ReThinking with Adam Grant
Sci-fi writer Andy Weir doesn't love writing
April 4, 2023
[00:00:00] Adam Grant:
Hey everyone, it's Adam Grant. Welcome back to ReThinking, my podcast on the science of what makes us tick. I'm an organizational psychologist and I'm taking you inside the minds of fascinating people to explore new thoughts and new ways of thinking.
My guest today is Andy Weir. He's become my favorite sci-fi writer, best known for his mega-hits The Martian and Project Hail Mary. But he wasn't the number one New York Times bestselling author overnight. He started out self-publishing as a side gig while working as a computer programmer. And to borrow one of Andy's most quoted lines, what I admire most about his writing is his ability to “science the shit out of it.”
Andy, it's great to meet you.
[00:00:50] Andy Weir:
It’s great to be here. Thanks for having me.
[00:00:51] Adam Grant:
I'm excited to talk to the guy behind these books I've loved so much, and I think your mind is just endlessly interesting. The, the, the characters you come up with and the worlds that you transport me into would never have crossed my mind in a million years. I can't wait to figure out where that, that comes from.
[00:01:08] Andy Weir:
A lot of daydreaming, I guess? For me, I come up with like a hundred ideas a day, and usually, a hundred of 'em suck. So, but you know, once in a while I'll come up with some I'm like, “Well, that's actually kind of interesting. Maybe I could work on that a little more.”
[00:01:21] Adam Grant:
I feel like we could take maybe 90 of those ideas and just farm them out to other writers.
[00:01:27] Andy Weir:
I don’t think you understand how much these ideas suck. One time I came up with an idea of, like, this guy who just seems to be lucky all the time, oh like he wins the lottery. He just keeps going on, but it turns out it's actually his cat that's just really lucky.
But the cat likes him, so he's lucky. And, and that, that's the story. The big twist at the end is it's actually the cat that's lucky, not him. So just so you understand, some of the ideas that I don't develop…
[00:01:54] Adam Grant:
I don't know, I think that could be an interesting short story. I'm not sure if I would stay with him the whole book.
[00:01:59] Andy Weir:
What are you talking about, man? This is a, a, a six-book series. A Felicitous Feline, volume one.
[00:02:09] Adam Grant:
I don't know. I mean, the, the fact that you were able to pull off Castaway on Mars and make it so endlessly interesting, I feel like you could do the same thing with a lucky cat. I do think though, that hearing this is, is liberating to a lot of people who want to be creative, right? Because we only get to see your best ideas.
[00:02:27] Andy Weir:
[00:02:27] Adam Grant:
We, we don't see the ones that are on the cutting room floor.
[00:02:30] Andy Weir:
Well, you also don't see the first draft of even the good ideas. If you read any of my books’ first drafts, you would, you would not like them. What I tell authors or you know, people who want to try to break into the business or people who are in the business and just ask my advice because they erroneously think I know things, what I tell them is that imagine you're a sculptor instead of a writer, and you're driving along and you see this big chunk of marble out in the field and you're like, “You know what? The shape of it and the texture of it, that would be perfect for like a, a statue of Zeus.”
You buy it from a farmer who owns it. Then you go and you get your truck and you get like a winch and you do all this stuff. This thing weighs like four tons. You've gotta get it up into your truck, then you drive it to your workshop, and then you, you've gotta do just all this back-breaking labor to get that chunk of marble into your workshop.
And there you go. Now you're ready. You just start carving the statue of Zeus. So all of that work you did right there, that's like the first draft for a writer. You have completed the entire book before you've really started the book. Project Hail Mary, for instance, I think it was the 18th draft that went to print.
It's not just like I sit down at my keyboard, type magic, and then walk away. It's hard work. And also, um, there’s another thing I try to tell writers that, like, some people really just enjoy the process of writing. They really enjoy the creativity and getting things out on the paper. It’s, like, cathartic to them or, or something.
I'm not one of those people. For me, it's hard work, and it's unpleasant, and I don’t like doing it. Okay?
[00:04:09] Adam Grant:
And yet, here you are.
[00:04:10] Andy Weir:
Right. I think of, of writing as being kind of like gardening. You do it because you like the result. I like having the end result of having this beautiful garden, lots of flowers, trees, shrubs, everywhere I wanted. everything worked out exactly the way I wanted. But actually, when you're digging the ditches and pulling the weeds in your back-breaking labor of doing every step of it, it’s, it's not pleasant. You do it because you want the result. And so that's, that's, that's kind of the kind of writer I am anyway.
[00:04:41] Adam Grant:
That certainly tracks with what I've heard from other writers, but it doesn't match my experience at all. I feel like when I sit down to write, I do it in part because I love getting creative ideas out there. And in part, because writing is one of my best tools for thinking.
[00:04:54] Andy Weir:
Just a side note, can we swear on your show or…?
[00:04:57] Adam Grant:
Yeah, of course.
[00:04:58] Andy Weir:
Yeah. Okay. So fuck you. I hate, I hate doing the work. If I enjoyed doing the work like you did, I would be so much more prolific. I just, ah, man. No, I, I, for me, the hardest part of writing is sitting my lazy ass down and writing. Like, what? What's that old joke? Two guys at a bar. One of 'em says, “I'm, I'm writing a novel.” And the other one says, “Yeah, neither am I.”
[00:05:21] Adam Grant:
There's a bit of a mystery for me here, which is if you're in love with the result and that's what motivates you, that result is already out there in a lot of forms, right? There are many great writers who have written books, you can enjoy their product.
[00:05:33] Andy Weir:
No, just me.
[00:05:34] Adam Grant:
Why do you need to be the one who makes it? Either you have a vision or an idea that you believe in that hasn't been written yet? I mean, your, your stories are so original.
[00:05:42] Andy Weir:
I would actually disagree with you there. Believe it or not, I don't think my stories are that original. I've accidentally come up with my own way of telling well-trodden ground stories.
So, I'm a hard sci-fi author. I like to stick to real science as much as possible, and that's just because I'm a science dork. It's my hobby, my passion. This is what's interesting to me. Everybody's good at their hobby, right? If I was a gearhead, if I was way into cars, then maybe I'd write stories about cars, you know?
But I'm all about the science. So that's just what I'm into. If you just write down the basic plot outline of my stories without any editorializing or any opinion, they’re very well-trodden ground. An astronaut is stranded on Mars. Okay. Like, there was a movie in the 1950s called Robinson Crusoe on Mars, where he is stranded on Mars. Like the, the exact same plot, right?
My second book, Artemis, that no one remembers, that’s like a criminal, a low-stakes criminal living in a city in space. That’s, that's not new. And then finally, Project Hail Mary is like a first-contact story. Like, it’s been done. So, the only thing that I bring to the table is I, I try to do it with like my own obsessive attention to, like, scientific detail, and that, that ends up taking the story in places that a lot of the other ones don’t.
So while I appreciate you claiming that I have original ideas, I think I don’t. I think I just have, like, my own way of doing really, really well-trodden ideas.
[00:07:17] Adam Grant:
I mean, if you're gonna take that perspective, we could go to Joseph Campbell and say there's no such thing as an original story. Right?
[00:07:24] Andy Weir:
Yeah. What is it they say, is there's like seven stories or something like that?
[00:07:27] Adam Grant:
Yes. But to me, the details are where the originality lives. Right? I remember when I was reading Project Hail Mary, I, I don't even know how one would begin to think about what it means to be a species that functions this way.
[00:07:39] Andy Weir:
See, that's the part of writing that I love the research and conceptualizing and glorious spreadsheets, spreadsheets, spreadsheets, everywhere.
Like, I'll have two or three spreadsheets open, and then four Google searches for different things. I, I just love the ideating. I wish I had like, um, some secret silent partner who would do the writing for me and I'd just do the research. Like, I love it. It's so fun for the aliens in Project Hail Mary—side note, spoiler. I mean, if you're listening, you know, and, like, you haven't read Project Hail Mary and you somehow didn't know that there are intelligent aliens in it, then I don't know what to tell you.
So working out how Eridian biology was, that was really fun for me because I started off by saying like, “Okay, I need to pick a star.”
Okay. A real star. Okay, so 40 Eridani. Alright. It's a solar analogue. Later in the book, we learn now that there was probably a panspermia event, so it makes sense that it'll have a star similar to ours. Then I'm wanted to pick a real exoplanet. So the, the, the first planet in the 40 Eridani system is actually, it's a real planet, and it's, it's name is like 40 Eridani, capital A, lowercase B, because astronomers suck at naming things, right?
So, but we know some things about this planet. We know it's about eight times the mass of Earth. We know how long it takes to orbit the star. We know how far it is from the star and stuff like that. I'm like, “Okay, this is a planet that's like eight times the mass of Earth, so the gravity's gonna be high.” Okay? That’s something that's worth knowing. Second off, it's right next to its star, but I want there to be a biosphere here, which means it needs an atmosphere. If you're gonna have an atmosphere and be right next to a star, then you need a really strong magnetic field or the star will have sandblasted away your atmosphere.
What makes a magnetic field is a, a liquid metal core and the planet rotating. But this one's got a badass magnetic field, so I'm just gonna say it's rotating really fast. So that's why Eridians have, like, a six-hour day, and I'm like, “Okay, so I've defined something about this planet.”
Next up, it's right next to its star. I mean, it is closer to its star than Mercury is to our star. And I'm like, “So that planet would be hot.” Really, really hot. And I want there to be, like, liquid water for life to be. And I said like, “Okay, so how do you have oceans on a planet that's like right next to the star?” And I'm like, well, you have an incredibly high atmospheric pressure because the higher the atmospheric pressure, the higher the boiling point of water.
So the oceans are like 210 degrees Celsius, which like 400 degrees Fahrenheit, but it's still water because the atmospheric pressure is like 29 atmospheres. That means the atmosphere is so thick there wouldn't necessarily be much sunlight reaching the ground. So the life forms that live there would probably not rely on s unlight. So why would you evolve eyes in the Dark? And so, you know, this is bit by bit how things came together.
[00:10:26] Adam Grant:
[00:10:26] Andy Weir:
So that, that was fun. Nobody wants to read a 40-page Wikipedia article on Eridian biology. So, I just, I have to just, the hardest part for me is like I came up with a bunch of cool stuff and now I don't get to tell, like, 90% of it. Like I worked out how Eridian muscles work, like worked out all this crap.
[00:10:45] Adam Grant:
This is reassuring to me, Andy, because I feel like we've located your intrinsic motivation. I was honestly starting to feel bad for you.
[00:10:52] Andy Weir:
Oh yeah. You should. You should.
[00:10:54] Adam Grant:
You’re suffering and you're sacrificing yourself to create these stories for us. What a martyr. But no, there is a part, there is a part of this process you love. You love the beginning and the end, not just the in-between.
[00:11:03] Andy Weir:
Yeah. Yeah. I love coming up with the idea and I love when I'm done writing the idea and I love receiving praise.
[00:11:10] Adam Grant:
I’m curious about though, what happens to your motivation over the course of the part you don't like? So, you start out fascinated by these questions. You come up with this whole world, you have principles of science behind it, and you know that if you don't run with it, you’re not gonna deliver something that you can be proud of, but you don't like the day-to-day. How do you keep yourself going?
[00:11:30] Andy Weir:
Well, it’s not like I, I just wake up and weep for half an hour. It's just hard work, you know? It, it's, like I said, it's hard work. I have to like, kind of like make a bunch of rules for myself. So, when I'm working on a first draft, I make a rule. Okay, I gotta, gotta write a thousand words a day, and until I make my words, there's a bunch of things I am not “allowed” to do, quote-unquote.
I’m not allowed to watch any form of video entertainment. No YouTube, no streaming things, no TV, nothing. Not allowed to do that. Not allowed to do woodworking or crafting stuff, which is, I'm, I'm into that. That's my hobby. Certain websites that are just absolute time wasters that I'm not allowed to go to until I've made my words. Then after that, I can do what I want.
And so, it’s just self-discipline. I mean, everybody, every job everywhere has, like, periods of hard work that you don't wanna do, that you just gut it out. Yeah.
[00:12:22] Adam Grant:
Well, I'm glad I'm not the only one who has a to-don't list.
[00:12:25] Andy Weir:
[00:12:26] Adam Grant:
In order to, to move, move forward on, yeah. I, I wanna go back to something you, you touched on at the beginning of the conversation, which is just the sheer number of bad ideas that you have.
The most creative people have more bad ideas than their peers. This has been demonstrated time and again with scientists, inventors, musicians, artists, playwrights. Um, the more ideas you have, right, the better your shot at stumbling onto something truly original and so—
[00:12:51] Andy Weir:
[00:12:51] Adam Grant:
You need a lot of bad ones.
[00:12:52] Andy Weir:
[00:12:52] Adam Grant:
To get a few good ones. This is part of what's intriguing to me is I think that's where, where a lot of people fall apart is they generate a lot of ideas, but then we're too close to our own ideas to know whether they're good or not. I have a former student, Justin Berg, who studied this and he finds that we're pretty bad at creative forecasting. Sometimes we fall in love with terrible ideas.
[00:13:11] Andy Weir:
[00:13:11] Adam Grant:
‘Cause we're really passionate about them, and in other cases we actually don't see the potential in good ideas. A great study of Beethoven, for example, where you look at his own predictions about how his compositions were gonna do, and he committed false positives, right? So self-assessment is hard. It's hard even for creative geniuses. You seem pretty good at knowing when you have a bad idea. How can you tell?
[00:13:35] Andy Weir:
I mean, at any given time, any idea I have is probably bad, right? So it's very easy for me to identify a bad idea. The hard thing for me is identifying a good idea.
So I just have what I feel are a litany of bad ideas, and every now and then I'll kind of remember one and go like, “Well, you know, maybe…” I guess if an idea keeps kind of resurfacing in my head and I keep thinking like, “Yeah, there, there's something there. There's something, there’s something there. There's something interesting there to fantasize about.”
Like, what if I had this McGuffin device, or what if I had this power? And it's like if I find myself thinking about the idea a lot, then that probably means it would be interesting to a reader. People often don't believe this, but Project Hail Mary was, I mean, I put a lot of work into making this happen, but it, it's a single cohesive story where each thing leads into the next, and all of the things that are going on in it all make sense in context with each other.
But they were originally a bunch of unrelated story ideas that I had, like a pastiche of like, like I had one idea about, you know, “Wouldn't it be cool if we had a fuel that used light as propellant?” That would be, like, the most efficient, specific impulse. You could, you could light a few kilograms of this fuel and you could, like, travel the solar system.
And then I was like, and then unrelated to that, like months later, I was like coming up with an idea about what if a guy woke up aboard a spaceship and didn't know it? And then like, how would you figure it out? And so on. And then, because I, I live and breathe and like science fiction, I've always wanted to do a first contact story.
And so all these things just like were unrelated ideas that I glued together and then sanded down the seams and it looks like a single cohesive story.
[00:15:27] Adam Grant:
That's amazing. So you're, you're telling me that Ryland Grace, Rocky, and astrophages originally started out as separate narratives?
[00:15:34] Andy Weir:
Yeah. Yeah. And more, uh, Stratt as well.
[00:15:37] Adam Grant:
That’s interesting ‘cause she reminded me a little bit of the kind of profile you see in someone like Elon Musk, which is very high concern for humanity and relatively low concern for many individual humans.
[00:15:48] Andy Weir:
Well, I wouldn't put her in the category of, like, Elon Musk because I think Musk does a lot of cool stuff, but she is like, uh, Elon Musk likes to go in 50 directions at once, and Stratt is singularly obsessively focused on this one objective.
And to be fair, if she fails, humanity will die. Right? So she's not really worried about the morality of anything she does. She's like, “If I have to kill a thousand people to save a billion, I will and I'll sleep like a baby that night.”
[00:16:20] Adam Grant:
The ultimate utilitarian.
[00:16:26] Adam Grant:
So, are you ready for a lightning round?
[00:16:28] Andy Weir:
I suppose so.
[00:16:30] Adam Grant:
Excellent. Looking for short answers. A word, a sentence, whatever.
[00:16:33] Andy Weir:
[00:16:33] Adam Grant:
Whatever you prefer.
[00:16:35] Andy Weir:
Peru. The, the…
[00:16:35] Adam Grant:
Not a random word.
[00:16:36] Andy Weir:
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hildago. I’m ready.
[00:16:40] Adam Grant:
That is not, that is not gonna be a valid answer to any of the questions I've prepared, but—
[00:16:44] Andy Weir:
You don't have a single question about the Mexican American war? Goddamnit.
[00:16:47] Adam Grant:
I'm ready to, to rethink my list, list of questions to fit your predetermined answers if you want.
[00:16:54] Andy Weir:
How many deadly sins are there, what country has Lima in it, and yeah. Yeah. Anyway.
[00:17:00] Adam Grant:
I had no idea talking to you would be this much fun, by the way.
[00:17:02] Andy Weir:
Oh, good. Thank you.
[00:17:03] Adam Grant:
I imagine this is what it was like to interact with Douglas Adams.
[00:17:07] Andy Weir:
But fun fact, I did interact with Douglas Adams briefly. I worked at a software company called Nisus that made a word processor that Douglas Adams used, and he had a technical support question and I fielded his email.
And I said, “By the way, I love your books.” And he said, “Yeah, thank you for helping me clear it up, that that solved the problem. And thanks. I'm glad you liked my books.” That was it.
[00:17:31] Adam Grant:
Were you, were you tempted to reply initially just with 42?
[00:17:36] Andy Weir:
No. No. It was my job to answer these questions. You know? I wasn't gonna dork around on that.
[00:17:43] Adam Grant:
Alright. So, you probably are in a more interesting position to answer my first question than almost anyone. If you had to predict, what year are humans gonna set foot on Mars?
[00:17:54] Andy Weir:
I would guess 2055.
[00:17:57] Adam Grant:
That’s a lot later than I've been told by, uh, some space flight friends.
[00:18:01] Andy Weir:
[00:18:02] Adam Grant:
Why so late?
[00:18:03] Andy Weir:
I know. I just think people have been overestimating our ability to get to Mars for quite a while. I think we'll get there. I think it's a good chance that you and I will be alive. There's technology yet to be invented and also the drive to spend the money to do it.
[00:18:16] Adam Grant:
Yep. Okay. When it happens, if you're offered a seat, are, are you going?
[00:18:23] Andy Weir:
No. I’m an earthbound misfit. I write about brave people. I'm not one of them. I'm not astronaut material. I like pizza delivery. I like living in the trappings of civilization. I'm not a frontiersman. I'm, I'm not an explorer. I'm, I'm just a nerd in his office. And I, I like it that way.
[00:18:40] Adam Grant:
Will that nerd in his office be producing a sequel to Project Hail Mary anytime soon?
[00:18:44] Andy Weir:
People ask me that all the time. Of my books, it’s one that really kind of says, like, oh, oh, there could be a sequel. I have had some ideas for it, but I, I'm not, like, working on one right this second. Definitely leaving, leaving it open. It's not enough just to sequel a popular book. It has to be a good idea in its own right. Like in other words, if I just started with this book and no one had ever heard of Project Hail Mary, would this idea be good?
And I don't have one yet. Everybody says, “Oh, you should write a book about what happens back on Earth.” To which I say, like, “Okay. If I came out with a sequel to Project Hail Mary that didn't have Rocky in it, there'd be like an angry mob with pitchforks and torches at my front door.” So I can't just do that.
[00:19:29] Adam Grant:
Where do you stand on whether extraterrestrial life exists?
[00:19:31] Andy Weir:
I think it's extremely likely, in fact, almost guaranteed that there is extraterrestrial life. However, I also firmly believe it's never been here. It's never come here to our solar system. I don't believe that we've been visited by aliens, intelligent or, or even microbes.
So the reason I believe there is extraterrestrial life is just that the universe is so huge. There are so many stars, so many galaxies, so many planets. It is extremely difficult for me to believe that, you know, chemicals that end up making copies of themselves have only ever happened on one planet and one star in one galaxy in this entire universe.
I find that impossible to believe. So I've gotta believe there's life out there. But, the nearest life might be, like, 2 million light years away. Also, I firmly believe that we will never be able to travel faster than light or send information faster than light. People were coming up with ideas for like, “Oh, well, maybe we could do worm holes or quantum entanglement.” But no.
I've looked into all that and no, you can't send information faster than light because the speed of light isn't just how fast photons go. It is really the speed at which reality can affect its neighbors. And so I just, I just don't believe it'll be possible to travel faster than light. So that's my answer to the Fermi Paradox, by the way.
[00:20:54] Adam Grant:
I was just gonna say, you foreshadowed your answer to my next question.
[00:20:57] Andy Weir:
Yeah. The Fermi’s—
[00:20:58] Adam Grant:
Which is where is everybody?
[00:20:59] Andy Weir:
They're too far away.
[00:21:00] Adam Grant:
They’re too far.
[00:21:01] Andy Weir:
They’re too far away. Also, as an added downer, I will say, I don't think there's any native life anywhere in our system other than Earth. Like, I don't think there's any native life on Mars because if there's life on a planet, it would be all over the damn place. Life is very, very good at evolving to fill it, every niche everywhere.
If you were some aliens and you came to Earth and you said like, “I wonder if this place has life,” you could grab, like, a handful of anything from Earth put it under a microscope and it would be teeming with life. Like, you could grab just some air from the atmosphere. There'd be microbes in it. You grab dirt from the ground? Microbes. You grab sand from the most barren parts of the Sahara Desert. There'd still be microbes in there. Grab the edge of a volcano or the bottom of the North Pole, whatever, you'd find life everywhere. You cannot avoid finding life.
And yet we've gone to Mars and we've looked all over the place and done these exact experiments and found nothing. I believe that if life ever existed on Mars, it would be all over the place on Mars. Even if it was just microbial, it would still be all over the place, and it's not there.
[00:22:03] Adam Grant:
Shouldn’t be that hard to find. Okay. What about thinking about your own taste in sci-fi? Do you have a favorite book or author?
[00:22:09] Andy Weir:
I grew up reading, actually my father's science fiction collection. I’m, I'm a Gen Xer, but I'm kind of, uh, one generation off. I'm a baby boomer-era sci-fi fan. So basically I grew up reading Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, and Isaac Asimov. If I have to pick a favorite author, I say Isaac Asimov. He was a visionary, and if I have to pick a favorite book, I always say I, Robot. Those three authors are kind of what defined for me what science fiction was.
I guess one way I differ from a lot of other sci-fi writers is that I have a very optimistic view of humanity. And those books back then, they did. These were science fiction universes that you would wanna live in. They had their problems, the characters had their problems, and there might even be a space war going on or something like that, but it was still pretty awesome and I feel it's really too bad a lot of science fiction has been hijacked by these miserable, dystopian hellscapes where teenagers doing random shit is the only way to save the day. And I'm just like, no.
[00:23:05] Adam Grant:
I guess what I see across your novels is the human characters are flawed, but they're still heroes, and in most cases—
[00:23:11] Andy Weir:
They try to be.
[00:23:12] Adam Grant:
And yeah, like you, you see the good in the human condition, not just the potential for evil.
[00:23:17] Andy Weir:
I really do. And honestly, I think humanity is good. I mean, we notice right away. It's newsworthy when, when humanity is bad. So, but the fact that we hyperfocus on it and notice it so much when humanity is bad should show you that the default is that we're good. One thing I like to do when I'm at live events and stuff like that is I challenge the audience and say, “Name any technology that has ever been invented that has done more harm than good.”
Name anything, and you know, whatever it is they name, I'll be able to tell 'em like, yeah, well what about this—
[00:23:52] Adam Grant:
[00:23:52] Andy Weir:
Atomic bomb? Okay, nuclear power. How many people have not died in coal mines because we have nuclear power plants? How many, how much CO2 and pollutants are not in the air because of the percentage of the global power, uh, network that's provided by nuclear power plants?
Humanity has an inherent desire to do good by other humans. So if you have any sort of technology, there’ll be one guy who goes like, “You know what, we could kill a lot of people with this.” And there'd be like 50 other guys who come up with interesting ways to improve people's lives with it.
[00:24:24] Adam Grant:
Uh, writing. What is the worst writing advice you've ever gotten?
[00:24:26] Andy Weir:
I, I don't know if this is advice I was given, but in general, it's, it’s, uh, contraindicated. You should never be writing in your mind a series of books. You should always be writing one book. So, don't be thinking like, “Oh, in book one this is gonna happen and I'm setting up for book two where this'll happen and then book three…” ‘Cause the end result is you'll just end up with a crappy book that's just basically a really, really long prologue to some other book.
Write the story and if it ends up taking more than one book, okay, but don't. And, and the last thing you wanna do is say, “I've got this awesome idea, but I don't wanna put it in this book because I want that to be in the next book.” It's like, no, put it in that book. Now that book is even more awesome.
[00:25:08] Adam Grant:
Do you have a, another favorite tip for aspiring writers?
[00:25:11] Andy Weir:
I have actually, like, three things that I like to tell any aspiring writers. Number one, to be a writer, you have to write. It's not enough to daydream. It's not enough to just think about exactly the history of why the King's Royal Guard wears their buttons on the left, and you know, or whatever else. It's fun to do world-building, but that's not writing.
You, you have to be, like, putting words onto paper or into your word processor or whatever your process is. You have to write, and that seems obvious, but it's hard work. Once you start writing is when you realize all the problems, and so you go, you gotta fix 'em. That's number one.
Number two is very difficult. Resist the urge to tell your friends and family your story. Most of us, me certainly, are driven by a desire for other people to experience the story. If you tell your story to your friends and family, which can also be difficult when they're explicitly interested in asking you, “Oh, tell me more. Tell me more. That sounds cool,” then it satisfies your need for an audience and it saps your will to actually write it. So, the best way to combat that is to make a rule for yourself saying like, “No one can experience this story in any way other than reading it. And so, I've gotta write it.” So you can still give it to your friends, like a chapter at a time, so you can get that incremental validation that you crave, but don't just verbally tell them the idea.
And third, and finally, we are in a wonderfully unique time period here. There has never been a better time in human history to self-publish. I definitely recommend trying to get a traditional publishing deal because traditional publishers have these publicity/marketing departments that you cannot possibly do anywhere near as well as on your own.
But if you can't get a traditional publishing deal, self-publish. There’s no barriers. 20 years ago and all the way back to the Gutenberg press from there, you had to convince a company that they would make money by selling your book. Now, there's no longer an old boy network between you and the reader. You can post things directly to the reader.
The only thing it costs you is the time that you're gonna spend writing that book, which is theoretically something you wanna do anyway. So if, if you can't get a traditional con—uh, you know, publishing deal, then self-publish. It's fantastic. A lot of authors have broken in via self-publishing, myself included.
[00:27:33] Adam Grant:
Excellent. Is there an opinion, belief, or idea that you've rethought recently?
[00:27:37] Andy Weir:
I mean, lots of personal life stuff. I have a baby, he's 20 months old now, and that has completely changed my viewpoint on, like, a lot of things in the world. And a lot of things about my own history and my own relationship with my own parents and stuff like that.
It really changes every aspect of your, of your life. Your whole outlook changes when you have a baby. Like, I kind of care about what happens to Earth after I die now, you know? Like, never really did before.
[00:28:08] Adam Grant:
You didn't before?
[00:28:09] Andy Weir:
Well, I mean, not too much. If I'm being honest, I’m like, yeah, climate, climate change is a, is a real big issue, but also I'm 50, you know? So, eh, people talking about what's gonna happen, like, you know, 50, 60 years from now, I'm like, “Eh, good chance I won't have to deal with that.” But my son will, so now I kind of care. Right?
[00:28:31] Adam Grant:
Wow. I'm shocked. I think we need a little more Stratt in you clearly.
[00:28:39] Andy Weir:
I guess so. Well, there's only so much you can care about, right? It goes along, believe it or not, with my kind of generally optimistic human nature, is that if you spend all of your time focusing on places where the world is going wrong, then you're not gonna make any room for your own happiness. There are climate problems out there, but I'm still gonna fly to California to visit my family. You know, I'm not going to start a coal power plant.
[00:29:07] Adam Grant:
I hope not.
[00:29:07] Andy Weir:
I have LED light bulbs and I work from home, so I have zero commute, but I'm also not going to spend my entire life being ashamed of the fact that humanity has modified the planet to make it more convenient for us.
[00:29:23] Adam Grant:
So, I was gonna turn the floor over to you and say, if you have a question for an organizational psychologist, I am at your disposal.
[00:29:29] Andy Weir:
Well, okay. So what'd you think about my completely bullshit made-up psychology in Project Hail Mary that they had to put the crew into comas or they’d kill each other.
[00:29:41] Adam Grant:
I, you have no idea how many hours I spent thinking about that one. I thought it was an interesting premise because even if the risk of that is very low, it's not zero. Right? Peter Suedfeld and his colleagues have done some fascinating studies of humans in capsule environments, and we know that the possibility for severe conflict and some kind of combustion is non-trivial, right?
So, as a safeguard, I thought it was not an, a totally ridiculous direction to go. At the same time, I think that from both a selection standpoint and a team-building perspective, we should know enough about how to put together a crew that's more concerned about saving humanity than they are about, you know, killing their crewmate who pissed them off.
[00:30:24] Andy Weir:
It's interesting ‘cause I was thinking this could go either direction, because bear in mind this isn't just a normal space mission. This is a suicide mission from day one. So they all know they're going to die. So, they're all just in a small capsule that they know they will not survive. They'll never see anything outside the spaceship ever again.
So that could go one of two ways. One could be like, “Alright, well this, I have one overarching goal that I must accomplish. Because that is now—”
[00:03:53] Adam Grant:
It’s my legacy.
[00:30:53] Andy Weir:
The purpose of my life.
[00:30:54] Adam Grant:
[00:30:54] Andy Weir:
Or the other thing it could be is like, you know, you could succumb to depression or whatever. I'm gonna die anyway. I may as well die right now killing this asshole who's just driven me over the edge.
[00:31:07] Adam Grant:
It’s such an interesting question. I think that in general, I would bet on the will to survive and the will to, you know, to protect the human race.
[00:31:14] Andy Weir:
[00:31:15] Adam Grant:
But yeah, I think if you get your selection wrong or your team composition wrong, you could be in jeopardy.
[00:31:20] Andy Weir:
The whole reason the coma pods and all that stuff was in there was I needed an excuse for there to just be one person. I didn't wanna tell the story of a crew. I wanted to tell the story of one person and putting this mission together, they wouldn't just send one person. I needed it to make sense. Okay. Yeah. They sent a crew of three, but only one of them survived the journey.
[00:31:42] Adam Grant:
What it also did was it gave us a, a chance to think about, “Okay, if I were that person, what would I do?” And it made it much easier to put yourself in the shoes of humanity's last hope, as opposed to if it's whole crew, it's not really on your shoulders. You don't feel the stakes the same way.
[00:31:57] Andy Weir:
Right. It would be more of an ensemble cast. It wouldn't be about Ryland Grace. And that's, I mean, I just, I, from the start, I wanted him to be by himself.
[00:32:04] Adam Grant:
One of the places I wanted to go was to talk a little bit about your career pivot. You were a software engineer. You worked in the, the video game world and also at AOL. How did you go from that to becoming a sci-fi writer and why?
[00:32:16] Andy Weir:
I mean, I always wanted to be a writer. Even when I was a teenager, I was writing, I graduated high school in 1990. The software market was just beginning, kind of at that time, and I was into 'em. I, I liked them and, but I also wanted to be a writer, so I kind of like weighed my options when it was time to go to college. Do I want to be a writer or do I wanna be a software engineer? And I decided I liked regular meals, so I went for software engineering, but I always wrote, and so I ended up being a computer programmer for about 25 years.
But I was always writing the whole time, and The Martian was a serial that I posted a chapter at a time to my website. I mean, at this point I had about 3000 regular readers that had accumulated over 10 years. I posted short stories. I had other serials going on on my site. The Martian was the one that people liked, so that kind of like spurred me forward to keep working on it.
When I finished it, I figured I was done, but I mean, it was so popular. I ended up self-publishing to Amazon Kindle. And then that sold well enough that that got Random House attention and then that got, like, Fox's attention and that got, like, Ridley Scott's attention and everything just spiraled wildly into control?
To this day, I don't know what I did right, because basically, at the time I had what I consider a very small niche audience of literally, like, 3000 people. That was the size of my mailing list. And these were hardcore science dorks. Like, the sort of stuff I wrote was like really intensely science-focused.
So I thought I was writing for this tiny niche audience. Like, I thought this is for absolute dorks who want to see me, like, do the math in the narrative. Right? Because I like that. So there are a few other people who like that, but I never imagined that a book which is basically a long series of algebra word problems, would end up being so popular.
But it did. So, I am still baffled. As for my career pivot, I actually, I really liked being a computer programmer. Like, I really enjoyed that career when The Martian, you know, made it big. I did not quit my job. I continued working and I really liked it. And I, I only quit my job because I, I got a second book deal where I now had like one year to write a book.
But it was like kind of bittersweet leaving the, the software industry because like I said, especially, you know, by that time I'd been in the industry for 25 years. I was a senior-level, architect-level engineer. I ran my team. I was like the, the technical lead. I liked my coworkers. I liked my bosses. My company was really good.
Now I'm married and I have a, an adorable baby, but at the time I was single. And so I left that social environment where I’m like this respected pseudo-leader and, like, everybody likes me and I go in every day and I have all this social interaction to being by myself just in my home office, typing at my computer, like with nobody to talk to all day.
And it was, it was, it was an adjustment. And I would still, like, go to lunch with my former coworkers. You know, like, I'd be like, “Hey, when are you guys going to lunch? Let me know. I'm gonna go hang out with you.”
[00:35:23] Adam Grant:
So you're, you're the guy who no longer works there, but still shows up at the office party?
[00:35:27] Andy Weir:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. When it came out in theaters, they did, like, a company-wide trip. The whole company went and, like, rented out an entire theater to watch The Martian, and they invited me in. Of course, I went and so, yeah. I mean, it was so cool.
[00:35:40] Adam Grant:
I love that. I'm, I'm really intrigued by this early sense that you wanted to be a writer, because normally when people say, “I want to be X, but I don't like doing X,” I take that as a sign that maybe they shouldn't do X. Right? Like if you, if you want to be a writer, that means you want to have written, not that you want to write.
[00:35:59] Andy Weir:
[00:36:00] Adam Grant:
And this is kind of a risky decision. So what was it about writing that was a draw for you, and were you just good enough at it that you were willing to tolerate the unpleasantness?
[00:36:08] Andy Weir:
Well, I definitely didn't start off good at it. I didn't just write The Martian one day, and that was, like, the first thing I wrote. I had probably written a total of a million words—no exaggeration—of other crap before I wrote The Martian. And just like everybody else, when I started, I sucked. I am not a phenom or some sort of gifted child.
I just did a lot of practice and work. You've gotta suck for a long time at a skill before you kind of start to not suck a little bit. Like, for 20 years I was just writing. I was just writing stuff nobody's ever seen or heard of ‘cause it sucked. And The Martian was my third full-length novel that I wrote.
[00:36:48] Adam Grant:
Wow, where are the other two?
[00:36:49] Andy Weir:
One of them I wrote before, really, the internet was a big thing, so it is like, there are a few hard copies. I’m trying to find and destroy them all. It's really a very bad book. Like, I mean, it makes me cringe when I just read, like, a paragraph from it. My mother has a copy that she’s hidden because she doesn't want me to destroy everything. But uh, yeah, it's really very bad. The second one I thought actually, even now looking back, I think the plot and the storyline had merit, but it was, like, very poorly executed ‘cause I still had a lot to learn about prose.
[00:37:26] Adam Grant:
So that might see the light of day one day.
[00:37:27] Andy Weir:
It's out there in the internet. It was called Theft of Pride. I mean, I'm sure you could find it online, and I don't really make any attempt to, I mean, it's copyrighted. If somebody else tried to make print copies of it, I'd sue them. But like, I don't make any attempt to prevent piracy. I wrote this like, let's see… I, I finished it in the nineties, like 1999-ish and yeah, the Martian came out in what, 2013?
So I was like, yeah, there's about 15 years of writing skill improvement between this book and The Martian. So bear that in mind when you're reading it. You're not gonna get that same experience.
[00:38:03] Adam Grant:
Fair enough. Do you enjoy it more now that you've had success? ‘Cause at some level, when I think about one of the misunderstandings that people have of intrinsic motivation, a lot of people think that if they don't love a task when they first try it, that it's just not a passion for them.
And what they don't realize is something that I think you just touched on, which is it's very hard to love something that you're terrible at and you have to go from being a novice to at least pretty good, if not great in order to find full enjoyment of it. Did you climb up that intrinsic motivation curve at all?
[00:38:33] Andy Weir:
I don't know because you will definitely fail if you go into a new skillset with the idea of, like, “I gotta be the best in the world”. But no one in the world starts out like world-class. I guess it comes down to just being proud of the incremental progress, like saying, “Wow, I'm, I'm a lot better at this than I was five years ago. That's pretty cool. I'm trending upward. I will probably be a lot better at this five years from now than I was, than I am now.” And so just identifying progress is good. Don't look at it and say like, “Well, I suck.” Instead say like, “I suck less today than yesterday.”
[00:39:15] Adam Grant:
I think that is a beautiful note to land on. Andy, this has been such a fun and thought-provoking conversation. It's almost impossible to love a book without being fascinated by the mind of the person who created it. Sometimes the most interesting things in people's heads get into their books and wait, like that was your max? Your mean is not that exciting. Your mean on the same level as your max in the books. It's every bit as interesting to talk to you as it is to read the words that you've pored over for years. That's a dream as a podcast host.
[00:39:49] Andy Weir:
You've convinced me. My next book is about the Queen of Clubs with her lucky cat.
[00:39:56] Adam Grant:
I definitely think that's a terrible idea.
[00:39:57] Andy Weir:
I'm, I'm running with it.
[00:40:03] Adam Grant:
My biggest takeaway from Andy is how clearly he separates his ideas from his ego. It doesn't shatter his self-esteem to admit that he has bad ideas. He knows we all have bad ideas. It's part of being human, and especially part of being a creative human. I think a key to doing original work is to be proud of your best ideas and amused by your worst ideas.
ReThinking is hosted by me, Adam Grant, and produced by TED with Cosmic Standard. Our team includes Colin Helms, Eliza Smith, Jacob Winik, Aja Simpson, Samiah Adams, Michelle Quint, BanBan Cheng, Hannah Kingsley-Ma, Julia Dickerson, and Whitney Pennington-Rodgers. This episode was produced and mixed by Cosmic Standard. Original Music by Hansdale Hsu and Allison Leyton Brown.
I feel like I need a dose of your brain on a daily basis.
[00:40:56] Andy Weir:
That’s, uh, getting a little bit zombie there. Gotta say little, little zombie-ish.
[00:41:04] Adam Grant:
All right, let me put it differently. Uh, I think, I think that, um—
[00:41:06] Andy Weir:
I think I want to eat your cranial matter. No, no, that's, that's not better.
[00:41:12] Adam Grant:
I, I think I'm gonna pass on that.