Please enjoy this transcript of my second episode featuring award-winning author, journalist, and radio and TV personality Stephen Dubner, where he answers your questions. Transcripts may contain a few typos—with some episodes lasting 2+ hours, it’s difficult to catch some minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello boys and girls, munchkins and mogwais, this is Tim Ferriss and welcome to another episode of the Tim Ferriss Show. And I just realized, I don’t know if the plural of mogwai is mogwais. Maybe a fictional linguist out there can tell me what the right answer is. The Tim Ferriss Show, as you guys know, probably, maybe, is about deconstructing world class performers. In this particular episode, we have a repeat guest. That is Steven J. Dubner, perhaps best known as the co-author of the Freakonomics book series and creator of the top ranked Freakonomics radio podcast, which I had the pleasure to be on once. It is incredibly well produced.
He’s back to answer your most burning questions which I’ll get to in a minute. And he also has a new podcast that just came out that you guys should check out: Tell Me Something I Don’t Know is the name. it is a new, live event and podcast from both the New York Times and Steven Dubner.
You could think of it as equal parts game show, talk show, and brain tease. I actually had a chance to experiment with this format as a panelist alongside Malcolm Gladwell in a prototype version. It was an absolute blast. So check it out: Tell Me Something I Don’t Know. In terms of topics, he covers a lot that I’ve been asked about and he has far more experience in many of these area. There are some silly questions, like why do cats wiggle their butts before they pounce.
A lot of you submitted some pretty ridiculous but nonetheless pretty funny questions. So he covers a few of those and then jumps into podcasting and radio journalism questions about storytelling, editing, increasing the reach of your podcast, and then delves into a lot of personal and book-related questions. So the destiny, as it were, of the golf book that he was working on with his frequent collaborator Leavitt, the three books that shaped him into the person he is today, so the three books that most shaped him.
And if you want to check that out, if you only have five minutes, I would say jump to that. It’s 26 minutes roughly after the end of this intro. And does he think he can take Malcolm Gladwell in a fist fight. Then a segue to economics, so South Korea and digital currency, crypto currency; what influence does the president actually have on the economy – that’s a separate question – technologies related to or that actually are a part of VR, for instance, and how that might affect education.
And then life advice; teaching kids critical thinking, projects that you might pursue or give to your kids to get them excited about economics, etc. It is very, very rich and you can say hi to him @freakonomics on Twitter, Facebook and everywhere else. So without further ado, please enjoy this Round 2 with Stephen J. Dubner.
Stephen Dubner: Hey, everybody. This is Stephen Dubner. Thanks for sending in questions to Tim Ferriss and thanks especially to Tim for letting me take over part of the podcast today. I really appreciate it. I’m a big fan of Tim’s, as you all probably know. We’ve had him on Freakonomics Radio. We’ve had him on a podcast I did for awhile called Question of the Day, with my buddy James Altucher. Tim was also a panelist on this live version of this game show that I was developing called Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, which I’m happy to say now has been developed and it’s releasing this week as a brand-new podcast.
So I’m a big admirer of Tim’s and I really appreciate getting a chance to talk to the people like me who admire the work that Tim does. I guess there are a lot of things I like about it but the main thing is that it’s a real hybrid of empirical and inspirational, which is I think a winning blend.
The way this worked is Tim sent out a call via his Bat signals to listeners and readers of his to solicit questions for me, and I’ve got the questions. There are a lot of questions. I’ll probably only be able to answer a relatively small share of them. The questions range all over; topics from economics which I can talk about a little bit, even though I’m not an economist. My buddy Steve Leavitt is the economist part of our Freakonomics partnership but I’ve learned a little bit over the years.
A lot of questions about Freakonomics Radio, our podcast, about the Freakonomics books; all kinds of questions. So I will talk about all that and much more including, like I said, this new podcast that we’re launching right now, Tell me Something I Don’t Know. The questions range from rather substantial to less substantial. For instance, Alex Norton wanted to know:
Why do cats wiggle their butts before they pounce?
Alex, let me Google that for you.
Why do cats wiggle their butts before they pounce? It’s a way for them to get into position and brace themselves before they attack. Domestic cats hare a similar feature. Instead of grinding the ground with their hind legs, they wiggle their behind vigorously to attain balance and leverage. Kittens learn to do this from the mother cat. So Alex, by the way, do you all know the site, let me Google that for you? Because if you don’t, you should and it will save you a lot of time in the end.
Here’s a question from Marty Boyseck. This is one of several questions about podcasting, essentially, and radio journalism. I don’t know how many people really care about podcasting and radio journalism. Obviously anyone listening to this cares about it as a consumer. I don’t know about as a producer. On the other hand, there are something like between 300,000 and 350,000 podcasts being published right now. So maybe we’re at peak podcast or in podcast bubble.
I don’t know; maybe they’ll keep growing. I do know that the consumption is growing more slowly than the production. But judging from the number of questions that you guys had about podcasting, I guess that people do care so I’ll answer a few along these lines.
Marty wrote to say:
It seems like Dubner’s unique ability to tell a great story – oh, I like it; flattery – is what really adds a viral component to the deep science and typically boring economic research. How could that storification help other hard sciences or traditionally boring subjects that are really important?
Marty, here’s what I would say. First of all, thanks for the kind words; that’s nice. I agree that storytelling is incredibly important. There are many ways to argue for why that is true. I’ll give one example. One example would be what is the best-read book in the history of the world? Arguably – not even really that arguably, most people would argue that it’s the Bible.
So what is the Bible? Well, it’s a lot of things but it contains the most famous set of laws in the history of humankind, the Ten Commandments. So you would think that everybody would know those, since it’s the most famous laws in the most-read book. And yet, if you ask people, it turns out that I believe it’s about 17 percent of Americans can actually name the Ten Commandments. And a relatively large share can’t name even one of the Ten Commandments.
So lest you think that this is just a product of people having a bad memory, I should say that 17 percent can recite all Ten Commandments. A higher percent can recite either all the ingredients of a Big Mac, or all six siblings in the Brady Bunch.
So that’s pretty weird, that the most famous set of laws in the history of humankind in the most-read book of all time aren’t that well known, or at least that well remembered. So what does that indicate? I would argue, and this is just me making this argument, I would argue it indicates that we, meaning humans, really love stories and gravitate to stories.
Because what we do remember from the Bible, even people who are not religious at all, even people who have no connection to Judeo-Christian Biblical traditions at all, the stories from the Bible continue to be passed down and continue to be known and discussed and maybe not argued about; some people argue about them in either an academic or theological way, or sometimes even a political way but people know who Moses was. People know about Adam and Eve. Once you get into Christian theology, people certainly know about Jesus and the stories about Jesus despite even if they haven’t read the Bible at all.
And we could make a whole lot of other arguments about Gilgamesh and the Odyssey and on and on, and Shakespeare all the way up to maybe even including Pauley Shore, for God’s sakes. So I think that is a piece of evidence that argues that storytelling has a power that goes well beyond the sum of its parts. We actually did a podcast recently called This is Your Brain on Podcasts, a Freakonomics radio episode that looked at an amazing neuroscientist named Jack Gallant; looked at how people’s brains in an FMRI, a functional magnetic resonance imaging machine, respond when listening to stories told in a podcast, to use the Moth Radio Hour.
It turns out that the production of language happens in a relatively small part of the brain, or small area of the brain. But the consumption of language, and especially of storytelling, kind of goes all the way across the brain. And so there is a lot of argument for why storytelling is really important. So if that’s the case, what do you do about that? How do you harness that for whatever your goal is?
Marty’s question seems to be how can this help other hard sciences or traditionally boring subjects that are really important. So yeah, I think storytelling can be a big help. Whether the realm that you want to teach about or communicate about is physics, is accounting, is whatever; I think the storytelling has components that are important; factual is important; empirical is important. The thing about a lot of the academic research, so Freakonomics Radio, even though it’s sort of based or rooted in economics, the fact is we try to go way beyond economics and deal with a lot of the other social sciences; psychology, sociology and so on.
But also, especially in the last couple years, a lot of other disciplines, academic and otherwise. And I think that’s important for a lot of reasons. A) It’s fun to explore those and teach those; and B) if you think about it, a lot of the best research that’s being done in the world is being done in academic institutions. But the nature of academia being what it is, it’s kind of a little silo where the experts speak to each other, they write for each other in a language of their own for journals that only they read. And to me, that’s a shame and a drag and a waste of taxpayer and other money.
And so I’m all for taking that specialized research and knowledge and disseminating it to the public to we who want it, to we who could use it, and to we who kind of deserve it because we really do own a part of these universities.
Even private universities get a ton of taxpayer funding. So I’m all in favor of taking that big well of material and turning it into stories. Again, when I say stories, I don’t mean made-up; I mean factual, empirical, research fact-checked and so on. And that’s what we try to do pretty much every week with Freakonomics Radio. I should say this new show, Tell me Something I Don’t Know, goes even further beyond economics than Freakonomics Radio.
We’re getting ready to release the first six episodes, the first one coming out November 7, I believe, and then we’ll do one a week for six weeks. Then we’re already taping Season 2 and we’ll probably release another ten roughly March or April, something like that and we plan to do 30 a year. And what’s fun about these is even though this show doesn’t feel much like Freakonomics, it’s live. We tape it in front of a live audience.
It’s a game show where contestants from the audience get up and try to tell us some interesting fact or story about whatever, whatever the theme of the night is. Then the panelists and I discuss it. The themes we did for the first six, I’ll read them off. There’s one that’s called Strange Danger, so it’s literally about things that are dangerous that you might not think about or know about. No. 2 is called It’s Alive, so it’s about literally anything in the animal-ish kingdom.
Episode 3 is called Things That Go in Your Mouth, so food but it could be medicine, a variety of other things. Episode 4, of course, Things That Come Out of Your Mouth; language, singing, maybe vomit, you never know. Another episode called Passion Plays, about people who are passionate often beyond logic to some cause or hobby or whatever. And our sixth episode is called Fool Me Once, which is essentially about fakes and frauds of different kinds.
In each case we recruited contestants. Often, they’re academics. Honestly, a lot of them were PhDs or MDs and they tell us their stories and facts. And often, the root of their knowledge is academic; even fairly archean. But in story form, these academic or even archean stories or facts in story form, they really do enlighten you. So you kind of come away with these feeling that wow, I learned something that I never would have gone into some medical journal, or economics journal, or law review journal; I never would have gone looking for that.
But when it’s told in the right way by the right people in story form, the idea is that it makes us all a little bit smarter, yeah, smarter is good but also my argument is that the more we know, the more… I don’t know if moderate is the right word but the more that people know about the way the world really works, the less stupidity we are likely to engage in.
I’m not saying we will engage in less stupidity but we become less likely to. Now, there’s not a lot of evidence that a huge amount of exposure to knowledge and information necessarily makes the average person less stupid. In fact, there’s a lot of research that shows that the most educated people tend to hold the most extreme views on a lot of important, hot button issues. But I’m a believer in finding out as much stuff as I can and telling other people about it, because it’s exciting to share it. And that’s basically what I do as a journalist, whether in writing form or radio form or whatnot.
Here’s another question about podcasts from Stan Izlis, Islis… sorry, I’m sure I’m going to mispronounce names. By the way, he’s asking about:
Tips for editing podcasts?
One tip is in a podcast, always try to find out how to pronounce things. When you’re writing something you don’t have to know how to pronounce but often a very basic rule of podcasting is when you’re pronouncing a place or a thing or a name, you do try to go do some reporting with a primary source to figure out how you actually say it, since that’s important.
You’ll always make mistakes but it’s a good thing to try to do. So Stan wants to know top tips. Of course, I’m ignoring that advice now. I could have hunted down Stan Izlis, Islis and written to him and said how do you pronounce your name, and I didn’t. so sorry. Anyway, Stan I, we’ll call him, top tips to edit your podcast to make them shorter without losing too much valuable information. He says you cannot beat Freakonomics when it comes to quality info to length ratio.
It’s interesting you write that because I’ve been thinking a lot about whether our podcast, Freakonomics Radio especially is too long. And with the new show, Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, again we thought a lot about what’s the optimal length. And on that one, it looks like our first six episodes are all going to be in the neighborhood of 45 to 50 minutes. The problem is, we don’t have really good data on what people really want. Not that I would make that the primary driver of what we do. Because I think that when you’re creating something, you have to primarily listen to yourself and your circle of people that you think are good and smart.
If you pay too much attention to a big, sloppy feedback loop you’ll get paralyzed or you’ll try to please everybody. So first of all, I do like editing. My podcasts probably do sound the way they do in part because I’m a writer and came to this as a writer, not a talker. And as a writer, editing is hugely important. So whether it’s a book or an article or even an email, the first version is never the best. There are elements of it that are good, hopefully but editing is really important.
So my feeling on whether it’s Freakonomics Radio or Tell Me Something I Don’t Know or even Question of the Day with James Altucher or any podcast, you as the producer, even though you’re giving it to people for free, you’re not charging them anything for it; you are charging for it in that you’re asking them for their time.
There’s also advertising which they might listen to, and that’s how most podcasts make money. But if I’m asking you for 45 minutes, that’s a lot that you’re giving me. And so I feel it’s important to work as hard as I can to make the 45 minutes worthwhile. So top tips to editing to make them shorter without losing too much, it’s just like writing.
Every, single sentence, every single story, every single sound effect, whatever; you really just think is this advancing the story? Is it telling us something we don’t know yet? Is it not redundant? Does it move me? Does it interest me as a listener? There are a variety of intellectual ways to assess those questions. Then there’s also the gut check, which is when I listen to a rough cut of any episode, do I find my attention drifting? And if I do, it’s a pretty sure case, a pretty sure sign that it needs to be shorter.
So yeah, I’m pretty ruthless. I would say for every 30 minutes for Freakonomics Radio that we put out as a finished podcast, there is probably typically at least three to five hours of tape that doesn’t make the cut. So that’s the idea. One more question about podcasting. This is from Rob Moore; pretty sure I’m pronouncing that right. Rob asks what are your suggestions for growing the reach of your podcast? I think this is really simple. I think if you want to grow the reach of your podcast, you produce good and consistent content, period.
That sounds like a smart ass answer; it’s not meant to. And by good and consistent, that means a few things. Good meaning you think about it, you produce it well, you edit it well, you publish it well; all that stuff. Consistent meaning if you’re going to be a monthly, be a monthly. If you’re going to be a weekly, be a weekly. If you’re going to be a daily, be a daily. But to put one out on Tuesday and then another one out six months from now, and then four in a hurry and so on, that’s tricky.
But I really do feel that almost everything else that people talk about for growing something like a podcast, or a newsletter, or a TV show, whatever it is, I think that almost everything else that most people, especially in marketing and advertising realms talk about, almost everything else is overrated. So I think promoting your work on social media is hugely overrated. I think that marketing is hugely overrated. It’s hard to manufacture demand.
If, however, you make good and consistent content, then social media can help and marketing can help. People will be enthusaistc about finding and consuming and even promoting for you what you’re making. But it’s all about making good and consistent content. And you should try to spend 95 percent of your time doing that, and maybe 5 percent of the time worrying about growing the reach of your podcast.
That said, I asked Tim if I could come and be on his podcast to talk about this new show of mine, and to talk about whatever else because I’ve made a show, the new show, Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, not Freakonomics Radio, that we’ve worked hard on. I’ve been developing the show for five years. I care about it a lot, I like it a lot and now what I’m doing right now is not necessarily making that content any better; this is mostly about trying to expose people to it. So this is my 5 percent.
But even in doing that, I wanted to go to places that I thought were really, really good and worth it. And to me, Tim and Tim’s audience is really, really worth it because you guys have the kind of brains and ambitions and curiosities and sense of what’s interesting and what’s not, what’s worthwhile and what’s not, what’s funny and what’s not that I like. So there you go. This is part of my 5 percent.
Here’s a new section of questions that are mostly personal-ish stuff. So someone, can’t really tell what this person’s real name is; it’s got a lot of letters typed fast. So Lauren, maybe, Laurent maybe, Laurent W, maybe? He asked me:
Do I know the origin of my last name?
So yes, I do. Dubner was more typically pronounced “Doobner.” Dubners, my family, came not originally but in most recent history from a city in what’s now Ukraine called Dubno. My family is Jewish.
The Jews of Dubno and many other cities in that area were pushed out of that area when the new czar came in in I think 1881. My family and a lot of other people from Dubno ended up getting pushed up into what is now Poland, north of Warsaw in a place called Pultusk.
This also coincided with a time when not only Jews but many people were now acquiring second names because for much of history, it wasn’t like we had a first name and a last name the way we do now. And so many of the Jews who came from Dubno became Dubner. So Shepsel Dubner was my grandfather, for instance. Shepsel is a derivative of a Yiddish for if you were born on the Sabbath. So Shabbat, or Sabbath, or Shabbos, all these words that mean in different tongues, languages Sabbath, Shepsel was just kind of a tradition in that part of the world at that time.
If you were a male born on that day, that was the name. So Shepsel Dubner basically meant a guy whose family had been living in Dubno, and then this guy was born on the Sabbath. And then he was the one in my family, on my father’s side at least, that came to America. And that’s where my name comes from.
I know more than I should about this because my first book was actually an exploration of my family. My family has a strange, kind of wonderful, weird history in that both my parents, so Shepsel’s son was my father, and then my mother, both of them were kind of standard issue, Brooklyn-born Jews, first generation Americans who before they met each other, both converted from Judaism to Catholicism, which was a very strange and unusual thing. They met, they married, they had eight kids. I’m the last of eight. I grew up very, very Catholic.
But then very long story short, in my 20s I moved to New York, got curious about my parents’ Jewish roots. And I ended up returning gradually, slowly to Judaism although I’m not very religious or observant. But the traditions mean a lot to me and so that’s why I know my last name. I wrote about all of this in my first book, which was originally called Turbulent Souls and then got retitled years later as Choosing my Religion. So that’s that.
Raymond Wakawaka, which I am going to assume is not a real name – but it could be – writes to say:
What’s happening with the golf book that you guys were writing, and/or are there any new books on the horizon?
So Raymond, the golf book that Steve Leavitt and I were working on for a few years just didn’t work out the way we wanted it to. We were hoping to write a book that used essentially analytics and smart thinking to help the average golfer become quite a bit better without actually getting a little bit better.
Because here’s the problem. A lot of people love golf. Not many of them are very good. And the ones who are not very good would love to be better, but because of the nature of the game, because it’s time consuming, because it’s expensive, and because it’s difficult, most people don’t really want to spend a lot of time practicing. And if you have five hours a week to spend on golf, most people want to get out and play and not go practice chipping for two hours, putting for an hour and a half, and long game for maybe 45 minutes and then play four holes, which would probably make you a lot better over time but most people don’t want to do that.
And so we tried to do a series of experiments and analytics that would help write a kind of bible for how to make the standard golfer a lot better, like I said through strategy, through managing the game, through decision making and so on. And not going for the green in certain circumstances, putting from off the green, all kinds of specific strategic ideas. And basically, we failed. We couldn’t make people better.
So Leavitt is a pretty good golfer, really good golfer. His handicap, I don’t know what his handicap is, maybe 4, 5, 6, maybe in there. I’m much less good. Leavitt played as a kid; that’s my excuse. I took it up seriously only about five years ago. And I’ve gotten a lot better but the reason I’ve gotten a lot better is just because I practice a lot, take lessons, work on it.
And it’s not that I’ve gotten a lot better. I am about now a 12 handicap so that puts me kind of firmly in the middle of, quote, real golfers. So not very good but I love it. So yeah, that book is not going to happen at least anytime soon. We are, however, working on a new book whose completion is not guaranteed. We’re not sure if it’s going to work out at all. If it does, it will be a couple of years. And because of the nature of book writing, I’m not going to talk about it at all but we are trying to do another one.
A question from Vitoutas Allac wants to know:
What are the three books that shaped me and why?
So okay. In all honesty, I’ll say the first one was a novel called A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which is kind of a sappy novel about Brooklyn in the Depression that happened to be hanging around the house when I was a kid. I read it over and over in part because I felt it was describing to me what my parents’ life was like when they were kids.
And as I mentioned earlier, my parent had this weird conversion story from Judaism to Catholicism that they didn’t talk about very much. And again, I was the youngest of eight so by the time I was a kid, this was ancient history. And so I would read this book kind of as a secret code to what their lives were like in Brooklyn, and what their environment was like. It was like having some kind of access to their lives that in retrospect, it wasn’t very much like what their actual lives were like. But to me, it was an incredibly formative book and so it shaped me.
Another one that shaped me a lot was a book that I remember where and when I bought it. It was on a remainder table in a Barnes & Noble that was on Broadway and 74th Street, I think; maybe 73rd Street. It’s long gone.
Anyway, it was a biography by Jonathan Yardley, the very good literary critic who was at the Washington Post for many years, of Ring Lardner. Ring Lardner was a writer I liked a lot. If you don’t know his work, you could look it up. It’s very dated now but I still think amazing. He was a sports writer. I love sports writing, I love sports, I played sports. I loved, loved, loved sports as a kid. But this biography of Ring Lardner, I’d never read a biography of an author that was so warts and all. A lot of things that he did were not so great. He wasn’t a terrible guy at all but he was, whatever; he was kind of selfish and grumpy and so on.
But also it was really about what it’s like to make a life as a writer. I had just moved to New York. Up until this point, I had been a musician. So my big things in life when I was a kid were always sports and music and writing. I would have liked to become a professional athlete but that didn’t happen. I don’t know, even if I’d been in a better circumstance I don’t know if it would have happened. I was pretty good but probably in retrospect not nearly good enough.
But music was a big thing for me, and I always played music. In college, I got involved in this band called the Right Profile and we were terrible for a long time but then we got better and better; ended up getting a record deal. After a few years, moved to New York. And I remember buying the Jonathan Yardley bio of Ring Lardner during that time. I was living in New York with the band, starting to make our first record. I ended up quitting music kind of dramatically because I realized that was not the life that I wanted; to be a rock star.
Even though it would have been fun, and it was fun at a very minor level but I wanted a somewhat more stable and more anonymous life. I’d always been a writer. I loved the idea of writing. I loved the solitude, I loved the thinking and I loved Ring Lardner. And so reading this biography of Ring Lardner was to me, again, a little bit the way A Tree Grows in Brooklyn was almost a bible for a blueprint of this is what the life looks like.
And what I loved about it was it didn’t make it out to be all amazing. And I needed that shot of reality. I knew that writing for a living was going to be very, very hard work and that if I wanted to make it happen, it was a process. There were going to be a series of steps that you had to get past or succeed at, and there would be a lot of failure. So that book was hugely formative. I don’t even remember the name of the book. I think it was called Ring. So that was book No. 2 that was incredibly influential.
Book No. 3 that shaped me, if I’m being honest, it’s Freakonomics. That was a huge deal for me. The success of it and the collaboration with Leavitt, those were big. But also it was a project that as a writer has launched what for me is… It was 2003 that I first wrote about Steve Leavitt. I wrote about him because I was in the middle of a book that was kind of about economics.
I was asked if I wanted to go write about this economist Steve Leavitt at Chicago who just won this award, and I turned down the assignment several times because I knew Leavitt’s work a little bit and I knew it had nothing to do with the book I was writing. The book was about behavioral economics, behavioral finance. It was what I called the psychology of money. Which, by the way, is how I met my friend James Altucher. He was a subject in that book that I was writing at the time. So Freakonomics, I wrote about Leavitt. I found his work so interesting.
I loved writing about that kind of stuff. And that led to this collaboration where we’d do books together, and then we’d do other things kind of on our own. Leavitt does a bunch of stuff on his own; consulting and academic research. I do the podcast. Leavitt’s on there but that’s mostly my thing. So Freakonomics has been gigantic. And the collaboration with Leavitt has been gigantic.
And the amount of learning that I’ve been able to do as a writer and as a radio guy, using Freakonomics as a platform has been huge.
Every day, basically my day is to wake up and try to read something interesting, talk to interesting people, ask questions, find out stuff, figure out how things work, measure it against an empirical standard and then tell the world about it. I love it. I’ll tell you one other thing that kind of inspired me and shaped the way that I run my life, my work life, was Tavis Smiley. I really like Tavis Smiley as a broadcaster.
He does radio, he does TV, he’s written books. I found him to be a really good human. But what I discovered when I went out to California a couple times and a couple book tours to do his shows; I think he’d do radio shows and his TV show. He had this kind of complex, and he had a production company and he had this whole production setup.
The way it was set up made me realize that man, if you want to do your best work, you should really control or set up as much of your production as you can. Because that is what gives you the latitude and the leverage to do your best work. So that’s inspired me. Tavis, I’ve never even told him this and I probably should because it was really helpful. It’s a pain in the neck to set up your own production company and to do a lot of the structural work yourself.
It’s a lot easier to just have someone, a book publisher, a newspaper, a radio station, a record label, a company of some kind; it’s a lot easier for them to say hey, we’ll give you the opportunity to do X and we’ll give you Y dollars for it and you plug yourself in there. That’s a lot easier than setting up your whole, own thing. But obviously, if you’re listening to the Tim Ferriss show, you have at least a little bit of an entrepreneurial inclination. So you know the advantages of entrepreneurialism are huge, and the headache are huge.
But watching the way Tavis operated inspired me to take on some of those headaches and set up, for instance, recently my own production company to do Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, but also my production company. We certainly contribute a lot to Freakonomics Radio and everything else. And the reason is look, I’ve worked with all the institutions I just named; record labels, newspapers, TV stations, radio stations, book publishers, on and on. I’ve worked with all of them in partnership and they all try to exploit your work and your content. That’s their job.
I don’t use exploit pejoratively; that’s their job. But I think that in order for you to do things the way you most want to do them, you have to gain or keep as much leverage as you can. That doesn’t mean you don’t share the leverage. But I think it’s hugely important to understand that if you want to do your best work, whether it’s media, whether it’s technology, whether it’s manufacturing, whatever; obviously you need partners.
I always try to be the best partner I can. I always try to make a deal and make content that makes everyone better off; everyone in the partnership. But I find that for me at least, the best way to do that is to have the center of leverage, or the center of gravity, be in my court so I can say you know, I don’t think this should be a daily show or whatever. Because I think if we try to do that, I can see why that might appeal to you the partners, more profitable ultimately but the content is going to suffer.
There’s no way that this project, whatever project we’re talking about is scalable enough for it to be good on a daily level. And in order to have the right to make those kind of decisions, you have to work hard to create the structure on your own to have the leverage on your own to have that power.
Question from Daniel Rodech:
How did you meet James Altucher; what do you think makes James a good interviewer and how does that contract with your own style?
I met James when I was writing this book that I mentioned a little while ago about the psychology of money. James was the friend of a friend. I love and admire James; I think he’s an amazing human, and very unusual. He had made a ton of money and lost all of it and then some by the time I met him. So it was very… bittersweet doesn’t start to describe it. Fortunately, he’s made a lot back and lost it and made it, so he’s pretty good at that. He’s been a good friend for many years.
I ended up putting that book in a drawer, unfortunately, to write Freakonomics. But one thing that came out of it was a friendship with James. In terms of James’ style for not only interviewing on his podcast but talking to people generally, he just follows his curiosity purely and doesn’t really think about or care at all about looking smart, or cool, or whatever.
He just really, really wants to know what he wants to know. And I find that to be an incredibly attractive trait, especially if you’re doing journalism and interviewing, Steve Leavitt, my Freakonomics coauthor is very similar in his research. It takes a certain amount of I guess courage to really not care what people think about you. And I wish I had more of that. I work on it but I think James has that in spades.
Question from Lance Miller:
Do you think you could take Malcolm Gladwell in a fist fight?
I don’t think I’ve actually ever been in a fist fight but I think I could take Malcolm. He’s wiry but I’ve got a few inches and a few pounds on him. I think I could take him on. On the other hand, I think he could just outrun me. So I’m fairly fast, like I can sprint. I can do that. I’ve played sports where you sprint and I was always relatively fast. But Malcom’s a distance guy.
He still runs semi competitively a mile and more. So I think it wouldn’t get to a fist fight. Plus, neither of us.. you know, you have to take your glasses off; there’s a lot to worry about there. But thanks for the question, Lance.
Okay, here are a few questions about economics-ish stuff. From John Nun, John writes to say:
South Korea announced that they will be developing a digital currency. What are your views on digital/crypto currency and how will this development affect the dynamic of these currencies in Asia?
I don’t know about the second half, how will they affect the dynamics of the currencies in Asia. We actually did a Freakonomics Radio episode a few weeks ago called “Why Are We Still Using Cash.” I personally believe that the data argue that the more digital we get with money, the better off more people will be.
So within that, you have to say there are some people who are going to be frustrated that cash is used less. There are people who worry about privacy. There are people who worry about government intrusion. There are people who worry about the flexibility and liquidity of cash. There are people who worry about the technology of having digital money and what happens if there’s the biggest blackout in the world. These are all legitimate concerns that need to be addressed and are being addressed by places that are converting to cashless or less cash society.
But I think the advantages to having much less cash, especially big bills, is huge. One thing we discussed in the episode of Freakonomics Radio was that I believe it’s 80 percent of U.S. currency now in circulation is in $100 bills. Very few people use $100 bills in the normal course of transaction. In fact, it’s not very easy. If you give a taxi driver a $100, if you go into a grocery store and give $100, people don’t even really want them. So where all these hundreds are used?
By people who are buying and selling drugs, involved in other illicit activities, often corruption and bribery of different kinds. So it turns out that eliminating and maybe on a gradual basis rolling down the ladder the big bills probably would do a lot more good than bad. Another thing is in the U.S., people have a weird relationship with the government, we just do. And I get it. I get both sides or all sides. But I think that some of the arguments, when you hold them up to the light, are kind of silly.
A lot of the people who complain about taxation I feel are complaining about the wrong side of taxation. If you’re honest, you want good enforcement and good payment. Because the larger the tax gap is – the tax gap is the difference between what’s owed and what’s paid. The larger it is, the more the honest people are penalized. So to me, it would seem a no-brainer for everybody that’s honest, which is most people, to close the tax gap.
And one way to close the tax gap is to make it a lot harder to cheat. And one of the easiest ways to cheat is do business in cash. It’s just the way it is. So that’s another reason for going to less cash.
Peter Connolly wants to know:
What actual influence does the president have on the economy?
So Peter, I love this question. I love it. Well, narcissistically I love it because I’ve been asking this question a lot for several years. It is a subject of great debate. I dealt with this at some length in an episode of Freakonomics Radio called How Much Does the President Really Matter?
And the argument there, from talking to economists and some legal and constitutional scholars and some political scientists was not very much, especially when it comes to the economy. Because if you think about, the economy is this big, complex, dynamic system with all these inputs.
It’s influenced by all these factors, many of which are psychological, not even just purely financial. And a lot of them would seem to be largely immune to any president’s wishes. On the other hand, and we recently did another Freakonomics Radio episode called Has the U.S. Presidency Become a Dictatorship? And in some ways, this episode was a rebuttal to my own argument in that earlier episode.
And in this episode I talked to the legal scholar Eric Posner, who I find to be really brilliant, and really insightful, and a great communicator. You should read his stuff. This was based on an essay he had written for Dataless. If you Google Eric Posner, he also happens to be the son of Richard Posner who is a prolific and very well regarded intellect; a judge but also writes a lot about economics and other things. So the Posner family is worth your time reading.
So the legal scholar Eric Posner argues that due to a long an interesting history of the U.S. presidency and how its evolved a lot over time, and how it’s veered a lot away from what was conceived as the original Madisonian system of checks and balances, the presidency has attained much more unilateral power. And therefore, especially through executive decisions and legislation, that the president does now often make policy. Not necessarily unilaterally but often close to it that has a reach over huge swaths of the economy.
So to take just two specifics, healthcare and financial services, healthcare is moving towards 20 percent of GDP, I think; financial services I don’t know the number but obviously it’s huge. If you look at just those two, you could say that the president him or herself can’t really do so, so much to shape the economy in those realms.
But through legislation necessarily, or at least we like to think that that power has been constrained, if you look at the reality you see that just during the Obama administration – and this is really what the episode of Freakonomics Radio with Eric Posner deals with a lot, using executive order to make decisions and to push them. So either Obamacare nor the financial regulations and financial legislation that came out of the recession were achieved primarily through executive order. But they’ve been furthered and advanced and kind of enforced in that way
And so any way you look at it, the president has the ability to exert a lot more leverage than the founders certainly intended, partly because the Constitution is vague on this. But the point that Posner makes that’s really interesting to me is the president gets this power, has gotten this power over the years, and we like to think that the presidency is constrained by Congress and the Constitution.
But Posner’s argument is that Congress and the Constitution don’t constrain the president very much at all. The Constitution almost none, and Congress, for all that a Democratic president will complain about Republican Congress being recalcitrant in not letting them get anywhere and vice versa, it turns out that Obama did a lot that a Republican Congress did not want him to do.
And Posner’s argument is that the main constraints on a president is that he or she represents three different constituencies; the public, the country generally; the party and the executive branch. So the president is the putative leader of those three things. He’s the leader of the country, he or she is the leader of the political party, his or her political party, and he or she is the leader of the executive branch.
And here’s the way Posner puts it: trying to be the leader of these three different groups with different interests and values turns out to be an extremely difficult task. So that is what creates the larger constraints over the president. That said, I’ve been making this argument for awhile that we put way too much care and anxiety into thinking about the choice of president is so essential to everything that influences our daily lives.
And I still think that’s true. I think that the actual presidency doesn’t affect us individually very, very much. But I have come around to the idea that the president, in ways that are kind of non obvious, exerts a lot of influence over huge pieces of the economy that certainly does trickle down.
Max McFarland wants to know:
How will technologies such as VR impact education, and will students being taught through online and digital medium, how might their intelligence be affected by teaching more through online and digital media?
I like that question a lot. My thoughts on education are I guess voluminous for no good reason other than it interests me a lot. We say we care about education a lot. I don’t think we do. And when I say me, I mean kind of the body politic. We care about our own kids a lot but I don’t think we really care about education a lot. I think if we did, we’d do a lot of things in the education system that are really, really different. We’d have it be more accountable, we’d have it be more experimental, we’d have it be more empirical. Let me go back to experimental.
In answer to Max’s question about VR – virtual reality – specifically, I have no idea. I don’t predict the future because I’m as bad at it as everybody else. But I do think there are things going on in education, in education theory and in technology particularly, that are really interesting.
There’s a startup, it’s now called New Classrooms. It started out called School of One and it was a pilot project within the New York City Department of Education run by a guy named Joel Rose. And Joel Rose then took it private – I guess private – and now it’s called New Classrooms. This is just one, small example that I’m impressed with.
Their model is to go into, let’s say, a fifth-grade math classroom. What’s the standard model of education? A teacher and 20 or 30 kids in a room and some kind of chalkboard, whether it’s digital or otherwise. It’s often been said that if you went to sleep about 120, 150 years ago and woe up today, you would recognize very little about America or the rest of the world. Transportation is different, communication is different, on and on. But you’d recognize the school classroom. It’s basically the same as it was then. A bunch of kids, a teacher running things.
There’s been some innovation, some use of technology and best practices but honestly, compared to other industries – and I know it makes people nervous talking about education as an industry but boy, if you look at the funding, it certainly is. And it’s an important one because the ROI is massive. If you look at it as an industry, you see that the amount of innovation has been really, really low. So School of One, for instance, would say we’re going to take this classroom full of 30 kids.
And instead of assuming that the best way to teach all 30 is to have all of them listen, at the exact same time to the same teacher telling them the same thing; maybe that’s not optimal? What would happen if instead, we created several different modes for each of those kids to learn and engage in? Yeah, maybe the teacher is leading a group. Maybe it’s a small group lesson for kids who happen to learn well that way. Maybe some kids are learning one-on-one with a virtual tutor. Maybe some kids are in a peer-led group. Maybe some kids are using virtual reality.
Maybe some kids are doing drills on their own. School of One, now called New Classrooms, basically takes this model and every day you experiment with every kid learning the same material through different modes to see which mode that kid happens to learn best in. And then you have a test at the end of the day; that’s how you know what mode works for each kid.
And then the next day, your algorithm spits out a playlist for the following day to give each kid their own customized way of learning. It’s very dependent on technology, in a good way, I would argue. It would make the role of the teacher, I would argue, even more important although I think a lot of teachers fear that it would make them less important. And it does what to me, almost every other facet of life has done which is try to customize things to work better for you.
None of us want to walk into a store, whether it’s virtual or brick and mortar, and have a choice of one thing. Here’s a clothing store; here’s the coat we have today. Here’s the shirt we have today. Here’s the book for sale today. Here’s the podcast to listen to. We all want choice. And it’s not just about preference; it’s about how we learn and people are really different. And so I think that the more we can use technology and also just logic and data to customize to some degree the educational process, the better off we’ll be.
I think I’ve been talking for a really long time. I’m going to try to find one more question here that would be a good one to end on. We’ve been talking a little bit about education. Alright. I’ll combine a couple Here’s Christine Nesheeva and Jill Bevencraddic have questions.
I’d love to know how to best teach kids to have critical thinking and ask unusual questions?
I love that question, Christina. And Jill wants to know:
What’s a great project for seventh graders to get excited about economics?
So combining these two, first off I wills tart by saying I have no idea what’s a great project for seventh graders to get excited about economics. And I would kind of go back to my previous answer, which is that customization is really important.
And so to that end, I’m a really big believer in letting people, whether it’s adults, whether it’s in your work career, whether it’s people obviously in their consumer choices but even in education, I’m a big believer in letting people find the topics that they’re fascinated by, almost addicted do and then urge them to channel that fascination into learning a lot of different things using that topic, or using that fascination.
One thing that strikes me as weird about school and the way we still do school is we require every kid to be involved for many years in every subject: art, phys ed, math, English, history. And obviously, you want to have everybody have a certain core base. But almost nobody is good at all of these things. And the result of being almost inevitably really bad at one or two is just to make you kind of hate the process or make many people hate the process, especially boys.
Boys don’t do very well in primary education often because there’s just too much funneling and channeling your interest and your attention into things that are not interesting or don’t hold your attention. And then of course we blame them, which I think is crazy. So I do think it’s great if you can, like I said, lead people to find a topic or a curiosity that is legit, that’s organic for them and then use that to learn a lot about the rest of the world.
If you’re a good teacher, if you’re a good parent, or just a good adult, a thoughtful person, you can find a way to learn about so many different elements, so many different disciplines within one thing. I’ll give an example. My son who’s now 16, he doesn’t like school very much. He does pretty well in some subjects and not so well in others. It’s just not a great fit. I don’t think he’s ever going to be a great school student. On some dimensions, he’s really, really smart and on some dimensions he’s really, really interested. And so I do try to encourage him.
His big obsession for the past five, six years has been football – soccer; what we in America call soccer, which he calls football because he’s kind of a snob that way. He reads a lot. Most of the books he reads for fun are about football. Most of the journalism he read… he keeps up with politics and stuff I think pretty well for a 16-year-old kid. He does it a lot through comedy, by the way; Jimmy Fallon, Jimmy Kimmel, Colbert.
That’s the way he gets a lot of his news, which I think is not a terrible way to get your news. Because I don’t know if comedy about the news is actually any funnier than a lot of the real coverage about the news, personally. So I’m personally pretty good with that. But then with football or soccer, also he and I do – it’s gotten more occasionally lately; it was more regular for awhile – a podcast about him basically teaching me what he called footie for two.
The amount you can learn about the world through something like football about economics, and politics, and language, and society generally, and how the media operates; if you follow football closely as he does, you can learn all of this. And it’s about as global as it gets. So that’s what I would say to Christina and Jill and anyone who’s looking for ways to – quote – teach kids to have critical thinking, ask unusual questions, or what’s a great project to get seventh graders excited about something.
Try to find an organic excitement and then develop that, and let it go as deep and wide as you can. For me as a kid, the channels, the topics that I learned about the world through were sports, which led to just you learn lot about a different things; personality stuff, political stuff, on and on. Music, I love but back then especially, there was less real good information about. But to me, the hobby that I did, which was super nerdy or whatever but I loved was stamp collecting.
When I was a kid collecting stamps, I didn’t do it as a learning exercise, I did it for whatever reason; I thought it was really fun to collect different pieces of colored paper from around the world. I just thought it was fun. I liked the organizing principle. I liked hunting them down. But I learned way more about the world through stamp collecting than I ever learned through geography or even world history.
I learned about economics, I learned about royalty, I learned about political upheaval, I learned about art; all this stuff through this thing that I happened to love. So look, the fact that you are listening to the Tim Ferriss show indicates to me that you are a person who is deeply passionate about something beyond having fun and getting pleasure out of life. Don’t get me wrong, I think having fun and getting pleasure out of life are hugely important, and they’re really what drive us at the end of the day.
But I think the fact that you’re listening to this also indicates that you have a real burning passion for something either vocational, or career-wise, or creative, or artistic.
And I think the more honest you can be about doing what you love because you love it, and then try to harness and leverage that love. It’s really hard to work hard on something you don’t love and that you’re not passionate about. I think a lot of us, especially early in our careers, we try to fake it, try to persuade ourselves: oh yeah, I really want to go into investment banking because I think it’s really interesting to get in there and learn about how companies work.
Then you see a lot of people in fields like that where they go into them early and you find that really what they wanted was they wanted to make a lot of money, which is fine; money is hugely important. But you find that the passion doesn’t match your energy. And so I think if you can align your passion and energy, you will work so hard and do so well that you’ll become successful without even really noticing you’re becoming successful because you’re just doing it; you’re just doing your thing.
So Tim, thanks for having me. Tim Ferriss Show listeners, thanks for having me. I do hope you’ll keep up with the work I do.
You can follow Freakonomics stuff at Freakonomics Twitter and Facebook. The new show that I’m really excited about, if you couldn’t tell, is called Tell Me Something I Don’t Know. I’m hoping to get Tim back on it as a panelist soon. I guess that’s all I have to say. It’s been a real pleasure and a privilege, and I loved the questions and I very much appreciate the opportunity to come talk to all of you. Cheers.
Posted on: June 6, 2018.
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Who was interviewed? Here's a very partial list: tech icons (founders of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Craigslist, Pinterest, Spotify, Salesforce, Dropbox, and more), Jimmy Fallon, Arianna Huffington, Brandon Stanton (Humans of New York), Lord Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Ben Stiller, Maurice Ashley (first African-American Grandmaster of chess), Brené Brown (researcher and bestselling author), Rick Rubin (legendary music producer), Temple Grandin (animal behavior expert and autism activist), Franklin Leonard (The Black List), Dara Torres (12-time Olympic medalist in swimming), David Lynch (director), Kelly Slater (surfing legend), Bozoma Saint John (Beats/Apple/Uber), Lewis Cantley (famed cancer researcher), Maria Sharapova, Chris Anderson (curator of TED), Terry Crews, Greg Norman (golf icon), Vitalik Buterin (creator of Ethereum), and nearly 100 more. Check it all out by clicking here.