Welcome to Influencers!
Today, we have with us Larsen. For those of you who were listening last episode, there were several hints to suggest who Larsen is. He grew up in a little surfer town in Northern California. He is a SEAL and then went on to graduate from the Kennedy School at Harvard. And as a hint, he was named after a Danish poet.
Then, the second interview is anonymous. If you can figure out who it is before we reveal it in the following podcast, you could win a coveted invitation to the Influencer Salon.
Listen To The Podcast Here:
Actionable Ideas To Get Into Journalism with Kaj Larsen
Welcome back, listeners. I’m really excited to be hosting one of my best friends in the world today. Many of you have figured out that Larsen is actually Kaj Larsen. Kaj, thank you so much for coming on. It’s such a treat.
It’s always good to be in touch. Sometimes we get to do it in person. It’s always awesome what we call each other, there’s no standard greeting. Our standard greeting between you and me is, “Where in the world are you?” Then I’ll respond with, “Where in the world are you?”
You’re one of the only people that I know that is as hard to predict which city or country you’re in. First of all, listeners, let’s hear a little bit about Kaj’s career. Kaj, give us your title, all that kind of stuff so that they know the incredible person that I get to call a friend.
My title is that I am a Producer Correspondent. I work in non-fiction documentary journalism. I am a former Navy SEAL. I spent six years on active duty in the SEAL teams and then another six and a half to seven years as a Reserve SEAL officer. Now, I’m a full-time journalist, correspondent, producer, budding entrepreneur and a man about town.
Just a few of my favorite highlights: You were a part of the investigative journalism team at CNN, right?
That’s right. The special investigations and documentary unit, I was one of their correspondents.
You worked on The Newsroom with Sorkin?
Yes, I did.
You were Bureau Chief for a while for Vice in LA?
Yes. I was at Vice for almost two and a half years. I was the Bureau Chief there. I was part of the team that helped standup Vice News. I was a long-time correspondent on the Vice on HBO Show. I kicked off Season 4 of Vice on HBO with an episode about the war in Northern Nigeria.
You actually went to Northern Nigeria to track down Boko Haram.
I did and it was crazy. Everything you’ve said is accurate. I was particularly proud of that professionally because, as you know, I have talked about it a bunch. They had banned journalists from entering the conflict zones in the North. I had to use all my trade craft from both my old and my new job to show people what was really happening on the front lines. It had some play here in the States but it made me a minor celebrity in Nigeria, which I know is a dubious claim to fame. The truth is the people of Nigeria had never actually seen what this devastating war and conflict in the Northern half of their country look like, so I showed them on camera for the first time what was actually happening.
Listeners, if you remember, there was the whole story of how Boko Haram kidnapped the Chibok girls and forced them into marriages and so on. You were able to not just find them but managed to sit down with two of their senior members. Isn’t that right?
Yeah, that was a pretty sketchy moment. There was almost 300, 276 school girls to be exact, that were kidnapped from a small town in Northern Nigeria. It’s called Chibok, which is about three hours outside the capital of Maiduguri, which is the capital city of Borno State. It’s the epicenter of the North and the birthplace of Boko Haram. They kidnapped these school girls and they were missing for a very, very long time. Many of them were, sadly, married off to Boko Haram fighters. The Chibok girls became Chibok moms. That was over three years ago. Just recently, within the last couple of months as the conflict there is waning and morphing, they were able to recover somewhere around a hundred, maybe a little bit more of the girls. Until then, there was literally only one girl who had managed to escape and make her way to a refugee camp in the North. They were gone, done and missing for years and it was a real pain point for the entire Nigerian society and became emblematic of all of the travesties that were happening in this conflict.
When people hear everything that you’ve done with your life between your career as a journalist on television, as a SEAL, you’ve also hosted a show for Go90. Now, you’re working on several projects that are yet to be announced. What is the most common question that you get?
The most common question is probably something that I get from men between the ages of 13 and 35 who are like, “How do I become a SEAL?” I get a lot of inquiries about that, as if I have some exclusive insight. I tell most people the same thing, which is, “Go to BUD/S and don’t quit, and good luck.” It’s important that as SEALS, we’re good ambassadors of the community and we’re helping groom the next generation of SEALS. At the same time, there is a huge swath of aspirational about who will never make it. The truth is what we always say is it’s impossible to determine on the front end who’s going to make it. You have to be careful. It’s all about what’s inside. My SEAL training class started with I think 247 people and we graduated 26. That’s people who have actually taken all the steps to pass the screen or join the Navy, get selected for the training. There’s this huge funnel at the top and this very small output at the bottom. It’s really difficult to peer into somebody’s motivation, their character, their mental toughness and determine whether they actually have a real shot or not. For the most part, people have to forge that path on their own.
The second most common question that I get is, “I want your job. That looks so exotic. I want to be a war zone correspondent. I want to travel around the world. How do I get your job?” I always find that to be an amusing question. The snarky answer is, “Go be a SEAL for a decade and then volunteer to have yourself waterboarded then go to war zones around the world and get shot at in pursuit of truth and understanding.” It’s not as glamorous when you frame it that way.
It’s also not glamorous to be in a war zone and peeing yourself because you don’t have the training and you didn’t realize what you got yourself into.
It’s even less glamorous to be in a warzone with the training and peeing yourself. I don’t care who you are, it’s not fun to sleep in a soft tent where there’s incoming border fire. That’s nobody’s idea of a good time.
It’s stuff that isn’t even fun in retrospect. There are certain things that when you look back at it, you’re like, “That was fun.” That’s just terrifying. It’s amazing that there are people such as yourself that will dedicate themselves so much in the pursuit of the truth in terms of informing the public of what’s actually taking place and the atrocities taking place and the actions that we need to take. Correct me if I’m wrong, how glamorous is it spending 18 hours on connecting flights just to get to a place where it’s 100 degrees out? You haven’t slept because you’re on a Jeep driving another 12 hours to some remote location.
It reminds me of the first time I went to Mogadishu in 2006. I was one of the first Western journalists there in over a decade since Black Hawk Down. Getting to Mogadishu now, there are commercial airlines. But in those days, you had to fly to Djibouti where we were detained for three days. We slept next to a bunch of other Somali refugees who had been detained. Once we were finally able to weasel our way out of that scenario, you’ve got to get to Nairobi or somewhere else and then you got to hop on a World Food Program plane. Lay on sacks of rice to get delivered to some place in the middle of the dessert outside of Mogadishu. You have to pass through thirteen checkpoints in order to get into the heart of the city.
We stayed at a place there, it’s in the middle of a decent amount of fighting. We stayed at a hotel ironically called the Peace Hotel. In some days, it was just too dangerous to go out so you’re crammed up in the hotel all day. You learn that the little pockets of luxury and humanity are magnified incredibly. One of the things is Somalia has incredible seafood but for the most part Somalis don’t really love seafood so there’s an abundant supply of lobster. We were held up in the hotel all day long while there was fighting going outside but we feasted on lobsters. It’s the little things that get you through.
I don’t mean to discourage anybody from either of these professions. I consider it a high honor. What I would just say for context is that you have to be doing it for the right reasons, whether you’re a SEAL or a conflict zone correspondent. The intrinsic motivations have to be right. You can’t do it for anybody else or any perceived notions of fame or glory. You have to do it, in both cases, because you care about the mission.
For people who want to get into it, what are three actionable ideas or even one or two that could really have them get into journalism?
For journalism, what I’ll just say is that it’s an extraordinary dynamic industry at an extraordinarily dynamic time. A lot of the former notions of how to be a journalist and what being a journalist is are changing. There’s an exception to every rule so I’m going to give the broad strokes. The most important thing that you have to do is go to college. That goes hand in hand with having a set of analytical tools and understanding that will help you dissect the world. Number one, go to college. You don’t necessarily need to study journalism. In fact, quite the opposite because that leads into number two, which is develop a domain of expertise about the world.
That expertise could be in engineering but the idea is that you know something about something and that you can then apply that lens of learning to journalism itself and that framework of experience to journalism. It also gives you a domain of expertise to report on. I think the days of being an anchor who doesn’t really know anything and reads the teleprompter and reads the copy and gets briefed on something are waning. I think in this new information age where people are hungry for facts and credibility and authenticity, being a subject matter expert in something is actually a good precursor to get into journalism.
The third is more philosophical. You have to have a mission and point of view to get into journalism. That mission could be to seek the truth. It could be to exposing justice in the world. You have to have a particular point of view. That’s informed by both action step number one: your analytical tools and experience, action step number two: your domain of expertise. I think if you do that, you develop in step one the writing skills and the thinking skills that are necessary for this job; to separate fact from fiction, to separate information from disinformation, to contextualize and analyze information and facts, if you develop that in stage one. If in stage two, you become a subject matter expert about something and that can be the vessel through what you get into the world. Then in stage three, where you apply all of that learning to a mission and purpose, then I think you’re well on the path to get into journalism and towards being a good journalist.
What are some of the secrets nobody talks about in the industry?
I think the biggest secret in journalism, and I’m speaking about the industry broadly, is that we rely on local, on-the-ground experts in a major way, especially as international journalists. These are people who are living in the fray every day reporting their stories. They have the relationships and the context and the understanding that when we parachute in, which a pejorative in journalism. When we parachute in and report on a story, we are piggybacking on both their efforts, their experience and in many ways their risk tolerance.
The example I’m thinking of, I put out a piece in the last couple of days about a friend of mine, Javier Valdez who was a reporter in Culiacán, which is the capital of Sinaloa, which is the headquarters of the Sinaloa Federation or the Sinaloa Drug Cartel made famous by its famous leader, Joaquín Chapo Guzman. Chapo is the head of the Sinaloa Cartel. My friend Javier reported on the Sinaloa Cartel from Culiacan and he reported on drug trafficking. He reported on corruption. He reported collision. We would sometime describe Javier as dead man walking. It was amazing that he survived so long. Ultimately, about a couple of weeks ago, he was pulled out of his car in broad daylight by sicarios and assassinated right in the middle of the street.
Prior to that, he’d done five to ten years of extraordinary work giving us information on what was happening. We know what we know about the Sinaloa Federation and about narcotic trafficking on the Pacific Coast in large parts because of Javier’s courageousness. As an international journalist, I would rely on Javier and his expertise to help me navigate those waters. I think that’s a really undertold, unknown and underreported secret is that we use these fixers in the field. We use these colleagues a lot in order to tell stories back home domestically.
One of my favorite stories of yours is how you actually ended up in the SEALS. It was complete insanity. Do you mind sharing the story because I think the listeners will absolutely love this?
Everybody has to find their own path to BUD/S. As we mentioned earlier, BUD/S is Basic Underwater Demolition SEAL training. It’s worth stating that there are two pipelines to BUD/S. There’s an officer community and an enlisted community. I was an officer because I had a college degree. I applied for one of the officer pipelines. Although many of the enlisted guys have a college degree, just to confuse the story. I went in through the officer pipeline. That is only really meaningful in terms of which pipeline you use to get in. In SEAL training, there’s an incredible amount of equality for a military institution. SEAL training is the only US military training in the world where officers and enlisted go through the identical training together side by side. It’s the only welfare qualification training where we go through the identical training side by side. There’s not really a distinction between the officers enlisted. If anything, there’s higher standards on the officers. They’re expected to lead from the front in SEAL training. That’s a big part of the mantra of the community.
I went in through the officer pipeline. I didn’t know this story until many years later. One of the ways I was accepted into this SEAL community is that while I was waiting, while I had applied to go in for a billet through Officer Candidate School to the SEAL community, I was working as an Ocean Lifeguard in my hometown at Santa Cruz, California. I was competing in surf racing and a bunch of aquatic events at that time. There was this day where the lifeguard vehicle was driving Code 4 on the beach, which means lights and sirens. It’s something it’s not supposed to do. It pulled up to me and they said, “A car just drove off the wharf, go!” Me and a few of my colleagues sprinted up the wharf, it’s about a mile to get there. When we got there, there’s a huge chunk of railing missing. It was obvious that a car had driven off the wharf so we started diving down. This is Santa Cruz and the water is cold. It’s dark and it’s murky and the car was 30 or 40 feet under water.
When we finally got down there, there was a bunch of people making dives but there was really only two of us who could consistently make it down to the car. In fact, for my first time, I couldn’t even find the car. I had to listen for the rotor fan belt that was still going. Eventually, I got down there and I saw a guy trapped in the car, passed out. I put myself in the car and I was trying to yank him out. I remember it’s excruciating. I was pulling so hard with my feet against the window while I was trying to pull him out that I heard his shoulder, that I ripped his shoulder blade out of the socket. I could hear it underwater crunching. All in all, I made probably 15 or 20 dives down to the car. Eventually was able to get him out but a lot of time had elapsed. Both myself and another lifeguard named Ryan Buell were pretty instrumental in trying to get him out in time. In the end, we couldn’t. He had spent too much time underwater and by the time we got him up, it was 11 minutes or something. The water is cold but it’s not like 32 degrees ice fishing cold. Ultimately, he passed although they got his heart restarted and they got him breathing on his own in the ambulance. There were several other lifeguards in the water who, once he was up, helped us swim him to the dock and all of these stuff. I don’t, by any means, mean to imply that it was a solo effort.
For this thing, I received a lot of accolades and an exceptional citizenship award which is a key to the city. I included that in my SEAL training packet. Unbeknownst to me is that several months after that happened, the officer community manager from the SEAL teams who is reviewing all the applications came down and said he was with his wife getting clam chowder on the wharf in Santa Cruz on their vacation. There’s a plaque that’s dedicated to the rescue, and he’s like, “I feel like I’ve heard this story before.” He had seen the story in my application packet but it didn’t quite registered until he was staring down at the cold ocean 40 feet below where he’s like, “Shit, we got to have this guy.” That was in large part, my physical scores where good and all of that stuff. I had met all the other threshold. According to this guy Commander Tom Carlson, who found me years later after I graduated and told me the story, that was the tipping point for getting me in.
Time for our rapid fire questions. Who’s your hero?
I think all my heroes are my friends and colleagues who I served in the SEAL teams with, some of whom are not with us anymore.
I know that several of your friends have been involved with not just incredible missions that have become public, but they’ve written popular books and have gone on to develop just amazing careers. I applaud them and your efforts. It’s just been incredible to see the status of the community just grow and grow, to the point that I’ve been hearing that people start pretending to be SEALS. What’s the deal with that? It’s complete insanity. I know that people want to seem important but have a bit of respect.
You would be shocked at the proliferation of fake SEALS. There is actually an old actual SEAL, this salty, old, senior chief named Don Shipley who spends his retirement outing fake SEALS online and in real life. This guy has taken down mayors of towns, pastors of churches, successful businessmen, all who have been claiming SEAL credentials. It’s pretty absurd. It’s not my particular ax to grind, I find it more amusing than anything but some of my boys take that real seriously. I pity the fake frogman soul who’s trying to pick up a girl on a bar right next to a real frogman. Some of those guys think of that on as pissing on our community.
I know that you’ve started a bunch of non-profits. What are you really focused on now in terms of social impact?
One of the things that I did when I got off active duty is along with my closest friend from the SEAL teams who is now the current Governor of Missouri. We founded with our combat pay a group called The Mission Continues. They give fellowships for veterans to do stints in public service. The idea there was that we wanted to find ways to put forward this idea that veterans can continue to serve just out of uniform. That spawned a host of other organizations in the veteran service space. I currently have the honor of being both a member and sitting on the Board of Advisors for Team Rubicon Global, which is a non-profit that deploys veterans to do humanitarian work in disaster zones. I both am a strategic advisor there but I also deploy. I’ve done three deployments with that group of veterans including one to Pakistan after a fifth of the country was underwater and flooded and then another deployment to the Philippines after the category five typhoon, Haiyan that hit. That’s really extraordinary rewarding work with a great committed group of veterans who are continuing to serve their country.
What’s a very human secret you’d feel comfortable sharing? A lot of people have come out and talked about how they have anxiety or they struggled with certain issues. What would be something that you’d feel comfortable sharing with the listeners?
I feel pretty open book, pretty transparent. One of the more interesting facets is my relationship with my mom who is a true committed pacifist and an extraordinary person. Even though we’ve had very different philosophical beliefs about use of force, we managed to find love in common ground. It’s very hard for a pacifist mother to have a son who becomes a Navy SEAL, but at no point did that ever challenge our relationship or jeopardize the extraordinary love we feel for each other. I don’t know if it’s too far a stretch to extrapolate this but within your own family, you can have different philosophies and views and still exist within that container of love. It certainly should be possible in our communities and in our country that people can have different beliefs and still admiration, love and respect for each other.
Last two questions. If you could be any comic book hero, who would it be?
Straight out of a Kevin Smith movie, there are so many choices. There’s Batman, there’s The Man of Steel. I think for obvious reasons it’s Aquaman. I feel like that’s the one I have the greatest chance of too.
He was also a king. He’s the King of Atlantis, isn’t he?
Yeah, he carried a trident. I am 73% on the way there. I do a lot of spearfishing. That’s my guy. I just need some green tights.
If you could have dinner with any three living people, who would they be?
Miss Colombia, Miss Venezuela and Miss Costa Rica. I get to beat all the other cool people in the world through The Influencers Dinner, so I’m going to stack the state.
I have to say that’s probably the most honest and original answer we’ve gotten so far. This has been one of my favorite interviews ever. It’s been such a treat having you on. If people want to find you, how can they find you? I assume Twitter, Instagram, where are you?
I’m on all those social platforms. I’m producing content, you can also look at any of the Vice episodes. We have a really nice library and I have a great body of work on Vice. My primary medium these days is Instagram, that’s @kajlarsen. I try to at least give a heads up seven up about my projects there.
Listeners, stay tuned for the anonymous interview. Kaj, again, thanks so much for coming on.
About Kaj Larsen
Kaj, a Navy SEAL, is a graduate of University of California Santa Cruz and Harvard University. He is television journalist, producer, and award winning correspondent for VICE and such outlets as CNN, Current TV, ABC, NBC, and MSNBC. He has reported from war zones and conflict spots around the world, in places such as Pakistan, Yemen, Cambodia, Colombia, West Africa, and Latin America. His feature documentaries have covered topics ranging from the drug war in Mexico to the devastating floods in Pakistan to Wikileaks.
Anonymous Guest Interview
Now, my favorite part of every episode, the anonymous interview. Today, I have the incredible pleasure of hosting Linda. Where she works and the type of commitment that they have as an organization is something so true to everything I grew up with that I literally geek out and get insanely excited every time I hear about what they do and make. That’s a bit of a hint. No, it’s not comic books. Linda, thank you so much for coming on because I really am a huge fan of the work you guys do.
Jon, it’s my pleasure. Right back to you, I love what you do and the community you’ve created and the way you’ve created it, it’s so unique.
Thank you very much. Let’s dive right into it. Tell me a little bit about you. Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Jersey. I’m a Jersey girl, Northern New Jersey and I lived there most of my life.
Was there a certain teacher or experience that inspired you to go down the path you went?
I was really taken with Psychology even in high school. I wound up minoring in college. I love to think about how people behave. It’s invaluable to me in what I do today. I also love art history and culture and had a high school teacher that was incredibly inspirational in that way. That influences me in subtle and not so subtle ways.
It makes perfect sense. Over the course of your career, was there something that you accomplished that you’re most proud of?
Jon, you get to a point in your career, or at least I have, where I’m equally proud of the work, think of it as the body of work, and the people I’ve collaborated on, the teams to bring that work to light. They start to become inseparable in some ways. I see a film and I think of not just the feeling of a film or something I’ve worked on but the whole experience of putting it together. To me, that’s pride. Great work and the people who put it together and being in the trenches together doing it.
There’s something really special about having an incredible team of people. Obviously, with your organization, you have a phenomenal reputation of acquiring talent and then doing something exceptional.
It’s like nothing else. It really is. It’s whether you’re on a great sports team or going through a challenging situation or celebratory situation when you can look to your left and right and know that you’re aligned around a single goal and you want the best not for yourself but for each other and the team and the project and the company, it’s a feeling like no other. I totally agree.
Who would play you in a movie?
I love Sigourney Weaver. Wrong hair color but I just love her, she’s amazing. Maybe her.
Over the course of your career, was there a stunt that you pulled off that was just an unexpected success? Or maybe you took on a dare and you never thought it would necessary workout but all of a sudden it just popped?
Yes. I don’t know if this exactly what you have in mind. As a way to bring our company to life and talk about something that we do uniquely, which is around material science. We had this wacky, wacky idea which was to bring together culture and innovation and technology and appeal to new audiences. We created a sneaker for the 45th anniversary of the moon landing where our company played a role. We partnered with Jack Threads, created this sneaker using our super materials, put them on sale and they sold out in seven minutes and more on eBay within hours at multiple of what the price was. It was just one of those things where you think, “How do you take a topic like material science and make it sexy?”
That is super cool.
It was fun.
Was there a moment or experience that made you feel that you have arrived to some degree? Like you’re playing in the big leagues now.
For me, I never feel like I’ve arrived. I still to this day, and maybe this is good and maybe this is bad, feel as though I’m still on that journey. I’m still hungry to succeed. I still feel as though the best is yet ahead which as I say, it’s good because it’s motivating and it’s bad because I’m my own worst critic. I think there are moments for all of us where you feel particularly good. You’ve had a great day. Something has gone the way it should have or you’ve given a presentation to a big group and you’re feeling great about yourself. Those are wonderful moments and I feel like the next moment can be one of holy cow, we still have so much to do. I like that duality of feeling as though I’m both super proud and passionate about what I do and also critical and demanding. That’s just the way I am.
Is there a hint or a riddle you’d give people to figure out who you are? I remember when you came to the dinner.
Yes, tell me.
You said five letters and everybody’s jaws dropped.
It was the initials of your title and the company. I thought that was super. It was great. It was literally the shortest intro anybody ever gave.
It’s succinct, it’s really succinct. I don’t know what would be a riddle. How about this? Think about a 125-year-old startup.
Here is another one you can choose. “My mom works at this company.” That’s an ad that we had done.
I was like, “Wow, you’re multigenerational.” Very cool. Listeners, now you know what to do. Submit your guesses and if you figure it out, you could win an invitation to The Salon by Influencers.