One hundred podcast episodes. That’s how many we’ve done. And that’s about, well, 100 podcast episodes more than I ever thought I would host in my lifetime. It took years of arm twisting by my Freakonomics coauthor Stephen Dubner before I finally saw the light. That podcasting would allow me both to talk to fascinating people who otherwise wouldn’t talk to me, and also to bring more attention to the issues I care about. So I finally took the plunge two-and-half-years ago, and despite some occasional rough patches, I’m so glad I did.
DOCTER: I think, I basically said, “What if monsters really do exist? And they scare kids for a living! That’s their job. They clock in; they clock out. They eat donuts.”
MONTGOMERY: The only way I could get through day after day of feeling this miserable was to promise myself that after I finished those books, if I still felt like this, I would end my life, ‘cause I didn’t want to live like that.
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.
Today, I’ll look back at the highs and the lows of the first 100 episodes, reflecting on what I’ve learned along the way.
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The ideal guest for People I (Mostly) Admire — PIMA — is smart, creative, reflective and a little bit weird. Not coincidentally, those are the exact same traits that lead to breakthrough ideas. So it’s no surprise that 13 of our guests have won either Nobel Prizes or MacArthur “Genius” Grants or both. You might think those awards mean everything to our guests, but that’s not always the case. Chemist Caroline Bertozzi has won a Nobel Prize and a MacArthur “Genius” Grant. But before that, in college, she was in a band with the legendary musician Tom Morello, the guitarist for Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. I asked her if she ever thinks to herself, “Damn, I’d rather be a rock star than a chemist.”
BERTOZZI: You better believe it. Like every time I hear Tom’s latest recording released, and hear him perform with The E. Street Band? Sure.
LEVITT: Do you think you would’ve enjoyed life as a rockstar?
BERTOZZI: I don’t know that I would have made it very far. I didn’t have the talent that he had.
LEVITT: It sounds like you secretly would rather be a rock star than a rockstar chemist.
BERTOZZI: Oh yeah.
LEVITT: Is that really true?
BERTOZZI: I love music. I love performing. Yeah, I think, maybe?
I love to be surprised by my guests. And hearing that a Nobel laureate still pines to be a rockstar, that ranks up there with the most unexpected responses I’ve gotten. But my favorite kind of surprise is when a guest explains something to me that I never thought I’d understand. Here’s Caroline Bertozzi again, she just described how on cancer cells in the human body. There is an explosion of a type of sugar known as sialic acid. Now like me, you know very little about biochemistry, but Caroline has such a simple, intuitive way of explaining how she’s attacking these sugars.
BERTOZZI: I like to refer to the sialic acids as grass. They’re grass that’s coating the surface of the cell, just like the planet earth is coded in vegetation. What we have done in my lab at Stanford and also, I have a company that I formed, that’s making human medicines this way, is we developed medicines that basically park on the cell and then act like a lawnmower and just drive around on the surface of the cell and cut the grass, which means they literally chop the sialic acids off. The sugars are just getting mowed, right off.
LEVITT: So these are like enzymes or something?
BERTOZZI: Steven, that’s exactly what they are. They’re enzymes. In fact, there’s an enzyme called sialidase and sialidase basically cuts sialic acids off of the cell and they just float away. And once the cell has been mowed, and it’s lost the sialic acids, it becomes helpless. And now the immune cells are going to see it for what it is and kill it.
LEVITT: It seems if you can identify the cancer cells well enough to mow their grass, is there a reason you can’t do more harm to them? Keeping the analogy alive, could you not inject a little weed killer at the same time that you’re cutting the grass?
BERTOZZI: You absolutely can. And in fact, there are other types of cancer medicines that are weed killers. We call them antibody drug conjugates. And those kinds of medicines, they have one part that targets the cancer cell, that’s the antibody part, and connected to that antibody is a toxin, that’s the weed killer. And the antibody basically allows the toxin to get into the cell and kill it. And that is another way to treat cancer.
Another great learning moment was when mathematician Sarah Hart brought her keyboard into the recording studio. She was using it to explain how C notes that are an octave apart can sound the same.
HART: Let’s try this out. Okay, so that’s the C, and then, as you say, you can play another one an octave higher.
LEVITT: Okay. Those sound really different to me. So, play them together.
HART: That’s them together. So here’s a C. Here’s a high C. And here they are together.
LEVITT: So, the crazy thing is, it really sounds like you’re playing one note. It’s a great example of how when you show people something instead of telling them it’s so much more powerful.
HART: Exactly. What we do when we’re learning something or experiencing something is we need to actually see it happening or to hear it — we need something to grab onto, to hold on to. And in mathematics, that’s super, super important, because I could say to you, “Well, here are the laws of music and write down some equations,” and that is not going to speak to you in the same way that me saying, “Okay, those two things sound the same.” And you can think about situations where a group of people are maybe singing something together and you will be just naturally doing that exact phenomenon. The men will be singing an octave lower than the women, usually, and you don’t even think about it. If you’re singing happy birthday at a child’s birthday party, you’ll just instinctively do that. And you’ll all feel that you’re singing the same tune, and to that extent you are, but you’re not because you’re not all singing the exact precise note. You are singing notes octaves apart and these simple relationships that hold between the frequencies of those notes and what makes them sound, to our ear, the same thing when we play them together.
So it has not always been smooth sailing. I’ve made some goofs along the way. Here I am talking to Stephen Dubner.
DUBNER: So have you ever made maple syrup, Levitt?
LEVITT: Believe it or not, I have, because my grandparents had a lake house, and we would make maple syrup every fall.
And as our listener Ed from Maine kindly pointed out over email, making maple syrup happens in the winter and the spring. Luckily, that wasn’t really the point of Stephen’s question. He was talking about how making Freakonomics Radio is just like making maple syrup.
DUBNER: So you know it is extremely labor intensive. You have to go out to all the trees, you have to bang a tap into the tree, hang a bucket on it. You come back, you gather up the sap, you dump it in some big barrel. Then, you boil it over a low fire for hours and hours and hours and hours. And you get like this tiny little thing of maple syrup. And you’re like, “Oh my God, why do we do that?” And that’s what making Freakonomics Radio is like. So you have to really like maple syrup to do all the work.
And my guests aren’t afraid to tell me when they disagree. Here’s an exchange with Columbia Professor Carl Hart. When I criticized one of his ideas about drug legalization.
LEVITT: Now, the one big chink in the armor that I see is those numbers you gave about addiction and abuse because I think people who are against legalization, they’re just going to say, “Look right now, 30 million people use drugs. If you legalize it, a bunch of kids — 10 percent of all the kids in America — are going to end up addicted to these drugs and ruin their lives.” Do you have a good counter argument to that?
HART: That’s some stupid sh*t. This notion that we should somehow ban an activity because we are afraid of kids engaging in that activity. We should ban cars because we’re afraid of kids driving cars or sex because of the sexually transmitted infections. That’s a really ridiculous notion, but we all play into it. Parents still have to parent, and these drugs are still illegal for kids to use and purchase. It annoys me when the kid argument is thrown into the mix, because what it does, it immediately shuts down any sort of rational adult conversation about these things.
But no doubt the biggest slap down I’ve taken on the show was when golfer Greg Norman on his first visit told me I didn’t have what it takes to be a champion.
LEVITT: I was playing in the B.M.W. Pro-Am at Conway Farms and I got paired up with Steve Stricker. And on the front nine, everything just came together for me. And the pinnacle of it was we were on a short par 4. And it couldn’t have been more than maybe 275, 280 yards. It was a green up on a little hill with some sand traps guarding the front. Ten seconds after I hit the ball, up at the green, there’s all this noise going on. And as I walked up to the green, it turned out that my ball had hopped over the trap onto the green and then took this huge arc rolling down and it had rolled to within maybe two-and-a-half feet of the hole almost for a hole-in-one on the par 4. And the crowd was cheering for me. The strangest thing was it was one of the worst moments of my entire life. I hated every second of it. I fulfilled every dream I’d ever had and I realized I hated it more than anything, that I wanted to be alone on the range. Golf, for me, it’s very personal and I felt very exposed.
NORMAN: Now look, Steve, I’ve known a lot of players over my career. People like yourself, you have a comfort zone, a way you want to be, and you’re just happy to be there. It takes the select few, I guess, is the best way of saying who really want to push the envelope to extract the most value you can out of your life.
Ouch. But I have a thick skin. And despite him telling me I would never extract the most out of my life, I even invited Greg Norman back on the show to talk about his renegade LIV Golf league. I know from experience that I often think differently about questions than other people, and fact that I don’t know much about the areas of expertise of my guests serves as a smokescreen to ask questions that are a little edgy or even outright blasphemous. Here I am in conversation with magician Joshua Jay.
LEVITT: This is a crazy question. I once heard it argued that perhaps Jesus was a really talented magician and had pulled off many of the miracles in a magical sense. Have you ever thought about that?
JAY: That’s a crazy left-field question; I love it. I took a class at university, The Founding of Religions, and we read this book about alternate messiahs in and around the time of Jesus Christ. And they all practice tricks — I mean, I don’t want to offend anybody here — they all practiced tricks that can be simulated by conjuring tricks in contemporary times. In other words, water to wine is a trick that would have been used in basically all civilizations at that time. Walking on water — I know they say that it often can be the illusion created when walking in a desert. When they create that oasis of hot air rising it can look like ripples in water. I don’t have any specific insight as to whether Jesus was really good with a deck of cards, but what I can say is a lot of the so-called miracles he became known for are contemporary conjuring tricks.
LEVITT: Yeah, no comment. I don’t want to get into trouble. Wow, can you imagine the implications? Obviously, there’s no way to prove it one way or the other. But imagine if it were proven. I wonder what the implications would be for modern society.
JAY: If you fast forward just a little bit in history, there is a demarcation point when we separate so-called black magic from white magic. So, you separate demonic magic, spells, hexes, ordaining of the gods, from conjuring tricks. And in the West, we sort of put that at the year 1584 with the publication of a book called The Discoverie of Witchcraft by Reginald Scot. And this was a book published that exposed magic. But he had the ultimate great excuse for exposing magicians’ tricks, because he said implicitly, “I don’t want to have magicians burned at the stake.” In 1570s in England — in Elizabethan England — you could be burned at the stake for doing a trick like water to wine. You could be burned at the stake for doing conjuring on the street because they didn’t separate that from witchcraft. And when he published this book, he said, “Look, it’s palming. Look, it’s just, you know, the anatomy of a chicken. It looks like the head comes off, but it really doesn’t.” And that started this separation of conjuring as entertainment instead of conjuring as a method of controlling people.
One thing I’m definitely not afraid to do is to point out my guest’s foibles — in the nicest possible way, of course. And I’m also not afraid to talk about the realities of the situation, even when it might be awkward. Here’s an exchange with ethnobotanist Cassandra Quave, where I do both in quick succession.
LEVITT: So, you seem to be fearless at so many different levels. You head off to the Amazon rainforest for long periods of time as a college student, knowing that you’re at an elevated risk of infection with a prosthetic. You chose to do iconoclast research. You wrote a popular book before getting tenure, which can be career suicide, at least in academic economics. Do you lack common sense, or what’s the deal?
QUAVE: Sometimes I worry about that. When I feel passionate about something, I go for it. My fullest version of my life is doing the science I love, but also communicating that love for science with others and with the hope that this will, in the long run, help people that are dealing with infection or other types of illness in the future.
LEVITT: I interviewed B.J. Miller for this podcast. He’s a doctor who’s battling for people’s right to die with dignity, and he’s also a triple amputee. Very early on in his journey, he stopped trying to hide his damaged limbs. He abandoned flesh-colored prosthetics. And he described that as being really important for him emotionally. How have you dealt with being perceived as different?
QUAVE: I went through something very similar to him. As a kid, I was always the odd disabled girl. Imagine all the insecurities that teenage girls have about their bodies. And then imagine also having a prosthetic and being riddled with scars all over your body. I spent so much time trying to hide that part of me through the clothing I selected or the ways I would engage with people — staying sitting instead of walking. Over time, I became more confident and I went to my prosthetist Will, who’s just great. He’s been my leg man since, you know, college. He’s used to my crazy adventures and my weird needs for adaptations on my leg. But I remember going back to him and I said, “Will,” I’m like, “I’m tired of this. I want you to strip all this fake plastic skin off and this foam stuff off the leg. I just want a metal pole. Let them look at that.” And he said, “You know, Cassie, I have another idea for you.” He showed me these websites of two companies. They had these amazing covers for the prosthetic leg. They had designs that looked like Iron Man, like a storm ship trooper. They had very, like, botanical ones. My oldest son really pushed for Iron Man. I was like, I don’t know about it. In the end, I went with this very kind of steampunk one I got in silver. It changed not only the way that I engage with people about my leg, because all of a sudden, instead of being this thing that I felt I needed to hide, it was something that became a conversation starter and something that was viewed as art and beautiful. And the way I thought about my scientific ideas really followed that same path. And I stopped worrying so much about what other people thought of my ideas. I let go of some of that angst. Because in science, you’re so driven into different kind of buckets. You have to be this kind of chemist or you have to be this kind of biologist and you can’t do things in between. And I just said, “You know what? I’m going to do what I’m going to do.”
Something I didn’t expect when the podcast was that it would allow me to have conversations that I’d never have in the real world, like with Cassandra about her prosthetic leg. It was only the second episode with actor Mayim Bialik when I brought up my son Andrew, who died just after his first birthday. I almost never talk about Andrew in my everyday life. But he’s come up a few times on the show. When we hosted Michael Lewis on the show, his daughter Dixie had died in a car accident only a year before.
LEVITT: Michael, as you know, we’re both members of one of the most awful clubs that ever existed: the club of parents who’ve had a child die. My son, Andrew died nine days after his first birthday. That was more than 20 years ago but the pain is still right there under the surface. Your daughter Dixie passed away just last year at the age of 19. I feel enormous empathy for people who have to walk that path, but are less far along than I am.
LEWIS: Well, thank you. And I’m sorry you had to go through it. And I agree with you, there’s nothing close to the sadness that I’ve experienced. And it’s a peculiar experience in that yes, we’re both members of a club, but the members of this particular club don’t have that much in common with one another, I don’t think. In that each experience is so peculiar to the circumstances, it adds to the pain, the feeling that basically I’m alone with the sadness. That basically there’s no playbook, there’s no answer to my grief. And the nature of the grief is so specific that sitting down with other parents who have lost children doesn’t help. I had to sort through my feelings on my own. The image that was always popping in my mind every day is like, I’ve been given a machete and there’s the jungle, and I’ve got to figure out how to get from one end of the jungle to the other end of the jungle and there was no map. Up until Dixie was killed in an automobile accident last May, I thought of myself as the luckiest person who ever walked the planet. And now I’ve had to rethink that. It’s just a piece of bad luck and it’s so sad. And I have to remind myself that the real loss is hers. She was this spectacular person. She was living her life in such an admirable way, and she was full of energy. She was a warrior. And she had a great life ahead of her. Obviously, I’m struggling with it. I don’t know what your coping mechanisms are, but it was so painful that I found in the first couple of weeks, just to get through the day, I started to make a list of things that made me feel better. Going for walks in the woods helps. Being outside in the day, social interaction. And insist on doing them otherwise I just couldn’t get through the day. And I found that since then, I’ve been able to get more absorbed with work and feel more or less myself, but I think there’ll always be this pocket of sadness in my heart and I’m just going to have to learn to live with it.
Coming up after the break, I’m joined by the show’s producer, Morgan. She spent more time listening to and thinking about these conversations than anyone else, including me. So I wanted to get her thoughts and what we’ve done so far.
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LEVITT: Hi, Morgan.
LEVEY: Hi, Steve. So, over the past 100 episodes, I have noticed you tend to do a few different things during interviews. And the first is that you love to tell people that they’re brilliant and unique ideas are totally obvious. Here is a clip from our very first episode with psychologist Steven Pinker. And you just asked him to describe his book Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism and Progress.
PINKER: It argues that we ought to deal with our problems by increasing our knowledge, trying to figure out how the world works through the use of reason and what I consider to be simply the application of reason to the physical world, namely science. That we should do so with the goal of making as many people as well-off as possible, and that if we do that, we can succeed. Namely, progress is a fact. It comes about as the result of people applying their ingenuity to reduce human suffering and increase human flourishing. Supported by data suggesting that progress actually has taken place. Our lives are longer and healthier and richer and better educated and happier than they were in the past.
LEVITT: So, I have to say, while I agree with literally every sentence in that book, I personally never would have written such a book because it seems so completely, totally, obviously true. I mean, any economist in the world would tell you that that’s true. But clearly, people don’t seem to know these facts and don’t seem to understand. I know you’ve had a lot of people disagree. And what do they even disagree with, do you think?
PINKER: It is interesting that economists, for all of the clichés about the dismal profession, do tend to have a more positive view because they are aware of one of the greatest facts in human history, namely that prosperity has skyrocketed since the Industrial Revolution. And the data-oriented mindset leads economists, like many data-oriented people, to have a different view of the world than you get from journalism. And I think there’s a systematic reason why, and that is that journalism presents a systematically biased sample of world experience, namely by covering things that happen suddenly. There’s a built-in bias to cover things that go wrong because things can fall apart very, very quickly. Whereas improvement creeps up a few percentage points a year, which can then compound and transform our lives. But there’s never a Thursday in October in which it happens suddenly. So, you never read about it. But you do read about all the wars and the pandemics and the riots and the terrorist attacks. So, unless you are nerdy enough to get your view of the world from graphs and data, you can miss the spectacular improvements that have taken place.
LEVITT: It’s funny listening to that, Morgan, because I’m like, “Yeah, Levitt, You’re right.” I was totally on my side listening to that. But what’s interesting is Steve Pinker’s really smart. And while the basic facts about progress, I think are completely obvious, his point at the end, that’s a really subtle and interesting point. I never would have thought of that. The way the news happens is that bad things happen quickly and good things happen slowly. And so the news has this really negative bias. And I think that’s a neat idea.
LEVEY: And when you tell guests that their ideas are totally obvious, you actually mean it as a compliment. What I hope our listeners have taken away from episodes is that you really value simplicity and clarity in an idea. And when you say something’s completely obvious, you actually mean that it’s really elegant. So here’s a clip of you in conversation with economist Emily Oster, where I think this admiration for obvious ideas comes through more clearly.
LEVITT: You’ve had so many interesting academic research findings, maybe we could start with one of your newer studies, which demonstrates the self-fulfilling prophecy of health fads. Could you explain that?
OSTER: I think it’s easiest to explain this by starting with just an example. Let’s say that some researchers are researching what kinds of foods improve longevity. And they run a bunch of things. And they come up with pineapples. Pineapples increase your longevity. And let’s just, like, imagine that’s a false positive, right?
LEVITT: So, they make a mistake.
OSTER: They make a mistake, yeah.
LEVITT: But they get a New York Times and a Washington Post headline that says, “Pineapples Are the Secret to a Long Life.”
OSTER: Exactly. And so then you think about what happens. Maybe on average everybody eats a little more pineapple, but it’s particularly the people who are like reading The New York Times to find out what food they should eat to make themselves live longer. And of course, those people are also doing all kinds of other stuff. They’re also not smoking. And they tend to be better educated. And they’re running all the time. And so then, if you said, “Okay, let me go back, and let me take a look at this pineapple thing again with more new data.” Now, actually, you’ve created a situation where pineapples are even more strongly associated with living a long time because of the people who have started eating them.
LEVITT: So the first go-round, the researchers made the mistake. They just looked at a bunch of people, and they happened to see that the people who ate more pineapple happened to live longer. But we’ve posited that that was just by accident. But then what happens is people become daily consumers of pineapple. And so they look three years later and say, “Well, let’s just see if our theory is still true.” But now, when you compare the people who eat pineapple to the people who don’t eat pineapple, pineapple eaters are super healthy, exercising, good-eating people. And all of the Cheetos-eating, soda-drinking people, they haven’t paid any attention. And so now, the comparison is between a really healthy group of people and a really unhealthy group of people. And it has magnified any possible direct causal effect of the health intervention itself.
OSTER: Yeah, exactly. As you said at the beginning, a self-fulfilling prophecy where when I tell people they should do something, then a selection of who does it changes. And then, you get potentially these magnified effects.
LEVITT: I love that because, to me, the best research is exactly this, where you take on a topic, and the insight you come up with is completely obvious. And I understand it immediately. And I ask myself, “Why didn’t I think of that? How could that never have been mentioned before. Well, I think what’s interesting in that, is oftentimes these really good ideas are just hanging in the air, right? You saw the kernel of what was obvious and subtle in it. That’s the secret to my own research, is I just live my life with my eyes open, always looking for things that are obvious but can’t be seen. And when I very rarely latch on to one, I really hold on tight, and I try to prove it.
OSTER: For me, that’s like the best moment of doing research is when you have a picture and the picture is what you thought it would be. That’s a cool moment.
LEVEY: Another thing that you love to do is you love to quiz guests on the first time something happened.
LEVITT: Do you remember the first time that you and I talked about abortion and crime?
LEVITT: Do you remember anything about that night when you first went on stage?
LEVITT: So do you remember the circumstances surrounding our very first phone call, the first time we ever spoke?
LEVEY: You always remember the first time something happened with a guest and they never remember it.
LEVITT: And they never do, yeah. So, look, I remember very little of what happened last week, much less five years ago or ten years ago. It’s a miracle that I can remember these particular moments that happened. But for me, they meant something. And it is funny because in your mind, you imagine that what’s important to you is important to other people. And yet, no. The first time I talked to Suzanne Gluck meant nothing to her. The first time John Donohue and I talked about abortion and crime. Ah, he doesn’t remember it. Amanda, my daughter can’t remember anything about the first time she went on stage. But for me, all of those moments are just etched in my memory. And every single time I expect them to say, “Oh my God, yeah, I do remember it.” And we have this romantic conversation. I’m not sure once yet that’s happened on this show.
LEVEY: No. No one ever remembers. Like, we could also do a supercut of everyone’s responses saying, “No, no, you’re going to have to remind me.” But when you interviewed your Freakonomics coauthor Stephen Dubner, it was your turn to be in the hot seat.
DUBNER: Do you remember I was in Chicago staying at your house, sleeping on the couch in the living room when you lived in Oak Park? It was the World Series, I remember. And I had a really bad cold so I ended up staying up all night. This was like the beginning of our starting to write Freakonomics in your office. Do you remember this at all?
LEVITT: Not at all. Not at all.
DUBNER: Oh, my god. It was so bad.
LEVITT: I can’t believe you were sleeping on a couch.
DUBNER: You had like 18 children. There were no beds available. So for anybody who’s ever used to doing something on their own and then tries to do that same thing with someone else, it’s just weird. And we would sit in your office. And you would just kind of talk, and I would kind of type, and you would talk. It was just horrible. And then we’d go eat. And when we’d eat, we would just talk casually, and it was fun again. Oh, there’s this story, there’s this research, and so on. And we did two or three days of it. And I was like, “Oh sh*t, this is not going to work.” It wasn’t a failure of you or me necessarily, it was just, like, this wasn’t the right way to dance this dance. From my perspective, as a writer, I couldn’t find a way to make it work like that. So anyway, this night of the World Series game, sleeping on the couch in your house, and I was up pretty late for the game. And then, I couldn’t sleep because I wasn’t feeling well. I just stayed up all night. And I wrote a version of what’s the opening, the intro, the prelude of Freakonomics. And the next morning, I remember pushing the laptop in front of you. And I said, “Here, take a look at this.” And I remember you read it, and you said, “That sounds nothing like me.” And I thought, oh sh*t, a bridge too far. And then you said, “But man, I really like it.” And so, I thought, “Oh, this can work.” I found what I thought was for us, the right tone, the right mode of collaboration. It was kind of lucky, but yeah, it worked.
LEVITT: My reaction to Dubner talking about that is like how in the world could anyone remember that there was a World Series game? It’s preposterous in exactly the way that my guests think it’s preposterous that I expect them to remember some particular moment. But I think what’s interesting there is the moments I ask my guests about are usually moments that we share together. But this was really a Dubner moment, right? He was the one who stayed up all night. He was the one who put in all this work. And so you can see why it might be etched into his mind. The moment of anticipation, is this going to work or not? All he did to me was hand me a piece of writing, which is something he would do a thousand times more over the course of our partnership. And every time he’d hand me a piece of writing, I’d look at it and say, “Hey, that’s great.” Or, “Hey, that’s terrible.” And to me, it really isn’t that different. But what a great storyteller Dubner is. I laughed just as hard listening to his story again as I did the first time when we were talking live.
LEVEY: So the third thing you do often in the closing narration is ponder how the guest will impact your thinking going forward. And I want to know if any of these conversations with guests have actually changed the way you do something in your life. I mean, in the episode with Peter Singer, you talk about believing in not eating meat, but that you’re living a life of contradiction because you can’t quite commit to cutting meat out of your diet. So I’m wondering has anything in the show actually changed how you approach your life?
LEVITT: So I still do eat meat, but I eat less meat. And in large part because of Peter Singer. And I do one other thing which is probably silly, but every time I eat meat, I do stop and I really pause and I thank the animal for giving me their flesh. Now, I’m sure the animal couldn’t care less — the dead animal. It’s like, it’s completely a meaningless gesture, but I think it is a step along the way to eating less meat. But I also think one place I’ve tried to change, but not very successfully, is a big theme of a lot of the guests has been about having fun. And I am terrible at having fun and I have tried really hard over the last two years over and over to have fun, and I can’t. I just don’t know how yet. So I think one of these days I’m going to have fun doing something, but I really struggle with fun.
LEVEY: So it’s true a lot of our guests have talked about the importance of fun. Here’s economist Sendil Mullainathan.
MULLAINATHAN: I feel like kids get less and less play. I mean, I went to Cornell — very good school. And I remember being stressed about it, but I also didn’t think to myself, I needed to check off a bunch of boxes to try and get into the best school. Like I just felt like I just had to be myself. Like a ton of time to just explore and just play and acquire interesting ideas and things. It made you able to enjoy and really become intellectual in a way that I couldn’t imagine doing if my only goal were to get good grades and check the right boxes. Like play is ridiculously underrated. Every time I’ve licensed myself to mess around, great things have come, because that’s how you get into really good ideas — is you mess around.
We’ll be right back with more reflections on the past 100 episodes of People I (Mostly) Admire. After the break, we’ll hear how the show inspired some listeners to take action.
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In our last episode with Sheriff Tom Dart, Steve asked listeners to send in a voice memo about a moment in an episode that inspired them to take action. Here, a listener named Diana tells us about writing to a mentor after a suggestion by Steve during his episode with astronomer David Helfand.
DIANA: When you ask listeners to contact someone who had changed their life, I sent a message to Roger Welsh. He traveled rural Nebraska to share stories about pioneers. I was hooked on listening to stories. After taking his class at university. My life had a direction. I went on to be a social researcher, paid to listen to and tell people’s stories. I thanked him for introducing me to the magic of storytelling and all that I have since learned from really listening to a person’s story. I’m a different and better person because of him. He wrote a lovely reply to my message and went to Facebook to praise his mentor. Roger passed away late last year with many tributes, most of which included a good story.
At the end of the episode I told a story about how a class with legendary biologist E.O. Wilson had changed my life and years later I sent him a note to thank him. He responded, and then died shortly after. I was so glad I reached out and it sounds like Diana is as well.
NOLAN: Hi Steven, and congratulations on 100 episodes. To find one of your finest, you don’t need to go far back into the archive. Your conversation with Annie Duke inspired me and my own job to set some kill criteria and a timestamp as a result. I can say that after 13 years with the same company, I’m now looking for my next career opportunity. But I can do so knowing that I happily left before I got so miserable that it wasn’t really a choice by.
That was a listener named Nolan. He is referencing the episode with Annie Duke, a former professional poker player and quitting advocate. This episode actually inspired many people to quit their jobs — thanks to all who wrote in to tell us about it. Now, Nolan mentioned kill criteria and a time stamp. Both are recommendations by Annie to help you know why you should quit and when is the best time to do so? Here’s another memo from a listener named Chris.
Chris SCAGLIONI: Hello, wonderful people at PIMA. I would like to think that I take something from every episode. However, Steven, I recall an episode where you told us about a study where people were randomly required to comment on their location and how happy they were at that given time. From these results, even if I had zero construction expertise, I decided to take a year off from work and build a house in the middle of a national park. It is a beautiful experience and I now live there full time. Thank you so much for the podcast. Chris from Australia.
Chris is referencing a study that data-scientist Seth Stephens-Davidowitz talks about in his episode.
LEVITT: You’re open about your struggles with depression in your book. Do the data tell us anything that can help someone who’s fighting depression?
STEPHENS-DAVIDOWITZ: So, I’m actually thinking of writing an entire book, “A Data Scientist Versus His Depression,” where it’s just on this topic because I’m doing much better now, but definitely in my twenties, I was suffering through a severe depression. And it did dominate my life. And I was reading all these studies on happiness. There’s this research by George MacKerron and Susana Mourato where they ping people at different times on their iPhone and say: What are you doing? Who are you with? How happy you are? And they built a data set of 3-million happiness points, which is just incredible. It’s called the Mappiness project. And I tell my friends, like, “Did you know that people are much happier — the same person doing the same activity at the same time — is much happier if he’s near a lake or he’s in a beautiful environment?” Or: “People are really happy with friends and romantic partners, but not with other people or acquaintances or colleagues?” And I’d tell my friends. And they’d all be like, “Duh, did we need scientists to tell us this? Like, those are the most obvious things in the world.” And then I stepped back and thought about it. You know, all my friends who are telling me that these studies, this research, it’s so obvious — when I look at their lives, many of them are very unhappy. And second of all, if you look at how they’re spending their days, they are spending very few of the hours doing the things that tend to make people happy. They tend to live in cities. Don’t spend much time in nature. They’re career-oriented, and spend all their time working, chasing after money. What I took from the research is really the things that make people happy are blindingly obvious. And it’s just up to us to avoid some of the noise of modern life and do more of those obvious things. So I conclude the book, “What’s the data-driven answer to life’s biggest question: How we can be happy?” I say, “Be with your romantic love on an 80 degree and sunny day overlooking a beautiful body of water having sex.”
This show has definitely changed my outlook around accomplishment. Here I am in conversation with psychologist Dan Gilbert.
LEVITT: So I hope you don’t mind if I read out loud your response when I invited you to come be a guest on this podcast. You wrote: “I normally turn down invitations to be on podcasts because truth be told after 20 years in the public eye, I’m just tired of hearing myself talk. Like every academic, I know I’ve always wanted more. More publications, more honors, more attention, and so on. But then one day, a few years ago, I realized I had what I needed. The banquet had been wonderful, but now I was full. Aren’t we supposed to get full? If so, why is everyone else I know always so hungry, no matter how much they eat? Anyway, the point of this ramble is that I’m saying yes to your kind invitation because I like talking to you. The fact that you want to record our conversation and play it to the world is irrelevant to me.” I never really thought about it but I’m pretty full too! And I feel guilty about it when so many others are still so hungry.
GILBERT: A good friend of mine, just a brilliant person; so accomplished, asked me once, he said, “What percentage of all the things you want to accomplish in life have you accomplished so far? Without missing a beat I said 172. It’s so far beyond anything I ever imagined or desired that I’m done. Then the conversation turned to him and of course his answer was something like 80 percent. And the question was how he would know when he hit a hundred and would he? And I think the answer is no. Success puts you on a treadmill and you just keep running and you keep craving more.. There’s something in the back of my mind that says, “You should know when enough is enough.” And certainly the kinds of accomplishments I’ve had so far, I have enough of. I don’t need any more applause. I really have loved it. But I’m done. I’ve had enough. Am I sick? Is this a disease? I’m not sure that this is advice for anybody. There might be something wrong with me.
LEVITT: Interestingly, this podcast is something I can only do because I’m full. For 30 years, I single-mindedly, almost with an addictive sort of focus, tried to produce knowledge. I had to. It was my job to have ideas, to write these ideas down, to break ground. And what has been very liberating for me is I no longer have any illusion that I will create ideas. I want to learn. I want to become a consumer of ideas. I didn’t read for pleasure for 30 years. What I love about this podcast is, I don’t want to embarrass myself. So before I talk to you, I want to really learn about you and what you’ve thought about. And I never spent any time doing that, even though it’s something I know I enjoy and I loved to do when I was young. And it just got crowded out. So one of the beauties for me of being full is that this is an activity that I can only enjoy because I’ve sated that other desire.
I used to ask my guests for advice, but honestly, their advice didn’t seem very good to me. So I stopped asking for advice and instead I began to ask my guests whether they’re full. Recently, paleontologist Neil Shubin, who’s a little older than me, told me he’d be crazy to retire. But author John Green put an interesting spin on the question.
GREEN: I’ve had to think about it a lot, partly because I’ve had a lot of periods where I thought, probably, I was finished writing. Because I just felt like I couldn’t do it well anymore, couldn’t do it to my satisfaction, or couldn’t meet the needs of readers. What I’ve come to for the moment is a feeling that the work is a gift. And I like making gifts for people. And these are the gifts that I know how to make. I know how to write stories and I know how to make videos. That’s where I can make a difference. And I want to try to make that difference if I can. But I also need to make a difference in the lives of the people who are closest to me, because that’s the biggest difference you make. Like your work is incredible and has had a big impact on my life and a big impact on the lives of millions of people. I think about stuff from Freakonomics all the time. And, yet, the biggest impact you’re going to have in your life is in the lives of your children, the lives of your students, the people you know in real life and care for, and lift up, and attend to. And that’s always going to be the very best use of your attention and your consciousness. And so, I don’t want to sacrifice that, which is the biggest difference I’ll ever make — is in the lives of my kids and lives of my family and people I mentor and care for personally. That’s always going to be the biggest difference. And so if I’m sacrificing that for this other kind of work, I think that’s a mistake.
This past fall, I had the opportunity to interview conservationist and primatologist Jane Goodall. My plan had been to end the interview by asking her whether she was full. But it had become so transparently obvious over the course of the interview that she was far from full. She was working as hard at the age of 88 as she had 50 years earlier. So instead, I took a chance and I asked her a very different question.
LEVITT: Now, you are not young. You’re 88-years-old. And it’s largely taboo to speak about death in our society, but I suspect you don’t mind talking about death. Is that a topic you’re comfortable with?
GOODALL: I’m extremely comfortable with it. We all have to die. You can’t hide from that fact.
LEVITT: And how do you feel about dying?
GOODALL: Well, I really put it into words when I was asked in a very big lecture of about 10,000 people a question I’d never been asked before. And that was, “Jane, what is your next big adventure?” And if I’d been asked like 10 years ago, I would say, “Oh, I want to go into the unknown regions of places like Papua New Guinea where new species are being discovered.” But I know I can’t do that now. When you are 88, you have certain physical limitations. Even though your mind is young, your body is getting older. So, I thought about this. And after a bit, I said, “Dying.” And there was dead silence for a few minutes, and then some nervous titters. And I said, “Well, when you die, there’s either nothing, which is fine; or there’s something, which I happen to believe. And if there is something beyond our death, then I cannot think of a greater adventure than finding out what that something is.”
Hopefully the adventure of death will wait just a little while longer for me, ‘cause after a hundred episodes of PIMA, I’m still not quite full. It’s a lot of work making the show, but because of people like you, it’s the most rewarding thing I do. And I hope you’re also still hungry for more PIMA episodes because we have a fantastic set of guests on the horizon, including one of my all-time heroes, Nobel Prize winning economist Bob Solow; we’ve got Clementine Jacoby, a data minded criminal justice advocate; mathematician and TV celebrity Talithia Williams; and legendary music producer Rick Rubin. And in two weeks, we’re back with a brand-new interview with a former guest Peter Attia. He’s a medical doctor who has written a new book that has changed the way I live my life. And I suspect it’ll change the way you live your life as well. As always, thanks for listening and we’ll see you in two weeks.
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People I (Mostly) Admire is part of the Freakonomics Radio Network, which also includes Freakonomics Radio, No Stupid Questions, and Freakonomics M.D. All our shows are produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Morgan Levey and mixed by Jasmin Klinger. Our production associate is Lyric Bowditch. Our executive team is Neal Carruth, Gabriel Roth, and Stephen Dubner. Our theme music was composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at pima@freakonomˆics.com, that’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. Thanks for listening.
LEVITT: But I do think, sometimes, when we approach people who I don’t know, their reaction is, “Why would I want to go on a mostly show? That doesn’t sound like a very good opportunity for me.”
GILBERT: That’s a good screening mechanism for people with no sense of humor. F*** ’em. You don’t need those people.
- Carolyn Bertozzi, professor of chemistry at Stanford University.
- Pete Docter, Chief Creative Officer of Pixar.
- John Donohue, professor of law at Stanford University.
- Stephen Dubner, host of the podcasts Freakonomics Radio and No Stupid Questions; co-author of the Freakonomics books.
- Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology at Harvard University.
- Suzanne Gluck, literary agent.
- Dr. Jane Goodall, GBE, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and UN Messenger of Peace.
- John Green, best-selling author and YouTube creator.
- Carl Hart, chair of the psychology department and professor of psychology at Columbia University.
- Sarah Hart, professor of mathematics at the University of London and professor of geometry at Gresham College.
- Joshua Jay, professional magician.
- Michael Lewis, author.
- Sy Montgomery, naturalist and author.
- Sendhil Mullainathan, professor of computation and behavioral science at the University of Chicago.
- Greg Norman, C.E.O. and commissioner of the LIV Golf Tour; former professional golfer.
- Emily Oster, professor of economics at Brown University.
- Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard University.
- Cassandra Quave, professor of dermatology and human health at Emory University and curator of the Emory University Herbarium.
- Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, data scientist and author.
- Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress, by Steven Pinker (2018).
- “Happiness Is Greater in Natural Environments,” by George Mackerron and Susana Mourato (Global Environmental Change, 2013).
- The Discoverie of Witchcraft, by Reginald Scot (1584).
- “Chicago’s Renegade Sheriff Wants to Fix Law Enforcement,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2023).
- “Searching for Our Aquatic Ancestors,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2023).
- “The One Thing Stephen Dubner Hasn’t Quit,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2022).
- “Annie Duke Thinks You Should Quit,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2022).
- “John Green’s Reluctant Rocket Ship Ride,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2022).
- “Jane Goodall Changed the Way We See Animals. She’s Not Done,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2022).
- “Peter Singer Isn’t a Saint, But He’s Better Than Steve Levitt,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2022).
- “Does Death Have to Be a Death Sentence?” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2022).
- “Self-Help for Data Nerds,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2022).
- “Turning Work into Play,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2022).
- “‘No One Can Resist a Jolly, Happy Pig,’” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2022).
- “The Professor Who Said ‘No’ to Tenure,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2022).
- “A Rockstar Chemist and Her Cancer-Attacking ‘Lawn Mower,'” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2022).
- “The Only Covid-19 Book Worth Reading,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2022).
- “Cassandra Quave Thinks the Way Antibiotics Are Developed Might Kill Us,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2022).
- “Mathematician Sarah Hart on Why Numbers are Music to Our Ears,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Amanda & Lily Levitt Share What It’s Like to be Steve’s Daughters,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Sendhil Mullainathan Thinks Messing Around Is the Best Use of Your Time,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Professor Carl Hart Argues All Drugs Should Be Legal — Can He Convince Steve?” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Greg Norman & Mark Broadie: Why Golf Beats an Orgasm and Why Data Beats Everything,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Pete Docter: ‘What If Monsters Really Do Exist?’” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “John Donohue: ‘I’m Frequently Called a Treasonous Enemy of the Constitution,‘” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Emily Oster: ‘I Am a Woman Who Is Prominently Discussing Vaginas,'” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Joshua Jay: ‘Humans Are So, So Easy to Fool,’” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Suzanne Gluck: ‘I’m a Person Who Can Convince Other People to Do Things,‘” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2020).
- “Steven Pinker: ‘I Manage My Controversy Portfolio Carefully,'” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2020).