The larger-than-life journey of an 18-year-old college freshman who set out from his dorm room to track down Bill Gates, Lady Gaga, and dozens more of the world's most successful people to uncover how they broke through and launched their careers.


Every person I know that has read this book finishes it in one sitting. It's awesome, fun, motivating, inspiring, and filled with useful ideas. Any person with at least an ounce of ambition should probably read it. The first time I read it, I wrote this article. The second time, I made these notes.


Cover Matter

  • Start to see challenges in front of you as fun.
  • "let Alex Banayan inspire you to think bigger"

Spoiler Alert--There Are Some Spoilers Scattered In These Notes

Step 1 - Ditch The Line

"there is always, always..the Third Door...there's always a way"

1 - Staring at the Ceiling

  • "I was too busy trying to survive to stop and wonder whose boxes I was checking."
  • "I was beginning to realize a college degree no longer came with guarantees."
  • "There wasn't a single book that had focused on the stage of life I was in."
  • "Well, if no one has written the book I'm dreaming of reading, why not just write it myself?"
  • This required money he didn't have, so he plays The Price Is Right the next day.

2 - The Price Is Right

  • Alex wins 30k on the show so he can fund his mission.

3 - The Storage Closet

  • Because he would've had to take summer classes as a pre-med, Alex switches to business.
  • Alex promises to family he'll finish college (& a masters)
  • Alex sets up a home office and library in the garage and writes out his list of dream interviewees.

Step 2 - Run Down The Alley

4 - The Spielberg Game

  • "Having a teacher or boss tell you what to do makes life a lot easier. But nobody achieves a dream from the comfort of certainty.
"Nobody achieves a dream from the comfort of certainty."
  • "The Flinch" is the in the moment, fight or flight, nervous response to doing something out of your comfort zone.
  • The Spielberg Game has 3 components: jump off the tour bus (ditch the standard path), find an inside man, ask for their help to bring you in.
  • "The most important step, I realized, was finding that "Inside Man"--someone inside the organization willing to put his or her reputation on the line to bring you in."
  • The USC dean thwarts Alex's attempts to network with Spielberg
  • Ask people in your network for advice. Tell them what you are doing and you will often get unexpectedly useful connections/opportunities/suggestions.

Quick Anecdote: I only was able to get my interview with Howard Lindzon (Angel investor behind companies like Robinhood and Wag!) because of this principle. I just told everyone I know about the podcast, and someone said that's awesome, let me ask my uncle (who ended up being Howard) to come on. It is serendipity. It only happens if you share what's going on with you.

5- Crouching In The Bathroom

Alex reads The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss. It blows his mind.

Some quick 4HWW quotes

  • "If you picked up this book, chances are that you don't want to sit behind a desk until you are 62."
  • "the opposite of happiness is--here's the clincher--boredom"

Alex reads The Four Hour Body by Tim Ferriss. It blows his mind.

  • "Following his instructions, I [Alex] lost forty pounds over the course of the summer."
  • "My [Alex's] 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 tries to contact Tim Ferriss through a connection from DonorsChoose

  • It is much easier to reach someone like Tim if you have an inside man to help you.
  • "to a certain niche... Tim Ferriss is bigger than Oprah." very very true

Cold Emailing Tips from Tim

  • "If you sense someone is getting annoyed, you need to back off."
  • "There's a fine line between being persistent and being a hassle"
  • Use borrowed credibility to get people to say yes (writer for a credible magazine, associated with a big organization, use a warm intro (having an inside man).
  • Cold email people who have done what you want to do for advice!
  • When writing cold emails, try doing the opposite. If you do what everyone does, you will get the same results as everyone else. Part of Tim Ferriss' appeal is his bias toward doing the opposite. Instead of ending an email like "Thanks in advance!" Tim advises saying "I totally understand if you're too busy to respond, but even a one- or two-line reply would really make my day."

6- Qi Time

  • At age 27, Qi Lu was only making 7$ a month.
  • Everyone is given the same 24 hours in a day, "God is fair to everybody. The question is: Will you use God's gift the best you possibly can?"
  • "Luck is like a bus...If you miss one, there's always the next one. But if you're not prepared, you won't be able to jump on"
  • "Every minute of every day, it's about empowering people to know more, do more, and be more."
  • Qi has an incredible story. I'm going to make you read the book if you want the whole thing.

7- The Hidden Reservoir

  • "I wrote Sugar Ray a letter explaining that I was nineteen, and after reading his autobiography, I sensed his advice was exactly what my generation needed."
  • Sugar Ray trained by putting his backpack on the school bus and then chasing after the bus all the way to school.
  • "Don't let anyone tell you that your dream isn't possible. When you have a vision, you've got to hang in there."
  • "You may have a desire, a wish, a dream--but it's got to be more than that--you've got to want it to the point that it hurts. Most people never reach that point. They never tap into what I call the Hidden Reservoir, your hidden reserve of strength. We all have it."

I recently found a similar quote in The Four Hour Body, and it is a similarly motivating concept.

"Beyond the very extreme of fatigue and distress, we may find amounts of ease & power we never dreamed ourselves to own; sources of strength never taxed at all because we never pushed through the obstruction" - William James

Step 3- Find Your Inside Man

8- The Dream Mentor

  • Alex hears from Bill Gates' chief of staff, that he wants to reach out to Bill after Alex has some more momentum for the project (a book deal, some additional high-profile interviewees on board)
  • Alex recalls a story about how Elliot Bisnow did a similar project (bringing together CEO of Zappos, Bill Clinton, Ted Turner and many others) a few years prior.
  • Alex decides Elliot would be a perfect mentor.
  • Alex sends Elliot a really great cold email asking for advice.
  • Key things from this email:

Subject line was pretty good: Mr. Bisnow--I could really use some advice from you

Borrowed credibility: "I'm truly humbled by the people who have already jumped on board for this mission--from Microsoft president Qi Lue to author Tim Ferriss."

ONE SPECIFIC ASK: "it would be unbelievably helpful to get some guidance from you on the topic of: How did you effectively bring all these luminaries together behind a single vision?"

  • Elliot responds 1 day later.
  • He advises Alex to read When I Stop Talking You'll Know I'm Dead.
  • He offers to meet Alex in person in Los Angeles a few days later.
  • Alex has to maybe skip a final to meet Elliot but goes for it anyway.
  • "Each impossible decision was a checkpoint, testing to see where my heart truly was. For the first time though, I didn't hesitate."

9- The Rules

  • "the more you look like the other person, the easier it is to strike up a friendship"
  • "there is no tipping point...It's all just little steps"

Elliot's 5 Rules

  1. Never use your phone in a meeting. Always carry a pen in your pocket.
  2. Act like you belong. Peers shake hands. Fans ask for pictures. Walk into a room like you've been there before.
  3. Mystery makes history. (the people you're going to impress by posting things online aren't the people you should care about impressing)(I have mixed feelings on this one)
  4. If you act like a vault, people will treat you like a vault.
  5. Adventures Only Happen To The Adventurous
  • Focus on the other person and their passions during a conversation.
  • "Then just as she was hooked, Elliot ended the conversation."
When it's in front of you, make your move

10- Adventures Only Happen To The Adventurous

  • Find the right agent by finding buying books similar to the one you want to write and then make notes of who the authors thanked as their agents.
  • Alex books a flight to London on one days notice because Elliot invites him. This news is not welcome at shabbat dinner.

11- Bite Off More Than You Can Chew

  • "If you present three pricing options and make the first option too expensive and the third unappealing, people often choose the middle one."
  • Cold calling: "Just tell yourself you're calling a friend, dial the number, and start talking right away. The best cure for nervousness is immediate action."
"The best cure for nervousness is immediate action"
  • "Bite off more than you can chew. You can figure out how to chew later."

12- That's How You Do Business

  • "what your story is about isn't as important as how you tell it."

13- Exponential Life

  • Elliot didn't drink or smoke. He prioritized sleep, yoga, and a few hours of work in the morning to feel rested and energized when traveling.
  • "Just tell them: When the White House calls, you answer"
  • "I've learned that you have to go for it, even if there's a chance you'll fail.... When you see an opportunity, it's up to you to jump."

Linear Vs Exponential

  • Most people live a linear life: college->internship->job->promotion->etc
  • "Successful people don't buy into that model. They opt into an exponential life."
"Society feeds us this lie that you need to do x, y, and z before you can achieve your dream. It's bullshit. The only person whose permission you need to live an exponential life is your own."
  • "If you actually want to make a difference in the world, if you want to live a life of inspiration, adventure, and wild success--you need to grab on to that exponential life--and hold on to it with all you've got."

14- The Avoidance List

  • Elliot has built an entrepreneurial utopia in Utah

The Avoidance List

  • Write out 25 things you want to do in the next 12 months
  • Copy your most important 5 to another list
  • Circle them on the original list
  • Cross out the other 20 on the original list
  • Extraordinary results come from being world class at a few things. Prioritize.

My 5 Things (now until the end of 2020) as of [[September 14th, 2020]]  07:33

  1. Get good enough grades to graduate summa cum laude
  2. Run a marathon
  3. Continue to publish 1 podcast per week
  4. Finish 75HARD part 2 (phase 1) and continue no alcohol or smoking through the end of the year
  5. Make consistent progress on my gymnastics and stretching
  • "The key to accomplishing your top five priorities is to avoid the other twenty"
  • "Success is a result of prioritizing your desires"
  • Alex gets introduced in the same sentence as Tim Ferriss. Very cool moment.

15- You Can't Out-Amazon Amazon

  • "When I was younger, a group of thirty-year-old entrepreneurs took me under their wing and did the same for me. This is how the world works. It's the circle of life."
  • "I'd been obsessed with studying the paths of successful people, and while that's a good approach to learning, I couldn't solve every problem that way. I couldn't copy and paste other people's playbooks and expect it to work the same for me."
  • Their playbooks worked because they played to their strengths.
  • "While there's a time for studying what worked for other people, there are moments where you have to go all in on what makes you unique."
  • When something isn't working. Ask "what if I did the opposite?" - Alex's pitch emails to agents were crashing and burning when he tried to follow the advice he saw in books. When he switched to writing it the 3am love-letter way and passionately told his story, he finally landed an agent.

16- No One Ever Asks

  • "Just ask yourself why you are doing what you are doing. Choosing the right tactics becomes easy once you know your end goal."
  • Alex meets the CEO of Zappos, Tony Hsieh, at a party in New Jersey. Alex asks if he can shadow him for a day.
  • Alex asked Tony why he doesn't let his employees shadow him. Tony replied "I'd be happy to--but no one ever asks."
  • The lesson here is if you don't ask you don't get. The worst people can say is no.

17- It's All Grey

  • College dropout success stories (Zuckerberg and Bill Gates) are not presented truthfully in the media. When their businesses had clear evidence of traction and a pressing need for their time, they decided to take a semester off on an as needed basis. This is called a "leave of absence" and most universities have some option along these lines. If their businesses took off, great. If not, they could always go back to school.
  • Alex made the same decision. He didn't want to drop out, but he needed time for his book proposal. He took a leave of absence from USC.
  • "Success is a result of prioritizing your desires"
  • "Why the hell is school supposed to be one-size-fits-all?"
  • "Family of course comes first, but at what point do I stop living for others and start living for myself?"

Step 4- Trudge Through The Mud

18- Hallelujah

  • "When your back is against the wall, you learn what you are capable of"
  • Alex wrote his book proposal in 8 days even though it usually takes 30 days.
  • Just 11 days after submitting his leave of absence, he got the book deal.

19- Grandpa Warren

  • "In college, I had all these tests and assignments, and reading felt like taking medicine. Now it was like drinking wine."
  • "you will be successful if the people you hope to have love you, do love you"
  • "You can't produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant"
  • "I insist on a lot of time being spent, almost every day, to just sit around and think"
  • "You don't have to swing at everything--you can wait for your pitch."
  • "Although people won't meet with you for the reason you want, that doesn't mean they won't meet at all. Just find another angle. Figure out what they need and use that as your way in."
  • "by offering to work for free under Graham, he set himself up to make much more in the long term. Instead of trying to get paid as much as possible in dollars, Buffett chose to get paid in mentorship, expertise, and connections." -> One path leads to a linear life, the other an exponential.
  • "Reading the damn footnotes isn't just a task on Buffett's to-do list--it's his outlook on life"

20- The Motel 6

  • Warren Buffett rejects Alex's interview request many times over. Alex continues to increase his effort and keeps asking, but it goes nowhere.
  • "You haven't spent enough time warming up the gatekeeper. You should send flowers to Mr. Buffett's assistant."
  • "You need to understand that business is not target practice. It's not about obsessing over a bull's-eye. It's about putting as many balls in the air as possible and seeing which one hits."
  • "You need to start working on building a pipe-line and getting other balls in the air. Business is not target practice."
  • Alex flies to Omaha hoping that he can "bump into" Warren. He doesn't.

21- Frog Kissing

  • Alex interviews Dean Kamen based on a referral from his inside man at Microsoft.
  • Dean is an extremely accomplished engineer. He has been awarded the National Medal of Technology and was inducted into the National Investors Hall of Fame.
  • "Let's say there's a one-in-one-hundred chance you're going to get something right. If you're willing to do it more than a hundred times, you start to approach the probability, that, eventually, you're going to get it right."
  • "After all this time and effort, if you give up, it's because you are weak. You've lost your vision. You've lost your courage. Sooner or later there's going to be an answer."
  • "If I gave you the map that 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 their trip the second time."
  • "it's better to prove [through first principles thinking] that it can't be done than to exhaust the infinite number of ways to fail."
  • "Restating the boundaries... is sometimes what gives you the insight to create an innovative solution." (Power of Positive Constraints)
  • "reframe the question in a new way that is amenable to a different kind of solution" (Power of Positive Constraints)

22- The Shareholders Meeting

  • Alex (and 5 friends) go to Omaha to the Berkshire Shareholders Meeting. This way, they can "interview" Warren by asking questions from the audience if they game the lottery system.
  • "If there was one thing I learned on The Price Is Right, it's that there's always a way."
  • 3 of the 6 get selected to ask questions
  • "To attract money, you should deserve money... You should explain to people why that record is a product of sound thinking rather than simply being in tune with a trend or simply just being lucky."
  • Alex asks Warren about The Avoidance List & it misses the mark. The whole stadium laughs at Alex. It turns out Dan made that stuff up.

23- Mr. Kinggg!

  • This is the wildest coincidence in the book. Alex is moping about being a bad interviewer because of how poorly the Warren conversation went. As he is doing this, he and his friend see Larry King get out of a car and walk into a grocery store. Alex finds King and asks him to get breakfast together.
  • Alex asks Larry King for interviewing tips over breakfast and Larry introduces Alex to Cal Fussman.
  • For the next week or so, Alex was mentored by Larry and Cal.

Some tips and thoughts from the pro's

  • Don't copy the style of Larry King or Oprah. They have their styles because that's what makes them the most comfortable. Because they are comfortable, their guests are comfortable which leads to a good interview.
  • "Just sit at the table and let your curiosity ask the questions."
  • "People like human beings" they don't like random names in their emails.

Alex realizes that all of his big "yesses" came from in-person interactions.

24- The Final Bullet

Alex arranges for a 5-minute in-person meeting with Bill Gates' chief of staff. In the meeting, Alex convinces the chief of staff to let him interview Bill.

  • If you don't ask, you don't get.
  • "When you speak with slides, you become a caption. Never be a caption."

Step 5- The Third Door

25- The Holy Grail: Part 1

Alex reads up on Bill Gates and shares some details on Bill's life. He prepares for the interview and asks Malcolm Gladwell for advice.

  • "The potential to unlock your future is in your hands--but first, you have to pick up the damn phone."

26- The Holy Grail: Part 2

  • Bill Gates reads a lot of Steven Pinker.
  • Most of Alex's questions to Bill are about negotiation and deal making.
  • "the first step in a sales meeting is having to blast through skepticism, and the best way to do that is by overwhelming people with your expertise."
  • make your sales pitch about directly addressing pain-points you know that the other party has. For example a big-company moves very slow, so Gates pitched them on how fast he could turn-around the product.
  • Long-term strategic positioning is more important than short-term cash.
  • Focus on the fundamentals. Know everything about the other party's background: their fears, incentives, desires, and context.
  • "Gates was essentially telling me to stop worrying about the BuzzFeed tricks. The best negotiating tactic is to build a genuine, trusting relationship. "
  • The earlier you make the person you are interviewing laugh (maybe by asking them to tell you a funny story) the better the interview will go.

27- The Third Door

  • Even with the help of Bill Gates, Alex still couldn't interview Warren. "Not only was the answer still no, but I'd been so persistent I got myself blacklisted."
  • "Not once had I stopped to ask myself, "Am I being the kind of person people want to help?"
  • "Life will keep beating you over the head with the same lesson until you listen"
  • "there is no tipping point. It's all just little steps."
  • "A tipping point only appears in hindsight... Being an entrepreneur is about pushing, not tipping."
  • You have to build a pipeline. When you get a no from one person, its okay because you've been working 30 other angles.
  • "You have no way of knowing what's going on in the lives of the people in your pipeline. You can't anticipate their mood or how generous they're feeling. All you can do is control your effort."
  • Think bigger and think differently.
  • You have to give people an offer they can't refuse.
  • "People don't want to do small shit. You need to think bigger and think differently."
  • "When it's in front of you... make your move."

28- Redefining Success

  • Alex interviews Steve Wozniak. People question this because Steve Jobs is the "more exciting success story of the pair."
  • Woz shares that he had two life goals. "The first was to create something with engineering that changes the world. The second was to live life on my own terms."
  • Woz obviously reached those goals and he is "happy because [he does] what he wants everyday"
  • "Society tells you that success is getting the most powerful position possible," Wozniak said. "But I asked myself: Is that what would make me happiest?"
  • Woz clearly seems like a happy guy. Who's to say Steve Jobs was more successful? Define what success means to you.

29- Staying an Intern

  • Alex interviews Pitbull (the music artist) in Miami.
  • "There's noting better than to be an intern in life... when you go from intern to CEO, no one can bullshit you."
  • Don't ask people for advice, ask people for their stories and deduce the advice.

30- The Collision

  • Alex interviews Jane Goodall.
  • Alex realizes this is his first female interviewee.
  • "I was the perfect example of a guy claiming to care about equal treatment, but not once had I ever looked within myself and asked if I was walking the walk."
  • "It's the biases we don't know we hold that are the most dangerous."

31- Turning Darkness Into Light

Alex interviews Maya Angelou.

  • "Every storm runs out of rain."
  • "Take as much as you can from those who went before you."
  • "Nothing so frightens me as writing, but nothing so satisfies me."
  • "Easy reading is damn hard writing."
  • Almost everything is learned so almost everything is learnable.
  • Get out of the box and expose yourself to great works and big ideas (Aristotle, Taoism, MLK, Cesar Chavez)

32- Sitting Down with Death

Alex interviews Jessica Alba. They talk a lot about cancer. So many products at the store are really bad. Many common household items can cause cancer because of the dangerous chemicals in them. That motivated Jessica to create natural home products that don't slowly kill you.

  • "What's the best lesson your dad every taught you?" (good interview question)
  • Alex explains the Third Door framework to Jessica, and she agrees that it's really true.

33- The Imposter

Alex was supposed to interview Mark Zuckerberg based on an intro from Qi Lu. Alex isn't allowed backstage at the event where he was supposed to briefly meet Zuckerberg and the conversation never happened. Oops.

34- The Greatest Gift

Alex interviews Quincy Jones. Quincy wrote the Austin Powers introduction music bossa nova Jazz. Need I say any more?

Quincy helps Alex realize how "you have to cherish your mistakes." This helps him cope with the Zuckerberg mishap.

  • "I swore to myself that from now on I would be unattached to succeeding, and unattached to failing. Instead, I would be attached to trying and growing."

35- Getting In The Game

Alex's friend Matt (who he met in an earlier chapter) introduces Alex to Lady Gaga. Alex ends up helping Lady Gaga prepare for multiple interviews and keynote speeches because he studied her work so well in preparation for meeting her.

  • "Genius is the opposite of expectation"

Alex reflects on the journey

  • "In a way, it just seemed like a series of little decisions"
  • "It is our choices that show who we really are, far more than our abilities" (Dumbledore)
  • "While Qi Le and Sugar Ray were both born with remarkable abilities, what made them stand out... was their choices. Qi Time was a choice. Chasing the school bus was a choice."
  • "Everyone has the power to make little choices that can alter their lives forever. You can either choose to give in to inertia and continue waiting in line for the First Door, or you can choose to... take the Third Door."
  • The mindset of possibility transforms lives. Making these choices is possible.
  • "when you change what you believe is possible, you change what becomes possible."
"when you change what you believe is possible, you change what becomes possible."


  • Alex apologized to his grandmother about breaking the promise on her life. She forgives him.
  • "my focus was on gathering the wisdom of the greats so their hindsight could be my generation's foresight..."
  • the real takeaway is the idea of possibility... "while you can give someone all the best knowledge and tools..." they can still feel stuck. "But if you can change what someone believes is possible, their life will never be the same."

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