Chester See has been nominated for 6 Streamy Awards with one win for Best Original Song. He has starred on Broadway as Rock Star Stacee Jaxx in Rock of Ages. He has sold over 2 million downloads of original music without the help of a label, and was one of the first 100 people to garner over a million subscribers on YouTube.
Listen to Episode #64 here:
Moving Cheese with Chester See
Our guest is Chester See. Chester has been nominated for six Streamy Awards with one win for Best Original Song. He starred on Broadway as Rock Star Stacee Jaxx in Rock of Ages and he’s sold two million downloads of original music without the help of a label. Finally, he was one of the first 100 people to garner over one million subscribers on YouTube. Welcome, Chester.
Thanks for having me.
Chester, if you weren’t working as a musician, what would you be doing? You can’t work as a musician. You have to give up all music, no producing.
No directing or acting in the entertainment industry?
I think of you mostly as a musician.
That’s fair. Storytelling in general and that comes in a lot of different forms. I’ve dabbled obviously the directing and the acting.
You can’t do any of that.
If I can’t do any of that stuff, I’d probably be in the military.
Probably because that’s the family tree.
Did you grow up in the shadow of Travis?
Yes, Travis Air Force Base. My dad’s a twenty-year navy retired. My dad’s dad fought in World War I, World War II in Korea as a Marine. He was born in 1899.
He’s the luckiest man alive or most unlucky simultaneously.
He lied about his age to fight in the first war, which I think was a thing back then. People aren’t doing that so much these days.
To lie about your age to fight for your country, you need a good enemy.
[bctt tweet=”The formula for success is consistency and efficiency.” via=”no”]
I think we had one in World War I.
That’s what I mean, like a really hated enemy.
My grandma was a Marine as well. She was an officer. A long lineage of military families.
Is there disappointment in your family that you didn’t do military?
If my grandpa was alive, probably. I think that man would be confused why am I spending my time in the arts, but no. My mom and dad have always supported everything that I’ve done. When I grew up, I thought I wanted to be a fighter pilot.
You’re a bit younger than me but when I was in college, the Cold War was a full effect. Berlin wall coming down. Nonetheless, Top Gun was the thing. I was in Air Force ROTC in high school and I did it for one semester in college then I got out of engineering. I was like, “I’m not doing this.”
I used to tell this joke where I used to say, “I thought I want to be a fighter pilot, then I saw Days of Thunder and I had thought maybe I should be a NASCAR driver.” I watched A Few Good Men and I was like, “Being a lawyer looks pretty cool,” and I realize I wanted to be Tom Cruise. In a weird way it’s true.
You’re more like Tom Cruise than a fighter pilot or NASCAR driver.
He played Stacee Jaxx in Rock of Ages. In the film version of Rock of Ages, Tom Cruise plays the role that I played in.
Are your lives intertwined in any other way? Do you share any girlfriends?
No, I bumped into him at Runyon Canyon one time. He was with Katie and Suri. I was walking these two dogs at the time.
You’re like, “Rock of Ages, Stacee Jaxx.”
I was more like, “Why is Tom Cruise randomly walking through Runyon Canyon as if he’s not super A-list.” You don’t normally see that level of star walking around with their kid without the paparazzi chasing.
He’s trying to live a normal life. It’s hard to do in Runyon Canyon as Tom Cruise.
I do remember afterwards, I was telling that story on a bunch of my friends and all the girls want to know what Katie was like, what she looked like. I’m like, “I really don’t remember. I was staring at Tom Cruise.” I’m not even positive it was Katie.
He’s a fascinating case study. He’s in a movie called Oblivion, which I thought was pretty good. It’s solid straight down the middle Tom Cruise vehicle thing. It’s a nice little twist at the end. There’s something about that movie that’s incredibly distracting. He’s running around with guns and he’s on motorbikes and he’s flying around in the ship. The man never puts on a helmet the entire movie.
It’s bothering you the whole time.
It is because he’s Tom Cruise. You need the face and you need the hair. The beauty has to be there. I’m like, “There’s no way that they would ever let this man do his job without a helmet on.” For the readers, we’re in Los Angeles and we’re in the office of Phantom, which is owned by a mutual friend of ours. That’s how we met and Runyon Canyon is a mile West of here. It’s a hiking and running trail. By Boulder standards, it’s pretty tame. It’s a great little place to have in the middle of the city so to speak.
It has an off-leash dog park as well.
The people watching in Runyon Canyon are extraordinary. All types of people doing all types of things, living there Hollywood existence.
If you want to feel self-conscious about how fit you are, go to Runyon Canyon because there are plenty of people that are jack shirtless guys constantly running by you.
How did you become a musician then?
There was a piano in our living room and started tinkering with it when I was six years old. I never had a lesson. I play by ear essentially. I have a memory of listening to some Bryan Adams, Everything I do, I do it for you. and I remember thinking to myself, “I want to write one of those types of songs.” I thought it was so cool.
Do you know why the piano was there?
It was a furniture more or less.
Aspirational type thing?
It was an old piano with actual ivory keys.
Is it still there?
No, it’s still the family but my aunt has it. My parents saw that I was interested in the piano and once they got rid of that one they got me one that had headphones, electric piano. The funny thing is they never forced me to play the piano, which drew me to it more. For me, it was always a stress reliever.
I took piano lessons as a kid and it was bad. It was a traditional bad piano playing experience. A teacher who was overly stern, not encouraging enough and lack of talent. It drove any of the fun and joy that could come from making music out of my eleven-year-old body and brain.
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One of the things that drew me to the piano though and this is so fascinating to me. It doesn’t matter where you are in the world. It’s this language that’s in you. If I were to sit down and I’ll play C major and then I play C minor, we all feel a similar experience that everyone has.
There’s psychological research on this.
This is this language that we speak but we don’t understand. There are a lot of mysteries in that to me. When you listen to Chopin piece, you know that you’re listening to a genius and he’s speaking this language and he’s making us feel these things, but we can’t put words to it. That was one of the major reasons I was drawn to the piano.
The way you describe it, it feels like this parallels to comedy. People are laughing, but they don’t exactly know why they are having this joyous experience or it doesn’t always have to be joyous. Good comedy can elicit a variety of emotions beyond amusement as well as the case with music, clearly. Pop music makes you feel good, but a lot of classical music may make you feel sad or angry or disturbed. It’s interesting this idea of chance. There’s a piano in the living room. It’s there for some other reason. It wasn’t there for you and then you decide to tinker with it.
I like watching documentaries and people talk about their craft. It’s part of the reason I launched this show which is to get people to talk about their lives and hear their stories. Off the top of my head, Jack White in It Might Get Loud. There’s a documentary with him, Jimmy Page and The Edge. Jack White is by far the most interesting person of the three. The other two are duds. Brilliant guitarist, but Jack White’s an interesting guy top to bottom, a storyteller. He’s a little like you as I think about it. He talks about he was working in a Goodwill type thing. He got paid a guitar at some point and that was how he started playing guitar.
I’m not sure I’m going to get exactly right, but he’s doing drums and picked up a guitar. Jimmy Page has a similar story where he moved into an apartment and there was this guitar that was left in there. Just happenstance and you think about the music that Led Zeppelin made would never have been made in all likelihood if somebody else hadn’t just left a guitar behind. I want to ask you a question about this because I’m looking for a third story about someone in music. I have two stories about someone being so committed to their craft where they make a choice of an instrument over a bed.
Jack White grew up in a family of ten children. He had his own room in the house, but it was 9×9 and he had to drum sets in there, an amp, a mixer, a whole bunch of stuff. He took the bed out of the room because he had to make a choice between his musical gear and his bed and the musical gear won. He had a piece of foam that he would roll up and sleep on. The second story is Rick Rubin. When Rick Rubin was a college student at NYU, he got into producing and he moved his bed out of his room to make room for all the gear. I can’t remember how he slept or where he slept. In any case, I’m looking for a third story.
I’m thinking of Whiplash but that’s fictional.
You play so much until you bleed.
I remember that moment where he had to breakup with his girlfriend.
That I’m sure happens.
I respect that too, in a weird way. I think a lot of people do that. Someone that is so driven by a very specific goal that they are going to go above and beyond and attempt to be the best at that thing. Look around, that’s how this entire world works. No one cares so much about the thing that you do. As long as you’re the best at the thing that you do. That’s who we put on pedestals. We live in a world where people are taking balls and hitting it with pieces of wood and putting balls into hoops. We do not care about the thing that you do and if you become the best at it, then you’re the idol.
Look at Esports.
Yeah, as long as you’re the best.
That moment in the movie is meant to be a sad moment. I teach this marketing management course and on day one, within 30 minutes of starting the class, I talk about having a model. A way to think about people’s needs, wants, goals and I put forth this model of wellbeing called the PERMA model: Pleasure, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Achievement. The neat thing about the PERMA model, what it suggests and I believe to be the case is there are multiple paths to living a good life. The important thing in my opinion is to be clear about what your path is. For example, you were talking about achievement.
Becoming a 300 hitter in baseball or playing at in an elite level in baseball, winning gold medals is a form of achievement in the same way as building Google or Amazon or getting 100 million viewers on YouTube. There’s a good feeling that comes from that can compel people to do that. Sometimes meaning and achievement go hand in hand, but they don’t have to. Meaning is doing something bigger than yourself. Curing cancer or raising children or feeding starving children and engagement is these artistic pursuits like making music and art. It doesn’t have to be art, but art is the best place to find engagement. This idea of flow where time disappears. I’m sure you’ve had this where you sit down at the piano, you start playing and you’re working on a song and then the next thing you know you haven’t eaten in six hours. That’s flow.
That happens to me if I get in the zone writing a script. I’m sure that happens to you when you’re writing.
On occasion, yes. It’s hard for me to write for that long, but I used to have that when I was a grad student doing data analysis, any creative or problem-solving process. The point of bringing this up is that we tend to think about the paths to living a good life is being meaning, having a family or pleasure or having good times. The people will give up those things for achievement. For example, people might not sleep very much, not taking good care of their health, their relationships may suffer or the gold medalist will spend hours in the pool in pain.
Whiplash is a fictional account of this, but someone who basically says, “I need to isolate myself from the world in order to create this magic that’s there.” If you need to point to how compelled someone would be, you have to point how someone who would give up their bed to have a second drum set. That’s the tradeoff that I think the average person can’t imagine because they’re not propelled by anything so much that they would be willing to do that. You’ve had a lot of success as a singer, songwriter and performer. Did you feel you had any moment in time in your life where you had to make that tradeoff? Do you have your own Whiplash moment or your own Rick Rubin moment?
My story is interesting because I feel as though I create a lot of goals in my mind that was essentially accomplished. I saw my name in the marquee when I was on Broadway. When I was in Malaysia, I performed to 6,000 or 7,000 fans and they were singing my lyrics. It’s a dream I had when I was seven, eight years old. It was astonishing because in Malaysia it was very different than it is here. It’s insane to think of that many people knowing the lyrics to a song I wrote and hearing them sing it back. Every time a little moment like that happens, like that Malaysian moment, it felt a box was checked. It didn’t feel like, “Here we go. We’re doing it. Let’s hit the road and keep this going.”
There’s this idea of goal release in psychology that happens where you achieve a goal and then you may release it and you’re not motivated the way you were before.
That’s definitely what I’ve been going through. It is not appealing to be back on Broadway. Even though I love acting and I would enjoy being on Broadway. I am not motivated in the same way to try and achieve that goal. Before when I was here in LA and I was doing waiting tables and I was on the Disney Channel at that time hosting. I needed to create a world where I was making all of my money from art. That was a big reason why I started a YouTube channel. At the time, a MySpace channel. I was trying to cultivate fans around some of the music that I was posting on there, but that was a big driving factor because of not only the idea of getting to spend more time with my art but there’s also the idea of not having to work a job with a boss ever again. It’s a very motivating factor for me.
I’m guessing that most server jobs don’t feature world-class bosses.
No and I don’t work well.
You are probably the promptest artist I’ve ever met.
How so? What do you mean?
You show up not on time but early.
Is it not a trait of artists to be punctual?
Artists are more likely to be on what we call event time versus clock time. Maybe it’s that military background.
One of my best friends, he’s still in the military, in the reserves. You want to talk about punctual, at the minute. It’s amazing to watch. The art part of me is one part of me. I was very excited about being more entrepreneurial when I was in my twenties. I was driven by wanting to be a part of something like when I co-founded the YOMYOMF Network, that was a huge achievement for me. I was equally excited about getting that done as I would be being on Broadway. As you know I have this mission that I’ve created where I want to build 100 wells in Africa.
[bctt tweet=”Make something that’s unique and that brings you joy.” via=”no”]
This is the M of the PERMA Model. This is a meaningful thing to do.
The selfish reason was I want another incentive. I want another motivating factor. Because the better I do as an artist, the faster I’m going to be able to build those walls.
What is this project?
I bought a well at a gala event. If I’m being brutally honest, I wasn’t sure if I got it for all the right reasons. I had this conversation with myself about intention and outcome and what is that relationship between those two things and what matters more. I’ll never fully be able to answer that question. That’s one of those philosophical questions you can’t quite finish.
Is there any problem with buying a well?
Let’s go the extreme. Would you rather meet somebody that has good intentions and no outcomes or bad outcome? It’s interesting and it’s a more complicated question that you can simply answer. What I have landed on is I can spend the rest of my life figuring this out, talking it out with others about intentions and outcomes and what that looks like. It would be better if I end my life having built 100 wells regardless of where I land on that and understanding my own intentions, understanding the relationship between intention and outcome.
I think that magnificent things have happened in the world because someone wanted to sleep with someone else.
I’m sure and to be clear, that’s not my intention. There’s a combination of things as to why I’m doing it. A big part of it is I understand the need for this to happen. There are other reasons that I have attached myself to this. That goes without saying and if anyone’s being honest, there’s a multitude of reasons why you do something. Going back to what you were saying before with goals. I am a big believer that you want to set numbers. I learned this from working out. You don’t want to say you want to lose weight. That’s a pointless thing to say. Don’t eat for that day. You did it, your goal is done. You just lost some weight. You want to say I want to lose ten pounds. The more specific, the better.
This is the smart, specific, measurable and there’s this framework for how to create useful goals and you talked about the two of them.
I set a goal to build a hundred of these wells specifically in Eswatini. The company that I’m working with, Thirst Project. They’re trying to flip that entire country into a country that has access to clean drinking water. By concentrating efforts in one area, we can make a little bit more of an impact as well. That’s where my mind is on that. I’ve realized everything grows exponentially faster when I am doing better at being an artist. I’m actually excited to get back in the game. I haven’t inked the deal yet, but we both said yes after the meeting that I had over at Gersh. It looks like I’m going to be signing with Gersh. It was an amazing agency and I’m really excited about getting back in the game. I was with WME for a long time but I haven’t met with an agency in years. There are a lot of opportunities that come when you’re with an agency and you start putting the work ethic and you try to help make things happen. It’s nice to have a team of people that are all on the same page. I’ve been calling myself retired for the last several years and that’s not fun.
If you’re a creative person who can get into a flow state where they might work for seven hours and forget to eat, retiring from that makes your life worse off.
I have been struggling to get out this stale state that I’m in. I don’t feel I’m ever in moments of flow. I’m just getting by and I think a part of that is because of becoming more financially stable. There’s no incentive on that end. It’s purely based on goals that I must create for myself and it feels like I’m manufacturing some of these goals. The other thing too is I’m a big huge believer that the formula for success, at least I’d observed in my own life and others around me are consistency and efficiency. Being very good at doing the thing that you’re doing and continually doing it over and over again.
This is the writer’s practice. You get up every morning, you have a cup of coffee and you write for X amount of time. It doesn’t matter if the words are flowing out of you or you’re staring at a blank screen. Steve Pressfield has this book called The War of Art and his big thing is you don’t wait for the muse to inspire you to write. You start writing and then the muse visits you. It’s that idea of consistency.
Diane Warren writes a song a day.
There are these people who have ambitious goals. Seth Godin was writing a blog post a day. One of my favorite things is Dr. Dre. Talk about someone who doesn’t need any money. He still every day goes into the studio. That is the artist’s way.
That’s where I envy some of my friends that when I hear them speak of acting or when I hear them speak of music, it’s different. You can’t just obtain that passion. I feel like Rocky 3 who have lost the Eye of The Tiger.
Here comes Mr. T. He’s the young hungry guy.
He’s got the Eye of The Tiger.
It’s interesting that you’re bringing this up. I’m always on the lookout that I’m losing my edge for the reasons that you talk about. I’m about to get full professor, which is the highest distinction that you can get in terms of the normal tenure track. There are other things that you can do. It came up in a previous podcast where I asked one of my senior colleagues and he talked about changing up your career, becoming the chair of the department, becoming a dean, but in terms of a research scholar, you get to that point. Most people don’t ever think about it. The question is what now? The natural thing for me to do is what now? Because it’s not like it’s now an external thing that I’m chasing after. I’ve always had the internal and external. It’s interesting that you talk about this because I’ve thought a lot about this stuff, “What do I do differently?” Because you get to a milestone, whether it would be financial freedom or your gold medal or Broadway.
I sometimes wonder how much of the state that I’m in is also due to fear of not being able to reach the next level of things and if I don’t fight for it, then I can’t lose. If I don’t put myself out there, no one can judge me.
I hear people talk about that a lot.
I’m being honest with myself.
You don’t strike me as the type whose fear of failure is holding him back.
I like fighting from behind.
The underdog persona is useful.
It’s not as fun when everyone’s like, “You’re going to be fine and you’re going to do great.” You’re like, “Now, I don’t want to do it.” I need some people rooting against me. The one thing that inspires me every time I think about it is the man in the arena quote. That concept of sitting back and be an observer is not what matters. I think about that and I’m saying, “I need to get back out.”
I think of a lot of life like the sine wave. If you’re up you’re not going to stay up, you’re going to be down, and if you’re down, you’re not going to stay down, you’re going to come back up and I think that happens with things like motivation. It happens with things like your health. It happens with a lot of things. Being down, being slow, being confused and being foggy is important because the acceleration out of that is great.
I do feel that’s on the horizon in a weird way, which is the up.
You should think that.
[bctt tweet=”Part of the problem in the world is we speak definitively about things that are subjective.” via=”no”]
If you had evidence in your life to make you think otherwise.
No. When I slip into a state of the outside of work and passion, you get into a depressed state as somebody that’s older that’s gone through waves of you are not in a happy place. I learned some tools on how to get myself out of there. I tell myself, “I know you don’t want to go on a hike, but you’re going to go on a hike. Even if you don’t enjoy it as the first time, you’re going to keep going on hikes.” I’m going to behave like a healthy person. You know the rules. Going back to what you said, let the muse come to you. I’m working on something. I’ve created a character and I’m creating music as this character and I’m having a lot of fun doing it. There are no rules anymore. I’m not trying to be seen as an artsy guy. The music that I’m creating through the character is stupid but it makes me laugh. I’m writing this one song that’s about hands and my appreciation for having hands. Have you seen Get Him to the Greek?
Picture that character actually putting out an album. It’s something like that. I’ve decided something I’ve never done is I’ve never put out an actual album. I’ve always lived in the singles.
You’re talking about going old school. An album is an old school.
People still put out albums and I thought about that. I put out a single and maybe it does well, maybe it doesn’t. I feel like there’s a lot more power if you wait and you compile a bunch of your art together and then release it all at once. You could still put out the singles and create music videos and release those music videos at different times. In this way, if you do have a song that people do like, there’s a whole album there to support.
Jay-Z, I don’t know if he faked a retirement but he put all The Black Album and then retired. He did a show at Madison Square Garden and he created a documentary film around the experience of making the album. There’s a scene in that movie with a young Kanye West. This hip hop model of making music is interesting where you have multiple producers like Pharrell. He produces one of the songs and the song that Kanye produces, Lucifer, is in there. The way Kanye talks about The Black Album is that The Black Album is not an album, it’s like a movie where each song is a scene in the movie that creates an arc. That’s my connection to this idea of creating a string of songs that people can then lose themselves in. Some are better than others and some get released and some get videos.
There’s something to having a single go out and someone liking that single and looking for more stuff from you because they are starting to feel they like your brand of whatever it is that you’re creating. “I want more from this type of thing.” If you do a single, it’s gone and they don’t know when the next single comes out.
You’re saying the album feels more art than commerce.
It’s nice having this library of stuff. That way, every one of the songs within the album as a calling card to the rest of the album.
I want to go back to this character and the hand song, etc. This is reminiscent of something that’s come up on the podcast that I’m interested in. I’ve been talking to a lot of people, especially artists about this notion of an audience of one. You’re going to make something for yourself without concern for an audience. You’re going to make something that brings you joy that you want to make. What I think is interesting about that is it’s a high risk, high reward endeavor.
The risk is you truly achieve your goal and you make something that only one person in the world likes. That’s a pretty low downside because the process of making the thing for you brings you joy, is engaging, and is interesting. The upside is you make something that brings you joy and because you made something that’s unique, no one else in the world could have made it. It’s not like you were shooting for the middle. It’s why all these pop songs, everybody gets sued for stealing the song. They’re not stealing the song. They’re making something that lots of people like and that just happens to sound like other stuff that people like. What I’m saying is this character or this album or whatever, you might land on something that no one has ever heard of before and it resonates with them. Now, you’ve created something that is truly special.
What’s fascinating to me is that my experience is whenever you try and write something for one specific person or for yourself or whatever it is, those are the ones that end up more people relate to it because it’s more specific. Every time I’ve tried to write a love song, that Nashville writing style, go into the realm and do the 9 to 5 and we pump up a song and we’re trying to achieve what’s hot right now. When I am trying to impress a specific human being and I’m thinking about her and I’m writing the song, it’s directed just to her. That’s when I actually tap into lyrics and melodies that actually resonate with more people.
It’s such a fascinating idea. What I like about it is it’s the exception to the typical rule about marketing, which is finding the target audience. Find out what they need and give it to them better that the competition and success ensues. This statistic view, which is to ignore the broad audience. I was making the argument you do it for yourself, although your arguments a good one, you do it for that one other person, yet you might then create something that no one else has made. You’ve escaped the competition.
Do you do know Ben Folds?
Some of the songs like Sara is very specific. These songs are not generalized in a more esoteric and more specific way. It’s stuff that you’re only going to get from Ben Folds.
How did this character come about? Why did you start working on it?
I think that we’ve gotten so politically correct and we all know it. Everyone talks about it, but everyone’s so sensitive. Those that are sensitive are the loudest ones. Outrage culture is in full effect. It’s real and they win a lot of times. You will be silenced. Despite my intentions are not to offend, if that how offends work, so I have to listen. I have to be careful. If I’m being told by enough people I’m being offensive, I have to acknowledge that. You have to. What I’ve realized is this character, Sir Stir Lionel III. He is a Ron Burgundy type of character. This level of being removed from my opinions is going to give you a lot more liberty. There’s a lot of songs I wanted to write and create as me, as Chester, but then I held back. I said, “They’re not going to get the joke.”
Trey and Matt Stone can see a lot of things.
You can establish with certain characters, “This is not a good person.” That’s why he’s saying that. In its Always Sunny in Philadelphia, no one is upset at Mac or Charlie. If they were in an interview and they’re speaking from their own perspective on things and they say the same things as those characters are saying, now we have a problem.
Even Steven Colbert in his first show.
Giving myself that little bit of a cushion between my actual opinions and jokes that I would like to make, I think is going to be nice. I have felt very silenced, especially somebody that lives in LA and I don’t affiliate myself with either of the parties. I’m not Republican. I’m not a Democrat. I call myself an agnosticrat. I don’t know and I’m okay with not knowing on most issues, but that will get you in trouble in this town.
You have to pick people or you have to pick a side?
I don’t know if I can do a proper cost-benefit analysis on that policy prescription, which is totally an honest and intelligent perspective sometimes to say, “This is more complicated than you’re getting credit.” You’ll get yelled at for not having to pick the side.
One of my colleagues, Phil Fernbach, has a book called The Knowledge Illusion. What he shows is that people have very strong opinions about how things should work, how they do work. What his work and other people’s work shows is that as soon as you start to scratch the surface, you realize that people don’t know a thing. Especially when it comes to anything that’s like policy. The policy is incredibly complicated.
You know how quickly you get to someone’s level of ignorance when you poke their understanding of our healthcare system, immigration or the tax form.
He has an example of how a toilet works. If you ask people, “Do you know how a toilet works?” they’re like, “Yes.” They have lots of experience with it and then you’re like, “Explain how a toilet works.” The funny thing is when you get down to it, their understanding of a toilet is you press this lever and water it goes down.
I always say that people specifically when it comes to politically-charged topics because those are the ones that are politically-charged for a reason because they are complex, so both sides get to manipulate it and turn it into little political narratives that don’t mean anything. They’re not getting to the issue. People aren’t arguing about something they know. They’re arguing about the validity of the people that told them it is so. I’ve faith and you wouldn’t lie to me versus something else. Maybe a better example would be someone on the political side. Elizabeth Warren has told me her perspective on taxes.
Someone gets to engage in our conversation about taxes and they’re not actually talking about taxes. They’re talking about whether or not Elizabeth Warren or Ted Cruz is a better mouthpiece, has a better grasp of the topic and they accepted it that these people know what they’re talking about. The funny thing is neither of those people is the experts. We live in an era where we have politicians pretending to be experts in a lot of these topics. One of my favorite things is those old Milton Friedman videos where he did free to choose. They actually had experts in their fields talking about economics, but they knew what they were talking about and it was a civil conversation. He had all these great Marxist and socialist on the show and those were real conversations. We have people like Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz doing a town hall or a debate on a topic that’s not even their expertise.
[bctt tweet=”Reading books is like nutrition, and working out is like writing.” via=”no”]
Having been in academia for twenty years, even the so-called experts don’t know as much as we give them credit for knowing.
I believe that and I think part of the problem is we speak definitively about things that are subjective.
It was often where knowledge is evolving. I liked this belief that we’re almost certainly wrong about whatever it is we’re saying because we believe something different. Remember margarine used to be better than butter and cigarettes were good for you. We’re always wrong in the sense that we get closer and closer to generally progress and truth. What that means is at the moment we’re as right as we can be, but we shouldn’t act as if we’re right.
I get so frustrated with not being understood. I think one of the biggest problems that we have is we have this feeling as if our language that we’re speaking is actually doing the job we think it’s doing. One of the biggest problems that we deal in our societies is that we had this tendency to believe that our language is actually conveying our thoughts correctly. One of the most fascinating things I came across was Sam Harris and Noam Chomsky. Their email exchange with each other where if as an outsider reading their email exchange, they were not connecting. It’s like Noam Chomsky says this one thing and then it’s interpreted one way and then it goes back and forth. We’re talking about black belt intellects. Noam Chomsky’s literally like the father of modern-day linguistics and Sam Harris is an extremely intelligent human being. The fact that these guys are constantly not being able to understand each other when they were going back and forth using our language to the best of its ability, I think that says it all.
It’s interesting to think about how that’s a limiting factor. It’s why people like mathematics so much.
For instance, the thing about what you said like margarine used to be better than butter. First, we have to clarify a few things. What does it mean to be better and then we got to figure out where the subjectivity and where is objectivity? I’ve been doing this more and more and I’ve been annoying people. I’ve been trying to dissect some of the conversations I get into and remove all the subjectivity and go, “Where are we only speaking in objective truths?” When you do that, you can actually dissolve almost any argument. I think 90% but most of the arguments that I get into are a matter of not being honest about the precision of our language.
For instance, I heard someone go, “Make America great again,” and someone goes, “America was never great in the first place.” That’s such a nothing conversation. We have to clarify so much on both ends and the person that responded have to already assign certain meaning and intention behind that first phrase and has responded, but we we’re all off track. I don’t even know what anyone is even saying at this point. These are no nothing statements. I think that’s where we live. It’s a lot of nothing statements.
There’s been some fascinating research. What you’re talking about is this difference between winning and finding the truth. There’s a notion in psychology called motivated reasoning. The ancient philosophers were very reason-based. The idea is that you develop reasons and arguments and then you come to some truth, but motivated reasoning starts with what you want the outcome to be and you call the reasons to make it. You downplay and counter argue this stuff that doesn’t make it. What’s fascinating is the smartest people are the best at doing this because they have the mental horsepower to argue well. What you would hope is that the smartest people are best at seeking the truth, unfortunately, it’s not. They are best at seeking evidence for what they believe to be true a priori. It helps polarization. It sounds to me like you’re saying that you needed to find an outlet to be able to create a message and this audience of one project is your attempt to do this at least partially.
I also think that writing comedy songs is fun as well. It’s a nice way to spend your time.
Doing research on comedy is a great way to spend your time doing science.
Because you’re laughing as you’re doing your research.
I’ve had more fun doing this research than I did studying mixed emotions or studying moral psychology or whatever it is and I want to enjoy my life so it’s nice.
I was in the studio and I was writing a song. It’s called Sex All Night. One of the lyrics is he asks for consent. She says yes in the song and he goes, “Because you might die tonight.” It’s so extreme. When we sang that lyric because it’s all done seriously, it is sung normally. It was cracking us up and that’s a great time. There’s a sliver area that I am trying to hit and I think it’s a special little area where it’s a comedy song but sonically, you wouldn’t know.
If I didn’t understand English and I listen to your song, I would be like, “That is a love song.”
There are not a lot of people that do this. They’ll put it on the comedy vocal, but I think part of the comedy is to play it straight. It’s not Lonely Island because Lonely Island will play into the comedy. Instead, play it as if you don’t realize that it’s a joke. The character is putting out what he believes to be good music.
It’s more like Stephen Colbert. They are playing it so straight. He doesn’t even know he’s being funny.
There’s Tim Minchin and he is fantastic. One of the things that he does is he always plays on a grand piano. Part of the reason he does that is because by having the grand piano there, he creates the ambiance of a real rock concert and he starts to sing about toilets. That’s part of the joke.
I want to get back to your well project. You want to build 100 wells and how are you doing this?
I’ve been struggling with this, but I think I had to pull the trigger and say, “This is how it’s working.” I have a Patreon that I had set up and 100% of the money goes toward the funding of these wells. I say I’ve been struggling with this because I’ve been trying to convince Patreon to not take a cut because that doesn’t rub me the right way. Also, I was trying to figure out a way to not pay taxes on it, which I don’t think I can get out of.
Normally a Patreon on the account is a form of income. I like your music. I give you $2 a month because I like you and that gets registered as income and they take a big percentage.
The way I look at it is I don’t mind paying the taxes on it considering what it is going for. There’s also a website that I’ve created that is on the Thirst Project website. If you end up donating there, 100% straight through. It doesn’t even go to me. What’s nice about the Patreon is I have the rewards set up and there’s the monthly auto pay. I still want to build that community out where I’m doing these music videos where they get their names in the credits.
I give money and then you do a shout out.
I’m getting it back on track, but once a month I’ll put out some music video. If you donated $25, you get your name on the rolling credits at the end. It’s like you’re an associate producer of the music video.
That is incredibly well-intentioned. At least from the outside it appears. You’re in this unstable place. You’ve checked a lot of boxes in life and it sounds like you have these two new exciting projects, the well project and this comedy project.
They go together.
From a PERMA Model, all this makes sense. It’s not the case that the path to a good life walking the same path your whole life is the right thing for you. This regularly changes. For example, you might have someone who’s on a very achievement track, gets an MBA, gets a JD, starts working for Disney and then decides they’re going to have a family. Maybe gives up the job totally to become a stay-at-home parent or downshifts and takes a job that doesn’t pay as quite as well but gives you time and flexibility. Now, you went from an achievement focus to a meaning focus. The kids go out of the house and you’re an empty nester. You go and do a pleasure relationship focus with your mate and you had this work independently of each other for a long time and you’re back bonded again. Just because something was the right path in the past doesn’t mean it’s the right path in the future.
One of the books that I read every once in a while is Who Moved My Cheese? Have you read that one?
Yes, a long time ago. That’s a classic business book. It’s a career book.
Just the principle and it’s a quick tiny little read. The main idea being that because you get used to cheese being supplied to you in one specific area, it doesn’t mean that it’s going to be supplied to you forever. Sometimes you have to make the decision that it’s time to move on to something else.
I’m going to suggest that you read the Steve Pressfield book, The War of Art. This is perfect for you to read it. I also highly recommend it to any readers who do creative work. This is a perfect segue though into what my final question, which is what are you reading, watching or listening to that’s not just good but great?
The last book that I read was your book of recommendation, Sapiens. I read it a little too fast.
It’s easy to binge that book.
You wouldn’t think so. It’s a good 400 or 500-page book.
I read that book in six days.
I think that he has a writing style that is very digestible.
I was reading that book and I would underline the sentences. In the margin, I would write, “How can I write a sentence like that?”
That’s my book of recommendation to people. I read Homo Deus and I’m on 21 lessons.
Sapiens is by far the best. It’s not even close.
Yes, that felt like the publisher was like, “You’ve got to write another.”
The issue is this is a classic thing. He’s a historian. Sapiens is a historical account. Homo Deus is a futurist account, so it’s harder to get your head around because you’re like, “This guy’s making a prediction.”
It’s a brilliant mind but you’re right, it’s not the same. What am I watching or listening to? Game of Thrones.
You and everyone else in this town.
I wrote a song that was from one of the character’s perspective. I do listen to Ben Shapiro. The reason I listen to Ben Shapiro, despite him being controversial is that I get inundated with the left opinion. It’s not hard to find a left opinion living in LA. I enjoy the late-night shows, so I watch Seth Meyers and I watch Stephen Colbert and I enjoy all that. Trevor Noah is all great. I think it’s important to go out and understand both sides of what’s going on in this political atmosphere that’s happening. That is a conservative Republican that believes what he’s saying, whether you like it or not. He is a very intelligent guy. You don’t have to agree with anything he says, but that is a great place to get a perspective. I think that Fox News has a little harder to weave through the propaganda to be honest. Not that other news outlet doesn’t have their own.
It’s hard to listen to smart people who you disagree with.
I was going to say he is not seeking the truth.
He’s a highly motivated reasoner that’s why he’s among the best in the world like that.
He lives for the debate. He’ll tell you that he enjoys doing that and he loves giving it to the lefties. If you’re somebody that leans left, it’s a good place to understand where the mind of the writer is coming from.
The solutions that work are going to be the ones that ended up being a little more down the middle than we tend to do it. One last thing, I think I alluded to two things and I only talked about one. One, I talked about the sine wave. When you’re down, you’re going to be up and when you’re up, you’re going to be down in. When you’re young, you don’t realize that, but as you get older, you’ve had more experienced and you start to go, “This is not going to last forever.” At least generally, some people are always down and almost no one is always up. The other one is I do ask a consumption question last, but I’ve rejiggered my creation to consumption ratio.
I think that the average person consumes too much and creates too little. If you are a creator and you need to consume some because you want inspiration and you learn. Consuming is easy, creating is hard. In the long run, it’s the creation that’s rewarding, that’s meaningful or engaging that makes your life better. That’s one of the things I’m working on. I had a computer attached to my TV and it broke and I let it stay broken. I basically worked up a whole another book idea in the evenings that I don’t think I ever would have done if the computer had continued to work. Because it’s so easy to consume, at the end of the day you’re tired. I didn’t have anything to consume but an old stack of DVDs that I didn’t want to watch because they’re an old stack of DVDs.
I’m re-watching Breaking Bad to which it’s a waste of life. Why would you rewatch a show you’ve already seen?
The only good reason to re-watch Breaking Bad is if you were looking for inspiration about a show, about an idea or a story to learn how to make a breaking bad.
Maybe that was not the greatest example because that show is actually so good that I am watching it and being inspired
Are you learning from it?
There have been moments where I’m like, “The next time I shoot a video, I want that. I’m going to play with those angles and play with that idea.”
My favorite example of this is Steven Soderbergh. You can go onto his website and find this. He took Raiders of the Lost Ark. Evidently, Steven Spielberg is a master of blocking a scene. I don’t think if you’re an average person, you never noticed. You’re moved by it, but you don’t know what’s happening. Soderbergh wanted to learn so he was re-watching Raiders of the Lost Ark over and over again, but what he realized was everything else was getting in the way. He stripped the color from it. He turned into a black and white and then he stripped the sound and he put a song. There’s a non-vocal music. You’d go onto Soderbergh’s website, you can find Raiders of the Lost Ark with no dialogue and no color, so he could watch and learn the blocking. That’s someone who’s consuming but clearly consuming, not for entertainment value but to learn.
I think there’s a huge difference and that’s something to rejig is consuming with purpose versus consuming for purely to checkout. When I go on Instagram, you go to the explore page and I’m just looking at girls or people working out or aesthetically pleasing pictures or Michael Jordan doing a dunk for the fourth time that I’ve seen. That is purely a waste of time. That is just checking out. That I need to work on.
We do need to relax. To me, it’s about a ratio. It’s not about you take it to zero. I think it’s a sad world if the world’s great creators, people like you watch too much Game of Thrones. I think the world’s worse off when the people who should be making TV shows are watching too much TV. The way I thought about it was like reading books is like nutrition and working out is like writing. You need both, but the important thing if you want to get in shape is to workout hard. Chester, thank you for being early. I do wish you luck and I look forward to hearing this comedy album.
Thanks for having me.
I appreciate the time.
- Chester See
- YOMYOMF Network
- Thirst Project
- The War of Art
- The Knowledge Illusion
- Who Moved My Cheese?
- Homo Deus
About Chester See
Chester See has been nominated for 6 Streamy Awards with one win for Best Original Song. He has starred on Broadway as Rock Star Stacee Jaxx in Rock of Ages. He has sold over 2 million downloads of original music without the help of a label, and was one of the first 100 people to garner over a million subscribers on YouTube.