The Art Of The Interview — 3 Take-Aways From Cal Fussman
In this article, I’m going to write about the master interviewer Cal Fussman and how changing your questions can change your life.
Why Are Questions Important To Me?
I studied psychology because I was fascinated with what this whole human thing is about. What I am about. What you are about.
I was curious about why some people are happier than others.
The most fun way I could think of to find this answer was to travel the world and find real human beings and ask them: What is happiness for you?
I asked all sorts of people, in all sorts of places. One weirder than the other.
I loved it.
A little bit like the book Hector’s Search for Happiness but in a PG 18 style.
I interviewed Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, poets from Syria, a fisherman from Laos, prostitutes from Thailand, Australian scuba divers, MMA fighters from Alaska, voodoo wizards from Ghana, and monks from China.
The crazier, the better.
I received many incredible answers and met many incredible people along the way, but I found out that to truly touch someone’s soul, it is not enough to just ask them any 1-2 questions out of the blue.
I felt that I missed out on an incredible portion of wisdom and knowledge.
I realised, however, that if I want to become a better psychologist, I need to master the skill of asking good questions.
Through this process of a global investigation of the mind, I fell in love with asking questions.
I thought that if I wanted to continue asking and interviewing amazing people for my podcast, why not do it right?
The first thing I did was to google the heck out of my browser to find the best interviewers in the world and masters of questiology. And, one of the first people that popped up, again and again, was Cal Fussman…
Who Is Cal Fussman?
Cal Fussman is a best-selling New York Times author, world-renowned interviewer, and podcaster. Cal has interviewed hundreds of the world’s most extraordinary individuals. He was a writer for Esquire, Esp., GQ, and many others. He has interviewed many of the most important people of the last half-century. His list of interview guests includes Mikhail Gorbatschow, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Jimmy Carter, Serena Williams, Quincy Jones, Jack Welch, Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, Muhammad Ali, and hundreds of others. The Austin Chronicle described his interviewing skills as “peerless”. So, if somebody knows how to ask questions, then it would be Cal Fussman.
I like Cal personally because he is also is a crazy guy. He was born in Brooklyn, and he spent years travelling the world, swimming with over 18-foot tiger sharks, rolling around with gorillas in Rwanda, and searching for gold in the Amazon. He even had a boxing match with the world champion Julio Cesar Chavez. Click here to listen to Tim Ferris interviewing Cal Fussman.
How Did Cal Fussman Become So Good At Asking Questions?
There is one story from Cal that really made me fall in love with this guy. The following story from Cal is an example of how one question can change your life. The story he tells in the video below describes, in my opinion, very much how he fell in love with asking questions.
The story begins with the then 23-year-old Cal in New York. He was a writer and interviewer during that time for a start-up magazine. For a young writer to be in New York and writing for a cool magazine, it was heaven. He was living his dream, interviewing amazing successful people every day, and hanging out with other cool writers in New York, this was the life he dreamed about.
Then something happened: the magazine he worked for went out of business, and Cal was completely shaken by this.
“What am I gonna do now, Where am I gonna go?” He was in a life crisis. He was living the life he wanted to live, in the place where he wanted to be, doing the things that he set out to do, and it was taken from him. He lost it.
After that, he decided that it was a wise move for him to take a little time off. He wanted to do so by travelling. This little time off turned out to be a 10-year trip!
He travelled all around the world, and it taught him a different take on how to view questions. Why so?
Well for starters, he did not have any money!
So what Fussman did was genius. He went, for example, to a bus station where he was to buy a ticket to the next destination. Once on the bus or train, he was looking for an empty seat. An empty seat next to someone who looked interesting. An empty seat next to someone who he could trust, and someone who looked like they would trust him.
Once that train started, a conversion would emerge, and by the end of the conversation, the other person needed to invite Cal home because he did not have enough money for hotels! Otherwise, he would not have a roof over his head for the night. He took that approach so seriously that one time when he was on a train in Hungary, he walked past a beautiful supermodel who was smiling directly at him! To sit next to an old Hungarian grandma! Why so you might ask? Because he thought the supermodel would never take him home, but the cute little grandma would. So he sat next to the old Hungarian woman and asked her “What makes a great goulash?”
There was a small problem; the old toothless grandma did not understand a word of English. To the luck of Cal, there were a group of young teenagers on the train who observed the conversation with curiosity, so they translated. “What makes a great goulash?” they asked the old lady in Hungarian.
And, the old toothless grandma changed her posture and with a swollen chest full of pride she answered “You ask what makes a great goulash? I tell you what makes a great goulash!”
Then with the help of the curious young teenagers who translated everything the grandma was saying to Cal, she began, with pride, to explain how to make a great goulash.
She describes how it is the little things that count and that you need to put love into the details and every ingredient. Then she turns to the group of teenagers and says: “I have been taking this train for years, and never in my life has anybody asked me about my goulash! This man comes from thousands of kilometres away to just know about my goulash! “I’m taking him home to make goulash for him! And all of you are coming with me!”
So they all go to the grandmas’ house, and the toothless grandma invites all her family and friends. The entire village wants to see if the American likes grandmas goulash, and Call sits in the living room of the old toothless Hungarian grandma, and the goulash is served. Silence in the room, everybody is watching if the American likes it. And, Cal tastes the goulash, and he smiles from the bottom of the heart. The entire room bursts out into joy and they yell: “He likes grandmas goulash!”
A 4-day party breaks out!
My personal take away from the story: you are always just one question away from having the best day of your life.
5 Takeaways From Cal Fussman On How To Interview
1. Aim For The Heart With Your First Question
If you are interviewing a very important person, you will most likely not have all the time in the world to talk to them. This is a problem; it usually takes hours to really get to know someone, to get to know what they are about, what their soul and heart is like.
So how do you get access to the soul of the other person when you only have very limited time?
In the video, Cal describes where he got to interview Gorbatschow, but his publicist tells him that he only has 10 minutes with him! If you consider that all of the questions had to be translated then he, at best, had 6 minutes total! How can you capture the true essence of a man in such a short amount of time?
Cal begins the interview with Gorbatschow, and he asked him the first question: What’s the best lesson your father ever taught you?
Gorbatschow was expecting a typical question about the cold war or something political. This question caught him off guard, and he smiled and told Cal a story with his heart.
In this story, Gorbatchow describes how he had a trip with his father, and his entire family had some ice cream, and to Gorbatschow, this cup of ice cream was one of the reasons why Gorbatschow was able to end the cold war and make peace with Reagan.
The cup of ice cream reminded Gorbatschow of how it was like before his father went off to war, and this feeling of easiness helped Gorbatschow to make peace with Reagan.
In consequence of this connection between Fussman and Gorbatschow, Gorbatschow overdraws the interview by almost an hour!
So, my personal take away here is that if you interview someone special and famous, do not ask them questions that they were asked before. I wrote an article about how to ask questions like Tim Ferris, which also deals with this subject, click here to read it.
2. Make The Interviewed Person Feel Safe
Cal had a speech about the art of the interview at the Summit at Sea. There, he tells the story of how he got to interview Robert de Niro. He heard that De Niro hated interviews. De Niro cancelled the appointment many times, and when Cal was finally at Robert’s house, they told him that Mister De Niro only had time for one answer.
Call then told Robert that he was not there to conduct the interview, but to break bread. In consequence, De Niro let his guard down because he felt safe.
Then when the interview started, he also said to De Niro ” I know you hate interviews, if I get to close, tell me and I will back off”.
Once he began the interview; he started with a question straight to the heart: ” What was the first moment you knew you would be an actor?”.
My personal take away :
Interviewing is similar to psychotherapy. If you cannot make the other person feel safe and comfortable, therapy is useless. You will not be able to get anything out of it. If you give the other person the feeling that they can trust you, then the magic happens, and you can really get something real out of the other person. The best interview and the best therapy, in my opinion, is the one where you totally forget that you are being interviewed. A good interviewer makes the interviewed person forget all about the mic and the cameras.
3. Ask “The” Question At The End
When you interview someone, do not start with the biggest question. People need some time to trust you; if you ask someone the most important and difficult question first, they will shut down. In my other article about questions, I emphasise that you have to build up with easy questions. In my article “How To Ask Questions Better”, I show how inside the actor’s studio host, James Lipton, builds up from easy to hard questions. Think of it as a warm-up.
How Changing Your Questions Can Change Your Life.
I believe that we all carry a supercomputer on our shoulders. The main function of this supercomputer (our brain) is to solve the question that we give it, and no matter what questions we ask of our self, our brain will give us or enable us to find the answer.
Ask, and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened to you. Matthew 7:7
I believe that if we take control of the questions that we ask ourselves daily, we take control of our life.
When I was working in a psychiatric facility, many of the traumatised people were asking questions like “Why me?” Why do I deserve this?”
And since our brain believes that we live in a just world, it comes up with reasons why we deserve to be in this state. A traumatised boy, for example, believes that he deserves the physical abuse from his parents because he was a bad son.
Healthy people ask different questions. Or at least, so it seems to me.
They ask questions like; how can I transform this tragedy into a resource? Into something positive? How can I deal with this situation and become stronger through it? How can I change my attitude towards this situation where I have so little control over?
For example, I decided one day that my own depression was not a detriment but a resource. I felt that because I was depressed, I would be an amazing psychologist because I could show people how not to do it. To this day, the skeletons in my closet are one of the reasons that I am emphatic because I knew what it is like to walk in the shoes of a patient.
I highly recommend that you check out Cal Fussman. After all, the quality of questions determines the quality of our life.
So, next time you see an interesting person in the subway, ask them something because you are always only one question away from having the best day of your life.
As always, thank you for reading and go kick ass in life.
Sources! Want To Read More?
Call to Action
Grab a piece of paper and answer the following questions for yourself.
- What is the most important question you have ever asked someone?
- Click on the link and watch more of Cal Fussman interviews.
- Write down three empowering questions that you ask yourself sometimes? (for example: What can I do to make today great?).
- Write down three disempowering questions that you ask yourself sometimes? (for example: Why is everybody leaving me? Why am I not attractive? Why is everybody around me happy but me? Why is it that good girls always prefer my friends over me?).
- Write down what it cost you to have those questions in your mind (financially, emotionally, socially).
- Write down five answers to the question ”Why I deserve everything this world has to offer”?