LDP! 012: Dr. Josiah Zayner: Self and Society (The Anti-Interview)
Biohacker, founder, molecular biophysicist, former NASA scientist. Dr. Josiah Zayner has worn many hats. Having been there and done that, Josiah invited us to try something different: an anti-interview. Something emergent, playful, different. And so, in this episode, we create dialogue around our selves and society. Join us!
Who is Josiah Zayner, PhD?
- On being reached out to. [2:30 ]
- Unique and interesting people. [3:00 ]
- Best hope for our conversation. [4:25 ]
- Why did Art start the podcast? [8:10 ]
- Entering into the unknown. [13:40 ]
- Josiah’s recent journey with the unknown. [15:00 ]
- On being a good thinker. [20:50 ]
- Thinkers versus doers? [25:00 ]
- On marketing. [26:55 ]
- Social media? [37:15 ]
- On selling. [43:00 ]
- Being and performing in society. [48:25 ]
- Trying things out: Being more social. [1:05:15 ]
- Love and be loved. [1:12:15 ]
- Who are you becoming – Josiah. [1:14:40 ]
- Who are you becoming – Art. [1:16:15 ]
Art Assoiants: Dr. Josiah Zayner is constantly pushing the boundaries of science outside traditional environments. He started biohacking during his PhD in molecular biophysics at the University of Chicago, creating the V chromo cord in his apartments, the world’s first musical instrument that uses engineered protein nanotechnology. Since then, Josiah’s science and art has been featured in exhibits at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco and New York, the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, and other world renowned venues. After his PhD, Josiah received a prestigious fellowship to work with NASA’s synthetic biology program, engineering bacteria to help terraform Mars. Epic. Now he’s the founder and CEO of The Odin, a company that is making genetic engineering available to consumers at home. In some sense, this is an anti interview. We don’t talk about his work necessarily. We really want to show what it’s like to get to know each other. Josiah asks me questions, we demonstrate our curiosity for each other’s lives and talk more about what it’s like to be a person and what’s important to us. With that said, join us.
Art Assoiants: Hi. It’s a pleasure to connect with you in this way. This is the first time that I’ve been reached out to, so there’s a lot of learning for me in this process.
Josiah Zayner: Honestly, I think this might be the first time I really reached out to somebody else. I don’t know how I saw your podcast. I think you are following me on Twitter and I started listening to your podcast and I was like, “wow, this is so unique and cool and interesting. I want to be part of this if I can.” And so I’m like, “I’m going to try to reach out and see if I can be part, participate with you and make something with you.” I thought it was super cool.
Art Assoiants: Love it. And I mean, here we are, we were making it into existence.
Josiah Zayner: Yeah, no, one of the things that I really enjoy in life is people who are very unique and interesting and I don’t want to say different, because that it’s can sometimes have a negative connotation. And from the podcast episodes I listened to, you just seem so interesting, and the way that you talk with people just seem so interesting. So I’m interested also in who are you are.
Art Assoiants: Yeah. There are ways that podcasts are, there’s a script to podcasts, right? So, there’s a person interviewing, there’s sort of a lot of space given to the person who is the interviewee. There’s a lot of attention on that person. And that’s cool. We perform that, or totally reinvent this thing. So, here’s something that is scripty and also I feel can be helpful. What’s your best hope for our conversation today?
Josiah Zayner: Our best hope. So, when I go into things now, sometimes I have to do a lot of things that, I don’t want to say I’m forced to do, but I have to do because of work or things like that. I do a lot of interviews and sometimes they can be very like, I don’t want to do them. But you kind of have to because you know, the publicity and everything like that. So one thing that I try to do and one thing that I really want to do is just have fun and enjoy this time. Like that’s something that is super important to me in my life because I have to work a lot and I have to do a lot of things. So just like get enjoyment out of an experience is high on the list, is have fun, enjoy myself. How about you?
Art Assoiants: For today, I’m very curious about a podcast, an interview, a conversation, a performance done in a different way. I’m curious how we’re gonna go about this, where we’re gonna end up, and what it’s going to feel like in the process. I’ve never really had in a conversation like this, the attention turned the other way. So I’m really curious how that experience will unfold. I’m also really intrigued by interesting people, and I don’t think that calling someone different is necessarily pejorative. So I’m curious, as you know, as we’re doing this, how can we continue to invite differentness into our conversations? Who are the people that will listen to this and enjoy swimming around in the verbal waters of the weirdness or nonstatus quo thinking, being, living? I’m kind of in it for being with it. I don’t know if that makes any fucking sense.
Josiah Zayner: How do you feel? How about that question?
Art Assoiants: I feel very, that’s a shitty qualifier, but I do feel very grounded. I feel rooted. They feel calm, I feel excited. I feel open. If I deconstructed, this is kind of the state where nifty things happen. Yeah. Where were you might come to something new. You might build something new and idea and understanding or relationship. The flavor of it is kind of like you’re just about to go see your favorite performer kind of thing. There’s just, pleasant anxiness to it, you know?
Josiah Zayner: Why did you start this podcast? Or what was your goal even when you started it?
Art Assoiants: I think there’s a danger here in my opinion. I don’t think what I’ll say is the, the full truth. Do you know what I mean?
Josiah Zayner: Yeah, totally.
Art Assoiants: There’s a narrativizing about the past, right? So, I might make it sound like a clean, nice story line. But what I was feeling and thinking when I created it with Chris Reyman and others may be different. I’ll take a stab at it. Kinda like how you and I started off talking, I really like being around people who are interesting. Like there’s something about that word. And I can usually tell when I’m with a person who’s interesting, when they understand what I mean when I say “I like interesting people.” There’s just something about saying, “I find that interesting.” A person who responds with like, “yeah, I kinda get what you mean.” There’s something about that. When we were thinking about this podcast, I felt like “I’d love to create a means through which to connect with interesting people and have these kinds of conversations and share them with the world.” Now that being said, part of the community that brought this into being is the East Side Institute in New York City. And this is a collective of people who broadly speaking, are interested in developing a world that is in my translation equitable. It’s a conscious world. It’s a world where we come together as social beings to create a world that is more suited for us as social beings. And I’ve done training and work with that community for some time. And the place where this podcast was born was a call with folks who are called the East Side Institute Associates. And this is a collective of people that have gone through, I believe it’s singularly the International Class, which is kinda like a more hands on a form of training, where you go to New York three times and you sort of do modules throughout six or eight months. And so this was a call where we brought everybody together over the past, you know, X amount of years that had been Associates. And people are like, “So, what are we going to do together? What are we doing? We’ve quote unquote been trained in this method of creating stuff together socially. What are we doing with it?” And I won’t lie. There was a sense of like, I want to create something that’s fucking nifty. I had been in a place in life where I was very transformed and inspired by podcasts. In particular it’s Tim Ferris really. I really connect and resonate with his deconstructive mind. His capacity to ask questions that lead to a particular way of thinking about an issue. I like that. Dave Asprey, his endless kind of like cheesy humor, and curiosity, and kind of like childlike playfulness. I really enjoyed that, but also the content that he produces and the people. There was something about podcasts, there was something about “I love nifty people and interesting people.” And there was this community that was like, “So, what are we going to do?” And, right time, right place, it all connected. And at the same time, I had a person that I was close with, Chris Reyman. Chris is a professor of music at the University of Texas, El Paso. I hope I don’t butcher that title or institution’s name. But, there’s something about having someone with you on a journey. And he was there, and I really trusted him, and I still trust him. I felt safe knowing that Chris was there with me wanting to do this thing, and we don’t really know what the fuck we’re doing. So, let’s figure it out. And here we are, it’s been about a year. So the idea was born at the end of last January.
Josiah Zayner: Interesting. Yeah. That makes me think of a lot of things, but I really, I think one of the most interesting things, and I deal with it a lot, is this idea of entering into the unknown, and not knowing what you’re doing. In my life, running a business, being a scientist, doing stuff. Whether we like it or not, there’s this certain level of human knowledge that we have access to. There’s a limit. Even though we have access to a large amounts of human knowledge, there’s still a limit. And what’s even more complicated is that each of our lives, experiences of things we’re trying to do, are nuanced and different. So there’s not necessarily a recipe for how to start a podcast, like you are doing. There might be ideas on how to start a podcast, you know, that’s like Tim Ferriss or Dave Aprey or something like that. But trying to do something unique is different. And I’m constantly in my life getting in these places where it’s unknown. There’s nobody to ask advice to.
Art Assoiants: What’s a recent example of an unknown that you’ve stepped into?
Josiah Zayner: Geesh. This is gonna just come out of left field and I feel bad for that. So maybe I can preface this a little bit. Like myself, I’m a scientist and I do a lot of things with genetic engineering and medical technologies. There’s this, there’s this drug, the first approved gene therapy. It was approved in the European Union, the EU in 2015 it’s called Glybera. It treats this disease called piloprotein lipase deficiency, which is basically accumulation of fat in the body. Your body doesn’t break down fat properly. They got this gene therapy approved and they gave it to like 30 people. And they were trying to charge $1 million for it and nobody would pay for it. So what ended up happening is they just stopped making the drug, stopped giving it to people, because nobody could afford to pay the million dollars for the treatment, the cure.
Art Assoiants: Now this is $1 million for a lifetime supply or $1 million per year?
Josiah Zayner: Once. So it’s a gene therapy that you just inject once. They haven’t been able to follow it obviously for, you know, 50 or a hundred years. But it lasts, you know, it’s like guaranteed up to 20 years or something, maybe longer.
Art Assoiants: Maybe to better understand that this is something that would go into your genetic code and give you the capacity to then produce this enzyme.
Josiah Zayner: Yeah. This enzyme that you lack. It gives you the capacity to produce it. Nobody’s making it anymore. Now that sounds crazy, right? There’s literally a cure for a disease out there that nobody’s making. To me, that’s like the most terrible thing that could happen in humanity, right? We have a cure for a disease that we know and nobody’s making it. So then I started to ask myself the question like, why is nobody making it? Could somebody make it, like me, for instance? And could I provide it to people? How would I go about doing that? How would I go about setting up a system in which I could protect patients so that caregivers wouldn’t harm them and protect caregivers so that if the patient gets harmed and they were doing everything correctly, they don’t get in trouble? You need to set up a regulatory structure. You’d probably need to go to a different country to set up this whole system to be able to provide a drug that outside a regulatory structure because the U.S. would throw you in jail if you just gave somebody a drug. And then it starts to get into this whole complicated, crazy mess. Like nobody’s ever tried to set up a private regulatory institution in another country where there’s no regulatory structure. Nobody’s tried to take a drug that was available and didn’t become available and make it and give it to people when it’s not being made, and cure people of a disease. And it’s just like, oh my gosh. And I tried to ask people for advice about this thing, like, “Can you help? What should I do? If you could give somebody a drug and knew how to make it, like, would you do it? What would stop you from not doing it?” And it’s this insane position to be in where like, there’s no right answer. There’s no wrong answer because I have no idea what will happen. Like, say I go to the Dominican Republic, open up a medical facility, provide people with this drug and they get cured. Like, is that bad? What happens if I get thrown in jail for it? Is it worth it? The unknown’s just overwhelming.
Art Assoiants: It’s literally the void. You can’t predict the future at all. But the stakes are higher than a podcast.
Josiah Zayner: I dunno. Don’t underestimate the power of your words or of spreading ideas. Some people say that the most dangerous invention of all time was like stuff being written down, like books and written word and stuff like that. And you probably could argue that for sure. You know, that like, ideas are the most powerful invention that have ever happened. Your podcast reached me and touched me. So imagine the effect. It can have another people, it can literally transform people’s lives. And that’s interesting. That’s like amazing.
Art Assoiants: I like the tie back. How is it that, I’m making an assumption here, how is it that you keep finding yourself in situations that have no answers, that are complex in this way?
Josiah Zayner: I think a lot.
Art Assoiants: What does that look like?
Josiah Zayner: I always say if there was an Olympics for thinking, I’d probably win like bronze or silver. Definitely not gold cause I’m not like an expert thinker.
Art Assoiants: Okay, hold on, pause here. What in your mind does an expert thinker look like? What is their day to day life? What do they do?
Josiah Zayner: Okay, so there’s two things I think that are essential for thinking, creativity, whatever. One is knowledge and information. If you don’t have knowledge or information in your brain, your thoughts will get caught in a circular loop. You might be able to make different associations that you never made before, but without new information you’re stuck with the information that you already have, and you only make so many associations in that information. I think knowledge and creativity is one. And the other I think is just being diligent about thinking.
Art Assoiants: What does that mean?
Josiah Zayner: Like taking the time to think about stuff, like literally taking the time to, all right, I’m going to think about this thing. I’m going to devote time specifically to thinking about this thing.
Art Assoiants: Are we talking journaling or are we talking, you block off 15 minutes to literally focus yourself on a particular issue or particular topic? Like how does this look? Like Introduce us into Josiah’s thoughts on thoughts, metacognition.
Josiah Zayner: Yeah. No, it is journaling. You know, I keep a lot of files in my Google drive cloud drive, that I write stuff in, keep track of all my thoughts and the information that I found. Sometimes it’s speaking to people. One of my favorite things is, I was thinking about this last night, one thing that really interests me is questions like, because a lot of times answers come down to finding the correct question. I like to, like with the people I work with, I’m always asking them questions. I’ll have crazy questions that I ask every day, some of it’s really silly, like, would you rather have a fancy car or fancy clothes? Because it gives you insight into like the way the world works, what people are thinking about, like how they perceive themselves, how they perceive the world. But questions like what’s the correct way to set up a regulatory structure in another country that’s a question, but that that’s like so broad in general. It’s not the correct question, right? The correct question is something more nuanced, more detailed. So asking questions is a big part of it. Getting other people’s input and feedback is a big part of it. I think in general, it’s just experiencing lots of new things and unique things and trying to assimilate those facts in your head. Spending time thinking and discussing and thinking and discussing.
Art Assoiants: You and I probably have acquaintances that are really good thinkers, but do jack shit with those brilliant thoughts. So what differentiates a person who would get a gold star or gold medal for thinking, who can transform the world?
Josiah Zayner: Yeah, I dunno. I’m not really into transforming the world or something like that. I know other people are, and they actively try to think about and do things like that. I dunno. I think it’s a lot of society.
Art Assoiants: What does that mean?
Josiah Zayner: I think that like the best thinkers probably have never even been talked about or heard about. Like you, and I’m not saying this to like toot your horn or anything like that. But like I heard your podcast and it was really interesting and unique, and it made me think a lot.
Art Assoiants: Which one was it, just out of curiosity?
Josiah Zayner: I listened to two episodes so far. Um, and I don’t remember the one guy who you talked with about play from Illinois in Chicago, Tony Perone. And the other one was with a woman. You’re talking about science, Raquel Holmes. The Tony one I listened to first and that one just blew my mind. Totally. I was just like, wow. I even even thought about these things before. I never even imagined that things like this exist. And that was just so cool. But I think you know like the difference between maybe somebody like you, who is doing something interesting and unique and you know, some people enjoy it. A difference between like Game of Thrones is that Game of Thrones has a bigger marketing budget. What I think is that like at least my experience in the world is that societies are, I don’t want to say controlled. Like, the reason we use Apple smartphones is not because Apple smartphones are the best or the most inexpensive or like anything that legitimately has quantitative reasonings. You know, maybe you could say, well they have like a good app store or something. But generally on any phone. The reason we use it is because we’re marketed to so heavily for it. Like there’s phones, you know, in China and stuff like that that are amazing. Huawei and you know, Ziaomi.
Art Assoiants: I used a OnePlus.
Josiah Zayner: So that was my last phone also was a OnePlus. Right. Because I was like, I wanted to break out of this ecosystem of what I’m being marketed to and told as the best into an ecosystem where I get to explore what I think is the best for me.
Art Assoiants: And then I switched to Google Pixel.
Josiah Zayner: Actually, exactly the same. But like your podcast, it’s in that sphere where people haven’t experienced it. So it’s not that your podcast is good or bad or anything like that. If you get it in front of enough people, you’ll gain enough followers and enough people will enjoy it to where it can grow and be big and famous or whatever. I think the hardest part, what I learned with running a company is that it’s not like making a good product. It’s not even necessarily selling the product. It’s just getting it in front of enough eyes because one out of every hundred people, a thousand people is going to buy something.
Art Assoiants: So there’s a few things that, that I think about when we switch to thinking about, you know. I’m talking out of my ass here, I don’t have a business, right? You have a lot more experience than I do. But just the thinking from the lens of the background that I do have, logic doesn’t sell anything. So when I, for example, got the Google Pixel, whatever. I literally went to every provider that had a Google pixel, 2 XL, whatever, and I deconstructed literally the exact price that I would pay from that provider over two years. Like I went and did that as opposed to loyalty. I did that. I looked at the specs of the phone, I looked at how the quality of the pictures, whatever. Cause I’m one of those people that would, in this case. But people aren’t motivated by logic. People are motivated by the elephant. I forget who wrote it, but it’s a mindfulness idea that there’s a writer and an elephant, right? So the rider’s the logic. When the rider and elephants are in alignment, when the elephant’s chill, you know, the rider could tell the elephant where to go. But when the elephant is experiencing any kind of, you know, I’m hungry, I just got bit on my leg or, I need to use the bathroom right now. I’m angry. I’m scared. You know, the rider is irrelevant at that point. The decision making capacity isn’t up to the rider. It’s up to the elephant. And the elephant has a lot more weight than a lot more movement than a lot more capacity in this world. I think a good share of decisions are made by the elephant, the emotion. Whereas a lot of folks who are smart, for better or worse, and I’m beginning to think that it’s maybe not for the better, the older I get, a lot of folks think that decisions are made logically. So that’s the one thing I just wanted you to share with these how you respond that. And another thing is fail fast. That’s a design thinking, sort of philosophy, not singularly in that community, but fail quickly. OK, so produced what, you know eight, ten, soon to be 15 episodes of the podcast. How is the reach, how are people responding to it? What’s the organic reach? Cause I could spend my own money getting it out there, but if nobody’s biting as is, then it’s inflating it.
Josiah Zayner: It’s interesting that you think it’s inflating it. Here’s the interesting thing. Everything for us nowadays is curated. So like if I searched “interesting podcast” on the internet, your podcast most likely would not come up. I don’t know if it will or not. You’d get a bunch of websites that list the 10 most interesting podcasts, which they all list the same thing, and they’re just basically the most popular podcasts. They’re not the most interesting necessarily. Everything is curated for us. And I think this is starting to become a problem because I think there’s so many interesting things that are in that zone outside of the curation, but they’re not reaching me. They’re not reaching people because they’re not being artificially inflated. And sometimes that artificial inflation gets it to the people who actually will appreciate it. So instead of like, say, if I just put something on the internet and posted on my social media and hope that my friends and fans and people like that share it and that it starts to reach other people. Me going out and passing out flyers or actually reaching people, extending the circle artificially, extending the circle. I don’t think that’s necessarily a negative. I don’t know if you meant it in a negative. It’s just part of the way our social experience exists nowadays.
Art Assoiants: So it’s like, if you can’t beat them, join them kind of thing?
Josiah Zayner: Well no, it’s just like, here’s the thing. Like I said, if I’m trying to search on the internet for like smartest this, best this, coolest this. It’s super highly curated. So that means if I don’t have something on the internet that says, “I’m the most interesting podcast, I’m the most interesting person.” Nobody’s going to ever think that I might have the most interesting podcasts or I might have the most interesting person.
Art Assoiants: Let’s maybe flip it around to the work that you do with, with Odin. How do you think about the conversation we’re having in regards to your business?
Josiah Zayner: My business, what I’m trying to do, is reach the most amount of people. Number one, because of the business and you got to make money. Number two, because that’s the whole goal of my company is to reach people with the idea that genetic engineering should be accessible to everyone. And so that requires running ads that requires carefully crafting messages that will reach the most number of people, that requires doing things that are more marketing. I try to be real and raw and truthful as much as possible, but like, if my goal is right to reach people, then sometimes it’s a sanitized truth.
Art Assoiants: Well, it has a purpose.
Josiah Zayner: But it sucks because you feel like you’re selling out, right?
Art Assoiants: Yeah. I haven’t and I’m not thinking like, you know, people out there have quote unquote figured it out. But I haven’t come close to figuring that one out. Like making sense of it for myself. I don’t know. I don’t know how to think about it.
Josiah Zayner: How do you view social media? How do you experience it? How do you use it? What do you think about it? Let’s just start with Facebook. When you post on your Facebook. Why do you use Facebook?
Art Assoiants: So I’ve recently been rethinking my relationship with Facebook. I’ve honestly like gone back to Facebook over the past week, partly to say hey to you and partly because I feel like the algorithm changed again and the content is more interesting again. So I wasn’t on Facebook for months because it was just, it wasn’t value add. And now it’s interesting. I scroll through things and I get this feeling of like, “huh.” Okay, so let’s a step back for me. For me, all the platforms, so Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram are partly ways of growing this community that is my life. That’s the sanitized version of it. The non sanitized version of it is it’s a little bit like crack cocaine. It’s very addictive. It’s very addictive. I catch myself recently diverting attention, like giving my attention to these especially Instagram.
Josiah Zayner: Saying “it’s very addictive,” do you mean that in a negative way?
Art Assoiants: Yeah, for me, I feel like it’s in a negative way. So especially, especially Instagram. Less so Twitter. Twitter is more interesting. Twitter, I could often stumble upon interesting ideas and LinkedIn too. So Twitter and LinkedIn have content that could stimulate my mind, is good for my profession. Facebook, I don’t know how to feel about it yet. But also I feel like social media is good to live out loud with. So sharing with people what I’m up to, letting people know that, hey, this is happening, that’s happening. It’s the biggest avenue by which people learn about the podcasts. You know, if we look at the simple metrics, that’s a big one too. You know, you’re asking me this question in a time where I’m really trying to figure it out for myself. Which means it’s probably a good time to ask it.
Josiah Zayner: Yeah. For me, social media, is, there’s two parts to social media. There’s my personal use and enjoyment of social media and that doesn’t involve me at all. That’s like not me posting anything. That’s me being able to experience other people. Like you said, I’ve found and experienced, so many interesting people that I never would’ve been able to experience except on social media. Like I’ve made friends. I have friends on like Facebook who are, you know, furry people, you know, the people would dress up in costumes and I don’t subscribe to any of that. I don’t even know. I met people who are like oil field workers in Wyoming and oil refinery workers in Mississippi and like all these people who think they’ve built time machines. I think that’s such a fun and exciting and cool part of it for me is that like I try to seek and reach out to people who are outside my circle because I feel like my circle is great, but it’s a lot of homogenous thoughts and ideas. Like why does somebody think they built a time machine? Like, and these people aren’t like insane or anything. And you’re just like, “where does this person get that experience and feeling and idea from?” I want to know, like I want to see what is there. And then there’s the business aspect, like you were talking about where social media is the most amazing way you can grow anything that you want social reach for. So there’s a purely business aspect of it and sometimes that involves myself selling myself. Well, it’s like prostitution a little bit.
Art Assoiants: It doesn’t involve genitals, but in some ways you are, you are soliciting your own being. But then again, like this, the selling conversation is tricky. Like just because we could put a like, like shine a light on, on this tool that we’ve created and, and are using called social media. Like I imagine our ancestors needed to sometimes sell their crops or you know, yeah, they’re the local butcher or whatever. I just envisioned this capacity to communicate value and invite people into that value as being quintessentially human. Or maybe not, let’s think of the meeting game with animals. If you’re wanting to peacock, you’re doing it because you’re selling yourself. You’re literally selling, you’re trying to communicate value being like, “I’m a good mate. Go for me. I think things are going to be great if you go for me because that’s what’s up right now.” When does something that’s maybe so pure and real transformed to that feeling of ickiness that I think is implicit in how we were thinking about selling? Where is that tipping point?
Josiah Zayner: I think a lot of people, including myself, when I first started running a company, for some reason we feel like, sales is kind of gross or icky. At least that’s how I felt. I still feel it a little. But like I don’t like to sell things to people. I have the viewpoint of like, well people just won’t buy it if they want to. But I’ve found out that like sales is an essential part of our society. It’s just like part of everything. Whether you’re selling somebody a tee shirt or like you said, you’re selling somebody yourself or you’re selling somebody, your education, or your intellect, or whatever. We’re always selling something to each other. And I don’t mean that in a negative way. I mean that in a way where it’s like, okay, like we are all sellouts and that’s okay. We are all like slaves to the system that we live in.
Art Assoiants: So pause, hold on. I feel like I need to challenge you here. Not all of us are that. I don’t listen to mainstream music much, so I can’t even like give you examples of bands. You know, when a band sells out, like you could, you could taste it.
Josiah Zayner: But here’s the thing. So a quote that I once heard, “we’re all sellouts, we just have different prices.” I think that’s the truth. It’s so funny because if I look at my life, and I look at all the things that have happened, and all the things that I said I would never do and how I’m doing them. And like I try to be the most me I can possibly be, original raw me. And like I’m still doing these things I said I would never do. And it’s because like it’s not that there was something inherently wrong with the thing. There was something inherently wrong with my idea of the thing. The idea that like taking money or like sanitizing my sound or like doing this thing was inherently wrong in some way. Instead of it being like, well, if I understand the reasons I’m doing it actually adds value to my life and actually adds value in some way.
Art Assoiants: And it might add value to more people. You might be adding value to more people by virtue of making a decision not to live up to a previous ideal or a previously held ethic. There’s like a tang of pragmatism there.
Josiah Zayner: No, it’s true. Yeah. So for instance, my appearance used to look a lot crazier and a lot more like punk and almost scary. And the reason I say scary is because I would, I live in the Bay area in San Francisco and Oakland, and I would get on the bus or the train and like nobody would ever sit next to me. Like nobody would ever sit next to me because they’re like, “this guy looks a little…” And I always have like a resting bitch face or something. It was just like that, I don’t like hate people. I actually really love people a lot. And I was like, this is not advantageous in my life. Like it’s how I feel and it’s how I perceive myself and want to be. But my perception of myself is affecting the way I interact with other people and they interact with me, and it’s a negative. And so I took out some piercings. I had stopped dying my hair blue, got a nice pair of glasses, keep clean shaven. I did these things that most people think of, “well, that’s like kind of selling out.” But to me it’s like, I’m still the same me but it’s totally changed people’s perception and reaction to me, which has allowed me to build better relationships. It has allowed me to have kinder, gentler conversation and interactions with people. And it’s built up myself. Those things have helped build me up.
Art Assoiants: So, question. If you were to, at this point, don the costume of previous, Josiah, would you still feel as congruent?
Josiah Zayner: No, I would feel weird. I think I saw everything through my own eyes, but not through other people’s eyes. I’m very introspective person. Like I said, I think a lot. And I like to just think, and like, I love to think about thinking and the way I think. But I’m not good at like being, I don’t want to say empathetic, but I’m not good at like putting myself in other people’s shoes.
Art Assoiants: And when did you really come to know that?
Josiah Zayner: This is kind of a funny story and it’s kind of really, a Bay area, Silicon Valley kind of funny story. So there’s this famous start up, incubator. So, an incubator is a place that will give startup companies money and they’ll teach them how to run a company. There’s this famous one in Silicon Valley called Y Combinator and they’ve have created, helped create some of the most, you know, famous companies and successful companies out there. And you apply. And I applied and I got accepted for an interview there. And you know, they said just like, “Oh, you don’t have to dress up or anything, just like be yourself.” So I show up as myself. And at the time I was, it was like a hard time. I was really really focused on my company and it was just starting and like it was really hard. So I was like stressed out all the time and not concerned about my appearance or myself at all. I remember walking into the interview room and we just started selling this product where it allowed people to genetically modify brewing yeast so you could make kind of like glowing beer with these genetically modified yeast. And I walk in and I pass out samples, like, “here’s some of the stuff we’re creating.” And I’m wearing a hoodie with lots of holes in it, and a shirt that’s like torn, and I probably have like blue hair and more piercings in my lip and my nose and all this stuff. And I also have this really calm sense that was, I imagine, probably seemed almost like psychopathic because I’m just like sitting there like smiling and staring at them. Like, “what’s up guys, what’s up gals? Like what’s going on here?” And they were like, “who is this guy? It looks like he just walked off the street. Like, he just looks crazy.” And like he just walks in and hands us his genetically modified thing and somebody was like, “is this going to kill us or something?” And I was like, “no.” I left that thing, and I went out, and they didn’t accept me to their incubator. And I was really like, “wow.” Like I can’t believe they didn’t accept me. I thought it was so great and like, I thought I did a good job. And I’m like, maybe my perception of myself is a little bit off. Like the way I’m portraying myself isn’t the way I think I am. And it really started me thinking on how could I portray myself to be somebody that’s still weird and quirky and me but isn’t so scary that people think I’m gonna like kill them with some brewing yeast that I gave them.
Art Assoiants: And how long, how long ago was this?
Josiah Zayner: A year and a half. Two years ago.
Art Assoiants: So, there’s like a recent transformation in you.
Josiah Zayner: Yeah, it really is. It’s really has been and it’s been super positive, like super positive in my life. Just my interactions with people are so much more enjoyable and like people see me as somebody they can relate to more and like experience stuff with more. And I really, I enjoy it.
Art Assoiants: There’s is a quote, I think it’s Martin Buber. I could be totally off with this and there’s many, well there’s a lot of work around this, but “it takes two to know one.” And I think we’re really good in the Western world in thinking that we as individuals get who we as individuals are, forgetting that, you know, we’re more of a gerund than we are a noun. We’re more of a process than we are a fixed thing. The story you just shared kind of gives me the sense that it’s like a case in point that we are who we are in society. And that thought around like, and so this is a term that’s used in communities that I belong to, which is not pejorative. How am I performing in the world? What are the decisions that I’m making in society and how are people responding to those decisions? It’s so interesting to start thinking that way. It’s such a different way of living around, not necessarily to please, I mean, it could be pathological, whichever way you go. But what’s the ongoing creation between what I’m recognizing as being relevant and important to me, and the needs that are emerging with the people who I’m beginning to realize are people I want to hang out with, are people I want to build relationships with? A brief story with me is recently I was, in one of the contexts they belonged to, is I was told that I’m overfamiliar with leadership, with folks who are in higher status in society. And, and to me personally, I don’t really connect well with positional power, so people who have power because they have power and position. So that’s what I came into this community with. And then I’m like, “well, okay, hold on. Good for me. That’s nice. Okay.” But I, I want to be in this world. I want to learn how this community thinks about things. Because if I’m an outsider, I won’t be able to do anything anyway. So, are you gonna make a performance choice around doing something different? There’s something about that that I think is just so cool around like recognizing the social-ness. The thing that is in the middle of you as an individual, which is made up, and you as a social being, which is made up. Meaning none of it’s really real. It’s somewhere in the middle, and how do you navigate that? That that to me is kind of cool. That to me is interesting.
Josiah Zayner: Yeah. No, it’s such a profound story that you just told because I used to be of the mindset of like, “screw everybody else. I’m just being me. You’re going to have to put up with me no matter what I do.” Before this interview thing happened, I worked at NASA, the space agency. I always say “the space agency” because I feel like I don’t pronounce, I don’t enunciate NASA correctly. Just when it comes out of my mouth, I feel like it’s not annunciated correctly, and I feel like somebody might something else or something like that. So I’m always like, “NASA the space agency.”
Art Assoiants: I feel like NASA, the space agency sounds cooler than just NASA. Like it sounds like it has to be followed by the space agency.
Josiah Zayner: But sometimes people are like, “Oh, I know, I know this is a space agency.” And I’m like, “I didn’t know if you are understanding the words that were coming out of my mouth.
Art Assoiants: That’s a performance choice that you’re making.
Josiah Zayner: So I was in graduate school before that. And graduate school is kind of an interesting place where people really let you kind of be who you want to be. And at least where I went, there wasn’t a lot of influence on trying to influence you to be somebody else unless you weren’t getting things done, or you weren’t working, or you weren’t doing your research. Otherwise people would just like be what you want, like do whatever, look however you want, act however you want, like nobody cared, which was really beautiful. It was really nice.
Art Assoiants: I know a lot of people that would want to go to school or you went to school, where’d you go to school?
Josiah Zayner: The University of Chicago. You are more judged by your work and your intellectual contributions than you were anything to do with who you were as a person. Obviously if you are like a complete jerk, that didn’t work out well. But like generally it was okay. And when I arrived at NASA, I was still whoever I wanted to be. And NASA is a government agency, understand. Very political, very filled with decorum and hierarchies and all this stuff. So I went from like you, being overfamiliar with people above me. Some of my professors would invite me over to their office and we’d like drink some whiskey or something right in the middle of the day and like talk about stuff. And now people are trying to tell me what to do and I’m just like, “I ain’t having none of that.” And it really crashed and burned hard. Not the fact that I didn’t get anything done or I wasn’t doing stuff as a scientist, but socially it kinda of made me a pariah because. I wasn’t interacting in the way they saw the world. They had like a set way that they saw the world, and I was not participating in that, so I was not part of their world. And I didn’t realize that until after the fact that like, you basically excluded yourself. They didn’t exclude you. And that was an interesting realization.
Art Assoiants: How long did you spend at a NASA the space agency?
Josiah Zayner: So I was, I was there for two years.
Art Assoiants: Two years is a long time to spend not knowing what the hell is wrong with the world.
Josiah Zayner: Yeah. It was very interesting. But I think those are also the best situations in life, like we were talking about before. I think the best situations in life are to be in way over your head.
Art Assoiants: There’s something about being an immigrant where that’s just a given. Not for me. I grew up in Canada, just getting a flavor of what it means to come to a different place, even as a local. And then I can’t imagine what it’s like to move to an entirely different world. Like that as the epitome of entrepreneur. So recently, I got a little too comfortable in life and I was like, “okay, something needs to give. And so I stopped using nicotine.” I used to vape like chimney. But it comes from the same place of like, okay, things are a little too good. What’s the thing that I’m going to do that’s not totally, entirely gonna fuck things up? Might even be a good thing, but it’s time. Yeah, it was a little over my head for a little while there.
Josiah Zayner: I love it. I love that. That’s so cool because I’m that way a lot also, where I’ll just be like, you know, reevaluate everything in my life and be like, I’m going to try this thing and see what happens. Even something as small that doesn’t seem so consequential, but like, it gives you a whole new experience and outlook on life.
Art Assoiants: Is there anything, that’s sort of there in the back burner that, “I kinda like want to try this out. Not really there yet, but I’m kind of thinking about it.” Is there something like that for you right now?
Josiah Zayner: A lot of things. I am a very try things out type of person
Art Assoiants: Hashtag biohacking.
Josiah Zayner: Exactly. It’s a truth though. And it’s not crazy stuff, well, to most people it would probably be crazy. I’m not the type of person who is like, I want to travel the world and experience all these new things though. I think that is important to like be able to travel and experience different cultures and different people. That is an important thing to do. I’m more of like, I like to explore the range and depths of my mind and experiences. So traveling a lot of times for me is I’m this thing that I’ve done every day for the past two years, I’m going to completely change it or something like that. I’m going to completely do this thing differently or I’m going to try to do it differently. And that’s my traveling. That’s my intellectual stimulation and experience. And right now one of the big things that I’ve been working on is being more, like I’m not a very social person even though some people might think I am. And trying to be more involved in social situations and putting myself out there and interacting with people. And not being like a downer about it. Not being the person who goes to the party and like sits in the corner and it’s just like, “I’m cool by myself, but you seem totally like…”
Art Assoiants: Cause you ay e cool. But you have insight around how you’re perceived.
Josiah Zayner: Yeah. And trying to experience the world of enjoying people’s company even if it’s not necessary. Like I’m totally fine with being alone. Like I could be alone and just spend time thinking and doing things and experiencing things all by myself, locked in my room and I’d be totally cool. So like social interactions generally have a negative connotation for me. Like, “Oh gosh, I have to do that. I don’t even know those people. I don’t want to interact with people I don’t know.” And so I tend to have a very negative and pessimistic attitude about it. And I’ve been trying to be like, alright, you’re going to go into this and you’re going to be like, “this is going to be fun and you’re going to try to have fun. You’re gonna try to change your view on these interactions and be like, ‘being social with people can be fun and that’s okay. It’s okay to have fun doing it.’” So like go into it with that attitude and it’s, I’ve been in introspective and lonely, not lonely, but like alone for all my life. So it’s complicated to start to change that, but it’s been positive also, to experience this other world. I don’t have to leave behind the world of like being introspective, but I can also experience this other world of being social.
Art Assoiants: That’s really commendable. How old are you?
Josiah Zayner: 38.
Art Assoiants: So you’ve been around for almost four decades, and you’re like, “you know what, fuck it. Gonna give this a go.” That to me is like that is the epitome of what it is like to be an interesting person. The person that’s just like, “you know what, let’s give this a go. Let’s see what this is like, let’s tinker.” Like that is giga inspiring for me. That puts a smile on my face.
Josiah Zayner: That’s cool. I don’t know what to say in response.
Art Assoiants: Yeah, that’s totally fine. So we’re, we’re coming near the quote unquote end of this iteration of our conversation, although I imagine we’ll have many more over this lifetime. Is there anything that I haven’t asked you that you haven’t asked me. There’s one question that’s still pending, and I think you know which one that is. But apart from that.
Josiah Zayner: Oh, geesh. My life is just like full of questions. So that’s always a hard thing for me to answer. Is there any question you have of me?
Art Assoiants: You’re like, “hold on, I have a filing cabinet, which one’s going to be today?”
Josiah Zayner: Cause I like questions a lot, and I like exploring things a lot. If I had to spend one question though, I have one question to spend. I think it would be more about you. Well I don’t know specifically, and it’s hard to artificially create a conversation and probe into somebody’s depths. And I think those things just kind of come out when you’re having a conversation naturally, like we kind of did, I think that was really cool and interesting. I had a question it would just be like, tell me more about you and your experience of life and stuff like that. I think that’s like way too general of a question though. And I don’t know you well enough to ask you really specific things about your life and experience. I guess I have no question.
Art Assoiants: Is there anything I haven’t asked you yet that you feel you’d want to share with the world?
Josiah Zayner: I mean, there’s so much I want to share with the world. But I do that plenty on social media. I don’t know. Like I guess if I could share one thing with the world it would just be that, and I know it’s not going away. But it seems that way from social media and stuff sometimes and how the world is really divided and how we’re trying to like wage these social wars with each other, and other countries, and all these things, and the way we perceive everybody can be overly negative sometimes. And it sounds super cheesy, but like in my life I’ve come to the conclusion that the most important thing to me, it’s not like money, or fame, or all these things, it’s like to love and to be loved. To me there’s nothing more special than being able to share intimate moments, experiences with other people. And I don’t mean like sexual or anything like that. I just mean like with friends, with family, with whoever, and to feel safe and protected in return, being able to feel loved and return. And I just hope, and I wish, and I crave it also more, is like treat people with love. Love each other. Love and be loved. Like, that’s the most fulfilling life you’re going to have. I know that was really cheesy and cliche.
Art Assoiants: There are ays o make that cheesy and cliché, nd there are ways that I felt ou deliver that, which was, heartwarming. Um, and there’s a difference. So before we finish off, I’m like, oof, I’m feeling really warm after that. Thank you. Who are you becoming?
Josiah Zayner: Ah, geesh. I hope I’m becoming somebody who is more loving. Yeah, for sure. That’s, I think my biggest goal right now is to be nice, which sounds so silly. It sounds so silly to like, I’m trying to be more nice to people. And I’m not mean to people, but like, oh my gosh, being nice is such an amazing thing. You know, for whoever, for your partner, if you’re in a relationship, or your family, or anything. If you’re just like, “Hey, I just wanted to text you because I wanted to say hi, and I love you. Hey, I made you coffee in the morning because I care.” Like the simple things that are just nice and don’t take anything away from your life. I’ve just been, it’s something that I want to be. I don’t want to be a mean person. I don’t want to be a person who like tears people down or hurts their life. I want to be a positive thing in people’s lives. And that’s really who I want to be, really.
Art Assoiants: Solid. It’s been good hanging out. I love this.
Josiah Zayner: What about you?
Art Assoiants: Who am I becoming? So this is somebody who I was becoming or I enacted this performance of being a rock, a stable force, a lighthouse, like a beacon consistency for a while. And then I went a little elsewhere. I moved into, I became pretty unwell actually for awhile. And I think who I’m becoming is I’m going back to my roots of being a person who is there for, one of my most important things in life, my grandma.
Josiah Zayner: I love that. No, that’s something thatI want to strive to be more of.
Art Assoiants: It doesn’t mean I’m good at it. My mom will tell you I should call more often. But it’s there. It’s definitely there. And in my primary relationship that I’m building, she, my partner knows it’s my mom and grandma and then it’s her.
Josiah Zayner: Here’s the thing I learned though, is that we have this idea that like you can just magically be this certain way, but everything takes time to develop. I always imagine everything in life, like you’re talking about, it’s a performance. It’s like learning to play a guitar or learning to do anything. Learning a field like in graduate school or something like that. You can’t just like one day know it and one day you don’t know it. No, it’s this like whole process. And so taking the first step in, even making a way towards something I think is it’s the best thing you could possibly do. Just taking that first step, like just realizing it. Yeah, don’t caveat yourself.
Art Assoiants: Well thank you. Thank you for this conversation and this connection.
Josiah Zayner: Yeah, no, I enjoyed it very much so, very much.