The Jay Kim Show #10: James Altucher (Transcript)
Jay: As part of our big launch week, we have an amazing guest on this show today. A personal favorite of mine who I’ve been following for a long, long time, and his name is James Altucher. James is probably the easiest and most relatable thought leader you’ll find out there these days and the reason for it is because he always takes a very honest and open approach with everything he does. Listening to him is very therapeutic because he’s not afraid to share with you both his successes and his failures, and he also just speaks his mind. When you hear him speak, it’s so comforting. It’s like having a conversation with an old friend or maybe even a close family member.
James is a brilliant entrepreneur. He used to work at HBO, and then he got into tech, so he started a company that designed websites for the likes of American Express, Con Edison, Time Warner, and even the Wu-Tang Clan. After that he was a hedge fund manager because he’s a very savvy investor. Along the way he became a best-selling author, a famous podcaster, and a highly sought after public speaker. His last book, Choose Yourself!, was a Wall Street Journal best seller, and that’s only because he decided to self-publish and not go to traditional publishing route. That book alone has sold more than half a million copies to date. USA Today named that book, Choose Yourself!, among the 12 best business books of all time.
We are so lucky to have him on the show today. He has just launched his new book, which is called Reinvent Yourself, which is just another treasure trove of gold. I know you guys are going to get a ton of value out of this episode. Let’s just get right into the show.
Jay: James, thank you so much for coming on the show. We’re very excited to have you. This is a new launched show, first ever in Hong Kong, which is kind of strange to hear, because podcasts have been around for a long time. We’re very excited. We’re happy to have you on the show.
James: Jay, thanks so much for inviting to come on the show. I’m really excited. This is the first Hong Kong based podcast I’m on.
Jay: Well what a coincidence. For our audience out here, I mean I’m sure you have readers, subscribers from Asia, but for those us out here that haven’t heard of you or don’t follow the space, maybe you can just give us a quick intro on who you are and how you became such a successful entrepreneur.
James: Well I’ve been involved in a lot of different businesses. I mean I’ve been all over the place, probably more than what most people should do. I started close to 20 companies, most of them have failed abysmally. I’ve made money. I’ve lost money. I’ve made money. I’ve lost money. I’ve made money. I’ve written 18 books. I have my own podcast that I’ve had people like Mark Cuban, Peter Thiel, Arianna Huffington, all sorts of people on my podcast. Also, I’m a very active investor.
Jay: Yeah, that’s a great intro. Your podcast, by the way, is awesome. I follow it. It was one of the reasons that I decided to start a podcast. You inspired me, so I wanted to thank you for that, James.
James: Excellent. Thank you. That’s good to know.
Jay: Yeah, and just as a side note, and what’s very funny is … Okay, we’ll talk about this later, because you’re such an honest guy when you talk about your stuff and when you open up. One of the things that I loved was when you say how before every podcast call, you’re like, you’re kind of secretly hoping that the other person wouldn’t show up. I actually do that too, but I only thought it’s because I just started, so I’m not seasoned.
James: No. No. This happens to me every single time, because I get really nervous right beforehand. I just feel like the nervousness could be … Your stress goes up. The stress would be instantly relieved if they simply cancelled.
Jay: Yes, so thank you for sharing that as well, because I look up to you, obviously, and a lot of the thought leaders in the space. I’m like they never go through this sort of stuff. This is amateur stuff. When you said that, it kind of actually helped motivate me more.
James: Jay, let’s think about this for a second. Obviously, professionals go through nervousness. What really does separate out an amateur … Some qualities of an amateur are just found among professionals, even if they don’t admit it. What really does separate out an amateur from a professional, do you think?
Jay: Well I think that when you have done a certain thing, such as let’s say public speaking, for example. You’re a public speaker as well.
Jay: I have almost never public spoke in my life, so I think I’d be deathly afraid to do it, but I think once you get onstage and perhaps you do it more, it might be more comfortable each time you do it. I don’t know. I wouldn’t be able to tell you. Maybe you can share what your experience is public speaking.
James: I guess in general, let’s take public speaking or podcasting, is that I still get very nervous before every talk. After every talk, I want to know if I did good or bad. I am nervous afterwards too. During the talk itself, I feel very calm. I understand what the crowd is all about. I think that did improve over time, my ability to kind of feel the feedback of the crowd and interact with it. I don’t know if that made me a professional. I guess it did. I deliver what the crowd wants, so that’s professional in that case.
Jay: Right. I think for me, I’m like a really … I have to prepare. I have to do a lot of preparation beforehand, because for some reason, I feel like that will help.
James: It does. Well that’s a good point actually. Preparation also helps. With public speaking, preparation might just mean you give the same talk a lot. Like you might not necessarily have to prepare for the crowd. You just have to know your talk really well. For podcasting, it’s really hard. You have to prepare really hard for each different guest, so that you stand out. Your podcast stands out for that guest.
Jay: Yeah, that’s right, especially in the podcast circuit. You actually have some quite unique speakers, which is nice and very refreshing, but the entrepreneurship type podcast in the states is kind of … It’s been played out a bit. I feel like there’s a lot of recycling of the circuit.
James: Yeah, I agree.
Jay: It’s difficult, I guess. It’s challenging to find good questions and good speakers. That’s one of the good things, the cool things about your podcast, is because you have some very really interesting guests. I love the one that you did with Jewel actually. That was amazing.
James: Yeah, it was great. Thank you for saying that. I really dont go for entrepreneurs. I go for peak performers. Jewel’s someone who was a peak performer at one time. Maybe she will be again. It’s interesting to know what she went through. I think about that podcast everyday.
Jay: Yeah, it was a really good one. James, you done so many different things. You mentioned just now that you were a hedge fund guy. I relate to you, because I’ve been in finance my entire life. I’m actually a hedge fund guy right now. I feel like it’s funny, because most hedge fund guys are very good at what they do. They never really think about doing anything else, because I guess they’re making so much money, or they genuinely love what they do, and they’re good at it.
I’m not like that, so I’ve always sort of looked for sort of side things to do, and found inspiration in other stuff. Again, your content was really helpful for me a lot of the times along the way when I was feeling sort of lost. For example, your last book, which is Choose Yourself, it was a great one. I read it at a time when it was a challenging time in my life. That book has now sold something like half a million copies, right?
James: Yeah, yeah. Over half a million copies.
Jay: Yeah, so that was incredible, self published as well, which is an amazing feat. Maybe you can just run us through what that was. Then, obviously, you just launched a new book, Reinvent Yourself, which I just finished reading. I got it on Kindle two days ago. In the last two days, to prepare actually, talk about preparation, I listened. I really listened to your audio book on Choose Yourself and then I read the Kindle
version of Reinvent Yourself.
James: Oh my God. That’s great. You did a lot of work. Choose Yourself was interesting, because I kept feeling for decades, and I’m not that old, but for decades, I kept feeling like, ugh, if I want to get something done, I have to get approvals or permission from maybe this boss or this publisher or this TV person or this investor. I always was trying to get permission from people. Maybe I needed a college degree. Maybe I needed a law degree or whatever. You go through this as a hedge fund manager. You would like to be hedge fund manager, because you’re interested in investments, but part of the job is being chosen by all of these investors who you may or may not like selling to them. It’s not really part of your job description, but you have to do it.
With Choose Yourself, I really wanted to figure out all the ways in which I could just choose myself without having to rely on other people. You mentioned the book was self published. I did that on purpose. I’ve been published by regular publishers. I could’ve published Choose Yourself with regular publishers, but then I wouldn’t be choosing myself. When you write a book and you want to get published, if you go the traditional route, you need an editorial assistant. You need an editor. You need a marketing department. You need a publisher. You need the bookstore purchasers. They all have to say yes, Jay Kim is an author we want to publish. They all have to approve. They all have to choose you.
Now when you self publish, you can write the book. You can hire someone to edit the book. You can hire someone to design the cover. You can hire someone to do the interior design, or you can do it yourself. You’re in charge of your marketing. You can upload it to Amazon, which, by the way, is the world’s largest book seller by far. Now you’ve published a book. You didn’t need any permission at all to do it. By the way, you could potentially make much more money self publishing, which many people I know have done, because you get 70% of the profits instead of 10% of the profits. That was a classic example where I took out the middle and I chose myself to publish a book.
Now it’s not just about knowing the techniques. You also have to say, “Hey, I don’t need someone else to validate me.” We very much, internally, want other people to validate us and say, “James is great, so I’m going to publish his book.” We feel good when that happens, but we also work on yourself kind of almost psychologically and emotionally and with your health and everything. It’s like you’re in training to choose yourself. That’s important as well.
Jay: Yeah, that’s something I guess you just have to find for yourself. I think that book is very highly relevant actually to the Asian audience. I don’t know sort of … I don’t know that much about your background and your upbringing and what not, but for Asians, especially, entrepreneurship is kind of looked down upon.
When I was growing up, my parents wanted me to be a doctor, right? If I told them that look, I’m going to go and try to start an online business, or be an entrepreneur, they’d be like, “Okay, change your last name. We’re going to disown you now.” I think that a lot of people out here are living a mold and someone else’s dream, as opposed to choosing themselves. I think that this book, that earlier book, would actually be highly relevant to our audience here.
James: Yeah. No, I think so too. I think those … First off, there’s a huge element of what I call corporatism in Asia, and in America too, but it’s dying down more in America, where it’s not necessarily a capitalist society. It’s a corporatist society, where big corporations kind of rule your day to day decision making. That’s kind of dying out in America. In fact, most of the jobs created in the past few years have been part time or freelance jobs, or lifestyle entrepreneur jobs. In Asia, I still think there’s a very big emphasis on corporatist culture. That’s still very influential.
Again, you can be an employee and still choose yourself. It really all boils down to who are you willing to let choose your own life vision? Are you going to let your boss do it? Are you going to do it? Once you take more and more control over your own life vision and your life purpose, then things start to change. Whether you’re an employee or an entrepreneur or whatever, things change. It’s not necessarily about just being an entrepreneur.
Jay: Right. Right. Right. Yeah, it’s a great book. I mean I’ve read it twice now, or listened to the audio version once, and actually read it. There’s a lot of good actionable stuff in there. It’s a good way to sort of reframe the way you think, because a lot of times, people don’t really think about doing anything themselves. They’re just kind of like let’s go into the system. Let’s just get a paycheck and work for someone else. I think it doesn’t happen … Until something happens like the financial crisis or a game changing moment in your life, you don’t actually think about it. You know? You kind of just are okay being comfortable. I love your sort of lesson on 10 ideas a day, and the whole idea sex thing. I think that’s great. It’s like changing your brain, right?
James: Yeah, I mean it’s very important. If you don’t exercise your idea muscle or your creativity muscle everyday, it’s going to atrophy just like any other muscle, I always encourage people to write down 10 ideas a day. Write down 10 bad ideas a day. They don’t have to be good ideas. You don’t have to use them. You don’t have to look at them ever again. Just do it. Within six months, you’ll be an idea machine. It works. You’ll start being much more creative, whether you’re an employee or an entrepreneur.
Now if you’re a creative employee, you might say, “Oh my boss crushes all my ideas. He never listens to me anyway.” Well it’s just not going to be true. You’ll suddenly start talking to people in other divisions or other companies. You’ll start making [inaudible 00:15:00] elsewhere. Magic things happens when you start choosing yourself. Again, whether you’re an employee or an entrepreneur.
One thing you said that was interesting was that people want to take the safe route. The irony is, and there’s two ironies. The first irony is it’s not really safe anymore. The world is changing. Just one industry that’s about to change huge is the auto industry. Once everybody’s driving around in self driving cars, 90% of the auto industry’s going to disappear. Those jobs aren’t going anywhere. They’re not being replaced.
Industries are changing. No industry is safe anymore. The other irony is that we live in a fast changing world. We’re not immune to that speed of change, that velocity of change. We want to change too. If you’re in a job for too long, you feel stuck. You feel in a rut. You just want to get out of there. You want to choose yourself, or as I call it in the latest book, you want to reinvent yourself.
Jay: Right. Okay, so let’s say I am stuck in my day job. I think it’s safe, but then I’m listening to this podcast. I’m like, “Ugh, you know what?
James has said that,” you know maybe I work in the auto industry and I’m like, “Oh no, my future’s doomed.” Okay? I read Choose Yourself and then so Reinvent Yourself just came out. I run to the store and I grab it. From what I gathered, it’s almost … I don’t know if it’s a Choose Yourself 2.0. It definitely has a lot of actionable steps. It has, what I enjoyed was a lot of the sort of lessons taken away from perhaps your podcast, or guys that you follow, or you’ve read about.
James: Yeah. No, I think lessons from … I basically looked at maybe 50 to 100 different peak performers. Anybody ranging from Jewel, as you mentioned, to Mark Cuban or Peter Thiel. Heck, I even have a chapter on Pope Francis.
Jay: Right. Right.
James: He’s such an unusual character. I’m not Catholic or anything, but you can learn. One key I always try to do is what’s one takeaway, what’s one thing I can learn from everyone? I think that’s an important thing about reinventing yourself. It’s like everyone you look at, everyone you interact with, study them a little bit and figure out what’s that one thing you could learn from them. That may be a crucial part of your own personal, very unique reinvention.
The first thing I always want to mention is that it is really important. You can’t come up with ideas. You can’t reinvent yourself if you’re sick in bed. Physical health is important. That means all the basics of exercise, nutrition, sleep. Emotional health is very important. I was talking to one guy, Mike Massimino. He’s been an astronaut. He was in space all a bunch of times. He was telling me his classmates in MIT, there were 10 of them. Four of them became astronauts that went into outerspace. If you just hang out in a bar, it’s not like the case that you could look up and down the bar and say, “Hey, four of us are going to be astronauts.” That would never ever happen.
You are basically the average of the people you’re around. There’s also the saying stand next to the smartest person in the room. That’s very important, that kind of emotional health. The creative [healthy 00:18:30] place is writing those ideas down or doing some creative thing everyday.
Then what I call spirituality, but really just always find time in your day to do positive things for yourself. Like write a story, or look at different types of jobs, or explore your interests, or read a book, or whatever. Just move forward several times a day in a positive way. We’re too used to thinking negatively.
The other thing is look back to what … Again, this is something that’s hard for people before their idea muscles fully out there, but look back to the things that really fascinate you. Maybe they fascinate you now. Maybe they fascinated you when you were 12, 13, 14 years old. Write them down and see now those things aged. Let’s say soccer or football fascinated you when you were a kid. Obviously if you’re 40 years old and working for a car company, you’re not going to be a professional soccer player, but there’s maybe 50 other anxiliary businesses related to soccer that you can rise up in. I saw many examples.
I knew one guy, Matthew Barry. He wrote movies in Hollywood, very successful screenwriter. He got sick of it. He didn’t like doing it. He always loved fantasy sports. That was his obsession. He started blogging on a fantasy sports site and making $100 a post. He was dead broke. He had just gone through a divorce. All his money that he made from movies went there. He was making $100 a blog post. That was a start. Now, 10 years later, he’s sold at least one business in fantasy sports, and he’s ESPN’s, ESPN is a main sports network in America, he’s ESPN’s TV anchor for fantasy sports. He’s the most successful guy in fantasy sports.
Things build up over time, but he found something that he loved as a kid, that aged with time, and he aged with it. He wasn’t going to be a professional sports start, but he became a professional fantasy sports media celebrity.
Jay: That’s great, great career pivot for him.
Jay: Yeah. I like how in your books, and obviously, just you are very open and honest. I think one of the chapters that I enjoyed was the Elon Musk lessons learned. You were basically like being entrepreneur sucks. I mean it’s like it’s a disaster, I think you said.
James: Think about Elon Musk. First off, obviously, he’s a super genius. He’s a hard worker. He’s creative beyond measure. He’s also in good physical health.
PayPal was a hard, bloody business to launch and start and sell and compete. Elon Musk, at first, was at X.com. He was competing against Peter Thiel and they were both competing with eBay. What a bloody war that was. In fact, there’s even a book, I think, called the PayPal Wars.
Then with SpaceX, he just reads a bunch of books and talks to people, and then he builds a spaceship. Who does that? He did it. He launched it and it blew up. Then it blew up again. Then it even blew up a third time. Finally, he was down to his last dime. I think he was living on his friend’s couch. He was a former billionaire. He’s living on his friend’s couch. He told a friend of mine, “If this spaceship doesn’t launch, I’m done. If it blows up, I’m out of business.” It went well. It did well. Now he’s worth like whatever, $8 or $9 billion. Solar City, Tesla, SpaceX, all these businesses.
It’s hard. It’s a hard thing to do to be the top of the world. You don’t have to be the top of the world to be a happy and tranquil and content person. I don’t know if Elon Musk is tranquil or not. I think there’s a lot of blessings to be learned from him, but it’s not necessarily the [route prints 00:22:59] that I would choose for myself.
Jay: Right. Yeah. Elon was actually here last year for this very festival that we’re launching next week. [inaudible 00:23:09] Hong Kong 2016. He was the keynote speaker, so he’s a very impressive dude. James, you always take this honest approach. I have to ask you. At what point, when you were sort of putting yourself out there, did you realize that you know what, it’s okay to open the kimono, as they say, and just be honest and connect that way with your audience, as opposed to having a front. I mean this is something that even I struggle now, because i’ just getting into this podcasting thing. A lot of times, I listen. I consume a lot of content. I feel like, okay, this is how I should be, as opposed to maybe just being me. Right?
James: Yeah, I think, again, this was very difficult in America, but I think also in Asia, it’s slightly different values about this as well. There’s this sense that you can’t fail. You always have to be perfect. You always have to be on top of your game. You can’t admit that … Not only that. Sometimes you could admit that you failed. Oh I failed 10 years ago or 20 years ago. What about if you’re failing right now? It’s very tricky how you write about it and talk about it and discuss it and be honest about it in a way that’s sincere.
At one point, I realized oh my gosh, everybody I know is just faking it. All these people I know are talking about the financial crisis, like in 2009. They don’t know anything. Nobody has a clue as to what’s going on. They all act they’re so smart and they’re so intelligent. I’m even sitting there, listening, and thinking, “Oh they’re so intelligent.” But I even know their stories. They’re all faking it.
I just realized at the same time, things were happening for me personally. I was going through a divorce. I wasn’t getting any jobs. I was running out of money. Every decision that I’ve ever made in the past kind of led me up to that point that wasn’t really working out so well. I just figured, well, okay, how about I just make other decisions that are completely different. Just start being straightforward about what’s going on in my life and in the industries I know about and tell all these stories about things that have happened to me that have been really horrible. It’s almost like it gives permission for others to realize it’s okay to have horrible experiences in your life. Life goes on. That’s the point of life is to ride this rollercoaster.
Jay: Yeah, I think that’s right. That’s completely right, especially when you put yourself out there in a position to be vulnerable and for other people to look in. There’s so many times where actually people don’t care as much as you think that they care about you, or what you’re going through. I don’t know. I mean I find myself doing that all the time. Even something as simle as like oh my website’s not perfect. People are going to hate me. They’re going to unfollow me or whatever. At the end of the day, they don’t actually care about it as much as you do. Yeah, I guess it’s a mental battle. James, have you ever been out here to Asia or Hong Kong?
James: I haven’t been to Hong Kong. Actually, I passed through on a plane, but that’s it. I’ve been to Thailand and India.
Jay: Okay. Yes, so this is a great sort of segway into Asia and hopefully, some of the audience out here starts to follow you and read your stuff. Do you have anything planned? Obviously, you just launched a book. That’s probably occupying a lot of your time right now, Reinvent Yourself. What sort of things are you working on for 2017? What else do you have going on?
James: Well I’m really excited about my podcast, the James Altucher Show. We have some good guests coming up. Maybe I’m going to reinvent myself. Maybe I’m going to work on some fiction.
Jay: Ooh very nice.
James: What are you going to focus on?
Jay: Well I’m focusing on this podcast, obviously, this is launching next week. Here’s a story. I want to take a moment, actually to thank you publicly. I followed you. I think I subscribed to one of your newsletters, which you have several. I subscribed to one of them, the Altucher Report. By just reading that, I clicked through and then I saw a webinar you did with Tucker. I watched the entire thing. It’s what you were talking about earlier about self publishing. I watched the entire two hour thing. It was at the same time where I just erad your book, Choose Yourself. I was like, you know what? I’m going to write a book.
I had a friend introduce me to Tucker and connected with him. I was like what do I write about? I don’t know anything. The only thing I do know about is fitness, so I started writing a fitness book. That’s why I got to work with Zach and those guys. The book is coming out in March.
James: Oh I’m definitely going to buy it. What’s it called?
Jay: It’s called Hack Your Fitness. Yeah.
James: I’m going to buy it. I think Tucker’s a great guy. I think he’s a great proponent for self publishing. Look, here you are. You’re in the hedge fund business, but you’re also doing a podcast. You also wrote a book about fitness. This is the modern life now. This is the life we live in is that you have to choose yourself in a variety of areas, so that if you’re ever, oh today didn’t feel so good on the hedge fund side, but oh, I’m going to write another chapter for my fitness book and I feel good about that. These are ways we seek out our interests and see what works.
Jay: Yeah, absolutely. James, is there any place that my audience should go to find you, follow you? You have a bunch of different sort of course offerings and newsletters that are available on your site, which is JamesAltucher.com. Where do you want the audience to sort of look for you?
James: Yeah, JamesAltucher.com is great. That’s perfect. Look up my books. I think I sell them in Hong Kong on Amazon. Text me on my phone 203-512-2161. Sometimes, I even answer.
Jay: It’s Reinvent Yourself. Right now, it’s just on Kindle. Is that right?
James: No, it’s paperback and Kindle.
Jay: Oh it is.
Jay: Okay. Okay. Is there going to be an audio one of that coming up?
Jay: Okay. Awesome. I actually really lie the audio of Choose Yourself, because there were some stuff kind of like segue stuff that you can’t really capture on the book.
James: I make the audio like its own product, really.
Jay: Oh yeah. It’s great. It’s great. It was like reading another book again. James, thank you so much. It was awesome having you on the show. Congratulations on your new book, Reinvent Yourself. I know it’s going to do well for sure. We really appreciate having you on the show.
James: Jay, thanks so much for having me here. I really appreciate it. Thank you.
Jay: All right, take care. Talk to you soon.
Asia's latest investing trends and on-the-ground field research delivered directly to your inbox