Bestselling Author and Investor James Altucher on Choosing Yourself and Stoic Minimalism

It is hard to spend any time online and not encounter the works of James Altucher, easily one of the most prolific, vulnerable and fascinating writers working today. He is one of the few people who is extremely open about many of his losses and failures (his first answer in our interview is a story about him losing $9 million dollars). James has developed a unique philosophy of life, which he once quipped was a ‘Stoic soup’ mixing Stoicism and its more Eastern counterparts, Taoism and Advaita Vedanta. We got to ask James about his daily routines, his minimalism (which has been profiled in the New York Times), why he dubs comedians ‘modern philosophers,’ and much more. Enjoy our interview with the one and only, James Altucher! And if you are looking for a podcast episode to enjoy today, you should check out his chat with Ryan on Stoicism on James’s widely popular podcast, The James Altucher Show.

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There’s a story we’ve heard you tell before about a phone call you were expecting to be good news and turned out to be bad news. Would you want to share that?

I was on the set of the TV show “Billions”. It hadn’t yet aired but they were filming the pilot. And then I got a call in the middle of the day that almost ruined my year or my life, depending on how I took it.

First off, I was really excited to be on the set of “Billions”. I had never been on the set of a drama before like this. Two of my favorite writers (Brian Koppelman and David Levien (“Rounders”, “Ocean’s 13”, etc) were the creators of the show and Neal Burger (“Limitless”) was directing this episode. It was fascinating to be there and just observe.

In the middle of the filming I got a message from a company I was on the board of, “Board meeting in 15 minutes!”.

I went outside to take the call. The company was doing great. And at the last valuation, my stake was worth $9 million. This was definitely my prized possession. I thought this would be IT. GAME OVER! Maybe the company was being sold.

On the board call I got the news: the largest shareholder had not paid taxes. Which broke the rules of a loan Wells Fargo had given the company. Which meant, (long story short), Wells Fargo was going to immediately take over the company and sell off its parts and shut the company down.

$9 million to zero in a few minutes.

BOOM!

I was in shock. I was devastated. I went into immediate panic thinking this was going to make me go broke. I felt like throwing up.

And then I thought: for years I’ve been writing about how I learned over (a long period of) time how to recover from these situations.

Check the box on: physical health, emotional health (am I around good people), creative health, spiritual health.

Spiritual health is often a weird phrase. For me it simply means: surrender to events outside my control. I don’t add “and then the best results will happen” and yet, that’s what seems to happen.

I thought to myself: this is a perfect opportunity to once again try my own advice. Why not?

I went back to the rest of the show. There was another eight hours of filming. I enjoyed every minute of it. I felt panic also. I felt anxiety. I felt horror at my situation and what had happened. There’s no gain in suppressing bad feelings.

But I also focused on the fun I was having. The learnings I was experiencing. Being around my friends. Watching creativity in action. Being healthy. And making sure every second I surrendered to the results.

It was the best day I had had in a long time!

Afterwards I told my friends who were on the set what had happened.

They said, “We had no idea! We thought you took a long bathroom break. You were joking around and asking questions for the rest of the day!”

And it was gratifying to me to see how fast my advice helped me. The only way an event becomes “bad” is if it paints it’s darkness and pain over everything else you are doing. If you don’t let that painting happen, then it won’t.

Check the box every day on physical, emotional, creative, spiritual health. This won’t put money in the bank, but it will make you rich.

 

Someone asked you on Twitter that you seem very Stoic and wondered if you were a fan of Stoicism. Your response was “Stoicism, yes, but maybe more advaita vedanta. And Taoism. All mixed together. A stoic soup.” Can you unpack this for us? Why are you a fan of Stoicism, and how did you discover it, but also what is ‘advaita vedanta?’ And we’d curious to hear more about your experiences with Taoism.

The greatest problem we have as humans is that gray area between what we can control and what we can’t. For instance, this morning I can try my best to write a good article. I can research, read, prepare, rewrite, start over, rewrite again, etc. I’m doing my best.

But some days I simply won’t write well. And sometimes I’ll write something that people hate. Either because it doesn’t suit their style or they disagree with me or they dislike me for some other reason.

I choose “writing” for this example because it’s something I deeply care about. I love to write for others. I love it when people like my writing. It makes me feel better.

Which is the gray area. Because even though part of my reaction to my own writing is based on the responses of others, I have “almost” no control over it. I can do what I can do: hard work, preparation, etc. But still, where my control ends, the entire rest of the world begins.

I have to remind myself constantly, I am just a drop of water in the ocean. And ultimately that drop of water dissolves and is absorbed by this giant ocean of life around us. And that’s it. That’s the summation of my life.

It doesn’t mean I shouldn’t enjoy being this drop. What a pleasure it is to participate in life. But I’m just participating it. I’m not the ocean. And I have no influence over the waves that spin me around, or the sun that heats me, or the land all around that I could spill into.

On the one hand this sounds “stoic”. Stoicism is not about avoiding pleasure. Pursue pleasure. Pursue knowledge. Pursue pursue pursue. But it’s about surrender to what is not in our control.

This doesn’t mean “give up”. It means PURSUE. But the true freedom of Stoicism is found in surrender.

I view Stoicism as the practical philosophy behind surrender. Why fight the things you can’t control? You can live a better life by doing what you love and always being aware that there are situations you need to surrender to.

I view either Taoism or Advaita Vedanta (two very similar philosophies at their core – one is from China, the other from India) as more eastern versions of stoicism.

In those two philosophies, the concept of “surrender” is not only practical and a path to freedom (as it is in Stoicism) but also as a path to love.

When we try to control a situation, we find ourselves hating aspects of it (the aspects we either can’t control or that go against us). Replace “situation” with “relationship” and this is even more clear.

In Taoism or Advaita Vedanta, just like in Stoicism, “surrender” is the key that unlocks the prison door. The key is right there, on our side of the door. But so often we refuse to use it. We want someone else to release us from jail. We want someone to choose us. For a job. A promotion. A relationship. A book deal. Etc.

But the key is on our side! Nobody can unlock the prison door except us.

Perhaps the only difference (and I actually don’t think there is a difference between the three philosophies) is that in these more eastern varieties of stoicism, surrender leads to a deep love for our life because we see how vast and awe-inspiring is the world and nature that we can’t control. Surrendering to it gives us a bigger view of what is around us. Rather than the small binary view of what we can control and what we can’t.

 

There was profile on you in New York Times last year (“Why Self-Help Guru James Altucher Only Owns 15 Things“). While the Stoics weren’t ascetics per se, they did advocate cultivating self-reliance and preparedness to lose one’s possessions. Seneca would practice what it was like to be poor (even though he was very rich). Do you have a reason for why you’ve stripped down to so little? How has it changed your life?

For many reasons, I decided I don’t want to own things anymore. The reasons can fill a book. I left town and hired a friend to go to my place and do one of four things with EVERY item in the place (40 years worth of items built up in every archaeological layer of my life): throw it out, give it away, keep it, sell it.

It took her a week with a truck and her whole family helping her. When we are young we can often move with a bag or two but after decades, that’s often not possible.

My lease was also up on that apartment. So when I came back into town I had no home and only a carryon bag and the clothes I was wearing (plus one more outfit in the bag and a computer and a phone and a toothbrush).

And I’ve stayed the same ever since. If I buy one shirt, a shirt has to leave the carry on bag.

Do I miss things? Of course! The goal wasn’t to always feel good. There was no goal. I just wanted to live this way. And it’s ok to sometimes feel sad. So often we want to be vaccinated against sadness and sentimentality. But there is no vaccine. Every day I miss something.

But not thinking about possessions at all has also allowed me to explore more what is important to me. My health is important to me. Having good friends and loved ones. Being creative. Being spiritual (surrendering to what I can’t control).

I’ve realized that I value experiences much more than any one belonging. Often I would buy something, use it, and then tire of it eventually.

Now, I think of experiences I can have, that I can learn from, that can be fun, and that maybe I can share with others. I look forward to them. I have them. And then I look back fondly on them.

This quest for experience has no goal. And no planned outcome. Nor do I have to store them later. I just experience them. My life has become much more enjoyable as a result.

This is just for me. It might not fit everyone (or anyone). And it might not fit me forever. Just now.

Nor is it “minimalist”. Homeless people are minimalist.

I call it “Choice-ism”. A larger part of my day is spent doing things I choose to do, instead of things that are chosen for me because of belongings of any sort.

And it has given me a greater appreciation that I can live under any circumstances. There is no one thing I “need” because I have given away everything. It’s not practice for having nothing. I HAVE nothing.

 

Two of your books have titles that could be Stoic epigrams: Choose Yourself (that is seize your own destiny and be self-reliant) and The Power of No (which is harder and more meaningful than saying yes to everything). What does life look like for someone who chooses themselves and wields the power of no?

Often I write books not about things I am so good at, but things that have been hard for me, often for decades.

It’s hard for me to say “no”. It’s hard for me to not value the opinions of others over my own opinion. I WANT to be chosen. I don’t want to have to say “no” to people. It’s scary!

But I was so unhappy for so long I had to dig into what was happening. We have only this life. And as I was getting older (I am 49), I desperately wanted to stop the train that was cascading forward into my eventual death. I wanted to jump off.

The only way was to realize all of the ways I was not choosing myself. All of the times I wanted to be chosen: to be chosen for a job, or a raise. To be chosen for a book deal or a TV deal. To be chosen by a customer or an employee or an acquirer of a business I started or invested in. Or to be “liked” by a reader. Or to be asked to lunch by someone I wanted to be friends with.

So many times I was miserable because any of the above (and much more) didn’t happen. This is a big list of things I allowed to make me unhappy.

I outsourced my self-esteem to all of these events. And without them, my self-esteem would go down. My anxiety would go up. My self-hatred would be unavoidable.

So my “meditation” became a practice of catching myself when I realized I was waiting for someone to “Choose me”. If a reader didn’t like something I wrote, I just had to keep reading and writing and improve and do my best. Writing became more pleasurable (and actually, a lot better) once I stopped writing just to please.

This is a gray area, because good writing must appeal to an audience. But the gray area is that if you try to please all of the people all of the time, you end up pleasing nobody.

And this is the case with anything. If I realized I wanted to be chosen by a book publisher and I was anxious about it, I would stop and say, “no problem, I will self-publish”. My self-published books have outsold my “traditionally published” books 20-1 at this point. I’ve written 18 books with about half self-published and half published by mainstream publishers.

If a woman I was in a relationship no longer liked me (this happens!) then I would do what I could but also surrender to the results. Life goes on. Not that I was so passive. Kindness is a side effect of not trying to control situations. And reaching for experience is often more fun and interesting than reaching for material items.

Often, the best thing for emotional health is to find what satisfies you from within, instead of outsourcing the choices about your happiness and self-esteem to others.

This is what “Choose Yourself” is about. it turns out that not only is this directly related to internal health but external health and even financial health.

If a boss doesn’t choose you for a job then, guess what, perhaps this is time to start a business doing what you love. Or, in my case of publishing, I ended up making much more money by choosing myself (ironically, with the book titled “Choose Yourself”). If someone doesn’t acquire a business, maybe then continue to build it until it is much easier to sell a year later, at a much higher price. And so on.

I don’t always make the most money (I’m not a billionaire), but I have found more freedom than ever before. And financial freedom is often (but not always) a side effect of that.

And saying “no” is also a side effect. I’ve lost the most money, and the most in relationships, and the most in health, when I couldn’t say “no”.

But I don’t like confrontation. It’s hard for me to say “no”. So I had to develop ways to better say “no” that were comfortable to me. And this is the topic of “The Power of No”.

 

You’ve gotten into standup comedy recently and you’ve talked about how comedians are a kind of modern philosopher. In some ways, they are one of the few types of figures we can trust. They say the truth. Is that how you approach your time on stage?

I always thought I was funny. And I thought I was a good speaker. So when a club owner asked to go on stage for five minutes I said “yes”.

I knew it would be incredibly scary and uncomfortable to me. As opposed to public speaking, you have to get a specific emotional and physical reaction in five minutes out of people who have no idea who you are. The light is on you and you MUST make them laugh.

It turned out to be 100 times more difficult than I could have imagined. There are so many micro-skills in comedy that are independent of each other. Not only humor (which is probably not even the most important), but likability, reading an audience and knowing how to react to each type of audience, structuring a joke and the variety of jokes there are, understanding the difference between a joke and a story, understanding the relationship between truth and humor and absurdism and when (or how) they can be connected. And on and on. So many skills!

I had to start from scratch with all of these skills. And each of these skills can be divided into sub-skills.

For instance, if you tell a joke and the crowd is silent…what does it mean?

Does it mean the joke was not funny (the obvious answer). But why did the last audience laugh the last time at the same joke?

Does it mean you didn’t build likability enough? Does it mean the audience likes me but is low energy? Does it mean there are more men than women in audience and that particular joke doesn’t work with men? Does it mean I didn’t commit in the last syllable of the joke as much as I committed last time?

Did I switch words in the last sentence? (words that are said in the front of the mouth tend to be funnier than words that come from the back of the mouth- another sub-skill to learn about the actual “physical language” of comedy).

And in the micro-seconds you have to read an audience, you have to know how to react?

Some people leave the stage and say “bad audience”. I never do this. No audience is “bad”. That’s like saying “bad world” when the world doesn’t go the way I want it to go.

Surrendering in the case of comedy means constantly learning the skills needed, applying those skills, and then surrendering the results. In other words, trying my hardest to learn AND have fun no matter what.

This is all an intro to your question. Some jokes are “flat”. They are there to quickly increase likability and get a quick laugh that you know the audience will most likely respond to.

And some comics often stick with those jokes. These are often very funny comedians. The audience is laughing the entire time. Nothing fun with that.

But often the best jokes, come from some place deep inside. If I tell a joke about parenting, for instance, that I know is funny (because people have laughed many times before, for instance) and an audience doesn’t laugh, then that’s ok.

I know the joke connects to a place deep inside of me. It’s going straight from that deep place and forming itself into a premise (e.g. “no grown man would ever wake up and say ‘I need to go to a ballet recital of mediocre 13 year old ballerinas today’ “) that then goes from premise to a structured joke (acting out a specific example, maybe bringing absurdism into it, and then a punchline).

The final punchline might be absurd. But the entire joke is based in reality. Easy premises from my own life: difficulty in saying no, my problems in relationships and sex, losing money over and over, wanting to kill myself (yes, that can be funny), my problems with the way I look, and so many others depending on how crude I want to get or what I think the audience is ready for.

Ultimately, the best comedians show the gap between reality and expectations.

The world might always expect someone to be polite, for instance. But there are some situations where being polite just is not what you want to do or not what you believe in. By shedding light on these gaps, it allows the audience to experience, in a safe environment, a horrific and scary feeling but in such a way that it can be laughed at.

It’s the relief of this tension, the unraveling of the hidden truth, that often creates the laughter.

A great example is every episode of “Curb Your Enthusiasm” created by Larry David, who also created “Seinfeld”. Another example is often Louis CK or Dave Chappelle’s standup, although the two have VERY different styles.

 

The Stoics were fans of routines and habits and we know that you have your own daily exercises and habits. What does your current daily routine look like? Over the years, what have been the most helpful things that you’ve practiced that you’d suggest to our readers start today?

Sleeping eight hours a day. Without energy, we can’t function, we get sick, we can’t be creative, we can’t devote ourselves to the work we love, we can’t cultivate our friendships to the best of our abilities. Sleep rejuvenates the brain and the body. If I could only choose one habit, as droll as it seems, sleep hygiene would be it.

After that: physical health (sleep, food, move), emotional health (being around good people), being creative (or playing) every day, and constant practice of surrendering the things I can’t control.


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