Vena Nation Week: In Conversation with Alex Banayan
May 6, 2020
Alex Banayan is the youngest bestselling business author in American history. When he was just 18 years old, Alex ventured out of his college dorm room and embarked on a seven-year mission with one goal in mind: uncovering the success stories behind some of the world’s most influential people. He published his findings in his book,The Third Door,which was released in 2018 to international acclaim.
What motivated you to leave college behind, interview the world’s most successful people and ultimately writeThe Third Door?
It was never part of the plan. I was a freshman in college spending every day in bed in my dorm room, just staring up at the ceiling. I don’t know if you’ve ever gone through the whole, “What do I want to do with my life?” crisis, but I was experiencing that and it was hitting me pretty hard.
To understand why, you have to know that I’m the son of Persian-Jewish immigrants. I pretty much came out of the womb with “MD” stamped on my back. By the time I got to college, I was the pre-med of pre-meds. It wasn’t long before I found myself hitting snooze four or five times each morning—not because I was tired, but because I was bored.
The question of what I wanted to do with my life eventually turned into, “How did the people who did know what they wanted to do break through? How did Bill Gates sell his first piece of software when nobody knew his name? How did Steven Spielberg, who’d been rejected from film school, become the youngest major studio director in Hollywood history?”
I went to the library and ripped through business books and biographies, searching for answers. But eventually I left empty-handed.
That’s when my naive eighteen-year-old brain kicked in and I thought, “Well, if no one has written the book I’m dreaming of reading, why not just write it myself?”
What is “the third door” and how has that philosophy influenced your outlook on life?
My goal was never to find the “one key to success.” We’ve all seen those business books and TED Talks. I usually just roll my eyes. What I did discover, though, was that while every person I interviewed was completely different on the outside, they all approached life with the exact same mindset.
Every single one of these entrepreneurs treats life, business and success . . . like a nightclub. There are always three ways in.
There’s the First Door: the main entrance, where the line curves around the block. That’s where 99% of people wait around, hoping to get in. There’s the Second Door: the VIP entrance, where the billionaires and celebrities slip through. But what no one tells you is that there is always, always . . . the Third Door. It’s the entrance where you jump out of line, run down the alley, bang on the door a hundred times, crack open the window, sneak through the kitchen—there’s always a way.
Whether it’s how Bill Gates sold his first piece of software or how Steven Spielberg became the youngest studio director in Hollywood history, the world’s most successful people all have one thing in common—they all took the Third Door.
Of all the inspiring stories you heard on your journey, were there any in particular that stood out for you the most? If so, why?
It took two years, but eventually I got to Bill Gates. It took three years for me to get to Lady Gaga. I chased Larry King through a grocery store, hacked Warren Buffett’s shareholder meeting, crouched in a bathroom to get to Tim Ferriss—getting each interview was an equally wild adventure. And they were all packed with surprising lessons.
Bill Gates taught me his keys to negotiating. Steve Wozniak showed me how to engineer sustainable happiness. Jessica Alba explained how to use your biggest fears to launch a billion-dollar business. Even Pitbull taught me unbelievable lessons about achieving and maintaining success—and how he learned those lessons while dealing drugs on the streets.
My favorite story comes from Quincy Jones though. I’m excited to share that story with you, along with many others, during my Vena Nation week keynote.
What were the common themes or lessons in the success stories?
In the big picture, it’s definitely the Third Door framework. If you drill down further, you’ll see a tremendous amount of focus, perseverance, and a mindset of possibility.
In your opinion, what is the number one thing that prevents people from achieving their professional goals? How can they overcome it?
It’s fear. Fear of uncertainty, fear of the unknown, fear of failure, fear of rejection, fear of suffering, the list goes on.
Success is only clear in hindsight. When you’re in the trenches building a company, success is never obvious. There’s this pervasive myth in Silicon Valley about the “superhuman entrepreneur.” Someone like Elon Musk, for example, who we assume must be fearless. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Every person I interviewed was actually tremendously scared. Fear is a natural part of entrepreneurship. Nobody I interviewed was fearless, but they all were courageous. There’s a critical difference between the two.
Fearlessness is jumping off a cliff without thinking. Courage, however, happens when you acknowledge your fear, analyze the consequences, and decide you’re still going to make that jump anyway.
What does it mean to have a growth mindset? What about in times like these?
In times like these, having a growth mindset is more important than ever. There are a lot of different definitions out there, but the way I see it is this: It’s a mindset of possibility, a frame of viewing yourself that says, “It won’t be easy, it won’t be quick, but if I keep at it, it’s possible. There’s always a way.”
For the business leaders and finance and operations professionals who plan for the future of their businesses, what advice would you give them as they look to navigate the road ahead?
Remember: No matter what obstacles are in front of you, at the end of the day, there’s always a way.
What qualities do you think all effective business leaders must possess—in times of expansion and particularly in times of contraction and uncertainty?
A tremendous amount of focus. Steve Jobs famously said, “People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully.”
How can business leaders get the most out of their teams, especially in times like these when folks are working under unusual circumstances?
Empower people to take chances. We are in a new world and a new world needs new ideas and new methods. Let people experiment. Trust them.
What do you think business leaders will learn from this period of uncertainty?
There’s a quote Maya Angelou shared with me when I asked her how she navigates difficult times. She told me, “Every storm runs out of rain.”
Is there anything you’d like to add?
I couldn’t be more excited to be joining all of you during Vena Nation week on May 14! Can’t wait to see you all then.