“I want to start a movement in education to give young people more examples of what is possible. I believe all young people reach for the highest branch they can see — and that they believe they can reach — so it’s our job as a society to illuminate more branches.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Alex Banayan, the author of the new book The Third Door: The Wild Quest to Uncover How the World’s Most Successful People Launched Their Careers. The book chronicles Alex’s remarkable five-year journey tracking down and learning from Bill Gates, Lady Gaga, Steve Wozniak, Maya Angelou, Pitbull, Jane Goodall, Larry King, Jessica Alba, Quincy Jones, and many more. Business Insider has already named The Third Door as “One of the Best Business Books of the Summer.”
Thank you so much for joining us! What is your “backstory”?
ALEX BANAYAN: Seven years ago, I was a freshman in college and spending every day on my dorm room bed, staring up at the ceiling. I was going through the What do I want to do with my life? crisis and it was hitting me hard.
To understand why, you have to know that I’m the son of Persian Jewish immigrants. I pretty much came out of the womb with “MD” stamped on my behind. By the time I got to college, I was the pre-med of pre-meds. But it wasn’t long before I found myself hitting snooze four or five times each morning — not because I was tired, but because I was bored.
My question of “What do I want to do with my life?” eventually turned into “How did the people who did know what they wanted to do break through?” How did Bill Gates sell his first piece of software when nobody knew his name? How did Steven Spielberg, who’d been rejected from film school, become the youngest major studio director in Hollywood history?
I went to the library and ripped through business books and biographies, searching for answers. But eventually I was left empty-handed. That’s when my naive eighteen-year-old thinking kicked in: Well, if no one has written the book I’m dreaming of reading, why not write it myself? And that’s what sent me off on my quest.
It took two years but I eventually got to Bill Gates. It took three years to get to Lady Gaga. I chased Larry King through a grocery store, hacked Warren Buffett’s shareholders meeting, crouched in a bathroom to get to Tim Ferriss — getting each interview was an equally wild adventure. And they were all packed with surprising lessons.
My goal was never to find the “one key” to success. We’ve all seen those business books and TED Talks. I usually just roll my eyes.
What I did discover, though, was that while every person I interviewed was completely different on the outside — at their core they approached life with the exact same mindset.
Every single one of these entrepreneurs treats life, business, and success . . . like a nightclub.
There are always three ways in.
There’s the First Door: the main entrance, where the line curves around the block. That’s where 99 percent of people wait around, hoping to get in.
There’s the Second Door: the VIP entrance, where the billionaires and celebrities slip through.
But what no one tells you is that there is always, always . . . the Third Door. It’s the entrance where you jump out of line, run down the alley, bang on the door a hundred times, crack open the window, sneak through the kitchen — there’s always a way.
Whether it’s how Bill Gates sold his first piece of software or how Steven Spielberg became the youngest studio director in Hollywood history, they all took . . . the Third Door.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?
ALEX BANAYAN: Right after I decided to write this book, my next thought was: How would I pay for it? Traveling to interview these people would cost money, money I didn’t have. I was buried in tuition payments and all out of Bar Mitzvah cash. There had to be another way.
Two nights before final exams, I was in the library when I saw a post on Facebook offering tickets to The Price Is Right. What if I go on the show to win some money to fund the mission?
It was absurd. The show was taping the next morning. I had to study for finals. And on top of that, I’d never seen a full episode of the show before. But the thought kept crawling back. It felt as if someone had tied a rope around my gut and was slowly pulling.
I decided to do the logical thing and study. But I didn’t study for finals. I studied how to hack The Price Is Right.
I went on the show the next day, executed a ridiculous strategy, won the Showcase Showdown, got a sailboat, sold the sailboat — and that’s how I funded the book.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now?
ALEX BANAYAN: When I started writing this book, my focus was on gathering the wisdom of the greats so their hindsight could be my generation’s foresight.
And while that aspect remains, I’ve realized that the mission goes deeper. This book, and the mindset of the Third Door, is really about possibility.
I’ve learned that while you can give someone all the best knowledge and tools in the world, sometimes their life can still feel stuck. But if you can change what someone believes is possible, their life will never be the same.
It’s that mindset of possibility that transformed my life. So my number one focus right now is sharing the message of possibility that’s at the core of The Third Door as far and wide as I can.
Which people in history inspire you the most? Why?
ALEX BANAYAN: In my bedroom, I have the biographies of Nelson Mandela, Maya Angelou, Louie Zamperini, Yitzhak Rabin, and a few others. What inspires me most about them is their courage — they had the ability to do, not what was easy, but what was right.
Which literature do you draw inspiration from? Why?
ALEX BANAYAN: It may sound overly youthful or pedestrian, but my greatest literary inspiration is Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It transformed a generation, not because of the complexity of its writing, but rather because of its simplicity.
When I interviewed Maya Angelou for The Third Door, she told me, “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” And I think books like Harry Potter are an example of that.
That to me is the sign of a literary masterpiece: how accessible it is? Can a ten year old and an eighty year old be equally delighted, entertained, and informed while reading your work? It’s no small task. And it’s no accident that it’s one of the bestselling books in history.
How do you think your writing makes an impact in the world?
ALEX BANAYAN: Getting feedback from readers of The Third Door has been one of the most fulfilling parts of this journey. And I’ve begun to notice a pattern.
The readers who have said this is their favorite book, or that it changed their life, all come back to one thing: the book’s ability to change what they believed is possible. It fueled them with a belief that no matter what obstacles they are facing, there’s always a way.
What advice would you give to someone considering becoming an author like you?
ALEX BANAYAN: If in your heart of hearts you believe your book will help others, and if you truly love your book with all your being, than writing the book, no matter how long it takes or how hard it is, will be an unbelievably fulfilling process. However, if you are somewhat on the fence about it, by all means, there are other ways to share a message with the world. From blogging to sharing videos online, try it out. There’s no need to trudge through the mud for seven years like I did if you’re open to other avenues.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
ALEX BANAYAN: I would start a movement in education to give young people more examples of what is possible. I believe all young people reach for the highest branch they can see — and that they believe they can reach — so it’s our job as a society to illuminate more branches.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
1. Big Things Take Time: When I had started out, I thought this book would be a three month summer project. I grew up in a generation where an app like Instagram can be around for months and then sell for a billion dollars. I didn’t have any realistic perception of how long things take; especially when it came to getting these interviews and then turning it all into a single narrative.
2. There is No Tipping Point: When I was on my quest to get the interviews, I assumed there had to a point where everything would tip and become easier. And I assumed that had to be when I interviewed Bill Gates. But to my surprise, after I interviewed Gates, things still weren’t easy. I learned then that when it comes to starting anything new — it’s not about tipping. It’s a constant push.
3. Beware of Over-Persistence: When I started out, I had read in business books that persistence is the key to success. But no one warned me about the dangers of over-persistence. With Warren Buffett, I figuratively banged on his door so many times — spending eight months writing him letters and calling his office each week — that when Bill Gates’ office eventually offered to help get me an interview with Buffett, the answer from Buffett’s office was still no. I had dug myself into such a deep hole that even Bill Gates couldn’t pull me out.
4. Relax, It’s Going to Work Out: That piece of advice would have calmed me down, which would have saved me from a lot of dark nights and missteps.
5. Every Storm Runs Out of Rain: I didn’t hear this advice until much later into my journey and I wish I knew it in the beginning. Maya Angelou shared that quote with me during my interview with her and I still think about it to this day.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
ALEX BANAYAN: I’d love to have breakfast with Barack Obama. When my dad passed away last year, Obama’s book Dreams From My Father offered me a sense of solace that’s hard to put into words. I always admired him as a leader and public servant, but only now that my dad has passed away do I feel so compelled to sit down with him.
Originally published at medium.com