Peter McSweeney and Paul Janka’s New Podcast “Diapers Off” is a Hit Among Men in Their 30s
“There are no answers!”
The voice on the other end of the line is decidedly English and equal parts “cheeky” or “taking a piss” (as the Brits might say) and filled with legitimate consternation at the discussion that just has taken place.
That’s because I’m interviewing Paul Janka, and his co-host on the podcast “Diapers Off,” Peter McSweeney, chimed in from the background immediately following a recent recording.
They’re quite a pair: Janka, at 40 now the elder statesman of the two, the reformed cad who spent a good part of his 20s and 30s chasing girls and building a business teaching other men how to do so before settling down with his now-wife.
And McSweeney, 31, who combines acerbic wit, timing, and charm with an almost melodic delivery that conjures up an image of a young Elvis Costello: rebellious, yet decidedly soulful.
“I’ve known Pete since I moved to London and he’s a chatty guy and I’m a chatty guy,” Paul says. “There were 10 years between us at a point, but we always ended up on the phone, for both us, but I felt from my side I would have these conflicts or these ideas and I would call Pete up and say, ‘What do you think of this,’ and we would end up just shooting the breeze for an hour, talking about these particular issues, trying to get our heads around the trade-offs.”
The two often found themselves talking about issues that guys face in their thirties, approaching the topic from both ends of what they call the “Golden Decade.”
“Pete’s an actor and a writer and a man about town, he’s involved in several businesses, he has his own concierge business, and he’s not ‘established’ really yet financially,” Paul says. “But he just moved to a nice place, so he’s got a flat share, so he lives with 2 other guys and a woman, so it’s still quite collegiate. He hasn’t carved out his own space, like a woman and the whole thing about getting married.
“I am on the other end, having just gotten married, I live with a woman whom I love very much. She controls a lot of the space and the decision making, too, we share. It’s a whole different thing than being on your own.”
The similarities don’t stop there–both men have had their fair share of experience with women.
“I’m also monogamous,” Paul says. “Pete has a very active life as a single guy with dating and whatnot and he tells me about that. I have my background of being a playboy, but now I’ve settled down. I’m evaluating my choices and where my life is at and also mourning the loss of being young, but also looking forward.”
How Two Guys Talking on the Phone Started a Podcast With Tens of Thousands of Subscribers In Less Than a Year
“Pete and I had been having these discussions for over a year, often in the middle of the day, unplanned on our mobiles,” Janka says. “I’d ask him some moral question, or have a conflict over my own choices or lifestyle, and he’d come back with some thoughts and examples from friends and his own life.
“So in late May of 2015, we decided to pop a microphone in-between us and finally record one of these. We put the recording up as ‘The Men’s Room, Episode 1,’ and left it at that. When we got back in front of the mike two months later, we already had some listeners.”
In the very beginning, from episodes 2-10, they spread the word via Facebook, email, and just by “telling everyone we could.” Eventually, they got more serious and hired a producer (“he helped us out in spite of not knowing what he was doing!” Janka says), and settled on a designer, logo, and new name: “Take the Diapers Off.”
They eventually shortened that to just “Diapers Off!” and interest started to build. At one point, the guys thought they had roughly 3,000 subscribers. After getting some more accurate information, they realized that they had over 10,000.
“We’ve had several guests–an internet techie, a journalist who writes about London’s seedy underbelly, and three female dating coaches, each smarter and more interesting than the last.”
In fact, Janka attributes some of the podcast’s rapid growth to the rise of the pair’s female audience, “They seem to enjoy two men talking about feelings and non-macho topics.”
The two tackle a lot of deep, philosophical themes on the show in a funny, entertaining way that takes a lot of the “weight” out of the issues while maintaining their gravity.
“I think we have great topics and I spent a lot of time writing, I keep a little red book here and I write them down whenever I have a thought,” Paul says. “I write every morning for an hour and I read a lot, so if I have a thought I put it in there.”
Each show, they break down 2-3 of these topics that may or may not be related, but their easy, yet thoughtful banter effortlessly cuts through to the heart of almost every issue.
Themes are touched on repeatedly from show-to-show because the guys will often find a new perspective on a topic from an idea, concept, or news item that resonates with something they dealt with on a previous podcast, but from a new perspective.
“We’ve got like the ideas for the next 5 episodes already stitched up here,” Paul says. “Because there’s so many ideas we’ll only treat an idea superficially for 10 minutes and then want to come back to it.”
The result is an almost episodic podcast that weaves its way through topics of near-universal appeal to men in their audience, and invites listeners into Paul and Pete’s lives as trusted friends.
“We have a core group of listeners–including my mom–who are with us each week. And we’re about to overhaul the site and get some investment.” Janka teases a lineup of “marquee guests” coming up that should expand their listener base even further.
The Invisible Race No Man Knows About
One such topic that the guys handle extremely well is the concept of the “race” that takes place for most men in their thirties.
“What I’ve seen for me is that between 30 and 40 there’s a massive distribution of results,” Paul says. “At 30, we were all, I’m talking about my male friends, on the same starting line at 30 and now that I look at how the race is finished, take a snapshot at 40, man there’s a huge range. Guys who’ve made a lot of money, married, 3 kids. Other guys they have an alcohol problem or addiction. Other guys will come of out of the closet, they’re gay. Some can’t get on their feet financially.
“Others have switched careers and are starting over. It’s crazy how different it looks at 40 then a more cohesive group at 30. That’s the main thesis of the podcast is the decisions you make in this decade will absolutely shape where you hit the paper at 40.”
This inevitably leads us to a discussion about the nature of those decisions. Is every decision that a man makes extraordinarily crucial to his future? Like the idea of the “butterfly effect” posited by chaos theory scientists (and popularized by the terrible Ashton Kutcher movie of the same name) where trivial-seeming decisions can come back to have a big impact down the road?
Or does a man’s life boil down to 3 or 4 huge decisions he makes in his thirties: where to live? Who to date? What job to take (or not take)?
“I don’t know because I try to lead my life, trying to optimize all the time like I try to get the best cereal, I want to get a good night’s sleep, I want to eat well, I want to make that investment,” Paul says. “The truth is when you look at history, sometimes incredible figures are shaped by 2 moments. I don’t know, we bombed Hiroshima or we didn’t or you give that order, the woman you marry or you don’t marry. Maybe it is only a couple decisions that in the end really matter.”
But I like to think that maybe there’s a mixture in there. Yes, maybe the choice of which cereal you eat in the morning isn’t going to have huge ramifications on your life. But maybe trying to optimize every decision you make creates a process that prepares you to make those really big decisions when they pop up, even if they disguise themselves as initially trivial.
Sweat the Big Stuff, NOT The Small Stuff…
“Yeah, an interesting offshoot of that is people getting stressed about stuff that really doesn’t matter and then being quite flippant about stuff that actually is profound,” Paul says.
He elaborates, “I just heard this story yesterday from a friend of mine, but imagine being with a chick that you’re not into, she’s a knucklehead or whatever, but you get her pregnant and you’re like, ‘f—!’ because you thought, ‘I’m not going to wear a jimmy, or whatever, and then she decides to keep the baby, forces your hand, and and you marry her.
“But meanwhile that same day before you had sex with her the guy was throwing a fit at the drycleaners because the drycleaners stained his shirt and he thought that was more important on that given day than using a condom with this girl.
“That’s sort of a Hollywood type of simplistic example, but my point is maybe it means the things that don’t really matter we really shouldn’t be…any wise person would tell you that, don’t sweat the small stuff. There’s actually just a few things that matter. Maybe I’m overdoing it, maybe everyone knows what the things are, basically your health, your career, and your wife.”
Naturally that leads us to a discussion about consequences. My thought is that you can’t control a lot of these things to the extent that you might think you do.
Take your health, for example. You could smoke three packs of cigarettes a day and never get cancer. Or you could be a health nut who tries to eat right, exercise, and generally take care of yourself, and you might drop dead at 35 of a brain aneurysm.
In either case, you made a conscious “choice,” either: “I will do something to try to better my health,” or “I will do this in spite of my health because it feels good, or helps me focus,” or for any number of other reasons.
“Maybe it comes down to location,” Paul says, “When I moved to New York, I remember, I was in Boston and under terrible conditions, and I decided to move to New York. I was way in debt on the back of a failed business, I had no prospects, and it was after 9/11. I remember thinking I had just finished school and there was a hiatus between putting my next flag down and I was like, f—, it would be so easy to just stay in Boston and get the lease and get the car… get another job, get the girlfriend, and then put off moving to New York because it’s kind of inconvenient.
“But I remember thinking life has a funny way of this inertia and you can get trapped. At the time, I had a handful of friends who all talked about joining me in New York, like we’re going to follow you, we just need to get a few things sorted, and 10 years later they were still in Boston.
“In other words, I went under duress to New York, just f— it, and got there. Then I started to put some flags down and build a life. I realized if you start planting flags and building in a place then you have that paradox of you can’t leave because you’re so anchored, you’re invested.
“Sometimes it can work, this idea of being a temporary placeholder and you’re going to get on your feet and then you’ll make the move, but I don’t know, I had enough wisdom or enough experience from life to know that sometimes these best laid plans don’t work out. If you have a shot you really have to take it.”
How to Get Ahead in the Secret Race
Ultimately, I agree with Paul. There isn’t really a “proven” shortcut, which is frustrating, because whenever possible, I like to provide you with some concrete steps you can take to improve your life right now.
But how do you provide those steps when there’s no answer to the question you started with?
“I’ve labeled our podcast this genre of ‘philosophy’ rather than ‘self-help’ because we don’t give a lot of prescriptive stuff like ‘do this’ and ‘do that.’ It’s not so actionable. If someone’s smart they can maybe internalize some ideas and act on them, but it’s more that we’re just talking philosophically about how to think about life. I just wanted–Pete says there’s no solutions. I wonder if you think that’s a miscategorization or this could fairly be described as armchair philosophy we’re talking about here?”
I disagree with Paul a little bit to the extent that just thinking about a lot of these big ideas that a lot of guys experience, but can’t quite put into words is certainly an action-item.
In other words, just thinking about a big, complex issue can do a lot of things for you. It opens your mind to new possibilities you may not have considered. It helps you make connections that you otherwise might not have made.
Perhaps most importantly, it gives you a fresh perspective that you may not have considered previously.
“I’m increasingly seeing at my age that everything’s a trade-off, especially when people are smug and they think they’ve figured it out,” Paul says. “That’s mostly just because they haven’t examined the other side of something necessarily.”
So maybe it’s a matter of wrapping your head around these issues, gaining perspective, and considering these things so that when you do have to make a big decision, you’re ready, willing, and able to do so.
If it’s done in an entertaining way that makes these issues more accessible and entertaining to help the average guy become extraordinary, then so be it!
I think that’s potentially the biggest secret to getting through this “golden decade” of your thirties.
But then again, what’s to say that being too cerebral isn’t going to prevent action on your part?
Man, that’s a tough one. Maybe Pete’s right: “There are no answers!”
At least not today–that’s a topic for another day.
A Few of My Favorite Episodes of “Diapers Off” to Get You Started
If that’s the case, then I think the best action item takeaways in this instance are to listen to a few of the top episodes of “Diapers Off” to start thinking about some of these heady topics with the guys’ signature wit and charm:
An episode dealing with the changing nature of corporate America for many men generally, and the charismatic frontman in particular. What are some of the last bastions left for this formerly popular character? The show then turns to deal with the hurdles and stigma many middle-aged men face if they want to date around, a stigma that the guys argue doesn’t apply to middle-aged women in the same circumstances.
One of the most thoughtful and mature discussions of changing gender roles in relationships and the workplace based off a recent New York Times article entitled “Men’s Lib.” As the guys put it:
“One of the most provocative lines comes near the end of the article: ‘More men ought to be doing what women did historically: improving their economic prospects by marrying well.’ Peter and Paul envisage a late-night Manhattan bar with men leaning against the railing, coiffing their hair and batting their eyelashes, hoping a rich young woman might just buy them a drink!”
On top of all of this, the guys finish off the episode discussing financial risk vs. “fulfillment risk”–the idea that many men are too afraid to lose their steady paycheck to “go for it” doing something that truly fulfills them.
The guys get a female perspective as their friend Sarah, a former London-based dating coach, joins the show. They discuss the idea of people saying they’re “too busy” for a relationship, and how that’s often an artificial construct. Sarah indicates that a lot of times obsessive goals hide peoples’ deepest fears, and the guys get a little emotional as they confess some of theirs.
They end with an entertaining discussion about who would have an easier time dating: an attractive young woman without money in a big city, or an attractive young man without money in a big city? While the answer may seem obvious, if everyone’s supposed to be “equal,” why’s that the case?
My advice would be to listen to the three episodes above. If they resonate with you, I’d strongly suggest subscribing to the podcast and seeing what Paul and Pete come up with every week.
While every topic won’t necessarily be applicable to your exact situation, they’re great brain food and mental exercise, with a healthy dose of humor and dating advice for guys thrown in.
And stay tuned! I have plenty more from my interview with Paul in the coming weeks on topics as diverse as the time pressures put on men by aging, rites of passage for men, and balancing the focus of becoming an expert with also trying new things and being more “well-rounded.”
For now though, I’m left with what Pete said at the beginning once more:
“There are no answers.”
Maybe not, but that doesn’t also necessarily mean that there’s no truth.
And no one may ever get all the way to fully understanding real truth, but it helps to have a couple of guides like Paul and Pete to try to help you get there. Who knows? You might just learn something about yourself along the way.