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Dec 5, 2016

How the Bestselling Author of ‘The Blue Zones’ Dan Buettner Writes

The multiple New York Times bestselling author of The Blue Zones books and National Geographic Fellow, Dan Buettner, dropped by the show to talk about his world travels, life-saving longevity research, and some fantastic advice for writers.

The author is an internationally recognized explorer who discovered five places in the world — called Blue Zones — where humans live the longest and healthiest, and his 2005 National Geographic cover story “The Secrets of Living Longer” was a finalist for a National Magazine Award.

Based on his Blue Zones work, Dan founded a company of the same name to share “the world’s best practices in longevity and well-being” and has helped to successfully raise life expectancy in American cities including both Minnesota and Los Angeles.

Mr. Buettner has been featured on Real Time with Bill Maher, CNN, the Late Show with David Letterman, Good Morning America, and the TODAY show to discuss his research.

His TED talk “How to live to be 100+” has been viewed almost 2.9 million times, and he has given more than 500 keynote speeches over the last 10 years.

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In this file Dan Buettner and I discuss:

  • Wise words from the author’s mentor George Plimpton
  • Why good stories are the Trojan Horse to winning over readers
  • How a decade of research and writing became a life-saving blueprint for American cities
  • The coffee shop effect for productive writing
  • One great trick for beating writer’s block
  • Why building your brand is so important for writers

Listen to The Writer Files: Writing, Productivity, Creativity, and Neuroscience below ...

The Show Notes

The Transcript

How the Bestselling Author of The Blue Zones Dan Buettner Writes

Voiceover: Rainmaker FM

Kelton Reid: Welcome back to The Writer Files. I am your host Kelton Reid, here to take you on yet another tour of the habits, habitats, and brains of renowned writers to learn their secrets. The multiple New York Times bestselling author of The Blue Zones books and National Geographic Fellow Dan Buettner, dropped by the show to talk to me this week about his world travels, life saving longevity research, and some fantastic advice for writers.

The author is an internationally recognized explorer who’s discovered five places in the world he calls Blue Zones, where humans live the longest and healthiest. His 2005 National Geographic cover story, The Secrets of Living Longer, was a finalist for a national magazine award. Based on his Blue Zones work, Dan founded a company of the same name to share the world’s best practices in longevity and well-being, and has helped to successfully raise life expectancy in American cities, including both Minnesota and Los Angeles.

Mr. Buettner has been featured on Bill Maher, CNN, David Letterman, Good Morning America, and The Today Show, to discuss his research. His TED Talk, How To Live To Be 100+, has been viewed almost 2.9 million times, and has given more than 500 keynote speeches over the last 10 years.

In this file, Dan and I discuss wise words from the author’s mentor George Plimpton, why good stories are the Trojan Horse to winning over readers, how a decade of research and writing became a lifesaving blueprint for American cities, the coffee shop effect for productive writing, one great trick for beating writer’s block, and why building your brand is so important for writers.

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All right, we are rolling today on The Writer Files with a very special guest, Mr. Dan Buettner, author extraordinaire, and New York Times bestseller, and author of Blue Zones in it’s many iterations. Thanks for coming on the show, sir.

Dan Buettner: It is a delight to be here.

Wise Words From the Author s Mentor George Plimpton

Kelton Reid: I understand we have a mutual friend in one Adam Skolnick, a long time friend of mine.

Dan Buettner: You know I just met him. We instantly became friends. It’s like one of those Celestine Prophecy things, where you just knew you had to be in each other’s life somehow. I’m a big fan of his work.

Kelton Reid: Yeah, well that’s really interesting. I was visiting Mr. Skolnick out there in Malibu, and your name came up because he is putting into practice quite a few of your Blue Zones …

Dan Buettner: Tenets?

Kelton Reid: Tenets, thank you. I found it very inspiring, and I actually sought out the book because I wasn’t familiar with it. And wow, it’s just an amazing story. Maybe we can start there. For listeners who might not be familiar with your journey, this fantastic thing that is The Blue Zones phenomenon, maybe you could catch us up a little bit and tell us about your origins as a writer, and how you became this not only best selling author, but also now renowned educator and speaker.

Dan Buettner: I’ve been an explorer for about 30 years, and have written always as an advocation, as a way to support my habit. I was mentored by the great George Plimpton, former editor of The Paris Review, and writer of Paper Lion, among others. He imparted to me the notion that if you can learn how to write, your career is in your brain. It’s like your suitcase is in your brain. You can go anywhere and unpack it.

I hold records. I biked from Alaska to Argentina. I hold a record for biking around the world, and another one for biking across Africa. For each of those expeditions, I wrote for Chicago Tribune, or an outside magazine. I wrote books. Then I did a series of interactive expeditions that unraveled the Maya collapse. I worked my way up to National Geographic, where I’ve become a Fellow there, and a fairly frequent writer for their books and their magazine.

About a little over 10 years ago, I had stumbled upon Okinawa, Japan, which is a small island about 800 miles south of Tokyo. It’s actually an archipelago. It has the longest disability free life expectancy in the world. In other words, people are living an extraordinarily long time, and avoiding the diseases that are killing Americans: heart disease, cancer, diabetes, etc. I thought, Aha, there must be a good story as to why this has happened. This would be a good mystery. I got National Geographic and the National Institutes on Aging to fund the research, and we were off.

Why Good Stories are the Trojan Horse to Winning Over Readers

Kelton Reid: That’s amazing. Amazing. The Blue Zones research has uncovered these amazing strategies on longevity. You’ve been working on this for 16 years, is it now?

Dan Buettner: Well, not quite 16, but over a decade for sure. The idea is we know that about 20% of how long you live is dictated by your genes. The other 80% is dictated by lifestyle and environment. If you can find places that are achieving the health and longevity outcomes we want, you should be able to reverse engineer what they’re doing. It took three years alone working with demographers to identify these five Blue Zones: Okinawa, Sardinia, Italy, the Nicoya peninsula of Costa Rica, Icaria, Greece, and among the Seventh Day Adventists in Loma Linda, California. All of them are living measurably longest. Then we put together a team to reverse engineer it.

We can go into anything you want. We found the diet, the ideal diet to live up to be 100. We found the constellation of social and sort of inner-self factors. At the end of the day, if you’re just viewing facts and figures, readers get bored in a hurry. I had to call upon the narrative skills I had developed over the years to embed these findings in good stories. They’re like the Trojan Horse to get into people’s psyche, and get them to internalize these ideas. That’s really the secret sauce for Blue Zones.

Kelton Reid: Yeah. I’ve been reading The Blue Zones Solution, and you’re talking about these amazing ideas, and it’s true. It is kind of sinking in with these great stories you tell in there. Kudos, and I’ll definitely point listeners to that, The Blue Zones Solution, and all of your other work there. Where is the bulk of your writing out there? Is it The Blue Zones website, or do you have some other, aside from Amazon, places where listeners can connect and find it?

Dan Buettner: If you search National Geographic, I’ve written three or four articles and three books with them. I did a very popular TED Talk if you don’t like to read. It has almost three million views, under Living to a hundred.

The first book was just called The Blue Zones: Lessons From the Longest Lived People. That’s the story of finding these places, and what they teach us. Blue Zones Solution is another genre of science that deals with how you get lifestyle behaviors to stick. When it comes to longevity, there’s no short-term fix. Because there’s no pill, or genetic intervention, or hormone even on the scientific horizon. If you want to live longer, we identify nine things, nine facets that yield a longer life. You have to do them for not just a few weeks or months. You have to do them for decades.

So Blue Zones Solution is really about how you set up your life so that longevity ensues, as opposed to the American ethos which is, Dammit, I’m going to get healthy, and then I’m going to schedule workouts and try to get on this diet. Both strategies almost never work. Blue Zones Solution attempts to harness what does work for the long term, and suggest a format to apply it.

Kelton Reid: Yeah, it’s very important, the message here. Obviously, we’re here in the United States. We’re inundated with, as you note, the marketing piece of it as well as our societal issues. We live in definitely kind of a fast food nation, right? There are a lot of other pieces of the fabric of our culture that are very married to that, unfortunately.

How a Decade of Research and Writing Became a Life-Saving Blueprint for American Cities

Anyway, the book is truly compelling. There’s just so much great stuff in there, and it really does stick with you, and hopefully readers, that find it. You’re doing some other important work as well. Are you currently still doing the 20 city program to improve health here in America?

Dan Buettner: Yes. If you look at the five Blue Zones and spry centenarians who live there, none of these guys who are standing on their head at 100, or women who are still doing Yoga at 106, ever said to themselves at age 50, “Well gol’darn it, I’m going to get on that longevity program and live another 50 years.” They didn’t get on diets or exercise. They live a long time because they live in the right environment. That was the big Aha.

Again, instead of thinking about pursuing, think of how you shape our surroundings so that the healthy choice is not only easy, but unavoidable. There are four facets to these Blue Zones and living longer. One is being nudged into physical activity all day long. In Blue Zones, it’s about once every 20 minutes, they’re out gardening or walking. Their houses are de-convenienced. Number two, eating less. There’s all kinds of long-term strategies you can deploy to eat less at every meal. Big plates, no TV’s in your kitchen, etc. Eating more plants. Longest lived people are close to being vegans. Maybe a little fish, very little meat.

They have a strong sense of purpose, and they hang out with other healthy people. We’ve come up with a city-wide template that sets up ubiquitous nudges and defaults in entire cities. We’ve been doing this for eight years. Our most successful cities are in Los Angeles, actually. Three cities called the beach cities: Redondo, Hermosa, and Manhattan Beach, where we’ve managed to lower the collective weight of 125,000 people by about 17%. Cut childhood obesity in half. Cut smoking by 30%. This will occasion probably three to four extra years of life expectancy per person on average, and tens of millions of dollars of health care savings. That’s simply by putting the wisdom of these long-lived cultures to work in America.

Kelton Reid: It’s really, really amazing work. Kudos to you for all the successes that you ve had with it. It’s pretty staggering to see that those results are just amazing. That’s all I can say about that. But, I’d love to dig into your process a little bit as a writer. Are you presently working on a writing project?

Dan Buettner: Yes, I’m working on a story for National Geographic magazine and a book. Both of them are a sort of a Blue Zones approach to happiness. I write every day.

Kelton Reid: Awesome.

Dan Buettner: Except weekends, when I goof off.

Kelton Reid: You’re obviously putting in quite a bit of research. I know that you’ve got a team of people that have helped you in the past. How much time a day would you say you’re reading or doing research for this?

Dan Buettner: I tend to focus just on research for a period, then I come back and I write the research I just did. I don’t try to research the whole book, but it’s kind of chapter by chapter. Then when I get in writing mode, I just pretty much stay.

I try to write in the mornings. On an ideal day, it’s 8 in the morning until noon. After that, I’m burnt out. Lots of days, nothing comes. Some days it just gushes. Unless the seat of your pants is on the seat of the chair, you’re going to miss the gush. I try to be real disciplined by sitting, turning off the email server, turning off the phone, and just trying to put four focused hours in a day. Then I run the other work in the afternoon, the city work.

The Coffee Shop Effect for Productive Writing

Kelton Reid: Yeah. It’s interesting, I think, as writers, in the amount of time that you’re spending in solitude, I’d be interested in some of the parallels between The Blue Zones and The Blue Zones writer, which you kind of embody. Have you ever experimented with say, a standing desk or any other kind of things that get you more active while you’re actually sitting and getting words?

Dan Buettner: Oh, interesting question. I have a standing desk at my Blue Zones office, but when I write, I like white noise. The noise inside of my head is far louder than the noise in a cafeteria or café. I go to a café where there’s white noise, where people don’t recognize me. I’ll just sit in a chair, and add caffeine to that, and I’m in pretty good shape.

Kelton Reid: That’s cool. I know that you’re a big proponent of both green tea and coffee, so kudos, as am I. They keep me alive, I believe.

Dan Buettner: Yeah.

Kelton Reid: That’s cool. I think there is a well known psychological neuroscientific explanation for the coffee shop effect, which is that not only is that white noise or brown noise helping your brain somehow, but at the same time you’re seeing psychological cues from other people that look busy, so you feel like you are being busy because they’re being busy. It’s what neuroscience has called the mirror neuron effect. You mimic them when you see people typing. Then there’s something about other people watching you. It’s like you feel like the eyes on you are somehow, and I’m sure you recognize this as a journalist. Being around other journalists, you feel more productive because everyone’s working all the time. You know, maybe I’m …

Dan Buettner: Yeah. That all makes great sense to me, but for me to sit in a corner in my house, to sit for four hours every day, it just sounds kind of sad and boring. Whereas at least when you’re in a café, you’re in the flow of life, and there are people. I think there’s an evolutionary joy that comes from camaraderie of others, even if you don’t necessarily know them. Every once in awhile, a small conversation will pop up to punctuate the morning. Maybe I’m just an extrovert and like people.

First of all, I think people who tell you they love to write probably aren’t writers. I think true writers absolutely hate writing, but you can, I think, mitigate the pain by being with others, and maybe watching them suffer too.

Kelton Reid: Yes, yes.

One Great Trick for Beating Writer s Block

Kelton Reid: Okay, so here’s the million dollar question. I’m sure you know the answer to this one already. Do you believe in writer’s block?

Dan Buettner: Yeah. I experience it daily, several times a day.

Kelton Reid: Perfect.

Dan Buettner: I’ll tell you one trick. I just write through it. I force myself, and this is my own inner dialogue. I have to just sit with it. Other writers will say, “Well, go do something else.” If I go do something else, my mind will be off a million miles away. I have to sit with it and noodle through it. Often, maybe I won’t bust through it, but I’ll dent it enough that maybe the next day when I come back, I can break through the dent rather than just picking up where the block was.

Kelton Reid: I like that.

Dan Buettner: Yeah, you can’t let it beat you. You can’t surrender to it, in my opinion.

Kelton Reid: That’s right. Let’s talk about your workflow a little bit. Are you a Mac guy or a PC guy?

Dan Buettner: Mac.

Kelton Reid: Are you working in Microsoft Word, Scrivener, other obscure …

Dan Buettner: Word.

Kelton Reid: Word, yeah.

Dan Buettner: Word, but you know what? I’ll tell you something that works when I have writer’s block. There’s a few writer friends of mine who I have conversations with, and I’ll write them an email. If I can’t figure out how to noodle through this section, I’ll just sit down and write them a note like, “Hey Adam, I’m trying to get past this thing, and here’s what I’m thinking about.”

I’ll start writing like I’m in a conversation, and before I know it, I’ve written it. I’ve written my way past the block. Then I just copy myself on it, and copy and paste and put in the text, and massage it back into the flow.

Kelton Reid: Oh, I’ve heard that trick before from quite a few different fields of writers, including copywriters. Actually, computer programmers use a method called the rubber duck method where you put a rubber duck on top of your computer, and you explain the problem to them, that you’re having. Usually by the time you’ve explained it, you’ve already solved the problem.

Dan Buettner: I love it.

Kelton Reid: Yeah, it’s a fun one. Cool. Do you have any gold organizational hacks that you keep around that are good for writers to glom onto?

Dan Buettner: What do you mean, organizational hacks?

Kelton Reid: I don’t know. Just something in your workflow that you … A lot of writers, like the Evernote, or doing the voice to text, or you keep a notebook in your back pocket when you’re traveling the globe. How do you keep everything together and organized?

Dan Buettner: I can type really fast, so I try to, for the most part, use original sources. Rather than finding it in a book or an academic paper, I’ll try to go interview the top expert, or find characters who embody the point I’m trying to make. I try to go see them. When I talk to them, I can type as fast as they talk. There’ll be some errors and so forth.

I just spent 10 days in Singapore, and I did probably 30 interviews. I have over 100 pages, but it’s already written. It’s a lot easier then to take that written. Also, while I’m interviewing, if they’re droning on about something I don’t need to capture, I will capture the surroundings, so I have the context of what they’re wearing, and what it looks like, and what they feel like to be around. It gets a bunch of the work done ahead of time.

Kelton Reid: Yeah, kind of brush strokes, and then the micro and macro thing. That’s cool. I like that. Okay, so how does Dan Buettner unwind at the end of a long writing or research day?

Dan Buettner: Well, right after I hang up with you, I’m going to get on my bike and bike up a hill above Santa Barbara, and then I’m going to come back down and have happy hour with a red wine. That’s a pretty good reward for me.

Kelton Reid: Fantastic. Okay. A couple of creativity questions for you. How do you define creativity, in your own words, your own estimation?

Dan Buettner: Strategic serendipity. I don’t think you can force creativity. I think you can put yourself in a situation where it’s likely to happen. I think it comes when you reach that condition of flow. When you’re writing about something that interests you, and it’s one of those rare, gleeful streaks where time flies by, and almost a subconscious intelligence kicks in that allows you to almost surprise you. I’m a nonfiction writer, so I don’t rely on creativity as much as most of the real writers out there.

Kelton Reid: I would friendly disagree. I think creativity is intrinsic to what you do, and what most writers do. It’s just expressed in a different way. Do you think you have a creative muse right now? Something that’s driving you?

Dan Buettner: I’m intensely interested in what traditional peoples of the world can teach us about living better. That’s the general pursuit right now. Once you tease that out, how do you convey it in a way that will hold readers interest? And especially as attention spans condense, and people want shorter things, and right to the point, how do you keep the story component to it, but still convey interesting and accurate information that people can use? It’s less of a muse, and more of a process, I guess.

Kelton Reid: Yeah, and one can say they are one and the same at times. What do you personally think makes a writer great?

Dan Buettner: Keeping your ass to the seat, and keeping at it. I mean, there’s a handful of people who are the Mozarts and the Shakespeares, but most of us are craftsmen. The only way you get good at your craft is put in the cliched 10,000 hours. I really believe that. A great writer sticks at it for decades, and hones his or her craft, and doesn’t get dissuaded or sucked into the business of it too much, and stays true to their interests and their passions, and figuring out how to convey those passions to people who want to read about it.

Kelton Reid: Yeah, aptly put. Do you have a couple of favs on your nightstand right now?

Dan Buettner: I’m reading Eckhart Tolle right now, who wrote A New Earth. He’s done a good job at synthesizing Buddhist thought, and applying it. Herman Hesse, for me, is my turn-to writer when it comes to storytelling with content. Journey to the East is a great fable, or Siddhartha. They’re among my favs. Then of course, if I really need inspiration, I turn to Hunter S. Thompson and The Book of Revelation.

Kelton Reid: Hunter redefines journalism, in a way, with his gonzo style. He kind of lived the opposite of the Blue Zone ethos.

Dan Buettner: Yeah, of course he died young.

Kelton Reid: Yes. Do you have a best loved quote hanging over your desk, like most writers do, something that you could share with us for inspiration?

Dan Buettner: When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro.

Kelton Reid: And who said that?

Dan Buettner: Hunter S. Thompson.

Why Building Your Brand is So Important for Writers

Kelton Reid: Thank you. All right. I know that we are short on time. You need to get on the bike, so we can skip the last few questions. Do you have some wisdom for your fellow scribes, or fellow writers on just how to keep going? How to keep the ink flowing, or the cursor moving, and avoid the dreaded block, as it were?

Dan Buettner: Maybe segueing a little bit, what I’ve learned, freelance writing is so vastly underpaid. We’re becoming a commodity. You’re only as good as your last article. I’ve learned a long time ago that if you can create a brand, and write under a brand and build that brand, you’re better off in the long run than just being another name pitching stories. That’s, I think, something to think about, because at the end of the day a good brand … you know, Blue Zones, at the end of the day, was a brand under which I wrote about longevity. Now the brand is worth way more than I ever made with the books. That has been a powerful lesson to me, and one I’d share with other writers.

Kelton Reid: Yeah. The brand is fantastic. The Blue Zones is not only inspiring, but important, I think. Before I point readers back to Blue Zones and your other writing, my final question to you is, as an Emmy award winning co-producer of this fantastic documentary that you did years ago, Africatrek? Is that the name of it?

Dan Buettner: Yes.

Kelton Reid: Do you have any plans to get back into TV? I noticed that National Geographic is changing their scope of their TV stuff. Are you doing anything with them on that, or is that in your rear view?

Dan Buettner: Well, you have to make so many concessions to do TV. It’s so dumbed down. It’s not a place to necessarily make money. It’s neither a place for me to tell stories, nor a place to … My time is best spent elsewhere. What I do try to do is make sure when the books come out, that they’re going to be media worthy. Then I try to get the high profile daily shows, and the CNNs, and the FOX, to cover that. That TV publicity fuels the sales of the book. I’m not out there whoring it all the time, or myself on TV. It’s like I can do a project for a few years, and then come out, and do a big blast. I do pay attention to it. Making sure there are visuals to illustrate what you do in your writing, really helps drive book sales when your book comes out. That’s a worthwhile strategy I think.

Kelton Reid: Awesome, awesome. The bestselling Blue Zones in all of its different iterations, including the most recent, The Blue Zones Solutions. We can find those at Is that right?

Dan Buettner: Yeah, or Amazon.

Kelton Reid: And Amazon of course. They’re pretty easy to find at this point. Dan Buettner, the brand, is all pervasive. You have been on Bill Maher, CNN, David Letterman, Good Morning America, Today, just amazing. You’re obviously practicing what you preach, and doing very well. Hey, thanks for coming on the show and chatting with us.

Dan Buettner: It was great. I salute you for bringing writers together, and creating camaraderie and distilling the collective experience. Thank you for the honor.

Kelton Reid: It was a true pleasure and I hope you come back, and we’d love to talk to you again.

Dan Buettner: All right brother.

Kelton Reid: Cheers.

Dan Buettner: Cursors up.

Kelton Reid: Okay. Have a good bike ride.

Dan Buettner: Alright, see you.

Kelton Reid: Bye.

Thanks so much for joining me on another tour through the writer’s process. If you enjoy The Writer Files podcast, please subscribe to the show and leave us a rating or a review to help other writers find us. For more episodes, or to leave a comment or a question, you can drop by WriterFiles.FM. You can always chat with me on Twitter @KeltonReid. Cheers. Talk to you soon.