Safi Bahcall on Thinking Big, Curing Cancer, and Transforming Industries – The Tim Ferriss Show

Check out The Tim Ferriss Show Episode Page & Show Notes

Key Takeaways

  • When learning something new, carefully consider and question what everyone assumes to be true about that field 
  • When looking back and reviewing past decisions and situations, have a system mindset as opposed to an outcome mindset
    • The system mindset examines the question – “Why did I make that decision?”
    • The outcome mindset only analyzes the result
  • On some level, all of life is investing
    • We have finite time, energy, and capital – It’s important to be able to make good decisions for how we invest them
  • Advice for finding a good life partner – Find someone you enjoy having dinner with
  • “Write FBR” (Write Fast, Bad, and Wrong) – this is one of Safi’s writing rules
    • When writing nonfiction, don’t stop to fact check or do whatever
    • Every time you stop, you have to put all this energy into starting again, which you want to avoid
    • When you stop – you lose the creativity
  • A writing tip – People don’t connect to ideas, they connect to people
    • If you can tell a story about people, through which an idea is revealed – that’s the best
  • The big ideas which really transform industries almost never arrive dazzling anybody with their brilliance
    • They tend to be the ideas floating around for decades and the people championing them are written off as nuts
  • It’s so important to realize that great ideas often fail multiples times before they see the light of day 
    • “Everybody is turned away from the first stumble. You need to make it past the first stumble, past the second stumble, past the third stumble …and then you have the gold. That’s why it’s gold – everyone’s already given up.”
    • Be an artist and come up with as many ideas as possible, and a “soldier” in selecting the best of those ideas, and nurturing them to the finish line
  • Questions your assumptions every step of the way

Books Mentioned

Intro

How did Tim and Safi meet?

  • Around 10 years ago, Safi started doing the Total Immersion swimming course
    • Around this time, Tim was also doing the course to learn how to swim (he didn’t learn to swim until his 30s)
  • They both connected while at Sundance Film Festival, bonding over the fact that Total Immersion not only helped them learn to swim, but also “learn to learn”…and things took off from there

On Learning

  • Just like with learning to swim – “Learning starts with a counterintuitive take on something that everybody does or believes is true”
    • Many think that when learning to swim, you should lift your head up periodically to see where you’re going – not true
  • “So many different areas of life – there are these habits, these things you think you should be doing or everybody tells you to do, and they create drag when going through life”
    • Richard Feynman has famously said – “It doesn’t matter how pretty your theory is, if it doesn’t fit with experiment it’s wrong”

How did Safi get into the cancer field?

  • “I derive energy from the slope of the learning”
    • At the start of his PhD work in theoretical physics, Safi was learning a TON, but after a few years he felt he wasn’t learning as much (=no energy)
    • He then got into the business world at McKinsey, not having ever owned a suit (picture a PhD lab rat going into the business world)
      • Safi started reflecting, and knew – “I wanted to do something different where I was helping people who were suffering”
        • “There’s something very satisfying, even if you just think at the local level – there’s a kid in a hospital bed, and the family is gonna lose that kid, and if there’s something you could do to help save that kid so the family and child have decades of life together – even if it’s just one person, that feels so much more satisfying than having X amount of money in the bank or publishing another research paper”
    • This led him to eventually start his biotech company (Synta Pharmaceuticals) and served as their President & CEO for 13 years

The Next Chapter – Writing

  • After leaving his biotech company, Safi started writing
  • True to self, Salfi searched for the common beliefs about writing, that might not necessarily be true:
    • Like the idea – “Don’t use passive voice” (aka always use active voice)
      • Active voice example – “Johnny flew the helicopter to videotape the fire”
      • Passive voice example – “A helicopter was brought in to film the fire”
        • If you’re telling the story of the fire, this is a case where using the passive voice use might be okay, because the reader doesn’t necessarily need to know who flew the helicopter
  • Safi tells how, while living in Cambridge on Massachusetts Ave., he’d often head to a bar at night and “dissect” a paragraph or two of famous writing
    • Safi says he didn’t know much about literature, and did this solely to learn
    • He only examined two books over the course of about a year – Which books?
      • The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov by Vladimir Nabokov
        • “I opened it up and I started reading his sentences…my jaw dropped. I didn’t know the English language could do that.”
        • “His sentences and rhythm and the musicality of his writing are just draw dropping”
      • Essays After Eighty by Donald Hall
    • “There’s this natural inclination to try to read a ton, read widely, and read all these authors….I threw all that out and just focused on these.”
  • What did this “dissection look like?
    • Safi might ask himself :
      • “Why did the author put this word here in this sentence and not there?”
      • “Why did he use this type of transition between sentences?”

Decision-Making and Having a System vs. Outcome Mindset

  • Safi really enjoyed Gary Kasparov’s book – How Life Imitates Chess
    • “I have a real admiration of excellent chess players – it’s something that takes incredible focus and commitment”
    • Safi also enjoyed The Art of Learning by Josh Waitzkin (who was the basis for the chess movie – Searching for Bobby Fischer)
    • One lesson learned from the book:
      • Kasparov famously, rather than if he won or lost a match, would review the match in his head – not focusing on the outcome all that much, but more so the process of how came to arrive at the decisions involved in making certain moves
        • He kept asking – “Why did I make that decision?”
        • You’re analyzing the system, rather than the outcome
        • “This system vs. outcome mindset can help you enormously in personal life or business life”
  • Tim brings up a good point:
    • “On some level, all of life is investing”
      • We have finite time, energy, and capital 
      • It’s important to be able to make good decisions for how we invest them

A Few Examples of Having a System vs. Outcome Mindset

  • Safi used the example of a company product launch
    • After the launch, the company, having an outcome mindset, might ask themselves:
      • “Why didn’t the customers like the product?”
      • “Should it of had any additional features?”
    • But having a system mindset, they might ask:
      • “How did we arrive at the decision to launch that product at that time?”
      • “Who made this decision, what was their process, and did they have enough information?”
      • “Those people who were involved in the decision, did they have the right incentives?”
    • “In one case you learn not to have feature X on product Y, but in the other – you learn something that can apply to 500 different products”
  • A good point – Review not only the failures, but also the successes, using a system-based mindset
    • You need to be sure you made a good decision to result in the success, and didn’t just get lucky
      • “Everyone thinks hard about a failure. People rarely think about if they got lucky.”
  • Or in relationship arguments:
    • Don’t look at it as – “I said X (a bad comment) which resulted in Y”
    • Consider why you said X in the first place
      • Was it because you were frustrated at work?
  • Safi gives an example back when he was dating:
    • “No matter how self-aware you think you are, you’re influenced by your surroundings a lot more than you think”
      • Through some examination, Safi came to realize that because of his friends and who he was hanging out with in NY (this was back when he was running his biotech company), Safi found himself falling for women with very superficial qualities
        • Outcome thinking = Going on a date, noticing it’s a bad outcome and concluding it must just be the person
        • System thinking = “Why am I even going out with this person in the first place?”

Relationship Advice

  • Safi gives some advice for finding a partner that he’s picked up over the years:
    • Find someone with good mental health
    • Find someone you enjoy having dinner with 
      • Safi really emphasizes this one – it’s such an important metric
    • The physical stuff takes care of itself – it’s either there or it isn’t
      • “It’s so overemphasized anyway, that’s not something you need to think about”

How Safi Met His Wife (Watch)

  • No notes here, but listen to this if you can – the story is great

Acronyms as a Memory Tool

  • “Write FBR” – Write Fast, Bad, and Wrong
    • This is one of Safi’s writing rules
      • When writing nonfiction, don’t stop to fact check
      • If the sentence doesn’t sound good, keep going
      • “This liberates you to follow the narrative thread and just keep going and going with it”
    • Every time you stop, you have to put all this energy into starting again, which you want to avoid
    • When you stop – you lose the creativity
      • It’s like riding a bike – it’s easier when you have some speed to keep the wheels turning. If you go too slow – you wobble.
  • “RICLS” – Reading For Information, Content, Lessons, and Stories
    • This has to do with Safi’s reading process for writing-related research
  • “REAS” – Reading For Ear, Art, and Skill
    • Like when Safi was reading The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov by Vladimir Nabokov (mentioned above), he was reading for the art of it/the musical rhythm – to really dissect things
    • Safi says he read Essays After Eighty by Donald Hall (also mentioned above) to learn how to write about emotion, people and characters in an almost poetic way

More Writing Tips

  • “People don’t connect to ideas, they connect to people”
    • If you can tell a story about people, through which an idea is revealed – that’s the best
    • You need to combine them – ideas and people – rather than writing about them individually
      • In an academic paper – you’re just writing about the idea
  • “Patience over panic”
    • You start with a blank page, and it can be easy to worry yourself – be patient
  • “Creativity, for me, is about speed, attention, and courage”
    • Like when reading for research/information (related to RICLS) go as fast as you can, but with enough attention that you’re able to find the core idea
      • Safi has a visual – it’s like a dense forest of stuff (facts, data, and stories) and there’s a beautiful clearing somewhere within, which is the central core idea you’re searching for
      • Then you need courage to follow the idea 

The Three Hats of Writing – Hunting, Drafting, and Editing

  • Hunting
    • You’re looking for the narrative thread/structure/arch that’s going to hold your story together
  • Drafting
    • This is where “Write FBR” comes into play
    • You’re writing as fast as you can and letting things flow
  • Editing
    • This is where it all comes together

False Failures

  • The big ideas (aka loonshots) which really transform industries almost never arrive dazzling anybody with their brilliance
    • They tend to be the ideas floating around for decades and the people championing them are written off as nuts
    • Looking back – these ideas seem obvious, but people don’t talk about the fact the idea holder was most likely seen as crazy prior to the idea taking off
  • With these big ideas – people often give up on them due to “false fails”
    • An example of a false fail – A flaw in the experiment of the idea, rather than the idea itself
    • Safi gives the example of Friendster vs. Myspace
      • The idea (being a social network) wasn’t inherently bad, it’s just that a few experimentation variables (like website quality) led to Myspace succeeding and Friendster going away

Advice From Sir James Black

  • James was a Nobel prize winning chemist from Scotland who revolutionized drug discovery
    • “He had a nose for identifying great new drugs”
    • Safi’s company had him doing some consulting work
  • He once said to Safi – “It’s not a good drug unless it’s been killed three times”
    • It’s so important to realize that great ideas often fail multiples times before they see the light of day – 
      • “Everybody is turned away from the first stumble. You need to make it past the first stumble, past the second stumble, past the third stumble …and then you have the gold. That’s why it’s gold – everyone’s already given up.”
      • “If you persist through the failures, that’s where the big breakthroughs are”
    • Look back in the drug world:
      • Beta blockers and histamine antagonists failed multiple times before coming to market
      • Stain drugs were also killed off multiple times and almost didn’t end up existing

The Two Types of Loonshots

  • P (Product) Loonshots
    • These are products/tech that people say just won’t work
      • Like the telephone, personal computer, jet engine, or transistor
      • Another example – the idea of using a rocket to get people to the moon
      • And one more – The Eiffel tower was opposed by just about everyone
  • S (Strategy) Loonshots
    • These are small changes in strategy that people think are crazy/won’t work

A Failure is Just One Step Closer in the Right Direction

  • From the book The Net and the Butterfly by Olivia Fox, Tim brings up a quote from Michelle Wei’s (the famous golfer) coach, which Michelle was told to repeat every time she missed a put
    • “I’ve gotten that out of the way. Now I’m one step closer to being the best putter in the history of golf.”
    • Safi often thinks of this quote when he screws up
  • Andre Agassi, the famous tennis player, did something similar:
    • He developed a trick – at the end of a bad point, he would slap his thigh as a mental reminder to forget about it, and help him focus on the next point

“The Adventures of Luke Starkiller”

  • Safi has a Post-it note that says this on his wall
    • This is to remind him of two things:
      • Ian Fleming and his creation of James Bond
        • Prior to the movie being ,ade, there were a ton of false fails leading up to it
        • He was told – “There’s just no way Americans want to see a British dude with an accent…some heroic spy saving the world – the story is junk”
        • When the movie was made, it was at first only shown in drive-in theaters – they were so sure it wasn’t going to work
      • And then look what happened with Star Wars
        • There are early drafts of the script posted online
          • Safi says – “They were freakin’ horrific. The writing was terrible, the storytelling was terrible, the characters were nothing like the characters that you have at the end, and the plot was incomprehensible. It sounded absurd.”
          • One of the early titles of the early script drafts was “The Adventures of Luke Starkiller”
    • “I keep that Post-it note up to help remind me to write FBR (fast, bad, and wrong). All first drafts are shit. Everything when it starts off is shit. If Star Wars, which was one of the greatest movies of all time, was such horrific shit in the beginning, then you’re probably okay.”

How can individual entrepreneurs or small teams think about loonshots?

  • Nurture the loonshots that challenge accepted beliefs
    • “The ideas that end up becoming incredibly important, that in retrospect disrupt the market, nobody knows at the time”
    • “Real innovation that ends up doing something is like a leaf in a tornado – you just never know where it’s gonna end up.”
      • Another example – the transistor was developed when trying to building better telecommunication switches. When it was first invented, it wasn’t good enough to use in telecom, and Bell Labs had no idea what to do with it. It was 5 years before its first application in hearing aids.
      • These types of things are only “disruptive innovations” in hindsight
  • Safi adds – “The things you think are absolutely true – maybe you’re right, but suppose you’re wrong?”
    • As a company, ask:
      • “What are the things that we’re sure are not right….but if they were right….we’d experience huge growth”
      • “What are our embedded assumptions and beliefs about our customers, our competitors, the nature of our market etc., that we know are right…but what’s the opposite? Suppose our assumptions are wrong?”
    • “All these things you’re sure are true – what if they weren’t?”
  • In summary:
    • Be an artist and come up with as many ideas as possible, and a “soldier” in selecting the best of those ideas, and nurturing them to the finish line

Random

These notes were edited by RoRoPa Editing Services

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