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Welcome to, rationally speaking, the podcast, where we explore the borderlands between reason and nonsense. I'm your host, Julia Gillard, and I'm delighted to introduce today's guest, Tim Urban. Tim is the author of the long form stick figure illustrated blog Weight. But why that covers Oh God, Life, the universe and everything. Tim's posts range from the future of artificial intelligence to how to choose a life partner, to philosophy of personal identity and happiness and rationality.
It's a huge spectrum and I'm a big fan. Tim, welcome to the show. Thank you, Julia. Thanks for having me. Yeah, before we jump into the wide range of topics that I am excited to talk to you about, I just want to embarrass you briefly and wax rhapsodic about something I love about weight. But why which is you managed to hit this rare balance or like not balance. You managed to simultaneously accomplish both rigor and soulfulness.
So you're a very analytical blog, like each article is kind of delving into this like rigorous model of how we make decisions or how we should make decisions or or like how some phenomenon in the world works. And you, like, break it down into this analytical model. But at the same time, you don't lose sight of what it feels like to be a human in those situations faced with those choices. And what makes the thing you're talking about beautiful or painful or sad?
It's really lovely. Like a lot of I think most of the like analytical bloggers or scholars are not they're just they just kind of have the zoomed out outside view that can be kind of clinical, which, you know, there's nothing wrong with that. That's just, you know, their project. But it's really nice that you managed to hit both of those notes at once.
Thank you so much. I mean, I try to do that because because I just feel like, you know, humans probably get more into this. But I just feel like we're all like we all have two things going on in our head. We are like a perfect, rational creatures. And then we are like perfectly irrational animals. And and I as the writer and both of those things and I know the readers are both of those things. So, you know, you kind of I kind of feel like zig zagging back and forth between acknowledging both sides of those things and and acknowledging that the animal is there while you're in perfect, you know, trying to do a perfect, rational breakdown.
It's like, you know, it's almost I don't know. To me, it's just like it's a fundamental fact that cannot be escaped that that that the that the irrational animal is always there, always with us. And so to me, they have to kind of go hand in hand if you're going to really kind of wrap your head around the whole issue.
Yeah, that was a that tension between the like rational what I believe I should do or how I should feel versus how I actually feel or like what I'm actually motivated to do is this common theme that I notice in a lot of your posts, like you've one of your cornerstone posts and you're like wildly popular. TED talk is about procrastination, you know, in the in the face of your, like, conscious knowledge that what you're doing is is counterproductive or irrational.
And then you have posts about like how we shouldn't care about social approval, but yet we do and posts about how our like like if you really examine your life, your conscious priorities often don't match up with how you're actually allocating your time like your revealed priorities.
Oh, yeah, absolutely. I would say it's actually I didn't realize that was a theme until it wasn't intentionally a theme. I didn't go into this saying, I'm going to talk about that concept from many different angles. But what happened was I would just write about things that I thought mattered and I would spend a long time thinking and thinking, trying to get to the bottom of what I think goes on in people's heads. And I kind of ended up in the same place again and again and again, and then thinking about my own life and my own struggles and struggles and people I know.
I mean, it's it's all this same issue, including even thinking about the big struggles of the world and and the major problems we have in the world. I mean, to me, it all was explained by the fact that there's a that that it's like we were born. There's this rational, you know, is rational consciousness was was kind of turned on and born and looked around and said, shit, I'm in an animal. And that's I'm trapped in meat.
Yeah. Like, oh, anybody. I'm in an animal who has all the things that suck about animals. And that's what I and I have to somehow and he's trying to somehow, you know, get control of things inside of this primitive animal. And it's not easy. And it is.
And I just think it's hard for me to think of almost anything bad about my life, about my friends lives, about the world, and not end up saying that it boils down to that problem.
If we were just animals, you know, we wouldn't care so much about making things good. We would just be you know, we would be with our tribe trying to make sure we're safe, trying to defeat the other tribes if we have to make sure we have enough food and kind of jostling with each other for alpha status and and for mates. And it would just be kind of simple and it would be that's the world that we would live in.
And if you were just the rational creature, we would just live and we would all be sitting there somewhere on the on the Acropolis, you know, just sitting there. Playing music and laughing and talking and hugging each other and and and because we're both we have this we have this unfortunate situation where like a transition species between the first thing I said and the second thing I said, and we're and we're not there yet. It's like we can see what we can see what that should be like.
We can see the the species that we ideally would eventually become. But we're not that species. We're a transition species. And and we're kind of coping with everything that that species would have to cope with.
So it sounds like you sort of at least aspirational. You identify with the rational side of yourself in that. Well, to give a little context for this comment, I was I made some observation on Facebook recently about how I like I. And people in my circles sometimes talk about instead of I think blah, blah, blah, we'll say like my brain thinks blah, blah, blah, which is kind of a way to, like, die densify with the thoughts, like to frame them as like these are thoughts that occur to me, but I don't have to sort of live inside them.
I can, like, step outside of them and and see them as just like a thought that occurred in my brain that I may or may not endorse. And someone responded saying, you know, it's interesting that people in the so-called rationality community, they talk about their brains. And when they do that, they're talking about essentially they're like intuition, their system. One like, you know, my my intuition produced this this thought or this reaction. And I can step back and examine whether I want to endorse what my intuition produced and other people.
For example, on Tumblr, I think they said they also talk about my brain, but they are using it to refer to like their rational self or their sort of conscious, deliberative self. And so they're implicitly identifying themselves with the like intuitive, emotional side of their identity. Whereas for the so-called rationalist, it's the reverse. It was just so interesting that we when we like, separate ourselves from our brains, we're doing it in the completely opposite way.
And so I'm curious whether you like you've kind of set up this good, bad dichotomy between the rational and irrational or like the logical and intuitive sides of yourself. And I'm wondering if you actually do if you endorse that like good bad dichotomy.
Yeah, I mean, I think when people say, oh, I think a lot of the resistance to the concept that being good or bad is they think of, you know, the brain or whatever, you know, it's all very complicated and, you know, dualist and wrong.
But they think that the rational side is inherently kind of cold and and kind of, you know, non-human. And that doesn't have to be the way I look at it.
The rational side gets the full situation, the rational side gets that we are an animal and that, you know, eating an unhealthy meal here and there because it's delicious and it's just brings you joy is an awesome thing to do the rational sides into it, because rationally, the rational side knows that's not going to kill you.
It probably won't really have any effect. One meal. Thank you. It's so refreshing to hear someone say that.
I'm so used to people saying if you're rational, that means you can never do anything like fun or indulge in a truly rational side, understands the value of balance and understands the value of sacrifices, compromises and things like that. So you don't have to be perfect and the rational side wants you to go out and nature and be a human and be, you know, you know, and all of that. The Russian I just want you to self defeat.
The fact is the the animal side is perfectly optimized to to for for us to survive in fifty thousand B.C. in a very tough world of tribes and probably even more so. Fifty thousand bucks. Pretty recent probably really, you know, five million B.C. when we weren't even humans yet. You know, it's optimized for that right now. We don't and that's fine.
So it's the problem is that our biology moves along extremely slowly as they basically change zero percent since fifty thousand B.C. while the entire world and what it means to be a human and what the purpose of a human life and what the what the experience of human life is, is vastly different now that we've built a civilization.
And so suddenly this this animal is not optimized for this. And it all of its instincts are still there. Things like instincts about caring so much what other people think, which makes sense. In fifty thousand B.C., not only do you need just like we're scared of an animal running at us because we could die physically and we need food because we need to eat.
We need it to be in a tribe. If you're not in tribe, you die. Back then, fitting in was as important as getting food and running away from an animal. So we we have an absolute immense biological instinct for all this stuff.
But today, not only does not that not important, not fitting in with everything is not enough, but it actually prevents you from being yourself, from being a leader, from being happy in many ways. The audience tribe that you're you're motivated to try to fit in with this, this is the whole world now because that's like, you know, everyone on the Internet can see what you post, etc. and so which is very different from the tribe that we evolved to fit in with.
Right. Which was like our immediate tribes people who, like, had the power to ostracize us and ruin our lives if they decided they don't like us, which is not actually true of our quote unquote tribe in the modern world. No, there's no there's no like it's like another asymmetry.
Well, so so the fear of not fitting in, the fear of being ostracized or being excluded or being talked badly about back then, that fear was there for a very good reason, as most things in evolution tend to be, you know, and things aren't usually there if they're not for a very good reason.
So that fear was translated to real danger, genuine real bodily danger. Today, that fear translates to fake danger to non danger. But our but our animal brain has no idea about that. Only our rational brain gets that. And if the rational brain can't figure out how to take the wheel and some of these situations, and you can't get in the habit of, you know, trusting and listening to the rational brain, then you will just, you know.
Yeah. Live in fake fear, like you said, of this entire world tribe and the smaller subtribes around us. We still do have subtribes. We have our university. We have our our people in our career. We have our friends and our relationship. And and it's just such a sad, unnecessary sacrifice that we make.
Then it's like, you know, never, ever jumping in a swimming pool ever, because our ancient brains in back in the day that would kill you. And now we figure out how to make water safe. And but someone said if someone never, ever jumps in the water in their whole life, anything, we'll take a shower won't get near water other than drinking it because they have this fear. That would be really unfortunate, given that water is safe and it would be they'd miss out on all this stuff for no reason.
It's kind of a strange example, but that's that's the idea. That's that's and I just think that that's when I'm talking about fitting in right now. But there's so many examples of just how this comes up. You know, I think I think that when you look at like, you know, like a religious war or something going on there, you know, it's like, yeah, we had to come up with sacred objects back in fifty thousand B.C. because that was there was an evolutionary advantage, because if we did that and we all rallied around the sacred object, it gave us something to bond about that the protection of that object against foreign invasion was made.
All of us kind of won and allowed us to kind of be a fierce unit of cooperation and and we would do anything, including kill, if we needed to to to to to to stay as a unit and to to defend that thing. And that was huge by the tribes that didn't do that. They got killed by the ones that did. So it's not that they're the ones that did were better. They're actually shittier. It's just that they the other ones aren't didn't survive.
So we are all the descendants of those people who were the most likely to surround a sacred object. And now, again, you can see it all over the place. It's unfortunate today, you know, all the all the things that that quality does in the world.
So to me, I have to ask, to what extent do you feel like you're able to take these insights about, you know, why you're your animal brain wants you to do this or that and turn those insights into actually like being able to change how you behave? Like a couple test cases would be procrastination on the one hand and like the drive for social approval. On the other hand, have you been able to reason with your animal brain effectively or not?
So what I'll say is you don't say yes in no situation. Yes.
Is like absolutely, positively being aware of this fact, like you said. But you're saying my brain thinks that's a healthy thing to do, because what it's doing is it's a reminder to yourself to be aware of the fact that you're kind of you're you're you're talkative.
Left brain, the one that has all these thoughts and ideas, is also just a mechanism in your body, like your heart or your liver that is doing a job. And its job is to kind of see stuff and draw patterns and make conclusions.
And, you know, it's going to get a bunch of stuff wrong, like our immune system. I'm allergic to dogs because my immune system made a mistake there. You know, our left brain can make a mistake with a pattern, and it can, but it does overall. It just does what does its best. And and it and but it's often not something you should trust one hundred percent because it's just taking its best crack at it.
So what you're doing is you're building you're reminding yourself to have awareness of that.
When you have awareness of it, the power of the left brain goes down instead of it being like this is the fact you look at it and you say, oh, my left brain is suggesting that that's the fact. Oh, he does that a lot of the time, that's what he does, he suggest things are facts. Now, I need to the eye, which is this kind of kind of this inner centre of consciousness, needs to need to now judge and look at how much I should trust this because the left brain is often wrong.
Right. So same thing. I mean, that's ideally how it works. Right. So so. So the point is, the reason I'm saying you need a reminder is because so so the. Yes. Part is that, you know, reminding yourself does remove the power of these things. You know, labeling I labeled the the part of us that's terrified of what other people think and that, conversely, is dying for approval. That part I label is the mammoth in our head, the social survival mammoth, and labeling it as the mammoth.
Just labeling it with an image and a word immediately helps you remember and be like, that's my mama talking and takes away some of the power. But the no side of the question is that we are it's amazing how easily we can just say we're getting a lot of stuff here. But so, you know, I talk about another post. I talk about being on step one and step two of consciousness. Oh, I love that person. Oh, thank you.
Yeah, it seems to be right in line with a lot of your thinking.
So, you know, step by step one is when we're just being a full animal, you know, we're being petty, we're being jealous, we're being vain, we're being narcissistic. And step two is when we're being a full, rational being. And of course, most of us are never either one of those.
We're somewhere in between and we oscillate between them on that spectrum based on the topic, based on our mood and our place in life and how much we've grown up, whatever. And the thing about step one, step two, you can see everything. You can see step one. You can see the people on step one. You can see through everything you see. You see what it is. You see yourself on step one. You can't just look up at step two.
You don't even realize step two is there.
And when you're on step one, because there's something I call the fog, which is when you're down on step one, it's a foggy place, so foggy that you actually forget that you're on step one. You don't even realize you're on step one. You don't remember that there is a step two in those moments.
And so it's this it's this thing. Where does it matter how much you remind yourself that you will identify with your left brain the next day? You just will, because we are a transition species. You know, it's like a three year old is like a merging into consciousness. Well, we're emerging into like rationality, but we're not there. So you can you know, you're going to you're going to be on step one a lot of the time.
You're going to have fog that comes and, you know, hovers over your brain and makes you forget.
And so the key the best thing I think we can do, which is what I try to do at these posts, I know you try to do this with your writing and you're talking is just to help to articulate in a way that can be memorable these concepts for yourself and for others. Because if you can just remember and remember to be to stay aware, it can help you, it can help you clear out that that's a fog clearing mechanism that you can use.
You're going have to continue to use it. You don't think I mean, maybe eventually. I don't know. I'm only thirty five. Maybe I'll be fifty five and I'll say, you know what, I'm almost never on step one anymore. That would be awesome. I doubt it. I highly doubt it. I think that I, I just think that there should we are human beings and humans are step one creatures a lot of the time. But I guess that that's the long answer.
You know, that that's that's why it's the I love the example of the mammoth, the social approval craving mammoth, because, as you say, having this like handle even this kind of identity for the for that impulse in yourself helps you. It helps you do this thing that I've heard referred to as a subject object shift where you go from being subject to something, you go from that to taking it as object. So it's basically like stepping outside of the story that you're a part of and looking at looking at the story and you're, you know, the role that you're playing.
That's all these like, you know, these these Buddhism and stoicism. And they all talk about, you know, it's not about what happens to you. You can't control that, but you can't control is how you respond and how you react.
And I think it's a little bit you have to be able to step back and see and see the pattern before you can do that. Right. Which is, I think what you're what all of your different, like creative handles and concepts and characters help us do.
Well, it also if you don't realize the mammoth is there, then when the mammoth is scared, you think not only do you think that you're scared, you think that the world is scary. I think the thing is scary. Exactly. If you realize, oh, my mammoth is scared and you've learned because you've thought about it hard enough to realize you shouldn't take the moment very seriously because he's programmed he's a he's a feature from a computer program that was developed a hundred thousand years ago.
And then you're more able to. Yeah. To to just to not only not be scared or not even identify with it and just say this is a thing that's making me feel this way. I still do feel this way, just like I might work out and know that's good. And still it still hurts. I don't want to be working out like it doesn't make it fun when you're mammoth is scary because it's still a part of your actual brain.
But at least you can realize, like you like you realize working out is worth it through the pain. Well, you can realize taking this risk is worth it through the social fear because your rational brain can see the big picture and gets. With a man, its place in it when I go, we haven't really touched on yet, is whether those seemingly irrational impulses, our intuitions can sometimes be be like can sometimes contain nuggets of of genuine insight and and like wisdom that you maybe haven't articulated in your conscious, like, rational calculus, but that actually are true and important.
Like, just to take an example, I'm not necessarily endorsing this example, but some people times people will point out, you know, yes, it looks like I'm being irrational when I'm procrastinating. It might seem that way, but really what's going on is that some, like, unconscious part of myself recognizes that this task, like, isn't worth doing. And that's why I'm avoiding it. Or some part of myself recognizes that, like, I'll actually be more creative if I leave it to the last minute.
And so that's there's like there's like a method to my madness. To what extent do you think that makes sense? Yeah, no, I think that's a great point.
I think. I think that this is this is taps into a part of why this is such a hard struggle. It's such a hard struggle because these same exact creatures in our brain, the ones that don't serve us, you know, in so many ways, well, the world hasn't changed entirely are.
The fact is, a lot of what those creatures are doing is they're optimized not just for fifty thousand BCE, but they're optimized for a human being animal to live and do their thing. And they know. And so there's a lot of there's yes, there's plenty of times when it's important to listen.
For example, the mammoth part of the mammoth is, you know, social having a high IQ is, you know that emotionality.
Yeah. Yeah. Sorry.
You know, just like I don't know if that's an official term, but I just use it. IQ and IQ and IQ is not on the human side, you know.
You know, the mammoth wanting to for example, you know, wanting someone to like him is also not that far away from wanting to be a likable person and which is not so far away from being kind of like thoughtful and courteous and and considerate. And so, you know, and the part of you that really, really it rubs you the really wrong way to just be a dick to somebody that the amendment hates that because that person is going to hate me.
Oh, my God. But you know what? There's something to that, too, right? So and then and then the procrastination example that you gave isn't even more obvious. One words, it's like part of the time in your progress and your brain is actually burned out and needs time to regenerate. It just does. On the other hand, it can go way, way too far and become totally self-defeating and utterly irrational.
And so, again, I still go back to the fact that I think when I talk about the rational center of consciousness, which in the procrastination post I talk about as you're the rational decision maker who wants to be productive. And then in the amendment post, I talk about it as the higher being and then in other posts, you know, just whatever it is you talk about it, it's always the same guy. It's this rational center or sorry.
And the man posts the authentic voice and the other post, the higher being, whatever it is.
The thing that I think some of the my readers make the mistake of of not I think that they often say, well, you know, like I said, they think that that creature is a rejection, rejects the animal entirely.
That's not true.
He's rational again, so rational person. And so if someone says, oh, you know, if you if you don't care what other people think of you, ignore your mammoth, you know, the world, be a horrid place. Everyone would just be me.
I said, no, you're your authentic voice inside has thought about this and understands the golden rule and is very clear on the fact that he's not more special than other people and that you have to be considerate or the rational being can come to that. You don't need to be a primitive animal to have out to be altruistic. I think I guess the big point here I'm saying is that to your to your question, I think the rational being still, you know, if he's being really rational, understands that you need to, quote, procrastinate sometimes.
So it when I talk about the instant gratification monkey, who is the character in Procrastination Post, who's the animal character who's oh, there's a uniform. You have a nightmare zoo over here.
He he the way I kind of define him is he's just purely only as a, you know, simplistic drive to do what is ever easiest in this exact moment period.
And so that's I don't think I think that's never going to be really the answer. Yes. Sometimes that happens to coincide with a break that's needed for your brain. But the rational decision maker can figure that one out and give you a break. You don't need this primitive, mindless kind of brain device to do that.
Yeah, I've I see this pattern a lot where people they like to point out how the seemingly irrational behavior of theirs is actually good because it has this this like, good side effect, like, you know. Well, actually, procrastination is good because I get like a burst of creativity. Well, it's good because I end up like avoiding things that aren't worth doing. I think like a nation that's called taking a break, which is good, right.
So they're like correctly pointing out a silver lining of their action. But I always like whenever this pattern comes up, I always want to ask, like like let's say that was your goal. Your goal was to like finish your work, but also like avoid things that aren't worth doing and, you know, not burn yourself out. Is the policy you've currently you've so far been following the best policy to achieve those goals. And like usually I think the answer is no.
Usually I think it's like a silver lining, but there's still a cloud. And like, if you are thinking if you're optimizing for the goals, yeah, it's like it's like being like, oh, I went out and shot a bunch of people, but one of them actually turned out to be a rapist.
So it was sometimes it's good to shoot. No, it's no good to shoot people. You should go and you should try to find a metaphor.
That was I sometimes go insane with examples, but you you're. Yes. I think the fact that sometimes a completely kind of mindless, irrational tribal impulse happens to coincide with something that you were rational being would have in that moment decided to do anyway because it had a productive purpose.
Yeah, it doesn't mean and you know, it's like, you know, the rational being can still is still can listen to the animal. That's the thing. The rational is that he's not sitting there completely separate. He can say, you know what, the animal feels tired. Let's go to sleep. Right. The animal, the animal seems burned out. Let's take a brain break with the procrastination, but procrastinate. That's not procrastination. That's an intelligent break.
Procrastination to me is those moments when the rational being is saying, looking at all the factors, all the factors, your schedule, your time, your brain, your energy, your your environment, and saying it makes sense to work right now, it'll be better for everything if we work right now. And that and you don't work because the because the instant gratification monkey at that point takes a while. That's when you're procrastinating, which is irrational breaks. It doesn't make sense.
And it's. Yeah. So it's yeah. I think you can still get away with saying that those, those animals are purely bad because bad to listen to just because you know. Yeah.
I want to shift gears a little bit and talk about a post of yours. I think, I think it's one of your most popular posts. I've seen it linked all over the place. It's like how to be insufferable on Facebook. And this post came up in discussion for me with a friend recently where either I or someone else had linked to it approvingly on Facebook. And she was like pushing back and said, you know, a lot of these like ways to be insufferable on Facebook that Tim is complaining about.
There are things like, you know, thinly veiled bids for attention or thinly veiled bids for sympathy like Humboldt, like thinly veiled bids for approval, like humble bragging. I guess vague booking would be an example of a of a thinly veiled bid for sympathy where like someone, you know, pretends they don't want to talk about something. But like, actually they're hoping that everyone will, like, say, no, no, tell us about your problem.
And and she said, like, you know, it's like a very human, very understandable impulse to want attention and approval and sympathy. And why are we, like people feel like they can't ask for these things, but they should, in fact, like it would be a better world if people felt like they could ask for these things that all humans want to need and don't get enough of. And so why are we shaming people for doing these things on social media that are that like they need to be psychologically healthy?
And I feel like I have an answer for this. I'm not, like, super confident enough to have an answer, but I'm just curious to hear how you feel about that objection.
I think she's basically right. I would agree with her against myself on that for the most part, because that was the first post I wrote. Right. And it was partially it. Oh, I didn't realize that.
Yes. I wrote that six months ago. You really you really, like, knocked it out of the park on your first question.
What I did is I went to Easter Island for a month and wrote about six posts before Wabo. I started and and I and I and I. I picked that from the six as the one to start with. Look, I don't I think there's I think 90 percent of that posts.
I would basically stand by if I could write it again, it wouldn't be that different because the basic idea that post was, you know, in in-person interactions, we have all this etiquette that's kind of a lot of times there for a good reason being talking. If you're in a two person interaction, you talk about yourself for thirty minutes without a break and don't ask the person questions. There's a reason that that's kind of considered bad, right? We have etiquette that in many cases is there because it helps us be kind of like, you know, pleasant social creatures and each other's heads off.
Yeah. And it's just it's the etiquette. There to remind us to not be like, you know, social monsters that are just terrible to interact with. Right. And, you know, it comes from like the age of three. We have parents being like, you know, what do you say? You say thank you, though, that we learn to be kind of reasonable humans to interact with at a young age. Right. But now the Internet comes around and there's no rules and it's a totally different thing and culture and it forms its own culture.
And I think that culture is a very is a very immature, very primitive social culture compared to our in-person culture.
It's a culture that I think we will look back on in 50 years and we will all cringe because I think it's just it's just just like we cringe watching, you know, sexual harassment and Mad Men, you know, it's it's look very primitive to us or even in, like 80s movies to take an even more recent example.
Like, I was just watching some old, like, 80s favorites. And it was like, oh, my God, this is horrifying. I like there someone was literally just sexually assaulted and it was portrayed as like funny and light a romp like literally five or seven years ago.
It's amazing how recent vague sexual assault or harassment or misogyny was like, totally fine.
It's like it's like that's really shifted recently. You can tell by looking at things like movies, you know. Yeah. Stand up comedy from the 90s anyway. And the reason we cringe when we look at the past a lot of the time is that I feel like, you know, society evolves social. If biology evolves over the spans of millions of years, society evolves of this spans of decades. And and and each generation, young generation kind of look at their parents generation like as if they're an audience and the parents' generation is on stage and they can kind of see what they like and what they don't.
They can be critics. And then when they get on stage, they're better because they get to watch that show. Yeah. And now they're better and now their kids watch them and they can watch. So I feel like we all get better as we go along. Right. So we cringe. We look in the past. So to me, when I look at Facebook, which is just an example, there's Twitter, there's YouTube comments, there's Reddit.
And I see I just it just seems obvious to me that this is going to something that even, you know, people who are ten today, by the time they're twenty five, they're going to, I think, look at that as very old person thing to do the way we all behave on Facebook or whatever.
So it's a very optimistic view of of our trajectory as a species, really. We're like moving forward into rationality. We're going to like move forward away from our current immaturity. It's really it's very inspiring. But.
Well, because just because history tells me that that's what happens usually doesn't happen is smooth curves will go up and down, but the curve overarchingly moves up. That's why, you know, as I said, I think, you know, Obama said in his speech the other day that even if it doesn't seem like it to some people, this is the least racist time to be in the US, that we are less racist than we ever have been. You know, and that's that makes sense.
And the farther you go back in the past, the more kind of tribal and insane it seems. So I do think that's what's going to happen. And I think but I think the Internet was a new, fresh slate and we all jumped on. And I think the worst of our tendencies a lot of times takes over. And we do things where if someone did it in person, we'd be like, oh, my God, you know, you're just such a, you know, Bragi narcissist or so unappealing and you're so transparent and whatever.
So A was kind of a comedy. Get attention for the post because it's my first post and it was supposed to be funny post and but it was also pointing out that very real thing. And now the thing that I said that I think I agree with her on is there was it was the tone was was not the thing I would do today as the way but y writer that I am now versus what I was at the beginning is I would there would be a whole other angle.
I would take a whole one more step. I took a few steps back for that post. I would take one more and that final step back would then it would be would have a lot more empathy in it and understand, like she said, why people are doing this. And this is human needs. And if someone is acting lonely on Facebook, like that's like a sweet thing that they have Facebook and we should be happy that they and if someone is reaching out to get kind of compliments, like, that's nice, that's love.
That's like, you know, and even if I would still criticize a lot of times the way that it's happening or the way and especially I would criticize some of them, just totally self-absorbed, narcissistic stuff. I don't think there's much difference there. But for someone who has who has kind of, you know, who is being who just kind of being a transparent, sweet person, like, I wouldn't be so mean to them in that post. And I would basically say it's you know, I would basically say, so we should criticize these things.
And then on the other hand, we should stop criticizing these things so much and understand that this is just another expression of love and the need, the need for love. And I would be a little bit more three dimensional, I think. So I tell your friend that she's right.
I I'll tell her she might be listening. I don't know. I mean, yeah, it's it's hard when you, like, put out content on the Internet and it just lives forever. And people discovering it don't have a great sense of like where it is positioned in your trajectory as a as a thinker. And so I mean so. I basically agree with your with your like, we need to break it down into, like, empathy for the needy and maybe, you know, like criticism of the way the need is pursued, etc.
. I basically agree with that. But the model that I had in mind was that like, to some extent, sympathy and attention and approval are are limited goods, like not completely limited, like people do sort of have limited resources for how much sympathy and attention they can give. And so we have this we have this implicit incentive system where we want to make sure the sympathy and attention get allocated to the people who sort of need deserve it the most to some extent.
And so the way that incentive system works is you can bid for attention or sympathy or whatever, but when you do, you spend a little bit of credit, meaning that like if you're constantly bidding for it, people will start to be a little more reluctant to give it to you unless you, like, have a really strong case for why you need it more than other people. And so what's happening in the case of, like, humble bragging and vague booking and all these other kind of like thinly veiled bids for these for these goods?
What's happening is people are trying to bid for things without spending the credit. So they're like trying to get the attention and sympathy without showing that they they want it and just being open about what they want. And that's bad for the system overall.
Yes, I love that. I think that's the best way to say if I went to the post, I was probably 10 or 15 things I'd criticize. I probably would pick out 11 that I would continue to criticize. And then for that I feel bad about. And I think something like humble bragging is would be in the 11 for the same reason you said. I'm not sure I would have thought of such an awesome way to articulate it, but I love that like that.
That that's what it is, is it's if you just want to openly brag once in a while, that's fine. And you. But you realize you can't do it too often because, you know, for the reasons you said so people try to basically get a freebie and it's like you can't like save your Braggs or when they matter, like, you know, like when my TED talk came out, I was proud. I did a TED talk I can post.
I don't feel like, oh, here's Tim Self promoting. You know, I'm not going to do very many of those. I'm going to post it and I'm going to like expect you to watch it and say you liked it if you liked it, like but I'm not going to then do that the next week for the ever smaller thing that happens. And and right now, I think that that's a very a very, very kind of cogent way to look at it.
And I think that that that that that that that is that kind of does I think people have a hard time articulating why humble bragging is so unappealing.
I know it's so interesting. I actually tried for a while because I was like, oh, it's so annoying, but why is it so annoying? And I do I do have this like starting hypothesis. Whenever whenever people are annoyed at some social behavior, my starting hypothesis that there's something, some way that behavior damages like the social fabric, even if it's not obvious to us. And that's why our alliance evolved to punish it. So that was like how I started searching for this model.
Yeah, it's like you said, it's like it's almost like stealing. And in a way, it's like if someone wants to go, we have a fair system that, you know, if you brag, you're taking something from society. But it's OK if you do too much, you're penalized and that you're ostracized for it. People stop liking you. Right. And it's just it's a market and it's a market that works. When you humble brag, you're stealing your it's a black market.
And so you're you know, you're or you're doing something that's and it's the same reason that, you know, we wouldn't want someone shoplifting. It's like, no, no, no, you have to pay for your thing.
I mean, you Hammelburg like I know. I know you want it and you need it. But we also need to have a system where people pay for things.
Yeah. That that costs something you can't just not pay. And so and you're trying to not pay and you think I don't see you shoplifting, but I have a camera and I can see you walking out the door at that. Stop it and stop thinking that no one notices what you're doing like it's you know. So yeah I think that that's a great point. It's the fabric society, you know, it's a marketplace. And and and yeah, that's a great point.
Cool. We have a few minutes left and I want to make sure that I bring up a post that that actually really impacted me personally this year. Maybe it was last year. I don't remember. It was one of your series of posts about blocking out the time in our lives and how we're allocating that time to different activities. It was actually a very sobering series of posts because you point out like, gee, we have, you know, assuming sort of an average lifespan and, you know, making these other basic assumptions about about our time.
We, like have this many days left with our parents. And we have like this many times visits to the beach and we have this many, et cetera. And just like, you know, doing that basic arithmetic to sort of. See, it was a very sobering post, and one thing that it made me realize was just that my my priorities were not actually aligned. In some cases, they were not at all aligned with how I was allocating my time.
So I've been calling my parents so much more since that post and spending more time with them. That's amazing. And I just wanted to thank you. Yeah. So I was curious if you if you like, what your main takeaways were from that exercise. And also if you had have changed the way that you're spending your time since doing that calculation.
I think I could still have. I still have room to be better for sure.
But, you know, I've been thinking about that, the concept in that post for a while, probably since college, really. And so I think that's helped me. One of the things, you know, like everyone's rational in some ways and irrational in some ways. I would say one of the ways that I'm I'm pretty good at being rational is that it just kind of like an obvious truth to me to prioritize, you know, family and close friends, like, over almost anything now.
Now, granted, I'm not always great at acting on that. I try my best. But it's but if I if I'm not acting on it, I'm highly aware that I'm doing something dumb and irrational. Yeah.
And and so, like, if there's a family trip happening of some kind, like there's almost I don't think there's anything in the world professionally or socially that could ever make me miss even a day of that. Like, it's just it's a non-negotiable.
It's not negotiable, you know, and and the same thing to a slightly lesser extent. But, you know, my friends, my college friends, we have a once a month dinner and we probably then 40 of those. And I think I've missed one where I was in town, you know, and other things. I will I will, you know, I'll say, oh, I'll make up an excuse. I don't care because I have to work.
And I'll just that those are just I just don't mess with those. And I think that's kind of that is I think from the you know, that comes from the the ideas in that post, the ideas that that that that's what actually matters. When you're back with your good friends, you're you're doing that that's like this time that enriches your entire life.
And and so I think I'm OK about it. I think I still could be better for sure. I think I think that if you can get in your head, you know, this just this one, it's a double whammy because it's you know, you love these people and your time with them is limited.
So just selfishly, you want to do it, but also selfishly for another reason, all the studies of people on their deathbed, I mean, it's they that that's what they wish they did more of.
But it's also the studies of happiness show just again and again and again human relationships is what makes people happy.
So it just it to me, it's just such a failure of rationality to to to to MIT to mess that up. And so, yeah, I think I think at least just just just keep that in mind so that at least, you know, you're being irrational, you're not doing it is better.
Some people go many, many years and they don't get that.
They're being irrational. You hear a story of a famous person who stops talking to their old friends or you hear a story of a busy person who doesn't see their family.
And and I just think it's that that all you that only happens if you don't you haven't absorbed this simple truth yet.
Yeah. Although there's this weird for me, at least there's this weird dance that I have to do between like being aware of how precious and limited my time is with these people I care about so that I like make sure to spend more time with them. But on the other hand, not being constantly conscious of that when I'm with them because I feel like that I can't sort of be in flow and enjoy the moment, enjoy the time with them. If I'm like thinking about how limited is, it's like being it's like being on a weekend and thinking about how Monday morning is looming or something like that.
And it reminded me a little bit of an experience I had when I was a kid. I had just read this play called Our Town. And there's this moment in the play where the main character, Emily, I guess she's just died. Sorry, spoiler alert there. And she she's like in heaven looking down in the world and she's talking to her guide or an angel or something. And she says, God, I can see from now I can see how precious all those days were.
But like people on Earth don't seem to appreciate it. Does anyone ever, like, really appreciate every every minute of life? And the angel says, like, well, the poets do. The Saints do, but like most people really don't. So I read that and I thought, oh, that's so inspiring. I want to live every I want to appreciate every every minute. And so, you know, twelve year old Julia went around, like, constantly focused on how amazing and wonderful each moment was.
And to be honest, I was like a very annoying and exhausting person to be around for those, like, four days that I was trying to do that. And it only lasted like four days anyway, because it's just not sustainable, I think.
I guess what you're saying is, can you.
This goes too far. Can it kind of ruin it and I, I get that concept where, like, you know, it's hard to actually just like lose yourself in a happy present moment if you're like, oh, my God, this is going to end like just like if someone were like, oh, you're going to you're going to die on Friday, suddenly, I'm not sure I could, like, have that much fun on Monday anymore, you know.
Right. And I think part of making what makes life enjoyable is our ability to forget that it's finite. So a reminder that it's finite can be a problem. On the other hand, I just think that if there's there's two extremes that are bad, you know, one is remembering that it's finite, you know, having a hard time being present and the other extreme is just completely not remembering and letting your whole life pass you and then having immense regrets on your deathbed.
So first of all, between those two, the lesser of two evils is the is the is remembering too much that it's finite, I would say. And secondly, I think that, you know, you still are going to forget and just having that memory will at least pull you towards the towards that part of the spectrum, which is probably right where you want to be. Not quite at the end, but, you know, somewhere where you have it in your head that those things are important and precious.
And not just like when you were a 12 year old with your parents. You don't think anything is precious about that. You know, when you're 12 and you're with your parents, you know nothing about that seems precious. And and that's and some people just stay there their whole life and then they realize at the end that was a huge mistake. So that's definitely not what we want to be. And I think I think, you know, it's a small price to pay to maybe sometimes feel to be too aware of the finiteness of all of this, that it maybe takes you out of the present moment.
I think I think it's just I still think it's worth doing, I guess is what I'm saying. I still think it's worth the reminder. And the thing you definitely don't want to be is you realize you were 12 your whole life when it came to this stuff.
And so so we're just about out of time. I want to give you the opportunity to introduce the rationally speaking pick of the episode, which is a book or article or something that has influenced your thinking in some way. What's the pick that you would recommend to our listeners?
So I am obsessed with Sam Harris's podcast.
It's just such a if you care about, you know, rationality, there's no one more rational. And I just think he's a really humble thinker, a great thinker. And I think he's just done his homework. But he still has the humility because he just continues. He's always, you know, he can adjust his views. And and I just think he's he's just he just approaches the toughest issues, like a like a scientist. And so I really appreciate it.
In particular, if you want one particular episode, I would point you to one I listen to recently between Sam Harris and Glenn Lowry. You are why Glenn Lowry is is a black professor at Brown. And the two of them talk about race and just such a fascinating and frank and just open way that you don't hear people talk about race like that. So I would highly point pointed to that episode and really many others. I just think it's one of the I learned.
So I feel like I learn a ton and change my thinking after every episode. So. Yeah, and that's what I would say.
Yeah. Cool. I'm also a huge fan of Sam Harris's podcast and will we'll link to that on the podcast website, although I bet a lot of our listeners are also already fans. And Tim, I'll let you go now. I just want to thank you so much for coming on the show. It's been an absolute pleasure having you.
Yeah, I feel like we got to like three of twenty things you could have talked about, so we should do it again sometime. Thanks for having me on.
This concludes another episode of Rationally Speaking. Join us next time for more explorations on the borderlands between reason and nonsense.
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