Behavioral scientist and author Jon Levy joins Zibby to talk about his famous Influencers Dinner, and reveals some secrets about the exclusive dining experience (hint: you’ll never guess what they always make for dinner). Jon also shares the science behind his new book, You’re Invited, and how the desire to make changes in his life years ago inspired his life’s work. Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books has teamed up with Katie Couric Media and Random House to give away 100 copies of Sarah Sentilles’ book, Stranger Care! Enter the giveaway by clicking here:


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Jon. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss You’re Invited: The Art and Science of Cultivating Influence.

Jon Levy: Are you kidding? I’m super excited, especially after I got this wild giftbag. I got so curious what’s about to happen next.

Zibby: Some people have a lot of questions about some of the stuff. We had a lot of questions on the heart that I sent to go with “Moms Don’t Have Time to Have Sex.” People were quietly DMing me like, um, what am I supposed to do with this? It really was an ice pack. The moms knew, but a lot of people aren’t moms.

Jon: Yes, I’m very much not a mom. Maybe one day.

Zibby: I should’ve done a different gift bag for different people, but I didn’t. For the next book. Anyway, can you tell listeners what You’re Invited is about? What inspired you to write this book?

Jon: For sure. First of all, I grew up a pretty lonely kid. I’m really geeky. I’m a behavioral scientist. I started at a young age of being really into technology and sci-fi. Back in the eighties, that was not a cool thing. Now literally everybody knows the comic books that I used to read as a kid because they’re the highest-grossing films of all time. Back then, I just wasn’t popular. What I thought was that that was a real rarity. I see shows like Saved by the Bell growing up, and I think everybody has this wild groups of friends and they’re always up to antics, and it’s just me. As I grew up, I realized that that wasn’t so much the case. In fact, in 1985, the average American had just about three friends besides family. By 2004, we were down to two. In less than a generation, we lost a third of our social ties. That trend has probably increased over time. I know people like to blame social media and all that, but the real culprit is probably people moving a lot more frequently. Every time you move, you reset your social ties. It turns out, a couple of things that are kind of wild.

The first is that the greatest predictor of human longevity, us living a long time, isn’t that awesome kale salad from Sweetgreen or whatever. Number two is strong social ties. Number one is something called social integration, that you come in contact with a lot of people. You’re part of a community. If you look on the business side, you can track a company’s stock value, employee sick days, and profitability to level of trust. For just about anything we actually care to succeed at or care about, who we’re connected to, how much they trust us, the sense of belonging that we share is at the core of all of it. The book explores this idea of, how do we make deep and meaningful relationships with anybody? It doesn’t matter if they’re a global leader or a celebrity or a community leader that you just find really interesting. How do you build trust in a meaningful way? How do you foster the sense of community and belonging around you?

Zibby: Wow. Tell listeners more about the dinner that you started doing and the dinner series and cooking together with people you didn’t know. You tell it.

Jon: I’m going to say this in the most ridiculous way possible. Then I’m going to actually explain it. I’ve spent much of my adult life convincing people to come to my home, cook my dinner, wash my dishes, clean my floor, and then thank me for it. I know that sounds completely ridiculous. As I promised, I’ll explain. Around 2008, I was the stereotypical person not living up to their potential. I was incredibly in debt from college. I was overweight, single. Things weren’t going according to plan. I came across a study, and this was kind of crazy, that looked at the obesity epidemic. What the researchers found was that if you have a friend who’s obese, your chances increase by forty-five percent. Your friends who don’t know them have a twenty percent increased chance. Their friends have a five percent increased chance. It’s true for happiness, marriage and divorce rates, smoking habits, voting habits. Really, everything passes from person to person. I said, I have to figure out how to get the most extraordinary people in our culture to come together so that we can have a positive impact on each other. What I did was I researched human behavior. From that knowledge, I created a secret dinner. Twelve people are invited. When they arrive, they’re not allowed to talk about what they do or even give their last name. Then they cook dinner together. When they sit down to eat, they get to guess what everybody does. They find out that it’s a Nobel Laureate, an Olympian, a celebrity, the editor-in-chief of a magazine, so on and so forth. I’ve hosted over 2,000 people at 227 dinners in 10 cities and 3 countries. It’s become probably the largest community of its kind in the world. I ended up losing the weight and getting out of debt, mostly because of great advice and support from the people around me.

Zibby: Amazing. You’re the only person to have dinner parties and lose weight.

Jon: Do you want to know the little secret?

Zibby: I would love it.

Jon: We had a well-known journalist come. She said, “I was expecting a phenomenal meal and decent company. I got the exact opposite.” I’ve had the same meal at almost every dinner, so over two hundred and some-odd times.

Zibby: What is it?

Jon: It’s burritos. It’s guacamole. It’s just something that you can assemble any way you want. With everybody’s absurd dietary restrictions from keto, pesco-whatever, all the way to kosher and halal, we needed to figure something out that worked. I’ve just stopped eating the meals. I’ll instruct people. I’ll let them cook. Then I’ll be like, okay, I’m just going to guide this. You can all eat it. The food isn’t any good. Let’s be honest. It’s a bunch of people who don’t know how to cook cooking. Go to Chipotle. It’ll better.

Zibby: It’s great. The thing I didn’t totally figure out how you did in the book is, how did you attract all of the people who are all these highly influential, notable people? How did you start? What was your first dinner? What was your second dinner? How did you get to a point where you could invite all these big-deal people?

Jon: Here’s what’s interesting. The first dinner, the people weren’t nearly as impressive. I describe them more like community influencers rather than industry. The industry people really have an impact on the industry. When you win the Nobel Prize, you can have an impact on biology or whatever. The people that I was inviting, it was 2009-ish, it was people who had a large following on Twitter or people who were celebrity hair stylists and things like that that had a lot of status but weren’t industry-defining. The first dinner was a hot mess, literally, an actual mess. I had no idea what I was doing. The air conditioner broke in the middle. It was August or something. I don’t even remember when it was. People were still loving the experience because it was so different. I just kept doing it. It took me five or six months to run another. Then I did it again and again. I kept increasing the frequency, which is what led to me eventually being able to invite more impressive people. Let’s say you attended. I’d ask you, who’s the coolest person you know? Then you’d be like, oh, I actually have this one friend who’s a writer who’s an Emmy winner. I say, great, can we invite them? Then the Emmy winner comes. People are like, oh, my god, now there are Emmy winners at these things. Then they’re like, oh, I have a friend who’s an Academy Award winner, you should invite them. If you just keep doing it, that’s one thing. The second thing is, when you really understand and you build around the characteristics that engage people, then it attracts a lot more people. I’ll give you a simple example. You’ve probably had a lot of impressive guests over the years. If I invite them to another casino-themed fundraiser, does that sound particularly appealing?

Zibby: No.

Jon: They’ve been to a hundred. They would much rather just give a check and have a night off. That’s because that kind of stuff won’t engage people if it’s the same old stuff. If you really want to connect with highly influential people, you have to stand out. I recommend that there’s four characteristics that you really need to put into something to get their attention. The first is, if everybody’s after them, it means that they tend to want things from them. They want their money, their time, their expertise, all these things. My first policy is that everything we do has to be generous. That’s not to say that it couldn’t be a business experience for business development. It’s not like I can’t have some kind of benefit, but that the intention is to really provide people with something. Now, where most companies go wrong is that they do things like take people out for expensive business dinners. I’m assuming, at some point, you’ve been invited to these really awkward experiences. They take you to a fancy dinner. Then it’s like an awkward interview until you find something to talk about. The key isn’t that because it’s really hard to win people over with gifts unless it’s something they’re already really passionate about.

There something called the Ikea effect. The Ikea effect says that we disproportionately care about our Ikea furniture because we had to assemble it. This is true for anything we put effort into. Here’s a fun example for moms. The reason that people love their own kids is not despite the fact that they’re a pain in the butt, but because of it, because we have to stay up late and take care of them. We worry. We think about it. We have to find tutors and do all these things. That investment of effort actually causes us to care more. The form of generosity that I really like is the forms of generosity that allow people to put in effort together so that they care about each other more. Let’s say I want to be generous and connect with you. I’d say, hey, why don’t you join me for a fitness class? That way, instead of just getting cocktails at a bar or something and having to feel like an interview, then we’re putting effort into something together. We end up caring more about each other. That’s on the generosity. The other thing is novelty. Things really have to stand out. Let me ask you a question. What’s the most novel thing you’ve done recently?

Zibby: I started this podcast. I started live events. I started a salon. I started a TikTok thing. I don’t know. I’ve been doing a lot of novel things lately.

Jon: It’s exciting, right? When something feels new and different, there’s an excitement around it. It feels like you can optimize or improve. You feel like things are growing and getting better. That’s one of those things about human beings. When something is novel, it triggers a section in the brain called the SNVTA. The name really doesn’t matter. It’s the major novelty center. It responds relative to how novel something is. The more novel it is, the more it’s triggered and the more it entices us to explore and understand something. If we’re doing that same old thing — nobody wants to go see the Broadway show Cats anymore. When Hamilton came out, they’re like, wow, this is new. This is different. I’m interested. Then everybody wanted tickets. You getting to experience TikTok and play on it is new and different and exciting. The key is that whatever we do can’t be a copycat version of somebody else’s. If somebody were to try to release another podcast on the exact same theme, people wouldn’t really care. It’s been done. You have your niche that’s novel. It wouldn’t be nearly as interesting.

The third characteristic is that the most influential people in our culture, everybody thinks that they spend their time with other influential people. They actually don’t. They spend most of their time with their admins, some with their staff. Maybe now they’ve been locked with their family in their homes for a year and a half. If you can provide an environment with other really influential people, they will go far out of their way for it. You can look at things like TED or Davos. People spend tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of dollars just to be in the right room. My objective became, create a generous experience, one that is novel, that’s designed completely different than anything else out there, and that is incredibly well-curated. That way you know that every person in that room is somebody you want to meet. That becomes such an attraction and develops such status that people will go far out of their way for it. Here’s the thing. It takes a while. The reason is that developing meaningful, long-lasting relationships can be accelerated when you understand how it works, and I cover that in the book, but it still takes time to develop the sense of belonging and community among people. You can have really fast results, but it’s still not just going to be like, in one week, everything’s done.

Zibby: Wow. This, I find so fascinating. I’ve always been so interested in understanding consumer behavior, human behavior, psychology, marketing. It’s so funny because as I read your book, I was like, wait, this is part of how I did all of this stuff, but I didn’t mean to. I didn’t sit and think, how can I — my goal was never to make connections, necessarily. It was just to try these things. The things that you say, which now I see you’re doing with me — you start off, you confess that you used to be overweight. You used to be a nerd. Immediately, we have a bond. I’m like, okay, he’s doing that part that he says you have to do when you connect with someone. That’s how I naturally talk to people. I find out the air conditioning man’s wife is going through IVF in like two seconds because I just talk to everyone. To have it written out in a book for people who this isn’t a natural skill set for, I found totally fascinating and didn’t even realize it was something that, A, people wanted to have as a skill set, or B, that could be taught in a book. Here’s the book. You even have a formula. I was like, this is crazy. I don’t even know where it was, but it was like, influence equals (connection times trust) to the power of sense of community. This is crazy. I just think it’s so neat. One of my oldest friends was like, “Yes, you do this podcast, but actually, your best skill set is connecting people. That’s what you do well.” I was like, “Oh, I hadn’t even really thought about it like that.” I’ve never been good at introducing, matchmaking, or anything like that. This is just something that makes me feel good, which you have turned into a quantifiable something that you can acquire.

Jon: It’s really interesting that you say this because I’m not that person who ever had natural skills in these kinds of things. Where you grew up, who you grew up around, or for whatever reason, developed more as a natural — I was a wallflower, shy as a kid.

Zibby: I was shy as a kid.

Jon: Were you?

Zibby: Yeah. Anyway, keep going.

Jon: It’s funny because people confuse shyness with introversion, and they’re really different. You can be a really shy extrovert. Shyness is just more about fear of social judgement. It’s a muscle you can kind of build up and get over. This is all to say that I was like, maybe I could reverse-engineer what people like you do. Then maybe I could have some friends, finally. Luckily, it worked out. I also want to tell the listeners that it’s an equation, but there’s no algebra. There’s nothing to solve. It’s not the type of equation that you’re ever going to use. It’s more just to understand the relationship between things, how important trust is, how important it is to connect with people, and how profoundly important this sense of belonging and community is. Like your friend said, if you can really connect to people, if you can provide an environment where relationships are formed, your life becomes significantly better. The more connections there are between people that you really admire and respect, the more positive influence they have one another and the more your life improves.

Zibby: It’s amazing. At the beginning of this podcast — I don’t mean to talk about myself, but I just feel like it’s a relevant case example. I started doing live events where I would bring together all these people, friends of mine and also authors. What you’re saying is so true. At some cocktail party my husband and I were going to have, he was like, “Why don’t you invite some of the authors that you’ve been interviewing?” I was like, “I doubt they’d want to come. Why would they want to come?” He’s like, “Maybe they’d want to come. Why don’t you just invite them?” They all came. They had the best time. My friends had the best time. That’s how I came up with this idea to have a book fair and have all the authors who I had on my podcast come and meet all the readers.

Jon: That’s so cool.

Zibby: All the authors would tell me, “Wow, it’s so isolating, actually, what we do. We haven’t found a community before.” I didn’t set out to have a goal to do it for this, that, or the other thing. I just thought it would be cool and whatever. It wasn’t as calculating. Calculating sounds very negative. I feel like in the book, there’s a way to set a goal and achieve it by means of these personality tactics and group management, manipulation almost.

Jon: I’ll point to one thing around that. In the book, I go deep into this idea, or I reference it several times more broadly, that behavioral science is one of these crazy things that could be used in really wonderful ways, but it could also be used in really terrible ways like cigarette companies. The difference between manipulation and benevolence is if you’re willing to tell people the way that it was designed and they’re okay with it, you’re in the clear. At the end of the dinner, people often ask questions. I say, listen, we cooked dinner together because of the Ikea effect. My objective was for you all to become so close with each other in such a short period of time that I didn’t know any other way than to get you to put in joint effort into something. The fact of the matter is that the people that came to my events, overwhelmingly, there’s no business case for us knowing each other. I’ve never done work with Olympians or Nobel Laureates or even any of the Oscar winners or Grammy winners. It’s really about, how do we foster interesting relationships that people are excited about?

Zibby: I know you said some of your goals were meeting new people and having friends and getting off the couch and losing weight and all this stuff. Ultimately, it had to be more than that. You could do that. Was your goal to write a Wall Street Journal best seller? Did you have a bigger thing? Was it fame or money?

Jon: I wish I was motivated by money. I think it would probably make my family happier. Much like you, I’m like, ooh, that’s cool. I’m really driven a lot by novelty, just doing new things. Generally, money doesn’t come from that, maybe eventually in the very long term. I really love this idea of meeting cool people. I really love being able to hear their insights and stories. Let me see if I can share some odd ones. I had probably the foremost expert on venomous animals, or insects I think, snakes and whatever it is technically, come. It turns out that he’s a PhD in pharmacology. The reason is that a ton of medications are actually made from venoms. He goes around the world collecting specimens and then genetically sequencing them, getting their venoms, and figuring out how to use them to make medications to help people with heart problems and so on, or sedatives and things. Getting to hear something like that blew my mind. There’s eleven other people at the dinner that each have that kind of insight into a world that is completely separate from that. I hosted the woman who won the Nobel Prize for discovering telomeres, you know, the tips of our DNA that’s like the plastic on the shoestrings. There’s all this hype now of, you can reverse telomere loss and all that kind of stuff. What she said to me was that if you have very, very short telomeres, that probably is a bad sign, but it’s not like having longer tips on the shoestrings makes wearing shoes any better. At a certain point, long enough is long enough.

Getting that kind of insight from the person who’s the world expert on it, that’s pretty cool. That’s the kind of stuff I love. Now I have access to and know something. I get to talk to this person that’s just absolutely incredible. I’m personally very driven by that. I always knew, at some point, that it would pay off from a business standpoint, but I wasn’t clear how. I always had two policies. One is that at every event I would have at least one journalist because I knew at some point, I’ll have something that I’d want to tell a story. When my first book came out, it was like a hundred articles written about it. I was on all the shows and all that kind of stuff. The second was that I would shoot for diversity of attendees above anything else. What’s been wild about it is that all the places that I think I’d get business may or may not have come. I’ve been like, I want to work with a big tech company, so I’ll invite a bunch of them. Then the actual business comes from all the random companies that I’ve hosted over the years, not ever the places that I thought they would. I really stopped trying to predict what will happen and what will work. Here’s a simple example. I hosted the president of 1-800-Flowers. Not a company I ever thought I’d do any business with. Now he’s like, “We want you to work on a project with us.” I could’ve quite literally never predicted it. My team found him. I had no idea. I met him at a dinner. We became friends. That’s that. In the early days, maybe a little. I knew I wanted status. Nowadays, I have no clue where anything will come from.

Zibby: I think it’s also this huge sense of intellectual curiosity. That’s sort of what it is. I’ve realized nothing is more interesting to me than other people’s stories about themselves. I don’t know why. I realize not everybody shares this. I do not get tired of hearing people’s life stories. I would want to know a lot more about your life story if we had more time. I’m thinking to myself as you’re talking, I want to hear more about his childhood. Where’s his family originally from? All these things.

Jon: Oh, that’s a really weird answer. I don’t look it, really, but I’m mixed race. My grandfather is from Yemen. My grandmother is either North African or Turkish. We’re not really sure. Then the other side is Dutch. I look very, I’d say, probably Mediterranean or European, but my siblings don’t. You would look at us and you’d be like, they’re probably not even related. We’re every shade of the spectrum.

Zibby: Wow. See, that’s so interesting. Anyway, but I think it’s also finding what fascinates you. Everyone has something that fascinates them. There’s no judgement. For you, it’s really fascinating to learn little bits of things about a ton of different things.

Jon: Oh, yeah, I want to know all of it. I will say this. It’s not like this is purely altruistic or something. Running these dinners, I do them in five cities or four cities every month, before the pandemic. It costs a lot to fly around, the supplies and everything. I have an entire staff that just does that, of four people who are semi-full time. It’s a serious investment. If you want to start your own, you can start with no investment. You just invite a bunch of people. You take them on a hike or something. The dividends that it’s paid off are ridiculous.

Zibby: Do you charge the guests to come?

Jon: Nothing. I feel like it would be super shortsighted to be like, hey, Deepak Chopra, could I get fifty dollars for some terrible burritos?

Zibby: I assumed that. People were like, you should charge people to come to your salons. I was like, what? Why would I do that? You would never do that to a guest.

Jon: Don’t get me wrong, you can absolutely charge. You remember those three things I talked about? I sometimes say four, which was the generosity, novelty, curation to attract people. If you even have one of those that’s really high, the other two don’t matter. If you have something that’s extremely novel like the Hamilton tickets, people are willing to pay for it. It doesn’t have to be extremely generous. It doesn’t matter who’s in the room. The tendency is, it’ll up the curation, but it’s not a guarantee. Something like Davos, the talks, you can just watch them online. People are fundamentally paying for who’s in the room. You can absolutely charge, but I think the question is, what are you trying to accomplish? Are you looking for a business? Are you looking for something that really impacts the quality of your life? Not that you can’t do both, but just much harder. For me, what I cared about was impacting the quality of my life because I can’t be bothered in my mind to start selling something. There are organizations that are semi-similar that are out there, but none of them have had our longevity. Frankly, the amount that I can make from speaking and consulting dwarfs anything I’d ever be able to charge for the dinner. How much could I charge people for really bad burritos? There’s a limit to these things.

Zibby: We’ve hardly talked at all about your writing. We’re almost out of time because I’m so interested in the content of your book. What advice would you give to aspiring authors? I ask everyone this at the end, so I don’t want to neglect to ask you.

Jon: I can’t speak to other people. I’m also not like, Hemmingway-level writer or any of these. I am very proud to say that I just found out the book’s a New York Times best seller.

Zibby: Yay, that is exciting. What is today? Wednesday?

Jon: Yes. The list came out actually last week, but I haven’t even announced it because I’ve been so busy.

Zibby: I’m so excited for you. Congratulations. That’s awesome.

Jon: Thank you very much. I think that there’s two interesting tips. One is, I’ve lost emotional association to the things I write in the sense that all I care about is that the reader gets the value that I think is important. Every opinion I have about my own writing is irrelevant. I am willing to rewrite, throw out, kill every darling, whatever it takes because what’s far more important than what I think about my writing is the value that my readers get. That’s really the absolute first thing that’s important to me. In fact, I’ll tell you, when I submitted the first draft of my book — it wasn’t even the first draft. It was the first half or whatever it was. The book came in at ninety thousand words. The editors said, “Jon, we’re going to have to delay your book release. Frankly, it’s a bit of a mess.” I had piled in all this extra science that I geek out about. They’re like, “People are getting lost in the reading of it.” I said, “Hey, do me a favor. Give me two weeks. If I can’t fix this in two weeks, we’ll delay.” They said okay. I pulled twelve-hour days editing, cutting. I probably pulled out somewhere between twenty and thirty thousand words — to put that in perspective, The Great Gatsby is like thirty-five thousand — and just tossed it. It’s gone. When I submitted again, they said, “We’ve never seen anything like this,” that kind of turnaround.

I really attribute it to the fact that I’m willing to be ruthless and I’m willing to outwork everybody. The last thing is, and I think this is my shortcoming, people underestimate this idea of fluency. Shane Snow, a phenomenal author, talks about this in his book The Storytelling’s Edge. If you do an analysis, you can take a copy of your text, put it into a level-of-reading analyzer, and you can find out what grade level your writing is at. Mine is super high. That’s not a good thing. It’s actually too high. Mine is somewhere around twelfth grade, which means it alienates a lot of people. You might be able to understand the words, but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy for you to consume the information. Shane analyzed his at an eighth grade, which is much better. He thought, wow, eighth grade, that’s kind of terrible, maybe I should be using more complex words. Then he put Hemmingway in. Hemmingway analyzed at a fourth-grade reading level. The problem is that I read a lot of academic stuff, and so I end up sounding too academic, frankly. When you look at really great writers, they have the ability to impart information in a way that’s easily consumed. They’re not tiring anybody out. It’s fun. It’s playful. You read Dan Brown, and the pages just fly by. I think we underestimate the fluency and how important that is if you want people to keep reading.

Zibby: That’s awesome. Great advice. I love that. I’m going to have to go analyze some of my essays or something.

Jon: It’s super easy. Cut and paste.

Zibby: Wait, seriously, how do you do that? What’s the website called? Is it a website?

Jon: Just do a search for grade-level analyzer or something like that, writing analyzer.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh, so cool. All right, I’m going to do that. Look at all these suggestions. Thank you. Jon, this was such a pleasure. I’m so glad I met you. I’m so fascinated by what you do and how you’ve done it. I’m just so glad I read your book and that our paths have crossed. Thanks.

Jon: Hopefully, I’ll get to host you soon and you’ll be hosting people again in person as well.

Zibby: Yes, that would be awesome. Take care. Thank you. Buh-bye.



Purchase your copy on Amazon or Bookshop!

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts