Merlin Mann: Wisdom, Meaning and Owning Your Priority

Whether he’s helping people understand what “Inbox Zero” really means, or he’s pondering our impact on the globe, writer and podcaster Merlin Mann has dedicated himself to uncovering and sharing nuggets of wisdom.
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Merlin Mann
Podcaster best known as the “Inbox Zero” guy
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Merlin Mann started a website called the Wisdom Project where he shares short “life lessons” that he has picked up along the way.
One of Merlin’s best-known posts is on the idea of “Inbox Zero,” but he says the real lesson of the post has been lost by many.
Merlin says life gets much simpler when we distill our concerns down to what’s really important.
Living in San Francisco has helped Merlin change his perspective on cars, walking, and biking, and how our choices impact others on the planet.



IVAN STEGIC: Hi there! You’re listening to ONE OF 8 BILLION, a podcast about all of us! I’m your host, Ivan Stegic. This podcast is supported by TEN7, a technology studio whose mission is to Make Things That Matter. Online at

We all have a story, don’t we? We’ve all had successes and failures, joy and disappointment, love and sadness. And yet, we’ve all made it to here… to right now! Our stories are one amongst eight billion others… eight billion other stories, each of them unique, each of them grand in their own way, and each of them a window into the humanity that connects us all. ONE OF 8 BILLION tells the life stories from around the world. Let's listen.


Our story today is about Merlin Mann, a writer and podcaster who is perhaps best known as the “Inbox Zero” guy. Today, Merlin is focused on collecting bits of wisdom and reimagining the relationships we have with work, with each other, and with the planet. Let’s listen!


IVAN: Welcome to ONE OF 8 BILLION. Why don't you introduce yourself? Tell me your name and where you are in the world right now.

MERLIN MANN: I'm Merlin Mann and what I do for work most of the time right now is I make podcasts, I also like to write things. And as far as my now, what is my now? I have to Paypal some money to my shrink, and I need to pick up a prescription. And inevitably I will go home and my family and I will look at each other and say, “wonder what we'll have for dinner tonight” and we'll just stare blankly. That's mainly it. No just in general, I do podcasts, that's something I kind of fell sort of backwards into. And I also have a writing project that I'm working on right now. I think of myself. I don't know, I think of myself as a writer. But in terms of what I produce most these days for work, it's podcasts.

IVAN: That's really interesting.

MERLIN: Are you sure that’s interesting?

IVAN: It is. I'll tell you why it's interesting. It's interesting because when I talked to Kenji-Lopez Alt, I thought of him as a chef, I thought of him as a cook. I thought of him as someone who made videos.

MERLIN: That guys a scientist.

IVAN: And then I thought he's a scientist, you know, he's totally a scientist. He said, “I'm a writer.” He said, “I'm an author, that’s what I am.”

MERLIN: I discovered him because a few years ago for Father's Day, my family gave me a sous vide wand, which is for doing immersive things. You've probably seen Richard Blaze do it on Top Chef, and it changed my life. But I discovered, is it Good Eats, I guess? In the New York Times, I discovered his stuff and eventually got his cookbook.

IVAN: Serious Eats, I think.

MERLIN: Serious Eats, that’s it. I love his videos and I love his curiosity, where he'll just mention in passing sometimes, oh, yeah, here’s like, all the different ways you can boil an egg. I've tried all of them and here's what I think is the best way and I'll tell you why. Where he has such a genuine curiosity about doing the work to take something that, I mean, obviously there’s a lot of intuition to being a good cook. I mean, clearly, but also he has such a curiosity to kind of, I hear you what you're saying about him saying he's a writer, but he also has not just the mind of, I don't want to say a scientist, but

IVAN: Totally he’s a scientist as well. Absolutely.

MERLIN: Do you think so? Yeah, but it isn't even just going, I'm going to try this one thing, and maybe this other thing, he actually seems to go into it with a lot more rigorous model or plan for how he's going to test something that probably a lot of people are doing science and the results are terrific. And that does nothing to harm intuition. But it also gives you a pretty good idea. Do you like cooking?

IVAN: I do love cooking. And actually, Kenji was the reason I started to get into it right at the beginning of the pandemic.

MERLIN: Yeah, it’s almost like anyone can do it. He gives you that feeling. There's this guy, I'll find this book for your notes, but this guy discovered via appearances on NPR, I think his name is Harold something, he read this wonderful book about the science of cooking and its way more interesting than I make it sound, describing the whatever the name is, for that effect, where you brown something doing sugar does this.

It's so fascinating to read about why things taste good. And why On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee, and it's a really good book for you to treat yourself to, but it's also a great gift for the cooking nerd in your life. I think that stuff is really interesting. But yeah, that guy's a hero of mine. I think he's cool. And I watch his videos, and then we get to the end, my wife and I watch his videos and I'm always like like, “oh man, I hope he gives some to the dogs.” Then he gives some to the dogs.

IVAN: He gives some to the dogs, I know. He’s great. I think he went to MIT if I remember correctly from the podcast, and his dad is a chemist.

MERLIN: Oh, that’s so interesting. He’s a good storyteller. He was on an episode of a podcast, maybe Planet Money or something like that. I guess perhaps unsurprisingly joined a podcast but he told the story of the debacle, or the difficulties of this restaurant that he was running down the road from here down in San Mateo.

IVAN: Wurst Hole.

MERLIN: Yeah about the sausages and the bread, and all the things. And he told that story so well and not like a boohoo for me thing but I don't know, I have this bee in my bonnet sometimes where there’s a phrase people use sometimes. I think people aren't unintentionally hurtful or stupid when they say this. But sometimes somebody will say, blah, blah, blah, I have a problem. And then somebody else goes, well, why don't you just . . .? And it's like, you know, just assume that people are smart.

But in his case, I think a good way to improve as a human being is to stop saying junk, like, why don't you just and instead develop a curiosity about why a problem hasn't already been solved. All the easy problems were solved millennia ago. It's the difficult problems, the evolving problems as moving targets that we have to chase and I have a lot of curiosity in not necessarily just whether something's difficult, but what makes it difficult, because if it's difficult, there's also a pretty good chance that it's complex. And hearing people unravel what you didn't know about why this job is not what it seems, is always fascinating to me.

IVAN: Always. Wouldn't it be great if there was a bible or a document out there that put all the wisdom that people have learned together onto one page?

MERLIN: That's a really good idea. John Hodgman did that in some ways with the areas of my expertise, of which contains all human knowledge, but that would be a good idea. And you could put it on GitHub where people could read it. That’s a good idea.

IVAN: Yeah, like the Wisdom Doc Project. Did you know anything about that? I think I saw that the other day.

MERLIN: Come on, stop it.

IVAN: I want to ask about that.

MERLIN: Well, I love that project. That one, that's like talking about my kid, I'll talk about that all day.

IVAN: For those of us that don't know exactly what it is, would you describe the Wisdom Project?

MERLIN: Yeah, the Wisdom Project. So one of the podcasts that I do is called Due by Friday and the nominal idea of the podcast is, as Hitchcock would call it, a MacGuffin. But the idea is that each week we challenge each other when we finish one episode, then for the next week, we challenge each other to do something. A lot of times, it's just, watch a TV show, read a book or whatever. But sometimes it's a little more outlandish and involves gadgets and gimmickry.

But the challenge was to use this app called Craft, which is a really cool kind of personal knowledgement app. The neat part was, and this is a theme in my life, was like, Okay, I've just been handed a glass. Now, what do I want to put into that class? Is it going to be red wine? Is it going to be water? I don't know. All I know is I've got this glass. In that instance, I immediately had this idea, of this thing had been banging around in my head, there's all this stuff I've been bad at.

And this is an important part to this project that I feel can get lost in the lights, as we say, is that everything in that document is stuff that I've had to learn over time. And where in a way that's maybe not obvious, the Wisdom Project is a public disclosure of all this stuff I've needed help with. And sometimes I've gotten a piece of good advice, or I've learned something, often things that helped me reframe something I thought I understood, to turn it into something that hopefully made me a little better. Specifically, how to give anything I'm bad at, but also the big mission is to become sort of a better person.

And so yeah, I started out, and contra all the ways that I usually derail myself with any project, I said, Look, here's the thing, here's the rule, from hour zero of this project is that it's a bulleted list, I use a subset of HTML called markdown. And so an asterisk, write some stuff, hit return, new asterisk, write some stuff hit return. It’s not a lot. Although I spend more time on it than is obvious in reading it.

But yeah, now I've got 300 bullets, it’s 5000 words, I don't know, but it's a living document that I did put up as a repository on GitHub, where, on an occasional basis, I update that document with a mostly completed draft idea of something. For example, the very first one on the list, it's just something as simple as sometimes an email is just a way to say I love you, which now why would you say that?

Well, I used to get really mad about email. I would get really frustrated with people who were sending me lots of email and wanting me to engage. In other areas I'll talk about how it doesn't scale up. You can't treat everybody the same way in life or you become a monster. But what I had to learn was, before you get mad about an email, consider that that might be that person's way of saying I love you, even if they're writing you hate mail to say, I used to like what you did, and now I don't, that's a belated love letter. It got sent a lot later than you might have liked or when it would have been useful.

IVAN: The timing was a little off.

MERLIN: I don't send a ton of those personally because of other things in the wisdom project. Yeah, but it's just a bunch of bullets. And I love this project, it's so fun to do. I have weird ambitions for what I want to actually do with it, but it's so fun to do. And I don't know if you ever get this in life. I'm a big believer and long before we had iPhones, even back when we just had PDAs, I'm a big believer in writing stuff down, whether that's stuff I'm supposed to do. I have an item on my to-do list, which is to pay my shrink. I believe in writing stuff down and once you give yourself permission to write things down, when you start, in my case, I used to carry around index cards and a space pen, you now have a glass. So sort of the corollary of what we've talked about a minute ago, now you've got content and you know there's always a glass. And so what's neat is, I don't know if that makes sense, but I now have a place where that stuff can go. I was in the self-help racket for a long time with a blog that I used to do, and I still think about and talk about that stuff a lot, whether it's Mac applications, or how to be less of a turd with people in life. And I've got a place where I can go now where I can jot down some half thought idea and then return to it and develop it a little bit.

IVAN: Do you have a favorite one? If you could only choose one, which one's your favorite?

MERLIN: Yeah. Probably. I mean, again, it's like Beatles albums, it’ll vary depending on the day. I won't be able to do it from memory, but it'll be close enough. Remember that your kids are not little versions of you, they are little versions of themselves. And every time your kid becomes something that you are not or becomes maybe more saliently, every time your kid, maybe even briefly becomes something you didn't expect, not only don't be surprised, but be supportive and celebrate it, because in the end, your kid will become lots of things that are not you. And that's the entire point.

IVAN: And that's the whole beauty of it. I love that. That is poignant.

MERLIN: There's some other ones that are fairly specific. Replace your soap in the shower more often. Listen to a record you liked when you were 14. You read that and go, oh, that makes sense. But no, seriously, go put on a record you liked when you were 14 in, you know, Spotify or whatever, it'll make you so happy. And little things like that. It’s interesting because it's got rails, it’s got guardrails in that, in that I don't want them to be too long. It could be as long as a short paragraph. It could be as long as a short paragraph, but many are as short as say thank you and hold the door.

IVAN: I love the brevity. Let's go back to where life started for you. You're a sixties baby I think? Where were you born? And what did those circumstances look like?

MERLIN: My parents had intercourse nine months before November of 1964.

IVAN: Not that far back.

MERLIN: Well, how did you get made Ivan? How did you get made? You’re not going to say? Maybe they found you. Maybe you were donated, you know, to get you out of the lost and found bin.

IVAN: There’s lots of ways. My daughter is an IVF baby.

MERLIN: I was told that I was born in Cincinnati in the mid-60s and I lived in Cincinnati. I grew up there till I was about 12 and then with my family moved to Florida and did stuff there and then I moved to San Francisco in 1999. So yep, it all started at Jewish Hospital in Cincinnati, Ohio.

IVAN: You're not a sports are you?

MERLIN: I used to be. Oh, you talking about the Reds?

IVAN: Yeah.

MERLIN: Oh, dude, you grew up in the states mostly, right? Kind of?

IVAN: Mostly. A little more than half of my life.

MERLIN: Here's the thing though. Back before it was all about a screen in every room you have the AV person who would come in and wheel in this cart with a giant CRT TV on it. This is a big development from film strips and stuff. They eventually got TVs and I'll never forget, third grade, probably, 1975 rolling that into the room so that we could watch the Cincinnati Reds, the parade after they beat the Red Sox in ‘75. I mean, the Cincinnati Reds in the 70s, Big Red Machine, it was a pretty amazing thing to be there for.

IVAN: Wow, do you still support them?

MERLIN: Oh, I support everyone. I want everyone to be happy. But no, I mean, Do By Friday, the challenge last week was to watch Friday Night baseball on Apple TV Plus, and I was just like ugh. So much data flying around on the screens. This is a few days after the great Dodgers broadcaster Vince Scully had passed away. I was already thinking a lot about what an elegant man Vince Scully was, where not only when he spoke, it was the most beautiful calling of a game.

I grew up in a time where you bring a transistor radio to the game and listen to that while you were watching it up in the red seats all the way up, in the crappiest seats. But when Sandy Koufax had his perfect game, he stops talking and all you hear is the crowd screaming. That was the opposite of that, was watching Friday Night baseball, because it was the Reds so I was excited. And oh my God, all the shots are too tight, like, are you supposed to watch this on an iPhone? What is this? It doesn't have any of that elegance. It shouldn't feel stressful to watch sports if you’re not a fan.

IVAN: Yeah, I get that. You know what’s interesting, I went to a Twins game a couple months ago here in Minneapolis.

MERLIN: You were in the Twin Cities? Okay. Cool.

IVAN: I do, I live in Minneapolis.

MERLIN: Beautiful area. I love that area.

IVAN: It's lovely. Yeah, I landed here by mistake, sort of took a job when I was in South Africa and it couldn't have been a better decision in retrospect. I love it here.

MERLIN: I was up there. I was there for maybe a talk or something. I'm not picking sides, I mean, one of my favorite bands is The Replacements, so, I think is from Minneapolis in particular. But I saw St. Paul on a pretty day, and I was like, This place is… Now I understand it gets cold there though.

IVAN: It gets so cold. Really cold.

MERLIN: A little bit chilly.

IVAN: Yeah. 20 degrees, 30 degrees below.

MERLIN: You got The Replacements and you got the Skyway right? It is between the buildings?

IVAN: Yep.

MERLIN: Everything I know about America has been learned from pop culture, so I apologize.

IVAN: That’s okay. I was at the Twins game a couple months ago and I thought, What a great idea. Take an FM radio downtown and listen to the commentators while they are calling the game. Well, it turns out even the FM signal is delayed, and you can't get it.

MERLIN: Because of satellites, I bet.

IVAN: Must be.

MERLIN: I used to like to watch TV while listening to a stereo broadcast over it and I remember watching Bill Clinton accepting the nomination in 1992. And back then you could turn on the stereo and tune into the station where it played stereo and it worked perfectly. None of that works anymore. Public radio is playing at different places in the broadcast in every room of the house sometimes. It's weird to lose that though.

IVAN: It is weird. And I just gave up within like 10 seconds, I just couldn’t handle it.

MERLIN: That sucks.

IVAN: I know. So my hack is to try to get a chair that's as close to the broadcast booth as possible and maybe you get a chance to hear them talking.

MERLIN: Oh, that is cool.

IVAN: It doesn't work very well all the time.

MERLIN: Well, and that's got a lot of factors you don't control. So maybe it probably doesn't work for every game.

IVAN: Yeah. Right. Okay, so we talked a little bit about the Wisdom Doc project. We talked about your early beginnings. What did you want to be when you were a kid? Did you have any ideas, thinking about the future? And, did you have any role models or anything like that?

MERLIN: Oh sure. Yeah. One of my favorite childhood stories ever, one of the greatest days of my entire childhood was, to cut a long story short, through some wonderful good luck and a very kind person I was able to meet Steve Garvey and the 1979 Dodgers in the locker room when I was 12, I got to meet Steve Garvey. I met Tommy Lasorda. That was amazing. So, what was the question? What am I answering? I'll give you an example of dear friends of mine from college, from liberal arts school, I just always knew they were going to be... I went to a liberal arts school where there were not that that that many people who knew they were going to be... what am I answering?

IVAN: You were answering the question of what did you want to be when you were a kid and if you've had anyone you looked up to?

MERLIN: There's a funny thing in life, medical doctors, it was not what that school was good at preparing you for but there were a lot of people who knew they were going to be lawyers. One of my really good friends in college, a year older than I, who was the president of our class, and one of the smartest guys that I've ever met, he always knew he was going to be a lawyer. It was like no duh, and he went to law school, which I'm given to believe is a lot of work and it wasn't until he graduated, and was actually working in a law office that he realized basically how much he hated being around other lawyers, how much he disliked, and no offense. But he had thought about the practice of law because he's a great reader. He's a great writer, he’s as it happened, a really good thinker, but the part he had not controlled for was the environment that he would be in and what the actual job would be like.

I say that because when you asked me what I want to be, well, I didn't have any idea what anything was. My dad was a sporting goods buyer for a very small local department store chain in Cincinnati, and my mom sold real estate, and neither of those was very appealing. So it was, on the one hand, very mercantile or very personal. So when I learned that CPA's and accountants made make over $3.00 an hour, I was like, Whoa, I want to be an accountant, and I would sit around. And I could tell I was going to be good as an accountant because back before we had spreadsheets, we had profit and loss cash balance forms, my mom had some of those around for bookkeeping. And I would calculate, in the absence of autofill from Excel, I would calculate how much money, if I worked for 22 hours a day, I'll make this much money. What the hell do I know, I wasn't even that good at arithmetic.

So there's the things where you're like, oh, I want that because it makes a lot of money. This is this phase, by the way that my kid is at, trying to figure out what job you make millions of dollars at, just as a lark. But then there's also the more personal ones, which at one point I wanted to be a minister because we went to a nondenominational Protestant Christian Church in Ohio that, they were very good to us and my family and after my father passed away, this church had been incredibly supportive and was very involved as a young person in church life.

So those kinds of things and everything apart from that was just kind of stupid stuff. Like I wanted to be Fonzie or something. And then to be honest, I don't think my understanding of any of that matured very much at all, beyond the need to make money, and a thing I thought I'd like doing. I don't know, maybe an early thing is I got that book What Color Is Your Parachute, which is about resumes and stuff. But I remember Okay, now this is a Wisdom Project level thought, which is learn the things people might want to hire you for. And instead of thinking about you telling them what you should do, you find out what they need, right? This is really good grown-up stuff that didn't go over my transom until I was probably in my 20s and having to really think about Well, I got a bachelor's degree, like what am I going to do? I was a cultural studies major, I made up my own major. I thought I wanted to be a philosophy major, then I thought I wanted to be a literature major, I didn't have enough language for that and eventually, I found an academic sponsor who would let me make up my own, which is basically about kind of a really dumbed down Marxist idea of TV and how ideology works. So what do I do? What am I going to do with that degree? Oh, you want to read my thesis about the Soloflex infomercial and Bill Cosby? No.

And so, it was such an interesting time that have come out, because the economy was not terrific in 1990 when I graduated, but what ended up being funny is that almost all of my closest friends got into what would become new media. So, that could be, I had a friend who made content for CD ROMs or in that case, Philips CDi was really big, where I lived in Tallahassee, but also in my case, I was doing mostly graphics on Mac, and litigation support. Well, how did I know how to do graphics on a Mac? Because at the time, that was still a pretty exotic skill. And how to do that was why because I'd learned Macs and PageMaker, which is a layout program. I learned in college to work on a phony baloney literary journal. We were not a family of means where everybody went to college. There was no certainty at all about pretty much anything in my future. Not in a bad way, but I was never encouraged to be the sort of person who goes, well, like in the Soviet Union in the 70s, we're going to give you a test, when you're 12 to find out what you're going to be. And then that's the track for the rest of your life.

It wasn't until later that I realized, well, first of all, it isn't just a matter of what I want to do in my head, it's what people need or want and really something we can all learn about all other people is that the thing we like to think about ourselves, or the thing that we think is positive about ourselves, may not be the thing that other people see as positive. And I'm grateful that that eventually came along to me, but going into college because that's what you do, you come out of college with this weird degree from a weird liberal arts school and then I ended up making stuff in Freehand, making stuff in PageMaker and Quark.

Then eventually, things really took a turn when I lost that job. I got fired from that job, thankfully, and started doing web pages for people. And back then 1995, 1996 my first job was explaining to them what a webpage was, and why they might want one, which was really a long way from even five years earlier what I imagined. Something I've said in talks for a long time is people my age. I know it's even more crazy now, but almost nobody I know has a job that existed before they were born, let alone when they were in college. Most of us are doing some kind of work through media, or through technologies. If you’re a plumber your world has changed. You spend so much more time on your telephone as a plumber now, than you did in the 60s. On the one hand I feel like a lunkhead that I didn't realize stuff like that earlier but also I think it can be a comfort, it can be a balm, to realize you're capable of more than you realize, and that you end up, and I sound like a motivational speaker here, constraining yourself with your own ideas of who you used to be, and who you feel like people used to want you to be.

IVAN: It sounds like freedom. Everything you described.

MERLIN: Kind of harrowing and suspenseful freedom.

IVAN: Yeah, for sure, freedom to do what you feel like, right?

MERLIN: Okay, you're already on to another good example here. So this is a fairly recent thing from the Wisdom Project, forgive me, it’s something I found myself saying to a pal of mine recently, Oh, that's good. I'll put that in the document, which is a big difference between independent work and creative work. There's been a conflation of that, probably in some ways since work from home kicked in. But really I think there's a conflation that people make when they say, Oh, you work on your own, you must be so happy you do your own thing. It's so creative, and you're independent. The admittedly breezy thing that I may cut out at some point is that a surprising amount of independent work is very uncreative and a surprising amount of creative work is very much dependent on. You know what I mean? So when people think, Oh, you're doing your own thing, you're on your own? Well, like I say, that's harrowing, existential stuff. That’s Camus and Sartre level stuff; nobody really has a safety net in life. But I know for sure that I don't have a safety net, apart from what I can cobble together from month to month. And not just for money, but just for certainty in the future. And what are the kinds of things? I mean, at one point, you worry about your hand being ground up in machinery, and you have to go and disability and now today, it's like, you know, I'm sure a lot of people would love for me to lose my voice, but I'd have to figure out something else. I think all existential holes into which we stare there is an upside to realizing that freedom is there. It's not always an exhilarating freedom, sometimes it's a pants crapping amount of freedom. But I think that's a valuable distinction to make.

IVAN: So, after college and getting fired from that job, you find yourself in new media, you find yourself on the internet making web pages, and then somehow you end up being the Inbox Zero guy. And I remember that. I remember you writing about, I think the demilitarized zone in the Inbox?

MERLIN: Oh yeah, email DMZ. Yeah.

IVAN: Yeah. I remember thinking to myself, Man, select all delete, I'm going to declare inbox bankruptcy. I'm not even going to put it in another folder that I look at later. And when I was doing some research today, I read that people have misunderstood and misinterpreted what you meant by Inbox Zero. Is that true? What's your perspective on that?

MERLIN: Okay, so first of all, yeah, the webpage stuff that led to working at a dotcom job. But fast forward to 2004 is when I started 43 folders, which is the site we've been talking about where Inbox Zero was one of the features. I’ll tell you what frustrates me. The thing that frustrates me is what I perceive to be a willful misunderstanding of Inbox Zero, partly because it hurts my feelings a little bit, but mainly because I'm thinking What the hell is wrong with you? In fairness, it’s on me that that has a clever catchy name that makes it sound like you're supposed to sit at your computer until all your emails have been responded to. It’s like dude, to go reread the 45,000 words I had about email and it includes stuff like no, it takes a great leap of faith to say, I don't have a way to respond to all of this email. It sounds very exotic today, it sounded very exotic back then. Today everybody's like, yeah, I don't even look at email anymore. I don't even know what email my kid uses outside of school. It's just not something young people really use. It’s like accountants and lawyers that use fax machines, and therefore we use fax machines. The email today is mostly used by a more powerful person to exert control over a less powerful person. And the power differential is what enables that inbox to become such a source of frustration and terror for people because you never know what could be in there. I've said before, sometimes I wake up in the morning wondering who I didn't know I was disappointing. An email is a great way to let people know how they've disappointed you. To answer your other question though, is it other people's fault for misunderstanding it or is it my fault for having a bad job of either writing or more likely brand management? But, I still find it a little frustrating when people scream out Inbox Zero, or where I see some promising looking new email app for iPhone and open it up and every single one of them has some reference to Inbox Zero, I feel like the guy at the wedding with the albatross around his neck. But also how can I be miffed about that? That was a way a lot of people found out that I exist.


MERLIN: Oh, and GTD which is David Allen, not me. But it’s very GTD for sure. I have over time found it frustrating for the reasons I've stated. But also if there's anything to the Inbox Zero idea that, it's a bummer, gets lost is that you cannot control the contents of that. It is by definition an inbox and contains things that are unknown, or sort of undone, unprocessed.

IVAN: Unsolicited.

MERLIN: Yeah, but the way I look at it is if you think about what an inbox is, would you be checking an inbox if you need to ascertain nothing was in it? You don't look at your cubby hole from elementary school. You don't look at the mailbox at a job you haven't had for 10 years? Well, obviously, Merlin. yeah. But why do you keep looking at your inbox so much, and then not doing anything about it? And the answer to that is I need the temporary relief of knowing there's nothing in here that's going to blow up. Before I go into this movie, or before I go hang out with my family, I need to make sure nothing's in there that will blow up, which tends to be a time when people also don't do anything about that email.

So, the part that's counterintuitive, and the part that I think is a bummer that is lost in all of this Inbox Zero stuff is the learning how to accept that any inbox that you allow into your life is there because you allowed it in? Show me the lie. Well, I have to do it for my job. Yeah, but you chose to have that job, nobody's standing with a gun to your head. Every inbox in your life is something you've chosen to have there and to, I would argue, take care of. And so we need to limit the number of inboxes that we agree to do something about. And really, the real ninja thing that gets lost is, this is so disappointing. I wish I had a really good life hack for this, But you need to figure out what comfort level you can have with uncertainty in your life. And if you can't handle the idea of loose ends, and you can't handle the idea of uncertainty and not knowing it's going to be difficult to unhook and do anything apart from where your brain is which is in your inbox. And so the way I try to summarize this somewhat later on, in a kind of weird follow-up post was, the real Zero and Inbox Zero is the amount of your attention that goes into an inbox when you'd really prefer that it be focused on something different.

IVAN: So it's zero attention, not zero emails?

MERLIN: Well, again, another theme in this document that I imagine will frustrate some people is you have so much more of a role in your life than you want to realize. You have so much more agency for stuff in your life than it's comfortable talking about because it's so much easier to find all these reasons why things are the way they are. And it's like, well, you let that in. And you can also choose to let it out, open the door, let that dog free. That's an inbox you don't need. If it's a source of uncertainty, that's not the theme, I guess, if I had to put it one way is, it's up to you to decide if this thing that you claim you have to do is a thing that's actually making you better, is making you happier, or is ultimately making you closer to the person whom you'd like to be. If it's not contributing to that, why is it in your life?

I get to quote the great David Allen. Everything in your life is important. If everything in your life isn't important, whose fault is that? And that sounds fancy but again, show me the lie. What's the alternative? Well, I have all these priorities. No, you don't have priorities, you have one priority. I don't know what it is but you do. If you think you have 10 priorities, you're nuts. There’s only so many things, priorities are not about what you choose to do, it’s about the 10,000 things you choose not to do. It's about moving all these things off the shelf, except for one. If you want a different priority, you take that other thing off and put this one up.

And I don't need people to agree with me on that, but if you find the “Inbox Zero”, such as it is, that's in big scare quotes, is the thing that has you sitting in a chair on Friday night missing your kids dance recital, because you haven't responded to all your email, which let's be honest, in 2004, was very much what people thought, if you got an email, you respond to it. You’re not supposed to throw it away, that’s mean, that's not collegial. But how do you get to a level, if you want to have your world be different, there's one person in the world that can change that and that includes factoring in all the stuff that you don't have control over, but something's got to give.

IVAN: There are 8 billion people on the planet, as you well know, and our show is called ONE OF 8 BILLION. It has very mixed feelings for me when I think about being ONE OF 8 BILLION. I'm either really connected to the rest of the community and my local community, and that makes me feel more connected to everyone on the planet. And sometimes it just makes me feel really tiny and insignificant, in a good way, not in a bad way. When you think about the planet and all 8 billion people on it and then you also think about the universe and how big our galaxy is compared to the universe and all those other billions of planets and galaxies out there, how does it make you feel?

MERLIN: Yeah, well, the galaxy one or the universe one is I have a much more visceral relationship with. I can watch those videos about how big the universe is all day, and it makes my head spin. If I'm being honest, and I don't think that often, what does this information make me believe? So, there's a piece of information in the world? What does that make me see, think, decide and do differently? That is a real quick and dirty test that whenever I'm in a quandary about something, I say to myself, What am I supposed to do with this? And on the day to day that 8 billion number does not have a huge impact on me. I think a lot of times the way that we make a connection with our hearts and our heads is with specificity, and particular people. We were talking about this on Due By Friday just this week, there’s a reason we remember Anne Frank. How many other of the 6 million people can you name by name? The specificity, given one of those 8 billion, that does not have a huge effect on me. What I will say is, and boy, this became so apparent to me during COVID, just the United States alone. Our country is so freakin big and so weird and people like to go on about Yes, we are. We're very divided. That's very true. But the thing that really struck me, you know the phrase the coastline of Scotland problem? Have you heard that phrase?

IVAN: Yes. Yes.

MERLIN: The idea is that measuring anything that’s an irregular shape, I'm not a mathematician obviously, measuring anything of an irregular shape if you want to do the perimeter, or the area or any of that stuff, it all changes depending on the size of the tool that you're using to measure.

IVAN: The coastline paradox, right?

MERLIN: If you measure this coastline of Scotland with a ruler, a 12-inch Imperial ruler, it's going to be really different than if you use some kind of nanometer I guess. And that to me, in the United States, especially during COVID, something I should have realized a long time ago really started to occur to me, which is it's so difficult, I think in life, especially if you're a liberal arts major, it's difficult to say anything about anything. It's difficult to say anything conclusively about anything because there's so many exceptions to every rule. When you say something like, oh, what's it like, politically? What's it like in Berkeley, California? And you go well, yeah, yeah, it's generally pretty progressive. What's it like in Bozeman, Montana? Well, I'm guessing it's probably pretty conservative. But you say that about a state, let alone about a country. You say that about a state like California. Well dude have you been to California? It's so weird, because there are parts of California that are very progressive and there are parts of California, like Ronald Reagan is from California. You go East in California.

IVAN: So conservative.

MERLIN: Yeah, exactly. But here's the thing. It doesn't stop there. Let's talk about San Francisco. Well, I happen to live in one of the most conservative neighborhoods in San Francisco. It's a lot of people who are first and second generation immigrants from Ireland, China and other Asian countries. And it's very conservative. So okay, well, it's California, progressive, well yeah, kind of, in parts. Well, what about San Francisco? San Francisco has got to be very, well, actually, no, it's funny you say that, because where I live.

So when we talked about stuff like reactions to mask policy during COVID, or we talked about all these feelings, it's so much easier to report that story in chunks, if you feel like you can confidently say x place is y in nature. But it's true in a household. How do you talk about the 1000 square feet in which my three family members and a lizard live? And what about time. I hate to sound like such a hippie. I don't know if that's making any sense. But when I think about the 8 billion in the world, what I think about, ultimately, is the difficulty of saying anything conclusive about any group of those people, all the way down to even just one person.

Ask me what I want for lunch at 10 AM when I'm not hungry, and ask me what I want for lunch, when it's 3 PM and I'm starving, that's the same me. That’s the same bag of me both times. Even in 24 hours those are going to be very different. That might sound silly, but when I think about the 8 billion, that's what I think about. And of course, I do think about things like income inequality and filthy water. I heard a story this morning on a podcast about this place that mines Bitcoin in Texas, that uses half of the energy of the city of Lubbock, Texas. I think about stuff like that.

IVAN: What?


IVAN: That’s ridiculous.

MERLIN: Look up a Slate podcast called What Next? It's really good. It's kind of like the daily from the New York Times, but it doesn't have Michael Barbaro saying the word mmm a lot. It's a really good show. Of course, I think about those sorts of things but there's not a ton of things I can do. I stopped using plastic straws a long time ago, but Taylor Swift is still flying quite a lot, I think maybe to the point where it's offset my straw stoppit.

IVAN: Maybe.

MERLIN: Yeah, it makes me feel small. There's a wonderful movie from 1977 I want to say put up by the Ains Group. It’s called Powers of 10. Have you ever seen that? Check it out. It's on YouTube. CGP Grey did a similar thing recently. The idea of Powers of 10 is you start out with looking at a couple having a picnic in Boston and you say the size of this area is this many meters by this many meters and then you go up orders of magnitude until you're in space, and you go down orders of magnitude until you're inside a nucleus. I find stuff like that really that same childhood part of my brain where I first learned about the concept of infinity. It was like sniffing glue for me.

I could just think about infinity and it would break my brain so hard that it was kind of intoxicating. That's mainly what I think about is as much as there's so many ways we're all the same, there’s so many ways we're all different and every time you think you understand something, it's useful to problematize by asking, how much of your own s-h-i-t leads you to believe that about a given person, let alone an entire group. And how would you feel about them describing what they think about you based on their s-h-i-t? It's a lot of people. Even in my lifetime, it's gone up a lot.

IVAN: I remember when it was 6 billion and I thought Wow that’s a lot, we’re never going above that.

MERLIN: When I was a kid, Burger King had a commercial that was on all the time. And I was a big TV kid, surprise. It starts out with this – (singing) 200 million people, each doing their own thing. That was probably 1978 and now we're at over 300 million. How did we do that in 30, 40 years? Well, I guess closer to 50 years. That's wild.

IVAN: Isn’t it?

MERLIN: Anyway 8 billion makes my head hurt, don't like it.

IVAN: Well, if there's one thing I can say about those 8 billion, just thinking about all the individual differences that you talked about, and how you might feel for lunch, and so on, I realize that there are all these differences but the one thing I can say about all 8 billion is we’re humans. Right?

MERLIN: We are human, and we have a lot of the same hangups. Yeah, QED what I said a few minutes ago about America, I don't even feel qualified to say this about America. But I do feel like there's something uniquely American, in some ways about the way that we tend to think. There's a phrase in a movie I like called Rules of the Game that goes something like, That's the terrible thing in life is that every man has his reasons. Everybody has their reasons and we do have this weird cognitive bias, especially where we tend to believe that all of our problems are because of other people, and everybody else is evil, and lazy. That's a life journey of mine is trying to get less bad at thinking that either the world is out to get me or that I'm the only not stupid person left.

IVAN: Yeah, and it's weird also to think that the outside world outside of the United States thinks about America in two very different ways. Like in my experience, there is the camp that thinks America is awful, and that you would never want to live here and you would never want to be an American and everything we do is wrong. And then there's the camp that thinks Oh my God, America, what a great place to be yourself. What a great place to make your own life. I wish I could be there.

MERLIN: But also that's relatively culturally agnostic, though, there's so many countries. I can't speak for you but I feel like most countries, especially in Europe have a similar, Oh, my gosh, I love Levi's, and westerns. I love movies so much. It’s so neat that you can go to a store and get whatever you want. But then on the other hand, it's like, yeah, we've done a lot, we're very selfish. And we are very mean and we've done a lot of really, crummy stuff. And you have to hold both of those ideas in your head. I heard somebody say something once, I don't know if it’s true, but it's factoid. I'll look it up someday. They say that people from the United States are the only people not just in first world countries, but the only people in the world who so frequently feel culture shock returning to their home country. Where, you go to England, it's like, Oh, everybody gets health care and there's public transit. And you come back here and you're like, Oh, my God, other countries have figured out how to solve so many problems. Whether or not you love bikes, if you go to Amsterdam, and then come back to the United States, you're going to be like, I don't understand why it has to be this way.

IVAN: It doesn't.

MERLIN: Amsterdam used to be like that, and they fixed it.

IVAN: Yeah, totally. You love bikes, too. I read recently you have an e-bike you're riding around San Francisco.

MERLIN: It's definitely a different way to see the world. I've been an ardent pedestrian. I'm very happy to say that in that very conservative neighborhood in which I've lived since 1999, it's very walkable. It's a top, at least 10, maybe top 5% walkable neighborhood, which I know gives me a certain point of view. Let's put it this way, when I lived in Florida, that is not a point of view I ever had exposure to. All I knew was cultures where you had to, and I'm not anti-car, I'm anti-only car, right? Where cars were the only way to do things and the cities were built around them. I could go on about this all day. But becoming a pedestrian in San Francisco gave me a very different view of the world. Becoming somebody who rides a dorky Segway around gave me an even different one. And then finally, for the first time, since college having a bike, even still at the grand old age of 55, I think, I'm still learning new things about how to see the world and how to appreciate the impact of decisions. I don’t want to sound mean about it, but the impact of decisions we made in the 30s, 40s, 50s, its really has been very humbling and educational for me.

IVAN: What do you like about your e-bike the most?

MERLIN: I like going fast on it sometimes. I mean, the usual snarky stuff. There are certain trips in parts of San Francisco, where it's definitely faster to go on a bike. The thing that I'm an advocate for, if anything, I'm very interested in the folks, people like Strong Towns and things who talk about how to rethink the way we make cities. I think that stuff's incredibly useful, big picture stuff. But if there's anything that I am an advocate for, it's having options. It’s nice. And obviously, this is going to be dependent a lot on where you live, but if your entire life has been spent somewhere where there's only cars, like I spent most of my life, it's understandable that you haven't, I'm not being condescending, I'm being really honest.

To me, when I was a young adult in Tallahassee, Florida bikes were for college students and people with DUIs, you throw garbage at them. That's the culture there. But having options where I can think about a thing that I would like to see change in the world, even if that means getting $100 from the ATM, and I can say to myself, do I want to walk there? Do I want to scoot there? Do I want to bike there, I probably don't want to drive there. But for anything you choose to do in an area, I think it's nice to have more than one way to do it, and that's even leaving out public transit, which was better before the pandemic, unfortunately. You know what I'm saying? It’s mainly just the idea of the constraints of imagination that leave us thinking that if I'm not in a car, I'm poor.

IVAN: Yeah. And it just kind of comes back to the original idea of freedom as well, right? The options and the ideas that, oh, I could take a bus there, I could ride my e-bike there.

MERLIN: My friend Dan, who I used to live with in college used to say you are your options, which I think is a little extreme. I think the point of trying to pad what you have to say should not be at the point necessarily, when you're saying it. It’s true. You are your options. If your option right now is getting a car, don't go anywhere, if you do that every day or face that non-decision every day, if you have a room in your house where two cars live, and then you drive them to another place where you drive into a garage and get out, that's going to really constrain your imagination about things. And again, see also how Americans are, it's understandable that people see bikes, pedestrians, scooters, they see all of that as poverty and damage. It's screwing up their roads. And I'm sympathetic to that. I do agree with you, though, it's nice to have options, but it's also as somebody who can watch my kid flip through the 300 movies we've bought, I watched this just last night, watching my kid flip through the 300 movies we own on our Apple TV I said to my kid, "if we had two movies, you would have no trouble picking at all.”

IVAN: How old is your kid? 14?

MERLIN: Yeah. But it’s a hell of a country. You just gotta keep your head about you.

IVAN: I'm curious to know the origin of your handle @hotdogsladies. Where did that come from?

MERLIN: Do you want to guess? You don't have to get specific. Do you want to guess generally? You can guess if you want.

IVAN: Generally, I originally thought it was a purposeful misspelling. Then today I thought about it and we have wiener dogs and I thought Oh, maybe he's a sausage dog fan.

MERLIN: Oh, are they dark-haired or blonde?

IVAN: They're blonde. They're long haired blonde.

MERLIN: My wife wants a blonde Doxie so much.

IVAN: Okay, I have advice for you.

MERLIN: Okay, save it for the show. One of my favorite novels that I arrived at surprisingly late in life, there's a wonderful book that was not written but published in 1980, called A Confederacy of Dunces.

IVAN: I know the book. This is a great book

MERLIN: Yeah, it’s a great book, John Kennedy Toole. I had not discovered that book. There was actually a guy in my band back in Florida, who was like, “oh, you would love this book.” I'm like, “yeah, I've heard of it. I don't know much about it.” I finally read it. Do you remember when Ignatius is dressed as a pirate and pushing the cart around and arrives at the ladies fancy garden party?

IVAN: Yeah.

MERLIN: It was a scimitar. What is his line? Something like savories from the hygienic kitchen. And he shows up at this and all the garden ladies are shocked that Ignatius is there with his scimitar and his pirate hat and his hotdog cart and he looks at them and he says, “hotdogs ladies?”

IVAN: Oh, okay, penny drop. Now I get it. Yes.

MERLIN: Like everybody, especially in the younger days of the internet, it used to be pretty easy to get whatever name you wanted for things. And I think I specifically remember I needed a second handle on Yahoo in particular and I'm sitting there looking at the field. And I'm no John Siracusa, but  I refuse to be @therealMerlinMann1976589, forget it, hotdogs, ladies. And I won't say it stuck, because I'm the one that stuck it. But yeah, that's where it comes from. Good book and worth rereading. Still very funny.

IVAN: I think I might do that. Yeah. Good idea. Is there anything you hope you'll see in your lifetime that you haven't seen yet that you might like to see?

MERLIN: I hope it's obvious that I'm trying to avoid giving the answers everybody gives just to sound like a nice person. Yeah, of course, I want everybody to have world peace. Yeah, world peace. I was going to say this, and I was going to withdraw it, but I guess I'm saying, my second runner up is I wish more people could figure out how to get along with the people that they love, or the people they should be able to love. But I'll set that aside for now. I'm not successful at this, but I'm a little bit of a nerd, a geek. See, right there. Okay, perfect example. Why did I say nerd and geek because it means different things to different people. I wish more people could get with nuance and subtlety. I wish we would- I'm not even trying to be a word prescriptivist but I feel like not just Twitter but in the world we are accepting the most extreme sort of small, tight groups, we're losing a lot of our interest in context, we're losing a lot of our interest in subtle distinctions and differences. And we kind of can't help but fall into a certain kind of black and white thinking, especially online. I wish we could get more okay with nuance and subtlety. And honestly, empathy.

And those all sound like things about Twitter, because now Twitter is life, unfortunately. And I wish more people on Twitter and in life, honestly, like seriously, like the jokes have left the room, as the McElroy’s say, the jokes have left the room. What I'm really saying is can we give each other a break? And like if you see somebody who used to be a piece of crap, who's tried really hard to be less of a piece of crap, can we celebrate the fact that they're trying to not be terrible? Do we have to turn everybody into these two zones? I hate to sound like some kind of anti-woke person because that's not what I mean at all. But can't we get more okay, with having more groups than me and then everyone who's terrible?

Do we have to get everybody sorted into a group of the people who are in my way and me? And part of that is nuance and subtlety. Nuance and subtlety, let's review stuff like I’m hungry at three, I wasn't as hungry at 10. Yet, I'm still the same person. In my life, what I'd like is to see, I don't know how this would happen, maybe some kind of guya bomb or an extremist virus, but something that makes it less difficult for us to give each other a break and to give ourselves a break, and to appreciate the little contrast, the little distinctions and the instances of nuance and subtlety that can make life so much richer than just being a line that we maintain.

IVAN: I hope we can see that too. That would mean more hugs around too.

MERLIN: Do people ask you what yours is? Have people asked you that question? Have you already shared that?

IVAN: No, they don't. They don't. And as you were talking about it, I was wondering what mine would be. And I think mine would be I wish that we had more of an opportunity to hug each other, to love each other. I know we don't have that. But we've lost that ability to see the differences and be okay with them. And that’s sad.

MERLIN: Totally. You could put it a million ways but I think if you had to summarize a lot of it, it's considered undignified, it's unmasculine, it's unsuccessful. There's so many things about vulnerability, that even the idea of vulnerability I think makes a lot of people extremely uncomfortable. And for all kinds of reasons, including honestly, branding reasons. I've got to stick to this dumb thing I said, because that's my deal, or whatever.

I totally agree with you, though. My only small way into that and again, from the project, sometimes it's actually easier not to be terrible. Catch yourself in the moments where you could not only be less terrible, but you might be the best interaction that somebody had today. Try to look for opportunities to not make it about your deal, which of course, obviously I struggle with. I think that's the only part of it. It sounds like self-help or hippie stuff. But the question you didn't ask me that I thought the most about was what's your struggle?

IVAN: I was going to ask you that next, but I feel like we're running out of time, and I don't care that we're running out of time.

MERLIN: It’s your show. Let’s go.

IVAN: Yeah, I’m going to keep going.

MERLIN: Will you edit around this and make me sound smart?

IVAN: We just keep going. This is real, right? This is the nuance that people need to be able to hear. There’s no rules. Yeah, tell me what is your greatest struggle in life?

MERLIN: Well, I feel like I can very confidently tell you that in my younger days, it was about finishing things on time and well. This is really corny, but my greatest struggle is remembering to do the things that help me become the person I'd like to be. And there's a lot in that if you really sit with it for a second. You notice that I did not say be a better person? Well, no, because there's a lot more to it than that and stuff changes in life. And adulthood is hard, and as I have to tell my poor kid, a lot of times your teacher knows the assignment is BS. Your dad and mom know the assignment is BS. You certainly know the assignment is BS, but you know what? You not only got to do it, even though you know it's BS you might have to do it because it's BS. There’s these Kobayashi Maru moments in being an adult, that there is not a winnable way. But as with the, it's been revisited several times, in a nut, there's a test that they give to cadets at Starfleet Academy called the Kobayashi Maru scenario. And you've seen it in the movies or in various TV shows, but what the nut of it is, without going into too much detail, without you knowing it, you as the captain in this exercise have been put in a situation that is unwinnable. You've been told to go, there's a distress call, and if you go and save the people on that ship, you'll be entering into an area where you'll be crossing into Clingon territory and they will kill you. So what do you do?

And the thing is, here's the beautiful part, you do the task no matter what happens, you lose. If you try to rescue the people, you get killed. If you don't rescue the people, the people die and the Clingons kill you anyway. Okay, so what's the point of that? Well, I love this. I'm so glad I got to tell you this. Kobayashi Maru seems like it's a test of your leadership. You could even say it's how you handle a tough situation. Kobayashi Maru is ultimately a test of your character because they need to know what you will do when you're in a position that cannot be won. How will you conduct yourself? Who will you be when you cannot save the crew and passengers of the Kobayashi Maru? Well, I think that's what a lot of life is like.

There's a lot of Kobayashi Maru in life, and again, we tend to look at all the external factors that make things the way that they are, instead of saying how do I want to conduct myself in this? Not for brand management, but just because I can find my whole life a lot more tolerable if I'm doing, again doing. To make and to do. In spanish, hacer. I need to make and do the things that get me closer to the person I'd like to be. And I need to reject or minimize, or just evict the things that keep me cleft to somebody I never should have been.

And that's the struggle, and the struggle is real. And I'm not even saying that to sound like a smart, 55 year old guy, obviously I'm full of crap, but I do think that's true and at the same time, I try not to beat myself up about not doing the things I'd like to do. But there is a mindful way to approach life that says, What if I wanted to be less terrible today? What if I wanted to be more supportive of people who don't deserve my help? What if I wanted to do all these things that are the characteristics I see in people whom I admire? I guess on a practical basis you can say, hopefully you don't want to look in the mirror or sleep at night, or all that nonsense. But it's more like, hey, this is an adventure we all get man. You can't control everything, and you don't control nothing and so the art is figuring out in between what you can do and how you will be on the day Kobayashi Maru asks for your help.

IVAN: I want to be the person that saves that ship and believes that there is hope that you can get out of that Clingon attack.

MERLIN: Okay, I'm not going to spoil this for you. but I will tell you that there is one person, how shall I phrase this, there's one person that we know of, who did not fail at the Kobayashi Maru. And if you want, I will tell you off air how they did that.

IVAN: I will love to hear that off air.

MERLIN: If you don't mind the Kelvin universe, I would check out the JJ Abrams Star Trek movie from a few years back. The guy who plays Thor is Captain Kirk's father and Captain Kirk steals a car and listens to sabotage by the Beastie Boys. It's a very fun movie. It does have a very prominent Kobayashi Maru in it.

IVAN: Love the Beastie Boys. Okay. Good. Tell me a little bit about You Look Nice Today. I always thought that was just a great description of something. It doesn't matter what it is. You look nice today. I want to be involved in that. What is that? Tell me more about it.

MERLIN: I would say, it was and sometimes is, but mostly was, a podcast with Adam Lisagor, Scott Simpson and me. It was really good and really funny and it's one of the best things I've ever been involved with. We were three pals who met via Twitter, oddly enough, and you should see all the names we threw out, they’re so bad. Anytime you learn what something was almost called, it’s always so appalling. But eventually Adam came up with Lonely Sandwich, that's what it used to be, came up with that name You Look Nice Today. And so basically, just the three of us, I don't want to call it improv because we're not trained. But we would just start talking. But I think if you had to come down to what is the bit of the show, it was three white guys talking. As my daughter likes to remind strangers, “maybe you should ask my dad about the show where he invented three white guys talking,” and I'll say, “thank you very much.”

But what would often happen, or some of my favorite episodes anyway, we started off talking about whatever, like something. We talked about how Scott's run went that day or whatever, but it almost always lands on some kind of a very inadvisable business project. And once we've landed on what the inadvisable project would be, it's fun to explode it into the stupidest idea you've ever heard in your life. Like the idea of being hired by the country of Dubai to show their wealth by building an entire country of Dubai on top of Dubai. You wouldn't have a place to put your tools and we got to figure out how to deal with that. Doing a musical about unhoused people who use the library on Larkin Street downtown, called Checking In, was the name of the show. What other uses are for libraries, and stuff like that. It was a lot of fun to do. And we've brought it back in various ways a couple times. That show was a lot of fun. I really loved doing it.

IVAN: Adam was the guy who did all those videos with commercials and stuff. And he was the one that was actually in them. Is that right?

MERLIN: Yeah, every time you’re in a hotel room, and you see an ad for an automobile company or online automobile company, you see a guy who looks like Stanley Kubrick, that’s Adam.

IVAN: That's Adam?

MERLIN: Yeah. He's a bearded fella. A very handsome guy, inventor of the fish shtick, our dance craze but yeah those three guys, the three of us together had a lot of fun. Those three guys, he says about himself in the third person. But it was so fun to do. I'll tell you a really self-involved non-secret about myself where a person could be forgiven for saying, “you like your own podcast,” “you laugh at your own podcast?” And honestly my no joke response to that is, “do you not like your show?” If I don't like it, how could I possibly expect anyone else to like it.

IVAN: That’s so true.

MERLIN: Guess what? That’s 80 percent of podcasts today. How about I read over an audio bed for 52 minutes and have an ad for Rocket Mortgage. Yay. We need more of those. If I didn't like doing it I wouldn't do it. If it didn't make me happy, I would feel weird continuing to pursue it. Yeah, I like what I do. I’m lucky.

IVAN: I was going to ask you what brings you joy these days and what makes you smile but I think I can hear the things you're doing do that. But I'll ask you anyway.

MERLIN: Oh, kind of. Sure. Oh, what brings me joy? I've gotten really bad because of a podcast I love called Blank Check Podcast. It’s a show where they do movie series on directors just apropos of nothing. They recently covered the films of the choreographer and Director Bob Fosse. And I've enjoyed Bob Fosse for a long time. I finally watched the Fosse Verdon show, with Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams on Hulu. That's really good. But I'm also now reading the book upon which Fosse Verdon is based, which is called, strangely enough, Fosse by a guy called Sam Wasson. I'm really enjoying that. In terms of stuff that brings me joy, I love to watch people dance. I didn't appreciate that when I was a kid. My wife and I talked about this. I thought dancing was dumb when I was a kid. And now that I'm a man who lives always in search of a better knee brace, I watch people dancing, whether it’s Singing in the Rain, I watch people dance and I’m like, this is indistinguishable, was it Arthur C. Clarke, this is indistinguishable for magic to me watching how people dance.

IVAN: Can you dance?

MERLIN: I guess technically I can move rhythmically in an upsetting way.

IVAN: Okay, so we're in the same boat.

MERLIN: No. I can’t.

IVAN: I mean, I can't either. And that's okay because I can watch other people dance too. You know, it brings you joy. Right?

MERLIN: I’m no Bob Fosse. As far as what brings me joy, because you asked and this is what I was looking at when you asked, more like when I read your question earlier, there's a Twitter account called Pants. It's @pants. And Pants is a guy who draws things. I can't describe it. But it's very funny and it delights me. There’s some Twitter accounts, there's this one that's a company that grooms dogs in Japan, and they take a photo of each dog after it's been groomed.

IVAN: I’ve seen that one.

MERLIN: Oh, it makes me so happy. And with a little derpy tongue sticking out. I would like to be a mentor to each one of those dogs, and sometimes at night on Twitter when I'm having a drink, I will address the dog via Twitter and I will say what I think would be encouraging for that dog to hear. And then can I tell you the truth, I realize the dogs are my mentor because I needed to hear that. And it took that derpy tongue and that bulbous eye to make me realize that Cocochon is a very, very good boy.

IVAN: Oh, that's so lovely.

MERLIN: Check out Pants. @pants.

IVAN: It’ll be linked. I'm on the page right now. I just followed them. So thanks a lot.

MERLIN: The latest one with the cat helmets is very strong. Yeah, that's a good one. I think that's it. Don't you need to go do stuff? Why are you still here?

IVAN: I do need to go.

MERLIN: We can always do it again. Have me back.

IVAN: Okay. I’ve had so much fun talking to you Merlin. I appreciate the time. So gracious. And I love talking to you. You're so fun to talk to.

MERLIN: I super appreciate you inviting me and I even more appreciate your saying that. Thank you, that was very kind of you to say. Thanks for having me.

IVAN: Thanks for being on the show.


IVAN: I hope you’ll join us in the next episode of ONE OF 8 BILLION when we hear from the executive editor of Thrifty Traveler, Kyle Potter:

KYLE POTTER: Travel wasn't really a big part of my life, until I met my wife, and we started traveling a lot more. And got my first taste of what would become such an integral part of my life, just five or six years ago when my wife and I went on a big trip to Thailand, Vietnam, and Japan for three weeks.

That was a turning point, in my life. That didn't immediately start what has now become my career, but definitely put me on that path, because I was pretty hooked from that point forward.


This has been ONE OF 8 BILLION, a podcast about all of us... online at Join us again next time as we listen to one of eight billion other stories!

ONE OF 8 BILLION is supported by TEN7, a technology studio whose mission is to Make Things That Matter. Find out more at I’m Ivan Stegic. Thank you for listening.


This is episode 144 of ONE OF 8 BILLION. It was recorded on August 12, 2022 and first published on October 12, 2022. Audio length is 68 minutes. Transcription by Roxanne Chumucas. Summary, highlights and editing by Brian Lucas. Music by Lexfunk. Produced by Jonathan Freed.

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