People I (Mostly) Admire

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People I (Mostly) Admire is hosted by Steven Levittthe iconoclastic University of Chicago economist and co-author of the Freakonomics book series, who tracks down other high achievers and asks questions that only he would think to ask. Guests include all-time Jeopardy! champion Ken Jennings, Harvard psychologist and linguist Steven Pinker, and WNBA champion Sue Bird. The weekly show features conversations with a wide array of guests — from actresses to athletes, authors to inventors.

“The perfect guest for me is someone who’s not only wildly intelligent, but also a little bit off the rails,” Levitt says. “Someone who thinks differently and who doesn’t care at all how the world perceives him or her.”

People like Yul Kwon, who has been a consultant, lawyer, policy maker, F.C.C. official, Google and Facebook executive, T.V. host, bone-marrow transplant activist, an perhaps most improbably, a winner of the reality show Survivor — all after a childhood of extreme shyness and anxiety. And Nathan Myhrvold, who started college at 14 years old, became a student of Stephen Hawking, a start-up whiz-kid, Microsoft’s first C.T.O. — all while continuing to work as a scientist with published research in paleobiology, climate science, and astronomy, becoming a French-trained chef, author of a James Beard-winning cookbook, serving as a judge on Top Chef, and filing nearly 1,000 patents. 

People I (Mostly) Admire is a production of the Freakonomics Radio Network. You can subscribe now on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Radio Public, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Yul Kwon: “Don’t Try to Change Yourself All at Once.” (People I (Mostly) Admire, Ep. 13)

He has been a lawyer, an instructor at the F.B.I. Academy, the owner of a frozen-yogurt chain, and a winner of the TV show Survivor. Today, Kwon works at Google, where he helped build tools to track the spread of COVID-19. But things haven’t always come easily for him. Steve Levitt talks to Kwon about his debilitating childhood anxieties, his compulsion to choose the hardest path in life, and how Kwon used his obsession with game theory to stage a come-from-behind victory on Survivor.

Sue Bird: “You Have to Pay the Superstars.” (People I (Mostly) Admire, Ep. 12)

She is one of the best basketball players ever. She’s won multiple championships, including four Olympic gold medals and four W.N.B.A. titles — the most recent in 2020, just before turning 40. She also helped negotiate a landmark contract for the league’s players. Sue Bird tells Steve Levitt the untold truth about clutch players, her thoughts about the pay gap between male and female athletes, and what it means to be part of the first gay couple in ESPN’s The Body Issue.

Paul Romer: “I Figured Out How to Get Myself Fired From the World Bank.” (People I (Mostly) Admire, Ep. 11)

For many economists — Steve Levitt included — there is perhaps no greater inspiration than Paul Romer, the now-Nobel Laureate who at a young age redefined the discipline and has maintained a passion for introducing new ideas to staid debates. Levitt finds out what makes Romer a serial “quitter,” why you can’t manufacture big ideas, and what happened when Romer tried to start a charter city.

Suzanne Gluck: “I’m a Person Who Can Convince Other People to Do Things” (People I (Mostly) Admire, Ep. 10)

She might not be a household name, but Suzanne Gluck is one of the most powerful people in the book industry. Her slush pile is a key entry point to the biggest publishers in the U.S., and the authors she represents have sold more than 100 million books worldwide. Steve Levitt talks with Gluck — his own agent — about negotiating a deal, advising prospective authors, and convincing him to co-write Freakonomics.

Moncef Slaoui: “It’s Unfortunate That It Takes a Crisis for This to Happen” (People I (Mostly) Admire, Ep. 9)

Born in Morocco and raised mostly by a single mother, Moncef Slaoui is now one of the world’s most influential scientists. As the head of Operation Warp Speed — the U.S. government’s Covid-19 vaccine program — Slaoui has overseen the development and distribution of a new vaccine at a pace once deemed impossible. Steve Levitt finds out how the latest generation of vaccines improve on their predecessors, why “educated intuition” is important in innovation, and what we can do to be better prepared for future pandemics.

Peter Attia: “I Definitely Lost a Lot of IQ Points That Day” (People I (Mostly) Admire, Ep. 8)

He’s been an engineer, a surgeon, a management consultant, and even a boxer. Now he’s a physician focused on the science of longevity. Peter Attia talks with Steve Levitt about the problem with immortality, what’s missing from our Covid response, and why nicotine is underrated.

Caverly Morgan: “I Am Not This Voice. I Am Not This Narrative” (People I (Mostly) Admire, Ep. 7)

She showed up late and confused to her first silent retreat, but Caverly Morgan eventually trained for eight years in silence at a Zen monastery. Now her mindfulness-education program Peace in Schools is part of the high-school curriculum in Portland, Ore. Steve Levitt finds out what daily life is like in a silent monastery, why teens find it easier than adults to learn meditation, and what happy children can teach their parents.

Nathan Myhrvold: “I Am Interested in Lots of Things, and That’s Actually a Bad Strategy” (People I (Mostly) Admire, Ep. 6)

He graduated high school at 14, and by 23 had several graduate degrees and was a research assistant with Stephen Hawking. He became the first chief technology officer at Microsoft (without having ever studied computer science) and then started a company focused on big questions — like how to provide the world with clean energy and how to optimize pizza-baking. Find out what makes Nathan Myhrvold’s fertile mind tick, and which of his many ideas Steve Levitt likes the most.

Susan Wojcicki: “Hey, Let’s Go Buy YouTube!” (People I (Mostly) Admire, Ep. 5)

She was the sixteenth employee at Google — a company once based in her garage — and now she's the C.E.O. of its best-known subsidiary, YouTube. But despite being one of the most powerful people in the tech industry, few outside of Silicon Valley know the name Susan Wojcicki. Levitt talks with her about the early days of Google, how her background in economics shapes the company's products, and why YouTube's success has created a range of unforeseen and serious issues.

Steve Levitt: “I’m Not as Childlike as I’d Like to Be” (People I (Mostly) Admire, Bonus Episode)

Steve Levitt has so far occupied the interviewer chair on this show, but in a special live event — recorded over Zoom and presented by WNYC and the Greene Space — the microphone is turned toward him. His Freakonomics friend and co-author Stephen Dubner checks in on the wisdom Levitt has extracted from his interviews, finds out why Levitt is happiest when angering everyone across the political spectrum, and asks Levitt why he ends every interview with the same question.