Safi Bahcall — On Thinking Big, Curing Cancer, and Transforming Industries (#364)

“All these things you’re sure are true — what if they weren’t?”
— Safi Bahcall

Safi Bahcall (@SafiBahcall) is the author of Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas that Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries. Loonshots describes what an idea from physics tells us about the behavior of groups and how teams, companies, and nations can use that to innovate faster and better. It has been selected for The Washington Post‘s 10 Leadership Books to Watch for in 2019, Inc.‘s 10 Business Books You Need to Read in 2019, and Business Insider‘s 14 Books Everyone Will Be Reading in 2019.

Safi received his PhD in physics from Stanford and his undergrad degree from Harvard. After working as a consultant for McKinsey, Safi co-founded a biotechnology company specializing in developing new drugs for cancer. He led its IPO and served as its CEO for 13 years. In 2008, Safi was named Ernst and Young’s New England Biotechnology Entrepreneur of the Year. In 2011, he worked with President Obama’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology on the future of national research.

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#364: Safi Bahcall — On Thinking Big, Curing Cancer, and Transforming Industries


Want to hear an episode with someone else who likes to ask big questions? — Listen to my conversation with Nick Kokonas, subversive entrepreneur, angel investor, and restaurateur extraordinaire (stream below or right-click here to download):

#341: Nick Kokonas — How to Apply World-Class Creativity to Business, Art, and Life


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QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.

Scroll below for links and show notes…


  • Connect with Safi Bahcall:

Website | Twitter


  • How Safi and I first met. [07:17]
  • How the atypical lessons we learned in our respective Total Immersion Swimming experiences can be applied to other aspects of life. [09:36]
  • How psychologist Daniel Kahneman changed economics by approaching it from a human perspective. [13:15]
  • My own experience as a lab rat for Kahneman at Princeton. [15:12]
  • What circuitous path led Safi from particle physics toward his work with cancer? [16:04]
  • A digression: Safi’s Men’s Wearhouse story. [19:30]
  • Back on track to cancer. [22:22]
  • Some of the why: Nobody writes 15,000 page essays (except for Safi). [26:15]
  • A lesson in the difference between active and passive voice — and why a Pulitzer winner’s advice regarding their use might differ from a schoolmarm’s. [29:32]
  • How Safi began training himself to become a better writer by slowly dissecting paragraphs instead of succumbing to the more popular inclination of speed reading. [30:52]
  • Two books that resonated for Safi during this period. [33:28]
  • Have you heard the music of Nabokov? Safi has. [36:34]
  • How did chess champion Garry Kasparov’s post-game analysis shift Safi’s mindset about the decision-making process? [37:51]
  • How Safi has implemented this system versus outcome mindset to other areas of his life. [43:14]
  • What other questions might someone ask in a business setting to decipher how they came to a certain decision — whether or not the outcome was ideal? [45:56]
  • How might this process be applied to decision-making in a personal setting? [49:20]
  • An aside about single life in Manhattan, SWAE and no BLC gatherings. [51:34]
  • How Safi fell into an unfulfilling junk dating pattern during this time. [54:34]
  • Upon prompting, Safi shares a little more personal detail about this pattern. [57:08]
  • Two criteria for finding the right life partner from one of Safi’s well-practiced friends, and the one that became his system versus outcome litmus test for breaking out of the junk dating funk. [59:50]
  • When he came to the decision to do so, how did Safi go about paring down his peer group? [1:01:47]
  • How Safi met his wife and gleefully exited the dating world entirely. [1:04:09]
  • Safi often uses acronyms as memory tools. So what does “Write FBR” stand for, and how might it help liberate you if you’re a writer with perfectionistic tendencies? [1:10:26]
  • With creativity as with riding a bike, task switching is really expensive — from the perspective of effort as well as physics. [1:15:21]
  • The two hats Safi wears for reading: RICLS and REAS. [1:11:22]
  • Why a physicist biotech entrepreneur and I are having a conversation about writing, and what Safi has tried to convey with his first book. [1:21:14]
  • The three hats Safi wears for writing: hunting, drafting, and editing, and how it’s a bit like the way director Robert Rodriguez makes a movie. [1:24:30]
  • Possibly the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to Safi about his book. [1:27:50]
  • How did Safi come up with the wacky stories that wound up in Loonshots? [1:28:42]
  • Safi’s three rules of creativity: speed, attention, and courage. [1:29:46]
  • Why the sequence of these hats and heuristics matter for giving purpose clarity, with a Tony Robbins exercise for the sake of illustration. [1:34:12]
  • False failure and the difference between a loonshot and a moonshot with a case study of Friendster vs. MySpace vs. Facebook. [1:35:36]
  • Who was Sir James Black, and how does his story connect with Safi’s? [1:41:34]
  • The three deaths of the loonshot: how great ideas get killed easily and often — in spite of what revisionist historians will tell you decades after the fact. [1:44:45]
  • The problem with Silicon Valley’s “Fail fast and pivot!” slogan. [1:46:19]
  • The two types of loonshots: P (product) and S (strategy). [1:47:22]
  • Robert Goddard’s universally ridiculed notion that a rocket could make it to the moon in 1920, and the Eiffel Tower’s initial opposition. [1:51:08]
  • Mental reminders for ushering an aspiring loonshooter through the three deaths and the so many nevers. [1:55:29]
  • Why does Safi have a Post-it note on his wall that says “The Adventures of Luke Starkiller,” and how does it tie in with a spy-fighting limey truck driver? [1:58:59]
  • Why entrepreneurs and small teams should nurture loonshots and eschew the idea of “disruptive” innovation. [2:05:00]
  • The differences in nurturing loonshots between larger and smaller teams. [2:08:19]
  • A summary and parting thoughts. [2:14:00]