Hemant Mehta, otherwise known as the Friendly Atheist, sat down and chatted about the best advice he ever received. I got a lot of, well, real-world wisdom from the conversation. I think you will, too.
Hemant Mehta is the founder and editor of FriendlyAtheist.com, a YouTube creator, and podcast co-host. He has appeared on CNN and FOX News and served on the board of directors for Foundation Beyond Belief and the Secular Student Alliance.
Here is a condensed transcript of the video.
Hemant: I heard it was from a high school math teacher. I had him for two years for two different classes. I got to know the guy a little, but I remember that he told us.
Even if you like your job, you should change your job every like ten years.
And I don’t know if he said that as a joke or what. But the funny thing is, after I graduated and I’m in college doing my own thing, we heard he did leave. He stopped teaching and went to do other gigs.
My friends and I all liked the guy. When you think of those teachers you really love in school, the ones that help you make sense of a tough subject, he was the teacher.
We all did well on AP tests, and he was good at teaching. Yet he left to go do something wildly different. And then I think several years after that he left that gig and ended up teaching something else somewhere else. I don’t think anyone was pushing him out. He chose to walk away from these things he liked, and the reason was he just didn’t want to get stale. He didn’t just keep doing the same thing over and over.
I think there’s something to that, and I followed that advice in my own path. I did grad school for a while and then at some point I dropped out because I thought I could try something else. And without getting into too many details there were times I didn’t know what the heck I’m doing.
I taught for like seven years and then of my own volition, I thought I was ready to make a leap, to try to not teach and to try to do something else. I ended up writing for a long time, and I’m still been doing that. It’s been really interesting because I’m working for myself. It’s doing my own thing.
I’ve been able to try to throw more spaghetti against the wall to see what sticks. So it’s given me the opportunity to try YouTube. Let’s see if that works and if I can do it myself. And it’s a lot of learning, as anyone who’s done YouTube knows. It’s not just recording stuff, but editing it myself and putting out the content regularly. That’s not easy.
I’m doing The Friendly Atheist Podcast which started off as a hobby and has grown and grown, which is exciting. I’ve written other books. I’ve done a couple like one off podcasts. I’ve written some books where I don’t think anyone reads them. I don’t regret doing it, but I did it and moved on.
I did a podcast where I did a lot of research. People listened to it, and I don’t know if it’s enough for me to do it again. But I’m glad I tried it.
When I was younger, I wanted to go into medicine. Medicine is one of those things where you got to be 100% into it. It’s really hard to do any of this stuff I’ve been doing today had I chosen that path. Teaching is different. I knew when I quit teaching, I could easily jump back into the classroom without punishment.
Andy: It’s interesting, though, that you’ve gone through this kind of experimental process. You had a theory about what was going to work and then you tested it out.
Hemant: Yeah, that really is it. And believe me, there are a lot of projects I’ve tried that did not pan out. But you learn stuff along the way, and I’m at the point where it’s like I can make smarter decisions about what I’m gonna leap into next. I’m not doing something on a whim. If you ask me what I do for a living, I don’t know how to answer you because it’s a bunch of different things and it changes. And if you ask me a few years from now, I’ll say something else.
I remember since you brought up Jeopardy when they want to know what’s your occupation I don’t know what to say. I feel like it would be inappropriate to say writer because I don’t write great prose or anything. I told them, Blogger, I was proud of that. That’s what they went with. But I do a bunch of things. I’m a podcaster, and a YouTuber, too.
Andy: Are you a social influencer?
Hemant: I’m not spending any time thinking about who’s following me and who’s not. When I use social media, it’s because it’s a way to get a message out. Any of us who’s been in the activist world, whatever genre of it we are talking about, you have ideas and you wanna get them out. And there are ways to get followers that are relatively quick and simple, but like, not my forte and not my style. So, like, in that sense, no, I am not a social influencer.
I’ve been around for a while and anyone who’s been doing this for a while ends up building a following of some sort. You build up a base over time of people who care about what you say. That’s one of the cool things about this sort of thing we do.
There are certain emails I get. I know it’s like a mass e-mail or a newsletter or something, but every time they send it, I get excited about it. because I know I’m going to like what’s in there. I appreciate what they have to say. I don’t call those people influencers. They’re just people who make stuff that I like. I might get angry at stuff I read, but I appreciate what they put out there. That’s a good thing.
Andy: Tell me about a time date that a piece of content you made on any medium, whether it was writing like a book or a YouTube video or podcast, unexpectedly went wildly successful.
Hemant: I’ll tell you this story. Maybe a decade ago at this point, I was blogging. I read a lot about young atheists and their stories. There was a filmmaker in Chicago who taught classes about filmmaking. And he wanted to make a documentary. I don’t remember what it was for, but he wanted to talk to me because I had some knowledge about young atheists.
We met and he told me about the project, and it sounded interesting. During filming, he asked me a lot of questions and it was a way to set me up so I can talk about those issues.
I answered questions like, Should young atheists come out to their parents? And if they are going to, how should they do it? I answered a series of basic questions on topics like that.
You never know what the final product is going to look like. I just trusted he would use the material wisely. He ended up creating a YouTube channel and just putting the clips up on YouTube. And basically saying, like, should you come out to your family, boom. Here’s a two-minute clip of me answering that question. And he did that for like 10 questions. Maybe 15? I don’t remember how many.
Well, here’s what I found shocking. I did not know people were searching for those questions the way I used to do on Google. People were searching on YouTube and they’re finding this video and they’re watching this video not because we promoted it, but because this is what came up in search.
There was really no one else out there talking about those issues. So we ended up doing it again. I even proposed my own questions to answer. We filmed.
The filmmaker put it together with some music in the background with little simple graphics here and there. I think that video has more than two million views. Wow. I didn’t see that coming. We were just kind of goofing around and having some fun.
Obviously, these are the things that we thought would be a fun way to talk about a thing we’ve all heard before. And it went viral. I did not expect it to go viral, but one thing it did teach me is there is a hunger for answering these questions and hearing someone on YouTube who can talk about it in a way that is simple, not threatening, and actually it looks nice. That’s not to knock all the other Youtubers out there but the filmmaker made it look decent.
I created my own channel and that’s what I’ve been using on YouTube. If you search for Friendly Atheist on YouTube it’s just me doing my own thing. But I learned a lot from that experience. I learned how to make videos look good. I may not have all the skills, but I know this is the sort of thing people might be looking for. This is content that’s not going to get stale tomorrow.
Andy: Do you feel comfortable talking about an experiment that didn’t go well? That you put a fair amount of effort into it, but it hasn’t yielded?
I referenced this a few minutes ago. A couple of summers ago I thought it’d be interesting to talk about the Pledge of Allegiance. There are still legislators trying to mandate the Pledge of Allegiance in the classroom. It says that we’re a nation under God and they want everyone to say it. It’s still in the news.
A lot of people probably remember that a couple of decades ago there was a case before the Supreme Court. An atheist wanted to take under God out of the Pledge.
I thought every time we talk about the Pledge of Allegiance, it’s always that case. Or it’s the one factoid every atheist knows which is under God was inserted into the pledge because it wasn’t originally in it. But there are so many more cases about the Pledge of Allegiance. Every time I read about them, it’s like, Oh, I don’t remember that, or I didn’t realize that.
When the pledge was starting to get into schools, it was Jehovah’s Witnesses, not atheists, that had religious objections to saying it. A young black student in Chicago objected to saying the pledge 100 years ago. And the reason was he didn’t think there was justice for all. That could have happened today, but it occurred 100 years ago
He got punished for it in school. And I remember reading about a bunch of stories like that. So I thought, if I spend a summer researching, like, the history of the Pledge of Allegiance, maybe I could write a book on it.
I picked up a couple of books about the Pledge of Allegiance and realized, there are a couple of authors who’ve done this way better than I ever could. I decided not to write a book.
I had another idea. What if I just told the story in a way that’s interesting to me? What if I told these stories about the Pledge in a way that other people would find interesting? I decided to do a podcast.
I spent kind of all summer putting together, compiling everything I could. I read books, and scholarly journal articles as well as newspaper pieces.
Altogether I had six or seven hours of audio content. I ended up doing a Kickstarter fundraiser because I was putting a lot of work into it and there were costs. I made the goal and recorded it in a real studio. It sounded nice. It sounded clean and it was clear.
How many people listen to it and got anything out of it? I don’t know.
If anyone’s interested it’s still up. If you go to my YouTube channel, the audio is on there. Or if you search, it’s called the Supreme Court vs Church/State Separation.