Jerry Seinfeld and Maria Popova - The Tim Ferriss Show

Jerry Seinfeld and Maria Popova - The Tim Ferriss Show

Start (00:00:00)

  • Jerry Seinfeld and Maria Popova share their insights and advice on the Tim Ferriss Show podcast.
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Notes about this supercombo format. (00:05:32)

  • The podcast recently hit its 10th-year anniversary with 1 billion downloads.
  • This episode is a curation of the best moments from over 700 episodes.
  • The goal is to introduce lesser-known people who have had a transformative impact.
  • Bios of all guests can be found at

Enter Jerry Seinfeld. (00:06:35)

  • Jerry Seinfeld is an American stand-up comedian, actor, writer, and producer.
  • He co-created the Emmy, Golden Globe, and People's Choice award-winning Seinfeld.
  • Seinfeld was named the greatest television show of all time by TV Guide.
  • His latest book is titled "Is This Anything?"
  • He can be found on Twitter and Instagram @jerryseinfeld.

Jerry’s writing process for survival in the comedy ecosystem. (00:07:02)

  • Jerry Seinfeld describes writing comedy as a survival skill, emphasizing the importance of learning to write as a stand-up comedian.
  • His writing process involves starting with 15-20 pages of material, including random observations and ideas, which he then refines through multiple rewrites, focusing on the flow and sound of each word.
  • Seinfeld views performing on stage as an experiment, using the audience's reaction to further refine his material.
  • He suggests a system for effective writing, involving setting a specific time limit for writing sessions to create a sense of accomplishment and reward.
  • Seinfeld compares writing to exercise, highlighting the need for a structured approach and achievable goals.

Lessons Jerry would teach in a writing class and how they relate to his fitness methods. (00:15:59)

  • Teaches students to accept their mediocrity and put in the hours to improve.
  • Compares writing to fitness, emphasizing the importance of a structured system and routine.
  • Uses Bill Phillips' "Body for Life" book as an example of an effective system for getting in shape.
  • Treats the brain like a dog, using repetition and systemization to master it.
  • Believes audience feedback is the only meaningful form of feedback.
  • Advises writers to wait 24 hours before discussing their work with anyone to preserve the positive feeling of accomplishment.
  • Compares this to naming a baby, as reactions can influence the writer's perception of their work.
  • Emphasizes the importance of self-nurturing and self-criticism in the writing process.

Routines essential to Jerry’s well-being and their frequency and duration. (00:20:49)

  • Jerry Seinfeld emphasizes the importance of routines for his well-being and reducing depression.
  • Key routines include exercise (weight training and Transcendental Meditation), which he believes are essential for stress reduction, energy recovery, and concentration improvement.
  • Seinfeld practices Transcendental Meditation at least twice a day and weight training three times a week for an hour per session.
  • He finds these routines challenging but believes they balance the overwhelming forces within humanity and keep him grounded.
  • Jerry Seinfeld highlights the extreme difficulty of writing, describing it as the most challenging thing in the world.
  • He emphasizes that writing is not something that comes easily and that even the greatest writers struggle with it.
  • Seinfeld encourages aspiring writers to recognize the difficulty of the task and to encourage themselves throughout the process.

How nurturing creativity is like parenting, and Jerry’s belief about pain and knowledge. (00:25:06)

  • Jerry believes nurturing creativity is similar to parenting.
  • He emphasizes the importance of positive reinforcement and encouragement.
  • Jerry explains his belief that pain is knowledge rushing in to fill a void.

Additional ways Jerry mitigates depressive episodes. (00:26:33)

  • Jerry has struggled with depression for decades but has found some relief in recent years.
  • Writing and weight training have been helpful for him.
  • Jerry believes that depression often accompanies creativity and that it's part of the package.
  • He acknowledges that most people have a tendency towards depression.

A resilience-building failure. (00:27:43)

  • Jerry Seinfeld moved to LA after building a reputation in New York City.
  • He struggled to get spots at The Comedy Store, despite his success in New York.
  • The owner of the club, Mitsy Shaw, told him he needed someone to "step on him" and that she would give all available spots to another comedian.
  • Seinfeld was angry and resentful, but he used this as fuel to improve his writing discipline and work harder.
  • Alexis Ohanian and his co-founders of Reddit had a similar experience when they met with a Yahoo executive who dismissed their company as a "rounding error."
  • They responded by creating a poster that said "You are a rounding error" and putting it on the wall in their office.
  • This story illustrates the importance of using setbacks as motivation to succeed.

The importance of playing the game well. (00:32:21)

  • Gamifying problems makes them more enjoyable and fun.
  • Seinfeld doesn't care if he drops dead tomorrow as long as he feels like he played the game well.
  • An example of gamifying is Seinfeld's productivity secret of marking crosses on a calendar.
  • Statistics can be useful for improvement, such as tracking workout progress.
  • The human brain is easily tricked and responds to challenges.

“Survival is the new success.” (00:33:58)

  • Seinfeld defines success broadly and believes that survival is the new success.
  • In the entertainment industry, especially stand-up comedy, attrition is high and it's difficult to maintain success.
  • Seinfeld compares the entertainment industry to a toxic ecosystem where many careers fail.
  • Talk show gigs are like a sick human experiment that tests the limits of human endurance.
  • The pressure and demands of these gigs can lead to burnout and failure.

Jerry’s billboard. (00:36:28)

  • Jerry Seinfeld reflects on a past experience teaching a comedy course.
  • He suggests that aspiring comedians should focus on hard work rather than seeking external help or education.

Enter Maria Popova. (00:39:22)

  • Introduction of Maria Popova, an essayist, author, and cultural critic.
  • She is known for her literary and arts commentary, and her work is archived in the Library of Congress.

Are you correctly pronouncing names you’ve only read but never heard? (00:39:46)

  • Tim Ferris and Maria Popova discuss the challenges of correctly pronouncing names that have only been read but never heard.
  • Popova shares her experience of mispronouncing words, especially scientific terms, due to her extensive reading.
  • She mentions the embarrassment of discovering the correct pronunciation after reading something multiple times.

What does Maria do? (00:41:29)

  • Maria Popova spends most of her time reading and writing.
  • She describes her identity as someone who reads and writes, and thinks about how to live a meaningful life.

What is Brain Pickings (now The Marginalian)? (00:42:06)

  • Brain Pickings (now The Marginalian) is a collection of Maria Popova's personal, subjective, and private thinking that takes place between her reading and writing.
  • It is a record of her thoughts and interests, and is one of the few sites that Maria Popova visits constantly.

What percentage of New York Times best sellers are a result of Maria’s coverage? (00:42:47)

  • Jerry Seinfeld prefers "just in time information" rather than constantly keeping up with blogs.
  • He frequently visits Brain Pickings and Sam Harris's blog.
  • Seinfeld's coverage of books doesn't significantly impact New York Times Best Sellers because he mostly writes about old, out-of-print books.
  • He wrote about a book on wine and sensory experience illustrated by Wendy McNod, which gained popularity on Brain Pickings.
  • Brain Pickings involves a substantial amount of work, with over 400 hours of effort per month, hundreds of pieces of content daily, and 12 to 15 books read.
  • Jerry Seinfeld and Maria Popova were interviewed on The Tim Ferriss Show.
  • Seinfeld believes that interviews tend to portray individuals as static entities, while in reality, people are constantly evolving and changing.
  • Seinfeld and Popova discussed the importance of reading and how it can shape one's perspective and understanding of the world.

The common denominator that guides Maria’s reading list. (00:48:11)

  • Maria writes about a wide range of disciplines and topics, including art, science, philosophy, history, design, poetry, etc.
  • The common denominator for her reading choices is whether the book illuminates some aspect of the question of how to live a good, meaningful, and fulfilling life.

The importance of writing for an audience of one. (00:49:32)

  • Maria still writes for an audience of one, which is herself.
  • Writing is a way for her to record her thought process and navigate her way through the world.
  • She started her blog as a private record of her curiosity and shared it with seven co-workers.
  • Now, her blog has about 7 million readers every month.
  • Maria finds it surreal that she still feels like she's writing for one person, but is also aware that there are people looking on and interpreting her writing.

Contending with the temptation to create BuzzFeed-like content. (00:52:23)

  • Maria Popova and Jerry Seinfeld discuss the tension between staying true to one's creative vision and meeting audience expectations.
  • Popova resists the temptation to create popular content like listicles, prioritizing authenticity and staying true to her values.
  • Seinfeld emphasizes the importance of passion over commercial success and believes the internet's commercialization has led to a decline in cultural content quality.
  • Both Popova and Seinfeld advocate for creating content they would want to consume themselves rather than aiming to please the masses.
  • Tim Ferriss shares his experience writing "The 4-Hour Workweek" and finding the right tone by imagining he was writing to close friends.
  • Ferriss also mentions the metaphor of Malbec wine, which gained global fame after being cultivated in Argentina despite initially being considered a "garbage grape" in Europe.

The daily discipline required for Maria’s well-being. (01:00:00)

  • Jerry Seinfeld stresses the importance of balancing productivity with presence and fulfillment in life.
  • He prioritizes sleep and views lack of sleep as a failure of priorities and self-respect.
  • Seinfeld starts his day with meditation, followed by exercise, breakfast, and then writes for 2-3 hours, focusing on longer articles earlier in the day.
  • To maintain focus, he avoids distractions and takes short breaks, alternating between intense focus and brief respites.
  • Seinfeld recommends Tara Brach's podcast and books for meditation and has been using the same meditation audio from Brach since 2010.
  • For cardio, he does sprint high-intensity intervals on the elliptical and also incorporates weights and bodyweight exercises.
  • When reading, he prefers using the Kindle app on his iPad or a PDF viewer, but for older books that are out of print and don't have digital versions, he reads the physical copies and annotates them.

Maria’s note-taking system. (01:07:26)

  • Jerry Seinfeld and Maria Popova discuss their note-taking systems.
  • Seinfeld uses digital highlighting and short notes with acronyms for specific topics.
  • For physical books, he creates an alternate index on the last page, listing important topics and page numbers, as well as sections for beautiful language (BL) and quotes (Q).
  • Seinfeld employs private acronyms and shorthand in his notes, such as "LJ" for his side project "Littering Jukebox."
  • He marks external quotes with a tab labeled "F" for "find" if he's unfamiliar with the work.
  • Hyperlinks in books, similar to those found online, can lead readers to a "magnificent Rabbit Hole" of tangential references and older books, encouraging exploration beyond their usual interests and potentially discovering new and interesting works.

Seneca and the time-tested challenge of presence vs. productivity. (01:13:09)

  • Jerry Seinfeld found Seneca the Younger to be a profound influence on his life.
  • Seneca's writings resonated with Seinfeld's interest in minimalism and simplicity.
  • Seinfeld initially mistook Seneca for a Native American Elder due to his name being mentioned frequently in anthologies.
  • Seinfeld realized Seneca was a Roman philosopher and delved deeper into his writings.
  • Seneca's work, particularly "The Shortness of Life," addresses the ongoing struggle between productivity and presence.
  • Seneca's insights on this topic remain relevant despite being written thousands of years ago, even before the advent of modern distractions.
  • Seinfeld believes philosophy is essential for understanding how to live and views Seneca as an accessible gateway into philosophical thinking.
  • Seneca's writings are easy to read compared to other philosophers, especially those translated from Greek.
  • Seinfeld recommends starting with Seneca's letters, which remain relevant and relatable even in contemporary times.

Start-up opportunity? Build a note-taking tool for heavy readers/highlighters. (01:16:24)

  • Jerry Seinfeld uses a combination of hacks to manage his digital notes and highlights, including copying passages from the Kindle app to Evernote and using "paste as plain text" to remove formatting issues.
  • Seinfeld criticizes the lack of suitable tools for serious heavy reading and suggests a reward or hackathon to find a better solution.
  • Maria Popova complains about the limited number of highlights allowed on Kindle books due to DRM restrictions, which prevents her from sharing more content with her audience.
  • Older digitized books, such as those by Alan Watts, do not have this issue as they were published before DRM became prevalent.
  • Popova suggests increasing the highlight limit to make it easier for readers to share content and promote their work.

About the team behind [The Marginalian]. (01:23:08)

  • Maria Popova, the creator of The Marginalian, does all the reading and writing for the website.
  • She has an assistant, Lisa, who helps with administrative tasks such as travel arrangements, emails, and scheduling.
  • She also has a copy editor, FL, who proofreads her work.
  • Popova emphasizes the importance of proofreading and is embarrassed by typos.

Collaborative proofreading and copyediting. (01:24:44)

  • The Marginalian is currently hosted on WordPress.
  • Popova emails her articles to her copy editor, FL, every night for proofreading.
  • FL sends back corrections via email.
  • Popova prefers this method because she can easily see the highlighted words and make final decisions on stylistic suggestions.
  • Popova is not very tech-savvy and finds email to be the most efficient way to collaborate.
  • She is aware of other collaboration tools such as the share a draft plugin and the WordPress VIP sharing function, but has not used them.
  • Popova dislikes using Microsoft products and does not own any.

Self-reliance pathology and how to overcome it. (01:27:37)

  • Maria Popova was feeling overwhelmed and stressed due to her strong sense of self-sufficiency and self-reliance.
  • She had always been independent and prided herself on not needing help, but this was causing her detriment.
  • The idea of outsourcing tasks felt like an admission of weakness, even though intellectually she knew it was a strength to delegate.
  • As her project, Brain Pickings, grew, she naively thought she could maintain the same operational framework despite the increased workload.
  • Her partner eventually convinced her to consider delegating tasks.
  • Maria Popova discusses the challenges of running Brain Pickings, a popular blog that curates and comments on interesting articles.
  • She explains how she started the blog as a small newsletter with five links and gradually expanded it to include longer posts and more frequent updates.
  • As the blog grew, she struggled to keep up with the workload and felt overwhelmed by the amount of writing and research required.
  • She realized that she needed to delegate some of the tasks in order to maintain her sanity and the quality of the blog.

Finding a professional personal assistant and learning to delegate. (01:30:12)

  • Jerry Seinfeld found his personal assistant through a recommendation from a trusted friend.
  • He reached out to her after having positive interactions with her in social settings.
  • His assistant is highly organized, efficient, and dedicated, despite having a busy personal life.
  • Seinfeld's assistant handles tasks such as coordinating travel, managing speaking engagements, and preparing materials for handwritten thank-you cards to donors.
  • They communicate primarily through email and text, without using project management software.
  • A significant portion of the assistant's time is spent coordinating travel arrangements.
  • Seinfeld has recently shifted his focus from commercial conferences to speaking at universities.
  • He finds it more fulfilling to engage with students and inspire them to pursue journalism.
  • Coordinating university speaking engagements is time-consuming due to the involvement of student volunteers who may be inexperienced in event planning.

Maria’s weightlifting regimen and favorite bodyweight-only exercise. (01:34:52)

  • Prioritizes bodyweight exercises such as pull-ups and push-ups.
  • Prefers elevated push-ups with feet on a bench or bed when traveling.
  • Uses a weighted jump rope for cardio when traveling.
  • Plyometrics and TRX are handy for traveling.
  • Prefers to listen to podcasts while working out.
  • Carries a weighted jump rope when traveling for cardio.

Designing content infrastructure to be evergreen. (01:37:38)

  • Maria Popova designs her website to be evergreen by not displaying dates on posts.
  • She believes that news fetishistic culture conditions people to think that if something is not new, it is not important.
  • Popova wants to decondition this by making her content timeless.
  • She does include dates in the URL for referencing purposes, but they are not prominently displayed.
  • Popova also does not allow comments on her posts.

Cutting out the commentary contrarians. (01:39:44)

  • Jerry Seinfeld stopped reading comments on his content due to their mostly vacant, spammy, or self-promotional nature.
  • Seinfeld's Facebook page experienced a sudden surge in followers, growing from 250,000 to nearly 3 million in less than a year without any specific changes or promotions.
  • Disliking social media's superficial engagement and snap reactions, Seinfeld believes that the main source of anguish for people facing criticism is the feeling of being misunderstood or not seen for who they are.
  • To address toxic comments, Seinfeld has instructed his assistant to strictly ban users who post comments lacking humanity, patience, or thoughtful engagement.
  • Seinfeld compares his online space to his living room, emphasizing that those who behave disrespectfully or without consideration will not be welcome.
  • Seinfeld appreciates Maria Popova's website, Brain Pickings, for its positivity and optimism, which aligns with his belief in the human spirit.
  • Seinfeld schedules his tweets in advance to maintain control over his online presence.

Scheduling social media. (01:46:29)

  • Uses Buffer for Twitter and Facebook.
  • Feels compelled to post on social media despite wanting to focus on reading and writing for himself.
  • Believes that sharing his work can benefit others, especially those who reach out to him from different parts of the world.
  • Considers it selfish to keep the value of his work to himself when it could benefit others.
  • Views his curation and distillation of concepts as a form of discovery that helps people break out of their filter bubbles.
  • Received positive feedback from people who found his work meaningful and relevant to their lives.

Coping with email — and sometimes snail mail. (01:48:41)

  • Recommends using an email charter to manage email communication.
  • Most people follow the guidelines set in the email charter when contacting him.
  • Publicists often send generic, impersonal emails without reading the name of the site or the recipient's name.
  • Received a physical mail bundle addressed to someone named Brian Pickin, which he found amusing and metaphorical of his online experiences.
  • Once received a telemarketing call where the caller mistakenly referred to him as "Brian Chicken."

How to cultivate a personal inner circle and pre-screen book review requests. (01:50:47)

  • Be selective about the people you surround yourself with.
  • Your close friends should be people you genuinely like and trust.
  • Having a close inner circle helps manage social expectations.
  • Friends within your inner circle will likely produce work that you enjoy and are happy to support.
  • Acquaintances should know that there is no expectation for you to read their books.
  • Politely decline requests if the person has not done their homework and understand your interests.
  • Avoid feeling guilty about declining requests if the person has not made an effort to understand your preferences.
  • Guilt and prestige are both poor motivations for making decisions.
  • Strive to make decisions based on genuine interest and alignment with your values, rather than fear of disappointing others or seeking approval.

What donation model works best for site revenue? (01:55:10)

  • Jerry Seinfeld uses PayPal for donations but finds their data analysis tools outdated and challenging to use.
  • Recurring donations now account for two-thirds of his total donations, demonstrating a strong commitment from small, consistent contributors.
  • Seinfeld would prioritize the $3 and $10 options for recurring donations based on mathematical logic.
  • He emphasizes authentic blogging, basing decisions on his preferences as a reader rather than over-analyzing data.
  • Seinfeld initially resisted improving the mobile responsiveness of his website, Brain Pickings, due to concerns about becoming a "media company" like Buzzfeed.
  • After seven years, he launched a mobile-friendly version of the site after realizing the poor mobile experience was annoying him as a reader.

Recommended reading from [The Marginalian] and parting thoughts. (02:01:38)

  • Maria Popova recommends articles from her website, Brain Pickings, emphasizing the importance of intrinsic motivation and doing things for their own sake. She highly recommends the works of Alan Watts and quotes Paul Graham on the distorting effects of prestige on our beliefs and desires.
  • Tim Ferriss promotes his "Five Bullet Friday" newsletter, which provides a weekly summary of interesting articles, books, and discoveries. He also mentions Momentus, a company that offers high-quality supplements for sleep, cognitive health, and hormone support.
  • Jerry Seinfeld and Maria Popova were guests on The Tim Ferriss Show podcast.
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