Explore a better way to work – one that promises more calm, clarity, and creativity.

How the Acquired Podcast Became a Sensation

My podcast producer recently turned me onto a show called Acquired, which features its co-hosts, Ben Gilbert and David Rosenthal, diving deep into the backstories of well-known brands and companies, from Porsche and Nike, to Amazon and Nintendo.

It turns out I was late to this party. In the eight years since Acquired was originally launched, it has grown into a huge hit. The show now serves more than 200,000 downloads per episode. As Rosenthal revealed in a Fast Company profile last summer, they now face the problem of their audience becoming too large for their advertisers to afford paying the full fair market price for their spots.

What interests me about Acquired, however, is less what they’ve accomplished than how they did it. The conventional wisdom surrounding new media ventures is that success requires frenetic busyness. You need to produce content perfectly-tailored to your audiences’ attention spans, master The Algorithm, exist on multiple platforms, and above all else, churn out content quickly to maximize your chances of stumbling into vibe-powered virality.

Acquired did none of this. Gilbert and Rosenthal’s podcasts are very long; the two-part treatment of Nintendo I just finished clocked in at a little under seven hours. They also publish on an irregular schedule, often waiting a month or more between episodes. Combine this with the reality that they largely ignore YouTube and have no discernible social media strategy, this venture should have long ago crashed and burned. But it instead keeps growing.

What does explain the success of Acquired? The answer is almost disappointingly simple: it’s really good. Gilbert and Rosenthal don’t just look into the histories of the companies they profile, they master them — tracking down obscure books, reading every relevant article, pouring through investor filings, interviewing people who were involved. Fast Company reported that for their episode on Nike, Rosenthal prepared a 39-page script and Gilbert created a 4,000-word document listing insights to mention during the taping.

The key to this quality is effort. Early in the show’s history, Gilbert and Rosenthal spent around 5 to 10 hours researching each episode. Today, this number has grown to around 100 hours, and for good reason. “What I do know is that every time we’ve done more work,” Rosenthal explained, “the reaction and the results, both in terms of what people say qualitatively and the numbers, go up.”

I’m telling this story because the growth of Acquired helps explain a seemingly curious choice I made in my new book, Slow Productivity. In this work, I present three principles for embracing a more sustainable and meaningful approach to your professional life. The first two principles are clearly related to slowness: “do fewer things” and “work at a natural pace.” The third, however, seems somewhat out of place: “obsess over quality.”

As the Acquired story emphasizes, however, it’s this third goal that supports the other two. When you decide to obsess over quality, as Gilbert and Rosenthal did with their podcast, slowness becomes self-evidently the only way forward. Gilbert and Rosenthal didn’t monkey around with YouTube, or social media strategies, or optimal customer growth strategies, because all of that fast effort would get in the way of the slow pursuit of excellence.

We’re used to the idea that slowing down might help improve the quality of what we do. But in many cases, this relationship can also exist in exactly the opposite direction.


Speaking of Slow Productivity, the book comes out on March 5th, but if you’re thinking about buying it anyway, please consider pre-ordering it, as this really helps draw attention to the title. If you do pre-order, I want to thank you with some bonus material about the philosophy.

The process here is simple: (1) pre-order the book from your preferred book seller; (2) email your receipt to [email protected].

That’s it. We’ll verify your receipt and then immediately send you the bonuses. (More details, including how to pre-order a signed copy from my favorite local bookseller, are available here.)

18 thoughts on “How the Acquired Podcast Became a Sensation”

  1. This reminds me of Dan Carlin’s *Hardcore History* podcast/show. His 6-part series of WW1 (each approximately 5 h long) is a masterpiece. Publishing schedule is non-existent, episodes come out when they are ready but they are worth the wait.

  2. “We’re used to the idea that slowing down might help improve the quality of what we do. But in many cases, this relationship can also exist in exactly the opposite direction.”

    Thanks for another great read Cal. Could you explain this part though, like what you mean here?

    • He means, as per popular notion, the predominant idea is, that one needs to slow down to create good quality work but, the reverse of it i.e trying to do good work will eventually slow you down, is true too!(at least in some cases).

    • Hey Michael,
      I think this is what he wants to say:
      It’s not that the quality improves because we are going slow. It’s more like when we “obsess on quality”, slowness is the only way forward. By obsessing over quality, the smallest details come under scrutiny, leading to a more thorough and ultimately better outcome, which would take longer.

      That’s my interpretation of this line:
      “As the Acquired story emphasizes, however, it’s this third goal that supports the other two. When you decide to obsess over quality, as Gilbert and Rosenthal did with their podcast, slowness becomes self-evidently the only way forward.”

    • I admit, that line also left me feeling a little bit confused at first.

      I expect he meant it as an overall recap of the idea, as it relates to the relationship between quality and speed – plainly rephrased as: we know that slow can lead to quality, but also, quality can lead to slow.

    • GPT-4
      This quote suggests a counterintuitive idea about productivity and quality of work. Traditionally, it’s believed that taking more time to complete a task—slowing down—can lead to improvements in the quality of the output. This belief stems from the notion that when we slow down, we have more time to think, reflect, and refine our work, thereby enhancing its quality.

      However, the quote posits that the relationship between the pace of work and quality is not one-directional. Instead, it suggests that increasing the speed at which we work can also lead to improvements in quality. This could be for several reasons:

      Urgency and Focus: Working faster or under a tighter deadline can sometimes force us to focus more intensely on the task at hand. This heightened focus can lead to more efficient problem-solving and decision-making, ultimately improving the work’s quality.
      Momentum and Flow: Moving quickly through tasks can help us maintain a state of flow, where we’re fully immersed and engaged in the activity. This state can enhance creativity and innovation, leading to higher-quality outcomes.
      Reduced Overthinking: Slowing down gives us more time to second-guess ourselves and overthink decisions, which can sometimes be detrimental to the quality of the work. Working faster might help us rely more on our instincts and initial thoughts, which, in many cases, could be more effective or creative.
      Iteration and Learning: Working at a faster pace allows for more iterations in the same amount of time. This rapid iteration process can lead to faster learning and improvement, as mistakes are identified and corrected more quickly.

      The essence of the quote is to challenge the conventional wisdom that slowing down is the only way to improve the quality of work. Instead, it suggests that there are circumstances where working faster could actually be beneficial. This doesn’t imply that rushing through tasks is always the best approach, but rather that the optimal pace for achieving quality might vary depending on the task, the individual, and the context.

  3. Tremendously valuable reminders. Scott Kelby is a hugely popular photographer on YouTube. Recently, he advanced an argument for never, ever presenting our “almost great” photos. It’s the difference between the viewers going “Ah!” and “Uh.” And it can do serious harm to our reputation and our self-respect. I got my first job as a writer and editor 52 years ago. I was fortunate to be mentored by a seasoned pro who was widely known as an editor’s editor. He was prodigiously productive and could work magic with simple words. The best lesson he gave me was to let my drafts sleep overnight, because I would be astonished in the morning to realize how much work they would need. Write-sleep-write.

    • +1 on this!

      Write out what you’ve got, then sleep on it.

      It’s taken me years to learn this. Even if something seems good to publish, it’s still better to wait.

      The only other alternative I’ve found that’s “faster” is a meditative walk to deep-think. Sleep is better, though.

  4. Thank you Cal, I had never heard of this podcast but that type of content is always what I’m looking for. This is definitely in the Cal Newport ethos of doing good work and ignoring all of the excessive fluff.

  5. This article reminds of two of my all-time favourite YouTube channels, both insanely popular in their own right, but with one very defining common feature: quality.

    I’m talking about ‘Over Simplified’ and ‘Ahoy’. Both produce absolutely outstanding content on non-existent schedules, yet both have millions of subscribers and extremely high views on many of their most popular videos.

    Over simplified in particular publishes videos, somewhere around once per year, just for context.

    I strongly suspect their work ethic and content philosophy follows a similar theme to that outlined in this blog post.

  6. This is such a good blog post. I’ve re-read it three times and am about to share it with our social media team. We’ve done a decent job with social media over the past three months, but have very much followed a quantity over quality approach. (We went from zero to posting 100X per day across our channels in a few weeks.) I think a switch to focusing on quality is what we need.

    Just pre-ordered your new book on Amazon 🙂

  7. Hi Cal,

    I’m looking forward to reading your new book.

    While the specific terminology of “slow productivity” may be relatively new, the core ideas behind the movement—rejecting busyness for its own sake, emphasizing craftsmanship and quality over sheer quantity, and finding a more mindful and sustainable approach to work—have deep roots in various historical movements and philosophies.

    From the “Back to the Land movement in the 1960s and 70s to the Arts and Crafts Movement to Transcendentalism to ancient Stoicism, people have long sought ways to live and work with greater intention, purpose, and fulfillment.

    The slow productivity movement can be seen as a modern manifestation of our perennial human desire to find a more balanced and meaningful relationship to work in an ever-changing world.

    Thank you for continuing to push against the busyness movement.

  8. This story reminds me of how JRR Tolkien reportedly worked. He was very slow, very methodical, and rewrote and revised his drafts of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings for years times before they were published. By contrast, his writing buddy, CS Lewis, quickly churned out his articles and books. Different approaches to success, but both worked.

  9. Reading a Wall Street Journal article published on 5/10/24 about the Acquired podcast. This quote from the article definitely reflects the Slow Productivty principles:

    “Gilbert and Rosenthal have become known for their comprehensive analysis, clear storytelling and overall craftsmanship. They focus on quality. They embrace scarcity. They want to do less, better. “


Leave a Comment