Tim Urban

Writer at WaitButWhy.com

THIS CHAT HAPPENED ON March 11, 2016

Discussion

Tim Urban@waitbutwhy
Hi - I'm Tim Urban writer, illustrator, and co-founder of the blog Wait But Why, where I write lengthy, thorough, stick-figure-illustrated posts about everything from procrastination to atheism to artificial intelligence. The blog is about two and a half years old and has gained a substantial following, averaging over a million unique visitors a month. Ask me anything!
Steven Rushing@steven_rushing · Co-Founder of Patent Monk
(First, I'll flatter): Love WaitButWhy, the Fermi paradox hooked me and I've preached the gospel of Urban-ism ever since. (Second, I'll ask a fluff question): What was the biggest factor in gaining a sizable audience in the beginning? (Then, I'll a tougher question): You've mentioned you have dozens of article ideas floating around, but never the time to research/write them all. What's one or two you'd wish someone would tackle? (Finally, I'll ask the real question on everyone's mind): Did we really just pay you $12k+ per month to learn cool sh*t and draw stick figures? How would you replicate your success today if starting now? Bonus Round: Is their any topic that you wouldn't write about even with a bazooka pointed at your nether region?
Tim Urban@waitbutwhy
@steven_rushing i want to get to a lot of questions so i'll just answer the first part. a lot of people email me asking about how to get a large audience for their blog, and my advice is usually just telling them what worked for me: the standard way to get an audience is to focus in on one thing, write a lot of regular posts about it, and put a lot of thought and resources into a clever marketing / social media strategy. that works for a lot of people, but we went the opposite way, sticking with two things: - we obsessed over quality over everything else. i wanted and still want every single thing that appears on the site to be excellent. i don't always achieve that, but that's always the goal. - i stay true to what i would like to read if i were a reader. i tell people who email to imagine a million clones of themselves and to just write the perfect posts for those people. long articles aren't for everyone. neither is cursing. neither are silly drawings. neither is an irregular schedule or a wide range of topics. and that's fine. but i'd like a site like that, so i can feel confident that the other million people in the world who happen to be a lot like me would like that too. we put very little energy into social media strategy. that's not necessarily good, but i think it's the right move with our amount of resources and time. it's key to make it easy for people to A) follow you and B) share your stuff, but other than that, 98% of the focus is on putting out good stuff and the rest takes care of itself. the difference between an article that's a B+ and an A+ is like a 100X difference in how big a splash it'll make once you publish it.
Jessica Foce@jessicafoce · Animator
@waitbutwhy @steven_rushing I reckon you really should answer the bonus round..
Thomas Stöcklein@tomstocklein · FoundersFundersFuture.com
What are your favorite blogs (besides WaitButWhy)?
Tim Urban@waitbutwhy
@tomstocklein Okay first, hi to everyone who's here! This is a cool and weird situation. As for my favorite blogs, it's hard to know what a blog is exactly anymore, but I love kottke.org, daringfireball.net, xkcd.com, jamesclear.com, bakadesuyo.com, and maneatingrobot.com off the top of my head. And if fivethirtyeight.com counts as a blog, them too.
Pedro Ivo Cerqueira Pinheiro@pedroivocp · Consultant, OC&C
Hey Tim! Thanks for all the eyes-opening posts you've provided us so far (especially the Musk series and the one about your gig at TED.. hehe), really proud to be a Patreon backer of yours. About my question: In your opinion, besides Ellon Musk, who are the other 2 or 3 super-smart-visionaries we should be watching and learning from today? Thanks!
Tim Corporaal@tim_corporaal
My question is about innovation. There are a lot of definitions for innovation. What would be your definition, and what do you believe are the key conditions that should be met to reach innovation?
Tim Urban@waitbutwhy
@tim_corporaal Quick note: i just refreshed and scrolled down and am sad about the amount of questions i won't be able to get to -- but i'll stick around a bit after the hour's over to try to get to some more. anyway, innovation. i think by far the most important thing for innovation is original thinking. not brilliant thinking - original thinking. just an ordinary human with the guts to reason independently. or a chef, as i called it in the cook/chef post. i think of the world like a big white canvas and almost everyone is painting on it in white paint, which feels good when they're doing it because the world approves of them and they fit in (which our biology so very badly wants to do), but at the end of the day, the canvas is the same. an original uses different colors, which can lead to some spectacular failures, but eventually, those people usually stumble on something good because when you paint on a white canvas in not white, shit quickly starts happening.
Tim Corporaal@tim_corporaal
@waitbutwhy Thank you for your answer! Reading it I can tell you are also a fan of Adam Grant ;)
Jonny Miller@jonnym1ller · Cofounder @Maptia
Hey Tim, I’m an obsessed (Patreon backing) Wait but Why fan, your AI synopsis and recent interviews with Elon were probably two of the most mind-bending posts I read all year, and the recent 'Tail End’ post really hammered home the importance of living each day as intentionally as possible... so firstly thank you for doing what it is that you do so well. Secondly, my question is what beliefs have you personally changed your mind or shifted your perspective on since starting Wait But Why? Or put another way, looking back to 2014, which of the research topics or posts do you think have most dramatically impacted your own lens on the world?
Tim Urban@waitbutwhy
@jonnym1ller Hard question. WBW consists of me pacing around for hours each week thinking about what I think about something and then supplementing that with reading what a bunch of other people think about that thing and then organizing all of that into a cogent framework of some kind, which kind of forces you to evolve your views. Some things that I'd say have shifted in me since starting WBW: - I always thought the future would be intense, but now I think the future is going fully fucking crazy. And much sooner than people realize. There are going to be PEOPLE on MARS in like 10 years - no one realizes that yet. Things like AI, nanotech, gene editing, and virtual reality are going to really, dramatically change what the world is like during our lifetimes years. - I am much more grateful about stuff. Having to think hard about certain topics about life and the human lifespan (the tail end is one, religion for the nonreligious is another, pixel post is another) helps shake you out of the standard foggy small-minded delusion we're normally in. So I ended up inadvertently practicing mindfulness by writing posts like those. - Read the paragraph above and replace grateful with humble and replace the post names with the fermi paradox, spacex, time in perspective, etc. - I'm better at drawing head circles now. I can do a good one in 5 tries usually instead of 15-20. I have more to say but I'm realizing if I do my thorough thing here I'll answer 3 questions all hour so moving on!
Thomas Stöcklein@tomstocklein · FoundersFundersFuture.com
1) How do you chose the topics for your blog posts? 2) What does your writing process look like? (How long does it take you on average to write a single article? Is there consistent time in the am or pm when you write? etc.)
Matias Melian@matiasam · Early adopter. Book addict. Futurist.
@tomstocklein I would love to hear a bit about apps and workflows you use to gather all the information for writing something like the AI articles or all the EM ones. Thanks you!
Tim Urban@waitbutwhy
@tomstocklein Every time I read about something cool or have an enlightening conversation or make an interesting observation in the subway or think of something funny about people, I take out my phone and add it to The List. The List is a huge fucking daunting list now but one thing I'll never run out of are topics. To make a good topic, something should: - be accessible to most people but there should be some delusion or lack of understanding in how we all think about it. I'm not an expert on the topics, so I can be useful by taking one of these topics and reading/thinking about it for 40 or 100 hours and then trying to adjust the way we all think about it or what we know about it. - be delicious-seeming to me. I want to be excited about the topic, either cause it's interesting to me, funny to me, or meaningful to me in some way. As for your second question, the short answer is picture a filthy woman in 70,000 BC lying naked on her back in the woods alone and screaming as she births a baby hippo. That's what doing every post feels like to me. The long answer but not because I have to be short here is that I think/brainstorm/read/research for a ton of time and outline/organize for another ton of time and by the time I start writing/drawing I'm 80% of the way through the process. As for AM/PM, AM is much better for me - I'm happy, alert, and motivated. And I use that good mood to dick around, and then do my work when I'm in a much darker place later on, because I have problems. Fuck I did the long answer thing again.
Callesson@callesson93 · Freelance translator
Hi Tim! Thank you for making us think about stuff we would otherwise never think to think about. Can't wait to listen to your TED Talk. Some of the posts at your blog have been translated into Chinese, which is pretty cool. Have you ever considered making WBW posts available in other languages? Since the topics you write about and the way you present them are pretty much universal, it could help reach an entirely new audience, and quite a sizeable one. If you ever, for whatever weird reason, find yourself wishing to see your posts in the Polish language – I'd be more than glad to help.
Tim Urban@waitbutwhy
@callesson93 Yes definitely. The ideal languages have lots of speakers but not a high percentage of English speakers. Portuguese, Mandarin, and Spanish are the first priority for that reason. Lots of generous people have offered to help for free, and we're working with some of them now to come up with a regular system for translations.
Matias Melian@matiasam · Early adopter. Book addict. Futurist.
@waitbutwhy @callesson93 if you need any more help, count me in for Spanish!
HARSHA@harshinde · another product loving geek
Hey Tim, a big fan of your site (Patreon backer) and love the long form articles on AI and Elon Musk. I admire the way you navigate your readers along the topic of interest and boil down the specifics to an 'aha, so that is the reason for it' moment! Question - Could you give us a peek into any topics in the pipeline for your long form articles? Could I dare to suggest the topic on tackling climate change? Would love to read your perspective on it and as @tomstocklein has already mentioned, what goes into your thought process of choosing the next topic for a blog post or do you procrastinate until inspiration strikes you ? :)
Charles O'Hara@shabada144
Hi Tim ! Where does the WBW logo comes from ?
Tim Urban@waitbutwhy
@shabada144 when andrew and i were trying to come up with a name for the site, i went on godaddy and put in 1,000 things and nothing is available with a dotcom. so we had to get weird. one of the weirdest names we were considering was miniatureking.com, just because i was having a great time imagining what the logo would be. when we settled on wait but why, i was into the name, but a little sad not to get to do a king logo. then i realized i could do whatever i want and did a king logo anyway. i'm sad for the king that he's so annoyed about stuff and so unsure of himself, but i still think he represents the site well.
Rafael Siqueira@glifford · #QUEST
Hey Tim! Thanks for being this awesome human being you are! ;) How do you see Wait But Why in the future? What would be the best case scenario for the blog and your writing? Now that doing a TED talk is already out of the way and all... All the best from Brazil \o/
Tim Urban@waitbutwhy
@glifford it's always tempting to think about the possibilities with something like wbw, and andrew and i do all the time, but i try to remind myself constantly that wbw is CURRENTLY something good. if i have the trust and attention of a ton of smart people from all over the world and i get to write about anything i want to and all i can think about is what i want but still don't have, i'm an asshole. so i think wbw could evolve into a lot of things, but i don't feel like i NEED it to be anything beyond what it currently is. i love writing wbw more than anything and right now at least, i focus a lot more on not fucking up the privilege of being able to write it than what i want it to be. for me personally, i'm pretty sure i'll never want to stop spending my time trying to create great things, so as things evolve, i'd like them to evolve around that and not away from it.
Friso Schmid@friso · Keezel.co
Love your thinking! Which aspect of your brain / thinking process do you admire / cherish the most a.k.a. feel particularly fond of? Which topic have you tried to start with the most times but until now never found a way to do properly? What has been the thing that you found out while writing on WBW that has astounded you the loooongest, in the sense that you have been telling it to various people over and over again.
Chris Peirce@chris_peirce
Favorite book besides books you've read for posts
Tim Urban@waitbutwhy
@chris_peirce bill bryson's short history of nearly everything. and catch-22.
Jeremy Remix@jeremy_remix · Audio Engineer, Heard City
Your posts on the Fermi Paradox and AI turned me in to a huge fan! I love your writing style, which I feel combines the perfect amount of humor + informativeness. I share WBW with my friends as often as I can. 1) What books are you currently reading? 2) Any more Kurzgesagt collaborations planned? 3) What would you do if you had a time machine?
Tim Urban@waitbutwhy
@jeremy_remix a trillion books on my phone not being read by me, but i'm excited to read them all soon, which i won't. but i'll read some of them. dying to read sapiens. currently loving a book called "a little history of the world" by gombrich. excited about isaacson's franklin bio and seth godin's tribes. and ready player one sounds like heaven from what i heard. just finished adam grant's Originals and still thinking about it.
Kelly Rush@subtrkteam · Founder, SubTrk.com
@waitbutwhy @jeremy_remix Your AI post is fantastic, whenever someone asks me why I'm freaked out by how little people care about what is brewing with AI, that's the post I send them to!
Jeremy Remix@jeremy_remix · Audio Engineer, Heard City
@waitbutwhy awesome, thanks!
Eric Jorgenson@ericjorgenson · Market Manager, Zaarly
@waitbutwhy Just a hunch, but I think you'll love Sapiens. Came super highly recommended to me and was a huge perspective-broadener for me. Top 5 Non-fiction in my list. Also Franklin is great, first Half was much more interesting than the last half (for me--france got pretty dull.) RPO is like reading a movie made of Candy. Super fun and brilliant take on what VR could be.
Hey Tim, I've been an avid fan of WaitButWhy for a couple years now and I've gotten all my friends into it too; you're a frequent topic of discussion (as is Elon Musk). Thanks for all the posts; you describe things we take for granted in a whole new light (your recent article on sound was an example of this.) Anyway, onto my question. Fear of death is a theme that runs through many of your blog posts. The fear of death has also been an important motivating/paralyzing force in my life. I've tried to come to terms with it in healthy ways (focusing on family/friends/sushi) and not so healthy ways, like hoping that medical advances allow me to live well-passed my best-consumed-by date or imagining a future where I die and immediately wake up a million years in the future, because human civilization found a way to put me back together. If you're anything like me, you probably have a million different solutions and fantasies about death that help you cope. What are your three best ones, the ones that give you the most comfort in a satisfying and healthy way?
Andy Doriol@deleted-488254
Hey Tim, huge fan of your work. Would you consider looking into & writing a piece on the ketogenic diet? If what people on reddit and elsewhere are reporting is true, then keto sort of turns the whole USDA's food pyramid upside down and proves we've been, and still are, avoiding fat for no good reason (while OD-ing on carbs & sugar). This doesn't really sound like something you'd write about (although it touches the longevity topic quite a bit), but I'm pretty sure if you research it, lots of people will find your analysis eye-opening :) Oh, and it'd be nice to hear what you have to say with regards to Bitcoin. If you dig into its technical and political implications, it's quite mind-bending really.
Tim Urban@waitbutwhy
@seahonky would love to do a big-ass post on nutrition. it's so confusing with so much misinformation but it's also so important. definitely on the list. bitcoin is too but before i dive into that icky fucking topic i want to make SURE it's here for the long run and not disappearing in like 2 years.
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Operations @ Product Hunt
Hi Tim, thanks for joining us today! What are the top three things every new blogger should keep in mind when first starting out?
Marc Eugene McCarty@gyroballer · Software Developer
Hey there, Tim. What do you think are some of the most important self-improvement tips? These could be on your blog or just floating in your brain. I've enjoyed Wait But Why since fairly early on and I love my T-shirt. Thanks so much for the philosophy.
Emily Hodgins@ems_hodge · Operations @ Product Hunt
What story did you have the most fun writing / drawing :) ?
Tim Urban@waitbutwhy
@ems_hodge probably putting time in perspective - because it was just so fun to create a good framework to understand the vast spans of history. i made that post for myself more than anything - i still go look at it sometimes to just awe at how long all that shit took from the big bang to now. things were REALLY boring in the universe until like 10K years ago.
Luis Martinez Brocal@luis_martinez_brocal
1) Do you have any plans to build something bigger than WBW blog to reach a wider audience? 2) How is your process to gather information about a certain topic? Do you ask people related to the topic, just google it? 3) Is there something big coming after the Elon Musk post series? 4)How do you pick the topics of your posts?