About Matt Bai
Matt Bai is a nationally known journalist, author and screenwriter. Starting in 2002, he covered three presidential campaigns for the New York Times, where he was the chief political writer for the Sunday magazine and a columnist for the newspaper. He then spent five years as the national political columnist for Yahoo News. In January 2020, he became a contributing columnist for the Washington Post.
Bai’s most recent book, All the Truth is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid(Alfred A. Knopf, 2014) looks back at the ruinous scandal involving the presidential candidate Gary Hart in 1987 and how it shaped the political and media culture. It was selected as one of the year’s best books by NPR and Amazon and was one of 10 books long-listed for the PEN Faulkner Award in nonfiction.
Bai also co-wrote, with Jay Carson and Jason Reitman, the feature film adapted from the book, titled “The Front Runner.” The film, directed by Reitman and starring Hugh Jackman as Hart, debuted in theatres nationally in 2018. Bai and Carson have co-written two other feature films that are currently in production.
Bai is also the author of The Argument: Billionaires, Bloggers and the Battle to Remake Democratic Politics (Penguin Press, 2007), which was a New York TimesNotable Book for 2007. He contributed a personal essay to the anthology I Married My Mother-in-Law: And Other Tales of In-Laws We Can’t Live With—And Can’t Live Without, published by Riverhead Books in 2006.
Bai has appeared frequently on NBC’s “Meet the Press” and played himself in a recurring role on season two of the Netflix drama “House of Cards.”
In his early twenties, Bai was a speechwriter for UNICEF, where he worked with Audrey Hepburn during the last year of her life. He began his journalism career as a city desk reporter for the Boston Globeand spent five years as a national correspondent for Newsweek. His international experience includes coverage from Iraq and Liberia.
Bai is a graduate of Tufts and Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, where the faculty awarded him the Pulitzer Traveling Fellowship. He has been a visiting fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, Harvard, the University of Chicago and Stanford. He serves on the board of the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life at Tufts.
A native of Trumbull, Connecticut, Bai lives with his wife and two children in Bethesda, Maryland. He rarely misses a Yankee game or a Timescrossword. You can follow him (occasionally) on Twitter at @mattbai.
Episode Notes Matt Bai
Lesson 1: Life is in the rewrite 11m 17s
Lesson 2: there is no such thing as abhorrent behaviour 16m 15s
Lesson 3: listen to the things people say about themselves 18m 57s
Lesson 4: Don’t fight with someone you don’t know 23m 26s
Lesson 5: Have the difficult conversation 28m 20s
Lesson 6: People always make you feel the way they feel 314m 04s
Lesson 7: Know what you don’t know 33m 32s
Lesson 8: No one really likes surprises 36m 37s
Lesson 9: Choices are everything 39m 27s
Lesson 10: Look away from the ball 48m 30s
Duff Watkins: [00:00:00] Hello, and welcome to the podcast. 10 Lessons it Took us 50 Years to Learn. Shortcuts to excellence, where we dispense wisdom, not mere information, or just fact to an international audience of a rising leaders. My name is Duff Watkins and I’m your host. This podcast is sponsored by the Professional Development Forum, which helps young professionals of any age accelerate their performance in the modern workforce.
Today, you’ll hear honest, practical advice that you cannot find in a textbook because it took us 50 years to learn this stuff. Our guest today is Matt, Bai, Matt, is it Bay or Bai for, so as my first question.
Matt Bai: [00:00:42] It’s Bai, but I like the fact that I’m in writing. So nobody, nobody can know that for sure.
Duff Watkins: [00:00:47] Well, I’ve always said Bai, and then somebody said it’s Bay. II said no it’s Bai I know where the guy. Okay. Matt Bai is an American journalist author screenwriter. He’s a one-man media conglomerate is what it comes down to, but he didn’t start that way. He used the former chief. Political correspondent for the New York times magazine, former national political columnist for Yahoo news. He’s currently a contributing columnist to the Washington Post and dig this, this is my favorite. You know that TV show House of Cards? Matt portrayed himself, twice on that show. So, there you go. He is one of the nations, the US’s, leading political voices on American politics. And I’ve been reading your columns for years, Matt, because you cogently, lucidly described what’s going on in the U S political scene. And that’s not easy. So welcome to the show.
Matt Bai: [00:01:41] I appreciate that. And it’s great to see you again. And it’s a great idea for a podcast. I love it.
Duff Watkins: [00:01:45] Thank you, appreciate it. I, and the guys appreciate. Oh, and before I want to, I want to plug your book because this is important too, to history. Now this is Matt’s book. All The Truth Is Out. Now, the reason I’m holding up this cheesy piece of papers, because I loaned my book to a friend of mine and he hasn’t given it back yet. So, if you see this podcast, call me all right, we need to talk. All the truth is out, and this is the version that I saw now, it has since been made into a movie which is called The Front Runner, staring Australia’s Hugh Jackman. Now, Matt is the book then re re released as this title as well.
Matt Bai: [00:02:26] Yeah. It was like 3000 versions of the book now, you know, I, I, I co-wrote the movie, so I actually came up with the title, The Front Runner as well, but then, because they didn’t want to call it All The Truth Is Out and they retitled my book The Front Runner, which is, it’s kind of like somebody coming into your house and me naming your kid, you know? So now I’ve got the, you can buy All The Truth Is Out, you can buy The Front Runner, you can buy The Front Runner British or Australian additions or others. So, I’ve just
started to think I got more versions than readers, but I don’t know.
Duff Watkins: [00:03:00] Well, readers, this was whatever a Rose by any other name. This book was one of the 2014 year’s best, but the reason I’m pushing this hard is because if you want to understand how American politics devolved into the cheesy, chintzy, tabloid version that it is now instead of the sophisticated, intelligent erionite version that I kind of grew up with that book explains it all. One more time. All The Truth Is Out and I actually lived during that, so it, it struck up quite a chord with me. Let me ask you a couple of questions before we delve into your tin lessons.
Now you you’ve been riding a long time and that’s your job you’re writing a long time. Do you remember your first Call it business lesson?
Matt Bai: [00:03:49] Yeah. I mean, Oh boy. You know, I’ve had a few, I mean, you know, writing the thing about writing is you’re not in business, but you’re your own business, particularly now, even more than when I started.
So, you know, I had some you know, there were some difficult bumps along the way and learning to look out for yourself and writers by nature were not very good at, it’s funny I’m a lawyer’s kid, we’re not very good at representing ourselves and we’re not very good standing up for ourselves in business generally so , I will tell you when I was in my early thirties around, I got what I you know, I was working in Newsweek and I got my dream or what I thought was my dream job at rolling stone. You know, the old Hunter Thompson, John Wright, who didn’t want that. And I signed a big contract and I quit my job happily.
And I went to work at Rolling Stone and while I was getting ready to go Rolling Stone, they did a bunch of focus groups and decided they didn’t want to do politics anymore. So I got there and it became apparent that they didn’t really have much use for me anymore. And then finally, some guy called me up. He said, I answered from my desk, he said I’m the general manager of rolling stone. And you I, I worked for Yon winter and I don’t know why no, one’s told you, but you just don’t have a job anymore. You gotta leave. I said, well, I just signed a contract. And he said, well, I don’t really think of that as a contract think of that. It’s more like a set of yeah. Expectation.
I’m pretty sure. You know, I’m pretty sure lawyer’s gonna think it’s a contract. And he said, well then fine. Have your lawyer call me. He hung up. And I went to deposit my last paycheck and it stopped payment on it. And I, what I learned in that very painful experience because I had no money at the time and now, I had no job and not even a paycheck was that was not to represent myself what was to let experts be experts and have ever since then, I’ve always had agents and lawyers take care of, I don’t do the business side.
I had a conversation just this morning where somebody has started to get into a Hollywood thing where they started to get into well benchmarks in the deal and I said, that’s, I don’t do that. Like, I’m not, I’m not saying I don’t do that cause I, I need somebody to come in and be a heavy, I don’t do that because I don’t know what I’m talking about.
So, I guess that’s a long way of saying I learned to do what I do best and know what I don’t know. And I think knowing what you don’t know. Is, this is kind of a critical is a critical part of not making stupid mistakes.
Duff Watkins: [00:06:12] And I liked the fact that you learned the hard way. Didn’t have a job they stopped payment on your check. Didn’t have any money of course, because which is actually it’s unusual cause most providers are ruling and money, right? I mean, and that’s what I’m led to believe.
Matt Bai: [00:06:27] Well, you’d be surprised sometimes to be a writer, you got to have it. You know, people figure they gotta have some cushion already.
Duff Watkins: [00:06:34] You gotta love it. You don’t people don’t write for money, as I know well, okay. So that’s all right. That’s, that’s a good lesson to learn, so, okay. So that was your experience into the world of commerce. What about my second question? What about what have you unlearned maybe lately? And by that, I mean, something you absolutely positively knew to be true then but now you realize not the case.
Matt Bai: [00:07:00] Funny as a reporter, if you’re a good reporter. And I was a newspaper reporter when I was younger, you learn to unlearn things a lot, because news is very humbling and you always think, you know what happened and then you find out you didn’t know what happened. So, I feel like I’ve spent an entire career on learning things.
I will tell you this though, when I was really, when I was young and I mean, by young, I mean, in my twenties, you know, at a college. If I could go back, right. Another way to ask this question, if I could go back and say to my 22-year-old self, you know, you’re wrong. I was really in a, I was in a hurry, you know, I’ve put a lot of premium on getting there, fast in what I wanted to do, and I didn’t, it wasn’t very patient about it and you know, I wanted a forum and fortunately for me, in whatever we’re talking about the early 1990s, right. There weren’t blogs and there weren’t websites, you could set up for yourself. You had to go through the traditional institutions that the gatekeepers and nobody was going to let me vent all my opinions or, or try to get attention any way I wanted or, you know, try and try and get that success really fast.
I had to go through certain stations and I still moved pretty quickly, but what I, what, you know, what I, what I realized now and what I, the mistake I see people make is. You know, it’s not the time really isn’t as critical as it seems to you, when you’re young, a year or two years, three years, five years, five years, your career goes by in your twenties. You don’t even remember it later. The important thing is getting where you really want to go and getting there and having the building blocks and learning how to do things and keeping yourself respect. And I feel very fortunate that I did not have the ability to just go on cable TV or go on a blog and I watched colleagues of mine through their, you know, later through their twenties and their thirties go for what I, and I still do. If I turn on the TV you know, go for a kind of what I consider a kind of cheap fame or a cheap success, right? Book done shows all day long or have a clever tweet and just, just try to be looked at, try to be noticed. Sometimes you have to, I mean, there’s some of that and it’s probably necessary, but there’s, there, there are ways to be successful and there are ways to be famous that are better than other ways. They’re not all the same. And if you do it the wrong way, I think it’s very hard to come back from that.
I think if you’re not taking seriously, it’s very hard to rebuild that gravitas and part of why I’ve had the success I had as a magazine writer and an author, I think was that people knew I took. My, my role, my job, my mission, seriously, and I wasn’t just trying to get attention and I wasn’t just trying to get the thing that would get me out there. I wanted it the right way. And I think doing it the right way is more important than doing it fast. And I didn’t know that when I was young and I, it was only your faith that, that enabled me to learn that lesson. ,
Duff Watkins: [00:09:47] That’s a, I think that’s a very good point. By the way, listeners, viewers, you can subscribe to mats columns. I’m not sure how I did it, but it’s, I know one can do it. And I do know that it’s worthwhile because it’s not just clickbait. That’s not the good stuff. Matt writes the good stuff. So how does one subscribe to your column?
Matt Bai: [00:10:07] I appreciate it. You can go two ways. I mean, you can obviously go to the Washington post, although I guess. There is no subscription button for that right now, but you can go to my website http://www.mattbai.com/ and there’s a newsletter. There’s a signup right there on the front. And then you get emails with the column. You do have to be able to log into the post. So there is a small subscription fee. I get emails from writers like every week saying why do I have to pay to read your column? And I would say, because really good journalism is expensive. And the Washington post is an excellent news site and, and, and what they do isn’t free that you can’t, you can’t go into a, you can’t go into a bookstore and pocket the book that you want under your arm and walk out can you? So you can’t do that with news either, but but it’s pretty reasonable, especially for the first year.
Duff Watkins: [00:10:49] All right. So, so http://www.mattbai.com/ is one way of doing it. That’s how I do it. Oh, that’s progressed to the 10 lessons. It took you 50 years to learn. Lesson number one, life is in the rewrite.
Matt Bai: [00:11:00] This is something I say to my kids all the time. They’re really sick of hearing it and I’ve been saying since they were two years old, every time. So I’m going to say life is in the rewrite, which is really another way of saying, you know, if at first you don’t succeed, but, but I, you know, I will lay low the whole premise of my list. And I, I, you know, I given you is. What I have found over the years as a writer is that things that make sense in writing make sense in life. There’s a lot of overlap between writing well and living smart and, or, or the things you learn in both. And you know, when you’re young and people tell you, write it again, you know, this is okay, but now we want, you know, especially the magazine where they go through, you know, very heavily you get your back up, you know, and And, and, you know, but, but I wrote a beautifully and I labored over this and I labored over this paragraph or this word, but the truth is you, you, you know, I learned to embrace the rewrite part. I care more about the second draft than the first. I don’t care much about the first draft. Other than that, you think I’m basically in the right direction. But I do pride myself on being able to nail that second draft because that’s what life is. It is in the rewrite. It is everything is, is not about doing everything, getting everything right the first time or intuiting, everything you need to do yourself.
It’s about listening to people, hearing what you’re getting, right. And getting wrong and being able to self-correct and improve and learn new things. And and that is I think, a key to both success and happiness. So, for me Everything in life is, is about the rewriting and not about the first draft and it’s something I’m trying with limited success to teach my kids,
Duff Watkins: [00:12:32] Give them time. When I read that life is in the rewrite, it made me think of the Hollywood saying, and as you know, because you deal with Hollywood and Hollywood, nothing is written. Everything is rewritten. And my interpretation of that is, you know, it’s a collaboration, it’s a collaboration.
And I write too and you’ll learn the hard way that the editor has a different view and you stop being precious about it. And then when you realize that they’re actually right and they actually have a good idea, you remember the movie. The Fisher King written and directed by Richard, Richard LaGravenese or something like that
Matt Bai: [00:13:10] was John Goodman in that movie I thought it was
Duff Watkins: [00:13:12] Robin, Robin Williams was, but okay. I remember Richard, the director writer, he said, because the way it, the, the, the, the filmed version is very different than this actual basic story, but he says something that as a writer, you need to learn. And in life, there is always a better version there is always a better way. There’s always a better ending.
Matt Bai: [00:13:36] Just this morning. I spent probably an hour on the phone with a, with a famous director on a script and it was hard. It was a script. I wrote myself. It’s it’s, you know, it’s largely autobiographical and, and you know, we, it was, it was page by page of cuts, cuts, cuts and changes and. You know, when I, when I was in my twenties, say I would’ve taken that as a, probably as a kind of criticism. I would’ve, I would’ve gone. I would’ve taken it well, but inside, I would’ve been thinking I failed, you know, a lot of pressure on myself, but you know, you come to learn that to get you, come to get excited about it actually you come to start, I was getting really amped up and I dove right into it. When I got off the phone. Cause you started thinking I can make this better. And that’s, that’s a big key to life is knowing, you know, knowing you can get better at things. The thing I love about screenwriting is that it’s new for me and I get better every time I do it.
Not that I couldn’t get better at magazines or books, but I’ve gotten pretty good at it. And this is a skill that I don’t know, and or that I didn’t know a couple of years ago. And then I’m con every project, every conversation I learned something new, and that is you know, getting, you know, constantly learning to improve oneself is I don’t think you can have a really fulfilling life or career without it. It’s not just careers it’s life. Cause you, you know, try, try being married and, and, and not being able to, you know, accept that you do things wrong the first time and it’ll be tough.
Duff Watkins: [00:14:59] Hmm I am trying, being married. And what you very rapidly learned is is that other person is an authority on your behavior, whether you like it or not. And I get constant stream of very helpful feedback just as my wife’s sneeringly said to me one time. I am going to improve you.
Matt Bai: [00:15:24] That’s great. You should say fantastic life’s in the rewrite.
Duff Watkins: [00:15:27] This was liberating. This was a great burden though with my mind, because I’ve been engaged in self-improvement for a long time. So, I could just relax now. So, she she’s in control and I’m the better for it let me tell you,
Point number two, there is no such thing as aberrant behavior.
Matt Bai: [00:15:44] Yeah, I, I just don’t I guess the other way of putting that is that’s my, I give people this advice all the time. I guess all of my advice, as opposed to like business is either good for writing or dating, you know? And when I say there’s no such thing as average behavior, I guess, I mean it’s, it’s good both for for interacting and dating in life and you know that, but it’s also, it’s an important thing, I think for a reporter to understand, or somebody who’s seeking the truth.
Just that nobody’s ever done and nobody’s ever doing anything for the first time and they’re never doing anything for the last time. If they were, if they were cheating on someone, when they met you, they’re going to cheat on you eventually. If they if you know anybody, anybody ever says to me like, Oh, I did lie, I lied about that, but I I’ve never lied about that before. That’s not true. And, and it won’t be true in the future. So. That’s the general rule I go by as nothing ever happens once, and nobody ever does anything once. And then that gives you, I think, a pretty good window into you know, who people are and, and, and what the world is going to look like.
So as a reporter, I’ve always kept that in mind, and I’d keep it in mind business too.
Duff Watkins: [00:16:51] There is no such thing as aberrant behavior. It reminded me of the French essayist François de La Rochefoucauld, and I can’t remember his exact phrase, but he said he wasn’t disgusted or turned off a surprise by anything in human behavior, because that’s what humans are like. So, if it’s, I mean, any behavior is human behavior.
Matt Bai: [00:17:12] I sometimes I sometimes tell some journalists who. If I talk to classes about profiles, that would say, don’t tell me that I don’t, I hate there’s nothing. I hate more than picking up a magazine story. It tells me somebody as a country is a bundle of contradictions. You might as well tell me they have a nose or ears, or they breathe. Right. That’s humanity. We’re all jumbles of contradictions your job as a journalist to figure out why, you know. And so, you know, I think that’s I think that’s, that’s just part of humanity and, and people do the things. They’ve done before and they do, and they’ll do them again.
Duff Watkins: [00:17:44] I like to quote Marcus Aurelius the famous philosopher, emperor of Rome considered one of the best also in general. He said, I’m going to paraphrase. He, he say, he says, he would say, how old are you? You’re 40 years old. You’re older than 40. Okay. You’ve seen it all. You’ve seen it all already. Now you’re just going to keep seeing it over and over again. You’ve seen everything that life has to offer if you’re 40 and so get ready because here it comes again. And, and I think that is just spot on because it’s so true.
Matt Bai: [00:18:14] Yeah. And you’ve seen this movie before, right? That is true.
Duff Watkins: [00:18:17] Lesson number three, listen to the things people say about themselves.
Matt Bai: [00:18:22] Yeah. I guess it’s related to every baby. I, but it’s something I tell reporters a lot and, and and when my, when my kids get old enough to to date. I’ll probably tell them this too. I think generally, particularly when you meet people that that’s, when they’re most honest about themselves and people will tell you an awful lot about themselves, if you don’t discount things because you don’t want to believe them or because you’re not listening.
A lot of times when we meet people, I’m sure this is true in business too. A lot of times when we meet people, there’s a voice in our heads going, am I sounding okay? Am I coming off? Well, am I making a good impression? Right? You go to a job interview. And, and what you’re not doing then is listening to what the person is saying to you.
That the single thing that TV journalists do that drive me crazy and it’s probably all journalists. They’ll show up with a list of questions and they’ll read the questions and they don’t listen to the answers. So, you know, they’re asking you a question about something and the person being interviewed can say, you know, I don’t know I just killed my whole family this morning, and they go okay let me move on to my next question. And they’re not, they’re actually not processing anything. So, you know, listening to what people tell you about themselves is really important because particularly before they have a lot invested in, they know you very well. They’re very likely to tell you the truth. And if you meet somebody who says to you, you know, gosh, I it’s a, you know, somebody said to me recently this is the, you know, this is the point of the conversation where I, where I usually break my commitment. You know that person is telling you they’re going to break their commitment. Right. You know, and, and, and I, I took that seriously, you know, that like sent a flag on it. So I. I do think most people miss important clues about, about the people they’re meeting and talking to because they don’t take seriously what the person says about themselves.
Duff Watkins: [00:20:01] Okay. And what about, what about the politicians you cover though? I mean, those, I mean, I look at politicians, not just in the U S history, as you may. Not rarely do I see even a. Hint of authenticity from these people because they’re so guarded and defensive, and I’m not saying they have some good reasons for it sometimes they’re so buttoned up, buttoned down, confined scripted. I mean, it’s really hard to see authenticity so it appears to me
Matt Bai: [00:20:30] you know, if you, if you are watching interviews on television, it’s impossible, but if you do what I’ve done for a long time or what I used to do, I don’t know how possible it is anymore. Actually, spend days with politicians, ride in their cars, share it, share a dinner or drink you know, they’re human beings like everybody else and they will tell you things about themselves. You know, most people, politicians, or otherwise actually want to talk about the things they’re passionate about and they want to talk about themselves. But most of the time we’re aware that we’re either being judged, or somebody is not listening. So, I think, you know, key for journalists and I think it would be very key for CEOs or people who do hiring.
If you actually focus on listening and keeping an open mind, I think you can learn a lot. And I always learned a lot about politicians. I was writing about that surprise people. And to me there was no, I, I, you know, I, I always described this to Richard Ben Cramer, who was a friend of mine. The late Richard Cramer was a brilliant political writer and profile are baseball players and everyone else.
And, you know, Richard’s great talent was to listen. There was no Witchery to it. As I say, in the introduction of my book, you know, it was a. Yeah, there, there is a, it is a very undervalued skill and something, most people don’t work very hard. Yeah. And I’m not perfect. You know, I, I, I, there are plenty of times where I haven’t heard where I have to go back and listen to a recording of an interview and, and would realize that you know, I, I hadn’t caught the thing that was really important.
Duff Watkins: [00:21:54] Because sometimes you have to hear the emotional undertone rather than the actual words that are being said, and that, that takes a bit of practice to develop.
Matt Bai: [00:22:02] Yeah. And, and you have to not be, you have to be able to focus and stay in the moment, you know, which is really hard for people.
I mean, it’s funny, it’s fun. Thinking about my wife. She is. More than anyone I’ve ever met, she’s able to, she’s always able to be in the moment she doesn’t worry about tomorrow. She doesn’t dwell on yesterday. It’s like she’s right there with you. Most of us. You know, are thinking about the thing that’s coming up in an hour or the thing we did two hours ago that, that we, you know, I thought I, I, I, should’ve made a note. I have to pick this up or get that done. And you miss a lot in what’s happening and what somebody’s saying to you right in front of you. And I think that’s a learned skill.
Duff Watkins: [00:22:36] Point number four, don’t fight with someone you don’t know. Oh, Matt, where were you at? Where were you? Last week? When I got involved with a Facebook feud over,
Matt Bai: [00:22:46] this is what I’m talking about this is my point. No, he had to learn this. And, and I think it’s important in the social media agent. And I, I failed on it many times and I still probably can in some, but it’s, you know, you can, in this moment where we live so much of our lives online and we do social media and I watch my kids go through it and I go through it and it is so possible to get it, to get insulted and heard and caught up in arguments and trying to be right.
Punching back when you’re punched and you don’t look, those of us who write for a living to get killed online all the time. And I just, at some point I used to do it. And you know, at some point I realized that you waste a lot of time in your life fighting with people you don’t know you you’re never going to meet.
You don’t know what it’s not just that you don’t know if they matter or you don’t know if they’re smart or you don’t know if they have an audience. It’s also, you don’t know if they’re hurting, you don’t know if they’re damaged. You don’t know. I know you don’t know what drives them to criticize you.
It’s probably hard to be that person online. Who’s, who’s, who’s beating the snot out of you. You know, you don’t know who that person is and, so there’s a level of empathy to it and I just think you’ll be happier in life and go to sleep happier and sleep better and be better for the people who love you if you don’t get angry with people who just don’t matter, who just aren’t in your field of vision and who you’ll never know. And I I’ve really, I’ve, I’ve distanced myself from social media largely. Anyway, I do a little bit, I had a Twitter on my column or other things I don’t do Instagram. I don’t do Facebook really. I have an account, but I mostly just post stuff there. But, but, but I really try and I sometimes break the wall. I’m not perfect, but I really try not to let hostilities online or an email or other ways You know, bleed into my life because it, you can’t, you can’t waste your energy doing that.
Duff Watkins: [00:24:36] I can only ascribe it to a sudden massive drop of IQ on my part. You know, I don’t normally do this, but but the, the interesting thing, and it’s just, as you said, I had a lingering sense of upset and anger and hostility, which is harmful, not, not to anyone else to me, you know, to the person. And, and I thought, man, you know, I’m an educated person, I’ve got a high school diploma and everything you know, how many times am I going to fall for this? So so that’s, that’s excellent advice. Don’t fight with somebody you don’t know.
Matt Bai: [00:25:07] And there was a time as a writer where. And look, I used to, I’ve always had my email address and address out there. Always been reachable for readers. I never, even in the early days, I never had a dummy address like some people do, even at the times, I let my email address off. And and it used to be, I felt like if you got back to an angry person online and said, I’m sorry you feel that way. I wish you’d put it differently. Or I don’t know if you’re proud to have written that note about my, my mother, but, you know, let me, let me explain to you what I was doing.
You know, seven, eight times out of 10, you’d get a note back saying, I didn’t think you’d really read this, or I appreciate that you replied or you’re writing, rephrase it. You could come to an understanding. I took a lot of satisfaction from that. I’m not, you know, not convincing people that I was right, but convincing them that I was here when being an, I had appreciation for what they were saying, and they could have appreciation for me. I think that’s very hard now. I think that’s very rare. People take it very for granted that they can reach out to anybody whenever they want that you should respond to them. They there’s a culture online now that never giving you know that there’s no, it’s you know, you, nobody admits they were wrong nobody thinks through what they said. So you know, you have to remember that when you don’t know somebody, you can’t know, Oh, their pain or their insecurity or their rage, or what makes them who they are. And so you’re, you’re, you’re at a tremendous disadvantage in trying to have a productive conversation.
Duff Watkins: [00:26:32] Your words, remind me of Plato who said be kind to everyone for, they are carrying a heavy load and you have no idea what that load is. I mean, you know, we had no idea,
Matt Bai: [00:26:43] no, that’s right. It’s something, you know, I always, I think I, you think about more as you get older and you know, more people and have more experiences. It’s not easy being anybody out there. And, and I, I still can lose my, I can lose my temper for sure. You know, but I But I feel, I feel much worse about it than I did 20 years ago. And I feel bad for the other person. Yeah. Well, not just for myself. I feel, I feel, I feel like you have to give people the opportunity to be wrong.
Duff Watkins: [00:27:08] Yeah, it’s the emotional residue that you feel is, is what I kind of surprised me. I didn’t feel good about getting involved in a pointless argument with, with people, for whom I should be having compassion in the first place. So it kind of deviated from my own personal standards.
Matt Bai: [00:27:23] And that’s a good way to put it
Duff Watkins: [00:27:24] Point number five, have the difficult conversation.
Matt Bai: [00:27:27] Yeah. I, I, I work on this, you know, like a lot of things on this list. I’m not, I’m not perfect myself, but I do. There is a temptation. I’m sure it’s true in business. It’s true as a writer, it’s true in life. And particularly now that we have all of these other kinds of communication, because I, as a writer, email is very natural for me. I can say anything in email, there’s a temptation to put off difficult conversations or send in, send a note and hope that does it, or or, or, you know, just basically avoid or have somebody else do it. You know, I have, like I said before, you, you get into a certain point in my business where you have agents and lawyers, and they can do it right. They’re all, you know, you could say your agent, well, you call them and tell them, I don’t want to do that, that thing anymore. But there’s a value. I think I, I decided in life and having that tough conversation yourself and picking up the phone when your heart’s beating a little fast and saying this doesn’t work for me or, you know, and I think particularly when you see leaders in business or in other editors that I’ve had other people who are supposed to lead organizations and institutions. And if they’re not willing to look to look you in the eye and themselves and tell you why, why they feel they need to do a difficult thing, it’s very hard to respect them. So so I think pushing yourself to have the conversations you don’t want to have in, in, in work, in relationships in life I think it’s you feel better about yourself and people will respect you more. And I almost. I never, and I experienced this a lot as a journal on, somebody’s going to be mad at what you’ve written. You kind of want to tell them, Hey, I wrote a piece and you’re going to be really upset about it. Yeah.
It’s tempting to email. It’s tempting to just let them read it in the morning. You know I find that I always feel better and I always preserve relationships better when I’m direct with people. And when I do that myself and I don’t have all, I’m not batting a thousand, but but I, I try to get better and better about it.
Duff Watkins: [00:29:15] Well, the thing is, is that the reason we avoid those difficult conversations is we think it’s going to be so hard and that in my experience, and this is based on good psychology, it’s this hard, not this hard. And I mean, it’s usually much easier than you think. Ah, you know, and sometimes it’s not, but you know, but then, so you very quickly discover so what.
Matt Bai: [00:29:40] Yeah, that’s right. It’s, it’s rarely as bad as you think it’s going to be. It it’s it’s it can be, you know, it can be difficult, but but putting it off or putting it on someone else’s is worse. You know, you gotta, you know, it goes back to, I guess, treating people the way you want to be treated right. The oldest rule in the book. And I think most of us would rather have somebody leveled with them.
Duff Watkins: [00:29:58] Mm Hmm. Point number six. You’ll have to explain this one to me. People always make you feel the way they feel.
Matt Bai: [00:30:08] Yeah, I, I, I is another one. I talked to my kids about a lot. So I, you know, when I was, I’m trying to think I was at Newsweek so I was probably in my early thirties, I was traveling around all the time and I was traveling from one city to another. And I, I, I met this woman on a plane and she’s a psychologist. And we got to talk in and as it turned out, his weird things happened. We spent some time together after she was coming to the town where she was coming to Washington, where I was living.
And she told me something is we were having this discussion. She said, and she said, well, the thing is people, however people make you feel is generally how they’re feeling themselves. So if they make you feel small, it’s because the world makes them feel small. If they make you feel dumb, it’s because the world is making them feel dumb and.
It was such a simple formulation and it’s probably pretty standard for people who study the human psyche, I guess, but it’s always stuck with me and I found it to be very useful in life to remember. In fact, a tremendous example of that to me is President Trump. Well, I’ve written about this. I’ve written columns about this, you know, who you know, makes our politics feel very small and trivial.
And I, and I, I think because he often feels small and trivial has a fear of that. And so, you know, for me it’s, it’s been very useful in dealing with people in difficult situations or just to to help me remember that that person is coming from a place of their own weakness and not to take it as personally, as I otherwise would.
Duff Watkins: [00:31:38] I think there was a lot of truth to that psychologically. Now I used to run psychotherapy groups in psychiatric hospitals. So you know, I used to be dealing with some of the sickest of the sick in our society and I think there is a lot of truth to that as I guess is all I can say, because I’m in a, in a therapy group, people will, this actually ties in with some of the things you’re saying, people will manifest their illnesses right there in the group for all, to see if you know what to look for and if you know what interactions to look for.
And and really, if you think about it, how else can we be? You know, the way we feel inside is must be manifest somehow on the exterior.
Matt Bai: [00:32:16] Right. Exactly.
Duff Watkins: [00:32:17] People wants to make you feel the way they feel. Okay. I like that. I like that a lot. Point number seven. Know what you don’t know?
Matt Bai: [00:32:24] I guess I hit on this a little already, but I do you know, it’s just so tempting in life and I see it in business too.
I’ve seen it. I’ve seen it with organizations. News organizations is just so tempting to believe you can do everything to believe, you know, to believe you can You can just know thing, you know, know how to do something that you, you just don’t know how to do. And you know, I think knowing your limits and knowing when to turn to experts is a really important thing.
Somebody said to me, just this past weekend, he said, you know, you can, I dunno, it was talking about putting a thermostat in my house. He said, you can do that yourself. And I said, no, you know, I actually can’t. I could, but it’s going to go really badly. I’m all for improvement in self-education. But there are people who know how to do that and I don’t know how to do that. And so. You know, it’s I’ve just, I found that to be useful as a writer you know, it’s particularly going into Hollywood. This is where I really don’t know anything. You know, knowing when when I’m talking to someone, whether it’s about the deal part of something or, or even the production, part of something where I think, you know, this person knows what they’re really knows what they’re talking about.
I can tell them how I want it done. But chances aren’t going to regret. And so, you know, a lot of life is common sense, and you know, you may know, you may know how to do things. You don’t think you know how to do, but it’s not like those old holiday Inn commercials nowadays express commercial, you know, are you a doctor?
No, but I stayed at a holiday Inn express last night. Like you know, that’s, that’s a, it’s we, you know, you, you want your, you, you, you want the operation done by a surgeon and you want your your lawyering done by your lawyers. And, and I think, you know, just knowing knowing your own limits help keeps you from making dumb mistakes.
Duff Watkins: [00:34:01] Our producer, Rob always likes to say, if you want bread, go to a Baker. And the reason he says that is because his dad told him if you want bread, go to a Baker. And so, you know, go to somebody who does a full time, knows what they’re doing. I’m sure you can make your bread if you want, but you know, to get it right.
And I guess that’s why, I mean, personally, that’s why I have an accountant. That’s why I have a dentist. That’s why I have an orthopedic surgeon because you know, they know more about this stuff than me.
Matt Bai: [00:34:27] Well, and you see this on you know, a friend of mine, co-writer of mine always likes to, he likes to compare it to the pilot and the planes and stuff.
You don’t want me flying your plane. Right. But it’s, you know, you see this on again, it goes back to cable TV, or the internet, you know, there’s practical application of it. You see these people talking about things they clearly don’t know very well. And and they look foolish and then they’re proven wrong.
And sometimes, you know, my problem, whenever I do TV, I sometimes do a Sunday show, or I used to do more cable. I don’t as a rule to cable TV haven’t for years, but you’re tempted. I always have to say, you know, I don’t really know. You just asked me something. I don’t know. And they get very upset about that. They don’t want that. But I think knowing when to say, I just don’t know it was an important part of not looking like a buffoon. And I think people often learn that too late. If at all.
Duff Watkins: [00:35:14] Yeah, if at all point number eight, no one really likes surprises. Well, I do Matt. Well, it depends on what kind of surprise it is.
Matt Bai: [00:35:23] Yes. What I mean by that is, you know, that is really a very I’m making a really pragmatic observation and I think at war for work and business, and, and certainly for what I do writing for editors or directors, whoever you were before, you can get away with a lot, you can. Reinterpret things. You can give people things they didn’t know.
You know, you can take an assignment and change it. You can present your boss with a whole different way of looking at a project than they may have thought. But my advice to people in a professional sentences is don’t surprise your superiors or your coworkers. You know, don’t think that I think people get this crazy idea they’ve gotten from like TV, where they’re going to like wow, everybody, they’re gonna stand up in a meeting and say, well, yeah, I did this. I looked at this completely differently. I didn’t do what you asked me to do. I did this amazing thing and everyone’s going to get up and cheer for them. I’ve always found that just giving people a heads up of what you’re doing can, can spare you a lot of headaches and get you a better hearing.
You know, if I’m changing a story that I’m writing and doing something else, if I’m changing the way I’ve promised I’m going to do something, or I’ve decided to change a character on a screenplay. Yeah. I’ll send a note or get on the phone and say, Hey, just so you know. Cause I have not turning this into you yet, but I’ve decided to do it this way or I’ve decided to do it that way.
And I think sometimes writers fear you’re going to get a note back saying, don’t do that, right. I’m sure it’s it works the same. If you’re working in a fortune 500 company, you know, you don’t want your boss to call you and say, no, don’t do it that way. Do it my way and you do run that risk. But I think if you surprise the people you work for, even if you’ve done great work some, a number of bosses in the world are going to discount what you’ve done simply because it’s not what they were expecting, and they’re taken by yeah. They’re sort of back on their heels.
Duff Watkins: [00:37:08] So you’re talking about altering their expectations before you spring it on them.
Matt Bai: [00:37:13] Yeah. Just keeping their expectations in the right place. Just making sure people know what you’re doing. So that when you give them a product that you’ve written, or you’ve put together they’re there they can see it. And they’re not just sitting there the whole time going this isn’t what I was expecting. This isn’t what I asked for just communicating. It’s just another way of saying, just communicate with people. You may think they’re going to love this. You’re going to surprise and wow. Them like crazy, but the surprise usually doesn’t work in your favor is my experience.
Duff Watkins: [00:37:39] I can certainly attest that business loves predictability. They are very much. So, they want to know what the interest rates are going to be. They want to know what the weather is going to be. They want to know. And, and so business talks a lot about disruption in a positive way, but actually they very much like status quo, predictability, you know?
Matt Bai: [00:37:59] Yeah.
Duff Watkins: [00:37:59] Number nine kind of says it all to me in some way. Choices are everything.
Matt Bai: [00:38:05] Yeah. Choices are everything. I mean, this is a lesson in writing. That’s also true in life, but it’s. You know, I learned it through writing. I think more than anything, it’s nothing. One choice may be better than the other one may work out one may not, but there’s nothing worse than the failure to make tough choices.
And that’s true on a page. If you’re writing, you know, if you don’t want to go one direction or the other, you don’t want to choose a character, you don’t want to choose a storyline or a scene. You want to do everything you’re never not sure which is going to work better. So, you just kind of abdicate, then you just get a pass on the page, right?
Because you haven’t made, the difficult choice of writing is choosing governing is cheating. That’s literally the root of the word. And we get bad governance when people don’t want to choose between what the money they can bring in and the money they can spend. Right. They don’t want to choose one program over another they want to have everything. And, and it’s true just generally in life. I think you know, when you’re given opportunities or when you have when you have. A choice to make about what direction you want to go in your career and your life. I think there’s an indecision is, is, is the war is the thing that will kill you. It’s the thing that, you know, not being able to choose letting then you let other people choose for you. And this is the thing I always say to writing students as well. You can, you can take a piece that’s supposed to be. 3000 words and turn it in at 5,000, I know writers should do this and just say, I can’t get 2000 words out of this piece, you know, and I’ll leave it to an editor and that may work out for you, but because you couldn’t make the choice, somebody else gets to, and they get control of your material and control of your ideas and hard as it is to make that choice. It’s always preferable to leaving the choice to somebody else.
And I think a lot of us in life. Do punt on choices in key moments because it’s so scary to have to live with the responsibility for them. And it’s just always better to control your own destiny and control your own creative work and control your own career path. And so, you know, I think choosing means turning down things that you may regret choosing to take paths that that may or may not work out, but you’ve got to make those choices.
Duff Watkins: [00:40:05] Every editor. I met once, copy that I don’t want hard work. I mean, you send them 5,000 words and it’s also true in music. What you’re saying reminds me of Tony Williams, famous jazz drummer, and other drummers were commenting about his work. And they said they, they admired him because of the decisions he made, the choices he made.
He played this note and this rhythm, this beat instead of. Anything else you could have done. And that’s what makes him so well, what makes him great? He’s a legendary jazz drummer.
Matt Bai: [00:40:33] When I read, I feel the same way about music, and I feel the same way about books and magazine stories. When I read, you know, a book that I think is great or, you know, music, it’s funny, music is interesting because it used to require more choices and now that you can just drop songs as much as you want, and there’s no limit on time or tracks. But when I read a great book, That’s the way I often describe it to myself. I would think what great choices that right are made. You know, I just read Patrick Radden keeps book on the IRA and the troubles in Ireland called Say Nothing really brilliant book. And you know, Patrick’s a writer at the new Yorker and. That’s I said to him, I, the book was terrific, but I said you made great choices. Cause it is. I see that when you read great writing, then, Oh, you’ve chosen this to follow this character. You’ve chosen. Not yet. You can’t follow everybody.
And a series of good choices makes them a great story. Just like it makes a great album.
Duff Watkins: [00:41:24] Well, let’s use your book as an example, you wrote a book and I don’t know how many words it was, but then you condense it into a screenplay. So, let’s say you have a thousand scenes in your book and you have to condense it down to a hundred and maybe 150 scenes for a movie.
So that’s a lot, that’s a lot of deciding right there.
Matt Bai: [00:41:41] It is. And they’re, and they’re very hard. Those are very hard choices to make, but you have to, you really have to do it. And it’s hard. You know, stuff always ends up on the cutting room floor that you wish you had. But But the, the movie that doesn’t edit, right?
We’ve all seen them. The movie that wants to hold its footage that’s, that’s the one you can’t stand to sit through.
Duff Watkins: [00:42:00] Show me the director’s cut that shorter than the original. I’m still waiting to see that, you know,
Matt Bai: [00:42:05] Failure to choose, you know, people go design houses, right. In a, they want everything. They want the, you want the deck, and you want the pool and you want the lighting and you want the windows and it’s a mess. Right. It’s just, and You know, so not, I don’t get to design a house like that, but I see them. So, you know I just think it’s true almost you know, for everything it’s certainly true in the, in the people, you know, and choose to spend time with.
And it’s, everything is about those. Those trade-offs and the only way to control them is to make the choices.
Duff Watkins: [00:42:33] Yeah. I think I read somewhere a choice is like a cage and I know you’re, you’re constraining yourself by what you choose, but that’s okay. Because if you’re here, then you can’t be there simultaneously. If you’re doing this, you can’t be doing that. These not at the same time. If you marry this person and you can’t marry that person at the same time, it’s illegal. And so, if you write this, then you’re not writing that it just so in those roles, but it’s all sort of taken exercising, your authority, taking responsibility and being, this is my take on what you’re saying Matt being a mature, grown up adult, I choose to do this and I’ll live with the consequences.
Matt Bai: [00:43:13] Yeah. I mean, sure. I, I, you know, I often I I’ve said to magazine writers before, there’s only two ways to do this. There’s magazines really hard. You know, if you’ve got a 10,000-word story worked on it from one, any of the information we can own you, or you can, or you can wrestle the information down, you know, it’s it’s, you can either make the choices that are tough or you’ll just get buried. And I think it’s true in life too. And so, it’s exactly what you’re saying.
Duff Watkins: [00:43:35] Our 10th and final point. I have no idea where you’re going with this, by the way, number 10, look away from the ball.
Matt Bai: [00:43:42] Yeah. Well, you know, I think about this a lot. So, I had a professor at, I was at a Columbia graduate school of journalism. I had Roger Rosenblatt and one of the great American essayists and writers public radio, public broadcasting personality. And Roger was a great writing teacher, his great writing professor. And he had a series of his own rules that he gave to writers in his class. Not all of which I remember. But the one that really stuck out to me was look away from the ball and it’s sort of, you know, everybody, the crowd will always look in one place.
Everybody will always go where the action is. There’s always something interesting happening on the periphery and the classic journalism case of this is I think it was Jimmy Breslin who sent to cover the assassination of John Kennedy and the, and the ensuing ceremonies and finds the grave Digger who’s. Digging the grave for Kennedy. And does this, you know, beautiful story about the grave Dicker. It’s just a classic case of looking away from the ball, but I think it’s as true in life as it is in writing. And I think that’s why it stuck with me so much and why I think about it because you know, we, we, there is this mass thinking all the time.
Everybody always goes to the same place. Everybody looks at the main action. It happens, journalism. It happens in Hollywood. It happens in business. Everybody wants to look at, you know, the thing of the moment. And I think the real visionary is like the people who achieve unusual things look away from the action and think, you know, what’s happening over there, that’s coming next.
You know, what aren’t we noticing? And so, I think as a general rule in life, you know, if you as a way of not following wherever the crowd or the conventional wisdom is, I think looking away from the ball is pretty good advice.
Duff Watkins: [00:45:20] What else can we attend to? That is not the bleeding obvious is my interpretation of what you’re saying.
Matt Bai: [00:45:26] Exactly. Exactly. There’s just too much of that, you know. And, and I thought that as a columnist, I certainly tried it. You know, I really, as soon as there’s a giant event that everybody’s writing about, I’ve always tended to shy away from that. Sometimes I’m asked or I have an idea and I’ll, I’ll dive into it. Sometimes. I’m happy I did, but my first instinct is always to move away and look somewhere else because. If everybody’s looking in one place, they’re missing something important. And you can carve out a real niche for yourself, a place for yourself looking in a different direction.
Duff Watkins: [00:45:57] Okay. We’ll finish there with 10 lessons it took Matt Bai 50 years to learn. You’ve been listening to the international podcast of 10 Lessons it Took Me 50 years to Learn. Today’s episode is produced by Robert Hossary and sponsored by the Professional Development Forum. PDF provides webinars, social media discussions, podcasts, parties, anything you want, everything you need, you can find it on Professionaldevelopmentforum.org. Best of all. Everything’s free. Thank you for listening to us today. Please join us for the next episode of 10 Lessons it Took Me 50 years to Learn your shortcut to excellence.