The Tim Ferriss Show – Brandon Stanton: The Story of Humans of New York

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Intro
Flunking Out of College
  • Brandon initially flunked out of college as a business major at the University of Georgia
    • “A lot of my early trouble was coming from this thought, that I had to do something really big in the world”
      • Brandon credits this thought to a few experiences with psychedelic mushrooms
    • He found it very hard to learn the many pointless things that his major required him to – “How am I going to use any of this in life?”
      • “All the subjects I was being forced to learn in school seemed so minor and not useful to what I really wanted to understand about life”
    • “My purpose had to be much greater than this”
      • “This world is so amazing, and the fact that we’re here is so amazing, and doing anything less than something amazing is squandering the whole reason we’re here”
    • A recurring thought for Brandon was what his major contribution to the world would be
  • “Things really started moving forward for me, when I stopped focusing on the big picture, and just focused on what I what I was supposed to do”
    • He eventually went back to the University of Georgia to study history (something he very much enjoyed), with much more discipline and focus
  • “When I stopped trying to think about the big things I was going to accomplish in life, and started focusing on putting one foot in front of the other, every single day, it began to propel me on the journey that led to Humans of NY”
  • “People get stuck in life, because they want to accomplish things that are too big, and they don’t know the right steps to take”
    • “Instead of focusing on the year, focus on the 24 hour period”
Reading
  • One of his new daily habits after going back to school was reading 100 pages a day
    • Brandon says this is one of the best habits he’s ever incorporated
  • One of the first books he read – The Autobiograhy of Ben Franklin
    • “Uneducated genius is like finding silver in the mine” – Ben Franklin
  • “95% of my education was outside of school, from reading 100 pages a day for 7-8 years”
  • 60%  of what he read were biographies, 20% were history books, and the remaining were some fiction books when he got bored of non-fiction
  • Brandon recommends that if you’re not sure what you want to do with your life, pick someone you admire, and read their biography – “THAT is the best form of education”
  • Brandon has also read quite a few biographys of Theodore Roosevelt (An Autobiography by Theodore Roosevelt), Hitler (Hitler: A Biography), and Stalin (Stalin: New Biography of a Dictator)
    • Why? – because of people
    • Brandon has traveled to 30+ countries
    • “People all over the world share a similar soul and are generally the same”
    • What fascinated Brandon was how a group of educated and smart people, were able to be organized under the premise of committing such evil – “If people are the same everywhere, that means anywhere, something like this could happen”
Happiness and Where You Live
  • Brandon grew up in Marieyta Gerogia
  • “I am someone who has liked everywhere I’ve ever been”
    • “If you hate the place you live, a lot of times, a new environment is not the key to your happiness”
    • Often the people who complain about one place, will complain about the next place they move to
    • “People who externalize their environment as being the reason for their dissatisfaction, tend to be unsatisfied everywhere”
Money, Obama, and Brandon’s First Job
  • At the end of college, Brandon was relatively broke
    • Around this time he took out a $5k student loan, and bet on Barack Obama to win the 2008 election on an Irish exchange website – due to the odds, he made ~$1,000
    • After telling this story to his friend who was a bond trader in Chicago, he ended up getting a job at the same office – his friend admired his knack for taking risks, based on the Obama story
    • Prior to starting the job, Brandon read about 20 books on the market/finance
  • “Markets are nothing more than a bunch of people arguing over what something that’s impossible to value, is worth”
    • This always interested Brandon, and allowed him to become really fascinated by bond trading
  • He did end up losing the job (he got fired) after two years
    • Markets changed and his trading style didn’t quite fit the now higher volatility market (compared to when he started), and he was no longer a productive member of the firm
    • Brandon wasn’t all that upset – he describes what he did as so narrow, compared to the larger picture of the world
  • You can really learn a lot by talking to somebody you meet, about money
    • Tim recommends the book Liar’s Poker by Michael Lewis
    • Our approach to money, is very correlated with our desire to take risks
What came next?
  • Prior to losing his job, when things started to go bad, Brandon was very scared of it actually happening – “There was nothing I was more afraid of than losing that job”
    • After it actually happened, Brandon describes it as not so bad
    • It really allowed him to step back, and ask himself what he really wanted to do in life – he had been so focused on money/the market the past two years, that he never really had a chance to do this
  • Brandon decided, at this point, a few things
    • He was going to spend the foreseeable future trying to make just enough money where he could control his time, instead of spending his time trying to make money
      • He would do this by doing something that he enjoyed doing, for no other reason than the fact that it was nourishing in the moment 
      • His criteria for success would not be profit, but enjoyment
      • For Brandon, this was photography
  • Brandon started taking photographs just prior to losing his job
    • He did this solely to create space in his mind away from work
    • “I was desperate for something to do on the weekends, that would give me this foothold in my brain where I had a sense of purpose and identity outside of how the markets were doing every single day”
    • He made the decision to be a photographer because he loved doing it, it was nourishing in the moment – not because he was good at it
  • To help make ends meet after losing his job, Brandon collected around $620 every 2 weeks in unemployment from the government (this was in 2008)
    • This was enough for cheap rent in Brooklyn, where he soon moved, and very, very cheap food
    • Every now and then, he would get random photography jobs after he obtained a decent level of skill
    • “I didn’t spend money on anything, all i did was photograph all day long”
Humans of NY
  • After getting fired, and falling in love with photography, Brandon started traveling around to different cities to take photographs
    • “I noticed that of everything I was photographing, the photographs of people were the most unique” – so this is what he focused on
    • He eventually started to stop people on the street to take portraits of them, every single day
    • Eventually, he traveled to NY to do this, and realized that it was the best place to do so for a variety of reasons – he could walk anywhere, and there were SO many people
    • Thus, 8 years ago, Humans of NY was born when Brandon moved to Brooklyn
  • Brandon originally wanted to take photographs of 10,000 different people, and plot them on a map of NYC
    • This got him on the ground, and forced him to approach thousands of different people
    • The more people he met, the more conversations he had – he started interviewing more and more of the people he stopped
  • “I was too addicted to taking photos to stop and learn about photography”
    • Don’t over complicate it – the only thing Brandon cared about was photographing interesting people – NONE of the technical details of photography
    • “By being that engaged and immersed in the process, as opposed to any sort of formal structure of what makes a photograph, I innovated my own style and type of work”
    • He worked every single day, (holidays, weekends etc.) and didn’t do much of anything else
  • “Instead of focusing on doing something huge, do something every single day”
    • Originally, the 10,000 portrait project was Brandon’s big goal – but no one was really paying attention to his blog or efforts
    • The website started getting traction and growing, when Brandon started posting the photos as he took them on social media, mainly Facebook
    • The focus of Humans of NY switched to being more about the individual, instead of this overarching portrait map of NYC
How to Approach Strangers
  • “By doing nothing but approaching random people on the street, and asking for their photograph, I became an expert at approaching strangers, not the photography”
    • By getting over the fear of rejection, Brandon wanted to incorporate more about the individual in his portraits
    • “Many people are curious of the lives of others around them, but are too afraid to ask” 
    • “From that moment on, Humans of NY stopped being a photography project. Humans of NY is my effort in as short a time as possible, to make a random person on the street comfortable enough, that they’ll share their story with me – something deep, vulnerable, and honest about their life, so that I can share that with millions of people.”
  • Early on, to break the ice when Humans of NY wasn’t as recognizable, Brandon would approach people and ask – “Can I take your photograph?”
    • He would then explain his mission with Humans of NY
  • He learned NOT to ask – “Do you have a minute?” – people tend to be less responsive to this
  • Brandon has faced A LOT of rejection, and to this day it’s still hard not to internalize it
    • At the beginning, with no money to his name, and no friends in the city. you can probably imagine how difficult it was to have confidence in his idea
    • “The only thing that kept me from thinking about the possibility of failing, was going out and photographing”
      • “The only way to keep the self doubt away, was to go out and work”
    • Loving the craft, helped him overcome the difficulties as well
  • The fact of the matter is that most people are lonely, and are eager to talk to others and share their story
    • “The reason Humans of NY works isn’t because the people who are reading it feel alone, although that’s a big part of it. It works because when people see others being vulnerable, in a way that they’re afraid of being vulnerable themselves, they connect with that person. It really works because the people I meet, are so thankful to have somebody listen to them.”
  • Nowadays – more people have heard of the blog, so it’s much easier, and Brandon is more apt to pull out his phone to show the individual the blog/Facebook page
  • Brandon has noticed two threads running through peoples’ heads when he interviews them
    • The fear of being exposed 
    • The appreciation of being heard – small talk is too popular, we tend to dance around our real issues
Asking Good Questions
  • Prior to interviewing/or conversing with a person, Brandon tells the individual:
    • Any questions he asks, that they aren’t fond of, they don’t have to answer
    • If they change their mind about anything, Brandon won’t share it
    • He also offers to photograph their hands/feet as opposed to their face/body, it the individual wishes – usually this is done for the very very vulnerable interviews, in order to protect those involved
    • He will give them him his email address in case they want the piece taken down at any time
  • For questions to start, Brandon likes to ask:
    • What’s your biggest struggle?
    • How has your life turned out differently than you expected it to?
    • What do you feel most guilty about?
  • These questions are springboards into a deeper conversation
  • “To get to a deep place with a person, it all comes down to absolute presence, it’s about being 100% there”
    • Don’t think about an interview framework, don’t take notes, and don’t look at list of questions
    • Your questions should be based on curiosity, and nothing else
    • To obtain the presence necessary to get a person to open up, it takes THOUSANDS of hours of practice – you can’t get there by studying interview questions alone
  • “All I need is honesty, everybody has an interesting story”
How does Brandon think about advertising and money for the blog?
  • “I’ve raised a fraction of the money, from Humans of NY, that I’ve made for charity”
    • Brandon estimates he’s turned down more money than he’s made from the blog
  • Most of his income comes from book sales, in addition to the Humans of NY TV show he sold to Facebook
  • A big part of his income, comes from speeches (he does around 10 a year)
  • He allows himself to make money off his personal name, but really tries not to attach the name Humans of NY to much of anything
    • “I don’t rent my brand to anyone” – he never wants any piece of content he shares, to have a single motive
What’s next for Brandon?
  • Brandon wants to withdraw from the daily content model
    • This is troublesome, because the golden rule of social media and growing a following is to engage with your followers daily
  • “The artist in me wants to go disappear for a while, go into a dark cave, and come out with something great.”
  • Above all, Brandon will continue to ask himself  – “If nothing mattered but how I was spending my time, what would I be doing? What would be most nourishing for me in any given moment?”
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