Alex Banayan went rogue. He traded his predetermined path as a USC med student to embark upon an impossible journey; a quest to interview the world’s most influential and innovative thinkers and write a book about it.
The Third Door has become an international best-seller, shedding an unprecedented light on the various keys to success that aren’t taught in schools. Alex is a fascinating presence, with an infectious passion to learn. He believes it’s our responsibility to inspire future generations to believe in possibility and embrace the unconventional. His life is proof that the road to success isn’t always linear, and we are excited to share his wisdom with you.
Stay Curious: This is an audio interview, but we transcribed it below. When turning sound to words, we do what we can to make it readable and authentic. Sometimes the two mediums may not always line up, but we figured you’d rather it make sense without all the “ums” and “likes” – Enjoy.
Boye Fajinmi: Hey guys you’ve got Boye here with Alex Banayan, author of The Third Door, world renowned speaker. Chillin on a nice LA afternoon.
Alex Banayan: Thank you very much for having me. I appreciate it. This is going to be fun.
Boye: I’m excited. So, how’s it going? How have you been?
Alex: Things have been great. I’ve been on book tour pretty much nonstop. It’s nice to be back in LA, my hometown, and spend a couple weeks re-configuring myself.
Boye: It’s interesting, right? It sounds like you are living a crazy life right now. So, I read the book, or I listened to the book.
Alex: Dude, audio book is the real deal, man!
Boye: It’s the real deal!
Alex: Don’t knock it man. It’s just as legit.
Boye: Yeah! I loved it. And it was great hearing you narrate.
Alex: I poured my heart into it.
Boye: You did a really phenomenal job.
Alex: Thank you.
Boye: In your book, I get this sense of wanderlust and drive to be your better self and live your dreams…and you’re actually doing it. What’s that like?
Alex: Thank you, that means a lot. Any entrepreneur out there chasing their dreams can relate to this which is, on the one hand, my dream wasn’t just to put out a book. It was to embed this message into the culture of our generation. There’s so much to do and there’s no tipping point. It’s just little steps, and pushing, and trying to make this dream a reality. It’s climbing a mountain. Even though the book has been out and has become a bestseller, it’s still a grind. A fun grind, but a grind, for sure.
Alex: On the other hand, I’m so grateful. This has been my dream for 7 years. Opening my email in the morning and seeing messages from readers around the world saying it’s impacted their life…I tear up, man. This isn’t a ‘how to get rich in10 quick steps’ kind of book. This was my life. My grandma’s in the book. It’s very personal. For it to resonate with people means so much on so many levels, which is why it’s so fulfilling.
Boye: In the in the book, it seems like you really fought to understand the right way to interview someone. Since the book has been released, where do you sit now with how you interview people?
Alex: It’s cool because the tables have turned. For 7 years I was doing the interviews. I was interviewing Bill Gates. I was interviewing Steve Wozniak. Now that the book is out, I’m being asked the questions. It’s fun, man.
Alex: It was a big honor to be interviewed by Larry King. He’s like Michael Jordan. What he does looks easy. It is an art that he has perfected, in a way. There’s a reason Larry King is Larry King. There’s a reason Kara Swisher is Kara Swisher. There’s a reason, whether you like his politics or not, Glenn Beck is Glenn Beck. These are the best in their craft. It’s been a big honor and giant learning opportunity for me to see the way they operate. I’ve learned a ton just being in the mix with them. And you know me, I love to learn. They think I’m here to promote a book, but I’m taking notes on their styles and it’s fascinating!
Boye: Tell me more about the people who are now trying to interview you? What’s it like now that people want to hear your story?
Alex: It’s a giant honor. I also have a ton more empathy for the interviewee. When I was 18 I hid in a bathroom for 30 minutes to track down Tim Ferris to get an interview with him for my book. Tim is way more established. My book has only been out for six months, but I already have a ton more empathy for a human being’s bandwidth. I understand why people were telling me “no” for 99% of this journey. You can only do so much.
Boye: Do you also have more empathy for the people trying to take your time?
Alex: I’m very cognizant of how fortunate it is to be in this position, and that’s why I don’t knock any of the hustlers out there starting their own podcast or doing their thing. But just because I understand where they’re coming from doesn’t mean I can necessarily say yes to everything. But, at the end of the day, I get it. They’re out there trying to make a name for themselves. Trying to do good, share wisdom, help people. So, I’m grateful they ask.
Boye: What makes you go out on tour and live this life? What is it that powers you?
Alex: The context of how this book got started, in many ways, is what still fuels me. This started when I was a freshman in college. I don’t know if you’ve been through the ‘What do I want to do with my life’ crisis?
Boye: Yeah. That’s another story!
Alex: Right! I’m the son of Jewish immigrants, which pretty much means that when I came out of the womb, my mom cradled me in her arms, stamped M.D. on my ass, and sent me on my way. In 3rd grade I wore scrubs to school for Halloween. In high school I went to Pre-Med summer camp. By the time I got to college, I’m the Pre-med of Pre-meds, but I remember looking at my towering stack of biology books, and feeling like they were sucking the life out of me. I began to wonder, ‘Maybe I’m not on my path. Maybe I’m on a path somebody placed me on, and I’m just rolling down.’
So, not only do I not know what I want to do with my life, I’ve no idea how all of the people I looked up to did it. How did Bill Gates sell his first piece of software out of his dorm room when nobody knew his name? How did Lady Gaga get her first record deal without a single hit under her belt? This is what they don’t teach you in school. I go to the library assuming there has to be a book with the answers. Eventually, I’m left empty handed. I thought, ‘Well, if no one has written the book I’m dreaming of reading, why not write it myself?’
The hard part, I figured, was getting the money to fund this journey. I was buried in student loan debt. I was all out of bar mitzvah cash. Two months before my final exams, I see someone offering free tickets to The Price Is Right. It films near USC, and I think ‘What if I go on the show and win some money to fund this book?’ Not the most logical idea. Plus, I’d never seen a full episode of the show. I told myself it was a dumb idea, but I don’t know if you’ve ever had an idea that keeps on clawing itself back into your mind?
Alex: To prove to myself that it was a bad idea, I remember opening up my notebook and writing best and worst case scenarios. There were like 20 cons.
Alex: The only pro was: maybe get enough money to fund this dream. That night I decided to pull an all nighter studying how to hack The Price Is Right. I went on the show the next day and ended up winning the whole showcase showdown. I won a sailboat, sold the sailboat, and that’s how I funded the book.
Alex: It took 2 years to track down Bill Gates. Three years to track down Lady Gaga. But over this 7 year journey, I started realizing that every single one of these people treated life, business, and success the exact same way. The analogy that came to me is that it’s like getting into a nightclub. There are always 3 ways in. There’s the first door, the main entrance, where the line curves around the block. Where 99% of people wait around hoping to get in. There’s the second door. The VIP entrance for the billionaires and celebrities. For some reason, school and society make us feel like those are the only two ways in. You either wait your turn, or you’re born into it. But, what I learned is there’s always the third door. It’s the entrance where you jump out of line, run down the alley, crack open the window, go through the kitchen. And that’s how Gates sold his first piece of software. It’s how Spielberg became the youngest director in Hollywood history. They took the third door. So, that’s not only the title and thesis of the book, it’s also the energy I’m trying to inject into the next generation.
Boye: It’s almost as if you took the third door yourself by creating this book.
Alex: Yeah, it’s super meta.
Boye: You didn’t see the path to get what you needed and you made it happen. Not many people can go from being a college student, to meeting all of these famous people, to being a best-selling author. What is the next stage of The Third Door. Is it another book? Is it expanding the platform?
Alex: My original intention was to pack as much knowledge and wisdom into 300 pages as possible. In the book are Bill Gates’ negotiating secrets and Tim Ferris’ cold email template. Only in hindsight, can I see that the soul of this book is much deeper. The soul of this book is really about possibility. If there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you can give someone all of the best tools and knowledge in the world and their life can still feel stuck. But, if you change what someone believes is possible, they’ll never be the same. Young people will always reach for the highest branch they believe is possible. It’s our jobs – schools, families, the media at large – to illuminate more branches.
Boye: Is there a particular path that you see?
Alex: The cool thing about The Third Door is that it’s an idea. The book is one medium, but there are others. There are documentaries, movies, TV, podcasts, and music. What’s amazing about the world we live in today is that there are so many ways to share an idea. To share a story. To share things that can help people. The Third Door is just getting started.
“The soul of this book is really about possibility.”
Boye: If you were to write another book, who would you want to interview?
Alex: A person who comes to mind is Barack Obama. My dad passed away two years ago. I’m Jewish, so when someone passes away there’s a week of shiva when you are surrounded by family and friends and encompassed in love. But, eventually, people have to go on with their lives. At that point I remember feeling completely empty. I remember not wanting to get out of bed, looking up at my bookshelf, and seeing Dreams of My Father. The book is inspired by Obama’s father passing away too, and his journey to understand him. And there was something about reading his words that made me feel connected to him in a way that I never had before. So, that’s who I’d want to interview.
Boye: He definitely left a legacy, and I agree. I think he would be interesting. In the book, it’s evident that community was big for you, and you spend some time on Summit Series. Would you say that Summit has had a big impact on your life?
Alex: Giant. Elliott Bisnow, the founder of Summit Series, changed my life. He brought me in and took me under his wing. I dropped out of college to pursue writing this book, so I don’t have a college alumni group. Summit some sort of became that. I started going to Summit Series when I was nineteen. I couldn’t be more grateful to Summit Series not only for helping with my business contacts, but also for some of my closest friends. Some of my best friends, people who were at my dad’s funeral, I met there.
Boye: That’s special. I like to hear that. You seem laser focused on getting The Third Door into the hands of as many people as possible, which is great. I’m curious, what’s a day in the life of Alex Banayan as you go on this journey?
Alex: Wake up at 6 a.m. Get ready. Meditate. I’ve been meditating twice a day for the past five years, and it’s changed my life in a beautiful way. Today, I drove out to do an Entrepreneur Magazine podcast called The Playbook. Then I had a call with one of my close friends and mentors, Cal Fussman. Then I grabbed lunch by myself. You know, it’s not private jets and poppin’ bottles here!
Then I went to a second podcast recording with a great podcast called Cat & Cloud, which is the number one coffee podcast.
Boye: Wow. Okay.
Alex: I love coffee. Not that I’ll drink 5 cups a day, but I appreciate any fine art. I love anyone who’s obsessed with something, whether it’s a sommelier, a world champion barista, or a car aficionado. The two hosts of the Cat & Cloud podcast are world champion baristas who have their own coffee company. They’re also very entrepreneurial, so the podcast was about achieving a dream and dealing with fear, but we also had some crazy good coffee. After that I came back for my second meditation. Now I’m here with you, man!
Boye: Wow! Three podcasts in one day.
Alex: I’m very grateful. This morning I also had a phone call with NBC news.
Boye: Wow, okay! You’re really getting the word out there, being a personality, talking to people, and spreading The Third Door mantra in real life.
Alex: Yeah. To me, this is the mission of this book. When I got these interviews, there was an implicit agreement that if you share your wisdom with me, I’m going to share it with the people who want it and need it. On the one hand, I’m fulfilling this promise. On the other hand, it’s a ton of fun to share something that I care so much about.
Boye: Now that you’re getting interviewed a lot, what is one question you wish you were asked more often?
Alex: No one asks me about my sisters, man. They’re one of my favorite parts of the book. I’ll sometimes scroll through the Amazon reviews and I’m very grateful that the reviews are, for the most part, positive. But every now and then there’s a negative review, and I like reading those too. There was one guy recently who wrote, ‘The Third Door is not for me. I wish I knew it was more like The Alchemist than Outliers.’ And then, he ends it with, ‘I didn’t like Alex that much, but his sisters are genius.’ And I was like, ‘That’s my guy!’ It was so funny. It was my favorite one star review.
Boye: Family is important, and it seems like you have really close ties to your family.
Alex: Yeah, man. My sisters are amazing.
Boye: What has inspired you to meditate? Is it your faith or do you have a faith?
Alex: I’m Jewish. I come from an immigrant background so meditation and cocaine are pretty much in the same category to my grandmother.
The only thing worse than the two of those is therapy. Which, by the way, I’ve been going to therapy every day for the past five years, too.
Boye: I think therapy is healthy.
Alex: Dude, that’s like saying I think a doctor is healthy.
Alex: Therapy is super important. If you’re only going to a therapist during a divorce, or when a family member dies, that’s like going to a doctor only when your arm is cut off.
Alex: Meditation came up at Summit Series when I was 19 or 20. I was meeting all these people who were very different than the people I grew up with.
Alex: I asked these people, ‘Why are you so happy? How are you so calm?’ At least 8 out of 10 of them said, ‘I meditate.’ I initially had no interest, and then I started researching the most successful people on Earth. I noticed Ellen Degeneres talking about Transcendental Meditation. Jerry Seinfeld talks about Transcendental Meditation. Oprah Winfrey talks about it and so does Ray Dalio. I still didn’t quite buy it, but let’s say every happy person you meet said they all drink Kool-Aid for breakfast. Then, every successful person that you look up to says they also drink that same flavor of Kool-Aid for breakfast. I wasn’t convinced meditation would help me, but I thought, ‘I’ll try it for a week.’ Well, I did and it changed my life forever.
Boye: Do you feel comfortable talking about revenue and sales of the book?
Alex: Yes, they’re doing great! Even in December when I had no book events scheduled, sales went up. I love Christmas!
Boye: I actually got my brother your book for Christmas.
Alex: Oh, dude! That means so much! You’re very entrepreneurial and ambitious, so it’s one thing for you to read it to help yourself. But when people, after reading the book, gift it to someone they love – a family member, a best friend, a colleague – that’s the highest compliment.
Boye: Yeah. I love that. He’s in high school and he’s loved it.
Alex: I love that, man. Thank you.
Boye: Our audience is really driven and always seeking to become a better version of themselves. What’s one piece of advice you would give to an entrepreneur whether they’re writing a book, building a business, or doing something equally compelling?
Alex: Be kind to yourself. There’s a concept in Buddhism called maitri, and the translation is ‘loving kindness with oneself.’ Treat yourself like you would your best friend. Unconditional friendship with yourself. The very essence of our jobs is that rejection and failure are a giant part of the daily grind. And not only are we getting rejected and failing externally, we are the hardest on ourselves. And, I’ve just recently come to realize that doesn’t have to be that way. You can still want to improve, grow, and push yourself, but if you’re burning out, take a fucking walk.
“Be kind to yourself. You’ll get to the finish line when you’re meant to get to the finish line. If you’re not there yet, the race isn’t over.”
Alex: Take a nap. Call it a day early. Because what’s worse than taking an afternoon off is burning out to the point where you self-sabotage your entire project.
Boye: And your health.
Alex: Correct. Your head is spinning. You’re not looking when you cross the street and something happens. At the end of the day, it’s about being surrounded by the people you love. And yes, the impact you make is fulfilling. But, at the end of the day, you don’t get an award for not sleeping at night.
Alex: Be kind to yourself. You’ll get to the finish line when you’re meant to get to the finish line. If you’re not there yet, the race isn’t over. This is the cool thing about entrepreneurship versus athletics. You may be losing the game when the shot clock runs out. In business, you get to decide when the game is over. You can go bankrupt and say, “It’s only half-time for me.”
Boye: I love it. Alex, thank you so much for your time. Everyone should get The Third Door. Where can we get it, follow you and learn more?
Alex: Thank you, man. The book is available everywhere books are sold. Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kindle. If you like audiobooks its on Audible and iTunes. And, if you end up getting the book through this podcast, give me a shout on Instagram, @AlexBanayan, so I can say a giant thank you!
Boye: I love it. Alex Banayan, everyone. Thank you.