20VC Scaling Wait But Why to 600,000 Subs; Behind the Scenes on The Research Process, How to Learn Entirely New Topics Fast, The Writing Process and Building Good Habits & The Distribution Process and the Business Behind the Blog with Tim Urban



In a candid conversation between Tim Urban, creator of Wait But Why, and a podcast host, they delve into the intersection of creativity, freedom, and the impact of AI on society. Urban shares his journey from aspiring musician to successful blogger, emphasizing his desire for autonomy over his schedule and disdain for externally imposed structures. He reflects on his childhood ambitions, evolving from dreams of being an astronaut to a creative writer, and discusses the struggle to balance freedom with the need for self-imposed structure. Urban also touches on the growth of Wait But Why, the challenges of content creation, and his cautious optimism about AI's potential to solve significant problems, while also acknowledging its capacity to destabilize society. The conversation highlights Urban's commitment to producing high-quality, engaging content that satisfies his curiosity, and his resistance to expanding his business at the expense of his creative freedom.

Summary Notes

Optimism and Concerns about AI

  • Tim Urban expresses optimism about the potential of AI to solve health and lifespan issues.
  • He also voices a concern that the negatives of AI could outweigh the positives.
  • The stability of society is emphasized as a prerequisite for the benefits of AI to matter.

"I'm incredibly optimistic about what could happen with health and human lifespan and things that had stressed me out, like the problems we currently have. I feel very like optimistic about the problem, is that the same thing that makes me feel optimistic about those, which is AI also makes me wonder whether the negatives of that thing are going to completely overwhelm the positives. If you don't have a stable society, none of this matters."

The quote highlights Tim Urban's mixed feelings about AI: he is hopeful for its benefits but wary of its potential to cause harm if not managed within a stable society.

Tim Urban's Impact and Work

  • Tim Urban is recognized for his ability to simplify complex topics.
  • His blog, Wait But Why, has a significant following.
  • His TED talk is one of the most-watched in history.

"He is the master of taking very complex things and making them immensely simple and understandable. Tim has scaled Wait But Why to 600,000 subscribers and a monthly average of half a million visitors. Tim's 2016 TED mainstage talk is the third most watched TED talk in history, with 66 million views."

The quote summarizes Tim Urban's reputation for making complex subjects accessible and his success with Wait But Why and his TED talk.

Sponsorship and Advertising

  • The episode is sponsored by various companies offering services like investment insights, financial security, and compliance automation.
  • These sponsorships are presented as essential tools for the audience.

"Today, this episode is brought to you by Tigas, the Goto research destination for bold investing."

The quote exemplifies the kind of sponsorship that supports the podcast, offering products and services relevant to the audience's interests.

Tim Urban's Creative Ambitions and Career Evolution

  • Tim Urban shares his childhood aspirations, evolving from wanting to be an astronaut to a president, and finally settling on creative pursuits.
  • He discusses his journey from running a tutoring company to committing full-time to his blog, Wait But Why.
  • Urban emphasizes the importance of having control over his schedule and creative freedom.

"I think I hated that a lot. And even then at camp, I loved camp. It's not like I hated school or camp. They were fine. But then I'd go to camp over the summer and still it was like, now we're going to soccer, now we're going to basketball, now arts and crafts. And it was like running from that I feel like is a lot of my life has been since then has been basically centered around not having total, just having as much freedom as possible."

The quote reflects Tim Urban's desire for autonomy and his journey toward achieving creative freedom and control over his time.

Running from Constraints and Towards Freedom

  • Urban identifies his desire to escape structured schedules and pursue freedom as a driving force in his life.
  • He describes the tension between the rational decision-maker and the instant gratification monkey in his head.

"I think I hated that a lot. And even then at camp, I loved camp. It's not like I hated school or camp. They were fine. But then I'd go to camp over the summer and still it was like, now we're going to soccer, now we're going to basketball, now arts and crafts. And it was like running from that I feel like is a lot of my life has been since then has been basically centered around not having total, just having as much freedom as possible."

The quote illustrates Urban's lifelong pursuit of freedom and his aversion to being constrained by external schedules.

Wait But Why's Success and Monetization

  • Wait But Why began as a side project and evolved into a full-time commitment.
  • Urban discusses the blog's monetization through Google AdWords, Patreon, merchandise, speaking engagements, and a book.
  • He emphasizes the importance of maintaining creative freedom over maximizing revenue.

"Pretty soon it was about ten posts in. That one post really blew up, and suddenly there were a decent amount of traffic after that. So we put Google AdWords on and that generated some money."

This quote explains how Wait But Why started generating revenue early on, but also touches on Urban's discomfort with certain types of advertising.

Venture Investing and Maintaining Freedom

  • Tim Urban is asked why he has not pursued venture investing.
  • He expresses reluctance to engage in activities that could compromise his freedom and control over his schedule.
  • Urban prefers to indulge his curiosity and focus on creative work rather than expand into business ventures that require more of his time.

"It's not that I'm not open to some of these things. It's just that it's like, that's going to take a lot of time. It's going to take a lot of brain space."

The quote conveys Urban's hesitation to take on ventures like a venture fund, which could encroach on the freedom and time he values for his creative work.

Personal Efficiency and Constraints

  • Tim Urban discusses the challenge of needing a whole day open to write, which he views as a significant constraint.
  • He is trying to adapt to having a more efficient block for writing every day.

"But maybe again, as I said, I'm also trying to run, too, trying to kind of get out of that mindset a little bit and be more okay with having an efficient block for writing every day and don't have to have the whole day open."

This quote emphasizes Tim Urban's effort to shift from needing a full day for writing to being content with a dedicated block of time, thereby increasing personal efficiency.

Relationship Dynamics

  • Tim Urban shares that he does not feel claustrophobic in his relationship with his wife.
  • Both he and his wife are independent and respect each other's need for focus and space.

"Actually, I don't. Well, I don't know, because I wasn't in many relationships until I met my wife, and so I'm not claustrophobic with her at all."

Urban reflects on his relationship experiences, indicating that his limited past relationships and current harmonious marriage do not make him feel claustrophobic.

Topic Selection for Writing

  • Urban is described as extremely curious, which drives his topic selection for writing.
  • His writing topics often emerge from personal curiosity, excitement, or discussions with friends.

"It's like curiosity and kind of almost say, just kind of excitement. Like, first read about Neuralink and I started to understand what they were doing, I was like jumping out of my seat to write about it because it seemed so cool."

Urban's curiosity and excitement are the primary factors that compel him to write about a topic, as seen in his eagerness to write about Neuralink.

Curiosity vs. Disinterest in Topics

  • Urban distinguishes between topics that ignite his curiosity and those he finds unappealing.
  • He avoids writing about topics that he perceives as "icky" or not sufficiently proven to be significant in the future.

"There's plenty I'm not curious about. So it's just what kind of grabs me where it seems like a delicious."

Urban's quote captures his selective approach to writing, focusing only on topics that he finds genuinely intriguing.

Learning Process for New Topics

  • Urban enjoys the learning process when it involves a topic that piques his curiosity.
  • He aims to increase his understanding from a basic level to an intermediate level rather than becoming a world-leading expert.
  • Urban utilizes various resources such as Wikipedia, YouTube, books, and articles to shape his understanding of a topic.

"This part is a fun process because it's just like fully indulging curiosity."

The quote encapsulates Urban's passion for learning and the enjoyment he derives from indulging his curiosity when researching a topic.

Note-Taking and Research Methods

  • Urban uses Kindle for highlighting important sections in books and a basic text editor to take notes on other resources.
  • He highlights the benefits of revisiting sources after gaining more understanding to see the progress in his comprehension.

"Yeah, I'll have like a text edit doc. That's just very basic."

Urban explains his straightforward approach to note-taking, using basic tools to organize his research findings.

Balancing Complexity and Audience Interest

  • Urban's goal is to find the sweet spot between depth and accessibility in his writing.
  • He uses his own reactions as a gauge for what will interest his audience.
  • Urban seeks to provide enough depth to be educational and interesting without becoming overly technical and boring.

"So my job is to basically have good taste for what is actually interesting to people like me, reasonably smart, educated people who are very curious but don't know that much about this topic, but they'd like to know more."

This quote reveals Urban's strategy for engaging his audience by curating content that balances complexity with broad appeal.

Audience Resonance and Unexpected Outcomes

  • Urban acknowledges that predicting audience engagement can be challenging.
  • He discusses the unpredictability of virality and the difficulty in identifying which parts of a post resonate the most.
  • Urban reflects on early attempts to go viral and the learning curve associated with understanding audience preferences.

"Sometimes it's hard to know what specifically within the post resonated."

Urban expresses the uncertainty involved in understanding audience reactions and the complexity of content performance analysis.

Virality vs. Personal Interest

  • Urban once aimed for virality but now prioritizes writing about topics that interest him.
  • He acknowledges the potential for viral success with certain topics but chooses to focus on his personal curiosity.
  • Urban believes that one viral post has limited long-term impact on his readership, emphasizing the importance of genuine interest over chasing trends.

"It's not that I don't chase viral anymore. For example, crypto would have been a perfect post. I know it would have been viral."

The quote illustrates Urban's shift away from pursuing virality towards writing about subjects that genuinely capture his interest, regardless of their potential for widespread attention.

External Motivation and Audience Focus

  • Tim Urban discusses the evolution of his external motivation from desiring a regular, sizable readership to now focusing on satisfying his existing audience.
  • His current motivation is less about virality and more about creating content that his readers will love.

"So now that I have that, my external motive now is more about the existing readership and putting out something that they love."

The quote highlights the shift in Tim Urban's priorities from initially seeking to grow his readership to now aiming to produce content that resonates with and is appreciated by his current audience.

Writing Process

  • Tim Urban describes his writing process, differentiating between writing blog posts and books.
  • For blog posts, he conducts thorough research, creates an outline, and then writes, sometimes under self-imposed deadlines, leading to productive writing sessions.
  • Writing a book, according to Urban, requires a more intertwined process of researching, outlining, and writing due to its complexity.
  • He details his "dead on the inside mode" where he is highly focused and productive, often driven by panic to meet deadlines.

"I can usually pound out, I can have some pretty big days there if I have a deadline I've imposed on myself and I say, this post is going to be up Friday, then I can probably, probably write 2000, 3000 words a day, Thursday and Friday, and get it up."

This quote explains Tim Urban's capability to write large amounts of content within a short period when he is working under a self-imposed deadline, illustrating his ability to enter a highly concentrated state of productivity.

Writer's Block and Creative Snags

  • Tim Urban acknowledges experiencing writer's block, which he refers to as "snags."
  • These snags involve structural issues or a lack of understanding of the topic, leading to procrastination and moments of self-doubt.
  • Urban's approach to overcoming snags involves external pressure, such as self-imposed deadlines, to push through the discomfort and continue writing.

"I have a huge moments of despair. And in those moments, and this is, I think, a lot of anyone doing creative projects, you just feel very untalented at what you're doing."

The quote conveys the emotional challenges Tim Urban faces during the writing process, including self-doubt and the struggle to move past creative obstacles.

Content Consistency and Growth

  • Tim Urban emphasizes the importance of content consistency, especially in the early stages of building a readership.
  • He mentions how having a big email list and social platforms reduces the need for consistency, allowing for more flexibility in content release.
  • Urban also discusses the gradual compounding of subscribers over time, with occasional spikes in growth following popular posts or viral tweets.

"I think it's very important when you're getting started. It's critical."

This quote underscores the critical role of consistency in content creation when starting out, as it helps build a loyal audience and establish a routine for readers.

Volume and Quality of Content

  • Urban debates the idea that volume is everything in content creation, suggesting instead that repurposing high-quality content across platforms is a more efficient strategy.
  • He believes that new creators should focus on excelling in one area before considering expansion to multiple platforms.

"I think someone who's crushing it on TikTok doesn't also need to have a big twitter. I don't think they need that."

The quote reflects Tim Urban's opinion that creators should concentrate on mastering one platform and creating excellent content rather than spreading themselves thin across multiple channels.

Content Distribution

  • Urban discusses his approach to content distribution, which involves extracting social media posts from blog content and using a big email list to notify readers about new publications.
  • He admits that his methods are not the most sophisticated and that others may be better at content distribution.

"We could be doing better at this right now."

This quote reveals Tim Urban's self-awareness about the potential for improvement in his content distribution strategy, indicating a recognition of its importance in reaching a wider audience.

Personal Brand and Authenticity

  • Urban is unsure if he qualifies as a brand but finds it gratifying to be recognized for work that feels authentic and high-quality.
  • He advises creators to pursue work that aligns with their true interests rather than chasing attention-grabbing content.

"It feels high quality, and it feels like the real thing I should be doing."

The quote expresses Tim Urban's satisfaction with producing work that resonates with his personal values and interests, suggesting that authenticity is a key factor in his sense of fulfillment.

Handling Criticism

  • Urban shares his approach to dealing with negative feedback, which involves maintaining perspective on the overall positive reception of his work.
  • He rationalizes that the vocal minority of critics is not representative of the larger audience that appreciates his content.

"So these kind of rational thoughts can just make the emotions simmer to being like and almost like you kind of laugh and just move on."

Tim Urban explains how he uses rational thinking to diminish the emotional impact of criticism, allowing him to maintain focus on the positive aspects of his work and continue creating content.

Reflections on Personal Growth

  • Urban wishes he had taken his personal issues more seriously from the start and developed mechanisms to manage them effectively.
  • He now uses various strategies, such as setting daily word count goals and imposing penalties for not meeting them, to maintain productivity and avoid prolonged periods of unproductivity.

"I wish I had taken my own issues dead seriously from the beginning and been like the first year or two there was such excitement and such pressure to be consistent that that was an external deadline."

The quote reveals Tim Urban's retrospective insight into the importance of self-management in the creative process, highlighting the value of discipline and accountability in achieving consistent productivity.

Political Commentary and Pushback

  • Tim Urban discusses the criticism he's received for his political commentary.
  • He acknowledges that any commentary on American politics inevitably leads to some level of pushback or disappointment from a portion of the audience.
  • Tim Urban accepts this as an inevitable aspect of writing about politics and political tribalism, emphasizing the need for resilience.

"Oh, without question. The stuff on this last book I wrote and the series before, just anything to do with American politics." "There is not any single thing you could write about American politics that some people won't hate in America. Hate."

The first quote expresses Tim Urban's experience of receiving the most criticism for his work related to American politics. The second quote further emphasizes the divisive nature of American politics and the guarantee of receiving hate for any political commentary.

AI Article Reflections

  • Tim Urban reflects on his 2015 AI article, considering what he got right and where he could have improved.
  • He believes the general principles about AI types and dangers still hold up well.
  • Urban credits sources like Nick Bostrom, Ray Kurzweil, and James Barat for the concepts in his article.
  • He acknowledges the possibility of technical inaccuracies and the limitations of his knowledge at the time.

"I think that the general principles are pretty much correct, the concepts that there's narrow intelligence and general intelligence and artificial superintelligence, and that the implications of the danger of these things are intense..." "I could have probably run it by a few real pros."

The first quote summarizes the key concepts of AI that Tim Urban believes he accurately captured in his 2015 article. The second quote indicates his recognition of potential improvements, suggesting a more rigorous review process could have been beneficial.

AI's Impact on Civilization

  • Tim Urban discusses how AI can fundamentally alter civilization's structure and trust in systems and institutions.
  • He notes the potential for AI to cause mass panic or disrupt critical infrastructure, highlighting the fragility of modern civilization.
  • Urban also touches on the importance of trusted media and information sources in the era of AI.

"Civilization is just a bunch of people with a certain shared set of understanding of the world and certain set of norms and processes and systems, institutions that we all share trust in." "AI is a giant seismic asteroid landing in a fairly fragile set of equilibria."

The first quote outlines Tim Urban's view of civilization as a collective understanding and trust in systems. The second quote metaphorically describes the disruptive potential of AI on civilization's fragile equilibrium.

Geopolitical Concerns and AI

  • Tim Urban shares his thoughts on geopolitical shifts due to AI, particularly concerning China's potential dominance in strong AI.
  • He urges Americans to reconsider their assumptions of safety and dominance in the face of technological advancements.
  • Urban admits his lack of in-depth research on the topic, indicating a cautious approach to forming strong opinions.

"I mean, as an American who's used to feeling like America is the most powerful country in most ways, so you get really spoiled by that where you just kind of think we're safe because we have better technology and we have bigger economy and a bigger military..."

This quote reflects Tim Urban's perspective on the changing geopolitical landscape and the need for Americans to reassess their sense of security in the context of technological advancements and global competition.

Optimism for the Future

  • Tim Urban expresses a nuanced view on the future, balancing optimism for solving current problems with concern over the potential negative impacts of AI.
  • He uses the metaphor of super-intelligent aliens to illustrate the dual nature of AI as both a problem solver and a potential threat.
  • Urban's personal optimism shines through, despite acknowledging the rational reasons for pessimism.

"I'm incredibly optimistic about what could happen with health and human lifespan and biotech and things like that." "The rational person in me would be like, no, I feel more pessimistic than optimistic, but I also am just kind of an optimistic person."

The first quote shows Tim Urban's optimism for the future advancements in health and technology. The second quote reveals his internal conflict between rational pessimism and his inherent optimism.

Media and Content Influence

  • Tim Urban cites "The Fountainhead" and history podcasts as transformative to his thinking, highlighting the importance of reasoning from first principles.
  • He regrets recent stock and investment decisions, reflecting on the unpredictability of financial markets.
  • Urban's views on AI have dramatically shifted in the past year, acknowledging the rapid advancements and potential for AI to impact his work.

"I always like to cite like the fountain head as a book that crystallized a really important concept in my head." "Twelve months ago, I had any inkling that AI might steal my job within, like, two years, I would have guessed, like, 20."

The first quote indicates the influence of Ayn Rand's "The Fountainhead" on Tim Urban's approach to thinking and reasoning. The second quote shows a significant shift in his perception of AI's timeline to impact job security.

Future Aspirations

  • Tim Urban hopes to continue indulging his curiosities and creating content across various platforms, including video, audio, and books.
  • He expresses a desire to experiment with new mediums and avoid becoming complacent with his current methods.

"I hope I'll discovered a couple of new mediums that really work for me because I don't want to just get lazy and just stick with the one kind of thing that I started with."

This quote reflects Tim Urban's ambition to diversify his creative output and his commitment to continual growth and exploration in his career.

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