Interview: Bob Sullivan
Bob Sullivan and I have been friends for years, through the "Invisible Institute," a terrific writers' group to which we both belong. He's a veteran journalist and the author of five books, including the New York Times bestsellers, Gotcha Capitalism and Stop Getting Ripped Off. He's won many awards, such as the Society of Professional Journalists Public Service Award, a Peabody award, and the Consumer Federation of America Betty Furness Consumer Media Service Award. He spent nearly two decades working at MSNBC.com and NBC News, and he’s now a syndicated columnist and frequent TV guest.
If you love podcasts: he's the co-host of the fascinating podcast Breach, which examines history’s biggest hacking stories, and he's co-host of the newish weekly podcast So, Bob, which tackles stories about the unintended consequences of technology. [Here's the episode where I joined Bob to talk about happiness, the Four Tendencies, and technology.]
His new book is The Barstool MBA: Why Running a Bar Beats Running to Business School. What a great concept! I remember the first time he told me the idea for this book. I thought, boy, everyone is going to want to read it.
I couldn't wait to talk to Bob about happiness, habits, and productivity.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Bob: Bike riding, no question. It makes me feel like a 10-year-old boy again. I throw my bike on the car whenever I go anywhere, and I’m always looking for a new trail. When I can, I like taking long rides on rails-to-trails projects—my favorite is the Katy Trail in Missouri, which winds from St. Louis to Kansas City along the Missouri River. Just gorgeous and peaceful. Last year for my (50th!) birthday I did a 100-mile Katy Trail ride. But most of the time, there isn’t time for that. Even a quick 10-minute ride from one coffee shop to the next helps me clear my head when my day isn’t going well. The good thing about cycling is, like swimming, it’s low impact, so you aren’t as likely to injure joints, and God willing, I’ll be able to do this thing that makes me feel like a little kid deep into my old age.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Life is a lot longer than I thought it was. I look back at old letters or just think of bad times and... it sounded like I believed the world had ended. But a counselor once told me to always remember: “Today is not all days.” Time, and perspective, does heal all wounds. Or at least, time makes things better.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?
With Barstool MBA, we learned a lot about the power of loneliness. I’m one who believes that most companies are in the loneliness business in one way or another. And there’s plenty of (very sad) research showing that people are becoming more and more lonely, even in our supposedly connected world. So bars, the local pub, these institutions stand as antidotes to the isolation of modern life. At least, when they are at their best, they do. I believe this is so important. A local hangout—a pub, a park, a coffee shop, some kind of third place—is just as important to health as a doctor or therapist.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
I stopped drinking soft drinks a few years ago. I used to drink 2-4 cans of soda a day, every day. When I worked in the software business, they would practically hook you up to an IV caffeinated soft drinks. Then one day I read a bunch of stuff about how unhealthy that habit was, and I just stopped. Actually, I’m Catholic, and I gave up soda for Lent. When Easter came, I didn’t miss it and never went back. In those 40 days, my palette was reset. By Easter, I thought sugary drinks were disgusting. That Lent ritual, that excuse to try out life without soft drinks, really helped a lot. Forty days seems a pretty good span of time to make a new habit stick. The ancients really knew what they were doing.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
Why do you ask??? Because I got to sit at the feet of the master during our podcast recording recently, I’m pretty sure I’m a Questioner.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)
I’m pretty intense. That hyper-focus really helps me a lot when I have to dive deep into a topic. But now that I’m also an entrepreneur, I also have to regularly pick my head up and look around to make sure I’m not missing an opportunity. It’s a very hard balancing act.
Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
I’m still waiting for my lightning bolt!
Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?
Definitely. The Road Less Traveled. It was thrust at me by a professor in a religion course during my first semester at my Jesuit university, Fairfield. Made me question everything, including my faith, my Western values, everything. But mainly it set me on a life-long journey of self-awareness. It was the right message at the right time for me—the idea that things either evolve or atrophy, and it’s your personal responsibility to make sure which way your life goes. Peck sent me into the self-help section of a bookstore, for better and worse, and I didn’t crawl out for several years! But the idea that the next phase of human evolution might be emotional intelligence or something like that really excited me, and still does.
In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?
I’ve spent 25 years getting to know computer hackers, and I wish people realized how much they do to keep people safe—the way the world is full of unsung heroes who work as EMTs or nurses or fire inspectors. The number of near-miss hacking events is stunning. So, hug a hacker. Also, in the coming world of robots and AI, I am convinced that only people who “think like a hacker” will thrive.
What does that mean? It means always looking for exceptions and “edge conditions.” It means not taking things for granted—always noticing the exits, physical or metaphorical. It means avoid homogeneity, which is the easiest thing to attack. Mostly, it means being creative. It means finding patterns and smashing them, just to see what happens. Everything humans do that can be automated will soon be of little or no value. Creativity will thrive in the future. Hackers are our most creative thinkers—and they are pretty funny, too!
One Last Thing
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The Four Tendencies explain why we act and why we don’t act. Our Tendency shapes every aspect of our behavior, so understanding your Tendency lets us make better decisions, meet deadlines, suffer less stress and burnout, and engage more effectively.