Tyler Cowen on Rationality, COVID-19, Talismans, and Life on the Margins (#413)

Tyler Cowen

“If you need to measure, you’ve failed.”
— Tyler Cowen

Professor Tyler Cowen (@tylercowen) has a personal moonshot: to teach economics to more people than anyone else in the history of the world—and he might just succeed. In addition to his regular teaching at George Mason University, Tyler has blogged every day at Marginal Revolution for almost 17 years, helping to make it one of the most widely read economics blogs in the world.

Tyler cocreated Marginal Revolution University, a free online economics education platform thats reached millions. He is also a bestselling author of more than a dozen books, a regular Bloomberg columnist, and host of the popular Conversations with Tyler podcast, where he examines the work and worldviews of thinkers like Martina Navratilova, Neal Stephenson, Reid 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.

Please enjoy!

You can find the transcript of this episode here. Transcripts of all episodes can be found here.

Listen to the episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Overcast, Stitcher, Castbox, Google Podcasts, or on your favorite podcast platform. You can also watch the conversation on YouTube. 

#413: Tyler Cowen on Rationality, COVID-19, Talismans, and Life on the Margins

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What was your favorite quote or lesson from this episode? Please let me know in the comments.


Want to hear an episode with someone who consumes books as voraciously as Tyler? Check out my interview with Patrick Collison, the CEO of Stripe, in which we discuss being raised free-range,” Ethiopian televisions, speedier decision-making, the siren song of high praise, Greek-speaking monks, worldview development, and much more. (Stream below or right-click here to download.)

#353: Patrick Collison — CEO of Stripe


  • Connect with Tyler Cowen:

Marginal Revolution | Conversations with Tyler | Twitter


  • Who is Tyler Cowen? [07:40]
  • How does Tyler pronounce “economics,” and why is the subject his teaching vehicle of choice? What is he really trying to convey? [09:14]
  • Tyler says that economics is parasitical on anthropology. What does he mean by this? [10:44]
  • What did playing chess for money teach young Tyler? [11:40]
  • What is meta-rationality? [12:57]
  • As a self-confessed hyperlexic, how does Tyler think about parsing information and sources around something like the current COVID-19 coronavirus news? [13:48]
  • How can one cultivate the ability to remain meta-rational during times of duress or panic? [15:51]
  • How does Tyler use Twitter Search as a truth-generating mechanism? [17:36]
  • A question Tyler likes to ask people is: “What is it you do to train that is comparable to a pianist practicing scales?” What does he mean by this, and how does he practice his own scales? [18:35]
  • What fiction books might Tyler recommend to people — particularly the nonfiction purists among us — who haven’t read fiction in a while? [20:49]
  • Tyler often listens to what he considers complex music in an effort to “forestall mental laziness.” What does he consider complex music? [21:36]
  • What does Tyler’s daily writing practice look like, and how does he find a way to integrate email into the process in an enriching — rather than a distracting and time-sucking — way? [22:47]
  • What symptoms might indicate that Tyler’s writing has strayed into undesirable territory? [25:43]
  • How does Tyler compose first drafts? [26:49]
  • Elaborations on two of Tyler’s 12 Rules for Life. [27:46]
  • Putting into practice the rule to “Learn how to learn from those who offend you,” what has Tyler learned from Nobel laureate Paul Krugman? [28:58]
  • What former position or belief has Tyler changed his mind about lately? What are his next steps to better understanding the situation’s complexities? [30:21]
  • What percentage of Tyler’s writing makes it to a published state — online or otherwise? [33:32]
  • Tyler spent a dozen years or so only watching television in Spanish (and sometimes still does). What does he find to be the benefits of cultivating languages — and wrapping his brain around concerns expressed — outside of his native English? [34:12]
  • In his book The Complacent Class, Tyler posits that our society has become stagnant and overly cautious. What does he believe we can do on an individual level to break this pattern? [36:31]
  • A major decision Tyler made that has had a positive impact on his life, and the framework that led to his commitment to blog daily for the past 17 years. [39:26]
  • What was the positive feedback loop on the daily blogging experience that kept Tyler going for years before it started really gaining traction? [41:47]
  • While the readership of Marginal Revolution has remained strong in a post-blogging world, Tyler now hosts a podcast called — appropriately enough — Conversations with Tyler. What can a first-time listener expect from a typical episode, and what does Tyler gain from doing this show for free? [42:34]
  • Immersing himself fully in the works of his subjects before interviewing them on his podcast, how did Tyler prepare for Neal Stephenson, an author famed for his resistance to the confines of brevity? How challenging was this prep in comparison to prep for other guests? [44:25]
  • Tyler shares some insight into how he’s preparing for future guest Emily St. John Mandel, the Station Eleven novelist who coincidentally wrote about a very topical subject: pandemics. [46:47]
  • While he is a voracious reader, why is Tyler hesitant to recommend specific books to people? What does he try to encourage instead? [47:53]
  • What resources might Tyler suggest to someone who wants to cultivate their meta-rational muscles? [49:54]
  • Aside from blogging and podcasting, what other projects is Tyler working on at the moment? [52:21]
  • Since starting the podcast, what has Tyler learned about the art of interviewing? [53:20]
  • “Browser tabs don’t lie.” What are Tyler’s open browser tabs right now? [56:31]
  • What are Tyler’s meta-rational thoughts on the current coronavirus news? With so much disparate information coming in from an overwhelming number of sources, how does he increase the resolution on these puzzle pieces to get a clearer idea — rather than an incomprehensible distortion — of the big picture? [57:10]
  • While following this particular news cycle, what sources does Tyler consider to be reliable and level-headed? [1:01:12]
  • With so many projects already on the table, why did Tyler choose to create Emergent Ventures? How does it differ from other philanthropic efforts being made today, and what promising ventures has it bolstered so far? [1:02:29]
  • What would Emergent Ventures’ success look like to Tyler? [1:05:32]
  • What are some of the most controversial views or perspectives Tyler currently holds? [1:06:25]
  • Does Tyler have any favorite failures that contributed to his current success, or has he enjoyed a lifelong lucky run of even-keeled progress? [1:07:51]
  • If Tyler considers himself in a consistent range of “weirdly never unhappy,” does he ever have feelings that he prefers not to feel that come to mind? [1:10:43]
  • Does Tyler have resources or advice for people who might seek to exist somewhere along his “weirdly never unhappy” spectrum? Is it as easy as adopting some kind of talisman — and if so, is there anything wrong with that? Does Tyler have his own talismans? [1:11:57]
  • How does Tyler choose guests for his podcast? Who’s on his wishlist? [1:16:58]
  • Has Tyler taken on any new behaviors or habits that have had a nontrivial impact on his life? [1:18:15]
  • How has a commitment to being kinder played out for Tyler, and why did this become a priority? [1:19:22]
  • What would Tyler’s billboard (or widely-broadcast message) say? Who would be his target audience, and why might this seem an odd choice for someone who considers himself an agnostic leaning toward atheism? [1:21:05]
  • Tyler asks me a few questions. First up: how do I restore lost focus? [1:25:29]
  • Do I think cold exposure is partly a placebo or talisman, or do I think it works on a more quantifiable level? [1:27:03]
  • Do I fear ending up in an equilibrium where I say no to too many things, and if so, how do you avoid this? [1:28:11]
  • Do I worry that too many of my friends are highly successful people? [1:30:19]
  • Tyler and I share some of our favorite movies, and I mark the therapeutic value of film and fiction to people who are prone to depression and hyper rumination. [1:32:29]
  • If I could take a year off from all responsibilities, how would I choose to spend it? [1:35:21]
  • How much are Tyler and I alike versus being different? [1:36:51]
  • As someone with an interest in traveling the historical routes of pilgrims, what do I find of most value in religion? How do pilgrimages, language-learning, and skill acquisition all fit into what Tyler calls the “unified theory” of me? [1:40:09]
  • What is the unified theory of Tyler? [1:49:15]
  • Parting thoughts. [1:52:11]


The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 900 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.

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42 Replies to “Tyler Cowen on Rationality, COVID-19, Talismans, and Life on the Margins (#413)”

  1. Re: Your 5 Bullet Friday e-mail that suggests to respond in your blog.

    I appreciate that you are trying to collect rational information on the COVID-19 virus to display, and it would be hard to not mention it in some way since it’s very public right now.

    However, this continual focus on collecting a list of worst-case scenarios is starting to edge toward unintentional fear-mongering.

    I know that the human brain wants to collect all available information, and demands negative information to assess threats, but I strongly believe that the human mind is not designed or can consume the worst possible situations of an entire planet, routinely, in a healthy manner.

    In my view we’re made to assess immediate threats, and you can certainly argue that COVID-19 could be an immediate threat to the whole planet. But at the same time, if the media put out an hourly update of the common flu (which I just got over and didn’t die from) and deaths involved from it, the average person would never leave the house again.

    I very much respect you and your work and have for years, but if my weekly e-mails from you are the equivalent of taking an ice-cold fear bath once a week going forward, I’m going unsubscribe and distance myself from you. That’s not how I care to spend my limited time on Earth.


  2. Just read your 5BF, another large scale conference that has not canceled is Con-Agg Expo in Vegas still slated to go on next week. We decided (our company) to pull out of attending this one. Super bummed as this conference only occurs every 3 years, but also feeing relieved not to be in a major city surround by people who will be coming from all over the world.

  3. Also regarding the 5-Bullet Friday email: thank you. While I agree with Alex here that the media is hyping this, I’m glad to read these viewpoints, as it makes me less frivolous in my *mindset*. This does need to be taken seriously. Quite so.

  4. Love reading you 5-Bullet Friday!!

    Re COVID-19:

    I have turned off the news, because I can no longer listen to the hype/exaggerations.

    I caution everyone I talk to about all the comparisons that are running around. The Spanish flu infected 500M people, and killed between 17M and 100M. Remember, most of the dead from the Spanish flu were from pneumonia or other subsequent bacterial infections 30 years(!!) before penicillin was readily available.

    So far in the US 11 dead AO 3/5/20. This flu season has already killed 125 children as is estimated to kill around 18,000. A bad flu season will kill up to 36,000. You have less of a chance to die of COVID-19 than — the flu, pneumonia, a car accident, heart disease, cancer, stroke… None of these news stories sell advertising or can light your hair on fire the way COVID-19 can today.

    We all need to keep some perspective…

    1. I agree completely. The entire thing is way out of proportion compared to the majority of dangers in the world, including something as simple and obvious as regularly eating at one of the thousands of places that are being sold to us as actual food.

      Living is dangerous and ultimately fatal. It does not do anyone’s mind any favors to have every single possible threat pumped out to them on an hourly basis with the worst possible results prominently listed each time. This breeds crazy, depressed, and anxious human beings, i.e. the modern American youth. (Which is more a comment on the media in general, versus Tim’s one e-mail.)

    2. The media may be guilty of hyping what they currently report – but the situation in Iran is possibly ten to 100 times worse than the official figures being reported in the media.I’m not that worried about catching COV19 but I am worried about transmitting it to other people, particularly my 84 year old mother, and for that purpose I wish to inform myself as much as possible. I don’t know where you get the idea that Pneumonia is primarily bacterial and especially during the Spanish Flu – so I don’t see how penicillin would have helped for the majority of those cases. One of the reasons a NY Osteopathic hospital only had a 0.25% mortality rate compared to the 30-40% mortality in other hospitals was because they did not advocate aspirin to reduce fevers, the other was that they did manual treatment to help people breathe better. So you see, it is important to discuss these things and learn more.

  5. Well, sorry to get away from the COVID-19 theme in the comments, but the last quarter of this podcast may be my absolute favorite time spent listening to your show. Having Tyler ask you some really unique questions and hearing your dialogue as “unrehearsed Timmy” was an absolute joy. How serendipitous!

  6. Well it seems I’m far from the first to be replying to your 5BF post lol But here we are!

    All I wanted to say was to check out a post by a YouTube channel called Extra Credits who did a 6 part short video series on the 1918 “Spanish Flu” pandemic back in 2018 that’s worth a watch as it’s understandably getting rewatched in this Coronavirus period we’re experiencing. Thanks for all you do, Tim!

  7. Excellent podcast! I felt the conversation took on a brighter tone when Tyler started asking the questions for some reason. Sounded like the rapport building rapidly bloomed at that time as well. Would be great to hear about your Kumano Kodo trail experience in the future.

  8. Hi Tim,

    I’m a longtime follower, but have never commented. I have seen the reports about the cancellation of SXSW and how it will affect many small creators. Why not make an online version of it this year. They could charge for tickets or better yet make it free for everyone to see these films and performers. Links could be created to sell merchandise or to support their favorites.

    Thanks for all you have done, you inspire me daily.

  9. Dear Tim.

    Having read all of your books and listened to all of your podcasts this one was unique… It did not strike me as an easy podcast for you. Your ability to sit with discomfort during the interview is really quite impressive and similarly your candour at very difficult and probing questions from Tyler was exceptional.

    I do hope you write about some of the things you mentioned as you have a quiet army of supporters on the internet and I hope you allow this man to interview you fully in the future.

    all the best


    (PS – to the moderators, a link to some of the interviews Tim has given on other podcasts would be very interesting and useful to some of his fans)

  10. My favorite part of the podcast with Tyler Cowen came at the end when Tyler asked questions of Tim. I was taken in by his earnestness and sincere curiosity. My favorite topic was about pilgrimages and how Tim said they hold a “residue” that can lead to amazing, unexpected, and somewhat “woo woo” moments. It made me think pilgrimages might be safe containers for people as they navigate through pivotal points of growth in their lives. Sort of a cocoon where chrysalis can take place. We don’t typically have enough time and space in our lives to allow moments conducive to integration and wholeness. But I think that’s what we’re seeking when we embark on these types of journeys, whether they be the Camino de Santiago or the Appalachian Trail.

  11. Hi Tim,
    Kese ho? I am writing this letter to thank you for the work you have done and how they have affected my life. The way of work-life balance and your “4 hours workweek” have inspired me a lot. Though there is a lot to implement and I am still learning.

    A few years back I was diagnosed with BP and was struggling in my life, lost my job into alcohol and drugs, your book and podcast saved me, and gave me a purpose in life. Thanks for being there for me when I need someone the most.

    Hope we can meet someday and discuss.

    You are my hero.

    Thanks and Regards,
    Your Fan and little brother.

  12. I’m been listening to your podcasts for awhile, never commented. In general I enjoy them, but this one struck me as very unusual. It was somewhat aggravating to listen to! So much so that I felt a need to leave a comment.
    Your repeated questions about how he interviews people are really only relevant to YOU. I get that you ask questions that you find interesting, in the hope that others would as well, but that is really a narrow area for most listeners. Additionally all his habits about writing, blogging, are relevant only to YOU. If you want to ask him about that, great, do it offline, it really is not interesting to listen to.
    This guy has a lot to say about economics, and in the first hour there was nothing about it. He is somewhat controversial as well, so why not get into that — what about Paul Krugman does he disagree with? He mentioned that at the start and you let is go… Even his responses about corona virus were so generic as to be totally not interesting.
    Someone else noted here that you seemed uncomfortable, but I’m not sure why. Not getting into the meat of what he does, and not even getting interesting answers.
    Sorry, usually you’re better than this! Maybe it was the guest, I cant really tell because I got very little out of it.

    1. Note that the ketogenic diet used in this study also had a 60% reduction in protein intake which was not discussed…

  13. Was it just me or did Tyler come off as extremely evasive in the beginning? I agree with past comments that the last 15mins when Tyler was asking the questions to Tim was the best part of this episode. Aside from Tyler completely missing the point of the billboard question, I did like his “what tabs do you have open on your browser” question and one that I’ll be stealing in the future.

  14. I wonder if I am alone on my consternation with Tyler’s view of religion being a net positive. His rationale was the weakest points he made in the conversation (IMVHO). I would have loved to see some digging into why we need to have bigger families, why more religion is better for management of substance abuse than education or other interventions. Why we should abandon search for truth to accept local religiosity makes no sense to my feeble brain. I would have loved a deeper exploration since it seemed so incongruous with other points Tyler was making.

  15. I am from Singapore and one of the first few countries being hit with the virus. Singapore government has done a great job and is well equipped and prepared to handle this virus. Having said that, we will be totally overwhelmed if we have a large outbreak like Italy or Korea. One of the key thing is that everyone has to been aware and be socially responsible. Many people will do self quarantined if they feel that they might bring risks to others. Case in point, my friend was traveling in Iran and crossed over to Azerbaijan a day before it closed its borders. They put all the foreigners in a building and started testing them, he was tested negative. But some foreigners were upset at being holed up and created a riot which led to all of them being deported. He self quarantined for 2 weeks after arriving in Singapore despite being tested negative and no evidence of the virus. Such is what is needed. Be responsible and considerate, don’t put others at risks.

  16. Minute 22:35. In an otherwise intelligent discussion on complex music, Tyler Cowen offers this lazy thought with his conjecture: “I wonder if [Hand Percussion in Indian Classical music] is not related to Indian Pre-eminence in the world of tech.”

    In a discussion based on facts, this is speculation. Is Sundar Pichai or Satya Nadella expert at classical Indian percussion?

  17. Really enjoyed this chat, especially the questions fired back. Could also really relate to the fiction books and the ruminating mind. That is why Dune is the best fiction series in the known universe. 😛

    The reason I clicked on it in the first place was because I was hoping it was related to Jeremy Rifkin’s Zero Marginal Cost Society. It didn’t, but thought that would be a good reason to leave a comment. Maybe you had never heard of him or so and I, among others, would love to listen to a Tim interview with him.

    Also thanks for the John Hopkins links because the country where I live wants to pretend that this is no reason to be alarmed in any way further than not shaking hands.

    Best regards,
    Lucy (in Delft, NL) aka Vermeer Land 🙂

  18. Great conversation as usual. Specially agree with his point of view of obtaining information from a variety of sources in a variety of languages and on that note here is a Coronavirus worldwide view from Brazil which I, as a Brazilian/American, find Brazil better prepared than the US to deal with healthcare for its population. http://plataforma.saude.gov.br/novocoronavirus/

  19. Hi Tim,

    Loved this episode and your episode with Tyler Harris. Main take away for me: 1. Don’t take life or myself to seriously 2. Think seriously about where to put my attention (I used your advice re: turning off most alters on my phone and computer allows me to have higher focus during the day) 3. Meta-rationality is fun

  20. Hi Tim, I am from Singapore where we have the highest infected rate when this virus was spreading around early Feb. I believe Singapore and Hong Kong is among the first countries where we made the news when there was panic buying of toilet rolls. If I compare the situation now and then, I can say human are highly adaptable creature. The crowd in the mall are coming back and there are lesser people wearing mask now. But one thing for sure, there are a lot more people using sanitizer.

    I have concluded early on to avoid going crowded place because I know I may be virus free, but you never know the person you come in contact is clean. Although there are 166 cases in Singapore, most of the cases are from known clusters. The spread are caused by a few person who attend large crowd events or still goes to work when they are not well. This prove that isolation is still one of the best method to avoid getting infected.

    Another observation is that this virus is spread by pride. If you follow the news from the start, you will notice that there was whistle blower back in December, but the government catch up with him and “asked” him to keep quiet. Sadly he was infected and die. There was also top hospital Director “Expert” who went to national TV and said this virus was preventable and curable. People believed him and the spread went out of control.

  21. We live in a new era of social media news mongering which has a panic-driven downside but also an amazing upside in the ability to share and track information. What seems perennially in short supply is a good grasp of basic biological science, particularly in regard to understanding a new organism like Covid-19. Also, 2020 represents a moment of unparalleled progress in biotech and it’s certain we will see an array of treatments, antivirals, pseudo-vaccines (Regeneron), and an eventual vaccine emerge sometime in 2021. Until then, the key question is “how big does this pandemic get?” That is not impossible to rationally estimate given the data we already have. Covid-19, like any virus, really only has one inexorable purpose, which is to reproduce thus ensuring an evolutionary presence in the biome. Grant Sanderson, mathematics nerd from Stanford does a fantastic job in a short video of visualizing what “exponential viral growth” means and why we should expect to see millions of people infected with Covid-19 over the next few months, regardless of any quarantine or political interventions. “How big does this get?” It’s just about math. SEE: https://youtu.be/Kas0tIxDvrg

  22. Regarding the email with 5-bullet Friday and an additional fun email, I just want the fun stuff! That is why I initially signed up for the 5-bullet Friday. I don’t know if I picked up on the vibe that its a chore, but maybe the novelty just wore off? It’s not the only “newsletter” I’m subscribed to that I no longer read.

  23. Tim, while I started listening to you while you were back in the Bay area, I really tuned in more closely when you settled in my home town. This episode with Tyler Cowen has been the biggest surprise for me. What I got out of it vs what I “expected” was over the top. Not a fair statement, as I never really know what to expect with you – which I love!

  24. Dear Tim,
    I work for an Italian bank and we need to contact all our clinets per email.

    We have some problems to send a high number of email at the same time but we need to be as fast as possible in contacting them.

    I know you have grate experience on this topic, can you share with us any useful advice.


  25. re: 5 bullet friday

    from one artist to another —
    Regarding ping pong — Can I recommend instead meshing this newfound free time w/your previous inclination to want to make art again??? Hate to see you getting all pingypongy instead of sketching. You don’t need an art mentor, or lessons or a strategy, just a pencil, ideally an eraser and piece of paper. F ping pong.

  26. I’m very familiar with Tyler’s work, and appreciated him pushing back a bit on some of your questions. His interviewing style is very specific and direct, so this was no surprise to me. I’ve never seen a Tyler interview where he’s repeated questions.

    My one wish is that you had been more concise in your delivery; there were times when your question was very obviously understood, yet you kept expanding on the question. It comes across as though you’re questioning the intelligence of the guest when you’re adding filler content and “checking” to see if they get it. If they don’t understand, they’ll look to clarify.

  27. Excellent! Excellent! Excellent! What a brilliant conversationalist Tyler and a difficult one to keep up with for an interviewer. Tim was absolutely on par as always. Good fun to listen to these two. Thanks!!

  28. Hey Tim, I love you and I love your podcast. I think you should limit the advertising right now. It’s cheap on a podcast about COVID 19.

  29. Great podcast and proof again you should always take a listen to some one you disagree with. As a Jr. Economist I am not really of fan of his neoliberal/libertarian economics or his blog. I would say now I am a fan of his methods of thought and daily practices. I shout out too for recommending Indian Classical music which is mind blowing. I am a musician and been studying it for 40 years and still have not scratched the surface of it.

    Thanks for warning people about this pandemic early Writing this 3/22 40,000 case in US with bad testing and 400 dead in the USA. Stock market collapse and looking at a 5-8 year recession. It’s no joke and you did not over hype it. ( I was following it Jan 30th and made precautions and knew it was going to blow up)

  30. I find many of the podcasts that I don’t know the person or am not particularly interested in the subject matter to be the ones that I enjoy the most. This was one of those. As I am sure many will report, I quite thoroughly enjoyed at the end when Mr Cowen asked Tim questions. There was a quality in Tim’s voice that I hadn’t heard before. Not quite sure what but perhaps as though he was being tested. Very worthwhile use of 2 hours.

  31. I wonder what survival information did Tyler glean from The Bible, Shakespeare’s plays and „Scenes from a Marriage“?

    According to Brian McDonald stories are important because they contain survival information. Not only physical survival information, but also emotional, psychological, cultural or spiritual survival information.

    Brian McDonald is a screenwriter, director, and producer. If you want to dig deeper read his book „Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate“ or listen to the „You Are a Storyteller„-Podcast [Moderator: link removed.]
    My favorite movie is „The Matrix“. It is about growing up and for me the survival information is „Stop being ego-centered; instead dedicate your live to something bigger“. Which is exemplified in the pivotal moment, when Neo decides to save Morpheus.

  32. Hi, Tim-san. A huge fan of your podcast. Thanks for mentioning Kumano Kodou (熊野古道) during the conversation. I did part of the path last year, and it’s so beautiful. Also a suggestion for pilgrimage: Shikoku Pilgrimage path. I haven’t done this yet, but it’s supposed to be one of the best & most challenging in Japan. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shikoku_Pilgrimage
    Keep up the good work!