Tim Urban is the writer/illustrator and co-founder of Wait But Why, a long-form, stick-figure-illustrated website with over 600,000 subscribers and a monthly average of half a million visitors. He has produced dozens of viral articles on a wide range of topics, from artificial intelligence to social anxiety to humans becoming a multi-planetary species. Tim’s 2016 TED main stage talk was the first TED video to ever reach 10 million views in its first year and now ranks in the top ten most-watched TED talks. Tim is the author of, What’s Our Problem? A Self-Help Book for Societies.

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The Learning Leader Show

  • How can I become a high-rung thinker?
    • High-rung thinking is independent thinking, leaving you free to revise your ideas or even discard them altogether. On the low rungs, it means you’re working to dutifully serve your ideas, not the other way around.
  • How can I be the boss of the ideas in my own head?
    • When you’re the boss of the ideas in your head, you’re always willing to revise them. When there’s no amount of evidence that will change your mind about something, it means that idea is your boss. Humility is the awareness that no idea is worthy of being your boss.
  • Best advice Tim has ever received:
    • “I met Chris Anderson, the head of TED, in 2015. He had read a few WBW posts and offered me the opportunity to give a TED Talk at the 2016 conference (which was six months away). Immediately full of both gratitude/excitement and dread/anxiety, I asked him if it might be better to wait a couple years until I had some more speaking experience. He paused thoughtfully for a few seconds before saying, “There’s no time like the present.” I took his advice. Since then, his voice saying those words has popped into my head again and again during hard decisions, and I’m yet to regret following them.”
      • Great advice is sometimes great because it’s totally original or framed in an original way. But, as in my story, a well-known platitude, at the perfect moment, can also make a huge impact. What makes Chris’s advice so valuable to me wasn’t that it was something new—it was that the lesson I learned from taking the advice in that particular moment turned a cliché into a mantra.
  • No one “builds a house.” They lay one brick again and again and again and the end result is a house. A remarkable, glorious achievement is just what a long series of unremarkable, unglorious tasks looks like from far away.
  • “If I aired a highlight reel of your most selfish life moments and most shameful thoughts, you’d seem like an awful person. If I aired a reel of your best, kindest moments, you’d seem like a saint. But people aren’t highlight reels, and the unedited cut is always a messy mix!”
  • Kids Asking WHY? When kids repeatedly ask “why?” they’re trying to see the underlying reasoning behind what they’re told by authorities. “Because I said so” rejects that instinct and says “stop reasoning and obey.” We then become adults who only know how to trust authorities other than ourselves.
  • High Rung Thinking:
    • Rung 1 – Thinking like a Scientist. When you’re thinking like a scientist, you start at point A and follow evidence wherever it takes you.
    • Rung 2 – Thinking like a sports fan. They want the game played fairly, but they really want the process to yield a certain outcome. 
    • Rung 3 – Thinking like an attorney. When you think like an attorney, you start from point B. The client is not guilty. Now let’s figure out why. They cherry-pick evidence and piece it together to make an argument that leads where you want it to.
    • Rung 4 – Thinking like a zealot. Their ideas aren’t rugged experiments to be kicked around, they’re fragile, precious babies to be adored and protected. The zealot doesn’t have to go from A to B to know their viewpoints are correct– they just know they are. With 100% conviction.
  • Life/Career advice: “I’d give the same advice to someone who’s trying to find someone to marry. Go on lots of dates. Experiment. Do stuff. Get out in the world. You can only connect the dots looking backward.”
  • Apply to be part of my Leadership Circle

Time Stamps

00:27 – High-Rung vs Low-Rung Thinking

09:12 – Be The Boss of Your Ideas

19:37 – A Closer Look at Tim’s Drawings

31:16 – Advice from Chris Anderson & Tim’s TED Talk

35:18 – Commonalities of Sustained Excellence

37:19 – Life/Career Advice from Tim

More Learning:

Episode 078: Kat Cole – From Hooters Waitress To President of Cinnabon

Episode 216: Jim Collins — How To Go From Good To Great

Episode #300: AJ & Keith Hawk – How To Instill Work Ethic & Curiosity In Your Children

Episode #303General Stanley McChrystal – The New Definition Of Leadership