“We Get All Our Great Stuff from Europe — Including Witch Hunting.” (Ep. 446)
We’ve collected some of our favorite moments from People I (Mostly) Admire, the latest show from the Freakonomics Radio Network. Host Steve Levitt seeks advice from scientists and inventors, memory wizards and basketball champions — even his fellow economists. He also asks about quitting, witch trials, and whether we need a Manhattan Project for climate change.
Listen and subscribe to People I (Mostly) Admire at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. Below is a transcript of the episode, edited for readability. For more information on the people and ideas in the episode, see the links at the bottom of this post.
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We’ve been using this holiday break to play you some of the new shows we’ve been making for the Freakonomics Radio Network. Today: a sampler of Steve Levitt’s new show People I (Mostly) Admire. You’ll hear Levitt in conversation with the vaccine researcher Moncef Slaoui, who’s been running Operation Warp Speed, and Susan Wojcicki, the C.E.O. of YouTube. You’ll hear Levitt talk mindfulness with Sam Harris and Caverly Morgan — and how to stretch the mind with Ken Jennings and Nelson Dellis, a four-time U.S.A. Memory Champion. He’ll discuss clutch performance with Sue Bird, one of the most decorated basketball players in history; and the art of quitting with serial quitter — and Nobel laureate — Paul Romer.
Some of the clips you’ll hear are from shows we’ve already released, but many are from upcoming episodes. To make sure you don’t miss any of them, go subscribe right now to People I (Mostly) Admire; you can get it on any podcast app. It is quite a different show from Freakonomics Radio. Levitt is weirder than me, for starters — in a good way. And a lot of People I (Mostly) Admire is dedicated to advice-giving, and advice-seeking as you’ll hear:
Steve LEVITT: So, whenever young people ask my advice about getting a Ph.D., I almost always try to talk them out of it. Getting a Ph.D. sounds fun and romantic.
Mayim BIALIK: It’s not fun.
LEVITT: It seems like it will open all sorts of doors. But the truth really is it’s brutal. It destroys many people’s self-confidence and sense of self-worth. And in the end, your job prospects aren’t even very good. So, does that describe your Ph.D. experience at all?
BIALIK: Yes, it literally near broke my spirit. And imagine, also giving birth to a human in that time. So, I didn’t party. I studied all the time. But I’m a person who wants to understand deeply the mysteries of the universe. And even if you’re a stay-at-home mom after that, even if you become an actor on a T.V. show, the knowledge that I have as a scientist has transformed my understanding of my religious life, my parenting life, and really everything about the world that I live in.
I’m Steve Levitt, and that was me talking with Mayim Bialik, the Emmy-nominated actress from The Big Bang Theory. We both have Ph.D.’s, although neither one of us is really putting them to much use these days. After decades doing academic research, I decided a few years back that I needed a change. I wanted to think about more practical problems, to have some real-world impact. So, even though I’m not so at home in front of the microphone, I bit the bullet and I started this podcast, People I (Mostly) Admire, with the goal of showcasing the ideas of people I admire, and also maybe slipping in my own views on the world here and there. For instance, I’m a firm believer there should be a lot more quitting. We would all be much better off. And it turns out I’m not alone in that belief. Here’s Paul Romer, a Nobel Prize-winning economist.
Paul ROMER: The way I’ve tried to offer advice is by saying, “There’s always something else you can do.” So, if you reach a roadblock, and especially if you feel like your notion of right and wrong is going to require a compromise to get past the roadblock, go do something else.
LEVITT: So, I’m going to call you a quitter and most people, those would be fighting words, but I think you’ll actually be one of the few people who would consider that a compliment. Do you have some insight into what makes you such a quitter?
ROMER: Well, I’d never framed it the way you do, but I like that in-your-face descriptive of “quitter.”
Romer was a physicist before he became an economist. He’s also worked in Silicon Valley and was even — ever so briefly — the chief economist at the World Bank, a dream job for a lot of people, but:
ROMER: With the World Bank, I actually tried to quit — I did think it was a waste of time. But I was persuaded that it would be very damaging to the bank if I quit, so I figured out how to get myself fired, and it worked.
Peter ATTIA: Do not consider sunk costs in your career.
ATTIA: So, I’ve done a lot of different things and that makes me a master of nothing. But life isn’t really about necessarily being the master of something.
LEVITT: In many ways that’s the advice I give everyone, is not to be afraid of change. It’s just so hard to quit stuff.
ATTIA: It might be that it’s the rigidity of thought that is really the biggest problem. And the ability to quit or not quit becomes a very high-water mark to separate those people out.
LEVITT: Do you have any advice on knowing when to quit something?
Nathan MYHRVOLD: We’re all familiar with the story of perseverance winning out. I tend to not advocate that, actually.
MYHRVOLD: There’s no point in beating your head against a wall. After you’ve given the wall a few good cracks, move over and try to find a softer spot on the wall, for God’s sakes. And I don’t mean you should always be a quitter. It’s hard to know where that tradeoff is.
Since I sort of quit the life of a typical academic, I started a research center, it’s called Radical Innovation for Social Change, or RISC for short. Where a team of us try to think of ways to make the world better. It’s something Nathan Myhrvold has dedicated his life to by starting a big invention firm. And it’s not easy.
MYHRVOLD: There’s two big frustrations of being an inventor. The first is when you can’t solve the problem. And of course, most of your ideas do fail. It takes a lot of iteration before you hit on something that really succeeds. And this is the second one: that you can’t get the world to adopt it.
Emily OSTER: Having influence on policy is something we all think that we’re going to do.
That’s economist Emily Oster of Brown University.
OSTER: And then it sort of often turns out that people don’t listen like we hope that they will.
LEVITT: Oftentimes, an idea isn’t enough to win the day. And academics have this view that when you have an idea, you put it out there and it’s not our job to do the implementation. That’s the job of the people in the field.
OSTER: We sort of lack a translational ability. And I think that that is something that we certainly don’t think of as very valuable.
LEVITT: Yeah well, the profession rewards creation and publication, but not translation.
OSTER: It doesn’t reward it, yeah.
I can certainly empathize with Nathan and Emily’s frustrations. In many ways, RISC is designed to be that kind of intermediary between academic ideas and real-world application. But even with that focus, on the one-year anniversary of the center, I sat down to tally how many lives we had meaningfully affected. Unfortunately, the honest answer was zero. Between failed ideas and long lags getting our occasional good ideas implemented, we had literally nothing to show for our hard work. And that’s when I decided to start this podcast. I realized my best avenue for doing good in the world was to bring attention to the brilliant people who in their own very different ways were having an impact. And the podcast gives me the chance to ask those folks the questions I really want to learn the answers to.
LEVITT: I’m really curious if you have any advice, as someone who obviously thinks logically and scientifically, about how to change the minds of people who don’t think logically and scientifically.
Moncef SLAOUI: I always say, I’m not trying to change their mind. I’m actually mostly trying to understand how they think and start from there.
That’s Moncef Slaoui, who’s the chief adviser for Operation Warp Speed, the U.S. government’s $18 billion effort to fast-track a Covid-19 vaccine.
SLAOUI: Because in order to really convince somebody of something, you need to truly exchange views, which means understanding why they say something. My advice is, A, active listening. And B, once you have some grasp of the problem, think of solutions. That creates energy and momentum to move forward. If you continue describing the problem, you stay still.
Sam HARRIS: My appetite for debate has diminished more or less along with the realization that it doesn’t work all that well.
And that is Sam Harris, the Stanford-trained neuroscientist turned philosopher and meditation advocate, perhaps best known these days as the author of Waking Up and the founder of the meditation app of the same name.
HARRIS: It’s really hard to change people’s mind in real time. People tend to change their minds in private. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve witnessed somebody relinquish fairly core, cherished beliefs. It’s like witnessing a supernova burst or something.
LEVITT: I’m surprised to hear you’ve ever convinced anyone to change a core belief. I can’t think of a case I’ve ever been that persuasive.
Steven PINKER: An educated person before the scientific revolution could very well believe that there are unicorns and werewolves, that comets and eclipses are portents of the future, beliefs that now we think of as primitive, superstitious, magical, but they were the conventional understanding of the day.
PINKER: But once there is science, once there is scholarship, once there is history, then you can expand the domain of the real to realms where common sense didn’t have a place for it. And that revelation, that our everyday experience is not a reliable guide to the ultimate nature of reality, is a major transition in thought.
ROMER: We don’t have this unbounded faith in our own observations, our own ability to understand things.
Paul Romer again.
ROMER: To get the benefits we want from discovery and collective learning, it’s important to have incentives for a wider range of views that get expressed. So, that when a new bit of information shows up, it at least gets entered into the conversation rather than having somebody self-censor it because they don’t want to be too far outside of the norm.
SLAOUI: For me, one of the learnings is science can help humanity.
That, again, is Moncef Slaoui, the vaccine researcher who’s been running Operation Warp Speed.
SLAOUI: Designing a vaccine is the most stringent demonstration of it because the impact happens on a short period of time that we can see it and live it. But if I take global warming, where we impact our livelihood, but on a much slower pace, and science tells us, it’s going in the wrong direction, we should be listening to it.
LEVITT: I have been arguing for years that what we need on climate change is something very much like the exercise we just did with Operation Warp Speed, where we take the best scientists in the world and devote them to tackling climate change. There’s been very few problems that mankind has put its scientific might towards and not been able to solve. So, are you willing to volunteer for the job of running that exercise when you’re finished with this one?
SLAOUI: If I had expertise, I would definitely consider it. But I do think one of the ingredients that is very important — particularly when timelines are fast — is what I call educated intuition, which is really anchored in knowledge and experience. You don’t know the answer to the question, but somehow your instincts drive you in a particular direction. And the other thing that’s really important— and it’s unfortunate that it takes a crisis for that to happen — is the intrinsic alignment of all the players, that rather than spending whatever percentage of our time arguing for the last 5 percent of alignment, everybody is aligned. Global warming, unfortunately, not everybody is.
I ran this proposal — something the Manhattan Project for Climate Change — past Nathan Myhrvold.
MYHRVOLD: You know, betting on the intellectual output of a bunch of really smart, motivated people that are in a context where you’re not constraining their creativity, that’s a bet that almost always pays off. I’ve been on the board of trustees at the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study, which is this amazing place for basically very pure academic research in a number of fields. They set this up in 1939 and by 1945, John von Neumann, one of the people they’d hired, literally invents the computer.
One thing that often comes up in these discussions is my belief that how we teach students in school is completely wrong. Imagine we were given the chance to start from scratch, with the goal of designing the best possible educational experience — no constraints. I’m pretty confident that the math and science we would teach would be much more interesting, much more inspiring and much more relevant to people’s everyday lives, rather than torturing high schoolers with trigonometry that they’ll never use.
PINKER: I couldn’t agree more. There are only so many hours in the day. And if it’s a choice between trigonometry and conditional probability, it’s just obvious what kinds of mathematics have the greatest impact, both on our responsibilities as citizens and the decisions that we make in our everyday lives. Any educated person should know what Bayesian reasoning is, or making a decision under uncertainty in a way that trades off the harm of false alarms with the harm of misses. Or how to tell correlation from causation. How to avoid logical fallacies and critical-thinking fallacies.
But it’s not just math and science — I think our overall approach to education could use an overhaul.
BIALIK: Well, my children happen to be home-schooled.
Actress Mayim Bialik again.
BIALIK: One of the reasons that we home-school is that we want to raise thinkers and not regurgitators. I’m interested in not raising children who essentially are soldiers — you know, soldiers of education.
LEVITT: I was about as good a student as a person could be through high school and college. But it wasn’t until my first day in the real world on the job in management consulting, where my boss — actually, he gave me a stack of documents that had some numbers about new drug applications to the F.D.A. And he said, “So, by the end of the week, I want you to tell me how our client can get their drugs approved faster.” And I said, “But I don’t know anything about the F.D.A. How do you want me to do it?” And he says, “Look, we’re not paying you to tell you the answers.” And I broke out in a cold sweat. And it was the first time, really, that anyone had asked me to think rather than to regurgitate. But what I realized is that I love to think. So, I couldn’t agree more about regurgitation versus thinking.
BIALIK: Steve, we just became best friends. Look at that.
Caverly MORGAN: Our education system was designed in the 19th century and these students were not being taught how to deal with uncertainty or how to be adaptable or how to access resilience.
That is Caverly Morgan, a former Zen monk and the founder of Peace in Schools, a program that managed to introduce mindfulness studies into the curriculum of Portland, Ore., public schools. I couldn’t agree more that a redesigned educational system should put much more emphasis on mental health, well-being, and emotional resilience.
MORGAN: Physical education, I mean, that was only introduced, what, 100 years ago or something? So, it doesn’t seem to me to be an outlandish vision that at some point we’ll think it’s crazy to have an educational structure that doesn’t include well-being, tools of resilience, social-emotional learning, healthy coping mechanisms.
HARRIS: 150 years ago, the only person lifting weights was the crazy guy in the circus with the handlebar mustache and the leopard-skin singlet, right?
Sam Harris again.
HARRIS: The idea that you would arbitrarily pick up heavy objects repeatedly as a way of changing your body when you don’t understand the logic of it, it’s a completely bizarre project. And yet, we all now know that physical exercise is one of the best things you can do. And most people feel like their minds are more or less whatever they wound up with when they stumbled into adulthood, right? The idea that through training, you could really change your mind, that’s not understood.
Another topic that’s long fascinated me, also having to do with the mind, is memory. When I was young, I prided myself on having a great memory. But after a decade of sleep deprivation while raising six kids, it seemed like I could barely remember my own name — which is a problem, because I’m part of this invitation-only trivia league and I’m obsessed with it. Every morning they send me a set of questions and sometimes I’ll sit there for an hour, staring up into space, trying to probe the deepest recesses of my mind, searching for those answers, which I admit is pretty sad.
Ken JENNINGS: That is not sad at all.
That is Ken Jennings, the Greatest of All Time Jeopardy! champion and currently the interim Jeopardy! host.
JENNINGS: It’s incredibly validating to have something emerge from your mind and actually pay off in some real-world sense.
LEVITT: I was surprised that when you were prepping for Jeopardy!, you and your wife, Mindy, were working with flash cards. I would think, and most people probably think, that you, to excel the way you have, must have a memory that is so good that you don’t need flash cards because you just need to learn something once and you remember it forever. Is that not true?
JENNINGS: I would say the general rule is if I learned something once and I find it interesting, I think it’s more likely to stick. But again, I think that’s near universal. Somebody who thinks they have an unremarkable memory or a kid who can’t learn their times tables, they still know every word of every song on their favorite album and they know every player on the roster of their favorite team. The memory is working just fine when engaged. Like the people you see on Jeopardy! don’t have photographic memories. That’s not a real thing. They’re just, like, interested in 10 times the things you are. So, I think people mistakenly think they have a bad memory. They mistakenly think things are boring. It just hasn’t quite been explained to them right.
Nelson DELLIS: So, you get 30 minutes to look at pages and pages of ones and zeros, the binary numbers.
That is four-time U.S. memory champion Nelson Dellis.
DELLIS: And you have to remember as many as you can in order and you get an hour to write down as many of them as you can. I can do about 2,000 to 3,000. I started with one digit every two seconds and I’ve had to practice doing that very quickly and learning how to do that without hesitation.
LEVITT: So, you claim to have only an average memory before you started doing this, are you just making that up, or is that real?
DELLIS: I’m telling you, it’s the way it is. If you look at my transcripts, you’ll see it— I mean, I may not have had a good memory, but I had a really good work ethic for something that I was passionate about. But I’ve taught many people how to get to a really high level of improving their memory with just some of these basic techniques.
We get into some of those techniques in the episode with Nelson Dellis, which will be out soon. And I will tell you, I was skeptical, but I have been amazed at how well they work, even for a memory-challenged old guy like me. You might suspect, given the clips you’ve heard so far that my guests and I always agree. In fact, we often argue, and I usually come out on the losing end.
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You’ll notice that I do, in fact, mostly admire my guests and while I mostly agree with them — that’s often why I invite them onto my show — I’m also happy to challenge them on things that I think they’re doing wrong or could be doing better. Like in my conversation with Operation Warp Speed head, Moncef Slaoui.
LEVITT: So, there’s something called a challenge trial where people are given an experimental vaccine. And you actually intentionally expose people who got the vaccine to Covid to see if they get sick. And the huge benefit of the challenge trial is that it yields answers quickly. And I suspect that if we had done challenge trials on Covid, we probably could have speeded up approval of a vaccine by two to four months. Maybe it would have saved 100,000 U.S. lives and $500 billion in government deficit. Why didn’t we do challenge trials, and do you regret that choice?
SLAOUI: The first thing is you cannot take wild-type virus and challenge people with it. That’s totally unethical.
LEVITT: But let me stop you there, because there’s a weird dichotomy for me between what medical ethics believes and what common sense says, which is if you can save 100,000 lives by maybe killing 10 volunteers, who you could pay very generously, a million dollars apiece, to take a one-in-100 chance to die, I don’t understand why that’s unethical.
SLAOUI: Well, you are going to have to take people with comorbidities, old people, obese, etc. Very complex, and the issue of the ethics gets very important. If this was Ebola, where exposure to the virus means 90 percent chance of death, it’s a different story. If there is an airborne virus that kills 90 percent of people that it gets in, yes, challenge trial and I’ll volunteer to save the others.
I also pushed back on something that YouTube C.E.O. Susan Wojcicki and I were discussing.
LEVITT: Shouldn’t YouTube’s strategy reflect the fact that you care not about how much hate speech is on the platform today, but you care about how much hate speech is on the platform a month from now, or a year from now, or five years from now. There’s a whole menu of strategies that it seems to me that you and the other tech companies have punted on to achieve a short-term goal.
Susan WOJCICKI: I would say that I don’t think we have necessarily gone after a short-term goal. So, last quarter we removed 11 million videos. And you can look and see what percentage have come from hate.
LEVITT: But that’s kind of my point, which is, a really short-term way to deal with hate speech is to take down people’s videos and then let them start a new account and put them up again.
WOJCICKI: When people create content on YouTube, they have two goals. One is that lots of people see it. And the second is that they generate revenue. So, basically there’s a whole grayscale in terms of how we approach these different types of content. It’s not just black or white, on or off the platform. And so, there’ll be some content that we’ll allow on the platform, but they can’t monetize it, and we won’t recommend it. And at the end, if you can’t generate any revenue and no one’s going to watch it, you’ve taken away a lot of the incentives for people to create that content.
In the interest of fairness, I did admit to Wojcicki how wrong I was when it came to YouTube being bought by Google in the first place.
LEVITT: I just want to go on record as saying that I remember vividly a lunch conversation I had in the days after Google acquired YouTube, and I was sitting in the Faculty Club at the University of Chicago with a bunch of other economists, including some Nobel Prize winners. And honestly, we almost never agreed on anything. But all of us collectively agreed 100 percent around the room that that was the stupidest business move that had ever been made in the history of mankind. And, history has proven 15 years later that actually it might have been the single best acquisition of all time.
WOJCICKI: Just to let you know, we only had like a day to go through the whole process. And so, I probably did the model in an hour at the most. And I wound up getting asked a lot of questions about it, and “Why did you assume all these things?” And I always have to remind people, I really couldn’t do it with that much detail.
And I ’fessed up to Moncef Slaoui, too.
LEVITT: When Operation Warp Speed was announced back in May of 2020, I will admit that I — and, honestly, everybody intelligent that I knew — predicted it would be a complete disaster, that there was no way you would hit your timeline of January 2021. I am so delighted to be sitting here today completely wrong in my predictions.
SLAOUI: Yes it is amazing. With all the teams and the companies, the hundreds and thousands of volunteers that participated in a trial. Having been part of it is incredibly rewarding.
Since I’m an economist, and this show is part of the Freakonomics family, from time to time we discuss economic research, including on some important topics such as race.
Kerwin CHARLES: The share of African-American men in the whole population who are not working today — meaning you take into account institutionalized, the unemployed, and the out-of-the-labor-force — is more than 30 percent. That’s astoundingly high, okay?
CHARLES: In what share of American school districts larger than, I don’t know, 50,000, does at least a majority of African-American children read at grade level? It’s a handful. That’s a national disgrace.
LEVITT: And you’re not just talking anecdotally. You’ve done this profoundly important research that has shown really exactly what you’re saying, which is that at the very top, African-American success has been fantastic. But in the bottom part of the distribution, Blacks have even lost ground relative to whites.
CHARLES: Exactly correct. Think about the decline of manufacturing, the rise of automation all of which especially adversely affect Blacks at the median and below.
In other episodes we touch on some less important but no less interesting economic topics like this one with economist Emily Oster. One topic she studied: witch trials.
Emily OSTER: So, that paper is really about what is driving witch trials in Europe. It was actually a period called the Little Ice Age. And of course, colder weather means more crop failures. And the idea was if we think that this is a feeling of things are not going well and I need someone to blame, maybe those things would be linked.
LEVITT: Okay, and what you showed in really simple ways was that there was an incredibly strong correlation between periods of unexpected cold and the number of unfortunate women who were murdered as witches.
OSTER: Yes. The only thing I would add is that actually there were some men witches too. But, yes. It was actually a big phenomenon in Europe. Much bigger than the one incident people know about in Salem.
LEVITT: So, we imported the witch-hunting from Europe?
OSTER: We get all our great stuff from there. Including witch-hunting.
A huge part of the show is just hearing stories from people who’ve done unusual things. For instance, for more than a decade, Robert Sapolsky ran a neuroscience lab at Stanford University for half the year. For the other half of the year, he would live among a troop of baboons in Kenya, secretly trying to knock them out to study their biology.
SAPOLSKY: You just spend an absurd amount of your time trying to figure out how to look nonchalant around baboons. So, these were animals I was spending all day long with, just following around with a walking stick thing, which every now and then would turn into a blow gun and get somebody in the rear when he wasn’t looking.
LEVITT: And so, when you darted them, they would fall over or it took a while?
SAPOLSKY: He’d react as if a bee had stung him or sat on a thorn, get up, scratch his rear for a second and go back to what he was doing. And then about a minute later, he would sit down. And the anesthetic that I used was Phencyclidine, also known as P.C.P., also known as Angel Dust, which meant I was spending a lot of time filling out forms and being interviewed by skeptical agents from the Drug Enforcement Agency for getting my P.C.P. each year. So what you would see, P.C.P. when used at street levels, is a robust hallucinogen maybe 30 seconds before the guy would go down, he’d be making facial expressions at other baboons who were not there, things of that sort, suddenly — plop! — he goes down and you quickly run in and get a blood sample as fast as possible.
LEVITT: How long would it take them to recover afterwards?
SAPOLSKY: Dependent on the experiment they would recover overnight in a cage that I would let them out of the next morning. There was this ironic thing in that at that dose, P.C.P. is a retrograde amnestic, which means his memory of the entire day is wiped out. So, the next morning he wakes up and he’s in this cage at dawn and he’s freaking out. And who is it who comes and lets him out? It’s me. I was getting all of this unearned affinity with these guys for heroically freeing them from the strange circumstance. If they ever recovered memory, I was completely screwed.
One of my favorite episodes, which will be coming out soon, is with the basketball champion Sue Bird who’s an especially insightful athlete.
Sue BIRD: I think pressure affects everybody. It just affects some people differently.
LEVITT: But I would think that in order to be the player you are, you would have to be a person who actually gets better under pressure rather than worse.
BIRD: So, now we’re kind of getting into this world of the clutch gene. It’s argued a lot. You wouldn’t take a guy on your team or a woman on your team just for that reason. I don’t think the difference is great enough. But obviously, there are people who are known for hitting big shots or known for playing well in big games. That exists, for sure.
LEVITT: I had a student who wrote a paper about free-throw shooting. And believe it or not, it turns out that at the end of a game, if the game is on the line, that the N.B.A. shooters do worse from the free-throw line than they do at other parts of the game. But that was totally absent in the W.N.B.A. It’s really, I think, the opposite of public perception about men and women. But women seem to have ice water in their veins and the men in the N.B.A. really, really didn’t.
BIRD: That’s really interesting. The only other thing I was going to add was I think we kind of frame it the wrong way. We expect the person to be hitting those shots or making those free throws in this case and it’s actually the reverse. It’s that you might make three out of 10, but somebody else is making zero. It’s not who’s most successful. It’s like who’s the most successful of the least successful.
LEVITT: So, you’re really saying there are people who cannot maintain the level when the pressure gets really high and then there are people who maintain it. But it’s not like there’s a whole lot of folks who get better when the pressure is on. And that’s what this academic paper showed, that it wasn’t that there were a set of people who were clutch in the sense they were even better at the end. It was just the difference between maintaining versus losing.
BIRD: Getting worse. Exactly.
Yul Kwon is someone who thrives under pressure. He’s a senior director of product management at Google who recently led Google’s side in the development of a Covid contact-tracing A.P.I., made in partnership with Apple and used by health authorities around the world. But if you recognize Yul’s name, it’s most likely because he won season 13 of the TV show Survivor.
LEVITT: You’re heading into Survivor. You’ve been a lifelong analyst of social dynamics and game theory. So, what strategy or strategies did you adopt as you headed into the game?
Yul KWON: So, from a game-theory perspective, I was always a fan of Robert Axelrod’s work around the evolution of cooperation. And so, one thing he did around 1980, was to host a tournament where he invited some of the most prominent researchers, to submit a strategy for playing iterated prisoner’s dilemma in the form of some sort of a computer program. And all of these programs would essentially compete against each other in a round-robin tournament And some were pretty complicated, like that tried to do an analysis of what the other program was doing.
The thing that ended up winning was submitted by this mathematical psychologist named Anatol Rappaport. And his strategy was something called tit-for-tat. It starts off cooperating. So, it starts off being nice. And then it just copies whatever the other guy did the last time. So, if the other program cooperated, then the next time tit-for-tat was like, “Okay, I’m going to cooperate too.” If the other program backstabs, then tit-for-tat is like, “Okay, I’m going to get retribution.” But then if the other program starts cooperating again, then tit-for-tat would cooperate.
LEVITT: Yeah. I teach a class to undergrads that is an economics course for non-econ majors. And one of my lectures is on game theory and in particular on the prisoner’s dilemma. And indeed, I try to tell them at the end of the lecture that tit-for-tat is a pretty good strategy for life.
If you want to hear about the single most brilliant real-world application of game theory I’ve ever encountered, then tune into the upcoming episode with Yul Kwon. It absolutely blew my mind. Susan Wojcicki, who we heard from earlier, is — like Yul Kwon — a senior-level employee at Google. But years before that, when Google was just starting out, she was actually their landlord.
LEVITT: So, is it common for people in Menlo Park to rent out their garages?
WOJCICKI: No, it’s definitely not common. I was just looking to rent it so I had rent income and could pay the mortgage as a just-graduated-from-business-school student with a lot of student loans. And, it just so happened to be that it was a startup that found me and it was Sergey and Larry, the founders of Google, who wound up renting our house.
LEVITT: So, you just put an ad in the local newspaper or something? “We have a garage” — or, how does that work?
WOJCICKI: I did put an ad, but it turned out I had a friend who was good friends with Sergey and they were getting started at the same time and they were looking for office space. And this was during the first boom of technology and so they really struggled to find any space. And I said, “Well we have three rooms here and the garage. They’re really tiny rooms.” And they thought it was great because they were living in their dorm and there was a washer and dryer and there was a hot tub in the backyard. They really thought this was the best thing ever. And at the time it seemed totally normal. All my friends would come over and say, “Who are those guys?” I’d be like, “Oh, they’re just some internet guys at my house.” And then afterwards they found out they were Google. It’s hard to imagine in today’s world. But that’s the way it was 20 years ago.
I often end my interviews by asking my guests for advice.
LEVITT: All right, last question. Last question. All right, last question. It seems to me you’ve lived a really good life. Do you have advice about living a good life? So, what advice would you give on leading a life worth living? So, how about on living a great life?
And so, to end this episode, we’ve compiled some of those responses. But first let me make an observation: If you’re still listening this far into the podcast, that’s a pretty good sign you’re enjoying it, which makes me think you should subscribe to People I (Mostly) Admire if you haven’t already. We’ve released 10 episodes since August, and because of the amazing response, we’re planning to start releasing new episodes weekly. If you’re thinking about subscribing, here’s a piece of friendly advice: do it right now. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from behavioral economics and a lifetime of T.V. infomercials, it’s that if you don’t act immediately, chances are you will never act at all. So don’t miss out. Thanks for listening. And now here’s advice from, in order, Ken Jennings, Sue Bird, and Nathan Myhrvold.
JENNINGS: The secret is not necessarily to follow your bliss. It does not follow that just because I was able to pay for a house on game-show winnings, that every Jeopardy! fan should quit their job and train for Jeopardy! But the root principle is sound. That like the talents you have, those things you should really treat as just a sacred, essential part of you. Make sure that the thing you’re good at is central to your life. And maybe it means you pick a career that leaves you time at the end of the day to indulge it. But just don’t neglect the thing about you that makes you weird.
BIRD: Growing up, I was just happy to get what I got. And I think that’s an issue with women. I really like to tell younger women: We need to expect to be paid well. We need to expect to have opportunity, because when you expect it, that can change how you’re viewed and how women are viewed.
MYHRVOLD: It’s so corny, but being true to yourself is part of it. I am interested in lots of things. And the world is much better at rewarding specialization than they are at generalization. Only I just am interested in everything. And at some point, trying to deny who you really are just isn’t a smart strategy.
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People I (Mostly) Admire is a production of the Freakonomics Radio Network and Stitcher. This episode was produced by Greg Rosalsky. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Zack Lapinski, Mark McClusky, Daphne Chen, Mary Diduch, and Matt Hickey. Our intern is Emma Tyrrell; we had help this week from Dan Dzula. The music you hear on People I (Mostly) Admire, like the music you hear on Freakonomics Radio, was composed by Luis Guerra. You can subscribe to People I (Mostly) Admire at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.
Here’s where you can learn more about the people and ideas in this episode:
- Moncef Slaoui, leader of Operation Warp Speed.
- Susan Wojcicki, C.E.O. of YouTube.
- Sam Harris, author of Making Sense.
- Caverly Morgan, founder of Peace in Schools.
- Ken Jennings, Greatest-of-All-Time Jeopardy! champion.
- Nelson Dellis, memory champion.
- Mayim Bialik, actress.
- Peter Attia, longevity expert.
- Nathan Myhrvold, inventor and former C.T.O. of Microsoft.
- Emily Oster, professor of economics at Brown University.
- Kerwin Charles, dean of the Yale School of Management.
- Steven Pinker, professor of psychology at Harvard University.
- Robert Sapolsky, professor of neurology and neurosurgery.
- Yul Kwon, senior director of product management at Google and winner of Survivor.
- Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, by Sam Harris.
- “Moncef Slaoui: ‘It’s Unfortunate That It Takes a Crisis for This to Happen’” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2020).
- “Peter Attia: ‘I Definitely Lost a Lot of IQ Points That Day’” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2020).
- “Caverly Morgan: ‘I Am Not This Voice. I Am Not This Narrative’” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2020).
- “Nathan Myhrvold: ‘I Am Interested in Lots of Things, and That’s Actually a Bad Strategy’” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2020).
- “Susan Wojcicki: ‘Hey, Let’s Go Buy YouTube!’” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2020).
- “Ken Jennings: ‘Don’t Neglect the Thing That Makes You Weird’” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2020).
- “Kerwin Charles: ‘One Does Not Know Where an Insight Will Come From’” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2020).
- “Mayim Bialik: ‘I Started Crying When I Realized How Beautiful the Universe Is’” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2020).
- “Steven Pinker: ‘I Manage My Controversy Portfolio Carefully’” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2020).