Geoff Notkin – Emmy-winning TV host, film producer, author, adventurer, meteorite specialist
Dos Equis might claim to have The Most Interesting Man in the World, but Geoff Notkin could easily compete for the title. His Instagram bio describes him as a “TV host, producer, Emmy Award winner, author, columnist, adventurer, meteorite specialist, TEDx speaker, Ed Fringe performer, and Asteroid 132904.” Yes, he has an asteroid as a namesake. But even that impressive list does not begin to encompass Notkin’s countless talents, interests and accomplishments.
In an extended interview with Inspiring Figures, Notkin was generously insightful, charmingly witty, and more than a little self-deprecating. Who else could mention the Ramones, potato salad, and Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the same sentence and have it make perfect sense?
Due to its length, the interview will be presented in parts, culminating with a fascinating look at his childhood idols (you will be surprised), who continues to inspire him today, and breaking news on his latest endeavor, which may be his most ambitious ever.
“In Part One, read about Geoff’s myriad projects and pursuits, how he manages to stay organized and on-task, and where Johnny Quest’s dad fits into the picture.”
I was looking at your list of titles: TV host, film producer, meteorite hunter, science writer, and about twenty more. How do you describe yourself and your occupation?
It’s a very difficult situation when I’m at a film premiere or a cocktail party or mixer. You meet an interesting person and they say, “I’m an astrobiologist,” or “I’m a painter,” but it’s usually one thing, and they say, “What do you do?” I don’t want to sound pretentious, but I think it sounds a bit pretentious if I list off all the things. I usually say, “Well, I have a few different careers,” and I try to list the things that are most appropriate for the situation.
I am very proud of the fact that I am a television host and that I have had the opportunity to produce films that I care about; I think those are standouts. Of course, saying that you’re a meteorite hunter or meteorite specialist is really an icebreaker at parties. People often think it is a meteorologist and they say, “Oh, you study the weather?” I am a meteoriticist, not a meteorologist. If I’m pressed, I typically say, “Television host, film producer, science writer, meteorite specialist, photographer, and a few other things.”
I like to say I am an author rather than a writer. I think there is a small, snobbish, semantic difference. Anyone can write, but the association with the word ‘author’ is that you’re a published author. You don’t write in crayon – you write real things that go to print. And I say this all in good humor.
I don’t mean to sound grandiose, but I have a lot of different interests and I do a lot of different things, so there is no easy answer.
On social media, you use the title “Action Scientist.” Does that encompass most of what you do?
I would love it if there was something in there about the arts. For a word person like myself, Twitter is a good exercise in being concise. One of the most challenging things for me with Twitter, and it relates to the first question you asked, is how to describe yourself in a 160-character bio.
For many years, my Twitter name was my real name, Geoff Notkin. A couple of years ago, I was invited on set for a science fiction television series called My Stolen Time Machine, which is directed by my friend Eric Schumacher. The star is actress Sara Mirasola and she plays all the parts in this time travel sci-fi drama.
It was the first time I met her and we were having lunch, and I was in exactly the situation you were asking me about. She’s obviously an actress – a highly talented, very committed actress. She asked me what I did and I went into my little routine, and she said, “My gosh, you’re Action Scientist Extraordinaire!” There was a rare moment of silence and I said, “Can I use that?” and she said, “It’s a line of dialog from the show.” She uses that phrase – Action Scientist Extraordinaire – to describe her father in the drama, so the writers had come up with this phrase and I got permission to use it. I think Action Scientist is pretty apropos. I don’t know why, but whenever I think about it, the first thing I think of is Johnny Questand Race Bannon, Johnny’s dad. Race Bannon is definitely an action scientist.
The idea behind it is explained in my second book, Rock Star: Adventures of a Meteorite Man. I have been a science nut since I was a kid. I went to work immediately after high school in oil exploration at a geophysics company. It was fascinating, but I learned very quickly that lab work was not for me. I love going to labs; it’s one of my favorite things in the world. If I’ve learned one thing in life, it is whenever any friend or colleague or acquaintance in academia says, “Would you like to see the lab?” always say yes, because you’re in for a treat. Whether it’s paleontology, dendrochronology, archeology, physics or whatever it is, when you get into the lab, you’re going to see the really good stuff. While it fascinates me, I don’t necessarily have the focus or the patience for lab work.
I always wanted to be a field guy, ever since I was a kid. I wanted to be out in the field looking for things, finding fossils, dinosaurs, meteorites, minerals, Civil War relics; anything that’s out there to find that’s historical or natural-history related, I’m there and I’m excited. That, to me, is what the Action Scientist thing is. I love the sciences and I promote the sciences, but in an active way. I’m more liable to be seen wearing a ranger vest than a lab coat.
You mentioned your top five or six titles – the cocktail party description or elevator speech – but I know you are involved in many other things. You’re a travel adventurer, photographer, visual artist, musician, public speaker and a lot more – as well as president of an international meteorite company. Being someone who is good at so many things, and interested in so many things, do you ever struggle with figuring out what to focus on, what you don’t have time for, and staying disciplined enough to pursue the things that you really want to pursue? If so, how do you manage that? And, if not, how do you decide what’s important at any given moment?
It’s a very astute observation and it is definitely a major factor in my timing and scheduling. My poor late mother was very supportive of all my interests, especially the sciences and arts and travel, and I had this as a kid – I always had multiple things going. I had a painting in the works, and now I’m interested in mosaics and started cracking up pottery, and there was a dig going on in the backyard, and I’m planning a trip to the quarry to look for fossils, and – oh, the telescope! – it’s going to be a good view of Jupiter tonight. My mom and my dad were calm people, especially my dad. They were even-keeled, level-headed and methodical. My mother was a bit more whimsical, but she would say, “Geoffrey, try concentrating on just one thing.” And that would be nice, but I don’t see it happening any time in the near future.
When people ask me about my work flow, I say that I’m a very linear person; I like to start at the beginning and go through to the end. And then I laugh and I say, “I never do that. Why do I say that?” It’s a dream to me that I would write a book from start to finish. In the introduction to my third book, My Incredibly Strange and Amazing Real-Life Adventures in the World of Comic Books, I talk about how I wrote it completely in fragments – on planes, in waiting rooms, in hotels, a bit at home, everywhere. There was actually one funny bit when I was going to do an event at the Arizona Museum of Natural History and I was writing about how, for me, writing is very much a product of the moment you’re in. And at that moment, I was in the hotel and I was writing this piece, and the car arrived to take me to the museum, so I just wrote that right into the book: “In fact, this demonstrates my point perfectly, because I’m trying to write this and my car is here and my publicist is here to take me to the museum.” It’s a very fragmentary process and I don’t really like that, but it’s what I have to work with and I left that in the book.
When I get on a creative run of something, I really try and go with it. I’m a member of the Society of Southwestern Authors, which is a wonderful professional writers’ organization, and I was at one of their conferences where writers were talking about their work methodology and how they do things and how they stick with things. One of the writers said, “I’ve realized that when I’m writing and I’m doing well, I’d go, ‘Wow, you did a whole chapter. Congratulations! Get up and take a break.’ No, don’t stop! I won’t let myself stop. I’m going to push through. I’m moving now, I’m cooking; the truck’s going down the hill, the train’s going, the plane’s flying, you’ve got the creative energy going. Don’t break it! Because if you break it and you get up and go make tea and come back, you’ll say, ‘Now, where was I? I don’t know. I’ve lost the spark.’”
It’s amazing how much one sentence from one person that you don’t even know can influence the whole rest of your life. I always do that now when I’m writing. I think, “Oh, look, you’ve written six pages. Well done! You’re such a hero of writing. Now, go make a sandwich.” But, I won’t let myself stop. I won’t stop until I run out of energy.
That’s a long answer, but it’s going to come back to your question. I love mosaics, and I see my creative life as a very complicated mosaic. So, here’s this bit, we’ve got this meteorite task we have to do, we’re working on a new big project, I’m working with this nonprofit, I’m working on a photography book, I’ve got an interview, and this and that, and it all has to fit together.
Given the many and varied things you have going on constantly, how do you stay organized?
One of my secrets is that I carry a clipboard around with me – an old-fashioned wooden clipboard with a clip on it. Every morning, the first thing I do when I get to the office is type up my to-do list and I cross off all the things I did from yesterday – hopefully many – and I try to sort today’s list in order of importance. The clipboard goes everywhere with me. It’s with me in my bag during this interview. It goes everywhere – the truck, the house, the office.
I was having dinner with my friend Eric Schumacher, the director, who’s probably the only person busier than I am. We had a dinner meeting to discuss an indie film we’re working on, Revenge of Zoe. I produced this clipboard and he said, “Is that notes for the film?” and I said, “No, this is my daily to-do list.” He said, “Well, what is that?” I said, “It’s an old-fashioned clipboard and I type this every morning.” He said, “That is so brilliant!” And I laughed and said, “It’s not like I invented this.”
Don’t think I’m a Luddite. I’m a tech-head. I’ve got a smartphone, I’ve got laptops, I’ve got everything – all the tech stuff you can think of. To me, nothing beats a clipboard. It’s a piece of paper on a board – you can see it – and the best part is, when you do something, you get to cross it off with a red Sharpie and that makes you feel good!
The clipboard is for the most important things, but in my office, I put up a big corkboard as well. These are creative projects I’m working on – here’s a concept for the cover of a book, here’s a layout for a new ad we might do for the meteorite company – work that’s in progress. It doesn’t take long for that to get filled in at the office. Then, I also have a little white board right next to my desk for the super important creative stuff.
So, I’ve got a clipboard; a big corkboard on the east wall; on the west wall, a little white board with magnets on it for favorite song quotes, inspirational ideas – oh, this postcard that is good inspiration for the next book cover – and that’s still not enough. I’m working on the photography book, so now there is also a giant white board on an easel in the corner of the office that is just for the photography book. That’s how much is going on. There’s the immediate list, the creative stuff, the super-important creative stuff, and the giant thing that’s just the current project.
I know it might seem absurd and like I can’t make a decision, but that’s not the case. The thing is, it keeps it all current in my mind. It’s on my radar, it’s in my worldview, I see it. And I love to physically acknowledge the completion of a task. White boards are lovely because, “I did that and I can wipe that off,” or put a red box around it or move things around. Magnets on whiteboards – what an invention!
That’s what works for me. I like to have a lot of surfaces and a lot of things so I can see what is going on. It’s my Mission Control – my Artistic Mission Control. Here are all the different panels, here’s astronaut life signs, here’s the fuel gauge – the fuel gauge is the list of people in the photography book – you get the analogy. For a spaceflight nut like me to feel like, “Here’s my Command Center, here are all my different notes. I’ve got to communicate with the ship. Fuel level’s good, rotate the solar panels, stir the tanks.”
Have you always been this organized or is it still a work in progress?
For many years, I used a very inefficient work model, which was, “Let me get all the small things out of the way first – all the emails, pay the phone bill, feed the cat.” And then, in my daydreams, a bit later in the day, I would have taken care of all the annoying little matters and I could get down to the serious nitty-gritty of creating a book or a script or storyboards for a film or whatever I have to do that day. That never happens. You lose the whole day doing the piddly stuff and you never get to the meat of it. I don’t do that anymore.
When I get to the office, I look at my list and think, “What do I really want to accomplish today?” I need to edit these photos, I need to finish this publishing agreement, I need to do this and that. I do the big things first – at least a couple – while I’ve got nice, good morning energy. Then, later I do the annoying tasks.
Another thing that I have adopted, which is extremely important to me, is to limit email time. Email is the most annoying thing in existence to me, except for really loud car stereos. You can waste your whole life answering emails and never accomplish anything. My friend, Neil Gaiman – if you happen to have his email address and you email him, you will get an auto-responder that says, paraphrasing, “I’m not checking email anymore. Please understand it is nothing personal, but that way, I can actually be a writer, instead of being a guy that writes email and does writing as a hobby.”
I so admire that and I’m an inch away from that. I’m working on a photography book now called Empirical World, so I have to stay engaged with my subjects and my managing editor. But I’ve given myself a goal that, when I’m done with the photography book, I’m going to take a break from email for at least a month just to see what it’s like.
It is so important, if you’re a creative person that has a lot of responsibility – or a business person, entrepreneur, whatever you’re doing – to learn how to manage your time. It’s been a really difficult lesson for me. Ordering tasks and focusing on the important stuff have been very successful for me. I think the single most valuable thing is, don’t burn up your good, early day energy doing useless tasks that you feel are a waste of time. Try to get something solid accomplished in the day.
I know this – it’s as clear as reading a headline in the newspaper – when I get home in the evening, if I’ve had a very productive day and I’ve accomplished some good creative work and some good business, I’m in a good mood. I feel like, “Ah, it was a good day.” If I’ve spent the whole day doing email and social media, and on the phone, and answering questions, I get home and I think, “That was a total waste of time. I might as well not even exist.”
Time and focus are not my strong points. They can be, but this dream, this fantasy I have that I’m a linear person and I like to do things from start to finish – maybe one day.
I want to follow up on the lesson you’ve learned about using your energy in the morning. I think a lot of creative people, or busy people in general, can relate to the feeling that they can’t focus on the creative things until they get all the nagging, mundane tasks out of the way. How do you compartmentalize your thoughts so that you can set those things aside and devote your energy to the more meaningful tasks?
It’s an ongoing thing and it’s such an interesting point. The idea that you would ever get the annoying tasks done is a complete fantasy. It’s never going to happen. You are never going to finish every email, remember to pay the vet bill, take the garbage out.
I know it’s very enticing. As an artist, I relate doubly, because whenever I would start a new project – a new comic book, a new painting or whatever – the first thing I would do is clean up the studio. I’d clean up my drafting table, maybe even wipe it down, clean up all the little bits of eraser, sharpen the pencils, organize the artwork, make sure my T-square is clean, I might even vacuum. Now, I have a pristine art studio. I have no more excuses. I’ve got to get down to the work and I’ve actually got to make it happen.
I think in this modern tech world of, “I’ve got to take care of the emails, and update my calendar, and, oh, gosh, I forgot to do that bank transfer,” the sad news is that you are never going to get to the place where you can say, “I took care of every little stupid, annoying thing. Now, I – the creative/business person – can do all my great works.” I can write my sequel toMoby Dick or whatever it’s going to be, unencumbered by the knowledge that I have to deal with the day-to-day minutiae. It’s never going to happen.
You have to do the important stuff first. I’m not suggesting that you say, “I’m not going to buy that fire extinguisher because I have to do my creative work.” There are some things that are really important – if it’s a life and death thing – don’t forget to put gas in the car, get the fire extinguisher. But, then, before you do the email and all the other rubbish, do at least one really good thing. If I’ve worked on the cover of the book and I’m really happy with it, I will print that out and put that on the big white board – work in progress – and then I will allocate an hour or two to take care of the business.
The summation is that it’s an ongoing process of prioritizing what is important to you as a creative person, and making that balance with the more tedious tasks that you have to do in order to keep the ship afloat. It’s a constant balancing act.
(End, Part 1)