How They Got There: A Q&A With Uber-Career Hopper Paul Hoffman

by Noah Davis

Paul Hoffman’s career is long and varied. He ran Discover when he was 30, published a bestseller when he was 44 and opened a restaurant, Rucola Brooklyn, ten years later, which is where I met him recently for a drink. For the past decade, Paul’s bounced from project to project, writing, consulting, editing, moviemaking and more. At one point, Michael Douglas called him and asked if he would fly to Los Angeles to help make a movie character “smarter.” Yet while the details of his story are unique, the unexpected turns of his career path are not. In the new world, smart people find themselves bouncing from job to job, following unexpected and decidedly non-traditional trails. In this interview series, they’ll chat about how they ended up where they are and where they are going. As the OG of job-jumping, Hoffman seemed the perfect person to kick off these conversations.

In a couple sentences, describe how did you ended up here, sipping a Tirulian Schpritz (gin, Aperol, yellow chartreuse, lemon, grapefruit) in a restaurant you own with nine other people?

There wasn’t an exact plan. Basically, I’ve been lucky to have lots of cool stuff that I’ve either heard about and has come my way or that I’ve gone after. Some of it has been by accident and some of it has been by design.

So, no plan at all?

No. None. I thought I was going to be a physicist until my roommate in college also wanted to be a physicist, and he had already discovered a sub-atomic particle in high school. I thought, “Okay, change of plans.”

I was watching a talk you gave and you mentioned that your father was an incredibly smart English professor. You very actively decided not to be a “fiction” guy because you felt you couldn’t compete with him.

It’s how I got interested in the sciences. He was this brilliant English professor who was a speed-reader. He read three novels a day. He had a photographic memory also, so it seemed like I would never catch up. He knew nothing about science, math or chess, so that’s where I started. But it’s funny. In the end I’ve come back to what he does, which was storytelling. It just happens to involve science or math, but I’m interested in the people behind it almost as much as the subjects themselves. I was lucky, too. When I was first out of school there was a big interest in science. The space shuttle went up for the first time, and there were all these popular magazines so it was easy to find outlets to write for. They all folded eventually, but when I got started there were a lot of places to write.

You mentioned both going after jobs and having them find you. Can you give an example of each?

Right after I graduated from college I started a job as an editor at Scientific American. They had a very small staff and people never resigned. The next person was like twice my age. I [had previously] met the editor-in-chief at some function, and he wrote me a letter. He had read something I wrote, said he thought he was going to have an opening at the time I graduated, and wanted to see some more of my work. It was very fortuitous. Then when I was 30, Discover — which had been started by Time and lost a lot of money — was sold to a small entrepreneur. I read that in the paper and really wanted to edit it. I sent the new owner an eight-page letter of how I would rejuvenate the magazine. He responded to it, and I got hired. I didn’t think that was going to happen. I skipped a million rungs from being an editor [at Scientific American] to suddenly running the place.

It was more the people who didn’t have tenure yet who thought their cover story in Scientific American was going to get them tenure. You’re discussing with them whether they are going to use serial commas or not, it’s like, “Dude.”

How actively have you pursued jobs?

A lot of stuff just happens, but there was other stuff that I really went for that I didn’t get. I would have loved to run the Natural History Museum. Years ago, I was approached by the search committee and I got very far in the process. The issue was that the Natural History employs many workaday scientists. The search committee felt that because I just have a bachelor’s degree, these people might not be able to stomach taking direction from me. I really wanted that job. I thought I would have done a great job of changing the museum. I made a huge effort.

Did you have a career goal, a top of the mountain? Or is it just a series of rolling hills?

My issue is that I’m interested in too many things. I’d like to be running a magazine and writing a book and making a movie. Which is kind of what I do. I go back and forth. Writing a book, you almost have 100 percent control compared to anything else in this world. If you write a movie script, it’s going to be changed a billion times. If you work on a television show, it’s a collaborative effort. So it’s fun to be able to write books, but I miss the working with other people, which I loved when I was running a magazine. Not just the writers, but artists, photographers, the whole shebang. [Going project to project] can be nerve-wracking. You build up expenses and it’s like, “Where’s your next project going to come from?” but at the same time, I’m really glad that I haven’t been stuck in one thing forever. I’ve had some long runs. I ran Discover for ten years. That’s not a short time.

Do you feel that you jump from project to project more quickly now?

Yeah. For ten years now, I’ve been going from one project to another, but they are fairly long projects. I’m not writing 40 articles a year to make a living. I’ll do a six-month project, a year-and-a-half-long project. I like that because I get more involved with the people who I’m working with. It’s not just in and out. I’ve done a lot of stuff where I come in for one week as a consultant. I don’t really like that. The personal dynamics of that are weird. The people, of course, are suspicious that they’re being evaluated, that you are going to fire them. Even if that’s not what you’re hired to do still there’s a weirdness to it that I don’t particularly like. Stuff that’s more collaborative is more fun.

What’s the best job you’ve ever had?

Running Discover. It was just incredibly fun for all kinds of reasons, starting with the fact that in science writing, you’re really never repeating yourself or doing the same story. It’s not like celebrity journalism where certain people walk down the street and it’s a cover story. I never got tired of the material. And it’s a challenge. You’re writing about stuff that’s invisible, so you have to figure out how to illustrate it. You work with conceptual artists who can get stuff across. The stuff is not so obvious.

Would you want to edit a magazine now?

Yeah, for the right thing, maybe.

What’s the worst job you’ve had?

I’ve had experiences where I was ghostwriting a book for somebody, and it just didn’t work out. I got out early enough before it became a problem. When I first started at Scientific American, I did a fair amount of ghostwriting for very famous scientists who had won Nobel Prizes and things like that. It was a mixed bag. Doing it for the most famous people was the easiest because they were more lax. They had incredible reputations. It was more the people who didn’t have tenure yet who thought their cover story in Scientific American was going to get them tenure. You’re discussing with them whether they are going to use serial commas or not, it’s like, “Dude.”

How did this restaurant happen?

That’s a good question. I’m a big consumer of specialty coffee, and I’m interested in the science of coffee. I wanted to do an online coffee business so people who aren’t in cities like New York, Seattle and Chicago could still participate in the specialty coffee phenomenon. I thought maybe even retired people would like to get coffee in the mail as opposed to getting Folgers at their A&P.; I started exploring that and I met this guy who had a company called Oral Fixation. They sell very high-end coffee. Then he sold his company to a much bigger specialty food company and wanted to open a restaurant. There are like ten of us who invested in it. It’s an unusual situation. The place is doing really well, so we’re lucky. The one benefit of having ten people is that we all have different circles of people that we know. The base caters to this neighborhood, but the fact that we have other circles of friends has been great. I’ve always wanted to do a restaurant, and I thought this would be a good way to learn.

Is there another restaurant in the future?

Yeah, hopefully. Definitely.

What else are you working on?

A book I did, Wings of Madness, is becoming a movie. Chris Wedge, the guy who did all the Ice Age movies, is making his first live-action film. So I’m working on that with him, which is really pretty fun. I’m a consultant. I make sure the set looks like Paris in 1900 and the technology is correct. He’s also been very nice in including me in other aspects. I’m also working with Erno Rubik — who invented the Rubik’s Cube back in 1974 — on a traveling museum exhibit for the 40th anniversary in 2014. I’m working on the mathematical and cultural of significance of it. It’s the best-selling toy ever. A billion. And that’s really fun because I’ve been going to Budapest, which is an interesting city. That’s my major project at the moment.

You can make mistakes. You can take a job and six months later you can decide that it’s hell. “It’s not for me. I’m not interested in this.” That’s totally okay.

How did you find that project?

He came to me. I hadn’t had any experience with him before, but it helped that I wrote a book about a Hungarian mathematician [The Man Who Loved Only Numbers], so I have some connection to Hungary. I’ve done a fair amount over the years in trying to popularize math to people who aren’t mathematicians, and there’s a fair amount of math involved in the cube. It touches a lot of things, obviously — pop culture, cinema and movies — but there are interesting mathematics in there.

One of the more absurd lines on your resume is as creator of the puzzle in Romancing the Stone. How in the world did you end up with that gig?

I was writing a weekly syndicated newspaper column at the time under the pseudonym Dr. Crypton. Each column was a short mystery story. Michael Douglas called me up out of the blue, said he was a fan of the column, and hoped I could come out to LA and make the Kathleen Turner character smarter. At first I thought it was one of my friends impersonating Douglas.

Do you think someone could follow a path similar to yours now?

In the dot-com world there’s no predetermined path of how you achieve success. Many more doors are open. If you’re going to become a lawyer, you still need to go to law school, but there is no tried and true path [for other types of jobs]. On the other hand, I know a lot of people in their 20s and their self-imposed pressure is even higher. They look at people who are multi-millionaires by the age of 30, and they assume that’s what you have to do. I think there’s more opportunity for people who are in creative professions to succeed. I saw the other day that 65,000 people make a living as a designer in New York. Some don’t make a great living, of course, but that’s pretty fabulous. It certainly wasn’t like that 20 years ago.

Anything you wish you’d done differently?

[Pause] No, not really. I hope I’m doing the same stuff at 90. I’m not going to retire. I might be showing you to my table in the restaurant.

Chicago once called you “the smartest man in the world.” suspect they weren’t far off. How much of the success is just because you’re really smart?

Maybe it’s a product of that, but it’s probably also that I have these storytelling smarts. There are plenty of smart people in the sciences, but they can only get three people to listen to their theory because they don’t know how to present it in a way that can capture the attention of other people. I have a marketing hat on. I hate to use the word “marketing,” except that it is. I know how to market the stuff, and I know how to present the stuff. Look, what I do is pretty unique in the sense that a lot of what I’ve done is publishing mathematics. Who would have thought that you could make a good living from it? Sometimes being very good in a small pool is better than being mediocre in a large pool.

What would you tell a 22-year-old kid?

First of all, I would say, don’t sweat it. It’s really easy to say that in retrospect, but I really do mean that. You can make mistakes. You can take a job and six months later you can decide that it’s hell. “It’s not for me. I’m not interested in this.” That’s totally okay. In fact, that’s easier now because the paths are not so well defined. People that present their careers as entirely successful from the age of 15 and on, most of it’s fiction. Okay, maybe that’s true in a couple people, but that’s a couple people. There are several billion people on the planet who have managed to make their careers in other ways. You can’t be afraid of failure. Even if you look at these incredible successes — people who were multimillionaires by the age of 30 — often they did something that wasn’t a success at first. Passion is so important. You have plenty of opportunities to bounce back if something doesn’t work. If you see something out there that you really want to do, just go for it.

Okay, last question: Who should I interview next?

Annie Novak. She’s a pioneer of rooftop vegetable farming in NYC and has a cool vegetable farm on the roof of a production company in Greenpoint.

Noah Davis is frequently lost.