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Brendan Leonard Is Throwing Himself At All The Things
And it's working out really nicely.
Hello! This is Everything Is Amazing, a newsletter about curiosity.
For anyone first encountering the work of writer, author, adventurer, filmmaker and pretty-much-everything-elser Brendan Leonard, I would give them two pieces of advice.
Firstly, be prepared to put some serious time aside, because when you get hooked, you’ll quickly find his output is basically endless. He’s produced an astonishing amount of work - and it’s all great, so you can’t even skip any of it.
And secondly, please ensure you’re not drinking anything, or it’ll just shoot straight through your nose.
Brendan is a master of telling incredibly funny stories about everyday, wholly relatable experiences - including the kind when you’re outside with friends doing something virtuously energetic, and because you’re human and have inevitably bitten off more than you can chew, it’s all becoming deathly grim & horrible and you’re wishing you were less of an idiot. Those times.
Most recently in his career, he’s become known for writing & filming his experience of long-distance running - Outside calls him “The Everyman Of Ultrarunning” - but to hundreds of thousands of his followers on Instagram, Patreon and his website, Semi-Rad.com, he’s also the guy that writes short essays & draws cartoons that perfectly describe how ridiculous life is. Not just his life, but their life too.
His latest is about frying eggs. Go see what I mean.
I caught up with Brendan on the Scottish beach at the bottom of my road. I mean, he wasn’t there, he was in Montana where he lives - but I interviewed him on the phone, after coming up with the brilliant idea of doing a “walking interview.”
(Unfortunately/Inevitably, some technical issue with my phone made my end of the call sound like I was standing in a wind-tunnel while yelling through a kazoo - so Brendan deserves a medal for not only putting up with that for nearly an hour, but also answering my questions so thoughfully.)
This was a real treat. Thanks, Brendan.
This interview has been edited for length, clarity, and deafening kazoo-like noise.
Mike: So first of all, as you do before any interview, I typed your name into Google, and - you came up as “filmmaker”. But what about all the books that you've written? And a decade of writing at Semi-Rad [much of which gets syndicated into Outside magazine]. But it's like, filmmaker.
Brendan: I don't know how that works.
M: Do you think it's something to do with that guy with your name who had the TV show in 2003?
B: I honestly think it may have to do with Google owning YouTube? Yeah, man, I have no idea why that is. I guess…one of the films I've made [I’m guessing it’s this one] is the biggest thing I've ever done in metrics that I can see of people who have seen the work and recognised that it's me. But I don't know if that has anything to do with it.
M: So how do you feel about that? How do you self-identify as a maker of stuff? And do you see a conflict between how you describe yourself and how the rest of the world does?
B: Oh, man, I don't know. I'm just trying to avoid having a real job. Today, it's working. I think that's probably the weakest point of my entire creative existence is that I can't focus on one thing. If you were to ask a branding expert, what is this thing he does? They’d say, it just seems like he just does different things. And none of them very well. And yet is able to pay rent.
M: This is amazing.
B: The cliched thing to say would be ”storyteller” because everything I do boils down to a story, whether it's just a little simple illustration that tells a story about human beings and why we're so ridiculous, or a 60,000 word book, or a film. But that’s sort of a cringy title now. It's like, how nobody wants to be called an influencer?
B: Right now I'm working on a film. I'm literally editing the film myself, which….I love coming up with the idea for the film, but I fucking hate editing it. But I also don't want to hand it over to somebody and be like, tell me what the story is. You just chop it together. And then I'm working on a couple of books and wrote an essay yesterday. And - it's nice to be able to pivot and say, what do I feel like doing today? And choose what is the least resistance, or what needs to be done, or what deadline is coming up. But I don't know. If you ask most people how they perceive themselves versus how other people perceive them, I think those two answers don't coincide. We're all probably a little misunderstood.
M: Absolutely. But I also feel like that's a strength. Pigeonholing yourself for marketing purposes is also a shutting down of all those different paths, those different ways that we can think. So that’s a commendable thing you’re doing for your curiosity. With that in mind, what do you currently find yourself most curious about in this season of your creative life?
B: Oh, boy. That's a good question. Well - we have not publicly told a lot of people, but we're expecting a baby.
M: Oh wow! Congratulations.
B: So my current direction - I feel myself being pulled in frantically trying to finish up a bunch of projects before I get my ass kicked by an eight-pound human. I'm really frantically doing a lot of things at this point. For the first time in my life, I'm having no problem waking up early in the morning.
M: You’re out of options for taking your time over things.
B: Right, it makes you more efficient. One of the things I've learned recently, which is not a new revelation to a lot of people, is that constraints actually help creativity, right? Oh, I only have this much to work with, or I only have these skills, or I only have access to this much money to produce this thing - and how that actually informs the work. And - I'm not good at drawing. But that in itself has forced me to find a way to make it work. And it's not going to be a very aesthetic drawing, but maybe that in itself is its own asset. You find you have a style and if it's not a high quality aesthetic, it's still a style to find your way into.
I think of punk musicians. Someone who's a classically trained musician who's very interested in the quality of how a piece is played, would look at punk musicians and just be like, This is fucking garbage. And a lot of punk musicians themselves, they barely know how to play their instruments. But they’re like, we have something to say, and I really enjoy that. It’s like DIY: we're gonna do this, if you like it, cool. If you don't, that's fine, too, and it means it's not for you. I'm really into that sort of thing.
M: And it gets around the perfection trap, I've got to get it right. No, you don’t. It's never going to be right.
M: And maybe procrastinating to the last minute is another version of what you’re talking about, creating the constraint that makes it able to create properly. Anyway. So - you’ve done all these things, and…I'm sorry to say this, because I know how it sounds when it lands on another person, but - you're really accomplished!
B: Oh god.
M: I’m sorry. But you've done a huge amount of things that clearly show your wide-ranging interests. How do you manage that? How do you stop yourself from just doing the I've got 150 million tabs open in my browser and I'm getting nothing done thing?
B: I mean, I have a lot of those days anyway. But I would first say you're misinformed. I've definitely produced a lot of things, not necessarily all of the highest calibre or quality, maybe. Sometimes I think about people who have written, say, two books, and they’re award-winning books. And I'm like, wow, they really focus. Am I just shooting out garbage on a weekly basis?
I always had that sort of impostor syndrome. But I have deadlines, and I owe people things. And I created an artificial deadline every week when I started creating stuff online. And then it became this thing after 10 years. And finally I decided it might become a little bit more irregular, because I asked, would you care if I didn't do something every week, because I think it would make it better - and people were like, We don’t care, because you made that up. It's a treadmill - you have to keep going, and while I enjoy the pressure a lot of times like, some weeks it feels like oh my god, I gotta do something else.
But there's a real business aspect to it. Because part of my revenue stream is like, a large part of my revenue stream is the Semi-Rad Patreon - that’s what literally keeps me going, and if people were not supporting me through that, I would get a real job. But I can't just be like, thanks for your money. Every time I'm not putting something out there, where I'm working on something for two months or maybe six months, I can’t just take that money and have nothing to give for it, you can’t do that. And the more things out there, the more people buy coffee mugs on my website, or t- shirts.
Now, I don't feel bad about selling T shirts and coffee mugs! I think it's super fun to like - to have a piece of your work live in somebody's cupboard, and wearing that t-shirt out in public - that’s your art saying, hey, remember me? And then you're still in people's consciousness, and they're like, oh, yeah, I was gonna buy that guy's book but I keep forgetting, hey maybe I'll do that right now.
So in all of those pieces, those coffee mugs or shirts or books you write, they function like advertising - say, I’m in your town and I pull this mug out of your cupboard and I say, Hey, where'd you get this? And they say Oh, it's this guy. You know, you might like his newsletter. And they find out about your work that way. So it's all this big messy cloud that really works.
M: So, a curveball of a question: how has having a dog changed the way that you experience the world?
B: I go on a lot more walks at about 1.5 miles per hour, maybe? right now with Rowlf - he's a bit older and likes to get out and exercise and smell things. It’s like, you’re trying to help them live their best life, because they are dependent on you. A lot of joy in their lives is really dependent on human - they can't just take themselves for a walk or feed themselves. I mean they can, but it’d get out of control really fast.
M: Do you find he pays attention to things that you're not normally paying attention to? And that is changing the way you behaving when you're outdoors?
B: Yeah - we are into very different things - like, there probably is no good or bad smell, they don't have that qualitative analysis. It’s like I can walk into an airport bathroom and I'm like, Jesus, this is unpleasant. I'm sure my dog would be like, well this is a lot of great information.
And - I mean, I wouldn't just go walk around my neighbourhood in random patterns if it wasn’t for Rowlf. I’d go for a run for some exercise, and go and see new houses and new construction, and what kinds of trees are there, and where the tall trees are….
M: So he’s a randomizing element to your day. Let’s see what happens.
B: Yeah. I think it's gotten me a little bit ready to have a kid in some ways where I can see this is a thing I have to give up 45 minutes to an hour and a half of my day every day to take for a walk…
M: And Rowlf is also a creative collaborator. He’s featured in some of your cartoons and creeps into your stories - so with a kid, I guess there’s going to be another collaborator in the house?
B: Yeah. In one way, it gives you another method for helping people relate to your stuff when you create things - but - I don't want to be the person who only talks about their kid or only talks about their dog? I think that can be a great way to isolate yourself and be really annoying to a lot of people who would rather read other things. But I don’t know - I put so much stuff out that's only interesting or funny to a small niche, and I think maybe people just ignore some of that stuff. If they prefer cats, they don't care about my dog? So they are probably like Well, this one's not for me this week. I don't know if anybody's actually unsubscribed over it though.
M: I don’t know about that - even if it’s not something directly relevant to me, I’m laughing out loud pretty much every time. I don't know how you do that. It’s always relatable. It’s like [mutual friend] Al Humphreys shifting to his Microadventures, which was such a pivotal thing for him. Tapping into the experiences that most of everyone has and can have. And this is when people really start to pay attention to you, because you're meeting them where they currently are.
I’m interested in this because with all these lockdowns, there’s a new thirst for homegrown adventures. Has that affected what you want to write about?
B: I think it has made me want to stay around home a little bit more. You know, I travel a lot - even to the point where I would be kind of not feeling that good about myself flying halfway across the world to do something, and then later feel like, this is a little ridiculous. Sure, I can arguably get paid to go to Switzerland or whatever, but now it feels maybe a little selfish, and - not everybody's ever gonna get to do that in their lives.
So, to call what I do sports - well, sports are always focused on the people who are the best at it. But I’ve found it's more interesting to me to find the commonalities we all have. I would almost always rather do something than watch something. I enjoy baseball, I may enjoy a little bit of watching basketball, and I can respect the athletic accomplishments of the people. But finding that commonality, what is it like? What does it feel like to be really uncomfortable? Or what if, instead of winning the marathon, we're just a person who wants to survive running 5k? What is that experience? That's interesting stuff to me, to capture those common feelings and try to find where we all are coming together, as opposed to looking for ways to divide ourselves, which is a really easy thing to do nowadays.
M: These are things I’d expect to hear from a sports scientist, or psychologist. Could you see yourself writing, say, a popular science book about sports endurance and mental toughness, really getting into the science?
[What I’m thinking of as I ask this is Brendan’s recent, brilliant two-part series How To Be Positive]
B: You know, I really like reading other people's books about that stuff. I like the way those books can be deconstructed, How did they write this and how did they get into it? And how do they actually do the writing part - and man, I don’t think I wanna do that - with a lot of scientific studies. I’m currently working on something a little bit like that, but really, it's not even close. It's references a study here or there. But it's more like stories. In my mind it's a book, but it’s really just a manuscript at this point. It's about - say, the world record for growing the longest fingernails, or competitive eating, or, do you how intense it is to carry a baby to term? Because we say things like, running 100 miles? That’s fucking crazy. People who do that are just crazy. But you know what’s just as crazy? Procreation! Oh yeah, I'm just gonna take care of this thing for 18 to 30 years. Or however long kids are at home these days. Now that is an insane commitment. And people are just like, Yeah, we're gonna do it. No questions asked.
M: And a bit like the thinking where you’re in a job and you hate it, but you decide to just stick at it for another 25 years because then you can retire and start living the life you want. Another insane commitment? You’re so right - with all these things hidden in full view, we’re crazy. Or we’re idiots.
B: And that’s an endless font of comedy, right there. Some people say oh, you can't say anything anymore without getting cancelled and - there's one way round this, and that’s by making fun of yourself. What, you’re going to cancel yourself? I can’t believe I said that about me. No.
M: Absolutely. That's another thing that I noticed, at the start of your latest collection of essays, Have Fun Out There Or Not, you're saying when you're running, you're constantly thinking about the funny thing that you're gonna say to the next person that you meet. This is something I also do in other contexts, and I beat myself up for doing it because I’m thinking it’s insecurity, you're desperately trying to make people be pleased to see you. But as you note, there’s also a real sense of joy in making somebody laugh who's a complete stranger - and that seems to power a lot of your work?
B: Yeah - on Instagram, you can see how many people liked your photo or image, or joke in my case - and that that's not the metric I'm excited about. It’s where you can see how many people have shared that thing with other people. Hey, you like coffee? This is funny. It's about how you're connecting friends in a small way, you know?
I grew up in a really funny family, and I didn't realise this until later. My mom's family's Irish Catholic, and my dad's just a funny guy. I wouldmeet a friend’s parents or girlfriend's parents or whatever when I was in high school, and I would think, man, I don't know if they like me. Maybe they heard some bad stuff about me (which might be true). But then I realised they just weren't like super goofy affusive people who were sitting there waiting to crack people up, and that was a tough thing for me to be around. I'm just like, did I do something wrong? Am I behaving poorly? But it’s that not every family is like goofing off all the time and trying to make each other laugh. And - really? What else do we have? That's tough. I can't function like that.
I like that sort of very dark humour. Kevin Barry is an Irish writer who now finally has a really successful book, but his essays are the funniest shit in the world. I've given his book of essays to maybe seven people, after buying seven copies. Literally fucking nobody ever finishes it. There's these jokes in there that are just so funny, but I give it to people and they're like, oh, yeah, I guess so. I wish they would just give me the books back! They’re probably like, I'm not gonna get through this. But yeah, there's good lines in this guy's writing. They’re about people who are not having fun, but he's really having fun with their stories.
M: Well, humour itself, it has that dark vein running through it. It runs on shocks, something kicking you out of this pleasant mental routine, the thrill of something not just exceeding but outwitting your expectations. The right kind of unexpected. And I get that from your work. I never know what I'm gonna read. Which is great. Uh - okay, I realise we’re up to 40 minutes, so I'm kind of eating into your time….
B: Getting compliments from you is way better than doing actual work.
M: Only thing is, I only budgeted myself for 40 minutes of compliments. So in about 90 seconds I’m just going to have to start getting really mean and nasty. Hope you don't mind.
B: I can work with that.
M: And right on cue, it’s now raining on me. The Scottish weather reasserted itself
B: I lived in Colorado, and Colorado has legendarily great weather and we would go out - and when it'd actually turn out kind of shitty, I would always say, in Scotland this would be considered good weather.
M: Yeah, I think it was David Hasselhoff who said about Scotland, there are two seasons: winter and July. OK. So my last question. What do you wish more people were curious about?
Yeah, I thought about this a little bit when you texted me that question in advance. And when you say people, I think I have to include myself. I, everyone, including myself, and maybe especially myself was more curious about local things. Like watching national news headlines and only paying attention to national political news in your country, especially in the US specifically. And at this level, you're basically just a fan, right? You say, the politician should do this, the politician should do that You have about as much say in that as....you know, a favourite basketball team, where you buy a jersey or go to one game a year, right? If you died, that team would not know. You can say, I'm a die-hard Houston Rockets fan and so on. Okay, sure. But those dudes are not coming to your funeral, and you have almost zero say over what they do.
And so I think myself, I have almost zero effect on the way the wider political world actually functions. Okay, sure, I read all these articles over a period of four years. And really, I was still gonna vote for the same person anyway? So the curiosity, I think - I would like to be more curious about how to really make more of a difference, which I think comes down to a local level for most people. You can read headlines for 365 days a year, but what would actually make a difference is if you went and volunteered at the food bank, or volunteered for a school campaign, or - we'd like to be on the school board, or something like that. So that's a thing I see in myself that could use a lot of improvement. Ways to make way more of a difference. And it’s a thing that would require more dedication than just reading news articles, and then getting together for dinner with friends who agree with you and complaining about the world, and then repeat, rinse, repeat, you know?
M: And there’s a selfish element, where, when you roll up your sleeves and help with other people’s lives, it has a profound effect on you, when you know you’re doing something with an impact you can measure, just by seeing it - in a way that even your imposter syndrome can’t ignore.
B: Yeah. Recently I've been thinking about people whose entire living or brand is predicated upon that half of the people that follow them and agree with them, and then the other half of the people getting really pissed off with them. And that’s normal on a daily basis - like certain talk show hosts, figures who just seem to say the most outrageous thing possible. That would be hell for me. I would not be able to handle the amount of shit I would get from people - yet these people seem to function on it. No way that is not living. I could not sleep
M: Yeah. But I feel like - it's the full crowd that’s the real game here. Like, there are books - and books are great because of that experience of really sitting with an argument for a long time - where you find in politics there's a certain book that both sides, or all sides, really love. Maybe for slightly different reasons. But it's the book what they love. And then they have a massive argument in the pub about what the book means, but the book has done its work. They’re talking. Sort of?
B: For sure. And I think it's getting harder and harder to make something like that. I can't say that I believe people who want to ban books actually read books. I don't know how that Venn diagram overlaps, but - yeah.
M: Well, this was a pleasure. Thank you. And if you didn’t notice any insults after the 40-minute mark, it’s because when British people say them, they sound exactly like our compliments. So this interview was quite good, Brendan. Thanks!
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