A few years ago, I worked with someone who was obsessed with Tim Ferris. American business podcasters are not on my list of people to follow – this was my introduction to them. I didn’t quite get the fascination, but I did find a few interesting things. Including, a set of standard interview questions that Tim Ferris uses with his guests. At the time, I tried answering them for myself as a sort of exercise in self-reflection. I enjoyed it – and would very much recommend it! Here is the set of questions and answers.
When you think of the word successful, who’s the first person who comes to mind and why?
For me, that’s Oedipus. He had it all, then it turns out he’d been sleeping with his mum the whole time, after killing his dad and taking his throne. He’s a reminder that there’s no way to tell failure from success, until you die. If I look again, I would bring up the people who left something behind, whose work continued after their death, through generations inspired by them, teachers, ancestors: those are the successful one. So, Confucius, Jesus, Mohammed, Aristotle, Ignatius – and my great-grand-parents.
What is something you believe that other people think is insane?
That no one is ever wrong. It’s just that you just haven’t figured out yet in what exact way they’re right. But if you try hard enough, you will see that their ‘wrong’ is just part of an iceberg: below the surface, there’s an entire worldview. Exploring that worldview, that’s how you grow. Unsurprisingly, I tend to get irritated by the whole debating paradigm. Trying to prove the other person wrong, throw counter arguments or worse, challenge opinions with facts. In my world, that’s a sign of little intelligence. So, this is my take on ‘there’s something to be learned from everyone’. Of course, it takes a lot of time and listening, but then again, isn’t listening more important than speaking. Many people must think that’s insane, judging by the way they hold themselves in conversations.
What is the book (or books) you’ve given most as a gift?
Crowds and Power, by Elias Canetti. I first got it as a gift, actually. I’ve read it maybe ten times now. I rank it as the richest, most intelligent book about the behaviour of human collectives. It’s based on extensive ethnographic readings, and is therefore remarkable by its concreteness. I became engrossed in it when I was doing research on collective nouns, and it’s inspired my work on community building. It’s also one of those interesting books, in terms of its reception: though Canetti did get a Nobel Prize, and it was hugely popular in Germany, it never really made it across the Atlantic.
What is your favorite documentary or movie?
Ce Jour La, a Swiss movie by Portuguese film-maker Raul Ruiz. It’s a sort of surreal tale: this young woman, funnily mad, is the heiress of a beef stock empire. She’s about to receive her inheritance, but the family want it for themselves – so they send a serial killer, evaded from the asylum, to kill her. Except, they develop this strange romance, and he ends up killing all the family members, as they check on progress. It’s darkly comic (I rarely laughed so much), set in Switzerland, and I have a fondness for the country. It’s the height of democracy, it’s wealthy, well-kept, beautiful – and quite unknown. If you want something more mainstream (i.e. American), that would be Full Metal Jacket, The Shining – and Legally Blonde.
What purchase of $100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last 6 months?
I bought a book by Dan Brown on my Kindle. I love reading, but when the money goes low, I become hesitant. It causes me almost physical pain – a blockage. (I got a few others too – but Dan Brown was the liberating one – I tend to be really bad at relaxing, so, I pat myself on the back when I do it).
What are your morning rituals? What do the first 60 minutes of your day look like?
I’ve embraced my inner chaos. I sometimes wake up at 4am, sometimes at 10h30. I’ve tried to structure my life so that it’s possible, and it’s done me a lot of good. I’m perplexed when I see people praise episodic fasting and interval training, and all sorts of acknowledgements that we’re cyclical being, yet they’re got this firm discipline for sleep, or for the morning. Then, it’s coffee – black or with condensed milk. Not too much food, on the sweet side, but light – fruit, yoghurt, maybe some toasted pita bread with jam. I’m in a dance routine phase, might pass.
What obsessions do you explore on the evenings or weekends?
I read detective novels set in exotic locations. White-man-in-Asia types an embarrassing favorite.
What topic would you speak about if you were asked to give a TED talk on something outside of your main area of expertise?
‘You cannot uncook an egg, and other lifeskills I learned in the kitchen’. As a writer, as an intellectual, I don’t do much with my hands. Words you can edit as much as you want, leave them, return, reshape. But cooking not so much: there is a timing, a rhythm, and a linear irreversibility: once you’ve mixed a dough, try taking out the eggs or flour. It’s taught me a lot about the resistance of the real – and I find it exhilarating. So, I throw myself in cooking sprees, somewhat unprepared, a bit like improv’ theatre.
What is the best or most worthwhile investment you’ve made? Could be an investment of money, time, energy, or other resource? How did you decide to make the investment?
Learning Ancient Greek as a kid. I was obsessed by a cartoon called The Knights of the Zodiac (I think the proper English name is Prince Seiya), and from then, I developed an obsession Greek mythology. I guess it’s a gay thing too – the Greeks were acceptable homosexual role models against ambient homophobia. So, in year 8, when I had the chance to add an Ancient language to my course, I picked up Ancient Greek. That choice completely defined my intellectual fabric and later trajectory. For one, it made it simply possible for me to join Ecole Normale Superieure. It gave me a connection to the deep past. It taught me the art of philology – which is deep listening applied to text. Later, it allowed me to learn modern Greek and embrace my Mediterranean heritage. All and all – joining that Ancient Greek class may be the most defining choice I ever made.
Do you have a quote you live your life by, or think of often
Heraclitus, fragment 28. ‘If you don’t hope for the without-hope, you will never find it, since it is unfindable, and shapeless.’ I had a great moment when I encountered Taleb’s books. I also found that again in Kierkegaard. And Pascal’s wager. Acknowledge the limits of human reason, and the need to go ‘beyond’. I like to think about risk, but then hope and jump. It’s a celebration of imagination. And a retort to the nay-sayers and status quo warriors out there.
What is the worst advice you see or hear being dispensed in your world?
That you should find a way to monetise. Our entire paradigm is flawed. Focus on small-scale things. How is your business going to make money? What matters is your personal bottom line – partner, family, investment, wherever you get it from. What matters is your impact. Sustainability for non-profits, I think it’s criminal. Tying back to the previous question – it is a complete denial of hope.
‘You’re not original, you’re just ignorant.’ Having read a lot, and studied – I think a lot is already there if you read Aristotle carefully. That’s also why I dislike debating. You know, there’s a quote I often bring up, it’s by a Mexican writer called Sergio Pitol, who was also a diplomat, and he writes – talking about Americans – ‘In my culture, it is not respectable to be ignorant’. My anglo-friends twitch a little when I share that. My Chinese, Latin and Indian friends relate.
I wrote a PhD back in France. Three weeks before it was due, I was not allowed to defend. It ‘went beyond disciplinary boundaries’. This set me up to go out of academia.
I later realised I was short-circuiting systems by holding them to their own logic, and revealing their contradictions. Because I survived this big thing, I’ve learned to mistrust institutions, and trust in my own resilience.
What is something weird or unsettling that happens to you
I’ve got a very vivid imagination: I went through spiritual exercises, you focus – and I had those completely over the top visions, like I was on mushrooms or something.
I’m afraid of ghosts. I used to believe it was universal, but apparently it’s not. I will sometimes experience creepy presences. In my apartment, staircases often, empty streets. Like The Shining, it’s a blessing and a curse. I try to live with it.
What have you changed your mind about
I used to believe I wanted to be a ‘writer’, and I had this whole construct around it, publishers, recognition. Then, well – I had a coach who said ‘just write’, and I did that. I can do it whenever I want, and it might get picked up, or it might not. My new fantasy is that an AI might read my texts, so I put everything online. I don’t think it matters, because – I just don’t know, I have no control over it. Emily Dickinson became a sensation – others were forgotten. It’s entirely out of my control. Writing is one thing I control, so I do just that.
What do you believe is true, even though you can’t prove it.
You know what? The Gospel. Virgin birth, miracles, resurrection, the lot!