Please enjoy this transcript of my interview with Russ Roberts (@EconTalker), the president of Shalem College in Jerusalem and the John and Jean De Nault Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution. Russ is interested in making complicated ideas understandable. He founded and hosts the award-winning weekly podcast EconTalk: Conversations for the Curious, with more than 800 episodes available in the archives. Past guests include Christopher Hitchens, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Lewis, Angela Duckworth, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb. His two rap videos on the ideas of John Maynard Keynes and F.A. Hayek have more than 13 million views on YouTube.
His latest book, Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us, explores the challenges of using rationality when facing big life decisions. He is also the author of Gambling With Other People’s Money, How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life, The Price of Everything, The Invisible Heart, and The Choice.
Transcripts may contain a few typos. With many episodes lasting 2+ hours, it can be difficult to catch minor errors. Enjoy!
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Tim Ferriss: Hello, boys and girls, ladies and germs. This is Tim Ferriss. Welcome to another episode of The Tim Ferriss Show. My guess today is Russ Roberts. I’ve wanted to have Russ on the show for a very long time indeed. Russ Roberts is the president of Shalem College in Jerusalem and the John and Jean DeNault Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution.
Roberts is interested in making complicated ideas understandable. He founded and hosts the award-winning weekly podcast EconTalk, one of my favorites, Conversations for the Curious, with more than 800 episodes available in the archives, which I believe began in 2006, back in the Pliocene Era, one of the pioneers. Past guests include Christopher Hitchens, Martha Nussbaum, Michael Lewis, Angela Duckworth, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, among many others.
His two rap videos, believe it or not, on the ideas of John Maynard Keynes and F.A. Hayek have more than 13 million views on YouTube. I highly recommend both. I just watched them again, I would say an hour ago just prior to getting warmed up for this conversation. His latest book, Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us, explores the challenges of using rationality when facing big life decisions. He’s also the author of Gambling with Other People’s Money: How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life, The Price of Everything, The Invisible Heart, and The Choice. You can find all things Russ Roberts at russroberts.info and on Twitter you can find him @EconTalker. Russ, welcome to the show.
Russ Roberts: Great to be here, Tim.
Tim Ferriss: I thought we would begin with, perhaps, an oblique entry point, and that is a post you wrote, which was a eulogy for your father. I’d like to read just a bit of it if I could do that. It’s not going to take terribly long, but here goes.
“I sometimes think that my dad really could have been a minor American poet or a more renowned storywriter if he had spent less time with his children and grandchildren. The tradeoff was easy for him.
“He chose us.
“He had many talents. Being a father was the talent he chose to cultivate.”
That’s one of the lines I’m going to come back to.
“All of us who survive him, his good wife, his children and his grandchildren, are so lucky that we had him for so long.
“So If you want to honor my father’s memory, spend more time with your children. Or your parents. Or those you love. For Dad, quality time demanded quantity time. It’s harder than it seems. So many things, more tangible, more alluring, with more immediate returns, call for our attention and distract us.”
I was hoping you could just expand a bit on what it looked like, what it meant for your father to choose being a father as the talent he wanted to cultivate. And then the quality time demanded quantity time. As I think about kids, I don’t have any yet, this is of interest to me.
Russ Roberts: My dad died two years ago, roughly. He was 89 years old, born in 1930. I actually would start with the point about distraction because I think it’s about more than parroting. Life goes by so quickly and we let it. Somebody pointed out, might have been Ryan Holiday, I think, “When you’re on your deathbed, what would you give for one more day with someone you love? One more ice cream cone, one more sunset.” It’s really trite, but it’s not trite at all, actually. It’s incredibly essential to a life well lived. And there’s a beautiful song about it called “May I Suggest,” which I recommend profoundly, is encouragement to pay attention. And so we often don’t. We miss the sunset or we see it and we’re too busy texting or we eat the ice cream cone and we’re talking while we’re eating it. We’re hardly noticing it’s going down. It’s compulsive.
I think parenting, but more than parenting, life requires paying attention. And I would say my dad was one of the least meditative people who was born in 1930. There weren’t that many of them, to be honest. It’s a more recent phenomenon, but my dad had zero — I went on three silent meditation retreats while he was alive. And he found that utterly bewildering. So he was not a meditator, but he understood somehow that principle about paying attention to what’s important. And what was important to him was us, his children and his wife and his family. As I said, he used to complain. He said, “It’s terrible. God gave me such a big soul and so little talent. I have so much to say, and I can’t say it.”
He wanted to be a poet. He wrote lots of poems, many of them pretty good. He liked a few of them. And his joke really was — you read the line, but the joke was, he’d like to be a minor American poet. Didn’t want to be Robert Frost or Edna St. Vincent Millay. He would have been happy to be a quieter person with a couple good poems. And he might have achieved that if he had devoted himself to that craft, but he instead devoted himself to us. One of my favorite things about my dad, when we had our kids and I’d say, “Dad, you want to read a story? You want to read a book to one to one of my kids?” He was so disdainful of that. The idea of reading a book that someone else had written was so cheating to him. All of his stories were made up. He told us hundreds of stories, my children hundreds of stories that he crafted, that he made up. And he could have been a great children’s writer. He could have been maybe a minor American poet, but he spent most of his time with us, his free time.
Tim Ferriss: And does the quality time demand a quantity time? Is that akin to to come up with a few good ideas, you have to come up with a lot of bad ideas, you just have to throw a lot against the wall? What does that mean?
Russ Roberts: I think for those of us who are ambitious, who have big egos, which is sometimes me, maybe you, I don’t know.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, I’m sure. I’m sure it’s also me.
Russ Roberts: You can comfort yourself and I think sometimes fool yourself into saying, “Well, I don’t give friend X, family member Y, situation Z the trip to the hospital, going to the funeral. I don’t do those things because those take too much time. I have more important things to do, but when I am with them, it’s quality time. I really give them myself.”
And what I think what my dad believed and I tried to believe as a parent for my four kids is that quality time requires quantity time. You can’t just turn it on. You can’t just say, “Okay, let’s have a serious conversation. Go.” It doesn’t work that way.
We understand that about friendship. Most of our friendships take years where we experience things together, do things together, have intense conversations. And the nth one, the last one, the next one is building on all of that. And the idea they can just say, “Okay, I’m here for you,” which is, I think, the modern impulse, it’s good. It’s not bad. It’s good to be here for people, but I think the quantity time part of it helps us cultivate that quality time, get the hang of it. And it’s certainly, I think — I don’t know, if you ever spend a long time with somebody on a lazy afternoon, it’s just a different experience.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Thank you for providing that context. And we’re going to bounce around as is my wont. So I thought we would flash forward now to the other side of the bookshelf to the bookend that is present day. What does Shalem mean? If anything?
Russ Roberts: A year ago, almost to the day I took the job as president of Shalem College, which is here in Jerusalem, which in Hebrew is Yerushalayim and Jerusalem, if you look at the Anglicization of Yerushalayim, the end of Jerusalem is S-A-L-E-M, which is Salem in Massachusettsm in lots of other places. Those cities are named for Jerusalem. And the name of Jerusalem has that root, that S-L-M, that three letter root in Hebrew which typically is translated as “peace.” Shalom is the same root. But Shalem, which is slightly different, it’s a reference to the fact that we’re Jerusalem, but it’s also a reference to the meaning of that word which is “whole, complete, well-rounded.” And so our students, we hope, will emerge from their experience here more complete.
Now, they’re not fully complete. You can’t really be Shalem. It’s an aspiration, but I think it’s a great aspiration for all of us. And certainly when you embark on an educational experience it’s become very fashionable in modern times to see college as a professional career or pre-professional experience, prepare you for accounting, engineering, computer science and so on. That’s nice, nothing wrong with that, but at Shalem, we think it’s something more than that. We believe it’s about the cultivation of certain habits of mind and heart that make you a full human being and not just a successful person in the marketplace. They’re not unrelated.
Tim Ferriss: I think we’re going to certainly, in some ways, circle back to that with, I think, the meat and potatoes of this conversation, which is going to focus on a lot of topics in the new book, but I want to provide a little more connective tissue for folks who may not be familiar with you. So I’d like to take a second to quote from an interview you did with Tyler Cowen, who is another one of my favorite interviewers along with yourself. So it was quite the dynamic duo to have you both in one place.
And from the transcript, this is from Tyler, “As a Hayekian, how can we do science better?” And then your response is, “I think that’s a trick question. Hayek, of course, was concerned with scientism, the illusion that what we’re doing is scientific. I’m a big fan of ‘The Pretense of Knowledge,’ his Nobel Prize acceptance speech.”
So I want to pause here for a second because I’m going to admit something very embarrassing, which is I had no idea who F.A. Hayek was prior to your rap videos. And I suppose that hopefully counts as a huge success in terms of the rap videos reaching people who maybe can’t find their ass with both hands when it comes to economics and economic theory. But could you please just give people a brief description of what it means to be a Hayekian? You can do this however it makes sense. And then also perhaps unpack a bit “The Pretense of Knowledge,” the speech, and why you like it.
Russ Roberts: What do we have? Two, three hours?
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. We have two or three hours, exactly.
Russ Roberts: It’s actually one of the goals of that rap video, the first one, and then the second — we did two, I did them with filmmaker John Papola. Part of the goal of those videos actually was to try to capture some serious economic ideas. We tried to make it entertaining, obviously, which is why we put it in rap format. But part of the goal was just to let people know that this person existed because he’s not well known. And one of the common comments we got on YouTube was, “Who is this guy? How come I’ve never heard of him?” So you’re not alone. You’re in very good company. He’s not part of, Hayek is not part of the standard curriculum of economics departments, forget every day learning or reading. And he’s not the greatest writer. He’s not the most entertaining writer.
If you were going to start with something, actually “The Pretense of Knowledge” is one of his most accessible pieces, which is — It’s ironic. It was his Nobel Prize speech, but it’s not a highfalutin, highbrow, technical Greek letter kind of economics treatise. It’s a very readable essay on, I think, a major challenge of modern life that when he wrote it and when he delivered it, it was sort of interesting. Now it’s more tragic because it’s become a central question to me, of modern life. So on one side, we have the so-called rationalists who believe in evidence-based data, science. I love all those things. So did Hayek. They’re all really good. The problem is that sometimes there’s what he called scientism. Scientism, something that has the look of science, that looks scientific, and it fools people into thinking they understand something when in fact they don’t.
Now that — it’s trivial, right? When I say it’s going to be so obvious. There are two kinds of mistakes. There’s two kinds of ignorance. There’s the things we don’t know, and then there are the things we think we know that aren’t true. The things we know that we don’t know that we wish we understood, we wish we had access to the truth. There are things we think we’ve discovered as true that in fact are not. And that was the focus of that piece.
And in fact, that piece, it’s kind of 15 seconds of inside baseball. He was an intellectual antagonist of John Maynard Keynes in the 1930s in London and he lost. Keynes beat him. Keynes won. He won the intellectual battle. He won the battle of the marketplace of ideas. He triumphed. And Hayek tried to take him on in his own terms and Keynes beat him. Meaning tried to build a model of the economy that would be like Keynes’, but better. Keynes’ model itself is really hard to understand, and anybody who’s taking undergraduate macroeconomics gets a sort of bastardized version of it. Whatever, Keynes is not the clearest writer either, but he is a much more entertaining writer.
Flash forward to Hayek’s Nobel Prize in the ’70s. I want to say ’74. And in 1974, What he does is he says, “I tried to build a model of the economy that would be like a big engineering machine that I could manipulate or understand which levers led to which flows of this or that.” And he said, “That was a fool’s game.” That’s what he’s saying in that Nobel Prize speech. He’s saying, “I can’t explain that. No one can.” He uses the example, the analogy of a sports event. It’s like a football game. He says, “Imagine that you could have all the data on everything you could possibly measure about all the players, whether they slept well, how much they ate the night before, whether they’re having a fight with their wife, how their game last week was, and the injury they sustained and whether they’re fully over it, or only partially over it. He said, even then, there’s just no way you’re going to predict the outcome of the game. You might be able to get close. You might get, on average right, maybe, but it’s not predictable the way the location of Saturn is on July 17th, 2027.
We’re really good at that. You know what we’re not good at? The value of Bitcoin on July 17th 2027, or interest rates on July 17th, 2027, or whether there’s going to be a crash, or whether there’s going to be a recession. So economics, what people want of us is, “Well, tell me what it’s going to be like tomorrow, Professor. I need to know.” And the professor should say, “I have no idea, but my best guess is it’s going to be like yesterday,” but it often isn’t. And if you don’t tell people that, you’re indulging in scientism because what you’ve done in that case for example, is you’ve taken the data from the past and you’ve extrapolated to the future. Yes, sometimes the future is somewhat like the past, except for when it isn’t and then it smacks you in the face.
So what Hayek was warning us against there, which is there’s an irony given the current moment we’re in, what he is warning against there is the authority of experts using the tools of science to mislead and how easy it is to be misled. So it’s a profound piece and I recommend you find on the web. It’s available and easy to read for a non-economist.
Tim Ferriss: We’ll include that in the show notes for everybody to peruse. I wanted to ask you another question about Mr. Friedrich A. Hayek, and that is actually the explanation of a quote. This quote I saw pop up numerous places when I was doing some reading on Mr. Hayek. And it’s from The Fatal Conceit. And the quote is as follows — speaking as someone who really wouldn’t claim to understand even the fundamentals of economics, which again, embarrassed to say, but the quote is, you probably can see this coming, “The curious task of economics is to demonstrate to men how little they really know about what they imagine they can design.” Could you explain what he means by that?
Russ Roberts: Yeah, that book, by the way, I think it’s 108 pages, at least in some editions. I used to give it away to people as a gift, more like a punishment, it turned out. They don’t want to read it. It’s dense. It’s very dense, but I do recommend it. If you’re a brave soul, you could do some wading. It’s very murky water at times. As I said, he is not the most felicitous phrase maker.
But anyway, that particular sentence, it’s pretty convoluted, right? But it is saying something profound, which is the following: economists, especially in the last 10, 15 years, see themselves as social engineers as if they can tweak and tinker and move people around. Adam Smith, about 200 years before that quote, said something similar. He said “the man of system” — meaning a person who has a theory about how the world works; you can think about Marx or Lenin or Mao Zedong — they move the human beings in their country around like the pieces of a chessboard, ignoring the fact that they have a motion of their own.
It’s just a profound metaphor for thinking about how to bring about social change. So what Hayek is saying there is that economics, the curious task of economics, because kind of strange by that curious event, peculiar, the curious task of economics, is to tell people that what they think they can design is often not going to work out. So it’s really a fancy, convoluted way of saying, “You should be aware of the law of unintended consequences.” That is one of the great virtues of studying economics, or can be, is to appreciate that.
And by the way, Tim, if I can go back?
Tim Ferriss: Yes, please.
Russ Roberts: I never got to tell you what a Hayekian is.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, yes.
Russ Roberts: We talked about “The Pretense of Knowledge,” but the other key part of it is understanding that the world often emerges from the bottom up and not just from the top down. And that many things that are orderly, that we see around us, are not designed by anyone, but rather emerge from the individual choices we make. Simple example would be we go to a restaurant and it’s really noisy and I can’t hear you, you’re sitting next to me. And I’m thinking like, “Why is it so loud in here?” Well, let’s just turn down the volume. Where’s that switch? Oh, there. No, there is no switch. And if somebody stands up, “Hey, everybody, it’s too loud in here. Let’s all talk quietly and we’ll be fine.” But what happens is we all kind of start ratcheting it up.
And similarly with traffic. Who sent out the memo that says between 5:00 a.m. and 7:00 a.m. in the morning, go really slow? That’s not my intention, not your intention next to me in the car one lane over. And yet here we are is if we’ve been commanded from the top down. We all understand that’s the way traffic — the traffic doesn’t work that way. It’s not designed by anyone. There are many things in life where you think, “Okay, I’ve got to blame someone. Who is it? Who did this?” And the answer is we did sometimes. And that’s a deep insight of Hayekianism.
Tim Ferriss: So I think maybe for another conversation, or if we have time at the end of this one, I would love to ask you, again as a complete neophyte, how Hayek would think of setting initial conditions if he would think of that at all, say contrasted with Keynesm, which I thought of prompted by these two rap videos, which I should say, you have some incredible actors/performers for. I really do recommend people check them out, and I will link to them in the show notes. So maybe we’ll come back to that.
Russ Roberts: Okay.
Tim Ferriss: But let’s hop directly into Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us. And the easiest place to start is with the question of why? Why write this book? We all have finite time and you could spend your time in any number of ways, new rap videos, poetry. You’re very crossdisciplinary. I want to say also very playful with the “he wasn’t a felicitous phrase maker.” Very much liked that. Why write Wild Problems?
Russ Roberts: Well, I start the book off with a story of a friend of mine who’s trying to decide whether to have, he and his wife are trying to decide whether to have a kid. And he tells me about it. He says, “Well, we made a list of the costs and benefits, and we still couldn’t make a decision.” And I thought, well, that’s interesting. Through most of human history, people didn’t make a list of cost/benefits to decide whether to have children. They just had them either because they couldn’t stop them or they thought it was a good idea. And they didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about whether it was a good idea or not. And the implication of a cost/benefit analysis is that I look at my life now without kids, and I look at my life with kids. And which is going to be “better?” And I put “better” in quotes. And the real question is, what does that mean? And one way to think about it, which is very reasonable, is more fun, right? Having kids, we all know what the costs are. There’s diapers to be changed and there’s errands to take them on and school to drive them to, and little league games to watch or whatever it is, music lessons. They’re pretty helpless early on for only for the first 18 years or so. So there are a lot of responsibilities. And I think if you’re looking from the outside at having children, it looks like not the best deal.
I joke in the book, hey, you get to get a minivan. That’s exciting. So why do people do it? And if you look at it, narrowly, it’s a cross benefit decision, meaning more fun. I want to say it’s not more fun, in fact, I think most parents would say it’s not necessarily more fun. It’s not like every day with kids is a day at the beach. And even the days at the beach, often they’re cranky and crying and they need something.
So why do people have kids? Is it irrational? And I think most of us understand that at least somewhere in the back of our mind that we have children, not because it’s more fun or not because the average day with children will be better than the average day without, or that there’ll be more good days than bad days. And I would add this is true of marriage, even, it’s not just having a child, parenting a child. You just tie yourself to a spouse, right? That’s a tough question. Most people, if you look at it from the outside, I don’t know about you, but I look at other married couples that they don’t look that happy. Some you do, but it’s not like it’s necessarily the obvious outcome.
And so what I suggested to my friend, and what the reason I wrote the book is that I think there’s more to life than fun, obviously. And the sources that make our life deeply meaningful and purposeful are not just the day-to-day things. There are overarching senses of who we are and how we see ourselves and the meaning and purpose we have in life that are ultimately more important in these kinds of decisions. And these kinds of decisions, which are whether to get married, whether to have kids, how many kids to have, whether to move to Israel, whether to take a new job, whether to study something crazy at college, those decisions are not amenable to data.
So this brings us back to Hayek, in my view, they’re not amenable to data. So the standard algorithms and evidence that we use to be “rational,” they’re not so helpful in this framework. And so I wrote the book to help people think about how to think about that.
Tim Ferriss: Do you think your younger self would’ve agreed that those things are not amenable to data? If we dial back the chronology 15, 20 years? Or do you think he would’ve also agreed with that?
Russ Roberts: You’re really kind, Tim. We’re going to have to dial it back about 40 years. I joke in the book that when I was in graduate school at the University of Chicago, there was a literally carved in stone, a corrupted quote, more or less, right from Lord Kelvin that says, “If it cannot be measured, your knowledge is meager and unsatisfactory.”
That’s the way I was raised intellectually in graduate school. We went out and did empirical work, meaning we looked at the world, we had a theory, we tested it. We tested it with data, with real world evidence, and then we decided whether theory was right or not. And I was very convinced when I was younger, that those models of economic behavior and non-economic behavior, but using the tools of economics were very powerful. I still think economics is pretty powerful, but I don’t think I ever thought that necessarily those kind of models were good for making personal decisions.
I think what’s been fascinating about the last 20 years of the internet and smartphone is that the answers are always here, right? Whether it’s somebody’s batting average or the capital of an obscure country or something much more interesting, like where should I have dinner tonight? Or what movie am I going to like? Or what would I like if I like this book? And that’s a fantastic improvement in the quality of life, right? In the old days, you go to the little bookstore, they have 17 books, this old crochety guy behind the counter would say, “Hey, you like Hemingway? Oh, you might like Fitzgerald.” And that was nice. And those people were often fabulous repositories of wisdom and suggestions, but Amazon is better. Amazon is a lot better.
And the temptation is to take that improvement of day-to-day life into the rest of our life. And I think most of us really, as you can, but it’s really an unpleasant discovery because if I can use Waze to get from A to B, where’s the app that tells me whether I should go to B in the first place? Oh, there isn’t one actually. Well, that’s still fun. And so what I tried to do in the book is to remind you that you can’t use an app for that, there isn’t one. And how to think about those choices in life, of where to go, how to spend your days, whether you should marry, whether you should have kids and so on.
Tim Ferriss: Well, let’s rewind and look at some historical examples if you’re open to it, because I have of course notes in front of me, copious notes, we won’t get through all of them. But I’ll just use a queue and we can hop from there. Charles Darwin, would you like to tell us any stories about Charles Darwin?
Russ Roberts: Yeah. So he’s 29 years old, he’s like, “Maybe I should get married.” He’s been out on the Beagle, he’s really on a great career trajectory, and he’s on the path to be arguably, if not the greatest, maybe one of the two or three greatest scientists of all time. And he thinks, “Maybe I’m missing something.” So he makes a pro/con, plus/minus, cost/benefit list of marriage. It’s a really embarrassing list. It’s so bad.
Tim Ferriss: So you can find this? I imagine you can find it online.
Russ Roberts: Oh, yeah, you can find it. In hishandwriting. We have his actual journal entry, in England. You go to London and I don’t know if you can say it or not, but it’s reproduced online all over the place. If many people have noticed this great moment of scientific inquiry in the part of Darwin, is it a good idea to get married?
So he makes this list and what I noticed, which I’d seen the list a number of times when I was in the past, but what I noticed for the first time when I was writing this book is that he has no idea what marriage is like, which he doesn’t have enough data, which is reasonable when you think about it, because he’s never been married, he has some married friends presumably, he watches them after dinner talking, or before dinner or during dinner. But that’s it. He has no access to the inner life of marriage or the inner life of a parent, which he’s also worried about whether he’s going to have kids.
And if you look at his list, it’s overwhelmingly that marriage and children are horrible idea. He talks about how is going to have to maybe leave London, because she won’t like London. He talks about how his kids might get sick. He talks and then it would bother him and depress him. He talks about how expensive they might be. He talks about having to visit her relatives. And of course in the back of his mind reasonably, is that he is going to be one of the greatest scientists of all time. And that’s a lot to give up for what he actually calls the benefits. My favorite being “female chitchat,” and then “better than a dog anyway,” really not the greatest endorsement of married life or the opposite sex, kind of awkward.
So Darwin makes his list. And if you write it down, as I do, I organize it a little bit differently than he wrote it down. And you look at the pluses of getting married and the negatives getting married, the negatives are bigger, more numerous. So what does he do? Gets married. It’s a journal entry, he comes back to it and he writes, he has this incredible stream of consciousness paragraph where he says, “Oh, my gosh, I’m going to be all by myself, I’m going to become this weird guy in a dingy apartment. And ah, “Marry — Mary — Marry Q.E.D.,” he says, Q.E.D. meaning what was to be proven has been proven, demonstrated, quod erat demonstrandum.
And this is bizarre. First of all, it’s bizarre, that’s a little scientism, right? Because it’s not anything close to it. Q.E.D. is what you put at the end of a mathematical proof, right? This is not a mathematical proof. This is the most unmathematical attempt at making a decision. And of course it shows he’s not the only one. many great rational, scientific, analytical people, even specialists at decision making have trouble making decisions because these kind of decisions at least are not easily done with a rational framework. And so I think that’s liberating. It tells you, for those of you listening, who are going through these life decisions.
And I’ll tell you, Tim, book comes out on August 9th and I’ve already had people write me and say, “Can you get me a copy now? I’ll pay for it because I have a decision to make. I have a decision to make and I’m really anxious about it.” And I tell them two things when I say, “Well, it’s not that kind of book exactly. It’s not an algorithm, I’m going to tell you how to make the decision exactly. It’s really going to help you think about how to make a decision.” Not what the right decision is, two different things. It’s going to help you organize your thinking about it and realize that your normal thinking, which is this cost/benefit, plus/minus thing might lead you astray.
Tim Ferriss: Well let’s double click on that and understanding that this is not a prescriptive.
Russ Roberts: You were frozen there, Tim, for a second. I don’t know. You’re back.
Tim Ferriss: Oh, okay. I’m back. All right, so
Tim Ferriss: I would love to double click on that description to maybe examine the choice of spouse situation that many people will find themselves in. Let’s presuppose that they want a life partner to build a family with in some capacity. That’s been decided. But then there’s the question of who, and I would love to know what advice you might give someone who is trying to sort through that or how they might think about it, how they might structure their thinking, what advice would you potentially give to such a person?
Russ Roberts: So in the book, I talk about that choice and I kind of tongue in cheek talk about Penelope from The Odyssey, Ulysses’ wife, who’s waiting for his return from the Trojan War. And I mean, it’s such a great moment in literature. She’s got 108 suitors living large in her house waiting, trying to wear her down and get her to pick one of them because they don’t think he’s coming back. And either she’s hoping he will or doesn’t really want to remarry. But it’s awkward, 108 guys in her house, her son’s there, not the best situation, he’s been a little bit inadequate, I suspect, Telemachus.
And I show that there’s a mathematical formula you could use, a famous mathematical problem. It’s a really beautiful, elegant thing, how she could maximize the odds of finding the best partner. And it’s great, you take a stand, you go out with a few of them and the presumption of the problem is that once you’ve said no to someone, you can’t get it back. Just a little bit like life, there’s some exceptions to that, but in general, once it doesn’t work out, they move on, you move on.
So you go out with the first, turns out about 37 of them, mathematically 37. And you rank them, and you take the best one of the first 37 and you use them as a benchmark. And of course we kind of all did this, right? We got with a bunch of people and then you look back on the ones that you think, well, whoever I do marry has got to be better than the ones that I turned down. And so what she should do if she wants the best one is that after that 37th, she should pick the first one she finds is better than the best of the first 37.
You think, well, that’s kind of cool. And in fact, the odds that she finds the best one is actually about 37 percent, which turns out not to be a coincidence. Put that to the side, not so interesting. But that’s pretty amazing, if I said to you, “You’ve got to find the best person in this group of 108 people. What’s the best strategy?” That’s the best strategy. But of course, when you start to think about it, it’s not a good strategy to try to find the best person because for a lot of reasons, one of which is how do I stop at 108? Should I do 208? I could do even better. 2008? 20,008? Of course, many people date lots of different people and never settle down, and that’s okay. Maybe they choose to, but some of them are just saying, “I haven’t found the right one yet.”
And so what I argue in there is that best — Alain de Botton has a wonderful YouTube video I recommend on that; I think the title is “You’re going to marry the wrong person.” Fantastic short video. Don’t show it to my wife because she thinks she married the right person, I don’t want her to see it and depress her. But seriously, there’s no best. And part of the theme of my book is that most of life is a matrix. And by that, I don’t mean the movie, the red or blue pill. What I mean is that it’s a set of complicated attributes that are pluses and minuses for all kinds of things.
So the person you’re with, that you’re seeing now, whoever’s listening out there, there are certain levels of attractiveness, there’s a certain level of kindness, there’s a certain level of intelligence, or a certain level — many, many, many attributes. And then there’s chemistry and sexual attraction. We’ve got all those things working. And so, which is the best one? Oh, well I need a formula to add up all those measurements so I can get a single number, and then I’ll just pick the one that gets the best score. And I’d argue that’s the wrong way to think about life. It’s the wrong way to think about how to pick your friends. It’s the wrong way to think about how to find the best job. It’s the wrong way to think about most things.
And it’s not just because you can’t find the best one. It’s not even well-defined. And I think that’s helpful. Again, doesn’t make it easy to still pick the one you’re going to marry. But I give a short list of — pick somebody you respect, whose company you enjoy, you can talk to forever, can share your secrets with, you have some chemistry, that’s great. That’s so hard to find. Marry them, ask them. They probably won’t marry you, but at least ask them.
Tim Ferriss: What would you say is there an associated feeling for you? And this may be getting too far from the kind of “Shut up and compute” rational, physicalist side of things into woo territory. But is there a particular feeling that you associate with checking those boxes, having those things in one person and being with that person? Because you’ve been married now for 30 plus years, am I getting that right?
Russ Roberts: 33.
Tim Ferriss: 33 years.
Russ Roberts: You did get it right. Notice how carefully I said that! You’re right. 33.
Tim Ferriss: Is there a feeling that you can identify, a dominant feeling, or a general sense of being that you associate with checking those boxes? I guess I’m just wondering if there’s some sort of holistic feedback that you get kinesthetically or emotionally or otherwise?
Russ Roberts: Oh, I think that’s a very deep question. We do call it love.
Tim Ferriss: I’ve heard of this thing.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, I’ve heard of it too. But it’s actually a very misleading word in the following sense. I think people who stay married for a long time have a wide array of emotional landscapes they live in. I think some of them see their partners as their soulmates through most of their day even, right? It’s not just, “Oh, I think of my wife when I go home and I see her and I’m glad to see her.” It’s that she or in the case of the other side, he, they fill my soul and day-to-day life. It gets back to what I was talking about earlier. It’s not just, “Oh, they’re fun to be with,” it’s that they create an overarching sense of identity of “They’re part of who I am.”
By the way, Darwin didn’t think about that because he never experienced it. Not just he hadn’t been in love, he never crafted a life with another person. That’s what a real marriage is by the way. It’s not just that it’s convenient, that there’s economies of scale, because you you can go to Costco more, more often if you have kids and a wife, so you can get a lower unit price on the catch up. That’s not what it’s about. What it’s about is a journey. It’s a journey the two people share and you said looking for a life partner, it’s not so fashionable, right? Most people aren’t necessarily looking for a life partner.
By the way, there are many negatives about a life partner. There are many positives about a life partner. It’s complicated. I would ask the question this way: What suffuses you? What are you overwhelmed by when you’re with that person for decades? And it’s not every day, and it’s not every night, and it’s not every vacation, right? But the ideal is that much of the time you are filled with something, the word would be love, you call love, affection, whatever. But the reason I like your question is that part of my book is asked this — looks at these decision makers where they say things like, “Well, I made the list of pluses and minuses and it came out wrong, so I added some pluses.”
Or the poem I mentioned by Piet Hein, who was a scientist and a mathematician, who says when you can’t make a decision, flip a coin. And when it’s in the air, you’ll know what you’re rooting for. You’re rooting for heads or tails. And that’ll say that’s what you really want.
Tim Ferriss: That’s clever.
Russ Roberts: That whole idea of what you really want is such a strange idea because what could you really want that goes above and beyond the pluses and minuses? I mean, that’s just irrational. And a lot of smart people have said “not exactly.” And it, by the way, it doesn’t mean, “Oh, therefore you should follow your gut, follow your intuition,” that could be very dangerous. Also, cost you a lot of money, lead you to marry the wrong person. You have to be thoughtful about this. The alternatives aren’t use science or just follow your gut. I don’t think either one is the right way to think about these kind of decisions.
Tim Ferriss: So it’s both and not either/or, it sounds like.
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: So I have a line in front of me that I love, which is from you, so I’m not certainly not going to take credit for it. And this may wind into what we end up discussing at, oh, I am going to come back to the Costco example that you gave in the economies of scale, but “What was once destiny is now a decision.” So I would love for us to unpack this, but I would like to come back to the point I just raised first, which you said very jokingly, of course, because it’d be kind of ludicrous to marry someone just to get a discount on your equivalent of prime membership at Costco so you can buy two gallons of ketchup for the price of one gallon of ketchup.
But if we look back at the historical record, it wasn’t so long ago that I would imagine most marriages were marriages that did lend themselves maybe more easily to pro and con lists, right? They were political alliances, they were business agreements, they were family alliances and sharing of resources, things like that. And I’m wondering if you think that there’s some degree of, to what extent are we making ourselves miserable by expecting to find happiness in one person? Or one person to check all of these boxes, including romantic notions that seem to have largely started in the Western world with the troubadours and so on? I don’t know if that’s a coherent question, but since you have more experience with these things than I do, I’d love to hear you speak to that in any way whatsoever.
Russ Roberts: That’s a deep question, kind of a hard one. I think it’s a great insight that a lot of marriages in the past were either arranged by the parents or had ulterior motives, even if it was just to get the crops in. We’re joking about economies of scale, but economies of scale were not unimportant in most of human history. You had kids, partly, to help you slop the hogs, milk the cows, and to take care of you when you got old. These were very pragmatic, unromantic ideas.
Having said that, any trip through Western literature, you understand there’s a little of both. You read Shakespeare, you read Jane Austen. Jane Austen’s characters usually are striving to make an advantageous match, not a love match. But they also fall in love. That’s part of the reason, I think, her books are so compelling. They don’t just want to be pragmatic. But it’s a very deep question, of what you should look for, what you should expect in a marriage.
I think Hollywood misleads us a little bit. The look across the room. I’ve argued there are very few movies that capture love. There are movies that capture romantic attraction, sexual attraction. I’ll give you an exception: My Fair Lady. Not a very PC or politically correct movie in modern times, but it’s a fascinating portrait of how Henry Higgins falls in love with Eliza Doolittle, despite himself. He doesn’t want to fall in love. He sees his bachelorhood life as an ideal, like Darwin, actually.
Yet, he finds himself falling in love. It’s one of the most beautiful love songs ever written, when you think, “How do you capture that feeling of real love, not just attraction?” He says, “I’ve grown accustomed to her face.” What a magnificent line. “Her smiles, her frowns, her ups, her downs. They’re second nature to me now, like breathing out and breathing in.” That’s an incredible portrait of domestic life.
My point being that art actually pays some attention to this thing that, evidently, has been around for a long time. It’s not just about sexual attraction. It’s about love and romantic attraction, whatever you want to call that, partnership, symbiosis, to make it really as undramatic as possible. Maybe even less romantic than economies of scale at Costco. But I think, to come back to the nub, what should you look for? What should you expect? Is it worth it? Is it something you should strive for?
We can talk about this for another five hours, but the one thing I would add, I don’t like it when people say, “You have to work at your marriage. You have to work at it.” That’s not the way I think of my marriage. I work at crossword puzzles. I work at ditch digging. I work at brightening up my notes for my next podcast. But what you do have to do is you have to treat your partner as a partner, as opposed to somebody who lives with you, who’s a plus to have as a roommate. They’re two different things.
I think in modern life, we’ve taken away, for a thousand reasons, the responsibilities of marriage. I think that’s come at a cost. It’s made it harder for people to get married. If you look at the data, it’s pretty obvious. Let’s be scientific for a minute. People are marrying later or not at all. It’s changed. This comes back to the Darwin point, the appeal of a long-term commitment, from the outside, is mostly negative for most people. I think, certainly, for most men. I don’t know if women are different, but they seem to be. It’s not fashionable to say that, but I think they are. But men, it’s hard. Men struggle to stay in a long-term relationship. It’s not as appealing to either side. It’s pretty obvious in the data. What do you do? I don’t know. It’s tricky.
Tim Ferriss: Could you say more about the diminishing of the responsibilities of marriage and what you mean by that?
Russ Roberts: Yeah. The part I like about, “You have to work at your marriage,” is it is hard. There are parts about marriage that are hard. There are parts about having a good marriage, that are difficult, that are challenging. There’s a great line from Anne Lamott. Her name for God? “Not me.”
Most of us, naturally, see ourselves as God, center of the universe, most important thing, easy. I think one of the great advantages of marriage is to remind you that it’s not all about you. Some people find that appealing and some people don’t. I think I took this line out of the book, but I have a friend who said, his father told him this, “Until you get married, you’re an idiot.” I feel that, sometimes. I think there’s a lot of truth to that. Living with another person as a commitment, not as a contract, very important difference, I talk about that in the book, as more of a covenant and less of a contract, is really a powerful way to be alive. This is to enhance what I said earlier about what a real marriage is about. It’s not about working at it. “Let’s have a session where we talk about our issues.”
It’s about, comes back to what we said at the very beginning of this conversation, remembering things that are very hard to remember, that you’re in this together, this other person has a soul, a desire, a flavor, a preference. That’s hard, because you have yours. You know what? I like getting what I want, don’t you? Yeah, we do, most of us, most of the time. To figure out how to mesh your plans with your partner’s plans, not just what we’re doing on Sunday night, because we can take turns, “We’ll do Italian tonight. Next week, we’ll do Chinese,” but how to make a life together is really hard, beautiful, and deeply rewarding, if it goes well.
When it doesn’t go well, it’s horrible, by the way. Don’t want to romanticize it at all. It’s horrible, awful, stultifying, degrading. It’s bad. It’s a high-risk game. To come back to your earlier question, for most of human history, it wasn’t a choice. It was a destiny. It wasn’t a decision. You got married. You had to. You felt that way, anyway. It doesn’t feel that way anymore. Whole new world.
Tim Ferriss: All right. I have a number of follow-up questions and I’m not going to spend the next hour on marriage, so don’t worry. But I do have one clarifying question, which is, “Until you’re married, you’re an idiot,” does that refer to being an idiot, in the sense of being so ego-centric and self-referential that you just don’t have the lens or experience of the world, that is as broad and more complete as someone who has decided to partner with someone else?
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. Got it.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. That’s it, exactly.
Tim Ferriss: All right.
Russ Roberts: I’ll say it a slightly different way. I’ve come to believe, as I’ve gotten older, that a huge part of, quote, “growing up,” and we like to joke, “Hey, Tim, what are you going to do when you grow up?” You still have room to grow. I hope you do. We’re not all grown up.
Tim Ferriss: Me, too.
Russ Roberts: It’s like Shalem. You’re not whole. You’re not grown up. One of the funniest things in life, is you look at the people older than you, and you think, “When I’m their age, I’ll feel the way they do.” You get to that age, and you don’t. You look at the seniors in high school when you’re a sophomore, “Wow. They’re so confident. They seem so at-ease. I can’t wait until I’m a senior.” Then, you’re a senior. It’s like, “They were all faking it. Every one of them.”
It’s a great thing, I think, to admit that, “I’m not grown up. I haven’t figured it all out. I’m not mature, fully. More mature, maybe, than I was before, but I’m not mature. It’s hard.” A lot of what, to me, of a life well-lived, is about growing up. Marriage is one way to grow up. Not the only way. There are other ways to grow up. Religion, meditation, psychotherapy, marriage, they’re all about self-awareness, if they’re done well. They’re all about recognizing that you’re a part of a much bigger picture than you feel like most of the time. I think that’s really helpful and incredibly satisfying when you sense it. It’s great.
Tim Ferriss: I’d like to ask a question that I don’t think has ever been asked before in the history of podcasting, which is, I would love for you to tell me more about life lessons from Bill Belichick. Also, why you moved to Israel? It doesn’t have to be in that order. Could be in the opposite order.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, that’s definitely never been asked. It’s never been asked. It’s fantastic. I did something a little bit weird in the book. I literally don’t know if it’s true. I think I admitted that I don’t know if it’s true. It’s not surprising that we don’t know if it’s true, because Bill Belichick doesn’t like to tell secrets. He keeps them to himself. I guess nobody tells secrets, because if they did, they wouldn’t be secrets anymore. But Bill Belichick has a lot of things that he keeps to himself.
Maybe someday, he’ll write a book about what he understands about football, which would be interesting. But I think he understands something about life, whether it’s intentional or not. He, by the way, was an economics major, as an undergraduate at Wesleyan.
Tim Ferriss: Did not know that.
Russ Roberts: One of the things you learn from economics is trade-offs. Trade-offs are really obvious when you think about them, but like many things we’re talking about in this conversation, they’re hard to remember to think about. A lot of times, we ignore trade-offs and we go through our lives. What I argue Bill Belichick understands is that he’s not that good at drafting future NFL successful players.
By the way, Bill Belichick is the coach of the New England Patriots, a football team in the National Football League, which we should have mentioned. Belichick, each year, gets to draft, pick, from the crop of college players, a certain set of players. I argue in the book, and this part, I’m not sure it’s true, but I think it’s true, a lot of times, he will trade away a draft choice, to have more draft choices lower down, later in the draft.
The reason I argue he does that, this is all speculative, it’s fun, but I think it’s a good lesson for life, is that he wants to increase the denominator. When he is thinking about the ratio of successful picks to total picks, he knows that it’s not a big number. The bigger he makes the denominator, he’s going to get a few good players out of the whole thing. He can’t predict in advance who they necessarily are going to be. This, by the way, is very similar to the way some people invest. Instead of picking winners —
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. Very similar.
Russ Roberts: — they pick an index fund. They take all the stocks, because it’s crazy, it’s hard to believe, but I think it’s mostly true, on average, you can do pretty well, but you can’t necessarily pick out in advance what you’re going to succeed.
You can think about this in venture capital. Of every 10 investments, one unicorn is extraordinary. Most of the investments are going to go broke. They’re not going to make it. Literally, they’re not going to cover their costs, ever. A few them will be somewhat successful. If you’re lucky, you get a couple of home runs, a unicorn, a company worth $1 billion. That’d be amazing. One out of 10. The crazy thing is, you don’t know which one is the one out of 10. That’s bizarre.
I think life is something like that. What I argue in the book, then we’ll get to why I moved to Israel, but what I argue in the book is that, even though you can’t always anticipate what experiences are going to be like, and that’s one of the reasons that cost-benefit analysis is not that helpful in trying to figure out what to do in these situations, try lots of stuff. If you’re lucky, some of those things are going to be things you can change. Belichick, if the player doesn’t work out, he cuts them. He doesn’t sign them.
I think every year for the last 17, 19, I know how many years it is, he has signed a player who was not drafted. I think he loves it. I have a feeling it’s a little bit of a seductive thing for him, but he almost always finds a player who no one else wanted, no one thought was worth picking, and finds out that they can contribute. He finds that out, and this is the punchline, through the experience of working with them.
That’s life. A lot of the things that we try to figure out, “Am I going to like that? Not like it?” we try to imagine, reasonably, what it’s going to be like, but really can’t know what it’s going to be like until we’re in it. You want to be in a lot of things, as long as they’re not too high-cost to get out of, because if they are high-cost, then the trade-offs are more serious. That’s the Belichick story.
Tim Ferriss: All right. From Bill Belichick, I recommend everybody do a deep dive on Bill Belichick.
Russ Roberts: He’s an interesting man.
Tim Ferriss: He’s fascinating. I do not follow football, to be clear. For me to say that, take something. Absolutely fascinating. Bill also has done quite a bit of reading on stoic philosophy and stoics. He’s just, all around, a very interesting guy. I’ll bookmark that for other people.
Russ Roberts: Tim?
Tim Ferriss: Yes?
Russ Roberts: Tim, when you get him on your podcast, would you encourage him to come on mine? He’s going to come on yours before mine, but I really want to talk to him.
Tim Ferriss: I will. Absolutely. Yes, if I manage this. Bill can be the white whale for both of us. If I get him first, then I will certainly recommend that he go onto your show.
Russ Roberts: Thank you.
Tim Ferriss: You’re welcome. Let’s go to Israel. I’m going to attempt to tie a few things together, once we get into the midst of you exploring this or explaining this, but why move to Israel?
Russ Roberts: I got offered this job to be president of this college. I’m Jewish. I’ve always liked Israel. I’ve been here a dozen times before. I actually lived here as a teenager, when my dad’s company sent him here to look at an Israeli company as a possible partner, merger, or acquisition. I like Israel. It’s nice, great place to visit. I’ve always enjoyed it. I care about it. I think it’s important. I think it’s great that the Jewish people have a state, full stop, but I had no interest in moving here.
I think that’s a crazy idea. But I got offered this job. The job is leading this college that has a core curriculum in Greek philosophy, Jewish thought, the Quran, the New Testament, Shakespeare, Western history. Then, you could either major in two things when I got here, now three, but philosophy and Jewish thought, or Middle Eastern and Islamic studies, and learn Arabic. That’s the whole place. I thought, “That’s nice. I’m glad Israel has a college like that. It’s a good thing, but I’m not interested in working for them, of course. That’d be a crazy idea.”
But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that if you listen to EconTalk, you’ll find out that I’m increasingly interested in questions of, “What is a life well-lived?” We’ve been having that conversation for the last hour and a bit, actually. Not explicitly, but that’s really what we’re talking about. What is a life well-lived? How do we flourish as human beings? That’s at the center of the intellectual mission of this college. Also, to turn out leaders who will go on to have an impact on the country, which I like and think that’s a good thing.
I care a lot about education. The bottle of education we represent here is small seminars of people exploring great texts together, respectfully, in open inquiry. How could I say no? The only answer really was, if my wife didn’t want to come, we wouldn’t have come, coming back to earlier conversation, but she thought it would be a great adventure. We jumped.
We sold our house. We put our stuff in storage, to be shipped here when we found a place to live. We moved to Israel. It’s drinking from a fire hose. People say to me, “How’s it going? You settling in?” No, we’re not settling in. We are foreigners. We’re immigrants. We’re living in the Middle East, where we’ve never lived before. It’s a Jewish state, but it’s in the Middle East. It’s culturally different than many places where lots of Jews live. It’s fascinating. It’s an incredible life experience. The work part is amazing. It’s an incredible adventure.
Tim Ferriss: That is a big move. Seems like a big decision. I would love to know if you are open to just sharing the story of how you pitched that to your wife. What did that conversation look like?
Russ Roberts: I can tell you a little bit about it. It was funny. It’s very vivid to me, because it was the middle of COVID. Most Sundays during COVID, we spent walking along the Potomac River. We had to be outside. Often, it was miserably hot, as it is outside the Potomac River in July and August. In June, even. Sometimes, September and Oct — anyway, it’s warm in the DC area, but I have vivid memories of just walking along and talking about it. We did something similar to what Darwin, obviously — I don’t mean to make too much fun of cost-benefit.
Obviously, we spent some time thinking about it. “Is this going to be fun? Are we going to like it?” But that wasn’t the only thing in the calculus. We have friends here, but we have friends where we’ve been living for 18 years and we miss that. Our children are spread out all over the world. I have a daughter in London, a son in California, a son in Maryland. We have a son in Australia. I said, “All right. I hate that we have children in all those places.”
One argument was, “Israel is far from all of them, but so is wherever we live, so it’s okay.” We spent a pretty serious amount of time talking about the purpose of this job. My wife, in America, was a high school math teacher, fabulous math teacher, but she was thinking about doing something different. For her, this was going to be a transition time, anyway. We focused on whether we would like this job. By “we,” it was literally we, in the sense that my wife had been an administrator, as well.
As it turns out, most of the things that she was challenged by as an administrator, I’m challenged by as an administrator, too. People are similar. There are issues of management, getting along with other folks, ego, and normal human interaction. She’s an incredible advisor for me in this job. She’s my right-hand person, obviously. She cares about this mission. If she didn’t, I don’t think we would’ve done it, if she didn’t care about education and this purpose. I think she thought it would be good for me. I think she saw that. She thought it was a chance for her to explore a bunch of new things, but really, it was, “Is this what we’re meant to do?”
You can put a divine twist on that, but I think a lot of non-religious people have a similar feeling about their life. “Is this what I’m called to? Is this why I’m here?” We both felt that this was part of why we were here, is to take this opportunity, if we could do it well, if we could be successful at it. That verdict isn’t in yet, but it’s been an amazing first year.
Tim Ferriss: I know quite a few Jewish friends, some of which have ended up moving to Israel or figuring out ways, from the US or within Israel, to contribute to Israel. How much of it was a contribution to Israel and its people, versus the particulars of this college, its curriculum, its approach to education?
Russ Roberts: It was definitely both. If this had been in, say, Bosnia, I don’t think I’d have done it. The chance to lead a small liberal arts college in Bosnia wouldn’t appeal to me. It would be interesting, but the downside would’ve been large enough that I would’ve said no to it. A lot of it was the former. It was the chance to contribute. Jews have been talking about coming back to Jerusalem for 2,000 years, since the Second Temple was destroyed. The fact that in my lifetime, we have a Jewish state, is amazing. I am very proud, and it’s exhilarating to me to be part of it. There’s so many day-to-day moments here.
It’s hard to explain what it’s like to live here in the following sense. If you open up an Israeli newspaper on any day, there’s almost the same headlines. There’s almost the same headlines every day, “Terrorist Attack Thwarted in Such-and-Such Place,” “Iran Heats Up,” “New Government Coming; Elections Next Month,” and then my favorite, “14-Year-Old Girl Finds Roman Coin in Caesarea That Shows Existence of Herod’s Rule in Whatever Time.”
Everything here matters. It’s so consequential to be here as part of the Jewish experience. That’s a lot of it for me. It’s pretty fun too, by the way. I don’t mean to downgrade the fun part. Jerusalem is an amazing city, and it’s gotten much more interesting as a place to live in the last 20 years. It’s very nice.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah, I’ve not spent much time —
Russ Roberts: Have you been here, Tim? Have you been here?
Tim Ferriss: I have. Yeah, I actually went to Israel for the first and only time to join a training I was auditing, but in this case, it was a training for MDMA-assisted psychotherapy, which was funded in part by the equivalent of the Ministry of Health. Maybe it’s called the Ministry of Health in Israel.
Russ Roberts: That’s what it’s called.
Tim Ferriss: It was first in terms of —
Russ Roberts: It’s not.
Tim Ferriss: Exactly? That was coming next.
Russ Roberts: It was on the tip of your tongue.
Tim Ferriss: Right. It was just there. We engaged in the training on, I don’t think it would be called a kibbutz, but it was a communal living environment which was half-Jewish and half-Muslim. That certainly made it very, very, very interesting.
The feeling certainly is in Israel, and I suppose in a number of places in the Middle East, that almost everything is or seems consequential. It makes me think — I’m not going to get the attribution right. I think it was Joseph Campbell, but it may have been Viktor Frankl, who said, “What we’re seeking is not the meaning of life but a feeling of being alive.” I think you get that. It’s hard to escape that when you are in a place like Israel, it seems.
Russ Roberts: Behind me, which if you’re watching this on YouTube you can see, is a shade. If we raised that shade and you stood at that window, you are about two miles from the Old City of Jerusalem and the Temple Mount, where you could see the Dome of the Rock, a great Muslim shrine. The Temple Mount is a great Jewish shrine, where the Western Wall is, the Kotel, as it’s called in Hebrew.
Sometimes I look down on that. I can see it from my office. Sometimes I look down on that and I am moved, because it’s bizarre. It’s so small. It is so small, and it feels like it’s the center of the universe sometimes, meaning everything is overdramatized here. You say everything matters. Everything seems consequential.
Yehuda Amichai, the poet, said that Jerusalem is a port city on the sea of eternity. You have this incredible spiritual center here for the three great Abrahamic religions, you have the political tensions that rivet the world, and you also have modern life and great food and music. And it’s really small, not just the Old City —
Tim Ferriss: Super small.
Russ Roberts: The Old City is tiny. Israel is really small. If you look at Israel on a map, you can barely pick it out most of the time, and it gets so much attention. It’s a little bit weird. Leave it at that.
Tim Ferriss: Walking through the Old City is one of the most intense — I’ve done it twice, one of the more intense experiences I’ve ever had in my life. Again, I guess I’ll keep it simple, but the tension and attention in the air is so palpable. I don’t want to get too mystical, but it could just be kinesthetic. It is very perceptible. I’ll put it at that.
Russ Roberts: It’s a weird physical setting. It’s almost all paved. It’s this weird cobblestone, ancient stone. There’s stones over here in the Old City that were carved out 2,000 years ago to build things, and they’re still there. There’s walls from 600 years ago from Crusader times.
You go to England; it’s old. England makes the United States look brand new. We have history in the United States, 1776. You go to England; it’s like we have no history. You come to Israel; it’s like England has no history.
Tim Ferriss: I wanted to, maybe awkwardly, you can tell me after I ask the question, bring back “What was once destiny is now a decision.” I may be putting this in the wrong context, but one thing that I feel I’ve observed with my audience over the last, say, year or two in particular is a certain degree of growing apathy, but I think the apathy is derived from many different factors, one of which is just decision fatigue and overwhelm, which is where I do think numeracy and other basic capabilities come in very, very handy, so that you’re not just lost in the rapids of noise.
My question related to all of that is to what extent — this is going to be strange wording. It’s deliberate, but it might seem odd. To what extent has religion been an advantage for you in the sense that it provides rules and maybe some automaticity to certain aspects of life? I’m not religious, but there are definitely times when I envy those who are. I would just be curious to hear any and all thoughts on that.
Russ Roberts: Can we talk about the first part first, about —
Tim Ferriss: Absolutely.
Russ Roberts: — the decision fatigue? I’ve been very lucky. I got COVID about a month ago for the first time. It was really unpleasant. I was in bed for three days. I didn’t have any energy, and I was tired for another 10 days, beat, just beat. But I had it lucky. I didn’t end up on a ventilator. I didn’t die. It was a bad flu, in the Omicron phase here. But for two years, especially when I was in the United States before I came here, I had a, I think for most of us, a very unusual life experience. It was a little bit, not a lot, but a little bit like war.
War, when you think back, say, the bombing of London, you think about it. Every night, sirens go off. You go down the Underground in London, or you go to some place of shelter. You come back out, and if you’re lucky, your house is still there. If you’re not lucky, your house is gone, and maybe somebody died who you cared about. Can you imagine that night after night after night?
After a while, you’d say, “It’s really hard, but the hardest part of it is I don’t know when it’s going to end. If you’d just tell me when it’s going to end, I can handle it. Just give me the arrival date. What’s the ETA of peace?” Of course, most wars, they think, “Oh, it’ll be over in a week.” Civil War, it’ll be over in a week, two weeks, month. Most wars drag on.
As hard as COVID was, and again, it’s embarrassing to compare it to war, can you imagine what it was like to be in London or Berlin or Japan? Not in the United States, because the United States was pretty protected, but in these countries where, day in, day out, your loved ones were dying, and you don’t know when it’s going to end. More than anything else, you just want — what do you want? Just give me a normal day where I don’t have to be afraid, don’t have to worry that someone is going to die.
COVID gave us a tiny, thank God, relatively much smaller, taste of that. I thought, for me, it was incredibly hard. It was like, “When am I going to be able to…? Fill in the blank. When am I going to have a — I want to go out to a bar and see some friends and have a drink, or go to a party, or better yet, go to a wedding, or even go to a funeral.” There are people who missed funerals, who missed weddings, who missed wonderful life events and couldn’t participate. I think that really wore us down, wore a lot of us down. It was very, very demoralizing.
There’s some wonderful things about it. You faced your mortality. Most of us, I think, had to reckon with the fact — when I got my vaccine finally, it was like, “Oh, now…” I felt like Superman. Oh, I forgot, I’m still going to die. That stinks, doesn’t it? It forced you to remember that, that you’re going to die. You might die soon, from COVID, in a hospital, on a ventilator. Horrible way to go. If you’re lucky, you don’t get it, but you’re still going to die.
I think those two things, “When’s it going to end?” and “I am mortal,” most of us, again, coming back to our theme of things you don’t want to think about or are easy not to think about, the fact that we’re going to die is not pleasant. Most of us push that one off. I thought that those two things really wore us down.
What does that have to do with religion? I think religion is really interesting. Obviously, it’s a fascinating part of human experience, both glorious and inglorious. I think people who aren’t religious think it makes life easy in the way that you suggested, the automaticity. Things are taken care of. There is a piece of that, by the way.
I keep the Jewish Sabbath. If you say to me, “I’ve got tickets to see Paul McCartney,” who I don’t particularly like, but I’d like to go see him, not my favorite musician. “He’s at the Meadowlands, and Bruce Springsteen is going to show up,” which happened recently. I don’t know if it was a Friday night or not. But if you said, “You want to go?” I’d say, “Oh, yeah, I want to go. Oh, it’s Friday night. Oh, I can’t go.”
For me, a lot of — it does rule out certain decisions that otherwise you’d have to weigh. There’s no doubt about that. But I think a lot of people think that a religious life is one that’s free of doubt and is a bunch of angels sitting around singing, strumming guitars, a bunch of good Martin guitars, singing some Kumbaya song. It’s really not the main thing about religion that’s attractive to me, and maybe to other people, because I have plenty of doubts, by the way. I think most religious people in the modern era struggle with faith. I think it’s a — I don’t know, I shouldn’t say most. Many do.
For me, it comes back to what we talked about earlier. I didn’t write about this in the book. It gives life a certain texture. Part of what I’m trying to say in that book, in Wild Problems, is that there’s more to life than the emotional ups and downs, and what we call fun or happiness. There’s a certain texture to life that comes, say, from being married, or being a parent, or moving to Israel, or having a certain career maybe in a profession that makes you feel full and yourself. That texture is, to me, a lot of what religious life is about.
Not that different from many of the things we’ve been talking about, there are Friday nights where I wish I could do something I choose not to do more globally, but the overall impact as an effect on how I see myself and how I go through the world that I find meaningful. I don’t think it’s accessible to everyone.
It’s, for me, in my experience, a little bit like music. Some people are tone deaf, and they cannot enjoy music the way a great musician can, or even a mediocre musician. Other people have a great ear, and all that music makes their heart sing all the time, and they live in a different world than the rest of us. I think there’s a whole continuum of both music and religious/spiritual practice that we inhabit that is personal, that is person-specific.
It’s like I can give you my favorite novel, “You’re going to love this.” “It didn’t speak to me.” That’s what happens. There’s certain religious experiences or spiritual experiences, spiritual practices, that don’t speak to certain people because they’re just not hardwired that way, I think. I don’t know.
Tim Ferriss: Well, if I may, we’ll segue to a rather motley assortment of questions that may not have any thematic through line whatsoever, if that’s okay with you.
Russ Roberts: Great. Sure.
Tim Ferriss: Actually, they do have a through line, which is my personal curiosity. Again, I’m trying to craft novel segues here. We’re going to go from Nassim Taleb to the Talmud.
Russ Roberts: Okay. Great.
Tim Ferriss: The first is related to Nassim. I have not had any contact with him in many years, but we had two meals a long, long, long, long, long time ago. He goes on very few podcasts. He’s been on yours several times. I’m looking at another bit, bit meaning portion of a transcript from your conversation with Tyler Cowen, and I’m just going to read this line here. “I get a lot of flack for interviewing Nassim Taleb because his online persona seems to be different from mine. I’ll say it judiciously; I’ve learned an immense amount from him.” I would just love to hear you speak more to what you have learned from him or his writing, or gleaned from him or his writing.
Russ Roberts: I’ve been meaning to write an essay on this for a while because I’ve never systematically thought about it. Occasionally, someone will say, “Oh, he’s so annoying” or “I don’t like him” or “Why do you have him on your show? It’s against your philosophy.” I try to have civil conversations with people I disagree with, and I have very civil conversations with Nassim, by the way.
He wrote a book. His first book was called Fooled by Randomness.
Tim Ferriss: Great book.
Russ Roberts: It’s a fabulous book. A lot of people’s reaction to that book was, “Oh, there’s nothing new in there.” I could argue, I guess, as a PhD in economics, I had to take a bunch of statistics, what’s called econometrics, the application of statistics to economic problems. You could argue I knew everything in there, but I didn’t know it in my bones. That’s a lot of what we’re talking about today, which is how do you pay attention. He taught me how to pay attention to some things out in the real world that I was totally unaware of in the moment. If you said to me later, “Did you realize…”
Here’s an easy one. If you go to Great Falls National Park, which is a fantastic park, maybe one of the finest nature experiences you can have very, very close to a large metropolitan area. It’s just outside Washington, DC. There’s a side in Virginia and a side in Maryland. Both sides are interesting, great hikes along the Potomac River there. There’s incredible waterfalls and turbulent water. It’s a very, very beautiful place.
There’s a great sign, fantastic sign. It’s not really a sign; it’s a stick on the Virginia side. You have to look up. You look up, and it says, “This is the high-water mark of the Potomac River.” You’re, I don’t know, 150 feet above the Potomac River already, and then there’s this post in the ground that goes up another 12 and a half, whatever it is, 15 feet, and that’s the high-water mark of the Potomac River. It’s hard to imagine that it could flood to that level, but evidently it has. Let’s take that as a fact.
If you’re building a house in Virginia near the Potomac River, how high should you build it? The answer some people would actually argue is that if you build it higher than that sign, you’re safe. You’d be wrong, because the past is not necessarily a good predictor of the future. We all know that. That’s the most trivial, obvious thing.
Yet, to take another financial example, “Oh, well, the S&P 500, there’s never been a 10-year period with a negative return.” I don’t even remember now, whatever it is. Take all the different decades. I don’t mean 1920 to 1930, 1930 to 1940. I mean ’21 to ’31, ’22 to ’32, 1923 to 1933. You could look at all of those, and you could take the worst 10-year period, and you’d say, “Okay, so right now I’m 67. In 10 years, I’ll be 77. If I invest all my money in the S&P 500 and don’t touch it for a decade, what’s the worst thing that could happen?” Well, the answer is, something worse than has happened before, possibly.
That that is a possibility is so hard to remember for most people. Really, really smart people make that mistake all the time. That’s a simple thing that I’ve learned from him. That’s not dramatic.
I’ll give you one more. It’s one of my favorites, as an economist. He has a book called Skin in the Game. Skin in the game is the bread and butter of economics. So skin in the game means If I bear the costs of mistakes and I enjoy the fruits of my good decisions, that’s skin in the game. That’s great. A fancy name for economists when they talk about this is incentives are aligned, but it means you’ve got skin in the game.
Milton Friedman liked to say that capitalism is a profit and loss system. The profit encourages risk taking. The loss encourages prudence. Profit and loss encourage prudent risk taking, not reckless risk taking. If you bail out losers, you have taken away the loss and you get imprudent risk taking. It’s a bad idea.
Economists understand this. We get it. But Taleb taught me something I hadn’t understood or appreciated about skin in the game, which is fascinating, which is that if, let’s say, you don’t pay attention to the fact that you’ve got skin in the game. You’re oblivious.
Economists like to argue people are rational, they take account of their gains, they take account of their losses. That’s why they’re prudent risk takers if there’s profit and loss. What Taleb points out is that if you’re really bad at something and you ignore the risks, you get taken out of the game. You’re not in the pool anymore.
Even if you’re not paying attention, skin in the game makes a difference, because it weeds out, say, gamblers who are imprudent risk takers, unless you bail them out, if you take out the skin in the game.
I’ve always, as an economist, thought, “You look at it. You take into account the effect.” Every economist would tell you this, but he made me appreciate that even if you’re not paying attention, as long as you don’t bail out losers, they’ll be weeded out of the process. Nice point. Cool.
Tim Ferriss: I’ve enjoyed his writing. I first read, actually, The Black Swan and then went back to Fooled by Randomness. Also read Antifragile. Very popular among some former, well, at the time current military intelligence guys.
Russ Roberts: Interesting.
Tim Ferriss: I was introduced actually to his work first by a friend of mine, an incredible tech innovator named Matt Mullenweg, and then later had Antifragile recommended to me by military folks.
Russ Roberts: Interesting.
Tim Ferriss: Just as a side note. I was introduced to him by the late Seth Roberts. I don’t know if you ever knew Seth Roberts. Great guy.
Russ Roberts: No relation.
Tim Ferriss: No relation. The first time I ever met Nassim in-person, I think it was the day after Lehman had collapsed. It was quite a time to have a conversation. Let’s go from Lehman Brothers to the Talmud. Am I saying that word remotely correctly?
Russ Roberts: Exactly correctly. Well, sorry, if you’re an American, you’re saying it correctly. An Israeli would say Talmud. Talmud.
Tim Ferriss: Talmud. Talmud. I have a quote here that I’ll put into context. This is on a site called Priceonomics, and here goes. Some of it is commentary, and then we have a quote that I would love for you to expand on.
“Explaining complex economic ideas can be a sisyphean task — a fact that Roberts acknowledges.
“Of course it’s frustrating and sometimes it’s very depressing,” he says. But he is philosophical about what one person can do.” Here we go, “I follow what the Talmud says about this. It is not up to you to finish the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” That last line is what I would love to hear more about.
Russ Roberts: It’s kind of embarrassing to talk about it actually. No one’s ever asked me to expound on that. It forces me to think about coming full circle to our earlier, first thing we talked about, which was my dad.
I think many of us are raised to think that we have obligations. We have things we’re supposed to do, things we’re supposed to pick up, tasks. I’ve always felt that, to some extent. I don’t know how much of it’s genetic, how much of it’s cultural, the way I was raised.
That idea that you’re not free to desist from it, again, you can think of it as a religious statement, but I don’t think it’s most people — there are plenty of nonreligious people who have that same feeling. Sometimes they’re called type A.
I should be careful. Type A people who need to do stuff is not quite the same. Not quite the same. The idea that you’re supposed to do something of consequence, that you’re not just here to enjoy yourself is a burden or a blessing, I’ve always somewhat felt. I don’t want to be arrogant about it. I think you can easily take it as pretentious.
It’s interesting. I had that conversation with, you mentioned Tyler Cowen earlier, we did this episode on how we read, our reading habits. It was really fun to talk. Tyler reads an unimaginable amount.
Tim Ferriss: It really is unimaginable.
Russ Roberts: He actually, I think, understands some of it, which is even better, and remembers some of it, which is even better. Seriously, I’ve a lot of respect for Tyler. He’s a great, great thinker and polymath. Somebody wrote me a fascinating email, and they said, “I read what you wrote about reading.”
One of the things I like to say is that if you read a book a week, which is a lot, you’re going to read about 50 books a year. If you’re around for about 50 years of reading, maybe a little more, but it’s 2,500 books. That’s it. That’s it. There’s 100,000 books, I think, maybe more. I don’t even remember now how many books are published a year. Maybe it’s a million. It’s a big number.
Tim Ferriss: Yeah. At least 100,000.
Russ Roberts: I get to read 2,500 a year — I mean in a lifetime. I always say pick them carefully, which I don’t always live by. I read a lot of books that are either not always so interesting. I’ve gotten better at stopping. When I was younger, I couldn’t put down a book without finishing it. It was a moral imperative. Terrible habit. I got over that, thank goodness.
You have a limited number of books to read, and this listener said to me, “How do you justify watching a baseball game?” You could argue the same thing when you think about the Talmud. It’s not up to you to finish the work, but you’re not free to desist from it.
While you’re watching baseball, you’re desisting from it. If you think of your life as having purpose and you’re supposed to do stuff and accomplish, which, again, I think I was both hardwired and culturally pushed to do by my parents.
I singled out my dad because he’s the one who drove that home for me, much more than my mom, who gave me other things but not this, or cursed me. You could get into is it a blessing or a burden. I don’t know. I like to think of it as a blessing.
How do you justify fooling around, doing nothing, playing your 40th game of chess in a row because you can’t sleep, and you’re compulsively watching your score on chess.com dwindle steadily through the night. I have a smart son who says, “When you lose two in a row, maybe stop playing.”
He thinks the goal is to win. The goal’s not to win. The goal is to distract yourself. It’s terrible. I play too much chess. I think he’s right. I think I do. Frivolous things, and certainly there is, by the way, a strong impulse in Judaism, and I assume other religions, not to waste time. It’s a precious thing, and you should be studying, learning, growing, contributing, doing good deeds.
Yet, watching a baseball game, how do you justify it? I wrote her back and said, part of the reason I enjoy the occasional baseball game, which I don’t watch much from Israel because the time zone doesn’t work so well. Part of the reason I like watching sports is that there’s drama. It’s about a human being and a set of human beings put in a cauldron of expectations and pressure.
To watch them emerge successfully or to fail is like watching a great drama. That’s one argument. The second is that, it’s easy, it’s some downtime. It’s okay. Your head’s going to explode otherwise. I do think, for myself, whether it’s for whatever reason, and I think for many people, we feel we have to. We can’t desist from it. We have a job to do.
By the way, it’s not all “I have to build a house for a homeless person.” Sometimes it’s just “I have to grow.” It’s not the Talmud quote, but it’s a different impulse that’s not totally unrelated, which is don’t just stagnate. Which is a weird attitude in a finite life.
Tim Ferriss: I want to just ask a handful of last questions. The next one is related to prayer and this may be dated. I don’t think it’s too dated. I’m reading a quote, think it’s a quote from you, which is, “I’m trying to write a book on prayer for people who struggle with prayer. I think most people do, at least the ones I know.”
Then it goes on to talk about other potential books on forgiveness and so on. I would love to know what prayer means to you and if such a book would be for religious people, or if a version of prayer would be made available through such writing to people who do not consider themselves religious.
Russ Roberts: Definitely the most personal question anyone’s ever asked me, Tim. Since we’ve been talking now for almost two hours, I feel like we’re very close. I’m going to try to — nah. I’m teasing, of course. Let me try to answer that.
I am trying to write a book on prayer. Since I became President of Shalem College, I was lucky to finish Wild Problems. I haven’t made any progress on that prayer book since I got to Israel, which is kind of ironic. The Holy Land.
I think it comes back to for people who aren’t religious, and, by the way, I was not religious my whole life. I had a part of my life where I was not praying regularly, and where I was not keeping the Jewish sabbath, and where I was eating lobster and pork and enjoying it immensely.
I think every, not everyone. It comes back a little bit to the comment I made earlier about being tone deaf. Most people, I think, can experience the transcendent, or a word that I find very difficult to think about, but I love the word, it’s immanent. Not meaning soon, but embodied in you. Immanent, I-M-M-A-N-E-N-T.
In the book that I’m working on someday, maybe, I talk about the handful of times when I’ve come into contact with that. I’m sure you have too. Example I use is I’m in California. We’ve taken the family, my wife and I have taken the kids to see a Shakespeare production outside in Santa Cruz, which is just really fun. You’re in these redwoods. It’s lovely.
It’s been a long day. We’ve had a good time as a family. We’re driving back, and I think everybody’s asleep in the car except me. We’re driving back to Palo Alto. I realize that to my left it is such a dark night for some reason, and there’s so little light pollution that the stars are as vivid as they are, say, in Yosemite, or the Negev, the desert area in Israel.
These are the two places I’ve seen the best stars in my life. They’re luminous. They’re not just like white dots. They’re luminous and you can see them all the way down to the ocean. I’m on the coast. I’m coming up, I’m driving north on the coast, and I can see constellations and stars out the horizon.
It gives me goosebumps to think about it, to talk about it. I don’t remember if I woke everybody up, or if we even stopped the car. It was a little bit dangerous. I rolled down the window to get better sight, and I remember just I kept turning my head. I felt connected to something.
Now, was I really connected to something? Am I imagining it? I don’t really care actually. I hope it’s true that there’s something greater than just nature and the material and my animal self, but there might not be. I do feel it sometimes. I think most of us have moments like that.
Alan Lightman, the physicist, has a wonderful book on this. He’s an atheist. He talks about lying in a boat looking up at the stars and how you feel something. It bothers him as a physicist. He writes about this discomfort, that he feels something transcendent there, something bigger than himself.
You can feel it out in nature. I have felt it many times, not enough, but many times in random encounters with human beings under duress. I’m sure you have too, where you meet someone who’s having a very bad time. You interact with them in a way that is not normal. You don’t usually have people sharing incredibly personal things, but they do. They need to share it.
They pour out their heart to you, and you’re there for them. One of these moments for me is this person said, “You don’t want to hear this, do you?” I said, “No. I do. I do.” The truth is I didn’t want to hear it, but I did. I was compelled, literally compelled. I wasn’t going to go anywhere.
Part of me wanted to run away, because it was so painful. It was such a heartache this person was sharing. Somebody I didn’t know very well. Those moments, those handful of times in my life as a human being where I’ve encountered another human being either under duress or in joy. It’s also in joy.
The birth of my children where I was privileged to be in the room with my wife, as I say, when we gave birth. She did most of the work, pretty sure. When she gave birth. Those moments are not just like, “Oh, that was really fun.”
I’ll pick even more trivial ones. Great musical performances. I’ve written about this. Watching Next to Normal, and I think her name is Rachel Bay Jones, pour out herself in front of 2,000 strangers and expose herself emotionally as the character in that play, and do it in a way that isn’t just like I’m an —
You don’t feel like she’s acting at all. You feel like she’s sharing a piece of her — giving you access to something that’s in you, too. Those moments, they’re transcendent. They’re part of something bigger than ourselves.
That’s what I think of with prayer. I think of prayer as accessing those or trying to access those more frequently. For me, it’s tied in with a belief in God, or a hope of God’s being there and listening.
I think for nonreligious people there’s something there even when it’s not religious. It’s spiritual, whatever you want to call it.
Tim Ferriss: Thank you for that explanation and those examples. I agree with you on the access to such things, even if you do not identify as a theist in any way. I certainly would agree with that. Russ, I appreciate you as a thinker. I appreciate you as a teacher. I’ve enjoyed this conversation. I’m not in a rush to close it, but also just being cognizant of time and all other things.
Is there anything else that you would like to add? Any stories you’d like to tell? Any requests of the audience, anything before we wrap up?
Russ Roberts: I want to ask you a question.
Tim Ferriss: Yes, please.
Russ Roberts: And it’s your show, so you can edit it out if you want, but you don’t have to answer it.
Tim Ferriss: Fire away.
Russ Roberts: We’ve been talking about stepping outside yourself. That’s been a subtheme of this conversation, as an example of the life well-lived. You are a very successful person in multiple dimensions. You have an impact on the world through research you’ve been funding. I know about that, because I keep an eye on you.
Your podcast is phenomenally successful. Your books are phenomenally successful. You’re charismatic, you’re charming. How do you keep your head screwed on straight? Is it a challenge? We’ve been talking about this. You should be full of yourself. It would be totally normal for you to be completely full of yourself.
Do you have anything you do to try to keep your feet on the ground and to stay sane? I don’t think it’s so healthy, by the way. Most of us aspire to, “I wish my podcast audiences were bigger. I wish it was more like Tim Ferriss’. I wish my books sold more like Tim Ferriss’.”
You’re who we want to be, and yet you know what it’s like. It’s not that easy. After a while, some of the road gets a little old. How do you stay grown up?
Tim Ferriss: Well, thank you for saying all of that and for the question. I’ll mention a few things. The first is that, and I’m not proud of this, but I am my own, let’s just say, best critic or worst enemy, depending on the day, depending on the impact that it has on me. This being my inner voices on my psychology and emotional state, and so on.
I do think that as a perfectionist, most of what I do is never up to my standards, whatever those imaginary standards might be, or as unreachable as they might be. I think that’s one.
I’ve certainly been told, and I’m sure this is attributed to someone else originally, but an older friend of mine said, long time ago, he said, “You’re never as good as they say you are, and you’re never as bad as they say you are.”
I’ve often reminded myself of that. I think that I also, at least through the podcast, and sometimes through the books, even though I haven’t written what I would consider a proper book in quite some time, I would say 10 years actually, I try to broadcast the mistakes and the failures.
I try to serve up equal portions of success stories and also misguided side alleys that end in disaster, so that I’m not creating a highlight reel for people.
It’s very difficult not to do that, especially, I think, in some cases in the podcast when what gets broadcast, and you know this, too, is a relatively small piece, or can be a relatively small piece of the entire operation and what goes into it, and the survivorship bias.
If you really have a terrible interview, it doesn’t get shared or it gets edited so tremendously that it’s franken-spliced into something that sounds a lot better than what happened in reality.
I also have, I’m very lucky, and this is certainly by luck and somewhat by design on top of that, I have great friends who will call me on my bullshit, and will certainly stress test any position that I hold really strongly. I’m very fortunate.
I mentioned one person, Matt Mullenweg. He’s certainly one of those people. He’s excellent at seeing things from different perspectives. Even as Devil’s advocate, even if he doesn’t have a dog in the fight with a particular position, he will force me through ruthless cross-examination to look very closely at perspectives I might be ignoring, alternative explanations I might be conveniently dismissing.
Those are the first handful of things that come to mind for me. I would also say that just by virtue of the, and certainly you have been doing this so much longer than I have, and have been an inspiration to me in this podcast in so many ways.
When you interview people who are exceptional at what they do all the time, it highlights how much, I’ll speak for myself, I personally do not know, and how many capacities I either will never have or have not developed. The older I get, the more I realize how incredibly little we understand to any extent. It’s actually very exciting to me. Those are a few things that come to mind for me.
Russ Roberts: I like that observation about humility. Because I feel being a podcast host has made me more humble. I’ve had some success. Not like yours, but I’m doing okay. You’re doing okay. In theory, you should just be an arrogant putz, to use a Yiddish term.
You might be, Tim. I don’t know you well. Speaking only for myself —
Tim Ferriss: I try not to be.
Russ Roberts: Definitely. Good goal. For me, I decided a long time ago that I wanted to be empathetic to my guests, that that would make a better show. It’s the right thing to do, and I thought it would make a better show.
That was a very costly decision, because it forced me to reevaluate a lot of things that I had believed or held as dogma. I haven’t changed so much, but I have changed some. One of the things that’s changed is that, as you say, you’re forced to recognize your own limitations.
I like to joke that each week I get to interview a person smarter than I am and ask them dumb questions. It’s really the truth, and it has made me much smarter as well as reminding me how little I know.
Since we talked earlier about Nassim Nicholas Taleb, one of my favorite quotes from him is, he cites it as a Venetian proverb, “The farther from shore, the deeper the ocean.” The more you learn, the more you realize how deep the water is. There’s a long way to go, long way to go.
Tim Ferriss: There really is so far to go. I want to mention, just for people who may not identify as religious in any way, you mentioned the, and am I getting this right, the Negev desert?
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Tim Ferriss: If you have not had a transcendent experience, and I’ll put aside defining that term for now, but if you are curious about the types of experiences that, Russ, you were describing, if you go to the Negev, do it with a tour. It is a desert, after all, or have a tour guide at least.
Sit there quietly, which I did with my girlfriend for about an hour. There is something very, I mean the word that comes to mind is bizarre, but there is a feeling there that I have not experienced anywhere else. I can’t put it into words, and nor do I really want to inflict the violence of language on the feeling.
I will just say, there’s a lot out there for people to explore. I encourage them to explore. Russ, I’ve tracked your work for quite a long time. I’ve enjoyed a lot of your writing, including How Adam Smith Can Change Your Life.
You’ve a very wide spectrum of subject matter that you explore. Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us is the latest and newest, which I’m very excited about. I said it before, I’ll say it again, I really appreciate you and value you as a thinker and as a teacher.
I think you offer a tremendous service to people with EconTalk. For those who have not heard EconTalk, go check it out. There are so many fantastically nuanced and rich conversations to choose from. Certainly would recommend people take a look.
That is a long way of saying thank you. Thank you for doing what you do.
Russ Roberts: Thank you, Tim. It’s a treat to talk to you. Look forward to doing it in-person sometime. As a person who aspires to perfection, you would be a great student at Shalem College. You need to work on your Hebrew.
Tim Ferriss: I do.
Russ Roberts: Our classes are taught in Hebrew, so something to look forward to.
Tim Ferriss: What is see you later? Lehitra’ot, something like that.
Russ Roberts: Lehitra’ot.
Tim Ferriss: There we go.
Russ Roberts: Well done.
Tim Ferriss: I’ve got a few words here and there. I’ll work on my Hebrew. Always open to learning new languages. To everybody listening, certainly check out Wild Problems: A Guide to the Decisions That Define Us. You can find all things Russ Roberts at russroberts.info, on Twitter @EconTalker.
Until next time, please be a little kinder than you think is necessary. Look outside yourself if you really want to solve some of the problems that you can’t solve focusing within yourself, and thank you for tuning in.
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