Do you struggle with having multiple interests (aka you're multi-passionate)? If so, today's guest is a living, breathing case study on how you can be very successful not having a "niche" and being multi-passionate.
Baratunde Thurston is a politically-active, technology-loving comedian and popular speaker. He co-founded the black political blog, Jack and Jill Politics and serves as Director of Digital for The Onion.
He just released How To Be Black, which is part memoir, part satirical self-help book for anyone looking to befriend or work with a black person, become the next black president or challenge anyone who says they speak for all black people.
Yup, he's multi-passionate!
In this conversation, Baratunde and I chat about:
- How be balances several different interests like technology, politics and comedy
- Potential pros and cons he's experienced being multi-passionate
- How community has played a role in his success
- What his new book, How To Be Black is all about
- Specifics on how he's promoting his new book and why he's treating it like a political campaign
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More About Baratunde
How To Be Black Author Baratunde Thurston is a comedian and the digital director of The Onion. He also co-founded the black political blog Jack & Jill Politics.
Buy his new book, How To Be Black (affiliate link)
Joining me today is Baratunde Thurston. He is the author of the brand-new book — let me put it up — with the awesome title "How to Be Black." It just came out today as we're recording this interview on January 31st. But Baratunde is also the Director of Digital at The Onion, co-founder of Jack and Jill Politics, stand-up comedian, a really sought-after speaker. I'm really excited to have him here.
Also though, he's been named one of the 100 Most Influential African-Americans of 2011 by The Root and one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business by Fast Company magazine.
So Baratunde, first of all, man, congratulations on the release of the book and welcome to Grind & Thrive. How are you?
Baratunde Thurston: Thank you, my man. That intro made me feel super special. I want you to like welcome me into restaurants and conference calls at work. That's just so much better than "Hey, what's up, Baratunde? How are you doing?" So I have to thank you. I'm good, I'm good.
Torrey McGraw: Now, you're the man, man. You're definitely the man. I mentioned how I've really looked after your career and the things that you've done online and I've been a fan of yours for a while. So I'm really excited to get my hands on the book and read it and really awesome read. I know my audience will really go out and check it out and enjoy it.
But like I talked to you before we press record, I want to dig into that mind of Baratunde some of the things that you've done that have helped you.
Baratunde Thurston: It's dangerous activity, dangerous activity.
Torrey McGraw: Well, I think it would to be valuable for us. But we want to share with our audience kind of some of the lessons you learned along the way. And one thing that really piqued my interest with your career particularly is the way you're able to have your feet in different worlds from comedy to politics to the tech world. Now, I want to know just starting out, when you were growing up, had you always really been interested in a lot of different things?
Baratunde Thurston: I was. I describe myself as kind of like Winnie-the-Pooh with a hand in every honey pot. Things interested me and I would dive into them for a while and then I move on to the next thing. A lot of kids do that. I think it's a common trait of kids. They're little explorers, and the whole world is new to them. And every time you find something new, you feel like you've discovered it.
So like I've discovered music when I was in a youth orchestra program in DC where I grew up. I did Boy Scouts. I was really into taking things apart, not necessarily putting them back together. But I only did the taking things apart thing for many, many years. And I liked sports for a while and I love theater stuff. So I think, one, my mother encouraged it and she wasn't too annoyed by my hopping through all these things.
And then over time I was able to luckily and maybe with some talent and with some timing, I find a way to keep hold of a lot of them and that sort of forced myself into a particularly narrow slice so I still got that little bit of that kid explorer in me and being able to enjoy these different flavors and kind of build a complex entrée out of them. How's that for a metaphor?
Torrey McGraw: That's an awesome metaphor. We're in this information age and where the Internet has just taken over. And one thing especially when we are trying to be successful online, conventional wisdom tells us, the big bloggers tell us, the experts tell us to focus on one skinny, very small area of the world, one small niche, be an expert in that particular thing, and then hopefully if you're good success will follow. So I'm curious. What were thoughts about that and is your taste just a kind of outside of the norm, outside of that realm of what usually happens?
Baratunde Thurston: I don't know. This is a good question. I heard it explained in one way as follows. I don't remember what school this comes from. It might be GE where there was like this team model of a career. You pick one thing and you focus on it. And then once you achieve a high enough level of success there, you can branch out. You sort of earned the right to go broad.
The other is more of a pyramid model where you start really, really wide and then funnel down to the one thing you're going to be the best at only after trying out a bunch of different things.
I think in my case might be more of an hourglass where I started off really wide and then where I am now there's sort of some pressure to narrow a little bit. It's when you think about I've been talking to TV people for one example. It was like "What are you? What are you doing? Are you a political comic? We can do a show about that. If you're a scientist, we can do a show about that."
And then once you kind of get into that outlet, you have the right to grow more broadly. You see music artists experiencing this too. They get to a certain point in their career and people have said, "You do this type of song and this type of music," and I'd say, "No, I'm much broader than that. I'm much wider than that."
So what I've experienced and what I hope is becoming more common is the pressure to go narrow so early is relieved a little bit and more important to me especially in the creative arts, more important than kind of only writing or expressing myself around a specific narrow thing, is just expressing myself with authenticity and just the voice carries through. And I think if people who are interested they'll find me through some tech angle and they get exposed to the politics or to some comedic angle and get exposed to the tech. It's still me talking about all those things and playing with those tools and that's the thing that the best person who understands me is going to really get.
So they may not care as much about Obama's healthcare plan and how good I'm talking about it but they'll still recognize that it's me. I'm not three different people, that we are complex individuals with like a multitude of interests. So I've been fortunate. I don't think I am a complete anomaly and at least I hope if not see that we're entering a world where you can and probably even should indulge – and I'd say 'indulge' is even the wrong language because it feels like some sort of privilege law that is exclusive to a few. But cultivate multiple sides of your interest and of your personality.
Torrey McGraw: And for you because you do have different — I don't know if "extreme" is the right word — but from politics where you're talking about Obama to current events and that sort of thing that's going on to just stand-up comedy and telling jokes. I know how you can merge those two because we see comedians doing it all the time. Chris Rock is a great example of one. I think Jon Stewart is another great example of being able to…
Baratunde Thurston: And these are…
Torrey McGraw: Okay, okay. But for the person who's out there right now listening to this and watching this, is it just natural for you to combine that authentic person that you are with that creative person that you are or is it sometimes a struggle to marry those two?
Baratunde Thurston: It is not always easy and I think the world doesn't always make it easy. It's not necessarily what I feel in terms of any dissatisfaction or confusion or conflict. It's what other people kind of demand. And sometimes if you're trying to be heard or trying to get on some platform, they want to know "Yeah, okay, that's great but what are you?"
You label yourself, put yourself into a box. And I think just for a little bit more specific background because I've been talking pretty generally like when I grew up as a kid my academic interest was heavily, heavily math and science.
And when I was in high school, I wasn't a great writer. I did not consider myself a writer at all. I hated doing English papers. I hated writing History papers. I thought they ruined both Literature and History like dissect these events and these words in such an academic way. I just want to enjoy them in a different fashion.
I went to college and I ended up majoring in philosophy which kind of a lark like a high school teacher told me she thought I might like philosophy – "So why don't you take a philosophy class?" Otherwise, I was taking computer science, I was taking math, and I have a mandatory writing class that all freshmen had to take at some point either the first or second term.
But the Philosophy class was one of the first times where I found the bridge between these sides of my mind like I actually love writing but the style of writing was actually really analytical and played to my computer science and my mathematical sort of leanings. So the way I would look at my philosophy papers I'll read it out like code like I would outline and map the whole thing. I have points and bullet points and sub-points and it looked like a computer program with a very logical way.
And then I'll just sort of fill in the blanks which was the fun part. I said, "Okay, let me architect the whole scheme or theme and then paint it with words." So in the words was where you could add color. Otherwise, you're just looking at the schematic which is not very fun. So the words added fun. The underlying thing was a pretty rigid analytic-based architecture.
And I started doing well on those papers. I was like "Yo, maybe I do like writing." And then I was doing the newspaper in school and then I found a way to kind of, in that college example which was a great experimental platform, merge both sides of my brain and can find a way where I don't have to choose. I'm only going to be a computer nerd or I have to drop all that and write.
The performing side of me had been there for a really long time. I think as a kid I played in the youth orchestras. I did little plays and musicals like kids do and I tried to keep that up. And so when I look back at where I've landed, I've got these sort of expression side of me like I like to be heard, I like to be in the spotlight, I am not shy, I love to be on stage, I like crafting a presentation whether it's keynote or a text-edit document or a life stage performance. But I also like getting into the reason, being all analytical, and thinking through the logical connections and setups and consequences between things.
And when I started to embrace it, this is the sort of the part in here that involves the leap like I was blogging for years and getting slowly better at it. I've been doing stand-up for 10 years and slowly getting better at it. And the more I kind of cultivated the things that I felt strongly about without so much of an angle on what job it was for or what slot I was trying to feel, the more I felt the world beat to those activities and in some weird way I could have beat to myself.
And then opportunities start presenting themselves that hit me. So the ultimate victory for me like I worked in corporate America for about eight years doing strategy consulting. It's not the most soul-fulfilling pursuit that I've done in my life but it was all kind of a setup. When I moved to New York and got the job at The Onion, here was a job that let take what I learn at consulting and be all analytical, take the humor that I've been cultivating for own voice, take the political sensibility I have been learning through blogging and paying attention and being an activists on campaigns, and house it in one paycheck with healthcare.
And there was a little bit of kind of a faith involved that you either stumbled across the opportunity that let you express the most of yourself or you'll be in a stronger position with all those pieces that you can then create the opportunity to make your own show, make your own job, and start a business. So I haven't quite gone that far and the book is sort of like my own business into speaking but not in the sense of having like employees and stuff. So I didn't want to go too long-winded but I think there was a lot of experimentation for me and there was a sort of rejection of the idea that I was applying for a slot.
And I think once I've freed myself of this notion that I was trying to fit into the world but instead tried to think of a world as a place that could accommodate me, that was a mental shift that helped me not be so nervous about pursuing multiple things because those multiple things were still really just me pursuing one thing with myself.
Torrey McGraw: And it's interesting because you found a community that has embraced you.
Baratunde Thurston: Yeah.
Torrey McGraw: And in reading your book, I've read just a part of it where you and your mom were going to a Catholic church and then you decided that you wanted to go to a different church and your mom really didn't care about that. And one thing that stood out, the line is something like she just wanted you to be part of some community. And it sounds like since then that has really helped you to where you are today. So talk about your involvement in community either being a part of the community or finding a community that has embraced all these things that you tend to do.
Baratunde Thurston: So community is such a vague word but it is important and that lesson I'm so glad you pointed out that memory from my mother. I was in Sunday school not so much for the religious indoctrination but just to like associate with peers and believe something and learn what it meant to do that in concert with other people because that's how society works. And I think she didn't lecture me and say, "Well, this is how our society works. Therefore, I'm enrolling you in these programs." It was like she's "I'm your mother. You should do this." I'm like "Okay."
But when I look back I'm like "That was a very good lesson to have." Being a part of the community for me has been great. When I think to the black communities I've been a part of in schools and just having that common reference point culturally, familially in certain ways, linguistically sometimes, not all the time, that has been a great thing to come home to when part of a larger community.
I think about the newspaper I was a part of in college and here, a whole different type of group of people. These are hard core like workaholics. The Crimson newspaper at Harvard is a daily thing and it's almost like a real journalism job and people are insane. And being around people who have a shared sense of passion and insanity about an unpaid job is important and you feel part of kind of like fraternity and you had a shared sense of mission. But then I'm with the geek community. I'm like with all programmers and the designers and all that kind of stuff.
And one of the benefits of the multilateral life, a multiplex life, is being able to learn from one community and bring it to another and have some more kind of I guess that will be called lateral or cross-disciplinary thinking because innovation comes from so many different spheres and the newspaper field might have missed out on an insight that the computer people have. Maybe the black people came out with something. This is an example. That happens in this world as well; it's been a really helpful. Even in my Onion job, I'm on the road all the time and I have a pretty weird and unique spot there. But through the travels I encountered so many new types of ideas, sometimes in a different language. And I've been able to bring that back.
I want to share the story about what The Onion's doing externally but also bring back some of those leads internally. I'm not saying everybody is like this, like you probably know if you're the type of person or not. But for me it was really helpful to find communities around the interests that I have but also to be a point of exchange between them and be able to learn or deliver learning from one group to another.
Torrey McGraw: That's great. That's a great insight on that. I'm really interested because you're really tied into social media. You use it a lot for your Onion job to connect with people to interact with these communities.
Baratunde Thurston: Yeah.
Torrey McGraw: One thing I'm really interested in the age that we live in now where we know authors don't make a whole lot of money for their books and a lot of times you don't get a whole lot of support for promoting your book. I want to know what you're doing to promote your book and get it in the minds and right in front of a lot of people online and offline. I read a little bit about it but I want to hear it from you.
Baratunde Thurston: Yeah, I mean I speak in we's because it's not just me anymore. I've got a publisher, Harper Collins. I've got my agency, CAA, in David Black. I've got my manager and I hired an assistant who's a kid who used to work at The Onion. He's name is Craig and his title is actually Campaign Manager for me and for the book specifically because I'm trying to see it as a campaign and I think that's probably a useful prism to look at how we're trying to get the word out and get the engagement up around this. So Harper has been great at like the big media stuff. I today taped an interview with Terry Gross of Fresh Air in Philadelphia.
Torrey McGraw: One of my favorites as I've mentioned.
Baratunde Thurston: It's like a dream come true. Man, I've listened to this show my whole life. I've been an NPR junkie forever and that's how I kicked off this tour which is a lot of credibility and it was just great to meet Terry in person. And I get to hug her. She's so tiny; she's like a very, very small person. You can't tell from the radio how big anybody is. So that was fun. And we got like all kinds of other digital and prints and on-air media coming for.
And then what I've tried to focus on my end is well what do I know from the digital world and kind of build this out as a campaign. So first, it's thinking politically like people get excited about candidates and parties not just because of the person or because of the message but because they see themselves in the person or in the message.
And so with a book like How to Be Black, how do you make that an open conversation, an open discussion that people can see themselves as part of? So we built out a website on Tumblr, onhowtobeblack.me, and we've taken some of the interview questions I've asked in the book plus a whole lot more and I'm posting them every day during Black History month – "When did you first realize you were black?" or "Wherever you are, how black are you?" "Have you ever been asked to speak for all your people – black people, gay people, women, small people, whatever?"
The thing is many groups of people have experienced this sort identity tension of the self versus a larger community and we want folks to be able to play with that and using the book as the jump-off point and humor as a more thought-opening into some controversial stuff. Let's see if we can have people make this story part of their story and vice-versa. So there is that story-sharing platform.
Torrey McGraw: Right.
Baratunde Thurston: We built what I've called a ground operation and I've recruited a virtual street team a few months ago to put the "ask out" on Google plus and FaceBook and Twitter and on Blacking It Up with Elon James White runs as a web show, and Leo Laporte's This Weekend Tech.
And we've got over a hundred people who signed up; that's okay. Here's what we're going to want you guys to do. You're going to be the behind-the-scenes team. You're going to help us make choices about how we roll things out. You're going to come up with fun, weird initiatives that we should try. You're going to read the book before anybody and blog about it before anybody. And you're going to try to make this story fit with you and sell the book to your people because I don't know your people as well as you do.
So if I give you early access, if we talk at regular check points, we're going to be doing video chats on the platform called Vocal and that's been really cool. Then they can go out as ambassadors and be much more authentic than just re-Tweet what I had to say. They're going to put it in their own words.
So an example of one of the innovations they came up with — This wasn't me; this is them talking to each other — we made a private FaceBook group so they can have lateral communication. If people started Photoshopping the book cover into the hands of people who never had the book.
And so you give like Michael Phelps a copy of How to Be Black, you got Gandhi with a copy of How to Black. So we've built at Tumbler a howtobeblackphotos.tumblr.com of photos, real and Photoshopped, of people with the book. I kind of imagine if you want a copy of How to Be Black at the foot of the pyramids or putting them in Malcolm X's hand or putting it on David Duke's hand or unexpectedly you put it in Shawn Kennedy's hand just to let people have fun with that photo I mean. So that an example.
And this is really, again taking from politics, it's just shoe leather, man. I talked to Gary Vaynerchuck who is a super social digital business strategy juggernaut at this point. He has his own consulting firm called VaynerMedia or Agency and a couple of books out.
I said, "What of all these things – I laid out a massive plan – what has the biggest payback for you?" And he said, "Well, okay, have you bought my book?" He's asking me and I was like "Yeah, I did" but honestly I just bought it like a few weeks before meeting with him because I want to be able to say like "I got your book and I heard about this and about that."
And he's like "You know what? We're pretty much friends and I never ask you to buy my book and if I had to do it I left so much on the table – this is his words – by just not asking people personally reaching out." And so he said and this is what I also did, this is the super behind the scenes, "I've gone through all my contacts, all of them, and it's like 4800 in Google Contacts over the years and I scrubbed them down because a lot of it is auto-added BS and I made it, it sounds like, 1800.
And I went through each person. Okay, how do I know you? And when I approach you, what can I say to make this kind of relevant to you and I'm slowly walking my way through the same way like a political candidate. Call for money is like "Hi, this is so-and-so. We have loved the support for my campaign. That's kind of this…" and to also position the book in a way that is relevant to what they do, what they've been up to. So these street teams and ground force operations, this sort of emotional story-sharing connection, the shoe leather on the ground.
And lastly this is also very exciting. A friend of mine named Ron Williams is an entrepreneur. He lives in Brooklyn and grew up there actually. He had this software called Nodes which he's testing out all in this book in a political sort of framework. And it basically allows you to map your social network from the position of finding out what the people you're connected to are experts in and what they talk about.
So if I'm going to visit Philadelphia, I can type Philly in the thing and it will tell me who lives there or who visits often or who talks about it a lot. And so I'm kind of starting to use that to be able to test "Okay, well, who cares about identity and race that I'm already connected to?" and instead of blasting out these big dragnets of "Hey, does anybody care about such-and-such?" and hoping they see it and hoping they still have an incentive to respond or @ message them or e-mail them or direct message them and say "Yo, I saw this post of yours of such-and-such. This seems relevant."
And again that's a bit slower but it's more – it's kind of like finding the right message and delivering it to the right person is probably the evolution of this whole social space because we're all kind of spamming each other to death to some degree and missing opportunities to really have high convergence experience. This is why I might say he's really into data and effectiveness.
So that's the broad outline of the campaign and it really is a campaign, and we're going to win.
Torrey McGraw: You're going to win, man.
Baratunde Thurston: We're going to take Florida. We're going to take Yangtze. We're going to take everywhere hopefully.
Torrey McGraw: Well, I just want to get you out here. I know we're short on time but, guys, Baratunde Thurston. The book is How to Be Black, a very, very good read regardless of what your race or ethnicity is. Be sure to check out my man's book.
And Baratunde, if anyone wants to reach out to you and say hey or they want to buy the book or just whatever you want the people to know, where they can they hook up with you at?
Baratunde Thurston: I am Baratunde everywhere; facebook.com/Baratunde; Twitter Baratunde; Foursquare Baratunde; Google+, you can find me there. So I say Google it up.
If you want the book, go get it. It's in stores now. If it's not in your store, start a riot, okay? Make it really dramatic; demand. I want the people sitting on the streets demanding the guide to blackness, but you can also just go to the website if you're a more peace-loving type of person at baratunde.com or if you want to share your story which I'm more interested in, not just talking but sort of hearing what people have to say in reaction to all this, howtobeblack.me, because there's a personal story for all of us.
Torrey McGraw: Awesome, awesome. Baratunde, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.
Baratunde Thurston: Thank you, Torrey.
Torrey McGraw: And guys, I thank you for watching another edition of Grind & Thrive. We'll see you next time.