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Interview with Dr. Ali Abdaal

📷 Ali Abdaal

Journalist: Haleema Ahmed

Haleema: Hello everyone and welcome back to SciSection. I'm Haleema your journalist for this week, and today we are delighted to have Dr. Ali Abdaal who is a doctor from the UK, a Cambridge university alumni, and a prominent productivity and tech YouTuber. Welcome Ali.

Ali: Thank you for having me.

Haleema: It's such a pleasure to have you here today. So before I guess we get started into some of the more interesting questions about yourself, we had a couple of rapid fire questions, so we can - our viewers could learn a little bit more about you.

Ali: Oh amazing!

Haleema: So first question, what is the best piece of tech that you've ever used?

Ali: Probably the AirPods.

Haleema: AirPods. I would agree as well. So on your YouTube channel, you, I think you do like a book club kind of thing. So what do you think is your favorite book?

Ali: The Four Hour Workweek by Tim Ferris or at least that is the book that most changed my life. I'd say my favorite book is still probably Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

Haleema: I was going to ask you about Harry Potter actually! So you seem to be a Harry Potter fan. Who do you think is your favorite character?

Ali: Ooh I really like Sirius. He's got like a cool vibe, a cool vibe to him and obviously, obviously I'm in love with Hermione so-

Haleema: So you must have been very heartbroken book five.

Ali: Oh, well, you know, I didn't think Hermione and I would ever get together, but (laughs)

Haleema: Are you, are you a Ravenclaw? Gryffindor? I feel like you gimme Ravenclaw vibes so.

Ali: I don't know. I think, I think one time I tried the Pottermore thing and it gave me like Hufflepuff or something stupid like that. So I scrubbed that from my memory.

Haleema: As, as a Hufflepuff, I find that a little bit offensive, but I'll take it. I'll take it.

Ali: That's fine. I'm gonna make a video on that at some point actually I was going to do like a, a sort of which house am I just as a kind of joke video just to see what happens,

Haleema: You know, I think Pottermore it's not that accurate because I did it a couple of weeks ago and I got Hufflepuff and then I got Raven claw and then I got Gryffindor. I don't know.

Ali: Yeah, that doesn't sound entirely legit, but I suppose it's, it's our choices rather than that, of what matters, right?

Haleema: Yeah. I guess as you change your house changes as well (Ali: “Totally”). Yeah. And lastly, what is one thing you do or something about you that people would be surprised to find out?

Ali: Hmm, surprised to find out. Well the thing that people tend to not know is that I have a stutter which has been plaguing me since childhood. The nice thing about doing videos that you can edit out any stutters. But I, yeah.

Haleema: How have you been able to kind of improve your communication skills over time?

Ali: It's always a, an ongoing work in progress. I read a lot of books about actually a lot of books about charisma and about confidence and about social skills and about how to talk to people. So that kind of, I feel I feel has helped. I also enjoy watching videos about it. There's a channel called Charisma On Command which gives a lot of, kind of actionable tips about this sort of stuff.

Haleema: Hmm. And I guess with your profession, with like YouTubing and it was also like medicine, that's something you get to practice a lot as well.

Ali: Yeah. And we're so suddenly like in university we had a lot of communication skills classes and I've been training to be a communication skills facilitator as well. So, you know, I identified the weakness and then I actively worked to improve on it.

Haleema: That's interesting in that, I guess, as somebody who in your, a lot of your videos, you've talked about how in childhood used to code and things of that sort. So somebody who had many passions prior to university, what was it about the medicine that you're doing right now that really attracted you?

Ali: Honestly it was that it was six, six years at university, rather than three.

Haleema: Really that's it?

Ali: Everyone says university is going to be the best time of your life. So I was like, well, let's double it and make it more fun.

Haleema: So I guess a lot of your motto is making medicine kind of a hobby. And I know you're taking a break from it as well, and then having a lot of side incomes alongside that. So what is that mindset kind of all about? And is that something you would recommend to a lot of our viewers right now or alot of our listeners right now who - is that something they should look into?

Ali: Yeah, certainly like when I first discovered the concept that you could do this thing called passive income where you just kind of make money on the side that just changed the game for me because there are so many doctors that I know, like, you know, there's a question that I'd like to ask doctors, which is that if you won the lottery, would you still do medicine? And in my kind of last six years of asking this, half of the people say I would leave immediately and the other half of people say, I'd still do medicine because it's fun, but I'd want to do it part time. And then when he asks, well, why don't you do it part time? They always say, well, because I've got a mortgage and I've got a wife and kids and bills to pay and stuff like that. So that got me thinking very early on that, okay. I want to make money on the side and I wanted to do medicine for fun. I don't want to be shackled to a job that I don't necessarily enjoy doing full time.

Haleema: How would you, what is one way that you think undergrad students could get into kind of side incomes or side hustles kind of an easy way I guess?

Ali: There is no easy way. There, there is no snake oil to be had. There are no easy ways of making money. Money is just an exchange of value. So the only way to make money is by providing value and doing it at scale. I think the easiest way to put in inverted commas is to build an audience. And you build an audience by creating valuable content, doing it at least once a week and doing that for two years. And if people, people who do that, just follow those three steps, valuable content once a week for two years, I guarantee everyone I know who's ever done that has built an audience and is able to monetize the audience later, but almost no one sticks with anything long enough for it to actually be sustainable for it to actually grow to the point where it's, where it's useful. But that would be my first step, start a blog, start a podcast by keeping them still an email newsletter, whatever, as long as you're providing content for free once a week for two years, that's what you need to do.

Haleema: What do you think it is that I guess caused people to kind of stop doing things or not continuing things that they start - get started into?

Ali: I think it's either a, there's two things that you need. You need faith and you need patience. You need the faith that this will work out and you, and you need the patience to stick with it for a very long time. And one of those two things will always be missing from people who tried this, but then don't stick with it over the long term.

Haleema: And you also mentioned that you found that like with the survey that you, I guess looked into were, half of doctors said that they would, I guess leave medicine if money wasn't an objective, or if they had something else, what do you think it is about the profession that kind of causes that mentality?

Ali: In the UK at least there's a general vibe that the hours are a bit annoying. You don't get paid very much. There's a lot of administrative overhead, a lot of paperwork. You have to do a lot of hoops. You have to jump through during training, you know, portfolios, you have to fill out every, every year. There's a real sense of, ah, this is like actively quite annoying. I think, as you get older consultants that I've spoken to or attendings that they call them in America, I would say that, yeah, it was, it used to be fun coming in and doing a night shift. But now when you're in your forties and you've got kids at home, you really can't be bothered to come in on a night shift, but you still have to, it's not as kind of stuff like that. I guess everyone everywhere complains about that job. But I think given that medicine is seen as being this thing that, you know, the reason we go into medicine and at least in the UK, we sign up to making not very much money compared to our friends, going into investment banking or into law, is because we feel that the fulfillment in saving lives and all that stuff will make the lack of money, reason like worthwhile. But I think it's very telling that most doctors like I - I've, I've not met, I've never met a single doctor who would continue to work full time if they won the lottery

Haleema: With that, I guess, fulfillment of saving lives, what was it, or what kind of caused you to want to take a break from it for some time?

Ali: I think it just kind of makes sense. Like when you're like I'm relatively young and unencumbered right now, I've got this platform, this YouTube channel that makes a large amount of money every, every month without me having to do much work at this point, it makes a lot of sense to do things like travel the world and explore other interests at the moment I'm considering maybe moving to America, just cause that would be a bit of an adventure. So I think opportunity costs for me personally, to continue to do medicine just wouldn't make any sense in the short term. You know, there's no rush to be a fully qualified consultant when I'm on my deathbed. I'm very unlikely to think, damn, I wish I were a consultant for two more years earlier, but I am likely to think, you know, I'm really glad I traveled the world for three years while I was young.

Haleema: Do you think that I guess this time away traveling the world or whatever you're going to do, I guess with COVID, I don't know how feasible that might be. Right. Do you think that will kind of make you a little bit more of a better doctor if you do decide to come back into it? Yeah.

Ali: Yeah. I certainly hope so. I'll bet everyone who does says it broadens your horizons and makes you a better communicator and all that kind of stuff. So I, I really hope so.

Haleema: And I guess now transferring a little bit into your YouTube content. So a lot of the stuff that you put out is all about like maximizing productivity, kind of gaining the most out of life. And so I think while, as like a full time content creator and YouTube and whatever, definitely living up to that motto of like being productive and getting things done, was this always the type of person that you are in like university and high school? And if it wasn't, I guess a lot of our listeners can relate to this idea of like procrastination and things of that sort. How did you kind of change that if that wasn't always who you are?

Ali: Yeah. I want to say, like, I always used to enjoy doing this doing stuff on the side. When I was young, I taught myself how to code and used to make websites and trying to make money online on the internet when I was in, in secondary school and then at university, again, I run this business and I was always involved in these extra societies. I always want it to be someone who does a lot of things. I think a big part of the reason for that is I wanted to diversify my identity away from just being a nerd who got good grades into being a bit more than that. Maybe there was some kind of inferiority complex talking where I felt I needed to have all of these, all of these different arrows in my quiver in order for me to be, feel valued or anything like that. But I guess doing all that stuff in my spare time has given me sort of when, when people look at it from the outside, this stuff that I'm doing for fun looks like it's productive and therefore people like, Oh, how are you so productive? And I don't really think of it in those terms, because everything I do is just fun. And so I think if you just enjoy what you're doing, the procrastination doesn't really become a thing.

Haleema: Do you think that there's such a thing as toxic productivity being too productive?

Ali: What do you mean?

Haleema: I guess the way that you kind of say is the thing that you're, you're doing a genuinely things that you enjoy, whereas with other people, some people might see those things as kind of boring or a little bit tedious. So I guess as somebody who may be a little bit different than you, do you think somebody who consistently kind of works on I don't know, things like school all the time or I dunno work. Do you think there's such a thing as that could become too toxic or unhealthy?

Ali: I mean, yeah, there's a sweet spot for everything. Any, any virtue taken to access becomes a vice, as someone famously said at some point in history. And so yeah. Studying for your exams, there's a sweet spot there. If you take it too far, you're going to become a loner and no one not going to have any friends and you're going to burn yourself out. So yeah, obviously, you know, there's a, there's a sweet spot with, with, with productivity as well.

Haleema: Do you, have you ever kind of struggled with that or has it always been, you've always been passionate about the things that you're doing?

Ali: Yeah. I think I've always just been passionate about the things that I'm doing. Obviously there are times where, you know, it's a bit of a drag to do a YouTube video or to do another podcast or to, I don't know, record another course. And when I feel that way, I just kind of give myself a break. I realized, hang on, I'm not actually beholden to anyone here. The reason I want to do this side hustle thing is because it gives me the freedom to do what I want. And so if I don't feel like doing it, we're just gonna do it. And then often I find the next day I come back recharged. Yeah.

Haleema: Hmm. I guess a lot of the things that you do, you have the, I guess the autonomy to kind of take a break from them, but I guess maybe for a lot of students who are taking classes that they might not particularly want to take, or they're doing things they may not really want to do. So what is kind of your, I guess, input on that and how you can, I don't know. I still still enjoy a lot of those things, even when you don't particularly enjoy them. I don't know if that really makes sense, but yeah,

Ali: I think the enjoyment is very hackable. If you've, if you have to do something and there's no other choice, then you can choose to enjoy it or you can choose not to enjoy it. If you're choosing not to enjoy the thing that you have to do, you're actively screwing yourself because what's the point of that. You can just flip the switch in your brain and kind of reframe it a way that's fun. And there's a phrase by a guy called Seth Godin that I really like, which is he says, it's a difference between have to and get to. So there's a difference. There's a huge difference between I have to study for this exam and I get to study for this exam. And the more we can train ourselves to think in the, I get to study for this exam mode you know, absolutely excellent that fire together, wire together, like all the stuff about neuronal plasticity, the more we make certain thought processes that the more often we practice them, the more often they become ingrained. And so we absolutely can train ourselves to enjoy absolutely everything that we do. And so I think there's no excuse for doing something that you have to do and not enjoying it.

Haleema: And I think, I guess the response is sometimes the thing that you don't want to do is you kind of procrastinate or you avoid them. And especially with COVID, it's so easy to just procrastinate, like can just go on your phone or, you know, everything's kind of in the same environment. So it becomes so easy to do that. And I know a lot of university students are struggling with that as well. So I guess for our listeners, could you give us a little bit of a crash course and how we can kind of combat that procrastination and especially in the upcoming school year, when so much of school is going to be online and even more easy to distract yourself from.

Ali: Yeah. I think the first thing is to really be clear on why you're doing what you're doing. Like what is the game that you're playing? I think a lot of us, when we get to, when we're in school, where we're playing the game of maximizing exam results, just because I guess it gets me to a better university because I guess getting a good university, good degree gets me a better job. And I guess that makes me happy, but I think more and more, and sort of as, as time goes on, that's causal relationship between good grades and ultimate happiness falls apart. You know, there's absolutely no guarantee that if you've got a good degree from a good university, you'll actually get a good job that actually makes you happy and fulfilled depending on what subject you do, you know, you're doing as well. There's absolutely no guarantee if you're doing a liberal arts degree from a university, you're going to get any kind of job. And so I think what's important is that we figure out what is the game that we're playing. If you're a university student, why do you feel like you have to kind of do all these classes and do all these things? Do you really have a good reason for doing it? Or are you falling into a game that was relevant 10 years ago that you've just kind of been following by default? So assuming you've got a good wife for doing the things that you want. I think that the two things we struggle with in procrastination is procrastination. Isn't usually a problem with doing the work. It's a problem with starting the work. Cause once we get started, then we usually continue. And so there's all sorts of tricks we can use to convince ourselves to get started. The two that I like are firstly, you know, just eliminating any friction between me and doing the thing. So I'll make sure my desk is clean. I'll make sure, you know, there's nothing in the way that's stopping me from doing the thing that I know I want to do. And secondly, I will try and convince myself that I'm probably going to do it for five minutes cause they never to be. I'll find that as long as that, once I start going, then this can motivation kind of sustains itself. The other important thing I think is to try to shorten the feedback loops as much as possible. So for example, the pro the reason why have healthy eating is hard is because if you're really fat and you suddenly deprive yourself of a McDonald's, you're not suddenly going to lose weight. So you don't see a results from the action that you've taken. If you do a single bicep coat at the gym, you're not suddenly going to become ripped. Therefore it's hard to continue to continuously maintain that motivation because as Jeff Hayden talks about in the book, the motivation myth small actions, actions lead to small successes, which leads to motivation. Whereas we all have this intuitive, wrong view, that motivation leads to action. And so what we need to do is shorten the feedback loops as much as possible. And so for me, I find that when it came to going to the gym, I want to start a tracking my numbers, that shortened the feedback loop. It meant that every week I can think, okay, I want to lift heavier than I did last week. And that, that leads to motivation because I've got a small success equally when it comes to studying the feedback loop is way too long. It's like, Oh, I'll I'll study for my exams because then in 10 years time, when I applied for a job, it'll be useful for me, that's way too long to sustain any amount of motivation. And so what I do is I kind of treat it as a game and to try and compete with myself, to try and get a better score when I test myself compared to the last time there's all those little things like that based around shortening the feedback loop that try and sustain this fire of motivation, because otherwise it just becomes a spark that fizzles out into nowhere.

Haleema: That's really, really interesting. I think as many productivity YouTubers I find when I like printed comments, for example, people say things like I'm watching, I'm watching a video with procrastination while I'm procrastinating or something like that. I don't know. Funny stuff like that. Do you think that people get more inspired by watching videos like yours? Or do you think they kind of like, feel bad about themselves after watching your videos and then try and like, I dunno, do something after that?

Ali: Yeah. I think this is, this is something that my brother calls the pernicious - the pernicious culture of productivity, YouTube in that there is a level of people getting a kick out of watching someone else be productive. And what the phrase my brother uses is he says, it's the equivalent of someone watching a video and saying in the comments, spank me, daddy, I've been a terrible boy. You know, it's, it's where we're watching these productivity. Youtubers were commenting. Ha ha. I'm getting distracted while watching this video on T cool in a way we're treating the fact that we get distracted and we're unproductive as a badge of honor, we're using it as a way of, Oh my God guys, you wouldn't believe I was studying for 10 hours yesterday. And I got so distracted. We consider it a good thing. I dunno why we consider it a good thing. We also get a kick out of being like, Oh my God, this guy's so productive. I can't believe it. I could never be like that. It's it's, it's, it's a bit, it's a bit weird. I find it a bit weird. But it's, it's the industry, I guess.

Haleema: Yeah. The productivity industry. So how do you kind of think that people could kind of break away from that culture of, I guess getting a kick out of somebody else being productive while it's kind of degrading yourself? What does, how could we get away from that? Yeah.

Ali: The, the way I think of productivity is there's like three ways of there's kind of three roles that we take when we're being productive, whether the pilot of the plane and the engineer as the pilot, we are setting the course for our day, kind of figure out what we're doing as the plane. We are just executing on the orders of the pilot. And as the engineer, we are trying to optimize the system and learn new tricks and hacks and apps to make the process more efficient. And I usually suggest that we spend 10% of our time being the pilot, 85% of our time being the plan and only 5% of our time being the engineer. And so watching a productivity video or watching like Thomas Frank's notion setup or anything like that counts as the 5% of engineer time, it does not count as your 85% of playing time or your 10% of pilot time. So I think as long as the proportions are reasonable, it's totally fine to watch productivity, video videos. The problem becomes when it, when it becomes a substitute from actually doing the work.

Haleema: And on that note, I realize we're kind of short on time. Thank you so much Ali, for joining us today for this conversation. It was such a great pleasure to have you. Be sure to check out his YouTube channel and social media.

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