The Exciting Journey of Podcasting: From Curiosity to Global Impact.
Tyler Cowen on Rationality, COVID-19, Talismans, and Life on the Margins | The Tim Ferriss Show | Transcription
Transcription for the video titled "Tyler Cowen on Rationality, COVID-19, Talismans, and Life on the Margins | The Tim Ferriss Show".
Note: This transcription is split and grouped by topics and subtopics. You can navigate through the Table of Contents on the left. It's interactive. All paragraphs are timed to the original video. Click on the time (e.g., 01:53) to jump to the specific portion of the video.
Hello boys and girls, this is Tim Ferriss. Welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show, where it is my job to deconstruct world-class performers. I would consider my guest today one of those. To tease out the habits, routines, thinking processes, practices, etc. that you can hopefully emulate or test in your own lives. My guest today is Professor Tyler Cowan, C-O-W-E-N, that is Cowan. And his personal moonshot is to teach economics, or economics. We'll clear that up in just a moment, to more people than anyone else in the history of the world. And you might just succeed. In addition to his regular teaching at George Mason University, Tyler has blogged every day at marginal revolution for, I want to say, more than 15 years now. That's incredible. Helping to make it one of the most widely read economics blogs in the world.
Assorted Topics And Personal Insights
Trend starting with a (01:00)
He's co-created marginal revolution university, a free online economics education platform that's reached millions, and will no doubt reach millions more. He's also a best-selling author of more than a dozen books. This man is an overachiever, a regular Bloomberg columnist and host of the popular Conversations with Tyler podcast, where he examines the work and worldviews of underrated thinkers like Martina Navartilova, Neil Stevenson, one of my favorite writers, Reed Hoffman, and many more. His latest project is "Emergent Ventures," a $5 million fund to support entrepreneurs who have big ideas on how to improve society.
Cordys American Interests (01:27)
You can find him on the web, marginalrevolution.com, conversations with Tyler.com. I highly recommend checking out, and on Twitter @TylerCowan. Tyler, welcome to the show. Thank you, Tim. Happy to be here. And there are so many questions I want to ask. We have so many friends, or at least I would say fans of your work in common, like Ryan Holiday. And you have been suggested and requested as a guest on this podcast for a very long time indeed. Let's start with my first question/area of confusion. As you may have noticed, even in the introduction, I pronounced it differently several times. Do you say economics or economics? Probably I'm not consistent. But I don't think of myself as doing economics. I think of myself as doing a funny kind of philosophy with the economy as the topic. So my goal isn't really to teach economics. It's to improve my own ways of thinking. And maybe people will learn some of that as I go along. Why use, and I will flip flop here, why use economics as the vehicle? What makes that interesting or useful? For example, thinking. I'm stuck with it at this point, right? So I think the most efficient way of learning at the margin for most smart people is travel. And I try to travel a lot. But I don't necessarily try to talk other people into becoming economists. When I was a young kid, I was a chess player, and I was very good at chess, then I quit chess. And I took up economics. And that has made sense for me as a career. But in a way, I'm not emotionally that wedded to economics. I think of anthropology as a more fundamental way of thinking about humans. And economics indirectly is parasitical on anthropology. And we should all be doing more anthropology and travel. Could you explain what you mean by parasitical on anthropology?
Who Know How To Play? (03:32)
So economics, the core insights are about incentives, right? The law of demand, price goes up, you buy less. That makes perfect sense. But in anything but the simplest contexts, you have to ask, how do people even understand what the price is? So if a mother says to her kid, "Oh, don't do that, or you won't be allowed to play outside." You know, what is the real price? Does the kid really not get to play outside ever again? They get to play outside even more the day after. Who knows? It's about how people understand how they communicate with each other.
Travel A, Join, Barrak Obama, (04:01)
And that is a kind of anthropology, sociology. Economics is embedded in those broader social sciences. So in my view, you need to be broad, read a lot, travel a lot. Kind of be a bit crazy. I'm all for the right kind of crazy. I think we will be examining and exploring some nooks and crannies that would qualify as, if not crazy, at least weird. That's the hope, part of the hope for this conversation. And I want to come back to something you said, or referenced, which was playing chess as a kid. So in the course of doing some research for this conversation, I came across something that said you also played for money. What did playing chess end or playing chess for money teach you? What did you take away from those experiences or what impact did that have on you? Well, this may sound trivial, but first, it taught me I could win, and second, it taught me I could lose.
And those are both very important lessons. And it also taught me I needed to be honest with myself about why I was either winning or losing, and that there were real stakes here. So I learned that, like at age 10/11, that was a great background. And chess is not forgiving of excuses, right?
Waste Of Time, Kill In Rock (05:12)
It cultivates what I now call meta-rationality. And you can't lie about how well you're doing, not in the medium term. You have a numerical rating, it's pretty accurate, right? You win or you lose. You can't say the sun got in my eyes more than once. So you have many phrases that no doubt we will be digging into or terms. Could you elaborate on meta-rationality, please? Or give other examples of meta-rationality? A person is being meta-rational when he or she understands how smart or well-informed he or she is in a given topic area.
Prior Knowledge Before Study (05:48)
Meta-rationality is very hard to come by in my view, so people typically do not defer to the views of experts when they ought to. Sometimes the expert might be wrong, but if you're just playing the odds, the expert is probably right. So people are far too confident about too many things they shouldn't be so confident about. Meta-rational people who are essentially impossible to find, but if the margin we can be a bit more meta-rational, they know to whom they should defer or how to find out the right answer. And as someone who is self-admittedly or self-described hyper-lexic, a consumer of, it would seem, vast quantities, but certainly on some level, curated quantity. Quantities of information. How would you think about, as an example, because you've also written for the New York Times in 2013 about pandemics to fight pandemics reward research? Now, one could argue that we're a little behind the eight ball with respect to current circumstances, but as we're recording this on Monday, March 2nd, how do you yourself think about, for instance, parsing information and sources related to something like COVID-19? And I know that I'm using shorthand, but the virus is sort of awkward to say, so I'll just use COVID-19 as a placeholder for this particular coronavirus that we're contending with.
Cultivating Meta-rationality (07:22)
The returns to understanding how to build a good Twitter feed are very high, and right now, many of us should be building coronavirus Twitter feeds, right? And following a number of people like Helen Branswell. And then people need to trust you, so the returns to being ethical and keeping confidence are high, and then other people will tell you things if you're at all known, and then you need to be meta-rational and judge which of them you should listen to more. Some of that might happen through WhatsApp. And then just at the end of the day, not to get too caught up in your own narrative, you need to be suspicious of stories. There's like the panic story, it's all going to be fine story. Probably the truth is somewhere in between, but dominant moods or emotions tend to see soul to us, even if we're very smart.
Seeking the truth on coronavirus (08:11)
And often smart people go wrong, because they're just better at feeding more information into their chosen mood, and then they're likely to screw up. So it's this very careful balancing act across many dimensions. How do you cultivate meta-rationality, particularly when hopefully taking into account incentives? Because what I've noticed, for instance, is that among the friends I've spoken to, who I all consider from the perspective of an IQ test, at least, intelligent, pretty far on the right, that they're the conviction with which they believe this is serious or not serious, often corresponds in some fashion to how inconvenient or convenient it would be, or how much of a financial sacrifice believing it is serious and requires self-quarantine or something like that would cost them from a business perspective. How can one cultivate the ability to remain meta-rational during times of duress or panic like this? And I know that's a very jumbled question, but I think you can probably get what I'm grasping for. Maybe a certain bit of obliviousness actually is useful. So you want to be plugged in, but also somewhat detached, and so caught up in your own thing, your whole, what did I have for breakfast this morning routine? Why am I going to get to shoot baskets next? That it actually distracts you from too much emotional involvement. So Peter Thiel sometimes says you sort of want to embody opposites in yourself in some ways, so this extreme involvement in the processing of information, but also a fair man of detachment. Maybe is the best you can do if you can achieve that. I think the returns to detachment have gone up a lot with Twitter, so Twitter is fantastic, but most people use it badly and they hate it and they criticize it and they waste time on it. But if you just use it as a truth-generating mechanism and use Twitter search and mostly ignore politics on it, it's wonderful. Could you give an example of how you have used Twitter in that fashion? What type of truth might you type of try to generate or identify through Twitter and how would you go about it? Right now, Twitter search is mostly better than Google search, so take a topic you're interested in, which in this case could be coronavirus, right? And just type it into Twitter search every morning or every evening and see what pops up. And then you're not restricted to who it is you follow, which is always going to be limiting. You'll sample different opinions, see how people respond, you'll be led places by happenstance. That's fantastic. We didn't have that 15 years ago. One of your most popular, if not the most popular post of yours in 2019 on your blog was how I practice at what I do. I believe that's the name of the blog post. Please correct me if I'm wrong. That's correct. And to quote that blog post, you wrote recently one of my favorite questions to bug people with has been, what is it that you do to train that is comparable to a pianist practicing scales? If you don't know the answer to that one, maybe you're doing something wrong or not doing enough. Could you elaborate on that, please? Well, say you're a social scientist or you're a writer or you give public talks. You are out there in some way all of the time. But if you look at people like say what Kobe Bryant did or what Martina Navratilova did, they practiced to an extreme degree and that's how they got better. Martina was not world number one player until she had an intense regime of proper practice. Kobe, the older he got, he realized he needed to practice more, whereas a lot of top stars actually practice less and they coast on reputation and they have a guaranteed contract. So just every day you want to be reading, you want to be talking, you want to be thinking, you want to be exercising and do it at an intense level as you can and just try to do that all day long and that's practice. And you know, one hopes it will make you better. It's not for you to say, but you know, that's the hope. How do you practice your scales? What does scales look like for you? Writing out large quantities of material, much of which I never use or publish, writing out different points of view, which are not my own, is also a way of practicing, trying to talk to a very diverse set of people.
Reading fiction to practice complexity (12:53)
In my case, not just academics, not just people I went to high school with say, listening to highly complex music, I think is a way to keep your mind active. Periodically reading serious fiction, I think is something people stop doing after they hit a certain age, maybe 30 or 40, but it forces you to be open to the complexities of how humans actually are. I recommend that too. If someone listening were a nonfiction purist, say they quit at 20 and had not been reading fiction since, are there any particular fiction books that you might recommend for someone to use as their reentry to the world of complex fiction or fiction overall? I would have to know their biography, but I would start with Harold Blooms book, the Western Canon, which has a list and surveys a lot of his favorite works, a few of which are nonfiction by the way. Dig in there and just find what you love and pursue it. I think the greatest writer is Shakespeare. It's not necessarily for everyone. And if you did not grow up writing and reading English, it's probably not for you. But that would be one start, the Henriad, you know. When you say complex music, what does that mean to you? Indian classical music, I think is phenomenal and grossly underrated, and it really forces you to be in a complexity mindset. Beethoven late string quartets, Bach the art of the fugue, atonal music, Arnold Schoenberg. Some of the stuff people don't like in Cursat and think has wrecked music. I'm all for it pretty much. It's just really, really hard. The sophistication of the hand percussion in classical Indian music, I don't know much about other instruments, but the sophistication of the hand percussion, speaking as someone who's become very interested in hand percussion in the last few years, is mind blowing. It is unbelievable how well developed the system of hand percussion is in classical Indian music, just as one example. It could be the best music in the world. And I wonder if it's not related to Indian preeminence in the world of tech. That's that is that is definitely one I'll have to chew on. I like I like that as a thought exercise at the very least. You spoke to your writing and your writing practice. What does your daily writing practice look like? If it is indeed daily, I'd make that assumption that perhaps you're batching your writing. What does your writing process look like? It is daily in almost religious manner. I write on Christmas Day. I write on Sundays. I write columns, blog posts. I like to quit writing before I get tired of writing. That way I'm hungry to come back the day after. And the real enemy in writing is days where you get nothing written. If you write something every day, I don't care how much or how little it is. It's going to add up and over time you'll get more done each day. So just make it an absolute rule. The really important thing, it may not be writing for everyone, but just do it every day, get better at it every day. Don't take any excuses. Do it. What does your routine and setup look like? What time of day? What are the ingredients that for you constitute a writing session? What are the characteristics?
Office Routines (16:15)
I love having multiple offices to create variants in my physical environment, but usually I start at home. I have just an ordinary sofa next to a very good stereo and a lot of CDs, some being indie and classical music. And I just sit on the sofa and lean against the armrest. I don't even know if I'm comfortable, but I'm so used to it. And I just write and I end up back there at the end of the day and in between I'm at one of my two offices. Or if I'm on the road, I'll write in a hotel room. I've gotten very used to writing other places. I enjoy the change of pace. Some have forces you to think new thoughts a bit. Do you do it first thing in the morning? Does the time of day vary? What does the timing look like? Almost always it's early in the morning. The first thing I do in the morning is check my email and eat breakfast. But after that I try to get to writing pretty quickly. So I think a lot of people peek between, say, 8.15 am and maybe 11.30, 11.45. And those are my core writing times most, but not all days. And when you check email, do you have any rules or tactics that help you to avoid getting consumed or pulled into the vortex of email to the extent that it overtakes your writing time? How do you think about that? Well, keep in mind, responding to emails is writing too. I once said to Patrick Collison, "My business model is responding to my email." So I respond to a lot of email. I don't respond to it the second it comes in necessarily. And I certainly don't in the morning. But there'll be a few things if only because of time zones, or I do respond immediately. And email is how people are going to tell me things often. So if I respond, I develop more and better relationships. You could say I'm a fan of getting somewhat drowned in your email. But I think here's part of it. I try to stay a bit weird and obscure enough that mostly quite smart people are writing me. And if I had too many not smart emails, I would feel I was doing something else wrong with what I'm writing. What will the symptoms be of you having crossed the line into overexposed or having made mistakes in your writing? I guess besides the email. Will you know? Will the indication be just a change in the ratio of smart to not so smart email? Are there other ways that you would recognize you've gone astray with your writing? Maybe too many people asking me to do political things would be a sign that I had done something wrong. That mostly doesn't happen. The people emailing me being less smart or less to the point, that mostly doesn't happen.
What are your books for life (19:08)
So I think I get a pretty large number of very good emails each day or what that message is. And I like that. But you have to reciprocate, right? Yeah. With your writing, do your drafting, first drafts in Word, in Latex, in an email composition. I know some people who do that in an actual WordPress editor or in a blog of some type. How do you draft? I'm a software idiot. So if I'm writing a book or a column, I just use Microsoft Word. I'm still struggling to figure out how it works. If it's a blog post, I type it into WordPress. And I do find if I type into WordPress, I write different things. And if I write on an open Word document, recently I've been trying Google Docs. It's better for collaboration, but it's disorienting for me. It doesn't feel permanent somehow. It feels like if the quas are explode somewhere out there, the whole thing will go poof. And I'm nervous. But maybe that's good. It gets me to finish what I'm doing more quickly. Now, you have written about your own 12 rules for life. I wanted to ask you about two of them if you would be willing to expand. So I'll read them. But these are these are rules seven and 12 respectively. And I'll read both. And then you can dig into either the first number seven. Learn how to learn from those who offend you. Number 12. Every now and then, and I'm going to mispronounce things here probably. Read or reread Erasmus, Montaigne, Homer, Shakespeare, or Joyce's Ulysses so that you do not take any rules too seriously. The human condition seems to defeat our attempts, excuse me, to order it. All right. I would love for you to expand on either of those. You can choose whichever you'd like to talk about first. Well, part of the brilliance of those writers I listed is they're highly complex. They force you or induce you to see human motivation as very complicated. They run against the grain of their being simple answers. And you really have to focus on them and give them full attention. So if you're dealing with them periodically, I think it's a good way to always stay fresh if that's a true open, honest engagement. Now, the people who offend you, I mean, Twitter is a great place to find them, right? People are so negative on Twitter. And either directly or indirectly, they're going to be negative about you, whatever it is you do, or are or think someone's going to dump on it and trash it. Those are the people where you really need to look closely and say, "What can I learn from this person? Do not play a strategy which I call devalue and dismiss because you can point to flaws in their thought, right, or their biography." Like, "Oh, say what they've done wrong." Or, "They didn't say this right three years ago, and you can dismiss them." But they're at the margin, really the ones you've got to learn from. Like, for me, that's Paul Krugman. You know, he puts down so many people. Sometimes he puts down views I hold. You could say it offends me. But, you know, I need to suck it up, you know, and just realize there's something I can learn from here. What have you learned from Paul? What would be or cultivated as a result of performing this practice? Well, I would say a lot about regional economics. At the meta level, I've learned a lot about how to communicate. Sometimes how not to communicate. I understand a particular point of view much better, which I sometimes, but not usually agree with. And he's one of the smartest economists out there, right? He has a Nobel Prize. Like, of course, my goodness we should be learning from this person. What are things that come to mind that you have changed your mind on in the last few years or the last year? Are there any positions or beliefs or otherwise that you've changed your mind on? Or come to think differently about it? Well, one thing that I'm finding really striking is the number of different countries that have had demonstrations or sometimes even riots about their politics. And those are sometimes countries such as Chile, which at least in regional terms are leaders or doing better than other places. Chile is actually seen declining income inequality, and yet millions of people in a not so well populated country are going to the streets. So the sense of discontent out there is higher than I had thought. And I don't feel I've thought that through properly yet, but I'm definitely changing my mind about the stability of current parties and regimes of politics. It seems to not quite be holding. What are your working hypotheses with respect to why that might be? I think one is the Martin Gury hypothesis that in a world with the internet we see everyone's flaws more readily. So you look at politicians or for that matter, top thinkers on social media, mostly they're not very impressive. And again, you could play the devalue and dismiss strategy, but it means the citizenry ends up disillusioned. So the second point I think is that if you look at, say, the United States, it is not in every way covered itself in glory over the last 15 or 20 years. And that disillusiones people around the world, yet they don't know where else to turn, because in my view, some version of Western liberal capitalist democracy is indeed the best system.
Focus On Tyler Cowen And Stalkr
How Ross sees Chile in China (24:38)
People see China doing better. They don't necessarily want autocracy, so politics becomes more confusing. And then finally, I think we're seeing big shifts in the income distribution, where certain groups are seeing either stagnant or falling wages and this heightens their anxiety. And then they too become dissatisfied in politics, but they're not sure exactly where to turn. They tend to turn to politicians who promise them free lunches, but that's probably bad. How are you going to go about developing a better understanding or different perspectives related to this observation, for instance, in Chile? What do your next steps look like? Well, the most likely next step is failure, right? The Chile would be one thing I would do. I've spent maybe five weeks of my life in Chile, which is not a lot, but enough that I have a sense of the place. I was recently invited back. I will try to find a way to get back, and then I will speak with people. But I also try to figure things out just by writing them down or writing them up. And if I just sit in the shower and sing, I don't really get anywhere. So I need to talk with people or give a talk or write something down. And that will probably be wrong, but that's like the draft that doesn't get out. And then it will get better, and maybe sometimes it's okay. What percentage of what you write would you say ultimately gets published on the blog or elsewhere, just to give people an idea of what the pie chart looks like with published, unpublished, and maybe there are other categories. But what percentage would you say end up getting published somewhere? It's hard to measure, because the things I discard, I tend to rewrite them so much, whether I've thrown them out or just rewritten them. I'm not sure how to classify it. But I have many hundreds of pages of unpublished stuff, and it's going to stay that way in varying phases of completeness, but it was necessary to get to other things. In 2000, I want to say 2003, so this is some time ago. Suspectings may have changed, but at the time I read that you were watching television only in Spanish. That was correct then. Yeah, how long, for what period of time did you do that? Over a dozen years, and I still do it sometimes, but I found it a good way to learn Spanish, but a good way to have a window onto a group of concerns that I would not necessarily encounter in the rest of my daily life. So if you watch Spanish language news from Latin America, or from Miami, but essentially from Latin America, you will just get a very different sense of what is important, what is interesting, what is dramatic, a very different sense of the role of the tragedy. How families fit together, the importance of children, really shakes up your worldview. But mostly I wanted to learn Spanish, but I became a bit addicted to it, and I still do it when I have the time. I listen to the Duolingo Spanish podcast sometimes for similar reasons, although it doesn't provide quite, it does in some cases provide that sort of contextual, temporal news, human interest element, but perhaps less of than breaking news. I love Premier Impakto, Anu Nivisione, I still watch that sometimes, it's at 5pm. For me it's Channel 14, it's just fantastic. What do you find to be the benefits of focusing on language acquisition or, as was cultivation?
Recommendations for becoming less stagnant (28:19)
Well, I only know two other languages, English, Spanish, and German. They force you out of your comfort zone, they make you realize what an idiot you are, you're always learning something, you get windows into how other people think. I sometimes call it cracking cultural codes. Spanish is great because it opens up a lot of different countries to you. German has some of the most profound writing and music philosophy and culture of human history. I wish I knew more, so I envy people who know many languages and people who have traveled to more in different places than I have. They're the people you should envy. I'd like to ask you about one of your many books, the Compleasing Class. My read, and please correct me if I'm wrong, is that you've argued that in some respects become a stagnant and cautious society. What does that mean? If I'm actually interpreting things correctly, feel free to correct me. We innovate less, especially outside of the tech sector. Our incomes grow more slowly. We move around the United States at roughly half the rates we used to. We are now unable to pull off grand projects such as putting a man on the moon. Almost all of the spending of our federal government is now locked in and much of that, most of that going to the elderly. We're just a less dynamic society. People are crazy how they bring up their kids. No risk is to be allowed. People obsess over what kindergarten will my kid get into? If they don't get into that kindergarten, my goodness all is lost. We are far more a society of credentials, which I regard as a huge negative. All of that and more. What can one do?
Murakami or oblivious fog for making the decision? (30:12)
Are there any personal actions that you would suggest to counteract or counterbalance in some fashion those societal trends? Of course, that's more than just a societal trend. What can the individual do? If they listen to you say this and they agree with you, are there any particular practices or steps or recommendations that you can discuss? Absolutely. Steve Levitt, the free economic sky, he wrote a great paper where he took some people and looked at their major decisions. For some of the people, a coin was flipped. If the coin said they had to make a big change, they made the big change. Next post, the people who made the big changes were happier than those who did not. Of course, it depends on the person and on the context. In general, read that Steve Levitt paper, think about the coin flipping, and more of the time make the big change. Of course, it's a risk, but it seems on average it pays off. Question for you is the... Now, those were big changes determined by the flip of a coin. Is that right? Right. Okay. How much of the happiness with the big change do you think was from making the big change or being absolved of the buyer/sellers regret equivalent? Second guessing, in other words, a decision that you had to make on your own. I don't know, but if it's only being absolved that matters, well, treat me as the villain and you are hereby absolved from responsibility. Just say Tyler made me do it and go off and be happier and the rest of society will do better as well. What are some of the major decisions that you've made that have been extremely impactful in your life? I decided that I would really focus on the internet and giving away my output for free and mostly stopping doing peer-reviewed scholarly research and devoting all my time to blogging and online essays and online education in my podcast. And that has gone phenomenally well for me. When did you make that decision? In retrospect, it doesn't sound that scary. I started blogging I think 17 years ago in the notion that I would do this every day for what is now almost 17 years. At the time was extremely weird and I was doing well in my other endeavors. It wasn't there was some kind of failure that need to be patched up. But I just thought I'm going to do this. I'm not going to look back. At first, no one paid any attention for years. I just kept on doubling down happily in my oblivious fog and it worked out great.
How Tyler started STALKR (32:56)
So I'm going to push back a little bit on the oblivious fog. You're a smart guy. You're able to... They didn't say I was a metarational guy. You said I was a smart guy. Maybe I should be offended. Well, I was going to metarational next. That was my second compliment. What was your decision making framework for doing that? 17 years ago. So that places us around 2003 roughly. How did you make that decision which at the time to many very smart, I will use the word smart here, colleagues probably appeared absurd. What was your decision making framework or how did you think about making that decision? I'm not even sure I had a decision making framework. I think in a way I'm dysfunctional as a decision maker at that level. I did it for a day. I enjoyed it and I just didn't stop doing it in a very selfish, curious, greedy with information way. And it just became quickly impossible to turn that ship around. So I thought, "Well, I've got to do more of this." I would hesitate to recommend my so-called decision making process to anyone. What was the positive feedback loop on the daily experience that kept you going for years before it seemingly gained traction? What was it that appealed so much to you? For three or four years, we had a few thousand readers, but it wasn't a thing and it hadn't taken off. It was fine. And when I started, I thought, "Oh, it would be awesome to have only 5,000 readers." Like some kind of utopian dream. But I lost track of that and I just found I was learning things, having to write all these posts. Like, "Oh, I need to learn this. I need to learn that." And then when I would write on it, I would change my mind. So I thought, "Well, this is some form of progress." And again, just stuck at it. And then later, like blogs became a thing. And even though blogging has mostly disappeared, it's gone very well for us. We've played a kind of last man standing strategy. And we haven't like seen that kind of cutback in readership. I think it's lost some of its newness sex appeal, but I would be astonished if long form or even not so long form writing, as long as it is of high quality for, considered of high quality for at least a few thousand people, or even less. I don't see that going away anytime soon. I know that there are other forms of media that are more fashionable perhaps, but I'm certainly not concerned for the longevity of your readership. I think you'll be fine. How have you thought about branching out from the written word and making decisions about that?
The Future of Tyler Cowen StalkR (35:56)
Well, I do now a podcast every two weeks that's called Conversations with Tyler. That keeps me very busy and dominates a lot of my reading time. You know, that's for free. It's not a business for me. It probably costs me some money. But I find I read much better when I'm reading their work to go and interview them. So next I'll be doing Philip Tatlock, the guy who writes on prediction in Super Forecasters. That will force me to get my thoughts in order on those topics. After that, I think it's Emily St. John Mandel who wrote Station 11, which coincidentally is a book about pandemics. And she has a new book out. I read fiction much better when I know I'm talking to the author himself or herself. When I interviewed Martine and Avrita Lova, I had to learn a lot about the history of tennis. I read like 50 books on the history of women's and also men's tennis. That was fantastic. I wouldn't have absorbed them in the same way if I wasn't going to be speaking to her. So I'm just keep on doing these podcasts. Again, totally dysfunctional decision-making on my part. Well, we'll see. You could certainly have good outcomes with bad process, but I'm not totally convinced it's bad process.
Preparing To Converse With Tyler Cowen (37:07)
It's not bad, but it's not something I could explain or justify in terms of a model of rationality. Right. It's also low risk in the sense that the max downside risk of doing this is very low, whereas a lot of the benefits, as you said, putting an incentive and deadline in place so that you immerse yourself in these topics and worlds that you might not otherwise put so much energy into is certainly a benefit. How did you prepare for Neil Stevenson? Because I've read Neil's books, and for people who don't know, you have Snow Crash, Kryptonomicon, you have many others. And these are not short books. These are, in fact, incredibly long books in many cases. How did you prepare for that interview? He was in some ways an easier than usual prep, because there are many Neil Stevenson books I already had read, which was a huge head start, just as you've read them. And then there were others that I simply cannot read, like Anithym, which I suspect is brilliant, but I'm just not a good enough reader or not smart enough or not something to get through it. It just loses me, and I've tried at least twice. I tried again to prep for him. I couldn't read it. And it might be his best book. So I just had to put that one down, and I figure, "Well, this is Neil Stevenson. I'm just going to talk to him about stuff." A lot of the obvious, usual questions about science and the future and technology, and he'll just be interesting. So that was, I wouldn't say easy, but easier than many. Whereas people who know a very direct thing, like Emily Wilson, she was the translator of Homer's Odyssey. I had to know Homer's Odyssey really, really well. Like, that's what she does. I can't just blah, blah, blah to her about, you know, what do you think of Peter Thiel and the text stagnation debate? We talked 85% about Homer's Odyssey. That was one of my hardest preps. She's wonderful, by the way, if you ever want to have her on, but it's really tough. I spent months of my life preparing for her, and it was over in an hour.
Road To Success And Rationality
Reading recommendations (39:14)
Yeah, that's better ratio than the Olympics, I guess. Yeah. How are you preparing for the conversation about, well, I suppose it's not going to be limited to, but Station 11, if I'm getting that right, and pandemics. How are you thinking about navigating that conversation and preparing for it? I watch her on YouTube. I read all of the interviews with her. I can find online. Her two main novels, I will read twice. And her earlier, less well-known novels, I've read once. And she's from Canada. I need to think about Canada, where she grew up in Victoria, what her literary inspirations are. Ask her about those, reread books that she has read. I looked again at Michael Criton's The Andromeda Strain. She wrote a novel about a pandemic. Well, now I have to think about Bocaccia as well, right? And you just have to dig deep into all your resources. Like, what have I got here? We'll see how it goes, but she's a hard prep. You have read, I mean, you and Patrick Collison are sort of birds of a feather here for people who don't know, Patrick Collison of Stripe, in that you are voracious readers and consume more books than the next ten people put together. And the next ten high achievers put together, I think many would say. What are the books that you have gifted or recommended to people most that come to mind? I know that you have a huge sort of pantheon of options available, but what books have you recommended most to others? We had a couple come up earlier in terms of people who might be interested in exploring fiction or complex nonfiction. What other books come to mind, if any? I'm very suspicious about recommending books to people because there's the risk they might listen to what you say. And if you're recommending to them the book that is not like the most valuable next book they should read, in a sense you're wronging them. So I don't give people books that often. One thing I try to encourage people to do is to read more about music and the arts, not a particular book, but I say take the creators you love, whoever, whatever they may be, and read about them, if it's the Beatles' grade, if it's Beethoven, and really dig into what you might think of as your hobbies, but to read about them in an intense way, and just think about Beethoven, how did he manage his career? Like what were his productivity tricks? What did he do wrong? And think through some of the questions you've written and talked about at length, but in the context of your cultural heroes. If it's like, what do I tell people to read most often? I am not myself religious, but usually I'll tell my non-religious friends they ought to go read the Bible. It's a wonderfully deep and brilliant book, and most non-religious people, even most religious people, barely know it. Or Shakespeare. If someone said to you they wanted to become more meta-rational, if that were their stated objective, are there any resources you would point them to, or practices? Again, I'd like to know where they are starting from, but spend some time sitting down with groups of people you don't usually sit down with.
Is my most likely recommendation, and that will depend on the person. So there's one colleague of mine, I'm telling him, you need to travel to some very poor countries and sit down and speak to some very poor in terms of income individuals, and that's what I think he should do. Obviously, if someone say grew up in the slums of Mumbai, that's probably not my advice, right? What if they were well-to-do Manhattanite? Oh my goodness. Who felt like they were prone to confirmation bias due to various incentives they had. So they've embedded themselves in a position, they have stories they've believed, maybe their stories from their parents, who knows. Yeah, besides spending time with someone who is from an income perspective poorer, what other advice might you have for such a person? Well, if you're a Manhattanite, you actually will be in proximity to a fair number of poor people. But I find on average, Manhattanites tend to think the world comes to them, and I suspect this is a delusion of sorts. Some people say, "Oh, Silicon Valley is a bubble, well, maybe." But people in Silicon Valley don't actually think the whole world comes to them. They realize they're in a very special part of the world. And I think if Manhattanites would realize that more, they would then just leave Manhattan, if only to the other boroughs. I mean, try Staten Island, right? Don't go to Paris, don't go to London, try Staten Island, West Virginia, somewhere like Macedonia. And don't think all these things are already coming to you in Manhattan, because they're not. You're getting a super filtered version of it. And you're just seeing in warm Manhattan. Nothing wrong with that. I love Manhattan. I grew up in New Jersey. But a lot of remedial work probably needs to be done. What are you working on personally right now? Are there any particular problems or... sort of personal development objectives that you've set out for yourself? Well, I'm writing a new book, and it's on what do the social sciences know about spotting and evaluating talent? And I have a project, this emergent venture, as you referred to before, where there's a fund of money I give away to individuals who are talented, or I hope they are talented. So really just trying to get better at that, and trying to get better at communicating what I know or think I know to other people. And that's very hard. There is no single really go-to source on how to evaluate talent. People who have not yet succeeded, but maybe they will. I'm just pausing to think for a moment here.
Interviewing Habits (45:42)
What have you learned about interviewing? If you look at, let's just say from either pre-podcast to right now, or first few episodes of the podcast to right now, what have you learned about interviewing or how have you improved as an interviewer? And you can interpret that however you like, because there are many different types of interviewing. I'm not sure I've improved. Hard for me to say. But I think getting people to talk about what they do, actually do, tends to be good. Getting people willing to be weird, getting people to be conversational, getting people to be engaged and passionate. The worst question is, please tell us about your latest book. I try to start with something super specific, something they're shocked that I might know about them, and then just dig deeper. How do you get them to be willing to be weird? Well, most of them are weird to begin with, right? So that's like a big force on your side. Being weird yourself, like, relaxes the environment. It makes it non-threatening. Just signaling you're not there to screw them over. That you want to be there to be weird with them, and that you're actually doing this because you enjoy it. And usually it works, not always. Some people just like clam up. They think they're going to get a government job someday. Try not to have them on, right? What does weird mean to you? How would you define weird? Well, in a sense, it's the weird that is truly normal. It's how people actually are, like what they really care about, think about. So in a sense, you're getting them out of the weird. The weird is the stage presence we put on and all the puffery and unwillingness to say what you really think because when confirmation hearing, whatever. So once you stop seeing the weird is actually weird, I think that's also a help. It's like, this is natural. Let's just do it. And most people respond to that, I think. But you do many of these yourself, right? I do. I'm not convinced I know what I'm doing either. I somewhat selfishly have surrendered to following personal interest in interviews with the assumption that if I find it interesting, I have at least a guaranteed satisfied audience of one person. But I think I have a very particular personality that then imprints my approach to asking questions. But I'm okay with that. I don't have a desire to be anything other than who I am at the moment when it comes to asking questions at least.
Thinking with Reality (48:27)
Yeah. Never have a guest on you don't care about, right? Yeah. That's a good rule. That is a good rule. What other rules have you developed, if any? You mean in podcasting, conversing? Just get to the point immediately. The old saying, personality is revealed on weekends. I think you present a version of that in one of your books. What does the person do on weekends? Probably the same as what they do on weekdays. But bring out that side of them, right? And just asking the person, in essence, what are your open browser tabs right now? It's one way of getting at who they are. And the browser tabs don't lie, right? Yeah, that is a great question. That is a really great question. So part of the reason, not surprisingly, that I might be asking this so that I can borrow and use in the future. But the future is now. So here we are, a few seconds after you just said that. What are some of the open browser tabs on your computer? Twitter is always open. Wordpress for blogging is always open. Several sets of email, always open. What's app always open? And then right now I will have typically five or six tabs to specific articles, which at the moment are all coronavirus. That's atypical. Usually they're more varied. But right now there's two big stories. There's the election campaign season, which I hate following and don't really write about, and coronavirus. So it's going to be coronavirus. What are you reading about coronavirus? This is of great interest to me. I've been tracking it very closely for a few weeks. And I know this is topical, but I do think that in a sense, there's a parallel to the expression, and I'm going to butcher this, and I'm afraid I don't know the attribution, but that adversity doesn't build character. It reveals character. And I do think that with the, let's call it threat on one hand, panic on the other, and they're not totally separate. Everything going on with coronavirus, the challenges of parsing good from bad information, reliable from unreliable information. Many of the frailties in thinking or logic or meta rationality that otherwise would go somewhat unnoticed day to day are becoming much more pronounced in a lot of people, and many of them, and maybe present company included, are not aware just how those things are manifesting. So what are you reading and how are you thinking about this particular coronavirus? We're speaking in very early March. Yes. And it seems to me there are several distinct episodes. One is Wuhan, there's other parts of China, the South Korea, Japan, Singapore, northern Italy, Washington state, Princess Diamond cruise ship, and the different numbers from these separate locations. They don't really add up. No. So I'm treating it like a Sherlock Holmes puzzle. How do we make sense of all of these collectively comparing them to each other? So yes, of course there are data mistakes. But what's your theory of data mistakes where they all fit together? And I still actually don't find a way of making it add up. So I'm trying not to approach it as like a lecturer, like telling everyone, "Do this, don't do that, wash your hands." Probably good advice. But as a kind of puzzle, and to stay open about it and see what it brings me, and also see which of the responses are the best ones.
Puzzle or An Adventure (52:05)
So far, Singapore is looking quite good, but there's plenty of play left, so to speak. And the United States, it seems, has let the coronavirus get into its healthcare system and it did nothing about it for six weeks, in what could end up being really a kind of huge crime of omission. Yeah. You know, I'm struggling with where to go with this because I recognize we have a large audience listening. How do you currently plan to increase the resolution on those puzzle pieces or to continue informing yourself in such a way that the picture becomes so different? The picture becomes clearer and not more difficult to make out. How do you think about information consumption? There's more data every day, and I will write out the puzzles as I find them and try to think them through as I write them out and then get feedback. And I'm not sure where I'll arrive with this. In hopes, of course, it just goes away and the puzzles remain that. At this point, that seeming a bit less likely than it had been, so I'm afraid to say I think we're going to find out more than we want to know. I'm not really worried about that. If it all remains unresolved, I can just go away and celebrate. Right. Aside from, for instance, John Hopkins has a very good daily newsletter, which I would consider reasonably uncharged, politically speaking, you had mentioned someone on Twitter who you follow and I'm blanking on the name. Tell them, Branswell. She's public health in Toronto. How do you spell that last name? It's B-R-A-N-S-W-E-L-L, I believe. Are there any other particular sources of information or other people you are following who you find to be reasonably level-headed? How are they approaching and analysing this? There's four or five. I don't remember their Twitter handles by memory, but they're in the list of people I follow. If you just go through that, it will be pretty clear which ones they are. Okay. Great. And then I find by being out there writing about it in an open, non-hysterical way, I'm just sent a flood of useful information. And that's arguably my main source. And I don't mean to say I trust it all, but you cross-check and you think and then you talk to people you know and you get a bit further. Yeah. Why did you, well, I'm also assuming then that this was your initiative, but why did you choose to create emergent ventures? How did that come about? You have a million projects. Why have another one and why this one? There's a whole world of philanthropy out there. And I think it's one of the least well-functioning sectors of the American economy. You can't blame it on government. It's not that heavily regulated, right? So much of it is bureaucratic and risk-averse and people doing the same things. And I thought let's go back to earlier models of giving from the Renaissance or the 18th century, where in essence there was no bureaucracy, one person who says yes or no. We don't ask anyone for a vita. We don't ask anyone about credentials. Do you have a PhD? Whatever. It's basically 1500 words. Tell us who you are and what's your story and what you're going to do. And people can use that space more or less as they wish. We ask them like, tell us one value that you consider to be a value. We have that question. And we've now had about 80 winners and we got them a check in essence. How many applicants are you vetting those 80 from? I think it's about 800 now. So the rate of good applications is reasonably high. Maybe I'm lowering it just by talking about the program. But even though it's only about a year and a half old, we've had people go on to start companies, successful ventures. People end up in high positions in governments. A lot are just travel grants for young people. People who are, say from ages 15, 16, up to 20 who get to meet mentors. I hope it's changed the course of their lives. Those are often travel grants to Silicon Valley. But it can be anywhere really. And there's two researchers at Dartmouth. They've created a kind of Wikipedia-like structure that now contains data about every Indian village in essence. Not every village is filled in, but we have the capacity to create and store and use demographic data about every Indian village. This is a not-for-profit venture. I think it will greatly improve public health and policy making in India in the future. There's a fellow who is starting a kind of charter city in Zambia with Zambians. So many exciting things going on there. Young Indian woman, I think she just turned 18 starting a bus company.
She's raised really quite a bit of venture capital. So for me, it's a very exciting, rewarding thing to do. I'm paid nothing to do it. The evaluator is me. There's no panel. There's no bureaucracy. It's thumbs up or thumbs down. And I think far and more philanthropy should work this way. What will success look like? And it could be just a subjective feel. But how do you determine whether this program has been successful over what period of time? So many people in philanthropy obsess over measurement, and they end up tending to do the same thing. So I'm actually at my margin, somewhat anti-measurement. I don't want everyone to be anti-measurement. But my view is if I need to measure, you failed. So if I supported Malcolm Gladwell when he was a kid, well, could I then measure how many books he sold? I could try, but it's like, come on, it's Malcolm Gladwell. If you need to measure, you failed. So that's my simple rule. You know, we'll see. I may never know. Of all of the many, many, many, many, if you look at rather, the posts you've put out, the classes you've taught, the books you've written, what are some of the views that you currently hold or still hold, or perspectives that are most controversial, would you say? Meaning, they seem to kick the hornet's nest, wherever that hornet's nest may be. What are some of the views or beliefs that are most controversial? You know, in the world of 2020, where the two leaders of the two parties at the moment seemed to be Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, I no longer know what is a controversial view, in fact. I used to know what my controversial views were. I think in general, we should do much more to boost the rate of economic growth, devote fewer resources to the elderly and much more to the young, and take more chances, and travel more, and learn other languages, and be much, much more interested in foreign cultures. I'm not sure those are controversial. They're obviously not controversial with a sliver of a particular demographic, but I'm not sure many people really mean them either. Maybe my most controversial view is it's no longer clear what our controversial views are. I would love to ask you because it's, I think, easy to be intimidated by how much you do, and certainly, seemingly do very, very successfully. You're able to digest non-fiction pages in seconds and aggregate data from disparate sources into coherent blog posts, that influence millions of people, ultimately, and so on and so forth. I'd like to try to offset that with a discussion, it doesn't have to be long, but a discussion of a tough time or a failure that you've experienced. Specifically, if there is a favorite failure that comes to mind, meaning a failure you experienced, which was very difficult at the time, or just a dark period that somehow set you up or contributed to greater success later, if that makes any sense. Yes, you know, I feel I've been very fortunate in life, and I think I have about the most even temperament of anyone I know. Like, I literally don't have unhappy days. It would be hard to say I've had zero in life, but I think I'm almost weirdly never unhappy in a way that's good for productivity, but maybe almost inhuman, and to be a little bit feared or looked down upon or not thought well of. I think that's a better way to think of me than to hear my, like, story of failure, like a few years in graduate school. Yes, I felt pretty lonely. I didn't have a girlfriend. I was like a nerdy kid. That was bad for me. I mean, that would be the best I could do, and that's like so cliched and kind of pitiful. I don't know, like, the big life setback tale. I'm not sure what that's supposed to be. Well, that's a bad answer. That's a weird answer, but it's weirder than it sounds, I would just say. Have you always been even killed in that respect? Is it just out of the womb that was your programming, or is that something that you developed over time? Both. I think that was my natural inclination, and just as you mature, you become more that way. But I've always felt pretty happy. I suspect my peak happiness is well below that of most people. Hard to prove that or measure that, but intuitively when I see people very, very, very happy, it's quite strange to me. I feel, gee, I've never felt this. But same when people are depressed. So I think my range is compressed in an unusual way. So if for many people they strive to feel happy, or perhaps more accurately, to not feel unhappy, and much of their decisions, many of their decisions and behavior are kind of governed or driven by that, are there any feelings that you prefer not to feel that come to mind?
Discussion On Stoicism And Personal Growth
Building Equanimity (01:03:11)
I mean, is there something for you that is analogous to unhappiness for other people? Well, I feel guilty about my numerous shortcomings when it comes to behavior. So for instance, I think to eat animals raised under terrible conditions is wrong, but still mostly I do it. I've tried to improve, I've improved somewhat, but I'm reminded of that regularly by what other people do or right. And I just think that's wrong. I think I fall short. I guess at this point I have to conclude I'm too selfish to change it. So I feel bad about that, but it mustn't be that bad, right? And I feel bad that I don't feel worse about it as well. You could always do more for charity, right? Yeah. That's another. It's like never enough, is it? For people who wanted to develop a greater, a higher level of equanimity, basically if they said, "I want to train myself in some fashion to be more like you, Tyler, in so much as I don't experience, at least the acute lows that perhaps I experience." Would you have any recommendations for those people? Are there any particular suggestions, reading, resources, anything whatsoever that would come to mind that you've seen help other people? Well, I'm not going to say like go read the Stoics. I mean Ryan Holiday can tell you that. No, Ryan's got that covered. Yeah. But I feel a bit the people in that position. It's like they want a kind of talisman, almost like a voodoo object. Yeah. And I don't know if they really want to be more detached and dispassionate or they just want the talisman. And maybe my advice would be to think through, "Do you just want the talisman?" That's fine. Don't feel bad about that. But like there's a really cheap and easy way to buy the talisman. Like buy one of my books, read my blog. That's free. Yeah. And you know, pat yourself on the back and go away and forget that was your original motive. If you really want to do it, I don't know. Probably the fact that you're asking is a signal that it's someone more in the talisman direction. Well, what is, could you elaborate on what you mean by talisman? Emily St. John Mandel just tweeted, I think this morning, that there's this risk of a pandemic with coronavirus.
And she wrote a novel about a pandemic that is really truly horrible, kills most people in the world. And she can't understand why her book is selling so many more copies now. I suspect people want to buy it as a kind of protection against the worst case scenario. Like they feel they faced up to it, they own it a bit, they control it. I think I used the voodoo analogy a bit earlier. And thus they're a bit safer. We sometimes use comedy this way or see horror movies for similar reasons. And that's a talisman. You do it for a complex psychological reason to process an idea and be done with it. And not necessarily to really incorporate what's there. And that's fine. I don't think we should look down on that. But if someone asks, I'm going to say, is this a talisman or do you want the real thing? Well, what would distinguish those two within the context of the question I'm asking? So I'll, I'll, I will, just because you brought it up, mention, for instance, the Stoics. So I do think that, and we don't have to belabor this point, but the fact that I ask about resources, why would that indicate that I want a talisman or I'm seeking a talisman if I have found the regular review and practice of say, stoic principles to actually be of great benefit much along the lines of cognitive behavioral therapy or something like that? So I do think that is impacted how I relate to the world and relate to others in the world. So I would say that that has tremendous practical value. Sure, I'm pro talisman, but I think, you know, it's like therapy. There's two reasons you might go to therapy. One is to feel you did something about your problem and that could itself make you better. And the other is your actual conversation with the therapist is useful. Both operate. There's nothing wrong with the talisman use of therapy. And with the Stoics, probably both operate. You know, great. The talisman actually makes the Stoics better. In fact, they're good for two things, not just one. Well, I guess I'd love for you to just elaborate on why that use that I described is of the talisman variety. Well, that could be real learning, right? Yeah. The version of the talisman use of the Stoics would be that exante, you feel a kind of personal and social anxiety that you haven't done enough to calm yourself.
Talisman Use of the Stoics (01:08:04)
And maybe you're just never going to be that calm, but your meta-anxiety about not having to calm yourself. You can lower, perhaps, by buying and reading the Stoics. Maybe you'll forget what they said on a test three years later. But at the end of the day, you did something, you went through a process, you had a mastery over some part of your life, and you feel better in the anxieties diminished. I think that happens quite often. In addition to whatever you learned from them. Do you feel like you have such talismans in your own decision-making or behaviors? Or is that... Oh, of course. Sure. No reason to think on any different. And a lot of the books I read, maybe if I felt some anxiety, "Oh, there's this book out there, Tyler, you haven't read it yet," and I go read it. I'm not saying I learned nothing from the book, but part of the enjoyment is the alleviation of the anxiety, right? Right. Sure. Oh, yeah. I wish more of them had wonderful, incredible content. How do you choose your guests for your podcast?
Choosing Podcast Guests (01:09:18)
Mostly the people I want to speak to and the people I wish to prepare for. So there'll be a lot of economics, some public figures, people who have written novels, just people who know a lot, people who are what I call infivores, people who are intense or curious. It helps if they're nearby, so I do all of mine face to face. A few of them are public events. So just like, "Can this be pulled off?" is a big question. Doing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, that was a dream for me. I watched him when I was a kid to play basketball, and I saw his last game in the NBA. I had a chance to do Kareem. How could I not do that? Trying to get William Shatner now. Probably it will fail. I don't care who Aldi is. He's William Shatner. Who are other people? Who are other people on your dream list? On your wish list. Ryan Eno, the British musician. I had an email forwarded to him, and I'm still waiting for him to respond. He strikes me as the kind of guy who might respond seven years after the invite. Most people, it's like if you don't hear in a week, you figure it won't happen. This is Brian Eno. He could respond at any time with either a yes or a no. For you, we talked a bit about the changes of perspective or changing your mind on anything. You mentioned, I guess it was regional economics, and we spoke about Chile. Are there any new behaviors that have been particularly beneficial for you that you've only started in the last year or a handful of years? Any particular new behaviors or habits that have had a non-trivial impact on your life? It's hard to tell. I've spent more time with weights as a form of exercise. I vaguely feel it's helped. I don't have any measurement.
How have my behaviors changed in the last year (01:11:12)
I could cite for you. How have my behaviors changed in the last year? Getting smaller portions of food, which I think has helped, my diet is just what you were going to eat, but eat two-thirds of it. I've had the discipline to make that work. You don't have to fuss over what you're going to cut out. You just divide by two-thirds. Just trying to be kinder to people. Again, I'm not even sure I'm managing to try to do it, but that's always a priority or sometimes a priority. What does that look like being kinder to people? Or why did that become something of focus for you? If you can be encouraging in a non-trivial way, it can really mean a lot to people, and it takes several kinds of effort. There's effort in the moment, but also the skill of how to sincerely have a sense of what would be the encouraging thing to say. It seems to me that's greatly under-supplied in the world. Some of the things that are under-supplied are just people telling other people what they're good at, which happens plenty, but really kind of accurate and decisive. This is what you're good at and why. Greatly under-supplied. Supplying people, especially younger people, visions of what they could be, greatly under-supplied. But you also want to be better at it rather than worse. Making that more of a priority. Some of the grants I've given out through emergent ventures to younger people, I've also tried to give them a sense of what I think they could be. I suspect that's more important in some cases than the grant.
My message on a billboard (01:12:56)
In a way, it's complemented by the grant. In a way, you're giving the grant so you can package it with this vision, and the vision will matter, and the grant makes the vision more vivid or more focal. Like they believe the vision because you spent real dollars on them. Yeah, that makes perfect sense. I only have a few questions remaining really on my list, so to speak, but I would love to explore anything certainly that I may have missed. This may sound like a cliched question, and I'm sure that it's not going to be a new one to my listeners, but you think very deeply about a lot of things. If you could put a message, quote, an image on a billboard, metaphorically speaking, that were to reach billions of people, what might you put on that billboard? It doesn't have to be super short, but is there anything that comes to mind if you wanted to impart something, convey something to billions of people what you would say, assuming they all are able to read the same language, of course? Well social context is so important for messages. So as we just were saying, if you communicate to people a vision of what they could be, it needs to be packaged with some real behavior on your part, probably, to have impact. And I also, as an economist, tend to think very often the market works. So if I just put up on a billboard, like Tyler says, do the right thing, I'm pretty sure that would be ineffective. And if you look at billboards we actually have, like what do you see on those billboards? The billboards I see, a lot of them are advertisements for insurance, some of them are don't drive drunk, you see a bail bondsman on billboards and suicide hotlines. So I guess I would study the market and pick one of those four things, like buy this insurance, bail bondsman, suicide hotline, don't drive drunk after studying the actual market. Because I don't think I have some idea that's so scarce that if it's on the billboard with no supporting social context, that it will mean a damn. I'd say go with the market. Well, if we take, let's take a more technologically advanced example. If you could have something pop up on everyone's iPhone and stay there as the background for a day, really the point that I'm stretching for here is to get getting large numbers of people to consider a statement or a prompt of some type for a period of time. So putting aside the billboard as form factor, is there anything that you've got it? You can choose not to use it, but you have the option of imparting something via the background of everyone's iPhones for a period of time. The people with iPhones, of course, I worry about much less. But I would say this. I think the social returns to religion on average are fairly high. So the religion, most likely that people would accept in a particular area, I would want the message to be messages about that religion. So if it's the United States, that would often but not always be Christianity. Again, that's not going to work in every part of the world. When I worry, families are not having enough children, we're seeing depopulation in many countries. Religious families have more children. Religious people tend to be somewhat happier. So I would seek that the messages would make people more religious. And yet you yourself are not religious, but I suppose that is you wouldn't choose religion to make yourself happier because you have very few unhappy days. But you yourself are not practicing religious person. I'm agnostic leaning toward atheists. So definitely not religious was not brought up religious. My parents were not religious. But I look at the data.
Jordan'S Focus And Balanced Lifestyle
Where Jordan finds focus (01:17:02)
It seems religion is the most effective way we have of carrying good ideas. And at the margin, I want to see more of that. I think also, I don't do any drugs. I don't drink. So some people abuse drugs and alcohol. And religion there can help. So I don't have that practical reason for needing more religion also. So let's say 10% of people abuse drugs or alcohol. That's a pretty high percentage. And if you think the truly religious are less likely to, that's a big expected gain. Well, this has been very fun for me. Is there anything that we have not explored that you would like to explore or discuss that I haven't brought up? How do you restore lost focus? How do I restore lost focus? Yes. I would say cold exposure, exercise and having a routine that I do not deviate from. So most often for me, if I feel a loss of focus, it is either physiological. So I'm not eating enough. I am low energy because I've had poor sleep for a period of days, something like that. Almost all of which can be remedied by attention to the basic elements of my routine. So I would say that that's my answer. If I have deviated from routine, if I'm making too many decisions each day that should be replaced with some type of default answer, what I have for breakfast, what time I'm waking up, where I'm going to write or record, etc. That usually, or I shouldn't say usually, but often contributes to a feeling of being unfocused. So it's when I abandon my routines, some of the elements of which would be default meals and exercise and also cold exposure for staying in the morning. During that order usually helps me. Do you think cold exposure is partly a placebo or talisman or do you think cold exposure works? It depends on what we mean by works. I would, does it provide a jolt of adrenaline and other plausible physiological changes that seem to contribute to more alertness? Yes, I would say the answer is yes. It could be talisman. If by talisman we really mean placebo effect or the desire to feel that we are doing something to address our problem rather than the actual efficacy of set approach, sure. I think placebo effect is everywhere. Just as no sebo effect can affect things. But I can tell you that I find it personally helpful, but I do think there are certainly obvious and then not so obvious plausible physical mechanisms that could improve alertness when you put yourself into 40 degree Fahrenheit water for a period of time. And do you fear ending up in an equilibrium where you say no to too many things and how do you avoid that? Or maybe you just think it's not a risk. What type of equilibrium do you mean? So we all are faced with many demands on our time and we have to learn to say no. Give a talk here or visit this. Yeah. Whatever. So we become very good at saying no, but it's quite easy to say no once you're good at it. It's like oh an email comes. No, no. And you end up saying no too much and you end up with too little serendipity in your life. In a way you clearly would have had it age 17 or even 23 or maybe 27. But how do you refresh the supply of serendipity and keep the habit of saying no to the things you ought to say no to?
Balance between introverted and extroverted habits (01:21:04)
I do that through friends who have broad and diverse social networks and they are known friends of mine publicly. So they have broad social interactions and people will pitch them on things intended for me. I like to I like my friends to feel there is a reputational risk slash gain to making introductions or suggesting introductions. And in that using that approach I have found that the introductions I end up agreeing to provide more than enough serendipity for me and they come highly qualified and highly vetted. So I then rely on a sort of more perhaps systematic approach or more tightly controlled approach to serendipity which sounds like an oxymoron almost versus looking for serendipity say in my inbox or Twitter feed. I do look at I prefer to be able to opt into serendipity as opposed to feeling like I'm being water boarded with serendipity. I also get an absurdly high volume of inputs. So that could be reflective as you said earlier perhaps that I'm making mistakes further upstream but I'm not worried about equilibrium. I have more more than enough intellectual stimulation at this point and of a higher quality signal for me at least. You worry that too many of your friends are highly successful people. I don't mostly because I was only referring to my publicly known friends. I don't talk about my non-public friends publicly because I think that would be opening them to all sorts of problems that they don't want to have and I don't want them to have. So I don't worry about that. I have a lot of friends who are on the full spectrum socioeconomically and you're talking about addiction earlier. My best friend growing up was until a few years ago a fisherman, very low income and died of a fentanyl overdose. So he would certainly not map from a social or socioeconomic perspective on top of any portion of the Venn diagram of the public friends that I have. So I don't worry about it too much. I also historically travel a lot and have spent time among the homeless in San Francisco. For instance, I actually paid someone to give me a sort of day long immersion tour of the underground sort of economics and dynamics of homelessness in San Francisco. As you said, you don't have to go to Mumbai. You can find destitution and poverty and addiction right around the corner if you live in an urban center. There are plenty of things that I would say I worry about. I do think I probably lean towards the worry-wort side of things on the sliding scale.
Your favorite movie (01:24:24)
But I don't worry about all of my friends being in one place or being well to do or successful in quotation marks. I don't worry about that one. Great. Yeah. Any other questions? I'm happy to field questions. What's your favorite movie? My favorite movie. I've watched different movies for different purposes. I would say that Princess Bride, the Princess Bride is very high up there. I think William Goldman is just a genius screenwriter. A lot of the movies that are my favorites and movies I've watched hundreds of times on repeat while writing. Babe would be another one. I love that. Yeah. Those are two of my favorite movies. What's your favorite movie or some of yours? Ingmore Bergman movies as a whole would be my favorite part of cinema may be scenes from a marriage being my all-time favorite of those. But just Empire Strikes Back is a favorite movie too. So good. So good. It is. Yeah. It's a great film. It's a great film. Amelie, another film I love. Spirited Away would be one of my absolute all-time favorites. I love Miyazaki movies. All of them. Yeah. Spirited Away I just think has a lot of metaphor and just beautiful transformation in that movie that I find reveals itself as you watch it more and more. So I've watched that movie a lot. And those would be a few. Those would be a few that come to mind. And then there are a bunch of flicks you might expect. I like the first Jason Pore, the born identity. It's a good movie. Yes. All these movies that I got hooked on a long time ago and haven't been able to give up. Casino Royale I think is an exceptional film. You mean the later one? Not the early David Niven one. The later one. Yeah. The later one. That's good. But I do enjoy film and fiction as a respite from the problem solving default that I think is a constant for me with hyper rumination. And I think that's very common in people who have suffered from say depression in the past as I have fortunately no major episodes in the last five or six years which I can attribute to a few things. Talisman or otherwise. But or would attribute I suppose in that case. I think the ability to for those people who are prone to hyper rumination which can often take the form of obsession with the past in repetitive loops in the case of depression or obsession with future scenarios in the case of chronic anxiety. I think that I think that film and fiction are have high medicinal value. And let's say you could put your major commitments on hold somehow freeze time in the left your in and take a year off and spend it somewhere. Where would you choose and why? Does that come back you know we put it on pause and you come back to the life you have. Yep. Does it have to be one location or can it be multiple locations? I can be more than one but you can't say everywhere right?
Highly medicinal (01:28:00)
No it wouldn't be. So it could be well traveled down the Amazon or right that's multiple locations. It has to be one kind of thing one plan. One plan. Okay. I would if it has to have some theme I would say I would take a year ideally with my my beloved girlfriend and perhaps a few close friends if possible to walk some of the pilgrimage trails around the world. So the I've done a small portion of the Kumano kodo in Japan. Yeah. The Kumino de Santiago is of interest to me. But extended long duration walking with a minimum of necessities and material goods for that year with a minimum of inputs I think would be a tremendous way to spend a year. And how much do you think we're like versus being different? The two of us? Two of us yeah. Wow that's a great question. There's a sort of an asymmetry of information here because I know less about you than I know about myself. My feeling is that we're quite similar here. Yeah my feeling is that based on I think we have many shared interests and intellectual interests I would say that. I think you're imminently more qualified in speaking on most of these shared interests. But the topic of of of meta rationality and metacognition which I realize you're not exactly the same thing but very interrelated those are of incredible importance to me. And I think about them constantly. So I think our avenues of inquiry and interest are very similar sounds like our hard wiring is very different. In terms of like the software that we have I think is very different. But I like those differences. I think the world doesn't need more than one of me that's for sure. So I really revel in the differences. I would say my impression I'd like to hear your answer. But my impression is we probably have perhaps even more similarities than we realize. I mean I do I am a fan of alcohol and one might even say drugs on occasion. So we have that difference. But I think those may be largely cosmetic in some respect. So what's your impression? What's your read? I might be a bit more mono than you are. So something like drugs if there were a safe way to do it and probably there is I still wouldn't do it. I would figure it would distract me from a kind of program I've set for myself. Although I'm not religious I think of my mental structure as somehow more like Protestant and mission driven. I suspect you're more competitive than I am. Maybe I've tried to be less competitive over time. I've never tried to be less competitive. Maybe whether or not I should. But I just think I'm less competitive to begin with. Yeah that could be true. That could be true. I've I think that many of my male role models growing up sort of surrogate influences in that domain were coaches. And so I've I think honed much of well honed makes it sound all positive. Developed many of my behaviors and predispositions some I'm sure I'm aware of and some certainly I'm not through the lens of competition and receiving positive reinforcement when I win. So that I think has been a huge blessing and provided a lot from the perspective of achievement. But I do think that conditioning can be very problematic. So I envy you being less competitive. What do you find of most value in religion? Well I think that sort of presumptive for me to say in a sense because I don't consider myself religious. But I think a piece of mind with otherwise what would be considered unknowns.
So frameworks for making decisions, rules that you don't have to come up with on your own and an assurance of plans or certain certainties with things like death for instance, which otherwise could be existentially overwhelming to many people. But I have to do these pilgrimages right that's wonderful but it's striking that that's your plan for the year is something almost defined by its religious nature. Yeah well they are certainly I think for some people to find the pilgrimages are defined by some by their religious nature. I find religion endlessly fascinating though I myself would not self describe as religious. And I also find that I could perhaps get many of the same benefits of doing that if I walked the Appalachian trail or one of these other long defined paths but I like the inbuilt social interactions of stopping at ins or shrines etc with pit stops along the way for reflection. So I would say that I am more a naturalist or if I wanted to stretch and somebody said you have to choose a religion maybe an animist some type. Well, Miyazaki if you love spirited away right that movie resonates with you for a reason. Yeah right that I could still find tremendous value in pilgrimage and contemplate the deep meaning that these paths have had for people during very tumultuous difficult times or times as all times are of great uncertainty. I find that I enjoy thinking about that even though I wouldn't sort of as I don't ascribe to any formal religious group. I took my daughter once to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. We had a fantastic time and the social resonance of it did truly matter for us. Yeah, absolutely and not to get too you can tear this apart feel free but I feel like there is a sort of a residue or an imprint that is made when you have thousands or millions of people traveling the same path that whether it's just a story you make yourself or otherwise I've found my experiences on those paths to be quite non-ordinary and that could get into some pretty woo-woo hand-wavy territory really quickly but suffice to say I've had very unusual experiences on some of these pilgrimage paths and I find that intrinsically interesting to explore. If you think about this interest in pilgrimages the large number of guests or people written about in your books that you relate to and then also your ability to quickly learn languages and master very idiosyncratic accents in say Spanish and German. I mean do you have a sense in your own mind of how that all fits together like what's your unified theory of you because those are three very striking things about you and maybe you've explained them somewhere that I haven't seen or heard but this is my chance so I'm asking you. Yeah, so we have the pilgrimages, we have the language learning and then the skill acquisition of sort of strange idiosyncratic eclectic things like horseback archery. But I have your book here, Tools of Titans and your other books, there's so many different people you talk to or correspond with and you manage to enter into their worlds in some way to draw them out including on your podcast of course. So that's a skill.
Language learning (01:37:00)
I appeal to images and then the language with highly idiosyncratic accents done almost perfectly I might add. Thank you for that. But it's the mix of perfect and idiosyncratic that's unusual. Yeah, I would say that if I had to come up with the unified theory of Tim I've never tried before but I'll take a stab at it and it might be very dissatisfying. And I appreciate the questions by the way. Well, this is what I've been thinking about. I think that much like you have been, had certain software perhaps since the beginning that enables you to be, to handle the world with a certain degree of equanimity. I think that my programming from the beginning has made me very sensitive to stimuli.
Topics Concerning Tyler: Sensitivity And Perception
I think that as a kid I was very, very sensitive not in the pejorative sense that I got upset about things easily but rather if I were a scale I wasn't a pound scale. My senses were more of a jewelry scale or something like that. Jewel scale, excuse me. So when I was a kid I had some terrible things happen to me and I may talk about those more on a future episode of the podcast, but suffice to say I learned to, it was safer and better to numb myself and desensitize myself operating in the world and developed a lot of habits. I think competition was one, high-paying tolerance related to that, another, that allowed me to kind of bludge in my sensitivity into submission so that I could achieve in the world. And I know this is a little long but I'll wrap it up. No, this is great. Which is, I think all of the things you described reflect a slow rediscovery and reopening of those sensitivities. And I am definitely at this point an introvert who can perform for short periods of time as an extrovert but I find it exceptionally energetically costly. I've been saying it goes introverts make the best extroverts. Yeah, yeah. Because we're not really putting ourselves out there in a way. Yeah. Whereas the extroverts, there's so much social anxiety involved with like being on camera, being taped. Yeah, totally. So I think that sensitivity would be the unifying theory. My perceptual aperture is by nature very wide. A very wide perceptual aperture. I notice things like inflection in Mandarin Chinese or inflection in Greek or Turkish or languages that I might just study for a few weeks while I'm traveling. I notice things that for whatever reason seem to only be noticed by a small percentage of say tourists in those places who are actively focusing on a language. And I can find a walk of 100 miles extremely interesting because I notice it's not dull to me precisely because I notice so many things around me. But there are environments in which if I'm noticing the details versus using these kind of 2D Simpsons-esque avatars for things, it can be very exhausting. So that's my best stab at answering your question. I very much hope you write and talk more about this because I think it would be phenomenal. Thank you for that. I appreciate it. I expect I will be writing a bit more about it.
Tyler: Fasting, Gender, Sex (01:41:18)
And what about yourself? I know I'm just reflecting back a very good question but I'd like to get some practice. What is your unifying theory? The unifying theory of Tyler? I think Tyler is quite curious, loves to collect information. I think in a way I'm more an information collector than economist or any other single thing. Very even keeled. Maybe just somehow fundamentally difficult for those reasons. Like hard to relate to. Definitely introverted. But sort of always game for the next thing. And I think what I take from religion is this Protestant notion of having a personal project that you're obligated to see through in a very serious way that I find quite American and not really found in Protestantism elsewhere. Or even kind of like the Jewish version of that.
Being INFORMED (01:42:19)
I'm not Jewish. But there's kind of a Jewish version of the American Protestant sense of obligation that I find culturally powerful and appealing. And I think not somehow being involved or engaged enough is my danger in many things. But there's a kind of thinness to myself, a kind of versatility that I can grasp onto things or work with different people or make part of a project work that make me very productive and very flexible. And I can just kind of power through and keep on going and like just not ever stop or feel the need to or need distraction. And when I do art, music, theater, whatever, to me it's all piling on. It's not escape from something I'm doing that becomes too much. It's like intensification. So that's like part of my theory of Tyler. But I'm also convinced like we never know ourselves, right? Yeah. So we really don't. And that's part of the great tragedy of life. But it also makes life interesting. Yeah. It's part of the great tragedy and also part of the great incentive to find friends you can sit with who help you to discover more of yourself or develop more of yourself. Not necessarily to compensate for being unable to know yourself completely. But being a social creature and engaging with friends more deeply is a relatively new thing in my life I would say since regaining some of the sensitivities that I'd lost. So I find in a sense the inability to know oneself completely a wonderful driver to facilitate more of those deep connections with others, at least for me. That's great. And go ahead. Go on. Oh, no, I was just going to say I hope this is just the first of more conversations.
The Unifying Theory of Tylers (01:44:20)
I was going to say exactly the same. So we are a bit more like than we thought five seconds ago. I really appreciate you taking the time, Tyler. This has been great. And I appreciate you sort of pushing at the edges a bit and making me think, which I always appreciate. I'll be thinking. And I will in turn think about this all more a great deal. And I hope you do too. I will, I will.
Additional Thoughts (01:44:45)
And people can find you at marginalrevolution.com conversations with Tyler, the podcast, which I definitely recommend people take a look at. They can find you on Twitter at Tyler Cowan. And I'll link to everything in the show notes at toom.blog/podcast for people. You can find it very easily. So anything else you would like to mention before we wrap up? Just to thank you heartily and till whenever. All right. Thank you so much. And to everybody listening and possibly watching. Thanks for tuning in. Watch out for your talismans. Work on your meta rationality. And thanks for tuning in.