Safi Bahcall — On Hypnosis, Conquering Insomnia, Incentives, and More (#382)

Safi Bahcall (@SafiBahcall) is the author of Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas that Win Wars, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industrieswhich debuted #3 on Wall Street Journal’s bestseller list. 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.

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 E&Y New England Biotechnology Entrepreneur of the Year. In 2011, he worked with President Obama’s council of science advisors on the future of national research.

In this episode, we talk about many things we haven’t covered before, including hypnosis, conquering insomnia, thoughts on depression, optimizing incentives, and much more. You can also listen to my first interview with Safi at

Please enjoy!

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, StitcherCastbox, or on your favorite podcast platform.

#382: Safi Bahcall — On Hypnosis, Conquering Insomnia, Incentives, and More


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Want to hear my first episode with Safi? — Listen to our first conversation, in which we discuss Safi’s writing tips and techniques, creativity, systems thinking, and much more!

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


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



  • Connect with Safi Bahcall:

Website | Twitter | Instagram


  • Where, how, and why did Safi learn about hypnosis? [06:30]
  • How Safi has used self-hypnosis and trance induction to calm down and sleep when his racing brain has other ideas. [12:29]
  • A few common relaxation trance induction techniques. [18:08]
  • Some of the most effective applications of hypnosis, how it compares to meditation for self-control, and Safi’s chairman of the board routine to try when other tactics aren’t getting through. [21:01]
  • What does it say about the ego and the mind that splitting it up into these different characters has such tremendous power? Why is it so effective? [30:57]
  • Understanding anger as a gift and using it as fuel. [35:15]
  • How Safi makes sure he doesn’t overfill himself with this kind of fuel to the point where it burns him from the inside — thanks to a useful phrase from The Hot Zone author Richard Preston. [38:36]
  • What is Safi’s relationship with depression, and what does he see as effective and non-effective ways of helping someone cope with it? [43:18]
  • My own relationship with depression and what I’ve found useful for — and promising for the future of — its treatment. [51:39]
  • While I’ve suffered from severe depression my entire life, I’ve not had a major episode in the past five years or so. Why do I think this is? [1:00:08]
  • A mental trick Safi uses when he finds himself wallowing in “a deep brown stew” of thoughts, and a book that’s helped him befriend rather than fight with these thoughts to achieve inner peace. [1:06:55]
  • Books and tools I’ve found for helping me achieve my own inner peace. [1:14:50]
  • How my default calibration for joy has changed over time, and the roles place and time have played in this calibration. [1:20:35]
  • Even when you inherit faulty genetics or programming, it’s empowering to know there are ways you can take control, edit your script, and change how these factors affect you. [1:24:20]
  • Where is your calendar for the day? [1:28:26]
  • What is your default question? What might be a better question? [1:31:09]
  • Two different kinds of anger, and what we can learn by identifying and dissecting them as they appear in our lives. [1:33:39]
  • Happiness equals reality minus expectations. [1:39:07]
  • MDMA and rTMS as loonshots for depression. [1:41:04]
  • We already know that biochemistry can influence thought patterns, but can thought patterns influence biochemistry? [1:55:50]
  • Safi riffs on position space versus frequency space, new ways of looking at old problems, common paradoxes, and how incentives really drive progress in science as well as business. [2:01:47]
  • When good ideas really die. [2:12:13]
  • What would a Chief Incentives Officer bring to the table? [2:14:21]
  • What are some common default compensation structures or offers that Safi considers problematic, and how is empowering a Chief Incentives Officer like bringing a gun to a knife fight? [2:22:13]
  • “Culture” is a word that gets thrown around a lot in the business world, but what does it really mean in this context, and how does it relate to a company’s structure? [2:30:51]
  • Will changing a company’s culture or its structure drive more meaningful, quantifiable progress? “It’s the incentives, stupid.” [2:34:18]
  • Safi shares two very different examples of how a company might handle a coveted promotion — one promotes politics, and one promotes innovation. Which is preferable? [2:37:06]
  • Parting thoughts. [2:43:42]