The book The Third Door tells the story of hacking: how an ordinary college sophomore got to interview some of the most influential celebrities in the world. Here are my highlights and notes.

Book Cover (image from Amazon)Book Cover (image from Amazon)

The definition of The Third Door:

Life, business, success…it’s just like a nightclub.

There are always three ways in.

There’s the First Door: the main entrance, where the line curves around the block; where 99 percent of people wait around, hoping to get in.

There’s the Second Door: the VIP entrance, where the billionaires, celebrities, and the people born into it slip through.

But what no one tells you is that there is always, always…the Third Door. It’s the entrance where you have to 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, they all took…the Third Door.

Bill Gates’ office:

We entered a long corridor lined with hundreds of books. “He’s read every one,” she said. Macroeconomics. Computer science. Artificial intelligence. Polio eradication. The assistant pulled out a book on feces recycling and placed it in my hands. I flipped through it with sweaty palms. Nearly every page was underlined and highlighted with scribbles in the margins. I couldn’t help but smile—the scribbles had the penmanship of a fifth grader.

Hack the game show Price is Right:

it wasn’t luck; there was a system. (crowdsourcing)

Steven Spielberg:

When I’d read that story, I originally thought Spielberg had played the “people game”—networking around the lot and making connections. But the word “networking” made me think of exchanging business cards at a career fair. This wasn’t simply a people game. It was more than that. This was the Spielberg Game.

  1. Jump off the tour bus.
  2. Find an Inside Man.
  3. Ask for his or her help to bring you in.

The most important step, I realized, was finding that “Inside Man”—someone inside the organization willing to put his or her reputation on the line to bring you in. If Chuck Silvers hadn’t offered Spielberg a three-day pass, or called the VP of production and demanded he watch the film, Spielberg never would have gotten the contract.
Of course, Spielberg had incredible talent, but so do other aspiring directors. There was a reason he got that contract when so many others didn’t.

Cold Email:

“And certainly, watch your frequency of emailing. Don’t email a lot. It really”—he let out a heavy breath—“does not make people happy.”

Connecting the dots metaphor:

Steve Jobs once said, “You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.”

Some rules by Elliott Bisnow:

Rule number one: Never use your phone in a meeting. I don’t care if you’re just taking notes. Using your phone makes you look like a chump. Always carry a pen in your pocket. The more digital the world gets, the more impressive it is to use a pen. And anyway, if you’re in a meeting, it’s just rude to be on your phone.
“Rule number two: Act like you belong. Walk into a room like you’ve been there before. Don’t gawk over celebrities. Be cool. Be calm. And never, ever ask someone for a picture. If you want to be treated like a peer, you need to act like one. Fans ask for pictures. Peers shake hands.
“Speaking of pictures, rule number three: Mystery makes history. When you’re doing cool shit, don’t post pictures of it on Facebook. No one actually changing the world posts everything they do online. Keep people guessing what you’re up to. Plus, the people you’re going to impress by posting things online aren’t the people you should care about impressing.
“Now, rule number four,” he said, slowly stressing each word, “this rule is the most important… …If you break my trust, you’re finished. Never, ever go back on your word. If I tell you something in confidence, you need to be a vault. What goes in does not come out. This goes for your relationships with everyone from this day forward. If you act like a vault, people will treat you like a vault. It will take years to build your reputation, but seconds to ruin it.”
“Uh, oh yeah. Here’s a last one: Adventures only happen to the adventurous.”

The best cure for nervousness is immediate action.

“The point of this story is less about throwing money around and more about personal investing,” Elliott told me. “You have to make a calculated judgment that the amount of money you’re going to put in is going to either pay off way bigger in the long term or enough in the short term to offset your costs. Aside from the money you live on, the rest is your money to play the game.”

Studying not just others, but also yourself.

Ever since I’d been on my dorm room bed, I’d been obsessed with studying the paths of successful people, and while that’s a good approach to learning, I couldn’t solve every problem that way. I couldn’t copy and paste other people’s playbooks and expect it to work exactly the same for me. Their playbook worked for them because it was their playbook. It played to their strengths and their circumstances. Not once had I ever looked within myself and wondered about my strengths or my circumstances. What did it mean to out-Alex someone? While there’s a time for studying what’s worked for other people, there are moments when you have to go all in on what makes you unique. And in order to do that, you have to know what makes you, you.

You don’t get if you don’t ask.

Later that evening, I went over to Tony and said goodbye, thanking him again for the past two days.
“And, I know this might sound weird,” I said, “but why don’t you let your employees shadow you?”
Tony looked at me blankly and said, “I’d be happy to—but no one ever asks.”

Dig deeper to find the whole story.

For years I’d seen headlines that read “Dropout Mark Zuckerberg” and naturally assumed his decision to leave college was clear-cut. Headlines and movies make things seem black and white. But now I was realizing: the truth is never black and white. It’s gray. It’s all gray.
If you want the whole story, you have to dig deeper. You can’t rely on headlines or tweets. Gray doesn’t fit in 140 characters.

Take risks, but carefully.

Maybe the hardest part about taking a risk isn’t whether to take it, it’s when to take it. It’s never clear how much momentum is enough to justify leaving school. It’s never clear when it’s the right time to quit your job. Big decisions are rarely clear when you’re making them—they’re only clear looking back. The best you can do is take one careful step at a time.

Some things just take time.

No matter how great the talent or effort, some things just take time. You can’t produce a baby in one month by getting nine women pregnant.”

How to get to meet someone:

Although people won’t meet with you for the reason you want, that doesn’t mean they won’t meet at all. Just find another angle. Figure out what they need and use that as your way in.

Long-term investment.

Buffett is famous for being a long-term value investor and this story shows he treated his career the same way. He could’ve gotten a high-paying job right out of school and made far more money in the short term. But by offering to work for free under Graham, he set himself up to make much more in the long term. Instead of trying to get paid as much as possible in dollars, Buffett chose to get paid in mentorship, expertise, and connections.

Read the footnotes.

“While this story is short,” I told Ryan, “the lesson is huge, and I think it’s one of the biggest keys to Buffett’s success. When everyone else skims a report, Buffett is obsessively scouring the fine print, going above and beyond, studying every word, looking for clues. You don’t have to be born a genius to read the footnotes—it’s a choice. It’s a choice to put in the hours, go the extra mile, and do the things others aren’t willing to do. Reading the damn footnotes isn’t just a task on Buffett’s to-do list—it’s his outlook on life.”

Reframe the problem.

“Instead of getting frustrated by repeating the same old problem,” Kamen said, “reframe the question in a new way that is amenable to a different kind of solution.”

Meeting in person is genuine.

Cal explained that it’s still a human being making the hiring decision. Only after looking you in the eye can someone get a sense if you’re genuine. You may be using the same words in an email, but it’s a different experience in person.
“People like human beings,” Cal said. “People don’t like random names in their inbox.”
It dawned on me that when Spielberg gave me that early encouragement, when Elliott took me to Europe, or when Larry finally invited me to breakfast—those moments happened only after I met them in person and looked them in the eye.

Misc advice.

“You want to know the secret to changing the world? Stop trying to change it. Do great work and let your work change the world.”
“You won’t get anywhere significant in life until you come to the epiphany that you know nothing. You’re still too cocky. You think you can learn anything. You think you can speed up the process.”
“How does one become successful? You’ll get the same answer if you ask that to any other older, wiser, and more successful person: you have to want to do it very, very badly.”
“I don’t understand why people give speeches with slides. When you speak with slides, you become a caption. Never be a caption.”
“I live my life by two mantras. One: if you don’t ask, you don’t get. And two: most things don’t work out.”

“Genius,” he repeated, looking at me with deep, knowing eyes, “is the opposite of expectation.”

Stories about Bill Gates:

Behind the nerdy glasses and magazine covers, there’s the boy who read the entire World Book Encyclopedia at age nine. At thirteen, his hero wasn’t a rock star or basketball player, but the French emperor Napoléon. One night at dinner time he hadn’t left his room, so his mom yelled, “Bill, what are you doing?”
“I’m thinking!” he shouted.
“You’re thinking?”
“Yes, Mom, I’m thinking. Have you ever tried thinking?”

While most kids in high school were sneaking out of the house at night to go to parties, Gates was sneaking out to go code at the University of Washington computer lab. That’s even more unrelatable. On the other hand, he used his computer skills to help his high school automate the class schedules—and rigged the system to put himself in the classes with the best-looking girls. Now, that’s relatable.

After high school, he majored in applied math at Harvard. Why did he choose that major? Because he’d found a loophole. He figured out a way to get priority registration in whatever classes he wanted because he claimed he was “applying math” to economics or “applying math” to history. Bill liked to rebel just for the sake of it, so he ditched classes he was signed up for and went to ones he wasn’t.

And his love for speed wasn’t limited to driving. As I read stories about him closing major software deals, I felt like I was watching a chess prodigy play ten opponents at once, jumping from board to board, making dozens of moves a minute without blinking, beating them all. At an age when his friends were just graduating college, he was battling in the conference rooms of some of the world’s biggest companies—IBM, Apple, HP—and negotiating contracts with people twice his age. With the chess prodigy metaphor in my mind, I realized that Gates has played the coding game, the sales game, the negotiating game, the CEO game, the public figure game, the philanthropy game—all at the highest levels—and has won each one.

Ability to do the uncomfortable things.

It was his ability to do the hard, uncomfortable thing that made this opportunity possible. The potential to unlock your future is in your hands—but first you have to pick up the damn phone.

Bill Gates’ office setting:

Below the picture frames was a polished oval coffee table with two books stacked on top. One of the books was by Steven Pinker and I made a mental note: “buy books by Steven Pinker.” At either end of the sitting area were two ivory-gray armchairs, a brown couch in between. Gates sat in an armchair and I noticed his loafers were black and round-toed, with tassels on top. I made another mental note: “buy loafers with tassels.” He had on dark slacks and his socks bunched low.

How to sell:

He explained that the first step in a sales meeting is having to blast through skepticism, and the best way to do that is by overwhelming people with your expertise. Gates would talk fast and dive immediately into the details—character sets, computer chips, programming languages, software platforms—to the point that it became undeniably clear he wasn’t just some kid.

Build pipeline to deal with bullshit no’s.

“Dude, that’s the story of my life. They’re called bullshit no’s. I get them a thousand times a week. You just have to build a pipeline so when you get a bullshit no from one person, there’s still thirty others to work on. You want to know why a pipeline works?” Elliott went on. “A year and a half ago, when you first cold-emailed me asking for advice, you didn’t know that a month earlier I’d made it my New Year’s resolution to find someone to mentor.”
I was stunned.
“Crazy, right? There’s no way you could’ve known that. My point is that I’m sure I wasn’t the first person you emailed for advice. You asked dozens of people, and because of an external factor you couldn’t have predicted, one of those things worked. You have no way of knowing what’s going on in the lives of the people in your pipeline. You can’t anticipate their mood or how generous they’re feeling. All you can do is control your effort.”

Choose to do what you should or do what you want. Advice by the Woz.

“Most people do things because that’s what society tells them they should do. But if you stop and do the math—if you actually think for yourself—you’ll realize there’s a better way to do things.”
“Is that why you’re so happy?” I asked.
“Bingo,” Wozniak said. “I’m happy because I do what I want every day.”

Happiest or highest postion?

“Society tells you that success is getting the most powerful position possible,” Wozniak said. “But I asked myself: Is that what would make me happiest?”

The Intern mindset.

Our conversation continued and Pitbull kept tapping on the idea of being an intern in life. He said that while he can now walk around record labels like a king, the following day he’ll be walking through the halls of Apple or Google taking notes. It’s that duality that makes him, him. And that’s when I realized Pitbull’s key to continued success: it’s about always staying an intern.
It’s about humbling yourself enough to learn, even when you’re at the top of your game. It’s about knowing that the moment you get comfortable being an executive is the moment you begin to fail. It’s about realizing that, if you want to continue being Mufasa, at the same time you have to keep being Simba.

Read, Read and read. Those people are human beings that are the rainows in your clouds.

“I look back,” Angelou said, her voice soothing and wise. “I like to look back at people in my family, or people I’ve known, or people I’ve simply read about. I might look back at a fictional character, someone in A Tale of Two Cities. I might look at a poet long dead. There may be a politician, could have been an athlete. I look around and realize that those were human beings—maybe they were African, maybe they were French, maybe they were Chinese, maybe they were Jewish or Muslim—I look at them and think, ‘I’m a human being. She was a human being. She overcame all of these things. And she’s still working at it. Amazing.’
“Take as much as you can from those who went before you,” she added. “Those are the rainbows in your clouds. Whether they knew your name, or would never see your face, whatever they’ve done, it’s been for you.”

I had one minute left. I asked if she had just a single piece of advice for young people as they launch their careers.
“Try to get out of the box,” she said. “Try to see that Taoism, the Chinese religion, works very well for the Chinese, so it may also work for you. Find all the wisdom that you can find. Find Confucius; find Aristotle; look at Martin Luther King; read Cesar Chávez; read. Read and say, ‘Oh, these are human beings just like me. Okay, this may not work for me, but I think I can use one portion of this.’ You see?
“Don’t narrow your life down. I’m eighty-five and I’m just getting started! Life is going to be short, no matter how long it is. You don’t have much time. Go to work.”

Growth and mistakes.

“You have to cherish your mistakes,” he said. “You have to get back up no matter how many times you get knocked down. There are some people who face defeat and retreat; who become cautious and afraid, who deal with fear instead of passion, and that’s not right. I know it seems complex, but it’s relatively simple. It’s: let go and let God.
“You can’t get an A if you’re afraid of getting an F,” Quincy added. “It’s amazing, the psychology of growing in your field, no matter what you do. Growth comes from mistakes. You have to cherish them, so you can learn from them. Your mistakes are your greatest gift.”

It was as if he was going to keep repeating that lesson until it sank in. And now it had. In a moment of clarity, it dawned on me that advice from Bill Gates was never my Holy Grail. My mistakes on my way to get to him were what changed me most.
I’d always seen success and failure as opposites, but now I could see they were just different results of the same thing—trying. I swore to myself that from now on I would be unattached to succeeding, and unattached to failing. Instead, I would be attached to trying, to growing.