89: Cal Fussman – The Art of Interviewing Part 1

Creativity, Non-Traditional Creative, Personal Growth, Podcast, Relationships

“You can palm the basketball, that doesn’t mean you’re going to be a great basketball player – you’re gonna have to work at it.”
– Cal Fussman

Hey everybody, welcome back to ONKEN RADIO (Formerly NIONradio), the podcast where we explore the body, mind, and soul of the creative entrepreneur. It’s my goal to help you take your creativity, business, and life to the next level. I’m so glad you’re joining me on this journey!

Before I introduce my guest, I want you to ask yourself a question: Are you a watcher, or are you a doer? Do you work hard and put in long hours to shape your Creative Alchemy, or do you use your time to consume others’ creative work? 

Now is an incredibly exciting and challenging time to be a creative alchemist. The internet and the digital age brought both setbacks and opportunities for creative individuals. Certain fields such as writing and journalism have become far less profitable, but individuals now have the opportunity to get their Creative Alchemy out to the public instantaneously at any time.

Today, I have an exceptional guest who has some great advice for pursuing your passion and getting your art out to the world. He’s a master Creative Alchemist in writing and journalism, and he’s known for groundbreaking interviews with immensely impactful people from Ted Kennedy to Jeff Bezos. My guest is Cal Fussman. 

I had the pleasure of seeing Cal speak at the Summit at Sea 2016 on the art of the interview, so I was very excited to have him on the show. 

My conversation with Cal was so great that we actually had to split it up into two parts because of its length, so after you’ve finished reading this post, make sure to check our continued conversation here

Cal and I dove deep into discussing his lengthy journalism career and discussing the changing nature of journalism, writing, and pursuing what you’re passionate about in the digital age. Cal’s excitement for pursuing new avenues of Creative Alchemy was inspiring, and I hope that he encourages you to create some awesome content. 

Who Is Cal Fussman?

Cal Fussman is an immensely successful writer and interviewer. He’s the lead interview writer for Esquire‘s column “What I’ve Learned.” He’s interviewed several historic individuals, including Mikhail Gorbachev, Jimmy Carter, and Muhammid Ali, as well as iconic celebrities such as Bruce Springsteen, Quincy Jones, and Robert De Niro. 

Cal is also a New York Times bestselling author. He authored and co-authored several notable biographies, including After Jackie on Jakie Robinson, Hitmaker on Tommy Mottola, and My Remarkable Journey on Larry King. 

Although Cal is best known for his writing and interviews, he doesn’t strictly identify as a writer. Cal has experience in a variety of different fields and interests, including journalism, traveling, and he even worked as a medical technician. He recently started identifying as a speaker when he was at the Summit at Sea 2016. When he was asked what he does professionally, he was surprised by his own answer: 

“I don’t know what happened. But all of a sudden, out of my mouth came, ‘I’m a speaker.’ And she said, ‘Oh yeah, where do you speak?’ I’d never given a speech before, but in that moment when she started to ask me these questions, I was a speaker. And ever since then, I’ve been speaking. … For me, to speak is a very new thing. That’s what I’m going to start to do now.”
– Cal Fussman

Cal’s excited to see where his newfound speaking interests take him. He recognizes that despite his age, he can still accomplish much more and develop new skills. 

“It has given me a completely new life. You turn 50, and I think a lot of people think, ‘That’s it,’ and what you’ve done is about it. Well, I’m thinking like a 22-year-old now.”
– Cal Fussman

Cal has accomplished a great deal with his writing and journalism, but he continues developing his speaking career. After recording this interview, Cal started his own podcast titled Big Questions with Cal Fussman, where he interviews many exceptionally talented individuals, including Seth Godin, Diana Nyad, and Charles Shwab. Cal is also now a successful keynote speaker.  

Cal’s perspective on writing, shifting with the changing artistic landscape, and pursuing what you’re passionate about is fascinating, so let’s get started. 

Cal Fussman’s Passion for Writing

Cal’s interest in writing and journalism came at a young age. When he was in second grade, John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and Cal was interested in knowing how Lyndon B. Johnson felt when he became president. He wondered if Johnson was happy to become president or felt concerned that someone would attempt to end his life. 

“I pull out a paper [and] pencil, and [I write,] ‘Dear President Johnson … what does it feel like [to be president?]’ Six months later, I got a letter back, and it was written not personally by the president but by his personal secretary. … So in that moment, I knew I was taken seriously as an interviewer. And from that moment on, I knew, ‘Yeah, I can ask questions. The president, he responds.’ And so it’s pretty well worked that way through my whole life. And it kind of taught me looking back that, ‘Yeah, I had a proclivity for this.'”
– Cal Fussman

Cal knew that he had the potential to become a great interviewer if he worked hard to develop his interviewing skills. He eventually studied journalism at the University of Missouri. While studying, he affirmed his passion and skill for journalism through an interaction that he had with the University of Nebraska’s football coach Tom Osborne:

“I remembered going into the locker room, and here is a guy named Tom Osborne … and this guy won national championships. And I remember standing there with all the other reporters [and] everybody’s asking questions. And then, all of a sudden, I asked a question. He looked at me, and he answered it very thoughtfully, and I saw everybody scribbling down the answer. And so it was another case of, ‘Yeah, you’re just like everybody else in here.'”
– Cal Fussman

Cal eventually became a sportswriter and wrote for The Cincinnati Enquirer, The Miami Herald, and the St. Louis Post Dispatch. After his success in newspapers, he moved to New York City and began writing for the magazine Inside Sports. The magazine eventually shut down, leaving Cal confused about what he should do next: 

“I basically accomplished everything I set out to do when I was 23. And so I’m looking around thinking, ‘Oh man, what am I going to do now?’ It was sorta like a life crisis.”
– Cal Fussman

In his time of confusion, Cal decided to travel the world with very few resources. In order to find a place to stay while he was traveling, he would buy a train ticket, sit next to a person that seemed trustworthy, and then he would be friendly enough for that person to invite him back to their house. 

“And that’s pretty much how I got around the world because people that I met would take me in, and then a party would start. And once the party would start, all the new people I met at the party would want the party to continue at their house, so they’d invite me to come with them.”
– Cal Fussman

Cal used the people skills he acquired in his travels to become a successful interview journalist. 

Have you ever found yourself in a moment of confusion with your creative career? Traveling could expand your perspective so that you can make breakthroughs in your art and become an even better Creative Alchemist in the process. 

How the Internet Changed Journalism

In our interview, Cal and I also discussed the financial side of writing and how compensation has dramatically changed over the years. Back when he first started, Cal was compensated far more than today’s average writer: 

“Back then, it was much easier to make a living as a freelance writer for magazines than it is now. I can remember starting out in magazines in 1980, you got like two dollars a word. Now on the internet, I hear people are getting like ten cents a word.”
– Cal Fussman

Cal observed that the demand for writers has decreased because people are more interested in videos: 

“It feels like everything is moving to the internet, and not only to the internet but to the internet with video. And so when I go on the ESPN website, about six years ago, it was mostly pictures with stories next to it. And they had to have writers write those stories. Now when I go, it’s generally a series of videos. So even on the internet where you think, ‘Wow, there’s this unlimited space to put words,’ you’re not making that much money to put those words on the internet, and it seems more and more as being supplanted by the videos.”
– Cal Fussman

Even book writers are being paid significantly less than they used to largely due to the internet. Since most people buy books online for a significantly lower price than bookstores, authors receive less money for their work. 

“It’s hard as a writer. … If you’re doing it on a really high level, you’re going to be well compensated no matter where you are in any of those industries. But if you’re just starting out, I think it’s much tougher now than it was certainly when I started.”
– Cal Fussman

Since the rapid financial decline of written journalism, Cal has focused more on video interviews. Cal had a great deal of writing experience, but he recognized that he needed to shift with the changing times, and you may need to shift as well. Is your creative medium changing? The creative landscape shifts with advances in technology, so you may need to adapt your medium to be commercially viable. 

Pursuing Your Passion in the Digital Age

Although the internet has made it more difficult to profit from writing, it’s also made it easier for Creative Alchemists to share their work! Cal described the journey of a young adult who contacted him in the hopes that he could connect her to the comedian Chelsea Handler. Cal suggested that she start making comedy on YouTube and build a comedy career from it. The woman did just that — she started a YouTube channel and eventually acquired viral success. The internet has made getting creative content out to the public much easier, so now is an incredibly exciting time for sharing your Creative Alchemy.

Not sure what medium you should pursue? Cal advised that people pursue what they’re passionate about: 

“What I would say to somebody who’s just starting out is find your niche, find what you’re really passionate about. You love to surf. There’s more than one surfing magazine out there.”
– Cal Fussman

When you pursue what you’re passionate about, you will be able to work better and feel more satisfied about your work! You’ll be motivated to share your art with others, and you can potentially achieve success through the internet:

“If you’re that passionate, you will break-in, and then once you break in, people will see you. But the crazy thing about it is [that] it’s so much easier to just start a YouTube channel, go down by the beach and start telling surfing stories. You’ll probably get thousands of followers. So climbing the old mountain may not be the best thing to do. It may be trying to just go out and surf this new ocean.”
– Cal Fussman

Cal raises an interesting point. If we’re interested in a particular topic or medium, going by traditional means of obtaining success — like writing for a magazine or taking photographs for a company — may not be the best way in the digital age. 

“If I was young, I don’t know that I would be looking backward to climb yesterday’s mountain. I would be going full speed ahead. … [Our accessibility to the internet is] a beautiful thing. … Because in the old days, you basically had to go work at a newspaper, and you didn’t get the [good] beat when you started. … Now, you can figure out ways to be on the radar and everybody’s radar immediately. If you’re sharp, just do it.”
– Cal Fussman

If you’re passionate about journalism, don’t wait — get out there and cover some stories. You can make incredible art and build a following all on your own if you’re willing to work for it. Are you willing to put in the hours? 

Cal and I discussed how even though people have the means of creating, they’re too busy consuming to create — consuming social media, Netflix, YouTube and countless other sources of entertainment. We have so many options for instant entertainment that it can be challenging to focus on our craft. You need to get out there and do what you’re passionate about: 

“Nobody’s going to get to the top of a mountain sitting on a couch. … There’s gotta be a point where you say to yourself, ‘Am I going to be a watcher or am I going to be a doer?'”
– Cal Fussman

Cal’s right. You’re not going to break into your creative field if you’re unwilling to be a doer. Don’t just consume — create. 

Be a Creative Alchemist with Cal Fussman

Alchemy is defined as the process of taking something ordinary and turning it into something extraordinary, sometimes in a way that cannot be explained.

With that being said, I define Creative Alchemy as using the process of creativity to create a lens of which to perform alchemy. These principles not only apply to artists and creatives in their own creative processes but to anyone who wants to create an extraordinary life in color for themselves — Cal Fussman is one of these Creative Alchemists. I’ve found that 80% of creating is alchemizing the thoughts, emotions, and other inner blocks that keep you from putting the pen to the paper. Navigating to the act of creation takes alchemical processes.

This first part of my interview with Cal Fussman was incredibly inspiring. Be sure to check out Part 2 of our interview, where Cal details his interview with Muhammad Ali, and he even turns the microphone around to interview me!

Also, make sure to keep up with Cal on his podcast Big Questions with Cal Fussman and his Twitter @calfussman

If this podcast inspired you to create, tag me, @nickonken, and Cal, @calfussman, and share with us your favorite parts of the episode! Also, if this podcast helps your inner creative alchemist, be sure to leave a good review on Apple Podcasts. That way, we can share the content with even more listeners! 

Remember, you are capable of getting your Creative Alchemy out to the world. Don’t be a watcher — be a doer. 

Until next time —

Nick Onken

“Nobody’s going to get to the top of the mountain by sitting on the couch.”
– Cal Fussman

Some things we learn in this podcast:

  • Why he used to identify himself as a writer [4:30]
  • How speaking has given him a new life [9:50]
  • Where his passion for interviewing and journalism came from [18:20]
  • His experience writing for the school newspaper [22:50]
  • Why he decided to travel [27:00]
  • How fame is different now than it used to be [33:30]
  • When he started making money with journalism [36:25]
  • Why he’s shifting towards video [38:15]
  • How to pursue your passion [40:50]
  • Why you have to look forward instead of backward [44:50]
  • How you can create success by doing [46:10]

Links mentioned:

Connect with Cal Fussman Instagram | Twitter | Website

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