Spotlight on Alex Banayan

Meet Alex Banayan - Bestselling author of The Third Door, which chronicles his seven-year quest tracking down Bill Gates, Lady Gaga, Mark Zuckerberg, and dozens more of the world's most successful people to uncover how they broke through and launched their careers.

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Tell us about how your bestselling book The Third Door got funded in the early days.

I was a freshman in college and spending every day lying on my dorm room bed, staring up at the ceiling. I don’t know if you’ve ever gone through the What do I want to do with my life? crisis, but I was going through it and it was hitting me hard. 

To understand why, you have to know that I’m the son of Persian Jewish immigrant. That pretty much means I came out of the womb, my mom cradled me in her arms, and then she stamped “MD” on my ass and sent me on my way. In third grade, I wore scrubs to school for Halloween. I was “that kid.”

By the time I got to college, I was the premed of premeds. But it wasn’t long before I found myself hitting the snooze button four or five times each morning, not because I was tired, but because I was bored. Yet I continued dragging myself to class anyway, checking the premed boxes, feeling like a sheep following the herd.

My questions of “What do I want to do with my life?” eventually evolved into “How did the people who did know what they wanted to do break through when they were in my stage?” 

How did Bill Gates sell his first piece of software when nobody knew his name? How did Steven Spielberg, who’d been rejected from film school, become the youngest major studio director in Hollywood history? 

I went to the library and ripped through business books and biographies, searching for answers. But eventually I was left empty-handed. 

That’s when my naive eighteen-year-old thinking kicked in: Well, if no one has written the book I’m dreaming of reading, why not just write it myself?

What if I just call up Bill Gates, interview him, track down some other icons, put what I discover in a book, and share it with my generation? I assumed that would be the easy part. 

The hard part, I figured, would be paying for it. Traveling to interview all these people would cost money, money I didn’t have. I was buried in tuition payments and all out of Bar Mitzvah cash. There had to be another way.

Two nights before final exams, I was in the library when I saw a post on Facebook offering tickets to The Price Is Right.

What if . . . what if I go on the show to win some money to fund the mission?

It was absurd. The show was taping the next morning. I had to study for finals. And on top of that, I’d never seen a full episode of the show before. 

But the thought kept crawling back into my mind. It felt as if someone had tied a rope around my gut and was slowly pulling.

I decided to do the logical thing and study.

But I didn’t study for finals. I studied how to hack The Price Is Right.

I went on the show the next day, executed a ridiculous strategy, won the entire Showcase Showdown, got a sailboat, sold the sailboat—and that’s how I funded the book.


What's the biggest myth you've debunked on your personal journey?

There’s a pervasive myth in Silicon Valley of the superhuman entrepreneur. Someone like Elon Musk, who we just assume must be fearless. But that couldn’t be farther from the truth. 

Every person I interviewed was actually tremendously scared. Fear is a natural part of entrepreneurship. So although no one I interviewed was fearless—they all were courageous. And there’s a critical difference. 

Fearlessness is jumping off a cliff without thinking. Courage, however, occurs when you acknowledge your fear, analyze the consequences, and decide you’re still going to take one step forward anyway.


What's the biggest lesson you've learned after interviewing the world's most successful people?

My goal was never to find the “one key” to success. We’ve all seen those business books and TED Talks. I usually just roll my eyes. 

What I did discover, though, as I worked my way through this seven-year journey, was that while every person I interviewed was completely different on the outside—at their core—they approached life with the exact same mindset. 

The analogy that came to me, because I was twenty-one at the time, was that every single one of these entrepreneurs treat life, business, and success . . . like a nightclub.

There are always three ways in. 

There’s the First Door: the main entrance, where the line curves around the block. That’s where 99 percent of people wait around, hoping to get in. There’s the Second Door: the VIP entrance, where the billionaires and celebrities slip through.

But what no one tells you is that there is always, always . . . the Third Door. It’s the entrance where you have to jump out of line, run down the alley, bang on the door a hundred times, crack open the window, sneak through the kitchen—there’s always a way.

Whether it’s how Bill Gates sold his first piece of software or how Steven Spielberg became the youngest studio director in Hollywood history, they all took . . . the Third Door.

Apple or PC: Apple
Best trip you ever took: Safari in Kenya
Spirit Animal: A bald eagle.

Haley Smith