Interview – Three secrets to creativity you can learn from a writer on “Family Guy”

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Eric Barker  -  

 

Andrew Goldberg and I met about 12 years ago when we were in grad school together. He was always funny but for the past five years that’s been his full time job — as a staff writer on “Family Guy.” I talked to Andrew about creativity, comedy and why fatherhood is the best cure for procrastination.

The full interview was over 30 minutes long so for brevity’s sake I’m only going to post highlights here.

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Eric:

You’ve been at “Family Guy” five years. Is there a process for you guys in terms of creativity, writing, turning out such great comedy consistently?

Andrew:

I’m not one of those writers who likes to sit alone in a dark room by himself. It’s nice sometimes, obviously. But, I like that I go to work everyday and we work in groups. We have a really big staff. I mean, we have a lot of part time people but if everybody were to show up on the same day there would be like 25 of us there. Usually there’s like between 15 and 20. And the way we usually go through a script is one main room will go through the script itself rewriting it. And then we’ll get to certain places where it’s kind of an isolated stand alone gag. Whether it’s a flashback or a scene and they’ll send out four or five of us for a couple hours to go write five different versions of what it might be. We call them “alts”. And then we come back, and we pitch them and they pick the funniest one. And it goes in. Seeing in terms of “Family Guy” works versus how most sitcoms work, we usually have three or four rooms going at once, which is unusual. Most sitcoms just have one or two rooms going at once. But, our show is so dense with jokes, it’s a joke driven show. We find that it works better if we have a lot of rooms working at once.

Eric:

It sounds like you guys are big on producing a lot of options, iterating. How do you feel that helps the process?

Andrew:

I’m a big fan of writing alts. If I come to a joke spot, even if I’m working on my own stuff, I’ll often write three or four or five different alts, and then I’ll show it to friends, show it to my wife, show it to my manager, show it to a director or somebody on the project, and ask them which they think is funniest. Usually the first joke you think of isn’t the funniest. You can, you know, one thing that I’ve learned from TV and working in a big group is, whatever joke is there, you can always beat it. There’s always a funnier joke somewhere out there. So I’m a big fan of writing different versions to, kind of find the funniest and the best version.

Eric:

Are there any tricks that work for you in terms of getting yourself to generate something different? To get your head unstuck from the one vision, and to look at it from different angles?

Andrew:

For me, the best way to do that is to work in a group. It’s like automatically infusing new creativity. Somebody might pitch a joke that doesn’t really work, but the area leads you to something that works. Or, you pitch something that’s halfway there, and somebody adds to it that, you know, makes it really work. That’s one way. You know? I think for me, I watch a lot of TV, I watch a lot of movies. Started listening to books on tape in the car. Partly to prevent myself from going insane. And partly to read when I have a full time job. Plus, I have my own projects. Plus I have two small children, so, you know, there isn’t, you know, a lot of time, like leisure time. But I do try to pack it with kind of ingesting, you know, pop culture, and stuff like that. I thought you were going to ask how do I get myself to sit down and write. And my answer was going to be have children, because then as soon as you have a moment, you take advantage of it. It’s a really good cure for procrastination and writer’s block.

Eric:

Give birth.

Andrew:

Yeah. That’s my advice. To any writers who are having trouble focusing.

Eric:

Does it matter, legitimate, illegitimate kids? Does that make a difference, or…?

Andrew:

Well, no, as long as you’re sticking around and caring for it, then it works. If you’re just impregnating somebody, then splitting, it doesn’t help much.

Eric:

Can you talk about the dynamics in the room? You said that like a great way to create those alts, create those options, was to have other people all working together. What about those dynamics? How do you get the best out of other people? How do they decide who has the best idea? Can you just talk a little bit about dynamics?

Andrew:

The way it works on our show is when the show runner sends out the room, he’ll usually say, “So and so take so and so and so and so and so and so.” And whoever is taking, you know, the other people, that’s the person who’s in charge. So, any of those rooms, it works best when there’s one person in charge, who makes, you know, the decisions of what goes in the script or what doesn’t. And, the different people in charge create different room dynamics. Personally, when I’m in charge we’ll pitch a bunch of ideas, and I’ll say we should write up the ones that I like, but I’ll always be like, “Is there anything else that anybody else loves and thinks should have a shot? And, you know, people are usually comfortable enough to pipe up if they do. And then there are some people who when they’re running a room, aren’t that interested in other people’s opinions or maybe they’re just more confident in their own opinions than I am. But everybody has their own dynamic. It’s like in any job. Anybody you’re working with, any group of people you’re working with, based on their unique personalities create their own dynamic. But when it’s working really well, it’s one of those things where the total is more than the sum of the parts, where people are feeding off each other. And helping each other figure out how to do the best versions as certain bits.

Eric:

Once you guys come out of the rooms, and get back into the original pool. Where does it go from there?

Andrew:

One of the nice things about working in animation versus live action is in live action mostly it’s like, in a week you’re producing a show. For us, it kind of bounces around from day to day, what we’re working on, because we’re working on different episodes in different stages of production. But, you know, it’s best when we go in and there’s a goal for the day, you know, we’re going to finish the rewrite on act one of this script or we’re going to rewrite this rough color version that we watched this morning. So, in terms of like, what the goal is, it kind of changes from day to day.

Eric:

What part of the process is most interesting to you and why?

Andrew:

Pitching on jokes. In some ways it’s the hardest part but, you know, you can argue back and forth about a story. I spend a lot of time now in editing and story boards and animation. And, you know, writing dialogue or action or whatever is fun, but to me pitching on a joke, stopping on a joke area, and people pitching and pitching with each other and competing against each other to be the one who gets the joke in is the funnest part for me.

Eric:

Have you noticed any patterns when stuff really works? It generally has this quality, or when everybody loves it, there’s this feeling or this consistency about it? Are there any trends in kind of when things really are creative or quick or funny?

Andrew:

For most shows, I think it’s when the jokes are really character based. And they feel very unique to that character and the character’s relationship. For our show, I think it’s a little different, just because we have so many jokes that aren’t character based. And the way our characters are created, they often kind of break character. Somebody like Peter Griffin, can do almost anything at any given moment. So, it’s not as character and relationship driven as other sitcoms. It’s more joke driven, yeah.

Eric:

So in terms of creativity, you mention working in teams and going to break out groups, what are things down the line, if you were to do another show, if you were to be writing on other projects, what are some things, where you’d say “These are real takeaways, these are real methods, tips, or tricks that I would bring with me because these are some of the best things that I learned there“?

Andrew:

Mm-hmm. One of them would be doing alts, which I mentioned before, and taking the funniest one. Another thing that we do on “Family Guy” that, I don’t know of another show that does it, you come up with the idea for the show, you beat out the story, we call “breaking a story.” Whether on a white board, or on index cards or whatever. And then the writer of that episode goes off and writes the outline. And on most shows, they get notes and they go off and write their first draft. On our show, they get notes, and then we spend a day or two in a group of, you know, five or six people doing what we call gag tests. Which is going through the outline, scene by scene, and just pitching jokes and ideas for each scene, for bits in each scene. And the reason we do it on our show is because it’s the show is so dense with jokes. It’s useful to go out with a document, with ideas, and areas for jokes to come back to as you’re writing it. You know, on another show, on a live action show, I’m not sure I would spend two days on it. But, to spend a day or an afternoon with five funny people before you go off to script can, you know, really elevate the product that comes back, I think.

Eric:

Obviously not everything can make it. Some things have to get cut. People are going to disagree on what’s funny. That’s a very qualitative personal judgment. How do you guys arrive at something that is objectively good?

Andrew:

It’s very difficult. It’s probably one of the hardest parts of the job. One thing you brought up is how do you deal with it, when you think something’s funny and everybody else doesn’t. One of the nice things about growing as a writer in TV and breaking in, in TV as you learn you’re forced to not be too precious with your material.

Eric:

What about dealing with different or difficult personalities?

Andrew:

And, in terms of dealing with different personalities, I think it’s like any business. It’s tough to deal with different personalities. And I think our staff kind of has a reputation and probably earned for being pretty tough. I mean, we’re pretty vicious with each other in a joking way, sometimes. But, you know, there aren’t a lot of polite laughs. If something gets pitched and we don’t think it’s funny, we don’t laugh. Because on our show the laugh is kind of king. If it gets a laugh, it goes in. If it’s something that can get by broadcast standards and practices. But, it’s tough for me to speak on this because I’ve only worked on one show and I know that each show has it’s own personality and you just, I think when you go in there, you gotta figure out quickly and figure out what your place is in there.

Eric:

Got you. So when you are alone in that dark room working on that outline for the show or working on another project and you do have to work by yourself, how does that change your process? How does that change how you work when you’re not in a room with a group?

Andrew:

It’s interesting, because like I said, I like to work in a room with a group, because it’s fun and it’s boisterous, but like, when I’m by myself, I actually prefer like no distractions and silence. Like, I’m not somebody who can like listen to music in the background and write. Or write in like a crowded coffee shop. For me, the biggest thing when I’m writing myself is just to set a goal, to set a goal for morning or for a day, and just try to get to there. If I set a goal to finish an act of a script by the end of the day, and I get there, then I feel good. If I don’t get there, I feel nervous and jittery.

Eric:

In terms of coming up with original ideas, coming up with stuff that’s funny, what do you think most people do wrong?

Andrew:

I think it’s a volume thing. I think some people make the mistake of thinking that the first thing that they think of is perfect, and they fall in love with it. You might write five different versions of it, and ultimately come back to the first version and decide that’s the best. But I think writing different versions kind of, of the same thing, frees you up to be more creative and to, you know, look for different paths, you know, in that, different ways to go with that same moment in whatever you’re writing.

Eric:

Do you think there’s any kind of danger in terms of “groupthink”? Is there any times where a group makes it worse? Where a group wears it down?

Andrew:

Yeah. If everybody’s not working in the same direction. Absolutely. I mean, it can, one person can totally grind things to a halt. You know, one person is not on board. Or you know, one person who’s not fitting in and working out can really bring a room down. And then, the other dangers of “groupthink” is, you know, when it’s one o’clock in the morning and you guys, you all think something’s hilarious, and then you’re reading it at a table read the next morning and nobody is laughing, and you realize we were just stirring each up. Like, this is only funny to us, and it was only because it was so late. Yeah.

Eric:

Can you talk about “funny”? What’s it mean? I’ve known you for, what, 12, 13 years, you know? You were always a funny guy. How has your kind of concept of funny, what is funny, changed, in five years of Family Guy?

Andrew:

Wow, that’s an interesting question. One kind of sad thing about being a comedy professional is, there’s like a little element of arrogance, where you see something and it might make you laugh, but you’re like, “Oh, I shouldn’t laugh at that.” Or I shouldn’t tell people I think it’s funny. For instance, I went with my wife to the last Adam Sandler movie, “That’s My Boy.” And I thought it was funny. I laughed the whole time. And if I said that in my room at work, they’d be like, “How could you laugh at an Adam Sandler movie?!?!?” I think now, I challenge myself to be funnier than I did five years ago. I challenge myself to find the new joke or the fresher joke more than I would have when I was a younger writer.

Eric:

That’s interesting. So, what you find funny hasn’t changed dramatically but it’s just a matter of working harder, working longer, generating more ideas to get another 10 %, another 15 %.

Andrew:

Yeah. Yeah. I think so.

Eric:

Were there any books that helped you, were there any movies that helped you, anything that you were like, “Wow, this really inspired me, this really helped me”?

Andrew:

The best thing, for me, about graduate school is I figured out what I wanted to do. I went there, I was in the producers program. It seemed like a palatable thing in that both my parents worked for IBM for 30 years, so that was my sense of what a job was. And producer seemed to be the closest thing to, like, a real job in entertainment beyond shows that I knew at the time. And, while I was in the program, I took a sitcom writing class with Fred Rubin. And, you know, a couple weeks into it, I was like okay this is what I want to do. This is, you know, I want to be a sitcom writer. And that was great, especially having that level of specificity. Because when you know exactly what you want to do, it makes it easier to do. Because you’re focused on it. And it makes it easier for people to help you.

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Checklist: Are you doing these five things to be more effective at work?

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Eric Barker  -  

How to be more effective at work

 

1) Have A Solid Daily Ritual

Here’s a solid one from Peter Bregman that will help you maximize use of your time .

Via 18 Minutes: Find Your Focus, Master Distraction, and Get the Right Things Done:

STEP 1 (5 Minutes): Your Morning Minutes. This is your opportunity to plan ahead. Before turning on your computer, sit down with the to-do list you created…and decide what will make this day highly successful…

STEP 2 (1 Minute Every Hour): Refocus. …Set your watch, phone, or computer to ring every hour and start the work that’s listed on your calendar. When you hear the beep, take a deep breath and ask yourself if you spent your last hour productively. Then look at your calendar and deliberately recommit to how you are going to use the next hour. Manage your day hour by hour. Don’t let the hours manage you.

STEP 3 (5 Minutes): Your Evening Minutes. At the end of your day, shut off your computer and review how the day went, asking yourself… questions like: How did the day go? What did I learn about myself? Is there anyone I need to update? Shoot off a couple of emails or calls to make sure you’ve communicated with the people you need to contact.

 

2) Make Things Automatic

The secret to getting more done is to make things automatic. Decisons exhaust you:

The counterintuitive secret to getting things done is to make them more automatic, so they require less energy.

It turns out we each have one reservoir of will and discipline, and it gets progressively depleted by any act of conscious self-regulation. In other words, if you spend energy trying to resist a fragrant chocolate chip cookie, you’ll have less energy left over to solve a difficult problem. Will and discipline decline inexorably as the day wears on.

Build routines and habits so that you’re not deciding, you’re just doing. When you first learn to drive it’s 1000 activities like steering, shifting, checking mirrors, braking — but with practice you turned it into autopilot and it’s no stress at all.

 

3) Checklists are magic

Use checklists. Yeah, everybody says that. And you probably don’t consistently do it.

Harvard surgeon Atul Gawande analyzed their effectiveness in his book The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right. What happens when you consistently use checklists in an intensive care unit?

The proportion of patients who didn’t receive the recommended care dropped from seventy per cent to four per cent; the occurrence of pneumonias fell by a quarter; and twenty-one fewer patients died than in the previous year. The researchers found that simply having the doctors and nurses in the I.C.U. make their own checklists for what they thought should be done each day improved the consistency of care to the point that, within a few weeks, the average length of patient stay in intensive care dropped by half.

What makes for a good checklist? Be specific and include time estimates.

 

4) Beat Procrastination

Use dashes:

“…a dash, which is simply a short burst of focused activity during which you force yourself to do nothing but work on the procrastinated item for a very short period of time—perhaps as little as just one minute.”

A big part of procrastination is dread. The task seems terrible and overwhelming. And that’s the first issue that needs attacking: those feelings.

By breaking the problem down into smaller chunks — even comically small ones that require only 1 minute of activity — and doing just that one little thing, you prove to yourself the task isn’t insurmountable.

The most motivating thing in the world is progress. Any trivial progress can motivate and boost positive emotions that will help build a productive momentum.

So this sounds good in theory but you’re probably thinking: what’s that first step and won’t that be horribly, horribly painful? For any procrastinated task, first thing is to take one minute and just write down the steps you need to do to finish the task.

This should be enough to kill negative emotions, build some momentum and get you going.

 

5) How to relieve stress

The secret to being stress free is feeling in control:

Via Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long:

Over and over, scientists see that the perception of control over a stressor alters the stressor’s impact.

Do things that increase your control of a situation ahead of time. According to one study, the stress management technique that worked best was deliberately planning your day so that stress is minimized.

The best way to reduce job stress is to get a clear idea of what is expected of you.

The trick to not worrying about work stuff while at home is to make specific plans to address concerns before you leave the office.

Most of the things you instinctively do to relieve stress don’t work.

Via The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It:

The APA’s national survey on stress found that the most commonly used strategies were also rated as highly ineffective by the same people who reported using them. For example, only 16 percent of people who eat to reduce stress report that it actually helps them. Another study found that women are most likely to eat chocolate when they are feeling anxious or depressed, but the only reliable change in mood they experience from their drug of choice is an increase in guilt.

So what does work?

According to the American Psychological Association, the most effective stress-relief strategies are exercising or playing sports, praying or attending a religious service, reading, listening to music, spending time with friends or family, getting a massage, going outside for a walk, meditating or doing yoga, and spending time with a creative hobby. (The least effective strategies are gambling, shopping, smoking, drinking, eating, playing video games, surfing the Internet, and watching TV or movies for more than two hours.)

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Checklist: Are you doing these five things to be the best?

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Eric Barker  -  

1) Realize it’s not about natural talent. It’s about hard work.

We all know intelligence is important, creativity is important… but how much do these types of natural talent control really what you can achieve in life?

In ~95% of cases, they don’t.

Via Mindset: The New Psychology of Success:

“After forty years of intensive research on school learning in the United States as well as abroad, my major conclusion is: What any person in the world can learn, almost all persons can learn, if provided with the appropriate prior and current conditions of learning.” He’s not counting the 2 to 3 percent of children who have severe impairments, and he’s not counting the top 1 to 2 percent of children at the other extreme… He is counting everybody else.

 

2) 10,000 hours is not the whole story

As Malcolm Gladwell discussed in his bestseller, “Outliers“, to become an expert it takes 10,000 hours (or approximately 10 years), right? Wrong. It takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice. That means actively working to improve. Just showing up doesn’t cut it.

Most people may do something for 10,000 hours (driving a car over the course of a lifetime) but never get anywhere near expert level (Formula One). Most people plateau and some even get worse.

Via Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else:

Extensive research in a wide range of fields shows that many people not only fail to become outstandingly good at what they do, no matter how many years they spend doing it, they frequently don’t even get any better than they were when they started… In field after field, when it came to centrally important skills—stockbrokers recommending stocks, parole officers predicting recidivism, college admissions officials judging applicants—people with lots of experience were no better at their jobs than those with very little experience.

And:

Occasionally people actually get worse with experience. More experienced doctors reliably score lower on tests of medical knowledge than do less experienced doctors; general physicians also become less skilled over time at diagnosing heart sounds and X-rays. Auditors become less skilled at certain types of evaluations.

 

3) Make your practice as close to the real thing as possible

Nothing beats really doing it.

Via The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How:

“One real encounter, even for a few seconds, is far more useful than several hundred observations.” Bjork cites psychologist Henry Roediger at Washington University of St. Louis, where students were divided into two groups to study a natural history text. Group A studied the paper for four sessions. Group B studied only once but was tested three times. A week later both groups were tested, and Group B scored 50 percent higher than Group A. They’d studied one-fourth as much yet learned far more.

Via Choke: What the Secrets of the Brain Reveal About Getting It Right When You Have To:

Practicing under the types of pressures you will face on the big testing day is one of the best ways to combat choking…

And:

During the initial shooting practice, all of the officers missed more shots when firing at a live opponent compared with firing at the stationary cardboard targets. Not so surprising. This was true after training as well, but only for those officers whose practice had been limited to the cardboard cutouts. For those officers who practiced shooting at an opponent, after training they were just as good shots when aiming at the live individuals as they were when aiming at the stationary cutouts. The opportunity to “practice under the gun” of an opponent, so to speak, really helped to hone the police officers’ shots for more real-life stressful shooting situations.

 

4) Commit to the long term

Merely deciding you’re committed for the long-term vs the short-term makes an enormous difference.

Via The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How:

When McPherson saw the graph, he was stunned. “I couldn’t believe my eyes,” he said. Progress was determined not by any measurable aptitude or trait, but by a tiny, powerful idea the child had before even starting lessons. The differences were staggering. With the same amount of practice, the long-term-commitment group outperformed the short-term-commitment group by 400 percent. The long-term-commitment group, with a mere twenty minutes of weekly practice, progressed faster than the short-termers who practiced for an hour and a half. When long-term commitment combined with high levels of practice, skills skyrocketed.

 

5) The best goal is merely to “get better”

When challenged, focus on “getting better” — not doing well or looking good. Get-better goals increase motivation, make tasks more interesting and replenish energy.

Via Nine Things Successful People Do Differently:

Get-better goals, on the other hand, are practically bulletproof. When we think about what we are doing in terms of learning and mastering, accepting that we may make some mistakes along the way, we stay motivated despite the setbacks that might occur… The amazing thing was that the people who were pursuing get-better goals (i.e., who saw the test as an opportunity to learn a new problem-solving skill) were completely unaffected by any of our dirty tricks. No matter how hard we made it, these participants stayed motivated and did well.

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Which character in “The Breakfast Club” were you in high school? (It can predict who you’ll be as an adult.)

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Eric Barker  -  

Which character in “The Breakfast Club” did you resemble the most as a tenth grader? The answer often predicts adult personality:

In 2000, three psychologists presented a paper titled “Peer Crowd-Based Identities and Adjustment: Pathways of Jocks, Princesses, Brains, Basket-Cases, and Criminals,” which asked a large sample of tenth-graders which of the five characters from The Breakfast Club they most considered themselves to be, and then checked back in with them at 24. The categories were “immensely predictive,” according to Jacquelynne Eccles, one of the authors. 

This is from a long, fascinating article in New York Magazine called “Why You Never Truly Leave High School.” It references a number of interesting social science studies showing how profoundly that time of life can shape you, damage you and predict who you will be. Some other highlights are below.

Height, weight and attractiveness during high school predict success as an adult better than those factors in general:

it wasn’t adult height that seemed to affect their subjects’ wages; it was their height at 16. (In other words, two white men measuring five-foot-eleven can have very different earning potential in the same profession, all other demographic markers being equal, just because one of them was shorter at 16.) Eight years later, Deborah Carr, a sociologist at Rutgers, observed something similar about adults of a normal weight: They are far more likely to have higher self-esteem if they were a normal weight, rather than overweight or obese, in late adolescence (Carr was using sample data that tracked weight at age 21, but she notes that heavy 21-year-olds were also likely to be heavy in high school). Robert Crosnoe, a University of Texas sociologist, will be publishing a monograph with a colleague this year that shows attractiveness in high school has lingering effects, too, even fifteen years later. “It predicted a greater likelihood of marrying,” says Crosnoe, “better earning potential, better mental health.”

High school is a very recent phenomenon:

Until the Great Depression, the majority of American adolescents didn’t even graduate from high school. Once kids hit their teen years, they did a variety of things: farmed, helped run the home, earned a regular wage… In their recent book Escaping the Endless Adolescencepsychologists Joseph and Claudia Worrell Allen note that teenagers today spend just 16 hours per week interacting with adults and 60 with their cohort. One century ago, it was almost exactly the reverse.

When asked, many popular kids didn’t see themselves as popular. Why? Because staying popular requires so much effort you never really feel you’ve achieved it:

“It’s social combat,” he explains. “Think about it: There’s not much instrumental value to gossiping about a wallflower. There’s value to gossiping about your rivals.” The higher kids climb, in other words, the more precariously balanced they feel, unless they’re standing on the square head of the totem pole. It therefore stands to reason that many popular kids don’t see themselves as popular, or at least feel less powerful than they loom. Their perch is too fragile.

One of the reasons high school can be so painful to some is because few relationships are two-way:

In 2005, the sociologist Koji Ueno looked at one of the largest samples of adolescents in the United States, and found that only 37 percent of their friendships were reciprocal—meaning that when respondents were asked to name their closest friends, the results were mutual only 37 percent of the time. One could argue that this heartbreaking statistic is just further proof that high school is a time of unrequited longings.

Why is it a liability to be smart in high school? Because it can be a social liability to be smart in life:

Kurt Vonnegut wrote that high school “is closer to the core of the American experience than anything else I can think of.” …Why is it that in most public high schools across America, a girl who plays the cello or a boy who plays in the marching band is a loser? And even more fundamentally: Why was it such a liability to be smart? The explanations tended to vary. But among the most striking was the one offered by Steinberg, who conjectured that high-school values aren’t all that different from adult values. Most adults don’t like cello or marching bands, either. Most Americans are suspicious of intellectuals. Cellists, trumpet players, and geeks may find their homes somewhere in the adult world, and even status and esteem. But only in places that draw their own kind.

And how good you are at navigating high school might predict how good you are at navigating life:

Thirty-five years later, the authors estimated, boys who ranked in the 80th percentile of popularity earned, on average, 10 percent more than those in the 20th… Joseph Allen and his colleagues at the University of Virginia just found that kids who suffer from mild depression at 14, 15, and 16 have worse odds in the future—in romance, friendship, competency assessments by outsiders—even if their depression disappears and they become perfectly happy adults. “Because that’s their first template for adult interaction,” says Allen when asked to offer an explanation. “And once they’re impaired socially, it carries forward.”

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What happens when you drop out of Princeton to move to the Shaolin Temple and master Kung Fu?

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Eric Barker  -  

“Until a man is twenty-five, he still thinks, every so often, that under the right circumstances he could be the baddest motherfucker in the world. If I moved to a martial arts monastery in China and studied real hard for ten years. If my family was wiped out by Colombian drug dealers and I swore myself to revenge. If I got a fatal disease, had one year to live, devoted it to wiping out street crime. If I just dropped out and devoted my life to being bad.”
— Neal Stephenson

 

My friend Matt Polly is the author of American Shaolin and Tapped Out.

And, yes, at 21 he left Princeton to move to China, find the Shaolin Temple and study Kung Fu.

It’s an incredible story (which he detailed in his first book American Shaolin) and so I decided to interview Matt about risk-taking, the 10000 hour rule of expertise and getting your ass kicked by monks.

The full interview was over 30 minutes long so for brevity’s sake I’m only going to post highlights here.

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Eric:  

When you look back on the whole dropping out of Princeton, going to China and studying at the Shaolin Temple, do you think, “I took a calculated risk”, or “it was something I was passionate about” or “I was nuts when I was a kid!” How do you think about that now?

Matt:  

I look at it kind of like it was a different person, like I was nuts. You know how you kind of look at your childhood self and it’s you but it’s not quite you? It does feel a little nuts to me. It’s something nuts that I’m proud of doing and I think that was the important thing.

When I see a lot of my friends who went to the same type of schools, most of them never took a risk. The way they got there was by just taking that next step up the ladder. At a certain point, it felt to me like they didn’t know what the next step was and so they never followed their passion to do anything and there’s a certain emptiness, I think, about that.

On the other side though, taking a risk often puts you outside the system. The whole kind of American capitalist system rewards people who follow the rules. You join a corporation, they give you healthcare. You try to do freelance and do it on your own, well, you’ve got to pay for everything. I do sometimes joke that if I were ever asked to speak to college graduates I would tell them not to follow their passion.

At the end of the day, I think if you take the risk, even if you fail, you’ve taken your shot at it and there’s not that feeling of that you didn’t have your shot, you didn’t take a chance. I think in the end, that’s worth it but I’ll tell you, there are days when I do wonder.

Eric:

First and foremost, let me take a step back. Can you recount for me what happened there? I’m familiar with it but for the sake of the interview, can you give a quick round up of the Shaolin experience?

Matt:

The Shaolin story. I was one of those skinny, scrawny, nerdy kids who got picked on in grade school and middle school. I developed, like a lot of nerdy kids, this kind of fantasy about what it would be like if I were super tough and a super hero and fell in love with kung fu and Bruce Lee and David Carradine. When I got into college, I started studying martial arts and Chinese and Chinese religion but was really fascinated by the fighting styles.

At a certain point, I read the book “Iron and Silk” by Mark Salzman and it tells the story of this Yale graduate who goes to China and learns kung fu. That was the first sort of idea I had that this was possible. I went to my Chinese language teacher who came from mainland China and asked him if this was cool and what I should do if I wanted to study kung fu in China.

He said, in Chinese, “[speaking Chinese]”, which means, “Are you afraid to eat bitter?” I said, “No,” lying to him, and so he said, “If you want to study really real kung fu, then you have to go to the Shaolin Temple.”

This was back in like 1992, before there was much Internet search or anything and there was no records anywhere that I could find of what the Shaolin Temple was but the idea of going to the place where the T.V. show “Kung Fu” was about, where all the Wu Tang Clan talked about, “Enter the Dragon”, Bruce Lee, was a Shaolin Temple monk.

This was like my whole childhood fantasy, the idea that I could live it out. So that’s what inspired me to take the risk and basically drop out and defy my parents and get on a plane and fly to Beijing when I had no idea where the Shaolin Temple was.

I landed there literally with a Fodor’s map, a book, of China and walked around Tiananmen’s Square asking people, “Do you know where the Shaolin Temple was?” [laughter]

I did finally find somebody. Several people thought it had been destroyed or they didn’t know and finally I found this old lady who came from the province where the Shaolin Temple was located. She said, “I know how to get there. Get on a train,” and that’s how I ended up finding the Shaolin Temple, just walking in cold.

It truly was like some sort of old school adventure which, now, with the Internet, people are there blogging about their life at the Shaolin Temple. You can get a Google Maps of it so it’s completely different now. At the time, the Shaolin Temple had one telephone line in the whole village so it was completely cut off from everyone.

Eric:

Yes but there’s a big difference between somebody saying, “I’m flying to the United States today,” versus being Christopher Columbus. You did it first and you did it when it was really hard.

Matt:

There is an aspect of that. At the same time, I had a return ticket so if everything failed, you could still come back. Christopher Columbus, if he didn’t find anything, was going to die. [laughter]

Eric:

It’s funny, it’s such an unbelievable story, man. Give me the quick basics. You were there for how long? What did you learn? What did you take away from it?

Matt:

I spent two years living there. I studied kung fu like seven hours a day. The whole Chinese thing is about eating bitter. That’s their whole training method. They’re not into scientific training, peak performance, up and down. It’s just grind. They had like 30,000 young Chinese kids studying kung fu and the very best got to be Shaolin monks.

When I watched, for example, the Opening Ceremonies to the Beijing Olympics, that was like what China was, to me, the Shaolin Temple was, thousands of people doing the same thing over and over every day in perfect precision.

One of my takeaways was just I discovered how very American I am because the Chinese are extremely nationalistic, so being the foreigner all the time was eye-opening. I was a minority of one there so I learned a lot about what it was like to be an outsider.

Two, kind of strengthened my sense of pride in where I came from but also my concern, just politically speaking, since we’ve talked about this before. I came back very concerned that we needed to up our game because the Chinese were coming to, you know, they had the eye of the tiger.

Then, three, personally, it was a sense of I felt like the lion in the Wizard of Oz looking for his courage. Then afterwards, when things would come up, I was like, “Well, it won’t be as bad as Shaolin, whatever happens.” You do a job interview, whatever happens, it’s not like I’m going to get beat up by a bunch of monks. [laughter]

It gave me kind of baseline of confidence that I could do something completely crazy, go off the map and come back in one piece. That, to me, is the great advantage of risk taking is that even if it fails, you know that you had the courage to do it and that you have the courage to do it again.

Eric:

What made you come back? Did you originally set any sort of, “I’m going to do this for two years?” Did you ever say to yourself, “I might never come back,” or was there a certain achievement or was it blurry and something happened where you said, “OK. I’m ready to go back now.”

Matt:

Yes, originally what I told my parents just so they wouldn’t arrest me and not let me go was that I was only going to go for a year. Then towards the end of the year, I realized I still didn’t feel like I understood China or the Shaolin Temple or the culture yet so I extended it two years, which, at that point, my parents were furious and they ended up cutting me off.

It was in the middle of the second year where I felt like I kind of got, that I understood the culture, I understood Shaolin. I had also kind of achieved my goal. My goal in learning kung fu, I thought it was originally to be the baddest fighter on Earth and then I learned that’s not possible. There are always tougher guys than you are.

I came to the point where I realized I was tough enough and that I didn’t need to be a world champion of kickboxing. I just needed to be good enough to feel secure if some bully tried to push me around like in grade school. At that point, when I felt like I had achieved that goal, it no longer seemed as necessary to stay there and suffer and eat bitter. And I wanted to come home.

I think a lot of expatriates, you go to China with a lot of goals but it’s a very tough place to be a foreigner and it wears you down over time. I got tired of being the outsider forever and I wanted to come back and actually live in my own country. That’s kind of what changed. By the end of the second year, I was ready to come home.

Eric:

Overall, how do you think that kind of shaped your attitude on risk taking in general? 

Matt:

For me, it was a signature moment of my life. If I look back, it was the transformative moment. Some people it’s high school. Some people it’s college. For me it was going to Shaolin Temple. I was a different person when I came back. That, I think, is the most important point about risk taking is you get to find out who you really are when you push yourself outside a comfort zone and discover resources you didn’t know you had.

For me, that’s why I always think, in the end, even though it is risky by definition, it’s worth the risk if it’s something you’re passionate about. There’s no point taking a risk for it’s own sake. If there’s something you really want to do, and it involves risk, that you should, especially when you’re young and you have no commitments to anyone. No one’s going to starve and you don’t have kids.

I thought it was the perfect time and afterwards, I would meet people easy road and I always kind of felt sad about that. You’re not as interesting a person if you don’t challenge yourself like that.

Eric:

Do you think that a challenge like that, do you think it revealed who you were? Do you think it changed who you were or either? 

Matt:

No, I see what you’re saying. It’s weird. I think it does both. One of my goals in going was I didn’t like who I was at the time. I wanted to be something different, I had an active sense of wanting to be more courageous than I felt I was at the time.

It’s strange, since I was actively trying to self-improve. I think all challenges reveal something you don’t know about yourself, but if they’re tough enough, they change you in fundamental ways and I was when I left. And not all of it was for the better. I was a little edgier around the corners for awhile and a little more cynical than I was.

One of the things about living in a desperately poor village in the middle of China is you get a real sense of how hard life can really be. Just kind of growing up upper-middle class white in America and going to an elite college, I had a pretty privileged background so I’d never lived in conditions that were that primitive. A lot of the guys I knew, some of them in caves, they didn’t have enough food to eat many days. They’d go hungry.

It kind of flipped me out when I went back and finished my senior year at Princeton, all these people worrying about things that seemed so trivial. “Am I going to get a job at Morgan Stanley or Goldman Sachs?” [laughter]

“Oh, my 25-page paper is due and I’m a day late, instead of an ‘A’.”

For awhile, I couldn’t readjust to it. What people were worried about at Princeton seemed trivial to me because it is, so it did actually have that kind of effect where I found it hard to re-relate to the things that Americans get really upset about. Because in the context, I had a whole new perspective and context and so it took me awhile to kind of readjust to that.

Eric:

Another thing I’ve kind of explored on the blog a lot is expertise, becoming an expert, studies in “deliberate practice.” That’s pretty central in a lot of ways to what you were dealing with and what you said about the practicing. Can you just talk a little bit about that, just kind of expertise, moving towards perfection, trying to get better, what did you learn about that?

Matt:

There definitely is but Gladwell was this 10,000-hour series, he’s very good at coining something that’s kind of common wisdom. But definitely what you found was the monks, they knew how much time you had to train kung fu to be good at it. There was just a general sense and the idea if you went through the program the way they talked about it and you did everything you were supposed to, it took 3 years to get good at it and it took 10 years to master kung fu. They didn’t consider you to have a mastery of it until you’d done about 10 years worth of work.

Now some guys are a little fast than others. Some people are smarter and pick up things quicker and some people have a kind of inherent talent that others lack. But most of what it takes to be an expert at something is the grind and putting the work in. That’s the thing that was fascinating was that you could watch the beginning students and they all moved up at about the same rate, some a little faster than others, and it was the people who were lazy, didn’t put in the work, who couldn’t achieve expertise in the subject.

That said, the difference between very good and great, there is some sort of intangible at the highest level. The work will get you to very good but the difference between that and greatness is something that is kind of beyond. That’s the mystery. At the very end, I felt like I’d gotten very good at martial arts but I realized I’d never be great at it. There were guys that just had a kind of athletic ability or sensibility about them that I would never achieve.

Eric:

Got you. Has any of that carried over to your writing or to other things you’ve done since?

Matt:

Yes. I really did feel like my sense of what my art in life, that was the thing, the change for me, is I realized that my goal wasn’t to be a master of kung fu, it was to master some art form. Writing, for me, became where I transferred all my passion. While I’m certainly no master at it, it is where I put in the 10,000 hours and the 10 years worth of work and feel a comfort level. Martial arts became more of a hobby and writing became not only my job but where I think my art is.

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