“If you accept conventional wisdom from conventional people living conventional lives how can you expect to be anything but conventional?” — MJ DeMarco
Every 16–24 year-old needs to hear Alex Banayan’s story.
But, before we get there, we need to answer one question.
If life is a nightclub, most people will spend their entire lives in the mile-long line at the front door.
They’ll crawl ahead inch-by-inch for hours. If they’re lucky, they’ll be admitted by the bouncer before the night is over. This is door one.
Some people have money, fame, or privilege and can use the VIP line. They are ushered to the front and come right in. That’s door two.
Then, there’s another category of people who skip both lines.
They run around the block. They find a back entrance or an open window. After knocking like crazy and trying every angle, they are pulled in by an inside man.
This is door three.
Alex Banayan was a bored freshman at a crossroads. Struggling to find any motivation to do his classwork, he stared at his dorm’s ceiling and wondered what to do with his life. After a trip to the library, he hatched an idea.
What if he could ask the world’s most successful people for guidance in this phase of life?
What if Bill Gates taught him entrepreneurship, Lady Gaga taught him music, and Warren Buffet taught him finance?
Alex took his thought experiment further and decided that, with funding, this was possible. The next day, Alex won The Price Is Right (a great story in its own right).
He used that money to fund his mission of meeting and interviewing the very best in the world.
With $16,000 in prize money and a list of dream interviewees on an index card, Alex set on his mission. In a wild ride spanning several years, Alex successfully landed numerous high profile interviews, and there are some lessons to be learned along the way.
The pattern he found among all of those interviewed?
They all took the third door.
Just weeks into his quest, Alex managed to get a brief conversation with Steven Spielberg by finagling his way into a fancy gala at USC. Although the conversation didn’t last long, Alex wrote about how Spielberg landed his first directing contract so early in life. The formula is below.
First, find an inside man where you are trying to break in. This is someone that knows the right people and the way business is conducted.
Second, befriend and learn from them.
Last, ask them to help you.
Alex follows this formula in the whole book. He leveraged contacts at Microsoft to work up to accessing Bill Gates. He had a friend at the nonprofit organization ‘Donor’s Choose’ help him interview Tim Ferriss.
Having someone on the inside completely changes the game when you want someone to do you a favor.
This is because of a concept called Borrowed Credibility.
It’s much easier to get an interview with Bill Gates if you’ve won over and be-friended his chief of staff and a number of his top engineers.
It’s much easier to get your article in Forbes if you’ve written for Time.
Focus on compounding your credibility by leveraging what you already have to accelerate your progress.
The credibility of others is a signal to future partners that you are tested and experienced. It removes risk for the people you want to work with in the future.
WARNING! YOU DO NOT want to harm the reputation of those helping you out. Be extremely confident you can deliver when credibility is at stake.
It is also tempting to lie about who or what you have to land someone. This can and will blow up in your face.
Put in the groundwork and legitimately earn your credibility.
The question is: “how do you get that initial connection?”
It’s easy to come up with a list of people who could help you.
Ask your friends, family, or advisors if they know anybody knowledgeable about your topic of interest. Go on LinkedIn and search for people who work in that field.
Get their numbers and call them.
A 10-minute phone call beats months of emailing. You answer questions so much faster and have the human element which is massively important.
It’s uncomfortable, it sucks, it works.
Sometimes, you can’t find a phone number and have to start with an email. What then?
Cold emailing is an art form, and I’m certainly no expert.
Alex pastes in the following template from Tim Ferriss’ 4-Hour Workweek as a guide.
Dear So-and-So, I know you’re really busy and that you get a lot of emails, so this will only take sixty seconds to read. [Here is where you say who you are: add one or two lines that establish your credibility.] [Here is where you ask your very specific question.] I totally understand if you’re too busy to respond, but even a one- or two-line reply would really make my day. All the best, Tim
Alex did surprisingly well using modified versions of this template over the years of the project.
I’d rework this based on your situation.
In your emails, be extremely specific, direct, and humble.
While on the subject of Tim Ferriss…
Alex shares a very typical Tim Ferriss fan story. A friend recommended The 4-Hour Workweek. Alex got obsessed with Tim Ferriss. Alex read The 4-Hour Body. Alex applied and shared The 4-Hour Body with his family.
“Following his instructions, I shed forty pounds over the course of the summer. Bye-bye, Fatty Banayan. My family was shocked and jumped headfirst on the Tim Ferriss bandwagon too. My dad lost twenty pounds; my mom, fifty pounds; my cousin, sixty.”
Alex’s transformation radically boosted his self-confidence, but that’s about as far as Tim’s advice carried Alex for the rest of the journey.
When Alex started, he did the sensible thing and read books that covered what he wanted to do. To write a book proposal, he read books on writing book proposals, to make high profile connections, he copied Tim Ferriss’ techniques.
After following countless “How-To’s” to the letter and not getting the results he wanted, Alex was extremely frustrated.
This reflects a common struggle for my generation. We expect everything to be instant and easy because so much of life is.
This causes two problems.
Over time, Alex meditated on his addiction to the quick-fix and learned to outgrow the desire for instant gratification.
He learned to make his own plans and craft his own strategies.
He learned that “what worked for them” might not necessarily work for him. Everyone has different, skills, knowledge, and circumstances, so no one book can guide everyone.
Elliot Bisnow, a tremendous mentor to Alex throughout the book, made a great point here:
“If I gave you the map Lewis and Clark made, it would be pretty easy to get from here to the West Coast. That’s why everybody remembers the names Lewis and Clark and nobody remembers who read their map and took the trip the second time.”
Speaking of, Elliot gives a lot of other good advice in the book.
In their very first meeting, Elliot shares five rules for Alex to follow if he wanted his guidance as a mentor.
1 — Never use your phone in a meeting
Pretty self-explanatory. Bring a pen and paper.
Never read a speech off of a phone. You lose all credibility.
2 — Act like you belong
When around high profile people, you can either be in awe of them or just act like a peer (with due respect).
If someone’s first impression of you is “crazed fan”, they will always see you that way.
3 — Mystery makes history
Don’t put every waking detail of your life online.
The people you care to impress don’t care.
The people you might impress aren’t the people you should care to impress.
4 — Don’t break trust
Pretty self-explanatory, but a reminder never hurts.
When someone tells you a secret, you become a vault. Don’t crack.
5 — Adventures only happen to the adventurous
Make things happen. Don’t expect adventure to find you.
Sometimes, adventure might come your way, but you have to be ready to take advantage of it.
“Luck is like a bus,” he told me. “If you miss one, there’s always the next one. But if you’re not prepared, you won’t be able to jump on.”
Alex met Larry King at a grocery store.
Alex met Spielberg at a reception on campus.
The amount of right-place right-time stories in this book is hard to believe… or is it?
Luck isn’t a random force beyond your control. The person who stays home playing games is going to be much less lucky than the person who is out meeting people five times a week.
You can increase the chances of getting lucky by putting yourself out there.
Write online about what interests you, go to conferences and events, engage people on Twitter. Give a Ted Talk. Make videos on YouTube. Ask for introductions.
That’s the first half of luck.
The second half is being prepared for the chance encounters that will inevitably happen if you put yourself in situations with the chance of being lucky.
If your dream mentor walked into the room, would you be prepared to capitalize on it?
Being bold during in-person situations can be frightening.
Alex gives a language for this phenomenon.
Overcoming hesitation is challenging. Approaching strangers is awkward.
It’s the central idea of “Seek Discomfort” from the YouTubers on @YesTheory.
The flinch is irrational. It’s disabling. You can’t move. You can’t talk.
There isn’t an easy way out, but there are strategies for improving.
“The best cure for nervousness is immediate action.” — Elliott Bisnow
Waiting and thinking only leads to more hesitation.
A “3–2–1” count-down is primitive. Saying “just do it!” is not groundbreaking, but there isn’t anything better.
When it’s in front of you make your move.
Alex embarked on his journey because he wanted pointed advice about how different people would handle being in his situation in life.
When he couldn’t find an exact guide on Bill Gates’ advice for 20-year-olds, he decided to make one himself.
I’ve noticed a similar gap in the podcast space. That’s why I teamed up with Kyle Bishop to create an interview podcast. Our goal for The Louis and Kyle Show is to get pointed advice from top-performers, entrepreneurs, and thought leaders aimed at young people. You can find the show here.
I want to thank Alex Banayan for being extremely transparent and vulnerable with every detail of his story and sharing the lessons he learned with the next generation.
The book was extremely enjoyable, packed with a lot of wisdom, and super easy to read. I’d highly recommend it.