The following is a conversation with Cal Newport, he's a friend and someone who's writing like his book Deep Work, for example, has guided how I strive to approach productivity and life in general. He doesn't use social media, and in his book, Digital Minimalism, he encourages people to find the right amount of social media usage that provides value and joy. He has a new book out called A World Without Email, where he argues, brilliantly, I would say that email is destroying productivity in companies and in our lives.
And very importantly, he offers solutions. He is a computer scientist at Georgetown University who practices what he preaches to do theoretical computer science at the level that he does it, you really have to live a focused life that minimizes distractions and maximizes hours of deep work. Lastly, he's the host of an amazing podcast called Deep Questions that I highly recommend for anyone who wants to improve their productive life. Quick mention of our sponsors Express VPN, Linode Linux Virtual Machines, Sun Basket Meal Delivery service and simple Safe Home Security.
Click the sponsor links to get a discount and to support this podcast. As a side note, let me say that deep work or long periods of deep focused thinking have been something I've been chasing more and more over the past few years.
Deep work is hard, but is ultimately the thing that makes life so damn amazing the ability to create things you're passionate about in a flow state where the distraction of the world just fade away. Social media? Yes. Reading the comments, yes, I still read the comments is a source of joy for me in strict moderation. Too much takes away the focused mind and too little at least I think takes away all of the fun we need, both the focus and the fun.
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That's simply safe dot com slash lex. And now here's my conversation with Cal Newport. What is deep work, I start with a big question. So, I mean, it's my term for when you're focusing without distraction on a convoy demanding task, which is something we've all done, but we had never really given it a name necessarily that was separate from other type of work. And so I gave it a name and said, let's compare that to other types of efforts you might do while you're working and see that the deep work efforts actually have a huge benefit that we might be underestimating.
What does it mean to to work deeply on something?
You know, I had been calling it hard focus in my writing before that. Well, so the context you would understand, I was in the theory group and CSAIL at MIT. Right. So I was surrounded at the time when I was coming up with these ideas by these professional theoreticians. And that's like a murderer's row of thinkers there, right? I mean, it's like Turing Award, Turing award, MacArthur, Turing award. I mean, you know, the crew.
Right? Theoretical computer science. Theoretical computer science. Yeah. Yeah. So so I'm in the theory group. Right.
Doing theoretical computer science and I publish a book. So, you know, I was in this mill, you or I had been exposed to people where focus was their tier one skill. Like that's what you would talk about. Right.
Like how how intensely I can focus. That was the key skill. It's like your 440 time or something if you were an athlete. Right.
So so this is something that people are actually the theory folks are thinking about.
Oh yeah. Really.
Like they're openly discussing. Like how do you focus.
I, I don't know if they would, you know, quantify it but but focus was the tier one skill. So you would come in here to be a typical day. You'd come in and Eric DeMain would be sitting in front of a whiteboard. Yeah. Right. With a whole group of visitors who had come to work with them and maybe the projected like a grid on there because they're working on some graph theory problem. You go to lunch, you go to the gym, you come back.
They're sitting there staring at the same same whiteboard.
Right. Like that's the tier one skill differences between different disciplines. Like I, I often feel for many reasons like a fraud. But I definitely feel like a fraud when I hang out with, like either mathematicians or physicists. It's like it feels like they're doing the legit work. Because when you talk with culture and computer science, you get to programing or like machine learning, like the the. The experimental machine learning or like just the engineering version of it, it's it feels like you're gone so far away from what's required to solve something fundamental about this universe.
It feels like you're just like cheating your way into, like some kind of trick to figure out how to solve a problem in this one particular case. That's how it feels. Right. And I'd be interested to hear what you think about that, because programing doesn't always feel like you need to think deeply, to work deeply, but sometimes it does. So it's a weird dance for sure. Code does, right?
I mean, especially if you're coming up with original algorithmic designs. I think it's a great example of deep work. I mean, yeah, the the hard core theoreticians, they push it to an extreme. I mean, I think it's like. Knowing that athletic endeavor is good and then hanging out with an Olympic athlete like, oh, I see, that's what it is now for the grad students like me, we're not anywhere near that level. But the faculty, the faculty in that group, these were the cognitive Olympic athletes.
But coding, I think, is a classic example of deep work because I got this problem I want to solve.
I have all of these tools and I have to combine them somehow, creatively and on the fly. But but so basically I had been exposed to that. So I was used to this notion. When I was in grad school and I was writing my blog, I'd write about hard focus.
You know, that was a term I used. Then I published this book So Good They Can't Ignore You, which came out in 2012. So like, right as I began as a professor. And that book had this notion of skill being really important for career satisfaction, that it's not just following your passion.
You have to actually really get good at something and then you use that skills as leverage. And there's this big follow up question to that book of, OK, well, how do I get really good at that?
And then I look back to my grad school experience. I was like, huh, there is this focus thing that we used to do. I wonder how generally applicable that is to the knowledge sector.
And so as I started thinking about it, it became clear there's this interesting storyline that emerged that, OK, actually understructure concentration is not just important for esoteric theoreticians, it's important here.
It's important here in support here. And that involved into the deep work hypothesis, which is across the whole knowledge work sector. Focus is very important and we've accidentally created circumstances where we just don't do a lot of it.
So focus is the sort of prerequisite for basically using knowledge work, but basically any kind of skill acquisition, any kind of major effort in this world. Can we break that apart a little bit?
Yeah, so so a key key aspect of focus is not just that you're you're concentrating hard on something, but you do it without distraction. So a big theme of my work is that context shifting kills the human capacity to think so. If I if I change what I'm paying attention to to something different, really, even if it's brief and then try to bring it back to the main thing I'm doing that causes a huge cognitive pile up, that makes it very hard to think clearly.
So even if you think, OK, look, I'm writing this code, I'm writing this essay and I'm not multitasking and all my windows are closed and I have no notifications on, but every five or six minutes you quickly check like an inbox or your phone that initiates a contact shift in your brain. Right. We're going to start to suppress some neural networks are going try to amplify some others. It's a pretty complicated process, actually. There's a sort of neurological cascade that happens.
You rip yourself away from that halfway through and go back to what you're doing. And I was trying to switch back to the original thing, even though it's also in your brains, in the process of switching to these emails and trying to understand those context. And as a result, your ability to think clearly just goes really down. And it's fatigue, too.
I mean, you do this long enough as you get midday, know, OK, I can't I can't think anymore. You've exhausted yourself.
Is there some kind of perfect number of minutes? Would you say? So we talking about focusing on a particular task for, you know, one minute, five minutes, ten minutes, thirty minutes. Is it possible to kind of context switch while maintaining deep focus, you know, every twenty minutes or so? So if you're thinking of like this again, maybe it's a selfish kind of perspective, but if you think about programing.
You know, you're focused on a particular design of a little bit, maybe small scale on a particular function or large scale on a on a system, and then the shift of focus happens like this, which is like, wait a minute, is there a library that can achieve this sort of task or something like that? And then you have to look it up. This is the danger zone. You go to the Internets. Yeah. And so you have to now it is a kind of context switch because as opposed to thinking about the particular problem, you now have switched thinking about, like consuming and integrating knowledge that's out there that can plug into your solution to a particular problem.
It definitely feels like a context which. But is that is that a really bad thing to do? So should you be setting it aside always and really trying to, as much as possible, go deep and stay there for like a really long period of time?
Well, I mean, I think if you're looking up a library that's relevant to what you're doing, that's probably OK. And I don't know that I would count that as a full context shift because the semantic networks involved are relatively similar. Right. You're thinking about this type of solution. You're thinking about coding. You're thinking about this type of functions. Where you're really going to get hit is if you switch your context to something that's different and if there's unresolved obligation.
So really, the worst possible thing you could do would be to look at like an email inbox.
Mm. I guess here's 20 emails. I can't answer most of these right now. They're completely different.
But the context of these emails like, okay, there's a grant funding issue or something like this is very different than the coding I'm doing and I'm leaving it unresolved.
Like someone needs something from me and I'm going to try to pull my attention back to the second worst would be something that's emotionally arousing. So I feel like let me just glance over at Twitter. I'm sure it's nice and calm and peaceful over there. Right. That could be devastating because you're going to expose yourself to something that's emotionally arousing, that's going to completely mess up the cognitive plateau there. And then when you come back to, OK, let me try to code again, that's really difficult.
So both the information and the emotion both both can be killers if what you're trying to do. So I would recommend at least an hour at a time because it could take up to 20 minutes to completely clear out the residue from whatever it was you were thinking about before. So if you're coding for 30 minutes, you might only be getting 10 or 15 minutes of actual sort of peak Lack's going on there.
Right. So an hour at least, you get a good 40, 45 minutes plus. I'm partial to 90 minutes as a really good a really good chunk.
We can get a lot done, but just before you get exhausted, you can sort of pull back a little bit. Yeah.
And one of the beautiful, you know, people can read about in your book Deep Work, but and I know this has been out for a long time and people are probably familiar with many of the concepts, but it's still pretty profound. It has stayed with me for a long time. There's something about adding the terms to it.
It actually solidifies the concepts like words matter. It's pretty cool. And just for me, sort of as a comment. There is it's a struggle and it's very difficult to maintain focus for a long period of time, but the days on which I'm able to accomplish several hours of that kind of work. I'm happy, so forget being productive and all that, I'm just satisfied with my life, I feel I feel fulfilled.
It's a joyful. And then I can be I'm less of a dick to other people in my life afterwards.
It's it's a beautiful thing. And I find the opposite. When I don't do that kind of thing, I'm much more irritable. Like, I feel like I didn't accomplish anything. And there's this stress that than the negative emotion builds up to where you're no longer able to sort of enjoy the hell out of this amazing life. So so in that sense, deep work has been a source of a lot of happiness.
I'd love to ask you, how do you again, you cover this in the book, how do you integrate deep work into your life? What a different scheduling strategies that you would recommend just at a high level.
Yeah. What a different idea is there.
Well, I mean, I'm a big fan of time blogging, right? So if you're facing your workday, don't allow your inbox or To-Do list to sort of drive. You don't just come into your day and think, what do I want to do next? Yes. I mean, I'm a big planner saying, here's the time, here's the time available. Let me make a plan for it. Right. I have a meeting here of an appointment here.
Here's what's left, what I actually want to do with it. So in this half hour, I'm going to work on this for this 90 minute block. I'm going to work on that. And during this hour, I'm going to try to fit this in and then actually have this half hour gap between two meetings. So why don't I take advantage of that to go run five errands?
I can kind of match those together, but blocking out in advance, this is what I want to do with the time available. I mean, I find that's much more effective now.
Once you're doing this, once you're in a discipline of time blocking, it's much easier to actually see. This is where I want, for example, to work and I can get a handle on the other things that need to happen and find better places to fit them. So I can prioritize this. And you're going to get a lot more of that done than if it's just going to your day and saying, what's next?
I schedule every single day kind of thing so I could try to do it in the morning to try to have a plan. Yeah.
So, you know, I do quarterly, weekly, daily planning. So at the semester or quarterly level, I have a big picture vision for what I'm trying to get done during the fall, let's say, or during the winter like these are there's a deadline coming up for academic papers at the end of the season. Here's what I'm working on. I want to have this many chapters done of a book, something like this, like you have the the big picture vision of what you want to get done.
Then weekly, you look at that and then you look at your week and you put together a plan for like, OK, what am I going to what's my week going to look like? What do I need to do? How am I going make progress on these things? Maybe maybe I need to do an hour every morning or I see that Monday is my only really empty day to that's going to be the day that I really need to nail on writing or something like this.
And then every day you look at your weekly plan and suddenly block off the actual hours.
So you do that that three scale's the quarterly down, the weekly down to daily.
And we're talking about actual times of day versus. So the alternative is what I end up doing a lot and I'm not sure it's the best way to do it is scheduling the duration of time. This is this is called the luxury.
When you don't have any meetings, I'm like religiously don't do meetings.
All other academics are jealous of you. Yeah, I know.
No zoo meetings. I, I find those are that's one of the worst tragedies. Tragedies of the pandemic is both the opportunity to work. The positive thing is to have more time with your family, you know, sort of reconnect in many ways. And that's really interesting to be able to remotely sort of not waste time on travel and all those kinds of things. The negative is actually both those things are also a source of the negative, but the negative is like it seems like people have multiplied the number of meetings because they're so easy to schedule and there's nothing more draining to me intellectually, philosophically, just my spirit is destroyed by even a ten minute Zoom meeting.
Like, what are we doing here?
What's the meaning of life? Yeah, I have every zoo meeting as I have an existential crisis, a Kierkegaard with a Internet connection.
So what the hell are we talking about. Oh so when you don't have meetings, there's a luxury to really. Allow for certain things if they need to like the important things like work sessions to last way longer than you maybe planned for. I mean, that's my goal, is to try to schedule the goals, to schedule, to sit and focus for a particular task for an hour and hope I can keep going.
Yeah. And hope I can get lost in it. And do you find that this is at all an OK way to go? And the time blocking is just something you have to do to actually be an adult and operate in this real world? Or is there is some magic to the time blocking?
Well, I mean, there's magic to the intention. There's magic to it if you have varied responsibilities. Right. So I'm often juggling multiple jobs.
Essentially, there's there's academic stuff, there's teaching stuff, there's book stuff. There's the the business surrounding, you know, surrounding my my book stuff. But I'm of your same mindset. If a deep work session is going well. Yes. Rock and roll and let it go on. So like one of the big keys of time block, at least the way I do it. So I even sell this planner to help people. Time block it has many columns because the discipline is, oh, if your initial schedule changes, you just move over one next time you get a chance to move over one column and then you just fix it for the time that's remaining.
So in other words, there's not there's no bonus for I made a schedule and I stuck with it. Like there's actually like you get a prize for it, right? Like for me, the prize is I have an intentional plan for my time. And if I have to change that plan, that's fine with the state I want to be is basically at any point in the day I thought about what time remains and and gave it some thought for what to do, because I'll do the same thing, even though I have a lot more meetings and other types of things I have to do in my in my various jobs.
And I basically prioritize the deep work and they get yelled at a lot. So that's kind of my strategy is like just be OK, just be OK.
Getting yelled at a lot because I feel you if you're rolling. Yeah, well, that's what it is for me.
Like with writing, I think it's writing so hard in a certain way that it's you don't really get on a roll in some sense, like it's just difficult. But working on proofs, it's very hard to pull yourself away from a proof if you start to get some traction. Just you've been at it for a couple hours and you feel the the pens and Tumblr are starting to click together and progress is being made. It's really hard to pull away from that.
So so I'm willing to get yelled at by almost everyone.
Of course, there is also a positive effect to pulling yourself out of it when things are going great, because then you're kind of excited to resume.
Yes, I was just stopping in a dead end. That's true. There's the yeah, there's a there's an extra force of procrastination that comes with if you stop in a dead end to return to the task. Yeah.
Or a cold start. Yeah. Whenever I felt like I'm in a stage now I submitted a few papers recently, so now we're sort of starting something up from cold and it takes way too long to get going because it's very hard to it's very hard to get the motivation to schedule a time when it's not. Yeah, we're in it. Here's where we are. We feel like something's about to give here. We need the very early stages where it's just I don't know, I'm going to read hard papers and it can be hard to understand.
I have no idea how to make progress. Is not is not motivating.
What about deadlines? Can we. OK, so this is like a therapy session is why it seems like I don't I only get stuff done that has deadlines. And so the one of the implied powerful things about time blocking is there's a kind of deadline or there's artificial a real sense of urgency.
Do you think it's possible to get anything done in this world without deadlines, y y deadlines work so well?
Well, I mean, it's a clear motivational signal, but in the in the short term, you do get an effect like that in time blocking. I think the strong effect you get by saying this is the exact time I'm going to work on this is that you don't have the debate with yourself every three minutes about should I take a break now? This is a big issue with just saying, you know, I'm going to go right. I'm going to write for a while.
And that's it. Because your mind is saying, well, obviously we're going to take some breaks. We're not just going to write forever. And so why not? Right now, I feel like, well, not right now. Let's go a little bit longer. Five minutes. Why don't we take a break now? Like, we should probably look at the Internet now. You have to constantly have this battle. On the other hand, if you're in a time block schedule, like I've got these two hours put aside for writing, that's what I'm supposed to be doing.
I have a break scheduled over here. I don't have to fight with myself. Right. And maybe at a larger scale, deadlines give you a similar sort of effect.
As I know this is what I'm supposed to be working on, because it's it's due perhaps. But we are describing a much healthier sort of giving yourself over. When you talk about this in the new email book, the process, I mean, in general, you talk about it all, is creating a process and then giving yourself over to the process.
The but then you have to be strict with yourself.
Yeah, but what are the deadlines you're talking? Like with papers, like what's the main type of deadline work or sell papers? Definitely. But, you know, publications like say this podcast, I have to publish this podcast next early next week one because your book is coming out. I'd love to support this amazing book, but the other is I have to fly to Vegas on Thursday to run 40 miles with David Goggins.
And so I want this podcast that this conversation we're doing now to be out of my life. Like I don't want to be in a hotel in Vegas, like editing the like freaking out while Dave Goggins is yelling an hour, an hour.
Forty three of your TerraCycle.
But actually it's possible that they still wouldn't be doing that, you know, because that's not a heart that's a softer done line. Right. But those are sort of life imposes these kinds of deadlines. Yeah, I'm not. So yeah. Papers are nice because there's an actual deadline. Yeah. But I am almost referring to like the pressure that people put on you. Hey man, you said you're going to get this done two months ago and you've gotten that done.
I don't like that pressure. Yeah. So maybe now first thing we can do, we can agree. By the way, having David Goggins yell at you is probably the top productivity technique.
I think we all get a lot more done if he was yelling. But see, I don't like that. So I will try to get things done early. I like I like having flex. I also don't like the idea of this has to get done today. Right. Like it's due at midnight and we've got a lot to do as the night before because then I get in my head about what if I get sick or like what if, you know, what if I don't get a bad night's sleep and I can't think clearly.
So I like to have the flex. So I'm all process. And that's like the philosophical aspect of that book. Deep work is that there's something very human and deep about just wrangling with the world of ideas.
I mean, Aristotle talked about this. If you go back and read the ethics, he's trying to understand the meaning of life and he eventually ends up ultimately at the human capacity to contemplate deeply it's completely teleological argument.
It's the things that only humans can do and therefore it must be somehow connected to our ends. And he said ultimately, that's where that's where he found his meaning. But, you know, he's touching on some sort of information there. That's correct. And so what I try to build my life around is regularly thinking hard about stuff that's interesting.
Just like if you get a fitness habit going, you feel off when you don't do it. I try to get that cognitive habit.
So it's like I got to I mean, look at my bag somewhere in my notebook in it because I was thinking on the Uber ride over, I was like, you know, I could get some I'm working on this new proof. And it just so you train yourself, you train yourself to appreciate certain things.
And then over time, the hope is that it creates, well, the sargassum demons because I wonder if there's like deep work, which and the world with our email books that to me symbolize the life I want to live.
OK, and then there is I'm like, despite appearances, an adult at this point and this is a life I actually live. And I it's I'm in constant chaos. You said you don't like that anxiety. I hate it, too, but it seems like I'm always in it. It's a giant mess. It's like it's almost like whenever I establish whenever I have successful processes for doing deep work, I'll add stuff on top of it just to introduce the chaos.
Yeah. And like, I don't want to, but, you know, you have to look in the mirror at certain point and you have to say, like, who the hell am I? Like, I keep doing this. Is this something that's fundamental to who I am or do I really need to fix this?
What's the chaos right now? Like I've seen your video about like your routine. It seemed very structured and deep. In fact, I was really envious of it. So, like, what's the chaos now? That's not in that video.
Many of those sessions go way longer. I don't get enough sleep. And then the main introduction of chaos is it's taken on too many things on the to do list. So it's mean, I suppose it's a problem that everybody deals with. What, just saying not saying no, but it's not like I have trouble saying no. It's that there's so much shit in my life. Yeah. OK, listen, I there's nothing I love more in this world than the Boston Dynamics robots and.
And they're giving me a spot so there's a need to do. What am I going to say. No. Yeah. So they're giving me a spot and I want to do some computer vision stuff for the hell of it. OK, so that's now to do item and then you go to Texas for a while and there's Texas and everything's happening that all the interesting people down there and then there's surprises right there. Power outage in Texas. There's constant changes to plans and all those kinds of things.
And you sleep less. And then there's personal stuff like just, you know, people in your life, sources of stress, all those kinds of things. And but it does feel like if I'm just being introspective, that I bring it onto myself. I suppose a lot of people do this kind of thing is they they flourish under pressure. Yeah. And I wonder if that if that's just the hack I've developed as a habit early on in life.
That means you need to let go of you need to fix, but it's all interesting things. Yeah, that's that's interesting. Yeah, because these are all interesting things.
Well, one of the things you talked about and did work, which is like really important, is like having an end to the day. Yeah. Like putting it down. Yeah.
Think that I don't think I've ever done in my life.
Yeah. Well see I started doing that early because I got married early, so, you know, I didn't have a real job. I was a grad student, but my wife had a real job. And so I just figured I should do my work when she's at work because, you know, work's over. She'll be home.
I don't want to I don't want to be on campus or whatever. And so real early on, I just got in that habit of this is when, you know, this is when you in work. And then when I was a postdoc, which is kind of an easy job. Right. I put artificial. I was like, I want to train.
I was like, well, I'm a professor. It's going to be busier because there's demands that professors have you on research. And so as a postdoc, I added artificial, large, time consuming things into the middle of my day. I'd basically exercise for two hours in the middle of the day and do all this productive meditation and stuff like this while still maintaining the nine to five. So it's like, OK, I want to get really good at putting artificial constraints on so that I stay.
I didn't want to get flabby when my job was easy, so that when I became a professor and now all of that's paying off because I have a ton of kids. So so now I don't really have a choice. That's what's probably keeping me away from cool things, is I just don't have time to do them. And then after a while, people, you know, stop bothering.
Well, but, you know, but that's how you have a successful life. Otherwise you're going to it's too easy to then go into the full Hunter S. Thompson.
Yeah. Like to where. No, nobody wants nobody functional. Wants to be in your vicinity. Like you're driving.
You're attracted the people that have a similar behavior pattern as you. Yeah.
So if you if you live in chaos you're going to attract chaotic people and then then it becomes like this self fulfilling prophecy and it feels like I'm not bothered by it.
But I guess this is all coming around to exactly what you're saying, which is like I think one of the big hacks for productive people that I've met is to get married and have kids.
Honestly, it's very perhaps counterintuitive. Yeah, but it gets it's like the ultimate timetable enforcer.
Yeah. It enforces a lot of timetables, though.
It has a huge problem. Kids have huge productivity. Hit those who got away. But OK, here's the complicated thing, though, like you could think about in your own life. Starting the podcast is one of these just cool opportunities that you put on yourself, right? Yeah. Like, you know, I could have been talking to you at MIT four years ago and like, don't do that. Like, your research is going well. Right.
But everyone who watches you is like, OK, this podcast is the direction that's taking you is like a couple of years from now. It's going to be something really monumental that you're probably going to probably lead to. Right. There'll be some really. It just feels like your life is going somewhere.
It's going somewhere. It's interesting. Yeah. Unexpected. Yeah. Yeah. So how do you balance those two things? And so what I try to throw at it is this motto of do less, do better, know why. Right. So do do less. Do better. Know why. It used to be the motto of my website years ago. So do a few things but like an interesting array. Right, so I was doing the MIT stuff but I was also writing, you know, so a couple of things are, you know, they were interesting.
I have a couple bets placed on it on a couple different numbers on the roulette table, but not too many things.
And then really try to do those things really well and see where it goes. Like with my writing, I just spent years and years and years of training. I want to be a better writer. I want to be a better writer. I started writing student books when I was a student. I really wanted to write hardcover idea books. I started training. I would I would use like New Yorker articles to train myself. I'd break them down and then I'd get commissions with much smaller magazines and practice the skills.
And and it took forever until, you know. But now today, like, I actually get to write for The New Yorker, but it took like a decade. So a small number of things I tried doing really well. And then the Nowy is have a connection to some sort of value, like in general I think this is worth doing and then seeing where it leads.
And so the choice of the few things is grounded in what, like a little like like a little flame of passion, like a love for the thing, like a sense you say you wanted to write and get good at writing. You had that kind of introspective moment of thinking. This action brings me a lot of joy and fulfillment. Yeah.
I mean, it gets complicated because I wrote a whole book about following your passion being bad advice, which the first thing I kind of got infamous for.
I wrote that back in 2012. But but the argument there is like passion cultivates, right? So what I was pushing back on was the myth that the passion for what you do exists full intensity before you start and then that's what propels you. Or actually the reality is as you get better at something, as it gain more autonomy, more skill and more impact, a passion grows. Along with it, so that when people look back later and say, oh, follow your passion, what they really mean is I'm very passionate about what I do and that's a worthy goal.
But how you actually cultivate that is much more complicated than just introspection is going to identify. Like for sure you should be a writer or something like this.
So I was actually quoting you, I was on a social network last night in a clubhouse and part heard of it. I was like, I have to ask you about this because I wasn't invited to do a clubhouse. And what that means, a tech reporter has invited me to do a clubhouse about my new book.
That's awesome. Well, let me know when, because I'll show up. But what is it? OK, so first of all, let me just mention that I was in a clubhouse. Room last night and they kept plugging your exactly what exactly you said about passion. So we'll talk about it. It was a room that was focused on burnout.
OK, but first, clubhouse is kind of a fascinating place in terms of your mind. Would be very interesting to analyze this place because, you know, we talk about email, about social networks. A clubhouse is something very different. And I've encountered in other places discord and so on. That's voice only communication. So it's a bunch of people in a room. They're just eyes closed. All you hear their voices real time, real time live.
It only happens live. You're technically not allowed to record, but some people still do. And, you know, especially one of the big, big conversations. But the whole point is it's their life and there's different structures that can dischord. It was so fascinating. I have this Dischord server that would have hundreds of people in a room together. Right. We're all just little icons that commute to our mikes. OK, and so you're sitting there not so it's just voices and you're able with hundreds of people to not interrupt each other.
Well, first of all, as a dynamic system like you see icons just like Mike's muted or not muted, basically.
So everyone's muted and they are mute and they start it starts flashing. Yeah. And oh, so you're like, OK, let me give precedent's. Yeah.
So it's the digital equivalent of when you're in a conversation like at a faculty meeting and you sort of like kind of make some noises like the other person's finishing. And so people realize like, OK, this person wants to talk next, but now it's purely digital.
You see a flashing but in a faculty meeting, which is very interesting, like even as we're talking now, there's a visual element that seems to increase the probability of interruption. Yeah. When it's just darkness, you actually listen better and you don't interrupt. So, like, if you create a culture, there's there's always going to be assholes. But there they're actually exceptions because everybody adjusts. They kind of evolve to the the beat of the room.
OK, that's one fascinating aspect. OK, that's weird because it's different than like a zoom car where there's video. Yeah, it's just audio. You think video ads, but actually seems like it subtracts. The second aspect of it that's fascinating is when it's no video, just audio. There's an intimacy. It's it's weird because with strangers you you connect, you know, in a much more real way. It's very similar to podcasts.
Yeah. But there's a lot of people with a lot of people and new people and then and they they bring OK, first of all different voices like low voices and like high voices and and it's it's more difficult to judge in this court.
You couldn't even see the people. It was a culture where you do funny profile pictures as opposed to your actual face in comparison to your actual face. So you can tell, like as an older person, a younger person in discord, you couldn't you just have to judge based on the voice. But there's there's something about the listening and the intimacy of being surprised by different strangers that feels almost like a party with friends and friends of friends you haven't met yet, but you really like.
Now, clubhouse also has an interesting innovation where there's a large crowd that just listens and there's a stage and you can bring people up onto stage. So only people on stage are talking and you can have like five, six, seven, eight, sometimes 20, 30 people on stage. And then you can also have thousands of people just listening. I see.
So there's a I don't know, a lot of people are being surprised by this. Why?
It's called a social network. It seems like it doesn't have there's not social links. There's not a feed that's trying to harvest attention. It feels like a communication.
So the social network aspect is you follow people and the people you follow. Now, this is like the first social network. That's actually correct. Use of follow. I think you're more likely to see the rooms there. And so there's your feed is a bunch of rooms that are going on right now.
And the people you follow are the ones that will increase the likelihood that you'll see they're on their own.
And so the final result is like there's a list of really interesting rooms, like I have all these.
I've been speaking Russian quite a bit practicing, but also just like talking politics and philosophy in Russian. I've never done that before, but it allows me to connect with that community. And then there's a community of like, it's funny, but like I'll go in a community of all African-American people talking about race and I'll be welcomed. Yeah.
I've never had like I literally never been in a. Conversation about race. Like with people from all over the place, it's like fascinating musicians, jazz musicians, I don't know, you could say that a lot of other places could have created that culture, I suppose, as Twitter and Facebook allow for that culture. But there's something about this network as it stands now, because no Android users is probably just because it's iPhone people.
It's conspiratorial or something like, let's listen, I'm an Android person, so I got an iPhone just for this network. This is funny. Yeah. Is it for now, it's all like there's very few trolls. Yeah. There's very few people that are trying to manipulate the system and so on. So I don't know. It's it's interesting.
Now the down side, the reason you're going to hate it. Is because it's so intimate, because it pulls you in and pulls in very successful people like you, just like really successful, productive, very busy people.
It it's it's a huge time. Sink is very difficult to pull yourself out. Interesting.
You mean once you're in a room or not, leaving the room is actually easy. The beautiful thing about a stage with multiple people, there's a little button that says leave quietly. OK, so culture, no etiquette wise, it's OK to just leave. Yeah. So you and I in the room when it's just you and I, it's a little awkward to leave if you're asking questions on the spot.
Yeah, but and actually if you're being interviewed for the book, that's weird because you're now in the event and you're supposed to. But usually the person interviewing would be like, OK, it's time for you to go. It's more normal. But the normal way to use the room is like you're just opening the app.
And there will be like, I don't know, Sam Harris, Eric Weinstein. I think Joe Rogan showed up to their Bill Gates.
I mean, these people on stage just like randomly just plugged in. And then you step up on stage, listen, maybe you won't contribute at all. Maybe you'll see something funny and then you'll just leave. And there's the the addicting aspect to it. The reason at the time, I think, is you don't want to leave.
What I've noticed about exceptionally busy people that they'd love this there I think might have to do with a pandemic.
Might be a little bit. Yeah, there's a loneliness there along here.
Yeah. But also it's really cool people. Yeah. Like when was what was the last time you talked to Sam Harris or whoever they think of anybody. Talika like any, any faculty.
This is like what universities strive to create, but it's taken because you don't have a cultural revolution to try to get a lot of interesting, smart people together that run into each other.
We have really strong faculty in a room together with no scheduling. This is the power of it. It's like you just show up. There's not none of that baggage of scheduling and so on. And there's no pressure to leave, so no pressure to stay. It's very easy for you to leave. You realize that there's a lot of constraints on meetings and like faculty. There's like even stopping by, you know, before the pandemic, a friend or faculty or colleague and so on.
You know, there's a weirdness about leaving. Yeah. But here there's not a weirdness about leaving. So they've discovered something interesting. The but the final result when you observe it is it's very fulfilling. I think it's very beneficial, but it's very addicting. So you have to make sure you moderate. Yeah, that's interesting.
OK, so maybe I'll try it. I mean, look, there's no the things that make me suspicious about other platforms aren't here. So the feed is not full of user generated content that is going through some sort of algorithmic reading process with all the weird incentives and nudging that does. And you're not producing content that's being harvested to be monetized by another company. I mean, it seems like it's more ephemeral, right? You're here, you're talking the feed is just actually just showing you.
Here's interesting things happening. Right? You're not jockeying in the feed for, look, I'm being clever or something and I'm going to get a late count that goes up and that's going to influence and. Right. And there's more friction. There's more cognitive friction, I guess, involved in listening to smart people versus scrolling through. Yeah, there's something there.
So there's no why are people. So I see there's all these articles that seem I don't really read them. Why are why are reporters negative about this competition?
The New York Times wrote this article called Unfettered Conversations Happening on Clubhouse is I'm right in picking up a tone from even from the headlines that there's some, like, negative vibes from the press. No. So I can say. Let's say, well, I'll tell you what the article was saying, which is they're having cancelable conversations like the biggest people in the world almost trolling the press. Right. And the press's desk for chatting the press, the press by saying that you just you guys are looking for click bait from our genuine human conversations.
And so the I think the honesty, the press is just like, what do we do with this? We can't. Yeah.
First of all, it's a lot of work for OK, it's what Narvel says, which is like this is skipping the journalists like they interview you. If you go on clubhouse, the interview you might do for the book would be with somebody who is like a journalist and interviewing you. Yeah, that's more traditional. Yeah. It'd be a good introduction for you to try it.
But the like the way to use clubhouse is you just show up and it's like again like me, I'm like I keep mentioning Sam Harris as if it's like the only person I know.
But like a lot of these major faculty, I don't know Max Tegmark, they just just major faculty just sitting there. And then you show up and then I'll ask like, oh, don't you have a book coming out or something? And then you'll talk about the book and then you leave five minutes later because you have to go get coffee and interesting.
So, like, that's the. Yeah, it's not the journalistic. You're not going to actually enjoy the interview as much because it'll be like the normal thing. Yeah. Like you're there for 40 minutes or an hour and there'll be questions from the audience. Right.
Like I'm doing an event next week for the book launch where it's like Jason Friede and I are talking about email, but it's using some more like a thousand people who are there to watch virtually, but it's using some sort of traditional webinar. Clubhouse would be a situation where that could just happen informally. Like I jump in like Jason's there and then someone else jumps in and yeah, that's interesting.
But for now, it's still closed. So even though there's a lot of excitement and there be quite famous people just sitting there listening to you. Yeah, but the numbers aren't exactly high.
So you're talking about rooms like even the huge rooms are like just a few thousand. Right.
And this is this is probably Soho in the 50s or something to just because of the exponential growth, give it seven more months and if you let one invite you gets two invites but gets four invites because pretty soon it'll be everyone and then the rooms in your feet are going to be whatever marketing, performance enhancing drugs or something like that.
Yeah. But then and a bunch of competitors that's already like 30 plus competitors sprung up Twitter spaces. Twitter is creating a competitor that's going to likely destroy clubhouse. Yeah. Because they just have a much larger user base and they already have a social network.
So I would be very cautious, of course, the addictive element. But it doesn't just like you said, this particular implementation in its early stages doesn't have the like. Yeah, the the it doesn't have the context.
Which problem. Yeah. You'll just switch to plastic and you'll be stuck. Yeah. To keep a context. That's great. Yeah. Yeah. And but then I think the best way I've found to use it is. To acknowledge that these things pull you in. Yeah, so I've used that in the past, like almost, you know, I'll go get a coffee and I'll tune into a conversation. As if that's how I use podcast, sometimes I'll just play a little bit of a podcast and then, you know, I can just turn it off.
The problem with these is it pulls you in. It's really interesting. And then the other problem that you'll experience is like somebody will recognize you and then they'll be like, oh, looks, come on up. Come on. Oh, hey, I had a question for you.
And then it takes a lot for you to go.
Like to ignore that. Yeah. Yeah. So, yeah. And then you pulled in and it's fascinating and it's really cool people. So it's like a source of a lot of joy.
But it is you have to be very, very, very careful.
The reason I brought up is we there's a room, this entire club actually and burnout.
And I brought you up and I brought David Goggins is the process I go through, which is, you know, my passion goes up and down, it dips. And I don't think I trust my own mind to to tell me whether I'm getting close to burnout or exhaustion or not. I kind of go with the David Goggins model of I mean, he's probably more applying it to running, but when it feels like your mind can't take anymore, that you're just 40 percent at your capacity is just arbitrary right levels.
The Navy SEAL thing and then Navy SEAL thing, I mean, you could put that at 80 percent. But it is remarkable that if you just take it one step at a time, just keep going. It's similar to this idea of a process. If you just trust the process and you just keep falling, even if the passion goes up and down and so on, then ultimately. If you look in aggregate, the passion will increase. Yeah, self-satisfaction will increase.
Yeah, I think and if you have two things, this has been a big strategy of mine so that you can what you hope for is offas offas alignment like that sometimes is in phase and that's a problem. But ofis alignment's good. So OK, my research, I'm struggling out of my book stuff is going well. Right.
And so when you, when you add those two waves together like that, we're doing pretty well. And then in other periods, like on my writing, you know, I feel like I'm just not getting anywhere. But I've had some good papers. I'm feeling good over there. So having two things that they can counteract each other now. Sometimes they fall into sync and then it gets rough than when you know, when everything because everything for me is cyclical, you know, good periods, bad periods with all this stuff.
So typically they don't coincide.
So it helps compensate. When they do coincide, you get really high.
It's like everything's clicking and then you get these really low lows were like, your research is not working, your program is not clicking. You feel like you're nowhere with your writing. And then it's a little rougher.
Is do you do you think about the concept of burnout? Because I personally never experienced burnout in the way that folks talk about, which is like it's not just the up and down. It's like you want to do anything ever again. Yeah. It like is for some people it's like physical like to the hospital kind of thing. Yeah. Yeah.
So I do worry about it. So when I used to do student writing, like writing about students and student advice, it came up a lot with students at elite schools.
And I used to call it deep procrastination, but it's a real, really vivid, very replicable syndrome where they stop being able to do schoolwork.
Yeah, like this is do and the professor gives you an extension. The professor gets an incomplete and says, you got you're going to fail the course.
You have to hand this and they can't do it right. It's like it's a complete stop on the ability to actually do work. It's I used to counsel students. You had that issue. And often it was a combination of these is my best analysis as you have just the physical and cognitive difficulties. They're usually under a very hard load. Right? They're doing too many majors, too many extracurriculars, just, you know, really pushing themselves. And the motivation is not sufficiently intrinsic.
Right. So if you have a motivational center that's not completely on board, a lot of these kids won't deal with MIT kids. They would be you know, their whole town was shooting off fireworks that they got in there. Everyone's hope that they were going there and up there in three majors didn't want to let people down, but they're not really interested in being a doctor or whatever. So your motivation is not in the right place. The motivational psychologist would say the locus of control was more towards the extrinsic end of the spectrum.
And you have hardship and you could just fritze out the whole system. And so I would always be very worried about that.
So I think about that a lot. I do a lot of multiphase or multi scale seasonality, so I'll go hard on something for a while and then for a few weeks go easy. I'll have semesters that are hard and semesters that are easier. I'll take the summer really less on multiple scales and in the day I'll go really hard on something but then have a hard cutoff at five.
So like every scale, it's all about rest and recovery because I really want to avoid it and I do burnout. I burnt out pretty recently. I get mine are burnt out. So I got a paper, a couple of papers that was trying to work through for a deadline a few weeks ago and I wasn't sleeping well.
And there's some other things going on and it just it knocks out and I get sick. Usually it's how I know I push myself too far. Yeah. And so I kind of pull it back and I'm doing this book launch. Then after this book launch, I'm pulling it back again. So I like seasonality for rest and recovery. I think it's crucial at every scale, daily, monthly, you know, and that the annual scale, an easy summer, for example.
I think it's like a great idea if that's possible.
OK, you just made me realize that that's exactly what I do because I. I feel like I'm not even close to growing out of anything, even though I I'm in chaos.
Yeah. I feel the right exact way is the seasonality is the not even the seasonality, but like you always have multiple seasons operating. It's like you said, because when you have a lot of cool shit going on. Yeah. There's always at least one thing that's a source of joy, that there's always a reason. I suppose the fundamental thing and I've known people that suffer from depression to the fundamental problem with the experience of depression and burnout is like, why do like life is meaningless?
Yeah. And I always have an answer of like, why, why today could be cool. Yeah.
And yeah. And you have to contrive it right. If you don't have it you have to contrive it. Yeah. I think it's really important.
Like OK, well this is going bad so now is the time to start thinking about. I mean look, I started a podcast during the pandemic. It's like this is going pretty bad. But you know what? This could be something really interesting, deep questions of you push.
And I do it all in that voice. I love the podcast, by the way. But yeah, I think David Foster Wallace said the key to life is to be unbearable. I've always. Taking that to heart, which is like you should be able to maybe artificially generate anything, like find something in your environment, in your surroundings, that's a source of joy, like everything is fun.
Yeah. Did you read The Pale King? Because deep on boredom, it means it's like uncomfortable. It's like an uncomfortable meditation on boredom, like the characters in that are just driven to the extremes of I just bought three books on boredom the other day. So I'm really interested in this topic because I was anxious about my book launch happening this week. So I was like, OK, I need something else. So I have this idea for I might do as an article first, but as a book like, OK, I need something cool to be thinking about because I was worried about like I don't have the launch going to work, the pandemic.
What's going to happen. I don't know if it's going to get there. So this is exactly what we're talking about. So I went out and I bought a bunch of books and I'm beginning like a whole sort of intellectual exploration.
Well, I think that's one of the profound ideas and deep work that you don't expand on too much is boredom.
Yeah, well, so the deeper kind of a superficial idea about boredom, which was I had this chapter called Embrace Boredom and a very functionalist idea was basically you have to have some boredom in your regular schedule or your mind is going to form a Pavlovian connection between as soon as I feel boredom, I get stimuli.
And once it forms, that connection is never going to tolerate deep work. So there's this very pragmatic treatment of boredom of your mind. Better be used to the idea that sometimes you don't get stimulated because otherwise you can't write for three hours, like it's just not going to tolerate it. But more and more recently, what I'm really interested in boredom is it as a fundamental human drive? Right, because it's incredibly uncomfortable and think about the other things that are incredibly uncomfortable, like hunger or thirst, they serve a really important purpose for our species.
Right. If something is really distressing, there's a reason pain is really uncomfortable because we need to worry about getting injured. Thirst is really uncomfortable because we need water to survive. So what's boredom? Why is that uncomfortable? And I've been interested in this notion that boredom is about driving us towards productive action, like as a species. I mean, think about it like what what got us to actually take advantage of these brains? What got us to actually work with fire?
What got us to start shaping stones in the hand axes and figuring out if we could actually sharpen a stick sharp enough that we could throw it as a melee weapon or a distance weapon for hunting mammoth. Right. Boredom drives us towards action. So now I'm fascinated by this fundamental action instinct because I have this theory that I'm working on that we're out of sync with it, just like we got we have this drive for hunger, but then we introduce junk food and got out of sync with hunger.
And it makes us really unhealthy. We have this drive towards action, but then we overload ourselves and we have all of these distractions. And then that causes it's like a cognitive action obesity type thing because it short circuits the system that wants us to do things, but we put more things on our plate than we can possibly do. And then we're really frustrated. We can't do them and we're short circuit all of our wire.
So it all comes back to this question, well, what would be the ideal? The ideal sort of amount of stuff to do in type of things to do, like if we want to look back at our ancestral environment and say, if I could just build from scratch what how much work I do and what I work on, to be as in touch with that is like paleo people are trying to get their diets in touch with that. And so now I'm just let's see.
This is just it's something I made up. Yeah. But now I'm going deep on it.
And one of my podcast listeners I was talking about on the show, and I was like I kept trying to learn about animals and boredom. And she sent me this cool article from an animal behaviorist journal about what we know about human boredom versus animal boredom.
So trying to figure out that puzzle is the wave that's high.
So I get through the wave that's low of like I don't know about this pandemic book launch. And yeah, and my research and my research are stumbling a little bit because of the pandemic. And so I needed a nice, you know, high. So there we go. There's a case study.
Well, the is both a case study and a very interesting set of concepts because I didn't even realize that it's so simple. I'm one of the people that has interesting push and pull dynamic with hunger, trying to understand the hunger with myself. Like I probably have an unhealthy relationship with food.
I don't know. But there's probably a perfect that's a nice way to think about diet as action. There's probably an optimal diet response to the the experience that everybody's telling us, the signal that a body is sending, which is hunger. In that same way, boredom is sending a signal. And most of our intellectual activities in this world are creative activities are essentially a response to that signal. Yeah. And think about this analogy that we have this hunger instinct that junk food, short circuits.
Yes. It's like, oh, what will satisfy that? Hyper palpably and it doesn't end up well. Now think about modern attention engineered, digitally mediated entertainment. We have this boredom instinct. Oh, we can we can take care of that with a hyper palatable alternative. Is that going to lead to a similar problem?
So I've been fasting a lot lately, like I'm doing eating once a day. I've been doing that for over a month, just eating one meal a day and primarily meat. But it's very fasting has been incredible for me, for focus, for well-being, for a few. I don't I don't know, just for feeling good. OK, we'll put on a chart what makes me feel good and that fasting and eating primarily meat based diet makes me feel really good.
But that ultimately would fasting did even for a super long year, like a seven day diet, which I really like to do, but even just fasting for a day for 24 hours gets you in touch with your with the signal. It's fascinating, like you get to listen to you learn to listen to your body that like. You know, it's OK to be hungry. It's like a little signal that sends you stuff. And then and then I get to listen to how it responds when I put food in my body and I get like, OK, cause, like, food is a thing that pacifies the signal.
Like, it sounds ridiculous.
OK, you could do that with a do different types of food. It feels different. So you learn about what your body wants for some reason, fasting, it's similar to the deep or embrace boredom. Fasting allowed me to go into a mode of listening, of trying to understand the signal that I could say I have an unhealthy appreciation of food, OK?
I love apples and cherries. Like, I don't know how to moderate them. So if you take just the same amount of calories, I don't know, calories matter. But they say calories, 2000 calories of cherries versus two thousand calories of steak for two thousand calories, a steak, maybe just a little bit of like green beans or cauliflower. I'm going to feel really good, fulfilled, focused and happy for eight cherries. I'm going to be I'm going to wake up behind a dumpster crying with, like, naked.
And it's all around with everything. Fazio and just like bloated, just not and unhappy.
And also the mood swings up and down. I don't know.
And I'll be much hungrier the next day. Sometimes it takes a couple of days when I introduce carbs into the system, too many carbs, it starts. It's just unhealthy. I go into this roller coaster as opposed to a calm boat ride along the river in the Amazon or something like that. Yeah. So fasting was the mechanism for me to start listening to the body. I wonder if you can do that. Same kind of I guess that's what meditation a little bit is a little bit, but yeah.
Lessen the boredom.
But so two years ago I had a book out called Digital Minimalism, and one of the things I was recommending that people do is basically a 30 day fast.
But from digital, personal entertainment, social media, online videos, anything that captures your attention and dispels boredom. And people were thinking like, oh, this is a detox. I want to teach your body not to need the distraction of this or that. But it really wasn't what I was interested in.
I wanted there to be space that you could listen to your boredom like, OK, I can't just spell it. I can't just look at the screen and revel in it a little bit and start to listen to it and say, what is this really pushing me towards?
And you take the new stuff, the new technology off the table and sort of ask, what is this? What am I crazy like? What's the activity equivalent of 2000 calories of meat with a little bit of green beans on the side and had seventeen hundred people go through this experiment like spend thirty days doing this and it's hard at first, but then they get used to listening to themselves and sort of seeking out what is this really pushing me towards. And it was pushing people towards connection.
I was pushing people towards. I just want to go be around other people. It was pushing people towards high quality leisure activities, like I want to go do something that's complicated. And it took weeks sometimes for them to get in touch with their boredom, but then it completely rewired how they thought about what do I want to do with my time outside of work?
And then the idea is when you're done with that and it was much easier to go back and completely change your digital life because you have alternatives, right?
You're not just trying to abstain from things you don't like, but that's basically listening to boredom experiment and just be there with the boredom and see where it drives you when you don't have, you know, the digital keys.
It's OK if I can't do that. Where is it going to drive me? Well, I guess it kind I go the library, which came up a lot, by the way, a lot of people rediscovered the library, you know, with physical books, physical books like you can just go borrow them and there's like low pressure and you can explore and you bring them home and then you read them and you can like sit by the window and read them.
And it's nice weather outside. And I used to do that 20 years ago.
They're listening to boredom.
So can you maybe elaborate a little bit on the different experiences that people had when they quit social media for 30 days? Like is that if you were to recommend that process, what is ultimately the goal?
Yeah, digital minimalism. That's that's my philosophy for all this talk. And it's working backwards from what's important. So it's you figure out what you're actually all about, what you want to do, what you want to spend your time doing, and then you can ask, OK, is there a place that could amplify or support some of these things?
And that's how you decide what tech to use. And so the process is let's actually get away from everything. Let's be bored for a while. Let's really spend a month getting really figuring out what do I actually want to do, what I want to spend my time doing, what's important to me, you know, what makes me feel good? And then when you're done, you can bring back in tech very strategically to help those things. Right. And that was the goal that turns out to be much more successful than when people take an abstention only approach.
So if you come out your tech life and say, you know, whatever, I look at Instagram too much, like I don't like how much I'm on Instagram, that's a bad thing. I want to reduce this bad thing. So so here's my new thing.
I'm going to spend less time looking at Instagram, much less likely to succeed in the long term. So we're much less likely trying to reduce this sort of amorphous negative because in the moment. Yeah, but it's not that bad and would be kind of interesting to look at it now when you're instead controlling behavior because you have a positive that you're aiming towards is very powerful for people like I want my life to be like this. Here's the role that took place in that life.
The connection to one in your life to be like that is very, very strong and then much, much easier. So yeah, like using Instagram is not part of my plan for how I have that life and I really want to have that life. Of course, I'm not going to use Instagram, so it turns out to be a much more sustainable way to tame what's going on.
So if you quit social media for 30 days, you kind of have to. Do the work you have to do the work of thinking, like, what am I actually what makes me happy in terms of these tools that I've previously used?
And when you tried to integrate them back, how can they integrate them to maximize the thing they actually use?
Or what makes me happy, unrelated to technology? Like what do I actually what do I want my life to be like? Well, maybe what I want to do is be, you know, outside in nature two hours a day and spend a lot more time like helping my community and sacrificing on behalf of my connections and then have some sort of intellectually engaging leisure activity like I'm reading or trying to read the great books and having more calm and seeing the sunset like you create this picture and then you go back and say, well, I still need my Facebook group because that's how I keep up with my cycling group.
But Twitter is just, you know, toxic. It's not helping any of these things. And while I'm an artist, so I kind of need Instagram to get inspiration, but if I know that's why I'm using Instagram, I don't need it on my phone. It's just on my computer. And I just folotyn artist and fuck it once a week, like, you really can start to point. It was the number one thing that differentiated in that experiment.
The people who ended up sustainably making changes and getting through the 30 days and those who did it was the people who did the experimentation and the reflection. Like, let me try to figure out what's positive. They were much more successful than the people that just said, I'm sick of using my phone. So much so I'm going to white knuckle it. Just 30 days will be good for me. I just got to it's got to get away from it or something that doesn't last.
So you don't need social media currently. Yeah. Of do you find that a lot of people go through this process, will will seek to basically arrive at a similar place to new social media from about half. Right. So so about half when they went through this exercise. And these aren't quantified numbers. You know, this is just they sent me reports and.
Yeah, that's pretty good though. Seventeen on it. Yeah. Yeah. So, so, so roughly half probably got rid of social media altogether. Once they did this exercise they realized these things I care about. I don't know, social media is not the tools, it's really helping. The other have kept some there are some things in their life or some social media was useful. But the key thing is if they knew why they were deploying social media, they could put fences around it.
So, for example, of those have to keep some social media. Almost none of them kept it on their phone. Oh, interesting.
Yeah, I can optimize if you if you don't know what the function you're trying to optimize. So it's like this huge hack, like once you know, this is why I'm using Twitter, then you can have a lot of rules about how you use Twitter and suddenly you take this cost benefit ratio and it goes like way from the company's advantage and way over towards your advantage.
It's kind of fascinating because I've been torn with social media, but I did this kind of process. I haven't actually done it for thirty days, which I probably should.
I'll do it for like a week at a time and regularly and thinking what what kind of approach to Twitter works for me. What I am distinctly aware of the fact that I really enjoy posting once or twice a day and at that time checking from the previous post, it like it makes me feel even when there's like negative comments, they go right past me and when there's positive comments makes you smile. I feel like love and connection with people, especially people I know.
But even just in general, it's like it makes me feel like the world is full of awesome people.
OK, when you increase there from checking from two to like, I don't know what the threshold is for me, but probably five or six per day it starts going to anxiety world like where negative comments will actually stick to me mentally and and positive comments will feel more shallow.
Yeah, yeah. It's kind of fascinating.
So I I've, I've been trying to there's been long stretches of time. I think December and January were did just post and check, post and check, that was that makes me really happy most of 2020 and that made me really happy. Recently I started like, I'll go you know, you go right back in like a drug addict. Will you check it? Like, I don't know what that number is, but that number is high. Not good.
You don't come out happy and you don't no one comes out of a day full of Twitter celebrating humanity.
And it's not even because I'm very fortunate to have a lot of positivity on the Twitter. But I there's just in general anxiety. I wouldn't even say I wouldn't even say it's it's probably the thing that you're talking about with the context watching. It's almost like an exhaustion. I wouldn't even say it's a negative feeling. It's almost just an exhaustion to where I'm not creating anything beautiful in my life, just exhausted in existential exhaustion, existential exhaustion. But I wonder, do you think it's possible to use from the people you've seen from yourself to do use social media in the way I'm describing moderation?
Or is it always going to become when people do this exercise, you get lots of lots of configurations. So for people that have a public presence, for example, like what you're doing, it's not that not that unusual.
OK, I post one thing a day and my audience likes it.
And that's kind of it which you've thought through, like, OK, this support something I value, which is like having a sort of informal connection with my audience and being exposed to some sort of positive randomness, you know, OK, if that's my goal, what's the right way to do it?
Well, I don't need to be on Twitter, on my phone all day. Maybe what I do is every day at 5:00, I do my post and check on the day. So I'm a writer friend, Ryan Holladay, who writes about the Stoics a lot, and he has a similar strategy. He post one quote every day from usually from a famous stoic and sometimes more contemporary figure. And that's just what he does. He just post it. And it's a very positive thing.
Like his readers really love it because it's just like a dose of inspiration. He doesn't spend time. He's never interacting with anyone on social media. Right. But that's an example of I figured out what's important to me, what's the best way to use tools to amplify it. And then you get advantages out of the tools. So I like what you're doing. I looked you up.
I looked up your Twitter feed before I came, came over here. I'm curious. You're not on there a lot? No, I don't see you yelling at people now. Do you think social media as a medium changed the cultural standards?
And I mean it in a way. Have you read Neil Postman at all? Have you read, like, Amusing Ourselves to death? He was a social critic, technology critic, and wrote a lot about sort of technological determinism. So The Ways, which is a really influential idea to a lot of my work, which is actually a little out of fashion right now in academia. But the ways that the properties and presence of technologies change things about humans in a way that's not really intended or planned by the humans themselves, and that the book is all about how different communication, medium like fundamental, just change the way the human brain understands and operates.
And so he sort of gets into the what happened when the printed word was widespread and how television changed it. And this was all pretty social media. But this is one of these ideas I'm having is like, what's the degree to which I get into it?
Sometimes I'm on my show. I get a little bit like the degree to which, like Twitter in particular, just changed the way that people conceptualized what, for example, debate and discussion was like. It introduced a rhetorical culture or a sort of more about tribes not giving ground to other tribes. And it's like it's a complete there's different places and times when that type of discussion was thought of differently, right? Well, yeah, absolutely. But I tend to believe I don't know what you think, that there's a technological solutions, like there's literally different features in Twitter that could completely reverse that.
There's so much power in the different choices that are made and it could still be highly engaging and have very different effects, perhaps more negative or hopefully more positive.
Yeah, I'm trying to pull these two things apart. So there's these two ways. Social media, let's say, could change the experience of reading a major newspaper today. One could be a little bit more economic. Right. So so the Internet made it cheaper to get news. The newspapers had to retreat to a paywall model because it was the only way they were going to survive. But once you're in a paywall model than what you really want to do is make your tribe, which is within the paywall, very, very happy with you.
So you want to work to them. But then there's the sort of the determinist point of view, which is the properties of Twitter, which were arbitrary. Jack and Evan, just whatever. Let's just do it this way, influenced the very way that people now understand and think about the world.
So the one influence the other, I think they kind of started just together. I did this thing. I mean, I'm trying to understand this part of the part of the I've been playing with the entrepreneurial idea. There's a very particular dream I've had of a startup that this is a longer term thing. It has to do with artificial intelligence, but. More and more, it seems like there's some trajectory through creating social media type of technologies very different than what people are thinking I'm doing, but it's a kind of challenge to the way the Twitter is done.
But it's not obvious what the best mechanisms are to still make it exceptionally engaging platform like clubhouses, very engaging and not have any other negative effects. I for example, there's chrome extensions that allow you to turn off all likes and dislikes and all of that from Twitter. So all you're seeing is just the content. Yeah. On Twitter. That to me creates that's not a compelling experience at all because I still need I would argue I still need the likes to know what's a tweet worth reading.
Yeah. Because I only have the limited amount of time so I need to know what's valuable. It's a great Yelp reviews on tweets or something. Exactly.
But I've turned off on for example, on my account on YouTube, I've turned I wrote a Chrome extension that turns off all likes and dislikes and just views.
I don't know how many views the video gets, so yeah, unless it's on my phone to take off the recommendations, the YouTube, some people the distraction for YouTube is a big one.
Yeah, no, I'm not worried about the distraction because I'm able to control myself on YouTube. You don't rabbit all and I don't rabbit hole. So you have to know your demons or your addictions or whatever I need to Obamacare. I don't have I don't keep clicking. The negative feelings come from seeing the views on stuff you've created. I've created. Oh, so you want to see your views? Yeah. Look, I'm just speaking to the things that I'm aware of, of myself that are helpful and things that are not helpful emotionally.
Yeah, well, my my big unified theory on social media is I'm very I'm very bearish. Yes. On the big platforms having a long future. You are I think the moment I think the moment of three or four major platforms is not going to last. Right. So I don't know. Okay. This is just perspective. Right.
So you can start sort of these stocks on my financials. Yeah. Yeah. Don't worry about it.
So here's here's I think the the big mistake, the major platforms made as when they the took out the network effect advantage. Right. So the original pitch, especially something like Facebook or Instagram was the people you know are on here. Right. So like what you use those words, you can connect to people that you already know. This is what makes the network useful. So therefore, the value of our network grows quite dramatically with the number of users.
And therefore, it's such a head start that there's no way that someone else can catch up. But when they shifted and when Facebook took the lead, if they were going to shift towards a news feed model, they basically said, we're going to try to, in the moment, get more data and get more likes. Like what we're going to go towards is actually just seen interesting stuff. I've seen different information. So people took the social Internet impulse to connect to people digitally to other tools like group text messages and WhatsApp and stuff like this.
Right. So you don't think about these tools as, oh, this is where I connect with people once. It's just a feed. That's kind of interesting. Now you're competing with everything else that can produce interesting content that's diverting. And I think that is a much fiercer competition because now, for example, you're going up against podcast, right?
I mean, like, OK, I guess, you know, the Twitter feed is interesting right now, but also a podcast is interesting or something else could be interesting, too. I think it's a much fiercer competition when there's no there's no more network effects. Right. And so my sense is we're going to see a fragmentation into what I call longtail social media, where if I don't need everyone I know to be on a platform, then why not have three or four bespoke platforms I use where it's a thousand people and it's all we're all interested in, you know, whatever A.I. or comedy.
And we've perfected this interface and maybe it's like flophouses, audio or something. And we all pay two dollars so we don't have to worry about attention harvesting. And that's going to be wildly more entertaining. Like I mean, I'm thinking about comedians on Twitter.
It's not the best Internet possible format for them expressing themselves and being interesting that you have all these comedians that are trying to like, well, I can do like little clips and little whatever. Like I don't know if there was a long tail social media. That's really this is where the comedians are. And this podcast and the comedians are on podcast now.
So this is my thought is that there's really no there's really no strong advantage to having one large platform that everyone is on.
If all you're getting from it is I now have different options for diversion and like uplifting, aspirational or whatever type of entertainment that whole think of fragment.
And I think the glue that was holding together was network effects. I don't think they realized it when network effects have been destabilized. They don't have the centrifugal force anymore, and they're spinning faster and faster, but is a Twitter feed really that much more interesting than all these streaming services? Is it really that much more interesting than clubhouse? Is it that much more interesting than podcast? I feel like they don't realize how unstable their ground actually is. Yeah, that's fascinating.
But the thing that makes Twitter and Facebook work, I mean, the news feed. You're exactly right like that. You can just duplicate the news. If it's not the social network and it's the news feed, then why not have multiple different feeds that are more that are better at satisfying? There's a dopamine gamification that they've figured out. Yeah.
And so you have to whatever you create, you have to these provide some pleasure in that same gamification kind of way. It doesn't have to have to do with scale of large social networks.
But I mean, I guess you're implying that you should be able to design that kind of mechanism in other forums or people are turning on that gamification.
I mean, some people are getting wise to it and are getting uncomfortable about it. Right.
So if I'm offering something, these existing sugar will realize sugar is bad, drinking a lot.
That's great, too. But it also after a while, you realize there's there's problems. So some of the longtail social media networks that are out there that I've looked at, they offer usually like a deeper sense of connection. Like it's usually interesting people that you share some affinity and you have these carefully cultivated. I wrote this New Yorker piece a couple of years ago about the indie social media movement that really got into some of these different technologies.
But I think the technologies are a distraction. We focus too much on, you know, mastodon versus, you know, whatever, like forget or discord. Like let's forget the protocols right now.
It's the idea of OK, and there's all the a lot of these longtail social media groups, what people are getting out of it, which I think can outweigh the dopamine. Gamification is strong connection and motivation. Like you're in a group with other guys that are all trying to be better dads or something like this. And and you talk to him on a regular basis and you're sharing your stories. And there's interesting talks. And that's a powerful thing, too.
One interesting thing about the scale of Twitter is you have these viral spread of information. So sort of Twitter has become a newsmaker in itself.
Yeah, I think the problem was yes.
But I wonder what replaces that because. Because then you immediately report of do some work.
Again, I know the problem with reporters and journalism is that their intermediary, they have control.
I mean, this is the problem in Russia currently is that you have it creates a shield between the people and news. The the interesting thing and the powerful thing about Twitter is that the news originates from the individual that's creating the news like you have the president, that is the former president of the United States on Twitter creating news. You have Elon Musk creating news. You have people announcing stuff on Twitter as opposed to talking to a journalist. And that feels much more genuine.
And if it feels very powerful, but actually coming to realize it doesn't need a social network, you can just put that announcement on a YouTube type saying this is what I'm thinking.
Right. So this is my point about that, because it's right. The democratizing power of the Internet is fantastic. I'm an old school Internet nerd, a guy that was, you know, telemedicine in the servers and go before the World Wide Web was around. Right. So I'm a huge Internet booster, and that's that's one of its big power.
But when you put everything on Twitter, I think the fact that you've taken your homogenized everything right.
So everything looks the same moves with the same low friction is very difficult. You have no what I call distributed curation. Right. The only curation that really happens, I was a little bit with likes and also the algorithm. But if you look back to pre Web 2.0 or early Web 2.0, when a lot of this was happening, let's say on blogs where people own their own servers and you had your different blogs, there was this distributed curation that happened where in order for your blog to get on people's radar.
And this had nothing to do with any gatekeepers or legacy media.
It was over time you got more leaks and people respected you. And you would hear about this blog over here. And there's this whole distributed curation and filtering going on. So if you think like the 2004 presidential election, most of the information people gained from the Internet is one of the first big Internet news driven elections was from, you know, you had like the Daily Kos and Drudge. But there was like blogs that were out there. And this is Ezra Klein was just running a blog out of his, you know, dorm room at this point.
Right. And you would, in a distributed fashion, gain credibility because people are paid. It's very hard to get people pay attention A to paying attention. I get linked to this kid, Esraa, or whatever. It seems to be really sharp and now people are noticing it.
And now you have a distributed curation that solves a lot of the problems we see when you have a completely homogenized, low friction environment like friction, where I mean Twitter, where any random. Conspiracy theory or whatever that people like can just shoot through and spread, whereas if you're starting a blog to try to push to an on or something like that, it's probably going to be a really weird looking blog. And you have a hard time, like it's just never going to show up on people's radar.
So everything you said up until the very last statement, I would I would agree with this is a topic I don't know a ton about.
I guess there's I think I forget Kuhnen. Yeah. Nobody can plug you in on this. Kunhardt It could be that I also don't know. I should know more. I apologize. I don't know more. I mean, that's a power. And the downside you can have I mean, Hitler could have a blog today and he would have potentially a very large following if he's charismatic, if he's has, you know, is good with words, is able to express the ideas, whatever, maybe he's able to channel frustration, the anger that people have about a certain thing.
And so I think that's the power of blogs, but it's also the limitation. But that doesn't we're not trying to solve that. We can't solve that. The fundamental problem you're saying is not the problem. The your your thesis is that there's nothing special about large scale social networks that guarantees that they will keep existing.
And it's important to remember for a lot of the older generation of Internet activists, so the people who are very pro Internet in the early days, they were completely flabbergasted by the rise of these platforms, say, why would you take the Internet and then build your own version of the Internet where you own all the servers?
And we built this whole distribute the whole thing had open protocols. Everyone anywhere in the world use the same protocols your machine can talk to. Any other machine is the most democratic communication system that's ever been built. And then these companies came along and said, we're going to build our own own all the servers and put them in buildings that we own. And the Internet will just be the first mile. This gets you into our private Internet where we own the whole thing.
It went completely against the entire motivation of the Internet was like, yes, we it's not going to be one person owns all the servers and you pay to access them. It's any one server that they own can talk to anyone else's server because we all agree on a standard set of protocols. And so the old guard of pro Internet people never understood this move towards let's build private versions of the Internet, built three or four private Internets, and that's what we'll all use.
It was the opposite, basically.
Well, it's funny enough. I don't know if you follow, but Jack Dorsey also is a proponent and is helping to fund create fully distributed versions of Twitter, essentially that would potentially destroy Twitter. Yeah, but I think there might be financial or business cases to be made there. I'm not sure, but that seems to be another alternative as as opposed to creating a bunch of like the long tail creating like the ultimate long tail of like fully distributed. Yeah.
Which is what the Internet is. That's that's sort of one thing about LongTail social media. I'm thinking it's like the text not so important. Like there's groups out there. Right. I know where the tech they used to actually implement their digital only social group, whatever they might use slack, they might use some combination of Zouma. It doesn't matter. I think in the tech world, we want to build the beautiful protocol that, OK, everyone's going to use just a federated server protocol and which we've worked out X, Y and Z.
No one understands it because then the engineers need it all to make. I get it because I'm a nerd like this, like, OK, every standard has to fit with everything else and no one understands what's going on.
Meanwhile, you know, you have this group of bike enthusiasts that are like, yeah, we'll just jump on a zoom and have some slack and put up a blog at the tech. Doesn't really matter. Like we've built the world with our own curation, our own rules, our own sort of social ecosystem that's generating a lot of value. I mean, I dunno if it'll happen. There's a lot of money at stake with obviously these large, but I just think they're more.
I mean, look how quickly Americans left Facebook, right? I mean, Facebook was savvy to buy other properties and to diversify. Right. But how quick did that take for just standard Facebook news for everyone under the age of something? We're using it and no one under a certain age is using it. Now, it took like four years. I mean, this stuff is silly.
I believe people can leave Facebook overnight. Yeah, I, I think Facebook hasn't actually messed up like enough to. There's two things. They haven't messed up enough for people to really leave aggressively and there's no good alternative for them to leave I think have good alternatives. Pop up. It was just immediately happened.
This stuff is a lot more culturally fragile, I think. I mean, Twitter's having a moment because it was feeding a certain type of I mean, there's a lot of anxieties that was in the sort of political sphere anyways that Twitter was working with. But it's moments ago to you as well. I mean, it's a really arbitrary thing, short little things.
And I wrote a Wired article about this earlier in the pandemic, like this is crazy that the way that we're trying to communicate information about the pandemic is all these weird, arbitrary rules where people are screen shotting pictures of articles that are part of a tweet thread where you see one slash. And under it, like we have the technology guys to like, really clearly convey infor long form information to people. Why are we why do we have these? And I know this because it's the game of like dopamine hits, but what a weird medium.
There's no reason for us to have to have these threads that you have to find and pin with you screenshot. I mean, we have technology to communicate better using the Internet. I mean, why are epidemiologists having to do tweet threads?
Well, because there's mechanisms of publishing that make it easier on Twitter. I mean, we're evolving as a species and the Internet is a very fresh thing. Yeah. And so it's kind of interesting to think that as opposed to Twitter, it's this is what Jack also complains about is Twitter's not innovating fast enough. Yeah. And so it's almost like the people are innovating and thinking about their productive life faster than the platforms on which they operate can catch up.
And so the point is the gap grows sufficiently. They'll jump a few people, few innovative folks will just create an alternative and perhaps distributed perhaps just many little silos.
And then people will jump and then we'll just continue this kind of see, I think like stock, for example, what they're going to pull out of Twitter, among other things, is the audience that was, let's say, like slightly left of center, but slightly Jocelin or don't like. Trump uncomfortable with postmodern critical theory is made into political action. Right. And they're like Twitter. There is a people on there talking about this. And it made me feel sort of heard because I was feeling a little bit like a nerd about it.
But honestly, I'd probably rather subscribe to force have Andrew Sullivan live like a Jussie Signals, like I have a few subsects I can subscribe to.
And honestly, that I'm a knowledge worker who's thirty two anyway is probably that's an email all day and it's like there's a innovation is going to that group is going to suck them off, which is actually a very large group.
Yeah. That's a lot of, that's a lot of energy. And then once Trump's gone, I guess that's probably going to drive. That drove a lot of people off Twitter, like the stuff is fragile. So think I.
But the fascinating thing to me, because I've hung out on parler for a short amount enough to know that the interface matters. It's so fascinating like that that it's not just about ideas. Yeah. It's about creating like subsect to creating a pleasant experience, addicting experience.
You're right. You're right about that. And it's hard. And it's why the Internet is one of the conclusions from that in social media article.
It's just the ugliness matters. And I don't mean even just esthetically, but just the clunky ness of the interfaces. The and I don't know the some degree the social media companies have spent a lot of money on this. And to some degree, it's a survivorship bias. Yeah, right. I think Twitter, every time I hear Jack talks about this, it seems like he's as surprised as anyone else the way Twitter is being used.
And it's basically the way, you know, they had it years ago. And then, you know, there's a great deal B status right now. This is what I'm doing, you know, and my friends can follow me and see it. And without really change anything, I just happen to hit everything. Right? Yeah. Support this other type of interaction.
Yeah, it's so there's something to that like as opposed to trying.
Get lucky or trying to think through stuff is just to to solve a particular problem, do stuff and do stuff, do they keep tinkering till you love it? Yeah, yeah.
And then and of course, the sad thing is timing and luck matter and that you can't really control the problem. Yeah, but you can't go back to 2007. Yeah.
That's like the number one thing you could do to have a lot of success with the new platform is go back in time, 14 years to the thing you have to kind of think about is what is the like was the totally new thing that 10 years from now would seem obvious. I mean, some people saying clubhouses that there's been a lot of stuff like clubhouse before, but it it hit the right kind of thing similar to Tesla, actually, where clubhouse did is it got a lot of relatively famous people on there quickly.
Yeah. And there's a leave quietly button. Yeah that's it. Yeah. And it's kind of I love single use technology that that sense. Yeah. There's no like there's no, it's just like trivial and uh you know, Twitter kind of started like there, Facebook started like that. But they've evolved quickly to add all these features and so on. And you know, I do hope clubhouse stays that way. Yeah.
Be interesting or there's alternatives. I mean I mean, even with clubhouse, though.
So one of the issues with a lot of these platforms, I think, is the bits are cheap enough now that we don't really need a unicorn investor model.
I mean, the investors need that model.
There's really not really an imperative of we need something that can scale to one hundred million plus a year revenue. So because it's going to require this much seed and angel investment and you're not going to get this much seed angel investment unless you can have a potential exit. This is why, because you have to be part of a portfolio that depends on one out of 10 exiting here. If you don't actually need that and you don't need to satisfy that investor model, which I think is basically the case.
I mean, bits are so cheap, everything is so cheap, you don't.
So even like the clubhouse at its investor back, there is this notion of like this needs to be a major platform, but the bike club doesn't necessarily need a major platform.
That's where I'm interested. I mean, I don't know that there's so much money. That's the only problem. The bets against me is that you can concentrate a lot of capital if you do these things right. I mean, so Facebook was like a fantastic capital concentration machine. It's crazy how much where it even found that capital in the world. It could concentrate in ossify, in the stock price, that a very small number of people have access to it.
That's that's incredibly powerful. So when there when there is a possibility to to to consolidate and gather a huge amount of capital, that's a huge imperative.
That's very hard for the big club to go up against. So but there's a lot of money in the big club and you see with the Wall Street bets. Yeah. And that when a bunch of people get together and it doesn't have to be a book, it could be a bunch of different bike clubs just kind of team up. Yeah. To overtake is what we're doing now. Yeah. Yeah. Or we're going to repurpose off the shelf stuff.
Yes. That's not you were going to we're going to repurpose whatever it was for office productivity or something in that, like the clubs using slack just to build out these. Yeah. Yeah.
Let's talk about email. Yeah that's right.
I wrote a book, you wrote another amazing book, World Without Email. It may be one way to enter this discussion is to ask what is the hyperactive hive mind, which is the concept you open the book with. Yeah, and the devil.
And it's the scourge of hundreds of millions.
So I think so. I called this book A World Without Email. The real title should be A World Without the Hyperactive Hive Mind Workflow. But my publisher didn't like that. Yeah. So we had to get a little bit more pithy.
I was trying to answer the question after deep work.
Why is it so hard to do this if this is so valuable, if we can produce much higher, if people are much happier, why do we check email addy? Why are we on CELAC all day? You know? And so I started working on this book immediately after deep work. And so my initial interviews were done in 2016. So it took five years to pull the threads together. I was trying to understand why is it so hard for most people to actually find any time to do the stuff?
It actually moves the needle.
And the story was and I thought this was I hadn't heard this report anywhere else.
That's why it took me so long to pull together, is email arrives on the scene, email spreads, I trace it.
It really picks up steam in the early 1990s. Between 1990 and 1995, it makes its move right, and it does so for very pragmatic reasons, it was replacing existing communication technologies that it was better than it was mainly the fax machine, voicemail and memos. Right.
So this was just better, right. So it was a killer app because it was useful. In its wake came a new way of collaborating, and that's the hyperactive hive mind.
So it's the like the virus that follows the the rats that went through Western Europe for the black plague.
As email spread through organizations, in its wake came the hyperactive hive mind workflow, which says, OK, guys, here's the way we're going to collaborate. We'll just work things out on the fly with unscheduled back and forth messages.
Just boom, boom, boom. Let's go back and forth. Hey, what about this? You see this one about that client list? What's going on over here that followed email? It completely took over office work and the the need to keep up with all of these asynchronous back and forth unscheduled messages as those got more and more and more and more.
There's a service. The need to service those require us to check more and more and more and more. Right.
And so by the time and I go through the numbers, by the time you get the today, now the average knowledge worker has to check one of these channels once every six minutes because every single thing you do in your organization, how you talk to your colleagues, how you talk to your vendors, how you talk to your clients, how you talk to the H.R. department, it's all this asynchronous, unscheduled back and forth messaging and you have to service the conversations and it spiraled out of control.
And it has sort of devolved a lot of work in the office. Now, to all I do is constantly to end communication channels.
This is fascinating.
What you're describing is nobody ever paused in this whole evolution to try to create a system that actually works, that it was kind of like a huge fan of Sally Automata.
So is just kind of started. Yeah, very a very simple mechanism, just accelerated time. And it just kind of grew to overtake all the fundamental communication of how we do business and also personal life.
Yeah, that's one of the big ideas. Is that the unconventionality. Yeah, right. So this goes back to technological determinism. I mean, this is a weird business book because I go deep on philosophy. I go deep on for some reason. We get into paleoanthropology for a while. We do a lot of neuroscience. It's kind of a weird book. But I got real into this technological determinism, this notion that just the presence of a technology can change how people act.
That's my big argument about what happened with the hive mind. And I can document specific examples. Right. So I document this example in IBM. Nineteen eighty seven, maybe eighty five. But it's in like the mid to late 80s IBM Armonk headquarters. We're going to put an internal email. Right, because it's convenient. And so they ran a whole study. And so I talked to the engineer who ran the study. Adrian said we're going to run the study to figure out how much do we communicate because it was still an area where it's expensive.
Right. So you have the provision of mainframe, so you can't overprovision. Like, we want to know how much communication actually happened. So they went and figured it out. How many memos, how many calls, how many notes. Great. Will provision a mainframe to handle email. They can handle all of that. So if all of our communication moves to email, the mainframe will still be fine in three days. They had melted it down.
People were communicating six times more than that estimate. So just in three days, the presence of a low friction digital communication tool drastically changed how everyone collaborated. So that's not enough time for an all hands meeting. Guys, we figured it out. You know, this is what we need to communicate a lot more is what's going to make us more productive. We need more emails.
It's emergent, isn't it? Just on the positive and amazing to you. Like, isn't the email amazing, like in those early days? It's just the frictionless communication. Email is awesome.
Like the people say that there's a lot of problems with emails, just like people say a lot of problems with Twitter and so on. It's kind of cool that you can just send a little note.
It was a miracle. This was so I so I wrote a there's original was a New Yorker piece from a year or two ago called Was Email a Mistake? And then it's in the book too.
Yeah, but I go into the history of email like why did it come along.
And it solved a huge problem. So it was the problem of fast asynchronous communication.
Yeah. And it was a problem. Did not exist until it got large offices and we got large offices, synchronous communication like let's get on the phone at the same time. There's too much overhead to it. There's too many people you might have to talk to asynchronous communication. Like, let me send you a memo when I'm ready and you can read it when you're ready. Took too long.
And so it was like a huge problem. So one of the things I talked about is the way that when they built the CIA headquarters, there is such a need for fast asynchronous communication that they built a pneumatic powered email system. They had these pneumatic tubes all throughout the headquarters with electromagnetic routers. So you would put your message in a Plexiglas tube and you would turn these brass dials about the location. You would stick it in these things and pneumatic tubes, and it would shoot and sort and work its way through these tubes to show up in just a minute or something at the floor and at the general office suite where you wanted to go.
At my point, the fact that they spent so much. Money to make that work show how important fast asynchronous communication was to large offices. So when email came along, it was a productivity silver bullet. It was a miracle. I talked to the researchers who are working on computer support, a collaboration in the late 80s, trying to figure out how are we going to use computer networks to be more productive. And they were building all these systems and tools.
Email showed up. It just wiped all that research off the map. There was no need to build these custom Internet applications. There's no need to build these these communication platforms.
Email could just do everything right. So it was a miracle application, which is why it spread everywhere. That's one of these things where unintended consequences. Right. Yet this miracle productivity, silver bullet, it spread everywhere. But it was so effective. It just, you know, I don't know, like a drug. I'm sure there's some pandemic metaphor here analogy here of a drug like it's so effective at treating this that it also blows up your whole immune system and then everyone gets sick.
But, well, ultimately, it probably significantly increase the productivity of the world. But there is a kind of hump that it now has plateaued. And then the fundamental question you're asking is like, OK, how do we take the next one? How do we keep increasing the productivity? You know, I think it brought it down so much. I think so.
My contention and so, again, it's a little in the book, but I have a more recent Wired article that put some newer numbers to this.
I subscribe to the hypothesis that the hyperactive hive mind was so detrimental. So, yeah, it helped productivity at first, right, when you could do fascinating communication. But very quickly, there was a sort of exponential rise in communication amounts. Once we got to the point where the hive mind meant you had to constantly check your email, I think that made us so unproductive that it actually was pulling down on industrial productivity.
And I think the only reason why this certainly has not been going up, that metrics been stagnating for a long time now while all this was going on. I think the only reason why it hasn't fallen is that we added these extra shifts off the books, going to work for three hours in the morning. I'm going to work for three hours at night. And only that, I think has allowed us to basically maintain a stagnated industrial growth.
We should have been shooting up the charts. I mean, this is miraculous innovations in computer networks. And then we built out these 100 billion dollar ubiquitous worldwide high speed wireless Internet infrastructure with supercomputers in our pockets where we could talk to anyone at any time, like why did our productivity not shoot off the charts?
Because our brain can't context, which once every six minutes is fundamentally back to the context. Switching is the poison in context, which is poisonous.
What is it about email that forces context, which is both our psychology that drags us in expectation?
Yeah, right. Right. Because it's not I think we've seen this through a personal personal will or failure lens recently, like, oh my addicted to email.
Yes, I have bad etiquette about my email. No, it's the underlying workflow.
So the tool itself I will exonerate. I think I would rather use pop three than a fax protocol. Right. I think it's easier. The issue is to hyperactive hive mind workflow. So if I am now collaborating with 20 or 30 different people with back and forth unscheduled messaging, I have to tend those conversations right.
It's like you have 30 metaphorical ping pong tables and when the balls come back across, you have to pretty soon hit it back or stuff actually grinds to a halt. So it's the workflow that's the problem. It's not the tools, the fact that we use that to do all of our collaboration. Let's just send messages back and forth, which means you can't be far from checking that, because if you take a break, if you batch, if you try to have better habits, it's going to slow things down.
So my whole villain is this hyperactive hive mind workflow. The tool is fine. I don't want the tool to go away, but I want to replace the hyperactive part of my workflow.
I think this is going to be one of the biggest value generating productivity revolutions of the 21st century. I quote, An anonymous CEO is pretty well known who says this is going to be the moonshot of the 21st century is going to be of that importance. There's so much latent productivity that's being suppressed because we just figure things out on the fly in email that as we figure that out, I think it's going to be hundreds of billions of dollars.
You're so absolutely right. The question is, what is a world without email look like? How do we fix email?
So what happens is, at least in my vision, you identify, well, actually, there's these different processes that make up my workday. Like these are things that I do repeatedly, often in collaboration with other people that do useful things for my company or whatever.
Right now, most of these processes are implicitly implemented with the hyperactive hive mind. How do we do this thing like answering client questions to shoot messages back and forth? You know, how do we do this thing? Posting podcast episodes? We'll just figure it out on the fly. My main argument is we actually have to do like they did in the industrial sector, take each of these processes and say, is there a better way to do this? And by better, I mean a way that's going to minimize the need to have unscheduled back and forth messaging.
So we actually have to do process engineering. This created a massive growth in productivity in the industrial sector during the 20th century. We have to do it in knowledge work. We. Can't just rock and roll and inboxes, we actually have to say, how do we deal with client questions? Well, let's put in place a process that doesn't require us to send messages back and forth. How do we post podcast episodes? Let's automate this to a degree where I don't have to just send you a message on the fly and you do this process by process and the pressure on that inbox is released and now you don't have to check it every six minutes.
So you still have email. I mean, like, I need to send you a file. Sure, I'll use email, but we're not coordinating or collaborating over email or slack, which is just a faster way of doing the hive mind. I mean, it just doesn't solve anything there. You have better structured bespoke processes. I think that's what's going to unleash this massive productivity bespoke.
So the interesting thing is, like, for example, you and I exchanged some emails. So obviously I let's just say my particular case schedule podcast is a bunch of different tasks, fascinatingly enough, that I do that could be converted to processes. Yeah. Is that up to me to create that process, or do you think we also need to build tools, just like email was a protocol for helping us create proxy for the different tasks?
I mean, I think ultimately the whole organization, whole team has to be involved. I think ultimately there's certainly a lot of investor money being spent right now to try to figure out those tools. Right. So I think Silicon Valley has figured this out in the past couple of years. This is the difference between when I was talking to people after deep work and now five years later, is the centers in the air. Right, because there's so much latent productivity.
So, yes, there are going to be new tools, which I think could help. There are already tools that exist. I mean, the different groups I profiled use things like Trello or Basecamp or Azana or Flow. And, you know, our schedule wants and acuity.
Like, there's there's a lot of tools out there. The key is not to think about it in terms of what tool do I replace email with instead you think about it with I have a trunk come with a process that reduces back and forth messages. Oh, what tool might help us. Might help us do that. And I would push it's not about necessarily efficiency. In fact, some of these things are going to take more time. So writing a letter to someone is like a high value activity.
It's probably worth doing. The thing that's killer is the back and forth because now I have to keep checking rate. So we scheduled this together because I knew you from before.
But like most of the interviews I was scheduling for this, actually I have a process with my publicist where we use a shared document and she put stuff in there and then I check it twice a week and there's scheduling options. And I say, here's what I want to do. This one or this will work for this one or whatever. And it takes more time in the moment than just. But it means that we have almost no back and forth messaging for podcast scheduling, which without this, like with my UK publisher, I didn't put this process in place because we're not doing as many interviews, but it's all the time.
And I'm like, oh, that I could really feel the difference, right? It's the back and forth that's killer.
I suppose it is up to the individual people involved. Like you said, knowledge workers like they have to carry the responsibility of creating processes, like always asking the first principle question, how can this be converted into a process? Yeah.
So you can start by doing this yourself, like just with what you can control. I think ultimately, once the teams are doing that, I think that's probably the right scale. If you try to do that at the organizational scale, you're going to get bureaucracy. Right.
So if that's all right, if if Elon Musk is going to dictate down to everyone at Tesla or something like this, that's too much remove and you get bureaucracy. But if it's we're a team of six that's working together on, you know, whatever powertrain software, then we can figure out on our own what are our processes, how do we want to do this.
So it's ultimately also creating a culture. We're saying like an email, sending an email just for the hell of it. It should be taboo, like you say you are being. You're being destructive to the productivity of the team by saying this email. Yes.
As opposed to helping develop a process and so on, that that will ultimately automate this.
That's why I'm trying to spread this message of the context, which is as poison. I get so much into the science of it. I think we underestimate how much it kills us to wrench away our contacts, look at a message and come back. And so once you have the mindset of it's a huge thing to ask of someone to have to take their attention off something and look back at this. And if they have to do that for three or four times, we're just going to figure this out on the fly.
And every message is going to require five checks of the inbox while you wait for it. What you've now, you've created whatever it is at this point, twenty five or thirty contact shifts. You've just done a huge disservice to someone.
Say this would be like if I had a professional athlete like, hey, do me a favor and need to go to this press interview. But to get there, you're going to have to carry the sandbag and sprint up this hill. I completely exhaust your muscles and then you have to go play a game. Like, of course, I'm not going to ask an athlete to do like an incredibly physically demanding thing right before a game, but something as easy as thoughts questionmark or like, hey, do you want to jump on a call?
And it's going to be six back and forth metaphors to figure it out. It's kind of the cognitive equivalent. You're taking the wind out of someone. Yeah.
And by the way, for people who are listening, because I recently posted a few job openings for us, so I had to help with this thing. And one of the things that people are surprised when they work with me is how many spreadsheets and processes are involved.
And it's like Claude Shannon, I talk about communication theory, information theory. It takes time to come up with a clever code in front. You spend more time up front figuring out those spreadsheets and trying to get people on board with it. But then your communication going forward is all much more efficient. So over time, you're using much less bandwidth, right? So you do pain up front. Yes, it's quicker just right now to send an email.
But if I spend a half day to do this over the next six months, I've saved myself six hundred emails.
Now, here's a tough question for, you know, from the computer science perspective, we often over optimize. So you create processes and you OK, just like you're saying, it's so pleasurable to increase in the long term productivity that sometimes you just enjoy that process in itself.
But just creating processes and you actually never like it has a negative effect on productivity long term because you're too obsessed with the processes. Is that is that a nice problem to have, essentially?
I mean, it's a problem. I mean, because let's look at the one sector that does do this, which is developers. Yeah, right. So agile methodologies like Scrum or Carnavon are basically workflow methodologies that are much better than the hyperactive hive mind. But, man, some of those programmers get pretty obsessive. I don't have you've ever talked to a whatever level three scrum master they get really obsessive about? Like it has to happen exactly this way and it's probably seven times more complex than it needs to be.
I'm hoping that's just because nerds like me, you know, like to do that. But it's a broadly probably an issue. Right? We have to be careful because you can just go down that that fiddlin path like it needs to be. Here's how we do it. Let's reduce the messages and let's roll. You know, you can't save yourself through if you can get the process just right. Right. So I wrote this article kind of recently called The Rise and Fall of Getting Things Done.
And I profiled this productivity guru named Merlin Mann. And I talked about this movement called Productivity Piran as like a leetspeak term in the early 2000s where people just became convinced that if they could combine their productivity systems with software and they could find just the right software, just the right configuration where they can offload most of the difficulty of work. What happened with the machines when you kind of figure out far and then they could just sort of crank widgets and a B and the whole thing fell apart because work is hard and it's hard to do, and making decisions about what to work on is hard and no system can really do that for you.
So you have to have this sort of balance between a context which is are poison.
So we got to get rid of the context, which is once like something's working good enough to get rid of the context, which is then get after it.
Yeah, there's a psychological process there for me and the OCD nature, like I've literally, embarrassingly enough, have lost my shit before when so in in many of the processes that involve Python scripts, the rule is to not use spaces underscores there's like rules for like how you format stuff, OK?
And like, I should not lose my shit when somebody had a space and maybe capital letters, like it's OK to have a space because there's this feeling like something's not perfect. Yeah. And as opposed to in the Python script allowing some flexibility around that, you create this programmatic way that's flawless. And when everything's working perfectly, it's perfect. But actually, if you strive for perfection, it has. The same like has a lot of the stress that you were seeking to escape with the context switching.
Yeah, because you're almost stressing about errors, like when the process is functioning, you're there's always this anxiety of like, I wonder if it's going to succeed. Yeah. I wonder if it's going to succeed.
Yeah, no, I think some of that's just you and I probably I mean it's just our mindset. Right. We're and we do computer science. So chicken and egg. Yes. And a lot of the processes end up working here much rougher. It's like, OK, instead of letting clients just email me all the time, we have a weekly call and then we send them a breakdown of everything we committed to. Right.
Let's go. And now everything's on there and on our inboxes. We're not the same. There's many messages. So like that rough level of granularity that gets you most of the way there.
So the parts that you can't automate and turn into a process. So how many parts like that do you think should remain in a perfect world and for those parts where email is still useful? What do you recommend those e-mails look like? How how should you write emails when once you send them?
Yeah, I think email email is good for delivering information. Right. So I think of it like a fax machine or something. You know, it's a really good fax machine. So if I need to send you something and you just send you a file, I need to broadcast a new policy or something like email is a great way to do it. It's bad for collaboration. So you're having a conversation like we're trying to reach a decision on something.
I'm trying to learn about something. I'm trying to clarify what something what this is that that's more than just like a one answer type question.
Then I think that you shouldn't be doing an email. But see, here's the thing. Like you and I don't talk often, and so we have a kind of new interaction.
It's not so sure. Yeah, you have a book coming out, so there's a process and so on.
But they say, don't you think there's a lot of novel interactive experiences? That's fine.
So you just for every novel experience, it's OK to have a little bit of an exchange, just like I think it's fine if stuff comes in over the transom or it's you hear from someone you haven't heard from in a while, they call. That's fine.
I mean, that's that email at its best. Where it starts to kill us is where all of our collaboration is happening with the back and forth. So when you've moved the bulk of that out of your inbox, now you're back in that Meg Ryan movie like you got mail or it's like, all right, load this up and you wait for me.
I'm like, oh, we got a message. Yeah, yeah. Let's send me a message. This is interesting. Right back to the AOL days.
So you're talking about the bulk of the business world where, like, email has replaced the actual communication, all the communication protocols required to accomplish anything.
Everything is just happening with messages.
So if you now get most stuff done, repeatable collaborations with with other processes that don't require you to check these inboxes, then the inbox can serve like an inbox, which includes hearing from interesting people. Right. Or sending something. Hey, I don't if you saw this, I thought you might like it. Like, it's great for that.
So there's probably a bunch of people listening to this. They're like, yeah, but I work on a team and they're all these is email. How do you start the revolution from the ground up? Yeah, well, do it do asymmetric optimization first. So identify all your processes and then change what you can change and be socially very careful about it. So don't necessarily say like, OK, this is the new process we all have to do. You're just, you know, hey, we got to get this report ready.
Here's I think we should do like I'll get a draft into our Dropbox folder by like noon on Monday. Grab it. I won't touch it again until Tuesday morning. And then I'll look at your changes. I have this office hours always scheduled Tuesday afternoon. So if there's anything that catches your attention, grab me then. But I've told the designer who worked on this that by Scoby Tuesday, the final version will be ready for them to take and Polish or whatever, like the person on the other end is like, great, I'm glad, you know, Carl has a plan.
So I just what I need to do anything at at this time out, whatever. Right. But you've actually pulled them into a process that means we're going to get this report together without having to just go back and forth. You just asymmetrically optimize these things and then you can begin the conversation. And maybe that's where my book comes in place.
You just sort of slide it, slide it across the by the book. Just leave it, leave it, give it to everybody in your team. OK, so we solved the bulk of the problem of this. Is there a case to be made that you're in for, like communication between you and I? We should move away from from email. And for example, there's a guy I recently I don't know if you know comedians, but there's a guy named Joey Ideas that have had an interaction with recently.
And that guy, first of all, the sweetest human, despite what his comedy sounds like, is the sweetest human being. And he's a big proponent of just pick up the phone and call.
Yeah. And it makes me so uncomfortable. People call me. It's like I don't know what to do with this thing, but it kind of gets everything done quicker.
I think if I remove the anxiety from there, is there a case to be made for that or this email could still be the most efficient way to do this?
No, look, if you if you have to interact with someone, there's a lot of efficiency in synchrony. Right? There's something from the distributive system theory where, you know, if you go from synchronous to asynchronous networks, there's a huge amount of overhead to the asynchronous. Actually, the protocols required to solve things in asynchronous networks are significantly more complicated and fragile than synchronous protocol. So if we can just do real time, it's usually better then also from an interaction like social connection standpoint, there's a lot more information in the human voice in the back and forth.
Yeah, if you just call it very generational. Right. Like our generation will be comfortable talking on the phone in a way that like a younger generation isn't but an older generation is more comfortable with. Will you just call people last year?
So there's a happy medium. But most of my good friends, we just talk. We have regular phone calls. OK, yeah, it's nice. I don't call them. We we schedule it. Yeah. Just on text like. Yeah. You want to talk sometime soon do you. Do you ever have a procedure on friends? Not really. Now I feel like I should. I feel like when you have, like, a lot of interesting friend possibilities as you have, like, an interesting problem.
Right. Like really interesting people you can talk to.
Well, that's that's one problem. And the other one is the introversion I'm just afraid of. People get really stressed like a freak out.
And so you picked a good line of work. Yeah. Now perhaps it's the Goggins thing.
It's like facing your fears or whatever, but it's almost like there is it has to do with the timetable's thing and the deep work that the nice thing about the processes is it not only automates sort of automates away the context switching it ensures you do the important things, too. Yeah, it's like prioritizing. The thing is with email because everything is done over email. You can be lazy in the same way with, like social networks and do the easy things first that are not that important.
So the process also enforces that you do the important things. And for me, the important things is like it sounds like social connection.
No, that's one of the most important things in all of human existence. Yeah.
And doing it the paradoxical thing I got into this for digital minimalism, the more you sacrifice on behalf of the connection, the stronger the connection feels. Right. So sacrificing nontrivial time and attention on behalf of someone is what tells your brain that this is a serious relationship, which is why social media had this paradoxical effect, making people feel less social because it took the friction out of it. And so the brain just doesn't like. Yeah, you've been commenting on this person's whatever you've been retweeting them or sending them some text, you haven't it's not hard enough.
And then then the the perceived strength of that social connection diminishes where if you talk to them or go spend time with them or whatever, you're going to feel better about it. So the friction is good. I have a thing with some of my friends where at the end of each call we take a couple minutes to schedule the next day, you know, it's like I do with haircuts or something, right?
Like if I don't schedule it, then I'm never going to get my haircut right. And so it's like, OK, what do you want to talk next? You know? Yeah, that's that's a really good idea. I just don't call friends. And like, every 10 years I do something dramatic for them so that we maintain the friendship. I'd murder somebody that they really don't like, but I just enjoy joy might ask you to just. Yeah, that's right.
It's one of my favorite things to come out in New Jersey. Let's go. We're going to do that robot dog of yours. We're going to go down to Jersey.
There's a special human I love the comedian world. They've been shaking up. I don't know if you listen to Joe Rogan, all those folks, they kind of.
Are doing something interesting for a minute and academia, they're shaking up this world a little bit like podcasting because comedians are paving the way for podcasting. Yeah, and so you have like Andrew Huberman's is a neuroscientist, a friend of mine now. Yeah.
You know, he he's like into podcasting now and you're into podcasting. Of course, you're not necessarily podcast about computer science currently, right. Yeah.
But that it feels like you could have a lot of the free spirit of the comedians implemented by the people who are academically trained, who actually have a specialty.
And then and then that results. I mean, who knows what the experiment looks like. Yeah, but that results me being able to talk about robotics with your ideas. Yeah. When he says, you know, drops of bombs, every other sentence and I the world is like I've seen actually a shift within colleagues and friends within at MIT where they're becoming much more accepting of that kind of thing. It's very interesting. That's interesting. So you're seeing because I OK, because they're seeing how popular it is, they're like, well, you're really popular.
I don't know how they think about it at Georgetown, for example. I don't know. It's interesting. But I think what what happens is the popularity of it, combined with just good conversations with people they respect, it's like, oh, OK, wait, this is the thing. Yeah. And this is more fun to listen to than a shitty zoom lecture.
Yeah. About their work. Yeah. It's like there's something here, there's something interesting and we don't nobody actually knows what that is just like with like clubhouse or something. Nobody's figured out like where is this medium take because it's a legitimate medium of education. Yeah. Or is this just like a fun. Well that's your innovation I think was we can bring on professors. Yeah. And I know Joe Rogan did some of that too.
But but you know. But your professors in your field like.
Yeah. And all these MIT guys who I remember, you know.
Well, that's been the big challenge for me is I don't is I feel I would ask big, like philosophical questions of people like yourself. They're like really well, like this is so, for example, you have a lot of excellent papers on, you know, that a lot has a lot of theory in it. Right. And there is some temptation to just go through papers. And I think it's possible to actually do that. I haven't done that much, but I think it's possible.
It just requires a lot of preparation and it can probably only do that with things that I'm actually like in the field I'm aware of. But there's a dance that I would love to be able to try to hit right where it's actually getting to the core of some interesting ideas as opposed to just talking about philosophy. At the same time, there's a large audience of people that just want to be inspired by like by disciplines where they don't necessarily know the details.
Yeah, but there's a lot of people that are like, I'm really curious. I've been thinking about pivoting careers into software engineering. They would love to hear from people like you about computer science, even if it's a theory.
Yeah, but just like the idea that you can have big ideas, you push them through and it's interesting you fight for it.
Yeah, well, there's some there's what is the computer file and no file these YouTube channels. There's the channels I watch. I'm like chess exceptionally popular where I don't I don't understand maybe eighty percent of the time what the hell they're talking about because they're talking about like why this move is better than this move. But I love the passion and the genius of those people. And just over hearing it. Yeah. I don't know why that's so exciting.
Do you look at, like, Scott Aaronson's blog at all? Yes, that'll optimize. Yeah, it's like hard core complexity theory, but it's there's an enthusiasm or like Terry Tyler's blog. I'm a little bit of humor. Geritol is a blog he used to.
And it would just be I'm going all in on, you know, here's a new afine group with which you can do whatever, but I mean, it's just equation's.
Well, in the case of Scott Erickson, he's good. He's able to turn on like the inner troll and comedian and so on.
Here he keeps the fun, which is the best it. He's a philosophical guy. He turns into of class. Yeah. Yeah.
So, you know, we're exploring these different ways of communicating science and exciting the world.
Speaking of which, I got to ask you about computer science. Yeah, that's right. I do some of that.
So, I mean, a lot of it a lot of your work is what inspired this deep thinking about productivity from all the different angles, because some of the most rigorous work, because mathematical work and in computer science, that theoretical computer science.
Let me ask this guy some question of like, is there something to you that stands out in particular that's beautiful or inspiring or just really insightful about computer science or. Or maybe mathematics, I mean, I like theory and in particular, what I've always liked in theory is the notion of impossibilities. That's kind of my specialty. So within within the context of distributed algorithms, my specialty is impossibility results. The idea that you can argue nothing exists that solves this or nothing exists that can solve this faster than this.
And that's I think that's really interesting. And that goes all the way back to turning his original paper on computable numbers with their connection to the German to isolate isolating problem. But basically the German named that Hilbert called the decision problem.
This was pre computers, but he was you know, he's English, so it's written in English. So it's a very accessible paper. And it's it lays the foundation for all of theoretical computer science. He just has this insight. He's like, well, if we think about like an algorithm and he figures out, like all effective procedures or turn machines or basically algorithms, we could really describe a machine with a number which we can now imagine with like computer code.
You could just take a source file and just treat the binary version of the file. It's like a really long number. Right. But it's like every program is just a finite number. It's a natural number.
And then he realized, like, one way to think about a problem is you have and this is like kind of the Mike Zipzer approach, but you have a sort of it's a language of infinite number of strings. Some of them are in the language and some of them aren't. But basically, you can imagine a problem is represented as an infinite binary string where in every position, like a one means that string is in the language of zero means it isn't.
And then he applied Cantor from the 19th century and said, OK, the natural numbers are countable. So it's accountably infinite and infinite binary strings. You can use a diagonal causation argument. And so they're there, they're uncountable. So there's just vastly more problems than there are algorithms for. Basically anything you can come up with. For the most part, almost certainly it's not solvable by a computer, you know.
And then and then he was like, let me give a particular example. And he figured out the very first computability proof and let's just walk through with a little bit of simple logic. The halting problem can be solved by an algorithm and that kicked off the whole enterprise of some things can't be solved by algorithm. Some things can't be solved by computers. And we've just been doing theory on that since the day the 30s. He wrote that.
So proving that something is impossible is sort of a stricter version of that. Is it like proving bounds? And on the performance of different algorithms, those are.
Yes, a bouncer upper bounds. Right. So you say this algorithm does at least as well and no worse than this, but you're looking at a particular algorithm and possibility proof, say no algorithm ever could ever solve this problem. So no algorithm could ever solve the halting problem.
This problem centric is it's making something, making a conclusive statement about the problem. Yes. And that's somehow satisfying because it's just philosophically interesting.
Yeah. I mean, it all goes back to you go back to Plato. It's all reductio ad absurdum. So all these arguments have to start. The only way to do it is because there's an infinite number of solutions.
You can't go through them, as you say. Let's assume for the sake of contradiction that there existed something that solves this problem. And then you turn to crinkle logic until you blow up the universe and then you go back and say, okay, our original assumption that the solution exists can't be true.
I think philosophically, it's like a really exciting, kind of beautiful thing. It's what I specialize in with the distributed algorithms is more like time bound and possibility results. Like, no, no algorithm can solve this problem faster than this in this setting of all the infinite number of ways you might ever do it.
So you have many papers, but the one that caught my eyes, mood analysis of dynamic networks in which you write a problem with the worst case perspective is that it often leads to extremely strong, lower bounds. These strong results motivate a key question is this bond robust in the sense that it captures the fundamental difficulty introduced by dynamism? Or is the bond fragile in the sense that the poor performance it describes depends on an exact sequence of adversarial changes? Fragile, lower bounds leave open the possibility of algorithms that might still perform well in practice.
That's in the sense of the impossible and the bounds discussion presents the interesting question. I just like the idea of robust and fragile bounds.
But what do you make about this kind of tension between.
What's provably like what the bounty can prove? There are like robust and something that's a bit more fragile and also by way of answering that for this particular paper. Can you say what the hell are dynamic networks? What a distributed.
I don't know. Come on now. And I have no idea. And what is smooth analysis?
Yeah, well, OK, so, so with analysis. So wasn't my idea. So Spielman and Tang came up with this in the context of sequential algorithm. So just like the normal world of an algorithm that runs on a computer and they're looking at there's a well-known algorithm called the simplex algorithm. But basically you're trying to find a whole around a group of points. And there's an algorithm that worked really well in practice. But when you analyze it, you would say, you know, I can't guarantee it's going to work well in practice because you have just the right inputs.
This thing could run really long. Right. But in practice, it seemed to be really fast. So smooth analysis as they came in and they said, let's assume that. A bad guy chooses the inputs that could be anything like really bad ones and all we're going to do because in Simplex they're numbers, we're going to just randomly put a little bit of noise on each of the numbers. And they should if we put a little bit of noise on the numbers, suddenly simplex algorithm goes really fast, like, oh, that explains that's this lower bound.
This idea that it could sometimes run really long was a fragile bound because it could only run a really long time if you had exactly the worst pathological input. So then my collaborators and I brought this over to the world of distributed algorithms. We brought them over the general lower bounds. Right. So so in the world of dynamic networks, so distributed algorithms, a bunch of algorithms on different machines, talking to each other, trying to solve a problem, and sometimes they're in a network.
So you imagine them connected with network links and a dynamic network. Those can change. Right. So I was talking to you, but now I can't talk to you anymore. Now I'm connected to a person over here. It's a really hard environment, mathematically speaking, and there's a lot of really strong, lower bounds, which you can imagine if the network can change all the time and a bad guy is doing it, it's like hard to do things well.
So there's an algorithm running on every single node in the network.
Yeah. And then you're trying to say something of any kind that makes any kind of definitive sense about the performance of that algorithm.
Yes. Like a. So I just submitted a new paper on this a couple of weeks ago and we were looking at a very simple problem. There's there's some messages in the network. We want everyone to get them. Mm hmm. If the network doesn't change, you can do this pretty well. You can pipeline them there. Some algorithms that work basically that work really well. It's network can change every round. There's these lower bounds that says it takes a really long time.
There's a way that like no matter what album you come up with, there's a way the network can change in such a way that just really slows down your progress, basically. Right.
So smooth analysis there says, yeah, but that seems like a really, really bad luck if your network was changing, like, exactly in the right way that you needed to screw your algorithm. So we said, what if we randomly just add or remove a couple of edges and every round the adversaries try to choose the worst possible network? We're just tweaking it a little bit. And in that case, a new paper.
I mean, the blinded submissions that maybe I shouldn't it's not whatever we basically showed an anonymous friend of yours submitted a paper. Anonymous friend of mine. Yeah. Yeah. Whose paper should be accepted so that even just adding like one random edge per round you. The here's a cool thing about the simplest possible solution to this problem blows away that lower bound. It does really well. So that's like a very fragile lower bound because we're like it's it's almost impossible to actually keep things slow.
I wonder how many lower bounds you can smash open with this kind of analysis and show that they're fragile. It's my interest.
Yeah, because in distributed algorithms, there's a ton of really famous, strong, lower balance. But things have to go wrong, really, really wrong for these lower bound arguments to work. And so I like this approach. So this this whole notion of fragile versus Rabassa, let's like let's go in and just throw a little noise in there. And if it becomes solvable, then maybe that lower bound wasn't really something we should worry about, you know, that's going to embarrass this really uncomfortable.
That's really embarrassing to a lot of people. There's OK, this is the OCD thing. The the spaces is it feels really good. We could prove a nice bond.
And if you say that that bond is fragile, that that's that's like there's going to be a sad kid that walks like with their lunchbox back home, like my my lower bond doesn't matter. I don't think they care.
It's all I don't know. It feels like to me a lot of theory is this math machismo. Yeah. Like whatever. This was a hardbound.
The proof. Yeah. What do you think about that. Like so if you show that something is fragile that's more important. That's really important in practice. Right. So do you think kind of theoretical computer science is living its own world just like mathematics and their main effort, which I think is very valuable, is to develop ideas. It's not necessarily interesting whether it's applicable in the real world.
We don't care about the applicability. Yeah, OK. We kind of do, but not really. And we're terrible with computers and can't do anything useful with computers. We don't know how to code. And, you know, we're not we're not productive members of like technological society. But I do think things percolate. Exactly.
You percolate from the world of theory into the world of algorithm design, which will pull on a theory, and now suddenly it's useful. And then the algorithm design gets pulled into the world of practice where they say, well, actually, we can make this algorithm a lot better, because in practice, really, these servers do X, Y, Z, and now we can make the super efficient. And so I do think I mean, I tell my I teach theory to the students at Georgetown.
I show them the sort of funnel of like, OK, we're over here doing in theory. But it eventually some of this stuff will percolate down in effect at the very end, you know, a phone. But it's a long it's a long tunnel.
But the very question you're asking at the highest philosophical level is fascinating. Like if you take a system, a distributed system or a network and introduce a little bit of noise into it, like how many problems of that nature are?
Fundamentally changed by that little introduction of noise. Yeah, because it's all especially distributed algorithms, the model is everything. Like the way we work is we're incredibly precise about here's exactly it's mathematical. Here's exactly how the network works. And it's a state machine. Algorithms are state machines. There's rounds of schedulers were super precise. We can prove lower bounds. But yeah, often those lower those impossibility results really get at the hard edges of exactly how that model works.
So we'll see if we published a paper on this that paper you mentioned that kind of introduced the idea to distribute algorithms world. And I think that's got some traction. And there's been some follow up. Some we've just submitted our are next.
I honestly, the issue at the next is that, like, the result fell out so easily and it's just a mathematical machismo problem in these in these fields is there's a good chance the paper won't be accepted because there wasn't enough mathematical self flagellation.
That's such a nice finding, though. Even just showing that very few, just very little bit of noise can have a dramatic and make a dramatic statement about the big surprise to us.
But once we figured out how to show it. It's not too hard and these are these are venues for theoretical, for theoretical work, so the fascinating tension that exists in other disciplines like one of them is machine learning, which despite the the power of machine learning and deep learning and all the impact of it in the real world, the main conferences on machine learning are still resistant to application papers.
I'm not sort of and application paper is broadly defined. Meaning like. Finding almost like you would like Darwin dead by like going around collecting some information, say, huh, isn't this interesting?
Yeah, like those are some of the most popular blogs.
And yet as the papers, not to the extent that I wonder what you think about this whole world of deep learning from a perspective of theory, what do you make of this whole discipline, of the success of networks of how to do science on them? Are you excited by the possibilities of what we might discover about neural networks? Do you think is fundamental an engineering discipline, or is there something theoretical that we might crack open one of these days in understanding something deep about how system optimization and how systems learn?
I am convinced by is it Tegmark at MIT? Who's Tegmark? Yeah, Tegmark. Right. So his notion has always been convincing to me that the fact that some of these models are inscrutable is not fundamental to them and that we can to get better and better, because in the end, you know the reason why practicing computer scientists often who are doing AI or working in an industry are worried about so much existential threats is because they see the reality is they're multiplying matrices with numbers or something like.
That's right. Yeah. And tweaking constants and hoping that the classifier fitness, for God sakes, before the that submission deadline actually gets above some like it feels like it's that linear algebra and tedium.
But anyways, I'm really convinced with this idea that once we understand better and better what's going on from a theory perspective, it's going to make it into an engineering discipline. So in my mind, where we're going to end up is, OK, forget these metaphors of neurons. These things are going to get put down into these mathematical kind of elegant equations, differential equations that just kind of work well. And then it's going to be when I need a little bit of A.I. in this thing, plumbing like let's get a little bit of a pattern recognizer with a noise module.
And let's I mean, you know this field better than me. So I don't know if this is like a reasonable a reasonable prediction, but that we're going to it's going to become less inscrutable and then it's going to become more engineering and then we're going to have AI and more things because we're going a little bit more control over how we piece together these different classification blackbox.
So one of the problems and there might be some interesting parallels that you might provide intuition on is, you know, neural networks are very large and they have a lot of it. You know, we were talking about, you know, dynamic networks and distributed algorithms.
One of the problems of the analysis of networks is, you know, you have a lot of nodes and you have a lot of edges to be able to interpret and to control different things is very difficult.
There is there's fields and trying to figure out like mathematically how you form clean representations that it like like one node contains all the information about a particular thing and no other nodes is correlated to it. So like it has unique knowledge and like but that ultimately boils down to trying to simplify this thing into that goes against this very nature, which is like deeply connected and dynamic and just, you know, hundreds of millions. Billions of nodes. Yeah. And in a distributed sense, like when you zoom out, the thing has a representation, an understanding of something, but the individual nodes are just doing that.
A little exchange thing. And it's the same thing with Stephen Wolfram. When you talk about silly automata, it's very difficult to do math when you have a huge collection of distributed things, each acting on their own.
And it's almost like it's it feels like it's almost impossible to do any kind of theoretical work in the traditional sense. It almost becomes completely like like a biology.
You become a biologist as opposed to a theoretician. You just study it experimentally. Yeah. So I think that's the big question, I guess. Right. Yeah.
Is so so is the large size and interconnectedness of the like a deep learning network fundamental to that task, or are we just not very good at it yet because we're using the wrong metaphor?
I mean, the human brain learns with much fewer examples and with much less tuning of the whatever, whatever, whatever probably that requires to get those deep mind networks up and running. But yeah, so I don't really know.
But the one thing I have observed is that the yeah. There's the mundane nature of some of the working with these models tends to lead people to think that they do it like it could be Skynet or it could be like a lot of pain to get, you know, the thermostat to do what we wanted to do.
There's a lot of open questions in between there and then, of course, the how to distribute the distributed network.
Of humans, they use these systems so you can have the system itself than the neural network, but you can also have like little algorithms controlling the behavior of humans, which is what you have, social networks.
It's possible that a very what is a toaster, whatever, the opposite of Skynet, when taken unscalable, used by individual humans and controlling their behavior, can actually have the Skynet effect. So the scale there, we might have that now.
We might have that now. We just don't know.
Yeah, like as as Twitter created a little mini Skynet, I mean, because of what happened to Turrell's out ramifications in the world. And is it really that much different if it's a robot with tentacles or a bunch of servers that. Yeah.
And destructive effects could be I mean, it could be political, but it could also be like, you know, you could probably make an interesting case that the virus, the coronavirus spread on Twitter to in the minds of people like the fear and the misinformation and some very interesting ways mixed up.
And maybe this pandemic wasn't sufficiently dangerous to where that could have created a weird, like instability. But maybe other things might create instability, like somebody, God forbid, detonates a nuclear weapon somewhere. And then maybe the destructive aspect of that would not as much be the military actions. But the way those news are spread on Twitter and the panic that creates. Yeah, yeah. I mean, I think that's a great case study.
Right. Like what happened not but I'm not suggesting that likes to let off a nuclear bomb.
I meant that coronavirus, but. OK, but but yeah, I think that's a really interesting case study.
I'm interested in the counterfactual of 1995, like do the same virus in 1995. So first of all, it would have been I get to hear whatever the nightly news, we'll talk about it and then they'll be by local health board. We'll talk about it.
That meant mitigation decisions would probably necessarily be the very sort of localized like our community is trying to figure out what are we going to do, what's going to happen?
Like, we see this with schools, like we're where I grew up in New Jersey. There's very localized school districts.
So even though they had sort of really bad viral numbers there at my school I grew up in has been open since the fall because it's very localized. It's like these teachers of these parents.
What do we want to do? What are we comfortable with? I live in a school district right now in Montgomery County. That's a billion dollar a year budget, 150000 kids, school district. It just can't that's closed, you know, because it's too. So I'm interested in that counterfactual. Yes. You have all this information moving around and then you have the the the effects on discourse we were talking about earlier that that the the Neil Postman style effects of Twitter, which shifts people into a sort of a culture mindset of don't give an inch to the other team.
And we're used to this and was fired up by politics and the unique attributes of Twitter. Now throw in the coronavirus and suddenly we see decades of public health knowledge, a lot of which was honed or the HIV epidemic was thrown out the window because a lot of this was happening on Twitter and suddenly we had public health officials using it. Don't give an inch to the other team mindset of like, well, if we say this, that might validate something that was wrong over here.
And we need to if we say this, then maybe like that'll stop them from doing this.
That's like very Twittery in a way that in 1995 is probably not the way public health officials would be thinking right now. It's like, well, this is if we said this about mass, but the other team said that about masks, we can't give an inch. So we got to be careful and we can't tell people it's OK after they're vaccinated because that might be giving them an inch on this. And that's very twittery in my mind. Right. That is the impact of Twitter on the way we think about discourse, which is a dunking culture of don't give any answer to the other team.
And it's all about slam dunks. You're completely right and completely wrong. It's as a rhetorical strategy is incredibly simplistic. But it's also the way that we think right now about how would you debate it combine terribly with an election year pandemic.
Yeah, an election year pandemic. I wonder if we could do some smooth analysis. Let's run the simulation over a few times. A little bit noise. Yeah. See if we can dramatically change the behavior of the system. Yeah. OK, we've talked about your love for proving that something is impossible. So there's quite a few still open problems and complexity of algorithms.
So let me ask, does P equal and P probably not. Probably not if P equals NP. What kind of you know, and you'll be really surprised somebody proves it. Yeah, what would that proof look like and why would that even be? What would that mean? What would that proof look like? And what possibly universe could be was ENPI? Is there something insightful you can say there?
It could it could be true.
I mean, I'm not a complexity theorist, but every complexity theory, as I know, is convinced they're not equal and are basically not working on anymore. I mean, there is a million dollars at stake. If you can if you can solve the proof, it's one of the Millennium Prizes.
OK, so here's here's how I think the Pignotti equals in proof is going to eventually happen. I think it's going to fall out and it's going to be not super simple, but not as hard as people think because my my my theory about a lot of theoretical computer science based on just some results I've done. So this is a huge extrapolation is that a lot of what we're doing is just obfuscating deeper mathematics.
Mm hmm. So, like, this happens to me a lot. Not a lot, but it's happened to me a few times in my work where we obfuscate it because we say, well, there's an algorithm and has this much, you know, memory and they're connected on a network. And, OK, here's our set up. And now we're trying to see how fast I can solve a problem and people do bounce about.
And in the end, it turns out that, like, we were just obfuscating some underlying, you know, mathematical thing that already existed. So this has happened to me.
I had this paper I was quite fond of a while ago. There was looking at this problem called contention resolution, where you you put an unknown set of people on a share channel and they're trying to break symmetry. So it's like an Ethernet, whatever only one person can use at a time. You try to break symmetry. There's all these bounds people have proven over the years about how long it takes to do this. Right. And like I discovered, at some point, there's this one combinatorial result from the early 1990s.
All of these lower bound proofs all come from this. And in fact, it improved a lot of them and simplified a lot. You could put it all in one paper. You know, it's like, are we really?
And then, OK, this new paper that I submitted a couple of weeks ago, I found you could take some of these same lower bound proofs for this continuing resolution problem.
You could reprove them using Shannon's source code theorem that actually when you're breaking contention, what you're really doing is building a code over.
You know, if you have a distribution on the network sizes, it's a code over that source. And if you plug in a high entropy information source and plug in from 1948, the source code theorem that says on a noiseless channel, you can't send things at a faster rate than the entropy allows, the exact same lower bounds fall back out again. Right.
So like this type of thing happens, there's a there's some famous lower bounds and distributed algorithms that turned out to all be algebraic topology underneath the covers. And they won the prize for working on that. So my sense is what's going to happen is at some point someone really smart be very exciting, is going to realize there's some sort of other representation of what's going on with these machines, trying to sort of efficiently usually fall out of that.
And there will be an existing mathematical result that. Apply someone or something, I guess it could be, I think, improvers kind of thing. It could be, yeah. I mean. Well, yeah, I mean, there's still improvers like what that means now, which is not fun.
It's a bunch of very carefully formulated postulates that. But I take your point.
Yeah. Yeah. So OK, you know, on a small tangent on and then you're kind of implying that mathematics, it almost feels like a kind of weird evolutionary tree that ultimately leads back to some kind of ancestral few fundamental ideas that all are just like they're all somehow connected in that sense. Do you think math is fundamental to our universe and we're just like slowly trying to understand these patterns? Or is it is it discovered or is it just a little game that we play among ourselves to try to fit little patterns to the world?
Yeah, that's the question, right.
That's the physicists question.
I mean, I'm probably I'm in the discovery camp, but I don't do theoretical physics. So I know they have a. They feel like they have a stronger claim to answering that question, but you don't come back to it, everything comes back to it. I mean, all of physics, the fact that the universe is. Well, OK.
It's a complicated question, so how often do you think how deeply does this result describe the fundamental reality of nature?
So the the reason I hesitated because it's something I'm I taught a seminar and did a little work on what are called biological algorithms.
So there's this notion of so physicists used mathematics to explain the universe.
Right. And it was unreasonable that mathematics worked so well, you know, all these differential equations. Why does that explain all we need to know about thermodynamics and gravity and all the all these type of things? Well, there's this there's this movement within the intersection of computer science and biology. It just kind of wolfram am, I guess, really that algorithms can be very explanatory.
Right. Like, if you're trying to if you're trying to explain Parsimonious Lee something about like an ant colony or something like this, you're not going to ultimately it's not going to be explained as an equation, like a physics equation is can be explained by an algorithm like this algorithm run distributed.
Lee is going to explain the behavior. So that's mathematical, but not quite mathematical. But it is if you think about an algorithm like a lambda calculus, which brings you back to the world of mathematics, I'm thinking out loud here, but basically. Abstract math is sort of like unreasonably effective at explaining a lot of things, and that's just what I feel like I glimpsed I'm not a not like a super well known theoretician.
I don't have really famous results. So even as a sort of middling, you know, career theoretician, I keep encountering this where we think we're solving some problem about computers and algorithms. And it's some much deeper underlying math. It's Shannon, but Shannon is entropy.
But entropy was really, you know, goes all the way back to whatever it was, boiler all the way back to looking at the early physics. And and it's and it was to me, I think it's amazing. Yeah. But it could be the flipside of that could be just our brains draw so much pleasure from the driving generalized theories and simplifying the universe that we just naturally see that kind of simplicity and everything. Yeah.
So that's the whole, you know, Newton Einstein. Right. So you can you can say this must be right because it's so predictive.
Well, it's not quite predictive because mercury wobbles a little bit, but I think we have it set in the turn out now, Einstein. And then and then you get more like, no, not Einstein. It's actually statistical. Yeah. So it's hard to also know, like where Smooth's analysis fits into all that or a little bit of like you can say something very clean about a system and then a little bit of noise like the average case is actually very different.
And so yeah, I mean that's where the quantum mechanics comes in. It's like, why does it have to be randomness in this? Yeah, I have to this complex statistics. Yeah. Yeah.
So to be determined. Yeah.
They'll be my next book. I'd be ambitious.
The fundamental, the fundamental core of reality comma and some advice for being more productive at work.
Can I ask you just if it's possible to do an overview and just some brief comments of wisdom on the process of publishing a book? What's the process entail? What are the different options? And what's your recommendation for somebody that wants to write a book like yours, a nonfiction book that discovers something interesting about this world? So what I usually advise is follow the follow the process as is.
Don't try to reinvent. I think that that happens a lot where you'll try to reinvent the way the publishing industry should work like this is kind of not like a business model ways, but just like this is what I want to do. I want to write a thousand words a day and I want to do this.
And they're going to put on the Internet. And the publishing industry is very specific about how it works. And so, like, when I got started, writing books was at a very young age. So, you know, I sold my first book at the age of 21. The way I did that is I found the family friend. There was an agent and I said, I'm not trying to make you be my agent. Just explain to me how this works, not just how the world works, but give me the hard truth about how would a 21 year old, under what conditions could a 21 year old sell the book and what would that look like?
And she just explained it to me. Well, you have to do this and have to be a subject that it made sense for you to write and you would have to do this type of writing for other publications, the validated and blah, blah, blah. And you have to get the agent first.
And I learned the whole game plan and then I execute it. And so the rough game plan is with nonfiction. You get the agent first and the agent's going to sell it to the publishers. So like you're never selling something directly to the publishers and nonfiction.
You're not writing the book. First rate, you're going to get an advance from the publisher once sold, and then you're going to do the primary writing of the book.
In fact, it will in most circumstances hurt you if you've already written. Yeah. So you're trying to say, well, I guess the agent first you sell to the agent and the agent sells it to the publishers.
It's much easier to get an agent than a book deal. So the thought is if you can't get an agent, then why would you?
So you start with and also in the way this works with a good agent is they know all the editors and they have lunch with the editors and they're always just looking at what projects you have coming. What are you looking for? Here's one of my authors. That's the way all these deals happen. It's not you're not emailing a manuscript to a slush pile. Yeah.
And so so first of all, the agent takes a percentage and then the publishers. This is where the process goes. Then they take also cut. That's probably ridiculous. So if you try to reinvent the system, you'll probably be frustrated by the percentage that everyone takes relative to how much bureaucracy, inefficiency or ridiculousness there is in the system. Your recommendation is like you just want and stop trying to build your own ANCHALEE.
Well, or or if you create your own process for how it should work, you're not going to the book's not going to get published. So so there's the separate question, the economic question like, should I create my own self, publish it or do something like that?
But yeah, but putting that aside, there's a lot of people I encounter that want to publish a book with a main publisher, but they invent their own rules for how it works.
Right. So then the alternative, though, is self publishing. And that's the downside. There's a lot of downsides. It's like it's almost like publishing an opinion piece in The New York Times versus writing our blog. There's no reason why writing a blog post on medium can get way more attention and legitimacy and long lasting prestige than the New York Times article. But nevertheless, for most people, writing in a prestigious newspaper, quote unquote prestigious is is just easier and well and depends on your goal.
So, you know, I push you towards a big publisher because I think your goal, it's huge ideas.
You want impact, you're going to more impact, you know, even though like, actually so there's different ways to measure impact on the world of ideas in the world of ideas. And also, yeah, in the world of ideas, it's kind of like the clubhouse thing. Now, even if the audience is not large, the people in the audience are very interesting as. It's like the conversation feels like that has long lasting impact.
Yeah, among among the people who in different and disparate industries that are also then starting their own conversations and all that kind of stuff, because you have other so like like self publishing the book, the goals that would solve you have much better ways of getting to those goals.
Might be part of it. Right. So if there's the financial aspect of well, you get to keep more of it. I mean, the podcast is partly going to crush. Right. What the book's going to do anyways, right? Yeah.
If it's want to get directly to certain audiences or crowds, it might be harder through a traditional publisher.
There's better ways to talk to those crowds. It could be a clubhouse with all these new technologies, self published books, not going to be the most effective way to find your way to a new crowd.
But if the idea is like I want to have a leave a dent in the world of ideas, then they have a venerable old publisher, you know, put out your book in a nice hardcover and do the things they do that goes a long way.
And they do do a lot. I mean, it's very difficult, actually. There's so much involved in putting together a book.
They get books into bookstores and all that kind of stuff.
And from an efficiency standpoint, I mean, just a time involved and trying to do this yourself is the whole process, right? Like you said, they have a process. They've got a process. I mean, I know like JoCo did this recently, he started his own imprint. And I have a couple other, but it's huge overhead. I mean, if you like, if you run a business and you also like JoCo is a good case study.
Right. So he got, you know, fed up with Simon Schuster dragging their feet and said, I'm going to start my own imprint then if you're not going to publish my kid's book. But he what does he do?
He runs businesses, right? Yeah. So I think in his world, like, I already run, I'm a partner and whatever in origin, and I have this and that. And so it's like, yeah, we can run businesses. That's what we know how to do. That's what I do. I run businesses, I have people.
But for like you or I, we don't run businesses would be terrible. Yeah. Yeah.
Well, especially these kinds of businesses. Right. So I do want to launch a business, a very different technology business is very, very different.
Yeah. Yeah. I mean this is like OK, and you copy editors and book binders and I need to contract with the printer, but the printer doesn't have slots.
And so now I have to try to I mean it's I guess so I need to shut this off in my room. I get so frustrated when the system could clearly be improved. It's the thing that you're mentioning. Yeah. It's like this is so inefficient. Every time I go to the DMV or something like that, you'd think like this could be done so much better. Yeah, but, you know, it's the same thing. Is the worry with with an editor, which I guess would come from the publisher that who would who would how much supervision on your book did you receive?
Like, hey, do you think this is too long or do you think the like title, how much choice do you have in the title, in the cover, in the presentation and the branding and all that kind of stuff. Yeah, I mean all of it depends. Right.
So when it comes on to the relationship with the editor on the writing, it depends on the editor and it depends on you. Like at this point I'm on my seventh book and I write for a lot of major publications.
And at this point I have what I feel like is a voice that I and a level of craft that I I'm very comfortable with. Right. So my editor is not going to be she is going to trust me and it going be more big picture, like I'm losing a thread here or this seems like it could be longer.
Whereas the first book I wrote when I was twenty one, I had notes such as you start a lot of sentences with so you don't use any contractions because I've been doing scientific writing to use contractions, you should probably use contractions. That was way more. You know, I had to go back and read the whole thing.
Yeah, but ultimately the recommendation I mean, we talked tough, find a sort of I was thinking loosely, not really sure, but I was thinking of writing a book. And there's a kind of desire to go self publishing, not for financial reasons.
And the money can be good, by the way. Right. I mean, it's very it's very power logotype just distributed. Right. So so the money on a hardcover is somewhere between one or two dollars a book.
So the thing is, I personally don't. But then you give up fifty percent of the agent. So I personally don't care about money as I've mentioned before, but I for some reason really don't like spending money. On things that are not worth it, like I don't care if I get money, I just don't like spending money, like feeding a system that's inefficient. It's like I'm contributing to the problem. That's my biggest problem. Right.
So you think you're worried about the inefficiencies of the pie? Yeah. The fact that the overhead, the number of people involved or the overhead, the emails, again, the the the the fact that they have this way of speaking, which I'm allergic to many people like that's very marketing speak like you could tell, they've been having Tsou meetings all day. It's like as opposed to a sort of creative collaborators that are like also a little bit crazy. And some of that is finding the right people, find the right people.
That's what I would say. I say there's definitely that.
Maybe it's just good fortune, good fortune in terms of like my agents and editors I've worked with, there's really good people who see the vision are smart or incredibly literary.
Yeah. And psychologically, yeah.
I had a great editor when I was first moving into hardcover books, for example, as my first, you know, big book advance and my first sort of big deal. And he was like a senior editor and it was very useful. You know, he was like we had a lot of long talks, right? I was. So this was my first book. So good that kind of he was my first big hardcover idea book. And we had a lot of talks like even before I started writing it.
Just let's talk about books. And his philosophy had been in the business for a long time as the head of the head of the imprint.
It was useful. Yeah. But I mean, the other fascinating thing is how long the whole thing takes. A long time. Yeah.
I suppose that's he's just had to say, well, yeah, I handed in this manuscript for the the the book to comes up now like when I handed it in over the summer during the pandemic. So it's not it's not terrible. Right. And we were editing during the pandemic and I finished it in the spring.
We've talked most of today except for a little bit computer science most of today, but a productive life. How does love, friendship and family fit into that? Is there do you find that there is a tension? Is it possible for relationships to energize the whole process to benefit, or is it ultimately a trade off? But because life is short and ultimately we seek happiness, not productivity, that we have to accept that tension?
Yeah, I mean, I think relationships is the that's the that's the whole deal.
Like, I thought about this the other day and older context was I was thinking about if I was going to give like an advice speech, like a commencement address or like giving advice to young people.
And like, the big question I have for young people is, if they haven't already, bad things are going to happen that you don't control.
So what's the plan? Right.
Like, let's start let's start figuring that out now, because it's not all you know, some people get off better than others, but eventually stuff happens, right? You get sick, something falls apart.
The economy craters the someone you know, dies, like all sorts of bad stuff is going to happen. Right. So how are we going to do this? Like, how how do we, like, live life?
And life is hard and in ways that is unfair and unpredictable in relationships is the that's the buffer for all of that because we're wired for it.
I went down the rabbit hole with digital minimalism. I went down this huge rabbit hole about the human brain and sociality. It's all required that it's like all of our brain is for this. Everything, all of our mechanisms, everything is made to service the social connections.
Because what kept you alive, you know, I mean, you had your travel connections is how you didn't starve during a famine.
People share food, etc. And so you can't neglect that. And it's like everything and people feel it, right.
Like there's no other social networks are hooked up to the pain center. That's why it feels so terrible when you miss someone or someone dies or something. Right. That's like how seriously we take it.
There's a pretty accepted theory that the default mode network, like a lot of what the default mode network is doing. So the sort of the default state our brain goes into when we're not doing anything in particular is practicing sociality at practicing interactions because it's so crucial to what we do. It's like at the core of human thriving. So I've more recently, the way I think about it is like relationships first, OK, given that foundation are putting, putting and I don't think we put nearly enough time into it.
I worry that social media is reducing relationships, strong relationships, strong relationships where you're sacrificing nontrivial time and attention and resources, whatever on behalf of other people. That's the net that is going to allow you to get through anything. Then all right, now, what do we want to do with the surplus, the remains may want to build, build some fire, build some tools, so put a relationship first. I like the worst case analysis from the computer science perspective.
Put a relationship first. Yeah, because everything else is just assuming average case, assuming things kind of keep going as they were going.
And you're neglecting the fundamental human drive like we have. We talk about the boredom and we want to build things. We want to have impact. We want to productivity. That's not nearly as clear cut of a driver.
We need people. But if we look at the real worst case analysis, here is one day. You're pretty young now, but that's not going to last very long. You're going to die one day.
That's something you think about a little bit. Are you afraid of death? Well, I'm of the mindset of let's make that a productivity hack.
I'm of the mindset of we need to confront that soon.
Yeah. So let's do what we can now so that when we really confront and think about it, we're we're more likely to feel better about it. So in other words, like let's let's focus now on living and doing things in such a way that we're proud of so that when it really comes time to confront that we're more likely to say, like, OK, I feel kind of good about the situation.
So what when you're laying on your deathbed, would you in looking back, what would make you think like I did? I did OK. I'm proud of that. I optimize the hell out of that. That's a good I mean, it's a good question to go backwards on. I mean, this is like David Brooks's eulogy virtues versus resume virtues. Right? So his argument is that that's another interesting D.C. area person. I keep thinking if interesting people.
All right, David Brooks. Yeah.
His argument, he thinks eulogy virtues is so what were eulogizes different than what we promote on the resume?
That's his whole thing now, right? His second mountain road, the character.
Both these books are. Yes. This whole premise that there's like this professional phase and there's a phase of giving of yourself and sacrificing on behalf of other people.
I don't know. Maybe it's all mixed together. Right. You want to. I think living by a code is important, right? I mean, there's something that's not emphasized enough.
I always think of the advice that my undergrads should be given that that they're not given, especially in a place like Georgetown that has this like deep history of, you know, trying to promote human flourishing because of the Jesuit connection.
There's such there's such resiliency and pride that comes out of living well, even when it's hard, like living according to a code, living according to which which, you know, I think religion used to structure this for people.
But in its absence, you need some sort of replacement. But this even when things are soldiers get this a lot, right? The experience is a lot.
Even when things were tough, I was able to persist in living this way that I knew was right, even though it wasn't the easiest thing to do in the moment. Like fewer things give humans more resilience. It's like having done that, your relationships were strong, right? Many people coming to your funerals, a standard like a lot of people are going to come to your funeral. I mean, you matter to a lot of people and then maybe having done to to the extent of whatever capabilities you are happened to be granted, you know, and they're different for different people.
And some people can sprint real fast and some people can do math problems. Tried to actually do something of impact. I'll just promise to give gift cards to anybody who shows up to the funeral. You're going to hack it. You're going to even the funeral. There's going to be a lottery. Will you spend when you come in and someone goes away with ten thousand dollars?
The see, the problem is like with all the living by principles and living a principle life, focusing on relationships and kind of thinking of this life as a perfect thing kind of forgets the notion that none of it. You know, makes any sense, right, like the. Like, it kind of implies that this is like a video game and you want to get a high score as opposed to none of this even makes sense. Like, why would he like that?
Like, you like what does that even mean to die?
It's game over. It's like everything I do, all these productivity hacks, all this life, all these efforts, all these creative efforts, kind of assume it's going to go on forever. There's a kind of sense of immortality. And I don't even know how intellectually it makes sense. That ends, of course. Got to ask you in that context, what do you think is the meaning of it all, especially for computer scientists? I mean, you just got to be some mathematical.
Yeah, 27 or what's the Douglas Adams. Yeah.
Forty forty two point twenty seven is a better number. I should read more sci fi. You're on to something with a twenty seven.
Want to give away too much. But just trust me. Twenty seven divisible. Yeah.
So I mean I don't know obviously. Right. I mean I'm hoping but yeah.
I don't know but but going back to what you were saying about the sort of the X Essentialists or sort of the more Nilus style approach, the one thing that there is are intimations. Right. So there's these intimations that human have of somehow this feels right in this feels wrong. This feels good.
This feels like I'm doing I mean, aligned with something, you know, when I'm acting with courage to save whatever. Right. It's not these intimations are a grounding against arbitrariness like one the ideas are really interested in is that when you look at religion. Right.
Something I'm interested in world religions for for my grandfather was a like a theologian that studied I wrote all these books and I'm very interested in this type of stuff. And there's this great book that's it's it's not specific to a particular religion. But as Karen Armstrong wrote this great book called The Case for God, she's very interesting. She was a Catholic nun who sort of left that religion and is but one of the smartest thinkers in terms of, like, accessible theological thinking that's not tied to any particular religion.
Her whole argument is that the way to understand religion first we have to go way back pre enlightenment where all this was formed, we got messed up thinking about religion, post enlightenment. Right. And these are operating systems for making sense of intimations.
The one thing we had or these different intimations of this feel like and mystical experience, and this feels there's something you feel when you act in a certain way and don't act in this other way. And it was like the scientists who are trying to study and understand the model of the atom by just looking at experiment and trying to understand what's going on. Like the great religions of the world, we're basically figuring out how do we make sense of these informations and live in alignment with them and build a life of meaning around that.
What were the tools they were using? They were using ritual. They were using belief, they were using action. But all of it was like an OS. It was like a liturgical model of the atom that hard hardcoded in.
So it did through the evolutionary process. So they wouldn't have called it that back then or.
Yeah, I mean, whether they said they didn't have that enlightenment, they just say this is here and the directive is to try to live in alignment with that.
Well, then I want to ask who wrote the original code. Yes. So in question, yes.
So Armstrong lays out this good argument. And where it gets really interesting is that that she emphasizes that all of this was considered ineffable. Right. So the whole notion and this is like rich in Jewish tradition in particular, and also in Islamic tradition, we can't comprehend and understand what's going on here. Right.
And so the best we can do to approximate understanding, live in alignment as we like, act as if this is true. Do these rituals have these actions or whatever post enlightenment, a lot of that got? Once we learned about enlightenment, we grew these suspicions around religion that are very much of the modern era. Right. So I'd like to the Karen Armstrong, like Sam Harris's critique of religion, makes no sense. Right.
The critiques based on, well, this is you're making the ascent to propositions that you think are true, for which you do not have evidence that they are true. Like, that's an enlightenment thing. Right. This is not the context. And this is not the religion is the retherford model of the atom. Like, it's not actually maybe what is underneath happening. But this model explains why your chemical equations work. And so this is like the way religion was you.
There's a God, we'll call it this. This is how it works. We do this ritual. We act in this way. It aligns with it just like the model the atom predicted y you know, in a nutshell, it's going to become Psaltis predicts that you're going to feel and live in alignment. Right. This beautiful, sophisticated theory, which actually matches how a lot of great theologians have, you know, thought about it. But then when you come forward in time.
Yeah, maybe it's I mean, this is like what Pieterson hints at, right? Like he's basically he's not he doesn't like to get super pinned down on this, but it kind of seems where he is, it's almost like searching for the words he focuses more like Jung and other people.
But I mean, you know, he's very union. But but that same type of analysis, I think, roughly speaking, like Armstrong, is sort of a it's kind of like a Peter Soniat analysis.
But she's looking more at the deep history of religion than. But, yeah, he throws in an evolutionary.
Yeah. And I wonder what form it finds. I wonder what the new home is if religion dissipates with a new home for these kinds of natural inclinations. Ah. Yeah.
Well this technology, whether and if it's evolution, I mean this is Francis Collins book also he's like, well that's a religious that could be a very religious notion.
I, I think this stuff is interesting. I'm not a very religious person, but I'm thinking it's not a bad idea.
I mean, maybe, maybe what replaces honestly, like maybe what replaces religion is a return to religion. But in this sort of more sophisticated I mean, if you went back. Yeah, I mean, it's the issue with like a lot of the recent critiques, I think it's a it's a strawman critique in a complicated way. Right. Because the whole way the way this works, I mean, the theologians, if you're reading Paul Tillich, if you're reading Heschel, if you're reading these people, they're thinking very sophisticatedly about religion in terms of this.
It's ineffable and we're just these things. And this is a you can access to these things in a way that puts life in alignment. We can't really explain what's going on because our brains can't handle it. Right. For the average person, though, this notion of live as if it's kind of how religions work, it lives live as if this is true.
It's like an OS for getting in alignment with because we do have a cultural evolution like you behave in this way.
Do these words live as if this is true, gives you the what the goal you're looking for. But that's a complicated thing.
Live as if this is true, because if you especially if you're not a theologian to say, yeah, this is not true in an enlightenment sense, but I'm living as if it kind of takes the heat out of it. But of course, it's what people are doing because, you know, highly religious people still do bad things where if you really were you know, there's absolutely a hell and I'm going to go to it if I do this bad thing, you would never have you know, no one would ever murder anyone if it were evangelical Christian.
Right. So. So it's like what?
This is kind of a tangent that I'm I'm I'm on shaky ground here, but it's something I've been interested off and on a lot with this farce.
I mean, I think we're in some sense searching for because it is it does make for a good operating system. We're searching for a good live as if X is true and we're searching for a new X. Yeah. And maybe artificial intelligence will be the very the new gods that were so desperately looking for or it'll just spit out forty two.
I thought it was twenty seven. So this is as you know, I've been a huge fan, so are a huge number of people that I've spoken with. So they tell me I absolutely have to talk to you. This is a huge honor and this is really fun. Thanks for wasting all this time on me.
And likewise, I've been a long time fan, so this has got a lot of fun.
Yeah, thanks, man. Thanks for listening to this conversation with Cal Newport, a thank you to our sponsors, Express, EPN, Lynard, Linux, Virtual Machines Sunbath, give me a delivery service and simply safe home security. Click the sponsor links to get a discount and to support this podcast. And now let me leave you some words from Carl himself. Clarity about what matters provides clarity about what does not. Thank you for listening and hope to see you next time.