The Interview Master: Cal Fussman and the Power of Listening (#145)

The Tim Ferriss Show with Cal Fussman

“It took me 10 years to understand that an interview was more than Meet the Press. Then another 20 [years] to figure out that it was more than sitting down with George Clooney and having the time of my life.” – Cal Fussman

This episode is very special to me and features a verbal Jedi who never gets interviewed himself: Cal Fussman.

Cal (@calfussman) is a New York Times bestselling author and a writer-at-large for Esquire Magazine, where he is best known for being a primary writer of the “What I Learned” feature.

The Austin Chronicle has described Cal’s interviewing skills as “peerless.”

He has transformed oral history into an art form, conducting probing interviews with the icons who’ve shaped the last 50 years of world history: Mikhail Gorbachev, Jimmy Carter, Ted Kennedy, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, Jack Welch, Robert DeNiro, Clint Eastwood, Al Pacino, George Clooney, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Bruce Springsteen, Dr. Dre, Quincy Jones, Woody Allen, Barbara Walters, Pelé, Yao Ming, Serena Williams, John Wooden, Muhammad Ali, and countless others.

Born in Brooklyn, Cal spent 10 straight years traveling the world, swimming over 18-foot tiger sharks, rolling around with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and searching for gold in the Amazon. He has also made himself a guinea pig—Cal has boxed against world champion Julio Cesar Chavez and served as a sommelier atop of the World Trade Center. He now lives with his wife—whom he met while on a quest to discover the world’s most beautiful beach—and his three children in Los Angeles, where he spends every morning eating breakfast with Larry King.

If you only have a couple of minutes, listen to this entertaining segment on what it’s like to do shots with Hunter S. Thompson.

145: The Interview Master: Cal Fussman and the Power of Listening

Want to hear another podcast from a guest who works behind-the-scenes with some of the world’s most talented people? — Listen to my conversation with Rick Rubin. In this episode, we discuss cultivating world-class artists (Jay Z, Johnny Cash, etc.), losing 100+ pounds, and breaking down the complex (stream below or right-click here to download):

#76: Rick Rubin, The Seclusive Zen Master

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QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What can you do this week to make yourself a better listener? Please let me know in the comments.

Scroll below for links and show notes…


Selected Links from the Episode

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Show Notes

  • Quincy Jones and his unique book signing practice [9:38]
  • Cal Fussman’s pivotal childhood moment [10:42]
  • Deconstructing the skill of asking great questions [12:28]
  • Contrasting interview styles from different life stages [19:53]
  • The importance of University of Missouri Journalism and its role on Cal’s career [26:08]
  • What it’s like to do shots with Hunter S. Thompson [30:21]
  • The story of Cal Fussman’s start in international travel [34:08]
  • How a single question could get Cal Fussman 6 months of housing and lodging while traveling [51:53]
  • Common mistakes and lessons learned about the art of asking questions [55:19]
  • On honing the ability to tell stories [1:05:18]
  • What happened at the end of Cal Fussman’s travels, which changed his interviewing style [1:09:13]
  • On speaking at Summit at Sea [1:17:33]
  • Decoding the art of the interview [1:31:08]
  • The story of boxing Julio Cesar Chavez [1:41:22]
  • When you think of the word successful, who is the first person who comes to mind and why? [2:20:18]
  • What George Foreman did to change Cal [2:29:54]
  • Most gifted books [2:34:01]
  • Favorite documentaries and movies [2:41:56]
  • If you could have a billboard anywhere, what would you put on it and why? [2:48:27]
  • Advice to Cal’s 30-year-old-self [2:49:08]
  • The story of the time Cal Fussman had writer’s block, and what Harry Crews said that saved him [2:55:30]

People Mentioned


The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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81 Replies to “The Interview Master: Cal Fussman and the Power of Listening (#145)”

  1. Solid. Great billboard answer. Interviewing seems like a meta-skill if one can do it this well! Anyone have advice on how to get someone who’s decent at it to interview me so I can become a better interviewer myself?

  2. Would you ever consider getting Lang Lang, world reknowned classical chinese Pianist Rockstar on the Podcast?

  3. Might be my favorite episode ever Tim. Possibly the best storyteller I’ve ever heard. Like the commenter above me, I’ll be looking up Cal’s stuff all week.

  4. Already devoured all 200 minutes of this one and could listen to Cal for another dozen hours! I don’t say this lightly as there’s a lot of competition: This was my favorite episode ever.

    His storytelling is captivating; this is one I’ll listen to again and again just to pick up tips on how to become a more interesting storyteller.

    Please make Part 2 a reality Tim!

  5. Gosh Tim, what a brilliant interview. The Gorbachev and Foreman stories were spine tingling and deeply provoking. Cal is a shining example of a life fully lived. A must listen.

  6. Ask questions that leave you excited with anticipation And grateful for an(y) answer.

    ‘Those who hear not the music,…’ And all that 🙂

  7. Great interview Tim. It was lengthy but quite interesting. Gained a bit of insight on what journalism was like in the past. Interested to look into who Cal Fussman is.

  8. Thanks Tim & Cal!

    I’m in the beginning stages of interviewing people for my 1st book. I too am just getting started in this new online marketing world! I loved your one piece of advice would be to listen! I so need to become a better listener. This week I’m at the beach with family and friends. My challenge to be a better listener will be to think before I speak & ask more questions to those I’m with. Then really listen to hear their answers.

    Thank you for this wonderful interview! Cal, you are going to do so well – just keep telling your stories. Do you plan to have a podcast like Tims? You need to!

    Best wishes!


  9. An amazing interview. I felt as if I was travelling with Cal on his 10 year journey overseas. Was so happy to hear how you fell under the Cearense “love” spell. I can relate because the same thing happened to me. I was supposed to spend 10 days in Fortaleza and ended up living there for 10 years. For those who are wondering about the magical beach, it’s called Jericoacoara.

  10. QUESTION(S) OF THE DAY: What can you do this week to make yourself a better listener?

    Note to Self:

    Talk less.

    When talking to somebody – don’t think about what to say next. Listen with a quiet open mind.

  11. When i finished listening i was like –

    Tim, you’re good, WoW

    and with Cal, it was better than a movie!

    I usually cant listen to long interviews on the plane, i fall asleep, but yours kept me engaged the whole time!

    It’s like I read an amazing book.


    Cal is such a great story teller!

    And you are a great match Tim, the questions you asked turned into beautiful stories.

    When i saw the interview was 3 something hours, i knew something was up.

    I didn’t know who Cal was, but since it was on Tim’s show, no matter who he was, I knew, there was something i wanted to hear, something for me to learn.

    As my flight to Sochi, Russia, was in a couple of days, i decided to save the pleasure for the flight.

    Learning life lessons from stories told by a skillful storyteller is the best way to learn, then the “good shit really sticks”.

    What i learned, the AHA moments:

    1. Gorbachev story (I’m definitely looking it up in Russian now).

    On interviewing and making people open up to you.

    “Get to people’s heart first, then you can get to their head, and then there is a way to the soul”

    2. George Foreman story.

    “The hardest thing you can do in life is to change your character”

    3.”The walk” movie, Plilippe Petit’s lesson (The movie is on my urgent to watch list now).

    “It’s the last two steps – thats when people die”

    We tend to mess things up at the very end, thinking the main work is done and we can relax. When in reality finishing touches very often define the rest of the work (project, idea implementation, negotiations etc.)

    4. And last but definitely not least the lesson from Harry Crews story.

    “Good shit sticks”

    I’m totally stealing that sometimes for my writing or life.

    So can relate.

    With more and more information coming from everywhere, all the amazing things I learn daily, read, see, experience, sometimes I’m afraid that my brain just won’t save much of it, it will be just a waste of time, but from experience, I know that truly important things, “good shit” will stay with me for life, it will become a part of me, even though I might not be consciously aware of it.

    It might be one sentence from a book, one word from a conversation, one brief smile and kind look from a stranger, one painting from the exhibition, one dance move from a 3-hour long performance – but it will change me, and the rest will all worth it.

    Tim, Cal, wow, thank you! Really, HUGE thank you! I enjoyed it so much, learned so much!

    I am a passionate writer too, and it was definitely one amazing enriching experience! I learned so much about the art of telling a good story.

    And the art of LISTENING!

    Funny enough, just before listening, I wrote a blog post about art, life, creative flow and the reason why we don’t produce Mozarts or Da Vincis anymore – great music and next Last Supper are still there, in the air, but we seem to have lost the ability to tune in and listen, hear and see masterpieces to bring them to life, too much noise, too much “busy”. Great art takes a great listener to find it. It takes time and dedication and we seem to be too busy for this now

    If you do round 3 – let me know! 🙂

    Id love to join! I’ll bring good wine and my stories from all the years of traveling!

    Plus might read some Gorbachev’s writings in Russian 🙂

    Thank you!!! You made my day.

    Is Cal teaching anywhere? Any events soon?

    Ps. Sorry for any mistakes, spelling, grammar etc., was in flight excited 🙂

  12. Tim I think it would be an awesome idea for you to launch a forum. Technically and time-wise it’s a really easy thing to do, but I think it would provide so much value to your users. I am currently trying to find a good forum for discussing my upcoming attempt at the slow carb diet and there is nothing out there.

    A forum on here for this type of this would be THEE place to discuss things like slow carb, the 4hww and the other things that you have introduced us to that people want to do.

    What say yee?

    1. There are some subreddits over at reddit that you might find useful:




  13. How to be a better listener?

    Keep your mouth shut.

    Literally. that’s it. Do not open mouth. Keep mouth closed. Breath through nose. Listen.

    empathy is also essential. If you dont have empathy for whom you are conversing with, don’t exect to be able to care enough to pay attention to them.

    Only people with empathy are capable of being effective listeners

    oh and avoid coffee and alcohol. they make one good at flapping ones jaw but detract from the calm quiet patience and centre required for listening

    oh, the john le carre novel tinker tailor soldier spy made a reference someone knowing someone else was a spy because they were ‘listening with their eyes’

    which made me consider about all the levels of communication going on with a person when they talk, that are not simply the words

    so, being a good listener means REALLY paying attention, being an empty vessel, and soaking up all those other cues. i think you really need to put yourself out of the way, not impose your needs upon the communication space.

    some cultures are not renowned for having this capacity. so, choose which culture you are born into, wisely.

    i’ve known people that can tell if someone is lying because they are reading the subtle bits of information going along with their words – did their voice stay on the same pitch when they answered that question? or did it go up and then drop down etc…are they feeling conflicted about that particular phrase they just used etc

  14. Hello Mr. Ferris,

    I apologize for the non sequitur to this particular thread, but I read in today’s Long Island Newsday that you have flash funded 145 LI school projects through Thank you so much for doing so. The article also mentioned that you were once my mother’s student in Springs School. I was touched to read your memories of her. Thank you for your kind words. Mom would be proud to see what you have accomplished.


    Ed Vinski

    [Moderator: Email removed]

  15. Started listening to this on my walk (Saturday) while searching multiple Dunkin Donuts for bagged regular coffee for my wife. Superb podcast with Cal Fussman and definitely worth another listen to sift through the gold nuggets. Cal would make a great guest host. Empty seats are doors to friendships.

  16. Excellent episode Tim and team! Cal had me spitting out my drink with his stories. Just amazing. This is one of the best interviews yet, and you have a lot of great interviews. Thank you so much!

  17. What an great listen. The stories are great and Cal can really build up the suspense. I want to listen to three hours more of this!

  18. Hey Tim,

    im from China lefties INTJ

    i like the way you live to help other company

    hope i can joinand be guniea pig like you 🙂

  19. What a fun and informative interview. I laughed out loud when Tim said not to pass on the potential employee who needs their 8 hours of sleep per night – they make great CFO’s – that’s literally me. Keep up the great work Tim!

  20. So after the disaster of the Walter interview – this one is fantastic.

    Great return to form with tons of value. Really enjoyed it. Would love to hear you do a second interview with Cal.

  21. I have heard about 35 of your podcasts by now. This one beats them all by lengths. Hats off to both of you and a massive thank you. The beach town Cal was heading to when he met Gloria is Jericoacoara, right?

  22. Listening now. I’m glad that Cal Fussman mentions Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World and Me. (I’ve read it. I also recommend it). I’d also recommend Coates as someone for you to interview for your podcast.

  23. Tim, This was one of the best 2 hours I spent driving around from Job to Job listening to Carl. Amazing story teller cant wait for you to interview him again. Best episode so far.

  24. What a treat!

    This conversation really moved me. Inspired me.

    Tim, you made my week! Can’t thank you enough for your work!

    (+1 Vote for round #2)

  25. Not sure if this is the appropriate platform for this and I am Canadian but umm, “Fussman for Presdient!”

    Seriously though Mr Ferriss, get this guy his own podcast 🙂

  26. One of the best ever Tim, absolutely loved it. Could listen to Cal tell stories all day. Really hope to see a round 2!

  27. I could listen to Cal four hours (and did) and need , more, more , more of this marvelous man. Round 2 most definitely required.

    Thank you for bringing him to our attention.

  28. Wow. I loved the stories of Jamie Foxx and his grandmother “getting him across the tracks” but Cal is not only a master interviewer but storyteller as well. Congrats Tim this was another level.

  29. Like so many listeners, I have lingered amongst the comments, links, and thoughts bouncing around from each podcast. Tim and guests have challenged me to look hard at the foundations upon which my assumptions are built. And done so entertainingly. But none more so than Cal. What a pleasure and gift of 322 minutes. Thank you both.

  30. This was one of my favorite podcasts. I just want to sit around a firepit all night drinking good beer and listening to Cal’s stories. Cannot wait for you to have him back on.

  31. Wow Cal is a great guy, great story teller, verbal storytelling gold! Really enjoyed. Especially when you joked about Richard Branson being the main pull on the cruise ship, a funny moment 🙂

  32. Best podcast yet! What a mentor to have, Tim.

    Love all your stuff: you seemed to be enjoying it as much as us.

    When he asked about the ‘look on your mum’s face’ in Iceland, it gave me chills – Cal gets right into your soul, fast.

    Here’s a listener challenge: learn and tell Cal’s George Foreman story – just the way he did. Next is to look at life, really live, and tell your own.

    Cal is a global treasure. Thanks for introducing him to me.

  33. This guy is just a blast, smart, funny, one of the best story teller I’ve ever listened.

    Without a doubt, the best episode Tim, Thanks for that and thanks all the shows. You are good!!

  34. This is one of my ALL TIME favourite episodes and I really hope you get a chance to do a second round!

    I loved that Cal answered almost every question with a story of his own and he NEVER sounded rushed which I really appreciated.

  35. I consider myself a pretty heavy podcast listener and have to say this was one of, if not the, most entertaining episodes I have ever listened too. Cal was, as many other have said, an incredible story teller. I was literally lol in my car. I could have listened to this conversation go on for even longer than 3 hours… what a treat! Thanks for all the work that goes into creating these episodes, this one was just awesome! Huge props to Cal on what sounds like an incredible life journey so far… you have a new fan.

  36. Hi Tim,

    One of my favorite episodes. Timely too as I’ve begun a series of interviews with CEO types. Cal IS a jedi master in the ancient practice of listening and asking powerful questions. He knows how to execute those questions so people talk. There is so much to learn from this guy and I’m glad you introduced him to us.

    You have obviously learned a thing or two about conducting great interviews yourself, which is why we tune in to your podcast. Thanks for delivering.


  37. In all honesty I’d have to say this was my favorite Tim Ferriss episode just on the pure fact of good old fashion storytelling. Could listen to Cal ALL DAY! Hope to hear a part two in the near future. Well done T Ferriss!

  38. When you’ve listened to a 3-hour conversation and want more, you KNOW that what you’ve been listening to is both spellbinding and valuable. A great piece of work Tim (and Cal)! A round two is something to really look forward to.

    Just a thought – how about a ‘breakfast’ interview with Cal and Larry King?

  39. I grew up in Merano, very few km near Dorf Tirol, the village in Italy mentioned in the podcast around 44 minutes where Ezra Pound was living for many years. In a few hours I am going to visit my parents in Merano. The province is called Alto Adige-Sudtirol. Amazing to hear it mentioned in Tim Ferriss’ Show in a history from the 60s!!!

    When I trained for triathlon I would often go uphill by bike or running towards Dorf Tirol.

    Thank you Mr Cal Fussman

  40. Julio Cesar Chavez and George Foreman story was AMAZING.

    Cal, I agree with you.

    Aim for the heart, aim for the mind and you’ll get the soul.

  41. My favorite interview so far, and more than most of them are great. Cal is such an amazing storyteller, his voice perfectly soothes, accentuates, and places the stories. His speaking career will be significant.

  42. Unlike any other interview. Best Yet! Cal is a fascinating human being. Never heard his name before and now I feel like I know him. Great stuff Tim!

  43. Tim, I’ve listened to a lot of your podcasts and find great value in almost all of them, but this interview was the best one yet. Yes, better than the Jamie Foxx interview… The storytelling and the way Cal expresses himself is off the charts. He seems like the most fun guy in the world to talk to. I was so locked in and inspired listening to this one. It’s funny because here is a guy who makes his living interviewing and writing about others but he himself is the best interview subject around! Just wanted to express my gratitude to you and Cal for a great segment.

  44. Story telling and interviews. The pauses and words have equal importance. This was the first time I felt like the digital interview transformed into a global campfire, free for anyone to join in and enjoy.

  45. What an amazing episode!

    Tim, please, keep doing a great job. Your podcast is amazing and inspires me every single day.

  46. Really disappointed with this episode Tim and Cal; though the topics are really relevant it is just the same anecdotes and stories that Cal shared in another interview with HBR Ideacast on February 25th. The only difference, I think, was the wine.

    Here you have the link to that podcast so you can see the same comments and stories.

    It is a shame as you two could really contribute more to the fans of the Tim Ferriss show and not repeating the same thing in different forums

    Sorry if the comment disturbs anyone.

  47. Tim, I’d never heard of Cal before, but I gotta say that this was one of the most incredibly enthralling podcasts you’ve ever done (at least to me). This guy tells incredible stories and this long podcast breezed by and left me wanting more. I definitely hope you’ll do a round two. Thank you for another wonderful cast.

  48. This was a wonderful show. I found myself smiling repeatedly as I listened, and my family was enthralled by (inferior) retelling of the Julio Cesar Chavez story. I look forward to part 2.

  49. The Mikhail Gorbachev story is amazing. So powerful. I could almost feel the ice cream in his hand.

  50. Hi Tim, During the interview with Cal you mentioned a stack of articles/interviews (at about 1:15) that Cal had previously written that were sitting under your recorder. Where do i find a copy of these articles?

  51. Wow, what an amazing storyteller. Never have I been laughing my heart out and 2 mins later almost crying… That 9/11 really got me. Thank you for introducing this fascinating man to me!

  52. This was by far the most engrossing episode of your podcast I’ve heard (followed by Louis Von Ahn). You should really encourage Cal to start his own ‘story telling’ podcast. I could listen to his stories for hours.

  53. Best. Interview. Ever.

    You laughed so much, genuine, heart felt laughs. It was contagious.

    I was touched by Cal’s second person he would link to success – the boxer that re-inveted himself at 40 and came back to compete. Such a sweet story.

    I cried when Cal told the story of his interview with the woman who was caught in the Asian tsunami. I went through this and surviving a tsunami is one crazy story that takes hours to tell. He said the interview lasted four hours, I don’t doubt it.

    Crying and laughing at stories is so amazing. Thank you for allowing us the access to all these fantastic stories your guests bring to the table.