Episode 205 – Loonshots with Safi Bahcall

Safi BahcallWhat does it take to write the most-recommended business book of the year? Safi Bahcall, author of Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries, talks about learning to write (and rewrite) a business book that matters, and it’s pure gold for anyone who has the same ambition.

This is straight talking and ruthlessly practical: people don’t care about ideas, and people don’t care about you, so how do you find a way of communicating your ideas in ways that DO engage them?

And just as importantly, how can you have fun while you do it?

Brilliant advice from one of the world’s most brilliant brains.


Safi’s website: https://www.bahcall.com/

Safi on Twitter: https://twitter.com/SafiBahcall

Alison on Twitter: https://twitter.com/bookstothesky

The Extraordinary Business Book Club on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1447064765612358/

This Book Means Business – the mentorship programme: https://alisonjones.lpages.co/this-book-means-business-mentorship/

The 10-day Business Book Proposal Challenge wait list: https://alisonjones.leadpages.co/proposal-challenge/

Alison Jones:                 I’m here today with Safi Bahcall, who received his BA summa cum laude in physics from Harvard and his PhD from Stanford. And after working for three years as a consultant for McKinsey, he co-founded a biotechnology company developing new drugs for cancer. He led its IPO and served as its CEO for 13 years. In 2008 he was named Ernst & Young’s New England Biotechnology Entrepreneur of the Year, and in 2011 he worked with the President’s Council of Science Advisors PCAST on the future of national research. And, pertinently to this podcast, he is also the author of Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas That Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries, which was shortlisted as the FT McKinsey Business Book of the Year, and was Bloomberg’s number one recommended book of the year in 2019. So welcome to the show, Safi.

Safi Bahcall:                  Thanks. Delighted to be here.

Alison Jones:                 That must have been something, actually, the number one recommended book of the year. Let’s start with that. What do you think makes people recommend this book?

Safi Bahcall:                  That’s a good question-

Alison Jones:                 You can be as modest as you like. It’s fine.

Safi Bahcall:                  Yes. Isn’t your country known for its modesty? And you’re putting me right on the spot. Tell us why your book is so great.

Alison Jones:                 Yes, nobody beats us for modesty.

Safi Bahcall:                  Yes. It’s very British of me right now. No, I think it hit a nerve. I think when I was running a business, I think not only myself, but friends of mine, we were pretty frustrated with the business book genre. And you can think of the business books genre, there’s four types. There’s the CEO biography, which occasionally is a very good read, but it’s mostly about how brilliant the CEO was and how dumb his competitors were, and it’s usually got blinders on to that person’s company and that person’s industry. So it can be sort of a good read, but how useful it is for other stuff is sort of minimal. Then there’s a professor or consultant book, where there are lots of frameworks and ideas, but they’re kind of boring, and they don’t also have the firsthand experience.

                                    Then there’s the survey book, “We asked a thousand CEOs what do they drink?” and, “Hey, the best performing companies, the CEO drank whisky, so everybody should drink whisky.” That’s sort of superficial and frustrating. And then there are books that are good storytelling books, like by journalists or other observers, and those can be fun to read, but they miss the reality of the business world. So I think there’s a gap for something that has a harder science, but also has firsthand experience, and has good storytelling and some surprising history. And so I have a sense that that’s why it hit a nerve, because there really hasn’t been a book that mixes physics, business, and history, and hasn’t been a book that has a equation in it. So I think that’s why it hit a nerve.

Alison Jones:                 It’s quite a unique spot on a Venn diagram, isn’t it, what you’ve done here?

Safi Bahcall:                  It is a very unusual mix, and I’ve been really surprised by the range of people that have responded, from admirals in the Navy, to generals in the Air Force, to startup CEOs, to millennials who just find the stories of people who overcome challenges inspiring, and also the narrative of pushing back on false histories, when you peel the layers of these kinds of histories that we read that are very superficial, and on Twitter, or magazine stories, and go a lot and go different level deeper, “What really happened with Steve Jobs?” or, “What really happened in World War II?” or, “What really happened that was behind the rise and fall of Pan Am?” Then you tease out the themes that are not the superficial themes you see all the time.

                                    It was a lot of fun for me, and I just did it because I found it interesting and fascinating to learn that all this stuff that I thought was true is not really what happened. So I kind of did it mostly for myself, because it interested me, and it entertained me, and some of the things I thought were funny, and I had no idea how it would go over. Sometimes you find a joke funny and nobody else does. And so it was kind of like writing that. I was like, “Well, this seems really interesting and funny to me. I have no idea what anyone else will think, but I’m going to go with it.”

Alison Jones:                 It seemed to work. And just for a bit of context, this was my January 2020 book. So last year I read a hundred business books in the year, and it nearly killed me, and I found myself going, “I can’t read that book. It’s too long.” It was very much like, “Short books, give me short books.” So this year I’m taking a very different pace, and I’m really richly reading, to use my phrase, one book a month.

                                    And I’m so glad I didn’t try and read this last year, frankly, because it is very chewy. It took me quite a long time to get through it. It’s quite chunky book. But actually I find myself rereading stories. I don’t do that very often, because you’re right; it was fascinating. And there’s a tradition I think in business books that you have to have your Apple case study, and you have to have a Hewlett-Packard case study, and you have got some that were familiar to me, but you have so many stories that I had never heard before. Tell me, in the history of Loonshots, which came first; did you take that idea of these crazy things that work and they shouldn’t, and how do we nurture those, or did you get a critical mass of stories that seem to be pointing in the same direction? How did your thesis develop?

Safi Bahcall:                  None of the above. And it’s always funny listening to people talk about after the fact. I guess it’s like when you see a movie, and it’s all together, and you ask the film director: you saw that movie from the beginning. And now I understand. I saw something completely different and started in a totally different direction, and then randomly walked here, and then randomly walked there, and what seems like a coherent structure and an obvious narrative in hindsight. And I could tell that story in 10 seconds. “Yes, I had this idea, and there would be an equation connecting all these great stories, and you’d start at World War II, and you’d go through the rise and fall of Pan-Am, and the discovery of the statin drugs, and forest fires, and traffic jams, and you’d end with the birth of modern science.” And obviously that’s how it would go.

Alison Jones:                 But no.

Safi Bahcall:                  That’s not at all how it happened. It started actually backwards. I used to give this kind of fun talk about 3000 years of physics in 45 minutes. And it was just entertaining, like a hobby for me to take my mind off other stuff. And people seem to enjoy it, and it was kind of fun for me to, “Can I explain a bunch of complicated ideas in a really simple way that people can get, and they can see a 3000 year flow of history, the arc of history and understanding the world around us?”

                                    But in telling that story, I just kept getting surprised about the first part of it, the, “If there were eight big ideas in the arc of human thought, in the arc of how we understand the world around us and to understand that the laws of nature around us, why did that really take off in Western Europe, in England especially, in 17th century plus or minus a few years? Why not China, India, Islam who dominated the world for a thousand years with far more advanced technologies, and paper, and printing, and advanced mining, and drilling, and agriculture, and currency, and a much larger population, and much more advanced education, for generations, for thousand years?”

                                    And I got connected to, “Why is it that the big companies always say they want to innovate, and they dominate, but the really important ideas seemed to come from the tiny little companies?” It’s not because the big companies want to fail. It’s not because their leaders want to not innovate. And that analogy between what happened with the big majors of world history, China, India, and Islam, and why they were taken over by these tiny little ragtag group of nations in Western Europe, just reminded me a lot of the industry that I came from, the biomedical industry, where Merck, Pfizer, Novartis dominate, yet the tiny little ragtag group of biotechs keep coming up with the really exciting new things. Or even the film studios: Columbia, Universal, and Paramount, they dominate with these franchises, the James Bond of the world, the Iron Mans of the world. But the really inventive, creative little films come from these tiny little production shops. And so-

Alison Jones:                 And you talk about the blind spots that develops as you get successful. I love your taxonomy of innovation. The P-type Loonshot, and the S-type, more of a system one, which is much less sexy than the big product type ones, but actually much more lethal when you get it right.

Safi Bahcall:                  Exactly right, yes, yes. A lot of people resonate on that. So I’ve asked to, get asked to give talks. Sometimes CEOs or investor groups actually want me to talk specifically about that particular lesson. There’s this blinders on, focus on innovation means product, product, product, bigger, faster, better, yet the much more subtle changes in strategy are often the most effective ones. And that has lessons both for organisations, and teams, and companies, but also for individuals. If you see yourself as, for example, a writer, so I just make a better product, product, product; you write a better, better, better book. But there are strategies in how you go about writing, and how you go about marketing, and how you go about communicating your ideas, that if you understand both, being good at product and being good at strategy, you can become a far more powerful a writer, or a far more powerful artist, or a far more powerful scientist. So it matters at an individual level, not just a team or company level.

Alison Jones:                 Yes. I think that’s particularly true for marketing these days as well actually, is that that’s the thing that seems to move the needle. When you’re writing a book, it’s writing a book. And we will come onto the detail of that in a minute, but there’s the innovation in marketing that has the potential to transform everything, doesn’t it? What you’re doing here and what you do in the book really well, as well as build those analogies. So you see there’s patterns. And I wondered, is that just you can’t help yourself because that’s how the scientific mind works? I thought it was really fascinating that you bring in such rigorous science background to business, and you see it differently.

Safi Bahcall:                  I don’t know if that’s how every mind works. It might be a disease of my mind that-

Alison Jones:                 Extract everything out.

Safi Bahcall:                  … I see one thing; I see, “Oh, the battle between Pan Am and American airlines and how that ties into the battle between a Apple and IBM, or the battle between China and England and how they’re all connected by the same idea.” So I don’t know. I guess I’ve always enjoyed finding surprising connections between very different things, and that’s just been a pattern of how I go through life. And so it was sort of natural to write in that way.

Alison Jones:                 What’s smart though is, as a writer when you do that, you force people to look at their world in a different way. I don’t know if you were aware of that at the time, but I think you come from a different background to most CEOs. And I think the fact that you bring in that particularly the rigour of the scientific background, it just forces us to look at things differently.

Safi Bahcall:                  Yes, I hope it does. When I give talks, sometimes I start off with a glass of, and I stick my finger in it, and then I swirl my finger around, and I see the molecules in this glass are just sloshing around my finger when I swirl it. And that’s always true, except when I lower the temperature. Right at 32 Fahrenheit the behaviour of those molecules completely changes. Why? The molecules inside are exactly the same. So how do they notice suddenly change behaviour? There’s no CEO molecule saying, “Everybody slosh around at 33 Fahrenheit, but at 31 everybody line up and be rigid.” And like you say, just stepping back and understanding that you can think about behaviour like the behaviour in that glass of water and realise that changing behaviour isn’t about giving orders. You could have a CEO yelling at a block of ice, “Hey molecules, could you just loosen up a little bit?” and it’s not going to melt that block of ice. But a small change in temperature will get the job done.

                                    So communicating in that way, as you say, helps people see the world around them in a little bit different way. Maybe our organisation is a system, and by trying to yell at individual people in that system to behave differently, we’re not really doing much. But if we look at-

Alison Jones:                 You just got to change the temperature.

Safi Bahcall:                  Exactly. If we look at the equivalent of changing the temperature, or if it snows overnight, you sprinkle salt on your sidewalk. Why? Because it makes the molecules less sticky. It makes them more likely to slosh around. So when you wake up in the morning and you step on the sidewalk, you wet your foot in the puddle rather than slip on ice and end up in the hospital. So those are these small changes in structure that can achieve what you want. And so by, like you say, by giving an analogy from a different world, which in this case is not a metaphor. You actually have a first principle model. You can write down what are those forces. You can write them down mathematically. You can get an equation just like for the behaviour of a group of people, and that’s a new kind of science that really hasn’t been done before, just like you can do for a glass of water.

                                    And like you say, by making that analogy, it helps people think. And I’ve gotten this feedback, that people go back after that talk and look at their teams and companies differently, and they say, “Hey, instead of begging people to act differently, what are the little levers of structure we can pull that will get us closer to the behaviours that we want to see?”

Alison Jones:                 Yes. And create those pockets where people can be in that, as you say, phase transition. And another thing that you do really well, I think, with the scientific stuff, is it’s not just the analogy, but it’s also the lessons from science. And one thing that I absolutely loved, I took a lot from this book, but one of my favourite lessons was the three deaths. Can you just talk us through that? I love that so much. And I found it very challenging. I guess the hard thing to know is when a death really should, it should just stay dead. But you basically say, “A good idea is going to die three times before it really takes hold.”

Safi Bahcall:                  Yes. And that I learned, probably wish I’d learned that sooner, but I think it was one evening when I was pretty depressed about some project in our lab that had failed. I was running this biotech company. I don’t remember if we were 50 people or a hundred people at the time. And I had this guy, was maybe 30 or 40 years older than me, actually from British, from Scotland, Sir James Black, who won the Nobel prize for developing two of the biggest drug categories in the 20th century, most important breakthroughs. And I think he was in his eighties at the time, and we were having some drinks, and I was saying how depressed I was. And he just leaned over, patted my knee and said, “Ah Safi, it’s not a good drug unless it’s been killed three times.” And I thought about that.

Alison Jones:                 It’s such a great line.

Safi Bahcall:                  And I thought about that a lot, and he was right. And I saw that in my experience in working with other entrepreneurs or other scientists, if it worked the first time, then it probably worked the first time for somebody else. So it might not be all that important. The really important breakthroughs are the ones that don’t work the first time or the second time, that everybody says is dumb, whether that’s the transistor, or in the case of Sam Walton, opening a retail store where there’s no foot traffic, way out in the woods, and people would say, “Well, who’s going to buy your stuff, the squirrels that are going by?” And of course that becomes a Walmart.

                                    Or even when Steve Jobs put songs online when piracy was rampant, and people said, “You’re out of your mind. Everybody can take this for free.” Well, they missed a lot of stuff. Social networks, those were failing because probably 15 or 25 social networks had tried and failed to make any money before Mark Zuckerberg came along. And so everybody said, “Well, these are dumb business models. You shouldn’t waste your time on that stuff.” That was an example of what you say, a false fail. The failure of those, they hadn’t gotten something quite right, and Zuckerberg did.

                                    So you see that all the time in businesses and sometimes the most important businesses, for example, search, online search. Google was maybe the 18th search engine, and people said, “There’s no money in search. It’s just like putting the yellow pages online. How can you make any money on that?” Well, and those companies failed, and those were all false failures. They failed several times until Google figured out the right algorithm. You got to make those links really useful so that people who are looking at it really care about those links, and then you can sell advertising.

Alison Jones:                 I think that there’s two challenges inherent in that though, aren’t there? The first one is to us as business people. We pivot, and we pride ourselves on pivoting, and sometimes it’s exactly what’s required. But how do you know when to pivot and when, actually, it was a false fail, and you keep going? So I think that’s interesting. And then related to that is, it’s easy to look at the successes, and reverse engineer how that happened. But I guess it comes down to the same thing. How do you know when it’s a Loonshot that’s going to transform the world, and how do you know when it’s something that really, you just need to put it to bed and do something else?

Safi Bahcall:                  One of the guys that I worked with, a scientist that I worked with, talked about that a lot, and we’d give a talk to exactly that question. And he called it, “How do you tell the difference between persistence and stubbornness?” And he pursued an idea for 32 years, a new way to treat cancer. He was a surgeon at Boston Children’s Hospital. And it was for 32 years he was kind of ridiculed and made fun of, and then eventually there was this phenomenal result, and his ideas were proven correct, and now they underlie, in many ways, kind of every approach to treating cancer. And what I got from him, I summarised as LSC. I don’t have a good memory, so I have these acronyms. But LSC I think of as, “Listen to the suck with curiosity.” And that’s how for myself, I start to separate persistence for stubbornness.

                                    If when people give me negative feedback, or someone doesn’t like what I’m doing, or some investor walks away, or a partner walks away. If my reaction is wanting to punch them in the face, or tell everybody why they’re idiots and don’t get it, which has sort of been a normal initial reaction if you’re an entrepreneur pursuing something that you’ve poured your heart and soul into. But if that’s all I do, if I’ve gotten to the point where I just dismiss everybody as an idiot, then that’s a danger signal.

                                    If, on the other hand, I’m listening to that negative feedback, to that suck with curiosity, meaning I’m going to them, and I say, “Can you help me understand what was it about this project, or this idea, or this book, or this thing that you didn’t really like, that didn’t resonate for you?” If I find myself doing that, then I’m probably still on the right track. It means that I have confidence, that I’ve explored the flaws and weaknesses, and I’m eager to learn more. That’s usually a sign that you’re on the right track. If you’re dismissing everyone around you as an idiot when they reject your stuff, you may have crossed the line.

Alison Jones:                 And let’s talk about the writing, Safi. So this was clearly just fun for you. You make it sound like you were researching stuff that was fascinating. You were just enjoying putting it down. You didn’t really care if it landed with anybody else, because you were having such a good time. Did it feel like that when you were writing, or how did you go about putting it together?

Safi Bahcall:                  I did really enjoy it. There’s probably some sadistic pleasure, because it’s not just like, “Oh, everything comes to you, and you write it down, and it’s a great triumph every day.” As any writer knows it’s a very painful struggle, and the first 30 versions of something you write just sound off. But I guess I have a weird fetish. I enjoy rewriting. There’s some great writing quote. I don’t have it right in front of me, but I think it was from Donald Hall about how much pleasure he takes in rewriting. Editors hate him because he keeps rewriting. But I enjoy that sort of polishing and trying to make it better. I also enjoyed the learning. There was so many different things that I had to learn in order to do what felt like a good job. First is just the craft of writing: how to put together words and sentences so that the cadence and rhythm sounds good to the ear.

                                    So that’s a whole craft, and unless you’ve done that professionally, you’re kind of starting from the beginning. So it was kind of fun to come up with a way to learn how to do that, to develop an ear just from scratch. So that I worked hard at, and the learning and the working hard was super fun. Another weird fetish: I like being thrown into a swimming pool and having to figure out how to swim. I like the feeling of, “Oh, I’m getting better at something.” And as you get older, you don’t have that as much. You have that when you’re a little kid, or you learning to ride a bike the first time, or you’re learning something the first time. But once you’ve mastered something, if you’re older, or you’re way past school, and even if your business career stuff is behind you, it’s pretty exciting to not know how to do something and then feel yourself getting better.

                                    So there was one craft, which is learning that writing cadence, and rhythm, and ear. A second one was storytelling, which is a very unusual craft, because especially if you’re a scientist or you’re a business person, you spend most of your time and energy on talking about your own stuff. If you’re a scientist, you’d say, “Well, this is the work that I did, and here’s why it’s original, and here’s how it compares to others, and yada, yada, yada.” Or if you’re got a business, you’re promoting your business: “Here’s why our product is the best, or our service is the best, and so on.”

                                    But to tell somebody else’s story was just a very odd experience for me, because it’s like going to a cocktail party and saying, “You know this other guy, when he was driving to the airport, this funny thing happened to him.”

Alison Jones:                 Kind of unnatural.

Safi Bahcall:                  It’s unnatural. You picture the guy, the reader, or the person listening to you saying, “Why are you telling me this other guy’s story? I don’t get it.” It just feels weird because I didn’t do it before. And I remember sitting down for lunch with a journalist friend, and he said, “Yes Safi, that’s called journalism.”

Alison Jones:                 Who knew?

Safi Bahcall:                  That’s exactly what a journalist does every day, five days a week, 300 days a year. And I’m like, “Oh.” And he said, “You tell somebody else’s story. You research it, and you credit appropriately when you are borrowing their story.” And I was like, “Oh, okay. Let me try that.” So that was kind of fascinating. Those actually turned out to be not the hardest thing in the world to learn. Well, the third one was historical research. So I did go back into archives. I did look through primary research. That was also kind of fun. But someone who’s done research for a living for a bunch of years, it was a different kind of research, but that was a new skill, but not that unfamiliar.

                                    I would say the hardest thing, especially for this book, was trying to figure out a structure that worked. Your goal is to make sure the reader can’t put the book down, that it’s a narrative, that it’s propulsive, that they keep wanting to turn the page to find out what’s going to happen to this character. What’s going to happen to this in this plot? What lesson am I going to get out of it? What’s the next one? How does it transition? And that was really I would say unusually hard for this book and for me, because I think in part the nature of the book. If you’re writing a biography, well, structure isn’t that hard, you start when the person is born and you stop when they die, plus or minus a few years.

                                    If you’re writing the history of jazz in America, you start at the beginning and you go through modern times. You go chronologically. This one, as you’re describing an idea, and there’s a science component to it, and there’s some historical stories to it, and there’s certain business lessons to it. How do you structure that? You put the science in the beginning or at the end? Do you put the grand, older history in the middle? How do you fit in this story? Where are the lessons? Are they at the end or the beginning? In retrospect, it seems like a lot of people were like, “Oh yes. That’s a really obvious flow. So that just came to you, right?” No, that was a couple of years of very painful struggle to get that out, but it was fun.

Alison Jones:                 And did you have the sense that that was the key? Or were you just like, “You know what? I just need to find a way of putting this all together that works, and I’m done?” How much existential weight did you put to the structure of the book?

Safi Bahcall:                  I think the structure was essential. I wrote probably five times what’s in the book, so I cut out 80%. and that was because I wanted a staircase, where as you go through each chapter, you’re going up, learning more and more about an idea, more and more about the being revealed. And you don’t want to lose people or bore people on one step. You want them to go to the next step. So I had some just amazing stories, which I spent months of research on the history of them, and gone into the archives, and so on, and cut them out at the end, because they didn’t move the reader forward. And …

Alison Jones:                 And you say that factually as though it was just a thing, but actually that takes an awful lot of strength of will, doesn’t it? Because these are your darlings, and you’re murdering them.

Safi Bahcall:                  Yes, that’s absolutely right. Yes. There is that advice of murder your darlings. That’s one of those things that sounds good, but it doesn’t quite capture it. You’re right. It’s exactly right that it’s very difficult to take out a story that you’ve invested in, but if you’re focused on the reader’s experience, it’s not that hard. You just keep asking yourself, “Okay, what is the reader experiencing now?” And if this is moving them sideways rather than forward, or they’re saying, “Why are you telling me this story?” and you’re like, “Well, it’s really not good for the reader’s experience, so it should go, because that’s what I’m trying to achieve here: a great reader experience.” I had some great stories, I don’t know, like the World War II stories, or the Pan Am stories that you mentioned, or maybe you had some favourite stories, the Akira Endo story, or Edwin Land story. A lot of people come to me with which are their favourite stories.

Alison Jones:                 I loved the Polaroid bit. I thought that was amazing.

Safi Bahcall:                  Yes. That was another example of just totally surprising history that’s kind of different than everything you’ve been led to believe.

Alison Jones:                 And the blind spots: you think, “How could you miss this? You’re so innovative.” Amazing. Sorry.

Safi Bahcall:                  Yes. And so those are your darlings too, and I didn’t kill those ones. So it’s not really about-

Alison Jones:                 No, thank you. Thank you for that. I’ll never know about the others.

Safi Bahcall:                  It’s not really about murdering your darlings; it’s about putting yourself in the mind of the reader and really caring about the reader’s experience, which is what I did as I was writing. I was like, “What is the reader going to experience now, and is that what I want them to experience?” And if not, well that’s when you have to murder your darlings.

Alison Jones:                 Yes. See now, the next question I’m going to ask you is, is what’s your best tip for a first time business book writer? I wonder if that’s it, or is there something else that you’d say?

Safi Bahcall:                  Can I give you three? They’re short.

Alison Jones:                 Go. I’m going to take them. I’m going to write them down. Go.

Safi Bahcall:                  One, I see this with a lot… I was just reading actually this morning a book proposal and had to tell him that, “People don’t care about ideas. They care about people, and people’s struggles, and how they resolve those struggles, through which an idea might be revealed.” But don’t start with the idea, or an observation, or here’s the world, and this is how it looks to me, because that’s boring. Tell somebody’s story, and a story that has a conflict and an inner struggle. And through that story, your idea may be revealed. That’s much more fun, and exciting, and interesting to people.

Alison Jones:                 And readable.

Safi Bahcall:                  And readable. Two, make it about the reader, not about you, which gets to what we were just talking about. Readers don’t really care about you. unless you are Michelle Obama, or Brad Pitt, or Elon Musk when people really do care about you, they don’t actually care about you. They care about how you might help them. So if you want to write a book, you got to ask yourself, “Why am I writing a book? Am I writing a book to talk about me? In which case, you got to ask yourself, is this really going to matter, or do I have something that I think can help people? And if you do, start with that, and make it about that, and make it about what the reader experiences, because that’s what they care about, but it’s also more fun.

                                    I find just talking about myself a bit boring. Not that what we’re doing is boring, because actually we’re talking about writing and how some of these ideas might help other writers, but that’s more satisfying. If you can tell certain stories that help people with things that they’re struggling with, that’s just more satisfying, and more fun, and more readable as you say.

                                    And the final tip is surprise. Surprises is what makes reading interesting, predictability is what makes reading boring. So if you want to make your writing interesting, you got to ask yourself how surprising it is. Those are my three tips.

Alison Jones:                 And I’m guessing you have to surprise yourself sometimes in order to achieve that.

Safi Bahcall:                  You do. My wife would always, “What are you doing in there?” because I’d be writing something that there’d be like these bursts of laughter because I thought of something funny, and I’m just like cracking myself up. And sometimes I’m moving myself, and I’m getting kind of emotional, but I’m experiencing all this stuff. And half the time, as we said earlier, what I find funny may not actually be funny to other people. And I’m very grateful for my early readers who said, “I just don’t get this. It’s really not that funny.” And I was like, “Really? Because I’m so sure that’s funny. It’s so funny to me.” And they’re like, “Yes, that’s just not that funny. I’m sorry. It’s really not that funny.” And after like a couple people, I was like, “Ah, damn. I really thought that was funny,” and then like, “Apparently not. Oh well.” But-

Alison Jones:                 Much better to find out then.

Safi Bahcall:                  Yes, it’s better to find out then. But it also makes the writing process more fun for you if you’re like trying to write something that’s kind of surprising and funny to you. It won’t always work, but at least you’ll have fun doing it.

Alison Jones:                 And that matters, doesn’t it? Because this is a longterm project.

Safi Bahcall:                  Yes.

Alison Jones:                 Brilliant. Wonderful tips. Thank you. And I’m fascinated to hear what you going to say actually: I always ask my guests to recommend a business book. Obviously everybody should read Loonshots, genuinely, but another book. It doesn’t actually have to be a business book, but somebody who is involved in business should read because it will do something for them.

Safi Bahcall:                  Oh, it doesn’t have to be in business. Well, I was going to give you a business one that I’ve really enjoyed that I recommend to a lot of. I do all these talks now to CEOs, and companies, and nonprofit groups, and military, and all these odd places. And when they asked me, I almost always recommend this book by an author I’ve now gotten to know and has become a friend, but I just somehow stumbled on his book. It’s about what he calls pretotyping. And I think the formal title of the book is The Right It.

                                    But he used to work at Google, and now he teaches at Stanford, and it’s how to avoid projects that fail, to your point. And it’s about, forget the prototyping that takes a year or two years and cost $1 million; how can you test your idea in one day and $100? And it’s all these very creative, clever ways to get a good feel for whether or not your idea will work 10 times faster and 10 times cheaper than you thought it might take. And so-

Alison Jones:                 Brilliant. Please just tell me, what’s the author’s name?

Safi Bahcall:                  Savoia, S-A-V-O-I-A, Alberto.

Alison Jones:                 Alberto Savoia. I have never heard of that, and it sounds fascinating. Love it. So it’s the minimum viable product on steroids?

Safi Bahcall:                  Yes. And the lean startup stuff is kind of a lot of baggage, and sometimes it’s so much baggage that people don’t even want to read about it, and it’s too hard. But the pretotyping is like, “Listen, there are these really creative, fast, almost tricky ways to test a hypothesis. And once you start doing that, everything else follows.” And that’s probably 80% of trying to figure out if you’re on the right track, and how to be faster and better at doing experiments, which is what matters. And all the rest of this stuff is pretty obvious, iterate, that doesn’t take a PhD thesis to say.

Alison Jones:                 That’s a great recommendation. Thank you. And I love it when somebody recommends something I hadn’t even heard of before. Really good. Thank you Sophie. Safi, if people want to find out more about you, more about Loonshots, where should they go?

Safi Bahcall:                  My websites, loonshots.com, L-O-O-N shots.com.

Alison Jones:                 Fantastic. I’ll put that link up on the show notes. Genuinely, we have got a bit over time, which is great. I don’t care. I could have talked to you all day. It was wonderful. Thank you so much. And I have to say on a personal note, enjoyed this book so much. So thank you on a personal note as a reader as well.

Safi Bahcall:                  Thank you very much Alison. Really appreciate you saying that.

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