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Since he started writing the long-form, stick figure-illustrated blog Wait But Why in 2013, Tim Urban has become one of the Internet’s most popular writers. Urban, according to Fast Company, has “captured a level of reader engagement that even the new-media giants would be envious of.” Vox describes Urban’s articles as “a feast. At the end, you feel sated, like you just learned the ___ out of something, like you get something in a way you didn’t before…you will understand the world better for reading them.”
A world tired of a flood of short, shallow listicles quickly noticed—two months after Wait But Why was born, Urban’s article Why Generation Y Yuppies Are Unhappy swept the Internet, becoming both the most shared and most commented-on article of the month on Facebook. Urban has since produced dozens of viral articles on a wide range of topics, from why we procrastinate to why artificial intelligence is scary, to why we haven’t seen any signs of aliens, to why it’s so hard for him to start peeing when there’s someone at the urinal right next to him. His articles have been regularly republished on sites like Quartz, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, TIME, Business Insider and Gizmodo. In 2015, Fast Company wrote that “Wait But Why is disproving the notion that thoughtful, long-form content and virality are mutually exclusive.”
Today, Wait But Why receives over 1.5 million unique visitors per month on average, with some month’s total visitors topping 10 million. Additionally, the blog has over 300,000 email subscribers. The Wait But Why community of readers is also highly engaged, with every article generating hundreds of thoughtful, intelligent reader comments and some reaching well into the thousands.
Urban has gained a number of prominent readers as well: authors Sam Harris and Susan Cain, Twitter co-founder Evan Williams, TED curator Chris Anderson and Brain Pickings’ Maria Popova. Recently, Urban received a call from Elon Musk, who told Urban he likedhis writing and asked Urban if he’d like to interview him and write about his companies. Urban accepted, and spent the next six months writing a thorough blog series that Vox’sDavid Roberts called “the meatiest, most fascinating, most satisfying posts I’ve read in ages.” Since then, Urban’s relationship with Musk has continued, as Musk invited him to host SpaceX’s launch webcast and solicited Urban’s input and slide illustrations in a talk he did at the December 2015 Climate Change Conference in Paris.
As Urban has taken off as a writer, requests for him to speak have steadily increased. He has done talks at companies including Facebook, Chartbeat and Thumbtack; schools such as MIT, Brown and Wharton; and conferences including Effective Altruism in Mountain View, Social Media Week in New York and Sweden’s Øredev. After Øredev, conference head Anders Janmyr tweeted that Urban’s talk was “the best keynote in years.”
Urban recently spoke at TED2016 in Vancouver. Like his writing, Urban’s talks span many topics, involve stick figures and combine depth and impact with humor and entertainment to delight and inspire his audiences.
The AI Revolution and the Road to Super Intelligence
When Tim Urban began digging into research on artificial intelligence, he could not believe what he was reading. It hit him pretty quickly that what’s happening in the world of AI is not just an important topic, but by far THE most important topic for our future. In what Vox called his “epic series on artificial intelligence,” Urban took readers on a deep exploration of what AI is, how it works and why it might dramatically change our lives. The article was widely shared, even catching the eye of Elon Musk, who shared the article twice on Twitter, commenting “Excellent and funny intro article about Artificial Superintelligence! Highly recommend reading.” Urban has since turned his exploration of AI into a gripping talk—one that the head of Sweden’s Øredev conference tweeted was “the best keynote in years.” After watching the talk at Social Media Week in New York, conference founder Toby Daniels wrote that Urban “was brilliant, inspiring and terrifying at the same time, and left most of us speechless, breathless and in a mixed emotional state of wonder and awe at what the future holds.”
Why Procrastinators Procrastinate: The Never-Ending Battle in Our Heads
In college, Tim Urban’s procrastination problem got so bad that he found himself writing the first word of his 90-page senior thesis only 72 hours before it was due. After spending years trying to understand how his own mind worked, he finally put his thoughts down on paper, creating three cartoon stick drawings—the Rational Decision-Maker, the Instant Gratification Monkey and the Panic Monster—to represent the major “players” in his head that battled over the steering wheel. The reaction to this post wildly exceeded Urban’s expectations. Urban has received over 10,000 emails about his procrastination post, each lamenting their unique struggle with the problem, and most saying some version of “How do you know what’s going on in my head?” Urban has since dug even deeper into the issue, writing two follow-up articles, and procrastination has now become one of his most popular speaking topics. A hilarious talk that consistently delights and inspires the audience, Urban was asked to perform the talk at TED2016 in Vancouver.Cooks and Chefs: What It Means to Be a True Original One day in early 2015, Elon Musk called Tim Urban on the phone. He told Urban he liked his blog Wait But Why, and asked Urban if he’d consider doing some writing about the industries he’s involved in with his companies Tesla and SpaceX. Urban accepted the offer and went on to write four epic blog posts that Vox’s David Roberts called “the meatiest, most fascinating, most satisfying posts I’ve read in ages.” While the first three posts dug into the full story with Musk and his companies, in the final post, Urban brought together six months of thinking, writing and talking to Musk and his staff that got to the core of the question, “Why is Elon Musk able to be so successful?” Urban believes it’s not Musk’s intelligence or wealth or drive that separates him so far from the crowd, but rather the way he thinks. Urban compares Musk’s way of thinking to other world-changers like Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein, Henry Ford and John Lennon in a post that explores the simple truth about what it means to be an original. Urban’s talk on the subject galvanizes audiences by leaving them with the belief that it’s fully in their power to be more original—simply by absorbing the epiphany that the world they live in was built by people no smarter than they are.
Where Are All the Aliens? The Mind-Blowing Truth of the Fermi Paradox
In 1958, physicist Enrico Fermi looked up at the night sky and famously asked, “Where is everybody?” The sheer numbers of sun-like stars and Earth-like planets in our galaxy suggests that we should have seen plenty of evidence of the existence of extraterrestrial life—and yet, we haven’t seen any…ever. This is called the Fermi Paradox, and Tim Urban’s 2014 article on the topic has been shared over 300,000 times on Facebook and has been posted over 40 times on Reddit. Urban’s talk on the Fermi Paradox walks through the 13 most likely possibilities for why we see no aliens and leaves the audience in a full existential headspin.
The Secrets Behind Communicating Complex Concepts in a Way That Delights
The most common praise Tim Urban receives for his writing is about his ability to synthesize complex concepts and present them in a clear, digestible, entertaining and highly memorable way. He has broken down in-depth topics like the situation in Iraq, climate change, the car industry, the space industry, the timeline of history, human evolution and a number of the psychological battles going on in the heads of all humans. Urban has managed to write long, 10,000+ word articles that millions of people read until the end and share enthusiastically, leading Fast Company to write, “Wait But Why is disproving the notion that thoughtful, long-form content and virality are mutually exclusive.” In a talk often given to companies, marketers and writers, Urban discusses how he chooses topics. He describes how he thinks through, researches, brainstorms, outlines and ultimately communicates his ideas so effectively.
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