Derek Thompson On Why Writing a Book Is ‘An Absolute Avalanche of Failures’

The author and editor explains how he designs his day for productivity and why his phone sleeps on the couch.

When you have the opportunity to ask some of the most interesting people in the world about their lives, sometimes the most fascinating answers come from the simplest questions. The Thrive Questionnaire is an ongoing series that gives an intimate look inside the lives of some of the world’s most successful people.

Thrive Global: What’s the first thing you do when you get out of bed?
Derek Thompson: My early morning habits are my greatest shame. I think I was cursed with the psychological disposition of a morning person and the circadian rhythm of a night owl. So getting up is a real struggle between mind and body. But technically I guess my first actual living human activity is to make coffee with one of those Chemex hourglass devices. I don’t have much confidence that I’m doing it right, but the performance requires the right combination of minor physical activity and low-level mental attention for a brain and body that are still kicking off the morning cobwebs.

TG: What gives you energy?
DT: If we’re talking about the best kind of energy — focused, productive, fun — I honestly have no idea. Is that okay to admit? My relationship with focused energy is very chaotic. I don’t know when an insight is going to strike, or when I’m going to find the focus to answer 40 emails in a row. I would love to have an attention thermostat in my brain that dials up energy and focus, on demand. Sadly, the device didn’t come pre-installed .

TG: What’s your secret life hack?
DT: I think deep focus and flow at work is like REM. You don’t go “okay, body, time to REM!” You have to lie in bed a bit, roll around, fall asleep, be asleep for a while, and then you get to REM. It’s the same with work. Those great moments of productivity aren’t accessible as if by light switch. You have to work your way to it. One way I try to design for this is to leave some easy work for myself to do in the morning, so that I can start the day by checking boxes, and then when I feel the flow of box-checking, I find that groove.

TG: Name a book that changed your life.
DT: I wasn’t particularly interested in journalism or current affairs before 9/11 and high school. I wanted to be an actor. But September 11 and the ensuing wars really shook me and made me want to write about the world. The two books that made me want to become a journalist when I was in high school were The Future of Freedom by Fareed Zakaria and Longitudes and Attitudes by Thomas Friedman. They answered the questions I knew I had, and posed new questions I didn’t know I should ask. I think that’s what journalism should do.

TG: Tell us about your relationship with your phone. Does it sleep with you?
DT: For years, it did. Just last month, I started keeping it outside my room, on the charger next to my couch, because I realized how much time I was wasting each morning looking at it. I told myself that I needed it for the morning alarm, but I don’t. I wake up naturally around 6:30 or 7 no matter what. So the phone got the boot. I love it, I need it, it completes me, and so forth. But we’re in that stage of the relationship where it’s sleeping on the couch.

TG: How do you deal with email?
DT: Somebody said there are two types of people: Inbox Zero and Inbox One Million. I think it’s a useful but false binary. I am an Inbox Seven kind of person. I always have between five and ten emails that just sit around in my inbox for a few weeks. (Like this questionnaire!)

TG: You unexpectedly find 15 minutes in your day, what do you do with it? DT: Call my grandmother!

TG: When was the last time you felt burned out and why? 
DT: I’m on book tour right now for Hit Makers. So the answers are “right now” and “because book tour.”

TG: When was the last time you felt you failed and how did you overcome it? 
DT: Writers are constantly failing. Every article that I write is its own failure. A book is an absolute avalanche of failures. I get a detail wrong, or a theory wrong, or I under-explain some concept, or belabor something else in a boring way. Writing is practice, and practice is a failure-mitigation exercise that is constantly interrupted by new failures that require attention. That’s the bad thing about writing. The nice thing about writing is that the barriers to entry are all emotional, so you can always theoretically try again.

TG: Share a quote that you love and that gives you strength or peace.
DT: My favorite quote, without question, is from Tennyson’s Ulysses: “All experience is an arch wherethrough gleams that untravelled world whose margin fades forever and forever when I move.” I don’t even care if it’s cliché because it’s the truest thing. Everything we achieve serves to frame what we haven’t yet achieved. That’s why ultimate satisfaction can be so difficult, because it’s so hard to realize that no accomplishment can deliver lasting happiness — no promotion, award, date, wedding, house, or book. It seems to me that the happiest people aren’t the ones who have passed through the most impressive arches, but those who by virtue of their job, relationships, and habits, have learned to love the process of traveling through arches.


Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic magazine and a news analyst on NPR’s “Here and Now.” He is the author of the national bestselling book Hit Makers: The Science of Popularity in an Age of Distraction.