BERRY LIBERMAN: Did you really do your college thesis in three days?
TIM URBAN: Ninety pages, senior thesis, yes. I did. I started word one 72 hours before I handed it in. It was not a good experience.
[Laughs]. Did you pass?
They say that the ideal thesis isn’t just a summary of stuff, it adds to knowledge. And mine was not adding to anything. I passed though.
You did it in three days. So that’s kind of awesome.
Well yeah, but it was a battle with procrastination. And that was an extremely bad project for me because it was just huge and disgusting. Who wants to work on their thesis? It’s upsetting. Although my job now is basically writing papers.
I was just going to say!
Yeah, I don’t know why I did that. But now it’s fun because A, I can pick the topics and do what I want. And B, I can write in a fun way with illustrations. Now I get to post it and there are readers. That makes a big difference.
That’s interesting ‘cause you sound a lot like me—lazy but ambitious.
And you also sound like me in that you’re extrovert, not introvert. So the audience matters.
Yeah that’s also true. Writing for me, the whole point of it is that I’m communicating with “blank.” And if there’s no “blank,” it’s less purposeful. I’m not going to write what I think is a beautiful passage and just keep it like I’m Emily Dickinson. That’s not me. If I’m writing, I’m doing it to delight someone. It’s like if you asked someone who gets onstage, a speaker or a stand-up comic, to just go do it alone in a closet. And that’s their thing. They wouldn’t be gratified. The point of stand-up comedy is to make people laugh. So the other end of the chain is a critical piece of the puzzle for me.
I keep trying to explain “Wait But Why” to people here. I say, “It’s like falling inside a giant mind and it’s funny in there, and there are big topics that you would never ever unpack yourself, and there are stick figures.” [Laughs]. But I want to know what’s your pitch?
I think that was as good a description as they come! I don’t know how I would describe it better. Just saying, “Long-form but stick figures” is enough to get people to say, “Huh?” Once they get those two things together then they usually start to understand. It’s like, “Long but kind of silly.” And the topics can be serious and deep or they can be explainers or silly topics themselves.
[Laughs]. I watch your TED talk, which has had so many views and is brilliant, and I’d love to know, what are the key parts of your story that got you to Wait But Why? Because so many things you write about are incredibly deep, very thoughtful and personal. But there’s no “I” in it. There’s no backstory to how you got to explore, for example, how to pick your life partner. That’s a brilliant post and I love it so much. Those stick figures—Romantic Ronald and Fear-Driven Freda. They’re the best. How did you get to be exploring these topics?
Again, to bring up stand-up comedy, I’ve heard someone say, “Everyone can be a stand-up comic if they just write down every time they have an interesting or funny observation.” It doesn’t have to be outright funny, it can be something like, “It’s so weird this is not consistent or, why do we do this but we don’t do that?” We all have these thoughts. And you also train yourself to look for those thoughts, and then you write them down. It’s about figuring out the exact funny wording, so of course there’s a talent there too. But the material comes from living life as a human. And so I would say the same thing about myself. I’m 34 and I’ve thought a lot of thoughts in my 34 years and I’ve had a lot of conversations and experiences just like anyone else. But my job is to think hard about things in life, important or interesting topics, and then draw on all those thoughts. You know, for that post “How to Pick Your Life Partner,” that stems back to long conversations I would have with my high school friends. And then when I went to college, I remember having a long conversation with these two guys about the things you actually need in a life partner. And then I remember sitting on the steps at Union Square with a friend after a movie and he was trying to decide whether to marry his girlfriend. And I’ve seen a lot of my friends in relationships and I’ve been in relationships and I’ve seen things there. So when it was time to do the post, it’s not like all those thoughts were clear in my head. It’s that I sat there for a couple of days and thought about everything. What are the things that are ideally counterintuitive? What are the mistakes we all make? I think about my friends—“People shouldn’t do this, shouldn’t value this so much in a relationship, or they forget to value this.” And I think about my own experiences—“What was I surprised about when I was first in a serious relationship? What did I see in my parents? My parents are divorced. Interesting. Why? How did that start?” And so you do this and then you start writing it down and you begin to see patterns and then you categorise those patterns and then you have a blog post. And you write it.