What I Learned About Life After Interviewing 80 Highly Successful People

What I Learned About Life

“You interrupt too much,” people email me. “Let your guests finish talking.” But I can’t help it. I get curious. I want to know! Now!

Over the past year I interviewed about 80 guests for my podcast. My only criteria: I was fascinated by some aspect of each person.

I didn’t limit myself by saying each one had to be an entrepreneur or had to be a success.

I just wanted to talk to anyone who made me curious about their lives. I spoke to entrepreneurs, comedians, artists, producers, astronauts, writers, rappers, and even this country’s largest beer brewer.

Will I do it for the next year? Maybe. It’s hard.

Sometimes I would pursue a guest for six months with no reply and then they would call and say, “Can you do right now?” and I’d change all plans with kids, business, etc.

I had no favorites. They were all great. I interviewed Peter ThielCoolioMark CubanArianna HuffingtonAmanda PalmerTony Robbins, and many more. I’m really grateful they all wanted to talk to me.

Podcasting, to be honest, was just an excuse for me to call up whoever I wanted to call and ask them all sorts of personal questions about their lives. If I wanted to talk about “Star Wars,” I called the author of a dozen Star Wars novels.

If I wanted to talk about Twisted Sister, I called up the founder of the band. If I wanted to talk sex I called the women who ran the “Ask Women” podcast.

I wanted to know at what point were they at their worst. And how they got better. Each person created a unique life. I wanted to know how they did it. I was insanely curious.

As Coolio told me, “You got me to reveal some deep stuff I didn’t want to reveal. Kudos.” Tony Robbins had to literally shake himself at one point and say, “Wait, how did we end up talking about this?” I can’t help it. I want to know.

Here are the most important things I learned. I can’t specify which person I learned what from. It hurts my head when I think about it because many of the 80 said the exact same thing about how they ended up where they were.

Here is some of what they said:

A) A life is measured in decades.

Too many people want happiness, love, money, connections, everything yesterday. Me too. I call it “the disease.” I feel often I can paint over a certain emptiness inside if only…if only…I have X.

But a good life is like the flame of a bonfire. It builds slowly, and because it’s slow and warm it caresses the heart instead of destroys it.

B) A life is measured by what you did TODAY, even this moment.

This is the opposite of “A” but the same. You get success in decades by having success now.

That doesn’t mean money now. It means, “Are you doing your best today?”

Everyone worked at physical health, improving their friendships and connections with others, being creative, being grateful. Every day.

For those who didn’t, they quickly got sick, depressed, anxious, fearful. They had to change their lives. When they made that change, universally they all said to me, “That’s when it all started.”

C) Focus is not important, but Push is (reinvention).

Very few people have just one career. And for every career, it’s never straight up.

When you have focus, it’s like saying, “I’m just going to learn about only one thing forever.” But “the push” is the ability to get up every day, open up the shades, and push through all the things that make you want to go back to sleep.

Even if it means changing careers 10 times. Or changing your life completely. Just pushing forward to create a little more life inside yourself.

Compound life is much more powerful than compound interest.

D) Give without thinking of what you will receive.

I don’t think I spoke to a single person who believed in setting personal goals. But 100% of the people I spoke to wanted to solve a problem for the many.

It doesn’t matter how you give each day. It doesn’t even matter how much. But everyone wanted to give and eventually they were given back. 

E) Solving hard problems is more important than overcoming failure.

The outside world is a mirror of what you have on the inside. If Thomas Edison viewed his 999 attempts at creating a lightbulb a failure then he would’ve given up. His inside was curious. His inside viewed his “attempts” as experiments. Then he did #1000. Now we can see in the dark.

Dan Ariely was burned all over his body and used that experience to research the psychology of pain and ultimately the psychology of behavior and how we can make better decisions.

Tony Robbins lost everything when his marriage ended, but he came back by coaching thousands of people.

It’s how you view the life inside you that creates the life outside of you. Every day.

F) Art and success and love is about connecting all the dots.

Here are some dots: The very personal sadness sitting inside of you. The things you learn. The things you read about. The things you love. Connect the dots. Give it to someone.

Now you just gave birth to a legacy that will continue beyond you.

G) It’s not business, it’s personal.

Nobody succeeded with a great idea.

Everyone succeeded because they built networks within networks of connections, friends, colleagues all striving towards their own personal goals, all trusting each other, and working together to help each other succeed.

This is what happens only over time. This is why giving creates a bigger world because you can never predict what will happen years later.

Biz Markie described to me how he helped a 7-year-old kid named Jay-Z with his lyrics.

Peter Thiel’s ex employees created tens of billions of dollars worth of companies.

Marcus Lemonis saves businesses every week on his show “The Profit.” It doesn’t come by fixing their accounting. It comes from fixing the relationships with the partners and the customers and the investors.

The best way to create a great business over time: Every day send one thank you letter to someone from your past. People (me) often say you can’t look back at the past. But this is the one way you can. You create the future by thanking the past.

H) You can’t predict the outcome, you can only do your best.

Hugh Howey thought he would write novels that only his family would read. So he wrote ten of them. Then he wrote “Wool,” which he self-published and has sold millions of copies and Ridley Scott is making the movie.

Clayton Anderson applied to be an astronaut for 15 years in a row and was rejected each time until the 16th.

Coolio wrote lyrics down every day for 17 years before having a hit. Noah Kagan was fired from Facebook and Mint without making a dime before starting his own business. Wayne Dyer quit his secure job as a tenured professor, put a bunch of his books in car and drove across the country selling them in every bookstore. Now he’s sold over 100,000,000 books.

Sometimes when I have conversations with these people they want to jump right to the successful parts but I stop them. I want to know the low points. The points where they had to start doing their best. What got them to that point.

I) The same philosophy of life should work for an emperor and a slave.

Ryan Holiday told me that both Marcus Aurelius, an emperor, and Epictetus, a slave, both subscribed to the idea of stoicism. You can’t predict pleasure or pain. You can only strive for knowledge and giving and fairness and health each day.

Many people write me it’s easy for so-and-so to say that now that he’s rich. Every single person I spoke to started off in a gutter or worse. (Well, most of them.)

Luck is certainly a component, but in chess there’s a saying (and this applies to anything) “it’s funny how always the best players seem to be lucky.”

J) The only correct path is the path correct for you.

Scott Adams tried about 20 different careers before he settled on drawing Dilbert. Now, he’s in 2000 papers, has written Dilbert books, Dilbert shows, Dilbert everything. Everyone was shocked when Judy Joo gave up a Wall St. career to go back to cooking school. Now she’s on the Food Channel as an “iron chef.”

Don’t let other people choose your careers. Don’t get locked in other people’s prisons they’ve set up just for you. Personal freedom starts from the inside but ultimately turns you into a giant, freeing you from the chains the little people spent years tying around you.

K) Many moments of small, positive, personal interactions build an extraordinary career.

Often people think that you have to fight your way to the top. But for everyone I spoke to it was small kindnesses over a long period of time that built the ladder to success. I think I’m starting to sound like a cliche on this. But it’s only a cliche because it’s true.

L) Taking care of yourself comes first.

Kamal Ravikant picked himself off a suicidal bottom by constantly repeating “I love you” to himself. Charlie Hoehn cured his anxiety by using every moment he could to play.

I’ve written before: The average kid laughs 300 times a day. The average adult…5.

Something knifed our ability to smile. Do everything you can to laugh, to create laughter for others, and then what can possibly be bad about today? I think that’s why I try to interview so many comedians are comedy writers. They make me laugh. It’s totally selfish.

M) The final answer: People do end up loving what they succeed at, or they succeed at what they love.

Mark Cuban said, “My passion was to get rich!” But I don’t really believe him. He loved computers so he created a software company. Then he wanted to watch Ohio basketball in Pittsburgh so he created Broadcast.com. I worked with Broadcast.com a little bit back in 1997. They were crusaders about bringing video to the Internet.

Sure, he wanted to use that to get rich. Because he knew better than anyone then how to let a good idea lead him to success.

But deep down he was a little kid who wanted to watch his favorite basketball. And now what does he do? He owns a basketball team.

N) Anybody, at any age

The ages of the people I spoke to ranged from 20 to 75. Each is still participating every day in the worldwide conversation. I asked Dick Yuengling from Yuengling beer why he even bothered to talk to me. He’s 75 and runs the biggest American-owned brewery worth about $2 billion. He laughed and said, “Well, you asked me.”

I just realized this list can go on for another 100 items.

The specifics of success. How to overcome hardships. How any one person can move society forward.

Down to even what are the most productive hours of the day, what’s the one word most important for success, and what we can look forward to over the next century and maybe 100 other things.


O) Figure out How to Make Uncertainty Work for You

Nassim Taleb makes sure he walks on uneven surfaces for at least 20 hours a week. The idea is not just exercise, but to get rid of the artificial comforts of certainty we think we have built for ourselves over the past 200 years.

When I interviewed him I was particularly worried that I was “fragile” as opposed to his concept of “Antifragile.” That once things break down in my life I have a tendency to break down with them. His book was rooted in economic concepts but it also applied to the personal.

Getting out of your comfort zone frequently and randomly is a way to boost your anti-fragility. Do something that might not work. Be around people who challenge you.

See what happens.


Then I learned many things about myself.

Most of the people I asked to come on my podcast said, “NO!” I told someone the other day I haven’t been rejected this much since freshman year of high school. I had to re-learn how to deal with so much rejection.

I’ve always been a big reader but never as much as this year. I read everything by all the guests.

Some weeks I felt like I was spending 10 hours a day preparing for podcasts. I learned to interview, to listen, to prepare, to pursue, to entertain, to educate.

Podcasting seems like it’s becoming an industry, or a business idea, or something worth looking at by entrepreneurs or investors. I have no clue about that.

For me, podcasting this year was just about calling anyone I wanted to call and talking to them. I felt like a little boy interviewing his heroes.

I highly recommend finding ways to call people for almost no reason. I learned a huge amount.

But it was hard.

It’s one of those things where I can say, “I don’t know if I can ever do that again.” But I also know I’m probably going to say the same thing next year.

  • Nametag Scott

    Thanks James. Dope show. This line rocks, too: “Personal freedom starts from the inside but ultimately turns you into a giant, freeing you from the chains the little people spent years tying around you.” Keep it up!

  • Oooh what a good summary. I especially like hearing stories of how so many people had to explore and try different things over the years. I like to muck around with different projects at the same time, so lines like this are reaffirming: “Even if it means changing careers 10 times. Or changing your life completely. Just pushing forward to create a little more life inside yourself.”

    • Jessica

      Yeah, but sometimes we can float around being good at a lot of things and great at none. What they did was focus, and learn.

    • Hi Rosana, I used to be very similar to you. There is nothing wrong with changing directions, my biggest failure at the time was a rooted belief that I COULD multi-task… We can’t! If you focus on 1 project for a year/6 months/3 months and do nothing but that, you will either see success or you can move on to the next. The impossible is to run with 2 or more projects hoping that one will work.. Neither will!

      • I am thinking I needed to hear this today, Christopher!

        I am up to my eyeballs in projects. Time to simplify. :)

        • Hey Andrew, Sorry haven’t checked Discuss in ages. I’ve been running 30 day experiments on myself quite a lot recently, have started documenting them on my site… It’s helping massively, streamlining, no more multi-tasking and more importantly getting great results from it…

  • “The average kid laughs 300 times a day. The average adult…5.” This is depressing. Our adults need to “un-grow” up. That, and our culture needs to stop taking the “child” out of our children.

    • Tory William

      when i read statistics like this, i like to test it. Look around and watch people as i go through my day… Try it. :)

  • I am totally hooked to your show! Thanks for this roundup of lessons learned. I learn something new each time.

    Keep on podcasting in the free world, James.

  • Leo Landaverde

    Excellent recap James. I have listened to several of your podcasts and I don’t think you interrupt too much…just enough to be lovingly annoying. :) Good stuff though. Interesting take in Mark Cuban. Cheers man. Loved your book. I chose myself.

    • Jessica

      Mark, he really did want to be rich. He grew up staring at the big houses and wanting to live in them. He wanted the rich person lifestyle. He’s incredibly intelligent, so I wouldn’t doubt from an early age he studied how the world worked, and what the world rewarded ,then went after that. college (where he re-learned how to learn/focus) and selecting a profession that lent to his interest, had upward unlimited mobility and continued. He noticed people were bad at sales, so he sold better and more informed, he outeducated himself against his peers. And most telling, most of the others that made millions with him in their deal Lost their money in the crash. He knew exactly when to cash out of Yahoo…

      • Rdono

        Just finished the blog. Great stuff- insightful, concise.. But pretty sure Cuban was hooked on Indiana Basketball…..not Ohio.

  • Joe

    Come on James! A little rejection is nuttin next to all the love that so many big-hitters gave you.

    Like your work!

  • Gil G

    That piece about Edison should ended with “after many failed attempts at inventing Edison realised it’s easier to play the patent game and get ownership rights to others’ inventions” (mostly Tesla’s).

  • Hi James, I am about to start my podcast. First episodesare recorded and first interviews are completed. I admire how you went all in on your podcasts. It is so deep and intense. Thank you for giving me this view on podcasting.

  • Well done as always James. Hoping you continue forward next year, but I have a feeling you will. :)

  • eventsbella

    Thanks for sharing this wonderful post. I read Tony Robbins recent book “Money: Master the Game” and after that I came across your interview podcast with him at his home in Florida. I learnt a few things from that interview.

    In this article, I like best what you said to the end “I highly recommend finding ways to call people for almost no reason.”

  • great stuff

  • One of the best blog posts I’ve read in years.

  • Rod

    Brilliant advice. Thanks.

  • This is inspiring, of course, James, but it’s inspiring in a thought-provoking way, rather than just being an emotional kick. Thank you.

  • Jason

    What an awesome collection of wisdom, distilled down to some great, simple actions and perspectives. It really seems like the key is focusing on making the best of as many ‘smaller’ moments as you can, which will slowly build to a great life in one form or another.

  • Gary

    Most people want to fix their weaknesses, but successful people use their strengths to achieve their goals. Even with great effort it’s hard to remedy weaknesses. Much smarter to use strengths to get around them.

  • Thanks for this post, James! (It’s my first time commenting.) I just finished reading “Choose Yourself” – love love love it! Its helping to pull me through a low point with my business. I just read an article yesterday about 2 twenty- something ladies who are raking in the business and the thought “I’m old and I suck” ran through my mind. I have to get beyond these low thoughts, pick myself up and start generating more ideas and taking more risks. Thanks again! Lisa

    • continue with “The Power of No” :)

    • Steve

      I have read a tonne of “self help” type books this year (for lack of better term), and Choose Yourself was the only one that just made sense and stuck. I have reread again and again. Thanks for the tip Chris will order it today. And thank you James for your work.

  • Kelly Heth

    Hey, James Altucher.
    You have many orginal ideas and solutions to problems that are counter-intuitive (i.e. don’t go to college, don’t buy a home etc..).My question to you is what line of thought from your guests did you disagree with?

  • omoiyari23

    This years podcasts were awesome. Really grateful for the wisdom James has put up for us to learn from. So much value as always! I look forward to the value im sure James will give this year :)

  • Isaac H Jones

    This was an outstanding article!!! Great summaries of all of the golden nuggets you received throughout your time interviewing all the people that you did. Thanks for being the person you are!

  • jade

    James, I am so thankful to have discovered your book “Choose Yourself” 13 months ago when I was at a very dark pace in my life, living in paralyzing fear. Since then, I’ve gotten through the shit pit and am strengthening my desire to live as it suits me daily. I’ve recently started to listen to your podcasts and have been listening literally 24/7. I love your guests and the honest relevant conversations you have. I am either riveted, inspired or challenged. And now, I’ve finally made it to your blog! Thanks for being authentic and making an earnest to share it without prejudice. I am looking forward to more great content. Keep up the fantastic work!!

  • sean

    your open and close appear based on the advice given by Dan Arley,
    nicely implemented, I hope it increases the perceived value of your efforts by the audience. did it?
    I’m going to think of how I can implement this into my business and life.
    good stuff.

  • Fab fresh article, very empowering, I salute you! and thank you

  • NiHaal

    Hapeeeee birthday Dad

  • NiHaal Trumboo

    Hapieeeee Bday Dad

  • NiHaal Trumboo

    Hapieee Birthday Dad :) :) :)

  • NiHaal Trumboo

    Dad Hapiee Birth Day
    U Gave me enough to change my life

  • Tiffany Gregory-Strempel

    I soooo enjoy your articles thanks for being you ! Signed Tiffany Gregory-Strempel Henderson Nv

    • Shirin

      Thank you so much.that was great

  • Sue Chien Lee

    “Getting out of your comfort zone frequently and randomly is a way to boost your anti-fragility. Do something that might not work. Be around people who challenge you.” Reading your work was the highlight of my day. To boost my anti-fragility for decades to come.

  • This post rocks, James. Thanks for being you.

  • This is wonderful, I read the review of your book online and went ahead to purchase it. I just finished reading the book about an hour ago. This is my first time of reading your blog, your writing style is very impressive. I love it. Please permit me to reblog this article. Thanks!

  • Steve

    Great post James. I am a bit confused about F. I like what you are saying but dont fully understand. Are you saying share your experiences good or bad, or you can only connect dots looking back

  • I kinda enjoy that you interrupt. It’s very NYC of you, and you only do it because you’re interested in getting as much as you can out of your guest in a short amount of time. As for the title of this post: there’s a book in the making, James.

  • flavid

    Damn good.

  • Team Up Start Up

    Hi James, thanks a lot for this great article, which we re-posted on our own blog:

    “Do you want to know the secret of a successful life? Then you should not miss this article by James Altucher. We are actually working on a separate blog post dedicated to James, because we think every aspiring entrepreneur should follow him closely. But in the mean time, we wanted to share with you his insights about success…”


  • The_Real_Secular

    It should also include how successful people assess and analyze situations around them rather than complaining and bitching about them.

  • Tris James

    Thanks for sharing wonderful summary with us. Overall great article! The Women Online Club is here to provide you various useful blogs, advice, tips, inspiration and lots more for learning online business. Read more at http://womenonline.club/

  • Thanks for this post

  • Michael McGillicuddy

    James this was SO awesome! I’m going to share it with my team of educators here in Shenzhen, China :-).

  • Great post!

  • John

    I want to thank you for this post and for your ted talk. I only discovered you today and I’m so glad I did. This piece is the most interesting thing I’ve read on the web in ten years! You have a way of cutting out the useless information and getting to the interesting stuff without any padding.

    Sent from a small cafe in London by someone who is at a crossroads in their life.

  • Chris Kreider

    Great article. I have read this several times. Each time it makes me focus on a different aspect and apply it to my life and writing. Your posts and podcasts have helped me a great deal over the last 2 months. I have used many of the concepts to help start my blog. Writing was something I never thought would interest me. Now its something I look forward to daily. Thanks again for all you do

  • Yogi Berra

    The successful people I have known or studied have one thing in common…Intense FOCUS. They may take some experimentation to find out their ultimate area of interest/domain but once they zero in…they are Laser like. You cannot reach the top in any domain today without excellence and that calls for Intense Focus.

  • Jagatha V L Narasimharao

    This is an outstanding article on success and successful people

  • Duncan B Taylor

    Great read and definitely opens your eyes to the fact that chasing the socially acceptable goals and aspirations are not always the healthiest of activities, I have found that an hour or two a week flying a kite barefoot in the local park greatly assists in keeping me grounded. At 49 yrs of age I still want the string to be longer and the kite to fly higher. I will concentrate on stepping up my daily laughs and appreciate the fact that you pursued your guests the way you did despite the rejections.

  • Joao Sousa


  • Lateef Olajide

    Thank you very much James. I agree with this 101% – “You can’t predict the outcome, you can only do your best.” What I’ve discover over time is that trying to predict outcome often leads to over-analysis, procrastination

  • Me

    Like, are you for real?
    If I were worth as many millions as you claim to be, I would not be desperately selling scrappy get rich quick books on the Internet.


  • People
    work really really hard to become a successful person, some think they are
    lucky, but they never thought consistent success want scarifies, hard work and
    many more. Habits of highly successful
    are the main reason behind their success. Follow their
    successful habits and become one of them.

  • Awesome !! This is the Best article for success and successful people.
    I really enjoy your articles thanks for being you.

  • Fantastic post, James.

  • Sean O’Grady

    The biggest takeaway from this article is the authors attitude. Good job dude.

  • Keith D Guernsey

    Great stuff!

  • Thank you so much for blog posting
    Mobile App Development Company Indore