’t surprised because I’ve listened to him for a long, long time. My favorite part of what he does is talking to people. I love conversations. A good story, you could be sitting around a campfire and if it’s a good story, it just works. I think that’s the real measure of somebody who is a good host.
Let’s talk about stories for a second. Are there any particular books besides your own, that you’ve gifted to people or that you recommend a lot to other people?
Every year I read The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway.
Yeah, great book.
It’s so easy to read and it has such a strong message.
What do you get out of that book?
I left home pretty much at the age of 13 and went to boarding school. I haven’t lived at home since then. I’ve been independent for a long time. It forced me to grow up. I’ve been financially responsible for myself since I was 18. I feel like I had to grow up really quickly, and one of the reasons I’ve set up so many adventures with my dad is because I missed a lot of time with him between 13 and 18. All those holidays through 13 to 18, in those really influential years, I had a lot of time with a grandparent, with my grandfather. My grandfather was born in 1912. He was the Ducks … I don’t know what you call it in America but he was the brightest kid in his middle school.
Oh, he was the valedictorian of his middle school?
Valedictorian, yeah, of his middle school and he was getting a scholarship to go away to a Catholic college in Christchurch, which was over the mountains, over the southern Alps in New Zealand. For one reason or another, he wasn’t given that opportunity and didn’t get to go to that school, go to high school. He became a bike mechanic in his teens and very quickly put himself through becoming an A-grade mechanic, then worked as a mechanic up until he was about 65. He was at the same place for many, many years. My grandfather was unbelievably smart and never got to fully realize his potential academically but he used his intellect in other ways. I spent a lot of hours with him in his workshop where he was a gunsmith. He would fix guns, he would bed guns, he was absolutely meticulous, had the most incredible tools. If he didn’t have the tool, he’d make the tool.
This is in New Zealand.
This is in New Zealand.
Not a place known for guns.
Well, a lot of people do have guns for hunting. My grandfather was a sharpshooter, actually a number of my family members were sharpshooters in the war but it was quite a big sport in New Zealand, target shooting. He got me into it at a very young age. I made the New Zealand under 25 team when I was 16, I think, with him being my coach. I spent a lot of hours watching him and target shooting is all about focus and discipline. You have to be so meticulous to be a good shooter, dropping your heart rate, connecting with the rifle and really seeing clearly and making sure you pull the trigger. There’s so much involved. It’s such a mental sport.
I spent so much time with him. I learned so much from him. I think because of that, and he invented an outrigger sight. His friend went blind in his right eye and he was on the New Zealand team. He couldn’t see out of his right eye. My grandfather had a dream that if he build an outrigger sight, if he moved the sight the distance of the pupil, between the right eye and the left eye, that this guy, Morris Callaghan, could close his right eye, look through his left eye, and then had this outrigger sight that was offset by the distance of his pupil at the other end of the barrel, and he would be able to see and shoot. Sure enough it worked. My grandfather got up in the middle of the night, built it-
That is hard to make.
Now you can buy it off the shelf. My grandfather never patented it, but that was how his brain worked. I think because of that relationship, I have a tremendous amount of respect for older people who have so much to give. Age discrimination, to me is one of the biggest crimes that we have, where there’s such a focus on young and this is the new thing and this is the new way, and we need young people. I’m all about that because young is new and different. I’m all about that but I’m also a firm believer that we are wasting a tremendous amount, a tremendous talent pool of people in this country who could share their wisdom and their life knowledge with young people who maybe have lost their way, where we tap into that resource.
It’s sort of very sad to me. When I hear it and I see it … I see it a lot in my business. “Oh, we don’t want the guy who’s 60 who wrote the script. We want the 25 year old kid. He’s got this great idea.” Yeah, sometimes that guy who has been writing for 10,000 hours actually might be able to offer you something.
Yeah, for sure.
Maybe we could learn from that guy.
You mentioned the marksmanship. You also have a long history with cycling and have done quite a lot on two wheels. Could you tell us a little bit about your latest documentary and what I’d love for you to comment on is how you chose this project and choose projects in general because you have many different options. You can do many different things so how do you choose something like this to focus on? Can you tell us a little bit about it?
I think one of the reasons that this project came about is I feel I’m open to anything happening at any moment. I believe in magic. I believe in not planning too much ahead, being receptive to what might come tomorrow or who I might meet and being open to the possibilities that come from those meetings and books I read. I found this book at an airport. It was a tiny little book by some publisher that I’d never heard of, written by some guys that I’d never heard of. It said that the first New Zealander to ride in the Tour de France, 1928, seven time New Zealand champion, Harry Watson, from Canterbury, New Zealand. I’m like, hold on a second. I love cycling. I love cycling history. How do I not know who this guy is?
I read the book in one sitting. I know some professional cyclists so I emailed them and said, “Have you ever heard of this guy, Harry Watson?” They’re like, “Harry who?” Seven time New Zealand champion. So I read the book and then I find out that this guy, Harry Watson, used to go over to Australia and ride in these races with the best riders in Australia and there was only one guy over there who could beat him. They would go back and forth, winning races. He would go over there and take part in these amazing 1000-mile races, come back to New Zealand, not say a word to anybody, would never make it into the press. It would make it into the press that he won a New Zealand championship but nobody had any real idea of the caliber that this guy was riding at. He had records that stood for 50 years in New Zealand.
I became so fascinated with the idea that this guy was the epitome of what we talk about when we talk about an understated New Zealander, like you don’t talk about your achievements. You don’t show off about your achievements. He never actually grew up to be chopped off. He just went and achieved things and kept it all really low.
Low profile. I looked at it and I started doing some research, this was with my wife and our producer partner. The more we researched, the more we realized the 1928 Tour de France had the first English-speaking team that competed in it. It was this one New Zealander and three Australians, went six weeks at sea, all the way to France with one set of rollers between them, on these old heavy steel bikes, rocked up there to the start line in Europe. The Europeans were like, “What the hell are you doing here? Where have you come from, you guys? Do you not realize that we’re the best riders in the world? The toughest sporting event on earth, you’re going to come here and try to school us? Who are you guys?”
They were only four guys. They were meant to team up six other riders to make a team of ten, like all the big riders but the other riders didn’t turn up. The sponsors fell through so now they’re over on the other side of the world, four against ten, and 15 of the 22 stages were team time trials but they refused to give in. Press wrote them off, everybody wrote them off. They decided they were going to race. It’s not like you can send out a tweet and say, “Hey, I’m looking for some riders.” They just couldn’t get it together so they had four at the starting line.
The sad part of it all is that this story has all been lost because they’re gone. I started digging around, digging around. I thought, “You know what? This story needs to be told because it’s like these unforgotten underdogs.” The highest attrition rate in Tour de France history, 1928. It was brutal. I thought the only way to really tell this story is I need to find one of those old bikes that they rode, I need to find the old route, I need to find where they went, I need to go and stick to the same schedule and then juxtapose 2013, my ride, with their ride in 1928, match up old photographs, look for old footage and tell this story so that it isn’t forgotten. It was not like it was ever really known in New Zealand but that we tell this story.
What is the name of the documentary?
It’s called Le Ride.
Then you could do one in South America, “El Ride.”
I had “The Ride” on my hat. I thought if I just … All I have to do is just change, I just have to take out two letters, put an “El” there and boom, I’ve got the same hat.
Ready to rock and roll. How long was the course then?
3,338 miles, an average of 150 miles a day.
Not flat ground.
This was brutal. Single-speed bicycles, marginal brakes, bikes that weighed twice as much as a modern bike does today. 132,000 vertical feet. By the time they got through eight stages, they went from 168 starting in Paris to 100 after eight stages. By the time they finished the death stage, the ninth stage, the winning time in 1928 was 18 1/2 hours. It was 200 and something miles and over 20,000 vertical feet, in one day, over five major climbs in the Pyrenees that separates Spain and France. 18 1/2 hours, the winning time. What was really cool about this story, this was 1928. This is 10 years after World War I.
Nothing has or had more impact on New Zealand than World War I. 10% of the New Zealand population went to Europe, went to Gallipoli, went to all these places in Europe to fight alongside Mother England in World War I. 10%, imagine that. On ships, they traveled to the other side of the world to fight so everybody has lost relatives or has a relative who fought in the war. The French people remembered the ANZACs, the Australian and New Zealand troops, that had only been in France 10 years before, fighting in the trenches in northern France against the Germans.
They remembered that sacrifice so when the French people realized that this small untested, underdog team were taking on the best riders in the world, and that they were going to ride around France, they got out on the streets and they cheered this underdog team. They not only won over the public, they then won over the French press and then they won over the other riders. By the end of the ride, three out of those four riders made it around France. Only 42 riders out 168 riders made it. They made it with four against ten.
World class riders. These guys were world class but nobody know. If you were to say … If that was a headline in New Zealand, that they made it, I just don’t think the New Zealand people understand, because cycling is such a complicated sport, I’m not sure if they truly understand the significance of how incredible that achievement is. He’s not in a sporting hall of fame, Harry Watson. I think he should be. If he was an All Black, if he was a rugby player, he would be. Sir Hubert Opperman, on the other hand, was knighted. Sir Hubert Opperman, he was a politician, he was instrumental in getting rid of the White Australia policy. There’s statues of him in Australia but in New Zealand, this guy who’s from my hometown, there’s nothing. I’m trying now to raise the money to put a permanent fixture in Christchurch over one of the cycle ways for us never to forget him but the film is certainly helping.
Where can people find the film?
philkeoghanleride.com and my name is a crazy spelling.
I’ll put it in the show notes for people so they can find it.
I can’t even spell my name sometimes, it’s so hard to spell.
I encourage people to check it out. I watched the trailer and just the very beginning, when you guys are riding on these old rickety bikes across cobblestones, just getting started.
Yeah, not a good idea. Can I just say, this is not a good idea, by the way. Not a good idea. To try to make a movie while you’re taking on the biggest physical and mental challenge of your life, not a good recipe for making a … That’s just not a good thing to do. That death stage I was telling you about, took us 23 1/2 hours to finish. We had seven stages over 200 miles on those old bikes with no gears. I jacked my hip up for about 15 months, I had this crazy pain in my hip. I couldn’t get rid of it until I got a standing desk, by the way. That’s what fixed it.
I got a standing desk, boom, within three weeks.
Let’s talk about a few things like that because before we started recording, you pulled up a microphone. We were looking at my current audio setup, which is a Zoom H6 with some basic XLR cables.
Great setup, by the way.
Thank you. Very simple. As Morgan Spurlock put it to me, “Once you get fancy, fancy gets broken.” This is not fancy. I have a Shure SM58 stage mics here.
He’s an interesting guy, isn’t he?
He is an interesting guy.
We were on Oprah together once.
Oh, is that right?
That must have been a trip.
Back in 2001. That was a first time I met him, was 2001, we were both on Oprah.
Wow. That’s a helluva place to meet. You brought up a microphone because you often have to do pickups, audio on the road.
Yes, a lot.
And you tested it out? I’m always curious about travel mic options because even with the amount of gear that I have, it weights a lot to truck around and carry around the stuff. What other gear or tools are must-haves for you when you’re on the road? Are there any particular, maybe non-obvious, gizmos, gadgets, ways of packing, not packing, anything that comes to mind that you found is necessary for your survival on the road when you’re doing these 12 episodes in 20 days, I’m not going to call it death march, but intense travel schedules.
It’s interesting. I get that question from people about what to pack, what to travel. I am crazy about technology. I love technology so much. My first job, I mentioned, was as a film camera assistant. Watching my grandfather as a gunsmith and then being a camera assistant was great because you had to be so meticulous about looking after the gear. I’m always being enamored with what’s the latest, greatest craze and what can you do with technology. A friend of mine says, “Isn’t it great living in the future?” I totally agree with him.
I think it’s so important to keep up with the technology and just how you and I are sharing, “Oh, try this mic, this is great,” then I see your setup and you keep learning all the time. You see how people do things and how people pack. The cameraman that I’ve been working with for 25 years, every time I see him, he and I are big repurposers so we love finding the best ways to repurpose things, new ways of doing things. A big part of that is in technology. That said, I’m also old school. I also have had a moleskine diary that I write into, that I’ve had for 30 years. When you see the stuff that I travel with, I have really old school paper and pencil and then all the way through to the latest technology.
This film that we shot, Le Ride, was the first documentary ever shot on a Sony F55 4K camera. At that stage, it had never shot a featured film. The equivalent of super 35 mm and digital and then beautiful ingenue glass and that sort of thing. I think you’re crazy to travel without some means of capturing video or audio. I am amazed at what, without mentioning a name, but I’m amazed at what a smartphone can do. It blows my mind. The new phone that I have has two lenses in it. The audio quality is extraordinary. I just shot this project for the Smithsonian in 4K. We’re actually doing it in UHD. There’s a shot that I needed, and I was sitting somewhere where there was not way I was going to get a camera there in time or in the space where I was. I pulled out this phone, set it to 4K and we cut it in as a quick cutaway shot, on my phone. I love that.
Yeah, it is amazing.
And I love that I can, 5:00 in the morning, walk out in my dad’s garden with this little microphone, plug it into my phone and be standing there surrounded by all these birds. You heard the quality.
I was outrageous.
I just love it.
What would be, let’s just say, a purchase of less than $100, if something comes to mind, that has most positively impacted your life in recent memory?
Less than $100?
Probably the biggest impact for something less than $100 would be a moleskine diary.
Yeah, I’ve got them all lined up from every year since, I’ve had them since 1986. In there, in a very tactile way, I have lists in the back: movies, books, and then I write in the back the name of the book and who recommended the book. I make a little note and then I tick them off then when I’ve read the book, I write to the person who recommended the book. They’ll be like, “I recommended that?” And I’ll be, “Yeah, you did.” I tell them where and when.
So you have an index of books and movies in the back of the diary?
In the back of the diary and then every year, if there’s something that I haven’t read or found in that year, like sometimes some really obscure things, I’ll transfer those over into the next year but now moleskine has this crazy pen that has a little camera on it that records everything you write, digitally, on paper and then you can email, like you and I could be talking, I’m writing some notes, just like your book there, and then I just tap the pen on a little envelope icon and I can text it, email it, post it, whatever. When you go back, it’s all recorded back on your computer.
I’m not a diary guy like that. It’s more just ideas or sketches. I just came up with a new name for something that I’m … For a brand that I’m wanting to explore developing. I just wrote down the name. It was a sort of free association and I arrived on this name. I was like, boom, I love this name. Then I went and looked it up and it was available so then I did a trademark on it. Then I started sketching with it. A lot of times it’s just fleshing out ideas.
I also use it for meetings. Every time I meet with somebody, I put the date, I put the time. My mother taught shorthand, I wish I’d learned from her. I write down key elements of the meeting. A lot of times I can remember the pages so I’ll go, “That’s right, I met with Tim, when was that, oh yeah, we met on 16 … “ Then I’ll go back into the diary, again they’re all chronological and I can remember roughly or I’ll just look it up in my calendar. That’s the easy way but a lot of the times I’ll challenge my brain. I’ll go, “Yeah, it was April …” Flick through to that part and look at the notes.
That’s what Robert Rodriguez, filmmaker, director, writer and so on also does. He keeps copious notes-
I love notes.
… then he transfers I think to a Word doc at roughly midnight. That way he’s able to go back and search, which you could do with some of these newer technologies, as well.
He would love this moleskine diary because it’s the same thing but he wouldn’t have to double transfer because it converts it into text-
Automatically converts it.
Yeah, let him know.
I will. He’s here in Austin.
Phil, this has been great fun. Where can people, and of course I’ll put this in the show notes as well for people listening, but where can people say hello to you on social or elsewhere?
A lot of people contact me through Twitter, just my name, @philkeoghan.
Can you spell that for people out there who are spelling-challenged?
You really think they’re going to remember this?
I find my listeners are bright people.
All right. Phil, it’s the ordinary Phil. P-H-I-L. And then Keoghan, which is K-E-O-G-H-A-N. My website is just my name: philkeoghan.com.
They can find you.
Easy man to find.
People have a way of finding me some way.
Well Phil, thank you so much for the time. I really appreciate you taking the time.
Yeah, it’s great to be here. I know you’ve talked to a lot of really cool people and it’s nice to be here, spend some time with you.
Likewise. No, I mean these are great stories and everybody listening, think about 3:00 P.M. tomorrow. That’s your deathbed. What are you going to say? I wish I had … I wish I could … Put together that list and also, as always, you can find links to everything we’ve talked about, the new film and where you can find Phil and everything else, The Old Man and the Sea, and so on, in the show notes at tim.blog/podcast. You can also find every other episode and until next time, thank you for listening.