I always make a point of asking my guests for advice. I mean, why not? Who wouldn’t want advice from the illustrious sorts of high achievers I have on my show? But is that really true? Maybe my guests are exactly the wrong people to give advice.
GOLDIN: I think that one has to meander a bit and find something that is extremely satisfying to you.
KAHNEMAN: I don’t believe in giving advice.
Welcome to People I (Mostly) Admire, with Steve Levitt.
So, it’s obvious why my guests might give good advice, they’ve achieved remarkable things. They’ve won Nobel prizes, Olympic gold medals, and Emmy awards. But maybe they’re so incredibly talented that their advice isn’t that relevant to more regular people. Or even worse, maybe my guests are just regular people who happen to get extraordinarily lucky, and we confuse that with talent. Honestly, the last person I would want advice from is someone whose success was due to luck, but who doesn’t realize it. So, today, to start the new year, we’re going to do something a little different and instead of digging deep with one special guest as usual, we’re going to reflect on some of the wisdom shared on the show. You’ll hear my take on the advice that’s been given, including the very best and the very worst advice that’s been handed out. And I’ll also talk with some listeners, regular folks making their way through the ups and downs of life to get their take on the show’s advice.
Let’s put aside for now the question of whether particular advice is good or bad and start with the advice that I found most surprising. It came from Pete Docter, head of Pixar and director of the Academy Award-winning films Up, Inside Out, and Soul. I asked him: what advice would he give his younger self?
DOCTER: “Draw more. Just get outside and draw.” Drawing forces me to see things. I can walk past a house every day. But then if I stop and draw it, I suddenly notice details and things about it that I had never paid attention to before. So, drawing is a way to slow me down and really connect me to the world that I’m inhabiting that I’m not always fully paying attention to.
Now, maybe I shouldn’t be surprised — he started out as an animator, so drawing is natural. But still, it’s such simple advice. And a remarkable window into Pete Docter’s essence. A very different sort of advice came from Marina Nitze, former Chief Technology Officer for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. But it similarly gave a peek into who Marina is.
NITZE: I really live my life by this quote. And the quote is, “I always wondered why somebody didn’t do something about that. And then I realized I’m somebody.” To me, joy in life is making the world a better place and concretely making progress every day. And I hope that for everybody.
And then there are the inevitable cases where one guest’s advice contradicts another. Here’s Harvard economist Claudia Goldin:
GOLDIN: I would always say to follow your passions. I mean, that’s what I have done.
JENNINGS: I get annoyed when I hear people who have succeeded improbably in a field tell you to follow your dreams.
That’s Ken Jennings, the greatest of all time Jeopardy! champion and new host of the show.
JENNINGS: Because of course, Channing Tatum thinks that you can strip and act your way to success because he’s like the one in one-hundred thousand person who did that. 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!
On this divisive issue of following one’s passion, magician Joshua Jay said something which just might help resolve the disagreement. Because, after all, there are different degrees of passion.
JAY: Is it a white-hot burning desire that you have to do this every day? Is it a compulsion? Is it the lens you see the world through? If the answers to those questions take you less than one millisecond and it’s a resounding yes, you need to follow your passion at whatever cost. I jump out of bed in the morning to get back to whatever I was doing at 2 A.M., that’s how much I love whatever I’m working on. If have that passion, then the only question is how can you live a fulfilling life with it? I could never be fulfilled as a performing magician. What makes magic the ultimate career is that I get to write about it and publish books. I get to speak at universities. I get to invent tricks for other magicians. I get to consult on film and T.V. There’s an endless amount of things that I’m working on at any one time that make it such a cool job and a three-dimensional job. And I would just hope that whether it’s collecting puzzles or painting or whatever it is you follow, that you’ll find a way to see it in three dimensions.
If you have Joshua Jay-type passion, then my God, you better follow it. But if it’s not a compulsion, as Joshua says, then you owe it to yourself to try new things. Another source of contradictory advice is on the scale of thinking. Yul Kwon is, by all accounts, extremely successful. He’s a product manager at Google. He’s also been a lawyer, T.V. host, government regulator, FBI-academy instructor and the winner of the show Survivor. However, from an early age —
KWON: Growing up, I had a lot of anxiety. I had pretty severe O.C.D.
He knew that even if he wanted to tackle big problems like those, he needed to think small…
KWON: I just really started thinking like, what can I do? How can I change myself? And it was such a daunting challenge. But I tried to tell myself I didn’t have to change overnight. Just break things down into manageable chunks, like what can I do today? What can I do tomorrow? Just to push myself a little bit outside my comfort zone.
GLUCK: First of all, do what you can.
That’s Suzanne Gluck, my book agent. She’s in Yul Kwon’s camp on this issue.
GLUCK: I am the opposite of a lot of people. I’m not a big-picture thinker. I’m an incrementalist. Knowing that about myself lets me deal with what I can most effectively. Sounds like a very small piece of advice, but it could be really powerful.
On the other hand, some people spend their lives dealing with the biggest questions the world has to offer: Is there more than one universe? What’s the biggest existential risk facing humanity?
TEGMARK: I’m fascinated by big questions ever since I was a kid. And the bigger the better, right? It’s pretty inevitable if you spend a lot of time thinking about our universe that you also think about our place in it.
That’s M.I.T. physicist and cosmologist Max Tegmark. He’s the co-founder of the Future of Life Institute, an organization focused on reducing existential risks facing the planet. He’s particularly focused on ensuring superhuman-artificial intelligence becomes the best thing to happen to us rather than the worst.
TEGMARK: Humanity itself needs to dream big, and I would encourage everyone listening to this, spend some time next time you’re having drinks with your friends, asking them about a really exciting high-tech future that they would love to live in. And try to flesh it out in a lot of detail. What would that world be like? Because the more we can articulate this positive vision, the more likely we are to get to live in that future.
Listening to this back and forth, it occurred to me that maybe the right advice on thinking big versus small depends on your baseline level of confidence. If you’re short on confidence, like a young Yul Kwon, perhaps allowing yourself to think small provides you some much-needed victories. If you’re overflowing with confidence like Max Tegmark, going big probably makes sense. And if you fail over and over going big, well, your competence will likely take a hit, meaning it’s time to think small for a while.
I focused so far on disagreements, but happily, there are also some things people agree on.
KHAN: Make sure that you have space for your interests and your passions outside of work, that you don’t define yourself, your persona, by just that one job.
That’s Sal Khan, the founder of the hugely popular education-nonprofit Khan Academy. Early in his career, a boss gave him some valuable advice.
KHAN: I give the example — the hedge fund I worked at, it’s non-stereotypical, Dan Wohl who was my boss — I was ready to work 80 hours a week because I thought that’s what you had to do at a hedge fund. But I remember after the first week or two he was like, “Sal, why are you still working?” It was like 6 or 7 P.M. And I was like, “Oh no, Dan, I got to analyze these companies.” He’s like, “Go home.” I was like, “Okay, I’ll analyze them from home.” He’s, “No, no, no, go home and don’t do this.” And I was confused and he’s like, “Look, Sal, our job as investors is to avoid making bad decisions and make a few good decisions every year. If we just work ourselves silly, you’re going to end up making bad decisions.” And so, he’s like, “You need to have other interests, you need to recharge. And when you come to work, be there 110 percent.” I was like, “Alright, Dan, I will do that.”
Having that time to explore his interests is what led Sal to begin tutoring his cousins, allowing him to turn a small family tutoring operation into the global-education service that Khan Academy has become. Sal’s advice touches on something that’s been a theme on this show: the benefits of being a generalist. Here’s David Epstein, the author of Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World.
EPSTEIN: Sometimes the things you can do that give you the fastest apparent progress or head start in the short-term can actually undermine your long-term development. And that’s whether you’re developing skill in sports, whether you are studying math, whether you are choosing what to major in, or choosing a career or a specialty, that sometimes the things that will make progress right in front of your eyes will actually undermine that long-term development.
David himself is a generalist. He earned a master’s degree in environmental science before he took a job at Sports Illustrated.
EPSTEIN: I viewed myself as a consummate generalist, whereas my colleagues in sports writing viewed me as the specialist, because I was the science writer in sports. That’s what I’ve done through my whole career is basically take something that’s ordinary among my peers and then move it somewhere where it’s more rare. You will become more and more narrow if you just let the momentum of work life take you in that direction. You have to proactively work against that to develop some breadth or as I called a “range” and that it’s worthwhile, and that there are huge benefits to that.
MYHRVOLD: I am interested in lots of things. And I know that that’s actually a bad strategy.
That’s Nathan Myhrvold. Nathan is a former postdoctoral fellow of Stephen Hawking’s, Microsoft’s first chief technology officer, and now the co-founder of a company focused on solving Earth’s biggest problems. His outlook on life runs in parallel to Epstein’s.
MYHRVOLD: The world is much better at rewarding specialization than they are at generalization. I would be further along if I had one career rather than five. And there would be things that would be much easier. Only I just am interested in everything. And at some point, trying to deny who you really are just isn’t a smart strategy.
Nathan’s advice hits on another theme of this podcast.
MILLER: What I think is really the most important is authenticity.
That’s B.J. Miller, a palliative-medicine physician. B.J. and I had a conversation that aired on Freakonomics Radio recently. In this moment, we were discussing the awkwardness we feel towards death and specifically what’s best to say to someone who’s grieving over the loss of a loved one?
MILLER: It’s less about the words you choose in such a moment and more about the spirit behind the words. Whatever words pop out, is almost immaterial if they’re being honest with that. Find some words that feel okay enough. I think that’s where so much of the healing spirit is.
The thing about authenticity is, well, it reveals what’s different about you, which in my case often comes off as weirdness. At some point, I just decided I didn’t care if people thought I was weird. And that applies to a lot of my guests as well.
LEESON: I would say that most people would describe me as weird myself. I tend to be insistent about some odd things.
That’s economist Peter Leeson. Pete studies the organizational structure of pirate ships and the economics of medieval ordeals — trials by fire or the act of testing criminals by throwing them, bound, in water to see if they float. Pete is part of a long line of weird economists, a lineage that I, too, am part of. So, what does Pete think us weirdos should do?
LEESON: Follow your weirdness, wherever it may take you — probably within the confines of the law. For those who I think are oftentimes facing some pressure in one way or another to conform, to be a little bit more normal, I would say resist that pressure. Embrace whatever it is that motivates you, however unusual it is. Not only will you be a much happier person, but you’ll be a much more productive person because people who are fully immersed in whatever weirdness it is that drives them end up being pretty darn good, or at least, work very hard a cultivating whatever that weirdness might have to offer the world.
JENNINGS: The talents you have, the things you’re good at are really sacred. Like those things you should really treat as just a sacred, essential part of you.
Here’s Ken Jennings again.
JENNINGS: Don’t neglect the thing about you that makes you weird, because that was my mistake, and Jeopardy! was the only thing that rescued me.
On the other hand, you don’t need to be weird to have talent. Mathematician Sarah Hart couldn’t be more normal, and she’s also the first woman professor of geometry at Gresham College since its founding in 1597.
HART: I’ve been told I’m too normal. If I meet people, and they ask what I do, and I say, “I’m a mathematician,” I get this kind of, “Oh, you can’t be a mathematician — you don’t fit in the box of mathematicians that I’ve got in my brain.” And so, if you don’t fit into, I guess, old eccentric white guy with a beard, it just might put up the tiniest of little barriers and there is real opportunity loss if we are perpetuating this idea that you have to be a weirdo to be an academic, you’re losing the people that could contribute in new ways to your field.
LEVITT: Absolutely, or at the very least we should just recognize that you don’t have to be white and male to be a super weirdo. There are plenty of really weird people of color so maybe, if nothing else, we can start with just making math and economics safe for weirdos of all types.
HART: Everybody can be a weirdo. That’s the rallying cry.
Another theme for our guests, and one I’m a big proponent of, is quitting. Here’s Nobel laureate and my old business partner, Daniel Kahneman:
KAHNEMAN: You have to follow what you are inclined to do, and if you’re a scientist or if you’re a researcher, you have to be willing to discard ideas that don’t work. And if you find yourself obstinately sticking to ideas that don’t work, you’re in the wrong profession. That’s one piece of advice I would give, but otherwise I don’t believe in giving advice.
David Epstein agrees with Kahneman. For him, writing and abandoning stories is part of his process.
EPSTEIN: Malcolm Gladwell told me one time that he never writes anything that doesn’t get used. That is certainly not the case for me. I have to just accept a certain amount of inefficiency in my work to abandon certain stories because a lot of the stories when I’ve done sort of cursory research turn out to be wrong. And so, a willingness to abandon the ones that are not what I thought they were is helpful.
For physician Peter Attia, quitting is about being flexible.
ATTIA: Rigidity of thinking is generally a bad thing. 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. What are those people who can’t quit also incapable of doing on a day-to-day basis, vis a vis their very rigid view of this is the way to do things versus not? And I’m still generally a somewhat rigid person. But it’s something I at least pay attention to now.
The willingness to quit is closely tied to the acceptance of failure. Here’s Aicha Evans, C.E.O. of autonomous-vehicle company Zoox, on how she encourages her employees to take risks by accepting failure…up to a point.
EVANS: You have to state that it’s okay to fail. But then you have a few rules. I give up to three times, by the third time, I’m like, okay, we have a problem here. And then when you fail, the most important thing is really the learning. What happened? Why did it happen? And then how can we make sure that it doesn’t happen again?
You may be thinking to yourself, the people on this show are successes. They never fail. Well, think about Andrew Yang, who lost the race for the presidency and then lost the mayoral race for New York City.
YANG: No shame. Look at Andrew, I’m 0 for two and yet, people still happy to have me on the podcast.
Andrew’s, now starting a new political party. The Forward party. Like Max Tegmark, he thinks big.
Another thing I’ve talked a lot about over the past year is giving up control. And it started with my conversation with Google’s head of behavioral economics, Maya Shankar. Maya was a violin prodigy, but a hand injury in her teenage years made her switch career trajectories.
SHANKAR: I was this budding concert violinist and I couldn’t play the violin anymore. And it taught me this control thing is a bit of an illusion. I am the personality type that loves having control and it takes a while to fully appreciate that. You have to have a few more experiences with change and unexpected change and unwanted change, I think for it to really drill in.
My own personal favorite episode this past year was with my daughters, Amanda and Lily. And this idea of control and letting go of control was palpable. Lily struggled with an eating disorder throughout her teenage years, and at its worst, she was in the hospital with a feeding tube, refusing treatment. Years earlier, my son, Andrew, he had died when he was only one year old. Afterwards, I found the only way I could live was by accepting that I didn’t have control. When Lily was so sick, once again, I had to face the facts. I just had no control.
LEVITT: After your older brother Andrew died, I found the only way I could live was by accepting that I didn’t have control. And with you, you were an adult for starters, we couldn’t make you do anything. And I just accepted that it was your choice to live or to die, and you were seemingly choosing death. So, it was early December and you were in the I.C.U., you had a feeding tube in your nose, and unlike my usual sense — I’m always trying to advise people and to have the answers and to try to manipulate situations in my own best interests. Whatever reason, I just went in that morning and I was able to just listen and we talked. And one of the things that was on the table was going to an inpatient center in Denver. And I asked you, did you think you wanted to do that? Okay. I knew the answer was no. I mean, it was clear you were not ready. And you said, “I think I will go, but only after the holidays, I want to be home for Christmas. I want to be with the family.” And I knew what the truth was. And without thinking about it, I just said it— I said, “Lily, you don’t care about anybody else. You don’t want to be home for the holidays. That’s the last thing you want to be is with the family. Presents? Family meals? That sounds awful, doesn’t it?” And then there was this long silence and, um, completely inexplicably, you said, “Yeah, you’re right. I don’t care about any of that. I think I need to go to treatment.”
LILY: I had totally forgotten that. I knew that there is no way that I would choose recovery, unless I feel like I deserved it. And anyone who is listening, who is struggling with an eating disorder, my dad is the reason why I decided to go into treatment. But most people are never going to have a point where they’re like, I’m ready to do this.
So, what was the worst advice handed out on the show? Well, it came in the episode where I interviewed Harvard economist Ed Glaeser, but it wasn’t Ed Glaeser who said it. It actually came from me — during the part of the show where we address listener questions. A listener named Jordan had asked whether it’s moral to have children in the face of climate change, both because more kids mean a bigger burden on the planet’s resources and because those kids might have bad lives because of climate change. Here’s the start of my answer to Jordan’s question.
LEVITT: So, Jordan, I do have six kids and I have to say in having those kids, I don’t think climate change ever crossed my mind.
That was an honest answer. My own choices about family are complicated. As I mentioned earlier, my first son Andrew died at the age of one. I adopted two children. I got divorced and remarried, and I started a second family. Climate change simply wasn’t part of my calculus. I then went on, in my answer to Jordan, to explain how I think about climate change using the logic and words of economics as my lens. And that’s where things went downhill. After a typical episode, we get one or two angry emails from listeners who we offended. After my climate change answer, we got hundreds. I don’t generally mind offending people. But when hundreds of reasonable listeners take the time to write expressing displeasure, my comments obviously missed the mark. I even managed to offend Morgan, my producer. It’s too bad that Nobel Prize-winning economist Richard Thaler only came on the show later because when we talked, he had some sage insights about how ineffective economists are in talking about climate change.
THALER: The big question is why are we as economists so unpersuasive about why we need to price carbon emissions? We do know if we raised the price of carbon, people will emit less and yet we can’t convince anybody to do it.
I thought hard about Richard’s observation, and I learned from it. When I had venture-capitalist turned climate-warrior John Doerr on as a guest I raised many of the same points that were so triggering in my response to Jordan. But I did it in a way that was much more productive, and that conversation with John Doerr turned out to be one of our most popular and I think most useful episodes. On this podcast, we don’t just talk about embracing failure, we actually live it.
Coming up after the break… we talk to some listeners, and I share my single favorite piece of advice that’s been given on People I (Mostly) Admire.
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LEVITT: Hey, Morgan.
LEVEY: Hi, Levitt. How are you?
LEVITT: I’m doing great. This is a point in the show where usually you pose a question to me that one of the listeners has sent in and I try to answer it, but today we’re going to try to do something a little different.
LEVEY: That’s right. As we were putting together this episode on advice. We wanted to know if any of the advice that our guests give actually resonates with our listeners — if it held up in their lives.
LEVITT: And in the spirit of this podcast, we didn’t just want to theorize. We wanted to collect some data. So, we went out and talked to a bunch of our listeners and I thought it turned out great. And then Morgan, you had what I thought was an excellent idea. We had recorded these conversations and you thought these were so compelling that maybe we should actually include them in the show.
LEVEY: That’s right. So, we did. The second half of this episode features interviews with you and two of our listeners. So, let’s jump into those now.
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SANCHES: Cello was basically my life since I was 10.
This is Marcelo Sanches.
SANCHES: My parents gave me a cello for my birthday. They were musicians. I didn’t take it seriously until I was 14 and I won a competition in Brazil. And I started basically spending all my time off school playing cello. I got a full ride to Oberlin. I got a teaching assistantship at the University of Colorado for six years. I milked it for longer than anyone ever milked one.
LEVITT: You got a doctorate in cello performance, and you were doing really well playing in a regional symphony orchestra. But you were unhappy?
SANCHES: When I was young, I was really in love with music. And I didn’t really envision the day-to-day life of a musician, which is basically hurrying through traffic to try to get to gigs and then when you’re sitting in an orchestra, you’re not being very creative. It’s more of a group effort, right? It’s less about thinking on your feet and it’s more about blending. With many of the arts, you have maybe 1, 2 percent of people who really make it. And a vast majority who are struggling to keep up. It’s not just playing in regional orchestras. It’s teaching, it’s playing gigs, playing weddings, and everything in between. And so, you’re not making money and you’re not following your passion. And I was looking for a way outback in 2011.
Marcelo is now a data analyst. But he only found that career in his forties.
SANCHES: I was reading popular books on quantum physics and whatnot. So, I already had this interest in astronomy and math, and it was just putting it all together into an actual career.
LEVITT: So, how did you then settle on data science as your escape from music?
SANCHES: By the summer of 2016, I was unhappy enough that I took a career class. And the advice was to create my own company and be an entrepreneur. So, I interviewed a bunch of people as part of the class. And one of my acquaintances, who was a C.E.O. at a time in a marketing firm, said, “I think you should do this analytics program. You’re a very analytical guy. You’re going to love it.”
LEVITT: So, you enrolled in a formal program, a master’s degree, was it? In data analytics?
SANCHES: Yes. I enrolled in the University of Colorado’s Master of Science in business analytics, but I didn’t feel like I was ready for it, so I also took a Coursera class, specialization in data science from Johns Hopkins and took a statistics class as well.
LEVITT: So, one of the interesting unintended consequences of the sad fact that we do such a terrible job of teaching data science in school is that the field actually offers great opportunities for mid-career switching. Someone who’s motivated, like you were, can go to Coursera and either with, or without a formal degree can really learn the skills which makes it a great option for people who are mid-career. It’s such a convoluted career right now that you really can jump in at any time.
SANCHES: That’s very true.
LEVITT: So, you did this work on your own, independent study and Coursera, and then you did the coursework in school. How valuable did you find the formal schooling compared to what you were doing independently?
SANCHES: Each has their own merit. In Coursera I could spend a lot of time figuring out things on my own and directing my learning a little more. And in school, I got to interact with people that were often 20 years younger than me and learn a lot from them. Learn how they approach the world. One thing that you said recently in an episode with Andrew Yang was that young people are unashamed of making mistakes. And I needed that because from an older generation, we are really afraid of mistakes and especially a classical musician where we have to be perfect. You cannot make mistakes.
LEVITT: Do you think there are lessons that are worthy of advice to give to a broad audience?
SANCHES: If I could talk to my 14-year-old self or someone who was struggling to envision their career is to not just think about the one passion you have, because my one passion was music —also think about secondary passions. Like I loved math. I loved astronomy. I loved physics. Maybe I could have sought to understand what would a career in that be like. Would I be happier? Try to envision your future and try to marry your passion with a practical career. So, you can understand what your life might be like in 20, 30 years. It’s very tough, but I think it would have helped me to know that I could do that.
I argue so often about the power of data science that we frequently get questions from listeners about how they, as adults, can educate themselves about data science. Well, that’s exactly what Marcelo did to the point where he was able to change careers midstream. Now, that’s not easy. But Marcelo proved it is possible.
We also interviewed a woman named Phoebe Coupe. Phoebe wrote into the show originally asking us for advice about what to study at university.
LEVITT: Phoebe, you’re doing an undergraduate degree, but you aren’t the typical college student. You took a decade-long detour. Tell me about that.
COUPE: I always had a real aptitude towards singing and dancing and acting. It was always something that was really easy for me. I got my first job when I was 19 years old. It’s just crazy when I think back on how young I was.
LEVITT: My sense is that the performing arts come with big doses of rejection and disappointment. Was that your experience?
COUPE: There were some small rejections along the way but rejection becomes part of your job. I was really lucky in that I didn’t have to go through too much heartbreak. I moved to London when I was 23 and I worked on the West End. I got my very first West End audition I booked. I did Dirty Rotten Scoundrels — which is a musical in London and then I went on tour after that. I burnt out at about 28. Came back home to Australia to reassess and I found myself teaching and five years later I’m still teaching.
LEVITT: Burnt out? What do you mean by that?
COUPE: I’d built my career on accomplishment. And I just geared myself towards achieving, and I achieved and achieved and achieved, but didn’t stop to actually enjoy it. I actually couldn’t tell you a single moment where I was on stage being fully present and not trying to discern how the audience were receiving my performance. So, by the time I was 28, I was emotionally exhausted because I wasn’t actually doing the craft. I was just trying to achieve by doing something that always gave me some sense of validation.
LEVITT: That’s fascinating because many performers if I say to them, “How does it feel to be on stage?” Oh my God. Their whole face lights up. They say, “The only time that I feel alive is on stage.” So, interesting to hear you say you weren’t getting the high at all.
COUPE: I had small tidbits of that. But they dissipated so quickly. The reality is that it’s not enough to sustain you if you can’t be present in really enjoying the craft. Achievement won’t fulfill you.
LEVITT: Do you think that you could’ve known early on that this was totally the wrong thing for you and you just missed the clues?
COUPE: I don’t know that it is the wrong thing for me because funnily enough, five years later, I’m now going, “Actually, do I want to go back to it?” And I think I do, but I want to go back to it with a very different attitude towards it. Because I have started to discover that I do just love it. Really, all I do want to do with my life is sing and dance.
LEVITT: What do you think has changed about your circumstances to make you want to sing and dance again?
COUPE: I grew up in a family where a lot of things were really binary. Exceptionalism was really valued in my family, but it was so binary there was no spectrum for exceptionalism. So, you were either exceptional or you were inadequate. You were either really wise and knowledgeable, or you were completely stupid. Not that these were really outwardly spoken-about tropes, but I definitely picked that up as a sort of family culture. And I never learnt to just learn for the sake of learning, because I very quickly realized, “Okay, I get all of this validation from performing because I’m good at it. So, I accomplish. And so, therefore, I’m worthy and good. I never bothered to do anything else because I couldn’t handle the emotional bereavement of feeling like I wasn’t valued enough if I did something that I wasn’t good at. Whereas now as an adult, what I’m trying to learn is that learning for the sake of learning is fun. And if you learn something doesn’t mean you have to make a career out of it. Something that I’ve loved from this podcast is how you talk about how people have come away from academia and created mediums where they can get their work out to the general public. And that’s really allowed me to go, “It’s okay. If I am interested in economics, I can just read some books. I don’t have to become an economist.”
LEVITT:As a teacher, what I find so frustrating now is that almost none of my students are there to learn. They are there to get a good grade in the course and to graduate. I went the other day and I gave a speech to a women’s club in Chicago. And I would say the average age in the room was 65, and people were so engaged, and when it was time for questions there were 50 hands in the air. And it’s just so sad that we live in a society where the young get all the education, but they’re not ready for it.
COUPE: In my very first unit of university — I can’t remember what the question was or what the assignment was, but I just remember actually laughing out loud to myself going, “If I was 18, what I would come up with right now would have been just utterly ridiculous,” but at 33 I’ve got some semblance of a life and some experiences to be able to draw onto actually turn that learning into something worthwhile.
LEVITT: So, you’re currently a dance teacher, but you decided to go back to school and get your undergraduate degree. So, you’re getting a degree in psychology and sociology, but you have a lot of different interests.
COUPE: I’ve actually decided to change degrees.
LEVITT: Okay. So, what did you change to?
COUPE: So, I’m changing to an arts degree.An arts degree is just more of a general degree.
LEVITT: I guess in the U.S. we call it liberal arts.
COUPE: Yes. Liberal arts. So, there’s more freedom for me to choose some additional subjects that I could just do for the sake of finding them fun.
LEVITT: And actually take advantage of the fact that you’ve learned to learn over the years.
LEVITT: So, you don’t need my advice anymore.
COUPE: But to be fair, you have given me the advice because the podcast has given me permission to have more fun and to not have to choose something based on where I think it will get me.
LEVITT: Are there particular episodes or pieces of advice that the guests said that stick with you?
COUPE: Particularly Jared Diamond and Daniel Kahneman just blew my mind because I, ashamedly, didn’t even know who they were. And I was like, “How old are these people? They sound like they’re in their fifties, but they can’t possibly be.” Daniel Kahneman’s talking about his experience in the ‘30s. You can just hear that their brains are still so young. They’ve just been open to learning. And through that have just contributed so much to the world that I was like, “Gosh, get a hold of yourself. You’re 33. There’s so much time.”
LEVITT: One of the lessons that I’ve taken away from the podcast is that life is long. Almost every guest I’ve had has taken unexpected turns, and more often than not somehow the different paths unite in the end to make them special and different than the people who just got on a track and never got off it.
COUPE: Yes, absolutely. Because your brain isn’t going to be creative if. you’re never forced to think critically about what you’re doing.
LEVITT: One of the pieces of advice that surprised me the most came from Sendhil Mullinathan.
MULLAINATHAN: I think the one piece of advice I would give comes from this awesome paper, I think it’s Dan Gilbert. It’s called “The End of History Illusion.” If you ask people how much have they changed in the last five years, most people say a lot, especially young people like, take a 22-year-old. Oh my God. Who was I when I was 17? My God, 17 to 22 — I changed so much. Then you ask people, “How much will you change in the next five years?” They’re like a little bit. Pick any age, you always act as if history has ended. All the change you’re going to do is done, which is absurd because from 17 to 22, you changed a lot, 22 to 27 you changed a lot. So, I think the biggest error people make is they think they are choosing for who they are right now. What they’re actually choosing is for this person five years from now, who’s going to be very different from them.
LEVITT: To me, what makes that such amazing advice is it’s obviously true. And yet not once in my entire life had it ever occurred to me. And I’ve organized my life on the wrong principle.
COUPE: You think that who you are now is who you will be?
LEVITT: Yeah. I am who I am. I’m not changing.
COUPE: I think our culture also —there’s a very big focus on identity. And that can be misconstrued that you need to define exactly who it is that you are. Because I’ve often thought, “My gosh, if my 18-year-old self knew that I would stop performing at 28, she would be beside herself. Her life would be over.” And so, I’ve focused over the last five years on, “Okay, well who am I?” But I don’t think that’s actually allowed me to be as creative as I could be because I’m still trying to define myself into boxes where it doesn’t really matter who I am. It’s just what I experienced and what I can make of the life that I’ve been given. I had to tell myself that I was done with performing because that gave me a sense of control that made me go, “Okay, well, I’m closing that chapter.” And I never gave myself permission to go, “Maybe I’m not done. Maybe I just need to adjust the way I go about it. “Because I still really do want to study and a part of me that I really didn’t allow to open up when I was younger was the art of creating. I now have this really strong urge to create work.
Here’s Sendhil Mullainathan again.
MULLAINATHAN: The most interesting people we know didn’t know at 22 what they wanted to do. And some of the most interesting people don’t know at 40 what they want to do. And that’s good. If you’re embracing life, that’s what’s going to happen. Yet, somehow you feel like you ought to know, there’s this fixation on it. It’s okay. There’s a lot of other stuff coming down the road.
And that, my friends, is the single best piece of advice that I’ve heard on this show. It’s okay not to know where you’ll be, who you’ll be, what you’ll be doing in five to 10 years. And it’s not just okay to not know. It’s wonderful. My life changed more in the last 10 years than I ever could have imagined. If you told me even three years ago that I would be hosting a weekly podcast, I would have laughed out loud and said you were crazy. But now this podcast brings incredible joy into my life. But just because Sendhil’s advice speaks to me, there’s no need for it to speak to you. So, the last piece of advice that I’ll offer on this episode is this: try to pay attention so you actually notice when someone’s giving advice, and rather than just blindly following it, pause and decide for yourself whether or not for you this is useful advice. If not, simply ignore it. And of course, that applies equally to the piece of advice that I just gave. With my apologies to the planet, my wife and I are due to give birth next week. And Morgan’s going on her honeymoon. So, that means we will be doing rebroadcasts for the next two weeks, but then back with an amazing string of fantastic guests, like ethnobotanist Cassandra Quave, who takes a plant-based approach to drug discovery; Nobel prize-winner Jennifer Doudna, who developed the gene-editing technology CRISPR; and former member of the Obama Administration’s Council of Economic Advisors Austan Goolsbee. So, take care and thanks for listening.
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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. This show is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. Morgan Levey is our producer and Jasmin Klinger is our engineer. We had help on this episode from Alina Kulman. Our staff also includes Alison Craiglow, Greg Rippin, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Zack Lapinski, Mary Diduch, Ryan Kelley, Eleanor Osborne, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, Jacob Clemente, and Stephen Dubner. Theme music composed by Luis Guerra. To listen ad-free, subscribe to Stitcher Premium. We can be reached at email@example.com, that’s P-I-M-A@freakonomics.com. Thanks for listening.
MYHRVOLD: Of all of the ways to be weird, having a kid that’s gifted in math is not so bad.
- Pete Docter, chief creative officer of Pixar and Oscar-winning director.
- Marina Nitze, former chief technology officer for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
- Claudia Goldin, professor of economics at Harvard University.
- Ken Jennings, greatest-of-all-time champion and current host of Jeopardy!
- Joshua Jay, magician.
- Yul Kwon, product manager at Google and former winner of Survivor.
- Suzanne Gluck, literary agent.
- Max Tegmark, professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
- Sal Khan, founder of the education-nonprofit Khan Academy.
- David Epstein, writer and journalist.
- Nathan Myhrvold, co-founder of Intellectual Ventures and food writer.
- B.J. Miller, palliative-care physician and President at Mettle Health.
- Peter Leeson, professor of economics and law at George Mason University.
- Sarah Hart, professor of mathematics at the University of London and professor of geometry at Gresham College.
- Daniel Kahneman, economist and professor emeritus of psychology at Princeton University.
- Peter Attia, physician focusing on longevity.
- Aicha Evans, C.E.O. of Amazon’s autonomous-vehicle company Zoox.
- Andrew Yang, founder of the Forward Party, 2021 New York City Democratic mayoral candidate, and 2020 Democratic Party presidential candidate.
- Maya Shankar, head of behavioral economics at Google and host of A Slight Change of Plans podcast.
- Richard Thaler, professor of economics at University of Chicago.
- Sendhil Mullainathan, professor of computation and behavioral Science at the University of Chicago.
- Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, by David Epstein (2019).
- “The End of History Illusion,” by Jordi Quoidbach, Daniel T. Gilbert, and Timothy D. Wilson (Science, 2013).
- “Why is Richard Thaler Such a ***ing Optimist?,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Does Death Have to Be a Death Sentence?,” by Freakonomics Radio and People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Claudia Goldin: What’s ‘Greedy Work’ and Why is it Such a Problem?,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Andrew Yang is Not Giving Up on Politics – or the U.S. – Yet,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Max Tegmark on Why Treating Humanity Like a Child Will Save Us All,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “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).
- “Aicha Evans Wants You to Take Your Eyes Off the Road,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Sendhil Mullainathan Thinks Messing Around Is the Best Use of Your Time,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “David Epstein Knows Something About Almost Everything,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Maya Shankar is Changing People’s Behavior – and Her Own,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Peter Leeson on Why Trial-by-Fire Wasn’t Barbaric and Why Pirates Were Democratic,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Daniel Kahneman on Why Our Judgement is Flawed – and What to Do About It,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Nathan Myhrvold: ‘I Am Interested in Lots of Things, and That’s Actually a Bad Strategy,’” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Sal Kahn: ‘If It Works for 15 Cousins, It Could Work for a Billion People’,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Pete Docter: ‘What if Monsters Really Do Exist?’,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Marina Nitze: ‘If You Googled “Business Efficiency Consultant,” I Was the Only Result’,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Joshua Jay: ‘Humans Are So, So Easy to Fool’,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2021).
- “Yul Kwon: ‘Don’t Try to Change Yourself All at Once’,” 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).
- “Peter Attia: ‘I Definitely Lost a Lot of IQ Points That Day’,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2020).
- “Ken Jennings: ‘Don’t Neglect the Thing That Makes You Weird’,” by People I (Mostly) Admire (2020).