Meta-Rationality, COVID-19 (Coronavirus), Talismans, and Life on the Margins – Tyler Cowen on The Tim Ferriss Show

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Key Takeaways

  • “I think the most efficient way of learning at the margin, for most smart people, is travel” Tyler Cowen
  • Be more meta-rational (a meta-rational person is more likely to admit they don’t know something and defer to the views of experts)
  • Whatever your situation in life, make the big change. It’s a risk, but on average, it pays off.
  • Being religious has many benefits
  • If you’re feeling unfocused, most often, it’s a result of deviating from your routines
  • For up-to-date (and accurate) coronavirus news:

Books Mentioned

  • If you want to start reading more fiction, Tyler recommends The Western Canon by Harold Bloom
  • One of Tyler’s “12 Rules for Life”: Every now and then, read (or re-read) ErasmusMontaigneHomerShakespeare, or Ulysses by James Joyce
  • In The Complacent Class, Tyler argues that we’ve become a stagnant society
  • A few of Tyler’s upcoming podcast interviews:
  • Despite being the author of multiple (dense) science fiction novels—Snow CrashCryptonomicon, and Anathem, to name a few—Neal Stephenson was a relatively easy interview for Tyler because of their shared interests in science, the future, and tech
  • Emily Wilson, the translator of Homer’s The Odyssey, was Tyler’s most difficult interview prep
  • “What do I tell people to read most often? I’m not religious, but usually, I’ll tell my non-religious friends they ought to go read The Bible.” – Tyler Cowen


Tyler Uses Economics as a Vehicle to Improve His Thinking

  • “I don’t think of myself as doing economics; I think of myself as doing a funny kind of philosophy with the economy as the topic. My goal isn’t really to teach economics; it’s to improve my own ways of thinking, and maybe people will learn some of that as I go along.” Tyler Cowen

We Should All Travel More

  • “I think the most efficient way of learning at the margin, for most smart people, is travel” – Tyler Cowen
    • You’ll NEVER go wrong sitting down with groups of people in different countries whom you don’t usually sit down with

As a kid, what did playing chess for money teach young Tyler?

  • It taught him that he needed to be honest with himself about why he was winning or losing
    • “You can’t lie about how well you’re doing … You have a numerical rating … You can’t say, ‘The sun got in my eyes,’ more than once.” – Tyler Cowen

Meta-Rational People Are More Likely to Defer to the Views of Experts

  • “A person is meta-rational when he or she understands how smart or well-informed he or she is in a given topic area. In my view, meta-rationality is hard to come by. People typically don’t defer to the views of experts when they ought to. Sometimes, the expert might be wrong, but if you’re playing the odds, the expert is probably right. People are far too confident about too many things they shouldn’t be confident about.”Tyler Cowen

How does Tyler advise people to parse their COVID-19 (coronavirus) information sources?

  • Firstly: “The United States, it seems, has let the coronavirus get into its healthcare system, and they did nothing about it for six weeks. This could end up being a huge crime of omission.” – Tyler Cowen
  • “The returns to understanding how to build a good Twitter feed are very high, and right now, many of us should be building coronavirus Twitter feeds” – Tyler Cowen
  • “Twitter’s fantastic, but most people use it badly, hate it, criticize it, and waste time on it. But, if you use it as a truth-generating mechanism, use Twitter search, and most of the time ignore politics, it’s wonderful.” – Tyler Cowen
    • Tyler’s advice: take a topic you’re interested in, like the coronavirus, and type it into Twitter search once a day: “You’ll sample different opinions, see how people respond, and be led places by happenstance. That’s fantastic. We didn’t have that 15 years ago.”
  • Don’t get too caught up in your own narrative—whether the “panic story” or the “it’s all going to be fine story” (after all, the truth is probably somewhere in between)
    • “Dominant moods or emotions tend to cease hold of us, even if we’re very smart. Often, smart people go wrong because they’re better at feeding more information into their chosen mood.” Tyler Cowen
  • Another piece of advice during the coronavirus duress: maintain meta-rationality through detachment
    • “Maybe a certain bit of obliviousness, actually, is useful. You want to be plugged in but also somewhat detached.” – Tyler Cowen
      • In general, if you let your routines distract you from too much emotional involvement, you’ll be better off
  • Lastly, Tim highly recommends Johns Hopkins’ daily newsletter about the coronavirus

We Talkin’ ‘Bout Practice

  • In Tyler’s blog post, How I Practice At What I Do, he wrote:
    • “One of my favorite questions to bug people with is: ‘What is it that you do to train that’s comparable to a pianist practicing scales?’ If you don’t know the answer to that one, maybe you’re doing something wrong or not doing enough.”
  • Tyler expands:
    • People like Kobe Bryant and Martina Navratilova practiced to an EXTREME degree, and that’s how they got better
    • “Every day, you want to be reading, you want to be talking, you want to be thinking, and you want to be exercising. Do it at as intense of a level as you can.”  
  • Tyler practices his craft by:
    • Writing EVERY day (much of which never gets published)
    • Talking to a diverse set of people with differing opinions
    • Listening to “highly complex music” (Tyler’s favorite genre: Indian classical music)
    • Reading fiction
      • “Periodically reading serious fiction is something people stop doing after they hit a certain age—maybe 30 or 40. It forces you to be open to the complexities of how humans actually are. I recommend that too.” – Tyler Cowen
      • If you’re looking to start reading more fiction:
        • Tyler recommends The Western Canon by Harold Bloom
        • “I think the greatest writer is Shakespeare, but he’s not necessarily for everyone”

Tyler’s Writing Routine

  • As mentioned above, Tyler writes EVERY day (including Christmas)
    • “The real enemy of writing is days where you get nothing written. If you write something every day—I don’t care how much or how little it is—it’s going to add up, and over time, you’ll get more done each day. So, just make it an absolute rule. … Just do it every day. Get better at it every day. Don’t take any excuses. Do it.” Tyler Cowen
  • “I like to quit writing before I get tired of writing. That way, I’m hungry to come back the day after.” – Tyler Cowen
  • Tyler does most of his writing in the morning (after checking email)
  • “I love having multiple offices to create variance in my physical environment, but usually, I start at home … I sit on the sofa, lean against the armrest, and I don’t even know if I’m comfortable, but I’m so used to it. I just write. I end up back there at the end of the day, and in between, I’m at one of my two offices.” – Tyler Cowen
  • Tyler writes his first drafts in Microsoft Word
    • “I’m a software idiot, so if I’m writing a book or a column, I just use Microsoft Word. I’m still struggling to figure out how it works.” – Tyler Cowen

Tyler’s Email Protocol

  • Perhaps unlike most people of his stature, Tyler responds to nearly every email
    • “If I respond, I develop more and better relationships. You could say that I’m a fan of getting drowned in your email, but I think this is part of it: I try to stay a bit weird and obscure enough that mostly quite smart people are emailing me. If I had too many not smart emails, I would feel I was doing something else wrong with what I’m writing.” – Tyler Cowen

Tyler Elaborates on Two of His 12 Rules for Life

  • #7: Learn How to Learn from Those Who Offend You
    • (Twitter is an excellent place for this)
  • #12: Every Now and Then, Read (or Re-read) ErasmusMontaigneHomerShakespeare, or Ulysses by James Joyce
    • Why?
      • “They force you, or induce you, to see human motivation as very complicated. They run against the grain of there being simple answers … If you’re dealing with these writers periodically, I think it’s a good way to always stay fresh.” – Tyler Cowen

Tyler Spent a Dozen Years Only Watching TV in Spanish (and Sometimes Still Does)

  • Why?
    • “I found it a good way to learn Spanish, and also a good way to have a window onto a group of concerns I wouldn’t necessarily encounter in the rest of my daily life … It really shakes up your worldview.” – Tyler Cowen
  • Tyler’s favorite Spanish TV channel: Primer Impacto on Univision
  • Speaking of language-learning:
    • “I only know two other languages—English, Spanish, and German. They force you out of your comfort zone; they make you realize what an idiot you are. You’re always learning something—you get windows into how other people think. I sometimes call it ‘cracking cultural codes.'” Tyler Cowen
    • “I envy people who know many languages and those who’ve traveled to more and different places than I have. They’re the people you should envy.” – Tyler Cowen

Has society gone stagnant?

  • In The Complacent Class, Tyler argues that’s the case
    • “We innovate less, especially outside of the tech sector. Our incomes grow more slowly. We move around the United States at roughly half the rates we used to. We’re now unable to pull off grant projects, such as putting a man on the moon. Almost all of our federal government’s spending is now locked in—much of that going to the elderly. We’re a less dynamic society.” – Tyler Cowen

Make the Big Change; It’s a Risk, But On Average, it Pays Off

  • Steve Levitt, the ‘Freakonomics’ guy, wrote a great paper where he took some people and looked at their major decisions. For some of the people, a coin was flipped, and if the coin said they had to make a big change, they made the big change. The people who made the big changes were happier than those who didn’t. Of course, it depends on the person and context, but in general, read that Steve Levitt paper, think about the coin flipping, and, more often, make the big change. It’s a risk, but it seems that, on average, it pays off.” Tyler Cowen

Tyler’s Podcast: Conversations with Tyler

Tyler’s Podcast Interview Tips

  • Start the interview with something the guest might be shocked you know about them
  • Get your guest to “be willing to be weird” (AKA bring out their weirdness)
    • “In a sense, it’s the weird that’s truly normal. It’s how people actually are—what they really care about. In a sense, you’re getting them out of the weird. The weird is the stage presence we put on—all the ‘puffery’ and unwillingness to say what you really think.” Tyler Cowen
    • One way to facilitate this: as the host, be weird yourself
  • NEVER have a guest on your podcast that you don’t care about
  • An excellent interview question: “What are your open browser tabs?”
    • Tyler answers this question for himself: Twitter, WordPress, WhatsApp, several sets of email, and 5-6 tabs with specific articles (which, at the moment, are all coronavirus-related)

What books has Tyler gifted most often?

  • “I’m very suspicious about recommending books to people because there’s the risk they might listen to what you say, and if you’re recommending to them the book that’s not the most valuable next book they should read, in a sense, you’re wronging them.” Tyler Cowen
  • Tyler encourages people to read more about music & the arts—pick the creators you love, and read about them
  • “What do I tell people to read most often? I’m not religious, but usually, I’ll tell my non-religious friends they ought to go read The Bible.” – Tyler Cowen

What are some of Tyler’s controversial views or perspectives?

  • “In the world of 2020, where the two leaders of the two parties, at the moment, seem to be Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, I no longer know what’s a controversial view.” – Tyler Cowen
  • “I think, in general, we should do much more to boost the rate of economic growth, devote fewer resources to the elderly and much more to the young, take more chances, travel more, learn other languages, and be much much more interested in foreign cultures.”Tyler Cowen

Because of His Compressed Happiness Range, Tyler Seldom Feels Unhappy

  • “I feel I’ve been very fortunate in life, and I think I have the most even temperament of anyone I know. I literally don’t have unhappy days. It would be hard to say I’ve had zero in life, but I think I’m almost weirdly never unhappy … I’ve always felt pretty happy. I suspect my peak happiness is below that of most people. It’s hard to prove or measure that, but intuitively, when I see people very, very happy, it’s quite strange to me … The same goes for when people are depressed. I think my happiness range is compressed in an unusual way.” – Tyler Cowen

Things in This World That Are Under-Supplied

  • Encouraging others
  • Telling other people what they’re good at and why
  • Providing younger people with visions of they could live up to

Tyler’s Billboard Message & Why, Despite Being Atheist, He’s Pro-Religion

  • If Tyler were to put a message on a billboard, it would be something along the lines of: “Be more religious;” here’s why:
    • “I think the social returns to religion, on average, are fairly high” – Tyler Cowen
    • “I worry families are not having enough children. We’re seeing depopulation in many countries. Religious families have more children, and religious people tend to be somewhat happier. So, I would see that the message would be to make people more religious … It seems that religion is the most effective way we have of carrying good ideas, and at the margin, I want to see more of that.” – Tyler Cowen

How does Tim restore lost focus?

  • “Cold exposure, exercise, and having a routine that I don’t deviate from … Either I’m not eating enough, I have low energy due to poor sleep, or something else—almost all of which can be remedied by attention to basic elements of my routine.” – Tim Ferriss
    • Further: “If I’ve deviated from routine, if I’m making too many decisions every day that should be replaced with some type of default answer—what I have for breakfast, what time I should wake up, where I’m going to write, etc.—that usually contributes to a feeling of being unfocused.”

Tim and Tyler Share Their Favorite Movies

If Tim could take a year off from all responsibilities, how would he spend it?

  • He’d take a year with his girlfriend (and close friends, if possible) to walk some of the pilgrimage trails around the world, such as the Kumano Kodo and the Camino de Santiago

Additional Notes

  • Tyler had smoked trout, green peppers, and green grapes for breakfast
  • “I think it’s lost some of its newness sex appeal, but I would be astonished if long-form—or even not-so-long-form writing—as long as it’s of high-quality … I don’t see that going away anytime soon.” Tim Ferriss
  • “There’s no single go-to source on how to evaluate talent—people who have not yet succeeded but maybe will.” – Tyler Cowen
  • “My diet is just eat what you were going to eat, but eat two-thirds of it.” – Tyler Cowen
  • Tim once paid for a tour of the underground San Francisco homeless economy
  • “I’m convinced that we never know ourselves—we really don’t, and that’s part of the great tragedy of life, but it also makes life interesting”Tyler Cowen
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