Interview: David Plotz

David Plotz is the CEO of Atlas Obscura, the definitive guide to the world’s hidden places (here’s a terrific place they’ve unhidden). He’s also co-host of the Slate Political Gabfest podcast, former Editor of Slate, and current proselytizer of discovery.

How do you describe yourself?
Bald with a beard and glasses.

How do you describe your work?
I have a main job and then a secondary job. My main work is that I run a company called Atlas Obscura, which aims to be the National Geographic for the 21st century, the defining media company around discovery, wonder, and exploration.

My job at Atlas Obscura is to build a successful, functioning company, and also to proselytize in the world the idea that exploration and discovery aren’t just something that millionaires and billionaires and people who have hundreds of thousands of dollars of equipment from fancy outfitters can do; an exploration isn’t just something that happens at the top of the Himalayas or the Arctic. But that exploration and discovery belong to all of us.

Wherever you are in the world, whoever you are, there is something incredible, wonderful, surprising around the corner from you. And at Atlas Obscura, we’re going to help you find it. My job is to send that spirit out into the world. And to build a very practical business that helps people do that and makes money while doing it.

Then I have a second job: I am a podcaster and I host a weekly political podcast called the Slate Political Gabfest. The purpose of that work is to get to hang out with some friends who’re really smart and have a conversation. That conversation brings pleasure to us and apparently it brings enough pleasure to other people that they keep the podcast running. But really it’s because I like hanging out with [co-hosts] John [Dickerson] and Emily [Bazelon].

What do you think creates a good conversation between people?
There are plenty of people who’re good speakers, but who aren’t conversationalists, in the sense that they don’t listen or they’re not actually curious about the other people who’re around them. So, I think the fundamental baseline quality of a good conversation is two or more people who’re talking to each other and listening to each other.

How do you get there? I think it’s a sense of playfulness. You have to be willing to play around, joke, to poke at people, to allow yourself to be poked. That play is the joy of it. It’s rarely a somber affair. There are times and places for sobriety. But the conversations I like to listen to are undergirded by a sense of fun.

Is there a common false choice out there that you’d like to dispel?
‘It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity.’ I think it’s the heat and the humidity, generally.

What makes work meaningful?
Whether it was at Slate for many years or at Atlas Obscura now, I need to have some sort of core belief that there’s a mission that’s useful and valuable in the world. That’s a baseline.

Work is also meaningful when I get to collaborate with really smart and fun and lively people. Work is meaningful when I get ego gratification from it, when people recognize that I’ve done something good or praise it. I’m not going to pretend like that doesn’t have a huge impact on me, it does.

I think work has meaning when there’s a tangible product at the end of it. I worked on a web magazine for 18 years and Atlas Obscura is primarily digital media, so the product is not like a bridge or a skyscraper. But these are websites that people are spending time with, and using. Humans are fundamentally makers. Maybe this is the key point: the jobs that alienate people are the jobs where there’s no work product.

When do you know it’s time to make a change?
In my case, [with] the change that I made from Slate, there was a pretty stark moment. I was sitting in a meeting in spring of 2014 and I thought, ‘I’m going to quit in this meeting. I can’t take this anymore.’ And so that was like the Lord calling to Joan of Arc for me. I didn’t actually quit in that meeting, but that was the moment that told me I needed to change.

Why did I get to that? I think it was a pair of related ideas. One was that I was solving the same problem – or basically the same problem – that I had solved two years before and two years before that.

When you have a new job and you have to solve a problem, it’s always challenging and it’s great. But then what happens is that you stay somewhere long enough and the same problem arises again: you have to hire a new business editor or you have to change your mobile site. And so then you have to do it again. And it’s like, ‘Oh God, didn’t I already do this?’ That was painful for me.

I think there are kinds of people – and I’m not one of them – who receive tremendous satisfaction from pure virtuosity, in being able to do the same thing perfectly over and over again. I don’t have that. I want new things, I want novelty.

And the second [reason I changed jobs], which is related, is that I wasn’t actually learning anything new at the job. I loved Slate and think Slate is incredible and still love it. I probably could have gone on being editor and done it capably for a while afterwards. But why should I do that? Why spend your life doing something that you do OK just because it has prestige and a good salary attached to it?

How can we value curiosity and discovery more? Or do we even need to?
I do think we need to. I think it brings such satisfaction to people when they discover something new, when they feel themselves to be an explorer of the world.

There’s this great line, which Atlas Obscura’s founder Dylan Thuras is always quoting and I’m going to forget exactly what it is, but the idea of it is that when you’re on vacation, what’s different is not the world around you, it’s not the places that you’re seeing, I mean they are different, but they’re just places in the world. What’s different is you. When you go on vacation, you change.

Basically, any place you are [has] interesting people, places with history, people doing extraordinary things. And it’s just that you choose not to be open to it most of the time because you’ve got to get through life, you’ve got to drop the kids off at school, blah, blah, blah. And so the difference about vacation is you.

Atlas Obscura’s purpose in the world is to make your experience moving through the world more like you are on vacation than you are at home. There’s an act of will that you can apply to yourself where you say, ‘I’m going to treat my city like a foreign country.’ It’s not easy, it’s a learned behavior. But it’s valuable. And it opens you up without having to actually travel.

Is that something you’ve found yourself doing in DC where you live?
Yeah, totally. One of the reasons I ended up taking the Atlas Obscura job was that I had an Atlas Obscura encounter with the city.

I was talking to Josh [Foer, Atlas Obscura co-founder] about the job and thinking about it. Then I went for a bike ride with my daughter. We ended up biking down in Anacostia where I’d never really spent time. We were biking on this crummy bike path [and] we went from Fort Dupont to Fort Davis to Fort Mahon to Fort Wallace. And I was like, ‘Why is every place named ‘Fort’? There aren’t forts here.’ And then you go back and do a bit of research and realize this was a ring of forts that protected Washington during the Civil War.

So, me and my family went out for a walk two weeks later up by where Military Road and Oregon Avenue meet. And there’s a little trail, and you take that little trail about 200 yards into the woods and there’s another little trail off to the left. You take that 100 feet. And all of a sudden, there are earthen walls that rise 15 feet above you and a moat below you, and if you climb up to the top of the walls, you see it’s a ring of walls totally overgrown by Rock Creek Park. But it’s clearly an old fort. And it’s Fort DeRussy. It was one of the northern forts that protected Washington. And it’s right there, in the middle of the park. It’s not unknown. It’s on the National Park Service website. But it’s [a] relic of a historical moment basically covered over, grown over.

And yet we had this sensation of, ‘My God! We’ve discovered it. We’ve found it.’ It was totally inspiring. When that happened, that feeling [was] a really good feeling. And I would like to be part of putting that feeling out in the world. So, let’s do it.

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