Safi Bahcall: Shoot Your Loonshot | E33
#33: Shoot Your Loonshot with Safi Bahcall
Reinvent yourself ! In #33, Hala yaps with Safi Bahcall, a trained physicist who has transformed his career every 5 years or so. He’s done everything from business consulting to co-founding a pharmaceutical company to now becoming a best-selling author. In this episode we’ll find out how Safi is able to reinvent himself so often and his tips for getting into a new field. In addition, we’ll cover his super fascinating concept and book, “Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform,” which has been noted as one of the top business books for 2019. Get marketing services like logos, whiteboard videos, animation and web development on Fivver: track.fiverr.com/visit/?bta=51570&brand=fiverrcpa
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#33: Shoot Your Loonshot with Safi Bahcall
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[00:01:27] I'm your host Hala Taha. And today we're speaking with Safi Bahcall. Safi is a trained physicist who has transformed, his career every five years or so. He's done everything from business consulting to co-founding a pharmaceutical company to now becoming a best-selling author. In this episode, we'll find out how he's able to reinvent himself so often, and his tips for getting into a new field.
[00:01:49] In addition, we'll cover his super fascinating concept and book Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform, which has been noted as one of the [00:02:00] top business books for 2019.
[00:02:02] Hey Safi. Welcome to Young And Profiting Podcast.
[00:02:04] Safi Bahcall: Thanks. Very glad to be here.
[00:02:06] Hala Taha: So before we get rolling, I just want to mention that I noticed you were from New Jersey. You grew up in Princeton?
[00:02:12] Safi Bahcall: That's right. My parents were working with university.
[00:02:15] Hala Taha: I'm a proud Jersey girl. I grew up in Central Jersey and watch young, so happy to have a fellow Jersey and on the show, I think you make number two.
[00:02:23] Safi Bahcall: Glad to meet a fellow country person.
[00:02:26] Hala Taha: So Safi, just to introduce you to my listeners, you are someone who is continually evolving.
[00:02:32] You have in your own words, change careers, roughly every five years of your adult life, you started out as a serious academic scientist. You switched fields into particle physics. I believe then you did a total 360 and moved into business consulting. And then after that, you co-founded a pharmaceutical company.
[00:02:49] And finally, today you are known as a bestselling author. So that's a super diverse career. Could you just walk us through your professional past at a [00:03:00] high level, maybe mention. Big and proudest moments that you have leading up to today.
[00:03:06] Safi Bahcall: Sure. And can you do that in five seconds? Sure. No problem. Let's go.
[00:03:10] Hala Taha: Five minutes is okay.
[00:03:12] Safi Bahcall: I grew up as the son of two scientists, so it was pretty natural to start a career in science. And so I didn't set foot off a university until I was about 28 or 29 and I really enjoyed it. But I did find, as you say that my curiosity, started waning once I'd learned a subject really well.
[00:03:32] I started looking for the next big challenge and that's a theme that kind of stayed with me for a lot of these changes over the course of life. Which is people talk about, follow your passion. For me, it's been a lot more about follow my curiosity. So I started off in one area of science called particle physics, where you study the science of the very small, what happens inside an atom inside of proton, inside a neutron at very small distances or very high [00:04:00] energies.
[00:04:00] And after a while after you start, you're at the bottom of this big hill, and you have no idea what people are talking about, and then you March up the hill and it's a big challenge. And then you reach oh, you're one of the tribe. And you know what you're talking about after that, I looked for.
[00:04:15] Kind of the next big hill to climb. And so I switched fields into another area of science where I, again, I started at the bottom of the hill, it's called condensed matter physics. It's the study of the many, what happens to large systems of interacting particles, like the weird quantum effects that happen when you cool metals down, for example, to very low temperatures and all of a sudden friction just completely disappears and current start traveling forever.
[00:04:41] You get super conductors, things like that. These crazy quantum effects appear. So I did that again for about five years. I started at the bottom of the hill and felt like a total imposter. And it was just really curious about all the ideas and science and techniques and tools. And then I worked my way up and then got curious
[00:05:00] again, because I'd been so long in a university and academic world. I realized that actually 99 plus percent of the people in the world.
[00:05:07] Aren't theoretical physicists. They do these things called jobs. They work in these things called offices and I'd never seen one. And I was curious about how does that work? So I joined this consulting firm that likes to hire people who are outside the mainstream of MBAs or business schools.
[00:05:23] And that was an incredible learning experience. It's like drinking from a fire hose and it was super fun for that. It's like learning a whole new world, people with jobs and offices and how they solve problems in the business world. That was fascinating. And then once I understood that, I don't think for me a career of just advising people was what I wanted to do.
[00:05:45] I wanted to build something and I wanted to see if I could bridge. The world that I come from the science world with the business world and do something bigger than myself. Something more meaningful that, making big companies more successful. And so that's when I started a [00:06:00] biotech company, developing drugs for cancer.
[00:06:03] Everybody knows someone with cancer, some other severe disease. And for me, it was just enormously motivating. Not only to get to learn something new, again, start at the bottom of the hill and March my way up, but also to know that when I wake up every morning, if I do really well, and if I can bring people along and motivate them and we can build something great together, we might just give.
[00:06:26] Families more time on earth with their loved ones. And that's super motivating bigger purpose that transcends yourself. And that was super exciting. So the thread that goes through all of those things is for me, it's follow my curiosity. What am I really excited about learning?
[00:06:44] Hala Taha: Yeah. And then how did you get into becoming an author?
[00:06:48] Safi Bahcall: That's, that was another kind of odd thing. Just for fun. One time I gave a talk, I was asked to give a talk on one of these sort of idea gatherings. Everybody was supposed to talk about something that is not
[00:07:00] their work. And I've always had a passion for history for looking back and also for teasing out patterns.
[00:07:06] So if you're a scientist as especially a physicist. What you try to do is tease out patterns from nature. So I was interested in applying that to history. So I gave a talk one time, 3000 years of physics in 45 minutes, the eight biggest ideas. So I went back 3000 years and I said, can we figure out what were the eight biggest jumps in human knowledge?
[00:07:29] And I found that to be just enormously fun. And I read a lot more than I usually read, because normally when you're running a business or at least for me, when I was running a business, I had blinders on. I really actually didn't read books very much. Cause I was so focused on, the usual stuff when you're running a business, which is putting out fires and raising money and hiring people in sauna, it was enormously fun to learn and then enormously fun to figure out how to communicate that to
[00:08:00] people in a way that was fun and entertaining.
[00:08:03] Both of those were really interesting, exciting, fun challenges, things that I hadn't done before, both of those were starting at the bottom of the hill. I'd never really looked back at history and tried to tease out patterns. I'd never really thought about how do you describe this stuff to people in way that sort of fun and entertaining and excites them.
[00:08:22] Hala Taha: Yeah.
[00:08:23] Safi Bahcall: And I thought, that was super fun. It was like, I took two weeks off around Christmas time, one year. And I was like, God, that was like the most fun I've had in a long time. And I was like, if I ever get the opportunity. Maybe I should write that up because so many people came up to me and said, wow, that was awesome.
[00:08:37] You tell these stories in a way that we can actually get at and understand it. And it's funny people like, and they was like, you should write a book. And I was like a book, are you kidding? I'm like running a business, but that sort of stuck with me. And I thought that'd be fun. I really enjoyed that couple of weeks of thinking.
[00:08:51] And I did it again as each year, I would take two weeks off and try to write some news, short essay or historical thinking.
[00:09:00] And eventually I got the opportunity after I left my company. And I said a lot of people in my field, especially after you've run a company for quite a while, and we were public there just a lot of opportunities presented to you.
[00:09:13] Once you have all the scar tissue of having done it for quite a while, you want to run this one around that. And I was like, you know what? I could always do that. Let me just try something totally new. And this might be something that I think you guys talk about a lot. I literally just talked about this with my wife this morning, which is when given two choices.
[00:09:31] So to repeat something you've done before, whether it's eat at the same restaurant or stayed in the same place or visit the same town for, let's say a vacation or try something a little different, I tend to go for, try something new. Because it all other things are equal trying something new, broadens your experience.
[00:09:49] It gives you new data. That you learn from. So after I left my company, I said I could go do this again. I've done it. I know a little bit what
[00:10:00] that's but this writing thing has been in the back of my mind. And I've always admired, really interesting writers. And I had a bunch of writer, friends said, why don't I just take six months and see what it's like?
[00:10:10] I've absolutely no idea. I don't even know what it means to sit down and write, because normally I go into an office and you have certain goals and you have a team and I know exactly what to do there. I don't know what it means to write. You're looking at a blank piece of paper. How do you structure that?
[00:10:26] So I found myself at the bottom of a hill again, and that was awesome because that meant there was going to be a hard trek and pretty soon. You'd get to the top and have developed a new skill. And then I found God, this is enormously fun. Yeah. Kind of transition.
[00:10:43] Hala Taha: That's amazing. And just to reiterate to my listeners, according to my research and listening to other podcasts and shows you're on you are never a big writer.
[00:10:51] You weren't an English guy. It wasn't something that you really cared for before you made this transition. So
[00:11:00] it's astonishing how many times you've actually evolved. And the fact that you've really overachieved for everybody tuning in, you were a bestselling author. Now you released a book in 2019, your first book, and it's a bestseller with all these accolades, which is amazing, and you had a pharmaceutical company and you not only just, co-founded a pharmaceutical company, you guys went public in and it got like very successful.
[00:11:23] So it's amazing. How you've done this and reinvented yourself over and over again. Some people think that they're too old to change or switch careers. And so you must have a certain mindset about having the strength, to burn everything down and then rebuild every five or so years. So what do you think makes you different from other people who get scared and they might slightly evolve their career.
[00:11:47] Like for me, I went from B2B to B to C, which was like, actually a big jump, you totally do 360 is so what's really your secret sauce and mindset on that.
[00:11:58] Safi Bahcall: Embracing the joy of learning, [00:12:00] embracing the personal deltas. Here's what I mean by that. And by the way, I want to ask you because you started a podcast that's totally new.
[00:12:06] So I'll answer your question, then you answer my question. So I think absolutely. Everybody can do this. Every single person can do this, they have it inside them. And it's absolutely comes down to kind of one simple thing. It's looking at the hill, let's say, you're thinking of I'm doing this thing.
[00:12:24] I've been doing it for a while, especially if you're curiosity, assertive waned, you've figured it out. There's another thing that maybe is like a little glimmer of a baby thought in your head and that's cool. Grow that little thought, follow that little thought and say what if, how might I explore that little thought?
[00:12:48] And then when you look at that, there's a plus and a minus, there is a hill to learn, to become good at some new thing, you will be starting at the bottom of that hill. [00:13:00] Now there's two ways to look at that hill. And this is the key. You could look at that hill as man. That's going to be a long slog client.
[00:13:10] Or you can look at that hill. That is going to be awesome. When I make it up the top of that hill, I will have grown so much. Let's go do it. So it's absolutely the two ways of looking at that hill. And what you want to do, is follow those little thoughts, those little baby ideas and change them from I can't, or it's impossible to how might I, and what if questions stop asking yourself?
[00:13:38] Why shouldn't I do this? Because then you'll just create a lot of reasons and start asking yourselves, how might I, or what if, and just keep asking, how might I, and what if and how might I, and what if and how might I, and what if I don't worry about all the, why not stuff? Just identify those little baby thoughts of things that you might be doing differently.
[00:13:58] And just keep asking [00:14:00] yourself those two questions. How might I blank? What if blank? And then whenever you see a hill. Don't worry about the climb up, embrace the climb up, that climb up every single step, is growing you every single step. Like for me, when I started off at zero, never having written a page, every single step.
[00:14:22] It was awesome because you grow the most at the beginning, like at the beginning of the hail, you're using these muscles you've never used and they grow really fast. Once you've gotten really good at something, your learning curve, plateaus, and this is why it's even better when you're older and it's better.
[00:14:41] The older you get. Why? Because when you're a young kid, you have these. Amazing growth learning growth. So you go from every year and in elementary school and high school and college, as a young adult, you grow from, a one out [00:15:00] of 10 on something, a two out of 10 on something, a three out of 10 on something to like a five out of 10 or a seven out of 10, you go from knowing nothing about finance to being in control to getting it, but pretty quickly.
[00:15:13] And as you get older, you've mastered sort of a core set of skills and that experience happens less and less. And so going up the hill marching up a hill, is actually an incredible gift to find a new hill that you want to climb. And then experiencing that learning curve again. So when I was in my forties and I took a blank piece of paper, I was like, wow, how do we do this?
[00:15:38] I have no idea. That's a gift. It's every week I feel growth. Whereas if you've been doing something for five years or 10 years, how often can you say, oh, every week I've really grown in this job. Now, if you've done something five or 10 years, you're probably already at eight out of 10 and maybe next week you'll be an 8.1 out of 10.
[00:15:58] But if you start with a [00:16:00] blank piece of paper, you started something new. Week one, you might be a zero out of 10, week two you might be a two out of 10. That's the percentage growth from zero to two is infinity, right? And then from two to four, as a hundred percent growth. So what you do is you embrace the Delta.
[00:16:16] You accept, understand and relish. The fact that March up the hill is actually a gift. It's an incredibly rapid growth rate. And the older you get the rarer, that is.
[00:16:28] Hala Taha: Yeah. I was just going to mention, let's say you're at a level two, you landed a new job. You're in this new experience, you're at a level two, everybody else's out at 8, 9, 10. You have imposter syndrome, it's something that a lot of us face. How did you deal with that when you were at McKinsey is probably the best example of those people were probably in that kind of a role for a long time or something similar. And you're coming out of academia. Like, how did you deal with that?
[00:16:56] Safi Bahcall: That's funny assets.
[00:16:57] Exactly. Every single transition.
[00:17:00] I felt like an imposter. I would say that feeling lasts about two years. So when I jumped from academia into the business world, I was like, even wearing a suit, felt crazy to me cause I'd been in jeans and a t-shirt and sneakers for 10 years. And I was like, this is just not me, but everyone around me is wearing this.
[00:17:20] So let me put that on. And I'm like, I'm an imposter here. But once you realize that it's just a dictionary, nothing anybody says is really all that complicated or hard to figure out. They're just using a shorthand because those guys who are seven or eight out of 10, They have a common language. When they say, balance sheet, I had no idea what that was or when they say, assets, or when they say, strategic certainty.
[00:17:50] Hala Taha: Acronyms are the worst.
[00:17:52] Safi Bahcall: All these acronyms, when you come in, you have no idea what they're talking about.
[00:17:55] So you feel like an imposter just like when you land in a foreign country and they're talking all this stuff that you [00:18:00] don't understand. So you're like I'm definitely traveling in a foreign land. And you realize that imposter feeling is just associated with a dictionary. And it's not a very complicated dictionary.
[00:18:12] Once you understand the words, the short hand, none of the ideas are rocket science or as a friend of mine likes to say, none of those ideas are rocket, sir. They're just a short hand. And when you would know what they mean, you got it. And then you're part of the club. Once you speak the language, they're like, oh, when you said this word or this phrase, that's what you, man, you said this, and then you okay, now I get it.
[00:18:34] Then I jumped into starting a company. And again, I was like, I had no idea. I didn't even know the words. I didn't know what venture capital was. I didn't know how you interacted with these people. I didn't know stock options. I didn't know what that was. Employment agreement, all this. But, you know what, just six months or a year, you got it.
[00:18:51] And none of those things are rocket science. So you start to realize that imposter syndrome is a dictionary problem, and it's a small dictionary problem.
[00:19:00] It's not like you need to memorize Merriam Webster. It's 50 or a hundred ideas or concepts or phrases. And once you've got those under your belt, okay.
[00:19:08] It's not really that mysterious.
[00:19:10] Hala Taha: So true. Like I'm thinking about all my situations in life, where I felt like an imposter syndrome and it's really. All about like the words that people use, because when you're having conversations with people and you start to get lost, because they said this acronym or word that you're not familiar with and you just start feeling like, oh, I don't belong here.
[00:19:27] I don't even know what I'm doing. But what I found is helpful and I do this all the time is if I ever am in a situation where I don't know a word, I always write it down. And I always take time to go look it up and learn right away, and that really helps you get up to speed, like super quickly.
[00:19:44] But you've mentioned that you wanted to ask me something. So let me turn the tables back to you.
[00:19:49] Safi Bahcall: You talk about reinvention and you talk about how hard it is. So I'm curious, how did you decide to do a podcast.
[00:19:56] Hala Taha: Yeah. That's a long story, but I've been doing online radio shows [00:20:00] and I used to work at a radio station since I was like 22, the past eight or so years.
[00:20:05] I've been just doing radio on the side. There was maybe like a four year break when I went to go get my MBA and things like that, but I always did it on the side and I'm still doing it on the side. I work at Disney streaming services right now. So it's always been like a side thing, which brings me to another question for you, is do you recommend having side hustles, free projects that you're curious about?
[00:20:28] And I want to talk about curiosity in a bit, but do you recommend having side hustles or dropping whatever you're doing cold Turkey and going all in .Millennials are so interested in side hustle. So that's why I bring it up.
[00:20:39] Safi Bahcall: Yeah, absolutely not dropping it and going all in. What you want to do whenever you have a situation.
[00:20:47] That there's some fair amount of uncertainty and you don't really know, for example, should I do X or should I do? Why should I do Z with my life? Absolutely in those situation. What you want to do
[00:21:00] is plant a bunch of small seeds, spread your bets, make a bunch of little bets. So do a little bit of X, find ways, where you can do a little of act, a little of Y a little of Z.
[00:21:11] You plant those seeds, you don't plant one seed and then dump a ton of water on it. And hope it grows. You plant a bunch of little seeds, water them all equally, and it will become clear to you over time and probably quite quickly, which one works for you. If I think I tried, let's say when I left my company, I planted a bunch of seeds while I was talking to a couple of companies, about this sort of advising thing, talking about some investors about this sort of investing thing, and then doing a little bit of writing and I planted a bunch of seeds.
[00:21:43] And then within months it became clear to me. I just enjoyed this one particular seed that flower was growing faster and bigger and more beautiful than all the other ones. And that's when you know oh, I got it. So you absolutely want to get your feet wet. You want to get a little bit of [00:22:00] experience in a few things because they want all work out and nothing is exactly the same.
[00:22:07] You just don't have any data points. You don't know what it's going to be like until you try it. And what you'd want to do is gather those data points, so that you can make a better decision in a few months or whenever.
[00:22:18] Hala Taha: Yeah. Previously, you mentioned that curiosity is really key to all this. And it reminds me of a quote.
[00:22:25] I had David Meltzer on a couple of weeks ago, and he mentioned that you really need to be more interested than interesting if you want to succeed in something new. So when it comes to curiosity, how can we better develop that skill? And why is it really so important to hone when learning something new?
[00:22:43] Safi Bahcall: Because it's a motivator. So when you are curious, you're open to new ideas, you are enjoying asking questions and you're enjoying learning. And curiosity is really what drives learning. If someone is like lecturing at you,
[00:23:00] broadcasting at you, dumping information on you, you're not really learning very well, but when you're curious and try to figure stuff out on your own, that's when you learn the best.
[00:23:10] And anyone who's thinking about making a transition. The number one thing you want to get good at is learning. Because you're going to have some new skills that you need to master. So curiosity matters because learning and learning well is what will make you succeed at whatever new thing you're trying.
[00:23:30] So how do you hone that? That's a really good question. How do you encourage that? You have to notice the thoughts that are going on in your head, and you have to notice a step back and recognize whenever a tiny little bubble pops up. Wait, what, or how did this happen? You've got to, rather than shut that down and say, let me just keep doing my regular thing.
[00:23:54] You got to lean into that. So you've got to notice, develop the [00:24:00] skill of noticing. Like for example, artists have that incredibly. I've found and really great writers do this incredibly. They just go around life looking very carefully, if there's a penis playing, what are his fingers doing?
[00:24:13] What do they look like? What is their texture? How would I describe it? What adjectives might I use? What is his hair like? Is it parted? Is it not parted? What kind of impression does that take? What's an analogy with how he's striking the keys. How might I describe that? What does it remind me? And just notice these tiny little questions and rather than redirecting, let me just be quiet and listen to the music, lean into the questions.
[00:24:38] So if you want to hone your curiosity, lean into asking questions.
[00:24:45] Hala Taha: And speaking of, learning something new, let's talk about really quick, how you. I learned how to write. I was listening to that interview. You had, that's very popular with Tim Ferris and you were talking about how you use a scientific [00:25:00] method to break down the way that authors wrote.
[00:25:02] And I thought that was really interesting. And I was hoping you could share that with our listeners.
[00:25:06] Safi Bahcall: Yeah. Yeah. I realized that I admired certain writers. I didn't really have much experience with literature. I came from a much more science background, a much more technical background and people with science and technical backgrounds are not usually known for their writing skills.
[00:25:20] A friend sent me a book and a bulk offs towards stories or recommended the book and I got it and I opened it up and I remember reading a paragraph and my jaw dropped. I was like, oh my God, I didn't know the English language could do this. What is he doing? And I started to think is there a pattern?
[00:25:39] Of course. He wasn't the only one I read just a couple more, a handful of authors said had similar perfect pitch. Just with the words, the rhythm, the cadence just created this music. That was unbelievable. And I started to try to understand, is there a pattern to it? What are they doing? And in the beginning, you're completely at the bottom of a hill, [00:26:00] zero out of 10 or one out of 10.
[00:26:02] And so what I would do is every night for about two hours, I would just study one or two paragraphs, that's it. And I would read that paragraph of a very small handful of writers, typically in a bulk off, I mentioned on Tim's show another one, Donald Hall, who is a poet laureate. And it just another beautiful writer in a very different way, almost the opposite way of new book.
[00:26:24] And I would try to figure out what they're doing by changing the paragraph. Let me change a word. Wow, that sounds so much worse. Why does that sound so much worse? And then I would look at what is he doing? You can read some of the excellent guidebooks. Strunk and white or resistors writing or a couple of those types of things.
[00:26:44] And there was guidelines and occasionally they would just absolutely violate those guidelines. They would write in the passive voice instead of the active voice, they use very strange transitions and I'd say let me make it more like the guidelines. Let me rewrite [00:27:00] that to be an active voice.
[00:27:01] Whoa. That sounds so much worst. Why? And so slowly, I started to tease out my own little principles oh, here's a principle, here's the principle. And then I would copy and paste like examples of other writing. And so I developed a short list of principles. Here's what they do. Here's like a pacing beat.
[00:27:20] Here's a certain kind of transition. Here's another kind of transition when I would read, I didn't read for plot or for story. I would just read to see these kinds of writing principles. That really great writers that I admired were using. And then it was very difficult in the beginning because I had no eye for it, no ear for it.
[00:27:41] I didn't really understand, but it's like going on a basketball court and shooting baskets. The first time you go there, you might even miss the rim completely. But if you just keep doing it and keep doing it, all of a sudden, you'll get the hang of it. You watch what other people do. Then it starts to go in a few times and it started.[00:28:00]
[00:28:00] Sort of make sense. So it was this tunneling into very small doses of writing and trying to vary them a little bit and trying to tease out what is it that they're doing and not giving up. That made the difference.
[00:28:15] Hala Taha: That's amazing. And I think like whether you want to get into writing or whatever, you're trying to get into just take cues from what he did for writing, study the experts.
[00:28:25] Like for me, I like to listen to podcast hosts and look at like, how do they transition? How do they open up their show? What are the little things that you can take from everyone? Because at the end of the day, everyone's basically just copying each other and learning from each other. And you can put together your own style by taking tidbits from everyone else.
[00:28:45] So I think that's wonderful advice. We are about halfway through. And I think that we should move on to your wildly fascinating concept. Loonshots this past year, you wrote a book called Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and
[00:29:00] Transform. This book has been selected for the Washington Post, 10 Leadership books to watch for in 2019, Inks 10 business books, you need to read in 2019 and Business Insiders, 14 books everyone will be reading in 2019.
[00:29:14] So basically everyone saying to read your book and that's super impressive. And I want to ask, how does it feel to be a brand new author with a hit right out of the gate? And did you expect this much success right away?
[00:29:28] Safi Bahcall: I feel like a total imposter. It's very hard for me even to get the words out of my mouth, that I'm a writer or an author.
[00:29:36] It just sounds incredibly strange to me. Because that was not my life at all, even remotely for 20 years. So it's a very, yeah. I just feel like an imposter. It's still, I'm still in that beginning phase to answer your question. I had absolutely no idea. I was writing this stuff. A lot of it was. Things that made me laugh, things that were funny for me, things that I was really
[00:30:00] curious about histories that I'd grown up, being told and always thought were true.
[00:30:06] And then as I dug in and I just really enjoy digging in to find the real story beneath the surface or fake story, I discovered holy cow, what really happened was almost exactly the opposite. And I found that fascinating and I found, how do I structure all this stuff? How do I tell the story of how the allies win world war two or the rise and fall of Pan-Am or Edwin Land and Polaroid and his secret clandestine activities. Advising the federal government or Steve Jobs and Pixar, or the rise and fall of the British Empire and how they're all connected by this one.
[00:30:44] How could I possibly connect these stories? That was such an interesting puzzle for me to solve that. I just enjoy doing it. I had absolutely no idea whether anybody else would share my sense of humor or share my curiosity about it. So I just did the best I could
[00:31:00] to make it interesting, somewhere in the middle.
[00:31:02] There actually, I got some great advice which was, don't worry about what anybody else thinks. Just make something beautiful.
[00:31:10] Hala Taha: That's good.
[00:31:11] Safi Bahcall: And that was from Richard Preston, who is a best-selling author of a book called The Hot Zone. And as a great writer, a very experienced writer, he said, just make something beautiful.
[00:31:20] So anytime I mind straight to, Hey, you know what might happen in the future? I just said, you know what? It doesn't matter. Just make something beautiful. And I would go back to the manuscript and back to the book and back to the stories and just try to make them better.
[00:31:34] Hala Taha: Yeah. It's clear that you did a good job.
[00:31:36] So congratulations, digging into Loonshots. We actually interviewed billionaire and entrepreneur and Naveen Jain a couple months back and he wrote the book Moonshots: Creating a World of Abundance. And it was a great conversation. If anyone's interested to go tune into that it's episode 22, moonshots has become somewhat of a buzzword and most people know what that is.
[00:31:59] A moonshot [00:32:00] is an astronomically ambitious project. It's. Pretty expensive. It radically changes the world, like going to the moon or carrying cancer. And from my research, I learned that you actually made up the word moonshot. So why did you feel like you needed to create an entirely new word and how is Loonshots different than Moonshot?
[00:32:21] Or are you saying it's the same thing, but we got moonshots wrong.
[00:32:24] Safi Bahcall: Moonshot, as you said, is a big goal. It's a destination. Loonshots is how we get there. Nurturing moonshots is how it get there. And the reason I made up the term is because although I'm moonshot is a big goal, it's something that's generally widely recognized as being important.
[00:32:40] For example, when Kennedy declared in 1961, we should put a man on the moon by the end of the decade, that was the original moonshot and he was widely applauded, but loonshots are ideas that are often widely dismissed or neglected, and their champions are written off
[00:33:00] as crazy. And that's because the big ideas, the ones that change the course of science business or history rarely arrive with blaring trumpets and red carpets, dazzling everybody with their brilliance.
[00:33:11] They're much more likely to go through these long dark tunnels of being rejected for years. For example, when Kennedy suggested his idea in 61, he was absolutely applauded for that, but not many people know that 40 years earlier, Robert Goddard suggested the ideas that would get us to the moon, which is liquid fuel jet propulsion.
[00:33:35] In other words, rockets. Goddard suggested his ideas. He was widely ridiculed. The New York Times wrote a piece saying this man got her, doesn't understand the basic principles of physics that we teach our children in high school every year, namely, that Newton's laws of action and reaction make rocket flight in space in a vacuum impossible.
[00:33:59] There's nothing [00:34:00] to push against and 14 years after Goddard's death in July, 1969, one day after the successful Apollo 11 rocket launch to the moon, the times issued a retraction. Apparently rocket flight does not violate 17th century physics and quote, the times regrets the air. So Goddard's idea was a classic moonshot. Loonshots are how we get to those great big goals.
[00:34:27] And they matter because if you are running a business or if you are directing a military and you ignore those moonshots, you are taking a big risk that your competitor or your enemy nurtures them. First, for example, the US had dismissed Goddard's ideas, the saloon shots of rocket flight, but not Nazi Germany scientists in Germany read Goddard's papers said has this could work.
[00:34:55] And they built the first jet aircraft and the first long range missiles, the first jet powered missiles,
[00:35:00] which the allies had no answer to. That's why declaring moonshots is a good thing. It's fine. But nurturing moonshots is even more important.
[00:35:10] Hala Taha: That's so interesting. And so why do you think it is that the most important breakthroughs in any field are usually the ones that get shot down at first?
[00:35:19] Safi Bahcall: Because if they're not, if everybody said, Hey, yeah, let's go do it. Then everybody would have. So the really big breakthroughs, are the ones that get shot down that are very easy to dismiss. I'll give you an example. Now you're probably too young to take a stat and dragging. You're probably very healthy, but tens of millions of Americans take statins as a cholesterol lowering drugs.
[00:35:40] And when the guy who discovered the status, who created that skin care category is Japanese scientist named Shakira. And started that project. It seemed like lowering cholesterol would be a good thing, but then very rapidly, a bunch of data came in that cholesterol lowering diets didn't really work.
[00:35:57] And some other drugs that claim to lower cholesterol
[00:36:00] didn't really work. And almost everybody gave up, but he kept going and people told him he was crazy to continue because not only did all of these trials not work and this cholesterol lowering stuff, but people said wait a minute. Every cell in your body contains cholesterol.
[00:36:18] So what you're doing just sounds completely nuts. Completely stupid. Don't even try, but he persisted. And then he tried to get, and then he came up, we found this drug, which turned out to be the first statin. And then he tried it in mice, which is what you do in drug discovery. And it didn't work. Nothing happened.
[00:36:34] And that point almost everyone would give up. They said, look, if you can't make it work in the laboratory, then you don't have anything. But he kept going because he said maybe there's a species difference. And you had some reason to believe that the drug and the cholesterol work differently in different species.
[00:36:49] It turns out he was exactly right now, we know that rats only have the one kind of cholesterol, the good cholesterol, whereas humans and apes and chickens and others
[00:37:00] have both. So he kept going and he discovered, oh look, wow. It works really well in chickens. And they ran it in trials. And after they started in the early trials, again, there was some negative data and everybody abandoned the field.
[00:37:15] But he kept going. He kept going. And in the end we got this drug that has now saved millions of lives. So that's a story of what I call the three deaths of theloonshot. The really good ideas are not the ones that are like, oh, let me try it for a week. I think it's working. Awesome. Let's go do it because if you tried it for a week, chances are lots of people tried it for a week.
[00:37:40] Hala Taha: I thought your principal of three deaths or three massive failures was so interesting. And you say that every moonshot really needs to go through this before they're worthy of deeper consideration. So what do you exactly mean by that?
[00:37:53] Safi Bahcall: That was a lesson that a very famous drug discover a guy named, sir James Black, who passed away a few years ago, but we
[00:38:00] were very lucky to be able to work with him in the last few years of his life.
[00:38:04] And he won the Nobel Prize for developing two of the biggest medical breakthroughs of the latter part of the 20th. And I remember one day, I was feeling depressed, dejected, some experiment. Hadn't worked in the lab and I was sorta late at night and we're having a couple of whiskeys together and he leaned over and he said to me, I'm my boy.
[00:38:23] It's not a good drug, unless it's been killed three times. And what he was telling me, it's don't worry about these project failures. He said, all of the really good projects, have failed several times before they succeeded. And the more I looked it wasn't just true in my field. In medical research, it was true broadly.
[00:38:41] Facebook was the 25th social network. There'd been couple dozen before Facebook. Google was the maybe 18th search engine. I think there'd been many before. None of them had made any money. None of them had succeeded in business. And there were all sorts of reasons that they previous ones had failed.[00:39:00]
[00:39:00] And that comes down to another principle, which is the false fail. Which is sometimes you will get a failure. That's not because your idea's bad, but because there's a flaw in the experiment. So the example I told you of the statin drugs, which have now saved millions of lives and are taken by tens of millions of American, it is a good idea.
[00:39:22] It really does work, but when they gave it to the mice, when they started it in mouse studies, it failed, which is when so many people gave up. But that was a false fail because trying to treat mice with a drug that lowers bad cholesterol and mice don't have that's a flaw in the experiment. So Facebook was another good story of a false fail, because what happened was when Zuckerberg was taking this idea around in 2004, I think it was right around the time, of Friendster.
[00:39:55] Friendster had risen as a social network and then was starting to fail.
[00:40:00] Like people were abandoning Friendster for the next sexy social network, which at the time was my space. And so all of these investors passed and they said social networks are just like jeans. They're a fad. Someone wears this jean and this season and then switches to this other brand in this other season and so forth.
[00:40:19] And everybody just switches social networks. So there's no money. And all these investors past that was a false fail. It was the false fail, a Friendster and Peter Thiel, as an example, when Annie had some friends who worked friendster. And it got the data and he looked at the retention date and he said, holy cow, people are staying on this site for hours.
[00:40:39] That's amazing. And that's, despite the fact when you use Friendster, as he knew the site, wasn't very stable, it kept crashing and he realized people were leaving friends or not because he was a bad business model. Any site that can get users to stay for hours is probably going to be a pretty good business model.
[00:40:58] They were leaving because [00:41:00] have a software glitch. It was a false fail. That was a false fail of Friendster. Thiel wrote a check for $500,000 and he sold it eight years later for a billion.
[00:41:10] Hala Taha: That's incredible. It just goes to show how you really need to dig into the actual failure and not just write it off as, oh yeah.
[00:41:18] This belt next you call it. Listen to the suck with curiosity.
[00:41:23] Safi Bahcall: Exactly. And I add the curiosity thing there because you get this advice to read this advice all the time of active listening. So I got those lectures and workshops all the time. Active listening. Repeat back what you've heard, but just repeating back.
[00:41:36] What you've heard. Is not good enough. If you've poured your soul into a project, you're a young entrepreneur and someone, an investor walks away or someone rejects your pitch or a partner walks away a customer doesn't like your product just saying, okay. Yeah, I got it. And moving on is not very helpful.
[00:41:57] Your temptation. When someone
[00:42:00] rejects you're pissed or a customer walks away is, oh, they just don't get it. Or, oh, they're idiots. It's just to dismiss them. Especially, if someone tells you all your baby's ugly, you're like what? And you just want to hit them. But what you really want to do is take off that defensiveness hat and probe, like a detective, like a Sherlock Holmes set aside all that rejection stuff and give yourself time to get over it.
[00:42:26] And then probe like Sherlock Holmes. Oh, could you help me understand? What was it about my pitch or what was it about the market? And only by getting really curious, and that's a gift, you have to be very polite. You have to ask people very nicely, because there's no upside to them in walking you through why they said no, they're busy and those are difficult conversations and they could end friendships if they're don't go well.
[00:42:53] So you really have to probe. And use the best hands and people's skills. You've got to tease
[00:43:00] out why they rejected, whatever you are offering, because only when you pull on that thread, if you pull on that thread enough, there'll be a little gold nugget at the end, which is something you over. They may know something about competitors, about the market that you just don't know.
[00:43:18] But a lot of people who are looking, do know we're going to choose product X because it has this feature and that's why we like it. And you had no idea you're a little blind to it. Because you've been working with blinders on your thing. Only by listening to the suck with curiosity, LSE, you can pull on that thread and get that little golden nugget that can save you.
[00:43:38] Hala Taha: Yeah. At what point would you suggest that people give up on an idea.
[00:43:44] Safi Bahcall: For me, actually, that LSC is a signal. It's like a thermometer or a reality check. If I'm getting rejection after rejection. And I find myself just getting really defensive, and my curiosity has stopped then. [00:44:00] It might be time if however, I'm still really curious.
[00:44:07] I'm like, oh, help me understand. Then it may be a sign that I am onto something, because if I'm really curious, I've understood that there's a chord there. And I will keep probing until I can keep pulling on that thread and find out why it's not working. Once I find out why it's not working. And I have that data, I will probably have enough data on my own to make a decision.
[00:44:33] If I really set aside the defensiveness and the dismissing and the urge to, call your mother and get support that you're on the right track and all that stuff. And really listen with curiosity, genuine curiosity, not lip service, curiosity, help me understand why you're not interested.
[00:44:52] That would be a super valuable thing you could do. If you could just take five minutes and walk me through, once you've done that enough. You will
[00:45:00] probably know, if they're missing it because a competitor is offering X and that's better than what you have for some reason. Then you can go back and say, look, can I match that competitor?
[00:45:12] Can I do something better than them? In which case you'll go work on it or you'll know wow, I just cannot think of a single way. I can make my thing better than a competitor. I'm going to give it like a week, but I just can't think of a single way. I can make it better than that competitor. And then, you have your answer.
[00:45:34] So for me, when my LSC flag has gone down and I'm not asking with curiosity anymore, I know the emotions have taken over that. I'm not really rational about it.
[00:45:44] Hala Taha: Very cool. Flipping back to moonshots and getting more detail. Into that from my understanding there's really two types there's P type and S type.
[00:45:56] Could you describe the different store listeners and maybe give an example of [00:46:00] each one?
[00:46:01] Safi Bahcall: So this is important because most people have blinders to one or the other. They're very good at one and not the other. And by missing that they are putting themselves at great risk that somebody will very quickly figure out something better and take them over.
[00:46:20] And if you learn how to do that, you can be a far stronger entrepreneur or manager or leader. So here's what I mean, P type is a product loon shout or a product innovation, something that makes your product better. For example, discovery of the telephone or the discovery of the transistor, the personal computer or a jet engine.
[00:46:36] So those are all new products, as type is a small change in stress. For example, when Sam Walton had this idea of, he wanted to open a retail store and his wife said, okay, honey, I'm happy to support you in your dream, but I just don't want to live in a big city. So he. Found a town. He liked being married and he liked quail hunting.
[00:46:59] So he found a town
[00:47:00] in Northwest Arkansas that was right on the border of four states. He could do quail hunting all year round and he put his store there. He didn't create any new product selling stuff. It is not a new product, selling it a little bit cheaper is not a new product. He just moved somewhere different.
[00:47:18] And there was a huge demand as he later found out, out in rural America for larger stores that sold stuff a little bit more cheaply. So that's an example of an S type strategy. So if you're a, let's say an artist, you can create a new product, or you're a scientist. You can create a new product, or you're an engineer.
[00:47:37] You can create a new product, that other people don't have, but strategy might be a new way to market it. A new person. You can partner with a new channel. You can use to get the word out. None of those have to do with inventing a new product. Those are all small changes in strategy, a new way to price it a new way to bundle it with something that no one has thought about,
[00:48:00] bundling it before.
[00:48:01] So the reason it's matters, understanding these two different things is most people just say, let me make my product better and then sit back and see what has. Usually nothing. The ones who really do great are the ones who can do both, who can make their product better and come up with a new strategy, a new way of bundling it with somebody, a new person to work with a new kind of partnership and who kind of collaboration, new kind of pricing model.
[00:48:26] Then they can reach kind of incredible Heights.
[00:48:30] Hala Taha: Another concept that I think is related to this, that you talk about in your book and it deals with specifically leadership is the Moses trap. Would you unpack this for our listeners?
[00:48:40] Safi Bahcall: Yeah. The Moses strep is this kind of myth of leadership, that you will get if you read glossy magazine articles.
[00:48:46] And so on that the great leader is one who stands in the top of a mountain and races, his or her staff and anoints the chosen project. This is what we will work on the iPod and parts, the C's and everybody gets out of the
[00:49:00] way. And does that, so that myth. And that's actually a trap that might work once or twice, but if that's how you lead, it's going to inevitably end in disaster because you will raise your staff and anoint the wrong thing. As happened for Steve Jobs early in his career when he did lead like that.
[00:49:20] And that was a disaster many times, and nearly bankrupted several of his companies, the first apple stint at next and Pixar when he took it over all three, nearly failed and went bankrupt. When he led in that way, what the truly great leaders do, who build these organizations that can learn relentlessly can stay ahead of the competition.
[00:49:44] They lead much more like careful gardeners. They have the delicate hand of a gardener where they can balance. Under the soldiers who are taking care of the core business, who are delivering and manufacturing products on time, on budget, on spec, and
[00:50:00] getting them to customers with quality consistently. And the radical ideas that those people or groups or projects that are easily dismissed and seem a little nutty, the loonshots.
[00:50:13] And those two sets of projects are two sets of people are very different. The artists and the soldiers, and I'll come back to what that means to small companies. Where you don't have the resources to have two separate types of people. But in general, you have these two kinds of mindsets, the artist mindset, where you're really trying to maximize risk.
[00:50:35] You want to try a lot of things that seem a little bit crazy, most of which will fail. And that's good. And then the soldier mindset. Where you're trying to minimize risk, and those are opposite objectives. And a lot of companies fail because they mash them together. One is like solid one is like liquid.
[00:50:51] And if you try to do both at the same time or you get as much, what you really need to do is separate those mindsets and say, look
[00:51:00] for this part of the year or with this group of the people. This is our job and it's awesome. It's a great thing to do. You've got to love your artists and soldiers equally.
[00:51:10] And that's the key. You got to love both sides equally. You got to appreciate both sides equally. You can't favor one or the other. That's what a gardener does it nurtures the tiny little baby stage ideas. Make sure it transports them to the field, where they can grow into big mature plants. And then he brings back those ideas.
[00:51:27] It creates the ecosystem for ideas. And projects to travel between the artist and soldiers equally that needs the delicate hand of a gardener. Because those two mindsets are so different. The failure point in most innovation is the transfer, between those two things is getting that balance, right? So leading like a Moses tends to be a disaster because you just point to one group and say, you do this and you miss that delicate balance.
[00:51:55] And the transfer back and forth that you need to succeed.
[00:51:58] Hala Taha: Semi-related,
[00:52:00] I know that you believe that structure is more important than culture. There's a common saying most of us have probably heard culture eats strategy for breakfast, meaning that bad culture destroys companies, no matter how good their strategies may be, but you challenge that status quo with your own saying that structure eats culture for lunch.
[00:52:20] So can you tell us a little bit about what you mean by this and why structure is so important for organizational success?
[00:52:27] Safi Bahcall: Sure. So you can think of culture as the patterns of behavior that you see on the surface. You have a political culture, you have an innovative culture. And the problem with this notion of you got to address culture and change culture, is it fixing culture is very hard and often impossible, no amount of forcing employees to watch two hour videos or sing kumbaya or hold hands is going to change.
[00:52:51] Culture very much. But if you look at structure, which is, for example, what do you reward? Those are the small changes that can actually
[00:53:00] transform behavior. So for example, if you're at a group or company that rewards rank that's, what's celebrated, you're going to get a very political culture because everyone's going to be elbowing their neighbor to get promoted.
[00:53:15] On the other hand, if you're at a company that rewards ideas and intelligent risk taking, for example, promotions, you only get 1% bump in salary. I'm just going to take an extreme, let's say in the first case, by rewarding rank, let's say promotions, get to the extreme, like a hundred percent bump in salary.
[00:53:32] You get a very political culture. If you reward intelligent ideas and risk taking and forget about what your rank is or what your hierarchy is, you're going to get a very innovative culture. That's what I mean by structure can drive culture can drive patterns of behavior. The analogy I use is with a glass of water.
[00:53:51] So pattern of behavior is for example, or the molecules sloshing around, that's a liquid or the molecules rigidly in
[00:54:00] place. That's a solid, it's the same exact molecule. Those are just two very different patterns of behavior. And I'll tell you what, no amount of yelling at a block of ice, no amount of a CEO yelling at a block of ice.
[00:54:11] Hey molecules, why don't you guys loosen up a little bit, is going to melt that block of ice. They're going to just be rigidly in place, but a small change in temperature can get the job done. A small change in temperature can melt steel. So underlying the patterns of behavior that you see are these small elements of structure.
[00:54:30] That can have dramatic effects on those patterns of behavior. And that's what I mean by structure can be culture for lunch.
[00:54:37] Hala Taha: Awesome. So we're running up on time before we go. I thought a really fun way to close out this episode would be to ask you some fun questions, that you have on your website. That kind of sum up some of the key themes in your book.
[00:54:52] So I'll trigger you one by one with each of them. What do James Bond and Lipitor have in common? [00:55:00]
[00:55:00] Safi Bahcall: They were both initially moonshots that became wildly successful franchises. The first James Bond was rejected by every major film studio, and it went through the three deaths of a moonshot. Every studio killed, it said, oh, there's no way anyone will take seriously a metro-sexual, British spy who saves the world.
[00:55:19] And then it grew into the longest running most successful film franchise in it. Lipitor is a cholesterol lowering drug, went through the three deaths with the moonshot, no way it'll ever work. And it became the most successful drug franchise in history.
[00:55:33] Hala Taha: Why do traffic jams appear out of nowhere on highways?
[00:55:37] Safi Bahcall: Traffic jams appear out of nowhere?
[00:55:39] That's an example of a phase transition. We were just talking about liquid to solid. As a sudden change in pattern of behavior, that's triggered by a small change in structure. Traffic jam suddenly appear on highways, because it's also a phase transition between two states. One is called smooth flow and one is called jammed flow.
[00:55:59] [00:56:00] And you get to sudden transition between those two, as you cross a critical density of cars on the highway. As soon as the separation gets closer than a certain amount. People's urge to slam on their brakes. When something small happens, overrides their desire to retarget, cruise speed and little things grow into massive jams.
[00:56:21] Hala Taha: How does that relate to loonshots?
[00:56:23] Safi Bahcall: The idea in the book is a new way of thinking about the behavior of groups and the patterns. People have in teams and companies, why they suddenly change from embracing wild, new ideas to rigidly reject from them. Like a glass of water will suddenly change from liquid to solid or a traffic flow will suddenly change from smooth flow to jammed flow.
[00:56:43] And so it's actually, no one has really thought about groups or behavior of groups in this way in 200 years. So it's a new way of thinking about that. And once you understand that, once you understand this idea of a transition in the behavior of group and there's small changes in structure, and you can tease out what the [00:57:00] small changes in structure are.
[00:57:02] You can begin to manage it. You can begin to control it. You can design more innovative teams and companies, and it gives you a handful of rules you can use. To innovate faster and better.
[00:57:12] Hala Taha: Awesome.
[00:57:13] This was an incredible interview. I really enjoyed this conversation. I was so nice to talk to you.
[00:57:18] You are such a smart, brilliant guy with so much experience, so much to share with us. So I wish you the best. I hope you continue to write because you clearly have a talent for it. Where can our listeners go to learn more about you and everything that you do?
[00:57:34] Safi Bahcall: They go to my website, loonshots.com or follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn.
[00:57:38] The tag is just my full name. Safi Bahcall.
[00:57:41] Hala Taha: Cool. Thank you so much. Safi was such a pleasure.
[00:57:44] Safi Bahcall: Thank you. It was enormously fun at it. And thank you for all the kind words I should do this every morning. Really boost me up.
[00:57:52] Hala Taha: Thank you.
[00:57:53] Safi Bahcall: Thank you very much.
[00:57:55] Hala Taha: Thanks for listening to Young And Profiting Podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, don't forget to write us a
[00:58:00] review on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen to the show. Follow YAP on Instagram @youngandprofiting and check us out at youngandprofiting.com. And I can chat live with us every single day.
[00:58:10] On the YAP Society on Slack. Check out our show notes are youngandprofiting.com for the registration link, you can find me on Instagram @yapwithhala or LinkedIn, just search for my name, Hala Taha. Big thanks to theYAP team for another successful episode this week. I'd like to give a special, thanks to Shiv.
[00:58:27] Shiv has been supporting research on the podcast for about a year now, and he does an incredible job. He's also gearing up to launch a new series alongside Stephanie. It's called YAP Snacks. We can't wait to launch and we're so lucky to have Shiv on our team. This is Hala signing off.
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